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January 14, 2010

Yesterday, as an aspect of researching the book I’m working on, I read (re-read, actually) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. The timing was interesting, coming as it did just one day after the horrifying earthquake in Haiti. Postman’s book deals with media in an age of entertainment and I found many of the lessons he teaches in the book immediately applicable to the situation in Haiti. Let me summarize some of them.

Our television culture grew out of the age of telegraphy. The great idea in the age of the telegraph was “that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” While there was a time when only Haitians would have known about the disaster, today, in our rapidly-shrinking world, it is immediately visible from pole-to-pole. But telegraphy did more than make the world much smaller. It unexpectedly “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.”

We now have context-free information; “that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” And this is exactly what we are seeing today. News of the disaster is a valuable commodity which is why the top reporters from the top networks have all hustled to Haiti to gather information and, even more importantly, to show themselves within the disaster zone. The value of the information being sent to us is not in action but in the information itself.

We cannot overrate the importance of the images we are seeing on the screens before us (and truly they are both moving and horrifying). “In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraphic news-from-nowhere that threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to unknown names. Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that ‘the news’ had a connection to something within one’s sensory experience. It created an apparent context for the ‘news of the day.’ And the ‘news of the day’ created a context for the photograph. … But the sense of the context created by the partnership of photograph and headline was, of course, entirely illusory.” These photographs arouse our sympathy and somehow make us feel like we have more of a context to understand the disaster. It is not just an earthquake now, but a true disaster for the sad and terrified faces we see in photographs. We now feel like we are somehow attached to the information we are receiving, at least in a way we would not be were we only to read about it.

Yet what do we really know? “Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them. … The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal.” Looking at photographs and reading a few headlines is knowledge of but not knowledge about.

“Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.’” “In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.” As we moved away from a typographic world into a telegraphic and television world (and now into a digital world), information became separated from action. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.” This is a kind of information glut that makes us unable to react to all the information available to us or to do anything about most of it. Were we to actively respond to every situation and disaster that we learn about, we would be constantly in motion and constantly bankrupt. “For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.” We have become impotent to react in a meaningful way to the information we consume. “We have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” What do you intend to do about the disaster in Haiti?

Three days from now we will have moved on. Maybe it will take four or five. But honestly, after the weekend, few of us will ever think of Haiti again. The next news story will come along and Haiti will be relegated to history. But three days from now and a week from now, the situation in Haiti will be far worse than it is today. The devastation will be more complete. The pain will be greater. The country has been devastated and it will take years to recover. At the end of the year when the best photographs of 2010 are revealed, the photos of Haiti, that make us weep today, will be nearly forgotten. By then they will be old news, eleven and a half months removed from the headlines. We’ll think, “Oh right, I remember that.” And then we will scroll down to the next photo.

Postman calls the world brought about and fostered by television a “peek-a-boo world” “where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

And isn’t that what the Haiti earthquake is for most of us? It is entertainment. That sounds cold but it is exactly the case. If we turn on the television and watch those images and do nothing about it before moving on to the next news item, have we not merely been entertained?

In one regard I have to turn from Postman. Postman, though he knew his Bible well, was not a Christian and did not understand the power of prayer. Though we may be impotent to act, to actually go to Haiti and give aid, we can ask God to accomplish his purposes, even through so devastating a situation. We can pray for the nation and its people. We should pray for them, even, and especially for brothers in sisters in Christ who live in that country. We should pray that as people from around the world head to Haiti to feed the hungry and heal the sick, that they would take the gospel with them. And we can consider giving financially to credible organizations that will be involved in relief efforts (such as Compassion). It turns out that we are not entirely impotent in the aftermath of this great disaster.

January 06, 2010

I’ve put it off long enough. I’ve blocked off a few days in my schedule, I’ve prepared myself mentally (I hope) and I’ve gathered the things I need. Today I begin in earnest on my new book, The Next Story, and by “in earnest” I really just mean I’m going to start for real; all I’ve got so far is a proposal. (Click here if you’d like an overview of the book). This gives me just about six months to write a 200-250 page manuscript. That may seem like a long time but I know the weeks will race by, leaving me scrambling by the end. It’s pretty much inevitable and unavoidable.

I have very limited experience in writing books, with only one to my credit so far. The second time around I feel somewhat more prepared for the experience, maybe like a mother heading into labor with her second child. She knows it’s going to be brutal but she knows as well that there will be joy when all is said and done. That’s probably not quite a fair analogy, though, because I do enjoy the writing process far more, I’m sure, than a mother enjoys being in labor. Plus, a man can never use childbirth as a metaphor without arousing the wrath of women who have actually been through it. So scratch that analogy. Suffice it to say that I’m at once looking forward to and dreading the experience. I know it is going to have huge highs and deep lows.

Here is my office where I’ll be spending my days, tapping away on my computer.

(Click through to see an annotated version of the photo)

I may well also migrate occasionally to Artisano, a local bakery cafe that serves the most outrageously delicious steak and portobello sandwich along with pastries that are actually worth eating (a rarity, I find) and a wide selection of overpriced drinks ($4 for lemonade? Are you serious?). Best of all, they have free WiFi and don’t seem to mind people who hang out there for hours at a time.

I would really like to use Apple’s Pages to write the manuscript, both because of its less-cluttered interface and its handy full-screen mode that blocks out all visual distractions. So I will begin with Pages but may have to eventually transition to Word, especially once we get to the editing stage and the tracking function comes into play. That is not a happy thought since Word on Mac is somewhat less than wonderful.

I’ve done the important work of selecting my font (11pt Palatino) and my line spacing (1.4). These things are important to me to the point of being silly. But I figure that if I have to stare at a manuscript for hundreds or thousands of hours, it may as well look the best it can. It leaves me with a screen that looks really black and white:


To the other side of my desk, behind my chair, is all of this:

(Again, click through for the silly annotated version)

That little cart there is stuffed full of books I intend to read or re-read as I go. Actually, there are quite a few more than you see there since my wife has offered to take on some of the reading and has selected a stack of titles to work her way through, taking notes and getting together some big picture ideas. She is good to me.

In the coming days I intend to do little writing, lots of reading and massive amounts of note-taking. Though I have prepared quite a detailed proposal for the book, I want to start afresh, at least to some extent, to ensure that my approach to the topic is really the best it can be. I will first seek out the themes that will appear through the book, look for a biblical framework to understand the human heart and technology, and then go looking for the topics of the individual chapters. Even as I write this I am excited to get to work.

In the weeks to come I’ll introduce you to the cast of characters who are going to help make this book come together. But for now, I had best quit procrastinating and start this book. It’s not going to write itself, is it?

But first, one more item. As I began writing The Discipline of Spiritual Discipline several years ago, I specifically asked the readers of this site if they would commit to praying for me once a week. It was a tremendous encouragement to me to talk to readers, often people I had only just met at a conference, who told me “I’m praying for you.” I have no doubt that those prayers were effective and often, when I was struggling and specifically requested prayer, I could honestly feel or sense the difference prayer was making. Once again I would like to ask if you’d be willing to pray for me. This is a book that deals with technology, but even more it is a book that deals with living as Christians in a world that is rapidly changing all around us. It’s not about technology as much as it is about the soul and about the gospel. If I am to write about such things and if I am to do so with any power, I will need God’s help. If you would be willing to ask him to help me, and to do so regularly, I’d be ever grateful.

And here I go…

January 04, 2010

As you know, I’ve agreed to participate in a brief and public exchange of letters with Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. Here is where we’ve been so far:

Luke’s First Letter to Me
My Reply to Luke
Luke’s Second Letter to Me

Here now is my second reply.


Dear Luke,

Thank you again for your letter of December 22. I apologize that it has taken me some time to reply. The holiday season and a nice little vacation stood in my way. So maybe I’m not really apologizing at all! It was great to travel, to spend time with friends and family, and to enjoy time away from the every day. But sooner or later we knew that real life would come along again. And that has given me opportunity to respond to your second letter.

Let me go back for one moment before I go forward. In your first letter you provided a list of “facts” (don’t be offended by the quotation marks. I use them simply to indicate that you would consider them facts while I would not) about Christianity—about the person of Jesus, about the authorship of the Bible, and so on. I summarized what you were saying as follows: “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” In your second letter you came back to this. Let me explain myself just a little bit further. Part of me really wants to offer a point-by-point defense or refutation of each of these “facts,” but instead let me say just this. If these things that you say are, indeed, true, I would be a fool to be a Christian. This is what I had attempted to communicate in my last letter.

The apostle Paul himself said that if it could be proven that Christ had not risen from the dead, his faith was utterly futile. Similarly, if what you say is true—if Christ was simply a failed apocalyptic prophet, if the Bible is indeed nothing more than the words of human beings who were not inspired by God, if Jesus and Paul taught completely different things, then we have so undermined the foundation of the faith that it would be foolishness to believe it and, more, to live according to its precepts. I am not an unthinking follower of a religion. I have carefully weighed and considered the evidence for the Christian faith. So of course I disagree with what you have portrayed as fact. I, like you, have done the research but, unlike you, have arrived at very different conclusions. Isn’t it strange how that works?

All of this to say that if what you say is fact is, indeed, fact, I would be an atheist too.

A Christian
One thing I’d like to clarify here is what I mean when I say that I’m a Christian. I wish that this wasn’t necessary but, unfortunately, it really is. There is no governing body over the name “Christian” (which is a good thing, I’m sure) so anyone can say, “I am a Christian” regardless of what he believes or does not believe. This leaves us with the strange fact that many people who believe very different things lay claim to the same name (like, for example, if people from Zimbabwe and people from the United States both laid claim to the title “American.”). Evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses diverge in absolutely fundamental ways and yet both claim to be Christian. So let me say what I mean when I claim to be a Christian. I hope this will provide useful clarity.

Fundamentally, I mean that I am a follower of Christ. I call myself by his name, placing myself under his authority and leadership. But more specifically, here is a brief outline of the beliefs of those who seek to faithfully follow Christ.

God is the Creator of all that is. He is utterly holy, having no sin or evil whatsoever. He is eternal, having always existed and existing forever. He created the world and all that is in it.

God exists in three persons. There are not three gods but one God who exists in three distinct persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

As the crowning act of his creation, God created human beings. But these human beings chose to go their own way, committing an act of cosmic treason against their ruler. They turned their backs on him, indicating that they would rather be independent of him. That act put humans in a position of strife against God. All men now sin against God and in that way alienate themselves from him. God’s holiness and God’s justice mean that he cannot tolerate sin and hence, cannot tolerate sinners. Therefore sinners must be put away from him in a place of punishment—a place we know as hell.

But God is merciful and full of grace. He has provided a means by which we may escape the consequences of our sin. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be punished on behalf of sinful men. Christ, though he was God, lived a perfect life and was put to death, crucified on a Roman cross. As he hung on that cross, God punished him for sin in place of sinful human beings. Christ accepted this punishment willingly both out of loving obedience to his Father and out of loving compassion for human beings. Christ died but three days later came back to life, proving that he was, indeed, God.

God now offers forgiveness through the living Christ. Anyone can now receive the benefit of what Christ did, exchanging their sinfulness for Christ’s holiness. Their sin will be counted against Christ and his holiness will be counted to them so that when God looks at sinful men he sees only the holiness of his Son. These people, with their renewed relationship with God, will spend eternity with him.

All God requires for us to receive this benefit is that we place our faith in Christ. This is both a believing about Christ and a believing in Christ—believing that he exists and believing that he stands as the one who mediates between sinful men and a holy God. And thus God calls all men to believe in Christ and to put their faith in him.

A time of judgment will come. At some point in the future Christ will return, bringing an end to this world and ushering in a new era where those who follow Christ will inhabit a recreated, perfected earth while those who have rejected him will receive the necessary and eternal punishment for their rebellion against him.

This is what I mean when I say I am a Christian and really, it’s what I mean when I say that I am an evangelical. Those words are a kind of shorthand that encapsulates all of these beliefs.

Working Together
In your last letter you asked me to suggest what Christians and atheists could do together to make the world a better place. I find that quite a difficult question to answer. In many ways I think there is a lot we can each do to relieve suffering in this world (which is typically what we mean when we speak about making the world a better place). Christians and atheists alike can bring relief to the poor and healing to the sick. I have a tough time foreseeing any kind of meaningful organization that would deliberately bring Christians and atheists together for this purpose. But certainly as individuals there is much that can be done. And honestly, I think it has to be admitted that Christians are doing a better job of this than atheists. It is not lost on me that in the days after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, countless Christians organizations immediately made great strides in disaster relief, both on the ground and in collecting resources. I heard little of the work of atheists.

Ultimately Christians seek to make the world a better place by living as Christians and by encouraging others to put their faith in Christ. Christians live with a view to the present and also a view to the future. This world is temporary. We are called by God to care for it and to care for the people who inhabit it, but ultimately we know that this world and this life is fleeting. So while we do and should seek to relieve suffering, ultimately our greatest concern is to help people to escape eternal suffering. Without downplaying the horrors of extreme poverty and starvation and all the other trials many in life deal with on a daily basis, we still regard these sufferings as fleeting when compared to the potential joy or sufferings to come. Hence I anticipate that there will always be some level of difficulty when Christians and atheists work together, for Christians will always have an eye to the soul and to the eternal.

A Question
Let me leave you with a question. I would be interested in hearing your take on the role and the acceptability of evangelism or proselytization. While Christians are known for their work and perhaps with their obsession in spreading their faith, in recent years atheists are making strides in this area. As it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to be an atheist, we find atheists interested in spreading what they believe (or do not believe). How do you feel about proselytizing? Should we both be free to proselytize or should we both just keep private what we believe (or again, what we do not believe)?

December 30, 2009

If you’ve read this blog for a while, I guess you know that I’m a fan of The Lord of the Rings. I’m not one of those Tolkien fanboys who is going to react with offense when you get a fact wrong. Rather, I’m a fan of a good story and it’s beyond dispute, I think, that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien has crafted an epic story. I mentioned recently that I’ve been reading the book with my family and that as I’ve been doing so, certain components of the story have been jumping out at me. Today I want to point to one more of these.

One thing that sets The Lord of the Rings apart from just about every other fantasy series I’ve ever tried reading is that it does not confuse good with evil. It never glamorizes evil. Tolkien carefully separates the good from the evil and avoids blurring distinctions between the two. It is always fascinating to keep an eye on Tolkien’s portrayal of these the two opposing forces.

One aspect of this that has stood out to me recently is the inability of evil to understand good and, conversely, good’s ability to understand evil. Here Tolkien has tapped into a crucial reality about good and evil.

As I’m sure you know, the whole book is based on a long and dangerous quest to destroy the Ring of Power. Many years before the commencement of the story, Sauron had created a ring and into this ring he had invested much of his strength and will. This ring was his greatest strength and potentially his greatest weakness. With it he was nearly unapproachable in his power; without it he was weakened; if it were to be destroyed, he too would be destroyed. Through a series of unlikely events the ring has ended up in the hands of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, who has now been given the task of venturing to Mount Doom to destroy this ring. All the forces of evil are arrayed against him as he does this. And yet, somehow, he succeeds (sorry to give away the ending, but I’m sure you already know all of this). How then does Frodo succeed in so unlikely a quest?

He succeeds because Sauron, powerful though he may be, never understands what Frodo plans to do. Sauron sees good through the lens of evil. He cannot conceive of anyone actually destroying something as powerful as his ring. He assumes that everyone would do what he would do—use the ring to rule over others. Had he understood good, he would have known that the forces of good would destroy the ring and, in so doing, destroy him. He could simply then have surrounded Mount Doom with his armies and intercepted anyone who approached. But instead he projected his evil thoughts onto the forces of good and determined that they must be doing what he would do—using the ring as a means of power. And thus his actions, his attempts to find and retrieve the ring, were all wrong. In his evil he completely misunderstood good. And really, this is the way it had to be. How can evil understand good?

Here Tolkien has displayed in fictional form an important reality. Evil cannot understand good. When I communicate with an unbeliever, as I’ve been doing in my letters to Luke (another of which is coming soon) I can have confidence that I understand him better than he understands me. Why? Because I have been brought from darkness into light, from evil into good. I’ve known evil and now know good. Through the Bible I am given God’s eyes to see evil as he sees it and to understand it as he understands it. This gives me a whole new clarity. But one who has never turned to Christ has known only evil. He can see what is good but can understand it only through that lens of evil. I know what it is to be lost in a way that he cannot know what it is to be saved. Tolkien got this one right.

December 28, 2009

Today, the second to last day of my vacation, I offer this little reflection on Bruce Waltke’s Old Testament Theology. It is a massive book and more than a little intimidating, but still very much worth the read.

After six introductory chapters, Waltke turns to Old Testament theology proper in a chapter entitled “The Gift of the Cosmos” and here, as we might expect, he discusses God’s work as creator. He argues here that it is critically important that we read the opening chapters of Genesis properly, acknowledging the author’s intended literary genre. Though he eventually argues that this section is meant to be read as “ancient near eastern cosmogony,” which in turns leads to supporting his views on theistic evolution (a view I do not support) I found something very useful in this section. He explains how a wrong reading of the creation account leads to further and deeper problems. He shows how culture’s refusal to acknowledge the creator necessarily leads to the anti-God worldview so apparent in society around us. “Christians now live on a mission field with worldviews that besiege the message of ethical monotheism.” He says that this new paganism has six faces, each of which proceeds from the one before it.

1. The common worldview of the Western world since the time of the enlightenment has been materialism. This philosophy says that matter and its motions constitute the entire universe. Everything in the universe has to be regarded as due to material causes.

2. There is an implication to materialism. Since everything is material, ideally and theoretically, everything is subject to empiricism. Here he quotes Alan Reynolds who says, “empiricism, which insists that all knowledge is based on observation, experimentation, and verification, has led to belief in a self-sufficient universe that can be understood on its own terms, without any need of the transcendent or of God.”

3. Together materialism and empiricism entail a belief in an inherent coherence within nature between cause and effect. This, in turn, has led to belief in determinism, which understands reality as mechanical and without inherent value. Life’s origins and the nature of humanity have natural rather than divine causation.

4. Secularism is a political or social philosophy that embraces each of these “-isms”—materialism, empiricism and determinism. It embraces natural causation and and rejects religious faith and worship in the public square. Nature, society, and government become instruments dedicating only to fulfilling our material desires which masquerade as “rights.” This is fast becoming the dominant worldview among Western intellectual elites.

5. Secular humanism is a system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values and dignity are predominant. This leads to a kind of intense pragmatism that calculates everything in terms of its benefit to humanity. There is no acknowledgment of God and his rule of the created order.

6. Post-modernism or New Ageism marks what is really a return to old-fashioned paganism, though with a distinctly modern twist to it. New Ageism takes distinctives of Eastern religion and distorts them with Western concepts. Post-modernism replaces the objective reality of God as revealed in special revelation with subjective deifications of individual expressions of spirituality. Waltke says, “it rejects the notion of a revealed moral code and instead tests truth by its therapeutic value.” In this worldviews there are no better or worse cultures but merely differences between them.

When you see these six faces of the new paganism you see how important it is that we get Genesis right! The irony, I suppose, is that I am not at all convinced that Waltke is correct in his views on creation. Still, he acknowledges the Creator, of course, and acknowledging God as He reveals Himself in the Bible is a safeguard against the post-modern, secular humanistic viewpoint that pervades society. Those in our society who refuse to admit the existence of this God are soon left with materialism and from there empiricism and all that these -isms entail.

December 23, 2009

In The Marketing of Evil, author David Kupelian disusses how so many of the social ills we see in our society have not merely happened, but have been actively marketed and promoted by men and women with specific, unbiblical agendas. One pearl of wisdom which Kupelian repeats throughout his book is that the person who frames the terms of a debate almost always wins that debate. In other words, the person who is allowed to set the language in a debate over a particular social issue, will almost always be able to prevail in winning that debate. While we could choose any number of examples to support this, perhaps the most obvious is in the debate over abortion.

The right to abortion was not fought over the right of a mother to kill her child. No lawyer marched into court and demanded that a mother have the right to allow a doctor to probe her womb for a helpless baby and dismember the fetus. And later, as debate raged over partial birth abortion, no one demanded that a woman be able to give birth to a premature baby and have the doctor crush that child’s skull. The child has been left out of the equation altogether. Instead, the debate always has been and seemingly always will be over a woman’s right to choose. It was never presented an issue of life or death, but an issue of choice. And who, in a free and democratic culture, could deny a person the right of free choice? The debate was over and won before it began. It was over when the abortionists framed the terms of the debate. Kupelian says, “In one of the most successful marketing campaigns in modern political history, the “abortion rights” movement—with all of its emotionally compelling catchphrases and powerful political slogans—has succeeded in turning what once was a crime into a fiercely defended constitutional right.”

This battle was won with catchphrases such as:

  • Women must have control over their own bodies.”
  • Safe and legal abortion is every woman’s right.”
  • Who decides? You decide!”
  • Abortion is a personal decision between a woman and her doctor.”
  • Freedom of choice—a basic American right.”

Interestingly, feminists are now turning against choice. Choice, it seems, has come to haunt feminists. Why? Quite simply, far too many women, in the opinion of these feminists, are choosing to forsake their careers in favor of full-time motherhood. Choice has spilled over the from the abortion debate and has impacted all of feminism. Some women, it seems, are not using their right to choose in a way that pleases the more radical feminists.

In the final days of 2005, Linda Hirshman wrote a harsh critique of such women in a much-discussed article entitled “Homeward Bound.” “‘Choice feminism’ claims that staying home with the kids is just one more feminist option. Funny that most men rarely make the same ‘choice.’ Exactly what kind of choice is that?” She documents the failure of “choice feminism” and proposes that the word “choice” be removed as the hallmark of the feminist agenda. She proposes that, rather than offering women choice, society must offer women solutions they can enact on their own. She further proposes three rules that women must follow: Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry. Appended to the three rules is just one more: a woman should never have more than one child. “A second kid pressures the mother’s organizational skills, doubles the demands for appointments, wildly raises the cost of education and housing, and drives the family to the suburbs. But cities, with their Chinese carryouts and all, are better for working mothers.” In short, a second child requires a greater committment and increases the likelihood that a mother will enact her right to choose and elect to stay home with the children.

Wendy McElroy, editor of ifeminists.com, discusses some of the impact of this move away from choice in the future of feminism:

On abortion. The words choice and pro-choice will be de-emphasized. Instead, stress will be placed on weighing the rights and health of the woman against those of the unborn with the clear message that the woman takes precedence.

On sexual harassment. The argument will not change because it has proven successful but the approach will be broadened to include male victims, especially boys. For example, the latest survey from the American Association of University Women on school and campus harassment reports on male victims.

On domestic violence. The argument will not change and the approach will not be broadened significantly. In gender feminist theory, domestic violence is key to establishing that traditional marriage is a dangerous place for women.

McElroy, in disagreement with Hirshman, tell her readers what she feels is the best “feminist line” for our new century. “Your peaceful choices are yours alone and no one else’s business. Be a housewife, love your children without a time schedule…or dive into a 24/7 job that you get on merit. Live your own dream. Be your own woman.”

It is clear that a shift is occuring within feminism. Whether a rift grows along the “choice” fault line or along another, change is afoot. If there is a lesson that Christians ought to have learned from the first few decades of feminism, it is exactly what Kupelian sought to make clear in The Marketing of Evil: the person who frames the debate will win the debate. We, as Christians, need to keep abreast of these changes and, if and when possible, seek to have a voice in the framing of this debate and so many others. Once the terms have been set in stone, the debate may well have already been lost.

December 22, 2009

I don’t often watch the extra features included on DVDs these days, but a while back I must have been bored, because I sat and watched a couple of hours of extras for a series I enjoy. I was interested to learn that the creators of this show, before they began creating episodes, spent a long time crafting the backstories of the main characters. For each of these characters they created a whole history including such details as their family situations, the schools they had attended as children, past relationships, past jobs, and on and on. All of this information is kept in giant binders, ready for reference purposes. They created all of this backstory to ensure that, as they show goes on, they do not provide contradictory details for any of the characters. Though it would be a small thing, it would still be an annoyance if in one episode the character mentioned going to one high school and then, three years later, she mentioned going to a different one. And so the writers go through this process of creating background information for all of their characters. As the show progresses they continue to update this backstory binder, adding to it as they invent new details. Though you and I might never be privy to such information, it is still important that they do this as it creates a more complete, more realistic atmosphere within the show.

In a similar vein, over the past couple of months I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my children (we’ve just passed “The Taming of Smeagol” if you must know). J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of the backstory. He did not create just a story about a hobbit and a ring, but he created a whole world. And in that world were languages and mythologies and expansive histories. This is part of what makes reading The Lord of the Rings such an immersive experience. There are no loose ends in Tolkien’s world. Neither are there many elements that seem disconnected to some part of the wider world. I’m sure people laughed at Tolkien when he went on and on about the Elvish tongue, and yet without this language and others like it the book would not be what it is today. All of these elements work together to justly gain the book the complimentary adjective “epic.” The story truly is epic in every sense.

I was thinking about such things the other day when pondering God’s creation. I wonder sometimes why God needed to create a whole universe. Let’s assume that earth is the only planet that contains life forms. And let’s assume that even spiritual realities, the kind that concern spiritual creatures, are also centered around earth (safe assumptions, both, I think). Yet for some reason the universe is expansive beyond imagining. No one can conceive of an end to it and yet no one can conceive of what it means that it has no end. We cannot gaze to its furthest extents and cannot imagine what lies beyond what our eyes can see. The best of us are baffled by it. We are all in awe of it.

A little while ago I saw an incredible photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. Hubble snapped a shot of distant space and in that single photo captured thousands of galaxies. And yet the whole portion of space captured in that photograph could be blocked out by holding a grain of sand at arm’s length. Recent estimates say that the observable universe has around 100 billion galaxies. And beyond that, who knows. The mind cannot conceive of such things.

I don’t know why God saw fit to create 100 billion galaxies and then center his redemptive work on just this one. To think that God created 100 billion galaxies and then allowed himself to be born as a tiny child on a tiny planet in a tiny galaxy is beyond the imagining of this tiny mind. All I can conclude is that all of these galaxies, this vast expanse of space, is a part of God’s backstory. That somehow it is crucial to the story he is telling here and now, the story that began long before Creation and that will never, ever end.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

December 21, 2009

Not too long ago I received an email from Luke Muehlhauser who blogs at Common Sense Atheism. He introduced himself as “a former Christian who now writes one of the most popular atheism blogs on the ‘net,” and asked if I would be interested in a brief exchange of letters. This is not the first time I’ve been asked if I would be interested in such a thing and always I’ve said, “no.” But this time I was somewhat intrigued, and especially so after Luke sent through his first missive. We have agreed to write three letters each, simply interacting about what we believe, what we don’t believe, and how we got here. I hope you will find the results interesting.

You can read Luke’s first letter to me, here.

And now, here is my response.


Dear Luke,

I thank you for your letter of December 15, 2009. It was interesting to read of your early days as a believer and your gradual conversion to atheism. The civility you’ve shown in this communication and ones before it have given me confidence that we can enjoy some effective back-and-forth, not always a given when a Christian and an atheist write to one another. Thank you for offering me the opportunity to respond to you.

I feel that if this series of communications is to be at all effective, we are going to have to be both careful and charitable with our premises. In your opening letter you provide a long series of statements that together effectively say, “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.” You state each of these as accepted fact of the kind that no intelligent person could possibly deny. You offer no proof for any of them, but simply list them as a long series of unfounded statements. You say:

  • that what the church had taught you about Jesus was untrue or gravely misleading.
  • that even the most conservative scholars agree that many of the New Testament letters are forgeries.
  • that the books of the New Testament are written by very different authors (a point no Christian would dispute) who have very different theologies (a point that, at the very least, requires great nuance).
  • that the gospels contradict each other all over the place.
  • that if there is any consensus about Jesus it is that he is a failed apocalyptic prophet who was convinced that the world would end in his generation.
  • that the religion of Jesus is completely different than the religion of Paul. The unmistakable conclusion is that the religion of anyone who has had their theology formed by the writings of Paul (and, presumably, the other New Testament writers) is not Christ’s Christianity at all.

Thus, only half way through your first letter, we have (presented as accepted and indisputable fact) gospels that are nonsense because they constantly and fatally contradict one another and letters that are nonsense because they are nothing more than the inventions of later religious zealots. In other words, we have no Christian faith, at least for anyone who has any ability to think for himself. So where does this leave me?

In one short paragraph you have gone from personal narrative describing your own “deconversion,” to providing a long string of statements that must immediately put me on the defensive. If all of the statements you made were true, or, at least, if I believed they were true, I would have deconverted long ago. If all of the premises you’ve listed are true and accepted as fact by any thinking person, I would have to be either hopelessly naive or terribly stupid to be a Christian. Surely you see how such statements are fallacious. You and I both know that we can appeal to scholars and experts and consensus as a means of offering proof for any statement we care to make. If these communications are to be useful, we will need to refrain from such sweeping and antagonistic statements. Otherwise we will have one side cheering, the other side jeering, and neither side learning very much about the other. If these letters are to contain civil discourse, we’ll both need to be willing to affirm that the other is intelligent and rational and has chosen his path based on the thoughtful weighing of evidence. This is true for me and, from what I’ve read on your blog, it is true of you.

Another brief point before I continue. I do not wish to cede to you the term “deconversion.” After all, if you deconverted from Christianity, I could as easily say that I deconverted from atheism (or functional agnosticism, perhaps) when I became a Christian. In either case there is the assumption of certain beliefs and premises and the letting go of others. I propose one of two things: either we both stick only to “conversion” or we each use both terms however we see fit.

My Story
You asked for the story of my faith journey, so here goes. It begins much like your own, with being raised in a Christian home. I was raised by parents who had recently deconverted and become Christians. I was raised to know the Bible, to know Christian theology and to understand that theology is more than beliefs; it is beliefs that call for action. When I was fifteen or sixteen I had something of a crisis of faith (as do so many other young people who are raised within a religious tradition). As I began to foresee my life apart from my parents, I realized that I had to think about my Christian faith to determine if it was something that I truly believed or whether it was merely something foisted upon me by my parents—something akin to family traditions or genetic traits. Was my faith like my nose, an unfortunate byproduct of being born a Challies? Or was it a gift, something that I could truly embrace? It was in this time of searching that I came to accept the Christian faith as more than tradition but as truth. I’ve often since described this as “making the faith of my parents my own.” I was no longer simply an obedient child honoring his parents by going to church and going through the motions of religion, but a committed follower of Jesus Christ who would follow him even if my parents turned away. I cannot point you to an exact moment in time when I became a Christian, but I do know that I am one today and that I have been one for almost twenty years now. For this growing desire to determine whether I was truly following Christ and for this undeniable need to follow him, I give thanks to God.

I have never seriously doubted the claims of the Bible—that God is the creator of the world, that we humans are a sinful bunch who have committed an act of cosmic treason against this Creator by rejecting him, that Christ came into this world to offer hope to sinners, that he died and rose again, and that simply by placing our faith in him we can be forgiven for our sin and can be granted the gift of eternal life. The more I come to understand the Bible and the more I come to understand life, the more I see that the Bible is startlingly accurate in its description of the way the world works, the way life works. God has given us the Bible as an amazing and a unique resource. Some people see the Bible as a collection of tales or as a book of moral fables. I understand it as a lens like the lenses in a pair of glasses. It is a means God gives us by which we can see the world through his eyes. We see him as he wishes for us to see him; we see ourselves much more clearly than we otherwise could; we see the past, the present and the future in ways we could otherwise never understand. We see the broad picture of who God is and what he is accomplishing through the world. And when I look at the world through that lens, through the lens of the Bible, I do not see pointless suffering; I do not see contradictions (though I’ll grant you a few apparent absurdities); I do not see malicious design; I am horrified by hell but when looking at my sin and God’s holiness cannot deny its necessity. In all things I see a God who has a purpose and who is carefully and sovereignly carrying it out. I know atheists are prone to portray Christians as unthinking (trust me, I’ve read Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and others), people who have made up their minds and have subjugated intellect to emotion, but I would like to believe this is not true of me. I have studied the world, I’ve studied my own heart, and I’ve seen that the Bible truly does get it right. At the very least I can’t deny that it gets right its description of me.

Who I Am
Many Christians have come to realize that if we are to understand anything of the Christian faith we need to begin in one of two places, with what we know to be true of God or with what we know to be true of humans. In my life I’ve known myself better than I’ve known God and so I’ve started with what is true of myself. And one thing that is most basically true of me is that I am not a good person—not all the time, anyway, and certainly not nearly often enough. No matter how we wish to define morality, I am not a moral person. Not consistently, anyway. Some of my earliest memories in life are memories of deliberately and joyfully hurting other people. I’m 33 years old now and, as much as I hate to admit it, I still have plenty of moral failings. I still hurt people, and often I hurt the people I love most and who love me most. I often place myself first when I should be thinking foremost of others. And those are just the things I do. Were we to catalog the things I think and desire, those crimes of the mind and heart, we would need a lot of time and a lot of paper to even begin to quantify and catalog them. Always I have known of this lack of morality within me, this desire to harm instead of help, to take instead of give. It is the Bible that has given me the words to describe it. The Bible calls it sin. It is no small thing to say, “I am a sinner.” But it is the start of a great journey, for an admission of sin is an admission of moral culpability.

Before I sign off from this first letter, I would like to give you something to chew on—a description of yourself from the Bible. Do allow me to be candid here. I say these things not to be arrogant or insensitive, but merely to frame things in biblical language (a habit I try to emphasize in my own life). I am not ashamed of how the Bible describes you and feel it would be a useful piece of background information. You have mentioned your dissatisfaction with philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. And, indeed, you and I could undoubtedly argue such things from now until Christ returns (or the world ends) and such arguments become moot. As far as the Bible is concerned, though, God’s existence is self-evident. The Bible expends little effort in defending the existence of God because God takes the view that his existence needs no proof beyond the very fact that we are, that the world exists. Other evidences exist, to be certain, but they are less important and less obvious than the evidence we already have available to us. We call this “common grace”—grace common to each of us that ought to be sufficient to convince us of God’e existence.

The Bible often uses the word “fool” to describe a person who either denies God’s existence or admits it but refuses to submit his life to him. “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God,” wrote a poet several thousand years ago (see Psalm 14). That is the Bible’s position. God, through the Bible, calls you a fool, Luke. This is not a judgment on your intelligence (you may be a very intelligent fool); rather, it is a moral judgment. In the book of Romans it says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them [those who deny the God of the Bible], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The biblical position is that you are without excuse before God for your denial of him. You have no right to plead ignorance. From the world around you, you are able to know that God exists and that he is powerful. And so in most cases all those long, philosophical proofs for God’s existence are not all that important. And that, I suppose, is why the Bible does not expend time making most of them. In denying that God exists you are willfully, deliberately closing your eyes and your mind to the greatest evidence he has given you. You have chosen to be a fool. That is what the Bible says.

You asked me to ask you some questions. So here is one I’ve got. I began thinking about this after reading Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, a book in which he describes his conversion from Christianity to agnosticism. In the book he shares a few of the things he misses most about being a professed Christian. Most notably, he misses being able to give thanks. He realizes what a great life he leads, what a “blessed” life he leads, and feels like he owes gratitude to something. And yet there is no one to whom he can give thanks. This leaves a void in his life and one he regrets. “I have such a fantastic life,” he says, “that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.” I admire Ehrman for this admission because I am sure there is always the temptation to deny that he has lost anything with all he feels he has gained by leaving faith behind. After reading those words—poignant and honest words—I began to wonder how other atheists who have turned from the Christian faith have dealt with the loss of God. What have you lost? Who do you thank?

Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss such things.