Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays

By Charles Taylor, 405 pages,

McGill philosophy professor Taylor shows how western Christianity became too moralistic and legalistic at the expense of the transcendent dimension. 

He points to the French village priest's strong opposition to Brazilian-like carnival Catholicism, whereby dancing, drinking, and certain other excesses took place on saints days and other Catholic celebrations. In their zeal to take the dancing out of the Catholic holy day, they ended up taking Catholicism out of the village. 

Nineteenth-century Protestants did the same: They shamed young men for their rowdy lifestyles of drinking, gambling, and womanizing, rather than inspiring them with the transcendent view of Christ's resurrection. Men, put off, turned away en masse from the churches. Catholic priests did the same shaming act on young men, and turned the confessional into the most feared or avoided place, with men increasingly shunning it.
The more Christianity moralized in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, the more it feminized and left little place for men. Rather than preaching and inspiring the fear of God, a most masculine spiritual practice, Christian leaders, Taylor argues convincingly, established "polite" Christianity. To be a Christian was to be a part of polite society, especially in the English version of religion. This was when Christ began to be taken out of Christianity, replaced by "proper behavior."

Readers get a clear sense of how secularism developed out of this. Incensed by the meddling of the parish priest in France, the French eventually went from a strong religious revival in the mid-nineteenth-century to severely restricting the Church in education and the rest of the public arena, something they call laicite, a bedrock of modern French political life to this day.

A second kind of secularism developed, mostly in America and other western countries when people turned the excessive moralism of the churches against the churches themselves. They condemned the crusades and every other real or imagined sin of the church. They portrayed religious people as zealous, violent idiots. Ironically, these secularists followed the churches' habit of restricting the vertical, or transcendent, dimensions, but did so even more eagerly than the churches themselves.

Despite the failings of the churches, Taylor refuses to let atheist moralists off the hook. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and countless other utopian tyrants put their ideals into humanity, rather than finding them from a higher revelation. When humans could not measure up to their ideals, these politicians slaughtered millions.
Taylor cautions against the current liberal and conservative tendency in politics to "cultivate" anger. Anger has become a kind of spirituality, whereby the angered, righteous person feels resentment and entitlement. 

Feminism and a host of other ideologies use this to motivate their members. Yet, given the tendency of anger to cause violence, Taylor warns that a return to a higher, transcendent source is more important than ever.
Taylor is optimistic. Secularism has freed the churches to return to their roots, something that he regards as essential. Now that churches have had their hold on the public arena greatly weakened, they can return to cultivating the transcendent within each of its members.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Afraid to Believe in Free Will: The Human Tendency to Avoid Responsibility for Free Choices

By Carl E. Begley.

Psychologist Carl E. Begley's goal is to confront people when they or their counselor want to let themselves off of the moral hook. For the last hundred years psychology has been dominated by determinists who deny free will. They therefore deny human responsibility.

This has led to the common sociological explanations for immoral, destructive, and even criminal behavior. People get a note from their psychologist or doctor explaining a condition such as bipolar disorder, and they are subsequently not responsible for their actions. It is the bipolar that is responsible.

Likewise, Begley criticizes the entitlement mentality whereby someone on disability leave uses that supposed condition as an excuse for continuing to receive government benefits. The money given as a kind of reward for the condition actually reinforces the condition - it pays to have a bad back or suffer from an anxiety disorder, so why would someone get better. Getting better would mean having to get a job and take responsibility for their behavior.

Begley notes that people actually become proud of their labels. Whenever someone suggests that they get a job or that the condition is not permanent, that it's not a definition of their very being, they defend the prognosis and justify their dependency.

Mainstream psychology, Begley explains clearly and convincingly, has played a large role in our culture's moral slackening.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Shot of Faith to the Head (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists

By Mitch Stokes,, 272 pages.

The amateurish title does not do justice to the seriousness of the task and tone successfully undertaken by Stokes, a theologian with an engineering background.

He puts the Enlightenment's aggressive atheism under the microscope, showing how belief in God is not irrational, but highly logical. He pivots this argument on an old Christian idea, the sensus divinitatis, the idea that the sense of God is implanted in every human, which is why nature, for instance, can evoke a feeling of awe and wonder in us.

The Enlightenment's "evidentialism", which demands verifiable evidence for every belief and rejects a place for any basic beliefs that are simply accepted, is rejected as impossible. Stokes clearly demonstrates how we cannot escape basic beliefs. We are merely deluding ourselves when we think we are pure evidentialists, with proof for everything. The author notes that even scientists have to take certain things on faith, such as their belief that their observations are correct - that their eyes and minds are not deceiving them.

Stokes also refers to the grand design of the world, and how atheists wrestle with the fact that the world seems to have been built with us in mind.

A Shot of Faith is a demanding yet extremely rewarding read. Evangelical Christians need more thinkers like Mitch Stokes.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Real Marriage

By Mark and Grace Driscoll. Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Typical of contemporary therapeutic Christianity, the Driscolls try to repair the damage of our pornified culture to marriage. They use the Bible as a sort of spiritual DSM-IV, showing how Scripture teaches that sex is good, wholesome, and a gift from God - as long as it is kept within a Christian marriage.

Sex is vital to the health of a marriage. Frequent sex is a holy part of a strong marriage at every age, yet should never be used as a bargaining chip, which the authors warn is a form of prostitution.

The therapeutic part of this book means that Christianity and God are seen as tools towards personal development. Being a Christian is healthy for your psychology and therefore for your marriage. The scope of this book is not God or salvation per se, but Christian marriage and its practicalities, including anal sex, hand jobs from the wife, and the like.

The goal of therapeutic Christianity is not spiritual striving or overcoming one's selfish, sinful desires in the ascent to God, as it had been at some point in western Christian history. In short, the goal of therapeutic Christianity is not God. Instead, the goal is happiness, including happy marriages. The Christian will have a happy marriage, or he is not living a godly, sanctified life.

In the Driscoll's therapeutic Christianity, the gospel serves us. God is a master psychologist and counselor who solves all our problems.

Real Marriage illustrates ego-centered Christianity. Its mediocrity is boring more than anything else. One hopes that Christianity offers more than guilt-free mutual masterbation.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


By Mitch Stokes, 224 pages, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Stokes counters the biggest misunderstanding of all in the Galileo affair, that it was a battle royale between science and religion, between the progressive forces of truth and the dark, "medieval" forces of the Church.

Rather than an adversarial relationship with the Church, the deeply-believing Galileo had an undying belief in the goodness and sound reasoning of the Catholic Church. As a scientist he saw no reason to doubt God and ecclesiastical teachings.

For Galileo, scripture, God's book of revelation, revealed how to get into heaven, whereas God's second book, the book of nature, could be understood quite apart from biblical teachings. When new scientific findings or observations, such as the sun-centered view of the cosmos, contradicted biblical teaching, this could be explained easily, according to Galileo.

First, he followed the tradition's assertion that scripture was sometimes allegorical, not literal. Second, he argued that the Bible's cosmology was the Holy Spirit's way of accommodating the ancient mind, which did not have the same scientific perspective as seventeenth-century Europe.

The author depicts Galileo's mindset admirably, and avoids the Catholic Church- or pope-bashing so common to those writing on the this issue. He also conveys to readers the inner workings of the Church at the time, extremely important to the Galileo case.

Stokes shows readers how the heart of the struggle was not science versus religion, but theological in nature. The basic theology of the time, scholasticism, depended on Aristotle's philosophy. Churchmen feared that if Aristotelian cosmology fell through, so too would scholasticism.

Stokes takes readers step-by-step through the whole story. Long simmering, things came to a head after Galileo published a study on tidal waves, called the Dialogue, that utilized Copernican cosmology even though the Church had increasingly opposed this new, heliocentric theory. Whereas Galileo had been on excellent, friendly terms with Pope Urban VIII, Urban quickly became a ferocious opponent of the scientist, believing that in this study Galileo had disrespected and disobeyed him.

Many deceitful people were involved in the case, and Stokes portrays these events well. Galileo had many enemies because he was not-so-gently destroying their Aristotelian cosmological system which so neatly fit into their theology. Yet readers may wonder if Stokes has told us everything. Did the Italian genius displease so many people because he was stubborn and arrogant? Because he misused scripture? Because he was, in fact, rude to the pope?

Concerning the supposed science-religion divide, the author shows that the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Catholic universities were hotbeds of science. The Vatican itself promoted inquiry. The Church saw science as an ally, not an enemy.

The Galileo affair, Stokes succeeds in showing, was not Church versus science, but an inner Catholic dispute. First and foremost, it was an argument among scientists over the quickly-changing worldview and scientific methodology. Secondly, it was a dispute between Galileo and the theologians that involved many clashing personalities.

While Galileo reveled in the dispute with fellow scientists, he never wished for a battle with theologians and the Vatican. He suffered greatly throughout the trial and imprisonment, even though he mostly lived under house arrest in his own villa.

Stokes succeeds in refuting many anti-Catholic biases to the Galileo legend without, however, fully introducing the man, Galileo, to readers.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Johan Sebastian Bach

By Rick Marschall,, 192 pages.

Marschall shows how deep Christian belief builds culture. In Bach's day (died 1750) northern Germany around Berlin was deeply Lutheran, which meant that it was deeply musical. The liturgy was much more intense than it is now. This meant much music and a lengthy, even hour-long sermon.

Bach came from a long line of musicians who served the church and Christianity. The author shows how Bach's deep faith made him a great evangelist. Bach took this evangelism through music seriously. He believed that his musical gifts, obvious at a young age, were from God and were to be used in the proclamation of the gospel.

We can only understand Bach when we're aware of his Christian spirituality, Marschall observes: "He sought to praise God by making his church music to be sermons in song."

Yet Marschall goes a bit far when he argues, "what Newton was to science and physics, Bach was to music." Most people today would be unable to identify a song by Bach, and the author himself admits that the Baroque genius lived at the very end of that age, when Italian operas were sweeping Europe and Baroque was rapidly becoming outmoded.

Importantly, this book parallels the observations of Pope John Paul II on the importance of culture. Bach's genius was amplified and set free by his faith. Unlike countless artists today who claim that God would trap their talents, Bach's greatest freedom came at the service of God. The musician saw himself in his various church music roles as a minister.

Marschall reminds the readers repeatedly that Bach never felt constrained. He personified the Baroque Christian culture of the day. Through him also came the highest expression of Lutheran piety and adherence to tradition.

Bach's Christianity was broader than simply Lutheran, the author shows. Bach's Mass in B Minor, perhaps a strange composition for a Lutheran, took many years, which was uncharacteristic for him. Marschall observes that it includes many medieval and renaissance elements. In other words, though a Protestant, Bach appreciated and respected the Catholic and medieval artistic achievements, and made them part of his own work.

Readers get a good sense of the historical and cultural surroundings in which Bach lived. Marschall notes for instance that the Mass in B Minor was something of an oddity because Calvinism, with its rejection of the flowery and the artistic, was making quick inroads into the northern Germany of Bach. This was completely at odds with the great composer's style. Yet, just as opera hardly influenced Bach, neither did this new religious direction.

Readers also get a good sense of the Lutheran liturgical and church culture of the day. Such notes as the following give readers a sense of Bach as an individual, of what his daily life and ministry were like: "Bach played the organ during the Communion with plenty of spontaneity for improvisation, suggested by his many chorale preludes upon Communion hymns."

Marschall makes a good case that Bach the artist was so free and wonderfully creative because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and faithful to his Christian tradition, even respectful of the older Roman Catholic roots.