Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Dawkins Confusion

Naturalism ad absurdum. Read a rebuttal of Dawkins by Alvin Plantinga.

The God Delusion is an extended diatribe against religion in general and belief in God in particular; Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (whose recent Breaking the Spell is his contribution to this genre) are the touchdown twins of current academic atheism. Dawkins has written his book, he says, partly to encourage timorous atheists to come out of the closet. He and Dennett both appear to think it requires considerable courage to attack religion these days; says Dennett, "I risk a fist to the face or worse. Yet I persist." Apparently atheism has its own heroes of the faith—at any rate its own self-styled heroes. Here it's not easy to take them seriously; religion-bashing in the current Western academy is about as dangerous as endorsing the party's candidate at a Republican rally.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Beholding Beauty

Apparently, this article from the Washington Post has been heavily discussed in the Blogosphere for the past several weeks. The Desiring God blog and my friend Nate have also commented. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for me to be a day late and a dollar short. Nevertheless, I will add my two cents.

For those of you who have not heard of this story, let me give you the gist of what happened. The Washington Post enlisted Joshua Bell, a world renowned violinist, to act as a street musician at the top of some escalators near the subway in downtown Washington D.C. The idea was to see if average, busy people would recognize true skill and beauty if they heard it. In some ways, the actual result is startling; in other ways, it is not remarkable at all. Either way, it says something about us. If we are willing to look in the mirror, we may not like what we see.
“In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”
From the moment I first heard about this story, I have been strangely moved on an emotional level. The idea that a virtuoso with a $3.5M violin could play music that has stood the test of centuries and have virtually no one notice breaks my heart. What does this say about beauty? What does this say about our ability to recognize beauty? Is there such a thing as beauty, and could we know it if we saw it?

I asked two of my daughters similar questions. Yes, they said, one can know beauty if they see it. The Minneapolis skyline is beautiful. A sunset is beautiful. That building over there is ugly. Classical music is beautiful. Rock music is scraggly.

When I asked my oldest daughter (11) if a magnificent violinist playing on a street corner would be noticed, she immediately and without hesitation said no. Why? Because he is in disguise. No one would know who he is. No one would know his name. But, I replied, wouldn’t they know good music when they heard it? The answer back was that it was in the wrong place. Hmmm. Is this deep perception in a child, or simple pragmatic reality?

Before I start drawing spiritual conclusions, I think we need to ask a more basic question that has only so far been assumed. “Is what Joshua Bell played close enough to true beauty that we can consider what happened to be tragic? The music has transcended centuries. The musician is undeniably gifted. Can the music be rightly defined as beauty?”
“The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”
If we answer no, then this whole discussion is a waste of time and you need to close your browser and go talk to your spouse. If we answer yes, then we must ask the next question, “Why did so many people miss it?” The answer to this last question, of course, is that part we don’t like when we look in the mirror. The answer is painfully obvious. C.S. Lewis gives the answer so much better than I can; so, I will quote him:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (from The Weight of Glory, Harper, 26).
We have over-indulged on the trivial. We have consumed cheap entertainment. We are saturated with the likes of American Idol, 24, Lost, Cosmo, McDonalds, and one-hit wonder boy bands ad infinitum. We consume whatever makes us feel good; only the affections we feel for a moment leave our souls empty and more shriveled than before. The fact that 1,070 people walked briskly past beauty in a 45 minute span is merely a symptom of a much deeper disease. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Let us take this line of thinking where it ultimately needs to go: what does this have to do with our ability to see God? If you know Lewis, you know that the context of the above quote was specifically in relation to what one sees in the New Testament. Jesus offers “unblushing promises of reward…in the Gospels,” yet we are far too easily pleased. The gospel offers true beauty (Isa 33:17), true blessing (Mt 5:3-11), true forgiveness (Luke 24:46-47), true pleasure (Ps 16:11), and true freedom (John 8:36). Unfortunately, and much to our sorrow, the vast majority of people simply walk on by (Mt 7:13).

What then is our response? Why did those seven people who did notice the beauty of Bell’s music not try to stop everyone around them and awaken them to the wonder and beauty and majesty flowing from his Stradivarius?
“It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?
The picture in the mirror takes another turn for the worse. The answer is the same, yet infinitely more deplorable. I am deeply convicted by my answer as shown in the poor way in which I proclaim the good news. May Christ help us.

(HT: Desiring God, The Richochet)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Humility in Ministry, Part 3

Jonathan Edwards writes (Religious Affections, Yale, 312-314):
The essence of evangelical humiliation consists in such humility, as becomes a creature, in itself exceeding sinful, under a dispensation of grace; consisting in a mean esteem of himself, as in himself nothing, and altogether contemptible and odious; attended with a mortification of a disposition to exalt himself, and a free renunciation of his own glory.

This is a great and most essential thing in true religion. The whole frame of the gospel, and everything appertaining to the new Covenant, and all God’s dispensations towards fallen man, are calculated to bring to pass this effect in the hearts of men. They that are destitute of this, have no true religion, whatever profession they make, and how high soever their religious affections may be; “Behold, his soul which is lifted up, is not upright in him; but the just shall life by his faith” (Hab. 2:4): i.e. he shall live by his faith on God’s righteousness and grace, and not his own goodness and excellency.

Humility in Ministry, Part 2

C.H. Spurgeon writes (Lectures to My Students, Zondervan, 331):
Have you not by this time discovered that flattery is as injurious as it is pleasant? It softens the mind and makes you more sensitive to slander. In proportion as praise pleases you censure will pain you. Besides, it is a crime to be taken off from your great object of glorifying the Lord Jesus by petty consideration as to your little self, and, if there were no other reason, this ought to weigh much with you. Pride is a deadly sin, and will grow without your borrowing the parish watercart to quicken it. Forget expressions which feed your vanity, and if you mind yourself relishing the unwholesome morsels confess the sin with deep humiliation. Payson showed that he was strong in the Lord when he wrote to his mother, “You must not, certainly, my dear mother, say one word which even looks like an intimation that you think me advancing in grace. I cannot bear it. All the people here, whether friends or enemies, conspire to ruin me. Satan and my own heart, of course, will lend a hand; and if you join too, I fear all the cold water which Christ can throw upon my pride will not prevent its breaking out into a destructive flame. As certainly as anybody flatters and caresses me my heavenly Father has to whip me: and an unspeakable mercy it is that he condescends to do it. I can, it is true, easily muster a hundred reasons why I should not be proud, but pride will not mind reason, nor anything else but a good drubbing. Even at this moment I feel it tingling in my fingers’ ends, and seeking to guide my pen.” Knowing something myself of those secret whippings which our good Father administers to his servant when he sees them unduly exalted, I heartily add my own solemn warnings against your pampering the flesh by listening to the praises of the kindest friends you have. They are injudicious, and you must beware of them.

Humility in Ministry, Part 1

Sin is sin. Blatant immoral sin certainly leaves behind a mess; simply look at the many prominent Christian ministers who have shipwrecked on the rock of sexual sins. Yet, many other sins are just as heinous, which have found acceptability within many ministries. Pride, for instance, is often tolerated if the minister is good enough. Pride comes in many forms. Some forms we all readily recognize as blatant arrogance. Are there more subtle kinds of pride? The following quote is from Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline, 110, 114, as quoted in Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Navpress, 122).
Self-righteous service requires external rewards. It needs to know that people see and appreciate the effort. It seeks human applause—with proper religious modesty, of course….Self-righteous service is highly concerned about results. It eagerly wants to see if the person served will reciprocate in kind….The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered.
Our battle, then, is on multiple fronts. I pray we all fight against the visible, outward, immoral sins, and the hidden, inward, immoral sins.

The Ringing Bell

Derek Webb releases a new album and graphic novel tie-in on May 1. Yes, you read that correctly, "graphic novel tie-in." The album is titled The Ringing Bell.