Saturday, December 29, 2007

Their disbelief is my strength

Michael Coren's faith grew as he contended with the arguments of those who don't believe.
Put simply, I was helped along the road from indifference to belief by the banality of atheism. Since reaching the age of reason, I’ve had the usual old regulars thrown at me. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t He make Himself more obvious? Why is evil committed in the name of religion? Throw in the Inquisition, the Crusades and some lies about Papal culpability during the Holocaust and you have the standard God-hating manifesto.

The more I dealt with all this, the more I realized that the very belief being attacked was absolutely and abundantly true. More than this, the reason it was under attack in the first place was precisely because it was true. ....
For instance:
If God were good, He would make Himself obvious. Not really. God makes himself just sufficiently evident to allow us freedom. If He were easy to find, we’d all believe and thus have no real choice. If He were almost impossible to find, it would be cruel and unfair. He chooses the middle path. He’s there if we seek to look, but not so if we don’t care. He’s the great lover, not the satanic rapist. He desperately wants us to love Him and return to Him, but we have to make that decision ourselves.

Yes, but even people who believe in Him often suffer. And look at all the pain in the world.

Bad things happen to good people because, well, bad things happen to good people. The teachings of Christ do not guarantee a good life but a perfect eternity. These 70 or 80 years on Earth are merely time spent in the land of shadows and, anyway, human suffering is more an indictment of humans than of God. Also, if life has no ultimate meaning and people are often absolute swine, why does any of this matter in the first place? ....
And:
You’re weak, God is a crutch invented by scared and threatened people and the more we know the less we believe.

Could be. Sure, God could be an invention. Then again, absence of God could be an invention — by scared and threatened people who are too weak to follow His laws and are terrified of judgment. Be careful with the notion that knowledge means wisdom. 1930s Germany was one of the most educated and sophisticated cultures in human history. There are twits who do not believe, geniuses who do, and vice versa. It signifies nothing. It was popular among rationalist thinkers in the late 19th century to assume that advances in textual analysis, archaeological discovery and scientific breakthrough would disprove the Bible. Not quite. Virtually every time we find out something new in these fields it supports rather than challenges Scripture.

What became apparent to me was that the opposition to faith was as unappealing and bland as faith was appealing and thrilling. .... [read it all]
Thanks to Insight Scoop for the reference.

Their disbelief is my strength

A new creation

At Christianity Today, Erik Thoennes addresses the question "How can I know I'm a Christian if I can't remember when I first responded to the gospel?" A portion of his answer:
Much of American Protestantism has been influenced by revivalism, which places great emphasis on "making a decision for Christ" in a public, definitive way. These "moments of decision" often become the crucial evidence that one is saved. Other Protestant traditions, less influenced by revivalism (including some Reformed and Lutheran churches), may be content to leave the conversion experience unclearly identified, putting the focus on identification with the church. Both of these traditions have benefits, as well as potential problems.

The decision approach rightly emphasizes the need for a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and the idea that regeneration takes place at a specific time. The potential downside is that this view can lead to a simplistic, human-centered understanding of being saved, where one depends too heavily on the specific act of trusting Christ as the primary evidence of conversion. As a result, one can doubt the "decision" was real, leading to numerous journeys down the aisle (just in case). Also, one can depend on the walk down the aisle alone, even in the absence of spiritual fruit.

On the other hand, Reformed traditions appreciate the sovereignty of God and the role of the church in the salvation process. Yet they can leave conversion so vague that the need for personal trust in Christ and a changed life is neglected.

We must allow for the varied experiences God uses to bring people to himself. As C. H. Spurgeon said, "The Spirit calls men to Jesus in diverse ways. Some are drawn so gently that they scarcely know when the drawing began, and others are so suddenly affected that their conversion stands out with noonday clearness."

For those who question their salvation, the best evidence is not the memory of having raised a hand or prayed a prayer. Nor is it having been baptized or christened. The true test of the authentic work of God in one's life is growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; James 2:18). A memorable conversion experience may serve as an important referent to God's saving work in one's life. But the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making a person more like Jesus is the clearest indicator that one has been made a new creation in Christ. [more]
Update 1/1/08: Michael Spencer understands "The true test of the authentic work of God in one's life is growth in Christ-like character, increased love for God and other people, and the fruit of the Spirit" as substituting "works" for "revivalism":
The “best evidence” is “growth” in “love” and “fruit.” Being more “like Jesus.” Good grief. Can anyone spell “despair?” Seeking assurance through a measurement like “growth in Christlikeness” is not reformation Christianity. It’s the other team, where justification and sanctification are two words for the same thing. It’s obliterating the crucial distinction between justification and sanctification in the matter of assurance.

This stuff matters, folks. It matters at the moments you really need the Gospel to matter most: moments of great sin, attacks of doubt/despair and deathbeds- a place where I understand the active righteousness of Christ can be very comforting.
If that is what Thoennes meant, then Spenser is surely right. I, perhaps based on my own untutored preconceptions, understood it differently. I don't for a moment believe that anything I have done has contributed to my salvation. And I know that, by God's grace alone, I am His. But when I reflect on what I might be today, not having come to know Him, it seems to me that I can discern the work of the Holy Spirit in making me better than I would have been.

Hour of Decision | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Friday, December 28, 2007

"Name it and claim it"

Sen Charles Grassley of Iowa has initiated an investigation of six television "ministries." All of them have in common the teaching that faith will bring "health and wealth" [it has certainly provided the wealth part for the six people being investigated]. The AP yesterday described the investigation, and in the process described the recent history of the error:
Most scholars trace the origins of prosperity theology to E.W. Kenyon, an evangelical pastor from the first half of the 20th century.

But it wasn't until the postwar era - and a pair of evangelists from Tulsa, Oklahoma - that "health and wealth" theology became a fixture in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin - and later, Kenneth Copeland - trained tens of thousands of evangelists with a message that resonated with an emerging middle class, said David Edwin Harrell Jr., a Roberts biographer. Copeland is among those now being investigated.

"What Oral did was develop a theology that made it OK to prosper," Harrell said. "He let Pentecostals be faithful to the old-time truths their grandparents embraced and be part of the modern world, where they could have good jobs and make money."

The teachings took on various names - "Name It and Claim It," "Word of Faith," the prosperity gospel.

Prosperity preachers say that it isn't all about money - that God's blessings extend to health, relationships and being well-off enough to help others.

They have Bible verses at the ready to make their case. One oft-cited verse, in Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, reads: "Yet for your sakes he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich."

Critics acknowledge the idea that God wants to bless his followers has a Biblical basis, but say prosperity preachers take verses out of context. The prosperity crowd also fails to acknowledge Biblical accounts that show God doesn't always reward faithful believers, Palmer said.

The Book of Job is a case study in piety unrewarded, and a chapter in the Book of Hebrews includes a litany of believers who were tortured and martyred, Palmer said. [more]
.... And Our Lord Himself suffered and died. And Lazarus, although brought back to life, presumably died again later. And Peter was crucified. And Paul was executed. And on and on....

Of course Job was not "a case study in piety unrewarded." Faith, in his case, was rewarded both in his life on earth and in his expectations. "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God..." (Job 19:25-27)

"....all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28), not just the pleasant, enjoyable things. The problem with prosperity teaching is not that it is too spiritual, but that it is far too materialistic.

Believer bitter over 'prosperity' preachings - CNN.com

National Council of Churches

Although a founding member of both the Federal Council of Churches and its successor National Council of Churches, the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference withdrew from the organization in 1973. If we hadn't then, we would now. The NCC has continued its march to the left - both theologically and politically. Mark Tooley, who belongs to a member denomination, describes the Council's current agenda.

Tooley: The National Church of Socialism

Thursday, December 27, 2007

An atheist loses it

This atheist wishes the bishop would be more Christian. From Brendan O'Neill at Spiked:
He might be the Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus guardian of the Anglican faith. But every time I see Dr Rowan Williams’ smug face or hear his social-worker voice, I feel like breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments (I’ll leave it to readers’ febrile imaginations to guess which one).

They say we get the leaders we deserve. We also get the bishops we deserve. And in an age of petty piety, where relativistic non-judgementalism coexists with new codes of personal morality, giving rise to a Mary Poppins State more than a Nanny State, it’s fitting that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a trendy schoolteacher type who dispenses hectoring ethical advice with a smarmy grin rather than with fire-and-brimstone relish.

In his Christmas sermon, delivered at Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Williams finally completed his journey from old-world Christianity to trendy New Ageism. His sermon was indistinguishable from those delivered (not just at Christmas but for life) by the heads of Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Williams did not speak about Christian morality; in fact, he didn’t utter the m-word at all. He said little about men’s responsibility to love one another and God, the two Commandments Jesus Christ said we should live by. Instead he talked about our role as janitors on planet Earth, who must stop plundering the ‘warehouse of natural resources’ and ensure that we clean up after ourselves. [more]
Mankind is more than the janitor of planet Earth | spiked

January 2008 Sabbath Recorder

The January, 2008, Sabbath Recorder is available online here as a pdf.

This issue is primarily concerned with Seventh Day Baptist missions in the US and abroad as well as the ministry of SDB conferences in other countries.

The
Sabbath Recorder is the magazine of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference and has been regularly published in some form since 1844.

Hitler and evil

Deep in the account of a recent interview Will Smith is quoted as saying:
"Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today'," said Will. "I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good'...."
He has been roundly criticized for the statement. But Joseph Bottum at First Things asks:
...don’t you have to push pretty hard to make this into anything like praise for Hitler? It looks like a straightforward Aristotelian proposition that human beings have to think the intentions of their actions good, or they wouldn’t do them. And Hitler, in Smith’s line, is clearly chosen as the example because we know that he did evil.
Ideas have consequences and Hitler's "idealism," however much he believed his was a battle of light against darkness, led to the grossest evil. The greatest dealers of violence and oppression justify and have always justified their actions to themselves and others by arguing that they are engaged in fighting for the good.

We are each fully capable of such self-deception in our daily lives - although thankfully far less capable of causing so much evil. In the final analysis, our subjective opinion of the goodness of our actions really doesn't signify. What does matter is the extent to which our behavior conforms to what God demands. That is the objective standard - and we all fall short of His demands.

Hitler, though, in the sheer quantity of death, pain and suffering he caused - in his responsibility for sheer overwhelming evil - is too guilty of too much to be used casually as an example of ordinary human sin and fallibility.

Will Smith: My Work Ethic Will Make Me A Legend - The Daily Record, First Things: Evil Intentions

The most powerful Christians in Hollywood



Beliefnet lists "the most powerful Christians in Hollywood." Mel Gibson heads the list, as might be expected, but many of the others may be surprising.

Most Powerful Christians in Hollywood, Mel Gibson -- Beliefnet.com

Not Emergent?

A potentially very interesting new book:
"You can be young, passionate about Jesus Christ, surrounded by diversity, engaged in a postmodern world, reared in evangelicalism and not be an emergent Christian. In fact, I want to argue that it would be better if you weren't."

The Emergent Church is a strong voice in today's Christian community. And they're talking about good things: caring for the poor, peace for all men, loving Jesus. They're doing church a new way, not content to fit the mold. Again, all good. But there's more to the movement than that. Much more. Kevin and Ted are two guys who, demographically, should be all over this movement. But they're not. And Why We're Not Emergent gives you the solid reasons why. From both a theological and an on-the-street perspective, Kevin and Ted diagnose the emerging church. They pull apart interviews, articles, books, and blogs, helping you see for yourself what its all about.
The table of contents:
Foreword (by David Wells)
Introduction: Still Submergent After All These Years
Maybe—the New Yes
  1. Journey: Are the Pilgrims Still Making Progress?
  2. Rebel without a Cause: Something Worth Submitting to
  3. Bible: Why I Love the Person and Propositions of Jesus
  4. Thank You for Smoking: On Dialogue, Futurism, and Hell
  5. Doctrine: The Drama Is in the Dogma
  6. A Funeral for a Friend: On Churches, Story, and Propositional Language
  7. Modernism: The Boogeyman Cometh
  8. Where Everyone Knows Your Name: Dialoguing for the Sake of Dialogue
  9. Jesus: Bringer of Peace, Bearer of Wrath
  10. Real Topeka People: In Search of Community
  11. Why I Don’t Want a Cool Pastor
Epilogue: Listening to All the Churches of Revelation
Thanks to Between Two Worlds for the reference.

Why We're Not Emergent

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Prince Caspian

A nice Christmas present for C.S. Lewis and Narnia fans - the trailer for Prince Caspian has been made available through YouTube. I previously provided a link to it at NarniaWeb but if you haven't seen it yet, you can now watch it here:

Friday, December 21, 2007

All praise...for evermore

A Bless├ęd Christmas!


O Heavenly Word of God on high,
Whose love has brought salvation nigh,
And from the Father's heart didst come
To save a race by sin undone.

All praise, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore
And Spirit blest, for evermore.
Latin, 10th century

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's just a pity

The Golden Compass isn't doing very well in the theaters. The apparently incoherent film version of a reputedly well-written attack on Christianity has so far done far less well than the first Narnia movie. Terry Mattingly at GetReligion tells the story.

Round one (so far) goes to Narnia (updated) » GetReligion

A spiritual life bigger than themselves

Gene Edward Veith on "Children worshipping":
I got to attend vespers at my wife’s school yesterday, a service held at the end of every school day. There is something powerfully moving about hearing little kid voices singing serious hymns (which they learn by heart) and chanting the liturgy. And the children did so with such gusto and loudness!

My theory is that the cutesy-wootsey approach to children’s songs and worship appeals mainly to parents and grandparents (OK! I admit it! I am both of those things and a sucker for cutesy-wootsey!). But that children appreciate being able, through good teaching, to take part in what adults do. I also worry that in our attempts to make their experience with worship and Bible study completely “kid friendly” and in our trying usually in vain to attract adolescents with what I have elsewhere termed stupid youth group tricks, that we are reinforcing the deadly tendency of young adults rejecting their church background as “childish” once they leave home. Better, in my opinion–and less condescending–to introduce them to a spiritual life bigger than themselves that they can grow into.
My experience as a teacher was that we almost always underestimated the desire of kids to understand and make sense of things. When a child hears or reads something beyond his capacity, it is always useful to have a teacher nearby to "translate" the concepts into terms that can be understood. But even when that is not true, a normally intelligent and curious person won't stop trying.

Children worshipping — Cranach: The Blog of Veith

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hobbit!

The disputes have been resolved:

Director Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc said on Tuesday they have agreed to make two movies based on the book "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien, ending months of legal wrangling.

Jackson, the director of the smash hit "Lord of the Rings" movies, and producer Fran Walsh will executive produce both a "Hobbit" movie and a sequel, but no decision has been made about who will direct the films, Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, co-chairmen and co-CEOs of New Line told Reuters. [more]
Peter Jackson to produce two Hobbit films | Entertainment | Reuters

Looking beyond

Jon Bloom at Desiring God:
Experiences are very powerful. They often feel more powerful than promises. So it's tempting to interpret prosperity and ease as God’s blessing and tribulation as God’s displeasure. And sometimes they are. But often they are not.

Actually, what we see all the way through the Bible is the Lord training his disciples to trust his promises more than providences. Think of Abraham and Sarah waiting for Isaac, or Jacob losing Rachel, or Joseph in slavery and prison, or Job’s suffering, or David running from Saul. Think of Lazarus and the heartbreak of his death and the constant tribulations of Paul. And of course Jesus set the ultimate example by looking to the joy set before him as he endured the cross (Heb 12:2).

Strange, isn’t it? In the Bible pain is often the path to unspeakable joy and prosperity is often an obstacle to it. What’s going on?

Simply, God wants us to treasure what we can’t see more than what we can.
“For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18).
And we find out that it’s pain more than prosperity that makes us look for what our eyes can’t see, and long for a satisfaction that doesn’t exist in this world.
Trust Promises, Not Providences :: Desiring God Blog

Monday, December 17, 2007

An endorsement

"Substance over style" is the reason for this endorsement of Fred Thompson for President. In addition to the reasons given here, Thompson is good on the issues social conservative care about. Read it.

Too many Christians I read and respect admire Mike Huckabee for me to have simply dismissed his candidacy out of hand and he is certainly doing well now both in Iowa and in the national polls. If he is nominated I will support him [as I would any of the credible candidates], but I very much hope he is not the nominee. His campaign is too sectarian to succeed in a national election. I dislike the implications of his approach to health issues. It seems to me that he is unrealistic with respect to crime. And he comes across as a lightweight on foreign policy. Any one of these should be enough to sink a campaign for the Republican nomination, and each of them make me wonder whether those who support him have considered carefully enough the wisdom of their support.

The Envelope Please . . . | Redstate

Newport Meeting House

The denomination to which I belong, the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, was formed by Sabbath keeping Baptists whose history is rooted in the English Reformation and the early American colonial era. Our first church in North America, organized in 1671, was in Newport, Rhode Island and a meeting house that group later built has been preserved by the Newport Historical Society. From Kevin Butler, at SDB Exec:
We just got this news from Bertram Lippincott, librarian at the Newport, Rhode Island, Historical Society:

"Restoration has begun on the vaulted ceiling of the 1730 Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House. Details and photographs will be forthcoming." Some of the funds for this restoration came from SDBs and the SDB Historical Society. Newport's Historical Society purchased the old 1730 Meeting House years ago, and much of their structure actually surrounds the SDB sanctuary. The Newport SDB Church, our first in America, began in 1671.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sci-Fi writers and their gods

Anthony Sacramone notes a list of science fiction and fantasy authors and their religious affiliations.

First Things » Blog Archive » Sci-Fi Writers and Their Gods

Built on a solid foundation

Tom Gilson, who blogs at Thinking Christian, will soon have a review published by Touchstone. I have previously recommended that magazine, but Tom describes it better than I ever have, as a magazine of "thinking Christian eclecticism."
This is not the kind of religious eclecticism that borrows too freely and too widely from various faiths. Touchstone calls itself a “Journal of Mere Christianity.” C.S. Lewis, in his book of that name, defined “Mere Christianity” as the set of beliefs that all historic Christian traditions share. Touchstone gathers material from Protestant, Roman, and Orthodox traditions, yet remaining careful to stay within categories of shared Biblical beliefs. Thus you will find much of the glory of Jesus Christ here, but not (for example) Marian doctrine.

There’s a second kind of eclecticism in the magazine. The topics under consideration range from straight Biblical exegesis, to Virgil, to Intelligent Design, to pro-life advocacy, to the persecuted church. And much more. Mix that with the varying authors’ traditions and what you get is refreshing variety: reading material that’s off your beaten path, whatever that path may be. ....

So add to your refreshment a touch of challenge, built on a solid Biblical foundation, and you have Touchstone–strongly recommended for thinking Christians.
You can subscribe to Touchstone at this link.

Thinking Christian » Blog Archive » Touchstone Magazine

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

From Christianity Today:

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled:
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

The carol we now know as "Hark! the herald angels sing" did not start life as such, and required at least four people to bring it to its current form. [more about the carol]

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing: From Wesley to Our Hymnals | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Friday, December 14, 2007

Discount on ESV

The Westminster Bookstore is offering its entire stock of English Standard Version [ESV] Bibles at a 45% discount. If you've been thinking about getting one [or more] for yourself or for gifts this Christmas, now may be the time. [No commission for me, by the way.] The index of ESVs is here.

Thanks to Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds for the information.

Westminster Bookstore - Reformed Books - Low Prices - $5 Shipping - Bibles

Establishment and free exercise

Charles Krauthammer provides remedial civic education for those who have forgotten [or never learned] what the Constitution says about religion and politics:
A certain kind of liberal argues that having a religious underpinning for any public policy is disqualifying because it is an imposition of religion on others. Thus, if your opposition to embryonic stem cell research comes from a religious belief in the ensoulment of life at conception, you're somehow violating the separation of church and state by making other people bend to your religion.

This is absurd. Abolitionism, civil rights, temperance, opposition to the death penalty - a host of policies, even political movements, have been rooted for many people in religious teaching or interpretation. It's ridiculous to say that therefore abolitionism, civil rights, etc., constitute an imposition of religion on others.

Imposing religion means the mandating of religious practice. It does not mean the mandating of social policy that some people may have come to support for religious reasons.

But a certain kind of conservative is not content to argue that a religious underpinning for a policy is not disqualifying. He insists that it is uniquely qualifying, indeed that it confers some special status. ....

In this country, there is no special political standing that one derives from being a Christian leader like Mike Huckabee or a fervent believer like Mitt Romney. Just as there should be no disability or disqualification for political views that derive from religious sensibilities, whether the subject is civil rights or stem cells.

This is pretty elementary stuff. I haven't exactly invented hot water here. The very rehearsing of these arguments seems tiresome and redundant.

But apparently not in the campaign of 2008. It's two centuries since the passage of the First Amendment and our presidential candidates still cannot distinguish establishment from free exercise. [the column]
RealClearPolitics - Articles - An Overdose of Public Piety

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jesus and Lucifer

It is my opinion that Romney's religious beliefs are not relevant to the question of whether he might be a good President. That decision should be based on his qualifications and positions on the issues. However, the fact that he is a Mormon, and that Huckabee has raised a question about Mormon doctrine [for which he says he has apologized], has provided a teachable moment about LDS doctrine.

Julia Duin, at her Belief Blog, has tried to track down the answer to the question of what, exactly, Mormons do believe about whether Jesus and Lucifer were brothers.
So I began trolling about. First I looked at a document, dated January 2000, that the two men left me. Also posted on the front page of LDS.org, it is called "The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles."

It says "(Jesus) was the Great Jehovah of the Old Testament."

Then I learned that several LDS apostles and luminaries, including Spencer W. Kimball, president of the church from 1973 to 1985, had referred to God having two spirit sons known as Lucifer and Jehovah.

Here is another Mormon-related site that explains the "spirit brother" connection. Basically, there was an incident before the dawn of time when God knew he would have to send down a savior. Two of his spirit sons, Jesus and Lucifer, volunteered. This is explained in Abraham 3:27 and Moses 4, both chapters in the "Pearl of Great Price," one of the LDS scriptures. When God chose Jesus, Lucifer rebelled. [more]
The Washington Times, America's Newspaper

"He who does nothing because he could only do a little"

Brothers Judd this morning quotes from Michael Gerson's column in the Washington Post and juxtaposes it with some material describing Edmund Burke's belief in absolute morality rooted in the very nature of things.
We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.

...[H]uman laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they may alter the mode and application, but have no power over the substance of original justice. [Edmund Burke]
Gerson writes about the relationship of Burkean conservatism to morality and reform.
For many conservatives, the birthday of the movement is Nov. 1, 1790 - the publication date of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke described how utopian idealism could lead to the guillotine, just as it later led to the gulag. He rejected the democracy of the mob and argued that social reform, when necessary, should be gradual, cautious and rooted in the habits and traditions of the community. ....

But there is another strain of conservatism with a birthday three years earlier than Burke's "Reflections." On May 12, 1787, under an English oak on his Holwood Estate, Prime Minister William Pitt pressed a young member of Parliament named William Wilberforce to introduce a bill for the abolition of the slave trade. ....

A later conservative, Lord Shaftesbury, fought against conditions that amounted to slavery in British factories, rescued child laborers from chimneys and mines, and worked for improved sanitary conditions in British slums. ....

Both Wilberforce and Shaftesbury considered themselves Burkean conservatives; Wilberforce was a friend of Burke's and a fellow opponent of the French revolution's wild-eyed utopianism. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were gradualists, not radicals. They hated socialism and rejected the perfectibility of man.

But both were also evangelical Christians who believed that all human beings are created in God's image - and they were deeply offended when that image was degraded or violated. Long before compassionate conservatism got its name, the ideas of compassion and benevolence were central to their political and moral philosophy.

Other conservatives dismissed these reformers as "saints," prone to "fits of philanthropy." But according to historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, these saints and others like them achieved "something like a 'conservative revolution' - a reformist revolution, so to speak - that permitted Britain to adapt to industrialism, liberalism and democracy without the violence and upheavals that convulsed the Continent."

And Burke himself had a foot in this tradition. He was an early opponent of slavery, supported reforms to help debtors and opposed discrimination against Irish Catholics. He accused reactionary conservatives of defending "their errors as if they were defending their inheritance." He was deeply critical of those who refused to act because they thought nothing could be accomplished. Burke has been quoted as saying, "Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could only do a little." In many ways, Burke was a bridge between conservatives of tradition and conservatives of moral passion. [more]
Thanks to brothersjudd.com for the reference [and the Burke quotations].

The Heart of Conservatism

"A mutual resistance to relativism"

The new issue of First Things includes an article by Meir Soloveichik. He considers the portrayal of Jesus by Jacob Neusner in A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, to which Pope Benedict responded in a section of Jesus of Nazareth. Neusner indicated great respect for Jesus, while nevertheless rejecting his claim to speak with the authority of God. The pope welcomed Neusner's acknowledgment that Jesus claimed to speak with such authority. Soloveichik denies that it is possible to both respect someone who makes such a claim and simultaneously deny the claim:
.... For the moment that one person in an argument claims to be God, dialogue and debate become impossible. When someone asserts divinity, his interlocutor has only two options: Believe, obey, and worship, or back away slowly. As such, Neusner’s friendly dialogue with Jesus amounts to what Matthew Scully, in a 1993 review of the book in National Review, called a “polite hedge.” Faced with a man who insists he is the equivalent of the Lord, one cannot disagree “with respect and reverence,” one cannot challenge the man’s claim while remaining “moved” by his greatness. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote. “He would either be a lunatic—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. . . . But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ....

But, for Jews, Neusner approaches Jesus in the wrong way, for Jesus is not someone with whom we can have this sort of “dialogue.” If we deny his divinity, then we can respond with nothing short of shock and dismay when we read the words of a man who puts himself in the place of God. Thus, in his admirable attempt to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity, Neusner elides the most important difference of all. ....
"What, then, should be the foundation of Jewish-Christian engagement?" Soloveichik asks, and suggests that what Christians and Jews do have in common is a conviction about truth:
Does truth as traditionally understood still exist? Traditional Jews, like Catholics, know the answer to the question. In the end, this is what unites Jews and Christians. Because they believe in truth, traditional Jews cannot and will not find a friend in Jesus—but because they do believe in truth, they can find a friend in followers of Jesus such as Benedict. A friendship founded on our mutual resistance to relativism is one that can unite us despite our theological differences. That will have to do until our debate over Jesus is resolved by God himself.
This impresses me as an example of "honest ecumenism." The article will be behind a subscription wall for a couple of months, which is an excellent reason to subscribe to First Things, a magazine that consistently publishes articles of substance by people who take belief in God seriously.

FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Alan Jacobs on Pullman

Between Two Worlds links to an interview with Alan Jacobs about the Pullman's The Golden Compass and the other His Dark Materials books. It is made available as an mp3 and Justin Taylor provides a link to the download here [the interview lasts 40 min.].

I've been listening to the interview. It is, of course, about the books, not the film. It is from a Christian perspective and primarily about the ideas that Pullman puts forward. The interview covers much of the same ground as Jacobs's Weekly Standard article, but goes much further into the theological implications and is very good.

Between Two Worlds: Alan Jacobs on Pullman's Trilogy

Lewis again

The January issue of R.C. Sproul's Tabletalk Magazine contains a number of articles about C.S. Lewis. Authors include Sproul, Roger Nicole and Leland Ryken. The issue can be found [as a pdf] here.

Thanks to Harrison Scott Key [who seems to have had enough of CSL for right now] for the reference.

Ligonier Ministries: Tabletalk Magazine, January 2008

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Incarnate Infinite

HarperCollins, which publishes many of C.S. Lewis's books, has established a blog that "offers original work on and about C. S. Lewis from scholars who have written far and wide about his stories, his theology, and his world." One of the first posts is by David Downing, who has written several books and articles about CSL and his books. The post is very appropriate to the season and is titled "Word Pictures for the Word Made Flesh." An excerpt:
The very idea that that an infinite, eternal God could descend into frail human flesh was an idea that astonished Lewis and one he often meditated upon. He remarked in Mere Christianity that this was even more a miracle than if a human should descend into the form of a slug (bk. 4, chap 4.) The cycle of descent and re-ascent, God become human in order that humans might become the children of God, was one that Lewis returned to often in his imagination. In one of his most extended comparisons, Lewis compares Christ to a pearl-diver, a passage so elaborate that it borders on allegory:
One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanishing rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover. He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colorless in the dark, he lost his color too (Miracles, chap. 14).
In a similar vein, Lewis visualizes the Incarnate Infinite as a strong man called upon to lift a great burden. First he must stoop down very low, almost disappearing under the load, until at last he finds his grip and rises up again, straightening his back and balancing the whole weight upon his shoulders in order to carry it. [more]
If you are interested in Lewis and his work, this is probably a good site to bookmark.

Thanks to Further Up and Further In for the reference.

cslewis.com blog

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Word became flesh....

David Mathis at Desiring God begins a series of Advent posts about the incarnation.
The incarnation refers literally to the in-fleshing of the eternal Son of God—Jesus becoming a human being. The doctrine of the incarnation says that the eternal second person of the Trinity took on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. A helpful way to remember the key aspects of the incarnation is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh.”
He goes on to expand on the meaning of each of the words in that verse, "The Word," 'became," and "flesh" and summarizes by saying
So the eternal Son of God, without ceasing to be God, took on a fully human nature. This is the incarnation. [read it all]
Advent and the Incarnation :: Desiring God Blog

John Wycliffe


The Catechizer at The Wittenberg Door begins one of his always interesting short biographies. This one of John Wycliffe [c. 1320-1384], early translator of the Bible into English and known as "The Morning Star of the Reformation." [the article]

The Wittenberg Door: John Wycliffe – Part 1

If in this world only....

Christianity has brought many benefits to humankind, but so have other religions and secular philosophies. The really important argument for Christianity is that it is true. Alan Jacobs at Books & Culture:
...I doubt most of the claims made about the perfidy of religious belief in general, or monotheism, or Christianity in particular. But I wonder whether in responding to those claims of perfidy we sometimes neglect the prior claim, the claim of falsehood. After all, if the best that can be said for the Christian faith is that it has produced or helped to produce good things in this world—even the finest goods of, say, modern medicine—then it does not have a very strong claim upon us. It may be merely a kind of stepping stone, a way of understanding the world that has been useful but may now safely be abandoned for something better. Or perhaps the best things that it has produced are inferior to the best things that would be produced by another governing philosophy. Christianity only matters vitally and permanently if it brings what it fundamentally claims to bring: the redemption of humanity and the deliverance of the whole Creation. [more]
Rumors of Glory: Making Trade-Offs - Books & Culture Magazine

Thursday, December 6, 2007

"His communication of Himself"

Gene Edward Veith responds to J.P. Moreland's "How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It." Veith understands the point, but....
Dr. Moreland affirms the inerrancy and the authority of Scripture, but he is decrying the way conservative Protestants tend to make the Bible the ONLY source of spiritual and moral knowledge. He thinks Christians should also consider, for example, the natural law known by reason as being a legitimate source of truth; also extra-biblical evidence for demons; also other possible sources of revelation, such as dreams, visions, prophecies, and “words of knowledge.” ....

As a Lutheran Christian, I do believe in natural law, the proper use of reason, the authority of our confessional heritage, but I do so BECAUSE I believe them to be Biblical. As a Lutheran Christian, though, I deny that dream, visions, prophecies, and “words of knowledge” can be thought of as authoritative revelations from God. This is what our confessions condemn as “enthusiasm,” the source of every false religion.

As for the charge of “bibliolatry” that Dr. Moreland warns of, I am almost willing to admit to the charge. The Bible can never be honored enough. ....

The Word of God is God’s voice, His communication of Himself. The Word cannot be separated from Christ, the Incarnate Word, from the Father, who inspired it, and the Holy Spirit whom it conveys. The Word is sacramental, a physical, aural thing–no less physical than water, bread, and wine–that God employs to reach us and in which He is living and active. .... [more]
Read Moreland's paper here.

Over-Committed to the Bible? — Cranach: The Blog of Veith

Saint Nicholas

December 6 is observed in some Christian traditions as St. Nicholas Day. A site devoted to him, St. Nicholas Center [and subtitled "Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus"] recounts what is known about him:
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day.
Apparently he was also a champion of orthodox doctrine who punched the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea - and was punished for doing so.

The site also describes the many legends that developed around the man.

Thanks to Mere Comments for the reference and the information about Nicea.

Saint Nicholas ::: Who is St. Nicholas?

Romney's speech

Here is the text of Romney's "Faith in America" speech. It is a good speech that says much that is both good and true about the relationship of religious conviction to American life, history and politics.

But like JFK's speech on the subject, Romney basically says that his faith [his most fundamental commitments in life, mind you, if they are genuine] won't affect the performance of his public responsibilities.
Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

As Governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution — and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.
But what if the demands of "the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law" conflict with "the particular teachings of my church"? Are we to believe that a person of integrity, who believes firmly in the tenets of his faith, would ignore those convictions? Fortunately, his beliefs, both political and religious, and the laws and political climate in contemporary America probably make such a fundamental conflict improbable.

In my last post on Romney, yesterday, the question of the peculiar LDS position on the person of Jesus was raised. Here is how he dealt with that issue:
There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.
"Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed...." He is surely right about that, and his beliefs about Our Lord are certainly not relevant to the question of whether he could make a good President of the United States. I'm sorry it was felt necessary to make the speech. It is a good speech.

I don't support him. If he is the Republican nominee next fall, I probably will. His religious beliefs have little to do with why I don't support him now — nor will they signify much then.

Governor Mitt Romney's "Faith In America" Address

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Does the candidate agree?

Washington Times religion editor, Julia Duin, considers what question she would ask Mitt Romney if she were in Texas for the religion/Mormonism speech on Thursday:
....[J]ournalists are flying to College Station, Texas, for Mitt Romney's Big Religion Speech tomorrow. I'm not going but I loaned political reporter Joe Curl - who is going - a copy of my dog-eared Mormonism for Dummies by Jana Riess and Christopher Kimball Bigelow. I read it from cover to cover last year. ....

My question: Assuming that Mr. Romney identifies himself as Christian, how would he define Jesus Christ? Mormon doctrine says, among other things, that Jesus was Lucifer's spirit brother. He is also the elder brother of all humans, all of whom are the offspring of a God, Who is married to a heavenly Mother. Does the candidate agree with these doctrines? ....
The Washington Times, America's Newspaper

Principles are what guide you

Last night Charlie Rose interviewed Sen. Fred Thompson, the most consistently conservative GOP candidate for President. I've embedded the interview over at Standfast.

Rush Limbaugh played and commented on a portion of last night's interview on his show today. Toward the end of the 50 minutes, Charlie Rose asks Thompson what "conservative" means and Thompson responds:
Fred Thompson: It means things that are consistent with God's design for man, is consistent with human nature, it's consistent with the lessons of history, the lessons of ages. They found form in the Constitution I think and what our founding fathers believed. They understand that man can do great and wonderful things, but man is prone to error and sometimes do terrible things. That too much power in too few hands is a dangerous thing. That power is a corrupting thing.

Charlie Rose: In all of that you didn't mention abortion, gay rights, all things that have been part of recent presidential elections.

Fred: Those... Well you are talking about different things there. Those are issues that are before us, which derive FROM principles. end clip

Rush Limbaugh: Now this is just fabulous to me. This is just great. Here Charlie Rose asks Fred Thompson 'Well what is a conservative today anyway?'. And so Fred gives his definition of a conservative and Charlie says 'Well wait a minute I didn't hear anything about abortion or gay rights, all the things that have been a part of recent presidential elections.' Here's how Fred answered that, because Charlie Rose came back and said 'Principles? What do you mean principles?'. start next clip

Fred Thompson: Principles are what guide you in coming to positions with regard to issues. You know the Declaration of Independence said that our basic rights come from God and not from man. The founders talked about you know life, liberty and the importance of that. And that everything is based on those basic principles. And I take those principles and you know for example I come to a pro-life conclusion there. And when we had issues you know for 8 years when I was in the United States Senate about whether or not the federal government should be funding, for example, abortion related activities and things of that nature you know, the application of those principles in that instance told me the answer was no properly. end clip
Principles are foundational. Everything else is based on them. If you are reflective enough to have thought about what you fundamentally believe, and have any integrity, those beliefs will determine what you do. Thompson is obviously someone who has read and thought about what he believes. Few politicians, in my experience, have the time or inclination or ability to do so. Thompson's favorite among the founding fathers, he tells Rose, is John Adams - someone else who read and thought - and wouldn't have had a chance in the modern political arena.

Blogs for Fred Thompson

Criticism

Mark Dever offers wise advice about how to criticize, if you must. Each point is expanded upon at Church Matters:
    1. Directly, not indirectly.
    2. Seriously, not humorously.
    3. As if it's important, not casually.
    4. Privately, not publicly.
    5. Out of love for them, not to express your feeling or frustration. [more]

Prince Caspian

NarniaWeb has placed online the first trailer for the film of Prince Caspian. It can be found here or by a link from the picture below.

NarniaWeb - The Prince Caspian Movie Trailer!

What a Christian is

Na Humble Orthodoxy offers chapters from Mark Dever's What Is a Healthy Church? The first chapter is about the importance of church membership and can be read here as a pdf. An excerpt from the portion provided at the Na site:
....Why do I worry that if you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member in good standing of the local church you attend, you might be going to hell? Think with me for a moment about what a Christian is.

A Christian is someone, who first and foremost, has been forgiven of his sin and been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ. This happens when a person repents of his sins and puts his faith in the perfect life, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In other words, a Christian is someone who has reached the end of himself and his own moral resources. He has recognized that he, in defiance of God’s plainly revealed law, has given his life over to worshiping and loving things other than God—things like career, family, the stuff money can buy, the opinions of other people, the honor of his family and community, the favor the so-called gods of other religions, the spirits of this world, or even the good things a person can do. He has also recognized that these “idols” are doubly damning masters. Their appetites are never satisfied in this life. And they provoke God’s just wrath over the next life, a death and a judgment the Christian has already tasted a bit of (mercifully) in the world’s miseries.

A Christian, therefore, knows that if he were to die tonight and stand before God, and if God were to say, “Why should I let you into my presence?” the Christian would say, “You shouldn’t let me in. I have sinned and owe you a debt that I cannot pay back.” But he wouldn’t stop there. He would continue, “Yet, because of your great promises and mercy, I depend on the blood of Jesus Christ shed as a substitute for me, paying my moral debt, satisfying your holy and righteous requirements, and removing your wrath against sin!”

Upon that plea to be declared righteous in Christ, the Christian is someone who has discovered the beginning of the freedom from sin’s enslavement. Where the idols and other gods could never be satisfied, their stomachs were never full, God’s satisfaction in the work of Christ means that the person purchased out of condemnation by Christ’s work is now free! For the first time ever, the Christian is free to turn his back on sin, not just to replace it slavishly with another sin but with the Holy Spirit-given desire for Jesus Christ himself and for Christ’s rule in his life. Where Adam tried to push God off the throne and make himself god, the Christian rejoices that Christ is upon the throne. He considers Jesus’ life of perfect submission to the will and words of the father and seeks to be like his savior.

So a Christian is someone who, first of all, has been reconciled to God in Christ. Christ has assuaged the wrath of God, and the Christian is now declared righteous before God, called to a life of righteousness, and lives in the hope of one day appearing before his majesty in heaven.

Yet that’s not all! Second, a Christian is someone who, by virtue of his reconciliation with God, has been reconciled to God’s people. Do you remember the first story in the Bible after Adam and Eve’s fall and banishment from the garden? It’s the story of one human being murdering another—Cain killing Abel. If the act of trying to shove God off the throne is, by its very nature, an act of trying to place ourselves upon it, we’re not about let some other human being take it from us. Not a chance. Adam’s act of breaking fellowship with God resulted in an immediate break in fellowship among all human beings. It’s every man for himself.

It should be no surprise, then, that Jesus said that “all the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments”: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt 22:34-40). The two commandments go together. The first produces the second, and the second proves the first.

Through Christ, then, being reconciled to God means being reconciled to everyone else who is reconciled to God. ....

Na - Blog Entry

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Advent


The Internet Monk [Michael Spencer] makes some good recommendations for family observances of Advent and Christmas.

internetmonk.com » Blog Archive » Observing Advent and Christmas: Thoughts for the Christian Family

Apostate

Does a Muslim have the right to convert to another religion? Muslim scholars debate, but the audience of young Muslims says the penalty for apostasy should be death. A significant portion of Islam seems to have a problem with freedom of conscience.

Muslim Scholars Debate Apostates in Islam

Bad books everybody reads

Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments makes a list:
...[T]his is not a list of the ten worst books ever. It's a list of the ten books that are most undeservedly popular. [the list]
Touchstone Magazine - Mere Comments: Top Ten Bad Books Everybody Reads

Take a deep breath

Winning the argument

In the course of discussing improvements in various social indicators the authors of this article at the Commentary site recount progress on abortion. Attitudes are changing:
.... Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6 million in 1990, the number of abortions performed annually in the U.S. has dropped to fewer than 1.3 million, a level not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized the practice. ....

As for the decrease in abortions, it seems to have been influenced less by policy than by the changing terms of public debate and, more importantly, by increasingly responsible attitudes among the young. Two decades ago, pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. The clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion, although not settled legislatively until 2003, colored the abortion debate throughout much of the 1990’s, in the process creating greater sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. And the pro-abortion Left likewise softened its rhetoric, evidently reasoning that a more cautious approach, as encapsulated in Bill Clinton’s promise to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” was likelier to draw support. As a result, some of the more extreme arguments for unrestricted abortion rights slowly dropped by the wayside.

Other factors played a role as well, including the efforts of pro-life groups to assist women with unwanted pregnancies, the greater availability of birth control, and advances in our scientific understanding of fetal development. Contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. All in all, not only has the public discussion of abortion been profoundly transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the farthest—in September, a Harris poll found that Americans aged eighteen to thirty were the most likely of all age groups to oppose the practice. This trend seems likely to continue.

With the abortion issue, we have already moved from a change brought about in large part by government policy to one arising mainly through the (sometimes heated) give-and-take of public discussion and the slow, subterranean shifting of social attitudes. ....
Commentary Online: Crime, Drugs, Welfare—and Other Good News

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Devil’s Party

First Things has put online a review essay by Alan Jacobs of Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. The film of the first book in that trilogy, The Golden Compass, is upon us, and there has been much discussion of the quality of Pullman's books [it is generally agreed that the books are very well written] and his agenda in writing them. Some have even argued that they can be read as conveying a Christian message. Pullman himself once said "My books are about killing God."

If the film proves to be very successful many who have not yet read the books will do so. Alan Jacob's essay was written for The Weekly Standard in 2000 soon after the final book in the trilogy was published. The full essay is very informative and can be found here. Excerpts:
.... One sees a number of unequivocally evil people in these books, and one sees a number of Christians, and these are always—always—the same people. Everyone associated with the Church is cruel, remorseless, and only rarely less than murderous. Conversely, everyone outside the Church is blindingly righteous, Lord Asriel being the only partial exception. (And his most indefensible deed proves to be the inadvertent cause of—in the narrative’s terms—an immeasurably great thing.) These decent, compassionate folk regularly denounce religion and God, while the monsters who run the Church utter scarcely a word in their own defense—just to make sure that no reader comes to a conclusion Pullman doesn’t want.

These anathemas are almost comically overt, but Pullman also employs a more insidious method, which becomes available to him through the multiple-worlds device. In The Amber Spyglass, a character named Mrs. Coulter says of the Church, “Killing is not difficult for them; Calvin himself ordered the deaths of children”—upon reading which, I thought, “No, he didn’t!” But then I remembered that Mrs. Coulter is from Lyra’s world, and in Lyra’s world the Reformation took a different course (as can be inferred from a reference to “Pope John Calvin” and his decision to move the papal seat to Geneva). This is a nice trick: Other universes become places where Pullman’s enemies can be made to do any imaginable evil, so that he can better justify his hatred of them. Meanwhile, who knows how many readers go away from this book believing that John Calvin massacred innocents with the callused enthusiasm of King Herod?

Omission serves Pullman’s purposes as well. In the whole trilogy there is just one reference to Jesus Christ, whose teachings, character, and influence do not, after all, fit well with Pullman’s picture of Christianity. And how many people, especially young people, know enough about Christian doctrine or the biblical narrative to realize just how deceptive Pullman’s treatment is? How many will know, for instance, that the sin of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with their love for each other, despite Pullman’s contentions in The Amber Spyglass that the Authority wants a world of ice-cold celibates and that erotic love is a form of rebellious creativity? ....

If Christianity, and religion in general, are what Pullman is against, what is he for? Well, he’s in favor of open minds; he thinks we must choose between loveless God and godless love, and we should choose love. Events near the story’s end suggest that positive energy in the world, the Dust, is produced by specifically erotic love. Mary, that admirable tempter, asserts, “All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them.” ....

The luminously gifted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a work so imaginatively potent that it has already inspired the kind of loyalty given to the secondary worlds of Tolkien and the other great fantasists.

But a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers should not overlook the deception, conscious or unconscious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor: “The rhetorician would deceive others,” as Yeats once put it, “the sentimentalist himself.” [the essay]
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » The Devil’s Party