Tuesday, December 2, 2014


A couple of weeks ago I read this rather stimulating article by J.D. Greear in which he defends the multi-site model of church growth. (It is actually the first article in a series of four evaluating the multi-site model.) I say it was stimulating because I went on thinking about it for several days. I could not decide whether I thought he was right or not. My natural prejudice would be to disagree with him, and that is where I will land in this post, but I was not able to dismiss his arguments without consideration.
I probably would have forgotten about it if the Mars Hill news had not come out a week later. The news itself didn’t make much of an impact on me, but I find there’s nothing like a podcast to set me thinking about something. So I want to make a couple of observations about this whole multi-site phenomenon, and particularly Greear’s post. I don’t have any answers: just questions.

What is missiology?

So there’s this much-linked video from TGC (which they recently took down?) where Mark Dever talks to Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald about the multi-site model. About halfway through it Driscoll tells Dever, “you’d probably throw this over in the rubric of ecclesiology—I’d throw it over in rubric of missiology.” I found that to be a fascinating statement, because while I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ecclesiology, I really don’t know much at all about missiology. While Greear doesn’t make the same precise distinction, I think he was thinking along similar lines when he decided to begin his 4-part blog series with a post about evangelistic effectiveness.
Missiology is a latecomer to the world of theology. While the word sounds like it would head a major section in a systematic theology book, it traditionally does not. It did not emerge as a discipline until the 19th century, and is considered an area of practical theology—that is, it is oriented toward what ought to be done rather than what ought to be believed.
One thing that is confusing to me about this is that I don’t know how we’re supposed to disagree about practical theology. I have a framework I am pretty comfortable with for navigating doctrinal disagreements. I know the history of the different controversies and schisms. I know which points of doctrine are essential to being an orthodox Christian at all, which ones were important enough to divide churches over without actually severing the bonds of ecumenical unity, and which are (at least formally) matters of indifference. And for the most part I know where I stand in all of that, and how I would relate to someone who disagreed with me at each level. On issues of practice, however, it gets a bit more confusing for me. Practice flows from theory, church practice from doctrine. One would think that if we agree on all matters of essential doctrine, our practice could not be terribly different. Or at least that whatever differences we have over practice must necessarily be less important than the doctrines that we hold in common. But given the rhetorical fervor around certain issues of practice (such as multi-site churches) that doesn’t seem to be the way everyone thinks.
I mean it would be easy enough to posture one’s self as being above all of that rhetoric. It is true that we have a natural tendency to emphasize our differences more stridently against those who are more similar to us. (The only evidence I will offer for this claim is the oft-repeated Emo Philips joke.) I think it is partly because we see our opponent as sharing our worldview, and so whatever disagreements we have must necessarily be inconsistencies on their part. We have more hope of winning them over to our point of view, but we are more distressed if they are not won.
But I was going to say something about missiology. Where was I?
Basically my initial reaction is that I am pretty of skeptical of missiology being pitted against ecclesiology. Ontologically speaking, missiology should be the same identical thing as ecclesiology. The church is both the instrument and the object of the mission. The mission in question is the church’s mission, and the mission is to build the church. To understand what the church is is to understand what the mission is, and vice versa.
But my second reaction is to admit that I really don’t know enough about missiology to go any further with this discussion. A quick search for recommended books on missiology was enough to show that not only am I unfamiliar with the literature, but I don’t even recognize most of the names being passed around. It is clear enough that practical missiology is a necessary thing to work out, as an extension of our more theoretical ecclesiology. (But it must not be inconsistent with our ecclesiological commitments.) The fact that it is a relatively new topic of theological reflection does not make it invalid. But I would expect that it is less definitively worked out, less clearly defined and defended, when compared to the core of Christian doctrine.
So this just comes back around to being a note to myself to learn more about missiology.

How much is 15%?

In Greear’s post, he does some back-of-the-envelope calculations about a “relatively conservative” church growth scenario. I’m sure he didn’t intend to represent this as a robust analysis by any means. But the more I thought about it, the more his argument seemed to hinge on this scenario, and the more the scenario fell apart.
Consider this relatively conservative growth scenario: If even 15% of the members of a congregation of 400 meeting in a room that holds 500 bring one person to Christ every year, in two years members will no longer be able to bring any more of their friends to church.
A couple of paragraphs later he underscores that he considers this to be a conservative scenario.
And if a church is not growing by 15% every few years, that means that not even [15%] of its baptized members are bringing someone to Christ. Could any pastor who takes Jesus’ promises about the fruitfulness of his church seriously be satisfied with that (Luke 5:1-10; John 15:8)–and not hoping, and yearning, and planning, for more?
I just can’t get over the fact that he considers 15% year-over-year growth to be small. Either my experience in the church (my whole life) has been almost exclusively in unfaithful churches, or this number is hugely optimistic. I can see how you could frame the number in a way that it would seem pretty reasonable, and in fact it came across that way when I first read the article. If a Christian is actively pursuing evangelism, hoping to see one conversion a year doesn’t sound unreasonable. And if you are preaching evangelism from the pulpit, expecting just 15% of your people to put it into practice seems pretty conservative.
But that doesn’t change the fact that it is an exponential growth model. I’m reminded of the old CEF song that goes, “If you tell two people and I tell two people, then four more people will know / If they tell two people and we tell two people, then more and more people will know.” Wheat on a chessboard and all that. If Greear’s church were a business with shareholders, it would be a pretty solid investment. Maybe not exciting enough to entice Silicon Valley VCs, but better than the cumulative average of the S&P 500. 15%-per-year works out to doubling in just under 5 years. So if a pastor is in one church for 20 years he should expect to see his congregation double 4 times over, meaning 16x what he started with, and with no end in sight.
My point is not that this never happens. Obviously it does. But it is what we sometimes call “a nice problem to have.”
When I was young and foolish I would talk about different business ideas and one easy mistake was to say something like, “But look how big this market is! If we can just get 1% of the market, we’ll be rich!” The trick works because 1 is the “smallest number.” It just sounds conservative. But if you actually multiply it out and see that 1% represents, say, 300k people you are hypothetically going to sell your widget to, it becomes obvious that you are just indulging a fantasy of unbridled success. Now looking at year-over-year growth is not nearly as insane as taking a percentage of some population, but it kind of feels like the same thing insofar as it is a completely made-up number. Is 15% large or small? It depends on how you look at it. Compared to your goal of 100% participation in evangelism it seems quite small, even pessimistic. But 16x over 20 years seems kind of massive.
I’m doing a lot of comparison of this 15% number to the business world because I think it invites that comparison. Another bit I know from my own line of work is that you can’t just ignore attrition. Greear’s model doesn’t account for people leaving a church for reasons other than going to join a church plant. But we all know that isn’t actually how the world works. People leave churches for lots of reasons: they die, they apostatize, they move across the country. More than any of those, they go check out the church across town that seems more like “what they are looking for.” The church I grew up in probably averaged what we would call “0% net churn” over the 20 years I was there. Outreach was done, new people came in, but old people left too. It grew some years and shrank other years, but continues to fit in the same building to this day.
Another thing I wondered about is whether he came up with this number based on baptism or profession statistics. He wants to make a strong connection between church attendance growth and effective evangelism, but in reality there are a lot of ways that could skew the numbers. For one thing, lots of baptisms are people who were already attending the church for several years, whether children of believers, or adults who were never saved. If those people were taking up a seat from the time you started counting, then they skew the number. (Not to mention those who get re-baptized.) There’s also the matter of evangelism outreaches that result in professions of faith but don’t result in anyone joining the church. Those were distressingly common in my experience growing up.
Of course there’s also the matter of people transferring to your church from another church, which does mean you’ll need more places to sit. Nobody who pastors a big church wants to emphasize this source of growth, since it is a zero-sum game. “Our mission is to tell those who have never heard. We aren’t interested in church transfers. … [beat] … Present company excepted! We’re so glad you decided to join us today!” I don’t know whether it is a real thing or just confirmation bias, but I have always had the impression that when people transfer, they on average tend to go to a larger church than the one they are leaving. Which would in turn suggest that once your church is of a certain size it will see a disproportionate percentage of its growth come from transfers. I wonder if there’s a way to test my theory.
I do have this nagging doubt that maybe I am too pessimistic about all of this. Maybe Greear is right and I have just never experienced a faithful church. Maybe all churches are supposed to grow like the Summit Church (at least if they are in a major population center) and if they don’t it is because they are unfaithful. What do I know?

Can we set a quota for the work of the Spirit?

One thing that stood out to me was that while Greear is willing to put a number on evangelistic faithfulness, he doesn’t think that we can expect people to mature to the point of being willing to participate in a church plant at a pre-determined rate. Here is what he says in response to the objection that we should keep our churches small by sending out our members to plant new churches.
Even if you do manage to send out 10% of your members every year for the first few years, you will see a law of diminishing returns begin to kick in. The amount of believers ready to uproot their families and plant a new church will not remain constant at 10%. I’m not saying mathematically it couldn’t happen; I am saying that I am very familiar with the most mission-minded, mature, church-planting churches in the nation, and I have never seen an example of a church that could sustain that level of sending. The first year you harvest that zealous group–who are in a place for a new challenge and ready to go with your new plant. The next year, you convince a few more, as people in your church are maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice… but it probably will not be quite as many. Soon, you will have run the metal detector over the sand so many times that there just is not enough metal shavings left to send out in a new plant. And, even if you could maintain the 10% sending rate, you would not be keeping up with the conservative growth rate of 15%–which I still think is a low growth percentage in light of Jesus’ extravagant promises about the fruitfulness of his church!
He believes Jesus has promised us that we will see fruit in bringing new people into the church (in excess of 15% exponential growth) but when it comes to people “maturing and becoming more willing to sacrifice,” well, the numbers just aren’t there. At this point Greear becomes the pessimist. He wants to see people sent out, but they just can’t mature quickly enough to be sent quickly enough to offset how quickly new converts are rolling in. Best I can tell this means his people are maturing at a rate of less than 15% year-over-year.
I think I would rather hear Greear talk about real numbers in both cases. I would rather that he said, “God has blessed us over the last 10 years with so many conversions. The multi-site model is the best way we could find to faithfully steward what the Spirit has given us. He has blessed us with relatively fewer new leaders, but we are praying that he will send more.”
I don’t necessarily think that the sending-out model is the right answer for dealing with church growth. Like I said in the beginning, I don’t have an answer on this. But I think it is strange that he would put a number on his expectation of the work of the Holy Spirit in conversion, but would not have any idealistic expectation at all about the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification.

What do we mean when we say “it’s not about numbers?”

All my life I have heard it said that faithfulness as a church is not about numbers. I guess I should also ask whether everyone actually accepts that it is not about numbers. Maybe it is just something we told ourselves to make ourselves feel better about our relatively static numbers? But I realized that there are actually two things people could mean when they say this.
One thing they could mean is that faithfulness means obedience regardless of the outcome. If I am doing all the things Christ commanded, it doesn’t matter whether I actually see conversions or not. A possibly distinct, but related, idea would be that fruit in the area of discipleship is just as good as fruit in the area of evangelism. God may bless us at certain times with more new converts and at other times with more personal growth in existing believers. God gives the increase.
The other thing that someone could possibly mean by this is that it isn’t about the number that you personally can take credit for. It isn’t about counting. It isn’t about how many conversions you personally see, or how many baptisms you perform, or how many people listen to your sermons. But it is, ultimately, about how many people you impact. So you want to share the gospel with as many people as you possibly can but, hey, if they end up going to the church down the street that’s fine with me. “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.”
Theologically I could see this distinction falling along Reformed vs. Arminian lines. But my experience of it has actually been more like fundamentalist vs. evangelical. I’m not sure what to make of that.

How should we prioritize preaching ability?

I think it is unavoidable in this discussion that we talk about quality of preaching. It is obvious that one of the major factors that differentiates big growing churches from small struggling churches is the ability of the primary teaching pastor to draw a crowd.
While it is also obvious that different people are looking for different things when they go listen to a sermon, one can imagine all of it averaged out into a single number that captures a preacher’s perceived quality. (If we accept the assumption that we could use church growth as a proxy for a preacher’s skill, then this might actually be a practical project. Some adjustments would have to be made to account for starting size, length of ministry, area population, etc. Of course it would still be a gross oversimplification since there must be other factors that make a given church more or less attractive.)
Whatever this plot would look like, I’m pretty sure that men who can draw a crowd of more than 10k people every week would be a vanishing minority. They are outliers. When framed this way, the whole question morphs into something like, “How we should steward this kind of rockstar homiletical talent when it happens?”
A friend of mine was telling me about how his parents have struggled, not having a solid church near where they live. He said that if were him he would just move so that his family could go to a good church. I understand that. From the perspective of a Christian choosing a church, insofar as we are given a choice, it is incumbent upon us to go the the best church that we can. And it is part of our Reformation heritage to place a great deal of emphasis within the church on the ministry of the Word.
So I can completely sympathize with someone who goes out looking for the best preaching they can find. But it seems that if everyone did this, then the vast majority of them would end up concentrated in megachurches. I guess this depends on how much their taste in preaching falls within the mainstream. I suppose there are tiny churches with horribly distorted messages that appeal to a small number of people. But if we are generally limiting our discussion to basically sound, Biblical teaching, then the issue is primarily a matter of skill or giftedness, with some allowance for individual preference.
But there are reasons to think that churches should not be organized solely in accordance with preaching ability. There are the usual concerns about anonymity in a large church. There is also the idea, which I would tend to agree with, that the act of preaching itself becomes diminished above a certain size. The introduction of multiple sites reduces the confrontational immediacy of the event. The loss of eye contact. The reduced awareness on the part of the preacher of the individual lives and struggles of his congregation. This is not to say that there is no place for preaching before a stadium-sized audience, but rather that there is a particular value to preaching to a smaller congregation, in person, that is highly valued by some, particularly in the local context of a weekly worship meeting.
All of which is to say that I think we are right to value preaching very highly, but I also think we should be nuanced in how we value preaching, and that we should not elevate it to an absolute priority.
This discussion is highly relevant to my own church history. My wife and I just made the decision to join a church plant that was sent out by our home church (IDC). The preaching ability of the main preaching pastor, Tony, was the foremost reason we had decided to join IDC in the first place. To exchange listening to Tony (who is a professor of preaching) for a couple of new seminary graduates was not an especially easy decision to make. The basis of our decision was first, that while our new elders are not as experienced, they are sound and gifted. We will miss listening to Tony, but we will not have to give up listening to the Word itself, expounded week by week. Secondarily, there were a variety of personal reasons we expect the church plant to be a better place for us to serve and grow (especially proximity to where we live).
So I guess I have a kind of threshold of preaching ability beyond which I consider a church to be acceptable. Below that threshold the Word is too obscured by the inadequate handling of the would-be preacher. It is the Word that we want, not the anecdotes, reactions, and musings of the preacher. But not every self-styled preacher has dedicated himself to bringing us this Word, and not all those who do wish to bring us the Word have the gift and the learning necessary to do it.
As a further autobiographical aside, we spent a few years in the exact opposite of a megachurch—a cell-like house church where every man was expected to aspire to the role of a teacher. The responsibility of elders was greatly diminished and the men were strongly encouraged to “step up” and be spiritual leaders of their families. The calling to lead within the home was almost equated with the role of leadership in the church. Consequently the members of this church learned to have basically no expectation of the weekly sermons. With no one called specifically to pastoral ministry, and basically no training in good hermeneutics or homiletical techniques, the Word was basically absent from our collective church life for those years. Eventually I got into podcast sermons.
So I feel pretty safe in saying that setting a very low value on the quality of preaching is disastrous. I have not personally experienced the dark side of placing too high a value on it, but the Mars Hill debacle suggests there is such a dark side.
Our house church experience left me with a bit of a chip on my shoulder about larger churches. It was common for people to fetishize the intimacy of their languishing church, which I now read as a dark combination of rationalization and cliquishness. I’m pretty allergic to people saying that they wish their church was smaller. But thinking through the implications of unbounded growth makes me think maybe there is a real virtue for mature Christians within our particular Western, post-Christian context of trying to join the smallest healthy church they can find. It must meet a basic standard of soundness, which for me would be pretty stringent in certain ways. But giving up the “extras” you get in a big successful church for the sake of helping to establish more individual healthy churches, and supporting called ministers who are just starting out, seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.
(That’s kind of a grandiose rationalization for our decision to join the church plant, I guess.)

Should a church have a brand?

It’s interesting that it has become so important for local churches to have a logo. In the video at one point James MacDonald talks about the “influence” he has in the Chicago area. He doesn’t explain what he means by this, but the first thing that comes to my mind is brand recognition. I’ve never been to Greear’s Summit Church, but I know their logo on sight just from living in the Cary area. (My experience with Summit bumper stickers is skewed by general lifestyle similarity between myself and Summit attendees, and does not reflect the experience of an average resident of Cary. I’ve seen several in the IDC parking lot.)
The logo thing seems a bit like an anti-denominational move to me, and I am a pretty serious denominationalist (although that is a story for another time). I will just note that I also find it interesting that it seems to be terribly old fashioned now for denominational churches to indicate their denomination in their name.
And then there is the matter of the personal brand. MacDonald and Driscoll are very well known in the Evangelical publishing world. They cultivate a certain persona. I expect they have media people who help manage that persona. People say they are celebrity pastors for a reason. And as lead pastors their personal brands are pretty much inseparable from the identity of their respective churches.
I’m not sure what I think about all this. We can see fame and media being used by the Spirit throughout church history, from the strategic publishing moves of Martin Luther to the televised arena rallies of Billy Graham. I definitely think it is valid for talented teachers to seek to serve a wider audience by writing books and speaking at conferences. (Although I am enough of a curmudgeon to question the value of parachurch conferences marketed to lay people.)
But I will say that the use of marketing and business management techniques grates on me. And I tend to buy into Carl Trueman’s distinction between celebrities and public figures. We need carefully distinguish between faithful stewardship of one’s public reputation and the temptation to seek fame at the cost of integrity.
Should a church build a brand for themselves for the sake of the Kingdom? Should pastors cultivate fame and public image for the sake of the Gospel message? When they are successful, it seems to work, at least numerically. I don’t have any real arguments here. Just some general aesthetic grumpiness.
(I am in no short supply of aesthetic grumpiness.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Hermeneutic of Hair-Splitting

The house lights were down. The preacher stalked back and forth across the stage. He wore dark glasses. His voice was severe (as always). No notes.
“At the Lord’s Supper you come prepared with something to give! But at the Lord’s Table you come empty—you come to get!
He carried on with a list of antitheses, but that’s the only one I remember. He was on the subject of about 1 Cor 10:21, which he would have quoted from memory in the old King James, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.” He was adamant that the Lord’s table referred to was something other than the ordinance of communion. It was the experience of being nourished by the Word, or something like that. It meant to fill your mind with God’s Word, not with “doctrines of devils,” which I suppose would have meant values of the world or theology he disagreed with or whatever.
I believed what the preacher said, and I remembered it. We always said “the Lord’s Supper.” There were others who came in with the habit of saying the Lord’s Table to mean the Lord’s Supper. I corrected one of them once, but later I decided it was probably a pretty minor point and started letting it slide. But we never called it Communion. Our understanding of the sacrament was unidirectional—an act of worship and remembrance, never a means of grace.
But we thrived on this kind of hairline distinction. Our whole system of interpretation depended on it.

One more story. This time we’re on the front porch of a camp cabin, in the sunlight. A lazy afternoon. Teenagers were sitting or lounging in different directions, eyes and ears turned toward the teacher in their midst. He finished what he had to say, and they began to scatter. I moved forward and got his attention.
“Hey, could I ask you a question?”
“Of course.”
“I’ve been wondering about this for awhile, but how do we know from the Bible how the gospel fits together? There isn’t really one passage that explains it. In one place we are told to repent. In another we are told to believe. In yet another we are told to be baptized. And then it says in one place that we will be saved. In another we will enter the Kingdom. In another our sins are forgiven. But there is no common phrase that tells us they are all speaking of one reality. How do we know these aren’t each distinct experiences?”
“I think the reason there are so many different descriptions of the gospel is that the gospel is this huge thing, far too big to encompass in one turn of phrase. Each of those truths you mention (and many more) are like facets of the enormous diamond that is the gospel, and the New Testament writers are turning it around and looking at it from every angle.”
He didn’t offer me an argument but understanding, which was far better. Again I believed and I remember. And yet because I believed this I could not continue to believe what the other had said. I don’t think he intended his answer to be subversive. But years later I find that it has leavened the whole lump. In time it unmade and re-formed my understanding of so many things.
Whatever his actual words were, which I feel I have done a rather poor job of reconstructing above, he communicated a different way of looking at the Bible. The term I have settled on to describe this perspective is synthetic. It seeks to synthesize what the Bible says into a cohesive whole rather than chopping it up with myriad distinctions. A more proper term is harmonization. This shift was for me a kind of copernican revolution.

And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.
(The prophet Joel predicting day of Pentacost, at least if St. Peter is to be believed)

The shift from hair-splitting to synthesis was intuitive. It made sense in itself rather than being shored up by arguments. But as I have learned more about Hermeneutics proper I have come to understand different components of this shift.
One critical component is the realization that we cannot assume that the biblical writers are using words in a technical way. They might use multiple terms interchangeably to refer to the same reality. They might use a single word to mean different things in different contexts. They might even describe a concept in different ways without tagging it with a summary term at all. This is all just the normal functioning of language. It is possible to argue that a given writer uses a particular word in a technical way, but this has to be argued from evidence, and we cannot assume that the theological import that we attach to that word is exactly what the apostle meant. At best this will be an anachronism because every theological term has acquired post-apostolic baggage.
Implied in this first point is a second, bigger-picture one, which is attention to the intention of the human author. We believe that the Scriptures are God-breathed. And yet we believe that the divine intention in the words of Scripture accords with the human intention of the individual writers, even if they did not understand the full import of what they wrote. A basic level of attention paid to what the human author could have possibly meant precludes a number of spurious distinctions. If we take say the Pauline epistles, it is obvious that they were written with an intent to communicate clearly and practically. While I would not presume to say they are always easy to understand, a hermeneutic that turns them into intricate puzzles does not do justice to authorial intent.
There is also a sense in which this is just a restatement of Occam’s razor. A harmonious interpretation with fewer distinctions is to be preferred. I’m not sure how far you could press this as a principle, but it certainly appeals to me as a general guideline.
In one way or another the entire field of Hermeneutics has bearing on this question. It is hard to give just one explanation. Attention to textual context is yet another line of argumentation, because unjustified distinctions are frequently at odds with any sense of flow in a passage.
In coming to terms with all this I have been greatly helped by Vern Poythress’s book on dispensationalism. He works through all the subtlety of the hermeneutical issues. A sampling:

Critics should also appreciate the remarkable degree to which dispensationalism is a harmonious whole. Every part harmonizes with almost every other part. If critics attempt to reinterpret in their favor a single text, dispensationalist respondents can often cite two or more other texts which support their own interpretation. Critics soon find themselves called upon to reinterpret many, many texts simultaneously. 

One element of dispensationalism making this impressive harmony possible is a joint working of two complementary hermeneutical procedures. The first of these procedures is the multiplying of distinctions. Dispensationalists are willing to introduce some sharp, fine-grained distinctions where almost no one else has seen distinctions. For instance, the rapture is distinguished from the second coming of Christ, even though (as many dispensationalists acknowledge) there is no consistent terminological difference between the two in the NT. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are distinguished from one another. And so on. (However, many modified dispensationalists no longer hold to as many sharp distinctions. One must be prepared for differences on this point.) 

Complementary to this procedure, there is the procedure of doubling the application of a single expression in a single text of the Bible. Many prophetic texts are thought of as having an earthly fulfillment in Israel and a “spiritual” application to the church (recall diagram 2.2). Whereas the first procedure splits apart texts that are verbally similar, this procedure joins a single text to two different levels of fulfillment. 

Now, in principle, it is altogether possible for us to discover in the Bible some distinctions that have not been recognized before (procedure 1 above). And it is possible for some texts to have more than one fulfillment or “application” (procedure 2 above). But one must also recognize that dangers accompany the application of these procedures. If we permit ourselves to invoke both procedures a lot of the time, we greatly multiply the number of options available for harmonizing different texts of the Bible. We increase enormously the flexibility that we have in interpreting any one text. Hence, it becomes relatively easy to harmonize everything even under the umbrella of an over-all system that is not correct. Dispensationalists rightly feel that the dispensationalist system is in large measure harmonious, stable, consistent. But this consistency may all too easily be the product of a hermeneutical scheme that is capable of artificially generating consistency by (1) the multiplication of distinctions and (2) the doubling of relationships. Thus, in the case of dispensationalism, consistency is not a guarantee of truth 

(Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Text Editors of Christianity

Weird shower thoughts. None of this is fair to anyone.
  • The Roman Catholic Church: GNU Emacs
  • Eastern Orthodoxy: XEmacs
  • Anabaptists: ed
  • Lutheranism: vi
  • Calvinism: vim
  • Anglicanism: Emacs + evil-mode (the best and/or worst of both worlds!)
  • Evangelicalism: Sublime Text
  • Mainline Protestantism: TextMate 1.5
  • Emerging church: Textmate 2 alpha?
  • Calvinists in the SBC: Sublime Text with vim keybindings
  • Dispensationalism: Visual Studio 6.0

Friday, September 26, 2014

Better Off: Manual Labor

For a number of years I worked at RoleModel Software under Ken Auer. Ken had a little presentation he would do at a whiteboard to explain his vision for the business. I must have seen it dozens of times. He would begin by drawing a big box labeled Now, and inside it he would draw a bunch of rectangles inside the box with labels like Work, Family, Entertainment, Education, Fitness, and Spiritual. The relative sizes of these rectangles represented his estimation of how average Americans spend their time, so Entertainment and Work dominated the area, while Spiritual was shoved over into one corner with a little question mark next to it.
Then he drew another picture called Then and it had the same set of rectangles in different sizes, but now they were all overlapping with each other. He wanted RoleModel to look more like the Then box rather than the Now box. I bought into this vision then, and in a lot of ways I still do. The problem was that I never saw it come to fruition.
Reading Better Off has helped me understand more clearly why it didn’t work out. There are certain qualities to manual labor that make a more integrated life more possible. Brende ultimately argues that technology does not save time so much as it cuts time into pieces. A given job may take half as long with mechanization, but it also displaces other aspects of the activity that would have been possible if it was performed manually, such that the total effect on our free time is no improvement.
The most obvious example is the issue of fitness. Farm work provides a baseline of physical exercise as a built-in. If we opt for technologized desk work, we have to make substantial time outside of work for exercise, or else resign ourselves to the health effects of inactivity. The time required for exercise will often conflict with other demands on our time, such as family and community relationships, spiritual disciplines, etc.
But exercise isn’t even the real benefit of manual labor. Our bodies and minds seem to be designed for repetitive physical tasks. Once we get the hang of it, we can divert our attention to other matters. Brende finds that work becomes a social occasion. He converses with his wife while working in their garden. He gets to know the other men in the community while bartering labor. Even if one does not have a companion, manual work creates space to reflect, to plan, to pray. I always loved raking leaves for this reason.
(I should note that Ken did create opportunities for manual labor on the peripheries of the business and that I never participated in them. I wonder now how my experience there would have been different if I had.)
At the end of the book Brende talks about his life after leaving the Minimite community, and the decisions he and his wife have made about how much technology to have in their lives. One of the most interesting bits was his thoughts on using power tools. He doesn’t own any but he sometimes borrows them from his neighbors. One downside to power tools is that they are loud, which is unpleasant and will tend to get in the way of conversation. Another thing is that they are almost always more dangerous than equivalent hand tools, which makes it more of a problem to have people around you when you are working (especially young children). He does his lawn maintenance using a reel mower and hedge shears.
She said multitasking is a myth
You ain't doin' anything good just everything awful
(Propaganda, Be Present)
What all this makes me think is that there is a line between body and soul that is made for multi-tasking. The point is not that we can’t do two things at once, but that we need to make wise choices about what kinds of things can be done at the same time. If our lives do not include any kind of physical work then multi-tasking can only mean trying to do multiple things at once with our minds and senses. From checking Twitter while having a conversation, to texting while driving, this seems to almost always be a bad idea. (It also seems to mostly happen around screens.) But our physical bodies are just sitting there (literally sitting) like an underutilized resource. “Man found alive with two legs.” I wonder what we could use them for.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Catholic Social Teaching

As an older teen I read an awful lot of Chesterton. Eventually I read What’s Wrong With The World, and changed my Political Views on Facebook to “Distributist”. I thought I might have blanked it out sometime over the last 8 years, but no. I just checked and it’s still there.
But my understanding basically stopped there. I liked what Chesterton wrote and I think I also found something deliciously iconoclastic about using an obsolete (or at least anachronistic) label to describe my position.
As an aside, I recently read this older post from Scot McKnight about Evangelicals converting to Eastern Orthodoxy. He says, “these converts search for the original-est NT church by riding the American encouragement to be anti-traditional. Yet, their restoration spirit encounters the Great Tradition of the Orthodox church as the best form of restoring the NT church so they end up being anti-traditional by being unAmericanly traditional!” Anti-traditional by being traditional is kind of sums up my whole aesthetic viewpoint, which I’m sure I mostly acquired from reading all that Chesterton!
One thing I didn’t do, for better or worse, was search out who else was in favor Chesterton’s vision. I remember googling around for distributism and not finding much. Hilaire Belloc’s name came up frequently, but I never read anything by him. I regarded Chesterton as a singular genius (and I still do) so I think I just assumed that he came up with all of his ideas in a sort of vacuum, and that people since his time had just ignored him.
So it has been kind of a revelation to me to discover that Chesterton was mostly just doing a Lewis-type popular translation of a series of papal encyclicals. I gained respect and even sympathy for Roman Catholicism from reading Chesterton, but never went so far as to read what the church itself taught. (I did think about converting, briefly, but eventually found the theology of the Reformation to be both more convincing, and still closer to Catholicism in many ways relative to my congregationalist upbringing.)
As I’ve started to get this all sorted out in my mind, I’ve begun to notice other evangelicals appropriating Catholic social theory. I just read through this transcript of a talk Tim Keller gave in 2013. This bit from the Q&A:
It’s not just social thought. If you look at Alasdair McIntyre, we don’t have any — evangelicals don’t have anybody who has written anything like After Virtue or Whose Justice? Which Rationality? or nobody like Charles Taylor, who is a Catholic as well.

We just don’t — there is just no intellectual tradition, really, and I wouldn’t say it has changed that much. I just feel like I do see glimmers of hope, but it hasn’t changed that much. We have to borrow from other traditions.
At another point he briefly describes how Protestants can differ theologically from Catholics and yet hold a common view of social justice:
And actually I wrote a book called Generous Justice, and the subtitle was “How Grace Makes us Just.” Catholicism is a very complex phenomenon, but the Medieval church that the Protestants were reacting against basically said, “If you are just, if you live a just and righteous life, you’ll get God’s grace.” The Protestants were saying, “No. If you really, really grasp God’s grace, it will lead to a life of justice,” and that is my view and that’s how I argue in that book.
So I guess I need to read more Keller.

Friday, September 19, 2014

(Meta) Personal Problems

Reasons I often give up trying to write something I thought I would be able to write:
  • I quite accidentally read an article related to the topic I wanted to write about and it demonstrates that I don’t know nearly enough to write about the topic. I begin to form a list of books and articles I feel I ought to read before approaching the topic. The list refuses to stop growing so I eventually give up. I wasn’t trying to write a dissertation.
  • I deliberately do some research and discover that my experience with the topic has been extremely atypical and unfortunate. I would just be complaining about my own personal problems, which is not what I had set out to do.
  • I try to figure out how to introduce the topic and my interest in it but I keep bumping into the fact that I possess no credentials of any kind.
  • I write a first draft and realize that just don’t know what I’m trying to say.
  • I write a first draft and realize that I am writing about six different things and I’m not skillful enough to tie them together.
(I’m the most pleased with what I write when I bounce around a few different topics and I feel like the relationships among them come across satisfactorily without having to be spelled out.)
My latest tactic for avoiding these pitfalls is to try to write shorter, less ambitious posts, and to publish them right away. I also have observed that I am more interested in reading shorter posts via RSS, so I would like to get in the habit, even though I estimate that approximately zero people are following this feed at the moment.
Another thing that I have noticed about short posts is that they tend to nevertheless be longer than I intended them to be. I keep thinking of things to tack on the end.
I do like long-form writing too, by the way, but it is sometimes uncomfortable in a feed reader. I usually toss such articles over to Instapaper, but that has its own problems. This is the point in the train of thought where I briefly consider subscribing to a printed magazine, but so far I have always recovered from this affliction without any lasting effects.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

(Not buying a farm)

Her: “You’re not going to drag me off to live on a farm, are you?”
Me: “Of course not! But there are parts of our modern society that I am increasingly not okay with—social media, algorithmic advertising, cloud services. I find these Amish people stimulating by way of analogy. Maybe we need a New Amish movement. Maybe we need to reject all technologies invented after 2005!”
She smiled with relief and began to express her own misgivings about Facebook.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Better Off: Tools and Machines

One of the first things we learn about the Minimites is that their relationship with technology is much more positive than we might have expected. While they have shunned every kind of modern convenience, they are still (being humans) technological creatures. The author introduces a distinction between tools and machines, which is interesting to me. The line is admittedly fuzzy. The Minimites use all manner of ingenious tools, but they mostly do not use machines. (The author in particular seems to have a vendetta against button-pushing.) They have even made innovations of their own, such as adapting gas-powered farm equipment for operation by a team of horses.
I do wonder about things like the sawmill, the ram pumps, the Pioneer Maid cookstoves. Aren’t those kind of like machines? And I wonder how they feel about steam engines?
One benefit of a preference for tools is that even if there is a mechanism, it is transparent, and so with appropriate skill the user is able repair or service the tool himself. Another benefit is the requirement of skill. All of these tools, from a simple hoe to the sawmill itself, require physical skill to operate. “Unskilled labor” is an artifact of a society of machines. Yet another aspect is efficiency. Because they are unwilling to use the power sources of electricity and gasoline, they have become quite adept at getting the most value they can out of human labor, animal labor, gravity, and fire.
For my part, I think this is a worthwhile distinction to think about. It reminds me of conversations about libraries (tools) vs frameworks (machines) in software development. I wouldn’t come down on the side of tools against machines across the board. But despite the prevalence of machines in modern society, we still have the option to use simple tools in many situations, and thinking about the differences will help us make better decisions about which to use.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Better Off: Intro

I picked up a book at Goodwill the other day called Better Off by Eric Brende. It was kind of a random thing. Usually the books we get from Goodwill are either titles we recognize, authors we have heard of, or at the very least, an imprint I am familiar with (P&R, Tor, Crossway). But this book was none of those things. It just sounded interesting, and, hey, $0.50.
This guy was doing graduate studies at MIT, couldn’t find people willing to engage his ideas about the negative effects of technology on society, so he got married and took his new wife to go live with a group of people he dubs the Minimites—a group much more strict in certain ways than the Amish. They don’t use any kind of electricity under any circumstances, or even gas-powered engines. Eric and his wife lived with them for 18 months, in an exercise of both sociology and self-discovery.
I’m about half-way through the book right now, but I wanted to try capturing some of my thoughts on it here rather than waiting to the end and writing a review. I have found that the more I like a book the harder it is for me to express what I think about it when I am done. And I do like this book quite a lot so far. The writing is always engaging and really quite beautiful at times—much better than I would expect from an average memoir. Of course I’m on this luddite kick at the moment, so the subject matter is stimulating. It’s also pretty interesting to read about a Catholic trying to build relationships with a bunch of Anabaptists.
Anyway, I just wanted to introduce the book so that I can reference it in a few future posts.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Stand and Wait

When I was younger I counted it one of my small virtues that I was not unhappy to wait. I was patient. I’m thinking particularly of the micro-scale patience that would allow a child or a teenager to wait in line without complaining. To only stand and wait.

For me this practice depended entirely on the ability of my mind to wander. I would begin to feel bored, and then I would by habit exert the necessary cognitive energy to find something interesting about my surroundings, or to elevate my mind into some reverie, or to reflect upon recent events, or whatever. In some ways this still feels like cheating to me, deflecting the real burden of boredom by a secret stimulation. But however that may be, at least the stimulation was only produced of my God-given brain, and oriented toward cultivation of the life of the mind.
In recent years I have more often made use of synthetic patience: smartphone, social media, ebooks, podcasts. This is worse in some significant ways. Sometimes it goes so far as to reverse the scenario such that my wife is forced to wait on me because I am not paying attention. Listening to a podcast is probably the safest in this regard, as it does not divert the eyes. There is also the problem that you often get a worse experience of the thing you are consuming, because you have to chop up your experience of it into little snatches. I read ebooks this way sometimes and I expect that it reduces my comprehension and retention considerably. It’s no good for reading things you really care about. On the other hand, if I don’t have something good that I want to read, I turn to Twitter, or a game, or some other mindless thing. The lack of discrimination is concerning. These things clearly have less value than the silent contemplation that I filled these moments with before I had an iPhone.
On the other hand I tell myself that I get through more books this way. I don’t actually know that, though, because I did not track how quickly I got through books before I had an iPhone, and anyway, my lifestyle has changed since then in other ways. It could be that if I didn’t read books in little bits during the day it would be a higher priority for me when I got home. It could also be that I would read faster if I tipped the balance of my reading back toward books and away from blogs and social media. I don’t know if these counterarguments are true, but they have taught me to be more skeptical.
Another thing I value is time to reflect on what I have read. It takes time to decide whether I agree with an author, or even to know whether I am reading them rightly. It takes time for me to let my imagination inhabit the world of a story, and to figure out the characters and the plot forces and how it all fits together. Sometimes I will finish one book then begin another the same day, just because I have a stack I want to get through, and then I regret it because it pushes the first book out of my mind before I was done chewing on it.
The spaces in life where there is nothing to do are provided for reflection. They are there for you to practice thinking and observing. They are invitations to pray. Filling them up with “content” is like overwatering a plant to the point that it drowns. We need air and emptiness.
Your reward for bearing with me: Milton.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.
His state Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Single Use

In all likelihood we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that it once carried. The iPhone is about as subversive as a bag of potato chips, and music doesn’t define anyone anymore.
(Based on his author page this kind of technological uneasiness seems to be a bit of a theme. I feel a kinship.)
There are a few reasons to love the classic iPod. It was a well crafted, beautifully designed piece of technology. There’s something inherently charming about a machine that only does one thing, like a clock or a typewriter, and it is strange to think that the iPod might have been the last mass market single-use invention. It makes me want to own one.
The opposite of single-use is software, by the way. And software I create all the day long.
But the more interesting thing about this piece is that he points out an additional use of the iPod.
We made playlists that spoke to the lives we lived at the moment. Looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul. In their music you could see who they were. You could tell if they were sophisticated or rough. You could see in their playlists the moments they fell in love and the moments they fell back out again. You could see the filthiest, nastiest hip hop in the little white boxes of the primmest people, and know their inner lives a little better than you did before.
I recently went through the exercise of ripping all my wife’s old CDs so she could have them in our shared iTunes Match library. A side-effect, though, has been the further dilution of my own identification with the library. It used to be so tidy! Basically this was me giving up on library management. It had been eroding every since we got married. Might as well go all the way. But if I had an iPod I would choose exactly what went on it out of the shared library. With my phone I just have access to download any of it at any time. Plus I have Spotify.
Music matters to me, but it matters much less than books. For a while I was collecting ebooks, and I still do very occasionally. But now that we have more room all I want are physical books and physical bookshelves. Because looking at someone’s bookshelf should be like looking into their soul. And I wish to keep my soul in order.
I suppose the Kindle is actually the very last.
But the problem with the Kindle is that whereas you might share your iPod library with someone on a car ride, so they could choose something to listen to, I think you are less likely to show off your Kindle library. The iPod allowed you to take your music library out of the house with you, and at least there was a chance you would share it with someone. You always could take a book or two with you out of the house, but with the Kindle you could read without anyone else seeing the cover.
But let’s not get too caught up in the intricacies of products and devices. What I really want to say is that what was really wonderful about old technologies, including even the iPod in a small way, is that they had many uses. These uses were not features listed on the side of a box or offered for sale in an app store. They were just different ways that people used them. Whereas a piece of software is really as specialized and limited as anything can be. Here’s one of my favorite bits from Chesterton:
Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins. The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.

Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten.
(What’s Wrong With the World, Part III, Chapter II: The Universal Stick)
I’m not sure I can express why our universal computers do not seem to live up to the romantic wholesomeness of the hearthfire and the walking stick. Maybe it is just sentimentality. But I think it has something to do with the fact that each thing it can do has to be painstakingly built out of software, and that software is always falling apart, and it is opaque to the person trying to use it. Anyone can pick up a walking stick and begin to discover all the ways it may be used.
When I was young and naive I used to say that everyone needed to learn how to program. There is a charming optimism to that view of the world. It would almost make the universal computer truly as universal as the universal stick. But it is a fool’s dream. Software is too pinched and strained to be universal. It is not worth doing in the Chestertonian sense. We do not wish for people to do it for themselves even if they do it badly.
I think I’m in the market for a walking stick.