Monthly Archives: May 2010

Is morality better grounded in atheism or theism?

Sean McDowell recently debated James Corbett on the question of whether morality is better grounded in atheism or theism. (MP3 here)

Some highlights include:

  • We require a transcendant source of morality in order to judge other cultures. We require a “Law above the law”
  • Objective moral standards require a God
  • Without objective moral standards, all we are left with are preferences.
  • Any valid explination of morality needs to account for free will. Where does it come from?
  • Materialism relieves us from all culpability
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Church planting, the WSJ examines the market driven church in America

I recently ran across this article in the WSJ thanks to Ed Stetzer, Lifeway’s church planting guru. The article examines the whole church planting movement (or fad) in light of entrepreneurial practices that other small business or startups could emulate.

Did you catch that?

Other small businesses or startups.

Where in Scripture are we given a picture of the church as a business institution?

This article is rather sad in that it gives a good idea of just how market-driven the church in America is.

Here are a few choice quotes:

small businesses could take a page from churches when it comes to getting people to open their wallets.

Another useful strategy: getting to know local businesspeople, who can work wonders by talking up the church to customers.

It also helps the church seem less focused on money.

(Emphasis mine)

Simple Church now rents space that contains 14 screens in one multiplex and six in another.

Note: Not to be confused with simple church.

several parents told him that programs for kids were essential in any church that sought them as regular members. But they warned him that those programs shouldn’t duplicate offerings already in abundance in the community—and they shouldn’t be scheduled at times that competed with established activities.

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Bible Flashcards for Android 1.0

Bible Flashcards is an Android application based on the data files provided by the Crosswire Bible Society‘s Flashcard application. It contains flashcards for both Greek and Hebrew along with appropriate fonts for proper display.

I’ve also included an additional lesson set titled “greekBasics” which includes flashcards for the Greek alphabet.

Here are some screenshots:

You can find Bible Flashcards in the Android app Market by entering “Bible Flashcards” or by scanning the barcode below:

Additionally, if you are interested in helping out with new lessons or if you would like to provide feedback, please feel free to email me.

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Must Good Come From Every Evil?

I recently ran across this article by Dr Little regarding the question of evil and suffering in the world. Dr. Little asks the often overlooked (or assumed) question of “Must good come from every evil in the world?”

Dr Little’s answer may surprise (and anger) you, especially since it goes against what many pastors tend to offer their congregations. Sadly, however, such an answer is not only inadequate when it comes to answering the evidence of gratuitous evil in the world around us, but such pat answers also pose very real potentially faith-wreaking threats to anyone who is not content with simplistic answers and, instead, decides to probe deeper.

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Orientation for new believers

What should new believers expect to find when they sign up to follow Christ and thereby inherit a spiritual family?

Well, pretty much the opposite of this list recently posted on a group support website for former Christians.

I think it is worth noting the stark contrast between conversion stories vs. de-conversion stories. One is a story of new life breaking in where death once stood. The other is a story of death overtaking life.

The contrast couldn’t be greater.

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Can’t I make anything up and claim it’s Christian?

In a recent discussion with a group of de-converts from Christianity the following objection was raised:

Actually, my article *argues* that there is no objective definition of Christianity; it does not assume it. That was pretty much the point: there is no supernatural referent to “Christian” (or “God” or “salvation” or any of it), so the only definition(s) possible have to do with human social designations. Many groups of course *claim* to have objective definitions, but since I believe (a) they are all wrong, and (b) all lack the authority to settle the question for everyone, I can either scrap the word “Christian” altogether, or understand it to refer only to those who profess to be followers of Jesus. Thus, the boundaries of the term “Christian” are very fuzzy: it doesn’t refer to anything divine, and there is no universally accepted coding system, as it were. So: there is no correct answer.

Anyone is, of course, free to stipulate any definition of “Christian” they wish. You can, if you like, define “Christian” such as to exclude de-conversion. I can’t say that you’re wrong. But there is no reason at all I have to adopt your definition.

Here is my response:

Christianity does have an early and objective definition which has been upheld by all orthodox Christians ever since the establishment of the Church in the book of Acts. In fact, this objective definition is what we use in order to determine whether something is orthodox or not.

This definition is seen clearly in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul clearly states what many believe to be the earliest Christian creed or codification of Christian beliefs. It contains a number of things but the quick rundown is that Christians believe that Christ is a real person, who died a real death, who then rose from a real grave in a real, physical body and who appeared to real people.

I realize it is very popular to characterize Christian belief in particular (as well as religious belief in general) as merely a product of wish fulfillment or a preference akin to which flavor of ice cream is best (I prefer chocolate). However the fact remains that Christianity is based upon real, historical events which means that Christianity, like Judaism, is potentially falsifiable.

This also means that no one can epistemologically be a “true Christian” unless Christianity is, itself, true. If you have renounced Christianity and now believe it to be false, by definition you also believe you were never a “true believer” because you would have to logically commit yourself to the idea that you were deceived when you held an irrational belief (if, that is, Christianity is indeed false).

Finally, you seem to misunderstand the “no true Scotsman fallacy”. The fallacy is one of lack of objective definition such that the goal-posts are rendered wholly subjective. My contention (as well as Paul’s per 1 Corinthians 15) is that lack of objective definition of what beliefs are definitive of “true Christian beliefs” is simply not true.

We do have an objective standard, rooted in real historical and falsifiable events. Our claims are not entirely subjective, nor are they ad-hoc (as supposed competing explanations of unique Christian claims such as the resurrection are).

So the question of whether you were a “true believer” in the first place must logically center around what you believed in relation to the objective truth claims of Christianity (specifically the resurrection of Jesus) AND what competing, credible, competing theories/arguments/and evidence you have subsequently found that have provided sufficient defeaters to your original beliefs.

In the end, you were either a “true believer” then (of the objective claims of Christianity) or you are a “true believer” now (in atheism/agnosticism). However, die to the law of the excluded middle you cannot claim to have been a “true believer” of both since, at the end of the day, one of them is false and therefore cannot have “true believers” no matter how strenuously it’s adherents may wish it to be true.

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On the ethics, theology, and economics of copyright

Copyright has been one of the leading issues of the 21st century and yet surprisingly little has been written on it from a uniquely Christian perspective. The most one reads about it, for example, is that violation of copyright is akin to stealing and the treatment of copyright pretty much ends there. However I don’t think such a simplistic answer does the complexity of the issue very much justice.

Being a programmer I deal with copyright and intellectual property issues quite a bit. In fact, most of Americans today deal in some form of knowledge working or another1. Many (like myself) derive their entire living from their production of intellectual capital2.

So when we speak of copyright, we must first understand that it effects everyone. Even if you are not involved in the production end of intellectual capital, you are very likely to be on the receiving end of the purchase of a product based primarily on intellectual capital3. In fact, the US Chamber of Commerce has this to say about the intellectual property produced by the United States:

The intellectual property (IP) generated by U.S. companies is critical to America’s prosperity and leadership in the global economy. America’s IP-intensive industries employ nearly 18 million workers, account for more than 50% of all U.S. exports, and represent 40% of the country’s growth (Department of Commerce).

With this much riding on it, you would think that we had solved all the philosophical and legal questions surrounding intellectual property. However we haven’t. On the contrary, the merits and applications of copyright law are constantly being contested in court while, at the same time, the cultural understanding of intellectual property is constantly being fought in the court of public opinion.

In all of this, however, the Christian church has remained surprisingly silent.

But before we begin to delve into the philosophical and theological aspects of copyright and intellectual property, it would be helpful if we took a step back and examined how we got here.

History of copyright in America

Etymologically, the term “copyright” didn’t even exist until the 19th century. And then, it’s primary meaning centered around physical written works.

The United States was one of the first countries to ever address the issue of copyright. The copyright clause in the US Constitution (article 1, section 8, clause 8) in the section enumerating the explicit powers of the US Congress states:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

We’ll come back to this in a minute when dealing with the philosophical and economic implications of copyright but before we do I want to point out that, at the time of the penning of the US Constitution, America was a major purchaser of books.

In Niel Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” we are told that authors such as Charles Dickens were hailed as celebrities when they visited America and that they only realized a fraction of the proceeds from the sales (which were largely unauthorized) of their works.

Legal intentions

The initial legal intentions (at least from a US copyright law standpoint) of copyright are clearly stated in the copyright clause above. Those intentions were essentially to encourage the production of intellectual capital (creative works) by granting a limited monopoly on original intellectual property. After the limited time period, which was originally roughly 20-30 years, the capital was to be made public domain and freely available to all.

Unfortunately, successive extensions to US copyright law have increased copyright protections into the hundreds of years. And since corporations can now claim the status of individuals in many legal aspects, there is a real concern that copyright protections for some content has been effectively rendered indefinite.

Here is a helpful graph to illustrate how copyright terms have lengthened over time:

Theological treatment of copyright

Exodus 20:15 states “Thou shalt not steal.”

For many people, this is where the discussion of copyright ends. However I believe a closer comparison of the Biblical understanding of stealing, and particularly the restitution required if the command is broken, will quickly expose why, in my opinion, violation of copyright cannot be easily dismissed or characterized as stealing.

To begin with, the overarching theme of justice found in Scripture is that of restitution. In fact, the notion of “an eye for an eye”4 were quite unique to the Hebrew community at a time when most governments provided disproportionate and unequal punishments for varying crimes. In the middle-east today, for example, it is not uncommon to hear of a man loosing a hand for stealing a loaf of bread.

Leviticus 6:1-7 tells us

The LORD said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do- when he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found, or whatever it was he swore falsely about. He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering. And as a penalty he must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, his guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any of these things he did that made him guilty.”

With physical objects such as clothing, food, cattle, etc. the application of this command is easily seen. If I steal a physical object such as a car, I have deprived the original owner of the use of the car. The object is now in my possession and not in the possession of the rightful owner. Thus it makes sense, with physical objects, “to look for them”5, to “preserve them”6, to “transfer them”7.

Comparatively, intellectual property is, by it’s very nature metaphysical like numbers and formulas in mathematics, ethical principals, laws of nature, etc.

Like information8, intellectual property cannot be created9, quantified, contained, or destroyed.

One could argue that loss of information due to memory or storage failures effectively destroys information. However I would simply point out that the information itself is not what was destroyed, merely the means of easily recalling that information. Mathematical principals such as long and complex quadratic equations would still exist even if the whole of the human race collectively forgot them. This is one of the reasons that scientists are credited with making “discoveries”. No one thinks that Isaac Newton created the laws of gravity, he merely discovered them.

Stifling effects of copyright overindulgence

There are very clear negative effects if a nation or culture does not limit the scope and application of copyright laws.

The first casualty of an overindulgence in copyright is the shrinking of the number of works freely available in the public domain. This not only means a famine by way of works that should have long ago made their way into the public domain for further development and innovation. But it also means that works that are no longer actively supported by their original copyright holder are left in a sort of limbo where they are not in the public domain but their licenses are not clear and so no one will risk doing anything with the work. This is a terrible waste and something that leads inexorably into the second causality caused by our current copyright laws.

The second, and arguably greater, casualty of an overindulgence in obtrusive copyright laws is a hindrance to innovation. The very thing copyright laws were designed to encourage in the first place!

Conclusion

In light of this, I am forced to conclude that violating copyright laws cannot be equated with stealing in the Biblical. Intellectual property is essentially a misnomer since metaphysical information cannot be quantified, contained, destroyed or created.

However, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that willful violations of copyright are Biblically sanctioned I want to hasten to point out that we are called in Romans 13 to be obedient to the laws of the land (no matter how absurd) and that in whatever we do we are to live above reproach10.

What this means from a practical point of view is that if you choose to violate another person or company’s copyright you are incurring the risk of that person or company taking you to court.

Additionally, if you decide to profit from your endeavors (the threshold for criminal prosecution is $250,000) you also run the risk of being prosecuted by the state.

Besides, why would you want to contribute to the problem?

Yes, even so-called piracy manages to perpetuate the copyright dilemma by signaling copyright holders of a demand for their content. The only thing copyright holders are likely to do in such an event is to find better ways of protecting their intellectual property, either via Digital Restriction Management, encryption11, or direct legal action12.

A much better approach is to deliberately choose to use free and open source software, specifically software licensed under the copyleft license where the creator has voluntarily relinquished any future claim on how their software may be used.

I would like to say that consuming content created under a creative commons license has made much of a difference but sadly it hasn’t. The biggest driver of positive change in terms of copyright law in America has been through rampant copyright infringement which has helped to dramatically change the business models of otherwise ardent copyright protagonists such as the MPAA and RIAA.

And contrary to the claims of pro-copyright proponents, there is good evidence that copyright infringement actually leads to higher sales.

  1. See this presentation for some fun statistics. []
  2. Here is an interesting article on how knowledge workers are changing the demographics of our cities. []
  3. Like music, movies, television, software, video games, etc. []
  4. Exodus 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Deut. 19:21 []
  5. Luke 15:8 []
  6. Deuteronomy 8:4 []
  7. 1 Kings 21:2-3 []
  8. Which is what I would argue is all that intellectual property amounts to. []
  9. At least not in the sense that one creates new objects where none had previously existed. []
  10. Matthew 5:16, John 15:8, 1 Peter 2:12, 2 Corinthians 9:13, etc. []
  11. which brings a whole host of other legal concerns thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA []
  12. Copyright infractions that do not involve the perpetrator profiting by $250,000 or more are considered civil offences. This generally means that if legal action is taken, the resulting court case becomes a contest of who has deeper pockets. And as the recent RIAA cases, not very many people are willing to go through the expense of proving themselves innocent. []
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The epistemology of pornography

Much has been said regarding pornography. It’s use, it’s consumption, it’s effects on both groups, and it’s effect on society.

I want to step back, however, for a minute and discuss how pornography itself constitutes a “way of knowing” regarding sex and how this method of knowing, this ideological grid, colors how we think about sex in general and our own personal sexual relationships in particular.

To begin with, we need to take a look at what pornography is, and isn’t.

The etymology of pornography is basically “writing about prostitutes/harlots/whores”. For our purposes we’ll take the first definition from The Free Dictionary: writings, pictures, films, etc., designed to stimulate sexual excitement So pornography is not merely a subjective description but one which is based on the intent (either stated or implied) of the author.

With that in mind we need to look at how pornography is often transmitted. The preferred medium pornography uses is often pictographic.

Videos and images.

Sure, there is such a thing as text-based pornography in the form of erotic stories and harlequin romance novels. However these are not what has propelled the pornography industry into a multi-billion dollar enterprise1.

Why is it important that most pornography is conveyed in the medium of images? Because the medium shapes the message.

In short; Context.

Pornographic images and even videos do not generally convey much context. Aside from a small amount of foreplay, mood-setting pretext, and, on the rare occasion, an “ending” to round things out, not much time is spent in pornography delving into the actor’s thoughts or feelings. Aside from obvious physical compatibility, the viewer is left not knowing what kind of person either participant is.

And herein lies the rub.

Pornography systematically destroys the context wherein sex normally lies and thereby produces a wholly unrealistic fantasy world.

Unfortunately many people in our culture, no doubt conditioned through countless hours of exposure to both soft and hardcore pornography, have tried to live out in real life what they have seen acted out in pornography. They embark upon serially monogamous relationships. Or, as is becoming more common, they embrace “open relationships”, “friends with benefits”, and the lure of so-called sexual liberation with wild abandon.

Why? What are they looking for?

Cheap entertainment.

You see, the antithesis to this sort of sexual epistemology is the one that has been traditionally accepted throughout the ages. That is, the idea that sexual activity takes place within the context of a long-term monogamous relationship. Or, to put it more specifically; the sexual epistemology of the past was rooted firmly in traditional marriage and family.

In the end, there are really only two ways of thinking about sex. Either it is within a specific context or it isn’t. Context-less sex is made to be appealing through the widespread proliferation of context-less pornography.

  1. You’ll be waiting quite a while if you’re waiting on a “Girls Gone Wild” novel. []
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On the word of faith movement

I recently attended a lecture by Dr Richard Howe on the Prosperity Gospel and Word of Faith Movement and decided to share the slides from the event with a few of my friends. The following are a few questions that were raised during the course of our discussion.

“Are there spiritual laws and forces?”

Sure, we are given many hints at what the spiritual realm is like.

However the question here (and I agree that Dr Howe didn’t make this as clear as he could have) is not whether the spiritual realm exists or whether some metaphysical entities operate according to a regulative principal along the lines of the physical realm. For example mathematics, logic, and love are all metaphysical and yet we know they fit into a clear system we can know at least in part.

The question, however, is whether this metaphysical/supernatural/spiritual realm can be controlled through power words, incantations, rituals, etc. This is the definition of occult practices and I believe these characteristics are clearly shared (if not stolen outright) by the word of faith and prosperity movements respectively. Sure, some people may try to use their magic, err “faith” for various things such as money, healing, social advancement, etc. but the net result is the whether the proponent is a Christian and veils their actions in Christianeese or not.

“If there are spiritual forces that control the physical realm do we allow God to handle that or do we co-labor with God.”

As far as the spiritual realm goes, no. Scripture speaks clearly against our attempts to manipulate the spiritual apart from petitioning God. I believe Jesus provided us a clear example here on earth when he primarily prayed and asked God to bring about miracles rather than Jesus presuming to do them all the time.

Now, does that mean we can’t labor for good in the physical realm in order to alleviate pain and suffering? Absolutely not! In fact, James tells us that helping the poor and needy is what constitutes “pure religion”.

Now, turning to the issue of faith.

Faith is not a force, and faith is not an object in itself. Faith, rightly understood in a biblical sense, is trust. The clear image is of a husband and a wife where good faith is when they remain true to each other.For a more technical treatment of faith I encourage you to read a post I wrote on the subject a while back.

Now, on to Mark 11:22.

Editor’s note, this section was brought about by the following question:
I got this from a website that defends the word of faith movement. Let me know what you think. http://www.victoryword.100megspop2.com/godkind1.html

I find the debate over whether the verse ought to be translated as “in God” vs “of God” to be rather strange and I find the practice of attempting to formulate a regulative and substantial doctrine over the translation of one inflective in one verse to be downright troubling.

The verse in question in Greek is:
και αποκριθεις ο ιησους λεγει αυτοις εχετε πιστιν θεου (Tischendorf’s Eighth Edition GNT)

The phrase in question is the last two words which, transliterated read “pistin theou”. Pistis is the Greek word for faith and theos is the Greek word for God. Where is the “in” or “of”? In Greek, articles such as a, an, the, of, in are generally derived from the word’s inflection. That is, from the case endings of the words. This is also known as morphology and is actually the hardest part of the Greek language (especially for people like us who are not used to an inflected language). In this case, the morphology of pistin is: Noun, Accusative, Singular, Feminine and theou is Noun, Genitive, Singular, Masculine. Pistin being in the accusative case means it is the direct object of a verb.

But wait! Where is the verb this is the direct object of?

For that we need to back up to the word directly before pistis which is ekete. Before we continue, though I feel the need to present a word of caution here in case you wish to study Greek sentence structure: While the verb location is convenient in this case, Greek is not a language where word order conveys meaning (unlike English). At any rate, the verb ekete means simply “to have” and its morphology is Present, Active, Imperative, Second person, Plural.

So we have ekete (to have) as the verb with pistis as the direct object and theou as the genitive modifier (If you’re interested, it’s modifying the previous noun which was Iesous or Jesus. There’s richness in this linkage but alas, we must press on.).

So why did some translators translate this passage “the faith of God” (as in the KJV, Douay Rheims Bible and The Worrell New Testament you mentioned above) while others (most newer translations like the ESV, NET, NIV, NLT, etc.)? Most likely several factors including translation philosophy, better and more extensive manuscripts to pull from, and the translators themselves.

I’ll readily grant that the most literal translation of the phrase ending Mark 11:22 could very well be “have the faith of God”. But so what? We’ve seen above that theon is a genitive modifier of Jesus so the word picture here is really one of modeling the faith Jesus displayed which is also supported by the context of Jesus cursing the fig tree for not producing fruit in accordance with life. As you can readily see, then, such an admonition to model Jesus and follow in His footsteps is nothing new or earth-shattering. And it is certainly not something worth concocting an entire doctrine around.

Aside from rather sloppy exegesis, what also disturbs me is a lack of specificity and carefulness when it comes to the theological implications of viewing God as a being that “has faith”. Sure, Jesus prayed and trusted the Father. But I’m sure we will all agree that Jesus has a unique relationship with God and that no matter how much it pains us, our application to join the trinity has been denied.

As we’ve said before, faith is trusting in someone. God is omniscient and can therefore can not trust in the same sense that we, as finite and foolish beings, can (and are commanded to). God is also all-powerful and can not act in opposition to his nature (ie. God cannot sin) therefore God also cannot “be faithful” in the same sense that we, as imperfect and not-yet-holy humans, can (and, again, are commanded to be).

So, to sum up.

Faith is not a force. Jesus was not teaching in Mark 11 that we could throw mountains around all willy-nilly like. Nor do we have the power to heal anyone.

What Jesus taught was in keeping with the Jewish notion of faith as akin to faithfulness in marriage where we ask God and He (and He alone under absolutely no obligation) will toss around mountains or heal the effects found in a broken world such as sin, death, and spiritual oppression as and if he sees fit.

While the differences may be subtle in the teachings of the Word of Faith Movement, I believe the fruit it ultimately bears shows that it is more man-centered than it is God-centered. And, as Dr Howe pointed out in his presentation through direct quotes from the Word of Faith leaders themselves, if taken to the extreme, Word of Faith teachings ultimately leads one to confusing themselves into thinking they are a god rather than worshiping the one true God.

In other words: It’s dangerous, their theology is full of manure (and that’s the nice way of saying what I’m really thinking), and we ought to encourage anyone who us unfortunate enough to feed on such mess to, instead, seek out “pure spiritual milk” from a source that isn’t heavily influenced by the occult/new age movement.

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Milton Friedman on capitalism

[HT Wintry Knight]

My friend Wintry Knight recently turned me on to an excellent American economist, statistician, and a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, Milton Friedman.

Here is a short clip of Milton answering a rather pointed question regarding our responsibility to the poor wherein Milton explodes the myth that Capitalism and the free markets are somehow against helping the poor. Milton also points out in this short clip how most poverty and disparity in America can be directly traced to socialistic programs.

Here’s another video where Milton explodes the myth that Capitalism is inherently immoral or utilitarian by placing “the bottom line” above the value of a human life.

And finally, here is a video where Milton explodes the myth of that capitalism and slavery (or class oppression) are necessarily related. Milton also discusses how slavery is ultimately antithetical to capitalism as it ends up costing more and discouraging increased production or innovation.

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