Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Loss of Argument and Logic


I recently reviewed a book that I believe failed to argue well. I think that it is indicative of a recent loss of argument and logic noted by two glaring problems: the fade of language and the resurfacing of pictorial presentations.


The Fade of Language and Discourse
I don’t think it will take much to convince you of this fade. Just consider for example all of the fragment sentences you read that begin with “That moment when…” Or consider the common attention span when it comes to reading something: novels are relegated to the ‘nerds’ while memoirs and essays are saved for the ‘intellectuals’ alone. Not only does the average Caucasian and African American in the US speak only one language (as opposed to two like our Spanish, Mexican, Asian, and Middle-Eastern counterparts), but even the language of English is fading. Need proof? Open up Facebook and scroll through your News Feed—how many tri-syllable words can you count? How many incorrect uses of homophones (their/there/they’re) can you count? Our language is being shortened… legitimately (or as is common: ‘legitly’)—and yet even that word doesn’t mean “actually” or “really” even though I just used it that way. Legitimately means ‘with due reason.’


I understand that a living language is constantly in flux, that economy and efficiency is necessary in dialogue; I understand that those fragment ‘moments’ are relying on your experience to convey information, and that fragments are valid when employed properly: “Learn the rules like a professional, so you can break them like an artist,” but at the same time language is not only utilitarian. Language can be beautiful, and affective, not only effective. In fact, if iPhone’s autocorrect didn’t place apostrophes in words like “I’m”, then I’m pretty sure they’d be absent already; you’d think it was the symbol for making a smile cry. In fact, if you look upon your keyboard symbols, of which usages are you aware?


Did you know that Jonathan Edwards wrote and presented his high school Valedictorian speech in Latin? Certainly, Jonathan Edwards was more intelligent than most any of us, acclaimed as the greatest American mind we’ve raised up. But Greek and Latin were taught to all teenagers only three hundred years ago. Now you’d be lucky to know that those fraternity symbols can form words, and that much of our English language is built upon them. “We’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college,” one meme states.

Language is only one part of the problem though. We’re also losing the ability to argue. To debate. To state a belief and defend it. I remember hearing several of my classmates in middle school state their desire even ability to be a lawyer when they grew up: “I’m great at arguing!” False. They were great at becoming heated and denying the claims of another. In college, I heard countless people brag about their ability to “say nothing” but fill pages with text. Really? Is that admirable? To meet the requirements for a class paper, 2 pages long, but not accomplishing anything with it? That sounds like a colossal waste of time, and an unworthy use of your Creator’s graces to you. Do you realize that the Creator is also Judge?

My friend Alex Hannis (A.M. Hannis), has stated, "If every political argument could be reduced to a meme, then there wouldn't be an argument!" Argument is an art, not founded upon emotional fervor, but founded upon thought and connection. We could learn something from our two year old children who ask, “Why? Why? Why?” Maybe you should take a moment to actually answer ‘why” until they are satisfied. Can you do it? We have gone from presenting a belief and supporting it with evidence, addressing counterarguments and questioning presuppositions to stating something as a matter of fact, and leaving it as skywriting in the atmosphere to be either believed or disbelieved; accepted or rejected—whichever happens is not my prerogative but your own.

The Resurfacing of Pictorial Presentations
Memes, Buzzfeed and HuffPost slideshows, Screenshots of Flappy Bird—the word has been once again replaced by the picture. The picture is an excellent conveyer of meaning, but the “thousand words” it gives aren’t all unified and consistent. My friend Jessi once said, “I feel like it’s watching a movie with the volume down.” You can gather a general idea, but without words you miss a major part of the story. Else we would be reverting to silent films—but the most recent one, The Artist, has words to explain it! Vimeo offers a safe sphere for experimenting and influencing, but you would never be able to evaluate what you see (even in your own mind) without words to do so. Attempt. Attempt to consider something beautiful or fearful… then think about it without words for 30 seconds.

[[Your failure to actually experiment with what I’ve argued (by considering something beautiful or fearful, etc.) reveals further the absence of desire to understand and confront the argument (see section 1).]]

The picture is king. But that is extremely unfortunate for us. The picture has been king before in ancient and medieval worlds. And when the picture is king, when language becomes the possession of the privileged, we submit ourselves to become slaves of culture. For many years, the Roman Church commenced mass in Latin, once the vulgar tongue (common), eventually it became lost to the masses. People became prisoners to the religious and social elite. Certainly! There were pictures of the gospel upon the walls, but without the words to accompany them, the individuals were left writhing in their own sin, speaking another language than the nurses.

Pictures are beautiful and helpful. And valuable for both in their own right. But the picture is not total, and it has never been. But if we can get a laugh or a wow from one perfectly timed, we think our job done—your job, believer is not to humor or amaze, but to be an agent of reconciliation showing forth the beauty of the world and using it to point to the God who speaks—the Word become flesh.


Choose your source(s) and build.
Revelation. Tradition. Logic. Experience.


P.S. "Meme" is a word that signifies a cultural package that easily moves among the people.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: God in the Whirlwind, David Wells

David Wells’ newest book seeks to examine the Christ-and-Culture discussion by infusing the “Christ” side with a view of God in holy-love.

He comments concerning the various volumes he’s authored over the past 25 years: “I began what would turn out to be five interconnected volumes. These we all in answer to the question originally posed by Pew: What is it that accounts for the loss of the church’s theological character?...These volumes were a sustained cultural analysis” (13).

And he introduces the current volume by stating: “What has been principally lost in the evangelical church…is our understanding of God’s character but an understanding in which that character has ‘weight.’ …And now, in this volume, I have shifted my focus. No longer am I so preoccupied with the culture part of the equation. Now I am looking out on life from the other side of things, what is symbolized by ‘Christ’ in the Christ-and-culture juxtaposition of things. This volume reflects on what we have so often lost in our work of framing Christ-and-culture. It is the holy-love of God” (14).



We must be sure to catch his intent; otherwise we will judge the book inaccurately. Wells wants to address the Christ-and-Culture debate by discussing the holy-love of God. His application and conclusion explain that by the redeemed persons of the Church portraying the holy-love of God the ‘culture war’ will fall in favor of Christ. It is interesting to note what is absent from his conclusion. The Christ-and-Culture debate is not a debate between Christians and Atheists, but Christians among Christians: how are we as the covenant people of Yahweh to relate to the surrounding culture? The argument that Wells offers (both implicitly and explicitly) is that we are to be within culture as sanctified (holy-love conformed) individuals and that people will recognize Christ as a result. However, in order for this to be true within culture, we must spend a great deal of time apart from culture—the greater part of chapter 7 is dedicated to “carving out” time for spiritual disciplines. So Wells wants to influence the Christ-and-Culture discussion in a rather unconventional way. Does it work? That awaits to be seen among the lives of those who take his words to heart.


But how does Wells get from thesis to conclusion? Does he argue well? Is he convincing? Clear? Unfortunately not as much as we would hope.

There has been mass amounts of press surrounding this release, even heralded as his magnum opus—his hearts’ work and gift to the evangelical world. James Smith shadowed the glory early on in CT’s pre-release review of the book, but Crossway released a follow-up interview with Wells to address Smith’s concerns; The Gospel Coalition has done similarly highlighting the release of the book with praise. Crossway has continued to release interviews, videos, and a study guide alongside the book. Many well-respected evangelical leaders have endorsed the book. I mention all of this because it isn’t easy to say that God in the Whirlwind is rather unconvincing and commonly confusing in its discourse; I acknowledge that I am at odds with a great deal of evangelical leaders—at least ones that have voiced opinions about the book.


I do want to say one thing, however, before I mention my problems with his discourse:

Wells passionately loves Jesus, and that truth redounds through every chapter of the book. You simply cannot miss his adoration for our Savior; it is convicting and encouraging through and through to feel the love through printed words.


I plan to explain my reservations and then offer a final commendation (if you would only read a portion, read reservation 3).


Reservation 1: Wells’ Christian-cultural corrective is often over-corrective
This is a time-bound book as all cultural engagements are necessarily. This book would be near senseless in many other areas of the world because Wells is engaging the Western world, and more specifically the United States. What’s more this book will not be nearly as pertinent twenty years from now as it is today. That’s not bad, however, that’s actually good! It means Wells has hit something of today. However, I fear that many of his assertions and corrections of the attitude today are over-corrective. Sometimes things are simply too strongly worded, reaching for an emotive effect, but stretching the truth beyond its equilibrium. And at times his overstatement actually usurps his own argument.

For example on pages 30 and 31, he warns of culture’s redefining efforts and how concerned we ought to be, but then he compares it to the Marxists attempt which “now lies in ruins,” and states, “One suspects, though, that the outcome will not be very different.” Ought we to even fear such redefinitions if they will lie in rubble ten years from now? A common refrain throughout is that God is “objective.” In several places he further explains that we cannot know God through ourselves that he must be known outside and external and apart from us only. Truly, God is external, but we were also created in the image of God and can know God in part by an internal viewpoint. Our culture today is too self-focused, but that doesn’t mean an external look is the only valid option. On page 34, he states that our world “today is deeply, relentlessly, and only therapeutic.” But it is a bold and unsupported claim. Perhaps much of the culture is, but by stacking the adjectives together, he leaves no room for any anomaly. That is a dangerous place to stand. On page 147 he engages in syntactic overload: depending on an ambiguous grammatical construction for his argument. Chapter 8 laments the current state of evangelicalism with strong sympathetic tones to the point of despair, but on the final page (217) he says, “There is a way back. We can come back to what we ought to be and to what we ought to be doing. And that is what I perceive is beginning to happen today.”


Reservation 2: Wells’ is occasionally imprecise, unclear, or unsupported
            At times Wells is philosophically, historically, or otherwise inaccurate. On page 27 he collapses modernity and postmodernity, but they are quite different. It is uncertain whether he is using “objective” as meaning ‘pertaining to an object’ or as ‘absolute.’ He states that if John had written I John 4.10 today it “would have been completed quite differently” (33). But that statement overlooks the Holy Spirit’s work—assumed, of course, but it doesn’t mean the statement is precise. He claims that the apostles were perplexed: “as if David had a deeper and truer knowledge of God without the gospel than we sometimes have with it” (43). I’ve never read that in Scripture. Were “the works of the law” a reference to “matters that were distinctive to Jewish national identity” (46)? Perhaps, but his exposition on page 46 and 47 contains too few and unrelated verses to convince me. He commonly draws on judicial language for justification, but he forgets that judicial language in the ancient near east was magisterial, not judicial in a three-branch sense. Similarly, legislative language is cultic-legal, not legal alone. The chapter “The Gospel across Time” seems to promise a phenomenological look at the development of the gospel, but ends up actually taking an eternal perspective and leaning upon New Testament Scripture to interpret the Old… though in a dynamic time-bound way! This systematic theology where biblical theology is required causes self-refuting claims such as Abraham first not participating in sacrifices, but also—yes—participating in sacrifices; all believers being regenerate, justified, etc., but not being united to Christ, and yet that these realities are not possible without Christ having actually entered time. Chapter 4 explains that we cannot know God from down up but he must be known from up down which sounds like a question of epistemology, but which Wells turns into a question of justification. Some statements are explicitly contradictory—in word if not in thought: “There are not two sides to it” (86, paragraph 1), and “Indeed, we see this two-sidedness in the very passage…” (86, paragraph 2!). the discussion on imputation is clouded and unhelpful (142, 143). Page 145 uses “incomprehensible” incorrectly when the word used should have been ‘unapprehendable.’ He confuses means for ends in his discussion on reconciliation (147). He first states that redemption should be taken as slave language rather than war language only to later say that we should take it as war language over slave language (148).  On page 192 he exposits John 17.11 by ‘worship,’ but his claims simply are not found in his base verse. On page 204 he criticizes Saturday evening services forgetting that Israel measured days by sundown not hours/sunrise.


Reservation 3: Well’s is predisposed to the number two (2) even when it is wise to consider others
            Unfortunately Wells often espouses false dichotomies. He is prone to play off the number two: two sides to a coin, etc. But many times there are three or more possibilities. The most problematic is foundational to his argument throughout the book. He frequently foils a “therapeutic” worldview over against a “moral” one, attaching Christian faith and the Bible to the “moral” one. However, that is extremely unhelpful for those of us engaging the public square and the lives of individuals. A moral worldview is not exclusively Christian, and in fact, the Christian worldview is not primarily moral. The “war” between Christ and culture, the marketplace of ideas, is not simply a fight between Christian faith and atheists. It is full of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim persons, agnostics, wiccans, Buddhists, and others. Is there a psychological-therapeutic worldview? Absolutely, but it is not the only other one. Mormons have a moral worldview. Moralistic-legalism in fact… some might argue a more strict moral view than Christians. Muslim’s as well. Wiccans, Taoists, and Yin-Yang have a positive-negative correspondence as worldview. The biblical worldview is certainly moral in part, but not anywhere near in whole. The biblical worldview is three-tiered in relationship, sovereignty, and character as we image forth the God who has entered into covenant with us. “Morality” is a subsection of character. By no means is it the whole story. Yes, we ought to live forth in holy-love as a moral expression of the God whom we serve, but that is a drastically small point to consider. Returning, therefore, to the thesis: it is good for us to consider how we might live as holy-love conformed individuals in the midst of culture, but the question as a whole is far from answered.


Final commendation:

All reservations explained, I commend this book to a very particular audience. This book would be best suited in the hands of a recent high-school graduate as they begin to enter college/university. An understanding of holy-love is certainly missing from the minds of evangelicals, and we would do well to remember it—particularly those who have grown up in an Oprah-saturated world. This book would serve well the young minds who are soon to encounter persons who believe that love is only emotional and that holiness is dead and unappealing. I choose this group for a second reason: they are unlikely to pick up on the reservations I have—most have not read enough sustained argument to recognize when something is unsupported, and the main point of the book issues through and will be remembered far beyond the minute problems.


This book compares with others that you might be interested in with particular foci
Christ-and-Culture: Leslie Newbigin or James K.A. Smith
            Character/love of God: Knowing God, Packer

            Relation of love-holiness: God the Peacemaker, Graham Cole

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This review is crosslisted on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Love Story in Brief

I know I've been out of the scene for awhile. Life gets crazy, as I'm sure you know. I have some ideas for upcoming posts: a book review or two, more ethics, short stories on the "Seven Deadly Sins," common Christian misunderstandings, thoughts concerning eternity in the New Creation. But to get back into the swing of things, I thought I'd share a brief account of my relationship and engagement. Some of you may have seen this already, others maybe not. I hope you enjoy, and I hope that our relationship can reflect something of the glory of God's love toward his people and encourage your faith. If you are delighted at all, it is because you were created with a desire to be desired.

Please note that for this story, the green font is my voice, Manny; the purple voice is Ruthie’s… otherwise things could get confusing.

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The story begins three and a half years ago in Fall of 2010. Sunny Southern California. Universty—where choices are made and lives formed.

We met while taking a class together although I’m fairly certain our introduction was never formal—she simply sat there on one side of the room, and I on the other; her name was Ruthie and she was friends with Stephanie. I remember being impressed with her choice of research paper; I remember knowing of her, but never holding a conversation with her. I remember Manny’s beard, and his friend Hank. I’m embarrassed to admit, nothing of his research paper or his charm. Just his beard. Thankfully, two years later, the earth had revolved around the sun [twice], and my world had shifted.

Our conversations were well-nigh inevitable with my apartment cozily settled midway between her office and home. Daily she would walk past, time and again, and so long as my head weren’t in a book or on a pillow, we would greet each other. I remember on one rainy occasion she attempted to scurry alongside the building beneath the eave only to be arrested by my two Adirondack chairs causing her to burst forth in squeals as she was forced into the deluge. (I ensured to clear the path during the next rainstorm.) To be fair to myself, it was less of a squeal and more of a graceful cry of alarm. It didn’t take much for me to become attracted to her—only opportunity—for she was humorous and witty, she had quick feet, a cute demeanor, and beauty undoubted from soul to face. (And I must confess: I have ever been and yet remain captivated by her gorgeous blue eyes.)

One day Ruthie was on her way to class, and I had just brewed some Ethiopian Sidamo Ardi [coffee] in a Chemex. One of my first encounters with Manny’s love of coffee snobbery. I try not to tell him that I would still microwave day-old coffee if it suited my purposes. Gladly I poured her a cup and wished her an enjoyable class. Later she wrote me a message online. And as a cat chases a laser pointer, I saw wondrous opportunity and pounced! …even if I should be left empty paws.  We began conversing with conversations ever-lengthening and affection always gathering.

There was one problem.

Ruthie was a Graduate Assistant, professional employee of the University. I was a traditional undergraduate student.
Romance was forbidden.

So like lovers destined to doom as Romeo and Juliet, this Capulet would coordinate secret rendezvous that our friendship might bloom. Late night hikes. Spontaneous beach trips. Furious board game competitions (many of which, I won). Chance run-ins. These were the fodder that fueled our flame, all preparing a romance built on camaraderie simply awaiting graduation day.
And it came.

Freed from the constraints, we made our affection vocal. I asked her father for permission, and dating ensued under no guise, made official on May 14, 2013. Two days and nine months later I asked her to marry me atop the peak of Mormon Rocks. She said, “Yeah!”
I’m embarrassed. I did say, “Yeah,” complete with a stutter in the middle. But immediately I thought, “No! Say ‘Yes’ like a proper lady!” But let’s start from the beginning.

Valentine’s Day (evening) Manny showed up at my door with an empty shadow box and an intricate map he had drawn himself.  It’s important to note that this map was drawn to scale, and I had to use a real compass to navigate myself through the desert. A real compass! The map was for a pirate adventure that we would take on Sunday, and the shadow box would be filled with the things we found... Sunday finally rolled around and he drove us to Mormon Rocks after church, handed me the map and compass, and told me to use my adventuring skills to find where we should start.

I’ll admit, I used that compass like a champ, and soon we were digging up the first treasure box. A box filled with things that signified our beginnings. From there the map led us straight up the side of a rock mountain to a small cave, in which Manny had hidden a journal with a sonnet that he had written (apparently one of the hardest things he has done to date—14 lines in iambic pentameter, written in 4 quatrains). Back down the mountain we went hacking away brush like Lewis and Clark, to the second buried treasure, hidden ten paces North-West of a pirate’s sword. I can honestly say that I’ve never looked so hard for a pirate’s sword in my life! It was so difficult to not lead her directly to the sword, and every time we moved too far north my muscles tensed; every time we moved too far south my teeth clenched… my intestines felt like they were trying to open a locked door.

The second buried treasure held things that represented the intangibles in our relationship (faith, hope, love, etc). The map led from there to buried sustenance (a pineapple and coconuts that he chopped with a machete), never more delicious and finally to the “bulk of the treasure.”
We reached one of the tallest peaks of Mormon Rocks, and I stood there facing out toward the Cajon Valley with the wind blowing in my hair, knowing that once I turned around life would quite literally change forever. For neither one of us takes the decision to join our lives together lightly.
I turned around, Manny dropped to one knee, and several thoughts ran through my head… “I hope no one is taking pictures, we just hiked up a mountain and I look like a ragamuffin,” “What should I say?” “Holy cow, that’s a beautiful ring.” “When do I take it out of the box and put it on?” “Of course I’ll continue this adventure with you!” “This was fun!” … You get the picture. For the record: There was a photographer. It is still a beautiful ring. And I said “yeah.”