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.

‘Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes': Bit of a Joke

Book coverI bought a book lately called ‘Plato and Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes’ by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It’s quite a fun read, although as sympathetic to my evangelical convictions as you’d expect from two Harvard grads from New England. In spite of anticipating some light-hearted hostility, I was nevertheless a little surprised by the ‘Philosophy of Religion’ section. Not because it is surprisingly offensive — it isn’t — but more because it is surprisingly inaccurate.

Pascal’s Wager

The first quibble I had with the book had to do with Pascal’s Wager, about which I have written before (when Dawkins got it wrong). Cathcart and Klein say the following:

‘The seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that deciding whether or not to believe in God is essentially a wager. If we choose to behave as if there is a God and we get to the end and it turns out there isn’t, it’s not such a big deal. Well, maybe we’ve lost the ability to thoroughly enjoy the Seven Deadly Sins, but that’s small potatoes compared to the alternative. If we bet there isn’t a God, and get to the end only to find out there is a God, we’ve lost the Big Enchilada, eternal bliss. Therefore, according to Pascal, it is a better strategy to live as if there is a God. This is known to academics as “Pascal’s Wager.” To the rest of us, it’s known as hedging your bets.’ (Pg 100)

Calling the idea represented above ‘Pascal’s Wager’ is a bit like calling Hamlet a book about whether or not to commit suicide. As I tried to point out in my post about Dawkins’ objection to it, Pascal’s Wager does have to do with betting on belief in God as the best strategy, but Pascal himself immediately warns that it is not possible to fake it, which brings him to the actual content of his wager.

God is not likely to be fooled by bet-hedging faith based entirely on greed. You have to throw in your lot wholeheartedly one way or another, and reason, says Pascal, has no solution to the problem of whether or not God and His promises are true. This is why Pascal’s discourse on the subject rather aims at urging people to experience the Christian life to see whether it is worth committing to. He is actually wagering that living as a Christian (as a sort of a trial period) — though it seems like a terrible life of restriction and sacrifice — will prove it to be the better bet even in the here and now, which removes a significant obstacle to wholehearted conversion. Perhaps the wager is more like trying to convince Cadillac drivers to buy an electric car (which promises to be rubbish but ends up being fantastic to drive, if only you’ll get behind the wheel).

Apples with Apples

My next issue with the book arose out of a Sam Harris quote, which is as follows:

‘Tell a devout Christian his wife is cheating on him, or a frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anybody else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book that he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity that will punish him by fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.’ (Pg 99-100)

Harris has made a living out of publishing clever jibes against religion for a popularist atheist movement, and I suppose (if I’m being generous) this quote is important to the extent that it captures the unfortunate mindlessness exhibited by some Christians. However, I think this quote is actually deeply unfair if applied to Christianity in general, and not on the grounds that some might give, i.e. that other Christian groups have abandoned the Bible’s ‘incredible claims’.

It is unfair because it obscures the fact that different types of belief require different types of evidence. Belief in superpowered dessert treats requires paradigm-shifting empirical evidence. Belief that my wife loves me probably requires some evidence (or at least absence of evidence to the contrary), but some  non-evidential trust. The belief that I love my wife while we’re fighting requires still different ratios of evidence, trust and conviction on my part.

Belief in Jesus is not a matter of swallowing a series of fantastical stories without questioning. Our faith — as we make no end of prostesting — is a matter of relationship. It comes about through being convinced that the Biblical view of the world is true; through being convinced that the historical evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus is plausible enough; and through no small measure of belief that one has had the subjective experience of being met and called by God Himself. There is no evidence for this latter belief, although it forms the most significant part of conversion. So consider the following as an alternative analogy to frozen yoghurt:

Jane gets to know a family in her neighbourhood whose son is away at war. She learns about the son from his parents, she sees pictures, hears of his past and so on. Eventually Jane decides to write to him. He writes back, and in time they embark on a long-distance relationship. Although there are many risks involved, they decide that they love each other, and get engaged. His letters include remarkable tales of bravery and selflessness, and promises of a happy life together once the war is over. The end.

On the basis of this story, I’d like to ask Samharrisites a few questions:

  • What evidence does Jane have that they have fallen in love other than that she has personal experience of it and assurances from him? What proof should she demand? Is her trust in their relationship a fiction because they’ve never met?
  • Is it OK for her to base her trust in his character on the testimony of his family and his writings? Or is she mindlessly swallowing invisibility yoghurt by doing so?
  • If the news is quiet about the war and no tales of valour are being reported from other sources, should she believe his ‘remarkable tales’ or should she doubt him just because naysayers in her home town haven’t seen anything comparable with their own eyes?
  • If he’s long in coming home and the other boys start asking Jane out, should she break her engagement and settle for something immediate with a person she doesn’t love so well?
  • If he never comes home at all and Jane dies a spinster, in love with some dusty old letters, does she become a tragic figure and a wasted life? Or is her love and lifelong faithfulness a worthy enough existence?

Christianity is much more like the long-distance relationship and not at all like the evidence-demanding frozen yoghurt. We believe on the basis of God’s character, His actions in history and subjective relational experiences — a basis that cannot (like it or not) fruitfully be subjected to much scientific testing.

Jane’s story is not beyond belief. I’m sure people like her have existed in human history. We accept it readily enough without demanding proof, because we can relate it to our own experiences and to a long history of similar events. Yet real-life Janes have only one life. She does not have the luxury of assurances that things will work out or any ‘do-overs’ if they don’t. In the same way, this is our only life and this is the one-and-only human history. We don’t have the luxury of multiple worlds in which we can observe God’s track record or the likelihood of incarnations and resurrections. These things have happened in our history or not. Their uniqueness in history doesn’t make them more or less possible. So we take God at His word and wait patiently. If the naysayers are right and our faith and calling are illusions, then perhaps we’re pityable, but with Jane and with Pascal I’m convinced that even if all we have at the end is a life lived in hope and good character is was not a waste.

Music, Art, Beauty

Witnessing the extremely gifted at their work has the strange effect of simultaneously inspiring one to attempt to join them in what they’re doing (because they make it look effortless), and provoking one to quit one’s own efforts in that field (because one is made so painfully aware of how bad one actually is).

I was reminded of this not so long ago when hearing John Piper preach, which is both a spellbinding experience in person, and also immensely discouraging to someone whose profession is in large measure based on public speaking, as mine is.

Jack and JeffI was reminded of this principle again some days ago when hearing a friend and his band perform. Derek’s sound is like a mixture of Jeff Buckley and Jack Johnson, and his obvious quality made me wish I had the stuff to be a performer. As I lack just about everything that is needed to be a rockstar, I decided to settle for thinking about why I couldn’t witness talent without wanting to have it for myself, and why it is that Derek isn’t famous yet.

The first issue is probably fairly simple. As with all things human, our desires are a tangled mess of the good and the evil. I want to be a rockstar because I’m jealous of the attention and praise that such people receive. And I want to be a musician because it is hard to be a human worthy of that name without a deep love for beauty, and witnessing beauty should legitimately provoke in us a wish to participate in it.

As for achieving fame, that’s not so easy to understand. Getting the attention of the public is something that countless unworthy people achieve and many great talents fail to do. Becoming famous probably is a combination of skill, timing and a generous helping of luck. The best one can do is to work hard, I suppose, because as someone once said, ‘The more I practice the luckier I get’. Or you could get yourself killed during a late-night swim in all your clothes, which did wonders for Jeff Buckley’s career. Continue reading

Poppins and Perception

Mary Poppins

Gritty realism

When we were young, one of my siblings got her hands on a VHS copy of Mary Poppins. Children have a high tolerance for repetition, and so for what felt like an endless succession of days, weeks, and months, my brothers and I were subjected to a daily dose of Supercalifragelisticexpialidocious and Feed the birds / tuppence a bag. Eventually, there was no sugar that could make that medicine go down, and we taped an inconsequential local football game over it in protest. My irrational hatred of musicals may have something to do with such scarring childhood experiences. Continue reading

Velvet Elvis overdose

velvetPostmodern-Christian writers are strange animals. They’re the first to speak about how impossible it is to connect truth and language, and how language fails when it comes to communicating anything about God. Yet they’re never short of words to tell the rest of us about God, and they expect us to understand them. They’re the most cynical about the misuse of language, and yet they engage in more rhetoric and manipulation than anyone, without regard for genuine argument or logic.

We’re having a postgraduate seminar about the ‘emerging church’ tomorrow. The student paper on the subject looks at Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis (2005), and I got upset. So I thought I’d share.

*Note: Having just had the seminar, it is clear that the student has misinterpreted Bell in some respects, and at least not fully demonstrated his thesis that Bell is leaning on Brian McLaren’s thinking. So let me not take it for granted that Bell is fully in the Emergent line. Nevertheless, there are some worrying tendencies. Continue reading

Religion as the Enemy of Worship

A SERMON FROM AMOS 4

Introduction

In Amos 4 & 5, we look at God’s take on Israel’s worship. For us, worship is a subject of some confusion. When we speak about worship in the church, people are always very quick to point out that worship is not just singing, it’s our whole life. This is good and true, but the fact that it is necessary to have such a dictum reveals that we know that we’re often confused.

And of course, even when we remember that worship is a lifestyle, there’s still the question of what part our music and our church ceremony plays. For example, consider these two book titles:

  • Prophetic Worship – Releasing the Presence of God
  • (Winning Edge Min.) Worship Music in 3D: How to Sing Down the Presence and Power of God

Does our worship achieve this lofty end or not? Does God really need our permission to be ‘released’ or ‘present’?

And then what about lifestyle? We might say that our life is worship, but how widespread is this idea, and how seriously to we take the challenge? Continue reading

Postmodern theology’s age-old mistake

Brian McLaren’s lamentable book, A New Kind of Christian, argues that the Christian church needs to adapt its theology to keep pace with changing cultural values (i.e. postmodernism). He proceeds to demonstrate what he means by engaging in some of that revision himself. Of course, some of that work is helpful (he can only conceive of a modernist church as an alternative to a postmodern one, and so finding weaknesses there is a bit like the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel). However, he trims away far too much, including nearly everything that Jesus meant when he said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’.

Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order includes a passage on Karl Barth that reveals that this theological revisionism is not new and not clever: Continue reading