The PhD Dissertation as a Testament to Human Ingenuity and Ignorance

Nov 05, 2015 | Trevin Wax

graduation capThis Monday, I will be in Wake Forest, North Carolina on the campus of Southeastern Seminary to defend my dissertation on “eschatological discipleship.” If all goes well, I will walk into the room as a Ph.D candidate and walk out as Dr. Trevin Wax. In the span of those morning hours, my formal education will come to an end – efforts that extend back to high school, college in Eastern Europe, masters courses both on campus and off, doctoral seminars and, of course, the many months of research and writing a dissertation.

My educational experience may be coming to end, but I expect the good-natured ribbing from friends and coworkers to continue. For years now, friends have called me “Dr. Wax,” in part to tease me for my interminable studying, in part to honor my dedication to the task at hand, knowing I’d eventually get that title. A bit of inaugurated eschatology, maybe? (Sorry, I’ve been in class too long now to resist the corny theological joke.)

My uncles told my daughter to let him know once I have my doctorate because he needs me to take his gall bladder out. She replied, “He’s not that kind of doctor.” No, I’m not. But there have been times when I’d have donated a kidney or something, just to be done.

Right now, my dissertation is sitting on the end of my desk – 350 pages, printed out and punched into a three-ring binder. I don’t know why I printed out this particular copy when the digital version works just fine. But I hope I can be forgiven the environmental excess this once, because frankly, I just like looking at it. Part of my life is in that binder – long days, weeks that stretched on and on, books and magazines and articles I consulted, and let’s not forget the the formatting requirements designed by minions in the underworld to push students to the brink of insanity (Thank you for the help, Cathy!).

Still, no matter how big that stack of paper is, no matter how many years of reading, debating, discussing, and writing (always writing!) are distilled into those pages, it’s just a dissertation, and it’s only a small contribution to my field of study. One of the scariest and most freeing moments during the dissertation stage is when you realize that you could keep working on this until you die and still would not exhaust the subject. Scary, because you know of dozens of additional books you would like to to consult before you finish. Freeing, because you realize those books would lead to dozens more, and if you keep going down that road, you will never finish.

As it stands, a dissertation is both a testament to the sheer willpower needed to persevere and an ever-present reminder that no matter how much time and effort you’ve put into this project, all your knowledge is provisional. The dissertation testifies to human ingenuity and ignorance all at once! The process pounds into you the reality that you don’t have all the answers. But you do have some answers, and thankfully, having some is a good and noble thing.

I may be walking by myself into the room to defend my dissertation next week, but I will not be alone.

In my mind, I will hear the pitter-patter of feet in our house, my kids coming to give me hugs and sit on my lap as they look over my shoulder at what their Daddy is typing. I will be thinking about the days and nights my wife spent alone – with nary a complaint – while I was out of state doing seminars, in the library writing, or in my office reading. I will be grateful for the professors and pastors who have poured into me their wisdom and reflection, sharpening my skills and stretching my intellectual capacities. I’ll be by myself Monday morning, but I won’t really be alone.

Ben Witherington, a scholar I’ve long admired, issues a reminder:

“Research by a Christian is never done just for its own sake, or even just to advance knowledge in a given field. It is done in service to the Lord and to his church.”

That’s where the dissertation becomes less about me and my hard work and more about God’s people and their needs. It’s a gift, not a project. A gift, because I’ve been blessed with educational opportunities that stagger my imagination. A gift, because I’ve been formed and shaped by my brothers and sisters in Christ. A gift, because it’s something to give back to the Church who has shown me Jesus in all His glory.

If you think of it on Monday morning, I’d appreciate your prayers. It’s been an arduous journey of joy, and I hope to build on what I’ve learned and fortify the faith of Jesus’ followers in the days ahead.

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3801 Lancaster and the Mystery of Kermit Gosnell

Nov 03, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Gosnell-3801-Lancaster-620x436The real mystery of Dr. Kermit Gosnell is not his identity as a serial killer who preyed on women and children, but this question: How could this go on for so long? More specifically, How is it possible that a doctor who was intentionally killing babies and unintentionally killing women could maintain his practice for decades without inspection?

David Altrogge presses in on that gnawing question in the hour-long documentary 3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy, named after the address of Gosnell’s clinic in Philadelphia.

Last week, I screened a pre-release version of the film and found it to be a powerful contribution to our country’s ongoing debate over abortion and its regulation in America. 3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy may press the uncomfortable question (“How could this go on for so long?”), but it is more likely to make headlines for featuring phone interviews with Dr. Gosnell himself, from prison, as he explains his rationale for performing late-term abortions.

Gosnell may be a serial killer, but he comes across as the friendly doctor down the street. He sees himself as a gift from God to the minority community, a Christian who believes “the Bible is clear” that human life begins with the first breath. Altrogge introduces Gosnell’s family and friends, all of whom are shocked at the crimes he committed.

Gosnell gives off not a whiff of remorse in his explanation of his actions. He claims that “fetal demise” always took place just before the delivery, due to his injection of toxins. Because a “heartbeat” after delivery may or may not indicate the baby was still alive, Gosnell saw all of his choices as ethically mandated, a way of ensuring the abortion was complete and that there would be no further pain or suffering.

The documentary’s subject matter is sobering, to say the least, but Altrogge does not belabor the gruesomeness. Only briefly does he show several images of Dr. Gosnell’s tiny victims. In the rest of the film, he relies on the descriptions given from the officers who discovered Gosnell’s “house of horrors” – a wise move, since it allows us to experience the horror of 3801 Lancaster from the perspective of ordinary people. “I didn’t think they’d look as human as they were,” one officer says, after discovering the dismembered bodies.

3801 Lancaster succeeds in giving us insight into the mind of Dr. Gosnell. But this documentary asks a bigger question: How did we let this happen? Following that narrative thread reveals a picture of breakdown at every level of government bureaucracy.

Why did no one inspect Gosnell’s clinic from 1993-2010? The answer is more complicated than partisan politics. The failure began with the shift from a Democratic governor (Casey) who was pro-life to a Republican governor (Ridge) who was pro-choice. It was decided then that abortion clinics would not be inspected unless there were complaints.

By the late 1990’s, complaints about Gosnell were trickling in, but the health department ignored them, worried that raising standards on abortion clinics would close them down and limit women’s access. In 2002, there was no inspection, even after a 22-year-old woman died during an abortion. In 2009, when another woman died, no one investigated. Had it not been for a drug bust in 2010, Dr. Gosnell would still be killing his victims.

What went wrong?

The grand jury concluded that no one took action because “the women were poor and of color and the infants were victims without identities and because the subject was the political football of abortion.” There you have it! A political issue supposedly about “women’s health” used as an excuse to ignore basic standards of care for clinics.

Altrogge carries the “political football of abortion” carefully, choosing not to use a heavy-handed approach. We listen to the testimony of women who visited Gosnell’s clinic, and sense their agony when they feel like they have no other option but to get an abortion. Altrogge interviews pro-choice nurses who campaign for tighter regulations of abortion clinics, nurses who claim they are now marginalized by Planned Parenthood as part of an “anti-abortion conspiracy.”

Pro-life or pro-choice, the viewer of this film is likely to agree that Dr. Gosnell was guilty and his imprisonment just. Still, the pro-choice viewer may be uncomfortable with the chilling logic of late-term abortion. What does it matter, really, if we are inducing “fetal demise” with toxins while in the mother’s womb or “snipping the neck” just moments later? What is the difference? In either case, we have a dead body in front of us and blood on our hands.

The most unsettling moment of the documentary, for me, was not seeing the images of Gosnell’s victims or hearing the heartbreaking stories of how he treated the women who came to see him. It was when he quoted George Bernard Shaw: “Practical man changes to fit society. Impractical man changes society to fit his needs.” Progress only comes from the latter, Gosnell says. “I am the latter.”

This is a man who is confident of his vindication, that people will see the “mercy” behind his actions, that his conviction will be overturned, and that the day will come when his contributions will be appreciated. This is a man who believes he is on the “right side of history.” In the serenity of this “kind” doctor, we see the awful, bloody result of the Enlightenment myth of progress, shown in all its shock and horror, used as justification for atrocities that startle even the most passionate abortion advocate.


Here is a way to sign up to attend a screening or host a screening in your city. Check out

3801 Lancaster: American Tragedy — Trailer #2 from 3801Lancaster on Vimeo.

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Trevin’s Seven

Oct 30, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War by Joshua Ryan Butler. $2.99.

Here are seven of the best articles that I came across this week:

1. James K. A. Smith – The State of Joy. Joy is a mode of enjoying gratitude. That is, joy is the enjoyment of being a recipient, 

2. John Starke – Why I Can’t Take the Leap. Starke lays out three things that hold him back from joining revisionist Christians who believe the Church should change its view of homosexuality and marriage.

3. Emily Armstrong – From the Bahá’í Faith to Porn to Alpha to Jesus. Emily’s testimony is a riveting account of God’s intervening grace.

4. Andrew Wilson – When Life Gives Your Oranges. Moving, informative reflection on what it is like to be a parent of children with special needs.

5. Ten Borders: One Refugee’s Epic Escape from Syria. Don’t let the sheer numbers of refugees keep you from thinking of the individual stories represented.

6. Bruce Ashford – The Great Barrier Rieff: Stemming the Tide of Destruction in American Culture and Public LifeI’ve been reading a lot of Rieff this year. Bruce Ashford provides a helpful, biographical introduction to his thought.

7. Lore Ferguson (now Wilburt!) – 8 Life-Changing Things Someone Taught Me. So much wisdom in this post from Lore.

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Why “God’s Not Dead” Resonated, and What It Missed

Oct 29, 2015 | Trevin Wax

godsnotdeadGod’s Not Dead is about to have a sequel. God’s Not Dead 2 is currently in production and is slated for a 2016 release. Most likely, it will carry forward the basic plot line of its predecessor: a Christian who is bullied in an environment hostile to faith stands up for Christian conviction and makes a case for Christianity.

Why God’s Not Dead Resonated

God’s Not Dead resonated with many evangelical moviegoers for a number of reasons:

  • The setting was a university campus, the place where many a young evangelical has encountered intellectual challenges to faith.
  • The antagonist was an aggressive, atheistic professor determined to belittle anyone who harbored a trace of religious belief.
  • The hero was a young believer who turned the tables on his professor and won over his class with his argumentation for God’s existence.

Throw in some popular apologetic tactics, a conversion at the moment of death, and a concert with the Newsboys, and you have a story in which the Christian subculture confronts and overcomes the hostile forces of unbelief.

The Secular Situation and the Apologetics Solution

Many of the evangelicals who cheered at the end of God’s Not Dead (and texted all their friends to let them know!) rightly sense the inherent worldview conflict between secularism and Christianity. They feel the pressure of living in a world in which belief in God is no longer unquestioned, but is often challenged by naturalistic and evolutionary assumptions. They recognize the difference between divine revelation and human reason, but also the importance of human reason in making a case for believing divine revelation. And they see the university as the battleground for worldview conflict.

The situation? Christian students regularly encounter intellectual challenges to their faith in college.

The solution? Prepare Christian young people to give good reasons for their faith.

A Deeper Diagnosis

I agree with both the symptom and the prescription here, but because this diagnosis doesn’t go deep enough, God’s Not Dead gives us a cartoonish villain who is out to destroy Christian faith and a hero who can sway an entire class by force of logic.

Let me be clear. Christian students do confront arguments opposed to Christianity when they are in college. Some professors are hostile to Christian belief and practice, especially Christianity’s distinctive ethical teachings. Many of these students are hearing these arguments for the first time and are unequipped to respond in satisfying ways. Some walk away from the church; others conserve but compartmentalize their faith.

But to see the situation as a “battle of the minds” and the solution as “winning the argument” is to miss the deeper part of the diagnosis. The problem is not merely argumentation, but environment. The environment (created by unexamined presuppositions) is what makes the argumentation so persuasive.

Yes, some Christian students lose their faith because they are unable to respond intellectually to certain arguments from hostile professors. But most Christian students who waver in their faith do so, not because of argumentation against their beliefs, but because of the environment that makes their beliefs seem so “out there,” so “alien” to the university’s common life.

The Power of Community

Imagine that you are a student in a university where the majority of professors adhere to something similar to the Enlightenment’s myth of progress, the idea that we are on an evolutionary journey toward greater and greater heights of knowledge and technology (with science pushing us forward, and traditional religion holding us back). When a student walks into this academic environment and absorbs this vision of the past and future, it becomes more plausible than before. The perspective is assumed, not argued by the professors and students – and that is what makes it so powerful.

Seen in this light, it is not the aggressive atheistic professor of God’s Not Dead who is most likely to persuade young Christian college students. It is more likely to be the subtle, yet powerful presence of a community that lives, without question, according to another view of the world – another definition of “progress” and the past, a view that relegates religion to the private realm and leaves it impotent and irrelevant for public life.

What God’s Not Dead Missed

So, if God’s Not Dead only gets half the diagnosis right (the part about intellectual engagement) but misses just why those arguments are so persuasive (the environment in which the arguments are presupposed), what must be the solution?

Well, the answer lies, at least in part, in the very thing God’s Not Dead left out – the Church, the people of God who showcase the reality of the resurrection through our common life together. If college makes it plausible to believe “God is dead,” the Church should make it hard to believe anything other than “God is alive.”

The reason some kids abandon their faith is not because they go to college, but because they stop going to church. They immerse themselves in a culture with naturalistic assumptions, rituals, and beliefs. The church becomes something for the holidays.

The Church as Apologetic

Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a community apologetic, submissive to the Scriptures while challenging the plausibility structures of Enlightenment thought. It is not that the Church replaces rational strategies and arguments for belief in God, but rather that the Church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth is shown in a way of life.

Christians today should make use of the various tools at their disposal in order to equip people to make a case for faith, but unlike God’s Not Dead, we must not leave out the world where God’s Good News comes alive—the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end.

The best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, who counter the Enlightenment’s eschatology with the true story of a new world which began on a Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.

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The Spiritual Significance of Smell

Oct 27, 2015 | Trevin Wax

oldspicemuskOld Spice Musk.

That is the after-shave cologne my dad wore when he was dating my mom. The cologne was discontinued before I was born, more than 35 years ago.

The only reason I know this odd fact is due to my mom’s recent online discovery of an old bottle of this particular scent. Excited, she sent a text message to me and my siblings. She’d already purchased the item, and now she can’t wait for it to arrive so she can get a whiff of that cologne – the fragrance that will transport her back to the days she was engaged to my father.

Smells carry significance. There’s a box in Mom’s closet with my grandfather’s talcum powder and jacket. Grandpa constantly wore that jacket in his final years of life. Every time Mom opens the box, she can smell his scent. “I am completely undone,” she says.

When I lived in Romania, my family would frequently send me care packages. Receiving a notice from the post office that I had to walk across town to retrieve a package was always an exciting event. Inside the box were favorite snacks, new music, magazines, books – whatever might remind me of home. Mom would make Chex mix, seal it in a tin, and send it along.

But, whenever I would open the box, the joy of receiving gifts would collide with the lingering effects of homesickness in the most unusual of ways. As soon as that box was open, the smell of our house would come wafting out of it. There I was, thousands of miles away, doing ministry on another continent – breathing in the specific scent of my home, the fragrance of familiarity spilling into my college dorm.

Oh, the power of a smell!

Bill Sauder, a Titanic historian, tells an interesting story about retrieving items from the sunken ship. “When you retrieve stuff from the Titanic, it’s wet, it’s rusty, and it’s rotten,” he says. “The smell that comes off it is perfectly alien, perfectly fetid – the kind of death you’ve never experienced.” He describes the lab as “unpleasant” due to the horrible smell.

But one day, Sauder’s crew retrieved a leather satchel with vials of perfume. As Sauder describes the moment that satchel was opened, he breaks down and weeps. (Watch here.)

“Suddenly, somebody opens up this leather satchel and out comes the fragrance of heaven. All these flowers and fruity flavors. It’s delicious! It’s the most wonderful thing you’ve ever had. It was just a complete overwhelming experience. The fragrance of heaven moves through the room. So, instead of being surrounded by all of these dead things, for those few minutes, the ship was alive again.”

Resurrection. New life out of death. The fragrance of heaven spilling in, out, and over the stench of decay.

Our sense of smell is powerful because it points to a spiritual reality, and that reality points both backward and forward.

Backward – the scent of home would fill my heart with memories of past joy. Forward – the aroma reinforced my longing to be back home, reunited with family.

The fragrance of new life points back to the world we came from – the perfect world where innocence was lost, a past that is now unavailable to us. We grieve the loss.

At the same time, the fragrance of new creation reignites our anticipation for the moment when Christ will return and make all things new. On that day, it won’t be the Titanic that is raised from the ocean floor, but the bodies of saints everywhere in the world. Tombs will burst open and the fetid stench of decay and death will be blown away by the overpowering scent from gardens of delight.

Charles Spurgeon once described Christian virtues as “sweet spices” – virtues of obedience in every Christian “like hidden honey and locked-up perfume within the flowers on a hot day.” He called the Christian to a life of obedience that gives off the fragrance of heaven, where the perfume of Christ-likeness becomes evident to everyone.

If Christians are to have the aroma of Christ, then the Church ought to be sweet-smelling place, where the fragrance of heaven spills out of our worship into a world that has grown accustomed to the stench of death. A little taste of paradise, a fleeting scent of delight.

God forbid we smell just like the world. What the world needs is a Church with the aroma of life.

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Trevin’s Seven

Oct 23, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation by William Placher. $2.99.

Here are seven of the best articles that I came across this week:

1. New York Times – The Lonely Death of George Bell. Some of the best reporting and analysis I’ve seen in recent days. A sad tale of loneliness in our increasingly fragmented society.

2. Malcolm Gladwell – Thresholds of ViolenceInsightful, frightening analysis from Gladwell on why school shootings catch on.

3. Derek Rishmawy – On “Moving the Conversation Forward.” Derek unpacks the different meanings of this all-too-common phrase.

4. Luca Schroeder – The Elephants in the Room: Conservatives at HarvardFascinating article about how and why conservatives censor their own speech.

5. Jane Kramer – Gloria Steinem: Road Warrior. This profile in The New Yorker on Steinem gives an in-depth look at the motivation and development behind “second wave” feminism, as embodied by Gloria Steinem’s work. I’m intrigued by the differences between first-wave feminism (on pro-life issues) and the newer waves of feminism, caught in the complexities and contradictions of the transgender revolution.

6. Daniel Hyde – The Church is Not a Drive-Through Restaurant. In a consumer culture, this point cannot be stressed enough.

7. Phillip Holmes – Single You Will Be The Married You. A good reminder for singles who might see marriage as a magic bullet.

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Recommending a Few of My Favorite Podcasts

Oct 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

podcaster_fullListening to podcasts is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to “learn on the go.” I listen to podcasts when I’m driving to the office, walking in the neighborhood, or when doing chores around the house. I usually set the podcast to 1 1/2 speed, to benefit from Apple’s “skipping” technique that speeds the podcast up without making everyone sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Last summer, I listed my seven favorite podcasts. Commenters chimed in with additional recommendations, and I made some new discoveries. Here are some of my favorites this year.


cover170x170I’m going to start with the podcast that breaks all the rules about how long your podcast should be, or how frequently you should put out new episodes. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is my favorite find of the past year. Carlin has radio experience, and you can tell from the intensity of his voice and the dramatic flair of his commentary. But where Carlin really excels is in making you feel like you are there, in the shoes of the main players, weighing the same choices. Start with the multi-part series on the Great War raging a century ago – “Blueprint for Armageddon.”

Another history podcast is Stuff You Missed in History Class, a shorter program with a long list of episodes from which to choose. On the Church History front, you can’t beat 5 Minutes in Church History put out by Ligonier. Both of these podcasts are released once a week.


cover170x170 (1)NPR is still king when it comes to masterful storytelling in an audio format. My three favorites in this genre are released weekly or twice a month.

This American Lifelong a staple of public radio, carries over well as a podcast. I don’t listen to every episode, but I rarely go a month without dipping into this series.

Serial set the bar high for riveting storytelling and reporting. The first episode is one of the most compelling and perfectly paced audio documentaries I’ve ever encountered. The rumor is that the next season will focus on the desertion, defection, and rescue of Bowe Bergdahl.

Criminal features a series of stand-alone episodes about odd and eccentric crimes. The earlier episodes are better than the later ones.

Christian Cultural Engagement

The best place to start is still The World and Everything In Ita half hour newsmagazine that summarizes the day’s top news and features commentary from a conservative Christian perspective. The quality is excellent, and you can forward to the next segment in case you’re not interested in what’s being discussed.

There are some other great podcasts for Christians and culture, including Breakpoint This Week with John Stonestreet and Ed Stetzer (released weekly), The Eric Metaxas Show (two segments daily, usually with interesting guests), and The Briefing — Al Mohler’s daily analysis of the news.

Pass the Mic is a weekly program hosted by Jemar Tisby and gives insight into the African-American evangelical community and the pressing issues of the day. The Gospel Coalition podcast is a mix of roundtable conversations and sermons/talks from TGC conferences.

philvischerpodcastFor more in depth conversations about religion, theology and public life, I recommend Mere Fidelity (a good group of guys whose discussions are always thoughtful and whose perspectives are always worth considering). I also recommend the weekly Research on Religion from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and the monthly-released Thinking in Public.

When you’re ready for a break from all that thinking, you can enjoy Phil Vischer’s podcast every week. Vischer (creator of VeggieTales and What’s In the Bible?) leads conversations with Skye Jethani and Christian Taylor, where they discuss big and small stuff, and show that it is possible to engage serious issues without losing your sense of humor.


leadershipThe 5 Leadership Questions podcast hosted by Barnabas Piper and Todd Adkins never disappoints. This twice-a-week podcast features great topics and guests. Thom Rainer’s podcast is also worth downloading. Rainer talks about different trends he observes in the landscape of churches and ministries in North America. Always food for thought here.

(If you’re a Southern Baptist, you should check out SBC This Weekin which Amy Whitfield and Jonathan Howe provide updates on SBC matters and frequently features guests who are leading in the Convention.)

Your Turn

What about you? What do you recommend?

What podcasts should I should add to my list?

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Ben Carson and the Religious Test for Public Office

Oct 21, 2015 | Trevin Wax

bencarsonFrom my latest article at RNS:

Ben Carson doesn’t think a Muslim should be president and despite widespread criticism he hasn’t backed down.

The controversy over Carson’s comments encapsulates the ambiguity of our country’s relationship to religion — a relationship that goes back to the Founding Fathers and the writing of the Constitution. It’s clear that by not having an established national church, the earliest Americans did not want to impose a religious test for public office. No one would be automatically disqualified due to religious reasons.

As a Baptist, I’m glad we don’t have that kind of test. The earliest Baptists were the outsiders in American life, often threatened, suppressed, and jailed for their beliefs.

Other religious groups, like Roman Catholics, were also culturally disenfranchised, which is why the ascent of John F. Kennedy to the presidency was such a monumental moment in our history. So, even though the earliest Americans did not impose a religious test for office, they would have had a difficult time imagining a Catholic like Kennedy or a Baptist like Truman occupying the White House.

But here’s the catch. The fact that our country has never had religious test for public office, and that no one is automatically disqualified due to religious beliefs does not mean that religion doesn’t matter.

The reason why Kennedy’s Catholicism was controversial in 1960 was because many feared that Kennedy’s view of the papacy would give the pope an outsized, inappropriate influence in American governance. Some of the opposition to Kennedy was based in ignorance and prejudice against Catholics, but for many, it was because they took Kennedy’s religion seriously that they chose not to vote for him.

Today, the people who were most astonished at Ben Carson’s comments seem to think that a person’s religious beliefs should be totally irrelevant to how they govern or to how one votes. But that kind of religious reductionism is silly to most religious people. We know that religion really does matter in our daily life and how we think and how we live.

Read the full article…

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Train Up a Parent

Oct 20, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

Train_Up_A_Child“Train up a child.” Rarely is a proverb so often quoted and so often misunderstood. It has become the slogan of parenting seminars. It gets referenced as a surefire promise – a divine reward for our toil and sweat as parents.

Young parents latch onto the proverb with the hope that their training will ensure the faithfulness of their children. Older parents feel the proverb’s implicit judgment, weary from watching a child or two depart from “the way,” and wondering whether their children’s disobedience points backward to their own failure in “training.”

I feel the weightiness of this proverb – first, as a parent who wants to see my kids love God and love others, and secondly, as an editor who works on resources involved in training children to worship the God who sent His Son to rescue them from sin. At home and at work, I am involved in “training” children in the way they should go, “teaching” them according to their way.

Unfortunately, some interpretations of this verse miss both the genre of the proverb in general and the meaning of this proverb in particular. And getting this proverb wrong leads to wrongheaded conclusions about parenting, training, and the hearts of our kids.

Proverbs, Not Promises

The first problem for some interpreters of this verse is to forget that the proverbs are just that – proverbs. They are general truths about the way the world normally works, not specific promises that encompass every possible situation. Some proverbs talk about hard work paying off and laziness leading to poverty. That’s generally true, of course, but the proverb genre assumes exceptions. You may know hard-working people trapped in cycles of poverty or lazy people with inherited wealth.

To interpret Proverbs 22:6 as a promise without exceptions is to misread the genre. Sometimes, you’ll find children who are faithful to the Lord – more faithful than their parents. In these cases, the “good outcome” did not depend on their parents’ training.

Other times, you’ll watch a child raised by godly parents go astray – an indication that all the training in the world cannot ensure a child’s faithfulness. Case in point: Jesus’ parable of the father with two sons, both of them lost in different ways. We know the prodigal eventually returned to the house, but when Jesus ended the story, the verdict was still out on the older brother. In both situations, we should not assume the father’s “inadequate training” was responsible for the elder brother’s stony heart or the younger brother’s rebellious deeds.

Meanwhile, it is all too easy for us to rely on our own visions of “training” as the silver bullet to a child’s heart.

In recent years, we’ve seen a growing consensus among many Christians that too much of our attention has been focused on getting kids to behave. Instead, we should emphasize grace and give kids the gospel. I’m grateful for this consensus. After all, there is no sense in teaching kids how to do good if we have failed to lead them to worship the only One who truly is good. We should never teach kids virtues apart from the Vine. As an editor, I want to make sure kids’ curriculum is not full of moralistic teaching (behavioral management), but the kind of biblical teaching that shows them Christ.

But what happens when you begin to rely on the “goodness” of your gospel-centered training, either as parents or church leaders, to ensure a desired outcome for your kids? Once again, we find ourselves relying on our own “training” as the primary driver in the change of a child’s heart, gospel-centered though that training may be.

Instead, we ought to recognize that all our efforts at “training children” in “the Way” need the power of the Spirit. We present God’s Word in its beauty and glory and then pray for the Spirit to soften hearts. We can put children in a posture to receive God’s saving grace, but our training is not to be confused with that grace. To switch the two – our training and God’s grace – is to put on ourselves a burden we cannot carry. 

Training Up a Child

The second misstep in interpreting this verse is getting the meaning right. The Hebrew is literally “initiate a child in accordance with his way.”

Now, this could mean one of two things. First, it could mean “direct a child in the way he should go” –emphasizing the direction one should take in life. To paraphrase: “set them down the right path and watch them go.” Secondly, it could mean “teach a child in accordance with his nature,” to meet them where they are and train them in age-appropriate ways.

My take on this passage is something a combination of the two. It’s focused on direction (otherwise, the second part of the proverb makes little sense), but the direction is specific – the way he should go. In other words, we are not giving children general training in holiness, but showing specifically how a child might utilize their own gifts and abilities in the fulfillment of their God-given vocation in life. To not “depart from it” means they will bear fruit as they walk the path God has assigned to them.

Training Up a Parent

The truth of Proverbs 22:6 should lead us to lean heavily on the Holy Spirit.

  • We need the illuminating work of the Spirit as we instill the truths of God’s Word in the hearts and minds of our children.
  • We need the sustaining work of the Spirit as we walk with our children through highs and lows, valleys and mountains, pointing them to God and His goodness at every turn.
  • We need the wisdom of the Spirit as we rely on His guidance to show us the best way to apply truths to children’s hearts.

In the general work of teaching them the ways of God and in the specific work of showing them how God might be calling them to particular avenues of obedience, we not only need to train; we need to be trained. There’s no sense in trying to train our kids to trust in God if what we model for them is that we trust in our training.

This proverb, placed in context of the whole Bible, is telling us that we should take our training of children seriously – both where we guide them and how we shepherd their hearts. But it’s also telling us to trust in the God who gave us this proverb, the God that all our training points to. In Him – not in our training – we place our hopes for our children.

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Trevin’s Seven

Oct 16, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: The City of God (Xist Classics) by Augustine. $0.99.

Here are seven of the best articles that I came across this week:

1. Eric Geiger – Thick Skin, Tender Hearts, and Four Types of LeadersI asked Eric to write about this because I think he exemplifies the right balance and because I want to have thick skin but a tender heart. Do not miss this post.

2. Andrew Walker – Kuyper vs. Benedict: This Is Not an Either/OrMuch online ink has been spilled over Rod Dreher’s advocacy for the “Benedict option” of engaging culture in this generation. Andrew shows that Christians with the transformationist impulse are not far removed from the Benedictine focus on strengthening our church communities and institutions.

3. Sara Groves and Makoto Fujimura – Wasteful Extravagance and the Economy of Wonder. Perhaps the greatest thing we can do as a Christian community is to behold. Behold our God. Behold his creation. The church has exiled beauty from its conversations, and I think that we need to rediscover the beautiful in order to recover ourselves — our humanity.

4. Matt Queen – Can We Talk About the Gospel Without Telling It? A timely word about the danger of talking about the Gospel to those who know it best without taking the Gospel to those who need to hear it most.

5. Meryl Gordon in The New York Times – Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter. A tragic story of fame, stigma, and mental illness.

6. Marcus Johnson – Who’s Your Teacher? Our Sacred Duty to Teach the Devil to Death. We are all catechized. The only question is “what is catechizing us?”

7. Nashville’s Skyline Being Reshaped By Building Boom. The New York Times reports on the explosive growth of Nashville. With singer / songwriter Andrew Peterson, I’ve just got to say, I love this city.

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