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