Archive for November, 2010

Richard Rorty, Part 2

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal writes, “’When I use a word, ‘Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ Like the famously cracked egg in the Lewis Carroll fantasy, [President] Barack Obama refuses to be bound by conventional English. Words like “choice” and “competition” are thrown around in ways that mean the opposite of how most Americans understand them. Once Americans do understand how he’s been using a word, moreover, it changes—in the way that a second “stimulus” suddenly becomes a “jobs bill.” Other words simply disappear.”  Our president, God bless him—and I mean that—is a quintessential post-modern.  Words, to him, are have no permanent address, no solid, irrevocable meaning.   He would admire Richard Rorty (See Fire That Burns).  Richard Rorty (1931–2007) developed a distinctive and controversial brand of pragmatism that expressed itself along two main axes. One is negative—a critical diagnosis of what Rorty takes to be defining projects of modern philosophy. The other is positive—an attempt to show what intellectual culture might look like, once we free ourselves from the governing metaphors of mind and knowledge in which the traditional problems of epistemology and metaphysics (and indeed, in Rorty’s view, the self-conception of modern philosophy) are rooted (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).  In fact, to Rorty, and President Obama, “language” is the root of reality.  In other words, if something is not said, and presumably heard, it is not real.  So, to use a tired metaphor, in President Obama’s forest, if a tree falls, and it is not heard, it is not sound.  If it is heard, it is sound, and it has meaning, according to the pragmatic purposes of its falling.  Thus, to a squirrel it might mean the end of an acorn factory.  To a squashed ant, it might mean the end of this existence.  And so on.  So the meaning of words, the meaning of truth, in other words (no pun intended), is totally dependent to President Obama upon the purpose of need of the speaker.  So “recovery” means one thing in 2009 and something else in 2010.  “Choice” means one thing to an auto worker and something entirely different to an unborn child.  Oh well, let’s hope we are the squirrel and not the ant, the auto worker and not the unborn child!

Richard Rorty, Part 1

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

I regularly receive a copy of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, a publication for alumni of Harvard Divinity School.

The cover of my other seminaries, Princeton Seminary and Gordon Conwell, always sport a famous theologian or a biblical figure, or at least an innocuous oak tree or something.

But, oh no, not my Harvard Divinity School Bulletin.  It always has a picture of a bright red Hindu god or something.  Or even worse, this last quarter the front had the picture of Richard Rorty.

I must tell you that there is nothing “divine” about Mr. Rorty.  Rorty developed a novel form of pragmatism, sometimes called neopragmatism, in which scientific and philosophical methods are merely contingent “vocabularies” which are abandoned or adopted over time according to social conventions and usefulness. In other words, “it ain’t so if you don’t say it.” Sounds like our former president Bill Clinton. Remember when one of his sidekicks destroyed some anti-Clinton damaging material in the national archives?  When confronted with this, the sidekick said, “it was an accident.”

News reporters asked Mr. Clinton, “Sir do you expect us to believe your associate?”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Clinton responded with a poker face.

“Why should we believe you?” The pesky reporters retorted.

Now with a sincere smile, Mr. Clinton responded, “Because I am telling you it is true.”

Oh, yea, Bill, follower of Rorty.  We believe you because you tell us it is true.

Martin Oliver, a specialist in modern philosophy, writes, “In the 20th [and presumably 21st] century philosophy has become a subject whose wisdom is for most of us out of reach.  It is filled with strange and often meaningless jargon which when translated into layman’s terms appears either to be irrelevant or obvious.”

Rorty is obviously irrelevant.  A typical post-modern.

Silly me, though, my Bible tells me that all have sinned and need redemption.  But, hey, if I did not “hear” that then it must not be true, right, Mr. Rorty!

Hum . . . I wonder.  What do you think?

The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Mark Twain

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain (1835-1910), was born in Florida, Missouri, but grew up on the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri.  He happily lived as a river pilot on the Mississippi River until the Civil War ended river traffic.  In 1861, after deserting the Confederate army, Twain moved west.  It was in the West that he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County.”  Throughout his life Twain enjoyed entertaining Americans with his whimsical writings; but below the surface, Twain was a complicated, and, many felt,  a  bitter man.  At the end of his life, Mark Twain said, “Everything human is pathetic.  The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.  There is no humor in heaven.”

The protagonist, Hank Morgan, whose name the reader does not know until the end of the novel, was the chief foreman at a firearms factory in Hartford, Connecticut. He was constantly inventing innovative ways to make firearms.  Supervising more than a thousand men had also taught Morgan how to handle people; however, he had a fight with a bully named Hercules who hit him in the head with a crowbar.

When Morgan awoke, he was lying under an oak tree. A man clothed in metal and colorful cloth took Morgan captive to the man=s home in Camelot. Morgan had been captured by Sir Kay of King Arthur’s Roundtable. He was presented before a court led by Merlin, the nefarious magician.  Merlin quickly decreed that Morgan should die at noon, June 21, A.D. 528. Morgan remembered that on June 21, A.D. 528 a total eclipse of the sun would occur. This might be his salvation!

The appointed day came and Morgan was to be burned at the stake. While the fire grew around him, Morgan stood with his hands pointing toward the sun. The world became dark!  Morgan, then, released the Aspell@ and of course he was released.  He  subsequently replace the irascible Merlin as Arthur’s advisor, and the unhappy magician was cast into prison.

Though he was now the second most powerful person in the kingdom, Morgan missed many things from the 19th century. He, therefore, began to recreate the 19th century in the 6th century! His only opposition was from the Roman Catholic Church.

Three years passed. Sir Sagramor, challenged Morgan to a duel. To prepare himself for the encounter, Morgan decided to go on a quest.  He had many great adventures.  During this quest, he once again shamed Merlin by causing a dry well to hold water again (something Merlin could not do).

He and King Arthur, pretending to be common people, traveled all over the kingdom and they were horrified at the plight of the common people.

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

Monday, November 15th, 2010

William Faulkner (1897-1962) arguably was the greatest American author of all time, and may have been the greatest author in the world. Faulkner came from an old Mississippi family, joined the Canadian  Air Force during the First World War, studied for a while at the University of Mississippi.  Except for some trips to Europe and Asia, and a few brief stays in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, he worked on his novels and short stories on a farm in Oxford.

Faulkner not only wrote novels, he created a new world!  He invented a host of characters typical of the historical growth and subsequent decadence of the South, but he did more.  His characters represented all mankind. Each story and each novel contributed to the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County and its inhabitants.  Inevitably each story is a derivation on the theme of the decay of the old South, as represented by the Sartoris and Compson families, and the emergence of ruthless newcomers, the Snopeses.

The Sound and the Fury (1929) examines the downfall of the Compson family seen through the minds of several characters. The novel Sanctuary (1931) is about the degeneration of Temple Drake, a young girl from a distinguished southern family. Its sequel, Requiem For A Nun (1951), centered on the courtroom trial of an African-American woman who observed Temple Drake’s debauchery. In Light in August (1932), the effect of prejudice is shown in Joe Christmas, who believes, though there is no proof of it, that one of his parents was an African-American. The theme of racial prejudice is brought up again in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), in which a young man is rejected by his father and brother because of his mixed blood. Faulkner’s most readable book, that also explores prejudice, is Intruder In the Dust (1948).   In 1940, Faulkner published the first volume of the Snopes trilogy, The Hamlet, to be followed by two volumes, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959). The Reivers, his last – and most humorous – work appeared in 1962, the year of Faulkner’s death.

The story is set in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha that Faulkner created for the setting of his third novel Sartoris. The inspiration for the The Sound and the Fury came from one of his short stories, “Twilight.” He had created the character of Caddy in this story. In a scene where Caddy has climbed a pear tree to look into the window where her grandmother’s funeral is being held, her brothers are looking up at her and they see her muddy pants. Faulkner claimed he loved the character of Caddy so much that he felt she deserved more than a short story. Thus the idea for The Sound and the Fury was born.

The Sound and the Fury is the story of the fall of the Compson family, a wealthy Jackson, Mississippi family in the early 1900′s. The novel is divided into four sections, each told by a different character. The three Compson sons, Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson, and the family’s black servant, Dilsey Gibson, each have their own section in which they tell their collective story.

Benjy’s section is first. He is severely mentally challenged, thus the narrative is confusing, largely because his memory jumps back and forth in time at a moment’s notice. This daunting taskBof telling the story through the eyes of a mentally challenged young personBis accomplished by stream of consciousness. The present date in the book, is April 7, 1928, his 33rd birthday. On this day, he recalls memories of his sister, Caddy, Benjy’s father and brother, Mr. Jason Compson and Quentin.  Caddy is gone and the rest have died. The people left in the family are Benjy’s mother, brother, and niece, Mrs. Caroline Compson, Jason, and Quentin, who is actually Caddy’s illegitimate daughter. Caddy was the only family member who truly cared for him. A man named Dilsey manages the entire household, as Mrs. Compson, a hypochondriac, complains endlessly. Dilsey’s daughter and grandson help with chores in the house. Benjy and Quentin were friends.  Young Caddy had many boyfriends, and Benjy cried whenever he saw her with them.

Quentin (the deceased male) is attending Harvard University. The day of his death (he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Charles River) he walks around Cambridge, struggling with his thoughts. Quentin is a character filled with anxiety. Caddy=s promiscuity and the accompanying shame and disgrace trouble him deeply. He wanted to protect his sister from the harshness and judgment of the world.  Likewise his overbearing, manipulative mother is too much to take.  As a result, he kills himself.

Jason Compson narrates the third section, which takes place a day earlier than Benjy’s birthday. Jason is the frustrated breadwinner among the Compsons. He is angry, bitter, and unforgiving. Jason tells us that he plans on sending Benjy to a home for the mentally handicapped once his mother passes away. We also find out that his father drank himself to death, just one year after Quentin killed himself. Before Mr. Compson died, Caddy had her daughter, Quentin. Jason despises Quentin because he blames her for his added responsibilities.

Their antagonistic relationship surfaces again during Dilsey’s section, the fourth and final part of the novel, which takes place on Easter day, one day after Benjy’s birthday. Dilsey is an old woman who still does the bulk of the household work for the Compson. She shows love to Benjy, taking him to her black church for Easter services. She is not only the primary caretaker for the Compton family for whom she works, but also she is highly respected among Jefferson’s black community. While Dilsey enjoys church, Jason pursues his niece, Quentin, who has stolen Jason=s money ran away with a man from the visiting circus. Jason never finds her. The final image of the novel depicts, Benjy and Jason, slouched in a carriage drawn by one of their black servants–Jason is left defeated and pitiful, Benjy oblivious to the catastrophe that is his world.

Watership Down, Richard Adams

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Richard Adams wrote his first novel, Watership Down, when he was in his late 40s. The novel won him the Carnegie Medal and was a huge success in the marketplace. Adams has written several other novels, including Shardik (1974), The Plague Dogs (1977), and Traveller (1988). In 1991, he published an autobiography, The Day Gone By, and five years later published the sequel to Watership Down, entitled Tales From Watership Down (1996).  But none were as successful as Watership Down.  Much of Watership Down takes place in the area where Richard Adams grew up. Although the novel is fantasy, it is geographically accurate.

However Watership Down is readCas an environmental critique or simply as a book about the search for a home and lifeCit is undoubtedly greatly influenced by social events of the 21st century.

No theme is more appealing than the theme in Watership Down.  It is the penultimate adventure story: a group of rabbits is in search of a home.  No theme is more appealing to modern readers.  Fiver, a sickly, choleric rabbit, has a premonition something terrible is going to happen to their Sandleford warren.  In fact, the readers learn, a housing developer is planning to build right on top of the warren.  Fiver tells his brother Hazel and they try to warn their aging Chief Rabbit, the Threarah, but he will not leave. Hazel and Fiver decide they must leave, and are joined by other males including Bigwig, Dandelion, Pipkin, Hawkbit, Blackberry, Buckthorn, Speedwell, Acorn, and Silver.

As the sojourners travel across the countryside they encounter many obstacles such as a stream, a bean field, and a road. They meet Cowslip, who takes them to his warren where the rabbits are healthy but really strange. Finally, they learn the warren’s deadly secret.  Fortunately, though, they escape, taking Strawberry with them.

Hazel, the undisputed leader, takes the rabbits to safety on Watership Down. They are joined by Holly and Bluebell. Things are fine, but for one big problem.  There are no female rabbits.

An injured gull Kehaar helps the warren find other female rabbits. The brave Watership Down rabbits risk their lives bringing does to freedom.

A Gathered Inheritance

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

A transplanted Arkansas boy who now lives in the often-frigid Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania, I like my apple cider to be steaming and my house to be about 78 degrees. An anthracite coal-burning stove does the job, but there is one problem with coal heat, and it occurs about three o’clock every morning: the fire dies down to the point where the house is dangerously cold.

Is the home school movement growing cold?  I think not.

Old Testament Levitical priests had a duty to tend the fire in the tent of meeting, to keep it roaring and bright. The fire on the altar, the eternal flame on which sacrifices were offered to God, was not to go out. Other tasks could be deferred. But the fire on the altar was never to go out. (Leviticus 6:8–13)

Through the centuries believers have served well as fire tenders. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever . . .(Deuteronomy 29:29). This is a gathered inheritance kept alive by men and women of faith.  In our own home school history the honor belongs to Hulsey, Harris, Ferris, and countless others.

Truth is restated; more than that, the reader will observe that saints throughout the ages have built on the faith of those who preceded them. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life: that is true, and truth is the same, forever. Revelation of truth, though, is forever becoming better understood, we hope. The previous generation of believers passes the torch to us, and we pass it to the next, and so on. Each generation builds on the illumination of the previous generation. We trust that the world is better for it.

On my farm grows an oak tree that began its life 30 years ago full of potential, and it was beautiful in its own right. Today it is so much more beautiful than it was thirty years ago. It is the same tree, but oh, how much larger and fuller are its branches and fruits! Diurnally I remove acorns and leaves deposited on my truck. It is the same tree, still full of potential, but producing more fruit than ever. A vicious blight or uncaring gypsy moth may kill it someday, but I already see a new oak seedling growing in its redolent shadow.

I look at this new generation of home schoolers and I know that we are not going to run out of fuel. The Holy Spirit is still here to encourage, to inspire every generation. There is, I have no doubt, a new C. S. Lewis or Oswald Chambers alive today.

Fear is dissipated by promises; evil is overcome by good. A gathered inheritance. We again recognize that the secret things belong “to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). A gathered inheritance!

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “The lightning illuminates all and then leaves it again in darkness. So faith in God grasps humanity, and we respond in ecstasy. And the darkness is never again the same, . . . but it is still the darkness.”

All of God’s saints—past, present, and future—are flashes of lightning in the sky. And the darkness is never the same again because the light reveals what life can be in Jesus Christ. “Memory allows possibility,” theologian Walter Brueggemann writes. A gathered inheritance.  We bring memory. Our young people bring possibility.

Harvard and Heaven: Prospering in the Secular University Part III

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

So what are we to do?

Young people, make sure that you know who you are and who your God is.  “By faith, Moses, when he had grown up refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” (Hebs.  11:24) Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls American believers to “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Refuse to be absorbed into the world but choose to be a part of God’s kingdom. There is no moderate position anymore in American society–either we are taking a stand for Christ in this inhospitable culture or we are not.

You are special and peculiar generation.  Much loved.  But you live among a people who do not know who they are.  A people without hope.   You need to know who you are—children of the Living God—and then you must live a hopeful life. Quoting C.S. Lewis, we “are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Take responsibility for your life. Moses accepted responsibility for his life.  “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.” (Hebs. 11: 25)  If you don’t make decisions for your life, someone else will.

Get a cause worth dying for.  Moses accepted necessary suffering even unto death.  You need a cause worth dying for (as well as living for). “He [Moses] regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (Hebs. 11: 26).  We are crucified with Christ, yet it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us (Gals 2:20).

Finally, never take your eyes off the goal.  “By faith, he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw Him who is invisible.” (Hebs. 11:27). What is your threshold of obedience?

Young people, if you are part of this new evangelical elite, you have immense opportunities ahead of you.  A new Godly generation is arising.  You will be called to guide this nation into another unprecedented revival.  We shall see.

Harvard and Heaven: Prospering in the Secular University Part II

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Today the university is not even loosely a Christian institution.  Religion in the university and in public life is relegated to the private experience.  So-called “academic freedom” has become a sacrosanct concept and precludes anything that smacks of religiosity–especially orthodoxy that evangelicals so enthusiastically embrace.  Religion is represented on campus in sanitary denominational ministries and token chapel ministries (that were hardly more than counseling centers).

To a large degree, then, the American university abandoned the evangelical and the evangelical abandoned the American university.

This created a crisis in the American university and in the evangelical community.  The secular American university compromised its “soul” for naturalistic; evangelicalism compromised its epistemological hegemony for ontological supremacy.  In other words, the secular university became a sort of an academic hothouse for pompous rationalism.  Evangelicals abandoned the secular university, and, until recently, more or less compromised their academic base.  Evangelicals even founded their own universities but they were poor academic substitutes for secular offerings.  Even as I write article, this is changing.

The university, if it has any value, must be involved in the communication of immutable, metaphysical truth.   The American secular university is not about to accept such limits. It recognizes no citadel of orthodoxy, no limits to its knowledge. But, like Jesus reminds Thomas in John 14, our hope lies not in what we know, but most assuredly whom we know.

Most secular universities have concluded that abstract concepts like grace, hope, and especially faith are indefinable, immeasurable, and above all unreasonable.  Not that God or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ can be proved, or disproved.  There are certain issues which the order of the intellect simply cannot address, so we must rise above that to the order of the heart.    Faith is our consent to receive the good that God would have for us.  Evangelicals believe that God can and does act in our world and in our lives.  Human needs are greater than this world can satisfy and therefore it is reasonable to look elsewhere.  The university has forgotten or ignores this fact.

That is all changing—and partly due to the popularity of the American home schooling movement.  In massive numbers the American home school movement—initially and presently primarily an evangelical Christian movement—is depositing some of the brightest, capable students in our country into the old, august institutions like Harvard.  And, what is more exciting, the flashpoint of cultural change is changing from Harvard, Princeton, Darmouth, and Stanford to Wheaton, Grove City, Calvin, and Liberty (all evangelical universities).  Before long the new wave of elite culture creators will be graduating from American secular universities and Christian universities and they shall be a great deal different from the elite of which I was a part in the middle 1970s.   I am not saying the secular university will change quickly—intellectual naturalistic reductionism makes that extremely difficult.  However, I do see the whole complexion of university graduates to change significantly in the next twenty years.  Never in the history of the world has such a thing happened.

Harvard and Heaven: Prospering in the Secular University Part I

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Who could imagine that a movement that began so quietly in the 19970s and 1980s would someday generate so vital and an anointed generation that is emerging at the beginning of this century?  It is a time to celebrate and to reflect.

In 2010 it is an uncontested fact:  home schoolers are dominating college admission test scores, and, it is growing more evident each day that they are highly qualified and successful college students when they are admitted.  When I was growing up, eons ago, elite prep schools dominated the college admission classes. Today, the new “elite” are home schooled graduates.  They are the most highly recruited, most highly valued freshmen at secular and Christian schools alike.  I am privy to a Harvard University online chat room, and recently I saw this statement posted.  “If Harvard wants to be the best, the most relevant institution in the years ahead, it must recruit and admit home schoolers.”  Indeed.

And Harvard has reason to worry.  I spoke to a Yale recruiter and she told me that, while Yale wants home schoolers, home schoolers do not seem to want Yale. They are not applying to Yale.  Likewise, I have two distance learning students who were heavily recruited by Ivy League schools.  They both chose local alternatives (a state school and a Christian school).

It is not the purpose of this article to lobby for any particular post-graduate choice, although I found my wife at Harvard—and Intervarsity Fellowship on Thursday night in Cambridge is larger than the entire student body at Gordon College (a Christian College) in South Hamilton. Mostly for fiscal reasons, the majority of Christian home schoolers go to secular colleges.  That is an uncontested fact.  We home schoolers, for whatever reason, usually attend secular colleges.

Therefore, this article is about the secular colleges we will attend—how they got to be the way they are and how we can prosper in such a place.

First, to most evangelical Christians, the modern, secular, university is a hostile place.  It was not always so.

In fact, the American university was built solidly on evangelical principles.  There were no so-called “official” “secular” colleges until the rise of the land grant colleges in the middle of the 19th century.  An early brochure, published in 1643, stated that the purpose of Harvard University (the oldest American university) was “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.”   Harvard’s motto for 300 years was “Christo et Ecclesiae.” In fact, most of the U. S. universities founded before the 20th century had a strongly religious, usually Protestant Evangelical Christian character.  Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, Duke, William and Mary, Boston University, Michigan, and the University of California had a decidedly evangelical Christian character in the early years of their existence but abandoned it by the 20th century. By 1920s, the American university had stepped completely back from its evangelical roots.  This was true of almost every American university founded in the first 200 years of our existence.

Readers would be surprised to see how evangelical, Christ-centered early universities were. They had pastors as presidents.  These men closely tied the identity of their university to a strong Christian world view.  The core curriculum included Bible courses and Christian theology.  These were mandatory Bible courses.  All American universities insisted on a doctrinally sound content for sensitive courses and often required that faculty be born again Christians!  Imagine this: the famous historian Frederick Jackson Turner was refused a professorship at Princeton because he was a Unitarian!   Chapel attendance was required at Harvard and Yale!  It is more than coincidental that the architects who designed early universities designed them to look like churches.  At the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, the most prominent building on campus is the Cathedral of Learning.

Universities were founded because early Americans earnestly believed that American society should be governed by evangelical Christian people.  They believed that American industry should be run by evangelical Christian entrepreneurs.  They believed that American culture should be created by evangelical artists.  The early American university was committed to making sure that that happened.

The marriage of spiritual maturity and elite education is a potent combination and to a large degree assured the success of the American experiment. Its divorce may presage its demise.