Who’s Afraid of Noah’s Ark?

A proposal to build a theme park that would feature a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark has set off a controversy in Kentucky that is worth watching. Within days, the controversy had spread to the pages of The New York Times and USA Today.

So, who’s afraid of Noah’s Ark? Lots of folks, it seems, but the editors of the state’s two largest newspapers, in particular.

The “Ark Encounter” is a major project to be undertaken by a partnership led by Answers in Genesis, the group that built the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky — an attraction that has now recorded over a million visitors by some reports. The attraction, also to be built in Kentucky, is to include live animals and a 100-ft tower of Babel.

The partnership has applied for incentives under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act, and Governor Steve Beshear announced plans for the park at a news conference in the Kentucky State Capitol.

Then . . . the deluge.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville editorialized that the project would amount to “creationist tourism” that would embarrass the state by featuring “a fundamentalist view resting on biblical inerrancy [that] indirectly promotes a religious dogma.”

The editors asked, “Why stop with creationism? How about a Flat-Earth Museum? Or one devoted to the notion that the sun revolves around the Earth?”

An op-ed column in the same paper lamented with frustration the fact that the proposed theme park was just another reminder that “only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.”

Meanwhile, the state’s second-largest paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, declared: “Anyone who wants to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible has that right.” But, the paper added, the state would be embarrassed by appearing through its governor to embrace “such thinking.”

The paper reported that Daniel Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, called Gov. Beshear’s support of the project “embarrassing for the state.”

The editorial boards of the state’s two largest newspapers seem to be very embarrassed indeed. Gov. Beshear kept his comments fixed on economics: “The people of Kentucky didn’t elect me governor to debate religion,” he said. “They elected me governor to create jobs.”

The proposed theme park is expected to attract 1.6 million visitors in its first year, bringing a $250 million annual economic impact within five years.

The most interesting aspect of this controversy isn’t the proposed theme park, but the panic among the commonwealth’s self-appointed guardians of evolutionary theory.

So who’s afraid of Noah’s Ark? Now, we know.

The Retreat from Marriage — A Recipe for Disaster

For reasons that include all that we can learn from this report, and for many more that we know from the Scriptures and Christian wisdom, Christians know that the marginalization of marriage can only lead to unhappiness, unhealthiness, and the unraveling of human relationships.

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Empire or Cow Town? National Geographic Looks at the Kingdom of David and Solomon

Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein argues that the kingdom of David and Solomon is a greatly embellished biblical fiction. Jerusalem, he argues, was a cow town, a “hill country village.” David was an insurrectionist and bandit whose followers were not a mighty army, but “500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting.”

All this is reported in the cover story of the December 2010 edition of National Geographic magazine. That magazine, you will remember, made its own headlines just a few years ago with the claim of a “Jesus family tomb” which was supposed to cast doubt upon the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That “discovery,” by the way, did not stand up to close investigation.

Now, the magazine wades again into contested and controversial territory in its cover story “The Search for King David.” At least one strand of the article reaches back to 2005, when archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered the palace of King David. More recent developments include the discovery by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of Judean ruins in the Elah Valley, which is where the Bible records that David slew Goliath. Add to this the discovery of what may well be a large copper-smelting facility in Jordan by American archaeologist Thomas Levy. All of these discoveries would add much to the case against those who claim that these events did not happen or were greatly embellished.

“In no other part of the world does archaeology so closely resemble a contact sport,” explains National Geographic. The claims and counter-claims of archaeologists are used to make arguments for and against the truthfulness and authority of the Bible, for and against the validity of Jewish claims to the land, and for and against any number of related controversies — all of them heated and potentially explosive.

The National Geographic article is both interesting and inconclusive. It leaves most of the big questions raised but unanswered. Significantly, the magazine does undermine the case for the “biblical minimalism” school of archaeology that would claim David and Solomon as “simply fictitious characters.”

Nevertheless, Christian readers of the magazine should note a couple of key observations. First, this cover story documents the fact that archaeology is not an exact science and that the discipline is heavily influenced by ideological interests. Claims and counter-claims often have as much or more to do with those contemporary agendas than with the study of ancient civilizations.

Second, Christians should always remember that the truthfulness and authority of the Bible are not based upon any authority external to the Bible itself. There is no external evidence required to “prove” the Bible’s truthfulness. It stands on its own claim to be the Word of God. Archaeology may sell magazines and make for interesting reading, but it cannot prove nor disprove the Bible.

Help from Hindu Quarters — The New York Times on “Take Back Yoga”

In Sunday’s edition of The New York Times — the front page, no less — reporter Paul Vitello writes about “a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga.” Well, welcome to my world. My last few weeks have been heavy into “fierce debate” and light on “the gentle world” part. It all started when I was asked to answer a practical pastoral question: Should Christians Practice Yoga? My answer was the answer long offered by those committed to orthodox biblical Christianity — No.

There is nothing wrong with stretching exercises, and Christians are called to meditate upon the Word of God, but the practices of Yoga, both historic and current, are not about mere stretching. I will not repeat the argument here, but you can read my essay for yourself. After that, came the deluge. After a major story by the Associated Press and coverage in the mainstream media, I found myself (and my poor inbox) flooded with angry, vitriolic, confused, and even threatening emails. I did not seek to fuel the national debate, since I was trying to advise Christian believers, not attempting to launch a social crusade against Yoga.

Along the way, something really interesting happened. I started getting emails of a different sort, and many came from India. Central to my argument was the fact that Yoga is inseparable from Hinduism. I was nonetheless a bit startled to receive, for example, an email from a teenager in India thanking me for my “heroic” act of recognizing that Yoga is historically and essentially Hindu. After coverage in the Indian press, my exhausted inbox received many similar messages.

Stefanie Syman deserves credit for raising the issue of the American commercialization of Yoga in her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. But now The New York Times reports on a movement called “Take Back Yoga” that seeks to reassert the Hindu roots of Yoga. As Paul Vitello reports, the group is “mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.”

Before diving into the terms of the debate within the world of Yoga, Vitello briefly juxtaposes me with New Age guru Deepak Chopra. Interestingly, Vitello cites Professor Loriliai Biernacki of the University of Colorado, who points to a range of spiritual practices and beliefs rooted in Hinduism but increasingly common in American today, including reincarnation, meditation, karma, and even cremation. “All these ideas are Hindu in origin, and they are spreading,” she told the paper. “But they are doing it in a way that leaves behind the proper name, the box that classifies them as ‘Hinduism.'”

I take that as a vindication of my argument from an unexpected source. I am not so deluded as to think it will end the debate. I just sent a warning to my inbox.

Confessionalism: The Past Meets the Future in Georgia

Well, it looks like Georgia Baptists had a debate worth having. Associated Baptist Press reports that the Georgia Baptist Convention voted to separate itself from a church that has called a woman to serve as co-pastor. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the recommendation that the convention oust the church, but the debate must have been interesting.

Meeting November 15-16 at Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church, the GBC took the action in keeping with its adoption of the Baptist Faith & Message as its confessional basis. That confession of faith, adopted as revised by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, states: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

The church, Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, is one of the most venerable congregations in the state convention. For decades, it was the very epitome of the GBC establishment. Louis Newton (1892-1986), who served as president of both the GBC and the SBC, served for decades as the congregation’s pastor, beginning in 1929. Now, the church is considered no longer in fellowship with the GBC on the basis of its violation of the confession of faith. The recommendation to remove the church came from the GBC Executive Committee.

The debate, as reported in the press, got to the most basic and urgent issues. Michael Ruffin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, argued that the GBC was practicing “selective creedal application” of the Baptist Faith & Message. In his words:

There are many, many, many more provisions in the Baptist Faith and Message . . . . I don’t want the GBC to become even more creedal in its application of the Baptist Faith and Message than it has on this one score. We really should consider the arbitrariness of such an application. I think we also ought to consider the possibility that if we get serious about holding every Georgia Baptist Convention church accountable to every line in the Baptist Faith and Message as we are this one, we’ll soon have no churches left.

It appears that Michael Ruffin is right. This is an example of selective creedal application. The GBC removed another church, First Baptist Church of Decatur, for the very same reason just last year. The issue of a woman serving as pastor has been the only issue on which the GBC has taken such an action in recent years.

But, is selective creedal application wrong? The answer to that has to be both yes and no. No denominational body is equipped to deal with every issue in every meeting. The issue of a woman serving as pastor is a public statement that presented the GBC with an unavoidable decision. It would either stand by its own confession of faith, or it would, in effect, decide to abandon its own confessional identity.

Dr. Ruffin was honest in arguing that even as the GBC was undertaking a “selective creedal application” of the Baptist Faith & Message, he did not want the convention “to become even more creedal in its application of the Baptist Faith & Message than it has on this one score.” His argument is well recognized as stating the case against any regulative application of the confession of faith. His argument did not carry the day, nor should it have, but he presented his argument with consistency and honesty.

The truth is that denominational bodies will have to be more expansive in applying their own confessions of faith, or they will inevitably find themselves to have become an amalgamation of churches that are no longer standing together in common beliefs and doctrines. That would be a tragic abdication of responsibility.

The reality is that even greater challenges are certain to come. Doctrinal deviation is a real and present danger, as Southern Baptists have learned over the past half century and more. The future will require all Christians, Baptists included, to be more clear about our beliefs and common confession, or we will lose our theological integrity and Gospel faithfulness.

The application of confessional accountability undertaken by the Georgia Baptist Convention this week is a reminder of how Baptists hammered out their understanding of confessionalism in times past — and a sign of things even more difficult sure to come.

On Exorcism and Exorcists: An Evangelical View

We should respect the power of the Devil and his demons, but never fear them. We do not need a rite of exorcism, only the name of Jesus. We are not given a priesthood of exorcists — for every believer is armed with the full promise of the Gospel, united with Christ by faith, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

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The Morning After — What Does it All Mean?

Evangelicals tend to swing between extremes when it comes to politics and elections. We are too easily elated and too readily depressed. Make no mistake. The election results of 2010 will lead to big changes in Washington and far beyond. That in itself is good news. But all this must be put in a truly Christian context.

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Hauerwas — How Real is America’s Christianity?

Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University’s Divinity School is a man who enjoys probing questions and has a habit of irritating the faithful. In a recent edition of The Guardian, London’s famed newspaper of record for the political Left, Hauerwas assured Britons that, contrary to popular reports, America is not so religious. As a matter of fact, he argues that America is actually more secular than Great Britain.

Now, that runs counter to just about all evidence and common sense. Sociological studies indicate that Americans report far higher rates of belief in God and identification with Christianity. Americans attend church at rates that dwarf those of Britons — so much so that America ranks as one of the most religious societies on earth, while the United Kingdom is one of the least. The data is so overwhelming that sociologists have had to explain what is often called American “exceptionalism” when it comes to secularization. America is profoundly unsecular.

So, is Hauerwas nuts? Not likely. He is a provocateur, however, and he means to provoke some thinking here.

The immediate background to the Hauerwas article in The Guardian was the selection of Ed Miliband as the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Miliband is an atheist, and as Hauerwas admits, that would be virtually unthinkable in the United States. “Indeed, it seems to be a requirement of political office in America that you believe in God,” he acknowledges.

He then writes: “In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.”

He is no doubt right about this, and this is evidence of the power of “civil religion,” which is not to be confused with biblical Christianity. Britain and most of Europe also had a well-established version of civil religion until the period between the two world wars. In Germany, a tragic form of civil religion served the cause of the Nazi regime.

Hauerwas continues:

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing. Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Now, there is much in that paragraph to appreciate. Hauerwas wants to make a clear distinction between authentic theism and its counterfeits. Any serious-minded Christian should agree with the necessity of this distinction.

At the same time, one of the difficulties of Hauerwas’s framing of the issue is what appears to be his lack of appreciation for lay Christianity and what some sociologists now define as “lived religion.” While I find Stanley Hauerwas to be unfailingly provocative as a thinker, I go away from the experience of reading his books with the firm impression that the Christian in the pew is just not to be trusted as really believing much of anything. I share his concern to reject civil religion as true Christianity, but I cannot share his dismissive approach to the faith of millions in the pews, who may not be theologians, but who are faithful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bankruptcy in the Cathedral

It turns out that Robert Schuller offers the best analysis of this crisis with his own words. “No church has a money problem; churches only have idea problems.” The theological crisis in Garden Grove is far more significant than the financial crisis.

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For You, A Video on Reading

I had the honor of joining a panel of great friends at the 2010 RESOLVED conference in Palm Springs. I was asked about reading. Here is the video:

I will hope to see you at RESOLVED 2011. See www.resolved.org

Life — Not Only for “the Perfect, the Privileged, and the Planned”

One of America’s most brilliant voices on behalf of the unborn is now silent. Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from the Harvard Medical School, died on October 15 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, Dr. Jefferson was stunned and outraged. She saw the decision not only as a direct assault upon the unborn, but also upon the ethics of her cherished profession. She later told the U.S. Congress that the decision “gave my profession an almost unlimited license to kill.”

Throughout her long life, Dr. Jefferson remained a stalwart defender of the unborn, and she was a sworn enemy of the Culture of Death. A surgeon, she dedicated her life to preserving and extending the lives of others. She was bracingly honest about what abortion meant for the medical profession:

“With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family,” Dr. Jefferson told Congress, “the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn.”

She once summarized her sense of urgency with these words: “I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.”

Rarely do we encounter such moral clarity matched to such personal courage.

Boys to Men — A Revealing Angle from the World of Advertising

The “Sunday Styles” section of The New York Times is often a useful barometer of the culture. On October 17, that section featured a front-page spread entitled, “From Boys to Men,” and the article is a sign of something larger than mere fashion and advertising.

Reporter Guy Trebay explains that advertisers have shifted their images of male identity from the “skinny skate-rat” of recent years to real and recognizable men. Trebay credits Hedi Slimane of Dior men’s wear for inventing the boy image so prevalent in recent culture. Images of skinny youths with slightly (or more than slightly) androgynous appearances have dominated. Trebay describes this pattern as “designer subversions of age and gender expectations.”

But now, a far more masculine and traditional model of manhood is showing up in advertisements and media images. Joe Levy, editor in chief of Maxim, a magazine that skirts the edge between the traditional men’s magazine and pornography, attributes the shift to economic factors. In other words, when unemployment threatens, skinny skate-rat images bring no comfort. Instead, men who look like they might actually hold a job are back in style.

You will love how Trebay describes the trajectory of the new man-in-demand: “You lose the T-shirt and the skateboard. You buy an interview suit and a package of Gillette Mach 3 blades. You grow up, in other words.”

That is a classic statement that deserves great prominence. The crisis of delayed manhood for so many boys and young men is now well documented, and the larger culture reflects this phenomenon. Advertising does not rule the world, but it is a powerful indicator of the cultural direction. Advertisers make it their business to know where the culture is headed. This new trend can only be seen as good news, even if it does not yet represent any profound recovery of sanity in the society.

One important aspect of this report ties directly to a vital aspect of biblical masculinity — the reality and value of a man’s work. These advertisers are not shifting merely to older and more rugged males, but to men who look like they just might be able to hold a job and do it well.

That is a healthy and promising dimension of this new development. One statement from this article deserves to be imprinted on the male brain: “You grow up, in other words.”

Evolution and the Empty Nest Syndrome

Michael Shermer publishes Skeptic magazine, teaches at Claremont Graduate University, and writes a regular column for Scientific American. He is an ardent defender of evolutionary theory and a well-known critic of all supernatural claims. In today’s edition of USA Today, Shermer writes about the “empty nest syndrome” — the difficulty many parents face when their offspring go off to college.

While this has always been a difficult time for parents, in recent years many parents seem to be having a more difficult time than usual. Some colleges report that parents have to be told to go home. One college reported about a mother who slept in her daughter’s dorm room for a couple of nights until the girl’s roommate complained to school authorities.

Shermer has now experienced the “empty nest syndrome” for himself, as his daughter began her college studies just over a month ago. He clearly misses his daughter. And yet, how does he explain this experience?

He writes: “Why does it hurt so bad? Science has an answer: We are social mammals who experience deep attachment to our fellow friends and family, an evolutionary throwback to our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days of living in small bands.”

You read that right. Shermer reduces the love of a parent for a child to “an evolutionary throwback.” He adds to this a physiological theory:

We parents can’t help feeling this way, and neuroscience explains why. Addictive chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin surge through the brain and body during positive social interactions (especially touch). This causes us to feel closer to one another. Between parents and offspring, it cements a bond so solid that it is broken only under the most unusual (and usually pathological) circumstances.

He concludes with words that can hardly be described as sentimental. “Each of us parents makes one small contribution to the evolutionary imperative of life’s continuity from one generation to the next,” he suggests.

Rarely is the sterility and bleakness of the evolutionary worldview displayed with such candor. The love of a parent for a child is reduced to an evolutionary factor that works through a physiological process of chemical interactions in the brain.

If evolution is true, it must explain everything. Michael Shermer’s article demonstrates just how unsatisfying that explanation is.

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