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.

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.

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.

Dragon Speak (Or, What is Theology?)

You have nice manners for a liar and a thief  (Smaug in the Hobbit)

A few weeks ago I went to a lecture at Otago University. The lecture commemorated five hundred years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation. Written on the desk that I sat at where the words, ‘there is no god.’ Yet here I was listening to a lecture about Luther and his god, and believing in that same god. Clearly there was a vast gulf between the theology of the scribe and my own.  

The serpent said to Eve, ‘did God really say, “you must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ And so begins one of the most famous (or infamous) dialogues in all of human history. Whether you identify as a Christian or not does not take away from the power of this story. It is a universal story: a utopian existence lost through folly. Everybody – Christian, Buddhist, and Jedi alike – has lost someone’s trust through failure or deceit. Humans fail. And their failure hurts them. And it hurts those around them. ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendents’ (2 Esdras 7.11). Some call it sin, others, evil. C. K. Chesterton commented that sin ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proven,’ and is also a ‘fact as practical as potatoes’ (Orthodoxy).   

The third chapter of Genesis is a strange story. The main actors in the previous two chapters – God and Adam – are in the back-ground: God is passive and Adam pretty much invisible. Instead, two new actors – Eve (then unnamed) and the (until then unmentioned) serpent – are introduced as principal characters. Theirs is a fleeting scene: between them they only say a handful of words and some of those are quoting God. Yet the echos of this event thunder down through the ages, obscuring the First Story: we can now barely imagine life in Eden, walking and communing with our creator, without thinking of Eve and Adam’s folly. Ours is a view of a high mountain peak from deep in a shadowed valley.

When we thought and talked about God we did so from the shadows. Long ago we lost our footing and fell off the precipice. David wrote of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4). We could only look up, and when we did so we saw the silhouette of a dragon circling far above, casting its shadow over us and obscuring our view of the sky. Between us and God was a dragon, ‘that serpent of old’ (Rev 12.9, 20.2).

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings (Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit)

This changed after the first Easter. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus overcame the separation, the expanse between humanity and God. After Easter humans could both know God and know about God in a way that they could not before. Theology as we know it was born. We can know God because he has revealed himself to us through Jesus (Hebrews 1.3a). The historical reality of Jesus, then, makes theology possible. But what  if you don’t believe in Jesus?

Theologians refer to the noetic effect of sin on the human intellect (from the Greek noe?tikos, relating to mental activity or the intellect). The human intellect is affected by sin. This effect is overcome by the work of Jesus in the life of the believer, but not the non-believer. Abraham Kuyper wrote that ‘regeneration [salvation] breaks humanity into two’ – the regenerated mind and the non-regenerated mind (Moroney, 1999:434). While Emil Brunner added that, ‘the more we are dealing with the inner nature of man, with his attitude to God, and the way in which he is determined by God, it is evident that this sinful illusion becomes increasingly dominant’ (439). That is, Christians can both know God and about God because God, through Jesus, has regenerated their minds, while non-believers cannot because their minds remain un-regenerated.

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Consider the following words from some secular thinkers. Protagoras, an epistemological agnostic,  wrote that, ‘concerning the gods….many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (On the Gods). Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, charged that ‘the study of theology…is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it provides no authorities…it admits of no conclusion’ (The Age of Reason). Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, suggested that Christianity was a ‘web of contradictions and delusions’ (The Essence of Christianity). While the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer wrote that ‘all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical’ (Critique of Ethics and Theology).

Meanwhile author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who clearly hasn’t read much good theology, accuses theology of never being of the ‘smallest use to anybody’ and only talking about ‘pestilence as the wages of sin.’ In his opinion theology is an empty ideology: ‘The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Scientific Versus Theological Knowledge). (Perhaps Dawkins should check the history of both his profession and institution.)

But does this mean that the non-believer can have no theological insight? No. It is probably better to understand it in general terms rather than an precise statement true in every situation. There has been some very flawed theology from redeemed minds (by ‘redeemed’ I do not mean ‘perfect’) just as there has been some good theological insight from unredeemed minds.

The Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) support of apartheid in South Africa is an example of believers getting theology very wrong. Founded in 1652, it was the theological teaching of the DRC that some races were superior to others that helped pave the way for racial segregation in South Africa. It needs to be noted that while the DRC was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in the 1980s (an action that showed that other churches believed the theology, on this point, to be wrong), it was re-admitted in 1986 for welcoming black members and preaching that all members of all racial groups should meet and pray together.

St. Augustine wrote that ‘the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive’ (City of God, VIII, 6). This is a theological insight. The Platonists were not  Christians, though Augustine seemed to have suggested as much, yet they came to a conclusion compatible with a simple reading of Genesis. Paul wrote in Romans 1.19, which Augustine quoted regarding the Platonists, that, ‘what can be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…’ Perhaps the Platonists were such ardent searches for the truth that God made plain that which they sought? Either way these non-Christians came to the same conclusion as Christians regarding Creation: that one god did it – though they didn’t know which one.    

It might be deemed by some as offensive to hold that non-believers have un-regenerated minds, and it may be so, but some of those un-regenerated minds have no problem accusing believers of stupidity – surely a more offensive claim.

Different conclusions are reached about God because different people are coming from diametrically opposed positions – a point that needs to be remembered. One position says that there is a god, and that that god has revealed himself through Jesus two thousand years ago. Another position sees the notion of a god as foolish from the beginning, and comes to very different conclusions: Richard Dawkins even suggests that Jesus would have been an atheist had he lived today. One mind sees the son of God, the other sees merely another muggle.    

References:

Moroney, S. K. (1999). How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model. Christian Scholar’s Review , XXVIII(3), 432-451.     

Foetus in the womb

The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 3)

Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. To recap, in Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. In Part 2, I offered the following argument for the pro-life position:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

I then defended the second point with scientific evidence, demonstrating that the unborn is undeniably a human being. In this post, I’ll examine a further distinction that’s sometimes offered to justify abortion; namely, the distinction between a human being and a person. As we continue, I’ll offer reasons to think that this distinction cannot be sustained, and offer a better explanation of human value.


Do you believe that all human beings have a right to life? If so, then you should adopt a pro-life view on abortion. As we’ve seen, the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being, which means that if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. To say that someone has a right to life is simply to say that they have a right not to be killed without sufficient justification. Since elective abortion kills the unborn without sufficient justification, it follows that it violates his or her rights.

Of course, this entails that abortion is wrong—an undesirable inference for many. As such, pro-choice advocates have forged a path that avoids this conclusion. By abandoning the idea that all human beings have a right to life and embracing instead the idea that only some do, we can put the unborn in the category of “human beings without a right to life”, and thus deny that abortion violates those rights.


Do all human beings have a right to life?

When presented with this question, it’s reasonable to suppose that most people would intuitively answer “yes”. However, many ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that this isn’t the case. Rather, they propose a distinction between a human being and a human person. The former does not possess a right to life, while the latter does. As such, it is morally permissible to kill a human being but not a human person.

If we consider this line of reasoning in relation to pro-life argument offered above, we can see that it constitutes a denial of the first point (it’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being). Rather, proponents of this view hold that it’s morally permissible to kill human beings—as long as they’re not persons. Applied to abortion, this reasoning tells us that it is not wrong to kill the unborn human being if they are not yet persons.

This raises an obvious question: what makes human persons different from human beings? How can we tell the difference? In response, pro-choice advocates have suggested a number of criteria that ostensibly grant human beings personhood and thus a right to life. You’ve probably heard of a few of them: consciousness, brain waves, human appearance, size, viability, desires, etc. It’s argued that human beings who have brain waves, or who look like mature human beings, or who have the capacity for desires etc., are persons; all others are not. In this way, personhood is granted to human beings who perform some function or have some capacity. We can refer to this position as the “functional view” of personhood.

At first blush, the functional view may seem reasonable. However, many scholars contend that it leads to overwhelming difficulties. As it’s well beyond the scope of this post, I’m not going to address each of the proffered criteria of the functional view individually. Rather, I’ll point out a major problem with this view, and leave references in the endnotes for those who wish to pursue the topic further[i].

One of the greatest difficulties with the functional view is that the criteria offered to distinguish persons from mere humans either exclude obvious examples of persons, or include obvious examples of non-persons. Let me explain. If we know that an individual is a person, and a personhood-criterion excludes that individual, then the criterion must be mistaken. Similarly, if we know that an entity is not a person, and a personhood-criterion includes that entity, then the criterion must, once again, be mistaken. For example, if we know that a comatose human being is a person, yet our criterion tells us he/she is not, then we must abandon the criterion. On the other hand, if our criterion tells us that a cow is a person, and we know that it is not, we have ample grounds to reject that criterion.


The SLED Test

In his book The Moral Question of Abortion, Stephen Schwarz[ii] offers a succinct method of summarising and demonstrating this problem. His method is known as the SLED Test. In the SLED test, each of the various criteria proposed by proponents of the functional view are grouped into one of four categories: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Take the first letter of each of these headings, and you have the acronym SLED. By reflecting on these categories, we can see that none of these attributes (or the lack thereof) provide good reason to kill human beings at the foetal stage, but not at a further developed stage.

  • Size

Some pro-choice advocates have suggested that the unborn is too small to be a person and therefore to possess a right to life. However, an 8-year-old child is smaller than a 30-year-old adult, yet it would be absurd to suppose that therefore the child has less of a right to life than the adult. I’m taller than my wife, my dad, my mum, and my sisters, but that doesn’t make me more of a person than they are. Defining personhood in terms of size would commit us to believing that I am, and therefore size is not an adequate criterion.

  • Level of Development

Others argue that the unborn is not developed enough to be the subject of rights—perhaps the unborn isn’t a person because they haven’t reached a certain level of physical development. However, toddlers, teenagers, and adults are all more developed than infants—but that doesn’t mean they have a greater right to life. Furthermore, if physical development determines personhood, then what level of development is sufficient? If a particular stage or bodily state can be identified, why accept that stage/state rather than another? What’s unique about it that makes it the defining moment when a human being becomes a person with rights?

Another stage of development at which human beings are thought to gain value is the stage at which they become conscious/self-aware. It’s said that persons are human beings who are conscious, and, since the unborn is not conscious, the unborn is not a human person. However, if this is true, then infants and comatose adults aren’t persons either, as they aren’t self-aware. Furthermore, sleep is an unconscious state, yet it would be absurd to think we can kill human beings while they sleep because they lose their rights when they lose consciousness. Finally, many animals are more conscious than new-born babies. Are we to forbid killing the former but allow killing the latter?

  • Environment

Another distinction said to disqualify unborn human beings from personhood is environment or location. According to this view, the unborn is located within another person’s body, and therefore is not a human person. However, we know that your value as a human being doesn’t change when you cross the street, fly to China, or roll over in bed. Why, then, should we think that the unborn suddenly becomes a human person when she travels through her mother’s birth canal? A new-born infant is, after all, identical to herself before birth, except she’s in a different location. Moreover, on this view a 39-week unborn child would not be a person, but a prematurely delivered 25-week infant would be. This, however, seems arbitrary and counter-intuitive, indicating that environment is irrelevant when determining value.

  • Degree of Dependency

Finally, others have suggested that human beings become persons when they become viable; that is, when they don’t depend on others or on certain equipment or medication for their survival. Thus, the unborn is only a person once it can survive outside the womb. Once again, however, this criterion excludes an array of human beings whom we know are valuable persons. On this view, the patient whose life depends on insulin or kidney medication would no longer be a person, elderly folk who require the assistance of carers would no longer have rights, and conjoined twins who share bodily systems could be killed without justification.

To compound the problem, viability is technologically dependent. With current technology, foetuses are viable at an earlier stage of development than they were before the modern era. Are we to think that foetuses developing in modern times are persons at 22 weeks of pregnancy while foetuses at that same stage prior to modernity were not? Surely not. As such, viability is not a good reason to attribute value to the unborn.


A Better Explanation[iii]

Clearly the functional view of personhood raises numerous questions and poses apparently insurmountable difficulties. It seems inadequate due to its inability to account for our moral intuitions regarding human value. By “moral intuitions” I mean moral truths that we perceive without having to extensively reflect or deliberate about it; for example, that it’s wrong to kill people in comas, or people who depend on medication for their continued existence. Rather, it makes more sense to say that humans are valuable persons with a right to life in virtue of the type of creature they are. Human beings have intrinsic value simply because they are human. On this view, comatose persons are valuable because they are living human beings. Infants, though not self-aware, nonetheless have a right to life because of the kind of creature they are. The unborn, though smaller, less developed, in a different environment, and more dependent than other human beings, is a valuable person in virtue of its humanity. 

If the case I’ve offered in Parts 1 – 3 of this series is sound, then abortion is wrong. As we’ve seen, the moral permissibility of abortion depends on what the unborn entity is. If the unborn is a human being, and it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, then abortion is wrong. Science demonstrates that the unborn is a human being, and therefore if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. Finally, the inability of the functional view of personhood to account for our intuitions suggests the following: if we want to embrace human equality, then we should ground it in the only thing that all humans share equally, namely, their human nature. We should embrace all human beings, defending most vigorously the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us—the unborn.


 

Citations/Endnotes:

[i] Helpful resources include Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, session 4 of Making Abortion Unthinkable, an audio set by Stand to Reason, Chapters 2 – 4 of Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life, and Christopher Kaczor’s book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.

[ii] Schwarz, S. D. (1990). The moral question of abortion, pp. 15-19. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

[iii] For more on this view of human value, see Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, or click here for an informative lecture by Scott Klusendorf.

The death of Truth

You can’t handle the truth

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced the death of God. In 1900, God pronounced the death of Nietzsche. In the years between, this German philosopher sought to open the eyes of the masses to the sheer pointlessness of existence using his biting, nihilistic rhetoric.

In 1966, TIME Magazine’s cover echoed Nietzsche’s sentiment, albeit in question form. “Is God Dead?” in giant red letters has become an icon of 20th century history. Nietzche’s intellectual descendants were proud of their his voice now influencing on an even grander scale. Hopelessness bred hope.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this iconic cover, TIME published some new red letters – same style, different subject. “Is Truth Dead?” was the question for 2017. As a keen cultural observer, my ears were pricked. The subject matter of this piece was the Trumpian concept of truth as a malleable tool – an important conversation, no doubt. But I can’t help but think that TIME Magazine missed an opportunity to be truthful about truth.

Good job, TIME. Bad job, TIME.

TIME’s critique of truth massaging is both warranted and hypocritical. Warranted because language of fact and truth, right and wrong should never be distorted for any form of personal gain. Plain and simple – truth is good, falsehood is wrong. The Great Truth Masseuse of Washington would do well to listen.

On the other hand, TIME has missed a contradiction. A bad one, right in their blind spot. TIME refer to “binary distinctions between truth and falsehood” in the Trump piece, yet they represent a culture that flagrantly denies these same distinctions in areas of personal preference. TIME claims the moral high ground on matters of truth and falsehood while representing the wider cultural norm of relativizing truth whenever it suits. 

I guess I would find it hard to see this if I too had a tree in my eye.

Binary – not just for nerds

Abortion and the transgender revolution are two examples of this – the suppression of self-evident truths in favour of Sovereign Self decrees.

Despite this organism inside me being a human, I will disregard its value and kill it. I make the rules.

Despite being a man, I will declare myself a woman. I have spoken.

Despite no supporting evidence, there are surveillance devices everywhere listening to every word my administration says. That is that.

How are these things different from each other? How is one worthy of critique and the others are not to be questioned? You either keep your cake or eat it. You can’t have both.

This 50 year slide from the death of God to Truth is telling – after all, if there is no God, no Ultimate Truth Giver, can things really be said to be true in any meaningful sense? Obviously, we use ‘truth’ and its derivatives daily to convey meaning but are we appealing to our own subjective sense of meaning, or are we rooting these words in something objective, something that is, regardless of who believes it – something greater than our own unstable circumstances and desires.

If TIME are receiving answers to their pointed cover question, I have one – Yes. Truth died a long time ago. But it has risen and reigns.

Thoughts on Charity and Argumentation

Argumentation is an unavoidable part of apologetics, and, when doing apologetics, it’s crucial to note the difference between an argument in the everyday sense and an argument in the philosophical sense. While the former is a heated and aggressive clash of opinions, the latter is simply a set of statements that lead to a conclusion. Nonetheless, sometimes arguments of the first sort occur over arguments of the second sort. There are a number of reasons why these clashes take place, one of which is this: often apologists and sceptics alike fail to treat their interlocuter’s arguments, ideas, and opinions with charity. Conflict may be avoided if each party is guided by the “principle of charity”.

What is the principle of charity?

In a nutshell, the principle of charity is a principle that (ideally) guides philosophical dialogue, and, by extension, apologetic endeavours. It states that, when representing an argument or idea that you don’t agree with and are evaluating, you should represent that it in (i) the strongest form possible, and (ii) a way that is faithful to the argument/idea as originally presented. Here’s an everyday example of an uncharitable representation:

Sam: “Mum, I feel sick and I don’t like to eat junk food when I’m sick, so I think we should eat at home tonight” (said no child ever).

Sally: “Mum, Sam always feels sick, and besides, he won’t die from having KFC this once. I’ve been wanting it for weeks, so let’s eat out”.

Notice how Sally misrepresented Sam’s argument, then countered that misrepresentation with her own reason for the opposite course of action. Sam never said he’d die if he ate out—that’s an unfair caricature of his statement. Unfortunately, this sort of distortion occurs in serious dialogue as well, but more on that later. A more charitable conversation might run like this:

Sam: “Mum, I feel sick and I don’t like to eat junk food when I’m sick, so I think we should eat at home tonight”.

Sally: “Mum, it’s true that Sam is feeling sick and that he doesn’t like junk food when he’s ill. But he’s feeling sick because he hasn’t eaten all day, and since we’re out already, he’ll feel better sooner if we get some sushi before going home”.

In which of these examples is Sally’s case strongest? Granted, these examples are somewhat corny, but they illustrate well the difference between charitable and uncharitable representations of arguments.

Why be charitable?

Now, one might ask, why be charitable? Well, there are a number of reasons to do so. Firstly, as we noted earlier, treating peoples’ ideas and arguments charitably helps to avoid unnecessary conflict. No one likes to be misrepresented!  Secondly, as apologists, 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to be respectful in our interactions with non-believers. Peter writes “in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience” (ESV, emphasis added). Respecting non-believers entails representing their views accurately and charitably. Remember, as apologists we’re not dealing solely with ideas and concepts—our goal is to win people to Christ, and uncharitable refutations are unlikely to direct people to Him. By being respectful and charitable with people’s arguments and opinions, we better represent God’s character and His work in our lives.

A third reason to treat others’ arguments charitably is this: if you represent the strongest form of an opponent’s argument, and then refute that, your own case is strengthened. Think about it for a moment; suppose you’re in conversation with someone who raises a number of arguments against God’s existence. In response, you misrepresent his or her arguments and refute them. When responding, your interlocuter can simply reply “that’s not actually what I think, so my arguments still stand”. As such, their case remains untouched, while yours struggles under the weight of their objections. In contrast, if, when they present their arguments, you take the time to properly understand what they’re stating and to present those arguments in their strongest form, your refutation will strengthen your case, while simultaneously weakening your opponent’s.

Attacking a Straw Man

The principle of charity is closely tied to a logical misstep known as the “strawman” fallacy. The strawman fallacy occurs when someone intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents an argument, refutes the misrepresentation, then proceeds as though the original argument has been dealt with. When people do this, they can be said to have “attacked a straw man”. Sadly, this fallacy crops up (pun intended) all the time in news reports, blogs, books, opinion pieces, and the like. One example I recently stumbled across can be found in Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists.

The prominent sceptic Michael Shermer introduces Boghossian’s book with a fleeting but fiery foreword. In assessing the claims of Christianity, Shermer describes the Trinity as follows:

God could just forgive the sin we never committed, but instead he sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually just himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one god—that’s what monotheism means—of which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just different manifestations. Three in One and One in Three[i].

If you’ve done any study on the doctrine of the Trinity, you’ll see the problems immediately. Shermer has uncharitably misstated the doctrine, thereby making it seem absurd. This leads him to conclude that the doctrine is “barking mad!”[ii]. For the sake of brevity I won’t outline Trinitarian doctrine here, but if you’re baffled and can’t spot Shermer’s error, I’ll leave links to helpful resources in the endnotes[iii].

In response to Shermer’s attack, the Christian can respond “wait a second—that’s not what I believe!”. Shermer has attacked a straw man, and has failed to truly show that the Trinity is absurd. If, on the other hand, he had charitably represented the doctrine and responsibly responded to that, then he and his conversant could have a productive discussion, and perhaps one or both of the parties would adjust their view accordingly.

The Importance of Charity

Hopefully you can now see how important it is to be charitable in representing other peoples’ arguments, opinions, and ideas. Next time you’re interacting with non-believers, keep in mind the benefits of being guided by the principle of charity:

  1. The principle of charity helps avoid unnecessary conflict.
  2. 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to be respectful when doing apologetics. This entails being charitable.
  3. Your own case will be strengthened if you refute a charitable representation of your opponent’s argument.
  4. If you treat others’ ideas and arguments charitably, you’ll avoid committing the strawman fallacy.

Remember, apologetics is about winning people to Christ, not just scoring debate points or winning arguments. This task is best carried out gently, respectfully, and charitably.


Endnotes

[i] Boghossian, P. (2013). A manual for creating atheists, p. 12. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] For information on the doctrine of the Trinity, I recommend Greg Koukl’s two part series “The Trinity: A Solution, Not a Problem” which can be found here (pt. 1) and here (pt. 2). For a more in-depth study, try William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcasts, available here.

A mid-week meditation

A thought to think.

The Bible, the norming norm of God, tells us that man is:

  1. Dead in his sins
  2. Filled with hatred for God
  3. Void of righteousness
  4. Destined for wrath

Even when we look deep down for the good that pop culture tells us is definitely there, we find filth all the way (if we are honest).

Our hearts are deceitful, our wills are enslaved, our affections perverted. The damage of the Fall is total – infiltrating and corrupting every part of what makes us human. But what of our minds? Yep. They are messed up too.

Dissenter (potentially played by you): Hold up. I thought this was an apologetics website? Thanks for the theological dissertation but what has this got to do with defending the faith?

Me: Everything (emphasis included).

Sin is not concerned with borders – geographical, physiological and metaphysical boundaries will not prevent it from pillaging all it touches. Our minds are no exception. Rather than unique compartments, all of our faculties are to work together. And all of these faculties have been dramatically altered by a dark descent.

When we attempt to convince non-believers of the truth claims of Christianity and stand confounded as they refuse to believe, it can become far too easy to attribute this either to a lack of consistent education on their part, or a lack of clarity on ours. Never does it cross our minds that the human mind has been mangled – in one sense, it operates as designed and on the other, joyful suppression and consistent inconsistency abound.

A thought to think – sinners hate God. They don’t know Him, nor do they want to. A thousand and one foolproof points will not change the fool.  New hearts, not new arguments, are the goal.

Fool’s Gold

This is a guest post by Lachlan Gordon, one of our newest writers at TM.


The Psalmist reports the fool saying there is no God. The Atheist, meanwhile, declares the Christian the fool. Who, then, is the fool?

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was, according to Voltaire, the ‘father’ of the scientific method – the method of modern science. In observing the order in the universe Bacon wrote, ‘I had rather believe all the fables…then that this universal frame is without a mind.’ He also wrote that ‘God never wrought miracle[s] to convince atheism, because his ordinary works convince it.’ For Bacon that God existed was a self-evident fact. To this Isaac Newton (1642-1726), the founder of classical physics, adds that, ‘this most beautiful system of the sun, planet and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.’ He also stated that, if nothing else, the thumb alone would convince him of God’s existence.

Both Bacon and Newton believed in a rational god: because God was rational so to was his creation. And because a rational creation is coherent it can be studied. Scientists like Bacon and Newton did what they did precisely because of their belief in God, not in spite of it. In the case of Michael Faraday (1791-1897) is was because of his particular theology that lead to his discovery of electromagnetic induction – a discovery that lead to the development of the electric motor. Faraday was a devout Christian, and a member of a small (Presbyterian) sect known as the Sandemanians, who believed that because God created the world then everything must be interconnected. Faraday had been given an apparatus consisting of a magnet and a wire. When the wire was dangled over the magnet and had an electric current applied to it, the wire rotated around the magnet as if carried by an invisible wind. Faraday applied his theology to this phenomena and imagined an invisible force (the interconnection of electricity and magnetism) swirling around the magnet, and discovered the magnetic field. Richard Dawkins, the notorious atheist, has stated that he is against religion because ‘it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.’ Dawkins’ premise is rebutted by the scientists mentioned above, all of whom believed in God, and yet made very important scientific discoveries.

It may be that Christians are indeed foolish, but if that is the case then there have been some very intelligent fools.

Further Reading : Francis Bacon, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/ scholarsandscientists/francis-bacon.html . Isaac Newton, http://www.christianitytoday.com/
history/issues/issue-30/faith-behind-famous-isaac-newton.html
. Michael Faraday, http://
www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-genius-and-faith-of-faraday-and-maxwell
.

Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

Foetus in the womb

The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. In Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. The objective of this week’s post is to examine the scientific data relevant to the question, and to demonstrate that the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being.


Defining the Pro-life Position

Before delving into the question of the nature of the unborn, let’s define two key terms: “abortion”, and “human being”. Abortion is the intentional killing of a human foetus[i], while a human being is a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens. Typically, ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that the unborn, though a human being in the biological sense, lacks some further property or capacity which grants them personhood. Such arguments will be considered in future posts; this post will deal solely with scientific evidence.

The pro-life position can be clearly and concisely laid out as follows:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Over the course of this series we’ll examine the premises of this argument, and I’ll offer a defence of each by appealing to science and philosophy.


The Scientific Case[ii]

Now we come to the question outlined in Part 1: what is the unborn? Upon reflection, there seem to be two options. Firstly, the unborn could be a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens from the moment of conception; that is, a human being. Alternatively, it could be some other kind of entity that becomes a human being at birth or at some other stage during pregnancy. Obvious candidates for this kind of entity include (1) a mere clump of cells that do not function in a coordinated manner, (2) a living but non-human being, or (3) a part of the woman’s body. The following paragraphs will outline several scientific facts that undermine these three options and demonstrate that the unborn is a human being.

  • The unborn is alive

A common misconception regarding abortion is that no one knows when life begins. Insofar as one uses “life” in the biological sense, this is demonstrably false. Although there is some debate among biologists as to how to define life precisely, there exist several criteria which, if fulfilled, most scientists agree indicate that an organism is living. Intriguingly, the unborn entity fulfils those criteria from the moment of conception, and thus we can infer that human life begins at conception. These criteria are, minimally, threefold: an entity must be able to convert food to energy (metabolism), react to stimuli, and must be capable of cellular reproduction (growth)[iii]. The unborn, from the moment of conception, performs all three of these functions. Therefore, the unborn is alive.   

An additional consideration which lends support to the view that the unborn is alive is this: abortion kills something. Of course, everyone knows that an organism that has been killed must have been alive prior to its death. In other words, it’s impossible to kill something that isn’t alive. With these considerations in mind, it’s evident that the unborn is a living entity.

  • The unborn is biologically unique

When sperm and egg unite during fertilisation, each contribute twenty-three chromosomes to the formation of the new being. These chromosomes contain the genetic material that guides and directs its development over the course of its life, and they are relevant because they distinguish the unborn from every other cell in the mother’s body. While all the mother’s cells contain the forty-six chromosomes that she received at fertilisation, the cells of the unborn contain forty-six of its own distinct chromosomes. The unborn’s chromosomes consist of a unique combination of the mother’s and father’s chromosomal sequences. Since every cell in the mother’s body contains her unique chromosomal structure, and every cell in the unborn child’s body contains its unique chromosomal structure, the unborn is a distinct being; it is not merely a part of the woman’s body.

  • The unborn has the genetic constitution of a human being

In addition to having its own chromosomal makeup, the unborn has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings. Each of the unborn’s chromosomes contains a DNA molecule, which includes sequences called genes. These sequences make up the genome, which is a set of instructions for constructing an organism. Different types of organisms have different genomes, and thus it is possible to determine the type of being an organism is by examining its genome. Upon examination, it becomes clear that “the conceptus [unborn] is a new, although tiny, individual with a human genetic code”[iv].

  • The unborn functions as a whole

Another relevant fact is that the unborn, from conception, is a whole organism that directs its own internal growth and maturation. Unlike a dead body, which contains living cells but is unable to function as a coordinated whole, the unborn “is a whole organism, with certain capacities, powers, and properties, whose parts work in concert to bring the whole to maturity… the early embryo… behaves like a single organism with an intrinsic goal-directedness for which its cellular parts interact and communicate”[v]. There are several reasons to think this is the case, one of which is the fact that the embryo forms a natural protective coating for its own benefit and use prior to implantation. This coating, known as a zona pellucida, is not the mother’s organ, nor is it a tumour or some third organism[vi]. Rather, it is an organ of the embryo. Activities such as this, in which cells coordinate to produce organs for the benefit of the whole, are characteristic of whole organisms.


Drawing Conclusions

Now that the relevant facts have been outlined, all that remains is to see how they support or undermine the various answers offered as to the nature of the unborn. To recap, the unborn could be:

  1. A part of the woman’s body.
  2. A mere clump of cells that lacks the ability to function as a whole.
  3. A living non-human being, e.g. canine, bovine.
  4. A distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens.

This list is meant only to include the most common suggestions; it is not exhaustive.

Let’s begin by considering whether the unborn could be a part of the woman’s body. Upon first impression, the fact that the unborn is located within the woman’s body does provide some reason to think that it could be her body, or, rather, a part of it. Just as other internal organs, such as her heart and lungs, are both within and part of her body, the unborn could also be part of her body.

However, the fact that the unborn has a unique chromosomal structure from the moment of conception rules this option out. We know that if a cell is part of a woman’s body, then it will have the same chromosomes as every other cell in her body. Since the unborn does not have the same chromosomes, we can conclude that it’s not part of her body.

Alternatively, could the unborn be a mere clump of cells that lack the ability to function as a whole? A shaving of skin cells contains living human cells, but it would be a mistake to think that therefore those cells are a living human being. Similarly, it could be the case that the unborn is a clump of cells that doesn’t qualify as a human being.

Once again there are good grounds for rejecting this suggestion; namely the observation that the unborn, from conception, directs its own internal growth and maturation. In the words of Christopher Kaczor, “the human embryo is a whole, complete organism, a living individual human being whose cells work together in a coordinated effort of self-development towards maturity”[vii]. This observation demonstrates that the unborn is utterly unlike a shaving of skin cells.

Thirdly, it could be the case that the unborn is a living non-human being. There are innumerable other living organisms besides Homo sapiens, and given this, it may at face value seem reasonable to take this position. However, the genetic constitution of the unborn is conclusive evidence against this. If an entity has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, then it is a human being. The unborn has said genetic constitution, and therefore the unborn is not only a living being, but a living human being.

Of the offered alternatives, this leaves only one: the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being. We know the unborn is alive, as it fulfils the biological criteria for life. We know the unborn is a distinct entity because it has a unique chromosomal makeup. We know the unborn is human because it has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, and we know the unborn is a whole entity, as it directs its own internal growth and maturation. Hence, pro-choice advocate Peter Singer writes “there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being”[viii].

What is the unborn? It is a distinct, living, and whole human being. 

For further reading, please see Part 3, as well as my follow up series which addresses pro-choice objections (Part 1 and Part 2).


 

Citations:

[i] The Clarkson Academy. (2015, November 27). The ethics of abortion part 1 – Scott Klusendorf at The Clarkson Academy (session 1). [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mG6zulqxzlw&t=645s

[ii] I’m indebted to Zachary Arden for his help in writing this section; many thanks!

[iii] Klusendorf, S. (2009). The case for life: Equipping Christians to engage the culture, p. 37. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway.

[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 67. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Benedict, A. & Moraczewski, A. (n.d.). Is the biological subject of human rights present from conception. The Fetal Tissue Issue: 33-60. As cited in Beckwith, F. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 80.

[vii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 113.

[viii] Singer, P. (2000). Writings on an ethical life. New York: Ecco Press, p. 127, as cited in Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 7.

UFO landing - newspaper article

Fake News versus Good News

The best way to start this article is probably with an astonishing claim somehow related to political figures currently popular with the media – perhaps a new Russian edition of The Apprentice involving selling off former Soviet military, hosted by a Trump lookalike … But we’re all used to fake news and clickbait, and we actually need something better.

In a world with climate change, homelessness, disaster, politics, and the seemingly endless deaths of celebrities – and normal people – many are looking for good news. Some will go to the internet looking for it, and most will then, eventually, discover that a lot of the ‘news’ available is fake.

Followers of Jesus claim that he offers good news. But the internet, and the world around us, offer a multitude of claims, and many are false. Perhaps the majority of claims on the internet are false, or at least misleading. Living in an information age, we need a good filter to find the reliable information, and we either learn to be sceptical quickly or start believing a lot of nonsense. The central claims of the Christian faith are bits of information in a huge biosphere of alternatives. How to find the golden thread of truth amidst the blonde toupees of falsehood?

Two key steps in practice, I think, are to find sources we can generally trust, and set aside sources that are not trustworthy. So, tackling the challenge head on, what kind of news can we not trust? The main thing here is perhaps to try to weed out sources that are heavily motivated by something other than truth. They might still be true, but sources not typically directed towards the truth undercut the rational basis for holding what they say to be true. Fake news has a motivation of some kind, in our era often to do with money or political control. Sources that are never self-critical or open about their flaws are also suspect. Sources that limit the important claims to things that can’t be checked also raise questions. But, doesn’t everyone have selfish motives in some sense? Who can we trust? The scientific community, CNN, and the New York Times, are popular sources for many of the educated and thoughtful in our society. The feeling is that they’re rational, progressive, and open to new ideas, while also solid and reliable. Whatever you think of these particular sources, these organisations have huge communication power because they are trusted by hundreds of millions.

How does the Christian claim to be offering good news stand up in light of the two key steps? Christian claims are centrally claims about Jesus, a historical figure, so to make sense of it we need to zoom back to the early Church. I’ll leave you to do the research, you can check out many of the facts on this site. I believe that the early Christians were not motivated by money or power, as they gained neither, and exchanged what they had, including secure conservative religious beliefs (they weren’t motivated by, say,  fear of death), for risk and discomfort. They also make claims open to public examination, and the accounts are down to earth and honest about suffering and human failure. The central claims, unlike most worldviews, are about public reality, not private inner experience or an idealised future state. Jesus lived a human life, died a shockingly human death, and rose from the dead publicly. The claims lack features which fake news tends to have. Christian faith is also open to new information – the Spirit is still active, and, while it’s 500 years since the remarkable Protestant Reformation ‘officially’ began, the community of Jesus followers should be always reforming. Christianity, unlike ethically arid secular worldviews, provides a moral imperative for social progress, but the desire is grounded in an unchanging reality and a realism about human wilful brokenness and fallibility.

We’ve touched on two key steps, but there’s a third that probably should be added too. This is what I’ll grandly call the wisdom criterion. It goes something like this: “how important is this topic, anyway?” Most of the news swirling around crying out for attention can safely be set aside because it simply doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. Time is limited, and the opportunities in life are great for those who will take them. Jesus, as recounted by the redeemed formerly broken tax collector Matthew told a confronting story about ‘talents’, silver coins, left behind by their owner to be invested. We’ve all been given some.

New information will pop up on your Facebook feed or homepage any minute now. Is it important? Is it well-motivated? Is it up for public scrutiny or an implausible claim to secret knowledge? No matter how cynical, I think we’re all looking for good news – Jesus offers it, reliably.