Monday, February 25, 2008

Cancer Ward

I just finished Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward in the Modern Library reprint. His first published work One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was printed in the Soviet literary publication, Novy Mir. Oddly enough, Khruschev himself intervened in order to have this work published, since it detailed life in Stalinist prison camps and Khruschev was for anything which made him look better than Stalin (which, incidentally, is not hard to do). Solzhenitsyn became an overnight sensation in the Soviet Union.

However, the Soviet literary circles did not look kindly on Solzhenitsyn after the publication of One Day. In the edition of Cancer Ward that I have, there are records reproduced of Solzhenitsyn's appearance before the Soviet literary committee. It's interesting reading since it gives us a glimpse of the thinking of totalitarian Soviet system in regards to censorship.

With all of the flaws of the United States, and with all of the perversion that exists in our media, I am still grateful that we have fairly liberal views of censorship in America. This freedom of the press that we have enables us to publish opinions that run counter to the culture and there are no repercussions. We can write Gospel tracts, books on evangelism and Bible study, and blogs about thinking, biblical Christianity. The drawback is the amount of filth which our freedoms allow. But at least we have a voice to counter the poison that is out there with the truth.

That is far more than Solzhenitsyn had in his own country. Solzhenitsyn is most famous for his three volume work, The Gulag Archipelago, which details prison life in the former Soviet Union. It was this work which got him exiled from the USSR to the United States. Apparently it was one thing to criticize Stalinist camps; it was another to expose the flawed Communist system that the camps personified.

Cancer Ward gives a chilling depiction of life in Soviet cancer wards and also exposes the flaws of the Communist system. He deals with the themes of life and death in a masterful way, even if from a humanistic viewpoint. It's easy to see why the Soviets were threatened by its publication. It was never published in the Soviet Union.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Medical School; A Parable

The Parable:

Once upon a time, not very long ago in a land which is right around the corner, there was a medical school. This school was considered to be the best medical school in the nation. The resident faculty had the highest credentials. The visiting lecturers were well known for their groundbreaking work in medical research and were considered the leaders in their respective fields of study.

The school was equipped with the best laboratories, the best overall facilities and a beautiful, peaceful campus. Enrollment was limited to only the very best of the very best. Thousands of prospective students from respected undergraduate programs were turned away each year, forced to settle for other excellent, but second-tier, medical schools.

The students who were granted enrollment were diligent in their studies, hard-working, and disciplined in all areas of life. They not only excelled in academics, but were respected for their morality and their leadership skills. Graduates of this school did not wait long for employment offers as graduation approached. Most had interviews lined up several months before they received their PhD's. Hospitals practically fell over each other in their attempts to lure the best graduates to their respective staffs.

But as well-respected as the school was and as desirable as the graduates were, the actions of the students was considered one of the great mysteries of modern academia. Even though they were offered the best of positions on hospital staffs and were given the opportunity to help scores of needy patients, they rarely took the positions that they were offered. In fact, the number of students who actually took jobs after they graduated each year could be counted on one hand! Why? For some reason, the students preferred to stay at the university and take more classes.

If they had previously specialized in the study of the treatment of the cardio-vascular system, they enrolled in classes about cancer. If they had specialized in the study of cancer, they would enroll in classes about neurology. Neurological students switched from studying the brain and nervous system to studying diseases of the ear, nose and throat.

The behavior of the students left the rest of the medical community bewildered. Why didn’t these students take what they had learned about healing the ailments of the human body out into the field where they could actually help people? Why were they content to go on learning, but never applying what they learned in an actual medical profession?

The situation became serious after several years as it became apparent that the best medical minds in the country would never actually practice medicine. The hope of ever finding cures to the deadliest diseases human beings face dimmed. The medical community began to realize that if the best minds did not actually practice medicine, the hoped-for cures of AIDS, cancer, and heart-disease would never be discovered.

Representatives from the other top medical schools and journals formed a committee to research the educational process on this university campus in order to discover what the reason was for this behavior. Each committee member agreed that the actions of these graduates defied the spirit of the modern Hippocratic oath that physicians take when they are granted their degree. Rather than following through on their pledge to, “…remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm”, these students chose to completely withdraw from society, ignore its needs and felt no obligation whatsoever to their fellow human beings. Their lives were entirely dedicated to their own intellectual curiosity. It was a serious situation. Something had to be done.

The committee spent several days observing the students, sitting in on the classes and meeting with the administration of the university. It became apparent very quickly what the problem was; the university was suffering from a deplorable case of in-grown intellectualism. At issue was the unwritten purpose of the university; the intellectual pursuit of medicine with no concern for applying that knowledge to the human condition.

Those few students who actually took jobs upon graduation did not take them at a medical practice or hospital, but at the university itself. They became teachers of medicine even though they had never practiced the cure of the human body. Others, who did not take jobs but continued to study were given small groups of other students to tutor. Whether they were paid staff or hobbyist tutors, the students emulated their favorite teachers, buying audio and video recordings of their favorite lectures. They even wore the same clothes, used the same expressions, and at times flat-out plagiarized their favorite staff members and guest lecturers as they taught their small groups.

What was the source of this in-grown behavior? The committee realized that it was the faculty themselves! In their lectures they did not give case studies of patients who had been helped. They did not share the joys of successfully treating seriously ill patients. Instead, they elevated the educational process in their lectures. They spoke of the joys of learning, expanding the mind about things medical, chemical and physical. The actual practice of medicine was marginalized while the theory of medicine was emphasized.

It is true that there were many formal and informal debates about treatments and methodology. The students had a firm grasp of the complicated issues at hand. They knew how to use the tools of their trade. They practiced on dummies and cadavers and were very familiar with models of skeletons and organs preserved in formaldehyde. Much to the shock of the committee, the medical internship program had been abandoned long ago. The students had not been exposed to real people with real diseases. It was all theory. The curriculum emphasized knowledge without real world application with people who were actually sick.

In effect, the university created life-long students of medicine but not even part-time practitioners of medicine! The committee concluded that while the faculty, facility and students were second to none, the educational program was a first-rate failure. The only people benefited by the education process were the students themselves and the university. The people that both groups were supposed to serve, the ill and infirm, continued to get sick and die while these students seemingly did not care.

The committee concluded that for all of the educational excellence, the university was worthless. It submitted its recommendation to the board of directors and alumni that the university be closed after the next semester. The school’s actions had discredited the medical profession and was an embarrassment to the educational process.

The Interpretation:

Pastor, church leader, and Christian; consider your role in the local church. It is the job of the local church to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11-13). However, in some circles, these verses have been interpreted to mean that the saints must be equipped to minister solely within the context of the local church. They may as well read these verses as “equip the saints to equip the saints, who will continue equipping the saints.” The “ultimate” for the average student of the Word of God in many churches is that they will in turn teach others in the same church. In essence, they are taught the words of eternal life and they only share them with people who already have them. This, when Jesus Himself said that it’s not those who are well that need a physician, but the sick (Matt. 9:12).

What is this but a parallel to our medical school? Christians travel long distances for seminars and conferences. They faithfully tune in their favorite Bible teacher on the radio or television. They download solid Bible teaching on the internet. Some churches pride themselves on their educational ministries, offering solid exposition of the Word of God week in and week out in a multitude of learning opportunities. As students become better students, they progress to become teachers who lead small group Bible studies, Sunday School classes, mens or womens groups, etc. If they progress in their abilities and meet the biblical standard for leadership, they might become church leaders or even full-time ministers of the Gospel. But all of these ministries are confined to the four walls of a church building. In essence, saints ministering to saints while the world goes to Hell and God is not glorified.

It begs the question: when is all of the Bible teaching that we receive going to be enough to consider someone equipped to reach the lost? Don’t get me wrong; we should all be life-long learners of the Bible (2 Tim. 2:15). Its contents will never be exhausted. The intense study of the Word is especially important for the believer who takes outreach seriously. But at what point is the average believer equipped enough to go out and proclaim the Gospel to the world? And why isn’t he nudged out of the cozy nest of the local church to do so?

Church, we are called to preach the Gospel to the lost (Mk. 16:15). We are called to make disciples of the nations, teaching them to observe all things the Lord commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). If churches become training institutes full of students who are experts on the Bible but who never use their training to reach the lost, is it safe to say that we are derelict of duty? Is it safe to say that our Hippocratic Oath has become a Hypocritical Oath? Would the Lord warn us, as He walks amongst the lampstands, that we are in danger of having our lamp removed? Would He tell us that like the Ephesian church, we have left our first love and that we must repent (Rev. 2:1-7)? Our actions have discredited the Lord of glory. They are a contradiction and embarrassment to the biblical teaching of the function of the local church.

This is a call to churches which have deplorable cases of in-grown intellectualism to repent and take their knowledge outside of the four walls of the church. Sinners need to be instructed, as John Piper has put it, concerning “What Jesus Demands of the World.” This is evangelism. This is discipleship. This is loving God enough to obey Him and loving our neighbor enough to tell him the Gospel.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Review: "The Way of the Master" by Ray Comfort & Kirk Cameron

Comfort, Ray & Kirk Cameron The Way of the Master Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004. 230 pages. ISBN 1-4143-0061-1

In many ways, this review is difficult to write because by definition, a book review ought to be somewhat unbiased. This reviewer is admittedly biased; he has had the privilege of knowing the authors and working with them in several evangelistic outreaches. However, considering the goal of The Informed Evangelist, it makes sense to start with this book since it has been the introduction for so many biblical evangelists to the world of reading. Such an important book in the field ought to be reviewed.

Ray Comfort is an evangelist who lives in Southern California and who hails from New Zealand. Kirk Cameron, the former TV star and heart throb of the 1980's is nowadays a biblical evangelist, thanks to Ray's influence. Ray has written the bulk of this book, which is an updated rewrite of his earlier books, "Hell's Best Kept Secret" and "Revival's Golden Key". Kirk's contribution includes comments of varying lengths. Some of the comments have less value than others, but overall they are helpful. His contributions are more than just clever marketing. They help the reader understand the content. At times, it is like having a good friend gently urging the reader on while confronted with challenging concepts.

The theme of the book is the same as the theme of Ray's entire ministry; the importance of using the moral Law of God, the Ten Commandments, in evangelism. Ray buttresses his theme with solid biblical arguments and the argument from history. He also uses good old common sense. The statistics presented of the typical "fall away rates" in modern day evangelism make it clear that something is very wrong with the way that evangelism is done these days. The secondary theme of the doctrine of false conversion is likewise backed up with much Scriptural proof.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could read this book and hold to a man-centered, modern Gospel message. Clearly people do. This is proof that for so many, evangelism has more to do with traditions passed down from respected teachers rather than what the Bible actually teaches. It has more to do with cherished programs rather than the truth.

One criticism that can be leveled against the book is Ray's tendency to find allusions to the use of the Law in evangelism in Old Testament narratives. He allegorizes several OT accounts in order to make his case. Some of this same thing was done in his old "Excellence in Evangelism" video series (B.C.--"Before Cameron"). While this kind of hermeneutic is readily accepted in some circles, it is not good hermeneutics. Just because ten camels are mentioned in a narrative does not mean that the camels must symbolize the Ten Commandments. Fortunately there are only a few instances of this in the book, not enough to seriously damage the thesis.

Another criticism which has been leveled against Way of the Master as a ministry in general, and could be leveled against the book, is the fact that the entire Gospel is not articulated. Justification, the substitutionary death of Christ, the person and ministry of Christ is not dealt with here. Rather than see this as an omission, it is better to view it as a question of purpose. The book is not intended to analyze all of the issues related to the Gospel; it is meant to teach the reader how to use the Ten Commandments to prepare the listener for the Gospel. Whether Way of the Master as a ministry should deal with those doctrines is another issue altogether.

The last criticism is a technical one. While one must admire Ray for his desire to keep modern Gospel preachers anonymous, quoting them without citing the source is just bad technique. If they're worth quoting they're worth citing. Since Ray's thesis is correct, the preachers quoted ought to be exposed for the false teaching that they are guilty of.

The book is well written. Ray is a master of the use of anecdotes. His illustration of the two airline passengers who put on parachutes for different motives and results is a classic and much repeated one amongst biblical evangelists. Because he seems to have a sense of when to tell a story or give an analogy, the book moves the reader along and holds his interest. The book can be read in a couple of sittings. Those with a serious interest in evangelism might read it in one.

Overall, the book is a "must have" for anyone who is seriously interested in biblical evangelism. It is foundational for a basic understanding of the principles of biblical evangelism. It is not the last word in biblical evangelism, but it's importance cannot be underestimated. The greatest testimony to its value is the number of people it has started on the journey to becoming passionately involved in evangelism.