David de Bruyn

Letters to An Agnostic—#6

Morality cannot be simply part of our biology. It doesn’t deal with material reality. Morality has to do with people and relationships and fair treatment of each other. So if moral reality is all about people and their relationships, what should we conclude about where it came from? 

Dear J,
To take your objections to my last letter in order, they seem to be:

What I am calling morality is just self-preservation, an instinct for survival.
The so-called “Bigger Rule”, where we expect or demand certain behaviour from others is the same instinct, enlarged and modified for a group, or a herd. Our supposed primate ancestors travelled in troops, and this means we evolved instincts that protect the group, which in turn protects the individual. We “expect” behaviour from others because we evolved to expect protection from the herd.
None of this proves a personal universe.

All right, let’s suppose that the morality of the Golden Rule is a kind of biological instinct. When we speak of instinct in animals, we mean an impulse in them which they always obey. Birds always migrate, they don’t need to be trained to do so. They do not freely choose their instincts; they merely follow them.
But this lack of freedom in instinct is very problematic for the theory that morality is a mere instinct. If right and wrong is really just a hard-wired, biological instinct, why do we need to be told to obey it? Why are we always exhorted to do the ‘right thing’, if, in fact, the right thing is a natural survival instinct?
Indeed, we are told we ought to obey this inner morality, which you call instinct. Being told we ought to do something is itself a value judgement. Why ought we to obey the survival instinct? It’s one thing to have the sense that drinking water is needful to stay alive. This is the instinct – you feel thirsty. But why I ought to obey that instinct, why I ought to want to listen to its promptings to keep me alive is something else. Being thirsty is one thing, wanting to keep living is another. Does blind instinct tell me it is better to live than to die? Does instinct give me the value of living?
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Strange Lyre: Early Beginnings of Pentecostal Worship

Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement, and thus drank deeply from the populist movements in Methodism and Baptist and African-American circles. Charles Fox Parham (1873–1929), is usually credited with the beginnings of the movement. He was born in Muscatine, IA, and claimed a revelation of light at age 13. Parham associated with Methodism, but rejected their hierarchy, and moved toward holiness theology. He broke with Methodism in 1895 and established his own ministry, Bethel Bible College, in October 1900. He emphasized “primitive Christianity.” 

An easy error for a historian to commit is to equate or link events or movements in history that are similar, while ignoring or underplaying their differences. One example of this is when historians of worship note that modern negative reactions to contemporary pop-rock worship contain similar objections to ones leveled against the hymns of Luther, and later, Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. Without question, there are similarities. What a lazy historian fails to notice is when the differences are greater than the similarities.
That can be said about the roots of Pentecostal worship, found in the populist religious mood that swept America in the late 1780s, through to the 19th century. Yes, there are many parallels to earlier reactions against ossified liturgical forms that sparked more colloquial and lay-driven worship (e.g., some Waldensians and Lollards, some Anabaptists, the Moravians). But there are differences to previous reformations of worship that far outweigh the similarities. When we examine those differences, we will find that the seedbed from which Pentecostalism grew in the 1900s was actually a considerable departure from prior worship reformers such as Luther, Wesley and Watts.
Nathan Hatch detects four waves of populist folk religious music in America from 1780 to 1830. The first was among Separatist Baptists in rural New England. Some of the early hymnals of these Baptists maintained continuity with the hymns of Watts and others, but a flood of hymnbooks published by Elias Smith between 1804 and 1820 contained no overlap with the accepted hymnals of the day. Original and catchy lyrics linked to popular folk tunes became the new tradition of rural New England Baptists.
The second wave of populist worship was Methodist revivalism. The Wesleys had taught the importance of the participation of all people, but had also insisted that hymns maintain dignity and reverence. But Methodism in America during the early 1800s went in a new direction. It included spontaneous song, shouting, jumping and seeking a rousing emotional response to the singing. These songs were the beginnings of the “gospel song”: simple, easily remembered lyrics, verses written in rhyming pairs with a chorus or refrain. Gospel songs were songs of testimony, marching songs of solidarity, humorous ballads, even appeals to repentance.
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Strange Lyre: The Pentecostalization of Christian Worship

What can the “Pentecostalization of worship” refer to, if we have removed the overtly charismatic acts of praying in tongues, healing, and so forth? In a series of upcoming articles, I will argue that Pentecostal worship has a matrix of distinctives that is a clear break from historic, Protestant worship, or even the worship that preceded it. These distinctives are not unique to Pentecostalism, and some of them originated before it existed. Nevertheless, they represent much of the esprit de corp of self-identified Pentecostals when it comes to worship, and certainly represent an innovation in Christian worship. 

It’s hardly disputable that global Christianity has been overwhelmed and colonized by the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. After Roman Catholicism, the Christianity identified variously as charismatic, Pentecostal, Prosperity Gospel, or Latter Rain (with all its permutations and differences) makes up by far the largest percentage of what is classified as Christian. In just over 100 years since its beginnings in Azusa Street, California, it has come to dominate Christianity, and particularly the Christianity spreading in the Global South and and South-east. The growing and new-born Christianity in South America, Africa, and south-east Asia is overwhelmingly of the Pentecostal kind.
Non-Pentecostals, or cessationists as they are sometimes called, have dwindled into the minority. Very few voices have been raised to counter the theological distinctives of Pentecostalism: an emphasis on the supernatural sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, a belief in the baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation, and assorted novel views on healing, prosperity, and spiritual warfare. A notable exception was John MacArthur’s 2013 Strange Fire conference and subsequent book. By and large, cessationists simply accept their minority status, and defend their theology when asked.
But perhaps far more insidious has been the quiet takeover of Christian worship by Pentecostalism, even in those churches that reject the theology of continuationism. Worship forms are far more portable than doctrinal statements, and tend to insinuate themselves gradually and quietly. A popular song, emerging from Pentecostal or charismatic roots, finds a home in cessationist circles, because its theology is either orthodox and acceptable to cessationists, or sufficiently banal to fit in almost anywhere. This is not intrinsically problematic; it simply illustrates how worship forms travel across denominational lines in ways that sermons and Bible studies do not. Of course, some of the the most distinctive Pentecostal acts of worship remain out-of-bounds for cessationist churches: praying in tongues, announcing prophecies, public laying on of hands for healings or exorcisms. What arrives incognito is the Pentecostal understanding of the act of corporate worship, with its accompanying postures, approaches, and expectations.
As cessationist churches post vigilant patrols at the doctrinal boundaries, but offer open borders to charismatic songs, music, forms of prayer, and overall sentiment, a quiet transformation takes place.
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Letters to an Agnostic #4: Reality Is Either Personal or Impersonal

Reality is complex, the world is sophisticated, existence is perplexing: why should we expect the answers to ultimate questions to be easy and transparently simple? Nevertheless, I do not think these choices between religions are as overwhelming or perplexing as they might sound.

Dear J,
You’re right, my thinking is quite binary on this issue. Existence, as we know it, is either personal or impersonal.
Think about it: all religious belief systems are one or the other. Some are impersonal, or non-personal, if your prefer. These have taught that reality contains no personal deity or deities, but only the cosmos as it is, with energies, or “power”. Buddhism falls into this category, as does Confucianism. Many of the New Age religions focused on energies, crystals, reincarnation, are similarly impersonal. They do postulate some kind of super- or supra-natural powers, but these are not personal beings. All forms of pantheism (Including some forms of Hinduism and Taoism) or panentheism are likewise impersonal. If all things are God and God is all things, then you have an absolute, but an impersonal absolute.
Similarly, the philosophy (or religion) of materialism asserts that “the cosmos is all that is, all that was, and all that ever shall be”. The physical matter and energy of the universe is the sum total of existence. While it admits that consciousness exists in this cosmos – our own – it sees this consciousness as more of an anomaly. Impersonal matter accidentally created self-aware minds. Of course, all forms of atheism believe the universe is non-personal.
All impersonal belief systems tend towards nihilism. If reality is impersonal, then no universal meaning exists. Nothing in our experience has intrinsic beauty, value or significance. All is accidental, random, and chance. All meaning is individual, arbitrary and subjective. In the end, if nothing is true for more than one person, all that remains is that we please ourselves with whatever appeals to us. Pleasure is paramount, and the power to get the pleasure is vital. Reality is the survival of the strongest.
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Indescribable Descriptives

Talented songwriters can do better. It is not as if we don’t have an inspired songbook to show us how it’s done. Let’s mine the Word of God and the world of God for analogies that will fire and inspire the Christian imagination to rightly know and encounter our infinite God.

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”C. S. Lewis
Lewis helps us to recognize a flaw in much modern Christian songwriting. No doubt, many contemporary songs are vast improvements on the gospel-song cliché-mill. The re-commitment to theological clarity and depth in many contemporary hymns is something to rejoice over, and any serious Christian will be thankful for an injection of sound theological ideas into the gelatinous world of modern evangelical conviction.
With all that said, I find Lewis’s sentiment played out before me in not a few modern songs. These songs seem to try to gather as many superlative adjectives as possible that will fit the meter of the song. These are then piled on top of one another, and the result is a rapid-fire of high-concentrate adjectives. The resulting lyrics are something like: “Indescribable majesty, incomparable glory, unbounded mercy, immeasurable beauty…”
Yet for all this verbal altitude, the effect is palpably flat. Instead of soaring into the heights of praising God as the ultimate Being, we sing these super-hero adjectives with a sense of incomplete affection. It is as if we are hoping that these superlative adjectives will kick-start our delight in God. Some worshippers succeed, others don’t. Likely, most content themselves with the thought that ascribing superlative adjectives to God is surely the right way to go, even if little moral excitement is raised in response to them.
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Letters to An Agnostic # 1—God is a Person

To know if God exists, you have to begin dealing with him as a person. As in, “God, if you do exist, I would like to know you”, or “Deep down, God, I sense you exist, but I admit I do not want that to be true.” If there is no one on the other end of the line, the person saying these words has lost nothing more than a few seconds of his time on a thought experiment. But if there is, then the man saying these things has begun to treat his Creator as a subject, and can expect a response, as happens when you seek to know a person.

Thanks for being willing to begin this literary correspondence about such important matters as the afterlife, the existence of God, and the very meaning of existence. It’s more profitable for us to discuss these matters in this format than in some online comments section debate. Online debates almost always raise the ire of the debaters, because they know their comments and replies are being watched and read by others, increasing the temptations to pride and reactionary anger exponentially. Furthermore, the limited space, and pressure to reply quickly militates against careful thought, reasoned exchanges, or emotionally-chastened responses. I look forward to reading your letters.
You asked me to present my best “case” for Christianity, and I plan to do something like that. But to begin with, I am actually going to gently quibble with your choice of words. The use of the term “best case” suggests that Christianity can be boiled down to an argument: a set of propositions, like a mathematical proof, or a logical theorem. Supposedly, if these propositions are perfectly logical, empirically verifiable, internally coherent, and demonstrably experienced, then the argument, or the case, for Christianity must be accepted.
But I challenge that very assumption. Christians assert that God is a person. In fact, we think he is the fullest expression of personhood, infinitely personal, so to speak. If that is the case, then God’s existence is only a fraction of the really important question. If God is a person, then the important question is, how does someone come to know him? Because it is only in engaging and knowing him as a person that he could actually be known, thereby settling forever the question of his existence. We know of the existence of persons by knowing them, not gathering evidence for their existence. Here we must not get the cart before the horse: knowing persons is never a matter of first settling their existence, followed by personal engagement with them
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Christian Education in Seven Books (5)—Cultural Literacy

What kind of education would have the audacity to call itself Christian if its graduates have only the faintest grasp of Christian doctrine, history, or worship, and if they feel no loyalty to the civilisation that bequeathed them most of the blessings they now enjoy?
I would not be surprised by the “Huh?” reaction to a number of books on this list. After all, they are not “how-to” manuals on education. Instead, each of them represents one major aspect of what comprises a Christian education. This is why all of the authors or the books could be substituted with similar books or authors saying the same thing. This is the case with the fifth book in our series, Cultural Literacy, by E. D. Hirsch.
For busy homeschooling parents or school administrators, this is not a book you need to plough through from cover to cover, though you’ll likely benefit if you are able to. The first chapter and the appendix will, however, give you the main idea. Hirsch’s thesis is simple: to function in society, people need background knowledge that we absorb from our wider culture. Sayings, mottoes, proverbs, quotes, aphorisms, place names, historical events, abbreviations, prominent people and places and dates, fables, works of art and many other items of knowledge are not learnt alphabetically from an encyclopaedia. They are taught when a culture imparts its traditions to its young over many years.
Without this background knowledge – this literacy in one’s own culture – one is a stranger in your own home, a foreigner in your own country. Educated writing and discourse will go over your head, because you lack the cultural literacy to decipher all the background knowledge that is present in the terms.
Consider this sentence: “Covid has brought about an Orwellian scenario, where the raison d’être of government has devolved from a Jeffersonian ideal to a Machiavellian one”. Background knowledge of Western philosophy, political theory, 20th-century literature, and borrowed phrases from French is necessary to make sense of that sentence. Hirsch argues that this kind of cultural literacy is declining, and with it, much breakdown in communication and mutual understanding.
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Unformed Expression

Formed expression is what our hearts cry out for. We want our preachers to articulate the truth with a kind of clarity that enables us to grasp and retain it. We want our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to capture and express affections we have had but have not known how to express. We want corporate prayers to be elevated, careful, thoughtful and Scriptural. We want the music to have structural integrity, a tonal center, and a normal and recognizable sense of progression. When people who are trained in the forms of rhetoric, poetry, or music give us a structure, it actually sets us free to express ourselves properly. 

Richard Weaver’s book Ideas Have Consequences is one of the more demanding reads you’ll encounter. I’ll confess it took me more than one reading to grasp his arguments. Throughout the book, Weaver keeps dropping these gems of insight, which one often picks up on a re-read. One of them is this:
Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance.
To put it another way, when people express themselves, whether through speech, writing, poetry, music, or other art forms, their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, supporting arguments, conclusions and the like. Poetry needs a particular metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor, and other devices. Music needs melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, and so forth. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like metal into a mould. The mould can be changed, but apart from the mould, molten metal will simply pour chaotically into a shapeless mess.
Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the constraints of form, and human expression tends towards ignorance. If thoughts and affections are not channelled and disciplined by the structure of speech or poetry or music or the like, they become disorganised, disparate, disjointed and, in a word, chaotic. Chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone; it increases ignorance.
Consider some cringeworthy examples from within the walls of the church: A preacher whose desire to be extemporaneous exceeds his supply of helpful things to say; “testimony time,” where the one testifying cannot make his or her point without saying it twenty different ways over fifteen minutes; prayer meetings where the prayers are meandering rambles of stock clichés and trivial requests; songs written by the song leader earlier that week (or day); “prophetic singing,” where the song leader plays chords and makes up words as he goes along.
In these situations, we grow exasperated. We wish the preacher would simply stick to his notes. We wish the one praying would shorten his prayer to the things needful to ask for.
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Christian Education in Seven Books (3)—Less Than Words Can Say

Just as you cannot do algebra without numbers, so you cannot know, discover or communicate meaning without clear, accurate, and precise language. It is not too much to say that bad grammar is the enemy of truth. Christians should then prioritise language, since it is the media of propositional truth.
For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armour was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.– Dorothy Sayers
Words are our only means of knowing the world as rational beings. You cannot think without words. Go ahead, and try it: try thinking without words. Form pictures in your mind without words, but you will soon find yourself naming those objects, and even making short sentences about them. You cannot know the world without thinking in words. Words are the basis of rationality and self-awareness.
Not surprisingly, we read that creation came into being through words, and John’s Gospel tells us that those words spoken at the beginning were through the Word of God Himself. God’s Eternal Son is the Word: the communication and explication of the life of God. God knows Himself through His Word by His Spirit.
The written Word, God’s special revelation, is the foundation of knowledge about God, ourselves and the world. Words themselves are part of general revelation: language mediated through culture, through which we obtain light. All we know comes through words.
Richard Mitchell’s Less Than Words Can Say may seem like an odd choice for as a book to explain Christian education. After all, Mitchell did not profess to be a Christian. At times, he can even be lewd. But Mitchell is one of the few writers who understands that language is more than a convention: it is the very filter we use to understand reality.
Less Than Words Can Say starts, as The Abolition of Man does, with some errors committed by professional educators. In this case, the error is not logical positivism, but a kind of bureaucratic-speak that steadily destroys meaning while posturing as formal and educated. Mitchell shows this is more than irritating; it represents a hollowing out of meaning (a worm in the brain, as he calls it) and this by people who are meant to teach meaning to younger minds.
To illustrate, Mitchell then imagines a tribe of people, the Jiukukwe, who have few active verbs in their language, and plenty of passives and indirect forms of address. He pictures these people doing little in the way of forming a civilisation, except clawing for food out of tree bark. The problem with these people is not a lack of sophistication with words or grammar (for their language is highly complex). The problem is that their language spirits away personal responsibility, and the resulting worldview creates a passive and complacent way of life. The way the Jiukukwe understand reality is shaped by their syntax and grammar, not by some outside force. The meaning of the world comes at them through the filter of their language.
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Christian Education in Seven Books (1)

Books on education and Christian education abound, and probably add to the panic in many a parent, professor and principal. There are, nevertheless, a few singular books that cut through the morass, and distill for us the heart of what a Christian education is, and what it means to educate in a Christian manner. To that end, I wish to suggest seven books, or more accurately, seven authors, whose books each provide a piece of the Christian education puzzle. Some of the men and women will be well known, others are less so. Often enough, they are representative of a stream of authors who say very similar things. Each one will guide us closer to a thoroughly Christian education.

The first time the English word education pops up is sometime in the 15th century. The Latin word educare carried connotations of rearing, maturing and nourishing children to adulthood. Originally, education as an idea took its place alongside parenting, training and apprenticing: the acts that parents and guardians took to shape their young into the adults and citizens they wanted them to be. Education was embedded in a family’s religion, tradition, and even vocation.
It isn’t until after the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that education begins to take on the meaning of providing a broad, neutral, “secular” numeracy and literacy for children, so that they can find middle and upper class professions when adults. A shift occurs, from education being the shaping of hearts and minds to education being the provision of economic tools – a passport to professional life. Once multiple cultures and religions are living side-by-side in towns and cities, public education becomes mass education, and supposedly religionless, value-free, utilitarian education.
A great part of parenting is the preparation of our young to eventually be independent bread-winners. Unsurprisingly, many Christians see little problem with the secular view of education. It appears, superficially, to be just one more rite of passage to adulthood: learning what everyone else learns so as to eventually “get a good job”.
In accepting this view, however, those Christian parents have accepted something that previous generations would never have countenanced. They have accepted the idea that teaching our children knowledge, wisdom and an understanding of the world can be farmed out to unbelievers who do not share our faith, our worldview, or our understanding of morality, science, art, anthropology, sexuality, economics, or politics. They have accepted the idea that a child’s peers at school (from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds) should be the child’s cultural mentors. They have imagined that education is truly a value-free, morally-neutral exercise of transferring information from adults to children.
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