jasonbwatson

March 21, 2017

March Movie Madness

There has been plenty of attention paid to Disney’s release of a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, the well-known “tale as old as time” in which peasant girl Belle falls in love with a beast that was in fact a man, transformed to a beast as a result of a spell cast on him due to his own unkindness. The movie is the latest in Disney’s recent line of live adaptations of its classic animated films, this one the update to 1991’s smash version of the same name.

Much of the attention this movie has been receiving, however, is due to the inclusion of a gay character in the live-action version, Gaston’s doltish sidekick LeFou. Social media has been abuzz with articles calling out Disney for its decision to include what TIME repeatedly reported as Disney’s first gay character. As a result of this inclusion many Christians and social conservatives have both criticized Disney and vowed not to see the film. Others have cautioned parents to use discernment in taking their children to see it. I have been engaged in some of these online discussions and my position has been—and is—that I will not go see the movie in the theater because I do not want to use my dollars to express support or approval for this kind of character inclusion. I likely will see the film eventually though and, depending on the scene, may or may not let my children watch it. From what I have been reading lately I suspect I may let them see it. Why? Because, according to those who have seen it and have shared their thoughts on it, the character is little different from the same character in the animated version and the “exclusively gay moment” is rather quick and insignificant and, unless you are looking for it or expecting it, not likely to be seen as a specifically gay scene at all. This is confirmed by a story in the March 20 USA TODAY story headlined “Beauty and the Beast’s ‘gay moment’ may have been much ado about nothing.” According to that story, the scene in question is “a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the film’s final seconds.”

So how did this scene become such a big deal? The film’s director, Bill Condon, chose to make it one. In an interview he did with Attitude magazine Condon said,

LeFou is somebody who on one day wants to be Gaston and on another day wants to kiss Gaston. He’s confused about what he wants. It’s somebody who’s just realizing that he has these feelings. And Josh makes something really subtle and delicious out of it. And that’s what has its payoff at the end, which I don’t want to give away. But it is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.

Others involved in the film confirmed this statement. Ewan McGregor said, on The Late Show, that LeFou is a “gay character.” He even emphasized the fact that opposition to the inclusion of such a character is ridiculous in the day and age in which we live, saying, that people need to get over their objections because “It’s 2017. For f**k’s sake.” So the point is that the director of the movie, if not Disney itself, intentionally set out to make a point of the character’s sexuality. If he would not have said anything then some people may have picked up on it or wondered about it when they saw the film, but he/they chose to make it an issue. In other words, they have only themselves to blame that some people are now making an issue of it. Of course once a theater in the south announced it would not show the movie because of the gay character, Russia changed the film’s rating and Malaysia said the film would not be shown there at all, the director and others tried to backpedal.

Incidentally, Condon’s remark really served more than anything to create for him, Disney and the film itself a lose/lose situation. Some, as already described, are unhappy about the announced gay character. Others, on the LGBT side of the debate, took the opposite approach, saying, according to the same USA TODAY article, “the representation of a gay character did not go far enough.” Yet again, had Condon never said anything about the character being gay this likely would never have been an issue.

A few people in discussions I have been part of suggested that the LeFou in the live-action version is no different at all than the LeFou in the 1991 animated version. If so that serves only to reinforce my point that Condon created this storm with his comments. Absolutely no one would have thought in 1991 that Disney would include a homosexual character in an animated film marketed primarily to children. That was six years before Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian (April 1997). Not only did she come out personally, but her character on her television show Ellen came out as well. Biographer Lisa Iannucci told Biography.com, “[T]here was concern over not only how the audience would react, but how the advertisers would react.” So it is absurd to think that it would have seriously crossed anyone’s mind six years before that that Disney, the company that was built completely around wholesome children’s entertainment, would include a homosexual character.

I have had people challenge me on why the gay character is an issue but the inclusion of bestiality and magic/witchcraft is not. The bestiality question is an absurd one. Belle falls in love with the beast, yes, but he is not a true animal–he speaks, walks on two legs, has emotions, etc.–and they never consummate their relationship while he is in beast form. Bestiality refers to sexual intercourse between a human and an animal. Accordingly, I do not think this even warrants further comment.

The magic/witchcraft issue is a legitimate one. Just about all of Disney’s fairy tale films include magic/witchcraft/sorcery of some kind and there certainly are some Christians who do not watch or approve of any of the classic Disney movies for that very reason. There are some personal convictions involved here for sure. My position is that the magic is defeated in the end and it is not glorified or taken to an extreme of serving Satan. I have not ever let my children watch The Princess and the Frog though because I think the magic in that movie is too dark and Satanic. Some Christians have no problem with Harry Potter either; I do. The other thing to keep in mind with Beauty and the Beast is the reason behind the beast’s curse. Take this synopsis from IMDb.com:

An old beggar woman arrives at the castle of a French prince. The woman asks for shelter from the cold, and in return, offers the young prince a rose. Repulsed by her appearance, the prince turns her away. The beggar warns him not to judge by appearances, but the Prince ignores her and shuts the door on her. The woman then throws off her disguise, revealing that she is a beautiful enchantress. The Prince tries to apologize, but she has already seen the lack of kindness in his heart. She conjures a powerful curse, transforming him into a hideous beast, his servants into anthropomorphic household items, and the entire castle and all its surroundings into a dark, forbidding place, so that he will learn not to judge by appearances. The curse can only be broken if the Beast learns to love another and receives the other’s love in return before the last petal of the enchantress’s rose withers and falls; if not, he will be doomed to remain a beast forever.

While magic and sorcery are used, the reason for their use is the prince’s selfish, judgmental, arrogant attitude. Once he sees that he could have played host to a beautiful princess he wants a second chance. Too late! To emerge from the curse he must learn both to love and to receive love. Powerful, poignant lessons can be taught from this. Biblical lessons even. So the magic in the film is not much different from the magic in Narnia.

The bottom-line issue for me when it comes to this movie is simply this: Whether through the character himself or simply through the comments of Bill Condon, Ewan McGregor and others, Disney is slowly, perhaps even subtly, pushing the acceptance of homosexuality into the realm of childhood. As an article on the Answers in Genesis web site accurately argues, “Sadly, Disney clearly wants to normalize what God has called sin. …[W]e must strongly caution against Christians exposing children to one more example of society’s acceptance of homosexual behavior, even if it’s just a small part of the film.” I agree with that statement.

The reality is that, for Christians, The Shack should be of greater concern than Beauty and the Beast. The biggest reason for that is simple: Disney is a secular company providing secular entertainment and thus marketed primarily to a secular audience. The Shack, however, is a film based on a book written by a man, William Paul Young, who professes to be a Christian. In his own words (in a recent blog post on his web site) the book “offered alternative ways of thinking about God and humanity that resonated intensely with many, it also challenged deeply held assumptions and embedded paradigms.” In and of itself that may not be a bad thing. All of us can be guilty of getting caught up in tradition or habitual ways of thinking about something and those can actually detract from an accurate or vibrant understanding of the truth. I am sure I am not the only one who has had moments of hearing a Bible passage exposited, or reading the thoughts of a theologian or author and realizing both that I had never thought of it that way before and that this new perspective provided a much-needed clarification or addition to what I had previously been content to think.

Much of the error (which sounds much nicer than saying heresy, doesn’t it?) will be recognizable to those with a solid understanding of Scripture. In the words of Randy Alcorn, “I believe that those who are well grounded in the Word won’t be harmed by the weaknesses and deficiencies of the book.” I agree with that, and I do not feel that my faith was challenged, undermined or weakened by reading the book. If anything, it may have stirred me to firm up some of my beliefs. And the book does contain some merit and value—and surely some elements from which I derived benefit.

Young, however, brings “new” perspectives that are not accurate at all. They serve not to clarify or correct possibly vague or inaccurate understandings of God and Scripture but to corrupt and pervert the truth that Scripture reveals. If nothing else, the fact that Young chose to portray God appearing in the physical form of a woman in the book is cause for concern. When I read the book I almost stopped reading right there. God, of course, has not physical form. He could choose to appear in some physical manner I suppose but He is not a woman, that much is certain. Young explains this in the book by stating that Mack, the book’s main character and the human who interacts with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their physical forms in the literal shack from which the book and film take their title, cannot accept God as a Father because of his own damaged relationship with his physical father. That may be a legitimate obstacle for many people because many people have strained or even dangerously unhealthy relationships with their earthly fathers. That does not, however, allow any of us to change who God is. Our own difficulty or discomfort with God as He has revealed Himself can never be used to justify or excuse our alteration or manipulation of God in order to make Him more palatable or acceptable or comfortable. (This is the same reason why it is not okay for those in some cultures that struggle with the idea of Jesus being God’s Son to change that wording in order to make the Bible more easily accepted in those cultures).

One of the biggest issues for the book and movie is that Young’s main character is God—and God speaks at length. Young is, therefore, literally putting words in God’s mouth through his story. This is a dangerous act, one that the Scripture warns about strictly. This also lends greater weight to the content of the story even if Young insists—as he does—that he was writing a novel not a theology book. Why? Because, in Alcorn’s words, “It’s hard to fall back on ‘Yeah, but it was just one of the characters saying that’ when the character happens to be God. You can’t really say ‘he was having a bad day,’ or ‘he wasn’t familiar with that Scripture.’”

In her review of the film, Sophia Lee writes that “Papa” in the film (which is a term Mack’s wife uses for God and the manner in which Mack addresses God throughout the book—which is only one more reason why depicting God as a woman is problematic) is “a god who is far removed from the God of the Bible.” Why? One example she notes is Mack asking Papa about his wrath, to which Papa responds, “My what? You lost me there.” That is a real problem. An incredibly significant problem. Indeed there could be no greater problem. Why? Simply this: if we deny or ignore the wrath of God then we are necessarily denying or ignoring the holiness and justice of God, which requires denying or ignoring both that humans fall short of that holiness in and of themselves and are therefore deserving of punishment and separation from God. If we ignore or deny that then we are ignoring or denying the fundamental truth of the Bible, the very heart of the gospel message, the very reason why Jesus Christ came to earth, lived a perfect life and died to pay the penalty owed by humans so that those who accept His sacrifice on their behalf might receive the forgiveness of God.

Let me be clear here: I am not asserting something that Young himself does not make clear. Young has said that he does not believe in penal substitution. He said he believes in the wrath of God and he believes there is no hope for human beings apart from the cross but he says Christ became sin for humans, not that human sin was punished through the death of Christ. In fact, he said, “I don’t see that it is necessary to have the Father punish the Son.” (To hear this for yourself you can listen to a lengthy 2009 interview with Young here; this specific conversation takes place over six or seven minutes starting around minute 16 of the recording).

Young’s most recent book is titled Lies We Believe About God. One of the “lies” Young addresses in the book is “The Cross was God’s idea,” the book’s seventeenth chapter. There he writes,

Who originated the Cross?

If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner. Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge or grant credibility in any sense. And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one.

You can read that for yourself on page 149 of the book if you want to ensure that I am quoting Young accurately. He goes on to write that the Cross (he capitalizes it) was the idea of humans, that the cross is a “deviant device” that is “the iconic manifestation of our blind commitment to darkness. … It is the ultimate fist raised against God.” There is some truth there, but Young goes own, saying that God responded to this “profound brokenness” by submitting to it. But Young does not mean that Jesus submitted to the will of the Father by giving up His life to pay the penalty of sin that is justly demanded by a holy and righteous God. Rather, Young says, “God climbed willingly onto our torture device and met us at the deepest and darkest place of our diabolical imprisonment to our own lies, and by submitting once and for all, God destroyed its power” (p 150). At first that sounds good but consider carefully what Young is asserting here: he is saying that God submitted Himself willingly to man—and man’s lies, darkness and brokenness specifically. He is saying that God freed humankind from our own darkness and lies by submitting to that same darkness and allowing man to execute Christ on the cross and thereby free humanity from its own “blind commitment to darkness.”

The reality, however, is that man’s “commitment to darkness” and “profound brokenness” is a result of the fall. Sin entered the world through Adam and Eve but it is has infected every human being since. As a result, “we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23, NLT). God did not submit Himself to our darkness to free us from it. That would ultimately mean that God submitted Himself to sin—to Satan. Far from it! God did not submit to Satan at all—ever. God the Son (Jesus) yielded Himself to God the Father, willingly putting Himself in the position to take the place of every human being who has ever lived by paying the rightful penalty of sin on their behalf. All who accept that Christ did that, and accept that He is their Savior and the only way to heaven, will have their sins forgiven and will spend eternity in the presence of God rather than eternity separated from God in hell. That, by the way, is another of the “lies” that Young addresses in his recent book. He says hell is neither separation from God nor conscious torment, but Scripture makes clear that it is indeed both.

In the book’s introduction, quoted on its back cover, Young writes,

This book is not a presentation of certainty. … You may identify with some topics and not with others. You might agree or disagree with my conclusions. Some of these ideas may be deeply challenging, while others may seem naïve and thoughtless. That is the wonder and uniqueness of our journeys and the beauty of dialogue and relationship.

Actually, Mr. Young, that is a bunch of fluff and stuff. It is utter nonsense. It is relativism at its core, postmodernism at its finest. Allaboutphilosophy.org states, “Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would violate the postmodernist’s premise that no definite terms, boundaries, or absolute truths exist.” That is what Young is celebrating! He is openly declaring that he is unsure of what he writes in his book—but one cannot be unsure of that which is absolute truth. In other words, Young can only be uncertain of God’s wrath, man’s sinfulness, the existence of eternal suffering in hell and the atonement for sin on the cross through the death of Christ because he is uncertain of the Truth of the Bible. That we can be uncertain of these things, and disagree on them, is neither wonderful nor unique. It is the gateway to straying from the Bible and from God. He has communicated these things clearly in His Word; uncertainty can only come from an unwillingness to accept and believe it.

Owen Strachan wrote recently wrote the following on The Gospel Coalition web site:

What truly horrifies sinful humanity is not, in the end, Scripture’s stubborn reliance upon blood atonement. The problem is much deeper. What truly offends human nature about the atonement is the greatness of the God who forgives through it, the lavish nature of the mercy that flows from it, the salvation for the wicked accomplished by it. It is precisely this salvation our fallen hearts reject. It is exactly this forgiving God we defy, and even dare to correct. We must take care here: to promote the cross without the atonement means we do not promote the cross at all.

I could not agree more with Strachan—and when we allow anyone, including William Paul Young, to suggest that the cross was anything other than the act of a great, loving, merciful, just, holy, righteous God simultaneously demanding and accepting the perfect sacrifice on behalf of fallen man as “the wages of sin” we serve only to repudiate the wonderful truth of the gospel and the indescribable love of God.

I realize that much of what I am criticizing here comes from Lies We Believe About God rather than from The Shack, but one will open the door to the other. The movie will no doubt be seen by people who did not read the book and will prompt many of them to want to explore Young’s ideas further. That will lead them to Lies We Believe About God. In fact, that Lies was released to coincide with the release of the movie is not at all coincidental. Young, and his publisher, are literally banking on the fact that the movie will drive sales of the book. Indeed, one reviewer on Amazon.com, identified only as Lisa, hits the nail on the head when she writes,

This book’s release at the same time as the movie’s release clears up any question out there as to whether the author desires to shape Christian thought and doctrine. Many have questioned over the years whether The Shack should be viewed as only a fiction work – not a doctrinal statement. I bought the Kindle copy yesterday to let the author clear that question up for me himself. Now I know what he believes. His departure from Orthodox theology is quite apparent. If you are a young Christian or non-Christian I encourage you to seek mature godly counsel before you take the ideas of this book as a fact!

So it is entirely fitting to be addressing the false teachings contained in that book while discussing the release of the theatrical version of The Shack. If anything it is even more important, because Young likes insisting that The Shack is a novel. He makes no such disclaimer with Lies We Believe About God, which he does present, as we have seen, as containing uncertainty but definitely not as fiction.

There are several things that we must keep in mind when it comes to The Shack and other erroneous writings and teachings of its ilk. First, popularity does not equal truth. The Shack has sold more than twenty million copies but that does not mean that the ideas it presents are true or even deserving of serious contemplation. It means only that Young tapped into the interests of millions of people. (It is not coincidental either than he did so by presenting a picture of God that is much softer, kinder and gentler than the true God of the Bible). Second, quality production does not equal quality time. Someone said to me the other day of The Shack, “One of my friends saw it and said it was really good.” It might be; the production quality is probably very high. The budget was no doubt healthy and the acting may be very good. None of that means it is a good idea for anyone to spend their time watching it. Playboy is probably a quality product purely from the standpoint of design, printing, photography, writing, etc. and Hugh Hefner is certainly a successful businessman. None of that means it is a good idea to read the magazine. Third, sentiment is no substitute for veracity. We know this in our human relationships. After all, no one would want their spouse to tell them something they want to hear because it will make them feel good rather than tell them truth. No one wants a doctor to tell them they are in perfect health, even though that would be encouraging and result in happiness, if the truth is that they are riddled with deadly cancer. Why not? Simply this—because we have to know the truth in order to effectively and appropriately respond to it. William Paul Young is saying a lot of things that a lot of people want to hear. It makes them feel good—about themselves and about God. Why? Because it lets them shape God in their own image. In the end, that will do them far more harm than good. When they die—and they will—and stand before God—which they will—He will not say, if they died without accepting Christ, that He loved them so much and He is happy to welcome them into heaven. Instead, He will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” To where will they depart? To hell—to be separated eternally from God and to suffer unending torment.

And that’s no work of fiction; it comes straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:23).

February 15, 2017

Why I Am Not Standing

Last Wednesday World Relief ran an ad in The Washington Post–a full-page ad, I believe–calling President Trump and Vice President Pence to support refugees. The ad featured a five paragraph letter over the names of Tim Breene, World Relief CEO, and Scott Arbeiter, World Relief President, and is being called the Still We Stand Petition. The ad also included the names of “top evangelical leaders from all fifty states” expressing their support for the need to reconsider Trump’s executive order limiting individuals from several majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The ad did include the names of several well-known evangelical leaders, including Tim Keller, Bill Hybels, Max Lucado, Ed Stetzer, Ann Voskamp, Leith Anderson and Stuart Briscoe. There were dozens of others whose names I did not recognize. (And with all due respect to Voskamp, she is Canadian, and lives in Canada, so the inclusion of her name on the letter was a bit illogical). The ad also featured, prominently, a web address where anyone who wants to do so can add their name to the letter. As of early afternoon on February 15, one week after the ad ran, the site was boasting just over 6,000 signatories. I am not one of them, nor will I be. Here is why.

Trump’s executive order suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days. Furthermore, the order states that during the suspension,

[T]he Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.

This is not a reckless or inappropriate action on the part of the President. I say this not as a Trump supporter–I would definitely not be comfortable classifying myself as such–but as a supporter of the Constitution and a Christian. The very purpose of the United States Constitution is, in large part, “to insure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense…and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (see Preamble to the Constitution). Furthermore, the presidential oath of office includes stating that he “will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Therefore, calling a four-month timeout on refugee resettlement to the U.S. in order to make sure that the admission of refugees “does not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States” is both constitutional and appropriate (regardless of what a court said).

The World Relief letter states that Christians are taught to love their neighbor and that Jesus said that neighbor “includes the stranger and anyone fleeing persecution and violence, regardless of their faith or country.” The letter goes on to express support for the government’s need to set guidelines for the admission of refugees, but says that “compassion and security can coexist.” I agree with that–and I suspect Trump, Pence and others does as well. The very point of the timeout is to ensure that that can indeed happen.

The letter goes on to state, “Since the inception of the refugee resettlement program, thousands of local churches throughout the country have played a role in welcoming refugees of all religious backgrounds. Ministries to newly arrived refugees are ready, and desire to receive many thousands more people than would be allowed under the new executive order.” That is surely true. Churches and para-church ministries have indeed played a vital role in helping to provide for refugees and will no doubt continue to do so in the future. At the same time, it is not the responsibility of the United States government to accommodate the desire of churches to receive refugees. It is the responsibility of the United States to provide for the defense and security of the country.

The further reality is that churches, para-church organizations even individual Christians can still be involved in supporting and helping refugees even if those refugees cannot enter the United States. There are plenty of organizations providing much-needed assistance to refugees around the world and they would no doubt welcome the help the thousands of people signing this letter seem poised to offer.

Mindy Belz of WORLD is one of the most articulate and outspoken voices on the refugee crisis in the Middle East I think, certainly among Christians, and she has written that she does not think that Trump’s executive order will help Christians. It may not. Again, however, helping Christians in the Middle East is not the foremost priority for Donald Trump or any U.S. president. Nor should it be.

By the way, I am not staking unique ground in supporting the order. WORLD magazine has reported that “evangelist Franklin Graham, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., Southern Baptist pastor Ronnie Floyd, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins are just a few of the evangelical leaders defending Trump’s order.”

Ironically, The Washington Post featured an article on February 10 taking Franklin Graham to task about what the Bible says. (Just ponder that statement for a minute, by the way…). The article, written by Joel Baden, who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, says that Graham “could not be more wrong” when he said that immigration is not a biblical issue. But Baden fails to make his point. He provides ample examples of refugees and exiles being treated kindly and respectfully throughout Scripture. He writes, “Across the books of both testaments, in narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and parable, the Bible consistently spells out that it is the responsibility of the citizen to ensure that the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, is respected, welcomed and cared for.” Further, Baden cites both the Old Testament–“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34)–and the New Testament–“Love your neighbor as yourself” (which Baden calls the Golden Rule, but it isn’t)–to support his conclusion.

Mathew Schmalz, an Associate Professor of Religion at College of the Holy Cross, made the same arguments in Newsweek. Raymond Chang, a pastor, does as well for The Huffington Post.  He focuses on the biblical instruction to treat sojourners as those who are native born and Jesus’s statement that we will be judged according to how we treat “the least of these.” The problem is, none of these passages–or any other passages–instruct any country to throw open its doors to immigrants, refugees or exiles. All of these passages instruct that once strangers are in the land, the people who live there are to treat them with fairness, respect and compassion. I agree with that and I suspect Trump, Pence and others do too. None of them tell a country or a people to welcome absolutely anyone into their borders or to exercise no discretion in protecting their own borders. And again, it is entirely possible–especially in the day and age in which we live–to love and care for refugees even without letting them into our country.

Back in 2014 Wes Walker wrote on ClashDaily.com, “To suggest…that Israel would ever have willingly thrown open the borders to a swarm of culturally hostile foreigners, grant them asylum, and become financially responsible for their care is ridiculous. That would have been seen as an invasion force, and would have been treated as such.” The articles above, and others, that attempt to use the Bible as justification for letting any and all refugees into the United States, or for promoting refugee settlement here at the possible expense of national security, are missing the mark–and the intent of Scripture.

By the way, I am sure I am not the only one who sees the irony in The Washington Post, Newsweek and The Huffington Post attempting to use the Bible to support certain policy positions and government actions. I would love to see them make an effort to support a biblical position on things like abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender issues among many others. That would be something I would take a stand for!

February 10, 2017

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

January 25, 2017

Authentic Christianity

Recently my family and I visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. I had been there before but my children had not. I had explained to my son ahead of time that there was something unique about the exterior of the house. It appears to be made of stone, but it is actually wood. Through a process called rustication, the wooden plans that side the house are cut with beveled edges periodically and then, while the white paint is still wet, fine sand is thrown onto the wood. The result is that it gives the appearance of stone blocks. This is both creative and effective, and for the purposes of architecture there is nothing wrong with it. However, it got me thinking about other things that are not what they appear to be–and specifically about the times that I cause myself to appear to be something other than what or who I am. As I pondered this I began to consider what it means to practice authentic Christianity.

If you google that phrase you will find plenty of hits. There are books and sermons by that title as well as plenty of blog posts and articles. I found a number of thoughts that were particularly helpful for me.

In one such message, titled “Authentic Christianity,” Steven Cole tells a story that was contained in a 1984 issue of Reader’s Digest. A bishop who had just had a cup of tea with a parishioner commented, “I’m glad to see in what a comfortable way you are living.” The churchgoer replied, “Oh, bishop, if you want to know how we really live, you need to come when you’re not here.”

That is funny, of course, but it is also true. How many times do I straighten things up and do my best to create the right appearance when there will be company coming over–particularly company whom I want to impress? Maybe that is no big deal really, but it is a big deal when we do the same thing with our lives, living differently at different times depending on who is around and whom we are trying to impress.

In that same message Cole said, “Unfortunately, a lot of Christians live that way, keeping up a good front to impress others with their spirituality. But if you knew how they really live, you’d find that they are faking it. They don’t live as authentic Christians.”

Several years ago Megan Hill wrote an article in Christianity Today about authenticity, with the subtitle “Do we Christians even understand what the buzzword means?”

In that article she suggested five principles for being an authentic Christian:

  1. Authenticity proclaims the reality of the Gospel – “Being authentic means that God and His Word define what is real,” she wrote.
  2. Authenticity doesn’t excuse sin. She writes:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love was the memoir of a woman seeking an authentic life. Its first page bears the motto: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

But for Gilbert, living authentically includes adultery, hedonism, blasphemy, and so on.

Gilbert’s type of authenticity is easy for Christians to reject. Her sins are “obvious.” But are we on guard against more subtle sins? …

Selfishness, love of men’s praise, lack of joy can all lurk, undetected, around our authentic edges.

  1. Authenticity seeks the good of the Body. “We live transparently, not to unload our own burdens and thus walk more lightly alone, but to intentionally share the burdens of others and carry them to the same grace that liberated us.”
  2. Authenticity honors wisdom. “Christians seeking to be authentic rightly value humility. We recognize that we are broken. But sometimes, in our quest to avoid the appearance of pride, we question our God-given ability to shine the light of wisdom.”
  3. Authenticity points ahead to a perfected future.

John Piper once said in an interview,

Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, doing the willing and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living and doing the acting and doing the willing in and through your acting and willing and doing? …

[W]hen I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit. I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say: “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 5:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing. It is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.

Someone has said, “Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But we have no business faking Christianity. The Bible is full of passages that tell us what authentic Christian living really is and looks like. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit or Paul’s writing about the new life in Christ in Ephesians 4 and 5 for starters.

So, food for thought from two perspectives:

First, am I examining myself and striving to live an authentic Christian life? We are not “playing a role.” I recently read a dual-biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. When I finished I told my wife I enjoyed it but if she wanted to continue to think of them as the lovable characters from The Andy Griffith Show I would not recommend reading it. Both men were tortured individuals with deep personal demons. They were, of course, actors–and very talented ones. That is what they were paid to do and they did it well. But we, Christians, are not to be actors. We are not to “play the part” of a Christian at certain times or put on certain appearances. We are to be like Christ.

Second, are we teaching our students, our own children, our co-workers and colleagues, friends and fellow church members, to pursue authentic Christianity? We do not want them to throw sand in wet paint, so to speak. We want them to be genuine, authentic Christians.

January 18, 2017

Church Convictions

This Friday will be the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. As always, inauguration day will include a number of festivities and many “big names” will be involve din various ways. One of those who will not be involved, however, is Charlotte Church.

Church is a Welsh singer who became well known at the young age for her incredible voice. Her first album was released the year Church turned 12. The album sold millions and made Church the youngest person to ever have a number one album on the British crossover charts. She released a “best of” album at the ripe old age of 16. I would think it would be fair to call Church the Jackie Evancho of the early 2000s. (That comparison is appropriate in another way too, as will be seen shortly). About a dozen years Church made it known that was transitioning to pop music and, to be honest, I do not remember the last time I head anything about her until last week. I own all of her early CDs and enjoy them. I was shocked to discover that she is now 30 years old! Apparently she has still been performing and recording since I lost track of her but, also apparently, not in a manner or style I would much care for.

So what brought Church into the news last week? She was invited to perform for the Trump inauguration–and she very publicly declined. On January 10 Church tweeted to Trump, “Your staff have asked me to sing at your inauguration, a simple Internet search would show I think you’re a tyrant. Bye.” The Huffington Post took Church’s suggestion and did a simple internet search. They found a December 2015 tweet saying calling Trump, “A Sith death eater…….and an amoeba. I really, really detest him.” On a British talk show in 2016 she said, “I don’t hate anybody, but I hate that man.”

Those remarks would actually make it seem rather odd that Church would even be invited by the Trump team.

Church, of course, is not the only performer to have said no to performing for the inauguration. According to a January 15 article in Business Insider these artists have also reportedly declined invitations: Elton John, Céline Dion, Garth Brooks, Kiss, Moby, Andrea Bocelli, David Foster and Rebecca Ferguson. Half of these names, by the way, beg the question of why someone who campaigned on the motto “Make American Great Again” would even invite them. Does the United States really not enough of its own musical talent that British, Canadian, Italian and Welsh performers need to be imported? Not that I have any objection to international talent, mind you, it just seems odd to invite them to sing at the inauguration of the U.S. president. I guess I have never thought about it before, but I do not picture U.S. artists being invited to perform for the inauguration or coronation of other nations’ leaders. (This is not unique to Trump, of course. Barack Obama’s inauguration included Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Gabriela Montero–a Chinese-American born in Paris, an Israeli-American and a Venezuelan now residing in Spain).

None of this is the point of the post anyway. The point is that Church and the others have exercised their right not to provide services on behalf or in celebration of a person they do not like and/or disagree with–strongly, it would appear. If I were Charlotte Church and I believed that Donald Trump was a tyrant then I would decline too. In fact, if nothing else, I respect Church and friends for standing by their convictions and not accepting an invitation to perform at a very visible and, I imagine, very well compensated event because of their stance regarding the individual being inaugurated. After all, performing at the inauguration would imply approval of Trump, or at least an acceptance. Her voice is Charlotte Church’s business, it is how she makes her living, it is, in a manner of speaking, the service she provides. Still, though, it is hers and she should have the right to decide when, where and for whom to sing, should she not? Besides, it is not like there are not other performers who can provide songs for the inauguration. Garth Brooks said no but Toby Keith said yes. Charlotte Church said no but Jackie Evancho said yes. And so it goes.

Here is the question though, and the real reason for this post: why is it okay for a musical artist to say no to a request from (or on behalf of) the president-elect of the United States, to perform at one of the most unique and meaningful events in our republic, but it is not okay for a baker to decline to make a cake or a hotel to decline to host an event or a printer to decline to print t-shirts?  We have all heard the accounts of individuals who did these things, and others, because their convictions are that homosexual marriage is wrong. Accordingly, they did not want to participate in or appear to approve of homosexual marriage ceremonies (or other events that violated their conscience and/or religious belief). It is not like there are not other bakers who can make cakes, florists who can provide flowers, hotels that can host events and printers that can print t-shirts or flyers or whatever, so why cannot those individuals who would have to violate their conscience in order to comply with the request act in accordance with their beliefs? Does someone have to rise to the level of celebrity to have these rights? Does there need to be a track record in the Twitter-sphere of one’s objections to a lifestyle or belief? Sadly, the truth is more along the lines of someone has to be opposing what is seen as acceptable and right by the liberal left, the collective of people who celebrate tolerance and inclusion but fail to practice the same when it comes to them being tolerant of those who not agree with them.

Aaron and Melissa Klein were bakers in Oregon who chose not to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding. The resulting publicity, fines and court cases cost them $135,000 and their business. What will their choice cost Charlotte Church, Elton John or Garth Brooks? I think it is safe to say it will cost them nothing. In fact, the media publicity for them has been positive, praising them for refusing to perform for Trump. (On the other hand, there has been media attention toward Evancho that is questionable and even negative in light of the fact that she has chosen to perform despite having a transgender “sister”).

An article in the December 31, 2016 issue of WORLD entitled “Fair of foul?” examines legislation targeted at including sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in non-discrimination policies and laws. According to the article there is a split among some evangelical leaders over whether such legislation should always be opposed or whether it should be supported so long as there is religious exemptions in the law. I come down on the side of it being always opposed. Religious exemptions, after all, usually only apply to businesses, not individuals, and even then usually only to businesses of a certain size. In a statement issued December 14, 2016 more than six dozen religious leaders expressed their opposition to SOGI laws of any kind. Why? “They argue that SOGI laws violate privacy rights and freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association….” Quite right.

So again, if the convictions of a Church (namely, Charlotte) can allow her to decline a invitation to sing for a presidential inauguration, why cannot the convictions someone learned at church (namely, Bible-believing and teaching churches) not also be respected? What do we gain from making something do something against their will after all? Nothing of value. Nothing we should really want to gain in the first place. If Charlotte, Andrea, Elton and Garth can act according to their convictions, Aaron and Melissa should be able to do the same thing. Anything else is simply intolerant.

January 2, 2017

My Year in Books — 2016

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Well, I did it—I read fifty or more books for the tenth consecutive year. It was a close call this year though, as I ended with only fifty-one. So, here it is, the annual review of my year in books (grouped by genre, not by the order in which they were read).

The first book in read in 2016 was Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré. Despite my fondness for thrillers and spy novels, this was the first le Carré novel I have ever read. It was enjoyable and captivating and I suspect I will read additional le Carré works in the future.

Other fiction I read in 2016 included the following: Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes, an interesting book that keeps you wondering at times about who is telling the truth while also providing an accurate and uncomfortable look at life for those who are victims of sex trafficking; An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, which was a fascinating look into the world of fine art as well as pleasing tale (though it does contain some unnecessary an explicit sex scenes); The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl, a story about a bookaneer—individuals who stole manuscripts of books by famous others to have them published abroad without the permission of the author, thus making vast sums for publishers and the bookaneers who sold them—trying to get Robert Louis Stevenson’s final novel; Conversion by Katherine Howe, a creative novel that provides astute insight into the circumstances that created the Salem Witch Trials by interweaving stories of that event with a modern re-telling of similar events taking place at a girls’ school located on land where the original events occurred; Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, which provides a keen look into World War II from the perspective of women in occupied France, including the difficulties they faced, the choices they had to make and the incredible ways in which they worked to defeat the Nazis; Mark Pryor’s Hollow Man was a well-written story that also causes the reader to give serious thought to things he might do for personal gain, that he would never ordinarily imagine doing, when given the right set of circumstances, while also providing an insightful look at the consequences of choices; The Black Country by Alex Grecian uniquely combines Civil War America with coal country England and a Scotland Yard murder investigation in late 19th-century Britain and it, too, provides insightful consideration of the consequences of choices; Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Truth Be Told is part of a series of novels written by Agatha Anthony, Mary Higgins Clark and Ryan, and it includes a unique twist on home foreclosures and fixing bank books while also interweaving a cold case; The Whistler is probably John Grisham’s best effort in recent memory, far better than last year’s Rogue Lawyer and better than Gray Mountain, though he decided, for the second novel in a row, to make one of the main characters a lesbian—despite that adding nothing to the story; I do still enjoy Grisham’s teen series, and 2016 included Theodore Boone: The Scandal; and Natchez Burning by Greg Iles was a gripping and angering look at atrocities committed by white supremacists in the Deep South in the 1950s and ‘60s, combined with a taken-from-the-headlines storyline about bringing the perpetrators to justice some fifty years later—but the book starts to assume credulity from its readers near the end and when Iles proved either unable or unwilling to wrap up the story in nearly 800 pages I had little interest in reading the other two books in what I learned is actually a trilogy.

Jeffrey Archer released both the sixth and seventh (and final) installments of The Clifton Chronicles in 2016, Cometh the Hour and This Was a Man, and I read them both. I continue to enjoy Archer’s writing and any of these books could be read enjoyable as stand-alone novels, though it was a pleasure to read all seven. As always, I read a number of James Patterson books in 2016 and I continue to find them to be delightful mental vacations where the good guys always win in the end. Last year’s selections included Private Vegas, Private Paris, Private India and The Games, all part of the Private series (and all written with co-authors), NYPD Red 4 continued that series, and Alert and Bullseye continued the Detective Michael Bennett series (and those were also all written with co-authors).

One work of fiction I read in 2016 was a book I probably never would have picked up on my own but found to be a fascinating read after it was loaned to me by a friend who thought I should read it: The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. The story was based on true events during the extreme drought in 1950s Texas and gave me not only a greater appreciation for what those ranchers went through but for ranchers and ranching in general.

I found myself in the rather unusual position of enjoying all of the “classics” that I read in 2016, something which has been a rarity, and they spanned a range of “classic” categories. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is particularly haunting precisely because it is a true story. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper deserves to be a classic in my opinion and while it may not be entirely accurate, it does offer a glimpse into the changes that European settlement brought to Native American life in America. As I read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon I felt like I was watching an old black and white cops-and-robbers movie with classic film noir vibes. It is really the first book of that genre I have ever read and I suspect there will be more in my future. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, was somewhat different than I expected and it offers an abundance of opportunity for thought and discussion about marriage, the long-lasting implications of hasty decisions made in the pursuit of lust, the hypocrisy so many of us are guilty of when it comes to expecting to be forgiven for grave wrongs but are so reluctant to forgive similar failures in others and the despair that can result when it seems there is no hope left. And finally, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is indeed an easy-to-read but deeply insightful look at the failures of fallen humans and the methods employed to tempt us.

As always, there were a number of biographies and autobiographies that made my list in 2016. The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther and The Daring Mission of William Tyndale are both by Steven Lawson and a part of the Long Line of Godly Men series. The serve as good introductory overviews of these men but the writing lacks polish and precision at times. Jonathan Horn’s The Man Who Would Not Be Washington was a very readable, thorough and honest look at the life of Robert E. Lee. Nina Burleigh’s The Stranger and the Statesman is mostly a biography of James Smithson, though it necessarily interweaves some biography of John Quincy Adams and tells the story of the Smithsonian Institute’s founding. Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power is a superb biography of George H.W. Bush and George Vecsey’s Stan Musial is a terrific telling of the life of that baseball great (whom I was also privileged to meet more than twenty years ago). Margery Heffrom’s Louisa Catherine provided a fascinating look into the life and character of Mrs. John Quincy Adams, a first lady whom I knew very little about. Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick irritated me for the first half of the book, as it seemed that he was either assuming facts not in evidence or ignoring the facts that were in evidence when making assertions about Benedict Arnold. However, he then shifts course and writes one of the more probing observations of human character I have ever come across in a single paragraph. And Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Hunter was a fascinating tale of Captain Kidd, the famed “pirate.” If Zacks’ account is correct, Kidd may be one of the most unfortunate men in history.

In her autobiography In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park provides both valuable insight into what it is like to grow up in North Korea and a gripping account of what she and her family went through to escape the Hermit Kingdom. And as one of the original Little Rock Nine, Carlotta Walls LaNier offers an understanding of what it was like, and the commitment it took, to integrate the all-white schools of Alabama in A Mighty Long Way. David Ring, John Driver and David Wideman combined to write a moving account of David Ring’s life told from the perspective of David Wideman, who became (and remains) a close friend, in The Boy Born Dead. If you have heard of Ring and think you know his story, I would suggest that you do indeed only think you know his story until you have read this book. Elizabeth Vargas showed tremendous personal strength and courage in writing Between Breaths, an autobiography that focuses primarily on her fierce struggle with anxiety and alcoholism—all while appearing in front of millions of people every day on Good Morning, America, 20/20 and ABC World News Tonight. If you think alcoholism is purely the result of weakness and lack of effort this book will surely disabuse you of such a notion.

In the areas of spiritual growth, theology and Bible study I read a lot on the Sermon on the Mount in 2016, including all of John MacArthur’s The Beatitudes: The Only Way to Happiness and James Montgomery Boice’s The Sermon on the Mount. (I also read much of Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes and volume one of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, but since I did not read all of the first and my copy of the latter includes both volumes in a single book, I did not count either). Eric Ludy’s God’s Gift to Women is written for a target audience of teenage males, but it provides worthwhile instruction on how God intended men and women to relate to one another and men to treat women in particular. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which is particularly relevant amidst the feminism and redefining of gender roles and identities that is so prevalent in our world today. Along those same lines, Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Helper By Design is a book about God’s design for married women that would likely set any NOW member into fits of histrionics.

A couple of books that did not really fit in any other categories: Letters to Lisa by John Van Dyk provides helpful ideas for Christian teachers in an easy-to-read style, since it is written as correspondence between Van Dyk, a professor at Dordt College, and his daughter during the beginning of her teaching career; Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player continues Lencioni’s series of helpful parable-style books on business and management but for some reason includes profanity in the tale that adds nothing to the book and will likely offend some of his readers; and Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura is a book I do not know how to categorize, as it is equal parts Japanese history and accounts of Christian persecution, literary and art criticism and spiritual meditation. I have not read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which is the basis of this book, and I suspect Fujimura’s work will be more meaningful to those who have read it.

So, that was my year in books. I think I may have left a few books out of this summary, but then I always do. Perhaps something here will catch your attention or pique your interest and you will explore new books in the upcoming year as a result. Happy reading!

November 4, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington (Part 3)

Washington continued his address by transitioning to the matter of public debt. Debt was a big deal during the Washington administration and the assumption of state debts was a crucial element of the plan out forward by Alexander Hamilton to unify the nation and strengthen its economy. (Interestingly, this plan also ended up resulting in Hamilton’s support of relocating the national capital to the banks of the Potomac River, as he needed Thomas Jefferson’s support for his financial plan). Washington was intimately familiar with the financial cost of war and with what happens when soldiers and officers are not paid as promised, so he knew whereof he spoke when he addressed the matter of public debt. Still, while recognizing that it may at times be necessary, he left no question as to his opinion on the subject. Note what he had to say:

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

That’s a long paragraph and it is, at times, wordy, but Washington makes three key points: avoid debt whenever possible, pay off debt that was unavoidable as quickly as possible, and remember that public debt can only be paid from public revenue–so it is necessary to pay taxes.

The United States has done exactly what Washington advised so strongly against. We have accumulated, and continued to add to, a massive public debt–one now hovering around $20 trillion. We have, for several generations now, been “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Back in 1995 and again in 1997 I devoted considerable time and attention to the federal budget–why it was in the shape it was in and what needed to be done about it. I did that as a lowly undergraduate student in college. My research and findings generated mild interest from professors at my university as well as others after I presented at an honors symposium, but it was essentially an academic exercise. Nothing came of it and no one really paid much attention. Several years before that Harry Figgie and Gerald Swanson had written a book–which did receive a fair amount of attention–entitled Bankruptcy 1995. Believe it or not, the predictions of that book could not have been much closer to spot on, as the federal government did shut down over budgetary issues in 1995. In his two presidential runs, but especially in 1992, Ross Perot devoted the bulk of his attention and energy to the matter of the U.S. debt. What, by the way, was the national debt in 1992? It was just over $4 trillion. We’re not doing anything to solve the problem. We are burdened with a debt that our ancestors ungenerously burdened us with, and we are doing nothing but piling on to it and–ungenerously–passing it on to our posterity. Eventually someone is going to have to pay the piper.

That piper, by the way, is mostly U.S. citizens and entities, but about one-third of U.S. debt is owned by foreign nations. About $1.3 trillion is held by China and $1.1 trillion by Japan, with other nations holding $3.8 trillion (according to a May 2016 report from CNN). And that raises another point that Washington made. He cautioned strongly against being attached too strongly to other nations, be that through treaties or just closer-than-healthy fondness. He did not mention debt specifically, but he would have understood it as an issue, since the United States had debts owed to France following the Revolutionary War. Such “avenues to foreign influence,” Washington said, “are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.” Why would that be? Simply this:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. … Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and to serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.

Washington cautioned the U.S. to honor its existing treaties at the time he left office and to resist making more. The risks involved with getting too entwined with another country were simply not worth it, Washington believed. The risks far outweighed the reward. That is because, as Washington and so many of the founders understood, human nature is fickle and corrupt. It is hard enough to govern your own people fairly and effectively; why introduce a dependence upon the people and/or governments of other nations over which the U.S. had (and has) no control? “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation,” Washington said.

We have failed, as a nation, to heed Washington’s warnings about party and faction. We have failed to heed his warnings about religion and morality. We have failed to heed his warnings about public debt and dependence upon foreign nations. Regardless of who wins the election next Tuesday, We the People have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to even begin to rectify the mess we have gotten ourselves in by ignoring, and continuing to ignore, the wisdom of the Father of our Country. George Washington was not perfect because no one is. Imagine, however, how different things would be today if our parties disagreed respectfully and actually worked together to accomplish what is best for the country. Imagine how different things would be today if religion and morality were not relegated to the categories of irrelevant and unnecessary. Imagine how different things would be if we paid off unavoidable debts quickly or even, having missed the chance to do that, determined to stop adding to it. That would be a very different country than the one we find ourselves in today.

November 1, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington (Part 2)

After addressing the dangers of political parties and factions George Washington makes a clear and unmistakable shift in focus, beginning with this statement: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

I think anyone would be hard pressed today to find any evidence to refute this statement. Political prosperity is not something that the United States is enjoying today by almost any means of measurement–and the “indispensable supports” of religion and morality have been increasingly seen as dispensable over the past fifty or sixty years. Notice, by the way, that Washington did not say that religion and morality were helpful or beneficial or even advantageous; rather, he said they are indispensable. Much like fuel for an automobile, in other words; without it, the car is not going anywhere. Similarly, in Washington’s mind, there cannot be political prosperity without morality and religion.

Washington went on, though, in order to ensure that there was no misunderstanding the point he was making. First, he said it was contradictory to claim to be patriotic while also opposing or undermining morality and religion. Second, he said that without religion and morality property, life and reputation were all tenuous at best. Third, he said,

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of the refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Morality is all about right verses wrong–specifically the principles of right conduct. Washington knew, without a doubt, that if religion is removed, or even significantly diminished, that morality would crumble. That is because without religion–specifically, a belief that there is a God and that He created earth and humans and is sovereign–there is no basis for right and wrong. When God is removed from the equation it all boils down to survival of the fittest, might makes right, he who has the most toys wins, or fill in the blank with any other self-centered, power-based worldview.

It matters not at all, Washington said, if there is a wonderful educational system. That is because if the supports of religion are removed, what is being taught is all without foundation. It is tenuous, it is temporary, it will shift with the whims of the people or the preferences of those in power. “Who that is a sincere friend to it [a free government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?” Washington asked. And, that by way, was a rhetorical question, assuming the answer of “no one.” That is because, in Washington’s mind–and based on his experience–the two were mutually exclusive.

So, when we find ourselves looking at the mess our country is in, wondering how the best two candidates “we the people” could come up with for the highest office in the land–if not the world–are a serial liar and serial adulterer, someone with no regard for the law and another with no regard for common decency–we need look no further than Washington’s Farewell Address. We have systematically removed religion from the public sphere and even done our best to minimize it in the private sphere–or at least to keep in private–and the result has been a collapse or morality, an embrace of that which has served only to “shake the foundation of the fabric” of our country. We have bid adieu to religious principle; we cannot now be surprised that national morality has followed it out the door.

October 26, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington

I have written here twice–fairly adamantly at that–that so-called prophecies shared recently that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States are false prophesies. I did not say that Trump will not be elected–though I am doubtful that he will–but that God did not reveal any prophetic message to anyone that Trump was His chosen man. I stand by that position. In this post, however, I would like to talk about the prophetic George Washington. By that I do not mean that Washington was a prophet or that he received any prophecies from God. Part of the definition of “prophetic” though is “predictive” and “ominous” and Washington was definitely that.

I would like to draw your attention specifically to Washington’s Farewell Address. It was not actually delivered publicly, but Washington’s thoughts in September 1796, as he decided not to run for a third term in office, contain a wealth of valuable and relevant advice that our country would do well to remember now 220 years later.

After sharing his thoughts on his tenure in office, his feelings for the people and the nation and his appreciation for the trust that had been placed in him, Washington transitions with this:

Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend for your review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.

If nothing else, the address is a primer in 18th-century vernacular and may serve to expand someone’s vocabulary, but the simple truth is that Washington’s reflections led him to share some of the most insightful, practical and crucial comments on the elements essential to maintaining America as a free, independent and thriving nation.

I strongly recommend reading the entire address. It is not overly long and it can be found with ease by doing an internet search. Allow me, though, to highlight a few of Washington’s most poignant observations.

Regarding political parties, which were just beginning to emerge during Washington’s presidency, he said this: “One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” Here Washington was talking specifically about regional differences being taken advantage of by parties, but his point is relevant even now that regional differences are not so important as they were then. Do political parties misrepresent the opinions and aims of the other party(-ies)? Ummm…yeah. In fact that seems to be what they spend the majority of their time doing. If you have watched any of the debates this presidential season you have seen Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spend most of their time saying something about each other only to then have the other respond with something along the lines of, “everything just said is completely false” or something even more strongly worded.

Washington, too, knew that the dangers of party went far beyond geographic and regional differences. Roughly half way through the address he said this:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns his disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.

If you follow current events at all then the last paragraph above will sound eerily familiar to you. How many jealousies and false alarms have occupied the national news media in the past six months (and beyond)? How much animosity is there between the two parties? It is incredible; toxic almost. The time, effort and attention of the candidates and the parties (not to mention the media) is primarily on the squabbles and the scandals, calling names and slinging mud, with little of any substantive discussion of what policies might be pursued to actually help the country. And have we opened the door to foreign influence and corruption? I think “flung it open” might be more accurate. Read some of the accounts of the foreign influence purchased through the Clinton Foundation. Read about the amount of influence China has over the United States because of the amount of our debt China owns. Read about the offer from Russia to send election monitors over to the U.S. to ensure that the elections on November 8 are free and fair, i.e. “not rigged.”

Washington was no fool, and he knew that it would be impossible to eliminate parties and factions from any country. He did, though, observe this: “A fire not to be quenched, it demands uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.” I think it is safe to say that it is indeed bursting into flame, and the United States may well be consumed.

Back in 2008 Sean Collins wrote a book review for Spiked Online that began with this sub-heading: “It is not a clash of ideologies but rather an empty bickering over nothing of much substance that makes the presidential campaign seem so shrill and divided.” If that were true in 2008 it is exponentially more true today. In a 2014 PowerPoint presentation available online, Artemus Ward of Northern Illinois University’s Political Science department stated, “there are now, more than ever before, two Americas—Democratic America and Republican America that have inevitably led to government by crisis (shutdowns, sequestrations, fiscal cliffs, and debt ceiling threats).” In a 2015 article, the Washington Post examined ten reasons why American politics are worse than ever, and included this statement: “As these [party] divisions have intensified, Americans have come to hate the other party and its members more and more.”

I could provide additional commentary and evidence–and you could easily find your own with an online search if you do not already have enough knowledge from personal experience–but it is obvious that what Washington warned would happen has indeed happened. It did not just happen, but it is certainly getting worse. The fire has burst into a flame–and if we do not put it out it will indeed consume.

Next time I will examine another facet of Washington’s prophetic Farewell Address.

 

August 31, 2016

In Defense of Homework

You have probably seen the story buzzing around the internet about a Texas second grade teacher who sent a note home with her students to start the school year in which she informed parents that she would not be assigning any homework this year. The teacher, Brandy Young, wrote that she reached this decision after much research. “Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” Young wrote. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

Those four suggestions Young gives in lieu of homework are wonderful. I wholeheartedly agree that parents should strive to do all four with the children and I strive to do so with my own two. I have addressed the importance of families eating together numerous times in this space. I have also addressed the importance of reading. Children who are read to and who read are always going to do better in school than those students who do not fit in that category. And getting children in bed early is—despite their own protests and the confusion with which you may be greeted by family, friends and the children themselves—essential for their own health and success.

Still, I do not at all agree with the notion that eliminating homework is in the best interest of any child. Should homework be assigned every day? No. Should homework be assigned just for the sake of assigning homework? No. But there are legitimate reasons for using homework and homework appropriate assigned and used does indeed contribute to student success.

First of all, when homework is eliminated and formal learning is therefore confined to the schoolhouse, there is a disconnect that develops. Students begin to think that they learn at school and they just have fun at home. Parents begin to see educating their children as something that the teachers do between the bells and they are not responsible for or involved in in any way. Parents who still want to be involved with their children—want to look over their work, review their spelling words with them, and so on—will be placed in the position of asking students to do something that their teacher told them they do not need to do. This will, inevitably, lead to a student saying, “But Mrs. Young said I don’t have to do any school work at home,” which will be answered by the parent saying, “I am your parent and I said this is what we are going to do. Now get out your spelling words.” Now we suddenly have parent and teacher in opposition rather than working together for the success of the child. Additionally, parents are better able to keep up with what their students are doing in school when their child is working on homework. Even if it is nothing more than a brief conversation, seeing a child with his or her book open and paper out will open the door for an update—and “what are you working on?” is just about guaranteed to get a more concrete response than “what did you do in school today?”

Second, Young’s note said that the only work that students will take home will be work they did not finish during the school day. It stands to reason, from the tenor of the note, that Young does not intend this to be a regular occurrence or even something that will happen for every student. It does not take a great imagination, though, to picture what happens when little Alfred gets home with work to do. “Why didn’t you get this finished in school?” is the logical question to be asked by mom or dad. Any number of options exist for how Al will respond, but none of them end well or contribute to an effective teacher-parent partnership. If Al says he did not have time, the parents will want to know why Mrs. Young assigned more work than the class could finish at school in the first place. If Al says it was too hard and he could not finish it, the folks will want to know why Mrs. Young is giving work to Alfred that he cannot understand or handle. Why isn’t she giving him the help and instruction he needs, for crying out loud? If, after Parents of Alfred get in touch with Mrs. Young they find out that Al was the only one who did not finish his work and it was because he was not using his class time wisely they will no doubt follow up with questions demanding to know why Mrs. Young allowed him to fritter away his precious minutes at school and did not hold him accountable for doing his work when he was supposed to do so. Are you getting the idea that this is not going to end well no matter how Alfred responds or which route the conversations take?

Third, homework—again, when used properly—is designed to reinforce what was taught at school through practice and repetition and/or to allow students to work with that information to develop their understanding and application of the material. When I have my students answer questions over assigned reading, for example, it allows me to see whether or not they understood the reading and grasped the key points. On August 29 Alexandra Pannoni posted on the web site of U.S. News & World Report an article entitled “3 Questions for High School Teachers to Ask Before Ditching Homework.”  In it, she included this important reason to think carefully—especially in high school—about eliminating homework:

High schoolers need some homework because they need to learn how to study independently, says Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of “The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents.”

When they go to college, they’ll spend less time in class and more time studying on their own.

This is absolutely imperative to understand. Students who become accustomed to the idea that they will be given adequate in-class time to complete whatever is necessary to accomplish the education they are pursuing will be in serious trouble when they get to the college campus.

In October 2010 the Alberta Teachers’ Association released findings entitled “Does homework improve student achievement?” Here’s what they stated:

In 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning analyzed 18 studies to update Harris Cooper’s 2006 research on this contentious topic. These studies suggest that some homework does help students to achieve but (1) only in the case of some children, (2) only for a reasonable period of time and (3) only if the homework is meaningful and engaging and if it requires active thinking and learning.

Those caveats are all logical. To the first point, nothing works for every student. By and large, though, homework will benefit students when points two and three are enforced.

On his website AlfieKohn.org, Kohn includes a chapter of the book entitled The Homework Myth. After sharing a number of studies and comments, he concludes the chapter this way:

I’ve been arguing that any gains we might conceivably identify are both minimal and far from universal, limited to certain ages and to certain (dubious) outcome measures.  What’s more, even studies that seem to show an overall benefit don’t prove that more homework – or any homework, for that matter — has such an effect for most students.  Put differently, the research offers no reason to believe that students in high-quality classrooms whose teachers give little or no homework would be at a disadvantage as regards any meaningful kind of learning.

Yet, he asserts that conclusion after stating, in the previous paragraph, “It’s true that we don’t have clear evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that homework doesn’t help students to learn.” At the beginning of the chapter Kohn quotes findings published in the Journal of Educational Psychology:

The conclusions of more than a dozen reviews of the homework literature conducted between 1960 and 1989 varied greatly.  Their assessments ranged from homework having positive effects, no effects, or complex effects to the suggestion that the research was too sparse or poorly conducted to allow trustworthy conclusions.

In other words, none of the studies suggested that homework had a negative impact on students. And even those studies that found that homework had no effect surely did not suggest that homework had no effect on any student. Just as the article quoted above indicated that homework helped some students achieve, I dare say there is no study which has ever suggested that homework has no positive impact on any student. That means homework, even in studies which do not conclude that it is beneficial, does provide benefit for some students. Show me anything—any method, pedagogy, technology, style, etc.—that benefits every student and you will quickly become a multimillionaire, I assure you. There simply is no such thing. Instead, educators use those strategies that are most effective for the most students.

In February 2007 the Center for Public Education posted a lengthy article on the homework question, too. One of their observations was this: “Although the overall effects of homework on student achievement are inconclusive, studies involving students at different grade levels suggest that homework may be more effective for older students than for younger ones.” That is why effective educators tailor homework based on the age of the students. I do not know anyone who would suggest that ninety minutes a day of homework would be appropriate for a first grader, but that is a generally-accepted rule of thumb for ninth graders. Here is that article’s conclusion:

The central lesson of this body of research is that homework is not a strategy that works for all children. Because of its possible negative effects of decreasing students’ motivation and interest, thereby indirectly impairing performance, homework should be assigned judiciously and moderately. Heavy homework loads should not be used as a main strategy for improving home-school relations or student achievement.

There are three sentences in this conclusion. To the first, let’s simply acknowledge that it is a redundant point we have already addressed here. To the second, we have also already addressed the importance of assigning meaningful homework that is age-appropriate. Effective homework should serve to enhance student understanding even if it does not increase their motivation or interest, but it is possible to develop and assign homework that will in fact increase student interest. It involves being creative, thinking outside the box, and probably not giving the same assignment to every student, but it can be done. To the third sentence, the most tempting thing to say is “duh.” I find it rather mindboggling that a professional organization would find it necessary to state that “heavy homework loads” are not likely to improve “home-school relations.” Again, though, the key word in that sentence is “heavy.” And on that note, see points one and two.

In the March 2007 issue of Educational Leadership Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering took on this question about the value to homework. Their article summarized the arguments made in a book entitled The End of Homework like this:

[H]omework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being. The authors focused particularly on the harm to economically disadvantaged students, who are unintentionally penalized because their environments often make it almost impossible to complete assignments at home. The authors called for people to unite against homework and to lobby for an extended school day instead.

My own sphere of relationships is, admittedly, limited. But I have to tell you that I do not know anyone in education who desires to damage familial well-being. In fact, if there is any conclusive evidence out there about anything involving student achievement it is that familial well-being contributes to student learning and success. But, I will say again, effectively designed and used homework will not interfere with familial well-being. Is it true that students from economically disadvantaged homes are likely to have a more difficult time completing assignments at home? Yes. Whether it be because the student is also serving as caretaker, because there is no safe and/or quiet enough place at home to do homework or the resources necessary to get the help needed to complete the assignment necessary are not available, it is entirely possible that some students will have legitimate reasons for not being able to get their homework done. Eliminating homework, however, is not even a remotely logical response to that problem. That would be like suggesting that because economically disadvantaged students do not have access to quality health care we should eliminate the health care system. Or because economically disadvantaged students are not likely to frequent bookstores we should close them all. Extending the school day is not a logical response either. There may well be good reasons to offer extended school days or after-school programs for students who need it, but to say that because some students live in areas not conducive to completing homework means all students should stay at school longer is an argument that both does serve to harm familial well-being (by keeping all students away from home longer) and expands government control and influence over the family.

Marzano and Pickering make the same acknowledgement I have here, writing, “Certainly, inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit—it may even decrease student achievement.” Their ultimate conclusion though? “Teachers should not abandon homework. Instead, they should improve its instructional quality.” I agree.

Most of the studies I have references here report that there is simply not sufficient research and evidence to prove that homework is beneficial to students. That may well be. As we have also seen, though, neither is there sufficient research or evidence to prove that homework is not effective for students. And I suspect there never will be sufficient research and evidence to prove either. That is precisely because children—and teachers—are human beings are we are all designed differently. There will never be anything that works every time for everyone. I will suggest however that it would not take long after the elimination of homework to provide research and evidence proving that barring homework does not benefit many—if any—students.

One last thought. Call it a P.S. if you want. Do those who think students should be able to do all their learning, practicing and application within the hours of the school day think that teachers should be able to do the same? I mean, if students need not do anything outside of the classroom, why should teachers? I can imagine many people jumping to tell me that’s ridiculous, and it is. But why would we think it is reasonable to expect teachers to spend hours outside of the instructional hours preparing lessons and grading assignments if we think it is unreasonable to ask students to do a little work outside of the classroom? Doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

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