NT Wright on Science, Scientism, and the New Testament

NT Wright delivered a lecture earlier this year in which he addressed the question, ‘Can a Scientist Trust the New Testament?’

As is his custom, he manages to get at the problem in an arresting and unexpected way. He argues that much of our trouble with the New Testament—even those of us who have chosen to trust it—has come about because we’re all victims of a worldview that has a mixed up view of science, fact, and knowledge. Although this worldview is largely discredited, most of us still are clinging on to it, whether it’s the atheist who thinks that ‘progress’ has left religion in the past, or the Christian who thinks that God is only visible in ‘the gaps’.

I reckon this article is a must-read for atheist and Christian alike. Full version in the link directly below, and a couple of teaser quotes follows after that:

PDF Version

“Every time someone says ‘Now that we live in the modern world’, or ‘in this day and age’, or even ‘now that we live in the twenty-first century’, they are appealing implicitly to a narrative to which we are all supposedly signed up, a narrative in which a new day has dawned, bringing freedom, especially from the constraints imposed by older tyrannies, including that of the church. The word ‘progressive’, used by columnists in the Guardian as the catch-all term for a whole range of agendas, expresses this belief. There is an almost touching faith in this story of inevitable progress. One might have thought that the history of the last nearly three hundred years, which is full of wars and genocides and atom bombs and terrorism, might have shaken it. One might have thought that the postmodern critique, showing the dream of progress to be riddled with corruptions of one kind or another, might have undermined it. Perhaps the real question today is, Can Someone in the Twenty-First Century still Believe in Progress? – and the answer ought clearly to be No. But this great myth still dominates popular and public discourse. And – this is the point – it has got muddled up with the quite different story of science proper. And when that happens we have something we might call scientism.”

“But let me just stress two things [about the Resurrection]. First, beware of the idea that it is only through modern science that we discovered that dead people don’t rise. This is a classic example of ‘scientism’, not only to make claims not only about what we ‘now’ know but to suggest that nobody knew it before. Whenever the topic of resurrection comes up in the ancient world, the poets and philosophers all know the answer: of course it doesn’t happen. It isn’t the case that prior to 1750 people didn’t know the laws of nature, so were ready to believe in resurrection, whereas now we do so we aren’t. As C. S. Lewis says, the reason Joseph was worried about Mary’s pregnancy was not because he didn’t know where babies came from but because he did. The resurrection of Jesus was just as difficult to believe in the first century as it is for us – equally difficult, but no more. Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead always takes a worldview-shift. It cannot be fitted into any other existing framework.”

Practice what you preach when you preach

This is addressed to preachers. Especially the evangelicals: those who believe that the Bible is the written word of God.

Let’s imagine that your church were visited by an outside researcher. An alien perhaps, or an angelic being if you’re not into the alien thing.

Imagine that this researcher was trying to determine what you believe about the Bible just by examining what you do with the Bible. How would you stack up?

What should we say about scripture?

As evangelicals, we believe that ‘all scripture is breathed out by God’, and so in spite of the fact that it was written by many human authors over many centuries, there is also an overall unity because God’s mind lies behind it all. So God has communicated with the world through the scriptures that He has preserved for us.

And what is God’s book like? Is it a coherent philosophy full of universal truths? Eternal wisdom on topics of spiritual interest? No, as we know, it is a raw collection of many different types of literature, including stories, prophecies, letters, and even poems and songs. The eternal truth and wisdom that it contains emerges from the storylines of the histories and the Gospels, or from the careful argumentation of the letters to the churches.

Are these books written to the believers across the aeons? Are they equally true and accessible to all readers? Indeed, they are written for all believers, but not to all believers. Each book had its own particular audience, bound to a particular time and culture.

This is how we believe God chose to speak His word to us—through this Bible. Yet when we preach every Sunday, does our practice bear this out?

What kind of preacher are you?

When an attentive outsider observes how you preach, what conclusion would they draw about your doctrine of scripture?

1. The Medieval Roman Catholic

Imagine you are the researcher, transported back in time to a Medieval Catholic church. The service is given entirely in Latin, including the message read from a collection of sermons. You don’t understand Latin, and so you are completely baffled, but no matter—none of the people beside you in the pews understand Latin either.

How would you judge the beliefs of this church? Where would they have found ‘the word of God’? Clearly they didn’t find it in the intelligible communication of scripture. Tradition and church order was obviously more important, even if nobody (not even the preacher!) understood what was being read.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God’s word is mediated by the Church, and the Bible is a document of Church order.

2. The motivational speaker

Now imagine you’re transported into a church in which the speaker is styled as a ‘life coach’. Perhaps the preacher discusses current affairs in order to provide some wisdom or encouragement to his listeners. The preacher may use the Bible, but only to help you towards ‘a better you’.

Many churches have declared their lack of confidence in the Bible, and teach this way as a result. Others teach this way because they are attempting to be Christianised versions of Oprah. Either way, the Bible is clearly of peripheral interest and only drawn in when a verse can be found that says something of service to the topic at hand.

More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible contains much wisdom concerning the best way to live.

3. God’s word to us today

The previous two preachers are the kind that we as evangelicals love to hate, but how do we stack up in comparison?

In a church that I know and hold in high regard for many reasons, the sermons regularly affirm an orthodox doctrine of scripture, are based on biblical texts, and show deep reverence for the Bible as God’s word. However, the church is suspicious of academic study and intellectualism, and so its preaching usually prizes openness to what the Spirit is saying to the church now. They prefer to preach freely and without notes so as not to stifle the Spirit. Neither in its sermons or its cell groups does the church work systematically through books (or even chapters) of the Bible.

What conclusion would an observer draw about their doctrine of scripture? The sermons may be helpful exhortations to love, faithfulness and good works, but they are rarely if ever sustained explanations of the Bible.  Texts are separated from their contexts, and because there is no continuity week-by-week, there is never any sense of the storyline or argument of which each verse is a part. In practice, the Bible is a point of departure for a message generated from other sources.

Although messages are inspired by or based on the Bible, the preaching does not explain the message of the Bible in the terms in which it was written. The ‘word of God’ seems to be something that God ‘lays on the heart’ directly.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God speaks to His church, and this is often inspired by what is written in the Bible.

4. Direct application

A wedding sermon I heard this week (while playing ‘alien observer’ in another church) nicely exemplified the ‘direct application’ method of preaching.

The message was from Psalm 45, which speaks of the groom (seemingly the king) wielding the sword and the bow, the bride dressed in gold, and their children being princes in the land for generations. To his credit, the preacher moved through the text piece by piece, which would seemingly acknowledge that God’s word is related to the message of the text as it was written.

However, the text was assumed to be about every marriage (not the wedding of Israel’s king), and each of its details was assumed to be directly applicable to the couple being wedded that day. So allegories were constructed to account for the sword, arrows, and golden fabric, and the preacher even insinuated that it was the literal duty of the couple to have children.

Does it not matter that the psalm was written to Old Covenant Israel? That Jesus’ coming has changed things? That children played a special role in the OT that they do not in the NT? That Israel’s king and his children were theologically important in a way that does not translate any longer?

The preacher was at least explaining the text, but without the controls of literary and historical context that help to uncover what the text originally meant. He ignored the progression of time and revelation, and made no reference to differences in covenant and culture. He treated the Bible as though it were written to us, not just for us. Under those rules, I’m just pleased the message wasn’t about God’s command to be circumcised.

More realistic doctrinal statement: God supernaturally makes His word apparent to readers of the Bible (or perhaps only to specially chosen readers).

5. The topical preacher

Evangelical preachers seem most often to preach topically, that is, their sermons try to give the Bible’s view on justification, or homosexuality, or marriage etc. I have no major objection to topical preaching, but again, what would the observer deduce about our doctrine of scripture? The Bible itself is not arranged in this way. God’s word is not topical—the message emerges from material that is carefully arranged into plots and arguments, or structured as poetry. It has order, progression, context.

It is obviously helpful to distill out of these texts a theology of this or that, but should we consistently neglect how the Bible has been written in favour of a compendium of neat verses arranged around our theme for the day?

While topical preaching is often commendably biblical, it does not preach what God has said in scripture (at least not in the way that He said it); it preaches what God would probably say on a certain subject if we could ask Him.

More realistic doctrinal statement: The Bible provides enough information to allow us to uncover God’s word on various subjects.

‘What’s your point?’

I don’t mean to point fingers at other churches or to imply that my denomination (or our preaching) is more evangelical than yours. Who cares whose church is more at fault? Nor is this an attempt to provoke church members to become dissatisfied with their churches, or to suggest that the only valid preaching is exegetical preaching. Perhaps my hurried analysis of evangelical preaching is malformed and unfair. I’d welcome better suggestions concerning the relationship between our doctrine of scripture and our preaching of it.

This is merely a provocation. Our evangelical beliefs about scripture seem to be strongly worded in our doctrinal statements, but weak in practice. If we say that God has spoken in the Bible as we have it, why do so many churches neglect exegetical preaching almost entirely? The Good News is a message that is narrated by scripture. If we don’t work hard to understand that message in the terms in which it was given, we are likely to be presumptuous and to misunderstand it. And if we misunderstand the source material, our preaching can only ever be false (or, at best, true by accident). Is there any task more important than trying to attain deeper understanding of the message of the Bible?

Unless the Bible is the word of God in some mystical magical way, then the word of God is accessible to us only by exegesis. Yes, exegesis is hard and it demands painstaking study (maybe even in Greek and Hebrew). Understanding the message that was intended when it was written requires us to understand how each text connects to the next one, why a writer said what he said when he said it, and how his reader thousands of years ago would have understood it. Yes, it is somewhat academic, and yes it makes things rigid. But no, it does not limit the Spirit. It limits the spirit of the preacher, but not the Spirit of God. It is precisely the word of the Spirit that we have in scripture—why would His own words be a limitation?—and it is the minister’s duty to handle it with care (2 Timothy 2:15).

As evangelicals, we may preach that the Bible is the written word of God, but do we practice what we preach when we preach?

Is scripture clear?

I’m hardly a doctrine expert, or particularly well-read on this topic (and so please treat the following as thoughts in progress), but I was struck by the comments today of a visiting Christian author concerning the clarity of scripture. On more than one occasion, he mentioned how there are things in scripture that we don’t understand, BUT—on that great day in which we see God face-to-face, when all is made apparent—we will realise that it was not scripture that was unclear, but we small-minded people that were at fault.

I don’t really understand his line of argument. Is there really any difference between something that is unclear, and something that is unclear for humans? I am struggling to picture God’s explanation on that day as being, ‘I wrote it perfectly clearly; just not in a way that you could understand.’

I personally think that the Bible is often unclear. Some of the reason is that it is merely unclear for us. We don’t belong to the same era or the same culture or the same frame of reference as the original writers and readers. We also aren’t privy to all the reasons for writing or the conversation into which many of the books (certainly the letters) were written. Some of it gets lost in translation.

But the lack of clarity is more than that. Even Peter (without all the temporal and cultural difference) says that some of Paul’s letters are ‘hard to understand’. Similarly, the Early Church was hardly impeccable in its understanding of Christian theology. For all their privileges of proximity, they were still just at novice level.

The stories in the Old Testament are illustrative of the issue. The writers often get criticised for their failure to pass clear verdicts on the behaviour that they describe, and in fact some bad behaviour seems almost to receive their approval. For example, in Judges 14, when Samson wants to marry into a family of the enemy and oppressor, to the complaints of his parents, the author reports, ‘His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord,’ which prompts most of us (incorrectly) to conclude that this means his behaviour was acceptable or even good.

The more I study Hebrew narratives, the more struck I am by how much communication of even essential ideas is taking place below the surface, encoded in subtle allusions, pointed repetitions, puzzling juxtapositions and incongruities, and so on. The author’s theological emphases and ethical judgments often lie partially submerged on this artfully ambiguous level, where there are rarely ‘model answers’ for the conclusions that we must draw.

If there is one thing that is clear from these stories, it is that clarity is not the primary goal. We are invited to puzzle over the grey areas, and it seems to me that there is most to be gained from that struggle.

I’m not convinced by the claim that the Bible is clear and it is us that is muddled. We undoubtedly are guilty of muddle, but the thing that draws us out of the blur is the sharpening of our moral and theological reasoning, and mature thinking is never birthed without struggle.

So I’d suggest that the Bible isn’t always clear, but I take it that is the point.

Good blasphemy?

One movie that I liked well enough to add to my small collection is a slightly odd mockumentary called Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999). It satirises beauty pageants and the abuses related to that industry.

One particular scene has always stuck in my mind, mostly because as a Christian, I am sensitive about blasphemy and this pushes it a bit far. Watch it here:


In the clip, we see the ‘talent show’ part of the beauty pageant competition, in which the beauty queen finalists all have to show off some sort of talent to prove that they are more than just a pretty face. The woman introducing the next contestant (Gladys) is the organiser and judge of the competition, as well as the mother of the next contestant, who is called Becky. Both of them are dishonest, evil characters who will stop at nothing to win. Gladys introduces her daughter as follows:

“Now, it’s with overwhelming pride that I introduce contestant number six, who is also the president of her class – two years running – an honor roll student and the new President of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club – Ladies and Gentlemen, Rebecca Ann Leeman!”

Becky sits on stage with the spotlight on her and says,

“You know what? The rumours are true. I do have a special fella in my life. And if nobody minds, I’d like to sing a little song, just for him.”

She proceeds to sing ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, and as the chorus begins and the ‘special fella’ emerges from the wings to do the dance routine, we discover that this ‘fella’ is a ridiculous Jesus mannequin pinned to a cross on wheels. Becky takes his outstretched arms and begins an up-tempo dance with him.

Now this is clearly meant to be blasphemous and therefore to offend the Christian audience. If the movie were any bigger or happened to appear at any more momentous an occasion than its setting in 1999, I imagine that it could have precipitated the proverbial dung storm (in the parlance of our times).

Nevertheless, I decided to use this clip for a lesson on satire at GWC, the Bible college at which I teach. While it’s not normally the sort of place in which blasphemy is appreciated, it was a calculated risk that I thought important. Why? Because Christian leaders are particularly bad at responding to media in general, and to public acts of blasphemy in particular. How does this movie scene help? Well, consider what satire is for.

If you’ll pardon the source, Wikipedia’s article called ‘Satire’ (accessed 8 Oct 2013) says:

Satire is a genre of literature [etc.]… in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.

A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—”in satire, irony is militant”… This “militant” irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack. (Emphasis mine)

Wiki adds that exaggeration is a common technique in satire.

In short, satire is a form of criticism that aims at shaming people into changing their bad behaviour. We expect it to mimic that bad behaviour in ironic and exaggerated ways so that the wrongness of the behaviour is both clear and embarrassing. When the recipient fully feels this embarrassment, the hope is that it will provoke change. Often the offence is all that is felt, and this is why satire is subject to more misunderstanding, criticism, and controversy than perhaps any other genre.

Even though Drop Dead Gorgeous is surely being blasphemous, consider how this scene fulfils each of the requirements of satire:

  1. Exaggeration:  Dancing with a crucifix is clearly preposterous, but most of the crowd more-or-less laps it up.
  2. Seems to approve of the bad behaviour: Although the film-maker seems to be blaspheming in this scene, the ‘straight character’ (Ellen Barkin), who represents the film-maker’s opinion of the clear thinker on this matter, reacts to this dance with shock and ridicule. The film-maker knows that it is unacceptable.
  3. Uses shock to shame the abuser: This is the key issue. Who or what is this ‘bad behaviour’ supposed to be shaming?

If you can take a step back from the offence of this scene and consider its purpose, you should notice a few things. Firstly, the scene in no way is criticising Christianity, or saying anything good or bad about Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is not really there—he’s a mannequin—and he is consequently passive in the scene. He is acted upon, and not an active participant. Rather, the criticism is being directed primarily against people who use Christ’s name as a tool of audience manipulation. When the popular vote is needed, Jesus is trundled out to be paraded in front of the unthinking Christian audience. It doesn’t matter how wicked some people are behind the scenes, as long as they pay lip-service to Christianity, they have public trust.

Now think about what the Bible says about blasphemy. The Bible obviously acknowledges that unbelievers are blasphemers in their own way, but the strongest criticisms for blasphemy are actually levelled against those who are supposedly God’s people. Take for example St Paul’s summary reading of the Old Testament material on this subject:

Romans 2:23-24
23 You who boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

[See also Isaiah 52:4-5, Ezekiel 20:27-28, and Ezekiel 36:16-23 for more examples.]

The main sort of blasphemy that God prohibits is not the sort perpetuated by His enemies, but the sullying of His reputation at the hands of His own supposed representatives. This film clip seems to me to be making a similar point: those who claim to be representing Christ are often doing so only for appearance’ sake, whereas they actually blaspheme Jesus by their lifestyle and by their hypocritical public use of his name.

So while I would not usually condone blasphemy, satire is a medium that fights fire with fire. We get offended by a movie character dancing with a crucifix, but we don’t get offended when politicians stab one another in the back and dedicate the knife to Jesus? Perhaps we are the bigger blasphemers.

The second contribution of this scene is the attack on offensive Christian sentimentality. Becky addresses Jesus in terms associated with a boyfriend. In the original script, a dance move was supposed to cause Jesus’ loin cloth to slip, and in order to prevent it falling off, Becky was supposed to be left holding Jesus by the crotch. Even the film-makers seem to have decided that this would be going too far, and so there is no such scene in the film itself. Nevertheless, it does aim a slap at the incongruity of using ‘in-love’ language of Jesus (and other superficially romantic ways of speaking about faith). However much you might be able to drum up butterflies in the tummy about your relationship with Jesus, the Bible actively promotes the idea that our relationship now is partial and in a waiting period, not complete and immediate. For example:

1Corinthians 13:9-12

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (See also 2Corinthians 5:6-7)

So by all means be excited about being forgiven, and being adopted into the family and the very being of God. Just don’t be fake and sentimental and showy about it. As Drop Dead Gorgeous points out, overdoing how close you claim to feel to Jesus can just come off as obscene. A bit more realism and a lot more sincerity would probably do the public face of Christianity a lot of good.

Satire Side-bar!

Satire is a very ancient genre and may well have found its way into scripture. Sections of Daniel, for example, seem to be ridiculing the Babylonian emperors who had taken Daniel and his compatriots into exile. The book of Jonah also casts the prophet in an exceptionally bad light: for the whole book he represents an attitude of unforgiveness towards Gentiles and disregard for their lives that stands in direct contrast to the attitude of God that the book teaches. This too might be intended as a satire of Jerusalem’s ‘pious’ people who have none of the love and mercy that their God does.

The Resurrection and Christopher Hitchens

Today is Easter, the celebration of the day on which Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected, an event upon which the entirety of biblical Christian faith rests. As St Paul once wrote,

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Corinthians 15:17-19)

While many Christians have disagreed with Paul and have tried to find ways of distancing Jesus from such ‘embarrassing’ claims, the resurrection of Jesus is still the place in which I find my doubts most often stilled, and where proselytising atheists would do well to aim their attacks. In tandem with the incarnation (God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus), this is the central miracle of all the biblical miracles.

Christopher Hitchens was a much-loved atheist who sadly died of cancer recently, and he was one such opponent of the resurrection and the miraculous in general. Here is a clip that encapsulates many of his arguments that I’ve heard:


In the clip, he argues that the definition of ‘miracle’ is the ‘suspension of the natural order’. There may be some minor quibbles with the wording (Hitchens’ opponent in the video, for example, tries to insist on the word ‘intervention’), but it is basically good. Hitch then goes on to present David Hume’s old argument: Which is more likely? That a suspension of the natural order occurred in your favour, or that you’ve made a mistake?

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Historical Criticism of the Bible In Pictures

Historical criticism is the imaginitive process of taking the Biblical text, treating it as an unreliable source of incorrect chronology, and then chopping the text into tiny bits and using very cleverly to see into the true history that lies behind the text. It’s a bit like a combination of The da Vinci Code and The Emperor’s New Clothes for people with PhDs. It’s like getting a join-the-dots picture with two dots on it and inferring the Sistine Chapel. It’s like this (courtesy of somewhere on the internet):

Pictured: Historical Criticism

Pictured: Historical Criticism

Watch What You’re Watching

[This was published earlier this year in the Student YMCA's The Good News Magazine].

If you’re anything like me, you’re counting the days until the cinematic release of Katy Perry’s new biopic, ‘Part of Me’, in 3D. Exciting times.

Having seen the TV promo, I could relate to Katy-and-siblings’ reminiscences about their upbringing – how their Christian parents wouldn’t allow them to eat Lucky Charms (because ‘lucky’ comes from ‘Lucifer’, the Devil), or to watch The Smurfs. Back home my family had that attitude to luck and Smurfs too.

Katy’s brother and sister aren’t able to hide just how nuts they think their parents were, and over-protectiveness seems not to have done dear Katy much good. It’s easy to mock people for fearing The Smurfs, but how nuts were they? Now a parent myself, I want to protect my kids from a lot of things in this world, including morning cartoons. I think I’ll let them use the internet unsupervised around the same time they get a driver’s licence.

But it’s not just the emotional scarring of our kids that we have to worry about. All Christians are called to be holy and our consumption of entertainment media can be a threat to our holiness. But how do we determine when exactly we’ve crossed a line?

The extremes

There are two extreme approaches that you could adopt.


The first is to completely avoid everything ‘worldly’, to completely remove yourself from non-Christian culture. Certain groups of monks and nuns have taken this as far as it can go, and the Amish are extreme in their own quirky way. Perhaps Katy’s folks could be classed as moderate avoiders.

People in this category seemingly have the support of the Bible behind them:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable… think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. (Ephesians 5:12)

If we’re supposed to think only pure thoughts and speak about only respectable things, it might mean that our entertainment choices are limited to Little House on the Prairie or movies starring Kirk Cameron.

But there are a number of problems with the avoidance strategy.

Incest, rape, sodomy, gruesome violence, death, deceit, child abuse, witchcraft. These are exactly the kinds of disgusting things that the Bible is full of, often in graphic detail. So when Paul says in Ephesians 5 that we must not even mention what people do in secret, he is also well aware that, among other horrors, the Bible mentions a husband cutting his dead wife into twelve chunks because men had gang-raped her to death, only after having been prevented from raping him. Whatever Paul means, it’s not that we are forbidden to think about and discuss sinful acts altogether, otherwise we would not be allowed to read the Bible.

Secondly, avoidance is virtually impossible to practice. It is easy to say ‘I won’t participate in anything too sexy or violent or vulgar,’ but how do you actually do that without being utterly arbitrary?

Let’s take dramatised violence for example. If one end of the continuum is kids playing The Three Little Pigs and the other end is, say, Ichi the Killer, how do we decide when we’ve crossed the line into morally corrupt territory? Is violence fine if there is no death, such as in the A-Team; or death but no blood, like in Narnia movies? Why?

Or what about nudity? Most find the nudity on the Sistine Chapel acceptable even for church, but nudity in movies wrong. Why?

So what about the other extreme? Can Christians completely immerse themselves in popular media?


When we consume entertainment media we’re usually passive; and we’re just engaging with ideas: stories, lyrics, images. They aren’t even our ideas. Does it matter what ideas we engage with as long as we do the right thing?

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-32), Jesus teaches that even thoughts are open to judgment, because what we see can produce attitudes in us (such as lust) that are opposed to Godly relationships. Holiness is firstly an internal state before it ever becomes outward practice. So it does matter what we think and not merely what we do. Ideas have the power to influence our inner life, and that is as important to God as our behaviour. It’s what we are inside that makes us unclean (Mark 7:17-23).

Clearly, some forms of media are ruled out by Jesus’ words in the two passages mentioned above. But as soon as we try to become more moderate, we’re stuck with the same problem of making arbitrary decisions about where lines should be drawn.

Should we just follow our feelings? Is being slightly more moral than the average citizen good enough? Sometimes we just follow the rules of our preacher, which at least spares us having to think, but may mean an end to eating Lucky Charms while watching The Smurfs. Can we lay down rules, and if so, what is the principle according to which we do so?

The moral principle

The trouble with describing a Christian approach to entertainment media is that we tend to demand rules to govern our behaviour, and in the case of something as broad as the arts, it simply isn’t possible to make practical rules that will do for every situation, or that can be the same for every person. So although the following isn’t as comfortingly defined as rules, here’s what I’d suggest:

The basic principle, I think, is to avoid content that provokes immorality within you. This idea is derived from Matthew 5:27-29, in which Jesus teaches us to recognise whatever causes us to sin and cut it out of our lives. We don’t have to avoid the content on screen that would be sinful if we were doing it; we have to avoid the content that produces sinful attitude or behaviour in us by watching it.

Being violent is generally immoral, but watching someone on screen be violent is not necessarily so, because you are not always thereby being caused to sin. Sex and nudity are different, however, because they usually only work if there is audience participation on some level. They are meant to cause lust.

This principle places some responsibilities upon us as media consumers:

#1. Know your weaknesses

You have a responsibility to know your own weaknesses. One of my favourite films is The Big Lebowski. It contains a breath-taking amount of swearing, none of which affects me in the least. But there is also about 10 seconds of toplessness, which is much more of a stumbling block. I can’t therefore decide that you also shouldn’t be bothered by swearing, or that everyone must avoid all nudity always. You need to know the gaps in your own armour, not mine.

If fashion magazines or shopping malls or the latest Apple brochure provoke envy or covetousness in you, you should be ruthless; avoid the things that cause you to sin. If your girlfriend is easily susceptible to bogus views of romance in movies, then you have a godly reason not to ever let her make you watch Twilight.

We need to be self-critical and honest about our weaknesses, and courageous enough to avoid problem-content.

#2. Know the purpose

Be aware of purpose, the function of media content. For example, violence is bad behaviour, but in stories it can perform a valid role, such as symbolising justice or judgement or evil. But some violence may intend for the audience to enjoy the cruelty or goriness of it. Enjoying cruelty is an attitude that crosses a line, in my opinion, even if the viewer doesn’t leave the cinema and actually hit someone for fun.

#3. Know the threat

Finally, it is important to know what is truly threatening about the content you are consuming. I find Christians to be remarkably bad at analysing their entertainment. We tend to look out for the censor’s big categories (SLVNP) as if those markers of offensiveness-to-children are the only possible moral categories. Twilight has no explicit sex in it, but it has a terribly warped view of love and romance. Harry Potter is accused of glorifying witchcraft, but far more people will learn rebellion and distrust of authority from its main characters than magic.

We often forget that our entertainment is communicating ideas and attitudes to us, and some of these can be far more threatening than the means by which they are communicated. We’re often outraged by gritty content but asleep to the messages that have far more influence.

Entertainment shapes the way that all of us think. It tells us all sorts of ways to find hope and happiness and salvation and prosperity. But how will we avoid the dangers to our thinking in the media if we are unthinking consumers? And how will we help our friends away from those dead-ends and towards Christ if we fail to notice those ideas and attitudes for ourselves? If we’re to become God-honouring consumers of entertainment, we need to be more awake and really watch what we’re watching.

Trivial Pursuit: Pleasure in Ecclesiastes

This is a paper I wrote on Ecclesiates in 2005. The text is pasted below, but that may produce some untidy formatting errors (and removes page numbers), so here is the original PDF for download if you prefer.

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Trivial Pursuit


JSM Pickering, 2005


Christians perennially struggle with a life lived either completely immersed in the things of this world, or as though enjoyment of this life means diminished desire for the life to come. The former view leads to misplaced trust in the ability of this world to provide fulfilment and meaning, whereas the latter leads to suspicion of pleasure and a tendency towards asceticism. The book of Ecclesiastes suggests a way to walk the balance of life in a corrupted, doomed world.

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Response to Tauriq Moosa on Defending Morality with Religion

A friend of mine, Tauriq Moosa, wrote recently arguing on the basis of Euthyphro’s dilemma that it is indefensible for theists to claim their theism as a basis for ethics (‘The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion‘). There was at least one blog offering a ‘Christian response’ that did neither side any justice, so I thought I’d have a go.

The dilemma as he put it is:

 “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it (voluntarism), or (2) do the gods command it because it is right? (objectivism)”

It is derived from one of Socrates’ dialogues, and both Tauriq and Plato favour the second option, finding that the voluntarist option fails and renders the input of the gods redundant.

Although I discovered in the middle of writing this that what I’m about to say (or something similar) was succinctly argued by Augustine 1700 years ago (‘God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.’), perhaps I can put it in a novel way.

The major problem with the dilemma is that it seems only to work if you conceive of the world as Plato did.

Plato’s world versus the Christian one

In Plato’s world the gods were part of the universe, not beyond it, and the universe itself was seen as infinite and uncreated. The gods were spiritual powers within the same system that we inhabit. In his view, we either source our morality in the wishes of the gods, or we source it in an independent principle (reason, for example). In his worldview, the gods could be in disagreement about what was right, so divine commands that were binding upon people would have to be limited to what could be agreed upon. If even the gods disagree about what is right, its means that they are also subject to a principle of rightness external to them; this of course makes their opinion on the matter largely redundant. Furthermore, the fact that the universe itself was thought to be eternal and governed by absolute principles would have lent moral reasoning (which taps into those principles) considerable authority for someone like Plato.

However, if God is the Creator of the system and outside the system, it radically changes the game board. The dilemma treats God as divorced from the universe, so that the two can be conceived of separately. Plato could reasonably do so because his ‘gods’ were separate in this way, but Christian theism is not so structured, and accordingly the dilemma seems not to hold. The universe is not eternal, and God is not a resident of it. The universe is His creation and dependent upon Him.

Everything that exists has its existence (according to Christianity) because of the ongoing command of God. In other words, God’s command does not merely govern moral imperatives, but also the patterns and structures and functioning of the universe too. Any system according to which we would measure rightness (be it reason, logic, whatever) would at the same time be a function of the mind of God who set the system up in the first place. The moral commands that He has given (taken for granted that there is a set of these that are identifiably from Him) would also be a function of that same mind. If God exists in the Biblical way, He is both the author of moral command and moral reasoning, both of which are a function of His mind and character.

So conduct is not right because God commands it but because it is fittingly related to His character. Conduct is not commanded by God because it is right either, but it is commanded because it is fittingly related to His character. Whether we learn of that relatedness and that character by means of command or by good moral reasoning is  irrelevant. God doesn’t merely give His blessing to something that is ‘good in itself’; His is the mind that made the rules and framework by which it can be recognised as such.

Objection: Following commands destroys moral freedom

“Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely… Furthermore, [voluntarism] makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods.”

The complaint that command destroys free moral decision-making would perhaps be true if God dispensed command like a sergeant major. This is not how Christianity works.

Let’s hypothetically accept that the commands/laws in scripture are indeed from God’s mouth. These laws are surprisingly few, not exhaustive, given in a context, and intended to be applied and recontextualised very broadly. Over and over, the Bible models the idea that obedience to the letter of the law is insufficient and misses the point of it.

The law conveys a snapshot of Godlike character that needs to be investigated, expanded, understood, and embodied. Clearly even obedience to God’s command requires the careful application of wisdom (which connects us again to the domain of moral reasoning).

So God’s commands require His followers to be as competent as anyone else at moral reasoning, because without it, command is bound to be misunderstood and misapplied. Biblical commands cannot function to ‘tell us what to do’ because they’re not structured in this way. So one cannot solve moral problems merely by consulting the scriptures (hence the disagreement among even followers of the Bible that Tauriq mentions). Moral reasoning, albeit of a dependent kind, is still required of Christians.

Additionally, it is certainly not the case that on moral issues one can merely ‘consult the gods’ directly. Given that the structure of God’s command is not to have a constant stream of orders from heaven, there is no expectation for Christians that God will provide fresh, specific commands for daily eventualities. His commands in scripture are expressions of underlying guiding principles, which (once laid down) are there for our study and application. This means that God’s commands are not as open to change or subjectivity or arbitrariness as you might think.

Objection: God is redundant

“…the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard…”

From my earlier argument, it should be clear that God is not separable from the standard of right; God is not lending approval to ‘another standard’, He is actually foundational to morality and to the reasoning by which we attempt to gain access to it. He is the one who speaks the language of reason according to which the universe has been programmed.

But why the need to provide commands? Doesn’t moral reasoning at least make His intervention redundant?

Christians argue no, because it is basic Christian belief that humanity does not by nature have direct access to God, because sin separates us from knowing God, which means that our moral reasoning is left to its own devices. Because people have limited capacity and we’re generally unable to foresee the consequences of our moral decision-making, we do not have the faculties and the vantage point to see what is truly moral behaviour. In Christian terms, we are supposed to be aware that we are dependent creatures, not autonomous.

God does not experience such failings, and so ours can be partially overcome if God reveals His character in a more decisive way, and this makes command desirable. This is why Christians will tend to revert to the Biblical basis for morality that Tauriq’s article complains about. If God exists and if He has spoken, His words would necessarily be a primary moral resource. (Again, this assumes that we have a body of God’s revelation. I understand that this is questionable, but it is for now a separate issue than whether revelation/command would trump human reason.)

As Tauriq says: “One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute”. God is the ultimate ‘smarter person’, and He does, surprisingly enough, frequently supply some of His reasons for moral commands. It is entirely reasonable to appeal to His thoughts, if we have them.

Another important reason why it is preferable to prioritise command is that Biblical religion is about restoring people to a relationship of dependence upon God, rather than autonomy. Having come to believe that God has commanded something, it is anti-relational to behave as though one knows better than Him how His creation works.

Objection: Third way makes God equivalent to goodness a priori

Tauriq’s article mentions a third way (besides the two raised by Plato), which makes rightness something internal to God. This is much the same as what I’m arguing, so I must answer the related objection. Tauriq says:

“We can’t simply be saying ‘god is good’ before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn’t answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.”

I’m not sure that anyone is spared from his objection here, because everybody must eventually say what it is that constitutes good, and I don’t see how we can avoid doing so without describing a set of principal characteristics. By what criterion we say they’re ‘right’ thereafter presumably is circular for everyone.

When Christians say ‘God is good’, we do not leave God or goodness undefined, as if our idea of God could be redefined to suit any moral standard (which seems to me to be a modification of voluntarism). When we say God is good, we mean that goodness is based on His characteristics, not something external to Him (whether His commands or moral universals).

So this is why morality is ‘being fittingly related to His character’. Take for example what Jesus calls the founding principles underlying all law: love for God and love for neighbour. We are saying that love (as it is exemplified in scripture, especially the crucifixion) is not an eternal principle that God likes, it is who He is, and so it is hardwired into His command and His creation.

There are two related objections that I’ll answer far too briefly: Firstly, some would say that if God existed prior to the creation of anything, then how could he have been moral (loving, for example) before there was anything that required the exercise of morality (love is other-person-centeredness; there needs to be others for it to exist)?

Ignoring the fact that we know nothing about eternity or things before the universe came to be, this objection is answered by the evidence in scripture that God is ‘Trinity’: a pluriform being, for want of a better term. God thus eternally practices other-person-centeredness by nature within his own being. So morality can be a set of particular characteristics, without also having to be external to God.

The second related objection is that God commands things that seem to us to be evil. I have written about the problem of evil before, so I’ll merely summarise. Firstly, for the greater good God opts not to bring evil (and thus all mankind) to an end, but rather works within a corrupted system to bring about ultimate good.

Secondly, there are direct divine commands (e.g. to annihilate) that are distasteful. Yet they are in line with the otherwise-obvious fact that God takes every life. Even those that die peacefully in their old age are nevertheless put to death by God, because as He says in the third chapter of the entire Bible, those who rebel will be put to death. He’s never really hidden that part away. Meting out judgement is not actually in direct conflict with God’s love. What is in conflict with God’s love is human hatred and rebellion, and so God either cures it or removes it.

Seeing as this still makes people unhappy, I would add to the above something that I have not argued on this subject before: It is a remarkable feature of God’s work in the world that He doesn’t mind bearing the accusation that He is evil. In working for the ultimate Good, God never seems to labour too hard to clear His own name.

Take the example of Jesus. His family line includes famous ancestors born out of prostitution, incest, adultery, and non-Jewish lineage. He was conceived out of wedlock inviting the assumption that he was a bastard. He worked as a manual labourer, not a scholar or priest. He hung around with traitors and hookers. He broke cultural interpretations of God’s law. He was condemned as a blasphemer. He died like the lowest of slaves. Nothing that he did was particularly aimed at protecting his reputation, and yet his shameful birth and death is all directed towards curing the evil and rebellion in those people who killed him.

So although the rightness of God’s actions are not always apparent to us, He seems not to mind the loss of reputation, even if it turns out that He was all the while doing good.

Snake Handling Pastor Dies Of Snakebite

At the end of May, Mack Wolford, a pastor of one of the fringe pentecostal churches that handle rattlesnakes as a test of faith (in ‘obedience’ to Mark 16), died of a bite on the thigh sustained during a church meeting. Being of the opinion that the Bible commends faith as the cure for snakebite, he did not seek treatment, and died shortly afterwards. His father had met the same end about 25 years ago.

Such an event is ripe for mockery, and many internet commenters predictably obliged, but this is sad for more reasons than his death.

Firstly, the obvious complaint is that the basis for this sort of behaviour in church is absurdly flimsy. Mark 16 is a later addition to the text (one of three manuscript endings for Mark), and seems to have been a hasty conclusion tacked on later because the ending that seems to be the original is abrupt and open ended. Those of us who hold to the authority of scripture tend to believe that it is the original that has the authority, and so mistakes and additions evident in later manuscripts are not deemed binding on us. Secondly, there are no comparable scriptures elsewhere in the Bible that guarantee miraculous intervention of this sort. Thirdly, the one who wrote this hasty conclusion may have understood himself to be writing a summary of Jesus’ promises to his Apostles, not to the general public, perhaps having in mind the incident in Acts in which St Paul is bitten by an adder and suffers no harm. In short, no one should be basing their well-being exclusively on those dubious words in Mark. Most people accept this, and the rattlesnake movement is accordingly very small.

The bigger sadness is that faith healing is in general a misunderstanding of the way that God works in the world. There is an assumption that certain things are (for want of better terminology) ‘ordinary’ and certain things are ‘spiritual’. Although few would argue this if pressed, they treat the spiritual realm as God’s habitat, but the ordinary realm as if God is largely absent from it. ‘Faith’ is a spiritual substance that gains you access to God’s powerful spiritual realm, from which comes miracle and other supernatural phenomena. The ordinary realm is the place for suffering, struggle, bodily functions, the sciences and so on. It is a realm to be transcended.

This outlooks fails not least because the things that belong to the ‘spiritual’ are chosen arbitrarily. Healing is an obvious candidate, because when ailments get beyond human help, we can only seek God’s supernatural intervention. This leads some, like Wolford, to classify healing as belonging to the realm of faith, and to consign medicine to the realm of unfaith.

But eating, as far as I’m aware, is never so classified. Eating is ‘ordinary’ and I for one have never heard of faith eaters.Yet the differences between food and medicine are not so great.

Firstly, food looks like it should belong to the ordinary, because it generally comes to us by natural means. It grows in the ground, you pick it and eat it. No miracle there. Yet the more we learn about our bodies and our world, the more we discover that healing the body is also a cooperative effort between our natural bodily functions and the things we find lying around. There is no necessary reason that the world should contain substances that cure things, but it does, and this is as much a feature of God’s Creation as food is.

Secondly, healing looks like a spiritual matter because so many Biblical miracles involve healing. Yet there are a number of very significant feeding miracles in the Bible by which God provides food entirely without natural help — such as Manna from heaven, the flour and oil jars that never run out, and the feeding of the 5,000 — yet people never seem to argue that we should pursue faith eating.

In both eating and healing, we trust God by faith to provide, and we are able to receive what He provides with thanksgiving. There is no compelling reason why healing by natural means is less faithful to God than eating by natural means.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding that God is more active in the supernatural than in the natural. The Biblical book of Esther, for example, fails even to mention God in its pages, and the deliverance in the end comes about via a series of non-supernatural coincidences. A major theme in the book is that God is capable of doing His work, even bringing about incredible results, without supernatural demonstrations of power.

So maybe a better test of faith would be to trust God while nothing much is happening, or trusting Him while dealing wisely with the world He created, instead of playing spiritual brinkmanship with God to goad Him into making a miraculous display. You might as well sit down with your mouth open and demand that He feed you.