Category Archives: Christianity

Black Lives Matter and the Problem with Slogans

Slogans are often used as shorthand for a conjunctive set of ideological tenets. Affirmation of the slogan implies the affirmation of these tenets.[1] For example, let us suppose that Slogan S entails Tenet X and Tenet Y. Insofar as one rejects one of these tenets, one must also reject the slogan that represents them. More formally, this can be represented simply as:

  1. S if and only if X & Y
  2. Not-X
  3. Therefore, not-S.

While admitting that amorphous entities, such as movements or causes, are often fluid with respect to the tenets comprising them, this will suffice as a general characterization; for a slogan with no clear set of agreed-upon tenets cannot usefully represent a movement.

As with any movement, Black Lives Matter, too, has been built around a set of official tenets. Whether one finds these tenets uncontroversial, objectionable, or some combination of the two will be governed by one’s worldview. Given the desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and “foster a queer-affirming network,” and the deliberate use of terms with Marxist undertones, such as “comrades,” “power, ” and “liberation,” there is much to regard as objectionable from a Christian point-of-view. Therefore, though Christians believe that black lives matter, they are–and should be–reticent to endorse BLM (as a movement). To formalize this, for example, we could say that:

  1. BLM (as a movement) implies the beliefs that, among other things, black lives matter and the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” should be disrupted
  2. One should reject the belief that the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” should be disrupted.
  3. Therefore, BLM (as a movement) ought to be rejected.

The sort of reasoning that should compel us to distance ourselves from BLM is the same reasoning used when a member of Congress votes against a bill containing pork-barrel projects. If a bill called the “Roads Improvement Act” contains spending devoted to studies of mice, the bill ought to be rejected in principle.

Socially and publicly, this is not easy to do. In the case of BLM, the choice to make the movement’s slogan identical to a single, utterly uncontroversial tenet–namely, that black lives matter–is a powerful rhetorical device. This is the same kind of move adopted by numerous other movements, such as marketing abortion-on-demand as the uncontroversial “right to choose” or construing opposition to legalizing homosexual marriages as being in favor of “traditional family values.” This makes detractors from the movement as a whole easy to vilify, since anyone not willing to swallow the entire, jagged pill on account of controversial tenets is simply painted as a detractor from the uncontroversial tenets.

Most people repeating the phrase “black lives matter” probably do not mean to endorse BLM as a movement, but only to express their solidarity with the belief that black lives matter. Those falling into this camp might be tempted to think that the argument I am making here is an exercise in philosophical hair-splitting. If ideas do not have consequences, then it is indeed. But ideas do have consequences, and bad ideas have bad consequences. I submit that the pork-barrel ideology unhelpfully being subtly tethered to the idea that black lives matter is worse than “bad;” it is dangerous. If we are to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,”[2] we ought not be dismissive of our responsibility to think critically. We must separate the ethical wheat from the political chaff.

Ironically, it is because black lives matter that Christians ought not to align themselves with Black Lives Matter. As the human race has learned all too well,[3] a truth mixed with a falsehood is far more dangerous than a falsehood alone. Given that one of the real national crises of many black communities is that of fatherlessness,[4] one can only be appalled that the Black Lives Matter movement has as one of its stated aims the disruption of the “Western-prescribed nuclear family.” There are certainly many well-meaning Christians who wish to do good, to exercise compassion, solidarity, and kindness, who believe that all men are created equal, and yet have unwittingly aligned themselves with an organization they think has but a single tenet: that black lives matter. Yet, those of us who are fervently anti-racist, who want to empathize with those who are hurting, must nevertheless remind ourselves that, though we should respond with grace, it must not be at truth’s expense.


[1] This is true even if a person repeats a slogan without intending to endorse a broader set of tenets. One can only imagine how many German citizens, endorsing the Nazi party in 1920 because they agreed with the demand for “equality of rights for the German people in respect to the other nations,” came to later regret their vote on account of the outworking of another of the party’s tenets: “Only a member of the race can be a citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently no Jew can be a member of the race.” See https://time.com/4282048/1920-hitler-political-platform/.

[2] Matt. 10:16

[3] Gen. 3:1

[4] See “About One-Third of U.S. Children Are Living with an Unmarried Parent,” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/27/about-one-third-of-u-s-children-are-living-with-an-unmarried-parent/

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"Money Doesn't Make One Happy:" Examining Christian Folk Wisdom on the Subject of Wealth

Casual conversation is replete with folk wisdom on the subject of money. One becomes accustomed to hearing such remarks as, “Oh, I would never want to be rich.” This is usually followed by some sort of qualifier (“I just want to be comfortable”), or a platitude (“Money doesn’t make one happy, you know”), or the unimaginative, “I wouldn’t even know what to do with a lot of money,” and so on. These, and other like phrases, comprise the sort of commonplace moralizing to which, through familiarity, one tends to become inured, and they are often reciprocated by their hearers with an approving nod, as if the speaker had just uttered a trivial truth, such as, “I just want to be a good person.”

Were such phrases uttered by someone who was not already wealthy, however, it would be much easier to regard them seriously; for phrases of this sort, are, of course, the sorts of things only wealthy people say. Indeed, it is only in rare cases that our American wealth-eschewer does not at that very moment have (at least) a computer worth $500 to $1,000, otherwise known as a “smart” phone, on his person, own a vehicle, a home, a laptop or tablet, have access to air-conditioning, plumbing, running (drinkable) water, electricity, internet, cable television, a formal education, and a source of regular income.[1]

That a person engaged in such a prodigious standard of living can, without experiencing the slightest tinge of cognitive dissonance, blatantly denigrate the possession of wealth is, perhaps, evidence for just how exceptional the American economy is. Such statements reinforce the fact that, beyond the attainment of those necessities essential to survival, “comfort,” like wealth, is a relative state of affairs. The state “being comfortable” means one thing to (say) a Papuan and, to the average American, another thing entirely. In the case of the latter, it usually means something that, both historically and globally, amounts to a standard of living beyond even that of ancient kings; for, despite being unimaginably affluent,[2] there was no amount of gold that could have afforded Solomon, for example, the availability of electricity or the medical benefits of penicillin–advances that, in America, even the relatively poor take for granted. The standard of living most people in the history of the world would have considered “upper-class” is far exceeded by that which contemporary Americans now consider merely “comfortable.” But find me the man whose family is starving, or who is of financial necessity engaged in mundane or dangerous or backbreaking work, or the couple who is forced, for financial reasons, to allow their children to be raised by others, who will yet utter with a straight face such a phrase as, “money doesn’t make one happy,” and you will have discovered one who is either in denial of his predicament or does not understand happiness.

The meaning of “Money doesn’t make one happy”

Were one to ask ten people what the word “comfortable” or “happiness” means, or to define what (to them) constitutes “a lot” of money, however, one is likely receive at least eleven different answers. (This is, after all, not a subject many of us have thought critically about.) The answers produced will inevitably be products of one’s upbringing, social context, and values. Thus, as in any discussion, and especially one at whose center are much-equivocated terms, if we are to avoid speaking in circles, we must clarify at the outset what we mean. Rather than attempt to undergo a lengthy exposition of the various meanings of  “happiness,” or to analyze the etymology, however, I shall simply say what I think most people intend by it. In the context of an assertion like “money doesn’t make one happy,” people cannot mean by this something that is obviously untrue, such as, “money can’t buy comfort” or “money can’t buy pleasure.” Rather, they seem to mean something akin to the following: “no amount of money can provide a holistic sense of satisfaction in life.” This is surely a claim to which only a thoroughgoing hedonist might object.[3] The rest of us are compelled to agree, else profound dissatisfaction would be absent among those with sufficient wealth (whatever that is); yet, there is clearly no shortage of those who are both rich and deeply unhappy. This is because inveterate unhappiness of the kind produced by meaninglessness often stems from becoming discontented with pleasure, rather than from the regular experience of pain.[4] Summarizing Augustine’s thoughts on the matter, Nicholas Wolerstorff notes–correctly, in my view–that, “Only enjoyment of God is worthy of desire for its own sake. If enjoyment of some earthly thing comes your way, praise God for it; but do not desire it, do not seek it for its own sake. That way lies unhappiness.”[5] Therefore, let us agree that material wealth cannot ultimately satisfy.

If this is indeed what people mean by the phrase, “Money doesn’t make one happy,” it is odd that they should utter it in the contexts they usually do; namely, as a reason for why they do not–or would not want to–make more money or to build wealth. This is made all the more strange by the fact the man who, in conversation, shuns building wealth is often the very same man who sends letters to friends and family asking for donations to fund his short-term missions trip, complains nightly to his wife that he is underappreciated and underpaid, prays that he might be granted a pay raise, and could not conceive of turning down a promotion, so long as it came with greater pay. He wants desperately to be financially prosperous, but not too much. By day, he rolls his eyes at lottery winners and “trust fund babies;” by night, he clips coupons and enters online raffle drawings. He wants to be handsomely rewarded, but not if it requires being too uncomfortable for too long.

The Wealth Paradox

It is here we encounter the existential paradox with which some Christians appear to struggle: “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), yet money is also clearly indispensible to a society and a means to many good things; it is a thing of which to be wary, yet cannot be escaped. Since it cannot be escaped entirely, apart from a retreat into monasticism, the solution some have adopted is to treat as an extravagance any material wealth beyond being merely “comfortable.” Never mind that, if we are to use our Lord as the paradigm, even this is an extravagance. Indeed, I have been somewhat haunted by C.S. Lewis’ thought on the question of how much we should give:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusement, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our giving does not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say it is too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our commitment to giving excludes them.[6]

I say “haunted” because my suspicion is that Lewis has said something right and difficult about the attitude we ought to cultivate with respect to our lifestyle and our giving.

In any case, the reason for this apparent paradox–acknowledging the dangers of money while recognizing its necessity–is, it seems to me, that many Christians tacitly assume that the only reason a person would work long and hard to create significant wealth is to spend it on oneself. If not for this assumption, comments like, “I would never want to be rich,” become virtually unintelligible, especially in view of the ironic fact that most of us will of necessity spend more waking hours attempting to earn money than we will spend doing anything else.

Likely, however, what people really mean by this is not that they do not want to become wealthier than they are, but that they either do not want to do what they believe is necessary to create greater wealth, or else they don’t want to become like a certain kind of person that they associate with affluence (i.e., the “rich man” archetype; cf. Luke 16:19-31). Regarding this latter concern, Lewis cautions that:

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.[7]

We would indeed do well to remember that God is ultimately the source of all good things, denouncing an unhealthy emotional attachment to our possessions and any means requiring the oppression of others to obtain them. But why think that working to create significant wealth is necessarily only a selfish endeavor, especially insofar as it allows one in the long run to spend their time in the pursuit of more worthwhile activities than earning a paycheck? On the contrary, why not deliberately delay one’s own gratification, not only for the sake of one’s own family’s future (which is a good in itself; see I Tim. 5:8), but for the sake of others? Correctly understood, and properly ordered among our values–our “loves,” if you will[8]–there need be no existential crisis with respect to creating wealth. Like a hammer, money is but a tool, and it is one’s character that will influence whether it is used for good or for ill: it can either buy slaves or fund an orphanage. As such, it is a useful servant, but a diabolical master.[9]

Wealth and Living Modestly

So long as it means living below one’s means in a manner devoid of vanity, living a modest lifestyle is commendable. But why assume that one must remain poor (relatively speaking) in order to live modestly? Need one assume that wanting to increase one’s wealth is indicative of disordered desires? If one wants to live on only $25,000 per year[10], but has the means to create much greater wealth (all other things being equal), why not continue to live on $25,000 per year and, if one so chooses, give the rest away?[11]

Thought of in this way, it becomes clear that at the root of pious statements, such as, “I would never want to be rich,” is sometimes a kind of selfishness. To the extent that our own needs are met, we tend not to entertain thoughts of making ourselves uncomfortable in the short term for the benefit of others in the long term. Indeed, many people refuse to delay their gratification even for their own future well-being,[12] and it is surprising that some seem to think it an exercise in humility to deliberately work for little pay, while simultaneously accruing debt to buy things they cannot afford.[13]

The reason people say they need to “pray about” whether to give to meet a certain need or fund a worthwhile cause is not because there is uncertainty about the merit of the need–this is usually obvious–but because they lack the resources to assent without reservation; for a drowning man is ill-equipped to save another. There is often little material difference between someone’s needing to “pray about” whether to give to X and someone’s needing to “consider” giving to X. As such, this is often just a way of responding that intends to avoid challenge by one’s interlocutor; for who would dare suggest that one not pray about something?[14] In it’s worst form, much as we often take home leftover food, knowing we will probably just toss it out later, responding this way is sometimes just a passive way of saying “no.” But we should caution ourselves against using God as a screen for our own dearth of confidence in asserting ourselves.

Some have justified deliberately remaining financially hand-to-mouth because of the extent of their giving to others, and of all the reasons to deliberately struggle financially, this is certainly the most laudable. Did not the widow who gave her only two coins effectively give more than even the rich?[15] As in many other cases, Jesus clearly sought to point out that the condition of the widow’s heart, combined with her obedience, was of more spiritual worth than the large gifts of the wealthy–presumably, not because there is something inherently holy about small gifts, but because there is something holy in obedience when obedience comes at significant cost to the giver.

It would be a mistake, however, to cite this passage as evidence that Jesus intended to praise the widow’s being poor. This is, in part, because there are throughout the Bible numerous commands to defend,[16] do justice to,[17] and be generous towards the poor,[18] as well as praises for God’s doing such things–presumably because being poor is something to be remedied, rather than sought, and because justice requires that we not neglect those in need.

The Distinction Between Jobs and Work

A friend of mine recently mentioned to a Christian acquaintance that he was actively pursuing financial independence in order to be able to focus on interests other than his job. His interlocutor responded by asking, “You know [Saint] Paul was a tentmaker, right?” This was as if to say, “if such a venerable figure as Paul remained employed in the course of his apostolic mission, who are you to seek to escape your job?” In addition to the stark assumption that my friend’s job was a good one, and therefore not worth leaving, there is at least one more unjustified assumption underlying this response–that the desire to escape one’s job is equivalent to the desire to escape work in general.

Because we colloquially refer to our jobs as our “work,” it is understandable that the distinction between the categories of “job” and “work,” of which jobs are subset, has become blurred. There are clearly many endeavors that involve work, however, even arduous work, which would not constitute a job[19]–raising children being but one obvious example. Thus, while the desire to avoid work in favor of unadulterated leisure is rightly to be eschewed, it is nevertheless incorrect to equate the attempt to free oneself financially from one’s job with the attempt to free oneself from the responsibility of work in general.[20]

Implicit in such remarks is the assumption that to bend towards the ascetic is in some way to bend towards holiness. After all, if we desire to follow Jesus, are not we to heed the words of our Lord?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?[21]

Indeed we must. And it is on a certain understanding of this and other similar biblical passages[22] that the foundations of Christian monasticism were built; for monasticism is an attempt, among other things, to live consistently with Christ’s call to self-denial. This abnegation has historically involved the rejection of those worldly pleasures or drives that comprise ordinary human life in favor of abstinence, temperance, austerity, and, in its extreme forms, deliberately inflicting pain on oneself in the form of flagellation, sleep deprivation, or exposure to extreme temperatures. Hence, falling somewhere on the spectrum from complete self-indulgence to self-harm, asceticism (from the Greek “askesis”) tends to be a matter of degree, and there are many attempts at asceticism that fall short of something as all-encompassing as monasticism.[23]

In my own case, there was something in this call to self-denial that, even as child, I felt compelled to observe. Though no one had taught me to do so, I recall that, for some time, as our family would pray before each meal, I would quietly hold my breath for the duration of the prayer, believing that, in virtue of God’s holiness, I did not deserve even to breathe in His presence. As one might suspect, I had cause to seriously question the feasibility of this practice if, on a given night, my father’s thankfulness happened to be particularly long-winded.

At some point–I do not remember when–I came to realize that this practice, while perhaps admirable in its attempt at reverence, was at least unnecessary. The same could be said for asceticism writ large. Denying oneself food for a time, in recognition of the fact that “man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4) is good; forever denying oneself food–or air–is deadly. Retreating periodically into solitude to pray is an indispensible discipline; withdrawing permanently from society is to relinquish our responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission.[24] Likewise, remaining ever-vigilant that our desires for comfort, leisure, or resources do not ascend in our hearts to the status of  “loves”–of ends in themselves–we should also caution ourselves against using this concern as an excuse to remain complacent. Becoming wealthy does not guarantee happiness,[25] but neither does being poor.[26] Being wealthy does not entail being materialistic, nor does being poor entail being righteous. We might be called to endure suffering on behalf of Christ. To do so with the right attitude is virtuous. But to inflict suffering on ourselves, or our families, either directly or indirectly, is to be foolish–or worse. While I do not intend to suggest that building wealth or pursuing financial independence is a moral obligation, good stewardship of the opportunities and resources afforded us is. As Solomon reminds us:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
    consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
    officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
    and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
    When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
    and want like an armed man.[27]

Insofar as one has the means to do so, I submit that we would do well to consider the ways in which our temporary self-denial might be applied, not only for our own gain, but to the very great benefit of others.


[1] See https://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/understanding-poverty-the-united-states-surprising-facts-about

[2] See I Kings 10:14

[3] And even he might only grant that, holistic satisfaction being illusory, the pursuit of pleasure is just the closest one can come to genuine joy.

[4] Conversely, the regular experience of pain need not produce inveterate unhappiness.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 144. See also Proverbs 21:17.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996). See also Luke 21:1-4.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity,(1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 213-214.

[8] In You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), James K. Smith makes a compelling case for the fact that humans are properly understood as beings that love, rather than merely beings that think.

[9] See Matthew 6:24

[10] The weighted average poverty threshold for the United States in 2018 for a family of four with two children was $25,465. See https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-thresholds.html

[11] For now, I set aside those situations in which parents force their children to go without for the sake of their own ideals.

[12] See https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/21/consumer-debt-hits-4-trillion.html

[13] For example, encountering a recent college graduate who is debt-free is now an anomaly. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2019/02/25/student-loan-debt-statistics-2019/#5493a32c133f

[14] Cf. 1 Thess. 5:16-18

[15] See Luke 21:1-4

[16] See Jeremiah 5:28, Proverbs 31:8-9

[17] Leviticus 19:15, Ezekiel 22:29, Jeremiah 5:28; 22:3, Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 140:12

[18] For example, see Deuteronomy 15:11, Isaiah 58:10, Proverbs 14:31; 19:17; 22:9, , Matthew 5:42, Acts 20:35

[19] Whereby I mean a situation in which one trades time employing a skill for a wage.

[20] An additional problem with this reasoning is that it could be employed against any number of self-evident goods. Suppose one desired to avoid a hitting an iceberg while on a cruise ship. Another might as well respond with “You know Paul was shipwrecked, right?”

[21] Matthew 16:24-26

[22] Cf. 1 Pet. 2:11; 1 Cor. 9:27

[23] For example, Christians are commanded to engage in regular, temporary acts of asceticism in the form of fasting, abstinence, etc. See, for example, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 7:5.

[24] Matthew 28:16-20

[25] Cf. Ecclesiastes

[26] Cf. Proverbs 10:15; 14:20

[27] See Proverbs 6:6-11

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Stereotypes, the TSA, and Christian Legalism

At the root of any stereotype there is at least some kernel of truth; for a stereotype, even if it is rarely true, is at the very least not always false. The fact that I tend to regard employees of the Transportation Security Administration as a largely disagreeable bunch is not because it is true that they are always disagreeable, but because in my experience they have seemed to make a peevish attitude rather the rule than the exception; though I suspect that anyone whose job it is to daily perform the practical equivalent of herding cats might find their patience understandably stressed. Still, if one is to be violated, it might at least be with a smile.

Likewise, there is a general sentiment among skeptics that Christians are essentially like the TSA: always patting people down and cavalierly putting fun or apparently useful objects into the rubbish. “Christian” may as well be synonymous with “killjoy.” I wish this sentiment were entirely untrue, but I have encountered these unpleasant types myself. They are like the person who thinks it their sacred duty to cheerfully broadcast their diet regimen to everyone in the vicinity of the hors d’oeuvres. There is nothing wrong either with diets or hors d’oeuvres, but there is something to be said for tact.

But poor tact is not the real problem of the legalist. Finding life much easier to navigate when separated neatly into clearly defined compartments, he can make little sense of the notion that it might be perfectly acceptable for him to drink alcohol in his own home and sinful for him to drink it at his alcoholic brother’s. For the legalist, “alcohol” is synonymous with “drunkenness”. He thinks that since recreational sex is immoral outside of marriage, recreational sex is always immoral. He thinks that an expletive uttered in pain is the same as an expletive uttered in anger. Rather than trouble himself with considerations of an act’s proper context, he finds it simpler either to perform it wantonly or to banish it altogether. The world in which the legalist lives is not the one in which he finds himself, but the one he fashions in his own conscience. He worships himself as Judge, at the feet of his own law. A legalist knows little about mercy and everything about judgment. Wielding a microscope, he is ignorant of planks but an expert on specks. In his own failings he grants himself a pardon; in the failings of others he issues only a sentence. In his zeal to subdue the world with his gavel, the legalist has forgotten his real place in the defendant’s chair.

Though there is some truth to the charge of Christian legalism, it would be equally in error to suppose legalism the result of Christian doctrine as it would be to suppose fascism the result of being German. If there was one thing that drew the ire of Christ, it was the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees. Christ was, first, Savior and, second, the great anti-legalist; and to be Christian without following Christ is (crudely) even worse than being French and having no regard for cheese. Legalism is as much a thorn in the side of Christianity as it is annoying to the skeptic. Nevertheless, the skeptic, being predisposed to believe anything that might serve to justify his skepticism, will eagerly take any example of abuse and hold it up as doctrine. Thus, every Christian becomes a hypocrite, a Pharisee, an Inquisitor, and a Crusader; for the rejection of a faith which produces moral abominations is clearly much easier than one that produces Pauls, Livingstones, Müllers, Elliots, Bonhoeffers, and Liddells. The late Mr. Hitchens said quite soberly that religion poisons everything. It is difficult to take such statements seriously. That some religions poison some things is certain, but I think I should just as soon point to unruly school children as evidence that education poisons everything. Nevermind that atrocities are committed only in spite of Christ’s example; the skeptic would have us believe that He is at best a fiction and, at worst, Lucifer himself.

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In the Halls of the Vatican

Having recently had the privilege of visiting Europe, I was gratified to find myself in a great many churches and cathedrals, many of which have stood in some form since the Middle Ages or the Enlightenment. In only rare instances were these buildings not absolutely magnificent works of art in every respect: from the architecture, to the stained glass, to the sculpture and the paintings. If there is one thing the United States lacks, it must be a rich, complex history spanning millennia; nothing, save the ground itself, is very old.

At the Vatican in particular, I found myself in both the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica under the spell of an awe akin to that of gazing at the stars under a perfectly clear night sky: not a square foot was devoid of a masterpiece. “Truly,” I thought, “this is one of the most impressive sights I have ever witnessed.” And while it is possible that my inexperienced senses might be easily overwhelmed, I would hazard a guess that only a brute, cold to beauty, could look upon such a scene unmoved.

Looking round, unable to escape the feeling that I was incapable of the degree of appreciation due such work, my thoughts first dwelt in almost equal measure on technical curiosity (I have done only a little painting), the historical significance of such a collection, and the grandeur of the aesthetics themselves. I readily acknowledged that the skill and acumen necessary to produce something with the beauty and depth of Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment could only be the result of true genius.

But after the impress of these other contemplations had run its course, they were momentarily eclipsed by a more fundamental reflection: to what purpose is all this?

In pursuit of this inquiry, the diverging paths on which my mind had trod now began to merge into a single track. Where I had before only admired, I now bid Rome to give an account of her actions.  Gazing still upon the marbled and gilded halls, my thoughts ran thus:

For what was all this made? Was it that man might revere God, or that he might submit himself to the glory of Rome? Were such exorbitant commissions weighed solemnly against the plight of the starving? Or were Rome’s marbled halls too thick to admit of their cries? Was this “pure and undefiled religion” (1)? Does God look upon such extravagance in the name of “the Church” with favor or with contempt?

I thought that what had begun as the Body of Christ had become captive to a host of ghoulish intruders: humility had been bound and gagged, and on her throne sat a loathsome successor: Power; while Reverence and Superstition exchanged amorous glances beneath the Pope’s unheeding eyes. Truth had been drowned in holy water and garroted with rosaries, and the stench of its corpse was masked by the scent of countless candles offered to legendary saints whose cold stone visages stared fixedly upon an innocent and expectant congregation. Tradition stood tall and triumphant upon the rubble of what ought to read “sola scriptura” (2), proclaiming boldly the authority of “The Church” and beckoning all to submit on bended knee beneath her gilded scepter. The good done in the name of “The Church” (and there has been much) had been accomplished that all might stand in awe of her good graces and bow to kiss the rings on her benevolent hand. Faith she had forgotten, and Works reigned supreme. Under the weight of a withering but quiet oppression, Salvation had become a pledge of allegiance to Rome’s glory, to her “Sacred Tradition,” and to her Pope.

The frescoes had turned strangely pallid before my eyes.

I considered the similar perversions which had in different guises afflicted the Protestant denominations, wondering if my Reformed upbringing had in some way grafted upon me an illegitimate bias; for surely there were errors in every church (3). No, I concluded: where heresy had crept subtly into Protestant congregations a mere Christianity (4) firmly called all to repentance. Yet here in Rome was a perverted Doctrine enthroned, honored, and worshipped; a thing of human manufacture; a deadly mix of truth and myth and lore offered at the feet of a maternal goddess. Catholicism was not all bad, I avowed, but this had made it that much more dangerous; for, like Eve, she had succumbed to a tantalizing fruit with a deadly core by inclining her ear towards an insidious serpent. Where Rome should have driven a fierce heel into the serpent’s head, she instead fed it crumbs underneath her banquet table and called it “Sacred Tradition.”

Yet, there were qualities for which Rome could not be faulted. She had not embraced the common sin of either apathy or irreverence, but had simply misdirected her allegiance; nor had she fashioned Christian doctrine into an abstraction, only corrupted it in places and exchanged it with her own. I thought she had only to dethrone her false gods and she would be welcomed back from her prodigal wanderings with a chorus infinitely more joyous than even her choirs could produce.

As I wandered amidst the throngs out onto the monumental steps of that magnificent building and sat down among the columns of its courtyard, I was reminded of a passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette:

“Oh, lovers of power! Oh, mitred aspirants for this world’s kingdoms! An hour will come, even to you, when it will be well for your hearts – pausing faint at each broken beat – that there is a Mercy beyond human compassion, a Love, stronger than this strong death which even you must face, and before it, fall; a Charity more potent than any sin, even yours; a Pity which redeems worlds – nay, absolves Priests.” (3)

Rome, though you are dead, you might yet live. The God whom you claim to serve beckons you home; you need only heed the knock. (5)

 Notes:

1.)  James 1:27

2.) “by scripture alone”

3.)  Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1853.

4.)  Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952.

5.)  Revelation 3:20

A Rejoinder to Mr. Holloway

The following was printed as a letter to the editor of the Ruston Daily Leader on February 5, 2012, titled, “Man speaks out against alcohol sales:”

This is a response to the Jan.16 column by Mrs. Jessica Darden and the December City Council meeting:

First, I would like to address the City Council meeting held on Dec. 5. I have never been to a meeting that was any more insignificant than the one held on Dec. 5, 2011.

From before the meeting began, I was told that the vote was already decided and would be three to two against the majority of those present and, I believe, the majority of this city. The meeting was a waste of time. I learned that if you are a business in this town, what you want and say matters, and if you are a resident, your views are of no interest to the council.

We were actually told that the best thing that had happened in Ruston was the expansion of alcohol sales here nine years ago. Although no study had been done and no evidence was presented by the restaurant association, we were led to believe that the glorious growth of alcohol was the most progressive event in the last decade in Ruston. That may be one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard, with zero facts to support it. In fact, a study was presented from LSU that says the expansion of alcohol will never be a financial winner for a city. Only the ones who pay the most taxes matter and the people who live here may as well shut up and sit down. I hope the people of these districts remember that the next time they vote!

My second response is to Mrs. Darden, who in her column printed on Jan. 16 said that all of us “Bible Belt” people were all wrong. She said their generation needed to be allowed to make their own mistakes, of course she is assuming they live over this one. Unfortunately, a number of students traveling down the frontage road did not live over their mistaken choices. She said young people are going to drink whether it is legal or illegal. Well, using that reasoning, we could say that young people will always steal automobiles so just leave your keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked to make it easier on them. Is it really a gain during a recession as she says? It seems to me that during a recession, there is a greater need to purchase gas to get to work, food for the table and utilities for the home instead of going out on Sunday to get a buzz! One last thought is when she said “Let’s join together … to see just how much of an impact can be made right in our backyard.”

I like that slogan of “let’s join together,” and I want to invite the, I guess we will call it the “Bible Belt Crowd,” to join together and voice your displeasure with this expansion of liquor on Sundays, which us old Bible Thumpers call the Lord’s Day. I am asking all who claim to be Christians to choose to use your money wisely on Sundays. I know that I will support the restaurants that support family and faith over finances.

– Mike Holloway

This is my response, which was printed this morning:

Having read Mr. Holloway’s letter to your paper on Sunday, February 5, which concerned his displeasure with the recent changes to the law formerly prohibiting all alcohol sales on Sundays, I wish to make a few comments.

As a follower of Jesus, I have found myself consistently bothered by any language or practice which seems to have at its root a sort of religious legalism. (By “legalism,” I mean portraying in black or white actions that are in reality gray.) Whether or not Mr. Holloway subscribes to a form of legalism, it is precisely this sort of discomfort which a reading of his remarks elicited from me, and it is that which I wish to address.

First, Mr. Holloway seems convinced that legislation prohibiting alcohol sales will in some way either compel the citizens of Ruston to conform to the tradition of attributing to Sunday a special, but arbitrary, significance, or that it will prevent alcohol abuse. I argue that it will accomplish neither.

Concerning the former, it seems hardly appropriate to use the force of law to deny access on a single day to that which is perfectly legal on the six other days. I assume that Mr. Holloway would not suggest we reinstate Prohibition. In the case that the majority of citizens in Ruston wished to observe a special reverence for Sunday, it seems curious to me that a law should be necessary to enforce it. In the case that most citizens do not attribute a special significance to that particular day, the injustice of such a law seems greatly magnified, given that it forces on the whole the religious convictions of the minority. Such laws succeed, but only in falsely construing Christianity as a religion in which there is greater emphasis on religious tradition than on faith in Jesus. No law will ever change the heart, and people forced to conform to aspects of a religion to which they do not adhere naturally do not think favorably of it. One cannot legislate others into having reverence for God (not that reverence for God is dependent on abstaining from alcohol).

Secondly, it is not at all clear that a law prohibiting alcohol sales on Sunday will in any way deter people from consuming it, much in the way that laws prohibiting firearms at schools do nothing to prevent shootings. While I appreciate Mr. Holloway’s concern in wishing to prevent alcohol-related deaths, I see no reason to think the old law was successful in accomplishing this; but even if it were, it does not occur to me why dying from drunk driving on Sunday is somehow worse than suffering the same fate on Friday. Stockpiling enough alcohol to last one through Sunday seems an easy enough task, but I’ve known people to drive as far as Athens to acquire it. People who wish to consume alcohol, will, and if it is neither illegal nor sinful to consume (not abuse) alcohol on other days, I see no good reason whatever to attempt to prevent the practice through legislation.

My last and greatest concern is that the old law has the potential to misconstrue Christianity. Jesus was relentless in condemning the legalism of the Pharisees, pointing out that they cleaned the outside of the “cup” but ignored the inside. Perhaps my failure to understand the difference between Pharisaical legalism and laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday is simply due to my being obtuse.

Mr. Holloway places a special emphasis on Sunday, calling it the “Lord’s Day,” and asking Christians to “choose to use [our] money wisely on Sundays.” I would like to go even further and encourage Christians to use their money and their judgment wisely every day. Is not every day the “Lord’s Day?”

“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” – Collossians 2:20-23

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Passing the Plate: A Good Idea?

As someone who values tithing, the tradition of “passing the plate” still always makes me uncomfortable. It is not that the two are necessarily contradictory, but it does seem to unnecessarily add social pressures to the act of giving to the church. Why should anyone see me give or not give when it is none of their business? On the subject of giving to the needy, Jesus commanded his disciples to “be careful not to do [their] ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them” and to “not let your left hand to know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be secret” (Matt 6:1-4). How does passing the plate, or any other form of giving that requires one to act publicly, comply with this?

I have heard that churches that pass the plate see an increase in income than those that do not. But is increased giving over other churches that use more passive methods really better if it is in any way compulsory? “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 8:7). If there is higher giving in churches that pass the plate (because they pass the plate), then it is for either of two reasons: 1.) people’s laziness has engulfed them to the extent that they will only give when the option is literally placed in their lap, in which case their main priority is not giving to the church, but appealing to their own laziness, or 2.) they give as a result of perceived social pressures. I spoke to someone yesterday who said that her father (a non-Christian) will give, but only if the plate comes to him, because he feels compelled to do so. The church should not want his money because he is hardly a “cheerful giver.” The intention of passing the plate might not be to compel people to give, but it is nevertheless perceived in such a way by those to whom the plate is passed.

I maintain that even with the use of checks or some other method, which may conceal the actual amount given, it is no one else’s business to observe whether one gives anything on a particular occasion or not. Even people who otherwise would not care cannot help noticing who does and does not contribute something to the plate. Why insist on making people do it publicly when there are alternatives?

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice of passing the plate, but even if the intent is not to pressure people, even subtly, to give by putting them “on the spot,” so-to-speak, it still seems inappropriate to me, given that we are commanded to give in secret and without compulsion. Provide people with a way to give that doesn’t require them to be seen by others.

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Zombies, Wine, and Chrisitian Music

(This post was not written by me: http://gungormusic.com/2011/11/zombies-wine-and-christian-music)

When you are in a touring band, there is a lot of time that is spent waiting. Waiting to board a plane, waiting for the bus to arrive at the venue, waiting for sound check…etc One of the many games that people in our band have implemented now and then to fill the waiting time is a little game we might call the “Christian or secular” game. Basically the game is simply playing a very short clip of music and having someone guess whether it is “Christian” or “secular” music. The person who is most accurate with his or her guesses is the winner.

This is surprisingly easy to do.

Especially when you talk about radio stations. It is easy for me to spot a Christian music radio station within about 3 seconds. Far before any Christian lingo is uttered to make it clear.

It’s weird. I’m always trying to figure out what it is that makes something sound like Christian music, because there’s definitely something… I’d love to get some of your thoughts about it. But for me (and I’m actually one of the better players of the game if I must say so myself), I find something very disingenuous about most Christian music. This is something I can simply feel at a gut level. If I hear a song, and I hear any sort of pretending or false emotion, that’s a good first indicator. I’m really not trying to throw mud here, I’m being honest at how I am good at this game. Christian music often has a sheen to it that other music doesn’t have. Some pop and country music has a similar sheen, but the Christian sheen is like a blander sheen somehow.

The vocals are always really hot in the mix because for Christian music, the words are the most important part. That’s kind of similar to country though as well, so you have to be careful there. Country has some of the same Nashville tones, players, and compression styles that Christian music has most of the time, but the twang is just a little deeper with the country side of things. There’s also a little more “humanness” or “soul” in Country to my ears.

The false emotion that I’m talking about might be familiar to some of you. There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus. And it’s really not even the style or the lyric that is the problem to me, it’s the fact that I don’t believe that the singer is feeling the kind of emotions in singing that lyric that would lead to that style of singing. It’s that same kind of creep out that you feel when somebody gives a really loud fake laugh. It’s just weird and uncomfortable feeling.

An example of this would be a song that somebody sent us recently of an older song of mine called “Wrap Me In Your Arms.” The lyric is a very intimate and soft sort of lyric. “Take me to that place where I can be with you, you can make me like you…etc” This person did a hardcore/screamo version of this song. Not just like getting a little loud, I mean full out death metal sounding, demon-voiced screaming. It was so freaking weird mostly because it seemed so disingenuous. You would never speak such gentle words to someone you loved by screaming in their face like you were possessed by Beelzebub. That’s an extreme example, but it’s very typical of the basic premise of most Christian music to me, which is–use whatever musical style you wish as a medium to communicate your message. It’s not about the art, it’s about the message. So use whatever tools and mediums you have at your fingertips to do so. If you want to reach emo kids, then sing emo music but with Jesus language. The problem with this is that emo music is not simply reducible to certain sounding tones and chords. There are emotions and attitudes of different genres of music that are the soul of the music. You can’t remove the anger from screamo and have it still be screamo. It’s the soul of that music, whether that soul is good or evil is not the point, simply that it is the soul. So when you remove the soul from music and transplant the body parts (chord changes, instrumentation, dress, lights, and everything but the soul…) and parade it around with some more “positive” lyrics posing as Christian music, then what you have is a musical zombie.

It looks like a human.. It eats like a human… It still walks and makes noise and resembles a human, but it’s not. It’s a zombie. It has no soul. It just uses it’s human body for its own purposes.

This is what I initially feel when I play the “Christian or secular” game. I look into its eyes, and I perceive whether the thing has a soul or not. And 9 times out of ten, I can do it very quickly and efficiently.

Why is this like this? I don’t know, and it makes me very sad. I don’t hate all Christian music. There are a few artists that I know in the Christian industry that are really trying to transcend the inherent limitations and zombying effect of the industry. But the industry as a whole is broken, friends. We call it Christian, but it’s certainly not based in Christianity. It is based on marketing. That’s it. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be true.

Example:

We just were part of one of the biggest tours of the fall in the Christian music industry. To my knowledge, every night but one night was sold out, and that’s because they added a second show in the same city kind of last minute. The interesting thing about this tour was that it was pretty much in all mainstream venues. Clubs, theatres…etc It was awesome.

But you know what made me sad? That empty bar every night.

Even though these shows were all sold out, I would imagine that the bartenders at all those clubs were like “oh man, Christian night… that means no tips for me.”

Sometimes the promoters would just buy out the bar so there wouldn’t be any liquor sales at all.
I’m not saying that I wished that everybody was getting hammered at the show… But for crying out loud, buy one beer. Or heck, if you don’t drink beer, buy a Coke.

But here’s what is super weird about this situation. I bet you if you took all of those Christians that came to the shows and split them up and had them go to “secular” shows, A LOT of them would have bought a drink. It’s the fact that there is this assumption among all of the Christians there that having a drink at a Christian event is sort of a questionable thing to do.

Why is this?

It’s certainly not because of the Bible. Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine at a wedding. And not just any wine. The kind of wine that made people think they saved the very best wine until the end. And you preachers who pervert the scriptures with your own extremely biased interpretations, here’s a news flash, people at parties don’t think the best wine is non-alcoholic grape juice. Religious people didn’t call Jesus “a glutton and a drunkard” because he ate communion loafers and grape juice all of the time.

Sheesh. It’s just so ridiculous to me.

And here’s the thing. I don’t even drink very much. I’ve never really been drunk, and I’m not advocating that people should just be foolish with their drinking or eating habits. But for crying out loud, this whole spiritualizing of alcohol being an inherently bad thing is so annoying. It’s mostly just an American thing, by the way (as well as places where America has exported these ideas with our missionaries). If you go most other places in the world, or anywhere else in history for that matter, Christians drink alcohol. Ever heard of a little thing called Communion? You know, the bread and the wine? That’s a pretty big deal in Christianity. Jesus didn’t pour out a cup of grape juice.

Man alive.

You know what the alcohol thing is based on? You ready for this? You sure?

Money.

Old people are the people that give the most money to Christian organizations like religious media outlets. And old people grew up in a time where alcohol was seen as a taboo social reality. Just like dancing or playing cards or “mixed bathing” (swimming). It’s based in an era of prohibition. These are old American values that we’re dealing with, not Christian values. It’s the old American people that have money that the Christian organizations do not want to offend. So they create an environment where drinking is seen as evil. If you want to start a television ministry, you can’t have it known to your donors that your staff likes to go out for drinks after work. So you implement rules for them. Do you know how common this is? I have friends that have lost their jobs over crap like this.

Do you see the irony of this? If you had been a disciple of Jesus and drank some of the wine of his first recorded miracle with him, you would be fired from a lot of the churches in this country. Shame on us.

So the point? (I haven’t forgotten) The point is that the industry that labels things as Christian and sells them to you has far more to do with marketing then Christianity. They are marketing to the mixed bag of values that has created the Evangelical Christian subculture. It’s a mix of some historically Christian values, some American values, and a whole lot of cultural boundary markers that set “us” apart from “them.” This sort of system makes us feel safe and right, and it makes some of its gatekeepers very wealthy and powerful.

The effect is then the filtering down of this subculture to people that don’t necessarily want to think through the viability of every one of these boundary markers, but in their simple desire to belong to what they consider the good guys, they acquiesce to the rules handed to them. At least in public. As the joke goes, why do you take two Baptists with you when you go fishing? Because if you only bring one, he’ll drink all your beer.

Here are some of the actual effects of this subculture though.

1. It makes us dishonest

When the foundation of the market and music you are trying to make is pretense, it’s very hard to be honest and successful. There is an unspoken assumption from most of us that we really want the people on the stage or on the book or album cover or on the radio need to have it together more than we do. Because we are messed up, we need them to be a sort of savior and hope for us. The result of this is that it’s often the people who are really good at pretending that they have it all together that make it to the stage and the book or album cover and the radio stations.

So Christians that would normally buy a beer don’t because they are in the Christian concert. Christian bands that smoke (which a lot of them if not most of them do, including some of my players) have to duck into back alleys as to not offend anybody. I think smoking is stupid. But I think it’s stupid because it smells bad and it kills you. I don’t use my religion to judge other people about it.

Rather than just being honest about where we are at and what we all struggle with though, we look to our gatekeepers to believe and live morally vicariously for us. That way we feel better about being part of the system of good, and the moral brokenness in our own lives is repressed like the fear of a child with her security blanket.

This sort of dishonesty is at the heart of much of what I and so many others find so repulsive about much of modern American Christendom

2. It kills creativity

I had a conversation with John Mark McMillan last night about something that I think is very interesting. By the way, I consider John Mark to be one of the ones I consider to be making a valiant effort in transcending some of these imposed limitations in this industry. But he mentioned to me how strange it is that people keep calling his new album “creative.” That word is actually one of the most used words when people describe our music as well. In fact, I bet some of you reading this have described as such. Here’s the weird thing about this…
Why do you find it necessary to say that?

Do you notice that nobody really uses that word about other types of music? I just was perusing some Itunes user reviews to see if this holds up. I checked John Mark and mine, and “creativity” is very often found. But it’s not often found in reviews of bands like Sigur Ros, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens or other artists who are certainly very “creative.”

Nobody goes to an art gallery and says, “boy, that painting is so creative.” Why? Because it’s art! Of course it’s creative! Why else would it be there? It’s very nature is creativity. Or like Lisa pointed out to me today, “that would be like saying, I love your house, it’s so architectural.”

But when someone in the Christian industry actually takes their art seriously, everybody is like “holy crap, listen to how creative it is!”
It’s like a person that’s been living among zombies for years seeing an actual human being and exclaiming, “wow, look at how clean her face is! She doesn’t even have any blood on it or anything!”

I’m not slamming the people that describe our music as creative. I appreciate the kindness that’s behind the words, but it does make me sad that the idea of creativity is so foreign to our industry that we have to actually point it out when someone actually sees the art as art and not zombie propaganda. Ok, that might have been a little much. But I like the sentence so I’ll leave it.

So that’s why I’m good at the Christian or secular game. I’ve seen behind the curtain, and I know the little man that’s pulling the levers, and he’s not impressive. I recognize his voice at this point, and it’s all over religious media.

Why am I writing this blog?

Some of you have commented in the past when I’ve been critical of the Christian music industry that I’m being hypocritical by still being a part of it. I don’t see it that way. I actually love a lot of the individual people in the industry. There really are some amazing people in it, many of who share my weariness about the way things have been. And I also love you guys. I love our fans. I love the people that we get to meet and I love being able to get our music to them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best to purify the systems that we are part of. I just want to be honest about what I see and call us to find better ways of doing things.

Two quick recommendations and I’ll stop this blog that has already gone on WAY too long:

Consumers: I would suggest that you actively support those artists that you love that the industry hasn’t necessarily bought into. The cards are stacked against people that actually want to do honest creative art in this industry, and the people that try really need your direct help and support to have any chance. For us, we’ve had one guy for instance that has been sending us a check every month for years because he appreciates what we are trying to do. Do you know how much that one family has helped us stay encouraged? Even if it’s not a huge amount of money or anything, just having people behind you in this sort of battle is really helpful.

Industry people: Stop being so afraid. I know you want things to be different than they are as well. I know you want creativity to be valued as much as “Becky” analysis, but we need some of you to have some balls and make some decisions based on that value system. Yes money matters. But so does beauty. Art actually makes a difference in the world. Have the courage to actually make decisions on values and not simply on past numbers and trends. And for crying out loud, if it really is good, the numbers will follow eventually anyway.

Artists: Take heart. I think the tides may be turning. The recent attention and success of our band speaks to it I think. People are growing weary of the status quo. The machine and its sheen have seen its strongest days. So I encourage you as well to not be afraid. Your art is worth making even if the industry around you isn’t quite ready for it yet. Make it and let them catch up with you. Your art is sacred. Be honest. Be brave. And don’t let the markets or the industry be the final filter on your art, let your heart do that. Ok that’s all from me tonight.

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Five Common Fallacious Arguments Against Theism

In the course of my discussions with atheists, and in hearing debates on the subject, I have found that there are a number of recurring arguments wielded against theism which are either logically fallacious or irrelevant. That is not to say that all arguments against theism are formally illogical, but many people repeat illegitimate objections without thinking through them; and while this is certainly as true of theists as it is of atheists, I want to address some of the more common objections made against theism. Though some of these objections are prevalent even among scholars, these arguments are especially common at the popular level. Note that this post is not intended to show that atheism is false, but merely to point out the fallacious nature of certain arguments given in its favor.

1.) Who made God?

This is a question very commonly asked of theists, and it is often regarded as somewhat of a “trump card.” However, this question merely demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of explanation.

In order for an explanation to be the best explanation, one need not have an explanation of the explanation. For instance, suppose some archaeologists unearth a bunch of primitive tools, pots, jewelry, etc, and they decide that the best explanation is that they have uncovered a village of some long-lost tribe that no one ever knew existed. Does it then follow that in order for the archaeologists to say that a lost tribe is the best explanation for their findings they must be able to explain the tribe (where they came from, who they were, etc)? Certainly not. If, in order to gain knowledge, one had to explain everything, it would clearly be impossible to learn anything.

This question is often posed in the context of the Cosmological Argument, which states:

1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2.) The universe began to exist.

3.) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.

Atheists very often misconstrue the first premise to say “Everything has a cause,” subsequently asking, “what caused God?” However, aside from the apparent caricature of the argument, there are several problems with this. First, if the intent is to attack the concept of God’s eternality, then an atheist is forced to accept one of the following: that the universe either came into being, uncaused, out of nothing, or that it is eternal. The former is logically absurd, since it violates one of the most basic axioms in metaphysics, which is ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”); The latter espouses the very thing being attacked: namely, the concept of eternality (though it is also in conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the great body of evidence in favor of the “Big Bang” theory).

Much more could be said on the nature of this argument, but a full treatment of the Cosmological Argument and its objections is outside the scope of this post.

2.) Belief in God is a result of one’s environment.

Often, theists or Christians are told that their beliefs are the result of having been brought up in a Christian home, or in an environment conducive to apprehending a certain set of beliefs (i.e. Living in the “Bible Belt”), and that if they had been born somewhere else (India, for instance) then they might be Hindu or Muslim. This is certainly true. The problem, however, is that in making this statement, the implication that theism is therefore false is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy, which is attempting to explain away a particular view by showing how the view originated. It’s true that people often come to believe certain things as a direct result of their culture or home environment, but that fact has absolutely nothing to do with whether those beliefs are true or false.

3.) There is no evidence for the existence of God.

I strongly disagree with this assertion, but let us assume that there is no evidence for God. Among forensic scientists it is virtually an axiom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. For instance, in a court of law, the fact that there are no fingerprints of the butler on the knife is not itself evidence that the butler did not commit the murder. In order to show that the butler is not the murderer, the defense would need to provide some positive evidence that he is in fact innocent (an alibi). But the mere absence of convicting evidence is not evidence that the butler did not commit the murder.

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence when two conditions are met:

1.) Certain evidence of a particular entity would be expected.

2.) The field in which that evidence would be found has been thoroughly surveyed and found lacking.

An example: Sitting in class, I would have good reason to suspect that because I see no elephant in the room, there is no elephant in the room. However, the fact that I see no flea in the room is not a justifiable reason for believing that there are in fact no fleas in the room. The difference is that in the first case we would expect to have evidence of the elephant, but in the second case we would not expect to have evidence of the flea. What kind of evidence would we expect to see in the case of God? No one can presume to know. This is precisely why atheism is not a justified “default” position, since even if there were no evidence for God it would not justify a belief that God does not exist.

4.) Religious belief has been the source of much violence and evil.

This is obviously true. One could also make the case that the same is true of atheistic belief, but the fact is that the implications of a belief are completely irrelevant in regards to whether that belief is true or false. I would maintain that the horrors committed by Christians in the past, as in the Crusades or the Inquisition, were committed in spite of Christianity, not because of it, but even if were true that Christianity sanctioned such things, it would not follow that Christianity is therefore false. To paraphrase Augustine, one should “never judge a philosophy by its abuse.”

5.) There are false religions, therefore all religions are false.

This fallacious argument is not one typically articulated in this fashion, but it is one frequently implied. Atheists often like to point to the most extreme, the most ridiculous, and the most absurd religions and its followers and imply that all religion is essentially the same. I’m thinking of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous,” for instance. While such cases make very easy targets (and thus very appealing targets), it is as irresponsible to lump all religious beliefs into one undifferentiated category called “Religion” and attack it as one, given the diversity of religious claims, as it would be to lump all scientists into a category called “Science” and attack it. That is, unless one is a materialist, in which case he may attack all claims of the supernatural outright as a result of his own religious presuppositions.

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“Good” Christians

What does it mean to be a “good Christian?” This is a phrase I occasionally hear in the south, and every time it makes me cringe just a little because it isn’t really clear to me just what it actually means. It seems most often used when someone is publicly declaring why they aren’t going to take part in a particular bad action (“…because I’m a good Christian”). But this seems silly. Why declare that you’re not going to do something you know to be wrong? Why not just silently refrain from doing it? Why distinguish yourself as a “good Christian” as opposed to….the other kind? I suppose the reason this irritates me so much is that it seems to be part of a culture that makes a special effort to project a certain image: that of a “good” person. But the irony of that endeavor is that if one does what they know to be right, their actions will speak for them and they need not bother trying to project an embellished facade.

Besides, one whose motivation for doing good is rooted in a concern for their own image is really no good at all, “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).” The matter of importance is not the condition of our reputation but that of our heart, and attempts to manufacture our reputation without addressing the condition of our heart is like treating the symptoms before the actual disease. If one’s heart is in Christ, he will, by God’s grace, be compelled to do the good works it is impossible for him to do otherwise. “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:26).” Why? Because a true faith in Jesus manifests good works as a result. In this sense, the sense in which the Holy Spirit is at work in us, all Christians are “good,” not by anything wrought of our own hands, but we are made good by the Perfection of the One whom we serve, and the use of the term is, at best, an unnecessary redundancy.

I suppose, however, one must first ask what it means to be a Christian. After all, we’ve seen those with blatantly partitioned lives, who seem to have worked switching between their “good Christian” act and their “bad” act into a science; And if Christianity is based on adhering to a set of rules, then it seems to me that the term “good Christian” is perfectly acceptable, given that some people are better rule-followers than others.

But adhering to a set of rules isn’t Christianity at all: it is Islam (“To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath Allah promised forgiveness and a great reward,” Surah 5:9). By contrast, Paul writes to the church in Galatia: “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Galatians 2:16).” It seems very much the case that many people touting the Christian label, or even the coveted “good Christian” label, are in the practical outworking of their faith much more suitable followers of Allah than of Jesus, trying to check all the appropriate boxes on an exam for entry into heaven we’ve all already failed. The term “good Christian” reeks pungently of legalism, and it comes across to me as an attempt to let others know: “I do bad things, but I’m still a good person (whatever that means); And good people go to heaven.” If good people go to heaven, if good people even exist (Psalm 14:3), then I’ve got the wrong Bible.

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