Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Merry Christmas folks. For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. About mid-November every year, I start getting pretty excited. There's just something about the weather, the decorations, the hot chocolate, the music, the TV Christmas specials...I just love it. The only thing wrong with it is how abruptly it ends. I've long said that when I have a family and host my own Christmas celebration, it will last a full 12 days. I might even hire drummers.

As much as I love all the amenities and feelings associated with Christmas, however, without a doubt my favorite thing about it is what it celebrates. Now, I know that probably sounds trite to a lot of you, and in a way I suppose it is. One can't live through a Christmas season in the United States (and especially the "Bible Belt," which is where I spend my Christmases) without being bombarded with messages from all corners constantly reminding us--sometimes forcefully--what the "reason for the season" really is. Sometimes, in fact, one gets the feeling that the most vocal among these "anti-Happy-Holidays-Jesus-reminders" are using His birth as more of an opportunity to wage an ideological culture war than as a genuinely contemplative celebration. But I suppose that's another blog.1 In any case, if that's the sort of thing you had in mind when I mentioned what Christmas celebrates, then fear not! This is not that blog. Lord knows there are plenty of those already.

No, what I mean is simply this: Christmas is about Incarnation. And Incarnation is, to my mind, the most beautiful thing in the universe. If you're not familiar with the term, it's Christianese for when God became man in the form of Jesus. It means literally, "to take on flesh." This is what Christmas celebrates. The shepherds, the wise men, the manger, and the star, are all incidental to this. This is what the angels thought was worth singing about. (Luke 2:8-14) And taking this seriously has revolutionized the way I think about pretty much everything. Let me show you how.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing in life is how one sees God. I am also a firm believer that, in general, one ought to interpret more obscure issues through the lens of more sure ones. And the surest thing I get from the New Testament is that one should structure her picture of God around Jesus. Taking these together, I am led to believe that the most important thing in life is understanding that God looks like Jesus.

A huge part of that is Incarnation. Key to understanding what Incarnation tells us about God is another great Christianese word: kenosis. Literally "emptying," kenosis helps us see what it was for God to become human. (Phil. 2:5-7) It was to relinquish His position as the infinite creator, and take on the limited form of one of His own creatures. This, I admit, is incomprehensible to us. We can understand that it happened, and we can get some sense of what it means, but the infinite willfully limiting itself to the finite remains in large part mysterious. Nonetheless, taken with the rest of the revelation of Jesus (life, teaching, death, resurrection), the Incarnation tells us something truly amazing: God is the sort of person who will give anything to obtain the object of His affection. It is important to note that He didn't do this because of some rule or constraint on His will that was external to Himself. No, His motivation was simply...love. (John 3:16)

And that changes everything. It tells us that the most powerful force in the universe, the source and sustainer of all being, is in love with you. So in love that He was compelled to become one of us--to step down into our filth and sin and death--in order to bring us back up with Him.

And that in turn tells us something about us. Recently, I've been seeing a lot of infomercials on TV. They always make me chuckle because invariably, at the end, they always double whatever amazing offer they've already made, and they make a point of telling you the value of the product you'll be getting if you call immediately. "That's a $380 value for only $19.95!" I chuckle at this because the value or worth of a thing is defined by what someone is willing to pay for it. So if I'm willing to pay $19.95 for that knife set, then that's what it's worth, regardless of what the seller would have me believe. I'm sure you see where I'm going. If the worth of a thing is a function of what someone is willing to give for it, and God gave Himself for you, then what does that tell you about who you really are? You are incomprehensibly, unfathomably valuable. Your worth is unsurpassed in this universe. Though you may not see it or feel like it, you are truly greater than you know. And the power of that revelation is immense. One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is this:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship...2

Imagine how different your life might be if that truth was real to you. That within you lives a god who captures the heart of even its Creator. How might your decisions change? Your desires? Your attitude? The way you spend your time?

Another thing we learn from Jesus is that the path to realizing the full potential of our humanity is imitating Him. That is, we are expected to live incarnationally as well. Obviously, for us this does not mean figuring out how to become a lower species, but rather emptying ourselves for the world. Thus, the Incarnation tells us simultaneously what God is like, what we are like, and how we should live. See why I love Christmas so much?

I've really only begun to scratch the surface of the significance of Incarnation. But if nothing else, let this fact sink into your soul this Christmas day: You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

1 Okay, one more quick thought: one of my pastors noted recently that a lot of Americans seem to be satisfied with the sort of "little baby Jesus" image of Christ that one gets in films like Talladega Nights, rather than the suffering Lord that one actually finds in the gospels. I think she's right. I suggest that the antagonistic, politically-motivated disposition that demands recognition of our holiday tradition over and against theirs is much more amenable to this watered-down, "baby Jesus" caricature than it is to the real Christ who sought no political power and died for His enemies. But again...another blog.

2 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Danger of Apologetics

"Whoa. Danger? I thought this was an apologetics blog."

You're right. It is. And as such, it's my job to make sure that whoever reads it gets an accurate picture of what apologetics really is. And a very important part of that job--one that thus far I have neglected--is to make clear the inherent danger in doing apologetics.

First, a story.

I was once doing some evangelism with a friend on my college campus. We engaged a guy in conversation about God, and things quickly became heated. He was an international student, not at all Christian, and had a more or less pluralist view of religion. He had thought about it just enough that the conversation was a little out of my friend's reach, which left the ball squarely in my court. So I engaged him. When he argued fallaciously, I called him on it. When he back-pedaled, I pressed him. In short, I destroyed him. It wasn't pretty. And for what? I seriously doubt that our conversation had any lasting impact on him whatsoever. If he ever came to faith, it was because someone after me loved him better than I did.

You can probably see where this is going. There are at least two ways apologetics can be harmful.

First, there is an inherent danger in studying a little bit of anything. This is compounded when the thing being studied has direct relevance to what one values most. For most of the folks reading this, what you value most is probably the Christian message of salvation. The gospel. So when one studies to learn how to "defend" that gospel, it's natural that a certain stance develops: a stance of, well, defense. It is the stance of either/or, of us and them, of truth vs. falsehood (or even lies). The defense imagery (which I have myself used many times) suggests rather powerfully a clear distinction between the truth-bearer and the truth-denier. And again, when the truth in question is the gospel itself, the stakes couldn't be higher. Worse still, the defense stance is one of violence, or at least aggression. And this is directly opposed to the spirit of Jesus, and thus to the gospel. But how can a defense be opposed to what it is defending? That, as the philosophers like to say, is repugnant to the intellect.

Clearly the word "defense" should be used with some caution. It is used, after all, for good reason. It is derived primarily from 1 Peter 3:15, the go-to verse for Christian apologists: "...in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." The word for defense there is ἀπολογίαν, which is of course where we get the word "apologetic." But the defense stance assumed here is within the context of dialectic, or reasoned argument, not between persons as persons. The proper stance for the latter is the same as ever: self-sacrificial love, no matter the cost, no matter how vile and offensive the enemy or their beliefs.

So much for the first danger. The second is perhaps worse by virtue of being more subtle.

Put simply, knowing how to argue well and defend your beliefs can turn you into a smarty pants. A know-it-all who takes pride in being the person that people bring their questions to and is secretly bothered when they don't. A person who is confident they can win any argument, even arguments about motives for arguing. A person who loves to argue with those less qualified, and either avoids more informed opponents or, worse, fails to recognize when an opponent is superior.

I know this danger well because it described me for a long time, and if I am honest, in some ways it still does. And the worst part about it is that it's just false: you're not a smarty pants. You actually know very little. Almost nothing. There are more volumes than you can count, written by people you've never heard of, in languages you can't read, on questions you've never thought to ask. And all of that might not even be sufficient to satisfactorily answer the questions of the average person on the street. This fact should always be in the back of your mind when dealing with people's questions and giving a reason for your hope. Reading C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer or Lee Strobel (or whoever) does not qualify you to play the role of answer-giver. If anything, it ought to make you a little more apt to listen.

I've studied philosophy, theology, and apologetics for several years now. Enough to carry on a reasonably informed conversation about most of the major questions with just about anybody. Enough to make me confident enough to write this blog. But if there's anything that becomes clearer to me on a daily basis, it's that I don't have a clue. I mean it; not a freakin' clue. The list of things I'm sure about grows ever smaller. But the faith I have in that short list grows ever stronger, too. But this has much more to do with God than with any book I've read.

The task of the apologist resides less in giving good answers than in helping people to ask better questions. Spoiler warning: we all have only one answer, and none of us fully understand it. It's just this: Jesus. He is all any of us can offer, and if you have Him, the rest is insignificant by comparison.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Art vs. Beauty

I think I just discovered something about myself.

I went and saw a film tonight that I've been wanting to see for some time. As a movie lover, I'm fortunate to live in a town that has a pretty healthy independent film scene and gets many limited releases. This was one such film. I won't say which one to avoid spoilers. I will say, however, that it upset me more than I remember any movie doing in a long time. And what's more, I loved it. It had everything that a movie of its genre ought to have. And even the bit I hated, I understood. I totally get why whoever wrote it made the decisions they made. As art, I think it succeeded.

Which brings me to my self-discovery: I care less about art than I thought I did. More specifically, I care less about art than about a happy ending.

I've said before that art is characterized by a certain honesty--a genuineness about the world and all its messy complexity. I also said that it's inherently worshipful, that it can speak to us of God as strongly as (and sometimes more strongly than) any overt message. I still believe all that. But now I want to qualify it: sometimes, art just gets in the way.

Now, here we could quibble over semantics if we wanted. You could say that what I am about to describe isn't really art, maybe even by my own definition. Maybe real art could never contradict the message, if the message is one of beauty. But I don't wish to quibble. What I want to say is that sometimes, art can forget its place. It can get so involved in being honest about the circumstances that it ends up lying about the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture is, of course, that things are not supposed to be this way. It is true that suffering is ubiquitous. It's almost synonymous with human existence. But it's also something foreign. Like a virus that permeates its host, but remains nonetheless unnatural. It goes against the grain of the universe, and we all know it. We have all, at one time or another, longed for its eradication. For a time when everything will be made right. For Beauty.

Now, we may have convinced ourselves that beauty presupposes suffering; maybe even that suffering defines us, and that we should therefore rid ourselves of our naive idealism and embrace it. That beauty is actually found in it. But to believe this is to miss the heart of God. It is a lie of the enemy, and it is among his greatest subtleties. What greater strategy than to convince the sick to embrace their sickness? What better way to ensure that they willingly resist the cure? If he can get us to forget that suffering is not our purpose, that the world is not supposed to be like this, that its Maker did not intend this--then he has won. It is simply a matter of getting us to embrace "art" for its own sake, and to forget about beauty. But...

Art cowers before beauty. It is meant to serve it, so that when, in the pursuit of its own ends, it finds itself in opposition to it, it ends up looking foolish. Though it may proclaim its high-minded opinions in isolation, when seen with its master, it must apologize for itself, like a butler who has spoken out of turn.

And this is what so much of art seems to have forgotten. So many existential indie films. The word "artsy" almost implies "tragic," or "depressing," or "unsatisfying ending." If that is how we express our humanity, then it is a tragic picture indeed. For it tells me that we have bought the lie. That we look for beauty in our suffering rather than through it. That we are content with the awkward servant rather than the Master.

But, thankfully, the beauty of the cross reveals the lie. Through it, Beauty Himself brought redemption. He removed the sting from death and made suffering a thing worthy of rejoicing.1 Not because it is good--heaven forbid--but because He is good.

Now, this is not to say that art must always be beautiful, any more than the butler must resemble his employer. But he must serve him.

When I left the theater tonight, I was genuinely angry. Not because I didn't enjoy the film. Not because it wasn't aesthetically pleasing, or honestly delivered. I was angry because it, like so many others, was willing to sacrifice beauty for the sake of art.

Sometimes I just want a happy ending.

1 Romans 5:3-5

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Call Your Grandmother.

So yesterday I called my Grandma. She's in her eighties, and her name is Ethel, which I think is about the greatest grandma name ever. My Grandpa died recently, so she lives alone now. They were married for--get this--63 years. She was young when they married, and they had dated a bit before that, so she has long since forgotten what life was like before him. Consequently, everything she has done since he died has been brand new for her. More accurately, it's been painfully familiar and yet unsettled. She cries a lot.

I call her now and then. We don't talk about much usually. Where I am in school, what she did that day, how her health is, some cousin or other that I barely know. But according to my parents, they always know when we've chatted, because she calls my mom immediately to tell her about it. Apparently, it's about the most chipper she ever sounds.

Loneliness is a terrible thing. I know this firsthand, and my loneliness only amounts to being single at 25. I can't imagine hers. The reason it's so terrible is that we were created to be in community, with one another and with God, so that being alone too long actually stifles our potential to be fully human. God saw this immediately, of course. Even in a pre-fallen world, He knew it wasn't right that Adam be alone.

Ever wonder what religion means? There are endless debates about this, and they go back a long way. I still get into discussions (arguments) about what religion does and does not mean, and what the proper view of it should be. These can be worthwhile discussions, and I don't want to discourage them. But here's what Jesus' brother thought religion amounted to:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.1

If there's one thing that's clear in the New Testament, it's that God's heart is with those who have no one else. With orphans and widows. If they're hurting, He's hurting. Consequently, as Christ-followers, it's our job to make life better for these people in whatever way we can, and until we start caring about this, God doesn't seem to be too impressed by much else.

So if you're wondering what religion ought to look like for you, look no further. This is the first step. Once we've mastered this one, then maybe we can get on to the discussions of buildings and worship styles and liturgy and whatnot.

Call your grandmother.

1 James 1:27 (TNIV)

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Argument from Personal Experience

Since the genesis of this blog, I've covered several different arguments for the existence of God. This will be the last in that series, at least until I feel like returning to the topic. As I've said before, these arguments are typically not intended to provide anything like conclusive proof of Christian theism or absolute certainty. Rather, the way I prefer to use them is as part of a cumulative case for the truth of Christianity, which involves everything from purely conceptual arguments to historical arguments to arguments based on personal experience. This post will focus on the latter. When viewed this way, no single argument need carry a great deal of weight, and the conclusion of the overall argument is that on balance, when all of the relevant factors available to us are considered, Christian theism is much more probable than its alternatives. Put another way, it makes much more sense (in an explanatory way) of all the relevant data, including arguments for and against Christianity, and arguments for and against alternative views.

Compared to the arguments previously covered, this one is by far the least rigorous. In fact, I won't even attempt to give it in any strict, logical form, as this sort-of undermines the argument's intuitive plausibility.1 The basic idea that motivates the argument is that nearly everyone who has ever lived has claimed some sort of religious or mystical experience or at least believed in the veracity of such experiences. Of course, this by itself proves nothing. But when considering the most vocal opponent of theism--let's call it Naturalism--this fact becomes more significant. In this sense, then, it is more of an argument against Naturalism than an argument for specifically Christian theism. It won't get us to the divinity of Jesus, but it will definitely get us outside of Naturalism, and from there the options are more limited.

The argument is this: Take any sufficiently large, random sample of people (let's say a roomful). Inevitably, some of those people will claim to have had experiences that are unexplainable if Naturalism is true. Even if we assume that most of them are false or explainable if we had more information, it is unlikely and presumptuous to assume this for all of them. The assumption here is that the collective weight of human opinion ought to shift the burden of proof to those who would deny that opinion. In this case, the Naturalist. This means that the one who denies the existence of anything beyond nature has to argue for that conclusion, and this includes denying the veracity of all of those experiences.

Now clearly this argument could become very intricate very quickly. But all I mean to convey is the idea that most of us have experiences that strongly imply truths beyond blind physical processes, and that we have no good reason to deny all of them.

It should be noted that this is not an argument from one particularly well-evidenced experience alone, but rather from the comprehensive human experience that there is a reality beyond the one of our five senses, and that it is regularly revealed to many, sometimes in very tangible ways.

Examples of the sorts of experience I am talking about are not hard to come by (hence the strength of the argument). Many, myself included, claim to have experienced God's presence. For me, these experiences, though not the norm, have been as plain to me as someone speaking to me normally, though still obviously distinct. I take myself to be a reasonably clear-thinking person, and more skeptical than most, and I still find that it would be epistemically irresponsible for me to deny what I've experienced based on some presupposed metaphysical assumptions. A whole lot of folks find themselves in the same boat. Others have more drastic experiences. I have a few friends who have witnessed seemingly miraculous healings following prayer, some rather drastic. I have more friends who know people with more direct experiences. I know a man who had an incredibly detailed encounter with a demon, and another who was converted as a result of a linguistic miracle.2 I met a former Muslim to whom Jesus had appeared, resulting in her conversion and consequent divorce and permanent separation from her family. She is still a Christian. Apparently that last sort of experience is not all that uncommon. There is also evidence from public miracles (like the Resurrection) and interesting research into near-death experiences.

I could go on, but the point is clear: these sorts of experiences are far too numerous to just ignore, which most Naturalists do. The weight of them leads me to think that being a Naturalist usually requires a desire to be, rather than just a simple willingness to follow the evidence where it leads, as most of them would claim. If that were the case, then given the amount of potential defeaters for Naturalism, I should think the default position would at least be agnosticism.

Again, this sort of argument doesn't get us to Christianity; folks from other faiths experience stuff too. But it does, I think, provide significant reason to doubt that nature is all there is.

This, then, concludes my coverage of arguments for theism. There are more, of course, but I'm ready to move on to other things. Soon I'll begin the next extended series: arguments against Christian theism. I'm not settled yet on which arguments to cover here. There a few givens of course, but if there's one that you'd like to see covered, let me know through the "Contact Me" section of the blog.

1 This is not to say that the argument can't be strictly formulated, or even that it shouldn't be. It's just not my current interest.

2 My fellow Pentecostals should be familiar with this type of experience.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I want to share a link to my buddy H.L.'s latest blog post. His sister-in-law, and my friend, is currently serving at an orphanage in India. This post is a collection of recent email updates from her. I can say without hesitation that she is among the most Jesus-like people I have ever known. She loves like He does. By that I mean she does stuff. So read this and be encouraged. Be challenged. If you want to give her money, let me know through the 'Contact Me' section of the blog and I'll send you the appropriate information. Here's the link:


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Silly Things to Say..."If it doesn't work out, then God must have something better."

I heard someone say this recently. In fact, I hear things like it pretty often:

"I guess it wasn't meant to be."

"When God closes one door, He opens another."

It works in the reverse too:

"I guess God was looking out for me."

"That must have been the Lord."

I could go on, but you get the idea. These sorts of things are usually said either after a disappointment or after a success. It doesn't really matter how big or small the event is; people see God's activity pretty much everywhere.

And usually, people say these things as though they're particularly spiritual or astute. The problem is, there's usually not much reason to think they're true. And sometimes, there's good reason to think they're not.

What all of these slogans have in common--aside from being overly simplistic--is that they assume that God is a micro-manager. And it's not just that He micro-manages the present either; usually these statements imply that He has an extensive control of the future.

Another interesting thing about these statements is that they always seem to reinforce God's involvement in given circumstances. Whether the circumstances are for the better or not, our tendency is to attribute their occurrence to God. It is much less common to hear someone say, "God had nothing to do with that."

And to me, that is a scary thought.

Now, fair warning: I'm showing my theological cards a bit here. There are theological systems that can incorporate these statements pretty easily. In fact, they might even entail them. I've heard theologians that I respect a great deal express that they feel comfort in knowing that whatever happens, God is always in control.

If you're one of those people, and you're confident that you can use these statements and justify them within your system, then this post is not really for you. I love you, and I'm not trying to change your mind. But that just ain't me.

I find it a bit odd, though, that people who otherwise wouldn't associate themselves with one of the theological systems just mentioned still say these sorts of things. And that tells me that they're probably not aware of the assumptions they're making. If you're one of those people, then this post is for you.

The easiest way to see that attributing this level of control to God is a problem is with examples. Here's a scenario:

I really wanted that job. I prayed for it for a long time. I sought counsel about it. I had a great interview. It fit in with my 'calling.' I had peace about it. All the factors seemed to point toward me getting it. And then I didn't.

The slogan response here would be, "It must not have been God's will (even if it really seemed like it was). He'll give you something better."

Or imagine it ending a different way:

I did get the job. It was great for a week and then the boss decided to embezzle everybody's money. Now I'm unemployed again and in worse shape than before.

The response here would be essentially the same: "God doesn't like that you lost your job, but it must not have been His will in the first place. He'll give you something better."

Or what if it ended like this:

I got the job. I love it. It's exactly what I wanted.

Any guesses as to what the response would be this time? Probably something like, "Great! Praying really paid off. God is good."

Do you see the problem? No matter what the outcome, the answer is the same. God is in control. And the way that we tell whether He is on board with something or not is how well the circumstance corresponds to what we expect Him to do. If it goes well for us, it was His will. If it doesn't, then it wasn't. If we thought it was, then we were mistaken. You heard God more clearly than ever before, you say? Well, apparently you misunderstood.

The point is, these statements leave no room for free will. They also leave no room for God to change His mind in response to free will. Maybe you didn't get that job because there was a better applicant and the employer chose them. This need not imply anything about God's will. Sometimes, maybe He leaves things up to people.

Or maybe it was His will for you to get that job but not for your boss to hurt you like that. But He loves your boss too; He can't revoke his freedom just so your life will be easier. Circumstances change and we adapt to them. Why can't God?

Or maybe you got the job and it's great. This doesn't imply God intended for this to be so. Maybe He did. Maybe He didn't. Maybe He has no feelings on it either way.

All these sorts of statements imply that God has a very specific and well-defined 'will' for everyone that can be discovered with enough effort. But why do we think this? Maybe His 'will' is actually pretty simple. General things, like faith, hope, and love. Community. Creativity. Using our abilities as we see fit. If that's right, then expecting Him to direct every little thing is actually against His will.

Let's apply the God-must-have-something-better assumption to another kind of case:

My uncle molested me when I was a kid.

Do you see where the micro-managing view of God could go very wrong? Did He just shut the door on your sexual fulfillment so He could open another one somewhere else? The theology that would rejoice in God's complete control can't say much here. Only that we can't know why He allows some things. But maybe our whole assumption is wrong to start with. Maybe He hates that this happened as much as you do. Maybe He had nothing to do with it. Maybe He leaves things up to us.

Now before you accuse me of being a deist, I do think that God is as intimately involved in our lives as we want Him to be. But it's the sort of involvement you would expect from a deep friendship. He nurtures, gives advice, pushes toward the good. But He doesn't control. He interacts.

So the next time you're tempted to attribute some occurrence to God, stop and ask yourself, "Have I really thought this through?" Because it might just be silly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Recommended Video Resource

Evolution vs. creationism is an issue I have actively avoided on this blog. I will continue to do so. The reasons for this are simple: it is so incredibly divisive that nothing I could say would have a positive result, no matter how well-intended or brilliant it might be. Also, nothing I could say would add much to the discussion anyway. The resources for all sides of the issue are abundant and readily available for anyone who cares to look for them. The reason for this post is to highlight one such resource that I think is particularly valuable.

I realize that even this is risky, but I have received several questions on this issue recently which tell me that it is (regrettably) as alive as ever, and also that many Christians are still largely ignorant of intelligent treatments of it.

That said, I recently acquired the DVD "From the Dust: Conversations in Creation," produced by the BioLogos Foundation. Whatever you think about that organization, this is an excellent resource. It is a collection of interviews with a remarkable range of scholars, covering all of the major topics within this debate on a level that is sophisticated but also easy to follow. Most importantly, it is fair. There are no ad hominem attacks, and the various views are presented by some of their leading proponents. Of course it isn't completely unbiased (nothing is), and one might wish for more views to be represented, but it is certainly far kinder to conflicting viewpoints than some other recent documentary-style treatments have been. I recommend it to anyone with questions about evolution, creation, or the relationship between science and faith, as it is a good intro to these topics and provides a good springboard into further research.

Also, check out the short video in the "Featured Video" section of the blog for a quick reminder from one of my favorite theologians about keeping perspective on this and other issues.