Martin Marty on Why You Should Read a Non-Lutheran’s Book about Luther on the Christian Life

Feb 20, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Rev-Martin-MartyMartin E. Marty (b. 1928) is one of the most distinguished and prominent interpreters of religion and culture in the 20th century. After receiving a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1956, he served as a Lutheran pastor in the suburbs of Chicago (1952-1962) before becoming a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School (1963-1998), where the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion is named in his honor.

Professor Marty served as president of both the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History, and he has been a senior editor of The Christian Century since 1956.

His biography of Martin Luther (yes, Martin Marty on Martin Luther) was published in 2004 in the Penguin Lives series, and remains perhaps the best short introduction available for the great Reformer’s life and contribution.

He recently penned the afterword to Carl Trueman’s new book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), praising its unique contribution and explaining how it will contribute to the actual living of the Christian life for those who read it. Professor Marty’s reflections are reprinted below.


Author Carl Trueman has done readers a favor by viewing Martin Luther through a particular prism, one whose perspective can help change lives. Had he simply written a biography, he could have performed a service to readers in general, people who seek to be informed about important topics. While researching he could have scaled the figurative Everest of the 120-plus volumes of Luther’s writings and tried to condense his vision from there in the pages of this relatively short book. Additionally, he would have had to do justice to some of the literally thousands of writings about the man regularly measured to be among the five most significant figures in the millennium past. Readers might have thereupon been dazzled or benumbed by the amount of data served up by often profound and elegant biographers.

Trueman’s acceptance of an assignment in this particular series meant that the authorial choices he made had to relate, as this book does, to Luther’s ponderings on and expressions of the Christian life. It was to contribute to the living of lives among readers in our generation. Accepting that choice meant leaving out many tantalizing subjects, since Luther touched on so many dimensions, events, and themes of human existence. Let it also be said that the author’s need to select also helped save him from having to deal with embarrassing or appalling Luther topics, for example, his late-in-life notorious anti-Semitism—on which, to be sure, Trueman does touch with some pain and much fairness.

Luther on the Christian life? More predictable and more easily handled themes could have been “Luther on Christian doctrine” or “Luther on Christian preaching,” or . . . Think how much easier an author would have it if he dealt with a figure like John Wesley or Saint Francis or hundreds of others whose specialty is devotion to holiness, sanctification, or ethics, as Luther’s was not or has not often been perceived to be. Of course, Trueman could not have commented on the Bible, as he has done in discussing writings that make up much of Luther’s works, without having dealt with the many incentives to, and models of, the Christian life.

What readers must by the end have found remarkable is the way Dr. Trueman has brought clarity and some sense of system to the often obscure, paradoxical, and anything-but-systematic writings of Luther on the Christian life. I would argue that Trueman has served well by keeping his feet on firm ground as he has stood on an approach to Christian life which he sometimes calls Presbyterian or Reformed or evangelical, often in differing combinations. He has never done that flat-footedly or heavy-footedly, but usually incidentally, since he was not writing a book of Presbyterian-Reformed-evangelical doctrine, which can easily be learned by consulting encyclopedias or works of polemics. His intent was not overtly to say, “Notice us! We’re better than you are!” but always to sharpen his points and add color and clarity to his narrative through comparison.

What, we might ask, is the potential profit from his viewing Luther through non-Lutheran eyes? (Readers need little reminder that books on Luther through Lutheran eyes, for all their worth, can often miss much or distort some of what they display or argue!) The profit in this instance? Such an approach helps readers of various confessional, denominational, and personal stances to move from the known—their own understandings—to the relatively unknown “other.” Elements of faith as they show up in the Christian life stand in sharper relief when the comparative approach illumines what was already known and probably taken for granted.

To take an example: when I deal with Muslim worshipers and theologians, as I have done in dialogue with Muslims or in an Islamic school, I later reflect with a greater awareness of the role of the doctrine of the Trinity or witness to the incarnation when Muslim students show puzzlement about Christian Trinitarian and incarnational talk. Why are these two topics so important to us Christians, we are asked? What are the sources and consequences of our beliefs? In the case not of Christians relating to Muslims but of Christians-of-one-sort in relation to Christians-of-another-sort, as it shows up in ecumenical conversation or comparative courses on Christian ethics, the gulfs between commitments in various confessional camps may often look like mere nuances, subtleties, or subjects for Pecksniffian polemicists to distort. Yet in choices made about the life of Christians, these differences can be either alienating or positively informative. The book you have just read will contribute to your living of the Christian life. A rereading—which I picture will be an enjoyable exercise—will confirm this.

Martin Luther’s pursuits thus jostle those who share them through the book’s realistic readiness to deal with Anfechtung, a peculiar sort of doubting. After reading this, they may well be more ready to deal with their own doubts. Those who had been casual about drawing on Scripture to guide their daily lives cannot help but draw closer, thanks to this account of Luther’s probes. Also, in the past century Roman Catholic devotion to scriptural studies is often acknowledged to have been enriched by Luther’s drawing on the Bible for the deepening of the Christian life.

I live across the street from a strategic and compelling Presbyterian church and on occasion am able to attend worship there. As I listen to and share in the hymnody, prayer forms, ethical injunctions, and proclamations of the gospel, I join other non-Presbyterians in affirmation, celebration, and a feeling of being in company or at home. Yet there are not-infrequent moments when, for example, a preacher will explain something to the diverse congregants on a particular day, while wrestling with a particular text, by making an explicit reference to the fact that something emphasized in the Presbyterian tradition can provide color and impetus for the living of the Christian life.

Such an approach magnificently stands out and is helpful in a world where Christians often have to settle for banal, wishy-washy expressions that do little to help inform the Christian life. For example, we who are not Mennonites can learn from their peace witness without becoming Mennonites, or can draw closer to God through the liturgical and musical witness of Episcopalians without having to “jump ship” and sail on an Anglican vessel. As this book which you readers have just finished makes clear, the pursuit of the Christian life is not a matter of picking and choosing, or gazing through a kaleidoscope with jittery images, but is a serious business of seeking perspective and focus. Readers of many sorts will be more equipped than before to share that pursuit, and will want to join me in expressing gratitude to author Carl Trueman.

Martin E. Marty
Emeritus Professor at the University of Chicago
author of Martin Luther

For more information on the book, including other endorsements and sample material, go here.

For more information on the series, go here.

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Photo image credit: Tony Reinke

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You Say You Want a (Sexual) Revolution?

Feb 18, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Ross Douthat looks at the sexual revolution from two angles: (1) its ostensibly egalitarian facade, and (2) its exploitative and predatory nature:

Viewed from one angle, the sexual revolution looks obviously egalitarian. It’s about extending to everyone the liberties — the freedom to be promiscuous, to pursue sexual fulfillment without guilt — that were once available only to privileged cisgendered heterosexual males. It’s about ushering in a society where everyone can freely love and take pleasure in anyone and anything they want.

But viewed from another angle, that same revolution looks more like a permission slip for the strong and privileged to prey upon the weak and easily exploited. This is the sexual revolution of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt and Joe Francis and roughly 98 percent of the online pornography consumed by young men. It’s the revolution that’s been better for fraternity brothers than their female guests, better for the rich than the poor, better for the beautiful than the plain, better for liberated adults than fatherless children . . . and so on down a long, depressing list. At times, as the French writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recently suggested, this side of sexual revolution looks more like “sexual reaction,” a step way back toward a libertinism more like that of pre-Christian Rome — anti-egalitarian and hierarchical, privileging men over women, adults over children, the upper class over the lower orders. . . .

He then shows the way in which these two aspects try to converge rather than conflict:

But the essential dream of our age isn’t conflict; it’s a synthesis, in which the aristocratic thrills of libertinism are somehow preserved but their most exploitative elements are rendered egalitarian and safe.

The hope, in other words, is that we can eventually have the fun of Rome without all the nasty bits: Contraception and abortion will pre-empt the inconvenient infant, age-of-consent laws will make sure that young people’s initiation doesn’t start too early, and with enough carefully drawn up regulations for initiating intercourse we can all experience the courts of Tiberius and Heliogabalus without anybody getting hurt.

So our sexual egalitarians don’t want to shut down the party or end the bacchanal. They just want hookup culture to be governed by affirmative consent, for prostitutes to become empowered sex workers, for misogynistic porn to be balanced out by feminist alternatives, for dangerous patriarchal polygamy to give way to safe egalitarian polyamory, and for De Sade’s Justine to find happiness as a submissive protected by her safe words.

You can read the whole thing here.


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Lent Begins This Wednesday: Here Is a Great Book to Help You Meditate on Christ’s Path to the Cross

Feb 16, 2015 | Justin Taylor


Russ Ramsey is the author of the new book, Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015).

He was kind enough to answer five questions I had about this unique book, the writing and research behind it, and his hopes for how it might be used.

How would you describe the genre of Behold the King of Glory?

Story. Creative non-fiction.

Behold the King of Glory is not a devotional in the traditional sense. I do not write in first person, and I do not directly address the reader until the end. It is not a collection of vignettes, but a single narrative divided into forty chapters told in a storyteller’s voice and loaded with hundreds of Scripture reference to take the reader back to the source.

Can you take us inside the process involved in writing this book? How much of it required your pastor-scholar hat? How much the creative-storyteller hat? What was most difficult, and what was most enjoyable?

Justin, I loved living with these two responsibilities in balance—the scholarly disciple and the storyteller’s imagination. The scholarly work had to be done before the creative storyteller could open the floodgates. I spent the first few months mapping out the chronology of Jesus’s earthly ministry as best as I could, and then trying to tease out the narrative threads running through it.

I consulted the works of others. I began the slow process of breaking Jesus’ life down into five “Eras”:

  1. Obscurity (his early days in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee)
  2. Popularity (his preaching tour of Galilee)
  3. Rejection
  4. Jerusalem and Judea (mostly from Luke and John), and
  5. Passion Week

From there I broke those down into smaller epochs that would become the chapters. Then I gathered study materials for each chapter and studied, took notes, and mapped out the key acts of each mini-story.

I made a manila folder that had maps and timelines and Scripture references all on one place—things to keep me between the lines as I was writing. It was like craft time at the Ramsey house. I still have that folder.

Care to share one of your favorite passages from the book?

I love the arc of Peter’s story. I love how the Gospels give us an example of a man who failed about as colossally as a person can fail, and yet had not slipped beyond the reach of Jesus. And I love the artistry in the way Jesus reinstates and reassures Peter. This passage from chapter 38, called “Do You Love Me?” focuses on what we read in John 21:

As the dawn began to glow above the eastern hills, Peter and the others saw a man standing on the nearby shore. Peter threw him a wave. The man cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Do you have any fish?”

In unison, the failed fishermen shouted back, “No.”

The man on the shore said, “Try casting you nets on the other side of your boat. You’ll find some there.”

The disciples sighed at the man’s suggestion, because when it came to fishing, it always seemed that everyone had an opinion. They hadn’t caught anything yet, but they weren’t ready to call it a day either, so they decided to give it a try.

Immediately, large fish filled their nets. When the men tried to haul the nets back into their boats, they couldn’t. They had caught too many. But as the disciples strained and pulled at the nets, a wave of familiarity broke over Peter. This had happened before. It was a morning not unlike this one. Peter and his brother were fishing without any luck when a man they did not know well asked to borrow their boat so he could put out a bit from the shore to teach the pressing crowds. The rabbi told them to push out a little deeper and let their nets down for another try. When they did, their nets filled so quickly and so fully that when they tried to pull them into the boat, the nets began to break under the strain.

On that day, Peter fell on his knees before Jesus, the rabbi in his boat, and said, “Leave me alone, Lord. I am a sinful man.”

On that day, Jesus told Peter, “Do not be afraid, Simon. Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

The man on the shore was recreating that scene—that first day when Jesus called Peter to follow him. As if waking up, Peter recognized him.

“It is the Lord,” Peter exclaimed, as he leapt out of the boat to swim to shore. What else could he do? Love had come to confront him.

The dripping disciple stood before his Lord, not sure what to say, but desperate to get underway with whatever needed to happen in that moment.

Jesus spoke first. Motioning to a charcoal fire he had made, he said, “Bring me some of that fish.”

Peter looked at the fire and saw some bread and fish already prepared. Jesus had made breakfast for his friends. Peter went to the boats and hauled the heavy, full nets ashore. He put a couple more fish on the fire for his brother and the others.

Jesus said, “Come have breakfast with me.”

The disciples all knew this was Jesus, but none of them had the courage to speak. They watched in bewildered fascination as Jesus took the bread from the fireside, blessed it, broke it, and handed it to them as he had done that Thursday in the upper room before his arrest.

How do you envision folks using this? 

I wrote Behold the King of Glory to be a book you could curl up with and read on your own. I created a free study guide for people who might want to use it devotionally or in a small-group setting, but the book is a single narrative intended to be read as a story.

As a resource, I hope pastors find that it helps them stand in the stories themselves. We pastors spent a lot of time trying to answer the “so what?” question that we can easily miss the “what’s there?” question. I don’t know of many narrative-focused Gospel resources, so I hope this will fill a hole on any pastor’s bookshelf.

If people read Behold the King of Glory, they will _____________.

They will probably see things in the Gospel story they had never seen before.

They will see that Jesus and the disciples sang together before leaving the upper room, and that the Sanhedrin made a plan to kill Lazarus, whose only crime was not being already dead.

They will see that Nicodemus defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and that Jesus very likely smelled like perfume during his scourging and crucifixion. These details are all there in the text.

Hopefully, they will also know Christ better, and love his word more deeply. This is why I wrote the books. I am a witness to the story Behold the King of Glory tells. My life has been transformed by the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And lastly, they will read a book unlike anything else I have been able to find—a book-length narrative that is fiercely devoted to staying true to the text of Scripture.

You can download an excerpt of the book here, along with a free study guide.

“With a writer’s imagination and skill, a theologian’s backbone, and a disciple’s devotion, Ramsey weds knowledge to emotional resonance and information to immanence in this moving account of Jesus’s life. You will grow and delight as you travel with him.”
—Dan Doriani, Vice President of Strategic Academic Projects and Professor of Theology, Covenant Seminary

“I don’t know anyone who can make the stories—and the Story—in Scripture feel as present, as alive, and as sweeping as Russ Ramsey. His prose, his grasp of history and theology, not to mention his love of Jesus, does more than merely draw me into his book—it makes me want to read the Bible.”
—Andrew Peterson, singer/songwriter; author, The Wingfeather Saga series

“Many of us have wondered at some point, ‘What would it be like to live when Jesus did?’ With purity to biblical truth and perceptive insight into how the human heart works, Russ Ramsey answers that question. He tells the story of Jesus dwelling among us—a story filled with political intrigue, baffling miracles, relational complexities, and heartbreaking suffering—by presenting old truths in engagingly fresh ways. Read this book! And then share it with others who need to witness Jesus anew.”
—Jani Ortlund, Executive Vice President, Renewal Ministries; author, Fearlessly Feminine and His Loving Law, Our Lasting Legacy

“‘Behold’ means see with fresh understanding. Read this book to be renewed in your hopes—for today, for tomorrow, forever. Share this book with others, or read it to your children, so they may behold Christ too. Ramsey has succeeded at capturing and displaying the drama of Jesus—incarnate, dead, and risen—with memorable force.”
—Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“It gives me great pleasure to endorse the life and writing of Russ Ramsey. We have been in the trenches together caring for the ‘called out ones.’ Russ gave us gospel immersion and fruits of deep care with Behold the Lamb of God. He continues this life-giving pattern of grace and service with this new, beautifully written book pointing to the Hero King Jesus.”
—Charlie Peacock, author; teacher; Composer/Producer, AMC Drama, TURN; record producer for The Civil Wars, Switchfoot, and The Lone Bellow

“Ramsey has written a captivating narrative of the life of Jesus in a biographical style that captures the life of Jesus so vividly, at times you’ll wonder if Ramsey sat down and spoke with all the people involved in the story. It’s the story of a real man who walked this earth and died on a cross bearing the wrath we deserve. Historical and faithful to Scripture, Behold the King of Glory is a wonderful Bible-reading companion for the Lenten season.”
—Trillia Newbell, author, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity and Fear and Faith

“There is a graceful simplicity to Ramsey’s prose—and to his retelling of the old familiar story—that enables him to truly move his readers with the potency of gospel. Here is a quiet voice that can shake stone.”
—N. D. Wilson, author, Death By Living and Boys of Blur; Managing Editor, Credenda/Agenda Magazine; Fellow of Literature, New Saint Andrews College

“Ramsey’s ability to knit the accounts of the gospels into a highly readable, easily accessible, and grace-saturated narrative is a blessing for all. Telling the story of Jesus in bite-sized readings that can easily accord with anticipation and celebration of the Easter season makes this book a special gift.”
—Bryan Chapell, President Emeritus, Covenant Theological Seminary; Senior Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois

“This book throws open the curtains on Jesus and invites us to taste and see the only love that is better than life. This isn’t a great book just for the season of Lent, but for every season of life.”
—Scotty Smith, Teacher in Residence, West End Community Church, Nashville, Tennessee

Table of contents:

  • Life for the Dying (John 4:43-54)
  • Wild with the Hope (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Behold the Lamb of God (John 1:19-51)
  • One Hundred and Fifty Gallons (John 2:1-12)
  • Destroy This Temple (John 2:13-25)
  • Zeus and the Pharisees (John 3:1-21)
  • Herod’s Half Brother’s Wife (John 3:22-4:3)
  • Famous (Luke 5:1-26)
  • Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11)
  • Only Say the Word (Matthew 8-9)
  • The Death of John (Mark 6:14-29; Luke 7:18-35)
  • The Storm Treader (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-56)
  • Bread of Life (Matthew 14:34-16:12; John 6:22-7:1)
  • You Are the Christ (Luke 9:18-36)
  • Before Abraham Was Born (John 7-8)
  • Born Blind (John 9-10)
  • The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:1-37)
  • The Leaven of the Pharisees (Luke 11:29-13:35)
  • Lost Things Found (Luke 14-15)
  • Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:1-44)
  • A World Upside Down (Mark 10:35-45)
  • The Living Legend (Mark 10:46-52; John 12:9-11)
  • The King’s Coronation (1 Kings 1; Luke 19:28-36)
  • Hosanna (Luke 19:36-40)
  • The Vinedresser’s Tree (Matthew 21:18-22; Luke 13:6-9)
  • Indignation (Matthew 21:12-17)
  • John’s Baptism (Mark 11:27-12:44)
  • The Scent of Opulence (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 13:3-13; John 12:1-8)
  • Thirteen Men (John 13:1-35)
  • The Last Cup (Mark 14:22-42, John 14)
  • Trial at Night (Matthew 26:47-68)
  • The Reckoning (Matthew 26:69-27:2; Mark 10:17-31)
  • What Is Truth? (John 18:28-19:16)
  • Crucifixion (Luke 23:26-46)
  • The Forgotten Day (Matthew 27:51-66)
  • He Is Not Here (Matthew 28:1-10; John 20:1-10)
  • Flesh and Bone (Matthew 28:11-15; John 20:11-29)
  • Do You Love Me? (John 21:1-23)
  • Behold the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53; Luke 24:1-35)
  • Behold the King of Glory (Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Corinthians 15:3-49; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Romans 8; Revelation 21)
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Tom Schreiner: A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS Execution of 21 Christians

Feb 16, 2015 | Justin Taylor

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Guest Post by Thomas R. Schreiner

Most of us have read the story of 21 Egyptian Christians kidnapped in Libya. An ISIS video showed about 12 of them being beheaded, and it is quite certain that all of them were murdered.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 7.59.17 AMWe Are Not Surprised

Jesus told us to expect persecution, teaching his disciples that unbelievers would hate us just as they hated him (John 15:18-20).

Jesus predicted that some of those who kill us “will think” they are “offering service to God” (John 16:2).

Even though most of us won’t lose our lives for Christ’s sake, we should not be surprised if we do. All of us need to be ready to surrender our lives for Christ. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

We Are More Than Conquerers

Jesus calls us “to be faithful unto death” to receive “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

Jesus also calls us to rejoice when persecuted, for it is a great honor to die for our Lord and Savior, and our reward will far exceed our suffering (Matt. 5:10-12; Acts 5:41). Naturally, we may be frightened and scared at such a prospect, worried that we don’t have the strength to suffer. And we don’t have the strength in ourselves, but God promises to be with us in the fire and the flood (Isa. 43:2), and he promises to give us grace to endure the hardest things. “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).

In dying for Christ’s sake, in not loving our “lives even unto death,” we are not losers but winners; we are not overcome by evil. Instead, we are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37; Rev. 12:11). Those who are slain for Christ’s sake come to life and reign with Jesus Christ (Rev. 20:4).

We Grieve with Those Who Grieve

Paul says that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Still, the matter is not simplistic, and life is not easy. We “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Paul said that if Epaphroditus had died he would experience “sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). Grief floods the hearts of those left behind.

We Pray for Both Our Enemies and Our Suffering Brothers and Sisters

We need a special grace to pray for the salvation of those who have done such a great evil.

We also pray for our brothers and sisters suffering around the world; we plead that God would grant them his joy and strength and perseverance to endure until the end.

We pray that God would protect them and sustain his church.

We Plead for God’s Just Judgment

At the same time, like the martyrs under the altar in Rev. 6:9-11, we cry, “O Sovereign Lord . . . how long?” When will you act and bring justice to this world? When will you vindicate your saints and judge the wicked for the sake of your great name?

The day of judgment is coming, the day when everything will be made right. Meanwhile, God is calling out many more to be his children, even among those who persecute us. We praise God both for his saving love and for his just judgment. And we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

Thomas R. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Professor of Biblical Theology, and associate dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest commentary is on the book of Hebrews for the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation Commentary (B&H) and he is currently completing a commentary on the book of Revelation for Crossway’s 12-volume ESV Bible Expository Commentary.

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6 Meanings of the Word “Evolution”

Feb 16, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 8.43.15 AMWisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker was recently asked by a reporter during a trade mission to London whether he is comfortable with and accepts “the idea of evolution.”

Walker, the son of a Baptist minister, responded: ”For me, I’m going to punt on that . . . That’s a question that a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” He later tweeted, “Both science & my faith dictate my belief that we are created by God. I believe faith & science are compatible, & go hand in hand.”

Ann Althouse writes that there are some evolution-related questions that a public official should be expected to answer, but this poorly phrased question wasn’t one of them.

David Harsanyi points out that “the same journalists who fixate on ‘science’ that makes the faithful look like slack-jawed yokels almost inevitably ignore science that has genuine moral and policy implications.” He provides a good list of questions that liberals are rarely asked about science (e.g., Does human life begin at conception? Is a 20-week old unborn child a human being?).

When Barack Obama was a candidate for president he famously said that the question of when a human is entitled to human rights was a question “above his pay grade” (despite the fact that everyone has to answer that question). And when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked “what is the moral difference between what [serial late-term abortionist] Dr. Gosnell did to a baby born alive at 23 weeks and aborting her moments before birth?” she likewise refused to answer, accusing the reporter of having an agenda. To my knowledge, Time magazine did not track down Obama or Pelosi’s high-school biology teachers to reprimand them on their non-answers, as Time recently (and bizarrely) did with Scott Walker.

But let’s return to the “idea of evolution.” Many Christians who enter the fray point out that “evolution” is an ambiguous term, and that we can distinguish between “macro-evolution” (grand-scale body-plan transformation of species) and “micro-evolution” (observable small-scale changes within a population over succeeding generations).

This is a helpful clarification, but the term is used even more elastically than that, and it’s helpful to pull it apart to note the multiple ways it can be used.

In an essay on “The Meanings of Evolution,”  Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas explain the six ways it is often used by scientists and advocates:

1. Evolution as Change Over Time

Nature has a history; it is not static. Natural sciences deal with evolution in its first sense—change over time in the natural world—when they seek to reconstruct series of past events to tell the story of nature’s history. Astronomers study the life cycles of stars; geologists ponder the changes in the earth’s surface; paleontologists note changes in the types of life that have existed over time, as represented in the sedimentary rock record (fossil succession); biologists note ecological succession within recorded human history, which may have, for example, transformed a barren island into a mature forested island community. Although the last example has little to do with neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, it still fits within the first general sense of evolution as natural historical progression or sequence of events.

2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change

Population geneticists study changes in the frequencies of alleles in gene pools. This very specific sense of evolution, though not without theoretical significance, is closely tied to a large collection of precise observations. The melanism studies of peppered moths, though currently contested, are among the most celebrated examples of such studies in microevolution. For the geneticist, gene frequency change is “evolution in action.”

3. Evolution as Limited Common Descent

Virtually all scientists (even many creationists) would agree that Darwin’s dozen or more famed Galapagos Island finch species are probably descended from a single continental South American finch species. Although such “evolution” did not occur during the brief time scale of the lives of scientists since Darwin (as in the case of the peppered moth), the pattern of biogeographical distribution of these birds strongly suggests to most scientists that all of these birds share a common ancestor. Evolution defined as “limited common descent” designates the scientifically uncontroversial idea that many different varieties of similar organisms within different species, genera, or even families are related by common ancestry. Note that it is possible for some scientists to accept evolution when defined in this sense without necessarily accepting evolution defined as universal common descent— that is, the idea that all organisms are related by common ancestry.

4. Evolution as a Mechanism that Produces Limited Change or Descent with Modification

The term evolution also refers to the mechanism that produces the morphological change implied by limited common descent or descent with modification through successive generations. Evolution in this sense refers chiefly to the mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic variation or mutations. This sense of the term refers to the idea that the variation/selection mechanism can generate at least limited biological or morphological change within a population. Nearly all biologists accept the efficacy of natural selection (and associated phenomena, such as the founder effect and genetic drift) as a mechanism of speciation. Even so, many scientists now question whether such mechanisms can produce the amount of change required to account for the completely novel organs or body plans that emerge in the fossil record. Thus, almost all biologists would accept that the variation/selection mechanism can explain relatively minor variations among groups of organisms (evolution meaning #4), even if some of those biologists question the sufficiency of the mechanism (evolution meaning #6) as an explanation for the origin of the major morphological innovations in the history of life.

5. Evolution as Universal Common Descent

Many biologists commonly use the term evolution to refer to the idea that all organisms are related by common ancestry from a single living organism. Darwin represented the theory of universal common descent or universal “descent with modification” with a “branching tree” diagram, which showed all present life forms as having emerged gradually over time from one or very few original common ancestors. Darwin’s theory of biological history is often referred to as a monophyletic view because it portrays all organisms as ultimately related as a single family

6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

The “blind watchmaker” thesis, to appropriate Richard Dawkins’s clever term, stands for the Darwinian idea that all new living forms arose as the product of unguided, purposeless, material mechanisms, chiefly natural selection acting on random variation or mutation. Evolution in this sense implies that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and other equally naturalistic processes) completely suffices to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms. Although Darwinists and neo-Darwinists admit that living organisms appear designed for a purpose, they insist that such “design” is only apparent, not real, precisely because they also affirm the complete sufficiency of unintelligent natural mechanisms (that can mimic the activity of a designing intelligence) of morphogenesis. In Darwinism, the variation/selection mechanism functions as a kind of “designer substitute.” As Dawkins summarizes the blind watchmaker thesis: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye.”

The authors conclude:

what we are calling “mere evolution” (evolution #1-4) is “one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have,” to use NAS language. Mere evolution encompasses a vast number of specific cosmological, geological, and biological theories that “incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences.”

On the other hand, . . .  a significant minority of scientists dissent on evidential grounds from the theory of universal common descent (evolution #5), and an even greater group dissents from the blind watchmaker hypothesis (evolution #6).

As for how evolution should be taught in public schools, and how Christian politicians who have doubts about evolution #5 and #6 above should respond, I think the perspective of the Discovery Institute makes good common sense:

Far from reducing the coverage of evolution, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. The true censors are those who want to stop any discussion of the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory. . . .  Discovery Institute recommends that states and school districts focus on teaching students more about evolutionary theory, including telling them about some of the theory’s problems that have been discussed in peer-reviewed science journals. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

Source: Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas, “The Meanings of Evolution,”  Stephen C. Meyer and Michael Newton Keas,  in Darwin, Design, and Public Education, Rhetoric and Public Affairs, ed. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2003), 135-56.

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A Theologian Wrestles with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ

Feb 14, 2015 | Justin Taylor

J. Todd Billings, the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, introduces his new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015):

rejPublisher’s description:

At the age of thirty-nine, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings’s journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God’s promises. Theologically robust yet eminently practical, it engages the open questions, areas of mystery, and times of disorientation in the Christian life. Billings offers concrete examples through autobiography, cultural commentary, and stories from others, showing how our human stories of joy and grief can be incorporated into the larger biblical story of God’s saving work in Christ.

Rejoicing in Lament is a profound witness to the gospel. I can hardly find words to express its intelligence, honesty, and richness.”
Gerald L. Sittser, Whitworth University; author of A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed

“Every chapter brims with pools of insight, pointing us beyond platitudes to the God who has met us–and keeps on meeting us–in the Suffering and Risen Servant. This is a book not just for reading but for meditation and prayer.”
Michael Horton, Westminster Seminary California

Rejoicing in Lament will touch and shape those who give pastoral care, and will offer hope and meaning for all Christians who face great suffering.”
Kathryn Greene-McCreight, the Episcopal Church at Yale; author of Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness

“Courageous, revealing, sometimes raw–this book reminds us that lament is an act of faith and that faith is a communal treasure. Billings’s testimony is that love is stronger than death. Unforgettable!”
Cornelius Plantinga Jr., author of Engaging God’s World

“Here there is no simplistic moralizing, but a persistently questing witness to a God who is present in the midst of life-changing sorrow. To read with Todd is to join him in struggle and faith, doubt and hope, lament and praise.”
Marianne Meye Thompson, Fuller Theological Seminary

“This profound and heartfelt book is for all Christians, for sooner or later we must all face the challenge of our own mortality.”
Carl R. Trueman, Westminster Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania

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3 Theses for Integrating Science and Theology

Feb 13, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 8.43.32 AMJ. P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989) is “an attempt to show that philosophy of science has much to contribute to the interface between science and theology” (248), with the goal “to help believers see that science and theology have interacted with each other and should” (13).

Moreland defends three theses:

1. There Is No One Definition of Science or Such a Thing as the Scientific Method that Excludes Philosophy or Theology

He writes:

First, there is no definition of science, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as science, no such thing as the scientific method, that can be used to draw a line of demarcation between science and nonscience.

Nothing about science essentially excludes philosophical or theological concepts from entering into its very fabric.

Science is not an airtight compartment isolated from other fields of study, and there is nothing unscientific about creation science.

This may seem counter-intuitive. No sufficient and necessary conditions for something to count as science? No one scientific method? Moreland explains the former in chapter 1 and the latter in chapter 2.

Defining science is largely a philosophical, not scientific, endeavor—the proper domain of philosophers not scientists: “The question of defining or stating necessary and sufficient conditions for science is in large measure philosophical. . . . The view that scientists are uniquely qualified to define science is due in large measure to an education system that emphasizes pragmatic considerations, stresses analysis instead of synthesis, and deemphasizes the humanities.”

On scientific methodology, Moreland writes “the claim that there is a fairly clear thing called the scientific method that distinguishes science from other fields of study like theology . . . is naive because it fails to take seriously both the nature of human action in general and the various issues involved in analyzing scientific methodology” (my emphasis).

Moreland concludes:

  1. “. . . the question of whether there is something called the scientific method is itself a philosophical question (and a historical one), not primarily a scientific question. Science enters the point of providing examples of scientific practices to analyze. But the analysis of scientific methodology is properly the domain of historians and philosophers of science” (101).
  2. “. . . there is not single thing called the scientific method. Such a notion is a myth for at least three reasons: 1) There is a debate about the relative merits of inductivism and a more eclectic model of science. 2) There are different areas of debate within the eclectic model of science. 3) Different areas of science and different stages in the development of some particular areas of science use different aspects of the various areas we have discussed in analyzing the eclectic mode.” (101)
  3. “. . . it is more proper to say that there is a family of methodologies used by various areas of science, methodologies that are only capable of broad characterization. So understood, disciplines outside science like theology can be shown to use various aspects of scientific methodology. The idea that science is a rational, truth-seeking discipline and theology is not is a widespread cultural myth. This myth often is promulgated by contending that science gains its status by its privileged use of specific methodology not available to theology. But such a claim is itself a myth—the myth of ostrich scientism—that needs to be laid to rest.” (101)

2. There Are Limits to Science

He writes:

Limits to science arise in a number of interesting ways, and these limits are sufficient to do two things:

1) They show that scientism—the view that science alone is a rational approach to the world that secures truth—is false.

2) They weaken the epistemic authority of science, depriving it of its claim to dominate or overrule theology and philosophy. The interaction between science and theology or philosophy is a dialogue, not a monologue.

3. An Eclectic Model of Science Should Be Used to Integrate Science and Theology

Finally, Moreland argues:

Attempts to integrate science and theology, including efforts to resolve apparent conflicts between them, should not automatically assume a view of science known as scientific realism.

Scientific realism, roughly defined, is the view that successful scientific theories are true or approximately true models of the theory-independent world.

A number of antirealist approaches to science agree that science works—it solves problems, gives us predictions, allows us to control nature and describe observations simply—but that its success does not indicate that scientific theories are true or approximately true.

An eclectic model of science, one that uses a realist or antirealist view of science on a case-by-case basis, should be used to integrate science and theology. (13-14)

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 8.23.52 AM

This is a very helpful book for thinking through the nature of science and the way in which philosophy and theology interact with it.

For more introductory books, see John A. Bloom’s new little book, The Natural Sciences: A Student’s Guide, and from an apologetics angle, John Lennox’s God’s Undertake: Has Science Buried God? 

Finally, even though it won’t be out until February 2016, you should keep an eye out for the forthcoming book by Mitch Stokes, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.

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John Frame: 12 Questions to Ask When Viewing a Film

Feb 11, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Here are the sorts of questions John Frame thinks about when watching a film:

  1. People. Who wrote the film? Who produced it? Who directed it? Do we know through the writings and previous work of these people anything about their philosophy of life? The previous works of actors are also important. Actors contribute much to the quality of a film, little to its fundamental conception. But actors do tend to sign on to projects with which they have some ideological affinity (assuming financial rewards are not otherwise determinative). . . . The presence of certain actors, granting that they sometimes go “against type,” can tell you something about the message of a film.
  2. Aesthetics. Is it well-made, aesthetically? Are the production and acting values of high quality? These factors may have little to do with the “message.” But they do tend to determine the extent of the film’s cultural impact, and that is important for our purposes. If a film is well-made, it can have a large impact upon the culture for good or ill. (Of course some bad films also have a major impact!)
  3. Honesty. Is it honest, true to its own position? This is another mark of “quality.” Generally speaking, an honest film, regardless of its point of view, will have a larger cultural impact than one which blunts its points.
  4. Genre. What kind of film is it? Fantasy? Biography? Realistic drama? Comedy? Obviously each film must be judged according to its purpose and genre. We don’t demand of a fantasy the kind of historical accuracy we demand of a supposedly literal biography.
  5. Worldview. What is the world view of the film? Is it theistic or atheistic? Christian or non-Christian? If non-Christian, is its main thrust relativistic or dogmatic? How does it employ the theme of “equality?” Is there any role for providence, for God? Is the film pessimistic or optimistic? Does the action move in deterministic fashion, or is there a significant role for human choice?
  6. Plot. What is the plot? What problems do the characters face? Can these problems be correlated in some way with the Fall of mankind in Adam? Does the film in effect deny the Fall, or does it affirm it in some way?
  7. Problems. Are the problems soluble? If so, how? What methods are available to the characters so that they can find the answers they need?
  8. Morality. What is the moral stance of the film? Is the film relativistic, dogmatic, or both in some combination? What are its attitudes toward sex, family, human life, property, truth, heart-attitudes? What is the source of moral norms, if any? Does justice prevail?
  9. Humor. In comedy, what is it that is funny? What are the typical incongruities? Who is the butt of the jokes? (Christians? traditional values? the wicked? the righteous? God? Satan?) Is the humor anarchic? Is it rationality gone awry? Is it bitter or gentle? Does it rely on caricatures? If so, of whom?
  10. Allusions. Are there allusions to historical events, literary works, other films, famous people, Scripture, etc. that would give us some idea where the filmmakers are coming from? We should remember, of course, that allusions may be negative, positive, ironic, or merely decorative. A biblical allusion does not necessarily indicate acceptance of biblical values.
  11. Images. What are the chief images of the film? Is there anything interesting about the lighting, the camera angles, the sound, the timing which would reinforce a particular theme? Are there significant symbols?
  12. Religion. Are there any explicit religious themes? Christ-figures? Does the film express significant attitudes toward Christ, the clergy, or the church? Does it distort Christianity or present it at its worst? Or does it present it with some insight and/or sympathy? Does it recognize the element of personal piety in people’s lives? There are exceptions. If so, does it approve or disapprove of it? What about Satan, the demons, the occult? Does the film recognize their activity in some way? Is the devil taken seriously? If so, how is he dealt with?
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An FAQ with Robert P. George on the Moral Purposes of Law and Governement

Feb 11, 2015 | Justin Taylor

RPG 2012Several years ago First Things published an essay entitled “Law and Moral Purpose” by Robert P. George, Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

I’ve taken a section of this essay and added questions, numbering, and italics, turning it into an “interview” of sorts.

What are the obligations and purposes of law and government?

(1) To protect

  • public health
  • safety
  • morals

(2) to advance

the general welfare—including, preeminently, protecting people’s fundamental rights and basic liberties.

Wouldn’t this require the granting of vast and sweeping powers to public authority?

No; the general welfare—the common good—requires that government be limited.

You distinguish between government’s primary and subsidiary roles. What are the government’s primary responsibilities?

Government’s responsibility is primary when the questions involve

(1) defending the nation from attack and subversion,

(2) protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and

(3) maintaining public order.

What are the subsidiary roles of the government?

The subsidiary role of government is to support the work of the

  • families,
  • religious communities, and
  • other institutions of civil society

that shoulder the primary burden of

  • forming upright and decent citizens,
  • caring for those in need,
  • encouraging people to meet their responsibilities to one another
  • while also discouraging them from harming themselves or others.

You’ve said that political morality requires (1) governmental respect for individual freedom and (2) the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority. Can you explain?

Government must not try to run people’s lives or usurp the roles and responsibilities of families, religious bodies, and other character- and culture-forming authoritative communities.

The usurpation of the just authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions is unjust in principle, often seriously so, and the record of big government in the twentieth century—even when it has not degenerated into vicious totalitarianism—shows that it does little good in the long run and frequently harms those it seeks to help.

What is the relationship between limited government and classic liberalism?

Limited government is a key tenet of classic liberalism—the liberalism of people like Madison and ­Tocqueville—although today it is regarded as a conservative ideal.

Does belief in limited government entail libertarianism?

No. The strict libertarian position, it seems to me, goes much too far in depriving government of even its subsidiary role.

(1) It underestimates the importance of maintaining a reasonably healthy moral ecology, especially for the rearing of children, and

(2) it misses the legitimate role of government in supporting the nongovernmental ­institutions that shoulder the main burden of assisting those in need.

What truths is libertarianism responding to?

Libertarianism responds to certain truths about big government, especially in government’s bureaucratic and managerial dimensions. Economic freedom cannot guarantee political liberty and the just autonomy of the ­institutions of civil society, but, in the absence of ­economic liberty, other honorable personal and institutional freedoms are rarely secure. Moreover, the ­concentration of economic power in the hands of ­government is something every true friend of civil ­liberties should, by now, have learned to fear.

What else does libertarianism respond to?

There is an even deeper truth—one going beyond economics—to which libertarianism responds: Law and government exist to protect human persons and secure their well-being. It is not the other way round, as communist and other forms of collectivist ideology suppose. Individuals are not cogs in a social wheel. Stringent norms of political justice forbid persons to be treated as mere servants or instrumentalities of the state. These norms equally exclude the sacrificing of the dignity and rights of persons for the sake of some supposed “greater overall good.”

How do you respond to those who want to severe the ideas of limited government and moral truth?

It is a profound mistake to suppose that the principle of limited government is (1) rooted in the denial of moral truth or (2) a putative requirement of governments to refrain from acting on the basis of judgments about moral truth.


Our commitment to limited government is itself the fruit of moral conviction—conviction ultimately founded on truths that our nation’s founders proclaimed as self-evident: namely “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What’s at the foundation of this proposition?

That each human being possesses a profound, inherent, and equal dignity simply by virtue of his nature as a rational creature—a creature possessing, albeit in limited measure (and in the case of some human beings merely in root or rudimentary form), the Godlike powers of reason and freedom—powers that make possible such human and humanizing phenomena as intellectual inquiry, aesthetic appreciation, respect for self and others, friendship, and love.

This great truth of natural law, which is at the heart of our civilizational and civic order, has its theological expression in the biblical teaching that man, unlike the brute animals, is made in the image and likeness of the divine creator and ruler of the universe.

What do you think about a pragmatic approach to these issues?

We must not adopt a merely pragmatic understanding or speak only of practical considerations in addressing the pressing issues of our day. Sound positions cannot be ­effectively advanced and defended by citizens and statesmen who are unwilling or unable to engage moral arguments.

That is why we should, in my opinion, rededicate ourselves to understanding and making the moral argument for the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, and the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of one man and one woman.

Are you saying that practical considerations should, or even can, be left out of the argument?

No. In a proper understanding of morality, practical considerations are not “merely” practical.

Can you give some examples?

The moral case for the reform of unilateral-divorce laws includes reference to the devastating, poverty-inducing, crime-promoting social consequences of the collapse of a healthy marriage culture and the role of unilateral divorce in contributing to the collapse.

The moral argument for restoring legal protection to the unborn includes reference to the adverse psychological and, in some cases, physical consequences of abortion on many women who undergo the procedure.

Our task should be to understand the moral truth and speak it in season and out of season.

What do the pure pragmatists urge?

We will be told by the pure pragmatists that the public is too far gone in moral relativism or even moral delinquency to be reached by moral argument. We will be advised to frame arguments in coded language so as not to scare off the soccer moms or whoever is playing their role in the next election cycle.

But you believe this must be resisted. Why?

We must, to be sure, practice the much-neglected and badly underrated virtue of prudence. But we must have faith that truth is luminously powerful, so that if we bear witness to the truth about, say, marriage and the sanctity of human life—lovingly, civilly, but also passionately and with determination—and if we honor the truth in advancing our positions, then even many of our fellow citizens who now find themselves on the other side of these issues will come around.

Why does speaking of “truth” frighten some people today?

They evidently believe that people who claim to know the truth about anything—and especially about moral matters—are fundamentalists and potential totalitarians.

But, as Hadley Arkes has patiently explained, those on the other side of the great debates over social issues such as abortion and marriage make truth claims—moral truth claims—all the time.

  • They assert their positions with no less confidence and no more doubt than one finds in the advocacy of pro-lifers and defenders of conjugal marriage.
  • They proclaim that women have a fundamental right to abortion.
  • They maintain that “love makes a family” and other strong and controversial moral claims.

The question, then, is not whether there are truths about such things as the morality of abortion and the nature of marriage; the question in each case is, What is true?

What do you think about incrementalism in politics?

Of course, politics is the art of the possible. And, as Frederick Douglass reminded us in his tribute to Lincoln, public opinion and other constraints sometimes limit what can be done at the moment to advance any just cause. The pro-life movement has in recent years settled on an incrementalist strategy for protecting nascent human life. So long as incrementalism is not a euphemism for surrender or neglect, it can be entirely honorable. Planting premises in the law whose logic demands, in the end, full respect for all members of the human family can be a valuable thing to do, even where those premises seem modest.

Fully just law would protect all innocent human life. Yet sometimes this is not, or not yet, possible in the concrete political circumstances of the moment.

[You can read the whole essay here.]

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9 Ways to Find a Movie’s Worldview of Redemption

Feb 10, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Screenwriter and reviewer Brian Godawa (who wrote the screenplay for the excellent film, To End All Wars) suggests what to look for in order to understand a movie’s vision of redemption, which is a key part of its worldview:

1. Look for the protagonist and the antagonist.

Consider whose side you are on. With the tendency in modern cinema toward relativism, the graying of right and wrong, and the villification of virtue, heros are becoming more like villains and villains more like heros.

  • Is the protagonist a hero with a fault to overcome . . . ?
  • Or is the hero a villain made sympathetic through endearing traits . . . ?
  • Are you rooting for bad guys to get away with crime simply because they’re played by some ”cool” actor . . . ?
  • Has the villain been linked to the “evils” of traditional morality and religion . . . ?

Remember: the protagonist/hero and antagonist/villain represent worldviews in competition for the way we ought to live.

2. Look for the hero’s weakness/fault/need.

Right from the start you should be able to recognize what the hero wants and what keeps him from attaining it. What is the way he looks at the world or lives in it that is not quite right? Look first at his behavior, but then for his rationale for his beliefs or behavior. This is the setting of his need for redemption.

But also look for the same thing from a different angle in surrounding characters. Their faults will usually be reflections of the main character. And their outcomes reflect contrasting aspects of the same theme.

3. Look for the hero’s self-revelation.

The point near the end of the movie where the hero has his speech about what he learned or how he changed his mind is the redemption of the story. This is how the storytellers think we ought or ought not to live in this world.

4. Look for the opponent’s rationale.

Why does the opponent do what he does? This is also usually a speech of some sort early on or revealed near the end in confrontation with the hero. This view is what the movie wants us to decide against in our lives. Remember, even exaggeration in a character can be a subtle reflection of a less extreme viewpoint. . . .

5. Look for the factors that make the characters change their minds and why.

This is the means of redemption offered by the movie. . . .

6. Look for the four “W”s.

  • Who wins?
  • Who loses?
  • Who dies?
  • And why?

Whoever wins is usually the storyteller’s model of how we ought to be and whoever loses is usually the storyteller’s admonition of how we ought not to be. And if the writing is clever enough, it will make the winners and losers closely represent actual ways that people think in the world.

Whoever dies is often the “weaker” viewpoint that cannot survive in this world. . . .  But be careful. Death can be tricky. The context of death can have the opposite effect. . . .

7. Look for consequences to behavior.

If a behavior doesn’t end in negative consequences then it is often being considered legitimate. . . . If behaviors or beliefs result in bad consequences then they are undesirable character traits for society. . . .

8. Look for repeating phrases.

Often, a phrase will be repeated throughout the film that focuses attention on what the storyteller is trying to communicate. . . .

9. Look at how it ends.

This is simple enough, but often missed. Do the bad guys get away . . . ? If so, then the movie’s message is that crime does pay.

If the bad guys are caught, as in most movies, then part of the message is that crime does not pay.

But don’t forget the nature of morality tales that waken us up to our own ignorance by showing how evil can win if we fail to do the right thing. . . .

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Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Southern White Evangelicals: A Historians Forum (Carolyn Dupont)

Feb 10, 2015 | Justin Taylor

The movie Selma reminds us that white clergy protested and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and other African Americans in the 1960s on behalf of Civil Rights. But it also reminds us—as Anthony Bradley recently observed—that many of those clergy were from the North and were Protestant mainliners, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and Roman Catholic. One has to wonder: where were the conservative evangelicals?

I recently posed the following questions to several historians who have studied segregation and religion in the Southern United States during the years of Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Did white evangelicals in the South respond to the civil rights movement in different ways from their counterparts in other parts of the United States? Is it fair to say that the majority not only refused to engage but actively opposed it? If so, what historical forces formed their particular responses and attitudes? How did evangelical theologies form or undermine their engagement?

I will be posting the historians’ answers at this blog throughout the week. The first three historians were Matt Hall (SBC), Sean Lucas (PCA), and Rusty Hawkins (Wesleyan).

dupont_cropped_mug_fall_2013 Carolyn Renée Dupont is assistant professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY, and the author of the book, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (NYU Press, 2013).


* * *

Simply put, any suggestion that the religion of southern whites aided the civil rights struggle grossly perverts the past. While many evangelicals displayed kindness in their personal dealings with blacks, most nonetheless enthusiastically defended a system designed to advantage whites and to correspondingly disadvantage African Americans at every turn. It is true that every major denomination in the United States embraced the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. However, the picture looks very different at the local level, where southern evangelicals more often fought ferociously against any effort to dismantle the system of white supremacy. While my research has focused on evangelicals in the state of Mississippi, much of what I learned would apply to other parts of the South. The unique factors of other states or regions might make the landscape somewhat different.

Ways in Which Evangelicals Resisted Black Equality

MPEvangelicals resisted black equality in many ways. Some ministers preached an overt biblical sanction for segregation. Most preachers took a more oblique approach, remaining silent about the subject of black equality while condemning faith-based civil rights activism as “a prostitution of the church for political purposes.” Most southern Christians did not regard segregation as a sin, and they resented those who criticized their “way of life.” They rejected efforts from their denominations to educate them into more enlightened racial views and frequently withheld funds from agencies in the church who advocated for equality. They sacked pastors who embraced any aspect of the freedom struggle. They formed lay organizations to keep their churches segregated; many individual congregations adopted formal resolutions instructing their deacons to reject black worshippers. When school integration became unavoidable, white evangelicals forsook the public schools in droves in favor of new private schools sponsored by their churches.

Exceptions to the Generalizations

Certainly, we do well to remember the few notable exceptions to these generalizations. Some progressives challenged white supremacy, but they remained clustered at the seminaries, denominational headquarters, and on the mission field. Pastors occasionally spoke out, but their congregations often responded with ferocious censure, a reaction that demonstrates the sentiments of the masses. Some white evangelicals initiated noble efforts like rebuilding black churches that white extremists had burned. However, we should not confuse such efforts with advocacy for the end of segregation. As the historian Charles Payne has noted, often these endeavors demonstrate objections “to the use of violence in the defense of white supremacy, not to white supremacy itself.”

Northern Christians and Segregation

Your question raises the issue of northern Christians and their responses to the demise of segregation. Because photographs of events like the Selma March feature white ministers, we often assume that northern people of faith actively embraced the movement. This assumption needs investigating. It is true that northern ministers participated in the southern struggle, but they represented the least evangelical and most “liberal” elements in American religion. They came largely from the ranks of the Episcopal, Presbyterian (UPCUSA), Unitarian, Disciples of Christ and Methodist faiths (and from the “liberals” within those faiths), the very branches of American Protestantism that evangelicals have decried for their misguided theology. Furthermore, clerical support for the movement did not necessarily translate to the support of rank-and-file church members. My own preliminary research into the question of northern Christians’ responses to the movement indicates that a deep lay-clerical divide ran through northern congregations when it came to issues of black equality. Some northern ministers encountered serious opposition from their congregations when they advocated for black equality.

Evangelical Theology

Evangelical theology itself undermined whites’ ability to constructively engage with the demands of black activists. Generally speaking, the most theologically conservative Christians often opposed the movement for black equality most vigorously. Evangelicalism focused overwhelmingly on regenerating the individual and depicted all social problems as merely the sum of individual problems. Thus, they blamed blacks themselves for failing to equal the standards of whites, and could not grasp how segregated and unfair institutions erected insurmountable obstacles to black aspirations. In evangelical thinking, salvation, not social change, offered the answer to black failures and frustrations. However, the salvation of every person in the entire country could not correct the problems of inferior education, limited economic opportunities, discriminatory legal arrangements, and a host of other systems that rendered black Americans second-class citizens. These entrenched and systemic injustices required change in structures, not in individuals.

Moral Suasion and Social Change

Finally, the role that religion played in thwarting the civil rights struggle raises important questions about the effectiveness of moral suasion in creating social change. Moral suasion often proves one of the least effective ways to create change. People too easily distort, circumvent, rationalize or dispatched with moral arguments. Individuals with a vested interest in a system—as whites had (and have) in the racial hierarchy—often fail to grasp the evils of that system and will fight mightily to preserve it. And perhaps that is the bottom line: whites have benefitted from America’s racial hierarchy, and it should not really surprise us that white religious traditions have shored up these advantages. Nor should it surprise us that religion did not help pull them down.

Editors’ note: The 2015 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership Summit, sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26 and 27, 2015. To learn more go here. Save 20 percent when you use the code TGC20.

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Proverbs for Publishing

Feb 09, 2015 | Justin Taylor

James K. A. Smith, editor of Comment magazine, reflects on the publishing of journals:

I want to begin at 30,000 feet, thinking about the “big picture” of why we’re doing what we’re doing and then slowly descend to some maxims that are at least a little closer to the ground of practicality.  You might just think of these as a collection of proverbs from an editor in media res.

Here are his five big-picture exhortations:

  1. Fill the Earth
  2. Target Influencers
  3. Curate the World
  4. Publish to be Overheard
  5. Extend the Sacramental

He then offers four concrete principles editors should keep in mind, and I think they are worth quoting at length:

Always Be Editing | Editing isn’t just an assignment or a task; it’s kind of a way of life.  You are always on the lookout.  You need to be both fueling your own imagination [I’ll talk more about this tomorrow] and looking out on the world.  You need to be both investing in your knowledge and deepening your convictions while curating the world for your readers.  You need to keep an ear to the ground to discern what we need to be talking about it but also keep an eye on the horizon to see the up-and-coming writers who are going to help us winsomely make sense of our world.  You don’t “do” editing; you are an editor.

Take Joy in Others | A good editor is someone who finds joy in fostering the work of others.  If you always need to be center stage, or if you always need to get credit, you won’t be a very good editor.  Much of what an editor does never sees the light of day.  The labor of conceiving, crafting, and critique articles alongside their authors will sometimes be thankless.  But if you’re a good editor, your writers should be able to concede that despite the fact you pushed back on them, and half of the first draft is on the cutting room floor, the article is now better.  No reader is ever going to know your role in that.  To be an editor is to take joy in being the skeleton not the skin.

Ideas Matter Too Much to Tolerate Bad Writing | You don’t have to choose between form and content.  And you certainly shouldn’t choose one over the other.  Our incarnational or sacramental conviction means, in some sense, that we eschew the very distinction between form and content.  Good form is its own kind of thinking; clear, powerful, winsome, captivating writing is an argument.

Here’s the disheartening realization I’ve had since becoming an editor: there just aren’t that many Christian intellectuals who are good writers.  I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant or dismissive.  But it has been my experience: there are hoards of scholars who wouldn’t know a winsome sentence if it hit them upside the head.  And there are hoards of bloggers who traffic in the poignant turn of phrase but have nothing to say.  The club of thoughtful Christian cultural commenters who are also good writers is discouragingly small.  [Here’s a plug for all of you: please become the solution to this problem!]

Editors need to have the sensibility to recognize good (and bad) writing, and then the courage to both demand and cultivate winsome writing from authors.  Now, you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration by just identifying writers who already have these gifts.  But you can also cultivate such writers by investing in the process. I’m convinced that any good author welcomes such editing.  (To be edited is to be loved, I tell my authors.)

Resist Easy Metrics | How do you know if you are successful as an editor and as a magazine?  It’s harder than you might think.  This is in part because the sort of cultural influence exercised by a magazine can often be a long game—it’s like growing an oak tree rather than growing asparagus.  The fruit of your labors might even be enjoyed by your successors.  Measuring success for such ventures is incredibly difficult.  You often won’t know the impact you’re having.

I don’t want to give excuses for retreating to the anecdotal or insulating our endeavors from accountability.  It’s just that there is something unquantifiable about the sort of cultural work we’re talking about.

At the very least I know this: Comboxes and social media are not barometers of influence; they are just easy metrics of popularity.  Those are two very different things.  Don’t judge your influence by page views or “Likes” or retweets.  I know this is easier said than done.  But we need to resist the cheap, quick feedback of a click-bait culture.  It’s heartbreaking to watch previously thoughtful magazines slowly become little more than Facebook feeds clamoring for emotive responses.  I would trade 10,000 “likes” for one substantive engagement from a reader who is—or one day will be—a thought leader in society.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Southern White Evangelicals: A Historians Forum (Rusty Hawkins)

Feb 09, 2015 | Justin Taylor

The movie Selma reminds us that white clergy protested and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and other African Americans in the 1960s on behalf of Civil Rights. But it also reminds us—as Anthony Bradley recently observed—that many of those clergy were from the North and were Protestant mainliners, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and Roman Catholic. One has to wonder: where where the conservative evangelicals?

I recently posed the following questions to several historians who have studied segregation and religion in the Southern United States during the years of Jim Crow and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Did white evangelicals in the South respond to the Civil Rights Movement in different ways from their counterparts in other parts of the United States? Is it fair to say that the majority not only refused to engage but actively opposed it? If so, what historical forces formed their particular responses and attitudes? How did evangelical theologies form or undermine their engagement?

The first two historians were Matt Hall (SBC) and Sean Lucas (PCA). Today we welcome a Wesleyan to the blog. I will post the remaining two this week.

THJ. Russell (Rusty) Hawkins
 (PhD, Rice University) is an associate professor of humanities and history at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is currently finishing  a book manuscript titled Sacred Segregation: White Evangelicals and Civil Rights in South Carolina (Louisiana State University Press, forthcoming), and is the co-editor of Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion after Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2013). He has also begun researching a new project on  the white flight of churches from urban America in the second half of the twentieth century.

* * *

There are two historical narratives about white evangelicals’ role in the civil rights movement; neither is cause for praise.

1. Evangelical Apathetic Non-Involvement with the Civil Rights Movement

I can tell the first narrative succinctly using a set of documents I came across a few years ago while doing research in the archival papers of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Among boxes of financial statements and press clippings, I came upon a cache of letters that the NAE received in 1964 and 1965 from anxious white evangelicals across the country. These evangelicals were concerned that the NAE was offering support to the civil rights movement, thereby becoming indistinguishable from the (more liberal) National Council of Churches or the (more Catholic) National Catholic Welfare Agency. Those anxious evangelicals needn’t have worried. Contrary to false reports about the NAE throwing its weight behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the association had instead come to the conclusion that civil rights “is not the business of the church; so the NAE has strictly stayed out of this area.”[1] The following March, when Martin Luther King Jr. called for ministers from around the country to descend on Selma, Alabama, to support black voting rights, the NAE again demurred, this time stating that the association “has a policy of not becoming involved in political or sociological affairs that do not affect the function of the church or those involved in the propagation of the gospel.”[2]

In the narrative above, white evangelicals were simply a nonfactor in civil rights: although they would not support the meaning or the methods of the civil rights movement, they nonetheless would not actively oppose the movement’s ultimate goals. For many white evangelicals today, this history represents something of a best-case scenario. After all, it is no secret that the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals missed the boat when it came to the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Casting evangelical apathy toward civil rights as the result of naïve or misguided notions about the political nature of the movement, therefore, at least offers an explanation of how white evangelicals could have failed so miserably during the national drama of the civil rights years. This history also offers a shorter road to redemption. If evangelicals’ previous social justice shortcomings were merely the result of failing to see the overlap of the sacred and the secular, the only corrective needed going forward is a broader understanding of which issues the church must engage today.

2. Evangelical Active Opposition to the Civil Rights Movement: Hermeneutics of Segregation

But, there is a lesser known—or lesser discussed, anyway—history of evangelicals’ encounter with civil rights in the American South that must be told given the outsized influence southern evangelicalism has had on the broader American evangelical movement. Unfortunately, it is a much darker story with a more damning legacy. To state it plainly, the majority of southern white evangelicals actively opposed the civil rights movement in its various manifestations in the middle decades of the twentieth century because they saw it as a violation of God’s design for racial segregation.

In researching evangelicals in South Carolina I discovered that these conservative white Christians utilized a biblical hermeneutic of segregation to oppose everything related to racial integration from the 1954 Brown decision to the bussing of public school children in the early 1970s. In their reading of Scripture, God was the author of segregation and therefore demanded evangelical resistance to integration at every turn.

In the public sphere this opposition meant that many evangelicals assisted in organizing Citizens Councils to thwart civil rights initiatives while petitioning their political leaders to stand firm in their segregationist convictions with the assurance that “we in the South will not mix because it is not God’s plan.”[3]

Intramural opposition to racial integration in evangelical circles was even more vociferous. Throughout South Carolina, ministers who suggested integrating their churches were dismissed from their pulpits and when the state’s Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian colleges finally desegregated in the mid-1960s, white evangelicals withheld both their financial support and their children from the institutions. As late as 1969 South Carolina leaders still received letters from constituents reminding them that it was “against [our] religion to mix. It’s in the Bible that you’re not supposed to mix races.”[4] In their public advocacy of God’s desire for segregation, their maintenance of segregated churches, and their fleeing of desegregated public schools, southern evangelicals from the 1950s through the early 1970s demonstrated that the hermeneutic of segregation exerted a powerful force over their thought and actions.

As a growing number of latter-day southern white evangelicals begin pursuing racial justice, recognition that a substantial percentage of their forebears opposed the civil rights movement on religious grounds becomes ever more imperative. A hermeneutic of segregation helped produce today’s society. Achieving racial justice, then, will require evangelicals to grapple with this historical truth and counteract its historical residue. If a hermeneutic of segregation justified white flight, its historical residue makes it possible to view evidence of deeply entrenched residential segregation with an untroubled conscience. If a hermeneutic of segregation justified a retreat to segregated private schools, its historical residue has allowed the resegregation of public schools to proceed unabated. And if a hermeneutic of segregation justified maintaining segregated sanctuaries, its historical residue is profoundly felt in surveys reporting that, while 11:00 Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour of the week, most white Christians are just fine with that.


[1] Clyde W. Taylor to W.R. Kliewer, March 23, 1965, National Association of Evangelical Papers, Box 52, Folder “Civil Rights 1965.”

[2] “Memo for Dr. Taylor,” March 12, 1965, National Association of Evangelicals Papers, Box 52, Folder “Civil Rights 1965.”

[3] Fred Hulon to Strom Thurmond, February 12, 1958, Strom Thurmond Papers, Subject Correspondence Series 1958, Box 24, Folder “Segregation I.”

[4] Betty Watson to Strom Thurmond, October 4, 1969, Strom Thurmond Papers, Subject Correspondence Series 1969, Box 4, Folder “Civil Rights VII.”


Editors’ note: The 2015 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Leadership Summit, sponsored by The Gospel Coalition, will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26 and 27, 2015. To learn more go here. Save 20 percent when you use the code TGC20.


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