Thursday, December 22, 2016

Expressive Individualism and a Christian Counterfeit

The following is excerpted from this article by Trevin Wax for the Gospel Coalition.

Expressive Individualism

The foundational issue, as Jen Pollock Michel points out, is the “gospel of self-fulfillment,” which is also described as “expressive individualism.” That’s a term given to us by Robert Bellah and explored by other philosophers such as Charles Taylor.
According to this way of thinking, the goal of life is to discover and express your unique sense of self, no matter what others may say or do to challenge your freedom of personality. The narrative arc of your life is finding your personal route to happiness by following your heart, expressing your true self, and then fighting whoever would oppose you—your society, your family, your past, or your church.
This is one of the dominant narratives of our time. It shows up in movies and music, and increasingly, on the platforms of popular preachers and teachers—both male and female.

Christian Counterfeit 

The religious form of expressive individualism imagines the believer wrestling against the bondage of their past, or the expectations of their parents, or the legalistic regulations of their church. God’s rescue frees us from all these chains, and sets us on a journey to discover our true essence, which we then offer up as a gift to God and the world. Our goal is to become all that God has created us to be. Anything that gets in the way of this journey must be an evil barrier, overcome only through personal faith and reliance on Jesus.
Now, there are certainly some elements of Christian truth here. Like any good counterfeit gospel, it mimics the truth at key points.
Yes, God wants to free us from the sin and shame of our past, to rescue us from paralyzing guilt, to overcome the barriers that keep us from pursuing radical obedience to his command as we come to know him and his Word with increasing fervor. And yes, God wants us to lean into becoming all that he has created to be—conformed to the image of his Son. And yes, God wants us to be happynot just joyful or blessed or holy. (See Randy Alcorn’s exhaustive work on Happiness in case you need biblical evidence or voices from church history.)
But note how this gospel of freedom redefines Christian teaching at key points.
  • Sin is failing to reach your potential.
  • Shame is a subjective feeling you bring upon yourself and must set aside, not a state that results from objective sin against a holy God.
  • Guilt is what happens when you fail to accept yourself, to love yourself, or to sense your own worthiness of happiness.
  • The barriers that stand in your way of pursuing your dreams must all come down, no matter where they are.
This is not Christianity. It’s a Christianized form of expressive individualism that you can find in just about any self-help book—an inspirational, feel-good message that makes perfect sense in Western cultures, but leaves traditional societies, many of them Eastern, aghast at its sanction of selfishness.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Power of Stories

"In 2016 and beyond, those who wish to create a better world
 will have to make storytelling the center of their efforts, not an
 afterthought. It’s clear that economic and military might will
always be the key levers of statecraft. But more than ever before,
 swift and dramatic change is being driven by powerful
narratives that crisscross the world at the speed of a click or a

Read the full essay here...

Monday, June 13, 2016

The hero Gotham needs...

...Not the one it deserves.

"Jeremiah's refusal to accept any of the available roles and his eccentric insistence on living out the identity of his name [God exalts\hurls] put him in conspicuous contrast to the eroded smoothness of those who were shaped by the expectations of the popular opinion and gathered content for their message not by asking 'What is there to eat?' but 'What will Jones swallow?' His angular integrity exposed the shallow complacencies in which they lived."

-Eugene Peterson, Run With the Horses (emphasis mine)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"The Wrong Side of the Only History That Finally Matters"

"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."
The rest of the essay is worthwhile reading (read it here), and the final two paragraphs are spot on. 
"God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.”
The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters. The Synod on the New Evangelization is taking place in Rome this month because entire societies, especially in the West, have placed themselves on the wrong side of history. This October, let’s pray the rosary so that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen the bishops and others at the synod as they deliberate about the challenges to preaching and living the Gospel at this moment in human history."

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Visual Literacy: Part 3

A final set (for now) of doodle notes or visual notes from my students. These are 8th grade History students and I would say that overall, they've greatly improved. I've been encouraged and continue to feel like visual literacy is a skill that can be learned.

If you're interested in learning more, check out
I also found several videos that have been helpful to students:

And this poster is fantastic to help students who don't know how to get started:


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Storm Window Reuse: Cold Frame

Check out this beautiful cold frame built by my brother Simeon using an old wooden storm window from my 1912 Arts and Crafts/Prairie style house. The design is simple, and pretty self explanatory.  Recently I've also used a large storm window over our strawberry box to help the new plants through the cold snap at the beginning of the month (April 2016).

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Heart Rending Gospel: A Response to Michael Minkoff

The following is a response to Michael Minkoff's excellent essay "How Christian Rationalism Turned Me Into a Psycopath, or a Biblical Defense of Feelings." The essay has resonated strongly with many of us who grew up in a reformed church during the 90s. However, it appears to this reader that Minkoff's diagnosis is misplaced. While the extremes of rationalism and emotionalism in the church can be traced throughout history, one following and reacting to the other, the constant through it all is the depravity of both mind and heart. Just as the diagnosis has fundamentally remained the same, so has the cure- the transforming power of the Gospel.  The response shared below is written by Rev. Thomas Church (my father), a reformed minister who has spent  40+ years sharing that Gospel.

UPDATE: Mr. Minkoff responded in the comments of his post. His charitable rebuttal is worth reading as well. 

After reading the Michael Minkoff Jr. essay on Christian rationalism I found myself quite seriously discouraged. And I actually feel (rationalist reformed minister though I be ) very badly for the man.

Certainly the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, if not other reformed churches, has been beaten with this stick (though not so eloquently) for as long as I can remember. I recall it was a surprise for me when I first heard it because it has never been my experience.  I don’t say that defensively or proudly. It just has never been so in any Orthodox Presbyterian Church that I’ve pastored or been associated with.   

But I don’t mean to say that I don’t doubt this is an issue in many reformed churches. I have certainly seen a certain tendency  toward heartless rationalism and heard the “Don’t trust your feelings” mantra used many many times. In fact I’m sure I have said it myself… and to myself. And sometimes it was very helpful and needful to have heard. To be truthful, it is hardly unique to reformed churches. In point of fact the first time I saw the famous “Faith…Facts…. Feelings” diagram (the choo-choo train being driven by the engine labeled “Faith”, fueled by the coal car labeled “Facts” immediately behind it, with the caboose labeled “Feelings” tagging along at the end)- was in a tract that came from Campus Crusade for Christ (now curiously renamed as CRU) -which could hardly have ever been accused, particularly back then, of being reformed. But I get Minkoff's point… We need to strike a balance in worship and in proclamation between intellect and emotions. They both must be appropriately engaged. And I don’t doubt that there are many particular reformed churches that have failed to do this. They have been driven doubtless in part by reaction to the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism in the 30s through the 60s, and partly by theology.

So far as the theology side of it - I will gently and tentatively say that Mr. Minkoff  appears to show little appreciation for the doctrine of the depravity of the human heart. I don’t believe that’s an invention of late 17th century rationalism. I think it’s pretty well-established from cover to cover in the Bible- and profusely illustrated by the lives of every one of us! Perhaps in reformed churches we overplay this - but I think there is good biblical reason for the conviction that the nature of man has been vitiated by sin in every regard and this, more than anything else is what has driven a suspicion with emotions. We are equally suspicious of our intellect as well as our emotions, but we DO believe that God’s word, empowered by the Holy Spirit is supernaturally endued with the power to speak truth first to our intellect. Yes- I confess to being convinced of the primacy of the intellect. I learned that from Dr. Van Til (NOT a rationalist). But our  emotions are also addressed through his word. Rationalism does not trump the power of Scripture. I am sure Mr. Minkoff would confess that.

I am no theologian or historical scholar but I suspect what killed the New England churches wasn’t simply rationalism. It was  more broadly the depravity of the human heart that ruined her theology. America has not been saved by Pentecostalism.

Again I take his point. But what I really want to say is that after reading the article, by the grace of God I turned to the Scriptures also this morning- reviewing some current memory passages such as 1Timothy 4:7 -10 and Hebrews 10:19 -22, and reflecting on my evening sermon from 2 Samuel 23:13 – 17, I thought to myself- Did this poor man never hear the gospel? Did he never hear of the love of Christ in his reformed church? Were there never any tears spilt for the sweet love of Christ!  Did he never hear an exposition of the account of Jesus interaction with the sinful woman who anointed him with tears of love- please pause to read the “punch line” in Luke 7:47!  It sounds to me as if what this good brother really suffered from was legalism! Maybe all he heard about was the law and doctrine of sanctification and little about justification. Reformed churches make that error… But so do other Evangelical churches.

The doctrine of the active obedience of Christ is instructive. It teaches me that I am completely righteous- and delightful- loved- graciously received in the sight of God, that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

I need to say that I never heard Romans 5:19 nor anything about the imputation of the Righteousness of Christ in the decidedly non-rationalistic fundamentalist churches I attended when I was first converted… Never. I learned that at Westminster seminary and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It changed my life!

I’m not gainsaying this man’s experience- I get it. But the antidote is not to be found in emotionalism - not even in listening to our hearts. What will save Mr. Minkoff from being a psychopath is the gospel! The gospel recognizes the depravity of man, and then moves on quickly to a description of a loving Savior, and the loving God who sent him! The gospel teaches me that the more I see of my sin the more I see the corresponding love of Christ. Did this man never hear the gospel in a reformed church? Perhaps not. I’m very sorry for that.

Perhaps I am missing Minkoff's point. All I know is that I have the privilege of serving in a very loving church where people feel secure and free and loved enough to show it. This Sunday morning during our prayer time three people publicly admitted to addictions… One of them, a drunk who walked in the door, lives a few blocks away and grew up in our church 50 years ago. This is not my doing. I’m not a particularly loving person. But, by the grace of God I do love to preach the gospel. And that answers all. I'm sorry Mr. Minkoff couldn't have found a church where the love of the gospel might have penetrated his wounded heart.

-Rev. Thomas Church

Monday, April 4, 2016

Intention, not substance?

In this opening sentence from MSNBC today, the writers indicate that an idea had been proposed as part of an effort to "reduce the voting strength of the nation's Latino population." The Texas appellants argued for a novel idea that in redistricting, the state ought to use the voting population instead of the total population. The journalists have confused what may very well be an effect of the proposal with its substance.

The opening sentence is written as a judgment of the supposed intention of the proposal, not a statement of fact. The SCOTUS did not reject the reduction of "voting strength" of a particular ethnic group (though I hope and trust that they would have, given that it is unconstitutional). They instead rejected the argument that states are required to use total voters for redistricting rather than total population. The Supreme Court explicitly did not rule out the use of total voters as unconstitutional, leaving it as a question to be dealt with later if necessary.

Does the wording of the journalists make a difference? I think this is a case where sensationalism has overtaken clarity, to the detriment of the reader. Yes, the appellants were political activists and intention is relevant. But the appellants believe the principle of "one man, one vote" would be upheld by defining representation by total voters instead of total population. The substance of their proposal is not ethnic voter dilution. The article in essence assumes from the outset that the appellants were racially motivated (of course, since they are Republicans). To be fair, the news article does improve as it goes on, explaining a bit more of the actual ruling. However, the damage has been done. This is how an article can feed the perception of "liberal media bias," regardless of how right or righteous the facts are.

To read more about what it at stake in this case and a good analysis of "representational equality" and "electoral equality, read this essay.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Living With a Mind, Roger Scruton

"Ideas beg to be shared, and by sharing them, you come to know the other person far more intimately than through adventure or sport."

 What a profound, entertaining, and though provoking essay from Roger Scruton. Scruton argues for the inherent value of a thoughtful life and the companionship it brings through a community of thinkers. This is truly counter-culture. Mixed in is a quaint neo-agrarianism, in reaction to the noise of the modern world, and a curmudgeonly defense of classical music. If I could live in this essay, I would.

"The joy of the intellectual life arises partly from the search for truth, toward which the thinking person turns as a flower to the sun. As you turn it is inevitable that you should question orthodoxies, be suspicious of opinions that serve the interests of those who adopt them, and explore the problems that confront us without fear of being proven wrong. To take the life of the mind seriously, therefore, you may have to reconcile yourself, as Spinoza did, to circulating your thoughts among your soul mates, and to avoiding their public expression. You may have to recognize that truth is a threat to a culture created by the mass expression of unexamined opinions, and is best kept to the circle of those for whom it really matters." 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Necessary Three: Justice, Mercy, Humility

In The Ethics of Teaching, by Kenneth Strike and Jonas Soltis, the authors contrast consequentialist theories of ethics versus non-consequentialist theories. Ultimately, their stance is that "the distinction between consequentialist and nonconsequentialist theories... enable[s] us to ask good question about hard cases. These different questions permit us to be clearer concerning what is at stake." The chart below organizes the questions that Strike and Soltis are referring to:

Consequentialist – What has the best consequences…
Nonconsequentialist- What we should do as a matter of principle…
What are the benefits we are aiming at?
Are these benefits genuinely worthwhile?
Are there unintended consequences we should consider?
Whom do we intend to benefit?
Are there others who are affected?

Are we being consistent?
How would we feel were we to be treated in this way?
Are we respecting those with whom we are interacting?
Are the benefits distributed fairly?
Are we treating people as ends rather than means?

As I've been considering this contrast between two perspective in ethics, it occurred to me that the consequentialist view might be identified with the word "mercy." When thinking like a consequentialist, you are focused on the outcome for all those involved. You aren't constrained by the so-called letter of the law, but by the effect. As EMU Professor Michael Young has pointed out, the consequentialist is the Jean Valjean of life. He/she does not deny the existence and necessity of the law, but believes that consideration of the consequences of ones actions necessitates bending of the law- and yes, mercy. 

On the other hand, we might identify the nonconsequentialist view with the word "justice." The word justice in this case representing principles and universal moral truths. Consistency is a major concern of the nonconsequentialist, typified by Javert. The Javert's of life see ethics as a system that is fixed in the stars, unbending and inflexible- and thus fair. 

So does mercy and justice belong side by side? Are they compatible? Micah 6:8 seems to suggest so.

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and mercy- a delicate balance that must find an essential but uneasy co-existence in this flawed world. But not just these two things, one more essential ingredient: humility. Since the balance is not a simple one, since it is fraught with conflict and tough choices, humility must be at the forefront. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

To Jericho

She who is brave, curious and kind
Uncommon traits for a girl just turned five
Blessed to be your Papa if only on loan
Praying that you'll know the Father
And call him your own
So whether climbing or diving
Singing or rhyming
The very purpose of your life-
his own glory-
Will be your reward.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Backlash: When poor execution makes "RJ" look bad...

Stemming from alarming reports regarding racial disparities in suspension rates, the DOE and the Obama administration has been exerting significant pressure to reduce these rates overall. Restorative Justice proponents have in turn been riding the wave of increased interest, touting the approach in schools as powerful and effective alternative to traditional discipline as well as an effective way of confronting bias. They're right. 

The problem for the RJ movement, however, is that it runs the risk of being sucked down and spit out, along with the rest of the many ill-conceived and poorly executed alternative discipline programs posing as restorative. Take New York City Schools, for example. From the sound of things, NYC schools are facing a major backlash to their suspension reduction campaign, not only from the pro-charter groups but even unions. Betsy McCaughey writes in the New York Post today:

The de Blasio administration is touting a dramatic decrease in school suspensions. That’s only because the unruly students are allowed to stay in the classroom, continuing to disrupt. Last week, at a United Federation of Teachers meeting, 81 percent of teachers said their students are losing learning opportunities because of the disorder and violence.

So instead of suspensions, what are schools doing to address the misbehavior in schools? According to McCaughey, "restorative justice." She writes:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has implemented the Obama administration’s policy of replacing suspensions with “restorative justice” — a kind of talk therapy — even for serious offenses such as insubordination, fighting, arson, assaults and marijuana possession.

We can assume that McCaughey isn't very familiar with what restorative justice actually is -her example of an Adlai Stevenson High School student being sent home with a "warning card" after being caught with seven bags of marijuana confirms that fact. But we can also assume that she's pretty representative of the general public's knowledge too. 

The result is a smear on the good name of Restorative Justice, an approach to discipline that is neither "soft" nor mere "talk therapy." In the words of leading expert Howard Zehr, "Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible." This means that "restorative disciplines does not seek to deny consequences for misbehavior," write Lorraine Amstutz and Judy Mullet, in their book Restorative Discipline for Schools. "Instead, it focuses on helping students understand the real harm done by their misbehavior, to take responsibility for the misbehavior, and to commit to positive change." 

Restorative discipline takes time, resources, and commitment. And the same factors that make traditional discipline difficult in our most troubled schools make restorative discipline difficult too. Proponents of restorative justice in schools would do well not to oversell, or sell out, the integrity of their process in an effort to be a panacea to suspension rate inequality. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Passive voice = the worst kind of victimization...

Here's what a well meaning and passionate advocate for students wrote in October 2015 (emphasis mine):

"Growing up, Cameron Simmons endured a gauntlet of school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests that could have easily condemned him to a life behind bars or even to an early violent death--the present lot of many of his childhood friends. But things turned around for Cameron in the 12th grade, when he found himself at the doorstep of a restorative justice school in West Oakland."

The passive voice is being used for effect, granted. The author wants us to see Mr. Simmons as a victim of at best a failed system, at worse of systemic oppression. She has an important message and I am elated for Mr. Simmons and the empowerment he found through RJ processes. By all accounts in the article, he has found the kind of agency that he was denied, at least rhetorically, in the paragraph above.

Stock Film Lives Again- Sargent Hall, Northwestern University

While watching the surprisingly good Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle, I almost instantly recognized a scene (Episode 9). It was Sargent Hall, Northwestern University- a place I ate many a meal in and lived next door to for three out of four years. But what was most surprising was that while I was aware Sargent had been used as a hospital for a film shot while I was an undergrad, it certainly wasn't The Man in the High Castle. It was actually The Express, a critically applauded but commercially failed film about the first African American Heisman Trophy winner from Syracuse University, Ernie Davis. I don't know a lot about how stock footage works, but Amazon was clearly making the most of pre-filmed footage- and it worked just fine.

Sargent Hall in The Express 

Sargent Hall in The Man in the High Castle
Sargent Hall circa 2010 (notice the Tech 4th floor construction)