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Scriptural Skepticism

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It is fairly likely that much of the criticism put forth by skeptics in regard to the scriptures is due not to some evidence which exists that proves the scripture to be false, but actually a misunderstanding of the nature of the scripture itself. Indeed, the Bible is a throroughly unique book, both in subject and authorship, yet if both attributes are not properly understood, skepticism is likely to follow.

In one sense, the Bible is a quite human book. It was written by many authors and recalls many accounts that underscore the humanity of its characters. Nowhere does it claim to have been written by anyone other than a human being. Yet, the combined narrative of the many authors is a remarkably singular and cohesive account. On the other hand, it is also a quite spiritual work. It contains the law delivered to Moses from God. It contains prayers and prophesy; sometimes the very words of God. Its writers also claim such spiritual power on behalf of scripture. Consider the author of Hebrews 4:12, who writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” However, it has always been and always will be considered a testament of God. In other words, scripture is an account by many witnesses of the work of God in history. It is not an account written by God’s physical hand and dropped on Earth from Heaven, nor should anyone expect such an account to exist.

This distinction is important to make given much of the nature of skepticism toward scripture. It is often said by skeptics that the Bible is untrustworthy because it was written by men and used to promote their worldly agendas. Or, that God, if He really existed, would make Himself known in some other fashion, preferably one which all people at all times could interact with and would be beyond dispute. Often, I wonder if what skeptics really want is for God to dictate scripture to them personally- only then could they trust its contents! However, one of the key points of scripture is that God acts in history. Unfortunately for us living in the twenty-first century, time progresses and leaves history in the unreachable past and accessible only by that which remains. The Bible, then, is precisely what we would expect to find: a collection of accounts of God working in history intentionally preserved by those who believe in Him for posterity.

Yet, skepticism persists. Incidentally, as I was considering this topic I ran across a quote from Mortimer Adler, in his book “How to Read a Book,” which provide good examples of how skeptics receive the scriptures. He writes:

“Dogmatic theology differs from Philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. A work of dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them. If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician. But you must always keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faithful ‘assume.’ Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion. Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based upon them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 292)”

At first glance, Adler seems to offer a sound and logically consistent defense of theology. In fact, he suggests, in a way, that the core theological tenets of a certain religion be thought of much like premises in a logical or mathematic syllogism. Therefore, as he writes, modern readers (or perhaps better said secular readers) err in rejecting such tenets as they read theology. Indeed, theology would be quite useless and irrelevant without at some point acknowledging some core premises or doctrines. In other words, Adler encourages even skeptical readers to patiently allow the theological point to be developed, rather than prematurely rejecting it before it has been fully articulated. While I heartily agree, it should be pointed out that Adler’s advice seems to assume that a theologian can do such a thing with clarity and intellectual honesty. Again, I would concur. However, Adler proceeds to write what can only be received as a blunt contradiction of this point:

“Consider any institution- a church, a political party, a society- that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to teach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. They do not- even cannot- question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the ‘sacred’ text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 293)”

If the faithful are, as Adler argues, intellectually impotent in regard to the study of theology, one must conclude at least two staggering possibilities. The first, though logically tied to both of Adler’s statements, is hardly likely: That the theologians who teach the faithful through preaching, teaching and writing are themselves not among the faithful. In other words, Adler’s first statement assumes that theology is worth studying. Yet, in his second statement, he claims that the faithful are so intellectually “debarred” that they cannot discern truth from “nonsense.” If both ideas are true, then the theologians must themselves not be believers. Frankly, theologians who do not believe what they teach are no more than liars, or at best, concoctors of fairy tales. Perhaps, then, Adler is confused. The second, and possibly more troubling conclusion one could make from Adler’s statements, is that only religious skeptics, or unbelievers, are in the position to accurately develop theology. Clearly, this is absurd. Theology is the study of God. Without an interactive belief in God, theology could not be received by Him and taught. That is, of course, unless the theology amounted to a belief that God does not exist.

To be fair, I think that these thoughts are somewhat misplaced in “How to Read a Book,” if not definitely undeveloped for publication. Indeed, Adler redeemed himself intellectually, specifically in regard to philosophy of religion, since in his book “Truth in Religion,” which he demonstrates that the three religions “of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are the only world religions which do not dismantle themselves through logical contradictions. However, this type of faulty thinking is quite prevalent among intellectual skeptics, many of whom take the position that the Bible was not simply written by men, but its contents were completely invented by men as well. It is almost as if they believed that if God truly existed, he would appear before them individually, on their terms, explain Himself (and everything else, for that matter) leaving them compelled to belief. Yet, this would mean that God would have to do such a thing to every single person in history, probably simultaneously, however impossible, to satisfy those who do not believe in Him. Otherwise, at some point, one would have to rely upon the testimony of another who was present to witness what God did, which is precisely what we have in the testimony of the Bible.

I don’t expect that my brief treatment here will dismantle every type of skepticism that exists toward the scriptures, so perhaps my title is a bit broad. However, the misunderstandings and illogical claims that I have mentioned are often at the root of most skeptical criticism that I have encountered in my study of the scriptures. When the character of the Bible is properly understood, in terms of its content and also its historical context, it seems to be exactly what one might expect to have at the root of a religion which affirms the existence of God and His activity in history.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 28, 2006 at 5:38 am

Fundamentalism and the ‘Virtue’ of Moderation

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In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s radio program On Point (listen to the program here), author John Updike discussed his latest novel, Terrorist, which depicts the life of an eighteen year-old American Muslim turned terrorist. Within the discussion, which reflected not only upon the book, but also upon issues related to religious extremism and its effect on our current culture, Updike made several comments specifically in regard to religious fundamentalism. While I have not yet read Terrorist, though this program has certainly encouraged me to do so, I would like to address some of Updike’s comments as I think they are particularly indicative of a modern misunderstanding of fundamentalism in the philosophy of religion.

Updike introduces the novel by reading from its opening passage, which describes his main character, Ahmad’s, point of view toward his American peers and authority, and describes those who claim to be religious as weak and unauthentic. While he describes Ahmad’s attitude toward the insipidness of American religion and culture as being “extremely disgusted,” Updike himself would only claim to be “moderately disgusted.” Incidentally, a caller, who reminded Updike that for the Muslim (and I would argue also for the Christian) there is no and should not be any separation between the sacred and the secular, really propelled the conversation toward religious fundamentalism. Updike attempted to brush off the comment by asking to see an example of a thoroughly religious and morally perfect society- indicating that this should be the result of fundamentalism. Of course, this is obviously not realistic. Later, Updike responds to another caller who indicts fundamentalism as the root of all modern problems by commenting in agreement,

“I am myself a Christian and go to church, but there does seem to be a point at which fundamentalism Christianity becomes a dangerous and really crazy, crazy thing. These mothers who kill their children to send them to heaven…take a shortcut to heaven… are the kind of thing that also motivates suicide bombers. Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation.”

Not unlike many who comment on religious fundamentalism, often casting it as a direct catalyst of ignorance, hate, violence, and oppression, Updike demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the meaning of the term. On the one hand, Updike expresses disgust toward fundamentalism, but on the other, disgust for the shallow and vapid confession of many religious followers. It would seem to me that to be fundamentalist in regard to religion would be the antithesis of the shallowness and fickleness that many, like Updike, rightly criticize. However, I think the pejorative connotation, clearly intended within this discussion, of fundamentalism that has lately subsumed the actual meaning of the term, is unjustified. Rather, fundamentalism should be thought of as the comprehensive approach to religious life.

Religious fundamentalism is based upon the belief that certain religions affirm particular core fundamental beliefs. To call oneself a Christian, for example, in the fundamental sense, would mean that one believes certain particular things about Jesus Christ, his divinity, our relationship to Him, and the Bible. To believe otherwise would make the label ‘Christian’ dubious. Likewise, a fundamentalist Muslim would also affirm certain doctrines in regard to God, Muhammed, and the Koran. In neither case is extremist violence or force a part of the fundamentalist identity. While I won’t deny that these things have sometimes resulted from the irrational behavior of self-confessed fundamentalists, it does not follow that all fundamentalists are inherently irrational. In fact, I would argue that fundamentalism is a reasonable approach to the philosophy and practice of religion and reiterate that it would facilitate a comprehensive and thorough religious life.

Actually, Updike’s quote shows that his own view of the relationship between sacred and secular is backward. When he states that “Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation,” he seems to suggest that religion should take its cue from humanity, rather than humanity from religion. If religious belief is at all authentically theological, then this idea is obviously absurd. Religion is the human practice in response to the nature of God, through which humanity rightly aligns itself to that nature. But what does Updike mean by moderation, anyway? He appears to suggest that certain moral values are the result of a fundamental virtue of moderation. I would ask, moderation in regard to what? Moderation in and of itself is meaningless. If he means moderation in regard to the revelation of God, then he foolishly casts aside the intent of his own maker and arrogantly prioritizes his will over the will of God. If he means moderation in regard to truth in general, and therefore how truth applies to religious dogma regardless of its theistic authenticity, then by what measure are we to affirm moderation as an objective virtue? This moderation appears to be the same type of vapid creed by which Updike is “moderately disgusted.”

The call for religious moderation implicitly denies the possibility that certain religious doctrines could actually be objectively true. Since this assertion is impossible to justify, I would reverse the inertia of this discussion to again suggest that fundamentalism is actually the reasonable approach to religion. In other words, if a particular religion is true, then one aught to believe it and practice it comprehensively, not with some sort of ambiguous and arbitrary moderation. How could one be “moderately Christian,” anyway? Might one say, “I don’t believe that Jesus actually existed, nor do I really think there is a God in the traditional sense, but I am a Christian because the religion has taught me morality?” If so, on what basis does a religion founded upon a lie credibly instruct anyone on morality? Perhaps one could say, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that Buddha was right too.” In this case, one must either misunderstand Jesus or Buddha, as the contradictions between the two teachings are irreconcilable. Moderation in regard to religion denies either truth, power, or both.

Now, I certainly don’t take Updike for a fool. After all, he has produced Terrorist in the twilight of a long and critically successful literary career to which any American is culturally endebted. Despite his intellect, it is also true that some of the most brilliant thinkers make some of the most foolish blunders in thinking when it comes to matters of faith. Perhaps this is not the case for Updike. Perhaps it is more a blunder in semantics, and what he really had in mind was a behavioral moderation. If so, this is certainly something I could get behind as it relates to terrorism, which seems to be more of an outworking of emotion and irrationality then a fundamental approach to religion. But again, this is not moderation for moderation’s sake, nor moderation of religion or reason, but moderation in regard to rash human fallibility.

Brief Comments on the Recent Craig-Ehrman Debate

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On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.

Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.

Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.

This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.

In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.

While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).

Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.

The Last Supper

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One of the central images used by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is the mural Leonardo painted at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which depicts Jesus and the twelve disciples gathering for the Passover meal prior to His crucifixion, The Last Supper. It was at this gathering that Jesus shared with the twelve his coming betrayal by one of them, as well as the practice of sharing communion with one another in remembrance of Him. However, Brown's character Sir Leigh Teabing alleges that the painting provides clues within an elaborate conspiracy to conceal a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:

"'It's a matter of historical record,' Teabing said, 'and Da Vinci was certainly aware of that fact. The Last Supper practically shouts to the viewer that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a pair.'"

Leonardo, beginning work on the mural in 1495, was known for his desire to depict images in a realistic fashion and his criticism of other artists for embellishing imagery. Yet some conspiracy theorists, like the character of Teabing, argue that Leonardo's painting is an elaborate clue to a secret he was under charge to protect as a member of the Priory of Sion. It might be helpful to point out at the outset that lacing a very public work with overt clues to a secret he was supposed to protect might be a conflict of interest. It would seem to me that a better motive would need to be suggested for Leonardo to want to reveal the "secret" but only through cryptic symbolism in his paintings. Nevertheless, many allege that the incriminating symbols are in fact there.

The famous allegation is that the figure to the right of Jesus, appearing to swoon in the direction of Peter, standing to his right, is actually Mary Magdalene, not John, as was traditionally understood by the Church and art historians alike. The theory cites the feminine appearance of this figure as obvious evidence that Leonardo was intending to paint a woman, rather than a man. Some indicate that Jesus and the figure to His right are painted as mirror images of each other with symmetrically matching clothing, forming a 'V' shape, which represents a female womb and thus homage to the "divine feminine." Additionally, the shape of Jesus and the mysterious figure to His right are also said to form the shape of the letter "M," perhaps for the word "matrimony" or "Magdalene." I think that such interpretations require far too much of the presupposition that Leonardo had some sort of secret agenda with the painting, which ultimately begs the question. However, the claims of Teabing get even more farfetched. He says, "Oddly, Da Vinci appears to have forgotten to paint the cup of Christ," indicating that the absence of an actual cup in front of Christ proves that the grail is something other than a literal cup- perhaps the bloodline of Jesus Himself!

Such theories are ultimately fantasy. In fact, they seem to rely upon the assumption that Leonardo was a reliable source regarding the event of the last supper, as if he had himself been there. However, Leonardo depicted the scene over 1400 years after it occurred, presumably relying upon the Gospel accounts themselves to do so. Given the likely reliance upon the Gospels, it is no surprise that the cup is not a central element of the depiction as it was certainly not in the Biblical narrative. The legend of the Grail having supernatural power resulting from Jesus' use came much later and has no scriptural precedent. Moreover, the assumption that Leonardo would have even been motivated to lace the painting with clues to a conspiracy is based upon his membership in the Priory of Sion, a legendary secret society which has been proven to have been a hoax invented in the 20th century. Without the Priory connection, there really is no substance to the theory.

Art historians, however, have consistently approached The Last Supper as being both typical of Leonardo and typical of contemporary Florentine trends. They interpret the figures and their expressions as follows: From left, Bartholomew, James the Lesser, and Andrew (his hands up as if to say 'stop!') form a group and are surprised. Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form the next group. Judas is depicted as withdrawn and somewhat sinister as he holds a small bag presumably carrying the silver he received as payment for his betrayal. He appears to be in shadow, symbolizing his spiritual lostness. Peter wields a knife, pointing toward Bartholomew (some say to reference Bartholomew’s future martyrdom, others to foreshadow Peter's actions at Gethsemane), while John swoons in Peter's direction. Thomas, James and Philip are the next group to Jesus' left. Thomas shows distress, while James throws his arms out in dismay. Philip seems to ask for clarification. Finally, Matthew, Jude, and Simon the Zealot form the last group, the former two appearing to consult Simon. Incidentally, this interpretive scheme was confirmed by the discovery of a document known as The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, found in the 19th century.

The feminine appearance of the figure historians almost unanimously interpret to be John is no surprise given that it was typical of Leonardo's depiction of young men, as well as the Florentine tradition of painting John as beardless and youthful. What's more, this character appears to be wearing men's clothing, not those of a woman. The traditional interpretation of art historians seems a much more likely explanation than Teabing's, which relies on too many assumptions to be justifiable. Another problem raised by interpreting this figure as Magdalene is that her presence would reduce the count of the disciples to eleven, with one missing, which contradicts the Biblical and traditional accounts.

While Brown creates a compelling narrative around the imagery of Leonardo, conspiracies and esoteric knowledge, the historical credibility is just not there. However, even if Leonardo had been a member of a secret society with fantastic ideas about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which he decided to hide in his paintings, there is no supporting evidence to suggest that anyone should take him seriously in this regard. Even the recently proven hoax of the Priory of Sion set its date of establishment at 1099, a millennium after Christ! Leonardo, painting four-hundred years later, likely did not have accurate insight into the details of the real "last supper," nor does it seem that he had any feasible esoteric agenda.

The God Who Wasn’t There, Part 1

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Beneath the popular current of The DaVinci Code controversy (which I have addressed in several articles) is another attack on the Christian faith, this one more of a grassroots effort, not sheltered by the guise of fiction, but overtly labeling itself as a factual documentary which exposes the “truth” about the Christian faith. This “documentary” is called The God Who Wasn’t There, and was produced by Brian Flemming and distributed through a network of “guerilla-style” operatives who attempt to plant the DVD and other literature on church grounds and other Christian gathering places (I mentioned this project briefly in an earlier post called ‘The War on Easter’).

The basic premise of The God Who Wasn’t There is that Jesus never existed, and that fact, among many others pertaining to the traditional Christian faith, is a fabrication without any historical basis. Now, I must initially state that such a claim is so fantastic and on the extreme fringe of scholarship in theology, religion, history, and other fields as to be simply incredible and not worthy of discussion. However, and as I think the DaVinci phenomenon illustrates, we seem to be at a point at which we are more likely to extract truth from incredible sources, especially fictional ones, rather than those which exist to provide it. In other words, entertainment seems to have a more authoritative voice in our society such that outrageous claims and simply erroneous statements slip by and are taken as reliable while they cleverly hide within a seductive narrative context. To be fair, this is not exactly the sort of context in which The God Who Wasn’t There is presented; as I said before, it clearly intends to be a documentary. However, it is one with a particular agenda which provides a substantially skewed portrayal of just about every known fact pertaining to Christianity, yet its growing popularity suggests that many are convinced by its claims. In my next few posts, I will be examining some of the major issues related to this documentary and its distorted portrayal of the Christian faith.

The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There is essentially a barrage of ad hominem (or "against the man") attacks against the Christian faith, mentioning the Galileo controversy (which I addressed in an earlier post called Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy), and several notorious individuals who have associated themselves with Christianity. In particular, Flemming mentions Charles Manson, Pat Robertson, Dena Schlosser, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, and then concludes, "So, I guess it’s kind of a mixed bag." I assume that at this point, the intention is for the viewer to have developed a distaste for Christianity based upon the provided roster of Christian “spokespersons” known for being insane, homicidal, publicly outrageous, and controversial. Yet, attacking individuals for various reasons says nothing about the veracity or the value of the Christian faith.

Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ Flemming’s use of Charles Manson as an example of Christianity is an obvious distortion of what Christianity actually is. It would be obviously ridiculous to say that, regardless of whether it is true, Christianity teaches white supremacy and homicide. Additionally, it would be incorrect to conclude that if Charles Manson, an admitted killer, claims to be a Christian, Christianity must be a lie or a failure. What Augustine means to show is that a proposition, or in this case a systematic faith, can be true regardless of how people respond to it or whether people even believe it. Needless to say, we cannot know how sincere any of these people are in their claim to be Christians. What Flemming is doing is establishing a distorted version of Christianity by intentionally selecting a list of notorious figures to represent it, likely hoping to build a strong foundation of resentment and anger upon which to build his weak historical case.

Ironically, while Christianity does not logically establish a basis upon which to behave as someone like Charles Manson has, Atheism cannot logically support the derivation of objective morality and thus can lead to such behavior. In fact, the most notorious crimes against humanity in the 20th century have been committed under the auspices of atheistic regimes like those of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mau and Pol Pot. I am not saying, of course, that an atheist cannot live a moral life. Many atheists do live a moral life, yet they do so by adopting a system of morality from some external source which does not fit within the scheme of atheism. Thus, what I am saying is that atheism as a philosophy cannot account for a moral law and thus opens the door to such atrocities. If there is no God, then there is no moral law objective enough to which we must be accountable. If there is no objective moral law, then there is no logical reason why Stalin, Hitler, et al should have acted differently. On the other hand, Manson, though he may claim to be a Christian, committed acts which represent a clear rejection or diversion from the teachings of Christ, and thus cannot be a credible representative of the teachings of Christ.

The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There, while trying to establish an atmosphere conducive to belittling and debunking Christianity actually backfires and reveals the subjectivity and personal angst of the filmmaker himself. Sadly, this is very common in the church and should serve as a convicting reminder that our works should be indicative of our faith, and will be how the faith is represented to those who are on the outside looking in. While this issue is obviously a logically flawed and illegitimate means of building an argument against the Christian faith, it does show the profound cost of poor stewardship of the church throughout history. We must be compelled to look to the example of Christ and act accordingly!

The Claims of The DaVinci Code

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As there have been many requests for information regarding the claims of The DaVinci Code, I would like to direct readers to the following posts.

Claim: The four Gospels were chosen from 80 other gospels.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

Claim: Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene and left the church in her charge.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 2

Claim: Pre-Biblical documents tell the true story of Jesus and Mary and are located in Mary's tomb.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 3

Claim: The New Testament scriptures are unreliable.
I discuss this claim in The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures and A Survey of New Testament Documents and The God Who Wasn't There, Part 2

Claim: Leonardo's The Last Supper contains visual clues to the secret of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene.
I discuss this claim in The Last Supper.

Some additional recommended resources:

Biblical scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg has done two excellent lectures related to the claims of The DaVinci Code, available for download here:
The DaVinci Code (Part 1): Was There a Plan to Suppress "Secret" Gospels?
The DaVinci Code (Part 2): Was There a Conspiracy to Concoct a Divine Jesus?

Also, Stand To Reason has produced a great 10-page PDF document addressing The DaVinci Code, available here:
http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/5-6_2006_SG.pdf?docID=961

CNN refutes The DaVinci Code!
Click here to read a decent article on CNN.com dealing with the credibility of the claims of The DaVinci Code.

CBS 60 Minutes debunks Priory of Sion!
Click here to read an article at cbsnews.com detailing the forged origin of Priory of Sion documents used by Dan Brown in his 'historical' research for The DaVinci Code (thanks BB for the link).

US News & World Report sets the record straight!
Click here to read an article at usnews.com generally outlining the historically incorrect claims of the DaVinci Code and the corrections to them.

Orthodoxy and J. Gresham Machen

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In the early years of the 20th century, modernist philosophy began to erode the orthodoxy of the Christian church at large. Though this was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that social theory and philosophy would challenge the essentials of Christian doctrine, it was one of the most significantly yet subtly pervasive threats the Church had experienced. J. Gresham Machen was a strong voice in response and opposition to the Modernist threat to orthodoxy by rooting the entirety of Christian life in doctrine and not accepting the reduction of the Christian faith to malleable and ambiguous values. ‘I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots.In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a "life," as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that–exactly the other way around–it is a life founded on a doctrine (J. Gresham Machen on his own book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923).’ Machen spoke of a controversy which not only compelled him in his initial grappling of spiritual identity but also had an emphatic and determining effect upon his life’s work and ministry. Though he spoke directly to a philosophical climate that has since dissipated, his words remain applicable to today’s climate of postmodernism. He indicted the encroaching influence of philosophical Modernism upon the theological grounding of the Christian faith, and admonished his brethren to retain their reliance upon Christ as the giver of life, rather than let the achievements of man erode the integrity of their own words, let alone the Word of God.To briefly summarize the context of his writing, Machen had himself witnessed the unprecedented changes brought about by the industrial revolution, and had been present among the philosophers whose thinking had begun to pull the rug out from under the conservative churches of America. He acknowledged the sweeping changes in capacity of our country and the elevation of utility above meaning; this made possible by the fact that an attitude of self-reliance had retracted the feasibility of the supernatural. Ultimately, this attitude gave birth to a general suspicion of the institutions of the past, and to be fair, one cannot help but sympathize with such thinking: After all, looking back over millennia of what was perceived as stagnancy, why would anyone desire to maintain any of the ideas, beliefs and institutions which must have stifled the progress and has finally broken through to improve society from bottom up? Machen’s thinking exposes, however, the fickleness of such an attitude.

In expounding upon his train of thought, it can also be shown that it retains its application toward the Church amidst the contemporary challenge of the postmodern mind. Just as Machen did in the early 20th century, so also do we today feel the pressure of claims that our expanding capability and practical understanding of the world has exposed not just the impotence of scripture, but the impotence of Christ! As we collect and arrange data from various sources with which to piece together even a meager narrative of origins, we assume that a document meticulously preserved for thousands of years by a culture known for its dedication in this area, and done so for the purpose of preserving a history and worldview, must be more myth than fact, more propagation than sincerity, more naïve wishful thinking than sophisticated skepticism. Yet improved means cannot simply invalidate that from which it came. Was it not the obsession of those who dwelled in Shinar with their own means that trampled upon modesty, stewardship and thanksgiving? Did it not ultimately result in their incapacitation (Gen 11, 1-9)? Was it not the worship of might which destroyed the foundation upon which it was built and rendered the people weak? Yes it was, but the effort, capacity and result are in themselves untarnished until they are motivated by a heart disconnected with God.

Machen was not advocating for a rejection of industry, nor of technology, nor even of improvement or a desire for improvement. He points out, and rightly so, that the means had illegitimately claimed sovereignty over all that had preceded them, rendering history suspect, faith futile, and the supernatural impossible. In fact, what truly incensed him was the compulsion many Christians felt to accommodate their faith for the revelation of means- many who were willing to reduce Christianity to an ethic under the pressure of scientific methods, historical scrutiny and a change in philosophical climate. Christianity is essentially tied to history; this is an undeniable fact. If history should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a man named Jesus had never lived, then Christianity would be in totality made irrelevant. Paul affirms this as he calibrates the whole of Christianity upon one fact: ‘But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty (1 Cor 15-16).’ Machen stridently called out those who would reduce their witness to the cajoling of an ethic. He refused to support those who ministered in the name of Christ while at the same time denying the truth of His existence. He refused to submit orthodoxy, which Webster defines as ‘the conforming to established doctrine,’ to the erosion of a type of thinking which overstepped its own bounds and attempted to usurp truth for its own purpose, not considering that as it built its kingdom it had not only destroyed its own foundation but had eradicated any hope for a resilient and philosophically consistent one to support it.

In today’s terms, as truth itself has been reduced beyond even utility, orthodoxy is still relevant. Improved means, though they may reverberate now more in our thinking than in our doing, cannot justify the arrogance with which faith is continually debunked. We may have the luxury of indulging in such thinking now because of the exorbitance of our capacity, but that will surely not last forever and if we have, in the meantime, set adrift from truth and a reverence for truth, we are not just then, but already, lost.

Written by Christopher Butler

October 4, 2005 at 3:24 am

The Crusades: A Disconnection from the Word

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In 1095, messengers sent by Alexius I arrived at the Council of Piacenza to request military aid from Pope Urban to defend against the frequent raids and attacks of the Turks. Pope Urban obliged, and at the Council of Clermont month later delivered a sermon admonishing the people to take up arms in the name of Christ and to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. He is known to have said, ‘Deus le volt! (God Wills It!)’ The response to this call was overwhelming, with a multitude joining the pilgrimage desirous of spiritual gain, as they had been promised full penance for their participation by the papacy. By 1099, after incredible bloodshed, indiscriminate among Muslims, Jews and alleged heretics, Jerusalem fell to the Christian pilgrims, and the Crusader state of Jerusalem was established. It should be noted that the context of Alexius’ request was a precedent set by the previous Pope, Gregory VII, who called for the ‘milites Christi (Knights of Christ)’ to come to the aid of the Byzantine Empire, which had been subject to unrelenting persecution and brutality at the hands of the Muslim armies. Setting aside the anachronistic norms of warfare in everyday society, and the predominance of papal theology in cultural operation, the Crusades have truly tarnished the witness of the Church of Christ to the entire world. The fact that heretical promises of penance and indulgences made by the church clearly contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace points to the distortion of the faith in its advocacy of this military campaign.

However, many a debate over the validity of Christianity in general begins with the accusation that the fact of the Crusades proves the essential hypocrisy of the faith. This is easily debunked when shown that the philosophical foundation of the Crusades was not consistent with the message of Christ. In fact, it is clear from the scriptures that the aggression of religious theology by means of warfare is in direct conflict with essential Christian doctrine. Prior to the Crusades, Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ In contrast, one can easily point out that the outrageous violations of human rights that are contemporaneous with our modern discourse were not only birthed in the atheistic mind, but were logically consistent with such a worldview. Now these arguments are simply to set aside the typical assumptions and the straw man set in front of what the discussion should involve. The question here should be why did the Crusades occur under the auspices of Christendom at the time that they did? The answer is complex but begins by understanding the cultural context of religion at the time.

It is important to remember that at this period of history, the common man had never read the Word of God for himself. The common man probably had not read anything at all, as literacy was not a cultural norm, but reserved for within the cloistered walls of the church community. Even then, however, the comprehensive understanding of and even lingual access to the scriptures was not held even by most clergy. Bible historian and scholar Daniel Wallace elaborates on this reality in his description of a typical medieval clergyman: ‘He only read the Bible in Latin, and only those portions that were important for the liturgy. He had never read the whole Bible himself—ever. And besides, his Latin skills were not very good—just enough to mutter a few prayers in church from memory (The History of the English Bible).’ The point here is that the culture, though identified and structured around the Christian church, was fundamentally disconnected with the Word. In fact, an investigation into the monarchial political structures of the time reveals that the Crusades themselves were motivated by power and sold by religion. Religion was only one element of the Crusades, yet became its label for its means of recruiting those who would ultimately carry out the bloody effort and restore power to the papacy. The people desired purpose and looked to the papal authority to point them in the right direction. Christ called His followers to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33).’ Time and time again, God warns against the elevation of worldly kingdoms and calls His people to humble themselves before Him and seek His will rather than their own. Yet, in the Crusades, we have an inherent lack of humility in leadership and a clear lust for power motivating the existing worldly kingdom, and a distortion of the Word specifically to engender consent and participation. Had only the leaders of the day heeded the warnings of Augustine, who wrote, ‘Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.’ That foundation is in an intimacy with the Word of God.

The monarchs of the time claimed divine privilege, as it was understood that God ordained the place of kings and placed the stewardship of the land and its people in their hands. While it is true that Christ himself encouraged His people to respect the worldly authority over them, implicit in this was not an allowance for authority to reap the harvest of their immorality unchecked. In fact, Jesus challenged even the authority of Pilate, the man whom would authorize his crucifixion: ‘Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ The authority of God is elevated above all human authority; His Word must be the plumb line for those to whom authority is given. The sad truth is that the authority which bolstered thousands to take up the sword did so without a Biblical basis, and had no means of checking their passions by measure of the Word. It was not Christianity which caused the violence of the Crusades, but a lack of its authenticity.

Written by Christopher Butler

September 20, 2005 at 10:56 am

The Postmodern Vacuum

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‘But the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909)

Chesterton’s quote, even decades ago, so accurately portrays the postmodern mind, forced to vacillate among disparate issues, non of which are capable of providing an adequate philosophical foundation yet many potent enough to fracture reason across the board and instill angst before essential questions can even be entertained. I might be appropriate to continue this section with a joke often invoked within a discussion such as this: What do you get when you cross a postmodernist with a used car salesman? You get an offer you can’t understand! Postmodernism is a word not easily defined, yet it is certainly a contemporary ‘buzzword’ used in many different contexts; invoked frequently in the speeches of politicians, the criticisms of works of art, the discussion of higher education, and even the cue cards of television talk show hosts. Its ambiguity of meaning allows for the ubiquity of its use, and perhaps the root of the confusion stems from postmodernism’s implicit rejection of absolutes. Postmodern theory suggests that knowledge itself is contingent upon circumstances such as time, place, and social status, through which the individual creates his own knowledge. In fact, in this framework, the concept that knowledge may arise or exist from outside the individual is inherently suspect!

According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by its ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ The late literary theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida concurred, and argued that knowledge could not maintain integrity without invoking an ‘original utterance,’ the logos. The idea that man would be given or have access to the ‘original utterance’ is thus called logocentrism. Critics of postmodern thought would rightly agree and point out that without being grounded in an objective standard, postmodernism can masquerade as philosophy without having to account for the logical disparities that so clearly exist when such a system attempts to be practically applied. The Christian, regardless of his philosophical or logical capabilities in argument, should be expectedly and unabashedly logocentric. The Word of God, as preserved in the Bible is the first and last word- the source of the metanarrative from which we presume objective morality, elitism of ideas, and the convictions of the individual. This is fundamental to Christian theology and has clear and logical implications upon forming a Christian worldview. As observed by a Wikipedia author, ‘Many of these critiques attack, specifically, the perceived "abandonment of objective truth" as being the crucial unacceptable feature of the post-modern condition.’ This is absolutely the case, for there can be no compatibility between a philosophy reliant upon the reality of objective truth and a philosophy that elevates agnosticism to its objective truth (essentially, to state that truth does not exist and defend such a statement as being true).

We have all encountered postmodernism in its popular form of relativism, an attitude reflected in a phrase at this point cliché: ‘Truth is relative.’ Yet it is such a pronouncement which pulls the carpet from underneath itself! If it is so, then that must include the statement itself, thereby invalidating it. If it is not so, then such a statement is meaningless in its inability to adequately reflect reality. One who claims that truth is relative speaks into an intellectual vacuum; he can neither generate worthwhile response, nor express anything truly meaningful. This is the bankruptcy of postmodern thought, and yet Alan Bloom, in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, affirms the state of things as he writes, ‘Every professor on a university campus today can be absolutely sure of one thing: that almost every student coming in for an education is confident that truth is not absolute but relative.’

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