Archive for category: Christianity

Mary’s Song

24 Dec
December 24, 2014

The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke are a bit like a Broadway musical: every few verses, someone seems to break into song.  Mary’s song comes first, followed by songs and verse from Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father), the angels proclaiming Jesus’s birth, and finally Simeon, who is at the temple when Jesus is presented.

As I prepared for a Sunday school class on Mary’s song last Sunday, I was reminded that all the singing isn’t the least bit accidental.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God’s people regularly respond with song at moments of great deliverance.  Moses sang the song of the sea after Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15); Hannah, who had long been barren, sang a song of exultation when she presented her son Samuel to the Lord; and David sang a song of praise after he was delivered from his enemies (2 Samuel 22).

When Mary, having been told by the angel that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High,” greets her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaims “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  (Luke 1: 42). These words echo yet another Biblical song.  “Most blessed of women be Jael,” the prophetess Deborah sings in Judges 5: 24, praising the woman who drove a tent peg through the head of the commander of an army that was oppressing Israel.  Mary helped to crush evil in a very different way than Jael.  As Jesus’s mother, she contributed to the fulfillment of the prophesy in Genesis 3 that the offspring of Eve would “bruise [Satan’s] head.”

This context explains why Mary’s own song is full of verses that might otherwise seem incongruous. Mary says that God “has shown great strength with his arm” and “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”  (Luke 1: 51).  These words sound more like a battle cry than like the rejoicing of a newly expectant mother.  But they come straight from the tradition of Biblical songs of deliverance.  Mary borrows from Exodus 15 (e.g., “Your right hand, O Lord … shatters the enemy” in Exodus 15:6) while subtly adjusting the language from human to spiritual warfare.  As a devout Jew living in a largely oral culture, Mary knew the earlier songs well, so it was only natural, in this most supernatural of moments, that she would burst forth in verses of praise.

It seems fitting that our worship services tonight will be filled with hymns and songs, since we will be celebrating the greatest deliverance of all, the deliverance that began when a little child was born.

Pete Wehner on Suffering (and True Paradox)

08 Dec
December 8, 2014

Pete Wehner has a really nice post on suffering here, with some kind words on the chapter on suffering in True Paradox.

Violent and Nonviolent Protests

26 Nov
November 26, 2014

I had lunch yesterday with Randall Collins, a Penn sociologist who has written extensively about the “micro-sociology” of violence.  (Our mutual friend Dave DeHuff, who runs the faculty-staff fellowship group at Penn, brought the three of us together).  I would highly commend Randall’s blog essays, articles and books on these issues under any circumstances, but especially with the turmoil in Ferguson and Hong Kong.

I was particularly struck by two of Randall’s insights.  The first is that violence is less likely when a protestor and police officer encounter one another face to face.  Although a protester’s natural inclination is to flee, fleeing actually is often more dangerous than a face to face exchange, at least if the exchange could be kept relatively calm.  It’s much harder to attack someone when you see them face to face.  This seems to me to reflect an implicit recognition, even in the most hostile of circumstances, that each of us is made in the image of God and is therefore precious.

Randall also pointed out that when protesters damage or destroy property, they usually target property in their own neighborhood.  This may explain the seeming incongruity of protesters damaging businesses that serve their own community, which often seems counterproductive.  But protestors tend to feel most comfortable in their own neighborhood, and their neighborhood is they place whose injustice upsets them most.

Religion Freedom in Beijing

24 Nov
November 24, 2014

During my visit to Beijing last week, a Christian professor at one of the universities I visited pointed out a sign posted on a little square near the campus.  The sign had a small list of prohibited activities, the most prominent of which was “no religious activities permitted.”  When I asked the professor if he found this public reminder of the government’s discomfort with Christianity discouraging, his reaction surprised me.  He said the sign had exactly the opposite effect for him: it reminded him that there must have been vibrant religious activities on the square in the past and could well be again in the future; otherwise no one would have felt the need to exclude them.

The following day another Christian scholar told me that the recent trend of “derecognizing” Christian ministries on American college campuses—most prominently, at the California State colleges and universities—has emboldened the Chinese government in its restriction of religious freedom.  If the United States restricts religious expression, the reasoning seems to be, there is less basis for criticizing China’s limits on religious expression.  The campus access debate in the U.S. obviously has almost nothing in common with China’s restrictions on religion.  But the suggestion that the campus access controversy may have implications in China underscores just how great the stakes are in our growing debate over whether to protect pluralism in the United States.

True Paradox Reviews

22 Nov
November 22, 2014

There are two really nice recent reviews of True Paradox, one in this morning’s Wall Street Journal and one a couple of weeks ago in Patheos.  Both do a wonderful job of distilling the key themes of the book– in many respects more eloquently than True Paradox itself.  I’m having trouble with links on the blog, but I’ll post links as soon as I get the links working again.

Christianity in Iraq

23 Sep
September 23, 2014

I have a little op-ed in the paper this morning about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.  Although the news is nearly all bad, history suggests that Christianity will one day return to places like Iraq.

Is Religion Irrational?

15 Sep
September 15, 2014

In Why Tolerate Religion?, the book that provided the theme for my Veritas Forum conversation with Brian Leiter last week, Brian defines religion (which is notoriously difficult to define for the purposes of the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom) as consisting of 1) categorical demands on a believer; 2) insulation from the evidence of science and common sense; and 3) a source of existential consolation.  The first and third components strike me as accurate; the second doesn’t.

Defining religious belief as irrational seems to suggest that materialists—those who believe that the physical, material world is the only reality—reach their conclusions about the nature of our existence based on an assessment of evidence, whereas religious believers simply make a leap of faith. In reality, each of us weighs the best evidence we can find about the nature of our existence, and we draw our conclusions based on good but incomplete information.  Materialists and Christians weigh evidence differently– Christians find the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection compelling, for instance, whereas materialists do not– but both weigh evidence and draw the best conclusions they can.

In describing religious belief as insulated from evidence, I think Brian may be thinking about religious doctrine, rather than religious belief. Religious doctrine may have components that are not based on ordinary evidence, or cannot be assessed based on ordinary evidence.  But when a religious believer concludes (either initially, or after a period of doubt) that a set of beliefs is true, he or she is assessing evidence, just as a materialist is.

Brian’s book is quite provocative (and frustrating at times for a Christian reader) but well worth reading. In our conversation, we concluded that we actually agreed on the underlying legal issues 84% of the time.

Why Tolerate Religion? (Veritas Forum)

11 Sep
September 11, 2014

For those who happen to be in Chicago, the University of Chicago philosophy and law professor Brian Leiter and I will be doing a Veritas Forum  on the question “Why Tolerate Religion?” at Northwestern’s law school at 6pm Central/7pm Eastern tonight.  For those who aren’t in the neighborhood, the Forum will be livestreamed here.  We’ll be discussing the question whether religion should continue to be given special protection in American law.  Brian is much more skeptical of the special treatment for religion than I am, so it should be an interesting conversation.

Meaninglessness and the Accidental Uzi Shooting

01 Sep
September 1, 2014

The poet Gregory Orr had an arresting article in the New York Times yesterday about the young New Jersey girl who lost control of a submachine gun and killed her gun instructor.  When Orr was twelve, he accidentally shot and killed his brother while they were hunting.  I took a poetry workshop with Orr at the University of Virginia nearly thirty years ago.  He never mentioned the accident, but it and the familial estrangement that followed is everywhere in his poetry.  I have carried some of the poems around in my mind ever since, including “Child’s Song,” which concludes: “Even I,/who am not wanted, was once/borne up through deep waters/by the invisible arms of desire.”

Orr does not try to explain horrible events like these.  He insists that they cannot be explained.  “In my experience,” Orr writes, “people in a family are often willing to take on responsibility and guilt rather than admit something even scarier: that accidents happen; that even the most ordinary among us live in a world of risk and randomness that we don’t control.”

I think Orr is profoundly right about this.  In the chapter of True Paradox on suffering, I talk about and endorse my late friend Bill Stuntz’s belief that, contrary to what many Christians well-meaningly suggest, horrible suffering often is, in a very real sense, meaningless.  God does not intend it.  Rather, he allows it and promises to redeem it.  As Bill was dying of colon cancer, he often thought and wrote about the story of Joseph in the Old Testament.  Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and ended up as a result in Egypt, where he rose to prominence and was later in a position to save his family from starvation.  Commenting on Joseph’s statement to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” Bill wrote in an essay on his own suffering: “That doesn’t mean that slavery and unjust imprisonment are good; rather the point is that they produced good, and the good they produced was larger than the wickedness that was visited upon Joseph.”

The twentieth century mystic Simon Weil said something similar.  She insisted that the joy in our lives cannot remove the effects of suffering, but it can sometimes transform them.  This of course is the central promise of Christianity, that because of Jesus’s own suffering, “each one of us” (as Bill put it in the same essay) “has the opportunity to share in death’s defeat.”

A New York Times Testimonial

12 Aug
August 12, 2014

A fascinating essay in the New York Times on Sunday by a woman who lost her Christian faith before moving to New York begins with a lovely description of what it’s like to plunge into the ocean for the first time each summer, and describes the experience as the “best way I know to belong again, body and soul, to some part of the planet, not just the city, not just the job.”

The essay reads remarkably like what Christians call a “testimony”—a story about how a person’s life has changed as a result of adopting a particular set of beliefs about how the world works.  Christian testimonies generally focus on how repenting and embracing Jesus has reconciled them to God and transformed their life.

One of the perhaps counterintuitive arguments I make in True Paradox (not yet out—but due out early next month) is that testimonies—or testimonials—are important evidence of whether a set of beliefs is true.  Not decisive, but important.  If a set of beliefs helps a person to better navigate the world, this is evidence that the beliefs could be true.  Similarly, if adherents to a set of beliefs cannot point to testimonials, this is evidence the beliefs are not true.

The New York Times essay is an example of an increasing tendency for atheists to produce their own testimonials.  Many, like this one, emphasize the joy the writer gets from realizing she is part of something much larger than herself, such as the web of nature.   One question I always have with this kind of testimonial is whether it is sustainable, given that there is so much brokenness and horror in the world.  What resources does a set of beliefs like this one provide for dealing with the ugliness of the world?

But the increasing prevalence of atheist testimonials is, in my view, evidence of a recognition that if our understanding of the world is true, it will make sense emotionally as well as intellectually.  It will help us to navigate both the big things in life and the little ones.

Christianity has a long history of testimonials from those who have been lifted up from darkness.  Who were once blind, as John Newton put it in “Amazing Grace,”but now see.  It will be interesting to see if comparable atheist testimonials emerge in the coming years.