A Must-Read Must-Read

I’m really liking Jonathan Leeman. He humbly lets his gifts be sublimated to those of Mark Dever when the two chat on 9Marks Pastors Talk episodes, but when I read The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love and then went and heard his paper at the 2016 ETS—I saw that Leeman himself is really theologically and intellectually sharp. And doctrinally solid. This recent article by Leeman on gender roles at the 9Marks site is an absolute must-read.

His analysis of “broad” vs. “narrow” complementarians is very helpful; his graciousness is palpable. His wisdom is… Okay, I’ll stop gushing. Go read it.

My non-denominational, biblicist training might possibly have pushed me in a “narrow” direction, making my complementarianism focus solely on wives submitting to husbands and men taking church leadership roles. But my overall conservatism and, especially, my respect—and continual search—for “creational norms” put me clearly in the “broad” camp with Leeman. That is, I’m primed with him to see divine norms in biology and even in culture.

But Leeman helps people like me make sure not to find norms where they aren’t: that could lead to injustice. And it helps me remember not to be too firm about norms that required several judgment calls to arrive at.

And he cautions us all, on the other side, from putting ourselves in a position in which we are apologizing for the Bible. This is so true:

When churches hesitate to say what distinguishes men and women, God’s explicit precepts for the church and home begin to look arbitrary, even a little embarrassing. You can hear the Sunday school lesson now: “The Bible teaches that women should not be elders, but here’s what I really want you to hear: women can do everything else a man can do.” The tone or subtext is, “No, these commands don’t make a lot of sense because we all know men and women are basically the same. But he is God, sooo…”

And this is brilliantly simple and, in my opinion, profoundly true:

Wisdom issues an “ought,” as in “men ought” or “women ought.” But wisdom’s “ought” is a little different than the “ought” of law. Wisdom’s “ought” sounds like something from Proverbs (“a wise son hears his father’s instruction”). Law’s “ought” sounds like something from Exodus (“you shall not steal”). Wisdom’s “ought” comes with an “ordinarily.” Its opposite is folly (the father might be a fool, a thief, or a typical dad who gives mixed advice). Law’s “ought” comes with an “always.” Its opposite is sin. Yes, sin and folly often overlap, but not always.”

This has application beyond gender roles, but it surely applies to them.

I’m really jazzed about this article, if you couldn’t tell.

Must-read, must-read, must-read!

Former Fundie on Genesis 1

“Former Fundie” Ben Corey notes that extraterrestrial life may be discovered on what Trekkies would call a likely “Class M” planet—a planet that has the conditions for supporting life. Does this shoot the literal reading of Genesis 1? Corey summarizes two responses to the text:

Fundamentalist: This is what the text says. If it did not happen exactly the way it is recorded, it is not true. Therefore, it must be true.

Atheist: This is what the text says. If it did not happen exactly the way it is recorded, it is not true. Therefore, you’d have to be closed-minded to believe it.

It’s the same hermeneutical approach on both sides. It imports the same modern assumptions on how we tell history versus how ancients told stories, and assumes being “inspired by God” means the text must answer modern questions instead of ancient ones.

I personally don’t know any Christians, fundamentalist or otherwise, who think that if the creation account in Genesis is seen to omit something (like the existence of extraterrestrial life, his example), it is necessarily in error. And Corey acknowledges this in the post. If there are fundamentalists out there saying that Genesis 1 has to be exhaustively precise in order to be true, that is indeed bad.

It seems like this point Corey’s making belongs in another article, one about how modern(ist) readings of the text of Genesis twist it out of its intended genre. But he doesn’t have to write it; I’ve read it. The argument goes back at least to the 19th century: “The Bible is not a science textbook.”

Sometimes when I read this particular polemic, however, I want to ask, “Is the conservative reading of Scripture on creation (including Gen 1 and Rom 5 and 8) so ridiculous on textual grounds? Is it impossible to see how anyone would arrive at a young-earth interpretation? Are there no circumstances (a new scientific consensus, for example) under which these words could reasonably be thought to be claiming that God created the world in six days, culminating with the creation of an original pair of humans? If this is a possible reading, then is it wrong to adopt it? If so, why?” I don’t see how it’s a particularly modern question to ask, “How did the universe begin?” Or even “How long were the days of creation?” Given that a great many ancient people—including, ahem, Jesus and Paul—appear to have believed in a historical Adam and Eve, am I to be charged with modernism for agreeing with them?

The writings of the fathers on Genesis have become a battleground for this very reason, and from the reading I’ve done—including at Biologos and Answers in Genesis just today—it seems the evidence goes both ways: there are fathers like Augustine who read Genesis 1 differently than Ken Ham; there are fathers like Ephrem the Syrian who specifically state that the days of creation were 24-hour days (“Although the light and the clouds were created in the twinkling of an eye, still both the day and the night of the First Day were each completed in twelve hours”). But it only takes one premodern citation for me to prove that my reading is not necessarily modern; Corey has to show, I think, not only 1) that my supposedly modern interests are not at all reflected among ancient writers and 2) that writers like Augustine were not themselves unduly influenced by the cultural currents of their own day. James Mook tackles this in a chapter in Coming to Grips with Genesis.

I’m a creationist because Genesis appears to demand it, and Jesus and Paul most definitely do. Jesus assumed a historical Adam, and so did Paul. Paul bases key parts of his theology on Adam. See Romans 5. He bases key parts of his theology on the connection between sin and death: death came into the world through sin. See Romans 8. (I’ve written on this at much greater length in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.) I don’t think all the work on behalf of this viewpoint is done. There are complexities and difficulties involved in the text, not just in the task of fitting the text to the modern scientific consensus. Young-earth creationists need to keep working at our view and defending it and sharpening it.

The Slippery Slope

Although the slippery slope argument is never airtight, because it presumes to predict the future (So-and-so won’t be a Christian at all in five years) or find cause-effect relations that are impossible to prove (So-and-so got to this point because he denied doctrine X), I feel safe in asking: Is there any connection between Corey’s disbelief in a historical Adam and Eve (and therefore a historical fall) and his opposition to what I take to be one of the central doctrines of Christianity and something inestimably precious to me personally, namely Christ’s death in my place to satisfy the wrath of God? There are Bible interpreters who doubt the young-earth reading of Genesis 1 and yet can sing “In Christ Alone” with gusto. I take C. John Collins to be one; but Corey could not sing the hymn (or preach Romans 3 without Olympic-level hermeneutical gymnastics).

And is there any connection between Corey’s denial of an original heterosexual human pair and his affirmation of the morality of homosexual sex?

Again, the slippery slope argument can never be applied with absolute certainty to any individual: I don’t know Corey’s history beyond his own telling. But I think the slippery slope argument can legitimately be used to describe general historical trends. Is it not true that the doctrinal dominos often fall in a kind of order, both in individuals an in groups (such as the Protestant mainline)? Or that views once deemed unthinkable tend to become actual, given certain premises?

It really is possible to give away too much of the Christian faith in an effort to be relevant. Corey has done it;  sadly, Corey has done it. If the church needs help moving away from imprisonment to a modernist hermeneutical schema, I don’t think he’s the one to lead us.

I won’t deny that alternative readings of Genesis 1 have appealing features. I don’t like looking like a rube anymore than the next obscure redheaded blogger, and I try not to adopt interpretations of Scripture in order to make smart people mock me. But if the appeal of alternative readings is, at bottom, that they excuse us from having to wear a cultural dunce cap, other Christian beliefs will force it right back on our heads. We might as well learn to stand, and having done all, to stand.

Nonetheless… I’m very happy to agree that no one, fundamentalist or atheist, should read the text of Scripture to affirm anything the authors didn’t intend to affirm. But there’s also the little problem of denying that they affirmed things they clearly said. Don’t forget that ditch on the other side of the road—or the slippery slope leading to it.

Review: Deep Work

Deep work is becoming “increasingly valuable in our economy.” Knowledge workers have to set themselves apart from each other in order to succeed, and the myriad electronic temptations out there, social media foremost among them, are frittering away our best work time.

This is a helpful (if occasionally tired) point, and Cal Newport’s personal example of dedication to productivity is inspiring. He offers practical advice for taming the intrusion of electronics and aiming one’s time toward goals of true value. I like the “bi-modal” and “rhythmic” approaches to deep work, because few people can keep up intense concentration for long periods. And I liked the idea that scheduling deep work and not-so-deep-work periods in advance would help others know what to expect about my availability and would help me not to have to go through the sometimes draining task of deciding whether to engage in deep or “shallow” work.

But.

Though I don’t exactly blame an (apparent?) non-theist for having secular goals, Newport is going to get a Christian worldview analysis—because he’s smarter than your average self-help book writer (he has a PhD in Computer Science and teaches at Georgetown), and he made an explicit “Philosophical Argument for Depth” (pp. 86ff.), an argument which I found very interesting but ultimately unpersuasive, even if I agree with his conclusion (who’s going to disagree about the value of “depth”?). He also leans heavily on some of our culture’s most accredited truth-tellers, a set of philosophy professors from Berkeley and Harvard.

I listened carefully for the incentives Newport offered or assumed throughout the book, the things you would get if you engage in “deep work”—and, not surprisingly, his most basic promise is financial reward. This utilitarian viewpoint leaves me cold, not because more cash would be wholly undesirable, but because [a little book told me] that money likes to take wings and fly away. It’s fleeting. It isn’t an ultimate thing. I’m also wary of bald appeals to financial gain because of the critique levied by my favorite Harvard economist, Michael Sandel, on the “moral limits of markets”—the way money tends to corrupt the very goods whose exchange it facilitates (he points, for example, to the selling of kidneys: it is good to give up one’s kidney to save the life of another, but money introduces unhealthy power dynamics—no wealthy American businessmen are likely to give theirs to Pakistani tribesmen anytime soon). Strike one against the value of Deep Work.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Newport cited the work of Matthew Crawford in the excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Newport tied one of Crawford’s most profound points—that knowledge workers are often frustrated by their inability to point to tangible accomplishments—to a further observation of his own, namely that such knowledge workers are likely to let hyper-connectedness make them appear busy to themselves as much as to their managers. I truly don’t judge (very many of the) people who are on Twitter all the time, but I’m with Newport: I’ve just never been able to see how Twitter is anything but distraction crack for someone with a job like mine. Newport says, and he must be right, that there are some highly relational jobs (salesperson, and I’d add, college president) in which personal connections are the value one provides to his or her employer. But that’s not most of us. I loved Newport’s example of the New York Times reporter who seems to tweet “desultorily” and as little as possible. I’ll give half a strike back to Newport, then.

At this point in the book Newport had already evinced more interest in metaphysics than three passels of self-help books typically do (in my experience these books are almost entirely utilitarian). And I was genuinely surprised to see him press the point even deeper in his “Philosophical Argument for Depth.” It is here that he relies on philosophers Dreyfus (Berkeley) and Kelly (Harvard). He actually uses the word “metaphysical”—positively—and even the word “sacredness.” I began to get a little excited when I saw this:

As Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the the metaphysical [Cartesian, Enlightenment] thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves with to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. (87)

This is good; we’re on a track I can follow.

Newport then, following Dreyfus and Kelly, appeals basically to natural law and the pleasure craftsmen find in discovering the natural order of things. A nineteenth century wheelwright, for example, found joy in discovering the truth of what’s in his wood and aligning himself with that portion of the cosmos. (I took this down from audio; punctuation may be off.)

The craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual. The wheelwright doesn’t decide arbitrarily which virtues of the wood he works are valuable and which are not. This value is inherent in the wood and the task it’s meant to perform. As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. “The task of a craftsman,” they conclude, “is not to generate meaning but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.” (88)

This is all great, and I can follow this far. But this is where he stops. What follows is some hand-waving about how all workers, even knowledge workers, can find joy and meaning in honing their craft, in discovering what’s true about that work independent of themselves. And I’m ultimately left as cold as I was by the utilitarian (“pragmatic,” Newport himself calls them) sections from earlier in the book. So the natural world is the final order of meaning? It’s the bedrock below which I cannot dig?

I don’t see sacredness there; nor do I see meaning. I see nihilism again—both because this cosmos will, the scientists all tell us, itself one day reduce to nothing (or at least no one) and because I’m part of this cosmos; what confidence can I have that I stand above it rather than fully in it? A naturalistic framework like the one Newport assumes cannot accept any metaphysics or sacredness or meaning, only their evolutionary adapted simulacra. We are Homo sapiens Deepensis, he says: we’ve evolved, he says, to thrive on deep work.

But Newport is not a philosopher. He’s not a Matthew Crawford. His citations of Crawford and of Dreyfus and Kelly have the same breezy feel as his citations of scientific or sociological studies. One senses in Shop Class as Soulcraft that Matthew Crawford has worked hard over the course of a lifetime to fit his view of natural law into an overall worldview. The brief attention which Cal Newport gives to the matter suggests that he has managed to find a utilitarian approach to employing the insights of non-utilitarian philosophies.

In reading Newport I finally what bothers me most about books in the self-help vein: the epistemology. How do we know that deep work (or sticky ideas or getting things done) is good? Scattered, brief citations of scientific papers most readers probably couldn’t really evaluate even if we read them in their entirety are trotted out in between cheery anecdotes related with a spirit of you-can-succeed-like-me-if-you-have-the-Horatio-Alger-like-gumption. The Western tradition of philosophy only appears when a veneer of philosophical depth is needed, and the theological claims of Christianity (or any other religion) to define the good life are, of course, left out entirely. The good life is assumed to be one in which you make more money and enjoy your work—not bad things, those, but not ultimate things. Books like these cultivate a studied avoidance of ultimate things. In the end, nothing that avoids the ultimate can go very deep.

Liberals Are Eating Their Own

Liberals are eating their own. The Google Engineer who wrote a piece appealing to science to explain gender differences, and who has received massive blowback (including a denunciation from the new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance), doesn’t sound like a conservative of any kind to me. He sounds like a libertarian, a kind of classical liberal. His opening words:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.

He also writes,

People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us.

And:

I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.

But he didn’t genuflect hard enough; he doesn’t believe hard enough in Diversity. And now he is facing the wrath of the powers that be in the only eschaton Western secularist liberals believe in: Social Media Judgment Day. Read more about the dust-up here.

Analysis

One of the most signal signs of spiritual blindness I see in our culture is the slogan that “diversity” has become. Like “tolerance” before it, “diversity” has a definite and rather contestable definition, but it’s whole appeal lies in its supposed utility as a perspicuous, undebatable, universal concept. Like “harm” and “fairness” and “discrimination,” the shape of “diversity” cannot be debated in any real way without it faltering as a cultural standard. Its votaries cannot permit themselves to notice that their “diversity” is violently circumscribed. Only certain differences are cool.

As it is written in Stanley Fish, in one of the most epochal paragraphs I’ve ever read:

A supposedly neutral principle such as “free speech”— just like “fairness” and “merit” [ed. or “diversity”]—rather than a concept that sits above the fray, monitoring its progress and keeping the combatants honest, . . . is right there in the middle of the fray, an object of contest that will enable those who capture it to parade their virtue at the easy expense of their opponents: we’re for fairness and you are for biased judgment; we’re for merit and you are for special interests; we’re for objectivity and you are playing politics; we’re for free speech and you are for censorship and ideological tyranny.

(The Trouble with Principle, 16)

And nearly as epochal for me in this late-modern Western culture of ours:

Strong multiculturalism…. is strong because it values difference in and for itself rather than as a manifestation of something more basically constitutive. Whereas the boutique multiculturalist will accord a superficial respect to cultures other than his own, a respect he will withdraw when he finds the practices of a culture irrational or inhumane, a strong multiculturalist will want to accord a deep respect to all cultures at their core, for he believes that each has the right to form its own identity and nourish its own sense of what is rational and humane. For the strong multiculturalist the first principle is not rationality or some other supracultural universal, but tolerance.

But the trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core; that is, the distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation into a larger whole. Confronted with a demand that it surrender its viewpoint or enlarge it to include the practices of its natural enemies—other religions, other races, other genders, other classes—a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence. At this point the strong multiculturalist faces a dilemma: either he stretches his toleration so that it extends to the intolerance residing at the heart of a culture he would honor, in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle, or he condemns the core intolerance of that culture (recoiling in horror when Khomeini calls for the death of Rushdie), in which case he is no longer according it respect at the point where its distinctiveness is most obviously at stake. Typically, the strong multiculturalist will grab the second handle of this dilemma (usually in the name of some supracultural universal now seen to have been hiding up his sleeve from the beginning) and thereby reveal himself not to be a strong multiculturalist at all. Indeed it turns out that strong multiculturalism is not a distinct position but a somewhat deeper instance of the shallow category of boutique multiculturalism.

(“Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech,” Critical Inquiry, 23:2 [Winter, 1997], 382–383)

Evaluation

I believe in diversity—defined Christianly. All people are made in God’s image, and there is ultimately “no male or female in Christ” (Gal 3:28). I am as saved from my sins as my wife is (in fact, she is a little ahead). And yet when saints “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” come to praise the Lamb in the last day (Rev 7:9), there will still be recognizably different nations, tribes, and peoples. Every knee will bow, but some of those knees will be different colors (and some will presumably be shaved while others are not). This is biblical diversity.

(To be clear: I’m with John Piper in Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian: the erasure of “racial” lines through intermarriage is a good thing pointing toward the ultimate unity of all people in Christ—and even in Noah! I’m only saying that the Bible predicts that not all those lines will ultimately be erased.)

Also, God’s created goodness lies in all cultures, so I can expect that some cultures will see some beauties of God in their art and music and greetings and dress and customs and folktales that other cultures don’t see. But the fall has twisted all nations, so I can expect to reject or refine various elements in any given culture, too.

I find it helpful to have a minority worldview, because the majority never lets me forget (as they so often do) that my own viewpoint is contestable. When I start thinking of all my beliefs and conclusions and ideas as obvious to any sane person, I become a triumphalist who cannot permit his or her mortal enemies (such as a poor libertarian Google Engineer) to utter a word in the public square without the severest repercussions. We must all make judgments about what kind of talk is reprehensible, but the Christian is, or at least should be, more capable of grace because final judgment is in the hands of another (Matt 12:36).

Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.