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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, July 05, 2018

Displaying a God of Beauty Draws Youth to Christianity



In my latest series of articles, I've been looking at leveraging beauty in our evangelism and our defense of the faith. We've already established that beauty is one of the primary virtues, and how we can know that beauty is not simply "in the eye of the beholder" as we've been led to believe. There is in fact an objective nature to beauty.

In an interesting post, Travis Dickenson pointed to an article in the U.K.'s The Telegraph entitled "One in six young people are Christian as visits to church buildings inspire them to convert." The article goes on to offer statistics of how more than one in five young people between 11 and 18 describe themselves as "active followers of Jesus" while 13% categorize themselves as practicing Christians. In 2006, a study showed that number as only 6%, which means the number of young people in the UK coming to faith may have more than doubled in just over a decade.1

What has driven this trend? The architecture of the church may have something to do with it, according to the article:
Around 13 per cent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures.

The influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.



The study suggests that new methods invested in by the Church, such as youth groups and courses such as Youth Alpha, are less effective than prayer or visiting a church building in attracting children to the church.

One in five said reading the Bible had been important, 17 per cent said going to a religious school had had an impact and 14 per cent said a spiritual experience was behind their Christianity.2

Leaving Out Beauty Leaves out the Full Picture of God

Dickenson notes all this and offers that there is something more powerful about experiencing God in a beautiful building than in a functional box:
We build church buildings today almost exclusively for function. Function is of course not unimportant. If there's no door to get into the building, then this is a problem. But we seem almost completely unconcerned about the kind of experience a building will give. There are some incredibly beautiful doors out there!

Does it sound strange to talk about beauty affecting our experience?

Consider what it would be like to read a book (even a really good book) sitting in a single chair with bright fluorescent lights in a high school gymnasium. Then consider what it would be like to read the same book [in an exquisitely crafted and detailed library.]

Or in a great coffee shop or out in nature.

The point is that the experiences depend in part on our environment. Being surrounded by beauty importantly changes and greatly enhances the experience. When we are surrounded by beauty, it more fully engages our souls. We are not just rationally engaged, but we are engaged in deep parts of our souls.

If this is right, then why wouldn't we include beautiful aspects in our worship environments? When the experience is only rote and rational, then we have not presented the full picture of who God is. 3
I think Dickenson's right in this. We are inspired by beauty in music, in architecture, and in form. We serve a God who values beauty, and we should properly represent Him this way as much as we do a God who values truth and reason. How do we know God values beauty? I'll offer that argument next time.

References

1. Olivia Rudgard. "One in Six Young People Are Christian as Visits to Church Buildings Inspire Them to Convert." The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 17 June 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/17/one-six-young-people-christian-visits-church-buildings-inspire/. Accessed 5 July 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Travis Dickenson. "Want to Reach Youth? Build a Beautiful Building!" The Benefit of the Doubt, 23 June 2017, www.travisdickinson.com/want-reach-youth-build-beautiful-building/. Accessed 5 July 2018.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Objective Nature of Beauty



In my last article, I said that we live in a beauty-starved culture and one overlooked aspect of sharing our faith is appealing to the beauty of God and the beauty of the Christian story. Beauty is one of the three primary virtues, along with Goodness and Truth. Each of these is grounded in God's existence. When we talk about what is moral or immoral, we necessarily assert an objective starting point. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, one cannot call something crooked unless one knows what a straight line is.

Is beauty something objective like morality or truth? Most people have been taught to think it isn't. We've heard phrases like "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and assumed that it means there is no objective standard, no "Straight line" against which to judge something as beautiful. We've assumed that the statement "that is beautiful" is the same as "I derive pleasure from experiencing that."

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is an objective nature to beauty and it is common to all humanity. Can you even picture anyone across time who would gaze at a prismatic sunset and be revolted? Is anyone of the people who come from around the world to take in the vistas of the Grand Canyon repulsed at the sight? All cultures have approached pattern, color, and art to beautify their lives in common ways.

Disinterested Interest

The primary difference between personal pleasure and beauty is that the beauty of a thing lies in the existence of beauty in itself, instead of just what we can get out of that thing. Roger Scruton makes this distinction well. He points to Immanuel Kant's use of the idea of an "interested approach" versus a "disinterested approach." An "interested approach" is when we are interested in a thing when we use that thing to satisfy our own desires. For example, we are interested in a roller coaster because of the thrill it conveys when we ride in it.

But a disinterested interest is something different. That's when we are interested in the thing for nothing more than the thing itself. Scruton explains:
Animals have only 'interested' attitudes: in everything they are driven by their desires, needs and appetites, and treat objects and other animals as instruments to fulfill those things. We, however, make a distinction in our thinking and behavior, between those things that means to us, and those things that are ends in themselves. Towards some things we take an interest that is not governed by interest but which is, so to speak, entirely devoted to the object. (Emphasis in original).1
No one looks to a sunset as a means to another end. To experience a glorious sunset is to experience the beautiful. Even though the experience itself gives one pleasure, it isn't the fact that looking at the sunset is pleasurable that makes it beautiful. Imagine a man who has just been fired from his job. His wife calls him outside to look at the beautiful sunset and he obliges, even though he doesn't feel like doing so. Staring at the sky, he doesn't experience the joy that she does. He's too depressed. However, no one in such a position could honestly define the sunset as ugly. One may not be able to experience the transcendence of beauty because of one's emotional state, but even in this situation, one recognizes that it is a beautiful site.

That's what I mean when I say there is a disinterested interest in beauty. The beauty of the sunset didn't change subjective to the man's experience of it; the man simply missed the joy that comes with appreciating the beautiful, just has if he stayed inside. If pressed, he would admit the sunset is beautiful but he can't "get into" it right now.

Beauty is objective. It is not a means to an end; it is to be enjoyed for its own sake. That makes the pursuit of the beautiful, like the pursuit of the good and the true valuable. As human beings, we know this intuitively, which is why beauty permeates all cultures.

In my next article, I will show how the fact that beauty is objectively real points to the existence of God.

References

1. Roger Scruton. Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 22. Print.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Arguing for the Beauty of God in an Ugly World


Beauty matters. Along with the Good and the True, the Beautiful was understood to be one of the fundamental aspects of ideal human existence. From the earliest societies, people sought to surround themselves with what is beautiful. It is a part of how people shape their culture and how they interact with one another. Greek columns and Roman mosaics are iconic representations of the heights of their cultural achievements. We seek to adorn ourselves with the beautiful.

Yet we live in a time where function has overtaken form and pragmatism overrides aesthetics. Cold concrete boxes and black asphalt has replaced the Greek column and the Roman mosaic. The West emphasizes the laboratory over the Louvre, rapidness over reflection, and efficiency over elegance. Philosopher Roger Scruton presented some clarifying remarks on the relation of beauty to culture. He writes:
Unlike science, culture is not a repository of factual information or theoretical truth, nor is it a kind of training in skills, whether rhetorical or practical. Yet it is a source of knowledge: emotional knowledge, concerning what to do and what to feel. We transmit this knowledge through ideals and examples, through images, narratives, and symbols. We transmit it through the forms and rhythms of music, and through the orders and patterns of our built environment. Such cultural expressions come about as a response to the perceived fragility of human life, and embody a collective recognition that we depend on things outside our control. Every culture therefore has its root in religion, and from this root the sap of moral knowledge spreads through all the branches of speculation and art. Our civilization has been uprooted. But when a tree is uprooted it does not always die. Sap may find its way to the branches, which break into leaf each spring with the perennial hope of living things. Such is our condition, and it is for this reason that culture has become not just precious to us, but a genuine political cause, the primary way of conserving our moral heritage and of standing firm in the face of a clouded future. 1
Beauty matters a lot, perhaps a lot more than the place we give it in modern Western culture. Yet, there is still a longing for beauty in the human soul, perhaps even more so now that beauty isn't integrated into our everyday experiences. As I speak to young people today, they long to find the beautiful in life.

Because Christians live in the milieu of Western pragmatism, we can lose sight of the power of appealing to the Beautiful as an argument for God. Apologists tend to argue about facts of science, as being for or against “X,” or tackling objection it thrown at them. These are all worthwhile pursuits, but I think there's a huge untapped potential in appealing to the Christian God and the Christian story as ways of finding the beautiful isn't considered enough. Scruton continues:
At the same time, the decline in religious faith means that many people, both skeptics and vacillators, begin to repudiate their cultural inheritance. The burden of this inheritance, without the consolations on offer to the believer, becomes intolerable, and creates the motive to scoff at those who seek to hand it on.2
We live in a world where nothing seems concrete. The beautiful has been obfuscated, but every human being still longs for it. I think the attractiveness of God is harder for atheists to argue against than some of the traditional proofs for His existence—or at least harder to misinterpret.

In upcoming posts, I'll be presenting ways how you may integrate arguments for beauty into your discussions about God. For we don't worship a God who is merely practical. We worship the God of Beauty.

References

1.  Roger Scruton. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. New York: Encounter, 2007. Print. V.
2. Ibid.

Friday, March 16, 2018

What Drives a Cult Leader like David Koresh?



Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Government had surrounded the compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, embroiled in a stand-off that would last 51 days and tragically ended in gunfire with 75 of the 84 people inside dead, including children.

I was recently interviewed by Brody Harness for a research project he was doing on the siege and I thought these questions were very poignant and valuable to better understand the cult leader and others like him. Here's a copy of that interview.

Briefly, the Branch Davidians were a group of religious believers whose version of biblical theology was explicated by David Koresh. Many of their important beliefs, and the reason they lived communally at a compound, Mt. Carmel, centered on Koresh's interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Can you shed light on this group directly (or perhaps generally) based on similar groups who focus on Revelations?

The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. The emphasis on the Book of Revelation comes from their focus on the end times scenarios. The term “Adventist” stems from the word advent which refers to the coming of Christ. Just as we celebrate Christ's first coming before Christmas and call it the season of advent, advent can also refer to His second coming. Most modern Adventist groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses find their origin in an early 1800's preacher named William Miller, who preached that Jesus would return in 1844. He became very popular and gained a wide following. The subsequent failure of Miller's prediction is known as The Great Disappointment.

When Jesus didn't return as expected, the “Millerites” (who preferred the name Adventists) started coming up with alternate explanations, such as Jesus had returned invisibly (Jehovah's Witnesses) or Jesus came into the heavenly Holy of Holies and ended the age of grace, and is now beginning his period of Investigative Judgment (Seventh-Day Adventists).

The Branch Davidians splintered off the SDA back in the 1930s when a leading Adventist in the Los Angeles area, Victor Houteff, began teaching the church wasn't being holy enough. David Koresh's mother was a member of a Texas SDA church and Koresh himself was also a member for a while, before being attracted to the Davidian sect. According to Apologetics Index,  Koresh claimed to be God's agent, (and ultimately taught his followers that he was divine) and instructed those that followed him to preparing themselves for Jesus's return.

Part of the governments “case” for treating the Branch Davidians as they did was the fact that David Koresh was legally married to a cult member when she was just 14 years old, and that he was fathering children with the wives of the other adult males, while banning all other sexual relationships within the church. The government felt children were endangered at Mt. Carmel by these practices which did not appear to be the case according to some sources close to the investigation; however, it did appear to reflect and elevate Koresh's psychological hold on the group. Can you discuss some of the dynamics of sex/family/religion practices? (Again, either specifically with the Branch Davidians, or generally in cults.)

Sex drove a lot of Koresh's desires. Even in the mid 1980s, Koresh began taking on multiple wives as he also started establishing himself as a leader within the Davidian movement. He was a polygamist and saw himself as taking a role akin to David in the Old Testament establishing the Davidic Kingdom of Israel (thus the Davidians portion of the name.)

Since David had multiple wives in the Old Testament, Koresh felt that justified him to also have multiple wives.  Of course, as his power and following grew, he became more and more self-absorbed, something that is typical of cult leaders. His doctrines “departed radically from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith”1 and he demanded total control over his followers, cutting off outside ties and subjecting them to various physical and mental abuses.2

There was a general belief by the FBI and ATF that the Branch Davidians had a suicide pact and this was part of the federal government's decision making process which led to a military rather than law enforcement approach with the Branch Davidians. From what you know, was this assumption rational? Would it have been more rational in the 1993?

There are two pieces that powered the concern by the authorities at the standoff. The first is that David Koresh had a known history of violence, since he and some of his early followers took control of the Davidian compound in a gunfight with then-leader George Roden. But the biggest spectre in everyone's mind was the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. There, another charismatic leader, Jim Jones, took a large group of followers from California to the jungles of Guyana and created a commune. He ultimately convinced his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide placed in Kool-Aid. Those that didn't or were too young were forcibly given the poison.

The loss of those 908 people, along with the prior shooting of U.S congressman Leo Ryan who sought to investigate Jones' alleged human rights abuses gave the public grave concern that a similar event would take place in Waco.

I don't think we are any more or less likely today to come to a different conclusion. Religiously motivated actions have taken on a deeper suspicion in our culture. The powers that be may not jump immediately to a suicide cult assumption; I believe the suspicion would still exist. It is the aftermath and criticism of the Waco siege itself that tempers actions now.

When the government attacked, surrounded, and eventually destroyed the compound in 1993, the Branch Davidians interpreted all of the government's aggression as fulfillment of prophecy. Koresh probably contributed to the destruction of his community by insisting that they were being “tested” and if they left the compound they would lose their place in the kingdom to come. Koresh also provoked the ATF and FBI by repeatedly promising and stalling surrender to complete writing his own revelation which would be released publically. Is there a psychological profile, maybe narcissism or delusions of grandeur, which characterizes charismatic leaders like Koresh?

Absolutely. Jim Jones, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, and even Joseph Smith all exhibit this kind of self-absorption. In all these cases, you have a single individual who tells others that he alone has the true and secret knowledge of God/salvation/eternity and everyone else needs to listen to him. As he gains adherents and adulation, it feeds his narcissism and for most groups one can see their doctrine devolve more and more.  With all the men above, their paranoia and desire for control escalated as well.

Finally, do you have thoughts about government (law enforcement) interference with the free practice of religion –like the Branch Davidians, or polygamists or other cults?
All rights have limits. Everyone recognizes one's right to free speech, but you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie house. Similarly, one's right to practice the freedom to worship does not include the physical abuse of children or child rape. The difficulty is in finding where that line begins and ends.
We all agree that keeping thirteen children half-starved in a shack with some chained to their beds is no longer simply exercising one's freedom of religion, but is homeschooling abuse? Is corporal punishment abuse? The questions get complicated pretty quickly.

For the most port, the government has given the benefit of the doubt to the religious organizations. Scientology is a good example of a modern day American cult who engages in psychological techniques and even imprisonment of its disobedient members that the government has not interfered with.

Any other ideas you would like to share on this subject?

The big thing to remember in Waco, Jonestown, and other cult situations is that these are fringe groups that were cults in both the religious and the sociological definitions. Those definitions are important, too, for one can be a cult sociologically but not have a religious basis. Charles Manson and the Manson family would be an example of a non-religious cult. Of course Manson used the Bible to try and justify his views, but he also used the Beatles and his followers were more concerned about race relations than become God's chosen.

Sociological cult leaders will use religion simply because it is easier to talk of mysteries where they can give their “inside knowledge” that gullible people will accept. Even Hitler used religion as a motivator.

For more on the making of a religious cult, see my articles:
Thanks for the interview! Let me know if I can be of any more help.

1. "The Branch Davidians." Equip.org. Christian Research Institute, 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2018.
2. Ibid.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Reckless Love and Why Words Matter in Worship



In 1996 the alt-rock band Dishwalla became a one-hit wonder with their catchy “Counting Blue Cars." The song isn't well known by its title as much as its chorus:
We said, "Tell me all your thoughts on God
'Cause I'd really like to meet her.
And ask her why we're who we are."
Tell me all your thoughts on God
'Cause I'm on my way to see her
So tell me, am I very far,
Am I very far now?
When I first heard the song, I remember how it was a bit jarring having the singer refer to God as a woman. We know that God is a spirit; which means he doesn't have male or female chromosomes. In fact, there are many places in scripture that portray God as feminine or motherly. God says in Isaiah 66:13-14 “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem." Hosea 11:3-4 paint a vivid picture of God as a mother cradling and feeding her children, and there are others as well. However, God has also in scripture consistently referred to himself exclusively through male pronouns. He explicitly uses the term father and it is clear that this is the proper way to refer to him. Christians don't write worship songs extolling Mother God.

Is God's Love Reckless?

I offer this example because of a recent trend in worship songwriting I've noticed. Many popular worship songs aren't very careful with their lyrics and how they portray God. One such song that has grown in popularity is the Cory Asbury song “Reckless Love," published by Bethel Music. A lot of people have bristled at the song's hook. Should we caricature God's love as reckless?

I know that other song have tied God's love to negative actions, such as equating it to the destructive power of a hurricane or one drowning in an ocean. I don't believe such word choices are an attempt to make God an evil force. I believe the writers are earnestly trying to describe a feeling of overwhelming awe about God's mercy and power in their lives, though they seem to lack the vocabulary to say it in that way. They cheat a bit and their analogies bring a picture of breaking apart rather than building up. Still, since those are analogies I don't protest too much.

However, when a worship song teaches that one the attributes of God is recklessness, then the issue is more important and we need to think through what this may mean. To be reckless, as it has been defined, is to be "utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution, careless." Can God be in any way unconcerned with consequences? Can a holy God be without caution? Can a God who has defined himself as the very essence of love be careless? To use the term brings the very defining features of how God has revealed himself to be under question. And given that the worship we sing is a form of teaching in the church, the words we choose in our worship songs fall under the same admonition of James 3:1 and require a greater strictness.

What about the Positive Aspects of Recklessness?

In discussing this with others some have offered a different take on the word reckless. One friend asked :
But what about these:
  • "Giving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution"
  • "Serving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution"
  • "Loving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action; without caution"
When taking the term "Reckless Love" and looking at it in the context of the rest of the lyrics, it's clearly used in the positive sense of the word.
I still don't think this works, and here's why. There is a type of giving that is utterly unconcerned about consequences, such as when someone gives an addict a $100 bill or when parents give their children whatever they ask. That is reckless giving because the consequences of those gifts will actually harm the recipient. In giving, Paul teaches us to be intentional (2 Corinthians 9:6-8) and also that the one who doesn't work shouldn't simply be given food (2 Thess. 3:10). So, it isn't careless giving but thoughtful giving. Similarly, one can serve recklessly. It may be as benign as finishing your child's homework or as dangerous as aiding them in covering a crime or enabling an abuser.

In each of the sentences above, the word that may be used is selfless, not reckless. Selflessness means we ourselves feel it when we give or serve yet value others more. But word matter. Recklessness is not selflessness. So my response is:
  • Giving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action = spoiling
  • Serving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action = aiding and abetting
  • Loving, utterly unconcerned about the consequences of some action= dependency
So to describe God's love as reckless reduces God to at best fallible and at worst dependent. Again, I don't believe the writers or the people who sing the song are intending to this, but one cannot reconcile recklessness with a perfect God.

The Importance of Words and Their Meanings

Words are important. Christians recognize this when we discuss issues like homosexual unions. We recognize the word marriage has a specific meaning and that marriage at its core means the joining of a man and a woman. Christians balk at how popular culture seeks to redefine the term to fit their opinion. We would likewise balk at an attempt to label God as transgender simply because he has spoken off himself with motherly tendencies. The word reckless also has a real meaning. When we try to use that attribute of God, we are trying to pour a new meaning into the word, but it then affects the very idea of God to the listener.

I don't think anyone would cheer a worship song that extols God the Mother. Yet, there is more scriptural support for that phrase than there is for God being reckless in any aspect. Let's face it, entitling a song “Reckless Love" is a little bit of clickbait. The writers want people to ponder the incongruity of the phrase. Yet, this is exactly where caution should be exercised more. Accuracy over intrigue, especially when discussing something as central as God's character, is what is called for. Even if I'm wrong, the very fact that so many are concerned about its message should at least caution us to avoid the song for fear that the danger of misrepresentation is a real one (1 Cor. 8:7-13) .

I can sum up my argument in the following sentence: “Reckless Love" delivers reckless theology brought about by a reckless use of language. I don't think anyone can honestly read that sentence and believe that I've just given the song a compliment. And if that's true, perhaps it's time to rethink teaching that God's love is reckless to our congregations.
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