Archive for May, 2012

Here’s a reason for “Reason to Believe”

May 22, 2012

Last month, I preached a two-part series, “Reason to Believe,” on evidence for the resurrection. (Part 1 and Part 2 are here.) One reason I did the series was to equip us to handle competing claims regarding Jesus and his resurrection, such as the ones found in this new book. Here’s an excerpt from a review in The Jewish Daily Forward:

On the basis of these tombs, Jacobovici and Tabor argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children. They also think that he was buried by his followers, and thus that the earliest Christians did not believe in bodily resurrection. Later, they speculate, relying on the Gnostic Gospels (a set of subversive and marginal early Christian texts), that under the influence of Pauline misogyny and later asceticism, Christians suppressed the role of Mary Magdalene.

Similarly, Jacobovici and Tabor believe that early, “authentic” Christianity understood resurrection as a spiritual event, the elevation of the immortal soul after death; Gospel writers and theologians living after Jesus died mangled the received account, mistaking resurrection for a crude revival of Jesus’ actual, physical body. Like Strauss, Tabor and Jacobovici see these arguments as rescuing the true, early Christianity from the misogyny and literalism of late antiquity.

Let’s quickly respond…

Read the rest of this entry »

As if we read two different books

May 21, 2012

Christian blogger Trevin Wax re-posts a review of The Hunger Games (the novel). A writer named N.D. Wilson wrote the original review. As my blog title suggests, I find it baffling—as if he were reading an entirely different book from the one I read.

If you’ve read The Hunger Games, read this review and tell me what you think. In the meantime, here is the brief comment that I posted in Wax’s comments section.

Sorry I’m late on this… I only just skimmed the 100+ comments, but the criticism of the review is well-deserved. I don’t get the author’s point. First, if he agrees that Collins is a good writer and this book has real merit as literature, what’s the complaint about her getting so many aspects of human nature wrong? Good writers aren’t good writers if they misunderstand human nature.

By all means, the premise behind The Hunger Games is ghastly. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I don’t believe that the world that Collins creates is likely to come to pass. Nevertheless, given this world, I find Katniss’s behavior realistic, consistent, and—after a fashion—heroic. Not unambiguously so, but isn’t that also like real life? I suppose the Christian thing to do would have been for her to simply step off the arena platform before the countdown had finished, blowing herself to bits, refusing to participate in the bloodletting. Or to have stood still after the games began and let other people murder her. But that would seem incredibly unrealistic.

As for Tom Wolfe’s asking Wilson about the book and then “blinking in confusion” after hearing about the “primary plot points”… Good heavens! I think I’ll read a Cliff’s Notes of The Bonfire of the Vanities and decide whether the book is any good. Wolfe is literate. Couldn’t he read it for himself fairly quickly and reach his own conclusion. I suspect he might even learn something about the craft of writing, since Collins is pretty good at it! As it is, “blinking in confusion” isn’t a valid critique.

Forgive me for suspecting that Wilson just wanted an excuse to name-drop Tom Wolfe.

Sermon for 05-13-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 2: The Gifts of the Spirit”

May 19, 2012

Sadly, due to technical difficulties, no sermon video this week. But you can read my manuscript below. My main point is that all Christians have the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. And that means we have the power of God inside of us. It may be hard, for example, for some of us to believe in miracles. But if we define a miracle as God intervening in our lives to do something that God wouldn’t otherwise do, then miracles happen all the time!

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 12:1-20

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Today is a bittersweet day for me. This is my first Mother’s Day without Mom. Not only that: I was reminded last week that she was here, in this very service, exactly one year ago on Mother’s Day. I was reminded of how quickly her health went downhill after that. I was also reminded of an argument that I had with her on that very Sunday morning a year ago. Even though we had long before made plans for her to join us at church on Mother’s Day and have lunch afterward, she called early that morning to tell me that she didn’t think she was going to come.

I was hurt and angry. I don’t remember if I said, “This may be your last chance to ever hear me preach,” but I think I said something like that. I told her I was disappointed. I guilted her into coming. So Mom reluctantly came, and she was glad that she did. We had a good day.

I shared this story with one of you and you asked me something interesting that pertains to today’s scripture: “Do you think that was the Holy Spirit at work in that situation?”—in that phone call, in that conversation, in that argument. And you know what? I absolutely think it was the Holy Spirit. I didn’t know it at the time… we’re often unaware of when the Holy Spirit is working. But I do believe that the Spirit was prompting Mom to overcome her reluctance, to do the right thing, and to come to church and see her boy preach one last time. Sometimes, when we listen to other people, we are hearing the voice of God. Read the rest of this entry »

N.T. Wright on speaking in tongues

May 17, 2012

We’ve had a fruitful conversation this week on speaking in tongues. (See this post, including the comments section.) I’d like to reproduce, in its entirety, N.T. Wright’s entry on “speaking in tongues” from the glossary section of his Acts for Everyone commentary. I include it as a succinct overview of the issue, not because it settles the questions we’ve discussed since Monday.

Since speaking in tongues is, for many Methodists and other non-Pentecostal (or “charismatic”) Christians, an exotic, esoteric, and slightly threatening phenomenon—not to mention that it will come up again in this Sunday’s sermon on Acts 2—I thought this overview might prove helpful.

If you’ve read my blog for more than a couple of weeks, you already know that I trust the Rt. Rev. Wright as a reliable, credible, and faithful contemporary Bible scholar and theologian. He is simultaneously evangelical and high church, having recently served as a bishop in the Church of England.

In many religious traditions, people who experience certain types of ecstasy have sometimes found themselves speaking, praying or even singing in what seem to them to be languages which they do not themselves understand. Sometimes these turn out to be actual languages which are understood by one or more listeners: this is what is described in Acts 2, and there are many examples from subsequent periods including our own. Sometimes they appear to be a kind of babbling semi-language corresponding to no known human tongue. Sometimes the speaker may be unable to decide which it is. Paul was well aware (1 Corinthians 12.1-3) that phenomena like this could occur in non-Christian contexts, but for him, and for millions since (not least in today’s pentecostal and charismatic movements, though much more widely as well), such prayer was and is powerful in evoking the presence of Jesus, celebrating the energy of the spirit, and interceding for people and situations, particularly when it isn’t clear what exactly to pray for (see, perhaps, Romans 8.26-27). There is however no good reason, within early Christian teaching, to suppose that ‘speaking in tongues’ is either a necessary or a sufficient sign the thte holy spirit is at work in and through someone’s life, still less that they have attained, as has sometimes been claimed, a new and more elevated level of spirituality than those who have not received this gift. To be sure, in Acts 2, and also in Acts 8.1 (by implication at least), 11.46 and 19.6, ‘tongues’ is a sign that the spirit has been poured out on people who weren’t expected to be included in God’s people. But there are plenty of other times when the spirit is powerfully at work without any mention of ‘tongues’, and equally every indication (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12 and 14) that praying in tongues is, for some, a regular practice and not merely an initiatory sign.[†]

N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 210-211.

Two thumbs way down

May 16, 2012

I like arguing. One formative influence on my early life was watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Sneak Previews, their original PBS movie-review show (unspoiled by the intrusive commercial breaks of their later syndicated show). Like most people, I enjoyed when these two film critics, who worked for rival Chicago newspapers, disagreed about a movie. This happened frequently.

Although their burgeoning friendship took the edge off of their arguments long before Siskel died of cancer in the ’90s, in the late-’70s and early-’80s, it seemed as if they didn’t like or respect each other all that much. And their disagreements had heat and passion.

Passion… That’s what appealed to me most about Siskel and Ebert. When I was 11 or 12, they taught me that it’s O.K. to be passionate about something you care about—so much so that it’s worth having a knock-down, drag-out argument, if necessary. (And of course, although they didn’t always demonstrate this, you can argue in a respectful and loving way.)

I like arguing, but my arguing about what happened (or didn’t happen) two weeks ago at General Conference regarding “the gay issue” has officially worn me out. I am painfully aware that my stance in support of our Book of Discipline, about which—go figure—I feel passionate, puts me at odds with many of my outspoken clergy colleagues on Facebook, Twitter, and various Methodist blogs. Read the rest of this entry »

“I’ll pour my spirit on all flesh…”

May 15, 2012

This Sunday’s sermon will focus on Acts 2:1-21, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Vinebranch band, including yours truly, will perform this wonderful song by Daniel Amos.

On using morality against God

May 15, 2012

I wrote yesterday about a preacher who became an atheist, in part, on moral grounds. Now that I’m back with my library of books, I thought I would post these relevant words from Alister McGrath about using morality to argue against God’s existence. He said it better than I did.

Some atheists argue that he existence of suffering is evil and therefore is in itself adequate to disprove the existence of God. This is a curious argument, since closer examination shows that it is self-defeating. An argument from the existence of evil to the nonexistence of God depends on establishing that suffering is indeed evil. But this is not an empirical observation—it is a moral judgment. Suffering is natural; for it to be evil, a moral framework has to be presupposed. But where does this framework come from? The argument requires the existence of an absolute moral framework if it is to work. Yet the existence of such an absolute framework is itself widely seen as pointing to God’s existence. In the end, the nonexistence of God seems to end up depending on God’s existence. It’s not the best argument.[†]

Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 163-4.

Why something and not nothing?

May 15, 2012

“Why something and not nothing?” is one of the most interesting questions that science can’t answer, by definition, despite New Atheists’ confidence that somehow it can—metaphysics be damned. In a review of one recent “scientific” attempt to answer it, Edward Feser writes:

The bulk of the book is devoted to exploring how the energy present in otherwise empty space, together with the laws of physics, might have given rise to the universe as it exists today. This is at first treated as if it were highly relevant to the question of how the universe might have come from nothing—until Krauss acknowledges toward the end of the book that energy, space, and the laws of physics don’t really count as “nothing” after all. Then it is proposed that the laws of physics alone might do the trick—though these too, as he implicitly allows, don’t really count as “nothing” either….

But as E. A. Burtt noted over half a century ago in his classic book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, the thinker who claims to eschew philosophy in favor of science is constantly tempted “to make a metaphysics out of his method,” trying to define reality as what his preferred techniques can measure rather than letting reality dictate what techniques are appropriate for studying it. He is like the drunk who thinks his car keys must be under the lamppost because that is the only place there is light to look for them—and who refuses to listen to those who have already found them elsewhere.

Not a good reason for being atheist

May 14, 2012

So I guess this is becoming a thing now? Clergy who are “coming out” atheist?

Clergy losing faith is nothing new, of course, but it’s now a trendy news item. This latest article concerns a preacher named Jerry DeWitt, whose path to atheism began when he started questioning the existence of hell.

DeWitt’s transition from true believer to total skeptic took 25 years. It began, he said, with the idea of hell. How could it be, as he had been taught and preached, that a loving God would damn most people to eternal fire? “This thing called hell, it began to rock my world,” he said.

I realize that since this is USA Today, we don’t have much to go on here. I’m reading a lot into it. But it sounds like DeWitt’s primary objection to God is moral. If you’re keeping score at home, a moral argument against God’s existence might be the worst reason to be an atheist.

For one thing, it’s a form of circular reasoning that goes something like this: “If God exists, God is loving. I know this because that’s what the Bible and Christianity tell me. But the Bible and Christianity also tell me that God sends people to hell, which doesn’t seem like something a loving God would do. Therefore, God—who, according to the Bible and Christianity, is a God of love—must not exist.”

In other words, he rejects God because of God. He’s enlisting the God of love in his argument against the God who sends people to hell and concluding that God doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t his cognitive dissonance over hell instead lead him to conclude the following: that the Bible and Christianity are wrong about the character of God (who may otherwise exist), or that God (who may otherwise exist) isn’t as loving as he thought, or—best of all—that since smarter Christians than he have dealt with these questions for 2,000 years, maybe he’s wrong and has a lot more to learn about the Bible and Christianity?

More importantly, apart from God, DeWitt has no moral foundation for judging God. Right and wrong don’t exist in any objectively meaningful way, so there’s no sense in getting worked up about what’s loving or not. That right and wrong seem to exist and have meaning, however, ought to serve as a rather conspicuous signpost pointing to God.

I thought this was funny:

DeWitt, who lives in Southern Louisiana, went public last October when he posted a picture of himself with the prominent and polarizing atheist Richard Dawkins, snapped at a meeting of atheists and other “freethinkers” in Houston.

Speaking in March before a cheering crowd of several hundred unbelievers at the American Atheists conference here, he described posting the picture as “committing identity suicide.”

But if that’s true, how do we explain this picture? Hmm…?

Pentecostals and speaking in tongues

May 14, 2012

When I was in high school, I worked at Kroger as a bagger and cashier. I befriended a fellow believer who was a Pentecostal. I had never met a Pentecostal before. In general, Pentecostals believe that Christians receive (or are baptized by) the Holy Spirit separately from justification, rebirth, and (of course) water baptism. The sign of this baptism by the Spirit is speaking in tongues.

I volunteered to my friend that I had never spoken in tongues. He was surprised and disappointed. The next day at work, he handed me a booklet he wanted me to read. It was called The Bible Way to Receive the Holy Spirit—which I needed, obviously, because I had never spoken in tongues! It was written by the late Kenneth Hagin, who represented (I think) a cultic fringe of the Pentecostal movement.

The booklet gave step-by-step directions on how to (I guess) motivate God to baptize you in the Holy Spirit. It was very troubling. As I recall, it recommended getting on your knees, opening your mouth, and sort of loosening your larynx to prepare for the gift of tongues. Even at the time, I thought that if the Book of Acts were your template, why would you need to work so hard at it? Speaking in tongues seemed effortless there.

I imagined all these poor, confused Pentecostal Christians, feeling very anxious because they didn’t speak in tongues—and feeling as if they weren’t fully Christian until they did so.

If I could offer them any pastoral guidance today, I would point them to the scripture I preached on yesterday: 1 Corinthians 12:1-20. The very problem Paul deals with in chapters 12-14 is Corinthian believers who thought that they were more “spiritual” than their brothers and sisters in the church who didn’t have the gift of tongues.

I’m not judging the entire Pentecostal movement based on this one experience. I have enjoyed fellowship with other Pentecostals who didn’t have this extreme view of the gift of tongues—or even if they did, they weren’t all in-your-face about it.

The truth is, I need the witness of my Pentecostal brothers and sisters. I need to be reminded that God is a living, breathing reality in my life; that I ought to pray with the expectation that God will actually do something; that miracles still happen.

I don’t want to be part of the “frozen chosen.” Pentecostals can help thaw us out.