Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How to Deal with New Atheists


By now you’ve probably heard of the “new atheists” – people who don’t stop at not believing in God but also want to stop you from believing. They equate theism with alchemy and flat earthers and, more, raising children in a religion with child abuse. They’re also smug, nasty, and generally abusive of Christians.

Being who we are, Christians have started to formulate answers to their attacks, some more logical and some more experiential.

I think in the short term the postmodern approach might be an effective way to deal with the “new atheists.” Consider these two responses:

It’s not true that Christianity/religion is evil. A lot of great things have been done in the name of Christianity/religion, and a lot of evil was done in the name of secularism. Besides, it’s too incredible to believe that the universe and life arose from nothing; a creator is necessary.

Who do you think you are to tell us what we should believe? What makes you so special? Oh, you have a degree? Well, I guess you’re smarter than us, so you can tell us what to think. Nazi.

Which has more power in our culture? I see this as analogous to Paul turning the Pharisees against the priests and Stoics against the Epicureans. We can and should take advantage of the climate of our culture.

Part of this battle is going to be a media battle for the hearts and minds of the marginal, cultural believers. Don’t get me wrong, I want their souls, not just their minds, but given that some in this battle want to see Sunday school outlawed, we need to worry about votes. In that respect, I think the postmodern approach might keep the militant atheists from getting a foot in the door.

Update: Upon further reflection, I don't think my "postmodern" response is sufficiently postmodern (it's mostly just sarcastic, which has its uses too). The response of the typical postmodern to statements about a religion being true or false is not sarcasm so much as...

"Who are you to say that our religion is wrong?! We have every right to believe whatever we want to believe. Keep your close-minded ideas to yourself!"

The Nazi bit may still find it's way in there. Either way, my point is the same: In our culture, I'm don't a careful, reasoned response is going to be as effective as utilizing the reflexive rejection of any kind of absolute in religion that is generally used against Christian evangelism. The goal is not to "defeat" the new atheists as much as it is to keep policy makers from giving their more extreme ideas a hearing.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Pagan Virgin Births

Pagan parallels
Skeptics will sometimes claim that the existence of virgin birth stories in ancient pagan religions shows that Jesus’ virgin birth was fabricated by the early Christians.

There were apparently virgin birth stories for a number of figures in pagan religions and also some prominent historical figures. It may have been a mark of your importance, or maybe it was just a cool was to start a biography. At any rate, the stories were out there. Does that necessarily mean that Christ’s virgin birth was fictitious?

Is a virgin birth possible?
If you start with the idea of a God who can create a universe from scratch no other miracle is impossible. Can a virgin get pregnant naturally? No. Can God supply the necessary missing genetic material to create a baby? Of course. He made Adam’s DNA from scratch, so making half of Jesus’ shouldn’t be any trouble. (Actually, from the wording of the text, I wonder if Mary’s DNA was used at all. A question for another time.)

Why doubt?
If a virgin birth is at least theoretically possible, is there any reason to doubt the claim that Jesus was conceived without the help of a human male? If you remove the anti-supernatural bias, I can see no reason we shouldn't believe the story, especially given how many other miraculous things occurred in Christ's life.

Why the pagan parallels?
Some have suggested that the ancient religions around Jesus’ time whetted the appetite for the gospel. I wonder if this might be a similar situation.

Instead of asking why Christ had to have a virgin birth, perhaps we should ask why the pagans had them. Could they have been there so that the pagans would see virgin births as pointing to someone important, someone worth listening to?* It’s worth thinking about.

* A careful, reasoned apologetic this is not. It's really just an interesting idea to consider. Maybe someone will be able to develop it some day.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

On Reading: Thoughts and Lists

One of my goals for myself is to read lots of good books that will teach me to think clearly and to better understand and defend the Christian faith. One of my goals for this site is to get you to do the same thing.

To that end I’ve collected some interesting posts on the topic of reading broadly and deeply.

Al Mohler offers Some Thoughts on the Reading of Books (HT: Challies) Please read the whole post, but here are his basic suggestions:

1. Maintain regular reading projects.
2. Work through major sections of Scripture.
3. Read all the titles written by some authors.
4. Get some big sets and read them through.
5. Allow yourself some fun reading, and learn how to enjoy reading by reading enjoyable books.
6. Write in your books; mark them up and make them yours.
This is how I am approaching this:
1. I can’t devote the time to reading he does, but I do have a project I’m working on. Currently I’m studying the so-called problem of evil. I’m also studying how authors have transmitted their ideas through fiction.

2. I’m not good about this kind of thing, but right now I am doing a study of 1 John.

3. This I really hadn’t planned on doing, but he’s convinced me: I plan on reading all of C.S. Lewis’ works that I can. I’ll probably do Francis Schaeffer too.

4. Well, Schaeffer probably counts. I’d also like to read through the Works of Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, and the Ante-Nicene fathers, among others.

5. Ok, this I do readily.

6. I’ve only recently started doing this, but it helps, especially when engaging in careful study (like the problem of evil). Here Adler’s suggestions for marking books have been reproduced for us.

What about you? Is there any of this you're already doing or plan to start? Let us know in the comments.

In Popular Christian Literature as a Reflection of an Intellectual Crisis, the author says most of the Christian bestsellers are the literary equivalent of, well, television. “It dumbs you down, is easy to get through, entertains you, and makes you feel good. The only lasting benefit is that it perhaps can improve your vocabulary.” The comments are worth reading as well.

Tony at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook shares his notes on Mark Dever’s reading plan: each month is devoted to a different author in an annual cycle. It’s an interesting approach you might want to consider.

Tony also quotes C.S. Lewis’ argument for reading old books – it helps us see our own generation’s blind spots.

Here Tony shares his thoughts on learning to read and critical thinking.

Greg Peters: Why We Should Read Lesser-Known Books:

Greg Koukl: How to Read Less More and Twice as Fast

Here I’m going to link to a lot of reading lists. No one, least of all me, expects anyone to read all these books. But in an age when there is lots to read and little time to do it, we can sometimes spend a lot of time reading junk. How do we find the good stuff? Ask around. Friends, pastors, professors, and bloggers can tell you what they’ve found profitable. (I also check Amazon reviews, but they’re only worth so much.) Here are lists of books that informed Christians have found useful and think will be profitable for you. This may also be useful for gift ideas. Enjoy!

First, Scot McKnight on deciding What to Buy

Stand to Reason's Recommended Reading List
John Mark Reynolds' 30 Books Every College Student Should Read
Tullian Tchividjian's 20 Books on Christians and Culture
RC Sproul's recommendations
The theology bundles at Monergism
Discerning Reader offers book recommendations by a number of learned folks and Challies gives us his 2007 recommendations
Justin Taylor's recommendations on natural law and writing/publishing
Al Mohler recommends 10 Great Christian Biographies
James Emery White has reading lists on a number of topics

If by any chance you still need ideas, these books have some pretty extensive reading lists:
Love Your God With All Your Mind
The Portable Seminary
The Case for Christ (and his other "Case" books)
Discipleship of the Mind
A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Golden Compass

What’s the hubbub about?
The Golden Compass is the first movie to come out of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The books have been described as the anti-Narnia, and, until recently, the author seemed pretty open about the fact that they’re intended to promote atheism. The trilogy is essentially about two children killing God (who turns out not to be a god at all but a deceiver). In the process it allegedly casts religion in general and Christianity specifically in the worst possible light. For some reason people have a problem with this.

The first book is not terribly anti-religious, and the movie apparently is even less so, but the goal of the first movie is obviously to make a second movie, and the movie will likely drive millions of children to read the other two books long before another movie could be made.

What’s the story about?
I’ve recently completed the first book of the trilogy, and I have to say it’s a well-written page turner with interesting (though not always likable) characters. Like any good fantasy story, the world in which the story takes place is as interesting as the story itself, which means that this material is the literary equivalent of crack cocaine.

The story introduces us to Lyra, a girl who’s part orphan and part queen. She’s clever, fearless, and a little too mouthy, and she clearly thinks the world exists to entertain her. Unfortunately, in short order her life is turned upside down as her friend is kidnapped by an organization that turns out to be sponsored by the church. (At this point I’m not entirely sure if it’s Roman Catholic or Protestant – Pope John Calvin’s moving the Vatican to Geneva kind of threw me off.)

Soon she is sent to live with a strange, powerful woman whom she learns is the head of the kidnappers. Lyra also finds out that her father has been imprisoned and sets out to free him and take him the “golden compass” (alethiometer in the books). Along the way she makes some interesting friends (including the talking bear you’ve seen in the commercials), frees the kidnapped children, facilitates a revolution, and journeys to another world. Not bad for a girl who’s not quite twelve.

What should we do about it?
It’s an interesting story that is clearly designed to pull readers in and make them receptive to the author’s message which is, at minimum, a deep distrust of organized religion and is probably full blown atheism. I think many people underestimate how messages in books and movies can affect us, and that’s why complaints about things like this can attract such negative remarks from the general public.

Well, tough. These books pose a clear danger to our young skulls full of mush, and I advise making sure your kids avoid them.

We can’t keep people from buying books, but we can possibly keep the next movies from being made. The key is to keep box office receipts low. If this movie doesn’t make enough money, the other movies won’t be made.

How do we affect receipts? 1) Don’t picket or raise any other kind of ruckus. Attracting attention to these things only makes people curious to see what the trouble’s about. Plus it makes Christians look silly.

2) Don’t see this movie. Do see another movie. Any other movie. This weekend. If you don’t have time to go see a movie, buy a ticket to one you don’t mind supporting. (Yes, I know how much movies cost. Sometimes we have to sacrifice for the greater good.)

Some movies that Focus on the Family seems to think are alright: Bella, Enchanted, and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Honestly, though, I think it would be better to see (or at least pay for) just about anything else as long as it’s not The Golden Compass.

Christians in America are prone to watching the same movies, reading the same books, and visiting the same places as everyone else. It doesn't have to be that way, and in this case, it shouldn't be. There are a lot of Christians in this country, and if they all decide not to see this film, there won't be a sequel. We can make a stand just by going to see a different movie. I strongly encourage you to take your significant other to a movie this weekend. Just not this one.

Al Mohler has an insightful piece on this movie and the books. (HT: Justin Taylor)
The Thinking Christian has also written quite a bit about this.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

God in a Manger

As we approach the annual climax of American materialism, it would be good for us to look more closely at "the reason for the season." Most Americans have at least a basic understanding of the events of Christmas morning. We all know how Mary and Joseph ended up in Bethlehem, and we know all about the angels, shepherds, and wise men, but we don't think too much about the baby – what it was like for Him or His life before that manger.

Isaiah wrote: "In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted .... Above him were seraphsa ... and they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”1

Before Bethlehem, Jesus spent his time surrounded by the adoration He was due, but "though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, ... becoming like men."2 Jesus gave up the glory of God and entered this world – His birth attended by livestock instead of angels.

When He stepped into our world, the God who said, "every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills"3 was suddenly penniless. The maker of the universe grew up in a poor family4 to become a homeless5 wanderer dependent on the charity of others.6

When you see that little baby in the manger, remember that was God Almighty who gave up all that was rightfully His to become a poor, vulnerable human destined to be despised, ridiculed, tortured, and eventually killed.

It seems so incredible that Jesus gave up everything in exchange for what awaited Him here. What could have been that important to Him? The answer: us.

Jesus summed up his mission like this: "The Son of Man came to save what was lost."7

Isaiah went into a little more detail: "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, … and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”8

He went through all that "so grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life"9 which is "the gift of God ... in Christ Jesus."10 A gift offered freely to all – regardless of race, sex, or past – that is received simply by faith. Jesus said, "he who believes in Me [who adheres to, trusts in, relies on, and has faith in Me] has (now possesses) eternal life."11

For all He gave up, for all He went through, and for all He offers us we celebrate His birth.

Because of all this, that baby in the manger is called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."12

You may also be interested in Should We Celebrate Christmas? part 1 and part 2

a – a kind of angel

1 – Isaiah 6:1-3
2 – Phil 2:6-7 TLB
3 – Psalm 50:10
4 – Luke 2:24, c.f., Lev. 12:8
5 – Matt 8:20
6 – Luke 8:3
7 – Matt 18:11, c.f., Luke 19:10
8 – Is 53:4-6
9 – Rom 5:21
10 – Rom 6:23
11 – John 6:47 Amp
12 – Isaiah 9:6

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sheep Among Wolves

"Know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, the sheep of His pasture." (Psalm 100:3)
This sounds great until you pay attention to the word "sheep."

Don't get me wrong. It's great that we're His. And in the Bible sheep are clearly seen as very valuable and occasionally as more pet than livestock (there's a definite emotional attachment at times).

But sheep are also dumb. And they are completely dependent on a benevolent caretaker. When we embrace the image of Christ as our "shepherd," are we implicitly accepting this characterization? We really can't deny that this is a pretty good description of Christians.

There is one more way sheep are depicted in the Bible: they're useful. But it's not a warm, fuzzy usefulness. Sheep are sheered, they're eaten, and occasionally sacrificed.

We can't get away from this concept. "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves" (Matt 10:16). "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered" (Rom 8:36). Just as Christ was "led like a sheep to the slaughter," we may find our lives are required for the sake of the kingdom in one form or another.

Our good Shepherd will cherish us, provide for us, lead us, and protect us -- until it is time for us to be mistreated, beaten, maybe killed for His sake. But then, "A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master" (Matt 10:24).

We are the sheep of His pasture, and we should be glad to be -- proud to be -- His. But let's not forget exactly what it means to be His sheep.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Should We Celebrate Christmas? part 2

Last time we looked at an objection to celebrating Christmas: that it’s not a divinely ordained holiday. This time we’ll look at another: that it’s a “pagan” holiday.

The charge that Christmas is a pagan holiday stems from allegations that December 25 was a holiday for ancient pagan religions and that some of the elements of the modern Christmas celebration have pagan origins – such as the Christmas tree.

Origins or Parallels?
It is probably true that some elements of the Christmas celebration have pagan origins, though it may also be that the “origins” are really just parallels – that is, coincidental similarities. Others might be intentional borrowing for effect. For instance, it’s widely believed that December 25 was chosen precisely to parallel the ancient pagan holidays – it made the “holidays” easier on converts from paganism. (UPDATE: From Touchstone Magazine – The early Christians may well have thought Jesus was born that day.)

Do Pagans Use Cups?
Things that pagans use(d) in religious rituals are not necessarily evil. Did they use cups in their ceremonies? Probably – whether they contained water, wine, or something much more unholy. Does that mean Christians can’t use cups? Since Christ Himself gave us the use of a cup in the Lord’s Supper, probably not.

If that’s true, then we have to ask whether the pagan use of a date or a tree or anything else disqualifies it from Christian use.

Similarity to Pagan Things Isn’t Pagan
Things are neutral – “pagan” things aren’t pagan if they are devoted to God. The greatest example of this is the temple of Solomon. Although the basic floor plan of the worship area came from the tabernacle as decreed by God to Moses, the temple’s architecture was borrowed from Phoenician (that is, pagan) buildings of the same era, and so were many of the temple’s decorations.1

Did this bother God? Apparently not.

The fact that some people used these things in unholy ways did not render them unfit for the temple, so we shouldn’t think that the fact that some have used Christmas trees to worship Thor (or whatever it was) means that our use of Christmas trees offends God.

Reclaiming the Pagan
Lastly, I think there’s something to be said for taking things back for Christ. There is nothing made that Christ did not make. If there is a day or a tree or a symbol or anything else that has been used to honor demons, I think we should seize it for our Lord.

(1) see Old Testament TimesOld Testament Times or What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?What Did the Biblical Writers Know for more details

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Should We Celebrate Christmas? part 1

The time is here when folks’ thoughts turn to Christmas. Let’s start the season by asking whether our thoughts should turn to Christmas. At least once a year I see or hear someone say that Christians should not celebrate Christmas because the holiday was not created by God (unlike Passover, Yom Kippur, etc). Let’s address this question today.

First, where does the Bible say that we may only celebrate holidays that are ordained by God? I can think of no such place. The fact that God did ordain many festivals and holy days for the Israelites does not mean that they were only allowed to celebrate those days.

Which leads me to my second point: the Israelites did create new holidays of their own. The first was Purim in Ester 9:29-32. The Bible clearly does not say that God approved of this new holiday, but it also does not say that He didn’t. The text seems pretty neutral on the issue.

The second holiday the Jews created was Hanukah. This festival comes from the intertestamental period (1 Maccabees). This is only mentioned once in the Bible, and Jesus seems to be celebrating it (John 10:22-23). Even if He isn’t, there seems to be no negative treatment of the holiday.

Third, the New Testament does clearly say one thing about holidays: “do not let anyone judge you … with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col 2:16). I don’t think the apostle would say this is a big deal.

Finally, as Hank Hanegraaff likes to say, if you can’t celebrate Christmas, what can you celebrate? God gave up His glory in heaven to wrap Himself in human flesh – a sacrifice almost as great as the one at Calvary. It is absolutely appropriate to make a big deal out of that act of love and humility.

Next time we’ll look at the other big argument against celebrating Christmas: that it’s a pagan holiday.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

American Idols

Psalm 115: 3-6, 8
Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are ... made by the hands of men.
They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell;
Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
(Feed subscribers, you might need to click through to the blog to see the image.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Online shopping and blogger charity:
The Christmas shopping season is here, and many of you will buy gifts online. You can show your appreciation to your favorite bloggers by buying through their sites.

Almost every link to Amazon or any other seller on a blog is an affiliate link; the blogger would get a small commission from your purchase (probably a nickel a book). So if you like a blogger who has affiliate links to a site you like, consider buying through that blogger. (Generally, anything you buy once you click on the affiliate link counts; you don't have to buy the product that was displayed.)

If I am buying from Amazon, I go through For Westminster Books, I go through Challies. If you'd like to go through my Amazon links, feel free (see sidebar), but I'm not asking you to use mine; I'm suggesting you use someone's if you're going to shop online. It's a painless way you can show a blogger your appreciation.

Some apologetics links:
Jon has an interesting piece on the Flying Spaghetti Monster and summarizes the current state of the debate on intelligent design:

"1. Science, which (since around 1850) by definition only allows for completely natural causes in a closed system and therefore disregards the very idea of an Intelligent Designer a priori, finds no evidence for an Intelligent Designer.

2. Therefore, Intelligent Design is not science."

It's well worth reading the whole thing.

There's an interesting video briefly explaining the current theory of how the moon was formed. It's a neat video by itself. It's even better when you know how important the moon is to making the earth livable.

Suffice it to say that if there was no moon, hurricane force winds would be normal, the seasonal fluctuation would be devastating, and our atmosphere might be more like Venus' than we would find comfortable.

The formation of the moon via the method described above requires the collision to be very carefully balanced -- right size proto-earth, right size impactor, and very precise angle of impact. Some will not see design no matter what, but in this we are either ridiculously lucky or very blessed.

For more on this topic see Destiny or Chance: Our Solar System and its Place in the Cosmos or, if you can find it, a book called What If Earth Had No Moon?. (Both are written from a non-Christian perspective.)

Everybody have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Review: Apologetics Study Bible

I have a love-hate relationship with study Bibles. I hate having to buy a whole Bible just for the notes – it would be far better if they were a separate volume or, better, electronic.

Plus, there is a danger that people will mix up the Bible text and the study notes in their memories – meaning they will start to think the notes are part of the inspired text and anyone who disagrees with the note is a heretic. It can happen. (R.C. Sproul raised this issue some years back … before editing a study Bible.)

And, of course, there is the danger that people reading the notes will put more confidence in them than in a regular commentary because they’re “in the Bible.”

Finally, I hate having to spread all these study Bibles out on my desk (or, more likely, dining room table) to examine all the notes on a particular passage.

That said, there are some interesting study Bibles out there. A recent, useful addition to the genre is the new Apologetics Study Bible from Holman.

It combines apologetic marginal notes with short articles on a variety of topics (e.g., evolution, biblical genealogies, Mormonism, medicine, pluralism, and annihilationism), biographical blurbs (e.g., Anselm, Joseph Butler, and Pascal), “twisted scriptures,” and a number of useful charts. The contributors were a few dozen Christian thinkers including Ronald Nash, Walter Kaiser, Paul Copan, and J.P. Moreland.

The articles are generally very interesting, if brief, statements on some issue of import and debate in our society.

The notes aren’t always golden, but there is some great material – some apologetic and some simply explanatory – as well as some truly interesting nuggets of historical trivia. One example: Leviticus 12:1-5 – “Ancient Near Eastern polytheism, related to the cycles of nature, placed great emphasis on fertility; the Israelite regulations governing a new mother may represent a reaction to this emphasis.”

The Bible text is the Holman Christian Standard, which I had not previously read, but the translation philosophy seems to be similar to the NIV. The translation is occasionally surprising, but usually it reads pretty much like most modern translations.

I have not, obviously, read every word on every page of this study Bible yet, but what I’ve seen thus far, and the caliber of the contributors, makes me confident that this would be a worthwhile addition to your library.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Steroids and Other Christian Scandals

I saw this headline on Yahoo: “Florida Gators QB now in football record books.”

The first thought that formed, unbidden, in my mind: What do you think he’s on?*

Recent revelations of drug use by many professional athletes is beginning to affect all athletes. It’s an unfortunate aspect of human nature.

Given some recent revelations regarding high profile Christian pastors, it may soon get to the point where any pastor (maybe even Christian) will be greeted with an automatic “who do you think he’s sleeping with?”

We have to remember that if people know, or even suspect, we’re a Christian our behavior does not just reflect on us. It can affect how people see all Christians and even Christ. We are a lamp shining in the darkness. Everyone can see our light. If that light is darkness, how great is that darkness.

We all need the occasional reminder that people are watching us. Our “testimony” truly is more than just the words we say about Jesus. Everything we do and say has the potential to pull people toward or push them away from Christ.

No pressure.

* I am in no way implying that this young man has been using any kind of performance enhancing drugs. That, in fact, is the point.

Related posts:
Toddlers with Road Rage
Religious Bigotry and Christian Behavior
Hitler, You, and Me

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Ironies of the Cross

On that wretched day the soldiers mocked him
Raucous laughter in a barracks room
Hail the king they sneered while spitting on him
Brutal beatings on this day of doom
Though his crown was thorn, he was born a king
Holy brilliance bathed in bleeding loss
All the soldiers blind to this stunning theme
Jesus reigning from a bloody cross

Awful weakness marks the battered god-man
Far too broken now to heist the beam
Soldiers strip him bare and pound the nails in
Watch him hanging on the cruel tree
God’s own temple’s down he has been destroyed
Death’s remains are laid in rock and sod
But the temple rises in god’s wise ploy
Our great temple is the Son of God

Here’s the one who said he cares for others
One who said he came to save the lost
How can we believe he saves others
When he can’t get off that bloody cross
Let him save himself, let him come down now
Savage jeering at the king’s disgrace
But by hanging there is precisely how
Christ saves others as the king of grace

Draped in darkness utterly rejected
Crying why have you forsaken me
Jesus bore God’s wroth alone dejected
Wept the bitterest tears instead of me
And the mockers cried he has lost his trust
He is defeated by hypocrisy
But with faith’s resolve Jesus knows he must
Do God’s will and swallow death for me

The preceding poem is a transcript I made from a recording of an excellent D.A. Carson sermon called the Ironies of the Cross. (from a D.A. Carson sermon archive)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Links: Giving, Selling, Laughing

Please consider being part of the Light of the World campaign to send the weatherproof Outdoor Bible to troops overseas.

I recommend reading Selling Books in the Church by a deacon who runs the "bookstall" at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I've had my qualms about church bookstores, but he makes some great points. However, my qualms are only calmed to the extent what he says it true for a given bookstore, for example:

"Having books on hand allows a pastor to exercise discernment for the benefit of the congregation." I've been to church bookstores where the stuff on the shelf seems to have been chosen by someone who watches either too much TBN or too much CNN.

"We sell at cost." Marvelous! How many church bookstores do this though?

(HT: Challies)

Just for laughs: Dilbert vs Dogbert on evolution.

(HT: Evangelical Outpost)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Defining Evolution: Getting Terms Right

Recently I defined intelligent design (ID), said ID isn't science, and looked at the problem with naturalism. This post is loosely related to those.

As Jon has twice emphasized the importance of understanding our terms when discussing evolution, we really should ask: What does the word “evolution” mean? It can be kind of slippery.

1. Change over time
The most general and least controversial use of the word is simply to say that things change over time. Many things evolve: individual people evolve, languages evolve, recipes evolve. And yet this use will occasionally raise hackles.

2. Microevolution
When speaking about biological creatures, microevolution is those changes that occur within a species to emphasize certain traits. Breeding dogs until you have a particularly long-haired variety is microevolution. Drug resistance is another example – if an infection is not wiped out by a drug, the surviving pathogens will probably not be as strongly affected by the drug in the future.

3. Macroevolution
This is what most people mean when they say “evolution.” This is the gradual change of one species into another, sometimes referred to as descent with modification or speciation. This is that piece that is theorized but has never been observed in nature nor in the fossil record.

Why this is important: A special brand of equivocation
Getting our terms correct is important because evidence for one is often applied to another kind – specifically, evidence for microevolution is often passed off as evidence for macroevolution.

A couple of years ago I saw a Doonesbury cartoon that did this very thing with drug resistance. It uses the idea of being treated with ancient, and useless, drugs as a scare tactic to get people to accept evolution. The only problem with this is that “creationists” don’t have any issues with microevolution. It is speciation that we question.

Why do people mix things up like this? In my more charitable moments I attribute it to intellectual laziness. In my less charitable moments, I attribute it to dishonesty. I’m open to other interpretations if they’re offered, though.

Summing it up
This is post is not meant to be an argument against Darwinian evolution. My primary goal here is to make readers aware of the bait-and-switch that goes on with the word “evolution” and to help you guard against it. My secondary goal is to encourage any evolutionists who visit to be careful and clear in their terminology. The equivocation isn’t going to work much longer – more and more people are becoming aware of it. You’re going to have to argue your case with actual evidence of speciation if you want to get anywhere. If you decline, you’ll only make the creationist’s job easier. Which, of course, isn’t really a bad thing at all :-)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What’s wrong with naturalism?

Previously we defined intelligent design (ID) and asked whether ID is science. Today it seems prudent to examine naturalism a little more closely.

We have to be careful about this because naturalism is used in more than one way. In one sense, it is a philosophy. In another, it is a way of doing things.

What is methodological naturalism?
Modern science revolves around the scientific method which is essentially observe, test, interpret, and predict. The thing is, we really can only observe and test physical things, and since a big part of predicting is testing the predictions, predicting is limited to physical things too.

For example, you observe that falling objects seem to fall at a constant rate. Then you devise some tests to try to determine that rate. You run some experiments and look at your data forward, backward, and sideways, and then you make predictions about how other things should behave when they fall. Then you test your predictions and find that some things don’t behave as predicted, so you run more tests to try to refine your theory.

This is restricted to the physical realm because we have no way of measuring things in non-physical realms. We cannot detect mind or measure hope. We can tell that love affects the body, but we can’t say how much love causes the pupils to dilate to such a diameter.

Science can measure matter and energy. That’s it.

Methodological naturalism is not a problem. I cut my teeth on the scientific method. On those occasions when I get to do research, I use it today. Though there may be other ways to do scientific inquiry, I have no idea what they might be. Methodological naturalism is simply life in the sciences.

Methodological naturalism vs philosophical naturalism
Methodological naturalism says that science can only find material causes of a given event. Philosophical natural says there exists a material cause for any event. (I hope you can see the huge difference between those two statements.)

This seems a little hard to buy if you believe in minds, much less souls, but there are those who are convinced that “hope” is simply a chemical reaction in the brain, that “mind” is an illusion, and everything that happens can be reduced to physical causes and effects.

Philosophical naturalism is a huge honking problem.

From naturalistic methods to naturalistic worldviews (and students)
Naturalistic methods say we have certain tools at our disposal and we can follow our inquiry only as far as they will take us. These tools take us to the birth of the universe, for example, and stop.

The naturalistic philosophy comes in wherever the tools stop and says there is still a physical cause for whatever phenomena that have been observed. Adherents will then look for some way to explain via physical processes what physical tools cannot measure. The results can be rather bizarre.

A great example is the efforts to take the universe back beyond the big bang. Scientific methods tell us that the universe began at a singularity some finite time in the past. This makes naturalists go berserk because that leaves a lot of room for the supernatural, so they have offered a series of physical explanations that range from the untestable to the ludicrous. But they have to find a solution because, by their philosophy, one must exist.

The least unlikely “solution” will then become the dominant explanation for the phenomenon in question for the next generation or two. More importantly, though, this mindset – that a physical solution must exist – is passed on to the next generation as well.

Here’s the problem: naturalistic theories (especially those relating to the big questions of life) are used as evidence that there does not need to be, and therefore is not, a god.

It doesn’t matter that the theories regarding the origin of life are statistically impossible, nor does it matter that the theories regarding the origin of the universe are both philosophically and scientifically ridiculous. These theories exist and are supported by big names, and their support is required to advance in your field. Therefore the next generation will not only accept them, they will all too often accept that they preclude the existence of a creator.

Things go downhill from there.

Aside: The problem with ID
Here we should address one of the naturalists' complaints about ID and creationism. If we will accept “God did it” as the answer to an unanswerable question, we might accept it as the answer to an answerable question. ID, especially for Christians, should make scientists want to dig deeper to learn about God’s work, but it also might make people stop investigating prematurely.

I’m not sure how to answer this. It is a valid concern, and ID proponents need to formulate a response if they want to be given a hearing in the scientific community.

What to do about naturalism:
This has run way long, so let me quickly give some ideas about how we should respond to naturalism.

1 – Watch out for equivocation.
A common example in the ID debate is to say ID isn’t “science.” Science should mean “proper scientific inquiry,” but when it is used in this manner it almost always means “naturalism.” Be on the lookout for equivocation and be prepared to point it out noisily.

2 – Watch out for the switch from science to philosophy.
It is very common to hear scientists, philosophers, and educators jump from science to philosophy in one breath. For example, if someone expounds on the evidence for Darwinian evolution and then jumps to “undirected physical processes,” they have just made a philosophical statement. Point it out.

Especially if it’s at a school board meeting.

3 – Buy your kids the right kinds of books.
We can’t keep naturalism out of schools right now. So make sure your kids (and you) are equipped to withstand it in their own minds. I’m not advocating kids debating evolution in high school biology (I’m not opposing it either); I’m saying if you want your children to remain theists, you’ve got to oppose naturalism in their minds.

4 – Support Christians in science prayerfully, emotionally, and financially.

Those who go into science professionally are under spiritual warfare on one side and are often looked down upon from the other. It’s an emotionally draining battle to be in, and it’s often an expensive one (science rarely pays well and education is expensive). Look for ways to help the people in your church who are part of fighting the good fight.

Next time we're going to look specifically at some terminology used in debating evolution.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Shadows of the Cross in the Day of Atonement

Reflections on Leviticus

Earlier in Leviticus we saw various sacrifices for all kinds of infractions – there were fellowship offerings, burnt offerings, and sin offerings – and yet as we get to chapter 16 we find that there has to be yet another sacrifice. This is the Day of Atonement – the most holy day of the Jewish religious calendar.

After all the ceremonies and sacrifices the Israelites still had to have one more sacrifice for their sins. How thoroughly must sin stain to require so much to remove it?

Here I see some interesting parallels to the cross. The priest must first make atonement for his own sin – only one without sin can make atonement for the sins of the many.

The priest must burn incense so that the glory of God may be covered. During the atonement, darkness will replace the light.

As part of the ritual the priest sprinkles blood on the cover of the ark of the covenant. Underneath the cover of the ark is a copy of the ten commandments. As the glory of God hovers over the ark, the law is there to remind God of the sins of the people. The sacrifice on this day does not undo the sins of the people; it covers the law: “…before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.”

They were clean not because of their righteousness but because an innocent died in their place. Just like you and me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Is Intelligent Design Science?

Last time we described intelligent design (ID) as the view that what we see in the universe, on our planet, and in biological life is too complicated to have been created by undirected natural processes, therefore a supernatural intelligence must be responsible for it all.

This time we’re asking whether ID is science.

To answer that question, first we must ask, what is science? When naturalists say that ID isn’t science, what they typically mean is it isn’t naturalism. Today there is a common notion that science and naturalism are inseparable. This wasn’t always true, but that is the assumption today. Examining naturalism will help us understand ID.

Naturalism in science is the notion that anything you can detect or measure has a physical cause. Naturalism has no place for the mind much less the spirit because neither have attributes that are directly measurable. So why would this idea, which clearly has its limits, be so pervasive in science? It reigns supreme because people been taught to think in that way.

Now we can see naturalism isn’t “science.” It’s how people think about science. In other words it is a philosophy of science.

Intelligent design is the notion that things you can detect or measure do not necessarily have a physical cause. It assumes mind and spirit may be able to affect the physical world. Clearly, intelligent design is a different way to think about science.

So is ID science? No. It is a philosophy of science. It is a metatheory – that is, a theory about theories.

If ID isn’t “science,” how will we know if it’s true? Metatheories cannot be directly tested. Theories based on metatheories can. If theories based on ID assumptions, theories that cannot be based on naturalistic assumptions, are confirmed, then ID gains credibility. Until then, it is just a philosophical argument.

There are people at work trying to do what I described. The folks at Reasons to Believe are working on a testable creation model. There are others who are trying to do research based on design assumptions. This will take time. Science is slow. Overcoming two hundred years of prejudice is slow too. So let’s be patient, pray, and marvel at the handiwork of our Creator.

Next Sunday we'll look at why this argument is so important or "What's wrong with naturalism?"

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Primer on Intelligent Design

What is Intelligent Design?
Over the centuries, various arguments have been offered to demonstrate that a god must exist. Intelligent design (ID) is a modern form of the teleological argument. Basically, the claim of ID is this:

What we see in the universe, on our planet, and in biological life is too complicated to have been created by undirected natural processes, therefore a supernatural intelligence must be responsible for it all.
In the universe there are dozens, if not hundreds, of physical constants that may have any number of values. Tweak any of them and the universe would be a vastly different place. There is no particular reason why any of these values should be what they are; they could have been totally different.

Considering the various values these constants could have taken results in trillions upon trillions of possible universes. In all of those possible universes, there is only one where life is possible: this one. That seems too incredible to be simple chance.

The earth is in the right kind of galaxy orbiting the right kind of star with the right kind of planetary neighbors to allow it to bear life. It has the appropriate orbit, rotation, atmosphere, geology, and geographical arrangement to make it an appropriate home for intelligent life. There is no reason why a planet suitable for intelligent life should exist at all, so the existence of our world seems unlikely to be mere chance.

To get biological life by purely natural processes requires not only a suitable world in a suitable universe. It requires proper chemicals to form and interact to create a self-replicating system in a hostile environment. It also requires vast amounts of information to be created by undirected natural mechanisms. Once a self-replicating biological organism stumbles into existence, its progeny must undergo random mutations that slowly transform them into the various species we see today. The vast improbability of these events occurring suggests that a supernatural intelligence created life on earth.

ID is not strictly Christian. Though many ID proponents are Christians, not all are. Some are adherents of other major religions, and there are also deists and other indeterminate theists in the ranks of this movement.

Usefulness of ID
For those who are of an atheistic or agnostic persuasion, the design argument can be useful in helping them realize that a divine creator does indeed exist. This includes people like Anthony Flew, a famous atheist who announced his conversion to deism in 2004.

It is also useful for giving support to believers who are being troubled by atheistic claims. In college, young believers often have their religious beliefs mocked and even attacked by those who tell them that they must shed their “superstitions” if they want to be intelligent people. Those who study the sciences have a certain amount of trouble with this, though it is common in the liberal arts too.

There are also those believers who simply encounter naturalistic ideas in the media. Design proponents give these people intellectual and even emotional support against the arguments of naturalism.

Limits of ID
First, ID does not lead to the God of the Bible. ID, strictly speaking, points to a god but not necessarily the God. Of course, getting a person to a god is one step closer to Christ, but you can’t stop with just the design argument.

Second, the design that ID proponents point to is not incontrovertible. Some argue that the apparent design in the universe is merely illusion. And, of course, some say the “design” is real but chance. While the argument is helpful to many people, others will not be persuaded; Christians need to have other material in their arsenals.

Next time we’ll look at a more controversial question: Is ID science?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Redeemed for Holiness

Reflections on Leviticus

At the end of the long, boring list of things that the Israelites were not to eat in Leviticus 11 comes this little gem:

“I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.” (v44-45)

As they listened to the long list of outlawed (but seemingly perfectly good) food, the Israelites may well have begun to wonder, “What right does God have to give us all these rules?” The answer to their question was quite clear: “I brought you up out of Egypt.”

The children of Israel had been slaves, and they had been rescued. They were not rescued because of how righteous they were. God did not choose them because they were better looking than every other nation. Heaven knows they weren’t smarter than the average bear.

God rescued them because He had chosen them. For no good reason, out of the goodness of His heart, God decided to adopt them as His own. He freed them from slavery, rescued then from danger, fed them, and led them. They owed Him big, and He was letting them know what their side of the bargain was.

Today, if you have been rescued by the cross of Christ, you have been freed from slavery, rescued from hell, provided with a food like no other (the body and the blood), led by the Spirit, and, for no good reason, out of the kindness of His heart, adopted into the family of God.

We owe Him big, and there are some expectations on us, because He has also said to us, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Links: Happy Reformation Day!

The birth of the reformation at Of First Importance:

"...I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise."

The 95 Theses that started it all on October 31, 1517.

Stand to Reason's blog has a nice summary of Luther's role in the reformation.

Today only: Reformation Study Bible for $15.17 @ Ligonier Sorry, they're already sold out. I didn't get mine either :(

Here are some Reformation Day sermons from Reforming my Mind

Addition: The Reformation Day Symposium at Challies

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On seeker churches and self-feeding

Recently the news came out that the folks at Willow Creek have come to the realization that their programs and methods were not feeding the more mature believers in their midst. You can read more about it at Christianity Today here and here.

The mature believers in their congregation say they “are not being fed” and want “more of the meat of the Word of God.” The response of the leadership there has been that they should teach their people to become self-feeders.

I’m of two minds on this issue. I guess you can say my response is “yes, but.”

Some time ago I came the realization that I’m not going to be “fed” at church in the same way some folks are. This isn’t because I’m such a fantastically mature believer but because I grew up in church. Over my 30 plus years I’ve been in Sunday school, VBS, youth group, Bible studies, and of course “big church” countless times. I’ve read and had taught to me just about every passage in the Bible multiple times.

I’m probably not going to hear anything in church I don’t already know. If your life has been like mine, you probably won’t either.

Because of this, I’ve realized that I need to stop looking for a church where I’ll be “fed.” Instead, I need to look for a church where I can serve. In church I will hear lessons and sermons where I will be encouraged, inspired, reminded, and occasionally chastised, but I’m not going to be told something I didn’t already know very often. So from that respect, I somewhat agree with Mark Galli in the second piece.

However, the folks at Willow Creek may have a different situation. Let me say up front that I’ve never been to Willow Creek nor have I ever even spoken to someone who has. But I know what Willow Creek is, and I have attended my share of “seeker” services. If those are typical of what goes on at Willow Creek, the “mature” believers there may have never heard a sermon out of Hebrews or even John 15.

Seeker-friendly churches shy away from deeper theology and the scriptures that take you into it, and they seem to avoid those passages that, as one pastor I had said, makes the preacher hope the second coming will arrive before next Sunday. If that is the state of things there, the more mature believers at Willow Creek (and any other seeker church) will need some real meals before they’re expected to become “self-feeding.”

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another Halloween question

Last week I asked what you thought about participating in Halloween. Most people I’ve heard from, plus those I’ve read elsewhere, fall into one of two camps: church-based parties or joining in the traditional Halloween festivities.

Today my question is this: What is the difference between those two approaches?

Some, no doubt, prefer church-based activities based on safety concerns. Though I’m not sure how true they are, we’ve all heard the stories about tainted candy not to mention kidnappings and general accidents due to darkly clothed pedestrians stepping out into streets. If that is the concern, I think we can all understand that.

If, however, you prefer the church-based “harvest” festivals or whatever you call them because you think it’s not right to participate in Halloween, I’d like your thinking as to what makes them different.

Here’s what I’m seeing – children dressed in costumes going around asking for candy and playing silly games for prizes. That description is as true for the harvest festivals as it is for Halloween. The costumes may be scarier and the games may be a little grosser at the Halloween parties (though, frankly, this isn’t always the case), but I have to say I really don’t see a difference in these two activities.

This isn’t an attempt to change anyone’s mind about Halloween – or church harvest festivals. I genuinely want to understand the thought process here because soon, probably next year, I’m going to have to make some decisions for my family, so I would really appreciate your thoughts on this.

Here are some other interesting sites I've happened across on the topic:
There was an interesting conversation at Challies Dot Com.
Christian History & Biography had a fact-based piece that's worth a read.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More Holy

Reflections on Leviticus

Leviticus 10 relates a story that is sometimes difficult for modern readers. Two of Aaron’s sons offer “unauthorized fire” to the LORD and are killed. This passage reinforces what seems to be a recurrent theme in Leviticus – we can only approach God on His terms.

He says, “Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored” (v3).

This is a message that modern people need to hear. There is a pervasive notion today that if people just search after God in whatever way seems best to them, He will accept them. That is not how God Almighty works. In the Old Testament days, there was a system in place to approach God, and deviating from it could cost you your life. In the New Testament era, there is a Man through whom we must approach God, and striking out on your own path will cost you your soul. God has condescended to make us a way, and He expects us to follow it.

In verse 6, after the death of two of his sons, Aaron is told that he and his other sons may not even mourn their loss. Why? Because it was a special thing to be allowed to serve the Living God, and when you serve the Lord, you do not serve yourself.

In this part of the story I can’t help but hear echoes of Jesus’ warning: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

In verse 10 the priests are given a rule that is designed to keep them alive: “You must distinguish between the holy and the common.” Only holy things are allowed to come before God, and we are common in every way. That is why the priests have to go to great lengths to even enter the sanctuary (c.f., Lev 8, 16). This is one of the parts of the Mosaic Law that most clearly points to the need for a savior – even after going to such effort to purify themselves, the priests are still just barely acceptable. Something extra would be needed to allow people to approach God.

Verses 16-20 are, to me, quite remarkable. Moses asks why the priests did not eat their appointed portion of the sin offering, and Aaron answered, “‘Would the LORD have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?’

“When Moses heard this, he was satisfied” (v19-20).

I can’t find a rule that says you can’t eat the sacrifice after your kids are killed by God, but Moses thinks this is a good answer. Why?

Aaron demonstrates a principle that we all should take to heart today: When in doubt, treat God as more holy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Does Christianity Argue from Silence?

Today I received a somewhat bittersweet1 surprise when I came across an argument against Christianity that I hadn’t heard before. One way people argue for Christianity is to say that Christ’s miracles – especially the resurrection – were performed in public and so couldn’t be fabricated or people would have exposed the lies.

The opposing argument is that we don’t know that there weren’t attempts to expose the lies; we only know that we don’t have them today.2 If that argument holds, then our defense of the miracles of Jesus is really just an argument from silence.

Does Christianity stand on that kind of shaky ground? I don’t think so.

First, I think we can safely say that any of Jesus’ miracles – even all of them – is disposable with one exception: the resurrection. That is the one miracle for which we do have an opposing story – see Matt 28:11-15. Why didn’t that story take? Because it's harder to believe than a mere miracle.

Second, even if we had no other evidence, an argument from silence for the resurrection is still strong because in the face of any reasonable alternative story the resurrection wouldn’t fly. Quite simply, if the resurrection didn’t happen, the body was still in the tomb. If the body was available, it would have been produced when Christianity got annoying – apparently within the first year or two. A religion built around a risen savior couldn’t fly in the presence of a body.

As I’ve written before, Christianity is based on a story no one would make up. If we don’t assume from the start that miracles are impossible, the evidence for the resurrection is pretty sturdy. And that’s good news because, as Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised… you are still in your sins” and “we are to be pitied more than all men.” But since He has been raised, then we too shall be raised, and we will be like Him, forever, to the glory of God.

(1) I like a good argument, and there are so few new ones from the skeptics, but it's always sad to come across unbelievers.

(2) The original is at an largely anti-Christian
anti-literalist blog.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A question about Halloween

I’d like to know your opinion about how Christians should approach Halloween.

Some see it as a pagan event to be shunned entirely. Some feel like it is safe to participate from afar – at church or a church-sponsored program. Some see it as a chance to evangelize those who come to their door. Some feel comfortable joining in the revelry without qualification.

I’d especially like your opinion about evangelizing those who come to your door. Lately I’ve been thinking about evangelism more like it were a tag-team match or relay race. The people I interact with, even those I share the gospel with, may not come to Christ today or tomorrow or next year, but they may eventually come to Christ, and my contribution may well be an important step in that process.

My quandary is whether evangelizing trick-or-treaters is taking part in the relay or dropping the baton. What I don’t want is to teach the couple of dozen kids that come to my door on Halloween that Christians are weirdoes and party poopers. I don’t want to be the guy who ruins every party with an Amway pitch because he not only makes people dislike him but also Amway.

So does evangelizing trick-or-treaters do good or harm? I’d like to know what you think.

Some useful resources I've found:
Here's an article at Stand to Reason. (It may require a free login.)
Here's an article from the Christian Research Institute.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Looking for God in all the wrong places

Scientific American online has an article on the attempt to explain God as a physical phenomenon in the brain. In this study, the researchers ask the participants to get into, or remember, a religious experience. Various instruments then record brain activity. When an experience is accompanied by a change in a particular part of the brain, the researchers declare a causal connection – and the brain is the cause:

"The height of this meditative trance... was associated with... a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe.... Because the affected part of the parietal lobe normally aids with navigation and spatial orientation, the neuroscientists surmise that its abnormal silence during meditation underlies the perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe."

In psychology and philosophy debates go on as to whether the mind affects the brain or the brain affects the mind. These researchers clearly assume the latter. Far be it from me to defend Buddhism, but the nature of the debate is whether the "perceived dissolution of physical boundaries" turns off the parietal lobe or the parietal lobe shutting down creates the perception of "being at one with the universe." These guys are getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Where is this going? You know where. The researchers say "that religious experience and belief in God are merely the results of electrical anomalies in the human brain. ... Praying before a meal, for example, links prayer with the pleasures of eating. God, he claims, is nothing more mystical than that."

If you deal with skeptics much, you'll probably hear about this again. If someone starts telling you that your brain creates your religious experiences, you can bring up the mind-brain question.

Anyway, the researchers didn't stop with claiming that the mind creates religious feelings. They also said "the religious bents of even the most exalted figures—for instance, Saint Paul, Moses, Muhammad and Buddha—stem from such neural quirks."

So I have to ask, how do you explain public miracles like water being turned into wine, thousands being fed with a few biscuits, or a resurrected dead man via neural quirks?

I wanted to share this because it's good to be aware of this kind of work as it will appear in debates with skeptics and even serious seekers sooner or later. I recommend reading the whole article. Overall, it is fairly balanced and even ends on a faith-friendly note, but the ideas of these researchers will be back, so we should be ready for them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

7 principles and 1 hot topic

Christianity and the environment, part 2

Last time I offered seven Biblical principles that I think can be applied to debates over environmental issues. Today I want to apply those to a specific topic that tends to generate little light but lots of heat (no pun intended).

A few years ago you saw “environmental” stories in the news about endangered species, air pollution, and contaminated water. Today you see stories about global warming, global warming, and global warming. This issue is the environmental topic today. It is also the topic where what passes for debate has sunk the lowest.

About ten years ago I did a fair amount of research into this topic for a newspaper piece. I haven’t done any serious research since, and the state of things may have changed, but at the time the situation was 1) there was some uncertainty as to whether the “warming” was real, 2) there was a fair amount of uncertainty as to whether/how much any warming was due to humans, and 3) there was some uncertainty as to whether warming could be stopped.

I’ve seen nothing in the news to suggest that has really changed. There is a little more support for the idea that the warming is real, but the counter evidence is really quite impressive, even if it’s debatable. Natural causes still cannot be ruled out, especially since Mars is experiencing global warming too. Finally, there seems to be more and more confidence that global warming can’t be stopped. Also, there is a new debate over whether it is even desirable to stop it.

I don’t want to debate the issue of global warming. What I want to do is say that, given the above, reasonable and even godly people may well disagree about this topic. It’s ok to disagree about this issue. It’s ok to debate this issue. But we need to follow some ground rules. Last time we outlined just such a set of rules, so let’s examine them on this topic.

1. When you’re using someone else’s stuff, you have to take care of it.
2. Leave the planet like you want it left for you.
3. Assume people are going to sin.

The first three rules suggest that it is reasonable to address this question. If global warming is really a problem, it’s not going to be much of one in my lifetime, but I have a responsibility to leave the planet in as good a state as possible for the next generations. If we need to do something, a little arm-twisting may be necessary because people are people.

4. God gave us the earth to use.
5. Humans are more important than the environment.

There is a lot of talk lately about capping carbon emissions. The much-touted Kyoto agreement asks first-world nations to put some heavy caps on those emissions. There are two loud warnings that have been shouted in return. First, it is claimed that achieving those caps with current technology would ruin any industrial economy. Second, it is said that if we actually met Kyoto, at best it would delay the onset of the worst of global warming for five years.

This may or may not be true. If it is true, we would be ruining people’s lives for no good reason. That doesn’t mean we should chunk the whole idea. It means we have to take the questions seriously and really examine the problem. On that note, it is probably worth asking whether global warming is as bad as has been suggested. The coasts get flooded, but Canada and Siberia become farmlands. Is that a bad trade? Maybe, but the conversation should take place.

6. Don’t ask anyone to do anything you’re not willing to do.

Last time I mentioned those who want wind energy – as long as it’s generated somewhere else – and those who burn tons of jet fuel to tell you to be more environmentally conscious. I really really hate carbon indulgences … I mean “offsets.” If you aren’t practicing what you’re preaching, sit down and shut up.

7. Debate, but pretend you’re sitting between your mama and Jesus.

This debate is one of the ugliest around. Those who doubt the reality of global warming are often compared to war criminals. Some have suggested revoking professional credentials of scientists who don’t toe the party line.

Ad hominem attacks are uncivil and definitely not Christ-like. They have no place in reasonable debate and typically only prove that the attacker is not as well-equipped as he’d like people to believe.

While we may all be surprised, this question’s probably not going away any time soon. Christians are and will continue to be on both sides of the debate. We have a choice. We can carry on just like the rest of the world, or we can show the world what it looks like to disagree in a godly manner.

In this, as with everything else, the Master’s words apply: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Christianity & the environment: 7 principles

Blog Action Day 2007

The goal of Blog Action Day is to get the whole blogosphere talking about one topic – this year, the environment. A goal of this blog is to get Christians to think about things from a distinctly Christian perspective. To that end, I’d like to look at some general principles I think the Scriptures give us for approaching environmental issues.

1. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). If the earth belongs to the Lord, then we must apply a concept that we all try to teach our children:

When you’re using someone else’s stuff, you have to take care of it.

We have a fundamental obligation to take care of this planet for the simple reason that it’s not ours to tear up.

There are those who claim that we don’t have to worry about the environment because soon the Lord will return and destroy the whole place anyway. Let’s assume that their timeline is correct for the moment: That still doesn’t give us permission to mess the place up. If God wants to destroy the earth by fire, that’s fine because it’s His earth. We don’t have that privilege. And whenever the Master may return, until then, we have to share this place, which leads me to the second principle.

2. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). For however long we have to share this place, we’re stuck with each other, so:

Leave the planet like you want it left for you.

Do you want to drink dirty water? Then you don’t expect anyone else to do it either. Do you want to have to chew your air? Then no one else should have to either.

Taking this a little farther, if your child was living with filthy water, would you want someone with the power to fix that to actually do something about it? Then you have to do so as well.

3. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). We are a fallen race. Every human bears the image of God, but it is marred, and the best of us sometimes give in to our most base impulses. The rest of us do it a lot more than “sometimes.” So here’s a principle for environmental issues and everything else in life:

Assume people are going to sin.

People are selfish, greedy, lazy, and arrogant – and this is on a good day. Most people don’t set out to ruin the environment, but it’s so much easier to do than it is to do right.

On most issues, I’m pretty conservative, maybe even libertarian, but on the issue of the environment I turn a bit left, and this is why. Republicans will talk about things like market forces and enlightened self-interest encouraging people and corporations to take care of the environment, but experience tells me that everyone tells themselves at some time or another that “my one piece of litter” won’t make that much of a difference. But if everyone said that, we’d be hip deep in paper. Ditto for toxic chemicals and anything else that can be difficult to get rid of properly. So on this issue, I’m inclined to say that we may need laws, even lots of laws.

Of course, since I believe in the rule of law, specifically our Constitution, we have to address the fact that our federal system doesn’t permit the national government to do certain things. That’s a topic for another time, but I’d like to say briefly that the answer is to change the Constitution, not ignore it.

4. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Gen 1:28). Or in the vernacular:

God gave us the earth to use.

We’re supposed to use it wisely, but it is ours to use. We’re allowed to cut down trees, eat animals, and dig up coal. Just don’t go crazy.

5. “God created man in his own image” (Gen 1:27). The Bible makes this statement about no other creature. Humans are special. We are also told, “you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt 10:31). Given all that we’ve said so far, I think it’s safe to say, borrowing from the Master, the earth was made for man, not man for the earth. So let’s keep this in mind:

Humans are more important than the environment.

We need to protect the environment, but not at the expense of people. Humans are more important than owls, field mice, and wetlands. This doesn’t give us license to clear cut whole continents, but it does mean that we should be sure we take care of individual humans (not just the whole) while we take care of the environment.

6. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). Yep, that again. That bit about giving people clean water if you want clean water has a nasty twist:

Don’t ask anyone to do anything you’re not willing to do.

Here I’m think about people who want clean energy – in other people’s back yards – and people who use personal jets to tell you to raise your thermostat. Hypocrisy is a sin, folks.

7. Speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15). Strong feelings tend to rise up when discussing this topic, but the truth is that the evidence isn’t always cut and dried, and even when it is, the appropriate action is not necessarily as obvious as some think. And, let’s say it again, no one wants to have dirty air, poisoned water, or a treeless planet. It’s just a matter of what to do about it. So here’s the final principal to guide us through these issues:

Debate, but pretend you’re sitting between your mama and Jesus.

If you wouldn’t say something if you were sitting between them, or if you wouldn’t say it the same way, rethink your words. Remember, speak the truth in love.

Next time I’d like to try to apply these principles to a specific debate that gets particularly heated.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doing nothing wrong

Reflections on Leviticus

The first verse of Leviticus 5 opens a big can of worms as we continue the instructions for the sin offering:

“If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible.”

Inaction is sin. Here it is talking about public testimony, but this idea can be applied to anything when you remember the words of the Master: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Would you want someone to speak up if they knew something about your court case (which ever side you were on)? Then you’d better do it too. Would you want someone to stop and help you fix a flat? Then you’d better break out that jack. Would you want someone to protect your child if you weren’t around? Then you have to stand up for the weak.

Many people think they’re “good people” because they don’t kill, steal, or cheat on their wives. One day, though, they’re going to stand before their Maker, and He will show them a hungry child.

They’ll say, “But I didn’t do anything to them!”

He’ll say, “Exactly.”

Today we live such hectic lives that it’s easy to run around with blinders on. We go from crisis to crisis (or maybe dance class to ballgame) and never see the needs outside our little world. There are people all around us who need to experience the love of Christ through us. Let’s make a conscious effort to look around and see what’s out there. It’s going to require effort, time, money, and maybe even risk.

But remember the words of the Master: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Links: a question, a resource, and a carnival

Tony at The Shepherd's Scrapbook asks an important question:

"American churches seem to be cultivating a growing interest in apologetics.... In a pluralistic culture that grows ever diverse, it’s important for the church to formulate answers to the challenges. But along with this new emphasis on apologetics runs a concurrent temptation for churches to confuse evangelism and apologetics, to confuse defending and proclaiming.

"Does what I call evangelism look more like apologetics? Is the ultimate goal of my evangelism aimed towards mere agreement? Or am I lovingly and gently calling sinners to see sin as personal sin, and see wrath as wrath directed towards them?"

Paul at Reforming My Mind has created an excellent collection of mp3 files of lectures and sermons from dozens of different speakers including Voddie Baucham, John Stott, RC Sproul, and Wayne Grudem among many others. It's a great resource.

Christian Carnival 193 is at Lingamish.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

So what's wrong with Calvinism?

I have written about the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism before and really had no desire to do it again, but the topic has come up on another blog, and as I have been asked to explain myself, I figured I should do it here publicly.

Full disclosure #1: I don’t really have a horse in this race. As I said in my previous post, I don’t think answering the debate as to the nature of election should really change anything. As such, I really don’t have a lot of interest in the issue.

Full disclosure #2: I haven’t read Calvin’s Institutes. As my reading list now stands, Institutes is on the long list. (The short list is mostly books on the problem of evil.) I also have Arminius, Edwards, Spurgeon, and Wesley all on the same shelves awaiting their turn.

Tulips are lovely flowers, but TULIP?
As far as the traditional elements of Calvinism go, I don’t really have a problem with them, though I’m a bit ambivalent about total depravity. (As CS Lewis said, if we were totally depraved, how would we know?). My problem comes in when you try to fit various scriptures into this mold.

One of the most moving passages in the gospels is where Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt 23:37). This theme can be found all over the scriptures. In the NT, “God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). In the OT, God basically pleads with Israel to repent on a weekly basis (e.g., Isaiah 1:18-20).

Calvinists explain this by resorting to God’s two wills. It all sounds well and good until I actually try to read these passages in that light. At that point it seems that the “two wills” is closer to two personalities. God pleading with someone to repent when they are simply incapable of it makes no sense. It’s like me standing on top of my roof pleading with my daughter to come up to me – without giving her a ladder.

Arminianism: Which God are they talking about?
The flip side is the Arminian view that says God elects those who He knows will choose Him. That may be how things work in the fourth grade, but as I read my Bible, that’s not how the God of Heaven works (e.g., Pharaoh or Romans 9). However free will works out, it has to do it within the limits of a God who chooses whom He chooses, whose call is indeed irresistible, and who will not give up any of those He has bought at such a great price.

Is an intermediary position possible? Calvinists and Arminians both say no. I'm not so sure.

When Calvinism goes bad.
Personally, I can coexist with Calvinism quite nicely. (Calvinists sometimes take a little more work.1:) Unfortunately I’m in the minority. Most people find the concepts of unconditional election and irresistible grace offensive – especially if they don't quite understand them. They are very attached to the idea of free will and appalled at the notion that God simply selects some people for hell (yes, I know, it’s not quite like that, but that’s how it basically boils down, and people know it).

So if Calvinism grows, less mature Christians are likely to move away from these ideas (and the churches that espouse them) and non-Christians are going to lose interest in Christianity – especially a God they see (improperly) as arbitrary, unfair, and vindictive. Of course, Calvinists might say that these people aren’t elect and we can’t help their reaction. Great. I’m not a Calvinist, and I see this reaction as a problem.

A second problem arises when people get a bit overly Calvinistic about evangelism. In the past there have been great evangelists and missionaries who were Calvinists; they are remembered because they are exceptional in more ways than one. Wasn’t it Carey who was told that when the Lord decided to convert the heathen, He would not need someone like him? His Calvinism made him a missionary; their's kept them from it.

I also know Calvinists (I’m not going to name names) who refuse to do anything like an invitation/altar call because if people are going to believe, they’re going to just do it, and we don’t need to get involved.

Calvinism properly understood doesn’t change the Great Commission, but in practice it sometimes seems to remove some of the urgency. I say this as someone who believes in sovereign election – and who sometimes struggles with that urgency thing. If Calvinism is exactly right, it’s really not an issue. But if there is more of a free will component to salvation, then this is a dangerous issue.

I guess that really lays out my position: If Calvinism is correct, then there really is no problem with it. If you see Calvinism as less than completely correct, then it can be problematic, which can, of course, be said of any theological system.

My basic view is the same as before: I don't think we're likely to know the truth here on Earth, and even if we did, it shouldn't change how we do things. So if we're going to pick a theological issue over which to go to battle, I don't think this is the one.

(1) Diane at Crossroads recently wrote that even many young Calvinists find the older Calvinists too arrogant.