Excerpt from “Turn Neither Right Nor Left”

The following is a short section from the end of Turn Neither Right Nor Left. It was released recently and is now available on Amazon.com.

* * * * *

The war that Christians fight is, paradoxically, a war of love and peace. We fight spiritual warfare, and yet the fruit of the Spirit are all humble, other-centered qualities that we praise much and practice little:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22–23)

In other words, if war produces unflinching commitment to the cause, it is important to recognize that the war that we’re meant to be fighting is one of good character and Christian perseverance. At all costs we pursue a no-compromise attitude to love even our enemies, and to do those things that guard our discipleship of Christ. While we tend to want to be right and to divide from those who differ from us, the New Testament is consistent in imploring us to be the kind of people who are humble, who listen to reason, who are kind, and eager to serve (e.g., Jas 3:17–18). It is consistent in calling us to peace and unity (e.g., 1 Pet 3:8–11).

Engaging in this warfare of peace and love has the ability to change our enemies to disciples. Look at what Peter says:

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:11–12)

As exiles in this world, Peter says, Christians ought to wage war not on our host nations, but on our own passions. By keeping our way of life pure, any accusations that our opponents might bring against us would be refuted by our good conduct. While it is not clear here that these enemies are glorifying God willingly, in 1 Pet 3:1, he says that our honorable behavior is a tool by which we win opponents over. But if our behavior is dishonorable, there’s no doubt that we’re losing the war.

The cold fact is that if the whole world rejected evolution, they would most likely be looking for the next scientific explanation and be no closer to Christ. If the whole Western world rejected feminism, it would be no more Christian than the patriarchal societies that feminism has not reached. If the whole church became premillennialist, it would not guarantee our unity in any other respect, we would not know Jesus better or love him more, and not a single soul would have joined us in our walk. If we managed to pressure the outside world into giving us our way on gay marriage, abortion, and so on, we might be happier with the morality of our laws, but it will have done little to restrain the morality of people and nothing to introduce them to Christ. On the contrary, if we insist on fighting with the weapons that we have been using, rather than the humble, self-sacrificial attitude of love and service that the Spirit gives us to use, we might have done more to put them off of the gospel than to commend it to them.

The polarized culture war that evangelicals have chosen to fight is a dirty, bloodied campaign to prevent the world from encroaching on us. Yet Christ has commissioned us to change the world—he has commissioned us to make disciples and to wash one another’s feet. It is this and this alone that has the power to succeed.

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Is James Dobson a baby Christian?

I have heard several sermons—and I’m sure many of you have too—in which the speaker looks back with admiration at the early church as it is depicted at the end of Acts 2. In this ideal moment at the beginning of the Christian church, believers self-sacrificially gave up their own comforts in order to ensure that other believers in crisis were looked after. As much as we like to praise this as a picture of the love and generosity of genuine Christianity, putting anything like this sort of attitude into practice is far rarer.

James Dobson was a hero of the church tradition that I grew up in, and he really seemed like someone who was passionate about preserving Christian truth and seeing families brought to Christ. His most recent newsletter, however, did some low-level trending on Twitter this week for all the wrong reasons, and I wanted to make a longer response to it. If I am now calling him out by name, it is not because he is particularly in the wrong, but he is representative of a broader Christian approach to social issues that I am finding more and more disturbing, and the contrast with my opinion of him as a youth is just so stark.

I also don’t want to imply that solutions to social problems are ever easy or that putting Acts 2 into practice is without complication. Nevertheless, if I were to ask you to mine Scripture—the Torah in Deuteronomy; Christ’s teachings; Paul’s letters—for a general perspective on how we should view the poor, the outsider, the refugee, what do you think you’d come up with? Not least, surely you’d include that the Bible commands love for the outsider by reminding believers that we were all slaves given freedom by grace, and that at the heart of true religion is looking after the vulnerable and those who are unable to repay us.

If I asked you to give a biblical perspective on how important culture and race and nationality are to the Christian’s identity, I’m sure we’d conclude that these are not important at all. Culture is neutral unless it imposes idolatries on us, and race and nationality have been dissolved into a gospel that shows love to all and despises favouritism. Indeed, Twitter is awash with white Christians who tell black believers exactly this—they apparently don’t even see race.

But when James Dobson hits the border camps, why does so much of this basic Christian teaching evaporate? Why is there fear of the outsider and insistence upon the sanctity of comfortable American culture? To be sure, his newsletter regularly affirms how much he grieves with and loves these people (“Tears flooded my eyes as I stood before them… ‘Please tell them that God loves them… tell them that I love them, too.’”), and I am in no doubt that the problems that he describes are very real and very serious. But there are several attitudes evident in this newsletter that I can’t understand.

Demonising foreigners: Criminals and illiterates

There are several studies that deal with problems of racial bias in corrupting the memory of eye-witnesses. For example, Pacific Standard Magazine details how stereotypes play a role in altering how witnesses remember the facial features of a perpetrator, and there are accounts of witnesses incorrectly identifying a white perpetrator as black due to the assumption that a criminal is likely to be black, or black suspects being remembered as particularly large or especially threatening. In short, xenophobia is a dangerous sin, and stereotyping plays a major role in perpetuating injustices against those who are considered other.

Yet without presenting any statistical evidence, whether it be about criminal records of those applying for asylum or the comparative rates of crime committed by immigrants versus American citizens, Dobson is quick to characterise (albeit “some”) migrants and refugees as criminal by virtue of their otherness. He says:

“An unknown number of these men are hardened criminals and drug runners, and they are difficult to identify. Most make their way across the border.”

“The border patrol agents are so busy caring for refugees seeking entry to the United States that they have very little time to police the borders. It is so porous that huge quantities of contraband, including all kinds of narcotics, flow into this country every day. Then it is transported northward to America’s cities to be consumed by adolescents and millennials. Lawless gangs, such as MS-13, are also pouring into the culture, making violence for inner cities a way of life.”

Of course he’s not accusing every migrant of being criminal, but notice how the language is always extreme: it’s huge quantities of drugs flowing in through porous borders; it’s lawless gangs pouring in and making violence a way of life. (He even manages to shoehorn millennials in there, in case there weren’t enough groups for him to vilify in one letter.)

The presentation of these people as vile and parasitic culminates in his conclusion:

“I can only report that without an overhaul of the law and the allocation of resources, millions of illegal immigrants will continue flooding to this great land from around the world. Many of them have no marketable skills. They are illiterate and unhealthy. Some are violent criminals. Their numbers will soon overwhelm the culture as we have known it, and it could bankrupt the nation.”

I find it abhorrent that in view of a serious refugee crisis from countries to the south, Dobson’s concern is not with need or gospel, but that “the culture” of his “great country” will be overwhelmed by swarms of dirty illiterates.

Demonising the left: Democrat Plots

In the process of making his dehumanising characterisation of the refugees, he also decides to add to the polarisation of America’s political and social landscape by blaming this problem on Democrats. He says:

“The refugees quickly give themselves up to agents. That is why they have made this journey. They know they will be fed, medicated, and treated humanely, even if they are in holding areas while they are in our custody. Then they will be released on American soil. This is the system set up by a liberal Congress and judges… Democrats want massive numbers of immigrants who will someday become voters. Some Republicans support the policies because they want cheap labor for agricultural purposes. The border could be fixed, but there are very few in authority who seem to care.”

Whatever the socio-political causes of high refugee numbers, and whatever has motivated the laws that insist on humane treatment of refugees and disallow their repatriation, Dobson ensures the agreement of his readers against the needy by portraying the impulse to help them as “liberal” and by sweeping all humanitarian impulses behind these laws into a cynical Democrat plot to bolster their voter numbers by naturalising foreign children. Dobson seems unable to conceive of the possibility that laws might have been made to protect these people from exploitation and mistreatment—the very impulse that his Christian faith should produce in him—rather, good treatment of refugees must surely have been motivated by a sinister Leftist power-grab and should therefore be opposed.

(It gives him no pause—but it should—that he assumes non-whites will vote Democrat.)

Excusing inhumanity and family breakdown

In contrast with the sweeping and emotive language that he uses of these migrants, when it comes to the conditions in which these people are held, Dobson becomes noticeably measured and impassive. The controversial zero-tolerance enforcement of the policy of separating children from their parents—pursued inter alia as a means of punishing migrants and deterring others from coming—is something that has horrified humanitarians, and several reports have revealed shocking cases of neglect and even deaths. But for Dobson:

“they are segregated by sex and age and placed in the fenced-in areas to be held for the next 20 days until they are processed and given a Notice to Appear. If that sounds inhumane, what would you or I do? There is simply no other place to ‘house’ them.”

For someone who has made a name and a fortune as the founder of Focus on the Family, it is alarming that there is absolutely no concern for these families. Not only does he not love them enough to criticise the practice of family separation, it doesn’t even get flagged as an issue. It’s an inevitable result of a housing shortage, that’s all.

Inconsistency that seems xenophobic

Another point at which Dobson’s newsletter is insensitive to its own xenophobia is on the matter of “anchor babies”. Dobson is concerned that allowing one illegal to slip through the cracks and to get established in the country then promotes the migration of the whole family, exacerbating the immigration problem. He says:

“The vast majority [of immigrants released with a court date] are never seen again. Most then become ‘anchor babies’ who are citizens with rights to bring members of their families.”

Well enough. But he then can’t resist adding something that betrays a different concern than for lawlessness and economically unproductive immigrants:

“In addition to this influx of people from places around the world steeped in poverty and despair, Senator Chuck Schumer authored and helped pass a ‘lottery’ system, whereby winners are brought to the United States. They become permanent residents, who then begin bringing their families to our shores. Thank you, Senator.”

My question is this: is the problem that immigrants are poor and uneducated and a drain on resources, or is the problem that they are not your people? Because the only friend I had who entered the US as a lottery winner was university educated when she left here. If she started importing her family, they would be educated and economically productive. Senator Schumer is deserving of the sarcastic “thanks” for what reason? Without looking, Dobson knows that these outsiders to your proud “nation of immigrants” are bad. On what grounds except prejudice?

Promotion of Trump

Speaking of immigrants, Trump and his family also get another stunning free pass from Dobson. After Dobson swayed evangelical voters by insisting that Trump prayed the prayer and is a “baby Christian” right before the election, and Grudem likewise ignored every biblical criterion of leadership to declare him a good moral choice for president, Dobson continues uncritically to promote Trump and his policies. If characterising Mexicans as violent, drug-carrying rapists weren’t on-brand enough for a Trump promoter, he adds:

“The situation I have described is the reason… [Trump’s] border wall is so urgently needed.”

“He seems to be the only leader in America who comprehends this tragedy and is willing to address it… I know of no one with political influence besides the President who seems to care about the crisis at the border.”

“He is facing enormous opposition from both political parties, the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, the judiciary, portions of agriculture, powerful lobbies, and virtually every dimension of the culture.”

“[Political fat cats], and their friends in the fake media, have told the American people that there is no crisis at the border! Shame on them all.”

Dobson does not acknowledge that the wall is often opposed because it is expensive and fairly ineffective. Dobson turns a blind eye towards the clamour of voices who do care about the crisis at the border, but just not in Trump’s xenophobic way. Dobson parrots the extremely dangerous lie that the media who report inconvenient details are fake news.

I am struggling to find an explanation for how a Christian leader who devoted his life to healing families can be invited by the White House to evaluate internment camps that aim at breaking up families, and his verdict is virtually a point-by-point endorsement of Trump and his keynote issues: violent Mexicans, the plan for a wall, his alleged persecution, and his go-to excuse that the free media is corrupt and bad.

A problem ignored is a problem solved

Finally, let us not miss Dobson’s own heart for the poor and the outsider. He explicitly states his own preferred solution to the refugee crisis, which is that they should go somewhere else:

“Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear that I am among the majority of Americans who want the border to be closed to those who attempt to enter illegally. There has to be a better solution than this. I have wondered, with you, why the authorities don’t just deny these refugees access to this nation. Can’t we just send them back to their places of origin? The answer I received was ‘No,’ [because US law doesn’t permit repatriation].”

For Dobson, the main problem is not the poverty and hopelessness of people arriving at America’s borders. The problem is not in the destruction of families, or the physical and psychological depravation of children being caged without their parents. The problem is not even illegality, since it is not necessarily illegal to apply for refuge, and there is certainly no question of illegality in the lottery system, which he also grouses about. The problem, for Dobson, is that they’ve brought their problems to America, and that will harm “the culture as we have known it”.

As Dobson says in his conclusion, “America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature.” That Dobson could talk about the virtues that are at the heart of Christian nature and immediately follow it with a “But…” and explain that the poor are too much of a threat to his culture and comfort says far too much about what matters to “conservative” Christianity in Dobson’s America. Whatever Dobson is trying to conserve, it is not the gospel.

Christianity is neutral about our culture unless it imposes idolatries on us. The idolatry of “our America” and “the prosperity that our hands have built” is insidious and nasty. The gospel calls us to love, and to service, and to self-sacrifice. That Dobson has put his culture first makes me wonder if he isn’t also just one of those baby Christians.

4. The Vision of Complementarianism

Piper’s lead article in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) says that the argument for complementarianism can be made either from Scripture or by laying out the vision (i.e. that it is a fulfilling position to live out), which is the approach that he adopts.

While this can be an effective approach, it is problematic because it is hard to avoid fallacious arguments from consequences or problems with cause and effect. Piper needs to show that complementarian theology is actually the cause of the desired consequences and that the social problems he identifies are indeed caused by the alternatives.

the Vision

Most of Piper’s article is given over to explaining his definition of manhood and womanhood; the vision itself is given very briefly. It is largely that men and women, having understood their place in the world, will experience fulfilling and deep relationships in which “there is a harmony and mutuality that is more beautiful and more satisfying than any pattern of marriage created by man” (RBMW, p. 52). This will be true by extension in the church too. “We believe that manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church; and that mature manhood and womanhood are better preserved, better nurtured, more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other” (p. 53).

The Problems

If lived out with the self-sacrificial godliness required, I think complementarianism can be a fulfilling and God-honouring system, but there are several problems that I have with his case.

The argument is circular. Piper is attempting to commend his vision to the heart, to show that it is the right way because it is a satisfying way of life (p. 33). However, he hasn’t shown why it produces better marriages and better churches, he just says that it will. The reason is that he thinks it is God’s pattern, whereas all others are human in origin (it is better than “any pattern… created by man”). In effect, he is trying to argue that we know it is true because it is the best way to live, and we know it’s the best way to live because it is true.

In general, he commends his vision of more harmonious relationships without saying how it produces harmony or why the alternatives don’t. Of course, complementarian relationships in which there is no sin would work wonderfully. But why would egalitarian relationships without sin work any worse?

Gender characteristics are not uniform. Piper’s vision is based on definitions of manhood and womanhood that he claims reflect biblical teaching, but which he doesn’t demonstrate:

“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” (pp. 35-36)

Piper’s definition of manhood makes men leaders, protectors and providers. But what about men who have no leadership gifts, or who are not especially brave and strong? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that such men are not really men, or they have to act against their giftedness to fulfill a role that has the flakiest of biblical foundations.

It’s even worse for the women; I’m not sure that I would feel convinced that my womanhood has been fully grasped and rooted in God if I were to read that I am defined as a recipient of maleness. If we set aside for a minute the insistence that this is God’s word and His will for your life, does that really resonate as true on its own terms? Is one’s identity as a woman—something that Piper argues is “essential… to our personhood” (p. 33)—really just following men?

As I argued previously, male and female tend be different from each other in predictable ways, but these are only very general tendencies. To use male and female differences as a basis for a definition of manhood and womanhood is very damaging to those who fall outside of supposedly biblical definitions of their gender.

I came across a recent Twitter comment that made a similar point:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages us to see the value of complementary gifts. However, how do you delineate gifts on gender lines? The Bible doesn’t. And in what way is this the only hope for our churches and communities?

There are several problems with causation. At the heart of Piper’s vision is the claim that complementarianism will cause harmony at home and in church. But identifying the cause of something is fiendishly difficult. Will Piper’s vision come about because of its complementarian structure, or because the people involved are committed to loving and serving one another in a gospel way—a commitment that would lead to harmony anyway?

More pointedly, Piper implies that marriages and ministries don’t “mesh” without a man at the helm. Is this because of how creation is wired or because people have grown up believing in the divine right of men to lead (and so refuse to be led by a woman)? If they were committed to love and serve equally well under the leadership of a man or a woman, would the “mesh” be any different? How do you know?

The second problem with cause and effect is on page 33 of RBMW. Here Piper says that the consequence of “mimimizing the unique significance of our maleness and femaleness… is more divorce, more homosexuality, more sexual abuse, more promiscuity, more social awkwardness, and more emotional distress and suicide that come with the loss of God-given identity.”

More recently, Piper appeared on a desiringgod.org podcast, which introduced the presentation about male and female difference in terms of the sexual abuses brought to light by the #MeToo movement. Piper goes on to say:

“It’s a firm conviction of most of our egalitarian culture that men as men do not owe women a special kind of care and protection and honor that women do not owe men. I believe they do. I believe fifty years of denying it is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.”

Although Piper at least only cites egalitarianism as one of the causes, is it even true that society is more of a mess now? The #MeToo movement has opened a floodgate because this is perhaps the first time in history that women feel safe enough to report the abuses they suffered without the expectation of further abuse for doing so. It is extremely blinkered to argue as though the movement exists because there has been a recent sharp increase in abuse. These social ills have existed in spades throughout history. This is how men have always been.

Furthermore, society wasn’t complementarian in the middle of the last century; it was patriarchal. Men didn’t love and serve women and value their inherent womanly gifts—only to have the feminists poison our healthy view of social roles. Women were commonly treated as deficient and inferior. Is Piper arguing that the repression of women held all these vices at bay?

Finally, it is deeply insulting to every evangelical egalitarian to imply that giving women equal dignity implies lack of concern for their welfare—as though the responsibility to protect the vulnerable is a complementarian thing. It is a Christian thing. If anything, the #ChurchToo movement is highlighting that complementarian organisations are perfectly capable of covering up abuse and protecting the powerful.

Women follow from the front. In order to insist that women remain followers even when they self-evidently are taking the lead, Piper in RBMW is forced into some linguistic gymnastics that I find absurd.

For example, a woman without a husband can be the head of her household as long as she is “not unduly masculine” in their performance, and “has the sense that this would be properly done by her husband if she had one, and if she performs them with a uniquely feminine demeanor” (p. 37).

Leading and following should even carry through into the bedroom. On page 40, he says, “Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.” Even if a woman initiates sex or has her own ideas during intercourse, her leading “is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense you could say at those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.”

You’re free to find the concept of follow-leading not ridiculous if you’re able.

It is hard to be a consistent complementarian. Piper ends his article with a list of ministry opportunities for women under the complementarian system. But there are some inconsistencies between his list and his theology. If 1 Timothy 2 excludes women from teaching and leading, and given that it does not qualify the sphere in which these are exercised, how can Piper allow women to minister as leaders and teachers of college students? College-age males are men, aren’t they?

More to the point, almost everything we do in Christianity is for ‘edification’; there is a teaching component to singing and songwriting, to good public prayer and Bible reading, to translation and writing and evangelism. I am not sure how one practices the rule against female teaching and leadership without either silencing all public female voices or becoming arbitrary in how one defines leadership and teaching.

Conclusion

This post has obviously focused on quibbling with one article from one theologian. As such, it is not likely to represent the only arguments available in favour of the complementarian vision. Nevertheless, it is the lead article in one of the most influential Christian books on gender in living memory. The definitions of manhood and womanhood have been foundational for much Christian thinking on the subject, and the criticisms that it levies against other positions have likewise poisoned the well for many of us (I myself have not considered reading egalitarians in their own words until very recently). I have committed to a frank critique of this article because it is a major piece of the debate and yet it consistently fails to rise above presumption.

I can agree with Piper that there is currently a vacuum when it comes to social identity, especially of boys. Tim Winton, in an excellent piece for the Guardian, bemoans this too, though for different reasons. There is a loss of a vision of strength in humility and virtue these days.

However, I can see nothing that Piper mentions as a good fruit of complementarianism that wouldn’t be true of Christian living in general. Nor does egalitarian theology contribute to the lack of identity that so many people feel. World-class legal and architectural firms operate with partners rather than CEOs—a married couple might similarly operate with mutual respect, communication and recognition of the other’s strengths and without the leader-follower model. Letting go of default deference to the man in favour of equal partnership does not imply chaos in the home.

In summary, being able to describe a beautiful outcome for complementarian theology is worthless if it is an exercise of the imagination. We all want the church to be full of harmonious and effective relationships, but there is no reason given here why complementarianism is uniquely or ideally suited to achieve that.

Ricky Gervais and Begging the Question

I have had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with begging the question lately, the most recent being a suggested video from YouTube featuring Ricky Gervais.

gervais2

I chose this version of the video both because it was the one that YouTube initially recommended and because its headline writer is so heart-warmingly excited about how much they agree with Gervais

 

Begging the Question

Begging the question is quite difficult to understand firstly because it is popularly misused when we want to say “raising the question” or “failing to answer the question”, and secondly because it uses archaic language to tag what is already a reasonably confusing idea. For all that, it is nevertheless an argument fallacy that is shockingly common.

One is begging the question when one’s argument requires the desired conclusion to be true for the argument itself to work; in other words, one is ‘begging’ one’s hearer to accept as true the very thing that one is trying to prove (the ‘question’). Like I said, it is quite confusing.

It is not unlike the classic loaded question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” While it requires a yes/no answer, both options are incriminating. You either have beaten your wife, or you still are. The way that the question is phrased pushes you to admit guilt. In a similar way, begging the question also requires the hearer to accept something undesirable as a fact, and that ‘something’ is the very conclusion that is under dispute.

For example, I have come across a ‘proof for God’s existence’ that has as one of its premises that the Bible is inspired; thereafter, it follows that the Bible claims that God exists, and therefore God must exist. It is a slightly better argument when not abbreviated like this, but to use inspiration as a premise for this argument begs the question because inspiration (when used of the Bible) is the idea that God is ultimately its author. In other words, the premise depends on God existing; it doesn’t prove that God exists.

How Does Ricky Beg the Question?

One of the early arguments in the linked video is that if religion were not spoken about at all to children, then we’d see a ‘different pattern’ in society; i.e. people mostly only believe religious ideas because they are inculcated very early on and with the same level of unquestionable authority as “don’t touch the fire” or “don’t go near the wolf”.

At about 1m30s, he says,

“If [religion] is given that same level of credence and truth, you’re never going to get over it. It’s going to be a lot harder to undo that.”

On one level, I agree with him. Religion, in general, has often survived because of fear and indoctrination. As I am someone who finds only one religion credible, I would also agree with him that most religious teaching needs to be ‘got over’.

It is unfortunate that Christendom at points in history most certainly used fear and coercion to keep up the numbers (and some Christians continue to do this ), though I would argue this approach is opposed to Christian theology. In fact, the movement that had to rescue Christianity from Christendom (i.e. the Reformation) claimed their gospel as a message of liberation and freedom, over against the fear and manipulation of the church. In other words, (although this is very reductionistic) the most prominent and violent Christian conflict in history was waged in order to free Christian theology from authoritarian Imperial control.

But as an argument for atheism, I think that Gervais is (among other things) begging the question. Why? Because we can only agree with him that it is bad to teach children about God if God is a myth that we’ve invented (as the question at 0m30s claims). In other words, if the atheists are correct and there is no God, then yes, it is unfortunate that myths are propagated as truth. However, if there is a God, then one would be doing massive harm by raising children as though there isn’t, because the assumptions that underpin naturalism are equally hard to undo.

Christianity ultimately depends on the resurrection of Christ having been an historical event. There is good evidence for it, but how you process that evidence depends in large measure on unprovable presuppositions that you bring with you. If it is possible that there is a God who cares about the world, then there is nothing impossible about the idea of a resurrection that was the ultimate demonstration of that love for the world. If, on the other hand, you would say with the likes of Hume and Dawkins that a lie is always overwhelmingly more likely than a miracle, then what evidence for the resurrection would ever persuade you?

We’re all responsible for training our children in how to make sense of the world. It is unavoidable and it is never neutral. As with all the other circumstances of their birth and upbringing, what we give them will either prove to be a blessing or a curse. As I experience following Jesus to be an uncoerced and unqualified good, I have no fear in recommending it to my children. If it proves to be a mirage in this desert, then pity my hope if you like.

Ricky is concerned that religion is bullied into kids, and I agree that this is bad. Ricky would rather that kids be given the opportunity to choose without coercion, and again I agree that this is good. We even both seem to agree that teaching kids to think is good. But I disagree with him that atheists have a monopoly on that.

Foley and Izzard: Funny but unfair

In quick succession I came upon a series of unconnected posts in which atheist comedians have a go at God and religion. I don’t mind in principle—there is plenty in religious spheres to critique and to poke fun at—but two of the bits that I saw most recently claim as a weakness things that are actually among the greatest strengths of Christianity.

Dave Foley: Faith is like belief in Santa Claus

Foley on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch

Foley and comedy jacket on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch.

Dave Foley is perhaps best known for playing a lead role in the vastly underrated 90s sitcom News Radio. His stand-up seems not to have hit News Radio heights, and in this mostly awkward sketch (among other things) he describes people of faith as ‘creepy’, and compares believers to grown people who believe in Santa—adding that we’d be treated as lunatics if there weren’t so many of us.

I’m not sure why this analogy is so widely thought to be valid. Perhaps it is due to the common mistake that atheists make of conflating all religions together as though Jesus and Jim Jones and Juno are all basically the same. The example that Foley gives of religious craziness is that of transubstantiation in Catholicism: the bread and wine actually (not figuratively) become Jesus’ body and blood (though not in any way that affects taste or form). But this was the kind of thing that the Western world fought a fairly well-known war over in the 1500s. The Protestant world told the pope that we’re tired of this nonsense about 500 years ago.

The comparison with Santa is a false one for several reasons, but the most important one being historicity. Even if Saint Nick was a real person, Santa mythology about the North Pole and the world’s worst commute on Christmas Eve has no basis in reality. Believing it would be an act of willful self-delusion. And perhaps most religious beliefs are of the same order. The point is that the Bible has always differentiated itself from ‘the gods of the nations’ because of God’s acts in history. The old prophets repeatedly mocked people who cut down a tree and used part of it for the fire and part for furniture and part to make a god to worship. And the whole argument of Christianity from the minute it left Jerusalem was that Jesus rose from the dead and brought forgiveness, as he said he would—something has happened in history.

Disbelieve it if you like, but unlike Santa, the existence of God is not a priori an irrational idea, and unlike Santa, Jesus’ resurrection is an historical claim for which there is evidence to be weighed. I know it is annoying to have to carefully dismiss evidence that you have no interest in believing, but in much the same way as the argument ‘Evolution is stupid because just look at the human eye!’ is really annoying, atheists should stop doing a discredit to themselves by trying to make the Jesus-Santa link stick.

Eddie Izzard: God’s plan

izzard

Eddie Izzard is a brilliant comedian, and as much as I wanted to hate ‘Glorious’, his deeply irreverent take on history and the Bible from the 90s, it is undeniably funny. His famous quote about God’s plan is doing the rounds again, and while I can imagine it being hilarious when he says it, it surely doesn’t take too long to realise that this is actually a rather foolish critique.

The main reason why it doesn’t work is that the ability to understand a plan demands several things that Eddie Izzard does not apprehend. One needs firstly to understand the problem that the plan addresses. In the case of the biblical storyline, the issues are human rebellion, consequent disruption of divine-human relationship, and the problem of evil and death that result from that. Eddie doesn’t say what he thinks the problem is, but I would put money on it not being the one that God’s book identifies. I suspect what people such as Izzard usually think the goal should be is total human happiness and otherwise being left alone, which ironically cuts against what God is trying to do quite severely.

Secondly, understanding a plan requires a grasp of the ‘rules of the game’. Complaints about the problem of evil usually demand that God should intervene in history in order to stop bad things from happening. However, these complaints rarely get specific about how God should go about doing this. Seeing as most of the world’s evils are human evils, God would  seem to me to have two major paths open to Him to stop human evil. He could kill the wrong-doer without delay, which would mean the death of Adam & Eve and (however literally you take that story) the eradication of humankind. This would mean the failure of His goal to restore divine-human relationship. So delay then.

The second route is to miraculously intervene every time someone is about to do something bad so as to prevent the crime (a bit like Minority report). But then it doesn’t take too much thinking before one realises that this would need to be carried out on the level of speech, and probably even on the level of thought (because most evil actions begin there). So God would have to remove the consequences of our evil impulses either by miraculously staying our hands and tongues, or by eradicating the freedom of will altogether. Again, this would be failure of the goal, because it replaces relationship with slavery. So a cure then.

If it’s to be a cure, then that’s what Christianity has always said He’s always been doing. You may protest that He’s taking awfully long about it, but again as has long been said, if God is taking His time at least it means you have the opportunity to take part in the cure.

The final thing that one needs in order to understand a plan is a grasp of the strategy by which the goal is being pursued. This is the part that Izzard clearly has an issue with, but is there any surprise in that? Does Izzard expect that his casual glance at the facile number of things that he or any of us understands about human history should yield clear apprehension of what is being done and should be done?

If one takes chess as an example, there are very limited parameters and relatively few variables, but great players are still able to think so far into the possible futures of each game that they can come up with strategies that catch their opponents by surprise. In the ‘Game of the Century’, for instance, Bobby Fischer faced world-champion Donald Byrne, and chose to sacrifice his queen. To chess imbeciles such as myself, allowing the capture of your most powerful piece would represent a mistake, but Fischer ensured that the cost of her capture was so high that the game would be his anyway. His strategy was so far beyond what other people expected (including his opponent) that it made certain individual actions seem nonsensical.

When one extends the number of variables to human history, the ability to map possible futures is surely out of our grasp—even that of Eddie Izzard. Funnily enough, this is exactly the point of one of the oldest extant discussions of the problem of evil, known as The Book of Job. In the story, Job suffers a crushing series of unjustified evils, and his friends all tell him that God is just and so it must be punishment for something that Job has done. Job protests that he is innocent. When the verdict comes, Job is proven correct, but the rebuke for all parties is that they are all passing judgement on matters about which they know nothing.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:1-5)

There is a plan—and we know more of it post Jesus than Job did—but don’t expect that all of it should be obvious to you, me or Eddie Izzard.

It is the business of comedians to take cheap shots, I suppose, but surely (having claimed the intellectual high-ground as their own) atheism can make arguments to match. It seems to be everyone’s loss when we stop discussing and start playing to the crowd.

Smudging in the South Peninsula

My wife belongs to a FaceBook group called South Peninsula Moms in which someone was asking where to get a ‘smudging’ specialist for her new house. I thought it was a paint technique, but it turns out that it is a spiritual thing in which someone waves burning sage and visualises blessings upon the house, and then cleansing of the house and good luck results.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it promises good luck and spiritual freedom–and gives you the illusion that you’re taking control of spiritual things–but it ends up putting you into deeper bondage, because every time something undesirable happens, you have to wonder what spirit you have to appease or what force you forgot to unlock, and you’re stuck paying some huckster to wave smoke at your problems. And you’re forced to believe that the same spirit powerful enough to bring luck to your house is also gullible enough to be paid off with a sage offering.

Say what you want about Christianity, but about similar impulses in the 1st century, it says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1). Plus it is offering relationship with the Creator, not maybe some good luck via some underling (if you pay).

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

FINDING PLEASURE IN ECCLESIASTES

JSM Pickering, 2005

Introduction

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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