Book Review - The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark

Each time I finish a book I like to post a brief review of its contents with some of my thoughts (just click "Book Reviews" in the labels section to the right). I just finished Stark's book, which I blogged about once before early on in my read. This excellent book seeks to answer one of history's more interesting questions: why has the West far outgained other parts of the world in science, technology, wealth, and human rights?

An answer often given by modern scholars is secularism. That is, the belief that once Western societies left Christianity behind and began trusting in human reason alone to pave the way to the future (a period known as "the Enlightenment"), all these great advances soon followed. And it is the rest of the world's adherence to various religions that holds them back.

Stark's reply: nonsense.

In fact, Stark shows just the opposite: that Christian theology led to a worldview which became the seed bed of all these great accomplishments. For example, this biblical worldview valued individuals as made in God's image, which laid the groundwork for individual liberty and private property rights (as opposed to a tyrant king's right to take whatever he pleased from anyone). These freedoms in turn led to the invention of capitalism, and consequently to rising standards of living.

The Christian worldview was also characterized by a belief in Progress. The idea that God gave us our minds to understand, cultivate, and improve the world around us is found in the writings of some of the earliest church fathers. These basic ideas eventually led to the development of modern science: the rigorous, systematic, empirical study of the world which God left us in charge of. And of course science in turn led to the West's vast advances in technology.

The results of all this historically have been increased productivity, greater individual freedom, and longer, happier lives in Western societies compared to the rest of the world. Stark provides many examples to back up his theory. It's a compelling read.

Stark closes his book with a telling quote from a Chinese scholar who set out to understand how the West had succeeded. This scholar said, " the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this."

We live in confusing times. In America today we do not share a common vision of how face our collective challenges, and how to move beyond them into a brighter tomorrow. Can we come to agreement on how to get there from here? Perhaps it would help if we discovered just how we got "here" in the first place. Stark's book can help us do just that.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

I just returned from the movie theater where I watched Ben Stein’s documentary film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Though I’m a strong proponent of Intelligent Design ("ID") in science, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. I ended up really enjoying it, though not quite for the reasons I might have expected. My fresh-from-the-theater reactions boil down to three points: one big and two smaller.

The main reaction I have is that I’m pleased that Stein let supporters of Darwinism speak. The film doesn’t do a lot of cutting and splicing of interview segments to put interviewees in the worst possible light. Instead, Stein asks pretty simple questions and just lets Darwinists talk. And what they said more often than not was damning to their cause:

  • There was the Iowa State professor who called religious people "idiots," and said knowingly that "those people" are still out there. (Yes they are, and one of them has even figured out how to use a computer and blog! Amazing... :D )

  • There was scientist PZ Meyers who said that religion is like knitting: something meaningless that people do for fun and comfort, but which has no bearing on the real world.

  • There was the passionate and honest atheist Will Provine stating flatly that to accept Darwinism means to give up on any idea of right and wrong, and to abandon the notion that life means anything. I really found Provine's honesty refreshing – at least he admits the logical consequences of his worldview and lays them out for all to see. Good for him, even though I profoundly disagree with his worldview. (Correction: I had originally credited Michael Ruse with Provine's statements in this post.)

  • And of course there was that famous (infamous?) attacker of all things religious Richard Dawkins, smugly and freely stating his view that anyone who believes in God is terribly ignorant... at best.

And this was just the tip of the iceberg. It all struck me as the kind of thing these atheists actually believe, but more often than not won't say in public because they don’t want to offend the 80% or so of Americans who believe in some kind of God (mostly the God of the Bible). Instead, pronouncements from the scientific community are often spun for mass consumption by various groups who are more PR-savvy than your typical biochemist probably is. Expelled got more directly to the source, and that source showed its true colors more often than not.

Two other things I was pleased with. First, the pro-ID people interviewed were articulate, intelligent, explained their points clearly, and were obviously every bit as credentialed as their Darwinian counterparts. Anyone who is unsure of ID’s basic premise (which I would guess is many people, since ID is often not reported on accurately by mass media) will get a great summary from this film. The David Berlinski interview in Paris about half way through the film is worth the price of the movie ticket by itself.

Second, I’m pleased that the film was not overly comedic or mocking in its tone. Stein is a master of blunt one-liners and deadpan humor, but I was afraid going in that a comedy routine with put-downs or overdone cheap shots would undermine the film’s message. However, Stein was actually pretty reserved in this regard and didn’t make himself the center of attention, which allowed the film’s message to come through loud and clear – often by the lips of Darwinists themselves.

Overall I’m very pleased with Expelled and I strongly recommend seeing it. I think anyone (except perhaps staunchly committed Darwinists) will get a very clear picture of the state of science education in this country today, and will see why such a monopoly on thinking (in other words, being closed minded) is not good for faith, for science, or for education.

Following God's Lead - Part 5 of 5

Continued from my previous post... Time to wrap this discussion up!

As I drove home from the seminary that day, and in the weeks that followed, the trust issue came to the fore. There I was pursuing (what I thought was) God's plan for me, but it wasn't working out. Finally, (I'm not really sure exactly when) it dawned on me: having trusted God to tell me where to go, would I not trust him to tell me when and how to get there?

That question seems pretty easy to answer as I look back, but at the time it was a difficult one to answer. That difficulty was compounded by some well-meaning people who thought they knew for certain what I should do, and they made it clear that they disagreed with my choices. At such a time, resolve is needed: vague feelings of trust and fuzzy intentions will not hold up. At last, through a series of converations with family, friends and God, I gradually resolved to pursue a different course from my original plan, and follow wherever it led. In other words, I had to drive a stake in the ground, so to speak, and determine to do it God's way.

I take comfort in the fact that the Apostle Paul did much the same thing in Acts. There Luke records a seemingly insignificant detail when he notes that Paul got a haircut (Acts 18:18). The reason this detail made it into the Bible is that this haircut signified the completion of a Nazirite Vow (Numbers 6), which entailed letting one's hair grow long (among other things). Paul took this vow for the duration of his stay in Corinth. When Paul had arrived in that city he was depressed, lonely, and afraid (1 Corinthians 2:3). But having received a promise from God (Acts 18:9-10) that he would be protected in Corinth, Paul took this vow as a way of driving a stake in the ground, and committing himself to God's control.

I think there are times in the life of every Jesus follower where similar action is called for. To summarize this series of posts, the idea is that following God is less about getting him to bless what I'm doing, and more about getting me to do what he's blessing. At least three things follow: 1) aligning my life's goals with his stated goals, 2) making sure my plans are revisable, and 3) trusting him.

Yet all this requires a response from me. Finding God's will isn't so much a wild goose chase or the search for a proverbial needle in a haystack. Rather, it's more about choosing to release some control over my life, and relinquishing it to him. That requires me to periodically drive a stake in the ground and determine to let him have his way, even when it doesn't make sense to me, because I trust him.

Is it time for you to grow some long, Nazirite hair (so to speak)? To press on with something you know God wants even though you can't guarantee ahead of time what the outcome will be? Speaking for myself, the times that I have done so are by far the times I've grown the most as a person and as a Jesus-follower.

I chose to blog about following God's lead because I think it's a critical aspect of successful Christian living. But it's also not an easy thing to figure out. To that end it has been helpful for me to pound out some of my thinking in these posts, and I hope it's stirred up your thinking too. That said, while it can be discussed and described to a point, mostly I think it simply has to be done to be learned, much like playing the violin or riding a bike. Maybe it's time to simply step out and start the journey.

By the way, I notice Randy Alcorn has also just written some useful thoughts on finding God's will - he must be following my lead, which he usually does. He would never admit this to you if you asked him, of course, but at least you know the truth now.

Ha! ;)

A Day Worth Celebrating

I spent this past weekend celebrating my bride's birthday - one of the most celebration-worthy days on my calendar each year. Each 20th of April marks the day God made the world a better place by bringing her into it. Her birthday also gives me an annual reminder of how she continues to improve the world around her by the way she lives her life.

Of course I could write a voluminous tome if I chose to descibe everything I've come to appreciate about Amy in the 20 years I've known her, but since blogs aren't for tomes I'll restrict myself to two things about my wife that continue to impress me.

First, she stretches her mind. Amy's never had any aspirations to become a scholarly, academic type. Yet for as long as I've known her she's spent time and energy trying to better understand God, theology, herself, and the world around her. And it's paying off as her insight continues to grow and her perspective continues to broaden. I find this incredibly refreshing in a world of "whatever" postmodernism in which many people seem reluctant to do the hard work of learning and figuring life out, preferring instead to deny that there is anything to figure out. Though she doesn't see herself this way, when I look at her I see a great example of what I think every Christian should be in this regard.
Secondly, she faces her "internal demons." It has often been said that the hardest man for us to face as people is the man in the mirror. Yet the Christian life sometimes feels like an ongoing look into the mirror that God nudges us to take, as he points out areas in our lives that he is trying to make more like Jesus. Every one of us has such things that God tries to bring to our attention, but in my personal experience they are very hard to face, to own up to, and to let him change. Amy is more willing to do this in here own life than I often am, and she inspires me in this regard. I think that takes courage, and I'm proud of her for having it.

Add to all this the fact that she's engaging, talented, and a fox, and you can perhaps start to see why I think this day so worth celebrating. I've been known to say, "I may be biased, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong!" I think that applies here.

Happy birthday sweetie; I love you.

If you know Amy and would like to post something you appreciate about her here, she'll see it (I'll be sure she does!)

Following God's Lead - Part 4 of 5

Continuing from my last post...

Trust is a big word when it comes to learning how to follow God’s lead. It’s important because when we let God drive, so to speak, we discover that he often chooses rough roads.

That’s what Paul and Silas discovered in Acts 16. They chose to “let God drive” by following his lead to Philippi when they hadn’t originally planned to go anywhere near the place. And what did they get for such faith, such awesome obedience?

They got the tar beat out of them. Literally. They were falsely accused, physically assaulted by the authorities, and unjustly imprisoned (verses 19-24). This was a heinous violation of both their rights and their dignity – a total breach of justice by an impassioned mob.

And please don’t skip ahead to the miraculous jail break! At the time their bruised, bloody carcasses and their wounded egos were summarily tossed into the pit they had no idea God was going to free them. At that moment all they knew was that following God’s lead had gotten them one thing: violated. Put yourself in their place. I can imagine the temptation to ask God “why!?” was overwhelming.

Now, my previously-related experience with revising my 5-year plan was obviously nowhere near that intense. But I can relate to the feeling that all I got from following God was a dead end.

One sunny day during the year I was out of school I had an errand at the seminary. I’ll never forget sitting in the parking lot that day and looking out my window across the lawn at Buermann Hall where most of the classes take place. I knew there were classes happening right then – classes I wanted to be in; should be in. But rather than starting a class and learning to parse Hebrew, I started the car and drove home.

At those moments the temptation to seize control is strong. It’s difficult to refrain from saying, “OK God, I did it your way and look what it got me!” It’s hard not to seize the wheel again and relegate God to the back seat.

But Paul and Silas didn’t. They refused to get mad at God and question his goodness. Instead... they sang. SANG! In the midst of terrible pain and shame, and not knowing how or even if they would escape their circumstances, they found enough perspective to sing praises to God.

This is profound trust. Even when life gives me every reason not to, even when all sensible people take my view of things, and even when they tell me I’ve certainly lived through more than my fair share of suffering (how do they determine what my “fair share” is, I wonder…) -- even then I choose to continue to trust. That was the faith of Paul, and that was the most profound thing that hit me in this chapter of the Bible.

In my case I chose to keep following his lead, and looking back I can see how he has used it for great good. But that’s easier to say in retrospect than it was to do at the time. Sometimes those dark moments, when we don’t know how it’s going to turn out and our trust is put to the test -- those are the best times to drive a stake of commitment into the ground. That’s what Paul did soon after his experience in Philippi, which I’ll write about in my final post in this series.

What has helped you maintain trust in God in dark times?

Following God’s Lead - Part 3 of 5

Continuation from my last post...

The second idea that came out of my recent study of Acts 16 is that in order for me to “do what God is blessing,” my plans must be revisable. If I’m to successfully follow God’s lead I have to be willing to let him change my direction.

That’s certainly what Paul did on this second missionary journey. The place names in verses 6-10 can get a little bewildering (a map really helps me here), but the gist of what happened is this: they leave central Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and head for the west coast. But God says no, and that’s good enough for them. So they turn around and head for the north coast up by the Black Sea. But again God says no, and again that’s good enough for them. Finally, Paul receives a vision from God calling them to Macedonia (modern Greece). You guessed it: that’s good enough for them, and so off they go.

Reads pretty easy, doesn’t it? In fact that sounds pretty simple and perhaps even obvious at first. God redirected Paul a few times - great! What‘s the big deal? Well, it may read easy but in my experience it lives hard.

How revisable are my plans? I think we usually believe our plans are more revisable than they actually are. In fact it’s often not until he tries to redirect us that we discover just how tightly we‘re holding on to our own plans. That was my certainly my experience several years ago.

In my last post I related how God called me to a career in overseas missions. Pretty neat huh? Strong calling from God, all positive and nice, a great story. Well… not really, because that call isn’t the end of the story.

After my Budapest experience Amy and I got married and moved to Portland so I could attend Western Seminary. I arrived in the Pacific Northwest with a well-thought-out plan for getting through school and embarking on a missions career within 5 years. I had covered all the bases, and since I was following God’s call I was convinced that this plan was his, not mine... until it changed.

Things started to not work out almost immediately after we moved. A series of unanticipated circumstances, over which we had very little control, threw up roadblocks at almost every turn. We began revising our 5-year plan, changing it twice a year on average, pushing it out to 6 years and then to 7. Eventually it no longer bore any resemblance at all to the plan I had first arrived in Portland with.

One of the casualties of these revisions was my schooling. I took a full load of classes my first semester of seminary, a half-load the second, and even less for my whole second year. Then by my third year of seminary (1996-97) I had to withdraw from school completely and begin working full time.

It’s difficult for me to describe how hard that was to swallow. I could handle other bumps in the road here and there, but school was different. You see, the whole reason we had come to Portland in the first place was to get me through seminary. Now there I was working a dead-end, low level secular job just to put food on the table, and not taking any classes at all. And I had no guarantee that I could resume classes the following year.

The “why” question was impossible to ignore. How could God let this happen? This was his idea - I was following his lead. Wasn’t I?

Was I?

I learned that year just how revisable my plans weren’t. It wasn’t until three years of prying at my fingers had finally made me let go of my 5-year plan that I realized just how tightly I had been holding on to it all along.

At that point I learned a valuable lesson about following God’s lead. It’s a lesson that gives me a whole new appreciation of Paul, Silas and Timothy’s willingness to let God revise the plan that made the most sense to them at the time. It’s a lesson that centers around a very important word: trust. And that lesson will be the subject of my next post on following God’s lead.

Following God's Lead - Part 2 of 5

I started this series of posts by describing the big idea that comes out in Acts 16: that following God is not about getting him to bless what I’m doing, but getting me to do what God is blessing. This idea is like an umbrella over this series of posts, and I got it from three observations in Acts 16. In the next three posts I want to relate those observations, which can help show what "getting me to do what God is blessing" looks like in real, everyday life.

The first idea is that "getting me to do what God is blessing" means that my goals must be his goals. I think it’s worth noting that the powerful leading Paul & his companions received from God in Acts 16:6-10 took place while they were serving as missionaries. In other words, every hour of their lives during this missionary journey was oriented toward the spread of the gospel. Now, I don’t think that means I have to be a missionary before I will experience God’s leading. But there is a lesson here, and I think that lesson is the more focused my life is on God’s goals, the more I can expect him to lead.

Many of us have experienced the truth of this first-hand. For example, I’ve listened to perhaps hundreds of people who have returned from short-term missions trips or service projects. The most common thing I hear them talk about is how much more aware of God’s leading they were during the trip than they normally are at home, and how much more they depended on that leading. This is usually followed by the person wondering out loud why they aren’t experiencing the same thing now that they’re home again.

Perhaps the reason is that in our "normal" life we’re not as focused on pursuing God’s agenda as we are when we're on a mission trip. When you’re on such a trip, everything is about doing ministry. You’re in a strange place where you often don’t know what to expect, and so any illusion of being in control goes out the window. Every waking moment is focused on serving, evangelizing, and building biblical community with teammates – sounds a lot like God’s agenda! I think that's why we're more aware of his leading: for those few weeks we’ve moved closer to the mainstream of what he wants from his followers all the time.

I can relate to this personally. In fact I’ve had two intense, earth-shaking, direction-altering encounters with God in my life - times when his leading was dramatic, and I followed it. The first took place in Budapest, Hungary during my senior year at Cal. I had prayed for years about what God wanted me to do with my life after college. Then I went on a 6-week mission trip in central Europe, which ended with a few days in Budapest at a hotel called the Citadella (pictured right). It was there while I was alone one night that God hit me almost physically and convinced me to pursue a career in ministry.

But this doesn't only happen on mission trips. My second such experience occurred in the family room of my old house in Fairview, Oregon. I had finished seminary, and for a few years I’d been praying about whether God wanted me to stay at the church where I was or move elsewhere. Then one morning, alone and quite unexpected, he again hit me as strongly as he had done 15 years earlier in Budapest, and impressed upon me that I was to move to the church where I now serve.

Both experiences were the culmination of years of asking big questions about what God wanted me to do with my life. In other words, at those times I was intensely seeking God’s goals in my life. Neither event happened during a ho-hum time of life where I was mostly doing my own thing.

Are my goals God’s goals? If we start aggressively pursuing that question, watch out: he may just rock our world. However if we stay safe in the simple life of "getting ahead" and being comfortable that American culture throws at us, we may never know what it’s like to have God show up powerfully. And we may never know what it’s like to move ahead with the conviction that he is in control of our course and destiny.

Have you ever had an experienced that caused you to be more aware of God’s leading than usual? What was different about that experience vs. your normal life?

This Is Really Getting Funny!

I had intended my last Peet's coffee post to be the final one, but I can't let this go without blogging about it! From the moment I made my Destiny or Coincidence post things have continued to take on a life of their own, moving from an innocent blog poll, to entering an official contest, to becoming a winner of said contest and receiving Peet's beans for a year, and now this craziness...

Our next door neighbor Robyn just told Amy, "It's not everyday I get to read about a neighbor in the newspaper." Of course Amy was completely caught off guard and didn't know what Robyn was talking about, until she explained that the Beaverton Valley Times ran a brief blurb on my contest victory. Really!

Amy and I almost couldn't believe it (they certainly didn't arrange an interview with the victor, much less even inform us) until Robyn handed us her copy of the local rag. Sure enough, under the title "Coffee Lover's Essay Earns Free Beans From Peet's" is a brief summary of "Beaverton resident Matt Guerino" and his recent triumph, along with some blah blah from a Peet's PR guy about how great the contest is going. While they didn't interview me, the VT did quote briefly from my winning essay.

This is a momumental achievement. After all, it's not just anyone who gets written about in a publication as prestigious as THE Beaverton Valley Times. Just to give you a sense of how big a deal this is, my blurb appeared on the same page that reported major headline news stories such a new web site launched by the Small Business Administration, an upcoming student art display at a local car dealership, and (most impressive of all) the grand opening of the Camp Doggie Tails full service dog salon. This is NEWS people!

So let me see: I settle the question of destiny, win free coffee for a year, and now I'm a local celebrity! What will happen next? A seat next to the Mayor at Portland's Rose Festival? Official pronouncement at this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing? An invitation to ride shotgun on the next space shuttle launch? Stay tuned...

Here I am with the newspaper and my 1st free coffee beans from Peet's!

Following God's Lead - Part 1 of 5

I apologize in advance for a slightly longer-than-normal post, but I want to tackle a pretty big question that I think we can all relate to.

I’m currently preaching through the book of Acts, and while preparing to teach from chapter 16 recently the text really hit me. I was struck by how prominent the Holy Spirit’s leading is in Luke’s narrative (especially verses 6-10), and how consciously Paul & his companions followed that lead. It caused me to ask the obvious question: do I follow his lead that deliberately? Am I even aware of how he may be leading me?

In that message I shared four ideas from Acts 16 that may be of some use as we seek to know his will for our lives. I want to restate those ideas here and in coming posts, share some of my personal experience with them, and invite you to think with me because I’m no master of how to follow the Holy Spirit! These ideas certainly don’t cover everything that could be said about this topic, but I hope they help some.

The first thing that hit me is that God seems to lead most prominently when we’re at the center of what he’s doing. After all Paul & the gang got these strong directions from God when they were on the road pursuing his stated goal of evangelizing the world, not while they were sitting back at Antioch sipping lemonade and pursuing their own dreams. The idea is that if I want to see God show up in my life powerfully, I need to move my life to where he’s powerfully showing up. Put another way, the Christian life isn’t about getting God to bless what I’m doing, it’s about getting me to do what God is blessing.

I picture a man on the shore of a powerful river flowing westward. The man wants to go south, so he drops his canoe on the riverbank facing southward, climbs in… and of course goes nowhere. Then he gets frustrated with the river for not taking him where he wants to go. At several points my life has looked rather like that silly man in the canoe! I’m heading in my own direction and wondering why God’s leading isn’t more easily discerned. The point is, if the man wants to feel the power of the river taking him somewhere he’s got to get into the center of the current – and let it sweep him away to wherever it will.

The applications of this idea are probably numerous, but here’s what occurred to me personally: Modern life hands us Americans a script which involves getting as good a job as one can, enjoying as much of life during the “working years” (by the way, where did that phrase come from?) as possible, and then “retiring” so one can enjoy life full time. Or some such thing. After reading Acts 16 I was haunted by two questions, one easy and one difficult. The easy question is: ‘does this script reflect God’s script?’ The answer, when one understands his redemptive plan, is clearly No.

The more difficult question, however, is ‘how thoroughly have I shaken off that American script and embraced God’s redemptive agenda?’ Honestly, the answer for me is… somewhat. I find as Tommy and Elizabeth grow my desire to provide everything for them does as well. That’s not all bad of course, but it does subtly pull me in the direction of earning, saving, and spending a lot on myself and my family instead of investing my time, energy, and money into God’s redemptive agenda.

I realize that if I’m not careful, I’ll raise two kids who are happy and healthy, but who don’t have a blasted clue how to live for Jesus in a meaningful way because they’ve never seen it modeled or experienced it first-hand. And beyond just my kids, I might be totally oblivious to other ministry opportunities along the way.

I’ll be transparent here: I’m not entirely comfortable with this line of thinking. But I’m trying to resist the desire to run from the haunting sensation. I don’t yet know what changes God might bring about in my life as a result. But if those changes amount to pushing my canoe further out into the main stream of where God himself is working, then I want to welcome them.

Honest question: How easy or difficult do you find it to move your life to where God is working? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Beauty and the Beach

My family spent Spring Break at Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast, and what a refreshing week it was!

The outdoors always sings to my soul. When I’m out in beautiful country the inner resonance is intense; almost physical. I find it difficult to describe, much as it would be difficult to describe a flavor. How would you describe the taste of, say, bananas to one who had never eaten anything like them before? It’s tough to put into words, but you know it immediately when you experience it.

The ocean is my second-favorite place to go in the outdoors. The fresh Pacific breezes, the roar and foam of the surf, and the incredible diversity of coastal wildlife (from birds and crabs to starfish and barnacles – even wild rabbits!) all soothe and satisfy my heart. Scenes like the now-defunct Tillamook Rock Lighthouse (below) are breathtaking.

In fact, the only place that outranks the ocean for me is mountains: real, high, forested mountains, like the Sierras and the Cascades that we enjoy here out West. The Oregon Coast Range dominates the backdrop at the beach. These mountains are smaller then the Cascades just to the east, but they’re still rugged, thickly carpeted with lush ferns, mosses, and fir trees, full of deer & elk, and laced with clear, cold rivers. At one point we even saw a pair of Bald Eagles perched majestically high in the trees overlooking the ocean!

Perhaps that’s why I like the Oregon coast so much, for it is here that rugged mountains meet powerful ocean. Both of my favorite things about the outdoors all in one place, and the scene is positively dazzling. This week brought late season snows to the mountains, as this shot from our front porch (below) shows. So one could stand on the beach facing the oncoming waves, and then turn 180 degrees and look upon snow covered mountaintops. Unreal!

What places resonate with your soul?

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