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Missing the Mark

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The two images above are billboards recently released by American Atheists.  Should these billboards be considered persecution?  I believe that they should.  Denigrating one’s beliefs – especially in the callow, sensationalistic, straw-man manner shown on these billboards – counts as persecution, in my book.  Granted, these billboards are not the equivalent of beating somebody and sending them prison, but are they not just a lower rung on the same ladder?  It is promoting an environment where Mormons and Christians are ridiculed for their “unreasonable” beliefs.  What would happen if these billboards really caught on, and the majority of society started treating Mormons and Christians with the same petulant contempt?

Hence a series of ironies:  American Atheists are against people being persecuted for their beliefs (e.g., “Action Alert” at the bottom of their home page), yet they persecute people for their beliefs.  The billboards decry Christianity for promoting hate, yet they promote hate.  The billboards violate American Atheists own aims and principles.

It seems that even atheists have their share of people who break with their own by-laws.  Christians have their share of people who advocate hatred, despite the fact that the book they purport to follow supports no such agenda.  One of American Atheists self-stated aims is to “collect and disseminate information, data, and literature on all religions and promote a more thorough understanding of them,” a task at which these billboards miserably fail.

I believe (hope?) that these billboards do not represent the majority of atheists in America.  I’m hoping this type of rhetoric will be increasingly marginalized.  From the responses I’ve read thus far on these billboards, it seems that most people are dismissing them, as they should.  Conversely, I hope that atheists understand that churches like Westboro Baptist Church do not represent Christianity.

Once again, it’s not organized religion that is the enemy, nor is it organized non-religion, nor theism, nor atheism.  It’s people.  We’re all hypocrites.  We’re all inconsistent.  We’re all hateful at some level.  We are the great problem with the world, and we need a great savior.  I maintain that reason is not this great savior, and I believe that history abundantly supports my claim.  We cannot save ourselves.  Only God can save us from ourselves, each other, and the mess we’ve made of this world.  Through Christ and His Spirit, that’s exactly what He has done, is doing, and will do.

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I have two young boys, and every year my wife and I face the question, “What do we do with Santa Claus?”  Harmful?  Innocuous?  Demonic?  Idolatrous?  Innocent fun?  I would gather that most readers of this blog have had enough contact with contemporary Christian culture to know the threads of debate that surround the rotund gift-giver in red.  The Santa question really stems from a larger, more general question:  What do we do with American holidays?  Dare I mention the Easter Bunny, or even (gasp) Halloween?

The holiday issue is ultimately a “Christ and culture” issue.  How are we “in” but not “of” the world?  Consistent with my desire to run against Danny’s grain, I submit a holiday edition of 4 orderly nonentities (contra “5.5 random things”).  With a little more time, I could extend this list ad nauseum, but they are among those on the front-burner of my mind this season (and I needed an even integer to counter Danny’s odd decimal):

1. To level the field, let’s remember that a good amount of American Christian culture has non-Christian roots.  We cannot deny that the West has put a stamp on how we express Christianity.  From art (e.g., halos on saints) to (most) worship services being held on Sunday to the very dates we observe Christian holidays, none enjoy Biblical support, and most have legendary or pagan origins and influences.  We also tend to celebrate, in varying degrees, plenty of secular days without compunction: birthdays, the 4th of July, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother’s Day, etc.

2. I would wager that few of us are consistent with how we celebrate the holidays, with our personal preferences weighing more heavily than our theology.  Perhaps you will play along with Santa Claus, but the Easter Bunny really chafes you.  You won’t buy gifts during Christmas, but you will buy gifts for birthdays.

3. Abuse does not preclude proper use.  Perhaps Christmas has become a hopelessly corrupt orgy of consumerism, insincere well-wishing, and other vices that de-Christ Christmas.  That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the Lord’s birth in a God-honoring way.

4. We must be mindful of Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 8, and consider how our actions affect those around us.  Perhaps for you Halloween has always been a harvest-themed celebration involving costumes and candy; that’s all you practice, and it is little more.  For others, Halloween may be the very picture of overt occultism.  By extension, consider your witness outside the Church.  What distinguishes you from the rest during Christmas time?

When all the chips are on the table, I am always suspicious of pat answers to “Christ and culture” questions, especially those of the knee-jerk variety.  There are numerous factors, some of which are quite subtle, worth bringing to bear on decisions about how to be “in” but not “of.”  In large measure, I believe that the process is more important than the result.  What’s driving our decision one way or another?  What is our ultimate goal or focus?  Are our decisions Biblically informed, prayerfully considered, and gospel-centered?  Are they rooted in self-righteousness, self-justification or pride?  Are we seeking God’s glory above all else, or are we after comfort, fitting in, or some other lesser – however noble – good?  Do we consider alternate viewpoints with charity or swift condemnation?  To paraphrase a recent quote from the beloved D.A. Carson, “Are you contending for the gospel, or are you contentious about the gospel?”

I’d be interested if any readers would like to comment on how they handle the holidays, secular or religious.  Even better if you have a few principles that you use as guides to decision-making.  You may consider Christmas only if you need a narrower scope. Gifts?  Santa?  Tree?  Stockings?  Fancy dinner?  Midnight vigils?  Tell all.

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A Man of No Reputation

I returned yesterday from almost 3 weeks of being out of the country, which explains my silence during that time period (sorry for those who left comments on the last 2 posts, I’l try to catch up soon).  While I was gone, I had trouble keeping up with the latest news and blog posts.  I finally got a chance to check my Google Reader toward the end of my trip, only to have 450+ items to read.  So, if you posted something worthwhile that I should read, let me know.

One item I did see was a link to Jon Shields’ article in the Wall Street Journal on Manute Bol, entitled “Manute Bol’s Radical Christianity.”  Bol, a retired professional basketball player, passed away on June 19.  His claim to fame was being the tallest player in the NBA during his career, measuring 7’6.  He was, in many ways, an oddity.  Being as tall as he was made him stand out even in a league of incredibly tall people. 

In his post-NBA career he became most well-known for random appearances in celebrity gimmicks.  He had stints as a horse jockey, a hockey goalie and boxed Refridgerator Perry.  And let’s be honest, the sight of a skinny (he and I weighed about the same, and I’m 6’1) 7’6 guy in a boxing match is intended to bring laughter. 

I knew that Bol was a Christian, but I didn’t realize the extent to which he lived out his faith.  I knew he raised money to help those in need in his native Sudan, but I had no idea how much he actually did.  This is why I found the above article so convicting on a personal level. 

I remember thinking, when he was making these gimmick appearances, “these people (you know, because all celebrities are the same) will stop at nothing to make a few extra bucks.”  I laughed at him.  I wondered if he realized how promoters were taking advantage of him to cash in.  Why would he allow himself to be humiliated this way?

Little did I know he did need the money, but not for the reasons one might think.  As the article states,  “Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals.”  In his efforts to help those in need, Bol had spent the fortune he made playing professional basketball.  He could have retired and lived a relatively comfortable life in the States.  Again, I’ll quote the article:

When his fortune dried up, Bol raised more money for charity by doing what most athletes would find humiliating: He turned himself into a humorous spectacle.  …Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

And the whole time I laughed at him.  I assumed he was simply trying to make a buck.  So many athletes, after they retire, miss the limelight and will do anything to be on television again.  They need the money because they wasted all they earned.  They make fools of themselves just to be seen.  Bol, on the other hand, did it for someone else. 

I assumed he lost his dignity.  I assumed he sacrificed his reputation for fame.  I assumed he was like every other celebrity who fell so in love with fame that they lost all sense of shame.

The truth is that Manute Bol demonstrated his dignity by sacrificing it on behalf of others.  He lived out the gospel in a way that I, and many others, overlooked and mocked.  He allowed himself to be ridiculed in order to help those who could not help themselves.  In other words, he acted like Jesus.

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I first heard of David Bentley Hart’s new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, on volume 98 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.  Thanks to some leftover birthday money, it was soon at my doorstep.  I will give the book an “official” review at a later date.  In this post, I wanted to look at a larger issue catalyzed by the first paragraph in Atheist Delusions, which I will quote at length.  Hart opens by setting the context for his book, which seeks to uncover the folly of today’s popular atheists (pp.3-4):

Conditions in the world of print have never before been so propitious for sanctimonious tirades against religion, or (more narrowly) monotheism, or (more specifically) Christianity, or (more precisely) Roman Catholicism…The God Delusion, an energetic attack on all religious belief, has just been released by Richard Dawkins, the zoologist and tireless tractarian, who – despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning – never fails to entrance his eager readers with his rhetorical recklessness.  The journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic, has just issued God Is Not Great, a book that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method…Sam Harris’s extravagantly callow attack on all religious belief, The End of Faith, has enjoyed robust sales…Philip Pullman’s evangelically atheist (and rather overrated) fantasy trilogy for children, His Dark Materials, has been lavishly praised by numerous critics…its third volume…has even won the (formerly) respectable Whitbread Prize.  And one hardly need mention the extraordinary sales achieved by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code [sic]…surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.  I could go on.

My initial reaction to Hart’s asperity (his word), was gleeful laughter.  The quote above is more or less indicative of the tone throughout the book:  Hart plays the role of the mature, erudite professor scolding a bunch of juvenile high school students (Dawkins, et al) for their facile, jejune publications.  I’ve found similar joy in reading other authors who embarrass their opponents with such delightful eloquence.

I question, however, whether or not I am right to “delight” in such things.  Though I can’t say for sure, I’ll wager my delight in Hart’s deconstruction of Hitchens is mirrored by atheists who delight in Hitchens’ anti-Christian vitriol.  Everybody loves to root for their own side, and when your team scores a touchdown (real or perceived), it’s hard not to cheer.

But therein lies the rub.  These people (outspoken atheists in this case) are not my enemies.  Nor do I think the “us versus them” mentality is an especially Christ-like posture, let alone one conducive to helpful, civil dialogue.  “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” after all (Eph.6:12), and where is it written that we are to rejoice when another human being receives their comeuppance?  Does God take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked (see Ezk. 18:32, Mt. 23:37, among others)?  Should we?

For example, in the many harsh expositions of the New Testament (such as Mt. 23, 2 Tim. 3:1-9, Jude 8-16) I don’t find any indication that fist-pumping glee is the proper reaction.  Why, then, is it often my own?  When Dan Brown’s historiography is exposed for what it is (i.e., excrement), why do I get a warm feeling inside my chest?  To wit: my last sentence brought about a wry smile to my face.

Simply put, I am offended by attacks against my God, and I long to see His Truth vindicated.  When another person wages warfare against the beliefs – indeed, the Person! – I hold in highest esteem, it is injurious in two ways.  First, I feel it as a personal attack, not unlike somebody decrying my own father or wife.  Second, I understand the attack as a lie, and wish the truth to be known over and against it.  I don’t find anything sinful in these reactions, per se.  They are often cast under the umbrella or “righteous indignation” or “righteous anger,” against which I have no beef.  It is rather the attitude behind my reaction that I believe to be sinful:  I am hurt, so I wish to hurt back, even if vicariously through another author.  Speaking, writing or appreciating a harsh rebuke is no sin, but the attitude behind it can be.

I believe the key to reacting well is to maintain the distinction between the attacker and the attack.  The attack (the anti-Christian proposition), is of the devil.  It is a lie to be hated and defeated.  We love the Truth, and rejoice when the Truth is shown to triumph over the lie.  The attacker (the person), is loved by God, and therefore loved by us.  Our attitude towards him or her is primarily loving.  To see one loved by God so viciously attack Him is ultimately a sorrowful affair.  If fatherhood has taught me anything, it is that it is possible to be angry with somebody while simultaneously loving them and laboring for their best.  I’ve never once rejoiced at my thorough, truthful rebuke of my own son.  Rather, my heart is always heavy.  We must walk carefully, however, lest our attitude becomes, “Poor things, they’re so deceived.”  We could just as well commit the error of the Pharisee in Lk. 18:11 and thank God we’re not one of those people.

It is often the case that the attack and attacker become blurred in my mind.  I confuse the person with the proposition, and make the mistake of thinking that a given philosophical stance exhaustively defines who somebody is.  The sayings are perhaps trite, but loving the sinner and hating the sin goes a long way to reacting well, so also does speaking the truth in love.  Honestly, I think I fail at this more often than I succeed, as perhaps my writings on this blog (this post, even) will testify.  Would that the scales tip in the opposite direction for me and all of God’s children soon.

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There’s a new surge to put “Christ back in Christmas” going around these days, headed up by James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  You can check them out at Stand for Christmas.  On this website you’ll see reviews and ratings of various retailers to help determine whether they are “Christmas Friendly,” “Christmas Negligent” or “Christmas Offensive.”  Have you ever walked into a store and hear “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and bristled with righteous indignation?  Now’s your chance to let them hear it… by posting a comment on a website no one outside of a relatively small number of evangelical/fundamentalists will take seriously.  Yeah, that’ll show ’em.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one.  Maybe the site’s subtitle: “Now Customers Have a Voice.”  Hmm, I thought customer’s always had a voice: their wallet.  You know, if you don’t want to shop at a store, you don’t have to.  Wow, that capitalism sure is crazy.

Or maybe we should talk about how this group has fallen into, what I deem to be, a problem of our culture at large.  That is, everyone is just so easily offended.  Really, you are offended because the 18-year-old working at American Eagle for the discount said “Happy Holidays” to you as you checked out?  Yeah, I really hate that jerk, too.

Being offended is a proud heritage in our culture.  In fact, it’s even #101 on the list of Stuff White People Like.  Maybe my skin is too thick, but I just can’t get offended that easily.  Christians, though, and evangelicals in particular, have a bit of a persecution complex.  In some cases, it’s legit.  But I’m not sure how someone not using the term “Christmas” is truly an offensive thing to me.  I’d be much more offended if the kid at American Eagle said, “hey, you might want to but those pants one size bigger… I mean, you’re not getting any younger and studies show that you’re much more likely to expand than shrink at your age, especially with the holiday (oops, I mean “Christmas”) season coming up.”

After all, why should I expect a non-Christian business (we’ll set aside the issue, for the moment, of whether or not a business can be “Christian” anyway) to celebrate the birth of the Savior they don’t believe in?  Tell me, does it honor God for someone who doesn’t even acknowledge him in thought or deed to say the word “Christmas?”  We’re talking about the same God who rejected the sacrifices (which were commanded by him, unlike this holiday) of his people because they didn’t honor him with their lives.

Now, I think it’s ridiculous that retailers can be skittish about saying “Merry Christmas,” too, but for the same reason I think it’s ridiculous that the Stand for Christmas website even exists: it succumbs to the easily offended culture.  Retailers are afraid that someone will be offended if they say “Merry Christmas” when they actually celebrate Hanukkah.  In my experience, most people are not offended by such a thing.  Before I was married, I used to frequent Quiznos.  There was a girl working there who I talked to every now and then when I was eating there.  One winter I wished her a Merry Christmas, only to have her tell me she celebrated Hanukkah.  So, I wished her a Happy Hanukkah.  Simple as that.  No offense given, none taken.

Forgive me if I’m upset that there are a group of Christians out there who have decided to fight fire with fire, or “being offended” with “being offended.”  If the non-Christian world thinks they can be offended, well we can be too!  I can’t believe this masquerades as a strategy to battle “censorship.”

There has to be a better way to stand for Christmas.  How about this: when you walk into a retailer, strike up a conversation with the workers there.  Ask them about their holiday plans.  See what holiday they celebrate and ask them why.  Tell them why Christmas is special to you.  Tell them about how God became man in order that we might know God.  Tell them about why the manger scene is so important- that God wasn’t born in a beautiful palace to a king with a royal court celebrating, but in a manger with farm animals present.  Talk to them about the angels’ appearance to the shepherds.  Tell them about those who waited in eager expectation for the Messiah to be born.   It seems to be that this is a much better way to put Christ back in Christmas.

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A series of ads funded by eight atheist groups are being posted in the New York subway system.  The ads will show a blue sky with the words, “A million New Yorkers are good without God.  Are you?”  It seems that this sort of thing makes news (or at least, this blog) every year.  This time, the ad appears to be less an attack on theism so much as an attempt to reach out to other non-theists.  Michael De Dora, one of the directors for an atheist group sponsoring the ad, expresses the intent to create awareness of the city’s secular community, and foster “talking and thinking about religion and morality.”

I personally don’t find the ad to be particularly offensive.  That is, it is no more offensive than other advertisements that litter our view.  Other advertisements promise that a new car will bring satisfaction, that a better paying job will bring about personal fulfillment, or that we deserve a luxury cruise.  A harsher critic might call these claims lies, and he’d be right.   So, is this ad also a lie?  Yes and no.

I could argue from my worldview, and claim that this ad is a lie because the million New Yorkers are not good.  They are actually sinners who bear real moral guilt for their thoughts and deeds, just like everybody else in the world.  This lie is amplified by two more lies:  (1) the presupposition that goodness can be achieved without God, and (2) the claim that real “goodness” actually exists without God.

I could also take a cue from De Dora, and do some thinking about morality.  Such thinking could lead me to argue that this ad is true, but desperately in need of an asterisk next to the word “good.”   The asterisk could be explained in fine print on the bottom of the ad: *that is, good as they define it.  However, that would make the ad a boring non-statement, since one can easily be good without God, because “good” is a meaningless concept that can be defined by the individual.  Therefore the ad is true.

In the interest of honesty, the ad might want to incorporate an additional footnote that being good without God may require the consistent thinker to live the rest of their days in despair over the absurdity of life without God.  Without God, our meaningless, purposeless life in the cold, uncaring, and dying universe makes the chemical accident of our existence cruel (that is, if such a thing as cruelty existed), and all of our striving for good (whatever that is), quite pointless, save perhaps that it can distract us enough to live in delusional happiness on our fleet journey to non-existence.  This sounds harsh, but life without God is harsh.  I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument for how life without God (or even a god) has any meaning, value, or purpose.

In my worldview, I can say that much of what the ad is striving for is good:  I commend the notion of people getting together, even more so when thoughtful dialogue is the goal, and even more when morality is the topic du jour.  I, too, do not want individuals to feel isolated, lonely, or persecuted because of their beliefs.  However, I cannot argue that the ad is good from the atheist worldview, because my thoughts are all predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as objective “good.”  The ad is therefore self-defeating, since by its own worldview, it cannot make any claims to objective good.  It could try, perhaps by an appeal to a collective, but the claims would ultimately fail because (1) living out such claims would require inconsistencies, as noted on this blog, and (2) the collective would change over time, making “good” today something different from “good” tomorrow.  If “today” were ancient Greece, for instance, the collective might condone the exposure of female infants.

Thankfully, we do not have to live in despair, because there is a God, and He is good.  The existence of a good God is also grounds for despair, since we are guilty of moral wrong before Him.  Thankfully, there is more good news, because Jesus Christ died and rose again to free us from our bondage to decay, and forgive us for our sins, such that those in Christ no longer stand condemned before God.  While this ad has the best of intentions (like many atheists in my experience), it cannot deliver on its promises, for there is no good without God, no hope without Jesus, and no turning to the good without the Holy Spirit.

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Not Knowing God

Every few months I receive a newsletter from my brothers and sisters at the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, MA.  In addition to current events and lecture schedules,  director Dick Keyes always begins with a brief essay.  For this autumn’s newsletter, Keyes, taking a cue from Paul’s encounter with the “unknown god” of Acts 17, reflects on three patterns which he believes are common ways people do not know God.  Since Danny and I will be blogging through Packer’s Knowing God for the next few weeks (months?), I thought Keyes’ observations were apropos.  You can read his short but insightful essay here.

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