Wednesday, May 29, 2013

C.S. Lewis' challenge to Christian scientists

What kind of books should Christian intellectuals and scientists write? What will be the most effective for defending and promoting the Gospel? I find it surprising, interesting, and challenging to consider the view of C.S. Lewis.
While we are on the subject of science, let me digress or a moment. I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by any directly apologetic work. The difficulty we are up against is this. We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy's line of communication. 
What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects, with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian. The first step to the re-conversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguin and the Thinkers Library on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit: and of course its science perfectly honest. Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be sin and folly.
C.S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics" (1945) included in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 93.

Monday, May 27, 2013

An atheist who understands what faith in Jesus really is

Terry Eagleton is arguably one of the UK's most prominent literary critics. He is an atheist, but a prominent critic of the New Atheists. He takes them to task for their superficial treatment and mis-representation of Christian faith.

There is a nice series of interviews of Eagleton with Arnold Eisen, a Jewish scholar.

Here is one where he discusses his understanding of what Christian faith really is.

Why do charities spend so much money on fund raising?

Whose fault is it? How do we stop it?
It is easy to blame the charities/NGOs/churches/mission agencies and their leaders and staff.
But what about us, the prospective donors?

The problem is that many people do not give systematically and regularly but do respond to "crisis" appeals.
So a solution is to not respond to these appeals but rather to start giving small amounts in a regular fashion over a sustained period of time (3+ years). Electronic banking makes this very easy.

Once the charity realises they have a certain stable income stream and their "crisis" appeals have little effect, they may accept their budget and focus on spending it wisely rather than on raising more money.

Sorry, if I am a little idealistic. You can't change everyone else. But you do have a choice as to whether you join me in this strategy.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Are we good at heart?

What does history tell us?

Sir Herbert Butterfield was a Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and noted historian. He has an interesting statement (reproduced here) about how if certain social safeguards are removed then our true nature will be revealed.

An essay The Christian and the study of history reviews Butterfield's broader contributions to scholarship.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Apologetics in the twenty-first century

There is a helpful article "Atheists, Archbishops, and Airport Novelists: Recent trends in Christian apologetics," by Greg Clarke in the latest CASE magazine.

He lists four positive trends
  • God is well and truly centre-stage in global intellectual life.
  • The affective dimension of apologetics is receiving new, and overdue, attention.
  • Christianity is often now presented as a story, a very good story, and a story into which anyone can enter.
  • The ethical discontents of secularism have become a pathway into discussion of the moral shape of Christianity.
The discouraging trend is "Too many centres of apologetic engagement are entwined with specific or institutionalised political commitments, to their detriment and to the confusion of the public..... If a project on the relationship between God and science ends up as bitter dispute about the politics of teaching evolution or creation in schools, it has probably not achieved its best end."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The poor man has a name

Here is an interesting question.
Do any of the characters in the parables of Jesus have a personal name?
The prodigal son, the unmerciful servant, the good Samaritan, ....

I learnt this past week that there is only one: Lazarus, the poor man in the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus recorded in Luke 16:19-31

The Africa Bible Commentary (p. 1263) says
At the one extreme in this story is an unidentified rich man, whose clothing, mansion and lifestyle, mark him as one of the rich and famous. The very idea of such lifestyle might have been amazing to some of the original hearers. But deep in the night, when hunger kept them awake, they may have reflected on why some poeple enjoy life while others have to sweat and scrape just to get by. 
At the opposite extreme is a representative of the poverty of the masses, named Lazarus. All that he has going for him is the fact that he is the only person in all of Jesus' parables with a name, Lazarus. This name is the Latinized from of Eleazar and means "God is my help". Lazarus is a beggar, but he has a name. He is covered with ulcerated sores but he has human dignitty. He does not remain nameless. 
The sin of the rich man is that he has no heart. He looks at a man with a name, but does not ask him his name. He saw Lazarus' hunger and pain, but did nothing about it. He accepted the poverty of Lazarus as part of the normal order of things and thought it perfectly natural and inevitable that Lazarus whould lie in huger, pain, suffering, sickness and ultimately in death while he wallowed in luxury. There are none so blind   as those who will not see.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Not singing the national anthem

By many accounts Australia has a rather innocuous National Anthem, Advance Australian Fair. [We ditched "God save the Queen" in 1984 and I have to confess I actually don't know the words].

But, I came to understand that it is not actually so innocuous by watching an episode of Redfern now, a recent TV series that deals with some of the struggles of urban indigenous Australians. In the episode a new scholarship student at an exclusive private school finds he is incapable of singing it because of what it represents. The episode highlights the inability of white liberal Australians [including myself] to understand the real issues and to make token gestures.
But I thought the episode ending was a bit too "fairy tale."

I think the episode also highlights a profound difference between Australia and the USA. Patriotism has a different dimension. Many Australians are quite comfortable with accepting someone being Australian and NOT singing the national anthem.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Seven days that divide the world

The latest issue of Science and Christian Belief has a helpful review of the recent book
Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science by John Lennox.

Here is the full review by Davis Young, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Calvin College:
The content of this short book is summed up rather well by its somewhat peevish title. Here John Lennox concentrates
on the first chapter of Genesis, having already published a broader take on science and religion in God's Undertaker (2007). His style is clear and accessible, with a welcome touch of humour, but it is also argumentative. This latter aspect comes out especially in the five Appendices, which take up more than a third of the book.
The first two chapters look back briefly at the old controversy over the earth's movement round the sun. Lennox explains how Old Testament verses that refer to a fixed earth were seen as speaking metaphorically once it became certain that the earth really does move. This account of the Galileo affair serves as a cautionary tale, from which he recommends humility in interpreting both Scripture and science. He also sets out his own position as a scientist who believes Scripture to be the Word of God (28). 
From this basis, Lennox moves on to consider what Genesis 1 has to say about the age of the earth. He acknowledges three main ways of interpreting the days of creation: as 24 hour days, as long periods of time or as a literary framework. He then offers a fourth way of his own, where the six days encompass a sequence of creation acts, each of which involved at least one creative fiat introduced by the phrase "And God said" (55). Lennox suggests that these days occurred at intervals over the long history of the universe. However, as he explains in Appendix E, he believes the phrase‚ "And God said" means "direct activity of the word of God" (186) and excludes "unguided natural processes" (172). He therefore rejects any idea of "theistic evolution" and this makes him, in current terminology, an old-earth creationist. 
This position becomes even clearer in the next chapter where he argues that human beings are a special creation and not a product of evolution. He insists that, according to Genesis, you cannot cross "the gulf between animals and human beings by unguided natural processes... Without God speaking there is an unbridgeable discontinuity" (70). Lennox offers us only two alternatives on human origins: either "a supernatural intervention" (74) or "random permutations of matter without any ultimate significance" (85). He does not include the possibility that, in a divinely sustained world, natural processes are due to the ongoing creative activity of God. The latter concept has long been part of creation theology, an area of study that is not really included in this book. 
In a final chapter, Lennox considers the broader world-view of Genesis 1. There is no discussion here of the cultural and literary forms in which the message was conveyed to ancient Israel. Instead, everything is quickly linked to modern science and to the author's battle with atheism. Then the Appendices take over and these include a dispute with Old Testament scholarship that poses a threat to his position. The last one contains his arguments against theistic evolution.
Overall Lennox does seem to be driven by a desire for doctrinal certainty. His insistence on an unusual interpretation of Genesis is linked to his particular doctrine of creation as divine intervention at certain points in world history. This leads him to reject any mainstream science, such as evolutionary biology, that would throw light on these points. The irony of this is that he is treating biology rather as the church treated astronomy in the Galileo affair.

Friday, May 10, 2013

How do Western Christians learn from non-Westerners?

There was recently an article What can we learn from African Christians? in the Briefing. It was written by an Australian church leader who for a decade has been involved in short term visits to Africa for providing theological education to African church leaders.

The article stimulated a fascinating array of comments that highlighted that Westerners making short visits may not see the real situation. Partly this is because they don't know or understand the local culture and so mis-interpret what they see. Also they are sometimes partly not shown the real situation because their hosts show them what they want to see (a vibrant enthusiastic church) and what will impress them leading to more financial support.

I will just give one of the comments from an African: 

I found that the comment section so qualified what the article was saying that it created the impression that there is very little to nothing to be learned from African Christians. This is very worrying for me. What is additionally worrying to me is that the solution most people are proposing is that more theological education from either missionaries, or organisations from outside the continent coming in to ‘partner with’ or just plain ‘educate’ local pastors is what is needed.
What this says and does is this – on the one hand, it communicates that viable solutions are not forthcoming from Africans themselves, which isn’t true. A lot of grassroots training programs are springing up across my country as well as others – some funded from outside the continent, others organised entirely locally. On the other hand, while showing a seeming lack of charity toward African Christians, saying that the solution is more theological training from ‘outside’ parties shows a remarkable lack of self-reflection as well. What flaws are there in Western Christianity, and are these not being imported into Africa with missionaries and educational programs? The question is, “Why is flawed Western Christianity welcome, and indeed is one of the major solutions to strengthening African Christianity, while flawed African Christianity is critiqued to the point it doesn’t even make it out of the gate?” If we are meant to check the log in our own eye before we speak of the speck in our brother’s, perhaps it would be great to have a companion piece to this present article, entitled “What can African Christians learn from us?” that we can similarly critique and reflect on.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

We are all fragile and so need each other

Last night my family watched the movie The Intouchables. It chronicles the unlikely relationship between a wealthy French aristocrat who is a quadriplegic and a Senegal immigrant who is a common criminal.
They bond as they learn a lot about life and humanity from each other.

There is a nice article Weakness is a treasure about the two real people on who the movie is based.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Bonhoeffer's cross-cultural experience

My wife enjoyed watching a documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A few things I found striking.

His life was so driven by theology, and distinctly Christian (i.e., focussed on the person, works, and teachings of Jesus Christ).

The film footage of Hitler appearing before massive fawning crowds was haunting and scary. I struggle to engage with this as historical reality, particularly that it was only 70-80 years ago.

Pictures of church leaders saluting Hitler was even scarier!

Bonhoeffer's theology and life was distinctly shaped by experiences while a student in New York. In particular his friendship with an African-American student Frank Fisher led to involvement at a church in Harlem. Here he encountered a lively and emotionally engaged Christian faith, concern for social justice, and a model for the church as a community that was the visible presence of Christ in the world. The academic theology he learned in Germany (heavily influenced by Karl Barth) became alive.

Christians can learn so much from other Christians with different cultural backgrounds. Christ transcends culture.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jesus, money, and true worship

I have been reading through the Gospel of Mark and was struck by two passages dealing with money and the poor.

After a woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, the disciples rebuke her. But he responds (Mark 14)

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.

Sometimes the first phrase is used to justify accepting poverty and not taking action to alleviate it. For example, we should instead use our money to build expensive church buildings that will "glorify" God.

But, that is far from Jesus point. Here he is concerned with the (self-righteous) attitude and actions of his disciples at that very specific moment before his death. He is not giving a general principle for all of his followers for all time. Furthermore, he seems to be assuming that at other times his followers will be, can be, and should be helping the poor.

The second passage from Mark 12 concerns a poor widow contributing money to the temple.

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in twosmall copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

This challenges my practical, functional, and pragmatic attitude towards giving money away (and raising it for worthy causes). To Jesus giving is an attitude and should be sacrificial and an act of worship.