Censoring censorship: Amazon’s pedophilia problem and the ambiguity of “free speech”

You’ve probably heard by now Amazon’s problems with pedophilia. As CNN describes the situation:

An e-book for sale on Amazon.com that appears to defend pedophilia has sparked hundreds of angry user comments and threats to boycott the online retailer unless it pulls the title.

And, according to the most recent updates, Amazon has pulled the title. But, before they did so, they apparently defended selling the book based on the premise that it would be ”censorship not to sell certain titles because we believe their message is objectionable.” And, of course, they’re right that this would be censorship. But, they’re wrong about this being a problem. Amazon is a for-profit company with every right to exercise censorship over the products that they will put up for sale. Indeed, their own publication policy prohibits selling “pornography” on the site. That is also censorship. And, it’s also okay. The problem is that we’ve turned “censorship” into a bad word that is necessarily wrong in all its forms, which is absurd. Unless a business is going to sell everything imaginable, it necessarily exercises some level of censorship.

And, of course, in this case censorship is very much called for. As CNN reports,

The author of “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct” said he published the controversial tome to address what he considers unfair portrayals of pedophiles in the media.

So, the author’s explicit purpose is to make pedophilia more acceptable. And, as he explains in an interview, he thinks he can do this by making clear which sexual acts with children are inappropriate and which are perfectly fine. If there’s a book worthy of censorship, this would seem to be an obvious candidate. And, while “free speech” may cover the author’s right to say such things, there is no “right” that says Amazon has to sell it.

Luther’s great discovery – the sweetness of God’s justice

Today is Martin Luther’s 527th birthday (Nov 10, 1483). I don’t keep that many candles in my office, so I thought I’d recognize his birthday by posting his description of how he came to discover the true meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans. As he tells the story toward the end of his life, this was the pivotal turning point in his understanding of the Gospel and the grace of God.

I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.

From the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545).

10 Essential Books from the Last 25 Years

Flavorwire has posted its list of 10 Essential Books from the Last 25 Years. The list focuses almost entirely on fiction literature, and I was a little surprised to see that it is somewhat tilted toward more recent works (these lists usually lean the other way). I was also surprised that I’d only read three of them (The Road, Fight Club, and Ender’s Game). Apparently I need to get out more.

Here’s the list. Check out the article if you’d like to see the explanations for choosing each one:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)
The Beach by Alex Garland (1996)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
The New York Trilogy by Paul Austen (1987)
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers (2000)

They also added a shortlist of other key books that didn’t make the top 10.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (2003)
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2005)
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (1997)
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (1997 – 2007)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2003)

I’m always looking for some good books to read, so if you’ve read any of these and would like to recommend them for my next read, please do so.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/10)

As ironic as it might seem to anyone who would dare read his 14 volume Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth’s entire theology stood as a testament to his time as a parson. Barth was first and foremost a preacher and felt all theology should be done from the viewpoint of the preacher.

For my part, I tend to think of Original Sin socially and systemically. Basically, you can’t ever get clean. Systemically clean. The human condition is to be complicit, to have blood on your hands

To me, these are symptoms of a beginning fundamentalist posture towards culture: We have the answers, we distrust everything about everything that is not us.

  • There’s an interesting discussion on how to translate pistis Christou going on over at BibleGateway’s Perspectives on Translation forum. Tom Schreiner and Mike Bird have both weighed in with helpful comments (along with a very brief one from Darrell Bock). I particularly liked this comment from Bird:

The problem is that I am familiar enough with Greek grammar and syntax to know that a genitive modifier restricts the head term but does not fill it with radically sophisticated theological content.

Old schools vs. new schools

I love to listen to the rhetoric that older, more established schools and newer, less traditional schools fling back and forth at each other. It’s a fascinating display of semantic nuance. Reading Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, I came across the following scene in which Lord Vetinari (i.e. The Boss) is describing two such institutions to Archancellor Ridcully, head of the more traditional school.

“What we have here, gentlemen, is but a spat between the heads of a venerable and respected institution and an ambitious, relatively inexperienced, and importunate new school of learning.”

“Yes, that’s what we’ve got all right,” said Ridcully.

Vetinari raised a finger. “I hadn’t finished, Archancellor. Let me see now. I said that what we have here is a spat between an antique and somewhat fossilized, elderly and rather hidebound institution and a college of vibrant newcomers full of fresh and exciting ideas.”

“Here, hand on, you didn’t say that the first time,” said Ridcully.

Veintari leaned back, “Indeed I did.”

Two very different perceptions of the same academic realities. And, as the technology-in-education debate really starts to heat up, it should be interesting to see where the rhetoric goes from here.

Double Effect and the Ethical Dilemma

(This post is by Chris Smith and is the next post in the series on Philosophy and Theology that the ThM students are engaged in.)

The article that I have chosen to post about is “The Rule of Double Effect—A Critique of Its Role in End-of–Life Decision Making” by Timothy E. Quill. This is how I understand the double effect rule: The double effect rule states that a doctor is ethically justified in prescribing medicine that is intended to treat a terminally ill patient’s pain even if this same medicine may decrease the patient’s expected lifespan or result in death. The double effect rule justifies a doctor’s actions based on the nature of their intentions. If a doctor prescribes medicine with the intention of minimizing pain but causes a patient’s death, his actions are justified under the double-effect rule; however, if a doctor prescribes medicine with the intention of causing death, his actions are not justified. (The assumption behind this rule is that there is not a less harmful drug available to treat the kind of pain the patient is experiencing.) The rule is called double effect because a doctor’s intention can have two effects: the intended relief of pain and foreseen but unintended death.
The double effect rule begs the question: Can the desire to alleviate extreme and terminal pain ever outweigh a doctor’s imperative to preserve physical life? Quill states: “The word ‘intentional’ suggests, however, that the deaths of innocent persons may be permissible if brought about unintentionally” (1768).  Here we need to understand the meaning of unintentional not as an accidental effect that is unexpected but as a potential effect that is not intended. When a doctor seeks to alleviate pain by increasing dosages that will have a harmful effect on the patient, can he really by justified when he knows that his actions are further contributing to the patient’s inevitable death? I would say he is justified in this act because his intention is to alleviate.

A case Quill describes makes the double effect rule even more reasonable in my opinion. He describes a patient who is on a respirator in order to help him breath. Is a doctor justified in his decision to turn off a respirator in hopes that the patient will be able to breathe without it? I would say the act of turning off the machine is justified even if the patient dies because the hope was to draw on the patient’s strength to stimulate his own breathing. The patient’s death may have been possible (“foreseen”) but unintentional because the desire was to see the patient breathe on his own. I find this to be a more effective use of the double effect rule because the doctor was attempting to stimulate the patient to greater health rather than attempting to prevent pain.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/9)

  • Michael Patton reflects on “closet doctrines” – those doctrines we believe but prefer not to admit to non-Christians.

Closet doctrines are those doctrines that we might believe, but we hide, especially to those for whom Christian truth is a novelty. In short, they are those beliefs that we are somewhat embarrassed by.

the experiential nature of faith, the spiritual mark of delight in God, and the expectation of pervasive joy are not the inventions of John Piper. Nor are they owing only to the influence of Edwards and the Great Awakening. They go back to the Reformers themselves.

What am I getting at? I am concerned that evangelicals, by and large, approach the OT with an unbiblical dependency on the NT. Since the NT is newer revelation and offers a more developed view of God’s redeeming purposes, it becomes the key by which we “unlock” the meaning of what has come before it. There is no overt discrimination against the OT, just a lack of deep engagement with it as meaningful, relevant revelation in its own right.

  • And, here’s an interesting list of 10 movies stuck in development hell. Hollywood definitely needs to get some of these taken care of. I don’t care if they ever make a movie about Halo, but Ender’s Game would be fabulous and The Sandman is long overdue.

Night fell, shoah is here

[For a variety of reasons, I’ve taken some time away from working on my book about the Gospel. But, I’ve recently picked it back up again, and I’d like to start posting pieces of it here for review and feedback. Please feel free to let me know what you think. (I’ve also added a page to the blog with all the excerpts I’ve posted so far.) Tonight I was playing with this piece as a potential introduction for the chapter on the spread of sin in the world. I’d like to use shalom and shoah as balancing terms throughout the book to talk about the way things ought to be (shalom) and the destruction that results when sin enters the world (shoah).]

Shoah Has Come

Night fell.

There’s something eerily sinister about a sentence like that. If you run across it in a story, I can almost guarantee that things are about to get crazy. You could be reading a book about nice, old ladies drinking tea and playing cards, but if you see “Night fell,” you can expect vampires, serial killers, and/or giant spiders to come from nowhere and start wrecking some serious tea party havoc. Night is when evil walks free. Night falling in a story is never a good thing.

Night fell.

Nights are lonely. A while back I was talking with someone whose wife had left him several years into their marriage. He was reflecting on how difficult that transition has been—custody issues, financial pressures, and tense negotiations, among other things. But, out of everything, he said that nights were the hardest. During the day, he can keep himself busy with work and other responsibilities, distracting himself from the loneliness, pain, and bitterness. But, when night falls, there’s no more hiding. In the darkness, he’s alone.

Night fell.

Guilt and shame like the darkness. They wear it like a cloak, hiding deep within its velvety folds, safe from prying eyes. And, in a sense, darkness is liberating. People do things at night that they would never consider doing during the day. The shadows of night free us from the inhibitions and constraints of day. With our guilt and shame well covered by the darkness, we are free to pursue our desires, satisfy our needs, and soothe our lusts. In the night, guilt and shame find a home.

Night fell.

Kids seem to understand all of this instinctively. You don’t have to teach kids that bad stuff happens when night falls. They just get it. I woke up the other morning to find my youngest daughter asleep on the armchair in my bedroom…upside down, head dangling from the bottom of the chair, legs sticking straight up its back, blanket a tangled mess around her arms and chest. I wasn’t surprised. This happens a lot in our family. My daughter can play happily by herself for hours at a time. But, when night falls, she looks for any excuse to be close to someone. Nights are scary, dangerous, lonely places.

Night fell.

When night fell on Elie Wiesel, his life ended. One day, Elie was living with his family in their quaint, tightknit, and occasionally quirky community. One day he had a place to belong—family, friends, faith, and freedom. One day, Wiesel had shalom. And one day, night fell.

Elie is a Jew, and his family lived in Eastern Europe during World War II. Although they’d heard warnings about what was happening to Jews everywhere, they refused to flee. They just couldn’t leave their houses and synagogues, abandon their communities, lose everything that they had called home. So they stayed. And night fell.

For the next twelve months, Elie and his father try to survive the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazi concentration camps. And, Elie describes the experiences as being like one long, brutal “night,” not the simple period of darkness that concludes each day, but the dark night of loneliness, despair, and inhumanity that had descended upon him and his family. A night in which, as one prisoner tells him, “there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” where “everyone lives and dies for himself alone” (110); a night where every value is inverted, perverted, and destroyed.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.”

Night fell.

Among Jews, the Holocaust goes by another name, shoah, the Hebrew word for destruction. And, it’s a good word for describing the terrible reality of the Holocaust. Shoah. The destruction of community, intimacy, trust, hope, faith, love, even humanity itself. Shoah. A destruction that does not simply eliminate the good—no, that would be too easy—this is a destruction that crushes and corrupts the good, reshaping it into a twisted parody, a mockery of all that was once held dear.  Families remain, but only as a burden holding back those who would seek to survive the abyss, fighting and killing one another over mere scraps of bread. Hope remains, but only as a weapon used by guards to keep prisoners in line, tantalizing them with a vision of what they know will never come. Faith remains, but only as a painful accusation against a deity once trusted and adored. Shoah.

Once there was a boy named Elie. Once he had a family and a home. Once there was shalom. No longer. Night has fallen. Now there is darkness, loneliness, pain, despair, shame, and loss. Shalom is gone. Shoah has come.

Night fell.

Once there was a time when God’s people were naked, living in shameless intimacy with him and with one another, displaying his glory in the world as they cared for the creation he’d so graciously given them. Once there was shalom. But one day, God’s people decided to go their own way, abandoning his purpose and plan to pursue their own glory. And night fell. A night of loneliness and alienation, despair and brokenness, shame and guilt; a night seeming without end.

Once there was shalom. Now there is shoah.

Night fell.


Genius football play

I think this should go down as one of the most brilliant football plays ever. Only a middle schooler would come up with something like this. But, I’m pretty sure it would work against the Cowboys as well.



Who are the “must reads” in theology (part 4)

We’ve been discussing the question of what makes a theologian a “must read” for students of theology. In the last post, I listed those that I thought were must-reads because of their historical significance. But, I’ve also argued that it’s perfectly legitimate to have a second list for people who fall into one of these three categories:

  1. People you find so personally compelling that you think any good theology student should know about them.
  2. People you think will eventually become historical must-reads.
  3. People you think are shaping contemporary theology so much that theology students should know about them even if you don’t think they fall into either of the first two categories.

So, here’s my (inadequate) attempt to provide my list of theological must-reads in this secondary sense. Since this is an inherently subjective process, your list should be different than mine. And, since this list could easily get pretty long, I decided to limit myself to five theologians in each era. That wasn’t too difficult in the early eras since their major figure were already represented on the historical must-read list. In the modern and contemporary categories, though, it got pretty tricky. And, I did cheat a little by including an “honorable mentions” category for those eras. And, I’ve appended a brief comment explaining why I chose them.

In the Early Church (up to AD 500)

  1. Irenaeus (I love his narrative of salvation and his polemic against gnosticism)
  2. Origen (amazingly creative thinker)
  3. Gregory of Nyssa (fascinating blend of theology and philosophy; interesting theological anthropology)

In the Early Middle Ages (500-1000)

  1. Pseudo-Dionysius (vital for understanding mysticism and apophatic theology, though I’m personally not that interested)
  2. Maximus (his cosmic Christology and theological anthropology are outstanding)

In the High and Late Middle Ages (1000-1500)

  1. Bernard of Clairvaux (the affective and mystical nature of his theology are a welcome change from medieval scholasticism)
  2. William of Ockham (brutal to read, but important for understanding nominalism and the theological/philosophical context of the Reformation)

In the Early Modern Era (1500-1800)

  1. Zwingli (I felt like I had to include Zwingli. Compared to the other Reformers, he always seems like the fat kid who never gets picked for kickball.)
  2. Melancthon (anyone who can systematize Luther’s brilliant ramblings is fine by me)
  3. Bucer (fascinating ecumenist in a theologically loaded era)
  4. Owen (how can you not like Owen? He probably should have been on the previous list)
  5. Spener (you don’t really understand American religiosity until you’ve understood German pietism)

In the Modern Era (1800 – 1990ish)

  1. B.B. Warfield (not my favorite personally, but critical for understanding American theology)
  2. Charles Finney (as much as it pains me to say it, he’s among the most influential American theologians ever)
  3. Alexander Schmemann (the 20th century was huge for Eastern Orthodox theology, and I went with Schmemann over Bulgakov because I’ve spent more time with him)
  4. Hans Urs von Balthasar (one of the people on this list that I really need to spend more time with)
  5. T.F. Torrance (I’m still torn on whether he’ll have a lasting historical significance, but his theology is challenging, rigorous, and robustly trinitarian. What more could you want?)

(Honorable mentions: C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, John Howard Yoder)

Contemporary Theologians (still living)

  1. Robert Jenson (possibly the best truly systematic theologian writing today)
  2. Miroslav Volf (one of my personal favorites, his work is always interesting and challenging)
  3. Rowan Williams (one of those really important theologians that I just haven’t been able to get into, but still critical for understanding theology today
  4. John Zizioulas (his work on Trinity, ecclesiology, and anthropology, has been very influential in my own thinking)
  5. Stanley Hauerwas (someone that I still need to spend more time on, but his creative synthesis of theology, biblical studies, and ethics is definitely must-read worthy)

(Honorable mentions: Gustavo Gutierrez, Virgilio Elizondo, Kathryn Tanner, David Bentley Hart, John Webster, Benedict XVI)

Okay, have at it and let me know what you think. I’m particularly interested in who would you be on your Top Five lists for the modern and contemporary periods.