Posts filed under ‘apologetics’

critiquing evangelicalism

These are some of my favorite books critiquing evangelical Christianity:

These books share a common thread; they all critique conservative evangelical Christianity from within the framework of evangelical Christianity itself. Meaning the authors remain evangelicals themselves, which I think uniquely positions them to be heard better by Christian readers. Probably less threatening than someone on the outside with the message, “Your biblical framework is lacking!” (maybe Bart Ehrman?). And because they have held onto the parts of Christianity they feel are important or essential, they have something more to offer than only negative observations (as I tend to have).

I especially appreciate the intellectual honestly displayed by the authors in the way they ask difficult questions, rather than offering up soft balls they already have the answers too (Lee Strobel, et al?). They all describe a Christianity which depends less on a literal interpretation of the bible and allows for a higher degree of mystery in their faith. They also tend to hold to a less exclusivist form of Christianity; that is, they do not necessarily consider everyone who believes differently than them to be bound for Hell.

For me personally, the books also share a common thread where they all fall short; they fail to describe a Christianity which I find believable as ultimately true. My overall question when studying the bible became, “Is the bible true?” I certainly did not find it to be true in the conservative evangelical sense. And while the books offer alternatives to that conservative, literal reading of the bible, my general doubt about the factuality of the bible still seems to be an insurmountable problem for having Christian faith.

I do not think Christians have to consider discarding their faith before they can honestly examine and discuss it. And correspondingly, others should not have to earnestly attempt to believe the bible before they can honestly examine and discuss it. Too many books about Christianity (both for and against it) seem to be based on those premises. These authors provide great examples of showing sincere respect for those who believe differently than they do. By doing this, they promote dialog and intellectual discourse over diatribe and rhetoric, and find common ground rather than defined divisions.

September 1, 2010 at 11:25 am 12 comments

you might be a theologian if…

The picture to the left shows angels dancing on the head of a pin. One more post along these lines, then on to other things…

Evangelicalism tends to overstate the confidence people can have in knowing its doctrines are true. OK, I know I can be overconfident about what I believe as well. But as a religion, or maybe the culture it produces, I think evangelicalism is especially susceptible to this problem.

As an example, below is a brief transcription from a question and answer period following a lecture by Phoenix Theological Seminary theologian Wayne Grudem, found somewhere on this site.

Question:
If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, then why is death the punishment for sin? If all our penalty for sin has been paid by Christ and he died for us, then why do we die?

Answer:
That is a little bit of a puzzle. I think we have to say that death for [Christians] should not be seen as a punishment, because the penalty for our sins has been paid by Christ. Rather, it must be that God, in his wisdom and his sovereign good pleasure, has good purposes for us in allowing us to go through the experience of death, and I suppose [of aging] leading up to death.

One point is that God, even though he has forgiven us, still allows us to live in a fallen world, and death is the final outcome of living in a fallen world. Because, even though Christ in his death paid the penalty for us to earn his perfect fullness of salvation with all its blessing, all that has not been applied yet, so death is not yet removed.

I spent a number of years working in computer customer support. Have you ever spoken with a computer support analyst who sounded like they were making things up? They probably were! “The problem is caused by the variegated VGA daughterboard, it’s a type A12 you know…”

The theological answers above strike me in much the same way. “I think we have to say…” Why would anyone have to say that? How about, “We can’t know, but maybe…” Or something like that, I think it would be more honest. “I think we have to say…” assumes there is one correct and comprehensive system into which the verses of the bible can be compiled. And that a teacher needs to have a correct answer for every question.

You might be a theologian if…you make stuff up! Or you might be a computer support analyst…

August 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm 7 comments

apologies for apologists

I read a post this week by someone blogging through Tim Keller’s book, Reason for God, and was freshly reminded why I don’t like apologetics. I read this book when I first started questioning Christianity. It was billed as a great defense of the Christian faith, and was endorsed by leaders who were trusted in my church. I felt a need to have given Christianity a fair shake, even though I thought I was through with it. I had been immersed in conservative Christianity for over a decade, had read many books about doctrine, but had not read any serious apologetics.

The book does stand out from some others in the way it engages with skeptics. Keller clearly has real life experience interacting with skeptics, and is gracious, intelligent and educated. But I am still left with the impression that it is the same old apologetics wrapped in a contemporary veneer. I didn’t like the book then, and still don’t.

These sentences were quoted in the blog post, in support of the author’s (the author of the book, not the blog post) belief that if you believe people share a common sense of what is right and wrong, than you should admit it demonstrates God’s existence. Keller writes:

“If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmonhy between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists.”

I wrote in the margin, “Bible not exactly a champion of human rights.” :^)

I have no doubt these issues are worth thinking about and discussing, and that there are not easy answers to the questions. But is the author trying to honestly inquire into why something is or is not true, or is he trying to convince you to believe what he believes based on philosophical slight-of-hand?

If you insist on a secular view of the world.” This sounds disingenuous. I do not insist on a secular view of the world! Can I still disagree with the premise? “…then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists.” In other words, “You are living in a fantasy world if you disagree with me!”

From my experiences with car salespeople, I don’t trust them. Unfortunately too many of them have proven themselves worthy of the negative stereotype they receive (sorry if you are an honest car sales-person out there, no offense). One has to assume the salesperson will say whatever gives them the most advantage to close the deal. At the end of the day, I don’t trust apologists much more than that, I think they are just trying to sell me something.

August 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm 17 comments

doubting the unicorn

I try to avoid the Answers in Genesis web site. But I recently saw a link to an article there, and confess, gave in to the temptation. I apologize in advance for any pain it may cause, should you choose to click through. The article is about unicorns.

As background, the King James Version of the bible uses the word “unicorn” in several places (blogger Sabio goes into that a bit here).  The article starts out with an assertion that some anti-Christians will use the King James Bible’s references to unicorns to mock Christian beliefs as akin to belief in fairy tales. Fair enough, I haven’t heard that, but I’m sure it happens.

The article then goes on to provide some guesses as to what kind of creatures the biblical authors were referring to, under the assumption that they must have been referring to a real creature. But could it be possible they were referring to a creature that never existed, under the false assumption that a legend was real?

Answers in Genesis says categorically it is NOT acceptable to think the biblical authors referred to a mythical creature. The article ends on a typical Answers in Genesis low note, with polemics against those who would disagree with them, finally concluding, “To think of the biblical unicorn as a fantasy animal is to demean God’s Word, which is true in every detail.”

Such a simple equation; doubt the biblical authors, demean God. It is ultimately a call to submit to authority rather than to exercise critical thought, and it preempts honest study into origins and meanings of the bible. If only we could all hear God’s voice as clearly as Ken Ham does. Or on second thought, maybe not…

May 18, 2010 at 11:45 am 24 comments

epigenetics made me sinful

Conservative theologian Norman Geisler is a famed apologist and the author of the book, The Big Book of Biblical Difficulties (I always get the title mixed up with Gleason Archer’s book, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties). In this book he outlines various solutions to stories in the bible which are difficult to reconcile with a strict view of biblical inerrancy. He states in the preface that what might seem like inconsistencies are only “apparent contradictions,” meaning though they might appear to be errors, but really they are not, we just are not reading or understanding correctly.

Many of his solutions to these biblical difficulties contain valid arguments based on careful study of the languages, context, geographies, etc. of the biblical writers. Unfortunately, many of his solutions, while perhaps being logically possibilities, make a tangled mess of reasoning, or “pretzel logic.”

On his web site Geisler recently addressed a problem related to the virgin birth of Jesus. The dilemma, according to Geisler, is:

“Conservative theologians have long troubled by how the Virgin Conception of Jesus is related to his sinlessness. In short, if Mary was his actual mother, then why would not the inherited depravity from Adam be passed on to Jesus anyway. Why isn’t a sinful mother, which Mary was (Lk. 1:46), as much of a problem as a sinful father in channeling original sin?”

Leave it to a conservative theologian to be “long troubled” about something like that. As though the set of possible solutions to this vexing problem couldn’t involve the problem not existing in the first place.

Geisler’s goes on to relate how recent discoveries in genetic research may have finally resolved this “biblical difficulty.” Geisler believes that if we do not know of a way to resolve an apparent difficulty in the bible, it just means we haven’t figured it out yet, and so he writes:

“This is where epigenetics may solve this previous “mystery.” According to scientists, “the general mechanism for transmitting information about ancestral environment [is] down the male line”. If this is so, then perhaps a person born of a virgin mother would not inherit the epigenetic information resulting from Adam’s Fall. Whether this is so or not, we are not in a position to say. And, of course, there may be other factors. But certainly epigenetics has opened the door to a possible solution of this long-standing and vexing problem for evangelical theology.”

This is a fantasy world, where presuppositions cannot be challenged and people are more content with shoddy reasoning than they are with a healthy, “I don’t know.” Honestly, as a Christian I found this kind of reasoning made me very uncomfortable. It sounded so shaky, it made me wonder what else was shaky about my beliefs. I appreciate that Geisler admits this is only a possible solution and could be wrong, but it sounds more like grasping at straws then providing a reasonable basis for the beliefs he tries to support. It makes me question myself though, wondering where I hold on to tenuous solutions to maintain my beliefs, rather than dealing more directly with challenges.

March 8, 2010 at 10:09 pm 15 comments

reconstructing daniel?

Biblical scholar Peter Enns says of his book Inspiration and Incarnation that it is “an attempt to bring an Evangelical doctrine of Scripture into conversation with the implications generated by some important themes in modern scholarship.” My paraphrase of that statement would be that Evangelicals should not automatically reject the findings of modern biblical scholarship. In discussing the fear some Evangelicals have towards the implications of modern biblical scholarship, Enns writes:

“…fear cannot drive theology. It cannot be used as an excuse to ignore what can rightly be called evidence. We do not honor the Lord nor do we uphold the gospel by playing make-believe. Neither are those who engage the kinds of issues discussed in this book necessarily on the slippery slope to unbelief.”

In my previous post I included the quote below, relating a view of the book of Daniel as a later writing rather than as literal history and prophesy:

Like his New Testament counterpart, the Revelation of John, Daniel was written to strengthen his people during a difficult time. Whereas John wrote to Christians under the persecution of Domitan, Daniel wrote to Jews under the persecution of Antiochus. By casting his history as a series of predictions, Daniel hoped to show that the present sufferings were indeed a part of God’s plan for his people.

Accepting this view can lead to a couple of different conclusions:

  • Rejection of the inerrantist view and seeing the story as the work of men and not of God.
  • Rejection of the inerrantist view but seeing the story as still divinely inspired.

The theory in support of the second conclusion would state that the author did not intend to deceive his readers. This genre of prophetic literature was common at that time (so the theory goes), and the audience would have known to read the book allegorically. The book still communicates that the sufferings of the readers were part of a bigger plan and that God had not departed from Israel.

I do not know Enns’ view of the book of Daniel in particular, but this view is generally consistent with his approach, accepting some modern conclusions and findings about the bible without giving up his trust in its divine inspiration.

While I do not hold the same kind of faith in the inspiration of the bible, I find his approach engaging and honest. Enns’ analyses of biblical history seems trustworthy, in contrast to scholars (apologists?) who place certain presuppositions higher than evidence in reaching their conclusions. Regardless of your view on what kind of book the bible is, grappling with issues like these is essential for understanding its real meaning.

February 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm 6 comments

deconstructing daniel

According to Wikipedia, cognitive dissonance is “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.” The more rigid a religion is in its creeds, the more cognitive dissonance can result from clashes with the real world. It is very hard for me to point to just one thing that created enough cognitive dissonance for me to start the questioning process. But perhaps the final straw came from a sermon on the book of Daniel, which for me called the doctrine of inerrancy into question.

The sermon itself was an exposition on the prophesies contained in the book of Daniel, the point being that if God was faithful to answer prophesies then, we ourselves should be able to trust him now. The pastor had waded through a lot of complex material in an attempt to explain what the the prophesies in Daniel were really about and how they had played out in history. While I admired his attempt to grapple with the material, as a history buff the solutions he presented seemed contrived, like they were trying to force the evidence to meet preconceived conclusions. Enough for me to venture onto the Internet in search for more information. A dangerous precedent!

Bonus points if you can identify this lion

In a nutshell, the book of Daniel is held up as including prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, along with predictions of various kings and kingdoms coming and going. According to this website, “the book itself claims to be the work of an exiled Jew in Babylon, during the period of about 586 to 536 BCE.” Since a number of the prophesies appear to deal with events which transpired around 165 BCE, an early dating of 586 BCE could indeed constitute fulfilled prophesies.

The general consensus of modern biblical scholars however places the writings to around the time period of 165 BCE. One reason for this, as fundamentalists are glad to point out, is that a later dating, after the events “foretold” already transpired, does not depend on a belief in supernaturally fulfilled prophesies . Unfortunately for the fundamentalists, there are other solid literary and historic clues which support this later dating.

Viewed as a later writing, the purposes of the book can be understood a different way:

Like his New Testament counterpart, the Revelation of John, Daniel was written to strengthen his people during a difficult time. Whereas John wrote to Christians under the persecution of Domitan, Daniel wrote to Jews under the persecution of Antiochus. By casting his history as a series of predictions, Daniel hoped to show that the present sufferings were indeed a part of God’s plan for his people.

It didn’t take much reading to realize this view of the book just made more sense to me. I was actually asked about a year later by this same pastor “what was in your heart that made you think this view of Daniel was true?” I replied that I did not think it was anything in my heart making me think that way, it is just where the evidence seemed to lead. I really think it is only a “heart issue” that causes someone to believe in the earlier dating of Daniel, because of a desire to maintain a certain view of the bible rather than more dispassionately considering what is really going on in the book. Of course this is all based on my own limited understanding of the textual issues and historical details at hand, but that is the best I can do. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.

For me faith pretty much fell apart at that point. I felt the advice I received to deal with those doubts and to try to hold on to faith all pointed to returning to a blind trust of the bible. Much of what I read seemed to exhort people to reject their own reason (as human, corrupt, and fallible) and accept the sweet and pure truth of God’s word the bible. Which to me still sounds like a clarion call to shut off your mind and just believe.

Maybe if I had been in a more progressive tradition I would have dealt with those doubts differently. Maybe if I had been surrounded by voices calling me to more flexible view of scripture I would have been able to see a different way. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and faith made more sense discarded than clung to at that point. On one hand it hurt and I responded with a lot of anger. On the other hand it has helped me to think for myself, to form my own opinions, and to read, read, read. And to be honest that has been a pretty good deal for me. I am grateful for a deconstructed faith.

January 31, 2010 at 11:28 pm 24 comments

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