This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Chuck Colson

With all the many tributes to Chuck Colson in the wake of his death, one more would seem to be superfluous. But although I can’t say I knew him long or well, he meant a great deal to me, and I too would like to add my voice to the chorus of people whose lives he touched.

My involvement with Chuck came about by an improbable collection of events that I wrote about briefly in the Acknowledgements of Why You Think the Way You Do. To make a long story short, Chuck was given a copy of a talk I had given on Jonathan Edwards’ worldview by someone who had not heard it. Although he got cassettes all the time and rarely listened to them, for some reason he put mine in the cassette deck in his car. He liked what he heard and wrote me a very nice letter telling me how much he’d enjoyed it, and asking me if I’d like to collaborate with him some time. My mama didn’t raise no dummies, so of course I agreed.

Chuck asked me to teach in the Centurions program, which has been one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life. Why You Think the Way You Do grew out of the teaching I did there. I have taught the Centurion for eight years, and after every live training with only a very few exceptions, Chuck sent me a personal note thanking me and commenting about specific aspects of the weekend. He frequently mentioned divine providence in bringing us together to work on the Centurions … and on other things.

What I didn’t know was that Chuck had a way of finding people he liked and pulling them into projects. As T. M. Moore, Chuck’s theological mentor, once said to me, “Glenn, God loves you and Chuck has a wonderful plan for your life.” Chuck asked me to be the content consultant for Wide Angle; years later he brought me in to bring together the very different styles of Alpha and Breakpoint to produce the Walk the Talk series. He informed me that I would need to be in Princeton on a particular date to film Doing the Right Thing, only this time I’d be on the panel. He had me helping with the workbooks for each of these as well.

Then there were writing projects. I do a bimonthly column at the Colson Center that I suspect he initiated. He asked me to produce a short book expanding on his worldview grid, which should be out shortly if all goes well. I just wish I had gotten it out quicker so he could have seen it. Then he liked one of my talks at the Centurions so much that he asked me to convert it to articles and a video series for pastors. That was the origin of the Christians who Changed their World series. We’re still working on how to make the videos happen.

The point of all this is that Chuck changed the direction of my life in some pretty profound ways. All of my worldview and apologetics ministry, many of my publications, and the future direction for much of my work stem from the fact that Chuck took an interest in me and believed in me. He gave me opportunities to make a difference in his ministry, with the result that my own efforts were multiplied far beyond what I could ever have accomplished personally.

I want to mention two things about Chuck that I haven’t seen in the many tributes to him that I have read since his death. First, when we were working on Wide Angle, he was going over the outlines for the session after breakfast and before we started filming. As he was going through, a particular subject came up that I knew had appeared in some of his other talks prior to this. I don’t know if he noticed a change in my expression as he summarized the point, but he looked at me and said, “Is that right?” I told him, not exactly, and explained it more precisely. He then used the more accurate content in Wide Angle and every time I heard him teach the material since. I don’t know many people at Chuck’s level who are humble enough to look for clarification in areas that they are considered experts, and who can integrate new information as thoroughly and seamlessly as he did.

Second, my wife and two kids came with me on some of the Centurions weekends. Chuck was always very gracious to them and made the time to speak into my kids’ lives whenever he could. Their lives and thinking have been profoundly influenced by Chuck both directly and indirectly ever since.

I can’t claim that I knew Chuck well or that we were close friends. But I think I can call him a friend, as well as a mentor and a colleague. And I know I loved him. I am deeply and profoundly grateful for the difference he’s made in my life and in the lives of Lynn, Elizabeth, and Brendan, and I am especially glad that I had the opportunity to tell him that after one of the Centurions weekends. I don’t know what direction my work will take without him, but I do know that I am part of his legacy. And for any of you Centurions who are reading this, you are, too.

In 1 Cor. 11:1, Paul tells the church in Corinth to follow his example as he follows Christ’s. For me, that verse applies to Chuck and to others like him. Are they perfect? No, and they would be appalled if they thought anyone believed them to be. But they are worthy role models nonetheless. I only hope that I will have sufficient courage and faithfulness to follow in their footsteps, so that with them, I will hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

Rest in peace, my brother.

Monday, April 16, 2012

New Article: the Naumburg Master

The next article in the Christians who Changed their World series, featuring an anonymous medieval sculptor known as the Naumburg Master.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives redux

Nearly two months ago, I posted on some of the assumptions that lie behind conservative and progressive ideas in America. That was a pretty widely read post for my blog, so I decided to do a follow up with some additional thoughts about the subject. This one’s likely to be a bit more controversial than the last, but it is based on my experiences and observations with people on both sides. Your mileage may vary, but if you disagree and feel the need to respond, please explain where I’ve gone wrong rather than just tell me I’m wrong. Thanks.
OK, let’s go.
Another difference in underlying assumptions between conservatives and progressives is how the two sides conceive of individual vs. group identity. For the progressive, group identity seems paramount: we are seen as part of groups identified with race, class, gender, and sexual orientation; similarly, we identify with labor (i.e. unions), and possibly with other types of groups as well. This is why progressives frequently are involved in identity politics.
If you are part of a group identified as among the oppressed—women, racial minorities, homosexual, etc.—it is assumed that you will hold progressive views. Conservatives from these groups are seen as traitors: Black conservatives are routinely labeled as “Uncle Toms;” conservative women are savaged by the media with nary a peep from feminists and accused of “not being women,” etc. Of course, if you are one of the privileged, then holding progressive views demonstrates that you are enlightened and have risen above the limitations of your class.
To take this further, problems are also caused by collective entities. The most recent villains are greedy corporations, “Wall Street,” bankers, etc., though it could also be the rich (“the 1%”), or as was the case a few years back, upper class white heterosexual males. Perhaps the reason for this is that progressives tend to believe people are basically good, so they generally don’t want to blame individuals (other than the Koch brothers or members of the Bush administration). It’s easier to blame a group and then challenge individuals to cross sides and align themselves with the good guys. Thus because he sided with the Occupy Movement, Michael Moore isn’t part of the 1%, despite the fact that he is well within the 1% top incomes in the country.
If collective entities are the problem, they are also the solution. Unions must balance the power of corporations and increasingly of governments, and progressive government (i.e. government in the hands of the Democrats) is the ultimate solution to undermining the power of those that exploit or abuse less powerful groups.
Conservatives tend to think in much more individualistic terms. They genuinely do not see group identity as being primary. Thus when Mitt Romney says “corporations are people,” he does not mean that a corporation is a person. He means that corporations are made up of people—the owners and employees are the corporation. As a result, you can’t pit corporations against “the people” because “the people” include those that make up the corporation. Progressives misunderstand his statement because they think in terms of the corporation as an entity, not as a collection of people working together for a common economic purpose.
Similarly, criticism of Pres. Obama is often seen as racism, as were Newt Gingrich’s comments about welfare—despite the fact that race was never mentioned. Conservatives hear criticisms of the president as being about policy, and comments about food stamps as being about increasing rates of poverty; progressives hear a racial subtext that must be present even if not stated because they see things in racial terms and because they assume conservatives are racist, along with sexist, homophobic, etc. The difficulty in communication comes about because of different assumptions about collective vs. individual identity.
For conservatives, group identity is secondary, but it still exists. The most important groups, however, are not based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Rather, they are the groups which you join voluntarily. This includes churches and service organizations, political parties and PACs. This idea of voluntary association even extends into your job—you are not owned by the company that employs you, and you can always quit and work elsewhere. This emphasis on voluntary association is the reason why conservatives support right to work laws. Where union membership is mandatory, rather than voluntary, it violates the right to free association. To put it simply, if you want to work for an employer, you should not be required to pay another organization for your right to do so.
Conservatives tend not to see problems as being caused by a clash of interest groups per se; rather, they see them as driven by individuals promoting specific ideologies and translating those into policy. It isn’t typically a matter of group identity. As a result, the solution is to promote a different agenda built primarily around entrepreneurial action on the part of individuals acting for their own and for their community’s good. This is where many of the voluntary associations conservatives support fit in: religious groups and service organizations can deal more effectively with many problems than the government can, and thus they should to be promoted ahead of government action.
None of this is absolute, of course, and there are exceptions. For example, there are conservatives who are bigots, though not nearly as many as progressives seem to think there are. But based on my observations, the distinction between individual and corporate identity seems to be another piece in the puzzle behind the thinking of progressives and conservatives in America.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Resurrection Day Essay

An essay from Regis Nicoll, reproduced with his permission:

The Inescapable Truth of the Resurrection
By Regis Nicoll
By all immediate measures, Jesus' ministry was a total failure. But it wasn't for lack of effort or commitment.
At the prime of life, Jesus left his carpentry bench in Nazareth for the dusty roads of Palestine. For three years he promoted his brand, wowing crowds with his miracles and captivating them with his teaching. On more than one occasion he drew thousands to a remote place to see him and hear him. He invested himself in the training of twelve handpicked men to carry his message to the world. Yet, at the time of his death, his following numbered scarcely more than one hundred individuals.
Worse, at the end of his ministry, one of his trainees betrayed him, another vigorously denied him, and the rest abandoned him, leaving a handful of women to stand by and mourn as life oozed out of his scourged and nail-pierced body.
When the stone was rolled over the mouth of the tomb, Jesus was just one more in the parade of misguided leaders whose visionary movements failed to outlive them. Or so it seemed. Within two months after his death, something extraordinary happened: the Jesus Movement didn't wither and collapse, it flourished.
Numbers and impact
Within the span of a few weeks, the small band of deserters regrouped and their ranks began to swell -- first to 3000, then to 5000 (including women, their number was probably close to 10,000) -- despite sustained opposition from detractors. And for two thousand years their ranks have continued to increase, making Christianity the world's largest religion with over 2 billion adherents and counting.
But it is more than numbers that make Christianity a singular phenomenon: Against every other movement, ideology, and belief system, the culture-shaping impact of Christianity is unequaled. In fact, Christianity is the seed from which Western civilization sprang up and blossomed.
It was the belief in an intelligible universe populated with intelligent beings whom the Creator entrusted to care for, manage, and enrich His handiwork, that enabled the shift from astrology and alchemy to modern science. Christian notions about equality, freedom, and man as divinely endowed being led to the Western rule of law.
Sacrificial love, as taught and modeled by Jesus, inspired the establishment of the first hospitals, orphanages, and charities. And believers who took their faith into the public square, rather than leave it at the doorstep of the church, became the vanguard of the great social movements of abolition, suffrage, and civil rights.
If that doesn't strike you as strange, it should.
Screaming for explanation
The Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great began splintering soon after his death. Within five centuries of the assassination of Julius Caesar (the "dictator in perpetuity"), his "Eternal City" was sacked, leading to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Scarcely one century after the death of Karl Marx, the Berlin Wall fell, the rest of the Iron Curtain came down, and the Eastern Bloc was dismantled.
Yet the kingdom inaugurated by a Galilean carpenter has not only endured for two millennia, it has grown numerically and influentially, despite being driven underground for the first 300 years of its existence, and a target of persecution from its beginning to the present day.
How did Jesus accomplish what no other person in history ever accomplished? The phenomenon of the Church is a fact screaming for explanation.
It stems from the fact that the early Christians believed, really believed, that Jesus was more than a great moral teacher or charismatic leader; they believed that he was Lord and God. Their belief was based on the testimony of eleven men who claimed to have seen something that defied scientific explanation, reason, and common sense: the risen Lord.
Singular and unprecedented
When Jesus, three days dead, passed through the locked door of the upper room, the disciples became witnesses to a thing unprecedented in history.
Sure, there were cases of resuscitations by physicians and stories of "raisings" by metaphysicians. There were the biblical accounts of the Sidonian widow's son raised by Elijah and the Shunammite's son who was raised by Elisha, as well as Jesus' raisings of Jairus' daughter and Lazarus that the disciples were privileged to witness first hand. But never before had the disciples (or anyone else) known of a dead person rising on their own power, and in a reconstituted body. Only Jesus had done that.
Initially dazed and confused by what they had seen, the disciples soon realized that Jesus' mastery over death only made sense if he was the God he had claimed to be. The disciples became so convinced about the Resurrection (and what it meant), that barely one month after they bailed on their crushed leader, they boldly entered Jerusalem to broadcast their news to the most unsympathetic audience on the planet.
The turnabout
The shift from jellyfish to ironman was exemplified in Peter.
Shortly following his second imprisonment for preaching the resurrection, Peter was brought before the Sanhedrin for repeatedly defying their gag order. After the robed masters rail against his intransigence, Peter responds bluntly: "We must obey God rather than men!" Then, continuing in his obduracy, Peter reprises his unwelcome testimony:
The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead--whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (My emphasis)
Talk about chutzpah! Especially recalling that just a few weeks prior, Peter cursed at the suggestion that he even knew Jesus. The only rational explanation for Peter's turnaround is that he really believed in the Resurrection; and the only rational explanation for his belief is that the Resurrection really occurred.
A mistake or ruse?
Could Peter and the other eyewitnesses have been mistaken about what they had seen? Hardly, considering that all of them remained steadfast in their belief, despite every motivation and opportunity to reconsider what had happened that Sunday morning and in the weeks that followed. Even to the point of martyrdom, an end to which all but one endured, none of the disciples ever retracted or revised their testimony.
Could the disciples have hatched the whole resurrection story for some personal gain? That was the explanation the robed masters leaked shortly after the receiving the shocking news of the empty tomb, and it is what is commonly held today among critics who spin various Passover plot scenarios. But, as has been competently argued by others, while people may die for what they believe to be true, they won't die for what they know to be false.
The test
It is not a little ironic that after Peter's saucy response to the Sanhedrin, one of their number, Gamaliel, proposed a litmus to his colleagues:
Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
Gamaliel was right. If Jesus was just another dead messianic leader, his following would come to nothing. But it didn't; despite the suppressive forces of the cross, the stake, the coliseum, the gulag, and anti-religious legislation, law suits, speech codes, and political correctness, the kingdom has steadily advanced in hearts of men and in man's institutions.
Outside of the truth of the Resurrection, the phenomenon of the Church is inexplicable -- a fact, which itself, is sufficient to establish that the "faith once given," was given by none other than God. By his own criterion Gamaliel would be compelled to agree, as would persons of any era who honesty consider the facts.
If you wish to re-publish this commentary, please send request to centurion51@aol.com.

Regis Nicoll is a Centurion of Prison Fellowship Ministries Wilberforce Forum. In addition to writing Thinking Christianly, Regis is a columnist for BreakPoint, Salvo, and Crosswalk, and a contributor to Prison Fellowship's worldview blog, The Point

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

This is a poem my daughter Elizabeth wrote about Good Friday. If you want to understand the imagery, she wrote about it in her blog last year.

The Weeping Sky

The icy, grasping hands of fog
Grip every barren, gnarled tree.
Their shadows in a stagnant pool
Like iron bars encompass me
The fog surrounds my breaking heart,
Veils even Heaven’s constant light.
My eyes turn back to Earth below,
Where what is true cannot be right.

Now Goodness dies by Hate betrayed,
So every cloud in heaven weeps,
Descending to a muddy grave,
The pool in which my spirit sleeps.
The shining teardrops of the sky
Descend to taste the parched earth’s pain,
To bind the earth with Heaven’s love,
A chain of ripples forged in rain.

The teardrops soak an ancient tree
To turn its bark to mournful black,
As purest water turns to mud
And sinks, no hope of turning back,
For Beauty lies, forever scarred,
And Innocence is stained with sin,
Eternal ruler, helpless slave
They mix and die as lives begin.

Weep for your maker, distant clouds.
His blood now soaks the earth like rain.
On icy mud His love pours down
And carries off my heart’s black stain.
A single bird’s cry chimes out clear,
A bell that lifts my eyes to see,
When every hope seemed drowned in fear,
White flowers on the twisted tree.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Article on Hildegard von Bingen

A new article in the series, Christians who Changed their World, is up. It's on medieval mystic, composer, writer, abbess, and physician Hildegard von Bingen.

Body and Spirit (cont.)

In the last post, I began exploring the idea of physical training as a tool for spiritual development in Eastern cultures and in Christianity. Here, I want to explore some of the ways that physical exercise can contribute to spiritual growth for Christians.

We need to start with a definition of spiritual growth. I am going to part company with many people who talk about this subject, who see it almost exclusively in terms of cultivating our relationship with God. I would argue instead that true spiritual growth is developing every aspect of our being to become more fully what God made us to be. This includes our relationship with God, of course, but any area of personal growth can be an element of our spiritual development, as long as we do not get obsessed with one aspect to the detriment of others. There has to be balance if we are to grow to be like Christ, which should be the goal of every Christian.

How does physical training fit into this? On the most basic level, the Bible tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This means that we need to take care of it. To do otherwise is to dishonor the Holy Spirit who lives within us. This means we need to adopt a lifestyle that keeps us healthy, including such things as good nutrition, exercise, and rest.

Taking this one step further, when we do not feel well or are tired or in pain, we cannot concentrate; it thus becomes very difficult to pray, read and study the Bible, meditate, and so on. This observation led people across the ancient world to build educational institutions around the idea that it was necessary to develop the body and mind together.

According to legend, Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, taught physical exercises that became the basis for kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in China because the monks were in such poor physical condition that they fell asleep during meditation. Daoist and Buddhist temples became centers of both education and physical exercise. Korean dojangs and Japanese dojos did the same for the nobility in their countries. In ancient Greece, philosophy and athletics were both taught together in the gymnasia, and Roman education had as its ideal “a sound mind in a healthy body” (mens sana in corpore sano).

There is great wisdom in this. Our bodies are the vehicles through which we develop our minds and hearts. It follows that cultivating health and physical energy can be an important, even in some cases a necessary, prerequisite for spiritual growth.

We can take this still further. Hard physical training develops our bodies, of course, but it also develops focus, concentration, and mental toughness in a way that few other activities do. Virtually all professional strongmen, past and present, talk about how crucial the mental aspects of their training are for their success. And the focus and concentration they learned from the iron carries over into other parts of their life as well.

You don’t need to be a professional strongman to reap these benefits, of course. For those inclined toward it, hard physical training can develop character and focus that affects all parts of our lives. It doesn’t do everything: the Apostle Paul tells us it is of some benefit, but godliness benefits us far more (1 Tim. 4:8). This is where balance matters. We must practice the other disciplines and consciously cultivate godliness as a higher priority than physical ability. But that doesn’t mean that physical training isn’t valuable. For those inclined toward it, it can be a form of spiritual discipline.

In some cases, athletics may be a calling as well. In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell tells his sister, “God made me for China, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Liddell’s ultimate call was to be a missionary to China, but at least for a time, it was also to be an Olympian. Each of us has a calling that God has given to us that we are to pursue in obedience to Him, and whatever that calling is, we are to pursue it wholeheartedly in obedience to Him and doing it for God, not our employers. In other words, it is a spiritual activity. For Christians such as Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, athletics is thus an integral part of their spiritual life, a point David Brooks doesn’t really understand.

These last two points are central to a concept known as “muscular Christianity.” While it can be taken too far or pushed inappropriately as a universal requirement for believers (or at least for Christian men), it is nonetheless a legitimate expression of the faith for those who are called or inclined toward it. And for all believers, cultivating health and energy are important elements of taking care of God’s temple and enabling us to pursue those disciplines and activities that are important for our personal growth.