Wednesday, September 28, 2016

God is actually quite Great: Frances Willard

What good has religion ever done anybody?

To a lot of people, that's a very good question.

Maybe their experience with religion is limited to vicious jihadists on the news or so-called preachers who would call the victims of the June 12th massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando "50 vile, perverted predators." Or, maybe they grew up in a church that looked at the rest of the world with smug superiority, confidently opined on who's going to suffer for eternity in Hell, and mocked the hard-won discoveries of modern science. Then again, maybe they sincerely held a faith that let them down spectacularly when suffering and loss struck, and they're left wondering why they ever believed to begin with. Everyone has a story.

And I can't help thinking that stories are exactly what folks asking that question need to hear. What good has religion ever done? I say, look at Maria Skobtsova or Annalena Tonelli; look at Father Damien of Molokai or the seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood.

Or look at Frances Willard.

Today is the 177th anniversary of the birth of Frances Willard (1839-1898), a Methodist educator, suffragist, and social reformer, and to commemorate her birthday, I want to share a nice video from the United Methodist Church about her life and work.


The video opens discussing her work as a prohibitionist (cue the eye-rolls) - but it quickly points out how she saw temperance work as a women's issue, and how the temperance movement soon moved on to embrace a number of social concerns of the day. Willard and her allies fought to transform society for the better, and they did it because of their Christian faith.

Her story, like so many others, is the story of the good religion did somebody.

Friday, September 09, 2016

an evangelical goes to university


Fall's here, football season's begun, and at colleges across the country students are starting to get into the rhythm of school. Some of them are settling back into familiar patterns, but some others are just getting started in this new and different environment. They're making new friends, figuring out the best times to hit the dining hall, and slogging through those intro class like college algebra and English composition.

And biology.

Biology, for some students, will be especially jarring, because they're going to be taught the basics of evolution. At a school like LSU (my alma mater), some freshmen will have never learned about evolution before at allmaybe, like me, they had a high school biology teacher who, on principle, refused to teach it. That won't happen in college. Other students will have only learned about evolution from an antagonistic source in their church, and they'll come to class convinced that they know better. They're in for a rude awakening. Meanwhile, there will be professors who remark that there's no reason for the topic to conflict with someone's faith (I heard that from one biology professor), and then there will be professors who make a point to ridicule religious ideas about, say, the age of the planet (and that was my geology professor).

For college freshmen coming out of more conservative evangelical churches, this semester could make or break their faith.
If what they've been told in church, if what they've read in the Bible, if it turns out some of that isn't true... well, that could be the Jenga block that brings down the whole structure. If this isn't true, what else isn't true? How do I know what to believe anymore? Can I believe any of it?

This happens to evangelical students every single year.

And it doesn't have to.

I remember wrestling with questions about the Bible and what's true, what's not true, after learning more about our planet and the incredible array of life on it. Thankfully, I had some good teachers helping me throughand I don't mean my science professors. I mean C. S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Kenneth Miller (professor of biology at Brown), and others. I was reading the right books, and they guided me through that quagmire. Unfortunately, a lot of young Christians aren't reading the right books, and they aren't finding any satisfying answers to their questions. And they're throwing in the towel.

So I'd like to offer a few pieces of hard-earned wisdom to my evangelical brothers and sisters who are struggling through that biology course or that geology course this semester.

1) Don't believe the false dichotomies. A false dichotomy is when you're presented with two options as if they were the only two options. For example: 'you must vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton'. Well, that's not true: you could vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or Evan McMullin or any number of other options. 'Hillary or Trump' is a false dichotomy. And when someone tells you that you must either believe religion or believe science, that you have to choose either the Bible or your biology professor, those are false dichotomies. There are other options. Me, I choose both: I study and love and believe the Bible, and I also learn about the best scientific ideas about the origins of species on earth from biologiststhough when the biologist tries to tack some theological claims about a god or no god onto her science, I put on my skeptical hat. After all, that part is not her area of expertise. But I don't feel the need to listen to one and reject the other. Why on earth would I do that?

2) Taking the Bible literally doesn't always do the Bible justice. There are plenty of stories in scripture that some people want to read as allegories or symbols or simple fictions that are meant to describe actual events. The accounts of Jesus' resurrection are a shining example of that: Luke, for instance, goes to great pains to show that these things really happened, in the real world. You can't read it any other way without disregarding Luke's intentions. But that's not always the case. Sometimes we disregard the writers' intentions when we insist on reading a passage as if it described a literal, historical event. (Two examples: if you read the parable of the prodigal son as a factual account of a real family's problems, or Revelation 12 as if it were about an actual dragon, fire-breathing or otherwise, trying to eat a baby, you're reading them wrong.) We have to let the Bible speak for itself. Be careful about expecting it to say things that it's not.
Along those lines, I agree with what Old Testament scholar Peter Enns said in his fantastic little book, Inspiration and Incarnation, that "It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview... It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to [us] several thousand years later" (55). Don't demand that Genesis answer your questions about science or history. When Genesis was written, modern biology and modern historiography didn't exist; the book isn't trying to address those issues. It was written to speak to its first readers in a way that they'd understand. Honestly, I don't think Christians need to conform how they read the Bible to modern science. I think we just need to do a better job of reading the Bible on it's own termsthen these problems would go away.

3) Something doesn't have to be a historical fact to be true. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and thought, 'wow, that's so true'? I don't mean biographies and documentaries. I'm talking fiction. Think about Jurassic Park (or, for some of you youngsters, Jurassic World): there's so much truth in the story, about man's reach exceeding his grasp, about the awesome and uncontainable power of Mother Nature, and about the destructive potential in unbridled scientific and technological innovation. It's totally fictitious, but there's still a lot of truth there. Again, that's how Jesus' parables work, toothey're fictional stories that reveal powerful truths about God and ourselves. A truth isn't discredited just because it's not a historical fact. Stories often convey the truth better than facts. That's why Abraham Lincoln supposedly called Uncle Tom's Cabin the book that started the Civil War. If, say, the creation account in Genesis 1 weren't a depiction of a literal, historical sequence of events from however many years ago, it could still be true. Only, instead of teaching us the facts about the development of life on Earth, it would be teaching us about God's pre-existence and choice to create the world and life-giving power, about the goodness of the world God made, about humanity's special role in the world, and about the holiness of resting and savoring creation (among other things). For me personally, each of these lessons is more important day-to-day than the details of the development of life anyways.

4) These aren't new ideas. A lot of books are written today that aim to mesh Christian teaching with modern, evolutionary biology. It can feel like Christians are giving in, simply bowing to the pressures of modern science and letting it shape our thinking instead of letting the Bible shape us. But the idea that some of these passages shouldn't be taken literally isn't a new idea. In fact, Christians were reading the Bible like that long before Charles Darwin's grandparents were a twinkle in his great-grandparents' eyes.
For instance, listen to this line from Origen of Alexandria, a great Christian thinker and martyr who died in the mid-200s (yes, 1600 years before Darwin's classic, On the Origin of Species, was published):
If God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history have taken place in appearance, and not literally. (De principiis IV, I)
Origen's not watering down the Bible to reconcile it with science. That science didn't exist yet! He just doesn't think that reading Genesis literally there is the right way to read it. Looking for other ways to interpret certain passages of scripture doesn't mean you've given the game away. You'd actually be part of a long, ancient tradition of Christian interpreters.

These simple points were enormously important to me when I was in school, and I hope they can help guide some other young evangelicals through this bog. College is a time to learn and growand to be challenged. There's no reason the challenges can't make your faith stronger than it was to start, if you aren't taken in by the 'science versus faith' mindset that you're going to find on campus. There's another way, a better way forward for evangelicals.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

GM2016: Faith in Him

Faith.

That little word is at the heart of Christian teaching.

"By grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph 2:8).

"If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move" (Matt 17:20).

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

"For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7).

"The righteous shall live be faith" (Hab 2:4/Rom 1:17).

It's everywherein our memory verses and our favorite songs, hanging on our walls at home, and even in a lot of our weddings ("Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three...").
But what does this important little word really mean?

In English, "faith" and "belief" are two different words. There's a verb, too: "believe." But in Greek, the language of the New Testament, there's just one word, pistis, which is translated in our Bibles, sometimes as "faith," sometimes as "belief" or (when it's used as a verb) "believe." Jesus talked about pistis like a mustard seed; we walk by pistis, not by sight. And in John 3:16 you also get a form of pistis: whosoever believes in him will not perish. That's the same word. So when we talk about "faith," a lot of times we're talking about belief. And "belief" usually has an intellectual sense: it's something that happens in your head, or maybe in your heart.

But we use faith in other ways, too. Sometimes when we talk about "faith," we mean something like 'trusting Jesus to save you'. It's not just a teaching that you mentally accept, like believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, but it's an active trust.

Then there are passages of scripture that make you wonder if faith is more than just belief, if it isn't really an interior thing at all. "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [pistis again]and shudder" (Jas 2:17, 19). "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).

Well, George MacDonald was convinced that that's right, that faith is about more than just believing something.

A few weeks back in my daily reader based on MacDonald's writings, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, he posed the question: What is faith in Christ?
I answer, the leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of his and of him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as he tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessitythis obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something other than obedience as faith in Christ. (July 28th)
He refuses to separate "faith" from following Jesus. He says, a little further on, that there's only one plan of salvation available to us, "to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; that is, to take him for what he isour master; and his words as if he meant them, which assuredly he did" (July 30th). The only way to take his words as if he meant them is to obey them, and the only way to take him as your master is to follow him.

George MacDonald was concerned that Christians send more time arguing over theology and questions of how someone can be saved than they spend taking up their crosses and following Christ. That can happen when you think faith is about having the right beliefs. And so MacDonald points us back to obedience, to faithfully following Jesus.

It reminds me of the end of Jesus' sermon on the plain in the gospel of Luke. After calling his followers to turn the other cheek, to give to anyone who begs from you, to love their enemies, and to quit judging and groping for the speck in their brothers' eyes, Jesus simply asks: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)