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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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Vacation Apologetics - Talking Across Borders

On Wednesday after visiting Virginia City, we drove through the Sierra Nevadas to Yosemite, beginning on the Pony Express route, which ran from 1860 to 1861.  It's been pretty interesting to see that without planning we are more or less keeping our trip in chronological order so far - the ancient Puebloans (700 AD), the first settlement of Utah (1840's-1850s), Virginia City and the discovery of gold (1859), and now the Pony Express. Yosemite was established as a national park in 1890, so it fits well.

After spending the day at the park and taking in all the indescribable scenery, we come back to the hotel on Thursday and let the kids swim. During this trip, I've noticed quite a few international tourists coming to the view the American sites. Sitting in the spa, I strike up a conversation with a man visiting California from the Lake Geneva area of Switzerland. Since I'm from Southern California, he asks about the beaches and the water, thinking it's as cold as the beaches in San Francisco.

Speaking the Same Language

Now, when talking with people from Europe, I try to be sensitive to their understanding, so I try to convert distances and temperatures to their metric equivalents before answering. I tell the man, the water temp is about 20 degrees in SoCal (approx 68-70 Fahrenheit). I feel that by converting to Celsius or kilometers, it just makes the conversation more comfortable, just as you would appreciate a person in France letting you know that you have 200 miles until your hotel instead of 320 kilometers.

This lesson is also applicable when sharing our faith. Too many times we lapse into "Christian-speak" and start talking about the need to be born again and the glorious gospel without realizing that the person listening might be loading those words with completely different meanings. For example, to be born again in the Mormon church means that you have been baptized & confirmed into the Mormon church. We can use the words "good news" for the gospel, since that's what it means.  Explaining our terms in language others can grasp will help much in our communication efforts.

Missing Our Heritage

As we continued our conversation, I had noted that the man was from the French-speaking portion of Switzerland.  So I asked him if he was familiar with Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer was a prominent Christian thinker, philosopher and apologist who developed a Christian ministry called L'Abri in the foothills near Lake Geneva in the 1960s and 70s. Unfortunately, the man was unfamiliar with him, which surprised me a bit since he lived in the same general area as Schaeffer did.  "What a shame" I thought, "to not even be exposed to such a powerful thinker when he is so close. You're missing out on an important movement in your own backyard."  Then I started wondering how true this is for so many Christians.

Christianity has the greatest intellectual capital of any faith - with thinkers such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, and Leibnitz; thinkers who are so powerful even the most secular university students of philosophy must spend many hours studying them. We have today's lions of Christianity:  J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and others who are defending the faith and moving the ball forward against its most vociferous detractors even now and yet most Christians have never heard of any of them! We are just as guilty by ignoring our spiritual heritage!

The New Atheist movement has been making a lot of noise and getting a lot of press.  In reality, the arguments they offer are not new at all - Christians have answered them hundreds of years ago. But the Devil preys on people's ignorance and will repackage an old lie to make it sound new and different. We need to be aware and not neglect the rich heritage we have as Christians. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend starting off with Love Your God with All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland, which is a good primer to the study of Christian thought in general For a more detailed look at the great thinkers of Christianity, you should read A History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill. And if you want to see today’s great apologists in person, I recommend checking out this year's EPS Apologetics Conference in Atlanta Georgia.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vacation Apologetics - Throwing Away Silver While Searching for Gold

When I was a kid, my family visited Virginia City, Nevada and I never forgot it. So, it’s no surprise that I wanted to take my family there as we continued our tour of the Southwest. (If you’ve missed any of the previous blogs about this trip, you can read them all here.) For those of you who may not know, Virginia City is the site of the biggest and richest mining strike in the history of the United States. What became known as the Comstock Lode produced over 300 million dollars worth of precious metals in its 50 year history.

What always stuck with me was the story of how Silver City got its name. After gold was discovered in the Nevada hills, prospectors and miners came looking for riches. As the surface gold ran out and they began mining the hillsides, they would run afoul of a heavy black mineral that would clog their rockers and continue to make it difficult to extract the gold. Cursing the stuff, they wanted nothing more than to rid themselves of it, so when some of the townspeople asked to use the cast-offs from mining to pave their streets the miners quickly obliged. Only after someone took a sample of the stuff to an assey office in California did they find out the stuff they were discarding was almost pure silver! As our tour guide said, "You can bet that those streets were ripped up a whole lot faster than they were laid down!"

I think of that story a lot and the lessons it teaches. How many times in our Bible reading do we look for those familiar stories with easy to recognize morals, and just trudge through the rest of the chapters trying to get to the end? Do we "discard" books like Hosea or Philemon because they’re perhaps a little difficult to comprehend or apply at first? What riches we’re throwing away! If a book is a bit difficult, buy a good commentary or two and set it in your mind that you are going to mine these scriptures for all their worth. Without a little effort on the part of an inquisitive individual who stopped and asked "what exactly are we throwing away?" the Comstock Lode would have never been the valuable success story it was. Dig into these pages – you know, the ones where the gold leaf is still sticking together – and you will find new treasures and a better understanding of God and His ways.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Vacation Apologetics - Desolate Places and Desperate People

When I started sharing my vacation as a way to teach and learn about our faith, I wondered if I would wither get repetitive or not have anything to write about. But, there are teachable moments everywhere, even in the most desolate places.  We left Cedar City, Utah and took Highway 56 west to Nevada.  At the 93 junction, we decided to save some time and drive toward Carson City via the 375.  This highway has a warning sign stating that there are no services for 150 miles-and they were absolutely right.  There was nothing but desert and a few cattle as far as the eye could see for over two hours of driving. (To see the area, click here.)  Such trips make one a little leery – suppose we break down?  Without cell services how would we call for help and how long would it take to arrive? But we did prepare for the long ride ahead of time - we have food, liquids, and plenty of in-car entertainment for the kids.

On the other side of the long desert stands a lone town, Tonopah Nevada. We pull in for gas and I find myself standing in line behind Dennis Avner, who is considered to have one of the most extreme body modifications ever.  He's had tattoos, various silicone implants, teeth modifications, and whisker implants among other things as he tries to make himself look as much like a tiger as possible.  I had previously seen a documentary that highlighted Avner in one segment, so I recognized him immediately (who couldn't?)  Later, I found out that Tonopah is his hometown.

In the article linked above, Avner states that his desire to be tiger-like is the dominant driving force of his life.When asked about any relationships, he responds "I'm seeing a couple of women at the moment. They understand that being a tiger is more important to me than humanity, which is difficult for many women to cope with." Being a cat is more important than humanity?  Avner is clearly confused in his priorities. He IS human.  He says he has an office job, so he conforms to some societal standards when they suit his needs.  (He also obviouly doesn't shun medical procedures!) Changing one's physical appearance and wanting to feel like you are another animal are as shallow as the racist who also assigns value based on appearances or skin color. I cannot judge all of what drives Avner to his mania, but I do know that there is a desperation for God in every human heart - a God-shaped vacuum, Pascal called it.  We can either recognize it, search for other things to try and fill it, or simply try to numb it so we can't feel it anymore.

The town of Tonopah is an oasis of humanity surrounded by hundreds of miles of lonely desert.  Even there, no one can hide from their need for God.  Avner can try to be a cat, but in reality he's a human bing who has to conform to some human societal precepts in order to live.  He's seeking something in his appearance that will never be totally fulfilling. That's why we need to share the Gospel.  Because no matter how big the oasis, people are still desperate for God.

Vacation Apologetics - The Earth Showeth Forth His Handiwork

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to tour Bryce Canyon National Park.  The park's many scenic points are awe-inspiring, but the best way to experience it is directly via a hike. Your perspective really changes looking up at the colorful hoodoos of so many different and seemingly impossibly intricate shapes.

We decided in the one day we had there, that we would walk the recommended Queen's Garden/Navajo trail combined hike. It's a 3 mile loop that allows one to get an up-close view of some of the more amazing areas of the park. When looking at all the incredible beauty surrounding you and the many geologic factors that must come together to create such landscapes, I couldn't help but think how amazing God is to provide us with such magnificent splendor, but I also thought about how the fact that beauty exists also argues for the existence of God.

Philosopher Peter Williams offers a great overview of the arguments for the existence of God from the aesthetic (beauty).  First, the concept of beauty in some cases seems to be objective, as Williams notes when quoting J.P. Moreland. I cannot think of any situation where a person would look at the landscape of Bryce Canyon and feel it was anything other than beautiful. The fact that such beauty exists is in no way tied to survival, yet we all recognize it. If there is such a thing a true beauty, then it would need to stem from something that transcends humanity – much like true morality must transcend human opinion.

Secondly, Williams notes that the fact that we can recognize beauty is a key to understanding our need for finding the true beauty of a relationship with God.  We long for and chase after the beautiful – and the beautiful things of this world only satisfy temporarily. What we really yearn for is the perfect beauty of a relationship with God. As Williams writes "That there is a deep need for God within the human heart was recognised by the biblical songwriter who wrote that 'As a deer longs for streams of cool water, so I long for you, O God.'"1

Williams' argument is nuanced and should be read.  However, I do believe that when God created the world, He was more than a utilitarian workman, making sure everything was developed to only work together.  He cared about beauty.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 6: "Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these."  Part of God's initial blessing on Adam and Eve was that they explore and learn about the beauty of His creation.  And the fact that we can see the beautiful shows that we are created imago dei - in His image.


1. Williams, Peter "Aesthetic Arguments for the Existence of God" Quodlibet Journal: Volume 3 Number 3, Summer 2001

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vacation Apologetics - Meals and Mormon Beliefs

One of the great benefits on car trips with the family is that it forces families with normally busy schedules to spend a good amount of time together and allows you to talk about things that may not normally come up in conversation.  Yesterday was one of those days for us. We had to cover some 430 miles driving from Durango to Cedar City Utah.  This drive is incredible with breath taking vistas at every turn.  I'm really glad we've shunned the Interstate for this portion of the trip.

We went back through Four Corners (which was closed when we had passed it the first time) hoping to stand in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico all at the same time.  Alas, the Navajo Nation is doing construction on the monument so we could only walk around the fenced off circle.  Still, I can now say I jogged across four states. Forrest Gump, look out!

Of course Utah has deep Mormon roots, from the names of towns and places (Mt. Carmel, Zion National Park) to the state highway signs which hold a beehive symbol.  The state's population is 75% LDS, so I expect conversations to ensue. We check into our hotel (the clerk's name is Krishna!) and after a short swim, we all go out to dinner.

Even in popular culture, Mormonism and polygamy are intertwined.  During dinner, my oldest asks a bit about this, allowing me to explain how Joseph Smith taught that polygamy was appropriate and himself took many wives, eleven of whom were already married to other men. One of the goals of polygamy was to produce as many children as possible to help increase the LDS population, but polygamy was illegal in the United States, so the Mormons practiced it secretly. However, it was an affront to the average citizen even then and this practice is primarily why the Mormons were driven out of Illinois.

Because Joseph Smith was killed while awaiting trial in Illinois, it was Brigham Young, the second LDS president, who lead the Mormons to the Utah territory, where they first began practicing polygamy openly. Although the U.S. government had been trying to stem these practices for some time, the Mormons continued them and saw them as a commanded by their faith. This continued until the Supreme Court ruled that the government had the right to seize all church assets and disincorporate the church because of their flagrant violation of the Edmunds-Tucker Act.  In 1890, just after this ruling was handed down, LDS president Wilford Woodruf proclaimed a "revelation" form God disavowing further plural marriages within Mormonism.
In our discussion, I noted that modern day LDS become very uncomfortable when the practice of polygamy is brought up, usually saying that such things are far removed from what they believe now.  However, apostle Richard Lyman claimed to have a plural marriage as recently as 1943!  I also noted that many people splintered from the main Mormon Church once the proclamation was issued, spawning groups such as the FLDS and Warren Jeffs, who have recently been highlighted in the news.

A simple dinner was turned into a teachable moment as our family got to slow down and talk a little bit about what we were seeing around us.  We also got to correct some misunderstandings and put a better focus on how beliefs will impact the way people live and how they understand right and wrong.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Vacation Apologetics - Angels and Demands

Yesterday, we decided to do some sightseeing and shopping in downtown Durango, CO. A mining and railroad town incorporated in 1881, it still holds its western heritage with high esteem. But it seems that Durango has quite a heavy New Age presence, too. Several of the stores are selling crystals, herbs and potions, and there is even one store selling New Age book titles exclusively.

Now, my wife knows that any time we visit a new town, used bookstores are a definite stopping place. In Durango, they have a tiny house that's simply packed with stacks of books – so much so that you need to turn sideways to walk through some of the halls. The gentleman who runs the place seems to know the value of his books, too. 

I find the philosophy section and look around a bit. Next, I search for the religious section wondering what treasures I may find. After some time, I find the area and am woefully disappointed.  There are hundreds of books but not one Christian title – not one! Egyptology, Scientology, Buddhism, Karen Armstrong and others of this type are well represented.  I think that there's a bias going on here!

When we stumble across the New Age book store, I walk in and talk a bit with its proprietor. She's sitting at a table with a deck of Tarot cards in front of her.  Curious about the town's leanings, I ask her what the most popular title is she's currently selling. "Well, it all depends on the person and what energies you want to channel" she replies.  Knowing that Riverside will probably be blazing hot when we get home, I'm thinking the energy to power my A/C would be nice.  "What about authors?" I ask.  She trots out the more common names of Marianne Williamson, Sylvia Brown, and the like. Unfortunately, this list seems to parallel Oprah's Book Club recommendations, too.

Hoping to get a little more insight into the current state of thinking among New Age adherents, I continue to inquire, this time asking which topics are big sellers. "Well, angels are always popular." I immediately believe this and am also troubled by it. 

Our culture has turned angels into something opposite of what they really are – ministering spirits of God (Heb. 1:14). While God sends angels to sometimes help people, such as the one who freed Peter from prison in Acts 12, they are obeying God and His desires.  But today, many make them out to be spiritual beings who are only to help us, as the popular license plate frame "Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly" attests.  Hmm, I wonder what people who have those license plate frames would think of the two angels that destroyed Sodom or the one who wiped out 185,000 Assyrians in one night?

The real tragedy here is the only way this New Age lady or any of us know about angels is because they are portrayed in the Bible – yet we don't want to believe what the Bible actually says about them.  We'd rather believe that we have carte blanche to do what we want while our guardian angels, acting as spiritual life guards, are always on duty to pull us out of danger.

If angels intrigue you, why not read about them from the source-the Bible? You'll find out how they really operate and what they're truly capable of.  You will also discover that there's another caution you must be aware of – fallen angels with intent to murder and deceive(John 8:44).  These are the ones that the New Age practitioners are more likely to channel.

For an excellent resource on this topic, I recommend Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vacation Apologetics - Confusing Holiness with History

Many have asked me previously "How can you teach younger kids about apologetics and defending the faith?" Well, here's one good way. I've taken my family on a vacation touring the American Southwest. Along with a rich look at our heritage, I'm finding many opportunities to examine worldviews and the way that they shape people's attitudes. I'll be blogging about my experiences and observations as we go, allowing you to come with us and see ways you can also discuss ideas with your families and friends.

Our first day consisted of one long day of driving—750 miles! We arrived in Durango, CO knowing nothing more than it's a picturesque location and that it would be a good spot to explore. At breakfast the next morning, an ex-native of Durango recommended the Mesa Verde National Park. This area holds the ruins from the Ancient Pueblo Indians, who built their villages tucked into cliffs. I had always wanted to see these ruins and we decided that it would be a great trip.

The park is some 34 miles from the hotel, and the actual cliff dwellings that you can tour are another 20 miles of winding road beyond that. We tour Balcony House and listen to the Ranger explain how the ancient Puebloans were nomadic peoples "whose security was in their journey." The Ranger notes that the people worshiped "Father Sky" and "Mother Earth" and how their lives were seeking balance - "that center place." He also notes how the dwellings used a solar calendar to note the spring and fall equinoxes where the day and the night were equally balanced, then adds "which may have some significance for those of some other faiths." Assuming he's unfamiliar with Zoroastrianism, I assume he's referring to some form of Confucianism or Taoism. However, these were a non-literate people, so much of their beliefs and practices are nothing but sheer speculation based on interviews with their descendants who are some 800 years removed. We really don't know as much about their beliefs as some would lead on.

The most confused ideas presented during the day was in the museum where a film discussing the history of these people was playing. At the end of the film, the narrator notes that since this area is not merely an ancient place of history, "it is hallowed ground"(emphasis in the original). This shows the complete confusion today with modern understanding of the sacred. While the cliff dwellings are amazing, and these people were the ancestors of the Hopi, the Navajo, the Ute and the Mesa Indians of today, the cliff dwellings are certainly not hallowed ground. It highlights a nomadic society whose existence in this area lasted only some 80-100 years. While there's much conjecture on why they left (severe drought and lack of firewood are offered primarily) these people were still controlled by their environments. The cliff-dwellings couldn't sustain them long-term and life must've been very difficult. It's not a jump to assume that famine from loss of game and crops during the drought would cause a tremendous amount of suffering, forcing these people to continue migrating. Ultimately, building and dwelling in the cliffs didn't work to find the Puebloans' "center place" - simply because we live in a fallen world. The effects of sin were still prevalent in their daily lives and they couldn't escape it even in the rocks.

To many today, seeing 800 year old ruins of a people who lived a prehistoric lifestyle and the wonder that it inspires makes them feel like such sites are somehow holy. I think this does a disservice to the concept of what true holiness is. Holiness stems from one true God. It is seeking Him and shunning sin. While the ruins of the Puebloans are certainly awe-inspiring, they no less tell the tale of how the effects of man's fall ravages societies. They needed to better understand who God is and how He created this world. When we mix up holiness with history we are in danger of losing the real meaning of both and the lessons they teach.

Image courtesy Rationalobserver and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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