Category Archives: Apologetics

Worship and the Arts -or- “Beauty will save the world”

COJ
Church of the Transfiguration, COJ, Cape Cod

The God we worship glories in beauty! And how we live and worship should rightly reflect this.

I recently had the joy of preaching on Worship and the Arts (linked here).
In it I reference several important Biblical texts and statements on the importance of Beauty. Many of these are contained in the following essay that I wrote for our first Celebration of the Arts during Lent, 2015. It contains links to other works and references that I spoke about. I hope you are inspired to worship the God of the Good, True, and the Beautiful, and to use every gift, skill, and craft for God’s Glory!


BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD:
Christian Discipleship and the Arts

Introduction

My own “awakening” to the arts has been gradual. I sang in church at six; marching and concert band in school; singing again when I became a Christ follower in high school. Then came a hiatus for many years, returning mostly out of a calling and a stewardship toward the God who gives gifts for His glory and our enjoyment.

In 1980 I traveled to Europe for the first time as part of an international Christian mission in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We were five weeks in Prague and other cities of the now Czech Republic, one week in Vienna for briefing and de-briefing, and a week of vacation near Salzburg Austria (during the Mozart Festival, for $8 per night at a beautiful British guesthouse for missionaries!)  Architecture, art museums, classical music, and other beauties left me feeling like a cultural pauper. I started to give more attention to the beauty I was beginning to discover.

Several years later, I experienced Rachmaninov’s Vespers, or the All Night Vigil of Eastern Orthodoxy. I fell in love with the beauty of the music and the worship. An exploration of iconography followed, gazing at the beauty (to borrow from the title of Henry Nouwen’s wonderful little book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord. 

I’ve entered the world of poetry in earnest. Poets like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Scott Cairns, George Herbert, Denise Levertov, Edward Hirsch, Czeslaw Milosz and many others have become increasingly enriching friends. I am also way too late in coming to love the piety and genius of J.S. Bach’s varied music!

And so we come to our audacious title, “Beauty will save the world!”


Beauty will save the world?

My first impression of this enigmatic phrase was one of skepticism, or at least a sense of gross over-optimism! Digging deeper, it has taken on meaning and relevance that continues to accelerate. Andy Cuneo adds some helpful literary context and a vital question.

There are some quotations so arresting, so perfect in simplicity, that they never leave the memory…“Beauty will save the world,” says a prince in Dostoevsky’s unfortunately-titled The Idiot. The prince speaks as one having authority: beauty will save the world. 

It is yet more surprising to find Genesis in league with…the above, for in Genesis‘ opening chapter the refrain so quietly insistent, “And God saw that it was good,” contains a Hebrew word (Tov) which may be translated either as good or as beautiful. The feel of the whole chapter changes if one hears God proclaim that the light, the sun, the greenery, the animals are all beautiful, and mankind very beautiful.

Ah, the riddle of beauty and the craft of these writers in phrasing that riddle. Indeed, our prince in The Idiot is asked, immediately after his triumphal statement about beauty, just which beauty will save the world? That is a much harder question, but the Prince affirms in response — who will save the world. In considering “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful”…a temptation arises to forget the Person in view of the principles. Abstract ideas, concepts, and theories can take the place of God who quite physically incarnates those principles…Again, if Beauty will save the world, in Dostoevsky’s view, it will be a person.
(Andrew Cuneo, Beauty will save the world – but What Beauty?  In Pursuit of Truth journal, May 18, 2009; read the whole article here.)


Beauty points to the source of beauty

Beauty points us to the source of what attracts us. This is understandable. To be hungry, infers the reality and accessibility of food that will satisfy and even delight us. Feelings of attraction long for reciprocal affection. When we move into the arena of Christian discipleship, beauty takes an even more central place.

Beauty was the organizing theme of Jonathan Edwards’ understanding of the Christian life — beauty in God, from God, for God. Forget the stereotype of Edwards being obsessed with God’s wrath. 

To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty. This is the contribution of Edwards to Christianity. The beauty of the Christian life (is) first the beauty of God, beauty that comes to tangible expression in Christ, and second the beauty of the Christian, who participates in the the triune life of divine love. Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ. That is Edwards’ theology of the Christian life in a single sentence… The Christian life is a life of beauty…Love, joy, gentleness, prayer, obedience — all these …are spokes extending from the hub of a soul alive to beauty…They are what healthy Christians exhale, having inhaled the loveliness of God.
(Dane C. Ortlund, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God.)

Historian Robert Louis Wilken notes:

…Early Christian poets created a resonant language to sing the praises of God and celebrate the glorious deeds of Christ. Christian thinkers also attended to other kinds of things, the bones of saints and martyrs, the dirt and stones of holy places, the oil of chrism, water, bread and wine, and, not least, pictures painted on wood and mosaics fixed on a wall. Pictorial art, like poetry, began early in the Church’s history. Because of the Incarnation, Christianity posits an intimate relation between material things and the living God.
(R.L. Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 240)

Gerard Manley Hopkins in As Kingfishers Catch Fire  uses an expansive phrase, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” It captures the pervasive presence of God in the midst of all that he has made, including human beings.


On Easter, 1999, the Polish Pope, John Paul II published his famous Letter to ArtistsIt is a must read for all artists. It is a wonderful and practical theology of the arts. Here is an excerpt:

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.

Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation—as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on—feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.

In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, “awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19), is redeemed!

The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of “artistic talent”. And, certainly, this too is a talent which ought to be made to bear fruit, in keeping with the sense of the Gospel parable of the talents. (cf. Mt 25:14-30)

Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.

May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder! Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.

People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world”.

Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…!”
(Read the whole letter)


The Polish poet and writer, Czeslaw Milosz, experienced the multiple horrors of World Wars and the darkness of Soviet communism as well as other personal sufferings in his 93 years. At the end of his poem, “One Day,” Milosz ascribes to beauty, the saving affect of moral discernment in a world that shuns absolutes:

Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence.
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil.
Only beauty will call to them and save them.
So that they still know how to say: this is true and that is false.
   (Czeslaw Milosz, “One Day,” in Unattainable Earth)


PRACTICAL DISCIPLESHIP AND THE ARTS

I want to suggest six arenas where our engagement with the arts can deeply transform us and contribute to our calling as Christian disciples.

1. Worship
Worship often begins with wonder and awareness of God’s beauty. Over a thousand years ago, Prince Vladimir of Rus went looking for a compelling religion to guide his people and finally sent an envoy to Constantinople. What they reported back to him is now legendary. Describing a majestic Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia, they said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.” And Russia embraced Orthodoxy.

In Psalm 27, David embraces the One Thing:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

 

2. The Discipline of Awareness
This phrase is taken from Ken Gire’s wonderful book, Windows of the Soul: Experiencing God in New Ways.  The arts can be windows that help us pay attention to the God who speaks and shows.

We reach for God in many ways. Through our sculptures and our scriptures. Through our pictures and our prayers. Through our writing and our worship. And through them He reaches for us.

His search begins with something said. Ours begins with something heard. He begins with something shown. Ours, with something seen. Our search for God and His search for us meet at windows in our everyday experience.

These are the windows of the soul. In a sense, it is something like spiritual disciplines for the spiritually undisciplined. In another sense, it is the most rigorous of disciplines—the discipline of awareness. For we must always be looking and listening if we are to see the windows and hear what is being spoken to us through them.

But we must learn to look with more than just our eyes and listen with more than just our ears, for the sounds are sometimes faint and the sights sometimes far away. We must be aware, at all times and in all places, because windows are everywhere, and at any time we may find one.

Or one may find us. Though we hardly know it… Unless we are searching for Him who for so long has been searching for us.

Gire has a chapter on “Windows of Art” where he reiterates the story of Henri Nouwen, who spent hours in front of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Nouwen’s own book by the same name details contemplations and insights that are deeply practical and moving.

“The homecoming of the prodigal son stayed with me and continued to take on even greater significance in my spiritual life. The yearning for a lasting home, brought to consciousness by Rembrandt’s painting, grew deeper and stronger, somehow making the painter himself into a faithful companion and guide.”
(Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Hmecoming)

3. Apologetics and Explaining the Good News
I had the opportunity to attend the C.S. Lewis Institute in Oxford as a part of a sabbatical. A memorable lecture was by theologian and Lewis biographer, Alister McGrath on the the apologetics of logic, story, and longing in C.S. Lewis. He notes that Lewis not only explained and defended Christianity in his theological and logical works (such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, etc.) but also in fantasy and science fiction stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. A third genre McGrath called the Apologetic of Longing in Surprised by Joy and other writings. (McGrath’s website has resources available including apologetics lectures on Lewis and others.) Lewis points to our longings for the good, the true, and the beautiful. If we pay attention and help others to pay attention – these longings will help lead us to their source and their fulfillment. (Other C.S. Lewis links)

Abraham Heschel offers a similar word specifically about art: “A work of art introduces us to emotions which we have never cherished before. Great works produce rather than satisfy needs by giving the world fresh cravings.” (quoted in Gire, Windows of the Soul)

4. Culture Making
The arts are one of the natural bridges to the culture. We are called to a “Christian humanism” that engages the world we find ourselves in. Anyone can resonate with true beauty and appreciate it with wonder. Like ethics, the arts can drive us to search for a reference point that answers the spoken or unspoken question, “Where does this come from?” It is vital for Christians to have the true biblical posture towards “culture.”

“It’s not enough to condemn culture. Nor is it sufficient merely to critique or to copy culture. Most of the time we just consume culture. But the only way to change culture is to create (and conserve) culture.” 
(Andy Crouch, in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling)

“It is my conviction that the Christian community, despite its many laudable efforts to preserve traditional morality and the social fabric, has abdicated its stewardship of culture and, more importantly, has frequently chosen ideology rather than imagination when approaching the challenges of the present.”
(Gregory Wolfe in Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, a wonderful book of essays by the founder of Image, a vitally important journal for our on-going discussion.)

A note on who our artists are. For all the excesses and criticisms, I believe social media is creating more artists right in front of our eyes. Only one of my four children would, in the traditional sense, be called an artist. But each of them is an Instagram artist! A Facebook poet! They are constantly taking pictures, designing artistic expressions and graphic tableaus to get a point across or draw attention to something they are passionate about or want to pass on to the world.  The arts are more and more central to how we communicate. And Christ-followers should be producing the best art!

5. The Beauty of Holiness
To become more like Christ is not primarily about “sin management.” It is about falling in love. It is about not accepting counterfeits, expertly knowing the real thing! Take chastity – sexual wholeness – as an example:

“So if we are going to …. clear up our confusion about what chastity is, then we have to return…to beauty. We have to fall in love with Christ more deeply.

Struggle aesthetically first and then struggle ethically. Struggle easily to be faithful first of all in your devotion to the one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – by falling in love with God’s amazing beauty. Then purity will be given to you in large part.”
(Timothy Patitsas, “Chastity and Empathy” in Road To Emmaus#60, Winter 2015)

We will always be in a fight, but it can be The Beautiful Fight! (a title by Gary Thomas)

6. Eternal Beauty
C.S. Lewis ends the Narnia Chronicles with The Last Battle. These words reflect the longing that will be only satisfied in our eternal and beautiful home:

And as [Aslan] spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

We can infer from the biblical images of beauty that the longing for beauty, together with an ability to recognize and experience it, exists within every human being. It is fair to infer that the experiences of earthly beauty can awaken a longing for a beauty that is more permanent and transcendent than anything this life can give — a longing for the beauty of God!

I’ll give Lewis the last word:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death… (Mere Christianity)

IN CONCLUSION

I more and more believe that beauty and the arts can make us ponder, arouse our emotions, help us speak Good News, engender our compassion, and motivate us to action for the glory of God and the flourishing of the world. It is by engaging all these arenas as disciples – gazing on the Lord’s beauty – that we can glimpse the extravagant truth that “Beauty will save the world!”

                                                                                                 Lyle Mook, copyright, April, 2015


 

A PDF version of this essay is available here

You can read a poem, Sunset Gospel here which was inspired by this theme.

Joy amid Sorrow & the Atheists’ Dilemma

light_splash“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian!” (G.K. Chesterton) In a sermon, Joy amid Sorrow – in our Advent series at Christ Church – I began by quoting Philip Yancey’s introduction to Chesterton’s famous apologetic work, Orthodoxy. You can listen here. I suggested 4 “Disciplines” that cultivate JOY. Here, I want to provide the full quotations that deserve rumination.

YANCEY:
“It struck me after reading my umpteenth book on the problem of pain, that I have never even seen a book on “the problem of pleasure.” Nor have I seen a philosopher who goes around shaking his head in perplexity over the question of why we experience pleasure.”

“Yet it looms as a huge question – the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians.”

Christians have an easier time on this one. “It’s natural that a good and loving God would want us to experience delight and joy. We start from that assumption and then look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. But should not atheist have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world (they insist is) full of randomness and meaninglessness?”


CHESTERTON:
Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided .
The mass of men have been forced to be (happy) about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless… it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, (humans are more humanlike), when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude,…praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.
Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed – joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.
“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan – is the gigantic secret of the Christian!…
Jesus chose to conceal something about himself:
(Chesterton says it’s not his tears – or his anger)
“He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His MIRTH.”
(NOTE: by ‘Mirth’, Chesterton means His overflowing gladness and joy.)

Let me throw in some C. S. Lewis from Reflections on the Psalms:
But how can we exult in a world where there is so much to lament? Where can we find joy in a world where hate is strong, as Longfellow has written, and mocks any expression of peace on earth and good will to men? In the “jocund” Psalms—where music, festivity, and agriculture are not things separate from religion, nor is religion something separate from them—Lewis claims, “I find an experience fully God-centered, asking of God no gift more urgently than His presence, the gift of Himself, joyous to the highest degree, and unmistakably real.”

(BONUS: a recently discovered letter by C.S. Lewis gives another window into understanding of Joy. Read about it here.)

Atheist testimony and Our Legacy of Compassion

compassion imageWhen we chose to use “Compassionate Christian Community” as our church’s ‘byline’ and in our mission statement, we did so because compassion is a part of our ‘DNA.’ It is a beautiful and expansive word that reflects the embodied love of Christ who “suffered with” and for us.

An article in the Gordon-Conwell Seminary magazine, Contact, captures the legacy of Christian compassion that defies the rhetoric of many of the “New Atheists.” It is a good follow-up from one of the “Tough Questions” in a previous post, The Church – Bad for Humanity?

The Living Gospel: The Church’s Historic Witness, by Dr. Frank James, Contact magazine, Spring 2013.

In recent years, Christianity has been the object of considerable ridicule. The New Atheists—Dawkins, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens—have made a nice living by declaring that religion in general and Christianity in particular “poisons everything.” Of course, this is nothing new. Karl Marx demeaned Christianity as the “opiate of the masses.” The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, defiantly asserted: “The Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of the moral progress in the world.”

So it was surprising to read an article from another atheist who took a rather different slant on Christianity. Matthew Parris, columnist for The Sunday Times of London, wrote a provocative online article titled: “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” Returning to the Africa of his youth, Parris makes the startling observation:

“It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These along will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

This is a refreshingly honest sentiment from one who demurs from personal allegiance to Christianity. If we are honest, Christian history has its fair share of skeletons in its collective closet. This is hard to swallow, and I wish it were not so. Despite the fact that Christians have not always behaved in ways that would please Christ, the many examples of Christian compassion down through the ages are nothing short of dazzling.

From the beginning, Christians have been known for their compassion for the disadvantaged. Perhaps one of the most astonishing examples is the opposition to infanticide in the early church. In the Greco-Roman world, female infants and males born with deformities were of no value and often deposited on the village dung heap to die of exposure—or perhaps even more tragic, raised as temple prostitutes. In a chilling letter written one year before the birth of Christ, a Roman citizen named Hilarion directs his pregnant wife: “When you are delivered of a child—if it is a boy, keep it; if it is a girl, discard it.” The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, is even more callous: “Monstrous [deformed] offspring we destroy; children too, if born feeble and ill-formed, we drown.” This is the cruel world to which Christianity came with their counter-cultural message. Over time, this gospel changed the Roman Empire.

Christian compassion has manifested in many ways down through the ages. In a world entirely lacking in social services, Christians became their brothers’ keepers. At the end of the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote that while pagan religions spent their donations “on feasts and drinking bouts,” Christians spent theirs “to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents and of old persons confined to the house.” By the 4th century, Christians had become especially well known for their compassion for the poor—both Christian and pagan. The Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate (361–363), even complained about “those impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”

Read more….the whole article is at the Gordon-Conwell website.

More Tough Questions – A Video Discussion

As a sequel to our Tough Questions series, I came across this video of a great discussion between John Ortberg and outgoing Fuller Seminary President, Richard Mouw (author of Uncommon Decency who coined the term we’ve used often: ‘Convictions with Civility.’)  It was held at Ortberg’s Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Ortberg-Mouw-e1367000198107

It is a brief, free-flowing discussion on questions like:
“What does ‘Evangelical’ mean?”
“What is the significance of the Cross of Christ and why is it so central?”
“Is Mormonism Christian?”
“Why Should the Bible Be Viewed as Trustworthy?”
“How Can We Talk About Human Sexuality in a Biblical and Civil Way?”
“How Do We Dialog with Others with Convicted Civility?”
“How Do Christians understand and talk about Hell with Others?”
“How Do we interpret the Bible in passages that describe violence?”
“What is God Waiting for Before He Comes Back?”
“What Do you See around the World Gives You Hope?”

Click Here

So, Will All Be Saved in the End?

A follow-up to the teaching, Will All Be Saved in the End? in our Tough Questions Series

I had the privilege at North Park University of speaking with Kallistos Ware, elderly Orthodox bishop and scholar from England. I had read his essay called, Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All? (I found it on the web here.) I asked him about his views. He said that the freedom of the human will as part of being in God’s image, was for him (as for C. S. Lewis) a decisive point. There must remain, despite God’s love and the victory and future restoration of all things in Christ, the possibility of choosing to refuse God’s gift. His article is worth reading to understand how Christians through the centuries have addressed these issues.

Here are some C.S. Lewis’ quotes on this subject that are insightful and provocative.

To enter hell is to be banished from humanity.  What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains.”To be a complete man, means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God…hell was not made for men…It is in no sense parallel to heaven. (from The Problem of Pain)

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, chose it.  Without that self- choice there could be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek, find…” The Great Divorce

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them?  They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

ONE MORE resource for deeper study that I’ve appreciated is an important alternative to some western views of heaven and hell that often come more from Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology than from biblical teaching. It is linked here: Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible, by Peter Chopelas, an Eastern Orthodox writer.  Though the writer sees this understanding as being counter to both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, I would say that many evangelicals, including myself, increasingly accept the basic premise of this line of study. Certainly Lewis was on this train.

What Questions are raised for you by this discussion?

The Church – Bad for Humanity?

toughquestion logoIn our teaching series called “Tough Questions,” we looked at “The Church’s”  image problem among so many in our culture.  The question being raised by those understandably cynical about organized religion in general and Christianity in particular, could, I believe be put like this:

Isn’t the Church really bad for humanity?

I’ll put two quotes in this post from the sermon that need some rumination to fully grasp. For example, I mentioned the recent book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism, by A.C. Grayling.  Part of the problem is that “humanism” has been hijacked by those with a false understanding both of what it means to be human, and the Biblical underpinnings of true humanity. One reviewer hit the nail on the head as to the weakness of the new atheists’ argument:

Grayling is mistaken. The style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end. It’s one thing to catalogue the manifest faults within this or that religious tradition, which the new atheists have ably done… over and over and over again. It’s quite another to claim, as these authors also invariably do, that godlessness is not only true but also (really) good for human beings. It quite obviously is not.

“If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

“Honest atheists understand this. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, but he called it an “awe-inspiring catastrophe” for humanity, which now faced the monumental task of avoiding a descent into nihilism. /hopelessness. Camus likewise recognized that when the longing for a satisfying answer to the question of “why?” confronts the “unreasonable silence of the world,” the goodness of human life appears to dissolve and must be reconstructed from the ground up. 

Philip Larkin, the poet: speaks of a life with no solace or reassurance, confronting the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness:

This is what we fear: no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell,
nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.

-Daman Linker, Where are the Honest Atheist? The World

David Bently Hart rips the new atheism to shreds in his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Here is his point as relates to our question.

“Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and (culture)… The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. (compared to the common inhumanity of many ancient civilizations.)

“IF, AS I HAVE ARGUED…THE “HUMAN” AS WE NOW UNDERSTAND IT, IS THE POSITIVE INVENTION OF CHRISTIANITY, MIGHT IT NOT BE THE CASE THAT A CULTURE THAT HAS BECOME TRULY POST-CHRISTIAN WILL  ALSO, ULTIMATELY, BECOME POST-HUMAN’ !”

QUESTION: Can you see why the Good News of Christ brings a true Humanism? Fully Human, Fully Alive – restored to the image of THE human: the God-Man Jesus Christ!

Making Sense of Suffering?

On vacation, I was getting ready to add some resources to the sermon on the Tough Questions of ‘Suffering’ when the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy hit the news. The question sadly rages again as we groan and weep and pray.

Here are some important resources from the viewpoint of our Christian worldview:

Some books I often recommend:

Philip Yancey has written extensively on this issue. Where is God When It Hurts is still among the best.

Tim Keller’s book covers several tough questions: The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Jerry Sittser is a more personal testimony of God’s help and grace.

C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is a classic and helpful as ever.

Christopher Wright has written The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, that has a helpful study guide.

Finally, David Bentley Hart, editorial writer for First Things, wrote this article in 2008 at the time of the Asian Tsunami. It is not easy vocabulary but worth the work. One of his statements is rich with insight: “…(our faith) has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead.”

Tsunami and Theodicy

No one, no matter how great the scope of his imagination, should be able easily to absorb the immensity of the catastrophe that struck the Asian rim of the Indian Ocean and the coast of Somalia on the second day of Christmas this past year; nor would it be quite human to fail, in its wake, to feel some measure of spontaneous resentment towards God, fate, natura naturans, or whatever other force one imagines governs the intricate web of cosmic causality. But, once one’s indignation at the callousness of the universe begins to subside, it is worth recalling that nothing that occurred that day or in the days that followed told us anything about the nature of finite existence of which we were not already entirely aware. Continue reading Making Sense of Suffering?

Be a Humble Apologist!

The New Testament letter of 1 Peter provides a wonderful paradigm for the “Defense of the Faith.”  (Christian Apologetics) This is vital to understand if we are going to welcome tough questions – either our own or those that others want to discuss or argue.

“…but 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…”
1 Peter 3:15, ESV

Let me suggest three qualities of a Humble Apologist that spring from this very rich passage:
[You can listen to the audio sermon here.]

1. Have CONVICTIONS that honor Christ as Lord – keep going deeper in your relationship. It will help you be secure in times of your own questioning and secure as you speak with others who ask you questions.

2. Have REASONS that engage and are clear – in language that others outside the faith can understand.  Jesus and Peter do not expect us to withdrawal from discussion and debate, but rather to proclaim and embody Jesus as the hope of the world!

3. Have CIVILITY – humility and respect for the persons you converse with. In the words of Richard Mouw, the word “tolerance” has lost its effectiveness. We need convictions with civility that show respect to all!  (see this previous post)

As I promised in this morning’s sermon, here is a poem by C.S. Lewis, on the humble part of being an apologist for the faith.

The Apologists Evening Prayer

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts,
even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

C.S. Lewis, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” in Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), p. 129.

StackFor those who want to go deeper, John Stackhouse has written a fine book with the same title of “Humble Apologetics.”