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More Arguments That Are Less Than Meets the Eye

Dec 05, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

Three years ago I wrote a post about six popular arguments that should be less persuasive than they often are.

1. The Big Nasty. One of the best ways to discredit your opponent is to give his position a nasty sounding name.

2. The Third Way. That Isn’t. The problem is when people argue for a third way like it’s the only sane option between two crazy extremes.

3. Categorize and Conquer. Once you’ve assigned the categories you’ve already given the strong impression that no one view is more correct than another. You sit above the whole mess and can see the parts of a larger whole.

4. Preemptive Strikes. This approach doesn’t anticipate arguments, it merely tries to preempt them by defining would-be opponents in unflattering terms.

5. Affirm Then Deny. In this approach you simply say one thing and then say the opposite. “I’m not saying you’re fat, I’m just saying your grossly overweight.”

6. We’ve Been Wrong, So You Are Wrong. The argument usually goes like this: “I can’t believe you are holding to these outdated beliefs. Sure, you think the Bible is on your side, but Christians used to think the sun went around the earth, and Christians used to defend slavery from the Bible.”

If you traffic the blogosphere, or just scroll down Hootsuite or your Facebook page, you will find these arguments in abundance. And they very often carry the day. But on closer inspection, the reasoning is often much less than meets the eye.

Like these four other arguments, which, when combined with the original give us an even ten.

7. One Story to Rule Them All. People love stories. People are moved by stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. Conservatives probably need to improve in their ability to make their ideas powerful through the use of stories. But just because someone has a gut-wrenching story does not mean the position they are advocating is morally praiseworthy. We see this kind of argument all the time. If the Democrats want to pass Obamacare, they will tell the story of some sorry soul who can’t get healthcare because he inherited a tragic condition. And if the Republicans want to overturn Obamacare, they will tell the story of a sad family who lost their favorite doctor and now can’t afford their old health plan. We respond to these stories and think, “That’s terrible. That’s not fair. Something must be done to help these people!” That’s a fine reaction, but it doesn’t mean the proposed plan will be effective or prudent.

Public policy always deals in tradeoffs, so if we are going to do more than feel knee-jerk sympathy for people we must learn to think beyond stage one (as Thomas Sowell calls it). This is especially true when debating economic policies or budget proposals. If the government spends a trillion dollars, somebody is going to helped by that. There will be stories to tell. The money isn’t just flushed down the toilet (although, you never know). Likewise, if funding is cut for something, someone will be hurt. With 300 million people in the country, someone is bound to be adversely affected by almost every policy decision. We have to see that there are always tradeoffs. Money doesn’t grow on trees. You can’t print it without negative ramifications either. We have to look at the whole picture and not just the one story that brings a tear to our eye.

8. Unequal Stats Equal Discrimination. This argument is tricky because there may be merit to it, but by itself it doesn’t prove anything.  It’s an easy argument to make and convincing to many people, but life is more complicated to expect that every field, every profession, every school, every conference, every department, every political body, every denominational committee, and every industry will equally represented by across the spectrum of gender, race, sexual preference, and religious belief. We tend to be highly selective in using the unequal representation argument, employing it when our issue is at stake and ignoring it in most of our day to day lives.

9. Some People With Your Beliefs Are Stupid. Human beings are fallible. We don’t live up to our ideals. Our hearts can find a way to twist any good idea, act in utterly inconsistent ways, and use the best of beliefs to justify the worst of behavior. Just like meeting one really nice Nazi family man does not make The Final Solution a good idea, so meeting one nutty homeschool dad does not make all of conservative Christianity a joke. If Jesus had Judas, we are bound to have some undesirables in our camps too.

10. We Feel Bad So Your Arguments Must Be Bad. Again, like most of these weak arguments, there is something important to consider. As Christians, we do care about others and don’t want to hurt people. But some people are easily hurtable. In fact, some people are looking for every opportunity to be offended, aghast, appalled, outraged, and generally put out. Can you imagine if Jesus gave in to the professional offense-takers in his day? He would have shut down his ministry after a couple weeks. Rational discourse in our day has been hijacked by those who operate with the less than cogent, but incredibly powerful, philosophical principle: I hurt, therefore I am right.

More and more, I’m convinced that one of the chief apologetic aims in our day is to get people to think. An introductory course on logic could really serve the cause of the gospel among younger generations.

What bad arguments do you run into over and over?

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Sola 13 in Lansing, John Piper at URC

Dec 04, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

It’s not too late to sign up for Sola 13. We are expecting 2,500 people this Friday and Saturday at the Lansing Convention Center. Many people have worked many hours to put this event together (thanks Jason, thanks Sam, thanks everyone else). It should be a terrific two days.

I am very excited about this conference:

1. Because it is cool to see an event of this caliber in little ole Lansing.

2. And because the conference is geared for lay people as much as for pastors and ministry leaders. I was thrilled to hear a number of our people at church on Sunday say, “I can’t wait for this weekend. I’ve never been a Christian conference like this in my whole life.” While there are certainly a plethora of good conferences, we can forget that most people in most churches are nowhere near “over-conferenced.” Most have never been.

Join us this weekend as we hear:

Noel Heikkinen on Sola
Kevin DeYoung on Ad Fontes
Matt Chandler on Sola Fide
Leonce Crump on Sola Gratia
Stephen Um on Solus Christus
Albert Mohler on Sola Scriptura
John Piper on Soli Deo Gloria

If you can’t be with us, the messages will be recorded and a free simulcast is available.

Also, John Piper will be preaching at University Reformed Church this Sunday morning (9:00/11:00). The church is located at 841 Timberlane St. in East Lansing (off of Burcham, a half mile east of Hagadorn and a mile north of Grand River).

No word yet on whether Piper will be watching the Big Ten Championship game with the rest of East Lansing on Saturday night.

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Seven Thoughts on Pastors Writing Books

Dec 03, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

Rewind my life six years and I would tell you that one of my biggest dreams in life is to get a book published. I hoped that someday, somehow, somewhere, for somebody I would be able to write a book. I never dreamt I would have that opportunity so soon and so often. It’s much more than I deserve.

Since 2008, when Why We’re Not Emergent came out, I’ve done a lot of writing and a lot thinking about writing. With Stephen Furtick in the news for his mansion-to-be and Mark Driscoll facing accusations (and some evidence within his ministry) of plagiarism, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down a few thoughts on pastors writing books.

1. Writing for others is a privilege. That someone should listen to me is pretty nice. That someone would take days or weeks to work through something I’ve written is remarkable. That someone would pay money to do so is amazing. Writing is hard work, but authors should never forget that to be read is also a tremendous gift.

2. Writing should be in the service of others. I have no problem with Christian publishing houses trying to make money. They have bills to pay. They can run a business on good will and pious aspirations. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with authors—even pastor authors—being paid for their work (more on this in a moment). It doesn’t even bother me that some authors would write mainly to make a living. But if we are talking about pastors, then surely our writing must be an effort to serve others. If you are in ministry and want to get a book published so you can “arrive” or can be “somebody” or can speak at the top conferences, you better check your heart. And if you are a pastor who is seen as having “arrived” and being “somebody,” that person should check his heart every day.

I think I can honestly say that my desire to write and be published was mostly about a passion to say something worthwhile and a love for writing. I was thrilled when my first book (Freedom and Boundaries) was self-published. This meant my elders could read it, my church could read it, my parents could read it. I wasn’t thinking about anything bigger. I just wanted some of my ideas to get out there. But I also know I have to remind myself of these motives often. It’s easy to start with the best of intentions and end up being an author for all the wrong reasons—because someone tells you it’s time to publish another book, because you want another pay day, because you want to climb the ladder of ministry success. All of us who write must constantly ask the question: am I really doing this to serve others or to serve myself?

3. Writing should be kept in proportion. I’m glad I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones before I ever wrote a book because I can hear the Doctor in the back of my head saying, “The pastor is first of all a preacher and not a writer.” There is nothing wrong with being a writer first, but that’s simply not the calling of a pastor. I need to be a faithful preacher and a caring shepherd before I am a good writer. I’m very fortunate to have a church that values study and supports me in my writing. But I owe it to them, and to my calling as a pastor, to make sure that I do not become an author who pastors a church on the side.

4. Writing should be kept in perspective. Virtually nothing we are publishing today will be read in 20 years, let alone 50 or 100 or 500. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published. It just means authors should not believe their own press clippings (or Facebook likes, or Twitter followers). I cringe every time I see another Christian author talk about his most important book EVER! or his new work that will revolutionize everything about everything. If an older man publishes his magnum opus, let the accolades roll in. But when 30somethings and 40somethings marvel slack-jawed at their own writings—sheesh. It’s embarrassing.

5. Writing should be overseen with accountability. I don’t think there is only one formula for how pastors handle royalties or how they manage writing time “on the clock” or “off the clock.” When I started writing more I asked a number of pastors I respected how they handled royalties. The responses were all over the map. It’s not a simple matter to determine how writing fits into a pastor’s ministry. On the one hand, churches usually benefit from pastors who write. It sharpens their thinking, feeds the congregation, expands the church’s “footprint,” and often enables the pastor to meet new people who become great friends and resources for the church. On the other hand, pastors must be honest that some of their writing (and all that is associated with the release of a book) is bound to take place on church time. More than that, they may sell their books to parishioners, use office staff for book related projects, and devote no small amount of their energies to a task that is not essential to the church’s ministry.

After my first or second book I made a point to set up an oversight committee comprised of three of my elders. I asked them to provide feedback on future projects and to work with me on a financial arrangement that seemed fair. I meet with this committee every few months. They have to approve my travel schedule and my major writing projects. They also get a detailed accounting of my finances every year. Our arrangement is that I give at least 25% of all royalties and honoraria to the church. We revisit this issue annually to see if the arrangement still makes sense. I am an open book with them, and they can ask me whatever they want (also, my salary is voted on by our consistory every year and any member of the church can see every line of my salary and benefits if they want to prior to voting on the budget). It’s been an invaluable process and the men have provided me with invaluable relationships. There is no one way to work with a pastor-author, except that there should be some governing body within his church that encourages, approves, and holds him accountable.

6. Writing should be done by the person whose name is on the cover. Several years ago I was reading through the final theology paper that graduating seminary students in our classis are required to write. As I kept reading I began to notice familiar phrases. Then I saw whole sentences or paragraphs that made me think, “Haven’t I read this before?” And then it dawned on me. I had read these sentences before, because I wrote them. This graduating senior had plagiarized the theology paper I had given to the same classis a few years before. We got together and talked through the issue in person. He was contrite and I chalked up his plagiarism to laziness and ignorance more than to malice. But what he had done was still wrong and a serious infraction (he ended up dropping out of the ordination process).

Whether in sermons or in print, it’s not okay for pastors to take credit for something that is not theirs. Granted, the lines can be blurry. But that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. And just because it feels like the sin of sloth more than the sin of theft doesn’t make it less of an error.

And the same goes for ghostwriting and some research services. Again, I realize there is a place for people to help authors with editing, with research, with tracking down footnotes, with providing information and ideas. Every book is, in some degree, a collaborative process. But the simple fact is that for 99% of the reading public they assume that if your name is on the cover of a book that you wrote the book. If someone took your ideas and worked them into prose, then at least there should be a “with so-and-so.” If someone heavily edited your sermon transcripts into a well-crafted book, they should get some serious mention in the acknowledgements. And if research companies are writing whole chunks of our sermons and our written materials without any attribution, well, this is plain unacceptable. Writers gotta write their own stuff.

7. Writing should be done humbly. Getting published is a funny thing. I speak at conferences and have gotten to meet all sorts of wonderful Christians leaders all over the country and the world because Dave DeWit at Moody Publishers (now at Crossway) really liked the book Ted and I were working on. We got turned down by a bunch of other publishers. One guy liked it. Happened to be the right guy. At the right time. That’s the way the Lord’s providence works. I’m trying to be a good steward of it. But it doesn’t mean I’m a better pastor, let alone a better person, than ten thousand other men who (for whatever inscrutable reasons) haven’t had the opportunities I have.

And one last thought for my fellow authors: let’s err on the side of under-promotion. I get it. I know we want our message to get out there. I know a certain amount of promotion is unavoidable (hey, I made two videos for my last book). But don’t pressure your friends to do you favors. Don’t make your book sound like the greatest thing since the five solas. Don’t pass along all the kudos about your stuff. “Let another praise you, and when they do, go ahead and retweet your awesomeness”—I don’t think that’s what Proverbs had in mind. Better to sell fewer books than to look like a bozo getting to the top of the best sellers list. Writing is a privilege, and that should make us humble not hucksters.

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Monday Morning Humor

Dec 02, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

If the movie looks this good in Lego, just imagine the real thing.

And one more just for fun.

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Preacher, Be Realistic

Nov 29, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

Toward the end of his Lectures on Eloquence, John Witherspoon warns against young persons, and young preachers in particular, exaggerating their exhortations to others.

He warns that we should not make virtue so high that no one can attain it and vice so dastardly that no one feels in danger of it.

But I have often observed with most regret upon this subject is young persons carrying the things that are really true and excellent to a certain excess or high pitch that is beyond nature, and does not tend in the least to promote conviction, but rather hinders it. When men speak of virtue or true goodness, they are apt to raise the description beyond the life in any real instance, and when they speak of vice and its consequences they are apt to draw the character so as it would apply only to a few of the most desperate profligates, and the miserable state to which they reduce themselves. This rather seems to fortify the generality of persons to whom these descriptions do not apply, in their careless and secure state.

Similarly, Witherspoon warns against being too slow to sympathize with sufferers and too quick to point them to heroic fortitude:

Once more I have often observed young persons frequently choose as their subject afflictions, of which probably they have had very little experience, and speak in such a high style as if every good man were, as the heroes of old, above the reach of every accident. And it is true that an eminent saint is sometimes made superior to all his sufferings; but generally speaking, we ought to be very tender of sufferers, till we ourselves have been in the furnace of affliction; and after that we shall not need be told so.

Read through these two paragraphs again, especially if you are a young minister. They will save you and your people a lot of unnecessary pain.

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God in The Whirlwind: A Response to James K. A. Smith

Nov 27, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

Whether I agree with him or not–sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t–I’ve always found James K. A. Smith to be a provocative thinker. He’s sharp, creative, and not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of people. I like that. And I suppose he displayed all those characteristics in his recent CT review of David Wells’s new book, God in the Whirlwind.

Unfortunately, I think he doth protest too much.

In an overwhelmingly negative review in Christianity Today, Smith likens Wells to a harrumphing theological grandfather embarrassed by the 1960’s and pining for the good old days where the church was the church (daggummit!). Smith has no problem with the contention that “the holy-love of God reorients our world” (the book’s subtitle). Smith argues, however, that God in the Whirlwind is severely limited by two problems: a faulty analysis of our cultural situation and a faulty prescription for what ails us.

Faulty Analysis?

As to the first critique, Smith finds Wells’s insistence that “The shaping of our life is to come from Scripture and not from culture” to be a false dichotomy of the worst sort:

But isn’t Scripture itself the product of a culture (many cultures), and doesn’t the gospel invite us into the alternative culture of the body of Christ? Our goal is not a biblical viewpoint bereft of culture, but a cultural formation that’s biblically infused.

I find this criticism puzzling for several reasons. First, because I found this book to be much less focused on cultural critique than Wells’s earlier volumes (see p. 13-14). No doubt, many of the same themes are here that first gained traction in No Place for Truth, but on the whole I thought this was–in accordance with the author’s own design–a largely constructive book. Second, I wonder if Smith has missed what Wells is trying to say. I don’t find anything in Wells’s statement that contradicts Smith’s assertion that the Bible comes from a culture, can help us shape culture, and invites us into an alternative culture. In fact, one of the final sections in the last chapter is how the church should be a “counterculture” in the world–a common theme throughout Wells’  books.

Smith is also troubled by Wells’s emphasis on the objective versus the subjective. This would confuse Augustine, Smith argues, because Augustine was often probing his interior self in an effort to find truth. Just consider this famous section from Augustine’s Confessions:

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within me and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you.

Instead of using the old objective versus subjective dichotomy, Smith avers, we should follow Augustine’s lead and invite people to turn inward that they might see their emptiness and learn to feel the Creator calling them.

I can’t speak for Wells, but I doubt he would reject that sort of inward turn. What he objects to is plumbing the inward depths of our consciousness and expecting to find God in our own sense of self-worth and self-congratulation. He insists instead that “we must start with God himself if we are to learn about the nature of his love. We must start above, not below” (85). We can know God only as he has chosen to reveal himself, which is in the world of creation, more fully and more clearly, in the Word of God (both infleshed and inscripturated).

One last point: I doubt Augustine meant by the inward turn what Smith takes him to mean. Earlier in Chapter 10 of the Confessions, Augustine reflects on the nature of his memory and his knowledge of God.

Behold how great a territory I have explored in my memory seeking thee, O Lord! And in it all I have still not found thee. Nor have I found anything about thee, except what I had already retained in my memory from the time I learned of thee. For where I found Truth, there found I my God, who is the Truth. From the time I learned this I have not forgotten. And thus since the time I learned of thee, thou hast dwelt in my memory, and it is there that I find thee whenever I call thee to remembrance, and delight in thee.

Take this together with the “Late, have I loved thee” passage and it seems that Augustine is not finding God in his deeply plumbed self as much as he has found God in the memories he carries with him of the truth he once was taught.

Faulty Prescription?

Which brings me briefly to Smith’s second critique. He thinks Wells’s prescription for our cultural predicament is too cerebral, too didactic, too intellectual and the expense of the imagination. Anyone familiar with Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, will see those earlier concerns surfacing in this review. And I think Smith is on to something: we are feeling, worshiping, embodied, liturgical creatures, not just thinking brains in a vat. Change doesn’t come just from a new framework of our ideas. We need new patterns, new desires, a new rhythm. But again, I’m not sure that God in the Whirlwind is opposed to all that. It’s a different book than Smith would have written. It doesn’t hit on his themes. But, then, Wells is hitting on a biblical theme. The world does press us into its mold, and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Knowing the truth is not an insignificant concern in Scripture.

And I read Wells’s prescription to be broader than that anyway. At the close of the second to last chapter he focuses on worship, and in the last chapter he focuses on service. In fact, the last sentence is an exhortation to be a faithful messenger of the gospel and a practitioner of godly service (242). I thought Wells hit on many of the “embodied” themes Smith appreciates.

Conclusion

In the end, my concern is not so much to rebut another review as to encourage readers that this is a book worth reading–precisely because it is so countercultural and it is so steeped in biblical truth. As Tim Keller put it in his endorsement, “Here we have a ‘practical theology’ for conducting the church’s life based on the reality of a God of ‘Holy-Love.'” That’s what I found in this book. Pick up the book for yourself and see what you find.

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The Punishing Sound of Silence

Nov 26, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

When I heard about Knockout last week I thought it was a joke. But it’s terribly, despicably, ridiculously real. Knockout is a “game” where young thugs sucker punch strangers with the goal of knocking them out cold. To add insult to literal injury, the video of the crime is then often posted online by the perpetrators themselves. The human heart is desperately sick. Who can know it? (Jer. 17:9).

Predictably, there is much conversation about the “cause” of this behavior. Is it video games? It is parenting? Is it a culture of violence? Is it a pervasive hopelessness in our urban centers? I’ll let the experts discuss.

But one thing that certainly doesn’t help is mentioning the attackers famous for their crime.  I don’t expect news outlets to refrain from covering murders and shootings and knockouts. The news industry has always trafficked disproportionately in bad news. Tragedy sells; normal happiness doesn’t. But do we have to keep naming names? Why make the worst people in this country the most well known?

I’ve thought this for a long time especially as it relates to mass shootings that (almost always) end in suicide. I’m not surprised that a deranged and evil person ready to end his life would want to make a big splash doing it. Why not get some revenge? Why not be the star in your own reality television show? Big time headlines, no earthly consequences.

I suppose it’s impossible, on this side of the social media revolution, to completely quarantine information. But I bet we could do more than we think. Do you remember the last time you saw a streaker flash his nasty business across the field at a sporting event? I don’t, because the broadcasts don’t show them anymore. They look the other way. They don’t dignify the wacko with 3.5 seconds of fame. Who knows, maybe crazies jump on the field all the time and we just don’t see it anymore. But I doubt it. Some smart person realized at some point that if a streaker streaks in the woods and no one is there to see it, the streaking is a lot less fun.

Couldn’t we try the same thing with knockouts and other random acts of violence? I say that these kids walloping people for fun get three things: jail time, zero notoriety, and a lifetime ban from social media. The deterrent effect might still be small. But what could be worse for today’s young person than complete and utter invisibility? If an earlier era of scarlet letters punished their criminals with public shame, we should punish our malefactors with public oblivion. No names. No fame. No new “likes” and “followers.” Just the punishing sound of silence.

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Monday Morning Humor

Nov 25, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

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The Other Man Who Died This Day

Nov 22, 2013 | Kevin DeYoung

The whole country knows that fifty years ago today John F. Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Most Christians know that on the same day C.S. Lewis died. But most in believing circles have forgotten—though not Peter Kreeft—that on this date five decades ago Aldous Huxley also died.

Huxley was famous, brilliant, learned, and—how shall we put it?—not one to let traditional morality get in the way of having a good time. Here’s the start to his Wikipedia entry:

Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer and a prominent member of the famous Huxley family. Best known for his novels including Brave New World and a wide-ranging output of essays, Huxley also edited the magazine Oxford Poetry, and published short stories, poetry, travel writing, film stories and scripts. He spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death.

Huxley was a humanist, pacifist, and satirist. He later became interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism, in particular Vivekananda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism. He is also well known for his use of psychedelic drugs.

By the end of his life Huxley was widely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent intellectuals of his time.

So what can Christians learn from an agnostic, tripped-out, Hindu-intrigued, universalist, philosopher with an interest in communicating with the dead? At least this: sometimes smart people invent new ideas so they don’t have to listen to God’s ideas. Huxley once remarked, in a burst of transparency that can shine a light on a lot of the world’s darkness:

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust.[1]

No doubt, some people reject the gospel and the Bible because of genuine intellectual concerns, but just as often, pride and personal prejudice is to blame. We don’t like what the Bible says so we find someone else who will make it say something else. Or we make up a new system to get out from under the Bible altogether. As Christians we often assume some form of Rational Actor Theory to be true, that people live out their ethics and make their decisions based on their higher order beliefs and worldview. But more often—and this is the point Huxley admitted to—humans do what they like to do and then find a system to justify their unfettered desires.

It’s no way to live for God. But it is the way most of us live.


[1] Robert S. Baker and James Sexton (eds.), Aldous Huxley Complete Essays, Volume 4 (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2001), 369.

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