In our fifth installment of the Christianity.com videos Dr. Horton discusses whether or not God hates some sins more than others, and if so, why. As a result, Mike also talks about the somewhat popular idea that there are different degrees of hell dependent on the severity of one’s sins.
Obviously Christians should be students and readers of the Holy Scriptures, but Mike was asked to name five other books that Christians should read. This discussion is recorded in the fourth video from Christianity.com.
Dr. Horton was asked about some principles parents should consider when educating their children. Mike responds by endorsing the Classical Christian Education model in the next Christianity.com video.
Participating recently in a gathering of Anglican bishops in Africa, a friend related the astonishing scene of episcopal celebrants texting each other during the sermon and the celebration of the Supper. Some churches in North America encourage texting in church, as a way of making the service more “interactive.” The assumption, of course, is that technology is benign—neither good nor evil. Since texting in services is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, it’s a matter of Christian liberty. However, increasingly, Christian liberty has come to mean a neutral sphere where there are no better or worse answers. Like legalism, antinomianism only knows two settings: “Don’t” or “Do”; “Wrong” or “Right.” The missing middle term is “wisdom.” It may not be wrong to text during church, but is it wise? Is there any difference between texting on the train ride to work versus texting in church? What is the long-term implication of such an act when the church service is specifically designed by the Triune God to make us recipients? If “faith comes by hearing…the word of Christ,” then are we quenching the Spirit’s work through the means of grace by never being able to be quiet, sit, and receive God’s judgment and justification? Is there no place for receiving? Must we always be active: mastering, critiquing, commenting, pontificating?
Ironically, those who decry “worldliness” are often the most likely to embrace unreflectively aspects of modern (and postmodern) culture whose costs on truth, goodness, and beauty are remarkably high. Christian wisdom provokes us neither to reject any good gift of God’s providence and common grace nor to turn these gifts into idols. Avoiding these perilous extremes is always the tough business of discipleship. One glaring example today is technology.
Technology hasn’t just given us a staggering array of tools to use; the tools have shaped us, as all tools do. History is even divided by technological turning points: for example, the three successive stages of stone, bronze, and iron. New tools changed the way we inhabit the world, organize our societies, and imagine our identity, purpose, and the meaning of history. We don’t just make tools; the tools also make us. This is as true of the nomadic and agricultural eras as it is of the industrial revolution and the information economy. Our tools shape the way we think, live, work, relate, and even envision our identity.
Especially since the industrial revolution, the impression is that our chief end is to manage life in such a way as to maximize happiness and minimize pain. We imagine that we’re still in charge of our tools, but we can’t deny that we are managed (often tyrannically) by the very technology that we trust will make our lives freer, easier, and more productive. Especially in our era, technology becomes more than a means to a more ultimate end; it becomes the end. Which means that even loved ones—indeed, even God—easily becomes a tool for us to use in our effort to master unpredictable and often chaotic nature.
In his 1964 classic, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse observed that “…science and technology rendered possible the translation of values into technical tasks…From the quantification of secondary qualities, science would proceed to the quantification of values…” In other words, questions like, “Is this true, good, and beautiful?” were banished to the realm of private, subjective opinions. Public truth—the really important questions—were technical: “How to…” Efficiency became not only a criterion of industry and home and in the workplace, but pushed out ultimate questions of truth, goodness, or beauty from our social lives. In religion today, the question of whether a particular teaching is true, but whether it works—as William James put it, “its cash-value in experiential terms.”
It’s not just that our ability to measure, quantify, and manipulate things in time and space grew exponentially, but that we began to think that this was the only way of thinking and that things that could be known (i.e., used) in this way were alone worthy of our time and energy. Marcuse quotes Gilbert Simondon: “Through a raising and enlarging of the technical sphere, [society] must treat as technical problems, questions of finality considered wrongly as ethical and sometimes religious. The incompleteness of technics makes a fetish of problems of finality and enslaves man to ends which he thinks of as absolutes.” Values are translated into needs, leading to a “pacified existence,” a “technological Eros.”
There is a kind of secularized Gnosticism underneath all of this. In a biblical worldview, the Triune Creator alone is Lord and Master of nature—and we human beings belong to nature and stewards of it. In the modern worldview, we are masters, manipulating nature to bend to our calculative reason and unrestricted will. It’s a war between rational humans and the natural world—which means also an inner war between our reason and our bodies. We can’t just be who we are (by nature), but must constantly choose new identities, new lifestyles, new visions of a fulfilling life. Eventually, history (guided by rational technology) will overcome nature. “What is only natural is overcome and recreated by the power of Reason” in an otherwise “helpless and heartless universe,” explains Marcuse. This industrialized logic “also spreads a repressive productivity and ‘false needs.’” Here again, we think we’re in charge. We’re just using tools to fulfill needs that reason identifies, when in actual fact the matrix of the technology we inhabit creates “felt needs” that it alone can meet. Marcuse is worth quoting at length on this point: “It is repressive precisely to the degree to which it promotes the satisfaction of needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and with planned obsolescence, enjoying freedom from using the brain, working with and for the means of destruction.”
What complicates things, Marcuse notes, is that this sort of productivity generates obvious comforts, efficiency, and wealth. But at what cost? Under these conditions, modernity is willing even to grant freedoms to strenghten the repression. “The degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace wherever there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity, to offend against good form is frightening. It is frightening because it expresses the lawful and even organized effort to reject the Other in his own right….In the overdeveloped countries, an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights and smells.”
We now live in an era described by Francis Fukayama as “the global cliché culture”—presaged by Marx’s line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with serenity their real living conditions and their relationship with their peers.” This points up the fact that Marx and his heirs weren’t the real innovators. Like Nietzsche, they were building their own vision of an atheistic utopia on the rubble of a decadent Christendom.
In our time, even salvation has been cast—for quite a while, actually—in terms of spiritual technology. It’s obvious in the average Christian bookstore, with the best-selling titles devoted to the “How To” genre. However, it’s not just how to be a better parent or partner, or godly diet plans and seven steps to having your best life now. Even salvation—the most sacred concern—is profaned. It’s no longer a question of how we relate to the Triune God, but how we can be born again, go to heaven, and manage our personal growth. Even to affirm the new birth, heaven, and sanctification in this scheme is a hollow victory, since the map is no longer really soteriological (about salvation) but technical (about how to manage our lives).
Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield’s Perfectionism explored the prominence of mechanical and technological metaphors in the mystical writings of radical pietism, Methodism, and especially the Higher (Victorious) Life movement. Consistent with synergistic assumptions (i.e., divine-human cooperation), the emphasis is on finding the right steps, tools, techniques for climbing the ladder of grace. The “Higher Life” teachers speak of engaging the Holy Spirit, says Warfield, much as one might engage an electrician. We “plug into” the Holy Spirit, “connect,” “link up,” and so forth. More like a power plant than a person, “the Spirit” becomes something else that we can use (or not use) to gain mastery. There is one set of conditions for “getting saved” and another set of conditions for upgrading from coach to first class (baptism in the Spirit, the victorious life, etc.)
So it’s not surprising that evangelical leaders like George Barna now encourage Christians to find their “spiritual resources” on-line rather than in local churches. Once we swallow the idea that we can ascend the hill of the Lord through our technological efforts, it hardly seems necessary to gather bodily with other sinners, confessing our sins and our common faith, interceding for Martha’s cancer or Bill’s lay-off, giving tangible offerings symbolic of our whole life belonging to the Lord in body as well as in soul. And if water baptism has nothing to do with real (spiritual) baptism, and if the Supper is merely about our active remembering rather than our receiving Christ’s gift of himself—his own body and blood, then we can do all of that spiritual legwork on the net. We can go around all of the troublesome physical stuff. We can go around Christ’s personal body as well as the bodies of the ecclesial body of Christ to “connect” directly with Christ one-on-one, or perhaps in that quintessential oxymoron: virtual communities.
Again, what we need is neither legalism (forbidding technology) nor license (embracing technology), but of thinking wisely as Christians—in the light of the whole biblical teaching relevant to these questions. However, when salvation itself is reduced to spiritual technology, the old words no longer mean the same thing. If we begin to understand salvation as God’s descent to us, through ordinary earthly means—the incarnate flesh of Christ, the creaturely means of grace, and the real community that shapes our discipleship over a lifetime, then we will at least have the most crucial coordinates for wise decision-making about our use of technology. More than that, we will understand the gospel not as good advice, steps, techniques, or procedures for life-management but as the good news that in Christ “salvation is of the LORD” (Jon 2:9).
The July / August 2010 issue of Modern Reformation touched on some of these issues as well. Check out these two articles:
The January / February issue of Modern Reformation was titled “Grace Over Race.” Included in that issue were articles dealing with God’s grace and its trumping every human-built barrior. Enjoy these articles as well:
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks interacts with Christian Smith’s latest book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. According to Brooks, most of the young people interviewed by Smith and his colleagues “could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunk driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. ‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,’ is how one interviewee put it.’” Christian Smith has been a frequent WHI guest over the years to discuss his work for the National Study of Youth and Religion. According to Smith, most of what passes for Christianity today, regardless of the denomination, is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” You can read Brooks’ NYT piece here.
Program Note: Michael Horton recently interviewed Christian Smith about Lost in Transition, along with another book of his which unpacks his reasons for leaving Evangelicalism in favor of Roman Catholicism. That interview will air later next month. In the meantime, however, you can listen to the following conversation between Horton and Smith recorded last year on the campus of Notre Dame: WHI-1029
The next installment of the Christianity.com videos has Dr. Horton discussing the doctrine of hell and whether we can even bring a charge against God that he is being unjust in condemning people to eternal punishment.
Christianity.com pulled Dr. Horton into a studio a couple of times in the past few months to allow him to answer a variety of questions concerning the faith, piety, and practice of Christianity. Over the next few weeks we will be posting these videos here so stay tuned.
In the first video Mike deals with the subject of catechism and what role it should have in the church especially as she fulfills the Great Commission.
Regardless of their denomination, most Christians would argue that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a free gift of God’s grace and mercy that no one deserves. By his righteous life and sacrificial death, Jesus provides for us what we cannot provide for ourselves. But at this point, some argue that the free gift of God’s grace still has to be “accepted,” and that it is on the basis of our embracing the gospel that we are saved. What do you think? Are we saved by “choosing” to follow Christ? Is believing in Jesus the “one work” we have to do in order to get to heaven? The hosts discuss these questions and more as they interact with Ephesians 2.
This coming weekend the US will pause to remember those whose lives were lost so tragically in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Adding fuel to the growing fires of public debate over the role of religion in public life, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his decision not to include prayers for the official event.
Theory is tested in specific cases, and this is one more opportunity to wrestle with a larger question. It’s one thing when a political leader has to choose a clerical representative out of an array of Christian denominations. Today, however, representing the religious diversity of the Republic in public ceremonies is more complicated.
On one hand, this is a constitutional issue. Especially given the history of civil religion in America, it’s implausible to imagine that the nation’s founders ever intended anything like the separation of religion and public life that the mantra “separation of church and state” has come to embody. On the other hand, it is a theological issue. In other words, even if Mayor Bloomberg has no constitutional reason to avoid the liturgical interjections in public commemorations that were included by his predecessor, the debate returns us to a recurring question of decisive importance to Christians. It’s not a question of whether prayer at public occasions of this kind is sanctioned by our Constitution, but, for Christians at least, whether we can participate (much less encourage) such acts of “non-sectarian” worship.
In a recent USA Today opinion piece, Jay Sekulow, a Christian activist and chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, reproved Mayor Bloomberg for his decision (see the piece here). Recounting the history of national days of prayer, including the inter-religious “Prayer for America” event at Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11, Mr. Sekulow’s call betrays assumptions about prayer that, in my view, can only trivialize this sacred act in the long run.
Nowhere in Mr. Sekulow’s article is prayer defined in its vertical relation, as an act of worship directed to a particular deity-much less, through a particular mediator. Rather, the therapeutic idiom takes over. At least in the public argument, the idea is that prayer’s value lies in its subjective effect. The references are to “the many Americans who find solace and healing in prayer,” helping victims and their families “cope with the lost of loved ones.”
Beyond individual solace, such civil demonstrations of piety serve a therapeutic function for the nation as a whole, echoing the romantic nineteenth-century idea of a “national soul.” “In the days following 9/11, prayer was an integral part of the grieving process. Thousands attended the ‘Prayer for America’ event at Yankee Stadium, where representatives of many faiths offered prayers. It was an event that united, not divided, Americans.”
As the matter was put by another critic of the mayor’s decision, “Prayer is not always about religion, it is instead often about relief and repose.”
But all of this presses the question: Is the purpose of prayer mainly therapeutic: personal and national catharsis? Is it basically horizontal-human-centered (whether in individual or national images)? Or is it a solemn act of “calling on the name of the LORD” (i.e., Yahweh, the Father of Jesus Christ)? Does such an act have a personal object? Is that personal object the God who is revealed in Scripture as the Holy Trinity? Is the prayer directed to the Father, through the mediation of the incarnate Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit by whom we confess “Jesus as Lord”?
Imagine Elijah calling for a revival by trying to negotiate a public prayer or perhaps series of public prayers led by the prophets of Baal and the prophets of Yahweh. Israel, after all, has always been a religious nation. Isn’t it more important for the nation to acknowledge its piety than to become too obsessed with the theological specifics? The nation was divided, after all, and the point is to bring the people together through prayer, to bring them consolation in the face of national disaster. Of course, this isn’t how the story plays out at Mount Carmel, as the God of Israel proved that he alone is God and Baal is a helpless idol.
We don’t live under the old covenant, driving the prophets of Baal through with the sword. Rather, we have the privilege of religious freedom for true and false worship in this country. Nevertheless, we do not expect the state to create opportunities for the advance of Christ’s kingdom through his means of grace.
It is in churches where we confess our sins and our faith in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel. Here, we gather as a communion of saints gathered “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev 5:9), not as a modern nation-state. We call upon the name of the LORD, which is none other than Jesus Christ, not merely for therapeutic consolation in our troubles (though this aspect is included), but for salvation from the guilt and tyranny of sin and the death penalty that it imposes. Here, with our brothers and sisters and before the face of the Triune God, our prayers acknowledge God’s justice in our condemnation and joy in God’s grace to us in his Son. With Christ as our Mediator, we are free to enter the Father’s presence with boldness, interceding for ourselves and for others, for needs pertaining to body and soul.
Prayer is also an act of witness. What are we testifying to when we seek state acts of generic devotion to the Unknown God? To what-or whom-are we witnessing when we give the impression that people can find consolation from any “God” apart from the Father who is known only in his Son and is otherwise a judge who will not let sinners go unpunished? True prayer arises as a Spirit-given response to the Word that proclaims God’s righteous judgment and gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
Doubtless, such an approach will offend on all sides. Secularists will level the charge of bigotry at those who deny everlasting consolation to victims of horrific tragedies apart from Christ. Those who seek to hold on to the last vestiges of civil religion will scold fellow Christians who insist on the scandalous particularity of the gospel-in effect, surrendering the public square to secularists.
However, Christianity at its best is always an odd sect in a world of idolatry and superstition. The power lies not in its ability to negotiate general piety for a national soul, but in its most particular and offensive message: the gospel of Christ. We don’t evacuate the public square that we share with our neighbors-even the “prophets of Baal.” Rather, we testify there that Christ alone is Lord, that he alone has conquered death and hell, that our greatest terror and consolation have to do with headlines much more serious and all-encompassing than the genuine tragedy of 9/11. We don’t need Mayor Bloomberg to help us with that. In fact, in the very act of doing so, we have to surrender the most important things we are called to say.
It is precisely because God is more important than we are, sin is much greater than something that others do to us, redemption is far greater than therapeutic consolation, and love for our neighbors encourages us to proclaim the everlasting consolation of the gospel, that we dare not trivialize that dangerous, wonderful and absolutely effective act of calling on the name of the Lord in life and in death.
For further reading from our friends:
Carl Trueman reminds the SBC why they should be pleased they aren’t invited to the “National Cathedral” on 9/11:
A Lesson from Marx for the SBC
Bill Cwirla reflects on religion and 9/11:
No Clergy at Ground Zero
We’ve recently fielded several inquiries from folks wondering if Mike Horton is on Twitter or Facebook. He is not. A few people who have appreciated his work have set up various accounts or fan pages and we’ve encouraged them to clearly identify that they are not the “official” or personal Mike Horton outlets on Twitter or Facebook.
At this time, the only official Twitter outlets are through the @ModRef and @WhiteHorseInn accounts. We also have Facebook pages for both Modern Reformation and White Horse Inn. Mike also regularly writes for our blog, and sometimes even comments!
Mike doesn’t handle much personal correspondence: he’s got at least two or three books in the hopper, plus his White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation duties, plus his seminary teaching responsibilities, plus his pastoral responsibilities, plus his family obligations. White Horse Inn is set up to handle as many of your questions as we can; we’ll often direct you to previous broadcasts or issues to help think through the question you have. We also regularly point you back to your local church and pastor.
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We regularly pass along reader and listener letters and emails to Mike and the rest of the hosts on the White Horse Inn. They’ve been broadcasting for twenty years and it encourages them to know that people are listening and being changed by their work.
We also may be coming to a city near you sometime soon (how’s that for over-qualification). Be sure to keep an eye on our calendar page to see where Mike and the other hosts will be speaking. If you haven’t yet registered, our January 2012 conference at sea will be a great opportunity to get up close and personal with each of the guys. You’ll also be able to meet folks from around the world who are being encouraged by the same broadcasts and magazine articles that you are listening to and reading.