Archive for the ‘Evangelical Culture’ Category

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Who Needs a Savior? [Wright vs. Comfort]

December 18, 2011

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 5:21

If you’ve spent any time in evangelical circles, you’ll be familiar with certain guilt-inducing analogies about evangelism. Not telling your neighbor about Jesus is like not throwing a life preserver to a drowning man. Not sharing the gospel with your school chum is like having the cure for cancer and not sharing it with a cancer-stricken friend.

These analogies are bound to make the timid evangelist feel like a cad. I’ve long thought the analogies were unfair. The drowning man knows he needs saving. The cancer patient is keenly aware of his need for a cure. Not so the unsaved friend. The drowning man is not going to swim away from the life preserver and give you the cold shoulder for bothering him about it. But the unsaved friend who isn’t keen on being proselytized might do just that. Christianity was a hard sell because we were trying to convince people of a solution to a problem most people didn’t believe they had.

Several years ago I was introduced to a soap-box preacher who seemed to have a solution to this dilemma. His name was Ray Comfort and he had a sure-fire way of convincing people of their sinfulness before offering Jesus as the solution. If you’ve seen Comfort’s approach, you’ll know that he rarely deviates from it. He runs through the 10 Commandments, asking people if they’ve ever lied, stolen or taken God’s name in vain. He even gets people to admit that they’re murderers and adulterers by employing Christ’s expansive “You have heard it said” definitions in Matthew 5.

Comfort eventually gets his interviewees to admit that they are guilty of breaking God’s law. He then asks whether God will send them to heaven or hell as a consequence of such guilt. People tend to divide down the line on this one. Some say “hell”, though often with a laugh, suggesting that they don’t really believe this to be their fate. Others insist that they will still go to heaven because they aren’t bad people. This is when it gets interesting. Comfort must then persuade these people that they are deserving of eternal torment, often on the basis of their having admitted to little more than telling lies and “looking at a women with lust.”

I can remember, even then, that although I was on Comfort’s side, I felt the weight of the objections. Why exactly were the fires of hell an appropriate punishment for offences that seemed an inescapable part of being human? Comfort’s whole strategy was to confront people with the law so that they would recognize their personal guilt and cry out for a personal savior. Yet few people seemed to walk away from their encounter with Comfort buckling under the weight of condemnation. Probably because he had done little more than demonstrate that they were typical human beings.

I was reminded of Comfort this week while watching N.T. Wright’s recent talks at Moody Bible Institute. Wright spent a good deal of time sketching the framework for a proper narrative understanding of the gospel in its first century Jewish context. Christ “saving his people from their sins,” he maintains, is primarily about Christ’s role as Savior of the Jewish people from exile (i.e. from the consequences of their corporate sin). For the New Testament authors, “salvation” was about God rescuing his people. It meant the restoration of the Jewish nation – indeed, all of creation – and of individuals as part of that corporate restoration.

The interviewer, seemingly concerned about the lack of emphasis on personal salvation, questioned Wright about what he would say to an unbeliever who sought his counsel because of a personal sense of guilt and alienation from God. Wright replied, in part, as follows:

Actually, I have to say, within western post-modernity, most human beings I meet are not walking around saying, “I feel terribly guilty. How can I get rid of this?” That’s simply not the way they’re asking the question. And I don’t believe it is necessarily part of the task of either the apologist or the evangelist first to make them feel a guilt which they didn’t feel and then to show Jesus as the answer to that. It feels like a con trick.

I’m not saying that we go soft on sin – far from it. I’m saying that all people are aware of a major problem at some point. They may blame everyone else for it. They may blame the politicians, the economists, whatever. But to be able to say, “Actually, the whole world is in a mess and we share that messiness, that brokenness, that sinfulness. And God has dealt with the whole cosmic problem and he’s dealt with your problem in the middle of it.”

We’ve got to do both. And I have a sense that people … there’s a sort of sigh of relief when they realize that the church isn’t just interested in them as an individual, as maybe another scalp to be yanked in. But actually that we in the church are concerned with the whole creation, the whole world, with, to be sure, every single last human being as part of that…

I wonder if Ray Comfort would meet with more success if, instead of trying to persuade people of a personal guilt problem, he sought first to persuade them of a corporate guilt problem. I wonder if my neighbors’ consciences aren’t more attuned to the world’s need for a savior than to their own need for a savior.

I’m increasingly persuaded that the evangelical emphasis on embracing Jesus as a “personal Lord and Savior” represents an impoverished understanding of the kind of savior Christ was meant to be.

Perhaps spreading the euangelion (good news) is not so much about throwing life preservers to individuals who have fallen overboard as it is about enlisting our fellow deckhands into the captain’s plan for righting our listing ship.

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[Click here to watch the 4 sessions from Wright’s visit to Moody. The above quotation is from the final video.]

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Kenton Sparks on Fundamentalism

October 23, 2011

“At its heart, each of these [fundamentalist] movements views modernism as a threat to the stability of culture and to the predictability of life. Fundamentalists yearn for a world in which all is fixed and certain. For this reason they militantly eschew anything and anyone that introduces doubt, uncertainty, or ambiguity into their worldview. This ideology puts fundamentalism into direct conflict with modernism because modernity is the product of a world gone international and intercultural. But modernity is not the creator of pluralism, as fundamentalists often suppose. Modernity’s pluralism is instead the inevitable consequence of human diversity — and it is contact with this diversity, and its ‘pollution,’ that fundamentalism fears.

“Fundamentalism’s response to modernism is a kind of ideological paranoia that features two interrelated defensive strategies. First, every fundamentalism secures the uniqueness of its worldview by claiming access to an inerrant text or authority that provides perfect knowledge. This assertion not only secures the validity of the community’s beliefs but also ensures that the beliefs of outsiders are in error. Nothing is more important to a fundamentalist than being right and being sure of it. Fundamentalism’s second defensive strategy erects a thick cultural wall between the community and those outside it. The primary purpose of this wall is to prevent contact with opposing views that might challenge or raise too much doubt about the community’s worldview. As a rule, this barrier is constructed by forbidding or greatly discouraging the study of materials that come from those outside the fundamentalist guild. For instance, while Christian fundamentalists are quite likely to read descriptions of modern evolutionary theory that have been written by other fundamentalists, they would rarely study a book that was written by an evolutionist, or study evolutionary biology in a university setting. For most fundamentalists, such pursuits would be a waste of time at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

“… [T]he difficulty in circular reasoning is that it includes far fewer pieces of reality than it should. It juggles a few balls successfully when there are many other balls that should be juggled. Fundamentalists attempt to perpetuate this illusion of hermeneutical success by denying the existence of the extra balls. But so long as Christian fundamentalists live in the real world, they will face an almost constant barrage of evidence that does not fit their view of things — evidence that the universe is very old, that evolution is true, that languages were not created at the tower of Babel, that there was no worldwide flood, and so forth. This is a list that could be easily extended. It is pitiful and even painful to watch as naive fundamentalist students nervously and fearfully traverse their first year university Bible classes, flailing desperately to keep their heads above the water in a sea of evidence that neither they, nor their parents and pastors, suspected could exist. At the same time, it is truly exciting to see thoughtful and healthy Christian students, fully committed to the theological orthodoxies of the Christian tradition, who are able to traverse those same seas with a spirit of enthusiasm for discovery. Fundamentalism fears the evidence that challenges its views; healthy Christian orthodoxy revels in the evidence, since it believes that all evidence, properly understood, will lead to a healthier view of life and faith.”

-Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, pp. 307-08

 

 

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Nothing Says Fun Like Dead Egyptians!

September 6, 2011

Last week, Randal Rauser published a post entitled, “Are cataclysmic natural disasters appropriate for the children’s choir?” in which he questioned the wisdom of entertaining children with macabre Bible stories (sanitized or otherwise) simply because they’re found in the Bible.

Most readers will be familiar with the proposed Answers in Genesis theme park, Ark Encounter, down in Kentucky. Apparently, the folks at AiG believe that the Noah story isn’t the only biblical account of mass death suitable for children’s entertainment. Turns out they also have plans to develop a Ten Plagues ride.

Check out this short video by the ride’s designer:

It’s hard to imagine which part of the ride the kids will like best. Will it be the river of blood? Maybe the room of incurable boils. Or who could forget the final stop on the ride: the pile of firstborn Egyptian corpses. Yippee!!

Ironically, Answers in Genesis is also convinced that kids should steer clear of Halloween. As their “What about Halloween” webpage cautions, “Death is a terrible reality for all of us—not something to celebrate or treat as fun.”

Unless, of course, the people dying are godless Egyptians. In which case, you sell tickets and open a gift shop.

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Teenager Electrocuted – Christians Rejoice

August 30, 2011

Earlier today, Steve Douglas posted a video of Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo discussing Adam & Eve, original sin, and a host of other theological topics. Near the end of the video, Puhalo offered this critique of Western notions of the atonement:

The Western concept of salvation itself is violent and generates violence. It makes God the supreme child abuser, unable to forgive mankind without the torturous death of his own son.

This immediately brought to mind a video I came across last week, which is currently sitting on the front page of Godtube’s “Most Popular Videos”. Since I can’t seem to embed Godtube videos, here it is on Youtube:

Of the 75,000 people who have viewed the video on Godtube, over 13,000 have liked it on Facebook, which would seem to indicate that there is a large segment of American Christians who consider it an accurate or at least inspiring depiction of the atonement.

Personally, I find the video disturbing. Maybe it’s the depiction of Jesus as a hapless, frightened teenager being led to the slaughter like Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah. But even if Jesus had been portrayed as more of a willing participant, I still think there’s a troubling aspect to the depiction.

Would the average Christian’s reaction be the same if this were just a scene from a television show with no religious significance?  If Jack Bauer decided to have his daughter gruesomely tortured to death in place of a terrorist, I suspect that most viewers would be shocked and horrified.

But when it comes to the cross, Western Christians are so accustomed to thinking in terms of penal substitution, that the image of an innocent teenager being electrocuted elicits comments like, “this video brought tears to my eyes” and, “Thank you Jesus!” I can understand rejoicing in the mercy extended to the condemned prisoner. But doesn’t the image of the teenager staring back at you from the electric chair scream, “Something’s wrong with this picture!”?

There’s something in this video that captures the problem with penal substitution theory. And I think Puhalo may have put his finger on it. Yes, let’s rejoice at the prisoner being set free. Let’s rejoice at his chains falling off (and his tattoos magically disappearing ??). But I can’t get my heart behind the notion that a violent torturous death was God’s precondition for extending such grace.

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Tips on Not Getting Duped Again – Part II

April 13, 2011

Part II on the perils of bad apologetics and tips for ferreting out the truth (Part I is here). Here are two more lessons I’ve learned the hard way:

4. Don’t reject the consensus view of experts unless you truly understand it.

First, the caveats: (1) There isn’t always a consensus on a given question. There are some issues – the field of historical Jesus research being one example – where there seems to be almost as many opinions as there are scholars. (2) Even when there is a scholarly consensus, as James McGrath recently pointed out, it can take considerable effort to determine where that consensus lies.

However, the fact that there is uncertainty on some issues does not give you permission to conclude that everything is up for grabs. There are many, many questions in science, history, biblical criticism, etc. on which the evidence has reached a critical mass such that scholars are quite confident about particular conclusions.

What then should you do when you encounter an argument that runs contrary to such a conclusion?

Where there exists a significant consensus among the scholars working, studying and publishing in a given field about a matter within the scope of their expertise, that consensus ought to be accorded great deference by those outside the field. I have learned that I should not reject the consensus view until I am able to explain why it is the consensus view. If I can’t articulate why the consensus view is so popular, I clearly don’t understand it and I shouldn’t presume to challenge it.

Scholars and scientists, on the whole, are not idiots. If at any point you find yourself thinking, “These experts are all fools. How can they believe something so obviously wrong?” chances are, you’re the one who doesn’t get it. There are usually very good reasons behind widely-held conclusions.

This is why I still accept the existence of the hypothetical Q source to explain the agreements between Matthew and Luke where Mark is silent. Mark Goodacre makes (seemingly, to me at least) a compelling case against Q, but I know that I don’t understand the field well enough to weigh his arguments properly. I can’t yet articulate why the majority of scholars reject Goodacre’s hypothesis (that Luke used Matthew as a source) in favor of the Q explanation. Until I can, I have no basis to reject Q in favor of Goodacre’s view, as much as I love Goodacre as a teacher, biblical scholar, and blogger.

Once you do have a good understanding of the rationale behind the consensus view, then by all means, challenge it, deviate from it, side with a minority viewpoint if you think it most persuasive.

Just don’t jump the gun by reading the book of one rogue scholar and suddenly decide that you know better than the rest of the experts in that field.

5. Don’t justify your theory’s lack of acceptance by appealing to a conspiracy

I’ve learned to be very skeptical when someone defends their fringe viewpoint by alleging that there is a latent conspiracy to silence critics of the prevailing theory. This conspiracy apologetic was the strategy behind the embarrassing Expelled movie which attempted to persuade viewers that the reason Intelligent Design isn’t getting a warm reception in scientific circles is that there exists a conspiracy to silence those who challenge accepted evolutionary theory. The real reason, as anyone who works in the field will tell you, is that ID lacks scientific rigor and is continually eroded by further scientific discovery in which natural selection is found doing what ID says it can’t.

The idea that academic institutions hover over their members threatening termination to any scholar foolish enough to rock the boat is nonsense. In the larger academic world, scholars are given considerable freedom to challenge the status quo and rip each other’s ideas apart. In fact, scientists (and academics in general) are always looking to challenge prevailing theories. That’s how you make a name for yourself. That’s how you win a Nobel prize. Scholars who simply toe the line don’t get noticed. The conspiracy excuse betrays a failure to understand the way science and scholarship work.

I don’t mean to suggest that the scientific or scholarly enterprise isn’t beset with internal politics or a reticence to reject established theories. Sure it is. Sometimes new, valid ideas are criticized by the broader academic community at first, only later to be proven correct and gain widespread acceptance. The reluctance of scholars to overturn well-established ideas is a good thing. If scientists readily abandoned the accumulated knowledge of the past in favor of every exciting new idea that came along, the scientific enterprise would be hopelessly confused. It can take time for a novel or minority theory to gain acceptance.

Consequently, there’s an important distinction to draw here. If you’re reading a scholar with a minority viewpoint who laments that others in his field are too wed to the prevailing theory and have not given sufficiently serious thought to alternative explanations, that’s okay (and, yes, I have Goodacre in mind again). That may be true.

Your spidey-sense should kick in, however, when you read someone who claims that his theory is not widely accepted because there exists some sort of conspiracy to hide the truth. These claims usually allege that the establishment knows the prevailing theory is bunk but is afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal (9/11 “Truthers”, for instance, LOVE this argument). As I mentioned above, this excuse betrays a failure to understand academic freedom and competition.


The more sophisticated cousin of the conspiracy-of-silence argument is the one that claims that detractors refuse to consider the merits of an argument, not because they fear reprisal, but because they fear the theory’s implications. The idea is that the majority of scholars are constrained by some sort of a priori philosophical/religious/political commitment that prevents them from seeing the obvious truth of the theory. i.e. They refuse to acknowledge the validity of my theory because they’re materialists/atheists/liberals and are threatened by my theory’s implications for their worldview.

Examine what the opponents are actually saying. If the only objection they have to the theory is that it conflicts with their worldview, then maybe your source has a point. But more often than not, you’ll find that the opponents are taking issue with the theory on its merits. The proponent of the fringe theory is simply flinging ad hominem labels at his detractors while dodging their substantive criticism.

Be skeptical about people who offer these sorts of justifications for their theory’s unpopularity.

A genuine scholar with a valid idea will pursue the hypothesis through further research published in peer-reviewed forums. If the evidence is there, it will eventually gain traction. If, after much effort, a theory is not gaining any traction amongst the best and brightest in the profession, in most cases the problem lies with the theory, not with a shadowy conspiracy to silence dissent.

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Hope these tips have been helpful. What do you think? Got any tips of your own?

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Tips On Not Getting Duped Again – Part I

April 11, 2011

In my last post, I discussed my epiphany that evangelical apologetics isn’t the repository of all truth. I’ve given a lot of thought to how it was that I got steered in the wrong direction so many times. How did I become convinced that I had unassailable truth when what I really had was a truckload of bad arguments and gross misunderstandings?

What follows are some lessons I’ve learned that will hopefully help me, and maybe you, avoid being sucked in by spurious claims in the future …

1. Don’t reject an opposing view until you’ve read the best available material in support of that view.

Never think that you’ve properly considered both sides of an argument when your knowledge of the opposing view comes only from sources that support your view. It’s self-evident that you should consider both sides of an argument, but rare is the person who genuinely investigates both sides. More often, we rely on people who support our view to summarize the opposing view for us.

This is why so many Christians still reject evolution. Their exposure to evolution has come predominantly through what they’ve heard in church or read in anti-evolution material. I can completely relate to Christians who think evolution is preposterous, because I once held that view. I thought I understood the theory, but I didn’t – not even close. The theory sounded implausible to me because I’d only heard it explained by people who (a) didn’t understand it; and (b) were explaining it in such a way as to make it look ridiculous.

Kirk Cameron demanding to know why evolutionists havent found any crocoducks.

Case in point: the Crocoduck.

I used to tell people that I was open to the possibility of evolution, but wasn’t convinced by the science. In reality, I had never read a book by anyone who actually subscribed to the theory. I had just read lots of material by evolution skeptics.

Here’s the Key: Don’t trust the people in your camp to give you an accurate picture of the opposing camp. Take a visit to the other camp. Poke your head inside their tents. Read their stuff. If you’re worried about being brainwashed or hoodwinked by atheists, find Christians who hold the view you reject and begin with them. The important thing is to read supporters of the view you reject, not just detractors.

2. Don’t assume that because someone has a PhD, he knows what he’s talking about.

It is a fundamental law of the universe that for every crackpot idea out there, there is at least one person with a PhD willing to endorse it.

Please don’t mistake this for anti-intellectualism. Proper credentials are extremely important. But there does seem to be a tendency amongst evangelicals to grant instant credibility to any believer with academic credentials, no matter how incredible his ideas. The less experience people have with the academic world, the more prone they will be to fawn over the apologist who happens to have earned a graduate degree of some sort. In fact, in some circles, you’re considered brilliant if you’ve published a book, worn a white lab coat, or served in the Reagan administration.

Obviously, the first thing to check is whether the person’s credentials are relevant to the claims they’re making. If the book you’re reading on genetics & information theory was written by a guy with a PhD in the history and philosophy of science, be extremely wary (bonus points if you can name one).

Even if the topic is within the individual’s field of study, beware the single expert in isolation from his herd. Scholarship is a group exercise. Remember that one kid in school who annoyed the heck out of everyone but still insisted on running for class president (and losing) every year? Well those people exist in the academic world too. They are blind to the opinions of their peers. So convinced are they of the merits of their own ideas that they dismiss the sea of voices trying to point out their error. Knowing that their claims would not survive the proper peer-review process, they publish books aimed directly at lay audiences.

And you might just be reading that book!

Here’s the Key: There will be outliers in any field. Don’t let your opinions rest on the views of a single expert, no matter how impressive his resume.

Which leads me to my next tip…

3. Always find out what other experts in the field have to say.

Are the opinions of your source shared by others working in the relevant field? If others with expertise in this area think your source is wrong, this should raise a big red flag. Why do they think he’s wrong? Has the source responded to these criticisms? Does his response actually address the criticisms or merely dodge them?

When trying to assess what other scholars think, make sure you aren’t just reading other like-minded people. If your opinion comes from a conservative evangelical at Liberty University, you are not doing your homework by checking with another conservative evangelical from Bob Jones University. Did Norman Geisler tell you something? Don’t go to Josh McDowell for a second opinion.

Failure to read outside one’s comfort zone is probably the biggest reason that bright young evangelical minds get hornswoggled. The conservative evangelical world is large enough to produce pockets of scholars/scientists/apologists who share each other’s views and advance the same arguments. If you read 5 books by 5 different conservative apologists and they all say the same thing, you can be left with the false impression that their view is widely accepted.

This is how Lee Strobel works his magic in his books and videos. He finds a group of people with impressive looking credentials and presents their opinions as though they are representative of the views in their field. The effect is a powerful one: Look, here’s a whole bunch of scholars and they all say the same thing. This must be the prevailing scholarly view. What Strobel is actually doing is interviewing only a small subset of scholars whose views are not representative of the majority view within the discipline.

Here’s the Key: Try to determine what view is held by scholars in mainstream academic circles, not simply the view within your particular corner of the intellectual world.

I don’t mean to suggest that the view held by the majority of mainstream scholars is always right or the conservative evangelical view always wrong. Not at all. I simply encourage you to read broadly enough that you are able to situate your view within the larger academic context. If you find that your view is a fringe one, you may want to dig deeper to see why this is so.

[Tips 4 and 5 are now posted here.]

In the meantime, this seemed like appropriate wisdom for today’s theme:

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Why I Have Difficulty Trusting Christians

April 2, 2011

I was raised with a pretty strong Christian ethic. It was a black and white world in which right and wrong were easy to identify. One thing that was definitely black was lying. I was pretty strict with myself when it came to lying. I just wouldn’t do it, even if it got me in trouble. Of course, I got pretty good at dissembling to avoid having to lie. But if you asked me a direct question, you would get a truthful answer. I was a little George Washington.

The corollary of holding myself to this ethic of honesty was that I assumed other Christians did the same. Non-believers could (and probably would) be expected to lie to me. But no mature Christian would think of being dishonest.

This expectation of honesty from fellow believers provided me with a very straightforward truth filter. When missionaries came through town regaling us with tales of the miraculous from the darkest corners of Papua New Guinea, I knew they were telling the truth. When a Christian with scientific credentials taught us that the earth was young and the fossil record could be explained by Noah’s flood, I knew it must be true. When I read Christian apologetics books by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel explaining that the Bible was demonstrably accurate and reliable, I knew I could trust them.

They were in my camp. They were fellow Christians. And Christians, more than anyone, could be trusted to tell you the truth.

It wasn’t hard to come up with reasons to doubt those who challenged the “Christian” view of things. Secular scientists or scholars all had an agenda to disprove the truth of the Bible. Of course they would lie or twist the facts in order to persist in their stubborn disbelief. Thus, mainstream scholarly consensus could easily be discounted in favor of the handful of Christians in those fields of study who were unbiased enough to let us in on the real truth.

Then one day my truth filter broke. Irreparably.

It started with science. I read a piece by an old earth creationist who presented compelling evidence for a universe that was billions of years old. Because he was a Christian, my defences were down. I couldn’t deny the obvious implications of the science. Neither could I discount him as someone with an obvious agenda. After all, he was one of us.

I became hungry to know more. Why hadn’t I heard this before? How much of modern science had I unfairly rejected? I soon dove headlong into science, opening doors that had always remained closed to me for fear that I would get my head filled with faith-destroying disinformation from a scientific conspiracy. I read and read and read. I still figured that Christians were going to be the most trustworthy, so I started by reading material by Christians who accepted the consensus views of modern science. Then I read some atheists. Lo and behold, the evolution-affirming Christians and the atheists pretty much agreed on the proper interpretation of the scientific data – that the diversity of life was the product of a long evolutionary process and that all life was related through common descent.

But more importantly, I found that I no longer needed the assurance of the Christian scientists to tell me that evolution was true; it was self-evidently true. The evidence was overwhelming. Even if every single Christian on the planet denied evolution, I knew I could not.

No wonder every textbook and University taught evolution. They weren’t deluded by animosity toward God. They were simply following the evidence where it led. It was the creationists who were deluded. They had lied to me. Maybe they didn’t know they were lying, but they most definitely had sold me a false bill of goods. This was the beginning of my cognitive dissonance. My beliefs had become decoupled from my faith community. I no longer knew whom to trust.

I began to wonder whether this was the only area in which the evangelical community had shut its ears to reality. One spin-off of coming to accept evolution was that Genesis had to be approached differently. This started me on a path of serious biblical study. Once again, I read and read and read. I soon realized that there was a wide gulf between what biblical scholars knew and what the typical evangelical Christian was taught in the pew. The Bible was not a consistent monolithic work without error. At times, it bore uncomfortable resemblance to the texts and practices of other ancient near eastern religions. Its earliest history was at odds with archaeology. Its various authors sometimes disagreed with each other. It did not always present a consistent picture of God. Half of the books were not even written by the people I had been taught to believe were the authors.

If my truth filter was broken before, now it was demolished. I had read so much apologetic material and most of it had turned out to be rubbish. I could now see how the authors had cherry-picked data that appeared to support their positions and ignored relevant data that contradicted their positions. When I came across Lee Strobel’s The Case for Creation, I could see exactly what he was doing. He had carefully chosen his interviewees. They did not represent leading scientists in their field. Rather, he had interviewed scientists on the fringes of the academic world with opinions that were unsupportable in the real world of science (eg. Jonathan Wells). Even I could debunk them now. But Strobel passed them off as though they represented the consensus of modern science. He reassured his evangelical readers (knowing that his was probably the only science book most of them would read) that they could continue to ignore the folly of the evolutionists.

Years earlier I had read Strobel’s The Case for Christ. It had been tremendously effective in confirming what I believed about Christ and the resurrection. Now I began to wonder whether he had hoodwinked me in that book too. I’ll make a long story short and simply say that, knowing what I now know about the historical issues surrounding the New Testament, I am satisfied that The Case for Christ presents a distorted view of the scholarship in that field as well.

It’s been a few years since I began to see my truth filter for what it was. I’ve come out the other side like a Boy Scout after a geomagnetic reversal – my compass now points the opposite direction. In the same way that I once distrusted non-Christians, I now distrust Christians. That’s not to say that I think the average Christian is likely to lie to me. On the contrary, I find that most Christians do prize honesty and usually try to be truthful, at least on a personal level.

The problem is our willingness to lie to ourselves.

It isn’t the secular world that force-fits everything into its anti-God worldview. It’s evangelicals who have taken fields of study, such as biology, archaeology, and biblical studies, and mutilated the square pegs to make them fit into their round holes. They rigidly adhere to a belief structure (typically stemming from a prior commitment to biblical literalism and innerancy) that can countenance no doubt or uncertainty. Thus, when evidence comes along that calls their paradigm into question, they have no choice but to deny, ignore or distort the data to make it fit. Those who are the best at denying, ignoring and distorting the evidence are heralded as apologists for the faith. And evangelicals love apologists because they do all the hard thinking for them, while invariably arriving at faith-affirming conclusions. Their books fly off the Christian bookstore shelves dispensing whatever ad hoc explanation or special pleading might be required to salvage the evangelical belief system from the perils of uncomfortable fact.

In assessing trustworthiness, my first question used to be, “Is this person a Christian?” Now I ask, “Is this person trying to defend a belief system to which he has an inflexible commitment?” If the answer is yes, I realize that I need to be cautious. Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. Atheists are more than capable of deluding themselves in the interests of rejecting theism or Christianity (as attested by the prevalence of Jesus mythicism). But no longer does the Christian ethic of honesty provide me with assurance that a Christian source will be credible. While it might dissuade them from knowingly lying to me, their prior theological commitments can easily lead them to delude themselves (and me in the process).

I’m incredibly thankful for those Christian writers, scholars and bloggers who are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. When I see that someone has the intellectual honesty to acknowledge even those truths that unsettle his or her faith, that’s when I begin to trust again.

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Colton Burpo goes to Heaven – Part II

March 26, 2011

In my last post, I recounted the story of Colton Burpo, the 3 year old who underwent life-saving surgery for a burst appendix and later startled his parents with tales of an out-of-body experience and trip to heaven. I suggested that there might be some other less supernatural explanations for the whole experience.

But now I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll assume that Colton did have some sort of visionary experience during his surgery. I’ll also make the dualistic assumption that Burpo’s book clearly makes that heaven is some otherworldly realm to which disembodied spirits go when we die. (For the contrary, and probably more biblical view, see NT Wright’s take here and here.)

Given those assumptions, might Colton Burpo’s account provide an accurate description of heaven? If more people are getting their views of the afterlife from Todd Burpo’s book, Heaven is For Real, than from Rob Bell’s Love Wins, (currently #1 and #4 respectively on Amazon) it’s perhaps worth a look.

I have not read much of Heaven is For Real, but I have read portions of the book available online and watched numerous TV interviews with Colton and Todd Burpo. Based on this limited sampling, I can tell you that Colton’s claims about heaven include at least the following:

  • There were lots of animals, lots of indescribable colors, and streets of gold.
  • No one was old; everyone was in the prime of life.
  • Everyone in heaven had wings except Jesus.
  • Jesus was the first to greet him; Colton sat on Jesus’ lap.
  • He met John the Baptist, King David and Samson.
  • He met his great-grandfather and the sister his mother miscarried.
  • Angels sang to him.
  • He was in the throne room of God.
  • He sat next to the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus was his teacher and made him do homework.

What strikes me most about Colton Burpo’s stories of heaven is how unsurprising they are (apart from the homework!). Heaven turns out to look pretty much exactly like the popular Sunday school images we’re all familiar with. Lots of colors, lots of animals, no old people, and everyone has wings. You get to meet your lost relatives and all those cool Bible characters. (I wonder if John the Baptist, King David and Samson ever get tired of being on the welcoming committee.) Also you get to pal around with Jesus and even the Holy Spirit, apparently.

Colton’s description of Jesus is in the same vein. He describes Jesus as having brown hair, blue eyes and a beard. Jesus sports white robes with a purple sash and a golden crown. Jesus also has a white horse with rainbow-colored hair that Colton got to pet. How awesome is that!

Given that Jesus was a Galilean Jew, the chances of him having blue eyes are pretty slim. But let’s not get picky.

In all of the interviews I’ve watched, perhaps the most telling moment was when Colton was asked by a Fox interviewer to describes Jesus’ appearance. An expressionless Colton replies, “Well, Jesus, he had a rough but kind face, sea blue eyes and a smile that lit up the heavens” (See the clip embedded in Part I).

It all sounds a tad rehearsed. Does an 11 year old really say things like, “rough but kind face, sea blue eyes and a smile that lit up the heavens”? Is this a recounting of what he saw or the lyrics to a Mercy Me song? This is learned poetic language, not the eyewitness account of a child.

He also tells Fox News that God is so big “He can actually fit the entire world into his hands.” Really? That’s something he saw? If it even makes sense to say that God is bigger than anything, surely he’s bigger than the entire universe, in which case the earth wouldn’t amount to a mere atom in God’s “hands”. Again, this has the ring of a pithy Sunday School saying, not an actual observation.

It may just be that Colton Burpo can’t really remember much of what he saw at the tender age of 3. I know I certainly don’t. So what do you do when you can’t really remember, but dad is still making a big deal out of your experience? You probably tell people what you think they want to hear. And you draw on what you know heaven is supposed to look like – thus the Sunday School stereotypes.

The most bizarre part of Colton’s claim is that he saw a battle raging in heaven. In an interview with Haven Today, he explains, “Well, the battle, it has Jesus, the angels and the good people going against Satan, the monsters and the bad people and in the end Satan gets thrown into hell.” When asked which angels he saw fighting, he names the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. Of course.

Archangel Michael by David LaChapelle

This is starting to sound like a bad Frank Peretti novel.

Colton seems to be taking his Sunday School lessons and weaving them into his trip to heaven. It doesn’t appear to bother his pastor father that this whole heavenly battle with Satan (Rev. 12:7) isn’t supposed to happen (according to dispensationalists who read Revelation as an end-times playbook) until after all sorts of horrific end-times events have transpired, such as a third of earth’s inhabitants being killed (Rev. 9:15-18). Apparently, the apocalypse was well under way in 2003. Who knew?

And why are the people fighting each other? Do the dearly departed have to fight alongside the archangels? How are you supposed to get your homework done while there’s a battle raging? Why wasn’t Colton conscripted to fight the dead “bad people”? I guess he was too busy chilling with winged Bible characters and petting rainbow-colored My Little Ponies.

I’m getting carried away though. I’m not trying to pick on the poor kid. He’s just a boy with a vivid imagination who probably learned very early on that people treated him special when he told these sorts of stories. He probably even believes them to be true now. Memory is a funny thing, especially when you’re too young to be able to distinguish clearly between fantasy and reality. My beef isn’t with Colton, who is probably a really sweet kid.

It’s the parents and the publishers who ought to have thought a little more critically. Does it really make sense that Jesus has blue eyes? Or that people grow wings post-mortem? Or that in his short stint in heaven Colton would meet an all-star cast of Sunday School heroes? Is it just a coincidence that his version of heaven bears an uncanny resemblance to the very sorts of images Colton would have been bombarded with in his upbringing as a pastor’s kid in an American evangelical church?

This sort of thing makes Christians look pretty gullible. Sadly, on the whole, I think we are. I suspect that this book is selling like hotcakes, not because it contains any exciting new understanding of heaven – on the contrary, we’ve seen all of this before – but (as D’Ma from Gullible’s Travels suggested in a comment on Part I) because “people want so badly to know that this life isn’t all there is.” We’re not entirely convinced of heaven, so we grasp at anything that might assuage our doubts. We want some tangible proof that Heaven is For Real – even if it comes from a 3 year old.

One last thing: Todd Burpo says his son never “flat-lined” during surgery. In other words, his heart never stopped beating. So apparently you don’t even have to have a near death experience to visit heaven; you just need to be under anesthesia. Am I the only one who got gypped during my wisdom teeth surgery?!

For Part I, click here.

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Colton Burpo goes to Heaven

March 24, 2011

When Colton Burpo was 3 years old, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. He barely survived. Four months after leaving the hospital, little Colton began telling his parents about things he had seen during the surgery. Over time, more and more stories emerged. He had seen angels. He had hovered over the doctor and his parents in the hospital. In fact, he had even been to heaven where he met Jesus, a cast of Bible characters and various Burpo family members.

Colton is now 11 years old. His father, Todd Burpo, a pastor in Nebraska, has published a book about his son’s story called Heaven is For Real. Remarkably, this book is now #1 on Amazon, even outselling Rob Bell.

Colton’s parents take his stories very seriously. They are convinced that he was able to tell them things he could only have learned from a true out-of-body trip to heaven. Judging from the Amazon ranking, his parents aren’t the only ones lapping up the tales.

Here’s a clip of Colton telling his story to Fox News:


Todd Burpo’s biggest claims about his son’s otherwordly knowledge appear to be (1) that Colton knew what his parents had been doing during his surgery; and (2) that Colton knew about his mother’s miscarriage. He also claims to have met his long-deceased great-grandfather, but there doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong claim to secret knowledge there, so I’ll focus on the the first two claims:

(1) During Surgery

Some 4 months after the surgery, Colton allegedly disclosed to his father that, while he was in surgery, he saw his father in a room praying. He also saw his mother praying and talking on the phone.  It turns out that this was true. Fearing that his son could die, Todd Burpo had found a place in the hospital to pray. I haven’t heard what mom was up to, but it’s not surprising that she too was praying and calling friends and family.

Is this proof that Colton’s spirit was floating about the hospital during his surgery? Claims of this sort are not unusual. Near death experiences often involve a sense of separation from the body in which people believe they are looking down on themselves from above. These experiences, however, have been reproduced experimentally by neurologists stimulating or tricking the brains of healthy patients (see here and here). The fact that this experience can be reproduced in individuals who are not on death’s doorstep, suggests that there is likely a very down-to-earth neurological explanation for this phenomenon that does not involve one’s spirit floating away from one’s body.

But if Colton wasn’t hovering over his parents, how did he know what they were up to?

It is impossible to know for certain, but I can think of a few different scenarios that are far more plausible than an actual out-of-body experience. First, one shouldn’t forget that Colton didn’t begin telling these stories until some 4 months after leaving the hospital. Colton had nearly died. His entire family and church were praying for him. Undoubtedly his recovery was the subject of much conversation. Is it not possible that during the 4 months after his recovery, Colton overheard his parents talking to friends or family about their experiences in the hospital? It’s clear that the Burpos attributed Colton’s recovery to answered prayer. Did the pastor and his wife never tell their church, their family or their friends about the anguished hours of prayer in the hospital? In my experience, these testimonies of answered prayer get told repeatedly. And if so, are the Burpos sure that Colton never heard any of it?

There’s also the problem of confirmation bias. We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses. One has to wonder how many stories Colton told his parents about his experience. Were they all accurate? It’s possible that Colton was saying a lot of things about his experience, but that his parents only took notice when he happened to guess correctly.  I suspect there were lots of stories that made no sense or bore no relation to reality. After all, he was just turning 4. We’re probably hearing only those instances where Colton got something right.

It’s not as though his observations were very specific. His family had been in the hospital with him for two weeks. Of course at some point his father, a pastor, would find some time and a place to pray for his son. Of course at some point his mom would be praying and calling family. It’s not as though Colton predicted the winning lottery numbers.

When Colton got something “right”, you can just imagine how much attention his parents must have given him. When he got things wrong, no doubt he could tell by their reaction. It wouldn’t be hard for Colton to figure out which stories to keep telling (or expanding upon) and which ones to drop. Todd says that Colton’s stories have “become richer” over time. Todd attributes this to Colton’s increased vocabulary. I can think of another reason.

(2) The Miscarriage

The second big claim to inside knowledge is Colton’s claim to have met a sister he doesn’t have. Turns out his mother had a miscarriage, although the Burpos have no idea of the sex of that child. One day Colton declared that he had another sister, that he had met her in heaven and that she told him she had died in her mother’s tummy.

Todd and his wife insist that they never told Colton about their miscarriage. Perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they did and simply forgot. Or perhaps another family member mentioned it to Colton. If I was looking for a prime suspect, it would be Colton’s older sister. She was probably old enough to be told about the miscarriage and may have passed on the story to her little brother, as kids are wont to do.

Once again, one also has to wonder about the possibility of Colton overhearing his parents talking about the miscarriage to someone else. Every parent I know is routinely surprised to learn what their little kids have overheard and absorbed.

But what do I know? Maybe Colton really did have an out-of-body experience. Maybe he really did take a trip to heaven.

In the next post, I’ll look at Colton Burpo’s claims as to what he saw in his heavenly journey. If you like the book of Revelation and flannel-graph Sunday School lessons, be sure to tune in next time.

In the meantime, for a fascinating discussion between an atheist and a Christian about spiritual experiences, out-of-body experiences, and neurology, have a listen to this episode of Unbelievable.

[Update: Part II is now posted here.]

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Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care

March 6, 2011

If, like me, you grew up in churches where the only musical accompaniment was a piano or organ, then you’re no doubt familiar with the sight of a worship leader keeping time with his hand. We were even taught how to do it! I can still wave my way through any 4/4 song.

Maybe it’s nostalgia getting the better of me, but I can’t resist posting this. Don’t miss “Petting the Invisible Cat” and a cameo by Steven Anderson…

Thank God for drummers.

Found at Stuff Fundies Like