Christ & Culture Series: Academia

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This is a continuation of a current series

In this post I interview my dad, Robert Oleck, about the academic world. Growing up my dad was always my ‘go-to person’ for theology and apologetics questions. I credit him for influencing me, at a young age, in my love for Bible Doctrine and Reformed Theology. 

His academic background includes a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Rutgers University, an M.S. in Architectural Engineering from Penn State, and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Syracuse University, where he also was an adjunct Professor of various engineering courses from 1983-1990. 

In 1973 (before attending Syracuse University in 1977) my dad came to know Christ, and in 1997 he also received an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in the Central Florida area. He is currently retired and doing consulting and freelance engineering work, while serving as an Elder at Grace Church in his hometown of Winter Garden, FL.


 

Did your Christian beliefs have an effect on your years as a professor? If so, how and why?

Yes, my Christianity gave me a new view of the physical laws we engineers use to design structures, aerospace vehicles, cars, etc. These physical laws are extremely precise and if not adhered to will cause failure and collapse. Somehow I wanted to try and get this point of view across as I taught Engineering Mechanics to undergraduates, a couple of graduate courses in Earthquake Engineering, and courses in Advanced Reinforced Concrete design. We engineers are the practioners of the physical laws of the universe that God has put in place in order for the universe not to be in chaos. In subtle ways I would mention this point of view when possible.

Compare your student years as a Christian and non-Christian. What were the differences and similarities?

As a non-Christian, at Rutgers and later Penn State, my ambition was to get a good job so I didn’t have to work manual labor. My motivation was also to get a better salary as well as enjoy myself as much as possible. As a Christian at Syracuse University I still wanted to better my education but now more to help my family have a better life and to glorify God through what I could learn. As a non-Christian my ambition was self-centered, but as a Christian I became more God and family oriented.

Does God’s Word have any bearing on the academic world? If so, how and why?

Yes it should because the academic world should teach us how to think. God’s Word answers some of the questions about our world and ourselves that in a growing number of educational institutions are not being asked, such as: Where did we come from? What is our purpose? Are we basically good or evil? How do we arrive at our knowledge of what is good and evil? What happens after we die?

As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, we engineers had to take one course in philosophy, and the professor said that most philosophies come down to assuming man is either basically good or basically evil. As an engineer I was trained in only the physical sciences. I learned all the equations and formulas, but not to think critically in any way.

How do you think our culture views the academic world?

Based on discussions I’ve had with professors and students from various universities, our current American culture has become very one-sided in its view of God, man, and right/wrong. The educational institutions are the factories that reproduce this cultural bias into the next generations. However, I think our culture believes they are right about this approach to education and resists anyone or anything that tries to offer an alternative view. The surprising thing about this attitude is that it contradicts the post-modern philosophy that advocates relative truth and acceptance of multi-cultural beliefs. A current book confirming this hypocrisy is The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, by Kirsten Powers.

In addition, even the Greek philosophers were interested in comparing ideas. Plato expressed this view as follows, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Sec. 38 of Plato’s Apology.)

How should Christians view the academic world differently?

God has provided various sources of general or normal means besides the Bible (General Revelation) about Himself, His ideas, His view of right and wrong, etc.,  Though there are some good things we can learn from the academic world, Christians should also see education as an opportunity to learn many points of view about the questions I mentioned above as a way to reach out to other cultures, beliefs, and different peoples with the gospel.

Example: Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34) had learned the Greek philosophers. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel he quotes a Greek poet and philosopher to indicate that there is an “unknown” Greek god that he would inform the audience of at the Areopagus (a philosophical discussion group) near Athens. This approach enabled Paul to introduce a “bridge” between the Greek culture and the gospel.

What is also interesting about the group at the Areopagus was that they were interested in hearing what Paul had to say, which is better than what occurs at our academic institutions where any ideas that are contrary to the current philosophy are prohibited.

Christ & Culture Series: Biblical Counseling

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In this continuation of an ongoing series, I interview Teresa Chen about her seminary degree in counseling. 

Teresa grew up in Houston, went to the University of Texas at Austin and got a degree in Electrical Engineering in 2005.  After working for a few years in Austin and getting married, her and her husband Alex sensed a call to ministry, so they came to Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, PA in 2010. Alex worked on his Mdiv, while Teresa completed a Masters of Arts in counseling.

She also did an internship with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), which has close ties to WTS. Through that internship, she did some counseling through Covenant Fellowship Church in Glenn Mills, PA, as well as CCEF. Both Alex and Teresa graduated in 2014, and this September Alex will serve on the pastoral team for a new Sovereign Grace church plant in Drexel Hill, PA: Risen Hope Church.

Teresa is now a stay at home mom to Timothy (3) and Hudson (1). 

Could you give a brief description of counseling according to secular culture?

All counseling is our attempt to help people deal with the things that are hard in life. As Irvin Yalom likes to ask, “What ails?” People you meet with are all trying to make sense of the world, the things that happen to them, and also their own actions. Throughout the years, the solutions offered have changed, depending on the culture’s understanding.

In the 90’s the focus was very much on families and the effect of caustic relationships, such as between a parent and a child. Analysis of the dysfunctional family was very important back then. We saw court cases where children were able to legally divorce their parents. Also, Children would be on trial for murdering their parents and the contribution of the parents was very much scrutinized. But, the cultural emphasis has shifted since then.

Although relational dynamics are still very important, my understanding is that we are now focusing more on the impact of our biology. We are primarily bodies, and many solutions that are offered address bodily deficiencies. It’s almost as if we are victims of the bodies we are born with. Depression medication, sleeping aids, pain-killers are many times the first line of defense against many presenting problems. We are now born into certain sins, such as alcoholism or homosexuality. You have a disease that makes you participate in risky behavior.

While we must acknowledge that our bodies do play a huge part in determining the struggles that we encounter, we cannot blame everything on our bodies. In reality, we are embodied souls, living in a world influenced by other people, circumstances, bodies, hearts, and Satan, with our lives lived in the hope of and in light of a ruling and risen Savior. Romans1:21 says,

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Because secular psychology denies God, their eyes are darkened to a real and true understanding of what it means to be human and is limited in how much it can truly cure souls. Although secular psychology can help dull the pain, they are unable to offer a source of true hope to people coping with very difficult situations. By denying God, secular psychology shuts the door to a glorious purpose to our suffering, the hope that one day all will be made new, and a guarantee that we will live life how it was meant to be — reconciled to our Creator and cured of the curse of the fall. While secular counseling’s aim is symptom relief, Christian counseling’s goal must be to point the person back to a growing, trusting, dependent relationship with his Creator no matter what the circumstance.

Is there a difference between secular counseling and Christian counseling?

The term “Christian counseling” is very broad. It’s a bit like the word “Evangelical” in that it could mean a lot of things. Generally speaking, there are three camps in counseling— Secular, Integration, and Biblical counseling. We have discussed secular counseling briefly. The Integration approach is where Christians try to combine secular counseling with Christianity.

Integrationists take both secular counseling and Scripture to be true and try to make sense of both at the same time. Biblical counseling sees Scripture as the ultimate, yet not comprehensive (a textbook), authority on life because it is God’s Word. While we won’t find systems theory or brain anatomy in the Bible, it speaks very candidly and truthfully about both the human experience of suffering and also how people can truly change and find comfort.

Has secular counseling influenced Christian counseling at all?

We have a lot to learn from secular counseling. It would be arrogant to say that we have nothing to learn from it. There are many brilliant minds thinking about how to help people, and they have many brilliant and useful observations and methods. Our job as counselors is to interact with secular methods in a thoughtful way by asking:

1.) What is this theory’s worldview? What does this theory describe well and truthfully?
2.) What things is this theory blind to? What can it not see?
3.) What are ways that we can learn from these observations that will help us to love others well? What are ways that we can adapt the strengths of their viewpoints and say it even better because we have a Christian worldview?

We must also be open to working with secular counseling to address any biological conditions that the person may have. We must be willing to dialogue with the person and help them to figure out whether their trials can be lessened through medication, physical activity, or other opinions who are better experts than we are. At the same time, while addressing and minimizing the effect of their physical bodies on the trial, we must also address the heart and their relationship with God.

As counselors, we need to have a good grasp of the pulse of secular psychology because it helps us understand the other voices people are hearing and keeps us up to date with current thought. We must always be learning from others and improving in our understanding of people.

How were you taught to counsel? Could you give us the foundation and basics of bible based counseling?

I was taught how to counsel through Westminster Theological Seminary’s Biblical Counseling program. Westminster partners with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) very extensively in this program. Our classes included both theological and observation classes. I was also blessed to have completed an internship with CCEF in 2013-2014.

Foundational to Biblical Counseling is our understanding of how people work. Scripture says that our hearts are idol factories. Trials in our lives reveal the idols of our hearts. When there are trials in our lives and we behave poorly, we can often say, “She made me do it!” or “If he hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have acted this way.” We blame the trial for our sin, when in reality, the trial only revealed an idol in our heart. When that idol is threatened, we can often try to protect it at all costs. Our behaviors reveal what is in our hearts. God should be on the throne, but sometimes we can place another good thing on the throne. We can take what is good and intended by God to be for our enjoyment and worship it. It is not wrong to want to be successful or to be married, but when we want it above anything else, including God, it begins to rule us. We begin seeking that idol at the expense of our worship of God and our relationships with others.

Biblical counseling calls people to repentance— to put God back on the throne and to trust him even though trials may abound. It might be easy to read this and think that if we just point out each others’ idols then we are doing good counseling. However, we are called to more. We are called to embody Christ’s love to fellow wilderness wanderers. Every Christian is wandering in the wilderness of the suffering of life. We have so much more in common with each other than different. As fellow wilderness wanderers, we are called to walk alongside each other and bear each others’ burdens. We are called to walk a mile in their shoes— to understand how it is to be the other person, to understand their experience and tell their story.

Only when we have properly understood them and told their story accurately can we point them back to how their story fits into the grand story of Scripture. Have they been lead astray? Christ is the Good Shepherd who not only leads His sheep but goes on ahead of them and dies for them as the sacrificial lamb. Have they been going after things in life that only leave them addicted and empty? Christ is the only source of living water who can quench our thirst. Do they live in fear? Christ is the King who has defeated Goliath/Satan once and for all and calls His soldiers to follow him into victorious battle. Do they feel like everyone has abandoned them? God tells us to be strong and courageous, because He is with us and will never leave us. Are they weary because of trials in their lives? One day everything will be made new and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes and our sorrow will be no more. This is true hope. This is the only peace that lasts. This hope is the true cure of souls. However, this change happens slowly. We can often move too quickly and offer pat answers that fall on deaf ears.

How should the church view counseling? When should a person get counseling and why?

There is a negative stigma associated with counseling. People think that if you’re seeking counseling, you are in serious trouble. In reality, we all need counseling, whether it is from each other in community, from a pastor, or from a professional counselor. We must have the humility to admit that we all struggle with sin and we all need help. We need the body of believers to speak truth into our lives, and sometimes in harder cases we need to enlist the help of pastors and counselors. CCEF’s motto is “Restoring Christ to Counseling, and Counseling to the Church.”

If a person is struggling with something, they should first seek the care of the structures provided through their church, such as their small group leader or pastor. Counselors are there to aid the local church in cases where proper care would be too much to bear or is out of the expertise of a pastor to handle by himself. However, the local church must stay involved if a counselor is sought for help and the counselor and local church must work together to care for the person. Often, those who are on the fringes of church community will seek out counseling centers without being properly engaged with their pastor. At a healthy gospel-centered church, the body of believers can potentially provide much better care in the day to day than a counselor could once a week or a few days a month.

If someone is interested in counseling, but maybe can’t go to school, what should they do? Can you recommend any resources for those wanting to learn more about counseling?

  • Foundational to Biblical Counseling is a proper Christian worldview. One of the best things you can do is find a good church who preaches the Gospel and will feed your soul spiritually. You can’t help others if you yourself are spiritually starving. You can have all the wisdom of secular counseling but can only point people so far if your theology is lacking.
  • CCEF holds an annual conference every year. This year’s conference is in Virginia Beach from October 16-18. This year’s topic is Side By Side; counseling in community. It’s a great way to get a taste of the foundations of biblical counseling and to network with other counselors seeking to learn.
  • CCEF also has blogs, videos, articles, and free downloads at http://www.ccef.org/resources
  • CCEF also offers online classes through the School Of Biblical Counseling. The classes Dynamics of Biblical Change and Helping Relationships are the core of the curriculum. They would be great for a person interested in counseling to start with. Also, the class Counseling and Secular Theology is really good as well. Any one of these classes would be a good taste of what Biblical Counseling is about.
  • The Biblical Counseling Coalition has a blog with many resources.
  • Books:

Christ & Culture Series — Culture Follows Philosophy: Why You Should Read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

By Ryan McLaughlin 

This is a continuation of the Christ & Culture Series. The first post in the series was an interview about juggling artistry, business, and theology, and the second post was an interview about education. This guest post is a piggyback of the previous post in the series titled, The Law Follows Culture.    

Ryan McLaughlin is a math teacher, husband, and father of three. He lives with his family in the Tampa, FL area, and is a member of St. Andrew-the-First-Called Orthodox Church. He has been an enthusiastic fan of Dostoevsky since he was a teenager, and has taken classes on Russian literature. He even had an essay that he wrote on Crime and Punishment published in Vestnik: the Journal of Russian and Asian Studies. Not bad for a math guy!


In his excellent post, Jacob Phillips made the argument that “law follows culture.” I couldn’t agree more, and today I want to make a follow-up point: “culture follows philosophy.”

It’s not always easy to see, but philosophy—that dusty, abstract, impractical subject that you didn’t major in because your parents told you that at some point they were going to cut off your allowance—is actually what runs the world. Good philosophy reaps innumerable benefits for culture, and bad philosophy wreaks devastating consequences. If we as Christians are going to engage effectively with our culture, we’re going to need to understand what philosophical assumptions are driving it and critically evaluate them in the light of the Gospel.

To provide you with a model of how to do that, I’m going to suggest—perhaps counter-intuitively for some—a really dark murder story written by an epileptic with a gambling addiction…

A Novel with a Sharp Edge

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a 19th century Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists that ever lived. His novels—including The Brothers Karamazov, The Devils, The Idiot, and our topic for today, Crime and Punishment—are considered to be some of the all-time classics of world literature. Dostoevsky was also a passionate Eastern Orthodox Christian with a great deal of prophetic insight into the dark turn that Russian culture was taking in his day.

The plot of Crime & Punishment is relatively simple, if rather dark: A young, impoverished law school drop-out decides to commit an axe murder to prove a point about his philosophical ideals. He roams the streets of 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia, slowly descending into mental illness while being pursued by a relentless detective. His only hope for redemption seems to be a young woman who has been forced into prostitution by her family’s abject poverty and her father’s raging alcoholism.

The young law student, named Raskolinikov, believes that “superior” men are above notions of right-and-wrong. He has bought into the philosophy of ethical nihilism, the idea that ultimately there is no such thing as an authoritative reality. He allows this idea to direct his actions: to prove the point to himself, he kills an old pawnbroker woman. Ideas have consequences, though, and Raskolnikov finds that the “culture” around him cannot withstand the philosophy he has embraced.

A Culture Slowly Killing Itself

Dostoevsky’s Russia was at a turning point. Hitherto, it had been a devoutly Christian country whose philosophy and culture reflected a profound faith in Jesus Christ. Increasingly, though, Western philosophies were influencing the brightest minds of the younger generations—the Enlightenment ideas that had spilt the blood of so many in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were gaining traction in the East. Dostoevsky was deeply concerned about this—it could be argued that he foresaw Bolshevism and the coming of the USSR—and wrote his later novels in the hopes of turning back younger minds from their folly.

Raskolinikov—the law student that commits the murder to prove a philosophical point—is the main focus of the novel. His philosophy leads him directly to murder. But Crime and Punishment isn’t just a prophetic warning about the consequences for an individual who thinks himself above the normal rules of society. It’s about a society that thinks itself above the normal rules of morality. Remember, Raskolnikov is “an impoverished law student”—he is a stand-in not just for a legal system impoverished by its lack of culture, but for a culture impoverished by its gradual embrace of a radical, nihilistic philosophy. Everyone in Dostoevsky’s fictional portrayal of 19th century St. Petersburg is suffering from the break down of morality—the alcoholic father and his starving family, the young woman forced into prostitution, etc.

As we look around and see our own 21st century American culture suffering through so much—racial and social injustice, abortion, addiction, growing teen suicide rates, and more—we must ask ourselves: what are the philosophical assumptions that drove our culture to this point? Who (or what) were our “Raskolnikovs”? Which old pawnbroker women have we killed along the way to get to this point? And here, by “we” I don’t just mean broader society; we as Christians must look at ourselves with a repentant eye and first examine the cultures we’ve created within our churches and families. As Jacob pointed out in his post, plenty of born-again Christians initially praised the Roe v. Wade decision. What philosophy did Christians adopt (perhaps subconsciously) to reach that point?

A Story About Lazarus

One of the turning points in the novel comes when Raskolinikov visits with Sonia, the young woman who has been forced into prostitution. Guilty of murder, pursued by the authorities, Raskolnikov makes a simple request of Sonia: find the passage in the Bible where Lazarus is raised from the dead, and read it aloud.

I won’t give away any more of the plot.   But suffice it to say, cultural redemption comes through Resurrection. You cannot make minor corrections to fix the dead; they must be brought back to life again. For Dostoevsky and for us, radical repentance and a radical submission to the Resurrected Christ are the only way out of the cultural cesspool that bad philosophy has created. We must be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.”

A Call to Examination

In commenting on another one of Dostoevsky’s novels, the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev said:

“[Dostoevsky] wanted to take men along the ways of wildest self-will and revolt in order to show them that they lead to the extinction of liberty and to self-annihilation. This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes. The only solution to the problem of man is in Jesus Christ.”

In what ways does this describe our culture today? In what ways are we ourselves guilty of giving in to “wildest self-will and revolt”?  How will we answer this type of thinking with the truth of Jesus Christ?

I hope that you’ll give Dostoevsky a careful read and then, inspired by his example, you’ll engage with the philosophy behind our culture.

Christ & Culture Series: Education

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This is part 2 in a series exploring areas of culture through a Biblical lens. The first post introduces the series, and in it I’m talking with my husband about juggling artistry, business, and theology. In this post I keep it in the family and talk with my older sister (Charity Bianchi) about her specialty: education. She hails from Syracuse, NY, where she lives with her husband of 19 years and her 6 children, who range in age from 15 to 3. She homeschool’s 4 of her children, while the oldest 2 attend Christian school.

She graduated from Oswego State University in New York state with a bachelors degree in Elementary Education in 1997, and in 2000 she received her Masters degree in Special Education. She was a full time 5th grade teacher at a Christian school for 2 years, but quit to stay home with her children. She began homeschooling in 2005.


What are some ways the culture views education?

The culture elevates education to a higher function than necessary.  Many people, even in Christian circles, can view education as the answer to a “successful life”  leaving out the true core of what makes success. Because academia is so important in our world to acquire a job and good standing, many can run to it as the answer to the problems we face. The mentality being that, “our society would be better if only we had a better education system.”  Our culture also can rely heavily upon our government as the answer to education.

What makes an education distinctly Christian? 

I believe when you place Christ and the gospel at the center of all you teach it becomes distinctly Christian. Because God is our creator every discipline of education intertwines (such as various subjects: reading, math, science, history, as well as the building of the child’s biblical worldview) and is interrelated to God’s plan for mankind.  When you use Gods word as the foundation of education, truth and insight will be transposed.

What’s your goal in educating your children?

I have two goals. The most important is from two verses. One is from the Old Testament book Deutronomy 6:4-9 and from Proverbs 22:6,

Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old they will not depart from it.” 

If my children are the most educated, well read, and well spoken people, but do not love their God and know his word I feel I have not truly educated them.  I have to constantly remind myself of this and keep this on the forefront as I teach them daily, even though I am not consistent and as faithful as I would like to be in this area.

The second goal is to give them a good education, while instilling a godly work ethic, with the basis of gaining a Biblical worldview.  My children’s academic capabilities vary greatly, and I don’t know what God has for their lives in the future, but I know I want them to be set apart (be a light in the darkness) by their knowledge, work ethic, and godly character.  It is wise and important for us to raise a generation of Christians that can be intelligently articulate on many issues and most importantly to be able to express an accurate Biblical worldview about them. (A great resource for homeschoolers on this topic is When You Rise Up: A Covenantal Approach to Homeschooling by R.C. Sproul Jr.)

Can our culture’s view of education and a Christian education coexist?

It really depends on what the parents or school convey to the children and how.  It’s interesting, because the school systems want “moral” acting students, but they want to teach immoral and ungodly information.  Worldly humanism is pervasive in our schools and homes.  Humanisim can be taught both socially and educationally. We can all fall prey to it if we are not vigilant and active thinkers.  A Biblical worldview is the answer to this and training children in discernment at a young age (seeing Gods evidence in creation) and as they get older asking the right questions (based on their previous knowledge of scripture) will help them sift through the worldliness and into the truth.  Our culture wants us to behave in a moralistic fashion by teaching children not to lie, steal, and cheat, but they do not understand where morality is rooted. I don’t think morality and humanisim can coexist and produce authentic Christian children.

How can Christian parents who don’t homeschool give their kids a distinctly Christian education, and one in which they are involved?

There are many wonderful Christian schools that will partner with parents to provide their children with a distinctly Christian education.  If that’s not an option and your children are in public school, it’s going to look different and may require more intentionality, but parents can work with their children and discuss with them how topics are being taught at the school and any social issues with peers. Parents can use God’s word and other Christian literature to supplement and teach them how to refute opposing secular views.

Being in a non-Christian educational environment can be helpful for the child to learn how to put a Biblical worldview into practice.  Depending on the child’s age the school can also be a good outreach for the child to pursue others who need to hear the truth. Parents can actively get involved at the schools by volunteering or being a part of a school board. I know many families that have done a tremendous job guiding their children spirtually through their education process at public school.

What are some ways we can glorify God through education?

Education is a good thing and God wants us to acquire knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to ultimately glorify him. One way we can glorify God through education is by aiding our children through the education process and training them toward godliness in their school work ethic. School is a child’s “job” and we need to teach them to “work as unto the Lord” at a young age. Another way we can glorify God through education is to have children grow to embrace the Biblical worldview and be able to stand firm in their faith despite contrary beliefs.