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The sharp distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith common in New Testament studies has proven to be an inexhaustible mine for those searching for melodramatic ideas to bounce around during important Christian holidays. The historical Jesus is taken to be the merely human person who was born and raised in Palestine and was crucified during the days of Pontius Pilate. The Christ of faith is assumed to be a mythical, supernatural figure invented by the early admirers of the earthly Jesus. Such thinking flourished in eighteenth century German biblical scholarship, particularly after the posthumous publication of the private notes of Herman Samuel Reimarus between 1774 and 1778.
Inspired by Reimarus’s doubts concerning the historicity of the biblical record, many other scholars published monographs in which they cast Jesus in various religious and cultural roles unhinged from the supernatural. The whole movement, which became known as “the old quest of the historical Jesus,” was brought to a near screeching halt by the 1906 publication of Albert Schweitzer’s book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, whose title also branded the movement. Schweitzer demonstrated that the scholars of the old quest shared something in common—they relied heavily on their presuppositions about who they believed Jesus was and so “each individual created him in accordance with his own character.”(1) In other words, each one of them ended up producing the Jesus they went out looking for in the first place.
Unfortunately, the tendency to recast Jesus in our own image continues even in our day. In scholarly circles, it is represented by the Jesus Seminar which refuses to allow the possibility of the supernatural for those who have “seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope.”(2) Even among believers, it rears its ugly head whenever we prefix the name of Jesus with the possessive pronoun “my” in order to secure our turf from unwelcome scrutiny. A few years ago, a friend and I attended a church in which several people broke out in convulsive laughter in the middle of the worship service. My friend later informed me that they were laughing in Jesus. I knew something about the historical Jesus, but this was my first encounter with the hysterical Jesus and further evidence of his protean flexibility in human hands.
Dale Henderson gives cello concerts in New York City subway stations because he fears the day when classical music will be no more. He plays for free, focusing primarily on Bach Solo Cello Suites because their “power and beauty unfailingly inspire great appreciation, joy and deep emotion in those who hear them.”(1) Some commuters stop and stare, curious or captivated, many having never heard a cello or Bach concerto before. For Henderson, the music is an offering of something meaningful, seeds for future generations of classical music admirers who would not otherwise know it, beauty well worth lugging his heavy cello down into the subways to protect.
It is not always easy to talk about beauty without a minefield of objections or at best complicating list of qualifiers. Its modern place in the “eye of the beholder” gives it a tenuous feel at best. It’s ancient place as a perfect and ancient ideal is equally abstract. While Henderson describes a world without classical music as soul-less, others may not miss it so much. And the contrast of beauty in a broken and breaking world makes its distinctive encounters increasingly stand out.
One author describes the common, but individual, effect of our varied encounters of the beautiful this way: “‘Beauty’ seems suited to those experiences that stop us in our tracks. Whether it’s a painting called Broadway Boogie-Woogie or a scherzo by Paganini, the beautiful is conducive to stillness. It doesn’t excite us, or necessarily instill in us the desire to replicate it; it simply makes us exist as though we’re existing for that very experience.”(2) His words are rife with the power of beauty to create longing, a desire to somehow participate. Beauty indeed leaves us with the ache of longing for another taste, another glimpse. And for each of us, this longing can come at unique or unsuspecting times—at the spectacular sight of the giant sequoias or a tiny praying mantis, at a concert or watching a First Nation powwow and taking in the colors, the drums, the survival of a betrayed people.
As a young girl, I had the unique opportunity to travel to South Africa. We stayed for a month in December when I was just five years old. My father’s parents and sister had immigrated to South Africa from Britain and it was a rare opportunity to travel to see them. I can still remember the excitement of climbing into the Pan Am jet that would take me to what was surely a land full of adventure. The year was 1971.
Never in my young life had I experienced a place so unlike anything I knew. Growing up in the suburban Midwest of the U.S., my world was filled with snow and concrete, winters lasting long into April with rows and rows of houses lined with sidewalks. South Africa, by contrast, was a land of bright sunshine, vast horizons, beautiful ocean beaches, rugged mountains and diverse landscapes: from the dusty Kalahari Desert to the mountainous coast of Cape Town. Every place was a startling, new discovery of sights, smells, and experiences.
One such experience remains with me to this day. Thirsty after an afternoon at a trampoline park with my South African cousins, we went in search of public drinking fountains. Seeing just such an area not too far beyond where my tired legs could carry me, I ran ahead of the others in order to quench my thirst. Just as I leaned over to drink, a hand grabbed my shoulder and a loud, gruff voice told me not to drink from that fountain. It was for “coloreds” only.
Science fiction novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said of one of his most recurrent characters, “Trout was the only character I ever created who had enough imagination to suspect that he might be the creation of another human being. He had spoken of this possibility several times to his parakeet. He had said, for instance, ‘Honest to God, Bill, the way things are going, all I can think of is that I’m a character in a book by somebody who wants to write about somebody who suffers all the time.”(1) In this scene from the book Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout’s haunting suspicion is unveiled before him. Sitting content at a bar, Kilgore is suddenly overwhelmed by someone or something that has entered the room. Beginning to sweat, he becomes uncomfortably aware of a presence disturbingly greater than himself.
The author himself, Kurt Vonnegut, has stepped beyond the role of narrator and into the book itself, and the effect is as bizarre for Kilgore as it is for the readers. When the author of the book steps into the novel, fiction is lost within a new reality. Kilgore senses the world as he knows it collapsing. In fact, this was the author’s intent. Vonnegut has placed himself in Kilgore’s world for no other reason than to explain the meaninglessness of Kilgore’s life. He came to explain to Kilgore face to face that the very tiresome life he has led was, in fact, all due to the pen and whims of an author who made it all up for his own sake. In this twisted ending, no doubt illustrative of Vonnegut’s own humanism, Kilgore is forced to conclude that apart from the imagination of the author he does not actually exist. Ironically, he also must come to terms with the fact that it is because of the author that his very existence has been ridiculous.
My wife, Ono, is someone who has been through quite a bit of physical distress and lives with some measure of disability. In one of her old Bibles is a fading scrawl that she made during one of her bouts of illness. It is a quote by Joni Eareckson Tada: “When we learn to lean back in God’s sovereignty, fixing and settling our thoughts on that unshakable, unmovable reality, we can experience inner peace. Our trouble may not change, our pain may not diminish, our loss may not be restored, our problems may not fade with the new dawn. But, the power of those things to harm us is broken as we rest in the fact that God is in control.”(1)
As is well known, Joni Eareckson has lived with unimaginable handicap for the most part of her remarkable life. In the book Indelible Ink, where 22 prominent Christian leaders discuss the one book (apart from the Bible) that has most influenced each of their lives, Joni Eareckson’s pick was Loraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.(2)
The epigraph that Joni Eareckson used for her chapter in Indelible Ink is also from Boettner’s book: “History,” Boettner says, “in all its details, even the most minute, is but the unfolding of the eternal purposes of God. His decrees are not successively formed as the emergency arises, but are all parts of one all-comprehending plan, and we should never think of Him suddenly evolving a plan or doing something which He had not thought of before.”(3)
“Shepherd” is not a career choice you often hear children dreaming about. Tending sheep is not as adventurous as being an astronaut or as glamorous as being a movie star. But to one small child in a Sunday school classroom, “shepherd” seemed the most logical answer. What do you want to be when you grow up? She wanted to be a shepherd because “Jesus is good at it and it makes him happy.” This, I thought self-assuredly, was a child who was paying attention in my class.
Later, as I put the crayons back in the cupboard and turned to get the kids in line for church, my eyes caught the picture that hung on the wall behind me each week. It was one of Jesus, holding a lamb in his arms, smiling.
The Christian narrative is full of images of sheep and shepherding. The ancient prophet writes of God, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”(1) The gospel writer notes similarly of Christ, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”(2) Hearing such descriptions, perhaps you recollect images of a Good Shepherd similar to the painting in my Sunday school classroom: Jesus standing peacefully among his flock, keeping watch and taking care. It is an image not far from some of those carefully painted in well-told stories: The LORD is my shepherd I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
The glory of God is the human person fully alive. I first read this quote by Irenaeus of Lyons while still a graduate student. In my early rendering of this evocative statement, I imagined people at play in a field of flowers, the sun shining brightly. Everyone is happy and smiling, laughing even, as they dance and play in the fields of the Lord. As I pictured it in my mind’s eye, the human person fully alive was a person alive to possibility, never-ending opportunities, and always happy. How could it be otherwise with God’s glory as the enlivening force?
One author suggests the same in his commentary on Irenaeus’ statement:
“God’s intentions towards me might be better than I’d thought. His happiness and my happiness are tied together? My coming fully alive is what He’s committed to? That’s the offer of Christianity? Wow! I mean, it would make no small difference if we knew–and I mean really knew–that down-deep-in-your-toes kind of knowing that no one and nothing can talk you out of–if we knew that our lives and God’s glory were bound together. Things would start looking up. It would feel promising…the offer is life.”(1)
Despite my romantic imagination and the author’s exuberant interpretation, I am often perplexed as to just what “fully alive” looks like for many people in our world. How would this read to women in the Congo, for example, whose lives are torn apart by tribal war and violence against their own bodies? What would this mean to an acquaintance of mine who is a young father recently diagnosed with lymphoma? What about those who are depressed or those who live with profound disabilities?
Author John Stackhouse describes the discipline of “apologetics” as the Christian work of commending the faith as much as it is about defending the faith.(1) Commending the faith, he argues, is something the Christian community does wherever it is—with one another, with neighbors, with the world. Consequently, it is also something the Christian community does whether they are aware of it or not.
In his sermon before the Areopagus, the apostle Paul commended the gospel with reason and rhetoric that would not have gone unrecognized. This is the good news, he professed, and the good life depends on it. To the Athenian philosophers, he commended the gospel in terms that mattered deeply to them. “Since we are God’s offspring,” he said quoting an Athenian poet, “we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”(2) For on the contrary, he told them, the real and present Deity is now calling people everywhere to turn around and come near.
The apostle then followed this bold notion with a proof that would have caused as much, if not more, commotion in first century Athens as in hyper-rational modernity and cynical post-modernity. We know that God is the true creator, sustainer, and friend, he reasoned, because God “has given this proof… by raising [Christ] from the dead.”(3) Paul is telling the story of God in the world here, but he is also telling his own story. This Deity he commends to the Athenian philosophers is the risen Christ who appeared to him on Damascus road, who became friend instead of foe, and turned his own philosophy and consequently his life around.
Public radio program This American Life ran a special report on a certain sub-culture of people whose prize possessions are their car stereos. They are called “decibel drag racers” and people flock across international borders to join them in competition. Like actual drag racing, cars line up across the track, except in this competition they will not be going anywhere. The winner is the owner of the car stereo that can play at the loudest possible decibel. Oddly enough (that is, more odd than the fact that these systems are too powerful to play music), most of the cars that win this competition are not even drivable. The world record holder at the time of this interview had 900 pounds of concrete poured into the floor of his van. Wind shields usually only make it through three competitions before cracking (and these are not normal windshields). Yet one competitor still seems to entirely miss the irony that there is no longer any room for himself in his car. “We need more batteries,” he laments. “But that’s all the room we have.”(1)
To anyone outside of this extreme audio sport world, “irony” is perhaps a generous word to describe the phenomenon. The TAL reporter was far more articulate: “Everybody wants to be the king of a hill,” he concluded. “But the number of aspiring kings always dwarfs the number of available hills, so in this country we build more hills.”(2) I’m not sure there is a better way to describe it.
I must confess to a certain curiosity with why things turn out as they do. I read a lot of history, biographies, and stories of human successes and failures. Being a child of a particular age, I was raised with a certain degree of optimism. The bad times—World War II, the Korean War—were behind us, and once again we could get back to the normal business of pursuing happiness and success, which I was led to believe were easily within my reach.
Optimism is not hope, yet it is a recurring feature of life in good times. It is also a feature that all too quickly vanishes and reveals itself for what it is when bad times return. As a European, I lived through one of history’s great turning points, a turning point powerfully demonstrated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The wall was not simply a physical reality, which had divided families, a nation, and a continent for decades; it was a symbol of the clash of visions and worldviews that battled for a season, not only for Europe, but for global dominance.
I can well remember the astonished newscasters as Germans embraced each other on top of the despised symbol of separation. Europe and the world seethed with the euphoria of change. The brave new world was being born, and optimism was the mood of the day (1989-1991). I heard breathless gurus of the age proclaim the dawn of unfettered freedom, and one even wrote shortly thereafter about “the end of history and the last man” in the sincere belief of the triumph of free market capitalism and liberal democracy.
Yet wisdom bids us to stop, look, and listen. In the first decade of the twenty-first century we have witnessed 9/11, bombings in Spain, Bali, and London. We have seen the debacles of Enron, WorldCom, and the fiascos of “Bear Stearns” (USA) and “Northern Rock” (UK). Optimism has met its match. Perhaps for some, they are seeing the collapse of hopes and the fulfillment of fears. The movie scene is reflectively filled with apocalyptic and nihilistic visions.
When hope fades, cynicism is often waiting in the wings. And this is indeed one of the great challenges of our time. Skepticism (there is nothing good and I know it) and cynicism (I can’t trust anybody or anything and I know this) seem reasonable choices. But is this a necessary outcome or orientation for us? I think not. Yet, if we have bought into a rationalist vision, if we have embraced the vision and values of our age uncritically, if faith is merely a part-time investment in an over cluttered life, then perhaps we don’t have the necessary orientation or resolve to face the issues and challenges of our time.
The Christian scriptures open up for us a view of the world that is very different: There is a God. This God is the creator, and God is personal, loving, willful, and particular. We see that despite being a good creation, a disruption and disorder has occurred and the drama of redemption unfolds. But the central character here is God! It is what God does, whom God appoints, and what God decides that makes the difference.
This is not to say that life according to Christian theology is pre-determined. I have seen too much, experienced too much, and read too much to believe that my choices are illusory. I believe they are real. I have also seen too much, experienced too much, read too much to believe that our choices are, as Lewis would say, “the whole show.” History is not a fatalist’s game. Humans do act, and often with serious and sad outcomes. The good news, I believe, is that we are not alone!
Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminded them that hope is real because it is anchored in one who is able to carry it, sustain it, and fulfill it.(1) History is moving to an end, and Christ offers a good end. Thus, the difference between optimism, which is short term and easily overcome, and hope, which is eternal and anchored, is where they are rooted. One leans on human effort; the other rests in God and God’s promises.
Stuart McAllister is global support specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Romans 8:24-25, 28-30.
A special report on This American Life follows the lives of several people currently living what they unequivocally call “Plan B.” Host Ira Glass expounds his thoughts on an informal poll and a seemingly universal human reality. He asked a room of hundred people to think back to the beginning of adulthood when they were first formulating a plan for their lives. He called it Plan A, “the fate you were sure fate had in store.” He then asked those who were still following this plan to raise their hands. Only one person confessed she was still living Plan A; she was 23 years old.
It seems a trend among us: There is the thing we plan on doing with our lives, and then there’s the thing we end up doing, which becomes our life. Here, Christians often have a nuanced view of Plan A: it is God’s plan they are trying to follow. But there is still very much an initial picture of what this plan, and subsequently our lives, will—or should—look like. God’s best becomes something like a divine Plan A, while any other plan leads the follower to something else.
But akin to the statistics in the room with Mr. Glass, it is likely that the number of Christians who find themselves living the plan they first imagined are also few and far between. For some, this is seen as good news. Many discover along their carefully laid out plans that they are doing far more leading than being led, and God seems to mercifully redirect them. “Many are the plans in a human heart,” the proverb reads, “but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Others find the journey with God from Plan A to B to C to D an interesting part of the pilgrimage itself, maybe even the gift of following an unfathomable creator, a creator who we discover is far more creative than we! Yet there are still many others who walk away from Plan A thoroughly defeated. Regretful turns and drastic detours may now be behind us, but the deviation from the journey is writ large before us. We have failed at Plan A, the plan we believed divinely inspired; God’s best is now merely God’s backup. Wrestling with the guilt or disappointment of such a deviation can be found with or without the Christian spin.
Experts mark the absence of desire as a sign of dis-ease. I know this to be true, personally, when it comes to the desire for food. There have been times in my life when I was so upset and so distressed that I could not eat. My normal desire for preparing and eating food disappeared as more pressing concerns occupied my heart and mind. During those times, I had all means to satisfy my hunger, but no desire to do anything about it.
Of course, there are other times where out of a matter of principle, for special focus or discipline, one might routinely abstain from food. Ironically, the desire to eat becomes more pressing and more overt when one willingly chooses to forego meals. And perhaps this heightened focus on food hints at the experience of those who deal with deprivation and near-starvation. Despite not having any means to satisfy hunger, the gnawing pangs for food grow louder and louder.
The experience of hunger and its absence serves to illustrate the complicated nature of human desire—desire that is often unwieldy and seemingly beyond one’s control. Coping with our innate desires is hard enough, but then there are societal values and pressures that blur the line between genuine need and want. Regardless, desire reminds us of the deep hunger or dissatisfaction that resides at the core of our being. These longings speak of a restless hunger for something more, even when we have abundance and are seemingly well-fed.
Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was a nineteenth-century rabbi known for his mastery of an unwieldy Mishnaic teaching. To carry one’s self with the ayin tovah, or the “good eye,” is to see in a certain light the world and everyone in it. One scholar describes it as the choice “to intentionally focus on what is most pure in each person—to see their highest and holiest potential.”(1) Rabbi Yitzchok was beloved for his good eye, utilized even in cases where virtue seemed entirely wanting and holiness altogether deficient. As one author describes, “He’d roust the local drunk from his stupor on High Holy Days, seat him at the head of the table, and respectfully ask for his wisdom… He extended his caring to all, whether powerful or impoverished, scholarly or simple, righteous or reprobate.”(2) In minds often besieged by warring sides, opinions ad nauseam, and defensive or disparaging thoughts, the good eye is indeed a shift of perception.
I appreciate stories that remind me to keep my eyes opened for all that can be seen but can just as easily be missed. How we learn to see the world, how we labor to see and know the world, is profoundly important. Despite the perseverance of goodness, beauty, and truth around us, the collective wisdom of sociologists, philosophers, historians, and artists all indicates that contemporary culture is structurally estranged from the transcendent. Learning to see with the good eye may well be a difficult feat without mindful effort and practice. But could it not be an entirely transformative art for both the seer and the world being seen?
Ask an American about the most historically significant event of 1776 and you will most certainly hear about the signing of the declaration, independence from Great Britain, and the birthday of our nation. But 1776 also significantly marks the publication of Adam Smith’s influential Wealth of Nations, widely considered the first modern work in the field of economics and a work that remains widely influential today. Both Wealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence are publications that have inarguably shaped the world in ways beyond even what the original authors imagined.
All the same, historian Mark Noll suggests there is a third publication of 1776 that may have been even more historically influential than both of these momentous options. In a lecture at Harvard University, he argued: “I say with calculated awareness of what else was going on in Philadelphia [the signing of the Declaration of Independence], and in Scotland, where Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, that of all world-historical occurrences in that year, the publication of August Montagu Toplady’s hymn [Rock of Ages] may have been the most consequential.”(1)
This may seem a surprising choice—particularly for those who want to relegate the role of religion to far more primitive histories. Noll’s suggestion asks that we look not only beyond national histories, but beyond the version of history that wants to claim that there has always been a split between the sacred and the secular. Toplady’s hymn is one of the two most reprinted hymns in Christian history, but its words remind us of a history far beyond even this:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee;
Few challenges are as great for novelists as crafting a believably good character. Our native preoccupation with darkness often casts virtue in a light that is less than plausible. Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the deep-seated assumption that goodness itself is boring while the allure of badness remains magnetic. Poets and critics have long pointed to the character of Satan as the runaway hero of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Though this certainly wasn’t Milton’s intent, it is difficult to dispute that Satan stands out in the roster of characters as arguably the most dynamic, compelling, and relatable. A contemporary example would be the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s not just that we find darkness more interesting than light, it’s that we find it more believable.
Many have received the details from Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman as disheartening news once it became clear that the book was going to cast a shadow over the beloved character of Atticus Finch. This man who has stood for many as a champion of truth, justice, and human decency may turn out to be more of a fiction than his readers ever realized. Dramatic as it sounds, America may be losing one of her icons. In the words of Sam Sacks in his Wall Street Journal review, “Go Set a Watchman is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”
Though Harper Lee may force us to reconsider the character of Atticus Finch, I find it deeply encouraging that our sorrow regarding his possible moral compromises shows a clear hunger for genuine goodness. True, disillusion may be an all-too-common theme in our imaginative landscape these days, but if we feel betrayed by Atticus Finch (or his author), that sense of betrayal is surely motivated by a conviction that true men and women of integrity exist, and that their example, strength, and leadership are much-needed. Moreover, that goodness is not only plausible, but foundational to reality. In other word, not only is goodness real, but there is a goodness that sets the clear standard against which we measure all else, including Atticus Finch and his shortcomings.
A single plastic lawn chair sits small and unbefitting in the jungle of massive concrete pillars Atlantans know as Spaghetti Junction. A tangled intersection of two major interstates and its deluge of exits, onramps, over- and underpasses, Spaghetti Junction is a colossal picture of ordered chaos, the arteries and veins of a massive, active organism. To say the least, the small chair positioned to sit and watch from the side of the road, its matching side table suggesting space for a cup of tea, is incongruous of the congested, noxious web of concrete and frustrated motorists. Spaghetti Junction is far from relaxing, and people who sit still on Atlanta highways sit with enormous risk.
As I drove, I was immediately struck by the ridiculousness of the chair from the perspective of a driver. Who would sit in the middle of a knotted mess of highways? But as I sat in my car, barely inching forward, with a scowl on my face as I watched the car in front of me trying to cut off the merging motorist in front of him, it occurred to me how ridiculous I must have looked from the perspective of the chair. Taking in the soaring overpasses and congested ramps of an anxious world always on the move is perhaps to see some of the absurdity in our distracted lives.
One could say that King Solomon spoke as if a man sitting in a chair under Spaghetti Junction: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity”(1) It was from such a perspective that Solomon concluded wisely, “I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”(2)
One of the wonderful gifts of being young is the endless optimism about the future. It seems that infinite possibilities stretch out before you; creative energy flows freely and there is a vitality that enlivens each new path and experience. All the roads before you open up and offer smooth transport to the attainment of one dream after another.
When I was a young child, the wisdom sayings of King Solomon were some of my favorite passages in the Bible. Their prescriptions offered an optimistic view of life for those who sought to follow the God. For some reason, the words seemed to bounce with joy, energy, and a sense of lightness. For example, “trust in the Lord with all your heart…and He will make your paths straight” were verses that seemed to indicate God’s direct guidance for all his children into happy, straight pathways. I inferred that trusting in God’s guidance would be the result of walking down all the wonderful, straight pathways that lay out before me. I would willingly and gladly walk towards the attainment of all my goals, desires, and dreams.
While these are still precious Scripture verses to me, I have come to understand them differently as an adult. The trust I proclaimed seemed easy as everything went my way. I didn’t rely on my own understanding because I didn’t have to! But, as is true of much of the human experience, my roads did not all run straight. When dreams began to die, life-goals went unmet, and desires dried up, I realized the challenge these verses really offer.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain today, Sir?”
Ironically, the question, a hospital’s attempt to understand and manage the pain of cancer patients, only seemed to cause my father more pain. He hated the daily inquiry that seized him almost as consistently as the sting of the growing tumor. It aggravated him deeply, more than I could say I understood. It was a philosophical quagmire for him that somehow mocked pain and amplified the problem of suffering. If he answered “10” in the midst of a painful morning, only to discover a greater quantity of pain in the afternoon, the scale was meaningless. The numbers were never constant, and what is a scale if its points of measurement cannot stand in relation to one another? If he answered “10” on any given day would that somehow control the ceiling of his own pain? He knew it would not, and that uncertainty seemed almost literally to add painful insult to an already fatal injury.
Considerations of pain and suffering are among the most cited explanations for disbelief in God, both for professionally trained philosophers and for the general public. If a good, powerful, and present deity exists, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Even for those who argue that the existence of God and the presence of evil can be reconciled, the vast amount of suffering in the world certainly compounds the dilemma. We can sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in his depiction of the earth as one soaked through with human tears. Imagine not merely one person measuring their pain on a scale of 1 to 10 but innumerable individuals: the temptation is to add all of these scales together as one giant proof against God.
When brazen thieves made off with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “Madonna” several years ago, I wanted to join the search. The thought of adding Munch’s works to the secret galleries of art forever lost was upsetting to say the least. I pictured clumsy men dragging irreplaceable works through sullied alleyways and destructive elements. Like most, I dreaded the worst. Valuables cannot be trusted in the hands of thieves.
Of course, these men were conscious that they had in their possession something of value. If the paintings had meant nothing to them, they would never have been worth stealing. With the rest of the world, the thieves were well aware of the nature of the items they held in their hands. At the time of the burglary “The Scream” was estimated at 75 million and “Madonna” at 15 million. But for them “value” took on an entirely different meaning. In thieves’ hands, beauty is something to be exploited. It is smuggled into a dark underground and bartered for in secret. Its true value has been exchanged for something lesser.
One of the claims of the Christian worldview is that God has set his glory before the world. Since the beginning of time, Christians believe, God has shown his faithfulness, his goodness, his grandeur. God has placed his countenance upon us and trusted us with his Name. God sent his human Son to be with us and through him offered the assurance of new life, new robes, new creation. And repeatedly, we have taken his Name and exchanged it for something lesser. We have dragged it through sullied alleyways and destructive elements, holding this treasure like thieves, having lost the true value of all we hold. We follow God not as God but as something smaller—something exploited for pride or held as personal virtue.
Though the chorus of voices decrying belief in God has been humming in the ideological background for centuries, it seems to have reached a crescendo with the emergence of a movement that has been dubbed the new atheism. The trademark of this new and continuing brand of atheism is its vitriolic attack on religion. To its advocates, religious beliefs are not only false; they are also dangerous and must be expunged from all corners of society. The pundits of the new atheism are not content to nail discussion theses on the door of religion; they are also busy delivering eviction notices to the allegedly atavistic elements of an otherwise seamlessly progressive atheistic evolution of Homo Sapiens.
Given the rhetoric, one might be forgiven for thinking that some new discoveries have rendered belief in God untenable. Curiously, this drama is unfolding in the same era in which perhaps the world’s leading defender of atheism, Antony Flew, has declared that recent scientific discoveries point to the fact that this world cannot be understood apart from the work of God as its Creator. This is no small matter, for Flew has been preaching atheism for as long as Billy Graham has been preaching the Gospel. Unlike Flew and others, the new atheists seem to forget that the success of their mission hinges solely on the strength and veracity of the reasons they give for repudiating religion. Venom and ridicule may carry the day in an age of sensationalistic sound bites, but false beliefs will eventually bounce off the hard, cold, unyielding wall of reality.