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Book Review – Hearing God’s Voice (Tom Olbricht)

Tom Olbricht, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press,1996).

I just finished writing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry degree. I learned so much in writing that paper. One of the things I learned was that no matter how much information I thought I had gathered on a particular topic or sub-topic, there was always one more (or a dozen more) reputable sources to consider. When men have been thinking and writing about the Church and Christian topics for almost 2,000 years it is just impossible to be original.

One of the sources that I discovered in the process of writing my paper was Tom Olbricht’s, Hearing God’s Voice. I have been vaguely aware of Dr. Olbricht – he was at ACU when I started my undergraduate program there. I was always intimidated by Dr. Olbricht. He was a large man, and it would be kind to say that his suits were never impeccably tailored. Scuttlebutt was that you only took Dr. Olbricht’s classes if you had a suicidal wish to blow up your GPA, or if his course was required. Because he was primarily in the grad program, I never had to make that decision. When I did finally enter ACU to earn my Masters degree, Dr. Olbricht had moved on to Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. By that time I was not so easily led by whispers and gossip, and I took every course I could from Dr. Everett Ferguson. Since that time I have regretted not having had any classes with Dr. Olbricht. After reading this book I regret that lack even more.

Hearing God’s Voice is a book about hermeneutics within the Churches of Christ, but it does not read like a typical book on hermeneutics. It is mostly an autobiographical journey through Dr. Olbricht’s life, showing how hermeneutics (or how a person interprets the Bible) both shapes and is shaped by life experiences. It is a fascinating story, and if you are interested in the history of the Churches of Christ in the mid to late 20th century, you will want to get this book and read it. The book is part “who’s who” within the Churches of Christ, part pedagogy on how to obtain advanced academic degrees, part critique of the Restoration Movement, and, finally, part hermeneutic.

You have to get to the end of the book before Dr. Olbricht explores his hermeneutic in any great depth, except that you have to really read all of the early parts of the book, because his hermeneutic is inseparably connected to his life’s story. He did not just get his hermeneutic out of a book, and he does not want anyone to try to get their hermeneutic out of his book. At least, I do not think he does. I think, in perfect professor fashion, Dr. Olbricht would say, “Now that you’ve read my book, go forth and discover the art of hermeneutics!”

Dr. Olbricht is certainly one of the premier theologians within the Churches of Christ. Few men have attained the level of expertise, both theologically and in rhetoric, of Dr. Olbricht. I think I would still be intimidated by Dr. Olbricht, but having challenged myself with Dr. Ferguson’s classes, I think I would have greatly enjoyed listening and learning from Dr. Olbricht.

I do not agree with everything Dr. Olbricht says in this book – especially with his understanding of hermeneutics. After all I have said in praise of Dr. Olbricht, that may sound heretical, but no man is perfect, and, while I deeply appreciate many of the moves that Dr. Olbricht proposes in this book, I also identify some significant weaknesses in his approach. Perhaps the greatest is that I sense Dr. Olbricht’s approach is simply too open-ended. To use a sports analogy, he has an impressive wind-up, and the pitch leaves his hand in a blur, but by the time the ball gets to the plate it is barely rolling across the ground. I appreciate the emphasis that Dr. Olbricht places upon the reader (or auditor), but in the end it appeared to me that the reader/auditor had a greater place in Dr. Olbricht’s hermeneutic than the Scripture did. I believe his two examples illustrate that. And, today, approximately 20 years after the book was written and published, I believe that the steady march of same-sex relationships and gender-bending would support my contention.

Any hermeneutic, if it is to faithfully transmit God’s word to a new generation, must begin with the full and unquestioned authority of Scripture. We need to make sure the message of Scripture is heard in new and fresh ways, but the reader NEVER is to be allowed to determine the meaning of Scripture. The reader/auditor is to discover the meaning of the text, but the skill of discovery and the power of determination are two completely different concepts.

Oh well, sorry for the sermon. Bottom line – if you are interested in hermeneutics, and especially if you share a love for the Restoration Movement and the Churches of Christ, I highly recommend this book.

A Brief Reflection on the Gift and Labor of Scholarship

English: A vector image of a mortar board hat.

English: A vector image of a mortar board hat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past couple of months I have gained two things: a deeper and more profound respect for those who have earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree, and an increasingly negative opinion of those who disparage education.

It takes hard work to achieve any goal of value – and that includes a professional sports contract or a terminal degree in any field. We worship our sports heroes, and we laugh at “egg heads” and “ivory tower intellectuals.”

I will be forever grateful that the surgeon who cut my back open and fixed my nerve damage was among the most highly trained and educated physicians in New Mexico. I will be  eternally grateful that my Bible professors had the intellect AND the drive to achieve the highest goals of research.

I am just really, really becoming fed up with people who do not have the foggiest idea of what it takes to excel in academia and yet who make fun of those who make the sacrifices necessary to excel in any academic field.

So, for those of you who think it is funny to belittle those who devote their lives to biblical scholarship – the next time you need a doctor, go schedule an appointment with someone who thinks that obtaining an M.D. is a waste of time, and that if he spends 8 years or more in pre-med and medical school he will lose his belief in how the body works.

Yeah, I thought so.

The Proof is in the Verbs

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name f...

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name for God the Father. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading in the book of Exodus this morning in my daily Bible reading. The passage I was reading (more on that later) reminded me of the amazing instructors I had in college. Drs. John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Eugene Clevenger, Lemoine Lewis – an amazing cast of instructors at one given point in history. It is really quite spooky how a few verses from the Bible can bring so many faces and tones of voice and little personal mannerisms and other memories flooding back to you.

Anyway – and on to the point of this blog, the passage I was reading included the last few verses of Exodus 2 all the way through chapter 3:

God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8a, NRSV)

It was Dr. John Willis who taught me the ancient language of Hebrew (and a ton of other information about the Old Testament). One of the things that he stressed in dealing with any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament) is to focus on the verbs. The verbs carry all the freight of the sentence, and theologically speaking, all the spiritual freight as well.

Notice the verbs in those few verses. God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God took notice, God had observed, God had heard, God knew, God has come down, and God will bring them up.

And that, my friends and neighbors, will keep you busy studying and meditating and praying upon for as long as you would like. Those are some of the most powerful, most pregnant, and most eloquent expressions to be found in Holy Scripture.

Agnostics and atheists like to think they can place Christians in a difficult spot by speaking of God’s absence, of God’s forsaking the earth. They might have a point if the Bible spoke of Deism. But the God of the Bible is no deist. The God of the Bible is a living, active participant in this world. Our God did not wind the universe up only to watch it run down to some cataclysmic end. Our God hears, remembers, looks upon, takes notice, observes, comes down in order to lift up.

I am afraid that too many Christians have been deluded by Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” as the picture of God. In this they have fallen right into the trap that agnostics and atheists have laid. Aristotle does not even come close to the picture of God painted in the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the New Testament. I am so glad! Aristotle’s god may be worthy of fear and loathing, but never love, adoration and worship.

When you are flying by yourself in fog so thick you cannot even see your wingtips it is nice to know there is someone out there who can see everything that is going on. In the case of a pilot that is the air traffic controller who guides and sequences all the planes flying around in the muck so they can land safely.

We, as children of God, have so much more than an air traffic controller. We have a God who sees all, knows all, and, most important, loves and cares for all. He created all and died for all. He it is who is worthy of our love and adoration.

It is not difficult to discover who this God is and what He does for His children – the proof is in the verbs!

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Where Bill Nye and Ken Ham Were Both Wrong, Right

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer here – I was not able to watch the debate last night between Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) and Ken Ham. (I was busy feeding about 75+ hungry college students). But I have read some news reports and commentary today and I am generally familiar with their arguments, so I would like to offer some commentary of my own.

First, where Bill Nye is wrong.

Nye is wrong in that he seems to think that “science” is a pure subject. It is not. I know this sounds esoteric, but when Nye says, “science is just about studying facts” he is in fact (no pun intended) working under a larger philosophical concept of “scientism.” Nye, and many other evolutionists, confuse the examination of particular artifacts as “science” when in fact their examination of those artifacts is being driven by an earlier presupposition to accept certain results and reject others. When Nye and other evolutionists claim that a certain rock or fossil “proves” evolution, they are in fact rejecting other possibilities because those possibilities do not fit the theory that they are indeed trying to prove. To be specific, there is not just one “missing link” in the chain of “evolution,” there are many. But, you will never hear an evolutionist even mention those gaps, because their “scientism” will not allow them to ask the question that might allow for a Divine Creator – how can you explain these gaps? On the other hand, the scientist who believes in the Creator God can look at the exact same evidence and argue that the “gaps” in the evolutionary chain are the fatal flaws of evolution. Their examination of the facts, or “science” is disavowed by Bill Nye and others because it does not fit within their “scientism” – a philosophical belief that will not allow for a creator God in any way, shape or form.

Now, where Ken Ham is wrong.

Ken Ham goes to the other extreme. Ken’s failsafe position is “because the Bible says so.” In effect, Ken turns the Bible into a scientific text book, complete with an inerrant chronological record and specific history of all things created. The Bible was never meant to be used in such a fashion. Perhaps the one thing that distresses me the most about Ham’s position is his relentless promotion of the “6,000 year old earth” argument. I wrote about Archbishop Ussher and his computation of the 6,000 year age of the earth a long time back, but the salient facts bear repeating. Archbishop Ussher was a profound Christian apologist and quite a remarkable mathematician. By combining various chronological lists in the Bible along with some intricate mathematical computations, Ussher arrived at the age of the earth as being around 6,000 years. His findings finally found their way into the introduction of one of the early editions of the King James Bibles, and it has been sacrosanct ever since. But I know of no current (or even relatively recent deceased) Old Testament scholars who hold that you can take the various genealogical lists given in the Old Testament and come up with anything even remotely bearing certainty. That was NOT the purpose of those genealogical lists! Just one example: in Ruth 4:18-22 we have the “genealogy” of King David, from Perez (the son of Judah) to David. The list includes 10 names, but the time period involved (from before the time Israel entered into Egypt leading all the way to David) involves at least 800 years! (Note: I am assuming that the reigns of the judges were sequential, and not that some of them were “co-regents” of a sort) The various genealogical lists are provided for various reasons (theology being one, and perhaps the most important!) but calculating the age of the earth is NOT one of those reasons!

James Ussher

James Ussher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe Ham lost a very important opportunity here to point out that the debate is not between science and theology – it is between one philosophical view of science (the idea that science can solve all of our questions, or the above mentioned “scientism”) and another view of science (that science can lead us to ask better and more appropriate questions, but will never provide all, or even a majority, of the answers). Instead, Ham more or less let Nye hold the high ground (or so Nye supposed) and tried to argue from a philosophical foundation that Nye and other evolutionists reject entirely.

Where both Nye and Ham were absolutely correct.

Both men argued their positions in a calm fashion, both made salient points, and both were respectful (by virtually all accounts). I think they were both absolutely correct in saying that this issue is critical for our children to be able to discuss. Where I would disagree vehemently with Nye is that I believe this discussion SHOULD take place in our science classrooms, in addition to our philosophy classrooms and religion classrooms. To deprive our children of the right to hear and discuss these questions (as I believe Nye is promoting) is simply to abdicate our position as educators. Education is all about the examination of all possible facts and the various theories that those facts lead different scholars to believe. To eliminate 50% of those conclusions and resulting theories because they do not fit some very limited concept of “scientism” is just blatantly irresponsible. So, whether he wanted to or not, I think Nye made a very important point: this discussion DOES deserve to be in the science classroom.

This is true if for no other reason that our children deserve to discover that evolutionists cannot answer even the most basic questions about their theory: why is there “anything” to begin with? From whence came the “stuff” that started this whole process?

For the answer to that question we must turn to God. And that, my friends, is exactly what terrifies Nye and his comrades.

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Book Review – One Bible, Many Versions (Dave Brunn)

KJV Bible

KJV Bible (Photo credit: knowhimonline)

One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? by Dave Brunn (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 193 pages.

Ever since I took a class in the transmission and translation of the Bible from Dr. Neil Lightfoot the subject of textual criticism and Bible translations has been a hobby of mine. I cannot say that I am an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am simply an apprentice in the field. The subject is immensely fascinating. I also have a very strong opinion that it is equally critical for the disciple of Christ to know something about the history of the transmission and translation of the manuscripts of the Bible, and that the average member of the church knows either nothing or next to nothing about those subjects. Those deficiencies make purchasing and reading this book that much more important.

In order to write a good book in this field an author must accomplish two goals – and goals that are not necessarily complementary. One, he or she needs to cover a vast amount of material that can be complicated and, at times, seemingly esoteric. On the other extreme if the book is to be effective it needs to be written so that the average church member can read and understand it. It needs to have some “there” there or it will just be placed on a shelf where it can look impressive to the casual observer. In this book, One Bible, Many Versions, Dave Brunn cleans up on both accounts. He does not get into the vagaries of textual manuscripts, but he does do an outstanding job in discussing the complicated process of translation and how the different translations we have of the English Bible are a blessing to us all.

Several aspects of this book scream for proper attention. One, the book is clearly written in language anyone with a high school education or beyond will be able to understand. This is no small feat given the subject matter at hand. There is no “technalese” that bogs so many specialty books down.

Two, the book is literally filled with wonderful graphics that illustrate the issues the author is describing. In particular, Brunn does not simply say that there are “many examples” of such-and-such, he gives those examples in painstaking detail – sometimes pages of them – in easy-to-read chart format. If you are going to argue with Brunn’s conclusions, you had better study hard and stay up late to challenge his many and well defended examples.

Three, Brunn is not writing with any particular axe to grind, unless it is that he dislikes it when people write about translations with axes to grind. He points out that every translation violates it’s guiding principles at some points, that literal translations sometimes take great liberties with the text, and that sometimes idiomatic translations are more literal than the “literal” translations.

Just one example here will suffice – Brunn points out that many people will argue that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is one of the most literal, word-for-word translations on the market. However, Brunn goes through and points out that in many verses a more idiomatic (or, Dynamic) translation is actually more “literal” or formal in its translation than is the NASB. The same is true with the ESV and the HCSB. I was mesmerized by the evidence, and I will never look at the NASB with the same understanding as I once did.

Another chapter that I feel like was worth the purchase price of the book was the chapter in which Brunn described the problems translators have in translating the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts into languages other than English. (The chapter is titled, “The Babel Factor”) We, as English speaking Americans, tend to measure everything by how it affects the English language. Brunn worked in translating the Bible into the Lamogai language of the people of Papua, New Guinea. His grasp of translational issues is not simply one dimensional – it is truly multi-dimensional. If you buy, read and even study this book your understanding will be multi-dimensional as well. You will never look at translations, or translational issues, in the same way.

I know that every book I review in this blog space is a book I highly recommend (otherwise, why waste the time to review it!) But I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you do not want to buy the book for yourself, buy a copy each for all of your elders and your minister or ministers. If they spend any time at all speaking about how one translation is “better” than another, they need to read this book. In fact, if they spend any time even reading from an English translation they need to read this book.

But, quite honestly, every member who considers himself or herself to be a student of the Bible needs to read this book. It is that well written and that important. Do not attempt to call yourself educated in the field of translations if you refuse to read this little volume.

Aircraft Accidents, Professionalism, and the General Decline of Education

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transf...

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transformed, looking at Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, that topic line ought to generate some curiosity. Truth be told, I’m kind of curios about it myself. I have some ideas about where I want to go, but we’ll see if I can get there or not.

The United States has been shocked over the past several weeks over two seemingly unrelated major aircraft accidents. In the first, an Asiana Airlines plane coming in for a landing in San Francisco clipped a sea wall and burst into flames as it slammed to the ground. In the second, and most recent event, a UPS plane also coming in for a landing mysteriously got well below the landing path and slammed into a hill a short distance from the runway. In both accidents there were fatalities. The reason “why” something tragic like those accidents occurred can never take away the pain of the loss of those human lives.

There are major differences between the two accidents. The planes were built by two different designers. The first was a major people-carrying airline, the second strictly a cargo carrying jet. The first had at least three pilots in the cockpit and was landing in the daylight with good visibility. The second had two well-qualified pilots, was landing at night (or, extremely early morning) and there were reports of low clouds and less than perfect visibility, although not low enough to mandate a precision instrument approach.

The questions are baffling: Why would (at least) five well qualified and highly trained professional pilots fly two state-of-the-art modern jets right into the ground? Why were there no distress calls in either case? Why did the automated systems in the planes not alert the pilots with enough time to recover from their low approaches? Were the pilots too fatigued? Were they distracted by other aspects of the planes’ highly technical computerized flight systems? Was there insufficient or defective communication between the pilot-in-command and the pilot flying as first officer? (Just because a pilot is listed as “captain” and “first officer” does not necessarily mean each was flying in that capacity on that leg. It is customary for captains and first officers to alternate legs of flights so that each can log time as “pilot-in-command” time in their log books, and to log take-offs, landings, instrument time, night flight, etc., as necessary components to keep their credentials up-to-date. Captains fly from the left seat, first officers fly from the right seat, regardless of who is “pilot-in-command” on that leg).

It is interesting, but speculation has focused on one common thread in both accidents – the growing dependance on automation and the resulting loss of piloting skill among super modern jet pilots. As computer technology has become more and more complex inside these jet cockpits the role of the pilots has morphed. Modern jet pilots are far more “systems managers” than they are “stick and rudder” pilots. Few jets are manufactured with cables connecting the pilot controls to the flight surfaces, meaning that there is no “feel” experienced by the pilots. In the case of the UPS plane, the pilots fly with a little joy-stick mounted on the side of the airplane, much like a computer game controller on your family entertainment center. The computer is constantly evaluating every control input by the pilot, and in some situations will actually override the control input by a pilot. No doubt this is a good thing in some situations, but, once again, it removes certain command decisions from the pilot. The maddening thing is the pilots are not required to know less: in fact, they must learn more – but they are not learning more about flying, they are learning more about managing complex computer systems. Perfectly good airplanes are not supposed to be flown into the ground. Something is very wrong with our technology obsessed culture.

We are not altogether in the situation that Dave faced with HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but we are getting close.

As I write this it is still far to early in either accident to know for certain why each accident occurred. Knowing a little about cockpit management and having studied some accident reports I can think of some scenarios for the first accident (the Asiana flight at San Francisco) but the UPS flight is simply a mind-bender to me. UPS is a top-notch, extremely well run organization with some of the best pilots around. Flying freight is a great gig. No passengers to complain, relatively uncrowded skies to fly in, great companies (UPS and Fed-Ex for sure) and extremely lucrative pay packages. I am sure that both of the pilots on the UPS flight were living their dream. That they would fly that jet into the ground is, to me, simply unimaginable. I suppose some day we will know what happened in those last few seconds, but it simply defies common logic at this point.

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Which, in a long and circuitous route, brings me to my third topic – that of the decline of education in the United States today. In many ways we are the most technologically progressive and the most educationally regressive society that has ever existed. Our college students can operate virtually any type of computer equipment with expert proficiency and yet many cannot write a coherent English sentence. Our elementary school children are taught that spelling does not matter as long as they can get close to how the word sounds. Students are promoted to the next grade level with no regard for their ability to perform, but simply because holding them back would damage their fragile self-esteems. And now, with the explosion of on-line (so called) education, more and more people are being given certificates and diplomas for accomplishing nothing more than watching a few videos and taking a few multiple choice on-line tests.

In economics, if you continually print more and more paper dollar bills, the overall value of those bills drops. Our “one dollar” bill is nowhere close to the value it had several decades ago, simply because the Federal Reserve keeps printing more and more and more, just to prop up the economy. In education, when you hand out worthless and meaningless diplomas and certificates you are in effect “devaluing” the value of your diploma or certificate. Quite honestly, a high school diploma does not mean as much as it once did. And Bachelors degrees and Masters degrees are catching up with blazing speed.

If you read this space often you know this is a common rant with me. I just hate to see education go down this road. We should be demanding more, and all we are doing is demanding different. There is something tragically wrong when a child can enter college and not be able to spell correctly, write a coherent sentence, and to be able to analyze a complex paragraph or short story. I have no idea how the folks in the hard sciences are doing – maybe they are faring better. I just know what I hear and see, and it is not pleasant.

The sad thing is it is not the student’s fault that they are not being taught. You cannot learn what the teacher refuses to teach. I wonder if the “group promotion” concept did not have more to do with the educators’ fragile self-esteem rather than the students’ need to be recognized. If all of your students pass on to the next grade you must be a pretty good teacher, right? Who cares that they cannot read, write, or do basic math. Just pass them up to the next teacher and make those students his or her problem.

I guess that works to a certain degree.

Until airplanes start falling out of the sky for no good reason.

(Editor and author’s update: After posting this the lovely and very perceptive Mrs. Freightdawg gently questioned me – okay, she lowered the boom on me. Because of my rather injudicious choice of language, it might appear that I am accusing individual teachers of blatantly refusing to teach the necessary basics of education. This is NOT what I intended to convey. Many teachers are forced to teach nonsense and they deeply resent having to do do in order to teach to some governmental standard. I feel for those teachers. When you are between a rock and a hard place it is impossible to find a comfortable position.

That having been said, I stand by my assertion that the overall product of the American educational system is just weak. Maybe the problem goes way beyond the local and state schools systems. Maybe it is totally a failure at the federal level. Whatever the cause, the answer is simple: go back to basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and basic fundamental science courses.

If I offended any teachers out there I am sorry – that was not my intent. My purpose was to draw attention to the dismal product of our overall American educational system. Until we lean how to fix that, our children will always be at risk, and ultimately, so will our culture.)

The Amazing, Shrinking American Brain (And Soul)

American Education is in the Dumpster

American Education is in the Dumpster (Photo credit: brewbooks)

If you listen to the pure theorists times could not be better for American education. Young people are learning more, are learning faster, and are entering the work place more prepared than at any other time in American history. They would point to the fact that many high school students are provided with the opportunity to earn college credit during high school. Many students enter college as second semester freshmen, or perhaps even at a sophomore level. Some states even allow high school graduates to earn both a high school diploma and an Associate degree from a nearby college. In the world of these theorists, everything has a distinctly rosy tint.

If you walk a mile in my moccasins, or talk to some of the fellow university instructors that I know, you would get the exact opposite reaction. College freshmen may come more highly credentialed than ever, but they also come with a corresponding inability to produce freshman level college work. Many cannot construct a coherent English sentence; do not even think about making them construct an entire coherent paragraph. Many do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and a participle. They cannot spell. These students have been propped up and puffed up their entire educational career, and they expect that college and university instructors will continue the pattern of praise and adulation. Sadly, many do. It is difficult to tell a young man or young woman who is academically in their second, third or even fourth year of college that they are not even writing at a 12th grade level.

And, believe me – with the advent of on-line “miseducation” and the proliferation of on-line college degrees the level of incompetence in high school and even college graduates is simply going to explode.

What does this have to do with a blog on theology? Much, and I’m glad you asked.

Once upon a time (and it really was not that long ago), sermons and Bible classes were exercises in serious exegesis and discovery. Texts were painstakingly worked through. Forty-five minute sermons or lessons were the norm, not the exception. It was expected, even demanded, that the audience was capable of following lengthy, carefully constructed arguments, including an occasions side-track or two.

English: A typical "As seen on TV" l...

English: A typical “As seen on TV” logo, based on the logo present on many products in the US. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then the technology revolution hit – especially television. The medium of television itself is not evil, but television producers, writers, actors and cameramen all needed to be paid, so along with television shows came television commercials. That meant that an hour long show was broken up into a number of smaller segments, demarcated with a couple of minutes of commercials. The attention span of the average American dropped.

Then, almost imperceptibly, hour-long shows became 30 minute shows – still broken up into shorter and shorter segments. The American attention span grew even shorter.

Today there is not only TV, but a myriad of other electronic media that demands our attention – computers and tablets and phones and digital music storage devices. We as Americans get bored faster and in spite of more stimulation than any other culture before us. And that head-long rush into lethargy is carried right over into our worship experiences.

It is no surprise to me that the very same generation that invented the “X Games,” a collection of high risk, extreme sporting events, is now demanding the same type of experiential high from their worship services. Apparently it is no longer enough to raise your voice in song; now there has to be ear- splitting, roof-rattling music and mind-bending special effects. Even in the more “sedate” religious groups the simple projection of words on a screen is no longer considered acceptable. No – now there must be multiple images as well as the introduction of other sensory stimuli in order to raise the level of spirituality in the increasingly more passive and yet technologically demanding audience.

Parallel with this movement toward a more “experiential” worship service there is a marked decline in the acceptance of a rigorous hermeneutic that demands a careful and extended study of the text of Scripture. Sermons must be 20 minutes (or less) and should be directed to today’s “felt needs” or in some other way “relevant” to our immediate culture. Long gone are the days in which the church was expected to shape culture – now the church must bend and twist and morph itself in order to comply with the demands of an ever-changing culture that also happens to be diametrically opposed to the message and mission of the church of Christ.

And, as technology becomes a mainstay even with pre-schoolers, I do not see any change in this intellectual/spiritual collapse any time soon.

When he was just a teenager, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had virtually every option open to him in regards to his life’s work. He was intelligent enough, and had the connections, to become a scientist, a legal scholar, or follow in his father’s footsteps in the field of medicine. He was talented enough musically to have become a professional musician. Instead, he shocked (and disappointed) his family when he announced that he would become a theologian. According to his friend Eberhard Bethge, his family tried to tell him that the church was a “… poor, feeble, boring, petty and bourgeois institution.” Bonhoeffer was  undeterred. “In that case I shall reform it” he smugly responded. (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 36)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The amazing thing is, he did! With the exception of his friend and mentor Karl Barth, no early 20th century theologian has had as deep and as lasting effect on the church as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But he did not reform it by adding praise bands, or praise teams, or glorified visual presentations, or by adding bells or incense. Bonhoeffer reformed the church, and his writings continue to exert his influence, by a serious, deep and sustained return to the foundations of discipleship: prayer, Bible study, meditation, confession and Christian service.

Basic spiritual disciplines – what a concept!

May God raise up another Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation. Or, maybe 100.

Book Review – Soul Searching (Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton)

Cover of "Soul Searching: The Religious a...

Cover via Amazon

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American TeenagersChristian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 271 pages of text, with 4 appendices and 29 pages of endnotes.

In terms of statistical studies, this book is beginning to show its age (published in 2005, with research being completed some time earlier), but the information it provides is still valuable, at least as far as I am concerned. This was the second book I read to inform myself of the current state of young people in the teenage-college age bracket (the first was Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0). This book is far more conventional in the sense that the authors performed a standard survey information gathering process and followed that up with a detailed interview process with a selected number of those who had completed the earlier phone interview.

Without going into serious information overload, here are some basic numbers: the initial phone interview involved 3,290 teenagers and their parents from all 50 states between 2002 and 2003. From that number, 267 teens were selected for an additional in-person interview to follow up on the information that had been gathered from the phone calls. One interesting side note, the teens and parents were both paid for their time for the phone call interview, and the teens were paid for their time in the face-to-face interview. The next time some political party calls me to ask me who I am going to vote for, I am going to ask them to show me the money.

Anyway, back to the book. The results reveal the standard “good news/bad news” that research tends to provide. On the good news side, the research showed that teens are far more religious than some doomsayers are trumpeting. The teens largely follow the faith of their parents (or leading adults in their family). There is very little of the “spiritual but not religious” trend among teenagers that some people are so fond of reporting. And, with one very important caveat, religion is having an impact on the lives of teenagers.

Now for the distressing news: even though teens are religious, they are almost totally incapable of articulating what that means. For example, they may know that premarital sex is not appropriate, but they cannot articulate why. The best reason they might come up with is the dangers of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. This reveals that, in a broad general sense, religious groups are doing an abysmal job in presenting what they believe to teenagers. Another issue that I saw in the reporting was that, even among the most religious teens, life decisions were very often made in violation of those religious beliefs. So, there appears to be a large degree of compartmentalization among teens. Religion and spirituality is for church, but dating is for sex (not necessarily intercourse) and cheating on tests is almost required to get ahead. What this tells me is that churches may be doing an okay job at aiming for the head, but we are missing the hearts of teenagers by a mile.

This is an involved read. It is a long book, and the reporting of numbers and statistics is complicated. However, each section of analysis is accompanied by a graphic chart, so the material is there in both narrative and chart format. Those who are familiar with statistics and research will undoubtedly have an easier time reading the book than I did (I have absolutely no clue what a “multivariate regression analysis” is!) However, if you are a youth minister, a minister, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or simply a person who is deeply concerned about today’s teenager, you will want to buy, read, and even study this book.

I have to add a couple of (even more) personal comments. One reason I bought the book was because of a referral by way of the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (chapter 4 of the book) Basically, MTD is the term that the authors used to describe the primary religion of American teens. It is moralistic – teens do have morals, but the morals are tied to what works – therefore the “therapeutic.” And it is connected to a form of Deism – the idea that there is a supreme being, but that being only really exists to help in bad times or to make people feel good about themselves. And the authors point out that there are several different forms of MTD – conservative MTD, liberal MTD, – whatever “brand” of religion the teen leans toward has its form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This chapter is worth the price of the book in and of itself, but you really need the rest of the book to fully understand what the authors intend by placing the chapter as the fourth in the sequence.

Many of the results of the surveys and interviews confirms what is common knowledge or common sense: girls are more religious than boys. Teens in the south are more religious than teens in the northeast or northwest. Younger teens are more spiritual than older teens (although, not as significantly as may be expected). Teens with both parents at home are more religious, and parents who are more religious raise more religious teens. Conservative parents and groups produce more religious teens, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics do not score as highly. And, not surprisingly, Mormon families score the highest in producing religious teens, as well as producing teens who are the most articulate in expressing their faith.

The authors use 7 categories to describe religious teens – Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and non-religious. Appendix “D” gives the denominational breakdown of how the authors categorized each group, and the results are, shall we say, interesting.

I learned a lot from this book. I was encouraged as well as discouraged. I was challenged and I saw a lot of my own faults in the book. The authors certainly stepped on my toes. It is important to know, for example, that teens are looking for something greater than themselves. They desperately want their parents in their lives (even if every word or action seems to say otherwise). They need limits. And they are willing to respond appropriately when given the information they need. If anything, this book puts the responsibility of raising spiritual teens right where it belongs – on the adults who should be providing that guidance in the first place.

Um, I Think We Forgot Something

English: Human figure with thought bubbles




I have been given the opportunity to preach again this coming Sunday (yea!) and in the process of working on what I wanted to say a thought occurred to me. Now, it’s not everyday that I have thoughts that occur to me. I was actually pretty excited.


Anyway, this is what came floating through my mind, and pardon the stream of consciousness thinking here – I hope everything will make sense by the last word.


We (and I am speaking inclusively here, obviously there are exceptions to every general statement) have been working diligently over the past who-knows-how-many years (more than a decade, less than a generation) to make every verse in the Bible easy to understand. That is to say we have been teaching what the books and sections and verses of the Bible mean. But we have overlooked one very important issue that has now come back to haunt us.


We have been forgetting to teach that the Bible means something anyway.


You see, we can teach the exact meaning of every single verse in the Bible, but if we fail to teach that the Bible itself has meaning, then all of that instruction is pointless. You can teach me what every word Karl Marx wrote means, and I will say to you, “So what?” You can teach me the precise meaning of every word that Joseph Smith wrote down and will respond the same way. The writings of Marx and Smith mean nothing to me, so the meanings of each individual section, sentence or word are completely meaningless to me.


So, today, we as teachers and preachers and parents and other church leaders can exegete and decipher and work out the meaning for every jot and tittle in the Bible, and the sum total of our efforts is a big fat zero because of one fundamental fact: the Bible is totally irrelevant to a large and growing population of the United States.


So, I think we need to back up a little bit and ask a fairly basic question: what does it mean to say that the Bible means something, anything?


KJV Bible

KJV Bible (Photo credit: knowhimonline)


To my generation, and certainly to generations preceding mine, it was just assumed that when you spoke from the Bible that most people would care. They might disagree with what you said, but at least the Bible mattered to them. Today I do not believe that is a valid assumption. It is my experience that a large number of people, if not a majority of people today, simply look at the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. This is especially true among the college age and younger generations. So, even if you get the meaning right, it doesn’t mean anything.


We are truly living in a post-Christian, post-biblical world. I think we are going to have to stop teaching in paragraphs and go back to something a little more basic. I think we are going to have to go back and teach the alphabet.


And that means we are going to have to start living like we believe the Bible means something, before we can teach that the words within the Bible mean something.


Technology, Political Correctness, and the Fall of American Higher Education

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child...

President Bush signing the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act at Hamilton H.S. in Hamilton, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


[Legal disclaimer: I am currently involved in the university teaching world. The school that I serve currently believes very strongly in the process of on-line teaching. Therefore, my comments should be interpreted strictly as my own, and in no way do they reflect the policies or opinions of any employer I have had in the past, or will have in the future.]


I do not think that it would be controversial at all to make that statement that education in the United States is in a crisis mode. It has been for several decades, but it seems to me that the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” act really put the education system in the US in a tailspin. Educators are finally getting the attention of the politicians, and there are some hopeful signs that we can correct the worst of the damage, but I’m not sure but that we have severely handicapped the better part of a generation with our “teaching to pass the standardized test” methods of the past several years.


DOWNWARD TREND #1:  However, I see another trend developing, and as bad as NCLB was, I think this one is worse. And it has come not through the edict of congress, but through the evolution (or devolution) of the twin powers of developing technology and political correctness. That trend will ultimately spell the demise of what we refer to as “higher education” in the United States. It affects junior colleges, standard four-year colleges, and graduate programs. That trend is the seemingly unstoppable headlong rush into “on-line” computerized courses where the student has no face to face contact with his or her professor, nor any collegial contact with fellow students.


If you stay current with higher education trends you are no doubt familiar with “Massive Open On-Line Courses” (MOOC) that many universities and colleges are offering. If the university does not offer a MOOC, it is virtually certain that it will offer some or all of its catalog of courses via an on-line option. There are many reasons given for the option to allow on-line courses, but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.


On-line courses save money, and that is their only benefit. Pious platitudes such as, “it allows the non-traditional student the ability to study and maintain their current position” is just that – a pious platitude. If the courses were limited to only those students who could not physically attend a local university that might be a legitimate argument – but even then I am not going to accept it. And, it is clear that more on-campus students take on-line courses than do off campus students. In the common vernacular, on-line courses are a crock.



UCHSBlackBox9.10.09ByLuigiNovi1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


From the founding of this nation until just a few decades ago, the attainment of a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctoral degree was the sign of exceptional perseverance, a dedicated work/study habit, and very often of great sacrifice. Our businesses, our corporations, our classrooms, and our courts are full of individuals who bussed tables, served as waitresses/waiters, mowed lawns, washed windows or mopped floors in order to put themselves through a college or university, and they did it by taking night classes or going to school in the day and working at night. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the graduation podium. Instead of a higher education being a tremendous honor and hard-earned accomplishment, it became some kind of a right that should be bestowed on everyone who wanted it. Exit hard work, sacrifice and dedication, enter the privileged class.


I am a part of that generation that felt it was “owed” a higher education. For my graduating class it was assumed that we would be going to a university. And, with very few exceptions, it was assumed our way would be paid by our parents – or with loans we would have to pay back, or by grants and scholarships supplied by someone else. That is just the way our world worked. Several of my classmates in college did have to work their way through school, but at least all of us had to do one thing in common – we had to leave our homes and travel to an on-site university where we had to sit in a class and actually pay attention to the professor.


Now, move the clock forward to the second decade of the 21st century. The right of a higher education has only been strengthened, but a profound shift has occurred in relation to the sacrifice and dedication it takes to obtain that degree. Today’s pitiful little high school graduates do not have to leave home, or even leave their bedrooms, to enter college. And, heaven forbid they actually have to pay for the degree they are supposedly earning. No, the mantra is that we want a full college diploma, but we don’t want to have to actually attend a class or pay full tuition, we want to stare at a computer screen dressed in our jammies and pay a fraction of what it costs to support a brick-and-mortar physical building.


I know I am being snarky. I’m sorry, but this issue is just too important not to express some of my baser emotions. But, intellectually, here is the real rub. education is more than the simple transfer of data from one computer to another computer. Education takes place in the give-and-take and the interaction between instructor and student, and between student and student, and that has always been the strength of a university setting. Students from all different backgrounds and all different belief systems are smashed together in a grand environment in which ideas and concepts and thoughts and issues are discussed in an (ideally) neutral context and out of the whole glorious mess an educated person emerges sometime later. Remove all of the educative environment and all you get is the transfer of a few thousand pixels of information and an isolated individual with no real connection to the instructor or their fellow students.


If costs are truly the issue, there are ways to address that issue. First and foremost would be the elimination of government guaranteed student loans. (Like that will ever happen.) But to cut the education nose off to spite the financial face is simply, in a plain old good English word, stupid.


DOWNWARD TREND #2:  Lest I get too long-winded concerning the first issue, I have to address the second disturbing trend I see developing. In the grand and glorious state in which I reside the governor just signed into legislation a bill providing for the largest city to offer high school classes in which the students will be prepared to graduate with, get this, both a high school diploma and an Associate degree. Already  many students are graduating from high school having earned enough college credits through dual classes to enter a college or university as a second semester freshman, or in some cases, even a sophomore. I remember as a high school graduate we could earn college credits, but we had to take a college equivalency test administered by a specific college or university to do so! 


Students and school master, c.1903

Students and school master, c.1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Now, either high school students today are just light years ahead of where we were thirty years ago, or something is seriously flawed about this system. Believe me, I grade papers produced by college sophomores, juniors and seniors. I have students who cannot compose a coherent English sentence, let alone a college level paragraph, or heaven forbid, and entire 10 page paper.


So, you are going to tell me that a high school graduate has learned everything he or she needs to know in order to graduate from high school and an additional two years of college studies to earn an Associate degree? Really? Really? I get to see the results of all our educational political correctness, and believe me, it is depressing. But it is NOT just me. Every instructor I talk to has the same experience. We are producing the most highly credentialed uneducated graduates ever in the history of this country.


Hey, Governor Martinez – I have an idea. Let’s just give every kindergarten graduate a full four-year Bachelor’s degree and cut the whole elementary, middle school and high school stuff out. That would save us a ton of money!


What is the solution to this madness? I really do not know. Maybe society will devolve so that spelling, the construction of a coherent sentence and the ability to perform fundamental math equations will no longer be necessary. Maybe with voice activated computer systems the human brain will shrink to the point that none of this will matter. Maybe when we fill our heads with hip-hop mush and utterly lose the ability to read Plato and Aristotle and Shakespeare and Thoreau we will no longer be aware of what we are missing. Maybe then it will be of no consequence at all.


But for some of us still alive it matters very much. And when I have a paper turned in with eloquent phraseology, perfect spelling and genuinely creative thinking, there is a little glimmer of hope that possibly the concept of education will not die after all.


I can only hope.



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