Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part 2

Carson_01282015D.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. [1] (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra [2]

Carson’s own exploration of culture begins with defining what it means to be Christian, or deeply Christian, as he describes it. This definition hangs on the great turning points in salvation history (67). These turning points are:

  • The creation,
  • The fall,
  • The call of Abraham,
  • The exodus and giving of the law,
  • The rise of the monarchy and the prophets,
  • The exile,
  • The incarnation, and
  • The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (81).

Carson observes that to deviate from these turning points introduces “massive distortions into one’s understanding of cultures and therefore of how to interact with them” (81). In this definition we hear an echo of Niebuhr’s most famous indictment of liberal theology:

“[They preach] A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (Niebuhr 1959. 193)

The turning points in salvation history explain, for example, why the atonement (Christ died for our sins) is a fundamental Christian confession (1 Cor 15:3-5). In effect, the atonement of Christ reverses the fall and advances salvation history to demonstrate God’s new relationship with humanity through Christ’s death and resurrection (61-62). Salvation history is an old idea and is, for example, why western countries date the years from the birth of Christ.  Attempts to downplay or deny these great turning points in salvation history dilute the distinctiveness of the Christian message leaving it vulnerable to to syncreticism and making transformation of wayward souls difficult or impossible [3].  The church’s voice in defining culture is thereby muted.


Postmodern critics of Christianity, like Francois Lyotard (87), actively dispute the idea of salvation history labeling it a meta-narrative. The term, meta-narrative, which means “above the narrative or grand narrative” is an apt description because it implicitly recognizes the dichotomy between a physical and a spiritual reality. As a meta-narrative, salvation history outlines the Bible itself and shows why prophesies of Christ’s coming are recognizable from the very beginning (e.g. Gen 3:15). By adopted salvation history as the defining idea of Christian culture, Carson is effectively using fire to fight fire in confronting postmodern philosophers.

Cultural Factors

Moving from a definition of Christianity, Carson turns his attention to the cultural landscape. Here he describes 4 “huge cultural forces”:

1. The seduction of secularism,
2. The mystique of democracy,
3. The worship of freedom, and
4. The lust for power (115).

Christianity collides with secular culture because: “Christianity does not claim to convey merely religious truth, but truth about all reality.” (120) Attempts to make Christianity a mere preference or to privaticize Christianity deny this fundamental point and form the core of the secular agenda—creating a world where the creator God is ignored, denied, and vilified.

Church and State

Carson rightly focuses a lot of attention on the issue of church and state. The privaticization of Christianity (131) necessarily creates a vacuum into which the secular state eagerly pours. We entered the 20th century believing that morality was the domain of the church and exited the 20th century believing that morality is an individual matter subject to legally imposed sanctions—in other words, who needs morality? [4] This shrinking of the role of the church relative to the state is reflected the 20th century confessions [5]. This transition was ushered in by the secular state.

Carson writes:

“Where countries have become deeply Christianized, Christianity itself becomes far less questing and far more conserving: in other words, it begins to think of itself as a ‘religion’ in the older, obsolete, pagan sense” (146).

Here pagan religion can be thought of as a religion that focuses on divine bribery. The focus of cultic activity is to appease the gods. The idea of the church as the community of those “called out” by God and that our spirituality begins with God (not us) distinguishes authentic Christianity. Carson’s notion of “deeply Christian” (81) based on salvation history and on being “authentically Christian” (formed on the historical confessions) both rely on the fundamental presumption that God acts sovereignly to call out his people and form his church in an historical context (Acts 2)—an inherently public activity. The defining pagan idea, by contrast, is that a physical or metaphorical tower can be built to heaven (Gen 11:1-9) to appease, bribe, manipulate, or force the gods to do our bidding—an inherently private activity because private benefits are sought. Paganism, not Christianity, is at the core of the modern and postmodern worldviews inasmuch as the authority of Christ is set aside and the cultural focus is on shaping the physical and social world in an image of our own making.

Common Treatments

Carson ends his discussion with “a handful of common treatments of Christ and culture” (208) but endorses none–each has its own limitation.

Anne Graham Lotz (2009, 1-2) recounts a conversation that her mother, Ruth Graham, had with the head of Scotland Yard. When her mother remarked that he must spend a lot of time studying counterfeit money, he responded: “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spend all my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I [see] a counterfeit, I [can] immediately detect it.” In the same way, knowing what true community looks like, as Christians, we know can recognize the dysfunctions of culture that we encounter every day and we can live with the tension that those dysfunctions create [6].


In Christ & Culture Revisited Carson has done a splendid job of  making the counterfeit dysfunctions of postmodern culture more obvious.


[1] My own review is at:   Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (

[2] Part 1 is:  Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I (

[3] This point is easily observed.  While the mainline denominations spent the 20th century debating anthropology and lost half their members, the Pentecostal movement evangelized the world.  Ironically, the Azusa Street rivalry of 1906 started out more open to the participation of women and minorities than mainline denominations are even today (

[4] Replacing Christian virtues and moral teaching with law is inherently biased against the poor and poor communities where funding for public services is woefully inadequate.  Even in the wealthiest of communities, the police cannot replace individual initiatives to be righteous.  In poor communities the police are under-paid, under-trained, under-equipped, and over-worked.  Is it any wonder that bad things happen?  The secular substitution of law for morality works to make freedom a reality only for those wealthy enough to enjoy the benefits.

[5] The 20th century confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA, for example,  are the Theological Declaration of Barman, the Confession of 1967, and the [1973] Brief Confession of Faith.  The Barman confession resists the incursion of the Nazi state into the German church; the 1967 confession codifies the civil rights legislation that proceeded it; the Brief Confession talks about unmasking idolatries in both the church and culture.  None of these confessions are a complete articulation of faith (like the reformation confessions); all of them highlight the influence of the state on the church suggesting the that the state, not the church, is defining (and should define) the agenda.

[6] These tensions are highlighted in my recent Friday posts, such as:  Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (


 Lotz, Anne Graham. 2009. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1959. The Kingdom of God in America (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part

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Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

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Transcendence and Identity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then God said, 

Let us make man in our image, 

after our likeness…

So God created man in his own image, 

in the image of God he created him; 

male and female he created them.”

(Gen 1:26-27)


By Stephen W. HIemstra

For us as Christians, our identity is secure—we are created in the image of God. If you want to know who you are, look at Jesus, God’s son and our role model or, as I have said colloquially, Jesus is my denominator. Jesus is the measure of all things human.

So why the interest in identity?

If God the father seems illusive and Jesus is just a man, then the whole denominator analogy falls apart. Like it or not, Americans have a problem with the transcendence of God. The fascination in the identity question is therefore a mirror image of God’s evaporating transcendence or, in other words, if God is not real, neither are we.

The Problem of Dysfunction

Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. 

The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one (Exod 20:4-6). Centering our living on the one who made us gives life meaning and stability. Not doing so, leads to many flavors of dysfunction.

Idolatry and Priorities

The focus on carved images in idolatry suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. heir idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Ps 115:3-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them.” Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number-one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god (Hoekema 1994, 84). Giglio (2003, 13) writes:

So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy. You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your loyalty. At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne; and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship.

Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Idolatry Hampers Spiritual Formation

Focusing only on time, how much time do you spend each week in activities contributing to your spiritual formation as compared with other activities? 

Many men spend much of their free time in shoot-them-up video games, often developed by the armed forces for training soldiers. Is it any wonder that, in spite of the fact that automatic weapons have been available since the 1920s, it is only in the last decade that we have seen a rise in mass shootings in public places in the United States unrelated to any political or economic agenda? Intensive activities form us and become part of our identity—spiritual formation is not the only formation that takes place.

Poor formation leads us to worship idols that let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy (Hos 8:4).

The Problem of Suicide

Consider what happens if your number-one priority is work and you lose your job. In spite of record low unemployment, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are at record levels in the United States, and have contributed to a decline in life expectancy (Bernstein 2018).

Amidst the high level of suicide (Tavernise 2016), two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest a tie to idolatry.

Death by suicide is just the tip of the iceberg according to Mason (2014, 28):

Based on large national surveys, for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.

If psychiatric problems, such as addictions, anxiety, and depression, have a spiritual root, then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem. A solution requires dealing with the root cause.⁠1

God’s Love

Because we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy is part of his care for us. The Jewish daily prayer, known in Hebrew as the Shema (the name), goes like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5) Loving God above all else serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.

Reclaiming Lost Transcendence

The problem of lost transcendence arises because the world screams at us and attempts to drown out the still, small voice of God. Although God has created us and, in sending Jesus Christ to die for ours, has saved us, we need to make room in our lives—both mind and body—to hear God’s voice. 

The whole point of the spiritual disciplines is find space in our lives for God. It is possible to “fake it until you make it” with spiritual disciplines, but this is actually a fool’s errand because God stands outside of time and space—he can approach us but we, being limited in time and space, cannot bridge the gap on our own. Bridging the gap is the work of Christ.

In some sense, our faith in Christ gives us the strength to pursue the spiritual disciplines. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

When we express faith in this way, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts and bridges the gap through out faith in Jesus Christ. Transcendence becomes a reality when we experience salvation and we find a firm identity in Christ.


1 May (1988, 14-16) defines addiction as: “A state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” and specifically relates it to idolatry.


Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29.

Giglio, Louis. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Publishers.

Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Transcendence and Identity

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Value Of Life

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Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

Vance_review_20190903J.D. Vance.[1]2018. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the middle of the Second World War in 1944 a group of world leaders met in Breton Woods, New Hampshire to craft a monetary agreement that would come into effect after the war. In the agreement, the United States pegged the dollar to gold at a price of $26 per ounce. That agreement came to an end in 1971 when the United States announced that it could no longer defend the value of the dollar with gold. From that point forward, the rock-solid U.S. economy has been in transition.

Many people that took the opportunity to educate themselves and invest their money wisely during those prosperous years after the war pulled themselves out of poverty; others did not. In this latter case, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy sees “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Ironically, he sees his own struggle with dysfunctionality paralleling that of other minority groups in America that have not moved ahead in spite of ample opportunity.


Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of one man who defied a legacy of isolation, poverty, and a dysfunctional family culture to become educated and gainfully employed. Of his background, Vance writes:

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree … Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”(3)

In his description, Vance goes on to cite social isolation:

“Our religion has changed—built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities. Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”(4-5)

Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the changes that churches have undergone to reinforce this dysfunctional culture. He does, however, emphasize the oasis offered by his grandparents—in spite of their own obvious dysfunctions—that allowed him to graduate from high school and the encouragement they gave to his higher education (e.g. 253).

Detailed Dysfunction

Vance calls his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw, terminology used exclusively by his hillbilly community (23). Mamaw and Papaw grew up in Jackson, Kentucky but moved to Middletown, Ohio for fairly sketchy reasons—Bonnie was 16 and pregnant and James feared that her family would shoot him. Ohio offered the opportunity to find industrial work at Armco and join the middle class. Ironically, the pregnancy that prompted the move died in infancy (26-27).

Vance‘s mother was a nurse whose life was torn between an addiction and a never-ending rotation of men. Once he realized early in high school that the instability in his home life would never change, he moved in with his grandmother. He writes:

“Mamaw [a pistol-packing hillbilly] would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her.”(243)

Protected by his lunatic grandmother, Vance found stability in his high school years that allowed him to focus on his studies. He later joined the Marines which “taught me how to live like an adult”and enabled him to apply for Ohio State (174-77).

Ironically, he kept his relationship with his grandmother a secret, even from his close friends, because child protective services would not have honored this relationship and would probably have placed him in foster-care. He writes:

“Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role.”(243)

This outsize role arises because even in dysfunctional families there is often someone willing to look out for a child at risk and function as a surrogate parent.


J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a young man who grew up in hillbilly family and found his way to Ohio State University and Yale Law school despite all odds against him. The craziness of his life and family make this an interesting read. At the time of publication in 2016 the media made this book a cult classic because it seemed—quite unfairly—to epitomize the typical Donald Trump voter in a manner like “Joe Six-pack”or the “Silent Majority”used to describe poor white voters, forgotten by the media and mainstream politicians between elections. Nevertheless, Hillbilly Elegyis likely to become and remain a classic study of cultural dysfunction.


Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

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Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Proper Mental Function

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think⁠1 about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As alluded to in earlier posts, many questions about information, learning, and decision processes have a core concern about proper mental function. This is especially true in view of the unity of feelings and thinking that we see throughout the New Testament, as when the Apostle Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)⁠2 Similar concerns arise in criticism about the reasonableness of faith.

Modern Complaints about Faith

Plantinga (2000, 136-142) observes that atheologians (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche) have criticized Christian belief as irrational but not in the sense described above—Nietzsche, for example, referred to Christianity as a slave religion. Freud described Christianity as “wish-fulfillment” and as an illusion serving not a rational purpose, but serving psychological purposes. In Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” suggests more a type of cognitive dysfunction.

Plantinga (2000, 151) concludes:

“when Freud and Marx say that Christian belief or theistic belief or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.”

Plantinga (2000, 153-154, 163) accordingly concludes that the real criticism of “Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.” Plantinga’s strategy in analyzing the atheologian complaints accordingly is to discuss what they are not saying—not complaining about evidence, not complaining about rationality in the usual sense, not offering evidence that God does not exist—to eliminate the non-issues. What remains as their complaint is a twist on rationality—actually more of a rant—you must be on drugs or out of your mind—which is not a serious philosophical complaint except for the fact that so many people repeat it. 

Plantinga politely calls this complaint a charge of cognitive dysfunction. More recent critics are even less formal in their criticism.  Ganssle (2009, 4) observes that the New Atheists⁠3 do not bother to valid their hypotheses and maintain a deliberate strategy of innuendo that he describes as a Nietzschean genealogy—a genealogy given not to prove that one’s family includes royalty, but to discredit the family (Ganssle 2009, 136-137). This pattern of arguing dysfunction and innuendo makes it important to clarify what proper mental function looks like.

A Model of Mental Function

In outlining a proper mental function, Plantinga (2000, xi) defines: 

“warrant is intimately connected with proper [mental] function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” 

He goes on to explain: 

“…a belief has warrant only if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction—construed as including absence of impedance as well as pathology.” (Plantinga 2000, 153-154) 

We accordingly care a lot about the mental state of society when in comes to faith, as cited above in Philippians 4:8.

Education and Goodness

In this argument about proper mental function is a hint of the age old belief that faith and education are related. In developing the  discipline of study, we become are more open to truth, including the truth of God and God’s goodness. However, discipline is a necessary but insufficient condition for faith. Faith is an act requiring emotions and the mind working together. The mind alone cannot bring about faith.

Rational Thinking and Sin

Implicit in Plantinga’s concept of warrant is a preference for rational thinking, much like an economist would argue consumers consider all competing products, features, and prices before making a purchase. Proper time and effort are taken to consider all the facts pertinent to a purchase and assesses these facts independent of other consumers—no mandates from leaders or fads influence the ideal purchasing decision. Obviously, the economist also assumes that the consumer is not high on drugs, not subject to impulses brought about by psychiatric dysfunction, and able to afford the products under consideration. 

The point is that Plantinga’s model of proper mental function is a common feature in many fields of inquiry.

Interestingly, Plantinga cites the Apostle Paul in his rebuttal of atheistic critiques:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20)

Paul goes on to share what is essentially the God’s curse for rejecting salvation under the new covenant in Christ. The curse is that the disbeliever is “given over to” (become a slave of) the desires of their own heart which has, of course, been corrupted by original sin. Paul’s assessment here is that disbelievers have specifically fallen into the sin of idolatry (Rom 1:22-25).  

Sin appears in Paul’s argument as a generic mental dysfunction that obscures rational decisions and destroys relationships by cutting us off from other people and from God. Stealing, adultery, lying, and disrespecting our parents all obviously undermine relationships oftentimes for selfish reasons and are irrational in an atmosphere of full-disclosure in a highly interdependent society. Even if the Ten Commandments are not displayed in every courtroom, many court proceedings could be avoided if everyone took the commandments seriously.


1 The Geek word for think, λογίζομαι, means: “to give careful thought to a matter, think (about), consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on “ (BDAG 4598, 2) The word also carries a mathematical connotation as with the word, reckon (BDAG 4598,1).

2 Thompson (2011, 107) characterizes the entire Letter to the Philippians as focused on developing the proper frame of mind (φρονέω e.g. Phil 1:7)

Ganssle (2009, 1-2) views the New Atheists as: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Their work shares three things in common:  passion, belief not only in atheism but the danger of believing in God, and their status as public intellectuals speaking outside their fields of experience.


Ganssle, Gregory E.  2009. A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, James W. 2011. Moral Formation According to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Proper Mental Function

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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Bacevich Explains U.S. Political Economy Post WWII

Bacevich_review_04142016Andrew J. Bacevich. 2008.  The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Political economy—the nexus between policy, philosophy, history, and economics—is never more important than in transition periods when the old rules no longer apply and the new rules have yet to be crafted. Yet, those who practice this craft are often castigated both by the old guard resisting change (and rewarding those that aid their resistance) and by specialists defending their professional turf (and under-appreciating the irrelevance of the division of labor in a period of fundamental change). Faced with such changes, it is refreshing to read an author, such as Andrew Bacevich, who is up to challenges posed.


In his book, The Limits to Power, Bacevich frames the current dilemma as a political economic problem, writing:

“The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises: The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: they are of our own making.” (6).

Framing this crisis as internal, Bacevich is swimming against the tide—our problem is not, as widely perceived, a problem created by Osama Bin Laden on September 11 or by OPEC in 1973. Looking into the heart of America, Bacevich sees “our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” run amok in the face of limits that we refuse to accept and that now erode national power, as our principles, our heritage, our resources, our middle class, our allies, and our military preparedness have been thrown under the bus by leaders attempting to forestall the day of reckoning (9).  Because Bacevich sees this reckoning composed of three related crisis, let me examine each in turn.

The Economic and Cultural Crisis

In discussing the crisis of “profligacy”, Bacevich sees the Jefferson trinity of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” having been reduced in the current age to one word: “more”. He  writes:

“For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.” (16)

More, More, More

This is not a new endeavor; Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s that Americans possessed a “feverish ardor” to accumulate (17). More recently, this ardor was observed by Reinhold Niebuhr as being manifested in a tendency to “seek a solution to practically every problem of life in quantitative terms” assuming that “more is better” (23). Buttressed by Charles Maier’s America’s “empire of production” after World War II (WWII), America’s “empire of consumption” continued to provide “more” until reaching a tipping point in the period between 1965 and 1971, as Bacevich observes:

“The costs of the Vietnam War—and President Johnson’s attempt to conceal them while pursuing his vision of the Great Society—destabilizing the economy, as evidenced by deficits, inflation, and a weakening dollar. In August 1971, Nixon tacitly acknowledged the disarray into which the economy had fallen by devaluing the dollar and suspending its convertibility into gold.” (29)

Malaise is Real

Bacevich sees this deepening economic crisis coming to a head a decade later in Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise speech” (July 15, 1979) where he spelled out that a sustainable future required living within our means (31-36). Carter’s analysis was soundly rejected by the American people who overwhelmingly elected Ronald Reagan based on two related ideas: “credit has no limits and the bills will never come due” (36). Modeled on the unlimited federal deficits, personal savings which average 8-10 percent of disposable income for most of the postwar period, fell to practically zero in 1985 (44).

The economic consequences of the Reagan deficits were reversed during the Clinton years only to be reinstated during George W. Bush’s presidency when the debt accumulated effectively reduced the federal government from a prime to a sub-prime borrower, using debt-to-income standards applied normally to individuals. Of course, debt issues have their implications for politics.

The Political Crisis

Bacevich observes that “American democracy in our time has suffered notable decade”, a decade that has its roots in the response to WWII and to the Cold War and that had the effect of concentrating significant power in the executive branch of government (67-68). While the government’s response to September 11 is often cited in development of an ideology of national security, Bacevich sees the George W. Bush’s contribution being primarily in articulating existing convictions. Bush’s second inaugural address cited 4 convictions:

  1. “History’s abiding theme is freedom, to which all humanity aspires…”
  2. “America has always been, and remains, freedom’s chief exemplar and advocate…”
  3. “Providence summons America to ensure freedom’s ultimate triumph…”
  4. “…for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere.” (74-75)

The idea that American can and should intervene in defend of freedom elsewhere in the world, Bacevich notes, “imposes no specific obligations” and serves primarily “to legitimate the exercise of executive power” (77). So legitimatized, military intervention has become the preferred political instrument in a world with only one super-power and for a people whose desire for “more” seems insatiable. This ideology accordingly serves as a reasonable explanation for why the end of the Cold War did not result in the much promised peace dividend and war, not peace, has become the norm (1), thanks, in part, to the Bush doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” (117) which justified preventive wars, like the Iraq war to unseat Saddam Hussein.

The Military Crisis

Citing Corelli Barnett, Bacevich described war as the “great auditor of institutions” and observes:

“Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.” (124)

Bacevich explains this failure in great detail, but the short answer is that the use of military needs to be undertaken in the context of political objectives and, when the politicians—including military politicians, become fascinated with the technologies of war, the political context frequently is ignored—tactics displace strategy leaving only a muddle. Having reviewed the muddle, Bacevich concludes:

“America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities.” (169)

Bacevich’s Background

Andrew Bacevich is a retired U.S. Army colonel who taught history and international relationship at Boston University. He is a graduate of West Point with both master’s and doctor of philosophy degrees from Princeton University. He is the author of numerous books.[1]


Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power, ties together many aspects of U.S. history and, for me as an economist with 27 years of service in 5 different federal agencies, adequately explains much of the recent dysfunction (lack of sustainability) of the federal government. For readers who are neither political junkies nor Washington insiders, this may be a challenging book to read and understand because Bacevich challenges many of the assumptions normally taught in high school civics classes. In any case, it is a book well worth reading.



Bacevich Explains U.S. Political Economy Post WWII

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Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith, Part 2

Plantinga_review_05092015Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Alvin Plantinga sees two basic classes of objections to Christian faith since the Enlightenment:

  1. The first objection he calls the de facto arguments—objections to the truth of Christian belief.
  2. The second objective he calls de jure arguments—objections often harder to pin down—more like innuendo than like a serious philosophical critique.

He further breaks down the de jure objection into 3 categories: Christian belief is unjustified, irrational, and unwarranted (viii-x). Let me address each of these 4 arguments in turn.

De Facto Objections to Faith. The most widely known de facto objection to faith is based on suffering (viii), but Plantinga sees these arguments as well known and straightforward to address (ix).

One objection has to do with discussing God’s transcendence.  Citing Gordon Kaufman (1972, 8), for example, Plantinga writes:

“The central problem of theological discourse, not shared with any other ‘language game’ is the meaning of the term ‘God’. ‘God” raises special problems of meaning because it is a noun which by definition refers to a reality transcendent of, and thus not locatable within, experience.”

Plantinga turns this argument on its head asking—did Kaufman (or, for that matter, Kant who he is paraphrasing) show (or prove) that this critique has any real merit? (5; 31)  This same response to other objections phrased primarily as slander or innuendo aimed at believers or God himself.  Plantinga observes: ”If God is omnipotent, infinitely powerful, won’t he be able to manifest himself in our experience, bring it about that we experience him?” (34)

In another example, when Freud objects to Christian faith because it is likely wish fulfillment, Plantinga asks: what is the problem?  Are you saying faith is like to be false? (x) It is hard to rebut a poorly articulated criticism which takes more the form of an ad hominine attack than a philosophical claim about truth. It is like the television show that repeatedly (and disproportionally) pictures Christian pastors as unsophisticated or morally corrupt, but offers no information to support for the implied character assassination—repeating a claim does not strengthen its merits, but it does wear out those targeted.

The implication in Plantinga’s rebuttal is that Christians are frequently too polite to unmask unfair criticism designed primarily to intimidate or shame believers.  Perhaps, for this reason, Plantinga focuses more on the 3 de jure objections (63).

Christian Faith is Unjustified.  Plantinga notes that critics claim that is unreasonable or unjustified, but the precise nature of their objection is unclear—it lacks cogence.  What exactly is the question?

He observes that the 3 traditional proofs of God’s existence—the cosmological[1], teleological[2], and ontological arguments[3]—provide a prima facia argument for God’s existence and basically rebut this criticism (68).

Plantinga explores the requirements of evidentialism, which argues: “that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it. (70; 82)  He then observes that John Lock offers 4 kinds of knowledge:

  1. “Perceiving the agreement or disagreement of our ideas.” [judgment?]
  2. “…propositions about the contents of your own mind…”
  3. “…knowledge of other things of external objects around you.”
  4. “…demonstrative knowledge…know by a proportion by deducing it…” (75-77)

After a lengthy discussion of the classical requirements of evidentialism, Plantinga finds no de jure question to suggest that Christian faith is unjustified (107).

Christian Faith is Irrational. Plantinga asks: “what is it for a belief to be rational?” He observes these forms of rationality:

  1. “Aristoltelian rationality, the sense in which, as Aristole said, Man is a rational animal…
  2. Rationality as a proper function [not dysfunction or pathology 110];
  3. Rationality as within or conforming to the deliverance of reason;
  4. Means-ends rationality, where the question is whether a particular means someone chooses is , in fact, a good means to her ends; and
  5. Deontological rationality [or justification].” (109)

In his review of these different definitions of rationality, he finds “not much of a leg to stand on.” (135) One point that would suggest a rational criticism is when someone loves another person or people group sacrificially. If I put myself at risk in becoming a missionary to a dangerous place or people group, then in a real sense I am acting sub-rationally and those disadvantaged by my actions may criticize my rationality (or my motives) in various ways.

Christian Faith is Unwarranted. Plantinga observes that atheologians (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche) have criticized Christian belief as irrational but not in the sense described above—Nietzsche, for example, referred to Christianity as a slave religion (136). Freud described Christianity as “wish-fulfillment” and as an illusion[4] serving not a rational purpose, but serving psychological purposes (142). In Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” suggests more a type of cognitive dysfunction (141).

Plantinga concludes:

“when Freud and Marx say that Christian belief or theistic belief or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.” (151)

Plantinga accordingly concludes that the real criticism of “Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.” (153; 163).  In this context, warrant means:

“…a belief has warrant only if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction—construed as including absence of impedance as well as pathology.” (153-154)

Plantinga’s strategy in analyzing the atheologian complaints accordingly is to discuss what they are not saying—not complaining about evidence, not complaining about rationality in the usual sense, not offering evidence that God does not exist—to eliminate the non-issues. What remains as their complaint is a twist on rationality—actually more of a rant—you must be on drugs or out of your mind—which is not a serious philosophical complaint except for the fact that so many people repeat it. So Plantinga politely calls this complaint a charge of cognitive dysfunction.

At this point, Plantinga has defined the de jure criticism of atheologians in a manner which can now be properly evaluated in philosophical sense[5]. The problem is not a problem per se with the existence of God (a metaphysical issue), but with the process of accepting a belief (an anthropological issue). This definition both clarifies and simplifies the development of a response.

In part 3 of this review, I will examine his response to this problem statement.

[1]Taylor (2006, 113) writes:  “God’s existence can be explained by the fact that he is perfect in nature and therefore necessarily existent.”

[2]Taylor (2006, 127) writes: “The traditional design argument focuses on things in nature that appear to be designed.”  Complexity in nature points to a grand designer the way that finding a watch on the beach points to the watch maker.

[3]“Anselm defined God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived” which is the most common ontological argument for God’s existence (

[4]Plantinga notes that an illusion, in contrast to a delusion, is not necessarily false (139).

[5] As I have observed elsewhere, when employing the scientific method of analysis it is frequently the case that the problem definition is the most challenging step. The steps often employed in the scientific method are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, and responsibility bearing.   Stephen W. Hiemstra. June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed: 18 February 2014. Online:


Kaufman, Gordon.  1972.  God the Problem. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Taylor, James W. 2006.  Introducing Apologetics:  Cultivating Christian Commitment.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

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Stinnett and Beam Study Healthy Families

Fantastic Families

Nick and Nancy Stinnett and Joe and Alice Beam. 1999.  Fantastic Families:  6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family.  New York:  Howard Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One frustration in ministry and counseling is the constant focus on brokenness.  Every conversation seems to feature a page from the DSM-IV, a book that lists psychiatric illnessesin other words, all the ways people can be broken[1]. After a point, I became curious what healthy families look like.  Eventually, my curiosity led me to a book by Nick and Nancy Stinnett and Joe and Alice Beam called:  Fantastic Families.


Stinnett and Beam define a family as: “two or more people who are committed to each other and who share intimacy, resources, decisions, and values” (9).  Obviously, the authors see the traditional family as important in this analysis, but the qualities they focus on are quite general and their comments about faith are minimal.  Strong families have problems just like everyone else, but they are better able to deal with them (8). This book promotes strong families by describing what they look like. Stinnett and Beam write:

“Experience has shown that if your family has problems—even major problems—the situation can be remedied and you can have a fantastic family life.  You can do it by applying in your family the six steps found in this book” (11).

Role of Learning in Health

Clearly, part of a healthy family life is the willingness to learn new things.  If your family spends a lot of time in crisis management mode, learning new things may be a hard requirement to meet.

Family Dynamics Institute

Stinnett and Beam are researchers with the Family Dynamics Institute of Franklin, Tennessee[1]Fantastic Families is a study based on a sample of 14,000 families from across all 50 states and 24 countries covering, at the time of writing, about 25 years of research (x-xii).  The book is written in 7 chapters introduced with a preface and introduction and followed by 4 appendices, notes, and bibliography.  The chapters focus on 6 qualities that strong families share in common:

  1. Commitment—these families promote each other’s welfare and happiness and value unity.
  2. Appreciation and Affection—strong families care about each other.
  3. Positive Communication—strong families communicate well and spend a lot of time doing it together.
  4. Time Together—Strong families spend a lot of quality time together.
  5. Spiritual Well-being—whether or not they attend religious services, strong families have a sense of a “greater good or power” in life.
  6. Ability to Cope with Stress and Crisis—strong families see crises as a growth opportunity (10).


Each chapter then consists primarily of a list of characteristics contributing to each of these qualities.  For example, a committed family has 6 characteristics:

  1. Commitment to marriage;
  2. Commitment to each other;
  3. Commitment to putting first things first;
  4. Commitment to honesty;
  5. Commitment to family traditions; and
  6. Commitment to the long haul (17-41).

Learning to Cope

The chapter on coping with stress was of particular interest to.  Stinnett and Beam offer 6 ideas for coping:

  1. Assess the stress in our life;
  2. Commit yourself to an exercise program;
  3. Cultivate your sense of humor;
  4. Select a hobby that refreshes and pleases you;
  5. Periodically review plans concerning death; and
  6. Use television and movies as a catalyst for family discussions (176-179).

Probably the most interesting item on this list was a table they provide that rates sources of stress by their required “social readjustment” from 1 to 100 (177-178). At the top of the list, for example, is the death of a spouse (100); …death of close family member (63); …child leaving home (29); …Vacation or Christmas (12).


Stinnett and Beam’s Fantastic Families is a helpful book for families willing to learn new things. It would be an interesting book to use in promoting small group discussion.



[1] American Psychiatric Association. 1994.  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Fourth Edition.  Washington, DC.

Stinnett and Beam Study Healthy Families

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