Faith and the “New Atheists”

I am—as anyone who spends any time poking around this blog can surely tell—a committed believer in Jesus Christ.  Some days, I can also call myself a committed disciple of Jesus Christ; some days, not so much.  As Andrew Peterson wrote in “The Chasing Song,”

Now and then these feet just take to wandering;
Now and then I prop them up at home.
Sometimes I think about the consequences—
Sometimes I don’t.

Still, for all my failures in living it out, I’m committed to the walk.  I’m committed because I believe Jesus spoke truly when he told his disciples he is the way, the truth, and the life.  I believe the people of God, from our founding in Abraham all the way through to the church of today, have been given the only true account of the existence of the material world, and the only true account of human existence.  I don’t think any one branch of the Christian tradition has a perfect or complete understanding of that truth, and still less any individual believer; the fact that each of us is both limited and sinful ensures that our best understanding will be both incomplete and flawed.  I believe God uses even those flaws to his own purposes.

I’m absolutely committed to Jesus because I believe that faith in him is true, even if my faith in him is only imperfectly true.  If anyone could prove to me that the Christian faith is false, I would abandon it.  That might seem like a hard right turn to some, but it isn’t; I want to believe what is true, not what is congenial.  That’s why I’m still a Christian after forty-plus years of life and twelve-plus years in the pastorate.Read more

The threat of idolatry in worship

The Devil hates it when we worship God. Any time the body of Christ gathers to give God glory and hear the gospel preached, the Devil loses, and so he’ll do anything in his power to keep us from worship. On an individual basis, he’ll try to prevent it by convincing people not to come, but that doesn’t work on everyone.  For all the Devil’s best efforts, a lot of people do still show up on Sunday mornings. So what’s he going to do? Yes, he’s doomed to fail, but he’s going to take as many people as he can down with him, and we should never underestimate his cunning. If he can’t keep us from worship, he’s going to try to neutralize our worship.  He will do everything he can to turn our hearts away from our Lord by tricking us into worshiping someone or something other than Christ.

Tim Keller pointed out at the Gospel Coalition conference back in 2009 that we all have idols and temptations to idolatry.  Whether it be our spouses, our kids, our reputations, our jobs, or our possessions, anything that’s truly meaningful to us and that truly matters in our lives can become so important to us that it takes God’s right and proper place in our hearts. The congregation we attend can become an idol, as can our denomination or religious tradition. So can our nation and our patriotism. For many churches, style of music is a major idol, while for others, the chief idol is their building.

These are all good things which we rightly love and value. We ought to love our families and our churches.  It is right that we love our nation and thank God every day for blessing us to live here.  We should value the work he has given us to do. It’s good to love music, which is a wonderful gift from God, and naturally we will prefer some styles of music to others. But every last one of these things must—must—come second in our hearts to God.  We don’t need to love them less, but we need to love Jesus Christ more than any of them. Our first and foremost desire should be to serve and honor and glorify him by giving him pleasure; our love for all those other people and things should fall in order behind our love for him.  Our worship needs to be directed to God and God alone.  For the sake of our souls and the souls of others, we cannot afford to let anything else creep in.

(Excerpted, edited, from “To the Glory of God”)

 

Photo © 2009 Wikimedia user Wattewyl.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Let all the thirsty come

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.”

—Isaiah 55:1-3 (ESV)

Contrary to what we might have expected, this invitation and this promise are offered to people who were already outwardly members of the people of God. The nations aren’t excluded here—the invitation is given to all who are thirsty—but there’s no explicit summons to them, either.  The invitation is framed in terms of what God did in and for David. The point, which Isaiah has been making all along, is clear: though Israel has heard the law, and has heard the prophets, and they have all kinds of head knowledge about God, that hasn’t translated for them into any kind of real relationship with him. They consider him their God because they’re Israelites and he’s the God of Israel, and doesn’t everybody in this country worship God?—but many of them haven’t answered his invitation. Some probably haven’t really heard it before. They haven’t learned that there’s more to their faith than just being a faithful templegoer.

Indeed, there’s far more. The challenge to us of Isaiah’s expansive invitation is—do we still need to hear it? Have we really accepted it, or are we no different than the Israelites? In this country, it’s very easy to be a Christian, and that means there are a lot of folks who are outwardly Christian for all the wrong reasons, with no inward reality, no real faith in Christ. The church has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that, of course, because there are a lot of churches in this country that don’t give people God’s invitation, that don’t challenge people with the call of the gospel; it’s easier not to, after all, easier just to give people what they already know they want to hear. Even for the church, it’s easier to serve junk food.

Despite all this, underneath and through it all, God’s invitation still goes out: “Come, all of you who hunger and thirst; come to me, that you may live.” And we need to ask ourselves: have we really done that, are we really living in God? Or do we still need to accept it?

(Excerpted, edited, from “The Invitation”)

 

Photo:  Elakala Waterfall 1© 2006 ForestWander (http://www.ForestWander.com).  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States.

Remembrance Day

Remembrance Day

In your fine green ware I will walk with you tonight
In your raven hair I will find the Summer night
Upon far flung soil I will run you through my head
In my daily toil all the promises are said

For I know the weary can rise again
I know it all from the words you send
I will go, I will go, I will leave the firelight
I will go, I will go, for it’s now the time is right

Chorus:
I will sing a young man’s song
That you would sing on Remembrance Day
I will be the sacrifice
And bells will ring on Remembrance Day

I must leave this land and the hunger that is here
But the place I stand is the one I love so dear
Like a flower in some forest that the world will never see
I will stand so proud for I know what we can be

For I know the weary can rise again
I know it all from the words you send
I will go, I will go, I will leave the firelight
I will go, I will go, for it’s now the time is right

Chorus

This day I will remember you
This way I will always return
This day I will remember you
This way I will always return

Chorus out

Words and music: Stuart Adamson
From the album
The Seer

Over the Hills and Far Away

Here’s forty shillings on the drum
For those who volunteer to come,
To ‘list and fight the foe today
Over the hills and far away

Chorus:
O’er the hills and o’er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away

When duty calls me I must go
To stand and face another foe
But part of me will always stray
Over the hills and far away

Chorus

If I should fall to rise no more
As many comrades did before
Then ask the pipes and drums to play
Over the hills and far away

Chorus

Then fall in lads behind the drum
With colours blazing like the sun
Along the road to come what may
Over the hills and far away

Chorus out

Words:  John Tams / Music: traditional English folk song
From the album Over the Hills and Far Away:  The Music of Sharpe

 

Photo:  Tombe du Soldat inconnu, 2007 Leafsfan67.  Public domain.

Jesus victorious

Atheists often talk about “the problem of evil” as though it were primarily an intellectual issue requiring an explanation, and then they ding God for not providing an explanation they deem adequate.  The truth is, though, the philosophical problem of evil is secondary—the real problem is much more basic:  what are we going to do about it?  God doesn’t offer us an explanation for evil, but that doesn’t mean he has no answer for it.  Jesus is God’s answer to the problem of the evil and sin in this world; in him, God gave us, not the answer we thought we wanted, but the answer we actually needed: he offered us himself. He came down to live our life, to identify with us, to endure the darkness of our fallen world with us, and to defeat that darkness, not with its own weapons, but with light.

When people ask, “Where’s God when it hurts—in the tragedies we see so often, and the large-scale injustices of this world?” they often assume the answer must be “Nowhere”; after all, if there really is a God out there, and he actually heard our suffering, wouldn’t he do something about it? But the truth is, as Easter shows us, God has heard our suffering—he has heard every cry of anguish, felt every blow and every betrayal, and caught every tear in the palm of his hand—and in Jesus Christ, he has done everything about it.Read more

The stubborn faithfulness of God

“The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth, and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you,
lest you should say, ‘My idol did them,
my carved image and my metal image commanded them.’

“You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it?
From this time forth I announce to you new things,
hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
before today you have never heard of them, lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’
You have never heard, you have never known, from of old your ear has not been opened.
For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously,
and that from before birth you were called a rebel.

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.

—Isaiah 48:3-11 (ESV)

Israel had a long history of faithlessness to God—it’s what got them taken off into exile—but despite all that, he refused to give up on them. He reminds his people of the many times in the past that he had told them what would happen, and then brought about what he predicted; and look at verses 4-5. Why did he do this? “Because I knew how stubborn you are”! If God had simply done good things for them, would they have given him the credit? No, they would have given the credit as they saw fit, to the idols they themselves had made. God told them what he was going to do before he did it so that they would know who was truly responsible. They could always refuse to admit that knowledge—and sometimes they did; that’s why God has to say, “You’ve heard these things. Won’t you admit them?”—but they would have no excuse and no justification for their refusal.Read more

Straight Outta Compton and the language of lament

I’m not sure why so many people in Hollywood were surprised when Straight Outta Compton took over the box office this past August.  Interest in the movie was running high, from what I saw, and it’s not as if there was much competition in the theaters by that point.  For that matter, though there were some big hits this year, there wasn’t all that much worth watching for most of the summer.  What’s more, SOC was released by Universal, which was well into its “all your box office are belong to us” routine.  According to the Grantland article linked above,

Universal has already put together a box office year for the ages, and Straight Outta Compton notches the studio’s sixth no. 1 opener of the year. With Straight Outta Compton, Universal could release nothing else this year but a two-hour video of the staff taking selfies and it would still break Warner Bros.’ $2.1 billion record for domestic box office. By the way, that’s a record set in December 2009, which Universal will break in August.

Finally, while the main reason projections for the movie were low was that “it had no stars,” that wasn’t really true.  I understand why people would say that (since the only actor in the movie with any reputation to speak of was Paul Giamatti, and he’s not exactly your classic leading man), but it missed the point.  The stars of the movie were the characters in the story; it wasn’t the name value of the actors but their ability to bring the characters to life that mattered (as is the case most of the time).  N.W.A has been defunct for a long time, but Dr. Dre and Ice Cube still have more pull than most movie stars.  As long as they were behind it and the movie told the story in a compelling way, it had all the star power it needed.  Having Ice Cube’s son playing him only reinforced that.

While it was mildly amusing watching the commentary and analysis of SOC‘s success, I was more interested in how little controversy there was.  I’ve never been a rap fan, but N.W.A was a mammoth cultural presence in my high-school years.  I remember the fury they caused, and I remember articles over the years asserting that gangsta rap was celebrating and even inciting violence against the police.  I don’t know if those articles were correct or not, but I was surprised that when N.W.A came back in some sense with this movie, I didn’t see the opposition come roaring back along with it.  Apart from a personal essay by Dee Barnes, who was brutally assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991, the dominant cultural response seemed to be nostalgia.

This is unfortunate, because N.W.A shouldn’t be uncritically celebrated.Read more

The humility of preaching

Early in my first pastoral call, I preached a sermon on the Trinity.  I figured my little congregation knew that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one God, but I wanted to help them understand why that matters for our salvation.  As I was shaking hands after the service, a woman came up to me, smiling, and said, “As a lifelong Unitarian, I just want to tell you that was a wonderful sermon.”

Bemused and taken aback, I thanked her and watched her go, wondering what on earth she had meant.  Unfortunately, she took sick and left the community soon after, so I never had the chance to find out.  I’m still wondering what, as a lifelong Unitarian, she actually understood that sermon to mean, and how it affected her.

This isn’t the only puzzling reaction I’ve ever had to a sermon, of course.  Another example among many is the woman who thanked me for making it clear that Christians must support the government of Israel, leaving me thinking, I didn’t say that.  At least, I don’t think I did.  I think most pastors can relate to encounters like that.  Over the years, I’ve heard a number of “But I didn’t say that!” stories from various colleagues.  Sometimes, the messages people have taken away from sermons I’ve preached have been more insightful than anything I actually said—which is a humbling thought.

But then, that’s part of the reason for such experiences, isn’t it?  God uses them to keep us preachers humble and to remind us that the work of preaching isn’t nearly as much about us and our skills and talents as we like to think it is.  My preaching professor in seminary, the Rev. Dr. John Zimmerman, used to tell us, “One sermon preached, a hundred sermons heard”—an axiom that in my experience varies only by size of congregation.  He often said that what really matters in people’s lives isn’t the sermon we preach, but (in his words) the counter-sermon they preach to themselves as they listen.

Sometimes congregants hear what they expect to hear, rather than what we’re actually trying to say.  That can sink even the best-crafted sermons.  Often, though, such sermon reinterpretation is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts and minds, using our words to address individual realities of which we are unaware and telling people things he knows they need to hear, even if we don’t.  In either case, what’s really going on is outside of our control, and not finally the product of our work and skill at all.  That doesn’t mean the sermon is irrelevant, just that the credit for whatever good may come of it belongs not to us but to the Spirit of God.

Debunking the myth of the “Dark Ages”

I have another book to put on my Christmas list.  I’m not sure how I missed the publication of James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, or why it’s taken me this long to discover it, but from the review I just read, it looks like a fascinating work.  Usually, you hope a book is as interesting as the review says it is; in this case, I hope it’s as interesting as the review, and for that matter the reviewer.  The reviewer in question is an Australian medievalist named Tim O’Neill who appears to specialize in the history of medieval science and technology.  He’s also an atheist who gets as irritated as I do at the ways atheists abuse and misuse history to smear Christianity.  (Rest assured, I get just as irritated at the ways Christians abuse and misuse history.  In this area, my first allegiance is to the discipline.)

O’Neill writes,

One of the occupational hazards of being an atheist and secular humanist who hangs around on discussion boards is to encounter a staggering level of historical illiteracy. I like to console myself that many of the people on such boards have come to their atheism via the study of science and so, even if they are quite learned in things like geology and biology, usually have a grasp of history stunted at about high school level. I generally do this because the alternative is to admit that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.

Perhaps it’s because I can’t think of any parallel consolation, but I’ve had to accept that the average person’s grasp of history and how history is studied is indeed so utterly feeble as to be totally depressing.  I’d like to believe that atheists and secular humanists are worse than Christians in this respect—but, no.  Indeed, as O’Neill notes in passing, the myth of the Dark Ages is as much the creation of Protestants attacking the Roman church as it is of atheists attacking Christianity in general.

It’s an excellent review essay because O’Neill has a fine eye for nonsense, a firm command of his subject, and apparently no use for people who value scoring cheap rhetorical points over getting their facts right.

In the academic sphere, at least, the “Conflict Thesis” of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves “rationalists”.

Speaking of rationalism, the critical factor that the myths obscure is precisely how rational intellectual inquiry in the Middle Ages was. While writers like Charles Freeman continue to lumber along, claiming that Christianity killed the use of reason, the fact is that thanks to Clement of Alexandria and Augustine’s encouragement of the use of pagan philosophy, and Boethius’ translations of works of logic by Aristotle and others, rational inquiry was one intellectual jewel that survived the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire and was preserved through the so-called Dark Ages. . . .

Hannam . . . gives an excellent precis of the Twelfth Century Renaissance which, contrary to popular perception and to “the Myth”, was the real period in which ancient learning flooded back into western Europe. Far from being resisted by the Church, it was churchmen who sought this knowledge out among the Muslims and Jews of Spain and Sicily. And far from being resisted or banned by the Church, it was embraced and formed the basis of the syllabus in that other great Medieval contribution to the world: the universities that were starting to appear across Christendom.

Read the whole thing—it’s well worth your time.