The True Myth and Challenge of Belief

871832The Christian faith has a lot in common with other religions.  We find story after story of dying and rising gods in ancient literature.  Isn’t the story of Jesus just another mythical story?

Well, yes.  And no.

CS Lewis writes in his essay “Myth Became Fact” (found in the book God in the Dock):

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth.  The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.  The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from religion they professed.  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary then the other (God in the Dock, 58-59).

Of course Christian faith has much in common with other faiths, myths and stories.  Truth, wherever it is found, whether in religion or philosophy or a good novel, points to the ultimate truth.  The difference, Lewis argues, is that in the story of Jesus Christ the shadowy unhistorical myths become real and true history.  Jesus’ resurrection took place in a real time and place.

Believing that such a thing really happened is not easy.  It is difficult to believe in fantastic things, as I wrote about recently.  Yet “belief” itself needs some sort of definition.  For some Christians, including me at various points in my life, belief merely meant assent.  To believe then was to assent to a series of statements.

Did Jesus rise from the dead?  

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

The problem here is that merely assenting to things does not affect your life much.  I fear that often what goes by the name “Christian apologetics” has its goal to convince people to assent to the truth of Christian faith.  So we defend our view and offer arguments targeted at the rational mind.  Can we get them to flip their vote from “no, of course Jesus did not rise” to “yes, it makes sense to say he did”?

Lewis goes on to write, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

Yes!  It is not that Lewis thinks believing it to be fact is unimportant (read the first quote up above again).  But he recognizes that simply believing does not count for much.  How does it change your life?  If Jesus is risen then everything is different.

Life has the last word, not death.

Hope has the last word, not despair.

Love has the last word, not hate.

 

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.

 

Problem of Evil and Suffering, Sandor Clegane Style

Why does God allow good people to suffer?

Why is God silent in the face of suffering?

Why does God not step in and stop evil?

Why do the wicked survive and the good perish?

These are as questions as old as time (see the book of Job and Psalms).  The first episode of season seven of Game of Thrones tackled them too.  Sandor Clegane, “the Hound”, has been around since the beginning of the show.  First he is bodyguard to the king, then he is a wandering fighter.  Filled with anger and contempt, Clegane is not afraid to tell it like he sees it.  Recently though his character-arc has started to turn towards redemption and he has fallen in with a group who worship the one true God (Sidenote: the world of Game of Thrones is filled with different religions but the specifics need not concern us here).

In the season premier Sandor is talking with Beric.  Beric has been killed in battle numerous times, but the Lord of Light keeps giving him his life back.

SANDOR: So why does the Lord of Light keep bringing you back? I’ve met better men than you, and they’ve been hanged from crossbeams, or beheaded, or just s*** themselves to death in a field somewhere. None of them came back. So, why you?

BERIC: You think I don’t ask myself that? Every hour of every day? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What does the Lord see in me?

SANDOR: And?

BERIC: I don’t know. I don’t understand our Lord.

SANDOR: Your Lord.

BERIC: I don’t know what He wants from me. I only know that He wants me alive.

SANDOR: If he’s so all-powerful, why doesn’t he just tell you what the f*** he wants?

The question is simple: if Beric’s God is so powerful, why doesn’t he just make himself known and be a bit more explicit in what he wants?

This conversation is happening in a farmhouse.  The previous residents of the house, a father and his daughter, are dead.  A few seasons ago Sandor had visited the same farmhouse and robbed them.  Though he did not kill them with his sword, his actions certainly put them on the fast track to death.  Witnessing their decaying bodies, he seems remorseful, in his own hardened way.  The remorse is more profound as he knows they were better people then he, that he should be dead, as should other killers, and the family should be alive.

SANDOR: There’s no divine justice, you dumb ****. If there was, you’d be dead…and that girl would be alive.

Why do innocent children die and murderous warriors survive

Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? – Psalm 10:1

I’m not interested in discussing answers to this question right now, as pointing out how great it is to see the question raised in such a popular television show.

Not only is Game of Thrones master storytelling, but it brings up these sorts of ethical questions (for some it is whether to watch the whos in the first place!).  That is one of the reasons I taught a workshop at the Student Conference on Game of Thrones and Tolkien, comparing the hopeless world of Thrones where evil seems to triumph with the hopeful world of Tolkien where powerful forces bend the arc of the story towards justice and goodness.  Along with that, I encouraged them to keep their minds and hearts turned on when they watch television and movies so that they can engage with their peers around the questions, messages and worldviews found and expressed within those stories.

In other words, how do we answer Sandor Clegane’s question in the real world?

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…

 

 

Trading Anger for Sympathy

A couple weeks ago my family and I went camping and left our dog with my sister and her husband.  When we returned home we stopped to pick up our dog.  We opened the door and our dog unceremoniously ran right past us and up the street!

While my wife ran after him, yelling his name, I went in the house to grab his leash and a few treats in the hopes of luring him back.  By the time I caught up to my wife, Skippy had stopped running.  He peed on a bush and ran back to us.  We were about three blocks up the street from my sister’s house.

Then I heard a voice.

“What’s your address?”

I turned around and there was a man sitting in his truck.  My initial thought was that he was lost and thought he’d ask for directions.  I told him we weren’t from this town.

“I was just wanting to know so I could bring my dog to go to the bathroom in your yard!”

Oh, now I get it.  We were standing in this guy’s yard!  He magically got home at the exact moment we caught our dog.  I immediately sought to clear up this misunderstanding.  I told him that our dog had run away and we had just caught him.  Further, my wife had checked and he had not pooped in the yard.  But the man was not deterred.  More gruff words followed.

Again I tried to explain how our dog ran away.  He didn’t want to hear it.  With a bit of fear of the stranger creeping in, we walked away.

I was struck with anger.  WHAT A JERK!

But soon my anger turned to something else: questioning.  What had happened in this man’s day, or life, to cause him to see two parents and two little kids with their dog and automatically assume the worst?  He didn’t see us and ask if we needed help.  He didn’t take time to question what we were doing.  He jumped directly to the worst case scenario: that we had taken our kids out to show them how to teach a dog how to deface property.

Maybe if I was a teenager, alone or with a buddy, then I’d expect someone to assume the worst.  And my own white privilege has certainly trained me to expect to get the benefit of the doubt.  But I am haunted by this question:

What happens to a person to make them assume the worst motives in others?

Honestly, it made me sad.  It made me sympathize with whatever forces brought this man there.  It made me desire to assume the best towards others for my own life.

How do our assumptions and biases shape our understanding of reality?

 

 

Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson – Dueling Theologians

On Sunday night after leading his Green Bay Packers to victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Aaron Rodgers gave credit to God.  Rodgers said to reporters afterwards: “I think God was a Packers fan tonight, so he was taking care of us.”

There is background here that makes this much more amusing.  Last year the two teams played, with the winner going to the Super Bowl.  The Seahawks won despite a dismal performance from their quarterback Russell Wilson.  Wilson gave credit to God, saying, “”That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special.”

Rodgers responded to Wilson’s words then by saying that while God cares for the people involved, God is not invested in who wins the games.  Clearly though, Rodgers words this past week were a poke in the ribs towards Wilson.

Both Rodgers and Wilson are Christians, and their differing views here point to different ways Christians may deal with suffering.  They are skirting the edges of the debate about freedom vs. determinism.  Some, like Wilson, see God as pulling all the strings.  So for Wilson God not only is praised for strength in order to succeed but God goes further and directly causes the evil and suffering in the world.  Wilson throws four interceptions and loses?  God caused it.  Wilson comes through in the end for the win? God did it?

You have to assume then that this sort of God also directly causes genocides and wars, rapes and murders.  But it is all for the greater good.  As some Christians say, “God has a plan.”  No matter what evil or suffering you encounter, rest assured that it is all part of God’s plan.

Rodgers, on the other hand, recognizes that God does care about everything.  But this care does not go down to micromanaging football games, or directly causing suffering and evil.  God cares about people but how this care works out, the level of freedom God gives, is somewhat a mystery.

Interesting how this theological debate about who God is and how God interacts with the world ends up on a football field.

I for one think Rodgers’ theology is better, more satisfying.  I also respect a good ribbing.

Defending Calvinism: Being Grateful For the Good Rather Then Fleeing From the Name

I am very grateful for the work of Ben Corey.  His blog is one that I frequently read and often find myself “liking” his posts on Facebook.  I found his book Undiluted to be challenging, well-written and all around fantastic.  And his podcast, That God Show, with Matthew Paul Turner is fun and interesting.

So I was surprised to find myself disappointed with his recent post calling on people to flee from Calvinism.  To be clear – I am not a Calvinist.  If anything I am probably quite close to Corey in my theology.  I have many issues with much theology that goes by the name Calvinism, which I will not get into here.  But I also realize that “Calvinism” is a blanket term that covers a lot of people and movements.

For Corey to say you ought to flee from “Calvinism” because some segments, specifically those in the “young, restless and reformed” world, are damaging seems overly simplistic.  Ought we do the same to any other group?  Would Corey be okay with a warning to flee Anabaptism due to a few examples on the worst side of it?  Do we jettison Christianity as a whole because of a few segments that are awful?

To be fair, the sort of Calvinism that Corey seems to be targeting, which has been labelled is the most vocal in the evangelical world right now.  It is easy to equate all Calvinism with these so-called New Calvinists.  That said, a writer of Corey’s stature, someone pursuing a doctoral decree, owes more to the Christian community.

While I am not a Calvinist, I have been greatly blessed by the work of many Calvinists.  Whatever you think of Calvinism, there is much good in there.

1. Marilynne Robinson – She’s one of the best novelists living today and her books of essays, such as When I Was a Child I Read Books, are fantastic.  If you haven’t read Gilead and its sequels you must.

2. James K.A. Smith – He has become one of my favorite authors and his books have a ton to offer, from summarizing the work of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor to a slightly different (or at least not well-known enough) spin on Calvinism.

3. John BunyanPilgrim’s Progress is a classic that all Christians should read.

4. John Newton – Once a slave trader, ended up being one of the first to speak out against that evil.  Greatly influenced Wilberforce and is most known for the hymn Amazing Grace.

5. Tim Keller – His books and sermons illustrate how a pastor can also be a thoughtful theologian and apologist; the success of his church in NY city is impressive.  His book The Reason for God is still my favorite apologetic work.

6. Alvin Plantinga – He is probably the top living Christian philosopher.  His works are demanding, the few I have read have made my brain hurt.  Any Christian would benefit from wrestling with his work.  I hope to finally read his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, this summer.

7. John Calvin – The man who started it all!  I read his classic work The Institutes of Christian Religion a few years back.  There were times I got so mad I wanted to throw it across the room!  But I also found it encouraging and challenging.  Of all the Christian “classics” I have read, I was most impressed by the style of writing.  This book was clearly written for normal people to read and learn from.

8. Pine Springs Camp – Moving from writers, I worked at this camp in Western PA for two summers in college.  It was one of the most influential and life-shaping experiences of my life.  Had I “fled” from the Calvinism of this place, I would have been the one at loss.  It was also here that I first learned what Calvinism was, being introduced to TULIP, which I thought was nuts.  But in the midst of disagreement, lots of good was done.  The number of individual persons here whose life and work impacted me would be too long to list.

9. Jubilee – I never attended this conference for college students while in college, but I have taken students there.  I can’t say it is the best conference for college students, but it is fantastic and unique.  The focus is not, like so many conferences, on just getting kids fired up for Jesus.  Instead the focus is helping them think through their major and career in relationship with their faith.

 

Drunkeness, Weddings and Taking Part in Sin

When faced with the question of baking a cake for the wedding of two women, some Christian bakers have refused.  They cite their Christian faith, arguing that they cannot take part in something God has condemned.  Others argue you should not even attend a gay wedding.

A ton of questions flurry around this – should they be fined?  Is this infringing on their religious freedom?  Bring this topic up at a holiday picnic and watch the sparks fly.

I was at a wedding a few weeks back.  It was a wonderful time seeing two great people, one a former student, commit their lives to each other.  Like many weddings, this one had an open bar and the beer, wine and mixed drinks flowed freely.

I couldn’t help but think of some of the controversy with gay weddings and wonder if these bakers have denied their services to weddings that had open bars?  After all, here is just a sampling of what the Bible says about drunkeness:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, – Ephasians 5:18

Envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:21

Nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:10

Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags. – Proverbs 23:20-21

Whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding. – Hosea 4:11

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. – 1 Corinthians 5:11

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. – Romans 13:13

This is just a sampling, there are many more that speak of drunkenness negatively (though there are many that speak positively of drinking alcohol too).  From this I gather that to be consistent, if you truly did not want to take part in sin, you would have to refuse to bake a cake or attend any wedding that served alcohol.  Or, on the other hand, if you’ve baked cakes for those weddings, just bake the cake for the lesbian one too.

 

What if This Was the Sort of Thing People Thought About When They Heard “Christian”?

Evangelicals Denounce Payday Lenders, Join Fight For New Regulations.

Payday loans are an evil that take advantage of people in need.  I was so happy to see this headline, as this is the sort of thing I wish Christians were known for.

When people, such as students at Penn State Berks, hear “Christian”, many words come to mind.  Some of these words are positive: loving, caring, friend.  But too often these words are negative: hypocrite, judgmental, anti-gay, anti-science.*

What if this was the sort of thing people thought of when they heard “Christian”?

I had a vague memory of writing about payday loans before, and it turns out I did back in August, 2013: Collecting Interest on Loans, Sinful?  

And of course, the brilliant John Oliver did a whole segment on the evils of payday lending which is both hilarious and informative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDylgzybWAw

*CSF did a survey back in the fall so I am not just guessing here, these really are the words people think of.

Turn the Other Cheek – The Verse Curiously Absent When We Offer Prooftext Arguments

A couple weeks back the news came down that Tsarnev had been condemned to death for the Boston Marathon bombing.  As is common when I hear big news nowadays, I went to Twitter to check out what people were saying, specifically Christian leaders.  What surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have, is that many who are so quick to cite a verse or two in order to settle other issues did not do the same here.  This is surprising because there is a verse in Jesus’ most famous sermon that would fit, Matthew 5:38-39:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also

It seems rather clear – if someone harms you, do not harm them in return. As Christians we ought then to advocate for forgiveness rather then seeking death.  Yet much discussion about the death penalty around this verse ends up arguing about why this simple statement of Jesus is not applicable.  Perhaps other passages are brought forward to tip the scales in favor of death.  Or we are told that Jesus is here concerned with personal morality and not with what governments do.

Yet, when it comes to other issues Christians are often more then willing to settle it by prooftext which begs the question: why in some cases we love referencing a verse or two in order to settle the issue while in others we do not.  

For comparison, just think of gay marriage.  When discussions or arguments about gay marriage happen, the side opposing gay marriage will quote the 5-6 passages in scripture to settle the issue.  Often they will go on to argue that this piece of Christian morality ought to be the law of the land.  As it tends to be more conservative Christians who support the death penalty and oppose gay marriage the irony is clear – why seek to make Christian morality the law of the land in one case but not the other?

I do not think it is only conservative Christians who are guilty here.  Both sides kind of do the same thing:

Some Christians cite the verses that condemn gay relationships while explaining that Jesus’ clear commands in Matthew 5 against violence are more complex.  

Other Christians take Jesus’ words as the final word while explaining that the verses condemning gay relationships are more complex.  

If I am harder on one group then the other it is because I tend to be harder on the Christian subculture I came from and we were all against gay relationships but also big into making sure murderers got the death penalty.

At any rate, as I recognize this tendency it makes me realize that more often then not we do not let scripture shape us, instead we bring our views to scripture and work scripture to support us.  If a cut-and-dried prooftext supports what we think, great!  If not, then we engage in deeper interpretation to get to where we want to be.

I hope this does not sound too cynical.  I do think scripture helps us as we seek answers, but there are better ways to read scripture then others.  Ultimately we need a Jesus-centered view of scripture that recognizes Jesus as the culmination of the story.   Along with this, scripture is not there to mine for isolated verses to trot forth as evidence for our views, scripture is there to tell us the story of God’s interaction with humanity (which again, culminates in the person and work of Jesus).

In other words, arguing about these issues are surface level arguments.  The real differences lie beneath, in how we understand the function and use of scripture in the first place.