Scientific Extremism on Display — And the Prize Goes To . . .

The edifice of modern science is built upon a worldview of naturalistic materialism as a methodological assumption. This controversy shows that the commitment of many scientists goes far beyond methodological naturalism — their commitment is to naturalistic materialism as a fundamental and non-negotiable worldview.

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Why is the Muslim World So Resistant to the Gospel?

The future shape of the world appears to be a worldview competition between Christianity, Islam, and Western Secularism. For Christians, both of these worldviews represent real and lasting challenges to evangelism. Neither of these is a particularly new challenge, and the Christian encounter with Islam is now over a millennium in duration.

Writing over thirty years ago, when most American evangelicals had little knowledge of Islam, missiologist J. Herbert Kane of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outlined six reasons why the evangelization of the Muslim world has been so difficult. His explanation of “Why the Muslim Soil is So Barren” remains both instructive and important.

1. Islam is Younger than Christianity

Having borrowed from both Judaism and Christianity, Islam “has just enough Christianity in it to inoculate it against the real thing.” As with Mormonism, Muslims claim a later revelation that corrects and supersedes the Bible. This represents a very real challenge to the Christian, who will base the argument for the Gospel on the biblical revelation.

2. Islam Denies the Deity and the Death of Christ

Islam not only denies the deity of Christ, it finds the idea abhorrent. “If a missionary but mentions the deity of Christ the fanatical Muslim is likely to spit on his shadow to show his utter contempt for such a blasphemous suggestion.” Furthermore, the Qur’an denies that Christ actually died on the cross, thus taking away the very act of our atonement. “There appears to be no way around these two obstacles,” Kane lamented. “The Christian missionary can find many points of similarity between Christianity and Islam, and certainly he will want to make full use of these; but sooner or later he must come to the central theme of the gospel — the cross. At that point he runs into a stone wall. He can remove many offending things, but he can never do away with the offense of the cross. That and the deity of Christ are hurdles that can never be removed.”

3. Islam’s Treatment of Defectors

“All religions, including the broadest of them — Hinduism — look with disfavor on the devotee who changes his religion,” Kane advised. “But it remained for Islam to devise the Law of Apostasy, which permits the community to kill the adherent who defects from the faith.”

For Islam, “conversion is a one-way street.” Even when death is not a real threat, losing the bonds of community and family are huge costs.

4. The Solidarity of Muslim Society

Muslim societies are a solidarity, with religion, politics, economics, and personal life all accountable to Islam as a total way of life. Even where Muslims are not in a majority, such as in Western nations, they often concentrate in specific areas or communities where this solidarity can be approximated.

Under such an arrangement, efforts by Christians to evangelize meet a unified resistance, and a decision to leave Islam can be construed as an unpatriotic act, tantamount to rejecting one’s nation and people.

5. The Public Practice of Religion

Often overlooked by many Christians is the fact that a faithful Muslim demonstrates that faithfulness in a public pattern of prayers and observances. A convert who ceases these observances becomes immediately evident. This system of public prayer and ritual represents a powerful support for Islam and a powerful deterrent to conversion to any other belief system.

6. The Memory of the Crusades

As Kane explains, “To Christians in the West the Crusades were a bad dream, of which we have only the faintest recollection; but to the Arabs they are the greatest proof of the Christian hatred for Islam.” Christians bear the burden of a long and intensely bitter Muslim memory. Though atrocities were common on both sides, the atrocities committed by Christians were uniquely a repudiation of central Christian teachings.

In the mind of many Muslims, the Crusades feel like a living memory. To many within the Islamic world, Christians remain Crusaders, and evangelism is just another way of continuing the crusading mission.

Professor Kane’s breakdown of these obstacles is not only interesting and helpful, it also serves as a reminder that these issues are hardly new. At the same time, Christians must evangelize, no matter the obstacles to Christian witness.

Christians must remember that the Holy Spirit can break down the greatest wall of resistance and the Word of God is, as He says, like a hammer that shatters a rock. Dr. Kane’s arguments help us to understand the challenge, but were not meant to suppress evangelism. To the contrary, he wanted the church to be better informed as we fulfill the command of Christ.

Rinse Not the Prose: Christopher Hitchens on the King James Version

Why would an ardent atheist care about translations of the Bible, and why would Christians be concerned with what an atheist would think? These are rather obvious questions, especially when the atheist is Christopher Hitchens, one of the most influential of the New Atheists.

Nevertheless, Hitchens devoted his column in the May 2011 edition of Vanity Fair to the King James Version of the Bible, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.

As always, Hitchens is interesting and provocative. He places the history of the Authorized Version (the name by which the British normally refer to the King James Version) in its political context in the early years of the Stuart dynasty and rightly explains that the interest of King James I in the project was to “bind the majesty of the King to his devout people.” He then offers anecdotal observations of the KJV text, correctly attributing its tone and tenor to the earlier work of William Tyndale, as well as to the unusually gifted committee of translation.

Hitchens is a man of letters, and as such, he takes matters of language with urgent seriousness. He points to the King James Version as a crucial repository of our common civilizational knowledge. As he sees it, “A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one.” It is very hard to argue with that warning.

Hitchens is also an avowed enemy of banality, which means that he has little literary respect for modern translations that lack literary and linguistic taste and thus pander to mere popular taste. The King James Version translates 1 Corinthians 13:7 to read: “[Love] Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” But the Good News Bible translates it as: “Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.”

As Hitchens states:

This doesn’t read at all like the outcome of a struggle to discern the essential meaning of what is perhaps our most numinous word. It more resembles a smiley-face Dale Carnegie reassurance. And, as with everything else that’s designed to be instant, modern, and “accessible,” it goes out of date (and out of time) faster than Wisconsin cheddar.

He also has little use for attempts to render the text as gender-neutral. He asserts that “to suggest that Saint Paul, of all people, was gender-neutral is to re-write the history as well as to rinse out the prose.”

Along the way, Hitchens takes legitimate shots at modern marketing efforts to commercialize the Bible and sell some translation or edition to virtually every niche market. Of course, as an atheist, he expresses less sympathy with the Reformation conviction that the Bible should be available to everyone in the vernacular of the language. He does offer some interesting insights into the King James Version and the larger issue of Bible translation.

His admonition that translations should not “rinse out the prose” is well stated and profoundly appropriate. Even an atheist can offer good advice on literary matters, and Hitchens is a writer of great ability.

Since the article’s publication, several observers have noted Hitchens’ comments on faulty modern translations and gender-neutral approaches. His points are well worth noting.

But the more interesting aspect of this article to note is this: Christopher Hitchens, one of the world’s most ardent and outspoken atheists and a man in the fight for his life against cancer, is reading the Bible. This is at least the second article on the Bible that he has written of late. I note this with a sense of hope.

I know you will join me in praying that, in reading the Bible, Mr. Hitchens will find more than he might be looking for. Rinse not the prose of its message.

This Priest Faces Mecca? A Parable of Confusion

Rev. Steve Lawler has attracted the attention of the national media because this Episcopal priest chose a very odd way to observe Lent. He decided to “adopt the rituals of Islam” for the forty day season observed by many liturgical denominations, including the Episcopal Church.

As reported in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Lawler decided to practice as a Muslim for the forty days as a part of his “Giving Up Church for Lent” emphasis at St. Stephen’s Church. The closer you look at this story, the more it appears that Rev. Lawler “gave up church” some time ago.

According to the press reports, the priest began to perform Muslim prayer rituals, facing toward Mecca and praying five times a day. He prayed to Allah, read the Qur’an, and adopted Islamic dietary restrictions.

He also got in trouble with his bishop. “He can’t be both a Christian and a Muslim,” said Bishop George Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. The bishop continued: “If he chooses to practice as Muslim, then he would, by default, give up his Christian identity and priesthood in the church.” The bishop also told the public that his priest had a responsibility “to exercise Christianity and to do it with clarity and not with ways that are confusing.”

It is refreshing to see that kind of conviction from a mainline Protestant church leader. But, after all, he had a priest who was practicing a different religion. Sort of.

What Rev. Lawler really represents is the postmodern spirituality that masquerades as authentic belief. This becomes clear when the report reveals that the priest did not declare the oneness of Allah nor acknowledge Muhammad as God’s prophet. These just happen to be the first of Islam’s Five Pillars.

So Rev. Lawler decided to deny the core beliefs of Islam, while claiming to be practicing the faith in order to learn about it. In so doing, he transformed himself into the perfect parable of postmodern confusion, emptying conviction of all content, picking and choosing beliefs and practices along the way. As his bishop rightly asserted, Lawler was “playing” with Islam.

At a deeper level, this betrays the kind of theological suicide mission that many liberal churches have adopted in recent years. The Bible could not be more clear in commanding Christians to avoid any confusion with non-Christian systems of belief.

As Paul instructed the Christians in Corinth:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? [2 Corinthians 6:14-16]

That is very strong language. Indeed, Christian worship cannot be mixed with non-Christian elements, nor can a Christian play around with the beliefs and practices of non-Christian religions without compromising faithfulness to Christ. This is a much more prevalent temptation now with the spiritual practices of Eastern religions, which some Christians attempt to blend in with Christian beliefs.

The news article states that Rev. Lawler joined the Episcopal Church because he wanted a theologically liberal denomination. Evidently, he just found out that even liberalism has some limits. A Christian minister who prays facing Mecca is not merely praying in a new direction. He is, whether he admits it or not, departing the Christian faith.

The Global Threat of Gendercide

Historian Niall Ferguson reminds us that Ernest Hemingway once penned a collection of short stories entitled Men Without Women. The stories are haunting, demonstrating the brutality that comes to men without the presence of women — and especially without the companionship of wives.

He recalls the Hemingway collection in order to underline what is at stake in the growing global threat of missing girls and women. The global gender gap in favor of males is a reversion of the natural pattern. How did it happen? By the widespread practice of aborting and killing baby girls — what is rightly called “gendercide.”

As Ferguson explains, “The mystery is partly explicable in terms of economics. In many Asian societies, girls are less well looked after than boys because they are economically undervalued.”

Years ago, economist Amartya Sen put the number of missing girls and women at 100 million worldwide. As Ferguson argues, that number is surely far larger now.

Consider the scale of the problem:

In China today, according to American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, there are about 123 male children for every 100 females up to the age of 4, a far higher imbalance than 50 years ago, when the figure was 106. In Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan, and Anhui provinces, baby boys outnumber baby girls by 30 percent or more. This means that by the time today’s Chinese newborns reach adulthood, there will be a chronic shortage of potential spouses. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one in five young men will be brideless. Within the age group 20 to 39, there will be 22 million more men than women. Imagine 10 cities the size of Houston populated exclusively by young males.

Ten cities the size of Houston? This staggers the imagination.

Ferguson warns that this gender imbalance has led in the past to outbreaks of expansionism and imperialism. Others have more directly warned of militarism and violence from China’s young men who have no prospects of marriage and a normal family life. These young men are described as China’s “broken branches.” There are millions of these young men in India, as well.

We must look beyond these warnings and see the even larger horror — the tragedy of young girls, aborted and murdered just because they are girls. This, among other vital reasons, is why even the earliest Christians understood abortion to be such a horrific evil. Given the reality of human sinfulness, we now compound abortion with infanticide and gendercide. Is this of interest only to historians and economists?

Doing Away with Hell? Part One

Current controversies raise this issue anew among American Christians and even among some evangelicals. Nevertheless, there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical. No doctrine stands alone.

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Will the Last Baptist at Baylor Please Turn Out the Lights?

Baylor University has been the news lately, because of the vote by the university’s regents to allow up to 25 percent of the board to be non-Baptists. The Executive Board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, meeting February 21-22, grilled Baylor leaders on this decision — taken without consultation with the convention.

In an odd but revealing twist, the regents basically told the BGCT that they did not consult with leaders there because they knew what the answer would be. After all, the BGCT voted overwhelmingly to reject a similar proposal from Houston Baptist University just last fall. “If we offended you, we apologize,” said regent Gary Elliston. Trust me on this — many were offended.

Now that Baylor has taken the action, it appears that Houston Baptist University intends to reconsider the issue as well. It has been years since the BGCT has been so interesting to watch — and the case can be made that the BGCT sowed the seeds for all of this when it allowed Baylor to escape its oversight through the election of the school’s governing board.

Nevertheless, none of these issues match the one hardly noted as a matter of concern. Now, given the political dissonance between the BGCT and Baylor on the one side, and SBC conservative leaders on the other, the natural expectation is probably that an argument is about to be made in order to score political points. That is not the case with this article. Those issues can await some future consideration. The most urgent issue in this case could be of equal concern in the most conservative of contexts.

The real issue of concern should be a matter that is really not political at all. In speaking to the BGCT Executive Board, Baylor regent chairman Dary Stone explained the central rationale for the regents’ decision. As reported by The Baptist Standard:

“Only 31 percent of our freshman class claim the Baptist label,” he added, noting the percentage of Baptist students has been declining about 2 percent a year and likely will drop to 20 percent within this decade.

We might offer many suggestions to explain why the percentage of Baptist students has been dropping at Baylor, and some of these would have to deal with theological and ideological controversies. But there are no doubt other reasons as well, having little to do with theology or worldview. These would include the rising cost of private education, the increasing diversity of the population, and the shift to an evangelical identity that is perceptibly less specifically Baptist. In one sense, the very success of a school in terms of academic reputation and expanding institutional reach can dilute the percentage of Baptist students at any school.

Mr. Ellison pledged that Baylor would forever remain “a Texas Baptist institution.” Well, I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, but I can cast ample doubt on the fulfillment of that pledge. If the percentage of Baptists in the student body reaches such perilously low levels — and is candidly expected to fall even more — the school will cease in any meaningful way to be a Baptist institution where it matters most.

Baylor has made its choice, but it will not be alone in facing this challenge. If Baptists are determined to retain their colleges and universities, they will have to show far greater resolve than in the past. They will have to make certain that their schools are the kind of schools that will attract Baptist students, earn the confidence of Baptist parents, and retain a clear accountability to Baptist churches. Otherwise, the Baptist label will mean little or nothing — merely a tip of the hat to ancient history.

Universalism as a Lure? The Emerging Case of Rob Bell

As is so often the case, most of us first learned of Rob Bell’s new book by means of Justin Taylor and his blog, “Between Two Worlds,” at the Gospel Coalition. Justin reminds me of the steady folks at the National Hurricane Center. He is able to advise of looming disaster with amazing calmness. That is why I took special notice of Justin’s stern warning: “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.”

Why would Justin feel the need to issue such a warning? He was writing about Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, due to be released on March 29 by HarperCollins.

The publisher’s statement about the book is clearly intended to provoke controversy:

Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Now, Rob Bell and others within the Emerging Church movement represent what can only be described as a new form of cultural Christianity. Bell plays with theology the way a cat plays with a mouse. His sermons, videos, books, and public relations are often more suggestive and subversive than clear. They are also artistically and aesthetically superior to most of what is to be found in the video section of your local Christian bookstore or on the Web.

Time is running out on the Emerging folks. They can play the game of suggestion for only so long. Eventually, the hard questions will be answered. Tragically, when the answers do come, as with the case of Brian McLaren, they appear as nothing more than a mildly updated form of Protestant liberalism.

The publicity surrounding Bell’s new book indicates that he is ready to answer one of the hardest questions — the question of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. With that question come the related questions of heaven, hell, judgment, and the fate of the unregenerate. The Bible answers these questions clearly enough, but few issues are as hard to reconcile with the modern or postmodern mind than this. Of course, it was hard to reconcile with the ancient mind as well. The singularity of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation run counter to the pluralistic bent of the human mind, but this is nothing less than the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation.

Universalism and the various inclusivisms are exactly what Justin Taylor suggests — distortions of the Gospel that deceive the people of God (and non-Christians as well).

But what if all this is just clever advertising? What if Rob Bell’s book turns out to be an affirmation of the truth? Did Justin jump the gun?

There is good reason to doubt this. The most powerful argument about the book comes in the form of a video offered by Rob Bell himself. In the video, he pulls no punches. In his clever and artistic way, ever so artfully presented, he affirms what can only be described as universalism.

We must await the release of the full book in order to know what Rob Bell is really saying, but his advance promotion for the book is already saying something, and it is not good. The material he has already put forth does demand and deserve attention.

The Emerging Church movement is known for its slick and sophisticated presentation. It wears irony and condescension as normal attire. Regardless of how Rob Bell’s book turns out, its promotion is the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.

The Gospel is too precious and important to be commodified in this manner. The questions he asks are too important to leave so tantalizingly unanswered. Universalism is a heresy, not a lure to use in order to sell books. This much we know, almost a month before the book is to be released.

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