August 30, 2004

"The Curmudgeous One"?

Some Monday morning quid pro quo: Rebecca at Rebecca Writes apparently liked my entry on the Church of the Holy Horseshoe, about those KJV-only extremists who get all fired up when they see something spelled differently in their Bibles.

Meanwhile I've been working my way through her series on the attributes of God. The most recent, on God's immutability, was particularly excellent.

I'm pathetic

That's it.

I just took a look at my "on the nightstand" reading list, and discovered much to my chagrin that I have been feeding my brain nothing but science fiction (and not necessarily very good science fiction, at that) for the last month.

So, for the month of September, I am declaring a moratorium on all SF, excepting any book that I have on reserve that happens to become available. Next on deck: Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Right after I finish my re-read of Ringworld's Children . . .

August 28, 2004

Fleece, peace, and the "still small voice"

In this installment of my series on God's will, I will examine three of the most common, Biblically based methods used by some to determine what God's will is for their life at a given moment.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am limiting myself to three. This doesn't mean there aren't other methods other people use, based on the Bible. It just means I have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise these posts will be impossibly long. (In fact, if someone wants to drop me a line saying "Have you considered such-and-such verse so-and-so," along with a brief rationale why it teaches that God's will is sought through fleeces, circumstantial signs, inward promptings, or whatever, then I'll be glad to take a look at it.)

Second, I don't intend to discuss any of the really off-the-wall ideas, such as opening a Bible at random and applying the first verse their eyes happen to fall upon. Treating the Bible as a tarot deck or Magic 8-Ball is, frankly, beneath any sort of serious discussion.

"Laying out a fleece"

We all know this one. Heck, we've probably all done this one in some way or another. When we "lay out a fleece" before God, what we are doing, essentially, is seeking to know God's will in a matter by asking him to arrange circumstances to indicate his answer to our question. In his book Decision Making and the Will of God, Garry Friesen uses the humourous example of the "phone fleece": Suppose you want to ask Gladys out, but you don't know whether it is God's will that you do so. You decide that you will call her up. If the phone rings and someone answers (and you hope it's Gladys), then God is telling you to ask her out. On the other hand, if you get a busy signal, God is telling you that Gladys is not for you. (She might be accepting a date from someone else.) If there is no answer, then you will try again later. Now, be honest: This is silly. Yet you've tried something like this in the past, haven't you? I have.

The idea of a "fleece" comes from the story of Gideon, which involved a literal fleece:

And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said. And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water. And Gideon said unto God, Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew. And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground. (Judg. 6:36-40)

And so, we are told, once Gideon received the sign from God that he and his army would surely save Israel, he went out and did so. We too display Gideon's exemplary faith when we follow his example. It sounds so pious, so spiritual, so faithful. But is it? Is this story about Gideon intended to authorize the practice of laying out fleeces to determine God's will? I think not. Here is why the context of this story militates against the practice of laying out fleeces:

  1. Gideon already knew what God's will was. In fact, God had even sent an angel to tell him that he was God's chosen instrument to defeat the Midianites (Judg. 56:13-16). In fact, when Gideon requested the sign of the fleece, he acknowledged this: "And Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said . . ." (Judg. 6:36, emphasis added). He wasn't trying to find God's will, he was trying to find a way out of it.
  2. Gideon's fleece was motivated by doubt, not faith. Already knowing what God expected of him, Gideon apparently didn't believe it though the message came directly from an angel. So he requested a sign. Then he requested a second sign (Judg. 6:39), perhaps realizing that the first sign was rather stupid (there is nothing remotely miraculous about wool remaining wet after the ground has dried, after all).
  3. Gideon must have realized he was trying God's patience. He pleads with the Lord not to be angry with him for making yet another request for confirmation (Judg. 6:39).
  4. Gideon still wasn't convinced. In fact, after explicit instructions from an angel and two confirming signs, Gideon still needed to hear from the mouths of the Midianites themselves that they feared him (Judg. 7:9-15). Spying in the bushes accomplished what three supernatural events couldn't.

In short, this idea that Judges teaches us to lay out fleeces before God to know his will turns the meaning of the text around 180°. This is a classic example of misappropriation. The point is not that we should seek God's will by praying for signs. It is that God, in his grace, can use even his weakest people to accomplish his plan. Laying out fleeces in fact comes dangerously close to the pagan practice of augury - telling the future through signs and omens - which Scripture forbids.

Give peace a chance

You meet your friend Henry at church one Sunday at evening service. Henry has been house-hunting for a few months, and you decide to touch base with him and see where he's at.

"I've looked at about a dozen houses in the last few weeks," Henry says, "but none of them really seem right. They're too small, too large, too old, too run-down, or, if they're just right, too expensive."

"That's rough," you agree. "So there are no likely prospects on the horizon?"

"There is this one place," Henry replies. "It's in a nice neighbourhood, the size is about right, and because it's been on the market for some time, the owner is willing to consider a lower price than the one she's been asking. As far as I can tell, it's nearly perfect for me."

"It sounds great. What's stopping you from making an offer?"

"The problem is, I just don't know if this is the place God wants me to have. I don't want to settle for his second best. So I'm going to pray over it this week and seek his will before I do anything stupid."

Next week, you meet Henry again.

"So how's the house-hunting going? Did you decide on that one place yet?" you ask.

"Yes!" Henry replies, enthusiastically. "When I got home from church last week, I sat down and I prayed about whether that was the place God would have me buy, and when I was done, I had an incredible peace about it. So I called up the realtor the next morning and made an offer."

Peace, we are told, is one of those "signposts" God uses to confirm that we are in his will. The Scriptural rationale for this practice comes from a verse in Paul's letter to the Colossians: "let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful" (Col. 3:15). The word translated "rule" means "to govern" or "to arbitrate." It's supposedly the same word that would be used for an umpire's job in a ball game (or whatever the first-century Greek equivalent was). When we make good decisions, God gives us peace. When we make bad decisions, we lose our peace.

But, again, we have to ask whether this passage is actually teaching that our decision making ought to be governed by the presence or absence of inner peace. Here is the verse again, in its wider context:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them. But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. (Col. 3:5-17, emphasis added)

Look how often the words "one another" appear in the passage. Paul is teaching about how relationships within the Christian community ought to be. Christians are to be honest with one another; patient with one another; forgiving with one another; teaching one another. It is in the midst of this teaching that Paul writes to "let the peace of God rule in your hearts."

In other words, the "peace" that Paul is talking about is not some sort of inward peace that we experience when we do the will of God. It is an outward peace between fellow believers that we are to strive for by obeying the revealed will of God. There is a lesson about decision making and the will of God here, but it is not that if we make the right choices, God will give us peace. Rather, it is that we are to conduct ourselves in such a way that we promote peace between the brethren. Our choices must reflect this ethic.

Finding that still small voice

What do you think of when you hear the words "still small voice"? No doubt it brings to mind the "inner witness" that all Christians have, those quiet inward promptings by which we are guided by the Holy Spirit. I found it interesting, therefore, that the only commentaries on 1 Kings where I found the "still small voice" described as the internal, rather than the external, voice of God were literature that was influenced by either Quakerism or liberalism.

Picture the scene. The prophet Elijah has just scored a spectacular victory in a showdown with the false prophets of the false god Baal, forcing them to acknowledge that "YHWH, he is God" (1 Kings 18:39) before destroying them. Queen Jezebel, getting word of this, sends word to Elijah that he is a dead man. Despite seeing God's power manifested in a mighty way at Mt. Carmel, the very frightened Elijah runs for his life, eventually ending up cowering in a cave atop Mt. Horeb. Here he pours out his complaint to God: "I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away" (1 Kings 19:10).

"Wait for me on the mountain," comes God's reply. So Elijah does. Standing there in his cave, he is about to see a powerful object lesson. First a great wind rushes through the mountains, powerful enough to smash boulders. Then there is an earthquake. Then there is fire. Mt. Horeb is Sinai, the same mountain where Moses met with God and received the Old Covenant. No doubt the author of Kings is trying to recall that previous meeting to mind between the prophet and the Lord, where the presence of God was announced by fire and earthquake.

But this time, God was not in the wind. Nor was he in the earthquake, or the fire.

Rather, these spectacular displays of God's power are followed by a "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12), or as some translations render it, a "gentle breeze" or a "gentle whisper." And although the text does not say how Elijah knows this, evidently he realizes that God has finally come, and he leaves his cave to speak with him. The text says nothing about the "still small voice" being an inner voice; rather, I think we are left with the impression that it is outside. The contrast does not appear to be "inward" vs. "outward," so much as "huge, crashing, loud displays of divine power" vs. "hardly any sound at all." The lesson for Elijah is that that God is more complex than just earthquakes and fire and smashing rocks.

Again, Elijah voices his complaint. We might expect God's retort to be something along the lines of, "Look, buddy, I just shot fire from heaven. What more do you want from me?" But his actual response is a lot more surprising:

Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room. And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:15-18)

In other words, "Go and appoint a new king and your own replacement, and by the way, you're not really the only one left, you know." The point? God has already delivered a decisive blow against the false gods with the spectacular face-off on Mt. Carmel. Now it's time for the "still small voice": the quiet, subtle, yet no less devastating workings of Providence. Yes, sometimes God smashes the rocks, but more often he puts the right man in the right place at the right time.

But if the "still small voice" has nothing to do with inner nudgings from God's Spirit, is there any lesson at all from this passage about knowing and doing God's will? Yes, there is. Don't expect God to answer all your prayers in the most spectacular way possible. When you make choices, submit to the outcome of Providence. And trust that God has your best interests in mind, even if it is not immediately apparent.

Some concluding remarks

If my past experience is any guide, people have an unfortunate tendency to draw the worst possible conclusions they can from the premises I provide. "You're saying that God doesn't lead," comes the retort. Or, "You're saying that God doesn't give us peace." "You're claiming that God never speaks through circumstances." "You're saying that God never speaks to our hearts."

I respond: Read carefully. That is not what I am saying. I am willing to state, categorically, for the record, that I believe laying out fleeces to determine God's will is unbiblical and should not be done. But regarding the inward peace and the "still small voice," I am saying this, and no more than this:

These things are not taught where we are told they are taught.

But if the classic proof-text for a position, and the one place where certain traditional words are used, do not say what it is claimed they say, then where do these ideas come from?

Anyway, after four weeks of negative apologetics, I think it's about time to turn to some positive teaching, and so next time I'll turn my attention to what the Bible does say about the will of God.


Friesen, Garry L. Decision Making and the Will of God. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1980.

Provan, Iain W. 1 and 2 Kings. New International Bible Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.

See also

First in the series: Finding and doing the will of God: Prolegomena

Previous entry: God's "perfect will" and Romans 12

Next entry: God's guidance and "open doors"

Oh, not again

The honourable member for Mississauga and Erindale has put her foot in it again:

Canadian Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish had said she hated "damned Americans" and called them bastards in the run-up to the Iraq war. She found a new moniker, idiots, on Wednesday in discussing the planned U.S. missile defense system.

"We are not joining the coalition of the idiots. We are joining the coalition of the wise," the Liberal legislator told a small group of demonstrators.

Parrish, who had to apologize for her "bastards" remarks last year, at first denied using the term idiots, and when reporters pointed out they had her remarks on tape, she said: "I don't mean Americans are idiots." . . .

Parrish then begged reporters not to use the remarks: "Please guys don't put that on tape," she said. "I already got into trouble once.... Really, please, I've had enough trouble."

[Full Story]

Dear Ms. Parrish:

On behalf of Canada, our international respect, and the common good of all mankind: Shut your pie-hole.


The People

Nope, no media bias here (yet more bad abortion rights rhetoric)

From yesterday's Corner at National Review Online:

AH, REUTERS [Ramesh Ponnuru]
Doug Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, sent out a press release on the latest partial-birth ruling. Here's an email he got in response from Todd Eastham, the North American news editor for Reuters: "What's your plan for parenting & educating all the unwanted children you people want to bring into the world? Who will pay for policing our streets & maintaining the prisons needed to contain them when you, their parents & the system fail them? Oh, sorry. All that money has been earmarked to pay off the Bush deficit. Give me a frigging break, will you?"

"Mr. Eastham," I respond, "here is my two-year-old daughter. Even though I was responsible for bringing her into this world, I now feel that my responsibility has ended." From somewhere within the folds of my clothing, I produce a Glock .45 handgun and point it at her temple. "Unless you agree within the next thirty seconds to adopt her and raise her, I am going to blow her brains out."

"But . . . but -" Eastham sputters, "that's different."

"How so?" I ask. I finger the safety on my handgun, and Eastham visibly turns another shade of green.

"She's . . . a person," he stammers.

"Aha! So we finally get to the real issue, don't we?" I put the gun away, pointing out to Eastham that it was, in fact, unloaded all along. "It's not about poverty or crime. Those issues serve as distractions from the real issue. It's about the identity of the unborn. That question trumps all others. Is an unborn child a human person, or not? If she isn't, then what's the problem? If she is, then my reluctance to adopt her doesn't justify the abortionist's willingness to kill her."

Welcome to the Church of the Holy Horseshoe

A recent post on the BaptistBoard reminded me of some of the absurd lengths that some KJV-onlyists go to in their zeal to "defend" God's Pure And Inerrant Word in the English LanguageTM from the scourge of "per-versions" translated into contemporary English. A poster remarked that he had been reading 2 Timothy 3:17 aloud from the King James Version:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added)

Someone apparently took umbrage at the fact that when he reached the word throughly, he pronounced it thoroughly - a word with precisely the same meaning, only without the archaic spelling (which, as a matter of fact, some KJV editions update).

There is indeed a faction of KJV-onlyists who believe that even alterations of the spelling of KJV words are "corruptions" of the so-called pure Bible. It doesn't matter whether these differences are due to changes in usage over time (substituting sneezes for neesings, for example), pronunciation (substituting the article an for a sometimes indicates a change away from silent H's) or regional differences (the U in words like colour, Saviour, etc.). I have even encountered Web pages that claim these changes are Satanically inspired. Get a load of this article by KJV-onlyist Nick Kizziah:

Beside [sic] all this, Cambridge [University Press] has also taken the liberty of making doctrinal changes [in its edition of the KJV]. Notice the following: The capital S in the word Spirit has been changed to a lower case s in numerous passages. The capital S refers to the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead, whereas the lower case s in the word spirit could have multiple definitions such as simply referring to a mood or emotion. Its primary definition means to breath [sic]. All living self moving [sic] creatures have a spirit within them. So many definitions could apply to the word spirit when it is not capitalized.

To change the capital S in the word Spirit to a lower case s is an attack against the Godhead, the most powerful threefold cord in heaven and earth: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (emphasis in original)

Well, OK, even though I've never been confused by the difference between a capital-S and a small-s "spirit," I'll grant Kizziah this one. But here's his next point:

Here is another change that has been made in this particular edition: the word twoedged has become two-edged. They added a hyphen. . . .Why? Was this a mistake or did they mean to do it that way? Why tamper with it in the first place? Don't say you were trying to help us Cambridge. If that's the case then please don't try to help us any more. All we want you to do is to publish the same standard text of the King James Bible as you have done so very well for hundreds of years. Don't publish something that is not the standard and call it the standard. Once you modernize spelling, change capital letters to lower case letters and add hyphens, you are changing the standard text in order to please modern society.

This is getting a bit picayune. How does adding a hyphen to the word "twoedged" (following modern orthographic practices) either result in "making doctrinal changes"? How does it "please modern society"?

At this point, someone must have handed Kizziah an X-Acto Knife, because his ability to split hairs suddenly becomes the sort of thing epic poetry is written about:

Here are some other ploys that some of these other worldly publishing companies are pulling on an unaware publick [sic]. One thing a lot of them do is change the spelling of words that end with the letters o-u-r to the more modern American spelling of o-r. For example armour becomes armor. Behaviour becomes behavior. [Examples ad nauseam eliminated by me for brevity. - the Curmudgeon] . . . Well Brother Nic what's wrong with that? . . .

Now the very worst of this battle of o-u-r vs. o-r comes when dealing with the only begotten Son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The modern day counterfeiters have changed Saviour to Savior. They have given us a six-letter Savior in place of a seven-letter Saviour. In Bible numerics seven is the number of completeness, purity, and spiritual perfection. On the other hand six is the number of man which is earthly not heavenly. Every one has heard of 666. It has a bad connotation and is not highly esteemed in Bible numerics.

The seven-letter Saviour is the only begotten Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The six-letter Savior is the son of perdition, the anti christ [sic]. He wants to be like the most High (Isaiah 14:14,) but not in a good way, but in an evil way. He is not a follower. He's a counterfeiter. Therefore his final destination is the lake of fire. The new versions, along with the new age movement, and some of the King James Bible counterfeits are preparing the way for this six-letter so called [sic] Savior. That's the way he will spell his name, S-a-v-i-o-r not S-a-v-i-o-u-r. No thank you Satan. I'm sticking with the seven-letter Saviour as portrayed in the old black Book that I inherited from my forefathers. (emphasis in original)

In case you aren't sure if you read what you read: Yes, Kizziah is arguing that spelling "Savior" in the American fashion is a deliberate deception intended to prepare the world for the Antichrist. Millions of people are being enticed to worship the Beast . . . by reading their Bibles!

This kind of foolishness goes beyond mere KJV-onlyism or even Ruckmanism. I'm going to start calling these people the "Church of the Holy Horseshoe," because this is about as close as you can get to worshipping the letter U. At the very least it treats the title "Saviour" as some sort of magic word that is good if spelled correctly, but is used for evil if spelled incorrectly.

Ironically, many organizations and people that promote KJV-onlyism also promote the use of the original edition of Noah Webster's dictionary published in 1828. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if, some years from now, some extremists start claiming that this dictionary is divinely inspired in some way. The Mormons claim the Constitution is inspired; what's stopping a few psycho-fundies, who believe that the KJV was providentially translated at the time when English was supposedly at its apex, from claiming the same for their favourite dictionary (which often reflects the Biblical definitions of words anyway)? Webster had an overtly political purpose for his dictionary: to produce a distinctly American version of the English language. Most of the differences between British and American spelling can be traced to Webster. (Noah Webster also produced his own revision of the KJV in 1833, but you don't hear too many KJV-onlyists praising it. I wonder why?)

There is an electronic version of the 1828 dictionary available on the Web. Just for laughs, I looked up the offending word. If you guessed that Webster spelled it savior, you're right. Saviour, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found. How will the Church of the Holy Horseshoe resolve this apparent conflict?

There is an appropriate response to anyone who confronts you over such ridiculous trivialities as the spellings of words. Look the drama queen in the eye. Smile. Say something like "Thank you for sharing your insights." Continue with what you were doing. "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him." (Prov. 26:4).

August 25, 2004

Christian Carnival XXXII

The Christian Carnival is up at Patriot Paradox. This month I have made my first submission (and hopefully not my last), my recent article on God's will and Romans 12. (And welcome to anyone who followed one of the CC links to get here! Feel free to look around.) Kudos to Nick for throwing everything together on such short notice.

My personal favourites:

August 24, 2004

An exhaustive, not to say exhausting, list of clichés

Tom Payne of the Telegraph writes a fun article about how not to write a review, listing dozens of clichés to avoid.

I'm happy to say I've never used any of them, except for "epic," and I used it properly (the term properly refers to subject matter and scope, not length). Oh, and I use the word "codswallop" a lot, but never in constructions such as "pure unadulterated codswallop."

August 23, 2004

Why kids are fat

The latest innovation from the public edumukashun geniuses:

Concerned about safety and injuries and worried about bullying, violence, self-esteem and lawsuits, school officials have clamped down on the traditional games from years past.

Gone from many blacktops are tag, dodgeball and any game involving bodily contact. In are organized relay races and adult-supervised activities.

[Full Story]

Tag and dodgeball are fun. I am speaking as one who, not being particularly athletic, spent a lot of time being It and has a permanent kickball imprint on the back of his head.

"Adult-supervised" relay races, on the other hand, suck. "Playday" was punishment for not being good enough to participate in the track and field meet. When I reached grade 7, I started volunteering to be a timekeeper at the track just so I wouldn't have to lead a Playday team.

A few years from now, recess will involve bouncing a ball in unison, like those kids in A Wrinkle in Time. Assuming no one hits their foot with the ball, resulting in self-esteem issues and a lawsuit.

Light reading (ahead geek factor 5)

If you've been following the reading list on my sidebar (assuming anyone cares what other people do in their spare time), then you've probably noticed that I've gone through an awful lot of Star Trek-related materials in the last couple of weeks.

There's a reason for that: with a move pending, I wanted to minimize the amount of borrowed stuff, library books included, that I carted across town. So I finished off all my hardcover literature and returned it, but to make sure I still had some reading, grabbed one or two Star Trek paperbacks. This way, if I finished them, I could return them; if not, I could stow them pretty much anywhere, even in my pocket if I had to. However, this particular reading habit got a little out of control.

When I was a kid, I was crazy about the original Star Trek. Part of this was a sort of "absence makes the heart grow fonder" sort of thing, because as it happened I didn't have the show on TV when I was growing up. Every summer my family would visit my grandmother in Nova Scotia for a couple of weeks, and the high points of these visits were always 1) her cooking; and 2) getting to watch Star Trek once a year on Saturday afternoon. On the other hand, the local public library had a complete set of the James Blish short stories based on the original series episodes. Right from the start, then, Star Trek for me was more a written than a visual medium. (Considering how poorly the production values of the original series have aged since the 1960s, perhaps it isn't a bad thing.) Anyway, this means that I have always had a fondness for the near-infinite Star Trek publishing franchise. If nothing else, a Star Trek novel is a light read that is about familiar characters and situations, doesn't tax your imagination overmuch, and can be polished off in a couple of hours. So unlike Dickens, it's perfect for the bus.

In particular, I tend to prefer the more "epic" stories, of the kind Simon & Shuster tends to publish in hardcover, to the more formulaic ones. These novels often deal with "origin stories" or backplot, or fill in details from between the various series, and tend to be written by more experienced authors. It is some of the more recent publications of this type that I have been concentrating on, and I thought it might be fun just to post a paragraph or two of my general impressions of each.

  • The Genesis Wave by John Vornholt (2001): Someone has discovered the secret of the Genesis device (as seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and is using it to destroy and remake inhabited planets. Picard and crew must find out who is responsible and stop them before the Genesis wave reaches Earth.

    Ack. Vornholt really doesn't seem very good at this, and the plot just seems very repetitive: planet in danger, Enterprise attempts to save or evacuate planet, planet gets destroyed, Enterprise collects data to use for the next planet in danger, and so forth. Ultimately the culprit is revealed and is so corny it could have come from a Voyager episode. Plus, Vornholt seems to be a little too enamoured with unnecessarily introducing cameos of old bit parts: Geordie's old love interest, warp engineer Leah Brahms; Carol Marcus from Star Trek II; Maltz the Klingon from Star Trek III; and so forth. The character development is lousy, particularly the relationship/love triangle thingy involving LaForge, Brahms and a throwaway character. And the plot is driven by a glaring continuity gaffe: Maltz, supposedly the only witness to the original deployment of Genesis in the 23rd century, wasn't there at the time. The story was originally published in two books, and then Vornholt attempted to continue it in a third volume; I didn't bother with more than the first 10 pages of that one.

  • The Valiant by Michael Jan Friedman (2001). This is the story of how Jean-Luc Picard got his first command. On a mission outside the galactic rim to protect an unknown human colony from a powerful alien attacker, the USS Stargazer is ambushed, leaving the captain dead and second officer Picard in charge. Outgunned by the enemy, too far away from the Federation to call for help, and opposed by many of the ship's officers, Picard must rely on his wits to defeat the marauding Nuyyad.

    Friedman is more experienced at this kind of story than Vornholt, and it shows. In the spirit of Star Trek II he draws on a plot point from one of the original series episodes: the destruction of the USS Valiant by powerful telepathic mutant humans created when the ship crossed the Great Barrier, as describe in "Where No Man Has Gone Before." The plot and characterization are good, but the story has one significant weakness: we never get to meet the Nuyyad, or even learn what they want, before Picard just blows them up. Still, it was a fun read, and other authors have taken Friedman's novel seriously enough to borrow some of his non-canonical characters for themselves.

  • Vulcan's Forge by Josepha Sherman and Susan Schwartz (1998): Another origin story, this time of how Spock came to join Starfleet. Following the disappearance of Captain Kirk in the Nexus, Spock comes to the aid of an old friend afcing a crisis at a Federation outpost on a desert planet. Flashback chapters parallel the current situation with the story of how Spock and his friend met as boys, while escaping from a hostage situation and surviving one of the harshest environments on the Vulcan landscape.

    This is probably one of the best of the Star Trek tie-in novels that I have ever read. Substitute non-proprietary characters and situations, and you have a decent SF novel in its own right. Sherman and Schwartz do an excellent job of generating a plausible backstory for the young Spock and how he was impressed enough by the resourcefulness of his human friend to join Starfleet against his father's wishes. Right now I'm about halfway through the sequel, Vulcan's Heart, about the beginning of Spock's secret mission to Romulus (as seen in the TNG two-parter "Reunification"). It's not as good, but nonetheless a worthy sequel.

  • New Frontier by Peter David (1998): Actually, it was an omnibus edition of the first four books in this series. Veteran Star Trek author David departs from the usual practice of centring adventures around the canonical crews, introducing the crew of the starship USS Excalibur, asssembled to maintain a Federation presence in the beleaguered Thallonian Empire.

    These four stories in particular are a tad threadbare, but since they introduce the principals and set the context for Excalibur's mission, I cut them a bit of slack. (TNG's first four episodes weren't anything special either!) The ship's new crew includes Captian MacKenzie Calhoun, a former terrorist who doesn't like to play by the book; a very short-tempered, very sarcastic, nearly indestructible security officer; a helmsman that falls asleep when he's not needed; a lecherous hermaphrodite chief engineer; and minor TNG characters Commander Shelby, engineer Robin Lefler, and Dr. Selar. David has had a long career as a storywriter for the comics, and it shows in his exaggerated characterizations. I think there are a couple dozen books in this series by now, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

  • Starfleet: Year One by Michael Jan Friedman (2001): This is the one-volume edition of a story originally published in serial form in 1999 as a bonus in other Star Trek novels. The war with the Romulans is over, the Neutral Zone is established, and the United Federation of Planets has been founded for mutual protection and aid. Construction has begun on the first Starfleet vessel, the USS Daedalus. This novel is a sort of 22nd-century The Right Stuff, telling the story of the first six Starfleet captains, one of whom will be chosen to command the Daedalus (and therefore become the legendary first starship captain).

    It's not a bad story, and it's not Friedman's fault that it is flatly contradicted by the series Enterprise; after all, he was writing Starfleet: Year One two years before anyone had a clue what the new Star Trek series would be all about. Otherwise, the plot of this novel would have made a decent basis for a prequel movie, had they ever wanted to make one. No doubt the drooling fanboys could find a way to shoehorn this novel into some semblance of harmony with the canonical materials, but I would rather just enjoy it for what it is: an engaging story, which circumstances unfortunately prevented from going anywhere further.

August 22, 2004

God's "perfect will" and Romans 12

(OK, this is way late, thanks to bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew syndrome with this particular topic. Which means a twofer this week.)

There are two ways in which the phrase "God's perfect will" is generally used. One is synonymous with what theologians often call God's "decretive" will, as opposed to his "preceptive" will. God willing (pun intended), I will unpack both those terms in the future, but they do not concern us for the moment. The second way could also be termed God's "individual" will: what God wants you to choose to do in any given circumstance.

Biblically speaking, the phrase "God's perfect will," or at least words to that effect, occurs only once:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)

Some teachers take this verse to mean that there is a "perfect will of God" which it is our responsibility to discover and do. By contrast, God also has his "permissive will" - that is, God permits us to follow our own choices (or "self-will") although he may not approve of them. Although being in the permissive will may not actually be sinful, and God may bless the results of the choice, it is nonetheless a serious mistake to allow oneself to fall out of his perfect will into his permissive will. (Some teachers, such as Tim LaHaye in his book Finding the Will of God in a Crazy, Mixed-Up World, take this distinction even farther, claiming that the "good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" are in fact three progressive levels of God's will.)

For example: Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that God has ordained a specific, ideal spouse for everyone. That is, it is God's perfect will for my life that I should marry, say, Alice. If I do, then Alice and I are in God's perfect will along with all its attendant blessings. But what if I don't? Let's suppose that in a moment of "running ahead of the Lord" I embarked a missions trip to Africa for a year. Meanwhile, Alice moved to Ottawa and visited my church one week. Had I not been so self-willed, I would have met her there and we would have hit it off. As it was, our paths never crossed, and now that I have failed to join with my God-appointed spouse, I am out of God's perfect will. If I marry Betty, Christine, or Debbie, or no one at all, I am permanently and irrevocably relegated to God's permissive will. Sure, God will bless my marriage, but not as much as he would if I had married Alice. Sorry, Betty, you're "God's second best."

It gets worse. According to this paradigm, it is entirely possible for someone to be kicked out of God's perfect will though they did nothing themselves to cause it. LaHaye admits as much in his book (somewhat reluctantly, it seems to me). Because Alice never met me, her appointed husband, and I am now married to Betty, now Alice too is permanently and irrevocably bumped into God's permissive will, because she never met me and I was her appointed husband. It doesn't matter whether Alice marries Ed, Fred, or no one. Through no fault of hers, she too must settle for "God's second best."

It still gets worse. Since I married the wrong person, both Betty and I are out of God's perfect will. So is Alice for not marrying me, and so is Fred, whom she eventually married. But Betty and Fred also had that one person whom God had appointed for them, and now those people are out of God's will too! And on and on and on, and eventually the entire human race is inflicted with a bad case of "God's second best." Anyone for a game of dominoes?

It's no wonder that for so many people, finding God's will is so frustrating. One wrong move, and you destroy humanity. Either that, or - and frankly, I think this is actually the case - there is a serious failure on the part of the "permissive will" people to think through their position and all its ramifications.

Fortunately, Romans 12 does not teach that God has an ideal "perfect will" for every individual's life.

Romans 12 marks the end of Paul's "theology" portion of the letter, and the beginning of the "application" portion. In light of all that he writes in chapters 1-11 about what God has done for his people, he is about to explain to them how they ought to conduct themselves in return as citizens of heaven. He begins by instructing them to "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." In the old covenant, God demanded the death of sacrificial animals in return for forgiveness of sins. However, in the new covenant, Christ's sacrifice of himself has accomplished all that the animal sacrifices never could. There is no longer any need for another to die. Hence, we are "living sacrifices" - we dedicate our lives to God's service as an act of worship.

He adds: "be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (v. 2). In other words, don't copy the world's way of thinking, but allow your thoughts to be conformed to God's revealed will. This is so that "ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." Paul doesn't mean that we "prove" the will of God to others, like we would prove a point in a debate; rather, we prove it to ourselves through experience, as the psalmist writes, "taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him" (Psa. 34:8).

Paul also lists three characteristics of the will of God:

  • It is good. It asks only what is right.
  • It is acceptable. That is, it is acceptable to God. He is pleased when we obey his precepts.
  • It is perfect. That is, it is complete, lacking nothing.

For the remainder of chapter 12, as well as chapters 13 through 15, Paul outlines a number of ways in which this is lived out practically.

First, it is the will of God that we build up the Church (12:3-8). Paul uses one of his favourite analogies for the Church: one body with many parts. God has made us all different, giving us different abilities and gifts with which to serve one another. Many people agonize unnecessarily about "finding their spiritual gift," just as they do with "finding God's will for my life." Why? Do you see a need in the body? Can you meet it? It is God who has given you that ability. Take advantage of it! No one will file a grievance.

It is the will of God that we love one another (12:9-16; 13:8-15:13). Our love for the brethren is to be sincere, sympathetic, and sacrificial. In loving our neighbour as ourselves, Paul writes, we sum up all of God's commandments (13:10). this love involves preserving the faith of others, which means that sometimes we ought to limit our liberty to do what is otherwise harmless, so as not to cause those whose faith is weaker to sin.

It is the will of God that we live at peace with our neighbours (12:17-21). I am not a pacifist, nor do I believe that Christians are called to be pacifists. Nonetheless, I believe we are called to be peaceful. It is not for us to instigate conflict; rather, "as much as lieth in you, [to] live peaceably with all men" (12:18). Last year, a Baptist church in Kansas erected a huge flag on their campus, illuminated with six spotlights. When some of the locals complained about the glare, it touched off a legal conflict in which the church stood up for its right to display the flag. Eventually the matter was resolved in the church's favour. Notwithstanding the issues surrounding ostentatious displays of patriotism, was defying the neighbours consistent with pursuing peace with them? Or could the church have kept the peace and respected flag protocol: for example, by flying a smaller version and lowering it nightly?

It is the will of God that we respect the civil authorities (13:1-7). Ultimately all authority comes from God; Jesus told even Pontius Pilate that he had no authority outside what had been granted to him from above (John 19:11). When we obey the government, therefore, we obey God. There are times when what the state demands comes in conflict with what God commands, and at those time we are to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), but where there is no conflict, we are to obey the authorities. Good Christians make good citizens.

It is the will of God that we live righteously (13:11-14). We are living in the last days, Paul writes, and since our salvation is at hand, we should always conduct ourselves as though we were in broad daylight and all eyes are upon us (13:12), rather than how people behave in the dark where no one can see them.

To sum up, then: When faced with a decision, go through a mental checklist. Will my choice stengthen the church, or weaken it? Will it demonstrate love for the brethren, or self-interest? Will it promote peace with others, or create strife? Does it respect the civil authorities, or defy the law? And is the choice morally right, or sinful?

Next time: Peace, fleece, and the "still small voice."


Bruce, F. F. The Letter of Paul to the Romans. 2nd ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leicester: Inter-Varsity; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

LaHaye, Tim. Finding the Will of God in a Crazy, Mixed-Up World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

See also

First in the series: Finding and doing the will of God: Prolegomena

Previous entry: God's guidance: A voice from the past

Next entry: Fleece, peace, and the "still small voice"

August 21, 2004

Another word you can't use anymore

When Mike Johnson, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents conservative politicians and "pro-family" organizations, called Rawls a "homosexual," Rawls charged at Johnson. Rawls' voice rose and his face turned red, and he approached Johnson, pointed his finger at him and labeled him a "homophobe."

"I am not a homosexual," Rawls angrily told Johnson. "I am a gay man."

Rawls considers the term "homosexual" derogatory. "No one calls me the 'h' word," he said later. . . .

"He just went nuts. I was shocked by it," Johnson said of the courtroom encounter. "He lunged at me because I used the word 'homosexual.' I thought that was an appropriate term, I didn't know it was derogatory."

[Full Story]

Another perfectly good word is finding its way onto the Forbidden Word List. Is that gay, or what?

August 19, 2004

Dork, part deux

It's not just football (we're fair and balanced here at the CC).

August 18, 2004

Hyper-bureaucratic nonsense, from the makers of OlympicTM brand feats of strength

For your protection and ours we have established a procedure for parties wishing to introduce a link to the ATHENS 2004 website on their site. By introducing a link to the ATHENS 2004 official Website on your site you are agreeing to comply with the ATHENS 2004 Website General Terms and Conditions.

Not bloody likely. You have to read this to believe it.

August 17, 2004


On the one hand, it's awfully nice of Blogger to add a Google search toolbar.

On the other, it's mangled my template and rendered all the work I did adding Google to the blogroll redundant. Pardon the mess while I rework things.

Update: There, that's better. Luckily Blogger's system colours also coordinate, somewhat, with my own.

August 14, 2004

Lights out, uh-huh, flash flash flash

It just occurred to me this afternoon that today is the first anniversary of the big blackout that switched off most of Ontario and New England.

So far so good. (Fortunately it's also been a cooler summer, as my new pad doesn't have that central air conditioning that my apartment did last year.)

Loving cat to a good home

Apparently this is a few years old, but it seems to be making the rounds on the Net and happens to be the most hysterical thing I've seen all week. Far be it from me not to get on the bandwagon:

Pinky the Cat (3 MB WMV file, courtesy of Rock 103 in Memphis)

Additional: Woke up this morning and wandered into the bathroom. I spotted something cute and fuzzy lurking behind the toilet, and naturally thought of Pinky . . . After the heart attack ended, it turned out it wasn't a hellcat after all, just a pet rabbit, which belongs to one of my housemates and obviously escaped its cage. Shooed it back into the empty room. Disaster averted.

August 13, 2004

Flavoured with what?

This just in:

Oklahoma City-based Neighbors Coffee is recalling nearly 20,000 pounds of nut-flavored whole-bean coffee because it contains undeclared almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and pecans. People with allergies can suffer serious and life-threatening reactions to the nuts. . . . .

The recalled coffee flavors are Almond Amaretto, Banana Nut Creme, Butter Pecan, Caramel Nut, Chocolate Hazelnut, Chocolate Pecan Fudge, Cinnamon Chocolate Almond, Coco Cabaret, Coco Mocho Nut, Dark Roast Hazelnut, Dutch Chocolate Almond, Frangelico Creme, French Vanilla Almond, Hazelnut, Hazelnut Creme, Holiday Cheer, Honey Maple Praline, Mochadoodle, Nutterfinger, Pralines and Creme, Snickerdoodle, Sooner Smoother, Southern Pecan, Toasted Almond and Vanilla Nut Creme.

[Full Story]

Whaaaaaaaa? There are nuts in nut-flavoured coffee? Pull the other one! (And don't forget to write "Warning: Coffee is Hot (can you say 'Hot'?)" on your mugs when you serve it to your guests!)

August 12, 2004

We got books

I'm about 50 pages into Larry Niven's new one, Ringworld's Children. So far, so good, which is a relief considering the dog's breakfast he made of The Ringworld Throne. Review will be forthcoming in a few days, I guess.

And now . . . this

This just in from Rome:

A retired Italian man could face up to a year and a half in prison if found guilty of killing his six pet hamsters and one guinea-pig by throwing them off his terrace into passing traffic.

The man, detained by police after the guinea-pig crashed into the windshield of a car, told officials that he had accidentally knocked the animals off his terrace while sweeping, AGI news agency reported on Thursday.

[Full Story]

I'm sorry, this is probably one of those stories that I really shouldn't be laughing so hard at. But when you read deathless prose like:

By studying the trajectory of the pets' bodies they were able to identify the man's apartment.

you just gotta.

8,000 Californians now living in sin!

The Associated Press reports:

The California Supreme Court on Thursday voided the nearly 4,000 same-sex marriages sanctioned in San Francisco this year and ruled unanimously that the mayor overstepped his authority by issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

[Full Story]

No word on whether SF mayer Gavin Newsom is to be sanctioned for overstepping his authbreaking the law.

August 11, 2004

God's guidance: A voice from the past

A couple of years ago, I received a lecture on cassette titled "Decision Making and the Will of God" by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. Early in the talk, Koukl remarked that the "feeling led" paradigm for God's guidance was only around 150 years old. This intrigued me, so, feeling the research bug, I fired off a quicky email to STR to ask for a source; they responded that Koukl had been citing J. I. Packer, specifically his book Hot Tub Religion. Meanwhile, I came across the chapter titled "God's Guidance" in his indispensible volume Knowing God, which makes the same claim as to the recent history of this decision-making paradigm. (Unfortunately, at the time of writing, both these volumes are unavailable to me to cite directly. Pardon my paraphrase; if this series ever goes anywhere it'll be up to MLA standards, to be sure!)

In Knowing God, Packer quotes extensively from Hannah Whitall Smith, best known for her devotional book, The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life. Smith was the Quaker writer and evangelist who, along with her husband J. Pearsall Smith, was involved in the Holiness movement that grew out of Wesleyan theology in the United States. They moved to Great Britain in 1872 and became two of the founders of the Keswick Holiness movement, in which the "higher life" or "victorious Christian living" was attained through "absolute surrender" or "yielding" to the Holy Spirit. I am currently persuaded that Smith is a contemporary observer of the origins of this paradigm. (Of course, my research continues, and if I can push the history farther back, I will do so.)

Smith was right in the midst of this movement, one of its founders. For example, in chapter 4 of The Christian's Secret, she writes:

[W]e mean an entire surrender of the whole being to God; spirit, soul, and body placed under His absolute control, for Him to do with us just what He pleases. We mean that the language of our soul, under all circumstances, and in view of every act, is to be, "Thy will be done." We mean the giving up of all liberty of choice. We mean a life of inevitable obedience. . . .

But this faith of which I am speaking must be a present faith. No faith that is exercised in the future tense amounts to anything. A man may believe forever that his sins will be forgiven at some future time, and he will never find peace. . . . And, similarly, no faith which looks for a future deliverance from the power of sin, will ever lead a soul into the life we are describing. The enemy delights in this future faith, for he knows it is powerless to accomplish any practical results. But he trembles and flees when the soul of the believer dares to claim a present deliverance, and to reckon itself now to be free from his power.

To sum up, then: in order to enter into this blessed interior life of rest and triumph, you have two steps to take: first, entire abandonment; and second, absolute faith. No matter what may be the complications of your peculiar experience, no matter what your difficulties or your surroundings or your associations, these two steps, definitely taken and unwaveringly persevered in, will certainly bring you out sooner or later into the green pastures and still waters of this higher Christian life.

And from chapter 7 we can see something of the "centre of God's will" having its origin in the Higher Life movement:

The common thought is, that this life hid with Christ in God is to be lived in the emotions, and consequently all the attention of the soul is directed towards them, and as they are satisfactory or otherwise, the soul rests or is troubled. Now the truth is that this life is not to be lived in the emotions at all, but in the will, and therefore the varying states of emotion do not in the least disturb or affect the reality of the life, if only the will is kept steadfastly abiding in its centre, God's will.

Michael Horton has written that the Higher Life movement "turned many classical Protestants into evangelical mystics overnight." It shifted the emphasis of holiness from obedience to God's righteousness, to surrender to God's Spirit. And thanks to the influence of Dallas Theological Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer, his book He That is Spiritual, and countless Bible conferences, these ideas exploded all over the church during the 20th century. And it's still with us: most notably, perhaps, in the literature of Campus Crusade for Christ, particularly their "Spirit-Filled Life" tract. Little wonder, then, that so many Christians believe that "knowing God's will" involves surrendering one's own capacity to make decisions.

In her lesser known work Religious Fanaticism, compiled posthumously by her son, Smith explains a model of knowing God's will that will be familiar to many:

[T]he only real safe guidance ever to follow is one's conviction of right. These convictions are always made up of the harmony of God's four especial voices, i.e. the voice of the Bible, the voice of circumstances, the voice of one's highest reason, and the voice of one's inward impression. (Smith Religious Fanaticism 158-59)

Scripture, circumstance, common sense, and inward impressions. Are these not some of the "signposts" commonly said to point to God's will on some matter? If we added prayer and wise counsel to the list, it might look more familiar.

However, Smith was not so naïve as some on this subject. She recognized the potential for abuse or misguidance; indeed, she found the over-emphasis on those little inward nudges to be the very basis of much of what she termed "fanaticism":

After careful study of the subject of Fanaticism, and a great deal of most intimate intercourse with the Fanatics, I have come to the conclusion that the whole explanation of it lies in the fact that the emotional nature is allowed absolute control. . . . the first beginning of this emotional evolution comes generally from the fact that people take their inward impressions as being the voice of the Lord. I cannot speak too strongly about this. Every fanaticism that I have ever known has begun by the following of these inward impressions. It is a most delightful doctrine to believe that God guides His people, and that it is really true that "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord," and it is very natural that every Christian heart should want to know this guidance. The difficulty is how to get at it, and one of the easiest solutions of this difficulty seems very often to lie in a yielding to interior impressions. (155-57)

The mistake arises from limiting the voice of the Lord to impressions only, and not recognizing that His voice comes to us in many other ways, and that the real voice of the Lord must be one in which all His different voices harmonize. . . . If there is a contradiction in the voices, the speaker cannot be the same. (157-58)

About the middle third of the book consists of anecdotes of personal encounters with people who were sincerely trying to know God's will but got the "impressions" right out of balance. Consider this extreme example:

[H]er first conscious thought was to consecrate the day to the Lord, and to ask Him to guide her every step of the way throughout the whole day. She would then ask Him whether she was to get up or not; and, very often, although it was apparently very important that she should get up, the Lord told her to stay in bed. Then, perhaps, in a few minutes the voice would order her to get up. Then she would proceed to get up. As she put on each article she asked the Lord whether she was to put it on, and very often the Lord would tell her to put on the right shoe and leave off the other; sometimes she was to put on one stocking and leave off the other; sometimes she was to put on both stockings and no shoes; and sometimes both shoes and no stockings; it was the same with all the articles of dress. She said also that often during the day, when she was seated at work, the Lord would tell her to get up and go out of the room, and when she god out would tell her to come back. And often she would be told to move from one chair to the other, or to go and stand on the front doorstep, or do all sorts of erratic things. She said that the object of this was to make her pliable so that she would be ready to follow the guidance of the Lord on the instant. (184)

Another such story involves a boarder in a house who, convinced that the Lord was leading her to give her landlord an object lesson, swiped a sum of money. Needless to say, this didn't go over well. In yet another anecdote, Smith recounts the shock of hearing that an acquaintance frequently "felt led" to help friends experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit by lying with them, unclothed, in bed, apparently in disregard of, or oblivious to, the inappropriateness of such behaviour.

As an antidote to this kind of fanaticism, Smith suggests the rather radical notion (for someone steeped in Holiness thinking) that all one truly needs to discern the will of God in a given situation is the teaching of Scripture, informed by one's own God-given wisdom:

I would, therefore, always urge every seeker after the deep things of God to ignore emotions and care only for convictions. . . . Beware of impressions, beware of emotions, beware of physical thrills, beware of voices, betware of everything, in short, that is not according to the strict Bible standard and to your own highest reason. (164)

Finally, have you ever had a friend (or maybe even you yourself) who sincerely wanted to get married or do missions or some other "big" decision, but was racked with indecision because he was afraid of missing God's will for his life? Smith admits that her main motivation for acting was simply to do the right thing in a given circumstance:

Out of all my personal experiences as to Divine Guidance I feel at last that my guidance mostly came in very commonplace ways, and chiefly through impulses of kindness or courtesy. Nearly always when I did things purely to oblige people or to be kind to them, without any especial thought of guidance, they were very apt to turn out to have been the most direct guidance possible and to have led to quite remarkable results. (251)

There are numerous problems with this mystical paradigm for decision making, amongst them:

  • Rather than foster Christian maturity, it actually stunts it. Scripture says that spiritual children are expected to grow into adults, for example: "As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby" (1 Pet. 2:2). As a child grows into adulthood, does he come to rely more on his father to make decisions for him, or less? Less, of course. One of the tasks of parenting is to impart that practical wisdom into children that will enable them to make decisions and act independently. Higher Life teaching gets this exactly backwards, saying that the heavenly Father's increased micro-management of even the most minute details of our lives (such as the order in which we put on our shoes) is a sign of spiritual maturity rather than immaturity.
  • Subjective impressions often trump objective truth. No doubt the woman who stole her landlord's money knew that the Bible teaches, "Thou shalt not steal" (Exod. 20:15). But that didn't stop her from ignoring the objective standard of God's moral law in favour of her subjective impulses which, we may assume, she took to be signs of her "yielding" to the Holy Spirit. Again, to quote Michael Horton,

    these "victorious Christian life" proponents lowered the expectations of the Law. No longer did God require absolute perfection, but "absolute surrender." . . . God's Law is replaced with "suggestions," short-circuiting the conviction of sin, while God's Gospel is basically merged together with this single category of "suggestions" and "beseechings." It is neither Law nor Gospel, but a confusion of both.

  • It is unworkable in daily life. This truth is borne out in the fact that most Christians don't try, at least publicly, to "sense" God's leading in all the mundane decisions they make. This kind of discernment is reserved for the big ones: Which car should I buy? Should I marry this person? Am i being called to the ministry? No one wonders whether God is leading him to eat chicken or tuna sandwiches for lunch today, let alone which shoe to put on first. If we did, Hannah Smith's anecdotes wouldn't seem so bizarre. Realizing that nothing would be accomplished if God's perfect will must be sought for every single choice, the paradigm is simply applied inconsistently and ditched for all the small decisions.

Next time, I will examine a Biblical prooftext used by some teachers to argue that God's will is something like an itinerary for our lives which it is our responsibility to discover and follow. Does God have a personal will for our lives with multiple "levels"?


"Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-Filled Life?" Jesus Who? Homepage. Campus Crusade for Christ. 28 Oct. 2003. 11 Aug. 2004 <>.

Horton, Michael S. "The Higher Life at the Orlando Prayer Summit." Modern Reformation. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 11 Aug. 2004 <>.

Smith, Hannah Whitall. The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 11 Aug. 2004 <>.

---. Religious Fanaticism. Ed. Ray Strachey. London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928.

See also

First in the series: Finding and doing the will of God: Prolegomena

Next entry: God's "perfect will" and Romans 12

August 09, 2004

Aaaaand we're back

Getting my connection back up wasn't as painful as it was last time, and my landlady even let me reconfigure the wireless router myself. Woo hoo!

August 06, 2004


John Kerry again tries to prove to the American voting public that he isn't an effete New England aristocrat. (And you thought the blue bunny suit was bad.)

Pardon me

Due to a pending move, blogging may be sporadic for the next little while as I pack, and then while I figure out whether I've got Internet access at home.

I was working on a survey of Hannah Whitall Smith's observations concerning God's guidance which should have been posted on Wednesday, but will be delayed until next week.

August 03, 2004

Roger Ebert is a hack

Way back in 1999, a sleeper hit by a new director, M. Night Shyamalan, made a bundle of money thanks to word of mouth. When I heard that The Sixth Sense was a horror flick, I gave it a pass, as generally speaking that sort of thing isn't my cup of tea. (Horror fiction, on the other hand . . . well, it's no secret that Stephen King is my favourite novelist.) I think I actually felt my brain putting all the pieces together at the end. "This guy is the next Alfred Hitchcock," I thought.

By contrast, Shyamalan's next effort, Unbreakable, was also good, but by the time the credits rolled I didn't feel that the payoff was as great. Still, it was an excellent play on comic-book conventions.

I have yet to see Signs, but now that I've seen Shyamalan's latest release, The Village, I'll soon be beating a path to the friendly neighbourhood video store to rent a copy.

The Village opens with the funeral of a seven-year-old boy; according to the date on his headstone, the year is 1897, and the setting is a New England village isolated from the rest of the world by forest. It is ruled by a council of elders, most significantly the schoolteacher, Edward Walker (William Hurt), and the widow Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver). About 100 people live a quiet, peaceful life, eating communal meals and raising crops and livestock.

All is not well, however, because the villagers live in fear of "Those We Do Not Speak Of" (whom for brevity I shall call "Those" hereafter), carnivorous creatures that lurk in the woods. The villagers and Those have an uneasy truce: the people don't go into the woods, and Those don't come into the village. Anything red (the "bad colour") is forbidden within the village and must be buried, as it attracts Those. On the other hand, the perimeter is marked with poles sporting torches, yellow flags, and yellow paint blazes, and those walking near the perimeter are required to wear yellow hooded robes (yellow being the "safe colour"). Occasionally a slab of meat is thrown out of the village, apparently as an appeasement. The unseen creatures make feral noises in the forest; a popular game amongst the young men is to stand at the perimeter with their backs to the woods, and see who can last the longest before succumbing to his terror. Obviously, Those We Do Not Speak Of are spoken of an awful lot.

The village blacksmith, the taciturn Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) believes that the young boy's death was avoidable. When Noah, the village idiot, played adeptly by Adrien Brody (The Pianist), ventures into the woods and returns unharmed with bright red berries, Lucius forms a theory that Those are attracted to fear. Since Noah does not fear them, he was safe. Since Lucius himself does not fear Those, he wants to leave the village and go to "the towns" where they have medicines that will save lives. However, he is refused permission since the founding families of the village, having all suffered tragedy in the towns, formed the settlement as a refuge from the evils of the rest of the world. To break that isolation would deny all the village stood for.

Meanwhile, someone discovers that some of the livestock has been mutilated, and the culprits are automatically assumed to be Those. And when Lucius defies the law of the elders by deliberately stepping outside the borders, Those retaliate by coming into the village and, while the occupants huddle in their cellars, leaving bright red slash marks on the doors of the houses. Apparently, the truce is deteriorating.

But when Lucius himself lies dying of an injury, his devoted fiancée Ivy Walker (played beautifully by newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind daughter of the elder Edward Walker, insists on going to the towns in his place. Edward, realizing that Lucius' injury is due to circumstances that by rights ought to overrule the laws of the village, but unable to go himself because of his vow as elder, reluctantly permits her to leave. (As the remainder of the story relies upon Shyamalan's trademark plot twists, I will say no more about the plot itself.)

It's no fault of Shyamalan's, I presume, that the marketing for this movie has been a bit of a bait-and-switch. The trailers make it look like a horror movie something along the lines of The Blair Witch Project, which it isn't. It's a morality tale reminiscent of the original Twilight Zone. Then again, Shyamalan is a master of misdirection and manipulation in the same style as Alfred Hitchcock, so maybe he was in on the joke. The monsters-in-the-woods motif is a veneer for the real themes of the story: love and devotion, loyalty to family and community, the evils of the world and the lengths that some people will go to to shelter their loved ones from its influence.

This isn't to say that The Village isn't a nail-biter. Take a date, and count the number of times she jumps. Tension is high every time Those are on camera, despite the fact that every one of their appearances is telegraphed. This is largely due to Roger Deakin's excellent cinematography, which is downright claustrophobic in all the right places. Deakin uses handheld cameras and extreme closeups to hide, rather than reveal. The tension is heightened by the sound; excellent use is made of the theatre's aural space, especially in the forest scenes, where noises both natural and unnatural come from all sides. James Newton Howard, who has scored all of Shyamalan's movies to date, provides a suitably haunting accompaniment featuring Hilary Hahn on violin. You can bet I'll be adding this CD to my collection.

Another of Shyamalan's trademarks is the symbolic use of colour. In addition to "bad" red and "safe" yellow, green is the colour of secrets. The village elders keep mementos of their former life in locked green boxes, which they do not open. A broccoli patch in the background while Walker and the widow Hunt discuss the future of the village provides a very subtle clue that all is not what it seems (and if anyone can tell me why, you have my immediate respect).

Though Phoenix gets top billing as Lucius, this movie is really Howard's, who steals the show as the blind Ivy willing to confront her fears for the sake of her husband to be. William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver perform competently, although the latter's role is quite minor, and their love interest never really goes anywhere. Brody also distinguishes himself as Noah, who pops up giggling in some of the tensest moments. His antics serve to heighten the tension much as the Porter did in Macbeth.

I originally found certain other characteristics of the film problematic, but on second thought I wonder whether they weren't deliberate plot devices, so for the time being I've reserved comment. Judge for yourself:

  • What's with the stilted, formal dialogue? Did people really speak that way in 1897?
  • Why is there no church in the village? Their lifestyle appears to be secular, apart from a few mentions of prayer, at a time when the church would have been central to their community.

But if there's a major weakness to this film, it's the plot. The scary monsters in the woods, along with their "bad colour" and the "shed which is not to be used" make for a paper-thin premise. It's part of M. Night Shyamalan's genius that he starts with something so weak and turns it into something so strong.

Incidentally, the word is that for his next project, Shyamalan will be adapting the acclaimed Canadian novel, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which I shall now have to read.

August 02, 2004

Secular brownshirt update

A few days ago the Palm Beach Post reported on the shocking discovery that a receptionist in the offices of Jeb Bush's general council had offended public decency by posting a horrible, dangerous greeting card with a cross on it in her personal space.

Apparently the newspaper has received a great deal of flak for exposing this psychopath's activities, because they have now published a clarifying article:

Ms. Rodriguez faxed a letter, however, protesting "the rude and unprofessional behavior of [Tallahassee bureau chief] S.V. Date and his photographer on July 22, 2004." She said Mr. Date "burst into the Office of General Counsel to the Governor and verbally accosted our receptionist Mrs. Heidemarie Smith, a valued employee of the state of over 13 years, while his photographer snapped pictures without Mrs. Smith's consent."

The photographer "then leaned over Mrs. Smith's desk, peering down at her to read her employee badge," said Ms. Rodriguez. "Mr. Date and the photographer made Mrs. Smith feel so violated and scared that she went into an attorney's office to cry after the ordeal. I request Mr. Date and the photographer apologize to Mrs. Smith. As for the article itself, it warrants no response."

Post Managing Editor John Bartosek wrote Ms. Rodriguez, saying, "We respectfully disagree with your characterization of S.V. Date's actions." Both the reporter and the photographer, he said, "confirm that Mr. Date was polite and professional during his brief visit to the office.

There, see, the paper's reporter and photographer say that the paper's Tallahassee bureau chief wasn't rude and unprofessional to the cross-wielding maniac, so it must be true.

My take is that the article conveyed legitimate public-interest issues. Editors did not overplay it. It was balanced with a Bush spokesman's comment that the card had been posted for more than a year, that the office had not received any complaints about it and that it honored the Sept. 11 victims.

Here's an interesting lesson in How Newspaper People Think: Having quoted a Democratic senator and two secular brownshirts about the devastation a cardboard cross is capable of wreaking on a civilized society, they find a single spokesman for the governor to say that they haven't received any complaints. The purpose of this simplistic gainsaying is to paint Jeb Bush as some sort of boob who doesn't realize that civilization will fall about his ears unless he clears Ms. Smith's bulletin board of subversive religious emblems. This is called "balance."

But if not for the history of Mr. Date's solid reporting, I don't think the governor's office would have tried, once again, to make the reporter the issue.

[Full Story]

Hey, come back! Don't forget your grapes!

Blogroll update

I've added two blogs to my blogroll. The first is Semper Reformanda Festung, the blog of the Semper Reformanda Web site. I came across this blog somewhat accidentally and found myself absorbed in the author's detailed and substantive responses to the claims of the New Perspective gang.

The second is a bit of quid pro quo: Michael Gallaugher of The Christian Conservative isn't afraid admit he actually reads my blog. I look forward to the thought-provoking questions he poses every Sunday.

William Carey

Yesterday I presented a Sunday school lesson on the life of William Carey, the seminal English Baptist missionary to India. While I was researching the topic, I went (as I often do for quick facts) to Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia project, but found no entry. No problem, I thought, I'll just add one after I'm finished with the lesson.

So I did. For those interested, the new Wikipedia entry is a prose summary of my outline notes. It's totally open source, so errors can be corrected instantly. Better yet, give me your comments, and if they're suitable, I can probably do a better job integrating them. Share and Enjoy.

Paging Barry Lynn

I'll bet that Americans United for Separation, People for the American Way, the Mainstream Coalition, and the rest of the secular brownshirts were falling over themselves to put the kibosh on this clear confusion of church and state. Right? Compare:

A recent Sunday found Tina Kolm changing her morning routine. Instead of attending a Unitarian Universalist service, she was at the Lenexa Christian Center, paying close attention to a conservative minister's sermon about the importance of amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Kolm is one of about 100 volunteers for the Mainstream Coalition, a group monitoring the political activities of local pastors and churches. The coalition, based in suburban Kansas City, says it wants to make sure clergy adhere to federal tax guidelines restricting political activity by nonprofit groups, and it's taking such efforts to a new level. . . .

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said local chapters have sent volunteers to church services the Sunday before an election, but he said the Mainstream Coalition's efforts are more sustained.

[Full Story]