Risen a Skeptics Quest and an Eternal Question

The Movie Risen is showing in theaters; it is receiving mixed reviews from the movie critics. And yet, my experience of the film was one of awe and wonder; it is true that my desire for accuracy and detailed careful work was certainly not satisfied, and some of the details are incorrect (it is unlikely that Barabbas was hunted by Roman soldiers before the crucifixion itself, Mary Magdalene was likely not a prostitute, nor does the book of Acts indicate the disciples at this early stage of Church life were open to Gentiles, see Acts 10-11). And yet, the film is clearly misunderstood by many; this is a mystery drama that opens into the eternal Christian question, what will you do with Jesus? Thus, Risen is not theology artistically presented, this is art that is theologically (if not always historically) correct.

As an apologist, I began as an evidentialist; the evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming, and yet so many will not listen or dismiss the evidence out of hand. My growing (or renewed) interest in writers such as Alvin Plantinga, Francis Schaeffer and C S Lewis is rooted in this problem; before someone will listen to the evidence, they must be in a place to take it seriously. As Romans notes, men see the evidence for God, but suppress that knowledge, and the downward decline of nations and men is the consequence of this suppression. C S Lewis’s contribution to this question is to remind us of the power of imagination as a means of communicating our experiences; in part to prepare the soil of the heart (as Aslan tells the first pivotal character in the Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader she must come to know Him in our world, and that was why she was brought to Narnia in the first place).

We can view Risen best as placing the modern skeptic into the middle of the history, and the narrative provides us with a central figure, a Roman Tribune named Clavius who is, for all intents an investigator in the first half of the movie, and then an observer who is eventually confronted by an enthusiastic Peter, who asks Clavius if he will become a fisherman as well?

Clavius’s struggle begins, as does the modern man’s, with Yeshua of Nazareth dead, hanging on a cross with Romans and Jews both in shock at the events; Clavius under Pilate’s orders places a guard and seals the tomb, thinking that this will make an end of this Yeshua, and it is possible to go about his life and his business, despite the “superstitious” awe he encounters at the cross. Yet, Clavius, like us, is startled to hear that this Jesus body is gone from the tomb, and the disciples are proclaiming Him resurrected. He investigates and interviews witnesses, at first skeptically, until finding the upper room, where he finds Yeshua with his disciples; finding Jesus alive is not the end of the movie (as I expected walking into the theater), it is a turning point (as it is in life), a point where a new question must be answered by the skeptic: will he believe the evidence or will he dismiss the evidence of his own eyes, as he previously had suggested to one of the tomb’s guards?

Leaving a note for his former compatriots, he becomes an observer; removing his Roman armor (being found by Jesus, like us, Clavius must begin to abandon the old life) and becomes a temporary member of the apostolic band, but making little actual contribution to the events after providing some assistance in arriving at Galilee (in this, again, he is like us, as we observe the details of the Lord’s ministry in the gospel accounts). Coming to the end, the night before the ascension, he speaks with Jesus alone, and is asked the pivotal questions of faith, a discussion centering on a version of Pascal’s famous wager. We last see him after this retrospective walking into the Judean hills; leaving his old life, and setting out for the new adventure.

It is not enough for man’s mind to be captured; while the mind is the source for the crucial questions of worldview, these intellectual underpinnings are useless until they are spread throughout the heart, of which the mind is but one part, though an important one. Faith is not a leap in the dark, it is not based in an absence of information, instead it is embracing the difficult truth of our need for redemption, and the sweet release in knowing His grace.  It is giving oneself over to truth despite the hurdles to career and fortune.

The American Church and Segregation Part 1: An American Problem

I grew up in a large (at least by the standards of the day) independent Baptist church in the Detroit area. Like many men of my age, I grew up after the civil rights era, and many of the attitudes and problems earlier generations wrestled with in the past were foreign to me, at least in my youth. My second direct exposure to segregation[1] was when the Temple Baptist Church, my home church, voted (with little dissention[2]), to end segregation in the Church constitution in 1986 – I had not been aware the church was segregated, in part because no one I knew treated the African Americans who attended our church or the attached Christian school any differently from Caucasian Americans.[3] I was shocked it was even in the church constitution.

Oftentimes atheists and others who oppose Christianity will cite Evangelical support of segregation (and sadly worse than segregation in a few cases[4]). This is a difficult point to defend or even discuss by Evangelicals of my generation—the whole concept of a Christian racist to us seem wholly untenable and self-contradictory to the gospel itself. What is more difficult, for many of us, Christians who were segregationists were great servants of the Lord in other respects, many led numerous persons to Christ – and this contradiction makes no sense to those of us who are interested in apologetics or in theology.

And yet, in part, this era of American history is an equal opportunity problem for everyone; not just the Evangelical. As just a few examples:

  • Many modern liberals emulate the progressives, ignoring the fact that during the fifties and sixties it was the remnants of the Roosevelt/Wilson left that opposed desegregation. Most of the segregationists in congress were liberal democrats who remained, throughout their lives, racist, liberal democrats.
  • In fact, many modern progressives, approvingly align themselves with known racists and ardent social Darwinists such as Margret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) or President Woodrow Wilson, without realizing the innately racist history of the term.
  • While Bill Clinton is often hailed as an example of liberal tolerance on issues of race, he also lauded his mentor, liberal segregationist senator J William Fullbright.
  • Al Gore, during his failed presidential run, lied about his father to cover up for the disgrace of Al Gore Senior’s voting against the various civil rights acts during his time in the senate.
  • Nor is racism a peculiarly Southern institution; while it is certainly true that Southern states were overtly racist in their segregation laws; in the North, during the Second World War, there were numerous race riots in Northern factories, in many cases, because an African American man was promoted to a position of equality with a Caucasian. There was, sadly, a great deal of racism in the early union movement, ostensibly because African Americans in the South were willing to work for less pay than White workers in the North.
  • One of the most powerful groups within the Klu Klux Klan was the Indiana state organization in the 1920’s, where, until the Klan’s state leader, D C Stephenson, was convicted for his involvement in the rape and death of a young woman in 1925, the Klan had serious control of Indiana’s political process. The enfolding drama would lead to the conviction of numerous state officials (including the governor) for taking bribes from the Klan.
  • One of the first American propaganda films, Birth of a Nation, was associated with the Klan and was shown, approvingly, by Woodrow Wilson in the White House.

The problem with racism is an American problem, and in another sense, a Human one, since there has been racial and ethnic strife by societies outside of America and the West. In part, this human problem is also why so many people who decry racism have ties with those who were in fact racists – we rightly differentiate between our personal life and our political ones; we recognize that those in our lives have flaws, but we love and respect them despite human failings, racism included. As much as racism has become a political liability, Bill Clinton’s support for Fullbright, or Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond’s failed presidential run differ primarily in the consequences to their political careers, not in their substance. In both cases what we have is not an advocacy of racism, but a personal connection, a cordial and collegial working relationship, with someone who stood on the wrong side of that issue. Evangelicals have similar ties to Evangelical and Fundamentalist leaders in the past.

My answer to the atheist and modernist then, is that this is a case of the culture affecting the Church, not the Church influencing the culture. But I will make the rest of this case next time.

[1] I had previously encountered views about interracial marriage, but these were different than the usual arguments one heard from the hard segregationists of the day. There were a few arguments made on the basis of poor Biblical literacy (these include discussions that intermarriage is a step towards the building of the kingdom of the antichrist, along with misapplied passages concerning Israel’s marriage to idolaters that would take their heart away from the Lord).

The primary argument I heard was one of harm to the children of interracial couples – the claim was that the children of an interracial couple were neither accepted by the white community nor by the African American community, and was based in the observations of the claimants. While those making this argument were usually not racists, there is an implicit acceptance of the status quo in the argument, which was and is harmful to the body of Christ. While the intention was to prevent unearned harm to children, the unintended consequence was to leave biracial children even more marginalized. A better solution would have been a greater affirmation that all people are created in the image of God.

 

[2] The vote was taken by raise of hands while everyone was supposed to have their eyes closed; being the young precocious child I was, sitting a third of the way back, I “peeked;” I saw only a few hands raised to maintain the segregation in membership in the constitution, though I was shocked at the time that anyone voted against the measure.

 

[3] I have heard others claim there were such problems at Temple Baptist at the time (my time at Temple was from my birth in 1974 until approximately 1987 when we moved to Romeo Mi.), I cannot either verify or deny these claims, I was young and can only directly comment on what happened within my own experience. When a church has more than five thousand members, and an average attendance of more than three thousand, it is difficult to argue no one ever made a truly racist comment or, as happens so frequently in our racially sensitive society, to argue no one was misunderstood to be making one. I can only report what was my experience.

Several websites have in my opinion rightly noted the segregation of Temple Baptist in earlier eras, but they have magnified this as the center of Temple’s church life; partially, I suspect, due to two later pastors’ misrepresenting the past for their own political purposes.

While many have suggested Temple Baptist Church moved to the suburbs because of racism; this is at best only indirectly true. The church itself moved to Redford township because a significant portion of the membership had previously moved into this general area. “White flight” is more complicated than many propagandists like to think (as it is always easy to engage in glittering ad hominem generalities tarring everyone with the same brush), at least in the case of Detroit. While I am sure some did move from Detroit to the suburbs because of their own racial animosity, others moved to the suburbs because of Detroit’s growing crime problems in the sixties; this was exacerbated by fears raised after the Detroit riots in 1967. Men with families will try to remove their wives and children from the vicinity of danger, whatever they might think of the phrase “all men are equal;” when I was little Detroit was renowned as “the murder capital of the world.”

 

[4] Many Evangelical Segregationists of the era seem to have truly believed in the equality element of “separate but equal” (or at least claimed to believe in it), and failed to understand the key element of Brown versus board of education – equality was impossible within the enforced separation of segregation. This opinion is different in its intention than those preaching racial superiority, but tragically is not different in its effect, and damaged the unity of the Body of Christ.

Some revisionists have sought to mitigate this by arguing that the church had the responsibility of obeying segregation laws on the books in the South (and in some cases elsewhere) and this made segregation necessary for churches in many places. Even if this were true (and the evidence I have seen does not commend this interpretation) this fails to remember that as Christians, we believe that Christ, not the government is the Lord of the Church.

The Problem of Bias

Errors in reasoning are often termed “fallacies.” One of the common ones I see in discussions with atheists and modern thinkers is known as “argumentium ad hominem.” This long, tedious latin phrase (often abbreviated as ad. Hom.) means someone raises an argument against a person, rather than their point; it argues “to the man” rather than too the argument. Most people discuss this as making a character attack, but this is only one type of this fallacy, unsubstantiated claims of bias, pop psychological analysis (such as the argument that Christians required moral absolutes because they “lack empathy”) and other similar phenomenon also qualify.

If you really want to understand the ad hominem fallacy, the easiest place to see it is in Washington, where it has become the modern politicians tactic du jour. For example, during the debates over Obamacare, one democratic senator suggested Republicans wanted the sick to die quickly, insinuating that their opposition to the bill was out of a lack of concern for the sick, and not, say opposition to rationing that might leave the elderly without care in the future, or concerns about the quality of care. Nor is this just a democratic phenomenon, just watch campaign commercials, and you’ll see nearly every politician is doing it. Yet, this example, explains why the ad hominem fallacy is so insidious, this immediately starts getting people questioning the motives, and not the actual arguments.

The problem with bias since post modern philosophy is that it is a charge that is often made unilaterally, males are innately biased, because they want to maintain a patriarchal society, conservatism is about maintaining power over others and Christianity is about keeping the money rolling into the church (despite the fact that most pastors serve small churches and aren’t making a fortune). While all of these things may be possible, it is equally true and possible that the feminists complaining in various books about patriarchy are more concerned with book sales and tenure than they are about society; liberals in politics similarly may oppose conservatives because they desire to seize power for themselves (as history shows, many of western histories great dictators have begun as “men of the people”). In other words, this is an easy charge to make, and can be applied to any camp.

When it comes to atheists, they often will argue that Christian interpret matters of science or Scripture according to a bias. If someone states that Evangelical’s have religious principles that influence their dating methods for the New Testament gospels, they probably do not consider that those who date the gospels after AD 70 are equally biased, because they assume prophecy isn’t possible, or they don’t consider the presuppositions derived from various German philosophers to be a bias. The reality is that New Testament studies, like all other fields of endeavor, is performed by human beings who bring their biases, presuppositions, experiences and, at times, our baser jealousies and desires for acclaim with us to the study. A claim of bias is a knife that cuts both ways.

So how do we handle bias? I would suggest that rather than allowing willy-nilly accusations of bias we require that the atheist(or anyone else) prove where the specific argument is flawed. if they are making a claim that something is a result of a bias without demonstrating it, then they should be dismissed as engaging in a fallacy.

Apologetics and Boldness

We live in a culture where we are pushed to make our faith something we are quiet about; we are told we live in a pluralistic society, and we are told we should be quiet, and not upset the applecart of our insane market-driven world. And yet, we are also told, “ So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”[1]

I understand the tendency to be quiet, after some difficult times that have been discussed here, my usual boldness as a Christian was somewhat tempered by the circumstances of my times for a while. I understand the desire to be a mouse, and forget that we represent the lion of Judah. We feel we are the paupers, when we truly are the children of the King who owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

It is true that as Christians, we must be as wise as serpents, while we are to be as harmless as doves. And yet, perhaps we are too silent, too cowed, to ready to assume we have been beaten, when we really find that we are merely hindered. We let the world tell us how to define success, forgetting that by its standards Jeremiah was wholly unsuccessful in his lifetime, and should have quit, yet he knew the Word to be a raging inferno that he could not prevent himself from spreading.

We live in a culture that is dying, self-destructing and more importantly, our friends and coworkers face a Christless eternity, who know only a Christianity that has the form of godliness, but denies the power thereof. Who but us can warn them of the wrath to come, and if not us, how can they avoid the day of wrath? And if they choose the abyss, is it no fair that they do so being warned of His judgments?

Our silence in part is related to the changing climate in which we minister. Christianity is under fire. It is true that our culture needs a spiritual awakening, and it is equally true that we cannot cause such an awakening through argumentation. And yet, despite all this, it is time to let the Lion of Judah’s roar be heard.

Apologetics can help in this endeavor; being prepared to answer the questions of the world is to simply seek to make oneself available to God in answering the legitimate questions that people have. As a side benefit, one finds that the boldness that had previously been misplaced. You begin to realize that while there are real questions people have about the faith, there are good answers to those questions, and it enhances your faith. This is one of the side effects of debating atheists on facebook (since this is the ministry I seem to have right now); one might think such encounters would plant the seeds of doubt in my heart, but in all honesty, they fan the flames of faith. In short, Apologetics might be something to encourage Christians to remember to roar.

[1]Matthew 10:32-33.