King's Evangelical Divinity School

1 June 2016

Short Review of Mike Vlach's "Philosophy 101"

Philosophy 101: The "Big Idea" for the 101 Most Important People and Concepts in Philosophy
by Michael J. Vlach (Silverton, OR: Lampion Press, 2016).

With this book Michael Vlach (Professor of Theology at The Master's Seminary, California) offers an excellent introductory text to philosophy. Clearly drawing on his past as a community college professor of humanities and teacher of philosophy, Philosophy 101 (as its name indicates) provides the complete beginner in philosophy with a valuable introductory survey of a subject often perceived by many as esoteric and inaccessible, drawing upon an approach and style which is uncomplicated, easy to read and yet detailed in scope. 

Consisting of 101 entries covering key thinkers, movements and concepts, Vlach's book covers philosophy from the earliest Greek thinkers through to the present's focus on pluralism and postmodernism. He manages to pack a great deal of material into a book which is fairly short and easy to read,  providing simple explanations and a "nutshell" summary at the beginning of each entry. Some might argue that the book is somewhat reductionist or simplistic, given just a couple or so pages are devoted to each entry. Yet in fact this is what makes the book so strong. It is, after all, an introduction to the topic, and it satisfies this task well by providing readers with a basic, solid framework to philosophy, allowing them to move on to deeper reading later. Meanwhile, its easy-reading style keeps the reader on board, unlike many other introductory works which become too mystical within a view short pages. Thus, it is ideal for anyone who has sought to study philosophy but has struggled with previous attempts, as well as anyone approaching the topic for the very first time. Aside from this clear, simple style, Vlach - an Evangelical Christian  - writes objectively and avoids polemics, making it a useful tool for Christians and non-Christians alike.

It has been stated that philosophy is the "handmaiden of theology", and certainly throughout church history key Christian thinkers have drawn heavily upon it, to the extent that it has often shaped much of Christian thought. Thus, the extent to which some systematic theologies have drawn upon philosophy has caused some Evangelicals to become wary of  the influence of philosophy. I would tend to agree, believing systematic theology should be firmly underpinned by biblical theology. Yet knowledge of philosophy, its key thinkers and movements throughout history is invaluable for Christians today engaging with society. Human history is one long attempt to understand our world and ourselves, to create order and understanding, so that the social and political movements and worldviews we witness emanate from philosophical reasoning. Today, perhaps more than ever, human ideas and thought are shaping society's worldview and values, which are in turn are ushering in new laws, expected modes of behaviour and expanding the coercive power of the state, which are all affecting Christians more and more in their everyday lives. Thus, understanding how concepts such as, for example, today's pluralism and postmodernism, how they were driven and evolved, as well as where they and other movements may lead, all come from engaging with philosophy. This makes the study of philosophy all the more important an endeavour for Christians to engage in.  Vlach's book offers an important first step in that education.

Incidentally, Mike Vlach (a colleague on the editorial committee of the Evangelical Review of Theology and Politics) has written an invaluable book exploring supersessionism.

24 May 2016

Diversity's Inexorable Journey Toward Homogeneity

Currently in Italy with the missus (Pisa to be precise, Lucca tomorrow). Lovely place, great ice cream, lots of tourists, and street vendors selling the same things they sell as in Rome, London, New York, indeed any major tourist area. And hot dogs, hamburgers and Coke pretty much everywhere.

Relaxing in our room tonight, perusing hundreds of Italian TV channels, I stumbled upon the Italian version of MTV. I was struck by how similar the acts were to those on other versions of the channel. Indeed, mute the sound and watching it, it could easily be the UK or US version: same dances, gangster hand gestures, caps worn at jaunty angles, chunky gold earrings worn by burly blokes, the inevitable crotch-grabbing, etc etc. All in all, the world is shrinking, local popular cultures are gradually but inexorably being replaced by a global and homogenous popular culture, and many aspects of popular culture today all look pretty much the same. I remember in the 1970s how travelling from country to country, even within Europe alone, yielded considerable diversity from country to country. Much, much less of that now.

Naturally, new tools like the Internet have shrunk the world. But arguably it goes further than that. Western  liberalism has, in the past two or three decades, become obsessed with the cult of diversity, while popular culture icons have emulated this value to the extent that, ironically, diversity is increasingly leading to a global homogenous popular culture where everyone seeks to act the same in the name of coolness. Thus it seems if you emphasise differences enough, everyone jumps on the bandwagon so that end result is most of us act the same. 

What has this to do with Christians? Well, consider, for example, worship. In the name of diversity traditional worship styles have been challenged and replaced by soft rock version. Now, I'm not saying anything against this rather archaic (from a popular culture perspective) form of worship (OK, maybe I am being a tiny bit critical). The problem is, when everyone does it the end result is not only that local expressions of worship are no different from elsewhere, but indeed that the "new way of doing things" becomes the norm.

The liberal West's cult of diversity is, ironically, watering down diversity and inexorably leading to a global heterogeneity. For its part, the Church too often emulates the world in a bid to remain culturally relevant. Unfortunately, local and distinct expressions of Christianity are subsequently being swallowed up by an increasingly homogenously global expression of Christian  faith, so that when I recently visited a Latin American church it was like being in Australia. And we are all the poorer for it.