Who’s in the Tent?

26 July 2022

In the story of Deborah, the job to be done is to defeat the Syrians. There’s a point in the story where we consider the question of who would be the best person for the job. Deborah (speaking for God) wants Barak to go out and do it; he’s the one. Barak says he’ll only go if she comes with him; she replies that she’ll do that if he wants, but the glory of the victory will not be his if he doesn’t rise to the challenge on his own. 

So Deborah goes, Israel wins the battle, and Sisera, the Syrian commander, flees the field looking for a place to hide. He comes upon the encampment of Heber the Kenite. At this point in the story, it no longer matters who the ideal person for the job would be. The only question that matters now is, “Who’s in the tent?”

There are church situations where you have the luxury of defining the attributes for the ideal candidate for whatever the job is, and then sifting through applications looking for the right mix of talents and experience for that particular slot on your org chart. That’s a thing that can happen. But far more often, we find ourselves at a decision point, and the only question that really matters is, “Who’s in the tent?”

Parable of the Hats

13 July 2022

Once upon a time, a feller named Jack grew disturbed at the number of people running around without hats. Finding hats both useful and stylish, Jack set about to change the trend, to which end he founded the Hat Society “to promote the wearing of hats.” Jack worked hard at helping see the advantage of hats, and the Society grew to the point that they were running on a half-million dollars or so a year, all to promote hats. Now Jack himself had always worn a fedora, but at Hat Society meetings you could find cowboy hats, homburgs, berets, bowlers, baseball caps, tams, even a few propeller-topped beanies.  

Over time, that began to change. The propeller-topped beanies were the first to go, but they hadn’t done much for the dignity of hat-wearing, and nobody really missed them. The guys in berets and tams kinda disappeared a few at a time. A few years later, baseball caps began to get scarce, and that feller in the fishing hat with all the flies on it was asked to never come back. 

Fast-forward a few more years, and there’s an occasional cowboy hat around, but pretty much everybody at the meetings is wearing a fedora. Jack himself is maintaining that a dark fawn fedora is the perfect epitome of hat-ness, and he never wears anything else. At one point, this led to a confrontation between Jack and the board; Jack asked all the non-fedora-wearing board members to resign, which they did.

Some folks claim that back in the day, Jack used to sometimes wear a grey fedora. Others maintain that it was always dark fawn. Nobody seems able to prove it for sure either way, and most of the people who were around back then have long since left. Oddly, it’s not called the Fedora Society; it’s still the Hat Society, and the mission statement still reads “to promote the wearing of hats.” 

Now Jack may be within his rights to promote the dark fawn fedora, and perhaps even to use Society funds for the purpose. But he can’t really claim to speak for the community of hat-wearers anymore, can he? 

Are All Who Identify As Free Grace Cessationists? NO!

8 July 2022

A few days ago, Bob Wilkin of the Grace Evangelical Society came out with a blog post titled “Are All Who Identify as Free Grace Cessationists?” Now, given the title of the piece, you’d expect it to be about people who are Free Grace and their views on the sign gifts. You’d expect that…but no.

I encourage you to read the piece; it’s an impressive little piece of bait-and-switch journalism. Were anyone at GES inclined to give the question a straightforward answer, the answer, in a word, is NO. Which, it seems, is the one thing they really didn’t want to say. So we get treated to some very clever framing instead.

The article begins by posing the question from the title and defining cessationism. Then, instead of talking about Free Grace people and their positions on cessationism, the article pivots to focus on charismatics and their views on the gospel. R. T. Kendall, Michael Eaton, and Jack Deere all get a favorable mention, and then we get this clever little sentence: “Beyond those three, I do not know of any third wave or charismatic theologians who hold to eternal security, let alone FGT.” He then continues, “My guess is that there are more. But most would not agree with FGT on justification or sanctification.”

The claims of fact are technically true, but the overall effect is lying by omission. The paragraph cultivates a general impression that Free Grace people are basically cessationists except for R. T., Michael, and Jack, the first two of whom don’t seem to have ever publicly identified as Free Grace anyhow, and we don’t know if Jack still holds to it. Hardly any overlap between the camps, it would seem….

But remember the question we started out with? “Are all who identify as Free Grace cessationists?” By dodging that question and focusing on charismatic theologians (who might be Free Grace), Bob has avoided addressing the question he actually started with, which is whether all Free Grace people are cessationist. The answer — and Bob knows this; don’t make me get my screenshots and prove it — is no. That there are a number of us non-cessationist Free Grace folks, not least the man who was for 10 years Bob’s right-hand man (until 5 days before this blog post went up). Ahem.

So why didn’t he just say so? He could have just said, “No, not all Free Grace people are cessationist; we don’t have to agree on that to be Free Grace.” He didn’t. Why not?

Note: Unfortunately, GES seems to have made a habit of this sort of thing. Drew McLeod of the Provisionist Perspective and I discussed another instance a few months ago.

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.

A Supernatural Faith: An Interview

14 June 2022

I had the opportunity to sit with my friend Chris Morrison of Gulfside Ministries and chat for a while. You can find the interview here.

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.