Posts filed under ‘faith’

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

the greatest of these is love

Christiana said in the comments of my deconstructing daniel post:

I think many people are confused about what the essentials really are. They will die on the hill of textual dating, marriage roles, politics, clothing, music styles, church polity and organization etc all the while leaving, justice, mercy, faith and love in the dust.

Which reminded me of a recent post from James McGrath’s blog, Exploring Our Matrix. My wife and I have both benefited from the post this week. It is a refreshing reminder, and a surprise that this emphasis is so easily neglected or forgotten. I’m just reproducing the post below because McGrath did such a good job.

The Greatest of These Is Love

I’m grateful to Richard Beck for highlighting Paul’s own words on an important subject. Paul is famous for his emphasis on faith, and much contemporary Christianity follows his lead on this point.

Yet when it comes down to it, Paul says that there is something more important than faith – more important even than the sort of faith Jesus talked about as capable of moving mountains:

If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13).

Richard’s own conclusion is likewise worth quoting:

The defining criterion of Christianity isn’t faith. It’s love.

February 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm 17 comments

ghosts from the past

When I entered 7th grade our school guidance counselor gave an introductory talk to incoming students that in some way invoked the topic of the supernatural. I think he was making a general point that there are things out there in life which are bigger than we realize, but I do not remember the details, it did not make much of an impression on me at the time. I only remembered the talk several years later when other events brought it to mind.

For several years in high school I participated in a creative problem solving competition and the same guidance counselor was our coach. Through the time we spent together travelling to events we developed a nice friendship. When I was in eleventh grade we traveled to the University of Akron in Ohio for the national competition and roomed in a dormitory at Kent State University, just outside the city of Akron. While we were there he told an interesting story to our team of four guys.

His wife had attended Kent State University and was there in the May of 1970 at the time of the Kent State shootings when four students were killed by rifle fire from members of the Ohio State National Guard. My guidance counselor and his wife were friends of one of the victims. Returning to the campus was a traumatic experience for him. Earlier that evening he had met some other coaches who were close in age to him and they visited the site of the shootings. I remember him describing a sculpture there which has bullet holes from that day. When they were at the sculpture they started yelling into the night sky in an expression of anger and anguish as they remembered those events and that time in their lives.

Somehow that story transitioned to another college memory of his, I think because he was in an introspective mood following his experiences that evening. When he was in college his best friend had a roommate who would wake up in the night and say things in his sleep. Allegedly he would sit up in bed and say, “Mommy, Daddy, Joey’s on fire!” in a high pitched, child like voice. When awoken he would not remember any details at all. Further connecting the behavior with the supernatural, he described one night when a group of students was playing with a ouija board down the hall and the sleep talker sat up in bed and added more details to his usual mantra, including the name of a town.

The following summer my guidance counselor and his friend took a road trip after graduating college and stopped at that town. They somehow looked up records of fires in the town, or perhaps it was some other detail they used to connect the sleep talking with an actual event, I no longer remember the details. They were able to locate the name of a boy named Joseph who had been killed in a fire along with his family. The two guys found the address and stopped to take some pictures. When they returned home after the trip and had the film developed, all the pictures but those of the fire location turned out fine, only the pictures of the fire location turned out overexposed.

Pretty scary stuff to be hearing from an adult late at night, but for me it got worse. One of my friends on the trip was a Christian and had been sharing his testimony with me for years. The thing that always surprised me was the way he described Christianity in very manner of fact terms. It was never, “I believe this or that…” but rather, “This is why this happens…” kind of explanations based on the bible and his fundamentalist religion. He was someone I really looked up and to this day may be the most intelligent person I have ever met. I asked him what he made of the story and in his matter of fact way he explained that the boys’ mother was a witch who deliberately started the fire the boy died in. The sleep talker had been possessed by demons with knowledge of the event.

While somewhat incredulous that he could know with a degree of certainty what happened in the spiritual realm, I was none the less convinced that something very real was going on in this spiritual realm he described, which up to that point I had been rather skeptical of. I did not sleep very well alone in my concrete block dorm room I was so scared. That is likely the first time I ever prayed for help from God.

To this day I do not know what to make of the story. While I am not especially inclined to defer to the supernatural for explanations of events, I do not know what happened either. Clearly there are many possibilities. I do know my guidance counselor was haunted by those events and they have affected him to this day. I know my friend with the supernatural answers has crazier supernatural answers now than when I knew him in high school. And I know I still do not care to delve into ghost stories or the occult, even apart from Christian injunctions against involvement with spiritualism. It is still a scary story to me to be honest. Man’s decent into darkness and madness can be very real regardless of its source.

December 1, 2009 at 12:17 pm 9 comments

Puddleglum’s Wager

puddleglumListened to The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis with the kids on a roadtrip recently, and this section caught my ear, an interesting bit of reasoning and apologetics. Need to go back a couple of pages to supply some background first though.

The book is part of the Narnia series, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wordrobe fame. Two children, accompanied by a Narnian creature, a Marsh-wiggle (read the book) are on a mission to rescue a prince (the Prince of Narnia), whom they have now found. He had been held captive by a witch (a different witch than the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe witch). After they find the prince, the witch makes her appearance, and is trying to beguile them into disbelieving their mission. In fact, she is trying to convince them that their understanding of reality is completely wrong.

The witch has enchanted the company into a stuperous state with song and magic incense. She is trying to convince them they have made up everything they think is true, including the world they have come from (“Overworld”, the witch’s realm is underground). As they struggle to perceive reality, they grasp at memories of their world and mention things they “know” to be real, like the sun:

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldy and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.” “Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch… “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this *sun* must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your *sun* is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the *sun* is but a tale, a children’s story.” “Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone, “It must be so.”

The group is obviously falling for the witch’s deceit. The children’s companion Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle, musters the strength to grasp at a fragment of reality. He brings to their minds a memory of Aslan, the lion symbolic of Jesus in the series:

“There’s Aslan,” he said. “Aslan?” said the Witch, quickening ever so slightly the pace of her thrumming. “What a pretty name! What does it mean?”

Ha, she knows very well what it means! As the group struggles to remember Aslan, the Witch continues to play her game of feigned ignorance and spreading of confusion through her lies:

“I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your *lion*, as you call it, then we did with your *sun*. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the *sun*. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to so called a *lion*. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger.”

Puddleglum comes through again though. He quenches the enchanting fire with his bare feet, and then makes the following statement (this is the money paragraph):

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we *have* only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of akingdom of yours *is* the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the yong lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

At which point the spell is broken in a dramatic fashion.

It seems like the story offered here is trying to take two approaches for reasoning towards belief. First, it is worth believing even if it is not true, because life is so much better that way. Belief has benefits apart from whether or not the belief is accurate. Second, living as though something were true can actually lead to real belief that it is true. What starts as a way of life can become a belief. In the end it is Puddleglum’s act of faith itself which enables them to escape the doom of unbelief and life imprisoned in Underworld. It just takes faith.

Pascal’s Wager states that “a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.” (from wikipedia). Win-win, right? Even if Aslan does not exist, you spent your life with such high aspirations and hopes that there wasn’t anything to lose. And look what you stand to gain.

But is that a valid way of thinking in the modern world where, by the very nature of living in this age, we reason and understand things based on evidence, not just feelings and intuitions alone?

It just sounds too much to me like the statement, “just have faith,” which I have heard too many times. Maybe that is my conservative Christian background, tending towards seeing things in black and white. Or my rejection of conservative Christianity which makes it hard to see the good in Lewis’ story because I view it as a fundamentalist exhortation rather than a lovely liberal story. Regardless, I need another way, one that looks at evidence as well as benefits and wagers. Or maybe I’m in the grip of a dark power; drugged, deceived, confused, hopeless to choose my own way… Where have I heard that story before?

August 27, 2009 at 11:24 am 22 comments

my heart is hard

stone heartFor in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
Hebrews 6:4-6 (NASB)

I attended church this past weekend. I was not initially unhappy to go, but walking into the service I realized I was not as happy to go as I had thought. As I sat unmoved by an actually lovely sounding song, I thought about what it means to have a hardened heart. And tried to consider if my heart could really be hardened, my conscience seared to the truth of the gospel…

I am frequently warned by Christians to guard against hardening my heart to God. They feel that though I may be in a dangerous place spiritually, things will turn out OK as long as I don’t harden my heart. The problem is this tricky definition of hardening my heart. What is hardening of the heart? How can one believe differently than what orthodox Christian doctrine teaches? I think a lot of unorthodox thoughts now, so my heart must be hard, right?

And there are signs of my hardening everywhere. If I don’t spend time with my Christian friends, it couldn’t be because I make them uncomfortable and they make me uncomfortable, I must be hardening my heart towards them. If I don’t want to read the bible during my “quiet time” in the morning, it couldn’t be a due to a rational decision about its content, I must have hardened my heart to God. And if it would be as difficult for me to believe the bible is literal history as to believe Aesops’ fables are literal history, well, that might be OK, as long as it doesn’t affect my belief in the “essential core doctrines” of the bible. But if I question those core doctrines? Right, hard hearted…

What other reason could there be to reject the clear and obvious revelations God has provided? I think that is the only logical conclusion left for conservative Christian doctrine. That’s why Christian doctrine equates disbelief and doubt with moral failure. If the bible really is all true, and you are going to hell if you don’t believe it, rejecting it it couldn’t be a rational thought process. Could it?

I do not think it really is a process of hardening my heart. Rather, it is a process of allowing my mind to rationally process things on my own, not being forced to interpret things through the lens of certain presuppositions. Conservative Christians maintain it is essential to have the presupposition that the bible is all true, and that presupposition must supersede and dictate all other thought, any examination of evidence. They can be quite proud of maintaining that presupposition without wavering.

Over time, as I have cast off that presupposition, yes, I have become more convinced of what I believe. But it is not accurate or fair to call it a hardening of the heart. If it is the only way conservative Christians allow themselves to think, it would appear they have hardened their hearts (or minds) by making a choice to only consider themselves correct.

For a OneSmallStep’s take on a cold, dark heart, click HERE.

June 10, 2009 at 9:57 pm 38 comments


convo2My last post discusses how some Christians find faith in God through a bible they consider errant yet divinely inspired, communicating God’s word, but written by fallible men. This post looks briefly at the skeptical side of that view.

Kenton Sparks sees inspiration and inerrancy in the bible, it being God’s Word, but is also honest about the errors and inconsistencies it contains. While I appreciate his perspective, it still leaves me a far cry from faith in the God of the bible. The errors seem to point to the bible being a child of man rather than an inspired book. Like I am.

Once you take away the magical inspiration of the bible and try to view it through the lens of being an inspired book but written by fallible men, how is it distinguishable from any other book written by fallible men? Unique, yes, more valuable and commendable than some other books, yes. But like theistic evolution, if the processes observed can be largely explained by naturalistic processes, they become indistinguishable from what we would expect to see if there were no God involved. The observations themselves are no longer evidences of God’s existence. One can have faith that God is somehow involved, but if he is so divinely hidden, what sense of interaction and relationship is there?

That’s pretty much where I am. If God is so hidden, I don’t have to worry too much about it. But what I appreciate about the form of Christianity espoused by Sparks is that it provides a way for committed Christians to look at the bible and the world around them honestly. They might not draw the same conclusions I ultimately draw, but it opens up relationships for honest debate, discussion, and mutual respect of opinions. And ultimately that is the most important thing for me in studying the bible, being able to relate to those around me.

I enjoy the conversations, and enjoy looking at the bible to understand it, to understand it’s history, to understand what it really is, to satisfy my own curiosity. Some might see that as disingenuous on my part, but I don’t think so. I honestly try to consider what Christians have to say, and seek to encourage them to think for themselves, not to deconvert. For me conversations like these are part of the joy of having left the faith, being able to consider and conclude whatever I want.

June 3, 2009 at 9:51 am 10 comments

God’s Word…

GWIHWI am currently reading Kenton Sparks’ book, God’s Word in Human Words. The book was recommended to me recently by several people, knowing what I have been working through in reading the bible.

The basic tenet of the book is that the traditional understanding of what “biblical inerrancy” means is not supportable today in light of modern scholarly study of the bible, but also that it is not necessary for belief in an inspired and “inerrant” bible. It was God’s decision to write his word through fallible humans, but it is still inspired, still what he intended for people to know who he is. Sparks is very honest and thorough in his writing. I would recommend this book to anyone, whether they were looking to reject or defend the concept of biblical inerrancy.

Reading it is a bit emotionally trying for me because it makes more clear how wide the chasm is between this type of faith and what most of my Christian friends believe (what I used to believe). I realize more clearly that I have decisions to make about where clean breaks are needed.

At the same time, I find Sparks’ honesty refreshing, and the book provides a framework for discussing problems with the bible without coming across as though I oppose everything or everyone Christian or spiritual (I don’t!). Christians who believe some form of traditional inerrancy need to wrestle with these issues. To quote Sabio (who has commented before on this blog):

“In my world, even among wrong views, there are some more wrong than others. Thus I prefer the post-modern liberal view of scripture, of course, even though my view is much more radical. Thus I encourage any believer to move further away from unhealthy views within their own faith while still remaining in their faith. And I don’t mind if they attempt the same with me. That is the best we can ask for honest, helpful human dialogue, I think! Especially since I am sure that ALL our views are incorrect! (smile)”

I would like to go into more detail about the specifics of the book later. For now, I’ll end with the product description from Amazon:

“The conclusions of critical biblical scholarship often pose a disconcerting challenge to traditional Christian faith. Between the two poles of uncritical embrace and outright rejection of these conclusions, is there a third way? Can evangelical believers incorporate the insights of biblical criticism while at the same time maintaining a high view of Scripture and a vital faith? In this provocative book, Kenton Sparks argues that the insights from historical and biblical criticism can indeed be valuable to evangelicals and may even yield solutions to difficult issues in biblical studies while avoiding pat answers. This constructive response to biblical criticism includes taking seriously both the divine and the human aspects of the Bible and acknowledging the diversity that exists in the biblical texts.”

May 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm 28 comments

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