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My Favorite Articles and Blogs From 2015

Last week I did a run down of my favorite book reads from 2015. Below is a brief list of my favorite blogs, articles, and reviews from the year. As with the book list, there is no hierarchy or ranking here.

“There Is No Pro-Life Case for Planned Parenthood,” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” by Derek Rishmawy.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

“How Not to Read the Bible If You Want to Remain a Christian,” by Collin Garbarino in First Things

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

“The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

“Slouching Toward Mecca,” by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumissionfor the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale. Soumission is not the story some expected of a coup d’état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here—no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.

“The Serial Swatter,” by Jason Fagone in The New York Times

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Theological Triage and the Doctrine of Creation,” by Samuel Emadi in The Gospel Coalition.

Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.

“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” by Harry Lee Poe in Christianity Today.

How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.

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culture life movies pop culture

“The Force Awakens” and Getting Trapped By Nostalgia

In conversations with friends about the new Star Wars movie, I’ve noticed two trends. The first is that most of the people I’ve talked to report enjoying the movie quite a bit (and that makes sense, seeing as how the film is scoring very well on the critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes). The second trend is that virtually no one has criticized The Force Awakens for being too much like the original Star Wars trilogy. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: Most people who have told me how much they like Episode VII have mentioned its similarity, both in feel and in plot, to George Lucas’s first three Star Wars films as a reason why they like it so much.

For the record, I enjoyed The Force Awakens quite a bit, and J.J. Abrams’ homage to the golden moments of the original films was, I thought, well done. But many of my conversations about it have confirmed to me what I suspected when Episode VII was announced: We’re trapped in a cultural moment of nostalgia, and we can’t get out of it.

Of course, the nostalgia-entrapment begins with the existence of movies like The Force Awakens. As I’ve said before, as much as I love Star Wars, the fact that a 40 year old franchise is still dominating the box office, news cycle, and cultural attention is not something to be excited about. There comes a point when tradition becomes stagnation, and at least in American mainstream film culture, it seems like that line was crossed some time ago. Case in point: Included in my screening of Star Wars were trailers for a Harry Potter spinoff, another Captain America film, an inexplicable sequel to Independence Day, and yet *another* X-Men movie.  In other words, had an audience member in my theater just awoken from a 12 year coma, they would have seen virtually nothing that they hadn’t seen before.

Nostalgia, if unchecked, runs opposed to creativity, freshness, and imagination. Even worse, the dominance of nostalgia in American pop culture has a powerful influence in marketing, making it less likely every year that new storytellers with visions of new worlds, new characters and new adventures will get the financing they need to materialize their talents. That is a particularly disheartening fact when you consider that the storytellers whose work has spawned a generation’s worth of reboots and sequels were themselves at one point the “unknowns:” George Lucas couldn’t find a studio to finance Star Wars until an executive at 2oth Century Fox took a risk on a hunch; Steven Spielberg finished “Jaws” with much of Universal’s leadership wanting to dump both movie and director; and for much of the filming of “The Godfather,” executives of Paramount openly campaigned to fire writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. If formula and nostalgia had been such powerful cultural forces back then, there’s a good chance there’d be no Star Wars to make sequels for at all.

The trap of nostalgia is deceitful. It exaggerates the happiness of the past, then preys on our natural fear that the future will not be like that. But this illusion is easily dismantled, as anyone who has discovered the joys of a new story can attest.

There’s a freedom and a pleasure in letting stories end, in closing the book or rolling the final credits on our beloved tales. The need to resurrect our favorite characters and places through the sequel or the reboot isn’t a need based in the deepest imaginative joys. It is good that stories end rather than live on indefinitely so that we treasure them as we ought and lose ourselves in a finite universe rather than blur the lines in our mind between the truth in our stories and the truth in our lives. If we cannot allow myths to have definite beginnings and endings, it could be that we are idolatrously looking to them not for truth or grace but for a perpetual youthfulness.

Of course, there are dangers on the other side too. An insatiable craving for the new can be a sign of the weightless of our own souls. A disregard for tradition can indicate a ruthless self-centeredness. And, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, novelty is not a virtue and oldness is not a vice.

But we should be careful to distinguish between a healthy regard for those that come before us, and a nostalgia that (unwittingly) devalues tradition by ignoring how and why it exists. In the grand scheme of things, how many Star Wars films get made is probably not of paramount importance. But being trapped by nostalgia has its price. An irrational love of the past can signal a crippling fear of the future. Christians are called to lay aside the weight of fear and follow the gospel onward. If we’re not even willing to learn what life is like without a new Star Wars or Harry Potter, how can we do that?

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movies

Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air, not just for the Star Wars faithful but for millions of moviegoers who left the last batch of Star Wars films disenchanted and wondering if the series had lost itself. The familiar characters and locales feel a bit like a homecoming, but writer/director J.J. Abrams’ real accomplishment here is opening doors to a thrilling new corner of the universe.  Episode VII isn’t a perfect movie, but through and through, it feels exactly right.

The Force Awakens takes place several years after the death of Darth Vader and the (apparent) defeat of the Empire in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker, Vader’s son and the last living Jedi, is missing, and an heir to the Galactic Empire has arisen to challenge peace and order. The plot is the intersection of three new characters: Finn (John Boyega), an imperial Stormtrooper who defects after witnessing atrocity; Rey (Daisy Ridley), an orphaned junk scavenger; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a leader of the evil First Order who appears to have learned the ways of the Dark Side and continued Vader’s legacy.

Each of these characters have surprising emotional depth. Rey believes she may see her family again, but is drawn to abandoning that hope and joining the New Republic’s war. In a scene late in the film, a villain uses telekinesis to discern that she hopes she’ll find a “father she never had.” That’s the kind of earthy dialogue that Lucas always fumbled over, and done well it adds layers of humanity to the film. Finn fears retaliation for his defection and doubts whether he will actually be able to fight when the moment comes. I won’t say much about Kylo Ren for fear of spoiling, but will only commend The Force Awakens for taking a rare and satisfying risk with their main villain that I didn’t expect.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of episodes I-III was the previously known fate of the film’s heroes and villains; the predestined lives of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Emperor Palpatine lacked meaningful development and emotional resonance. By contrast, Rey and Finn are not simply pieces of legendarium existing to fill gaps; they offer relatable and fascinating narratives that the story builds on naturally. Much of this is due to good casting and good writing; Boyega and Ridley turn in excellent performances, and their personalities aren’t farmed out in favor of making them responders to enormous action sequences.

The decision to bring back some of the heroes from the first Star Wars films turns out to be a good one. Harrison Ford appears as Han Solo for the first time since Jedi, and infuses the film with humor and nostalgic delight. Carrie Fisher as Leia isn’t quite as interesting, but her moments with Ford are sweet and strike the right notes. Fans will relish these scenes.

My fear going into The Force Awakens was that Abrams would try too hard to craft Star Wars into an Abrams Production, and sacrifice the wonder and thrill of the Saturday matinee serial that Lucas channeled. I’m happy to report that the fear is (mostly) unfounded. The Force Awakens looks terrific; its puppets and live set pieces shame the prequels’ over reliance on digital effects (and for what its worth, the digital effects in Episode VII look as good or better anyway). There’s space in the screenplay for memory and enchantment: Consider a lovely scene underneath a seedy space bar, where Rey finds a crucial piece of Luke Skywalker’s past, as well as a wonderfully written monologue from Han Solo about the adventures of old: “The Force, the light and the dark: It’s true, all of it.” These scenes hit high emotional notes and avoid the over-contemplation of the prequels or the forced sincerity of the Marvel movies.

There are a few missteps along the way. The third act feels a bit too much like we’ve seen it before, and Boyega’s character is given more than his fair share of comedic obligation. But who cares? The first Star Wars films were filled with things that didn’t work, and that was OK. They weren’t supposed to be flawless mythological masterpieces. The Force Awakens is a return to a dustier Star Wars, a more explosive, more human and less philosophical space opera. Its last shot is sure to tantalize fans for as long as we must wait for Episode VIII.

I have a good feeling it will be worth it.

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books Christianity culture movies

My Top Books of 2015

Here some of my favorite reads from 2015. Note that not every book here was actually released in 2015, but all are books that I read this year. There’s no ranking, so the order is more or less arbitrary.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.endaffair

I discovered this book and Graham Greene courtesy of a fine essay by Matthew Schmitz. I bought two of Greene’s novels immediately at the local used bookstore, and devoured The End of the Affair quickly. This wasn’t an easy novel to read, nor was it immediately satisfying in the conventional ways that we often want from novels. But Greene’s portrait of an adulterous relationship, and the torment that comes to those who suppress the righteous protests of their conscience, is a haunting and moving story, and one that ends ultimately in the recognition that God is the source of true love.

41BfG5+LceL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Road to Character, by David Brooks

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists, so when I heard that he was writing a book about becoming a moral person, I figured this was going to be a must-read. Brooks is not just a talented wordsmith; he’s a fluid and provocative thinker who isn’t afraid to follow his instincts and his cultural analysis to inconvenient (yet honest) conclusions. The Road to the Character shines brightest when Brooks directs his attention towards cultural attitudes that have eroded individual quests  for moral formation. As a Christian, I resonated with many of Brooks’s points, though the book isn’t written from a distinctly Christian standpoint and thus lacks the theological roots that we need to really become more like Christ. Still, as a (somewhat) religiously neutral commentary on society and morality, The Road to Character is a fascinating and enlightening read.

Onward, by Russell Mooremoore

I work for Russell Moore, so you may be tempted to dismiss this entry as sheer schlepping. But that would be a mistake, because Onward is genuinely one of the most compelling Christian books I’ve read in years. Moore’s great gift is articulating a completely Christian civic engagement, one that looks like Christ not only in its voting record but also in its prioritization of the kingdom. I’ll put it simply: This is a book that must be read by any Christian who cares about living as a gospel witness in their culture.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr18143977

This WWII-era novel about a young boy thrust into the violence and evil of Hitler’s Youth and a blind girl struggling to survive the occupation of Paris is a gripping, beautifully written tale. Doerr skillfully weaves the vulnerability and hope of childhood with the brutal wages of war, and the result is a book that you won’t put down. An upcoming movie adaptation means you should read this book as soon as possible, for I can practically guarantee that Doerr’s prose is deeper and more satisfying than any screenplay could capture.

The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

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If you’re an average American, there’s a good chance that you enjoy a good movie and an interesting TV show. But if you’re also a Christian, you probably want to know how and why stores like film and TV fit into God’s good gift of creation and culture. That’s where Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell can help you. Mike’s book is a helpful and eminently practical primer on why cultural mediums like film and TV appeal to us on a human level, in light of our being created by a story-telling God. If you need a reason to check out this book, I’ll tell you that one of the chapters is titled, “Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory.” Enough said.

51-IOj-3u+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How Dante Can Save Your Lifeby Rod Dreher

Ever wonder if reading a nearly 800 year old poem could actually save your life? Well, that’s exactly what happened to columnist Rod Dreher. Dreher’s book not only tells the story of how reading Dante’s epic Divine Comedy helped him reorient his life at a time of crisis; it also serves as a kind of summary of why Dante’s poem is so powerful and revelatory. This book is especially for you if you delight in stories of how fiction and narrative can move the soul in unexpected, and Godward, ways. Highly recommended.

 

Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite books of the year are!

Categories
life movies

The Enduring Power of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Much like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life was a financial failure in its day. Today it is probably one of the ten most well-known American films of all time. There’s an interesting story behind that, too. Frank Capra’s film was apparently the beneficiary of a clerical error that prevented the renewal of its studio copyright in 1974. In the next few years, television networks aired the film repeatedly, especially around the Christmas season. What had heretofore been a relatively obscure piece of Capra and star Jimmy Stewart’s filmography was suddenly a seasonal tradition for thousands of people. Nowadays it is difficult to imagine Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life, but barring a mere typo, many of us might never have heard of it.

Doesn’t that story remind you of George Bailey? The film opens with the sound of many voices praying for George, including urgent prayers from his wife and children. We find out later that George is on the brink of despair and possibly suicide. Why? The short answer is that his uncle and business partner lost thousands of dollars of the Bailey Building and Loan’s funds. The real answer is that George thinks his entire life has been misplaced capital, a waste of ambition and heart that began the night he gave up college to save his father’s business and his hometown from the greedy millionaire Mr. Potter (played to perfection by Lionel Barrymore).

George is an adventurer and an intellect. As a boy working after school at Mr. Gower’s ice cream parlor, he boasts to the local girls that he reads National Geographic and knows where coconuts come from. He’s going to see the world, he says; “just wait and see.” He says the same thing years later to the beautiful Mary (Donna Reed, effortlessly delivering the film’s most important performance) in one of the most perfectly written scenes of romantic cinema: “Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow, and next year, and the year after that. I’m shaking the dust of this crummy old town and I’m going to see the world!” The two are in love, but she’s the only one who knows it yet. Their first kiss (a chaste kiss that was nonetheless so passionate that the studios expressed concerns) follows an argument in which George vows to never be domesticated. The next scene is, of course, their wedding. “Just wait and see.”

Man’s greatest fear is not death but irrelevance. As the years pass, George fears he is becoming irrelevant. Capra and Stewart make George’s fears more corporeal by keeping them subtle and implied rather than monologued out. Potter, annoyed by George’s success, offers him a lucrative job that sorely tempts him. Remembering his father and his principles, he angrily rejects it, and then slowly walks home and wonders whether he made the right decision. I think this is a turning point for him. It’s the first time he realizes things could have been different. It’s not that he doesn’t have enough love (Mary tenderly tells him in this scene that she’s pregnant), it’s that he feels unworthy of the love he has.

Though universal, I believe these themes particularly resonate with men. It’s not for nothing that Jimmy Stewart, cinema’s premiere “common man,” was cast as George and has since made the role unimaginable in the hands of another. It’s also not for nothing that It’s a Wonderful Life released in 1946, right as thousands of American men were returning home from Europe wondering how and why to reassemble their lives.

The bottom finally falls out after George realizes he is facing criminal charges for the misplaced money (he won’t allow his uncle to be held responsible). Drunk and desperate, he drives to a bridge and is prepared to kill himself and advance his family a $10,000 life insurance policy when another man falls in and cries for help. You know what happens next. Clarence Oddbody  (Henry Travers in one of his final roles) is film’s most famous guardian angel, and he gives George a “great gift: A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” But what happens in the film’s final act is only partially about why George is valuable to the world. It’s more about why the people and places in George’s life are valuable to him. That’s why Clarence leaves him a message in the film’s final scene: “No man is a failure who has friends.”

It’s a Wonderful Life gets our eyes moist every Christmas because it speaks to something elemental in our human nature: The tendency to evaluate our lives based on something other than love. We classify ourselves and others as “successes” and “failures” based on hundreds of criteria. Thus, our lives are tangled knots of complication and misery, when we could be remembering that our Lord summed up the entire Law and Prophets with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The measure of success in eternity is love for God and love for neighbor. The small kingdoms that we build up are sandcastles, washed away at high tide to our grief and frustration but unable to ballast our lives with meaning.

Capra loved stories about small people who meant something (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds). It’s a Wonderful Life is a tale about a small person who meant something to other small people. The film works on every level because it is warm and human, not epic or philosophical. In a lesser film, Clarence the angel would have been a major character, chortling life lessons to George and to us. Clarence is not a deus ex machina though; he is there to meekly point out what’s been in plain sight the whole time. That’s how life works. Rarely do we grow by learning something new. Most of the time, it’s by relearning something we forgot.

(Postscript: Do not for any reason view the colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Categories
apologetics books Christianity

Why Should You Trust the Bible? 5 Questions With Pastor Greg Gilbert

 

Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky (full disclosure: Third Avenue is where I am a member), wants you to “get” Christianity. That’s why, for example, he has a Masters in theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor’s degree from a little New England school called Yale. It’s also why Greg has written, to date, three short, easy-to-read volumes on the basics of Christian belief: What Is the Gospel, Who Is Jesus, and now, Why Trust the Bible.

Greg’s latest work Why Trust the Bible? is a brief primer on why and how the Bible stands up to even the most strident criticism and examination. I asked Greg if he’d be willing to answer 5 questions about Why Trust the Bible, and he graciously did so.

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How did doing an undergraduate at an Ivy League school help you prepare for articulating the kind of arguments you’re making in “Why Trust the Bible”?  

People ask me sometimes if I experienced any “culture shock” coming from a small town in East Texas to Yale.  Other than eventually forcing myself to love coffee, the main thing was that all of a sudden, essentially no one approached Christianity with the same deference and presupposed acceptance that was normal for basically everyone in my home town.  All of a sudden, every proposition of my faith was under question by peers and professors alike, and so I had to do the really hard work of figuring out not just what I believed, but why.  At first, I think I took a fairly defensive posture in the conversations I was having.  My main goal was just to be able to say, “I believe this, and that’s intellectually defensible.”  

But over time, I think I finally got frustrated with that approach and decided to go on offense. I didn’t want to end the conversation just having shown that it was okay for me to be a Christian.  I wanted to show people that the pressure really was on them, not me.  They needed to defend themselves for not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. 

That was an intellectual revolution for me–to realize that the evidence for Christianity is actually so good that a Christian can go on offense with a non-believer and challenge them to defend their unbelief.

In your own ministry context, do you tend to see more people doubting the trustworthiness of the Bible due to intellectual/logical issues or due to personal/existential crises?

It’s almost always a tangle of issues.  Intellectual questions can introduce the kind of doubt that leads to personal crisis, and personal crisis can lead people to doubt the Bible on an intellectual level.  So it’s important always to deal with both sides at the same time; you have to get the wheel turning, and it’s impossible to make half of it turn if the other half isn’t turning as well.  Does that make sense?  

3. What’s one common mistake you see Christians making when it comes to dialoguing with non-Christians about the trustworthiness of the Bible and Christianity?

 I think the most damaging mistake is accepting the world’s assumption that we don’t really have good reasons for believing what we do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Christians get backed into a conversational corner and finally just throw up their hands and say something like, “Well I can’t prove it to you! You just have to accept it on faith!”  And of course when we do that, the unbeliever just chuckles and walks away thinking, “That’s what I thought.”  

But the Christian faith isn’t like that at all.  We don’t accept it on an empty “leap of faith.”  No, there are solid reasons for believing what we do about Jesus.  There are reasons for believing the Bible is trustworthy, for believing that Jesus really did rise from the dead, and for believing that he really is who he said he is.  And the thing is–they’re not just reasons that will be convincing only to those who are already convinced!  They’re reasons that, if we understand them and use them well, can challenge an unbeliever to rethink his unbelief.  I think that’s what Peter meant when he said, “Always be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you.”  That word “defense,” doesn’t mean “defense” as we hear that word.  It means “case.”  Make a case.  Have reasons that will not only make you feel better, but will make an unbeliever feel unsettled.  

 What author(s) has been particularly helpful to you in thinking about these questions? Specific books?  

There are a lot, and many of them are mentioned in footnotes and also in an appendix in Why Trust the Bible.  None of the arguments I make in that book are original to me (well, maybe one or two!).  The idea was just to take the massive, detailed case Christians have made for centuries about the reliability of the Bible and put it in a form that Christians can read and grasp and use quickly and (I hope) easily.

If you had time to say only one sentence to an atheist to provoke them to consider Christianity, what would that sentence be?

“Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and how can you be so sure?”

Be sure to pick up pastor Greg’s new book Why Trust the Bible, available everywhere.

Categories
ethics life politics

The Inherent Violence of Pro-Life Rhetoric

When a gunman opened fire last week inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people including a police officer, the response from the political blogosphere was predictable and revealing. Dozens of pundits took the murderous rampage as an object lesson in why pro-life activism, like the kind we’ve seen over the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose of Planned Parenthood, can and does lead to violence against abortion providers and advocates.

On the other side, pro-life writers moved quickly to counter this narrative, first by casting reasonable doubt as to the real motivations (and psychological condition) of the killer, and then by pointing out the conveniently selective memories of progressives when it comes to ideologically motivated violence. All in all, both sides of the political spectrum performed effectively, making it unlikely that Americans on either side of the abortion debate would change their views because of this atrocity.

And isn’t that where most of our rhetorical face-offs on abortion tends to leave us, right back where we started in the first place? It certainly seems so. The tug-of-war between pro-choice and pro-life here was predictable in that the lines of argument for each side were obvious and obviously sufficient to confirm everyone in their preexisting views.

But I also said that this exchange was “revealing,” and here’s what I mean. By taking pro-lifers to task for using rhetoric that could incite vigilantism, the pro-choice side has unwittingly granted a crucial premise of the pro-life worldview: namely, that abortion is more than a medical procedure or a “reproductive right,” but is in fact an act of violence. Progressives are correct when they say that pro-life ideas are violent, but they are wrong when they believe that the violence starts with pro-life. Pro-life rhetoric is violent because abortion is violent.

When I say pro-life rhetoric is violent, I am NOT saying that it is violent against abortionists themselves. As Ross Douthat pointed out, the pro-life movement has grown and strengthened in the country over the last 20 years in large part because it has eschewed the kind of incident we saw last week. Pro-life activists do indeed target abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, but with political and moral reasoning, not with weapons.

But the pro-life argument is indeed a violent one, and it is violent precisely because abortion is not what its advocates say it is. The violence of pro-life is the violence of crushed skulls, suctioned brains, and carefully dissected spinal cords, not of people patronizing or running the abortion clinics but of the people for whom the clinic really exists. The violence of pro-life is the violence of looking at a mangled, bloody, and unmistakably human corpse, and hearing the words “tissue harvesting.”

The violence of abortion is, for pro-lifers, the most crucial reality in the entire post-Roe v. Wade debate. And it seems that obfuscating abortion’s violence, behind either rhetoric about reproductive freedom or by the prohibition of truth-tellers like ultrasounds and undercover cameras, has become an equally important part of the pro-choice platform. When an abortion advocate hears something like “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts,” they think of that rhetoric as violent invective against women who need medical relief and sexual equality. They don’t think, however, of a little hand, or a doctor’s declaring “It’s a boy” when staring at a mass of body in a petri dish. For pro-choicers, the alternative to Roe is mass death in the darkened back alleys of America; they don’t stop to wonder if the clinics, windows down and pictures blurred, have actually become those back alleys.

In the wake of violence against abortion providers, it is of course fair to ask whether pro-life advocacy is mature and reasoned rather than vengeful. Can pro-lifers do better? Of course; constantly assessing whether our message is grounded in claims of human dignity for all or in political frustration for our opponents is absolutely necessary if we are to articulate a pro-life worldview capable of winning people as well as elections. The pro-life movement to date has not, after all, been merely a Jonah-like moral condemnation of the culture, but a holistic movement that builds pregnancy centers and adoption agencies. That must continue. No amount of undercover videos or hashtag campaigns can replace the effect of building a tangible culture of life.

But when faced with the accusation that our rhetoric is violent, pro-life must admit  that yes, it is violent. The violence of pro-life is not the violence of shootings or bombings but the violence of reality, the violence of actually looking at abortion and seeing its eyes, hands, and feet. Because pro-life is a movement to see the truth, it is a movement to see violence. We can’t escape the violence of pro-life because we cannot escape the violence of abortion.

Categories
culture politics Theology

How to Surrender the Earth to Thugs

In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.

For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.

The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.

In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.

Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.

You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.

Categories
culture education

How Seriously Should You Take College Students?

I distinctly remember walking into my professor’s office and gently shutting the door. I had some questions for my teacher about some things he had been saying, some other things that I had been reading, and why a lot of what I was learning from the classroom didn’t make sense to me. What the conversation was about I only vaguely recall. What’s still clear to me is the sense of intellectual exploration that I felt, as an older, wiser, and available man whom I admired talked me through the things that weighed on me in that season of life.

That office visit was several years ago. Many of those questions no longer trouble me. Some of the things I thought were so compelling to me at 20 are laughable now, and some things I thought ludicrous or unnecessary I have since built my life on. The professor probably knew it would turn out like that. He listened to me, yes. But he also spoke to me. I was a valuable student in his eyes, but I was not a fellow expert. He took my questions seriously but my answers less so. I know I’m better for it.

“The coddling of the American mind” has had its own news cycle for the past few weeks. Student protests at Yale, Missouri, Princeton, and elsewhere have occupied both headlines and presidents’ offices. Some of the student “uprisings” have published lists of “Demands,” promising continued disruptions if the demands are not immediately and unequivocally met.

Some of these demands are, undoubtedly, more reasonable than others. Some of what is going on the campuses of these schools is probably more grounded in reality and understandable frustrations than what some commentators have granted, as Ross Douthat has pointed out.

But as a whole, the hashtag activism and social media blitzkrieg that we’ve seen in the past three weeks seems to be predicated on a nonsensical and, in fact, dangerous idea: That college students should, at every meaningful turn, be taken quite seriously. Not only is this a misguided and irresponsible notion, it’s actually an acid to the intellectual lives of the very students that it purports to take so seriously.

For most American collegians, higher education begins somewhere between 17 and 20. Many students begin their college career closer to matriculation than to the legal drinking age (one of the more irrelevant laws on campus, I know). For most of America’s university students, college is more than an extension of their education or a prerequisite to their professional life: It is a causeway into independent adulthood.

The university years are not meant to be some sort of final, inarguable designator of maturity and insight. Actually, the opposite is true: The traditional university model is set up to offer its young students a rich field in which intellectual exploration and formation can flourish. Professors do not think of their job as being sparring partners for equally qualified, equally mature thinkers. Rather, professors relish the opportunity to mold intellects and affections, to train students to become the kind of learner and the kind of person that goes on to live a valuable life.

The phenomenon that Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe in their definitive Atlantic piece is dangerous to many things, including free speech, college diversity, and academic freedom. But I would submit that it is most dangerous to the intellectual and spiritual formation of the students who are being coddled and satiated. By empowering 21 year olds to think of the university as a place where their felt needs should and will be treasured, parents and progressive academic administrators are communicating to these students that the most important aspects of their intellectual growth have happened already.

The incidents described in such detail by Haidt and Lukianoff depict a generation of Americans who arrive at American colleges already totally confirmed in the worldview they have developed as teens. Rather than being open to correction and vulnerable to the social risks that real diversity naturally brings, these students take what is surely a small amount of information–perhaps one emotive course on colonialism, or a powerful freshman gender studies seminar–and dictate the culture that must, per justice, emerge on campus. Not only does such a phenomenon cede the higher ground of education from the classroom to the ambient culture (including social media), it betrays the students it seeks to help by telling them a lie: That they have already discovered the real truth of their studies, and that their preexisting notions of justice and equality ought not, at this point, be challenged. What’s happening to the students is no longer education, but ordination.

Taking college students so seriously directly harms young adults in many ways, but two stand out. First, students who are coddled into thinking their intellectual formation is final and unquestionable are unlikely to see much value in studying the thinkers of the past. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery,” and it is a threat that we see more and more in our culture. Fewer college students graduate with serious appreciation for the work of generations older than Marx. More and more young professionals are not conversant with a stunning percentage of Western literature, political science, and theology. The value of old books and old thinkers is that, when we take them seriously, they explode our suspicion that we are utterly unique in our beliefs, habits, vices, and virtues. When we’re “protected” from those whose beliefs we think we’ve progressed past, we attribute to ourselves a fraudulent intellectual novelty.

The second harmful effect of taking college students too seriously is that it communicates a false idea of what life is like. College students, because they are by nature immature and more emotive, believe that good intentions, humor, passion, and just a little bit of knowledge  are what really matter in life. But this is only because the college campus is, like the high school locker room, a closed universe that doesn’t really reflect the necessary habits of mind and soul that make for success outside parental watchfulness. Habits like diligence can fall by the wayside with the allure of student loans and curved grade scales. Virtues like patience and self-control erode in the context of responsibility-free weekends. The point is that the world of college should not be confused for the world of adult life. When students are treated not like students but like fully formed philosophers and activists, this reality is missed.

Should you take college students seriously? Yes, you should. I’m glad my professor took my questions seriously. His patience and empathy helped me feel welcome, yes, but more than that, it helped me feel that this one particular season of intellectual uneasiness wasn’t permanent. Instead of telling me I should form a Facebook group or offering to include my thoughts in his next lecture, my professor responded to my searching with his own learning and experience. That’s what I treasured, and still treasure, about my college education, and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t taken so seriously that I missed it.

Categories
culture politics pop culture

Jennifer Lawrence Should Read the Books That Made Her Rich

Hollywood A-lister and my fellow Louisville, Kentuckian Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t think much of Rowan County clerk Kim Davis. Actually, that might be overstatement. J-Law has, according to her cover-story interview with Vogue, zero tolerance for Mrs. Davis’ name:

The day I am at Lawrence’s house also happens to be the day after the infamous county clerk Kim Davis gets out of jail, where she had been sent for defying a court order requiring her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Lawrence brings it up, calling her that “lady who makes me embarrassed to be from Kentucky.” Kim Davis? “Don’t even say her name in this house,” she shoots back, and then goes into a rant about “all those people holding their crucifixes, which may as well be pitchforks, thinking they’re fighting the good fight. I grew up in Kentucky. I know how they are.”

I’m sorry that Lawrence is embarrassed to be from Kentucky, but I’m afraid her tremblingly angry commentary here will do little to win Kentuckians to her side. Her screed reeks of classism and ideological bigotry, not to mention a fair amount of unintentionally hilarious self-righteousness (“Don’t even say her name” is right up there with Starbucks red cup hysteria on the FacePalm scale).

And I’m not sure why J-Law is so particularly embarrassed by Kim Davis. After all, it was her entire home state that voted to pass its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was also her whole home state that just overwhelmingly elected a pro-religious liberty governor. It sounds to me like Ms. Lawrence’s beef is really not with a Kentucky clerk but with Kentucky.

Of course, it’s Lawrence’s right to be embarrassed by Kentucky and hateful towards those who disagree with her. That’s what liberty is about. J-Law should actually be more familiar with those themes than most actresses right now, seeing as she just wrapped up her fourth and final adaptation of The Hunger Games series. The Hunger Games is, of course, a fictional series about a dystopian future in which a totalitarian central government (the Capitol) exercises absolute authority over its citizens, keeping them in subjection through starvation and gladiatorial rituals. It’s nowhere close to the sublime power of Orwell, but for young adult literature, The Hunger Games actually portrays a fairly compelling–and nightmarish–vision of a future without liberty.

Perhaps Lawrence thinks that liberty should be conditioned so as never to transgress cultural consensus. Perhaps she thinks  Kentuckians who believe in traditional marriage should enjoy freedom of conscience only so long as that freedom does not offend the cultural consensus or disturb the quiet conformity of the public square. But if that’s what Lawerence really does believe, she should take some time out of her career to re-read carefully the books that have made her a millionaire.

The Hunger Games is a frightening narrative of people held in captivity to the elite brokers of power in culture (specifically, I might add, power over the media). Interestingly, the Capitol’s dictator, President Snow, forbids any mention of the rebel protagonist Katniss Everdeen in his empire. The world of the Capitol is a tightly controlled world of uniformity and unquestionable government authority.

There are many Americans at this moment who are facing tremendous cultural and legal pressure to jettison their religious beliefs, pressure that, in some cases, has driven businesses and families out of the public square. Meanwhile publications like the New York Times openly refer to them as “bigots” and modern-day segregationists. Is there any question who, in this scenario, are the truly powerful elites, demanding conformity, and who are the separatists insisting on liberty?

Of course, our current situation is nothing like the post-apocalyptic nightmare depicted in The Hunger Games, just as the West was not actually learning to love Big Brother in 1984. But that’s not the point. The point is that sometimes we need shocking images and warnings to remind us how precious freedoms like freedom of religion are. When they are taken away, even fictitiously, the world that results is nothing but horror.

I’m not sure what it is about exercising one’s sincerely held beliefs that is so offensive and embarrassing to Lawrence. But it sure sounds like the Katniss Everdeen we see on the screen bears little resemblance to the conformity-craving actress who wears her costumes and says her lines.