Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: Is God Just a Human Invention? by McDowell and Morrow

Atheism has seen a resurgence in the last decade or so in its publicity—if not also its popularity—due in large part to the New Atheism (names like Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) and most recently Stephen Hawking with his argument against the existence of God in The Grand Design. Yet for every volley leveled at theism in general and Christianity in particular, there is are equally capable minds ready to pick up the gauntlet and offer return fire.

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow aren't charting new territory in this book. Far from being a criticism, however, I found this to be one of the greatest strengths of the book. These two authors are thoroughly well versed in the arguments and works of other Christian thinkers and quote liberally from writers like C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, Dinesh D'souza, Alister McGrath and Paul Copan. A brief postscript section called "Why It Matters" follows each chapter and features other such thinkers as Gary Habermas, William Dembski, Randy Alcorn and Greg Koukl.

The book is broken up into two sections: "Responding to Scientific and Philosophical Challenges" and "Responding to Moral and Biblical Challenges". Each chapter is imminently accessible to even those unfamiliar with the topics at hand. For this reason, none of the arguments get very in depth, but the authors have done the heavy lifting and offer a couple titles at the end of each chapter if you feel up to the challenge as well.

Christian apologists have well-reasoned responses to the New Atheists' charges and this book is as good an introduction as one could want. McDowell and Morrow are standing on the shoulders of many brilliant minds and have made a substantial offering in their own right. This book is a perfect reference for those familiar with the arguments, a perfect primer for those who are not, and a perfect loaner for the believer and skeptic alike.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Skeptics, apologists, those looking for an introduction to the arguments and counter-arguments of the New Atheists.

This book was a free review copy provided by Kregel Publications.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Christian Ethic

The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics.”

Oliver O’Donovan, “Resurrection and Moral Order.”

I suppose most of us would nod our heads in agreement. The content does seem obvious but demands further consideration as the implications may not be quite so clear.

You see it is more than possible to be an ethical Christian whose ethics do not rely on Christ. We often fall into the self-congratulatory trap of believing our faith endows us with a heightened sense of morality and therefore gives us the resolve to meet moral and ethical issues head on. Christians rightly look to Jesus as the paragon of ethics: Jesus was without doubt the empathetic and caring person who ever lived (for instance Matt. 14:14; Matt. 15:32; Matt. 20:34; Mark 1:41). Yet was that actually His ethic? Is being nice actually ethical?

He spent much time healing the sick and caring for those in need, but we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of His primary concern: to bring with Him the Kingdom of God and freedom from sin and death (John 17). He set His face towards the cross despite protestation (Mark 8:33) and endured the emotional turmoil of His impending crucifixion knowing (Luke 22:42) knowing that it would bring glory to many sons and renew this fallen earth (again John 17). It is telling that in the points of greatest anguish He reflects not on healing or miracles, but His Father's Kingdom and the salvation of man. His resurrection was the powerful demonstration of death’s defeat and that man and God were reconciled. But we forget that this is the basis of our ethics. It is all too easy to divorce the Gospel and the resurrection from our ethical approach and dare I say it our lives as a whole.

The resurrection should be our starting point: it is the place where God takes control of our lives once more and vindicates us beyond the last time we truly walked with Him in Genesis 1-2. It is the most powerful affirmation that God wants us to live with Him (1 Cor. 15:45), for there can be no greater sacrifice than to see your dearly Beloved Son nailed to a cross bearing the weight of sin (for more see here).

Remember though what God said about Eden and creation: it ‘was good’ (Gen. 1-2). This means to say it was perfectly ordered to such a degree that God could dwell with Adam and Eve. The entrance of sin at the Fall meant that the perfect order instituted by God had become disrupted and now that disorder threatened to unravel creation itself. The resurrection shows us that God has restored the order of creation by purging sin and that man has again taken the place for which he was created (1 Cor. 15:23). So faith-professing Christians find themselves wrapped up in Kingdom of God which is inaugurated but not yet completed – the ‘now-not yet’ tension of last days.

Why is this emphasis on order so important? We live in days of moral relativism – that there is no moral truth but only what you subscribe to and what your will compels you towards. This is the mechanism through which Christian morality and ethics can become contrasting and occasionally contradictory with its Gospel-basis – we appeal to our conscience and adhere to our precepts by our will. No mention of God. Christian moral obligation then becomes a function of a believer’s decision, that which we opt into. This is a slope back towards legalism, a concept for which Christ certainly did not die.

In the face of the resurrection and the order it brings, Christian ethics becomes concerned with man’s life in the face of this order (O'Donovan once more): “the way the universe is, determines how man ought to behave himself in it.” Given the vindication of creation through His Son, God’s morality is as important now as ever and given that there is an eschatological priority to His morality so it is for us. We are now free from the bondage of sin and given Jesus identifies Himself with man through His incarnation, life, baptism and death we are adopted into God’s family. So we share in God’s ultimate freedom as we were supposed to in Eden – to have dominion over creation and to act responsibly within it.

So this also includes moral decisions: we are to make moral decisions on the basis of living with God. God is a priori perfect and so the resurrection allows us through the Spirit to know the mind of God. With the resurrection of Christ came the resurrection of man but also the resurrection of creation – a renewal into a form which would be eternally pleasing to God hence why we should concern ourselves with our behaviour within it. It is in creation that the morality and ethics of God is acted out in physical form, a substrate in which the reinstituted order of God may be enacted. This is why the resurrection is so important to Christian ethics: it is the ethics of God’s eternal kingdom – to act in a Heavenly way, not to just be ‘nice’.

Framing ethics and morals in Kingdom terms becomes much more pleasing and holy; they become acts of sanctification! The mindshift the resurrection brings is not to counter culture but to think the ethics of Heaven and God. If it will not do in Heaven then it certainly will not do in this renewed world. This is only an introduction not the whole answer and nor is it an attack on 'nicety'. The point is that we should not think of what is nice or ethical in the eyes of the world. Opinions come and opinions go (Eccles. 1:8-11), but God lasts forever. Our thoughts and ethics are to be holy, how much more the greater task.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trevin Wax on rating books

Here's an article Trevin Wax (Author of Holy Subversion and a regular book reviewer) called Why I Hate Rating Books. As he says,
The ratings system is flawed, and the bugs in the system really bug me. Because we are so quick to praise anything and everything, we don’t leave ourselves with a way to really praise a praise-worthy book. The best of the best are treated like all the rest. As the little boy in The Incredibles says, “When everyone is special, no one is special.”
We here at CiC use a ratings system as well when we review books, and I want to know, is it helpful? Is it distracting? Does it undercut the review itself?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Prayer and Medicine

Man, talk about writer's block. Apologies.

Earlier in the year I was asked to help lead a small group study on prayer in medicine which provided much food for thought. Amongst other things we considered trials to assess prayer as a mode of healing. I am sure most are familiar with its premise: does intercessory prayer make a difference to medical or surgical outcomes? The hypothesis? That praying to YHWH of the Bible is associated with better medical outcomes. The results: intercessory prayer leads to improved medical outcomes. The conclusion? That we should pray for patients because they get better quicker.

Really? Far from being encouraged by these sorts of studies I was left a bit cold. It was not necessarily the structure of the trial: many were double-blind trials, the gold standard for clinical experiments. It was not even the premise: that prayer makes a difference to patient outcomes. The sincerity of the Christians involved in the studies to 'prove' God in these atheistic and secular times is touching. It was not even that praying for others is a good thing - clearly it is. No, what I struggled with is the idea that you could 'test' God and a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer.

The first trial to look at this found that praying for patients without their knowledge of such prayer taking place was associated with a better outcome following what I presume to be myocardial infarctions. The medical care was the same for all patients. The study found that those who received prayer did better afterwards (Archives of Internal Medicine. 1999; 159:2273-78). However, many methodological problems were raised for this and other subsequent studies and another further study found deleterious outcomes for patients who received prayer without their knowledge (American Heart Journal. 2006; 151:934-42).

Clearly it is easier for Christians to harrumph about the 1999 study than the 2006 study. How do we answer that on the basis of the premises above? What does that mean for the God of the Bible who is a loving God? After all He loves to answer prayer doesn't He? What is the theological outcome we arrive at following this?

In my opinion, nothing. Nothing whatsoever. Again I do not doubt the sincerity of the investigators but I just cannot see how God would show Himself through these studies or even if that were never the case that prayer should be associated with better outcomes. Why do I say this?

Firstly, consider the nature of Jesus' miracles. Why did He perform them? Undoubtedly because He truly felt the pain and anguish of those suffering (Matt. 14:14), but was it not more for the fact He was demonstrating the coming Kingdom where the effects of the Fall would not be known? Jesus was trying to demonstrate that with Him the Kingdom of God was being ushered in reminding us of pre-Fall days. So healing is looking forward to something which I believe should shape our thoughts towards the Resurrection and new Heaven. Healing, I do not believe, is the 'best' outcome every time. To consider it the 'best' outcome denies the resurrection - sure, it is a 'good' thing, but not necessarily the best.

Then consider the methodology. How do you perform such an experiment? What do you pray? How do you pray? How do you account for fervency? Will every prayer mean as much as the last? How do you stop it denigrating into some sort of legalistic project? I am not sure that you can account for these things and the great danger is turning prayer into a mechanistic pursuit, as opposed to the incredible honour it is to pray and speak and commune with God. After all Jesus had to die to bring direct access to God (Mark 15:38) so we need to respect it with great reverence. Again I am not suggesting this was never the case with these studies but given how easily we slip towards Pharisaic religion I would always exercise caution.

Whilst I do not think the authors meant to be I feel somewhat uncomfortable putting God under the microscope. It is not just for Jesus' words (Luke 4:12) but that God and His divine and providential plan cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny. His revelation to us shouts through all creation, the calling and nurturing of Israel and ultimately and most visually in His Son. Do we genuinely think that science with prove (or disprove) the existence of God? Science has become a demi-god in our times, but it can never answer questions of the nature of God. Will we ever find Mr. Ford in an internal combustion engine? To use the age-old aphorism: science is the how but never the why. Unwittingly, we assume God is a performing monkey who just waits for us to ask Him something so that He may perform for us. If He shows mercy to those who He will (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:14-16) then He will show healing those that He will.

Consider the implications if these studies were to be used in a Christianity versus Judaism or Islam model. Whoever 'won' would surely trump the result whilst the losers claim that it means nothing. Or consider the 2006 paper above - prayer may have a deleterious effect. How do we interpret that? Could God be angry at us for putting Him to the test?

What then, should we not pray for healing? Of course not. We should pray for others - including those who are sick and suffering. Paul makes this clear in passages such as (1 Thes. 3:9-13) - as Carson points out in "A Call to Spiritual Reformation" Paul prays for the good of others as an outworking of a genuine affection and love. It is no mistake that when John (in 1 John) calls us children he uses the Greek root tekna meaning that those children that are 'begotten' as opposed to paida which means 'child'. We are a family, God's family, and we are to have just such a yearning for each other. But more than this we should be praying for God's will whatever that may be - it may be for healing or better outcomes, it may not. What we know is that works for the good of those that love Him (Rom. 8:28) - what this entails is that He make work in ways in which we cannot understand (Gen 45:5). More than this consider:

"Father, who art in Heaven . . . Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

That was how Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:8-10). God answers those prayers that are in sync with His will - He delights in such prayer. So praying for the sick is a good thing and we should continue to do so. If it is His will then He will heal, if it is not then He won't. We should divorce our preconceptions of what is good and set our sights on the Resurrection of Christ and eternity. Our minds and prayers should be centred on things above not things of man.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Five Reasons Why a Thoughtful Person Would Start Their Religious Quest With Christianity

1. Christianity is testable. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) In Christianity objective evidence exists and matters. It literally hangs the entire religious system out for objective scrutiny, inviting people to test it. You can make decisions for or against the Christian worldview based on objective evidence. This explains perhaps why Christianity is the object of "affection" for atheists when attacking religion. How long will it take you to investigate the claims of Christianity? It might take a week, it might take years, but at least you can investigate them.

2. Salvation in this system is free. There might be glimmers of grace in Hinduism and Buddhism, but every other major world religion is about doing stuff that is going to please some deity. Only Christianity turns the popular view of religion as moral conformity on its head and offers a relationship with God that is not based on our moral performance.

3. Christianity paints a picture of the world that matches reality. Of course, this is a huge claim that cannot possibly be tested in all its applications. However, we can begin to test this thesis using one of the more popular arguments against the existence of God, the problem of evil. Specifically, one should look at the way that different worldviews handle the issues of evil, pain and suffering. Most eastern religions portray evil, pain and suffering as "illusion" that you need to overcome and transcend. Christianity takes evil, pain, and suffering seriously. Christianity says not only is evil, pain, and suffering real but God takes it so seriously that he gets down with the the sufferer in their pain to bear them up. Jesus, of course, is the ultimate picture of this.

4. Christianity allows you to live a holistic life. In Christianity, we get to use our minds in our worship, we get to think about God. We use our minds to worship God, we are to reason and it's supposed to make sense. You worship God with the same mind that you approach every other aspect of your life, you don't need to compartmentalize. In eastern traditions (those religions that most often make the claim of being holistic), your reason might actually be an impediment in your religious progress.

5. Christianity has Jesus at the center. Jesus is the universal religious figure that every major religion wants to co-opt. If you're a Buddhist, you might claim that Jesus is an incarnation of the Buddha or at least an enlightened teacher. If you're Hindu, you might believe that Jesus is an avatar of Vishnu. If you're in Islam, if you read the Koran, Jesus emerges as a figure greater than Mohammad himself. If you're on a religious quest, it makes sense to start with the religion that centers around the greatest universal religious figure in human history.

This was a presentation developed by Craig Hazen as presented on one of my favorite weekly podcasts, Stand To Reason, hosted by Greg Koukl. (Note: Greg was absent the week of this conversation, but you can click here to listen to the entire three hour call-in program or skip to the last hour to hear the interview with Craig Hazen.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Books by Eugene Peterson

While many may only recognize the name of Eugene Peterson in connection with The Message, he has written more than twenty other books that have had a considerable impact of their own. In fact, were it not for one of these two books, he may never have written The Message at all.

Peterson wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction thirty years ago and it's fifteen chapters are based on the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), Psalms that were most likely sung as Jewish pilgrims made their ascent to Jerusalem for their holy feast days.

Each chapter begins with one of the fifteen Psalms in The Message translation which provides the framework for the chapter. In fact, it was actually the work done during the writing of this book that, as Eugene says, "provided the impetus for embarking on the new translation".

This form is at times refreshing and at other times distracting. Refreshing because it reads a bit like an expository sermon, dealing with the text as it is written and in sequence, chapter by chapter. Distracting because, as far as a book on discipleship goes, it doesn't have a simple list of logical steps to follow. But, after all, when does discipleship ever work like that?

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: A supplemental read with The Message, anyone looking for a discipleship devotional

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Living the Resurrection is just three chapters long as Peterson describes how the resurrection meets us in the three sacraments of Sabbath, communion and baptism. Though this seems a simple enough of a concept, I found myself struggling to follow the ideas and themes throughout. In fact, I didn't even realize the three central ideas of Sabbath, communion and baptism until it was explicitly stated on page 94. While is a short 123 pages, I must confess it began to feel long since it is only broken up into three chapters (I am a sucker for long books with short chapters).

Peterson seems to write in a more flowing, poetic style rather than the straight-forward, logical form that I am accustomed to in most of my reading. While this is certainly not bad, being aware of it will certainly aid in finding enjoyment in the book (of which there is plenty to be found). The insights and the flashes of beauty in this work come not like the crescendo of a solid argument, but like the subtle turn of a word or phrase that may make you think of your everyday Christian life in a new light.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Eugene Peterson and The Message

This book was a free review copy provided by NavPress.