Monthly Archives: March 2007

Ignoring the Celebrity Culture

If there’s one key idea I try to comunicate regularly on this blog, it is this: we Christians should understand how we are being shaped by the culture, and should conform ourselves to Christ instead of the world’s design.

That’s it. So if you read this blog, you’ll get a steady diet of that. I hope it contributes in some small way to your conformity to the Savior. Today, I’m hoping you’re not conforming yourself to celebrity culture. This is a topic worthy of exploration, but I’m not going to do much of that today, save to tell you what I suspect you already know: the American self-conception is not shaped by grounded, mature, down-to-earth people with their heads in the right places and their hearts set on the right things. It is shaped by worldly, immature, narcissistic, self-serving people who crave attention, fame, and lust. It’s that basic. So if you closely follow pop culture, if you ingest a steady diet of the culture’s entertainment, teaching, and thought, you will not be able to prevent yourself from being shaped by ungodly forces. It is as much a matter of fact as is a mathematical equation.

In the context of age and body, this means that instead of guys will alter their bodies and devote far too much attention to their physiques. Instead of pursuing maturity, they’ll worry about their hair, their biceps, and their clothes. Because the celebrity culture exalts youth, they’ll make a sad but desperate attempt to appear young even as age defies them. It’s pitiable to see a 30-year-old trying to look like he’s 18. But many try in the current age. Girls will emulate Hollywood actresses and will spend all kinds of time and money on clothes, makeup, and the like to get ahead in the frenzied race to appear the youngest. The sad truth? Again, age does its work effectively. Like with guys, you can always tell a woman who’s trying too hard, whose heart is pursuing attention instead of maturity. We Christians need to fight our tendency to try to look like celebrities. We should never just let our bodies go–we should take great care of them, in fact. But we should do so in a healthy, reasonable and balanced manner, taking care to avoid spending large amounts of time, money, and attention on such things. A few recommendations for us all: avoid the mirror on some occasions. Spend less time worrying over your outfit. Avoid buying that expensive facial creme. Avoid buying that expensive hair gel. Look to Christ for your satisfaction. Flee the world.

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Making Peace With Aging

It’s not easy for any of us to accept the aging process. Aging gracefully is not easy. It is an art. It must be entered into with care and thought, prayer and readiness.

I’m a young guy, relatively speaking, but I can still see clear signs of aging in myself. Though I know the theological response to the body’s aging, I still sometimes struggle to believe that aging is not a terrible ordeal. One can easily grow anguished at the sight of bodily change. Our hair thins, our skin crinkles, our eyes worsen. With these effects come sadness. It is right that it be so. We are literally observing the physical death of our bodies. This is not a pretty sight, and it is not always easy to cope with.

But we Christians are not those who age without hope. We know that our bodies will be made new. So we do not fear the effects of aging. We do not dwell on them. And, I would suggest, we should not devote much time or money to fighting what is irreversible. If significant changes can be made–such as improved eyesight–that’s a good thing. But a few wrinkles here, a bald spot there isn’t sufficient to draw much attention from us. We should of course fight to keep our bodies fit and healthy. That is a stewardship issue. But wrinkles aren’t. Gray hair is not. Ladies, don’t worry about going gray. Don’t fight it. And don’t spend hundreds of dollars on “skin care.” Some products may help, and that’s fine, but you and I know things are way overblown on that issue. Far better to age gracefully, to make peace with aging, than to spin oneself into desperation over it and to lose much time and money. God does not judge us as society does. He loves us whether we wrinkle or not, whether we are bald or not. So too do our spouses and our families. Make a statement to society, then, as a Christian. Teach them that the aging process is not a horrible thing, that society is horribly appearance conscious, and that God gives years as a gift. Show them these lessons with dignity, and you will have won a precious victory over the tyranny of appearance-consciousness and narcissism.

Remember, aging is not a curse. It is a gift.

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Embracing Aging

Some of the most beautiful poetry ever written is in the Bible. I came across this at work today from Job 9: our days “are passed away as the swift ships.” Beautiful language. It would be well worth it to take a long time to read through particularly eloquent passages of the Bible. I think we undervalue such passages sometimes.

But that’s a series for another week. This week, I want to talk about how Christians should react to the celebrity culture all around us. Today I’m looking at how we respond to aging, which in the present day is a form of premature death. There’s almost nothing worse than aging to the average person, whose standard of beauty is an airbrushed, plastic-surgeried 22-year-old model. Our distaste for the body’s natural process transcends mere embarassment and crosses over into shame. Yes, that’s right. It’s not too strong. Many of us are actually ashamed to age. Fittingly, of course, we’re too ashamed to admit it.

But it’s true. Think about yourself. How much do you worry about aging? If you’re a woman, how much money do you spend to fight the effects of age? How much time? How much of your life is consumed with this concern? If you’re a man, how concerned are you for your hairline? If we’re honest, and we need to be, I think most of us can say that we are altogether too concerned with aging. We are embarassed by it, we are ashamed by it, and we devote a considerable portion of our short lives worrying over it. The worst reality, though, is that we’re all scared and ashamed over something the Bible says is glorious. Isn’t that crazy to think about? The Bible speaks of gray hair as a crown. We think of it as a curse. On the area of aging, and appearance in general, we Christians need to admit our failings in this area. We need to repent of anxiety and shame over the aging process that is constantly working itself out in us. And we need together to turn away from our ungodly mindset and to collectively witness to the world that we are the people who do not fight God’s design for the body, but who, with wisdom and care, embrace it.

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Personal Thoughts on a PhD

BC asked me in the comments section if I’m thinking about doing a PhD. The answer is yes. But I’m a weird sort of PhD-seeker. I don’t want to be an academic first and foremost. I would love to be able to teach, but not on a full-time basis. My calling, I think, is to be a pastor, and I want to be a pastor of the type I’ve described thus far this week: an intellectual pastor, one who seeks to engage the thought and practices of the culture.

I can see great benefit to doing a PhD, and I’m currently thinking through where to aim in my prospect. For a wannabe pastor, a seminary education seems good, but a secular program may also be of use and benefit. Right now, my wife and I are doing a good deal of praying on this matter. Hopefully, in time, we’ll find a good path to travel.

So if anyone out there has wisdom on the matter, feel free to share it. What have your PhD experiences, sacred or secular, been like? What would you counself a young man to aim for–a seminary program or a secular program? I’ll be interested to read any answers that may come. Whether you write or not, I encourage you to join me in praying that God would call out a bunch of young men to rigorously train themselves not for the sake of man’s applause, but the furtherance of the gospel in our age.

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The Dangers of a PhD

As I can see it, there are a few key dangers when it comes to pastors getting a PhD.

1) Big Head Syndrome. It seems quite possible that a pastor who does get a PhD could think himself better than those of his congregation who do not have PhDs. That would be a terrible thing, because it would mean that the pastor was despising his congregation. A pastor must always cultivate a heart of love for his people and must see himself as one of them and in no way better than them. So any pastor who sets out to get a PhD must decide from the start that he will be vigilant about fighting the pride of his heart. He must constantly remind himself that letters after his name signify intellectual training, not spiritual or social stature. The pastor with a PhD is not a super-Christian. He is just a man with a degree.

2) Detachment from the everyday. One reason Christians have sometimes derided educated people is the tendency of such people to be detached from everyday life. This is a potential pitfall for any intellectual, but it is particularly damning for a pastor. A pastor is by the nature of his work one who is in tune with the needs of his people, many of whom will not be intellectuals. He must show that he can speak to them and reach them on their level. He must avoid treating every sermon or teaching time as if it is a scholar’s society meeting. He must constantly watch himself to make sure that, though he undertake rigorous intellectual work, he stays in close contact with his people, the sheep of his flock.

So there are a couple of dangers that pastors will need to watch out for. I’m sure that there are others one can think of, but these two certainly cover a good deal of the dangerous ground that pastors with PhDs must carefully avoid. We should also note that these two dangers will to some extent apply not only to pastors with PhDs, but to all Christians. We are not an elitist people, and we do not view one another as the world does, according to status conferred by degrees, heritage, or even talent.

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It’s Good to Be Educated

The 20th century witnessed an evangelical backlash against traditional, or classical, education. In the face of growing secularism, Christians started a ton of Bible institutes and colleges to train their children. Their reaction is understandable. Much good has indeed come from such institutions (a genuine love for God, evangelistic passion, actional love for one’s neighbor, etc), though one can also spot harmful effects as well. Perhaps the major weakness of the Bible institute model is its general lack of rigorous intellectual training. Essentially, many Christians ceded the cultural space to non-Christians in creating their own Christian subculture.

One of the hardest hit groups was the pastoral corps, who were often encouraged to gain only an education in the Bible, if even that. Many times, pastors began the work of ministry without any formal training and any intellectual engagement with the classical tradition–history, philosophy, the sciences, rhetoric, math, etc, languages. Over time, it actually became a bad thing to have received extensive education, as this signaled that one cared more for the academy for the church and more for accolades than for a ministry. The result? Pastors who preached the Bible but who failed to develop thoughtful responses to the culture and failed to develop bridges to it through intellectual and personal engagement. The Christian church was never meant to be a ghetto. It was meant to be a city on a hill. The loss of interest cut the church off from the culture at a time when major philosophical shifts necessitated the witness of the Christian mind.

I’m thankful to be at a seminary where many young men want to rigorously educate themselves in order that they would be prepared to engage their world and build intellectual bridges to it. Pastors are to be the leaders of the Christian community on earth, and they ought not to lead it simply by a godly personal walk or excellent administration but by the exercise of a critical and thoughtful intellect. They ought to model for their people responsible engagement with the culture and show their people that we need not flee from the world or cower before it. Instead, we need to answer its questions, demonstrate the incredible coherence and beauty of the Christian worldview, and speak the gospel as the cure to its sin sickness and hellish fate. We need to turn away from a past that has mentally starved itself and raise up a generation of men full of passion for God and profundity of thought. It is no virtue to be smart, for sure. But neither is it a virtue to be foolish.

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It’s Good to Be Educated

The 20th century witnessed an evangelical backlash against traditional, or classical, education. In the face of growing secularism, Christians started a ton of Bible institutes and colleges to train their children. Their reaction is understandable. Much good has indeed come from such institutions (a genuine love for God, evangelistic passion, actional love for one’s neighbor, etc), though one can also spot harmful effects as well. Perhaps the major weakness of the Bible institute model is its general lack of rigorous intellectual training. Essentially, many Christians ceded the cultural space to non-Christians in creating their own Christian subculture.

One of the hardest hit groups was the pastoral corps, who were often encouraged to gain only an education in the Bible, if even that. Many times, pastors began the work of ministry without any formal training and any intellectual engagement with the classical tradition–history, philosophy, the sciences, rhetoric, math, etc, languages. Over time, it actually became a bad thing to have received extensive education, as this signaled that one cared more for the academy for the church and more for accolades than for a ministry. The result? Pastors who preached the Bible but who failed to develop thoughtful responses to the culture and failed to develop bridges to it through intellectual and personal engagement. The Christian church was never meant to be a ghetto. It was meant to be a city on a hill. The loss of interest cut the church off from the culture at a time when major philosophical shifts necessitated the witness of the Christian mind.

I’m thankful to be at a seminary where many young men want to rigorously educate themselves in order that they would be prepared to engage their world and build intellectual bridges to it. Pastors are to be the leaders of the Christian community on earth, and they ought not to lead it simply by a godly personal walk or excellent administration but by the exercise of a critical and thoughtful intellect. They ought to model for their people responsible engagement with the culture and show their people that we need not flee from the world or cower before it. Instead, we need to answer its questions, demonstrate the incredible coherence and beauty of the Christian worldview, and speak the gospel as the cure to its sin sickness and hellish fate. We need to turn away from a past that has mentally starved itself and raise up a generation of men full of passion for God and profundity of thought. It is no virtue to be smart, for sure. But neither is it a virtue to be foolish.

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It’s Good to Be Educated

The 20th century witnessed an evangelical backlash against traditional, or classical, education. In the face of growing secularism, Christians started a ton of Bible institutes and colleges to train their children. Their reaction is understandable. Much good has indeed come from such institutions (a genuine love for God, evangelistic passion, actional love for one’s neighbor, etc), though one can also spot harmful effects as well. Perhaps the major weakness of the Bible institute model is its general lack of rigorous intellectual training. Essentially, many Christians ceded the cultural space to non-Christians in creating their own Christian subculture.

One of the hardest hit groups was the pastoral corps, who were often encouraged to gain only an education in the Bible, if even that. Many times, pastors began the work of ministry without any formal training and any intellectual engagement with the classical tradition–history, philosophy, the sciences, rhetoric, math, etc, languages. Over time, it actually became a bad thing to have received extensive education, as this signaled that one cared more for the academy for the church and more for accolades than for a ministry. The result? Pastors who preached the Bible but who failed to develop thoughtful responses to the culture and failed to develop bridges to it through intellectual and personal engagement. The Christian church was never meant to be a ghetto. It was meant to be a city on a hill. The loss of interest cut the church off from the culture at a time when major philosophical shifts necessitated the witness of the Christian mind.

I’m thankful to be at a seminary where many young men want to rigorously educate themselves in order that they would be prepared to engage their world and build intellectual bridges to it. Pastors are to be the leaders of the Christian community on earth, and they ought not to lead it simply by a godly personal walk or excellent administration but by the exercise of a critical and thoughtful intellect. They ought to model for their people responsible engagement with the culture and show their people that we need not flee from the world or cower before it. Instead, we need to answer its questions, demonstrate the incredible coherence and beauty of the Christian worldview, and speak the gospel as the cure to its sin sickness and hellish fate. We need to turn away from a past that has mentally starved itself and raise up a generation of men full of passion for God and profundity of thought. It is no virtue to be smart, for sure. But neither is it a virtue to be foolish.

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An Intellectual Pastorate

I’m writing this week about the benefits of an intellectually oriented pastoral corps. As I write, I want to do so with sensitivity and nuance. This could be a tricky issue, and I want to avoid a tone of condescension at all costs.

So with that in mind, let me say that one does not in any way need letters after one’s name to be a gifted and godly pastor or leader. The mere possession of a degree by no means necessarily signifies that a man is an excellent thinker, a godly person, or an automatically able pastor. This is just not true. We all can think of pastors who had no worldly credentials to speak of but who were giants of the faith, men well worthy of emulation and quite able to confront the thinking of their times. An MDiv, a PhD, or any other degree thus cannot be said to be a mark of maturity of either thought or character.

With that idea firmly established, let me say that it will nonetheless be of great benefit to the church of God to have as its leaders men who have undergone rigorous theological training and extensive doctrinal inculcation. An MDiv will prove helpful toward this end, and, for those who can undertake it, a doctorate will especially hone one’s intellectual powers. The process of crafting an original argument, researching that argument substantially to strengthen it, and then writing persuasively and forcefully while countering objections is eminently valuable. Again, this is not to say that one needs to do a PhD to be able to do these things. That is simply not true. What I am saying is that a PhD may well help a man in learning these valuable skills. The doctorate cannot help but rigorously challenge and shape the man who undertakes it. The benefits to this man will extend over more than just a period of a few years, but over the extent of his whole ministry.

How beneficial it would be to the church of God to have men who can, like the apostle Paul, counter the spirit and thought of their times, and offer sound and intellectually rigorous defenses of the faith. Not every man can do this, and not every man should try. But it is my belief that the church of God will indeed benefit from a pastoral corps who can meet the world’s thought experts on their own terms and engage them in stimulating discussion. This same corps will also ready themselves to produce literature, for the process of a PhD necessarily involves rigorous attention to one’s writing. And one cannot help but approach the text with a broadened and deepened outlook when one has focused one’s intellectual energies on a certain topic and learned to ask questions of it and seek answers for it. This, not credentials, not worldly fame or acclaim, poses the best reason for a generation of young men to seek the intellectual rigor of the PhD. In the days to come, we’ll continue to hone this argument, and look at its potential strengths and weaknesses in light of history and wisdom.

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Changing the Inner-City

Some consumed readers have asked me for a booklist on the topic we’re discussing, on how Christians might change the inner-city. Let me say that I do not know of any explicitly Christian books that approach this topic from the viewpoint I’m espousing. However, here are some noteworthy books that do address the topic of families and also may include information on the inner-city:

William Gairdner, The War Against the Family
Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World
David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America
Robert Griswold, Fatherhood in America
David Popenoe, Life Without Father

That’s a start. To my knowledge, none of these authors are Christians, though they are all thoughtful, pro-family, and persuasive. Reading these books will of course open you up to a wider range of literature and manhood, fatherhood, and families that will only continue to expand your thought process and knowledge about the subject. This is what has happened to me, and I am now trying to apply what I’ve learned about manhood and fatherhood to a subject that has long concerned me, namely, the inner-city. Critical, thoughtful, and Christian books need to be written about this subject.

Ryan Hill asked some great questions yesterday on how best to minister across the unfortunate cultural divide between white middle-class and urban inner-city. He also mentioned how to conceive of para-church groups that seek to address the problem. There’s nothing wrong with such programs, and much good can come from them, but I think it would be even better to have a number of Christians in a given church band together and try to strategize how they might influence the inner-city. Now, note carefully my words here. I’m not saying the church should take on this responsibility; I’m saying that the Christians of the church should take it on. This may seem an unimportant distinction, but it is very important. Unlike some, I hold to a very mere view of the church. The church is appointed by God to carry out the essential duties of worship and evangelism. I believe it will do these things best when it does not try to be a hospital, day-care center, fitness center, and whatever else you can think of. Theme park.

However, my line of thinking does not exempt Christians from doing all kinds of meaningful activities and deeds. I think that individual Christians within a church should thus band together under the oversight of an elder and come up with a strategy by which to lead their fellow members in reaching out to the inner-city. They may well want to develop a curriculum that they would lead boys and girls through, and also a curriculum for their parents to try and teach them a biblically informed doctrine of the family. But the church members would not simply hold a three-month program, hand out a bunch of certificates, and then step back, beaming at all the good they had accomplished. No, they would realize that the work of ministry is expensive and demanding, and thus commit themselves to staying involved with these young people and developing further curriculum and activities by which to engage them. Whole families from the church could then be involved in the program. With some careful thought, this thing could really fly. Christians really could make a difference. Racial divides might heal. Communities might heal. Boys and girls would learn the biblical way of gender and living. Most importantly, the gospel would be at the center of all this, and be taught to kids in a loving context.

If you’re interested in this idea, I would encourage you to pray about it, and talk to an elder in your church about perhaps starting something up. Don’t wait on me to start something up, though I may try at some point to write a curriculum and book about this. Start thinking now in your church about how to do this. I hope to join you in this work. Let’s pray that many more will do the same, and that light will come to a darkened place, the American inner-city.

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