Results tagged “worldview” from Reformation21 Blog

The Right Side of History?


The expression "on the right side of history" is an important tool today used by the progressive elite to silence biblically faithful Christians. Never mind that it rests on significant religious assumptions. After all, no one can prove that history is inexorably going somewhere. Large segments of the world's population reject this idea. The better part of the non-Christian world believes that history is circular. Since it can't be proved that history is going somewhere, it is de facto a religious assumption. The progressives hold it by faith, and by doing so they are acting contrary to their own secular presuppositions.

Nevertheless, we are grateful that the progressives now agree with Christians that history is heading somewhere, and that it's end will be just and morally beneficial. Nevertheless, they have borrowed this assumption from the Christian worldview, and now ironically uses it to pound us into submission. Believers have solid grounds to push back.

Whenever someone says "I am on the right side of history" they are presuming that their understanding of right and wrong is the same as whoever or whatever is in control of history. Since a large number of those who have adopted this phrase are self-avowed atheists, agnostics, or religious liberals their use of this phrase is fundamental hypocrisy. If there is no personal God, history is going nowhere, or at best it is moving randomly. And even if it is going somewhere, on the basis of the left's confessed worldview, they should have no way of knowing where it is going.

In effect the speaker is saying, "If you're smart, you will get on my side before it's too late, before the inevitability of history tramples you under its hobnailed boots." The secular world assumes "that history marches with them," writes Jay Nordlinger. "Get out of the way or be crushed."1 The phrase is used to bully those who doubt the rightness or wrongness of gay marriage, abortion, firearm ownership, LGBT rights, taxing the rich, ending the death penalty, advancing socialism or a variety of any other progressive causes.

A Need for Humility

However, because most that have employed this expression in the past have been dead wrong, it would behoove the secular world to use it with humility. For example, The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century was utterly convinced that it was on the "right side of history." It dissolved the French Monarchy, and devastated Europe with the Napoleonic Wars, but the progressive changes that the "revolution" assumed were on the "right side of history" were dead on arrival within a few decades.

Oxford historian Andrew Roberts observes that the phrase, "the right side of history" is "profoundly Marxian."2  The followers of Karl Marx insisted that a Communist Worker's Paradise was history's inevitable terminus. Alas, as I write there are only a handful of Communists countries remaining, and communism will soon be shown to have been, not on the right side of history, but on the dust bin of history.  Jesse Jackson, while running for president in 1984 said that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were on the "right side of history." The Sandinistas are now a soon-to-be-forgotten footnote to history, and it has only been a few decades.

The truth is just the opposite. "The right side of history" is a useful expression, but only Christians have a spiritual right, an historical right, and the duty to say that they are on "the right side of history."

A Spiritual Right

First, only Christians have a spiritual right to this phrase. The God of the Bible is the God of history. He created time and space "ex nihilo." Because only He is in control of history, only He can determine the future. That is one reason God fortells the future through the prophets--to prove to us that he is in control of the future--that it is actually going somewhere, and that only He knows when and where it will arrive.

For example, through the prophet Isaiah, several decades before it happened, God predicted the destruction of Israel at the hand of Assyria. He called the Assyrians a "tool" of judgment (Isaiah 10:5-19). Then, 150 years before it happened, he predicted that Babylon, whom he would also raise up, would destroy Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 14:3-23). Then around 740 BC, 250 years before it happened, he predicted that Cyrus, king of Persia, would return the Jews from captivity. All of these events occurred exactly as predicted.

Most importantly, in great detail, centuries before it happened, through his prophets, God predicted the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. How could God do this? God could do this because he alone is in total control of history. His ability to predict the future certifies this truth. (See Isaiah 44:7-8, 45:21, 46:9-10 for God's claim to be Lord of History). Since he alone knows the beginning from the end, only those aligned with his will and purposes have a spiritual right to say that they are on the "right side of history."

A Historical Right

Second, only Christians have a historical right to this phrase. Since the time of Christ, the Christian religion has dominated world history. God also predicted that this would be the case.

Jesus likened his kingdom to a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, which would slowly mature throughout history into a dominant tree in whom the birds (symbolizing the nations) would eventually make their nests (Matthew 13:31-32). And, in fact, this is exactly what has happened. From where did the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and political freedom arise? Western Christian culture. From what culture have the dominant nations come in the last millennium? Not from Muslim culture. Not from Hindu, Buddhist, or Shinto culture. Not from the Enlightenment Culture. Why not? Because only Christ is the Lord of History. Because Jesus died and rose from the dead, God has given him "all authority in heaven and on earth," and he exercises that authority on behalf of cultures sympathetic to, and influenced by, his gospel.

That is why only Christians have an historical right to the phrase, "The right side of history."

A Moral Duty

Last, Christians have a moral duty to use this phrase. There is a "right side of history," and it has a terminus--a Day of Final Judgment. On that Day those not reconciled to God by faith in the work of his Son Jesus Christ will "enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth" (Isaiah 2:19). Though we may find this an unpleasant thought, it does not for a second mitigate its truthfulness.

A day of final reckoning quickly approaches. Will you, your loved ones, and your friends be on "the right side of history?" Wise men and women tremble at the thought of being on the wrong side.

For this reason, God's people--and only God's people--have a moral imperative to use this term. Why aren't we? Why do we cower in fear before our opponents when they talk about being on the "right side of history?" In other words, we need to urge our neighbors to be on the right side of history--the biblical side of history.

I sometimes fear that the culture warriors are motivated more than we, and this should not be the case. Why? Because eternity hangs in the balance. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ," warned the great apostle, "so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinthians 5:10). 

In the end, the progressive spokespersons are correct. There is a right side of history. But they must first admit that their own worldview gives them no right to use this phrase. They have essentially borrowed from the Christian worldview. According to Scripture, only true Christians are on the right side of history.

The only people on the "right side of history" are those who have humbled themselves, confessed their sin, and believed the gospel. Gospel grace has taught them "to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age." We alone hope in the true culmination of history, "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:12-13). On that Day God will create New Heavens and a New Earth. There those on the "right side of history" will join him with "joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8).

Only Christians have a spiritual right, an historical right, and the moral duty to say they are on "the right side of history." Let's use this phrase with solemnity, humility, and perseverance.

1. National "The Right Side of History," March 31, 2011, Jay Nordlinger

2. National Review, Nordlinger

Dogmatic Art


As I've been reading through G.K. Chesterton's book Heretics, I was interested to happen upon his treatment of dogmatism and the arts. Reflecting on his consideration of the life and work of Rudyard Kipling, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, Chesterton wrote:

"The fiercest dogmatists can make the best artists. In the fin de siecle atmosphere every one was crying out that literature should be free from all causes and all ethical creeds. Art was to produce only exquisite workmanship, and it was especially the note of those days to demand brilliant plays and brilliant short stories. And when they got them, they got them from a couple of moralists. The best short stories were written by a man trying to preach Imperialism. The best plays were written by a man trying to preach Socialism. All the art of all the artists looked tiny and tedious beside the art which was a byproduct of propaganda.

The reason, indeed, is very simple. A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it."1

The simple profundity of this observation ought not be missed. While many of us have bought into a late-modern narrative that the art world is essentially subjective, visual and feeling-driven, we should remember that--as Chesterton noted--"the fiercest dogmatists" have made the best artists. There is something deeply philosophical, ethical and thought-provoking about the most renown art. Which, if I have understood the point correctly, means that when Christians engage in the world of artistic workmanship, there ought to be a transcendent excellence to what they produce. After all, theology is nothing other than divinely inspired philosophy--enabling us to rightly interpret and portray the world and its inhabitants as God intended. 

1. G.K. Chesterton Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1905) pp. 288-289

The Consequences of Ideas in New York


By now, most Christians in America have seen the images: thunderous applause at the New York State Assembly and a festively decorated World Trade Center spire. And what is the great deliverance celebrated by this applause? The legal freedom to terminate babies until the moment they are born. One wonders how such a large segment of society - in New York and across America - could embrace such a diabolical legislation, against all scientific proof of sustainable human life within the womb?

One essential answer is that attitudes and behaviors are formed from ideas. And behind the gleeful celebration of the slaughter of pre-born babies is the idea that there is no God. The chief doctrine of secular humanism - embedded in the very expression - is that life does not originate as the creation of a personal and moral deity. The consequence of this denial of God is not only the rebellious egocentricity by which men and women would terminate their own children for the sake of convenience but also the loss of the very idea of humanity. Francis Schaeffer pointed out the consequences of atheistic naturalism forty-five years ago: "if we begin with an impersonal universe, there is no explanation of personality." His point was that our conception of human experience is tied to our conception of God: "when men try to explain man on the basis of an original impersonal, man soon disappears."1 Thus a society founded on the "no God" idea cannot fail to descend into a culture of death, so that life becomes a pawn in calculations of utility and contests of power.

Proof of Schaeffer's prediction is seen all around us. Not only do our fellow citizens rejoice in the slaughter of infants, but the language of violence and murder increasingly fills our political debate. In service of this dehumanizing of society we find not only the ultimate idea in the denial of God, but supporting ideas that buttress an ungodly worldview. Political violence is supported by identity politics and the ideas of cultural Marxism. The standard argument for abortion is the claim that women must have the right over their own body - a claim rendered illogical by the reality that a baby inside her is the body of another person. So it is that not only ultimate ideas but also supporting doctrines have deadly consequences. Out of ideas flow results, and by the pen the savage scalpel is unleashed.

Yet another way ideas have consequences is that there is, in truth, a God. Moreover, this God inflicts righteous judgment on those who deny him. This consequence of ideas - the wrath of God on idolatrous rebellion - also is necessary to account for the spectacle of a great city and state rejoicing for the right to slay innocents. Romans 1:21 says that "although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Here is an explanation for the irrationality inherent to the pro-abortion position. More than the mere moral consequence of unbelief, Scripture shows that in judgment "God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false" (2 Thess. 2:11). Is this not a likely explanation for the moral insanity of the New York pro-abortion law and its adoring applause? After all, here are secularists who claim science for their beliefs, while the overwhelming consensus of science declares the full humanity of preborn infants. Thus, as Christians watch bewildered, we should realize that the consequences of ideas involve a spiritual dimension of cursing and bondage. The apostle John reminds that there is more than one spirit in the world, so that to turn from God in faith is to secure a dark enslavement to the personal spirit of evil that is at work in this world (1 John 4:1-3).

Because ideas have consequences, it is as important as ever that Christians learn how to discern truth from error and that we become again a people of truth from God's Word. But discernment is not enough - there must be courage as well. Now is not the time for cultural accommodation and dreading fears that our tone might be thought unkind. As we witness the brutalization of our culture and tearfully wonder how our fellow citizens can celebrate such slaughter, the Christian response must include a commitment to speak truth fearlessly from God's Word. We are staring the consequences of ideas in the face. And while a spirit of evil is at work through the ideas of death and darkness, the Bible reminds us of the great power at work through the ideas of biblical truth: "he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).

1. Francis A. Schaeffer, Collected Works (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 2:11.

It's Not About Kaepernick


To mark the 30th anniversary of its groundbreaking 'Just Do It' ad campaign, the Nike corporation recently announced a new campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, unarguably one of the most polarizing figures in America today, with the slogan: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

At first glance, the exhortation by the Oregon-based corporate behemoth seems rather harmless and innocuous. In fact, give it a quick perusal while you're busy making dinner, paying bills online, or toying around with your favorite smartphone app and the entreaty comes across as downright positive, affirming, and motivating. After all, we all believe in something, don't we? Who of us wants to be viewed as merely coasting through life with no sense of conviction or creed to help us navigate a world that all too often proves itself to be morally and ethically rudderless?

Notwithstanding the aesthetic significance of this advertising shibboleth as a successful marketing ploy or motivational axiom, what I find most concerning is the fundamental question the statement inherently begets. That is, should believing in "something," regardless of its veracity or legitimacy, be considered a virtue in and of itself (as Nike® seems to think)?

In Scripture, the word 'believe' first appears in Gen. 45:26. It is the Hebrew verb 'aman and denotes having a firm and settled assurance in that which has been established as objectively true. During His first trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus declared, "I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice (Jn. 18:37)", to which Pilate retorted, "What is truth (Jn. 18:38)?"


What is truth?

Throughout Scripture, the concept of belief is always presented within the paradigm of placing one's faith in something or someone against the backdrop of that which is objectively true (e.g. 1 Jn. 4:1).

Belief is not an abstract notion that embraces the open-ended idea that the principles and precepts in which we place our faith should be of no consideration with regard to fidelity or trustworthiness. In other words, if we are to believe in something, that "something" in which we believe should definitively convey truth.

The 15th century German reformer, Martin Luther, once said, "Every man must do two things alone: he must do his own believing and his own dying."

Luther is right.

But what makes Luther's truism so profound is that it is because each of us must do our own dying that what we believe is so eternally crucial. Which is exactly why the Nike® declarative must not get a pass. For the question must be asked and answered: why should I believe in something and why can't that something in which I believe be anything I choose?

Additionally, the 19th Century Princeton theologian A.A. Hodge once wrote, "No one truth is rightly held till it is clearly conceived and stated, and no single truth is adequately comprehended till it is viewed in harmonious relations to all the other truths of the system of which Christ is the center."

If you think the new Nike® campaign slogan is about Colin Kaepernick, I humbly ask that you think again.

Belief has consequences, both in this life and in the next (Gen. 2:17, 3:1-24, 3:36; Rom. 6:23; Gal. 6:7-8). So, if you're going to be believe in something, it should be what is true, not what is emotionally or egocentrically ambiguous or opaque. For as the Spin Doctors cautioned in the chorus of their 1996 release You've Got To Believe In Something:

You've got to believe in something,
It's a lonely universe.
Be careful what you wish for,
'Cause your improvement might be worse.

A Sensitive Muzzle


The young man was sitting in the airport, wearing a Harry Potter World cap and a simple black tee shirt. The non-stylized white text on the shirt was small enough to make you linger an extra moment in order to read the sentence: "Freedom of speech is not a license to be stupid." This slogan, in tweet form, advocates for something far more pervasive than the reaction of a bemused chuckle. It is, in fact, promoting a restructuring of the first amendment. This revised version of the amendment might well read: "Congress will make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, except when you want to say something stupid."

As a matter of fact, the first amendment is designed to protect precisely that--your right to say something stupid. Not in service of proliferating ignorance, but rather from a desire to protect its citizens from a much greater menace, namely, the establishment of an oligarchy with the power to arbitrate which statements, which beliefs, and which thoughts are and are not "stupid."

One might very well ask how we arrived here? When did people become so sensitive? Or is it perhaps rather the case that we have only now progressed to a level of humanitarian care for our fellows such that we understand and wish to protect against hurtful words? The sentiment of defensive outrage is only too understandable when we see the context from which these voices have arisen.

Imagine I'm a child of the culture at large. I am taught, from a young age, that truth is relative and people should be permitted to form and hold whatever beliefs they find most suitable. Therefore, I have no basis, nor do I want a basis for analyzing and critiquing judgments of value outside of what I feel. Abruptly I am thrust out into the larger world, nearly an 'adult', to discover that, not only do other people hold different values and beliefs, but some of those people may loudly and forcefully convey beliefs which assault my own ideas, including things which cut to the core of my identity and self-worth.

I have no tools to examine the structure of the other person's beliefs, to engage in dialogue, or to argue in search of, or in subject to some larger universal truth. We are two islands floating in sight of one another, but I have no ability, and certainly no desire to make a bridge to the other island. I refuse to be so gross in my inconsistency as to call the other person's ideas 'wrong'. All I know is that they are very hurtful ideas, and thus should not be expressed. Therefore, in great danger, and in mortal fear of these hurtful ideas against which I have no defense, I, the victim, throw my hands up in a desperate plea for a larger authority to have mercy, and allow me to exist in a protected, or 'safe space' from such personal abuse. The authorities can intervene by stopping the proclamation of those ideas, which are 'stupid', because they are hurting me. After all, we've long had laws on the books prohibiting false testimony, libel, and the like. Those got us somewhere, but wasn't the chief purpose of those laws all along to protect people from getting unfairly hurt? So we arrive in a muddled swamp of ideas, out of which the only clear arbitrating objective is to demand that we all 'get along' and 'be nice.'

Government and policy issues aside, what does a Christian say to the desire we all feel to not be hurt by offensive, demeaning, and disrespectful words? It is doubtful you will have much success in trying to upload to the other person a coherent, logical pattern for examining truth claims during the course of your conversation. Nor is that the deepest issue. The real issue is that people are mean, and they say mean things, and that hurts. The impulse to protect people from cruel verbal attacks on their worth and human dignity is a Christ-like response. However, the real solution we are looking for must dig far deeper than banning hate-speech.

Jesus says in Luke 6:45: "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." That means when you hear someone say vulgar, disrespectful, or unkind things, those words didn't arise out of an absence of good, restrictive legislation. There's a heart problem. That person has deeply set views and opinions, priorities and idolatries which they cannot hide. "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence." (Prov 10:11 ESV) We observe an inextricable link between someone's character and their words, but the solution lies in the transforming work of God's Spirit within a life submitted to the Lordship of Christ, not in crafting a better, wider muzzle.

Truth in Minor Keys


At the risk of being labeled a musical snob, I venture a comment or two on one of the twentieth century's greatest composers, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year--Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 - 1975). He is to music what Alexander Solzhenitsyn is to Soviet literature. Finding early success with an internationally received symphony (No. 1) at 19, his career fell foul of accepted standards ten years later when Pravda severely criticized his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Thereby began twenty years of artistry aimed ostensibly at pacifying the communist regime and Stalin in particular, but now understood as filled with subtlety and irony. The War Symphonies"--Symphonies Four through Nine (he wrote fifteen in all) delve into the harrowing subject of Stalin's bloody purge on Russia and Shostakovich's musical counterattack. The fourth had to wait twenty-five years for it to be played fearing that its form would bring further criticism.

These symphonies, written between 1936 and 1945, are the composer's weapons against Stalin's rampant bloodletting. Shostakovich called them, his "tombstones." Of these six symphonies, the Fifth is the best known and the most easily accessible. I heard a live performance of it when I was a teenager. My physics teacher, who introduced me to the twentieth century music of Sibelius, Mahler and Shostakovich, gave me tickets to hear the Halle orchestra play in the Great Hall in Aberystwyth, Wales. The breathtaking ending of the symphony, a sustained pulsing energy rising to a climactic finish is guaranteed to excite even the near-comatose!

The Year 1905

The seventh is epic in proportion describing the siege of Leningrad. It is the eighth that is the most harrowing--the most graphic musical depiction of war that I know. Nothing can be compared to the metallic sound Shostakovich creates. My favorite Shostakovich symphony is the eleventh, describing another memorable year in Soviet history, "The Year 1905." It begins quietly and hauntingly mesmeric and ends in a blaze of mechanical intensity. In between come some of the most vividly brutal passages of music I know, music that evokes the horrors of war and death, of political regimes that bully artists into an arbitrary mold.

What makes great art is difficult to define at the best of times.

We might be forgiven after a quick reading of the New Testament to conclude that Paul was culturally grey! Paul's concern for unity and equality in Christ--the Galatians 3:28 point-of-view of there being neither Jew nor Greek...for we are all one in Christ--seems to be a cultural bulldozer, leveling all considerations of ethnic, civilizing distinctiveness so beloved by novelists, the BBC and cultural aficionados.

Paul and culture

One might think Paul was as content to eat porridge as haut cuisine. The gospel is the great leveler. It shows no interest at all in whether I'm "Essex man" or a son of Glyndwr, of whether I studied at a comprehensive in Lampeter or Eton college, or if I have an identifiable accent that is redolent of sophistication or conjures up thoughts of plebeian roots. But, as these exchanges show all too clearly, being a Christian does not erase all identity markers (English, Welsh, Laplander) any more that Paul's insistence that there is "neither male nor female" reduce us all to androgynous beings (despite a clearly discernible trend to do just that in our modern world). Vive la difference.

Paul can, however, discern what is true and honorable and lovely and excellent (Phil. 4:8) which makes one think that it is right to speak of arts and fine arts. We recognize them instinctively and put greater value (lasting value) on the poetry of Dante, Donne, Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, Eliot, and the music of Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Bruckner, or the writings of Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Defoe, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams. But what we have done is singled out artists with Christian leanings one way or another and there's nothing (or so it seems to me) that suggests that good art only comes from the minds and emotions of Christians.

On the contrary Christians are capable of appallingly bad judgments and poorly expressed artistic productions. Deliver us from the tyranny that suggests "Christian" art is good, "Non-Christian" art is bad. Who knows what we mean when we apply such labels. For good or ill (and it is often more ill than good), the doctrine of common grace frees us into perceiving "the good" (the noble, the enduring) in Mozart or Debussy, John Lennon, or Eric Clapton. It always catches me off-guard when I read Kuyper's tirade against the music of Claude Debussy (in the "Lectures on Calvinism"), as though impressionism were redolent of all that is wrong with the modern world! It is easy so why someone might make that case (the lack of clarity suggesting moral uncertainty, or something of the kind). But it is breathtakingly naïve. I remember listening to a lecture/sermon once given by a renowned twentieth century preacher (now deceased) in which he argued that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was "Christian" on the basis that it contained no discord. The idea of harmony suggested gospel creation as it should be, as God intended, and elements of discord suggested sin. The nonsense of such an analysis need not detain us now, but something of the same finds its way into many a Christian discussion where arbitrary factors suggest more or less Christian ideas.

Sarcasm and grotesquery

Listening to Shostakovich's symphonies is not easy to do, wrapped as his music is in emotional baggage that can quite literally drain the life away. As one reviewer said following a series of concerts given recently in commemoration of Shostakovich's centenary in which all his symphonies were played: "he wrote works in which sarcasm and grotesquery are hard to separate from nobility and pathos, base materials difficult to tell from the sublime; and the more keenly he felt political pressure -- Stalin's dirty thumb -- the more assiduously he doubled his meanings, put in jokes and let irony engulf all. His harmonies can be absurdly pert, his rhythms merely capricious and his melodies are more like deceptive simulacrums of a tune than the thing itself. One can feel it is only the architectonic aspect of composing that for him is not debased" (Paul Driver, "Maddened in Manchester" The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006).

Not all of Shostakovich's music is good. It can occasionally sound quite banal. Nor should we think of him as a hero of the dissident movement against socialist realism. He was a loyal patriot and Presidium member during the Brezhnev era. His struggles are just as much with himself as with Stalin's oppressive regime. He writes a mea culpato Stalin in the Tenth Symphony. And he dies wearing all his State medals. Following Stalin's death in 1953, Shostakovich went on to create one of his most important works - Symphony No. 13, Babi-Yar, for bass, bass chorus and orchestra. Written in 1962, this devastating critique of the Soviet system is based on poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was the Khrushchev era and many had envisioned a different era had arrived rather than the Cold War which ensued.

Felix culpa!

Something essentially biblical and puritan emerges in Shostakovich: a sense of the brutality of this world. There is nothing saccharin about Shostakovich. Socialist realism was not an issue to trifle with. Life is hard and unrelentingly hostile to those whose point of view differs from the establishment. Like the puritans whose conscience forbade them the luxury of conformity, Shostakovich (while seeming to comply) wrote in irony much the same way as one imagines John did in writing the Apocalypse.

Out of the most brutal circumstance extraordinary good can emerge. Great literature, great art, great music! And therein lies a great lesson that the Bible reinforces again and again. That spiritual growth and vitality--the best things we ever do and say, emerge from the crucible of suffering and trial. The puritans knew this lesson well and often preached and wrote about it. Wrote John Geree, a seventeenth century English puritan, in his tract "The Character of an Old English Puritane or Noncomformist (1646)": "His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui patitur[he who suffers conquers]."

"Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice" C. S. Lewis wrote, and Christians of the past were not afraid to be reminded of it so long as it drew to live out-and-out for God as a consequence. I've no idea where Shostakovich stood spiritually, but his music reminds me of the frailty of this life and the need to live for Christ in a brutal, fallen world.

North American Christianity anesthetizes itself with promises of ease and comfort for the faithful. Too much Christianity is concerned with personal pleasure where soothing syrup from preachers mollycoddles over-indulged Christians to expect the wrong things. Instead of preparing them for battle against the world, the flesh and evil, they are hoodwinked into the belief that pain and deprivation are the greatest obstacles to Christian vitality and growth. Nothing could be further from the truth: God tries us "in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10).

James MacMillan, one of today's leading Scottish composers, said back in the year 2000 (at a twenty-fifth commemoration of Shostakovich's death) referred to Shostakovich as "the public atheist who provides us with a scorching vision of the human soul." Pointing to the composer's "extraordinary double vision," MacMillan outlined a music that simultaneously embraces "the lyric and the grotesque, joy and irony, hope and despair; a music which holds a mirror up to the human condition" (See, Michael Tumelty, "At last, the score is settled" in Glasgow Herald October 30, 2000). Like the music of Shostakovich, some truths can only be heard in minor keys.

*This post was originally published at Ref21 in September of 2005.

For several weeks I've been intermittently reading Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach to my kids, while dabbling (as is my wont) in the news (typically the BBC), which, true to form, has generally born witness by one headline or another to the fallen estate in which we human beings find ourselves (cf. WSC 17). This strange juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction, of myth and non-myth, in recent weeks has engendered some thoughts on the concept of fiction or myth per se, and the way that we transmit, via stories, headlines news, and other means, a concept of what's "true" about our world to our children (while simultaneously reinforcing a concept of truth to ourselves).

At one level, of course, Roald Dahl's story of James and his rather unique adventure constitutes pure fiction -- pure human invention -- in contrast to the reality comprised in historical events, whether recent or remote. And at that level, Dahl's work and other pieces of fiction might be seen as a place of retreat from reality, a place to hide from the harsh truth of human interaction, replete with wars, rumors of wars, and other episodes of violence. At another level, Dahl's story (or other stories) might be seen as its (or their) own unique source of truth, truth that is thicker and deeper than the reality that not only confronts us in human events but seeks to conscript us into a narrative of fundamental hostility and hopelessness.

In defense of the latter perspective, I'm reminded of the conversation J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis had in 1931, a conversation that proved pivotal in Lewis's conversion to orthodox Christian faith. Lewis had by that time abandoned his juvenile atheism for belief in God, but struggled, as he confessed to Tolkein, to fully embrace Christianity's account of God the Son becoming man and living, dying, rising again, and ascending to the right hand of the Father as the basis of salvation for sinners. The whole thing, Lewis explained to his friend and colleague, seemed too closely akin to the stories discovered in Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Tolkein famously responded not by seeking to distinguish Christianity's central (and true) claim regarding Christ's person and work from (false) pagan myths, but by showing how pagan myths (and stories of human invention more broadly) themselves communicate genuine, deep truth. Myths, which Tolkein branded "splintered fragment[s] of the true light," reflect in storied form human awareness that everything made has a Maker (i.e., creation) and that everything made is not currently conforming to its original design (i.e, the fall), as well as the hope at least of rescue (i.e., redemption) from the confines of fallen and therefore miserable existence and subsequent release into the freedom of a superior eschatological state (i.e., the consummation).

Christianity, according to Tolkein's line or argument, encapsulates the truth (or truths) that pagan stories, no matter their lack of historical verity, point towards, stories that points toward ultimate truth because their authors, as divine image-bearers, cannot ultimately escape the memory of their Maker and the hope of renewed fellowship with Him, even if they lack the resources to discover their Maker's proper identity and the path to renewed fellowship with Him apart from special revelation. Tolkein's argument helped Lewis overcome his obstacle to faith in Christianity's most fundamental historical claim, and, apparently, provided impetus to Lewis's own creative efforts to communicate truth in fragmented form (the Chronicles of Narnia).

Pursuing Tolkein's logic, one might argue that Dahl's James and the Giant Peach comprises its own splintered fragments of the true light, and so stands to teach us and our kids something more significant than our modern purveyors of truth and reality. At very least, the parallels between Dahl's work and the pivotal moments (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) of Christianity's essential narrative are intriguing (albeit, I'm guessing, unintended). James Henry Trotter, Dahl's protagonist, originally inhabits an Edenic existence in a house by the sea with his parents (creation). But the coincidence of an act of consumption by his parents ("James's mother and father went to London to do some shopping") and diabolical forces at work through the medium of a creature ("both of them suddenly got eaten up... by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo") brings that original, Edenic existence to a crashing halt ("in full daylight, mind you"), and James is subsequently subjected to the sin and misery of his aunts Spiker and Sponge (the fall).

James longs for rescue -- his heart aches with memories of the Edenic existence forfeited by his first (and only) parents -- but he lacks within himself the resources to engineer his salvation. Simply put, he is a slave to Spiker and Sponge (cf. John 8:34), the aunts who subject him to a decidedly wretched existence. Political institutions and/or initiatives prove equally unable to achieve the salvation for which James longs. Child protective services never comes knocking, and as such, though never actually named in Dahl's work, proves a false hope for victory (Psalm 33:17). In the end, salvation comes from the most unlikely source imaginable: a magic peach. It may seem a bit far-fetched (if not something worse) to press analogies between the magic peach (James's instrument of rescue) and our own vehicle of salvation (God incarnate living and dying for us), but surely James's means of rescue and our own share this in common: they are external (salvation comes extra nos) and surprising. Indeed, who but the true, eternal God could have conceived the salvation of sinners by the means that God actually employed for the same (the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Eternal Son)? A further point of affinity arguably emerges in the effectiveness of each means of rescue. James's rescue is complete. The giant peach flattens Spiker and Sponge en route to the sea and so removes any doubt about any ongoing claims they might make upon James. Similarly, questions about sin and Satan's ongoing claims are necessarily moot by virtue of Christ's perfect salvation (Hebrews 7:25).

James's rescue is both fully realized (justification) and ongoing (sanctification). His release from the dominion of Spiker and Sponge doesn't immediately usher James into his eschatological inheritance (New York City). A trajectory towards the same is set, but the path to glory involves trials and troubles (sharks, cloud men, etc.). But there is a consummation to James's story of original Edenic bliss, enslavement to Spiker and Sponge, and salvation via an unlikely source. James's story culminates not in simple return to his original home by the sea, but the greater eschatological end of life in New York City (think the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21), a city which does not descend from the sky, but is descended to by James and his companions.

My efforts to discover analogies between Christianity's fundamental narrative and Dahl's James and the Giant Peach are admittedly a stretch. Still, I can't help feeling like Dahl's story -- and for that matter, most other stories -- constitutes a greater ally than the evening news in my efforts to shape my children's understanding of and appreciation for the pivotal moments in a true concept of this world and our place in it: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. And perhaps Tolkein's notion of "splintered fragment[s] of the true light" lends some legitimacy to my efforts to supplement more straightforward means of communicating the Gospel to my children (for instance, catachesis) with creative interpretations of the stories they (and I) love.

A Christian in the Secular Academy


When many individuals think of the life of a college professor, the general perception they have formed (fueled by articles such as this) is that we only work for a few days a week and have the entire summer "off." Many misunderstand the nature and extent of this profession and are not aware of the various frustrations that are associated with this career. Some of these frustrations are common to all faculty (such as dealing with unmotivated students, extensive university service activities, administrative politics, the 90-100 hour work week, etc.), but there are some challenges and frustrations that seem to be particularly unique for minority faculty members who are also conservative Christians. As I consider my journey over the past decade into the academic life, I thought it would be useful to the reader to provide insight into the life and misconceptions of life within the academy.

As I entered academia with the aspirations of being a Black scientist, I was warned by other Black scientists that my peers will assume that I'm intellectually inferior and that many will be more interested in hearing my views on race rather than science (for those who are interested, consider this article). For this reason, I've made it my aim not to be another educated Black man who spends all of his time talking about race. Contrary to the expectations of many, I've experienced very little discrimination within academia as a Black man because of these convictions.

From Christians outside of the academy, I was warned that the academy has become so dogmatically secularized across all academic disciplines that Christians are usually seen as unwelcomed. Throughout my matriculation in academia, I have heard a few of my peers ask me privately: "Why would an intelligent man like you associate yourself with ignorant Christians?" After articulating the reasons for my faith and confidence in Christ, usually I receive a condescending nod from the hearer, viewing my religious convictions as a form of folk religion. In spite of these rare experiences, I've found numerous believers within the physical sciences. Furthermore, based upon my conversations with academics in other fields, it appears that you are actually more likely to find Christians and those who are sympathetic to the Christian worldview within the physical sciences than what you will find today in the social sciences and humanities. In other words, the physical sciences are not the bastion of atheism as many believe.

When I entered graduate school about a decade ago, it was God's providence that my research group was probably the most ethnically and religiously diverse group within my institution. Contrary to popular belief, we don't have to look to the 19th century to read about scientists who were devout, orthodox Christians. There are still many today who agree with James Joule that "to engage in science, far from being contrary, is compatible with our seeking after God." In contrast, I have often said that the social sciences and humanities are the last bastions of ideological dogmatism within America. This is no longer considered speculation, but there is now empirical social science research to support this. George Yancey, a black evangelical sociologist who teaches at the University of North Texas, conducted a survey in which 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical. Within the academy, there are strong biases against evangelicals as well as those who are politically conservative.

The condescension towards evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude towards racial minorities. During off-the-record conversations, the same arguments that I hear humanities professors make about evangelicals sound remarkably familiar to the ways which some people describe Blacks - politically unsophisticated, ignorant, lacking education, intellectual inferior, angry, bitter, emotional, poor, etc. This attitude is easy to enforce within fields in which a Christian worldview shapes the content of one's research, such as the social sciences and humanities. For this reason, young conservative scholars are encouraged to "stay in the closet" until they have obtained tenure. However, since I'm not politically conservative and since I'm a researcher on hurricanes and severe convective storms, this attitude has a much smaller bearing on my academic future.

However, the true challenges associated with being a Christian professor in a secular institution are twofold. First, one of my tasks as a Christian scientist is to de-mythologize science. I've found that many have a superstitious reverence towards physical science research. The ethos of our current age is to hold all external authorities in suspicion; however, when scientific authorities and science evangelists make their proclamations, college students (as well as society in general) tend to nod and agree. It is usually my job to remove the veil from the eyes of many so that they become aware of the limitations and boundaries of physical science.

The primary error that is repeated throughout society is to regard science as a method for discovering truth. This was the common belief among scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries, but very few reputable practicing scientists would today assert that science discovers truth. However, this mythological idea continues to be perpetuated and many are intimidated by the modern equivalent of "Thus saith the Lord"--namely, "it has been scientifically proved!" The modern trends in science education has produced a generation that believes that nothing should be publicly accepted unless it has been scientifically proved and nothing has any claim to be called true unless science acknowledges that claim. To de-mythologize science is to teach others of the inherent uncertainty of scientific conclusions and to learn how to make proper inferences from this uncertainty.

The second challenge of being a Christian professor is to be aware of what some have called "the vulgar arrogance of intellectuals." This means that being a Christian professor is no more virtuous a calling than any other. This is a perpetual temptation because there are many academics and intellectuals who use their career as an opportunity to seem greater, better, or smarter than others. As a Christian professor, my calling should be viewed as one that enables me to serve my students more, not to lord it over them. Connected to this temptation is the belief that our calling is more important than others. There are many within the academy who believe that their primary responsibility is to shape the future of the current generation of students. This concept has evolved to the extent that many professors have taken it upon themselves to transmit their own intellectual biases and dogmatism to the next generation (since all other authorities are considered ignorant). This temptation calls me to true humility - not to think of myself more highly than I ought and not to speak confidently about matters in which I am ignorant.

The task of being a Christian professor is marked with numerous difficulties and challenges, but none are insurmountable. The basic disciplines of the Christian life (i.e. such as attending church, reading scripture, prayer, etc.) are incredibly important and useful in avoiding these various pitfalls.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Of Gorillas and Men

A few days ago, Harambe the gorilla was shot by the Cincinatti Zoo after a 4-year-old child accidentally climbed past the fence and enclosures--only to tumble into the moat surrounding the gorilla's habitat. Sensing that the child's life was in immediate danger, zoo workers made the prompt decision to shoot and kill the animal. For many reasons this was indeed a tragic incident--not least of which is the fact that silverback gorillas are a regal and endangered species. 

The outcry on the web and social media isn't particularly surprising. There are, no doubt, large numbers of people who speak of animals as if they are of greater value than their fellow human beings. What will never get old, however, is hearing them verbally communicate that they believe such things. In fact, some on social media have gone so far as to say that the gorilla deserved to live and the human child deserved to die. Some on the internet are demanding #JusticeForHarambe, insisting that what happened to this gorilla is "worse than murder." Such thinking, of course, puts gorillas on a higher level than humans. How very odd to hear a human being insist that an ape is of greater value than himself. Meanwhile, the ape cannot even articulate such ideas, nor would he return the sentiment in kind if given the chance. 

Such sentiments are easily accounted for in our day. After all, the evolutionary narrative is increasingly dominant in western culture. The question evolutionists need to be able to consistently answer is this: "Given the naturalistic and materialistic worldview, by what standard could anyone say that this gorilla ought to have been killed in order to spare a human child?" The only consistent answer with which one espousing a materialistic worldview ultimately can respond is, "arbitrary preference." 

Jack Hanna, the famous zookeeper, was recently asked whether the Cincinnati Zoo made the right decision. Without hesitation he responded, "I agree 1000 percent. Yes. Thank goodness the human being is alive today because of the decision the Cincinnati Zoo made." The instinct for many of us is to praise Hanna for these words. I'm not sure that it's necessarily praiseworthy for someone to say something that should be so evidently true to all of us; but, in our cultural milieu--where sanity has given way to wild delusion--Hanna's words feel like a breath of fresh air. To a man who has just spent days in the sewer, I suppose even the air around a landfill would smell fresh and clean by comparison. 

We as Christians must remember that Christ came to die for humanity. It isn't animals or angels for whom Christ laid down his life (Hebrews 2:14-16). When he came into the world his priority was to restore the breached relationship that existed between God and those who bear his image. His priority was to lay down his life for men. Likewise, we acknowledge and echo Christ's own love for humanity when we say that if you had to choose between saving one human being (of any age) and 10,000 silverback gorillas, you save the human every single time. Both have value by virtue of their being creatures of God, but only one of them is actually made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). This doesn't mean that we disregard or mistreat animals. It doesn't mean that we use and abuse creation for our own selfish ends; but, it does mean that in order to have a comprehensible understanding of the world around us, we at least need to know the ontological order of priority. And so we begin with God as Creator, humanity as His image-bearers, and animals as important parts of the creation over which God has made his image-bearers to be stewards. 

In the age of the "easy cause," I suspect Harambe the gorilla and Cecil the Lion have become examples of the sorts of sentimental issue that many are perfectly willing to get behind because they can be trumpeted at little risk and little cost. However, it is disturbing to think that we live in an age when saving a child's life at the cost of the life of an animal causes such fury, as though Harambe was a fellow man. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and disturbing fact is that these same infuriated individuals, when they discover that 125,000 human beings are killed every day at the hand of abortion doctors, don't bat an eye. Walker Percy described our age well: "We're sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever."   

Adam Parker is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (MDiv.) and is the Assistant Editor of Reformation 21. He and his family live in Jackson, MS.