Monday, March 19, 2012

Jesus is Not a Marshmallow (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Christian Contours: How a Biblical Worldview Shapes the Mind and Heart, edited by Douglas S. Huffman. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011. 236 pgs. (including introduction, appendixes, bibliography, and indexes)

Introduction: Philosophy is a terrifying word. People's eyes glaze and spirits freeze whenever they hear it. It produces an image of sad-faced academic clowns blathering on about irrelevancies in their ivory towers. Meanwhile, ordinary people with everyday problems continue life uninterrupted in the real world. Such an image is a caricature, of course, but it speaks for many people, which is unfortunate because we are all philosophers. We all believe certain things about the world: sometimes subconsciously and other times intently, but never neutrally. We have beliefs that shape how we think and see things, beliefs that we fit together (or are fit together) into a more or less coherent system by which we live and think. In short, we are all philosophers because we all have beliefs. To believe is to philosophize.

A "system of belief" is often known as a "worldview", and in Christian Contours, editor Douglas S. Huffman (and his fellow contributors) hope to reacquaint all Christians with the fundamentals of the Christian worldview, i.e., with "the basic claims that the historic Christian faith has about all of life in every era" (17). The book is not exhaustive, nor does it claim to be. In fact, it plainly states that it is to be an introduction to the subject (17), a first step on the journey of understanding exactly where you are (or ought to be) coming from not just as a mere believer but as a specifically Christian believer.

Summary: The main body of Christian Contours is divided into ten sections: an intro, eight chapters, and a conclusion. The eight chapters are divided into two parts: the first four chapters deal with what the biblical worldview is, and the last four chapters deal with what is to be done with it in the real world. Though the table of contents doesn't imply any kind of further order to the chapters, it quickly becomes apparent (upon reading) that there is an underlying flow to them. Chapter one ("What is a Worldview?") begins with a necessary definition of terms as well as an understanding of a worldview's central and important role in our daily lives. Chapter two ("Is There Just One Biblical Worldview?") deals with the necessity and inherent humility of essentialism in a worldview, i.e., to hold to a common ground that is above all individual specificities and particulars creates humble unity amongst the adherents because they all hold something in common that they view as greater than themselves.

Chapter three ("What is the Relationship of Worldviews to Truth?") parks upon the central aspect of a worldview: its claim to truth. Perhaps the most philosophically heavy of the chapters (i.e., slow down and take careful notes), it unpacks the necessity of truth to a worldview as well as presenting the Christian notion of truth. Chapter four ("What is the Biblical Worldview?") rounds out the first part by establishing quickly and simply the biblical worldview and posits the Bible as the grounds for the Christian's system of thought. The second part picks up with discussions on tempering our beliefs with love and humility (chapters 5 & 6), an overview of the fundamentally anti-Christian worldview of pluralism (chapter 7), and finishes with some thoughts on how evangelism goes hand-in-hand with one's worldview (chapter 8).

In addition to all this, Christian Contours has two very nice appendixes. The first is a chart presenting a side-by-side comparison of seven major worldviews (Christian Theism, Naturalism, Postmodern Secular Humanism, Atheistic Existentialism, Pantheistic Monism, New Age Spiritualism, and Islamic Theism) in regard to five areas of thought and belief (theology, anthropology, ethics, soteriology, and epistemology). The second is a list of "Christian Professional Organizations" that provide resources for a continuing investigation into worldviews. Finally (and perhaps nicest of all), the book's bibliography provides detailed information on books that can be used for further study.

Review: Even for an "introductory work," there is too much information in this book to give it a truly proper review. What I will say is this: I like this book for three reasons:

(1) Its emphasis on "integration," i.e., that the Christian worldview is a unified system of thought rather than a fractured one. It is not the piecemeal operation of separate individuals across time. Rather, it is a common ground for all Christians at all times. There is no era or epoch where it is not relevant.

(2) Its emphasis on the collaboration of mind and heart. As human beings, we are made up of beliefs (cognitive assents) and values (affective assents) (52). Both are important, and both need to be shaped by the truth (i.e., by God and His word). To neglect one for the sake of the other is to live a stunted, half-awake life. We must have truthful beliefs that provide a truthful structure to our lives, and we must also have truthful values that create truthful action in our world. To be either a disconnected abstraction or an emotional vagabond is not an option for the Christian believer.

(3) Its surprising depth, which caught we completely off guard. I've read "introductory" works before, and they were forgettable because they were redundant: stating the obvious to the point of oblivion. This book, however, was not redundant. Even when it traversed well-trodden paths, it still felt refreshing and informative, and there were times when some of its subject matter become enticingly dense, daring you to dig deeper (chapter three is a particularly good example of this: its notion of truth as God's knowledge and expression of Himself was incredibly interesting).

In addition, the book makes it very clear that not only is the Christian worldview a coherent and relevant system of thought and belief, it also is a fundamentally alternative system to every other worldview out there. You cannot simply make it "a" part of your life. It is your life and is completely foreign to all other worldviews. That is why adherence to it is called a "conversion"; your thinking (and subsequent living) has radically changed from the ground up. As Dr. Huffman put it in the conclusion, Jesus is not the marshmallow in the hot chocolate of your life, "something sweet and soft bobbing around on the surface"; He is an entirely different beverage (144-45), and those who drink that cup drink it to the full.

Recommendation: I've reviewed a small handful of books for Kregel so far. Most of them have been good, but none have really interested me enough to take a second look, none except for one. Christian Contours is that book. It is an excellent introduction to worldview studies and could easily precede James Sire's The Universe Next Door (another excellent book) in a classroom or group setting. Buy it. Read it. You're welcome.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

Atheistic Mysticism (cultural apologetics by an orthodox rebel)

First of all, watch this video:

Second of all, ponder this: Strip away the reassuring baritone tones of the narrator, the indie documentary cinematography, and the emo piano music, and what is really being said here? That stars are made of a certain kind of matter, and that matter was involved in our evolutionary process.

Thus, we have a tangential material connection to impersonal balls of burning gas.

Maybe I'm just dense (like a star), but I missed the part where this gives my life meaning.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Not Like Us (a Greek exposition by an orthodox rebel)

"Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." I Tim. 1 (vs. 17)

This praise of God gives flesh and bones to the concept of His holiness and unpacks the notion that holiness means "other than," i.e., that God is "holy" means that he is not like us. Because God's "otherness" sounds too abstract, verses like this one in Timothy help make it concrete. God is described three different ways in this verse, each one applying not simply a mere attribute to Him but rather an attribute that exemplifies exactly how not like us God is.


The Greek word is "aphtharto," which means "incorruptible" or "impossible to decay". Our God does not fade away or bleed out or wash out. His substance is not lessened by the passing of time nor damaged by any action of His or ours. He does not burn out like a star nor collapse in like an abandoned building, and above all He does not die. Death has no hold on Him at all, which is the complete opposite of us. We fade. We dry out and burn out. We decay; with every breath we are decaying. Our energies are burning up and our materials are breaking down. We cannot hold ourselves together at all. We will disperse, and God alone can pull us back together again, because He is not like us. He is incorruptible. He is holy.


The Greek word is "aorato," which means "invisible" in the sense that He cannot be seen. God's "invisibility" does not speak to His non-presence but rather to our inability to see Him. He is too big to be seen, and His light inaccessible is too glorious. This is what the ancient creeds meant when they called God "incomprehensible": not that He is gibberish, but that He is beyond our summation. Our sight cannot apprehend His wholeness, because He is too great for us, like the sun at noonday. The wealth of his being and glory of His brightness are treasure troves too vast to be plundered by any hand our mind. We cannot fathom such a thing because we are not like Him. We are comprehensible. We are limited and finite. We are small, and we only know in part. Much foolishness has been done in the name of the "part" that we know, but it serves to speak to our smallness, to our comprehensibility. We are each but a single word spoken from the mouth of God: unique, but singular, with limits and edges known to God alone, because He is not like us. He alone is incomprehensible. He is invisible. He is holy.

Only Wise God

The Greek phrase is "mono sopho Theo," which means that God alone is wise. In Him only is all truth and knowledge and wisdom. All reason and logic and every epistemological certitude find their ground in Him alone. Outside of Him there is only nonsense and insanity. Outside of Him there is only wailing and gnashing of teeth. In Him alone is all understanding and comprehension. Without Him, without his "logos" and "cosmos," there is only gibberish and disarray. We do not understand this, because we do not have understanding. As said before, we know in part: our understanding is incomplete; our knowledge is seen through a glass darkly. We cannot ascertain like God can ascertain. We cannot reason like God can reason. We cannot have thoughts like He has thoughts, for His thoughts are past finding out. He is not like us. He alone is wise. He is holy.

One final thought: the Textus Receptus alone contains the "sopho" in "mono sopho Theo" (thus, "only wise God" appears in KJV, NKJV, and KJ21). All modern Greek versions, however, simply have "mono Theo," i.e., the only God (as in NIV and ESV). This difference is unfortunate, as there is much to say about God being the "only wise"; but the difference is also apt because "mono Theo" sums up the entire point: God alone is God. There is none like Him. There is no other God beside Him. We are not like Him. We are not God. That is the point. That is the truth. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Friday, March 9, 2012

On Christ (a contra mundi by an orthodox rebel)

"[Seeing] the exceeding wickedness of men, and how by little and little they had increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves..., He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption...." -St. Athanasius

He would not abandon the miry clay, but took unto Himself a body of clay that He might consume and undo the mire and sanctify a people unto Himself.

He would not abandon us to death, but has made a way out, breaching as the forerunner the veil between us and life everlasting.

He would not abandon us to the nihilistic reign of Sin, but became Sin for us so that His Father might strike the fatal blow of his wrath and leave us untouched and unscathed forevermore.

He would not abandon you to the sin that so easily besets you, but instead would infuse you by divine transplant with the presence of His divinity, transpositioning your frail body into a Temple of God where sweet communion imparts sweet satisfaction and strength.

He would not abandon you to narcissistic fear and doubt and anger, but will make you brave because He is brave, and believing because He is faithful and true, and at peace because He is your peace. You belong to a new world now. You belong to God and He belongs to you, because Christ has opened the door, breached the wall with his bare hands, blood-stained and unrelenting.

He has not abandoned us. Say it loudly to the dark night of this world: God has not abandoned us, because Christ has come and is coming again.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

Friday, March 2, 2012

Homily 37: Love and Holiness (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"And may the Lord make you to increase and abound in the end that He may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness...." I Thess. 3 (vs. 12-13)

There is a sacred bond and intimate connection that love has with holiness, with the otherness of God, for love is not a human invention. It does not even do it justice to call it a discovery. It is more like a revolution. Love falls upon humanity like a clap of thunder or erupts from amidst it with volcanic violence. In blatant opposition to the dark instincts of survival and domination that to this day drive the bestial side of mankind, there comes a voice and notion piercing through, wholly alien and yet wholly welcome, a passion that in its finest and truest manifestations places the self on the lowest rung and places another on the highest in an act that seems nigh to worship. Indeed, it inspires worship, whether in ceremony or in song; for mankind's instinct to survive has always been natural, but love has always been divine.

God is love, not in an accidental sense of His actions but in an essential sense of His existence. Love is His very being, which is to say that it is His holiness, the very quality of His otherness that makes Him separate and unique and above us. For us, love is lovely but seemingly foreign to our natures, a transplanted essence from other realms; but God knows no such division in Himself. His persons dance so fully in love's purest reality and expression that we cannot help but call them one, for they are one. Love pulls together perfectly (Col. 3:14), binding all together in a harmonious whole by its continuous deference to another, to the beloved. Its deference is its unity: therein is the paradox and the beauty. Sin is separation (Matt. 7:23, 25:41) and isolation of the self (Is. 14:13-14): therein lies the terror and the reason for why holiness can never know sin, for sin cannot abide its communion. To be freed from sin, to be holy, is to be one with Love: not our love, our vapid, shallow, half-halting indifference masquerading as tolerance; but love fierce and faithful and everlasting. The love of God and the God who is love. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012