Dogmatic Hues: What People Believe

Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Bibel in Bildern (1860)

Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Bibel in Bildern (1860)

Postmodernism was, in part, the reaction against the notion of a meta-narrative; the ideal that there is one over-aching narrative that guilds and shapes society. In Western society that meta-narrative was Christianity. This usurpation of the One Story paved the way for other narratives to be told. With the monopoly of Christianity broken, these other narratives, which had always been told, were given greater airtime. Christianity no longer had the inside track, but in the forty-or-so years since the advent of postmodernism most Christians have not tried readily understood these other narratives.

Plato suggested that the people in his idealized society be told a story, a myth, that some people were created with gold strands, some with silver, and some with bronze. The gold imbued were created to be kings, the silver imbued to be soldiers, and those with bronze were at the bottom of the pile. The stories a society tells its members define the identity if those members, what is normal and what is not normal. Below is a very brief look at some of these narratives.

Atheism

Mikhail Bakunin wrote that ‘as long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.’ He also wrote that ‘if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.’ Atheism is the reaction against any form of belief in deity. Atheism, then, can be summarized as the active disbelief in deity. ‘Atheism’ the word is Greek for without a god. But it is more than just mere disbelief; it is the challenge against the social systems and morals inherent in a society with a monotheistic (or theistic) underpinning. If there is one god, there is one story (more or less). If there is no god, it is not, then, a case of there being no story, on the contrary the vacuum is filled with a multitude of contenders; there is no limit to how many stories that can be told. There is also no control, any terms of reference, as to what kind of story can be told. A story can be told that makes an unborn baby not (yet) human. A story can be told that one group of people are less than another. Stories of the equality of the sexes become stories of the sameness of the sexes. Light becomes dark and soon the clock strikes the thirteenth hour. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘they that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature….[atheism] depriveth human nature of the means to exalt itself above human frailty.’ It is a paradox to tell someone in school that they are merely an animal only to imprison them when they act as one as an adult.

Agnostism

Agnostism is the negation of the word gnostic. Gnostic or gnostism pertains to knowledge by revelation. Agnostism, then, means to be without knowledge or revelation. It is primarily an epistemological position, that is, it is to do with how knowledge is gained. William L. Rowe defined agnostism as ‘the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.’ That is, humanity does not have the means to know one way or another either God exists (Barth would argue that this is correct, and that it is only through the revelation of Jesus Christ that humanity can know anything of God.). Richard Dawkins, when pushed, considers himself an agnostic. Is it a safer place to be rationally than atheism because its only claim is that of incompetence. Atheism, on the other hand, makes a far bigger claim: it claims that nowhere in the universe exists an entity that could be considered a god. Where agnostism claims ignorance in the question of the gardeners’ existence, atheism claims to have searched every part of the garden simultaneously and have proved, beyond doubt, that no gardener exists. When one sees a garden the rational response is to at least posit the possibility of a gardener before one attempts to discover the existence, or lack thereof, of said gardener. Agnostism is simple and safe; it requires nothing more than the acceptance of epistemological failure. Agnostism is a safe place to be theologically; though in its claim of ignorance it demonstrates it.

Deism

Deism, from the Latin word for god, deus, is the belief that the universe was created by a supreme being who subsequent to creation did not intervene in the operation or events of the universe. This god is sometimes referred to as an absentee landlord – because he is never there. This created but neglected universe is referred to as a clock-work universe – because God wound it up and let it wind down on its own. Deism was in vogue during the Enlightenment and was the theological view of most of the Founding Fathers (see Alf J. Mapp’s The Faiths of Our Fathers) . Deism is not the same as Christianity because it allows for neither a relational god nor miracles. The concept of an intelligent designer could be seen as an argument for deism rather than theism or Christianity because it states that the universe was created, by whatever means, by a supreme being. Intelligent Design (ID) is a theological position on the creation of the universe and nothing more – it argues for nothing else. Those using ID in apologetics need to realize that all at calls for is a creator god and nothing more – it can only go as far as deism.

Theism

Theism (from the Greek word for god, theos) is a philosophical position and is not the same as either deism or Christianity. Theism is the belief that there is a creator god, and that this god can and does interact in the world (as opposed to a deistic god who does not); that is, it allows for miracles. It does not make claims about the identity or the nature of this god. It takes many forms: deism, monotheism, polytheism, henotheism. Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity are all theistic systems. The difference between Christianity and Theism is that while Theism posits miracles it does not necessarily posit a relational god. Antony Flew, the famous ex-atheist, became a theist, in that he believed an intelligence responsible for the complexity of information on DNA. Flew was not a Christian, he believed none of the claims of Christianity other than the claim of a creator-god.

Kingship is a theme of the Bible that fits with a big audience

OT Audiences: Big is Good (Clarity of the Bible II)

We can understand the Bible with the help of a community: the authors, initial audiences, and later audiences. In my last post, I emphasised the authors. In fact, the authors and initial audiences overlap. By looking at the authors Paul and Luke last week, we have already started to look at initial audiences. These missionary teammates were in each other’s audiences. Other examples are proverb-writer Solomon reading his father David’s Psalms and several prophet-authors working at the same time, like Daniel and Ezekiel.

In this post, while still following clues from the Bible itself (just the Old Testament for now), we will widen our lens and find that the initial audiences were big.

Now, because we are following clues from the Bible, some skeptics will cry foul. Just as a skeptical shopper questions the claim on the Weet-Bix box that ‘Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids’, a skeptical reader questions the claims a book makes about its own audiences. However, a reasonable reader finds clues in a book about its audience. This is how scholars of literature treat books in general. Just as the box of Weet-Bix in my pantry is a clue to my diet, my digestive system, and my demographic, a book’s style and type is a clue to the sort of people it was written for, the relationship they had with the author, and the place his message had in their lives.

What clues in the Old Testament indicate large audiences? Much of Moses’ books are covenant or agreement documents, formally outlining the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, complete with instructions for land use, holidays, an order of priesthood, concepts of purity and perfection and much more. In other words, they were written to a whole nation on purpose to define that whole nation.

The Old Testament books after Moses are also designed for immediate and wide sharing, from temple songbooks (many Psalms) to criticisms of the nation (much of the prophets) to practical proverbs about everyday life. Even the lyrical Song of Songs is dedicated to (or perhaps by) a king.

So we have large audiences right in front of the authors using books together for a range of purposes.

Contrast this with the opposite: a lone, isolated reader who doesn’t need to do anything about the book. When I was about thirteen I read Lord of the Rings. Afterwards I felt a little guilty, because my mother would report my achievement in glowing terms, yet I knew I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. I found it very confusing and scarcely followed the plot. Why was Aragorn the rightful king? Why did the Rohirrim ride horses into battle and not those giant tree-men? I could not have answered either of these to save my life. Fortunately, I did not need to answer these questions to save my life, or for any other urgent purpose. Again, I was a lone, isolated reader.

Yet the readers of the books of the Old Testament did use those books to support (or oppose) kings, organise battles, and do all sorts of other things. They could not afford to pose with the books and look smart one by one, like thirteen-year-old me with Lord of the Rings. They received the books as a group. The books called for an active response. And there are signs that the call got through. The books are full of clarifications in sophisticated detail. There are careful closures of loopholes in the Law of Moses, choir instructions in the Psalms, and shock tactics from angry prophets. The authors would only bother clarifying particular points like this if a lot of their message was already understood as they intended.

Each of those examples of clarification is a technique, and a set of techniques makes up a genre. A genre serves a big purpose. So, in the Old Testament, there are both clarifying techniques (like legal loophole closure, choir tips, and shock tactics) and purposeful genres (like covenant, worshipful singing, or king support) – both fine details and big ideas, all forced out onto the page by the drive to communicate. When we open those pages and read today, we have a chance to be a new audience, hearing the message again.

We should be grateful for the drive to communicate, and for the initial audiences who helped to stir it in the human authors’ hearts.

Next week, we’ll look at how balanced a portrait we get in the Old Testament about its audiences, why honesty is a much better explanation than skillful fiction, and how this, too, helps us to understand the text.

matthias-stom-the-evangelists-st-mark-and-st-luke-1635

Authors (Clarity of the Bible I)

‘Go on, say it to her,’ my would-be tutor encouraged me, pointing to a pretty Chinese girl sitting nearby. ‘Don’t be shy. It’s just a greeting. You wanted to learn some new words, right?’ His impish grin did not inspire my confidence.

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the language teaching book: Tell the student a complete lie. The deception lasts until the girl who is ‘greeted’ frosts over, giggles, or bursts out in laughter. Deceptions like this range from fairly harmless to cruel. But, in general, they are fragile. The serious language student will practice their new words with many native speakers. The more trivial errors are more likely to persist, but the outrageous ones tend not to survive the environment of a community in conversation.

There is a similar remedy to mistakes and deceptions about the Bible. The more outrageous ones are fragile in the environment of the Bible community.

Who is in this community? The human authors of the Bible, their initial audiences, the readers in the generations since then, and even us today.

Today, let’s consider the first group: the human authors of the Bible. There were dozens of them over thousands of years.

First example: Luke and Paul. When Luke gives us Jesus’ model prayer, it is usually understood as a series of verbal requests to a personal God to bring about his good rule in the world, to supply our needs, and to forgive us. But could it instead be self-affirming, desire-free, vague meditation? Well, if for some reason we are unsure what Luke meant, we can check with Paul. Paul was in a missionary team with Luke. In the New Testament books that Paul wrote, he shares many of his own prayers, confirming that it involves requests to a personal God.

The Old Testament writers are also a part of the community. King David sheds light on Christ’s prayer, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, because this prayer is a direct quote from his Psalm 22. King David writes these words as a good man agonising over God’s refusal to step in, yet still trusting God with his every breath (read the whole psalm). This matches how Matthew and Mark present Christ. The same principle is at work when a recent movie makes a reference to a classic movie, and you watch the classic movie to check that you understood the reference right.

Christ quoting David like this is a fitting example of the link between the books of the Bible. To the writers of the newer books, the older books were a precious heritage – authorities even. Yet many are quick to assume that newer writers disagreed with their authorities. For example, Leo Tolstoy was sure that Christ was in fact preaching a stateless, churchless (and synagogue-less) society, though Christ failed to actually say so. Tolstoy insists that this idea, though so alien to the Old Testament, is there when you read between the lines of the New.

Certainly, writers added developments to the heritage of the older books. There is a reason why the second part of the Bible is called the New Testament. But the developments are the very things likely to be spelled out, not hidden between the lines. The new claim that the Messiah had arrived was endlessly debated between Christian and non-Christian Jews. The issue characterises the entire New Testament. Stephen’s trial and defense speech in Acts 7 presents us with one of the specific clashes. Even in its differences, a community helps us to understand.

Paul says, ‘The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God’ (Romans 3:2). The Jews were the human authors of the Bible (Luke was arguably an exception, but he certainly knew the Jewish heritage). God did not give his verbal revelation independently to isolated corners of the earth, but to a distinct nation with a rich sense of history. In the environment of their conversation, their real intentions and messages come to light.

My next few posts will be about another part of the community: the initial audiences.

hero

Holding out for a hero

A common apologetic among Christians – here it is, in traditional syllogism:

Premise 1: Person A is a Christian

Premise 2: Person A is a well-respected celebrity or cultural icon

Conclusion: Christianity is a reliable worldview

You won’t find this argument in any apologetic textbook but, nonetheless, there are countless examples. Bear Grylls on Alpha course posters. The recent hype around Chance The Rapper’s latest album, Coloring Book. Whenever Kendrick Lamar says God. Even New Zealand gets in on the action – rugby legends, DJs, and politicians fill a list of New Zealand-celebrity-Christians.

Christian news providers jump at the opportunity to publish when celebrities make even a passing comment about their ‘relationship with God’ or their personal spirituality. These comments almost never contain anything religiously distinctive, leading the hearers further from truth and closer to tragedy. Why do Christians do this? Why do the people of God feel this need for justification from on high?

Cult of personality 

In many cultures, celebrities are respected and adored for their success and skills. That is why we flock to buy things with their faces on. People are simply more likely to subscribe to a good or service that fame is endorsing. I don’t know about you but I can’t see any difference between 1) buying Proactiv cause the Biebs said so and 2) Christianity being believable because he went to Hillsong two years ago. The Christian industrial complex is putting famous faces on their product, to increase souls. What type of message does this convey? That through the ways of the world, Christianity can achieve its goal. 

The only problem – this is antithetical to the ways of God. 

Wouldn’t it be nice…

Don’t get me wrong – we should rejoice when those with cultural influence are saved by Christ. But this should be no different to any other song of thankfulness.

I catch myself thinking for a second – how amazing would it be if Richard Dawkins became a Christian? What a testament to the power of the gospel it would be! He would become a poster-boy for the cause. Christians would remind each other around campfires of the great day that the modern walls of Jericho fell – the day the stone surrounding Dawkins’ heart came tumbling down. Jesus reigns. 

The other side of the same coin – Dawkins continues his delusion, countless more reject the faith, and Christianity is further squeezed out of the public sphere. But Jesus still reigns. His gospel accomplishments on the sinner’s behalf still resound, still light the dark, still bring flesh to bones,

Jesus has no need of sidekicks or sponsors or hype-guys or makeup artists or audio-visual technicians or athletes or politicians. It is in coincidence that Christianity started its long decline when Constantine made it cool. The glory of this world will never bring about the glory that matters. Need I remind us all that Jesus was betrayed, tortured, and executed on a Roman cross – the most unglamorous and ugly combination of evils known to man.

A better way

The New Testament authors prick the ears with a different tune   –  the good news of God saving sinners always was, is, and will be foolishness to those who are wise, strong and influential in this world. Christianity’s missions is left in the hands of the stupid, weak and unimportant. Why would we then place our hope and trust in the trending? “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

The gospel isn’t foolishness if the Greeks think it’s cool.