Far Better, and Far Simpler

11 October 2022

As simply as I can say it, the new birth is irreducibly relational; you are born again when you trust Jesus Christ to save you. There is no consistent reading even of John’s gospel, let alone the whole New Testament, that successfully presents a single proposition as the content of saving faith. The thing can be described in propositions to an extent, but it’s not actually a matter of subscribing to propositions. Propositions didn’t die for your sins; Jesus did.

Many people balk. “How does one have assurance?” they want to know. “What must I believe, to be sure that I am saved?”

Ah, my friend, if you’re thinking in terms of “what I believe,” you’re missing the point: it’s not “what,” but Who! It isn’t about “correct belief” or “fulfill[ing] the ‘belief’ condition.” The news is far better, and far simpler, than that.

This Jesus that we meet in (say) the pages of John’s gospel — He wants to save you, sacrificed everything to save you, and He means to see it done. You need not fret about fulfilling conditions or fussing about with propositions any more than you need fret about your insufficient moral merits. Rest assured, you are inadequate! Whether we’re talking about your morals or your theology, you are inadequate! The whole point is that Jesus met the conditions for you, and He will save you. He’s got you; your assurance comes from knowing that it’s Him that’s got you.

Theologically speaking, that’s sufficient. Practically, there’s another avenue as well. Eternal life just is knowing God (Jn. 17:3) and it’s not something you hope to get eventually, it’s something you have now (Jn. 5:24). Assurance naturally grows in the living of it. I have the paperwork to prove that Kimberly married me, but where do I get my day-by-day comfort and assurance that our relationship is what I think it is? Not from looking at the paperwork – what kind of relationship would that be? I am assured that I know Kimberly in the day-to-day living with her, and so it is here, because like a good marriage, eternal life is not having your papers in order; it is knowing a Person.


If You Lied About The Product, Can I Get My Money Back?

26 August 2022

This is a hot take on the ethics of the student loan forgiveness situation. As with all hot takes, I may later have to repent, and if that turns out to be the case, I’ll link it here. <- If that’s not a clickable link, then I haven’t changed my mind.

If you borrow money, then you should pay it back. I think we all agree on that; it’s basic ethics.

If someone sells you a product, and it turns out they lied outrageously about the product, you should be able to get your money back. I think we all agree that, too, is basic ethics.

It’s easy if the product is a physical item. If I buy a brand-new carbon fiber tennis racket from your eBay store, and what you actually send me is a cracked wooden racket you found in your grandma’s attic, the situation should be easy to remedy: I give you back your granny’s broken racket, and you give me back my money.

It’s harder if the product is an experience or a service. As a massage therapist, if I don’t deliver on what I promised my client in the session, do I give his money back? He can’t give me my hour back, so it’s not quite like returning a product. But still, YES, I give his money back. Now it may be that what I promised was entirely unlikely, bordering on impossible, and any reasonably-informed consumer ought to have known better than to believe me. I don’t get to keep the money because my client was a sucker who should have known better. If I walk away with his money telling myself, “Well, I guess he learned a valuable life lesson,” I’m not an honest businessman, I’m a con artist.

Suppose he didn’t pay up front; I agreed to finance the cost over time, so my customer can better afford my services. If I delivered what I promised, then he ought to follow the payment schedule he agreed on. If I did not deliver what I promised, then I ought not to expect payment. “You agreed to pay” is nothing to the purpose if I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.

We lied outrageously to an entire generation about college. And grad school.

This situation is much messier than the above scenarios, and I’m not trying to pretend it’s as simple as all that. I am seeking to introduce some balance into the discussion. “You should pay back what you borrowed” is a relevant ethical principle, but so is “You should refund when you lied about the product.”

To be fair to the education-debt-mongers, the life script they were selling (higher education as a ticket to a better salary and standard of living) did actually work, once upon at time. I’m prepared to concede that even as late as the early 90s (my era) a conscientious high school guidance counselor could sell that life script in good conscience. Now, for a great many of us, that script was going to collapse, but they didn’t know. They were doing the best they could with the information they had. Nobody owes us a refund for that.

But in 2005? 2010? Come now. That’s at least culpable negligence, if not outright lying. By that point, we had every reason to know that a $50,000 degree in medieval French literature, or gender studies, or English, was wildly unlikely to put the graduate in a position to pay back the student loans. What did we do? We kept stuffing kids into the debt machine. What did we think was gonna happen?

But someone will say, “Nobody put a gun to their heads! They signed the loan agreements of their own free will!”

Imagine a doctor is treating a patient. He prescribes a particular medicine, encourages the patient to take the medicine, and has the patient sign a bunch of “informed consent” documents to the effect that medicine is not an exact science, this is just a recommendation, etc. It later comes out that multiple studies published years earlier had found the drug ineffective, and the doctor had every reason to know about it. Perhaps we can’t be sure that he did know about it, but we can be sure that he should have known about it — it was his job to know. In that scenario, refunding the money the patient paid for the medicine is the very least we expect.

In fact, we are likely to regard the refund as far too small a response. The doctor needs to be censured; the drug should no longer be prescribed for that condition, and so on. We would want to see systemic change.

Just so. The unsuspecting 18-year-old signing a student loan document has a very limited knowledge of the world. He’s legally an adult, but he’s not a real adult, and we all know it — we won’t even let him buy a beer! He’s heavily reliant on the older and putatively wiser people around him. Those people failed him, extravagantly and negligently. There’s no reason the kid should carry the whole cost while the negligent adults skate. Nothing is sillier than the Boomers whose generation unquestionably created the bubble bitching because Millennials and Gen Z don’t want to shoulder the whole cost of the collapse. Why should they?

Conservatives will complain that they were never in favor of the student loan bubble to start with. There’s some truth in that, and it’s worth a good, solid “I told you so!” from them that did. But this is just the way the world works. All Germans were not universally in favor of Kaiser Bill’s foreign adventures, but they all labored along under the devastating effects of the Treaty of Versailles anyway, dissidents and true believers alike. Conservatives are supposed to know better than to kick at how the world actually works; we use our energy in more productive ways.

So this is how the world actually works: an influx of too-easily-available money created what easy money always creates — massive decadence and waste — and the result is likely to be very costly for everyone. No sense in complaining about that. Forgiving at least some of the student loan debt that was foisted on unsuspecting 18-year-olds is too little, too late, but we are where we are, and it’s not the worst possible starting point.

What we should be doing now is what Microsoft used to do with public standards: embrace and extend. “Joe Biden has heroically taken the first small step toward a long-overdue overhaul of a very broken system,” we should say. “We’re grateful for him beginning the process; let’s all work together to finish it.” And let’s do exactly that.

A Good, Strong Male Sex Drive

5 July 2022

It’s relatively easy for an unattached single man to make his way in the world. If he’s willing to do hard work, he can end up with quite a lot of money, and not much in the way of expenses. If he wants to take a trip to France, or buy a nice guitar, or upgrade to a better car, all he has to do is pick up some extra shifts and not be a complete goof…or sometimes, just wait until next payday.

It’s *way* harder for him to generate the kind of surplus required to sustain a wife and raise a family. So here’s the question: what would move a man to give up the autonomy and simplicity of the single life? Why should he trade that in for the constant needs and obligations of a wife and children? (Those of us who’ve pursued marriage and children can attest to the glory of it, but looking in from the outside, the glory is sometimes obscured by the large quantities of poop and the small quantities of sleep involved.)

The drive that would motivate him to abandon his autonomy that would have to be very powerful indeed — and in God’s providence, it is. The strong sex drive God gave men is designed to move a man to do all the extra work involved in winning a good woman, providing for her, and raising the children they will have together. For her, he’ll do anything. With her, he wants to be fruitful and multiply, and a good man willingly takes on all the responsibilities that come with that.

The male sex drive is not strong because of sin. The male sex drive is strong because God designed it to be. It’s good, and we should celebrate it.

In Defense of Plagiarism, Part 2: Flaunt the Scriptures

7 June 2022

Let’s get a couple things out of the way real quick. Copying someone else’s essay online and turning it in for your Freshman Comp class assignment is bad. Don’t do it. The point of the assignment is for the professor to see how you write and think, and you’re cheating when you pretend someone else’s stuff is yours. Taking swathes of someone else’s research and presenting it in your book without attribution, as if it was yours, is wrong. Thou shalt not. Likewise, watching a John Piper sermon on Youtube and then delivering that same sermon to your congregation, pretending that you wrote it, telling his story of what happened in the grocery store line as if it happened to you — that’s wrong, mmkay? (I’ve written about this last case before, and the problem is much bigger than plagiarism, it’s dereliction of pastoral duty.) I hope these disclaimers go without saying, but since I’m going to redraw some lines here, I guess I’d better say them.

Those things said, I argued last week that our contemporary take on plagiarism is a historical and cultural oddity founded on highly questionable presuppositions. Even here in the West, we didn’t think that way about authorship until very recently. The older model, the one that obtained throughout the ancient world and right on through Christendom, made very free use of source material, and at the same time made very free modification and adaptation of that source material. Everything was presumed to be a derivative work; what kind of idiot would try to compose anything of significance totally on his own?

Which is to say, they had an ethos of apprenticeship. You mimicked the best. You made modifications as your own vision and situation called for it. That’s how they did everything.

That approach to composition is largely dead, but it survives in effective preaching. A sermon is not a novel. When I get up to speak on (say) Ephesians 1:3-14, there is no expectation that I am going to say something unique in the history of exegesis and theology. In fact, very much the opposite. The goal is to say things that are true, and nourishing for the people God has given me to serve. In service of that end, I am able to make very free use of source material, and at the same time make extensive modifications to it to make it suit my setting and situation, If the “hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,” then I didn’t do my job. But if they were fed, then I did do my job, and that’s all that matters.

There is a type of preacher that will liberally festoon his sermon with verbal footnotes, lest he be accused of plagiarizing something. I understand the motivation, but that kind of name-dropping is just bad practice. The emphasis should be on the Word, not on how much homework you did and who you read when you were doing it. Don’t give your people a list of authors; give them what the text says and what to do about it.

Now of course, if someone asks you where you got a particular point, feel free to point them to the author and work you got it from. You shouldn’t conceal your sources. But you don’t need to flaunt them either. Flaunt the Scriptures.

In Defense of Plagiarism (Part 1)

31 May 2022

Medieval and ancient authors cheerfully borrowed from one another in a glorious free-for-all. Folk tales were copied, added to, adapted, synthesized — and so were nonfiction works.

The same is true in music. Folk songs were passed down, modified, new verses added. Tunes were repurposed — sometimes for directly opposite ends, as when the tune from “The Battlecry of Munster” became the base for the Irish Protestant song “The Boyne Water,” and later for Dominic Behan’s IRA anthem “Come Out Ye Black and Tans.” (Which is actually a very recent example) No one thought of this as theft.

In the modern era, we have succumbed to the myth of the artist. According to this myth, an artist produces something utterly unique — as we would now say, an “original work.” Our changing conception of the artist’s role can be traced in the changing meaning of the adjective “original.” Initially, it referred to being the source, or close to the source, as in the theological term “original sin.” The meaning here is synonymous with “first;” it doesn’t mean “unique.” Not until the 1600s does the term have the modern denotation of something an artist made up out of his own head, something sui generis, and not until the late 1700s does “original” acquire the modern connotation “new, fresh, exciting” as we would use to describe someone as “an original thinker,” for example.

The modern take on artistry is not necessarily a bad thing as an option — we certainly want to be open to our artists and authors making things up out of their own heads — but under modernity, this understanding is not optional. We have put in place legal and moral structures that make this understanding into dogma. Today, departure from the modern myth of the artist is sin (even though we no longer use that word); it’s heresy. We denounce it in starkly moral categories.

Join me in a little thought experiment, and I think you’ll see what I mean. Suppose that you made up a children’s story about the adventures of an outsized red dog named Clifford and his human family. No publisher would take such a book, of course, but suppose you self-publish it. Norman Bridwell’s estate would join with Scholastic (his publisher) to sue you, and they’d certainly win. But it wouldn’t just be a legal/financial matter. You would be denounced in moral categories as a thief for taking a character that someone else invented and using it in your own story — doubly so if you didn’t even make up your own story, but just embellished one of Bridwell’s existing stories. Suppose the whole affair made national headlines. There would be somber think pieces in venues like Christianity Today about how plagiarism violates the eighth commandment by stealing, the ninth commandment by claiming something is your own when it’s not, and so on.

Now the author who dared commit this heinous infraction would be joining some fairly exalted company. Thomas Mallory certainly did not invent King Arthur, nor the overall story arc. Dante also did the same thing you would be doing, as did Chaucer and Shakespeare and…well, everyone back then. Prior to the modern era, retelling stories was simply a matter of course, and nobody expected a storyteller to have invented it all out of his own head.

But let’s say you were not quite as transparent as all that. Let’s say your animal character is a gigantic blue ox green parrot instead of a gigantic red dog, and you make up your own stories instead of embellishing Bridwell’s. You can probably get away without being sued or overtly accused of theft, but there will be lesser charges: “derivative,” “imitative,” even (ironically) “unoriginal.”

Now, I am not saying you should self-publish your own Clifford stories, or even your own Green Parrot stories (make them about Babe the Blue Ox instead — that should be safe). I am saying that modern people have developed a very peculiar, unduly prickly relationship with source material. Considered across the sweep of human history and culture, we’re definitely the outliers here. We definitely think any other way of doing things is morally wrong — and isn’t that the very definition of provincialism?

That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to do things our way, and it doesn’t mean that our way has no advantages. It does, in fact. Our way makes it possible to get a return on a really big investment. As one recent observer put it, without modern copyright, we’d still have novels, but probably not summer blockbuster films — who’d put up the money for a $100 million special-effects extravaganza with no hope of return on investment?

However, the fact that we’re the outliers should mean that we can contemplate other approaches without reflexively condemning them all in starkly moral terms. And it does mean we should be willing to interrogate our particular take on things. Are our beliefs about artistry and originality even true? What’s the use case for doing things our way? What are the disadvantages? What situations might call for a different approach, a different set of standards?

Next week I’m going to make the case for one such situation that, even in the modern world, calls for a different approach.

Don’t Be Like That Cow

24 May 2022

In the course of doing a little study on Luther’s attitude toward science, I ran across this little gem:

We are beginning to regain a knowledge of the creation, a knowledge we had forfeited by the fall of Adam….Erasmus does not concern himself with this; it interests him little how the fetus is made, formed and developed in the womb. Thus he also fails to prize the excellency of the state of marriage. But by God’s mercy we can begin to recognize His wonderful works and wonders also in the flowers when we ponder His might and His goodness. Therefore we laud, magnify, and thank Him. In His creation we recognize the power of His Word. By His Word everything came into being. This power is evident even in a peach stone. No matter how hard its shell, in due season it is forced open by a very soft kernel in side it. All this is ignored by Erasmus. He looks at the creation as a cow stares at a new gate.

from Luther’s Table Talk, quoted in John Warwick Montgomery, Cross and Crucible p. 5.

Some Podcasts Worth Your Time

17 May 2022

There’s a ton of material out there, and it can be hard to find speakers that consistently deliver ideas and commentary worth thinking about. Here are three that do:

Stories are Soul Food

The Theology Pugcast

The Aaron Renn Show

I commend them to you.

Serve Somebody

3 May 2022

Academics and other “smart” people regularly feel that they are drastically undervalued, and ought to be paid vastly more than they are. They are badly mistaken, but it’s a very common sentiment. Where does it come from?

It comes from their formative years. At a very early age, we immerse our children in a totally artificial environment in which the whole official incentive structure (grades, honor rolls, access to enrichment activities) hinges on academic performance. For the very formative thirteen years from kindergarten through high school, this is the case. All that time, incentives and advancement are tied to being smart, to academic performance. Although they are often socially penalized, the smart kids are on top of the academic heap. A child who performs well in that environment is likely to get a chance to spend more time in it — college, then often grad school, for a total of six to ten more years.

Some of them will even do so well in the academy that they will be offered an opportunity to never leave — they can stay and teach. If they continue to publish and ticket-punch their way up, they can work their way into a tenured research position where they don’t have to teach actual students; they just research and publish their work. Which is to say, they do school papers for the rest of their lives, and get paid for it. They work their way up by producing academic work that pleases a professor, and then join the ranks of the professors and produce more academic work that pleases their professorial peers. At no point in this process do they have to produce something of tangible benefit to the rest of the world. It’s easy to start thinking you don’t ever have to — and if they stay in academia, they really might not have to.

Those (un)lucky few aside, the rest at some point enter the workforce, where a very different set of rules and incentives is in play. Now in the corporate world, there’s sometimes a degree of unreality similar to academe, but set that aside for a moment and assume that our case study — a smart student with at least a college education — has been forced into productive work.

Being smart doesn’t get you anything in the economic mainstream. The trait most rewarded is your ability to serve. If you can provide a service that people need or want — scrubbing toilets, computing taxes, polishing widgets, keeping their vehicles DOT compliant, fixing cars, cooking food, setting bones, whatever — then they will give you money. The rarer the service, and the more they need it, the more money they will give you. Being smart helps to the extent that you can use your smarts to serve better, faster, more efficiently. But nobody pays you to just sit around and be smart. Mostly, nobody pays you for ideas. They pay for execution, which is the hard part.

Knowledge workers might seem like an exception, but they’re not. Knowledge workers are paid for delivering the relevant facts to the people who need to know them, when the body of possibly relevant information is so large and confusing that it’s very hard to learn it for yourself. A good knowledge worker is generally smart, with an encyclopedic knowledge of a hard-to-master field. But that’s not what he’s paid for – he’s paid for telling you what you need to know about that field, and saving you the trouble of having to master it yourself – in other words, he’s paid for turning his specialized knowledge into a service. 

This focus on service and performance is not some rude shortcoming of an imperfect world. It is absolutely as it should be. Like the song says, ya gotta serve somebody.

More Relevant Than Ever

9 April 2022

Once upon a time Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a brief essay on minimalist ways to resist tyranny. You should read it. As our culture slowly shakes off its Christian hangover and wanders further from reality, the lies will get more egregious and therefore more fragile. Accordingly, the demands to pretend that the lie du jour is eminently reasonable, even self-evident, will get more strident. In “Live Not By Lies,” Solzhenitsyn gives some very good advice. You may be called to do far more than he advises, but I doubt you’ll be called to do less.

Meeting Michelle: A Parable

29 March 2022

Once upon a time there was a guy named Jack. Jack liked to talk about his girlfriend, Michelle. He told all his friends about her — how witty, beautiful, and kind she was, the latest funny thing she said, where they went for a date last night. All his friends were sort of excited for him at first. But time went by, and nobody met her. She always seemed to be somewhere else. After a while, they began to be a little suspicious.  Was she real? Hadn’t she always seemed a little too good to be true, after all?

They began to argue among themselves. “She was always a little too good to be true,” said some. Others said, “No, look how different Jack is. Obviously she’s real.” But nobody really knew.

Then one day, one of Jack’s friends, Lance, met Michelle. She was everything Jack said she was, and then some. Not everybody believed Lance when he reported back. Among Jack’s friends, the arguments about whether Michelle was real continued. But to Lance, the arguments suddenly seemed a little silly.