Only Professionals Have Licenses to Conduct Historical Science

Michael Haykin seems to deny the doctrine of vocation when he argues that every believer needs to be a good historian:

history is obviously important to God, since it is the realm where God ultimately brings about the salvation of his people by entering into the very fabric of time and taking on our humanity, sin excepted, in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine activity in the realm of history should not be restricted to the Bible. Though it is impossible to trace out his footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that God is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his Name and the good of his people. As such, to quote the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter, “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word.” Reading Church history should lead therefore to the praise of God and his adoration.

This is a tad sloppy and betrays that evangelical earnestness so often eager to find in every-square-inch Neo-Calvinism that magic wand to integrate everything. Everyone, thanks to the Holy Spirit, can now see historical significance, perform algebra equations, and tie boating knots. Well, not really. All good believers, even the most gullible, won’t come to my door in hopes of finding a cure for that nagging pain in the sciatica. Maybe to be a good historian it helps to go to graduate school and obtain a license.

But, when Haykin writes this:

Without the past our lives have little or no meaning. When a community forgets its past, it is like a person suffering from dementia: they really cannot function in the world. So we must study history, and as Christians, this means Church history.

He has a point.

Imagine the pain Tim Keller might have avoided if he had known better the struggles between Machen and Old Princeton, between Old School and New School Presbyterians, or between New York and Philadelphia presbyteries. For that matter, why doesn’t the Gospel Industrial Complex have a better memory of Carl Henry, Billy Graham, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Fuller Seminary?

Selective skepticism? Heck, selective memory.

My Podcast Ministry

Just when you thought you heard enough from mmmmeeeeEEEEE, along comes another interview. Adam Holland of The Daily Brew was kind enough to invite me to chat about The Lost Soul of American Protestantism under the heading of pietism and revivalism. I think I showed restraint.

The main reason for engaging in such self-promotion is that I did tell Adam I would mention the podcast here at Old Life. Not to worry, I won’t be heading down the trail of weekly lists of the ten most popular posts.

Enough.

Empathy Matters (but maybe not the way you think)

While recent discussions of police brutality have brought attention to the so-called racial empathy gap, other research suggests that empathy can create as much harm as good. First, racial empathy gap:

For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.

The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.

On the other hand:

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Yale, has written a thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy. In his farewell address, for example, President Barack Obama said that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy. Political polarization could be reduced if Republicans and Democrats had more empathy for one another. Teachers, psychologists, and politicians suggest that lack of empathy lies behind complacency toward Native Americans, judgmentalism toward opioid addicts, and hostility toward immigrants. If we felt the pain of the afflicted, it is often assumed, we would want to take proactive steps to help them.

Bloom doubts it. He rejects the assumption that empathy is either a strong motivator of moral goodness or a proper guide to moral decision making. One can identify emotionally with the suffering of others but not do anything about it; conversely, one can offer effective assistance to another person without echoing his or her internal states.

Bloom goes even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good. A wide array of studies in social psychology and neuroscience show that empathy is highly context sensitive, shortsighted, mood dependent, narrowly focused, biased, and parochial.

Turns out that moral reflection (not moral outrage) may be better than empathy:

The good Samaritan was moved by the victim’s sorry state, but there is no reason to think he felt anything like what the victim would have felt lying on the side of the road. What was important was the Samaritan’s good will and good judgment about how to help the poor man. More generally, the point is that we do not have to feel any particular way in order to do what is right in any given situation. What is essential, as Thomas Aquinas put it, is a “constant and firm will to give each his or her due.”

Once again, the value of emotions, experience, and authenticity may be way less important than pietists (among others) think.

Remember when Global Christianity was Shaming the Church in the West?

Fifteen years ago, bookies were betting on the Global South:

Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth. Within the next twenty-five years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.

What could go wrong? All indexes were pointing up.

But human sinfulness even among the saints has a way of defying prognosticators:

Christians in Nigeria are dancing on the brink of moral and ethical collapse. Many Christians who hold public office have become corrupt or immoral, betraying their public Christian testimony. They lack integrity and cannot present a strong moral and ethical witness. They lack the virtue of honesty in public life.

Nigeria is considered a very religious country. Christianity is not limited to churches and prayer meetings. Prayer and Bible readings are found in boardrooms and government offices. Billboards announce upcoming crusades, and exclamations like “to God be the glory” and “praise the Lord” easily fall from the lips of Nigerian Christians, even in public.

But as the well-known and respected Catholic priest George Ehusani has noted,

Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria—from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the checkpoint, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kickbacks.”
He also notes that activities like embezzling and cheating—ranging from school children to high-profile public figures—often go hand in hand with outward expressions of piety. Many Nigerians obtain fraudulent medical certificates, as well as fake birth and citizenship certificates, to be admitted to good schools or to get choice jobs. They evade taxes, over- and under-invoice customers, perform fake audits, and on and on. He concludes, “All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.”

Father Ehusani is merely describing what is common knowledge to all Nigerians. These matters are more lethal to the Christian faith than any Islamization agenda.

In the 20th century, indigenously founded churches sprang up across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. After the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), Christians who saw the conflict as a sign of the end times embarked on a massive campaign to spread the Good News of Christ across Nigeria. Student associations and missionary movements sprang up. Nigerian Christians were determined to re-enact what happened in the Book of Acts: turning “the world upside down” (17:6 ESV).

Sadly, today the story has changed. Both mainline and Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria are still committed to reaching out to the unreached, but the undue emphasis on health and wealth has permanently changed the face of Christianity in Africa and the world at large. Pastors and church members are now more interested in building beautiful and massive edifices than in reaching out to the unreached people groups of the world. Many pastors are obsessed with material possessions, sometimes owning one or more private jets! The corruption of Christian moral values has now given way to the worship of materialism and pleasure. Our real god is now mammon (Matt. 6:24). We have become devoted to what American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr called self-love, self-interest, and the will to power.

Some of us wondered way back when about the way historians and journalists were evaluating the success of the church in the Global South with Christianity in the West:

The differences between the old and new Protestantism are not simply in the realm of perception, one being invisible or hard to discern, the other being very visible because of its numbers, intensity, and dramatic displays of divine power. Perhaps a more fundamental difference is the one between the eternal and the temporal. As the Brazilian pastor quoted in Jenkins’ book put it, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” This assertion may not be representative of most pastors ministering in the context of southern Christianity. But its bold contrast between the temporal and the eternal, between the South and the West, does help to illustrate the outlook that has dominated the analysis of global Christianity. Southern Christianity is alive and booming because it daily proves its efficacy in providing real, tangible relief for those enduring great suffering. Western Christianity, by contrast, offers theological complexity or liturgical precision but hardly has the goods to make a difference upon those people most in need.

Without wanting to diminish the difficulties that southern Christians face in their economic, political and physical conditions, is it possible to suggest that concentrating on these realities is short-sighted? What happens if another political or economic system takes better care or if another religion provides more control over the spiritual forces seemingly causing so much affliction for Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? But this is more or less a pragmatic question. The ultimate question is the eternal one of death. Will those Christians miraculously healed or even the ones benefiting from modern medicine still face death? Or how about those believers for whom Christianity has instilled a work ethic that yields physical comfort, whether it be clothing for children or a brand new Ipod? Will these benefits make much difference when men and women, as the prophet says, fade like the grass? And what of the significant manifestations of the Spirit in the worship of Christians, whether in Lagos or Minneapolis? What will be the advantages or benefits of these spiritual gifts on judgment day? To be sure, such questions may sound sanctimonious or wrongheadely obtuse. But if Christianity is at least in part a religion that promises eternal life, that no matter how difficult the sufferings of this life may be, believers have hope for relief in the world to come, then questions of eternal significance have genuine merit in evaluating contemporary Christianity, whether in the global South or West.

No delight here in what’s happening in Nigeria. And the troubles of Christians in Africa in no way proves the health of churches in North America and Europe. It is only a way to raise questions once again about the way scholars analyze and journalists cover religion. Generally speaking, the spirituality of the church is not sexy and enthusiasm (especially among the marginal) is.

And where did academics and reporters receive their training in Christianity?

Why Crawford Gribben is Holier than I

He has read much more John Owen than I and in the introduction to his recent book, John Owen and English Puritanism, he explains that one of the ways to mortify sin is to read Owen:

My own sense in preparing this book is that biography is an especially demanding medium that continually refuses to permit intellectual shortcuts: at times, when I was overwhelmed by the demands of reading Owen’s millions of words in their very different contexts, I felt that he could not die soon enough. (20)

Sometimes when I read Owen, I think I can’t die soon enough.

So Owen’s affect on Gribben and me is opposite, either to wish the Puritan or the reader dead.

Wait, doesn’t that make me holier?

Tim Keller Plants, New York City Gives the Growth

In the ballpark of always affirming, always sunny religious journalism comes Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s puff piece on Tim Keller’s retirement at Redeemer NYC. I am not sure that this is the kind of analysis of context that Joe Carter had in mind for the Gospel Coalition’s journalistic forays:

The three main forms of journalism we use at TGC (opinion and advocacy journalism; reporting and narrative journalism; explanatory journalism) are all used to help the church think more clearly about the gospel and how it leads us to interact with the world.

Although, since Carter thinks journalism at TGC should promote revivals, Zylstra’s piece certainly does that. Her account shows, whether she intended or not, how much Keller’s position in New York City made him stand out in ways that no one else among the Allies could. If you do a word count on Zylstra’s story, she mentions the PCA twice, Presbyterian six times, and New York 37 times. As for the work of the Holy Spirit — nada.

If religious journalism at TGC is supposed to promote revivals, that would place Zylstra’s rendering of Keller more on the Finney than the Whitefield side of pretty good awakenings since Finney wasn’t big on the Holy Spirit either.

What I don’t understand is why Mark Dever doesn’t get more attention in the TGC world. There he is ministering in the nation’s capitol, the center of American power, the place from which the United States leads the free world. And yet, to get traction as an urban church planter you need the mojo of the nation’s biggest city, the place that nurtured and shaped Donald J. Trump.

What’s up with that?

Black Lives Matter and Evangelicals Together

H. L. Mencken explains the wonder-working power of morality:

Moralists, I respectfully submit, are not shrinking violets. They do not go “quietly about their business.” They are not avoiders of controversy. On the contrary, their eager seeking of controversy is one of their salient characters, and their gross abuse of opponents is another. The Lord’s Day Alliance and the Anti-Saloon League devote themselves almost exclusively to excoriation. Their one permanent theme is the villainy of their antagonists. And the vice crusade, for all its pious pretenses, puts nine-tenths of its faith in the policeman’s club. Its patron saints are Anthony Comstock and Tomas de Torquemada. Its central doctrine is that all men who question the efficacy of its moral bile means—for example, Brand Whitlock and Havelock Ellis–are heretics, atheists, voluptuaries and scoundrels.