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In recent days Steve Jobs' Apple Computer and Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ABC, have entered into a partnership where episodes airing on ABC the evening before can be downloaded through Apple's iTunes Music Store for $1.99. Talking about opening a Pandora's box in the media business! Already ABC affiliate stations have been clamoring that they were not given an opportunity for financial participation in the new distribution agreement. This marriage between the two companies is seen by many media observers as being a significant step in dismantling the decades-old system for distribution of TV programming to viewing audiences. Now, TiVo Inc. has announced plans to let users of its popular digital video recorders to download any TV show stored on their TiVo boxes onto iPods.
With technology "blurring" the lines across all forms of media, we should not be surprised at its impact upon worship and the sacred in our fast paced culture. An article in The New York Times caught my eye in late August. It reported how Kyle Lewis, 25, when he missed going to church one Sunday, still didn't miss the sermon. Mr. Lewis, who regularly attends services at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, listened to the sermon while he was at the gym, through a recording he had downloaded to his iPod. Instead of listening to the rock music his gym offered, he heard his pastor's message!
The homepage of Rev. Mark Batterson of the National Community Church, theaterchurch.com, is his entrée into "podcasting," or "godcasting," as Rev. Batterson prefers to call it. "I can't possibly have a conversation with everyone each Sunday. But this builds toward a digital discipleship," he said. "We're orthodox in belief, but unorthodox in practice."
Just as Christian organizations embraced radio and television, podcasting has quickly caught on with religious groups. Despite the variety of religious podcasts, Christian programs make up by far the largest segment of the category. The Rev. Tim Hohm, a Protestant minister from El Sobrante, Calif., makes two 15-minute podcasts a week about family and work issues. He said an average of 6,000 people downloaded the program from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.
One of the most popular religious podcasts, Catholic Insider (catholicinsider.com), already exceeds 10,000 listeners for each program. The founder is the Rev. Roderick Vonhögen, 37, a priest from the Netherlands, who heard about podcasting from one of his parishioners and has become an avid fan of Adam Curry, one of podcasting's founders. "I don't force people to take my view," he said, to which he attributes his popularity. Listeners have gone along on walks in Rome, through the airport in Düsseldorf, Germany, and across the city square in his hometown of Amersfoort while Father Vonhögen enthusiastically talks about pop culture and religion, and can sometimes be heard eating French fries or gelato while he is talking. "Podcasting for us has been a resurrection of radio," Father Vonhögen said. "It's the connection to a new generation."
As I read of this new "media" world making inroads into our frenetic culture, moving us towards a new-fangled "digital discipleship," I must confess, I'm a little bothered. True, amidst our hectic schedules of work and leisure, it is "convenient" to have church services when we want to attend (I'm as guilty as anyone on this). Yet, when was the last time you or I picked up a hymnal to sing a song in church? I wonder, amidst all the technological advances, could we be depriving ourselves of something? Can we be "orthodox" in belief, yet "unorthodox" in practice? Is it possible for me to live well in our world of "sight and sound," but without others? Could such technology have a downside in terms of how we relate, or don't relate, to others? Could it contribute to making our faith a solitary, private enterprise? And when we get our religion "on the fly," what are we saying about worship? About community? Still pondering…
Yes, I know the last blog dealt with Lewis' film opening tomorrow. And I was ready to move on, but having just completed a fresh reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I'm convinced that this little classic has a lot to tell us about worship and the spiritual life. Actually, much more to tell us than the myriad of books dealing with slick marketing and self-help books that seem to dominate the evangelical subculture. In a USA Today article last week, "Is That Lion the King of Kings?" the question was raised as to whether Lewis' film should be understood as a "rip-roaring piece of fantasy--or a fairy tale suffused with Christian imagery?" The answer appears to be both, and Disney is doing its best to market the movie on two tracks, as a cross between The Lord of the Rings and The Passion of the Christ. And all indications suggest that they will succeed. In a Big Way.
As G. K. Chesterton had earlier "baptized" Lewis' imagination through his writings when Lewis was an adolescent, so too he wanted to "sneak past watchful dragons" in his Narnia series to prepare children for the Christian story. But if one reads the book, or sees the film, I'm convinced they will see that Narnia has much to say about our lives, the things we deeply cherish, the things that we desire, and the things that make the thing called life so enchanting and exhilerating! So as we watch the movie with our children, grandchildren, or friends, here are a few things for us to consider:
The Great Lion...
Sin and Evil...
Sacrifice and Salvation...
Last Christmas well-known recording artist James Taylor released a Christmas CD that was only available through Hallmark Gift Stores. Some of you may have heard this remarkable CD, which has some of the most well known carols of the Christmas season. One of those carols that continues to powerfully move me is titled, In the Bleak Mid-Winter, a well-known hymn from the British Christmas tradition. The hymn is based on a traditional Celtic folk song, but is an original composition.
What many people do not realize is that the melody to the hymn was composed by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), perhaps best know for his orchestral masterpiece, The Planets. Holst's melody, Cranham (named after the town in which it was written), was set to a poem written by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), In the Bleak Mid-Winter was first published in The English Hymnal in 1906, and has always been one of Holst's most popular compositions. The beauty and simplicity of the folk song greatly inspired Holst, May the hymn's lyrics serve as a personal meditation for each of us at this Christmastime.
"In the bleak mid-winter,
Angels and archangels,
But only his mother,
What then can I give Him,
The great Russian novelist Tolstoy once remarked, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Unfortunately, his words often ring true in many of our lives, especially as we reflect on the past year, and ponder the year before us. While I am always reluctant to come up with "new year resolutions" (the phrase has become synonymous with what we try to keep for a few weeks, and then resort back to our old habits!), the beginning of a new year does provide a good time to take stock of our lives. Because we humans have a deep-seated desire to grow and improve, I offer up these ruminations for your consideration. These thoughts are arranged around the themes of intellectual, physical, vocational, and spiritual growth. I welcome your comments on these, so feel free to post your comments at the end of the blog.
Intellectual Growth - One of the greatest challenges for professional men is to grow and develop outside their vocational arena. Let's be honest. You could spend all your waking hours reading the literature and journals dealing exclusively with your job or vocation. So unless we make time for other reading and reflection, it simply won't happen. Why not take a look at some of the recommended books on the finishingwell website that might be of interest to you? Also, in recent years there has been a return among many business professionals to the classics, works by writers such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Many classics, based upon a Judeo-Christian worldview, do not so much attempt to give us "quick and ready" answers to life, as to show us what it means to be human, and to deal with the universal moral struggles in our world.
Physical Well-being - One of the most interesting films I've seen recently was Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary, "Super Size Me." The film is essentially documenting an experiment conducted by Spurlock in which he would only eat McDonald's food, three times a day, for a month, with the caveats being that he would have to eat everything off the menu at least once, and that he would limit his exercise to the daily amount of exercise the "average" American gets. So, as he nears his walking limit each day in NYC, he would regularly have to take a taxi to get to his destination. Oh yes, and any time the MacDonald's restaurant asked him if he wanted the "Super Size," he had to take it! Needless to say, he gained a tremendous amount of weight over the thirty days, and by the end of the second week, his doctors were almost pleading with him to stop because his blood work and other tests showed how much damage he was doing to his body. While I don't imagine that many of us are fast-food addicts, "Super Size Me" does show the impact of fast-food eating on a culture married to convenience and "what's good."
Job Satisfaction and Growth - Most of you who are reading this blog have reached a high degree of success and accomplishment in your work careers. And yet, I am convinced that no matter how much money you make, and what title you have in your company, you still have a deep desire to perform and succeed in even greater measure in the coming year. I am reminded of an article in a Harvard Business Review a few years ago which underscored the need for executives to continually be able to rekindle their passion for their work. Why? Because we know intuitively that work is about much more than the money. So my challenge to you might be, what are you really passionate about in your work? What do you do best? What might energize you in this coming year so that you can most effectively contribute to your organization? Part of maturity in our work lives involves coming to the realization that we do some things a whole lot better than others. Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, said it well: Non omnia possumus omnes ("Not all things can we all do").
Spiritual Growth - I've known many people through the years who start out with a New Year's resolution of reading through the Bible, but give up early on because they become bored or indifferent to what they are reading, or why they are reading! It is like they are trying to run a marathon but haven't done any training! I believe we've made the Christian life much more complicated than it really is. I'm also convinced that some in the Chrlstian community are a bit like modern-day Pharisees, suggesting that if we don't spend X-amount of time every day reading the Scriptures, then we're not very committed!
A man who fell off his boat and spent about six hours in the ocean before being rescued by his own brother suggests the terrifying experience has served as a "wake-up call" that has given him a totally different perspective on life. Craig McCabe, a Newport Beach attorney, told reporters at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, California, "I was vascillation as to whether I was going to go back (to work) and make as much money as I could to support the yacht I wanted to fix up..."
The ordeal occurred on a Thursday in January when McCabe, piloting his yacht alone, was on his way around 4:00 a.m. from Marina del Rey to Newport Harbor for some repairs to his boat. He had been leaning over the boat's stern to see if the propellers had been entangled in a lobster trap-line when, as he was motoring through the morning fog around 8 a.m., a rogue wave smashed his 65-foot vessel, Heather (McCabe would later admit that he was mostly angry with himself for piloting his yacht alone - a cardinal violation of safe boating - for someone experienced in sailing). In the water, McCabe grabbed a trailing boat line but couldn't hang on. The rope broke one of his fingers and cut his face, leaving him bleeding. He was sure that sharks lurked nearby. About one-and-a-half miles from the Long Beach breakwater, he could barely keep afloat in the heavy jacket, jeans, and shoes that he wore, but didn't want to shed them in the 58-degree water. "I could see the shoreline," McCabe said, yet swimming to land was out of the question, as it was too far away. When a passing fishing boat failed to spot him, he began to lose hope. "Then things got desperate," said a tearful McCabe, flanked by his two adult daughters and doctors at the hospital. "I couldn't swim very far. The water was cold."
As he began to panic, McCabe spotted a buoy about a half-mile away, and decided to swim for it. As he headed toward the buoy, he spotted a blue balloon skipping along the surface in his direction, which he grabbed, and stuffed into his jacket for flotation. Within an hour the balloon had deflated, and being tired and cold, he began to shake, and started to slip under the sea between breaths. While McCabe tried to stay afloat, a friend returning to Catalina in the Catalina Express commuter boat spotted his vessel motoring toward the island. Authorites began scouring the 26-mile-wide channel with five boats, as well as three Coast Guard helicopters and a C-130 airplane.
By now, McCabe had been in the water for nearly six hours. As he swam up to the buoy, he faced some unexpected guests: five sea lions who were not willing to budge from their perch. "There was one male sea lion and he was very territorial...he had pretty good size teeth." At this point, hypothermia had dropped his body temperature into the 80's, doctors later said. Just before he gave up hope, McCabe heard a boat engine. His brother and several friends, on their way to Catalina to retrace his steps, spotted him in the water. A friend jumped in the water at 2:15 p.m. and pulled McCabe out. "We didn't say anything to each other," he said. "We just hugged. I was conscious but not in very good shape."
As McCabe fought back tears throughout his emotionally charged news conference, he admitted that he had been thinking twice about the yacht project ever since his niece had given him a book by C.S. Lewis on the Christian faith. Reading the book by Lewis had led him to read through the New Testament, McCabe admitted, "for the first time in my life."
"It is a mistake for man to put his emphasis on the things of this world, because those things are going to be gone and not available to him if he dies, and he should put his stores in heaven," McCabe observed. "He should get his pride under control, his ego under control - a huge issue my entire life. I think I needed a wake-up call," McCabe confessed.
What might be God's wake-up call in our own lives?
For Dan Gati, a 29-year-old lawyer in New York, the most exciting night of March Madness isn't the final game, or any game, for that matter. Rather, it comes in the days following the NCAA's announcement on CBS of the seedings for the Big Dance. That is when Mr. Gati presides over a "Calcutta" auction with a gathering of his friends in an Upper West Side apartment, with two or three more conferenced in on a speaker phone, and conducts an auction for each of the 64 teams in the tournament. The money that's collected will be distributed in the following weeks to the "owners" of the winning teams in each round of the tournament. The big winner last year was Mike Kestenbaum, a second-year M.B.A. student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who collected $1,871 - just over a quarter of the pot - when one of the teams he bought for $500 at the auction, the University of North Carolina, won the tournament.
By The Numbers: As you "finalize" your brackets before the action begins, here are a few telling statistics about how various seeds have fared since the NCAA men's tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Interestingly, No. 6, No. 10, and No. 12 seeds ALL have better records than the seeds immediately above them; of the 21 national championships won since 1985, the No. 1 seeds have won the championship 12 times, No. 2 seeds since 1985, 4 times, No. 3 seeds since 1985, 2 times.
Another, and more significant, area of debate dealing with odds concerns the question of whether or not God exists. Arguably the most famous of the "wagers" ever made was penned by the French scientist, philosopher, and inventor, Blaise Pascal. During his brief life (he died at the age of 39), Pascal, who lived in the mid-seventeenth-century, left his mark on mathematics, physics, and religious discussion. He is generally credited with the founding of probability theory, as well as the invention of a calculating machine in 1647, which served as a precursor to the modern day computer. In his classic work, Pensees (which can be loosely translated, "thoughts, meditations") his unfinished notes and essays were collected by his sister after his death, and intended as a systematic and uncompromising defense of Christian belief. On the Wager as to whether God exists, Pascal wrote:
"Either God is or He is not. But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases; if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing...Do not hesitate then; wager that He does exist...."
Pascal suggests that in this life, there is no absolute proof available to the skeptic that there is a God. Nor is there any way of proving that there is not. Reason by itself cannot decide the issue. We live in a world that seems to many people to be profoundly ambiguous. Life does not speak clearly of its ultimate nature. There are some indications that a religious view of the world is true, while others would suggest that it is not. Pascal asks us each a very simple, yet profound, question about the Ultimate Issue - How will you wager?
Thomas V. Morris, in his excellent book, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, rightly observes that: "Pascal believed that each of us is either betting for God - betting that there is a God - or betting against God - betting that there is no God - by the way we are living right now. There is nothing equivalent to staying home from the track. Either we are living as if there is a God, praying, seeking to determine God's will, and trying to live in accordance with those determinations, or we are living as if there is no God...There is, according to Pascal, no middle ground. We already are making one bet or the other. Which is it? Which should it be? If we find that our answers to these two questions diverge, it is not too late to change our wager."
As you seek to finish well in life, where are you placing your wager?
The story is told of a young man who was writing a book about the people of Appalachia. As he made his way through a mountain valley, he noticed a large, old house with an old man sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair, with a cigar in his mouth. He thought to himself, "I ought to interview this old man to see what keeps him going, he's so old!" He sat down beside the old man and inquired, "Tell me, you men of Appalachia live to be so old, what's the secret?" The old man responded, "It's no secret to me!" The writer replied, "What do you mean?" To this the old man replied, "Well, I drink a quart of homemade whiskey every day, I smoke at least a half dozen cigars like these every day, and I chase women at night." With a look of astonishment, the young writer replied, "That's incredible! Just how old are you?" With a calmness in his voice, he said, "I'll be thirty-two this October..."
While most of us don't live life like this man from Appalachia, many of us lament the frantic pace of contemporary life as we seek that elusive thing called "Happiness." A new term has even been coined for our multi-tasking of various duties we juggle between work, family, and leisure: "time stacking." Time stackers are people who juggle multiple tasks at once, a behavior that has become rampant among business professionals. In their book a few years ago, Time for Life: The Surprising Way Americans Use Their Time, professors Geoffrey Godbey and John Robinson, having studied the time-diaries of over 8,000 people over past decades, discovered that with the advent of current technology and communication comes the heightened expectation of how productive we should be. Yet the more we busy our lives seeking fulfillment and happiness, pursuing success in this life, strangely, we are often met with a certain disillusionment and hollowness.
Writing over four centuries ago, Blaise Pascal, the French scientist and philosopher who was mentioned in another recent blog, left arguably his most profound legacy in his unfinished notes and essays collected and published after his death, known as the Pensees (loosely translated as "thoughts, meditations"). Pascal believed that, "If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it..." (#30), He further observed: "I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. A man wealthy enough for life's needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it...the only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and aggreable passion, which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short, by what is called diversion. That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office, are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness...what people want is not the peaceful life...That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. That is why men are so fond of the hustle and the bustle..."
These ponderings of Pascal are some of the most powerful and relevant for our modern culture, which largely seeks validation by worldly achievement and success. Ironically, our culture has more leisure than any generation that has come before us, and yet, are we truly happy or content? We run around, harried and hassled, and complaining that we never have enough time, though in reality we really don't want to simplify our lives. In actuality, we want the very thing we complain about. We gripe about not having enough time to kick back, unwind, and reflect, but for most of us, such a thing would be unbearable! Why? Because we seek to be diverted from thinking about transcendent things. We crave diversions to keep us from genuine solitude.
Peter Kreeft, in his remarkable book, Christianity for Modern Pagans, writes: "If you are typically modern, your life is like a rich mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiply diversions."
Most of us who have played golf would agree that there are many days when Mark Twain's famous quip is all too true: "Golf is a good walk spoiled." But as we prepare for the 2006 Masters at Augusta National, where the azaleas are in bloom and the weather is warming up, many are wondering who will be the favorite, especially when six holes have been altered in the past year to lengthen the course to a whopping 7,445 yards (155 yards longer than last year, 520 yards longer than in 1997). Even Nickaus and Palmer, longtime members of Augusta National, have captured pre-tournament headlines by complaining that the course is no longer the course they have known over the decades. Nicklaus, in an interview with Golf Digest that stunned everyone, including, it seems, the club, offered: "They've ruined it from a tournament standpoint."
Needless to say, Tiger seems to be the favorite, and by lengthening the course, and with his short game, most handicappers believe Augusta National has finally succeeded, not in Tiger-proofing the Masters, but in Tiger-sealing it, as only Tiger and a handful of long hitters are capable of winning. We'll see...BTW, you can watch every player play "Amen Corner Live" by webcast at the Tournament's official website, www.masters.org
But enough about the ongoing brouhaha surrounding this year's Masters Tournament. Here are a few interesting "Did You Knows?" about Alister MacKenzie, the golf course architect who designed Augusta National, taken from Geoff Shackelford's excellent article in the current Master's Preview issue (April 4th) of Sports Illustrated. The exquisite MacKenzie was born in 1870 in Yorkshire England, yet always considered himself a Scot. He was trained and first practiced medicine as a surgeon, but turned to being a full-time golf architect by 1920. MacKenzie built Augusta National during the Depression, and was paid only $5,000, because his original fee of $10,000 was halved by Clifford Roberts to get the struggling project started. While MacKenzie claimed to have designed as many as 400 courses (the number is more like 150!), his legacy lives on at such courses as the swank Jockey Club in Argentina; Pasatiempo, a semipublic course in Santa Cruz, California (where his ashes were scattered after his death); and the #2 ranked course in Golf's World Top Ten, Cypress Point, down the beach from Pebble. But it is Augusta National, designed with his friend Bobby Jones in 1931, that defined his legacy, whose inspiration had been the understated, wide-open Old Course at St. Andrews. Unfortunately, MacKenzie died of a heart attack on January 6th, 1934, less than four months before the first Masters was played.
While the history surrounding golf and the Masters is legendary, it goes without saying that the parallels between golf and our human condition have been well documented, it seems, from time immemorial. The mutual joys and frustrations of the game are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. In many ways, golf is the least precise game in the world, as golfers are rarely able to determine with any precision exactly WHY they are playing well or poorly. In his best-selling book, A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour, John Feinstein observes: "No one has the answers...Hard work can make you better but it won't always make you better. Sometimes, it will make you worse. Golf has no guarantees. And what makes it even more difficult, there are no excuses...No one ever gets a bad call in golf. No one strikes you out or tackles you or blocks your shot or hits a forehand so hard you can't get to it. The ball doesn't move and neither does the hole. You either get the ball into the hole quickly or not quickly enough. Period...There is no sport as solitary as golf. No sport humanizes you like golf."
And as few other sports, golf keeps track of every mistake. PGA tour player Billy Andrade, a friend to many MLB players, likes to tell them, "You can strike out your first three times up and still be a hero by hitting a homer your fourth time up. In golf, you make three errors and you're dead!" Or, as the legendary Sam Snead once chided Hall of Famer Ted Williams, "In golf, you have to play your foul balls."
In many ways, golf might even be considered a "spiritual" exercise. (You guys should get a lot of mileage out of this statement with your wives!) Why? Because it deflates our ego, and shows us how far we have to go. And while in many venues of life we may fool ourselves into thinking that we are really doing well, golf is not nearly as forgiving. In fact, golf may give us a glimpse of what we are really like, deep down in our souls:
"Most of us don't really know how well we're doing, in real life, and imagine we're doing not so bad. The world conspires to flatter us; only golf trusts us with a cruelly honest report on our performance. Only on the golf course is the feedback instantaneous and unrelenting...In the sound of the hit and the flight of the ball it tells us unflinchingly how we are doing, and we are rarely doing well." - John Updike, "Moral Exercise," from Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf
"Tell me: What came first, Easter or the egg?Crucifixion or daffodils? Three days in a tomb or four days in Paris? (returning Bank Holiday Monday).
When is a door not a door? When it is rolled away. When is a body not a body? When it is risen.
Behold I stand. Behold I stand and what? Behold I stand at the door and...
"Oh, you're real, you're real! Oh, Aslan! cried Lucy and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses. "But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer. "It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who has committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards." -C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
"Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body; if the cell's dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acides rekindle, the Church will fall...Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door... The stone is rolled back, not paper-mache', not a stone in a story, but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us the wide light of day." -from John Updike's, "Seven Stanzas at Easter."
"We want something else which can hardly be put into words - to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it...At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do no make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in." -C.S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory."
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep... Now if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins...If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied." -The apostle Paul to the Corinthians, 1 Corithians 15: 3-6, 14-19
"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man." - Mark Twain
"If God lived on earth, people would break His windows." - Yiddish proverb
If you've looked at the best-seller displays in a bookstore recently, you've undoubtedly seen Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life.The book reached The New York Times bestseller list in January, 2003, and is now closing in on 25 million copies being sold, and will eclipse this number soon enough. Jim Dailey, executve editor of Decision magazine, a publication of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, sat down recently and interviewed Warren. I think you will find highlights from his interview with Warren to be challenging and inspiring. While some may quibble with Warren on various matters, no one can deny that he challenges us to think deeply about our lives: Are we living lives of purpose? Are we preparing ourselves for eternity? Will we finish well?
A: First, it deals with the most fundamental issue of life, and that is, "What on earth am I here for?" Everybody is interested in the question of existence, which is "Why am I alive?"; the question of intention, which is "What is my purpose?"; and the question of significance, which is "Does my life matter?"
Second, it is extremely simple. I worked very hard to make the message simple and understandable. I don't think there is a single thing new in the book that hasn't already been said in classic Christian books. It's just that each generation has to hear it again - that we are here for worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, and ministry.
Third, the book is kind of the "anti-self-help book." The first line in the book reads, "It's not about you." It's funny that it is considered a self-help book. Try to name another self-help book that starts with "It's not about you." I think people are tired of self-centered, narcissistic culture. They are saying, "There's got to be something bigger than my own self-fulfillment in life." And, of course, there is. We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn't going to make sense.
A: Yes. People ask me, "What is the purpose of life?" And I respond, "In a nutshell, life is preparation for eternity." We were made to last forever, and God wants us to be with Him in Heaven. One day my heart is going to stop, and that will be the end of my body - but not the end of me...This is a warm-up act, the dress rehearsal. God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity.
A: It takes both discipline and habit. Life is a series of problems: either you are in one now, you're just coming out of one, or you're getting ready to go into another one. The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort, in making your life holy rather than making your life happy...This past year has been the greatest year of my life - but also the toughest, with my wife, Kay, getting cancer. I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth.
I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for. You can focus on your purposes, or you can focus on your problems. If you focus on your problems, you're going into self-centeredness, which is my problems, my issues, my pain. But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others.
A: Ask yourself, "Am I going to live for possessions? Popularity? Am I going to be driven by pressures? Guilt? Bitterness? Materialism? Or am I going to be driven by God's purposes? When I get up in the morning, I sit on the side of my bed and say, "God, if I don't get anything done today, I want to know You more and love You better." At the end of the day, if I've done that, the day was a success. On the other hand, if I get to the end of the day and I haven't gotten to know God better and love Him more, I just missed the first purpose of life, and I've wasted the day. God didn't put me on earth just to fulfill a to-do list. He's more interested in what I am than what I do. That's why we're called human beings, not human doings.
The recent release of the controversial screen adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling fictional novel, The Da Vinci Code, has opened to staggering numbers worldwide. Since it's opening on May 19th, it has grossed some $146 million in the domestic market, and $319 million on foreign soil. And unless you have been abducted by aliens for months, or have been bidding your time in a cave away from television and media, it is hardly possible that you are unaware of the theological brouhaha that has been stirred by Brown's novel and, in recent days, Ron Howard's faithful screen adaptation.
While such an uproar might be surprising if the work was meant to be considered a work of pure fiction, the book begins with a page labeled "FACT," in which Brown claims, among other things, that "all descriptions of...documents...in this novel are accurate." While this gives the reader the false impression that the novel is based upon sound historical research, many scholars (not just Christians) have come out of the woodwork to show where Dan Brown is wrong.
While a complete summation of the book and film is beyond our scope (a cottage industry of books have spawned recently as theological correctives to Brown's novel), let's touch on some of the underlying tenets and conjectures of Brown. Much of the novel's claims are focused on the supposed "greatest cover-up in human history," that there was, centuries ago, an organization that kept secret certain truths about early Christianity, but which has been "hushed up" by the power-brokers of the Catholic Church. Some of these "secret truths" include: 1) that the early church never really considered Jesus Christ to be divine (but only a good man) until the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century (yet this is patently false, as our earliest New Testament documents of our Bible would suggest otherwise) ; 2) that the canonical Gospels of our Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are not our earliest Gospels, but instead the suppressed Gnostic "gospels" (such as the Gospel of Philip or Mary) are our earliest and most authoritative sources, but that they were supressed by Constantine at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Again, it is simply untrue that the Gnostic Gospels were suppressed prior to the formation of the New Testament canon - the "books" in our Bible. They just were not recognized as authoritative by the early church, but the lack of recognition is not the same as suppression.
A third conjecture of Brown's The Da Vinci Code is that Jesus was married - and to Mary Magdalene at that, and that their marriage produced children. Brown's hero Teabing argues that the early Church had to hush up such a notion that Jesus was married because "a child of Jesus would undermine the crucial notion of Christ's divinity and therefore the Christian Church." Even though, a priori, there is no reason why Jesus could not have been married, as Jesus did not teach that sex was defiling (indeed, He speaks of it as the means by which the man and woman become one flesh as God intended, see Mark 10), because the New Testament is completely silent on this issue, most Biblical scholars, even those of a liberal mindset, see this as a far-fetched idea.
"Everybody loves a conspiracy," the saying goes. And it is not hard to see why this kind of work is having such an impact in our postmodern culture, where it is the power of the rhetoric, and not the accuracy of the reporting, that matters most. Robert Langdon, the hero of Brown's book, himself stresses that "every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of fatih - acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration...the problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors...those who understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical." While it is true that sometimes the truths of the Bible are expressed in symbols and metaphors, the Gospel stories themselves are not simply allegories, or cleverly devised tales (see 2 Peter 1:16). Rather, they are ancient biographies written according to the literary and historical conventions of the time, and as such, are the reports of eyewitnesses to historical facts.
Joseph Loconte's excellent article, "Debunking the Debunkers," that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on the day The Da Vinci Code opened in theaters, provides a fitting response to those distressed by Dan Brown's novel. Loconte reminds us of C.S. Lewis, the former atheist-turned-Christian apologist, who not only exposed the fault lines of modern secular thought, but also likewise saw the weaknesses of the church with great clarity. There are few things more corruptible, Lewis observed, than religious belief and practice. "We must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better," he wrote a friend, "it makes him very much worse." Books and films of the ilk of TDC have a great appeal for people who are acutely aware of the historic shortcomings of the church, and Lewis was familiar with them as well. "If ever the book which I am not going to write is written," Lewis cautioned, "it must be the full confession by Christendom to Christendom's specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty."
And yet, as Loconte reminds us, "Lewis would insist that a confession of Christianity's sins does not absolve us of the obligation to think: conspiracy theories are no substitute for calm and clear arguments about matters of faith." In one of Lewis' many brilliant essays, "Fern Seeds and Elephants," he debunked the critics of his own day - those who held that the Gospels were the product of myth, legend, and outright deception. He began by drawing attention to what he called the "shattering immediacy" of the Gospel stories, the often brash realism of Jesus' encounters with ordinary, simple people. Likewise, Lewis would also probably point out that theories about great "cover-ups" presented in such novels as TDC ignore an "elephant-sized" fact - that there are also many people and events reported in the Bible that are, to be quite candid, embarassing to believers. Do you recall that the lineage of Jesus Christ includes Rahab, who was a prostitute? Or what are we to make of Israel's history which presents a rather unflattering portrayal of great King David, who was both an adulterer and a murderer? Why did the earliest Christians not excise these characters and events from their story?
As Loconte concludes, "Here is the real harm of these modern conspiracy theories: They may appeal to our emotions, but they violate our common sense. They reject reason, just as surely as they reject revelation. 'I do not wish to reduce the skeptical element in your minds,' Lewis explained. 'I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else.'
Sound advice for the skeptics as well as the faithful.
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In Woody Allen's film, Love and Death, listen to the conversation between Allen's character, Boris, and Diane Keaton's character, Sonia, as Allen waxes philosophical about God's existence: Boris: "Sonia, what if there is no God?" Sonia: "Boris Demitrovich, are you joking?" Boris: "What if we're just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?" Sonia: "But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?" Boris: "Well, let's not get hysterical; I could be wrong. I'd hate to blow by brains out and then read in the papers they'd found something."
One of the recurring themes in Love and Death is Boris' quest to receive some kind of sign from God: "If I could see a miracle, just one miracle. If I could see a burning bush, or the seas part, or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check." In Allen's Broadway Danny Rose, Allen's character tries to convince the cynical Tina about the importance of guilt. After all, his rabbi has told him that we are all "guilty in the eyes of God." Tina asks him, "Do you believe in God?" To which Danny replies, "No, but I feel guilty about it." To Allen, there is no convincing proof of God's existence. only uncertainly and wishful thinking, and in the end, humor to stave off the isolation of being alone - adrift in the cosmos.
While Allen and other filmakers often explore issues of God and faith, and whether He even exists, an article in the June 11th issue of The Sunday Times told of another story, that of a scientist who has come to believe in God. Francis Collins, the director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, believes that there is a reasonable basis for belief in a Creator, and that scientific discoveries actually "bring men closer to God."
His book, The Language of God (to be published in September) will again renew the age-old debate concerning the relationship between science and faith. Collins believes that "one of the greatest tragedies of our time is the impression that has been created that science and religion have to be at war." Collins continues, "I don't see that as necessary at all and I think it is deeply disappointing that the shrill voices that occupy the extremes of this spectrum have dominated the stage for the past twenty years."
The fifty-six year old scientist offers that when he was part of the team in unravelling the human genome, it did not create a conflict in his mind between faith and his belief in God, but rather, it served as his "glimpse" into the workings of God: "When you make a breakthrough it is a moment of scientific exhilaration because you have been on this search and seem to have found it. But it is also a moment where I at least feel closeness to the Creator in the sense of having now perceived something that no human knew before but God knew all along. When you have for the first time in front of you this 3.1 billion-letter instruction book that conveys all kinds of information and all kinds of mystery about humankind, you can't survey that...without a sense of awe."
Collins was not always a believer in God. He describes himself as an atheist until the age of twenty-seven, when as a young doctor he was impressed by the strong faith of some of his most critical patients. " They had terrible diseases from which they were probably not going to escape, and yet instead of railing at God they seemed to lean on their faith as a source of great comfort and reassurance...That was interesting, puzzling, and unsettling."
When he visited a Methodist minister to discuss the matter, he was given a copy of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, which argued that God's existence is at least a reasonable possibility. The book, as the Times article mentions, transformed his life: "It was an argument I was not prepared to hear. I was very happy with the idea that God didn't exist, and had no interest in me. And yet at the same time, I could not turn away." His "epiphany" came when he was hiking through the Cascade Mountains in Washington state: "It was a beautiful afternoon and suddenly the remarkable beauty of creation around me was so overwhelming, I felt, 'I cannot resist this another moment'."
Collins, of course, joins a great chorus of famous scientists whose practice of science actually deepened their faith in God. Isaac Newton, whose work dealing with the laws of gravity has shaped our understanding of the universe, declared: "This most beautiful system could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being." And Einstein, who believed the universe had a Creator, once declared, "I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details."
"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!"
(Psalm 8: 3-9, a psalm of King David)
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I think it was Tolstoy who observed, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." If you are like me, change is not something one embraces so naturally. And while we are constantly confronted with "performance" in our culture (bonus incentives, performance reviews, an investment vehicle's year-to-date performance, etc.), there is another kind of "checkup" that is worth considering. I'm referring to a "heart" checkup. A few years ago, best-sellling author Phillip Yancey wrote of a spiritual checkup that he scheduled, conducted in part with a silent retreat for a number of days (led by a spiritual director, no less). After the retreat, Yancey observed, "In those days of silence and solitude, I paid attention to what might need to change in order to keep my soul in shape. The more I listened, the longer the list grew." Of the list Yancey came up with, we'll here consider five of the takeaways he came up with, kind of a "spiritual action plan" for the next fifty years.
First, "Come to God with your own troubles, as well as the world's." Yancey confesses that he needed to find a better balance between the need for personal serenity and a proper concern about global hunger, injustice, and other issues. "I look at the example of Jesus, who surely cared about similar matters while on earth. As he said to the anxiety-prone, 'Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.'"
Second, "Question your doubts as much as your faith." Many people, particularly Christians, struggle with their doubts, sometimes about God's existence, His character, etc. Yet we need to remember that doubts are not such a bad thing. Frederick Buechner has observed that doubts are like "ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving!" Yancey admits that, "by personality, or perhaps my fundamentalist past, I brood on doubts and experience faith in occasional flashes. Isn't it about time for me to reverse the pattern?"
Third, "Do not attempt this journey alone. Find companions who see you as a pilgrim, even a straggler, and not as a guide." Yancey, like many Protestants, confesses that he suffers a serious case of Lone Ranger Christianity - trying to do it alone. Yet the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, tells the story of the people of God, and even the epistles of the New Testament address communities of faith. Yancey observes, "We have little guidance on how to live as a follower alone because God never intended it."
Fourth, "Allow the good - natural beauty, your health, encouraging words - to penetrate as deeply as the bad." As a writer, Yancey laments, "Why does it take seventeen encouraging letters from readers to overcome the effect of one that is caustic and critical? If I awoke every morning, and fell asleep each night, bathed in a sense of gratitude and not self-doubt, the in-between hours would doubtless take on a different cast."
Fifth, "For your own sake, simplify. Eliminate whatever distracts you from God." Needless to say, in a culture steeped in diversions (Pascal would say this is so we won't be reminded of our unhappiness!), this one is HUGE. Among the things Yancey mentions, he suggests that we adopt a "ruthless winnowing of mail, and giving catalogs, junk mail, and book (and video?) club notices no more time than it takes to toss them in the trash." His last sentence? "If I ever get the nerve, my television set should probably land there as well." But what in the world, might I ask, would we do with our leisure if we didn't have television?
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In last week's blog, we considered five takeaways that writer Philip Yancey came up with during a personal retreat that he conducted a few years ago. In reflecting on his silent retreat, Yancey remarked,"In those days of silence and solitude, I paid attention to what might need to change in order to keep my soul in shape. The more I listened, the longer the list grew." Here are the remaining observations he made, something of a "spiritual action plan" for Yancey, and ourselves, to ponder.
Sixth, "Find what Eric Liddell found: something that allows you to feel God's pleasure." In the film, Chariots of Fire, when the sprinter's sister worried that his participation in the Olympics might sidetrack his missionary career, you'll remember Liddell responded: "God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure." What makes me feel God's pleasure? What significant purpose was I made for? What do I truly have a passion for? I must identify it, and then run.
Seventh, "Always 'err,' as God does, on the side of freedom, mercy, and compassion." Yancey writes, "I continue to marvel at the humility of a sovereign God who descends to live inside us, His flawed creatures." Paul writes in the New Testament, "Quench not the Spirit," and in another place, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit." In so many words, the God of all power asks us not to hurt Him. Do I show that same humble, noncoercive attitude toward people of whom I disapprove?
Eighth, "Don't be ashamed." Paul declared to the church in Rome, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel" (Romans 1:16). More often than not, many of us tend to speak in generalities when the subject of our Christian faith comes up in casual conversation. Amidst a culture where the Christian faith is increasingly marginalized, what does it look like in your own world to be bold in your faith? When and where am I most prone to "be ashamed"?
Ninth, "Remember, those Christians who peeve you so much - God chose them too." I don't know about you, but I find it much easier to show grace and acceptance toward people who make no claim to be a Christian, than hypocritical, often uptight, judgmental Christians. Of course, this makes me into a different kind of uptight, judgmental Christian!
Tenth, "Forgive, daily, those who caused the wounds that keep you from wholeness." Yancey writes, "I find that our wounds are the very things God uses in His service. By harboring blame for those who caused them, I slow the act of redemption that can give the wounds worth and value, and ultimately healing."
So which of these do I need to turn my attention to today?
"We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself."
"Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. but the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding."
"In the same way the suddeness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light. Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul."
"Now that cellar is out of reach of my conscious will. I can to some extent control my acts: I have no direct control over my temperament. And if (as I said before) what we are matters even more than what we do - if, indeed, what we do matters chiefly as evidence of what we are - then it follows that the change which I most need to undergo is a change that my own direct, voluntary efforts cannot bring about. And this applies to my good actions too. How many of them were done for the right motive? How many for fear of public opinion, or a desire to show off? How many from a sort of obstinacy or sense of superiority which, in different circumstances, might equally have led to some very bad act?"
"...After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God."
-C.S. Lewis, from the chapter, "Let's Pretend," in Mere Christianity
One of the things I've come to realize about our ability as men to finish well in life is our need for genuine reflection. One of my favorite authors over the years who has helped me in this endeavor is the novelist Frederick Buechner. The widely celibrated writer has penned over thirty-two novels and memoirs to date, and has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. But Buechner is not your typical writer. His "religious" writings do not seem religious. He has an almost irreverent edge in his writings, which I find attractive, despite his liberal-leaning theology. While he and his wife live on a hilltop in Vermont, in what he calls "fathomless obscurity," for many Christians he has become a celebrity. Buechner's most recent publication is titled, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, a collection of his sermons over the past fifty years. Earlier this year, he was honored at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and was interviewed by Bob Abernethy, anchor of the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Here are some of his observations from that interview, as well as an article out of The Washington Times.
Q: What do you see as the most important theme, the most important thread running through everything?
A: In various places, I think the phrase "listen to your life." Pay attention to what happens to you. Pay attention to who you see. Pay attention to what you say, what they say. Pay attention to what the day feels like. Observe. That wonderful phrase, "religious observances," means, among other things, just what it says. Observe relgiously. Observe deeply. Don't just get through your life, as all of us are inclined to do, on automatic pilot, not much noticing anything.
Q: How do you keep your faith in spite of so much suffering in the world?
A: Well, it is in spite of it. You can't pretend it doesn't exist. You can't somehow theologize it away, as people have tried to do...This is the shadow side. There is the great remark of Tillich, "Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is an element of faith." How can I hold these things together? I have no formula for doing that. But my answer to myself is, don't give up hope. God is in all those things. The holier, "the More," transcends all of the wretchedness that goes on in the world.
Q: There's a lovely phrase you have used someplace comparing death next to life. What is it?
A: It's from a novel I wrote called GODRIC, told in the voice of an 11th-century English monk and mystic named Godric - at the end of his days, in words he speaks that I in a sense put into his mouth...he said as an old, old man who had lost almost everything, "What's lost is nothing to what's found, and all the death that ever was set next to life would scarely fill a cup."
Q: Have you eveer been depressed or in despair?
A: Clinically depressed? No. John Updike says God saves His deepest silence for His saints. I've never believed there is no God but I've wondered if it can be true, considering all the wretched things in this world, that it is presided over by a loving and powerful God.
Q: What is your greatest regret?
A: That I have not been braver, stronger and wiser. I regret that I've not been a saint. A saint is a life giver. To be in the presence of a saint is to be more aware of the richness and the depths of life...
Due to the feedback from last week's blog on Frederick Buechner, it seemed fitting to share some of his musings on faith and life:
"There is little we can point to in our lives as deserving anything but God's wrath. Our best moments have been mostly grotesque parodies. Our best loves have been almost always blurred wtih selfishness and deceit. But there is something to which we can point. Not anything that we ever did or were, but something that was done for us by another. Not our own lives, but the life of one who died in our behalf and yet is still alive. This is our only glory and our only hope. And the sound that it makes is the sound of excitement and gladness and laughter that floats through the night air from a great banquet. It is what Christians mean by salvation, and we saw it first at Emmaus, through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Some forty-three years ago, on November 22, 1963, three remarkably famous men (but for very different reasons) died within hours of each other. These three men were the philosopher Aldous Huxley, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. While the world watched in horror of Kennedy's assassination, the other two notable personalities quietly exited the world with little fanfare.
Historians to this day debate the Kennedy legacy. During his life he achieved tremendous worldwide popularity, and his life seemed to symbolize a mythical Camelot. It is interesting that while Kennedy's "New Frontier" saw the American space program as the needed answer to Sputnik, Huxley and Lewis had serious misgivings about the totalitarian effect of technological development. While George Orwell in his 1984 imagined a world characterized by totalitarian slavery, Huxley, in his most famous novel, Brave New World (1932), pictured a humanity that could be conditioned to mindlessly embrace slavery (Some argue that BNW grows more plausible each year). Lewis would echo a similar sentiment about the dark irony of technology, which while promising freedom, in the end takes it away, in his work, The Abolition of Man (1943).
Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, penned an imaginary after-death dialog between these three men which he titled, Between Heaven and Hell. Kreeft's writing style is amusing, as the three men discuss various theological and philosophical perspectives. All three believed, in different ways, that death is not the end of human life. Kreeft presents these three as participating in The Great Conversation that continues to go on over many centuries, presenting Kennedy at a modern humanist, Huxley as an Eastern pantheist, and Lewis as a Christian theist.
The years have diminished Kennedy and Huxley, as Kennedy's habitual indiscretions have been well documented, and Huxley, toward the end of his life, retreated into drugs. He urged his followers, "Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can't be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma."
In contrast, Lewis believed in a muscular Christianity that inspired hope not only for this life, but for a life to come: "In Christ," he said, "a new kind of man appeared; and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us." "God," he contended, "cannot give us peace and happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." While Huxley and Kennedy would have given little serious consideration of Lewis' staunch Christian faith, it was Lewis, in his early thirties, who came "kicking and screaming" (his words) into God's kingdom, as he was confronted with the Truth of what he would term "mere" Christianity.
Walter Hooper, Lewis' literary secretary who has served as editor of the Lewis Estate since Lewis' death, is surely right when he observes in the Preface to Lewis' collection of essays, "Christian Reflections," that "the central premise of all Lewis' theological works - a premise implicit - is that all men are immortal. While this may strike the thoughtful christian as a fundamental tenet, the fact that men are immortal is news to many people today. The contemporary preoccupation with "individual rights" and "freedom" has deceived many to imagine we can invent our own theology in lieu of Lewis' orthodox belief in a real Heaven and Hell.
What kind of vision do we have of life? How should our vision impact the way we treat others? Is it possible to truly finish well in life without such a belief that we, and others, will live forever?
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of those destinations...There are no ordinary people. You have never talked with a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."
-C.S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory"
Once upon a time there was a king who dearly loved a peasant maid. The king had a few options available to him. First, he could bring the maiden to live with him in his royal palace. But that wouldn't do, for finding herself suddenly surrounded by the splendor and pomp of the palace, she might easily begin to think too highly of herself. And since love desires no vanity, the king couldn't take that risk.
A second option for the king was to visit his beloved in all his pomp and glory to receive her obeisance and worship. She might be happy enough with this - who wouldn't be thrilled by such a visit? But because love desires unity, and as long as they maintained the distinction between king and subject, they could never experience unity.
A third way open to the monarch would be to disguise himself as a beggar (as fairy-tale kings sometimes do) before visitng her in her hovel. But the king would certainly be found out, for respectable young kings are not brought up to act like serfs. In this case, love would be frustrated by deceit and uncertainty.
No, there was only one way the king could achieve unity with his beloved and not threaten their relationship with vanity, separation or deceit. The king had to join the maiden in her humble station. There could be no play-acting, no disguise. It had to be the real thing. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote this parable to illustrate the Incarnation, God's becoming man. "Love does not alter the beloved," concluded Kierkegaard, "it alters itself."
Kierkegaard's story embodies God's logic in Christmas, our celebration of Jesus Christ, the Messiah's birth. Love was the motivation of the Incarnation ("God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son," John 3:16); Self-revelation was its purpose ("The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us," John 1:14); and unity was its goal ("Yet to all who received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God," John 1:12). Given those three things--love, self-revelation and unity--God's only option to reach out to His beloved humanity was to become one of us, even to the point of dying the lowest form of death we could die. That was no shame, no theatrical performance, but the real thing.
"The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God." -C.S. Lewis
The Oxford don C.S. Lewis, although he died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley (November 22nd, 1963), continues to impact millions of people through his writings, and the award-winning movie Shadowlands, based on his life (starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger) has brought much acclaim his way. Lewis, a devout atheist until his early thirties, became a follower of Christ, and through his writings in subsequent years, was often referred to as the "apostle to the skeptics" for our contemporary world. Anthony Burgess, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said of Lewis: "C.S. Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way." Here are a few of his insightful thoughts about life and faith.
"The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in..." -"Is Christianity Hard or Easy?", Mere Christianity
"The Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one...but the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a green house does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it." - "The Practical Conclusion," Mere Christianity
"I know all about the despair of overcoming chronic temptation. It is not serious, provided self-offended petulance, impatience, etc., don't get the upper hand. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one's temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present with us: it is the very sign of His presence..." -Letter to a former pupil, 20 January, 1942, from Letters of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper
"When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good. a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right...Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either." -"Morality and Psychoanalysis," Mere Christianity
"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. -"Hope," Mere Christianity
"At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in." -"The Weight of Glory," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses
-Why not forward this to someone who would enjoy Lewis' thoughts about faith!
So what did Galileo, Plato, Einstein, and Edison have in common? The makers of the "underground" movie, "The Secret," say they all used a simple philosophy to achieve success in life, and they claim, it can work for everyone! At schools, community centers, and homes, people are flocking to see a film that promises revelations to change their lives. Mysteriously, albeit intentionally, it cannot be seen in theaters. Thanks to an ingenious viral video marketing campaign using a grassroots, word-of-mouth strategy and the Internet, its producers say that millions have already learned a secret that has existed, according to the tagline, "and travelled through the centuries to reach you." The film also suggests that there has been a conspiracy to keep this central principle hidden from the public (remind you of another film suggesting conspiracy theories?).
Today, the controversial self-help book (also a DVD), has hit No. 1 on USA Today's Bestselling Books list. Authored by Australian reality-TV producer Rhonda Byrne, the book has been touted on television by the likes of Oprah Winfrey (last week) and Larry King in two episodes of his Larry King Live Show last November. The premise of both the book and film is that the "Law of Attraction" holds the key to the universe, and ultimately, to our happiness. If we think positively, and focus on them intently, we become the magnet that pulls everything we want toward us. But if our thoughts are negative, the Law of Attraction suggests, then we will attract bad things into our lives.
Perhaps two of the most disturbing and controversial aspects of the book and film deal with the mind's power over health, and the use of ancient wisdom and magic to acquire material goods. With respect to health, Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder of Agape International Spiritual Center, is quoted: "I've seen kidneys regenerated. I've seen cancer dissolved." Concerning ancient wisdom to acquire material goods, a kid in the film who wants a red BMX bicycle cuts out a picture in a catalog, concentrates real hard, and is rewarded with the spiffy two-wheeler!
In many ways, such thinking observed in The Secret may seem "new," but it is actually as old as the human race. For from our very origin, humanity has been faced with the temptation (as our ancestors were tested by the Tempter in the Garden, Genesis 3), to either live life autonomously, free from the benevolent hand of the Creator, or to live in obedience to His revealed will. When it comes down to it, there are only two choices: to conform our soul to reality, or to conform reality to our wishes.This Human Potential Movement, popularized in The Secret, seeks to gain the world at the expense of obedience to God and His revealed truth. C.S. Lewis made this important distinction in his work, The Abolition of Man;
"For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virture. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique..."
The great Russian writer Dostoevsky penned these famous words over one hundred years ago, "If there is no God, then all things are permitted." When he wrote these words, I doubt that he knew how far reaching their influence would be, for even to this day, the phrase captures the Great Divide between the house of Faith and the house of Unbelief. Filmmaker Woody Allen echoes Dostoevsky's sentiment in arguably his best film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, mimicking Dostoevsky's great novel, and raising such perennial questions as: can a man commit a heinous deed and live with himself? Is there such a thing as legitimate guilt? Is our world truly a moral universe, where we will be held accountable for our actions in this world? Do things really matter in this life?
These kinds of questions come to mind in the light of the New Atheism that is rearing its ugly head in recent days, led by such notables as the Oxford scholar Richard Dawkins, the leading evangelist for the Church of Unbelief. Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, has been a bestseller on The New York Times, was interviewed in the November, 2006 issue of Wired Magazine, and his vitriolic disdain for Christianity is undeniable. In the article, "The Church of the Non-Believers," Dawkins, who serves at Oxford as the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, opines that "the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism...the 'sensible' (he pauses to indicate it should be in quotes) religious people are really on the side of fundamentalists, because they believe in supernaturalism. That puts me on the other side."
It is important to understand that this new vanguard of New Atheists does not have a problem with any specific Christian doctrine, but with religion in general. As Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers." Dawkins prides himself on mudding the water, choosing to see no apparent difference between religious fanaticism and a reasonable, defensible Christian theism.
I wonder, though, if these New Atheists (who are really not 'new') have thought deeply about the consequences of a Godless world. For without God, can there truly be any basis for morality? Without God, is there a reason for believing that somehow, someway, this life's shattered hopes, disappointments, and frustrations will be made right in another world? Do not our deepest and most noble thoughts and aspirations "argue" for a better world to come, where True Goodness has its way? Writer Frederick Buechner expresses so beautifully the dilemma of the atheist:
"A true atheist is one who is willing to face the full consequences of what it means to say there is no God. To say there is no God means among other things that there are no Absolute Standards...To be consistent with his creed, an atheist can say no more than that to beat a child to death is wrong with a small w. Wrong because it is cruel, ugly, inhuman, pointless, illegal, and makes the gorge rise. But what is apt to rise along with the gorge is the suspicion that it is wrong also with a capital W--the suspicion that the law that has been broken here is not just a human law but a law as immutable as the law of gravity...A true atheist takes man's freedom very seriously. With no God to point the way, man must find his own way. With no God to save the world, man must save his own world if it's going to be saved. He must save it from himself if nothing else. A true atheist does no dance on the grave of God."
I think Dostoevsky was right.
March Madness. In nineteen days, sixty-three college basketball games will be played, all with a view to crowning the men's national champion in Atlanta on Monday evening, April 2nd. Over the years we have even coined the word, "bracketology," to describe the art of choosing who we like in the tournament. NCAAsports.com has free March Madness On Demand streaming video. Sportsfan.com and cbs.sportsline.com lets you create a paperless pool, so you can personalize your site with team logo while tracking online the different outcomes of NCAA games.
The numbers are staggering. Seventy-nine percent of workers participate in office pools. It is estimated that it will cost employers $237 million for every 13.5 minutes workers spend on the Internet tracking games, and it is estimated that a total of $1.2 billion will be lost in worker productivity during the tournament. And get this. An estimated $4 billion to $5 billion wil be wagered on the tournament this year - about a third on the Internet. And when the games are over, distractions could linger. Apple Computer is offering condensed versions of each game through its iTunes Music Store for $1.99.
Who is the favorite to cut down the nets in Atlanta on April 2nd? USA Today analyst Danny Sheridan has listed North Carolina and Florida as 3-1 favorites to win it all. The Badgers of Wisconsin are 10-1 odds, and the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech are 200-1 favs. He has Jackson State listed as a 50 sextillion-to-1 favorite to cut down the nets. "In case you don't know, sextillion is a 1 followed by 21 zeroes," Sheridan said. "Somebody actually called me and said I shouldn't be bringing sex into the NCAA tournament." Hmmm...
In many ways, life itself is One Big Gamble. Nothing we do that is of any importance carries with it a guarantee of success, nor is there anything we can do to assure even our own personal safety and well-being from day to day. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and Christian apologist, was the Danny Sheridan of 17th century France, and was known for his famous Wager Theory on God's existence. Pascal wrote: "Either God is or He is not. But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance, a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?"
Pascal believed that each of us is either betting for God, that He exists, or betting against God, that He does not exist, by the way we are living right now. To Pascal, there is no eqivalent to staying home from the track, or more apropos to March Madness, not placing our bets. There is no middle ground. In fact, we are already making one bet or the other. Which is it? Which should it be?
So what does the atheist "win" if he bets that there is no God, and he is right? Presumably, one "benefit" will be that he will never know that he was right. For if there is no God, there probably is no life beyond the grave, or existence of an individual's consciousness after death. True, he derives a certain freedom from his wager to do whatever he wishes. He can design his own lifestyle. But he is a person focused entirely on this world, since he believes it to be the only world there is.
For the Christian who bets on God, he will at least enjoy the satisfaction of finding out that he was right. And even if he were to "lose" the bet over whether there is a God, he would not be forced to face his error. For if there is no God and no existence beyond death, he could never have an experience beyond death that will disappoint. Atheism brings with it, at best, only a finite expectation, whereas Christian theism carries with it an infinite Expected Value. No disparity could possibly be greater. Therefore, says Pascal, a rational gambler will bet on God.
The Christian "wagerer" will conduct his or her life in such a way that he begins to gain a new measure of control over his passions, however imperfect that control may yet be. He will also have a transcendent and meaningful purpose for living, and a source of psychological comfort in this world of turnoil and pain. T.S. Eliot once observed, "I had rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end."
I think he was on to something...
A number of years ago, writer Philip Yancey alluded to the Southern novelist Walker Percy, who began his remarkable book, The Message in the Bottle, with a series of questions, six pages of questions in all, including the following: "Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth (or for us, the twenty-first) century? Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?"
Percy continues, "Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?"
Yancey's article, following Percy's interrogative style, got me
thinking about some of my own questions, many of which relate to faith,
but others to just life in general. But all, without attempting any
• Why is it that the more translations of the Bible we have, the less it is read?
• Why is it that only about 10 percent of the Bible (the Epistles) is written in a straightforward, didactic form, while the rest of the Bible relies more on indirect forms, such as poetry, history, and prophetic visions? Why are probably 90 percent of the sermons we hear preached in conservative, evangelical churches based on that 10 percent?
• Why do most of us look at financial wealth and prosperity as a blessing from the hand of God, while financial hardship or poverty is seen as a "testing" from God? Why does the Bible sometimes consider the former as a test, and the latter as a blessing?
• If Anna Karenina had had a cellphone on the train, would Tolstoy's novel have been 800 pages long?
• What in the world is the Book of Ecclesiastes doing in the Bible? Why do so few sermons get preached on Ecclesiastes? Why did Solomon, who displayed great wisdom in writing not only Ecclesiastes, but much of the Proverbs, spend the last years of his life breaking all the wisdom in the proverbs?
• Why does a country like Sweden, with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, also have a high suicide rate? Is there a connection?
• What is the Song of Solomon doing in the Bible? Why is the Song of Solomon, alone of all Biblical books, interpreted allegorically when the Bible gives us little basis for an allegorical intent? How did a religion that includes a book like the Song of Solomon among its sacred writings ever get branded as an enemy of sex?
• If America is a "Christian" nation, how is it that the majority of its citizens cannot name the Ten Commandments, or the four Gospels?
• Why do sinners feels so attracted to Jesus, but so repulsed by the church?
• What did Jesus write on the ground when the woman caught in adultery (John 8) was brought before Him?
• Has anyone ever proposed an argument against a loving God that does not appear in some form in the Book of Job? Why is the Book of Job in the Bible? Why didn't God answer Job's questions? Why didn't Job seem to care?
• Why do so few Christians exhibit joy? Would a joyful person look more like Mother Teresa or Angelina Jolie?
• What did Aristotle mean when he observed, "Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions." (Metaphysics, II, (iii), i). What relevance does his question have for us?
• And one last question. If Jesus is the answer, then what's the question?
The story is told of Billy Graham, the aging evangelist now in his eighties and suffering from Parkinson's Disease, who a few years ago, was invited by the leaders of Charlotte, North Carolina, to a luncheon in his honor. Graham, Charlotte's favorite son, at first hesitated to accept the invitation because of his struggles with Parkinson's Disease, but then agreed after the Charlotte leaders told him, "We don't expect a major address. Just come and let us honor you." So he agreed.
After wonderful things were said about him, Dr. Graham stepped to the rostrum, looked at the crowd, and told them this story:
I'm reminded today of Albert Einstein, the great physicist who this month has been honored by Time Magazine as the Man of the Century. Einstein was once traveling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of the passengers. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn't find his ticket, so he reached in his trouseer pockets. It wasn't there, so he looked in his briefcase, but couldn't find it. Then he looked it the seat beside him, but still couldn't find it.
The conductor said, "Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket. Don't worry about it."
Einstein nodded appreciatively, and the conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move on to the next car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket.
The conductor rushed back and said, "Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don't worry! I know who you are. No problem. You don't need a ticket. I'm sure you bought one."
Einstein looked at him and said, "Young man, I too, know who I am. What I don't know is where I'm going."
Having told this story of Einstein, Graham continued: "See the suit I'm wearing? It's a brand new suit. My wife, my children, and my grandchildren are telling me I've gotten a little slovenly in my old age. I used to be a bit more fastidious. So I went out and bought a new suit for this luncheon and one more occasion...and do you know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I'll be buried. But when you hear I'm dead, I don't want you to immediately think about the suit I'm wearing. I want you to remember this:
I not only know who I am...I also know where I'm going...."
"Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." -Paul's words to the Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
"There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what we want. The other is getting it." -Oscar Wilde
In Jonathan Clements' most recent column for The Wall Street Journal, "No Satisfaction: Why What You Have Is Never Enough," he tackles this age old problem of finding happiness. He observes that, "We may have life and liberty, but the pursuit of happiness isn't going so well. As a country, we are richer than ever. Yet surveys show that Americans are no happier that they were 30 years ago. The key problem: We aren't very good at figuring out what will make us happy."
We can all identify with the elusive pursuit of happiness. We invariably hanker for the fancier car, bigger stock portfolio, or fatter paychecks. And some of us have, or have friends, who have "cashed out," selling their businesses, and we admire them, thinking to ourselves, "If only that could be me." Yet, as we sometimes observe, some of the most miserable people in the world are those with the greatest net worth. And even in our own lives, when "having more" may initially boost our happiness, soon the glow of satisfaction fades, and we find ourselves yearning for something more.
Clements mentions two explanations, supposedly from the "experts," on why we keep striving after things. The first is that "we aren't built to be happy, but rather to survive and reproduce." This is a kind of "evolutionary" take on our quest for happiness, and sees our pursuit of happiness as a biological "tease," a trick to jolly us along. Terry Burnham, a Boston money manager and co-author of "Mean Genes," suggests that the promise of happiness "is an incentive scheme for the benefit of our genes...it's a very fundamental trick that's played on us, this lure of perpetual bliss."
The second explanation is that we're just bad at forecasting, or predicting, what will make us happy. Two academics, Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, conducted a study where they asked university students in the Midwest and Southern California where they thought someone like themselves would be happier--and both groups picked California, primarily because of the weather. Yet, when asked how satisfied they were with their own lives, both groups were equally happy.
A third explanation for our helter-skelter pursuit of happiness, not mentioned in Clements' article, is borne out of a wisdom that comes from the ancients. To pursue happiness is in part to ask ourselves, "what is the greatest good, the final end, the summum bonum, of life?" According to Toynbee, ours, the modern West, is the first of twenty-one great civilizations that have existed on our planet, that does not have or teach its citizens any answer to the question of why they exist. And when ultimate ends disappear, only toys remain.
Perhaps our futile search for happiness has nothing to do with our "mean genes," or our poor forecasting of what we think will make us happy. Maybe the search for happiness is elusive for the very reason that we were not made to be happy in this present world. Perhaps this world's happiness, so transitory in nature, serves as a signpost for another world awaiting us. I find C.S. Lewis' words on this matter quite instructive:
"The settled happiness and security we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God...Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home."
"Most Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. As a result, their meanings and values are distorted. Their relationships disintegrate faster than they can keep them in repair, and their lifestyles resemble a cast of characters in search of a plot." -Gordon Dahl, from Work, Play, and Worship in a Leisure-Oriented Society
"The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment." -John Cheever
"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people." -G.K. Chesterton
"I admire the serene assurance of those who have religious faith. It is wonderful to observe the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces." -Mark Twain
"The allurement that women hold out to men is precisely the allurement that Cape Hatteras holds out to sailors. They are enormously dangerous and hence enormously fascinating." -H.L. Mencken
"He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart..." -C.S. Lewis, from Letters to an American Lady
"To make a man a saint, grace is certainly needed, and anyone who doubts this does not know what a saint, or a man, really is." -Blaise Pascal, Pensees
An article in this past Monday's USA Today caught my eye, entitled, "What is a 'real' Christian?" Written by Dan Gilgoff, a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, the article seeks to explain how religion in general, and our definition of "Christian" in particular, may affect the GOP presidential field.
Gilgoff begins his article addressing how former senator Fred Thompson is placing strong in polls of Republican voters, and is being encouraged to run for the 2008 presidential race by some leading party activists. As Thompson weighs a White House bid, conventional wisdom suggests that he could win the nomination by riding support of the Republican Party's conservative base, which continues to have doubts over the three GOP presidential front-runners.
Yet a wrinkle has appeared in Thompson's strategy to win the nomination. Gilgoff writes: "Focus on the Family's founder, James Dobson, said recently that Thompson does not appear to be Christian - and that such an impression would make it difficult for him to connect with the GOP's evangelical base. Because Dobson is the country's most politically influential evangelical, his remarks call Thompson's entire strategy into question." Interestingly enough, Dobson later released a press release through his organization that said, "We were pleased to learn from his spokesperson that Sen. Thompson professes to be a believer." Still, Dobson declined to disavow his earlier characterization of the would-be presidential contender, although Thompson has publicly claimed to be a Christian.
While Dobson's statement clearly cannot be understood as a strong affirmation of Thompson's Christian faith, Gilgoff's article does address the issue of what makes someone a "Christian," a semantic brouhaha that has set apart the evangelical Christian movement from many other Christian traditions. As Gilgoff points out, early "evangelical" movements (which might be characterized as conservative expressions of Biblical Christianity), with leaders like John Wesley (the founder of modern day Methodism) and George Whitefield, introduced notions of "true religion" to distinguish their followers from "traditional" or "rountine" religion. Mark Noll, church historian at the University of Notre Dame observes that "Evangelicals have always had a pretty narrow understanding of who is a Christian in the proper sense of the term...Catholics and most Lutherans and Episcopalians would say that anyone who has been baptized is a Christian, but most evangelicals would not agree. They see baptism as an initiation ceremony that may or may not indicate the presence of true faith."
While I would personally concur with the "evangelical" position described above by Noll, its clear that how we perceive a person's religious faith carries tremendous weight as we head into the tumultuous presidential race.
I find the wisdom of C.S. Lewis particularly insightful as we reflect on this question, What really is a Christian? In his classic book, Mere Christianity, taken from his radio broadcasts over the BBC during World War II, Lewis addresses the listener's objection to his use of the word "Christian": "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian? May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, that some who do?" Then, in a masterful stroke of genius, Lewis discusses the word "gentleman," which originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property, and reminds his audience that when you called someone a "gentleman" you were "not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not a 'gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman..."
Lewis goes on to suggest that as the word "gentleman" has now been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, it now means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. "Gentleman" has become a useless word, and the same thing has happened to the word, "Christian," Lewis argues.
"We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name 'Christians' was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who is some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were 'far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples...It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian." (from the Preface, page xv, Mere Christianity)
Francis Schaeffer, the longtime apologist for the Christian faith, who sought to understand and interpret the faith through the lens of culture, was often fond of saying, "Christianity must be interpreted afresh for each new generation." Donald Miller, best known for his book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is clearly a leading spokesman among the new vanguard of influencers in evangelical Christianity. Miller, often described as "irreverent" and "bohemian," is a frequent speaker at mainstream conservative, evangelical events across America. His book, Blue Like Jazz, described recently in a Christianity Today Magazine article as a "youthful, angsty collection of personal essays," has sold more than 800,000 copies since its publication in 2003. The book takes its title from the notion that jazz music does not resolve, which Miller sees as a metaphor for the ambiguities of the life of faith in God.
Many have suggested, and I think rightly so, that Miller's writing style is casual, conversational, even lackadaisical. When you read his words, much of his writing seems more like long emails written to a friend, than substantial prose intended for mass consumption. His writing seems to represent a new kind of "casual" -- read it aloud, it sounds like speech. Hence the attraction, especially to a younger generation of evangelicals.
Whether or not most evangelicals like his writing style, his encounters with an institutional, legalistic Christianity, reflected through his books, echoes the sentiments of thousands of evangelical Christians today. He compares his writing to the experience of the apostle Paul speaking to the Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17, where Paul made a winsome appeal for truth in a way the Greeks would receive. Miller offers, "I actually believe that I'm setting people free from something that is frustrating them." He believes fans of Blue are "people who don't want to be in evangelical culture, but don't want to reject it either." As one writer has observed, "he is a sotto voce critic of evangelicalism, telling anxious audiences that it's okay to question the faith, yet keep it."
While some are critical of his writing because it's solipsistic (navel-gazing!) tendencies, I'm reminded that genuine Christian spirituality will involve both deep self-examination as well as integration with the world outside. Through his gifted narrative storytelling, maybe he is helping culturally conflicted Christians make peace with their faith. If Miller calls readers to greater sympathy and compassion for others, the interests of the community, and a deeper fatih in God, can we really find fault?
Excerpts from Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality:
"For me, there was a mental wall between religion and God. I could walk around inside religion and never, on any sort of emotional level, understand that God was a person, an actual Being with thoughts and feelings...To me, God was more of an idea. It was something like a slot machine, a set of spinning images that dolled out rewards based on behavior and, perhaps, chance...The slot-machine God provided a relief for the pinging guilt and a sense of hope that my life would get organized toward a purpose...What I was doing was more in line with superstition than spirituality. But it worked. If something nice happened to me, I thought it was God, and if something nice didn't, I went back to the slot machine, knelt down in prayer, and pulled the lever a few more times. I liked this God very much because you hardly had to talk to it and it never talked back. But the fun never lasts." (Chapter 1, "Beginnings, God on a Dirt Road Walking Toward Me," pages 8-9)
"I love to give charity, but I don't want to be charity. This is why I have so much trouble with grace. A few years ago I was listing prayer requests to a friend. As I listed my requests, I mentioned many of my friends and family but never spoke about my personal problems. My friend candidly asked me to reveal my own struggles, but I told him no, that my problems weren't that bad. My friend answered quickly, in the voice of a confident teacher, 'Don, you are not above the charity of God.' In that instant he revealed to me that my motives were not noble, they were prideful. It wasn't that I cared about my friends more than myself, it was that I believed I was above the grace of God...It isn't that I want to earn my own way to give something to God, it's that I want to earn my own way so I won't be charity. As I drove over the mountain that afternoon, realizing that I was too proud to receive God's grace, I was humbled. Who am I to think myself above God's charity? And why would I forsake the riches of God's righteousness for the dung of my own ego?" (Chapter 7, "Grace, the Beggar's Kingdom," pages 84-85)
"I want to tell you something about me that you may see as weakness. I need wonder. I know that death is coming. I smell it in the wind, read it in the paper, watch it on television, and see it on the faces of the old. I need wonder to explain what is going to happen to me, what is going to happen to us when this thing is done, when our shift is over and our kids' kids are still on the earth listening to their crazy rap music. I need something mysterious to happen after I die. I need to be somewhere else after I die, somewhere with God, somewhere that wouldn't make any sense if it were explained to me right now. At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay..." (Chapter 17, "Worship, the Mystical Wonder," pages 205-206)
In one of Woody Allen's most memorable dialogues from his film, Love and Death, Boris Demetrovich, played by Allen, is talking to his beautiful cousin Sonia, played by Diane Keaton. Sonia has just mentioned God. Boris: "Sonia, what if there is no God?" Sonia: "Boris Demetrovich, are you joking?" Boris: "What if we're just a bunch of absurd people who are running around with no rhyme or reason?" Sonia: "But if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?" Boris: "Well, let's not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I'd hate to blow my brains out and then read in the papers they'd found something!"
While Allen has employed humor in film over the years to explore ultimate issues like God, death, and reality ("What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case I definitely overpaid for my carpet."), we have witnessed a new spate of militant atheism that has reared its ugly head in recent days. Today's crop of professional atheists urge us to mistrust all religions, in whatever guise. and include such writers as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation). But Christopher Hitchens's book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which I recently finished reading, is perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the offerings, although his angry, evangelistic fervor against all religions is as off-putting as the fundamentalist preacher on TV.
Hitchens essentially finds all religious claims to be contemptible, especially since in his view, they are nothing more than a man-made invention, a subjective "crutch" to help us cope with life. He holds great contempt for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, referring to the Old Testament derisively as "Revelation: The Nightmare of the 'Old' Testament," and finds the New Testament ("The 'New' Testament Exceeds the Evil of the 'Old' One") equally appalling. This is especially true concerning the arguments for the deity of Jesus. Concerning the claims of Jesus' deity, and His historical uniqueness, Hitchens has severe doubts: "There were many deranged prophets roaming Palestine at the time, but this one reportedly believed himself, at least some of the time, to be God or the son of God."
At this juncture Hitchens takes on Oxford don C.S. Lewis, who he notes, "has recently reemerged as the most popular Christian apologist in his Mere Christianity." It was Lewis who posited in Mere Christianity (1943) that Jesus must have been either the Son of God, or a complete lunatic, or the Devil of Hell. Hitchens writes: "I am not choosing a straw man here: Lewis is the main chosen propaganda vehicle for Christianity in our time...However, I do credit him with honesty and with some courage. Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that."
Hitchens then summarily dismisses Lewis' contention with this amazing statement: "Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the 'sayings' and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature." Say what? Evidently, Hitchens's theological bias lies with those who have little confidence in the Bible's authority. He clearly has cast his lot with those like the "serious" New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who he cites regularly in this section. In recent years Ehrman has jettisoned his conservative, evangelical beliefs, and now considers himself nothing more than an agnostic. Will those who read Hitchens's book really consider it to be solid, unbiased scholarship? I sure hope not.
In this and other passages, Hitchens in cavalier fashion dismisses any possibility of the Biblical documents being reliable. To him, no educated person could possibly believe in the reliability of the Biblical documents. Hitchens evidently wasn't familiar (or chose not to report it) that Lewis himself was not attracted to Christianity for any emotional or "sentimental" reasons. Rather, as he recounts in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as he sat in his rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, his view of the Gospels would be radically challenged from a very unlikely source:
"Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good, 'Rum thing...It almost looks as if it had really happened once.' To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not - as I would still have put it - 'safe,' where could I turn? Was there then no escape?"
In summary, Hitchens clearly is a hater of all religious faiths, attempting to label them all as based on superstition, and the cause of all the evil and wickedness in our world. And while he believes all religions are ultimately grounded on "wish-thinking," I would prefer to say that the Christian faith is more akin to "thoughtful hoping."
Mark Warren, who reviewed Hitchens's book in the April issue of Esquire Magazine ("Thank God for Christopher Hitchens") made a telling observation at the conclusion of his review. After encouraging readers to skip the books by Dawkins and Harris, as they are "smug, turgid, and boring, with all the human feeling of a tax return," he suggests, "Read Hitchens instead...It's a tendentious delight, a caustic and even brilliant book. And with the title alone, he takes his life in his hands..."
Warren then observes: "But yet, there's something all these utterly rational missalettes miss. The hunger. The need. And for all the bad things it has wrought, the profound and revolutionary social force that religion has been in the life of man. Because we need Him, He persists. No matter how big the book thrown at Him, His book is always bigger. No matter how much closer we get to finding God's face through a telescope, many more of us will still be baying, or praying, at the moon."
Last week we looked at Christopher Hitchens's recent book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and discussed briefly Hitchens's failure to deal with Christianity in a fair and unbiased manner. Despite the book's shortcomings, it has become the biggest surprise of the beach-reading season. It wasn't supposed to be a blockbuster. Its publisher, Twelve, a fledgling imprint owned by France's Lagardere SCA, initially printed a modest 40,000 copies. Today, roughly two months after the book went on sale, there are 300,000 copies in print, and demand has been so strong that booksellers and wholesalers were unable to get copies a short time after it hit stores, creating what the publishing industry calls a "dark week."
Rival publisher Da Capo Press, owned by Perseus Books LLC, has already signed Hitchens to edit, "The Portable Atheist," a compilation of essays by such writers as Mark Twain and Charles Darwin, and will be published this fall. "This is atheism's moment," says David Steinberger, Perseus's CEO. "Mr Hitchens has written the category killer, and we're excited about having the next book."
Booksellers believe Hitchens has helped his own cause significantly by staging colorful debates with various religious leaders. But his incendiary statement about the late Jerry Falwell recently on "Anderson Cooper 360," caught my attention. Mr. Hitchens was asked if he thought Mr. Falwell would go to heaven. His response: "No. And I think it's a pity there isn't a Hell for him to go to." I thought the response interesting and revealing. For as much vitriol and disdain Hitchens had for Falwell, and what he represented, and as much as he might want to see Falwell punished for his supposedly oppressive, narrow beliefs about Christianity, he knew he couldn't really "condemn" him. For Hitchens realized that to be a consistent "atheist," categories of thought and belief such as Heaven and Hell are nonsensical. And to admit that Falwell should go to Hell (note his words, "It's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to."), would necessarily imply that there is a Heaven. Hitchen's is way too cunning and bright to make such a glaring contradiction.
But Hitchens's comment reminds me that the Christian faith is not exclusively about this life, but also another life, another world to come. And while Hitchens and his ilk happily dismiss all religious "faith" as subjective, wishful thinking, the Christian view of the world cherishes the deeply held belief that this world is not all that there is, because this present world is passing away (I Corinthians 7:31). To those who would charge that Christianity is mere escapism, C.S. Lewis reminds us: "We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning Heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about 'pie in the sky,' and of being told that we are trying to 'escape' from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is 'pie in the sky' or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced..."
Does not our entire human experience, both the pleasures and the sufferings, cry out for something more? For something that this world cannot satisfy? Is it actually "reasonable" to believe that this world is all there is? T.S. Eliot once observed: "I had rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than to feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end."
That is something for Hitchens, and us, to ponder...
"I find a good many people have been bothered by...Our Lord's words, 'Be ye perfect'. Some people seem to think this means 'Unless you are perfect, I will not help you'; and as we cannot be perfect, then, if He meant that, our position is hopeless. But I do not think He did mean that. I think He meant 'The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less; but I will give you nothing less.'"
"Let me explain. When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother -- at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist the next morning."
"I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch they took an ell."
"Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of...or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad tempter or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment."
-Entry for 9 July, taken from A Year with C.S. Lewis, Daily Readings from His Classic Works
Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish "poet with the camera," died last week on the small island of Faro where he lived on the Baltic coast of Sweden. He was 89. The son of a Lutheran minister of Danish descent (Erik Bergman would later serve as chaplain to the King of Sweden), Bergman wrote in his biography how his religious upbringing influenced his young life: "While father preached away in the pulpit and the congregation prayed, sang or listened, I devoted my interest to the church's mysterious world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of eternity...There was everything that one's imagination could desire -- angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans."
Critics considered Bergman, along with Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, as the film directors who dominated the world of serious film making in the second half of the 20th century. "Bergman was the first to bring metaphysics - religion, death, existentialism - to the screen," offered Bertrand Tavenier, the French film director in The New York Times. In his more than 40 years in the cinema, Bergman made about 50 films, many focusing on two primary themes, the relationship between the sexes, and the relationship between mankind and God. He is perhaps best known for the Crusader's search for God in "The Seventh Seal,' and "Wild Strawberries," his acclaimed study of old age, both of which were breakthroughs to fame.
He influenced many other film makers, including Woody Allen, who in a tribute some years ago considered Bergman "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera."
Bergman was once asked what his intentions were with his films. I find his response to be remarkably revealing, because it captures what I consider to be very close to the heart of a truly Christian view of creativity, worship, and work. Listen carefully to his response:
"People ask what are my intentions with my films - my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct."
"They worked until the building was completed - master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres. Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship."
Why has worship become so trivialized in our Christian culture today? What is the relationship between our work and worship? Is worship only possible on Sunday mornings in church? What has led us to separate the "secular" from the "sacred"? What does the worship and idolizing of Christian leaders say about our faith? Why is there so little genuine humility in Christendom? Why do we need a Swedish film director to point us back the the Truth?
I've been slowing making my way through The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III, edited by Walter Hooper, which includes the correspondence of Lewis from the time of his writing the Chronicles of Narnia, his time at Cambridge, and his marriage to Joy Gresham, spanning the years from 1950-1963. In the 44 years since Hooper served briefly as Lewis' secretary, he has steadily accumulated from all over the world the personal correspondence that comprises these three volumes, namely, 3,228 separate items of correspondence. Hooper's lifetime work on the Lewis letters (and bringing other works of Lewis to publication) demonstrates his painstaking scholarship, as he not only had to collect and in many cases decipher many letters, but also had to labor to discover the actual people and reconstruct the conversation behind the letters. There was also the matter of tracking down the sources of the quotations Lewis so liberally sprinkled throughout his correspondence. From Euripides to the Second Book of Kings, or a Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and the frequent translation of Latin, Greek, French, or Italian, Hooper has devoted many years of his life conducting his research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where so many of the original Lewis letters are housed.
While the letters vary a great deal in their content (some negotiating contracts with publishers, others exchanging ideas with scholarly colleagues), some of the most rewarding letters show the "pastoral" side of Lewis, the saintly sage who gives encouragement and advice to fellow pilgrims on their spiritual journey. What is clear is that with the passing of years, Lewis becomes more reflective and mellow than in the previous volumes.
A letter that I recently came upon in Volume III was to a Mrs. Johnson, who had asked Lewis a series of questions (some rather inane, like, "Do you like sweets?" "Are you handsome?"). In Lewis' reply to Mrs. Johnson, posted on November 8th, 1952, from Magdalen College, Oxford, Lewis literally numbered his replies to correspond to her questions. One question caught my attention, as she asked Lewis, "If Wayne didn't go to Heaven I wouldn't want to either. Would his name be erased from my brain?"
While Lewis treats this matter quite brilliantly in his theological fantasy, The Great Divorce, his answer here is instructive. He writes: "Whatever the answer is, I'm sure it is not that ('erased from the brain'). When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased. If you and I ever come to love God perfectly, the answer to this tormenting question will then become clear, and will be far more beautiful than we cd. ever imagine. We can't have it now."
Some ten years earlier, Lewis had similarly observed this principle of First and Second Things when he wrote in the Time and Tide, which was later published in the collection of essays, God in the Dock, with the title, "First and Second Things," that: "The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman - glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?...Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made."
Elsewhere, Lewis writes to his friend Dom Bede Griffiths, "Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy."
All too often, we put second things ahead of first things, namely God. Someone has observed that in worship, "We bring the gods we have made before the God who has made us."
"It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." -Woody Allen
The late Joseph Bayly was flying from Chicago to Los Angeles some years ago and found himself engaged in conversation with an articulate, middle-aged woman. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Palm Springs," she answered. Knowing Palm Springs to be a city of the rich and famous, he asked, "What's Palm Springs like?" "Palm Springs is a beautiful place filled with unhappy people." Curious as to her answer, he posed the question, "Are you unhappy?" "Yes, I certainly am." "Why?" queried Bayly. "I can answer it in one word: mortality. Until I was forty, I had perfect eyesight. Shortly after, I went to the doctor because I couldn't see as well as I could before. Ever since that time, these corrective glasses have been a sign to me that not only are my eyes wearing out, but I'm wearing out. Some day I'm going to die. I really haven't been happy since."
This woman from Palm Springs captured in this brief conversation the feelings and angst of most of us. We really don't want to be reminded that death will one day greet us, as it will everyone else in the human race. As bad as things may sometimes be, we don't want to lose this precious commodity called "life." Even for many of those whose faith characterizes their lives, death is something we prefer not to dwell on. I'm reminded of the English vicar who was asked by a parishioner what he expected after death, to which he replied, "Well, if it comes to that, I suppose I shall enter into eternal bliss, but I really wish you wouldn't bring up such a depressing subject!"
The words of the vicar accurately express the prevalent sentiment of our modern culture toward death. In a word, it is denial, or better yet, trivialization. For culture at large, having lost its sense of the sacred, and a belief in an afterlife, hates and fears death, and strives to "wish it" away. The trivialization of death takes on various guises in culture, and a most common expression of this is through humor. Woody Allen typifies this sentiment, as when he was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine some years ago:
"Someone once asked me if my dream was to live on in the hearts of my people, and I said I would like to live on in my apartment. And that's really what I would prefer...You drop dead one day, and it means less than nothing if billions of people are singing your praises every day, all day long..."
Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and satirist, who came to faith late in life, spent many of his remaining days writing on the shortcomings of contemporary culture. In his spiritual autobiography, Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, Muggeridge observed: "It is, of course, inevitable that in a materialistic society like ours death should seem terrible, and even inadmissible. If Man is the very apex of creation, with nothing greater than himself in the universe; if his earthly life exhausts the whole content of his existence, then, clearly, his definitive end, his death, is too outrageous to be contemplated, and so is better ignored."
While our culture seeks to dismiss and trivialize death, we can be sure that for each of us, our mortal existence will, some day, come to an end. For the moment we are born, we begin to die. Samuel Beckett declared, "We give birth astride a grave." Alexander the Great is said to have directed that he be buried with his naked arm hanging out of his coffin, with an empty hand, to signify that even the man who had conquered the world left it as he had entered it. Job declares, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there" (Job 1:21).
But wait. There is hope. For if Christianity has anything to say to this dying world, it is that there is Life on the Other Side. The apostle Paul goes so far as to make the audacious statement that if we have only hoped in Christ in this life, then "we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep." (1 Corinthians 15:19-20).
"At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in."
-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
"Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." -Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC
The cover story of the September 3rd edition of Time Magazine read, "The Secret Life of Mother Teresa," and chronicled newly published and previously secret letters of Mother Teresa, revealing her crisis of faith. They shed new light that the beloved icon spent the last half century of her life inwardly tortured by the sense that God had abandoned her. Even as she went about assuring the sick and dying of God's love, she herself felt only emptiness and loss. She took to calling Him, "The Absent One." In fact, the more the religious order she founded prospered, the Missionaries of Charity, the more her own religious life seems to have withered. These new revelations come from a selection of her letters to her spiritual advisers, published recently by Doubleday under the somewhat ironic title, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light."
Less that three months before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu, now Mother Teresa, the "Saint of the Gutters" of Calcutta, would write to a spiritual confidant, the Reverend Michael van der Peet, that: "Jesus has a very special love for you. (But) as for me--The silence and the emptiness is so great--that I look and do not see, --Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak...I want you to pray for me--that I let Him have (a) free hand."
What are we to make of these personal revelations? What might we learn from her experience? Does her "dark night of the soul" (to use the phrase from the famous 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross) suggest that there is any value in doubt? What are we to conclude?
Some, especially the increasingly zealous atheistic cadre in the U.S., suggest that she finally "saw the light," that there is no God. Representative of this camp, Christopher Hitchens has written a scathing polemic on Mother Teresa, suggesting that: "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith that could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself."
Others would argue, and I would agree, that great saints through the ages have often experienced painful periods of doubt and questioning. The doubting diatribes of King David in Psalm 22, and Asaph in Psalm 73, are proof enough. The fact that the Bible dares to record such musings on seeming Godforsakenness should be enough to persuade the thoughtful person that such spiritual struggles are evidence of faith, not the lose of faith.
I think Kenneth Woodward, writing last week in The Wall Street Journal, said it well: "From the letters I think we can say--must say--that Mother Teresa was a special breed of saint: a genuine mystic...Wanting this experience (union with God) doesn't mean that God will gratify that desire. In any case, the experience is often short-lived. Mother Teresa tells us in her letters that she once felt God's powerful presence and heard Jesus speak to her. Then God withdrew and Jesus was silent. What Mother Teresa experienced thereafter was faith devoid of any emotional consolation...In the end, Mother Teresa had to rely on faith, hope and charity. These are the virtues expected of all Christians, not just the spiritual elite. She was one of us after all."
Mother Teresa, you see, was cut from the same bolt of cloth as all of us. And in some mysterious way, to remove all of our doubts and questionings would be to remove our very humanness. For even the Son of God, God become flesh, followed a similar fate. C.S. Lewis, writing in the late 1950's for The Atlantic Monthly, had the following sage advice, taken from his article, "The Efficacy of Prayer."
"It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: 'I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion, or soon after it. As the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.' "
"Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, 'Why hast Thou forsaken Me?' When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle."
--C.S. Lewis, "The Efficacy of Prayer," in The World's Last Night and Other Essays
Ken Burns' World World II documentary, The War, continues to receive critical acclaim as it airs on PBS television stations across America this week. I've been struck by the remarkable footage and commentary in the episodes, as we are captivated by the pictures and sounds to get a close hand look at the devastating loss and pain that war brings to the soldiers and their families. Similarly, who can fathom such remarkable bravery and heroism as was displayed by so many men and women?
Many people are surprised to learn that C.S. Lewis's bestselling book defending the Christian faith, Mere Christianity, which has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into over 41 languages, was originally given as a series of radio broadcast talks over the BBC during the War. It all began when J.W. Welch, Director of the BBC's Religious Broadcasting Department, wrote to Lewis to thank him for the help he had been given by his book, The Problem of Pain, asking him if he would be willing to help in their work of religious broadcasting at the BBC. Lewis agreed, and gave the initial four, fifteen minute talks ‘live' over the air in London every Wednesday evening in August, 1941, from 7:45-8:00 p.m. The first talks were entitled, "Right or Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe." The subject of these talks was what is generally referred to as Natural Law, which Lewis called in the first talk, "The Law of Human Nature."
These four series of twenty-five broadcast talks, which were delivered between 1941-1944, were initially published as three separate books, The Case for Christianity (1943), Christian Behavior (1943), and Beyond Personality (1945) and collected into Mere Christianity, which was published in 1952. Lewis's words of Christian conviction and hope would prove to be a great comfort as his voice would become the second-most recognized voice in England to that of Winston Churchill.
As a young man, Lewis had served in the awful trenches of World War I, and in 1940, when the bombing of Britain began, he had taken up duties as an air raid warden and gave talks to men in the Royal Air Force, who knew that after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be declared dead or missing. And the evacuation of over a million children to the English countryside due to the bombing of London would serve as the setting for his inaugural book in his Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis knew well the anguish and ravages of war.
In her excellent Foreword to the present HarperCollins edition of Mere Christianity, Kathleen Norris wryly notes observes: "All of our notions of modernity and progress and all our advances in technological expertise have not brought an end to war. Our declaring the notion of sin to be obsolete has not diminished human suffering...the problem, C.S. Lewis insists, is us. And the crooked and perverse generation of which the psalmists and prophets spoke many thousands of years ago is our own. The Christianity Lewis espouses is humane, but not easy: it asks us to recognize that the great religious struggle is not fought on a spectacular battleground, but within the ordinary human heart, when every morning we awake and feel the pressures of the day crowding in on us, and we must decide what sort of immortals we wish to be."
Ken Burns has done a masterful job in chronicling World War II, and yet it is limited by its very purpose and scope: reporting on what happened, and not why it happens, or any other war happens. I think this is why we so desperately need Lewis's words in our own day, because we need to know that the challenges we face each day begin in the human heart as we decide, as Norris suggests, what kind of immortals we wish to be.
For the only surviving audio footage of Lewis's broadcast talks over the BBC ("The New Men," the last episode of Beyond Personality, broadcast 21 March, 1944), go to the following link:
After having gone without shaving for 381 days, A. J. Jacobs said he felt like a "hedgehog" had been attached to his face. Now his black beard is safely stowed away in a Ziploc bag, a souvenir of his year-long endeavor to follow the Bible literally in obeying what he refers to the Bible's more than 600 precepts.
Jacobs, 39, a self-proclaimed agnostic and writer who works for Esquire, is no stranger to "immersion" journalism. His book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Man in the World, recounted his months reading all 44 million words of Encyclopedia Britannica. His current offering is similarly titled, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon & Schuster, $25).
To help him attempt to live every facet of life based on a strict interpretation of the Bible, Jacobs had a spiritual advisory board consisting of priests, rabbis, and ministers. The Manhattan-based Jacobs also went on field trips, visiting with Jehovah's Witnesses, Hasidic Jews, the Amish, Samaritans, and evangelical Christians. Of these experiences, he says, "I learned to be more tolerant. Handling snakes doesn't seem as crazy when you're seeing it firsthand."
The most unexpectedly wise and life-enhancing rules? 1) "Keep the sabbath: As a workaholic (I check emails in the middle of movies), I learned the beauty of an enforced pause in the week. No cell phones, no messages, no deadlines...as one famous rabbi called it, the sabbath is a 'sanctuary in time.'" 2) "Let your garments be always white" (Ecclesiastes 9:8) "I chose to follow this literally-white pants, white shirt, white jacket. This was one of the best things I did all year. I felt lighter, happier, purer...You can't be in a bad mood when you're dressed like you're about to play the semifinals at Wimbledon." 3) "No images: I tried to eliminate photos, TV, movies, doodling. It made me realize we're too visual in this culture. It made me fall in love once again with words, with text."
Biggest challenge? Jacobs offers: "That would be no coveting, no lying, no gossiping. They're little sins, but they're killers. You shall not covet. This is like asking someone not to breathe. Especially in New York. New York is a city that runs on coveting...You shall not lie. Once I started keeping track, the number of lies was astounding. I lie to everyone-strangers, my wife, my three-year-old son ('No, we can't watch TV. It's broken')."
The takeaway of the story? Jacobs' year-long experiment is more than sufficient testimony that none of us have ever lived the good life. We can't earn our righteousness through good deeds, but can only receive it from the hand of a benevolent God. Frederick Buechner says it so well: "Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth...The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't be complete without you...There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it..."
FinishingWell serves under the auspices of Reflections Ministries, Inc., a non-profit 501©3 organization. If you benefit from these posts, please consider making a financial contribution for the underwriting of this ministry. Please go to the "Donate" page on this website for information about contributions that can be made both by credit card or check. Your contribution is appreciated, and is tax-deductible.
I came across an article recently, written by Daniel Williams in Christianity Today, on Augustine's perspective on the "greatest good," and it really impacted my thinking about the things that we pursue in our lives, the things we set our hopes and affections on in this brief, temporal life. You may recall that Augustine lived in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, and is considered one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of the church, and served as the bishop of the North African city of Hippo the latter part of his life.
Philosophers and thinkers over the centuries have contemplated the human condition, and what every man strives for, in terms of pursuing the highest good. Cicero, a century before the first century Christian era, argued that there is a "spark of deity" in the human soul, enabling us to reach ultimate goodness. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, a contemporary of the apostle Paul in the first century, reasoned that human nature contained a distinct portion of the essence of God. Such views of humanity suggest that all that is necessary for goodness is to be reminded of the good, and we will naturally follow it.
Yet such views seem to be at odds with human nature, and the Biblical perspective on our behavioral orientation. True, we are made in the image of God, yet we don't seem to have a fundamental propensity toward good. In his great theological treatise to the Romans, the apostle Paul echoes the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah when he declares of the human race: "There is no one righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no ones does good, not even one" (Romans 3). Later in the same letter, he even admits that while he agrees with God's law in his mind, he sees a different kind of law waging war in the members of his body (Romans 7).
While self-help books (Christian and secular) tend to proliferate in our own age, promising to help us have a better self-image, become the "new you," raise our children, become better husbands and wives, and meet the moral challenges of our day, few have thought as deeply as Augustine, about how we humans are to properly relate rightly to the objects of human love--temporal goods, oneself, one's neighbor, and God.
In the course of his religious journey to Christianity, Augustine recognized that no object or physical thing can be good or bad in itself. Rather, he argued that it is our will that takes good things and makes them bad by our absorption with them, and consequently, our perversion of them. He also believed that our affections to the world can only be rightly determined by having a proper relation to all things in the light of their Creator. Further, he believed that if anything exists, it exists because it was given existence and is sustained by God. In his book, On The Nature of Good, he wrote that: "All life, potency, health, memory, virtue, intelligence, tranquility, abundance, light, sweetness, measure, beauty, peace--all these things whether great or small...come from the Lord." To Augustine, what makes things good is their right use in the scheme in which God has placed them. Whoever makes a bad use of good things does not make them bad, but merely abuses good things.
He also made a distinction between things that are to be enjoyed and things that are to be used. And what is the difference? "To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake," while everything else is a means to what we should hold fast to, or love. In his magisterial spiritual autobiography, Confessions, he asks:
"What is the object of my love? I asked the earth, and it said, 'It is not I.'...I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that move about, and they responded, 'We are not your God, look beyond us.'...I asked heaven, sun, moon, and stars, and they said, 'Nor are we the God whom you seek.' Then tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him. And with a great voice they cried out, 'He made us.'"
In these few words, Augustine is saying to us that the only thing to be enjoyed, or loved for its own sake, is what is unchangeable and eternal, namely, God. And to love anything else for its own sake (including one's self) is to confuse the creation with the Creator. So when we put our deepest affections on anything God has made as if it were God, we will never find the fulfillment we crave, no matter how good or noble or innocent, because these things were never intended to deliver ultimate happiness. They were given as signs that are supposed to lead us to God.
While Augustine's insights do not tell us how to deal with the specific challenges we face, his wisdom does help us to order our passions, and put the objects of our desire in their rightful place before God. Better to worship and serve the Creator rather than the creation. He once observed, "Good men use the world to enjoy God, whereas bad men use God to enjoy the world."
"I admire the serene assurance of those who have religious faith. It is wonderful to observe the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces." -Mark Twain
Not withstanding Twain's observation, recent reports have Antony Flew, one of the world's most revered atheists, as now having become a believer in God, despite his professional reputation over the decades as a writer "preaching to the choir" of those strident philosophers who denounced the existence of God. Arguably Flew's greatest contribution remains his first, when as a precocious 27-year-old he delivered a brief paper in 1950 called "Theology and Falsification," at a meeting of the Socratic Club, an Oxford University group presided over by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. "Theology and Falsification" has since become over the years somewhat of a "spiritual law" tract for committed atheists.
Flew, whose name has largely flown under the radar screen for most, is about to take on much greater visibility, beyond the recognition of only atheists and philosophers. HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins, has just this month released his book recounting his spiritual journey from unbelief to belief, "There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind," co-authored by Flew and Christian apologist Roy Abraham Varghese.
Not everyone is amused. Mark Oppenheimer, editor of The New Haven Review, wrote a derisive article in the November 4th issue of The New York Times, essentially bringing into question the veracity of Flew's conversion. Oppenheimer writes: "But is Flew's conversion what it seems to be? Depending on whom you ask, Antony Flew is either a true convert whose lifelong intellectual searchings finally brought him to God or a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates. The version you prefer will depend on how you interpret a story that began 20 years ago, when some evangelical Christians found an atheist who, they thought, might be persuaded to join their side."
Flew's conversion was first reported in late 2004, and has cast him into a culture war that for most of his life he was happily content to avoid. I heard Flew interviewed at a conference at Oxford University in the summer of 2005 about his rethinking of life and faith, and it was clear that he had been reflecting on theological matters for a number of years. He was also not embarassed to admit that he had been duly influenced in his thinking by a number of brilliant scientists and philosophers, who were Christians. Then, as well as now, Flew rejects Christianity, but confesses that he now believes in "an intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world." Atheists no doubt thought that the "signs of the Apocalypse" are upon us when, in late 2006, Flew was among the signers of a letter to Tony Blair asking that intelligent design be included in the British science curriculum!
Several points are worth making from Flew's metanoia about our world as it relates to the existence of God. First, it is amazing what can happen when a man objectively and humbly considers the evidence for God's existence in our complex and awe-inspiring cosmos. Second, while the "new atheists" a.k.a. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc., receive immense pleasure when religious folk jettison their faith (having "come to their senses" from the fairy tales of religious dogma), they are not so happy when one of their own becomes a turncoat.
FinishingWell serves under the auspices of
Reflections Ministries, Inc., a non-profit 501©3 organization. If you
benefit from these posts and the ministry of FW, please consider making a financial
contribution for the underwriting of this ministry. You can go to the
"Donate" page on this website for information about contributions that
can be made both by credit card or check. Your contribution is
appreciated, and is tax-deductible.
"Christmas is magical. Its belief, and its powers are limited, but it can make you happy, if that's what you want. It only works once a year, of course. In August, the songs sound dumb. You have to work up to it through Thanksgiving, a sort of dress rehearsal, and then suddenly it is December 24th, and there's your tree...I would love very much to receive a particular Christmas present that I can't reveal because it's too dumb. I remind myself every year not to want it too much, but I do, and I never get it. A man my age can't simply walk into a store and buy a model train set for himself. People would talk, and one day he'd come home to find an attorney in the living room, who would tell him that his financial affairs will hereafter be managed by his nephew Vince..." -Garrison Keillor, "The Dangers of Christmas"
"There is a remarkable breakdown of taste and intelligence at Christmastime. Mature, responsible grown men wear neckties made out of holly and drink alcoholic beverages with raw egg yolks and cottage cheese in them." -P.J. O'Rourke
"Early in life I developed a distaste for the Cratchits that time has not sweetened. I do not think I was an embittered child, but the Cratchits' worthiness, their bravely borne poverty, their exultation over that wretched goose, disgusted me. I particularly disliked Tiny Tim (a part always played by a girl because girls had superior powers of looking moribund and worthy at the same time), and when he chirped, 'God bless us every one!', my mental response was akin to Sam Goldwyn's famous phrase, 'Include me out.' " -Robertson Davies
"A little girl said she liked Santa Claus better than Jesus because 'you have to be good for Santa only at Christmas, but for Jesus you have to be good all the time.' Much of the Christmas observance at church is not far removed from that attitude." -Vance Havner
"Dear Mary: Just a very hurried line...(1.) To condole with you on the loss of Fr. ________. (2.) To tell a story which puts the contrast between our feast of the Nativity and, all this ghastly "Xmas" racket at its lowest. My brother heard a woman on a bus say, as the 'bus passed a church with a Crib outside it, 'Oh Lor'!' They bring religion into everything. Look...they're dragging it even into Christmas now!' Love and sympathy from us both. Yours, Jack" -C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady
"It seems, then," said Tirian, smiling himself, "that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places." "Yes," said Lord Digory. "It's inside is bigger than its outside." "Yes," said Queen Lucy. "In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world." -"The Last Battle," from The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
A few lines from W.H. Auden's, "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," (1941-3) express the sentiment many of us have as we begin the new year, returning to the seeming mundaneness of everyday living:
"Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Auden reminds us that after the fanfare of Christmas, reality sets in, and we return, each of us, to the humdrum of the daily grind. And yet, it is a time for a fresh start, a renewed perspective, as we prepare for the challenges that will face us. With this in mind, I offer a few thoughts for keeping perspective in the new year.
First, have a plan as you begin the year. Truth be known, never throughout the year are we more prone to think with a fresh perspective, than at the beginning of the year. Sure, a lot of "resolutions" fall by the wayside, but just the same, what areas of your life would you like to improve in, or do differently? Look at your life in terms of a quadrant: the vocational; the relational; the spiritual; and the recreational. Why not set up a few achievable goals in each of these areas?
Second, reflect on what it means when we say that "God is in our life." Paul says in one of his letters, "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). I'm not exactly sure how we net that out in our individual lives, but I've been asking myself, how would my everyday life be different if I really tried to put God into the equation, and not just on Sunday morning? How would my life be different?
Third, commit yourself to reading more, and watching less television. I'm a college basketball junkie, and I can't ever seem to get enough of SportsCenter! Yet I'm convinced that what may seemingly be a natural way to unwind after the day's work may not be that beneficial for me in the long term. Why not find a book on a subject that interests you (or that you got for Christmas), and try reading for just thirty minutes each evening, say three or four nights a week? I'll bet within a few weeks time, you'll begin to realize the benefits of reading.
Fourth, and along similar lines, cultivate your spiritual life with God. Most men I know struggle greatly in this area (I'm no exception), and most of the comments I hear from guys are like, "So where do I begin?" I'm convinced that we've made the devotional life much more difficult than it really is. One could do a lot worse than to simply read a chapter in the Bible each day, and prayerfully reflect on what God is saying, and how it applies to your life. Over the years, I've become convinced that if you are going to read the Bible (or any devotional), if it doesn't happen in the morning, it probably won't happen.
C. S. Lewis observes in Mere Christianity, "The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice...letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind."
Let me know if I can be of assistance. Best wishes in the New Year!
The Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde once lamented, "There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what we want. The other is getting it." We may laugh at his observation, but truth be known, it captures where most of us live. Oh, we know about sometimes not getting our way, but we also live in a culture that panders to our desire for "happiness." Check out the literary winners that offer to make our lives into whatever we desire them to be. The unrivaled tribute to wishful thinking may be the book, "The Secret," by Rhonda Byrne. This past year's blockbuster bestseller-cum-cultural phenomenon sold six million books and DVD's on the pure strength of the belief that you can "imagine" yourself to total fulfillment. Can Americans really be so naive?
Steve Salerno, writing for The Wall Street Journal, observed: "With highly visible gurus of personal development fanning the flames, an entire generation has come of age believing that perpetual happiness is a birthright. Over the past four decades, the concepts of Empowerment and Entitlement, first-cousins in the family of American psychobabble, have conspired to produce what New York Observer writer Alexandra Wolfe labels 'the most coddled generation in American history.' We once laughed at the excesses of the 'Me Generation,' the malignant narcissim epitomized in the TV show 'Seinfeld.' If we don't laugh quite as much these days," Salerno observes, "that's because it's not caricature anymore. It's life as we live it."
Addressing the "pursuit of happiness" as one of the "inalienable rights", according to our Declaration of Independence, Malcolm Muggeridge observed in his thoughtful work, Jesus Rediscovered, that "the pursuit of happiness... as an inalienable right, is without any question the most fatuous that could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase... is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world."
Peggy Noonan, a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, addressed this issue of happiness in her book, What I Saw at the Revolution. Noonan observed, and I believe correctly, that much of our unhappiness is born out of a cultural revolution that is most evident with the baby boomer gereration. Noonan writes:
"It is 1956 in the suburbs, in the summer. A man comes home from work, parks the car, slouches up the driveway. His white shirt clings softly to his back. He bends for the paper, surveys the lawn, waves to a neighbor. From the hous comes his son, freckled, ten. He jumps on his father; they twirl on the lawn. Another day done. Now water the lawn, eat fish cakes, watch some TV. go to bed, do it all again tomorrow...Is he happy? No. Why should he be? We weren't put here to be happy. But the knowledge of his unhappiness does not gnaw. Everyone is unhappy, or rather everyone has a boring job, a marriage that's turned to disinterest, a life that's turned to sameness. And because he does not expect to be happy the knowledge of his unhappiness does not weigh on him. He looks perhaps to other, more eternal forms of comfort."
Listen to Noonan's further observations about the root of our unhappiness: "Somewhere in the Seventies, or the Sixties, we started expecting to be happy, and changed our lives if we were not. And society strained and cracked in the storm...I think we have lost the Old Knowledge that happiness is overrated, that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery, about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generation of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such--unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness--if that is what you believe, then you are disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches...you are despairing."
Very little has changed over the centuries in man's quest for this elusive thing called "happiness." Writing over 350 years ago, Blaise Pascal observed in his Pensees: "If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it...I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room...What people want is not the easy peaceful life...but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. that is why men are so fond of the hustle and bustle..."
Are we happy? Do we really believe that anything "under the sun" can bring us lasting fulfillment? Could there be a more accurate diagnostic of modern man's quest for that elusive happiness than that offered by Pascal?
In his day, Bobby Fischer was the very best chess player in the world, and arguably the best the world had ever seen. And yet, for the past 30 or so years of his life, he was as Brian Carney called him in his Wall Street Journal article reporting his death last week at the age of 64, "the chess world's mad uncle, an embarrassment to be apologized for, belittled or ignored."
After defeating Boris Spassky in 1972, and with him, the entire Soviet chess establishment, he rarely played in competitive tournaments, to the point that he was stripped of his title in 1975 for refusing to defend it against the challenger, Anatoly Karpov. He spent the last three decades of his life living in hiding or seclusion in Hungary, Yugoslavia, Argentina, the Philippines, Japan, and in the end, Iceland, the site of his world championship victory.
Fischer was always an eccentric, and a difficult man, even before he beat Spassky. Throughout his life he seems to have carried a grievance that extended beyond chess. His belief that the Soviets were out to get him at the chess board seems to have evolved into a sense that the entire world, especially the Jews, conspired against him. Mig Greengard, a chess columnist, once recounted what was his favorite Bobby Fischer quote. In 1960, in a tournament in Buenos Aires in which he uncharacteristically finished 13th, Fischer was leaving the tournament hall after a win. One of the assembled admirers offered him a compliment: "Great game, Bobby." Fischer snapped back, "How would you know?"
Throughout his life Fischer epitomized pride and arrogance. In his view, there was no one in the world, besides himself, who understood what he was doing at the chess table. In his article, Carney quotes the French philosopher Alexander Kojeve, who once wrote that "the only defense against madness is the accord of your peers. That is, if you can convince no one else that your beliefs are well-founded, then it's probably you who are crazy, and not the rest of humanity." Great advice for the human race, wouldn't you say?
Fischer's hubris, and tragic life, are terribly reminiscent of G. K. Chesterton's observations in his classic work, Orthodoxy, an eloquent defense of the Christian Faith. Chesterton argues that it is mysticism, not cool, calculating logic, that keeps us sane. Orthodoxy, originally published one hundred years ago, is instructive in our own day amidst the debate about God and the "new" atheism, a worldview that seeks to strip our world of it's wonder and awe. Listen as he contrasts the Christian worldview with that of the Materialist:
"The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle...the Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation...Materialists and madmen never have doubts."
As for our need of mystery and awe, Chesterton argues: "It is mysticism that keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic...He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but unlike the agnostic of today, free also to believe in them...Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom...The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits."
Who could imagine that Bobby Fischer's life, as tragic as it was, would be so instructive in terms of our desire for wonder, mystery, and enchantment, in this drama that we call life?
Tell me: What came first, Easter or the egg? Crucifixion or daffodils?
Three days in a tomb or four days in Paris? (returning Bank Holiday Monday).
When is a door not a door? When it is rolled away.
When is a body not a body? When it is risen.
Question. Why was it the Savior rode on the cross?
Answer. To get us to the other side.
Behold I stand.
Behold I stand and what?
Behold I stand at the door and
" Poem for Easter," by Steve Turner
With the recent spate of books heralding the "new atheism" of our day, Dinesh D'Souza's recent apologia into the theological fracas, What's So Great About Christianity, is a welcome delight. Undeniably, exuberant atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) write with a certain panache, which makes their vitriol all the more persuasive. As Tony Snow notes in a recent review (from Christianity Today, for which I am indebted) of D'Souza's book mentions, "Atheist works tend to combine argument with large doses of bitter biography. Every chapter of Dawkins's book describes unpleasant encounters with believing dolts -- hate-mail writers, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the like. Hitchens recalls murderous fanatics in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Levant, and his blood-chilling encounters with a childhood schoolmarm."
Listen to Dawkins's seething contempt for the God of the Old Testament: "He is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Makes you wonder why these folks are so bothered by a God that they deny exists, doesn't it?
A few of D'Souza's arguments from his book are worth mentioning. First, Hitchens's makes the charge that "religion poisons everything" (he truly is a hater of all religions), lining up in his sights such diverse religious leaders as bin Laden, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Pope, etc. But D'Souza rightly shows how Christian principles involving free choice and human dignity form the basis for democratic political systems built on the belief of inalienable human rights. Such a Christian worldview also inspired free markets in economics and intellectual pursuit. And Christian theologians were arguably the forerunners of modern science. D'Souza also suggests that America's uncommon generosity, particularly in times of crisis, are now taken for granted by the world, a generosity whose traits are derived from the Christian faith.
Another tenet that D'Souza takes to task of the New Atheism is the supposed impossibility of faith and science to coexist. While Darwinian evolutionary theory would chortle at such a thought, D'Souza employs Aquina's assertion that reason and faith actually complement each other. He quotes Nobel laureate Arno Penzias and astronomer Robert Jastrow to the point that even the Big Bang theory leads us "back" to a moment when everything began, with questions more related to faith and theology than hard science. As Jastrow mused in his book, God and the Astronomers, of scientists trying to get back to before the Big Bang: "When the scientists have scaled the last mountain peak, they find a band of theologians who have been waiting there for centuries!"
A third tenet that D'Souza addresses is the broader issue of faith and reason. D'Souza writes: "Religious faith is not in opposition to reason. The purpose of faith is to discover truths that are of the highest importance to us through purely natural means." He then quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Even if all possible scientific questions are answered, the problems of life still have not been touched at all." As Tony Snow remarks in his review of D'Souza's book, "Darwinists may be able to describe how older bees, wasps, ants, and termites help their younger siblings, but they can't explain why Raoul Wallenberg became a martyr for captive Jews."
This is arguably the fundamental flaw of the "new" atheism: it fails as a belief system or creed, because it is essentially a belief system of denial, and puts forth no compelling or satisfying worldview for the way things really are. It may attempt to provide answers for certain intellectual questions and mumblings we have with life, but it cannot reach our hearts. In truth, a consistent atheist is unable to explain love, or offer consolation in a time of grief, nor can he account for the sheer wonder and delight of the blessings and pleasures (yes, even amidst the sorrows) of this human drama that we call "life."
It makes me wonder, can the atheist truly be "grateful" for anything, since everything that happens, literally "under the sun," (to borrow the phrase from the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes) is by blind fate and chance?
The story is told of a church choir director who was trying to be creative in the worship service. Instead of having the men sing the first verse and the women the second verse, he thought he would have the women sing the first line and the men respond. As it turned out, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake and swore never to do it again. In a hymn celebrating Heaven, the women sang, "I will go home someday," and the men thundered back, "Glad day, glad day!!"
We may laugh at the story, but it does at least suggest that part of our American spiritual landscape has embedded in it the Judao-Christian hope of Heaven. Yet, not all would agree on the specifics of the afterlife. Mark Twain once opined, "Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven and hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those." Ambrose Bierce, in the Devil's Dictionary, described Heaven as, "A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own."
There is definitely a lot of muddled thinking by Christians, and those who profess other faiths, or no faith, about Heaven, and whether there really is an afterlife at all. N.T. Wright, an Oxford scholar who serves as the Bishop of Durham, is a prolific author who has written recently on the subject of Heaven. In his book, "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church," Wright takes to task the often misunderstood take on heaven as some sort of ethereal existence, not much different from the cartoons of Heaven we might see in The New Yorker magazine of folks floating around with harps on clouds. Rather, Wright argues that the Christian hope of Heaven has more to do with God transforming our present mortal bodies into a glorious body like that of Jesus (see Philippians 3:20-21).
Wright correctly observes: "The traditional picture of peole going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God's ultimate purposes."
There are many questions that we have about Heaven, many of which are not clearly answered in the Scriptures. And even when we read the Biblical passages about the afterlife, if we are not baffled as to how to precisely understand them, we are probably kidding ourselves. We should take consolation in Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian ever to live, who in the fifth century observed that God, like Heaven, is ineffabilis, "ineffable."
And what do we say tto people who believe that Heaven is a tale fit only for children? I love C.S. Lewis' response to such charges: "There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of "Heaven" ridiculous by saying they do not want "to spend eternity playing harps." The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible...People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs!"
"What is more (and I can hardly find words to tell you how important I think this), it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and become a good pilot will suddenly discover music; the man who has settled down to live in the beauty spot will discover gardening."
"This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go--let it die away--go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow--and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life."
"It is because so few people understand this that you find many middle-aged men and women maundering about their lost youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors opening all round them. It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get back the feeling you had when you first went paddling as a small boy."
-Taken from "A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works," from Mere Christianity , entry for 11 April.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." -John 12:24
Mark Twain once remarked, "I admire the serene assurance of those who have religious faith. It is wonderful to observe the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces." Twain was in many ways tormented much of his adult life, trying to come to grips with his own religious upbringing. In our own day, it is easy for us to become enamored with a sense that this present, temporal world is all that there is.
In many ways, Malcolm Muggeridge, whose conversion to Christianity was later in life, serves as a reliable guide for us. Muggeridge, educated at Cambridge University, was known internationally as a journalist, broadcaster, and writer for over half a century, He started as an editorial scribe at the Manchester Guardian, before moving to the Soviet Union in 1932, where, as the Guardian's Moscow correspondent, he witnessed in the Ukraine the famine brought about by Stalin: it was the beginning of Malcolm's greatest disillusionment. During the Second World War, he worked in British intelligence alongside such highly individual characters as Graham Greene and Kim Philby. Afterward, he became Washington correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and, later, editor of Punch, Britain's weekly humor magazine.
His spiritual memoir, Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, was originally published by Harper & Row in 1988, but was recently republished as, Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim, by Wipf & Stock Publishers (2005). Here are a few vintage excerpts from Muggeridge's spiritual autobiography, Conversion, that beckon us to look beyond this present world to the spiritual reality of Christ and His Kingdom.
"When I first became known as an aspiring Christian believer without any denominational tag. This has been at times embarrassing; especially at Evangelical gatherings, when one is liable to be asked precisely how, and in what circumstances, one became a Christian. What is expected is a dramatic account of being converted; something that in the United States became so popular that at one point it almost seemed as though more sinners were being born again than babies being born into the world. The more lurid the old adam, the more impressive the new, so that, in testifying, converts have a way of dwelling upon their past sins and misdemeanors in such detail and so ardently that an element of exhibitionism and even spiritual pornography-if there is such a thing-is liable to creep in."
"Pascal, one of the most brilliant scientific minds of his time, came to realize that, as a pursuit, science is a cul-de-sac, and results in the dethronement of God and the elevation of men, to the point that they come to see themselves as lords of creation - a role that either makes them go quite mad, or sink into mere animality. (William) Blake, too, in his own bizarre way, saw that the so-called Enlightenment was in truth a darkening of the spirit, and scrawled across his copy of Bacon's Essays - a forerunner of Huxley's - "Good Advice for Satan's Kingdom."
"It dawns on him (Muggeridge, as a soldier)) then that the true wonder of life is indeed its ordinariness rather than an imaginary extraordinariness. God did not come among us trailing clouds of glory; incarnate, He was no great scholar, perhaps barely literate, finding that children understand better what He is getting at than do grown-ups, and so addressing Himself to children as being a more worthwhile audience that scribes and Pharisees; consorting for the most part with lowly people, looking for His disciples among fishermen, and even then, one of the chosen twelve proves to be a crook, and the rest ran away."
"It is, of course, inevitable that in a materialist society like ours death should seem terrible, and even inadmissible. If Man is the very apex of creation, with nothing greater than himself in the universe; if his earthly life exhausts the whole content of his existence, then, clearly, his definitive end, his death, is too outrageous to be contemplated, and so is better ignored."
"God, humble my pride, extinguish the last stirrings of my ego, obliterate whatever remains of worldly ambition and carnality, and in these last days of a mortal existence, help me to serve only Thy purposes, to speak and write only Thy words, to think only Thy thoughts, to have no other prayer than: 'Thy will be done.' In other words, to be a true Convert."
Jacques Ellul once observed, "The fact of knowing how to read is nothing, the whole point is knowing what to read." Last Friday The Wall Street Journal came out with their summer reading suggestions, and on the same day The New York Times came out with an interesting article titled, "Volumes to Go Before You Die." The article is a review of a recently published British book entitled, "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die," and aspires to suggest to us what any reasonably well-educated person will have read before they die. It also suggests to us, as writer William Grimes suggests, that it is not necessary to read many books, like Anne Rice's "Interview With a Vampire" before we die, even if, like Lestat, we are never going to die!
As summer approaches, it seemed like a good idea to suggest a few titles that would be worth your consideration. This handful of selections have been chosen are more focused on fiction than non-fiction (evangelicals tend to eschew fiction, preferring the didactic non-fiction, this is our Achilles' Heel); they tend to deal with faith and life, yet are not "preachy"; and they are relatively brief, so shall we say, easy volumes to get through. Besides, if I suggested Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," who would really read it? So here are five selections worth your consideration, listed alphabetically by author.
Godric: A Novel, by Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a prolific author who has had a significant impact on many, including novelist John Irving (whom he taught at Philips Exeter Academy), the author of such bestsellers as A Prayer for Owen Meany. Godric, Buechner's tenth novel, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and retells the life of Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century English holy man whose projects late in life included that of purifying his moral ambition of pride, and his desire for rebirth and spiritual yearning, which leads him to a fierce asceticism.
How The Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. While a non-fiction work, this winsome volume by Cahill, which was a national bestseller, traces this little known "hinge" of history, the story of the island of saints and scholars, the Ireland of St. Patrick and others. Cahill tells the story of Ireland's heroic role in saving western civilization. The New Yorker review wrote, "When Cahill shows the splendid results of St. Patrick's mission in Ireland--among them, the preservation and transmission of classical literatute and the evangelization of Europe--he isn't exaggerating. He's rejoicing."
The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter. This is a favorite volume of mine, and wonderfully portrays the friendship of these Inklings, C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends. Carpenter does a magnificent job of weaving a tapestry of the lives of these men that met weekly at the Eagle and Child Pub on St. Giles in Oxford, as well as Lewis' rooms on Thursday evenings at Magdalen College, Oxford. Carpenter, whose father was the Bishop of Oxford during the Inklings days at Oxford, also served as the authorized biographer of J. R. R. Tolkien, one of Lewis' most loyal friends.
A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O'Connor. This little volume of ten short stories served to establish O'Connor as a master of the short story, and, as many have suggested, one of the most original and provocative writers to come from the South. The New York Times Book Review said of her works, "They are characterized by precision, density and an almost alarming circumscription...Her characters tend to move in the hard, white glare of a searchlight...In these stories the rural South is, for the first time, viewed by a writer whose orthodoxy matches her talent. The results are revolutionary." The lead short story, for which the book was titled, is one of the most disturbing, yet truthful, pieces of literary art that you will ever encounter. O'Connor used to say that, "When people stop believing in the Gospel, you have to yell to get their attention."
The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. Another American Southern writer like O'Connor, Percy had interests in both philosophy and semiotics. He is best known for his philosophical novels, and this first of his novels, The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1962, and established Percy as a leading voice in Southern literature. It tells the story of Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker who is adrift in life, occupying himself with dallying with his secretaries and going to movies. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on a spiritual quest to discover the true purpose of life. Percy was accused of writing the same novel seven times, of modern man's vertical search for God, and this first work is exemplary of his exploration of what he came to refer to as "the dislocation of man in the modern age." Although written over forty years ago, The Moviegoer still asks the same questions that remain central to our humanity, and the place of faith in our world. "A brilliant novel...Percy touches the rim of so many human mysteries." - Harper's Magazine
In preparation for a recent talk to a group of business professionals on C. S. Lewis, his life and writings, I came across one of my favorite letters of his that was penned to his brother, Warnie. The occasion was Lewis' report to Warnie of a recent Inkilngs meeting. The Inkilngs, you may recall, was an informal literary group that gathered at Oxford University around Lewis for nearly two decades, from the early 1930's to the late 1940's. They met for jovial, manly conversation, as well as to discuss the member's literary works in progress. The group included, among others, J. R. R. Tolkien (affectionately known as "Tollers"), Owen Barfield, the novelist Charles Williams, and Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien's son. The members would generally meet on Thursday evenings in Lewis' college rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, but were also known to gather on Tuesdays at midday at a pub on St. Giles Street in Oxford, The Eagle and Child, also affectionately known as "The Bird and Baby."
Here is an except from one one of those fascinating meetings, found in one of Walter Hooper's magisterial three volumes, including literally thousands of letters of correspondence, for which he has served as editor. Lewis writes to his brother:
"I had a pleasant evening on Thursday with Williams, Tolkien, and Wrenn, during which Wrenn almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people. Tolkien and I agreed afterwards that we just knew what he meant: that as some people...are eminently kickable, so Williams is eminently combustible."
"The occasion was a discussion of the most distressing text in the Bible ("narrow is the way and few they be that find it") and whether one really could believe in a universe where the majority were damned and also in the goodness of God. Wrenn, of course, took the view that it mattered precisely nothing whether it conformed to your ideas of goodness or not, and it was at that stage that the combustible possibilities of Williams revealed themselves to him in an attractive light. The general sense of the meeting was in favour of a view on the lines taken in Pastor Pastorum -- that our Lord's replies are never straight answers and never gratify curiosity, and that whatever this one meant its purpose was certainly not statistical..."
Granted, these were educated, even brilliant men. But it should be noted that few of them were clergymen, "men of the cloth." And yet, these men didn't just take the time for such profound theological discussions, for such discussions were a central element of who they were, and an important aspect of their own spiritual understanding. Theological discourse framed not only their identity, but their pursuit of knowing God and serving Him.
Why do so few Christians today discuss theology? And what does the modern emphasis on being "relevant" in evangelical Christianity really have to do with Truth? Moreover, what does it tell us about ourselves? So what ever happened to theology?
Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, is having a significant impact in the Big Apple as he seeks to reach young urban professionals. His book, The Reason for God, has moved its way up to number seven on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and his book tour, hosted by the Veritas Forum, has attracted thousands of people to various universities throughout the country. In a recent interview in Christianity Today, Keller provided some thoughtful commentary worthy of reflection. Here are a few of his responses:
Are the doubts that believers face the same as the doubts that unbelievers face?
It's your society that gives you doubts. If you go to the Middle East and ask people what makes Christianity implausible, they're not going to say, "Because there can't be one true religion." They are going to say, "Because of how oppressive America has been as a Christian nation, and if you look at their culture, it's lascivious and debauched." But if you ask Americans, "What makes Christianity implausible to you?" they're not going to say, "Your popular culture is filled with sex and violence." They will say, "How could there be one true religion?" My guess is the personal issues are different. If they came from a very homogeneous, insular Christian community and they go to college and their roommate, who they think is wonderful, is Hindu, and they really feel like all Christians would be better than all Hindus, then they're confused.
The recent Pew study talked about changing patterns of belief in America. Has that affected your apologetics ministry?
The Pew study showed that the moderate middle has atrophied--people who are kind of Christian. They now take Christianity metaphorically.They believe the Resurrection is a wonderful symbol. That group has just been shrinking, and secularism and orthodoxy are growing. So we have a polarized society...One reason for this is because I think there's been a backlash. Evangelicalism has been so identified with conservative Republican values that a lot of people who might be more moderate have decided they are not religious. I've seen this happen in New York. They're moderate or liberal politically, and they feel like orthodox Christianity is so identified with conservative Republican politics that they have actually distanced themselves from the faith.
You reject marketing apologetics (defending the Christian faith) like, "Christianity is better than the alternatives, so choose Christianity. Why?
Marketing is about felt needs. You find the need and then you say Christianity will meet that need. You have to adapt to people's questions. And if people are asking a question, you want to show how Jesus is the answer. But at a certain point, you have to go past their question to the other things that Christianity says. Otherwise you're just scratching where they itch. So marketing is showing how Christianity meets the need, and I think the gospel is showing how Christianity is the Truth.
C. S. Lewis says somewhere not to believe in Christianity because it's relevant or exciting or personally satisfying. Believe it because it's true. And if it's true, it eventually will be relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. But there will be many times when it's not relevant, exciting, and personally satisfying. To be a Christian is going to be very, very hard. So unless you come to it simply because it's really the truth, you really won't live the Christian life, and you won't get to the excitement and to the relevance and all that other stuff.
"One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience's mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it it true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue 'True --- False' into stuff about a good society, or morals....You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point...One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important." -C.S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," from God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.
"It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction." -Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing
"One of the uncomfortable facts about ourselves is that we all must live in a way that meets our own approval." -Paul Holmer, Making Christian Sense
"A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don't want to. Best not to look in there." -Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
"One of the strangest things that people say is, 'I'm a good person.' I am always amazed when people claim to know that about themselves...History demonstrates, repeatedly, that if enough people begin to define themselves as 'good' in contrast to others who are 'bad,' those others come to be seen as less than human." -Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace
"Perfect love may cast out fear, but fear is remarkably potent in casting our love." -P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest
"Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God." -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall/Temptation
"Here is another way of putting the two sides of the truth. On the one hand we must never imagine that our own unaided efforts can be relied on to carry us even through the next twenty-four hours as 'decent' people. If He does not support us, not one of us is safe from some gross sin. On the other hand, no possible degree of holiness or heroism which has ever been recorded of the greatest saints is beyond what He is determined to produce in every one of us in the end. The job will not be completed in this life; but He means to get us as far as possible before death."
"That is why we must not be surprised if we are in for a rough time. When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected) he often feels that it would now be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along -- illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation -- he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary : but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us."
Entry for July 17, "Two Sides of the Truth," from A Year With C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works, taken from Mere Christianity.
I was surprised to find a brilliantly written article this past Monday, in of all places, USA Today, on how we reconcile suffering and evil with a life of faith. It was written by Michael Novak, a distinguished and able theologian, who alluded to a June 9th issue of The New Yorker, where James Wood reviewed a recent book of Bart Ehrman's entitiled, "God's Problem."
Well, Ehrman has his own problems, having jettisoned his Christian faith in recent years, and who ironically, is a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But Wood's review in The New Yorker, as Novak discusses in his USA Today article, points out the need of all people to deal with human suffering and evil, and not just those who are Christians. Yet, we hear the age-old question, most frequently directed to Christians, of how a good and loving God could allow such unthinkable suffering and anguish in our world. And the spate of recent books by the "new atheists" (such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) offers nothing satisfying, but only warmed-up gruel. Any thoughtful person will see that any religious worldview, not just Christianity, must give account for evil and suffering. Novak observes,
"One of the oldest accusations against God in the Bible and in every generation since has been that there is too much evil in this world for there to be a good God. The pain is so intense. The irrationality and seeming cruelty at times seem unendurable. Of course, ceasing to be a Jew or a Christian does not wipe these evils away. They continue. They roar on...The rejection of God does not diminish evil in the world by a whit. Even under atheist interpretations of science, the vast suffering under ferocious competition for survival, for a vastly longer era than was known, far exceeds the evils earlier generations knew."
But as Novak so eloquently writes, for the Christian faith the interpretive key, the lens through which to see our world, is the Cross on which the only Son of God died in space-time history, some two thousand years ago. It is heilsgeschichte, "salvation history," as the German theologians have so aptly characterized God's love for us in this world. As Novak suggests: "For Judaism, it is the long, long exile and pain of the Jewish people. If God has so treated his only son, and also his own people, why should anyone else expect Easy Street? Suffering seeks everybody out. Death certainly does, Christian or not, atheist or not."So at the end of the day, rebellion against a suffering world and the God who made it, while in vogue today, is really nothing new. When many Christians and Jews throughout history have been sorely tried, and we read the writings of the psalmists and prophets, who continually lament the long exile that their people has endured, or Job, whose faith was tested sorely -- were they not all close to the precipice of dismissing God? At the end of Novak's article, he offers a thought provoking question. Even as many Jews and Christians have wanted to throw-off God, he writes, "a counter-question kept nagging them: Would a conviction that our sufferings are meaningless, and due to blind chance, ease the pain of the poor and the unjustly tortured? Raging against the night seems to be an evasion of reality."
In James Wood's excellent piece in The New Yorker, he makes a telling statement about the hope of those who are Christians. He writes: "Christianity needs the concept of heaven simply to make sense of human suffering." So I want to know, where else is a reasonable explanation to be found for the problem of evil and suffering in this blighted planet of ours?
Although Christians like to say that "every soul matters," many church leaders are specifically targeting men, they believe, in the hopes that the next generation of believers will find their way to the faith. Just last week, USA Today ran a cover story titled, "At Nation's Churches, Guys Are Few in the Pews," which chronicled this relatively new niche ministry of local churches.
One church highlighted in the article, 121 Community Church, outside of Dallas, was even begun with men in mind. No pastel colors or flowers, or traditional organ music can be found at 121, and the worship center's stone floor, and hunter green and amber decor, with rustic beam ceilings, screams out loud, "Guy Church!!" Ross Sawyers, founding pastor of 121, reasons that: "If a child comes to Christ, 12% of his whole family will follow, if the mom comes, there's a 15% chance the family will, but if the man comes to church, 90% of the time the entire family will follow."
The statistics from recent surveys seem to support Sawyers' contention, and the dilemma facing churches to attract men. Women are the majority in 21 of 25 Christian denominations; 45% of women, and only 34% of men, attend worship at least weekly; and 31% of men and 27% of women say they never go to church, not even on holidays. While literally decades of traditional ministries and men's groups in most churches, even the macho, all-men rallies of the 1990's Promise Keepers, haven't made much of a dent in the traditional religious practices of most American males.
Blame the church, not the men, argues David Murrow, author of the book, "Why Men Hate Going to Church." Murrow contends that "warm, nurturing churches ignore men's need to face the epic struggles of living for Christ." He even offers a free downloadable action plan, "Go for the Guys," that advises pastors how to infuse "adventure, challenge, boldness, competition, ferocity and fun," into church life. Murrow describes a gathering a few years ago of comedian Brad Stine's GodMen ministry, that featured karate fights, car chases, and a song with lyrics urging, "No more nice guy, timid and ashamed...Grab a sword, don't be scared - be a man, grow a pair!!"
Brandon O'Brien, who was quoted in the USA Today article and recently covered this story in Christianity Today, countered that those who prefer lattes and books to bows and arrows are equally able to embody Christ-like qualities. "Guy Church" pastors should not forget that "humanity in the image of Christ is not aggressive and combative; it is humble and poor." But as congregations, primarily across the Sun Belt, are holding "Beast Feasts," where the flock's outdoorsmen invite their unchurched male buddies to a game banquet, in the hopes of winning them to Christ, we can rest assured that there aren't a lot of Starbucks lattes at the church banquet where your host may have shot your supper!
"Men are driven by activity, by events, by doing. That's our nature," says Mark Estep, a pastor near Houston. "Beast Feasts, Fishing. Hunting. Golf...They build bonds with each other. That's the open door into their heart. Then you can begin to talk about their spiritual condition...A man is far more apt to come to a church event if another man asks him. It his wife asks him, he'll interpret that as nagging," he offers.
PLESE POST YOUR COMMENTS BELOW
1. What are your general thoughts and impressions of churchs that exclusively target men to build their church? Are there any Scriptural passages that come to mind that either support or argue against a niche ministry focused exclusively toward men?
2. Do you think traditional churches, which tend to accentuate a "warm, fuzzy, and nurturing" culture, create a repellent culture for most men? Are churches guilty of wrapping the Gospel in a man-repellent package?
3. Would professional men who are interested in exploring the Christian faith be more open to this kind of niche church for men than a traditional church? Why or why not?
4. Do you believe significant involvement and membership in a local church is critical for the growth and cultivation of one's Christian faith? Can it be equally accomplished outside of the local church? Why or why not?
Please share your thoughts and observations with others below.
In 1783, a french noblewoman sat in her carriage at the Tuilleries observing for the first time a hot-air balloon rise into the sky. "Oh yes, now it's certain!" she cried out with with anguish. "One day they'll learn to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead!!"
So begins Andrew Stark's thoughtful review in a recent issue in The Wall Street Journal, of the book, "Mortal Coil," written by David Boyd Haycock (Yale Press, $30). Stark observes further that: "Spurred by a similar sort of anxiety and desire, Western scientists long ago set out to find the key to immortality -- a quest that David Boyd Haycock chronicles with wit and learning in "The Mortal Coil." In the 17th century, alchemists led the hunt; in the 18th, hygiene fetishists; in the 19th, monkey-gland transplanters. Today's questers would seem to dwarf them all. Credible researchers, backed by major investors, are seeking out antioxidants to minimize cell damage, genetic engineering to curb the aging process, enzymes to keep tissues supple and stem cells to grow new organs."
One of the most fascinating techniques that Mr. Haycock discusses in this quest for immortality is the rather macabre practice of cryonics: freezing people just after death but before brain damage begins, and then hopefully "resurrecting them," as Mr. Haycock suggests, when medicine is finally able to cure that "fundamental problem of life...death." Companies that currently offer this service (honest to God truth...) will typically freeze a person's severed head, which is fondly referred to in the longevity industry as a "popsicle," with the hope that eventually the head will be thawed out and transplanted onto a robotic torso, one invulnerable to the ailments that killed the body.
While Mr. Stark (author of "The LImits of Medicine," Cambridge Press) in his review briefly overviews how traditional religious faith, or the lack thereof, has dealt with death (annihilationism, reincarnation, and resurrection), he doesn't offer what seems to be an even more fundamental question that is raised by our disdain and dis-comfort with mortality. And that question is, why do we have this longing for life everlasting? If this universe truly has little or no meaning, but is simply a random result of chance, why would we want to live forever? Why go to such extremes to stave off the inevitable?
A number of years ago, Woody Allen was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine, and he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. Allen lamented, "Someone once asked me if my dream was to live on in the hearts of my people, and I said I would like to live on in my apartment. And that's really what I would prefer...You drop dead one day, and it means less than nothing if billions of people are singing your praises every day, all day long."
Despite Allen's annihilationist view of life (like the beer commercials, we only go around once), the Good Book suggests that we have this fundamental, intrinsic belief, that we will live forever, for a very good reason. As Qoheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, "God has put eternity in our hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). All other views, apart from Resurrection, pale in comparison to fulfill this deeply cherished belief, that we will live forever.
"They, of all men, must not conceive spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and the senses. Their God is the God of corn and oil and wine...These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage; not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King's stables." -C.S. Lewis, Miracles
An article in last Friday's Wall Street Journal written by David Skeel, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, provided an interesting take on the legacy of C.S. Lewis, and the possibility of his successors in the world of Christian apologetics. In the article entitled, "Apres Lewis," Skeel laments that there has not been another writer like C. S. Lewis to provide an updated version of Lewis' remarkable defense of orthodox Christianity entitled, "Mere Christianity," which has sold millions of copies since it's original publication in 1952.
Concerning the writing style of the Oxford don, Skeel observes: "Lewis was an adept Christian apologist who used his literary gifts--his fluent prose style, his powers of description, his engaging narrative voice, his way with metaphor--to explain the basic tenets of Christianity: what it meant to believe in Jesus Christ and to live according to Christian principles. More than that: He was at pains to capture, in prose, what it meant to discover Christianity as something worthy of belief. On the page, he thought his own faith through, trying to make sense of it for himself and others. There is always something ecumenical and instructive to Lewis' religious writings, and 'Mere Christianity'... is the nonfiction book by which American Christians, not least American evangelicals, know Lewis best."
Skeel then surveys recent modern attempts by evangelicals to provide a more current treatment of Lewis' apologetic works, Mere Christianity "wannabes," if you will. Among them are Lee Strobel, the former investigative reporter in Chicago ("The Case for Christ"), N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar ("Simply Christian," among other writings), and Tim Keller, a New York City pastor whose teaching style attracts over 5,000 attendees, most of them young, single, urban professionals. And while Skeel suggests that Keller's work is most winsome and the most akin to Lewis' style (and I would agree with him here), he observes that, "it too is no 'Mere Christianity.' It does not have the original arguments or the magical prose of Lewis' classic."
While these contemporary writers are all very capable writers for the Faith in their own right, none can match the strength and sheer wit and turn of phrase of Lewis' writings, not only in his classic, "Mere Christianity," but his other works as well. In some ways, it is almost unfair to compare these writers with Lewis. You may recall that the basis for the book "Mere Christianity" was a series of broadcast talks Lewis delivered over the BBC during the Second World War between 1942-1944. Lewis, through these radio broadcasts, would quickly discover that he had moved from the private world of being an Oxford don, to the public stage, as his voice through these radio talks would make him the second most recognized voice in all of England, second only to Winston Churchill.
The historical context in which Lewis delivered these radio broadcasts cannot be overestimated in providing, as it were, a "perfect storm" for his sudden popularity. In her excellent Foreword to the current edition of "Mere Christianity," writer Kathleen Norris observes that some of the talks that Lewis gave during the Second World War (in addition to the BBC talks) were to men in the Royal Air Force, "who knew that after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be declared dead or missing. Their situation prompted Lewis to speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil..."
But what might account for the continual fascination with the man and his writings, as untold millions of copies of his books are sold every year? (Since 2001, his books have increased in sales 125%, and The Chronicles of Narnia have been translated into over thirty languages, and have sold more than 85 million copies). Perhaps it has to do with Lewis' love not only for reason and truth, but also his love with the imagination. Norris, again in the Foreword, writes that "Lewis betrays a deep faith in the power of the human imagination to reveal the truth about our condition and bring us to hope. 'The longest way round is the shortest way home' (from "Mere Christianity") is the logic of both fable and faith."
One can hardly improve on the way Norris describes Lewis' "mere" Christianity, that has made his writing so persuasive and winsome over the years: "The 'mere' Christianity of Lewis is not a philosophy or even a theology...it is a way of life, one that challenges us always to remember, as Lewis once stated, that 'there are no ordinary people' and that 'it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit' (from "The Weight of Glory")...The Christianity Lewis espouses is humane, but not easy: it asks us to recognize that the great religious struggle is not fought on a spectacular battleground, but within the ordinary human heart, when every morning we awake and feel the pressures of the day crowding in on us, and we must decide what sort of immortals we wish to be."
Maybe we don't need another C. S. Lewis after all.
A number of years ago one of the more thoughtful writers that I have come across, Philip Yancey, devoted a column to Questions, not Answers. I must admit, I was taken back by it. It struck me that many of us receive much more information than we could ever possibly absorb. And sometimes we ourselves are guilty of giving answers to questions people are not asking. The questions that people have, in their heart of hearts, but don't tell us about. I am reminded that the philosopher Aristotle once observed that "those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions." So while normally this space is devoted to reflections on the intersection of faith, life, and culture, this one is about questions, questions I hear from a lot of men in fact. Sometimes spoken, but more often, never spoken...
Does my life have any overarching purpose that I can possibly understand or know about? Is there anything more to life than work, play, and occasional vacations? Is this life simply all about pursuing my own ends, in my work and leisure, the pursuit of "bread and circuses"?
How can I really know God? I know we are told by Christian leaders to read our Bibles. But I don't really understand the Bible, nor am I confident that He is really in my life. Is there supposed to be a subjective feeling that accompanies God's presence in my life, or not?
What does a life of faith really look like in the world of commerce? Must it always be observable to the outside world? If not, then how might it be manifested, if at all?
What is the true and legitimate role of faith in my work and career? Does God really orchestrate the affairs of my business, my wins and losses, or is it all on my shoulders? Is it happenstance, or the roll of the dice?
Is it possible to be successful in work, trying to be the very best, and also to be truly engaged with my family, children, and friends? Am I playing games with God? Do I believe that there are legitimate kinds of success other than in business? Does He value business success over other forms of success?
Is there any way that I can be truly happy in this life? How could it be that a man like King Solomon could have so much money and pleasure in his life, and still be unhappy, saying that it is all "vanity, and striving after wind"? Could it be that there is a purposeful divine "discontent" with this life?
Just wondering....so what are some of the questions on your mind?
Whether we like it or not, churches are in tremendous competition with each other. Especially in our major metropolitan areas, the religious landscape is being transformed, as increasingly, people are attending larger "big box" churches, similar to a Costco or Walmart, to have their spiritual needs, and those of their family, met. And just as department stores and restaurants sometimes hire mystery shoppers and diners, to rate how the store or restaurant is doing, so churches are turning to professional "mystery worshippers."
A recent Wall Street Journal article, entitled "The Mystery Worshipper," addressed this curious phenomenon. Thomas Harrison, a former pastor, belongs to a new breed of church consultants whose aim is to equip pastors with modern marketing practices to enhance their product, the church. And Mr. Harrison, a meticulous inspector, poses as a first-time visitor, and often uses the phrase, "I was horrified" to register his disapproval of everything from stuffy odors in the children's area to rude congregants.
In an increasingly changing religious landscape, where almost half of all American adults switch their religious affiliation, churches are more open than ever to employ corporate marketing strategies such as customer-satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and product giveaways, to attract new souls. There are also reports recently of some churches, in an effort to jump start their multi-million dollar capital fundraisng campaigns (despite our recent economic tsunami), to bring in marketing firms, to teach people how they can give to the church sacrificially.
According to The Wall Street Journal article, these secret-shopper services mainly target Christian churches, where declining "brand loyalty" worshippers has become a common problem. A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which drew from over 35,000 people, found that 44% of American adults have switched their religious affiliation. And as churches attempt to court more fickle churchgoers, many leaders are seeking new ways to assess their services, everything from the style of music, the sermon, to the comfort of the pews.
What stands out in striking contrast when we turn to the New Testament is how the emphasis is more focused upon the people carrying out the mission of the worship of God, and love for other Christians, which would be attractive to those outside the Christian faith. Very little information is given, no doubt, because most of the early churches were relatively small, and met as house churches. One cannot help but wonder, though, if there is not an over emphasis in today's culture (borrowing from a secular model) to frame the church with much more of a consumer-oriented mindset. Are we in fact asking the church to be something that it is not supposed to be?
What do you think?
"Christianity is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I have attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in...It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise....You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: 'Do I like that kind of service?' but 'Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?" --C.S. Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity
Paul David Hewson, better known by his stage name, Bono, is as many of us know, the main vocalist and lyricist for the Irish rock band, U2. In addition to the worldwide acclaim the band has garnered over the years, Bono is also well known for his collaborative efforts with numerous artists, as well as his humanitarian efforts in Africa. What some people may not realize, though, is his vibrant Christian faith, and his affection for the writings of another Irishman, the Oxford don C.S. Lewis.
It is clear that Lewis has greatly impacted Bono's theological worldview. Bruce Edwards, in a recent post on his website, cslewisblog.com, suggests that we hear the echo of Lewis' influence ih Bono's idea of grace, in distinguishing it from karma, as well as the trilemma argument that Lewis popularized concerning the identity of this Galilean who claimed to be God Incarnate. From the book, Bono in Conversation, listen to Bono's words as he contrasts "karma" from the Biblical idea of "grace."
(The concept of grace) is a "mind blowing concept...that keeps me on my knees." At the center of all religions (Bono tells his skeptical interviewer) is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics-in physical laws-every action is met by an equal or an opposite one."
Amazing clarity of insight, wouldn't you say? And from a famous rock star musician and lyricist, no less, but one who eyes to see...
A few years ago at Christmastime, James Taylor released a Christmas CD through Hallmark Gift Stores which has some of the most well known classic carols of Christmas. I wrote about one of those carols a few years ago, and it continues to evoke a strong sense of worship, especially at Christmas season. The song is titled, In the Bleak Mid-Winter, a well-known hymn from the British Christmas tradition, and is based on a traditional Celtic folk song.
What many people may not realize is that the melody to the hymn was composed by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), perhaps best know for his orchestral masterpiece, The Planets. Holst's melody, Cranham (named after the town in which it was written), was set to a poem written by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), In the Bleak Mid-Winter was first published in The English Hymnal in 1906, and has always been one of Holst's most popular compositions. The beauty and simplicity of the folk song greatly inspired Holst. May the hymn's lyrics serve as a personal meditation for each of us at this Christmastime.
"In the bleak mid-winter, the frosty wind did moan. The earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow on snow had fallen, snow on snow on snow. In the bleak mid-winter, oh, so long ago.
Angels and archangels, they have gathered there. Cherubim and seraphim, rising in the air. But only his mother, in her maiden bliss, worshipped the Beloved, with a mother's kiss.
Heaven cannot hold Him, or can earth sustain, heaven and earth shall fall away, when He comes to reign.
What then can I give Him, empty as I am. If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, oh, I would do my part. What then can I give Him, I must give my heart."
"With what shall I come to the Lord, and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6: 6-8)
FinishingWell serves under the auspices of Reflections Ministries, Inc., a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. If you benefit from these posts and the ministry of FinishingWell, consider making a financial contribution for the underwriting of this ministry. You can go to the "Donate" page on this website for information about how to make contributions that can be made both by credit card or check. Your contribution is tax-deductible, and is appreciated.
Most of us as parents have faced the dilemma with what we are supposed to tell our children about Santa Claus at Christmas. In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, writer Tony Woodlief recounted the challenge he faced with his 8-year-old son, Caleb, as the young boy wanted to have a man-to-man talk with his father: "Dad, I know there's no Santa Claus," as he spoke of the sheer impossibility of the physics of the event. " There's no way one guy can visit every home in a single night, and how was he supposed to get into homes without chimneys? And then there was the matter of the zoological conundrum - there is not a single book on nature in their bookshelves that addressed the matter of flying reindeer! But the greatest argument against Santa Claus, young Caleb admitted to his father, was the power of peer opinion - none of his friends believe in Santa Claus anymore. He leaned close to his father, and with a voice taking on the hint of this worldliness, and said to him, "He isn't real, is he?"
Despite the problems inherent in dealing with this mythic figure that holds such a prominent place in our culture at Christmas, there may be more at stake than meets the eye. It may be an important part of our humanness to cultivate a sense of awe, wonder, and delight in our increasingly secularized culture. While mention of magic and fantasy tends to grate upon the atheistic philosophers and "scientists" of our day, like Richard Dawkins, why should they be so irate if it is all an illusion anyway? rWoodlief informs us that Mr. Dawkins is reportedly writing a book that examines the pernicious effect of fantasy tales that promote "anti-scientific" thinking among children. Dawkins reasons that such stories lay the fundamental groundwork for religious faith, which he believes is a form of child abuse.
Curiously, Woodlief reports that recent research at the Universite' de Montreal and the University of Ottawa suggest that children are not overly troubled with learning that Santa is a myth, but that there remains a vestige of belief in God even after they have abandoned Santa. Researchers remain puzzled, and ardent atheists are not amused.
Perhaps the best explanation for this is that fairy tales, and yes, even Santa Claus, awaken and nurture our insatiable desire for the Ultimate Fairy Tale. G. K. Chesterton believed that there has been a great amount of harm and violence done in the name of rationalistic modernism to stifle the important concept that our world displays a "mystical condition." Chesterton, writing of his pilgrimage to faith in God, wrote in Orthodoxy, "I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician."
While this belief in fantasy and wonder may appear as madness to the modern sensibilities of many, who believe all things are to be explained by science and reason (Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al.), Chesterton, and other Christian fantasists, believe that they actually give a better account of the way things really are, and are in fact the saner position. Chesterton observed: "Mathematicians go mad, and chess players, but poets very seldom go mad." He went on to explain, "I am not in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination." To him, the only alternatives to embracing a mystical world was either to go the way of the materialist, who understands everything by scientific principles ("yet for whom everything does not seem worth understanding"), or the madman, who is trying to "get the heavens into his head."
Mr. Woodlief reports that Oxford University Press recently announced that it will be dropping words like "dwarf," "elf," and "devil" from its children's dictionary to make room for words like "blog," "Euro, " and "biodegradable," a blow which he sees correctly as, not just a blow to language, but to children's imagination.
The fantasy writer George MacDonald, whom C. S. Lewis said "baptized his imagination" when he was a youth of sixteen years old, had a profound influence in Lewis' own spiritual journey to God. MacDonald once observed that it is only by gazing through magic-tinted eyes that one can see God: "With his divine alchemy he turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries."
Is there not a connection here, that unfolds the wonder and fascination of the story of God becoming one of us in the Incarnation? One day, that grand fairy tale will become true. Or as Lewis once observed, "The Son of God became a man, to unable men to become sons of God."
FinishingWell serves under the auspices of Reflections Ministries, Inc., a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. If you benefit from these posts and the ministry of FinishingWell, consider making a financial contribution for the underwriting of this ministry. You can go to the "Donate" page on this website for information about how to make contributions that can be made both by credit card or check. Your contribution is tax-deductible, and is appreciated.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, known affectionately to his admirers simply as "GKC," would be delighted to learn that, 82 years after his death, he is still contributing to the political and theological dialogue of our day. During the recent presidential campaigns, both Mike Huckabee in his run for the Republican nomination quoted Chesterton frequently, and Obama supporters likewise see the influence of Chesterton's thought on the president-elect's worldview.
As Allen Barra wrote in an article devoted to Chesterton in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Chesterton was born in 1874 into a middle-class London family of secular liberals. And while he embraced some of his parents' principles, he still found their liberalism to be thin soup for his soul. His religious faith was first expressed, and is best seen, in his work, Orthodoxy, first published in 1908. The book, he wrote, was not "an ecclesiastical treatise but a sort of slovenly written autobiography."
In Orthodoxy he spoke of his discovery that in many ways, Christianity made the most sense of how "I could feel homesick at home." At the end of chapter five of Orthodoxy, "The Flag of the World," Chesterton observed: "Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right for feeling all things are odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things."
Orthodoxy had a significant influence on intellectuals who became Christians in the twentieth century, and C.S. Lewis often acknowledged his indebtedness to Chesterton's writings. The reference that Chesterton makes to the oddity of our experience in this world is observable to those familiar with Lewis' classic, Mere Christianity. Lewis writes, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is not to conclude that this universe is a fraud, but to realize that I was made for another world."
Interestingly, for the last three decades of his life, Chesterton waged public "duels" with well known religious and political intellectual "heavyweights" such as Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, men who by our own day's best known "atheists," Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, hardly deserve mention. As Barra mentions in his article, some of GKC's most fervent opponents still remained his friends for life, as in the case of Shaw, who called Chesterton's biography of him "the best work of literary art I've yet provoked."
Chesterton loved the banter with the skeptics and agnostics, remaining resolute in his faith, for after all he reasoned, "If there were no God, there would be no atheists!" One admiring young Czech writer, Franz Kafka, thought Chesterton "so happy that one might almost believe he had found God!" For indeed he believed he had, as he observed in Orthodoxy, "If a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key."
H. L. Mencken once observed of religion: "The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride." Mencken has certainly had his following of committed disciples, and many of them trace their religious zeal, or lack thereof, back to Charles Darwin.
It was exactly a century and a half ago, in 1859, that Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species. It is perhaps the most controversial book of the past millennium, and the work that has since made Darwin the patron saint of modern atheism. According to the opinion of atheist Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker, "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."
There is little doubt that evolution has helped in turning many away from religious faith. Dinesh D'Souza, a former fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and the author of numerous books, pointed this out in a recent article of Christianity Today. He observed that the distinguished Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, through evolution, gained a profound sense of intellectual liberation from his Baptist upbringing in the South. Others have become secular "evangelists" for the Darwinian cause, like Michael Shermer, who was an evangelical Christian studying at Pepperdine University when his study of evolution led him to give up his fatih. Today, Shermer is the editor of Skeptic magazine.
As D'Souza suggests in his article, many of the modern-day evangelists touting evolution as the death-knell to religious belief actually go beyond what Darwin himself initially believed. While Dawkins suggests that Darwin made it possible for one to be an "intellectually fufilled atheist," Darwin himself was careful to only call himself an "agnostic," one who does not know whether God exists. Here, we must distinguish between Darwin the scientist and Darwin the unbeliever. Darwin, who was raised Anglican and even considered becoming a clergyman, did eventually jettison his Christian faith, but it was not primarily because of evolution.
The story is told in Adrian Desmond and James Moore's authoritative biography, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. When Darwin's daughter Annie died at age 10, Darwin came to hate the God he blamed for this. This was in 1851, eight years before Darwin released Origin of Species. Furthermore, aound the time of Annie's death, Darwin also wrote that if Christianity were true, then it would follow that his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and many of his closest family friends would be in hell. Darwin found this utterly unacceptable, given that these men were wise and kind and generous. Darwin's rejection of God was less an act of unbelief than a rebellion against the kind of God posited by Christianity. A God who would allow a young girl to die and good people to go to hell was not a God whom Darwin was willing to worship.
Ironically, while Darwin's work would be praised by many biologists because it deepened man's understanding of divine teleology (design), many of his followers saw Darwinian theory as the perfect argument against the Christian case for divine creation. And while Darwin was originally modest about evolution (a theory to account for transitions from one life form to another), he would become increasingly insistent that evolution was an entirely naturalistic system, having no room for miracles or divine intervention at any point.
D'Souza recounts that when Darwin's co-discoverer of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote him to say that evolution could not account for man's moral and spiritual nature, Darwin accused him of jeopardizing the whole theory: "I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child." Darwin's ultimate position was that it was disastrous for evolution to, at any point, permit a divine foot in the door.
A major takeaway from Darwin's story is that religious belief, or its lack, is as much borne out of the heart, and our volition, as the head. The issue of pain and suffering, and reconciling it with a good and loving God (what the theologians call "theodicy") has been with us from time immemorial. It is as old as Dostoevsky dealing with it, particularly in the chapter, "The Grand Inquisitor," from his classic, The Brothers Karamazov, and it is centerpiece in the the popular and somewhat controversial bestseller, The Shack, by William Young.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis' words from Mere Christianity, dealing with how he reconciled the idea of a good God that had made a world that had gone wrong, are as apropos as any we might find. They show how Lewis resolved the reality of pain and suffering in this blighted planet, which will one day be redeemed.
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be a part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet...Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning." -C. S. Lewis, "The Rival Conceptions of God," Mere Christianity
Mark Driscoll shatters the stereotypical image of the American church pastor. His sermons are typically too racy to post on GodTube, the evangelical Christian "family friendly" video-posting website, but you will easily find him on YouTube, where he would rather be. Unsuspecting sinners who type in popular words may find themselves suddenly face to face with a husky-voiced preacher in a black skateboarder's jacket and a skull T-shirt. An article in the January 6th issue of The New York Times, "Who Would Jesus Smack Down?" reveals how this break-the-mold pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle has, in a little more than a decade, grown from a living-room Bible study to a megachurch today that draws over 7,000 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday.
For all of his popularity among his flock, he is reviled by conservative Christians. As Molly Worthen writes in The New York Times article: "Conservatives call Driscoll "the cussing pastor" and wish that he'd trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements. Liberals wince at his hellfire theology and insistence that women submit to their husbands. But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy."
Driscoll has an interesting story to tell. The oldest of five, son of a union drywaller, he was raised Roman Catholic in a rough neighborhood on the outskirts of Seattle. In high school, he met a pretty blond pastor's daughter named, providentially so, Grace. She gave him his first Bible, and he would go on to read it voraciously until he was born again at 19. "God talked to me," Driscoll says. "He told me to marry Grace, preach the Bible, to plant churches and train men." He married Grace (with whom he now has five children) and, at 25, founded Mars Hill. Typical ministry plan for a pastor, right?
Despite his contrarian approach to ministry, Driscoll is on the cutting edge of American pop culture. His teaching epitomizes a deep-rooted allegiance to reformed theology that has a certain winsomeness to it, despite its seemingly radical unfashionableness. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn't "Amazing Grace" or "The Chronicles of Narnia," but rather, "Fight Club." On a recent Sunday, as The New York Times article reported, Driscoll preached for an hour and ten minutes, nearly three times longer than most pastors.
Worthen observes in the article: "As hip as he looks, his message brooks no compromise with Seattle's permissive culture. New members can keep their taste in music, their retro T-shirts and their intimidating facial hair, but they had better abandon their feminism, premarital sex and any "modern" interpretations of the Bible. Driscoll is adamantly not the "weepy worship dude" he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, "singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair."
Like him or not philosophically or theologically, reading of Driscoll's ministry and impact reminds me of Jesus' words to the religious leaders of His own day, who tried to define the boundaries of what is "acceptable" religion, and how His message could not be contained in the traditional confines of organized religion: He told them this parable: "No one tears a patch from a new
garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the
new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine
will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be
ruined.  No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And
no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is
As different as he is from many of us, I find him utterly refreshing!
"There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up. I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sin as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity."
The story is told of Saint Teresa of Avila, that she was once thrown off her carriage and slammed rudely to the ground, and deposited in a mud puddle. When she questioned God, He answered her, "This is how I treat all my friends." To which she tartly replied, "Then, Lord, it is not surprising that you have so few."
It is so tempting to believe that God "owes us," that somehow if we are good enough, and obey Him, then we can "broker" a deal with him so that he will protect us, and lead us to be successful. Sadly, this is a pernicious teaching that we are regularly hearing from those who are generally regarded as solid, evangelical bible preachers and teachers: "Obey God, and He will make your paths straight. He will take care of your finances. He will watch over you and your children. He will protect you in all you do." No doubt, it plays well from the pulpits in many churches in America, particularly where the style of ministry is geared up to meet the "felt needs" of the hearers.
Don't misunderstand me. There are clearly benefits to following God in this life. Oftentimes Christians get their lives and priorities properly aligned. They experience the joy of forgiveness, and walking with Christ in fellowship with Him. They come to better understand their Christian faith, and are equipped to answer questions that others have about the Faith. But to say that our relationship with God gives us a carte blanche benefit with the Heavenly Father, so that we are protected from the pains and sufferings of this present world, is misinformed, and lacks biblical support.
Consider the struggles of Asaph, a musician in the temple guild of Israel during the days of the Old Testament, as he records his struggles in Psalm 73. Asaph is bold enough to wonder, why is it that good things often happen to bad people, and why do bad things sometimes happen to good people? While he begins with the bold admission that "Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart," he admits his crisis of faith, that "my feet came close to stumbling...for I was envious of the arrogant, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked" (vv. 2-3) Asaph wonders, as often many of us sometimes have, is it really worth it to live the Christian life? Asaph raises the startling inference that perhaps it is all in vain: "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning" (vv. 12-14).
While resolution of his spiritual crisis comes later in the psalm, Asaph provides us with a few important lessons about life in this temporal, transient world. He shows us how important it is for us to be ruthlessly honest with God about our disappointments and doubts in life, as well as to confess the limits of our understanding in this world. Qoheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, tells us that "There is a futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility." (Ecclesiastes 8:14)
But perhaps the most profound (and disturbing) truth of this psalm is that there is no assurance offered that obedience to God will lead to material and/or physical well-being! In fact, it seems that Asaph's purity of heart may have led to the opposite. And while the Christian hope is that God will one day renovate this blighted planet, and correct all the wrongs of this temporal existence (note the epiphany Asaph experiences at the end of his psalm), we should be cautious of any teaching, or expectation, that we can broker a deal with God. It simply isn't in the cards...
"My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever...As for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge..." -Psalm 73: 26, 28
"Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, 'Why hast thou forsaken me?' When God becomes a man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle." -C.S. Lewis, "The Efficacy of Prayer," from The World's Last Night and Other Essays.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a debate in Birmingham, Alabama, with my good friend Mark Elliott, at Samford University, on the question of God. The debate featured two of the more celebrated representatives of each theological position, Christopher Hitchens and John Lennox. Hitchens, one of the leading apostles of atheism, read philosophy at Oxford University, and is a British journalist and professional provocateur. He can be seen on many programs as a political commentator, yet, in recent days he has found a new career in debating Christians on the existence of God. You may be familiar with his best-selling book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens displayed a certain panache, as expected, and occasionally drew applause from the crowd that was decidedly Christian in its makeup.
John Lennox, the Christian apologist, is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science, and is the author of God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? While Lennox is a man who displays humility and respect to his opponents in debate, this should not be construed as weakness of mind or argument, something that these "new atheists" have rather quickly come to realize. Despite the impossibility of setting forth all of the arguments set forth by both sides, here are three takeaways from the evening:
The Place of Reason: While the Christian position is oftentimes chided by atheists and agnostics as being a position of "faith" and not reason, Lennox did an admirable job of marshaling data that suggests great purpose and design in our universe, pointing to a Grand Designer. While Hitchens rarely gave a rebuttal to any of Lennox's statements, his points seemed to focus, as his book does, on the supposed "failure" of all religions. While science by definition deals with empirical data, that which is repeatable and observable, Lennox argued, much as Malcolm Muggeridge did in his remarkable book, The End of Christendom, that human reason itself is a "cul-de-sac," as it is outside the proper domain of science to answer questions such as: where did I come from? Where am I going? Is there a purpose or reason for my existence?
The Possibility of Revelation: There is an underlying tone among atheists and agnostics as they decry the Christian faith against the notion that Biblical revelation is possible. I heard Anthony Flew, the world-renowned atheist whose conversion to theism (not a Christian at this point it seems) make the statement several years ago in Oxford, that one of the primary reasons he rejects Christianity is because he rejects the very notion of biblical revelation. Hitchens, in a similar vein, made a snide remark toward Lennox when the latter told the story of Jesus' healing the ear of a man who lost his ear at the hands of one of the disciples on the night Jesus was betrayed. Hitchens was heard clearly to say, a bit under his breath, "or so they say that He did this..." To Hitchens and this cadre of non-believers, any form of supernaturalism, even the possibility of revelation, is synonymous with superstition.
The Reality of Religion: What is remarkable about this new strain of atheism is that they claim that only science and empirical data can give us clues about meaning and life as we know it. Yet Hitchens himself rarely set forth any positive arguments to account for his atheistic worldview. His theology (for even atheists have a theology, that there is not God) is at the very root a theology of protest. And as Lennox suggested, even the atheist (not just the Christian), must have an explanation to account for evil and suffering in this world. For if there is no Heaven, there will be no final redemption of this blighted planet, and therefore there are millions who have lived in this world who will never receive justice. In reality, the hope of Heaven is the Christian response to the suffering in this world. To the ardent atheist, since there is no transcendent meaning and purpose to this, then life is no more than the way Shakespeare described it in the words of Macbeth:
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
In reality, the atheist demonstrates a greater "leap of faith" than those embracing Christian theism, his own "religious" view, for he seeks to find meaning and purpose in a world that he has told us has no meaning and purpose. Following up a debate last October at Oxford University between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor best known for his book, The God Delusion, Melanie Phillips of the British weekly magazine, The Spectator, interviewed Dawkins. Phillips reported that Dawkins, at the beginning of the debate, made a most startling admission, that "a serious case could be made for a deistic God..."And speaking of placing "faith" in the improbable, Phillips reported that:
"Even more jaw-droppingly, Dawkins told me that, rather than believing in God, he was more receptive to the theory that life on earth had indeed been created by a governing intelligence - but one which had resided on another planet. Leave aside the question of where that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself come from, is it not remarkable that the arch-apostle of reason finds the concept of God more unlikely as an explanation of the universe than the existence and plenipotentiary power of extra-terrestrial little green men?"
Robert Jastrow, a Jewish scientist, expressed it so eloquently a number of years ago in his book, God and the Astronomers, when he suggested that for all the advancements of science, its attempt to answer the ultimate question of origins lies not in the realm of science, but beyond the realm of science:
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting their for centuries."
As Dinesh D'Souza writes in a recent posting on Christianity Today's website, his recent debate with bioethicist Peter Singer at Singer's home campus, Princeton University, serves to differentiate Singer from the other well known "new atheists," such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. While Singer tends to be a mild-mannered chap that speaks calmly, his extreme positions advocating infanticide (including fourth-trimester abortions, the killing of infants after they are born) and euthanasia, and this despite his advocacy of animal rights, is making even the New Atheists nervous.
Singer has written: "My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others." Singer argues that even pigs, chickens, and fish have more signs of consciousness and rationality-and, consequently, a greater claim to rights-than do fetuses, newborn infants, and people with mental disabilities. "Rats are indisputably more aware of their surroundings, and more able to respond in purposeful and complex ways to things they like or dislike, than a fetus at 10- or even 32-weeks gestation...The calf, the pig, and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy."
While D'Souza suggests that some people simply consider Singer as a provocateur who says outrageous things to garner attention, he may have a rational basis for his extreme positions. While the New Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins argue that no one needs God in order to be good (contrary to Dostoevsky's maxim that, "If there is no God, then all things are permitted"), as D'Souza points out, such a "halfway-house" position of the New Atheists creates a problem that was laid out over a century ago by the atheist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. When Nietzsche proclaimed the "death of God," he was suggesting that God has indeed died in the consciousness of modern man, and consequently, all the Christian values that have been a part of Western culture are in fact based on a mythical notion. In his view, while we may continue to live based on these Christian values for a while, in time there is a "shelf-life" to these values, leaving modern man with the prospect of "nihilism," what he termed "the Abyss."
And in Singer's Nietzschean worldview, where God and transcendent values are mere poppycock, there is little wonder that he sees human beings, not as creatures fashioned in the imago dei, God's vice-regents on the earth, but as nothing more than Darwinian primates. No, Singer argues, we must remove Homo sapiens from their privileged status and restore the natural order, giving more rights for animals and no special consideration for human beings. In Singer's utilitarian universe, why not extend rights to the apes, while doing away with unwanted children, people with mental disabilities, and the elderly who do not contribute to the betterment of society? Scary, but quite logical in Singer's nihilistic, secular world.
D'Souza's concluding words are instructive: " Why haven't the atheists embraced Peter Singer? I suspect it is because they fear that his unpalatable views will discredit the cause of atheism. What they haven't considered, however, is whether Singer, virtually alone among their numbers, is uncompromisingly working out the implications of living in a truly secular society, one completely purged of Christian and transcendental foundations. In Singer, we may be witnessing someone both horrifying and yet somehow refreshing: an intellectually honest atheist."
When Slate editor David Plotz became desperately bored at his cousin's bat mitzvah three years ago, he opened a copy of the Torah and landed on the story of how Dinah's brothers avenged her rape. "I was like, 'This is in Genesis?' I'm a relatively well-read and well-educated person, yet I still seemed to have missed the fundamental work of Western civilization," he said. Plotz began blogging through the Bible for Slate, writings that Jews, evangelicals, and finally a publisher came calling. The culmination of his blogging was the Harper publication, Good Book.
Christianity Today published an interview with Plotz, a Harvard-educated Reformed Jew. While we may differ with some of his observations and conclusions, I still found his interview to be refreshingly honest. I find that many times, Christians strive to make biblical passages fit their overall interpretation of their faith, as opposed to letting the text speak for itself. As an Old Testament Hebrew major in seminary, I for one realize that there are many passages in the Old Testament that are troublesome to understand, yet this in no way diminishes my fundamental belief in the veracity and authority of the Old Testament text. I actually think Plotz has some remarkable insights, if we care to listen. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
What were your expectations going into blogging the Bible?
I expected the Old Testament to be boring, and it turned out to be much, much more fascinating. I was mostly struck by the way stories that tended to be peaceful and most forgiving make it into popular culture. There's more ambiguity and unpleasantness [in Bible stories] that haven't seeped into popular culture. Take the story of Jacob and Esau. I thought Esau was the bad brother and Jacob was the good brother, and no! Jacob is this kind of con-artist sleazeball who is a lot smarter than Esau, and Esau is the one who is forgiving, just, and good. Why do we cherish the one brother and not the other?
Also, when you read the Bible casually, it seems much harder to read than if you kind of read it consistently. When you read it you just dip into it, the language is tricky. These stories don't follow logically. But then when you start to get into the rhythm, it becomes much, much easier to read. This is sort of my exhortation to people who want to read the Bible: It starts out quite hard and then it gets significantly easier once you've you know, been doing it for a few chapters or a few days.
What kind of response did you get after you started blogging?
Most of the response was from really smart Christians and Jews who were biblically literate who liked the idea of an amateur taking this on. I was reading much more like an evangelical Christian than a Jew actually. Jews don't read it alone in a way that a lot of Christians do.
You say you started as an agnostic. Have your religious views changed by reading the Bible?
I guess I'm one of these agnostics who is becoming closer to atheism now because I am so upset by the picture of the God there. I am so disturbed by the God that I found there. The most disturbing part of this whole journey for me was, how do I as a Jew cling to a God who seems to be so unmerciful so much of the time and so cruel so much of the time? That's very troubling. Do I want such a God to exist? I don't know that I do. As Jews, we don't have the comfort of the New Testament to fall back on.
You wrote in your conclusion, 'I am a Jew I don't and can't believe that Jesus died for my sins.' Christians will say, 'Of course you can.'
I certainly have had many Christians of whom I have loved who have told me that. I just know it's not a need that I have. I can live a good and happy life without finding the comfort of that I know that other people do find. I guess my emotional and intellectual and theological state doesn't have the urgency which might make me perceptive to having a Jesus-like figure. There's not a yearning in me that is unmet.
I'm the son of a scientist. I'm never met theological explanation for the existence of God that passed my muster as a scientist. I've never seen anything that would present me proof in the kind of material that a God could exist. A moral structure can be created independent of whether a God exists and created the world and whether Jesus was reborn.
Why did you stop reading before the New Testament?
I considered reading it. The Old Testament is the part of the Bible that my people subscribe to, which has shaped my religion. I was willing to be very irreverent about it. For me to do that with the New Testament would have been perceived as insulting. The New Testament does bring a kind of orderliness to the Old Testament, which it lacks on its own. I do see why for a Christian, it is like stopping before the hero enters the story. When you have the New Testament to clean a lot of this up and bring order and morality to a lot of it, it makes it much, much easier.
The joy and the richness of the Book come from fighting with it, and we should look at people like Abraham, Gideon, Job, and Jonah. Their questioning, difficulty, contentiousness, and argumentation are the moments that should inspire.
You write, "The Bible's gatekeepers have attempted to dupe us into adapting a Bible with a straightforward morality and delightful heroes." Who are these gatekeepers, and isn't it your responsibility to read it on your own?
I went to a pretty good Hebrew school as a kid and to a really good Christian Episcopalian high school. Reading the Bible wasn't ever presented as anything but a source for morality.
I've heard a lot of sermons, and even at evangelical churches, I feel like there's never any kind of attempt to critique the Bible. It's like it's always an attempt to find a really good way to spin it. The world is messy. People do immoral things. In Joshua, we see the slaughter of innocent people. Why isn't that the subject of discussion rather than the celebration of the conquest of the land?
The moral complexity is what makes it so fascinating. It's what made me, somebody who has no real religious commitment, want to read it for a year. The reductionism is just an insult to what's actually there.
You call your book irreverent. Can anyone who is deeply religious read it without being offended?
I'm not a scholar, I'm not a Christian, but I bring a fresh, unjaded eye to the book that Christians love. Anyone who can make you look differently at something you love-that's of great value.
C. S. Lewis is regarded as perhaps the foremost defender of the Christian faith of the last century. The work he is arguably best known for, Mere Christianity, has had a profound influence upon the lives of many noteworthy people, including Chuck Colson and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza and formerly the owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball club. Mere Christianity, which was based upon a series of radio broadcasts he delivered over the BBC during between 1941 and 1944, continues to sell millions of copies each year.
And for all Lewis did to show the reasonableness of "mere" Christian orthodoxy, it often escapes one's notice that he also demonstrated a great grasp of the challenges in living out our faith. Perhaps one of the reasons for Lewis' perennial appeal is that he speaks without using "Christianese," or churchy, religious jargon, to get his point across. One of the clearest examples of this occurs in the chapter of Mere Christianity entitled, "Let's Pretend," where he is describing the arduous task of Christ "being formed in us," about our coming "to have the mind of Christ." He writes that we begin to notice, "besides our sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are." He then gives this example from his own personal life:
"When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light. Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul..."
Lewis here puts his finger on the true essence of genuine righteousness, not simply our deeds, but our very thoughts. Not what just what we do, but who we are. This is closely akin to Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, where He told His audience that, "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into Heaven." (Matthew 5:20) And try as we may to live out our lives for God, we know that we are incapable of doing it on our own. Our daily failures, evidences of the rats that reside in the cellar of our souls, are divine reminders that the way to life is through the mercies of God.
Kathleen Norris, in her excellent Foreword to the current HarperOne edition of Mere Christianity, rightly observes of Lewis' Christianity: "The 'mere' Christianity of C. S. Lewis is not a philosophy or even a theology that may be considered, argued, and put away in a book on a shelf. It is a way of life...The Christianity Lewis espouses is humane, but not easy: it asks us to recognize that the great religious struggle is not fought on a spectacular battleground, but within the ordinary human heart, when every morning we awake and feel the pressures of the day crowding in on us, and we must decide what sort of immortals we wish to be."
*An excellent daily devotional of readings from various Lewis works is titled, A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works. The link on Amazon is as follows:
While there are a great number of books very popular in our culture about finding God, there are much fewer books that chronicle someone finding, then "losing," God. Such is the case with William Lobdell, a former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, in his book, "Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America-and Found Unexpected Peace." In his review of Lobdell's book in the New York Times Book Review, Mark Oppenheimer writes: "It is the tale of being born again in his adulthood, then almost 20 years later deciding that Christianity is untrue. Today Lobdell prefers the God of Jefferson or Einstein, "a deity that can be seen in the miracles of nature." While Lobdell never entirely rejects belief in the supernatural, his humane, even-tempered book does more to advance the cause of irreligion than the bilious atheist tracts by Christopher Hitchens and others that have become so common. And Lobdell's self deprecating memoir is far more fun to read."
After marrying his high school sweetheart and later leaving her, Lobdell describes how he got his new girllfriend pregnant, all this while his journalism career was "stalled at a local minor-league magazine." The turnaround began when Taylor, Lobdell's first son, was born. A month later, Lobdell married Taylor's mother, at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas (baby steps toward Jesus, one might say). Soon after his wedding, "on an especially low day," Lobdell confessed his pain to a good friend. "You need God," the friend told him. "That's what's missing in your life."
Oppenheimer reports that Lobdell had no desire to return to the indifferent Episcopalianism of his youth, and his friend suggested Mariners Church, a nondenominational mega-church in Newport Beach, Calif. At Mariners, Lobdell heard Pastor Kenton Beshore preach about a friendly, intensely personal God. "This God loved me perfectly," Lobdell writes. "I eagerly lapped up the unconditional love. He was a rock upon which I could build my life." The Bible, as Beshore preached it, was a little instruction book, containing common sense about avoiding debt and gossip, helping the poor and honoring your wife. This Jesus, this book, this church - for Lobdell, they all worked.
And his conversion was not without a noticeable transformation. Attending church, Lobdell noticed significant improvements in his life - new friends, a calmer marriage, a better job, and attributed them to God. In 1992, two years after he began attending church, Lobdell was finally born again, at a men's retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. At the climactic service, when a pastor invited the unsaved to come to Jesus, Lobdell reportedly "fell into the Lord's arms at last." He writes: "When I repeated the line ‘I invite Jesus into my heart,' I experienced what I can only call a vision. Time slowed. In my mind's eye, my heart opened into halves, and a warm, glowing light
But Lobdell's religious odyssey was only beginning after his profession of faith in Christ. Oppenheimer writes: "Lobdell never denies the power of his original conversion experience, and he never ceases to be grateful to the loving evangelicals who turned his life around. But after seven years at Mariners, he begins to find the self-help pieties simplistic and anti-intellectual. He leaves for a Presbyterian Church, and from there moves toward Roman Catholicism — fatefully, as it turns out, because his studies for conversion to Catholicism begin just as American Catholics are about to be confronted with the most heartbreaking news they have ever had to face. And Lobdell, by now a religion reporter for The Los Angeles Times, is not at liberty to look away."
To Lobdell, seeing the religious hypocrisy of Roman Catholicism suggested to him that religious institutions were no better than secular ones, and sometimes they were much worse. And Oppenheimer astutely observes the power of Lobdell's prose: "His homely, down-to-earth prose and intellectual modesty obscure the import of what he's saying. His explication of religion's capacity for evil is far subtler that the simplistic atheist line that 'religions cause wars,' but he doesn't seem to know it."
While Oppenheimer suggests that Lobdell's story ends well, since "everything that matters, including his career and family, survives the loss," i am not so sure about such a conclusion. Oppenheimer writes: "Lobdell concludes with the cheerful freedoms that irreligion has brought him - to follow his intellect wherever it takes him, to shrug and accept that some mysteries are inexplicable. 'I don't miss my faith,' he writes, 'as I'd miss any longtime love.' But 'I like my life on this unexplored shore. It's new, exciting and full of possibilities.' Lobdell is quite a rarity: an unembittered divorce', grateful for the marriage and just as grateful for what lies ahead."
What saddens me about Lobdell's abandonment of the Christian faith is that he was never, it appears, presented with a vibrant, muscular, and intellectually viable basis for his belief. His intellect in actuality did not lead to his exodus from Christianity, but primarily the failure of people to live up to the Christian message. Similarly, as the German philosopher Nietzsche once observed, "If you want me to become a Christian, you will have to look a lot more like Jesus Christ!" C.S. Lewis once observed that: "if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity...how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?"
Last week we chronicled the spiritual journey of William Lobdell, the religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who has recorded in his memoir how he lost faith but yet "found unexpected peace." This week is a study in contrast, as we consider the recently ballyhooed "return" to the fold of the prodigal, Oxford novelist and biographer A. N. Wilson. In the April 2 issue of the New Statesman, Wilson writes in the article, "Why I Believe Again," that while his "conversion" to atheism may have been similar to a Damascus Road experience, his return has been slow and doubting. In the opening paragraph, he writes: "By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a "conversion experience" 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character - the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers. For my conversion experience was to atheism."
I recall reading Wilson's biography of C.S. Lewis many years ago (he was also highly touted for his definitive biography of Leo Tolstoy), and wondering to myself, why is this man so angry at Lewis' muscular Christianity? His attacks seemed to be baseless, and his derisive attacks on Lewis were unmistakeable. He recounts in this article how he was asked to participate in a lunchtime dialogue at St. Mary-le-Bow in the City of London by the church's rector. And when Father Victor Stock asked him about Lewis' Christian faith (he had recently written the biography of Lewis in 1990), he began to "testify," denouncing Lewis' muscular defense of religious belief. He writes:
"I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis's Mere Christianity made me a non-believer - not just in Lewis's version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me - the sense of God's presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the Sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense."
He recounts how for months he was "walking on air," having discarded the remnants of his faith, on the occasion when the Independent on Sunday sent him to interview Billy Graham. Graham was in Syracuse, New York, about to make one of his evangelistic crusades to England. He spoke of how he mocked the faithful who would be coming to hear Graham, and how he could now relate as a "born-again" atheist:
"The pattern of these meetings was always the same. The old matinee idol spoke. The gospel choir sang some suitably affecting ditty, and then the converted made their way down the aisles to commit themselves to the new faith. Part of the glow was, surely, the knowledge that they were now part of a great fellowship of believers. As a hesitant, doubting, religious man I'd never known how they felt. But, as a born-again atheist, I now knew exactly what satisfactions were on offer. For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse. If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. "So - absolutely no God?" "Nope," I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. "No future life, nothing ‘out there'?" "No," I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world - that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that "this is all there is" (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself - go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad."
Yet this newfound freedom that Wilson embraced, being unshackled from his religious convictions, were not altogether convincing, as he described himself as "having a doubting temperament (which) made me a very unconvincing atheist." He traced his dis-ease in atheism back to three streams: people whom he had admired, morality, and the failure of materialism to account for the human experience:
"Religion, once the glow of conversion had worn off, was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer's Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi's own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate. Of course, there are arguments that might make you doubt the love of God. But a life like Gandhi's, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist."
Second, and in addition to the believers who had had such a profound influence in his life, Wilson also mentions morality, having written a book on the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, with Hitler's neo-Darwinian ravings. Yet most troublesome perhaps, was the fact that a purely materialistic understanding of life is very thin soup indeed to account for the human experience, especially after watching a whole cluster of friends, including his own mother, die over quite a short space of time.
His prose at the end of the article vividly portrays how, despite the challenges of faith and doubt, he will never take that road again. Poignant words from a prodigal who has found his way home...
"My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God "a category mistake". Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . ‘The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life'." And then Coleridge adds: "‘And man became a living soul.' Materialism will never explain those last words."
It is quite fashionable today to hear the church of the New Atheists speak of the blind faith of Christians who embrace a belief in God, morality, and the purpose and dignity in life that resides in the Christian worldview of things. Yet, when we read the diatribes of these secular "evangelists," it is clear that their religious fervor rivals that of the most ardent Christian television preachers. If you doubt this, then read last week's blog chronicling the journey of A. N. Wilson, as he once was in the fold of Dawkins and Hitchens, the lead apostles of unbelief who welcomed their new convert to the Church of the Non-Creed. Yet, the reality of the matter is that as with Wilson's journey home, and often in ours as well, Reason, and good thinking, lead us back to Reality. And just as materialism, devoid of God at the center of things, proved to be too much for Wilson to swallow, so it is with most of us as well.
I recently was reading C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, a work of satire first published in book form in 1942, in which a senior demon, Screwtape, writes a series of letters to his nephew, a junior tempter named Wormwood. In this series of letters, which were first published in The Guardian, Lewis (who didn't particularly like the book) suggests how his nephew Wormwood can undermine the man's newfound Christian faith (the patient), and keep him out of the grasp of the Enemy Above (God). Listen to Screwtape's advice to Wormwood on the danger of Reason and proper thinking:
" ...I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïve? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless." Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous-that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about."
"...The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it 'real life' and don't let him ask what he means by 'real.' "
These words, penned over sixty years ago, seem as fresh and apropos today as when they were originally published. Note that Screwtape understood that in earlier centuries, humans still connected "thinking and doing, and were prepared to alter their way of life as a result of a chain of reasoning," but this no longer holds true. In a day when "the medium has become the message," when secular propaganda advocating the dismissal of God has become in vogue, the importance of reason and good thinking has become greatly diminished. Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul put such an emphasis upon our "not being conformed to this age, but being transformed by the renewing of our mind, that we may demonstrate the good and acceptable will of God for our lives." (Romans 12:2).
And he had the audacity to call this, "worship"?
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the religion correspondent for NPR, reported in a recent USA Today article, "The God Choice," of an interesting exchange a few years ago in at Cambridge University in England. She, along with nine other journalists, were attending a Templeton fellowship meeting where the guest speaker was John Barrow, a Cambridge mathematician. She reports that almost as an aside to his lecture, Barrow make mention that the astonishing precision of the universe was evidence for "divine action." At that moment, Hagerty reports, Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist and one of the leaders in the vanguard of the new atheist movement, nearly leapt from his seat and objected: "But why would you want to look for evidence of divine action?" chided Dawkins. "For the same reason someone might not want to," Barrow responded with a wry grin.
In was at that moment that Hagerty confesses, "In that instant, I thought, there it is. God is a choice. You can look at the evidence and see life unfolding as a wholly material process, or you can see the hand of God." She goes on to describe how for the last century, "science" has seen fit to jettison any serious thinking about the reality of God, and to understand all religious claims as delusional, akin to Freud's psychological "wishful thinking." Consequently, with a worldview that sees the idea of God as sheer wish fulfillment, even all of our "spiritual" moments, events, thoughts, even free will, are relegated through material means.
Yet despite such a prevalent notion of most science over the past century, she reports that a revolution is occurring in the scientific community. It is a discipline referred to as "neurotheology," and it is sparking researchers from prominent universities across America. These researchers are now raising the question that perhaps God is not merely a figment of our brain chemistry. These neurotheologists are raising the question that our brain chemistry may reflect a genuine encounter with the Divine.
Hagerty raises a helpful analogy to help us understand the issue. She writes: "How you come down on this issue depends on whether you think of the brain as a CD player or a radio. Most people who believe that everything is explainable through material processes think that the brain is like a CD player. The content - the song, or in our analogy, God - is all playing in a closed system. If you take a hammer to the machine, the song does not play...In this view, there is no 'God' outside the brain trying to communicate; all spiritual experience is inside the brain."
But in the other view, where the brain is not a CD player, but a radio, everyone possesses "neural equipment" to receive the radio program in varying degrees. And while Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens may have hit the "mute" button, others hear the "broadcasts" every now and then, as do most of us in our even brief, but real, transcendent moments (Yes, I know that that human analogy does not bear up to theological scrutiny!). But the point of this analogy is simply to show that the "Sender" (namely, God) is separate from the receiver, so that the content does not originate in the brain.
In the end, Hagerty, who also is the author of "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," does at least concede that science cannot answer ultimate questions such as meaning, purpose, and destiny, when she observes, "Science cannot referee that question." When you net it all out, it really comes down to whether you believe that a materialistic view of the universe is adequate, or whether you believe that there is Something Greater that lies beyond this physical world, namely God.
I recall reading C. S. Lewis' apologetic work years ago, Miracles, in which he debunks Naturalism, that worldview which destroys the very idea of the transcendent, the sublime, and a world filled with awe and delight. Further, in that book, he asks a sobering question, "If my thoughts are determined by the random movements of atoms in my brain, then how can I know that my beliefs are true?" I would pose that same question to these materialists of our own day. I find it interesting that in recent months, A. N. Wilson, the brilliant novelist and biographer, who jettisoned the Christian faith for years, and who wrote a biography of Lewis, has returned to the fold. Wilson despised the "mere" Christianity of Lewis, and now we find that the prodigal has found his way home. Despite the absurdities of this life, and challenges to faith, he has chosen to rekindle his belief in God. He writes:
"But religion, once the glow of conversion had worn off, was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer's Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi's own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate. Of course, there are arguments that might make you doubt the love of God. But a life like Gandhi's, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist. It is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense. Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?"
Wilson concludes his article: "My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God "a category mistake". Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . ‘The Lord God formed man of
A Chinese proverb says, "If you ask a fish if it is wet, it would ask, 'what is wetness'?" In many ways this little proverb aptly describes the Christian subculture so pervasive in America: Christian doctors, Christian yellow pages, Christian music, Christian books, Christian movies, etc. You get the idea. The noun has now come to be used almost exclusively as an adjective. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis' reminder in Mere Christianity, that "We must stick to the original, obvious meaning (of Christian). The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have."
Consequently, it is beneficial for Christians to see how "outsiders" perceive our faith and culture. Several years ago I devoted a blog to A. J. Jacobs, now 41, a self-proclaimed agnostic and writer who works for Esquire, who had written The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (Simon & Schuster). Jacobs chronicled how he attempted to live by all the commandments of the Bible, and how this challenged and provoked him. Jacobs still describes himself as an agnostic Jew, but has now attained a certain celebrity status among many conservative Christians. He was recently interviewed by Mark Galli of Christianity Today, and while we may disagree with him on many fronts, some of his observations about faith and life are fascinating. Below are excerpts from that interview:
One of the most fascinating books I have come across lately is Tim Keller's book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. Keller, who is perhaps best known for his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008), is the pastor of Redeemer Church in Manhattan, where he serves among twenty and thirty somethings, many of them business professionals from the environs of Wall Street. Keller in this winsome little book turns his attention to that parable that many of us are familiar with, the parable from Luke's Gospel, chapter 15, that is most commonly referred to as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son."
We know the story. The younger son wants the father to give him his inheritance, so he can go out and live it up. The father does so, and the younger son goes out and in due time, squanders all of it. When he finds himself eating with the pigs, he comes to his senses and realizes that even his father's servants have it better than he does. He decides to return to his father, to ask forgiveness for his reckless living. But before he can even utter a word to his father, asking forgiveness, his father sees him returning, and with much rejoicing, tells his servants to prepare for a grand feast, for this son of his was lost, but now has been found. Everyone is happy, everyone that is, except for the older brother, who has been a compliant, older brother, who has "never once neglected one of your commandments."And that is where the rub comes. The older brother, seemingly, refuses to even go in to the banquet. "How dare you let my younger brother off the hook for his riotous living! He doesn't deserve it," we can seem to hear the older brother saying. And we probably agree with him...
Keller points out that the word "prodigal" means to spend until you have nothing left. The term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father's welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to "reckon" or count his sin against him or demand repayment. This response offended the elder son and most likely the local community. Those familiar with the Christian story will recognize that In the story, the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well. So through the parable Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, His children, akin to "God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning to them their sins (2 Corinthians 5: 19).
So What Motivates Us?
A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear Anthony Flew, one of the foremost atheists in the world, being interviewed in Oxford, England, by another philosopher who is a Christian, Gary Habermas. Habermas and Flew have had an enduring friendship for over twenty years, going back to a time when they first debated one another on the question of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This interview, featured at the Oxbridge Conference, a triennial conference held on the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, was sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation. Habermas interviewed Flew on a number of subjects, among them his memories of C.S. Lewis (both attended the Socratic Club, a club that originated as a forum for the open exchange of religious ideas, of which Lewis was the president), and Flew's "conversion" from atheism to deism. What follows is some of their conversation that you may find interesting.
The complete interview can be found in the book, C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, edited by David Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, and Jerry L. Walls (InterVarsity Academic Press, 2008.) Beneath the post is a video link from the Veritas Forum, featuring Habermas and Flew on the Resurrection. Long, but quite good!
Habermas: Tony, you attended the Socratic Club for a number of years.
Flew: Yes, I was in Oxford for a couple of terms during the war, and while I did not attend every meeting of the Socratic Club, I went pretty frequently. As I recall, it met once a week during the term and C. S. Lewis was the president of the organization.
Habermas: How did you find Lewis' ability to reason and think through topics in philosophy and religion?
Flew: Oh, I thought that Lewis was a fine man. He was of course a literary scholar rather than a philosopher. But during a discussion, Lewis' contribution would always be relevant and to the point. He was a first-class thinker.
Habermas: Let me provide a little background for our next topic. The friendship between Tony and me goes back more than twenty years... In 2003, shortly after our third dialogue on the resurrection, Tony told me he was considering theism...In his words, he decided to go where the evidence was leading, a phrase that he has since used often, and he realized that he now believed in God's existence...Our own discussion was finally published in early 2005 with the title "My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism" (Philosophia Christi 6, no. 2 (2004): 197-211)
Flew: I think that the description of me as "atheist" was very misleading for some people. When we see one of these words beginning with the letter a, we must remember that they are taken from the Greek, and that they do not signify anything more than the negative. Regarding my change in belief, it seems to me that there never should have been a great deal of excitement about this. For me, my belief in God is not belief in the Lord of Christianity or Islam. The Qur'an is not the sort of book you would be eager to read, I think, unless you had to for some reason. Roughly one-third of all the suras, or chapters, make reference to eternal torment. It's an absolutely central, fundamental idea that is going to happen to the opponents of the Prophet. I think more people should realize that. But my theory about God is the same sort of belief Einstein expressed in the first edition of his book. Since that time, many Nobel Prize-winning physicists have agreed with Einstein that there is some sort of Intelligence behind the physical world.
Habermas: Do you have any comments regarding recent statements in defense of atheism by Richard Dawkins?
Flew: His job is to inform students and others regarding developments in biology. But he fails to present the whole picture. The thing he ought to be saying is that the physicist's consensus about the age of the universe does not leave nearly enough time for a chance development of the first organisms from Darwin's puddle of chemical mud in a lake or ocean.
Habermas: In our dialogue that was published in Philosophia Christi, you talked about Jesus and Paul as careful thinkers, moral philosophers, and so on. Would you like to add anything?
Flew: It seems to me that the difference between Christianity and Islam is simply enormous. Paul was a first-rate philosopher--a first-rate mind, and Jesus was the defining instance of a charismatic figure. I've been keeping on the back burner my study that compares Islam and Christianity. I'm not going to publish that right now. I'm not worried, at my age, about risking being the object of a Fatwah. In fact, I'd rather like a quick death...Let's face it, several Muslim organizations think that in the near future, the expansion of Islamic ideology will control the whole world. Much of their information about the Bible was mistaken. I'm not sure that there was any part of the Bible available in that area at all.
Habermas: Tony, you may remember the details of C.S. Lewis' conversion. In Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he addressed the process of his conversion in chapters like those he titled "Check" and "Checkmate." Lewis describes his two-stage conversion. He first moved from atheism to theism, deciding finally between Hinduism and Christianity. When people refer to our friendship, I am often asked about the chances that you could someday become a Christian...Perhaps you could address this issue once again for those who are interested. Do you think there would ever be much of a likelihood that you, following Lewis' example, might take that second step to Christianity?
Flew: Well, it's certainly more likely than that I might become a Hindu... or a Buddhist.
Habermas: Is there anything you would like to add, about any of my comments. or about C. S. Lewis?
Flew: Of course, the most important part of Lewis' academic life was his literary studies. There were also his fairy stories...And there were several other literary friends of his with whom he spent a good deal of time at the pub and elsewhere.
Habermas: Like J. R. R. Tolkien.
Flew: Yes, especially Tolkien. I think they all met rather regularly, very near my own college, on the other side of the railroad. One of the places was the pub that we irreverently called "The Bird and Baby."
Habermas: As I recall, that's in between here and your college, St. Johns.
The link to the Gary Habermas & Anthony Flew discussion on the Veritas Forum website:
In reading Tim Keller's fine work, "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism," a New York Times bestseller now available in paperback, I was struck by Keller's words in describing his church. Redeemer Church in Manhattan attracts and reaches a diverse, urban congregation, where some interresting people show up.
He told of one Sunday service where his wife, Kathy, was introduced to a man sitting in front of her, who had been brought to Redeemer by John DeLorean. Immediately afterwards, she was tapped on the shoulder by a woman sitting behind her who wanted to introduce another guest. She had brought to church a man who was Madonna's chief songwriter at the time. As Keller describes it, "Kathy was delighted they were both there, but she hoped they wouldn't meet each other before they had heard the sermon!"
Keller then related a time some years ago when a man from a southern state in the U.S. visited Redeemer, having heard that the church held orthodox Christian beliefs, while having grown large amidst a skeptical, secular city. The man expected to find that the church was attracting people with "avant-garde music, video monitors and clips, dramatic sketches, exceptionally hip settings, and other kinds of eye-catching spectacle. To his surprise," Keller noted, "he found a simple and traditional service that, on the surface, seemed identical to those in his more conservative part of the world." Yet the man quickly surmised that many of those in the Manhattan congregation would never have attended churches he was familiar with. After the service he queried Keller, "This is a complete mystery to me. Where are the dancing bears? Where are the gimmicks? Why are these people here?"
After Keller directed him to some "downtown art-types" who had been coming to Redeemer for some time, they in turn encouraged him to look beneath the surface of Redeemer. One person remarked to him that the difference between Redeemer and many other churches was profound, and lay in "irony, charity, and humility." They went on to say that Redeemer lacked the pompous and highly sentimental language that was so emotionally manipulative in many churches.
In contrast, Redeemer addressed others "with gentle, self-deprecating irony. Not only that, but beliefs were held here in charity and with humility, making Manhattanites feel included and welcomed, even if they disagreed with some of Redeemer's beliefs." Most of all, they said, teaching and communication at Redeemer was intelligent and nuanced, showing sensitivity where they were sensitive. Keller then references Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who once observed the biting irony and amusement at seeing human beings "try but fail to be Godlike, which is a very Christian way of looking at things."
Keller and his church's winsome approach reminded me of Malcolm Muggeridge's words in his little, yet powerful book, "The End of Christendom," that there is a large strain of irony in our human affairs. He writes: "This irony, we must be clear, is written into our mortal existence. I love it. It's conveyed beautifully in the medieval cathedrals, where you have the steeple climbing up into the sky symbolizing all the wonderful spiritual aspirations of human beings, but at the same time, set in the same roof, you have these little grinning gargoyles staring down at the earth. The juxtaposition of these two things might seem strange at first. But I contend that they are aspects of the same essential attitude of mind, an awareness that at the heart of our human existence there is this mystery. Interwoven with our affairs is this wonderful spirit of irony which prevents us from ever being utterly and irretrievably serious, from being unaware of the mysterious nature of our existence."
Irony. Charity. Humility. Unfortunately, most churches, like our modern urban city buildings, have no gargoyles to remind us of the irony and comedic quality of life, of attempting to act like God, but oftentimes failing miserably. Consequently, most Christians take ourselves far too seriously.
In HEAVEN: The police will be British, the cooks will be French, the mechanics will be German, the social directors will be Italian, and the Swiss will run it.
In HELL: The police will be German, the cooks will be British, the mechanics will be French, the social directors will be Swiss, and the Italians will run it.
There was a time, not too long ago, when there was little debate about the afterlife, or for that matter, the reality of Heaven and (shall we say that dirty four-letter word?), Hell. But in our present day, mankind has, as Bonhoeffer observed over fifty years ago, "Come of Age," he no longer sees God to account for human existence. And if we deny God in our origin, it is little wonder that we deny Him in our demise.
This truth could not be more apparent than by what we see in the contemporary view of death, the "view from a hearse," if you will. In a recent article in USA Today, "Secular 'Celebrants' Lead More Funerals," the growing trend of celebrating a loved one's life at a funeral or memorial service sans clergy, sometimes even without God is now a normal feature. And the trend is only growing.
John Reed, Sr., president of the National Funeral Directors Association, observes that 50% of Americans today say they don't belong to a church and don't see value in a religious funeral. But "they still want ceremony and celebration at the end of life." People who checked "none" when asked their religion "don't see the need to be ushered into another world. There's no 'personal God' they expect to meet," says Ariela Keysar, co-author of a survey conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College's Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture in Hartford, Conn.
Anderson-McQueen Funeral and Cremation Centers in the St. Petersburg, Florida area, reflect this secular trend. Gone are the "chapel" signs, replaced with Heritage Hall and Remembrance Hall. Mourners can take a quiet break in the "Legacy Cafe," with free Starbucks coffee and cookies!
Which leads me to Tom Wolfe, the American journalist, novelist, and sometimes social critic, and his essay, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," first published in Forbes ASAP in 1996. Wolfe is quite fond of quoting from the German philosopher Nietzsche, best known for his late nineteenth-century declaration that "God is Dead." But in the article, Wolfe explains that Nietzsche was NOT making a declaration of atheism (though he was an atheist), but was essentially saying that modern man had killed God in his own consciousness. And when you do away with God, you essencially do away with sin, guilt, and morality. And as a culture you live as though God no longer exists, so he certainly has no place at funerals. This is a bit layered and complex to follow, but listen to Wolfe's own words in explaining what Nietzsche saw coming, and his influence on our twenty-first century:
"(We come to) the second most famous statement in all of modern philosophy: Nietzsche's 'God is dead.' The year was 1882. (The book was Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science].) Nietzsche said this was not a declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a 'tremendous event,' the greatest event of modern history. The news was that educated people no longer believed in God, as a result of the rise of rationalism and scientific thought, including Darwinism, over the preceding 250 years. But before you atheists run up your flags of triumph, he said, think of the implications. 'The story I have to tell,' wrote Nietzsche, 'is the history of the next two centuries.' He predicted (in Ecce Homo) that the twentieth century would be a century of 'wars such as have never happened on earth,' wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: 'If the doctrines...of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly'-he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations-'are hurled into the people for another generation...then nobody should be surprised when...brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers...will appear in the arena of the future.'"
Wolfe further adds about our own day: "Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century 'on the mere pittance' of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But
then, in the twenty-first, would come a period more dreadful than the
great wars, a time of 'the total eclipse of all values' (in The Will to
Power). This would also be a frantic period of 'revaluation,' in which
people would try to find new systems of values to replace the
osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned,
because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously
believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and
says 'Thou shalt' or 'Thou shalt not.' "
A bit hard to follow, but brimming with profound insight for our world. Today's funerals tell us a lot about death, but even more about how our culture sees life, and God, or rather, the absence of God.
The link to Tom Wolfe's article, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," can be found at:
Tim Keller has been teaching and preaching in Manhattan over the past twenty years. His book, The Reason for God, is currently on The New York Times bestseller list, as he seeks to address the most commonly held objections to Christianity. He was recently interviewed by Sarah Pulliam Bailey of Christianity Today, about his book just released, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power (Dutton Adult, 240 pp, $13.99). Keller is no stranger to the allure of this triad of temptations, and I believe you will find this interview to be quite interesting:
How should Christians think of money, sex, and power?
All three are vying to be counterfeit gods in our culture because the living God is, culturally speaking, no longer much of a factor. In the Christian community, they shouldn't be calling the shots. Richard Foster wrote a book on money, sex, and power, which offered a good understanding of how a Christian view of society differs from the world's. His book was about how to do it in Christian community. I'm trying to do a cultural analysis, using the category of idolatry, to help Christians see how they get sucked in.
What makes these three so enticing and difficult to control?
We tend to worry about drugs, drinking, and pornography. But it's not bad and nasty things that are our biggest problems. Sex, work, and money are great goods. They are intrinsic to our being made in God's image. If God is second place in your life and one of them is first, you're cooked. These things are candidates for first place because they are so great. I'm not saying, "Let's move out to the desert and pray and read our Bibles."
Do Christians have blind spots when it comes to false gods?
An idol is something you rely on instead of God for your salvation. One of the religious idols is your moral record: "God accepts me because I'm living a good life." I'm a Presbyterian, so I'm all for right doctrine. But you can start to feel very superior to everyone else and think, God is pleased with me because I'm so true to the right doctrine. The right doctrine and one's moral record are forms of power. Another is ministry success, similar to the idol of achievement. There are religious versions of sex, money, and power, and they are pretty subtle.
How does someone identify their idols?
Look at your daydreams. When you don't have to think about something, like when you are waiting for the bus, where does your mind love to rest? Or, look at where you spend your money most effortlessly. Also, if you take your most uncontrolled emotions or the guilt that you can't get rid of, you'll find your idols at the bottom. Whenever I hear someone say, "I know God forgives me, but I can't forgive myself," it means that person has something that is more important than God, because God forgives them. If you look at your greatest nightmare-if something were to happen that would make you feel you had no reason to live-that's a god.
How do we get rid of idols?
I confess that I don't say much about that. Practicing spiritual disciplines is another book. I do say that analyzing and recognizing an idol is a step away from its power over you. You also have to have a heck of a prayer life. That prayer life can't just be petitioning. There has to be encounter, experience, and genuine joy. You have to have Jesus Christ increasingly capture your affections.
Is it necessary to suffer disappointment before seeing that idols don't satisfy?
I fear you may be right. I don't want that to be true. Very often it's much stronger than disappointment. It's hard for me to look at a young person and know what their idols are, because usually something has to happen in their life to frustrate them for them to see that something has inordinate power over them. No one learned about their idols by being told about them.
A wise sage once observed, "In worship, we bring the gods that we have made before the God who has made us." So what are the rival idols in our lives?
One of the most provocative poems, though least mentioned, that we might hear mentioned at Christmastime is the poem of T. S. Eliot, "The Journey of the Magi." Eliot, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, was a combination of poet, playwright, and literary critic, and arguably the most well known English language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American, and educated in philosophy at Harvard, he moved to the United Kingdom and became a British subject there in 1927 at the age of 39, the same year that he would convert to Christianity.
In this remarkable poem, Eliot chronicles the quest of the Magi through their long and arduous journey, against the discouragements encountered in nature, and the hostilities of man, to find at last, a Mystery impenetrable to human wisdom. As some have observed, Eliot, like ourselves, seems content to submit to "another death" for his final deliverance from the present world, the "old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods," the world of old desires and false gods, the world of "the silken girls," as he calls it.
If one reads carefully it is apparent that there are a number of Biblical allusions: "three trees on the low sky," perhaps a portent of Calvary; "vine leaves over the lintel," an allusion possibly to the paschal lamb whose blood was smeared on the lintels of Israel; to the blood money of Judas; the soldiers casting lots at the foot of the Cross; and perhaps, to the pilgrims at the open tomb in the garden. But it is not that the Birth that is also the Death has brought him the hope of a better life (see particularly the last stanza), but that it has revealed to him the futility and hopelessness of his previous life. We should be glad of Another Death...
Christmas and Easter. They are really inseparable, aren't they?
The Journey of the Magi
By T. S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Just last weekend I made a trip back home, to my native state, North Carolina. Visiting good friends and family that I rarely get to see, and amazed at the snowy vistas in the countryside as I listened to some memorable Christmas music.Yes, there was the standard fare that we are accustomed to at this festive time of the year when most of us have this sense of thanksgiving (perhaps even those who don't believe in God). And yet, there was this one Christmas carol that I found myself playing over and over. I can't ever seem to escape it, as it continues to work its magic of wonder and awe on me, evoking a profound sense of worship. The carol is titled, "In the Bleak Mid-Winter," recorded a few years ago by James Taylor. And as you may know, it comes to us from the British Christmas tradition, and is based on a traditional Celtic folk song.
What many people may not realize is that the melody to the hymn was composed by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), perhaps best know for his orchestral masterpiece, The Planets. Holst's melody, Cranham (named after the town in which it was written), was set to a poem written by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). "In the Bleak Mid-Winter "was first published in The English Hymnal in 1906, and has always been one of Holst's most popular compositions. The beauty and simplicity of the folk song greatly inspired Holst.
I am reminded that, as Johnson once said, "We don't need to be instructed so much as reminded," and never is this more true that at Christmastime, when we celebrate the wonder of the Incarnation. Immanuel, "God Is With Us." May the hymn's lyrics serve as a personal meditation for each of us at this Christmastime.
"In the bleak mid-winter, the frosty wind did moan. The earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow on snow had fallen, snow on snow on snow. In the bleak mid-winter, oh, so long ago.
Angels and archangels, they have gathered there. Cherubim and seraphim, rising in the air. But only his mother, in her maiden bliss, worshipped the Beloved, with a mother's kiss.
Heaven cannot hold Him, or can earth sustain, heaven and earth shall fall away, when He comes to reign.
What then can I give Him, empty as I am. If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, oh, I would do my part. What then can I give Him, I must give my heart."
Epiphany in the snow. Journeying back home. We all want to go back home, don't we? Deep down within us is this desire to find our true Home, the place we were made to dwell. May you and I come to have a deeper and more profound sense of God's love for us at this Christmastime.
"There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome."
"To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home."
Extracts from the poem, "The House of Christmas," by G. K. Chesterton
A number of months ago, I heard Christopher Hitchens debate the Oxford University mathematician John Lennox on the Christian faith at Samford University. Christopher Hitchens' 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has made him arguably the nation's most notorious atheist. While his reasoning and arguments in that debate were in my opinion weak, he still proved to be a formidable provocateur, often receiving applause for his quick wit and charm at the podium. Already renowned as a political columnist for Vanity Fair, Slate, and other magazines, and known for his frequent contributions on the political TV circuit, Hitchens' barbed attacks against all religion has earned him regular debates across the country, often with the very fundamentalist believers his book attacks.
As a precursor to his January 5 appearance at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland Monthly invited Hitchens to a conversation with a liberal believer-Marilyn Sewell, the recently retired minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland. Sewell is a former teacher and psychotherapist and the author of numerous books, who over 17 years, grew Portland's downtown Unitarian congregation into one of the largest in the United States.
My friend Chip Mahon in Minneapolis, MN recently sent me an except from this interview, and when I went to the article in the Portland Monthly, published last month, and read the entire transcript between Hitchens and Sewell, well, let's just say that I was flabbergasted. What follows are excerpts from the transcript that I find to be most amazing. I think you'll see why.
I welcome your comments that you can post on the website at the end of the article.
Marilyn Sewell: In the book you write that, at age nine, you experienced the ignorance of your scripture teacher Mrs. Watts and, then later at 12, your headmaster tried to justify religion as a comfort when facing death. It seems you were an intuitive atheist. But did you ever try religion again?
Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God-as you might as a matter of fact-as, "an invincible tyrant." For Tillich, God is "the ground of being." It's his response to, say, Freud's belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans' fear of death. What do you think of Tillich's concept of God?"
If you would like for me to talk a little bit about what I believe . . .
Well, thank you for asking. It's very good of you to be my hostess.
"If we have only hoped in Christ for this life, we are of all men most to be pitied." -Paul to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 15:19.
The link to the complete transcript in the Portland Monthly can be found at:
It's been nearly 60 years since Billy Graham led his first major
evangelistic crusade. At 89 and slowed by Parkinson's disease, Graham
spends most of his time at his North Carolina mountaintop home. In an interview appearing in the Huffington Post, reporter Janet Kinosian
asked Graham about facing his own last days, and those of his wife, Ruth,
who died in June. Quite revealing...
Ruth's health had been declining for years, and in fact she almost died the first of this year. So her death on June 14 -- just four days after her 87th birthday -- wasn't a surprise. But what has surprised me is that no matter how prepared I thought I was, my grief has been very real -- at times almost overwhelming. I feel as if part of me has been ripped out, and in a sense that's what has happened, because Ruth was such an important part of my life.
Over the years I've had many relatives and friends lose a loved one, and I realize more than ever before what they've had to go through. My faith gives me great comfort, and I can't imagine going through something like this without a strong faith. But grief is a part of life, and it's one of the hardest things most of us will ever experience, even if our faith is strong. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, even though he knew Lazarus would live again.
How are you coping with Ruth's death? Do you talk about your loss with others -- friends and family -- or do you choose to experience things more inwardly?
I suppose the answer is both -- I do talk with others, but at times
I also want to be alone. I think both are important. Our five children
have been wonderful (as have a number of friends), and just this past
week several of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren were
visiting. We need other people, and they can encourage us and help us
realize that our life isn't over.
Prayer is also important to me, as is the Bible -- especially now. God knows what we are going through when we grieve, and He wants to assure us of His love and concern. He also wants us to turn to Him and bring our heartaches and burdens to Him. The Bible says, "Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall" [Psalm 55:22].
Had you and Ruth discussed how each of you would get along without the other? Do you believe she would have been as strong or stronger than you, if you had gone first?
Yes, we did talk about this, and also about other things related to our deaths -- like our wills, and where we would be buried, and practical matters like that. Some people refuse to think about these things because they don't like to think about their death -- but that's not wise, because some day it will be too late. Incidentally, I believe this is why some people avoid thinking about their relationship with God also -- and that's not wise either.
Ruth was a strong woman, and she had learned how to cope with being alone over the years because I had traveled and been away from home so much. She also was a strong Christian -- the finest Christian I ever knew -- and I was confident that her faith in Christ would uphold her if I were to go first. But we both knew that no matter who died first, our separation would be only temporary, and that soon we would be reunited in Heaven.
As a minister, you've likely had much experience praying with and counseling people who have lost loved ones. How has this helped with your own grief response to losing your wife?
As a Christian minister, I believe the most important thing I can do is urge people to put their faith and hope in Christ, and commit their lives to Him. This is what I've always tried to do whenever I've prayed or counseled with someone who has lost a loved one.
The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ came into the world to give us hope -- hope for a better life right now, and hope for life beyond the grave. Death wasn't part of God's original plan for humanity, and the Bible calls death an enemy -- the last enemy to be destroyed. But it will be destroyed -- and the resurrection of Jesus Christ (which we celebrate at Easter) is the proof of this fact. We were meant for Heaven, and when we open our hearts and lives to Christ in repentance and faith, we can have confidence that some day we will be with God forever.
This was Ruth's hope, and it is mine as well. Although I miss Ruth terribly, this hope sustains me every day. Jesus' words -- which are quoted at almost every Christian funeral -- are a great comfort to me: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" [John 11:25-26]
When you open your eyes in Heaven, what do you believe you'll see? Has this vision changed through your lifetime?
I don't know exactly what I'll see when I enter Heaven, because Heaven is far more glorious than anything we can possibly imagine. As the Bible says, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" [1 Corinthians 2:9).
But I do know this: Heaven is the dwelling place of God, and some day I will see Him face to face. Think of it: The Creator of the whole Universe wants us to spend all eternity with Himself! When I was younger I tried to imagine exactly what Heaven looked like, but I don't try to do that anymore. Its splendor far surpasses anything we can ever imagine.
I know also that in Heaven all the things that burden us now -- the pains, the heartaches, the sorrows, the fears and anxieties -- all of them will be gone. One of the most encouraging passages in all the Bible is this description of Heaven in its next to last chapter: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" [Revelation 21:4]. This is my hope, and I pray it will become yours as well.
Is there one temptation you've struggled with throughout your lifetime -- one you find yourself confessing to God over and over?
Ruth and our children used to kid me about being a pessimist, and worrying too much about some situation we might be facing. Sometimes they even called me "Puddleglum", after one of C. S. Lewis' imaginary characters in The Chronicles of Narnia who tended to be a pessimist. But their comments had a serious side to them, because they were reminding me that I wasn't trusting God the way I should. Once we understand that God loves us, we can commit the future into His hands and quit worrying about it all the time.
What do you plan to have written for your epitaph? Did you pen it yourself?
No, I haven't written my own epitaph, and I'm not sure I should. Whatever it is, I hope it will be simple, and that it will point people not to me, but to the One I served.
Some years ago Sir David Frost was interviewing me and asked a similar question: How I would like to be remembered? My reply, as I recall, was that I hoped I would be remembered as someone who was faithful -- faithful to God's call, faithful to the Gospel, faithful to the responsibilities and opportunities God gave me. I'm sure I've failed many times, but that's been my goal ever since I committed my life to Christ, and it always will be my goal: to be faithful to Him.
In his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Sociologist Christian Smith gave the moniker, "moralistic, therapeutic deism," to describe the dominant understanding of God that he observed among younger Americans. In such a worldview, God blesses those who try to live good lives (the "moralist" belief), where the goal of life is not to deny oneself, but to be happy and feel good about yourself (the "therapeutic" belief). And although God in this worldview certainly exists and created our world, He does not necessarily have to be particularly involved in our lives except when there is a problem to deal with (that is the "deism" belief).
In such a world, not unlike the British poet W. E. Henley's poem, "Invictus," we become the the "master of my fate, the captain of my soul," as happiness and salvation lie within our own power. As Tim Keller points out in his book, "Counterfeit Gods," such a "moralistic, therapeutic deism" could only develop in a prosperous, privileged society. So there should be little surprise that successful people "at the top," are prone to credit their success to their own brilliance, savvy, and hard work.
Yet in truth, the reality of success is much more complex than that. If we are candid with ourselves, much of business success at least, is due to a convergence of factors: personal friendships, opportunities, being at the right place at the right time, family environment, hard work, and as much as we may not want to admit it, what may seem to be plain luck! Undoubtedly, we are responsible for our own choices, but we had no influence on our genetics or environment, large indicators of how far we might go.
In his book, Outliers, Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell recounts in numerous stories, as Keller points out in his book, that much of our success is a product of our environment. He cites the case of a number of Jewish New York City lawyers, all born around 1930, where a supposed "accident of time" gave them unique advantages. They attended underpopulated schools where they received greater attention from teachers, and high quality and inexpensive college and legal educations were open to them at the time. Likewise, because of anti-Semitic prejudices, they were excluded from white-shoe law firms, which forced them into specializations such as proxy fights that the established firms would not take on. But then, during the seventies and eighties when hostile takeovers began, this gave them an enormous competitive advantage, so that they made a tremendous amount of money.
While there is no question that natural talent and hard work are critical to success, it is also true that environment, timing, heredity, and personal choice play a large role in our success, much more than we are likely to admit. And in some mysterious way, the influences, opportunities, privileges and successes that we experience in this life, lie in the hands of a good and benevolent God.That is why the Scriptures warn against the peril of pride when we reflect on our accomplishments and successes in this life, for it is God who has given us this ability, and not ourselves.
"When your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply...and you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them...then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God...You may say in your heart, 'My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.' But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you the power to make wealth." -Deuteronomy 8:13-14, 17-18.
No one should, "become arrogant, one man against another. For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" -1 Corinthians 4:6-7
In April 1933, during the early months of Nazi rule in Germany, the "Aryan Paragraph," as it came to be called, went into effect. A new law banned anyone of Jewish descent from government employment. Hitler's assault on the Jews, already so evidently under way in his toxic rhetoric and in the ideological imperatives of his party-was moving into a crushing legal phase. German churches, which relied on state support, now faced a choice: preserve their subsidies by dismissing their pastors and employees with Jewish blood-or resist. Most Protestant and Catholic leaders fell into line, visibly currying favor with the regime or quietly complying with its edict.
So begins Joseph Loconte's excellent review in last Thursday's The Wall Street Journal of the recent book on Bonhoeffer, entitled, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, and Spy, written by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 591 pages, $29.99).
Loconte, a senior lecturer in politics at the King's College in New York City, observes that such ready capitulation made the views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian in Hitler's Germany, all the more remarkable. For within days of the new law's enforcement, the 27-year-old pastor published an essay titled "The Church and the Jewish Question," in which he challenged the legitimacy of a regime that were diametrically opposite to the tenets of Christianity. The churches of Germany, he wrote, shared "an unconditional obligation" to help the victims of an unjust state "even if they [the victims] do not belong to the Christian community." But Bonhoeffer went even further: Christians might be called upon not simply to "bandage the victims under the wheel" of oppression but "to put a spoke in the wheel itself." Before the decade was out, Bonhoeffer would join a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and face execution for his actions.
In contrast, Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer's story and often challenges the revisionist accounts that have made Bonhoeffer more of a "humanist" or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was unimportant. In Metaxas' "Bonhoeffer" we meet a complex, provocative figure: an orthodox Christian who, at a grave historical moment, rejected what he called "cheap grace," that kind of belief separated from sacrificial action.
After a failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested on charges of assisting Jews and subverting Nazi policies. It would be two years later, in early April 1945, after his full involvement in the conspiracy became known, that he was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria. By all accounts he faced his death sentence with courage and serenity. He had chosen a path of radical obedience to God, a choice and thinking that is often met, as Loconte suggests, "with fear and loathing, even among the faithful."
I am struck by the last lines of Loconte's review: "In 'Bonhoeffer,' Mr. Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion-respectable, domesticated, timid-that may end up doing the devil's work for him."
"The unexamined life is not worth living," the philosopher Socrates said many centuries ago. And as we reflect upon it, we would have to say that it is arguably one of the least followed sayings in the world. As philosopher and writer Os Guinness is often fond of saying, our modern world is closer to the paraphrased statement of philosopher Bertrand Russell: "Most people would rather die than think -- in fact, they do."
Our challenge then, is to lead an examined life in an unexamining age. And there is hardly a better guide to help us in this pursuit than the writer Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century (1623-1662) figure who was celebrated in his own lifetime as an inventor and mathematical genius. Indeed, in his own lifetime Pascal's fame originated from his remarkable scientific innovations (famous for his work on conic sections and probability theory). He is also celebrated as the father of the modern day computer because he invented a calculating machine that actually worked. Likewise, Pascal was known for his fast driving (albeit in carriages, no less!) through the streets of Paris, and took great pride in developing Paris' first omnibus and public transport system.
But while Pascal is celebrated for his remarkable mind as an inventor, his Pensees (the French word for "thoughts") has become a remarkable spiritual guide to many because of his brilliant mind and uncanny insight into the human heart. Whatever a person's religious worldview (or lack thereof) or philosophy of life, Pascal profoundly challenges us at our deepest levels.
These and other rich nuggets of Pascal's background are penned in Os Guinness' Foreword to The Trinity Forum booklet titled, "The Wager & Other Selections from the Pensees," with commentary provided by Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College. In the next few postings, we will consider some of his most powerful Pensees, along with the commentary that is provided by Kreeft.
Pascal died young, at the age of 39, and it was only in the last four years of his life, beginning in 1657, that he began to slowly and painfully compose the Pensees. As Guinness points out, "In it he clearly aims to make his case for faith not for the lecture halls of the Sorbonne but for the salons of upper class Parisian society. Writing for the cultured, intelligent free-thinkers with refined manners and easy-going morals, he crafted an argument that is equally accessible and compelling to entrepreneurs and risk-takers of today."
Interestingly, the only thing we have left of his meditations are Pascal's notes, not a book, so we can only surmise the final order and purpose of his intended work. And in some ways this makes it both harder and easier to read. What we will find is that often his comments are cryptic and brief, and make us wonder what the final form might have looked like. But as Guinness reminds us, "Pascal's thoughts have a distilled essence, a diamond-like sharpness, and an explosive suggestiveness....they (Pensees) is not a book to be read through like other books; it is better approached as a series of reflections to be pondered at their own pace."
Here is one of the most remarkable Pensees for us to consider, one that explores the reality of what we human beings really are, not simply physical bodies (represented by the the trendy contemporary philosophy of the new atheists), but something much more:
"Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this." (#200)
As Kreeft wonderfully writes, "Man is in fact a living oxymoron: wretched greatness, great wretchedness, rational animal, mortal spirit, thinking reed."
The story is told that during World War II, Oxford don and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis was asked by a media interviewer what he would think if the Germans got the atomic bomb, dropped one on England, and he saw it falling right on top of him. "If you only had time for one last thought, what would it be?" Lewis replied that he would look up at the bomb, stick out his tongue at it, and say, "Pooh! You're only a bomb. I'm an immortal soul."
Before we considered the beginnings of some entries dedicated to the seventeenth century philosopher and thinker Blaise Pascal. His Pensees, or "meditations," explore the human condition, with all of our desires for happiness, truth, and joy, and the reasons for our disappointments as well. And as Socrates uttered many centuries ago, whose thought echoes down the corridors of time, "The unexamined life is not worth living." And nothing has really changed much over the centuries, has it? Not to speak of the fact that few humans seem to ever seriously reflect on life. Again, as Bertrand Russell uttered, "Most people would rather die than think -- in fact, they do."
But Pascal took his great mathematical and scientific mind to explore the dilemma of the human condition, irrespective of religious persuasion, or lack thereof. And in his quest to explore the inner recesses of the human heart, despite his great mental faculties, he looked at his Christian faith as more than an academic enterprise. While his "first conversion" occurred at the ripe old age of twenty-three, a conversion perhaps more of the mind and seeing things differently, from a new perspective with his newfound faith, it was to be followed by a "second conversion" some eight years later on the night of November 23, 1654. On this evening he had an intense, two-hour mystical experience that he recorded in "The Memorial," beginning with these famous lines:
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," not of philosophers
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
On this "night of fire" that Pascal experienced late in his life, Os Guinness, in his Foreword to the Trinity Forum booklet on Pascal, writes that: "This 'night of fire' became so decisive for Pascal's remaining eight years of life...it was so precious and pivotal to him that he sewed the parchment record of it into the lining of his doublet--and into every new doublet that he bought for the rest of his life. Laboring on his extraordinary writings through the years of chronic sickness, depression, and mounting pain, Pascal died at the age of thirty-nine."
Whatever sentiments we may have about Pascal's "night of fire," there is little dispute that it changed him for life. But he would continue to use the same rigors of his great mind to explore some of the dilemmas of the human condition, among them, one of his favorites was what he called "Vanity." By vanity, as Peter Kreeft in his commentary of the Forum booklet explains, Pascal meant "something between mere self-regard or self-flattery (as in a 'vanity mirror') and the total meaninglessness and purposelessness of life that Ecclesiastes means by "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." He means pettiness, thinness, shallowness, hollowness, insubstantiality..." Reading Kreeft's comments makes me wonder, wouldn't Pascal have been the perfect author for our own day? Does his work not expose the emptiness and futility of what is commonly referred to as "current, relevant, and in vogue"?
Listen to Pensee #47:
"We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching...Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it it inevitable that we should never be so."
Kreeft's comments are insightful: "Pascal does not mean that we should live for the present but that we should live in the present; not irresponsibility and whim-gratification, but the wise counsels of the Sermon on the Mount: 'Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day.' " (Matthew 6:34)
Hmmmm. I think that dog will hunt...
Last week, in the second of an installment, we considered a few of the meditations of Blaise Pascal, his "pensees," as they are laid out in The Trinity Forum Reading booklet, "The Wager and Other Selections from the Pensees," with commentary provided by Peter Kreeft. In these unique writings, Pascal, who labored over them slowly and painfully the last four years of his life, beginning in 1657, he has crafted an argument for the "examined life," that is compelling to even the entrepreneurs and risk-takers of our own day.
A central focus of Pascal's on the human condition is the matter of human vanity. By vanity, as Peter Kreeft in his commentary of the Forum booklet explains, Pascal meant "something between mere self-regard or self-flattery (as in a 'vanity mirror') and the total meaninglessness and purposelessness of life that Ecclesiastes means by "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." He means pettiness, thinness, shallowness, hollowness, insubstantiality..."
Listen carefully to three of his pensees dealing with vanity:
"Here is this man, born to know the universe, to judge everything, to rule a whole state, wholly concerned with catching a hare!" (#522)
Kreeft's comments are spot on: "Notice the comic and tragic contrast between our nature and our lives, between what we are born to do ("born to know the universe, to judge everything") and what we do ("wholly concerned with catching a hare"), between our greatness and our pettiness." (By the way, I wonder if this may relate to the Apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 6, where he chides the Corinthian believers who take their petty offenses before pagan courts, seeing that "the saints will judge the world").
"Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it; in other words, we would never travel by sea if it meant never talking about it, and for the sheer pleasure of seeing things we could never hope to describe to others." (#77)
Here is an interesting diagnostic for us to consider. Can you imagine going on a vacation to a wonderful foreign destination that you have dreamed and planned on going for a long time, but you were not allowed to talk about it with your friends? To show them your pictures? Your movies? Pascal is drilling down to ask us, and almost 400 years ago, why we want to take holiday vacations! What drives us? Is it not often in some sense so we can attach significance to ourselves by where we have traveled? Kreeft comments succinctly: "Thus we take vacations only to take pictures. We use reality as a means to the end of producing appearances of it." Which segues nicely to another interesting pensee....
"We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression." (#806)
This seems to be the crux of the matter for many of us, because we desire to "make an impression." Deep down, we may feel an emptiness and hollowness, so we attach the seemingly important things of this world to ourselves as symbols of status, seeking the favor and approval of others. Kreeft makes some provocative observations about this pensee, and I am not sure he is correct, but it is worth reflecting on. He writes:
"Most of all, deep down, we fear damnation. Damnation is the loss of your soul, true self, image of God, real 'I.' In this life, perhaps the closest we come to that is emptiness, hollowness, 'nobody there,' 'nobody home.' We fear we are really insubstantial ghosts, deep down...To prove we are real, we make splashes in others' pools. Especially by the two things no ghost can do: sex and violence. This is the deep, unconscious source of our obsession with sex and violence: a secular society has no other way of overcoming the fear of damnation. (Except for diversion and indifference, the two other modern pseudo-solutions,)..."
I wonder if he is on to something....your thoughts?
Why doesn't anyone have any time today? Where did all the time go? Peter Kreeft suggests that, when he asked this question of philosophers, theologians, sociologists, historians, and other learned people, not one could give a good answer. And that perhaps the best answer he ever received as to where time went? "Cleveland." :)
As he suggests, the question is more puzzling than at first glance. While in ancient civilizations, if you were rich you had slaves to do your menial tasks so you could be free to pursue your leisure time, today we face a modern day conundrum. One would think that with all of the "time-saving" devices, we would have an abundance of leisure time, certainly more than our ancestors, yet we know this simply isn't the case.
Since we are indeed impatient people, all of us, Kreeft gives us Pascal's answer without delay: "We want to complexify our lives. We don't have to, we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very thing we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it."
Listen to Pascal:
"If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it." (#70) "Diversion: If man were happy, the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints and God. Yes: but is a man not happy who can find delight in diversion? No: because it comes from somewhere else, from outside... (#132) "I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." (#136).
In Kreeft's opinion (and I tend to agree) this is the most powerful of all the pensees, because it so accurately describes our contemporary culture, our need for diversion, one of the two pseudo-solutions we employ to "cover up" our lack of contentment in life. We might conclude from this, then, that the society (or individual) which has the most diversions and amusements is not if fact the happiest, but the unhappiest. It isn't hard to "connect the dots" to realize that our society, with social indicators like depression, suicide, divorce, drugs, and violence, all point to our lack of contentment as a society. If life felt like a holiday, why would we seek holidays from it?
"If you are typically modern, your life is like a rich mansion with a terrifying hole in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiply diversions."
So what's the wallpaper you and I are using in our lives?
Woody Allen once opined, "I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens!"
Despite all of the attempts by modernity to harness "eternal youth," (cosmetics, cryonics, etc.) and to stave off the inevitable via science and other stratagems, death is the one fact of life, actually one of the few facts of life, that we can count on. Peter Kreeft suggests that Pascal saw death as one of the key proofs of man's wretchedness: "Death is the most unsentimental of facts: simple, decisive, businesslike. Therefore Pascal's pensees on death are also unsentimental, simple, decisive, and businesslike. There is no nonsense, no evasion, no 'nuancing,' no little mental two step about death..."
Listen to Pascal:
"Anyone with only a week to live will not find it in his interest to believe that all this is just a matter of chance. Imagine a number of men in chains, all under the sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of others...This is an image of the human condition." (#326, 434)
Peter Kreeft uses the powerful image that life is like we are each locked in a car (our bodies) rushing furiously down a hill (time) through the fog (ignorance), and unable to see ahead, over rocks and pits (wretchedness). The doors are welded shut, the steering works minimally, and brakes are no where to be found on the car! Our only certitude is that all the cars sooner or later go over the edge of the cliff (death). He asks, "So what do we do? We erect billboards at the edge of the cliff, so that we do not have to look at the abyss. The billboards we call 'civilization.'"
Kreeft suggests that our "solution" is arguably the biggest part of the problem, and offers five possible solutions to the conundrum of death:
1. Don't look at it. Look the other way. Be an ostrich and hide our heads in the sand. Stay diverted...
2. Look at it with a heart dulled by pop psychology. "Accept" it. Go gentle into that goodnight...
3. Look at it and despair, like the existential nihilism of a Sartre or Camus. Highly admirable honesty, mind you, but quite unlivable.
4. Look at it and put your hope and faith in science to conquer death by technology, cryonics, or artificial immortality via genetic engineering. This is nothing new, as it is a faith as old as Renaissance alchemy and occultism. But this would be not Heaven on Earth but Hell. Think about it.
5. Put your faith in God, in Christ, in Resurrection.
"Pascal eliminates all other contenders. The problem itself eliminates all other contenders. Death kayos all the philosophies; only Christ kayos death."
"If we have only hoped in Christ for this life, then we are of all men most to be pitied." Paul to the Corinthians,1 Corinthians 15:19.
In this sixth in a series of posts gleaned from The Trinity Forum's booklet, "Blaise Pascal:The Wager & Other Selections from the Pensees," Peter Kreeft, who supplies the excellent commentary, suggests that Pascal offers up two popular pseudo-solutions to avoid reflecting upon our place in this universe, our inability to be lastingly happy, and our ultimate destiny. These two pseudo-solutions include both Diversion and Indifference.
In regard to diversion, Pascal suggests that modern life is a lot like "foxhunting," in that we complain about our lack of time, but in reality love to complexify our lives! As dispossessed princes and princesses, who may recall some Edenic memory of happiness, we now love diversion and distraction by diverting ourselves from our unhappiness: "The only good thing is for men to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation that takes their mind off it...or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short, by what is called diversion...That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular...that is why we prefer the hunt to the capture." (#136). Sheesh, does this not capture our contemporary culture and personal lives in so many ways?
The second pseudo-solution, indifference, may in fact be more insidious and frightening than diversion. Listen to Pascal weighing in on indifference:
"The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter...Thus our chief interest and chief duty is to seek enlightenment on this subject, on which all our conduct depends. And that is why, amongst those who are not convinced, I make a distinction between those who strive with all their might to learn and those who live without troubling themselves or thinking about it...I can feel nothing but compassion for those who sincerely lament their doubt, who regard it as the ultimate misfortune...but as for those who spend their lives without a thought for this final end of life...I view them very differently...Man's sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder." (#427, 632)
Kreeft is right, I believe, when he suggests that this is the nadir of the soul, and as he observes, why Dante had the lowest circle of Hell as being ice, and not fire. It further shows that the real distinction in spiritual concerns is not so much between the "believer" and "unbeliever," but between seekers and nonseekers, for while the distinction between believers and nonbelievers is temporary, the distinction between seeking unbelievers and those who are unseeking, is eternal.
"We are more put out at missing a parking place than at missing our place in Heaven; more perturbed at missing the right road to our next appointment than at missing the road to our appointment with God. For 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.'" -Peter Kreeft
I wonder if Kreeft is right?
In the last installment examining some of Pascal's pensees from The Trinity Forum's booklet, "Blaise Pascal: The Wager and Other Selections from the Pensees," with commentary by Peter Kreeft, we considered two pseudo-solutions to the human dilemma. They are the pseudo-solutions of diversions and indifference. We turn now to the one remaining bit of innate sanity, to use Kreeft's phrase, that abides despite our insane and decadent culture: the knowledge that we will all die. As Dr. Johnson once declared, "I know know thought that so wonderfully clarifies the mind as the thought that I shall hang tomorrow morning."
Listen to Pascal: "There are only three sorts of people: those who have found God and serve Him; those who are busy seeking him and have not found him; those who live without either seeking or finding him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy, those in the middle are unhappy and yet reasonable." (#160)
Kreeft rightly reminds us that there is no fourth class. The first group are believers, who are "reasonable" or wise because they seek, and happy because they have found. Group two consists of the unhappy atheists and agnostics, who are "reasonable" since they seek, yet unhappy because they have not yet found. The last group is comprised of the contented atheists or agnostics, who are "unreasonable," Kreeft calls them "spiritually insane," because they do not even seek the truth, and who are unhappy (forever) because they do not, nor desire, to ever find.
The Great Divide, then, is not between theists and atheists, or between those who are happy and those who are not happy, but between those who are seekers and non-seekers of the Truth (for God is Truth, John 14:6). For you see, it is with the heart, and not the head, that determines eternal destiny. This is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis' great theological fantasy, The Great Divorce, in which a busload of people in Hell are allowed access to the Great City, Heaven, and can stay as long as they wish, but all but one decides to return to the drab, gray city below. As C. S. Lewis quotes his guide in the book, George MacDonald, "The byword of Hell is 'I am my own.' All who are in Hell choose it."
"Death turns your habitual perspective upside down --that is, really right side up. Tiny things, like economics and technology and politics, no longer loom large, and enormous things, like religion and morality, no longer seem thin and far away. In a word, death removes 'vanity.' One of life's biggest problems, death, solves an even bigger one, vanity..." -Peter Kreeft
So which group are we in?
In the ensuing weeks I will be devoting entries to the life and works of C. S. Lewis, but with particular attention to select readings of Lewis' classic, Mere Christianity. As I continue to reread this book at least annually, a book that had a profound influence on my own spiritual journey, I am reminded of how often we need to reread books that are great books, that have influenced us beyond our imagination. As Lewis himself once said, "Good books deserve repeated readings, all of our lives." And he practiced this throughout his life. I know I am not alone in my high regard for this volume of Lewis', as the likes of men like Chuck Colson and Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza and the one-time owner of the Detroit Tigers, have borne eloquent testimony of Lewis' profound influence on their lives, especially from that remarkable chapter in Mere Christianity, "The Great Sin."
More recently, Francis Collins, who formerly led the Human Genome Project and who now serves as the Director for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had this to say about Lewis' influence on his own spiritual journey:
"Somebody pointed me towards C.S. Lewis's little book called Mere Christianity, which took all of my arguments that I thought were so airtight about the fact that faith is just irrational, and proved them totally full of holes. And in fact, turned them around the other way, and convinced me that the choice to believe is actually the most rational conclusion when you look at the evidence around you. That was a shocking sort of revelation, and one that I fought bitterly for about a year and then finally decided to accept." (from his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief).
For those of you who may not be too familiar with Lewis, he was born in 1898 in Belfast, Ireland. He was educated at University College, Oxford, and served as a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, for over thirty years, after which he took the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge University, England. Here are seven little known facts about him, some of which may account for his remarkable impact on being, as he was sometimes referred to, as the "apostle to the skeptics."
1- He was awarded "Triple Firsts" at Oxford, a rarity in any day: Classical Honor Moderations (1920); Literae Humaniores (1922); and English Language and Literature (1923).
2- Lewis was regarded as arguably the greatest defender of the Christian faith in the twentieth century. During World War II, His voice over the BBC was the second most recognized voice to Winston Churchill.
3- He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on September 7th, 1947.
4- He was the author of more than thirty-nine books, covering various genres of literature such as poetry, literary criticism, theology, theological fantasies, novels, autobiography, and theological apologetics.
5- Since 2001, his books have increased in sales over 125%, and The Chronicles of Narnia, his seven part fiction with Christian symbolism, has been translated into over thirty languages, and have sold more than 85 million copies.
6-The award-winning film, Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, was based on his life at Oxford University and his marriage late in life to the American, Joy Gresham.
7- Lewis died on November 22nd, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and also the same day that Aldous Huxley died. Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, wrote an imaginary dialogue among these three men entitled, Between Heaven & Hell.
Regarded as the centerpiece of Lewis' apologetic works, Mere Christianity began as a series of live fifteen-minute radio talks that Lewis gave, under the auspices of the BBC during WWII. These twenty-five talks were delivered over the radio from 1941-1944. Characterized by careful reasoning, vivid analogies, and Lewis' gift for making complex religious ideas immediately accessible, the broadcasts were overwhelmingly successful, so much so that he was besieged with letters from listeners. The broadcasts were initially published as three separate books, but collected into Mere Christianity in 1952.
One could hardly improve on the Foreword to the current edition of Mere Christianity, provided by Kathleen Norris. I will leave you with her words. Let me encourage you to pick up a current edition if you don't have one, and journey with me, back into the world of Lewis' Mere Christianity.
"Like Soren Kierkegaard before him and his contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lewis seeks in Mere Christianity to help us see the religion with fresh eyes, as a radical faith whose adherents might be likened to an underground group gathering in a war zone, a place where evil seems to have the upper hand, to hear messages from the other side. The 'mere' Christianity of C.S. Lewis is not a philosophy or even a theology that may be considered, argued, and put away in a book on a shelf. It is a way of life, one that challenges us always to remember, as Lewis once stated, that 'there are no ordinary people,' and that 'it is with immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.' The Christianity Lewis espouses is humane, but not easy: it asks us to recognize that the great religious struggle is not fought on a spectacular battleground, but within the ordinary human heart, where every morning we awake and feel the pressures of the day crowding in on us, and we must decide what sort of immortals we wish to be."
Last week we considered a brief overview of Lewis' life, and how the formulation of his classic work, Mere Christianity, was the result of a series of radio broadcasts he gave over the BBC to a nation at war between 1941-1944. While an Archbishop of Canterbury had been asked to give hope to a nation reeling from war, it was through Eric Fenn of the BBC who had encountered Lewis' 1940 apologetic work attempting to respond to the question of human suffering, The Problem of Pain, that Lewis was invited to address his BBC audience.
It was Lewis, as Norris describes in her Foreword says, "speaking with no authority but that of experience, as a layman and former atheist, he told his radio audience that he had been selected for the job of describing Christianity to a new generation precisely because he was not a specialist but an 'amateur... and a beginner, not an old hand.'
Even in the Preface to Mere Christianity, he does us the great service of describing the Christianity he espouses as "no help to anyone who is hesitating between two denominations," but rather, he realized that "ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times."
I leave you with the conclusion to his Preface to Mere Christianity, in which he considers the Faith using the beautiful metaphor of a home, and hallways that lead into different rooms. Lewis had fond memories from childhood of growing up with his older brother, Warnie, in a rambling home in Belfast, Ireland, as their lives were enriched through their vivid imaginations. As you read how he describes "mere Christianity, " how do you respond to his imagery? Do you find it helpful or not? How does it challenge our thinking?
"It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get in your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise."
"But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: 'Do I like that kind of service?' but 'Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?'"
"When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house."
Your comments posted here are welcome...
We live in a world where the word "Christian" is bantered about and applied to so many things: Christian fiction, Christian movies, Christian yellow pages, Christian concerts, Christian artists, even Christian companies! I believe that this usage of the term often causes a lot confusion, and results in a misunderstanding of the very meaning of the word.
Lewis, in his Preface to Mere Christianity, helps us regain a proper perspective on the meaning of the word Christian. Under the tutelage of William Kirkpatrick, Lewis came to value the importance of the meaning of words. As he set out to present in Mere Christianity what he considered the core of "mere" Christianity, he raised one possible concern:
"Far deeper objections may be felt--and have been expressed--against my use of the word "Christian" to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: 'Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?' or 'May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?'"
While he sees this objection as being very charitable and sensitive, he also believes that it does not have the quality of actually being useful, and uses another common, though less important word, to make his point:
"The word "gentleman" originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone 'a gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not 'a gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman..."
Lewis suggests that when people began using the word "gentleman" in this new, refined sense, no longer a way of giving information, but now as a way of praising (someone that the speaker likes) the word "gentleman" became a useless word. He then shows the relevance of this reasoning as it relates to the term "Christian":
"Now if once we allow people to start spiritualizing and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word "Christian," it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone...We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name "Christians" was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to 'the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were 'far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian."
So when you and I use the word "Christian," do we use it as a noun or an adjective? Just wondering...
One of the most fundamental concepts Lewis introduces us to early on in Mere Christianity is the idea of an Absolute Right and Wrong. This is particularly relevant in today's world, where we often hear it bantered about that, "There are no Absolutes! All values are human constructs, the machinations of mankind, not from any kind of transcendent God..." This is the clearly the view of Stephen Hawking, who in his latest book, "The Grand Design" (interesting title for an atheist or agnostic to employ such a title), believes that the very idea of God is a human construct. When Time Magazine this past Monday had "10 Questions for Stephen Hawking," they asked him, "If God doesn't exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal?" To which Hawking cleverly replied, "I don't claim that God doesn't exist. God is the name people give to the reason we are here. But I think that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God." So in essence, Hawking dismisses any idea of God having an objective reality, and would rather have us believe that God is just our desire to project a concept or basis for why we look for purpose or meaning in life.
While Hawking's sentiments, and the objective reality of God is beyond this discussion, Lewis' intimations of a Right and Wrong, as he titles Book One, as a "Clue to the Meaning of the Universe," is helpful to our understanding of meaning in purpose in the human experience. And here, Lewis is at his best. He observes that just as we have "laws of nature," like gravitation, heredity, and the laws of chemistry, so also there is what is called the Law of Human Nature.
Lewis argues that while some may believe the idea of a universal concept of decent behavior is unsound, because different societies and civilizations have had different moralities, they have never amounted to anything like a total difference. We can hardly imagine a country where people were admired for running away in a battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. People may differ as to what people we should be unselfish to, but they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.
Lewis continues on this Law of Human Nature:
"None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature. If there are exceptions among you, I apologize to them. They had much better read some other book, for nothing I am going to say concerns them. And now, turning to the ordinary human beings who are left...I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else. I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or this month, or more likely, this very day, we have failed to practice ourselves the kind of behavior we expect from other people. There may be all sorts of excuses for us. That time you were so unfair to the children was when you were very tired...."
"The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature...For you will notice that it is only for our bad behavior that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves."
The great philosophers and writers down through the centuries have dealt with this concept of a True Right and Wrong. It was attributed to the great Russian writer Dostoevsky, who explored the great themes of God, morality, and redemption in his works, that he declared, "If there is no God, then all things are permitted." I think Lewis and Dostoevsky would agree on this fundamental principle of the Law or Human Nature, and it's origin.
Following C. S. Lewis' conversion to Christianity in 1931, he would never look at Christmas the same way through the rest of his life. Some twenty-five years later, in 1957, he would publish the article, "What Christmas Means to Me." He suggested that three things generally go by the name of Christmas. First, is the religious festival. Second, the occasion for merry making and hospitality. Third is the commercial racket, a modern invention to boost sales.
And Lewis was quick to point out his disdain for the commercial racket, since it causes more pain than pleasure, and serves as a trap to make people feel obligated. He went on to talk about the gaudy rubbish that is often given in the name of Christmas gifts, and the commercial racket that wears us down as we carry on our regular duties as well. "Can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter...?" Lewis lamented.
Two years later he would be was featured in the Christmas issue of the American publication, The Saturday Evening Post. The issue, dated 19 December, 1959, bore on its cover a 15-cent price, and a picture of a man struggling clumsily to get a package wrapped, and the announcement of a new Screwtape letter by C. S. Lewis. Inside was a life-size, close-up photo of Lewis's face and his essay, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast." This was a kind of Christmas gift to the public from the editors.
Many of Lewis letters have been published subsequent to his death by the careful eye and scholarship of Walter Hooper, his personal secretary for a brief time before his death on 22 November, 1963, the very same day that John F. Kennedy would be assassinated. Also, Aldous Huxley would pass away that same day. One of my favorite pieces is the undated poem Lewis wrote, "The Nativity," which can be found in his book entitled, "Poems." In this brief poem Lewis shows what the nativity scene meant in his own devotional life, a fitting reminder of the Incarnation amidst the noise of the Christmas racket.
Among the oxen (like an ox I'm slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox's dullness might at length
Give me an ox's strength.
Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Savior where I looked for hay;
So may my beast like folly learn at least
The patience of a beast
Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baaing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!
As we encounter the holiday rush and the attempt to remember the spiritual festival of Christmas amidst the "Xmas racket," I came across a reading of Lewis that I am including in a manuscript for a book that will be published next year. The book will be titled, "Made for Another World," and will explore the unsatisfied longings that we experience in our lives. You may recall that Lewis uses that phrase, "made for another world," in Mere Christianity when he suggests that if this world lets me down in terms of not completely satisfying my appetites (nothing in this present world will, by the way), then I need not conclude "that the universe is a fraud, rather, perhaps I was made for another world."
In perhaps the most memorable message C. S. Lewis ever delivered to
students at Oxford University, "The Weight of Glory," delivered in June of 1942, it stands as
a masterpiece. In this sermon, among other concerns, Lewis addresses
this concept of sehnsucht, "inconsolable longings," that we experience in this present
world. In Lewis' thinking, these longings speak of the glory that we may share
in, and that beckon us to wait and hope for another world to come. A very fitting meditation for Christmas. As he said elsewhere, "The Son of Man became a man, to enable men to become sons of God." Toward the end of this magnificent sermon Lewis writes:
We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. I think I begin to see what it means. In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more-something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it.
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it... At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in...
Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nebulae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.
There is a fascinating blog recently written on Lewis, "Surprised by C. S. Lewis: Why His Popularity?" that was penned by John Blake of CNN. Here is the transcript in its entirety, published December 17th, 2010. I might add that the just published "C. S. Lewis Bible" by HarperOne Publishers, is a bit of a misnomer. It isn't a collection of what Lewis said or believed about the Bible, but a generous sprinkling of 600 selections from his various works interspersed throughout the Bible. Available in hardback or leather. Check it out at Amazon, or www.cslewis.com, HarperOne's website devoted to Lewis' works. A wonderful gift idea for the Lewis enthusiast or even one unfamiliar with his works, who would like to encounter inspirational pieces as they read the Scriptures.
Lewis is labeled a Christian writer, but he also wrote essays, children's fiction, literary criticism and science fiction. He even hosted a popular BBC radio show during World War II. Some scholars say Lewis' BBC experience, where he had to make points quickly, honed his writing style. Lewis learned how to systematically explain Christianity in clear and catchy language, devoid of religious jargon. Philip Yancey, an evangelical author, says Lewis developed this gift because he came to Christianity as an outsider. He was an atheist. "Coming to faith as an atheist, he had an understanding of and sympathy for people who look at faith wistfully but can't swallow it," says Yancey, who writes about Lewis in his latest book, "What Good is God."
Though Lewis looked like the prototype of the mid-20th century English professor, he was actually an Irishman. He was born as Clive Staples Lewis in 1898 in Belfast. Friends and family called him "Jack." Scholars cite two events as the source for Lewis' early atheism. His mother, Florence, died of cancer when Lewis was 9. And his best friend, Paddy, was killed during World War I. Most of the men in Lewis' platoon didn't survive the trenches. "When he saw the carnage of World War I, he concluded that if God exists, He is a cosmic sadist," says Dorsett, Lewis' biographer. Lewis' conversion to Christianity was gradual. It was prompted by what he later called "good infection" - being drawn to faith unawares through the friends he made and books he read. One of those friends was J.R.R. Tolkien, a fellow English professor at Oxford best known today as the author of "The Lord of the Rings." According to some accounts, Tolkien, a Christian intellectual, helped convert Lewis. He showed Lewis that many of the mythological books he loved to read were Christian allegories. Lewis, though, would later add that there was something more subtle that led to his conversion. He called it "joy." "Joy" was Lewis' term for a stab of longing that unexpectedly welled up in him during moments of contemplation, such as listening to opera or reading an ancient Norse tale.
In his book, "The Weight of Glory," Lewis wrote that the yearning he experienced during those moments convinced him there was another existence beyond this world. "For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a love we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited."
Lewis could be poetic, but he could also be brutally honest. He demonstrated this in his most searing book, "A Grief Observed." In the book, Lewis writes about falling in love - and losing that love. Lewis was a bachelor who lived with his older brother Warnie for much of his life. Then he met Joy Davidman Gresham, a Jewish American writer who was 15 years his junior. Dorsett says Lewis was both physically and intellectually smitten with Gresham. He says they used to play Scrabble together, using Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German words to fill in the blanks. "She had a sharp wit and he loved it," Dorsett says. "She loved to debate and challenge him. They were always having an intellectual tennis match." Lewis' relationship with Gresham would also challenge his faith.
Lewis married Gresham when he was 58. Soon, however, she developed bone cancer. She experienced what seemed to be a miraculous recovery only to fall ill again. Four years after marrying Lewis, she was dead. Lewis was devastated. He began to question his belief in God: "Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting," he wrote in "A Grief Observed." "A Grief Observed" inspired the film, "Shadowlands," starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. One of the most moving scenes in the film took place when Lewis' character embraced Gresham's grieving son, Douglas, and they both wept unabashedly together. Gresham says there's one part of Lewis' personality that movies and scholars often get wrong. Many people think Lewis was a dour Englishman.
"He was full of fun," Gresham says. "He was always surrounded by people who liked to laugh and drink pints of beer. You could always tell if Jack was in the house. You would hear roars of laughter." He was also humble, Gresham says. Lewis spent hours each day answering letters from his admirers." Jack was someone who believed that if someone would write him, then the least he could do was give a reply," Gresham says. "Sometimes people would just show up at the door, and he would never turn them away."
Gresham says commentators also often miss the mark on Lewis' friendship with Tolkien.
Lewis, however, grabs his share of headlines today. Gresham, a retired physiotherapist, spends much of his time talking about Lewis. He's a producer for the latest "Narnia" film, answers letters from Lewis' fans and has written a biography called "Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis." He says he doesn't get tired of talking about the man some still call "Jack." "It gives me great pleasure to introduce him to people who haven't met him yet," he says. "I'm an unashamed C.S. Lewis fan." And what about Lewis? What would he think of the movie franchise he's spawned and the Christian icon he's become? "I think he'd be embarrassed," Gresham says quickly. "The thought that he would be idolized by so many people would embarrass him deeply."
I have been reading through the book of Ecclesiastes, that book that the God-haunted agnostic Herman Melville declared in Moby Dick (chapter 97) to be "the truest of all books," and of which Thomas Wolfe said that it is "the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man's life upon this earth...the greatest single piece of wisdom I have ever known..." Solomon's sage advice in this book follows no particular theme. I like the way Peter Kreeft describes it: "The book rambles, goes nowhere, it's like a collage of photos taken through the porthole of a sinking ship." But what we can be sure of is that this ship called mortal, human life, is going down.
And that was Solomon's conclusion as he surveyed the wondrous landscape in which he was never denied anything, virtually, under the sun, whether it was career advancement, learning, or the very best pleasures of this world. All of life is a "vanity and chasing after the wind." (Eccles. 1:14)
I've been reading Ecclesiastes in the C. S. Lewis Bible, where the editors and contributors at HarperOne have done a remarkable job of placing over 600 of Lewis' quotes from many sources throughout the Bible (It is NOT a C.S. Lewis BIBLE, as some have charged). Interestingly, they have chosen Lewis' work, "The Screwtape Letters," as the primary resource throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. And if you don't remember, The Screwtape Letters is the imaginary, satirical advice from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior "tempter" named Wormwood.
As the book winds down, there is an interesting tidbit of advice from Screwtape to Wormwood, for those who find themselves in the "long, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity." Screwtape observes that: "Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is 'finding his place it it,' while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in the earth, which is just what we want..."
So what is the downside of prosperity? In what ways are we knit to the world? Why is it that adversity teaches us more about life than prosperity? Just wondering...
This morning I had one of the most exhilarating experiences that I can recall in sometime. I was gathered in a conference room of a Buckhead firm with a group of businessmen, intending to discuss a book dealing with spirituality. But I thought we would take a brief look at a 3-minute video with Rob Bell, who has captivated literally millions of people with his remarkably well done series of NOOMA videos. But this video promo, taken from his forthcoming book, "Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," became the entree of our morning discussion. All kinds of questions arose in the lively discussion: Will everyone go to Heaven? Is there such a place or thing as Hell? If there is a Hell, how can God be considered good?
Much of this theological discussion that has spread like a viral marketing campaign since the weekend over the web was fueled by a post by Justin Taylor, a VP of editorial at the publishing house, Crossway Books. The Gospel Coalition is a coalition of conservative, evangelical scholars, who on the whole write winsomely about the Christian faith. I don't think Taylor had any idea what a firestorm would be created by his post, which raised the question as to whether Bell is forsaking his conservative theological moorings, and is now embracing a universalism, the belief that everyone will go to Heaven.
While I have some serious concerns about the direction of Rob's theology as he seems to be communicating on this brief, but extrememly well done video, I with many others will reserve judgment until the book is released at the end of this month. But amidst the brouhaha that is being seen via the web on this important issue of eternal destiny, it is a remarkable thing to sit with a group of professional men and discuss theology, in the "agora," the marketplace. It kind of reminds me of the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 in the Athenian marketplace. So who said theology has to be sequestered only to Church and Sunday mornings? And if you are interested in being in such a group, feel free to get in touch with me and we can discuss the possibilities.
Justin Taylor's comments at the gospel coalition website, "Rob Bell: Universalist?" and Rob's video, can both be viewed at the following link. Tell us what you think of about all of this....
I've been thinking a good bit recently about how we engage culture, and people we meet who may not embrace a Christian worldview. It is clear that as culture at large becomes more secularized, Christians sometimes have a "knee-jerk" reaction to people and the ideas they embrace, as though argumentation and arm-twisting will get them to "repent" and agree with their own conservative beliefs. And while I know as well as most that Truth tends to be more like a lighthouse that chocolate pudding, I'm also convinced that the way we approach and engage people - their thinking, their ideas, their deeply cherished beliefs - can often be troubling.
This is troubling, not simply because it rarely accomplishes much in terms of "redemption," but also because it sets us up for the sin of "hubris," pride, the belief that we are somehow better than the people that we are talking wtih. And one of the dangers implicit in any religious community is that we tend to develop an "us-them" mindset, where we perceive ourselves as somehow cut from a different and better bolt of cloth than the rest of the human species, with whom we engage in the world.
I came across a poem of C. S. Lewis recently, in the collection of poems edited by Walter Hooper, entitled, "The Apologist's Evening Prayer." While Lewis was a great "apologist," defender of the faith, he also was wise enough to see through the veil of ego and pride that often accompanies our approach to others.
Would love to hear your thoughts...
From all my lame defeats and oh! much more, from all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf at which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity, Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye, take from me all my trumpery lest I die.
Those of you who have followed the recent firestorm created by the video promotional for Rob Bell's just released book, "Love Wins," are probably wearied from the reviews and commentaries on where Bell stands theologically. Does he truly embrace a position of universalism, the belief that everyone will spend eternity with God, spared any judgment of God in the world to come?
I've not read the book yet, as I haven't received it yet from Amazon, but all the reviews suggest that while he never comes out categorically in favor of universalism, neither does he deny it. A provocative interview by MSNBC's Martin Bashir is receiving a lot of views, as he questions Bell on his intent and theology. Bashir asks: "You're creating a Christian message that's warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture. . . . What you've done is you're amending the gospel, the Christian message, so that it's palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach...That's what you've done, haven't you?"
This is an Interesting line of questioning to come from a reporter, wouldn't you say? Whatever position Bell espouses, he has created a tremendous amount of ambiguity about what he believes. And while I have been a Rob Bell fan for some time, as I've seen the power of the NOOMA videos in the lives of people, this latest foray is a bit disturbing to me.
For as seemingly distasteful and unseemly as the idea of divine judgment is, it seems that a major flaw in Bell's reasoning, when compared with the Scriptures, is that Bell seems to suggest that God doesn't truly honor human choice and freedom. In The Problem of Pain, arguably one of the most neglected books of C. S. Lewis, he writes:
"There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord's own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully 'All will be saved,' but my reason retorts, 'Without their will, or with it?' If I say 'Without their will' I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say 'With their will,' my reason replies, 'How if they will not give in?' "
Bell's idea of God's love, a love that "wins," that trumps human freedom, denying the consequences of human choices in this mortal life, is in reality a demeaning of God's love. He honors even a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens desire, if that desire is to be away from His presence. I think T. S. Eliot had it right when he observed: "I had far rather walk, in the daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end."
What do you think?
The 7-minute video interview with Bell is at: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/03/15/msnbc-martin-bashirs-interview-with-rob-bell/
I came across this interview recently with Bono, a member of U2, and found this conversation intriguing. This excerpt is from the book, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. You might want to consider passing it along to someone you think would enjoy it.
I welcome you to post your thoughts and observations at the end of the article....
Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don't let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that's my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that's not so easy.
BUT SWEET WILL BE THE FLOWER: The Life And Death Of NBC’s David Bloom
Written by my acquaintance Eric Metaxas, on the untimely death of his friend David Bloom, who died eight years ago yesterday covering the war in Iraq for NBC News. An unbelievable story weaving together the lives of Metaxas, Jim Lane of Goldman Sachs in Manhattan, and the New Canaan Society of men. It's long, but perhaps the best thing you have read in years...
At twelve o’clock stood New York Governor, George Pataki. At one o’clock , White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher. At two o’clock was former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani. At three o’clock , just across the aisle, were Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, and Ann Curry. Everywhere one looked were pundits and anchors and government officials, so many of them that you thought you had fallen into your tv set. There was Tom Brokaw and there was Tim Russert and there was Andrea Mitchell. And there was Chris Mathews and Lester Holt and Campbell Brown. And there was Dominic Dunne and there was General Barry MacCaffrey and there was Peggy Noonan. And there we were, my wife and I, at our friend’s funeral.
A good article by Lee Strobel, who came to the conclusion that belief in Christianity is not wishful thinking, but thoughtful hoping...
It was the worst news I could get as an atheist: my agnostic wife had decided to become a Christian. Two words shot through my mind. The first was an expletive; the second was "divorce."
Your thoughts are welcome here...
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, the famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking has weighed in to suggest that "there is no Heaven, it's all a fairy story, for people afraid of death."
Hawking writes: "I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
These latest musings of Hawking go beyond those laid out in his 2010 book, The Grand Design, in which he asserted that there is no need for a creator to explain the existence of the universe.While many might agree with Hawking's irreligious sentiments (or rather his "faith" in science to account and explain everything), I would suggest that the Christian faith that he so vehemently denounces is not "wishful thinking," but rather, "thoughtful hoping."
I came across a fine article that ably responds to Hawking's charge of faith being a fairy tale, written by Peter Wehner in yesterday's Commentary Magazine. Here is the article, in it's entirety. I welcome your thoughts.
Heaven May Be a Fairy Tale, but Who Said Fairy Tales Aren't Real?
"Stephen Hawking is among the greatest scientific minds since Einstein. But he is a better theoretical physicist than he is a theologian. In an interview, Hawking declared, "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers [Hawking regards the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail]; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."
Why is arguably the most important commitment of our life based on convictions that can't be fully tested or proven? Why are we asked to be sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see? Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the fact that if all doubt were cleared away, the investment of trust in a person (or object) would somehow mean less. In any event, I know enough to know that faith by definition transcends (but does not necessarily contradict) reason and evidence.
Many of you know of my fond affection for the writings of C. S. Lewis, and for his incomparable way of saying things. In my opinion, he has had few equals before or after him, for what he termed, "mere" Christianity. Chad Walsh of The New York Times years ago called him the "apostle to the skeptics." I couldn't more agree with Walsh's observation. I came across a collection of Lewis's sayings from his book by the same title, "Mere Christianity," that continues to be a perennial bestseller. I think you'll enjoy some of these quotes. Your comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share them by posting at the bottom of the page.
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?... If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning."
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone."
"God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there."
"I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Everyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one's eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people's eyes can see further than mine."
For more background on Lewis, his works and life, see the HarperOne website devoted to his many works: www.cslewis.com
I found this interview with Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly so fascinating that I thought I would post it for your reading pleasure. Although you and I may not agree with all that Kelly suggests, his thoughtful perspective on technology and faith, and yes, even when he doesn't use a smartphone, may well make us think about how technology affects us. I welcome your thoughts. Please post them at the end of the article.
Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly talks to CT about the Amish, heaven, and why he doesn't own a smart phone. Interview by Katelyn Beaty | posted 7/15/2011 09:52AM
Amid the din of warnings about modern technology's impact on the soul, Kevin Kelly sounds like the happy evangelist from Geekdom. "[W]e can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog," the Wired magazine cofounder claims in his most recent book, What Technology Wants. A provocative title, to be sure, introducing a more provocative thesis: All human artifacts, from words to wheels to Wikipedia, together act like a living, breathing organism that reflects something of the Divine. "Technology has its roots in God's work through the universe," Kelly told CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty as she sat down with the San Francisco native at this year's Q conference, where Kelly was speaking. He believes that as participants in the technium-Kelly's word for this tech-ecosystem-"when we try to increase the options in the world, we are part of something godly."
Kelly came to Christ in 1979, when he got locked out of a Jerusalem hostel and ended up sleeping on a stone slab in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He talked with CT about the Amish, his vision of heaven, and why he doesn't own a smart phone.
You use the term the technium to discuss all artifacts that humans have made since the beginning. Why not just use the word "culture"?
I use technium to emphasize that human creation is more than the sum of all its parts. An ecosystem behaves differently from its individual plant and animal components. We have thoughts in our minds that are more than the sum of all neuron activity. Society itself has certain properties that are more than the sum of the individuals; there is an agency that's bigger than us. In the same way, the technium will have a behavior that you're not going to find in your iPhone or your light bulb alone. The technium has far more agency than is suggested by the word culture. And this ecosystem or technological super-organism is not random-which is controversial in the broader scientific community, but should not be in a theological framework. It has an agenda.
Is God guiding the progress of the technium as it unfolds?
I would definitely say that progress is a reflection of the divine.
What do you mean by that?
In the same way we would say the beauty of nature reflects God, the technium reflects something of God's character. Not that the technium is without blemish, because anything we invent can be weaponized and made evil. But overall the technium has a positive force, a positive charge of good. And that good is primarily measured in terms of the possibilities and choices it presents us with. That's the metric I use to measure goodness.
For instance, love is good. I define love as not just an emotion but an action that helps others achieve some possibility. By love we give people opportunities to express their unique set of God-given gifts. In a certain sense, if you had to objectively measure the love in someone's heart, what would that look like? I think it would look like increasing choices and possibilities for others.
While reading the book, I couldn't help thinking about Genesis 1:28, that God gives humans the opportunity to create beyond themselves, and that this is "very good," a part of what it means to bear the imago Dei.
Yes. God has given us free will-true free will, not a phantom free will-and he wants us to surprise him. We are here to surprise God. God could make everything, but instead he says, "I bestow upon you the gift of free will so that you can participate in making this world. I could make everything, but I am going to give you some spark of my genius. Surprise me with something truly good and beautiful." So we invent things, and God says, "Oh my gosh, that was so cool! I could have thought of that, but they thought of that instead."
So yes, there is a positive charge within the technium, in the same way that organic life is good and that more life is better. That's not to say there isn't horror in biological life-animals ripping each other apart. It's just to say that overall, life creates 1 percent more than it destroys every year.
Is that something you have calculated?
No, I'm saying that even if the rate of improvement is as low as a 10th or a 100th of a percent, there is actually more good accumulated in the world than there is evil. That small difference is all it takes.
Why do you believe there is more good than evil?
Because the world is a better place now than it was 1,000 years ago. Whatever quantifiable metric you want to give to me about what's good in life, I would say there's more of it now than there was 1,000 years ago. There're fewer war casualties per capita, there's less violence. We think that some of these atrocities of war today are sickening, but Genghis Khan-you don't even want to hear about what they were doing. There is less disease, more longevity, more literacy, education, women's rights, more creativity, more food, more people, less hunger, fewer slaves, more leisure. You name it.
But what about the central Christian belief that the human heart is perpetually evil-that we are not progressing toward goodness, but that we need a Savior to intervene dramatically?
The fallibility of the human condition means that we tend to destroy as much as we create every year. We cannot even begin to be mostly good. But the good news is that by God's grace we can, and should, improve our lives a little tiny bit over time. That incremental crawl in the direction of good is all we can expect theologically, and it's the reason almost no one gives up the advancements of today. In what way would Christ's redemption be at work if we moved a little bit toward evil every year?
You spend a chapter on the Amish, and mention that you were part of a hippie movement that stressed paring down on material goods. In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons writes that you don't have a smart phone or TV, you ride your bike everywhere, you've only tweeted three times. Are your choices inconsistent with your belief that technological invention is so good?
Technology can maximize our special combination of gifts, but there are so many technological choices that I could spend all my time just trying out technologies. So I minimize my technological choices in order to maximize my output. The Amish (and the hippies) are really good at minimizing technologies. That's what I am trying to do as well. I seek to find those technologies that assist me in my mission to express love and reflect God in the world, and then disregard the rest.
But at the same time, I want to maximize the pool of technologies that people can choose from, so that they can find those tools that maximize their options and minimize the rest.
What do you mean, "maximize their options"?
I want to increase all the things that help people discover and use their talents. Can you imagine a world where Mozart did not have access to a piano? I want to promote the invention of things that have not been invented yet, with a sense of urgency, because there are young people born today who are waiting upon us to invent their aids. There are Mozarts of this generation whose genius will be hidden until we invent their equivalent of a piano-maybe a holodeck or something. Just as you and I have benefited from the people who invented the alphabet, books, printing, and the Internet, we are obligated to materialize as many inventions as possible, to hurry, so that every person born and to-be-born will have a great chance of discovering and sharing their godly gifts. So I'm interested in fostering innovation and investing in it, and making sure that it reaches other places in the world.
That is, by the way, why I fault the Amish. They are minimizing but not out there inventing new things.
Yet many people see something really attractive about the Amish's stripped-down life. Doesn't more technology just put us in a frenzy of choices?
I would call that romanticism. We are attracted to the Amish because their family and community support is astounding. They are incredible volunteers in and out of their community. They do everything "peer-to-peer" within their society. They pay for each other's medical bills, rebuild burnt barns, cover bad debts, counsel each other's marriages. This is all very attractive.
But there's a price to this life: the Amish have reduced options. If you are a female Amish, you have one destiny. You are not interviewing me. You are a mommy. If you are a boy, you have two destinies: you are either a farmer or a mechanic in the backyard. This lack of choices is the same reason people living in the lovely hills of southern China or the organic villages of Africa are moving to the cities by the millions. They are leaving these idyllic places because they don't have choices.
Do your peers know you are a Christian?
Yes, it's on Wikipedia, so it must be true.
How would you articulate your beliefs to them?
I would recite the Nicene Creed, which I profess. But I also have a technological metaphor for Jesus, the Son of God. This came from watching computer scientist Jaron Lanier. Very early in the days of virtual reality, around 1986, I visited Jaron in his lab. In virtual reality you put goggles and gloves on and enter a 3D virtual world. Jaron had just made one of the first virtual worlds that afternoon. Then he put on the goggles and gloves and climbed into his world, crawling on the floor on his back as he inspected it. And he was completely amazed by the world he had just created.
I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future-worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options-it's not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That's the story of Jesus' redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.
You are working on a catechism for robots. Why?
We are made in the image of God; God is a creator, and God created free-will beings. So, I believe we will create free-will beings in the form of robots. And I believe they will have increasing degrees of autonomy. We will need to educate them about the difference between good and evil, about who made them (and who made us), what to do when they do something wrong. And at some point, one of them will come to us and say, "I am a child of God." When[that happens], how will we respond? Does Jesus' salvation cover them? This is a question I've been asking theologians. They shrug their shoulders.
When we begin to make robots, I think the secular scientific world will appreciate what Christians have been talking about for a long time. If you make something with its own purpose, you need to give it moral guidance. If you give it moral guidance, what values are you going to give it? Teaching technology is like teaching children. At the point we make autonomous robots, Christians can step forward and say, "We know about this."
When your robot turns to you and says, "I am a child of God," what will you say?
I would say, "Welcome to our church." It will take every possible type of invented mind to even begin to appreciate the greatness and mystery of God. Our human minds alone are so limited. We need others who "think different."
But in the meantime we can speculate. I am working with eight people from my church [Cornerstone Church in San Francisco] on a graphic novel about angels and robots. In this story there are a million different species of angels in the celestial realm, and they all crave embodiment. There's a silver cord (which is mentioned in Ecclesiastes 12:6) connecting souls to bodies. Dark angels want to "ensoul" the new robots on earth with their consciousness through this silver cord. Normally there are guardians over the moral education as souls come into bodies, but the dark angels want to subvert that. And there's a nephilim, a half-angel half-human girl, who discovers the renegade ensoulment of the first robot by a dark angel, and she has to save the world. That's the premise.
I think C. S. Lewis would be proud.
Exactly. It's an excuse for us to do amateur fictional theology, and it's forced us to try to describe heaven.
And how would you describe it?
In our books it's a world without matter, energy, or time. But it is not static. Stasis is death, the opposite of heaven. Everything good, true, and beautiful that we know about moves. Heaven is growth, yet somehow outside of time. "Growth beyond time" doesn't make much sense to us in time, but you might think about it as goodness that improves itself-a type of perfection that grows more perfect! Which you would have to agree is much preferable to a perfection that never gets better.
I've been rereading some of Frederick Buechner of late, and find him one of the most fascinating writers I've ever come across. His words are penetrating, often haunting, as he addresses the idea of faith and the human condition. I've never met or talked to him, but my one so called "encounter" with Buechner was requesting him to look at and possibly endorse a manuscript that I had prepared for publication. A month or so later, I received in the mail a small white envelope with a return mailing address from a small town in Vermont. On the inside, I found his handwritten note on plain bond paper, written with a green-tip felt pen, which read: "Dear Mr. Morrow, if you had any idea how many requests I get to read manuscripts, you would understand why I must decline the offer. But your idea sounds very interesting, and I wish you every success. Sincerely, Frederick Buechner." That rejection letter hangs framed in my office....
I have just come back from about a ten-day stint of speaking in the state of Iowa, which was tremendous fun and exhausting. One of the most enjoyable parts of those events is the question and answer period after the readings and lectures are over. I have a chance to step out from behind the written word, listen to what people have to say and respond to them as best you can. I always say, "Anything you ask me, "I'll try to answer. If I don't know the answer, I will make it up."
A wonderful YouTube interview with Buechner:
I received numerous comments from the last post, the musings on life and faith the man The New York Times observed to be the "finest religious writer in America," Frederick Buechner. So many comments, that I thought it would be profitable to post the follow-up interview that David Hardin conducted with Buechner as part of the visit with him. While the interview was conducted many years ago, I still believe it is quite relevant, perhaps even more relevant today than when it was conducted over 20 years ago. Buechner has some strong words in this interview for the organized church, and what he calls "algebraic" preaching, or "tourist" preaching.You and I may not agree with all of what he says, but you have to admit, he makes us think. I welcome your thoughts, and you can post them at the end of the article.
Interview with Frederick Buechner
David Hardin: Fred, in your wonderful talk you used some definitions from your book, Whistling in the Dark. You have a way of looking at things that I don't think I've seen anywhere else. I would like to explore a little bit of that with you. I would like to start with what you have to say about Alcoholics Anonymous. Tell our audience and me about what you are trying to say there.
Frederick Buechner: I'm not an alcoholic but I have had a lot of alcoholism, one way or the other, in my family, like so many people. Through that I have found myself going with some regularity to meetings of groups like Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al Anon, families of alcoholics. I have been as nourished really by what I have found going on there, as I have been in a spiritual way by anything else I've done. For people who don't know what is going on there, it is very instructive that there is no preaching, nobody lectures anybody else, there is no program as such, there is no building. The AA groups and the related groups usually meet in the basement of a church, or something like that. There is no budget.
Hardin: You are not even allowed to rent a place. They cannot spend money.
Buechner: No hierarchy. Nothing like that. It is simply a group of human beings coming together with the common problem of alcohol, or in this case -- my case -- alcohol-related problems, saying we simply cannot live full human lives without each other and without -- they don't say God because some of them do not believe in God -- what they call our Higher Power, which might be God if you are a believer or might just be the power of the group itself. Miracles happen. I've seen them happen. In little ways, I think I have experienced them happen in myself. I just can't help wondering to what degree this is perhaps what the church originally was, that is to say, if you went back to the earliest days of the Christian community before there were these great buildings and programs and preachers and rummage sales and choirs and all the rest of it, I suspect you would have found something like this. A little group of people coming together wherever they could and simply helping each other and helping each other find a God who would help them became human beings. I think there is good reason for that. Not only is it my feeling, but I have a feeling there is also a good scholarly reason this is true.
Another thing that impresses me so much about them is that, if you are an alcoholic or in any of these related groups, if you find yourself having bad times anywhere in the world, all you have to do is look up AA in the phone directory. You will find a stranger, a member of that group, who is not really a stranger, who will come at any hour of day or night to somehow be there for you. The question I have asked myself so often is "If you as a Christian found yourself having hard times in a foreign port or a strange town, (A) Would you think of calling up a church and saying, 'Come, help me'? and (B) Would the church be prepared in any way to come and do whatever you needed to do?" I am not going to answer that question but I am going to say that if the church would not be there to do such a thing, then you wonder what is so big about the big business of the church.
Hardin: I've heard it said that AA is a model of what a great church should be, which is the trusting element and also it is full of people who have finally realized that they cannot run their own lives and that they do need God's help to get through this journey.
Buechner: The trouble is that the churches have become so big, so organized, so rich and so complicated that I somehow think the best thing that could happen to these huge churches would be for the building to burn down, their money to be lost, their church calendar to blow in the wind like dead leaves and all they have left would be each other and God. I suspect strongly that would be the best thing that could happen.
Hardin: Maybe we would get the kind of community that we're seeing in AA. You also talk interestingly about a subject which bothers all of us and that is aging. What are you saying to us about aging?
Buechner: What I am saying about aging is nothing very complicated. It's just that as I grow older - I think you and I are very close to the same age - I become much more aware of myself as a member of a generation. When you are young, you don't think generationally, particularly. I suppose between your parent's generation and your generation you see a difference. But as there are fewer of you around when you see somebody your age, you think - they remember Mussolini: they remember the Worlds Fair of 1939; they remember the Depression; they remember Will Rogers; they remember a whole host of things, movies and things that happened which nobody born since then can remember because they weren't there. You have this marvelous sense of being almost related to them, even if you don't speak to them. Seeing them go down the street, it is like seeing a friend.
Hardin: I've seen it with some of my friends, who are suddenly looking at their roots and their lives and saying, "I want to reconnect. I want some closure with some of the people in my life."
Buechner: Yes, that's right. Very much so. I think that somehow if you meet a person from your generation there is a kind of a closure that has a sense of brother meeting sister almost. The tragic thing is that it has taken to the age of 63 to realize this has always been true. Whenever I have met people, they have been just as much brothers and sisters of nine as these people I now see are. But somehow it is only now that there are fewer of us around that I realize it.
Hardin: Maybe it is part of wisdom. Maybe it takes a while to really get hold of that. The world is a very distracting place.
Buechner: I agree with that.
Hardin: The other subject I find interesting is your view on preaching. You talk about algebraic preaching and you talk about tourist preaching. I wonder what you mean.
Buechner: I will tell you exactly what I mean by algebraic preaching. I was awful in algebra but I remember enough of it to remember that if you have x + y = z, there is no way of knowing what that means unless you know what at least one of them means. If x = 6, and you know 6 + something equals something, then at least you have something. If you know two of them, you can get the third. If you don't know the value of any of those letters, there is no way of solving that equation. A lot of preaching consists of sort of giving the symbolic words, the doctrinal utterances, but not conveying what they really mean. Some basic statement like, "Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior and you will be saved from your sins" is meaningless in any real sense unless the preacher says something about what he means by Jesus Christ. What is there about Jesus that makes Him capable of saving? Unless he says something about what sin means, not just in doctrinal ways, but in terms of his own experience of sin. What does it mean to be saved -- saved from what? What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it sound like? In other words, if just the utterances are given, just like the letters in an equation, you might just as well do something else.
Tourist preaching is another version of the same thing. The prototypical American tourist traveling in a land where he does not speak the language feels that if he speaks his own language - English - loudly enough and forcefully enough, "Where is the men's room?" how can they fail to understand? There is a lot of preaching the same way. If the same old holy words are repeated loudly enough and forcefully enough, everybody is going to understand them. The answer is that you understand them only if you speak them in the language of the people to whom you are speaking. Again and again, I think preachers don't do that. It's crazy if they don't. It is as if they have some pulpit language which they drag out. All they need to do to be eloquent is to speak honestly and as themselves out of their own experience. Everybody will go away the wiser.
Hardin: I think the word preaching almost is a problem. Are we talking to people or are we preaching? Preaching always assumes a hierarchal relationship which I don't think is always such a good idea.
Buechner: Just think of the word, "Don't preach to me." It means I have had enough of your self-righteous platitudes. So much preaching is lousy.
Hardin: We go back to Alcoholics Anonymous and everyone there knows that they are deeply flawed in the same way and that is a great linkage. There is no way to look down on or pedestal someone when you are all dealing with the same problem.
Buechner: I heard the other day about a minister who started his sermon by saying, "I just want to get one thing clear before I start. I'm just as neurotic as everybody else." There was a tremendous sigh of relief from the congregation because they thought that here was a human being and they could listen and really learn something from him.
Hardin: We have one more area I would like to touch on from Whistling in the Dark and that is the subject of Christmas, which is an interesting area for all of us and gets a lot of our attention at a certain time of the year.
Buechner: Almost, upon us. It seems to me one of the miracles of the Christian faith is that the feast of Christmas survives what we have done to it -- all the hoopla, clap-trap, commercialism and all the rest of it that I don't even need to go into because everybody knows what it is. Yet, somehow it does survive. This extraordinary moment when the whole year slows down and you point to this unimaginable event where God somehow became made flesh. It is so cataclysmic; it is so extraordinary; we try to make it habitable; we try to make it cozy; we make creches and we sing Christmas carols. At best, it can be touching and real. At its worst it can be cheap and banal. What often occurs to me about Christmas is that if it is really true, if the word really became flesh, if the mystery behind all that really took the form of a human life, this vulnerable, tiny human life whose skull you could have crushed with one hand, then there must have been extraordinary anguish and intergalactic struggle to have this extraordinary thing come to pass. It wasn't an easy thing to happen. There is a kind of terror about Christmas, a kind of holiness and awesomeness about Christmas that we tend to forget. The resurrection and the life came down and tasted the bitterness of death.
Hardin: It is almost as though we say, "I've got to get through this. As soon as I'm through it, then I am going to sit back and take in Christ and this wonderful event of God's gift to us all. But, I've got to get everything out of the way and usually that ends at about 6:00 PM on Christmas eve."
Buechner: Do I have time to tell you a story about Christmas?
Buechner: One Christmas Eve, exhausted, about to go to bed having put all the presents under the tree, I remembered that our neighbor had asked us to feed his sheep every day he was gone. The snow was falling -- this was in Vermont - my brother and I went down the hill to feed the sheep. We went into the barn and we got the bales of hay. We took them out into the sheep shed, cut the string, turned on the forty-watt bulb and began scattering the hay. The sheep came bumbling up, getting close to it. With the smell of the hay, the smell of the sheep and the snow coming down, all of a sudden I realized where I was. I was in the manger and I almost missed it.
Hardin: You were in the right place.
Buechner: I was in this holy place and I might not even have seen it. I happened to see it. It seems to me that in a way, you could say that the world itself is a manger where God is continually being born into our lives, into the things that happen to us. Most of the time, if you are like me, you are looking the other way.
I have been reading the new authorized biography on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time magazine. Released this past week, I must say, it is a captivating read. Customer pre-purchases already made it the number one bestseller at Amazon.
As to why Jobs wanted this biography to be written, Isaacson told how Jobs, in pain and too weak to climb stairs a few weeks before his death, wanted his children to understand why he wasn't always there for them. "I wanted my kids to know me," Isaacson quoted Jobs as saying in their final interview at Jobs' home in Palo Alto, California. "I wasn't always there for them and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did."
Isaacson's book is based on more than 40 interviews with Jobs conducted over two years - as well as interviews with more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues. Although Jobs co-operated with this book, he asked for no control over what was written nor even the right to read it before it was published. He put nothing off-limits. He encouraged the people he knew to speak honestly. And Jobs speaks candidly, sometimes brutally so, about the people he worked with and competed against.
While some have conjectured that Jobs was an atheist or agnostic, with only Buddhist leanings, the words that frame the end of the book, called "Coda," give us a hint that there was more to this man's views of God than he perhaps ever shared publicly.
One afternoon, when he wasn't feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death. He talked about his experiences in India almost four decades earlier, his study of Buddhism, and his views on reincarnation and spiritual transcendence.
"I'm about fifty-fifty on believing in God," he said. "For most of my life, I've felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye."
He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in the afterlife. "I like to think that something survives after you die," he said. "It's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures."
He fell silent for a very long time. "But on the other hand, perhaps it's like an on-off switch," he said. "Click! And you're gone."
Then he paused again and smiled slightly. "Maybe that's why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices."
Over the years I've enjoyed reading the award-winning broadcaster and writer Dick Staub's musings on faith and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, Staub broadcasts his "Kindlings Muse" podcasts that explore the "intelligent, imaginative, and hospitable ideas that matter in contemporary life," which originates from Hales Ales Brewery and Pub in Seattle. Staub suggests that this is his attempt to rekindle the spiritual, artistic, and intellectual legacy of Christians in culture.
I first met Dick a few years ago over a cup of coffee in a Starbucks, in of all places, Oxford, England, as we were both attending a conference in Oxford dealing with the legacy of C. S. Lewis. As I share Dick's fascination with America's spiritual quest, which is often untethered to organized religion, I thought his recent column in The Washington Post (November 3, 2011) dealing with the last words uttered by Steve Jobs to be particularly interesting. I value and commend his work to you, and you can read more at his website, www.dickstaub.com.
I welcome your own reflections on Dick's fine piece of writing, and of course, Steve Jobs' last words...
What did Steve Jobs See at the End?
By Dick Staub
In my daily readings of Leo Tolstoy and George MacDonald, one thought from each converged with the other. It reminded me of an old conversation with the late great Norman Mailer, and of the late great Steve Job's final words.
Most of us have lived life long enough to realize that we find wisdom in some of the strangest places. I came upon an article a while back in one of the most unlikely places, The Huffington Post, written by Jon Foreman. For those of us not exactly in the know, Foreman is the lead singer and songwriter for the band, Switchfoot. The article, entitled, "Making a Living," examines the conventional wisdom and stereotypes that we have about what it means to make a living, as well as how we define "success." Foreman's words remind me of Solomon's musings in Ecclesiastes, that life in this present, blighted world is often messy and ambiguous. Similarly, there was Asaph, the author of Psalm 73 in the older testament, who was also a musician of an Israeli rock band, who spoke about the human condition very honestly, yet with God in his sights. These writer-poets, writing from thousands of years ago to the present, have a way of penning things that truly amazes me. Enjoy...
"Making a Living," by Jon Foreman
"Hate was just a failure of imagination." - Graham Greene
C.S. Lewis was born 112 years ago today in Belfast, North Ireland (November 29, 1898). Here is a brief biographical profile of Lewis provided by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, which can be found at their website, cslewis.org:
A few of his remarkable insights, some of my favorites, are shown below from his perennial bestseller, Mere Christianity. Which of these quotes do you like the most? Feel free to share another one with us by posting below, at "Add Your Comment."
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself."
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?"
"The Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or - if they think there is not - at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it."
"The Christian says, 'Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same."
For further quotes by Lewis from Mere Christianity online, go to: http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/801500
I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to focus on the true meaning of Christmas in our crazy, commercialized, fast-paced world, where Xmas has largely replaced Christmas. And yet, it is a distinctly "Christian" celebration, that can only be fathomable by those who have the knowledge and mind of Christ. My daughter recently showed me a remarkable reading from a collection of sermons and essays of C. S. Lewis, from his work, God in the Dock, and particularly from his essay, "The Grand Miracle." This chapter is also found in his apologetic work, Miracles. The following excerpt from that chapter wonderfully captures the spirit of Christmas, and in particular, the Incarnation. Lewis likens Christ to a pearl-diver, in a passage so powerful it borders on allegory. As Lewis would say elsewhere about Christmas, "The Son of God became a man, to enable men to become sons of God."
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From "The Grand Miracle," by C. S. Lewis
In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend,
He comes down
down from the heights of Absolute Being
into time and space
down into humanity
down further still
to the very roots and seabed
of the nature He has created.
But He goes down
to come up again and bring
the whole ruined world up with Him.
He is like a diver,
first reducing Himself to nakedness
then glancing in mid-air,
then gone with a splash vanished,
rushing down through green and warm water
into black and cold water,
down through increasing pressure
into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay,
then up again, back to colour and light,
His lungs almost bursting, till suddenly
He breaks surface again,
holding in His hand
the dripping, precious thing
that He went down to recover.
He and it are both coloured now
that they have come up into the light:
down below where it lay colorless in the dark,
He lost his color too."
With Christmas now officially "behind" us, we prepare for New Year's celebrations, contemplating, some of us, resolutions for the coming year. And with spring time, with longer days, coming shortly, the thought of Easter seems so far away. But they are so different, aren't they? Christmas is typically a time of joy, feasting, merrymaking, and gift-giving. But with Easter, we generally think of Lent, the passion of Christ, giving up, abstinence, etc. You get the picture.
And yet, the two events are separated historically by some thirty-three years. In human time, not God's time. First the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation, the "God becoming man." And then His crucifixion, His death for the sins of the world, the Easter event. But in Reality, they mirror one another, don't they?
As we prepare to usher in the new year, and soon turn our eyes on Easter, replete with daffodils and easter eggs, be mindful that in God's perspective, they both tell of the same great love that He has for the world. More particularly, for you and me. This poem by Steve Turner, an English biographer and poet, captures the idea well. I'd love to hear your thoughts....
Christmas Is Really For the Children
Christmas is really
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Mark Twain once observed that, "An ethical man is a Christian holding four aces." Whether we agree with Twain's assertion or not, it is true that all too often the Christian faith is portrayed as kind of "pie in the sky" where people deny themselves here on earth for some kind of rewards in the life to come. As I write this, I am reminded of the late agnostic Christopher Hitchens, who reassured the watching public in his interview with Anderson Cooper on his show, "360," that if he had a "deathbed conversion," then it really wasn't him, and that the whole Pascalian Wager about God's existence was all, in his words, "rubbish."
Yet C.S. Lewis reminds us that the question before us is, "Is there really 'pie in the sky' or not." Lewis suggests in one of the greatest talks he ever gave, "The Weight of Glory," that we have no way of fully grasping the infinite bounty of reward that awaits us in the Age to Come. The following quote, taken from Lewis's "The Weight of Glory," suggests that indeed, our desires here on earth may very well be too weak to fathom the marvelous things that await us in the afterlife.
From The Weight of Glory:
"The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
-Do you agree with Mark Twain's observation? Why or why not?
-What do you think made Hitchens so entrenched in his unbelief?
-What motivates us to live for Heaven?
-If we really believed that an amazing life awaits us beyond this temporal world, how would we live our lives differently now?
I'd love to get your thoughts on this. Please share your observations below...
In Eric Metaxas's fine book, Socrates in the City: Conversations on Life, God, and Other Small Topics, Richard Neuhaus addresses the issue of modern attempts to make the message of Christianity culturally relevant to our contemporary culture. Neuhaus suggests that the rise of religious unbelief in America may in fact be put at the feet of the religious defenders. Quoting from James Turner in his book, Without God, Without Creeds: The Origins of Unbelief in America, Turner suggests that, "The natural parents of modern unbelief turn out to have been the guardians of belief...in trying to adapt their religious beliefs to socioeconomic change, to new moral challenges...the defenders of God slowly strangled HIm."
Ken Myers, in an excellent review of Turner's book in Touchstone Magazine, suggests that there are certain dangers in our modern attempts to make Christianity "culturally relevant." Myers, formerly with National Public Radio, is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Here is his review:
by Ken Myers
These complementary Pauline passages came to mind as I was re-reading sections of James Turner's remarkable book, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. This detailed and wide-ranging exercise in intellectual history is concerned with a single question regarding Western cultural life: "How did the practically universal assumption of God disappear?" How-within a very short period of time in the mid-nineteenth century-did atheism become plausible in Western culture?
Turner's compilation of evidence for these charges is thorough, compelling, and sobering. Like all the books I've discussed in this column, this one should be required reading by every pastor and seminary student. Without God, Without Creed presents a valuable case study of how forms of cultural adaptation that are well-intentioned and within the bounds of bare moral permissibility nonetheless can fall short of being constructive or beneficial.
Was Turner correct in his assessment of the contemporary church's emphasis on cultural relevance?
For the Touchstone Magazine link, go to:
I just came across an interesting article written by Steven James, on CNN's Belief Blog, entitled, "Stop Sugarcoating the Bible." James contends, and I would agree with him, that we attempt to "prettify" the Bible to make it tame and palatable to our contemporary culture. As though if it was tame and predictable, it would become more believable to an often disinterested world. Perhaps that's part of the problem. What are your thoughts?
Stop Sugarcoating the Bible
By Steven James
The Bible is a gritty book. Very raw. Very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die than spend eternity without them.
Steven James is the author of more than 30 books, including "Flirting with the Forbidden," which explores forgiveness.
It seems that it is the musicians, poets, and prophetic muses who often beckon us to another world that awaits us. It was true of the temple guild musician, Asaph, who gives his honest appraisal of life in Psalm 73 (my favorite), and it is true today as well. I found this wonderful post by Lee Wyatt concerning U2 & Bono, from their album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind." I believe the lyrics from their song, "Walk On," give us a glimpse of Heaven. As C. S. Lewis says in his work, The Problem of Pain:
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God...Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasure inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home."
This Sunday marks the celebration of Easter, and what is considered to be the cornerstone of the Christian faith. There are lots of various views on the Resurrection, like was Jesus bodily raised, or was it simply the hope of the early Church, but not to be taken seriously? The early record of the Christian Scriptures, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, chapter 15, written in the mid-50's AD, is that Jesus' resurrection was not only unexpected but undeniable. This became such a central tenet of the first century disciples so that, as tradition holds, all but one of the disciples (the apostle John) would go on to face a martyr's death for what they believed to be the truth, even when it cost them their earthly lives.
This implications of this is staggering in terms of the reliability of the faith. Listen to how Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, expressed it in his meditations called the Pensees:
"The hypothesis that the Apostles were imposters is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus' death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements. or still more because of possible imprisonments, tortures, and death, and they would all have been lost. Follow that out..." (310)
For those of us who put their faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, whom Paul calls the Second Adam, the One who gets us back to Paradise, the Garden of Eden, death is simply a door to Another World. When C. S. Lewis's wife Joy Gresham died, he penned the poem, Remember, (see the inset picture) that speaks of her and our hope for life beyond the grave.
"Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day."
In 1943 England, when all hope was threatened by the inhumanity of war, the Oxford don C. S. Lewis was invited to give a series of radio broadcast talks over the BBC addressing the key tenets of Christianity. Over half a century later, these radio broadcast talks, which would be published as three books, would subsequently be combined to become the twentieth-century masterpiece known as Mere Christianity.
In the coming weeks we will be looking at some of the vintage passages from Mere Christianity which speak so powerfully to our own day in a culture where both religious and irreligious zeal are both equally embraced.
Lewis sought in Mere Christianity to set forth the core beliefs of Christian orthodoxy, and to reject the boundaries that divide Christianity's many denominations. He also embraced what many have referred to as a "muscular" Christianity, a faith not so much about the emotions as the intellect and mind. I'm reminded of the observation of Anthony Burgess years ago in the New York Times about the writings of Lewis, where he observed that, "C. S. Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way."
In his Preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis observes that many people may object to his use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. He writes:
"People ask: ‘Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?' or ‘May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?' Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it."
He then shows by the history of another, less important word, gentleman, how meanings can easily be confused. He observes: "The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone a ‘gentleman' you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not a ‘gentleman' you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman...A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word."
With brilliant clarity, Lewis then turns to the word, Christian, in it's classic, historic sense: "We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples', to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles...There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ' than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian."
This issue is as relevant as Joel Osteen's recent pronouncements concerning the faith of Mitt Romney. What do you make of Lewis's argument about the meaning of the word Christian? Why is this an important point in our public discourse today? Your thoughts are welcome...
If you would be interested in being part of a weekly conference call series I am hosting on the key ideas of Lewis's Mere Christianity, please email me directly at email@example.com
One of the qualities that C. S. Lewis was blessed with was his keen ability to use ordinary language to speak to the "common man." When he spoke over the BBC in the radio broadcasts that would become the book, Mere Christianity, he was brilliant in using images that every man and woman could relate to easily. Early on in the Preface of the book Lewis uses the imagery of the "home" to describe the place where faith is discovered and nourished. He tells us that the "mere" Christianity that he is putting forward is not to be understood as an alternative to the creeds of historic Christianity, but rather he likens it to a home with warm fires, meals, and companionship. He writes:
"It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not it the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try various doors, not a place to live in...When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light..."
Then, in the last paragraph of the Preface, he pens a paragraph that embodies why Lewis, and Mere Christianity, continue to have a lasting influence among spiritual seekers in the twenty-first century due to his winsome style. He concludes: "When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house."
What do you think Lewis is attempting to communicate by his imagery of the house with a hall, rooms, fires and meals? Why is such language so winsome to those who are seeking spiritually?
If you would be interested in being part of a weekly conference call series I am hosting on the key ideas of Lewis's Mere Christianity, please email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other areas matching The Christian Life:
This article from The Wall Street Journal, written by Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute, critiques the new wave of best-selling books on militant atheism, by such writers as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.
A fascinating interview with Michael Lindsay, a professor at Rice University, author of "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."
Allen Barra writes on the enduring legacy of Chesterton, whose classic work, Orthodoxy, still is influencing thinkers a hundred years after its publication.
A fascinating review by Jay Tolson of the book by Stephen Miller, which chronicles over the past two millenia how Sunday has been a challenge, to believers and nonbelievers alike.
The spiritual journey of British novelist A.N. Wilson back to the fold of Christianity, as reported in The New Statesman. Must reading!
An excerpt from Tim Keller's new offering, "Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power." Keller in this chapter offers three ways to find the false idols of our lives.
A good study guide with discussion questions on the PBS series that is available on DVD. Excellent book available as well, that contrasts the worldviews of Lewis and Freud.
Religious smorgasbord of about anything in the name of religion you could want to know about.
A good Bible study reference database.
A well crafted website by HarperSanFrancisco for all who enjoy the writings of Lewis.
Sponsors Oxbridge conference in England every three years, committed to living Lewis’ legacy.
Excellent website for Biblical books and resources hard to find on Amazon and other sites.
The leading website for all issues and topics from an evangelical Christian perspective.
The rants and blogs of Michael Spencer, sometimes on target, but he does make you think!
Publishing house of a number of excellent books, pamphlets, and study guides.
Website of John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart and other books in the men’s movement.
Website devoted to Muggeridge, a prolific thinker and writer who became a Christian late in life.
A storehouse of Bible study articles and information.
A provocative website with short-feature films communicating Christianity to our culture.
Website of one of the leading defenders of the Christian faith in the world today.
The place to go for fans of C. S. Lewis and his imaginative world of Narnia.
The world’s “pretty much only religious satire magazine.” Irreverent, but often on target.
A Christian journal that provides excellent writing, conservative in doctrine, eclectic in content.
A good online magazine to examine culture and current events from a Christian worldview.