Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Taking a Break

I'm sorry about not getting the Monday post up. It's been a busy week for me. Since I'm going on vacation next week I'm going to make things easy on myself and just take the rest of the week and next week off. I'll start posting again when I get back from the vacation, which should be around the first of August.

So have a nice July. I'll be back with more posts in August.

Friday, July 16, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - The Case for the Resurrection

Last week we began to talk about whether or not the New Testament provides enough historical evidence to establish Jesus' divinity. I ended by saying that we should focus our attention on the question of whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. This week I intend to present the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection.

First, let's talk about the reliability of the books in the New Testament. Considered as a whole, the New Testament is far and away the single most reliable work of ancient writing we have. We have more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts for the New Testament, some from the early second century. Moreover, there is an extremely high level of agreement between the manuscripts.

What does this mean? It means that claims that the New Testament is unreliable because it was written a hundred years or more after Christ's death and copied by generations of scribes is completely false. We now know that most of the New Testament was written by the end of the first century and that the version we have today is nearly identical to the original.

We know that the New Testament is reliable. The next question is, is it an accurate portrayal of history? Does the New Testament provide us with an accurate description of the events of Jesus' life and the early church?

Let me begin by saying that if the New Testament were a normal historical document describing ordinary events no one would seriously question its historical validity. As I've already said, it's the most reliable ancient text we have and most of it was written within fifty years of the events it describes.

We have an incredible amount of evidence that the New Testament is a reliable source of history, but the claims made in the New Testament are also very incredible. For that reason we must scrutinize the New Testament rather closely.

The first question we can ask is, do these accounts agree with each other? The answer is that they do, aside from a few minor details. The gospel accounts all give an incredibly detailed account of Jesus' ministry, teaching, death and resurrection. Some of the smaller details differ between the four gospels, but major events remain the same.

The next question we can ask is, how well do these stories agree with what we know about the time period from other ancient sources? There are actually a number of details, particularly from the Book of Acts that historians can independently verify. There are a few places where the author is mistaken, but judging by the standards of ancient history, the Book of Acts holds up rather well.

The final question we must consider is, did the authors have an agenda which may have colored their writing? In the case of the New Testament it is clear that each of the authors had an agenda. They wanted to convince the reader that Jesus Christ was, in fact, the Jewish Messiah.

Knowing this we have to ask, how much of an affect did this have on their writing? Certainly it had an impact, but it didn't stop them from including several details which ran counter to their agenda.

First, the gospels record that his name is Jesus. This goes against Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would be called "Immanuel".

Second, all of the gospels assert that Jesus was raised in Nazareth. This creates a problem because, according to prophecy, the Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem. As we mentioned last time, only Matthew and Luke address this issue directly.

Third, all of the gospels claim that Jesus was crucified. This creates a problem because, according to the Old Testament, anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.

All of this shows that the authors of the gospels weren't simply inventing a story about a Messiah, but were writing a historical account of an individual, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believed was the Messiah.

Finally, I want to take a quick look specifically at the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I know it's an incredible claim, but I think it should be considered plausible for two reasons.

First, the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead appears in even the earliest Christian writings. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead wasn't being made centuries after the fact. Paul wrote that Jesus had risen from the dead barely twenty years after it happened. Paul's readers could have easily asked around to see if this was true.

In fact, Paul wrote that more than five hundred people had seen the risen Christ, and that most of them were still alive.

Finally, many of the people who believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead died for their belief. Not only did they believe it was true, they were certain enough that they were willing to die for that belief.

All things considered, I think it's fair to say that we have good historical evidence that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Dreams May Come

I've been having a lot of dreams lately. I've been thinking about all the things I would like to do with my life. Some of those dreams I've had for awhile. Others are more recent. All of them seem good. It's hard to decide which ones to pursue.

It's a good thing, actually. For a long time most of my energy has been going into trying to find a job. Recently I managed to find a permanent job that meets my needs. Now that I'm no longer focused on trying to get a job I have more time to think about what I would like to do with my life. I also have some stability, which makes it easier to make plans for the future.

There's a joy that comes with these dreams. There's a joy in seeing something that's still over the horizon. There's a joy in picturing something that isn't here yet. There's a joy in chasing a dream and making it a reality.

There's also a bit of sadness that comes with these dreams. A sadness in knowing that to pursue one dream is to neglect the others. A sadness because I know that, no matter what I do, some of these dreams will never come to pass.

Still it is more than worth it to have these dreams; to see these realities that lie just over the horizon. It is a wonderful thing to see these dreams and to welcome them from far away.

Soon I know it will be time to make a choice. I will have to decide which direction my life is heading. I will need to decide where I want to go and which of my many dreams I want to try and make a reality. I am looking forward to that as well, but right now it feels nice just to take a break and dream for a little while.

And I need to savor the dream while it lasts. I'll need to remember the wonderful dream I had during those times when I am struggling to make it happen. I need to hold on to the joy to keep me going when it gets rough.

For now, though, I think I'm going to enjoy my dreams just a little bit longer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Birth or Resurrection?

The next section of Dawkins book deals with the argument from scripture. Specifically, he deals with the argument that the New Testament provides historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God.

He makes the claim that the New Testament is not a valid or reliable source of history. He claims that the New Testament was written a long time after Jesus lived, that it was copied by scribes many times, that it contradicts the historical record, that it contradicts itself, and that its authors all had an agenda that colored their writing.

Dawkins uses the stories about the birth of Jesus as an example to prove his point. He points out the difference between the accounts in Luke and Matthew, and he points out the historical problems with the account in Luke.

There are problems with the accounts of Jesus' birth, but, from an historical standpoint, that is the least reliable part of the gospel story. The gospels were written by followers of Jesus. Jesus' first followers witnessed Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection, but none of them witnessed Jesus' birth. At best, Luke and Matthew were relying on second or third hand accounts of an event that happened almost a hundred years ago.

On the other hand, the accounts of Jesus' ministry are first or second hand accounts of events that happened fifty to seventy years ago. It's reasonable to assume that the accounts of Jesus' life or ministry are much more accurate than the accounts of Jesus' birth.

Moreover, while the doctrine of the virgin birth is important, it's not nearly as important to the Christian faith as the resurrection. The claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is the central truth claim of the Christian faith. We can see this, because nearly every book in the New Testament refers to Jesus' resurrection.

Unfortunately, Dawkins doesn't directly address the issue of whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. Instead he isolates the weakest part of the Biblical narrative and criticizes it. Then he implies that the whole story is equally unreliable.

The problem with Dawkins' argument is that the whole story isn't equally unreliable. Next week I will present the case that Jesus of Nazareth did, in fact, rise from the dead. I hope that you'll come back for that.

Monday, July 5, 2010

White Privilege and the Economic Meltdown

I recently read a fascinating article on Facebook. The article talks about the effects of white privilege and how it makes it harder for white Americans to cope with the current recession, at least psychologically. He also talks about why it's important to pursue racial equality, even during a recession.

The article is really good, and I don't have much to add. I recommend reading it first before you read my own reflections.

I wanted to say that the article captures something crucial about human nature. We have a hard time putting others first when our own well being is on the line. When we are under pressure the first thing we give up on is generosity. Kindness and goodwill are luxuries we indulge in only if we are absolutely sure we can afford it, and often times not even then.

Unfortunately, as Tim Wise points out, this selfishness is shortsighted. When we fail to take care of people in need, the whole economy suffers. If we fail to take care of those people who are in need, we will soon find ourselves in need and there might not be anyone to take care of us.

One of the greatest contributions that religion has made in Western civilization, is that it teaches us the importance of loving and caring for others. In particular, Christianity teaches us to value others more highly than ourselves; to love and care for even our enemies. Through religion, we have the belief that taking care of others is always worth the cost.

One of the great scandals of American Christianity is that it has largely abandoned this teaching, especially with regard to racial equality.

There are exceptions of course. The abolitionist movement was championed by Christian activists, as was the early Republican party (which ended slavery in America). The civil rights movement was also championed by African American churches. Still, the majority of American Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, have either ignored or actively supported racial inequality.

This is a tragedy. White evangelical churches are in the best position to deconstruct the mythology surrounding white privilege. Yet most of the time they help to build up the myth that whites are deserving of their privilege. At the same time they ignore the very real racial inequality that persists in this country.

This is one of the main reasons why I am so very out of step with Evangelicals, both socially and politically. I continue to pray that the church will repent, but more importantly, I pray that we, as a Nation, repent of this evil, and begin working to solve the deep injustices that plague our country.