Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Evidence For God

For this book I am breaking from my usual practice and sharing my criticism first. Evidence for God, edited by Mike Licona and William Dembski, has a slightly misleading title and subtitle: "50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science". A more fitting title and subtitle would be Evidence for God and Jesus: "50 Arguments for the Christian Faith". That's it. That's all I can say bad about this book.

Evidence for God is broken into four sections and, while the first two address concerns shared by all theists (questions of philosophy and science), the last two sections (Jesus and the Bible) address apologetic issues for Christianity in particular. However, there is enough material in the first two sections alone to benefit any theist seeking evidence for God.

Typically a book with so many contributing authors may struggle to keep a good flow of thought and argument from chapter to chapter. Not so with Evidence for God, and much credit is due to Dembski and Licona for this fact. Notable contributors such as Copan, Habermas, Pearcey and Witherington III make the best use of the four or five pages given each chapter. The brevity of these chapters keeps any one topic from growing too overwhelming or nuanced but still gives adequate space to grasp the facts and the basic argument.

All in all, this is an excellent starting point for anyone looking for a broad treatment of the most common challenges in Christian apologetics.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: All apologists (Christian and theist)

This book was a free review copy provided by Baker Books.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Why do you call me good?"

"And Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.'"

Mark 10:18

Goodness is a confusing thing. What does it mean to be 'good' and what does it mean to perform 'good' acts? After all what is the underlying quality that renders good things consistently good? On one hand we congratulate international athletes for being world-class and 'good' at their sport, yet we also declare non-athletic children 'good' when they participate in low-level sporting events. Clearly the child and athlete are poles apart but their disparate acts are still 'good'. For the Christian we are encouraged to be good, but really what does that mean? Jesus asks the question in Mark 10:18: why do we call him good?

One preconception of Christians is that we perform good acts in some attempt to achieve a standard of behaviour which will endear us to, or worse hoodwink, a heavenly arbiter into allowing us into heaven. Indeed, this is unfortunately the thought of many professing Christians today. The Bible though makes it clear that good works are not salvation in themselves (Jer. 6:19-21; Hos. 9:3-5) let alone the issue of universal sin (Rom. 3:22-24). But yet we are encouraged to show faith with works (James 2:18-24). All rather confusing. Moreover, on a cosmic scale, who would ever want to worship a God who you could reach by works? Would He actually be just and worth trusting if we could achieve His level of holiness for ourselves? Would you trust any human for your salvation? (This is an appeal to the ontological argument).

The issue still remains: what characterises a good act and why should we perform them? What is it within the act which endows it with the desirable quality of goodness? Mother Theresa, for instance, is often held as a paragon of good works but I would imagine she would never consider her acts good, but rather the right thing to do.

Good acts are usually directed towards others whether they are conscious of that act or not and in some way they become 'enhanced' or reap some benefit from that act. What is Christian reasoning behind this? Well, I think that at their core good acts are those which endow those who bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26) with dignity. Think about it: Mother Theresa's acts dignified the poor, turning the unloved into the loved. She refused to accept them as 'lesser' people but could see they bore the image of God within them: "This is Jesus. . . In distressing disguise." See adopted Matt. 25:31-46 into her heart.

By performing good acts we glorify the image of God in others and as a consequence glorify Him. Consider Jesus' miracles: healing the woman with the haemorrhage and Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-43), healing the man possessed by Legion (Mark 5:1-20) and the lepers (e.g. Matt. 8:1-3). These people were effectively the 'living dead' excluded from the nation of Israel and therefore under judgement - yet Jesus reaches out to them and by doing so endows them with dignity and healing to return to 'life'. Note as well He actually touched the 'dead', an act forbidden by Levitical law thereby showing that good acts cannot be restrained by death - they have no enemy. Furthermore, is not the mere presence of God Incarnate an act of dignity bestowed upon all man? Was God not saying "You matter"?This is a rather satisfying turn of events which harks back the the first Westminster confession of faith.

By endowing others with dignity and serving them is to engage in the Trinitarian model of relationship and if that model is appropriate enough for God then how much more us. Your acts of kindness and goodness say to that person: you matter, just as Jesus speaks to "You matter" to us. By engaging in these acts we transcend creation and enter into activities divine and by so doing glorify God. Win-win.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Video Review: BASIC.Fear God by Francis Chan

As one of the primary people responsible for finding small group curriculum for my church, I have found that videos work particularly well in the summer when regular attendance and outside study both take a vacation. Last summer, for instance, we worked our way through some of the Nooma videos by Rob Bell. However, if I may be honest, I have found something I am even more excited about for this coming summer.

Francis Chan has begun a new video project called BASIC that lends itself perfectly to the small group (both teen and adult) and addresses the fundamental building blocks for the Christian life and the Church. These videos are visually exquisite, intellectually stimulating and theologically solid.

The BASIC videos are being created by a group called Flannel, the same organization that did the Nooma series. However, based on the videos I've seen so far, they have outdone themselves on this current project.

One of the elements that sets these short 15 minute videos apart is the secondary story that takes place as Chan presents his material. The picture cuts between Chan and other characters that give us a sort of visual "parable" of what Chan is describing (trust me, it's not as confusing or distracting as it sounds).

Fear God is the first video in the BASIC series and it lays the groundwork for the videos that follow. Chan addresses some misconceptions surrounding the idea of the fear of the Lord, but also affirms some of the more challenging aspects at the same time. In the end, however, this fear should drive us away from self-sufficiency and toward the only one who can save us, God.

This will be a stellar series and I look forward to the future releases and using these videos in my own ministry!

You can watch the trailer for BASIC.Fear God here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath

The intellect and "discipleship of the mind" does not always top the list of dominant Christian characteristics in the eyes of the general public, especially those more antagonistic to our views (like the new atheists). So who better to write on the role of the mind in the life of the Christian than a former atheist? And there is perhaps no one on that list better suited than Alister McGrath to write such a book.

And The Passionate Intellect is that book—for the most part. The first two chapters are as solid a treatment on the Christian mind as I have read and they alone merit picking up the book. Other high points include a chapter on the relationship between theology and apologetics and between faith and science.

While the first half of the book focuses on the life of the Christian mind in general, the second half is a sort of case study on how Alister McGrath himself has applied these principles in his areas of expertise. The final five chapters deal with such themes as the natural sciences, evolution and the New Atheism.

The key weakness of this book lies in the fact that each of its eleven chapters are based on previously unpublished lectures and addresses given over the last three years. This naturally lends some of the chapters to be more timely than timeless. It also keeps the book from having a cohesive flow at times from chapter to chapter. And the book ends on a bit of an odd note with a chapter called "Atheism and the Enlightenment: Reflections on the Intellectual Roots of the New Atheism" rather than a summary and conclusion.

All in all, this book makes a solid case for the Christian intellect and gives us good modern-day application for some of the biggest challenges currently being thrown our way.

For those interested, right now you can buy The Passionate Intellect over at the Westminster Bookstore at 32% off retail price!

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Theologians, university students, teachers, apologists

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps

Flickering Pixels is part history of media, part theology for the postmodern era, part social commentary.This book read like a collection of short essays unified around major shifts in media and strongly influenced by Marshall McLuhan's book "Understanding Media" (you should recognize his now famous aphorism, "The medium is the message"). From the printing press to social networking sites, from texting to TV, Shane Hipps gives a brief and random sample of media history and how each of these elements have effected culture and Christianity.

I found the chapter on the printing press particularly interesting as Hipps argues that it gave rise to the modern age of linear, logical thinking. While most of Christianity is still operating in this modern mindset in its apologetics and theology, he suggests that the postmodern age has been ushered and accelerated by the arrival of the telegraph, television and internet. While the modernist mindset was logical, linear and word-based, the postmodernist mindset is now nonlinear, narrative- and image-based. I found his criticism of Christianity in this regard to be excessive and more than a little ironic since he was making his argument in book form.

With that said, Hipps understands media well and identifies with post-modernity well (at times uncomfortably so). This is a decent read and certainly a challenging read for anyone who is still a logical thinker of a modernist bent (which I assume most avid readers will be).

Rating: 2 1/2 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those interested in media, postmodern ideas and how Christians might respond

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why is there pain?

Why must the fallen world be so painful? The answer is rooted in the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man (neither of which do we grasp the depth and severity of). However, these are only two of the factors and a third may surprise you. One of the main reasons this world is so painful is because of God's great love and compassion for us.

I know, this sounds ridiculous and contradictory but let me explain. As children, we learn what our bodies were not made for through pain (our hands were not made for the stove, etc.). In a similar way, God is trying to teach us as spiritual children that we were not made for this world. More precisely, we were not made primarily for any desire in this world but rather were made to desire God above all else.

This, in fact, is how the whole pain thing started. In the garden, man and woman rejected God as their supreme desire and chose the desire for autonomy and freedom from God (in the form of choosing the forbidden fruit) instead. Through this act, not only did man sin and become fallen, but the world was subjected to bondage to corruption and futility. Because of this, creation has not functioned in the perfect harmony that it was intended for.

Why? Why did God do this to the world? Why so many children with heart-wrenching disabilities? Why natural disasters that take so many lives? Why famines and diseases? As John Piper puts it, God put the world under a curse so that the physical horror we see around us would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, natural evil is a signpost to the unspeakable wickedness of moral evil. God allowed the disorder of the natural world to match the disorder of the moral and spiritual world. Diseases and deformities are God's portraits of what sin is like in the spiritual realm and that is true even though some of the most Godly people bear the most horrible deformities.

Yet we don't feel it! In our present, fallen condition our hearts are so numb and so blinded we seldom feel the gravity of our sin. Almost no one feels the abhorrence that sin is or feels repulsed or nauseated at how they scorn the glory of God. We should feel as deeply about sin as we do about a friend's disability. We should feel as intense and bad about our immorality as we do about starvation. O, that we could feel how offensive and repugnant and abominable it is to prefer anything to your Maker! To plagiarize John Piper once more, the natural world is shot through with horrors that aim to wake us up from the dream world of thinking demeaning God is no big deal.

Thus, if there were not the pain that there now is, it would be far too easy to forget God and how we have spurned Him. It would be far too easy to prefer all the temporary pleasures that this world offers rather than prefer the eternal joy in Christ. To quote C.S. Lewis, "We are half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child wants to go making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the beach. We are far too easily pleased."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tolerance is a buzzword

"Politically incorrect" used to be the card to play in a losing discussion to color one's opponent as the bad guy. Today "intolerant" has become the catchall missile levelled at anyone dumb enough to disagree with a closely-held pet belief in most dialogues (especially those regarding religion and morality). Postmodernism has completely distorted what the word tolerance used to mean. What follows is, in my experience, how tolerance is defined today:

1. Everyone is free to believe what they want without fear of verbal or physical violence from the public or coercion from the government.

2. Every belief is equally valid and true (if not for you, then for someone else).

3. Every belief should be celebrated by everyone.

I certainly agree with the first assertion. I believe the first concept is one of the founding ideas that formed our country. However, tolerance has been amplified in our day to encompass the second and third tenets as well. Allow me to explain why I have a problem with these two.

Let's start with a proposition that everyone can objectively say is false: 2+2=5. Now, in the spirit of tolerance, I will permit someone to believe that 2+2=5 without directing any hatred, violence, or bigotry towards them. I may tell them they're wrong, I may try to convince them to change their minds, but I will not act harshly negative toward them. However, you will never hear me (or any teacher I want teaching my kids) say "I believe differently, but your belief that 2+2=5 is true for you and valid". And hopefully you will never hear "Furthermore, I think it's great that you believe that 2+2=5 and I support you in such thinking". In this illustration, I can be tolerant (by the old definition) of a view different from my own while still considering it wrong and in need of correction.

Now, if you plug any of the hot topics of today into the above equation (the existence of God, one's personal view of God, homosexual marriage, just war, abortion, divorce, etc.) you see how this quickly rubs against today's definition of tolerance.

Note the implication: we can think and talk objectively about certain ideas (math, science, etc. where one view is the correct one and all others are wrong), but when it comes to the bigger thoughts of religion and morality, we must stay neutral. Neutered. Non-committal. Passive. Spineless. And the only people we should not tolerate . . . are the intolerant. And we'll define that word how we like, thank you very much.

D.A. Carson wrote, "It used to be that tolerance was the virtue of the person who held strong views about something or other, but who insisted that those who disagreed had an equal right to defend their views – the sort of stance picked up in the slogan, 'I may detest your opinions, but I shall defend to the death your right to speak them.' Today, however, tolerance is the virtue of the person who holds no strong views, except for the strongly held view that it is wrong to hold strong views, or to indicate that someone else might be wrong." - Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a Postmodern World

Please don't misunderstand me, this is not my endorsement to be bull-headed, unlearning, close-minded, and elitist about your beliefs. But neither can I endorse a silencing of the gospel just because it presents the solution to our malady as the only solution. If one believes that Jesus was who He said he was, we must be as exclusive in our message as Christ was in His. This broader definition of tolerance is impractical and unsustainable in the real world. I do not expect to hear any time soon a doctor tell his patient, "I know of a solution to your deadly sickness, but whatever you believe will heal you is a valid belief as well and I celebrate it". I do not expect to hear this from Christians either.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: Marks of the Messenger by J. Mack Stiles

Marks of the Messenger is not a how-to guide to evangelism, it's not steps or strategies to gaining more converts. Instead, this excellent little book by J. Mack Stiles lays the groundwork for a life that is gospel-centered and naturally evangelistic. For example:
I'm convinced that the greatest obstacle to healthy evangelism is pragmatism: "doing evangelism"...Success drives pragmatic evangelism. Pragmatic evangelism never asks the question "Who are we to be as an evangelist?" Pragmatic evangelism only asks the question "What works?" (p. 19)
J. Mack Stiles certainly didn't set out to write a faddish book (and by no means did he) yet Marks of the Messenger addresses how a life centered around the Gospel and evangelism informs how we should think about such hot topics as social justice, the missional movement in a post-Christian age, and the narcissism and self-love of our culture. When speaking of social justice, he says the following:
"The gospel message is the message that produces salvation. So we should never confuse meeting physical needs with sharing the gospel. Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it's an implication of the gospel, but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel." (pp. 68, 69)
While some may disagree with his position on social justice, every reader will find the vast majority of the book to be easily readable, applicable and commendable. (Every reader will also find it at the Westminster Bookstore for 33% off the retail price at $10.05. Sorry, shameless plug!)

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian in ministry, small group leaders, any Christian wanting to be more comfortable in sharing their faith.

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

God as Father, and we His children

How often have you heard someone say "Were all God's children"? It is not unusual for the term Father to be used when speaking of God, at least in Christian circles. Jesus did so, and instructed his followers to do the same when teaching them to pray. However, this not only speaks of God's paternal characteristics towards us, but it also speaks of our relationship to Him. It is this relationship, of us to God as children, that I want to consider.

First, it cannot be said that just anyone is a child of God. Though He did create us all, there has been a fall and separation that must be atoned for and taken out of the way. As Paul said, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ". So it is clear that the qualification for status as a child is faith and baptism in Christ. Again, as John wrote, "To all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God".

Don't let the blessing and privilege of this be lost on you. This is not something that we are born into like our natural sonship, it is adoptive. Thus we are chosen and it is solely by a gift of grace. We are heirs along with Christ. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus.

What does it mean to me that God is my Father? This is a quite comfortable and comforting question. All the answers that you may come up with probably make you feel cozy and require nothing from you. However, there is a question that follows that is less comfy: What does it mean to me that I am God's child? If I may put it another way: we are quick to elaborate on what the Father-son relationship means to us in terms of benefits, but slow to consider what it means in terms of responsibilities and expectations.

You see, Christianity isn't just a "one and done" deal. It's not just fire insurance. Being a child of God signifies that He is in a position of authority over us. It suggests a sense of affection and fellowship between us. And it means giving honor to Him in all these areas. When Jesus called his followers to live in a certain way it was always to either imitate, glorify, or please the Father.
While works do not save us, they are and must be a developing "family trait". As children of God, we do no follow the law to sustain our salvation, but as J.I. Packer wrote, "Law-keeping is the family likeness of God's children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise."

You cannot give the Bible even a cursory reading without finding a strong theme of God's Fatherhood over us. Yet there are so many who passively call God "Father" and live like anything but His child. Anyone who isn't being made into an obedient child of God, no matter how faltering or stumbling, may be no child at all. If there is no love, no deference to the will of the Father, no grief at sinning against such a loving parent, one should rightly ask themselves if He is truly Father. If the Bible gives clear guidelines as to what a true child adopted into all rights and benefits looks like, we would be wise to ensure our lives mirror that.

For a more in-depth treatment of the subject, see Knowing God by J.I. Packer, specifically the chapter "Sons of God".

Monday, November 1, 2010

Challenges from the Exodus account

As I've mentioned before, our church is going through the first five books of the Bible during a series we're calling the Old Testament Challenge. This past week we read—and the Community Groups discussed—the account in Exodus covering the ten plagues. There were some really good questions during our discussion time and I wanted to offer some (hopefully) succinct answers to a few questions I imagine are very common from these passages.

Q: Why so many plagues and why so severe? Was God just wielding the ten plagues like a playground bully, twisting Pharaoh's arm until he cried "uncle"?

A: No, it was much more than just a battle of the wills. Egypt was a pantheistic society, which means they worshiped many gods. Each of the ten plagues was direct challenge (and defeat) of one or more of those gods in the minds of the Egyptians. In essence, God was demonstrating his superiority and sovereignty over all of the created order and the supposed corresponding Egyptian pantheon. Pharaoh and all the Egyptians would have rightly understood this as a sort of clash of the titans, with the Israelite God emerging as the clear victor.

For instance, darkness was an assault on the sun god, Ra. The Nile turning to blood was an attack on Hapi, god of the Nile. With each plague, the Israelite God worked his way up the rungs of the Egyptian pantheon, finally reaching the Supreme: Pharaoh himself. The Egyptian religious system held that the Pharaoh was a human incarnation of Ra and that he was a god-king. So the death of Pharaoh's first born was the death of the son of god, the god-in-waiting.

Not only was this final plague seen as the defeat of Egypt's preeminent god figure, but within it (and the Passover sacrifice and meal) was a beautiful foreshadowing of both the Old Testament sacrificial system and the eventual perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. So in each of the plagues—but especially the last—God is anything but a mere bully and arbitrary in his actions.

Q: Were all the other Egyptians (and the Israelites, too) just innocent victims suffering collateral damage in this battle of the gods?

A: No. God demonstrated his ability to execute a surgical strike when necessary. The land of Goshen, the Israelite district within Egypt, was spared some of the plagues like those of flies, darkness and livestock. We are even told that some Egyptians were spared the worst of certain plagues when they "feared the word of the Lord" and responded properly (see the account of the hail for example).

However, it is conceivable that God had designs even for those plagues that afflicted both Egyptians and Israelites indiscriminately. After all, even the Israelites delayed in honoring, fearing and obeying the direction and word of the Lord through Moses.

It is also reasonable to assume that Pharaoh was not the only Egyptian holding out hope that one of the higher and mightier deities might finally put an end to this God of the slaves. In fact, there is never any account of any repentance or pleading for mercy or sanctuary on the side of the Egyptian people. This idea seems supported by the fact that there is no account of any Egyptians fleeing to Goshen during some of the more localized plagues. Whether they still held out greater hope in their gods (and Pharaoh) or whether they simply feared Pharaoh more than God, the silence of the Egyptian population doesn't necessitate their innocence.

Q: How do we make sense of the biblical account when it says "God hardened Pharaoh's heart"?

A: This is probably one of the most common and challenging questions from the entire book. One question that I have found important to ask about this problem is: "What action is required of God in order for Pharaoh's heart to harden?"

The Bible does declare emphatically that "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." (James 1:13,14) So God would not tempt Pharaoh and in deed did not need to if Pharaoh's own evil desire and inclination was already against God. If this is true, then all that would be required is for God to release Pharaoh and turn him over to his fallen tendency towards hardness of heart. This same progression of fallenness is shown in Romans 1 when Paul writes three times that God "gave them over" to sinful desires, shameful lusts and a depraved mind. So while God may be the passive agent releasing fallen mankind to do whatever they desire, Pharaoh and the rest of humanity would be the active agents in our sin and rebellion. Our fallenness simply dictates what we do with our freedom when God turns us loose.

The biblical writer of Exodus communicates as much when switches back and forth between the idea the God hardened Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32). Certainly the author was not implicating God in Pharaoh's sinfulness, but it does seem he sees even Pharaoh's willful, sinful hardness as under the sovereign allowance of God.

In summary, the Bible always keeps these two ideas in balance and tension: the active willful rebellion of mankind within our freedom and the passive allowance of that rebellion under the sovereign rule of God. In this way, both the moral responsibility of man and the ultimate sovereignty of God is preserved.