Atheist philosopher slammed for endorsing Meyer's book on Intelligent Design

Thomas Nagel’s recent endorsement of Stephen Meyer’s latest book, Signature in the Cell (2009), has generated a firestorm of debate. In the Times Literary Supplement, the atheist philosopher and professor at New York University, wrote:

“Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.”

Nagel’s positive review provoked instant outrage from his fellow atheists. While Nagel has been critical of scientific naturalism in the past, the recommendation of Meyer’s book as one of the years’ best brought fierce condemnation in the blogosphere and beyond. Brian Leiter has described him as a disgrace and more, while Stephen Fletcher, a chemist and professor at Loughborough University, is simply incredulous:

“The belief that we share this planet with supernatural beings is an old one. Students of magic and religion have identified innumerable varieties of them – gods, devils, pixies, fairies, you name it. A familiar motif is that they operate at the very fringes of perception. While the scullery maid sleeps, they are busy in the kitchen making the milk go sour. For a society with no concept of bacteria, this is, perhaps, a forgivable conceit. But for a modern university professor to take this idea seriously is, I think, mind-blowing.”

Thomas Nagel has responded to Fletcher, in a letter to the Times,

Sir, – Stephen Fletcher objects to my recommending Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell in Books of the Year. Fletcher’s statement that “It is hard to imagine a worse book” suggests that he has read it. If he has, he knows that it includes a chapter on “The RNA World” which describes that hypothesis for the origin of DNA at least as fully as the Wikipedia article that Fletcher recommends. Meyer discusses this and other proposals about the chemical precursors of DNA, and argues that they all pose similar problems about how the process could have got started.

The tone of Fletcher’s letter exemplifies the widespread intolerance of any challenge to the dogma that everything in the world must be ultimately explainable by chemistry and physics. There are reasons to doubt this that have nothing to do with theism, beginning with the apparent physical irreducibility of consciousness. Doubts about reductive explanations of the origin of life also do not depend on theism. Since I am not tempted to believe in God, I do not draw Meyer’s conclusions, but the problems he poses lend support to the view that physics is not the theory of everything, and that more attention should be given to the possibility of an expanded conception of the natural order.

THOMAS NAGEL
29 Washington Square, New York 10011.

But not all are critical of Nagel. Bradley Morton disagrees with Leiter and has more sympathy for Nagel’s comments. John Walton, a chemist and professor at the University of St Andrews has come to Nagel’s (and Meyer’s) defense. Walton, also writing to the Times:

Sir, – The resilience of the “prebiotic soup” myth, in spite of torrents of counter-evidence, is truly astonishing. Even professionals such as Stephen Fletcher (Letters, December 4), criticizing Thomas Nagel’s recommendation of Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer (Books of the Year, November 27), apparently still believe in it. Fletcher asserts that “Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record”.

Actually the operation of neoDarwinian natural selection depends on the prior existence of entities capable of self-replication. Variants are produced in their genetic material by mutations, the variants are copied by the organism’s biochemical machinery, and then natural selection ensures the most “fit” survive. Before the arrival of organisms capable of reproduction, this process could not operate. In the words of the renowned evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Prebiological natural selection is a contradiction in terms”. It follows that, even in principle, some quite different explanation is required to account for the origin of life. Fletcher is pinning his hopes on a supposed RNA world. He tells us: “Indeed, before DNA there was another hereditary system at work, less biologically fit than DNA, most likely RNA (ribonucleic acid)”.

It is an amusing irony that while castigating students of religion for believing in the supernatural, he offers in its place an entirely imaginary “RNA world” the only support for which is speculation! Intense laboratory research has failed to produce even one nucleotide (RNA component) under geologically plausible conditions. As for the chains of nucleotides required for the RNA world, there are insuperable problems associated with their information content, as well as the chemical selectivity needed for their assembly. Furthermore, the earth’s oldest Precambrian rocks show very good evidence that life was present from the start, so the half-billion years Fletcher counts on were actually not available for chemical evolution.

Rather than just kowtowing to the creaky naturalist “prebiotic soup” scenario, Meyer engages with the whole range of origin of life problems. Anyone interested in discovering where the evidence leads will find this a fascinating book.

JOHN C. WALTON
School of Chemistry, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews.

Suffering and the Christian understanding of truth

No Christian teacher is worth listening to who is not willing to suffer if need be for the truth that is being taught. The readiness to suffer for the sake of the truth is intrinsic to the whole fabric of Christian living, and hence teaching, and thus not an optional part of the equation of the equipping of the public teacher of Christianity.

Paul’s teaching was personally validated by his willingness to be “exposed to hardship, even to the point of being shut up like a common criminal; but the word of God is not shut up” (2 Tim. 2:9). Some hearers will find in the truth of the one who was “nailed to the cross” merely a “stone of stumbling” and “folly” (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Rom. 8:17, 18). Jesus did not hesitate to make it clear that his disciples must be prepared to “be handed over for punishment and execution; and men of all nations will hate you for your allegiance to me.”

The truth, Christianly understood, is an event in history, a birth, death, and resurrection, God’s own personal coming to us in mercy and grace, a Word spoken through a personal life lived, a personal event in which we are called personally to participate. To tell the truth rightly is to follow the one who is truth.

The “right method” for guarding Christian truth was set forth in Luther’s three concise instructions: oratio, meditatio, tentatio – first by prayer, then by textual meditation, but decisively by suffering temptation and the experience of testing through affliction. Listen to him poignantly acknowledge how much he owed to his enemies: “Through the raging of the devil they have so buffeted, distressed, and terrified me that they have made me a fairly good theologian, which I would not have become without them.”

Thomas C. Oden, Defending the Faith: Christian Apologetics in a Non-Christian World, paper presented at The 1995 Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting

Friday Night Miscellany

Here are some headlines from around the web, to take you into the weekend.

Apologetics

Probablity, presuppositionalism, and evidentialism.

Evangelism and epistemology.

New audio from Douglas Groothuis’ lectures for The Next Level Church: A Brief History of Buddhism and Hinduism and A Brief History of Islam

A brief primer on the Problem of Evil.

Theology

Panel discussion with Vern Poythress on his new book, In the Beginning was the Word: Language: A God-Centered Approach to Language

Did Paul invent Christianity?

New book on the darker side of Christmas.

The doctrine of the Trinity and the source of the Christian Mission.

Christianity and Politics

The continuing conversation over the Manhattan Declaration: R. C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, and Paul Edwards add their voices. Hunter Baker addresses John Stackhouse’s objection that the Declaration is “philosophically and politically incoherent”.

Was the Church responsible for modern welfare?

How cohabitation is a sin against social justice.

Disentangling the politics from the science: What to think about Global Warming.

Rick Warren clarifes his stance on the anti-gay bill being considered by the Ugandan Parliament.

Recent crackdown on Christians in China is described by some church leaders as “the harshest in years”.

Christianity and Culture

Is eating chocolate cake sinful?

The Time Magazine’s top religious stories of the year.

New study reveals the costly effects of pornography. (Also check out JT’s post with a great list of additional resources on the subject)

Other stuff

How pictures overwhelm words. Even when those pictures are stupid.

Robert Wright on how the New Atheism crusade is encountering powerful and possibly pivotal resistance: “Maybe this is the New Atheists’ biggest problem: As living proof that religion isn’t a prerequisite for divisive fundamentalism, they are walking rebuttals to their own ideology.”

The perfect way to cut pizza.

This one is for Glenn: Scar Wars – a Star Wars/Scarface mash-up  (content warning, not for delicate flowers)

Why Richard Dawkins Won't Debate Craig: "I'm Busy"

Richard Dawkins responds to the question at the recent Intelligence Squared debate at Wellington College in Berkshire, over his refusal to engage with prominent philosopher of religion, William Lane Craig.

HT: Gil S at the new Rational Thoughts blog

Update:

Wintery Knight has some good analysis here:

Dawkins’ reasons in point form (with Wintery Knight’s commentary):

  • Dawkins claims that he is willing to debate high-ranking clergymen (but Craig is a scholar, not a clergyman)
  • Dawkins claims that Craig is a creationist (but Craig supports his kalam cosmological argument with the Big Bang)
  • Dawkins claims that Craig’s only claim to fame is that he is a professional debater (but see Craig’s CV and publications below, which is far more prestigious than Dawkins’)
  • Dawkins claims that he’s too busy.

What are the real reasons why he won’t debate Craig?

I can think of three reasons why Dawkins would avoid a debate with Craig:

  1. He doesn’t know how to defend atheism and disprove theism in public
  2. He doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand logic and study evidence
  3. He doesn’t want to debate a real scholar and be humiliated in public, like Hitchens and Dennett

My opinion is that he is guilty of all 3 of these.

Jason Engwer at Triablogue quotes ChristianJR4, who posted the clip:

“To me, it sounded like Dawkins was saying he wouldn’t debate Craig because he doesn’t have any other claim to fame besides him being a really good debater. Of course that’s patently false. Craig’s academic credentials and fame far outstrip any of Dawkin’s past debate opponents against theists… It’s quite amusing, to say the least, that after 2 full years of hearing about him, Dr. Dawkins still doesn’t have a clue about who Dr. Craig is. He doesn’t know, for example, that Craig is a world renowned philosopher of Religion (indeed he’s considered to be at the top of his field). He doesn’t know that Craig is a ‘leading philosopher of space and time’ (Quentin Smith quote). He doesn’t know that Craig’s claim to fame is actually on the Kalam Cosmological Argument, not his debating.”

Atheist Bus Campaign Comes to New Zealand

bus

The campaign to promote atheism on New Zealand buses was launched yesterday. Organizers are hoping to raise $10,000 in order to run the advertisements from March next year. The campaign migrates from Britain, where 800 buses in that country have circulated slogans such as “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” and “Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Spokesperson for the campaign, Simon Fisher, argues that while the group has no agenda to increase atheist numbers they hope the advertisements will reduce any stigma that might be attached to the atheism label. At the 2006 census 1.3 million New Zealanders professed to be without religion, although how many of these are actually atheists was not measured.

While some may be critical of the campaign, Christians should welcome the fact that one of the (intended or unintended) consequences of the advertisements is that it puts the question of God’s existence back into public debate. Contrary to the atheist message of the campaign, the debate about God matters and is worth worrying about.

Also, check out this cool bus slogan generator.

(HT: Rob)

Serving the Non-Western Church: Moreland's Advice for Christian Intellectuals

The phenomenal reach of the Gospel and growth of the church in the non-Western world is easy to miss for us on the other side of the globe. With the exception of the very earliest years of church history, the redistribution of the population of the Christian church in the last fifty years has been described as greater than any period in history. Prominent church historian and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Mark Noll, has commented:

A few short decades ago, Christian believers were concentrated in the global north and west, but now a rapidly swelling majority lives in the global south and east. [If a Christian] Rip Van Winkle wiped a half-century of sleep from his eyes [after waking] and tried to locate his fellow Christian believers, he would find them in surprising places, expressing their faith in surprising ways, under surprising conditions, with surprising relationships to culture and politics, and raising surprising theological questions that would not have seemed possible when he fell asleep.

With 75% of the population of the Christian church concentrated in the developing world, the work of organizations such as The Langham Partnership is vital in ensuring that growth in these countries is sustained by Biblical-grounded truth and Christ-exalting preaching.

And for us in the Western world, according to J. P. Moreland, this rapid shift should force us to reevaluate our own intellectual endeavours. At the recent national meeting of the EPS in New Orleans, the Professor of Philosophy at Biola University has challenged Christians whose principle vocation is the life of the mind:  thinkers, scholars, writers, researchers, etc, to reconsider their work in the context of the Non-Western church. Although no audio is available, Joe Gorra has recently posted the main points from Moreland’s address on the Evangelical Philosophical Society blog:

1. The church is exploding all over the world outside Western culture, and the disciples in these countries hold to an overtly supernatural worldview.

2. The emerging young intellectual leadership in these countries look to the ETS/EPS/SCP for guidance and help.  They read our writings and follow us.  They are confused and hurt when we advance ideas that undermine the commonsense, supernatural worldview of the Bible that they embrace.  Thus, we have a responsibility to do our work in light of how it impacts our brothers and sisters in these countries.

3. Here are four suggestions for how to better fulfill that responsibility:

– Work together with others to write books, produce edited works, and so forth.  The synergy of such efforts increases our impact and it models the importance of the body of Christ and cooperation among its members.
– Produce works that range from popular to technical, but be sure we do not look down upon those who work at the popular end of the spectrum.  The key is to find one’s role and play it well.
– Beware of living for a career and for the respect of the “right” people in the profession instead of living for the Kingdom and seeing one’s work as a calling from God rather than a place to re-assure oneself that he/she is respected.
– Require a burden of proof before one adopts a view, e.g., Christian physicalism, that if read by a brothers and sisters outside Western culture, would hurt their supernatural faith, especially if the view is not one held by a significant number of people in church history and if it is “politically correct” to adopt it under pressure from the academic community.

Worth considering. To be fair to Moreland, I don’t think he is suggesting that Christian intellectuals should fail to follow the evidence, wherever it leads. Instead I read his comments as a reminder that our intellectual endeavour – as much as our whole lives – come under the Lordship of Christ and should be directed toward the glory of God and the edification of the wider church. Knowledge and obedience are frequently related in Scripture (Eph 4:13; Phil 3:8-11; 2 Peter 1:5; 2:20) and obedience is not just a consequence of knowledge but an important aspect of it. Our knowledge is always a knowledge under God’s authority  and our quest for truth is not autonomous but subject to both the Christian community and Scripture.

An Atheistic Argument from the Big Bang

The Big Bang event may be one of the most important scientific discoveries about the origin of our universe. Observations by American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 and the final discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964 confirmed predictions by Friedmann and Lemaître and convinced scientists of the expansion of the universe from a denser, hotter, primordial state. It was a turning point in the history of science. No longer was the universe thought to be a static, timeless, unchanging entity. The Friedmann-Lemaitre model gives the universe a backstory and more than that: a beginning. Physicist P. C. W. Davies explains: “most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.”

The idea of an expanding universe has not only revolutionized the field of science and been a unifying theme in cosmology but has had profound implications beyond those disciplines. According to the British astronomer Stephen Hawking, “If the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be”. But he admits, “so long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator”. This has been too uncomfortable a conclusion for some. Robert Jastrow, physicist and founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, comments:

“There is a kind of religion in science. . .This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning. . .as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications – in science this is known as ‘refusing to speculate’ – or trivializing the origin of the world by calling it the Big Bang, as if the universe were a firecracker.

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, what cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the universe? …And science cannot answer those questions…The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.” (God and the Astronomers, pps 113-15)

But while the fact that our universe both has a beginning and arose from nothing provides powerful evidence for a personal Creator (see Stuart’s post on the Kalam Cosmological Argument), Quentin Smith, philosophy professor at Western Michigan University has put forward the unique claim that the Big Bang is incompatible with God’s existence. In the book Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology, Smith sets out this argument:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state of the universe.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than a universe that does not contain life.

4. Therefore, if God created the universe then the earliest state of the universe must either contain life or ensure that life will eventually emerge.

5. There is an earliest state of the universe and it is the Big Bang singularity.

6. The conditions of the earliest state of the universe (infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density) were hostile to life.

7. The Big Bang singularity is inherently unpredictable and lawless and consequently there is no guarantee that it will produce a universe where life can emerge.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will produce a universe where life can emerge.

9. Therefore, God could not have created the earliest state of the universe.

10, Therefore, God does not exist.

Does this argument succeed? There are several problems that are immediately apparent (for a full discussion read William Lane Craig’s response in that book), but two weaknesses are serious enough to undermine its conclusion:

Firstly, God is not obligated to create a universe that contains life. It does not follow from premise 2 and 3 that God must create a universe with life. God could indeed have a reason for creating a world with life. He may, in fact, freely choose to create a world because of the good He may want to bring about. But just because God possesses a reason for creating a universe, this does not impose a necessity on Him. Furthermore, the Christian theist will deny that in order for God’s goodness to be expressed, He must create a universe with life. Apart from creation, God is neither lonely nor in need of objects for his benevolence. Within the Trinity and the fellowship of three persons united in one nature, God’s benevolence is fully and perfectly expressed.

Secondly, God could guarantee life through His subsequent intervention. The assumption that God must pre-programme life-hospitable conditions into the initial stages of the universe is perhaps the most significant problem for this argument. Why must God embed this capacity for life into the universe from the very start? It is not at all illogical for God to causally direct the evolution of life through his subsequent providence and care. This is, in fact, quite consistent with the classical Christian view that God not only created the world but remains living and active within it (Matthew 6:26; Ps 147:8-9; Job 38:41, etc).  According to Smith, however, this would be “a sign of incompetent planing . . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” However, this is an arbitrary and anthropocentric constraint on God. Why think that God is incompetent because he does conform to our standards of efficiency? In his response to Quentin Smith, William Craig cites the American philosopher and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Thomas Morris:

“Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. before you know where a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in… In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.”

Not only is efficiency proportional to the ends desired, but efficiency is only a significant value to someone who has limited time or power.  For a God who lacks neither, Smith’s complaint against God’s intervention into the natural order of causes is unwarranted. Furthermore, there are many reasons why God might choose to be causally engaged in the activity of creation. Craig points out two: (i) God could delight in the work of creation and (ii) God might want to leave a general revelation of Himself in nature.

Smith has failed to show that the Big Bang is logically incompatible with God. Instead, the theistic explanation of the initial cosmological singularity remains superior to its atheistic  rival. To believe that our universe simply came into being out of nothing without a cause, furnished with a set of complex initial conditions so bizarrely improbable as to to ridicule comprehension, then accidentally evolved to fall into delicate balance with life-permitting conditions must be taken as wildly implausible at best, and plainly absurd at worst. The Big Bang, rather than taking us away from God, brings us closer to the Creator of Christian theism.

Notes:

Reason and Religious Belief by Michael Peterson,  William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Evolutionary Biologist Argues for the Scientific Accuracy of Genesis

GenesisZoologist and Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford University, Andrew Parker has written a new book arguing that there are significant parallels between the Genesis account of creation and discoveries in contemporary science. Parker specializes in the evolution of vision and is one of the eight “Scientists for a New Century” selected by the Royal Institution.  His previous book,  In the Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked the Big Bang Of Evolution, defended the idea that the Cambrian explosion was triggered by the evolution of vision in simple organisms. Parker is no friend of either special creationism or intelligent design but has come to recognise the limits of science and even reject agnosticism. In his latest book, The Genesis Enigma, Parker grapples with the dilemma that the Genesis account has no right to be correct. Because the author or authors could not have known the sequence of evolutionary stages that science has come to recognize, Parker argues that Genesis must be the product of divine inspiration.

Here is what Ray Olson, reviewer at Booklist, says of The Genesis Enigma:

“Raised without religion, biologist Parker had his curiosity piqued by responses to his book, In the Blink of an Eye, about his major scientific contribution, the light-switch theory, which contends that the evolution of vision spurred the explosion of life-forms in the Cambrian period, 520 million years ago. His correspondents suggested that his theory put the final link in place between the account contemporary science gives of the world’s development and that related by the first chapter of Genesis. This book is considered his response to that suggestion. Chapter by chapter, he relates the stages of cosmological development and evolution to the seven stages of Creation in Genesis 1, from “Let there be light” – the concretion of the sun – to the debut of birds, which defied the rule (i.e., the reign) of vision over the cycle of predation on which all life depends (birds are uniquely able to flee predators). Read metaphorically, Genesis 1 is a scientifically sound outline. Each of Parker’s chapters, though sprung from a biblical statement, proceeds to chronicle two processes, that of how science thinks the earth and life developed and that of the scientists who forged the theories and obtained the facts that enable and confirm science’s account of creation and evolution. Parker, a popular science writer second to none in clarity and congeniality, has given us the single Darwinian bicentenary publication most liable to reconcile religion and science.”

The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate, Dutton Adult, 294 pages.

Humility in the Wrong Place

“But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason… But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn… The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, pp. 31-32.

The First Last Great Christmas Movie

If there is one subject or theme that filmmakers repeatedly fumble, it is Christmas. For every good Christmas film there is a Bad Santa, Elf, or The Santa Clause. Yet, for a generation that prefers cynicism over sentimentality and values objects and people only for what they can contribute to pleasure, Christmas will always be misunderstood. The message of contemporary Christmas film, Love Actually, characterizes this predicament tellingly: ‘love actually is all around’, is its catchcry. Love, invisible and irresistible, can take any form. It is has no anchor, no zipcode in moral reality. But if love is everything, then it is nothing. When the objective realm has been supplanted by subjectivity, it is no wonder that moral principles evaporate and the heart of Christmas lost.

Joe Carter, over at First Things, gives a good argument for why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rightly upends the moral vision of our time and deserves its place as the best Christmas film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the translation of an older myth into a post-World War 2 world. That original story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tale of a miser who is given a shot at redemption.  It’s a Wonderful Life features not Scrooge but George Bailey, played by James Stewart, who is contemplating death after a financial crisis and the prospect of impending disgrace.  It takes a vision of a world in which he was never born to make him realise that life is indeed worth living and rediscover the spirit of Christmas. Carter, in comparing the work of Frank Capra to Ayn Rand, says:its_a_wonderful_life

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

You can watch the whole movie online at Google Video.

Have we got it right? New DVD on Jesus, history and the NT

Earlier this year, the Tyndale House sponsored a conference at the Westminister Chapel, in London, to both address contemporary objections to the historicity of the New Testament and show why the Bible can be trusted. With the goal in training Christians to be able to share their faith with confidence, the conference brought together some of the foremost evangelical scholars around today. The DVD of the sessions has now become available. You can purchase it online here.

Information about the three lectures included on the DVD, from the Bible and Church website:

Have we got the history right? Dr. Peter J. Williams

A widely held idea is that Christian beliefs arose over a long period of time through a mixture of gullibility and conspiracy. Early Christian records are held to be legend, myth or fabrication.

However, when we consider the earliest accounts of Christianity by non-Christian writers we see that Christians were never in a position to fabricate the accounts of Jesus, and that the core Christian beliefs must have been held very early

Dr Peter (P.J.) Williams is the Warden of Tyndale House. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible.

Have we got the text right? Dr. Dirk Jongkind

Another popular idea is that the Bible has been corrupted, either by deliberate falsification or simply lost through passage of time. Such ideas are promoted in the British media.
This session will explain what New Testament manuscripts are and compare the manuscripts we have of the New Testament with what we have for other ancient writings.

It will also show how little evidence there is for deliberate change within New Testament manuscripts. The scribes of the New Testament manuscripts would not have been good conspirators because they were interested in copying not in changing.

Dr Dirk Jongkind is a Dutch biblical scholar who finished his PhD at Cambridge University on Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.

Have we got Jesus right? Dr Simon J. Gathercole

Probably the most popular idea in relation to the Bible is that books have been missed out or put in due to political pressure and various media have been full of talk about ‘other gospels’.

Here some of the most famous ‘other gospels’ are considered: the gospels of Thomas, Judas and Mary. But first it is important to establish two facts about the very earliest Christians and their beliefs:

* they believed that Jesus had died as a ransom for our sins.
* they believed that Jesus had fulfilled the Old Testament.

It is found that while Matthew, Mark, Luke and John agree with these two Christian beliefs, the apocryphal gospels generally do not. They do not fit the pattern of earliest Christian belief precisely because they were written later.

They are less reliable than the canonical gospels both in their picture of history and in their picture of Jesus’ message. For real pictures of Jesus, based on eyewitness testimony, you need to read the New Testament.

Dr Simon Gathercole is Editor of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Having studied Classics and Theology at Cambridge University.

(Source: Justin Taylor)