What You Believe About the Crusades is anti-Christian Propaganda

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Well, almost certainly. The most common view of the Crusades–those terrible wars fought by Christians in the early part of the second millennium–is that they were horridly, despicably unjust. One scholar said this:

The crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins.

My neighbor probably believes that or something like it. So does yours…and so did I! Even after going to Bible college and getting a master’s degree in Apologetics, I still believed that the crusades were an utterly shameful mark on Christian history. They weren’t. This is not to say that all that occurred was wonderful and good–many who fought in them did terrible things–but the truth of the matter is that they were nowhere near as awful as the popular idea of them would suggest. As apologist Clay Jones, points out, the contemporary view of the Crusades is just anti-Christian propaganda that originated during the Enlightenment.

So what really happened? What were the Crusades really like? Instead of rewriting what has been written so well already, I will send you over to Clay Jones’s blog to get the details: THE DETAILS
Not only does he show that the Crusades weren’t nearly as bad as you might think, he also makes the case that they were actually a just war, and he does so with clarity, sound argumentation, and great research from the leading scholars in the field. Go read it.

I never worried much about the affect of the Crusades on the rationality of my beliefs. I just don’t see how one can make a decent argument from “The Crusades happened and they were horrible” to “it is not rational to believe in Christianity.” I’ve never seen an atheist or agnostic, philosopher or otherwise, even attempt to make such an argument. There just isn’t one. And yet I was walking about with all sorts of false beliefs about the Crusades. If my neighbor asked me about them, I wouldn’t have had a very convincing response. So for the sake of having a convincing response to your neighbor, go read that blog!

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The Myth About Dream Jobs

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Frederick Buechner wrote that “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” If vocation is defined as a person’s employment or occupation, then Buechner seems to be saying that the job for us is the one that makes us very glad while meeting the deep needs of others. Having such a job would be a lovely thing. Indeed, it would be the epitome of dream job—not only does it make you happy, but it makes others happy too. If you can get a job like that, take it. If you have the opportunity to pursue the education needed for a job like that, do it. If you have the financial freedom (no kids, no mortgage, etc.) to put in the hard work as an aspiring musician, artist, writer, photographer, or whatever it might be, then do just that. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from traversing the sobering decade called my “20’s”, it’s that one by one all of my aspiring artist/musician/writer friends have slowly become my hard working banker/insurance/construction friends. Maybe not all of them. There are a few still pursuing the dream. There are a few that actually made it, making a real living doing what they love. But many now have normal vocations—doing things that don’t make them deeply glad and don’t meet the world’s deep needs. And I think that is just fine.

Really. I think having a normal job doing normal things is just fine. There is far more to life than the arts, and much greater value in being faithful to your wife than in being artsy. There is much greater satisfaction in having true relationships than there is in writing a true song that makes you real money. Feeding your family is more important than feeding the poor, and much more important than starting a non-profit that gets shoes to poor kids. This is not to denigrate the arts or music or philanthropy—they are all very good things. But life offers us much that is just as valuable and often far more valuable.

Yet we are all too willing to sacrifice these things for the sake of our dream jobs. We are also far too unhappy given all the things we do have. Not having your dream job doesn’t mean that you’ve missed the boat on satisfaction in life. The Bible says that God has given us all gifts and it implies that he has given us all passions (perhaps it actually says it somewhere), but it was the self-esteem movement—not the Bible—that told us we are all entitled to a job that stimulates all our passions and makes use of all our gifts. And who knows who told us that we must have that job in order to be happy—Oprah? Rob Bell? I have other people I dislike to put on the list, but the point is that whoever said it was terribly mistaken. He or she was terribly damaging to our happiness too. Let us forsake our misguided discontent. We don’t need dream jobs to be happy. God’s will for your life may be for you to be a garbage man. But know this: whether you are a garbage man, fashion designer, or professional athlete, you have all the contentment and joy in the world at your fingertips. It’s in the people around you and the God who made you.

Returning to the almost certainly well-intentioned Beuchner: I would add that meeting the world’s deep need ought to bring us much gladness—so much so that the jobs (vocations) we don’t particularly like should be made likeable in virtue of the fact that they are meeting the needs of others. It wasn’t my idea, but it is profound. Consider your job to be practice loving your neighbor. And consider this: if you really feel that way about your job, then the more you love your neighbor, the more satisfying your job will be. Even if all you do is work out your neighbor’s health insurance problems, if you really love him or her, you will find great pleasure in solving that annoying insurance problem. You will find great pleasure in delivering that copy machine part. You will find great pleasure in writing that report. Instead of pursuing a job we love, maybe we ought to pursue a heart of love for the people around us. Then we can have both.

Digging Channels in a Waterless Land (and Other Imagery to Help You Persevere)

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When I first became a Christian, nobody told me that some days I just wouldn’t feel it. I wish they would have. It is truly disturbing when the afterglow of new faith begins to fade. But fade it did. One day I found myself without passion, excitement, or motivation. I found myself confronted with the disciplines of the Christian life—the reading, praying, serving, and so on—but without a desire to actually do them. More than that, it almost seemed hard to believe that God was there. I didn’t feel close with Him, I didn’t feel his presence, and I had no idea why. I was terrified. If you haven’t felt this yet, it is coming. If it has come and gone, it is coming again. So what do we do about it? There are probably dozens of good, biblical things that we might do when we just don’t feel it, but I want to give two things that I have found particularly helpful.

Back to my Christian youth…it was during these first dog days of spiritual life that I discovered, got really excited about, and memorized my first passage from Christian literature. Other than Jeremiah 29:11, of course. The passage is from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (if you haven’t read it yet, go buy it today). It is one demon talking to another about tempting and destroying Christians. The elder demon says to his tempter-in-training:

“Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

Being from a demon’s perspective, the “Enemy” is God. And I was that human who no longer desired, but still intended, who looked around at a spiritual wasteland. And it was this passage that made me, more than ever, want to obey and persevere even if I didn’t feel it. I felt like it was my moment in battle—I would either rise to the occasion and secure a glorious victory or be crushed in a shameful defeat. Little did I know that it truly was such a moment. This passage just made it real for me. It captured the grandeur and the gravity—it made me want victory.  

I just now realized that the second thing that has helped me through such wastelands also comes from C.S. Lewis. But this one is more biblically rooted, so I’ll start with the passage on which it is based—Hosea 10:12:

            “Sow for yourselves righteousness;
              Reap in mercy;
              Break up your fallow ground,
              For it is time to seek the Lord,
              Till He comes and rains
              Righteousness on you.”

What we see here is that the land is fallow. The fruit bearing heart is dormant, the normally fertile land is dry, and we need it to rain! This is how C.S. Lewis puts it:

“When we carry out our ‘religious duties’ we are like
people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready…There are happy moments, even now, when a trickle creeps along the dry beds; and happy souls to whom this happens often.”

I can’t quite describe the inspiration that I find in this imagery. It’s not a battle, it’s not glorious, but somehow it is motivation. It makes me feel like I’m in the middle of the desert, dying of thirst, and I’ve just glimpsed an oasis in the distance. So what do I do?  Anything but stop. I keep going! I might even pick up the pace.

The brutal and sometimes (shamefully) hidden truth about Christianity is that it is really hard. It is a long road, and it takes perseverance. Don’t give up. These things have been tremendously helpful for me, and I hope they will help you, too. Consider them like little sacraments, little channels of God’s grace to which we go in times of need, because, ultimately, grace is what we need more than anything.

 

           

 

 

The Five Very Best Responses to the Problem of Evil

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About this time in 2008, I started something pretty crazy: I wanted to solve the problem of evil. In particular, I wanted a solution that fit well with the Bible’s emphatic, resounding declaration that everything exists for the glory of God. It almost sounds ridiculous—perhaps a bit pretentious and assuming. I was 22. But it worked. I got what I wanted, six months later. I got there simply by reading—reading anything and everything I could find by the very best scholars. What I discovered was this: there are very simple and very good answers to the problem of evil. They weren’t my answers, but I found what I was looking for.

At first glance, it may seem like the existence of evil is inconsistent with the existence of an all knowing, all powerful and perfectly good God. A God like that would want to eliminate evil, would be able to eliminate evil, and yet there is still evil. So, many scholars have attempted to argue, that God must not exist. But parents allow suffering in the lives of their children all the time, and they exist. So why can’t God do the same? Parents allow the suffering of yard work, homework, rigorous training for sports, time-outs, and a million other things. But they allow all that suffering because they know that their children will be better for it. They have good reasons for allowing it. So why assume that God doesn’t have good reasons? Philosophically, it works like this: if it is even possible that God could have a good reason for allowing evil, then the problem of evil fails. It does not disprove the existence of God.

After embarking on a second journey this last summer to dig deeper into the problem of evil, I found that the answers were even better than I originally thought. It is really this simple: why does God allow evil? Answer: because he knows that, if he allows evil, the universe will be better for it in the end.

Although it really is that simple, I thought it would be a good idea to record a short list of the five best answers to the problem of evil. Most of my academic research has been devoted to this topic (both my journeys turned into master’s theses), and I’ve noticed that there is a fair amount of solid work but a few points of shining brilliance. In my opinion, this is the brilliance:

1. “I don’t know why God allows evil, but it can’t be that it’s because he doesn’t love us.”

I first heard this one from Tim Keller and I love it because it points directly to the gospel. It can’t be because he doesn’t love us because we know that he sent Jesus to save us from the consequences of evil. Imagine yourself in God’s situation: you’ve created a world and it’s gone terribly wrong; there is suffering, sadness, and dying. What more could you possibly do than enter into that world yourself and die a horrible death to save it from evil and suffering? What more could anyone ask of God? Nothing more.

This response also highlights the crucial fact that we may not always know why God allows evil to occur. See the second response…

2. “If God has a reason for allowing evil, why should we expect to know what it is?”

In some instances of tragedy, we come to see—perhaps years down the road—why that event occurred. I might see, for example, that getting in that car accident led to meeting my spouse (didn’t actually happen, but it could have!).

In other instances of tragedy, however, it is hard to see how the evil is made right or even could be made right. Yet if we can’t tell how some evil was redeemed, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t actually redeemed. Perhaps we just don’t have the capacity to understand its redemption? Maybe it’s beyond our ken. Maybe it’s too complicated. Maybe it is not yet redeemed, but will be soon or sometime in the future.

3. “God isn’t the direct cause of any evil—we are. That is, God made human beings with free will and we have freely chosen to do evil.”

So why does God allow evil? Because he doesn’t want a world full of robots. The overall state of affairs in the universe will be, all things considered, better because God made free creatures who could choose to do wrong or right but often chose to do wrong. In other words, God looked at the universe and knew that it would be much better off if people had real, morally significant freedom. He knew the cost would be immense suffering (he would do everything he could to stop it), but he decided that it would be worth it in the end.

In 1973, a widely respected philosopher named Alvin Plantinga extended this short reply into a book length, incredibly rigorous philosophical argument. (The book is called God, Freedom, and Evil.) In the eyes of many philosophers, he effectively solved the logical problem of evil. Many don’t even bother making that argument anymore.  Indeed, J.L. Mackie (his greatest philosophical rival) said this:

“Since this defense is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.”

4. God allows natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, diseases, etc.) because…

Imagine what would happen if God didn’t allow natural evil? Would people really believe that God’s creation had gone wrong and needed to be redeemed? It might be far more difficult to convince people of the need for redemption if they lived in a perfect world.

Moreover, there is nothing inherently wrong with hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, etc. They only become wrong when they kill people (and perhaps animals, too). They are part of the natural order of things. They are necessary for the earth to function properly as a whole system.

And I think this is the best reason: if God were to continually step in to prevent natural disasters and other things from hurting people, there would be no possibility of science. God would have to continually violate natural laws in order to prevent suffering, but doing so would eliminate the regularity in nature that makes science possible. Science needs regularity. Without regularity and without science, we wouldn’t have the life saving and life enhancing technology that we do today.

5. As I wrote earlier:
In the end, it will have been worth it. God works all things together for the good, and a million years into eternity we will perhaps be able to see the forest instead of just trees.

It may not be possible to prove this point. We might have to wait and see. But the whole point is that it is also not possible to disprove this point. Thus, the problem of evil cannot effectively disprove Christianity. God can exist and so can evil.

Post-Script:
I thought I should add some amendments/comments/caveats/fair warnings:
-I chose these particular responses to the problem of evil because they (aside from the first response) are the best philosophical responses to the philosophical arguments from evil. That is to say that if someone is trying to argue that Christianity (or theism) is not true, these responses will be the most effective in blocking their arguments. After reading A LOT of articles and books on the topic, I am convinced that they are the very best for this purpose.
But of course there are other responses to the problem of evil that serve other purposes much better than the particular responses I listed. Some may want to know how to respond to friends or loved ones who have experienced some devastating tragedy. These replies are not meant to serve that purpose (except for #1).
-Each one of these five points could easily be expanded into a book or many books. I have a faint feeling of guilt for my brevity. These arguments are so good and important, and there is so much to be said regarding each one and all the possible counterarguments, that it almost feels wrong to summarize them so briefly. But it’s a blog. What must be done has been done.

Do You Need to Feel God’s Presence to Know He is There?

Someone I know posted something (vague, I know) rather interesting on Facebook a while ago. They recalled a brief but poignant conversation:

“Someone once asked me, ‘Do you need to feel God’s presence to know He is there?’ That’s a great question.”

A great question, indeed. The answers, however, were not so great. Pardon my  snobbery, but I thought I could do much better. So, without further apology, here is my attempt…

In answering the question I’d have to say, “no, I don’t need to feel God’s presence to know he is there.” To say that I know God is there means three things: (1) I ‘believe’ He is there, (2) He is ‘in fact’ there, and (3) I am ‘justified’ in believing He is there. That is, I have satisfied the ‘Justified True Belief’ standard of knowledge. (A standard, by the way, that has withstood the most rigorous testing for more than 2000 years). And I can do all this without feeling his presence. Sometimes I know God is there because I feel his presence. God created us in such a way that we have the capacity to encounter and experience him directly. But other times, when that capacity isn’t working well (due to sin, perhaps), I might rely on other means to know God is there. For example, I might rely on the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This argument proves that God is there (if he is indeed the cause of the universe). If I know the argument I can rehearse it or remember it and therefore believe that God is there. If it is in fact True that God is there and I am Justified in Believing this, then I have satisfied all three conditions for knowledge (JTB) and I really know that God is there…even if I don’t feel his presence.

            And how valuable this is! I vividly remember my first semester of Bible college (and here is a story I’ve told many times, with good reason), laying awake late at night agonizing over whether or not God exists. I didn’t feel his presence but I wanted so badly to know that he was there. So I remembered and rehearsed the Kalam cosmological argument. Every night. Over and over again. This helped me to know God was there and, in turn, helped me to press on with my biblical training. Without this argument, I’m not sure I would have stayed in Bible college. I am forever grateful for this argument and arguments like it that help me to know that God is there, even when I don’t feel his presence.

For more arguments like this, see http://www.reasonablefaith.org

What worship does

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“It’s in worship that we learn to take the right things for granted.”
-Stanley Hauerwas

This is one of those truths that isn’t merely true. It is transformingly true. In other words, it’s not just interesting—it is actually relevant and it will change you if you believe it.

It will change you, as the quote says, by teaching you to take the right things for granted. This is what I take it to mean: in worship our values are adjusted. We take things for granted when we don’t value them, and how often do we fail to value God? We fail to value God and his love, his kindness, justice, plan of redemption, and a million other good things about him. What worship does, then, is awaken our minds to who God is and what He has done. But perhaps even more importantly, it awakens our hearts through beautiful music and imagery. Our cold, bloodless hearts, trying to sustain our bodies on successful careers and endless possessions, extravagant vacations and constant entertainment…when we are awakened to God, these hard hearts are made flesh. They beat with new life. And we take for granted the right things—the jobs, possessions, vacations, and entertainment that we think (insanity!) we really need. Worship, therefore, causes a tectonic shift in values—one that awakens our hearts to the true value of God and allows us to take for granted the things we should.

What we need is to encounter God and value him. When we do that, we are joyful and capable of loving God and loving others, and we glorify God, which is what we were made to do. That is practicality at its finest, and I think Hauerwas is right in saying that this is just what worship does.

Toward effectively increasing your trust in Jesus and the Bible

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When Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life,” I desperately want to believe and obey. But sometimes I can’t. It’s hard. The tremendous weight of my problems and worries crushes me and the words of Jesus dissipate. He and his promises just lack the tangibility of my present concerns. My faith–that is, my trust or belief–is too weak. I believe in Jesus and I believe His Word, but sometimes I just need to believe more. Sometimes the burden of life requires a faith deeper and stronger than the faith I have. 

And in such times God is gracious. I pray; he answers. I petition him for the gift of faith and he responds by increasing my ability to trust him and believe His Word. I cry, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” And he does. 

But what do we do when he doesn’t respond? To be honest, sometimes he doesn’t respond–not right away, or not exactly as I would like him to. Jesus suggests–and I, of course, concur–that we keep praying. Keep petitioning. Keep reading.  But there is something else we can do. Read apologetics. Read articles and books and listen to lectures that argue for the plausibility of the Christian faith. I think this, too, is biblical. In my experience it has been remarkably helpful.  

Think about it! There is a unity to the Christian faith. It consists of lots and lots of claims, and if one claim is false, then this casts doubt on the other claims. Even if one claim seems false (even though we know it isn’t) it can affect our ability to believe other seemingly unrelated claims. For example, if I’m at a used car lot and the salesman lies about their financing program, this lie will cast doubt on what he has told me about the mechanical integrity of the car I’m buying. They are unrelated claims, but there is a unity that ties them together. In the same way, if I find it implausible or hard to believe that human beings are souls with bodies, I might also find it hard to believe or implausible that Jesus is going to take care of me. 

So, in light of that point–and countless more like it–let us read apologetics. Let us gather information and evidence that increases our ability to believe the truth claims of the Christian faith. And then maybe the next time Jesus tells us not to be anxious, we will be better able to trust him. 

Here is a little something to get you started (the first one, by a very good philosopher, is on the interaction of the soul and body):

http://cct.biola.edu/blog/2013/aug/19/can-soul-interact-body/

General apologetics:
http://www.reasonablefaith.org/
http://www.str.org/
http://www.apologetics315.com/

How to render the Bible useless; or, how to make the Bible a slave of self.

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“If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
-Augustine

Perhaps it is best to start with an explanation of what this means. If you read the gospels (or the Bible as a whole) and take what you like and leave what you don’t like, then you are simply affirming the beliefs you already hold. If you come across some passage that makes you feel guilty about sin, you are free to simply conclude that that part must be uninspired. Say you encounter some truth about God that you prefer not to believe—well, there is no reason to start believing it now. It is much easier to just decide that part of the Bible must be in error. You are the authority. You are the source of moral guidance and truth about God. You affirm only those truths you want to believe.

This is a luxuriously comfortable way to read the Bible and many find it rather satisfying. But it will never change your life. It makes the Bible a broken compass, useless for finding truth. All you will find in a Bible read this way is your own little philosophy—a philosophy too small, too prosaic to make any difference in the world. 

 

 

A beauty so perfect that it’s repulsive

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 Jesus was incredulous. He was exacerbated. He was furious. He insulted. He ridiculed. He told of coming judgment. He EXORCISED DEMONS. He said he was GOD. He said he had final authority given to him to judge the living and the death. He said he had power over life and death. He scared people. He confused people. He repulsed people. He wouldn’t answer questions asked by the local authorities. He stayed away three days knowing Lazarus would die, and then wept when he showed up to his tomb. He supplied the party wine. He preached fire and brimstone. He used satire and mockery. He frustrated his mother. He told his apostles they had new names when he met them. He used frustratingly vague metaphors and parables to purposefully judge a stubborn people (fulfilling Isaiah), and then later told the hidden meanings to the apostles. He chose a front-runner who looked and smelled like a crazy hobo, and who badgered the local mayor over sexual and marital ethics. He healed people on the Sabbath just to tweak the religious elite. He monitored financial giving and gave live commentary on it. He said the world hated him and his followers. He told people to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He had incredibly awkward and blunt conversations about spiritual things 15 seconds into meeting a stranger. He let a presumably sensual woman wipe his feet with her hair. He told a female stranger that she had five husbands. He went out to eat with creepy guys who preyed on families via financial extortion. He went to the most significant religious structure local to him and said he would destroy and rebuild it. He said he existed before Abraham.

I saw this on a friend’s Facebook somewhat recently. It makes me think about who Jesus is and, therefore, who God is. As this shocking description makes clear, God isn’t always who we think He is. He doesn’t always do what we think He would or should do.

I’m not sure that Jesus really did ridicule people. Nor does it seem right to say that he used mockery—at least not the contemptuous kind. God is love. But his being love does not preclude his being repulsive (to some people), infuriating, and sometimes terribly confusing.

Of all the radical and true things that Jesus said and did—things that we don’t understand and often choose to forget—perhaps the most telling is that he repulsed people. Think about that! The exact imprint of perfect beauty repulsed people (see Hebrews 1:3). The exact imprint of everything that we desire most—the one thing that everyone is truly looking for—that thing, that beautiful God, repulsed people.

What does this mean? What does this say about us? About holiness? We would do well to think about such things.

Evil that might cross paths once in a thousand years

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21859771

I can hardly say why I found this article so fascinating. But I will try. There is something there—some great meaning that I think we ought to understand. You might say that it paints a picture of a deep, nostalgic disappointment—disappointment in humanity, in the people that God made. What is remarkable is that all those terrible, murderous people lived in the same place. What is remarkable is the titanic, world shattering scope of their evil—evil that might cross paths once in a thousand years—crossing paths daily in the same city block.

But what can be made of this? Sadness, for sure, and perhaps some pessimism, too. One can take up the disappointment and run with it. We can all lament the horror of the 20th Century and the people that made it horrible, and then sit aghast at the fact that many of them lived in the same place at the same time.

Yet there is so much more than that. Somehow it makes Jesus more glorious and God more forgiving, more merciful, more gracious. I am not sure that I really feel it or fully understand it, but the fact is that every city and every time could be like Vienna in 1913. Left on our own, we, as God’s creation, would almost certainly sink that low. But we aren’t left on our own. Everyday God’s grace floods the world. It changes people who would’ve otherwise become Hitler. It tempers the evil and cultivates the good. The world may seem more terrible than a good God should ever allow, but we will never know how terrible it would have become had He not intervened by sending his Son to redeem it. That is grace and there is more of it than we could ever imagine.