16 February 2011

The Rise of Evangelicalism

I recently finished reading Mark Noll's book, The Rise of Evangelicalism.

This is my review for Amazon.com:

This book was very handy for me in getting a good big picture of the beginnings of Evangelicalism. Dr. Noll's narrative stitches together a clear story, which is easy enough to follow despite the movement's spread across the Atlantic and separation into various (sometimes rivaling) groups. I was especially helped by the comprehensive breadth of the work. Being raised in nondenominational Evangelical Christianity, I had a fuzzy picture of much of the early denominational history of the movement, especially of the Wesleyans and Moravians. I appreciated Dr. Noll's insight into how these groups related to each other and to the Calvinistic wing of Evangelicalism. Another particularly interesting segment was the discussion of the movement's complex relationship with the religious establishment, especially in Britain and New England. I found this placed the whole movement in a clearer setting of American and English history. I look forward to getting hold of the rest of the series.
So, I've moved on through The All-New Square-Foot Gardening book and What to Drink with What You Eat, which I got for Christmas. Maybe I'll review those too, since we have internet now.

15 February 2011

Approaching a Method for Interacting with Media

I have a method in mind for guiding my interactions with media, and I will lay out something of that method ahead of time here:
I began with a list of questions. It was about 3 pages long, and no where near long enough to really get at what an artistic, informational, entertaining work is all about. I would need ten or more pages before I really had the makings of the questions we ought to be asking of the things we watch, listen to, or read. This was not working out very well. I went to sleep after typing those questions in a bit of a tizzy, because I knew that no one, including myself or my kids, would want to sit down with a wall of questions getting between them and the most recent Deadliest Catch. This was not going to work.
After a day or two of running various errands, I was going to bed last night, lamenting to Amelia that I had no means of approaching my goals of critical, involved, Christianly media feasting. I said, “I need something organic.” That is, I needed something which lined up with our minds' aesthetic; which made simple sense and could 'click' with most people. So we talked for a while, and began thinking about the basic processes that need to be in place for a mind to really begin to engage the world in the way I had fuzzily envisioned. So, in the end, I have scrapped the questionnaire idea, and I am trying to move on with the concept of a tool-set for critical engagement in media interactions.
So, I will try laying out a few of the tools which are necessary for these interactions. First, there is the goal of a Holistic Experience. I mean that my interactions with the world via media should intentionally seek to include, not only the physical sensations of watching or listening, but also some types of mental, emotional, and volitional engagement. (I obviously take this from the great commandment, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”) I think that I will be able to break down these four spheres of personal involvement in life in the ensuing few posts, and thereby find some of these tools with which to arm ourselves.
So, we can look at the cycle of inductive and deductive processes, the layers of context in which every datum resides, and the steps of interpreting a document (Kay Arthur-style: observing, interpreting, and applying, but with major adjustments). These would all be part of our mental interaction with media. We could also try to analyze and better understand our emotional interaction by looking at the way different media approach our hearts, and we can look at what Scripture and Scriptural theology teach us about why our hearts respond to certain messages. I would also like to break down the physical elements of various media, and see how our wills are affected by the media with which we interact. In all things, I would like to be seeking this holistic experience, in which these various spheres come together in a whole-self interaction with things outside ourselves, all in happy obedience to the great commandment.

There is the goal for this study, and the beginning of a method. Perhaps God will be pleased to see us through to some profitable outcome for his people.

12 February 2011

Goals and Guideline, 2

As we attempt to Christianly interact with media, I believe we need to strive after the following: finding media outlets and providers which entertain us; worshiping God; living blamelessly; and learning about God and the world he has made.

Seeking Entertainment

I will try to illustrate what I mean by this by contrasting it to a pair of errors. These appear to be related, in that I think that the first error will usually lead to the second.
The first error is a type of asceticism. This is the practice of flogging oneself with the need to abstain from pleasure. Not many Christians in America function as ascetics, but a great many people hold such asceticism to be a Christian ideal, and feel guilty whenever they partake of simple pleasures. This asceticism leads to the second error, that of intentional tastelessness. Working under the presumption that he is already acting unspiritually in entertaining himself, the Christian will form his media diet wholly from the vast stores of junk food presented him. The attempt to develop good taste is useless and possibly ungodly, says this error.
However, I do believe that we ought to look hard for those things which cause us pleasure, and I think that developing good taste in this can help us to keep our brains engaged while watching tv or reading blogs. A gourmet restaurant needs only to serve a small serving of very rich food to satisfy a gourmand, who will then ruminate on that dish's interplay with the wine, its place in the meal, and its development in his mouth. Similarly, we can learn to spend less time turning off our brains with massive quantities of media if we learn to seek out the highest quality of entertainment.
I could note that this is what true Epicureans have always been about. Epicurus did not teach that we should simply fill our lives with excesses of food and drink, but that we should educate ourselves in the very best of life, seeking the most pleasurable moments possible by careful study of ourselves. I believe that Epicurus was right in this regard, though I think he missed the mark when he missed the fact that knowing God himself (and being known by him) is the highest and best pleasure possible. In fact, I think we ought to find that it changes all our other experiences of pleasures, invigorating them with new life.

Worshiping God

The goal of worshiping God should be a part of everything we do. If God is our highest joy and worshiping him is our aim, shouldn't we just listen to worship music and watch sermons? How can we waste our time on secular media?
The answer is that media are not grouped by God into secular and spiritual boxes. These categories are artificial and usually arbitrary. The Christian ought to worship God in everything he does. When he sees a great singer or chef on tv, it should be clear in his mind that all her cleverness is but a reflection of God's creativity on display. If we are reading a Marxist interpret history, we can praise God for his creative use of language and ingenious working of the data, even if we disagree with his conclusions. In fact, the reading of history is a particularly instructive way to partake of media, since we can glorify God in the workings of his providence, we can praise him for the gifts of the historian, and we can even see God's Law working on the conscience of many unsaved historians, as they drive to discover truth and to make moral judgments on the decisions which men of the past have made. In all these things we can worship God while we educate and entertain ourselves. If this is true for history books, I believe we can apply a similar grid to watching sports or listening to music.

Living Blamelessly

This should always be a Christian's goal. We were made (in part) “for good works,” according to Ephesians 2:10. God's grace teaches us to live “soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age,” says Paul in Titus 2:11-12. Peter exhorts the saints to be holy, since God who called us is holy (1 Peter 1:15). A Christian's life is not a life of unrepentant profligacy, but one of growth in holiness. Therefore, a Christian's interactions with media need to be guided by this line (this guideline, if you will) of holy, blameless living. If we enjoy Foxnews, we should critically engage our brains as we watch a little O'Reilly Factor, but if it makes us frustrated with the world so that we kick the dog, we should not watch it.
This obviously applies to the areas of violence and sexual sin in tv, movies, fictional books, and increasingly in newscasts and histories. I would caution strongly against setting rules for other believers to follow in their entertainment choices, but I try to keep a few for my own benefit. When it comes to Harriet Alice Rodgers, I will be trying to shield her from a lot of this garbage until she is ready to set some boundaries on her own (with guidance from her folks, I hope). When our minds are actively involved in media interactions, we will be better equipped to deal with the sinful behavior displayed on the screen or in print. However, it is wise to avoid a steady diet of coarse and careless language (not only cussing, but loud and disrespectful arguing like on all the cable news channels), of violence (even historically-accurate violence can be gratuitous), of sexual temptation (which commercials have to an art, and sitcoms are probably the worst offenders of all, imo), and of blasphemy (an easy one to forget in a pluralistic society, but we need to remember that God takes blasphemy seriously).
We ought to be careful to avoid sin, and we need to know that such attempts are far from the legalism the Bible condemns. As long as we humbly remember that these guidelines do not make us more spiritual than our brother, we will be in good shape to set up rules to help us stay blameless in our interactions with media.

Learning About God and His World

The final goal I lay out for interactions with media is a greater knowledge of God and his world. Every Christian desires to know God better. We can see him most clearly in his Scriptures, which we see as speaking primarily about his Son. However, there is a great deal we can learn about him from the world around us. We can learn about who is (and especially who is not) by learning about other religions and philosophies, and comparing them with Scripture. We learn about what he has done in observing the beauty, grandeur, and intricacy of creation and its history. We can learn a great about the places where the Bible took place by visiting Israel, but we can also learn by watching some of the excellent Christian- and non-Christian-produced programs in that land. Our study of God's care over his church is greatly enhanced as we partake of media surveying church history and its interplay with the rest of world history. We can compare scientific grasping after the great questions of “why?” to the Scriptures' clear statements of God's purpose in his design. And we also see a lot of God's hand in seeing how he has guided mankind's course on the earth. All these things should be seen within the framework of the Bible's teaching about Jesus Christ, and in that framework we can learn even more about God and his World.
So, with these goals in mind, I will attempt to lay out a set of guidelines of interactions with media. I will try to find questions we can ask as we interact, and hopefully this will help Harriet and Amelia and me (and maybe other people too) to critically engage the world around us.

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