Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: The Reason for God

Tim Keller’s The Reason for God has been called Mere Christianity for postmoderns. Since he’s a pastor in New York City, one would expect he’s had plenty of practice dealing with young postmoderns and has probably been able to refine his answers based on what does and doesn’t get through to them. That’s why I was looking forward to reading this book.

Once I got my hands on it, however, I was a bit disappointed. I wanted to like the book, I really did, but frankly it’s just not that well written. Parts of it are well-written. Parts of it are beautiful. But in quite a few places Keller leaves you wondering what his point is.

I’ve gotten in the habit of writing a summary sentence or two of a chapter after I read it. Doing that with this book I caught myself filling in material – making my summary say what he meant to say, but not what he said. I could do that because I knew the argument he was making.

I think that may be why so many people are raving about this book – well-read Christians can and will fill in the gaps. You know what he’s trying to say, and you help him say it. The problem is that this book is aimed at non-Christians. They do not know what he is trying to say, so when he fails to make his point clear, they’re going to come away going, “Huh?”

Individual chapters (not all, but more than a couple) fail to come to a clear point. Moreover, the book reads like it should have a single argument running through it – especially the second half – but Keller fails to make that happen. He sums up the material pretty well at the end of the book, but I’m afraid it will be too late for many readers – by that point they may have lost interest or just been hopelessly confused.

The frustrating part of this for me was that I could see how a few more paragraphs could have turned this book into something great. As it is, it’s something … not bad.

That was the negative. Here’s the positive.

There are a lot of gems in this book; I’ll probably quote more than a few in the coming months. Here are a couple:

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies…” (p xvi)

“…[Violent] fanatics… are so not because they’re too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough.” (p 57)

He has some truly great chapters as well.

Chapter 12, “The (True) Story of the Cross,” explains the atonement in a way that is easy to understand and faithful to orthodox theology yet avoids common vocabulary that sets us up for the “divine child abuse” complaint.

Chapter 14, “The Dance of God,” is a beautiful explanation of the Trinity that ties evangelism, social justice, community, art, and caring for the environment into a thoroughly trinitarian gospel. It is well worth reading.

In the end, I’d say this book is a good reference for Christians – as an example of talking to pomo seekers and of translating Christian theology into everyday language. I wouldn’t recommend giving it to a non-Christian to read solo, but if you can read it with them and help them see what Keller is trying to say, it might be helpful.

must read
worth reading {{
not worth reading
avoid it like the plague

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Helping the Poor Biblically

The Bible and the Ballot Box 1

If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we have to let our faith inform every aspect of our lives – not just what we do on Sunday. Nowhere is this more important than how we, as citizens of a republic, let our faith shape how we vote and otherwise influence our government.

I don’t know many people who would deny that the Bible has a lot to say about the poor and how we should treat them. The question is do we actually know what it has to say? What does the Bible tell us to do for the poor?

The Bible’s instructions regarding the poor can be loosely divided in two categories: charity and justice.

The first command regarding charity in the Mosaic Law is "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy… charge him no interest” (Ex 22:25).

The next is this: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest… Leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev 19:9-10).

Self-sufficiency: These and other biblical commands regarding charity show two interesting features; first, we see a preference toward helping the poor take care of themselves rather than just receiving charity.

In some cases, God’s people are told simply give to the poor. The needy were given the OT tithe every three years (Deut 14:28-29), and Jesus told his followers, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matt 5:42), but there is a biblical emphasis on self-sufficiency rather than dependency. Even as the NT church was instructed to take care of the poor, they were also told “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10, emphasis added) – i.e., a person should do what he can for himself.

This philosophy appears in later Christian and Jewish works. Maimonedes called it the ladder of charity: “The highest degree of charity…is he who strengthens the hand of his poor fellow Jew and gives him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or enters into a business partnership with the poor person.”

Likewise in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, church leaders were instructed to provide “to the widows the care of husbands; to those of suitable age, marriage; to the artificer, work; to the unable, commiseration; to the strangers, an house; to the hungry, food…” (4.1.2, emphasis mine).

Both traditions thought it preferable to help the able-bodied poor find work and maintain dignity and self-reliance.

To the individual: Secondly, the commands in scripture are aimed at the individual. Yes, these commands were given to a community, but each individual was responsible for carrying them out, and he was answerable to God alone for his failure to do so.

In the NT, it appears at first glance that the fledgling church of Jerusalem made a group effort to take care of the poor (Acts 4:32-5:11), but even there the individual made the decision (5:4) with the apostles simply coordinating the effort.

It’s also worth noting that, where the local church was taking care of the poor, the onus was on an able-bodied individual to take care of his extended family and keep the burden off the community (1 Tim 5:3-8).

Redistribution?: Completely missing from the Bible is any suggestion that some central body (e.g., the government) should take people’s money or property and give it to the poor. For some reason Luke 12:33 (and similar verses) is popular to quote as supporting liberal social policies. But when Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” that does not give you license to sell your neighbor’s possessions.

But what about “justice?” Social justice is the cry of many politically active Christians today, and justice is an important principle in the Bible. But what does justice mean?

Jeremiah, one of the prophets who cried out for justice, wrote, “Woe to him to builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying for their labor” (22:13). Here, “justice” seems to be paying your laborers.

The OT is full of commands to treat the poor and the alien properly. This is justice:
“Do not mistreat an alien” (Ex 22:21).
“Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Ex 22:22).
“Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Lev 19:13b).
“Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev 19:15b).
“Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity” (Lev 19:35).

These commands are about treating everyone fairly, not taking advantage of anyone, not defrauding people because they are weak. According to Jeremiah 22 and Ezekiel 18 and the other prophets, this is being “just,” not giving the poor money.

Modern liberals who say “justice” in these passages is government redistribution of wealth are reading their own definition of justice into the Bible.

To summarize, regarding the poor the Bible instructs us to be
1) A community of individuals who
2) if possible, help the poor provide for himself,
3) if it’s not possible, provide him his daily needs,
4) and make sure that the poor is denied neither wages he is due nor justice in court.

So what?
So what’s the purpose in all this? Lately the Christian Left has been accusing the Christian Right of ignoring the Bible on any issues other than abortion and same-sex marriage.

The truth is there is no biblical mandate to enforce charity upon society as a whole or upon the individual taxpayer. Each individual will answer to God for how he regards his possessions and the poor, but you can’t make a biblical case that the government has a responsibility to step in and pick up the slack.

That is not to say that we can’t, as a society, decide that we want to take care of the poor in that way. But you cannot accuse conservatives of ignoring the biblical mandate to take care of the poor. In fact it is the liberal position that strays from the Bible. Until the reform of the nineties – created by Republicans in Congress and signed by a more conservative Democrat – the system even discouraged people on welfare from working. That is the unscriptural policy.

The conservative approach to helping the poor via personal charity and tax policies that encourage economic growth (i.e., job creation) seems to be well within the scope of the biblical picture.

So to the people wondering if they can be conservatives and Christians, on this issue, the answer is yes.

The next “Bible and the Ballot Box” will look at the issue of capital punishment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Do Denominations Disprove Christianity?

When dealing with skeptics you may hear, “If Christianity is true, why are there so many denominations?” Or “How can Christianity be ‘the truth’ if you can’t even agree amongst yourselves?”

This person wants to claim that the theological differences between various groups of Christians proves that our beliefs are inconsistent. That’s obviously not true, but it can be hard to explain why off the cuff.

We can’t deny that Christians disagree with each other on a lot of things. We disagree about how to govern a church, how to worship, and how salvation works. We argue about authority, tradition, and money. We differ over when Jesus is going to come, how Jesus is going to come, and what is going to happen when Jesus comes.

But we do not differ over the presence of sin, the need for a savior, the fact of the cross or the resurrection, or whether Jesus will return. We know what the Good News is, who needs to hear it, and what will happen to those who don’t accept it.

In short, the basics of Christianity are accepted by pretty much everybody, and the fact that we cannot agree about a variety of secondary issues has no bearing on whether or not the core tenets of the faith are true.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I Don’t Believe in the Heathen in Africa

I don’t believe in the heathen in Africa. I know that sounds odd. I mean I don’t believe in the sob story often posed as an objection to the exclusivity of Christ.

I’m sure you’ve heard it: If someone can only go to heaven by believing in Jesus, what about the heathen in Africa (or South America or New York) who’s never heard of Jesus?

I don’t think such a creature exists. Oh, there are people who die having never heard the gospel. And, frankly, the Bible says they have enough information that God feels He can hold them accountable for their choices.

But I don’t think people go to hell simply because no one got to them with the gospel. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to believe that if there is someone who would believe, the gospel will be delivered.

In Kings, Naaman was sent to Elisha by a girl in the right place at the right time. In Acts, the Spirit sent Philip to the Ethiopian who was ripe for the harvest and Peter to Cornelius, the God-fearing centurion. The same happens today as people in Muslim countries have dreams sending them to find Christian missionaries. I have no doubt it has happened for 2000 years.

If you’re feeling called to go to Africa, you may be the one who will be sent to the next Naaman or Cornelius. If you’re not feeling called to Africa, you may be the one who is sent to the family across the street.

Either way, we don’t need to spend a lot of energy worrying about those poor folks in the far corners of the world. "The Lord knows those who are His.”

Image by Brett Jones from Flickr

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Composite Gospel

Sometimes history can shed a little light on the present.

If I understand it correctly, the philosophy of Gnosticism can be summed up as “spirit is good, matter is bad.” They viewed the material world as a prison from which we should seek release. Gnostic Christianity was an attempt to blend this view with Christian teachings.

The result was a variety of views that contradicted mainstream Christian teaching. One taught that Christ did not have a physical body, another that Jesus was just a man infused with the Christ-spirit. Still another said Jesus’ physical body died to release his spirit from the material realm.

Of course, if matter was bad, a physical resurrection – for either Jesus or us – was not a desirable thing, so they spiritualized the gospel to be enlightenment and freedom from the physical world.

Though they had access to the Jewish and Christian writings, they rejected most of these and created their own. After all, if the physical world was bad, anything that suggested that Jesus, or the Father, had a hand in creating it wouldn’t work. Some even taught that the God in Genesis was a different god from the Father of Jesus.

How did this lunacy come about? People took the philosophy of their day, Gnosticism, to Christianity rather than getting their philosophy from it. Despite what Christian texts said, their philosophy said matter was bad, so they had to reinterpret the gospels and the gospel to get a religion than made sense to their philosophy. And wackiness ensued.

If I understand it correctly, the philosophy of postmodernism in a nutshell is a radical skepticism about our ability to discern what is true. As people take this philosophy to Christianity, perhaps the Gnostics can serve as a warning. Not all human philosophies are fatally flawed, but we should be more skeptical about the tenets of the philosophy du jour and how it can relate to a religion that has been ironed out over the course of two millennia.

Already there is a great deal of concern over the church that is emerging from the fusion of postmodernism and Christianity. This task requires caution and a great deal of humility about more than just epistemology.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Christian in a Lexus and Other Perplexing Thoughts

If you go to church in a middle or upper middle class area, next Sunday count the number of luxury cars in the parking lot. Aren’t there better ways for a Christian to use his money than to buy a Lexus? If you bought a Toyota or a Ford, how many people could you feed or clothe with the difference in car payments? Does that matter?

A Witness to the Rich?
In church, I’ve actually heard preachers and teachers defend Christians living expensive lifestyles. After all, they say, someone has to witness to the rich. But is living just like them the way to witness to the rich? What if they saw people who make as much money as them living simple lifestyles while being radically generous with their income and counting it blessed? What kind of witness would that be?

At the risk of being unkind, I wonder why preachers say things like the above. Do they really think that is appropriate? Are they afraid of offending, even driving away, the affluent in their congregation? Are they afraid of losing their tithes? Why are churches always struggling to find more money? Are they doing things that they don’t need to do? If so, why?

What About Value?
Back to the Lexus, there are times when spending a little more now saves you money in the long run. When does that happen? Where do you draw the line? If a $25,000 car lives twice as long as a $12,000 car, is that worth the extra? What if a $50,000 car lives twice as long as a $25k car? The same question applies to shoes, clothes, and computers. Sometimes you really do get what you pay for. Where does that end? At what price does that no longer matter?

Where Does It End?
If I decide to live less “affluent,” how far do I go? If I really wanted to, I could live without air conditioning. Should I? Is it wrong to buy news socks when I could sew up the old ones and give away the money? Which would do better for my soul, to by a book on Christian spirituality or to give the $20 to a poor person?

My Kids or Yours?
Is it right to spend money to make sure my kids have pesticide-free vegetables, or should I worry more about the child who doesn’t have enough to eat at all? If the latter, how far do I go – healthy food is expensive, should we live off cold cuts and mashed potatoes so other kids can eat rice? At what point do other people's needs outweigh the needs of my family? Is this kind of thing why Paul said it would be better if we didn't marry?

I don’t have the answer to a single one of these questions. I’d appreciate any thoughts anyone has about any of this.