Thursday, March 22, 2012

LTI Podcast #29 - Defending the Intrinsic Value of Human Beings [Serge]

Jay, Scott, and Rich return to answer those who would question the intrinsic value of human beings? Do we possess a nature that makes us exceptional, or are we merely a cosmic accident with no more intrinsic value than a cockroach?

Available on ITunes or direct download here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

October Baby Review [Jay Watts]

This past weekend I was privileged to see an advanced screening of October Baby. You can read the promotional material for the film here. A little background first, my grandfather owned a chain of movie theaters in Knoxville, Tennessee where I spent incalculable hours on vacation fostering a lifelong love of movies and buttered popcorn. Later, I was heavily involved in theater and film, both in college and professionally, and for a time intended that to be my career. As a result, I tend to take movie reviews very seriously and am not always a fan of films simply because they have the virtue of agreeing with me on some spiritual or philosophical point.

October Baby tells the story of young woman – Hannah, played by Rachel Hendrix - who finds out that there is an explanation for her lifetime severe physical and emotional struggles. She was adopted by her parents after she survived a botched abortion. With the help of her best friend – Jason played by Jason Burkey- they set out on a road trip to search out her birth mother and the full story of Hannah's past.

Whatever concerns I had about the quality of the film I was screening were quickly allayed. October Baby is not an amateur production. The filmmakers, Andrew and Jon Erwin, understand how to make a movie. Anytime you watch an independent film you know that the producers sacrifice some elements of larger productions – usually film quality and acting – in order to tell a more personal and intimate story. The Erwin's seem to understand the limits of a production at this level and use their unusual skill to mitigate the weaker elements of small films, or – more simply put – they shot an independent film that looks great.

The work with the actors was impressive to me as well. The hardest thing about acting in film is the incredible sensitivity of the camera in reading emotion. There is a fine line between a quality performance and ham fisted overacting. During the filming of A League of Their Own, Rosie O'Donnell said that she and others would watch Tom Hanks and Geena Davis filming scenes and think, “They're not doing anything! They are not even trying.” Later when they all sat down to watch the dailies they would see how much better Hanks and Davis were than the rest of them. The stillness translated into a more subtle and thoughtful performance. The actors in October Baby, especially the supporting characters, are remarkably subdued for an independent film which I assume is a credit to the Erwin's. It was refreshing to see them let the story do the work and trust the project. The majority of the emotional work is left for Hendrix and Burkey. Asking young actors to carry that load is a tall order and the Erwin's help them out by including a few mini-music video interludes to progress the relationship. It is hard for me to evaluate John Schneider as her father because I am just thrilled to see Bo Duke, but I do think Chris Sligh of American Idol fame is surprisingly likable and Jasmine Guy is a much needed emotional anchor.

There is a lot that is good about October Baby beyond the spiritual nature of the story. It certainly isn't a perfect movie, but it is a lovely movie that finishes strong. Much is often made by Christians that we need to go see these movies to send Hollywood a message. I disagree. Tyler Perry and the Kendrick's have demonstrated that filmmakers can produce material for a specific audience profitably whether Hollywood likes it or not. That is an important lesson, because if you go see October Baby this weekend you directly equip these particular filmmakers to do more work like this. Opening weekend receipts go to the producers and distributors. If they do well they finance more movies like this. So go to see October Baby this weekend and buy some popcorn and Coke while you are at it. That is how you tip the theater owners for showing films like this.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Her Horror Became Joy [Jay Watts]

When talking to people about the moral nature of abortion there is no scenario that troubles our audience more than the question of rape. How do you force a woman that has been raped to carry her baby to term? She has been cruelly violated already, and now pro-life advocates want to legally compel her to continue in her forced pregnancy and give birth to the child of the man who raped her. It is an emotionally difficult argument in front of an audience.

I trot out the toddler to demonstrate that they are assuming the unborn are not fully human. Do they believe we would be justified in killing a small child because she was an intensely painful reminder of a past event for her mother? If not, then why not? If they agree that we do not kill people because they remind us of the profound pain of a past event then the question is “What is the unborn child in question?” If she is human in the same way the small child is then we cannot kill her for similar reasons.

In more conversational formats, I often argue that it is not obvious to me that aborting the unborn child is the morally superior approach in confronting the emotional needs of the raped woman. I posted on this at some length here. On a college campus a young man angrily yelled at me, “You think it is fair to force women to give birth and raise their child after they have been raped!” (Oddly enough, adoption never seems to immediately occur to people) I responded that I didn't think there was anything “fair” about what happened to a woman who has been raped. “Fair” left the building when a man decided to assault her to satisfy his depraved desires, but abortion does not offer the easy answer that its proponents appear to be suggesting. The woman is not unraped by the abortion. In fact, it may encourage our community to neglect our responsibility to minister to the victim.

I received this e-mail Friday from a good friend and supporter. The story of this family speaks directly to the unforeseen good that can come as a result of a family and community supporting a woman in her most terrible hour. Nothing can ever undo the evil that was perpetrated against the raped woman, but as I read this I was so moved by how ministering to a victim impacted a family for generations for the better. I withheld the names, but I offer the e-mail as I received it. She started by telling me how she was looking over my activities on Facebook:

My mind stumbled upon a memory of a conversation I had with my mother before _______ and I moved. We were sitting in a coffee shop chatting when our conversation landed on abortion. Little did I know that my great-great grandmother (my Grandmother's Grandmother) was raped by a family friend. If she had had an abortion, four generations of my family would never have existed - my great-Grandmother, my Grandmother, my mother, my sister and myself. It's a startling realization to say the least.

As it turns out, my great-great Grandmother was able to live out her years in her own house that her family provided for her where my Grandmother visited daily.

Her family didn't turn her away, even in a time when an unwed mother was considered a disgrace on the entire family. Out of her trials, came hope. Her horror became joy and her family was her support. I don't know anything about this courageous woman, not even her name. I don't know if she ever forgave the man that caused her such pain, or if she held on to her regrets. I do know that the women in my family have an odd understanding of forgiveness and grace that has been passed along through the years. My grandmother and my mother both knew this story and they instilled in their children the amazing power of forgiveness and how only God's forgiveness can free you of the most captivating and horrific injuries.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Challenging and Enjoyable: Apologetics Done Right [Jay Watts]

Imagine you are talking to a young man and he tells you he runs a program for middle schoolers and high schoolers. It is an athletic program that aims to prepare young people for the athletic challenges they will face later in life.

“So do you spend a lot of time on intensive training?” you ask.

“Not really. We find that kids don't care for training. So we focus our efforts on relational games and making it fun for them. Otherwise it is really hard to get the kids to show up.”

This shocks you a bit. “Wow. How do you balance the playing with preparing them for the future challenges?”

He thinks for a moment and answers, “Well, we hope that they will just associate our training with fun and later on when times get tough they will at least remember the training as a good time. There are so many interests competing for their time, we just can't afford to lose them to other things they will enjoy more.”

“Does this strategy work?”

He sheepishly shrugs and admits, “Well, when they get in competition we see anywhere from a 60 to 85% failure rate. They abandon athletics altogether though some, maybe as many as half, come back to athletics later in life.”

Stunned you respond, “I don't understand. You say your job is to prepare them for future trials in athletics but your methods fail miserably. You don't even seem to be focused on preparing them for athletics at all. You seem to target pleasing them and having a good time. Although that may be fun in the short term, you admit that the long term benefits of this approach are abysmal. Not only are the kids not succeeding in athletics but they are becoming so disillusioned by defeat that they give up athletics completely!”

If you had this conversation with a coach it would be so clear to you that something was radically wrong with the approach that this guy is taking. And yet, this is exactly the scenario that we see in many church youth groups and exactly the failure rate we see with young men and women abandoning their faith in college. Many youth leaders share with me their frustration as they struggle to inject meaningful lessons into a system that has a main goal of encouraging attendance in uncommitted kids. “We have to make it fun or they won't come,” one youth minister told me. Another said, “If I focused on things like doctrine and apologetics I wouldn't have a youth department.”

At recent events in Tennessee, Rhode Island, Georgia, and Florida parents told me stories about their children going to college and losing their faith. These parents are heartbroken and struggling to find a way to talk to their kids. Certainly some of this is simply the rebellious nature of young people at this age, but there is an underlying intellectual arrogance that these children exhibit towards their parents. Their sons and daughters dismiss their previous beliefs as silly superstitions and the faith of their parents as ignorant. Concerned fathers and mothers repeat this same story over and over again.

What is the answer? How do we respond to this challenge? Do we continue to focus on entertaining kids in our youth groups so that they will feel comfortable and keep coming back, or do we focus on doctrine and apologetics in order to prepare them to stand up to future challenges? How about earnestly trying to do both?

We must minister to the whole person, so we can't discount the importance of social dynamics in reaching kids. It is also important to engage youth with lessons in such a way that - as much as it is possible - they enjoy learning and grasp why what they are learning matters to them. One of my greatest obstacles in talking to youth leaders about apologetics is convincing them that good organizations are aware of their challenges and will work with them to accomplish these goals while equipping young Christians to engage the culture.

Summit Ministries has a rigorous two week program where older high schoolers and college students spend time with some of today's best Christian speakers training them in various topics. In addition, they spend time socializing with other Christian students in a safe environment. Summit provides materials for study beyond their on campus programs to help parents work with their families in communicating the intellectual grounding of the Christian beliefs to the next generation. John Stonestreet and the Summit team work tirelessly to provide the highest quality materials and presentations available.

Stand to Reason's Brett Kunkle helped devise a unique mission trip idea where groups of young Christians are taken to places like Cal Berkeley in order to hear about competing views straight from the source. Students hear from atheist philosophers about how they ground objective moral values without an appeal to God or about the sufficiency of evolution in explaining the full human experience including free will. Rather than shelter kids from intellectual questions, Brett takes them out to engage them and allow the students the chance to process the information and share with Brett and the other leaders what they are thinking.

Jonathan Morrow of Think Christianly has devoted his considerable talents to helping young people and ministers see the importance of “a mature faith, a transformed heart, and a radical love for our world.” To this end he has written multiple books including Welcome to College, a tremendous resource for high schoolers preparing to leave home for life at a university, and Think Christianly, a book I sincerely believe should be read by all people working in ministry today. Jonathan's cultivates a heart for God through a rigorous and intellectually satisfying faith by honestly looking at the challenges in our culture and finding ways to minister to the secular world rather than abandon it outright.

Apologetics and worldview training does not have to be stale or boring. At LTI, it is required by Scott that our speakers be capable of reaching the audience and holding their attention. The number one remark I most often hear when I am done is how much people enjoy the presentations. They say that they obviously learned but they were surprised how exciting the seminar was, and some of these seminars last 2 – 3 hours. People routinely say, “I have to tell my friends what they missed so if you ever come back to this area again they will come.” The biggest obstacle we face is getting the initial invitations to come. Wherever we go, being invited back is the norm. Youth leaders, school administrators, and pastors are excited to see their congregations energized by subjects they feared would bore them to death or – even worse – make them angry. I encourage my audiences by telling them that the reason this former atheist is now dedicated to teaching the value of human life and the truth of the Christian worldview is primarily good arguments by good arguers. Anyone willing to train to engage can make a difference.

These are just a few of the people I know that are working with Christian leaders to teach the next generation what they need to know to face the future. Church leaders can be confident the help these organizations offer will not stupefy their students into slack jawed boredom. It is our job to help you do your job. We can help parents talk to their kids, youth leaders teach their students, and pastors inform their congregations. That is our part in the body of Christ and we are limited in our capacity to do our job until others see the need and value in what we do.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

LTI Podcast #28 - After-Birth Abortions [Serge]

Rich, Jay, and Scott are back to discuss a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics advocating infanticide under the label of after birth abortions. Also, listen for Scott to offend most of the East Coast. Search for LTI on ITunes or download the pod directly here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Whose Crusade? [Jay]

I am not Catholic, nor do I share all of the concerns or beliefs of the Catholic Church as it pertains to contraceptives.

I wanted to get that out of the way lest anyone mistake what I am writing as towing the party line. The ridiculous rhetoric decrying a supposed Catholic war against contraceptives is out of control. I reached my limit reading this in a Washington Post article by Lisa Miller:

And now, with their crusade against birth control, the Catholic bishops are helping to articulate and elevate that unspoken and archaic value in public.

The unspoken and archaic value referenced is Lisa Miller's interpretation of Catholic teaching on contraceptives as meaning “women should put their fertility first – before their brains, before their ability to earn a living, before their independence – because that is what God wants.” Never mind that the teaching on contraceptives is part of a larger ethical worldview that shows a great deal more sophistication than Ms. Miller articulates. Whether she is aware of this or just jumping at shadows out of ignorance is not the point of this post. My focus is that the charge from her and others that the Catholic Church is crusading against birth control – presumably an intentionally inflammatory use of phrasing – is an outrageous distortion of the facts.

The Catholic Church did not launch an attack on contraceptives in the United States. The United States government launched an attack on the Catholic Church and the bishops had the audacity to defend themselves and resist the moral dictates of our current administration. The Catholic Church was doing as they ever do; providing health care, placing children in adoption, helping people in need, and so on. They contribute so much to the cause of good that they employ people as permanent staff in too many professions to list in order to serve a broader mission of benevolence motivated by their beliefs.

Do they accept government grants to do that work? Yes they do, but here is a little known fact about why the government gives grants to charitable organizations. They are given because what these organizations do is deemed a public good. The government recognizes that local grass roots organizations are capable of efficiency and productivity that a disconnected and larger bureaucracy cannot match, so they give financial support to encourage the continuing service to the community. In order to use those funds the charitable organizations agree not to directly proselytize to the beneficiaries of their charity while pursuing their mission. If you operate a food bank for the homeless and accept government funds, you must separate sharing the gospel from feeding those in need. You can still do both, but you cannot do them at the same time because the government aid is given to feed the homeless and not to spread your religion. You also give up some freedom of association in that you must not religiously discriminate in hiring people to pursue the mission that is supported by the government funds. This is important because people talk about charities like the government is doing them a favor in allowing them to exist when – in fact – legitimate charitable organizations are doing our community a favor by serving their missions and accomplishing goals that the government couldn't duplicate.

What the government does not do is force you to take financial support from them or demand that you violate the institutional conscience that inspired your work in the first place. That is until now. Now we are being compelled to join a government healthcare system and within that system Catholics have been informed that they must behave in a manner contrary to their beliefs. President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius crafted a legal requirement for all employers to provide insurance plans with free contraception for their employees without exception for those religiously opposed. The effect of this law is that Catholics were told you can believe whatever you want, but when it comes to what you do you must behave like secular institutions regardless of your privately held beliefs. They can think like Catholics, but they can't function like Catholics if they want to employ anyone.

The administration offered a compromise that amounts to an insulting slight of hand. If your conscience forbids you to pay, the federal government will force the insurance companies to foot the bill. Putting aside that there may be such a thing as a Catholic insurance company or that this still forces the Catholic Church to act as an agent in a transaction they believe to be sinful, the supreme idiocy of the compromise should be obvious. How do insurance providers deal with additional costs? They raise their rates. Who will pay the higher premiums to cover the added expense to the insurance companies? That's right, the employer – or in this case the Catholic Church.

And here is where we get to the Catholic crusade against contraception. It takes place in the form of the Catholic Bishops rejecting the concept that the government of the United States has the right to dictate to them the limits of their conscience.

This is not about access to contraception. Isn't the wonderful and benevolent Planned Parenthood taking care of all of the healthcare needs of women? And forgetting the seemingly endless number of places to receive free contraception including some clothing stores in New York City (see here), one could always take the radical step of – I don't know – getting a job with an organization that would be happy to foot the bill for your birth control needs. This is about our beloved federal government helping us to see how much better the world they would craft for us is than the one in which we currently reside. We would get free healthcare and free contraceptives. We would have toxic light bulbs that last forever by employing the simple trick of not actually providing sufficient light. Our gas prices would be so high we would be forced to purchase Volts and waste money in propping up alternative fuel models that go bankrupt anyway. If only we understood how silly our consciences were and how they hold us back from a world where everyone is happy except those simpletons that define happiness differently than the powers that be. So don't you dare tell the federal government that they can't force you to act against the teachings of your faith or else you will be a rotten, nasty, woman hating crusader, too.