Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Review)

              What is God truly like?  This is a question I have wrestled with.  My whole life I have heard people say, and have said myself, that God is a God of love and of justice.  Your sin deserves God’s eternal and unending punishment, or wrath.  You can avoid this punishment by trusting in Jesus for in Jesus we see God’s love.  In other words, God shows love to some and wrath to others.

              To hold this understanding leads to some unavoidable questions.  Does Jesus save us from a vengeful God?  Is God’s love offered with a threatening fist raised to punish you if you do not accept?  And if God tortures you for not accepting God’s love, how is God different from an abusive husband?

              As I read Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, I felt like I was reading my own questions and struggles.  I deeply resonate with this book, and I almost want to say any Christian who is honest about the tension between God’s wrath and love should too.  Zahnd writes with honesty and passion that lays it all right out there for the reader.  This is not an academic book, nor will it answer every question, especially every question critics are sure to bring to it (though, as a sort of coincidence, I just started reading Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God which is very similar to Zahnd’s work and is more academic, if anyone is interested in that).  I appreciate Zahnd’s honesty for not dancing around the issues.  For example, is it wrong to murder children?  Of course.  Was Hitler wrong to exterminate millions of Jews.  Absolutely.  So why do we then waffle if it is God in scripture who does those things?  Is God a monster to order the extermination of children?  Did millions of Jews pass from Hitler’s ovens to the unending fiery flames of God’s ovens in hell?

              The idea here is one option we have when dealing with God’s wrath.  Maybe God is a monster.  Zahnd rejects this.  The options more Christians might take is that God changes.  God might have commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites but now God has become love.  God does not work that way anymore.  Zahnd rejects this on the principle that God does not change.  At the same time, Zahnd also shows that many Christians utilize the book of Revelation to show that God has not really changed but that God really is merely a God of wrath.  If Revelation portrays Jesus as returning to slaughter his enemies, then the question of what God is like finds its answer: God is wrath.  Here the acts of Jesus on the cross, as well as throughout his life, do not reveal what God is really like.  Instead Jesus is sort of a reprieve between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the vengeful God of Revelation.  God may offer forgiveness and love for a time, but this is merely temporary.

              I think this understanding of God is too common among Christians in America.  It is as if the Jesus in the Gospels, the Jesus who teaches love of enemy and then does it and demands we do the same, is too radical.  Our human nature wants a vengeful God.  The sad thing is that to fall back into a God of wrath is to take away what makes Jesus unique.  Every culture and religion (okay, maybe not every one…I am using hyperbole here) has deities that enjoy wrath.  Whether Babylon, Rome or America, these empires go to war with the belief that God blesses our weapons and fighting.  The idea that God demands something different is so uncomfortable.  So we welcome Jesus for forgiveness of our sins and a ticket to heaven, but find Jesus’ way too impractical for daily life.

              Zahnd thus argues that the portrait of Jesus in Revelation does not contradict Jesus in the gospels.  Instead, Jesus truly is the human face of God.  Jesus revealed God.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Zahnd emphasizes over and over what this means though.  The Bible is not a flat book where all parts are equal.  The Bible is open to many interpretations, and you can easily find a violent God in there if you wish.  But it is Jesus, God in the flesh, that regulates our understanding of the rest of the Bible.  Because of how Jesus reveals God, we are forced not to say God is a monster or God changes, but to be open to the idea our understanding of the Old Testament has to change.  This is one area where Zahnd could have spent more time, though it is also basically what Boyd’s book is about.  In essence, we know what God is like in Jesus.  When it comes to God’s love in Jesus and God’s order for wrath in the Old Testament, we go with Jesus.  That may leave questions about what the Old Testament means, but those are questions we can live with since we now have Jesus in his proper place.

              If questioning traditional interpretations of the Old Testament is not enough, Zahnd also questions traditional understandings of hell.  First, I think he is right on in cautioning Christians against being confident of who is in hell.  Jesus is Savior and Jesus will save all sorts of people.  Second, he does not actually say much about the afterlife.  Zahnd’s emphasis is on this life, including the hells we humans create.  That said, it is clear that his understanding of God as Love means the door is never closed on anyone, in this life or the next.  If a person turns away from their self-centeredness and desires to know God, God will welcome that person.  As the book of Revelation says, the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed, so presumably people can enter at any time.  God’s love means God is, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal, always willing to welcome anyone.  The problem is that we, like the son, are slow to go home.  I suppose Zahnd is not a big enough name to get criticized the way Rob Bell did with Love Wins (which I am pretty sure many of his critics did not bother to read), but he sounds a lot like Bell here.

              Overall, I loved this book.  Even if you do not agree with some of Zahnd’s conclusions, I think the questions he is raising are worth your time.  Does God send people to an eternal torture chamber, worse than anything Hitler devised?  Does God change?  How do we understand passages of the Old Testament, such as the Canaanite genocide, in light of Jesus?  What, ultimately, is God really like?  Is God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus just a parenthesis between lots and lots of wrath?  Or is Jesus truly the human face of God?

              Finally, most of my qualms with this book come down to editing.  Zahnd’s foil here is Jonathan Edwards, the title of the book is even a modification of one of Edwards’ sermons.  After the first chapter or so, Zahnd begins mentioning John Calvin and Calvin’s ideas.  Unless I missed it, he never quoted Calvin.  Perhaps Calvin is a stand in for Calvinism, though Calvinism is broad.  Maybe Puritanism?  John Piper?  I am sure Calvin is closer in theology to Edwards than Zahnd, but bringing Calvin in with little introduction seemed sloppy.  Likewise, there were a couple other references with no note.  He mentioned William Wallace once, a clear allusion to Braveheart and a strain of Christianity that lifts up Wallace as an ideal man (John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart).  Was this connection I made what Zahnd hoped for?  Again, either editing or something would have cleared this up. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

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CS Lewis Top Ten Books: 5-1

5. The Great Divorce – In this book, Lewis takes the reader on an allegorical journey of heaven and hell.  Honestly, this is one of those books that makes me surprised Lewis is so popular in evangelical Christian circles.  Were he living and writing today as a member of American evangelicalism, I suspect he would be highly criticized.  That aside, this is a fantastic work of speculative fiction.  Whatever you think about the afterlife, there is a lot here to ponder.  This book also shows Lewis’ brilliance in that he combined a tremendous talent for storytelling as well as an astute mind.  In other words, he did not just present his ideas in straightforward theology books but let them meander out in fascinating stories.

4. A Grief Observed – One of Lewis’ first books was The Problem of Pain.  In it he tackled the age old challenges to faith of evil and suffering.  Its not a bad book but it does not make my list because, helpful as such books are, they often appear separated from real life suffering.  Lewis, as a veteran of the first world war, was certainly familiar with suffering.  But I recall The Problem of Pain approaching the problem a bit too on the rationalistic side.  What is fascinating is how one of Lewis’ last books attacks the problem.  A lifelong bachelor, Lewis eventually married only to have his wife die of cancer.  The short book, A Grief Observed, is his raw and emotional cry in response to this suffering.  The rationalist presenting well thought out answers is gone in the face of a man nearing despair and questioning his faith.  Lewis did not lose his faith of course, and this book is brilliant for its honesty.

3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Finally we get to the Narnia stories.  I thought of just putting them at number one as a whole.  As I write this, I wonder why I did not include The Last Battle or The Horse and His Boy in my top ten.  But since I was a kid, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been one of my favorite stories.  It is the third Narnia story, the first without Peter and Susan.  We meet Eustace who joins his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, on a voyage to the end of the world.  I think there’s just something about quest stories that has always gripped me.  Of course, there is some fantastic imagery I did not get as a kid which I find profound now.

2. Mere Christianity – It was probably sometime in college when I first learned that the author of my favorite fantasy series had written other books.  This is Lewis’ most well-known work apart from Narnia and has become a classic of Christian apologetics.  The last time I read it, I recall being surprised by how good it was.  Some of the arguments are so familiar, and so often quoted, that they are also often criticized. And it is true that some of the arguments out of context are less convincing.  For example, Lewis argues that Jesus must be either liar, lunatic or lord.  But what about legend, maybe the stories in the gospels are far from what really happened? (I believe Lewis does address this in later essays since it was probably a critique even in his day.)  So yes, its not a perfect book (the few pages when Lewis address male-female relationships are actually pretty bad).  But it is a wonderful book and deserves its place at the top of Lewis’ works

1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – What else could I put here?  My love of Narnia dates back to discovering this book in my church library as a kid (as I noted in the first post).  I was entranced as I read it during church, rather than listening to the sermon.  At some point the allegory became apparent, seeing Aslan as Jesus. I recently read it to my oldest daughter and look forward to reading it to my son.  I don’t necessarily want to say it was life-changing, but I think it was.  Lewis loved stories and came to see the story of Jesus as the myth that became fact.  So all the stories we love point to the true story of the world.  For me, this book prepared me for a deeper understanding of the story of Jesus.  Heck, maybe at some point it saved my faith.  There have been times I wanted Aslan and Narnia to be real.  That aside, it is a fantastic story.  Thus its number one both because it is a great story and, personally, it changed my life.

CS Lewis’ Top Ten Books: 10-6

I’ve been a fan of CS Lewis’ writing forever, since I picked up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in my church library when I was around ten.  Over the years I have managed to read most of his books, both fiction and non-fiction.  He is often quoted and has shaped many hearts and minds.  For what it is worth, enjoy my top ten Lewis books.

10. The Abolition of Man

This is a short book, under 100 pages, that packs a powerful punch.  Lewis argues for the importance of universal values such as honor and courage.  He shows how these values are found all over ancient cultures and world religions.  It makes sense, since if all humans are created in God’s image then we should share many values.  As he looked at the twentieth century, Lewis feared his culture was trying to jettison these long-held and vital values.

9. The Weight of Glory

Some of Lewis’ best work came in essays and lectures.  This book is a collection of some of those.  The best here is “Learning in War Time” where he addresses whether it is worthwhile continuing to study at university during war, specifically WWII.  Expanded, this is one of the best defenses of Christians pursuing study that you will find anywhere.  He also writes an essay on why he is not a pacifist, which I recall being disappointing.  Overall though, a wonderful collection.

8. God in the Dock

Here is another collection of essays, though this one is at least twice as long as The Weight of Glory.  If you have read a lot of Lewis, you will see many of his ideas found in his books showing up in his essays.  On the other hand, if you’re new to Lewis this might serve as a good preview for some of the arguments in his books.

7. Till We Have Faces

Lewis is the rare author who combined the ability to write fantastic fiction with compelling work on Christian spirituality and theology.  This book was his last work of fiction and perhaps his best.  While the Narnia stories were for children and much of the symbolism was easy to discover, the messages and meanings here require a good bit more thought.  Lewis thought highly of pre-Christian paganism, and this story is set in such a pre-Christian land.  Thus we meet a “god” and not God.  Lewis thought that Western culture might need to return to paganism in order to be prepared for a serious reevaluation of Christianity.  Meaning and symbolism aside, this is a great story.

6. The Four Loves

In this book Lewis examines different types of love, from affection and friendship to romantic love and self-giving love.  I found this both challenging and enlightening.  One vital point Lewis makes is differentiating between need-pleasure and pleasure-of-appreciation.  The first is kind of self-centered  you appreciate something because you need it; you love it because of what it does for you.  This is not bad of course, but, to take one example, if your love of your spouse never matures past this you are in trouble.  Pleasure rooted in appreciation loves the other for its (his, her) inherent goodness and beauty.

Stay tuned for 5-1 next week…

The Walkin’ Dude Is Still Walkin’ – Thoughts on Evil

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So begins The Gunslinger, the first book of Stephen King’s fantasy epic series, The Dark Tower.  Over the course of the series we learn that the man in black is in fact a character familiar to King’s universe, Randall Flagg.  Flagg is an evil entity.  Perhaps we could call him a wizard, though wizard is not really the right word for him.  Better to say he is the personification of evil.

Flagg first appeared in King’s post-apocalyptic book, The Stand, which I am reading right now (I’m on page 810 as of this morning).  We meet him walking through a desert in the western United States, and he is immediately shown to be a dark man who loves chaos.  After a plague kills 99% of humanity, the survivors dream of Flagg as well as a kind old woman named Mother Abagail.  Some survivors join Flagg while others join Mother Abagail.  Some of Abagail’s first followers are not sure if Flagg is real and ask her about him:

“How much do you know about the dark man? Do you know who he is?

“I know what he’s about but not who he is. He’s the purest evil left in the world. The rest of the bad is little evil. Shoplifters and sexfiends and people who like to use their fists.  But he’ll call them.  He’s started already. He’s getting them together a lot faster than we are.  Before he’s ready to make his move, I guess he’ll have a lot more.  Not just the evil ones that are like him, but the weak ones…the lonely ones…and the ones that have left God out of their hearts.”

“Maybe he’s not real,” Nick wrote. “Maybe he’s just…” He had to niblle at the top of his pen and think. At last he added: “…the scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

Ralph frowned over this as he read it aloud, but Abby grasped what Nick meant right off.  It wasn’t much different from the talk of the new preachers who had got on the land in the last twenty years of so.  There was evil, and it probably came from original sin, but it was in all of us and getting it out was as impossible as getting an egg out of its shell without cracking it.  According to the way these new preachers had it, Satan was like a jugsaw puzzle – and every man, woman and child on earth added his or her little piece to make up the whole. Yes, all that had a good modern sound to it; the trouble with it was that it wasn’t true. And if Nick was allowed to go on thinking that, the dark man would eat him for dinner.”

The Stand, p. 503-504.

I couldn’t help but think of this passage, and of Flagg, in the last twenty-four hours.  Once again evil has been given a face as one man murdered dozens of people at a concert.  As usual, many people have shared much on social media – thoughts, tears, prayers, ideas for why this keeps happening and ideas how to stop it.  A lot of this is helpful, some of it is probably not.

I personally don’t have much to say on any of that right now.  All I know is evil is alive and well in 2017.  Most days, if you ask me, I am honestly not sure if there is such a being as “Satan.”  God as the ultimate reality, the infinite ground of being and creator of all things, makes sense to me.  A spiritual realm with spiritual beings, some good and some evil, is a little tougher to swallow but I can buy it.  But a grand demon in charge of all the rest, good ole’ Lucifer?  For some reason, that seems difficult to believe.  But then I look at the evil and suffering in the world and I think maybe there is something to that old time religion with its talk of battles with an incredibly powerful being, Satan, the personification of all evil.

Satan is still active, enticing people to evils both big and small.

Flagg may have a different name and face,  but he’s out there causing chaos.

The walkin’ dude is still walkin’ through the desert…

PS: Richard Beck has a pretty fantastic book on Satan that I read a few months back that speaks to contemporary Christian skepticism to Satan as well as the reality of such evil. Check it out: Reviving Old Scratch.

Old Books Are Good For Your Soul

I grew up in imbibing white evangelical American theology.  It was in the air I breathed.  There is much good in that air.  But there is also much that is questionable.  Like others, there came a time in my life when I began to ask questions.  Some questions were small (How come so much contemporary worship music is focused on me and my feelings?) and others were big (Is God just a superman in the sky ready to destroy whomever crosses him?).

It is possible when such questions are asked to reject Christianity as a whole.  If all you see is one form of Christianity (white evangelical American in my case) and you notice blindspots and problems, the easiest path is walking away.

I am grateful that I realized that Christianity is far larger, deeper, more complex (though perhaps also more simple) than the white evangelical variety.  This realization came to me in numerous ways, one of which was meeting Christians from the past through reading old books.  CS Lewis writes about the importance of old books in an essay in God in the Dock:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.  Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means old books” (219)

We all have blind spots and biases.  This is why it is vital to break out of the echo chamber and listen to voices that do not hold yours same background and presuppositions.  One way to do this is to read old books that have stood the test of time.  As Lewis says in the quote above, books from other eras do not share the biases of our time so they can help us see what we may not see and correct what needs to be corrected.  Lewis goes on to say:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.  To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them” (220).

Again, reading books of the past is not magic.  They were written by people as messed up as we are.  Not everything in these books is right and true.  But they do have much to teach us because, again, they do not share our blindspots.  I found loads of beauty and truth in meeting old Christians in their books.  Of course, I found some things that were questionable.  This helped me realize that there is both beauty and blindspots in all forms of faith, even the form I grew up in.

How to go about reading old books?  They are not easy, that’s for sure.  Lewis suggests the following:

“I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light” (218)

Not bad advice.  I’d suggest starting with someone like CS Lewis himself.

 

 

Praying and Working (Thoughts on Prayer Inspired by CS Lewis)

Nearly everyone prays at some point.  Christians, Muslims, Jews and probably even skeptics may ask the heavens or inquire of the great beyond.  Those of us who are Christians address God, our loving Father and Divine Parent, in the name of Jesus Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit (we pray in Trinity…but that’s another story).

Yet, what is prayer?  Does it affect God?  If God is infinite and all powerful, isn’t God just going to do whatever He, or She, wants?  This is a big question.  Its one of those questions that everyone has an answer for which in reality means no one has an answer for.

CS Lewis addresses this question in an essay found in his book God in the Dock:

“We know that we can act and that our actions produce results.  Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand.  Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.  It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.  It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method” (106)

In other words, just as our actions make a difference so to do our prayers impact real events.  It may be a mystery how it works, but for Lewis, the relationship of God and humanity means prayer, or lackthereof, does make a difference:

“He (God) made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures.  Similarly, He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers” (106)

Lewis goes on to address the difference between prayer and work.  He basically says that we humans possess a good deal of power in our work, God has given us freedom.  When it comes to prayer, God has “discretionary power”.  To use an example, you can choose to harm another person and act to make it happen and God, as far as we know, will not intervene to stop you.  But if you pray to kill another person, God will not make it happen.

“You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one week that one weed will no longer be there.  You can be sure that if you drink more than a certain amount of alcohol you will ruin your health or that f you go on for a few centuries more wasting the resources of the planet on wars and luxuries you will shorten the life of the whole human race.  The kind of causality we exercise by work is, so to speak, divinely guaranteed, and therefore ruthless.  By it we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please.  But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like that; God has left himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: ‘Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants'” (107)

My take away from Lewis is simple: Pray.  Do not choose between Prayer and Work because both make a difference.  Work hard to do good and pray hard for good to be done.

There’s lots more that could be said  If you’re interested, my friend Tim just preached a sermon on prayer this past week: Negotiating With God.  Give it a listen.  I’ve posted on prayer in the past, here are two that might be helpful.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer and Fasting

Thoughts on Prayer – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Finally, if you’re into books you could always try Lewis’ Letters To Malcolm on Prayer or Philip Yancey’s Prayer or Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer.  Of course, there’s the book of Psalms in the Bible which is filled with prayer.

And there’s the act of praying.  Since prayer is not about reading and learning but mostly about doing.

 

 

Politics, Parties, Means and Ends: A Political Post Inspired by CS Lewis (yes, politics, but its okay)

I am slowly working through God in the Dock, a collection of some of CS Lewis’ essays, and a few days ago read the essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”  In this essay, Lewis discusses the desirability of a Christian political party.  I’m not sure if this was something people wanted in mid-century Britain, but the idea would be that all Christians come together in one, explicitly Christian, political party.  Lewis begins by discussing ends, or goals, and means:

“The Christian Party must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.  If it chooses the first alternative, it will not be a political party.  Nearly all parties agree in professing ends which we admit to be desirable – security, a living wage, and the best adjustment between the claims of order and freedom.  What distinguishes one party from another is the championship of means.”

Lewis assumes that all Christians agree on the ends.  I am sure Christians do not agree on every end, but I will be optimistic and say that for the most part, agreeing on the goals remains true today.  That said, part of the challenge with having political discussion is that our political climate is so divided that we have trouble assuming the best of the other.  We righteously assume that only our side cares for people having enough to eat or decent housing or freedom or whatever.

Lewis shines the light on something important that can only help our political dialogue.  If we are going to argue politics, we should pause before the yelling starts and figure out if we are discussing means or ends.  For example, and Lewis alludes to this one, but I assume all Christians agree that the goal is for all people who work to make a living wage.  How to get here is the debate: do we increase the minimum wage? Allow competition in the market to drive up wages?  Those are discussions where Christians may agree, and those are discussions on means to the same end.

Lewis is writing this essay to discuss whether there should be a “Christian” political party.  He thinks it is a bad idea, arguing that putting all the Christians join in one party would end up backfiring.  This is because Christians are naturally going to disagree on the means, even while agreeing on the end.  Such disagreement will lead some to leave the party.  Then the so-called Christian party will include only one sort of means to the end, and this party will think they are the only Christians:

“But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty.  It will e not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole.  By the mere act of calling itself the Christian party, it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal”

A Christian party that not only agrees on goals but is not open to more than one idea on how to reach those goals will do more harm than good.  Lewis imagines worse can happen than just some Christians leaving the party:

“The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the ‘Christian Party’ wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will surely be by just such a process as this.”

When one party is baptized as Christian, Lewis fears they won’t have to worry so much about actually seeking a Christian ethic.  They can even go along with the less than Christian elements in the party who are now emboldened by their holiness. Assured they are correct, being in the only “Christian party” after all, they will commit all sorts of crimes in the name of the good.

This essay reminds me that we need Christians in different political parties.  Not all political parties, for some parties represent ideas (ends) far beyond anything relating to a Christian ethic (Nazis, Marxists).  But in America, we need Christians in the Democrat and Republican parties.

We need Christians who remind us that individual freedom is vital to a functioning society and that government will encroach on that freedom, as it has done since forever. 

And we need Christians to remind us that individuals are fallen and will take advantage of their fellow men and women so we need institutions, including government, to work to keep the peace and ensure fairness.

America, like any nation with Christians in it, can only benefit from Christians speaking from Christian principles – primarily humanity as created in God’s image and broken by sin – in both the Democrat and Republican parties.  Hopefully, Christians in those parties can also lead the way in talking to one another – which requires recognizing the other might have something good, humility is also a Christian virtue.

At this point in our country, just talking to people convinced of different political means may be the place to start.

 

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.