Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 2

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option

Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 2

Rod Dreher.[1] 2017. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel. (Goto part 1; Goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those of us active in church leadership, the hollowing out of the Christian faith is nothing new. Biblical illiteracy has reached the point that seminaries routinely test their new students on their biblical competency and about 90 percent of incoming students are required to take remedial work in biblical studies. Because it is hard to apply biblical knowledge to solving life’s daily challenges if the Bible is largely unknown even by the clergy, it is small wonder that the church has not prevailed in influencing postmodern culture.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In The Benedict Option Rod Dreher makes the point about biblical illiteracy citing sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton who define the religion of American teenagers as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  MTD has five basic tenets:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (10).

  MTD is especially prevalent among Catholic and mainline Protestant young people, according to Dreher. The problem is that it has little to do with the God of the Bible and focuses on the worship of the self and material comforts (10-11).

If the church has lost the culture wars, the lost emanated from inside the church outwards. Therefore, the hollowing of the church is the problem, not barbarians at the gates. Still, Dreher sees barbarians anxiously taking advantage of the church’s lost vision (16-17).

How Did We Get To This Point?

Dreher sees five landmark events over seven centuries rocking Western civilization and stripping its ancestral faith:

  1. In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality.
  2. The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
  3. The eighteenth century Enlightenment, which displaces the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.
  4. The Industrial Revolution (ca 1760—1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  5. The Sexual Revolution (1960—present) (22-23).

It is interesting that Dreher reverse-engineers the antecedents of the postmodern era. The enchanted world that he sees prior to William of Ockhams (1285-1347) development of nominalism or metaphysical realism. This world distinguishes God from his creation (not realism which keeps them united, according to Dreher) can actually be traced to the first verse of the Bible. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (23-27). In order to create the universe, God had to have been separated from it.

Commentary on Worldview

As a conservative Catholic, Dreher begins his march towards postmodernism with a Middle Ages world view, not a biblical world view, as might be more typical of a Protestant writer. Dreher’s starting point is important because it colors his view of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. In my own thinking, for example, I have often referred to scientific discoveries as “God’s Easter Eggs” which he hides from us in such a way to assure that we would find them. If all of knowledge is God’s knowledge, our faithfulness is not necessarily undermined by what we know so much as our attitude about it.

The more corrosive problem that arose in the nineteenth century was not so much the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment, but emergence of the Romantic movement. Dreher writes:

The Romantics, as they were called, found many aspects of the new rationalist, mechanized society distasteful but had no interest in returning to the Christian world. They prized emotion, individuality, nature, and personal freedom. (38)

Here attitudes about God and his relationship with human beings and the created order clearly changed. If Christians came to believe that God primarily worked through our feelings, not our minds, then it was a small step to insert the self in place of God. This is because no one outside the self can mediate our feelings, which ultimately undermines the authority of the church and scripture.

The Sexual Revolution

Sexuality might easily remain the domain of family life within the community. However, if the self mediates feelings, sexuality takes on a completely new role. Dreher writes:

‘Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it.” Says political philosopher Stephen L. Gardner. ‘It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his individuality.’ The body must be the true subject of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire. (43)

If this comment appears oblique, think of it as a creation story for the individual. Much like Marx banned Bibles because his communism lacked a valid creation story, postmoderns deny God’s sovereignty through the worship of desire and must have their own creation story, which however unlikely places the individual at the center of the universe [of desire].[2]

Summary

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation ties together numerous concerns about the church. He then offers the development of new schools and community as necessary components to maintaining a vibrant faith community in the face of the coming secular deluge.

In part one of this review, I outlined Dreher’s book. Part two looks at his definition of the problems facing the church. In part three, I will look at his solution to those problems.

References

Gardner, Stephen L. 1998. Myths of Freedom: Equality, Modern Thought, and Philosophical Radicalism. Greenwood.

Smith, Christian and Melinda Lundquist Denton. 2005. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] @RodDreher, TheAmericanConservative.com/Dreher

[2] This is why gender advocates express no interest in hearing about the problems—disease, drug abuse, suicide, depression—created by the risky behavior that they advocate. To recognize these problems, they must admit that they have no credible creation story and that God is sovereign.

Also See:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

Continue Reading

The Scientific Method and Objective Truth

The scientific method is a learning method that led to many discoveries about the physical world that have defined the modern period. Discoveries in agricultural production, medicine, and manufacturing have alleviated hunger and poverty, and have extended the life expectancy of the vast majority of people since the early nineteenth century. These discoveries has so dramatically improved the lives of modern and postmodern people that claims about the method have pervaded virtually all aspects of our lives. While almost no one discounts the usefulness of the method, the spillover of rational thinking into other aspects of life helped accelerate exploration of limits to its usefulness.

In its simplest exposition, the scientific method consists of series of steps in analytical thinking:

  1. Problem definition
  2. Observation
  3. Analysis
  4. Decision

In the problem definition step, the researcher forms an hypothesis. The researcher then proceeds to collect observations about this hypothesis in the second step. In the third step, the researcher analyzes these observations in view of other discoveries. In the final step, the researcher decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.

The flexibility of the scientific method to be applied to many aspects of the physical world accounts for its enormous usefulness. As researchers make new discoveries, they publish their finding so that other researchers can replicate their results. Thus, over time the knowledge of the physical world grows and is decimated throughout the scientific community and applied to practical applications in agriculture, industry, and medicine.

For many years, people believed that using the scientific method did not involve philosophical prejudices, but simply revealed facts about our world. This belief, however, came increasingly under scrutiny as researchers began to apply the scientific method especially in the social sciences. Scrutiny gave way to outcry during the Second World War as people learned of German scientists performing inhuman experiments on prisoners in concentration camps, such as learning the minimum nutritional requirements to prevent starvation, cold water survival rates, and so on. It soon became more widely understood that which problems came into focus in research involved serious philosophical and theological presumptions that had previously not gotten much attention.

One particularly important presupposition in the modern period and in the scientific method had to do with the nature of truth. Arising out of the Christian worldview came the assumption that one objective truth exists which, if we take the time to research, we can discover. This assumption is reasonable in the physical sciences; it is less tenable in the realm of social science, where cultural assumptions often dictate how particular activities are judged. For example, we can all agree on the weight of a particular bucket of sand, but we may not agree on whether to eat pork or whether it is acceptable to charge interest on a loan.

The existence of objective truth may sound like a trivial issue, but it becomes important in determining the status of professionals, such as scientists, doctors, lawyer, economists, and even pastors. If one objective truth exists, then it makes sense to consult the professional responsible for that subject matter. If truth is socially defined as is often argued in the postmodern period, then it is less clear which professional is most appropriate or whether a professional is even needed. In the church, for example, who is most suitable to preach and teach the Bible in which translation and with how much training? The answer to these questions are hotly debated within the church, in part, because we have come to doubt the nature and importance of objective truth.

Why do we care?

In the postmodern world that we live in, rational learning and decision making is still important, but the cynicism surrounding rationality is everywhere to be seen and it affects our attitude about anyone in authority. Prior to the modern period, authority stemmed primarily from wealth and political power in secular society and the church’s authority stemmed from reverence for God. In the modern period in America, authority still stemmed from wealth and political power, but this authority was increasingly tempered by the knowledge-based power of professionals and respect for God waned as rational thinking led many to question God’s existence. In the postmodern period, respect for both God and professionals has waned leading to the rise of authority based primarily on wealth and political power. In effect, if objective truth and God do not exist in people’s minds, then my truth and my group’s truth take center stage.

A second important result of this lack of belief in objective truth is that it undermines, not only professionals, but also respect for democratic and judicial process. On a theoretical level, if objective truth exists, then through debate and argumentation we come closer to understanding this truth, which is embodied in both our democratic and legal systems. If no objective truth is believed to exist, then debate and argumentation are simply a power play that does not enhance the credibility of the decision reached.

Therefore, the losing parties in debate or legal process have no inherent reason to accept the outcome of the process. This is why we observe so many sore losers on the evening news today that previously did not seem even to exist in popular culture. The postmodern rhetoric about the lack of debate in the modern period attributing the peace to an overwhelming majority of Americans being simply white is a half-truth, not the whole truth. Everyone believed in the American system, even when not everyone benefited equally. This why people still prefer to jump over the fence to come to America from other places. One seldom hears of people escaping to join most other, non-western destinations—it is not entirely about the differences in wealth.

While the modern period is clearly over, the challenges and risks that we face remain poorly understood without understanding the role played by the scientific method and objective truth in the world that we continue to live in.

 

Other ways to engage with me online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2slSaTM

Continue Reading

Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.

 

Continue Reading

To Postmodern and Back

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies,
dissensions, and quarrels about the law,
for they are unprofitable and worthless.”
(Tit 3:9-11)

To Postmodern and Back

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The influence of postmodernism on each of us is pervasive and ongoing because it provides the context within which we perceive our world. Yet, as a young person I identified with postmodernism as a movement with origins in the 1960s and liberal opposition to the Vietnam War. As an emotional influence, I started to realize that I was mistaken when I drove along the Berlin Wall in 1978 and noted the crosses marking where someone had been shot to death attempting to escape the “workers’ paradise” in East Germany. At that point, I realized that America stood for human rights not found anywhere else in the world, especially the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The contrast between the U.S. attitude about human rights and that of the communists could not have been greater. The U.S. Constitution, which had been modeled after the governance system of the Presbyterian Church, recognized the Bible’s teaching that:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)

In God’s eyes, human life has intrinsic value because humans are created in the image of God. This Christian teaching is hardwired into the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. attitude about human rights. For the communists, who were officially atheistic following Marx, human rights consisted of only the rights conferred by the state and God had nothing to do with it.

The source of rights matters because people attempting to flee from communist rule were considered enemies of the state who had no rights and, if they were not shot, they were sent to work camps never to be heard from again. So, the crosses on the Berlin Wall evoked a strong and very basic emotional reaction in me. Rights conferred by the state can be rescinded by the state; rights conferred by God are eternal.

Later, traveling with my family through East Germany on the autobahn to Berlin reinforced this point; when I attempted to speak with an East German family in a restaurant, they were so frightened by prospect of visiting with an American that they shook visibly with fear. I returned from my year in Germany with a new attitude about America and a profound skepticism of any political movement influenced by leftist thought.

My emotional transition in Germany did not immediately influence other aspects of my thinking. After Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s right legislation in the 1960s, I came to believe that the world was fundamentally different from the world that my parents had grown up in, a view reinforced by popular culture—particularly music and the arts. This idea that the world had changed influenced especially my attitude in my studies as a economist. I thought—why do I need to learn all these old ideas because everything is now different? Naive as that idea seems to me now, at the time it was a huge influence.

As I proceeded in my doctoral studies, I began to realize that the world was not so fundamentally changed as I had assumed. Logic was still logic; English was still English; mathematics was still mathematics. Old ideas, especially about religion and human sexuality, were not suddenly null and void. In fact, in the context of a rapidly changing world, many ideas were being questioned that were really quite important. My having dismissed so many really important ideas was not only naive; it set me back in my studies and stunted my relational development. Intellectual flexibility (pragmatism) was good; ethical relativism was not so good.

At a very basic level, I started to notice, especially in my work as an economist, how many people did not do their homework in approaching problem solving and research. The assumption that the world had fundamentally changed in the postmodern era prompted a new kind of subjectivism that was highly destructive of good relationships among people and of quality research in economics—if everything is relative, why can’t the world just revolve among me? Faith in God works quite differently because God’s view may not be like my own and, if I am to evangelize my neighbor, I need desperately to understand my neighbor’s point of view. In a godless, secular society, no such objectivity is required.

In a very real sense, those crosses on the Berlin Wall reminded me of the one cross that really matters.

Continue Reading

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1

Vanhoozer_review_04042015Kevin J. Vanhoozer. 1998. Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan. (Go to:  Part 2 or Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Biblical interpretation has become a contact sport. The Bible has been the center of the Christian faith since the fourth century and is still today the most widely read book on earth.  Most cultural disputes either originate in biblical interpretation or are mediated by it. How then are we to read and understand the Bible properly?  Even before seminary, my own quest to answer such questions brought me to Kevin Vanhoozer’ book, Is There Meaning to This Text?

Vanhoozer starts off with some very interesting observations:

…many of the contentious issues at the heart of the current debates about biblical interpretation, about interpretation in general, and about postmodern interpretation in particular, [are] really theological issues.  I began to see meaning as a theological phenomenon, involving a kind of transcendence, and the theory of interpretation as a theological task.  Instead of a book on biblical interpretation, therefore, I have written a theology of interpretation…the serious student of Scripture needs to develop an epistemology (theory of knowledge) and hermeneutic (theory of interpretation)…not only epistemology, but [also] metaphysics and ethics of meaning (9-10).

Say what? Perhaps it is easier to start with a question.  For example, in scientific study, where do the hypotheses and assumptions come from that are needed before applying logic? Or, in terms of faith, does one need to be a Christian to read the Bible properly?[1] Vanhoozer asks: “What does it mean to be ‘biblical’?”(9) These are not questions easily answered no matter how you stand on the issue of faith. Yet, we cannot proceed in any serious study of the Bible without implicitly or explicitly having an answer.  Clearly, Vanhoozer has taken on an interesting and intrinsically difficult task.

Vanhoozer is ultimately writing a study on hermeneutics—“reflection on the principles that undergird correct textual interpretation” (19).  As he parses this subject, he sees interpretation involving three philosophical issues:  “the nature of reality” [metaphysics], “the possibility of knowledge” [epistemology], and “the criteria for morality” [ethics].  Vanhoozer sees these three questions motivating a fourth:  “What does it mean to be human, an agent of meaning?” [anthropology] (9)[2].

Twentieth century philosophy has focused on the problems posed by language (17). The Bible is a book which implies that Biblical interpretation is a form of literary interpretation or “literary criticism”.  Citing Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27[3], when we read the Bible, do we see in it only ourselves, perceive it to be a love letter, or take it as a royal edict? (15-16)

Vanhoozer sees literary criticism evolving through three ages:  author, text, and reader (25).

  • In the first age, that of the author, the focus is on the author’s intent in writing (25). Who was the author and what was his audience?  Knowing the author ties the text to a time, place, and social context.  As Christians, we see the hand of God working through particular authors to bring us into closer relationship with Him.
  • In the second age, that of the text, the focus is on the text itself and how it is to be understood (26). Reformers, such as John Calvin, naturally looked to the Bible itself in understanding a particular passage.  The idea was that scripture can interpret scripture; an unclear passage may be more clearly discussed elsewhere in scripture. As Christians, we intuit the presence of God in a particular text knowing God’s expression in other texts.
  • In the third age, that of the reader, the focus is on the reader’s context—an inherently ethical question (27). When we consider the question—what does this passage mean to me?—we expect to get different answers because our contexts differ.  Yet, as Christians, we also expect continuity in our reading of scripture with other readings through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

In this latter respect, Vanhoozer writes: “My thesis is that ethical interpretation is a spiritual exercise and that the spirit of understanding is not a spirit of power, nor of play, but the Holy Spirit” (29).  As you might imagine, there is a lot to unpack in this one sentence!

Vanhoozer is a professor of systemic theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois right outside of Chicago[4]. He writes Is There a Meaning in This Text in four parts:

Introduction (Theology and Literary Theory)

  1. Faith Seeking Textual Understanding

Part One (Undoing Interpretation: Authority, Allegory, and Anarchy)

  1. Undoing the Author: Authority and Intentionally
  2. Undoing the Text: Textuality and Indeterminacy
  3. Undoing the Reader: Contextuality and Ideology

Part Two (Redoing Interpretation:  Agency, Action, Affect)

  1. Resurrecting the Author: Meaning As Communicative Action
  2. Redeeming the Text: The Rationality of Literary Acts
  3. Reforming the Reader: Interpretative Virtue, Spirituality, and Communicative Efficacy

Conclusion:  A Hermeneutics of the Cross

  1. A Hermeneutics of Humility and Conviction

In his part one, Vanhoozer seeks to interpret the postmodern hermeneutics as Christian theologian. In his part two he offers an alternative hermeneutical approach (25). These chapters are followed by a bibliography, a name index, and a subject index.

Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text is a book that seeks to explain what “all the shouting is about” in Biblical interpretation [5]. That makes this book must-read for seminary students and working pastors. Be prepared to be challenged both in your knowledge of philosophy and hermeneutics.  In parts 2 and 3 of this review, I will look in more depth at Vanhoozer’s review of postmodern hermeneutics and his proposed hermeneutic.

 

[1] The 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm thought so.  Anselm famously spoke of the priority of faith in seeking understanding. If faith must precede understanding, how can it be “objective”?   (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm).

[2] My book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com), also considers these four questions—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and anthropology—in trying to understand Christian spirituality.

[3] “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.  But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.  If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  (James 1:22-27 ESV)

[4] http://bit.ly/1GiDzNF

[5] I knew that Dr. Butterfield was a serious scholar when I noticed Vanhoozer on her list of readings (87-89; review: Butterfield Journeys from PC to JC; http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wj).

REFERENCES

Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. 2012.  The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert:  An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.  Pittsburgh:  Crown & Covenant Publications.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2014.  A Christian Guide to Spirituality.  Centreville, VA:  T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

 

Continue Reading

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.
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.

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.

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 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

[2] Part 1 is:  Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-PZ).

[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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azusa_Street_Revival).

[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 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

REFERENCES

 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.

Continue Reading

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

Carson_01282015D.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For about my first 3 years of college, I never went to church voluntarily. In my senior year of high school, the session had let our youth director go and I felt betrayed and angry. Instead of enjoying my senior year in youth group, the group disappeared overnight and I graduated a fairly isolated and lonely teen. Later, I learned that the youth director had been discovered to be lesbian; another prominent member of the congregation (who I also knew well) was charged with pediphia about the same time. Membership plunged after that point. The church building was sold in 2014. After journeying through some dark times, I able to make peace with God after I realized that the people around me, not God, had been responsible for my pain—evidence that we live in a toxic culture.

In his book, Christ & Culture Revisited, Carson (viii) starts his preface observing that: “even since Pentecost Christians have had to think through the nature of their relationships with others.” His other three reasons for writing have a more professional focus—the need for an international perspective on culture, Niebuhr was the focus of his seminary discussion group, and an invitation to lecture in Paris [1] on the subject (ix-x). Still, the preface to his paperback edition provides more insight into his motivation. He writes (vi): “The famous Niebuhr typology…drives us toward mutually exclusive choices we should not be making”. Ideas matter. I tell my kids—if you want others to take you seriously, first take yourself seriously. Carson is a serious thinker and a serious writer.

D.A. Carson is a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield just outside Chicago in Illinois. His book cover is a painting, The Last Supper by Conrad Romyn. He writes in 6 chapters:

1. How to Thinking about Culture: Reminding Ourselves of Niebuhr;
2. Niebuhr Revised: The Impact of Biblical Theology;
3. Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism;
4. Secularism, Democracy, Freedom, and Power;
5. Church and State; and
6. On Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias, and Ongoing Tensions (v).

An important observation from this list of chapter titles is that Carson focuses on Niebuhr primarily in the first two chapters. Throughout the remainder of the book, he looks beyond Niebuhr to take a fresh look at the relationship of Christ and culture.

So how does Carson interpret Niebuhr’s work?

Carson starts his analysis of Niebuhr with the observation that: “If he [Niebuhr] is going to talk about ‘Christ and culture’, Niebuhr must provide reasonably clear definitions of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’” (9). This task proves harder than initially meets the eye because of a clear diversity of opinion about the information content of both terms.

In discussing Niebuhr’s definition of “Christ”, Carson cites Niebuhr saying: “If we cannot say anything adequately, we can say some things inadequately” and cannot “limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture” (10). Hmm.

As Carson observes, Niebuhr’s definition of culture proves no more easily defined as “Niebuhr wants to avoid the technical debates of anthropologists.” (11) Carson then opines that “Niebuhr’s definition of culture embraces ‘ideas’ and ‘beliefs’ as well as customs, inherited artifacts, and the life.” (12)

Having demonstrated that Niebuhr’s definitions of both “Christ” and “culture” are oblique, offers an insightful interpretation: “Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within the culture.” (12)[2] Christ as an authority competes with other authorities in society today and in the past who define culture. This interpretation is interesting because it is at least coherent offering an apples-to-apples comparison [3].

Because Carson’s interpretation of Niebuhr hangs on competing authorities, he needs a concrete set of ideas to characterize Christ’s role in interacting with culture. This he finds in the great turning points in salvation history (67) which then, in turn, define Christ’s contribution. In this latter respect, Carson focuses on Jesus’ words: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25 ESV)[4] Carson notes that God as creator of the heaven and earth abides no competitors [5] so Jesus is clearly asserting authority over culture (56-57).

A complete review of Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited would require almost as much study and ink as his review of Niebuhr. For this reason, I have broken this review into 2 parts.  In part 1, I note that Carson’s careful review of Niebuhr’s pays homage to Niebuhr even while making the limitations of his classification scheme (typology) painfully clear [6]. In part 2, I examine Carson’s exploration after Niebuhr.  Carson is a good read and worthy of detailed study. I learned a lot—perhaps you will too.

[1] This interpretation is insightful because truly innovative thinkers, like Niebuhr, do not have the benefit of refined thinking when they express themselves—they define entirely new thought patterns—and their expressions are invariably enigmatic. While they know what they mean, their words only partially express their underlying thinking.

[2] I find it the height of irony that Carson should lecture in Paris in French on a book about culture both proclaiming the obsolescence of postmodernism (vi-vii) and an end to the “high culture” critique implicit in Niebuhr (1-2).  I wish that I could have been there!

[3] The other apples-to-apples comparison option would be to compare Christian and pagan cultures—a perilous task.

[4] Also Matt 22:21 and Mark 12:17.

[5] See Gen 1:1 and Exod 20:3-5. Culture is a perfectly good idol for many people which has direct bearing on Jesus’ words when he points to a coin with a picture of Caesar (Luke 20:24). A good Jew in Jesus’ day would refuse to carry a denarius which is why, for example, Jesus had to ask for one.

[6] My own review is at: Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

REFERENCES

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

Continue Reading

Results of Book Cover Survey

Book Covers by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Book Covers by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Thank you!

I want to thank all of you that participated in my book cover survey over the past week.  The survey is now the second most popular posting on T2Pneuma.net since the blog was established in September 2013.

Who Participated?

Twenty-four people (24) completed the survey.  Everyone responding said that they speak English at home, but about 10 percent live outside the U.S. Slightly more than half of respondents (54%) were male.

Surprisingly, about that many (54%) also listed their age as under 30 years old.  Another 37% were over the age of 50—the demographic profile of most people attending church these days.  About the same number of people (71%) as in national surveys cited their religion as Christian.  The other affiliations cited were Other (21%) and Not Sure (8%).

Survey Results

The most popular choice (57%) of respondents was the Hagia Sophia book cover (1).  The second place honor was pretty evenly split among the other 3 book covers.

Rankings suggest that the Path book cover (2) was actually everyone’s second choice; the Blue Leather cover was third choice; and the Postmodern cover was the last choice.  However, this result looks suspiciously like a survey weakness because the rankings mirror the order of the covers presented in the survey.

Seventy-eight percent (78%) prefer a paperback book.  Respondents were evenly split in their preferences for electronic and hardback books.

Comments Received on the Book Covers

A total of 20 comments were received from respondents and they serve as an interpretative lens on survey numbers.

In the comments below, the numbers cited in parentheses are the ages of the respondents.  The age diversity of the different covers is truly striking.  It would be hard to anticipate the distribution of ages of respondents and religion affiliations favoring particular covers.

Hagia Sophia:

  • As a Catholic, I am drawn to icons and today, with a severe muscle spasm, I have a serious attitude, which this cover portrays. On other days, I might like the path cover. I like covers #1, 2 and 4, but not the plain blue leather, which seems noncommittal. Spirituality is perhaps the most crucial aspect of our lives and that cover seems bland. The postmodern cover is nice, but is it too busy – trying to include too much? Overall, 3 of the 4 covers are excellent in my opinion (51 to 60).
  • The cover is right in tune with the thesis of the book (61+).
  • This clearly gives the potential reader the subject matter from afar and looks great and clean (21 to 30).
  • It is a common Byzantine Christian icon, by showing the figure of Christ himself it makes the content seem important. Therefore, before you open the book the viewer is under the assumption that the material is profound (21 to 30).
  • I have always loved this one (21 to 30).
  • “Jumps out at you the most”. It is clear that it is a Christian book (51 to 60).
  • Looks more interesting and has depth (21 to 30).
  • It caught my eye as a religious book before I read the title (61+).
  • It is peaceful and meditative. The colors have such depth (61+).

Path:

  • Although the lettering is more difficult to read than the first. This cover looks more modern. An appealing book cover that looks up to date may go a long way to opening it (1-20).
  • Non suggestive. A cover anyone would see and want to know what the book is about (21 to 30).
  • This image creates a relatable book cover for all walks of life (1-20).

Blue Leather:

  • It’s a classic type of cover, not too simple and not too busy. All the other ones are too old fashion (21 to 30).
  • Hey Steves. I just asked a group of people what they thought and they liked the blue 2:1 (21 to 30).
  • It’s very simple (21 to 30).
  • I like simplicity (41 to 50).

Postmodern:

  • I like the blend of images which seems to say that there are many forms spirituality can take, not just one, even as we affirm there is one God (61+).
  • Looks the most unassuming. Blue Leather and Hagia Sophia look too pious. Path isn’t bad but I just prefer Postmodern (21 to 30).
  • Blends ancient and modern (61+).
  • It’s a nice collage and very inviting to the eye (51 to 60).

Commentary

As I drafted this survey, I had two questions on my mind.

  • Which book cover is most popular?
  • How should I match book covers to alternative editions of the book?

Clearly, the Hagia Sophia is the most popular book cover surveyed.  The only caveat to this conclusion is that because I have used the Hagia Sophia in association to the book in my postings, perhaps the survey is simply picking up this association—a kind of survey bias.  Setting this possibility aside, matching the Hagia Sophia cover to the paperback edition—the most popular cover and most popular edition—is an obvious conclusion.

Less obvious are how to choose covers for the electronic and possibly hardcover versions of the book.  The preference of young people for the Blue Leather cover may not, for example, match up well because blue leather is also more-expensive.  The use of the Postmodern cover on an electronic edition, by contrast, might make sense.

This survey was done online using SurveyMonkey (www.SurveyMonkey.com).

Background on the Book Covers

The Hagia Sophia cover (www.pallasweb.com/deesis/picturegallery.html) is a 12th century mosaic found in the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, Turkey.  Hagia Sophia is Greek for holy wisdom.  The image that I have been using is licensed from iStock (www.IStockPhoto.com).

The Path cover is a photograph that I took on my IPhone 5 after a snow storm on March 6, 2014.  It shows the portion of Popular Tree Road in Centreville, VA which was cut off with the construction of Route 28 and turned into a part of Ellanor C. Lawrence park (www.FairfaxCounty.gov/parks/ECLawrence).

The Blue Leather cover was modeled after a number of denominational hymnals sitting on my bookshelf.

The Postmodern cover builds on the idea of a collage which is a stereotypical postmodern art form.  Articles on how to draw books covers often advise prospective artists to illustrate non-verbally the contents of your book which is easy with a collage.

The drawing on the Postmodern cover depicts Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:16:  And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.  The image shows a hint of a dove (>), a hint of clouds on either side, a hint of sun beams, and a hint of a stream with Jesus (+) parting the water.

FYI.  Check out my first You-Tube video (Welcome to T2Pneuma.net!).

Continue Reading

Galatians 3: Law and Gospel

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith (Galatians 3:10-11 ESV).

The question of the relationship between law and Gospel is one of the hottest debates today; perhaps, this could be said of the entire history of the church.

F.F. Bruce, in his Commentary on Galatians (1982. NIGTC.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.  147-191), divides chapter 3 of Galatians into 7 sections:

  1. The primacy of faith over law (vv 1-6)
  2. The blessing of Abraham (vv 7-9)
  3. The curse of the law (vv 10-14)
  4. The priority and permanence of the promise (vv 15-18)
  5. The purpose of the law (vv 19-22)
  6. Liberation from the law (vv 23-25) and
  7. Jews and Gentiles one in Christ (vv 26-29).

Every verse is carefully parsed in book after book because the content of these 29 verses seriously affects our attitude about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the secular society.  Clearly, a one-page reflection cannot address all that is being said here.

For example, we read in verse 2:  Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (v 2).  Here the Apostle Paul makes the assumption that the Galatians know firsthand the work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. The inference is that this experiential knowledge of the Holy Spirit is not only evident, but the sole source of eternal salvation. This question alone condemns religions focused on law as insufficient to warrant salvation. Among Christians, this statement would likely identify you as a charismatic. Do you think Paul is a charismatic?

In this same vein, one could argue that verse 28 defines the basis for social progress over the past 2,000 years, but especially in the modern and postmodern eras.  Paul writes:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Tim Keller, in his study guide (Galatians for You. 2013. Good Book Company. 92-93), observes that Paul has broken down three important barriers:  the cultural barrier (neither Jew nor Greek), the class barrier (neither slave nor free), and gender barrier (neither male nor female).  Do you think Paul is politically correct?

Paul’s comments about who is chosen probably got him in the most trouble. Verse 6 quotes Genesis 15:6: And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Abraham is not righteousness of himself, he is counted as righteous. Why?  Because he believed God’s promise of providing him an heir. Why is this remarkable?  Abraham was 100 year old at the time and his wife was 90.  This principle of justification by faith alone expressed here (v 11) and in Romans 3:20-27 was the foundation of the protestant reformation [1].  This is because time and time again parts of the church have erred in adding other requirements, especially cultural requirements, on believers beyond that of faith in Christ.  What cultural add-ons to faith can you identify today?

Does justification by faith alone mean that we can ignore the law?  Certainly not! (v 21). The law of Moses was given to restrain evil, to instruct us, and to guide us until we come to faith (vv 24-25).

Elsewhere Paul wrote:  But whatever gain I had [under law], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7 ESV).

[1]Martin Luther was nearly martyred for his faith at the Diet of Worms; but his own journey of faith began with understanding of this passage (Roland H. Brainton. 1995.  Here I Stand.  New York:  Penguin Group.  49-50, 146-149).

Continue Reading

A Few Good Stories

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In May I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Commencement was held at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a large African American church in Charlotte, NC.  The experience seemed a bit otherworldly, in part, because I still have classes to finish this summer and, in part, because this was my first commencement in spite of multiple degrees.

 I commenced for the first time because when I graduated high school, the senior class protested graduation–a very 70s kind of thing to do; when I graduated in college, I was sick with mononucleosis; when I received my master’s degree, I was an exchange fellow in Germany; and when I received my doctorate, I was frankly too poor to travel back to Michigan.  So commencement gave me a new story to tell.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

From epistemology we know that the existence of God cannot be proven (or disproven).  What logic would you use?  Logic starts with assumptions—which ones are irrefutable and who says so?  Consequently, our experience of God starts with a story.  A story is a model of reality.  In financial modeling, the adage goes that it takes a model to kill a model.  Because all models are imperfect, only a better model provides a suitable critique.  Questioning the use of a model is, frankly, not to understand the challenge of risk management in complex modern financial corporations. Likewise, as Christians we need to ask:  which story best fits what God has revealed about himself and what we know about our world?   Arguing for no story is not to understand the human dilemma. The Christian witness is that:  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1 ESV).

An important postmodern challenge to the Biblical witness comes from literary critics who argue that the meaning of words is arbitrary.  Words have no inherent meaning and, in effect, pose a kind of Rorschach test exploited by power-seeking individuals and groups who impose their meaning on the texts—especially ancient texts taken out of social context.  They employ this critique to discount the historical testimony of the church and the biblical record.  The Bible’s use of stories, however, deconstructs this critique itself!  Stories provide context.  Hebrew doublets restate particular sentences in different words.  The meaning of particular words is then obvious from context and the use of doublets. Stories transcend the arbitrary meaning of word-symbols by drawing on experiences common to all human beings.  As Mark Twain used to say:  It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

In clinical pastoral education, I learned to listen actively and, in particular, to listen for the stories that people tell.  The hospital visit, for example, is a transition story—a patient comes with a problem, seeks a cure, and is released.  Economist studies to be a pastor is a reinvestment story.  Anniversaries can made both tragedies and victories on a particular date each year.  The pastor that tells a story about a new acquaintance—is probably being autobiographical.  Biblical stories are often rehearsal stories—stories from the past with current meaning.  Identifying the story that a person tells helps establish emotional connection—an important vehicle for sharing the gospel.

The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The apostle Paul invites us to join in Jesus’ story with these words: that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11 ESV).  Life has meaning because we know where we fit in Christ’s story.

Seminary has taught me the value of a good story.

Continue Reading