The pull of Pullman

Alan Jacobs is a literary critic and professor of English at Wheaton College. In 2000 Jacobs was interviewed on the Mars Hill Audio Journal about Philip Pullman’s writings (like The Golden Compass) and why he hesitates using Pullman’s works in teaching literature to his college classes. About midway through the interview Jacobs explains how gifted “world-making” authors are especially effective at communicating ideology. He says:

“There is no question that there aren’t very many writers out there more gifted than Philip Pullman and of course that’s what makes it the more disturbing when the gifts are abused. … We [he and his Senior college class] spent a lot of time talking about what’s involved in reading a world-making author like this. It’s an enormously seductive experience. As you come to trust in the author’s ability to make a compelling and fascinating world it becomes harder and harder to mistrust that author’s leadership and direction in moral matters. And so it’s very hard to sort these things out. If you begin to suspect the moral tendency or direction that the book is taking the imaginative wholeness of the vision becomes less compelling to you as well. So I think many readers who love and relish being put into these secondary worlds, who love to immerse themselves in the textures and shapes of a world different than ours, those readers are faced with a great temptation to turn off their moral and spiritual discernment so they are not disturbed in their immersion in this world. It’s a tough thing to try to keep those moral and spiritual antennae working to discern the spirits because you want so much to have an enjoyable reading experience. You don’t want it all to collapse all around your ears.”

Typical of Ken Myers and the Mars Hill Audio Journal, this is an engaging interview. You can listen to the entire interview here:

Or download the MP3 (22.9 MB).

Vocal, Global Atheism

Despite various names (atheists, humanists, secularists, freethinkers, rationalists or brights) the “legion of the godless” is growing more vocal and more global. In the past few years atheists have written five bestselling books and the Washington Post recently ran two articles on the sharp rise in (vocal) American atheism. One study shows that while only 6-percent of 60-year old Americans would be classified as atheists, 25-percent of those in the 18-22 year bracket would. These trends are not limited to America, the report says, and atheism (or non-theism) is gaining vocal prominence in Europe, India, Israel, Turkey, Spain and Italy. The report concludes that, while a vocal increase is evident, an atheist Presidential candidate wouldn’t have a prayer. You can read the WP reports here and here. Some interesting trends worth noting.

HT: Cranach

Unbelief is Irrational

tsslogo.jpgUnbelief is Irrational

It’s not uncommon today for atheists to rise to their pulpits and boldly preach that belief in some god (let alone a specific god) is simply irrational. Dr. K. Scott Oliphant, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary, disagrees. In a recently published essay he points to Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans to make his case that unbelief is irrational.

Oliphant’s proposition is this: Unbelief is irrational because, at its core, all sin is irrational. He argues, “Sin is essentially, and will remain, deeply unreasonable, utterly irrational … Given that unbelief is at root the quintessential sin, it is therefore, necessarily, quintessentially irrational” (pp. 59-60). He backs up this proposition exegetically from Romans 1:18-32.

Oliphant begins by pointing to Paul’s emphasis in Romans that all people are covenantally bound to Adam or to Christ, walking under condemnation or justification (Rom. 5:12-21). The first two chapters of Romans are devoted to revealing God’s wrath upon those in Adam. Specifically, God’s wrath is kindled against sinners who “suppress the truth” (1:18).

The act of suppressing divine truth is sinful or “unrighteousness” (1:18). So sin is by nature the suppressing of truth. “In other words, God’s wrath is revealed from heaven because, in our wickedness and unrighteousness (in Adam), we hold down (in our souls) that which we know to be the case” (p. 64)

So what knowledge is suppressed? Paul tells us we suppress the universal truths about God — that He exists, He is infinite, eternal, wise, unchanging, glorious and wise. Far from being a mere intellectual knowledge of God, there is included in this a very personal knowledge of God communicated from His Person to our person. So personal that Paul can write, “they know God’s decree that those who practice such things [sins] deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). Every sinner that suppresses God’s truth and lives on in sin knows that sin is rightfully punished with death. But this and all truth about God is suppressed. The point is clear: God has spoken so openly and so clearly that every sinner knows these universal truths.

How do sinners suppress divine truth? By exchange. We take the glory of our great God and Creator and exchange His glory for superficial images of reality. The next step is to worship and serve the phantoms of reality we create. The truth of the created order becomes twisted into what we think is right. There is an exchange of the natural for the unnatural, like in the case of homosexual relationships (Rom. 1:26-27). Oliphant writes, “All of us, in Adam, are experts in inventing idols” and later he writes “we only retain that [knowledge] which will serve our own idolatrous purposes” (p. 69, 70). Paul tells us this idolatry – worshiping a false reality — is at the center of unbelief.

Paul then goes on to list all sorts of sins, not just homosexuality, but also unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom. 1:29-31). Oliphant writes, “All sin, as sin, is rooted in an irrationality that seeks in earnest to deny what is obvious and to create a world that is nothing more than a figment of a sinful imagination” (p. 72).

The sad reality is that for those outside God’s sovereign election, this personal knowledge of God will be drowned out by the noise and passions of the sinful heart. The witness of God’s existence in the heart becomes futile knowledge to an irrational mind. God reveals Himself all around, and blind sinners in Adam respond by suppressing this truth and living in a phantom irrationality.

Conclusion

Paul paints a humbling portrait of all unredeemed sinners. We did not learn Christ because we were more perceptive or less sinfully irrational. God alone opened our eyes. Oliphant says, “The truth that we know – that we retain, possess, and suppress – therefore, is truth that is, fundamentally and essentially, given by God to us. God is the one who ensures that this truth will get through to us. It is his action, not ours, that guarantees our possession of this truth” (p. 66).

This first chapter of Romans is useful to remind believers of our personal sin and irrationality. We are still tempted to live at the feet of a phantom shrine forged in our minds rather than live within reality. And rather than scoffing at the unbeliever, we can look at our own hearts and see where we — as seasoned idolaters! – continue to suppress truth and twist reality in favor of escapism, fantasy and worldly comforts.

But also armed with Paul’s teaching in Romans and brought under the humility of dead sinners raised to life by the power of God, we are prepared to think through apologetics, preaching and personal evangelism. All of our hearers have heard a personal message from a personal God and we are all without excuse (Rom. 1:20). Apparently evidence does not demand a verdict from irrational minds.

Understanding this awful irrationality of the sinful mind will cause us to once again pray like Spurgeon:

“‘Rise up, Lord!’ O God the Father, rise up! Pluck Thy right hand out of Thy bosom, and let Three eternal purposes be accomplished! O God the Son, rise up; show Thy wounds, and plead before Thy Father’s face, and let Thy blood-bought ones be saved! Rise up, O God the Holy Ghost; with solemn reverence, we do invoke Thine aid! Let those who have hitherto resisted Thee, now give way! Come Thou, and melt the ice; dissolve the granite: break the adamantine heart; cut Thou the iron sinew, and bow Thou the stiff neck!”

————

[This exegesis of Romans 1 can be found between pages 59-73 of P&R’s latest release edited by Oliphant and Lane G. Tipton titled, Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R) 2007.]

The Atheist Within

The Atheist Within

Recently I engaged with an atheist in a short dialogue. I was drawn into the conversation because of the young man’s honesty and from a sense of love towards him and his soul. He stumbled into this blog by “accident” and he started asking some very good questions. But he also came in with a lot of presumptions, expecting responses from me like “of course you must believe because X, Y and Z are true.”

Instead, I felt led to share the struggles of unbelief in my Christian heart. I could tell that my response shocked him. He was saying he could not believe and I was saying — because of my sin — I too find it hard to believe. He assumed, as many atheists do, that faith is easy. In a sinful world that is a false assumption. Faith is not easy. Apart from God’s grace, faith is impossible.

Three interesting (and unexpected) conclusions resulted from this conversation.

First, because of the climate in our culture, the difference between atheists and Christians seems suited for a debate. Truly one is right, one is wrong. God is or He isn’t. Both opinions cannot be correct. But while I agree with this, the public polarization of the debate makes arbitrary distinctions between faith and reason, religion and science. Rather, the debate is solved by both faith and reason. God is not unreasonable. To ultimately conclude there is no God is not to lack faith, but to be a fool without knowledge (Ps. 14).

Secondly, belief is not easy or natural. He staked his claim in atheism and I stake my faith in the Cross, but there was a common conclusion: there is nothing easy about faith. The atheist assumes, for those living in a culture projecting Christianity, that faith is the easy response. Faith is never easy.

We assert with Peter, “Lord, I will never deny You” and then in our actions deny Him three times over. “I believe; help my unbelief!” is our cry (Mark 9:24). Christians transgress the greatest commandment every day by living in unbelief because at some level, all sinners (whether redeemed or unredeemed) are atheists. Atheism is not only a supposedly rational conclusion that a god does not exist, but also the practical conclusion that God is unworthy of my affection. The idols of my own heart reveal the depth of remaining atheism!

Look at your commitment to private prayer. Does it show a lack of faith in God’s existence? And only remaining unbelief would permit sin to continue our hearts. Each sin communicates the unworthiness of God. Paul says atheism is revealed by sexual sin, covetousness, envy, strife, lying, pride, disobedience to parents, being unloving, untrustworthy, unforgiving and unmerciful (Rom. 1:18-32). As long as sin remains, a level of atheism remains.

Third, the atheist assumed that God is pleased with me because I believe. This, too, is incorrect. God is pleased with me because His pleasure has been purchased in the blood of Jesus Christ! The blood of Christ shed on the Cross, not my faith, merits salvation from the guilt of sin and perfect righteousness. I have been embraced as the prodigal son into the arms of my adoptive Father through Christ (Luke 15:11-32).

What a glorious Savior that He saves even through faith the size of a mustard seed (Luke 17:6). By this, Jesus reminds us our salvation is not through great faith but through the great Savior. In the age of the telegraph C.H. Spurgeon said,

“There is no difference between one believer and another as to justification. So long as there is a connection between you and Christ the righteousness of God is yours. The link may be very like a film, a spider’s line of trembling faith, but, if it runs all the way from the heart to Christ, divine grace can and will flow along the most slender thread. It is marvelous how fine the wire may be that will carry the electric flash. We may want a cable to carry a message across the sea, but that is for the protection of the wire, the wire which actually carries the message is a slender thing. If thy faith be of the mustard-seed kind, if it be only such as tremblingly touches the Savior’s garment’s hem, if thou canst only say ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief,’ if it be but the faith of sinking Peter, or weeping Mary, yet if it be faith in Christ, he will be the end of the law for righteousness to thee as well as to the chief of the apostles.”

Unbelief is a very serious sin, a sin Christians grieve over in their own hearts. This personal struggle equips believers to be especially sensitive and knowledgeable of atheism. Added to this, atheistic chatter always reaches a pinnacle near presidential elections. This discussion will continue heating up and provide excellent opportunities to share the greatness and beauty of Jesus Christ and His Cross that redeems us from our sin. It just may be that a slender wire of faith, rather than a polemical debate, separates our hearts.

When we as Christians see the atheist within our hearts we begin to understand the glorious greatness our Savior! What a beautiful Savior that holds on to sinners and never lets go.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)