Jean Heimann at her Catholic Fire blog posted a review of my book, Fidelis, and I have to say that I think she did a good job. Ok, maybe I’d say that anyone who likes my book and writes a favorable review did a good job. But who could possibly dislike my book? 😉 To read the review, click the title of it: Book Review: The Harry Potter Alternative.
I have also posted some comments about her review on my book series site (www.birthpangs.com) on the blog there. Click here to read those comments.
Jean Heimann at her Catholic Fire blog posted a review of my book, Fidelis, and I have to say that I think she did a good job. Ok, maybe I’d say that anyone who likes my book and writes a favorable review did a good job. But who could possibly dislike my book? 😉 To read the review, click the title of it: Book Review: The Harry Potter Alternative.
Faithful, Faithful, Faithful.
‘Faithful’ sums up my review of the Narnia Movie.
There have been many reviews of the movie already, by wiser heads. I’ve read only one of them, myself, so what follows is primarily from my own reflection. I should note that while I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia, and TLWW a dozen or more times, I’ve only seen the movie once. I suspect this review would be more robust if I’d see the movie a couple more times. With that said, let’s get on with it.NarniaBox
The first thing that told me I was in for a satisfying experience was when I saw that Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, was the co-producer. This information was provided before the movie really got started, and I knew that Mr. Gresham would not have allowed Hollywood to stray too far. I hoped that he’d be able to do more than merely restrain, but also dictate. I think that seems to be the case. There are two ways we can contemplate the movie’s faithfulness to the book- which nearly all desire. One is accuracy of detail, and the other is accuracy of message. We will examine each, briefly, in turn.
On ‘accuracy of detail’ let me submit just two examples that I think well describe the faithfulness of the movie to the book. The first has to do with the opening scene. I can imagine thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of viewers saw the scene unfold into a fleet of German bombers over England with some surprise. “I thought this was some sort of children’s fantasy book?” you might hear them think. I can imagine even children would have been initially perplexed. But the book is clear that the reason why the children went out to the country in the first place was because of ‘the war,’ but because of the sorry state of education these days, we could well doubt any of them would know what war was meant or even what is meant by war. The idea of the world of Narnia being related to our own world- not our fantasy world, but our real, live, brutal, beautiful, tragic ‘real’ world- is a critical component of the Narnia books and its appeal. The inclusion of this scene was necessary, in my opinion, on a number of levels. Nonetheless, I thought in my own head that they would simply have started with the children out in the country, with simply a verbal exchange between the children about why they were there. That was my expectation, and I’m glad it was dashed.
The second thing that I would submit on ‘accuracy of detail’ is incredibly minor. It is because it is so minor that I mention it at all! The depths to which the movie makers went to be faithful to the book is illustrated by this example. If anyone is disappointed in other areas where the film makers had to deviate, I think that this example is evidence to show that if the film makers could have been more accurate on a particular item (but weren’t), they certainly would have, and probably have good reasons why they weren’t. The example concerns the discovery of the Wardrobe Room for the first time.
The book says that the room was empty, except for ‘a dead blue-bottle on the window sill.’ I had never noticed this before, but noticed it while reading the LWW one more time prior to going to the movie. I pondered the significance, if any, of this ‘blue bottle,’ in the Wardrobe Room, and looked forward to seeing if the movie called any attention to it. At that point in the movie, the only thing to be seen in the Wardrobe Room was the wardrobe itself, and a silly blue fly that fluttered in the window and fell dead as Lucy watched. The reader probably sees my ignorance about species of flies right off: a ‘blue-bottle’ is a type of fly. A dead fly on a window sill seems to me to be a pretty minor detail, but the movie makers not only included it, but took steps to make sure that the viewer saw a fly that was dead. With such attention to detail evident, I think we can be generous as more and more little things surface that are not so exact.
I should point out, though, that I thought that these two examples are representative. The movie was faithful to the book all over the place. I only wanted to show just how faithful it really was.
Now, we turn to the question of ‘accuracy of message.’
It’s on a matter like this where we have seen movie makers get a little arrogant. Obviously, it can be difficult from the start to translate a narrative of any kind into a film. It’s even worse when the book is so famous, popular, and loved. Film makers often decide to try to convey the ‘message,’ as they understand it, in a way that they hope (so they say) that they will be faithful to the author’s intent and message, but comes out of the mind of the directors. It’s like thinking that the ‘message’ is a destination to be reached on a map, and the author had laid out one way to get to that place, but the directors can see another way to get to that very same place. Let’s imagine that it really is the same destination, indeed.
The problem is, keeping the analogy, if the author provides you directions to the destination that is more scenic, or otherwise filled with certain adventures, your arrival to the destination will find you in a certain frame of mind. A certain attitude will be constructed in your head. A certain ‘mental fatigue’ from your journey. It would be the difference between coming upon a beautiful city at sunset, with the amber light spread out over it, and emerging from a canyon in order to first see it. Your whole being is orientated towards the destination far differently then, say, if the movie director had you merely fly into the city during the noon day hour. You’ve arrived at the same place, but you haven’t really arrived at the ‘same’ place. Given the obvious Christian narrative that permeated the book, it was important to me that the movie really take people to the same ‘destination’ that Lewis brought people. As well as can be expected, that was the case.
Any deviances from that ‘destination’ are understandable, and in that sense, I approve of these new ‘places’ the movie had us traverse in order to arrive where Lewis had wanted, or at anyrate, achieved.
To illustrate this, allow me two more examples. These, again, are representative. I choose two that I think make the best case. In the first place, when Lucy finds her brothers and sister unbelieving about her first trip into Narnia, I wondered if we might see, as we did in the book, a discussion between the children and the Professor, about Lucy’s honesty. Is Lucy normally a liar? the professor wants to know. Is Lucy crazy, as far as they know? he wonders. Peter and Susan know that she is not normally a liar and really a person of good sense, normally. The professor concludes for them that she’s probably telling the truth. This is the famous Lewis ‘Trilemma,’ which of course he got from someone else, about Jesus and his claims to be God and Christ. It’s in Mere Christianity: Jesus was either Liar, Lunatic, or Lord.
This was an important area of faithfulness that the movie had. Another area of faithfulness is, ironically, a deviation from the book! After Aslan has risen from the dead, and the White Witch defeated by him, Aslan declares “It is finished.” This is not in the book as far as I recall. Obviously, this is what Jesus said on the cross, indicating his defeat of death, and presumably, the devil. For those learned secularists who began, with alarm, to suspect that this whole tale was some sort of Christian allegory, “It is finished” would have helped them really come to their conclusion that they’d been had: They’d had a taste of the Christian myth, and darn it, they liked it!
Of course, there were other indications that Lewis had some specific designs in mind in his portrayal of Aslan and the events in LWW which would have been clear enough without this statement. Given the mass audience, including not only hardened learned secularists, but even children who may not have yet thought about these things, the statement ‘It is finished’ will be heard again by them likely the next time they go to church- Easter- and they will find it familiar. Hopefully they will find it welcome.
There were other aspects of the movie that were faithful to the message of the books that are not so implicitly or explicitly concerning its Christian overtones. Some of the grand philosophy buried into the entirety of the Chronicles of Narnia were also expressed in the movie. A good example of this comes at the very end of the movie, when the Professor says something to the effect of, ‘You won’t be able to go back that way, again…’ For the most part, then, the movie does a pretty good job of being accurate to the message of Narnia- both in abstraction as well as mode.
In conclusion, I have hopes that movies are made after the other books as well, provided that they are done with the same quality and attention to both detail and message that was given to LWW. I’m not quite sure how they can pull that off with “The Horse and His Boy” but I hope they find a way. I also hope that Hollywood begins to get the message that the mass of the American public aches for content that does not offend their sensibilities. I feel compelled to point out to them- I trust even THEY can follow conclusions derived from the bottom line, though- that there was no gratuitous sex scene in the LWW.
Nor was there any in the Harry Potter books, or movies. Or Star Wars. Or ET. Or Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion,’ the all time grossing rated ‘R’ movie. There were few ‘F’ bombs (that one goes out to you, Mr. Tarantino) in these movies, as well. Violence there certainly is: but it is of a different sort, isn’t it? An exploration of what makes it different in these cases (a similar case: ‘Saving Private Ryan’) may help Hollywood make heads and tail of the true nature of the human condition. Such a realization would mean good money for them, so its obviously in their best interest to do so. We long for Good Food and Good Drink in our media, and are often disappointed. It’s sad that, in general, our media choices for so long have really been nothing but Fast Food. Is that changing? I think it is.
Aslan is on the move.
Also read my extensive review of Rice’s “Road to Cana.”
Long time atheist Anne Rice (author of “Interview with a Vampire”) became a Christian a few years back and got it into her head that she wanted to write about Jesus’ life from a 1st person perspective… uh… Jesus’ perspective. Pretty brave, if you think about it. Anyway, the first installment is “Out of Egypt” and details Jesus’ life from Jesus’ perspective from his time in Egypt as he moved back to Nazareth in Galilee.
In the back of the book she has some notes which were very informative. Here is a brief excerpt that I completely endorse:
Having started with the skeptical critics, those who take their cue from the earliest skeptical New Testament scholars of the Enlightenment, I expected to discover that their arguments would be frighteningly strong, and that Christianity was, at heart, a kind of fraud. I’d have to end up compartmentalizing my mind with faith in one part of it, and truth in another. And what would I write about my Jesus? I had no idea. But the prospects were interesting. Surely he was a liberal, married, had children, was a homosexual, and who knew what? But I must do my research before I wrote one word.
These skeptical scholars seemed so very sure of themselves. They built their books on certain assertions without even examining these assertions. How could they be wrong?”
What gradually came clear to me was that many of the skeptical arguments- arguments that insisted most of the Gospels were suspect, for instance, or written too late to be eyewitness accounts- lacked coherence. They were not elegant. Arguments about Jesus himself were full of conjecture. Some books were no more than assumptions piled upon assumptions. Absurd conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all.
In sum, the whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horriefied by it if he knew about it- that whole picture which had floated in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years- that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I’d ever read.
When I first heard about her conversion, I was a little worried, though. I heard it was to Catholicism, and while many Catholics are very devout, their scholarship is based on many liberal premises. I was delighted to read these words of hers, but more importantly, find it evident in her book. By way of contrast, Mel Gibson, also a devout Catholic, sought to direct his “Passion” as ‘authentically’ as possible, and for some bizarre reason decided to film the whole thing in Aramaic…. oops….
Anne Rice handles this issue of Jesus’ language very well. There are dozens of reasons to acknowledge that Jesus would have been, like most other Jews at the time, tri-lingual. He would have known Aramaic, sure, and Hebrew, indeed, but Greek definately. Ms. Rice handles that fact admirably. Since this book only covers Jesus life from his time in Egypt to his time in Nazareth (age 12ish), it remains to be seen whether she will follow through with her solid historical perspective and have Jesus primarily preaching and teaching in Greek, as well. We’ll see.
There are dozens of other historical details that she gets right, too. Perhaps most importantly, she accurately and adequately sets the stage that Jesus is moving against. The break-up of palestine into four tetrarchies after the death of a certain King Herod is a critical historical backdrop for understanding the circumstances that Jesus finally emerged on the scene from.
Another critical element that she admirably emphasizes is Jesus’ Jewishness. Now, in the modern day there certainly are Jews who distance themselves from the Jews of yesteryear who were in the temple-sacrifice system, but Jesus would have very much been immersed in it, as well as the other Jews of that day. This fact comes out loud and clear, and various insights arise that leave many modern readers, even some well-educated conservative Christians, in the dust.
For example, the ritual cleansing with “living water” that was required in order to be clean is included. What constituted “living water” essentially meant water that was moving, ie, it wasn’t stagnant. The health benefits are clearly seen compared to modern advice to wash using ‘running water.’ In fact, ‘running water’ is the same idea. (google mikveh). At anyrate, Jesus’ statements to the Samaratin woman in John 4 where he says “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” would have conjured mikveh-like concepts. Separated from the knowledge of Jesus’ intrinsic Jewishness, even I thought something completely different about what Jesus meant by ‘living water’ in this passage (eg, maybe something to do with baptism, see John 3).
Anne Rice gets Jesus’ Jewishness right.
While I think that if I would have had the kahoonas to put myself in the place of Jesus to write from his perspective, 1st person like, I would have done it differently, Anne Rice did a superb job in the way she did it and any objections that I might have are mere quibbles. They aren’t even worth mentioning.
For any person seeking to understand the historical setting that Jesus emerged from as established by the historical data itself (devoid of the skeptical/liberal material which dismisses the data, usually), they will find this book very insightful.
I recommend it to all. Even if you are a skeptical/liberal sort, you will benefit from seeing how the conservative school of thought conceptualizes Jesus called the Christ.
Coming in November will be Antony Flew’s final treatment on where he stands and hopefully how he got there. In case you’re wondering, Antony Flew was for years considered one of the foremost atheists of the century (sorry Dawkins, you don’t even come close, although no one surpasses your rabidity). After a time, he began to warm up to Christianity- or at least, to theism, finally adopting a position that sounded a lot like deism. I was among many in wanting to hear more. We were told that his new edition of God & Philosophy would have a new introduction that clarified where he stood. It didn’t, though it offered some hints.
Over the summer of 2006, I learned that Flew was not entirely pleased with how God & Philosophy turned out. More tantalized then ever, I decided to try to establish a correspondence with Dr. Flew to ask him if he would clarify where he stood before he died as, and I quote, “you are no spring chicken.” With the news of the release of his book out in the open, it is now safe to say that I had the pleasure of receiving a reply from Dr. Flew. In that reply, he indicated that he was well ahead of me: the book I wanted to see was forthcoming. That book is now here: There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
And I think I have settled once and for all that Richard Carrier does not have special access to Antony Flew. Flew is a kind man who will reply to anyone. The contents of my correspondence are not earth shattering by any means, though the news about the book could have been construed as such, but I will choose to keep that correspondence private.
I think it is worthwhile to note that a whole generation of ‘free-thinkers’ borrowed arguments from Flew and now those who continue to use those arguments will have to explain why we should think the arguments sound when their originator now finds them rationally unsatisfying, or… satisfyingly met. (See for example Flew’s Gardner Parable). Of course, as the skeptic will be quick to point out, the logic of the argument stands or falls apart from the author of the argument, and I’m not denying that. Still, we expect the inventor of the object to know the object better than most of us. And besides, one of my points in raising this is that without such men to invent new arguments for them, where are the free-thinkers going to come up with new ones? Right. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Theism is safe intellectually, but may yet be undermined by good propoganda.
The real issue to watch here concerns Flew’s own spirituality. Here, of course, we leave aside the skeptics who think such things are nonsense, but for we Christians the question of whether or not Flew goes all the way and embraces Christ is of paramount importance. Surrounded by people like Habermas and NT Wright, I have to think that the right people are in place to help lead him to the final surrender, and therefore, the Final Victory. But as it stands now, he has not yet crossed that threshold, and will not reveal it as crossed in this book. Our duty, then, is to pray.
I will update this blog as events unfold.
Today the Supreme Court opened their session and I began reflecting a little on the function that this court provides for our country. As I am in constant contention with non-Christians, secular humanists and atheists in particular, I was also thinking a little about arguments that I am often engaged in with them in relation to the Constitution. Politically, I would consider myself a ‘Constitutionalist-Libertarian’ which basically means that I don’t think the government should have much power over the private individual and that the power they do have should be precisely laid out and constrained by the Constitution. In other words, if you want to limit someone’s individual rights, change the law, and if the Constitution won’t allow that, change the Constitution.
I think there are lots of folks who agree with me on that though they may not adopt my label. I raise this all here to introduce what I believe is a core difference in the way people view the world. Let me give two examples to try to make my premise plain. Consider, first of all, the Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade. In this decision, building on a couple of precedents, the justices somehow found a constitutional right to privacy and managed to extend this right to include abortion. But does the Constitution really contain language that would support this? No, it doesn’t.
Now, consider the misguided but successful efforts of those who brought about the 18th Amendment in 1919: Prohibition. Previously, there had been no language in the Constitution to restrict alcohol in the way the 18th Amendment called for. These folks went through the extraordinary effort to pass an amendment and change that.
This is illustrative of the difference between attitudes about the rule of law. Those who passed the 18th Amendment actually cared for the rule of law. Those who pushed through Roe vs Wade did not. If it had been secular humanists that had wanted to outlaw alcohol, they wouldn’t have bothered to build popular support for the measure and then craft language that deals with it explicitly, they would instead have manipulated precedent and used the courts- bypassing popular support altogether- to get their way.
It is probably not surprising that the approach to the Constitution as a ‘living document’ followed the trend to dismiss the Christian Scriptures and argue that “anything can be proved from the Bible.” This objection to the Scriptures appears all over the place but the truth seems to be these days that anything can be proved from the Constitution, too. The rejection of the Scriptures, I contend, is only representative of a general disdain for the notion that one might really be constrained by the meaning of words on a page. Probably, post-modernism is itself born from the same root.
The difference between the approaches can be seen again when one looks at how the amendment was finally countered. Insanely, using a method that would never be considered now, our forefathers passed another amendment (the 21st) to repeal the former one. Again, if they had wanted to act as moderns do, they would have instead tried to have the amendment thrown out as ‘unconstitutional.’
But of course, if you institute policies as ‘constitutional’ based on judicial declaration and find them ‘unconstitutional’ later on again by judicial declaration- when in fact nothing within the language of the Constitution ever changed, all you’ve succeeded in doing is reducing interpretation to a subjective operation performed by this justice or that one. The language hardly matters at all. This is precisely why skeptics today can say that you can make the Bible say anything: because skeptics don’t constrain themselves to the written language. If they did, one could easily see that on an issue like slavery (for example), it is not the case that the Bible supports it but rather people wanted to act that way but the language couldn’t support it, and eventually plain reason won out.
The danger here is immense. If you depend on the Supreme Court to institute your policies you disenfranchise yourself to a high degree. The extent of your ability on an individual level to enact or de-enact ‘the law of the land’ is restricted to your vote in the Presidential election, since it is the President who appoints new justices when there are openings. If you have a lot of money, you can of course, pour a bunch of it into a special interest group who will push a carefully chosen trial up to the Supreme Court level, so in this way you can ‘effect’ change. I think its safe to say that for most of us, we are effectively dis-enfranchised.
What makes this so ironic is hearing secularists try to argue from the language of the constitution or from ‘polls’… they are deeply afraid that the Supreme Court could end up being much more conservative: As they should, since if the Supreme Court is their sole means of changing policy, a conservative court could single-handedly change everything they’d ‘worked’ for. On top of that irony comes another irony: a conservative court is actually more likely to stick to the words on the page, which means that the people again have a stronger position to create change since now electing their representatives and senators becomes important. But of course, that is no help for them, since the whole reason why they went down the road to judicial fiat in the first place was because they didn’t have any hope in actualizing their views legislatively.
There is nothing that makes me smile more than having an argument about the language of the Constitution with a secular humanist who would treat it as a ‘living document,’ anyway. But the implications for our society are serious. Because of this approach, the question of abortion was decided by 9 men instead of the hundreds of millions of people living in the country that were affected by the decision and had their own views. On this, the secular humanists are pleased, because of course they support the policy. But what happens when the court decides something that they don’t approve of? They will find themselves harmed by their own precedence.
And as a Christian trying to reason with them from the Scriptures, one can’t help but think that this attitude stands in the way of their salvation, too, for the simple reason that the meaning of passages in the Christian Scriptures are so subjective to them that they feel they could never understand them, let alone hope to trust them.
Mrs. Henneman (not her real name) was my first grade teacher. She was awesome. Naturally, my memories faded a long time ago. My best source these days is my mother who assures me that I thought the world of Mrs. Henneman and the reason for this appears to be that Mrs. Henneman thought the world of me.
It is interesting what things we remember. I had some vague recollection as I coursed through elementary and middle school that Mrs. Henneman no longer worked at the school, but it wasn’t actually until high school that I made the connection that she had left just one year after I had her to fight cancer. This was a fight that she lost. I am not sure when it dawned on me that this fabulous teacher that cared so much about me had actually died but I do remember the loss. That’s silly if you think about it. She died young and I’m sure the loss was much more potent to others then it was to me, merely one of her young students who couldn’t even remember what she looked like after a couple of years.
But it is funny the things we remember and don’t remember, the things we think about and the things we don’t. Another crazy memory I have is of going with a friend to a college campus as a High School senior to check it out. The friend had been annoying me quite a bit as it was. I don’t know what it was but he couldn’t stand my younger siblings. He was an only child himself but I have trouble thinking that was the issue. Anyway, he was a general pessimist but he had been my friend for a few years up to that point, and it was he and I checking out this college.
I remember being less then impressed by the college. The grounds were dirty and muddy and the place seemed to be completely vacant. Like, there weren’t any students at all. Initially, we had both talked about going to this place but then the coup d’grace was our sitting with the chief financial advisor. My friend had been making scoffing noises for hours by that point and after the financial counselor informed us both that he couldn’t offer us any kind of grants based on the information he had, my friend turned it up. He turned it up right there in the office with this guy. The thing is, I didn’t really stop him. I sort of smiled and egged it on.
Finally, it was time to go. He gave us each a card and as I looked at the card I saw… “David Henneman.”
My eyes found the picture of a happy couple. Yes, somebody had felt the loss of Mrs. Henneman more than I did. As we walked out my friend began even to attack the man’s appearance and I gave him a not so subtle ‘shutthehellup’ and he gave me a ‘whatthehellisyourproblem’ rejoinder. I would have been more then willing just a short time earlier to share in the derision we were heaping on the man but now something seemed different. How could I think such things about a man whom Mrs. Henneman had thought the world of? Knowing that the man had been the object of affection of a woman of impeccable character, I realized with sudden certainty that I owed him more than the benefit of the doubt.
I did end up going to a different college. I discovered that there were perfectly good reasons for the campus at this college to have been sparse and unkempt. We had visited over spring break, right after the winter thaw. Students were gone. Dirt, when wet, turns to mud. And of course Mr. Henneman couldn’t offer us any financial aid yet- we both had yet to turn in our financial aid forms. How quickly I had seen the worst in a situation without having knowledge… and perhaps in large part because of whom I was associating with.
How many people have I snapped at in the last 20 years were loved ones of people I myself cared about? What if the person I’m debating with online turns out to be the nice guy who delivers my mail? You can drive yourself mad thinking about such things. It was 15 years after having Mrs. Henneman as my teacher and meeting her husband in a college financial aid office. Who knows what interactions will come back to haunt me, or bless me, in the decades to follow? And just because I’ve forgotten them that doesn’t mean they’ll have forgotten me. Because it’s funny what we remember.
I had some interesting experiences in college. I went to college intending to become a pastor and practically became an atheist after just a few months. I emerged from this much stronger. I remember well how deeply I threw myself into studying all sorts of things. Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism, Christianity, science, quantum physics, evolution, philosophy, and more. Most of what I learned I learned apart from the classroom. I became very knowledgeable about the Bible and I thought I was doing a good job living by its precepts. I considered myself pretty patient and selfless. And spiritual. Let’s not forget spiritual.
More than ten years later I have a different view of myself. I no longer believe I am a patient person. I thought I was selfless, but this version of myself was destroyed within the first year of marriage. Now that I have four kids I can safely say that I am the most impatient and selfish person I have ever met. What I failed to recognize while in college was that I was operating in a setting that made it pretty easy to be a Christian. How you are in that kind of setting is not indicative of how you will be in another setting.
I will sometimes have people come by my Christian discussion forum who will then email me and say that I was not nice to someone. I used to take those comments more personally until I realized that I have a community consisting of members who have been around for years and years, discoursing and debating with each other. When you live with someone it is hard to always be ‘nice’ (even harder, I’ve discovered, if you’re tired). Some of these people I have ‘lived’ with day in and day out for a long time. This person complaining to me… is he speaking from a context of insulated safety or are they the same saint when banging around people 24/7?
Unfortunately for me, of course, the snippy exchange that I had with my wife this morning will soon be forgotten between us and there won’t be a record of it left anywhere except in the Mind of God. My forum posts, however, will last so long as Google lasts, and will appear- out of the context of the years in which the postings occurred- as a mere snapshot.
The older I get the more I see that we are quick to give ourselves a pass and quicker still to stick it to the other guy. The older I get, the more I see that the reasons for my doing the right thing often had to do with the fact that I was not tired, I was not hungry, I did not have four children screaming in my ear, I didn’t have bills to pay, I didn’t just lose a loved one, and so on and so forth. It has also showed me the importance of doing what I can to create a setting around myself that will be more conducive to carrying out the behaviors I approve of.
And with this humility of age, I can look back in history and see that even though some deeds were inexcusable, one cannot simply assert- “If I was there, I would have done other.” Those people were often hungry, or oppressed, or afraid, or exhausted, or tired. I hope that I will do better if I am ever in such circumstances, but I realize now that if I do, it will only be because I have been working on it now. It is no credit to me that I am patient with the stranger in the store whom I will never see again. If I am kind to my wife after we’ve both had a hard day’s work, that is a different story. It is easy to be kind to the person I will never see again. It is much more difficult when you have no hope for escape from your circumstances.
Let us treat the ones we love better then we treat the strangers and so prepare us for the day (if it comes) when our circumstances are so radically shaken, we will have trained ourselves to still behave honorably no matter what life throws at us.
Strobel’s newest book was released September 10th, of 2007 and I was pleased to be offered a chance to review it prior to its release. I completely agree with Strobel on the need for such a book. It covers a lot of issues that I deal with on a daily basis in my own apologetics ministries. There is far too much information in the book to expect a comprehensive treatment, and like his other books, he doesn’t pretend to do so. Each chapter has a number of resources that readers can check into to get more information. I give the book nine stars out of ten and recommend it to skeptics and young believers alike who need a primer on the issues. I doubt the more hard core skeptics will be persuaded by anything in it. This is not likely to be Strobel’s fault, but for skeptics like that you may want to suggest some of the more sophisticated references that Strobel provides.
While personally satisfied with much of the argumentation and evidences, I had a more serious objection having to do with his elevation of scholars and his marginalization of ‘popular’ authors. This is ironic since his own book is an admitted popularization, but my concerns go far deeper. However, they are not appropriate for this review, so please go here for elaboration on that point.
Strobel aims to cover six basic challenges facing the traditional and orthodox portrayal of Jesus. These are, in order:
Scholars are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels.
The Bible’s Portrait of Jesus can’t be Trusted Because the Church Tampered with the Text.
New Explanations Have Refuted Jesus’ Resurrection.
Christianity’s Beliefs about Jesus Were Copied from Pagan Religions.
Jesus Was an Imposter Who Failed to Fulfill the Messianic Prophecies.
People Should be Free to Pick and Choose What to Believe about Jesus.
Each chapter concludes with additional resources for the reader, and the book itself concludes with one appendix summarizing the Case for Christ and another offering helpful websites.
I found that each of these ‘challenges’ covers pertinent issues that relate to today’s apologetical challenges. Strobel’s approach is to take on the role of the journalist and search out credible scholars to answer his questions about those challenges. Each chapter does a good job of summarizing some of the basic objections and offering solid representations of Christian responses. In my view, this book is better then his previous books like this. It more directly confronts the objections that I actually hear (but of course, experiences may vary).
Every high school Christian religion teacher should put this book in the hands of their students, preferably as early as possible. Ninth grade would not be too early. Students need to be immunized to some of the things that they hear and this book will provide a decent basis to build on for later research. Yet, this book cannot be considered as ultimately sufficient. Strobel himself would probably agree with that. Teachers should take advantage of the sources Strobel gives and expose their students to this material. Once they get to college the students will almost certainly hear the other side- 100% undiluted.
In my view, Strobel should have started with his sixth challenge. Challenges 1-5 contain a reasonably thorough explanation for why the traditional description of Jesus is supported by solid historical methodologies. However, in my experience (more than ten years now), a historical ‘truth’ carries very little weight with people these days, anyway. In other words, skeptics and seekers alike would view a ‘scientific truth’ as made of gold, and even if they thought that something was ‘historically true’ they would never consider something established on historical methodologies to be as persuasive as what they believe is established on scientific methodologies. Issues like this pop up every now and then in Strobel’s book but it gets the fullest treatment in the sixth challenge. Even then, I don’t think this particular reality of our current situation is addressed head on, but the book certainly covers some of the issues related to the matter. Since so much of the previous portion of the book insists on the superiority of the Christian view of the historical record, dealing with objections that dismiss ‘historical facts’ as of very little weight in the first place would have been a good strategy.
Another quick look at the sixth challenge suggests to me that the Christian teacher could probably start with this part of the book and then go back to the first challenge because I think it was written in such a way that you wouldn’t need the earlier parts of the book to address the concerns in his sixth challenge.
One of the most pertinent ‘challenges’ covered was challenge #4, ‘Christianity’s Beliefs about Jesus Were Copied from Pagan Religions.’ The Internet is filled with assertions that Christianity was completely borrowed from such ‘gods’ like Mithra, Apollonius, etc. Some of the key objections to this notion are refuted. For example, in the case of Mithra, the so-called similarities are found in the historical record after the first century, AD. I.e., after the rise of the Christian religion. It would make more sense to claim that Mithra borrowed from Christianity. Or so one would think, but this is a good example of the hardened skepticism of some in regards to the historical method. The observed fact of these parallels existing after the rise of Christianity is not enough to remove the objection in many people’s minds. Where there is smoke, there is fire.
Still, there are people with some sense of reason, and if you get this book into their hands when they are young enough, I think that the argumentation in this section will do a lot of good. It is certainly better to explore this matter before it is heard spouted from a college professor. Kids will think they’ve been lied to. For people first stretching their legs on these matters, they will be confronted with whether or not they’re going to trust the historical method or not. That is a good thing for them to think about before they have the gall to then criticize the historical evidences.
One argument that I wish I would have heard in this chapter was C.S. Lewis’s assertions that certain pagan stories do not pose a threat at all, but rather are predicted by the Christian worldview. The basic idea is that if Christianity is something completely new on the face of the planet, it would actually undermine the Christian account, which holds that all people are created in God’s image and therefore will resonate with common themes. Strobel appears prepared to accept such reasoning, as he allows Paul Copan, in challenge #6, to say, “I believe there are some truths in other religions,’[Copan] quickly replied. As Scottish writer George MacDonald said, “Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.’ We need to affirm truth where we see it, but we need to remember there are entailments that come with certain beliefs [italics his, pg 240].”
George MacDonald was one of C.S. Lewis’s spiritual fathers, so Lewis’s thoughts on paganism would not only have been appropriate, but apparently acceptable to Strobel. Oh well, you can’t hit everything in a book like this, can you? Maybe I’ll just use this review to guide people into Lewis on this matter (Lewis’s ‘God in the Dock’ collection of essays contains a couple of essays to get you started).
One of the best aspects of the book is his treatment of Messianic prophecies. You will hear skeptics arguing that even if you granted that Jesus performed miracles this would still not be good enough evidence that Jesus was who he says he is, God. Perhaps, they might say, he’s just a very powerfully advanced alien being who is, nonetheless, a finite being. (See this thread at my forum for an example of exactly this.) What the fulfilled prophecies provide, however, is evidence of foreknowledge of future events. If it is the case that there were prophesies thousands and hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ arrival, and he fulfilled them, the plaintive hope that Jesus could ‘possibly’ have just been a finite magician begins to wane. Who left these tantalizing clues in the Jewish documents? Another finite super powerful alien? Can we expect such creatures even to know the future? At what point does our ‘super powerful alien’ match in every respect, God?
Apart from such considerations, which I personally find to be wild-eyed groping speculation, being able to trace Christ and his ministry back to the Old Testament is a significant aspect of Christianity that young Christians and old should be aware of. Many do not understand the point made by Evans in challenge #1 about just how Jewish Jesus was, nor the fact that the first Christians were Jews. Understanding this context is extremely helpful in understanding some New Testament passages which may be confusing but also has the potential to be an extremely powerful apologetic. This is illustrated by the recent conversion to Christianity by Anne Rice, who addresses this issue in her book ‘Out of Egypt.’ She goes so far as to credit this realization as helpful in bringing about her conversion (pages 310-311). So I think it was a really good idea to include this chapter and again, I hope Christian religion teachers will follow up to more firmly flesh out such issues.
In conclusion, taking into consideration the fact that such a treatment would have to be brief on many points and only a survey, I can think of no more helpful book for establishing some of the parameters of the discussion. I would encourage putting the book into students’ hands as early as possible, but please, please, please be prepared to deepen their knowledge beyond the outlines in this book. The book can only be a good start, and if it is not treated as such, might prove to re-create the depressing scenario I sometimes hear: “Yea, I read Strobel’s book as a senior in high school, so I think I know what I’m talking about. What? What’s that? No, I didn’t see the point of going deeper. My college professors easily answered those objections. I mean I also went to Sunday School and VBS, you know.”
copyright Sept. 2007, Sntjohnny
As I referenced in my review (located here) of Strobel’s book ‘The Case for the Real Jesus” I found it ironic that Internet writers and popular audience writers would be speared in a book written by a journalist and written for a popular audience. I assume that since Strobel is specifically seeking out scholars that he feels that the book is in a different class even if it was written for a popular audience. That is probably a valid point.
There are a couple of issues I need to raise here. From the perspective of a Christian apologist that depends on using reasonable argument, I can’t help but think that many skeptics will read in this book constant ‘arguments from authority.’ Now, as a logical fallacy, arguing from authority is really only a fallacy when the authority can’t be considered to be a credible spokesperson on the matter. One presumes that well credentialed scholars would meet such a standard. But look at the title of the first challenge: “Scholars are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels.”
Thus, the first chapter of the book is actually a hard look at what scholars themselves are perpetrating on the Historical Jesus. The Jesus Seminar is mentioned of course, and then of course some scholars by name, like Karen L. King (pg 25), “Award-winning scholar Morton Smith of Columbia University” (italics mine, pg 26). Elaine Pagels is mentioned, and, of course, Bart Ehrman and Dominic Crossan (pages 27-28). In other words, when Craig Evans- who certainly is a well-credentialed scholar- begins to express his exasperation with his fellow scholars, saying, in response to an inquiry by Strobel as to where these scholars begin to get it wrong,
“Here’s the rub,” [Evans] says, “These scholars can read the Greek in which the New Testament is written, but Jesus didn’t speak Greek, except perhaps occasionally. Most of his teaching was in Aramaic, and his scriptures were in Hebrew or Aramaic paraphrases. Jesus and his world were very Semitic, yet most New Testament scholars lack adequate training in the very languages that reflect his world (pg 30).”
I certainly agree that you need to understand that Jesus and his world were very Semitic, but the astute skeptic might say that a key word here would be ‘most’ as in “Most New Testament scholars.” The skeptic might say, “Well then, I’m sure I can find a scholar who knows their Aramaic who will still entertain the same notions dismissed by Evans.” And the skeptic is probably right. It would basically boil down to a “My scholar can beat up your scholar” scenario.
Strobel’s whole book (indeed, his other books on the same pattern, too) depends on the reader who is not a scholar being able to decide for themselves which scholar is being reasonable or not. But it is just this sort of capability that the scholars in Strobel’s book seem to think does not exist.
For example, if Evans says we need to know Hebrew and Aramaic, does he also think we all need to know Hebrew and Aramaic to reflect on his arguments? I could give a couple of more examples from Evans, but how about the attitude expressed by some of the other scholars?
In chapter three, when Michael Licona is interviewed, Michael Baigent’s credibility is not-so-subtly attacked, and Richard Carrier is described as having two master’s degrees from Columbia University-and we’re left wondering if that is a point in his favor or not. Shortly after, Licona takes aim at arguments made by Jeffrey Jay Lowder. Lowder and Carrier are bigwigs at Infidels.org. Fortunately, Licona does address the substance of these arguments, but then we are confronted with a statement regarding an argument by James Tabor:
“Second, Tabor gets his information from a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, [Licona] said, his eyebrows raising. “Think about that! If Christians based their theory on what a sixteenth-century Christian reported, we would laugh at that person- and justifiably so. Now believe me, I’m not laughing at Tabor- he’s certainly a credentialed scholar. But you can’t blame people for rejecting his theory.” (pg 147)
Well, actually I think we should be laughing at Tabor. The fact that he’s a credentialed scholar doesn’t make his argument any less stupid, and I don’t think one needs to wait for another scholar to identify it as stupid before one reaches the same conclusion. One does not want to read into the text, but this bone he throws to Tabor seems to be made in the context of insinuating that Carrier and Lowder, on the other hand, could be laughed at.
Given how many of the claims forcefully mocked by Strobel’s selected scholars were first made or argued by other scholars, one wonders how confident we can be that if we hear an argument by a ‘credentialed scholar’ that we are actually hearing something worthy of consideration. One can easily see how this sort of attitude can be used by skeptics against Strobel’s selected scholars. And if such matters can only be comprehended and evaluated by another scholar, should we suppose our only solution is to defer mindlessly to other scholars until we ourselves are scholars? Skeptics will rightly point out that they have ‘credentialed scholars’ on their side. How do we handle this situation?
Though I could pull from other examples illustrating this issue, a very vivid example occurs on page 161 where we again have Licona being provided an opportunity to speak to the substance of skeptical claims, in this instance the claims that Jesus’ resurrection has the same credibility as other so called ‘pagan stories of dying and rising gods.’ Licona cites T.N.D. Mettinger, adding that Mettinger is a ‘senior Swedish scholar, professor at Lund University, and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities of Stockholm.” Licona recaps Mettinger’s argument, and then Strobel continues on.
Mettinger concludes that ‘there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods s vicarious suffering for sins.” [Licona said]
I [Strobel] later obtained Mettinger’s book to double-check Licona’s account of his research. Sure enough, Mettinger caps his study with this stunning statement: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.” (italics his)
In short, this leading scholar’s analysis is a sharp rebuke to popular-level authors and Internet bloggers who make grand claims about the pagan origins of Jesus’ return from the dead.” (page 161)
Now, there is no doubt that such claims are being made by (here unnamed-I wonder who they might be?) Internet bloggers, but Strobel presented this argument by pointing out that it was initiated by scholars themselves! Named are Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, and Hugh J. Schonfield! Who exactly is ‘this leading scholar’s analysis’ a sharp rebuke to exactly? It looks to me like the context should suggest Strobel here call out other scholars, but instead he singles out “popular-level authors and Internet bloggers.” Granted, some of these authors were popular level, but these all have some credentials. But what Internet bloggers were referenced exactly? It wouldn’t be-Carrier and Lowder, would it?
Now, I have no great love for Richard Carrier or Jeffrey Jay Lowder. I’ve never found their arguments to be compelling, but having read some of their essays I can see why people find them persuasive. And I certainly don’t have a problem giving scholars their due weight. They’ve worked hard, and it is true, I don’t know Aramaic. I don’t have access in most cases to primary sources. I depend on them to bring me the data. It does not follow though, that I depend on them to interpret the data. No, my real concern here is that the attitude expressed in my quotes (and a handful of others) does two things: 1. It undercuts thoughtful and hard-working Christians striving on the Internet to further the cause of Christ and 2. It does not appreciate the fact that the democratization of the Internet is an asset for us, and even if we preferred that people defer to sober scholars (that we agree with) the fact is that people are going to turn first to sources on the Internet, and only later will they possibly consult some of these more scholarly works.
Now, I personally believe I am such a person undercut in #1. I do not have the credentials, that’s true, but I have been an apologist for more than ten years. I do have a bachelor’s degree at least. In fact, I am currently pursuing my Masters in Philosophy and Apologetics. But I did not need a scholar to tell me that Mithraism post-dates Christianity, nor did I need a scholar to explain to me the significance of that fact. I have thousands of hours of reading, research, and writing behind me. Aware of the problems associated with the “My scholar can beat up your scholar” issue, I have constantly tried to cut through to primary sources whenever possible. And I certainly can thank the scholars in many cases for making those sources available. But why should this be about me?
Let’s take an example right from the book. Near the end, Strobel highlights a number of recommended websites and mentions Tektonics.org. Well, what is interesting about this is that Tektonics, though a very successful apologetics site (Alexa Rank: 280,000-Lee Strobel’s site’s Alexa Rank: 344,000), is maintained by a gentlemen who ‘only’ has a Masters-and the Masters is in Library Science.
What do subtle shots at ‘Internet Bloggers’ and what can be found on the Internet do to JP Holding’s credibility? What is to keep the skeptic from reading this book, getting the distinct impression that only the views of credible scholars should be considered- and by credible is it really meant ‘they agree with me’?- and seeing Holding’s site referenced, from learning Holding’s credentials and applying the very same attitude to Holding as Strobel’s book holds against other ‘Internet Bloggers’?
One doesn’t have to be a credentialed scholar to see that these comments are a kick in the shins of folks like Holding who have been investing tons of time and resources into their ministries and are doing a good job. The fact is that the scholars are doing important work but you are going to need competent Christians on the Internet who, despite not being credentialed in the same sense as the scholars, apply the findings of the scholars to the individualized circumstances that arise when you sit down and converse with the average skeptic. We need these people, and Strobel and his scholars generally concede the need for a more well-informed population (of Christians, too). But don’t pull the rug out from underneath them at the same time.
Now, my second point was that people are going to the Internet for information long before they consult the works of scholars. This is just a fact of life, and it isn’t going to change. Kids start getting interested in these issues as early as 16, 17, and 18. They aren’t going to drop $40.00 for a copy of Metzger’s “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance” or “The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.” It just isn’t going to happen. So, besides the need for having individuals who have made the investment (I’m looking right at my copy of the Canon of the New Testament as we speak) to apply that material for seekers entering the Internet Highway, we need a general change in our tactics and strategies in our modern setting, and simply dismissing what is found on the Internet isn’t going to cut it.
In the first place, while I know this is a problem to the bottom line, one thing I would suggest is that scholars put more of their own work right on the net. Take all of the innards of all the journals and just spill them for all to see. If you don’t like the quality of what is on the Internet, work to improve the quality of what is on the Internet. Another thing that scholars can do is to personally engage skeptics and seekers on the Internet. I know how much time is involved and I know they have a lot on their plate. But look at a person like Peter Kreeft who has awesome material, some of which is even online already, but who posts on the site that he just can’t respond to emails. No doubt, he can’t keep up-perhaps we could better structure how we go about our business so that he can.
I have put these concerns in an article separate from my review of Strobel’s book because I didn’t want the review to become clouded. Strobel has produced a fine book and it will make a great primer and resource for those exploring these issues. Nonetheless, I think we need to better address the changes in how people are getting their truth. We can’t just personally express that we don’t like how they are getting their truth and hope that folks will turn to our own methods.
We shouldn’t forget that it is scholars themselves that have initiated and instigated all of the crazy claims that we hear on the Internet. The Internet, after all, has only been around for less than 20 years and all of the issues addressed in Strobel’s book existed- in the mouths of scholars themselves- long before the Internet came about. What we need to do is equip the Christian population so that they can effectively filter what they hear and pass on these tools to our youngsters. We should also realize that while we should respect what scholars can give us, they can also deceive us, and if we are unable to figure out for ourselves when we are being deceived, God help us.
In conclusion, we must remember that what makes one a credible and credentialed scholar can vary widely on the subject. For example, Michael Licona (chapters 3-4) is described as being mentored by Gary Habermas, the head of Liberty University’s apologetics department. But what did Richard Dawkins say about Liberty University? In his journal recounting a presentation he did attended by a number of such students, he said, “I said that my advice to all Liberty students was to resign immediately and apply to a proper university instead.” Source.
Dawkins does not apparently think very highly of the credentials of those associated with Liberty U, which would include Licona and Habermas, referenced by Strobel. What’s a gent to do? Where can we go to find credentials that will matter to everyone, or will assure us that we can be quite certain that the person is not stating something ‘laughable’? The answer obviously is nowhere. Wherever the solution to this problem lies, it isn’t simply to knock those without credentials or give undue weight to those with them. All sides of this debate believe that there are scholars on the other side that are nuts. In light of this fact, I propose that focusing on credentials will get us to exactly the same place we’re already at.
I am always fascinated how similar themes emerge all at once from different places. Both on my forum and in two separate email correspondences I am dealing with a similar issue. Essentially it is this: just because you have the proposition that there is a supernatural entity, how do you think you know anything about it; and, couldn’t you be mistaken about what you do know and not have anyway to independently verify that knowledge? I cannot share my email correspondence, but you can see here two places on my forum, here and here, where the conversation is bounding on this issue. My contention in many respects is that the things to be known must be learned by the self-revelation of the entity and because of the definition of God (two items in particular, his transcendence and immanence) there is no other way. One can see how this question would arise.
What is interesting in these instances is that the argument emerges even if it seems that God has revealed himself, by miracles or whatever, this is not enough to compel them to Christian theism. In fact, in one email correspondence, it is explicitly agreed in the argument that the miracles really did happen as the Bible described. Now, I’m one who tends to think that people can have legitimate questions about God and his nature, but when faced with individuals who are even willing to concede that Jesus walked on the water, rose from the dead, etc, and yet still think they are rational in withholding their assent to Christianity, one begins to suspect that there is something else going on.
The fact is that the question of how to independently verify God’s self-revelation to be good (or any other aspect of his nature) if he is himself the full sum of all that is real is an entirely different issue then whether or not the historical evidence affirms Jesus and his deeds. What the honest searcher should notice in such approaches is that the truth is that for many mainstream atheists, the evidence is completely irrelevant. One wouldn’t get that impression given how much arguing happens about that evidence, but when skeptics are willing to admit the evidence but still deny the Christian’s conclusion, that should tell you something.
I said that the two issues are different, and one big reason why they are different is because the fact that we are limited in our ability to independently verify God’s claims belongs to a class of concerns that exists whether we are talking about God or not. For example, it is always conceivable that our senses themselves mislead us. How can we verify what our senses generate for us if we are restricted to using our senses to perform the verification? At the universal level, it is always possible that our perception of matter and energy is skewed, ala the Matrix and Men in Black.
You could only know if you were in the Matrix if you could get out of the Matrix, and if you got out of the Matrix you could still wonder if you were in another Matrix, so on and so forth. So you see, these problems do not disappear just because you posit that God is the final regress of the issue. If not God, the universe itself becomes your final regress, and ultimately you can say that your own perception of reality is the final regress. If we cannot solve these problems apart from considerations of God, we certainly can’t hold it against Christian theism that it poses some of the same dilemmas.
And how do we escape from these dilemmas? Well, solipsism is certainly possible but it is possible no matter what. As a common denominator, we just have to allow it to cancel out and take our senses and reason as we find them, more or less posit the existence of an objective world out there and accept that we perceive it, even if sometimes in a hazy fashion. Based on these assumptions, we then begin gathering evidences for what the real nature of that objective world really is. One of the questions we invariably arrive at is whether or not there is more to the world than our senses and reason can perceive, not subjectively but objectively, not naturally, but supernaturally.
For this, the only thing you can do is try to examine the evidence the best you can without assuming in advance that the supernatural is not real, and, perhaps more importantly, crafting the structure of your inquiry so that you tailor your expectations of the evidence to be appropriate to the claim… ie, one does not hope to use the scientific method, bound as it is to methodological naturalism, to directly detect God, who is by Christian definition the sustainer of the natural system we are in, immanent within it but transcendent as well.
If in the course of this investigation the evidence appears to point towards the existence of such an entity and some of its attributes you are led to the same regress where it is yet conceivable that you are being deceived, you have only arrived at the problem that you had to set aside before you launched your exploration of reality in the first place.
Thus, the divide between skeptics and Christians begins to become clear. Christians root their entire basis for faith in evidence of the world as best as it can be sorted, and pin their hope on the resurrection of a man who claimed to be God and did something to prove it that by all available measures is impossible for a mortal. (1 Cor 15) In the final analysis, it is the Christian that cares for evidence, not the skeptic. If you talk to a skeptic long enough or talk to enough skeptics, you learn that in many cases the evidence is completely irrelevant. We who believe, like Antony Flew, that one must follow the evidence wherever it leads, need not be overly concerned with the objections of those who wouldn’t be pleased even if they had their evidence in hand.
Why would God have Israel kill the women and children of Canaan? Where is the mercy? The Justice? Dawkins and others ask
I receive an email asking me to address the issue of the Israelite purge of Canaan, in particular the command to cut down the women and children as well. The correspondent indicated that this is something he as a Christian struggles with and points out that Richard Dawkins raises the issue as well. I asked for his permission to post my answer, which he gave me, and it follows below:
I think your question ranks up there among some of the hardest questions to deal with. Let me first assure you that doubts are perfectly normal for any thinking person, and if you handle them properly, they can be good opportunities for strengthening your relationship with God. But again, this is a difficult question.
One reason why it is difficult is because to really treat it means writing a whole heck of a lot, so please forgive me if I’m forced to abbreviate. Also, realize that hard questions often have hard answers, and my points will be best be used as a starting point that you will have to continue to think about.
Start first by thinking about why you believe God is merciful and what that means. Mercy means not punishing someone who deserves to be punished. In what sense do these women and children deserve to be punished? What is their crime? Why wasn’t mercy extended to them?
The problem with these questions is that we don’t have enough information to truly handle them. So, you take your reasons for believing that God is merciful and hopefully have some good ones, and you say in this case “I have good reasons for thinking God is just and merciful, so even though I don’t know what their ‘crime’ was, I understand that God knew, and acts appropriately.”
Now, that type of argument is hard to swallow unless we start looking at some examples, and even then it will be hard to swallow. But remember the story of David escorting the Ark of the Covenant and the man slipping, touching the Ark, and having God strike the man down. It is recorded that David is very angry with God here. He is so angry that he refuses to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. (2 Sam 6). This is David we’re talking about, the one of whom it was written that David was a man after God’s own heart. So, Richard Dawkins is not the first to struggle with apparently arbitrary judgments by God. The great man of faith, David, struggled with it as it happened before his very eyes.
So, one would expect that before a judgment like the one inflicted on Canaan is delivered, some opportunity for repentance would have been given, otherwise it’s hard to believe that God is acting justly. What kind of evidence do we have? Well, we do have a couple of similar types of scenarios, but let me focus on just one. The story of Jonah.
In the story of Jonah, God sends Jonah to Assyria, the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Jonah actually disobeys God because, he says, “I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1). When God does not destroy the Assyrians, Jonah is very angry with God, and God delivers this message to Jonah:
“…Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).
Now, the crimes of Assyria are described in detail in a great many places in the Old Testament, so in their case we have some very clear ideas about what they need to be repenting of. But even though they are the enemies of the Israelites, we see that God provides a mechanism for repentance.
Well, what about the Canaanites? The fact is, we don’t really know what ‘mechanism’ he provided to the Canaanites, but by using the example of the Assyrians, we can draw the reasonable inference that he must have done something, even though we don’t know what it is. Do we have any information at all? Yes, we do have some.
Turn in your Bible to Genesis 15. In this chapter, God promises to deliver that area over to Abraham’s descendants. Have you ever wondered why he didn’t just give it to him right there on the spot? Was God unable to do such a thing? There is an important clue in this chapter that helps us consider it at least plausible that God did offer a way for this people to repent. It comes in 15:16….
“In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
Now it is true that the passage does not indicate to us whether or not God allowed the people in Canaan to repent, but one thing seems reasonable enough- he can’t justly give Abraham this land right now, because it would be unjust at that point to take the land from them, whereas in the fourth generation, it would be. This is consistent with Jonah’s claim that God is slow to anger. Four generations to get their act together, right?
Pharoah was given 10 plagues to prompt his repentance, the Assyrians got Jonah, the Babylonians got Daniel and his friends, and of course the Israelites themselves had prophet after prophet after prophet. We can document a pattern of patience by God.
Now, what about their crimes? There is less material in the OT about their crimes then the Assyrians, but we can learn quite a bit by examining God’s constant insistences that the Israelites not follow the behavior of ‘other gods.’ (For example, Deut 29:18). Dawkins sees this as blatant jealousy, but I guess he doesn’t know what worship of other gods actually meant in this region. For example, it was believed by the Canaanites that rain was Baal’s sperm and when it rained, he and Asherah were getting it on. (For a site I grabbed to quickly substantiate this, check out http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/bull.htm. It’s about bull gods in general, of which Baal is an example, and though it only cites some god from India as being understood this way, you get the picture). This is why there was temple prostitution. The people would go to the temple to try to… ahem… get Baal in the mood. Parents would send their children to the temple to be prostitutes, or slaves were used. This is hardly something to be proud of, and under normal circumstances, we’d want God to intervene.
If temple prostitution didn’t work, there was always human sacrifice. This is better documented in the Scriptures. For example, in Jeremiah 32:35, God is condemning the Israelites for doing what the Baal worshipers did: “they built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”
Clearly, God is not happy with human sacrifice, and this was something that the Israelites had gotten directly from the Baal worshipers in Canaan. So, when we talk about the nation of Canaan, it is quite plausible that they really did have it coming. They sold people into temple prostitution and they sacrificed their own children. Dawkins does not appear to be aware of such behavior, but I suppose he would join us in agreeing that a culture that resorts to killing their own children in order to inspire the Bull god to ejaculate on the earth is probably a culture that we’d want God to punish.
The only real link in the chain that we’re missing is the part where we know that God actually tried to bring them to repentance. We know that God delayed the punishment until ‘their sin had reached full measure’ and we know that their sin involved temple prostitution and human sacrifice (not even sacrificing slaves, their own children, for goodness sake), and it probably involved other things, too. We can’t be certain at all that this was an ‘innocent nation.’ It seems to be the opposite.
Now, here you might say, “Ok, but the children? And what about the cattle? What did the cattle do?” The question gets harder and harder, but these are still not the hardest of all. But the underlying principle is that A. He gave them time to repent. B. The nation was involved in some nasty stuff, and C., given God’s conduct towards the Egyptians, the Assyrians, etc, it is reasonable to think that God had probably given them the opportunity to repent… and they didn’t.
The only ‘leap of faith’ here is C, but I think it is reasonable, again citing the pattern of how God dealt with other enemies of Israel, and even Israel itself.
Well, I think this will get you started. No doubt, it is still a difficult pill to swallow. But hopefully this gives you a broader perspective to engage the issue with.
If you don’t mind, can I post your question and my answer on my blog? I put a lot of time into typing it and I think others could use it too.
Feel free to let me know if you have additional questions,
While I have glimpsed in a few places atheistic reactions to my assertion that the church itself is producing atheists, I had yet to see any real formal comment on it until today, when a member of my forum pointed me to Austin Cline’s entry on it located here. It so happens that I know of Mr. Cline and have had a little interaction, but for the record I don’t believe he understands that ‘Anthony Horvath’ is also ‘sntjohnny.’ That interaction has a little in common with his entry here. In word, I think he is again being quite presumptuous, and I’m going to take this opportunity to respond even though he’ll never likely see it.
He cites the Christian Post article which is all well and good, but he seems to be unaware of how such stories are pieced together in the first place. The reporter poses questions and I answer those questions. But those questions are not in the article, and my answers are sometimes given as quotes but in some respects are paraphrased. That means that a newspaper article should be taken with a grain of salt, and if someone really wants to take someone to task- by name- they probably should make the effort to dig a little deeper. I would have been willing to cut a little slack, as the article unfortunately does not mention my screen name nor does it list my website. But it is not hard to figure out via simple google and I made it easy by posting my web page twice in the comment section of the article he cited. Maybe I should get used to this now that I’m such a public figure. (read as self-mockery).
So for the record, let it be known that Mr. Cline did not contact me and he has not, to my knowledge, made any efforts to go beyond the Christian Post article. I was not asked “Do you stand by this” or “Would you clarify this?” etc. Nor am I going to do the same for him. Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But he has one thing going for him that I didn’t- he picked and chose every word and paragraph with full control, whereas my views came through a filter. Now that we have my chief complaint and criticism fully aired, let me turn my attention to some of his statements.
Let’s take this one to start with: “Are we to sincerely believe that Christian churches and organizations are not engaging in apologetics?”
In point of fact, Christian churches are not engaging in apologetics. Probably, by ‘churches,’ Mr. Cline is thinking in narrow terms. I was speaking about the broad picture, referencing whole denominations and how they invest their energy, and he ignores a clarification that does actually make it into the article:
â€œI am talking about apologetics at a much broader scale then normally understood,â€ said Horvath. â€œIt should not be left to professors or specialists, such as C.S. Lewis. It needs to be incorporated into everything we do as the Church from cradle to grave.â€
In other words, I am not, as Mr. Cline so snidely dismisses as ‘ridiculous’ insinuating that I am the first person to engage in apologetics. In the article itself I am hinting that I mean something different then normally understood. Hence the phrase, “then normally understood.” Mr. Cline did not ask me to elaborate on this, and point of fact, neither did the reporter for the Christian Post.
If at some point Mr. Cline would like to discover my point for himself (assuming he doesn’t just ask me), he can count up how many paid Christian apologetics positions there are across as many denominations as he likes, include, if he desires professors at universities, and compare that number with how many pastoral positions, youth ministry positions, and worship and music positions there are. Then, he can check into the curriculum being produced by the various denominations to ascertain what kind of attention is explicitly paid to common apologetics issues, and what age levels that material is geared towards.
Naturally, as I am merely a man who attended Christian elementary, middle, and high schools, who has a four year bachelors degree in pastoral ministry, has been interacting with the Christian culture from the inside for more than ten years, four of which were actually as a religion teacher for 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grades, two years of teaching at a Bible college, and then three years working on staff at a church as a director of education, expressly tasked with evaluating curriculum for Sunday School, VBS, etc, it is quite obvious that Mr. Cline will have a much better grasp then I will on exactly how apologetics is implemented by various denominations. Naturally.
“Now, if Anthony Horvath had argued that Christian churches are doing a poor job at explaining why they believe what they do and must improve their apologetics, that might be plausible.”
Hmmmm. That is exactly what I am arguing. Again, this is something that the Christian Post article does pick up on:
“Churches are producing atheists by not answering the questions of young people and explaining why they believe in the Bible,” and “As a solution, Horvath recommends apologetics â€“ the defense of the Christian faith. He points to 1 Peter 3:15 which teaches believers to be ready to give the reasons for what they believe.”
Understandably, the first quote was easy to miss as it was the first sentence of the article. However, since he cites both of these quotes in his summary of the article, I fail to understand how he did not perceive that I was advocating for exactly what he suggested might be plausible, and it was actually expressed in the article.
Not content with that, he wishes to go further: “If he had argued that the questions being asked by young people today need different sorts of answers than what apologetics geared towards previous generations can provide, that might also be plausible. Those are more cautious and careful arguments that could be taken more seriously.”
Different sorts of answers? What, pray tell, would these quotes be referring to:
Horvath, who has taught religion to middle school and high school students explained that some of the recurring questions young adults struggle with but churches often fail to address include the formation and development of the Bible, the presence of evil and suffering in the world, and the question of inspiration and inerrancy.
â€œIn large part, it happens when the church leadership is completely unaware that their members â€“ and not necessarily just the young members â€“ have questions at all,â€ explained Horvath to The Christian Post. â€œAnd [they] continue merrily along thinking that to retain the youth they just need to be entertained.â€
That sounds an awful lot like proposing an implementation of apologetics that is different then previous generations were satisfied with. I understand it takes a tad bit of reading between the lines. One has to make the connection that the ‘church leadership’ and ‘the young members’ are likely going to be members of different generations, and certainly I could elaborate further (if only prompted), but I think there is enough in the article to suspect that this is exactly what I’m proposing. Instead I have to now hear the second strawman accusation:
“As it is, Anthony Horvath is making claims that aren’t even remotely plausible. People don’t become atheists because Christians aren’t engaging in any apologetics; instead, people become atheists because Christian apologetics isn’t working so well.”
Note here the equivocation. My challenge was to the church, not at individual Christians. Certainly there are Christian engaging in apologetics. This was not the point. Again, that first sentence was easy to skip, but the Christian Post gets it in there: “Churches are producing atheists…” This equivocation leads Mr. Cline to infer a position that is no where supported by the Christian Post article. Indeed, I am arguing that Christian apologetics isn’t working so well, though Mr. Cline and I will disagree for the reasons. So we see, he has appropriated for himself two positions that were actually mine and called them ‘plausible’ and foisted on me a position that isn’t mine at all. That’s annoying.
“Books like The God Delusion and The Da Vinci Code don’t require a society that doesn’t understand Christianity in order to be popular, just a society which no longer accepts traditional, orthodox Christianity like it used to.”
The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. The problem here is that Mr. Cline does not bother to ask me precisely what connection I’m drawing between their popularity and Christianity. The Christian Post accurately posts my statement, but observe how it does not provide in the articles any of my reasons for making the statement:
“He further noted, â€œBooks like Richard Dawkinsâ€™ â€˜The God Delusionâ€™ and Dan Brownâ€™s â€˜The Da Vinci Codeâ€™ do not become best sellers in a society that understands what Christianity is all about.â€
If Mr. Cline were to ever contact me, I suggest this as one of the first points of clarification to seek with me. In his defense, in some of the other atheistic responses I’ve seen, similar leaps to judgment have been made. Certainly, at some point it would be reasonable for me to more clearly provide a ‘why.’ But Mr. Cline takes issue with my ‘why’ even though I do not actually have a ‘why’ recorded in the article. What then, is his source? It doesn’t seem to be me. That leaves few options. And so it goes…
“The only explanation that comes to mind for Anthony Horvath making these statements is the assumption that to understand Christianity is to accept and believe it.”
More nonsense. Here I would like to point out that a little investigation would have done wonders. For example, both here on this blog and on my forum I advocate adopting a definition of ‘Christianity’ that is propositional in nature. Take this thread as an example. What that expressly means is that in principle, anyone should be able to understand Christianity, whether they agree with it or not. As I am apparently uneducated pond scum when held up against Mr. Cline, let me support this view briefly using a Christian apologist that he has no doubt read, and in this way preserving me from accusations that I’m just pulling these ideas out of my rear. That apologist is not CS Lewis, as the reader might have instinctively assumed, but rather Dorothy Sayers, and I am going to quote out of her “The Mind of the Maker” which I found to be quite formative.
Allow me to quote extensively from her introduction, as I think what she says here speaks to my own position on a number of points. If anyone actually cares about what my own position is, of course. Here it goes, copy and pasted from here, thankfully sparing me five minutes of typing:
This book is not an apology for Christianity, nor is it an expression of personal religious belief. It is a commentary, in the light of specialised knowledge, on a particular set of statements made in the Christian creeds and their claim to be statements of fact.
It is necessary to issue this caution, for the popular mind has grown so confused that it is no longer able to receive any statement of fact except as an expression of personal feeling. Some time ago, the present writer, pardonably irritated by a very prevalent ignorance concerning the essentials of Christian doctrine, published a brief article in which those essentials were plainly set down in words that a child could understand. Every clause was preceded by some such phrase as: “the Church maintains”, “the Church teaches”, “if the Church is right”, and so forth. The only personal opinion expressed was that, though the doctrine might be false, it could not very well be called dull.
Every newspaper that reviewed this article accepted it without question as a profession of faith-some (Heaven knows why) called it “a courageous profession of faith”, as though professing Christians in this country were liable to instant persecution. One review, syndicated throughout the Empire, called it “a personal confession of faith by a woman who feels sure she is right”.
Now, what the writer believes or does not believe is of little importance one way or the other. What is of great and disastrous importance is the proved inability of supposedly educated persons to read. So far from expressing any personal belief or any claim to personal infallibility, the writer had simply offered a flat recapitulation of official doctrine, adding that nobody was obliged to believe it. There was not a single word or sentence from which a personal opinion could legitimately be deduced, and for all the article contained it might perfectly well have been written by a well-informed Zoroastrian.
I certainly recommend reading the rest of the preface, and also the essay she is referencing, “The Dogma is the Drama” which can be found in her collection of essays, “The Whimsical Christian.” Excellent, excellent stuff. All this to say that my own approach completely agrees with the sentiment expressed by “it might perfectly well have been written by a well-informed Zoroastrian.” So, no, it is not the case that the only explanation driving my arguments is that I think you have to be a practicing Christian in order to understand Christianity.
I think that Mr. Cline inadvertently let’s the cat out of the bag… “…the only explanation that comes to mind…” … but by ‘to mind’ I am sure he means his own mind. Perhaps a quick email to the Johnnymeister could have alerted to him to other possible explanations. Given my alignment here with Ms. Sayers, unless I’m an irrational freakazoid (you decide), I probably have some other explanations in mind. Only the inquisitive mind would find out.
We now move into his concluding paragraph which thankfully no longer explicitly mocks and ridicules me by name, but I am inclined to think that he still has me in mind. He says,
“I see this attitude often from both Christian and Muslim apologists who assume that because I’m an atheist, I must never have learned anything about their religion, read their holy books, read their arguments, etc.”
Well, I don’t make that assumption about Mr. Cline. Or any atheist, for that matter. You have to take these things on a case by case basis. While I have met atheists who fit into the category he described above, I’ve met many that don’t, as well. And I don’t feel that my generalization about the state of affairs is out of line, though I would grant that further substantiation should be forthcoming (remembering that I wasn’t really given the opportunity to give it). If one wanted to get a good idea, check out the nearly 1,000 reviews of Dawkins’s Delusion, nearly all positives by ‘free thinkers’ parroting and hyping the arguments of their mentor. And yet, I have yet to meet an educated Christian that views Dawkins’s book as possessing any kind of accurate representation of Christianity at all, and the book itself is riddled with all kinds of errors, some of which I document here. (note, I have since acquired the book Dawkins quoted from, and verified that he at least got his fellow right.)
Naturally, it is very important to atheists to think that they are rejecting Christianity’s actual positions. But Dawkins’s success illustrates how many don’t understand Christianity’s actual positions, believing Dawkins to have actually attacked them. (I’m starting to throw Cline some freebies, here, elaborating on questions he ought to have asked, but didn’t). So, here is a smattering of educated Christians taking issue with Dawkins’s grasp of Christianity, and if almost 1,000 parrots on Amazon.com aren’t enough to begin to substantiate what was admittedly a generalization, nothing is.
Here are some reviews, or references to reviews, and you will see that all of them take Dawkins to task for not grasping basic Christian theology. Here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. And here. The sad reality is how many atheists applaud Dawkins. You could find their reviews fast enough. But surely after enough people have pleaded that they are being misrepresented it’s worth taking seriously? Isn’t it just possible, after persistent assertions that you aren’t listening that maybe you aren’t listening? It is at least worthy of a little introspection. But my accusation was not that the atheists aren’t listening, which if it was, that certainly can be perceived as insult. No doubt if that had been my accusation he would have been highly offended.
But my accusation was that the church itself has poorly communicated some of its most basic doctrines. How is it that by shouldering some of the blame for ourselves, Mr. Cline is still so offended? Is this a case where the Christian is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t? It’s an insult if its the atheist’s fault and it’s an insult if it’s the theist’s fault? Is that about right. There’s just no pleasing some people. That he was so grossly offended is clear, as he says,
“It is, in my opinion, the most extreme sort of arrogance and egotism that I ever encounter.”
Boy, am I glad he hasn’t singled me out in this paragraph or I’d really be annoyed at this point. 🙂
Granted, Christian arguments may simply be unconvincing, and certainly there are atheists that actually comprehend those arguments and know the core doctrines, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t atheists that aren’t. If Mr. Cline believes that this is not the case and that we apologists don’t also have our own collection of anecdotes to fall back upon supporting our views- thus insinuating that all atheists are perfectly informed while their theistic counter-parts are blathering and ‘ridiculous’ entertaining claims that are not ‘remotely plausible,’ I believe the charge of ‘extreme arrogance and egotism’ is probably misapplied.
I will admit that I didn’t follow the life and times of Mother Teresa. What I know comes from news reports and things of that sort. That said, I think this article really illustrates a common misconception about being a Christian, and to be honest, it is one more thing we can lay at the feet of Christians themselves. The article expresses pure shock that Mother Teresa could do what she did while simultaneously feeling distant from God. I will grant that it covers the ‘dark night of the soul,’ so it isn’t completely remiss on the issue of Christians feeling that way. But the idea that is out there is that Christians ‘in good standing’ with God will just be peachy, all the time.
That idea is just nonsense. Every thoughtful Christian I know endures moments of ‘distance.’ For myself, I can think of just a handful of times where I have ever ‘felt’ God’s presence. But I don’t do the things I do for the bells and whistles. I’m not in it for the euphoria. I’m in it because I think its true, and I understand that as such, it is a battle, and in battles, people get hurt, and usually the stakes are quite high. Christians themselves have promoted this notion, making it particularly hard on Christians themselves who see their ‘drought’ as a sign that they’ve offended God somehow. It really is not the case that a person walking by faith will be blessed with good fortune where ever they go.
The thing that strikes me as truly funny about this article is they felt the need to mention the atheists, in particular, Hitchens. Of course, there are Christians who very vocally tout their thriving emotionally intimate relationship with God, but this is dismissed by the atheists as wishful thinking or an evolutionary defect (ala Dawkins), so whether Christians ‘feel’ it or they don’t, you’re not going to please the atheistic community.
The message for the rest of us is again to have a robust understanding of the Christian Scriptures. When we do that, we will see that in the New Testament, when people were undergoing hard times, and especially when they were persecuted, they thanked God for believing them to be worthy of the ordeal. By some modern Christian views, the mere fact that you went through an ordeal means you did something naughty. You really can’t have it both ways.