Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Evil, Bloody Religion

Dinesh d’Souza, a wonderful public thinker in our age, has written a great little article [ -Blogger seems to be tripping over links right now] confronting and dispelling one of the most widely disseminated falsehoods of our day: religion is one of the most violent and bloody things that has happened to humanity. According to such authors as Richard Dawkins, religion needs to be done away with and all will be well (read-Christianity especially needs to be done away with) .

The slogan is that religion has killed more people through the ages than anything else. D’Souza remarks:

The best example of religious persecution in America is the Salem witch trials. How many people were killed in those trials? Thousands? Hundreds? Actually, fewer than 25....It is strange to witness the passion with which some secular figures rail against the misdeeds of the Crusaders and Inquisitors more than 500 years ago. The number sentenced to death by the Spanish Inquisition appears to be about 10,000. Some historians contend that an additional 100,000 died in jail due to malnutrition or illness.

These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.

D’Souza goes on to make the observation, made by many, that more people have been killed in the name of atheism in the last 100 years than in all the religious conflicts in the last 2,000.

I am indebted to the CU philosophy grad student email list for this link and for this professors incisive response to D’Souza’s assertions:

The basic argument is that atheism has killed tons more people than religion.
(Okay, holding my tongue about that...)

It is not hard to hold your tongue when there is nothing intelligent to say in response except to repeat the tired old slogans about evil and bloody religion.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pastors-Their Role in the Church, Their Role in the Culture

I recently picked up America’s God by Mark Noll and ran across an idea early in the book that struck a chord for me. Several authors have written about the decline of the position of clergy in the American culture. It was once the case, in colonial and later history right through the 20th century, that the local minister was the resident expert on nearly every issue of importance and a highly respected individual. Recent surveys show that pastors and priests no longer hold a position like that in our contemporary culture.

Most of the time, when people lament this reality, it is framed in terms of anti-intellectualism and popular perceptions of ministers picked up from scandals and televangelists. I think these analyses have a lot going for them, but Noll brought something to this table I found interesting.

He noted that local pastors were held in high esteem in large part because of the theology of early America. Because, theologically speaking, the role of pastor was a position of high calling and esteem within the body of Christ, it became a public reality that ministers were held in high esteem.

Advancing Noll’s comment to current trends in ecclesiology and theology, one of the factors that may be leading to the diminished cultural role of the pastor is the diminished role he or she plays within the church. With evangelicalism’s thirst for everything contemporary, while corporate authority structures have been allegedly “flattened,” giving more of a team atmosphere to employees, our ecclesiology is following suit. If American people want to feel empowered and have a significant role in the direction of a church, it seems evident to many that we should flatten the authority structure, thus implicitly (if not explicitly) reducing the status and role of the pastor. We are, after all, a nation of priests, aren’t we?

Is the flattening of the church structure a good thing, bad thing, or mixed bag? Has it helped lead to the relative irrelevance of pastors in the culture at large? Has this trend in evangelicalism traded an ecclesiology gleaned from Scripture for one pulled from today’s best sellers?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Richard Baxter and Pastoral Preparation

I was flipping though my copy of Baxter’s Reformed Pastor this evening and ran across the following quote concerning the preparation of the pastor’s heart and mind before preaching:

Therefore, go then specially to God for life: read some rousing, awakening book, or meditate on the weight of the subject of which you are to speak, and on the great necessity of your people’s souls, that you may go in the zeal of the Lord into his house.  Maintain, in this manner, the life of grace in yourselves, that it may appear in all your sermons from the pulpit,--that every one who comes cold to the assembly, may have some warmth imparted to him before he depart.

I want to highlight a couple of thoughts raised by this brief quote.  First, read a book—a good book.  Pastors and church leaders should not just be reading books on contemporary marketing practices or leadership models.  They should be reading books like Baxter’s.  There is a depth to the soul they create as we interact with people who were close to God, serious about their souls and their minds, and serious about shepherding the flock all at the same time.  I can always tell when I am not reading.  As I prepare sermons, the books that have sunk into me sometimes come out in amazing ways.  Their depth of insight becomes part of the insight my congregation benefits from.  If all I read is written by sports coaches, leadership and marketing gurus, and newspaper columnists, then that is the “depth” the congregation will languish under.

Second, what Baxter means by congregants leaving with “warmth” is wrapped up in the consolations of the Gospel of Christ.  Baxter strikes a note over and over in this work in which he admonished pastors to be solidly doctrinal, and to pass that along to the flock.  One of the primary themes, in fact, is the necessity of catechism, or the teaching of right doctrine to the lay people.  If the pastor is not serious about right doctrine him or herself and serious about communicating it, the congregants will not leave with “some warmth imparted to them.”  The last thing Baxter intends to convey by “warmth” is a feeling of niceness or goodness left after a good story or two.  

Friday, December 01, 2006

Book Review: Is The Bible Intolerant?

Originally uploaded by Phil Steiger.
A review I posted on Amazon:

This book is a wonderful and easy to read resource that counters many of the slogans used to deny the truth claims of Christianity or the Bible. Often your garden-variety skeptic will say things like, “the Bible has been changed so many times we can’t trust what we have,” or, “more people have died because of religion than any other reason,” and use such good-sounding slogans to ward off any serious argument. Orr-Ewing’s book does a masterful job of dealing with such claims head-on, and in this way it makes a great read for both Christians and skeptics.

There is more to the book than just anti-sloganeering. Orr-Ewing also deals well in the realms of comparative religions--being especially well versed with Islam and the Qur’an--biblical criticism, and philosophy. For example, the author does a wonderful job of addressing the criticism that Scripture is homophobic. While noting the values inherent in such a charge, she speaks well to the biblical witness on human sexuality. She notes that the biblical view is far from culturally conditioned. The surrounding cultures in the times represented by both the Old and New Testaments were very open with their homosexual, and other sexual, practices. Both Testaments represent a very counter-cultural view for their times, and it just happens to be the case that the biblical view on human sexuality is again deeply counter-cultural. There was nothing culturally conditioned about its view when it was written, and there is no good reason for its view to be altered now that it is again.

This is one of those wonderful books written by a serious theologian that addresses several pertinent issues in a manner accessible to most every reader. I highly recommend this book to any skeptic honestly seeking answers to their questions and to Christians looking for a solid apologetic resource.