New Publication on the Ethics of Virtual Reality Technology

Last week an article of mine, entitled “The Ethics of Virtual Reality Technology: Social Hazards and Public Policy Recommendations,” was published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. In the article I discuss a number of issues related to virtual reality technology that are of serious moral concern and which, I argue, warrant the implementation of industry regulations. Here is the article abstract:

This article explores four major areas of moral concern regarding virtual reality (VR) technologies. First, VR poses potential mental health risks, including Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder. Second, VR technology raises serious concerns related to personal neglect of users’ own actual bodies and real physical environments. Third, VR technologies may be used to record personal data which could be deployed in ways that threaten personal privacy and present a danger related to manipulation of users’ beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. Finally, there are other moral and social risks associated with the way VR blurs the distinction between the real and illusory. These concerns regarding VR naturally raise questions about public policy. The article makes several recommendations for legal regulations of VR that together address each of the above concerns. It is argued that these regulations would not seriously threaten personal liberty but rather would protect and enhance the autonomy of VR consumers.

As for the regulations I recommend in the article, they include (1) a standardized rating system for VR technologies, (2) minimum age requirements for some VR products, (3) informational and warning labels, (4) public disclosure mandates, and, depending upon the degree to which VR technology merges with social networks, (5) “no share” laws regarding user data gleaned by VR companies.

To this day I have yet to experience VR technology first hand. This avoidance was not entirely intentional, but now I am pleased that I finished this research project before doing so, as I was somewhat wary of how the experience might bias my thinking about the subject. I am happy to say that all of the arguments and recommendations I make in the piece are based entirely on the research data I explored. But now that the article is published, I’m eager to do give VR a try. Anyone out there want to invite me to join them for a trip to a virtual world? I’m ready to don a headset and make the plunge!


Seneca on Anger

This semester in my Principles of Ethics class I’ve been incorporating some new readings, including several works by the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca.  A lot of his stuff is not only insightful but also practically beneficial, not to mention beautifully written.  His essay “On Anger” is an excellent case in point.  Personally, I think he goes too far in suggesting that all anger should be avoided, but I think we all can agree that much, if not most, human anger is counter-productive.  And we all would benefit from improving in the area of anger management, especially in these days of division and rancor.  Below I have highlighted some of Seneca’s thoughts on the subject which you may find helpful.  (All quotes below are from the Oxford edition of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays, translated by John Davie.)

Why Anger Should be Avoided

  1. Anger inflicts harm on oneself: anger makes one a prisoner of one’s own passion. It is more painful to 516fhtlbDsL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_surrender to anger than to resist it: “every sense of grievance grows to self-torture” (32). “The anger I feel is more likely to do me harm than any wrong you may do me” (40).
  2. It is a sign of greatness to be resistant to all disturbances: “a lofty mind, always composed and established in a peaceful location, suppresses all that produces anger, and so is moderate, well-ordered, and earns respect; none of these things will you find in an angry man” (23).
  3. Anger turns men into savages: Gaius Caesar and many other leaders have allowed their anger to the most extreme cruelties, which extends even to fury on entire nations. Anger begets “every sort of evil, fire and sword. Trampling shame underfoot, it defiles men’s hands with murder . . . and leaves no place free from crime” (50).

Anger is Susceptible to our Control

  1. Many others have pardoned worse sins than you’ve suffered: People have forgiven criminal offenses, so “should I not pardon laziness, carelessness, or chattering?” (39). Even Harpagus controlled his anger when he was forced to eat his own sons, which the Persian king had killed, cooked, and served to him.
  2. You are able to tolerate other forms of irresponsibility, such as “a sick man’s lunatic behavior, a madman’s crazed words, or children’s petulant blows. . . . What difference does it make what fault it is that makes a person behave irresponsibly?” (40).

Guidelines for Avoiding Anger

  1. Take note of the things that provoke you: “It is an advantage to know one’s illness and to destroy its strength before it has scope to grow” (27).
  2. Use humor as a defense: “Let most affronts be turned into amusement and jest.”
  3. Resist the tendency to suspicion and exaggeration: “Very many men manufacture complaints, either by suspecting what is untrue or by exaggerating the unimportant. Anger often comes to us, but more often we come to it” (28).
  4. Put yourself in others’ shoes: Usually anger results from an “unjustified estimate of our own worth” and “an unwillingness to put up with treatment we would happily inflict on others” (28).
  5. Remember that everyone does foolish things: “Even the wisest men do wrong.” “No one is so ripe in judgment that his self-possession is not driven by misfortune into some heated action” (39). “All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious—why disguise with euphemism this sore that infects us all? All of us are corrupt.” (40).
  6. Remember your mortality: Resisting anger will make you more lovable. Better to “spend the brief span we have left in rest and peace” (50). Anyway, the one who offended you will die one day, whether or not you burn with anger toward him.  “Soon we will spit out this little spirit. In the meantime, while we have breath, while we are among our fellow men, let us behave as men should; let us not be a cause of fear or danger to anyone; . . . and let us tolerate with a great mind our short-lived misfortunes” (52).

Snapshots

Brief comments on film by Amy.
Some old, some new.  Domestic films and foreign too.

La La Land — I spent months avoiding conversation in which people were even casually referencing this movie because Jim and I missed seeing it in the theaters and I hated the idea of anything being ruined given that so many people were telling me it was an amazing movie. We finally got to see it as a family and while Andrew was disappointed in “all the singing” (apparently we failed to warn him beforehand that it was a musical) it was a great experience…until it wasn’t. I don’t believe in spoilers so 00d4c126-292e-39bb-92b1-9ad46ee4e403I will just say that everything that works to make this movie enchanting culminated in me leaving the theater more angry than I think I have ever been upon exiting a movie that I knew was good. Script, acting, design. All masterfully done. Which is why I am so angry. Still. For the most part my anger centers around the writer’s choice of endings, but there were also plausibility flaws that just annoyed me. Again, don’t want to ruin it for anyone especially since others didn’t have the same reactions as I did. Definitely worth seeing. Just be prepared to self-medicate on some Rocky Road ice cream and good old-fashioned venting afterwards. See it for yourselves and then we can talk.

Manchester by the Sea — Wowsers. Where to even begin to describe this film. All adjectives seem to fall far short. This was one of those films that wiggles its way into your brain and heart and has you thinking and talking about it for days and weeks afterwards. Unbelievably powerful performances from Casey Affleck and the rest of the cast. Seriously, can we just all agree to blacklist Ben in favor of Casey for everything except Batman? Besides the acting, one of the aspects of this film which impressed me the most was the editing. The story is not 65dae0a7-15ea-397f-a610-b2f0e7f6c700presented in chronological order, but in a way that builds suspense without being a distraction. The language is intense throughout and scenes of teenage sexuality, though brief and more disconcertedly awkward than erotic in this case, strike me as entirely unnecessary. Emotionally draining, but I highly recommend this one.

Dr. Strange — Once we got over Benedict Cumberbatch speaking with an American accent, the family really enjoyed watching Dr. Strange together. I must confess a weakness for all things Marvel with a few notable exceptions, but thankfully Dr. Strange was no such exception. Witty but heartfelt, entertaining but also thought-provoking. Well worth the seemingly hundreds of dollars we spent on popcorn and drinks for the kids.

Gleason — I have been wanting to watch this documentary for a while and finally got a chance one night recently while babysitting our newborn puppies. Former NFL player Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (or “Lou Gehrig’s disease”) in 2011 and Gleason chronicles the highs and lows of Steve’s and his wife Michel’s journey through treatment, family dynamics and life in the public eye. While Steve is certainly to be commended for his persistence and his desire to bring awareness to the struggles faced by those with ALS, what I appreciated most about this film was his and Michel’s willingness to be authentic and real regarding the challenges they faced. Filmed over several years, you rejoice as they welcome their first child, Rivers, into the world while simultaneously your heart breaks as Steve loses his mobility and eventually his ability to speak. A story that is both tragic and inspiring, I would imagine that Gleason has to be a source of comfort to those facing similar trials and to anyone who desires to see the word “hero” redefined.

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13 Reasons Why: So much has been written about this series that I will keep this review brief. Don’t watch this show. In the interest of staying relevant, I began this show which, as I am sure most of you have heard, revolves around the suicide of Hannah Baker, a newly transferred high school student who encounters one bully and tragedy after another. I was appalled at the exploitation of this character’s pain not to mention the gratuitous portrayal of sexual assault. One of the most disturbing messages of this show is that being a parent who deeply cares about your child and attempts to remain connected with them during their teenage years is pointless. Truly a tragic show.

Stranger Things: The Spiegel clan, minus Maggie who is easily frightened by everything but sharks and the Beatles, gobbled this series up. The only downside was having to wait for everyone to be free in order to watch together, but it was well worth the scheduling headache. Well-cast, though Winona Ryder as a struggling single mom did take a little getting used to, this science fiction series set in 1983 was completely addictive. Can’t wait for the second season to come out in October and should probably start coordinating everyone’s schedules now.

Sherlock Season 4: Not sure what to say about the latest season of one of my favorite shows. The kids and I eagerly watched the previous episodes in order to whet our appetites for the latest season. Think our time would have been better spent rewatching our favorites from past seasons rather than watching Season 4. Besides being extremely dark and sometimes confusing, it felt a lot like a remix of previous storylines with the characters merely being shifted around. While we certainly would sit down to watch a Season 5, it will be with an edge of skepticism. Once bitten twice shy, my dear Watson.

Abstract: This is a great series for anyone interested in the arts. Beautifully done, it brings together the art of filmmaking and the 3-D arts brilliantly. Featuring world renowned artists including illustrators, architects, and more, you don’t have to be “artsy” to get drawn in. An excellent viewing experience for the whole family.


The Saddest Songs I’ve Ever Heard

Recently it occurred to me that its been a long time since I’ve heard a new song that is really sad. I’ve encountered plenty of new music that is perverse or aims to be shocking, but not anything that I would categorize as truly sad. And by that I mean the kind of song that has the capacity to create a genuinely sorrowful mood through its lyric and, of course, a melodic structure that reinforces the lyrical theme. This got me to thinking about the saddest songs I know, so here is my top ten list of saddest songs. Obviously, this sort of thing is somewhat subjective. A song that makes me sad might not hit you the same way. But there is also an objective component—attributes which explain why certain songs tend to prompt a melancholy response in listeners. I’ve highlighted some of those features in many of the songs in my list.

But first, here are ten honorable mentions:

  1. Both Sides Now by Judy Collins – A poetic, somewhat stream of consciousness reflection on how personal maturation inevitably involves loss and the discovery of one’s limits. Collins’ vocal is direct and plaintive, supported by rich orchestration. Joni Mitchell’s more spare and intimate original version is also wonderful.
  1. Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin – The ultimate song about parental regret over time and opportunities squandered. Our kids grow so fast, and before you know it they’re off to college. Not only that, but the song captures the sorrow of seeing your own faults recapitulated in your own kids: “…and as I hung up the phone it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.” Ouch.
  1. Those Were the Days by Mary Hopkin – A reworking of an old Russian melody, matched to a nostalgic lyric, Hopkin’s vocal performance is both precise and mournful. The history of art is replete with the pangs of sorrow over human mutability and our inevitable demise. This song captures and conveys that sorrow as well as anything I’ve heard.
  1. Yesterday When I Was Young by Roy Clark – Another song about nostalgic regret. Clark’s vocal performance isn’t particularly great, but the lyrical genius makes up for that. For some other versions with more compelling vocals, check out this version by Glen Campbell (with scrolling lyrics) and this more upbeat arrangement by Dusty Springfield.
  1. I Started a Joke by the Bee Gees – The Bee Gees are most well known for their Saturday Night Fever era disco stuff, but for a decade prior to that they recorded numerous classics, including this tear-jerker sung by Robin Gibb. The Wallflowers interpretation of the song is also excellent.
  1. Long, Long Time by Linda Ronstadt – If anyone was born to sing, it was Ronstadt. She made a career out of making covers of songs that put the originals to shame. This song is brilliantly composed, capturing the feeling of resignation over love lost or never known, and Ronstadt delivers an exquisite performance to match, supported by guitar, harpsichord, and a beautifully scored string section.
  1. Alone Again by Gilbert O’Sullivan – This one is a musical gut punch, as the singer contemplates suicide after being stood up at the altar. From there he proceeds to reflecting on the death of his parents and questioning the mercy and goodness of God. Perhaps the best presentation of the problem of evil in song.
  1. Mr. Bojangles by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Written and originally recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version is deservedly the standard, with an understated vocal and perfectly stacked instrumentation. The fact that the song is based on an actual person that Walker met in New Orleans adds to its emotive power.
  1. Mother by John Lennon – John Lennon’s father left him when he was a small boy, and his mother was tragically killed when John was 17. Such pain is not fully expressible, but this song probably comes as close as possible to doing that. The desperation in Lennon’s voice during the closing refrain is almost unbearable.
  1. Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland – The signature song in a film whose theme is finding a way home, it captures that unique sorrow inherent to the human condition. We are all longing for home, our heavenly home “over the rainbow.” I’ve listened to this song thousands of times over half a century, and I still tear up sometimes when I hear it. For an equally melancholic rendition in a completely different arrangement, check out this version by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole.

Snapshots

Brief comments on film by Amy.
Some old, some new.  Domestic films and foreign too.

Hacksaw RidgeJim and I made the unfortunate decision to watch this movie as part of a double date with friends. The company was excellent. The movie powerful. Just not exactly a fun night out on the town given the graphic nature of the violence portrayed. Hacksaw Ridge is the compelling and awe-inspiring story of Private Desmond T. Doss, played convincingly by Andrew Garfield. It’s one of those movies that you immediately start fact checking as soon as you leave the theater. In this case, Doss’ story of courage and commitment to his religious convictions is as impressive if not more so than what is portrayed on screen. The onscreen violence of WWII is extremely graphic, but it serves only to highlight Doss’ bravery and that of the men with whom he served. Vince Vaughn seemed out of place particularly in the battle scenes as Sergeant Howell, but Garfield’s performance was impressive especially as a Brit given that Doss’ was southern. The highlight of the movie for me was the last few minutes which featured the actual men involved. True heroes whose story should inspire us all.

Take ShelterWatching this film was my attempt to wean myself off binge-watching episodes of House Hunters International and Agatha Christie’s Poirot and get back to more serious films. It was also an opportunity to watch an independent film with the kids and strengthen their critical thinking skills regarding film. Despite Sam imagesand Bailey opting out and Andrew falling asleep halfway through, I think the attempt was fairly successful. Curtis LaForce and his apocalyptic visions of impending doom reminded me just how good non-Hollywood movies can be and had us all, except those of us who were snoring, on the edge of our seat, half-fearing, half-hoping Curtis wasn’t crazy for stocking up on gas masks and canned foods. In a movie full of good performances, my hat goes off especially to Jessica Chastain for participating in a non-blockbuster film which I am sure entailed a significant drop in her usual paycheck. She blended in with the lesser known actors flawlessly and delivered a heartfelt and perfectly under-stated performance.

Split — Anticipation is a funny emotion in that is rather more of fruit salad of emotion than one pure feeling; a not entirely enjoyable combination of excitement and dread, hope and fear, like a pleasant mixture of berries with the occasional piece of mushy cantaloupe mixed in. Ever since the dreadful disappointments of The Happening and The Last Airbender, looking forward to the release of an M. Knight Shyamalan film has filled me with that fruit salad feeling. I don’t want to get too excited for fear of being let down, but I also want to continue to have faith in and support one of my favorite directors. Having enjoyed The Visit, I hoped Split wouldn’t disappoint and it most certainly did not. Terrifying, heart-breaking, and filled with a powerful message about good and evil, Split is Shyamalan all grown up. The film does mark a departure from Shyamalan’s usual Hitchcockian technique of allowing the viewers’ imaginations to fill in the gaps of his restrained depictions of violence and is not for the faint at heart when it comes to very brief, but disturbing nonetheless, moments of horror. James McAvoy was Split_(2017_film)brilliant and if I met him in person I would tell him so…over my shoulder as I ran away in fright. The ending, no spoilers, left me panting for more.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 — Time for another confession: it only took a preview featuring a talking space raccoon for me to say “no thanks” to Guardians of the Galaxy. So when GG2 came out, I took little notice. But when your 17 year old son asks, begs and pleads to go to see a movie as a family, you’ve got to do it…even if it features a sarcastic, weapon toting trash panda. And in this case, I was rewarded with not only a fun familial night, but also an entertaining flick with a killer soundtrack. In the tradition of Star Wars, GG2 didn’t try to get overly complicated with it’s storyline, focusing more on character development than complex plots and made up scientific jargon. Zoe Saldana is not one of my favorite actresses, but the always charming Chris Pratt more than makes up for her rather stiff and snooty performance. Not a must see, but if you find yourself looking for a good chuckle with the kids this summer, this is a good chuckle inducing flick to choose.

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Handmaid’s Tale: At the recommendation of a feminist leaning friend, I read the Margaret Atwood book on which this series is based several years ago. While not in agreement with the author’s perspective, I did find the book to be well-written and thought provoking. Not sure I can say the same for the Hulu produced series. After watching several episodes, I decided that I had seen enough. I admire Elizabeth Moss who plays the main character Offred, a “handmaid” in a country controlled by an elite but barren class who force the few remaining fertile women to bear children for them. The makers of this series clearly have a message to convey regarding our current political and social climate. I found many articles linking the show to protests against attempts to limit access to abortion and even an instance in Texas where women dressed as handmaids in order to protest pro-life legislation. I entirely endorse the message that freedom of speech is essential and that those who seek to control language and impose their narrow beliefs onto others should be thwarted. But tragically, the writers of Handmaid’s Tale and those who identify its totalitarian regime with our present administration seem oblivious to their own intolerance. One article I read claimed that we are living in a pre-Gilead state and I can’t say I disagree though I fear this type of show attempts to silence the opposition rather than promote public discourse.

Anne with an “E”: The best thing I can say about this Netflix produced series is that it inspired me to finally read Anne of Green Gables which I am thoroughly enjoying. I appreciate the attempt to bring a little more reality to the story of orphan Anne Shirley and her adoption by spinster Marilla and her bachelor brother Matthew, but something is lost in the addition of realism. I have struggled to put my finger on exactly what that loss is. Perhaps in making the circumstances more real, the writers have made the characters less so. They feel much more like caricatures than the original production starring Megan Follows and entirely lack the warmth or complexity of the book. In attempting to give context to Anne as an orphan and outsider, Anne with an “E” misplaces much of Anne as a person. Disappointing for sure but not enough so that I didn’t watch the whole series.

Father Brown: Speaking of disappointing series that still had me watching every episode . . .  G.K. Chesterton was a genius and one of the most quotable Christian writers of the 20th century. I am pretty sure he is not just spinning but doing cartwheels in his grave at the use of his beloved Father Brown as the mouthpiece of all things politically correct in this apologetic for relativism. Quirky characters and lots of murder plots to unravel can’t make up for the jarring anachronisms as Father Brown, a Catholic priest, repeatedly mistakes complacency for compassion. It should be illegal to appropriate the works of such a devout person of faith like Chesterton and twist their characters for your own devices. Go find your own characters to speak for you and leave those who would surely oppose your viewpoint alone.


New Publication on Open-mindedness

Recently, another article of mine on the virtue of open-mindedness was published, this one in Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel. It is entitled “Contest and Indifference: Two Models of Open-Minded Inquiry.” The link takes you to (a read-only version of) the entire article. Here is the abstract:

While open-mindedness as an intellectual trait has been recognized for centuries, Western philosophers have not explicitly endorsed it as a virtue until recently. This acknowledgment has been roughly coincident with the rise of virtue epistemology. As with any virtue, it is important to inform contemporary discussion of open-mindedness with reflection on sources from the history of philosophy. Here I do just this. After reviewing two major accounts of open-mindedness, which I dub “Contest” and “Indifference,” I explore some ideas pertinent to the subject in four philosophers spanning eighteen centuries: Sextus Empiricus, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Paul Feyerabend. Despite their varying concerns and terminology, their contributions may valuably inform current reflection on the virtue of open-mindedness, whether construed in terms of the Contest or Indifference account.

This article is the product of research I did while a fellow at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought a couple of years ago. It is my third scholarly publication on open-mindedness (along with articles in Sophia and Theory and Research in Education). My long-term aim is to publish a monograph on the topic. It is certainly an area where such work is needed, both because there are very few book-length treatments of open-mindedness and because in the West, especially the United States, genuine open-mindedness is an endangered intellectual virtue. High-pitched, dogmatic and even abusive rhetoric seem to be carrying the day in our culture. We could benefit from a large dose of this intellectual virtue, in the form of either version of open-mindedness that I discuss in my piece—contest or indifference. I would prefer the former, but let’s take what we can get!


Is Evangelism Biblical?

Among evangelical Christians there is a widespread, even dogmatic belief that every Christian has a duty to evangelize unbelievers, that is, to explicitly share the Gospel with them in order to persuade them to come to belief. If you’re an evangelical Christian reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Well, yes, of course Christians have a duty to do that.” But is this really true? Are there any biblical grounds for thinking that every Christian has a moral obligation to evangelize? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think there is a shred of biblical evidence for this.

Now let me explain my claim a bit by clarifying what I am not saying. First, I am not saying that Christians do not have a biblical duty to be prepared to intelligently explain the Gospel when asked.   This much is clear in the apostle Peter’s directive to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Clearly, Peter is saying that all Christians have a duty to be ready to explain the Gospel and even provide some apologetic grounding for their beliefs. But notice that this is an injunction to respond to those who inquire, not a command to actively initiate such conversations in order to persuade others.

Secondly, I am not suggesting that it is unbiblical or morally wrong for individual Christians to do evangelism. In fact, it is overwhelmingly clear in Scripture that well-planned initiatives to persuade people of the Gospel are appropriate and wise in various circumstances. This is obvious from Jesus’ sending out his disciples two-by-two to spread the good news (Luke 9:1-6 and Luke 10:1-11) and numerous instances in the book of Acts where Christian leaders evangelized (Acts 5:42; Acts 8:4-13, etc.). However, note that these are specific initiatives that do not imply a universal duty to evangelize, though they might support the notion that Christian church leaders have a duty to 4242566_origevangelize. In fact, the apostle Paul confesses that “when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). But in that passage, Paul is speaking for himself and perhaps, by extension, other apostles, as the context of that passage is Paul’s defense of his rights as an apostle.

Thirdly, I am not suggesting that the Church, as a body of believers, does not have a duty to evangelize unbelievers. Clearly, evangelism is an obligation of the Church. For as Paul says elsewhere, “How . . . can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15). Moreover, there is the Great Commission which is given by Jesus himself: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20). But while these passages imply that the Church should spread the Gospel, neither of these passages imply that each individual Christian has a duty to bear this burden. And to suggest that the former implies the latter is to commit the logical fallacy of division (illicitly reasoning from an attribute of a whole to that of its parts).

So by rejecting the notion of a universal Christian duty to evangelize I am not suggesting that evangelism is wrong, that Christians need not be prepared to defend the Gospel, nor even that the Christian church has no duty to evangelize. I am suggesting that evangelism is a crucial function of the Church that should be intentionally carried out by those who are especially well-prepared—and I would say specially gifted—to perform. I would compare the gift of evangelism to such spiritual gifts as prophecy, teaching, and church leadership (1 Cor. 12:8-10 and Rom. 12:6-8). Such are crucial functions within the church, but it would be absurd to suggest that every Christian has a duty to prophesy, teach, and be a church leader. No, as Paul says, not all members of the body of Christ have the same function (Rom. 12:4). Similarly, although evangelism is an important task of the church, not everyone is called or properly gifted to perform that task. (For more on this idea, check out Bryan Stone’s book Evangelism After Christendom.)

Yet the myth of a universal Christian duty to evangelize is extremely popular among evangelicals these days. Given the way that some Christian leaders emphasize and even guilt trip congregations about it, it is tempting to classify this as a modern pharisaism, a way in which Christian leaders have bound the consciences of Christians, effectively adding to the law. I am not exaggerating when I say that I’ve heard more sermons proclaiming a supposed universal Christian duty of evangelism than I have heard proclaim any of the Ten Commandments as moral duties. What is wrong with this picture?

So where did this idea come from? If there are no biblical grounds for an individual mandate to evangelize, then why is this misconception so popular among evangelicals? In short, I believe it is a consequence of Western, particularly American capitalistic thinking as applied to Christian public life. In other words, I think the idea resulted more from market and sales thinking than from Scripture. This is my best guess anyway. (For more on the connection between evangelism and marketing, see the Kenneson and Street book Selling out the Church.)

Speaking of history, consider a final point that should prompt doubt in the minds of even the most stalwart defenders of a universal duty to evangelize. So far as I can tell, none of the greatest Christian theologians and spiritual leaders ever taught this doctrine. I challenge you to locate it in any of the early church fathers (St. Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, Augustine), the great medieval theologians (Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, Thomas Aquinas), the Reformation era theologians (Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Teresa of Avila), Revivalist theologians (John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield) and the greatest 20th century theological minds (Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and C.S. Lewis). That’s 25 of the greatest Christian minds—and certainly inclusive of the greatest Christian theological minds—in world history. Yet apparently none of them believed that there is a universal Christian duty to do evangelism. Now if that teaching was a biblical one, I think its safe to say that most, if not all, of these folks would have picked up on that. Right? So what gives?

If you’re a conservative evangelical, you’re probably bothered by what you’ve just read. But my plea to you is to honestly reflect on whether your view is actually biblical. I would also urge you to consider the force of the fact that there is no evidence that any of the greatest theological minds in history agree with you. That fact alone should give any Christian serious pause.

Now, finally, why does this matter? Even if we did get this one wrong, you may ask, isn’t it better to err in the direction of zeal than complacency when it comes to evangelizing others? I don’t think so, and here are three reasons why. First, it is wrong and harmful to bind people’s consciences. Legalism is deadly for Christian faith and spiritual formation. Secondly, the myth of a universal duty to evangelize has undoubtedly compromised the power of the Church’s witness, since this myth has had the effect of prompting incompetent evangelizing which poorly represents the Gospel. Thirdly, this myth has created a tragic association of Christianity with cheap marketing, thus making conservative Christianity synonymous with insincere, means-to-an-end salesmanship and kitschy sales techniques. (I’m sure we can all think of many cringe-worthy examples we have personally witnessed.) This, of course, is the most ironic distortion of Christianity, representing the Gospel as something precisely opposite what it is.

So, in summation, the answer to the question “Is evangelism biblical?” is, of course, yes. It is clearly biblical that the church has a duty to spread the Gospel message. But what is not biblical is the notion that there is an individual mandate for Christians to evangelize other people. For those who feel so led or, better, have the gift of evangelism, it is perfectly appropriate for them to do so, given the right circumstances. But the duty for all Christians is to be prepared to answer those who ask them about the Gospel and, most importantly, to live virtuous lives, displaying the fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control”—Gal. 5:22-23). Now these are universal mandates that are biblical. And if we Christians were all more serious in pursuing them, I bet the Church would be far more effective in fulfilling the Great Commission.


The Theological Significance of Carpentry

I get a spiritual high out of doing home construction and renovation. I know that sounds strange, but its true. Building and repairing things actually makes me feel closer to God. For many years, I didn’t know why carpentry had this effect on me, but I’ve finally figured out why.

It started about twenty years ago when I built my first book case. Then came another and then another. Eventually, Amy asked me to build an entertainment center, and from there my projects expanded to, among other things, tables…

 

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stairs…

 

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beds…

 

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and a buffet…

 

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Alongside my furniture construction there grew an increasing interest and competence in home repair, from basic plumbing and electrical to roofing, drywall, and flooring, especially tiling. My latest renovation project, which I completed just this week, was on our downstairs bathroom in our “new” house (built in 1920) in Upland. Here is the progression of the project…

 

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Of course, these projects are satisfying, if only because they are practical and make a home look better. But I believe the joy I experience in doing (and finishing) this work derives from aspects of carpentry which trace back to the imago Dei in human beings:

  1. Carpentry is creative—As is clear from the first chapters of Genesis and, well, the entire world around us, God is a fundamentally creative. That we humans are divine image-bearers explains why we are also irrepressibly creative. Carpentry is an especially significant mode of creativity, because it features both practical and aesthetic goods. The products, if done right, are both functional and beautiful. That’s an accurate description of the divine artwork that is the physical universe, and to the extent that we engage in creative construction, we mirror this divine creative activity.
  1. Carpentry is redemptive—When you live in old houses, as we have for the last fifteen years, there is always plenty of repair and renovation to do. To repair and improve is essentially redemptive and thus Gospel-like, a fulfillment of the biblical mandate to address the consequences of sin. Construction repair work is the “healing” dimension of carpentry.
  1. Carpentry is a whole-person activity—Carpentry involves not just one skill but numerous particular skills which require competencies with a variety of tools as well as design and measurement tasks. It is physically and intellectually demanding, and it also requires significant value judgments pertaining to everything from finances to aesthetics and even ethics. If being a servant in the Kingdom of God requires challenging and developing as much of yourself as possible, then carpentry is the ideal discipline for such training.

I would add that as a teacher and scholar I also find a special satisfaction in carpentry because the result of one’s construction toils are tangible and, at least potentially, indisputably excellent. Even the most well-constructed lecture, argument, journal article, or book can be disputed or casually dismissed. But there is no (reasonable) disputing or dismissing a superbly constructed table, bed, buffet, or bathroom. Here, again, there is a parallel in divine creation and redemption. God does not offer us mere arguments that he is powerful, wise, innovative, and gracious. Rather, he demonstrates this in his creative and wise construction of the universe as well as his innovative and gracious ministry of redemption on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And, speaking of him, I wonder if it is just a coincidence that Jesus’ vocation for most of his adult life was apparently that of a carpenter or craftsman of some sort (cf. Mark 6:3). Hmm….


Pod Shots

I have a lot of sitting-at-loose-ends time in my life. Time between one activity or commitment and another; time spent twiddling my thumbs in a doctor’s office and driving hither and yon. Being the task-oriented person that I am, I dislike feeling this time is being wasted. I have become an expert cultivator of zombie killing plants, but one of my New Year’s resolutions was to try to put this time to better use. So I took to Facebook and asked for some podcast recommendations. Below I have reviewed a few of them for your listening pleasure.

This American Life: Given that, according to its website, This American Life airs on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners and is “often the most popular podcast in the country,” it probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. But in case you have been living in Wi-Fi-less cave for the last ten years or so, here is the basic concept behind TAL: “There’s a theme to each episode…and a variety of stories on that theme. Most logo-v5of the stories are journalism, with an occasional comedy routine or essay.” Pretty sure this was the first podcast I ever listened to. It is my Saturday morning, headphones-in-walking-through-the-grocery-store listening fare. I have made a fool of myself mid-aisle laughing to the point of snorts and awkwardly holding in sobs as well as boring my family and anyone who will sit still to listen to me recap the various episodes. A must-listen to for anyone.

The Phil Vischer Podcast: Being a huge Larry and Bob fan, I was predisposed in favor of Phil Vischer’s podcast, but sadly what works in the produce aisle isn’t nearly as successful without the funny voices and catchy songs. With so many recommendations to get through, I confess that I only listened to this podcast once. It lacked focus and the hosts, Vischer, Christian Taylor and Skye Jethani, seemed more concerned with having a conversation with one another than they did with engaging the audience. I only have so much time and frankly this podcast didn’t seem to respect that fact. Get to the meat and cut out some of the chit chat. The topics covered do seem very interesting though, so maybe I will give it another chance…after I run out of new episodes of This American Life to listen to.

Pass the Mic: Pass The Mic is the premier podcast of the Reformed African American Network which includes “discussions and high profile interviews addressing the core concerns of African Americans biblically.” Hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, this podcast was out of my comfort zone which can be, well, uncomfortable. I don’t like the current trend to constantly segregate people to categories, by race, gender, economic class, political affiliation, etc., but then my race hasn’t defined me in the same way it has defined others so it’s easy for me to say “Can’t we just all be people rather than black people or white people; female people or male people?” I intend to keep this one on my subscribe list. I may have some one-sided arguments with it every now and then, but hopefully listening to the perspective of others will keep me from seeing the world from too narrow a vantage point.

Sheologians: I have really enjoyed this podcast despite the cheesy affirmations and giggles of the hosts, Summer White and her co-host Joy (I worked for about 45 minutes to find her last name and finally gave up.) Their tagline is “Theology for women, no doilies allowed,” and that is a pretty good summary of the show. Jane sheolgians-transparent-logo-smallAusten references abound amidst discussions of a variety of cultural topics including feminism, atheism, and Hollywood’s portrayal of love and atheism. It’s one I am especially looking forward to listening to with our daughter. Love the idea of her hearing strong and well-reasoned women unapologetically expressing their views on important issues. The overall whimsical tone of the podcast balances the seriousness with which they approach the issues discussed and makes it clear that while Summer and Joy don’t take themselves too seriously, they are on a mission to inform and challenge.

The Briefing:  Hosted by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and Boyce College, The Briefing is a “daily worldview analysis about the leading news headlines and cultural conversations.” The Briefing is like a shorter version of All Things Considered for conservative evangelicals. I like seeing current events through Mohler’s lens and particularly appreciate his thoughtful and rational analysis. Wouldn’t use this as my only news source, but makes for a quick and informative listen.


WANTED: Gay Affirming Christian Scholar from Before 1950

I am currently researching and writing a chapter for an upcoming book on sexual ethics, to be entitled Venus and Virtue (edited by Jerry Walls, Jeremy Neill, and David Baggett and published by Wipf and Stock). The aim of the book is, in the editors’ words, to “recover Christian wisdom about sexuality by exploring again the biblical and theological foundations that teach us how to celebrate sex while seeking sanctification.”

My own chapter, entitled “The Sexual Pluralist Revolution: Reasons to be Skeptical,” will discuss the dramatic shift of perspective that has occurred in the West within the last generation regarding sexual morality—a shift away from the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic of sex as appropriate only within heterosexual marriage and in the direction of affirming any sexual relationship so long as it takes place between consenting adults. I dub this view “sexual pluralism.” I think there are several reasons to be skeptical of sexual pluralism, not the least of which is the fact that there appear to be no gay-affirming Christian scholars (theologians, philosophers, ethicists, etc.) in history until the latter part of the twentieth century. So with this post I am beckoning our readers to help me out here. Can anyone give me a plausible example of such a scholar?

This matter of historical precedent is quite germane to the question of a Christian’s skepticism about sexual pluralism, and here’s why. As Christians we should take seriously the wealth of moral and theological wisdom that has preceded us historically, and where there is strong consensus among our best thinkers about an issue, as there is on the sexual conduct question, then that forms a strong presumption in favor of the prevailing view. Now since sexual pluralism constitutes a rejection of the Christian consensus about sexual ethics, then, to say the least, we ought to be rather skeptical of this view. In fact, it seems to me, to dismiss the strong consensus of all of the greatest Christian minds who have written on the subject down through history is actually quite arrogant or else historically myopic (or perhaps, to a degree, both).

Now it is very clear that there is, as I have said, a strong historical consensus among Christian scholars on sexual ethics until the last few decades. (This point is strongly confirmed in Fortson and Grams’ new book Unchanging Witness.) But what I want to know is whether there is actual unanimity—agreement without exception—among Christian scholars regarding the traditional sexual ethic until the mid-twentieth century. Not that my argument depends on such, of course. One would expect at least a few historical exceptions, given the many thousands of Christian scholars who have weighed in on the issue over nearly twenty millennia. Identifying a few outliers would not undermine the argument. But I am intrigued by the possibility that there are no such outliers and that there really was complete unanimity on the issue among Christian scholars until recently. So again, I beseech your help in identifying an example for me. This would then confirm that I should avoid use of the term “unanimous” in my chapter in describing the Christian scholarly consensus on the issue prior to the mid-twentieth century.

Now, a couple of caveats. First, it will not do to point to a given scholar in history who might appear to have engaged in same-sex practices or to cite historical innuendo in that direction. Not only is this potentially slanderous regarding the scholar in question but it misses the point of my argument, which regards the studied views of Christian scholars down through history, for it is this which carries some epistemic authority for Christians today.

Also, it won’t do to appeal to the dangers of being a sexual pluralist or gay affirming in past times, thus ostensibly explaining the silence of dissenting Christian scholars on the subject. This is because down through history thousands of Christians—scholars and lay people alike—have suffered severely for rejecting other doctrines, even those as relatively minor as particular views on communion and baptism, as well as the doctrine of salvation and creedal matters. (Here is one partial list.) So if some Christian scholars were gay affirming in such dangerous contexts, surely at least a few would have been willing to make this known despite the damaging consequences. Also, the threat of execution or even severe prosecution would not apply to all Christian contexts in all countries down through history. In some places and times, the ramifications for affirming sexual pluralism would be less severe, thus making the supposed “silence” of all sexual pluralist Christian scholars less plausible.