Stephen King, CS Lewis and Believing Fantastic Things

51s5tovoubl-_sx302_bo1204203200_Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot is the story of how vampires destroy a small town.  In the midst of this, some characters figure out what is going on and try to rouse the town to fight back.  They run into many obstacles, such as skepticism.  At one point a priest, Father Callahan, is trying to convince a family their son is targeted by the vampires:

“Let’s talk a little more first. I’m sure your witnesses are reliable, as I’ve indicated. Dr. Cody is our family physician, and we all like him very much.  I’ve also been given to understand that Matthew Burke is above reproach…as a teacher at least.”

“But in spite of that?” Callahan asked.

“Father Callahan let me put it to you. If a dozen reliable witnesses told you that a giant ladybug had lumbered through the town park at high noon singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and waving a Confederate flag, would you believe it?”

“If I was sure the witnesses were reliable, and if I was sure they weren’t joking, I would be far down the road to belief, yes.

Still with a faint smile, Petrie said, ‘That is where we differ.”

“Your mind is closed,” Callahan said.

“No – simply made up.”

When I read this I could not help but think of CS Lewis’ children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this story a young girl named Lucy discovers a secret door into the land of Narnia.  Her brothers and sister do not believe her.  Then one of her brothers, Edmund, goes through the door too.  Lucy is ecstatic.  Finally her story will be believed!  Yet Edmund, in a moment of sheer meanness, says he saw nothing and that he and Lucy were just pretending.  She’s just a dumb kid, after all.

The older siblings go to a wise old Professor.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but – ” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful

“That’s just the funny thing about  it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up until now, I’d have said Lucy every time.

The Professor encourages them, in light of her past trustworthiness, to trust Lucy now.

The idea is the same as that in Salem’s Lot: it is possible to believe impossible things if trustworthy people share them.  If we do not rule out certain possibilities at the outset we may come to see that fantastic  things could be true.

Lewis would draw a real world conclusion from this.  Certainly humans do not usually rise from the dead, everyone knows that.  But if people we can trust report to us that once someone did rise from the dead and if we can think of no ulterior motives or other possibilities for what happened, then it makes sense to believe them. This is what happened with Jesus.

Do you buy it?   

I do.  Of course, I can see how others wouldn’t.  Its fantastic.  Heck, believing in vampires and magical worlds through doors may make more sense.  But what if the reports that have been passed down through the ages are true?

It changes everything!  It changes how we look at the world.

Is the world hopeless or hopeful?  Well, what if the story of the world is not one that ends in death but one that ends in the hope of new life?  What if, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the universe truly is curved towards justice?  Not because humans are so great and can work really hard and build something (I think history shows us that’s too optimistic) but because there is a Being we call God working behind the scenes to ensure that in the midst of all the hopelessness and death, there is hope and life.

I’ll take the fantastic and hopeful explanation.  Its all that can get me out of bed in the morning.

 

Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.

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If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity

 

 

Journeying to the Dark Tower (Reflections on Stephen King’s magnum opus)

Last year I read The Gunslinger by Stephen King.  Published way back in the 70s, this book tells the story of the last Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, pursuing the demonic man in black across the desert.  Roland’s goal is to find the mythical Dark Tower, the center of all existence.

I love fantasy stories so I was hooked.  Over the next nine months or so, I read the remainder of the series as well as some of King’s other books and short stories that tie in.  I won’t bother summarizing them here; if you want to read that sort of thing you can find such summaries all over the place.

Throughout the series, like in any good series, the world of the story expands.  New characters are introduced, new environments are experienced and the story becomes richer.  King resists introducing too many new characters though and succeeds in keeping the focus on Roland and his companions (his ka-tet).  There’s not really a final grand battle such as you see in many fantasy stories, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.  Such final battles are fine, but I appreciate how King went a different route.

Without giving too much away, what strikes me most as I reflect on the series is how it is much more about the journey then the destination.  The ending is even kind of disappointing.  In a post script, King admits the difficulty with ending such a series.  Nearly any ending, with all the build up of Roland reaching the Dark Tower, would fall short of people’s expectations.

Of course, this is how real life is.

You look forward for months to a new movie and it does not live up to the hype.

You work hard to graduate college in hopes of landing your dream job and struggle to find work.

My daughter has been begging all summer to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and when we finally took her she was ready to go home after about twenty minutes.

Maybe the value in life really is the journey more than the destination.  That sounds clichéd.  Yet if we who call ourselves Christians scoff at this idea, perhaps we should pause.  This idea is not new.  Look at John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress.  The entire story is about the pilgrim’s journey through the world.  It is the journey that draws us in.  Sometimes the ending is satisfying (such as Lord of the Rings) and sometimes it might not be.  But the story, the journey, is what compels us.

It is in the journey that we are shaped.

It is in the journey where we are faced with choices that will define us.

It is in the journey where we meet companions who will help us.

Life after death is a great mystery.  Christians and other religious people can say some things about what this life will be like, though no one really knows for sure beyond a few vague generalities.  But as we look towards that future goal,

as Roland did towards the Dark Tower

as Frodo did towards Mt. Doom

As Christian did towards Heaven

as Jesus did when he set his face towards Jerusalem

We can find strength to journey on in daily life.

All that to say, if you want to read a great story, check out the Dark Tower series…

 

 

My Ten Favorite Books in 2015

Here are my favorite reads from 2015 – not books released in 2015 but favorites among ones I read:

  1. David Bentley Hart – The Experience of god: Being, Consciousness, Bliss – Hart is one of my favorite authors and I think this is his best book and probably makes it into my top ten books of all time.  It is not as difficult as some of his previous works but it will still stretch you.  This book changed how I think and talk about God.  I think every Christian pastor, or anyone interested in theology, ought to read this.
  2. Napolean: A Life by Andrew Roberts – This is a fantastic, gripping bio of one of the great men who ever lived.  As I read I was visibly angry when Napolean invaded Russia, knowing how it would end up.  I recall stalking around the house, asking how he could make such a mistake!  If you like bios, read this one.
  3. On Social Justice by Basil the Great – This book, along with John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty both challenged and disturbed me.  There is value in these books that are centuries old, value that goes far above what is marketed as Christian literature today.  Both of these books will make you think about money and how to serve Jesus in the world today.
  4. The Cappadocian Fathers – Speaking of reading old books, I thoroughly enjoyed reading works on the Trinity from the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great (On the Holy Spirit), Gregory Nazianzus (Five Theological Orations) and Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism).  Classic works of Christian thinking on the Christian Trinitarian understanding of God.
  5. Johnny Cash: A Life by Robert Hilburn – Everything I used to know about Cash came from the movie Walk the Line.  This book greatly expanded my understanding, and admiration, for Cash.  That admiration is not naive, the man had all sorts of issues throughout his life.  If you like Johnny Cash or bios, check this one out.
  6. Joy of the Gospel by Pope Francis – Pope Francis took the world by storm and, apart from all the hype, his first book (encyclical) is fantastic.  Along with this, I also appreciated his second book On Care for Our Common Home as well as Pope Benedict’s God is Love.
  7. Who’ Afraid of Relativism by James KA Smith – Smith is also one of my favorite authors and I think this book, like many of his others, is a must-read.
  8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood – Wood tells the story of America from 1789 through 1815.  I found myself admiring Hamilton and learning a lot here.
  9. God Behaving Badly by David Lamb – Lamb is an Old Testament scholar whose first book seeks to help Christians understand how the God portrayed in the Old Testament, who comes across so mean, is the real and true God Christians worship.
  10. Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans – Evans is a wonderful writer and her memoir on walking away from, and then returning to church is a great read.

Traveling into Faerie and the Lessons Learned

When I first picked up a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a kid, I was mesmerized.  It was in a church library and I found it much more fascinating that the sermon, so I sat and read it during the church service.

Then came the rest of the Narnia series.  After that was Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  Since then I’ve read some other fantasy literature, some quite good, but nothing that capture my imagination like these stories.

Lewis was greatly influenced by George MacDonald, a pastor and author who lived from 1824-1905.  I recently bought the complete works of MacDonald for the kindle, looking forward to not just diving into his fiction but also into his non-fiction.  Friends of mine who do not read fiction have raved about MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and other works of theology.

First, I read the work that Lewis cited as baptizing his imagination, Phantastes.  It is the story of a man named Anodos who is taken to the land of Faerie and has many adventures there.  Faerie is the name of the mystical land inhabited by, well, fairies.  But we ought not think of fairies as just the Tinker Bell variety, instead think of Tolkien’s majestic Elves.  Faerie is a world of magic and danger, of giants and goblins and spirits.

It is easy to see the influence Phantastes had on Lewis’ writing.  At the same time, Phantastes is a tougher read then the Narnia books.  I found it kind of weird at times, sort of meandering.  It is the sort of story that a second reading would shed greater light on, for the threads that hold the story together are not clear throughout.  In other words, the story makes you think.  There are many metaphors and imagery that demand further reflection.  And, again unlike Narnia, there is no simple allegory where MacDonald’s Christian faith is obvious.

At the end of the story Anodos returns to his world and is challenged to live with the lessons he learned on his journey through Faerie.  That may be the lesson for the reader.

When we come to these stories, from MacDonald to Lewis and Tolkien and even into more contemporary fantasy, we find ourselves changed.  Not all fantasy does that of course, some of it ends up just being an hour or two of escapism.  But the best fantasy stories lead us into another world, revealing things about our world and ourselves that, when we put the book down, move us.  We do not leave unchanged.

I grew up in the church my whole life.  I knew the stories of Jesus.  But honestly, it was reading the sacrifice of Aslan in Lewis’ work that really, in my childhood mind, helped me grasp what the sacrifice of Jesus truly meant.

As MacDonald has Anados say at the end of the story:

My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.

That last phrase strikes me.  What does he fear?  That he will forget the lessons he learned and have to relearn them all?

When we read these stories, and ultimately the story of scripture, may we not come away unchanged. My hope would be that such experiences, such journeys into the written word, would shape us into whole people.

The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma (Review)

Honestly, I did not expect much from The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. I had never heard of the author but I picked it up when I saw a few people recommend it on Twitter…and it was free for a few days. After reading some challenging books this summer, from philosophers who hurt my brain to early church writers who make me feel guilty for being rich (compared to most people in the world) I thought this would be a quick read to squeeze in before summer ended.

As I was reading, I found myself becoming more and more interested. This is not just your typical book on how to live as a Christian by a megachurch evangelical pastor (though I honestly have no idea if this pastor is “evangelical” or if the church he is at is “mega”). There is a lot here about living in the paradoxes, accepting God and the Bible for what it is without trying to iron everything out.

What really got me was when he talked about reading books. I found myself being convicted, even feeling guilty, for how I read. I tend to consume books, at times reading through them too fast so I can log another “read” here on goodreads or at least fit into the identity of people who see me as someone who reads a lot of books. In the past I would read, hoping to find the key that would answer all my questions. If I just read enough, or learned enough, than doubt would be vanquished. There is still a bit of that too, so today I often read to solve everything and to consume. Through this I often do find myself challenged (that last book by David Bentley Hart or those works of the early church fathers…wow, I can’t get that stuff out of my head). But I wonder if at times reading books is my idol.

It is ironic then that I wanted to consume this book quickly before summer ended. I work on a college campus, in campus ministry, so around this time of year my time for reading greatly diminishes. Yet in the past I still managed to read a lot, maybe too much. As I read this book I came to a decision that as the school year commences, I am going to intentionally NOT read as much. Of course, I still need to read to prep for teaching (hence that Jeremiah commentary). And I will read for pleasure, because it is fun. But I am going to lay aside the big heavy theological tomes, not because I do not have more to learn (believe me, I do, and there are some books I really want to read) but because I know enough (head-knowledge that is) to minister on campus. When I read it will be for teaching prep, spiritual development (yeah, I can’t get away from the church fathers) or for fun (hello biography of Napolean!). I also hope this will lead to more time for journaling, meditation and the like.

So overall, I recommend this book. I can see it being greatly helpful for college students so I will recommend it to them. I could see it being helpful to any Christian. Thanks Ken for a great book.

Social Justice and Caring for the Poor in the Early Church

A while back a popular conservative commentator got all up in arms over the term “social justice”, warning his listeners to flee their church if the pastor mentioned it because it was code for communism.  He may be surprised to learn that the idea of social justice has roots as old as the Christian faith itself.  I thought of his words when I began reading Basil the Great’s On Social Justice.  I realize that this is a title given by editors and that Basil wrote in Greek and that the book is a collection of sermons on poverty.  That said, I still chuckled when I saw the title.

Then I started reading and my chuckling stopped.  Soon I just moved back and forth form feeling incredibly challenged by these ancient words and feeling completely despondent in the face of my personal, and the church’s collective, failure to live up to this challenge.  One thing other readers note about Basil’s work is that it needs little introduction and that readers with limited knowledge of his time period don’t really need any.  These sorts of sermons could have been preached last week (though, any preacher who preachers them will probably be looking for a job this week).

Basil’s basic message here is that there is enough material goods in the world for everyone.  If you have too much, you are robbing the poor.  Those with a lot need to give it to those in need so we all have enough.  Wow, maybe that conservative radio host was right!  There is even a section where Basil points out that those who declare they worked hard and earned a comfortable life ignore the fact that they received so many blessings from God (or, to put it in contemporary terms, you didn’t build it on your own).

Lest we think Basil was some sort of socialist and turn away from his work, we should probably remember that he is one of the primary theologians who hammered out the Nicene Creed.  To be somewhat blunt, if you believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, that the Spirit truly is God, that is partly due to Basil’s work (yes, I know the Bible and the Spirit had something to do with it too!).  Seriously though, read his work On the Holy Spirit.

Also, while this work translates well to the modern reader, there may be differences we ought to keep in mind.  Such differences ought not be mentioned with the goal to blunt Basil’s tough words.  If we look for cultural differences too quickly to free us from the bite of his words, our motives are wrong (of course, we Christians do that with Jesus’ words all the time, don’t we?).  For example, we live in a world where many national governments have been influenced for centuries by Christian teaching.  So our governments take on some duty in caring for the poor through various programs.  This means that one question Christians discuss when talking on this is to what degree churches work in their own programs and to what degree do they advocate governmental work that lines up with justice.  Basil does not talk about this at all.  He does not write on the government’s duty to care for the poor or how that all works.  Does this mean Christians today just help the poor and not worry about the government?  Maybe, though I’d say if our Christian convictions are worth anything we advocate for the government to do good, such as helping the neediest citizens.  I assume Basil would agree, though he did not talk on it.

Another difference is that when Christians today think of helping the poor this is often thoughts of donating money, probably online, to some organization that helps people overseas.  This is a good thing, but not what Basil meant.  He meant the poor people right down the street.  Basil would challenge us to rethink what it looks like to help others.

Overall, I think all Christians need to give this book a good read.  I plan to reread it in the not too distant future.

Along with Basil’s work, I tackled John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty, seven sermons on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  While not as directly challenging as Basil’s work, it is still an enriching read.  It is clear why Chrysostom was known as a great preacher.  Where Basil is blunt and to the point, Chrysostom is full of beautiful prose.  He even had to tell people to stop cheering for his sermon and actually apply it to their lives.

My favorite thing about Chrysostom was the centrality of scripture, he had whole sections reminding people to search scripture on their own.  Always cool to find that sort of thing in the early church to remember the Protestant Reformation did not invent that.  Also cool to see ancient preachers go on tangents, as someone who enjoys a good tangent or two myself when I stand up in front of people.

When Chrysostom gets to the point, there is a lot to think about.  One thing he emphasizes over and over is that even good people commit sins and even bad people do some good (I wonder how Augustine felt about his thoughts on sin here?).  Thus, he argued, the rich man received his reward for the good he did in this life, little good as it was.  And Lazarus suffered, perhaps as punishment for his sin.  But in the next life they each got what they deserved.  From this, we are reminded to not praise those in comfort, for they are getting their reward now.  And those suffering are looking to future rewards.

All in all, read both these works and read them again.  Let them read you and change you.  I know I will, at least I hope I will.

Where the Conflict Really Lies – Alvin Plantinga (Review)

You may have heard that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Promoting such a war has enabled many on both sides, fundamentalist creationists and fundamentalist atheists, to sell a lot of books.  Even for those not on the extreme, there is a feeling and a fear that somehow faith in God is at odds with belief in science.

Of course, there is no such conflict.  But philosopher Alvin Plantinga wants to go one step farther then saying there is no conflict between science and religion.  He argues that there truly is a conflict, but it is between science and naturalism.

Before he gets there, he tackles the alleged conflict between faith and science.  This takes two forms, the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution somehow refutes Christian faith and the idea that it is impossible to believe in miracles in a world of science.  Such conflicts simply do not exist.  Not only do they not exist, but promoting such conflict actually hurts science:

As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 54). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In the second part of the book Plantinga looks at two areas where there appears to be a superficial conflict: evolutionary psychology and scriptural scholarship.  While there may be small conflict, the claims of those two disciplines do not provide a defeater for belief in God.

Speaking of “defeaters”, it is important to grasp the understanding of basic beliefs for Plantinga.  Over and over again he speaks of many beliefs we hold with no evidence, things like perception, memory, and that other people have minds.  When we see a sheep on a hill far ahead we do not form an argument that there is a sheep.  We simply see it and believe it is there.  This belief is justified.  In the same way, believing other people perceive the world how we do and remembering what we had for breakfast do not require arguments and evidence.  A defeater is something that would prove such beliefs wrong.  If someone says of our seeing the sheep, “that’s my dog Skip,” we now have our belief defeated.

Plantinga argues that belief in God is just such a basic belief.  We do not need evidence to prove our belief in God, it is rational to believe in God in a basic way.  But can such a belief be defeated?  No such defeater has been found.  Plantinga argues that evolution is definitely nowhere close and the topics of part two, though there is superficial conflict, are not near being defeaters either.

Then in part three he discusses areas where there is concord between science and faith, making the claim that is extended in part four, that belief in science has much more justification for theism then naturalism.

Finally, part four is the height of the book.  Here Plantinga takes science, the belief in evolution, and naturalism, the belief that there is nothing outside of nature.  For Plantinga, you cannot sensibly believe in both evolution and naturalism.  For if all we are is nature, then our evolution is driven solely by survival.  We desire to feed, survive and reproduce.  Survival, not truth, is what is most important.

We assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. But what I want to argue is that the naturalist has a powerful reason against this initial assumption, and should give it up. I don’t mean to argue that this natural assumption is false; like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are, in fact, mostly reliable. What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 326). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One objection to Plantinga’s argument is that it seems obvious that true beliefs would ensure survival.  He admits this is true, but says it is irrelevant.  His argument is not about how things are but how we would expect things to be if naturalism and evolution were both true.  We cannot assume naturalism (materialism) is true from the outset.  If we imagine it being true we imagine a world where all that matters is survival and truth is irrelevant.  He says:

It is by virtue of its neurophysiological properties that B causes A; it is by virtue of those properties that B sends a signal along the relevant nerves to the relevant muscles, causing them to contract, and thus causing A. It isn’t by virtue of its having that particular content C that it causes what it does cause. So once again: suppose N&E were true. Then materialism would be true in either its reductive or its nonreductive form. In either case, the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But in either case it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.29

Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 340). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In a natural world your desire to get a drink of water is driven by your biological need for water.  Any true beliefs you have about water, or false ones, are irrelevant.  Believing in naturalism and evolution thus provides a defeater for naturalism in that you have no good reason to hold it is true.

Plantinga’s argument is long and detailed, so I hope I did a halfway decent job of illustrating it here.  I first encountered some of these ideas of basic beliefs and defeaters in his book Warranted Christian Belief.  I found this book much better, more approachable for a non-specialist in philosophy.  That said, there were parts of it that were definitely a chore.  I am grateful for people like Plantinga who make such arguments, but I am more grateful for those who can distill them down to be made understandable for normal, average people.  I work my way through books like this because I think it truly helps me in ministry, but I can’t say I enjoy reading them as I do some other Christian thinkers like David Bentley Hart or James KA Smith.

Overall, a good and challenging read that has much that can be useful in helping those who have questions about faith and science.

 

God Behaving Badly (Review)

How could God command genocide?

Why does God endorse slavery?

God is a sexist monster, isn’t he?

These are the sorts of questions that frequently come up in discussions about the Bible, whether those discussions are with skeptics or sincere Christians working through the Bible for the first time.  Such questions have always been there, the first Christians had to spend much time, and spilled much ink, seeking to answer them.  But it seems such questions are becoming continuously louder in our culture as more people move away from faith.  At the most extreme, the fact that God in the Old Testament commands such barbaric actions is proof such God, any God, does not exist.

I think this question is much more challenging then issues related to science, for example.  Whether Darwinian evolution is true or not seems, to me, irrelevant to the question of God’s existence.  But a God who commands the extermination of whole people groups or institutes laws that make women second class citizens?  Such a God as portrayed in the Bible makes us question the validity of the Bible and its God.

That said, there are many great books out there that provide answers to these questions.  I think “answers” is better then “answer”  because the seriousness of these questions shows there is no easy answer that simply takes all questions away.  This is one thing I most appreciated about David Lamb’s book God Behaving Badly – he takes the question seriously and though he offers many answers, in the end he admits this remains a difficult issue.  Lamb’s book tackles many of the common questions such books address, such as the genocide of the Canaanites and the apparent sexism of the Old Testament God.  But he goes on to address other issues, such as whether God is near or distant, which are not always addressed.

There are a lot of books out there on this subject.  Lamb’s is a welcome addition and a must-read for any who have questions on these topics.

The only problem I found in the book is when Lamb refers to another scholar, Eric Seibert.  Apparently Seibert argued that if the Bible says God committed such atrocities we can simply say God did not do such things for the God revealed in Jesus would not do such things.  I have not read Seibert, but his argument reminded me of Peter Enns whose recent book I did read.  Lamb says he is not comfortable with “rejecting” the Old Testament accounts.  This does not seem fair of Enns (or Seibert) for I do not think they would say they are rejecting anything.  Reinterpreting? Yes.  Enns emphasizes the human aspect and says that God wants such stories in scripture even if they portray him wrongly.  A minor issue to be sure, but it seemed to misrepresent those who hold such positions.

Finally, If you are interested in this topic, definitely check out Peter Enns’ recent book that takes a slightly different take on the issue – The Bible Tells Me So: How Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read it.

Also, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? and Christopher Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand.

 

You Should Read Some Dostoyevsky…Here Are Some Tips!

When I talk with people about books I am reading or favorite books I have read, I always mention Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Often the person looks at me like I have three eyes.

Having read a bunch of his books, I want to offer some tips and encouragement.  They are certainly challenging, a far cry from many of the popular books that dominate American bestseller lists.  His books are long on dialogue and often lack much description of the surrounding landscape.  It would not be wrong to call Dostoyevsky a philosopher, with his philosophy veiled in novels.  His novels are quite psychological as he dives deeply into the human mind and motivations.  Through all of this he asks deep questions of meaning and morality, often seen as one of the early existentialists.

First, what books of his should you read and in what order?

Start with Crime and Punishment, the story of a man named Raskolnikov  who plans a murder to steal money.  Much of the novel is his mental anguish before and after this crime.  After this move on to The Idiot.  The Idiot is the story of Prince Myshkin, a kind and gentle man who has recently returned to Russia from a Swiss sanatorium.  Myshkin’s kindness is overwhelmed by the depravity of those he meets.  They see him as an idiot and, more or less, end up driving him insane.

After this you could try Dostoyevsky’s first work, Poor Folk.  It is quite different then his later works, but shorter and very readable. Poor Folk is often paired with House of the Dead which tells the story of a man’s time in a forced labor camp in Siberia.  This is somewhat autobiographical as Dostoyevsky had spent time in such a prison.  I found this book one of the more difficult to read (playing the old House of the Dead videogame was much easier), though it was an interesting glimpse at prison camp life.

Another short, and much different in style, book is Notes from the Underground.  The first half of this book reads like a diary, the rantings of a man against the popular philosophy of the day.  In this you get a glimpse of Dostoyevsky’s philosophy examining questions of meaning, morality, free will and determinism.  The second half of the novel is a story.  The underground man whose diary we have been reading emerges and we read of his, shall we say, adventures.  I recall it was a weird story, but worth the read as it fills out the philosophical rantings of the first part with narrative.

Dostoyevsky’s best work, and my favorite novel ever, is The Brothers Karamazov.  You could certainly read this work before the others.  I save it for here as it is long and intimidating so reading the others would prepare you for it.  We meet three brothers – the saintly Aloysha, the intellectual atheist Ivan and the hedonist Dmitri.  Conflicts with their father, his murder and fantastic dialogue make this book a must-read.  Included in it is some of the best writing on the problem of evil as well as the haunting story-within-a-story, the Grand Inquisitor.

Finally,  there is The Possessed, also known as Demons.  I found this book to be the most difficult of all that I have read.  Dostoyevsky has written other books, but the above are all I have read.

Another tip I would give is to Utilize Help.  Do not be above utilizing Sparknotes or other internet helps.  Read summaries to familiarize yourself with the setting and context of the writing.

Also, Watch Out for the Names!  This can be one of the most frustrating things.  Not only are the names incredibly long and complex, but every character has a variety of nicknames.  You may think you are meeting a new character only to realize it is one you’ve already met but who is now being addressed differently.  Or you may lost track of who is who.

Finally, Be Patient.  These books are not quick reads.  They are challenging.  But so much of our life in 21st century America is fast paced, filled with sound bites and social media.  Reading challenging books is beneficial.  So if you’ve never read Dostoyevsky, give it a shot!