Atheism vs “Thoughts & Prayers”

It’s becoming common nowadays to see atheists and skeptics ridicule prayer in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Harvey. One clever meme that I’ve seen this time around contains a picture of an empty truck, with the caption, “Good news! Your shipment of prayers has arrived.” Funny, right?

Secular scoffers who speak thus usually explain that expressions of “thoughts and prayers” aren’t only obnoxious, but harmful, since (they reason) such sentiments are offered as substitutes for actual, material aid. People who might otherwise donate money and time are exempted from doing so because their prayers and positivity feel like sufficient effort. Hence, the atheist concludes, we have another example of how religion poisons everything.

There are two things I find interesting about this mindset. The first is how detached from reality it is. Prayerful, religious people are consistently some of the most giving, most voluntaristic citizens. The alleged connection between prayer and inactivity is little more than an assumption based on a presupposition. Atheists, after all, believe that the reason people pray in the first place is that they are overwhelmed by life and lack either the ability or the willingness to face it honestly. Accusations of hiding behind “thoughts and prayers” an excuse not to serve others looks good to skeptics on paper because it confirms a preexisting set of beliefs about why humans chose to believe rather than disbelieve. So the old irony appears again–it turns out that atheists act very fundamentalistically when it comes to how they think of others who don’t think like them.

The second thing I find interesting is that prayer, unlike almost every other religious practice, is naturally private and personal in a way that secularists generally enjoy. New Atheists go hoarse explaining that they don’t want to outlaw religion or railroad private religious beliefs out of existence. They just want to make sure that religion stays private–out of public education, out of public policy, out of public influence. If there’s one religious discipline that should fit this bill perfectly, it’s private prayer, right? Isn’t prayer what we want religious people doing in lieu of actually going out and spreading their beliefs?

So why the animosity toward prayer? I don’t think it’s because praying people are stingy people, as I’ve said. Rather, I suspect that secularists dislike expressions of prayer in times of tragedy because such expressions are reminders of the limitations of human effort. “Thoughts and prayers” irritate those who cannot offer them. In moments of true human empathy, where we want to reach out and fix something broken about the world but cannot reach far enough, there’s something written on our hearts that tells us that Someone should be able to reach for us. Prayer is an invocation of that Someone. That’s why the skeptic, whose universe begins and end with human evolution and revolution, resists it.

This is why the fracture of the world, rather than its design, is the strongest apologetic for the Creator. For the materialist, all the suffering, all the agony, and all the sympathy in the universe adds up to little more than a footnote in human history. There is nothing, and ultimately no one, above or below it. The voice in the soul that whispers that drowning mothers and trapped elderly and destroyed homes are not the way the universe is meant to work has nowhere to direct its message in the mind of the prayerless. Such sentiment either reverberates hollowly against an indifferent natural universe, or else is suppressed as meaningless neurological events. For the prayerful, however, the hurricane brings with it reminders that families weren’t designed to die, and that somewhere this truth holds fast.

“Thoughts and prayers” suggest that hurricanes cannot destroy everything that is really real. For the prayerless, this is terrifying. For the prayerful, it’s the best of news.

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Jesus vs the Confederacy

Amidst the violence and brokenness in Charlottesville, Virginia, this picture (I’m unsure of the source) has been circulating widely:

There’s a lot going on here, and probably nothing as striking as the image of a black police officer standing guard for the safety of a group that looks with nostalgia on the time when Americans like him were lynched. For that reason alone, this picture is worth a Pulitzer nomination.

But look a little bit more closely. To the viewer’s left of the police officer, a protester carrying a confederate battle flag in his right hand also carries a placard in his right. The sign reads, in part, “Jews are Satan’s Children.” More interestingly, the sign then lists some biblical passages, two of which are clearly readable: John 8: 31-47, and John 10: 22-33. The protester believes that these passages vindicate his racism, and of course, blogging atheists are all too happy to use this as more evidence of Christianity’s inherent bigotry.

But there’s a slight problem. The passages listed by this protester do not mean what he thinks they do. In fact, they mean something very close to the opposite.

Let’s look at the second reference first, John 10:22-33. I’ll admit to being unsure why this protester thinks this passage supports his claim. It could be that he’s referencing Jesus’ words in verse 26, in which he tells a group of unbelieving Jews that “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The problems with appropriating this passage for anti-Semitic messaging should be obvious. The sheep that Jesus means are the sheep that believe in Him, which, according to John in both verse 21 and verse 42, includes many Jews. The difference between being one Jesus’ sheep and not being one of Jesus’ sheep is the question of response to Jesus himself, not ethnicity. To say this verse supports ethnic condemnations of Jewish’s people is a rather banal moment of illiteracy.

But what about the first passage, John 8:31-47? This passage is a bit more interesting, because Jesus does indeed tell a group of Jews that they are children of Satan. Verse 44: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Does this passage vindicate this neo-Confederate protester?

Far from it. Look more closely at John 8, beginning in verse 39. “As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This dialogue is a dialogue between Jesus and Jews who have made a profession of faith in him. This point is crucial, because Jesus’ goal is in this dialogue is to expose these people’s hypocrisy. They have appeared to believe in him, but they are inwardly resistant to what Jesus is saying.

How do we know this? Verse 33: “They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham, and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free?” This group of alleged believers resents Jesus’ implication that they aren’t free. In fact, they expose their unbelief in Jesus in a startling way. They appeal to their ethnic ancestry as proof that they are already God’s people, and that they don’t need the freedom Jesus offers (verse 39: “Abraham is our father”).

The shocking irony behind all this is that Jesus’ words “You are of your father the devil” are addressed to people who have claimed to believe Jesus but whose real religion is their ethnic, ritualistic identity. When the claims of Jesus run up against what these people believe about themselves and their ancestors, they angrily dismiss Jesus and ultimately seek to destroy him (v.59)–just as Jesus himself told them they would (v.37).

So the news for this card-carrying neo-Confederate is doubly disappointing. It turns out that the Bible he claims to know doesn’t actually condemn Jewish people, or African-American people, or immigrant people as children of Satan. But to make it all worse, it turns out that when Jesus is talking about what it means to be a child of the devil, he’s actually talking about unbelief–an unbelief that looks quite a bit like southern white supremacy.

Gotta Serve Somebody

When a friend sent me the link to this essay by a progressive bookstore employee, whose aching moral dilemma is whether to sell a book he disagrees with politically, my response was simple. I said, “American progressive culture has become mid-1990s homeschool chain email culture.” Here’s what I mean by that. Growing up in a conservative, evangelical, homeschool niche, I am quite familiar with the idea that there are certain ideas, expressed in certain books, movies, or rock albums, that people who want to keep their heart pure should just not entertain. This kind of avoidance ethic doesn’t feel strange to me. It feels nostalgic. If this blogger were talking about Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets instead of Hillbilly Elegy, if he had used all the same anathemas and descriptions and moral superlatives but applied them to Hogwarts instead of Vance, I would know his story immediately.

What this tormented bookseller has so helpfully demonstrated in his piece is that you can take a man out of church, but you can’t take church out of a man. If God is dead, that’s not the end of the story. You have to name a successor. For what feels like a huge slice of American culture, that heir is politics. God is dead, long live politics. This writer talks of Hillbilly Elegy not as if it were a piece of cultural criticism he dislikes, but as if it were a work of heresy that his very soul might be compromised by selling. I feel for him. I know the thought process he’s going through, because it’s the same thought process that prevented from me taking that high school job at the local video rental store, knowing there’d customers who wanted the films from the “back room.”

For this fellow’s moral dilemma, the attempts by New Atheists to find ethical guidance in biology are, as he probably secretly knows by now, ridiculous. Believing that our numinous sensations are neurological responses to biochemical reactions makes for some punchy Facebook memes, but it doesn’t help in a moment of true moral crisis. Human beings are built to believe. The question is not whether they will believe, but what they will believe if not God. For some, especially in our temples of higher education, to Believe means to be intersectional, to be committed body and spirit to a Tao of tolerance. For others, to Believe means to Look Inward, to Eat, Pray, and, to Love (at least, love those who aren’t bigots!).

The subtitle of Hillbilly Elegy–which is a book you should read–says, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Some smart people in our world say those words could just as easily apply to religion. Laugh these people out of the bookstore. Religious fervor is doing just fine. As Dylan said, “You gotta serve Somebody,” not talking about the customer.

New Atheism vs Science

Thomas Nagel has an erudite and punchy review of a new book by “Four Horseman” Daniel Dennett. Read the whole thing here, but here’s the haymaker:

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs…”

…There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.

This is, I think, the fatal flaw in the New Atheist project. Its commitment to naturalistic materialism works wonders on glassy-eyed undergraduates and Bill Maher, but it fares less well when live questions of science and philosophy are put to it. Nagel is an atheist like Dennett, but where Dennett’s naturalistic materialism commands every element of his philosophical strategy, Nagel is hung up–like a scientist!–on questions that materialists seem unable (or uninterested) to answer.

Nagel’s right that there’s no reason to go through “mental contortions” for science’s sake. Nor, I would add, is there any reason to debase your humanity and siphon beauty and wonder from your worldview for the sake of “rationality.” There’s a better explanation for everything. You just have to be open to it.

Who Framed Christopher Hitchens?

One of my favorite books from 2016 was Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which I reviewed for Mere-O. I found it to be a gripping spiritual biography of an atheist. No, the words “spiritual biography of an atheist” are not self-contradictory. Atheists have spiritual lives, whether they cop to the fact or not. That’s a big part of what made Taunton’s book meaningful for me; it depicted the spiritual life of a brilliant man who, to all available evidence, died rejecting God, but who did so in a complex and conflicted way. It’s an enthralling and deeply compassionate book.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and pundits seem completely incapable of grasping the concept of an atheist with questions. Taunton’s book was repeatedly and egregiously misrepresented in the press, with critics–the vast majority of whom are atheists–blasting Taunton for claiming a “deathbed conversion” for Hitch. Taunton did nothing of the sort, but such factual trivia seemed not to matter to many who dismissed and ridiculed him.

Taunton tells his side of the story in an essay for the new issue of First Things. Access to the piece requires a subscription, which you really should do anyway. But I want to highlight one specific passage because it exemplifies the common and seriously troubling divide between media elites and the people they cover, or don’t cover.

Here’s Taunton:

After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The angry response that Taunton documents–including Michael Shermer’s cowardly rescinding of his endorsement–was not directed at what Taunton had actually written. It could not have been, because Taunton never claimed what the social media team at Religion News Service said he claimed. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is explicit in disowning any idea that Hitchens converted to theism or Christianity. But that didn’t matter, because RNS, a journalism outlet, reported falsely to thousands of followers. The fact that the misleading tweet was deleted is almost irrelevant; the real question is, how could a journalism outlet manage to report that a book claims the exact opposite of what it actually says? And if this error was unintentional, that raises another question: Did the people behind the tweet and the reporting actually read the book or Taunton’s comments about it? If not, isn’t this a serious journalistic failure?

In the essay, Taunton argues that the main culprit behind this misrepresentation of his work is a  widespread presumption of atheistic immutability. I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think there’s an important story here about the (quite common) collision between media culture and the truth, between the all-powerful, all-justifying “Narrative” and the complicated details of reality, especially the reality of religion and religious people. The Narrative says that atheists are who they are because they are committed to the truth, and that religious folks are who they are because they need comfort, validation, or promise of cosmic comeuppance. The Narrative says that the road from faith to skepticism is one way, and that education and “real world” experience tend toward secularism, while ignorance and tribalism incubate faith.

For those who deny that such a Narrative drives media coverage, Taunton’s experience with his book is difficult to explain. After all, it is not a work of punditry or philosophizing. It is a memoir, written in first person, documenting not arguments and reasons but conversations and letters. In an age in which the only propositional truth statements that can’t be ignored are the ones beginning with “I feel,” the hostile and dogmatic response to Taunton’s portrait of his friend is notable.

There has been much talk lately about bridging the gap between the “two Americas,” bursting our ideological and existential bubbles, and straining toward genuine empathy. This is a worthwhile goal. But if it’s going to happen, then those who make a living telling others the news have to reckon with the mistrust they face from many people, and acknowledge that at least some of it is deserved. Until such a time as journalists and their employers feel genuine embarrassment at misleading millions of readers when it comes to people of faith, that mistrust isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure it should.

What C.S. Lewis Means to Me

Clive Staples Lewis died today, November 22, in 1963. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like if this man were not a towering figure in it. This past summer I tried to capture a little bit of the debt of gratitude I feel toward him when we gave our newborn son the middle name “Lewis.” One of the great pleasures I have right now is looking forward to telling Charlie Lewis about the professor whose name he bears, and what a wondrous world he let me enter.

I read Lewis for the first time in high school. Mere Christianity hit me like a battering ram of clarity and reasonableness; it gave a logical shape to the faith I (thought I had) inherited from my parents, but which seemed so often to not fit into the world around me. What Lewis gave me in Mere Christianity was not a mere step-by-step proof of Christianity, nor an unassailable list of “defeaters” for atheism. He gave me something infinitely more important: A reason to believe that the claims of Jesus Christ and the New Testament were reasonable and beautiful. Of course, one doesn’t need Lewis to see the self-authenticating glory of the gospel. But by mowing down arguments–especially the snobbish mentality of modernity that Screwtape calls “an inarticulate sense of actuality”–Lewis paved the way in my mind for Christ.

As I look at the influence Lewis has had on me, I see four characteristics that have shaped (or, that I hope shape!) my thinking and my feeling in my life.

1) A gentle absoluteness

Lewis’s work is consistently characterized by a calm, winsome, yet irresistible firm absoluteness. Lewis did not see a conflict between empathy with those who disagree and unyielding conviction that they were wrong. His book Miracles is a wonderful example of his ability to sympathize with the atheist-materialist worldview in a way that gives his case against it a moral and emotional credibility. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that Lewis spent much of his adult life as an unbeliever. I constantly come back to this fact whenever I am gripped, as many Christians are nowadays, by a fear of “wasting my life.” No life that finds Christ, however late and however feebly, is wasted.

2) A love of the written word

Lewis, professor of English, was a master at saying. I don’t just mean he was a master of writing, or even a master at thinking. I mean he was a master of saying. There is a crucial difference between the ability to talk, or write, and the ability to say. Putting one’s thoughts or one’s research on paper is an exercise between a person and the material. But saying involves a third party–the reader, the listener, the neighbor. Lewis’ ability to say–to say meaningful things in beautiful but precise ways–was one of his great gifts, and I’ve tried and will keep on trying to make it my own as long as I may.

3) A humble time for others

If you want to know what Lewis thought of others, perhaps the best thing to show you is this massive, wonderful 3-volume collection of his collected letters. Lewis made a point of responding (where health permitted) to anyone who corresponded with him. The day before he died, Lewis penned a reply to a young admirer who loved the Narnia books. The note, perhaps Lewis’ last ever, perfectly sums up so much about Lewis himself:

https://twitter.com/samueld_james/status/800903906066829312

There are simply not many people who would advise a world-renowned academic, novelist, and philosopher to spend time on his deathbed responding to children’s fan mail. But Lewis did, and even as I write, his example shames me in my self-centeredness. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

4) An ability to see

Lewis could see. He could see the way ideas work together. More importantly, he could see the human condition. He understood that modernity was making a case not only against God, but against the individual. He understood that the Christian life isn’t lived in the “big” moments, but it can most certainly be thwarted in the small ones. He understood that materialism was attractive for an educated, postwar Western culture, but that it had a gaping hole at the center.

He also understood that truth was not, contra the linguistic philosophers, a mere power play by subculture against subculture. It’s sometimes said that Lewis would not have fit in with the fundamentalist evangelicals who love to claim him. That’s probably true. But it’s equally true that he would not have sailed quietly among those progressive revisionists, deconstructing the faith for a “new era.” In the Abolition of Man, Lewis exorciated modern teachers who urged their disciples to “see through” the claims of religion:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window should be transparent, because the street or the garden beyond is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That quote has stayed with me since the first time I read it. Is there a better summation anywhere of the folly of learned unbelief?

I sometimes hear it said that the church needs a new C.S. Lewis for today. But that’s not quite right. What the church needs is the old C.S. Lewis of yesterday. And it needs preachers and teachers and moms and dads and children whose souls are shaped by the same transcendent “Joy” that captured Lewis.

I am thankful to C.S. Lewis, and to the Hound of Heaven who chased him–and me– down relentlessly with jealous love.

The True Value of Halloween

A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was becoming a very pagan nation. By “pagan”  the woman meant the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian belief systems of spiritism, idolatry, and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.

Lewis’s reply was unexpected. “You fear England’s returning to paganism,” he wrote. “Oh that it would!” Lewis explained that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. A “pre-Christian” culture, Lewis argued, would at least entertain ideas about reality that allowed for the unseen, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. The militant, materialistic atheism of Lewis’s 20th century Oxford had no such upward view.

One of Lewis’s great gifts was pointing that which is so obvious that we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and philosophical naturalists. The gospel cuts across every rival worldview, whether spiritualistic or agnostic, but for the person who believes that things like resurrections and advents cannot happen in this world, Christianity is totally unintelligible. Christianity doesn’t merely feature the supernatural and miraculous, it demands them. Christianity is an universe in which the otherwordly and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.

I’m afraid that this fact isn’t just a stumbling block for atheists, but for many Christians as well. This time of year many Americans will be celebrating Halloween. Even as many evangelical Christians have deep concerns with the casual costuming of the demonic and the spiritually dark (and those concerns are valid!), it’s possible that we may have missed an obvious fact: Halloween is one of the few cultural institutions we as a country have left that invites contemplation on the realities beyond our immediate physical world, realities like death, spirits, and evil.

In a way, American thinking about Halloween is more Christian than its thinking about Christmas, a holiday that has been overwhelmingly loaded with secular symbols of youth and and wealth and Western self-satisfaction. What is Santa Claus but a secular savior, a perpetually positive grandfather who stops by once a year to tell you what a good life you are living?

Santa Claus, as a symbol, requires no serious thought about the permanent, the unseen, and the immortal. By contrast, the ghoulish symbols of Halloween may be less “family-friendly” than Santa, but they are grounded much more deeply in fundamental truths about good, evil, and death. There is no jolly old man waiting to give gifts to the good children, either in the North Pole or in heaven. Death, however, is real. Demons are real. Evil is real. In our contemporary society, it’s almost as if the doctrines of Christianity are much more evident in the ghastly images of Halloween than the comfortable, consumeristic images of Christmas.

That is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because, in truth, Christmas is not merely a contrast to Halloween but an answer to it. The deathly realities of October are no match for the advent realities of December. It’s true that evil and death are real, but they are not as real as Immanuel. In Halloween, death takes on flesh. At Christmas, life takes on flesh, as Jesus Christ enters the world to destroy the works of the prince of demons. To lose either of these realities is to filter the gospel through what is ultimately a materialistic, unbelieving lens.

I’m not at all saying that Christians must lose whatever reservations they have about Halloween. After all, if there are indeed spiritual realities in the symbols of Halloween, we must take how we treat such symbols more seriously, not less. There are good reasons to place practical boundaries on ourselves and on our children for how we engage the holiday. And the same is true of Christmas. It is no good to ban Halloween from our families and our churches on account of its darkness, and then celebrate the Christmas season just like our materialistic, legalistic culture. Both Christmas and Halloween have the potential to be nothing more in our lives than monuments to our worship of fun and food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we know the gospel that gives weight and meaning and history and truth to these days.

I’m probably going to see some Christians on Facebook this weekend decry the ugly, offensive symbols of Halloween, and implore parents to remind their children that they must not associate with such things. I won’t protest that. But I do hope that, in an age where most young people grow up to ultimately believe not in ghosts, Holy or otherwise, but mostly in themselves and their own right to self-actualization, we do not despise every opportunity to remind ourselves that life and youth do not last forever.

 

Atheism Is Not Endearing

While looking for something else, I stumbled across this quote from the actor/atheist Hugh Laurie.

I find my atheism is becoming more marked with each passing year. I once prided myself on a relaxed and respectful attitude to other people’s beliefs, but I’m finding it harder to keep that up. I might find myself taking a tougher line with people about certain beliefs that are so painfully nonsensical. Because nonsense is not endearing or eccentric anymore – it’s causing death, destruction, and endless torment for millions of people around the world.

What’s funny to me about this is that it describes perfectly my own attitude toward atheism. When I was an undergraduate I thought atheists were generally intellectual powerhouses who had serious and meaningful challenges to the existence of God. Or, perhaps they were deep thinkers who had endured such awful tragedy in their personal life, that no other narrative except unbelief could offer a reassuring explanation of their suffering. For a long time this was the idea that I had about the “skeptics” and the teachers they so enthusiastically emulated.

But over the last couple of years, I too have experienced a shift  from a “relaxed and respectful attitude,” and exactly for the reasons that Laurie mentions: The stakes are too high and the effects of this worldview are too toxic. Contrary to what my undergraduate self imagined, I have discovered that more than a few self-described “skeptics” remain skeptics chiefly because they have taken exhaustive efforts to never be challenged in this regard. The number of atheists I’ve met and corresponded with who will admit to not knowing one historic argument for the existence of God, or not having one acquaintance with a believer who can seriously argue his case, is astonishing.

Beyond this, I’ve seen that the intellectual case for atheism, which I had believed to be so formidable, is not just irreparably deformed from a logical perspective, but also from a humane one as well. To read the latest and most popular volumes of skepticism from people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins is to confront an intellectual system that is nakedly bankrupt in moral and aesthetic value. The efforts of “scientism” to explain away the transcendent phenomenon of beauty, and the personal experience of the numinous, is nothing less than a project to sweep the legs out from under hope and human freedom. The fruits of such a belief system are evident, too: Atheism is the undisputed ruler of the internet, but it reigns alongside the most twisted forms of pornography and human degradation imaginable. There is a reason that Reddit and 4Chan are bastions of sophomore skepticism on one wing, and factories of sexual nihilism and abuse in the other.

I’ve lost my patience with atheism, but I hope I haven’t lost my patience with atheists. I still enjoy very much talking about these things with the unconvinced. And, of course, as a Christian, I have an eschatological motivation in those conversations. But as Laurie succinctly said, I don’t find the whole thing endearing anymore. There’s just too much, and too many, to be saved from it.

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Hitchens at the Horns of the Altar

Today at Mere Orthodoxy I have a review of the new book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. It’s by Larry Taunton, a Christian and an academic who became close with Hitchens in the last few years of his life.

Part intellectual biography, part spiritual memoir, part “road trip,” Taunton’s book is a pleasure. Here’s an excerpt from my review:

September 11 may not have been have been Hitchens’s Damascus Road moment, but it did much to disarm his innate hostility to those outside his ideological family tree. By pivoting to the right on terror, Hitchens was forced to doubt the categorical identity politics that so often dominate American discourse. This doubt—this shaken faith in the inherited doctrines of the Left—created the space into which Christian friendship, and Taunton himself, entered….

…What Taunton accomplishes here is marvelous, equally for what it is not as much as it what it is. It is not the melodrama of an unbeliever humbled to submission by either his reading or his inner demons. Neither is Taunton’s work a shrine to the value of apologetics. Rather, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is that most difficult, and most valuable, of memoirs: A record of virtue and of vice, of faith and faithlessness.

You can read the whole review at Mere Orthodoxy.

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.

_____________________

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.