Recent Reads

This is a crazy story about a pitcher for the Texas Rangers who unknowingly took part in an elaborate human trafficking scheme.

This is a sad story: millions of girls lost to selective abortions in India.  As technology is able to show us the gender of babies sooner and sooner, I wonder how advocates of choice in America react to this?  I mean, if it is the parents choice to abort a child, can we fault them for the reasons why they make the choice?  I imagine pro-choice advocates would have to support the Indian parents who abort the babies because it is a girl.  How could you support choice one minute but then not support it the next?  Those of us who are pro-life simply pray for these lost lives.

I thought this story was funny: on college campuses, Obama is not cool anymore.

Also on the college front, this relates to what I do on campus ministry, except I am not Catholic.

As a new father of a beautiful daughter, I appreciated this commentary on Disney princesses.

Finally, I recently listened to the debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris (find it here).  Then I made the mistake of googling it and learning that according to atheist blogs, Sam Harris crushed Craig, but according to Christian blogs, Craig crushed Harris.  That alone makes me realize that there is much more going on here than simply rational and reasonable debate.  People do not come to these things with truly open minds.

Listening to the debate, I was struck with Harris’ constant use of red herrings.  Rather than reply to Craig he brought out common rhetoric of the “new atheists”: religion is dumb, Craig is no scientists, the Taliban is bad, etc.  Craig is a very good debater and he manages to stay on subject in all his debates.  As he said in this debate, the debate with Harris was not over whether God exists but whether the existence of God provides a better foundation for morality.  Craig argued that it does, that without God there is no good foundation for things like right and wrong.  But whether God exists is a separate question.  Craig’s point is that if God does not exist, there is no foundation for morality.  Obviously Craig believes in God, but God’s existence was not part of the debate.

The problem with such debate formats is that Craig comes across very academic with tight, logical arguments.  Harris is charismatic and what his arguments may lack in substance they gain in rhetoric and style.  Craig may appeal to the philosophy majors, Harris appeals to those who don’t like religion.  Again, there is more going on than mere reason which is why Christians tend to say Craig won while atheists say Harris won.  I don’t claim to be unbiased in this either, for the record.  Yet it seems like the type of apologetics Craig engages in are better for those who already believe as they provide support for that faith.  They do not create the faith, the faith comes first for other reasons.

This is not really a new realization, I have understood this for a long time.  Perhaps my point is that when you can find churches that ask young, disabled children to leave the worship service for fear they are distracting and add in the horrific suffering in the world in places like Congo and Sudan  then all the logical arguments for the truth of religion fall flat to an unbelieving world.  Or, our actions (or lackthereof) speak louder than our words).

That said, here are two good reviews of the debate, by a Christian and an atheist.

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Learning from Calvin and Tolstoy

One of my favorite things about working in campus ministry is that our little community here on PSU Berks brings together students from diverse backgrounds, all who desire to know Jesus and make him known.  We have Christians from numerous backgrounds gathering together each year: Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and so on.

What holds us together?  The fundamentals of faith, what CS Lewis called “mere Christianity” or what we might call historic Christian orthodoxy.  The things that have been believed by everyone at all times and everywhere.  Perhaps we could go to the early creeds of the church.  Or we could make a list: God as Trinity, dual nature of Jesus Christ, salvation in Christ, faith in Christ, Bible as inspired by God, resurrection and maybe a few more.  This is not a post meant to list the “essentials” of faith.

In January I used some money gifted to me for my birthday to purchase a Kindle.  One of my favorite things about the Kindle is the hundreds of free books available.  These are books that are mostly classics, older books which I may never have thought of reading but that I probably should.  Recently I have been reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and prior to that I read his Notes from the Underground.  But it is another Russian author I want to write about here.

Leo Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You is in your face challenging.  For Tolstoy, Jesus said to love your enemies and not fight back against those who harm you, and Jesus actually meant it.  Tolstoy presents Christianity as pacifism in obedience to Jesus.  The basic argument: Jesus said not to use violence.  Tolstoy makes some good arguments.  For example, many Christians explain away Jesus’ commands in the sermon on the mount about violence, saying he did not really mean to never strike back.  But no Christians uses the same argument to explain away Jesus’ other commands in regards to  lust or adultery.  Another point I found Tolstoy challenging on is his critique of the Russian nation’s reliance on military power, at times he could have been addressing America today as we too rely on military power and violence for our safety.

Before you pick this book up (or download it) thinking to get an argument for Christian pacifism only, it is important to note what Tolstoy rejects.  He basically says salvation by grace is irrelevant.  He has no time for the apostle Paul or for anything about Jesus dying for our sins.  To Tolstoy, Christianity is to live like Jesus, plain and simple.  Now, I think he runs into some problems here which have been noted against those who make similar arguments.  Why follow Jesus’ ethical teachings and ignore the things he said that no sane human could say, unless he was correct?  If you say Jesus is a great ethical teacher and nothing more, you have to face the fact that your ethical teacher said incredibly offensive things.  As CS Lewis would say, your great teacher often sounds like a lunatic.

To be blunt, Tolstoy falls far short in orthodoxy – right belief about Jesus.  Those things I mentioned above, that have been believed by all Christians everywhere, are not believed by Tolstoy.

The question I ask is: does this mean we should ignore the challenging message he may have for us?  He may fall short in terms of belief, but what if he is right in terms of practice?

That brings me to my second book.  Since January I have been slowly working my way through John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion.  Now here is somebody who is the definition of orthodox.  Calvin is very concerned with right belief and five hundred years after his death, this is one thing he, and those who take the name “Calvinist” are known for.

I have enjoyed the Institutes.  As someone who identifies more “Wesleyan” and “Anabaptist”, this may be surprising.  I like that Calvin’s writing is actually quite easy to read which is no small thing if you have tried to read any Christian who has been dead a few hundred years.  Also, Calvin has depth to the point where even if you disagree with his conclusions, you have to respect his serious study.  If much of what you find at Christian bookstores today is junk food, Calvin is a meaty steak.  Finally, Calvin is not just about right belief, despite the stereotype that he is.  I just finished the chapters on prayer in book three and was moved by the practicality and simply the love of God exhibited by Calvin.

Speaking of the love of God, earlier in the Institutes (2.5.57), Calvin speaks of loving your enemies, saying it is an obligatory command for the Christian.  I read that with a hearty amen.  Then I turned the page and read about the “devilish” Michael Servetus.   Servetus was a philosopher who taught that the Trinity was a false doctrine and that God was simply one.  Calvin, and pretty much everyone else, Protestant or Catholic, opposed Servetus.  To make a long story short, Servetus ended up in Geneva, where Calvin lived, and was arrested.  Calvin and the other leaders agreed he should be executed.  He ended up being burned at the stake, though Calvin argued for a more humane execution.  Nevertheless, Calvin agreed Servetus had to die.

Which leads me to ask, what happened to all that love your enemies stuff?

Calvin is known for his orthodoxy, the doctrines that Christians through the ages have agreed on (even if you don’t agree with his theology at all points, which I do not).  But at least in the Servetus saga, he fell short in orthopraxy – living like Jesus.

Today, Christians who would (hopefully) not be in favor of executing heretics are still able to read from, learn from and appreciate John Calvin.  This is no different than reading and learning from the many imperfect people in church history.  We have little problem learning from those who had imperfect lives.

What if we turn this on its head: can we read from, learn from and appreciate those who we may have serious disagreements with in orthodoxy, such as Tolstoy, but who give us a challenging lesson in living like Jesus.  I am no expert in whether Tolstoy was able to live even close to his own ethic (though I am pretty sure he wasn’t).  But can we learn from someone whose teaching on orthopraxy, right living, is good but whose other doctrine is false.

I am all about the right beliefs especially on central issues, like the Trinity, dual-nature of Christ, literal resurrection and grace.  But I can’t help but wonder why it seems like so many Christians appear more concerned with right belief than right living.  Now, I doubt many would say that.  And ultimately, you can’t really separate the two.  But are we quicker to forgive the sins of those who have the right theology than we are to forgive the bad beliefs of those who have the right actions?

To go one (risky) step further, what happens when people who would not say they are Christians appear to live more “Christian” than those of us who are Christian?  I do not mean any sort of salvation by works; I do not mean they pray more or give more or whatever other things we use to judge “good” Christians.  I  mean, What if they appear to recognize their own brokenness and need for help from outside themselves?  What if they, to be theological, rely on grace, perhaps without calling it that, more than most Christians?

I think this is why there needs to be a good dose of humility.  Along with reading the Institutes I am listening to a podcast from a seminary class on Calvin.  The professor said that Calvin never wanted to say for sure that someone was not “elect” because we simply do not know who God may call.  I don’t think you need to be a “Calvinist” to affirm this, after all, the Bible says (John 3:1-8) that the Spirit moves where it will and no one knows how it works.  When we see Christians who believe the right thing but fail to live it, or we see other Christians with quasi-heretical beliefs who live in reliance on Jesus, let’s be humble.  Even when we see people who are not Christians living as if they are, well maybe it is our job to shed light on the belief that gives root to the way they already live?

Ultimately, may we trust in the Holy Spirit to bring unity to a messed up group of people called the Church, the one unified church that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, gave his life for.

That brings me full circle.  My goal on campus is not simply to dump information into the heads of Christian students so that they believe the right things about God (though I would hope as they mature in faith, they do develop orthodox belief).  My goal is to help them, as they learn about God, to know God personally (stop right now and go read JI Packer’s Knowing God) so they can live in relationship with him.  My prayer for all these students, and myself, is that we become more Christ like, loving our neighbor, doing good to those who hurt us, walking justly, loving mercy and so on.

Perhaps the best way to end this post is that I want to be as vigorous in pursuing right belief as Calvin and as serious about the commands of Jesus as Tolstoy.

Almost Christian 8- Hanging Loose: The Art of Detachment

The soul needs amazement, the repeated liberation from customs, viewpoints, and convictions, which, like layers of fat that make us untouchable and insensitive, accumulate around us. What appears obvious is that we need to be touched by the spirit of life and that without amazement and enthusiasm nothing new can begin” – Dorothy Soelle

 

This quote heads the chapter “Hanging Loose: The Art of Detachment”. Detachment is the “disentangling ourselves from whatever distracts us from Jesus Christ, so all of our attention – and all of our lives – may be fixed upon him” (159). This sort of detachment is vital in the spiritual growth of people as it opens us up to the Holy Spirit in ways we are not normally open. Throughout the chapter Dean uses mission trips as a central place this happens in the life of teenagers.

Admittedly, short term mission trips offer much to criticize (tourist aspect, the fact mission is not merely a “trip”, etc.). That aside, such trips do “open many teenagers to the Holy Spirit’s transformation and often provide appreciated, if limited, assistance to people in need” (159). The most fun thing in this chapter was reading the journal of a teen, reflecting on her trip to Mexico. This demonstrates that short term mission trips are important ministries more to the teens who go on them than anything else.

I was never blessed to go on a mission trip while in high school, or while a teen. I went on my first cross-cultural mission trip, to the Dominican Republic, at the end of my junior year in college. Much of what Dean talked about in this chapter rings true as I recall my experience on that trip.

We went to serve the community there. We worked on building a new church, we did a bible school for the kids in the morning and outreaches in the evening. Perhaps some lives were changed in that community because of our presence. But I know all of us on the trip were affected greatly during our time there. It was an eye-opening experience, seeing poverty as I had never seen before but also seeing many who lived in that poverty having a joy unfamiliar to many Christians in my home community. I recall feeling closer to Jesus Christ and more filled with the Spirit than any other time in my life. Returning to America was culture shock. It was harder to complain about things in my comfortable life when I recalled the experience in the Dominican Republic.

I have seen the same experience repeated over and over again in the lives of the college students I work with. It is not just mission trips where this happens. Retreats are similar in some ways, as we get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with the Spirit. For me, it has also happened on trips that cannot really be called “mission” trips. I think of chaperoning a school trip to Guatemala with a group of Mennonite high school students. The leaders of the trip continually reinforced that we were not tourists, we were pilgrims. If you go with that attitude, hoping to learn about both yourself and the culture, you may be surprised by what you learn.

But Dean cites statistics that show millions of kids have gone on mission trips and not all of these kids end up as committed Christians as adults. Likewise, four out of five teens report having religious experiences. Dean notes that “having a spiritual experience or a sense of personal closeness to God – and choosing to relate to society as someone changed by this experience – are two different things” (164). While mission trips can have a great affect, it is the home congregation that will prove more crucial to the development of students than the time on the trip. Coming home, the passion and excitement fade. The students need to be given tools to interpret what they learned on this trip and how it applies to their daily lives, they need social relationships with other Christians to make sense of these trips.

Thus, while experiences like mission trips, retreats and pilgrimages can be greatly forming, they are not magic wands to ensure religious growth. Instead, they exist in the context of an entire life.  Compared to such experiences, living in the mundane of daily life is often disappointing.  Sometimes people end up seeking to constantly recreate this experience, to gain that feeling again.  The solution is not to try to create a life constantly lived on high action (Dean actually talks about this, contrasting youth ministry focused on action which leads to anxiety with one rooted in love and compassion which leads to focusing on the presence of Jesus). This would be like trying to make your entire marriage like the honeymoon! It might be fun, but it is impossible and if you try it you will be disappointed in marriage.

Life with Jesus does include amazing experiences where you feel like God is right there. But that life also includes mundane things like going to work every day and paying your bills. The goal is to integrate these two and to realize the presence of Jesus in everyday life, even when you do not have those warm feelings you have on a mission trip or retreat.

 

Recent Reads

College is Worth the Time (and Money): “So here’s the key takeaway: Education gives you choices. Assuming you don’t pile up mountains of debt that constrain your career options (and that outcome is avoidable) or go to a school where just fogging a mirror is good enough to get a diploma, there are not a lot of downsides to going to college. The stories of entrepreneurs who bootstrapped themselves are exciting but most of us are not a Gates or Zuckerberg. So before heeding the advice of the college naysayers, make sure you understand the stakes and the odds. Or, here’s a good rule of thumb instead: When people who worked hard to achieve something that has benefitted them start telling you that it’s really not all that important or useful — beware.”

Sex Trafficking in America – yes, slavery is not just on the other side of the world, it is right here in the United States.  In the story Krishna Patel says, “I’d always dismissed the idea of human trafficking in the United States. I’m Indian, and when I went to Mumbai and saw children sold openly, I wondered, Why isn’t anything being done about it? But now I know—it’s no different here. I never would have believed it, but I’ve seen it. Human trafficking—the commercial sexual exploitation of American children and women, via the Internet, strip clubs, escort services, or street prostitution—is on its way to becoming one of the worst crimes in the U.S.”

One way you can help fight against human trafficking is by watching how you speak.  Basically, our culture sees pimps as glamorous men, we speak of “pimping” without a thought to what it really is – violence against women.

Human trafficking goes very deep, which is one reason it is such a difficult evil to end.  There are even indications the US military has been connected to the trafficking of workers in the Middle East.   Nicholas Kristoff is doing great work to bring the issue of human trafficking to the masses.

Let’s pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Algeria.

Some atheists are taking Richard Dawkins to task for being quick to debate the worst that Christians have to offer while shying away from deep thinkers like William Lane Craig.