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.


Musings on Scripture, Tradition and Reading Long Dead Christians

One of the things that has divided Roman Catholics from Protestants for centuries is the question of what has authority.  The Protestant movement from the beginning held to sola scriptura, scripture alone.  This does not mean that scripture is the only authority but rather that scripture is the final authority, or that it “trumps” all others.  Roman Catholics, on the other hand, affirmed there are two streams that flow together – scripture and tradition.  Together these form the authority.

I read a blog post a few days ago arguing for the Protestant position.  The argument was that the early church fathers, Christians writing from the end of the New Testament era (100 AD) through to the end of the Roman Empire (around 400 AD) supported sola scriptura.  The implication then was that the Roman Catholic view only arose in the medieval era as the Roman Church married the secular state and ruled over Christendom.

Now the author of this post is much more educated then I am, he is a professional scholar while I am just a campus minister with a large interest in historical theology.  That said, recently I have read both Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit and Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.  Both of these writings come from the late 300s and were hugely influential in solidifying the doctrine of the Trinity.  And both make statements about the importance of tradition.  First Basil:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery”2 by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.

In answer to the objection that the doxology in the form “with the Spirit” has no written authority, we maintain that if there is no other instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be received. But if the greater number of our mysteries are admitted into our constitution without written authority, then, in company with the many others, let us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide also by the unwritten traditions. “I praise you,” it is said, “that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you;” and “Hold fast the traditions which ye have been taught whether by word, or our Epistle.”2 One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us, which they who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches, delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom advances pace by pace with time.

Time will fail me if I attempt to recount the unwritten mysteries of the Church. Of the rest I say nothing; but of the very confession of our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what is the written source? If it be granted that, as we are baptized, so also under the obligation to believe, we make our confession in like terms as our baptism, in accordance with the tradition of our baptism and in conformity with the principles of true religion, let our opponents grant us too the right to be as consistent in our ascription of glory as in our confession of faith. If they deprecate our doxology on the ground that it lacks written authority, let them give us the written evidence for the confession of our faith and the other matters which we have enumerated. While the unwritten traditions are so many, and their bearing on “the mystery of godliness is so important, can they refuse to allow us a single word which has come down to us from the Fathers;—which we found, derived from untutored custom, abiding in unperverted churches;—a word for which the arguments are strong, and which contributes in no small degree to the completeness of the force of the mystery?

Then, Gregory:

For the matter stands thus. The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself. For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost; lest perhaps people might, like men loaded with food beyond their strength, and presenting eyes as yet too weak to bear it to the sun’s light, risk the loss even of that which was within the reach of their powers; but that by gradual additions, and, as David says, Goings up, and advances and progress from glory to glory, the Light of the Trinity might shine upon the more illuminated.

Basil emphasizes unwritten tradition as a source for truth while Gregory emphasizes the experience of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, non-Catholics agree that there is truth found in tradition and experience.  And, of course, I am writing as a non-Catholic, though as one who wrestles with the interplay of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

What I draw from this is that this is an issue that cannot be solved by selective proof-texting.  The author of the blog post above has plenty of quotes to demonstrate that early Christians held scripture in high regard, but Catholics have just as many quotes to support their view.  I imagine part of the reason for this is that the early Christians were not fighting our battles, so it is somewhat an anachronism to go back and try to mine support for views that were not well defined as they were a millenia later.

So what I take from this, as a pastor with an amateur interest in historical theology, is to not try to fit Christians of the distant past into the sides of debate we have today.  Rather than reading a series of proof-texts, read the actual works from this long-dead saints.  In those works we will find things we whole-heartedly agree with and things that make us pause, even trouble us.  We will also realize that the Christian church through the ages is a big tent that includes people with all sorts of views.  As we realize that, perhaps we will be more accepting of those Christians who disagree with us today.

Know the Creeds, Councils and Heretics by Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb has done the Church a favor in publishing two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.  Both can serve as great introductions to the history of Christian theology, including both what Christians believe and why they believe it.  I could see these books both being used in small group studies or read by lay Christians seeking to learn more about Christian belief.

First, Know the Heretics.  This book begins with a discussion of what a “heresy” is.  Such a discussion is important, as it often seems the only heresy nowadays is to call someone else a heretic.  But if on one extreme there are those who would call nothing heresy, on the other are those who call everything heresy.  Holcomb focuses in on only issues discussed in the great Christian creeds, such as the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the Trinity and so on.  Thus, differing views on hell or on evolution or other secondary issues are not heresies.

From this he covers pretty much all the major heresies in the early church.  Most of these arose from people trying to figure out and explain who Jesus was.  So you have the heresy that Jesus was only human, as well as the heresy that Jesus was not human at all (Docetism).  The most odd thing in this book is that it follows in chronological order until you get near the end.  Holcomb covers the heresy of Eutychus (Monophystism) before covering that of Nestorius (Nestorianism), even though Nestorius’ controversy came first in history.  So in the chapter on Eutychus, Holcomb has to allude to the story of Nestorius, which the reader has not come to yet.  It reads a bit awkwardly and begs the question, Why not cover them in order?

The other book, Know the Creeds and Councils, is also good, though I found one flaw that bothered me.  This book moves more beyond the early church, not just covering the early creeds but moving into councils from the Reformation era and even a few in the 20th century.  Thus it is more broad, covering Catholic councils (Trent in the 1500s, Vatican II in the 1900s) and Reformed confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg Catechism).  It is the absences in this broadness that makes me pause though.  Why favor just these two traditions?  During the Reformation era we are missing both Lutheran and Anabaptist writings.  Or even move beyond mere belief and mention the Barmen Declaration that spoke out against Hitler in WWII.

Related to this, is what I see as perhaps an unavoidable problem in a book like this.  In discussing the anathemas connected to one of the creeds, Holcomb reflects on whether one can be condemned for simply believing the wrong thing about God, as the creed states.  Such a discussion is probably too deep for a book as brief as this and leads to more questions then answers.  Are those who assent to the correct beliefs saved even if they commit horrific evils?  Are some with questionable beliefs condemned to judgment even if they live as true disciples of Jesus?  This is why I think something from Anabaptists (such as the Schleitheim Confession) and the Confessing Church in Germany would have filled out this book nicely.

That said, overall, these books are greatly helpful for any Christian.

The MaddAddam Trilogy – Dystopia for Grown Ups

Before I begin this review, let me address my young adult friends for a minute.  A few years ago you read The Hunger Games and loved it.  I enjoyed the trilogy too, even though the very end was a bit disappointing.  Then you went looking for more dystopia so you moved on to Divergent.  I am reading those books right now.  Soon you’ll be wanting to move on to the next big thing.  How about you move on to something a bit more grown-up?

Margaret Atwood first did this whole dystopian thing while most fans of Divergent and The Hunger Games were in diapers, if not even born yet at all.  Her book The Handmaid’s Tale was chilling and fantastic.  More recently, Atwood has published her own dystopian trilogy (I use the word dystopia but I believe she prefers “speculative fiction”) : Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam.

I’ll say it again – if you want to move on from “young adult” dystopia to mature, adult stories, then these are the books you need to read.

Oryx and Crake tells the story of a world in our not-too-distant future, a world filled with genetically modified animals and other scientific creations that (supposedly) make our life better.  It is a world the reader can imagine living in.  The protagonist of the book, Jimmy, grows up in this world.  Right from the start we know something went wrong though, as Jimmy tells his story through flashbacks.  And the  “present day” from which he tells the flashbacks has him living in the woods near a beach where he may be the only human left on the planet.  There are other intelligent creatures though, as near him lives a new human-ish creature known as the “Crakers” because they were created by Crake.  This book is Jimmy’s telling of his friendship with Crake, his infatuation with Oryx, and how the world as we know it became that future dysopian world so popular in much recent fiction.

But there are no factions or battles to the death here.  There is simply a wasteland filled with pigs made intelligent by possessing human brain tissue, other animals created in labs and decaying buildings of a once great civilization.  The story here is all the more chilling because it is so believable, we can imagine this world (or at least, where the story starts) as coming to be.

The second book, The Year of the Flood, goes over much the same ground as the first book, but from the perspective of two other characters, Ren and Toby.  In the initial book we see the world from the perspective of Jimmy and Crake, both of whom live at or near the top of society.  Ren and Toby live on the fringes of the same society.  This book is frustrating and a bit confusing at times as now there are two characters living in the present dystopia and telling stories through flashback whereas in the first book it was just Jimmy.  It is also builds on religious themes just touched on in the first book as it delves deeply into the community named “God’s Gardeners.”  In a world where everything is manufactured in a lab and modified and enhanced, groups such as the Gardeners rise up to go back to a simpler day.

By the end of book two we meet up with Jimmy and the end of book one and the story begins to move forward.  That brings us to book three, MaddAddam, where Toby remains central along with Zeb, a character we saw a lot of in book two.  Again there are many flashbacks as we get a lot of Zeb’s backstory which fills in more of the story of Crake and the God’s Gardeners.  We also get a lot more speculation on what it looks like when a religion is created, as the Crakers continually ask to learn more about their maker, the great Crake, and through the stories told them by Jimmy and Toby we see a whole mythology grow.  I’m not sure if I found the conclusion to the book satisfying and it left many questions unanswered, but it is hopeful and memorable.

These books are highly recommended both as gripping stories and as provoking thought on religion.

Oryx and Crake – 4/5 stars

The Year of the Flood – 3.5/5 stars

Maddaddam – 4/5 stars

Some Thoughts On Lent Inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict

From the Rule of St. Benedict:

We advise that during these days of Lent he guard his life with all purity and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times” St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 732-733). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God “with the joy of the Holy Ghost,” of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter” St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 735-737). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

Lent clearly has a long tradition in the Christian church.  All I recall of Lent growing up in the evangelical church was: (1) Fasnacht Day, the day we eat a donut-type sugary object, and (2) Lent was mentioned as existing.  There was no explanation of what Lent was, or if there was an explanation I missed it!  There was little talk of giving things up.  Now it seems like many churches and individuals who did not traditionally do Lent are rediscovering this season of church life.  It is a time that still tugs at the hearts of many.

Lent is a time of soul-searching as we move toward Holy Week.  It is a time when many give things up, in a word many fast, in order to move into a deeper spirituality, closer to Jesus who gave up all for us.

I have been thinking about whether to give something up.  I want to make it worthwhile, not just giving up something for the sake of giving up something.  After much thought and prayer, I have decided to:

1. Give up snacking after 8 PM.  This was also my new year’s resolution and is probably a good thing to continue doing after Lent.  There is no need to eat that late at night (though working with college students will make it harder on nights I am on campus!).

2. Give up social media (Facebook, Twitter, reading blogs, Goodreads) between the hours of 7 AM and 8 PM with the exception of when I am using them for work (i.e. posting a CSF newsletter on Facebook, tweeting updates during CSF’s upcoming mission trip).  I don’t feel the need to give these things up totally, especially because I often use them all for work.  But I do find myself checking them too often during the day.

3. Don’t just give something up, replace it with something else.  Benedict mentioned this when he spoke of adding to the usual amount of our service.  So just giving up Facebook or coffee or chocolate is not enough, the point is to replace it with something better.  This could be as simple and easy as the old reliables, reading the Bible and prayer.  Or it could be something along the lines of this great list offered by pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber from 2012:

Day 1: Pray for your enemies

Day 2: Walk, carpool, bike or bus it.

Day 3: Don’t turn on the car radio

Day 4: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing


Day 5: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon

Day 6: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before

Day 7: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill

Day 8: No bitching day

Day 9: Do someone else’s chore

Day 10: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter


Day 11: Call an old friend

Day 12: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)

Day 13: Read Psalm 139

Day 14: Pay a few sincere compliments

Day 15: Bring your own mug

Day 16: Educate yourself about human trafficking


Day 17: Forgive someone

Day 18: Internet diet

Day 19: Change one light in your house to a compact florescent

Day 20: Check out morning and evening prayer at

Day 21: Ask for help

Day 22: Tell someone what you are grateful for


Day 23: Introduce yourself to a neighbor

Day 24: Read Psalm 121

Day 25: Bake a cake

Day 26: No shopping day

Day 27: Light a virtual candle

Day 28: Light an actual candle


Day 29: Write a thank you note to your favorite teacher

Day 30: Invest in canvas shopping bags

Day 31: Use Freecycle

Day 32: Donate art supplies to your local elementary school

Day 33: Read John 8:1-11

Day 34: Worship at a friend’s mosque, synogogue or church and look for the beauty


Day 35: Confess a secret

Day 36: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?

Day 37: Give $20 to a local non-profit

Day 38: Educate yourself about a saint

Day 39: Pray for peace

Day 40: Pray for your enemies (you probably have new ones by now) then decide which of these exercises you’ll keep for good

Eucatastrophe – Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories

Most of my earliest reading on my own was novels.  After reading a lot of John Grisham and Michael Crichton, I started to get into sci-fi and fantasy.  I read more Star Wars novels than I care to remember.  Eventually I got into The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones (before it was cool).  Then I went to college and seminary and began reading theology, history and philosophy.  I still read novels occasionally, but most of my reading for the last decade has not been fiction.

This year that is changing.  I’ve already read two novels (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), as well as continuing the complete Sherlock Holmes.  And I’ve read a good bit of Tolkien.  His work On Fairy Stories, while not fiction itself, gives a strong philosophy of fantasy literature.

First, fantasy literature is not just for children.

“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy-stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connection between the minds of children and fairy-stories, of the same order as the connexion between children’s bodies and milk.  I think this is an error; at best an error of false sentiment, and one that is therefore most often made by those who, for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creatre, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immautre, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large…Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the playproom, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misued” (58)

“If fairy-stories as a kind is worth reading at all, it is worthy to be written for and read by adults” (67)

I don’t know if I thought I had out-grown fantasy novels as I moved into “serious” works of theology and history.  But it is interesting that so many of the best stories are fantasy stories, taking place in mythical realms.  And those who read such stories are often seen as less serious.  Oh, you’re reading Harry Potter…why not try Dickens?

Yet, according to Tolkien, a good fairy story is entirely believable within its universe, or as he calls it, sub-creation:

“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (60).

“Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary.  The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will make it…If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen” (74-75)

All writers write from within their own worldview.  Tolkien wrote as a Christian.  This does not mean his stories are fronts for evangelism or simple allegories where such-and-such character stands in for a biblical character.  Tolkien’s world is more complex than that.  Yet we see in On Fairy Stories how his Christian faith relates to his writing, with the term Eucatastrophe:

Escape is a key part of fairy-stories – escape from death – “the consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it.  At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-Story.  Since we do not posses a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe.  The eucatastrophe tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (85)

Why do the good guys always win?  Because there are other forces at work, forces for good and justice that work behind the scenes, that have a hand in things.  When seen in this light, even a depressing Tolkien story, like that of Turin Turambar, can be seen in a larger context of hope and the setting right of all things.

Further, when we see good win out we feel joy, for we are cheering for this.  This is how we hope our world turns out, even if in our day-to-day lives we are so unsure of it.  Tolkien writes, “The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ is successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (88)

Ultimately, the story of this world as Christians tell it is the greatest Eucatastrophe:

“Approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essences of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythincal’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world: the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.  To reject it leads either to sadness or wrath” (88-89)

As I read this work, I couldn’t help but think about other popular fantasy stories and how they include or don’t include this idea of eucatastrophe.  But that’s for another post.

Questioning Your Way to Faith – Review

Peter Kazmaier’s first book was a gripping novel, The Halcyon Disclocation, that combined science fiction and fantasy with a bit of religion and philosophy thrown in.  I believe I referred to this book as Lewis-esque in my review a few months back.  When I saw that Peter was releasing another book, I thought it would be the sequel.  At first I was a bit disappointed, until I realized the sort of book it was.

One reason someone like CS Lewis was so successful as a Christian apologist was because he wrote great novels as well as good reflections on Christian life, theology and apologetics.  Lewis was no dry academic.  Kazmaier is the same way.  He is clearly a smart guy, having been a professor of chemistry for much of his life.  His thoughts on science and faith specifically, and Christian apologetics in general, are helpful.  But what works best is that he places his apologetic reflections into the Halcyon universe.

Questioning Your Way to Faith takes place prior to The Halcyon Dislocation.  It is an extended discussion between two characters in the later book, Al and Floyd.  Al is supposedly a “nerdy” Christian but he hikes, sails and goes fishing a lot for a stereotypical nerd.  Floyd is Al’s friend and an atheist.  But Floyd is having a crisis of faith (or non-faith) as he discovered his recently deceased grandmother was, despite her intelligence, a Christian.  Floyd approaches Al to ask how smart people can be Christians.  From then on their discussion covers a lot of typical apologetic topics – problem of evil, existence of god, science and faith.

The best value in this book is its real-life setting.  Many apologetic books I have read are interesting…to people who read apologetics books.  But when you actually talk to people in the real world, the text book answer is not always sufficient.  People don’t always need or want a point-by-point case for Christianity.  Like Floyd, people have specific questions which require specific answers.  Sometimes these answers may line up with the standard apologetics book, but not always.  The real world, as Al and Floyd discover in their adventures in Halcyon, is a topsy-turvy place!

Overall, I recommend this book for all people interested in the big questions of life.  We need more writers like Peter who can give us both good stories as well as profound theological and philosophical insights.

The Problem with Christ – Review

English readers of the Bible see it over and over again: Jesus Christ. While most know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, new readers to the Bible could be forgiven if they get that impression.

This is the problem, according to Chris Gorton, in his book The Problem with Christ.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Chris on Goodreads and he gave me a free copy of his book for purpose of review.  It is a great little book, and I look forward to reading more from Chris.  He argues here that by taking the Greek title “christos” and transliterating it into English as “Christ” rather than translating it the term becomes devoid of its power. Chris’ book argues, convincingly, that the title “the Christ” means “the king”. This is not controversial as anyone with even a minimal study knows that Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Most recognize it is a title: Messiah, anointed one, KING. Chris’ argument goes that if this is what the word means, it ought to be translated that way.

By leaving the word as just “Christ”, English Bibles take the claws off the eagle, so to say. The person of Jesus loses a bit of his power. This leads to a weakened Christianity where most followers of Jesus see him as merely a spiritual savior and not the one to whom we owe our allegiance above any other king or kingdom, power or principality, nation or president.

I do have some minor qualms with the book. Some are questions which I do not find Chris’ answers satisfying, such as his assertion that two Greek words (basileus and christos) both be translated king. Surely if there are two Greek words, they carry slightly different meanings and something would be lost in translating them the same? I am also skeptical as to whether simply changing Christ to King in English Bibles would solve many problems or lead to a revival. I doubt Chris thinks it would, though in reading it is easy to see this issue as a sort of silver bullet – the bad translation is a demonic conspiracy and if we can fix it then we’ll really see God work.

Such issues aside, this is great study. Thanks Chris

How I Spent My Summer (well, part of it)

My introduction to Dallas Willard came in my first semester of seminary when we were assigned read his Renovation of the Heart in a class called Shaping the Heart of a Leader.  We read other books on the soul of a leader, but this was the most difficult one.  I do recall the professor admitting this was a tough book.  But the assumption seemed to be that we had all read The Divine Conspiracy in bible college, so time to move on to other books by Willard.  What about those of us who did not attend bible college?  Oh well.

I did read The Divine Conspiracy on my own a few years later and consider it one of my favorite books.  I wish I had read it when I was younger!  And I imagine that if I ever dive into Renovation of the Heart again, I’ll get it a bit more.  But those were the only two books by Dallas Willard I had read.  I always wanted to read more, so this summer, motivated by his death and the books being on sale on Amazon (geez, that sentence just sounds morbid), I did.  I figured if I was going to claim him as a favorite author, I should read more than two of his books, may he rest in peace.

Knowing Christ Today: How We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (2009)

I started with this book, one of Willard’s more recent ones.  His purpose in the book is to argue that Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, rests on actual knowledge.  Our world tends to reserve “knowledge” for one sort of thing, such as science.  Religion, it is said, is mere opinion.  Hence people can assert that all religions are the same, since they are all equally devoid of truth or knowledge.  But if there is truly spiritual knowledge, truly a way things really are, then religion is more than mere opinion.

Honestly, having read my share of apologetics books, I did not expect apologetics here.  So I was somewhat surprised when Willard began rehearsing familiar arguments for God’s existence and miracles as part of his reasoning for why we can trust spiritual knowledge.  I am not sure how I expected him to argue for how we can trust spiritual knowledge when I began the book, but I didn’t expect arguments for God’s existence.  That said, apologetics of the usual sort only supplies a portion of Willard’s arguments (plus, his casting of the arguments is a bit different then those familiar with them might expect).  He goes on to talk about how we can know Christ where we are.  His method for this are the spiritual disciplines, “time-tested spiritual practices that can help us in our learning process.”  In other words, we grow in knowledge as we interact with God.  It should be said then that while we can trust spiritual knowledge, it is still not the exact same as scientific or historical knowledge.  We can trust all these things, but we learn what each says in its own way (i.e., the scientific method is not how we learn spiritual truth).

Perhaps the most important chapter is the second-to-last where he discussed pluralism.  If, as Willard argues, there is spiritual knowledge and this truth rests in Jesus Christ, then how one handles diversity and disagreement becomes vital.  In other subjects where knowledge exists, those who take a minority view may be shunned – think of those who question the received view of science or history.  Religion, more like politics or philosophy, has a myriad of views.  Willard greatly emphasizes humility and that even though there is spiritual knowledge, we know that none of us are perfect in our understanding of it.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.

The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship (2006)

This book is the compilation of a series of essays and other works from Willard.  The overall theme that holds all works together is that there has been a great omission from the great commission.  The Great Commission comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commands his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded.  Willard sees a contemporary Christianity that has failed to “make disciples”.  This is not just about obedience to rules, it is more akin to apprenticeship to Jesus.

The positive of this book is that since it is a compilation of many points, the most important points of Willard’s thoughts are repeated throughout.  For that reason, I almost think this would be the best book to suggest to someone who has never read Willard but wants to.  It is not as heady a read as Knowing Christ Today or The Divine Conspiracy.  Willard often goes back to the importance of spiritual disciplines here, emphasizing that God’s grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.  This is one of the clearest lessons to come through my reading of Willard.  The Protestant Reformation did right in returning the Church to the truth of God’s grace, that nothing we do can earn God’s love.  But over the years this has grown into an almost knee-jerk reaction against any sort of effort.  It is as if the idea of training yourself in your faith by certain disciplines is seen as working to earn God’s love.  Willard identifies this as the reason why so few Christians mature in faith.  We expect God to just zap us and automatically change us and it does not work that way.  Like anything else we must train ourselves, never forgetting that in this we are not earning God’s love for we are already loved.

The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988)

This is the last one of Willard’s book I read, and it may be my favorite.  Many themes he only touched on in his later works are fleshed out fully here.  Willard does not go into great detail on the disciplines, though there is one chapter on them.  The emphasis here is more on why such disciplines are so important.  Willard often says grace is opposed to earning, not to effort and this book, to some degree, is a detailed explanation of how this is the case.

Willard argues that the choices we make will shape who we become.  Thus we can either take steps, discipline ourselves, to become disciples of Christ or we can do nothing.  This doing nothing is a choice too and our natural inclinations will put us on a path.  So if we resist disciplines for fear of works-righteousness we will find ourselves never really changing into a more Christ-like person.  Having been around the Christian church my whole life, I think Willard is right on.  We go to church week after week, maybe read the Bible occasionally because we feel like we have to but year after year most of us find our lives to be more or less the same.  We cry out to God asking for our sins to be purged, before living a life filled with choices that contribute to those sins becoming habits.

While this is my favorite of the three books, I do wish Willard had spent more time on practical issues.  Specifically, how does this apply to people with families and jobs?  I can see the college students I work with diving into the practices.  But what happens to solitude when you are caring for a toddler all day?  How does silence happen between the noise of kids and coworkers?  As much as Willard talks of these disciplines as time-tested, most examples throughout history are still superstars of faith – monks and other unattached people who had the flexibility to do such things.  I do think the disciplines can be applied to the daily life of normal people with jobs and kids.  I just think how that happens is different then how it may happen for students, single people, the elderly or anyone else.  It is not a one-size fits all sort of thing.

Overall, fantastic books.  Do yourself a favor if you want to grow in faith in Christ – read Willard.

Knowing Christ Today – 5 stars

The Great Omission – 4 stars

Spirit of the Disciplines – 5 stars