Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Theology and LOST

I admit, I have been hooked on LOST for the past 4 or 5 years. Brooke and I usually wait until the DVDs come out and watch an entire season in a few weeks, but now that we have a computer that runs HULU well, we have been keeping up with the show as it unfolds.

I have to say, season 6 is fantastic. I lost interest in the show during season 4. I don't know if it was the writers' strike or what, but season 4 was awful. (Yet, for some reason, I couldn't stop watching.) Season 5 was an improvement over season 4, but the show had lost the "must-see" excitement of the first three seasons.

That has all changed.

The sixth season of LOST changed the theme of the show from time travel and pseudo-science to serious questions about evil, justice, and redemption. Here are some of the more compelling questions on my mind as the final season of LOST unfolds:

1. What will happen to Benjamin Linus? As soon as Ben was introduced on the show he became the most interesting character. It's tough to think of a character in any book, movie, or television show as evil as Ben. He is a master manipulator. Every word he says is a lie, and yet you can't stop believing him.

But in the last two seasons, Ben has been cast in a more human light. We have seen why he is as evil as he is (traumatic home life, perceived betrayal by Jacob). He has even shown signs of remorse for his crimes (especially the acts that led to the death of his daughter), and the flash sideways episode about him suggested he might not be so bad of a guy were it not for Jacob and the island.

What do we do with Ben? Do we believe that he is truly repentant? Can he be redeemed? Can we forget all of the atrocities he committed (let's not forget he killed everyone in the Dharma Initiative)? Can we help but empathize with him when he was asked about why he was joining the man in black, and he answered, "Because he'll have me"?

2. What is the point of the "flash sideways"? (For that matter, what is the plural of "flash sideways," "flash sidewayses"?)

Are they setting us up to show that life would have been worse were it not for the crash? If so, is this an attempt at theodicy? Jacob, representing the good "god," brought innocent people to the island against their will to prove to the man in black that not all people are evil. I see echoes of Job here--God and Satan having a wager over whether or not Job would curse God if Satan plagued him. But if Jacob is so good, why kill all of those people in the plane crash? Why wreck the lives of the survivors? Perhaps the flash sideways will show us that life would have been worse were it not for the crash.

Also, in the first episode of season 6, Sawyer saw that Juliet was still down in mine shaft, dying, and he said, "It didn't work." Juliet corrected him, "It did work." What did she mean by that? If it worked, then life would have gone on as in the flash sideways scenes. What do we do with the island scenes, then?

3. What is Jacob's plan for defeating the man in black? The writers have set us up for a "good god" (Jacob) versus "bad god" (the man in black) battle. When Ben killed Jacob, I thought, Huh. I guess Jacob wasn't as powerful as everyone thought he was. But, in last week's episode, Richard tried to kill Jacob (using the same knife that Ben would later use to kill him), and Jacob showed remarkable reflexes and fighting ability. This makes me think that Jacob allowed Ben to kill him. Why would he do that? If I were writing the show, it would to show that the only way sin (the man in black) could be defeated was for a good God (Jacob) to be murdered at the hands of evil men (Ben). But I'm not writing the show, so the symbolism is probably a stretch.

4. Why did actor Matthew Fox stop trying? Just kidding about that one, but Jack has become the least interesting character in the show.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Brian McLaren's Authority Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren’s second question is the authority question: How should the Bible be understood? McLaren argues that the Bible has traditionally been treated as a constitution—a consistent and easily understood set of rules and regulations—but should rather be understood as a library—a collection of community-relevant documents that inform, but do not end, conversation.

In chapter seven, McLaren claims that we are in drastic need of a new way of reading the Bible. First, the current paradigm produces a truth problem—the church consistently finds itself on the wrong side of scientific investigation. Second, the current paradigm produces an ethics problem—the church finds itself unable to answer the pressing ethical questions of the day. Finally, the current paradigm produces a peace problem—preachers use the text to promote violence. The clearest example of the dominant hermeneutic’s shortcomings was the American church’s inane defense of slavery in the South, similar arguments for which are currently used to support other unethical social positions. (Hermeneutics is “the art and science of biblical interpretation,” and someone’s hermeneutic is their system for reading and interpreting the Bible. Some with a literal hermeneutic reads the Bible literally. Someone with an allegorical hermeneutic reads the Bible allegorically. Some with a redemptive-historical hermeneutic reads the Bible looking at how each passage relates to God’s redemptive history. There are as many hermeneutics as there are theologians.)

In chapter eight, contrasts a Bible-as-constitution hermeneutic with a Bible-as-library hermeneutic. In the former, the Bible is a collection of internally consistent, authoritative declaration about all things pertaining to life. For each of life’s questions there is a definitive verse that ends discussion. In the latter, the Bible is a collection of thoughts about God and life from different perspectives, none of which is intended to be absolute. While the Bible has a “unique” and “unparalleled” role in the conversation, it is not the only voice. Instead, it “preserves, presents, and inspires an ongoing vigorous conversation with and about God, a living and vital civil argument into which we are all invited and through which God is revealed.” (83)

In chapter nine, McLaren presents the Book of Job as a hermeneutic paradigm. The story opens with a contest between Job and the Satan to see whether Job only worships God because of the good it brings him and his family. Although Job has done nothing wrong, God allows the Satan to plague him to test the basis of his allegiance. Neither Job nor his friends have any idea about the cosmic wager, and Job’s friends are quick to offer inaccurate platitudes about blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience, all of which come from the theology of Deuteronomy. Job rightly rejects his friends’ instructions, and when God finally speaks he takes Job’s side.

McLaren raises some stimulating hermeneutical questions related to Job. First, the character “God” rejects the theology of Job’s friends, but this theology comes from Deuteronomy. What do we do with this tension? Second, do we assume that the character “God” represents the thoughts of the real God? Perhaps “God’s” opinions are merely the opinions of the author, preserved in the biblical text to be debated and engaged with.

At this point, some readers may object to this idea, noting that Job is “inspired” by God. McLaren agrees that Job is “inspired,” but questions what this means. In the Bible-as-constitution paradigm, an inspired text means an accurate, conversation-stopping text. In McLaren’s Bible-as-library paradigm, an “inspired” text is a vital part of a community’s library that needs to be debated and engaged. Thus the story of Job needs to be a part of our conversation, even if we come to different conclusions than the author.

Although McLaren has much good to say in these chapters, he presents a false dichotomy. Rejection of McLaren’s hermeneutic does not mean endorsement of human slavery, or approval of those who use the Bible to endorse other, similar social positions. There are as many approaches to reading the Bible as there are people who read it. While I agree with McLaren in some of his criticisms, I am reluctant to accept his hermeneutical suggestions.

McLaren rightly calls this section “the authority question,” because at the heart of his critique of the dominant hermeneutic are the questions, Does the Bible have special authority? And, if so, Why? Before we can answer these questions, we have to answer the more foundational questions, What is the Bible? and How did we get the Bible? Once we establish what the Bible is, we can discuss its authority.

The Bible is not one book, but a collection of smaller books. (As I discuss the formation of the Bible, I am going to limit my comments to the formation of the New Testament, because that’s where I have a broader knowledge-base. The formation of the Old Testament was similar, but also unique.) There are twenty-seven books in the New Testament—the four Gospels, The Book of Acts, thirteen letters written by the Apostle Paul, seven other letters written by others, one anonymous homily (The Book of Hebrews), and one apocalyptic vision, recorded and sent as a letter to seven churches in Asia Minor (The Book of Revelation).

These books of the New Testament varied in structure, genre, and intent, but they circulated quickly within in the early church. Matthew, Mark, and Luke evidence dependence upon each other, convincing many scholars that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke combined Mark’s Gospel with other Jesus tradition to create their own Gospels. Colossians 4:16 instructs the readers to pass the letter on to the Laodiceans and to read that letter originally written to them. In 2 Peter 3:15, the author expresses familiarity with the writings of Paul. So, early on, the church saw the writings of the New Testament to be relevant to, if not authoritative upon, the teaching and ministry of their local congregations. As time went on, churches in the major metropolitan areas gained access to more and more of these writings, along with other letters and stories written by Christian authors.

The second and third centuries brought new and definitive challenges to the church—the rise of Gnosticism and other new ideas. The Gnostics combined Christian theology with Greek dualism to create their own hybrid system of belief. Much of it sounded Christian, but Gnostic thought demanded that their theologians deny either the full humanity of Jesus or the deity of the God of the Old Testament. They cut and pasted passages that they liked and disliked from the Old Testament and the forming New Testament, and they added books of their own that supported Gnostic theology (i.e. The Gospel of Thomas). The rise of Gnosticism, Arianism, and other new ideas led the church to discuss things like canon (which books are authoritative), orthodoxy (which teachings are faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles), and heresy (which teachings are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles). It is in this context that the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were “canonized” in the early fourth century. It is also in this context that the ancient creeds were written and ideas like Gnosticism, Arianism, etc. were condemned as heresy, i.e a departure from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.

So, what is the New Testament? At one level, the New Testament is a collection of letters, sermons, and stories, written by the first generation of Christians, that best represent the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Atheist historians even admit to that much. But people of faith see something else going on at another level. While the Holy Spirit is active in the life of all believers, we recognize that something special was going on in the ministries of Jesus and the Apostles. In fact, we would even say that the Spirit was so present in their ministries that the words that they have left behind contain the Word of God.

But, even if the Bible is the Word of God, it is the Word of God packaged in the words of people. When God speaks through the Scriptures, he does so through the personalities of those writing and reading. For instance, consider the following two passages, both commentaries on the Genesis account of Abraham’s justification:

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1–5 ESV)
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’- and he was called a friend of God.” (James 2:21–24 ESV)
It’s interesting that Paul and James use the same verse, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” to prove opposite things. Paul writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

How do we reconcile this blatant contradiction in Scripture? The only solution is to recognize that Paul and James mean something completely different by the terms “justified” and “works.” Paul is dealing with the question of whether someone has to be Jewish to be Christian, and he concludes, “No. A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” James is dealing with the question of whether or not someone can have faith if they don’t care for the poor and downtrodden, and he concludes, “No. A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” While the Bible is a divine book, it is also a human book, full of nuance from the human authors.

Now, McLaren would probably agree with everything I have written to this point. He believes that the Bible is the Word of God. He believes that it was written by human beings by the power of the Spirit. Where we disagree is in the nature of this relationship and the implications for the authority of the Scriptures.

I recognize a human element in the creation of the Bible. Just as Jesus was both God and man, I think the Bible is both the words of men and the Word of God. We need to use every historical, grammatical, and theological tool in our toolbox to best discern the message of the human author of the Bible, because it is only in understanding that message that we can understand the divine message. To propose wooden literalism as the only alternative to his hermeneutic is misleading by McLaren. There is a middle ground that accounts for the language, culture, and genre of the Bible that doesn’t reduce it to one voice among many in the development of theology.

So, what of McLaren’s hermeneutic? McLaren inappropriately elevates the novel over the ancient. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Democracy means that no voice is excluded on the accidence of his birth. Tradition means that no voice is excluded on the accidence of his death.” Christianity is a communal faith, and when we read the Bible we are communing with those who have gone before. Their voices are important and they deserve to be considered.

Further, while McLaren can point to a few examples of bad theology stemming from a wooden hermeneutic, he doesn't show how his hermeneutic can prevent similar bad theology. When we allow the spirit of the age to control the conversation, we are vulnerable to the prejudices and evils of that age.

When you read the words of Jesus, he doesn’t enter the conversation as a dialog partner, but as our Lord. To treat him as less than Lord is to betray the heart of Christianity. The same can be said about the words of the Apostles—they spoke with authority as men with a unique gifting and calling. We reject their thoughts about God at our own peril.

Like I said, McLaren gets a lot right in this section. We can’t neglect the artistic elements of the Bible—much of it intends to raise questions or stir emotions, and not all of it can be read like a constitution or recipe. But it is unfair to characterize all of the Bible as a mere conversation starter. The message of the Bible represents to teachings of our fathers in the faith and the One that we worship as Lord and God. As Paul wrote about the authority behind one of his “judgments” (sticking his tongue firmly in his cheek), “Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 7:40, see 7:25)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Brian McLaren's Narrative Question

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

McLaren calls his first question the narrative question: What is the overarching storyline of the Bible? He notes that traditionally, the narrative of the Bible has been interpreted as Creation-Fall-Redemption/Damnation. In other words, God created the world perfect, human beings “Fell” from grace through sinning, Jesus died on the cross, and one day He will return to resurrect the Christians to eternal life and condemn the unbelievers to eternal torment.

McLaren has two problems with this narrative. First, he finds it morally deplorable. In the traditional narrative, God starts with a perfect, pain-and-evil free world, but ends with a world in which a good portion of creation is suffering in Hell. He writes:
“Few of us acknowledge that this master narrative starts with one category of things—good and blessed—and then ends up with two categories of things: good and blessed at the top line and evil and tormented at the bottom. Might we dare ask if this story can be reduced to a manufacturing process—producing a finished product of blessed souls on the top line with a damned unfortunate by-product on the bottom line? Could this be the story of a sorting and shipping process, the purpose of which is to deliver souls into their appropriate eternal bin? Can we dare wonder, given an ending that has more evil and suffering than the beginning, if it would have been better for this story never to have begun?” (34–35)

Second, he argues that this narrative cannot be found in the Bible itself. Instead, it is the product of the church reading Greco-Roman philosophy back into a Hebraic document. When we read the words of Jesus, we read them through a modern lens. We don’t see Jesus as he actually was, but we see Jesus as interpreted by Paul as interpreted by Augustine as interpreted by Aquinas as interpreted by Luther as interpreted by Calvin as interpreted by Jerry Falwell. So much post-Jesus theology has influenced our thinking that we are unable to see Jesus as he actually was.

On the other hand, McLaren suggests we learn to see Jesus through a Hebraic lens. In other words, if we start the story with Adam, and then move to Abraham, then Moses, then David, then the prophets, then John the Baptist, and finally to Jesus, we can see how Jesus fit into the context of his day.

According to McLaren, the predominant view of the Bible’s narrative comes from reading Greco-Roman philosophy back into the text. Plato was the one who introduced the notion of a “perfect” creation and a fall into an imperfect reality, and the Greeks were the ones looking for “salvation” through a return to the perfect order. This, however, was not the mindset of the ancient Hebrews.

According to McLaren, the Hebrews began with a “good” (but not perfect) Creation. Humanity’s “Fall” wasn’t so much of a catastrophic fall from the ideal, but a gradual spiraling into more and more depravity, climaxing at the building of the Tower of Babel—representing humanity’s empire-building and oppressing tendencies. Genesis sets the stage for the most important book in the Bible, Exodus, which demonstrates God’s heart for the oppressed and His liberating work in freeing people from the tyranny of Empire. The second half of Exodus (the giving of the law) demonstrates God’s work in forming people through the overcoming of “the dominating powers of fear, greed, impatience, ingratitude, and so one” (58). The rest of the Old Testament is a repeat of this greatest chapter—God’s longing for a peaceful kingdom to be built on earth contrasted with humanity’s tendency to build oppressive empires.

There is much to applaud in this first section of McLaren’s book. He is right in emphasizing the need to understand Jesus within a Jewish context. A Jesus that cannot be situated within the realm of first century Judaism is most likely not the historical Jesus. There is also much right in his “return from exile” or “liberation” theology. The theme of God’s liberation of the oppressed echoes throughout the Scriptures, and Exodus is a key book in understanding the Bible’s overarching narrative.

However, I think that McLaren has made some critical errors in his reconstruction of the biblical narrative. First, he omits early Christian interpretations of the biblical narrative. Second, he fails to appreciate the influence of Greco-Roman thought on first century Judaism and on Jesus himself. Finally, he fails to show how his interpretation of Genesis and Exodus is actually the ancient interpretation of these books.

While McLaren rightly insists that Jesus be placed in his appropriate Jewish context, he forgets that he also needs to be placed in an appropriate Christian context. Historians studying Jesus are governed by two principles. First, Jesus needs to be fit into a first century Jewish context. Jesus was a Jew just like all of the other Jews of his day. He spoke the same language, had the same education, celebrated the same holidays, and thought of God the same way they did. But, Jesus also needs to be fit into the movement that bears his name. N.T. Wright is fond of saying about this principle, “Where there is smoke, there is probably fire.” In other words, unless it can be proven otherwise, the beliefs and practices of the early followers of Jesus probably go back to Jesus himself. So, McLaren’s glaring omission is: How did Paul understand the narrative of the Old Testament? Since the writings of Paul are the earliest Christian documents that we have, shouldn’t they be the starting point of analyzing Christian thought (or at least a very important piece of the puzzle)?

McLaren’ second error is in neglecting the importance of Greco-Roman thought on first century Judaism and on Jesus himself. After reading this first section of the book, you’d think that Plato had no influence in the world until the sixth century A.D. Not only did Platonism dominate Greco-Roman thought at the time of Jesus, but it also heavily influenced his contemporary Judaism. (The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has proven this beyond a shadow of a doubt.) So, if we are going to take McLaren’s advice and start with Adam, and then move to Abraham, Moses, David, etc., we have to place Plato somewhere between Isaiah and John the Baptist. While Christianity is a Hebraic religion, it is also a western religion.

McLaren’s third error is his failure to demonstrate that his re-reading of Genesis and Exodus is actually the ancient reading of those texts. Even if we grant that it is possible that Jesus read Genesis and Exodus the way that McLaren is suggesting, how do we know if it is likely that he read it that way? McLaren doesn’t give any examples of ancient writers reading the Bible according to his framework.

Do we have examples of ancient writers reading Genesis according to the traditional interpretation? Second Baruch is a Jewish document written at about the same time as the New Testament. The author writes:

“For, although Adam sinned first and has brought death upon all who were not in his own time, yet each of them who has been born from him has prepared for himself the coming torment. . . . Adam is, therefore, not the cause, except for himself, but each has become his own Adam.” (54:15, 19, A.F.J. Klijn translation)

The author continues:

“And as you first saw the black waters on the top of the cloud which first came down upon the earth; this is the transgression which Adam, the first man, committed. For when he transgressed, untimely death came into being, mourning was mentioned, affliction was prepared, illness was created, labor accomplished, pride began to come into existence, the realm of death began to ask to be renewed with blood, the conception of children came about, the passion of parents was produced, the loftiness of men was humiliated, and goodness vanished.” (56:5–6, A.F.J. Klijn translation)

While the writer of 2 Baruch insists that no one is condemned for the sin of Adam (but for his own sin), he also indicates that a curse was brought upon the earth through Adam’s sin so that sickness, death, and evil hearts infected all people.

Fourth Ezra is another Jewish work written around the time of the New Testament. The author writes:

“You did not take away from them their evil heart, so that you Law might bring forth fruit in them. For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in people’s heart along with the evil root, but what was good departed, and the evil remained.” (3:20–22, B.M Metzger translation)

The writer of 4 Ezra likewise noted that something happened within the heart of humanity when Adam sinned. Before, there were tendencies both toward good and evil, but after Adam the good departed and people were left with an evil root.

Finally (and most importantly), there is the Apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee and a contemporary of Jesus, although the two likely never met before Paul’s encounter with Him on the road to Damascus. Paul writes:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” (Romans 5:12–14 ESV)

Sin and death came into the world through one man, Adam.

Paul also note that all of creation suffers from the consequences of Adam’s sin and is awaiting its redemption. He writes:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18–23 ESV)

So, the narrative of Creation-Curse-Redemption was certainly around at the time of Jesus—it was not invented in the sixth century A.D. The same cannot be said for McLaren’s reconstruction.

Why is this important?

First, I want to reiterate that much of what McLaren says in this section is right. God is against oppression. God wants us to work for righteousness and peace in the here-and-now, and not just wait for Him to bring it in the sweet by-and-by. It’s not what McLaren affirms that I disagree with, it’s what he denies, namely that human beings are fallen creatures in need of redemption. And, for the record, he doesn’t mince words. About the two different interpretations of the biblical narrative, he writes:

“The wild, passionate, creative, liberating, hope-inspiring God whose image emerges in these three sacred narratives is not the dread cosmic dictator of the six-line Greco-Roman framework. No, that deity, we must conclude, is an idol, a damnable idol. Yes, that idol is popular, perhaps even predominant, and defended by many a well-meaning but misguided scholar and fire-breathing preacher. But in the end you cannot serve two masters, Theos [the traditional God] and Elohim [McLaren’s reconstruction], the god of the Greco-Roman philosophers and Caesars and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the violent god of profit proclaimed by the empire and the compassionate God of justice proclaimed by the prophets.” (65)

Working for justice and peace is all well and good, but if the last 100 years has taught us anything it’s that it will never work, because there is something wrong with us. We are fallen, sinful creatures in need of redemption. If we reject that theology, we will fail in whatever sort of “kingdom-building” endeavor for which we set out.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brian McLaren's Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith

I am blogging through A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. McLaren is noted for his dissatisfaction with evangelicalism, and his new book raises “ten questions that are transforming the faith.” He writes, “It’s time for a new quest, launched by new questions, a quest across denominations and around the world, a quest for new ways to believe and new ways to serve faithfully in the way of Jesus, a quest for a new kind of Christian faith.” In the second chapter, he insists that he is not offering answers to these questions, but responses that invite counter-responses. Let the conversation begin! I will offer summaries of each question and response, along with my counter-responses.

If you’re unfamiliar with Brian McLaren, he has been a fairly prolific author during the 21st century—one who has stirred up plenty of controversy in evangelical circles. Along with Rob Bell, he is the author I am asked about most often. Personally, I feel that he is criticized more than he is understood. Most people who ask me about him know little about his thought other than that it is bad. That’s not really fair to Brian.

On the other hand, I have heard that McLaren takes his ideas to a new level in his latest book. To this point, he has offered more questions than answers, and the answers he has offered have been frustratingly vague. I am hoping that A New Kind of Christianity clarifies his faith, and I am blogging through the book because I anticipate his ideas spreading throughout evangelicalism.

The book is divided into chapters based on ten questions and answers:

  1. The narrative question: What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
  2. The authority question: How should the Bible be understood?
  3. The God question: Is God violent?
  4. The Jesus question: Who is Jesus and why is he important?
  5. The gospel question: What is the gospel?
  6. The church question: What do we do about the church?
  7. The sex question: Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
  8. The future question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
  9. The pluralism question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
  10. The what-do-we-do-now question: How can we translate our quest into action?

I first came across McLaren’s writings in 2005, while I was living in Dallas. I thoroughly enjoyed A New Kind of Christian (2001) and was prompted to read A Generous Orthodoxy (2004). Since then I’ve read a number of his books, the most significant being The Secret Message of Jesus (2006), Everything Must Change (2007), and Finding Our Way Again (2008).

I find McLaren’s writings to be helpful but dissatisfying. They are helpful in the sense that he asks good questions and he has a knack for pointing out what is wrong with contemporary Christianity. They are dissatisfying in that, despite claiming to be “new,” his answers are largely rehashes of ideas that have been tried and found wanting. He seems to forget that evangelicalism arose to prominence because people found the 20th century liberal movement unfruitful. Sometimes it seems like he is advocating we push that button again, only harder, and expect to get different results this time. Then again, that shouldn’t be surprising—it’s far easier to agree with someone that something is wrong than agree with them how to fix it (see the now moot Nationalized Health Care Debate, The).

I’m thankful for guys like Brian McLaren. We shouldn’t be afraid to analyze current goings-on in evangelicalism or ask hard questions. I haven’t read anything written by him that would qualify as “heresy,” even if I have read things that would qualify as “non-evangelical.” I am interested in seeing where he takes the conversation next.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

God is not Great—Parting Thoughts

I finished god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens today. It took me almost six months to work through it, but I responded to every chapter here on the blog. (You can access them on the archives on the left side of the blog—the first entry is September 30, 2009.)

As you will be able to tell by reading through my responses, I didn’t hate the book. Obviously, there is much in it with which I disagree, and at times I found myself on the defensive while I read. I didn’t plan for this to be the case, but Hitchens’ lively rhetoric and his use of ridicule unexpectedly evoked anger and indignation from me. He’s a great writer and religions give him a lot of ammunition.

Here are some things I walked away with having read the book:

The nature of the debate has changed. In the past, attacks against religion focused on the historical reliability of religious documents or in the philosophical claims of the religions. Hitchens glances by these, focusing instead on the moral deficiencies of religions and religious people, and he has found an audience. He doesn’t care about the cosmological argument or the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, he wants to know why religious people fly airplanes into buildings and why the divorce rate in the church is just as high as that outside of the church. If we continue to focus our apologetics on the reliability of the Scriptures and philosophical proofs for the existence of God, then we are failing to answer the questions that people like Christopher Hitchens are asking.

Religious authority is a major distraction from the Gospel. There is a subtext throughout god is not Great of contempt for authority—especially religious authority. Much of the book has the tone of a rebellious teenager yelling “You’re not the boss of me!” in the face of his bewildered parents who can no longer physically restrain him.

But maybe this is what the church needs to hear.

The Gospel is not about power. It’s not about forcing people to behave a certain way by flexing our political or military muscles. Christian leadership is leadership through service, and the spiritual authority of the church does not extend to the world, which Paul says is under the control of the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2).

When Jesus ministered in the flesh, he was opposed by the religious authorities. He did not try to pull rank on them and insist upon his right to rule over the faith community. He led by service and let the power of the Holy Spirit testify to his authority. The church today needs to follow suit. We need to live like Christ, proclaim the Gospel as the basis for our changed lives, and allow the power of the word and Spirit to influence our world.

Science is portrayed as the primary antagonist to the church. In the final chapter of the book, Hitchens writes:

“Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made.”
There is some basis to this perception. The scientific community and the religious community offer competing stories of the origins of the cosmos. Personally, I think we need to be careful about making this the battle ground. I don’t think most people can even articulate the theory of evolution, let alone evaluate its tenability. But, they do notice when we offer up junk science as a competing interpretation. That’s not to say that we should abandon the sciences or stop trying to show how scientific inquiry can support our views, but it is to say that we need to be absolutely sure of the soundness of our methods and we need to choose our battles. We can’t make science the enemy. If what we say about the world is true, then we have nothing to fear about honest exploration of it.

Hitchens has not interacted with the greatest Christian minds or the best Christian ideas. One of the frustrating things about reading god is not Great is the feeling one gets that Hitchens thinks that Christians have never read David Hume or that we haven’t updated our apologetics since the Middle Ages. Sure, he quotes C.S. Lewis on occasion, but Mere Christianity was written in 1952. What about 21st century apologetics? Atheists need to react to the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg. He is conversant in particle physics, string theory, evolutionary biology, philosophy of all kinds, ancient Near Eastern religion, biblical theology, systematic theology, and anthropology. His apologetic is postmodern. Even interaction with guys like N.T. Wright or Ravi Zacharias would be better than what we see in god is not Great. While some people’s faith may be shattered by his book, I found that Hitchens didn’t even address the questions that I am asking or the reasons that I believe.

A new approach to apologetics is needed. In “The Grand Inquisitor,” the most famous chapter in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, atheist Ivan and Christian Alyosha debate the existence of God. Actually, the chapter is more of a diatribe by Ivan about why God does not exist. When Ivan finishes, his brother Alyosha responds by kissing him.

I think this is the apologetic that our world needs. They may attack us with ridicule and intellectual arguments, but the most powerful response is not angry retaliation, but love. Like I said above, our culture doesn’t seem as concerned about whether or not Christianity is true, but whether or not it works. If God is real, then Christianity will make a difference in the lives of his followers. (This is also the apologetic of Wolfhart Pannenberg.)

I wish Christopher Hitchens the best. I hope he continues to be open about his doubts, and I hope the Christian community responds to him with compassion. (I think I read that his experience debating Douglas Wilson was encouraging to him. He was surprised at how hospitable Christians were to him.) The only request that I may make of Hitchens is that he tone down the ridicule. No one likes to be mocked by strangers who don’t know them or their stories. He’s a great writer; I hope he can use his gifts to advance dialog rather than impede it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on "The Last-Ditch ‘Case’ Against Secularism"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

In chapter seventeen, “An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch ‘Case’ Against Secularism,” Hitchens deals with the accusation that a secular state will inevitably fall into totalitarianism. On the contrary, argues Hitchens, it’s religious states that most often fall into totalitarianism. He writes:

“Whether we examine the oriental monarchies of China or India or Persia, or the empires of the Aztecs or Incas, or the medieval courts of Spain and Russia and France, it is almost unvaryingly that we find that these dictators were also gods, or the heads of churches. More than mere obedience was owed them: any criticism of them was profane by definition, and millions of people lived and died in pure fear of a ruler who could select you for a sacrifice, or condemn you to eternal punishment, on a whim.”
What about the Stalinists? Weren’t they secular totalitarians? No, says Hitchens. Stalinism was not secular but religious. He writes:

“Communist absolutists did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with faith and superstition, as seek to replace it. The solemn elevation of infallible leaders who were a source of endless bounty and blessing; the permanent search for heretics and schismatics; the mummification of dead leaders as icons and relics; the lurid show trials that elicited incredible confessions by means of torture . . . none of this was very difficult to interpret in traditional terms.”
What about the Nazis and other post-World-War-I fascists? Hitchens writes:

“Arising out of the misery and humiliation of the First World War, fascist movements were in favor of traditional values against Bolshevism, and upheld nationalism and piety. It is probably not a coincidence that they arose first and most excitedly in Catholic countries, and it is certainly not a coincidence that the Catholic Church was generally sympathetic to fascism as an idea.”
While Hitchens acknowledges that secular humanists have made their mistakes in history and that some religious people have been bright spots in opposing totalitarianism, in general religion has been an embarrassing ally to totalitarians.

It is important to note at the onset that much of what Hitchens has to say is right—religious institutions often have been embarrassing allies of totalitarians. We need look no further than the contemporary situation in some of the Middle Eastern Muslim countries to see what harm can be done when church and state are infused. I have Anabaptist tendencies and affirm the separation of church and state.

But, despite my agreements with Hitchens, there is much to which I object. Unlike the previous chapters that all attack religion, this one sets out to defend secular pluralism against a religious counter-attack. So, when religious people point to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as examples of what can happen in a secular state, Hitchens responds by saying: (1) religious states are inherently totalitarian, and (2) Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were religious, not secular states. I don’t find either of these arguments compelling.

First, I disagree that a few examples of the church behaving badly prove that religion is inherently totalitarian and that all religious leaders are despots. Hitchens neglects the “Already/Not Yet” aspect of the church and the implications on its decision making. While we insist that the church is indwelt by the Holy Spirit so that we have unprecedented access to the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30, 2:6–16), we also admit that our indwelling by the Spirit is incomplete. We see as through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). This means that the church does not have inerrant access to the mind of God and that church pronouncements are fallible. Thus, whenever someone is in power—churchman or not—there is the potential for abuse.

Hitchens writes, “Human beings and institutions are imperfect, to be sure. But there could be no clearer or more vivid proof that holy institutions are man-made.” I agree. But just because holy institutions are man-made, doesn’t mean that they are merely man-made. As N.T. Wright describes it, the church is the place where the human and the divine intersect, or where heaven and earth intersect. The church is both a man-made institution and a divine institution.

Second, I object to the way that Hitchens redefines religion in chapter seventeen so that secular states like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia are recast as “religious” states. What makes an ideology a religion? Hitchens has his own ideology. He has his own creation stories and prophecies of doom and gloom. He has corresponding ethics and rituals based on these stories. He even has angels (scientists) and demons (religious people). If Hitchens were put in charge, would he be a “religious” totalitarian?

Is there any middle ground? I think so. I do not think that religious ideas should be codified into public policy simply because they are religious ideas. I am confident enough in the truth of Christianity that I think it should be considered as one idea among many. If we want to call this “secular pluralism,” then I am okay with that. As Christian ideas and policies are tested, the wisdom of God will be vindicated. On the contrary, Hitchens seems to be advocating a different kind of secular pluralism, one in which religious ideas are ignored or suffocated simply because they are religious. That is not pluralism; it’s a theocracy of a different kind.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sad News from iMonk

Michael Spencer has posted an update on his health at He is not doing well.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on “Is Religion Child Abuse?”

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city."

In Chapter sixteen, “Is Religion Child Abuse?” Hitchens questions the authority that religious leaders have over children.

Hitchens begins by recounting several scare stories told to children in order to get them to listen and obey their parents and religious authorities. Hitchens asserts that children are targeted specifically because they have not reached the age of reason. As Ignatius of Loyola said, “Give me a child until he is ten, and I will give you the man.” Since children do not have mature reasoning skills, it is “abusive” to manipulate them to immoral beliefs and practices. Hitchens claims that this is precisely what religions do.

With regard to immoral beliefs, Hitchens cites the church’s position on abortion. I have to admit, I was shocked as I tried to follow Hitchens’ logic here. (I will elaborate below.) Hitchens claims that science has thoroughly discredited the old claim that an embryo was merely part of a woman’s body, comparable to an appendix or a tumor. They are correctly called “unborn children.” However, recognizing this begins a discussion; it doesn’t end it. Since abortions happen naturally (we call them miscarriages), we can only assume that nature or god recognizes that there are certain circumstances in which it is undesirable or less beneficial for a pregnancy to result in a live birth. Contrary to this common sense, religions (and the Roman Catholic Church is the target here) have insisted upon a black-and-white stance on abortion and contraception, making IUDs “murder weapons.”

With regard to immoral practices, Hitchens cites genital mutilation—including both the Muslim practice of female circumcision and the Judeo-Christian practice of male circumcision. He exposes the disinformation about the health benefits of either of these practices and asserts that the “real” reason why they are practiced is to decrease sexual sensation and thus exercise control over the recipient’s sexual behavior.

I see three main points to this chapter. First, the thesis of the chapter is that compulsory religious education of children is child abuse. Supporting this thesis are the claims (1) that religious beliefs are immoral, and (2) religious practices are immoral.

Is compulsory religious education immoral? Is any kind of compulsory education of children immoral? I have two children whom I responsible for raising. Part of my parental responsibility is to teach my children the ways of the world and how they can be successful in it. So, I am teaching them to read, even if they don’t want to learn how to read. I will teach them how to count, even if they don’t want to learn how to count. I will teach them to play nice with others, to share toys, to work hard, to be persistent, to do their best, to be honest, to be charitable, to be a good friend, to look both ways before crossing the street, to wash their hands before dinner, to brush their teeth, to exercise, to pray, to pay their taxes, to participate in the government, to honor the elderly, and a whole slew of other things.

I will also tell them stories. I will tell them about my great grandfather who ended up in Pennsylvania because he got on a train and said, “Take me as far as this money will go.” I will tell them about my parents, and how my dad’s military career took us all around the country. I will tell them how I met their mother at my high school youth group. I will tell them about the founding fathers and how this country was formed on the principles of freedom and equality. I will tell them about human slavery and the racial inequalities that have haunted our country since its inception. I will tell them about how when I was a kid there was this place called the Soviet Union and how we all just assumed that the world would end when we eventually went to nuclear war with them. And yes, I will tell them that God created the world and that Jesus died for our sins.

Some of the things that I will teach my children will come from my religious convictions. Some will derive from my experience living in the context in which I have lived. If it’s not abusive for me to insist that my children get a dental check up every six months and that they get a medical physical every year, than it isn’t child abuse for me to insist that they be in church. Religion is a part of who we are, what we do, and what we believe. What else can any parent teach their children except the ways of the world as they have experienced it? That’s our calling as parents.

If compulsory education isn’t wrong in and of itself, then perhaps it is the religious content of that education that amounts to child abuse. Are the beliefs and practices of religion immoral?

The short answer is “yes, some times.” Any time that you make a broad, sweeping judgment like “religion” or “religious people,” you are going to find a mixed bag of beliefs and practices—some moral; some immoral. (Then again, that does raise the question of the standard for judging something to be “immoral.” Nobody thinks that their practices are immoral.)

So, what about the immoral practices that Hitchens cites? This is a tougher issue than he lets on. All cultures have liminal experiences through which they require people to go in order to become part of the group. Those who go through the process are stressed for a time, but they come out on the other side as “part of the group.” It is the shared traumatic experience that produces group solidarity. The best example that I can think of from our culture is the generation that went through World War II together. They were all stretched, and they have a solidarity that other generations can’t understand. (Think, if you played sports, of how the grueling practices and fierce competitions bonded your group.) Some liminal experiences in American culture are high school, learning to drive, college, and marriage. Other subgroups have experiences that bind them together—things like medical residencies, internships, graduate school, field work, dissertations, fraternity pledge week, etc.

Religious rites are liminal experiences. Some, like baptism, are relatively tame. Some, like female circumcision, are horrific to outsiders. But it’s these shared experiences that produce group cohesion. Groups are defined by insiders and outsiders, and the difference between the two is often determined by going through some kind of rite. So, are the rites abusive? That depends on how you define abuse. Harshness is not the same as abuse. A medical residency that requires you to work 70 hours per week is harsh, but few people would call it abuse. Two-a-days are harsh, but few would call them abuse. Compulsory military service is harsh, but few would call it a human rights violation.

The most extreme religious rite is female circumcision. It is performed on grown, pre-pubescent girls, and it is very painful. Following the procedure, sex also can be very painful. But it is also an ingrained part of some cultures, so that women who refuse to undergo the process are branded “whores.”

If you were a parent of a young girl in a culture that placed a high value on female circumcision, and your daughter said, “I don’t want to do it,” would you force her to do it? (Keep in mind that refusal to undergo the procedure would alienate her from her peers and make finding a husband difficult.) Let’s contextualize to America. What if your child didn’t want to go to school? Would you make him or her? (Of course you would.) What if your child had a physical deformity that could be treated with cosmetic surgery, only your child was afraid to have the procedure done—would you force the child, reasoning “you’ll thank me when you’re older”?

We need to be careful about judging cultures from the outside. We don’t understand why other cultures find female circumcision to be reasonable, therefore we find forced participation to be abusive. But these cultures do find it to be reasonable, or they would abandon the practice (every young girl who undergoes it has a mother who also went through it). Since I don’t come from a culture that practices female circumcision, I find the practice disturbing. But then I think of the Bible and God’s command to circumcise all adult male converts to Judaism. If I was thinking about converting to worshipping the true God, but the catch was that I would have to undergo an operation, would that be a deal-breaker?

I don’t think the question is as simple as Hitchens makes it out to be. As outsiders to the cultures that undergo female circumcision, we look on in disgust and say, “No way! I would never make my daughter do that! Those people are barbarians!” If we were part of that culture, we might think differently.

There is no theological justification for male circumcision in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Apparently, there is no medical benefit to it, either. It was just something people did to identify them as “Jewish”—a liminal experience that produced group cohesion and distinguished outsiders from insiders. (Note also that this practice is not a Christian practice. I don’t know why non-Jewish westerners do it, but the answer is found in history/sociology, not in theology.)

As someone who was circumcised (too much information, I know), I was a bit perplexed at this choice as an example of gross religious immorality. Hitchens writes:

“Full excision, originally ordered by god as the blood price for the promised future massacre of the Canaanites, is now exposed for what it is—a mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life. The connection between religious barbarism and sexual repression could not be plainer than when it is ‘marked in the flesh.’ Who can count the number of lives that have been made miserable in this way, especially since Christian doctors began to adopt ancient Jewish folklore in their hospitals?”

Really? Ruining its future sex life? Do you really think that?

So, Christians are immoral for circumcising their infant males (but people who pierce their daughters’ ears are okay). And what about those immoral beliefs? As I said above, I was shocked by Hitchens’ moral reasoning.

Hitchens grants that an embryo is “a separate body and entity, and not merely (as some really did used to argue) a growth in the female body.” Yet, he insists, “this only opens the argument rather than closes it.” I agree so far. Removal of a tumor is not a moral issue; termination of a human life is. But this doesn’t end the discussion, since termination of a human life may be acceptable under certain circumstances.

So, I was waiting for Hitchens’ argument with regard to when and why abortion is acceptable, and why Christians are immoral for their position. Before I quote Hitchens’ position, I should note that the Christian position is not monolithic. I don’t think there are many people who would argue that abortion is always wrong. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo’s chance of survival is nil and the mother’s life is at risk, abortion seems to be the ethical choice. Other cases in which an unborn baby has a chance at survival and the mother has a slight health risk are grey areas. Most Christians are against abortion for convenience (the vast majority of cases).

I don’t really feel the need to respond much to Hitchens’ moral reasoning. His argument pretty much speaks for itself:

“There may be circumstances in which it is not desirable to carry a fetus to full term. Either nature or god appears to appreciate this, since a very large number of pregnancies are ‘aborted,’ so to speak, because of malformations, and are politely known as ‘miscarriages.’ Sad though this is, it is preferably less miserable an outcome than the vast number of deformed or idiot children who would otherwise have been born, or stillborn, or whose brief lives would have been a torment to themselves and others. As with evolution in general, therefore, in utero we see a microcosm of nature and evolution itself. In the first place we begin as tiny forms that are amphibian, before gradually developing lungs and brains (and growing and shedding that now useless coat of fur) and then struggling out and breathing fresh air after a somewhat difficult transition. Likewise, the system is fairly pitiless in eliminating those who never had a very good chance of surviving in the first place: our ancestors on the savannah were not going to survive in their turn if they had a clutch of sickly and lolling infants to protect against predators.”

Abortion is moral because even nature recognizes the need to eliminate the “deformed or idiot children,” whose “lives would have been a torment to themselves and others.” Adolf Hitler said, “Nature is cruel; therefore we, too, can be cruel.” How is this different from Hitchens’ argument? If this is the basis for making moral decisions, what reason do we have for helping people like this man, who, apart from the benevolence of others would be eliminated by the pitiless system?

Hitchens writes, “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in quite a different world.” Indeed.