Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

Morality for Atheists

There is a longstanding debate about how atheists are moral.  It shouldn’t be an argument about whether or not atheists are moral, because of course, many atheists follow moral principles to which they are committed.  But there is a standing debate as to why.  As an atheist, you weren’t created for a purpose and you won’t be evaluated in the end.

12657829_963585900401513_4734572524383960592_oThis week, it was revealed that “celebrity atheist” Lawrence Krauss has been accused of sexual misconduct by students.  Krauss was a physics professor who has just resigned.  Of course we can point to any number of clergy and Christian leaders who have done the same if not that which is more shocking.

The issue though is not a matter of whether or not anyone can offend.  The question is whether or not anyone can offend consistently with their own worldview.  A Christian, by definition, is bound to the teachings of Christ, who condemns the exploitation of the vulnerable.  An atheist, conversely, commits herself to a worldview and ethic by choice rather than necessity.  The values to which she commits herself are self-selected and do not answer to an ultimate purpose or judgement.  So an atheist can consistently say that life has no value, whereas a Christian cannot.  An atheist can consistently say that one can establish relations of power with one’s peers in such a way that one’s peers are marginalized, whereas a Christian cannot.

Christians who violate the moral norms of Jesus’ teachings are failures.  The question is whether or not atheists who violate mainstream moral norms are actually failing at anything at all.

The Easter Myth

We should reasonably asked whether or not the Easter story really happened or is merely a fable filled with accretions.  Years ago I made an intentional exploration of the question of whether or not God was real.  I made a point of studying everything I could about it.  I read the holy books of many different religions with only one question in mind – could any of this be true?

One of the tests scholars may use to evaluate the validity of a historical claim is called “the criterion of embarrassment.” They say that if a story from history is embarrassing to the author or to the hero of the story, it is probably true.  We usually don’t like to tell embarrassing stories about ourselves, and history is usually written by people in power.  Most stories are edited to make the author of the story look better.

When I use the criterion of embarrassment on the story of Jesus, I see something interesting.  The story is terribly embarrassing to Jesus.  It would have been embarrassing to any 1st century Jewish person waiting for a Messiah.  If a 1st century Jewish person wanted to make up a story about a Messiah, they would have changed a lot of the details about it.  For instance:

* They would not make up a story about the Messiah being born in a barn to unwed parents

* They would not make up a story about wise men from the east finding Jesus, because it makes it look like someone else’s religion steered them correctly

* They would not make up stories about the Messiah getting in arguments with the religious leaders, who were generally respected and represented the kind of endorsement a hero would need

* They would not make up a story in which he was not only tortured but humiliated by the Romans

* They would not make up a story about him dying on a cross, because the Jewish Scriptures say that being hung on a tree is a sign of God cursing someone

* They would not say that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb, because women’s testimony was not respected in that culture

* They would not make up a story about him appearing after rising from the dead in which some people were not sure if it was him or not

And yet, all of these are parts of the story of Jesus.  They are all embarrassing to Jesus and to his followers.  If they were making the story up, they wouldn’t have written it this way.  And if they wanted to edit things out, they would have edited out some if not all of this.

From a historian’s perspective, there is no way this story if made up.  This is a true historical event.  And the truth is that there was a moment in history where God walked among us.

Religion is stupid and evil

BillMaher_directI don’t know if you heard Jimmy Kimmel’s interview of Bill Maher the other day (I didn’t), but Bill was apparently sweating out the threat that Islamic jihadists now pose to people who mock them (aka Bill Maher).  And he said, “There are no great religions.  They’re all stupid and evil.”

I don’t normally take offense at comedians who are paid to offend.  You know what you’re getting into when you listen to them.  And I generally don’t listen to Maher, because I generally don’t find him funny.  But that comment stuck with me, because he’s actually rallying the hordes against the innocent.

I went to church the other night.  There were 200 homeless people sleeping at my church.  We fix them three meals a day, run a clothing boutique, offer free showers and haircuts.  They’re here for three weeks in January when it’s coldest outside, and then on to another church, such that they can be under a roof from December through March.  We’re not short on volunteers, so I usually just sit and talk with people who are having dinner.  One woman needed help finding a Narcotics Anonymous program, which we host at our church, so I helped her find it.  One woman was looking for a Bible, so I pulled one out of our pews for her.  Generally I just listen to their stories.  And as the 200 or so shuffled off to bed, I heard someone saying to me, of me, “You’re stupid and evil.”

I went to a congregational meeting on Sunday.  We just approved a new budget.  This year we raised our giving overseas by $30,000.  There’s a program in India that uses English literacy training to give people marketable job skills.  They’re helping people climb out of poverty by starting with reading.  And in the midst of that, they introduce whoever will listen to the guy who taught us to love people on the other side of the ocean.  Religious people in America usually give more to charity than their non-religious peers; we again have raised our giving.  And as we pour tens of thousand dollars of our charity into people we’ll never meet, someone tells me that I’m stupid and evil.

Last year we made a donation of about the same amount to an orphanage in Haiti that had lost a building to the earthquake.  We paid for the whole thing.  And the guy living in Haiti at the orphanage leading the build – he’s one of our church members who has moved there to live among and help the poor.  I gather that he’s stupid and evil as well.

But I can read the history of Christianity and so-called Christians as well as everyone else, and I see in my predecessors what is functionally just the same behaviors you see outside the church. And part of me has to agree – yes, religion, and religious people, are stupid and evil.  We always have been.  Just like everyone else.  Atheistic regimes killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century.  Religious people haven’t done any better with power, just not worse.

But here’s the deal – Jesus wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t evil.  If I have to come to grips with my own stupidity and the darkness within my own heart, I start groping around for someone to bail me out.  The only person I have ever known who without question has earned the right is Jesus.  He isn’t stupid or evil, and only blind stupidity or fiery hatred would make anyone say otherwise.  I’ll admit it – I’m stupid and evil.  I need a savior.  But he’s actually worthy of the title.

So the bottom line is that the common thread between stupid and evil religious people and stupid and evil secular people is not religion, it’s humanity.  And rather than casting stones at we who have called out to a savior for help, in a century where persecution of Christians is at a historical high, you might just as well have the humility to admit that you need a savior too.

The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

How old is the Bible?

Did you ever wonder whether the Bible was written close to the events it describes or much later?  I’ve heard people dismiss the Bible as a later, legendary account composed many generations after the life of Jesus.  The manuscript evidence gives us a hint.

The oldest piece of a manuscript that we have is a tiny little piece of paper that’s only about 3″ long and 2″ wide, which is now in a museum in England.  It has text from John’s gospel on the front and on the back, and scholars who study ancient manuscripts say that the handwriting dates to between 100 and 150 AD.  This piece was found in Egypt, which suggests an earlier original, allowing time for the story to have travelled over 400 miles.200px-P52_verso

However, Ignatius Theophorus of Antioch, who lived from around 35AD – 117AD, wrote seven letters in which he quotes from at least 17 of the 27 New Testament letters, suggesting that they were in circulation even earlier, in the first century.  Clement of Rome, who died in 99AD, left behind a letter which quotes or refers to at least 9 letters of the New Testament, making their first century authorship undeniable.  These include a quote from Jesus, making the gospel stories unquestionably first century.  An early Christian document called the Didache, which scholars date to the end of the first century or beginning of the second, refers to Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, particularly Matthew.

Credible scholars now date the New Testament entirely to the first century.  Since the date of Jesus’ death falls in the 30s, that means the whole of the New Testament was written within 60 years of his death, which means during the lifetime of his contemporaries.

Those who try to push the dates later must do so by controverting the obvious historical testimonies of both the biblical accounts and non-biblical witnesses.  Their agenda-laden activism does little to confuse the open-minded and clear-sighted, but it tends to empower those who are looking for loopholes and who don’t want to do real research.  The story of Jesus cannot be discredited as a later legend scripted by people of another generation.  It was written in his day by people who knew him and his disciples.

Unintelligent by Design

DarwinOne of the criticisms I’m regularly seeing in discussions of evolution is that those who claim that life shows signs of intelligent design are relying on a “god of the gaps” argument.  The charge is that where they cannot explain how something happened, they’re just answering “God,” without any further intellectual curiosity or explanatory possibilities.  In fact, I’ve heard several skeptics call it “Intelligent Design of the gaps.”

But it occurs to me that if something shows signs of being designed by an intelligent mind, and a skeptic says that such an explanation doesn’t count, what he means is that intelligence isn’t a thing.  Intelligence doesn’t have explanatory power.  You can’t point to something and say that it’s obviously the work of an intelligent mind.  If that’s true, the skeptic of intelligent design must literally be saying that intelligence doesn’t, in and of itself, exist.  There must be something behind the appearance of intelligence which isn’t itself intelligence.  The skeptic literally won’t stop looking until he’s found something unintelligent.

It’s a little bit difficult to give credence to an idea being forwarded by someone who from the outset dismisses things that look intelligent.

 

 

My sense for how our design points us towards a designer is in my book Hardwired: Finding the God You Already Know.

Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.