Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Is Worldview Thought Still Relevant?

Author's Note: The follow article was published yesterday in The Worldview Bulletin - a tremendous resource with links to contemporary news, articles, and worldview thoughts by leading authors and thinkers.  I invite and encourage you to check them out and subscribe to their bulletins and newsletters - Worldview Bulletin link 
The Contemporary Importance of Worldview Thought
Since the first-edition publication of James Sire’s The Universe Next Door in 1976, worldview thought has been a prominent fixture in western evangelicalism.  Christian leaders and teachers have acknowledged the tremendous benefits that worldview awareness and analysis provides in discipleship and spiritual growth, resulting in a veritable boom in Christian worldview exploration and publication—Walsh & Middleton’s The Transforming Vision; Goheen & Bartholomew’s Living at the Crossroads; Wilkens & Sanford’s Hidden Worldviews; Myers & Noebel’s Understanding the Times; Sire’s Naming the Elephant; the list goes on.  Worldview-oriented ministries have also blossomed—Summit Ministries; Probe; Worldview Academy; Leadership University, etc. 
But the rising prominence of worldview thought has also prompted skepticism and opposition from a range of Christian thinkers—including the influential public intellectual James K. A. Smith at Calvin College.  Critics charge that “traditional worldview studies” are reductionistic, and “lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people.” (Noble, A Disruptive Witness, 52-53) For his part, Smith’s primary charge is that worldview is overly rationalistic, and miss the reality that human habits (virtues) are shaped not by right thinking but by right loves/liturgy (see Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 17ff; idem., Imagining the Kingdom, 9ff).   

Saturday, June 8, 2019

My thoughts on Chartraw & Allen's "Apologetics at the Cross"

Joshua D. Chartraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018. 329 pp.

Last fall I had the privilege of serving on Christianity Today's adjudication panel for the book of the year in the category of Apologetics & Evangelism.  All four finalists were excellent (not perfect, but excellent) works, with different strengths.  I'd like to take a couple of posts to share some of my thoughts on the four finalists:

Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Zondervan)
David & Marybeth Baggett, The Morals of the Story (IVP Academic)
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (IVP)
Joshua Chartraw & Mark Allen, Apologetics at the Cross (Zondervan)

Chartraw and Allen have written a highly engaging and comprehensive introductory apologetics textbook, which would be a boon for college or seminary apologetic courses.  Christian book clubs and reading groups could also benefit from working through Apologetics at the Cross (AatC).

The orienting motif of AatC is the humility and grace required for reasonable Christian answers.  Chartraw and Allen spend considerable time establishing the context of biblical apologetics – including the famous apologetic mandate of 1 Peter 3:15.  The three-part structure of the work is successful, establishing foundations (Chapters 1-4), structures (Chapters 5-9), and practices (Chapters 10-13) for contemporary apologetics.

Some parts of AatC are stronger than others.  The biblical and historical foundations are quite comprehensive, but the biblical foundations for apologetics seemed a bit of a mish-mash—an attempt to cover examples of Christian defense in Scripture by topic.  A chronological or canonical approach may have been easier to follow; alternatively, identifying specific apologists in Scripture and working out some of their methods and practices could have been helpful.  The history of apologetics in Chapters 3-4, however, was quite masterful.

One of the most impressive elements of AatC is the formatting and style of the book.  The text is replete with helpful illustrations and figures (e.g., p. 24, 34, 35-36, 45, 50, 51, 57, …) and informative sidebars with definitions or quotations (e.g., p. 29, 32, 38, 41, …).  Those reader aids serve to give visual representations of the material Chartraw and Allen are relating (thereby engaging multiple senses and relating to multiple learning styles) and enhance the content of the text.

Chartraw and Allen provide a positive balance in their work, emphasizing not just reasons and evidence for faith, but the need for faithful living witness that matches the message being defended.  There has been a positive movement in academic apologetics toward focusing on the character of the apologist and his/her speech—Chartraw and Allen are not breaking new ground here, but they are furthering a very helpful impetus in the contemporary landscape.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

My thoughts on Alan Noble, "Disruptive Witness"

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2018. 189 pp.  

Last fall I had the privilege of serving on Christianity Today's adjudication panel for the book of the year in the category of Apologetics & Evangelism.  All four finalists were excellent (not perfect, but excellent) works, with different strengths.  I'd like to take a couple of posts to share some of my thoughts on the four finalists:

Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Zondervan)
David & Marybeth Baggett, The Morals of the Story (IVP Academic)
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (IVP)
Joshua Chartraw & Mark Allen, Apologetics at the Cross (Zondervan)

In Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble diagnoses the distracted materialistic condition of modern Western society, and exhorts Christians to live as disruptive witnesses individually, corporately, and culturally.  Noble’s understanding of the contemporary context is strong, and heavily influenced by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (among others).  His diagnosis does not come across as judgmental or demeaning toward the reader, as Noble is careful to indict his own technological distractedness along the way.

Noble is under no illusions that he (or any of us) can exert the seismic changes that will alter the overall trajectory of our distracted age.  Instead, he opts for the more modest goal of offering “concrete, achievable, meaningful actions to help the church preserve its witness.” (88) His goal is informed by an understanding of where society is and how it has gotten there, along with his fear that many strains of contemporary Christianity have unwittingly bought into secularism and technicism.

The structure of Disruptive Witness is solid, with a pair of triune sections first articulating the problem, then suggesting solutions.  Each chapter is substantial but manageable, and is unlikely to repel the average reader.

Noble’s Disruptive Witness contains some excellent suggestions for a transformed life which are simple, practical, and balanced.  For example, he notes that the simple act of saying grace for a meal (at home or in public) can be a testament that we reject secularism’s notion of a closed universe (“a materialist account of provision”).  Hence, saying grace can remind us of God’s constant provision.  If, however, saying grace becomes a means of “advertising … our faith,” then the practice ceases to be a disruptive witness, and instead “capitulates to the game of secularism.” (113) When suggesting means for “Disruptive Cultural Participation,” (Chapter 6) Noble avoids the temptation of calling his readers to be culture-makers, and instead proposes a universally-applicable “cultural participation” in shared stories (movies, TV shows, novels, music, etc.) in ways that “challenge the distracted, secular age.” (157) Noble’s ensuing suggestions are concrete (e.g., hosting movie nights, discussing shows with a co-worker) and attainable for the intentional disciple of Christ.

One major research/content shortcoming of Disruptive Witness is Noble’s inaccurate, inconsistent, and unnecessarily dismissive treatment of worldview study.  First, Noble uncritically follows James K. A. Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom, and asserts that “traditional worldview studies overemphasize rational, intentional, and cognitive beliefs over the way habits shape our desires,” and ignore the impact of “liturgy, experience, memories, and even personality.” (52) Noble does eventually allow that “some of the best worldview thinkers are aware of these dangers,” (52) but in neither place does Noble cite or even mention an example of worldview thinkers—he simply quotes Smith and asserts his own judgment.  Unfortunately, Noble’s treatment (following Smith) of contemporary academic worldview studies (as exampled by Goheen and Bartholomew’s Living at the Crossroads; Walsh and Middleton’s The Transforming Vision; Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives; and Sire’s Naming the Elephant and The Universe Next Door) misses the boat—these contemporary worldview thinkers acknowledge the historical tendency to overemphasize the rational and underemphasize the affective in worldview formation and application, and have amply adjusted course to compensate.  Noble seems sadly unaware of the bulk of contemporary academic worldview study, as evidenced by the lack of reference to a single ‘worldview-ish’ thinker (unless one counts Smith in that category), and that renders his adjudication of worldview thought simply mistaken.

Second, Noble argues that worldview thought tends to be reductionistic in nature, lumping broad swaths of distinct individuals with different perspectives under broad worldview categories (e.g., atheism, theism, Marxism, humanism, Islam, postmodernism, etc.). (50) He correctly notes that such reductionism (or categorization) tends to “misinterpret people,” (53) and misses the highly incarnational and individualistic nature of worldviews in the modern West.  But, ironically, the primary task of the first half of Disruptive Witness is to engage in similar generalization, categorization, and reductionism with regards to the contemporary context.  Three examples, one from each of the first three chapters, will have to suffice: (1) “Western society has turned [the] experience of tentative belief into a virtue,” (42) a clear (and, I think, accurate) case of lumping the modern West into one category. (2) “For the twenty-first-century person … the momentum of life that so often discourages us from stopping to take our bearings is magnified dramatically by the constant hum of portable electronic entertainment.” (15) Many readers (myself included) will not see themselves reflected in Noble’s characterization of “the twenty-first-century person,” but will nonetheless be able to acknowledge that he has accurately diagnosed (categorized) the ‘average’ under the broad umbrella.  (3) The dominant mode for meaning is now a “generic existentialist philosophy … [which] involves the belief that ‘existence precedes essence’ and that meaning is something we make and impose on … a neutral, indifferent world.” (68) There are two reductionisms here—first, of the 21st-century individual as an existentialist (there are, of course, several other modes of meaning-making in the contemporary West); second, of existentialism itself, which is, as Noble notes, “a complex and diverse movement.” (68) So, if worldview studies are guilty of generalization, categorization, and reductionism that can misinterpret individuals and fail to account for the diversity (and even rational incoherence) of their beliefs, then it appears that Noble himself is guilty of such.  Please note – my critique is not of what Noble endeavors to do.  I believe his distillation of the contemporary age to be (for the most part) accurate, and exceedingly helpful.  It is a highly-distracted age, and modern hyper-technology has gravely exacerbated our pre-existing tendency to go through the motions of life without deep thought or internal reflection.  My critique is, rather, that Noble inconsistently berates unnamed worldview thinkers (and then, guilt by association, worldview study in general) for what he himself pursues! 

Thus, third, Noble’s treatment of worldview study is unnecessarily dismissive.  The attacking critique of worldview thought on pages 50-54 turns potential allies into enemies—that is, Noble dissuades his readers from taking worldview thinkers (and worldview study) seriously, even though readers could greatly benefit from engaging with worldview material.  The critique of worldview thought does not contribute to Noble’s thesis or purpose—the flow and purpose of Part One would succeed just as well without it!  And for the informed reader who has more of a background in contemporary worldview thought, Noble’s inaccurate, inconsistent, and unnecessarily dismissive treatment of worldview study undermines confidence in the rest of his project.

Those critiques do not undermine the helpfulness of Noble's project overall.  He has his fingers on the pulse of our society, and good suggestions for Christians seeking to reconnect to God and others rather than Siri!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

My thoughts on Baggett, "The Morals of the Story"

David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018. 253 pp.  

Last fall I had the privilege of serving on Christianity Today's adjudication panel for the book of the year in the category of Apologetics & Evangelism.  All four finalists were excellent (not perfect, but excellent) works, with different strengths.  I'd like to take a couple of posts to share some of my thoughts on the four finalists:

Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Zondervan)
David & Marybeth Baggett, The Morals of the Story (IVP Academic)
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (IVP)
Joshua Chartraw & Mark Allen, Apologetics at the Cross (Zondervan)

David and Marybeth Baggett have written a winsome and persuasive version of an extended moral argument for the existence and nature of God.  The Morals of the Story (MotS) covers a tremendous amount of ground, surveying the history of moral arguments (Chapters 1, 3, and 4), identifying “recalcitrant” aspects of morality in need of explanation (Chapters 2, 5-9), and arguing that the Christian worldview provides the best explanation for those aspects (Chapters 5-10).

The Baggetts have a witty writing style, which ends up being both a strength and a weakness.  There is considerable humor in MotS, which keeps the reader engaged and entertained along the way.  At the same time, however, a fair amount of the book’s humor seems unrelated (or at best tangentially related) to the content/context, and is thereby distracting.  For example, they jest in regards to Paul Copan’s “pun problem” (89), begin their Intermission (“Answering Euthyphro”) with parodied advertising jingles (93), and share a humorous story of David’s encounter with an “Angel” at his mother’s death (197) – none of which contribute to the story or the argument.

That said, the philosophical argument advanced in MotS is both significant and successful.  The Baggetts are convinced that the moral argument for God’s existence and nature is among the most resonant and persuasive argument available in contemporary society, and they do a masterful job of pooling the relevant resources.  They highlight the inability of secular ethical theories to account for objective good and evil, moral obligations and motivation, moral knowledge, moral hope (transformation), and moral providence.  They also demonstrate the rich explanatory scope and power of the Christian worldview in accounting for those same moral realities.  If humanity’s deep and unshakeable moral intuitions are anything like correct, then, MotS demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace something like Christian theism in response.

In my estimation, the strongest and most ground-breaking work (in contemporary circles, anyway) comes in Chapters 8-9, wherein the Baggetts discuss moral transformation and providence respectively.  Along with our moral knowledge, they argue, humans ubiquitously desire to receive forgiveness and to be renewed—Christianity alone provides the resources for transcendent forgiveness and divinely-enabled change (including the death of the “Dear Self”).

There are two additional minor shortcomings of MotS.  First, the structure of the book may have the unfortunate effect of turning away numerous potential readers.  Chapters 3-4 cover the history of moral arguments for God, and while a professional philosopher like myself might find them absolutely fascinating and informative, I suspect the chapters will be cumbersome for many lay readers.  I think a better approach would have been to move immediately from chapter 2 into chapter 5.  Second, the Baggetts present the book as a Greek drama, taking place in/around Mars Hill.  To that end, they draw upon Socrates’ apology and Paul’s Areopagus address, and present the work in three “Acts” instead of Parts or Sections.  There is a nod at the end that morality may anticipate a “tragic” interpretation, but putting it in the context of a Christian interpretation allows for transformation into a ‘happy-ending’ “comedy” instead.  With those exceptions, however, there is nothing in the content of the book which builds upon or exploits the drama motif.  I think the motif has a lot to commend it, and could have been more fruitfully utilized.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

My thoughts on Sam Chan, "Evangelism in a Skeptical World"

Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018. 288 pp.

Last fall I had the privilege of serving on Christianity Today's adjudication panel for the book of the year in the category of Apologetics & Evangelism.  All four finalists were excellent (not perfect, but excellent) works, with different strengths.  I'd like to take a couple of posts to share some of my thoughts on the four finalists:

Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World (Zondervan)
David & Marybeth Baggett, The Morals of the Story (IVP Academic)
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness (IVP)
Joshua Chartraw & Mark Allen, Apologetics at the Cross (Zondervan)

Chan’s Evangelism in a Skeptical World (ESW) is an excellent theoretical and practical guide to sharing the Gospel in the contemporary Western world.  He accurately diagnoses the condition of our culture, noting that traditional (4 Spiritual Laws, Two Ways) evangelistic approaches may no longer be effective in reaching a changed demographic.  At the heart of Chan’s advice to the contemporary Christian is story: recognizing that the majority of our audience will be “concrete-relational” learners (Chapter 7) who resonate more naturally with narrative than propositions, and emphasizing the storied nature of our experience with Christ (Chapter 2) when we bring the Gospel to bear in our relationships with non-Christians. 

A primary strength of ESW is his practical application for the lay reader.  In Chapter 2 particularly, Chan lays out an achievable means of building evangelistic relationships, with strong focus on the need to build community relationships (“Get your friends to become their friends”) of mutual love and trust (“Listen to their story”) that deepens over time (“Coffee, dinner, Gospel”).

Another strong aspect of Chan’s model for evangelism is his tri-fold apologetic response to friends’ “defeater beliefs” (Chapter 10): “Resonate – Dismantle – Gospel.”  Building on biblical examples (particularly Paul’s Mars Hill address in Acts 17), Chan advocates identifying common ground, affirming and restating (in stronger terms, if possible) what is good and biblically-consonant (Resonate), then demonstrating a deficiency or dissonance within their presuppositions (Dismantle), before demonstrating how the Gospel of Jesus Christ serves as the “best completion to their storyline” (Gospel).  Chan’s Resonate – Dismantle – Gospel model also serves well in his suggested outlines for biblical storytelling (Chapter 7), topical addresses (Chapter 8), and expository talks (Chapter 9).

Furthermore, Chan does exemplary work on Gospel contextualization, first by identifying markers of postmodernism in the West (Chapter 4), then by outlining the need for and means of contextualizing the Gospel to our situation/audience (Chapter 5).  As an added bonus, the Concluding chapter (Moving People from Hostile to Loyal) outlines various stages of people’s faith journeys.

The primary shortcoming of Evangelism in a Skeptical World is the lack of a clear potential audience.  In my estimation, the proper target audience for ESW should be the faithful layperson in the church who desires to become more openly and effectively evangelistic.  The practical advice given in Chapters 2 (Everyday Evangelism), 3 (How to Craft a Gospel Presentation), 5 (Contextualization for Evangelism), and 10 (Religious Epistemology, Apologetics, and Defeater Beliefs) is outstanding, and has the potential to transform believers’ day-to-day walk and mission.  

The book seems, however, to bounce between aiming for that faithful layperson and aiming instead for an academic/professional audience of Christian scholars, pastors, and speakers.  Chapter 1 (A Theology of Evangelism) is a tad heavy for the layperson (though arguably necessary groundwork for the practical advice that follows).  Chapters 8 (How to Give Evangelistic Topical Talks) and 9 (How to Give Evangelistic Expository Talks), however, are more clearly applicable only to a narrower audience.  Chan could have worked around this difficulty in one of two ways.  First, he could have written ESW for the broad lay audience, in which case he would have shortened and simplified Chapter 1, entirely omitted Chapters 8 and 9, and reconsidered Chapters 6 (Gospel-Cultural Hermeneutics) and 7 (Storytelling the Gospel), either eliminating them or recasting them in lay terms.  Second, Chan could have provided a brief Introduction which articulated his desire to reach a dual audience (lay Christian and academic/professional minister), and pointed the respective audiences to the most applicable chapters (and which each audience might avoid).

Overall, however, ESW is a tremendous tool for the believer who desires to deepen their walk with Christ in the realm of personal evangelism.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Top 5 Reads of 2018

I had the opportunity to read 28 books in 2018 - a couple of repeats, but the vast majority new books to me.  Here, in no particular order, were my favorite new books last year.

G. K. Chesterton, Four Faultless Felons.  A collection of four delightful short stories - "The Honest Quack," "The Moderate Murderer," "The Ecstatic Thief," and "The Loyal Traitor."  Each of the 4 short stories features a criminal who is yet blameless in their transgression.  The "moderate murderer" is accused of attempted murder for shooting the governor of British India.  Yet the shooter, an expert marksman, deliberately shot to injure, not kill - and only shot in order to save the governor from a successful assassination around the next bend in the path.  Chesterton's whimsical stories are individually engaging and collectively captivating - a thorough pleasure!

Geraint Lewis and Luke Barnes, A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos (Cambridge University Press, 2016).  Lewis and Barnes are both professional academic physicists, who explore the apparent fine-tuning of our universe.  They walk through numerous elements of the natural world that have to be precisely what they are in order for life to be possible anywhere in the universe.  After analyzing several elements of fine-tuning is great detail, Lewis and Barnes then consider the possible sources of cosmic fine-tuning.  Lewis, an atheist, contends for multiverse (the existence of a plethora of independently existing universes, each with different constants and laws) as the best explanation for our universe's fine tuning - after all, he reasons, if there are billions of universes, one of them is liable to have the right conditions for life: we just happen to find ourselves in that universe.  Barnes, a Christian, argues for divine design as the source of our universe's fine-tuning - God desires to (and successfully does) create a world in which complex creatures can arise and learn to love Him.  The deep beauty of A Fortunate Universe is the charitable dialogue between believer and skeptic on the undeniable fine-tuning that we see in the universe.  A difficult but richly rewarding read.

Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (HarperCollins, 2007).  I have long admired the life and career of William Wilberforce, one of the pivotal figures in the English abolitionist movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  After his conversion to evangelical Christianity, Wilberforce tirelessly pursued abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire.  Metaxas is certainly guilty of hero-worship in Amazing Grace, but he nonetheless does a credible job of presenting the contours of Wilberforce's life - familial, personal, political, and religious.  Other figures crucial to abolition are given adequate light of day, but the spotlight shines brightest of Wilberforce.  His biography inspires contemporary Christians to pursue God's calling and purpose in their lives as well - who knows where the next Wilberforce will come from!

Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker, 2017).  I have admired Pearcey's work since her inaugural How Now Shall We Live? and was eager to work through her magisterial volume on contemporary issues in gender and sexuality.  Many commentators today contend that post-Christian sexual ethics are rooted in a deep physicality - a love for the human body and its physical pleasures.  Pearcey's primary contention in Love Thy Body is the opposite - that the move toward the normalization of homosexuality and the affirmation of gender fluidity marks an abhorrence of man's physical form.  The sexual revolution has seen man exert pre-eminent control over the laws of nature plain in physical order, rejecting his created physicality in favor of self-chosen identities.  Pearcey is always thoughtful and articulate, and clearly has her finger on the pulse of contemporary society.  Another difficult but tremendously fascinating venture.

J. B. Stump, ed., Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017).  Stump draws together spokespersons for young-earth creation (Ken Ham), old-earth (or progressive) creation (Hugh Ross), evolutionary creationism (Deborah Haarsma), and intelligent design (Stephen Meyer).  The four authors set forth arguments and evidence in favor of their own positions, and charitably (for the most part) pose objections to the others.  Christians all affirm the doctrine of Creation - it is the how and when of creation that are matters of dispute, and that dispute is nicely encapsulated in Zondervan's new counterpoint book.  It is worth every Christian's time to investigate the reasoning behind the positions that they do not personally embrace.

There is much of worth to read, and insufficient time to indulge it all.  I am thankful for all I learned from my literary adventures last year, and hope for more of the same this!

Friday, May 24, 2019

2018 Reading List

Like a lot of nerds and philosophers (not necessarily the same thing!), I love to read.  I do not always get the time to read as broadly and deeply as I would like to; but I love to read.  I like a wide variety of literary genres - mysteries, novels, apologetics, theology, philosophy, history, science, and travel among them.

The past 20 months of my life has been exceptionally busy, which has robbed me of the time to blog as frequently as I would like.  But I did have the opportunity in 2018, not just to engage in some awesome travel explorations (the Grand Canyon tour, western Canada [twice - June & December], and the United Kingdom of England and Scotland), but also to read some fascinating books.