A Vat of Heideggerian Goo

Been listening to the latest Mars Hill audio, which you ought to do from time to time yourself. Anyway, on this latest one, Ken Myers interviews James K.A. Smith, whose book on postmodernism I reviewed in detail in my postmodernism thread.

Their discussion on Derrida’s infamous “there is nothing outside the text” made me think of a point I really need to make, or really need to make again. I don’t remember if I said this before. Smith does a good job pointing out that in this phrase Derrida is not making the radical relativistic point that is often attributed to him — by friend and foe alike. But Smith’s way of doing this is by pointing out the places where Derrida himself denies this inference. This, in my view, is beside the central point. The issue is whether this kind of relativism follows necessarily and immediately from Derrida’s premises, and not whether Derrida thinks it does.

Fundamentalism (all kinds) has many weaknesses, but it is not weak across the board. There are some strengths there, and this situation reveals one of them. Fundamentalism is great for identifying the implications of some positions, and then running those implications out to the dead end in about fifteen minutes. This is done with one’s own premises, and with the premises of others. Okay, someone says x. The fundamentalist approaches and says, “Let’s cash this out. What does it mean right this minute?” When Elijah said if Baal is God, follow him, and if YHWH is God, follow him, he was reasoning at this point like a fundamentalist. When Sartre said that without an infinite reference point, every finite point is absurd, he was reasoning like a fundamentalist. And since Derrida has no infinite reference point, then Bob’s yer uncle.

People who want to nuance the heck out of any given position are not dispositional fundamentalists. They want to spend their lives, and would be pleased if their intellectual grandchildren spent their lives, trying on different “readings” of Swift, or Milton, or Austen, or Aquinas, or Poe. Nothing better for a little bedtime reading than a post-structuralist feminist reading of Swift.

But I confess, without shame, that most days I have a fundamentalist turn of mind. I am not a fundamentalist in the traditional sense (e.g. I am not opposed to mixed-sex roller skating or drinking God’s brown gift of dark beer). But this fundamentalist turn is still there, and it is why I would say something like, “Of course Derrida is a relativist. He’s an atheist.” He can deny it all he wants, and he can suggest alternative readings, or he can try to hide it by pole vaulting into a vat of Heideggerian goo, but my fundamentalist turn of mind keeps right on thinking [atheism > relativism]. I also keep wondering, sometimes out loud, why this is so hard to understand.

Now I say this acknowledging that the fundamentalist turn of mind admits of abuses. Some things need to be nuanced. Fine. I have been on the receiving end of [sacraments > popery]. Failure to read some things carefully will land certain defenders of the Westminster Confession in the unenviable position that a certain military spokesman was in during the Vietnam War. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The WSC says that the sacraments are effectual means of salvation in order to settle forever the importance of denying that they are any such thing.

So take this a plea for body life. Some things need to be nuanced, and some things need desperately not to be. Those with a sophisticated turn of mind need to talk to an intractable fundamentalist once a week or so — to keep them honest. “So how is this not fatal compromise?” And fundamentalists need to talk regularly with someone who read a book once — to keep them honest too. “So how is this not a complete misrepresentation of Calvin’s view?”

That’s it. A plea for body life.

Be Sure to Pick Up a Salt Pig

One of the things we have seen starting to take root in our community here is an emphasis on sabbath celebration. This is distinct from sabbath observance, if observance is merely defined as nothing more than having scruples about what you can and cannot do on the Lord’s Day. But learning how to call the sabbath a delight ought not to be a chore. The Lord’s Day really is a day of rest, worship, and joy.

This is something that we can start learning how to do, even if we don’t have a pile of money. Rightly understood, the sabbath is the poor man’s friend precisely because it is every man’s friend. God always takes us up where we are, not where we should have been.

Not surprisingly, this renewed emphasis on sabbath living has led to the creation of resources to help out. One of those resources is a cookbook that my daughter Rachel and son-in-law Luke put together, and which the printer will be disgorging any day now. This is a great place to start if you are just beginning to think in terms of sabbath celebration. The cookbook does not contain recipes only, but also has some good articles to get you oriented. Check that out here.

And if that were not enough, our good friends Marlin and Laurie Detweiler (of Veritas fame) have started a web business with the promotion of sabbath living in mind. You can check out what they have to offer here. Tell them I sent you, and be sure to pick up a salt pig.

Accreditation Woes

A few years ago, NSA was pursuing accreditation with the American Association of Liberal Education (AALE). We pulled out of the process when contrary to its published standards AALE denied candidate status to another Christian college (because said college had the temerity to expect their faculty to have a Christian view of creation). So we sought and received accreditation from TRACS. One local critic of ours was concerned about our accreditation when we “could have been” accredited by a more prestigious group. But now AALE and the ABA (nationals) and the WASC (a regional) are all in various kinds of hot water with the Department of Education. A fuller version of the story is here. Although turnabout would be fair play, I do hope that AALE gets through this okay. We need more accrediting agencies, not less of them. But it would good if they learned that being yanked around is no fun at all.

Born to Die


As we continue meditating on the meaning of Advent, we are not really resisting attempts to make Christmas meaningless as we are fighting with alternative meanings. There is no such thing (in the last analysis) as a vacuum holiday, a celebration without a point. Attempts to neutralize Christmas are simply an intermediate step—and the alternative meanings are waiting in the wings.

The Text:

“And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”

(Luke 2:34-35).


Simeon was a great man of faith, an Old Testament saint who was waiting faithfully for the consolation of Israel. By the grace of God, he was permitted to live long enough to see the Messiah as an infant. But he was not just a man of faith; he was given a prophetic word. Among other things, he blessed Jospeh and Mary both (v. 34), and then turned to Mary and gave her a particular word. The child was destined to be a divider. On the one hand, he would bring about the fall and rising of many in Israel, which was a good thing (v. 34). On the other hand, he would be “for a sign” to be spoken against (v. 34). Not everyone would receive the Messiah with glad shouts of acclaim. Simeon hints that more than just speaking against Him would be involved, because he predicted that a sword would be run through Mary’s soul (v. 35). This is a clear indication that Mary would live to see the crucifixion, which did happen (Jn. 19:26-27). The fact that Jesus would for a sign to be spoken against was in order to reveal the condition of many hearts (v. 35).

Alternative Meanings:

What does it mean to say that alternative or competative meanings for Christmas are positioning themselves? Usually this comes out when someone points to something that everyone is supposed to acknowledge as problematic, and says something like, “We have to get away from this problem or that one, and get back to the true meaning of Christmas.” The fact that the problems are so obvious is used in a trick to make us think that the proposed meaning is self-evident also. What are some of those false solutions?

Sentimentalism—a sentimental Christmas is a Christmas without conflict. Sin brought conflict and violence into the world, and so in a very real sense, Christians are enemies to the way of death. But note this: death is our enemy. We cannot rid the world of conflict without conflict. But it must be the God-ordained kind of conflict, as Simeon foresaw. The pseudo-problem that people point to is the mere existence of conflict, never mind who is right or wrong.

Moralism—a moralistic Christmas is a Christmas without sin. People are changed (if they need to be changed) the way Scrooge is transformed in A Christmas Carol. They are changed by simply changing their minds, and giving somebody a goose or something festive. This kind of Pelagianism is not what we are commemorating. But Simeon’s prophecy takes real sin into account. Note the prophetic language of judgment—falling and rising, a sign that is hated, a sword piercing the soul of a godly woman, and the revelation of many hearts. The pseudo-problem that is raised here is the problem of “negativity.” But when Christ was born, our world was cold and black.

Spiritualism—a spiritualistic Christmas is a Christmas without matter. But when Simeon blesses Joseph and Mary, he is doing so because they are there in the Temple with a baby in their arms. The Lord was taken up in Simeon’s arms (v. 28). Jesus was a baby, a material gift. We do not celebrate Christmas by trying to back-pedal away from the world of material things. The pseudo-problem here is the warning against “materialism,” as though matter were somehow inherently a problem. Idolatry is a problem, but that can occur with thoughts and virtual reality as easily as with fudge and presents. Remember that it was Judas who wondered why the precious ointment was poured on Christ’s feet instead of being given to the poor. Another manifestation of this problem is the idea that Christ’s advent were somehow apolitical. But Herod didn’t make that mistake.

A Sword to Pierce the Soul:

We have noted before that the weeping of Rachel for her children is part of the Christmas story. Nativity sets should have models of Herod’s soldiers in them, and nativity sets ought not to have little drummer boys. This was part of the story. But we should note also that Simeon included the violence that would be directed against Christ, and which Mary would feel in her soul, and he included this in the story from the very beginning. Earlier in the chapter, we read that Mary treasured up in her heart what the shepherds had said, and it says that she pondered them (v. 19). Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he gathered his account of these things from eyewitnesses (1:2). Clearly, one of his chief sources was Mary. From whom did he find out about Simeon? Again, when Luke was writing, Mary was the only eyewitness of that event. And she clearly remembered what Simeon had told her. She was preparing herself for the crucifixion, in some measure, from the infancy of Jesus on. But she also knew that this prophetic word came to her in the context of a blessing.

Blessings Have a Story Arc:

Simeon said that there would be falling and rising. Blessings are not static. When Simeon told Mary about the pain that was coming, he had already said that the baby in his arms was the Lord’s “salvation” (v. 30). Mary knew, from Simeon’s mouth, that Jesus was the Christ (v. 26). Mary knew that this was a story that would not end in disaster. It would have a disaster in it, but not in the final chapter. The gospels are not tragedies in any sense. They are not comedies either, if we take comedy as referring to something humorous. They are comedies in a much deeper and more profound sense than this. Christ was born to die, but He died so that He could be the first born from among the dead (Col. 1:18).

The Full Gospel:

If we tell the Christmas story carefully, taking note of all the things that the writers of the scriptural accounts include, we find ourselves telling the entire story of salvation. The story includes the world, and everything in it. He came to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.

Heavenly Pleasures On Earth

“God has bridged the gap between heaven and earth. Joys of heaven and joys of earth come from the same Creator and are sufficiently similar that one can be used to describe the other. Indeed Steere reversed the usual metaphoric equation by asserting not that heaven would be a garden of earthly delights but that earthly joys were in source and nature of heaven. The speaker accepts these gifts and ridicules the ‘Stoicks’ to whom he imputes the simple-minded brand of contemptus mundi usually imputed to Puritans” (Daly, p. 14).

He Who Loses His Life Will Save It

“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p. 141).

Too Many Kinds of Pleasure

“The real objection to a merely hedonistic theory of literature, or of the arts in general, is that ‘pleasure’ is a very high, and therefore very empty, abstraction. It denotes too many things and connotes too little. If you tell me that something is a pleasure, I do not know whether it is more like revenge, or buttered toast, or success, or adoration, or relief from danger, or a good scratch” (C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p. 133).

So Define “Old”

“This desire to belong to an old church is certainly a noble and scriptural one. ‘Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thinke inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, where thou hast dwelt’ (Ps. 74:2). But at the same time, caution is in order. Someone with a pressing need, even if the need is legitimate in itself, is someone with low sales resistance. If an historically naive American wants to belong to an old church, it does not take much to impress him. We must remember that we Americans think Sears is old” (Mother Kirk, p. 27).