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Labor Day is in its twilight, which means summer is officially over. Technically, there are three more weeks. Less technically, this is now the third week of the school year, which by most standards means summer is long gone.

Geographically, I live in Florida, so summer is more of a state of mind that never really goes away. I mean, I’ll be wearing shorts and flip flops on days off for at least 3, maybe 4 more months, and then its Christmas.

All of this is a convoluted way of re-entering into regular blogging, thus ending my summer off. I usually take a month off, but I decided to make it 3 this year. There were several reasons for this. I needed break and I didn’t feel like blogging constitute the main ones. In addition, I had a fairly massive researcher project which took up any conceptual space I had for blogging. 1 In the end, I thought it best to just wait until I felt like blogging again, and well, here we are.

Since I haven’t had too much to say, I thought I’d give you a rundown of the summer. We’ll go month by month.

June

I had high hopes for June, but for some reason also decide to take a month off coffee after mildly abusing it all through May (8 shots a morning to be exact). All went well for the first few days and then I started having withdrawal symptoms. Mainly I felt really weird (i.e. dead inside) and had no motivation to do anything. One thing I didn’t feel was tired, but I just didn’t feel like doing anything (which was a problem given the aforementioned research project). I recanted giving up coffee and tried to get back to work.

In the midst of all this, my wife’s twin sister and husband came to visit and we had some quality family time (including a trip to Sea World). I made it back to a Rays game for the first time in 10 years, and also despite my defensive driving skills, got into a car accident. It was low impact, but also in the pouring rain. Not my fault, thankfully, but I needed some body work done. I surprised myself with how un-stressed I was through the entire deal. Not the best way to end the month, but then again, June wasn’t the best month.

July

Unlike June, July was much more what I envisioned for a summer break. I establish a bit of a routine and flow with the research project, made it back to another Rays game, and did some very spiritually formative reading.

Mid-month, I turned 30, and Ali threw me, what I thought would be a family dinner, but turned into a surprise party, which included my parents down from Knoxville. The next day, we got away for a beach weekend on the Gulf Coast and managed to not get incredibly sunburned.

By the end of the month, I was starting to feel energized for the fall, which is good because I had teacher orientation. My car finally got its body work done, and I had my second rental car experience. At the end of orientation, Ali and I went back to the beach for an anniversary weekend. We had originally planned on taking a stay-cation (which is more exciting when you already live in Orlando), but decided to just take a long weekend and sit around the beach. It was glorious.

August

Technically, the beach weekend overlaps into August since our anniversary is on the first, but because of our departure date, it was equal parts July and August. I had been frustrated at the beginning of the week because my car was not ready for our trip like the body shop had promised. So instead, we took Ali’s Sentra. The last time we had taken Ali’s car on a trip was when I totaled my first Camry in 2009. We were picking up a new one in Tennessee during our Christmas visit.

Ironically then, this turned out to be the farewell trip for Ali’s car since she totaled it two days after we got back. She was thankfully already braking before impact and wasn’t hurt at all. It was unfortunately for our insurance rates later this fall, her fault. More importantly, we were able to replace the car in under a week and now, hopefully done with car issues for a few months/years 2

Mid-August I would have started Ph.D studies at Southern, but because the orientation for that was the same week as orientation at the school I teach at, I deferred to January. It is only mildly disappointing and instead mostly a relief. I would have taken on too much and run myself into the ground otherwise. Now, I can get a flow going with classes I teach before adding in a class I’ll take.

As far as the rest of August goes, school has gone well in the opening weeks. I am enjoying it more so than this time last year. I’m finding myself enjoying teaching music more and more and have several new students for the fall. September-October are I think my favorite months, so for the moment at least, optimism is running pretty high. Football is basically a bonus at this point. But oh, how great a bonus it is!

Notes:

  1. If you’re curious, and you’re probably are, my summer job was creating book summaries of N. T. Wright’s Christian Origins and The Question of God, which effectively condensed the 3700+ page series into about 800-900 pages of money quotes that chart his argument. I think I’ve read enough Wright for the time being.
  2. I failed to mention earlier my car also had $800 worth of repairs that had to be done unrelated to my accident. At least my battery that died was under warranty.

Maybe since it’s summer now, I’ll just share videos the whole time. We’ll see!

The sinister turn at the end of the video points to the overall failure of Descartes’ philosophical method. While you can systematically doubt everything until you realize you can’t doubt that you’re the one doubting, making yourself the foundation of certainty ultimately leads to an inability to know anything about the world outside your own sense perceptions (as Locke and then Hume pointed out).

Descartes took us on an epistemological turn in modern philosophy, but unfortunately, it’s a dead end street.

McMaster_GeneralSeriesStanley E. Porter, ed., Those Who Can, Teach: Teaching as Christian Vocation (McMaster Divinity College Press General Series). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, August, 2013. 226 pp. Paperback, $25.00.

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Thanks to Wipf & Stock for the review copy!

I’ve realized recently that I need to do more practical reading. That used to be the bulk of what kind of reading I did, but seminary shifted me more toward the theoretical. There is of course value to both types of reading and balance is not necessarily the end goal. But there is something to be said for reading both practical application and for expanding your understanding. Since I’ve been more focused on knowledge acquisition, I’m taking a more practical turn. Also, now that it’s summer, I’m taking a more enjoyable turn and re-read several books for pleasure.

This brings us to the book at hand, Those Who Can, Teach: Teaching as Christian Vocation. Edited by Stanley Porter (who seems to edit everything), this collection of essays overlaps for the most part with a typical “Teaching in Christian Higher Education” class you might take in seminary. I took one of these classes my last semester (it was required), but it was hard to apply the material in the absence of an actual teaching position. Now that I’ve been teaching for a few years, this kind of thing is supremely practical.

Stan Porter’s opening essay is on developing a philosophy of education, something that every teacher has, whether it is clearly articulated or not. Included are essays the basics of class design like developing course objectives (Michael Knowles), a syllabus (Cynthia Westfall), and learning experiences (Mark Boda). Additional topics include the art of sculpting a lesson (Lee Beach), encouraging theological reflection in the classroom (Wendy Porter), and even how to transition from the doctoral program to the classroom (Steven Studebaker). Though not as applicable in my case, there are also two essays on teaching introductory Greek and Hebrew respectively. The final two essays are more reflections on teaching as a whole, focusing first on teaching within a Christian institution (Gordon Heath) and then integrating spirituality into your teaching (Phil Zylla).

As I’m preparing to take a break this summer and revisit and refine my courses, the wisdom in this book is just what I needed. My subjects are set, but they could be more focused in terms of objectives and learning outcomes. I anticipate using the insights from the authors in this book as I get my prep for next year underway next week. If you are currently a teacher, or anticipate being one soon, this book is worth checking out. Though not as exhaustive as the material you might get in a full blown class on the same subject, it is a nice compact manual on how to structure a class and teach it well. Even though it is focused more on teaching in higher education, rather than high school, the basics of structuring a course apply just the same. Teachers at any level then, who want to take their vocation seriously, will benefit from this book.

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Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before The Fall: Biblical Literalism and The Problem of Animal Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, February 2014. 197 pp. Paperback, $25.00.

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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

Since it was only 2 days ago, you might remember my first post on Death Before The Fall. My review was critical, but I did not do a good job of giving you a thorough summary before getting to those criticisms. Also, the author pushed back a good bit in the comments, suggesting in part that I needed to give the book a second reading. He also felt that readers needed to know the scope of his argument better. As a result, I decided I’ve give a more blow by blow account of the book here.

Chapter 1 starts with the creation accounts. Osborn provides his initial reading, raising the reader’s awareness that creation is nowhere described as “perfect” (29). Part of this is because creation is not entirely God’s work, but rather a collaborative effort between God and man (31). There is then a wildness to creation that in Osborn’s account, does not conflict with it being “very good.” (32) Neither is everything said in these accounts that we might wonder about. There are many “lacunae and unanswerable riddles that should prevent careful readers from making very many dogmatic statements of any kind” (35). Osborn points out that Adam must have known what death was in order for the prohibition and warning to not eat from the tree to be intelligible (36). This reading then provides an opening for understanding wildness and potentially death in nature to preceded the fall of man.

Chapter 2 begins with Osborn telling us “my reading of Genesis has taken the form it has because I have been writing from the start with questions of modern science and evolutionary biology very much in mind” (39). Though his goal is not reconciliation between Darwin and Moses, he does want to clear a space for questions about how the two relate. In order to do this, he must deconstruct a way of approaching the text of Scripture that cuts off questions from the start (and is also a bad hermeneutical practice). This approach, called “literalism” is the way young-earth creationists read Genesis. I would call it “wooden” literalism, or better “literalistic” since it is not an authentic and “literate” form of literal reading. Nevertheless, Osborn rightly notices how problematic it is, and he ties this way of reading Scripture to the epistemological approach of foundationalism (as his analysis unfolds, he is clearly thinking of strong foundationalism).

In chapter 3, Osborn compares this literalistic hermeneutic to scientism. Literalism, as he notes, is “scientism’s reactionary doppelganger and pale mimetic rival, enraptured by the very thing it seeks to resist” (58) This is why as he noted earlier, creationists are able to cite authors like “Dawkins and Dennett with approval to support their claim that we are faced with only two live options: fundamentalist-style creationism [young-earth creationism] or atheistic Darwinism” (46). In reality, there is a broad spectrum of positions that are neither militant young-earth creationism (what Osborn has in mind) nor full blown atheistic evolution.

Chapters 4 takes a side road into the nature of science. Kuhn features prominently and his work on paradigms in scientific thought. After summarizing Kuhn, Osborn points out that the question for young-earth creationist is whether or not theirs is the most “richly theory-generating scientific research program available,” to which is the answer is “resoundingly clear” (64). Osborn then says that “virtually all qualified scientists” agree that scientific creationism just can’t keep up with other, better paradigms (65).

Chapter 5 poses further problems to the literalist(ic) hermeneutic. Osborn also briefly discusses what kind of theological beliefs should animate scientific pursuits. He then summarizes the literalist position, seeing it as essentially a method rather than a doctrine (74-75). Joining up with others committed to this method creates a movement, and that movement can develop an enclave mentality which is the focus of chapter 6. That particular movement is fundamentalism, though Osborn points out not all literalists are fundamentalists and vice versa (76). Still, there is a lot of overlap, and rather than a doctrine of creation, they are trying to advance a dogma of creationism (78). This leads not only to a way of reading texts, but to political action as well (80). The end result is an understanding of hermeneutics and biblical authority that leaves no room for interpretive differences about passages like Genesis 1 (85).

Chapter 7 is where Osborn introduces his theory on the Gnostic Syndrome. It is also where he took the most offense to my summarization. Originally I said he “equates” people holding to a “literalistic” hermeneutic with a type of gnosticism (lower case “g”). I recanted the “equating” part, but here’s the rub. What Osborn is actually arguing is that when creationists (or fundamentalists) exhibit 12 different psychological traits in conjunction they have fallen prey to what he calls “Gnostic Syndrome,” which is not the same as “Gnosticism” (capital “G”). There is more to Osborn’s analysis (like what those 12 traits are), but I don’t think he realizes how rhetorically charged “gnostic” and “gnosticism” are in theological discourse. The illocutionary force of his locutionary claims about Gnostic Syndrome is that fundamentalists have potentially gnostic tendencies. This is not the same as saying they are “Gnostics” or that they are secretly propagating old school capital G “Gnosticism.” But if the 12 psychological traits in conjunction are full blown Gnostic Syndrome, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that exhibiting some of the traits within your movement is having gnostic tendencies, or “could fall prey to gnostic temptations” which is the way I reworded it in Tuesday’s post. I removed the part about “demonizing approaches he doesn’t like,” since a) “demonizing” was the wrong word, and b) the doesn’t like part is suggestive on my part and so inappropriate.

Chapter 8 is also a place Osborn pushed back on my brief comments. For space, I’ll focus on my problem with his treatment of Calvin. For both Calvin and Augustine, they are being used to support reading Genesis in a non-scientific way (which they did). But at the same time, they were both essentially young-earth creationists, but maybe not in the problematic way Osborn is addressing (but they still read the Bible literally).

As for Calvin, Osborn asserts that Calvin’s approach to reading Genesis was to not take it literally (102). He then quotes at length from Calvin’s Genesis commentary to support this point. But, Calvin doesn’t say not to take Genesis literally. I can see how Osborn could take it that way, but it is conflating the meaning of “literalistic” and “literal.” Calvin practiced authentically “literal” interpretation, meaning you read a passage according to its intended sense. “Literalistic” reading takes everything in a literal fashion whether the intended sense points in a more poetic direction or not. It is also obsessed with precision, and can try to force ancient texts to conform to a modern mindset. Calvin was rightly against this, but he wasn’t against literal reading in the proper sense. Not differentiating a sound literal interpretation from the unsound version practiced by fundamentalists and militant young earth creationists creates problems in Osborn’s analysis.

After the analysis, Osborn unfortunately brings up the Servetus affair. Osborn feels that Calvin failed “to consistently exemplify virtues of intellectual openness, toleration and respect for freedom of conscience within the body of Christ” (103). This is a simplistic and naive understanding of what was at stake (no pun intended) with what Servetus was teaching. Servetus was actively going to church to church with his denial of the deity of Christ and trying to shake things up. He had a reputation before even showing up in Geneva. It is not an issue of “intellectual openness, toleration and respect for freedom of conscience,” on an issue like that. Other things, certainly. Denying a fundamental confession of the faith, not so much.

He next discusses how Calvin was complicit in Servetus’ trial and execution, but it is presented as if Calvin was somehow the exception to the 16th century climate and relationship of church and state. It was not an ecclesiatical council that condemned Servetus but a civil one, meaning Calvin really had no say in the matter. He approved of the execution, which is unfortunate, but he did not stand responsible for it. In fact, he visited Servetus almost daily to urge him to repent. He wanted to see Servetus repent and be welcomed into full fellowship. But if he would not, heresy was a capital crime at that point in history, and the penalty was death. Calvin approving of the death penalty is not an indication of his close-mindedness. Hence my originally terse comment that it is unfortunate the Servetus affair was brought into the discussion. It doesn’t make the point Osborn wants it to make and so is irrelevant to the overall discussion.

The final chapter of part one is where Osborn makes a push for a postfoundationalist epistemology as a way of navigating between modernist style foundationalism and postmodernist style antifoundationalism (119). This is a much bigger issue that can be reasonably discussed in a 9 page chapter, so that probably feeds into why I found it less than convincing. But I’ve read longer treatments elsewhere and didn’t find those convincing either. It was a necessary step for his overall argument, but that supports my earlier contention that this book should have been longer. It is true that strong foundationalism and literalistic readings of Scripture go hand in hand, so if you can undermine the philosophical basis, the Jenga tower falls (an image Osborn uses earlier in the book to describe the theology of the literalists, 45)

The second part of the book is much shorter (as noted earlier). The first chapter presents three literalist dilemmas. The first is the stasis dilemma arising from the problem of living creatures procreating and filling the earth. In a deathless world, a stasis would eventually be achieved and then no new births would happen (128). The second is the deceiver dilemma, resulting from the belief God might have created a universe with only apparent age. The third is the divine curse dilemma, which asks what we are to do with animals that are irreducibly predatory (134). For readers who attribute all death to the curse after Adam’s fall, there are three possibilities for explaining these animals, and Osborn examines all and find them wanting.

This leads to a discussion of C. S. Lewis’ theodicy in The Problem of Pain (chapter 11). He sees Lewis’ cosmic conflict idea as recovering a form of biblical interpretation from Jewish faith, namely, the Midrash (147). It provides room for ambiguity, mystery and even poetry in a worldview account (148). Osborn in the end doesn’t find it entirely convincing, but continues on to examine the book of Job for insights into the created order (chapter 12). He notes that it is hard to find evidence that the biblical writers conceived of animal suffering as a mark of sin (150). He then briefly (5 pages) explores wisdom from Job on living in a world of suffering. Rather than criticizing his exegesis here (he is mostly relying on commentators), I’ll just say I think this chapter would have been much better had it been longer and more commentators on the purpose and meaning of Job had been brought into the discussion.

The next chapter uses kenosis to provide an explanation for how God self-limits in creation so that creatures can have freedom, even if that freedom results in evil. As he puts it, “in the same way we speak of moral evil as resulting from human free will, we should now somewhat analogously speak of natural evil and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other” (161-162). He notes that this might be hard for “believers in conservative wings of the Reformed tradition to accept” (161), and I suppose it would if it were the correct account of God’s providence. That’s a different discussion entirely, and I’ve got 2 books to review that cover it, so I won’t go there here.

The final chapter connects animal ethics and Sabbath rest, and is probably the one part of the book where Osborn’s Seventh Day Adventism comes to the forefront. I found his reflections on Sabbath keeping interesting. Personally, I take a weekly Sabbath, and it happens to be on Saturday at the moment, but it has also been on Friday and Monday. Sometime it’s on Sunday. The point is to take a weekly day of rest and worship, but the particular day doesn’t matter (Osborn would disagree, hence Seventh Day Adventism). The chapter then ends with an environmentalist plea, which is not entirely misplaced, but because of the constraints of space, is not as convincing as it might have been had it been more fully developed.

I think the bottom line is that this book tries to do too much in too little space. There is a broad range of issues covered in roughly 175 pages. Ideally, Osborn’s case could have been better made in either a 300 page book, or two separate books under 150 pages. I think the compacted space hurts Osborn’s analysis. Nuance is needed in the midst of careful analysis. Osborn provides that in some places, but it isn’t evenly distributed across the book. Because there is such a broad range of topics more space is needed to really make the case Osborn wants to make. I’m sure that in some places he could have said more and made the case better and I realize that sometimes editors make choices for you in terms of space. If that’s what happened, I think it made the final product weaker than it could have been.

With issues relating to origins and reading Genesis, there is a lot of rhetorical and emotional energy. If nothing else, my first take at a review revealed that problem. When you say things too concisely, even if you have good reasons supporting your point, it doesn’t go over so well. I thought it best to go back and expand in another post and make Osborn’s argument clearer and nuance my critical comments. Part of me wishes I had just done this to begin with, but I usually don’t like to make reviews over 1000 words. At least now you can compare this blow by blow overview to my original comments and decide for yourself whether I initially summarized well or not. I definitely lacked nuance here and there, but my main criticism still stands. Hopefully in the future we can see a revised and expanded edition of this book, in which case, most of my criticisms might be eliminated.

9780062218339_p0_v5_s260x420Every now and then, ideas I have for blog posts indirectly relate to larger online conversations. Even before this week, I was planning on talking about this chapter from Think Like A Freak. Given the discussions I’ve seen on Twitter (as a result of blog posts and movements in evangelicalism), I hope you find this useful.

As a bit of background, Think Like A Freak is a kind of practical how-to counterpart to Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, books I’d recommend you add to your summer reading, if you haven’t read them (and even if it’s been a while). In those books, authors Steven Levitt (a University of Chicago economist) and Stephen Dubner (an award winning writer) explain the results of their research to dig beneath the surface of cultural trends and phenomena. In this book, they explain some basic principles for how to think and approach problems they way they did in their books.

The second to last chapter is titled “How to Persuade People Who Don’t Want to Be Persuaded,” and it is a brief goldmine of practical advice if you spend time on the internet (particularly Twitter). Especially in light of recent online discussions, here’s some important tips to keep in mind if you’re truly trying to persuade people.

Understand how hard persuasion will be – and why

Especially if you are having a discussion with people who are intellectual, keep this in mind. Persuasion (which is different than proving a point) requires you to move someone from thinking one way about a subject to thinking differently. If you’re talking to smart people (or people who think they are smart), this is even more difficult. As Levitt and Dubner point out:

Smart people simply have more experience with feeling they are right, and therefore have greater confidence in their knowledge, whatever side of an issue they’re on. But being confident you are right is not the same as being right (171).

Further, smarter people have probably thought about the issue more (if they’re arguing about it), and “when someone is heavily invested in his or her opinion, it is inevitably hard to change the person’s mind” (171-172).

So how do you deal with this? Don’t assume that a person’s position is based on pure fact and logic. If it were, all you would need to do is deconstruct their position logically and they should be persuaded. If that doesn’t happen, then it means there are deeper ideological and possibly emotional factors playing into their position. A negative way of framing it (which will get you nowhere) is to call it some variants of this “herd thinking.” That certainly plays a part, but pointing it out will undermine your efforts.

It’s not me; it’s you

Keep in mind that persuasion is difficult because it does not rest on logic alone. This points to the fact that a lot depends on how you present the argument. As Levitt and Dubner explain,

Whenever you set out to persuade someone, remember that you are merely the producer of the argument. The consumer has the only vote that counts. Your argument may be factually indisputable and logically airtight but if it doesn’t resonate for the recipient, you won’t get anywhere. (173)

In other words, you have to keep your audience in view. If your goal is persuasion, then your argument will look much different than if your goal is merely to prove the other person’s position wrong. In the evangelical world, we see an awful lot of the latter and much less of the former. The latter is preaching to the choir while the former is actually capable of producing dialogue.

Don’t pretend your argument is perfect

As Levitt and Dubner say, “Show us a ‘perfect’ solution and we’ll show you our pet unicorn” (173). The same goes for theological argumentation. “If you want your argument to be taken seriously, you’d do well to admit the potential downsides,” Levitt and Dubner point out (175). Likewise, you’d do well to acknowledge tensions and potential problems in your espoused theological positions. That’s not the same as admitting they are wrong. Rather, it’s acknowledging your creatureliness when it comes to what you know and how you know it. We worship a perfect savior, but have no perfect arguments.

Acknowledge the strengths of your opponent’s argument

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, why lend credence to the other position?

One reason is that the opposing argument almost certainly has value – something you can learn from and use to strengthen your own argument. This may seem hard to believe since you are so invested in your argument, but remember: we are blind to our blindness

Furthermore, an opponent who feels his argument is ignored isn’t likely to engage with you at all. He may shout at you and you may shout back at him, but it is hard to persuade someone with whom you can’t even hold a conversation (177, bold added).

It isn’t likely that the person you are trying to convince is articulating a value-less position. There is probably some aspect of the truth in what they are saying, otherwise it wouldn’t gain any traction. If their argument was 100% worthless, no one would listen or care. If people are listening and caring, try to find out what is resonating and what has value that you can affirm before moving to your critique.

Keep the insults to yourself

You may name-call if you’d like, but it will not get you anywhere if you’re trying to be persuasive. Case in point, if you label someone a heretic (rightly or wrongly so), you’ve just made it very unlikely they will listen to your argument and will probably double-down on their position. Once you start using unflattering labels, you’ve decided implicitly that you’re not interested in persuasion. Here’s how Levitt and Dubner put it:

If you are hoping to damage opponents’ mental health, go ahead and tell them how inferior or dim-witter or nasty they are. But even if you are certifiably right on every point, you should not think for a minute that you will eve be able to persuade them. Name-calling will make you an enemy, not an ally, and if that is your objective, then persuasion is probably not what you were after in the first place (181).

Why you should tell stories

Lastly, we need more storytelling in our persuasive efforts. In reality, it is the most powerful form of persuasion, and Levitt and Dubner use the story of Nathan and King David to illustrate its power. A story, keep in mind, is not the same as an anecdote, which something that happened to you this one time. Stories, as Levitt and Dubner say, fill out the picture and use “data, statistical or otherwise, to portray a sense of magnitude” (182). Stories are powerful tools in teaching and capture attention better than a syllogism (however accurate and precise the latter may be).

In the end, whether we follow these steps will show whether we are interested in persuasion or proving our point. They are not mutually exclusive. You can have the latter without the former. But, you cannot have the former without the latter. If we believe our positions on important matters, theological or otherwise, are true, then we should hope to persuade as many people are we can. But that requires much more than presenting a sound argument. It may require more work, but in the end, it should be something we all aspire to in our conversations about things that count.