Creativity and technology

There has probably never been a time where “creativity” has been as much in the forefront as now. Watch pretty much any ad for the newest phone, and the thrust of the ad is not the phone capabilities (I mean, you can make and take calls; how exciting is that?). Rather, our phones – or should I say, mini pocket computers) appeal to us for the ability to express our creativity. Suddenly, we’re all capable of being photographers, movie makers, music producers, and more.

“Creative” has become a nown, as in, one could identify as a “creative.” Not just creative, adjective. “I am creative.” But, A creative.“I am a creative.” “I am part of the creative community.”

There’s nothing wrong with this impulse. I believe it’s part of our nature as being created in the image of God, who displays his enormous creativity throughout all the things he has made. Everyone of us has marvelled at the beauty of a sunrise, the refraction of light into brilliant colors in a rainbow, the variagated song of a mockingbird. And then there’s those weird-looking creatures at the bottom of the ocean, just because.

So, if our technology allows us to explore our creativity more freely, I’m all for it.

I’ve been a hobby photographer for my whole adult life, starting with an Olympus half-frame 35mm camera that belonged to my brother, to now going back and forth between my Canon DSLR and my “phone” – my Galaxy S20 Ultra. A few years ago, I discovered that shooting a digital photo was not the end of the process, and I began learning Lightroom and other processing apps that really helped clean up and enhance my photography.

Technology has made that easy, too. Sometimes, a little too easy.

It has raised a question in my mind about what is really creative. For a simple illustration, look at this collage of a photo I shot a couple weeks ago in my back yard.

The picture on the left is pretty much “no filter.” In other words, this is the way I saw it and captured it. The scene caught my eye because here was this lone tree amidst others that had maintained its fall folliage, standing tall against the inevitable forces of winter.

For the picture on the right, I simply took the original into the app Photoshop Camera, and with one click applied a filter that turned everything that was not yellow or green into black and white. It looks cool.

But with which picture did I engage the most creative activity? One might say the right picture is more creative. But technology allowed me to create that with one click. And there are dozens and dozens of effects out there, that someone else has created, that I could have applied. Yeah, I chose which one I liked best, but I didn’t really feel like I was being all that inventive.

On the left picture, the original one that I shot, I had to take notice of the scene, value its creative potential, compose the shot. While I like the effect of the second picture, I chose to post the left one to Instagram because it felt like it was mine.

Is creativity accomplished on the presets of others really creativity? Well, to a degree, of course. Anything that helps me to see in more creative ways becomes visionary. But we must beware of the danger of pre-fab “inventiveness.”

I remember going to an art boutique in downtown Asheville once, where one of the booths featured a local landscape photographer. This photographer took some beautiful shots, but honestly, had applied too many and too extreme Photoshop filters to the photos, increasing the saturation levels to create bold colors and other-worldly vistas. In the guest sign-in book, one person commented that it was “cheap” to simply apply a bunch of filters and then pass it off as original “art.” That might have been harsh, but it was a valid point.

As the creative community grows with the rise in inventive technology, I welcome you. Use the tools at your disposal. But while you do, make sure it’s your vision, your skill, your creativity.

Saved for good works

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

-Ephesians 2:8-10

Many think that verses 8 and 9 form the climax of this paragraph (verses 1-10), so much so that verse 10 is seldom quoted. This is a sad omission, because I believe that verse 10 – “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” – completes the thought begun in verses 8-9. Without verse 10, we have an incomplete view of the place of good works.

If we focus on verses 8-9 while excluding verse 10, we may come to the erroneous conclusion that there is to be no consideration of good works in the salvation experience. But what part do good works play? While 8-9 clearly show that good works have no place in a person becoming saved, verse 10 just as clearly show that these works are a necessary part of the life of the believer after being saved.

It would be a grave error to assume that because we are saved by grace through faith (not works), that good works are optional to a believer. This verse makes this impossible. The same God who saves by grace those who believe is the same God who purposes and prepares good works for those who are his creation in Christ. To divorce our position in justification from our daily walk in sanctification as if one can be reality and the other optional is to do disservice to this and many other passages of Scripture (Romans 6:1ff; James 2:14ff to name a couple). To be sure, our practice of these good works is imperfect in this life, but a life with no works is not a true, redeemed Christian life. Faith without works is dead (James 2:26).

-excerpt from my upcoming book on reading Scripture theologically, title TBD

Will you “KISS” this upcoming week?

I am a fan and long-time user of Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner. Check it out here. I moved away from a digital planning system several years ago and back to an analog system that has boosted my productivity. Your mileage may vary.

Each week, one of the rituals to accomplish is a Weekly Preview. Part review, part preview, it allows me to look back on the victories of the previous week and plan the upcoming week. I have found that one of the better exercises is the question, What will you keep, improve, start, or stop doing? In acronym form, “KISS.”

What will you KEEP?

Were there some productivity techniques or habits that worked especially well? Maybe getting up earlier. Perhaps you found that setting out your clothes for the next day the night before empowered your morning. If it worked, keep doing it.

What will you IMPROVE?

Was there something you accomplished that you could do better? So you set out to walk 10,000 steps each day, but only reached that goal on 4 days? That’s a prime example of something you could improve.

What will you START?

We all probably have things in our “goal hopper” that we want to get to “someday.” How about starting this week? 8 glasses of water a day? Writing 10,000 words? Taking time to pray/meditate? Start this week!

What will you STOP?

If you’re like me, there are habits and activities that don’t contribute to productivity at all. Can you put a full stop to them? Time-wasting apps are a killer for me. Maybe you could stop your non-constructive self-talk. Put a stop to such things.

It’s wise to write these things down and place them where you can see them often. For me, it’s in the Weekly Preview of the Full Focus Planner. No matter where, write it down somewhere. And “KISS” this week!

The State of Theology

Image from thestateoftheology.com

The word “evangelical” used to mean something. It distinguished those churches who believe in the authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by grace apart from works from churches that don’t, notably the mainstream denominations like the Presbyterian Church, USA and the United Methodist Church.

Where mainstream Christianity tends to be more pluralistic in its beliefs, and more meritorious in its salvation message, evangelicalism has stood for salvation by grace and the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. But there has been a drift among evangelicals.

Earlier in 2020, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay research partnered to create “The State of Theology” survey, asking what Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible. Some of the responses, particularly from so-called evangelicals, are shocking.

Among evangelicals (those who claim to be Christians):

46% agree that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

56% agree that Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. This was shockingly a higher percentage than the general population.

32% agree that Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.

47% agree that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.

23% agree that the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.

31% agree that God will always reward true faith with material blessings in this life.

While 80% agree that God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works, but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ, 15% of evangelicals disagreed with this statement. This is the sine qua non, the essential condition for being “evangelical.” In other words, if you can’t affirm salvation by grace apart from works, don’t call yourself an “evangelical.”

In Ephesians 4:14, Paul describes Christian maturity as no longer being “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Doctrinal stability and surety are not a matter of nerdy interest; they are a matter of life and death. I’m not speaking of minor doctrinal issues about which we may legitimately disagree but not disfellowship. There are winds of doctrine that would shipwreck souls to eternal destruction. Some of these “ill winds” include

  • Denial of the eternal deity of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man
  • Acceptance of extra-biblical revelation that renders the Bible insufficient for life and truth
  • Denial of the sinfulness of sin and the wretchedness of our state
  • Denial of Jesus as the only way of salvation
  • Drift from salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works
  • Emphasis on material blessings as the “stuff” of Christianity, rather than forgiveness of sins, fulfilling our mission, and citizenship in heaven

These are “human cunning and deceitful schemes” (v. 14), because they can deceive someone into thinking they are saved when they are not.

The answer to this doctrinal drift is to become immersed in the Bible and in the historic doctrines and creeds of the Christian Church. One learns to recognize error by becoming better acquainted with authentic truth. May this be so!

Bowing at the idol of free will

Most Christians recoil in horror at any teaching about the sovereignty of God. Without any attempt to explain the Scriptures that are explicit in their teaching (Romans 8:29-30; 9:11, 16, 19-20; Ephesians 1:4-5, 11; etc.), they know that sovereign grace can’t be true because, you know, “free will.” This one-word retort (yes, I know that that’s technically two words, but it’s spoken as one term) is all the evidence they need.

In the mystery that encompases God’s sovereign choice of his elect on the one hand and the agency and responsibility of humanity on the other, it is always God’s dominion that is softened and mitigated, and it is always free will that is held as absolute.

This is the objection that is voiced in Romans 9:19 – “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? [human responsibility] For who can resist his will? [human free will]'” We must protect our ultimate, autonomous, unadulterated, precious free will. And to this protectionist complaint, Paul doesn’t answer the question, because he knows the wicked heart from which it proceeds. This is not an honest question of a mysterious truth; it is a rebellious heart cry of substituting God’s reign for our own. And Paul responds appropriately in verse 20 – “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

When we “answer back to God,” we are following in the footsteps of our First Adam, who followed the lie of “Has God said…?” We are bowing at the golden calf of our autonomous free will as we reject the tablets of God’s revealed truth.

Oh may God rid us of this heinous rejection of his Word!

Article: Vote as though you are not voting

Christians of late have too easily put their hope and trust in politics and politicians. This is true on both ends of the spectrum. Conservatives cast their whole lot with whoever promises to protect their property and guns, and liberals embrace the politics of the social gospel and trust the state to accomplish it. It’s as if we sing,

“My hope is built on nothing less
than who’s in the White House or runs Congress.”

Our identity has become much too entangled with earthly power. Do we not remember that “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1)? Have we forgotten that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20)? Ought we not seek the true Power to direct our paths and provide our needs?

One of the best essays I’ve read on this matter is by John Piper, entitled “Let Christians Vote as Though They Were Not Voting, written in 2008, just before the election that put Barack Obama in the White House. For some much-needed perspective, click the link below –

Let Christians Vote as Though They Were Not Voting

Is it true that we learn better together?

As a promoter of life-long learning, I am always interested in what others are saying about personal growth and development. I recently came across an artistic infographic on the subject of LLL. One of the concepts in this diagram was the oft-stated truism that “we learn better in groups.”

Not necessarily so. Like any truism, it’s only true to a point.

We learn large blocks of content better by ourselves

If you have to acquire a mass of information, this is best done by oneself. Even in a class lecture setting, it is up to the individual to listen, to take notes, to intake the content. You can’t listen as a group. If you are reading a text, you have to do so as an individual. Any time the acquisition of content is the goal, direct instruction or direct intake through reading by the individual is necessary.

Billy Joel once sang, “sooner or later you wind up asleep in your own space.” Likewise, in the intake of information, you wind up in your own mental space.

Now, you can process this information in a group, which further cements the content in the mind. Questioning and examining other viewpoints can be quite invaluable at this stage. But in the initial intake of information (or in learning skills), one has to be able to do it on her own.

Some people simply learn better solo

You can’t make the blanket statement that “we learn better in groups” and also maintain the concept that individuals have different learning styles.

Some people, through personality, mental wiring, and prior experience, are better learning by themselves. The dynamic of the group may not be conducive for such learners to learn at their peak.

Transparently, I am one of those learners. If I’m in a group setting where the leader instructs us to complete a group learning activity, I inwardly groan. “Just give me the information, and I’ll internalize it the best way for me.” It’s important to have the meta-cognition to know how you learn best. For some, that’s not in a group.

Again, I do like to process what I’ve learned in a group. Discussing concepts with others may reveal aspects that I haven’t considered. But for me, it’s not a necessity.

The problem with truisms

The problem with truisms is that when you attempt to apply them to every situation, they don’t always work. Developing an educational philosophy around the maxim, “We learn better in groups,” can seriously short-change the educational process.

I’ve been around enough middle school students to understand that, of course, they love to work in groups. But it’s not because the learning is better; it’s because they’re social creatures. As an educator, I made sure to balance group work with a good amount of individual work and direct instruction.

If we take this idea uncritically, we run the risk of creating an entire educational methodology around a platitude. The best education utilizes multiple techniques, including the old ways of direct instruction and individual study, to achieve learning.

Will the moral line hold?

If secular, humanistic, materialistic philosophies have failed to prevent moral decay, on what basis do we think that other examples of immorality can be halted?

If the post-christian worldview that has gained ascendency since the middle of the 20th century wasn’t able to provide a hedge against such self-serving sins as sex before and outside of marriage, cohabitation without marriage, homosexuality and gay marriage, it will also be unable to keep further pleasure-seeking dominoes from falling. Whether we’re talking about polyamory, polygamy, or, heaven forbid, pedophilia as an “orientation” similar to homosexuality, there’s really no objective moral basis on which to deny such pleasures or declare them wrong.

10 years ago, the Harvard Medical Health Letter published an online article entitled, Pessimism about Pedophilia. In it, one of the summary points was, “Pedophilia is a sexual orientation and unlikely to change. Treatment aims to enable someone to resist acting on his sexual urges.”

The larger question that we will begin to see raised is this: if this is truly an orientation like other sexual orientations, why should we even talk about “treatment?” It’s only a matter of time before the humanistic implications will come home to roost, and these other things will vie for acceptance and normalcy.

There is literally no objective basis outside of God and the Bible to condemn anything.

Paul warned us of such times. “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

Will the moral line hold? Not on the basis of any thought that denies the existence of God and the truth and sufficiency of the Bible, any thought that loves pleasure rather than God.

Paul goes on in this passage to instruct young Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed,” reminding him of the God-given origin of the “sacred writings” (3:14-17). So, our first response to this inexorable march is to firmly align ourselves with the teaching of Scripture. All the evil in the world cannot prevent believers from following Paul’s example in his “teaching…conduct…aim in life…faith…patience…love…steadfastness…persecutions and sufferings” (3:10-11).

Paul’s further instruction is for us to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching….always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (4:2, 5). Our second response is bound up in preaching the gospel to a world that desperately needs it.

The moral lines may continue to fall. In the face of this, we must remain steadfast and preach the word.

God is sovereign, and we are not machines

In the years that I have believed in the Reformed doctrines of grace, I have come to believe that what sets “Calvinistic” thinkers apart from others is the ability to embrace mystery. (A short video with John Piper helped start me on that understanding.) It is the Calvinist’s ability to exegete Scripture to say what it says without necessarily explaining the tensions contained therein.

So, for example, when we read in Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” we have no problem holding in tandem the idea that an event occurred that the Sovereign God ordained for which wicked men are held accountable. It’s a mystery (not a contradiction) that we can’t reconcile; yet we affirm both truths because the Bible affirms both truths. And we let the mystery stand.

It’s only when we start to philosophically explain these truths-in-tension that we fall short. “God can’t control everything,” we say, “because that would go against free will and human responsibility.” I always find it amazing (maybe I don’t, really) that when we attempt to reconcile these truths, it’s always the greatness and glory of God that gets mitigated and softened, while we make human free will absolute.

Yet, even sometimes, Calvinists make the mistake of absolutizing sovereign grace truths to the point of becoming unbiblical in our expressions and emphases. We say things like, “I did thus and so because it was predestined,” as if we are afraid to speak naturally and just say, “I did it because I wanted to.” The Bible speaks naturally. It affirms that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11), yet never speaks as if we are puppets or, in the words of Francis Schaeffer, “machines.”

Let’s look at a couple of Calvinistic truisms and how they can become distortions of biblical thought.

“Faith is a gift of God”

That the faith itself that we exercise in Christ unto salvation is a gift of God is a cherished truth of sovereign grace doctrine. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). And while I cannot say that “this” and “it” grammatically point back to the word “faith” as their antecedent, I do believe that this verse clearly teaches that the whole of salvation (including our faith) is the gift of God.

Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:25, “God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” So it’s true that God completely eliminates any basis for self-determined boasting in our repentance and faith.

But sometimes, Calvinists have a hard time saying something as simple as “I believed.” We want to give God the glory for his work in salvation and to take no credit for ourselves. We forget that in giving faith as a gift, God doesn’t believe for us; we are not machines. We believe.

And sometimes we have a difficult time calling men to faith and repentance. What do we ask them to do if our emphasis is on God’s doing? The apostles’ call to sinners was clear: Believe! Repent! (as if it were their doing). There is no tension here. Paul has no problem telling us that “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19), and imploring men to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). Acts 13:48 holds these in tandem: “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” God appointed; they believed! Even as ultimately a gift of God, we exercise faith in Christ. We are not machines.

“No one seeks for God”

It’s hard to call this a truism, because it’s directly in the Bible (Psalms, Romans). Coming out of our understanding of the fallen and depraved state of mankind, we affirm that no one seeks God on his own. Indeed, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

But sometimes in our zeal for doctrinal purity, we again make ourselves to be machines. A new, young Christian giving her testimony shares how she was “seeking the truth,” and we pounce on her theological imprecision – “NO! You weren’t seeking truth!” Poor girl.

While affirming that no one seeks for God who has not been first sought by God, it’s OK to recognize that there’s a kind of seeking that men do that may eventually lead them to God. After all, we don’t know how long the Father sovereignly draws an individual to himself, and that too is not in a machine-like way. It can be a seeking for God. Paul himself used those words in Acts 17, when he told of God determining times and places for mankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (17:27).

So then, let us hold fast to the great doctinal truths that affirm both God’s sovereignty and man’s humanity in a biblical way.

Why my questions didn’t cause me to deconvert, part 1

I had the strange occurrance of listening to messages this week that were recorded in 2004, and several speakers quoted, cited, or applauded the teaching of Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Boy Meets Girl). It was somewhat surreal, knowing now that not only has Harris disavowed the marital/dating advise of those works, pulling them from being republished, he also divorced his wife and eventually left the faith.

Other well-known professors of Christianity have done the same and have been quite vocal in blog and social media platforms in explaining their now unbelief. Are they looking for validation? Acceptance from a new audience? Is it simply an explanation to those who were their fans?

Deconversion – biblically known as apostacy – is a complex situation, and each occasion has its own nuance. But there are common threads. Sometimes its intellectual or theological questions that overcome faith. Other times it’s the hypocrisy and lifestyle of other professing believers that cause someone to doubt the veracity of Christianity. Still others express a kind of lingering unbelief that overthrows faith, as if a Christian is only to experience unadulterated certainty at all times.

I’ve been a Christian for over 50 years, and I can confidently say that I’ve faced all these types of questions personally from time to time. So, why didn’t I deconstruct my faith? Why have I continued to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23)?

Intellectual questions

As a thinker, both theological and philosophical, I’d be naive to assume that there aren’t difficult concepts and Scriptures in the Christian faith. There’s scarcely a day that I don’t read some writer offering up objections to the truth claims of the Bible. And I always wonder, “What if he’s right?” But many of those who deconstruct their confession allow their questions to derail faith.

I understand this. There was a time during my college years, after 3 years of Bible college, that I began to feel that I’d been caught for too long in what I now understand was an echo chamber – people and books who simply reinforced what I already believed. And though I never came to a point of deconstructing my faith, I did want to put my faith to the test. So I enrolled in a school where there were more opportunities to “bump heads” with non-Christian thinking. I didn’t so much want to drift in my own thinking as certify that my worldview would hold up when challenged by secular and neo-orthodox thought.

And I was provided with plenty of opportunity to dialog with atheistic hedonists and religious deniers of Scripture. None of that was able to rattle my trust in the truth claims of historic, orthodox Christianity; in fact, my hold on the propositions of the faith was thereby strengthened. Iron sharpens iron.

There will always be intellectual, experiential, and relational questions with Christianity. But instead of pointing us toward deconversion, the questions ought to drive us deeper into the Word, deeper into the writings of those who have gone before. The idea that “no one is asking these questions” is patently ridiculous. The very act of questioning should be encouraged, and honest answers should be given to honest questions.

Francis Schaeffer, the leading intellectual Christian light of the late 20th Century, describes in his writings a personal “spiritual crisis” in his own life. After becoming a Christian from agnosticism, serving for many years as a church pastor, and teaching in Europe, he tells us, “I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter….I walked, prayed, and thought through what the Scriptures taught, reviewing my own reasons for being a Christian. As I rethought my reasons…, I saw again that there were totally sufficient reasons to know that infinite-personal God does exist and that Christianity is true” (True Spirituality, xxix).

Bottom line, if you have questions, and truly want to resolve them biblically, there are sufficient answers to be found. There is no necessity to deconvert. Ask your questions, read the thinkers who, like you, had questions. Reconfirm in your heart and mind that Christianity is true.

I will write about questions related to the hypocrisy/behavior of Christians and that lingering sense of doubt in future posts.