Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vast Realism

Ever notice that when we talk about reality it is rarely in a positive way? When you tell someone to “get real” or “face reality” you are rarely – if ever – pointing out something happy or fortunate. Chances are you are pointing out just how bad things have become and how badly someone is failing to deal with their circumstances. No wonder people are always seeking ways to escape reality! No matter what your definition of reality may be, odds are that it’s not “happy place”. To most of us, reality is the place where pain lives, where we are disappointed, where we do not get what we want, where things do not work out as we would like, where we grow old, get sick and face death. That is why we dream, why we escape into books and film – we create whole worlds that allow us to forget that reality exists at all, if only for a while. Our dreams are where our happiness lies and reality is the rock on which our dreams are shattered. For a lot of people, realism is just another word for pessimism.

I have been thinking of late that maybe we are wrong about reality and realism. Maybe our negative perception of the “real world” has less to do with reality being harsh and cruel and more to do with the narrowness of our focus. I think we seek to escape from reality because we fail to see just how big reality really is. Certainly, there are many things that cause us pain in the real world, but there are so many things that give us joy in it too. It has ugliness but it also has more beauty that we can contain. While we focus on our failures and disappointments we so often fail to notice how many successes we had and how much joy we were given. The same reality that sometimes treats us so cruelly oftentimes also treats us kindly. In this real world there is war and famine and destruction but there is also goodness, mercy and joy. If in your mind “getting real” means recognizing just how rotten and evil people can be then you are really only looking at one small slice of reality for in this real world there are also plenty of good, selfless people. I do not argue that there are plenty of things to discourage and make you hopeless in the real world. What I am trying to point out is that if you look you will also find so much to encourage you and give you hope. Unfortunately though, we are not wired that way are we? Somehow it is easy for us to feel forsaken and hard for us to feel blessed. We make our vision narrow, we choose to focus on one thing and exclude all else. How easily we cry about the love we want but cannot get while we forget about all the love we do receive. (Ever notice how when someone says they want somebody to love they usually already have a specific somebody in mind?) We remember how we were wronged and we forget the thousands of small kindnesses done to us. Clearly it is not reality that is to blame, it is the smallness of our minds and the narrowness of our vision.

So then, the real challenge is to see reality for what it is – to stop seeking refuge in either mind numbing optimism or soul destroying cynicism but rather to become true realists. We do not need to escape reality, we need to learn to appreciate just how large and all encompassing reality really is. Reality is cruel and beautiful and painful and filled with wonder and mystery. In it we find love and disappointment, loneliness and joy, sweet and bitter. When we start to appreciate the bigness of the real world we will not find it such a horrible thing to be grounded in and we will be more willing to live without our precious illusions. Like it or not, the real world is the one we are destined to live in. Why always seek to escape it? There is so much more to gain by embracing it!

One of the reasons realism seems so unattractive is because it seems so bleak, it is perceived to be a life without dreams, dedicated to hard facts alone. I should note though that when I suggest getting rid of illusions I do not mean dreams. Illusions are dangerous, dreams are not. Illusions are fake versions of reality we set up in our own minds to escape and hide from parts of reality we do not like. In so doing we are only blinding ourselves to what truly is. When we hide from reality we trap ourselves in a static unchanging existence. The way to deal with an unpleasant facet of reality is not to hide away from it in a comfortable illusion but rather to face it and do something about it. That is where dreams come in, they remind us that things can be better and spur us on to change things for the better. Of all the creatures on this planet we alone have the ability to bring the things we dream into reality. Not in the nonsensical woo-woo sense like “The Secret” would try to tell you but rather by applying our will, our skill, our resources and our knowledge. So while our illusions trap us, dreams free us. In the words of Marcel Proust, “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.” In the same way, if a little reality scares you, the cure is not to seek escape from it but rather to seek to see the true vastness of reality. The real world is alive with possibilities and chances but only dreamers and realists can see this. I only hope I can learn to be both.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against Groupthink

Today I’m struggling with an age old moral quandary. When does support become a bad thing? Where is the line that separates support from enabling? At what point does faithfully supporting your community turn into irrationally circling the wagons?

It seems that our community spirit is a double edged sword. Our ability to stand together and support one another has throughout human history been the source of our greatest and most noble as well as our dumbest, most irrational actions. The fact that humans started working and living together in tribes made us strong against all obstacles yet to this day this tribal mindset of ours leads to constant fighting and even bloodshed. It is as if the same thing that makes us form strong communities and families also leads to the “us versus them” mindset that makes us do and say the most obviously imbecilic things. Which brings me to the topic of groupthink.

According to Wikipedia: “Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. ” That in itself is pretty dangerous. Still, it does make sense in a way. After all, in order for a group to function as a cohesive unit, every individual whim can’t be catered for. It’s not ideal and it’s not always for the best but it does make sense. For a group to work effectively one course of action has to be settled for and for that to happen not everyone will get to have their way – otherwise it would be like trying to herd cats!

In this sense, groupthink is a less than ideal situation and can lead to some problems. I for one am not a fan of groupthink in this sense. It causes people to stay inside the group comfort zone and this in turns hampers progress because new – and possibly better – avenues of thought are left unexplored. However, thanks to the information age and the popularity of online discussion forums, there is another type of groupthink on the rise that I find far more disturbing than the more traditional kind.

My friend Lawrence and I were discussing this phenomenon a while back (He wrote a very good blog post on logical fallacies where he very graciously credited me with working out this secondary definition but I feel it's only fair that I share the credit for this. Please go check out his blog. ) During time spent on various discussion boards, we found that very often one member of a group would say something that we knew the rest of the group disagrees with very much but not only would they keep quiet, they would actually step up and defend this member and his opinion when someone belonging to another "group" criticized it. I think it is also fair to call this groupthink – when an ally and his viewpoints are defended simply because he is a member of your own group and even when said ally is obviously wrong . This type of groupthink absolutely destroys any moral high ground the group could have claimed and undermines the credibility of the entire group.

I ran into a particularly ugly example of this yesterday on a Facebook group discussing evolution and creationism. One of the more vocal creationists came out as a holocaust denier. No, calling him a holocaust denier is putting it too kindly. His exact words were: “lol!! haha ,sorry but I dont believe in the holocaust” (seriously, how much of a douchebag do you have to be to even type a sentence like that?!) He then went on for several pages telling people – some who actually lost grandparents in the death camps – that the holocaust was a big lie and was basically just a propaganda trick by the Jews, English and Americans to vilify the good Christian people of Germany. Now up to this point, things were pretty bad. It got a whole lot worse when some of the other creationists on the board – who never let the opportunity pass to blame Hitler and the holocaust on Darwin – actually defended this guy! Not one but several suggested that maybe he was just being misunderstood, that he probably didn’t doubt the holocaust but most likely simply had some questions about some of the numbers given. (This was not the case at all, something he made crystal clear when he quoted Tom Blair saying: “Do I "deny the Holocaust"? No! No indeed. I hope the holocaust is not denied and never forgotten. I hope the holocaust is remembered as the greatest propaganda effort and hate campaign ever waged against a civilized people”) This kind of behavior leaves me at a loss for words.

Now as Gumby pointed out in his blog on the similarities between Creationists and other conspiracy theorists, this kind of behavior is common to a lot of groups. However it disturbs me a lot more when it happens among Christians. Christians already have a very bad reputation for unchristian behavior on Internet discussion forums. When a Christian in a public forum makes statements that are cruel, ignorant, bigoted or arrogant the image of Christianity becomes slightly more tainted in the eyes of non-Christians. When other Christians refuse to speak up against those statements (in effect giving their silent approval) the damage is increased a hundred fold. The simple act of not speaking up speaks volumes to those outside of the faith, confirming every negative stereotype they already have concerning Christianity and Christians. How much more damage then is done when other Christians actually defend the people making such statements?

So what are we to do? I certainly do not think we should swing the pendulum to the other side and start constantly berating each other in public over every single disagreement. Surely though, some things are just so wrong that staying silent for the sake of unity is not an option. Some have suggested rather approaching people in private instead of airing dirty laundry in public. Certainly that is proper and Biblical even but I do believe that in some cases more is needed. Especially in severe cases where a lot of damage is done in public, the problem needs to be addressed in public. After all, everyone saw the offense, but they will see nothing of the private reprimand, so then what is the actual difference between addressing the matter privately and doing nothing at all? I believe there is a line that can be crossed where addressing a wrong becomes more important than maintaining unity (and I think the Apostle Paul would agree with me on this...) It was for this reason I started the "The Christian I am not" series on this blog - there are some things done in the name of Christ that I feel I need to distance myself from publicly lest I am seen as actually agreeing with it and/or supporting it.

If anyone has any thoughts on the subject I would love to hear it. How far should support go? Surely we should be willing to cut others some slack, but up to what point? Does anyone have a clear guideline or does everyone just tend to play this one by ear? Where does protecting Christian unity end and standing up for what you believe is true and right begin?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Giving to God

I once had to do a homiletics assignment on 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 and I ended up getting reprimanded for titling it “God doesn’t want your money”. Now I think I can make a fair case from Scripture that God has no interest in your money, but I’m not going to make that here. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against giving money to the church at all. Unfortunately the church has a bad reputation in this world that it’s only after your money. The sad part is it’s not hard to see why people would think that. When I was in college I attended a student church that basically had two sermons per service – one at offering time to convince you to give as much as possible and then the regular service. (Imagine my refreshment when I went from that to a church where the only secondary message was regarding communion!) However, while I don’t always agree with the methods some churches employ to get money (especially when it comes down to emotional blackmail – it’s tactics like those that make people end up feeling bitter and taken advantage of), I do understand the need. After all, buildings, utilities and cleaning supplies aren’t free and unless the pastor is a practicing breatharian, he and his family needs to eat. Besides, it would be very hypocritical to criticize Christians for supporting Christian ministries when just about every other group on the planet is doing the exact same thing! Methodists to Muslims, Agnostics to Alien worshipers, everyone (and I do mean everyone) gives money and support to organizations and causes they believe in (*cough* atheist bus campaign *cough*). My point is I fully support the notion of giving money to the church and I get why that is necessary. However things become a little muddier when it comes to the notion of giving to God. Believers are instructed to give by God repeatedly in the Bible after all. (Yes, I get how I seem to be contradicting myself really badly here but bear with me, I am actually going somewhere with this) This I believe is a source of much unhappiness and disappointment among believers. I don’t think the problem here is the fact that people give to God though, I think the problem is that people tend to give to the wrong God.

Some people give to the Crooked Official god. To them, giving to God is a lot like giving to a corrupt bureaucrat or traffic officer (my apologies to all honest traffic officers everywhere, its just that in SA, they kind of have a reputation for taking bribes to make tickets “go away”…) It’s basically like giving your offering as a bribe to God, saying “OK God, here is your money, now look the other way and let me do my thing here.” Of course that approach is doomed to failure since God is nothing like a corrupt bureaucrat and He has no interest in "getting off your back". In fact He can be pathologically caring when it comes to how you live your life. Isaiah 1:11-17 and 1 Samuel 15:22 makes it pretty clear – when you are living in sin, no amount of offerings are going to make God look the other way. God wants us to repent, not attempt to buy Him off.

Some people give to the Landlord god. The Landlord god is a relation to the Corrupt Bureaucrat god but the distinction here is that you don’t give your money so God can “forget about” your sins, rather it’s to pay God His "dues" so you can have the freedom to live your life the way you like it. Again, that doesn’t really work so well with God since it turns out he doesn’t want His “dues”, He actually wants to be involved with you and how you live. Jesus deals with this attitude specifically when He speaks to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 and accuses them of paying their tithes to the smallest amount – even on every pinch of their spice harvest – but neglecting to take care of the things that matter most to God. God clearly doesn’t give us the option of not being devoted to Him provided we pay our tithes in full. Instead He fully expects us to be faithful in both matters!

Then there is the Thug god. People give to the Thug god not because they want to but because they are afraid not to. I remember once sitting in a sermon about tithing and hearing the pastor explain how when you don’t give your tithes, you will end up losing that money anyway. Your car and your washing machine will break and your kids will get sick and all kinds of disasters will befall you when you neglect to give your full tithe. Now from this it wasn’t really clear whether he was suggesting that paying your tithes and giving offerings gets God to keep the devil away or whether he meant that God will come calling with a metaphorical baseball bat, but it sure made it seem like God was like those gangsters on TV who are always charging business owners “protection”. Maybe it’s just me, but something seems to be very off here. I don’t really see God extorting money out of people with fear and violence anywhere in the Bible.

Then there is the favourite of televangelists all over the world, the Slot Machine god. Not just any slot machine but a guaranteed jackpot slot machine! You give to the Slot Machine god simply as a means to make more money, a way to buy a blessing – enter tithe, pull the lever and out comes your hundred fold harvest of prosperity! Is that really the kind of attitude that God would appreciate? For one thing, it doesn't really work that way (unless you happen to be the guy taking up the offerings) and for another I think this is merely the “love of money” (AKA the “root of all evil”) just dressed up in religious garb and as such this approach is doomed to ultimately draw you away from God.

When you give to gods like these you are setting yourself up to be disappointed. Like I said right at the beginning, God doesn’t need your money at all. So why then does He ask you for it? Well there is that saying that goes “When the all-knowing God asks you a question, He’s not looking for information”. The idea is that when God asked a seemingly simple question, He isn’t trying to gather information, He wants you to realize something. I don’t think it’s such a stretch to say that when the God who owns the world and everything in it asks you to give something, it’s not because He needs it. I don’t think God needs or wants your money, in fact its pretty clear that as far as God is concerned, the whole matter of giving has nothing to do with your money. Maybe God asks because giving is important to us somehow. God isn’t after your money (and be grateful, for how would you stop Him from simply taking it if He was?) He is after the one thing He can never take by force – your heart. Maybe God asks us to give because giving is good for us. Maybe living for something outside of yourself, giving to something bigger than yourself is good for you and maybe that is why God asks it of you. I think that being miserly shrinks your world down and makes it ugly and small while being generous enlarges your world somehow. Maybe its just me but generous people - and I'm not simply talking money here - seem to be happier than those who aren't. Seems as if giving of your time, your energy and your resources, connects you and grounds you in a way nothing else can. Giving then is not really a matter of the wallet at all I think, its a matter of the heart, at least as far as God is concerned. That's why I believe the Bible when it talks about givers being blessed - some might just be a little disappointed to find that the blessing you get in return is not necessarily a rich financial reward.

Of course if you don't want to set yourself up for disappointment, it really helps if you actually give to the right God.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For what we are about to receive...

I thought about starting this blog with a reference to Thanksgiving. It has all the elements I wanted to talk about - being grateful, giving thanks and eating - so it would have been perfect. Only problem is that since I'm not an American, I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. Unfortunately my pioneer ancestors decided to dive straight into the whole "taking the land and killing the natives" part and totally skipped the "first having a big meal with the natives" part (leading me to suspect that the Pilgrims were in fact Bond villains). I always felt a little cheated by that because I sure do love turkey and could have done with a holiday dedicated to eating it. But I digress...

I recently received radiation therapy and had to spend four days locked in a hospital room with no computer, radio or TV to distract me (and thanks to an embarrassing mishap with a drain, I also spent half of that without a phone...). Basically the only contact I had with the outside world was the plate of food that was rolled into my room 3 times a day and that got me thinking about the practice of saying grace before a meal. For some reason it is almost a reflex for me. I have been doing it for so long that I don't know if I could even eat anything without praying over it first. Even at times when my faith was low to the point of practical non-existence I still found myself praying before eating. There have been long periods in my life where the prayer before meals was the only prayer I said at all. Well during my time in the isolation ward I happened to be reading a book that had been sitting on my shelf for ages called "Jesus the Jewish Theologian". Now this is a fascinating book for anyone who is interested in getting back to the Judaic roots of the Christian faith and during this time the chapter on how giving thanks is a way of life for the Jewish people really spoke to me. I have noticed over time that when it came to saying grace before a meal, there tended to be two elements present no matter who prayed and no matter what language was used:

1. Asking God to bless the food, and
2. Asking God to make us grateful for it.

What really spoke to me as I learned more about the Judaic approach was that their prayers lacked both of those elements. Firstly, they never blessed the food, they blessed God. Our practice of blessing food is in fact rather removed from the Biblical perspective that the world and everything in it belongs to God and that He made it good. The need to bless food draws far more on the Hellenistic, gnostic idea that the physical world is tainted and not good. In the Jewish mindset it would pretty much be an insult to God to ask Him to bless something He allready declared "very good"! Instead, the Jewish prayer for bread goes:

"Blessed are thou o Lord, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth."

This is most likely the prayer that Jesus and the apostles used when the Bible talks about them saying a blessing before meals. I really liked that small prayer because it is a simple acknowledgment of God as our ultimate provider. Seems to me that the Biblical concept of saying grace sounded a lot less like:

"Bless this food to our use, and us to thy service and fill our hearts with grateful praise. Amen."

and a lot more like the doxology:

My favourite part here was that it didn't stop at saying thank you for bread. There was a similar prayer to say thank you for wine. In fact there was a short prayer of thanksgiving - called a Berakhot - for pretty much every part of life. It is believed that this is what Paul was referring to in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 when he wrote:

"Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

There was a Berakhot for pretty much everything - on receiving good news, bad news, when eating, drinking, smelling a fragrant plant, being in the presence of thunder, lightning, rainbows and comets, seeing a king, seeing a dwarf or a giant - the list goes on. There was even a prayer to bless God for the ability to urinate! (If you are really curious, it goes: "Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is fully known before the throne of Thy glory that if one of them should be [improperly] opened or one of them closed it would be impossible for a man to stand before Thee" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 60b))

Now I'm not suggesting that as Christians we learn a new set of prayer to replaced the old set of prayers. But what really stood out for me here was how this practice fostered an attitude of continuous marvel, awe and wonder regarding the things we so easily take for granted. Which brings me to the second element of the traditional mealtime grace the very familiar "For what we are about to receive, make us truly grateful oh Lord" part. I have had a problem with that part for many years. Why should the responsibility for our gratitude be God's problem? It just never made sense to me. Plus you would not want God - or anyone really - to make you grateful. Think about it. If you truly want to be made grateful, here are two simple things I can suggest:
a) Go without food for a while. Nothing like a good fast to make you appreciate the goodness of even a piece of dry bread.
b) Not feeling up to a fast? OK, do it the third world way and eat nothing but the most basic food for a while. Try living from only bread or only rice or only porridge for a week. I can promise you from personal experience that it will make you truly grateful for the next piece of meat you eat!

I for one would rather not be made grateful, trust me, I have been there and its no fun at all. I would much rather try and foster an attitude of continuous gratitude and childlike wonder for the world I live in. After all, we get to enjoy it for such a short time, why not learn to appreciate it while we have it for the gift that it is?

So may you cherish every moment spent with the people you love and may you enjoy every good thing in this world whether it be food or drink, dancing or sleeping, nature or technology. Whatever stirs your heart, may you always be at least a little in awe of it and may you always remember what a gift it is to be able to enjoy it.

If all else fails, remember the Boom de yada!

[Sources: "Our father Abraham" by Dr MR Wilson and "Jesus the Jewish Theologian" by Dr BH Young. I recommend both very highly.]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prosperity vs Psalm 23

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of the Prosperity movement. Now I don’t wish to make sweeping generalizations and declare everyone in the movement evil. My dislike comes in various degrees – there are those in the movement who I think aren’t necessarily bad people – people like the Copeland’s and Joyce Meyer. I may not agree with a lot of what they teach but I still respect them. Then there are the people like Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff who I believe are just using the Gospel to make themselves rich – these people I don’t like or respect. Just to clarify, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having things and money. I don’t believe everyone needs to be poor. I don’t believe preachers need to be paupers. I have no problem with giving money to the church – as long as it is clear what I’m giving to and where my money is going. I do have a problem with being told that I’m “supporting the Lord’s work” when all I’m really doing is helping make a car payment. On a Porsche.

But I have a confession to make, my dislike of the Prosperity movement is also due to a bad experience I had with it personally. Long, long ago when I first heard of the movement I was completely taken by it. I soaked up its teachings and I heartily supported it. Every testimony just spurred me on to delve deeper. So much so that I even decided to truly put it to the test. After finishing my studies, I had no source of income except for my savings and I decided to try living by “sowing and reaping” and to put the whole philosophy of “give and it will be given to you”, “you can never out give God” (the slogan list goes on but I will stop here) to the test. I gave, I tithed, I prayed, I confessed – I will save you the details but in short I did everything I ever heard recommended. Suffice it to say it didn’t end well for me. I found out the hard way that prosperity teachings work great, IF you happen to be a prosperity preacher! Not so much when you are not the one passing around the money bucket promising great returns to all who give generously! I quite literally gave myself into poverty and came within an inch of having to live on the street. In the end I had to do what both common sense and the Bible had been telling me all along (if only I cared to listen…): I got a job, worked for my money, learned to be content with what I had and how to live within my means. Good lesson, but an expensive one that cost me all my savings.

However, let me be clear that I am not bitter. I take full responsibility for my own stupidity and I’m not going to pretend that this is anyone’s fault but my own. It’s convenient to blame the prosperity movement and preachers for this but the truth is that what is really to blame is our innate willingness to believe that there is an easy way out – that we can get something for nothing (or next to nothing). Add to this our very human tendency to hear what we want to hear and mix in some select Bible verses and you have a very dangerous cocktail!

Now I can’t so much about basic human nature and there is little more I can do beyond posting my own misadventures in charismania as a cautionary tale (though I don’t really believe that to be very necessary since not that many in the movement will actually try to live the talk in the first place!). I would like to post just one good example to show how the Bible doesn’t always say what we would like to think it says. To prove my point I will use arguably the worlds best know and best loved Psalm, Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd. It serves as a fantastic example of a piece of scripture that doesn’t quite say what prosperity teachers think it says or would like it to say.

Psalm 23:2 “He makes me lie down in green pastures…”

When you hear “green pastures” what is the image that jumps to mind? Lush meadows? Waving fields of grass? Knee deep alfalfa? Something like this perhaps?

Sure it is. Well it was my mental picture anyway. So imagine my surprise when I learned it does not match the one David was describing in this Psalm at all. The green pasture David was describing looked more like this:

See our image may be one of fat, fluffy white sheep grazing the Irish countryside to their hearts content, but David didn’t come from that part of the world. We easily forget that the Israeli people were a desert people and David’s memories of his shepherding days would have looked far more like this:

The green pastures in Israeli wilderness actually look like rocky, barren hillsides. Scattered amidst the rocks are blades of grass. Where a drop of rain fell or dew collected beneath a rock, a little tuft of grass can sprout up. The job of the shepherd was to find these grassy places so that his sheep could have a few mouthfuls to eat at a time. Now this may not be a great image of prosperity but I find it to be a particularly beautiful image none the less. See the green pastures David spoke about gave enough for now and only the now. The afternoon’s green pasture was something the sheep would be led to in the afternoon. Tomorrows green pasture was something they would be taken to tomorrow. The sheep never landed in a place of lifelong luxury but the shepherd always made sure that they had all the food they needed to eat in the present. Isn’t this exactly how God supplied the Israelites when they wandered the desert? God supplied enough manna for one day every day. Also, doesn’t this absolutely reflect what Jesus, our Good Shepherd taught about the provision God gave? Did He not teach that in prayer we are to ask for our “daily bread” (Matt 6:11)? Did He not teach that we are not to worry about tomorrow and can rest in the knowledge that the God who takes care of us today will take care of us tomorrow (Matt 6:25-34)?

“…he leads me beside quiet waters”

OK so after that first refresher about desert life you probably don’t expect me to tell you that “quiet waters” look like this:

Crater lake USA - considered to be the clearest lake in the world

And you would be right. But here is a little factoid I was surprised to learn. The most frequent cause of death in the wilderness is not starvation, thirst, or heat exhaustion – its drowning! The nearby limestone mountains cannot absorb rainwater. The water runs into the desert, creating sudden and violent floods that fill the wadis—canyons that have been carved out by past floods. Effectively turning this:

Into this:

Within moments and without much warning. Anyone standing in the wadi when a flood comes will be swept away. Shortly after the flood, a wadi becomes dry again. Sometimes a bit of water from a previous flood will remain on the wadi floor, and these waters are attractive to the thirsty wilderness flocks. A wise shepherd knows that walking through a wadi can be dangerous because even on a clear sunny day, a flash flood may come without warning. They know where to find springs of water where the flocks can drink without the danger of a flash flood.

The metaphor here is incredibly rich isn’t it? For one thing it doesn’t warn against being thirsty or against drinking water but instead focuses on the place/source of the water. I mean we all thirst for things – careers, lifestyles, friends, love, the list goes on. This tells me that it’s not wrong to want/need things and it’s not wrong to get these things. The problem is not getting these thirsts satisfied, its getting them satisfied in the right place. If God our Shepherd seems to be steering us away from something we are sure we need then we can know that it is because he wants to supply that need in a safer way. Didn't Jesus clearly teach that God knows that we need things? Did He not teach that as a good Father, He would supply our needs with something good and wholesome, not something harmful (Matt 7:9-11; Luk 11:11-13)? This image of the “quiet waters” reminds me to quit acting like a spoiled child who believes that his parents are just trying to spoil his fun when they are in truth only trying to keep him out of harms way. If I truly believe what I say I do then I should trust that as a good Father, God knows what I really need (Matt 6:8).

Considering how immensely stupid I can be at times, its probably best that I don’t have the kind of Father that gives me everything I want when I want it!

[For most of this information I am heavily indebted to the “That the World may know” series by teacher and historian Ray van der Laan. If you are interested in learning even more from this amazing Psalm, you can read some short notes here. I recommend the entire series of videos very strongly to any Christian interested in stripping away the layers of western theology and thinking and actually hearing and seeing the Scriptures in the context the original audience received it. For interest sake it also happens to be the strange place in the universe where Focus on the Family and Rob Bell meet. (
I do so love juxtapose where I can find it!) Focus on the Family distributes the videos and Dr James Dobson personally endorses them and yet they also provide the source material for the very same teachings that Rob Bell gets labeled as a heretic for teaching! (For instance his controversial “Dust” video in the Nooma series draws almost word for word from one of the That the World may know faith lessons - yet you never see anyone attacking those!) ]

Monday, November 10, 2008

And they wonder why Atheists make fun of us...

As any of the 5 people who read this blog could tell you, I have a big issue with "charismaniac" behaviour. If you didn't spend much time in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church environment that may mean nothing to you. In short this is when Christians do some kind of symbolic act with "spiritual significance". Now I guess I shouldn't be too hard on people as usually this is all pretty harmless. Besides, I actually believe in the power of symbolism. My main peeve is that usually the term "something happened in the spirit" is just another way of saying "nothing happened, but we don't want to admit it". This could take many forms, a popular one is the "prayer walk" which is modelled after the Israelites walking around the walls of Jericho. Big difference of course is that after the Israelites obeyed God and did their symbolic act (here and everywhere else in the Bible), something actually happened. In the Charismatic movement it seems we kind of have the opposite going on - someone says that God says that everyone should do [insert symbolic act of faith] and then God will [insert miraculous action]. But then (in my experience - yours may be different and if so I would love to hear more) nothing happens. If at this point you think someone is going to admit that maybe they didn't quite hear God or that maybe they heard wrong you have obviously never been in a Charismatic Church before! No, at this point you will be told that, sure maybe nothing actually happened here BUT something sure changed in the spirit with the implication that at some point the spiritual change will manifest in the physical. In my experience it rarely does. In fact in my experience there seems to be a correlation between the bigness of the symbolic act and how spectacularly the promised change fails to happen.

A good example would be Benny Hinn's recent tour to South Africa. At one point a special blessing was announced by one of Hinn's co-preachers - for 2 minutes only, everyone who would sow a $1000 "seed" (because God put a special blessing on that number of course) would be blessed with MILLIONS if not MULTI-MILLIONS! Within 24 hours no less! To help with this, there were credit card machines at the ready and everything. A while later, some skeptical pastors who attended the meeting publicly asked in a major Sunday newspaper if anyone became a millionaire as promised. I would love to tell you what the response to that was but its a little hard to reproduce the sound of crickets chirping in text...

Yet now I have seen something that makes all of that seem perfectly sensible. Turns out that some Christians decided the best way to fix the economy would be to...

Pray and lay hands on a GOLDEN CALF????

Apparently, according to the participants:
“We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the 'Lion's Market,' or God's control over the economic systems. While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without intercession, economies will crumble.”
Are they freaking kidding?? I’m sorry, you can dress it up any way you want, its still God’s people praying in front of a golden calf!! Is this not the one story from the Bible everyone in the world knows about? Sure it is, you even find a similar picture in most children's Bibles and famous art, look its almost exactly the same:

Plus may I remind you that in Exodus 32 (first time this happened - apparently Christians don't read the Bible no more) the people of God weren't looking for a new God - the whole golden calf debacle was just because the people wanted a visual representation of the very God that led them out of Egypt!

When stuff like this happens, don't go whining when the Athiests make fun of Christians - we totally had it coming in this case!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Holy/Different: Honest

[I never really planned to make do any follow ups after the previous post on holiness but yet after writing it the vagueness of it all bothered me. I felt that I made a case that we should be more holy in a practical way but then stopped short of actually getting practical about it. I could already feel my retinas burning from the blinding flash of the obvious. So then here is one practical way I could think of. Agree, disagree, have a different opinion? - I would love to hear it. This is merely my attempt to make practical sense of a difficult subject. Also please note that I don't offer this as the entirety of the matter, rather I list this as just one small facet. ]

How honest would you say you are? Chances are, you aren't half as honest as you think. I say this not because I doubt your character (though technically I have no idea who you are, this being a public forum on the Internet and all but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here!) but simply the information age has somehow managed to turn us all a little dishonest. We are just bombarded with so many factoids, soundbites, gossip, opinions, propaganda, statistics and disinformation that despite our best efforts to always tell the truth (again, benefit of the doubt) we all tend to spread some absolute nonsense at some point. Think you have been spared? Well if you have ever told someone about the "fact" that we all swallow about 8 spiders per year in our sleep, or that humans only use 10% of their brains, or that men think about sex every 7 seconds, or even passed on the time honored advice about the need to wait 30 minutes after eating before swimming - believe it or not, you lied! Ditto for pepper staying in your digestive tract for 7 years (it moves through and out like everything else including bubblegum mom!) or a ducks quack not giving an echo (the Mythbusters actually tested this one). The unfortunate truth of the information age is that the extreme amounts of misinformation we are fed makes liars of us all.

I know this useless trivia seems pretty insignificant and I completely agree. It really doesn't matter if you frequently quote a piece of info that apart from being useless is also completely false. The only reason I mention this at all is just to make the point that I don't have crazy and unrealistic ideas about honesty. I get it. We are human. We repeat things without fact checking, we gossip about things we really don't know much, we add on to stories, we round up our figures - of these things I'm pretty sure we are all guilty to some degree. Yet when it comes to being a Christian, these little transgressions of untruth become a little more serious. When someone as a Christian, starts spreading untruths about issues of faith and spirituality, then it becomes a lot less insignificant and a lot more problematic -even when this misinformation is shared as unintentionally and innocently as any other fake factoid. A silly statistic around the watercooler is harmless - an equally silly statistic used to make a point in a serious debate/sermon is not. Unfortunately, thanks to the Internet, Christians worldwide have a growing reputation for ignorance and utter dishonesty.

A term used rather often these days when referring to Christians is "Liars for Jesus". Sad thing is, that isn't as undeserved as we would like it to be. A very common - but extremely damaging - example of this is of course the horrible practice of quote mining. Now I would like to believe that most cases of this happens due to misinformation and ignorance on the part of the Christian - that it's usually just a case of someone repeating a piece of emailed trivia or some unfortunately fake factoid heard from the pulpit or read in a piece of literature - but that hardly makes the person using it look any better does it? Quote mining is a clear case of breaking the 9th commandment that no opponent in a debate would ever pass up the chance to mock. In fact quote mines can collapse pretty spectacularly as seen here. However as I pointed out right at the start, anyone can become a victim of bad information. It is nevertheless a disturbing trend to find that so much of what Christians quote falls under quote mining. You may be shocked to find that any time a Christian quotes a famous person (atheist especially) the quote is usually wrong and often misleading. It's for reasons like this that the quote mine project even exists! It's not limited to the evolution debate either - from philosophy and science to other faiths and cultures, there is quote after quote that is wrong, taken out of context or even completely fabricated. None of this makes Christianity look very good! There are a lot of high profile Christians telling big lies and in doing so they are making us all look dishonest. (Alas, these big lies spread throughout the Christian movement with as much ease as the little ones) Then there are the cases where I wouldn't feel comfortable calling someone a liar but the way they present the "facts" seems pretty dishonest none the less. I for instance would have a hard time reading any of Lee Strobel's "A case for..." books. He may be making some good points in there but the whole setup just seems dishonest from the get go. He sets himself up as a former skeptic/atheist/"evolutionist" who after thoroughly looking into the issues became a believer in Biblical inerrancy. Yet in every one of his works you see everything but skepticism and thoroughness - you just see someone having a one sided conversation with a group of "experts" hand picked to support the main premise completely. What happened to looking at all sides of the issue? Where is the skepticism? Where is the chance for rebuttal and dialogue? None of this seems honest to me at all! Mr Strobel's apologetics work is pretty mild next to some others though. Some Christians seem to have no problem with willfully and purposefully lying for the cause. From Ben Stein's deceitful movie Expelled to the blatant dishonesty put forward by Way of the Master in their videos to the endless examples of outright lies by creationists like Kent Hovind and Duane Gish, there is plenty for Christians to be ashamed about. Just recently a poster on Youtube held a competition for the "Golden Crocoduck" which awarded a prize to the person telling the biggest most obviously blatant lie in furtherance of the creationist cause - there were no shortage of nominations. In case you're wondering, it was won by none other than the great Kent Hovind and I have to agree - it takes some moxie to show the audience a slide that proves you are lying while you are lying to them!!

Don't even get me started on Kirk Cameron and his Crocoduck...

But that is enough ranting. This isn't a post about Christian dishonesty, this is about holiness. I do often feel as if I'm making accusations but not providing enough proof to back it up - hence the rant if you would be so kind as to forgive me for that. Bear with me thought there is actually a train of thought here. In my previous post I tried to explore the concept of "being holy" as "being different". So therefore with dishonesty becoming the disturbingly expected norm for Christians, one great and truly practical way for someone to be holy by being different would be to practice honesty. Even for those who disagree with my take on holiness as difference - those who prefer to think of it as being Godlike or obedient to the Bible - well, that changes nothing - after all, the Bible is pretty clear about the fact that the followers of God should be honest (Lev 19:11; Col 3:9 - to list but a few).

However, don't get me wrong. The reason I chose honesty is not to list just another nice sounding but impossibly hard way to be "holy". That is why I started this blogpost the way I did. I get that to be 100% truthful in all things at all time is well nigh impossible. It would certainly be inhuman. In fact it may not even always be wise or good. After all, should the midwives who hid the Israeli babies in the time of Moses have been more honest? Should Rahab have been more honest about hiding the spies? (Interesting article on that here) For another thing, honesty has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. People use honesty as an excuse to be cruel and hurtful sometimes. Seems like honesty only matters to certain people when they can use it as a defense against a charge of behaving like a total douchebag. Let me be clear, I don't mean honesty in any of those terms. I think that honesty is a very good, very practical way to practice holiness. Not as an impossible measure of perfection or an all purpose defense for being slanderous or mean but rather in the sense of being consistently reliable and trustworthy, especially as pertaining to the sharing of information.

The best part is, it's not even that hard to do. All it takes is the willingness to take a moment to think about the things you've heard. Sounds too amazing? Maybe it is. The great thing about the information age is that it is also easier than ever to check your facts. is a fantastic resource for checking up on the veracity of the rumours and factoids in your inbox, use it as much as you can, they have a wealth of articles there that are easy to search. Wikipedia (for all it's imperfections) is a great tool for quickly checking information. If you aren't a 100% convinced that the Wikipedia article is accurate, check out the bottom of the page - a good entry should have proper citations and links to more scholarly work allowing you to further investigate. (Here is a very good guide to verifying information found on the Internet by Johns Hopkins university if you want to become a more dedicated fact checker) Another easy way is to simply google what you heard - that may not always give you the truth BUT it will tell you who is really saying it. If it is true and real then you should be getting a lot of pages from the relevant authorities on the subject. If the only pages mentioning it are some fringe groups or conspiracy theorist bloggers then maybe you shouldn't be so quick to believe it. My point is, we have a choice when it comes to dealing with information. We can blindly pass things along the grapevine and be a part of a broken and dishonest system OR we can take (literally in most cases) a minute to just make sure that what we pass is actually the truth.

I also believe that a good thing to be honest about is the unknowns. Is it really so hard to say "I don't know" or "I don't understand that either"? Especially in spiritual matters, I would rather be honest and tell someone when I have the same doubts, uncertainties and fears that they have than to give them the glib, stock answer. You may just find that it makes a far bigger difference for someone to know that they aren't the only people in the world with questions.

So then, while I am by no means a Christian authority or any kind of authority on the subject of holiness, I do offer these things as practical advice. Check your facts. Don't be afraid to admit when you don't know, don't understand or when you have questions of your own. Don't round up your numbers, don't adjust your statistics - you probably aren't fooling anyone anyway. Will this alone make you holy? No, of course not. But I do believe it is a good start and what's more it is practical and within reach of everyone. It may be only a small step on the road of holiness but I do believe it's an important one.

[Edit: 18 Nov 2008]
I have done some thinking about this subject - why go from the subject of holiness to honesty? Well when I first wrote it my reasoning was as follows: Honesty was something we could all work on and what is more we could all work on it with ease and immediate success. That I have always felt was crucial when starting something new in your life, whether it was a diet or an exercise program or any type of difficult project - find that ONE thing you could do and get right. When you have that then the road forward becomes a lot easier. Any difficult quest becomes easier to start when you can start off with a victory after all. Now that I had a chance to think about it though I realize there is more to it than that, honesty is a better starting point than I thought. Maybe if you can start off with being a little more intentional about making sure you are being honest about what you tell people, after a while it will spread to other parts of your life. Maybe after a while you will want to start being more honest with God when you pray. Maybe after a while you will start wanting to be more honest with yourself and less comfortable with the easy excuses. Maybe after a while you want to start being honest about questions like "What am I really like?", "What do I really believe in?", "What do I think of myself?", "What do I truly believe about God?" Come to think of it, I find it hard to imagine a better first step on the road to being holy-different than simple honesty. I don't think its a journey you can begin in any other way.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


What does the term “holy” mean to you? Do you ever think about it? After all for any concept to have value, we need to have a firm grasp of what it means do we not? Unfortunately there is a disturbing trend among Christians to have a great many terms which – while we use them really often – remain foggy and rather undefined (at least in practical terms), rendering them pretty much pointless. My friend and fellow blogger TPluckyT has started a great series a while ago called GodQuest, chronicling his personal journey of making oft used Christianese terms like “finding God” and “having a personal relationship with God” more tangible and meaningful and that has inspired me to re-examine some of the words I might be using unthinkingly. For some – if not most – Christians, the word “holy” means something vague, maybe to do with being good or halo’s or angels and church. For others it refers to some kind of incredible standard of perfection that God expects from us yet only He can be. For most of us though it’s really hard to pin down exactly what it’s supposed to look like in our lives.

Now for this I don’t really blame the church. Anyone who regularly attends church must have at some point heard a sermon on holiness and there is a very high likelihood that somewhere during that service the preacher mentioned that the word “holy” in the original language literally means “set aside” or “set apart”. Yet due to perhaps a lot of mental clutter and preconceived ideas, this never really sunk in for me. Yet I found that when I managed to wipe away the vague notions and preconceived ideas about holiness and started thinking about it in terms of meaning “set apart” or “made to be different”, a lot of the Bible which previously made little sense started making perfect sense. For instance, so much of the Torah rules about food and dress and behavior just seems weird and pointless to our 21st century ears. But consider this, God chose to use a group of people – the Israelites – to be his messengers. For this reason He made them Holy and gave His Law to keep them that way. Now if you think of holiness as some kind of perfection, most of the dietary, clothing, sacrificial and behavioral laws make little to no sense! BUT – when you think of holy as being made different or set apart, it makes total sense. Eating different, living different, behaving different and dressing different doesn’t make you good or better or perfect or in any way superior but it certainly does set you apart and keeps you from assimilating and becoming just like everyone else. I think this provides a very practical explanation as to why despite countless banishments and millennia of cruel persecution the Jewish people have never been destroyed nor become lost in the sea of humanity – through all the ages they stayed apart, different, in a word: Holy.

While for many modern Christians a term like “holy” may be a vague, ethereal thing, in Biblical times “holy” meant something sensory and visceral. Holiness was something you could see and smell and hear and touch. This almost alien concept was first brought to my attention when I read CS Lewis’ book “Till we have faces”, which retold the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche and through it managed to explore some very Christian issues by using a completely pagan setting. Something that struck me was how the main character was always frightened by the high priest and the temple of their goddess because it smelled so holy. Put yourself in the shoes of any character in the Bible for a moment (especially in the Old Testament) and think about it for a moment. What would your sensory experience of holiness have been? Holiness smelled like blood and smoke and incense and burnt flesh, holiness sounded like loud music and sacrifices sensing their immanent death, holiness looked like death and rivers of blood flowing from an altar. Holiness could be dark and scary and intimidating. But maybe holiness could also look like family and community and smell like mom’s kosher cooking and sound like prayer and scripture being read together. Holiness could be frightening, holiness could be comforting, it could feel like pain and persecution or it could feel like home and belonging. My point is that holiness wasn’t vague and out there, holiness was something real, something you could see and live and something that could be embodied. As it happened there were some people called upon to take this embodiment to the next level – the Nazarites.

Nazarites (Hebrew nazir Elohim, "one separated to God") existed as living pictures of holiness. They had to stand out even among those already called to stand out. According to Numbers 6:1-21 there were 3 things that set them apart (made them holy in other words):
  1. Total abstinence from wine (not even grapes or raisins were allowed) or strong drink – considering that wine was like the coca-cola of the day, not drinking wine really made you different!
  2. Refraining from cutting your hair – we always associate this part with Samson, but take a moment to consider how different this would have made you. Everyone trimmed their hair, it just makes sense if you live in a hot desert environment! Someone with long wild hair would really have stood out a lot!
  3. Avoidance of contact with the dead – this included the bodies of your closest relatives and loved ones. Some commentators even suggest that this implied that Nazarites couldn’t eat meat.
Usually this was just a temporary thing, there is mention made in Scripture of only three who were Nazarites for life, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist (Jdg 13:4,5; 1Sa 1:11; Luk 1:15). In its ordinary form, however, the Nazarite's vow lasted only thirty, and at most one hundred, days. But the point here is that these people didn’t so much live as “holy men” (or saints) the way we tend to think of today. Most Bible dictionaries would tell you that the Nazarite vow was about: “a life devoted to God and separated from all sin” (Eastons Bible Dictionary). But that doesn’t quite make sense does it? Nothing listed as requirements here actually constitute “sins”. After all there is nothing sinful about or wrong with drinking wine or cutting your hair or touching the body of your dead parent/child (or eating meat for that matter). Seems to me that the Nazarites didn’t so much live as examples of holiness (in other words “Live like this if you want to be holy”) but instead that they lived as reminders to be holy. They stood out a lot, to remind you that you aren’t supposed to look and be just like everyone else. They were walking billboards making the point that you weren’t supposed to be assimilated.

If you want proof you need not look further than one of the most famous Nazarites of them all – John the Baptist. When he preached he didn’t tell people that they needed to be more like him. He did however tell them to be different. For instance when tax collectors came to him and asked what they needed to do, he didn’t tell them to become vegetarian teetotalers in the desert. Instead he told them to be a different kind of tax collector, fair and honest (unlike the norm at the time). Likewise when soldiers asked what they needed to do he didn’t tell them to become long haired hippies who never came near dead things. Instead he told them to become a different kind of soldier – honest men, protectors instead of exploiters of the powerless.

See “holy” might mean “different”, but it does not mean different just for the sake of being different. If “holy” means “set apart” then the implication is that one is set apart for a reason. There is a greater purpose to “being holy” than simply “being good” or “being separated”. Being holy is about living in such a way that you remind the world around you that there is another, better way to live. Or as Joss Whedon put it:
“We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be”

So what does “being holy” mean to you? What does it mean to me? This is the 21st century after all and while the message of holiness must remain the same, what does that mean in a practical sense today? What kind of different are we supposed to be, as Christians and what should it look like? There are the obvious things of course – we should live moral and ethical lives – maybe today more than ever that is part of being “holy/different”. But should there be more? If so, what would that be? What does "holy" look, sound, taste and smell like to you?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

An open letter to American Christians

Dear friends and strangers,

It is no secret that with your upcoming elections you are facing some strange and interesting times. In many ways I feel like I am facing them with you. For one thing Rammstein kind of had a point – “We’re all living in America”. I watch the movies you make, I watch your sitcoms and your drama’s, your televangelists, your talk shows and your news programs. On a more personal level I have had the pleasure to get to know some of you personally through your blogs and through Facebook and that has been by far my favourite part. It was great to get past the preconceived ideas and stereotypes and get to know you for the real, interesting and complex people you truly are. It is for this reason most of all that I felt the need to share something with you. See I know a little something about the things you are worried about right now. I have been in a place similar to where you are at present and I have lived through some of the very things you fear most. Now let’s be clear, I would be the first to admit that it doesn’t mean I know exactly what you are feeling, after all I’m not you. So I’m not trying to preach to you or talk down to you. I also have no idea what your future will be like as I am no prophet or clairvoyant. I just want to share a part of my own experience and maybe, just maybe, it will be of some use to you.

See, I have been reading some of the concerns you have about your possible future and especially the work of people like Janet Folger and Focus on the Family paints a horrifically grim picture of your future under Democratic Party leadership. Now this has never been a political blog and I am not about to turn it into one. I have no intention of telling you who to vote for. This blog has been about matters of Christian faith and it is those concerns in particular that I wish to address.

First, some background. This is me, a couple of decades a go, a happy little white boy living in Africa proudly supporting our very own “war on terror” as you can tell by my t-shirt. Things were pretty simple back then, in fact in many ways we in Apartheid South Africa had what most American Fundamentalist Christians dream of – Christianity was the state religion and everyone had to live according to Christian rules. Gays had no say. Abortion was illegal (there were a handful of exceptions but they were rare and for medical reasons mostly). Every day the national broadcaster featured Christian devotionals on both TV and radio. Sundays everyone went to church and again, there were church services on both national radio and TV. The advice columnist in the biggest and most popular family magazine in the country was a preacher and Christian counselor – back then if a teenager wrote in saying that he thought he was gay he was told that he wasn’t really gay and was referred to counseling. No evolution was taught in school. Bible classes were compulsory subjects even in High School. All forms of entertainment deemed obscene or blasphemous was heavily censored if allowed at all. (There was one adult magazine on the supermarket shelves and it was printed with stars over the “naughty parts”.) But then suddenly 1994 came around and everything changed. We got a brand new super liberal constitution. Abortion became legally and freely available without parental consent. Gays got the right to marry and adopt children. TV no longer just broadcast Christian devotionals and services but started giving equal time to Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, New Age and Traditional African religious programming. Our government no longer supported Israel and started supporting voicing support for Palestine instead. Suddenly nothing was censored and everything was freely available. In short we went from a fundamentalist’s dream to a fundamentalist’s nightmare.

Let me put it to you this way – what are the things you fear most about having Obama and the liberal left wing in charge? Having a black man in charge who chooses the interests of black people over that of white people? Having Muslims, socialists and communists in your government? Having a weakened military? Open borders? Nationwide gay rights regarding marriage and adoption? Going from a “Christian Nation” to a totally secular state? Well, I have had all that happen in my lifetime and I have been living with it for the past 14 years. Everything you fear and a couple of things that probably hasn't even occurred to you to fear has happened here so believe me, I get your concerns. We had the exact same ones and we had the same dark view of the future - people were stocking up on canned food and toilet paper like you wouldn't believe!

Well, it’s been 14 years. Here is what didn’t happen:
  • Christianity didn’t become illegal. I’m not in a concentration camp and I can still attend any church I want to.
  • Fundamentalist Christians aren’t getting persecuted. In fact it seems that Christian fundamentalism is gaining ground daily.
  • Christianity didn’t get censored. Pastors, Dominees, Reverends, Bishops and Priests can still say whatever they like from the pulpit. Likewise, Christians can still say what they want in newspapers, magazines and on TV – even if it’s anti-gay or anti-abortion or anti-government.
  • The Bible didn’t get banned. I can read from it, write about it and discuss it in any forum I wish.
  • Home schooling is not illegal – in fact many parents take that route.
  • The country didn’t collapse into an odd mix of Orwellian politics and moral anarchy and Satan worship (though you could probably find some South Africans with a more pessimistic outlook on this than I do.)

Here is what did happen:
  • The kind of churches that people used to belong to for political or business reasons lost a lot of members, some even closed down. You know the kind I’m talking about, the kind of church you have to belong to if you want to fit in? Well when “Being Christian” was no longer equal to “fitting in” they just didn’t have much of a reason to exist it seems.
  • Churches who offered their members something real and relevant started booming – Pentecostal and Charismatic mega churches actually arose for the first time.
  • Christians still had freedom of expression under the super liberal constitution they weren’t crazy about BUT they had to start enduring challenge and debate for the first time. Sure, a pastor can still go on TV and say that gays are an abomination to God but he will have to share the podium with another pastor who may disagree with him. People now get to make more informed decisions on what they believe.
  • Christians don’t get to enforce their moral standards using the law anymore. But then neither did the Apostles. Or Jesus for that matter…
  • In short, Christianity had to sink or swim on its own with no help from the government.

So while I don’t know what your future will look like, I can with reasonable certainty tell you that those who try to tell you that there are only 2 possible outcomes – conservative Christian government or an evil Anti-Christ empire – are wrong. After all, if your faith has anything going for it, if what you believe is in any way real, then it shouldn’t need the president to prop it up and keep it going, right? (I believe that your Christian brethren in totally secular (and mostly atheist) countries like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan etc will back me up regarding this one.) Being concerned about your future and making careful decisions regarding it is good, I’m not suggesting you stop that. Just let go of the fear. Most of all, give no ear to people who only spread fear and hopelessness and visions of doom. Vote any way you want to for whatever reason you see fit but please don’t vote out of fear. Is America not supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave? Why then does it seem like I believe that more than you do? Sometimes the larger implication of freedom is that you don’t always get to have things go your way. Beware the fearmongers. Be brave. Embrace freedom.

We did and look, we are still here!

Kind Regards,

Your Christian friend in a secular South Africa.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Critical Thinking and Christianity: A Case of Complement or Contradiction?

Everyone wants to be a skeptic these days it seems. There used to be a time when the term “skeptic” meant someone who opposed believers in everything from UFO’s to séances but as a recent series of articles in at the James Randi Educational Foundation noted, these very believers in the paranormal are now referring to themselves skeptics! I noticed the same thing on various internet discussion boards – everyone from Young Earth Creationists to a wide variety of conspiracy theorists are describing themselves as skeptics. What happened? It seems as if somewhere along the line being a skeptic became cool and now everyone wants to be one. Which leaves me with the question – what am I?

After all I call myself a skeptic yet most of the great skeptics (the real ones like James Randi and Phil Plait) would probably not agree with me. After all, though I may not believe in alternative “medicine” (like homeopathy, reflexology and acupuncture), astrology, numerology or the Loch Ness Monster but I am still a Christian. I do believe in strange and improbable/impossible things like the God and angels and the virgin birth and bodily resurrection, so really how much of a right do I have to call myself a skeptic? Should I not be applying the same rules to Christianity that I used to come to the conclusion that New Age “remedies” is total BS? I remember that in the opening chapter of his book “Tricks of the Mind”, the mentalist Derren Brown tells of his journey from Pentecostal Christian to Atheist and how it all started with him investigating various “demonic” New Age practices and how finding that it was all just smoke and mirrors and self delusion led him to the eventual conclusion that the same could be said of his Christian faith. Is this really the only destination that thinking critically can take me? Is it the eventual destiny of all who discard superstition to discard their faith as well?

To me the mark of a true skeptic is the ability to think critically and therein lies the rub does it not? After all in my own previous post I lamented the lack of critical thinking skills among Christians. Added to that, no matter how much I would like to, I cannot separate myself from that. Being a Christian and believing the things I do, requires me to take some things on faith after all. There is no way for me to use logic, evidence and critical thinking to vindicate my beliefs no matter how much I wish it could be so.

What then can I do? Should I reject critical thinking in order to be a better believer? That is not an option available to me. I cannot simply switch that part of myself off, especially not now. Should I try to be selective? Be critical of some things and blindly accepting of others? I honestly do not see how I can do that. How will I draw that line? I can’t look at some evidence and ignore others. I can’t open my eyes to the facts I like and close it to the facts I dislike. I cannot, like some of my brethren, act as if science and archeology proves the Bible as factual for I know it cannot. Finding the city of Jericho does not prove that the Israelites marched around it for seven days. Knowing that Pontius Pilate was a real person is not the same as having proof that he washed his hands in innocence. Finding an empty tomb or two does not prove that Jesus rose from it. Some things can be proven as fact and others cannot. Maybe it is in the acceptance of this fact that I must live then.

I was reading a great book called “Becoming a Critical Thinker” (well the free online first chapter which is all I can afford for now…) by noted skeptic Robert Todd Carroll and something struck me in its description of what the attitude of a critical thinker should be. In it he writes that: “A critical thinker is neither dogmatic nor gullible. The most distinctive features of the critical thinker’s attitude are open-mindedness and skepticism” (©2004 Robert Todd Carroll). When I read that I realized that maybe being a critical thinker and a Christian is not such a complete contradiction. It seems to me at least that a true critical thinker has to live in the balance.

On the one hand he should be skeptical without being dogmatic. I believe it is here that a lot of wanna-be internet skeptics fail. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean rejecting everything out of hand. A knee-jerk skeptic is not a skeptic. Simply disbelieving and dismissing everything out of hand doesn’t make you a skeptic, it makes you an ass. Skepticism should carry with it the willingness to evaluate and investigate. Skepticism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the assumption that you already know all truth, rather it is the willingness to search for the truth – continually if you have to. Skepticism means you are willing to check and recheck any idea for truthfulness, even those ideas most dear to you. For this of course you need the other side of the balance, the ability to be open minded. Open mindedness is not the same as gullibility. Most people consider themselves open minded when all they really have is a hole in the head where their brains are leaking out! Open mindedness does not refer to believing everything you hear, it refers to the ability to give all ideas a fair chance. Now not all ideas are equal, but if someone tells you something you are skeptical about and they offer to prove it, the open minded thing would be to at least give their proof a chance. The moment you refuse to even hear what someone with an opposing viewpoint has to say you are closed minded. Open mindedness is nothing more than the willingness to listen, explore and give a fair hearing to different ideas.

Now granted this only scrapes the surface of critical thinking and deals with the attitude of the thinker, not with the various tools involved. I admit freely that I have a lot left to learn about skepticism and critical thinking and that I still have to undo years of uncritical thinking patterns. However the more I learn about critical thinking and skepticism the more hopeful I become that there is hope and room for me amongst the skeptics. All of us, even the best critical thinkers face innumerable hurdles to truly being a critical thinker about everything. Most, if not all of us, find it easy to be critical about some issues but hard regarding others. For instance one person may be extremely skeptical about politicians but really gullible when it comes to infomercials while another may analyze everything his preacher says, yet never ask for a second opinion on anything his doctor tells him! We all have our strengths and weaknesses in this way. In many ways, critical thinking is hard no matter who you are. So much of our very wiring seems to be set against it. We seem to be wired to seek out opinions that agree with ours and reject those who do not, sometimes without regard for their actual truthfulness. Following the trail of truth to wherever it may lead us is no easy task for a human. Its not a matter of intelligence either, the smartest people can be the worst and critical thinking and do the dumbest things sometimes! In fact, sometimes intelligence may be more of a handicap - the more intelligent a person is it seems the easier it is to rationalize away the things that prove them wrong!

The best any of us can do is to try to live with a continuous willingness to seek the truth and to examine what we find. We cannot possibly hope to know or understand everything yet that should not discourage us to try to know and understand as much as we can. It is in this balance we must all attempt to live. I have heard it said that poets don’t go mad, chess players do. Yet I can’t help but wonder how many chess players end up drowning themselves in large bodies of water like poets often do... I believe that balance is the key element. While there are things that we are certain about, that gives us no excuse never to re-examine and re-explore them, testing our own sacred certainties. At the same time there are some things which may always remain mysteries, things that may forever elude our understanding. Yet I don’t think this means we shouldn’t constantly try to get a better grasp on them, to try to further our insight into them.

I certainly believe that the church should be more welcoming of critical thinking. We allow so much nonsense into our midst, simply because no one ever thinks to question or think about it. Did the Old Testament not require prophets to be accurate on pain of death? Does the New Testament not say that we should "test the spirits" and that there is "no private interpretation" of the prophecies? Why then is there such an (unBiblical) unwillingness to be more skeptical in church? (I'm not suggestion we stone people for getting something wrong but really, would it kill us to admit when we made a mistake?)

As for my faith, I believe there is room for that right alongside my skepticism. After all, no amount of skepticism rules out the existence of God and any skeptic who claims that is not being true to the tenets of critical thinking. Even a devout atheist (in this case, Youtuber AronRa) stated that:
“Everything within the capacity of human understanding contains a degree of error, and everything men know to be true is only true to a degree. Everyone is inevitably wrong about something somewhere. We don’t know everything about everything. We don’t know everything about anything! And what we do know, we don’t know accurately on all points nor completely in every detail. Honest men admit this. “

This means you can’t rule out the existence of God using only critical thinking and logic. At the same time this also means you can’t claim with absolute certainty that God exists or that anything in the Bible happened the way it was described. I fully accept that. That is why God is a matter of faith to me, not knowledge. In fact I was hesitant to even bring this up because this happens to be my least favourite defense of the existence of God, the “Well you can’t prove He DOESN’T exist!!!” argument. I mention this only to say that I don’t think it is absolutely contrary to be a critical thinker and a man of faith. My faith is just that, faith. I don’t pretend it’s anything else. Terry Pratchett had a character in his Discworld novels named “Abraxas the Agnostic”. Now he was nicknamed “Charcoal” Abraxas because he had been struck by lightning fifteen times - which suggests that being an agnostic in the Discworld requires an enviable strength of mind, not to say thickness of skull. His own comment, just before the fifteenth stroke, was “They needn't think they can make me believe in them by smiting me the whole time”. In studying critical thinking and skepticism I often feel like a mirror version of Abraxas – I comprehend all the reasons for not believing in God, I understand the reasoning of Agnostics and Atheists and I see the sense and reason in their arguments. Yet for some reason I cannot stop having faith. God is real to me and I believe in Him, try as I might, God remains real to me whether I want Him to or not. Therefore, my life remains in this strange juxtaposition of faith and reason, skepticism and mysticism. It may all change one day, it may never change. Come what may I will continue to both explore and enjoy the mystery and question and probe the certainties of my life, wherever that may lead me in the end.