Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Christian Carnival CXCVI

Yesterday's post on Divine Invisibility is included in this week's Christian Carnival. Thanks to Henry Neufeld for hosting!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Divine Invisibility

One of the more common objections to Christianity concerns God’s “invisibility.” Many atheists insist that if God existed, we should expect his presence to be undeniably obvious. For instance, if God is all-powerful and wants us to believe in him, why not provide a steady stream of miracles, that we might see and believe?

There are many problems with this argument. One is simply that miracles are always open to interpretation. No matter how improbable an event, its very improbability makes it open to doubt. The atheist can always insist that even the most far fetched natural explanation is “infinitely more probable” than a miracle. Jesus himself highlighted this, saying: “If they do not believe Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

For sake of argument, however, let's assume this is mistaken. Let’s assume that if only God provided enough miracles (say one every week for every person in the world) that would be enough to prove his existence. Is that really the kind of world in which these atheists would want to live?

Many atheists claim that, if God exists, they just want him to prove it to them. Perhaps this is true of some of them – genuinely open-minded people who would be glad to find evidence for God – but I don’t think this makes up the majority of atheists. No, for most atheists the absence of God is something to be glad of. With no God, we are free to choose our destiny as we see fit (unless we’re not free, of course), whereas if he did exist, we’d have to submit to his authority. The existence of God, to many atheists, would forever reduce us to the status of children, unable to care for ourselves.

I do not say this in a derogatory manner, nor am I assuming that all atheists think this way, but many do, and it is to these that this argument is directed. The problem is that these two objections work against one another. For what would it accomplish, really, if God were to provide us with a constant stream of miracles? It might convince us of his presence (or perhaps we would simply dismiss it as another, rather odd, law of nature), but it would certainly reduce us to infants.

If God were to bombard us with constant miracles, what would be left for us to do? What motivation would we have to study or grow, what need would we have to advance or learn? For instance, why would anyone become a doctor, if they knew that God would cure every illness within a week? Why would anyone avoid getting sick or injured at all? How could we learn to take care of ourselves in any way, if God did it for us? Indeed, if he ever failed to do so, would we not complain: “you perform miracles every day, can you not take care of this as well”?

Occasional miracles are one thing – they can give evidence of God’s power, even if only to those who look for them – but if God were to reveal himself as constantly and predictably as many atheists demand, he would in fact be denying us the very thing these same atheists treasure: our freedom to live and learn for ourselves.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Feed the Hungry and Improve Your Vocabulary

This is a great idea: Free Rice is a vocabulary game that donates its ad revenue to purchase rice through the United Nations. For every vocab question you answer correctly, ten grains of rice are donated. Since they launched on October 7, they have already donated over 300 million grains.

The game automatically adjusts its difficulty based on your answers, so you not only feed the hungry, but improve your vocabulary at the same time. Check it out!

HT: Higgaion

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Knocked Up

Against our better judgment, my wife and I rented Knocked Up last night. She’s been wanting to see it for a while, mainly because it’s similar to one of her favorite movies (Fools Rush In) and she likes the lead actress. Unfortunately, this story of a couple of twenty-somethings who get pregnant on a one-night stand is even more crude than we feared. It’s absolutely filled with explicit language, drug use and nudity, nearly all of which is crass and unnecessary to the plot. I would in no way recommend the film, nor do I have any desire to see it again. In all honesty, we should have just turned it off; it was that bad.

But we didn’t, and in the end, Knocked Up worked surprisingly well as social commentary. Its intended audience is the perpetually adolescent guy who looks for “Unrated” versions and would like nothing better than to spend his days smoking pot with his buddies. Yet that is precisely the kind of lifestyle the film criticizes. The lead character (Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen) is essentially a 23-year old frat boy (minus the college education), living with four guys who spend all their time smoking and goofing off. None of them have real jobs (who knows how they afford rent, let alone weed) and their only ambition is to create a website detailing their favorite stars' nude scenes. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that their real dream would be to actually sleep with those celebrities, but the website is their only achievable ambition.

If this is the type of guy the movie is meant to attract, however, it quickly becomes apparent just how empty such a life really is. Ben is a slob, living in a pig-sty with four friends who barely even like each other. Running out of money and wasting the best years of his life, he's going nowhere and he doesn’t even realize it. When he finally meets the girl of his dreams (Alison Scott, played by Katherine Heigl), he gets so drunk he hardly remembers sleeping with her, and doesn’t realize how much he disgusts her until it’s too late. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, it’s certain she would never have gone out with him again (she only met him at all because she herself got too drunk while out celebrating a promotion).

And so the movie goes, until it finally allows Ben to hit rock bottom: nearly broke, his life is so meaningless that when an earthquake hits, the only thing he cares to save is his bong (he forgets that his pregnant girlfriend is sleeping in the next room). He doesn’t know what he’s missing until he and Alison’s brother-in-law spend a drugged-out weekend in Vegas. Sitting alone in their hotel room, they suddenly realize what a mess they’ve made of their lives. They have these smart, beautiful women who (completely improbably) love them, and yet they spend most of their time trying to get away from them.

By the time it’s over, Knocked Up is really about these two guys growing up and taking responsibility for their lives, which is a remarkably wholesome message from a movie that is anything but wholesome. I would not recommend this film to anyone (I rather wish I hadn’t watched it myself), but maybe, just maybe, it is the kind of thing that might wake up a few of the overgrown teenagers to whom it’s been marketed. For if there is anything more distressing than the characters in this movie, it’s the fact that there really are guys who live like Ben, and don't see what's wrong with it. This film is for them, and I hope it finds its mark.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Traffic and the Fall

After spending nearly five hours stuck in traffic today, this seems like a good time to highlight another of my favorite posts from Signs of the Times, Traffic and the Fall:

I once saw a cartoon about a perfect gentleman who became a maniac whenever driving. In everyday life, he’s relaxed and courteous – he even helps a spider off the walkway. But when he gets behind the wheel, his shoulders rise up, he leans forward with a grimace, his whole demeanor changes. Foot jammed to the floor, he races past unsuspecting grannies and runs other drivers off the road.

It was a ridiculous cartoon, but I have a confession to make (I’m not even Catholic!): After six months of commuting, I’ve realized that I am that man. I’m normally pretty easy going, but driving stresses me out to the extreme. I yell and swear. I rage when people fail to go at least five over. Don’t they know that speed limits are the minimum acceptable speed?! And if someone can’t drive in the snow, I feel an unbearable urge to bumper tap them into a ditch. Stoplights are the very beacons of hell.

Some picture heaven as clouds and harps; I imagine Bruce Almighty turning his car into a Ferrari and parting traffic like the Red Sea. If I pray while driving, it’s Please, God, give me a green light and an open road! After all, if he really is all-powerful and all-good, surely he could and would accomplish this minor feat. Yet he never seems to answer that prayer – maybe the atheists were right all along.

Or maybe something else is going on here. My relationship with traffic seems but a microcosm of my relationship with society in general. My inhibitions may disappear when no one can see me but those I leave in the dust, but the desires that surface were there all along. At my worst, I drive as though every road belongs to me. Deep down, I suspect I’d prefer to treat the whole world that way; it’s just not so easy most other places.

Never-mind that freeways wouldn’t exist at all, if not for the traffic that justifies their expense. Never-mind that society itself depends on the millions of others I’d love to push aside. Never-mind that everything I have is a gift. When driving I forget all that and my true self comes out. I don’t care that my red light allows you to safely cross the intersection – it costs me fifteen seconds, and that’s plenty of time to mutter something dreadful about your mother. I may be more civil elsewhere, but my attitude behind the wheel proves what I really am – a deeply selfish, sinful man.

And that’s just it. Perhaps the reason God steadfastly refuses to answer my traffic prayers, is because it’s not my commute that really needs fixing. It’s me. Selfish as I am, it’s easy to feel that if God were good, life would be smooth. But is it not rather those rough parts of life that force me to face what’s really wrong within me? What I need most is not that all others would make way for me, but that I might learn to make way for them, even in the privacy of my own car.

If God rarely answers my prayers for a swift commute, there are others he always answers. Pray for patience and the response is immediate – usually he puts some yokel in my path and asks how I’ll respond.

If you liked this post, be sure and read Kate Bluett's excellent response: Masks.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Even Good Vampires are Bad?

An interesting discussion has sprung up over at Boundless Line, considering whether traditionally evil characters - vampires, dragons, witches and wizards - can be legitimately portrayed as heroes, or whether this inevitably blurs the line between good and evil. As you might expect, I tend to think they can, if redeemed (for aren't we ourselves "good monsters"?), but the whole discussion is interesting, and Ethan Cordray in particular makes some important points for the opposite view:

The trouble with this is that even modern vampires are defined by an essentially evil quality: the need to consume the blood of others to sustain an artificial immortality. That is what makes them vampires, and that is what links them to the old folklore figures. No matter what their personalities or appearances might be, vampires still drink blood and live forever. That's what makes them vampires.

To imagine a "good vampire," then, is really an impossibility. Vampirism is essentially evil, and one who engages in it is thus a doer of evil. If being a vampire is the essence of a character -- that is, if it's what defines the character's personality and behavior -- then that character is essentially evil, and I think we can rightly demand that it be portrayed as such.

On the other hand, I think it's possible to portray a vampiric character that contains goodness, or even one that is morally transformed within a story. This would require, however, that the "redeemed vampire" character give up vampirism, just as we would expect a redeemed criminal to give up crime.
HT: Evangelical Outpost

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hope and Sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities

Not long ago, I mentioned that my favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. It truly is an inspiring story of hope and sacrifice, a Christian story in the deepest sense of the term. There is another story, however, that strikes me deeper. This evening I made my daughter stay up an hour past bed time so I could finish reading it to her, though I cried so hard I barely got through it.

I’m speaking of my favorite book, and no, it’s not Harry Potter. It’s A Tale of Two Cities, which is one of the most difficult and beautiful books I’ve ever read, and the most poignant depiction of the gospel lived-out that I’ve ever encountered. I’m not a fan of most of Charles Dickens' books – A Christmas Carol makes me gag – but this story is breathtaking.

Admittedly, it’s a tough book to read, and not just because it’s dark. Its language is so dense and carefully-phrased, it has to be read aloud for full effect. Through its first half, it presents several dozen seemingly unconnected events and characters, without explaining their importance. It takes a real act of faith to stick with the story, yet steadily its complex plot resolves itself into a true masterpiece in which there is nothing extraneous at all. Absolutely every detail of this story, from the first page on, is eventually tied into its stirring climax. Every minor occurrence becomes important before the end; every character plays their vital role in its completion.

Summarizing the plot would be difficult and give too much away, but in brief, A Tale of Two Cities, like Shawshank (and Les Misérables, my next favorite book), is a story of unjust imprisonment, and thus a symbol for our own universal bondage to sin. Like the characters in this tale, all of us are born into a system overrun with evil, and while we each must choose either to accept or to redeem what small realm of it we touch, we lack the power to truly escape it on our own.

It is called A Tale of Two Cities, and though this undoubtedly refers to London and Paris, whose distinctive histories shape its every contour, it is also the story of two other “cities,” what Saint Augustine called “the city of man” and “the city of God.” Set before and during the French Revolution – that bloody and lawless coup in a long line of such tragedies – it is first off a tale of the "city of man," as one nation's unbearable suffering symbolizes the misery of all those oppressed by the cruel and indifferent of the world. Worse still, in its depiction of the equally cruel and indifferent revenge that so often repays such oppression (and certainly did in revolutionary France), we see also the unending cycle of evil that so defaces all our attempts to save ourselves.

Yet this is not only a tale of “the worst of times,” it is also a tale of the best of them. Like Shawshank, this is a story that centers on a hope that can only be gained through sacrifice. Even better than Shawshank, it is a story which recognizes that sacrifice can only be authentic if embraced out of love. True, unconditional, world-conquering love, that is the heart of this story, and the final answer it gives to evil. This is not the sappy-sentimental, overly-sexualized love of a modern romance. No. This is a love that takes its inspiration from the one whose own sacrifice marked the turning point in history, whose own love founded "the city of God." In the end, A Tale of Two Cities is a story of his sacrificial love, lived out through redeemed men and women, which is the only hope we have in this dark world. As such, it is his words that one seemingly minor but ultimately central character recalls at the book’s climax, and it is these words that we too must recall if we are to have any hope at all:

“I am the Resurrection and the Life, he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Paradoxes of Christianity

Christian doctrine is a complicated thing. Though the gospel can be easily summarized – “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 – teasing out just what it means for God to send his “one and only son” to save his “children” (!), leads to more paradoxes than your average time travel movie.

For instance, Jesus of Nazareth was (and is) both fully divine and fully human. Not half of one and half the other, but completely divine, eternal, only-begotten of God, etc. and completely human, temporal, begotten of a woman, etc. Yet how can Jesus be both eternal and temporal? How can the creator of everything become a creature? How can this be anything other than blatant contradiction?

Nor do the difficulties end with the nature of Christ. The Bible is also claimed to be fully human and fully divine. Salvation is by humanity’s free choice and God’s predetermined election. God is both the source of all that exists (including evil), and yet innocent of all evil. At every turn, Christian doctrine maintains, even proudly declares, such paradoxes.

What are we to make of all this. As Christians, have we grown so accustomed to these difficulties that we no longer recognize them as such? If the first rule of logic is non-contradiction, is our faith merely a colossal confusion? Perhaps, but there is another explanation. To see this, an analogy will be helpful, for Christian doctrine is not the only area of knowledge that includes such paradoxes.

Consider quantum mechanics: According to this branch of physics, at the microscopic level the universe is an extremely strange and paradoxical place. The fundamental particles of our universe – photons, electrons, quarks, etc. – boast a number of properties that certainly appear to be contradictory. For instance, according to Wave-Particle Duality, these fundamental particles act both as though they have a particular position and trajectory and as though their “probability wave” extends throughout the entire universe. According to Quantum entanglement and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, particles can influence each other instantly over infinite distances, and yet we can never know simultaneously where they are and how fast they are moving.

Of course, just because there are also paradoxes in physics doesn’t automatically excuse Christian doctrine for having its own. What is significant, however, is the remarkably similar form of these paradoxes.

First, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes almost certainly result from our own finite perspectives. As human beings accustomed to dealing with objects measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters for my non-American friends), it’s hardly surprising that our language gets stretched to the breaking point when we begin talking about things – like quantum particles and the divine nature – far removed from such everyday experience. Presumably, these paradoxes are capable of resolution; we just don’t (yet?) have access to a broad enough perspective to resolve them. Our usual intuitions – that objects can only be in one place at a time, or that freedom and determinism are opposites – can lead us astray when facing such ultimate questions.

Second, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes are confirmed by constant experience. Though Wave-Particle Duality could be dissolved by rejecting the experimental data that shows light particles acting like waves (e.g. the counter-intuitive Double-Slit Experiment), that wouldn’t solve the problem, it would only ignore it. Likewise, the Freedom-Predestination paradox could be dissolved by rejecting human freedom (as hyper-Calvinists do), but such does not solve the problem, it only ignores it. For just as Wave-Particle Duality is repeatedly confirmed by experiment, the Freedom-Predestination paradox is confirmed by our constant experience of both the reality of freedom and the still small voice of election.

Finally, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes are central to the system of thought. The paradox of Wave-Particle Duality is not a peripheral detail of quantum mechanics, an exception that can be dismissed as a misunderstanding. It is rather the essential feature of the theory, the central fact by which everything else in quantum mechanics makes sense. In the same way, the dual nature of Christ – both fully God and fully man – is not some peripheral detail; it is the central fact of Christian doctrine. In both cases, the proof of the theory is not that it makes sense, but that it makes sense of everything else.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mark Shea on Harry Potter

If my previous post was maddeningly vague on why I think Harry Potter is a deeply Christian tale, let me correct that by heartily recommending Mark Shea's piece over at First Things: "Harry Potter and the Christian Critics" (need I say Spoiler Warning?). He succinctly demolishes each of the major "Christian" objections to the series, and is well worth a read.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Harry Potter and the Christian Story

To many of us post-moderns, the Christian story seems rather a mundane thing. Residing in the back of our collective consciousness, it’s just familiar enough to seem unremarkable, yet just unknown enough to be misunderstood. Even Sunday school can be like a vaccine, providing just enough theology to leave us immune to the deep drama of the faith.

It was into just such a situation that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote their works of fantasy. Their goal was to create fiction that could cut through that cultural immunity, and allow a modern audience to hear the Christian story as though for the first time. As Lewis put it:

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?
It was an admirable goal, but only partially accomplished. Both Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would eventually become exceedingly popular, but only long after their intentions were respectively too well-known and entirley missed. Thus, for many readers, the Christian themes of Narnia were a bit too obvious, a bit too early, to evade "those watchful dragons," while the imaginative mythology of Lord of the Rings quickly obscured its own Christian trajectory. Don't get me wrong, both series are outstanding in their own ways, but it remains unclear just how well they fulfilled their intentions.

It was with this background in mind that I finally read J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series this past month (now you know why my blogging has been so much lighter!). Though I had seen (and enjoyed) a couple of the movies, reading the series all at once proved far more satisfying than I ever expected. Having studiously avoided reading anyone else's views on the series, I was most surprized by just how well Rowling (a practicing member of the Church of Scotland) had managed to accomplish precisely the goal that Lewis and Tolkien set themselves. On the one hand, she managed to build an absolutely unprecedented readership who adored the series without yet knowing where it was headed (according to some reports, the series had sold over 300 million copies before the final book was released!). On the other hand, by the end of the Deathly Hallows she had succeeded in retelling the Christian story in a way that is at once freshly engaging, deeply nostalgic, and hardly mistakable.

Though lacking the poetic beauty of Lord of the Rings, and obscuring some of Narnia's theological distinctions, Harry Potter pulls together countless imaginative story-lines involving dozens of well-developed characters, while seamlessly interweaving a host of important themes: from coming of age and facing death, to love and friendship, trust and loyalty, and redemption and sacrifice, to courage and betrayal, good and evil, and much else. That entire books were written decrying the series' “anti-Christian” message (I haven’t read them, but I can't imagine anyone writing one now), indicates just how well she has accomplished her goal.

So as not to spoil them for anyone who hasn’t yet read the books (you really should!), I wont go into any details, but suffice it to say that Rowling has admirably lived up to her forebears in Lewis and Tolkien, not least because she allowed her Christian themes to build to a fitting climax, rather than airing them out too early. In the end, Harry Potter proves much more explicitly Christian than The Lord of the Rings, yet much less obtrusive than The Chronicles of Narnia. I really cannot recommend it highly enough; I only wish I had another month to reread it, now that I know how it all comes together!

If anyone else here has read the series, what are your reactions?

UPDATE: If you've come to this post directly and want a more detailed account of Harry Potter's Christian nature, don't miss Mark Shea's "Harry Potter and the Christian Critics" (Spoiler Warning).