Monty Python, Fake News & Science

A guilty pleasure movie from my time in University is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is a deeply flawed, perfect movie. It is filled with memorable scenes, each of which are probably more funny and impactful than the movie as a whole. One of the funniest scenes involves the trial of a poor woman, who has been accused of being a witch. You can watch it below.

Monty Python Witch Burning Trial Clip HD

I was thinking about this scene last night and I realized in its absurdity it does a nice job of illustrating some of the problems with fake news in our media today. When we hear something for the first time, whether it is shared on CNN, social media or from a government official, we would be wise to have our radar up, ready to detect the signs that we are being fed an agenda-laden story, rather than just a factual reporting of what has occurred.

Looking online, it isn’t surprising that many professors make use of this scene when they are teaching philosophy, logic and reason. One of the best examples I found was this one. In the “trial” from the film, the accused is brought to a “judge” and they attempt to make arguments about why she is a witch, using their observations, accusations, framing, and their own versions of reason or science. Here are a few examples:

She’s a witch because she looks like one – the lady is dressed with a pointy hat and a fake nose to make her look more like a witch. The accusers are forced to admit that they are the ones who dressed her up like this. This is very common today, where individuals or groups are labeled things like racist, communist, white supremist, socialist or even “literally, worse than Hitler”, even as the story is being told. When officials and journalists use labels like this as they are framing the story, they attempt to slant the bias against those groups, much in the same way the angry mob attempted to paint this lady as a witch.

She turned me into a newt…I got better – Another popular tactic in fake news today is to make a bold accusation that is blatantly false, only to eventually admit the truth, but at a later time and with much less publicity. We’ve seen that over and over again as stories are pushed aggressively and when information comes out showing that the stories are baseless or completely wrong, those who most loudly propagated the stories in the beginning have conveniently moved on and ignore the new information.  Sometimes, this new information would seem to be a bigger story than the original false one, but if it doesn’t fit the narrative, then it is completely ignored.

There are ways of telling if someone is a witch – we burn witches – we burn wood – witches must burn because they’re made out of wood – wood floats – a duck floats – if she weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch – This long, hilariously reasoned out “logic” doesn’t make any sense, but by emphasizing the things that are true (wood burns and floats, ducks float), the logic flows along. It is all ridiculous, but fake news sometimes does the same thing. They take a story that is obviously false and find a few true items and make those the new story. Fact checkers are notorious for this in their fact checks, or the reverse where they take a true story that they don’t like and emphasize or misinterpret one aspect of it that is less flattering and make that the core of their story or fact check.

We shall use my largest scales – there are no scales that should show a full grown woman weighing the same as a duck, but here we are. They follow some type of “scientific method or process” and in the end they get the result that they want. They can point to the results and outcome as being scientific or even in the most blatant misuse: “Trust the science”, as if science is a book of facts we can refer to with definitive answers on every subject and not a process of learning and discovery. It is possible to find scientific studies and research to support most narratives and if only the results that agree with our perspective are highlighted and those that call anything into question are muted, then we get an outcome that is far from scientific. You end up with officials saying that anyone who disagrees with them is against science, when following the scientific method should always be about pushing the boundaries and bringing conflicting evidence to light so it can be examined and tested along with results that confirm our results. “Who are you, who is so wise in the ways of science.”

“She’s a witch! Burn her” – The mob mentality wins. When you have enough people and sources ganging up and pushing one perspective loudly enough, it is very difficult to go against it. It is a power that should be held with great caution. To condemn and label quickly and spread that condemnation widely is a uniquely modern evil perpetuated by the power of the internet.

We should proceed with great caution as we process the information we receive and even greater caution before we spread it. Now, let’s contrast this tale with the story we find in John 9, after Jesus healed the man born blind. We pick the story up after the healing has happened to see how people discuss it:

8 His neighbors and others who knew him as a blind beggar asked each other, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said he was, and others said, “No, he just looks like him!” But the beggar kept saying, “Yes, I am the same one!” 10 They asked, “Who healed you? What happened?” 11 He told them, “The man they call Jesus made mud and spread it over my eyes and told me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash yourself.’ So I went and washed, and now I can see!” 12 “Where is he now?” they asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. 13 Then they took the man who had been blind to the Pharisees, 14 because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus had made the mud and healed him. 15 The Pharisees asked the man all about it. So he told them, “He put the mud over my eyes, and when I washed it away, I could see!” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath.” Others said, “But how could an ordinary sinner do such miraculous signs?” So there was a deep division of opinion among them. 17 Then the Pharisees again questioned the man who had been blind and demanded, “What’s your opinion about this man who healed you?” The man replied, “I think he must be a prophet.” 18 The Jewish leaders still refused to believe the man had been blind and could now see, so they called in his parents. 19 They asked them, “Is this your son? Was he born blind? If so, how can he now see?” 20 His parents replied, “We know this is our son and that he was born blind, 21 but we don’t know how he can see or who healed him. Ask him. He is old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who had announced that anyone saying Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why they said, “He is old enough. Ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.” 25 “I don’t know whether he is a sinner,” the man replied. “But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” 26 “But what did he do?” they asked. “How did he heal you?” 27 “Look!” the man exclaimed. “I told you once. Didn’t you listen? Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” 28 Then they cursed him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! 29 We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this man comes from.” 30 “Why, that’s very strange!” the man replied. “He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. 32 Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” 34 “You were born a total sinner!” they answered. “Are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Here, the news is being spread by a firsthand witness, the actual man who was healed. He is telling the truth and he has all the evidence on his side. After all, people who have known him his whole life all testify that he was always blind. Here the truth is shared by the man, other people in the community and his parents, but still the religious leaders refused to hear the truth.  Because what was being shared was damaging and disrupting to their worldview, they refused to accept it.

This is the problem with fake news. For most people, they process information through the lens of their worldview. Whatever reinforces their current beliefs is processed without question or discernment. Information received that goes against what we consider to be true is tossed aside like fake news. The angry mob from Monty Python and the religious leaders in John both had their filters up ready to only believe that which gained them the outcome that they desired. In the average week, how often are you guilty of doing the same?

There is ultimate Truth and we can know it, but the information we process from the media and online is perpetually biased in a way that can be confusing, demoralizing and very manipulative. As the world moves more to the Metaverse, I would encourage you to stay and become ever more grounded in the reality of the Truth that can be known. This is the Truth of the man born blind. “I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!”

Live in your community, stay grounded in God’s Word and refuse to participate in the echo chambers of fake news from both sides. I think you’ll find your life turning more towards the joy of true living, rather than the anger and outrage that the world so frequently demands of us. There is no joy in the angry mob.

McDonalds, Benevolent Dictators and World Peace

Last week many different things happened, but with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine another one of humankind’s great theories came to an end. The theory was on it’s last breath already, with the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, but with this current conflict, it will have difficult finding any future evangelists. What theory am I talking about?  An interesting observation by a fairly brilliant human (Thomas Friedman) made in 1996, noted a correlation between the presence of McDonalds in a country and world peace. Stated simply:

‘Countries with McDonald’s within their borders do not go to war with other countries with McDonalds within their borders.’

Milton Friedman

Born out of the idealistic pre-9/11 90’s, the logic behind this theory is that once a country gets to the place where companies like McDonalds and Starbucks start to open up branches it demonstrated a level of economic stability in the country and commitment to the global marketplace where those making decisions would do everything to avoid armed conflict and the economic devastation that follows after it. So, while you might have countries like Russia, the United States, Germany and China funding conflict in other countries, they would do everything to keep it from happening within their own borders.

Put more simply, this could be seen as a belief that free trade could save the world. Whether a person was a pure capitalist or a one world government socialist, you could find both tribes putting some hope in the desire of humans to pursue their own prosperity and that of their country as a powerful force that would keep the atrocities of large scale global conflicts from ever happening again. While one country might risk this kind of conflict, the thinking was that surely multiple countries would not head in this direction with each other.

This theory was tested many times in the past 2 decades. Multiple times between Pakistan and India, the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008 and other tensions around the world before war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020, but it is difficult to compare those to what we’ve seen over the last month or so. Russia, against dire economic warnings slowly built up a huge force on the Ukrainian border and ultimately invaded, a conflict which continues as I write this with possible far-ranging consequences outside of the borders of those two countries. All Christians should answer the call to regular prayer for the many innocents suffering and who will continue to suffer whenever armed conflicts occur.

The flaw that existed with this supposed peace theory (which was really nothing more than observing a short trend) was it didn’t acknowledge that we live in a world where sometimes people’s approaches to their own and their country’s best interests are far from rational. We also find that the same kind of poor decision-making and short term thinking that marks disastrous decisions that we see in our own lives and the lives of those close to us can also be present in the decisions of global leaders.

The fear of the modern world has been focused on hateful or irrational men with power, whether they were the leaders of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or unstable leaders such as in N. Korea. The assumption being that the population of the world would move towards a kind of common ground, understanding each other better as time went on and it was only those who are isolated and on the fringe (lunatic fringe) who might be the real threats.

When I was studying the forms of government both in high school and in Political Science 101 it was common to discuss the positives and negatives of various forms of government. I remember one teacher saying that the best form of government to live under was the benevolent dictator, but it was also very risky, because even if the person in charge acted perfectly on behalf of all of their citizens, there was no guarantee that the next dictator who succeeded them would do the same.

If we are honest, this could be applied to any functional form of government. Monarchies, Democracies, Republics and Socialist states might all function well for a season with the right leaders in charge, in a way that is not much different than our fictitious benevolent dictatorship. As Christians, we should pray for good governance. We should vote for those who seem to be the closest to a good, benevolent leader, but we should be careful to never put our ultimate hope in any human government to bring lasting peace and prosperity on this earth.

God’s Word doesn’t promise us peace in this world, instead it promises another kind of peace:

“Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.””

‭‭John‬ ‭16:31-33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

This was one of the last promises of Jesus to His followers before He would soon be betrayed and handed over to be crucified. Jesus told them they would be scattered, that they would abandon Him and that they would have tribulation and yet He says they will “have peace.” Why do they have peace? Because He has overcome the world. This was the message He gave prior to crucifixion. His followers, after hearing these words would see their dear friend and teacher tortured and killed unjustly. In that context, they were to have peace and to take heart.

These are relevant words for all of Christ’ followers. In this world, we will have trouble and tribulation. We will sometimes be scattered and sometimes we will be alone. In spite of all these things, even today with all the things we see around us, we should have peace and take heart. Not because the world is getting better. Not because some economic theory has promised us world peace and not even because some of us might have a chance to live under the rule of some mostly benevolent leader. Instead, our hope is in the one fact that was true when the words were spoken and are still true today, Jesus “has overcome the world.”

Because of this, we place our hope in eternity, not within the boundaries of our time on this earth. We long for an end to all suffering and we desire for peace and love for one another with our fellow travelers on this earth, but we remember with certainty that even when those things are not possible, we have something better promised to us on the other side of eternity. That is not a theory of man, but a fact of God.

The Solution for Racial Discord and Human Bias

Human beings are biased. We can’t help it. There are several things that contribute to this. Our upbringing and the information that we are taught by our environment contributes to our bias. Some cultures are based on class systems and unfortunately, it is normal in those cultures to teach people to judge others based on the classes they fall into. You may come from a culture like that. Some of you may experience bias and prejudice regularly in your daily life. People might judge you based on the country you are from or the color of your skin. Bias is but one way that sin manifests itself in the world today.

Fortunately, it is an attribute of God that He is not biased. God is the perfect impartial judge. All humanity stands before Him without fear that He will judge us unjustly. Instead, our only fear is that He will judge us fairly if we are outside of the salvation of Jesus Christ. We all stand equally in need of Jesus. When we face judgment, it will not matter how much money we had, where we were born or how many followers we had on social media when we die. The only thing that will matter will be our status in Christ.

When we look at the Bible, we see both the impartiality of God in His judgment and the life we are called to live, free of bias. This is summed up in what is referred to as the royal law of Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In Christ, God has called us to live as representatives of His character on the earth. One of the ways that we demonstrate that is in how we refuse to show bias in the way we conduct our church and the way we live our personal lives. 

In the Old Testament, impartiality was a foundational part of the system of justice. Judges were given commands to avoid impartiality, based on their roles as representatives of God’s Justice. In Deuteronomy 10:17 God’s justice is proclaimed, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.”

God had charged the judges in Deuteronomy 1:16-17 – “And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’”

God acknowledged the limits of man’s judgment, but rather than acting in a partial manner, if they were unable to avoid bias, they were to bring the situation to God, the ultimate impartial judge. From the beginning, God took the responsibility of acting without bias as important for His people, and especially of His appointed leaders. 

In the NT, the greatest division and potential for bias was between Jews and Gentiles. God was determined to not have this divide His Church and we have the famous story in Acts 10 where Peter was given a vision right before his Gentile visitors came. God made it clear that Peter, as one of the leaders of the early church, should not hesitate to go to the “unclean” house of Cornelius. In verse 28, Peter declares to Cornelius, “And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”

His whole life Peter had been taught that to enter the house of a Gentile was to defile himself, but God gave Peter a revelation that he could not deny in order to correct that thinking. After hearing how God had revealed Himself to Cornelius, Peter proclaims in 10:34-35:

“So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Is there a divide like this in our cultures today? A cultural, political, or ideological divide that has separated people for as long as you can remember? That is the kind of divide that Peter was dealing with, and God was removing the option of judging people based on the greatest categorical divide that existed at that time. They were one church. There were no Jewish churches and Gentile churches, there was only the church.

The book of James deals with a different kind of bias in James 2:1-7:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

So in James, the issue he was writing about was preferential treatment based on wealth. This is a very common bias in society. People all around the world will treat someone as having more value and their opinion as being more important based on how much money they have. We see the wealthy and the famous released from the laws and rules that are applied to the masses. In a world where people are always looking to get ahead and earn more money, we shouldn’t be surprised by this, but we should be surprised when we find this practiced in the church. 

God defines worth and value differently and in God’s economy, He is the one who knows the condition of a heart. The church is able to judge within the church impartially based on obedience to the commands of God, not according to any material status. If we put more worth in someone based on where they work, how much they earn, or even how much they give to the church, we are in violation of the clear teaching of Scripture, which includes this passage. We are honored by our richness in the faith, not by our richness in wealth or possessions. 

In James 2:1, he writes, “show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” We could simplify this down to one statement:

Partiality and bias (including any form of racism) is incompatible with faith in Christ

As followers of Christ, as I mentioned earlier, we are Christ’ representatives on this earth and through our faith in Christ, we are able to show the world something different than the standards by which they live. In the world, it is common to judge others based only on superficial standards. Wealth, as mentioned here, is but one of those aspects. As believers, we care about who the person is. Every human is a marvelous creation of God and they are more than the sum of what we see. This is one more way that the Gospel is transformational.

The gospel is a great leveler, available with absolute equality to everyone who believes in the Savior. As Paul said in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the standard for the children of God. 

Biblical partiality is defined by Paul in Philippians 2:3 – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”. We are to be biased towards showing favor towards others, rather than ourselves, but it is evil to divide people up and value them differently based on characteristics like wealth and position.

In verse 8, James talks about the royal law of Scripture – to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In verse 10 he writes, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” These statements are the ultimate slap in the face to those who believe they will get into heaven by having more on the good side of their scale than on the bad. The readers of James’ letter would have been mostly Jews. They would have the same temptation of the Pharisees, legalism. Legalists can justify bias and prejudice. They can find a way to make it seem right to value one group above another, but James was providing the antidote for that. To treat someone as you would want to be treated, pushes them towards empathy and understanding. Two things that bias always avoids. 

The emphasis on guilt coming from breaking a single point of the law is to remind us that our only hope for salvation is in Jesus, not in our ability to follow the rules or keep the law. This is another reason that we show no partiality in Christ. We all stand condemned for our sin, regardless of the kind of sin or the amount of sin. We all stand in need of God’s mercy. We are fellow prisoners, condemned to death, who are only made free because Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins. Now we have the means to share this good news with others, who are in the same state that we once held. 

James ends this section with a beautiful passage, “12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Earlier, he mentioned the royal law. Here, James refers to the law of liberty. That is the law to which I’ve referred multiple times to before, the law that provides no judgment, only mercy because of the salvation we find through Jesus Christ.

To say it another way, James could have said, “live and act as a true believer who has been saved by God’s grace and who will be judged on the basis of Christ’ imputed righteousness.” The law of liberty, or freedom, is that we are now free from the judgment that we deserve because of the perfect life of Christ, which provides a perfect, fully acceptable payment that satisfies justice and provides us only with mercy, rather than condemnation. 

Our ability to treat one another impartially and without bias, is not tied up in our own human ability, but rather a proper perspective on reality that sees us as equally deserving to be judged for our own sinfulness. Equally deserving of eternal separation from our God in heaven, but only by His grace are we able to have any other alternative outcome. 

One commentary wrote this about the law of liberty: “The gospel is the law of liberty because it frees those who place their faith in Jesus Christ from the bondage, judgment, and punishment of sin and brings them ultimately to eternal freedom and glory. It liberates us sinners from falsehood and deception and from the curses of death and hell. Even more marvelously, it frees us to obey and serve God, to live faithfully and righteously according to His Word and by the power of His indwelling Spirit. And it frees us to follow our Lord willingly out of love rather than reluctantly out of fear. In every sense, it is the “royal law” of God (v.8), the divine and wondrous law of liberty.”

James ends with a warning about showing mercy to others. We, who have known the great mercy of Christ, must not act with an absence of mercy. We are now agents of the mercy that we have been shown. When we act in mercy, refusing to show bias or partiality, we testify to the truth of the great salvation that we have received. We fulfill our role as ministers in this biased world of God’s grace, love and mercy.

In the history of the world, humankind has an atrocious record when it comes to issues like bias and racism. The transformational power of Christ was able to breakdown the greatest cultural, societal and ethnic divides of the 1st century and create a movement defined by their love for one another, in spite of these differences. If we want to find a solution to the problems we face today, the most important step is for us first to realize that it is only the power of God, who is fully without bias, that has any hope of seeing real progress and humankind’s greatest need will always be for Him.

This very simple discussion was mostly focused on human bias and how only God provides true hope for overcoming the sinful bias of man. For a more lengthy discussion on racial discord and overcoming it, I recommend the resources available at Just Thinking, such as this one, the Gospel and George Floyd.

Would You Rent a Friend?

Did you know you can rent a friend now? A few months ago, I came across this website, Rentafriend.com. No matter where you are in the world, they are building a database of people who are willing to rent themselves out to you as a “friend”. As I checked the website today and they had 621,585 friends available for rent worldwide. In addition to events that you might hire a friend for such as fun outings, activities and even dates for things like proms and weddings, they are encouraging “Virtual Friend Services” in order to comply with local Covid restrictions you might have in your area. So, you can pay people to hang out with you online and in person.

For these services, you can pay $10/hr or more, depending on the friend and the desired activity. The website does note that many of the friends will negotiate and some will waive their fees for some activities. In looking through the website and the different uses that they highlight, it is easy to see the appeal. Some of the things suggested are:

  • Moving to a new town and need a local to show you around and introduce you to people
  • Looking for someone with a unique talent or skill they could teach you such as learning or practicing a new language or learning to cook
  • Don’t hire a personal trainer, hire a friend to workout with you and help motivate you
  • And of course, the plot of many a B movie, you need a date for a wedding, dinner party, etc. and don’t have anyone to go with

The site discourages romantic friendships, stating that it is only meant for plutonic friendships. I’m sure this is to help avoid it being accused of being a pseudo escort service. When I first heard about the site, my first response was to dismiss it as a joke. It does kind of sound like the plot of a movie, but when you look at the site and browse through some of the profiles, you find people from all walks of life, looking to connect with other people. The growth of the site over time as well as competing sites which have emerged demonstrate the market for this kind of thing. The use of the word friend here may be similar to the way it is used in the online world, meaning it has a very broad definition.

There is no data on what might be called true friendships that have developed as a result of connections made through sites like these, but it seems like the very nature of the relationship would be a barrier towards a true lasting friendship. After all, you are basically paying for someone to stand in as a friend for a limited time. What this demand definitely does point to is the need for community. God has created us to desire community with other people. I know introverts would argue that point, but the vast majority of introverts I have known personally do want community of some sort, it is just usually on a more limited basis than our extrovert friends and might look somewhat different.

From the beginning, God’s plan was for us to be together, not alone.(Gen 2:18) Jesus’ plans for His Church was not to send them off by themselves, but in both the teachings of Jesus and His followers “together” is emphasized. Here are but a few examples:

  • Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16b)
  • Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  • Serve one another (John 13)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
  • Be honest with one another (Colossians 3:9)

In the book of Hebrews, the author writes that they should “not giving up meeting together.” In the book of Psalms the author writes, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” This is a small collection of just a few of the many verses that encourage and describe the community of God’s people. But what about friendship? We were made for community, but what about friendship?

Friendships are sometimes marked by power dynamics. Rentafriend.com spells that out and makes it a formal transaction. You are paying for an agreed for service, not much differently than when you hire someone to fix your plumbing or bake you a cake. Real friendships also can be marked by this kind of relational give and take. Similar to the story of the prodigal son, you can see people who have money and influence and they will find no shortage of friends as long as that continues, but when that dries up, many of these friends disappear. While there is no formal rental agreement in these situations, some people chose friendships solely for what they can get out of it. Have you ever had that “friend” who you only hear from when they need something from you? Unfortunately, this is fairly common.

Other people choose friendships for an emotional “payment”. They aren’t looking for a financial gain, but they choose to surround themselves with people who will make them feel good about themselves. You can see this in real life and social media. The contrast of this is we avoid those who consistently make withdrawals from our emotional bank account.

None of this is what God created us to crave. We desire something greater than this and it is the absence of true friendship and community that spawns the need for people to seek other escapes or to be willing to rent a placeholder for an actual friend. None of us want to Rent-a-friend. We want a real friend, but not one who is only there for the wrong reasons, but instead someone who will really care about us in the manner in which the Bible describes community and friendship.

We want friends who are:

  • Loyal and ready to help in time of need (Proverbs 17:17)
  • Who stick closer than a brother/sister (Proverbs 18:24)
  • Who are willing to sacrifice for the sake of our friendship (John 15:13-15)
  • Who are reliable (Proverbs 20:6)
  • Who give good advice (Proverbs 12:26)
  • Who will love us with a pure heart and gracious speech (Proverbs 22:11)
  • Who will tell us what we need to hear (Proverbs 27:5-6)

Solomon writes:

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NLT)

The answer to our friend problem starts with us. Don’t be satisfied with being alone. Pursue deep relationships. Join a church where God is worshipped in community, not just for an hour on Sunday morning. Be a part of a Bible Study or small group where they challenge you to grow and care enough to want to know more about what is going on in your life than just “I’m fine” or “We’re okay”. Real community and friendships are built by sharing life. Don’t eat alone. Invite people to go along with you on trips or when you have things to do. Invite people over to your house to play games or for even a night of good conversation. Welcome the new people in your neighborhood, church or community. God created us to need each other and to desire this kind of community. Life is better together.

The Amazing Life of George Liele, One of the First Modern Missionaries

In the history of missions, there are many names worth highlighting. Great biographies have been written about men like Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson. In my own tradition, we honor the name Lottie Moon by naming our offering for International Missions after her. Their lives are inspiring stories of sacrifice so that the name of God might be glorified and the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed in fulfillment of God’s call for His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19-20) One astounding story that you might not have heard involves God’s transformative action in creating beauty from the ashes in the life of a slave, George Liele.

Born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1750, George didn’t remember much of his childhood, except for being moved from place to place before finally being owned by a Baptist deacon in Georgia. His father was a follower of God, whom George recalled hearing about, “my father was the only black person who knew the Lord in a spiritual way in that country.” In 1773, at the age of 23, George accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior while attending church with his owner, Henry Sharp. George felt a passion to share the Gospel amongst his fellow slaves and began preaching among them wherever he could find opportunity, both across Georgia and into South Carolina.

Mr. Sharp recognized the spiritual value of George’s preaching and gave him freedom to travel around in order to exercise his gifts and calling to the Lord. On May 20th, 1775, just 2 years after his conversion and baptism, he was ordained to the Gospel ministry by Mr. Sharp’s pastor, the Rev. Matthew Moore, the same man who had baptized George earlier upon his salvation. Mr. Liele was the first ordained Baptist black pastor in Georgia. He was seen not only as a pastor, but a missionary to his own people in Georgia and S. Carolina. In Silver Bluff, South Carolina, Mr. Liele would found the first African Baptist Church, which is still in existence today. He would go on to plant several churches in both Georgia and South Carolina, among the slave population.

Like many slaves, George Liele would side with the British in the revolutionary war. Mr. Sharp also sided with the British, finally freeing George in 1778. Unfortunately, Mr. Sharp was killed in the war later that year and his heirs wanted to re-enslave George, along with his family. He was thrown in jail, but was released when he presented papers signed by Mr. Sharp, which had freed him. As the war came to an end, Mr. Liele was forced to flee with his family. He would choose to become an indentured servant in order to pay for him and his family’s passage by boat to Jamaica.

George arrived in Jamaica in January of 1783, and worked hard to quickly repay his debt and earn his freedom for a second time. He soon was able to secure permission to preach the Gospel to the slaves on the island. So, working to support himself, much in the same way the apostle Paul did as a tentmaker, George began his Gospel ministry as a missionary to the slaves of Jamaica. This was a full 10 years before William Carey would be sent out from England to India and almost 30 years before Adoniram Judson would be “bound for Burma.”

In his first 8 years of preaching the Gospel there, Mr. Liele would baptize over 500 people, all the while supporting his family by farming and transporting goods with his wagon and team. Since his ministry was among the slaves, they never had money to support him, instead it was often George who gave financially to them, in addition to the spiritual blessings he brought their way. Mr. Liele organized them into congregations based on a church covenant he adapted to the local context.

George’s ministry was not always welcomed by the slave owners. Around 1802, he was charged with preaching sedition and was thrown into prison, his family not permitted to see him. He was tried for the charges, but no evidence could be brought against him and he was acquitted. In 1805, a law was passed, forbidding all preaching to slaves. Though not always enforced, the law essentially gave permission for slave owners to strike out and persecute the missionaries whenever they desired. Instances of murder, sexual abuse, imprisonment and other brutality were commonly reported in the missionary accounts of the day until 1834 when slavery was abolished.

George would die in 1828, never seeing physical freedom brought to many who he led to spiritual freedom, but accounts point that his efforts, either directly or indirectly led to a count of 8000 Baptists in Jamaica in 1814 and 20,000 numbered in 1832. In addition to the work on the island, many of George’s converts would go on to plant churches not only in Jamaica, but back in Georgia and as far away as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.

He preached the Gospel to a people in bondage, much as we see many of the preachers in the NT, as well as Jesus. George offered up an eternal hope of freedom, regardless of physical bondage, similar to what we find in 1 Peter 2:

16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 

Mr. George Liele is definitely a name worth remembering as a fervent example of someone who did not let the difficulties that he faced impact his efforts for the growth and establishment of the Kingdom of God. During his lifetime, the majority of those to whom he proclaimed his message of freedom and salvation would continue to suffer under the bondage of slavery, but through his efforts and the power of the Gospel, they would find a freedom that is greater than any bonds of this earth.

For those looking to learn more about this incredible man, there are many resources available, some of which I used for this article. I also recommend the book, Ten Who Changed the World, which discusses George Liele as well as some of the others mentioned in this article. Finally, you can listen to the voices of pastors and missionaries today, who speak kindly of the influence of George Liele in these videos.

Dominion by Tom Holland – Book Review

The name Tom Holland is fairly well known in the world right now, unfortunately, most people know the name because of its connection to the actor who plays Spiderman, and not the academic who is a world class historian and writer. Both are from England, but it is the later who is author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. I have read several books that attempt to write a history of Christianity, including some written as academic works. This book is quite different in that it was written from a secular perspective, but with a kind of respect for the movement of Christianity that is often found lacking in mainstream academic culture. The author points to his own drift from a Christian upbringing and the dismissal of Christianity’s influence as persistent in his studies.

“Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilisation that it has come to be hidden from view. It is the incomplete revolutions which are remembered; the fate of those which triumph is to be taken for granted. The ambition of Dominion is to trace the course of what one Christian, writing in the third century ad, termed ‘the flood-tide of Christ’: how the belief that the Son of the one God of the Jews had been tortured to death on a cross came to be so enduringly and widely held that today most of us in the West are dulled to just how scandalous it originally was. This book explores what it was that made Christianity so subversive and disruptive; how completely it came to saturate the mindset of Latin Christendom; and why, in a West that is often doubtful of religion’s claims, so many of its instincts remain – for good and ill – thoroughly Christian. It is – to coin a phrase – the greatest story ever told.”

In the modern western world, it is common to dismiss the Church and to look down upon religious people for their conservative beliefs. The new terminology that is often used is to talk about being on the right side of history. Those who do not go along with progressive thought are condemned as being stuck in the past and held in contempt for failing to wake up and get with the program. This book presents a compelling case that without the influence of Christianity, the entire framework from which arguments about human rights are made wouldn’t exist. As stated in the quote above, declines in the prominence of Christianity in many western nations has actually allowed this influence to become hidden and unknown. What Mr. Holland has done in this work is to systematically walk the readers through a pre-Christian world, the events of the founding of the religion and key points of societal shift that occurred over the last 2000 years. He is not a champion for the Church, or any specific branch of Christian faith, but rather a defender of the powerful formative influence of the teachings of Jesus and the practices of His followers as they lived out those teachings.

A few such examples are as follows:

  • Women’s rights in marriage and in the community. “The insistence of scripture that a man and a woman, whenever they took to the marital bed, were joined as Christ and his Church were joined, becoming one flesh, gave to both a rare dignity. If the wife was instructed to submit to her husband, then so equally was the husband instructed to be faithful to his wife. Here, by the standards of the age into which Christianity had been born, was an obligation that demanded an almost heroic degree of self-denial.” Double standards were the norm in pre-Christian society and it continued in the world into which Christ came and into which the Church grew, but the Church was called to a radically different view of the woman’s role in the marriage and in the world. Even the very idea that sex should be consensual didn’t exist on any widespread basis before Christianity. Marriage, as envisioned in the New Testament, was a great protection for women.
  • Similarly to women’s rights, the idea that human beings inherently had rights because they were human was a Christian invention. This is a foundational principle for what is considered good law, justice and governance today. None of this existed prior to the Christian religion. This included the right to practice religion freely. “We are fortunate to enjoy the rare happiness of living in a republic where every person’s liberty to judge for himself is respected, everyone is permitted to worship God according to his own mind, and nothing is thought dearer or sweeter than freedom.” Human life was cheap in the ancient world and Christianity, more than any other influence, has acted to add value to human life and individual liberty.
  • Scientific progress was driven by a Christian viewpoint that the world was real, unlike the eastern view that much was an illusion. The rational pursuit to understand God’s creation was a driving force behind much discovery. This idea is addressed here, but is not fully developed.
  • Slavery was the norm in the ancient world, the Biblical world and the NT teachings didn’t abolish slavery, but taught a different way for its followers. Slaves were not to be treated differently. Teaching about this and other human rights led Christians to lead the way to eventually eliminate slavery from their cultures. It still exists in societies that do not hold to this Christian heritage. “To target it (slavery) for abolition was to endow society itself with the character of a pilgrim, bound upon a continuous journey, away from sinfulness towards the light. It was to cast slavery as a burden, long borne by fallen humanity, but which, by the grace of God, might one day loose from its shoulders, and fall from off its back, and begin to tumble.” Christian abolitionists like Benjamin and Sarah Lay and William Wilberforce were willing to stand against the tide of the world to see this changed.
  • Protestant and Catholic missions were not driven by the profits of colonization, but rather by the call of the Gospel and the Great Commission. They brought not only the Good News, but also the same culture-transforming views of liberty, human and women’s rights that helped transform the societies they encounter. For a more complete documentation of this, I recommend Robert Woodberry’s excellent paper, The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.
  • Generally, Christianity brought not just the hope of Christ to a world in need, but a hope for a better tomorrow. A belief that history would allow for progress in areas like justice and peace was a uniquely Christian idea. Christians believed in eternal life, but they also believed in the ability of people to be transformed on this earth by the power of God working in them. “Repeatedly, though . . . it was Christianity that . . . provided the colonized and the enslaved with the surest voice. The paradox was profound. No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors . . . had installed . . . an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power.”

These are but just a few examples found in this sweeping history. There are other books that are more thorough, offering a more complete coverage of Christian history, such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I’m partial to Rodney Stark’s works on the subject, such as The Rise of Christianity and The Triumph of Christianity, which I believe Christian readers will find overall more satisfying. What Holland offers that makes Dominion special is the specific connections to Christianity’s influence on the modern world, from a more secular perspective. As our world attempts to pretend that it is possible to hold to morality without a belief in God, this is a very significant reminder.

Recently, I read another article that talked about how the TV show Ted Lasso was presenting a main character who had all the markings of an evangelical Christian in his character and behavior, but without any connection to the Christian faith. The author, Mike Frost, suggests that this sitcom seems to suggest, “we can have all the things Jesus taught without having to bother with Jesus himself.” This is also the message that Mr. Holland seems to be addressing as well. He is explaining to the world, every so carefully, that these many things that they find virtuous, did not exist without Christianity.

Another author, Mark Sayers, talks about the desire of society to create a “Kingdom without the King.” He said in an interview, “Post-Christianity is ultimately the project of the West to move beyond Christianity whilst feasting on its fruit. Thus, it constantly offers us options and off ramps, in which we seemingly can have what we enjoy about faith, but without the sacrifices and commitments.” This is a common dream, to have all the benefits of a Christian morality while at the same time not having to be answerable to a Christian God.

Mr. Holland ends his book with an open question that relates to this, “If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution—a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?”

This question doesn’t point to the inability of an individual to hold to a high standard of morality without God. We have all seen examples of that over time, but instead it is the question of whether or not whole societies will be able to continue to hold onto morality and values even as they abandon everything that brought that morality into existence. That is a question that we don’t know the answer to yet, but if we hold to the truth of the Bible’s teaching, we are likely to find ourselves expecting a very negative outcome.

Increased Tribalism is Not the Answer

Tribalism is nothing new. Humans have always divided themselves into groups and aligned themselves along certain interests and ideologies. Growing up, I was a Sooner and I wore my crimson and crème with pride. I detested orange clothing, in all it’s shades. This was especially challenging for me as I attended a high school that had orange and black as our school colors.

Sports provides a strong example of tribalism, but even if you don’t find an interest in sports there were other things to align ourselves with. It could be a favorite band or singer, a restaurant, a clothing brand or even the church you attend. It is human nature to put ourselves into groups and to define ourselves by the groups we belong to. For the most part, this type of tribalism has existed as harmless fun. We all know someone who probably took it too far, but for most of us, we just enjoyed good natured ribbing when our “tribe” came out on top.

Advertising executives definitely recognize this and make it a core part of their strategy to get people to identify with their brands in this way. They don’t just want casual customers, they want people who will commit to their culture and influence others to do the same. Influencers is now a career for many people who have mastered the art of marketing themselves and the products they use/promote so well that they can earn a living off of doing nothing but that.

There is one area of tribalism that you may think is missing from what I’ve discussed so far, and that is politics. Politics used to be like some of these other tribes. People used to think about it in November, sometimes only every 2 or 4 years. Some issues were always considered political, such as taxes and the military, but few people who weren’t directly involved in politics spent much time thinking about the impact and influence of politics on our daily concerns. I remember in the 80’s and 90’s having some thoughts about politicians, but only being vaguely aware of whether the people around me were of the same political tribe as me.

It just didn’t matter that much. It didn’t seem like real life. Real life was lived with real people as we went about our business, built our communities, worshipped our creator and generally, enjoyed life. Somewhere along the way, things began to accelerate into a very different direction. It didn’t happen overnight, but in the world today, everything seems political. It bleeds over into our sports, into our schools and even into our churches. Everyone is pushed to choose a tribe and to align with those interests.

We have rejected an opinion-less life in order to have a politically-aligned take on just about everything. Just as we have social media influencers who are pushing us to want to use certain brands and products, there is a huge industry out there pushing us to align with the opinions of others, to join their tribe and unfortunately, to condemn, make fun of and reject those with differing opinions. This is fueled by the distance of the Internet, where we can judge everyone, including those in our neighborhoods, communities and families at a distance. We have the freedom to cast out anyone whose allegiance to our tribe seems to buckle with an inappropriate post on social media.

We’ve just finished an incredibly divisive last 2 years. Most likely, there are people who you consider to be members of other “unclean” tribes today that you weren’t even aware of even a few years ago. The ability for you to live your life daily in a way that is glorifying and honoring to God and loving to your fellow travelers has been damaged by all of this. The divisions that exist are deep, but they don’t have to be permanent.

Some people act like a politician they are defending on social media is some rich aunt and uncle and they are trying to earn a spot in their will. Seriously, why do you care so much about all of these things? Why are you willing to break a real relationship that you may have had for most of your life, for the sake of someone who wouldn’t give you the time of day if they passed you on the street. It’s okay to care about these things. It’s okay to vote for your convictions, but defining our lives by political tribalism is a destructive way to live. Do any of these things really bring joy into your life as believers?

In 1 Peter 2, Peter writes:

But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. 10 “Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.” 11 Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. 12 Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.

As followers of Jesus, we are different, and we are called to be recognizable as a different kind of tribe. We are not an earthly tribe, but a tribe defined by God and His ways. This is the identity that has been given unto us. While we live on this earth, we have opinions and preferences. We will have favorite bands and sports teams. We will find the policies of some earthly leaders to seem more true than others, but in all of this, we are not to be defined by those things. We are called to live honorable lives as temporary residents and foreigners in a foreign land.

As we identify with this “tribe”, the tribe of Jesus Christ, we have the opportunity to have an impact that does matter. It matters in our own life, in the lives of our family and in the lives of everyone who we encounter, because if our lives are truly pointing to Christ, then we are pointing people towards the only tribe they can join that will have an eternal impact. Remember that as you journey out into the tribal landscape.

No Peace on Earth, No Good Will for Men

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas Bells – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

During times of personal crisis, it is common for us to lose hope. When that is combined with crisis on a greater scale, it is even easier to find ourselves heading towards depression. This beautiful poem, written on Christmas day in 1864 and later turned into a song in 1872, is well known to many, but most people know it from the song, which added further verses. It is usually sung without the middle stanzas of Longfellow’s poem. That leaves out an important part of the journey through despair to hope again.

Longfellow had fallen into depression with the loss of his 2nd wife Frances when her clothes caught on fire while sealing envelopes with hot wax in 1861. Henry had tried to smother the flames, first with a rug and finally with his own body, but the burns were so severe that she ended up dying the next day. Longfellow, who was also badly burned, was so ill that he was unable to attend her funeral. Their 18 years of marriage had been the happiest time in his life and after her death, he all but abandoned his creative work for a time, instead supporting their family by translating other works.

That Christmas Longfellow would write in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” At Christmas time in 1862 he would write, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Many people can relate to those expressions when they have experienced loss. Family gatherings can be marked more by the absence of loved ones than by those who are present.

1861 would also be a year of national tragedy with the start of the American Civil War. Over the course of the next 4+ years, every American family would feel the impact of this conflict. Longfellow’s family would be no different. His daughters would serve as caregivers to wounded soldiers, and in 1863 his son Charley would go against his father’s wishes and enlist in the Union army. His son would have to leave active service first because of illness and later in November of 1864, when he would be severely wounded in battle. On December 8th, Longfellow would arrive home with his son, where he knew he would spend months trying to help with his recovery.

In the midst of so much ongoing trouble and despair, it would have been expected that Longfellow could lose all hope. Depression is often a journey through a black, dense forest with very little light breaking through the darkness. On Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow would hear the bells and be inspired to write the words above. The poem contains scenes of both hope and despair, perhaps reflecting the author’s daily struggles since the loss of his wife and in reading the news of the day related to the war. Perhaps because of the recent reelection of Lincoln or the possible nearing end of the war, Longfellow found the hope to end his poem with the words:

“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

The Wrong shall fail

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

These recent days have been trying for us all. When we look at the news of the day it would be easy for us to proclaim that there is not peace on earth, but instead proclaim that “hate is strong”. Reviewing the interactions we see around us, we might feel right to proclaim that there is no “good will to men (or women)”. Hostility and division are common place and highlighted. We are encouraged to join man-made tribes that would define others as our enemies and undeserving of any good will.

Into this world, we once again take time to celebrate Christmas. Once again, we hear the bells of Christmas ringing. Christmas is a song that is different than what the world is singing to us. The world sings of hate and despair, division and impending doom. The message of Christmas is the message of hope. It is the message that was proclaimed to those shepherds long ago:

10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:10-14

The angel didn’t offer hope because of the birth of a great military leader, an earthly king or a great teacher. The hope rested in a baby in a manger, who would be the fulfillment of God’s plan. The hope was not for this earth, but for eternity to come. On this earth, we see glimpses of that hope, but it is only fulfilled in the life to come. “In this world, we will have trouble.” (John 16:33) We will see wars, we will face disease, we will face loss that seems avoidable and unnecessary, and we will suffer grief that may seem impossible to face.

Putting our faith in these things will lead us to the answers of this world and will only lead us further into depression and despair. A life built on all that this world has to offer us is a very fragile life built on a house of cards. The reason the angel declared, “peace among those whom he is pleased” was that it was a peace based on the hope of a better world. It was a hope based on eternity.

How do we find this eternity? It is only found in Jesus. Today is the day when we all may find hope fulfilled through God’s son, Jesus Christ. In Romans 10 it says:

8 In fact, it says, “The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.” And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: 9 If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. 11 As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” 12 Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him. 13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Hope comes as we look beyond ourselves and resist the temptation to put our trust in governments, people or things. These things will ultimately collapse as they are completely unable and unworthy to bear the weight of true hope. In moments of true despair, it is easy to proclaim that there is no peace on earth and no good will toward men, but God’s message is a different message. It is the message of “good tidings of great joy that will be for all people.” All people, regardless of nationality, upbringing, or present circumstances. The Gospel is a message of Hope that brings ultimate equality as all humanity, unworthy though they are, finds the secret to their ultimate value through the complete worthiness of Jesus. Today is the day of your salvation, you have but to “declare Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead.” There is no better way to celebrate Christmas.

Is Atheism Dead? by Eric Metaxas – Book Review

Confession – I enjoy Eric Metaxas’ writing. His biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes my top 10 all-time book recommendations for people. His other biographies are well worth reading and he is a gifted story teller, whether he is recounting tales from his own life in Fish Out of Water, telling us about the life of Martin Luther or the history of Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving. I have read the majority of his books (or listened to the audiobook versions). I know what Eric Metaxas is capable of. All of that to say that it pains me to write the opening of this review. Is Atheism Dead? might be the most important book that Mr. Metaxas has written, or at least the 2nd most important after Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, but it is not a great book.

In reading Is Atheism Dead?, you can feel the author’s enthusiasm for the subject. He is passionate for communication of the truths contained. He has chosen to divide the book into 3 sections. The first one, “Does Science Point to God?”, is a very helpful introduction to the progress that science has made in the modern age. In this section Eric firmly establishes the incredible improbability of life existing on earth or anywhere in the universe. What some refer to as the “Goldilocks principle” meaning that there are many things that can go wrong in either direction and have rendered life impossible, but the universe exists in a very specific way that is “just right”, allowing for life to exist. He quotes Paul Davies, the English physicist in saying:

“Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth—the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient “co-incidences” and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal.”

Paul Davies

This section is the strongest section and does an excellent job of laying out the “evolution” 😉 of the argument over recent history. This works both as a case for the existence of some kind of catalytic intelligent designer behind all of these coincidences as well as showing the degree of misplaced faith that is required for someone to believe that all of this just happened. Simply, it requires a great deal more faith to believe in the alternatives than it does to believe in some kind of intelligent design behind all of this.

The second section is entitled, “The Stones Cry Out”, and it deals with the archeological evidence that supports the Biblical record. In this section, the author chronicles some of the most significant discoveries that support the authenticity of this record. It is interesting to see so many of these gathered in one place, and the evidence presented can be very encouraging for believers who are not familiar with the strength of this support. The quote that opens this section is a statement that might be surprising to those who have attended liberal-leaning universities anytime recently:

It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.

—Rabbi Dr. Nelson Glueck

Rabbi Glueck is one of many prominent archeologists quoted in this section. In addition, the author introduces his readers to some historical textual criticism techniques which point to the validity of the Biblical accounts. The Bible goes out of its way to include strange details, quirky specific accounts and many records that cast the followers of God, including those who held the pen at different times, in a most unfavorable light. This section is helpful, but lacks flow and is better read piecemeal rather than front to back.

The last section is entitled, “What is Truth?”, and has a difficult time finding a focus for what it is trying to accomplish. Much like the second section, there are pieces here that are very helpful in processing different thoughts on atheism, faith and belief in God, but the section doesn’t lead the readers on a clear coherent path to the answer of the question laid out in the title. Instead, the author starts with an analysis of prominent atheists and some of the limits of their arguments. He asks some relevant questions, such as, “If what they believe is true, why do they care so much about what other people believe?” Why should these atheists care so much that people believe in God?

The answer for many of them seems to be in that they have made a great deal of money by arguing their points and have become very famous as well, but again, what is fame and money if life is without meaning and in the end, we only return to dust, matter in another form? The author presents 3 prominent atheists who genuinely sought truth out of the meaninglessness of atheism, Sartre, Camus and Flew, and as well looks at both historical scientists and scientists of the modern age in order to demonstrate how closely science and faith have always existed, calling them BFFs. The pursuit of meaning and truth is natural for those who hold a Christian world view and a history of scientific progress supports this thoroughly.

I especially enjoyed the author’s research on analysis on the “legend” that it was people of faith who were the most opposed to the heliocentric world view proposed first by Copernicus and later by Galileo. This notion is described by the author as the “Founding Myth of Atheism”. For most of us, the church’s blind opposition to these men’s scientific research was presented to us that proof that the organized church has always stood against science. The reality is nothing could be further from the truth. By contrast, “Galileo was no enemy of the Church—and far from it. He was a deeply serious Christian who saw no disparity between what the Church taught—or what the Bible said—and what science revealed.”

“Copernicus, like Galileo, lived at a time when all truth was one. What he learned via science could never compete with the truth of the Scriptures, any more than science could compete with mathematics. For him, God was the God of all truth, whether scientific, philosophical, mathematical, or theological. So to divide faith and science as we often do today was inconceivable, and Copernicus could never have dreamt that his astronomy might be troubling to the Church, which he—being a clergyman—revered.” Both of these men operated within the support of the mainstream of the Church and were people of faith themselves.

Ironically, the opposition to their theories did not come from people of faith, making an argument from the Bible, but from educated people who resisted the theory because it differed from what they had learned from the teaching of Aristotle. Within and outside of the Church, there were those who came to hold the teaching of Aristotle on equal and in some cases greater ground than the Bible. In fact, many within the Catholic Church had as much a problem with Martin Luther over his non-Aristotelian thinking as anything else. It was these die-hard Aristotelians who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and see his evidence. The author points out throughout history it is often those with hard-wired bias based on previous scientific thought and discovery who  are the most adamant opponents of new discoveries, not scientists with true Christian faith.

In the last chapter, the author closes his argument by taking a step back once again and looking at what it actually means to live a life without meaning and no greater moral standard of accountability. To take the religion of atheism to its ultimate conclusion is a very dark destination. Most of the modern atheists don’t go there, nor do they lead others, perhaps because they know that no one wants to buy a book based on such a nihilistic counterfeit worldview. Contrast that with the opposing viewpoint, the other side, the people who find their hope in a world that was created for purpose and meaning.

“You get to be a part of giving others genuine hope in the genuine God who is the author of life and hope and goodness and truth and beauty. It is what you were created to do, but perhaps until now you didn’t understand this as you do now. That only means that you can now live as the one who made you made you to live. You can begin now. And this is not merely a poetic or a nice idea; it is true. The God of the universe wants you to spread goodness and truth and beauty wherever you go, to his glory.” This is not just a better sale’s pitch, but it is a more rational, truthful path. The world continues to sell us a message of despair, but this is not the message that God has for you, this is not the life we were created to live.

As I stated in the beginning, this book is not a perfect book. The construction of the book is flawed. Many of the ideas don’t build on what is written before and some details included could have been developed more and others left out, but it is an important book, a significant book and a book that you or perhaps someone in your life could benefit from reading. There are many truths which can serve to reinforce the faith of Christians fighting against a torrent of misinformation. There are some significant arguments that could help turn a true seeker on the right path. Is Atheism Dead? True atheism may have never had a leg to stand on when faced with a rational approach to engaging observable truth, but the scientific discoveries of the last century have moved it firmly into the land of myth, rather than the realm of reality.

Six years ago, the author wrote an article which appeared first in the New York Times on this topic, entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” If you are interested in this topic, read that first and if it that peaks your interest, I would recommend picking up Is Atheism Dead?.

Made for Meaning

Disney and Marvel certainly know how to make money. They own most of the entertainment content that has been profitable on TV and at the movies in recent years. Their latest release is a new branch in the expanding Marvel universe, simply entitled, Eternals. The one sentence description reads, “The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.” That sounds pretty significant, doesn’t it? These beings by their actions have made key differences throughout the history of our world. This is a fantasy that calls to the core of our lives, the desire for our lives to matter, to make a difference.

God created us with that desire. We were made for meaning. Everyone wants their lives to matter. The irony of this is that movies like this are a part of the society we’ve created which encourages us to live our lives in anything but a meaningful way. Our lives are flooded with opportunities to spend our time on things which add little value to our own lives or the lives of others. The focus is on living a life centered around entertainment and self-service. Whether it be videos, games, or personal experiences, much of the world we live in today is built around people as individuals or in groups pursuing these kind of diversions.

This topic has been written about extensively, and one of the best books on the subject (which turned out to be quite prophetic) is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, written way back in 1985. Another vision that is worth mentioning comes from Disney again, in the Pixar film, Wall-E. In the film, humans had to abandon earth and survived on board a spaceship where every need is automated. The humans on board have gradually become overweight blobs who do nothing but sit in floating chairs, eating and watching screens. This being Disney, we are spared any exploration into how their other biological processes might be dealt with.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Recently, as Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his vision for the future of his company, now known as Meta, I couldn’t help but see a connection to the future we see in Wall-E and other science fiction novels and works of fiction. The idea of alternate realities have dominated science fiction in recent years. One of the earliest visions for this was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, first released in 1992. Stephenson coined the term “metaverse”. I wonder if Zuckerberg is paying him anything for that turn of phrase.

In the future environment that is imagined in many of these works, man’s existence is boiled down to very simple terms, usually presenting an idea that what people need to survive is little more than food, water, shelter and entertainment. Work is only done for pleasure and enjoyment, if at all. In most of these visions, it is similar to being on a long international flight that never ends, but without having to share an armrest with someone or to worry about being crammed between narrow seats.

Even if we have the most comfortable chair, the tastiest food and the best entertainment (Wall-E’s vision) is this really all there is to life? Unfortunately, even though the answer to this question should be an obvious “no” for everyone, we aren’t offered a much better alternative if we look at what is emphasized on many platforms today. This is part of the reason depression and drug use is on the rise. The pursuit of nothing but self-gratification is a disappointing path even for those who are mostly successful in this for a season.

As I mentioned in the beginning, we were created for much more than this. We were created to live a life that matters. A life of purpose and meaning. Giving our lives to gain more likes, score more points, attract more followers or have more fun doesn’t fill the void inside of us. Not anymore than the fruitless pursuit of money, power or fame might have done for future generations. Meaning comes from doing, from building, from creating, and most of all in investing in the future. True meaning is not found in artificial pursuits, but in reality, in the opportunity to impact eternity.

The true eternals live all around us. Every person you meet is an eternal soul. They will live on forever after passing from this earth. We can impact eternity every day through our interactions with our fellow ‘eternals’. 1 Peter 2 is a wonderful passage on meaning, especially found through Jesus Christ.

4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

I Peter 2:4-5

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

I peter 2:9-10

What does this passage say about God/Christ?

  • Christ is the cornerstone of our faith, upon which everything is built. 
  • Christ was rejected by humans, but chosen by God.

What does this passage say about us?

  • We are living stones
  • We are a holy priesthood
  • When we trust in Him, we are never put to shame
  • We are a chosen people
  • We are God’s special possession
  • We are the people of God
  • We have received mercy

What does this passage tell us to do?

  • Offer ourselves as spiritual sacrifices
  • Believe in Him
  • Declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light

This passage is filled with the affirmation of who we are in Christ.  It tells us that we are a part of what He is doing, we are living stones in the Kingdom that He is building.  It tells us that those who don’t believe will stumble over His teaching.

Living stones was a strong contrast to all that people knew of religion in the Gentile-dominated world that Peter lived in.  They worshipped all kinds of God’s, but nothing quite like Christ.  He is the living cornerstone, upon which everything rests.  We are living stones, with which He builds His Kingdom.  What that should tell you is, if you build on His foundation, your lives are spent well.  If you build on your own, there is no way to know the value of our labors.

We are to labor to build on the foundation of Christ, so how do we do that? 

How do we spend our lives for eternal value?

What has eternal value?  God, His Word, human souls.  We spend our souls for eternity by knowing Him and making Him known.  Do you know Him, is your relationship with Him living and active and can you introduce Him to others that you meet?

We have different strategies, different best practices, but if they don’t involve us spending time with the Lord and spending time with people to share about the Lord, then we are probably not using our time wisely.  Let’s look at these verses again in the Message translation:

Whoever trusts in this stone as a foundation will never have cause to regret it. But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.

This is a high calling.  We are God’s instruments, telling others how once we are nothing, but now we are something, in Him.  Telling them how once we were rejected, but now we are accepted, in Him.  Or, as it said in the translation we looked at earlier, “Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God.” You were created for purpose, for meaning, for your life to matter on the landscape of eternity. As you wake up each day, you can choose to engage with the unreality of Meta, the Matrix, the Metaverse or whatever trendy name arrives in the future for popular distraction or choose that day to invest in the reality that we live in, the only reality that matters in the scope of eternity. This is our eternal opportunity to be “living stones.”