Monday, March 31, 2008

Card's Game

One of my earliest memories is of playing “Crystal Quest” on our Apple computer when I was 3 or 4 years old (my dad was a programmer, so we had a computer earlier than most people). As I grew up, video games were constant features of my childhood, and if it weren’t for my wife’s disapproving (but always correct!) comments, this would probably still be the case to this day.

I’ll admit it, I’ve always had a mild addiction to computer games (though never as bad as my youngest brother; at age 14 he was already webmaster for a fan-site devoted to WarCraft 2, which averaged 16,000 hits a day. At one point he held the first and third highest ranked usernames in the world, simultaneously). Needless to say, such games can eat up a tremendous amount of time if you let them, which is why I finally decided to give them up when I started working on my thesis a few months ago. To be honest, I really don’t miss them as much as I expected. Occasionally I’ll feel a little nostalgia for World of Warcraft, but generally I’m just glad not to be bogged down by them anymore.

If I needed any encouragement that I had made the right decision, though, I’ve just found it. There is an interesting article in The New Atlantis (an excellent journal on technology and culture, by the way) which discusses the video game addiction of one of my favorite science fiction writers, Orson Scott Card. According to the article, Card (author of the Hugo Award winning Ender’s Game among other works) has long been obsessed with video games. This should perhaps surprise no one who has read his books, most of which include such games in one form or another, but the article offers an intriguing glimpse into the wider impact of this addiction on Card’s career and works:

Neither a scientist nor a futurist, Card is a humanist, a surveyor of man’s potential for great reason as well as devastating violence, a defender of both faith and skepticism, a believer in the permanence of human nature and traditional social institutions, an imaginative writer who looks to the future and wonders not how society will be different, but how its inhabitants will be the same. To the extent that he has indulged in the elements that characterize so much of the genre—the geeky gadgetry and the theories of social development, the space suits, attacking aliens, and oppressive governments—it has been in the service of a deeper exploration of man’s motivations. His interest has been less in the minutiae of technology’s operations—the hows and whats—than in their moral aftershocks and in the tiny ways they shape the day-to-day existence of families and individuals, the life of the mind, and, occasionally, the tumult of the heart. That is, until recently....

Ender’s Game provides a soulful and complex portrait of both man’s primal drive for violence and his revulsion toward it, and, along with its first two sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, it represents the high point of Card’s thirty-year career. In these novels, the often adolescent science fiction conceits he employs—they all revolve around violence, technology, and games—were a means by which to approach larger ideas about human failings and struggles. But in his recent work, Card seems happy to deploy the same devices purely in their own service. The juvenilia has persisted, and it has overtaken all else.

If you’re a fan of Card’s books, or of video games more generally, the whole thing is worth reading. As for me, I need to go bury myself in my studies again. A thesis, it turns out, takes up an amazing amount of one’s time as well!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Religious Nature of The New Atheism?

I’m a couple weeks late on this, but I just discovered this wide-ranging critique of the new atheism by John Gray (HT: David Keen). I'm exceptionally busy at the moment, so I'll just say that I think the article includes some good insights but it’s far from perfect. You can decide for yourselves; here are some excerpts:

For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day. The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase. In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence....

The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world, but it does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs - in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths - hollowed-out religious narratives translated into pseudo-science....

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today's secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values - on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms - rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them....

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Christian Carnival 217

This week's Christian Carnival is up at Diary of 1; it includes my post on Holy Saturday. Also, check out this entry from Fish and Cans.

UPDATE: In the comments, Chris linked to his own excellent reflection on Holy Saturday. Check it out.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday

It was dark and stormy here this Easter. The wind woke us early, and we drove to church through a hard rain. My daughter’s first Easter egg hunt had to be conducted inside; we even had some violent hail in the afternoon. It’s ironic too, since Friday and Saturday were clear and warm. Proof that the world has not yet reached its goal, I guess; creation still groaning in expectation.

On such a gloomy day, one might wonder what difference Easter makes. Did anything really happen that morning two thousand years ago? Is the world really any different? Yesterday I mentioned the differences between the biblical resurrection accounts; each tells the story slightly differently, and they cannot be fully harmonized. Many think this proves it’s all fiction, perhaps of symbolic value, but nothing historical. After all, the Bible does contain a great deal of myth and symbolism, and such elements can be found here as well, particularly in Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus.

Here we find two disciples, leaving Jerusalem in the wake of the crucifixion, who find themselves walking with Jesus. But they don’t know it’s Jesus until “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30), about as clear an allusion to the Eucharist as you could find. The point, it seems, is that despite Jesus’ apparent absence, he is nevertheless alive with us when we join together in communion. Given this, it almost seems inappropriate to ask did this happen? The more pertinent question is: does this happen? Do we continue to meet Jesus in the breaking of bread? At the least, this is certainly a story that has been framed for its symbolic rather than historical value, and it is hard to rule out the possibility that something similar informs all of these accounts.

Honesty demands that we not ignore these things, and pays us back by revealing deeper significance to these stories. But it is possible to take such skepticism too far. It is true that these accounts have been shaped and reworked for reasons other than objective historical interest, but there remains a core here that cannot be dismissed as myth: that the tomb was empty, and that Jesus’ disciples were convinced that he had been raised. These are distinct, but closely related. We will take them in reverse.

Whatever tensions we find between the Easter accounts, it can hardly be denied that the earliest disciples experienced Jesus as alive again in some profound way. This is necessary to explain the origin of the Church at all. The first century was full of Jewish figures claiming to be the Messiah. Like Jesus, each built up a large following but then met a violent death. In every other case, such a death proved that the figure was not the Messiah. Indeed, this seems to have been the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ death. Leaving Jerusalem dejectedly, the two disciples in Luke 24 tell the figure they don’t yet recognize that “we had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (24:21), the implication clearly being that his death had convinced them otherwise. Yet something changed them, dramatically. However scattered and legendary the accounts of Jesus’ appearances, we know they experienced something deeply profound and unexpected, and the simplest explanation is the one they themselves gave: that they had unexpectedly seen Jesus.

But what were these appearances? James has been arguing that they were essentially spiritual, intangible, such that it doesn't much matter whether Jesus’ body remained in the tomb or not. There is a certain strength to this view; it fits well with Luke 24, for one thing. Clearly, whatever kind of life Jesus was raised to, it was no mere resuscitation of his old physical body. He was said to pass through walls, to suddenly appear and vanish, to be sometimes unrecognizable, or appear with bright light and sound. All of this points to something very different than normal earthly life, something much more.

But that is only half the story, for the disciples did not merely claim that they had suddenly realized that Jesus was alive despite being dead. They insisted that he had been raised. Not all Jews believed in resurrection, but those who did agreed about two things: that it was in some sense physical, and that it wouldn’t happen until the age to come. That Jesus’ disciples claimed this about him, even though the eschatological age clearly had not come as they expected, points to something more: They didn’t just claim that Jesus’ soul had survived death, but that somehow, on that Sunday morning, all of history had changed, the new age had dawned, Jesus had been vindicated.

To make sense of such a claim we must turn elsewhere. For the Gospels do not just speak of Jesus’ appearances, but also of an empty tomb. That it was empty that first Sunday is nearly certain, for its discovery by women simply wasn’t the sort of thing the church would have invented. Women weren’t considered reliable witnesses in Jewish society, as the disciples’ own reactions to their report indicates. Further, the surprise and ensuing conviction of Jesus’ followers counts against any claim that they themselves had stolen the body. Granted, by itself the empty tomb proves little, to them or to us, but combined with Jesus’ appearances it was transformational. It took this ragged group of deserters and turned them into the seed of a church that stormed the world with the message that Jesus is Lord.

Were they right? History cannot answer that conclusively, though these facts are telling. For me, however, the proof lies not so much in that ancient tomb, but in the present day – in our church full of people who, despite awaking to gloom and the rain, could not be kept from gathering in love for one another and worship of the one who has changed our lives. Is the world any different because of Easter? It still rains, but I know that we are different because of it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday - A Day For Death and Doubt

We know virtually nothing of Holy Saturday; only Matthew dates any events to the day between Jesus' death and resurrection: a late story of guards being set at the tomb. The other Gospels skip by without a word. Nowhere are we told what the disciples were doing. No miracles are reported, no visions of God, no resurrection appearances, nothing. God, it seems, was absent that day - like so many days since. It was a day worth forgetting, I suppose. Jesus was dead, well and truly, and hope had died with him. Our focus, rightfully, has fixed on the bright morning of Easter, but perhaps a little less haste is in order.

It is worth lingering with the doubt and uncertainty of that Saturday. Doubt can be healthful, scrubbing away our pious illusions and pseudo-knowledge, revealing the raw edges of life that we would prefer to leave hidden. We Christians tend to read the Gospels in hindsight; we already know the ending and don’t often bother with the mess in between. But it is good to see the mess, for our own lives are full of it. We too experience many a dark day when the death of God seems more real than his resurrection. Whatever we would prefer, death and doubt are as much a part of the Christian experience as life and hope, and even Easter does not fully erase this paradox.

The tensions and disagreements (nay, contradictions) between the Gospel accounts are too often dismissed or ignored, but today is a good day to remember them. We know Jesus was crucified on Friday, and that on Sunday his tomb was found empty, almost certainly by some of the women who had been following him. We know that in the coming weeks his disciples became convinced, in spite of themselves, that Jesus was alive again. But we know also of their initial doubts; their confusion has been canonized into the scattered reports of Jesus' appearances.

In a couple of posts at Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath explores these tensions, but they cay be summarized easily: Who first visited the tomb? Women, certainly, but which ones? The four Gospels disagree. And what did they see there? An angel, or was it a young man? Sitting on the rolled-back stone as in Matthew? Or in the tomb as in Mark? Or were there two as in Luke and John? What about the disciples? Did they run to the tomb themselves as John claims? Or was it only later – the Gospels disagree on where – that they first saw him? Ignoring these tensions would be dishonest, but also unhelpful. The truth is that whatever we believe about Easter, we are left with reconstructions, ambiguities, doubt. God, it seems, did not see fit to give us an unquestionable account; the Gospels have not been harmonized, and we can be grateful for that.

For doubt is not merely negative; it is purifying, both historically and personally. It reminds us of our finit perspectives, that the experience of God is always a little beyond us, broader than we can take in. It leaves us grasping, and that is a good thing. Garrison Keillor expresses this better than I can (HT: Shuck and Jive):

There is comfort for the doubter in the Passion story. You are not alone. Jesus’s cry from the cross was a cry of incredulity. The apostle [Peter] denied even knowing Jesus three times. The guy spent years with Jesus, saw the miracles up close, the raising of Lazarus, the demons cast out, the sick healed, the water-walking trick, all of the special effects, but when the cards were down, he said, “Who? Me? No way.”

He repented. I would too, but not quite yet.

Skepticism is a stimulant, not to be repressed. It is an antidote to smugness and the great glow of satisfaction one gains from being right. You know the self-righteous — I’ve been one myself — the little extra topspin they put on the truth, their ostentatious modesty, the pleasure they take in being beautifully modulated and cool and correct when others are falling apart. Jesus was rougher on those people than He was on the adulterers and prostitutes.

So I will sit in the doubter’s chair for a while and see what is to be learned back there.

On Holy Saturday, we could all spend some time in that chair.

Friday, March 21, 2008

God Abandoned by God

I've quoted this before, but it deserves further reflection on Good Friday:

Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself. (Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, pg. 19)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Saved from What?

USA Today has an excellent piece about our culture's diminished concept of sin and its significance for the church (HT: Between Two Worlds). Here are a few excerpts:

Is sin dead? No, not by a long shot. Yet as Easter approaches, some pastors and theologians worry: How can Christians celebrate Jesus' atonement for their sins and the promise of eternal life in his resurrection if they don't recognize themselves as sinners?...

A new survey by Ellison Research in Phoenix finds 87% of U.S. adults believe in the existence of sin, which is defined as "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective."

Topping the list are adultery (81%) and racism (74%).

But other sins no longer draw majority condemnation. Premarital sex? Only 45% call it sin. Gambling? Just 30% say it's sinful.

"A lot of this is relative. We tend to view sin not as God views it, but how we view it," says Ellison president Ron Sellers.

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Research, a company in Ventura, Calif., that tracks Christian trends, draws a similar conclusion: "People are quick to toe the line on traditional thinking" that there is sin "but interpret that reality in a very personal and self-congratulatory manner" — I have to do what's best for me; I am not as sinful as most.

Indeed, 65% of U.S. adults say they will go to heaven, and only 0.05% believe they'll go to hell, according to a 2003 Barna telephone survey of 1,024 adults.

"They give intellectual assent to the story about Jesus rising on Easter Sunday: 75% say they believe the biblical account of Jesus' death and resurrection is literally true, not a story meant to illustrate a principle. But they don't have any personal application of this Monday through Saturday," Kinnaman says.

The article continues with some good commentary by a diverse assortment of Christian leaders – from the Pope to Mark Driscoll (and an example of the problem in Joel Osteen!) – but I wonder if this disconnect is really new. Have not people always been quicker to see sin in others than in themselves? Was it any different during the first Holy Week, when the leaders of God’s people saw themselves as the righteous even while calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, when Jesus' own disciples were fleeing and denying him? We are the same, and this week of all weeks we would do well to remember it.
If it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Christian Carnival 216

This week’s Christian Carnival is up at Crossroads and includes yesterday’s post about the removal of Easter from Sunday School curriculum (I should also mention James' response at Exploring our Matrix). Here are a couple other Carnival entries worth reading:

Homeward Bound has a brief but good post on the way the cross was perceived in the ancient world: Even Death on a Cross.

Brain Cramps for God has a list of 50 reasons Jesus died (based on a book by John Piper): Why This Friday is so Good. I don’t agree with all of Piper’s interpretations (abbreviated though they are), but it is a nice list.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Holy Week without Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Apparently, the Christian publisher First Look has actually removed all references to Jesus’ death and resurrection from its preschool age Sunday School curriculum (HT: Mere Comments). Their explanation sounds like something straight out of The Wittenburg Door:

In order to be sensitive to the physical, intellectual, and emotional development of preschoolers, First Look has chosen not to include the Easter story in our curriculum. Instead, we are focusing on the Last Supper, when Jesus shared a meal and spent time with the people He loved. We have made this choice because the crucifixion is simply too violent for preschoolers. And if we skip the crucifixion and go straight to the resurrection, then preschoolers would be confused....

However, we know that some of you use First Look in your five-year-old and kindergarten classrooms. To accommodate your needs, we have included an alternative ending to the Bible story that tells a simple version of the Easter story.

My first reaction to this was mild shock. I mean, it’s not as though Easter were the reason we teach Sunday School to begin with. No, it might frighten or confuse the children so we’ll relegate it to an “alternative ending!”

But after mulling it over, I have a hard time feeling enraged about this. Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps they have bought into the self-esteem myth and ignored the fact that many three and four year-olds can indeed understand Jesus’ death and resurrection. But many preschoolers are not capable of understanding this, and it makes sense to save the story until they can. It is not as though First Look is proposing that we don’t teach Easter at all, merely that we wait until elementary school, when it will make more sense.

The way they have approached this seems ill-advised (an “alternative ending,” really?) but I actually rather appreciate the sentiment. Personally, I have known about Jesus’ death and resurrection for as long as I can remember. One of my very earliest memories was “praying the prayer” with my mother when I was five years old. I certainly thought I knew Jesus, but it was only many years later that I really did.

It wasn’t until late elementary school – when the first of my great-grandmothers died – that I even understood the concept of death in any real way, and even then I don’t recall connecting that to Jesus. I certainly didn’t live any differently because of it. I was a terror in elementary school, the kid Sunday School teachers feared and other parents told their kids to avoid. It wasn't until Middle School that I first realized the meaning of the Gospel, and it came from reading Tolkien.

My dad had read The Hobbit to my brothers and I as kids, and that story always stuck with me. So in 6th grade when my English class allowed us to choose what book to read, I ambitiously choose The Lord of the Rings. I still remember reading the first few chapters of The Two Towers for the first time, certain (like Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and the rest) that Gandalf was dead, and experiencing the fear and confusion surrounding his unexpected appearances (of which, unlike in the movies, there are several). Suddenly realizing that Gandalf had been restored to life, only then did I finally understand what it must have been like for Jesus’ first disciples. To know that Jesus, their hope, was dead, and then suddenly and unexpectedly to discover that, beyond all hope, he was alive!

I thank God for Tolkien, but it frustrates me that it took a work of fantasy for me to really hear the Gospel for the first time, when I had in fact been hearing the story my whole life. The problem, I think, is precisely that I had been hearing it my whole life. By pounding these stories into our children from such an early age (long before they can have any conception of its meaning), we seem to be numbing them to its power. At least, that’s what happened to me, and I doubt I am alone.

Of course our kids need to hear about Easter! Tolkien’s take on the event would not have had the impact that it did on me if I hadn’t been so familiar with the Gospel first. But does it need to be so early? I’m not sure. Easter can hardly seem like Good News, if it doesn’t seem like News.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lose Your Faith

Kim Fabricius posted an intriguing Holy Week sermon here (HT: Sean the Baptist and Exploring our Matrix). Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

This sermon doesn’t have three points, it’s got three words: Lose your faith! (I warned you I would be sacrilegious.) Yes, lose your faith. Lose your faith in God. For as the French mystic Simone Weil insisted, there is a kind of atheism that is purifying, cleansing us of idols. Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell – with his Son....

But hang on, Kim, frankly you’ve lost us. We don’t know what you’re talking about, but whatever it is, it sounds crazy, foolish. You’ve accomplished the remarkable achievement of making someone like Rowan Williams sound lucid, simple, straightforward. And you’re supposed to be a preacher, and isn’t the whole point of the sermon to make it easier to understand God, to increase our faith, so that we can go back to the world feeling edified, uplifted, and ready to share the Good News? Not today it’s not. Today I can’t help you. This week no one can help you. Come Friday, not even God – especially not God – can help you. And come Saturday, God himself is lying in a tomb. Emptiness. Zero. Nothing. But might it be a pregnant emptiness, a significant zero, a silent nothing that yet says everything? (after Alan E. Lewis). We shall have to wait till Easter. Only then shall we learn that this Week is Holy, and its Friday Good. Only then may we just find a new faith rising from the old faith that I pray you will lose today.

The Procrastinator's Flow Chart

Heh, yeah that's about right (HT: Evangelical Outpost).

Maybe I should get back to work...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Quote - Laurence Stookey

Laurence Stookey:

That the very Anointed One of God should die and rise on behalf of us who willfully cried “Crucify!” is a thing at which we must marvel slowly, not something we glance at for an instant.
Have a blessed Holy Week!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

River Tam and Shepherd Book Discuss the Bible on Firefly

Yesterday’s post reminded me of a great scene from the short-lived but brilliant show, Firefly. Leave it to an atheist like Joss Whedon to explain my faith better than I can… what’s up with that?

"You don't fix the Bible... it fixes you."

Friday, March 14, 2008

The New Atheism as Inadequate Theodicy

I just discovered Ryan Dueck's excellent blog Rumblings, and an article he wrote on "The New Atheism as Inadequate Theodicy". It's a bit long, but worth reading in full. Here's an excerpt:

The prominence of evil in the new atheism—evil attributed to God, his followers, and the hostile, indifferent planet he is claimed to have made—suggests that the issue is not, as it is often presented, “rational” atheism vs. “superstitious” religion. Rather, the issue is between rival theodicies. If religion is thought to be the root cause of much of the evil in the world, a worldview which urges its removal represents a kind of theodicy. Evil is identified as such, its causes are described, and a way forward is recommended. What is not provided is a plausible account of why human beings should have such a strong moral reaction to the nature of our environment in the first place.

The current instantiation of protest atheism, like similar kinds in the past, relies more heavily on the moral capital accumulated through several millennia of Christian influence than it cares to admit. As such, the theodicy offered by the new atheism, while demonstrating an admirable (even biblical!) degree of moral sensitivity, is, ultimately, inadequate.

Why I Am a Christian

For Carmen’s sake, here is a reworked version of a comment that appeared at the end of my last post:

If you compare the Bible with the myths of ancient Israel's neighbors, the differences are striking. Read Enuma Elish alongside Genesis 1; both describe creation in similar mytho-symbolic language, but the former is ridiculously elaborate and implies theological propositions that simply cannot be maintained, while the latter is simple and profound. Or read Gilgamesh alongside the biblical historical books; both include miracle stories, but while the first is dramatically exaggerated--turning its hero (the first king of Babylon) into a superhuman--the latter seem to go out of their way to emphasize the ordinariness of their heroes.

Though important, biblical miracle stories are surprisingly few and far between, compared to most ancient “histories” (including early non-biblical Jewish and Christian works). Further, the fact that so many embarrassing stories are retained in which central Jewish figures explicitly violate Jewish law, gives us good ground for placing higher epistemic value on these histories than those others.

There are problems with the text, to be sure (which is why I do not subscribe to plenary verbal inspiration), but they are too often exaggerated. Most supposed “contradictions” evaporate with a modicum of scrutiny, and few of those that remain have any impact on the central themes of the Bible.

The remarkable thing is not that there are scattered tensions, historical inaccuracies or exaggerations and unfalsifiable myths--the Bible was written in the language of the ancient world, after all--but that these diverse books, written over the course of at least 1000 years, present such a consistent and engaging historical and theological message at all. The Koran was written over a handful of decades by one man and can’t even get its theology, morality or history straight.

But all of that is window dressing. I don’t trust the Bible because its historical claims are beyond dispute (they aren’t) or because it contains no apparent errors (it does); I trust it because its consistent teachings about human nature and what it takes to live in community, the kind of world that we live in, the kind of God we have access to, and much more, are logically coherent and continually confirmed by my daily experience.

When the Bible says humanity is inherently prone to sin I don’t have to accept that on faith, I can see it for myself every day (it’s the modern claim that “humanity is basically good” that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny). When the Bible says there is healing and freedom in Christ, I don’t have to accept that blindly, I have experienced it myself and know many others who have as well. Ultimately, I trust this book above all others because I find that the harder I work to live in line with its teachings, the better a person I become and the more of God I experience. I would not be the person I am today if it were not for the Bible.

And what of the other religions? I have no reason to deny that they also express a great many truths as well, and I am happy to affirm them when they do. I don’t see any particular reason to claim that only Christians have ever experienced real miracles or revelation, even if not all such claims can be trusted. I don’t even have any a priori reason to deny that other gods exist or that my God has spoken to others (though since I trust the Bible, I must affirm that any such “gods” are secondary beings).

But I also see many aspects of the history and theology of other religions (and sometimes, other Christians) that are not consistent with my experience, or are down right incoherent (some of which I mentioned in a previous comment). Thus, I have no problem at all rejecting such claims where I see them. I don’t embrace “my particular brand” of Christianity because I think everyone else is wrong, but because it is as close to right as I have yet discovered.

But most importantly, I embrace Christianity over all other religions because the central claim of Christianity--God on a cross--makes all other religious claims pale in comparison. If the creator of the universe truly did take human form and die to bring us life, then nothing else could possibly be more important.

Some might object that such a claim is unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless, but that is where I must part ways with them. God on a cross might be unfalsifiable, but it is not meaningless. Rather, it is the most meaningful thing that has ever happened. In his definitive study on the subject, The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann insists that the cross is the beginning and end of all Christian theology, yet itself resists all interpretation: The cross is how I know that God is good, how I know what true humanity is, how I know what it means to live fully, how I know that the universe has not yet arrived at its eschatological goal, and how I know that one day it will. Some of these truths are open to a degree of falsification, others are not, but I have found that reality as a whole makes the most sense when viewed from the vantage point of the cross. That is why I am a Christian.

As someone once put it: “I believe in the cross as I believe in the sun; not because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

God and the Logical Positivists

In a comment on my last post, Drew noted that debates over the existence of God ultimately come down to a question of what qualifies as satisfying evidence. Here is a post I wrote on the subject for Signs of the Times in 2006:

Doctor(logic) has been arguing that statements must be empirically verifiable to be meaningful, and “total undetectability” is indistinguishable from non-existence (e.g. here and here). He thinks this logical positivism implies that metaphysics is an exercise in futility, and claims such as “God exists” are ultimately meaningless.

Doctor(logic) is a clear thinker who has earned my respect, but I see at least two good reasons to reject this claim and accept that some things that almost certainly exist could be, or indeed must be undetectable. Non-verifiability does not equal non-existence nor make a proposition meaningless.

First, he ignores the very real limitations imposed by our finite embodiment. There are things that are true about our physical universe that are simply not verifiable, even theoretically. For instance, due to the finite speed of light, we simply cannot know what is currently happening in distant parts of the universe. When we look at a galaxy that exists light years away, we are actually seeing what it was like long ago, which would be quite different from what it is like now. No matter how long we wait, we will always be seeing such a galaxy as it was in the past. Nor could we travel there without a great deal of time passing (even if it didn’t feel like it).

There is simply no way we can verify what is currently happening in the distant universe (by “we” I mean myself and any other embodied person with whom I could theoretically have contact). Yet surely this does not mean that the distant universe does not exist, or that statements of fact about it (for instance, how many planets and stars currently exist in galaxy X) are meaningless. Our finitude limits what we can verify; it does not limit what can exist.

Second, he ignores the limitations created by personal agents with (at least the appearance of) free will. If such beings exist (I’m not sure if he thinks we qualify or not), then their actions might be consistent and meaningful, while only inconsistently verifiable from a given frame of reference. What I mean is best illustrated with a thought experiment: Imagine some sort of accident secured you to one place so that moving from that spot became impossible. Such immobility would put your interaction with other people entirely in their hands. If they chose to come and visit you, take your calls, provide you a computer, etc –- you would have access to them. But if they instead chose not to visit, took your phone and computer away and boarded up your door –- you would no have access to them at all, no matter how hard you tried.

Due to the limitations of your vantage point, your ability to detect or verify the existence or activities of your fellow human beings would be inconsistent (and in some cases, impossible), even if those actions themselves were consistent (morally, or socially, for instance). One day, your friends might spend hours and hours with you, providing ample opportunity for you to interact with them. Another day they might not come by at all. One day they might take your calls immediately. Another day they might not answer you in any way (for whatever reason). Some things they might do right in front of you for you to see. Other things they might only do elsewhere, and you could only know about them second-hand. Yet surely the existence of your friends would not hinge upon your own ability to verify or detect their actions at will. Would not their occasional interaction be evidence enough, even if there was no possible experiment you could perform to confirm their existence when they chose not to be available?

Now if that is true of a person trapped in one place, is it not also true of the other limitations imposed by our embodiment? The speed of light is a barrier we humans (probably) cannot cross, but if beings existed that were not so constrained, they could interact with us at will, even while we could not do the same with them. Our ability to verify and detect their existence would be entirely dependent upon their choice. If at a particular time and place they were not disposed to submit to our tests, nothing we did could verify their existence, even though at other times they might make themselves as obvious to us as we could ever wish.

Of course, doctor(logic) is correct that it would be foolish to simply assume (without evidence) that such beings exist. But it seems far from clear that the meaning of such claims must depend on our ability to verify them at will. Such beings could be real and have a real impact on our world without our possessing the ability to test for their existence at all times or places. Thus, I have a question for doctor(logic): Given that a great many people throughout history have claimed that such beings have taken the initiative to contact us, how much evidence of occasional interaction would be necessary for a logical positivist to accept the existence of such beings?

Doctor(logic) responded in the comments and the exchange that followed is well worth reading.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"We're All Atheists"

In a recent post, Bill Vallicella (The Maverick Philosopher) ably dismantles the “we’re all atheists” canard which has become increasingly common recently. He cites Christopher Hitchens (author of God Is Not Great), from a debate with Shmuley Boteach:

“We’re all atheists,” Hitchens argued in his dry British timbre. “We no longer believe we need to tear the beating heart out of a virgin to make the sun rise. We no longer believe in the sun god Ra or in Zeus, and we now must go one step further.”
Vallicella notes the absurdity of this argument by offering a parallel: we all reject certain older scientific propositions – that the sun orbits the earth, that light needs a medium to travel (the ether), etc. By Hitchens’ reasoning, it would be logical to go the next step and reject all scientific propositions:
What people like [Hitchens and] Daniel Dennett, another key Dawkins Gang member, cannot get through their heads is that religion might be subject to development and refinement just as science is. Such people cannot understand development of the God concept as anything different from deformation. They think, quite stupidly, that the crudest anthropomorphic conceptions are those with which religion must remain saddled. But they would never say something similar with respect to science. Why the double standard?

Vallicella is of course correct. The problem is that the “new atheists” seem to accept the fundamentalist claim that religion is only authentic if it falls from heaven fully formed. They look at the obvious developmental nature of religion and seem to think this proves it’s all bunk. Yet this is the very thing they praise about science! If the history of religion evidences a willingness to modify old views in light of new evidence or further reflection, is that not a good thing?

Even more basically, what folks like Hitchens seem to miss is that this denial of polytheism can itself be seen as an inference from Christian experience and theological reflection. We Christians have abandoned humanity's polytheistic roots precisely because we have accepted God's continued revelation. We have rejected those old attempts to manipulate him through human sacrifice precisely because we have accepted a more developed view of God's sovereignty and the value he places on human life.

The Christian denial of paganism is not based on some independent standard we share with atheists and apply to other gods but, inconsistently, fail to apply to our own. We deny the existence of other gods precisely because we accept the Christian story. It is not inconsistent for a monotheist to deny polytheism; it would be inconsistent to do otherwise.

Levenson on the Bible as Story

Jon Levenson, writing in an excellent little book called Sinai and Zion:

[T]hose who come to the Hebrew Bible in hopes of finding a philosophical system flowing smoothly from a theorem will be disappointed. The religion of Israel was not a philosophical system; it had no such theorem. To be sure, every religion is the heritage of a particular community with a history of its own, and this element of history introduces a factor that frustrates the philosophical impulse in every religion. But in the relgion of the Hebrew Bible, the philosophical impulse, if it exists at all, is stunted....

Israel began to infer and to affirm her identity by telling a story. To be sure, the story has implications that can be stated as propositions. For example, the intended implication of the historical prologue [to the Sinai covenant] is that YHWH is faithful, that Israel can rely on God as a vassal must rely upon his suzerain*. But Israel does not begin with a statement that YHWH is faithful; she infers it from a story. And unlike the statement, the story is not universal. (pg. 39)

*see here for an explanation of "vassal" and "suzerain." YHWH is the covenant name of God, which Jews (like Levenson) do not pronounce.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Beliefnet Interview on the Religion in BSG

I just discovered this interview with Ron Moore (producer of Battlestar Galactica) on the religious component to the show (HT: Greenflame). If you're a fan, the whole thing is worth reading; here's an excerpt:

Do your own religious views shape the story lines?

I'm an Irish Catholic, not practicing. It probably just reflects my interest in my movement from Catholicism to atheism to agnosticism to interest in Eastern religions. I think the show is a reflection of my acknowledgement that faith and religion are a part of the human experience, even if I'm not quite clear on exactly what it all means and what I truly believe. The most direct reflection of me in the show is this idea that when the Cylons became self-aware, when they became sentient, when they became people, they began to ask themselves the existential questions: "Why am I here? What is this all about? Is this all that I am? Is there something more?"

My view is that that's fundamental to a thinking person. And that inevitably leads you to questions of faith and religion and "what will happen to me when I die?"

Funny how he still calls himself a non-practicing Catholic, even when he has since moved "to atheism to agnosticism to interest in Eastern religions...."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Confess Your Sins...

Charlie at AnotherThink has written an excellent post on Christian "hypocrisy" and the importance of confession:

Walk into almost any Christian congregation in America and you'll find kind, smiling people, well-dressed and freshly-scrubbed. You'll discover families holding hands, beautiful babies cooing and gurgling, fluffy puppies frolicking in the aisles, giggling children and the bluebird of happiness blowing kisses of good cheer to all.

Ok, so I lied about the puppies; you get the picture.

Back home, the scene can be sadly different. Husbands and wives don't speak to each other — or worse, only communicate in the cruelest of ways. Children rebel against parental authority and are sucked into all the risky adventures our drug- and sex-crazed world can dream up. We pretend everything is fine; inside we live in pain....

What would happen if we took off our masks and talked about the things we're ashamed of, the things that make us weep in the darkness, the things that have power over us? Not in front of the whole church, but in a private conversation with someone we can trust?

We pray to be healed from disease. We pray for protection when we travel. How often do we go to someone we've hurt, apologize and ask for forgiveness? How often do we admit that some compulsion, some addiction, some temptation has grabbed us and shaken us senseless? And if we did, would we be treated with compassion or condemnation?

Catholics are much better about this that we Protestants (though confession can become a mere formality for them as well), and we have a lot to learn from them. The trouble, as noted in the comments, is not just that we don't often confess our sins to one another (at least not the ones that really need to be confessed), but that we too often lack the compassion and humility to respond appropriately when people do admit their darkest secrets. God have mercy.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Battlestar Galactica

To balance out yesterday's rant, here’s another repost from the defunct Situation Critical, first written before season two aired (I’ve reworked it somewhat):

Battlestar Galactica (produced by Ron Moore and David Eick) is what television should be – thought provoking, edgy, true to life where it counts but fueled by a fertile imagination and a talented cast and crew. This is a show that unflinchingly confronts some the toughest moral dilemmas in a way that is hugely entertaining, defies pat answers, and leaves an important place for the sacred and the spiritual.

The story centers on a rag-tag group of refugees from a Terminator-esk apocalypse at the hands of their robotic creations, the Cylons. Of twelve colonized worlds, less than 50,000 survivors have formed a small fleet of civilian vessels guarded by the sole remaining human warship (that they know of), the Battlestar Galactica. The Galactica herself is an aging cruiser that had been slated for decommission and only survived because it lacked the advanced electrical systems that were the primary target of the Cylon attack. On the run and short on supplies, this band of humans led by Galactica’s Captain William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Secretary-of-Education-turned-President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) are in search of the mythical planet Earth. Desperate to hold on to some semblance of civilization but unsure if they can even trust one another, the last remnant of the human race (in that part of the galaxy at least) struggles to survive without losing their humanity.

Beginning with a 2003 miniseries, this “re-imaging” of the 1978 ABC space opera is quite unlike anything else on television. Despite its outlandish premise, this is a show brimming over with characters and stories that are true to life. There are no cut and dried divisions between “good guys” and “bad guys,” no cookie-cutter story-lines or simple solutions to difficult problems. Instead, we are faced with realistic, complex, imperfect people forced into an impossible situation, struggling to do the best they can. In the words of Ron Moore, this show, “dare[s] us to invest ourselves in flawed characters who face ambiguous choices in an imperfect world.”

Galactica also maintains a high view of organized religion that is almost unknown in contemporary television, especially science fiction (a notable but short-lived exception was Firefly). Even better, this is a show that allows not just a vague human “spirituality” in the tame Hollywood sense, but a truly active role for the divine: A priestess known as Elosha (Lorena Gale) is given a positive and recurring role as an advisor to President Roslin, and is sometimes called upon for prayer and religious ceremony. Roslin herself experiences prophetic visions and, on more than one occasion, risks the future survival of the fleet on her faith in these visions and the teaching of certain sacred scriptures. A working downed spacecraft is discovered just after a character offers a desperate but skeptical prayer for aid. A split-second “guess” is (apparently) used by God to secure fuel for the fleet. Such events occur both for the polytheistic colonists and the atheist-turned-monotheist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). What kind of a theology that presupposes is an open question, but that such things are even granted possibility is a vast improvement over the secular humanism that dominates so much of television.

Battlestar Galactica is by no means a Christian show. It is not for children nor the faint of heart. It explores adult themes, including wartime violence, torture and sexual promiscuity, in a style that draws more inspiration from Black Hawk Down than Star Trek. It maintains a deep belief in moral truth, but an unflinching honesty about the struggles and ambiguities real people face in the struggle to survive. The theology is certainly not Christian, not even allegorically. The original series was marked by strong allusions to Mormonism, and while this re-imaging has avoided that connection, its theology has at least as much in common with ancient Greek myth as with traditional Christianity. But that’s OK, because this is not a show that asks to be accepted unthinkingly, but one to be chewed on and debated.

Writing on the politics of the show, Ron Moore stated that the point is “to raise questions in the minds of the audience, and make them think.” Questions like: Is it ever justifiable to sacrifice some lives for the sake of others? Is lying to and torturing a known spy acceptable if it might save thousands? Is political intrigue warranted if it is necessary to prevent a charismatic terrorist from taking office? Does a positive result justify the questionable risks accepted to achieve it? And is the survival of the human race even worth the trouble if we must abandon everything that makes us human to accomplish it? You will find no easy answers to these questions here, nor will you find characters who always choose correctly, but you will be forced to consider all of them and more. There are no pious platitudes and this is no morality play, but it is a powerful human drama that presents a realistic (though fictional) theistic worldview through a great script, some fantastic acting, and feature-film quality special effects.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Dark Side of Sci-Fi

The following is an modifed version of the very first post I ever wrote, originally submitted to the old Crux Project blog Situation Critical (no longer available online). This is admittedly one-sided, so please read John's piece for the other side of the coin:

John Colman has written an excellent post defending science fiction’s ability to ask deep questions and point us toward the supernatural. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Ever since I was a kid watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad, I too have loved science fiction. Besides the positive aspects he mentions, I also love the adventure, the dream of exploring the unknown and fighting wicked villains. But most of all, I love the camaraderie that so often characterizes these stories--a tight-knit group of friends facing the future together, come what may!

But our favorite genre also has a dark side that John neglected to discuss. The more I watch these shows, the more I realize just how many of them fairly drip with naturalistic philosophy. Indeed, much of the sci-fi genre is based on thoroughly materialistic presuppositions. And while a lot of mainstream television and film shares these assumptions, sci-fi is uniquely suited to showcase them in that it expresses, more than any other genre, the hopes and fears of a society.

Consider the Star Trek universe, for instance: Here is depicted a future when humanity will finally see past its differences and live in peace and harmony. Of course, there is still war and violence, but not generally among humans or the United Federation of Planets. If every worldview must tell us who we are, what’s wrong, and what's the solution, then Star Trek tells us we are the product of evolution on one of many planets that have evolved life--not the least advanced, but certainly not the most either. What’s wrong with the universe is not human rebellion against her creator, but interspecies strife among the various races in our galaxy. The solution? Not the final victory of God, but the victory of the Federation against all who oppose peace in the universe--whether they be Klingons, Romulans, or the Borg.

Or take another favorite of mine: Stargate SG-1. Where Star Trek generally ignored religion, Stargate tried to reinvent it in light of modern science. The ancient gods were really just powerful aliens who visited earth throughout our history--some, like the Goa’uld, in hopes of enslaving us, others, like the Asgard, to bless and protect us. In this universe, science is king, and God has no real place. Humanity is a fledgling species, teetering on the brink of either a major evolutionary step forward or complete destruction by our own or some malicious alien’s actions.

Just consider the one episode in the show’s ten-season run which included the word “God” in its title ("There But For the Grace of God," Episode 119): Through a “Quantum Mirror” we are taken to an alternate earth (one of the infinite universes that exist alongside ours, we are told) where things have not worked out so fortuitously--earth has been invaded by the Goa’uld Apophis and faces slavery to a false god. In the end, this alternate earth is saved by the intervention of another alien, the Asgard Thor (note the Egyptian and Norse mythology lying behind their names), but it is clear that “the Grace of God” had nothing to do with it. The show does admirably remind us that we cannot save ourselves, but when God is barred from that role, an alien or superhuman is forced to take his place.

For, in the end, shows like Stargate teach that our universe could just as well be overrun with evil as saved by good. Indeed, the fact that there are an infinite number of universes means that an infinite number have been overrun by evil, and there is no good reason why ours shouldn’t be one of them. For sci-fi is not without its pessimists.

Where the ancient Jewish apocalyptic writers maintained an unwavering faith that even their darkest dreams of worldwide catastrophe would be tempered God’s grace, today’s secular futurists have no such assurances. Whether we are threatened with destruction by our own technology (as in Terminator), an alien race (as in Independence Day), or a killer virus (as in Resident Evil), there are no guarantees that human life will survive. Only God could promise that, but he is too often dismissed as a figment of our imaginations, a relic of bygone days when primitive men still believed in a universe controlled by spirits. Now, apart from alien intervention, we must trust our own resources to overcome such dangers and charge ahead to a glorious future, unless of course this is one of those universes that ends badly. I’ll have to watch next week to find out.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"All My Tears"

If I died today, I’d want this played at my funeral - preferably, loud enough to wake the dead (figuratively speaking of course):

So weep not for me my friends,
When my time below does end,
For my life belongs to him,
Who will raise the dead again.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Biblical Studies Carnival

It seems someone submitted the recent inclusivism "bloggersation" (or is it "blogologue"?) to this month's Biblical Studies Carnival. Thanks to Kevin Wilson at Blue Cord for hosting!

DUNE - The Dark Side of Hope and Sacrifice

This week I picked up a used copy of Frank Herbert’s classic novel DUNE for 50 cents at a library sale. I hadn’t read the book – first in an epic science fiction trilogy – since Junior High, and it quickly sucked me in. It’s set in the far future, when humans have scattered across the universe and are ruled by a new aristocracy. Great Houses govern billions across numerous worlds, war amongst themselves, and live in fear of the Emperor’s cruel army of Sardaukar.

The story centers on a boy named Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, whose noble family has ruled on the paradise world of Caladan, but is now forced to move to a desert world called Arrakis, or Dune. Arrakis is a brutal and seemingly desolate planet, but it is vital to the empire as the only source of the mind-altering “spice” melange. Consumption of this spice can grant a person extended perception, even glimpses of the future. Such prescience is valued for many reasons, but especially because it enables faster than light space travel (how it does so is never explained, but such is tangential to the story anyway).

DUNE is an engaging science fiction adventure filled with political intrigue, betrayal, murder and war as the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen seeks to destroy the Atreides, and nearly succeeds. Vastly outnumbered by Harkonnen troops backed by disguised Sardaukar, the Duke and most of his people are killed, while only Paul and a handful of others escape into the desert. Taking up with the natives of Arrakis (a fierce people known as Fremen), Paul and his mother plot to restore their House and, if possible, revenge themselves on the Harkonnens, but quickly find themselves in the midst of a religious crusade.

The story is imaginative and richly detailed – Arthur C. Clark considered the depth of its world and characters as comparable only to Lord of the Rings – but what truly sets it apart is its religious component. DUNE is, at heart, an exploration of the nature of religion. Jessica is a member of the secretive Bene Gesserit Order whose power extends all the way to the Emperor himself. For thousands of years, this religious enclave has been sending missionaries to plant “prophecies” amongst the populations of human worlds, preparing the way for a Messiah, a Kwisatz Haderach who would bridge both time and space, and through whom they might control the universe. In pursuit of this goal, the Bene Gesserit have pursued an aggressive breeding program, carefully guiding specific genetic lines – Atreides and Harkonnen included – to produce their Savior.

The Fremen too have been touched by these missionaries, inculcated with prophecies of a Messiah who would transform their desert into paradise. But not even the Bene Gesserit could anticipate how closely Paul’s coming would match their prophecies, yet how thoroughly he could upend their hopes. Paul is the Kwisatz Haderach, but he will not be controlled by the Bene Gesserit; indeed, he’s not even sure he can control his own destiny. As he rises to prominence amongst the Fremen, he is tormented by visions of wild jihad, and seems unable to avoid such a future. In the end, DUNE becomes a story not so much of betrayal and restoration, but of the potential and danger of mounting religious fervor.

I find it interesting comparing my reactions to the book now with those when I read it as a teenager. Back in my fundamentalist days, Paul was the clear hero – a true Christ figure facing and defeating the wicked Harkonens. The only thing I recall disliking about the book was the fact that polygamy was considered acceptable by the central characters. In fact, I was so put off by this that I never bothered reading the rest of the trilogy. Reading the book now, I find the Harkonnens just as evil as I remember, but Paul appears a much more ambiguous figure. Noble at heart, he steadily succumbs to his “terrible purpose,” regaining his former position (and more) only at great cost. He may be the Fremen Messiah, but he seems to have lost an important part of his humanity in becoming so.

Thus, DUNE is a tale of fulfilled prophecy, with echoes of the Christian story, but it also explores the dark side of faith – religious extremism and violence, and the way these things can both unite and divide a community. I have often written about hope and sacrifice, but DUNE presents a new side of those realities. Here we see what can happen when hope for a better future becomes a justification for evil in the present, and how a would-be savior can sacrifice more than just himself for a dubious cause. Perhaps its time I finally finish Herbert’s trilogy.