A New Apologetic

Guest post by Brandon Tejedor

I’m very much convinced that there is a need in the church for Apologetics. I am equally convinced that the field of Apologetics needs major reform. I don’t have it figured out, but here’s a few things:

  1. As Zach has pointed out, there is little-to-no room for doubt in most churches. I believe this is horrible. Doubt is not the bane of faith. My faith was and IS forged by my doubt more often than not. And it doesn’t come from reading catchy phrases that win arguments, but months and years of wrestling with challenges. In this I believe churches have failed me miserably, though great Christian academics and scholars have made up for that failing to some degree.

    A church that can not engage doubt honestly in both intellectual and existential ways is not one likely to flourish, and is simultaneously failing and pushing away today’s intelligentsia.


  2. Christian Orthodoxy needs some serious refocusing. I don’t know how Young Earth Creationism, Capitalist Economics, Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and the right to bear arms all became nearly as important as “Jesus is Lord” but the list of requirements to be a Christian, especially a “good” Christian have grown so long that I’m worried about tying my shoes correctly. Now many of us do have firm conviction on many doctrinal matters, and I think that is no bad thing. But the requirements to get in under that umbrella are in my opinion far greater than need be and it sows unnecessary levels of discord. Augustine and Calvin wrote about non-literal interpretations of Genesis centuries before Darwin wrote about evolutionary theory. C.S. Lewis was most likely an inclusivist (even Billy Graham has made comments before that suggest inclusivism). And those are just a few people that have been hugely influential to historical and modern Christianity.

  3. There needs to be a greater distinction between Christianity and Politics. This goes for both left- and right-leaning Christians. Christ commanding us to take care of the poor does not automatically mean supporting welfare though many make it out to be such. The only thing the New Testament seems to teach about property is that we should be generous with our possessions, yet some treat higher taxes as if they mug God himself. I think it’s great to be politically involved, and I think it’s great to have your politics informed by your religious beliefs. I don’t think that political beliefs are equivalent to religious beliefs though, and many seem to make it out that way.

  4. The discussions we have on these issues, and the “Apologetics arena” in general, need to be infused with a greater abundance of grace. This means not just respect, but genuine care for the fact that many people who disagree with us do so with genuine and non-malicious intent. This means patience needs to be employed, as too many Apologists expect people to immediately change their minds as soon as they hear “good reason.” The fact is that beliefs, save when based solely on demonstrably false information, generally are very complex with countless influential factors informing them, and they rarely change quickly one way or the other save through powerful events (not all that often do lectures and debates count as powerful events, though at times and for some they do). Most idea shifts are gradual, yet all too often there’s this unspoken expectation that an altar call should follow every presentation of the Kalam Cosmological argument.

  5. The greatest Apologetic is love. When speaking specifically of the apologia, we are commanded to gentleness and respect, but as Christians we are commanded to love in all things.

    “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

    –1 Corinthians 13:4–7

    Any Christian apologetic which lacks patience and kindness, which displays envy, boasting, arrogance, or rudeness, irritation or resentfulness, any apologetic which celebrates some wrongdoing in some ends-justify-the-means sort of way, that shuns truth or fails to bear the worst and fails to believe and hope for the best, is a failed apologetic regardless of its intellectual content. This, THIS!, above all else I think is the failure of many of my peers and predecessors in the field of Apologetics. It is a failure I have often been guilty of, but strive to improve in my constant interactions with Christians I don’t agree with (as they make up the majority of my tense relationships), as well as non-Christians.


That’s my thoughts on it at least.

The Missing Apostates

The “New Atheism” is a phenomenon that confuses and confounds, that is both over- and underplayed, and that represents one of the most significant threats to the modern American Church aside from its own shallowness and self-absorption. As such, it fascinates me to no end when I see Christians speaking authoritatively about the New Atheist phenomenon, which is usually an occurrence that sparks as much befuddlement and unintentional hilarity as I might imagine if Richard Dawkins were to deliver a lecture on systematic theology.

That being said, one of the most cogent and authentic attempts to communicate the phenomenon of the New Atheists was recently accomplished by Drs. Doug Blount and Glenn Kreider, with assistance from Dr. Darrell Bock in a chapel discussion at Dallas Theological Seminary:

 

 

I take it as no small point of pride that I had met and spoken with Drs. Blount and Bock previously to this discussion, and hopefully provided them with some amount of personal perspective, as someone who lived through the New Atheism phenomenon as a New Atheist himself.

But there are a few criticisms I have with this discussion, as fair as I thought it was.

Firstly, New Atheism is a much broader phenomenon than just a handful of popular authors. One could convert the remaining Horsemen (Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett) to orthodox Christianity today and it would make little difference to the trajectory of the New Atheist movement. The mainstream American Church needs this clarification made as soon as possible: the Horsemen are not the cause of the New Atheism, they are themselves a product of the same influences which brought it about. Christians who attempt to rebut the Horsemen and consider their assessment of and defense against New Atheism complete are woefully under-informed.

Similarly, this discussion presented an over-emphasis on so-called “militant” atheism. While people like David Silverman and Annie Laurie Gaylor are often the most publicly recognizable (and FOX News friendly), they (and the organizations they represent) are now a fraction of the New Atheist movement. Secular social groups and congregations (like the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the Houston Oasis, and the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles) are much more indicative of the direction New Atheism is going.

Of course, any time that Stalin is mentioned when Christians talk about atheism, I die a little inside. That Dr. Blount here characterized Stalin’s acts as occurring “in the name of atheism” docks a great many fairness points from the final tally. Though morally repugnant, neither Stalin nor any similarly-cited tyrants engaged in acts of wickedness “in the name of atheism.” Their philosophies may have been incidentally atheistic, but they were not crusaders of nonbelief in the same way that David Silverman is, and certainly not in the same way that Jerry DeWitt is. By contrast, it is trivially easy to identify many acts of wickedness throughout history that were committed “in the name of” many different religions, including Christianity. I’m afraid Dr. Blount makes a category error when he suggests that Stalin and the New Atheism have any kind of equivalence.

However, one of the BIGGEST gaps in the discussion is any recognition at all that the New Atheists are overwhelmingly old theists. That is to say, 4 out of 5 organized atheists (at least here in Dallas–Fort Worth) are former Christians. Most of us apostatized because we took our Christianity seriously enough to question it without a safety net. Indeed, many of us took Christianity seriously enough to pursue apologetics, lead Bible studies, and even to attend seminaries (including Dallas Theological Seminary). This is not to ignore the fact that there are many incidental atheists (and even some philosophically sophisticated explicit atheists) who convert to various forms of theism, but consider the mathematics of the phenomenon. I would venture to say that there is at least an order of magnitude of difference between the percentage of explicit atheists who have rejected Christianity (and other religions) compared to the percentage of religious people who have rejected explicit atheism. At least, that has been my experience.

In fact, I’d wager that there was most likely a current or future New Atheist in the audience during this very chapel discussion (and I’d bet $20 that he was one of the questioners as well).

So I find it to be a real pity that whenever Christians gather to discuss (and question) the New Atheism, the one person whose opinion is most relevant is missing. I call it the Problem of the Missing Apostates. With the possible exception of myself, the apostates of Christianity disappear from the pews, vanish from Bible studies, and slip out the back door of seminaries. The apostate is no longer a questioning believer, no longer a brother or sister in the body of Christ, and no longer present in the life of the Church. There is, quite simply, no room in the Church, no opportunity for fellowship within the Church, and no possibility of understanding within the Church when it comes to the Missing Apostate.

I am perhaps one of the exceptions to this phenomenon. Though I went missing not long after my own apostasy, I’ve returned to the Church often, motivated in part by a hunger to realize Acts 13:15. I’ve since been invited to speak to Sunday School classes, Wednesday night meetings, and even entire congregations, all of which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course, I fully recognize that allowing an atheist into the sanctuary can be troublesome, especially for those at the top levels. But the Church is losing ground in popular culture, and it quite simply can’t compete. Much like the invention of the printing press gave the Protestant Reformation an informational edge against the traditions of the Catholic Church, the writings and activism of the New Atheism are spreading at the speed of the Internet beyond what the modern American Church can hope to contain.

In order to meet these challenges, the Church needs to seek first to understand the New Atheism, even better than was represented here in this discussion, and I submit that the key to this understanding remains in the experiences and perspectives of the Missing Apostates.

The Reason for God

LackOfFaith

Skeptics, beware.

It takes a certain kind of apologist to quote the Dark Lord of the Sith extolling the virtues of faith. It also takes a certain kind of apologist to compare the nature of doubt with the protective effect of the immune system. Tim Keller is that kind of apologist.

Though raised in Lutheran and Methodist churches, Keller was drawn to Calvinist theology after college and joined the conservative wing of the Presbyterian church. His Manhattan congregation (a sizable cohort of 5000-odd young Christians) receive from him equal measures of Reformed teachings and pop culture references. Indeed, if William Lane Craig has been relegated to the role of awkward, out-of-touch, and slightly embarrassing uncle of apologetics (especially after this incident), then Keller is the cool, confident, and entertaining uncle of apologetics, equally capable of discussing the finer points of soteriology as well as Star Wars.

In his recent book, “The Reason for God,” Keller engages with seven of the more common skeptical complaints he encounters from his parishioners, and follows them with seven attempts at evangelism. He acknowledges without grumbling that the trend of religious participation in the United States is following the example of Europe (at least with regard to Christianity), and that the demographic shift is heralding a new rise in apathetic irreligion, significant skepticism, and outright atheism.

Keller’s primary apologetic thesis is that doubts advanced by skeptics of Christianity are themselves indicative of an alternative faith-based worldview:

All doubts, however skeptical and cynical them may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.

One or more variations of this thesis are both common among traditional apologists who seek either to 1) minimize the role that faith plays in the formulation of their own worldviews, or 2) drag their skeptical opponents down to their own epistemological level, thus offsetting any rhetorical advantage. But in his endnotes, Keller adds a substantial caveat, exempting both self-evident facts and scientifically-determined conclusions from his recontextualization of “doubts.” For good reason too, as these underlie a significant amount of skepticism with regard to Christianity and other religions.

But Keller is less concerned with these, and more concerned with responding to facile complaints, such as the post-modern “there can’t be just one true religion,” or the tedious “Christianity is a straitjacket.” In responding to “the Church is responsible for so much injustice,” Keller employs the No True Christian defense as he neatly divides the history of violence into that committed by other religions, that committed by godless Communists and their ilk, and that committed by Christian fanatics, not proper Christians like Bonhoeffer, Popieluszko, and King. On “science has disproved Christianity,” Keller clings tightly to Gould’s NOMA and leans heavily on metaphorical interpretation; though neither dismissing creationism outright (lest he anger his colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary), nor embracing modern science, he meekly settles on theistic evolution as a compromise consistent with his faith, and attempts to give his Christian readers sufficient license to follow him to that conclusion. When responding to “you can’t take the Bible literally,” Keller wisely and pointedly avoids any discussion whatsoever of the Old Testament, and makes his best attempt to historicize the Gospels. One wonders how well Keller would fare when confronted by a skeptic who was familiar with ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Babylonian history, or especially the archaeological conclusions of Finkelstein and Silberman.

Lastly, Keller splits the Problem of Evil into two sections, one focusing on the Problem of Suffering and the other on the Problem of Hell. Throughout his book, he borrows heavily from C. S. Lewis, but nowhere more heavily (and with more futility) than here. Suffering, Keller tells us, is evidence for God, since the very concept would be meaningless without His existence. But he somehow fails to grasp that there is no moral outrage from atheism at instances of natural evil, and anthropogenic evils are explainable within natural psychological and sociological paradigms. Keller goes on to explain that since Jesus experienced the ultimate suffering, we all can take some measure of comfort by identifying with Him during even our deepest melancholy. However, Keller admits that even this rings a bit hollow, and notes that:

I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is “not in vain.”

Here Keller hits on the crux of the Christian response to the Problem of Evil: the unflappable conviction that God will make all things right in the end; that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ will restore harmony to the Cosmos. But Dostoyevsky put it perfectly when he wrote:

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

In the second half of his book, Keller largely dispenses with apologetics and instead invites his readers to “put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.” His first step in this direction is an appeal to teleology and aesthetics; a wise move, and indeed I’ve confessed to many Christians that these represent the emotional Achilles heel of atheism. Conceiving of a Cosmos apathetic (and even hostile) to my own existence exposes the raw nerves of my apostasy, even as it fosters and encourages my Humanism. But Keller stumbles hard when he claims that morality without God implies that “whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference at all.” And this is where Christian conceptions of morality always fall short, in linking the concepts of good and evil to some arbitrary cosmic judge, rather than in terms of human suffering and flourishing. Keller (and indeed, nearly every apologist like him) fails to realize that he can’t have his cake and eat it too; if morality is a function of an extra-dimensional intelligence, then “good” and “evil” are still no more than subjective opinions. For morality to be truly objective as he desires, it would have to be completely separate from the mind of God, thus making Him irrelevant to the issue (aside from perhaps acting as a messenger).

Keller finishes the rest of his book with standard conservative preaching about the nature of sin, the message of the Gospel, and the promise of salvation. Throughout he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically; it is clear that this is his element. For example, when discussing the most intellectually problematic concept in all of Christianity:

The doctrine of the Trinity overloads our mental circuits. Despite its cognitive difficulty, however, this astonishing, dynamic conception of the triune God is bristling with profound, wonderful, life-shaping, world-changing implications.

And finally, Keller invites his readers to repent of their skepticism and accept Christ as savior. One wonders if he truly understands what it means to be a “skeptic,” or if he simply has overwhelming confidence in the persuasive power of his writing (or the Gospel message he attempts to convey), but I suspect most self-styled skeptics will chuckle at his earnest if naïve offer.

DoNotThink

Not all that surprising coming from someone who talks about taking a “leap of doubt.”

At the end of it all, I appreciate Keller’s attempt, if not his execution. He is consistently as humble as his theology allows him to be, winsome, and above all else sincere. If Generation X was the generation obsessed with irony, then the Millennials are the generation who desperately seek sincerity. I suspect this is why Keller’s church has been so successful at bringing in new members in their 20s and early 30s; in an environment like Manhattan, where everything is a performance (and indeed some churches have legitimate audiences), I’m sure someplace like Redeemer Presbyterian Church seems like an oasis of candor. Were I still a Christian (and living in NYC), I daresay I’d be calling Tim Keller my pastor. Hell, even as an apostate, I would have a hard time finding someplace else I’d rather be on a Manhattan Sunday than listening to one of his sermons.

Like the New Atheism, Keller’s New Apologetics offers little new from a theological or philosophical context. But I truly do appreciate the difference in tone and approach, and am hopeful that his example is followed by other young apologists seeking to build their own ministries. Even if his reason for God isn’t reason enough to change this skeptical apostate’s mind, I have faith that Keller’s approach will be a positive force for the New Christianity.

Room for the Universal

“If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement.”

–Søren Kierkegård

My theological and exegetical training afford me myriad tools with which to address the question of Universal Salvation. The expectation amongst many of my friends is that I will put forth clear, black-and-white interpretations of the Bible, replete with conservatism-friendly apologetical strategies that play properly into our agreed upon dialectic.

A recent gathering of some Houston and Dallas friends for a short summit on the topic of Universal Salvation all but destroyed such a strategy from my plan, and here’s why: we all realized that anyone can play that game. The appropriation of this or that text to suit my theological needs is not going to settle the matter for me or anyone else, because we don’t make theological decisions that way. Certainly, we want to treat the Bible fairly, giving it enough of its own voice as we can, working hard to ensure that our philosophical and theological desires don’t interfere with our interpretations; but how successful are we at doing this?

What highlights this problem very well is asking the question itself: Is Universal Salvation a live option for Christians? The most accommodating response I received thus far has been a smirk, with a head toss, followed by a “I don’t know, man…that’s a tough one.” Other responses range from “Does it really matter? Just follow Jesus.” to “There’s no way, and here are all the reasons John Piper knows that can’t possibly be what God would ever do.” It wasn’t until I visited my summit friends that I heard more than one person admit the possibility. One thing on which we all agreed: you can read nearly any salvation text in a Universalist way, giving a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and being justified in doing so. The summit was set up so that I defended the Universalist view, while a good friend argued against it. He had made up his mind beforehand, but even he admitted that things were not as cut-and-dry as he previously thought. Questions were raised that stumped all of us, and we could not give a good reason why Universalism should not be a live option for any and all Christians.

Indeed, I have yet to hear a good reason why not. Every person who has had a ready-made answer thought they said something novel, made an objection no one had thought of before, and had an emotional reaction to the very idea. But why? What is so objectionable? The problem with deciding beforehand is difficult enough to swallow, but to have such a strong reaction against the idea raises another very troubling issue: why do we seem so opposed to Universal Salvation? It’s one thing to say, “You know, I wish it were true that everyone went to heaven when they died, I just don’t see it in the text; but I’m willing to change my mind in light of better evidence” and another to say, “No way. There’s no way. That’s heresy, and it’s not biblical, and it’s spitting in Jesus’ face.”

So, before we even consider the texts, the philosophical arguments, the theological discursive strategies, we need to decide if we’re willing to have our minds changed. If not, then there’s no point moving forward. If not, I’d really love to hear a good reason why not. What are we so afraid of? What do we really lose if we change our minds? Can we imagine that there might be more to gain than to lose?

A Universalist Prolegomena

Intellectual honesty offers little comfort when faced with the possibility of estrangement from the vast majority of people one knows. To consider the marginal theologies of Christian history viable means to challenge the popular opinion, the “traditional” view, the “biblical” or “orthodox” position. One’s church options shrink, particularly in the Bible Belt where conservative perspectives rule, and the last comment on “liberal theologies” is laughter—the marginal is also the joke. If one has been trained at an evangelical seminary, the move into adopting a different theology relegates one to the number of graduates who have either abandoned the faith or, at least doctrinally speaking, “gone astray”.

The climate continues to change, of course. Many I know are sympathetic to various theological niches, and most have lightheartedly entertained my willingness to bend, flex, and change. My move from angry Arminianism to compassionate Calvinism proved moderately difficult. Then came a more drastic change: abandoning the traditional view of eternal conscious torment for the Conditionalist/Annihilationist view, which states that, after allowing for some period of conscious punishment, those who do not belong to Christ will be completely destroyed—the utter elimination of opposition to God’s redemptive, restorative purposes. This view draws a fair amount of criticism, with some even considering the view heretical. Our family’s movement away from an Anabaptist understanding of baptism to a Presbyterian (paedobaptist) one raised a few eyebrows, but did not cause much of a stir otherwise.

My most recent exploration is quite different. Evangelical Universalism is the doctrine that all will eventually be saved, will enter into God’s kingdom because Christ paid the price for all people, every individual. Not to be confused with religious pluralism (any and all religious paths lead to God), in Evangelical Universalism there is still no salvation apart from Christ—He took on the sins of the world by dying on a cross, and was raised to life three days later, which conquered death in our place and secured the salvation of the entire world. The major difference between this and traditional belief is that Hell is a place where punishment still takes place, but for the Universalist it is restorative, corrective, purposeful; not ultimate and final. Hell still exists, but those who go there eventually see the full impact of their sin and are able to repent, praising Christ, and rejecting opposition to Him.

The doctrine of Hell is what makes this brand of Universalism evangelical: there is still reason to preach repentance here and now because Hell is not a place anyone wants to go. The objection that Universalism removes the urgency to preach the Gospel is false: if my wife is using a chainsaw in such a way that, though she won’t kill herself with it, she will cut off an arm, I would still warn her and help her use the chainsaw correctly. Just because Hell will not last forever does not mean we should cannonball into the Lake of Fire. The punishment is not the ultimate point anyway. Christ is. If our humanity functions at its best when it properly worships and obeys its Creator, then that is our task and our song regardless of whether or not punishment will result from disobedience. This objections runs the risk of making avoidance of Hell, instead of the beauty of Christ, the reason why someone should repent—the very reason why Jonathan Edwards threw away his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” after only a few preachings. He was no Universalist, but he knew the dangers of emphasizing Hell in quickening sermons instead of emphasizing Christ.

This exploration of mine has several movements that I will develop in the posts to come. Feel free to interact and ask questions as much as you wish. I have not finished this exploration, and much is at stake, but I am looking forward to the rest of the journey.

Apologetics Now, Redux

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

As I mentioned last year when I visited an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on the rise of the “Nones” in America was just another in a long series of warnings to the American Christian Church. Society, the Church has said for decades, is slouching into secularity; now the data suggest that more and more people are not even interested in the pretense of a religious label.

This pronounced rejection of religious affiliation has a strikingly demographic bent. While 90% of those 65 and older still consider themselves affiliated with a religious organization, only two-thirds of those younger than 30 are similarly labeled. And trends in the data over the past decade indicate that this disparity is only going to grow wider.

Among American Christendom, the hardest hit are Protestant denominations, both evangelical and otherwise. Since the 1970’s, the percentage of American Protestants has declined from almost two-thirds of the population to now just barely half, while the percentage of Catholics has remained the same (presumably due to immigration) and the percentage of “Nones” has more than doubled.

In response to this inevitable sociologic trend, Dallas Theological Seminary has expanded the scope of their Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership which since 1986 has existed to support pastoral leadership development. In December of 2012, DTS announced that Dr. Darrell Bock, a world-class New Testament scholar and expert in the theology of Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus Quests, would be appointed the new Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center alongside Dr. Andy Seidel.

In this new role, Bock has sought to reach out beyond the ivory tower to connect with the public through a series of podcasts. The literally-named “The Table Podcast” features Bock with a rotating selection of Christian guests discussing issues seated around a bare table, adorned only with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Available in both studio quality video and audio versions, the goal of these podcasts is to “help Christians think biblically and theologically about issues and how to engage them in a gracious and forthright manner.”

In this, they succeed amazingly well. Podcasts produced thus far are clear, respectful discussions among people who have interesting things to say about how Christians can interact with homosexuality, the media and the arts, and other religious traditions in the context of a changing American culture. Unfortunately, these discussions have been manifested thus far as mutual confirmation sessions (i.e., Christians agreeing with Christians), designed apparently to provide questions for answers, and not the other way around.

Dr. Bock in his element.

Dr. Bock in his element.

I saw the same phenomenon repeated at the first “Table Conference,” held on a warm spring weekend in Dallas and given the theme, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” As one of the rapidly growing number of people in Dallas who does, in fact, “see Christianity differently,” I couldn’t keep myself away. Bock, the architect of the conference, had assembled a small number of highly-respected New Testament scholars for the event. These included Dr. Daniel Wallace, a fellow DTS faculty member, one of two worldwide masters of New Testament textual criticism and most likely the world’s foremost expert on Biblical Greek; Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, an expert in parables and Historical Jesus studies; Dr. Charles Hill of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, who is an expert in John’s Gospel and the early canon; and finally Dr. Michael Svigel also of DTS, a junior faculty member there who specializes in study of the history and theology of the early Christian Church. To open the conference, Bock had invited Lee Strobel to speak, the bestselling author of several pop-apologetics books cast in the same mold as his original “The Case for Christ.”

Though the conference was obviously Bock’s baby, that Strobel had been chosen to set the tone for the weekend spoke volumes; this was not to be an event where Christians could grapple with real-world issues and criticisms, be asked to think critically about their faith, or even to seriously consider a different point of view. Rather than actually “engage” with the perspective of the “Nones,” much less that of the explicit apostates that are also captured in that designation, the only atheism on display were Bock’s recollections of being a (somewhat boring) middle-school agnostic, and Strobel’s dramatic testimony where his life as an atheist included routine inebriation, domestic violence, and self-loathing. Such a caricature is painfully unfamiliar to me in my travels among atheists, and I know of far too many instances of troubled Christians for this emotional appeal to resonate with me. But I can see the value of having Strobel’s participation, aside from his celebrity in the pop-Christian circuit; in addition to his loudly trumpeted intellectual bona fides as a legal journalist, he really does seem to reflect the earnestness that apologetic-minded American Christians routinely demonstrate.

Following his testimony, Strobel was interviewed by Bock onstage at the eponymous table. He relayed a story which I found quite fascinating: although his wife’s conversion precipitated his own, neither of them were able to make any headway towards converting her father to Christianity. A lifelong skeptic (presented as a bit of a curmudgeon by Strobel), he was tolerant of their religious revolution but didn’t want any part of it for himself. That is, until the end of his life when, afflicted by multiple strokes, he was virtually on his deathbed, watched over by his son-in-law. Strobel recounted how he hounded and harassed the man to consider converting, a process that took several of his father-in-law’s final hours. At long last, he agreed to accept Jesus as Savior, and the family celebrated until that evening when another stroke occurred, and his wife’s father was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital where he finally passed. His last words to Strobel were given indirectly through his wife, “Tell Lee I said ‘thank you’.”

For Strobel, this was a triumphant vindication of several decades worth of prayer and evangelism. Mere moments from Death’s grasp, he was able to save his father-in-law from eternal torment.

But I wonder.

Told from Strobel’s perspective, to a Christian audience, that’s no doubt the most plausible explanation, but I heard a story about a long-suffering atheist who was able to tolerate and love a son-in-law who went from being a rational thinker to a faith-driven evangelist and apologist, and who spent an entire afternoon pleading with him to accept his worldview under the approaching specter of death. Perhaps Strobel’s father-in-law felt sorry for him and his daughter, knew the pain that they would feel if they thought that he died without Christ. Perhaps he chose to show one more kindness to a man who would soon need it much more than him, and simply pretended to assent. I don’t know. It’s possible, and there are several atheists I know who would do the same in that kind of situation.

Including atheists who’ve been exposed to so-called “faithbuster” classes, as Bock mentioned several times during his tenure at the podium. The unstated thesis of the weekend seemed to be that there is bad information being presented to our culture about religion in general and Christianity specifically, and if Christians simply became better educated with good information (as taught by DTS, natch), they’d be better able to resist the faithbusting influences in their lives, and potentially be able to win over their skeptical family and friends to Christ. This promise was tempting, and as someone whose faith had been “busted” about a decade earlier, in no small measure due to textual and critical analysis of the Bible, I was hopeful that there would be a plethora of new information that would prompt me to rethink at least some of my previous conclusions.

Although the weekend was enjoyable and informational, it was not as educational as I had hoped, at least not for me. Though the gathered scholars were clearly able to expound with much more sophistication and subtlety in other company, the introductory-level material they shared with the lay audience was known already to me. Oddly enough, an ongoing theme became apparent as Bock and his colleagues repeatedly dragged out the still-living ghost of Bart Ehrman, who through archived video clips savaged the worldview of the gathered Christian attendees. Indeed, so often was the straw beaten out of Ehrman over the course of the conference that I wondered eventually whether it should rather have been titled “The Bend Bart Ehrman Over A Table Conference.” I suppose it makes sense to target so much of their criticism towards Ehrman; the books he’s written for a popular audience are seeming to have as much of a cultural impact as Bock’s own. And as a highly-respected New Testament scholar with a deconversion testimony from Christian to agnostic, Ehrman is something of a mirror-image of the scholar archetype that DTS seeks to elevate. An “Antibock,” if you will.

I was of two minds during the lectures: on the one hand, these were the highest-level Bible scholars with which one could hope to spend time, but on the other hand, their presentations were awash with warmed-over apologetic tropes the likes of which had been hammered to death within the first year of my apostasy. Things like Lewis’ Trilemma, the analogy of multiple witnesses at a car wreck, implicit trust of Eusebius, heavy-handed harmonizations, defining early alternative Christianities as deviations, and interpreting possibilities as strong probabilities. In this last instance, Wallace, also Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which itself had held its first conference a few weeks earlier and a few miles away, with Bock as a speaker), argued that since there is insufficient evidence to show that Greek was spoken in the region of Galilee during the first century C.E., there is thus insufficient evidence to show that it wasn’t spoken, therefore it probably was! And thus of course we can assume that Jesus himself spoke Greek, and thus of course we can assume that his disciples did as well, and thus of course we can assume that fully half of them could write Greek, and thus of course we can assume they wrote the autographs of the Gospels.

The other conference speakers took similar liberties with logic at various points during the weekend. Blomberg had no trouble claiming that since Luke’s version of Jesus’ anointing is so different from the other Gospels’ it’s possible that it happened twice, therefore it must have happened that way. Svigel noted that without a historical resurrection, the Diversity and Conflict model of the early Church development is most likely, but since we all know the resurrection had to happen, it’s not a viable option. And Hill suggested that the early canon was assembled because the early Christians were able to “recognize” authentic books from inauthentic the same way that one might recognize one’s mother in a crowded room.

The best thing by far that I experienced at the conference was the suggestion by Bock that Christians should be seeking out conversations with religious skeptics, approaching these with patience and kindness, and leaving the onus of conversion to the Holy Spirit and the skeptic herself. This was underlined at the end of the conference with a short skit by some of the DTS students helping to run the event. One pretended to be a religious skeptic, while the other acted out the Christian side of the conversation that Bock had earlier recommended. It was a little silly and ham-handed (as skits tend to be), but I couldn’t help but feel the irony of being an atheist seeking conversation with Christians in the middle of a conference where the only example of that on display required a Christian to play-act at being a nonbeliever.

Interestingly enough, this conference was held across the street from the massive Prestonwood Baptist Church where Christopher Hitchens had been invited years ago to provide students there with an actual atheist to listen to and engage with. That event, whatever the motivation of the Prestonwood organizers, presented students with a fair assessment of atheist objections, with Hitchens in his own words and in real-time, able to defend himself and mount his own attacks. Perhaps next year’s Table Conference will take that much-needed step of inviting Ehrman to speak on his own behalf, rather than quoted conveniently to play counterpoint to seminary professors.

Or even better, perhaps the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement would be interested in actually engaging with the cultural force of atheism in his own community that claims more and more Christians like me each year. It’s possible that Bock and his colleagues are still under the impression that the godless among them are little more than village atheists, opposed to Christianity for no better reason than a preacher looked at them crossways. To the contrary, we are more likely to come from Christian backgrounds than ever before, we’ve done our theological homework, and we tend to be better-informed about Christianity and other religions than their own adherents. We are a new breed of atheist, and we aren’t just in need of a kind Christian to patiently talk with us.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

I don’t mean to sound too critical of Bock and his inaugural Table Conference; I very much enjoyed the lectures and helping with their photo booth during the breaks. And I agree that far too few Christians are aware of the information about the Bible and the early Church that one might learn at DTS or other seminaries. The weekend was, essentially, a series of 101-level lectures that all Christians (and atheists) should climb over each other to attend. But I do find it problematic that the information is presented with the conclusion already determined. As a Christian seminary, DTS is not actually interested in exploring other religious possibilities, it’s interested in providing intellectual support to a particular set of doctrine. I’ve met several former DTS students who’ve told me that in order to matriculate there, they had to sign assent to the Core Beliefs* of the DTS Doctrinal Statement, and they had to re-sign it in order to graduate. More than one have admitted that it was difficult to sign it a second time, and one individual flat-out refused to sign it, gave up his degree, and transferred to a secular university instead. He noted the irony of having to waive assent to a list of doctrines due to the education he’d received at the very institution which taught them.

If Christians are to remain relevant in American culture, they don’t just need to get smarter about the doctrines their pastors tell them they believe in. They don’t even need to become intellectually confident about their doctrines to the point where they’re comfortable discussing them with other Christians and religious skeptics. It really doesn’t matter how many proof texts you can provide for your belief in dispensationalism or eternal security when you’re talking with an atheist in line at a coffee shop. For both Watermark’s and this conference, I didn’t leave with a sense that my fellow attendees were well-prepared to have a casual conversation with me about the real issues that matter. Nor that they had any sense of what modern religious skeptics’ actual objections are to Christianity and other faiths. Being able to critique a handful of Ehrman sound bytes is a far distance from being able to engage with an real live atheist, especially a well-educated former Christian, right in one’s own hometown.

I’m hopeful that next year’s Table Conference takes its mission to engage with “those who see Christianity differently” a bit more seriously. Otherwise, Bock and his colleagues, for all their best intentions and highest expectations, are just play-acting.

*edited to specify “Core Beliefs of”, 5/8/2013

Apologetics Now

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a new report confirming the trends we’ve been seeing for several years. Although Catholic adherence is pretty much unchanged at about a fifth of the population, the religiously unaffiliated, known as the Nones, are growing like crazy, apparently at the expense of Christian Protestants. In fact, the Protestants have just lost their majority in America, and in a couple years, there will be more Nones than there are Catholics. And this is a trend with a sharp demographic edge to it: among younger Millennials, one in three are Nones. For my son’s generation, if this trend continues, easily half of his friends and neighbors will be Nones.

This report, as with others that have concluded similar trends over the past decade, is widely heralded as good news for atheists and bad news for Christians. But some attenuation is necessary: although atheists (and agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc.) are included in the “Nones” designation, the former are a subset of the latter. Thus, many of the nones still retain some supernatural beliefs, including affinity for “spiritual” concepts, various forms of theism and deism, and even credulity in garden variety psychics, mediums, and newspaper astrology columns. However, in my opinion they’re much less disposed towards animosity against those who don’t believe in God at all. That is to say, I suspect that the Nones as an inclusive group will have much less of a problem with their son or daughter marrying an atheist, and even voting for an atheist for President.

As for the religious (read: Christian) organizations in this country, this trend does carry some concerning implications, at least inasmuch as they want to keep their adherence up and maintain the kind of cultural influence that they’ve enjoyed for, well, for a long-ass time. In response to the “New Atheism,” I’ve seen the rise of a “New Christianity,” which is just as new and homogenous as the godless socio-cultural movement that has brought us Four Horsemen, provocative advertising, and a robust grassroots community. In particular, there has been an increased theological polarization, typified by the widely different Mars Hill Churches in Grand Rapids (liberal) and Seattle (conservative), especially in regards to the doctrine of Hell. In addition, I’ve noted the rise of massive de-theologized churches, particularly the major megachurches like Prestonwood here in Dallas and Lakewood in Houston.

But another response, which is more popular among the religious denizens of the Internet than it is among the average “pew potato” (a term I borrow with gusto from Robert Price), is an embrace of Christian apologetics. As a Christian, I found such activities pointless – of course Christianity was true, why waste time defending it – but after my apostasy I encountered this realm anew and found unexpectedly kindred spirits on the other side of the theological divide. As such, I find myself perennially attracted to convergences of Christian apologetics, and when I heard several months ago that a Christian apologetics conference was to be held in Dallas, I registered almost immediately.

The scheduled speakers were the best of the best. The keynote speaker was to be William Lane Craig, who is currently the most widely-regarded living Christian apologist, as well as Greg Koukl, Frank Turek, and Ravi Zacharias. In addition to these, were local New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, John Stonestreet, and of course the head pastor of the host church, Todd Wagner.

I walked into Watermark Community Church on a dreary and rainy Saturday morning in Dallas. What took my breath away was the sheer enormity of the facility – the primary worship room holds about three thousand people I’ve been told, and there was overflow space on two different floors, both in a secondary auditorium upstairs that held several hundred, as well as a luxuriously well-appointed coffee shop (leather sofas as far as the eye could see), as well as outside on the patio scattered with wooden Adirondack furniture.

The place was frankly packed. Thousands of Christians (and at least one or two of the opposition) had assembled for the day, for a conference that was run more smoothly than just about any atheist conference I’ve attended, with more attendees, and no doubt half the effort. The megachurch model may not be your cup of tea, but it certainly has mass organization down to art form.

The event was billed as “Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors.” I noted with some disappointment that, for a conference dedicated to the “New Atheists,” there were none on the speaking roster, nor even any atheist or nonbeliever. Right off the bat, I found to be the a significant and egregious failure of the organizers: that it purported to give Christian attendees an accurate picture of atheist arguments, but without consulting any actual atheists. It would be just as unfortunate as if an atheist organization held a conference on Christian theology, headlined only by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other atheists. At least, according to the agenda, Zacharias’ talk (The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists) and Craig’s presentation (Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God’s Existence) promised some degree of focus on the stated purpose of the event.

Todd Wagner began the day with a call to action, arguing that Christianity is the cultural antithesis of modern America. As is typical of many apologetics events I’ve attended, Wagner’s target was not atheism but postmodernism, which demonstrated to me his profound and pitiable ignorance of the modern atheist and skeptical movement. He used his time to encourage the attendees to become active apologists, responding to cultural critics of Christianity with aggressive arguments rather than passive silence. “Don’t avoid having that conversation at the coffee shop,” he urged. “Don’t wish that you had Dr. Craig at the table with you, engage with Christianity’s critics on your own.” And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if teaching people to argue with postmodern strawmen was really going to be an effective strategy.

Greg Koukl, of the apologetic ministry “Stand to Reason,” and author of the book “Tactics,” was no stranger to me, and indeed I’ve taken him to task directly for the errors he’s made when talking about stem cell research (since ignored). Koukl continued Wagner’s theme of Christianity being “under assault” by the culture at large, and downplayed the wide variety of criticisms as coming from people who may be gifted with intelligence, but who are spiritually stupid. In his available time, Koukl engaged with more atheist strawmen, under the guise of presenting the “worst” arguments against Christianity. I, for one, really wished that he had spent his time contending with the best arguments, but such was the case. Koukl brought out the postmodern horse for another enthusiastic drubbing, declared that Christians should no longer use the word “faith” to describe their worldview, and took shelter from ad hominem attacks on Christian “stupidity.” Now, although these kinds of attacks may be common (and ancient, going back at least as far to the second century with Celsus), these certainly don’t qualify as arguments in my mind, bad or otherwise. But there is a fair point to be made when Christian adherence and atheism can be predicted, at least in aggregate, by educational attainment. Rather than engaging with this point, Koukl danced behind accusations of name-calling, another in a growing series of lost opportunities during the conference.

Dan Wallace was the next speaker, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. As a New Testament Greek scholar, Wallace is beyond comparison, and has been involved with several recent Bible translations, as well as several debates with Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. Through rehashing his debate with Ehrman last year at SMU, Wallace argued that the manuscript evidence of the New Testament is better than any other ancient document, and provides sufficient reliability to support current orthodox doctrine. Although interesting, as one side of a debate it didn’t really help the audience evaluate the evidence critically, nor did it hold my attention to any significant degree. Instead, I met up with an atheist friend of mine who’d come to the conference as well, and we headed out to the spacious patio with box lunches to make some Christian friends.

We ended up settling on a large table that was occupied by a young pregnant woman named Tricia, who was pleasantly shooing other people away from the other seats she was trying to save for her husband, Daniel, and their friends. When they arrived, I munched on turkey and wheat while making superficial pleasantries. Eventually, Daniel asked if I was a member at Watermark, or if I’d come from a different church. “None,” I replied, “I’m an atheist, here to soak in all the apologetics that I can.” To his credit, this didn’t seem to faze Daniel at all, and he was curious to know more. His first concern was about whether or not I was an actual atheist or just an agnostic (because, obviously, one would have to know everything to be an atheist). I gently corrected him on that point, and explained the basic differences in terminology, from atheist to agnostic, as well as freethought and humanism. It pained me terribly to find someone at a conference focusing on atheism who was so overtly ignorant on the basics of that definition, as well as its surrounding philosophy. I was able to share a bit more about my religious background, and the arguments that I found particularly compelling against Christianity, but the lunch hour swiftly drew to a close.

Next up was Frank Turek, who is the co-author with Norman Geisler of the uncontroversially-named book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.” Turek has a dynamic stage presence to be sure, but also seems… uninterested in inheriting the earth, so to speak (someone with a less charitable assessment would simply write him off as an insufferable jerk). His assigned topic was the Problem of Evil, which is my personal favorite, and indeed is really the only problem worth talking about. His first move was in disproving the idea that the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. I’m right there with him generally, but he made a rather obtuse argument along the way, claiming that in fact the existence of evil is proof that there is a God. For if there is evil, there must be good. And if there is good, there must be a God. QED. He then went on to challenge the idea that God should protect Christians from evil and suffering, by pointing out first that God didn’t promise to do so, and that suffering is a good thing anyway. After all, Jesus suffered, and we want to be like Jesus, right?

He then addressed the question of why God doesn’t just stop evil in general by countering with the Free Will defense. That is, if God stopped me from murdering a million people he’d be interfering with my free will, so it’s just better for everyone that I go ahead with my genocidal plans. This argument of course does nothing to address natural evil, and further I find it to be invalidated by the concept of Heaven, in which free will ostensibly exists coincident with a sinless environment. Finally, Turek claimed that there is a purpose for evil in the world, because the ultimate purpose is for everyone to know Christ, and evil and suffering are motivations to bring us closer to Him. So it all works out in the end, and we don’t need to worry about six year old kids getting cancer because God needs more converts. All in all, a pretty disappointing presentation, at least on my assessment.

Then, suddenly in his last few minutes Turek took a bizarre turn into political issues, urging all the attendees to read the Manhattan Declaration (which had been signed by Todd Wagner) and get involved politically to support Christian values (read: the Republican Party) during this year’s general election. It was a strange departure from his assigned topic, but it did admittedly segue into the next talk by John Stonestreet, a Fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and host of “The Point” radio show and podcast. Stonestreet’s presentation was a focus on our American culture, and how far removed it has become from Christian values. This was another one that I largely skipped, although I noted with some interest how little he referred to the New Atheist movement, and preferred to rail against the acceptance of homosexuality and religious critics in general.

The penultimate presentation was from Ravi Zacharias. I was really looking forward to seeing Zacharias speak, as he was the only notable apologist that I hadn’t yet seen in person. His talk at least claimed to address the New Atheists, but I didn’t see any of that in the performance I witnessed that day. Rather than a coherent defense of Christianity, Zacharias rambled and mumbled from one topic to then next, first criticizing secularism in very general terms, then pluralism, and then skepticism. Connections between these concepts were tenuous, aside from the fact that each were bad, and that each were causing the degradation of society by distancing it from Christian values. Somehow, with these three concepts loose in our culture, we have lost any sense of shame, any capacity for reason, and any sense of meaning. I’m sure it made sense to Zacharias, and I hope that it resonated with the other attendees, because to me (sad to say) it appeared to be someone just on the cusp of senility.

While disappointing, even Zacharias couldn’t quite compare to my utter disgust with the conference’s finale. William Lane Craig, who along with Todd Wagner was the architect of this conference, brought us a debate with an actual New Atheist, no less than Richard Dawkins. Or, maybe not an actual New Atheist. More like a virtual New Atheist. Or, well, a non-existent one. Because William Lane Craig debated an empty chair that was supposed to stand in for Richard Dawkins. Just like Clint Eastwood did to Obama at the Republican National Convention. In fact, that’s where he got the idea. An idea that was, in Craig’s mind, somehow a good idea to repeat. And then he proceeded to lecture an imaginary Dawkins about the Kalaam Cosmological Argument or some other such nonsense, I don’t really know, because I really wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was watching, dumbfounded, while Bill Craig, the most highly-respected Christian apologist in all the land, debated an empty chair in a conference that he himself had organized.

Now, before I get too carried away, what were the positives of this conference? Well, it brought the issues of apologetics to the forefront of the membership of a large and somewhat influential church here in Dallas, even if it was a bit poorly executed in terms of content. But I’d also say that given the tremendous response in terms of attendance, there’s a substantial audience for these topics in mainstream American churches, even nondenominational megachurches, which may not be populated exclusively by pew potatoes. And that, if nothing else, is encouraging because it presents me, the DFW Coalition of Reason, and anyone else who is interested with the conflict between faith and reason with a fertile population of Christians who are hungry for something more than just repetitive worship music and cherry-picked scriptural platitudes.

In the end, however, nothing else really captures my assessment of the conference better than Craig debating an imaginary Dawkins. Craig, Todd Wagner, and the folks at Watermark had an excellent opportunity to really help their members engage with the New Atheism, if only they’d thought to invite some, you know, actual atheists to the party. And Dallas is the perfect place for it – we have an incredibly active Coalition of Reason here, with as many as three thousand nonbelievers in our ranks, the vast majority of whom are former Christians. If Craig and Wagner had really wanted to learn about atheism, we’d have been more than happy to help. And I really do think they need the help: after absorbing this conference, if the Christian attendees think they’re prepared to engage with the atheists that I know in town, they are woefully misinformed.

Indeed, an atheist friend of mine who regularly attends the Watermark “Great Questions” class asked his Christian classmates (all of whom had attended the conference) the next Monday if they even knew what a “New Atheist” was. None of them had any clue. One wonders if the same could be said of Todd Wagner and Bill Craig.

If anything, this conference provided them with just enough information about apologetics to give them the confidence to go out and get exposed to more persuasive arguments on the atheist side. I suppose I should thank Watermark for the long-term boost in our local atheist contingent, but that’s really not what I’m after. What I would be most appreciative of is being taken seriously enough by local religious leaders that they recognize that most of the the people active in the local atheist movement are people who’ve left the very pews that these leaders preach at every Sunday. Until religious doubt is given a fair assessment and sufficient respect by apologists and other religious leaders, I’m afraid that megachurches like Watermark are fighting a losing battle. Because as the next generation comes up through the ranks, as the Pew Research indicates, the number of people who think religious organizations like Watermark have the answers is going to dwindle into insignificance.

Podcast cross-posted from Apologia