Thursday, 30 December 2010

How Not to Defend the Bible

The Bible is pretty central to the Christian faith. Without it, the Christian faith - as we know it at least - would not exist, because everything we know about Jesus and the early church and about the relationship the Jews had with God before this comes from its pages. It is perhaps not surprising then, that the Bible comes in for considerable attack from those who have a negative view of our faith, and who see it as their mission to discredit it.

Richard Dawkins famously declared in, "The God Delusion", that, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Leaving aside for the moment, the controversial reference to "fiction", as you can see, Dawkins doesn't pull any punches! Dawkins has a very clear agenda here, which he at least has the decency to be honest about, and the resulting rant above is by no means a balanced or fair assessment of the Old Testament!

Having said this however, there are still elements of some of these things to be found in its pages, parts of the Old Testament have been used to justify some pretty terrible things, and many honest seekers have been put off the Christian faith by some of the stories found there. Marcion in the 2nd century famously concluded that the God of the Old Testament was a different God to the one that Jesus spoke about. This was a powerful idea which persisted for several centuries in opposition to mainstream church teaching.

How do we explain these apparent contradictions? How for example, do we explain why a supposed God of love, would order his people to engage in genocide? Various attempts have been made, including the following:
  1. Morality was somehow different back then. I've never really totally understood this argument so I may not be doing it justice, but it has something to do with everything changing at the death and resurrection of Jesus. By atoning for sin, Jesus' death and resurrection made grace and mercy possible in a way that it hadn't been previously which is why the Old Testament portrayal of God often seems so harsh and uncompromising compared with the God of love that we're more familiar with today.

    I can see some sense in this, but to me it's an inadequate explanation. I still can't imagine the God I love and worship ever ordering his people to engage in the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children (however deserving the victims might have been!). Apart from the obvious damage inflicted on the victims, this has a massive de-humanising effect on the perpetrators and sets a horrendous precedent for future generations!

  2. It is not the Bible, but our imperfect view of morality that is at fault. Yes, God appears to do some terrible things, but they only look terrible because we don't understand all His reasons. If we understood everything perfectly as He does, we would see that His actions as portrayed in the Bible were really all just and good after all.

    I am prepared to accept that in some cases this may be true. I cannot rule out the possibility (remote as it seems to me right now) that it could turn out to be true in every case and that all my discomfort with God's portrayal in scripture may eventually amount to nothing. In the mean time though, there is just too much there that seems too contrary to my own God-given moral compass, for me to just pass it all off in this way. We must always be willing to accept that our understanding - intellectual and moral - is limited, but if something flies in the face of everything that seems to be good or praiseworthy then in all good conscience we surely cannot and should not be trying to excuse it?! 
To me there seem to be 3 remaining possibilities:
  1. God is not really good - at least not completely and consistently. 
  2. There is no God, so nothing the Bible says about him is true anyway. 
  3. The Bible is an imperfect witness to God's behaviour and character. 
1 & 2 are ruled out for me, for all sorts of reasons that I don't have room to discuss properly in this post, which only seems to leave me with number 3.

This is an extremely difficult and controversial conclusion for most evangelical Christians to accept (significantly less controversial than 1 or 2 however!). In fact I think many would claim that you cannot believe this and still call yourself an evangelical Christian. For me though, the Bible doesn't have to be 100% true and accurate in every detail in order to be God-inspired (see 2 Timothy 3 verse 16). I am prepared to accept that it is written by people, who weren't always in possession of all the facts. The Bible is about God speaking to and interacting with people, who are the product of their culture and circumstances. Their circumstances, lives and culture are shaped by this process and God's character, heart and purpose are revealed, but these events are recorded by imperfect people who remain - to a greater or lesser extent - the product of their times.

We must not forget however, that we are also the product of our time, and that our reactions to the text will be influenced by our own, non-universal values and assumptions, coupled with an imperfect understanding of the period in which it was written. For this reason, none of us are in a position to pass supreme judgement on it, but we must be continually weighing it, allowing it to speak to us, and allowing God to use it to challenge our own hearts and prejudices. This doesn't mean we have to agree with everything it says though, or to defend as perfect something which occasionally does seem at odds with so much that we claim to stand for.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Away in a Manger

I have a couple of other ideas for blog posts rolling around my brain at the moment, but seeing as its Christmas Eve I thought it would be fitting to write something more about Christmas.

As I think most people are aware, there's no real evidence that Jesus was actually born on or near December 25th.  This date may have originally been chosen to co-incide with the Roman winter solstice, or with one of various pagan winter festivals which it ultimately supplanted.  However it came to be though, I for one am very glad we have a festival every year to celebrate this incredible event.

Of course, not everyone believes in the Christmas story and for many, if not the majority in this country at least, Christmas is just a time for giving and receiving presents, spending time with friends and family and celebrating all that is good about life and the world - and there's nothing wrong with any of that!

For me though, Christmas is much more than this - it's a time for remembering when God came into the world! How incredible is that?! More amazing still though, is the way in which he did it.

If you were God and you wanted to show everyone who you were and what you were like, what would you do? It would be easy wouldn't it? You could just appear in whatever awe-inspiring form you wanted, whenever and wherever you liked, and everyone would believe in you. They'd worship you - they'd have to! But God didn't do it like this - instead he was born to a poor young Jewish couple, in cramped and unceremonious circumstances, and his first bed was an animals' feeding trough!

I love this God! This is the sort of God I really want to serve and worship! He has all the power in the Universe and he chooses not to use it - he gives it up deliberately! He becomes like us - he lives as just a normal human being. This God really loves his creation and isn't ashamed to be like us, to live as one of us, to experience life in all its joy and all its pain - the same life that we live and that he created. He isn't just sitting up there on high dishing out dictates - he came down here and became a part of it all and was proud to do so!

This is humility. I don't think I'd be able to do that. I'd want big neon signs, or preferably some more heavenly, less tacky alternative saying, "Look at me! Look! It's God here!" I'd want everyone to know who I was and to be awestruck by my presence, but God goes pretty much to the opposite extreme. A few people recognise him - a bunch of lowly shepherds who are primed by the angels and some mysterious travellers from somewhere out east. Also, a prophet and a prophetess in the temple after Jesus is circumcised, who have been waiting for this event and speak tremendous words of encouragement to his parents and to others who are listening. But the rest of the world just carries on, blissfully unaware of what has just taken place.

Could you believe in this sort of God? Supposing he were available to everyone who really looked for him - would you want to meet a God like this? Or would you rather have a more in-your-face kind of a God - the kind you can't not believe in because he never gives you the option? Would you, really?

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Debunking the Nativity

The Christmas Nativity story is well-known the world over and at this time of year it is told and re-told, in school plays, in films, on advent calendars and on Christmas cards.

Some people might be surprised to discover though, how many of the traditional elements are actually quite different from the 2 Biblical accounts (which are the only historical evidence we have of these events): one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the gospel of Luke.

These are the main examples that come to mind:

No Room at the Inn?
This part of the story comes from Luke, who records that after Jesus was born, Mary "wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the kataluma".  "kataluma" is a Greek word which can be translated as "inn" or "guest room" depending on context.  In a small house, a "kataluma" might not even be a room - it could just be a small space set aside for guests.  Elsewhere in Luke, and also in Mark, it is translated as "guest room", but on this occasion many (although not all) English translations have favoured "inn".  It is actually much more likely though, that Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives, since Joseph's family were from that area, and the "kataluma" was full because other family members were also staying due to the census.

Luke's account doesn't even say that Jesus was born in a stable - only that Mary placed him in a manger because it was the only space available.  Small houses at that time were often built on 2 levels, with animals housed on the lower level - so a suitable manger might have been quite close to hand!

Finally, the sense of urgency in the traditional Nativity stories - i.e., "quick, find an inn, I'm about to have a baby!" - doesn't quite equate to Luke's more laid back version: "While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born".

We Three Kings?
Matthew records that the visitors were "Magi from the east" (Luke doesn't mention them).  We don't really know anything about them except that they were probably astrologers and had presumably travelled a long way.  This and the nature of their gifts suggests they were likely to have been men of wealth and influence but almost certainly not kings.

We don't know how many there were as Matthew doesn't record this information.  Neither does he record any of their names - "Melchior", "Caspar" and "Balthazar" all come from later church tradition.

Finally, the Magi almost certainly did not visit (as is commonly portrayed in Nativity plays, cards and calendars) on the same night as the shepherds.  The shepherds' visit is recorded by Luke and the Magi by Matthew.  According to Luke, the shepherds visited while Jesus was still pretty much a new born.  Matthew doesn't say how old Jesus' was by the time the Magi found him, only that they came to "the house" and "saw the child with his mother".  After realising the Magi have double-crossed him and are not going to tell him where Jesus is, Herod then issues a decree to kill all boys in the vicinity who are "two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi".

Monday, 13 December 2010

The lamentable state of Christian apologetics

For any readers who are unfamiliar with the term, "apologetics" (according to is "the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity".

In the western world at the moment, Christianity is under sustained intellectual attack, and I'm not sure we're doing a great job of defending ourselves. Many Christians learn about apologetics on theological courses, training schemes, and perhaps even through their local churches, but I think perhaps part of the problem is that we're often more concerned about bolstering our own intellectual confidence than in actually tackling the really difficult questions. It seems to me that Christians are often fed standard answers to difficult questions but are not really encouraged to think! It's much more comforting to feel as though you know the answer to something, than to ask, "But hang on a minute - does that really work? What might be the problems with that?" Then, when Christians who have been trained in this way come into contact with intelligent and well-read atheists who are more than happy to think like this, we suddenly find we're unprepared and out of our depth.

Part of the problem is in the perceived conflict between faith and scepticism. The sceptical mind will always ask, "but what about this?", whereas faith wants to believe, wholeheartedly and without question. Christians somehow need to have both. It's about being willing - even determined - to ask questions, accepting that you don't understand everything, and yet believing anyway - based on what you do know.

It is possible to be completely convinced of the truth of something, and yet be uncertain about many of the details - perhaps even many of the fundamentals. For example, the theory of evolution: 150 years ago, Darwin was convinced that life on earth had evolved through a process of evolution by natural selection and yet there were huge gaps in his knowledge and his theories which are still being uncovered today. Even now enough gaps remain to cause some scientists1 to question whether natural selection is sufficient, where others seem more than happy to stake their reputations on it.

Christians - especially Christian apologists - need to be honest, especially with themselves, about what they don't understand, and be willing to ask questions that will show up more gaps in their knowledge, rather than ones that will make them feel more confident. In my opinion, any apologist worth her salt should have a whole list of questions she can't answer - if she hasn't, then she hasn't been asking enough questions!

1. e.g. Colin Patterson, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, who wrote in his updated textbook on the subject, just before he died in 1998, "I am no longer certain that natural selection is the complete explanation, and I hope the new edition contains enough information ... for readers to understand the problem and judge the answer for themselves". (Note: Patterson believed wholeheartedly in evolution, he just wasn't convinced that natural selection alone was a sufficient explanation for it).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Hallelujah flash mob

My wife sent me a link to this video yesterday:

I had 2 reactions to this:

My cynical/suspicious side wanted to know how genuine it was - the sound quality is exceptional and I wondered if it had been dubbed on afterwards. I've now watched it 3 times and am as sure as I can be that it's genuine or that if it is dubbed they've done an exceptionally good job! It was apparently organised by Alphabet Photography as a Christmas thankyou to their patrons. The singers are from Chorus Niagara.

My other, more credulous side, found it deeply moving! I wondered how many of the singers really understood what they were singing about. I have to confess to occasionally watching Songs of Praise - although I blame my wife as I usually only watch it because she's put the telly on! I have another confession - I sometimes enjoy parts of it. There - I've said it! - I've bared my heart and abandoned my street cred! When there's a hymn or a chorus though, I sometimes like to pay close attention to the singers' faces. You can often tell which ones are really enjoying it and understand and believe what they're singing about. Chorus Niagara are not an explicitly religious group as far as I can tell from their web site, but there is a palpable joy and enthusiasm on many of their faces.

I'm currently reading Virtue Reborn by Tom Wright, which I may get round to discussing in more detail in another post.  In this book, Wright says that human beings are made for glory where he describes "glory" as "the effective rank and status which shows that human beings are indeed the God-reflectors, the ones through whom the loving wise sovereignty of the creator God is brought into powerful, life-giving presence within creation".

This glory often isn't very visible and there's certainly a lot in the world - and in human behaviour - that isn't very glorious!  Every now and again though, the glory shines through, and the Hallelujah chorus is all about humans displaying the glory of God. I love how in this clip, this glory appears - apparently spontaneously - in such an ordinary and day to day setting, and the wonderful effect this has on the shoppers, and then on myself and millions of You Tube viewers around the world. This is just a small foretaste of the glory that will one day fill the world - although I think it will involve more than just singing!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Glorious Grace

Most religions - and Christianity is no exception - include some sort of teaching regarding what is or isn't good or acceptable behaviour.

In Christianity, the bar often seems exceptionally high - for example:
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
  • "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"
  • "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."
  • "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
  • "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
(the above all come from Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew chapters 5-7)
  • "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

One of the things I love most about my faith, but which in some ways also serves to compound the above, is that God isn't just standing at a distance somewhere dishing out commandments for us to follow.  He actually got involved!  The Bible teaches that God became a man in Jesus, suffered all the same temptations we do and then suffered and died - willingly, and without bitterness - for our sakes.  A Christian - by definition - is a follower of Christ.  We're called not only to obey His teaching but to follow the example He set for us by His way of life.

I have to put my hand up right here and now and say that I can't do this! I am not the sort of person that Jesus was! I am selfish, proud and competitive. I am often critical of others and get jealous of other people's success. I worry about what other people think of me. Even while I'm trying to do good I often find I'm congratulating myself on my "noble" behaviour! As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7: "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."

So what hope is there for someone like me (or you, come to think of it!)? Quite a lot as it turns out! The apostle Paul has this to say in Romans 3:

"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith."

The "law" was the instructions for living given to the Jews through Moses - their greatest prophet. God promised to look after the Jewish people and in return they were expected to live according to God's law.  The problem was that the Jews were not able to keep their side of the agreement - instead of helping them to live better lives, the law all too often just ended up showing them how bad they were! Something else was needed.

Contained within the law, were various instructions regarding sacrifices, which to some extent could be used by the Jews to atone for their failings. Sin - as we all know - has a price. When we behave selfishly or greedily it affects others - they suffer and in the end we suffer as well. The sacrificial system was a way for the Jews to acknowledge the price of sin and take some responsibility for it. It also acknowledges the effect that sin has on those who are not responsible - the poor animals used in the sacrifices had done nothing wrong, but they ended up suffering for someone else's mistakes!

In the above quote from the book of Romans, Paul is referring back to this sacrificial system when he then says, "God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood". When Jesus was crucified he completed the old sacrificial system (which as it now turns out, for various historical reasons, is no longer practised), by taking responsibility, once and for all, for my sin and yours. He acknowledged the damage that sin does, in my life and yours and in all of our relationships - with God and with each other - and He took personal responsibility for it! That's just staggering when you think about it!

Because of this it is now possible for you and I to have a relationship with God that is based, not on adherence to a set of moral instructions, but on God taking personal responsibility for us and on what Jesus has done on our behalf!  This is "grace" - God's undeserved favour towards us, based not on what we have done or will do, but purely on His love and forgiveness.

Finally, the last 5 words of the above quote from Romans are significant - "to be received by faith".  This is where we come in.  Jesus has done all this for our benefit - but we only get the benefit when we opt in, and we opt in by faith - by saying, "yes I want this, yes I accept it, yes I want to be part of it".  Faith in Jesus still means being His follower which still means learning to live the way He did - and that's not easy, but it's a process. The relationship bit is sorted though - we belong to God now and it's His job to look after us and help us to work this through.