Saturday, December 17, 2011

Letters to Hitchens & Friends

I liked Christopher Hitchens. As something of a logophile, I enjoyed his use of language. He could turn phrases like few others. He was passionate, widely read and politically interesting.

I was first introduced to Hitchens a number of years back when I caught a dialogue between Hitchens, Dr. Mark D. Roberts, and Hugh Hewitt on the radio*. I started paying attention a bit more when he released his book, "God is not Great." He asked questions and made statements that made me think more about my faith. This, to me, is a good thing. A faith unexamined is a faith easy to have ripped from one's grasp.

Yet fundamentally I have some very serious disagreements with what Hitchens believed and argued when it comes to many (most?) aspects of religion and faith. He was a devout atheist, even "evangelistic" in his zeal to convert the, um, converted. Hitchens' debates and lectures on YouTube are popular, as are his books. His eloquence being what it was, I understand why.

Hitchens was persuasive too. In this, I think, he was most dangerous. Frankly I wish he had marshalled his talents in favor of the faith rather than against it. When he resorted to polemics, he diminished. When he argued, he changed minds. Because of this, I took care when reading his work, or listening to his voice. In many cases, his eloquence covered up some significant flaws in his arguments - but the eloquence alone was sufficient to influence those who didn't pay close attention to the arguments.

As much as I respected Hitchens, I always wished I could have talked with him. Going back through some of his writings of late, I would like to start a new feature here, inspired in part by some of the challenges he gave me in my thinking. It's not the same as debating him live, but he asks some questions which deserve answers - and makes some arguments which deserve refutation.

I'll call this 'Letters to Hitchens & Friends' and address, primarily, arguments of his that seem to be cropping up most frequently amongst those of a non-theistic bent. I think, though, that he would also say others argue against faith, so while titled for Hitchens, it will really be aimed at skeptics in general. It won't be a series in the sense that I'm going to rip out a string of these posts and be done; they will be here and there as I feel most compelled to address a given argument and as I have time to do so.

Will I change minds? Possibly, but just as possibly not. Hitchens himself would not even know who I am. In humility I would absolutely say I may not be correct myself. Yet when more theists are becoming atheists, I would like to outline why it is that I am not following in their stead.

For my non-theist friends: if there is a question you'd like to have answered, you can always post it to the comments. Just realize I will address one question at a time, and while I will try to get to every question, my schedule (as you'd see from looking at my archives) and my own sense of priorities may not permit fast replies.

For my theist friends: if you are struggling with your own answers, you can ask questions too. I do not claim to know all the answers; what I'll be posting are my thoughts & reasons for holding a particular belief, and why I find a specific argument unpersuasive. It is almost certain that others can answer better than I. Just take it as my own thinking out loud in response to questions that challenge my beliefs.

I hope you find this idea interesting. I certainly do, and since it's my blog I'll give it a shot; please join the conversation and add your voice.

God bless -
Ron

*Confession: I generally dislike political talk radio, finding it increasingly unsatisfying in terms of completeness, fairness and kindness. Hewitt is one of the few exceptions, and I listened to his show more for the guests he seemed to attract - like Hitchens, Mark Steyn and James Lileks, all master communicators who bring wit, intelligence and passion through words. Even when I disagreed with them, they were (nay, are) interesting. I highly recommend finding the archives of Hewitt's interviews with Hitchens, such as this one between Hitchens & David Allen White. I am neither atheist nor Catholic, yet found the interchange fascinating.

Values of the Church 4: Selflessness

Selflessness is hard. Everything in our society screams at us to take care of #1, to procure what we "deserve." Take care of yourself first, it is said, buy this product to make yourself happy. Spout off your opinions, and if others disagree label them intolerant and attack them rather than contend with ideas (the Interwebs may have something to do with this).

Our environment pushes us to selfishness. That's the easy path.

That's not what we're called to in the church. As we get to the evaluation phase of this series, we need to also remember that selflessness is a necessary value of the church.

Paul would describe selflessness of the type required as "submission." (Note: there could be an entire series - taking 8 years if I write it, hardee-har-har - talking about submission vis a vis the role of women in marriage. My concern with the term is more limited - yet general - in scope for the purposes of this series.) It is placing the needs & desires above your own.

Ephesians 5 talks about this. In verse 21:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Or as he states it in Philippians:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves 

Submission is a dirty word (in large part, but not solely, because of the aforementioned debate related to the role of women) in our culture. Yet if we are to call ourselves Christians, "little Christs" we ought to strive to be like Him most of all. He was selfless, not just giving His life (not that I'm diminishing that!) but also in his daily life on Earth.
There are more episodes of submitting to others - in healing, in acknowledging the place of leaders, in dining with the outcasts.

We ought to be like this. It is hard, but in church especially we should be looking to benefit & bless others, even before ourselves.

Next up: scripture, then the evaluation.

God bless,
Ron


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Values of the Church: Freedom Redux

Back to the topic of the church, at least of the mega variety. As I continue in this series, I'm going to touch on another aspect of freedom, not quite the same as the one I shared last time.

As I'm laying a foundation for the evaluation portion of the series, namely the values we should bring to the discussion, freedom is third in line behind love and unity. In the first post about freedom, I noted that our freedom in Christ is freedom from sin, and should be exercised humbly, for the good of others - especially the church. In this post, I'm going a bit of a different direction with freedom (exercising some freedom in doing so!) and talking about freedom in our relationship with God.

God created us each uniquely. I am wired to like certain things, to be passionate about certain things, and to connect to certain things. You are wired differently, even if you are wired similarly. That is to say, even if you also like Third Day you may not like The Princess Bride or softball, and so on. Eventually, our interests will diverge. Or, were we to like exactly the same things, to be moved by exactly the same things, the extent to which we are moved, or the importance we put on each thing will be different.

This is not a bad thing. As my wife says, if we're all the same life gets real boring, real quick. We are unique. This should be celebrated. How creative is God to create over 7 billion unique people? Pretty creative. Part of this creativity extends to our own expressions of worship, and our own preferences.

So how does this apply to the discussion? We need to value that insofar as we have freedom to worship God through our own unique tastes, preferences or styles, so do others. If I see a choir, for instance, as being a performance-oriented group and a worship band as being more interactive, I need to understand that others will flip those two perceptions around. If I think having a pastor who wears a suit shows respect for God, I need to also realize that a pastor who wears jeans whilst preaching can be expressing the important truth that, while we look at externals, God cares about who we are behind the apparel. In short, our freedom to worship is not to be kept only to ourselves; we all have the same freedom.

These values all interact with each other, and there are two more to come before we get to the evaluation/critique of the megachurch (and churches in general): selflessness and scripture. So if you are already reading ahead, you may want to hold your fire until we get through those values. But as I'm not one to limit conversation, have at it as you feel led:)

God bless,
Ron

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Values of the Church 3: Freedom!

Over the past couple of years, in bits and drabs, I've been looking at some topics related to the church, building toward what was originally intended to be a response to the too-common blanket critiques of megachurches. While my end game has changed a bit, I think the values discussion retains merit. Christians can be a little too good at intra-faith bickering, so I want to continue laying the groundwork for the evaluation part of my argument. To that end, having already looked at love and unity we're going to turn our attention to the value of freedom.

What's that? Freedom? Isn't that too "American" a value? Aren't we still slaves to righteousness? (An odd phrasing to say the least, the unspoken implication of the question being that Christians are not "free" because they are bound by all our moral rules.) Doesn't freedom become license, which then becomes grace abuse?

Good questions, glad I asked them for you. Don't let anyone say this blog is not proactively and imaginatively interactive. I would answer all these questions as "yes." Freedom is an American value - but differs from what I'm addressing in that our culture's view of freedom is not of the same type as what I'm going to talk about. And yes, we're to choose to serve righteousness - but the option is to choose to serve sin, meaning that one way or the other we're bound to something. And yes, yes, a million times yes freedom taken too far can easily become license. So let's tread carefully here.

The type of freedom I'm speaking of is deeper than mere social liberty. Freedom as offered by Christ is based on truth. Deceit holds people in bondage; truth sets free. In essence, Christian freedom is the freedom from sin, which permits us to be who and what God intended for us to be. We have the ability, now, to choose to pursue holiness rather than sin.

So how do we use our freedom in a way that applies to this discussion? Looking to scripture as our guide, we note that Peter instructs us to use our freedom as servants of God. That is, with the heart of a servant: humble, seeking to do what gives God glory instead of looking after our own desires. We shouldn't use our freedom as a "cover-up for evil."

So our freedom, in the context of the church, is to be exercised humbly and for good. And quite frankly, for the good of others above ourselves. Ephesians 5 (among other places) has some things to say about that - use your freedom to submit to one another, to think of others more highly than you do yourself. If the church is a community, we should value the freedom we have within that community to do what is good, to do what is beneficial, to do what is selfless.

Next up, another twist on freedom.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Trippin' 'Round the 'Sphere - 1/24/2011 Edition

More fun and frivolity. Or, at least, more links.
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For fans of "Dead Parrot" and geeks, I refer you to this (warning: some comments have some less than uplifting words)

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Ever want an interactive tool that shows you how large, and how small, stuff is? Well now your wish has come true.
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Okay, I love Poe, but I'm not sure if that's the feel I was going for in my last post.

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!


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Is your life average too?
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And finally, my first recipe recommendation: Yum.

God bless,
Ron

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Values of the Church 2: Unity Part Three

Last time I looked at this subject here in the ol' northern 'burbs, I left off with a promise to talk about my view on the "valid" reasons for disunity. Intriguing concept, that, as up until then I'd been promoting the (very biblical) notion that unity is of utmost importance in a church.

So...how do I reconcile the idea that unity is paramount, but disunity may be permissible? Basically, I expand the definition of "disunity." Disruptions, divisiveness, and unloving behavior have no place in the church. And when disunity exists, it must be repented of and relational restoration must be restored.

But what if it's not? What if the divisive person is unrepentant? What if he or she persists in sowing the seeds of discord?

Then "disunity" must happen. The divisive person has to be, for the good of the church and of the divisive person, be removed from the church. The divider must be, ironically, divided from the body.

In Matthew 8:17 Jesus tell us to treat the unrepentant "as you would a pagan or a tax collector." Paul instructs in Titus 3 that we should "warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned." Harsh.

But necessary. If unity is so vital (and it is), then we must be willing to break off the divisive.

We do so, of course, with eye toward our highest value: love. The separation of the sinner (in all cases) is done with the hope they will repent and be restored to relationship. As Mark Driscoll writes in his excellent book Vintage Church, "There is a sense in which you never really let the unrepentant sinner go. Though you don't associate with him, you keep calling him back. He is put out for the purity of the church but is always admonished to come back." Indeed. We separate, but pray, love and admonish in order that one day redemption of unity is attained, and that God is glorified by making whole what was divided.

Next up, freedom, then selflessness. After that, the series moves from the values guiding our discussion into the actual issues surrounding the "megachurch" question itself - the "how" questions.

God bless,
Ron

Friday, January 21, 2011

An Overdue Christmas Thought

It's getting toward late January, I know, but I still wanted to share a lesson God impressed on me this past Christmas.

Christmas is a somewhat strange time for me. I love the season, the lights, the tree, the music (except for the most horrid Christmas songs ever written) and the uptick in church attendance. I'm bored, though, with the commercialism, the kitschy movies, the materialism and the ever present battle over Christmas. The intellectual side of me (yes, I have one) even thinks we fight too hard over this one day when it's not even the date on which Jesus was really born. I like the simplicity and the Christmas message: God incarnate, Immanuel. Anything on top of that is unnecessary.

But I also fight boredom, at times, with the Christmas story. The boredom of which I speak is not about the story: it's endlessly beautiful. Nor is it about the truth of it, which is something I'm happy to ponder and discuss at any time. It's the routine of it. We read the same passages, in the same services, with the same C&E Christians every year. And that's fine insofar as repetition helps us remember. But I find it hard to glean new insights in oft-traversed material.

So the last few years I've tried to make my Christmas devotionals about the more obscure, less talked about passages. This past December, God used that to remind me of the following.

God's story unfolds through people - flawed, imperfect, diverse people.

Start with the aforementioned obscure scripture. In Matthew 1 we find that often ignored, usually skipped, fairly shiny from all the glossing over genealogy of Jesus. To modern readers such lists of names seem like a prelude to the real story, something of minimal importance. It's not something recited by Linus.

But the list is very important, and a crucial part of the story. Every name on the list is part of the story of Jesus. Every person was selected to be part of the lineage of the creator of the universe. That's kind of a big deal, no?

And oh what a list! The names range from the somewhat obscure (Hezron, Ram) to the well-known (David, Solomon, Ruth, Mary, Joseph.) Virgin (Mary) and prostitute (Rahab.) Men & women. Jews and a gentile. Carpenters, widows, kings. Adulterers, the semi-incestuous. A man after God's own heart. The wise king. A remarried widow.

God worked through all of these lives. He redeemed the wrongdoing and set a line of ancestry through imperfect people who needed a savior - all the way to the very savior they needed. It is a family tree which culminates in the very person his predecessors most needed. Suffering, sin, tragedy, success, power - you find all of these in the list - and all of these were used by God to become one of us. The creator, born.

Every name is a person, a life, a story. Every name is someone Jesus loved enough that He would die to pay his or her debt. Every name matters to God so much that Jesus came to earth, that Christmas happened.

Through these names we find a savior. Through the savior, we can find our own names written in a list in the book of life.

Next time you read the genealogy, think for a bit about the names, the stories. Be amazed at how God used the frail to bring the incarnation. And rejoice that you can have your name in such a list too; not a boring list to skip over, but a list of those saved by God.

Merry (late) Christmas