Aug 26 2014

Signs of the Apocalypse?

7 Signs of the Apocalypse[Someone handed me this DVD and asked for my thoughts. Here it goes…]

Review: 7 Signs of the Apocalypse, Directed by Tim Prokop, written by Lee Fulkerson. DVD. A&E Television Networks, 2009.

“Is it possible that we are experiencing the seven signs of the apocalypse?”

 

Originally developed as a feature-length documentary for the History Channel, Seven Signs promises to show how prophecies in the Book of Revelation might be coming true right now. There are lots of clips showing death, doom, and destruction. There are lots of weasel words: could, might, etc. The rest of the 94-minute running time consists of interviews with talking heads because, you know, this is a documentary.

Continue reading


Aug 18 2014

The Trinity is Not Tritheism

A critique of Naji I. Al-Arfaj, Just one Message. Al Hofuf, Saudi Arabia: Author, 2001. www.sultan.org/books/just-one-message.pdf [available from multiple sources online]

Someone shared the above booklet with me, and asked for my response. The headings below correspond to the headings in Al-Arfaj’s booklet.

Continue reading


Jun 2 2014

Whatever Will Be, Will Be?

The following is not a word-for-word recounting of the story I heard in my college-level class on natural hazards, but it’s pretty close.

When people in Illinois are expecting a tornado, they do the sensible thing and seek cover. When people in Alabama are expecting a tornado, they sit outside and drink iced tea. People in the American South, you see, are know-nothing fundamentalists. They don’t buy into all that science-is-our-savior jazz. God decides who will live and who will die, not the National Weather Service.

I was offended. Some of my best friends drank iced tea. If they ever got close to a twister, I could count on them to say it sounded like a freight train. I could also count on them to duck and cover.

Hard to see through the tress. This twister was part of the deadly April 25–28, 2011, outbreak [credit: NWS/Wikimedia]

Hard to see through the trees. This twister was part of the deadly outbreak across the Southeastern U.S., April 25-28, 2011 [credit: NWS/Wikimedia]

The tornado story can be traced back to a paper published in 1972 by John Sims and Duane Baumann.[1] They were trying to explain why tornadoes in the South were so deadly, compared to other parts of the country. As far as they could tell, it had nothing to do with external factors such as population density or the severity of tornado outbreaks. They began to look for cultural differences. Surveys revealed that people in the South were prone to saying things like this: “As far as my own life is concerned, God controls it.” Sims and Baumann detected a commitment to fatalism: the belief that God is actively determining every aspect of their lives. If a tornado was going to hit their house, then there was nothing they could do about it.

Midwesterners, they concluded, saw God as a kindly but distant father figure. Whether they survived a twister was up to them. God couldn’t be expected to intervene.

Forty years later, the Sims and Baumann paper is still widely cited, but is it true? Is a Bible-toting Southerner his own worst enemy?

After conducting a thorough analysis of tornado data, Walker Ashley identified a number of external risk factors peculiar to the American South, including the nature of the tornado season and the abundance of manufactured homes.[2] The bottom line is that people in the South are more likely than their Midwestern counterparts to be caught unawares in vulnerable structures, and so are more likely to die when a tornado hits.

It turns out that Sims and Baumann were wrong about the external factors. They were also wrong about the cultural differences. According to research conducted by Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, people in the South are no more fatalistic than people in the Midwest.[3]

And yet the Sims-Baumann legend lives on because it confirms our prejudices. It plants the image in our heads of Joe Bob leaving everything up to Jesus while the Big One bears down on his doublewide trailer. But this is not just a story about stereotypes. It’s also a story about worldviews.

Fatalism – the idea that whatever happens, must happen – is not a Christian belief. Sure, you can find people in the church who think this way, but that doesn’t make it right. Fatalism is fundamentally incompatible with a Christian worldview because it denies both the freedom to choose and the notion of personal responsibility.

Sims and Baumann’s Midwestern alternative – a benevolent God who leaves us to our own devices – is no less problematic. This is the absentee landlord of deism. This is the God who wants our respect, but not our prayers.

So, if the urban legend is true, all Christians in tornado-prone areas are either deists or fatalists, depending on whether they live north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Surely that can’t be right. We expect a few people to get basic theology wrong, but how could so many people miss the core commitments of their own religion?

Or maybe it’s not them. Maybe the fault lies with the people who are asking the questions. Academics have a hard time getting the questions about Christianity right because they have a hard time getting the content of Christianity right. As a group, college professors are notoriously secular, and most can’t abide the sort of religious conservatism that prevails in the Bible Belt.[4]

Think back to that reply: “God is in control.” What, exactly, does that mean? Is it a concession to fatalism? Who knows? We would have to ask some follow-up questions. I suspect this is what we would find: Christians can believe that worry is useless, especially when the situation is beyond their control (Luke 12:29). They can believe that God is fully in charge of His own creation (Hebrews 1:3). They can believe all of that, and still duck into a tornado shelter, or buckle their seatbelt, or look both ways before they cross the street. Southerners probably get that. Sims and Baumann apparently never did.

And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like boiled okra.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, March 2013, p. 24.]

 


[1] John Sims and Duane Baumann, “The Tornado Threat: Coping Styles of the North and South,” Science, 1972, 176:1386-1392.

[2] Walker Ashley, “Spatial and temporal analysis of tornado fatalities in the United States: 1880–2005,” Weather and Forecasting, 2007, 22:1214-1228.

[3] Dov Cohen, and Richard Nisbett, “Are there differences in fatalism between rural Southerners and Midwesterners? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1998, 28: 2181–2195.

[4] E.g, Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg, Religious Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty. San Francisco: IJCR, 2007.


Jun 2 2014

Hear Me Roar!

Around 1 BC, a lovely fellow by the name of Hilarion writes a letter to his pregnant wife Alis:

I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.

This is a reference to the very common practice of exposure in ancient Greece and Rome. Fathers favored bouncing baby boys; girls and sickly boys, not so much.

Romulus and Remus

Infanticide played a central role in Rome’s founding myth. Twins Romulus and Remus are thrown into the River Tiber by their great uncle, survive, and are raised by a wolf [credit: CellarDoor85/Wikimedia].

Exposure was was not always fatal. A few infants were picked up and sold to be raised as slaves, beggars, prostitutes, and gladiators. A fortunate few might have been adopted into good families.

Ancient writers took special note of practices that went beyond the norms of Greco-Roman culture. Aristotle observes that Jews rear all their children, not just the ones they want. Josephus makes exactly the same point four centuries later when he defends the Jewish way of life against its pagan critics.

In this tiny snapshot of family life we see a truly staggering difference between the prevailing pagan worldview and the Biblical worldview. The Hebrew Scriptures show a deep respect for family and children. Adam and Eve are instructed to be “fruitful and multiply” (Ge. 1:28). The Mosaic Law specifies penalties for babies who are harmed by violence (Ex. 21:22-25). Josiah is marked out as a good king for cracking down on child sacrifice (2 Ki. 23:10).

Naturally, as Jews converted to Christianity, they brought these Biblical values into the early church. It is hard to imagine that they would countenance the practice of exposure among their Gentile brethren. The New Testament builds on this respect for children. Jesus shows compassion for children (Mt. 19:13-15). Fathers are warned against inciting anger in their children (Eph. 6:4). And, most of all, the nativity accounts of Jesus show that life begins at conception and never depends for its value on the judgment of men—neither betrothed husband Joseph nor murderous King Herod.

These attitudes must have had a profound effect on pagan women who came into contact with Christianity. As a man, I can hardly put myself in their position. Even so, it must have been heart breaking for a woman to carry a child to term and give birth, only to be told that her beautiful baby daughter is to be discarded because she is (like her mother) “only” female.

Christians not only had a different view of children, they had a different view of men. There was no double standard on sexual behavior: men were just as accountable as women (Heb. 13:4). Divorce was limited and rare (Matt. 19:9). Although husbands were the head of the family, they were expected to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). They were to treat their wives as fellow heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).

Early Christianity was pro-life across the board and so, in a very real sense, pro-women. Sadly, the benefits for women declined over time, for two important reasons. First, church interests became increasingly entangled in state interests. As the imperial church came to mirror the world, it lost its distinctive appeal to society’s most vulnerable groups. And second, theologians began to develop views on marriage and women that flatly contradicted Biblical teaching (which Paul anticipated in 1 Tim. 4:1-3). Priests, forbidden from marriage, would simply avail themselves of concubines which, by the way, were a vestige of pagan Rome.

Some might argue that the modern state now protects the interests of women and children to a degree that the early church never could. Even if the average Christian woman of the 1st century was better off than her pagan neighbor, she would still have to submit to her husband at home and to male authority figures within the church. This continues to get under the skin of radical feminists, which is why they will always push for more state involvement in marriage, family, and faith.

Feminists have all but won the culture war on this front. “I am woman, hear me roar,” right? And yet, when we look at the price of victory—abortion (the new child sacrifice), divorce, homosexuality, population decline in the West (just like the Roman Empire in its waning years), sex selection (biased against girl babies in many cultures), legalized prostitution, sexual promiscuity, rampant STDs, cohabitation (the new concubinage), men avoiding marriage, etc., etc.—we have to wonder whether winning the culture war simply amounts to winning back the pagan past.

Is that a good thing? Are we, as a society, better off for all of that? And especially, are women and children really better off now that the radical feminists have everything they ever wanted, and more?

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, January 2013, p. 19.]


Feb 1 2013

Take Sweden

Although I have never been there myself, I hear that Sweden is a great place to live. I hear it a lot. People rave about the country’s cradle-to-the-grave social welfare system.

Apparently, big government is good for Swedes, and Swedes are good for each other. More than 80% believe it is safe to walk alone at night. A majority donates to charity, and a majority is very trusting toward others.[1] They sound like good people. We might even say that they sound like good Christians, except that Sweden is supposed to be one of the most secular nations in the world.

By some estimates, only 2-4% of Swedes attend worship services every week.[2] Only 23% say they believe in God.[3]

Swedish church

Atheists look at these numbers and conclude that it is indeed possible for good people to do good things without believing in God. Listen to biologist and militant atheist, Jerry Coyne,

Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done—in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.[4]

But is Sweden largely filled with non-believers and atheists?

In addition to those who believe in God, another 53% believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Only 23% say there is no God, spirit or life force. These results come from a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2005. Like a lot of surveys on religion, the wording of these questions leaves a lot to be desired. Are more than half of Swedes now pagans and New Agers, because they confidently assert a belief in spirit beings and occult forces? Or did they choose this option because they are not really sure what to believe, but are willing to admit that there is more to this world than meets the eye?[5] No matter how you read the results, this is a long way from non-belief and atheism.

As usual, the picture gets more complicated as we dig deeper. For instance, around 74% of Swedes are registered members of the Church of Sweden. A significant proportion of the population continues to rely on the national church for christenings, confirmation, marriage, and funerals.[6] In one very detailed study of Enköping—a small city west of Stockholm—64.8% describe themselves as either “Strong Christian” or “Mildly Christian,” and another 19.7% identify with “Non-Confessional” churches. In other words, almost 85% of the city’s residents consider themselves to be Christian in some sense or another. Only 10.9% consider themselves to be “Atheists.”[7]

None of this is really surprising. The Swedish state and the Lutheran church were bound together for over four centuries. Being a member of the Church of Sweden was compulsory until 1952. It was not officially divorced from the state until the year 2000.[8]

So, when someone like Coyne visits Sweden, he is going to feel safe, and he is going to enjoy the fact that people are not packing the pews on Sunday. It may be secular, but it is hardly an atheist’s paradise.

Modern Sweden is secular because its people never really had to fight for their faith. To be a citizen of Sweden was to be part of the faith community. It had little to do with right beliefs, right worship, and righteous living. Next, Sweden is secular because the state gradually took over the responsibilities of the church. This is easy to do when church and state are so closely connected. And Sweden is secular because the official church grew increasingly out of step with its own people. An irrelevant monopoly is still a monopoly. The viable and legal alternatives were few and far between.[9]

But the underlying morality of Swedish society was baked into the country a long time ago. It had a lot to do with the church. It also had a lot to do with Sweden’s tremendous sense of national unity. It is easier to be nice to people who share your language, culture, and heritage. It is easier to pay your fair share of taxes when you know all your neighbors are paying, and using, their fair share of taxes, too.

If you want to highlight a country for its secular morality, and want to live there, you are going to have to look elsewhere. May I suggest Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, for starters?

Atheists like Coyne benefit tremendously from living in a diverse, multicultural society with a strong Christian heritage. E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” But how can we be one if we do not share a common morality? Without God, there is no way to decide what that morality should be.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, February 2013, p. 24]

 


[1] “The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index.” The Legatum Institute. http://www.prosperity.com/CountryProfile.aspx?id=752

[2] Byron J. Nordstrom, Culture and Customs of Sweden (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), p. 41.

[3] Eurobarometer 225: Social Values, Science and Technology. European Commission publication, 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

[4] Jerry A. Coyne, “As atheists know, you can be good without God.” USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-07-31-atheism-morality-evolution-religion_n.htm

[5] See also Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 126.

[6] Nordstrom, pp. 32,41.

[7] Nordstrom, pp. 41-42. Again, the devil’s in the details. Identifying oneself as belonging to a church, especially the Church of Sweden, is not the same as believing in what the church teaches.

[8] Nordstrom, p. 31.

[9] Richard F. Tomasson, “Religion is irrelevant in Sweden,” in Jeffrey K. Hadden, editor, Religion in Radical Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1970), pp. 111-127.