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The following chapter review was written by my friend Laura Williams who is making her debut as a guest blogger here at provocations. Enjoy!

In chapter seven, “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally,” Tim Keller wrestles with the fact that the Christian faith requires belief in the Bible. To many, this is a big deal. The problems that people have with believing the Bible can be divided into three major objections: conflicts with science, inaccurate and unreliable history, and issues related to cultural differences. Since he has already addressed the issue of science and Christianity in the previous chapter, Keller now focuses on the historical and cultural objections.

Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code has really brought the question of the Bible’s historical accuracy to the forefront in our culture. The book (and movie) are in part based on the idea that the early church had two competing views of Jesus: one of Jesus as a great teacher, and one of Jesus as God in human form. The theory is that both sides wrote gospel accounts, but that the early church chose the “Jesus as God” side, and suppressed the other equally reliable accounts. This idea is very popular right now, but when closely examined, it is hard to support.

To briefly summarize, Tim Keller gives three arguments refuting the idea that the Biblical story is nothing more than a legend that was spread (and changed) orally before it was put down in writing. First of all, he argues that the timing is far too early for the gospels to be legends. Keller explains the evidence for the fact that the gospels were written at most sixty years after the death of Christ, and probably even earlier. And Paul’s letters were written even earlier than that. Secondly, Tim Keller points out that the content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends. The gospels portray the apostles as cowards and even claims that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ (At that time, women couldn’t even be legal witnesses!). Finally, the literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend. For this argument, Keller calls on the literary expertise of C.S. Lewis. Lewis points out that the gospels just do not fit the genre of legend or fiction in that time period. It it is much more likely that the gospels were written down by eye-witnesses shortly after the events occurred.

Keller gives less attention to final objection to the Bible: “We Can’t Trust the Bible Culturally.” This issue usually boils down to two objections: that the Bible endorses slavery and encourages the subjugation of women. The chapter goes on to explain the historical context for these specific issues, but it also goes on to draw some general principles. Keller points out that many of our objections come from “an unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over others.” If we accuse the Bible of being culturally regressive, we are automatically assuming that our culture is better than the Biblical culture. And what gives us the authority to make such an assumption? Finally, Tim Keller brings the focus back to the major message of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ. If we believe that Jesus is God, we have to seriously grapple with everything he says. But if Jesus is not who he says he is, than what do his other claims matter? We should wrestle with the major claims of Christianity before we worry about the less central and more controversial teachings.

The chapter ends with the point that difficult Biblical teachings should not be an argument against God. In fact, we should be encouraged by the fact that we don’t find all of God’s teachings easy to accept. If that were the case, we would have a “Stepford” God, similar to the Stepford wives in the movies (robot-wives who never contradict their husbands). Keller ends with this encouragement: “Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination. So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.”

After this chapter, the book shifts its focus away from objections to Christianity. Instead of refuting reasons to not believe in God, he starts addressing the reason for God. So stay tuned, the good stuff is still to come!

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Earlier this summer I posted about Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making. The book is now out. Here’s a promo video. I plan to read it while on vacation next week so I’ll post some thoughts when I get back.

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God’s Story by David Arms

The post below appeared on my blog back in December in an abbreviated form. I’m re-posting it here with changes in order to introduce a series of posts I’ll be doing on what storied spirituality looks like from the biblical perspective. These posts will coincide with a series I’m teaching at the college and career midweek gathering of Faith Presbyterian Church where I pastor.

People crave story – so much so that it’s impossible to imagine life apart from story. Storytelling has always held a prominent place among humans. Our compulsion to write and tell stories, to read and hear them, points to the ongoing fascination we have with them. What is it about story that captivates us? What draws us into story? If we think about it, stories have this way of inviting us in, don’t they? They grab our attention by making us feel at home. Good stories open the world to us. They evoke powerful emotions within us, giving us new insight into what it means to be human and what it means to live in the world. They also aid us in seeing the common ground we share with others. Good storytelling is really an expression of good hospitality. It’s a vital way we make ourselves at home, and help others do the same. But even more profoundly, we respond to story because story is our common language. We relate to the language of story because, well, life is story.

Each of our lives is marked by a storied structure – a distinct beginning, middle, and end. There’s a story behind every person you encounter, a story behind you and me. As storied beings we’re always looking (often unknowingly) for some larger narrative to live by. These larger narratives help us answer the common questions of life: Who am I? Where am I? What do I do? What is wrong? What makes it right? In other words, the stories we live by provide us with an understanding of ourselves, the world, and how we’re supposed to live in the uworld. They help orient us to our surroundings and inform us in what skillful living looks like.

The advertising world is fully aware of our need to live in some kind of story. Think of how commercials feed our hunger to live in story. They offer us what seems like an unlimited number of stories, promising to fulfill us (yes, even save us) whenever we enter these stories to live by them. What they offer is usually a variation of the Amerian dream story: buy this or that, and you’ll have the security, comfort, and fulfillment you’ve always wanted. “This is abundant life” they tell us. Consider how the political process confronts us. We’re invited to step into the Democrat or Republican Story, with the assumption being that our dreams will be realized if only we enable the right story to be written. It’s inescapable; wherever we look we’re bombarded with invitations to live in a particular story. These stories promise to provide us with meaning, define what is good, and offer deliverance from what’s wrong in life.

The Bible also invites us into a story. At its most basic level, the Bible is not a book of ethical instruction, but rather a coherent, unified story. The biblical story claims to be the grand or ultimate story, the meta-narrative that makes sense of all other stories. This story claims to be both true (it matches with our experience) and comprehensive (it speaks to every dimension of life). In fact, this story puts our fascination with story into context. We’re captivated by story because each of us is actually part of a big story whose author is God. In other words, life is story. The biblical narrative comes to us in four main acts: creation (introduction), fall (conflict), redemption (resolution), and renewed creation (conclusion). God’s story opens the world to us and helps us to feel at home in this place he has made. We’re invited to participate in this story, joining God in His mission to make all things new. This story invites us into something much larger than our own personal drama’s, the American dream, or whatever small story some political party holds out to us. God’s story offers us something worth throwing ourselves into with full abandonment.

We can’t miss the authoritative claim this story makes. It insists that it is the best story to live by because it is the true story. The ancient people of God were called to live in step with God’s story in order to show the watching world that this story was true and worthwhile. Likewise, the early church lived out God’s story in provocative ways, demonstrating that competing stories (like the story told by the Roman Empire) weren’t nearly as compelling. The Bible claims that to settle for another story is to settle for something less – for something that dimimishes us. All other stories will shatter our dreams and leave us empty. Are we willing to give up these dead-end stories in order to get caught up in the story God is writing in the world. Is the story of God intersecting with the story of your life? What story are you living by anyway?

In the next post we’ll go back to the beginning of the biblical story and consider the landmarks of the story: God-people-place.

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I’m really looking forward to this book by Andy Crouch. It will be published in August, and soon after I’ll start reviewing it here on the blog (hopefully it won’t take me as long as Keller’s book is taking me)!

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In chapter six, “Science Has Disproved Christianity” Keller takes on the assumption held by some that evolutionary science has made belief in God unnecessary and obsolete. He says that the first reason many think science has disproved traditional religion is that most of the major faiths believe in miracles. There is widespread belief in the scientific community that miracles cannot be reconciled to a modern, rationalistic view of the world. The problem with this kind of thinking, however, is that there is a huge presuppostion underlying it. Keller touches on this when he writes: “It is one thing to say that science is only equipped to test for natural causes and cannot speak to any others. It is quite another to insist that science proves that no other causes could possibly exist.” In other words, for science to claim that there can be no supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is a philosophical presuppostion and not a scientific discovery that can be proven. The methodology of science addresses natural causes; it goes beyond its boundaries when it claims that there can be no other kind of causes. The other hidden premise underlying the belief that miracles are irrational is the assumption that there can’t be a God who performs miracles. Keller comments, “If there is a Creator God, there is nothing illogical at all about the possibility of miracles.” This takes us far beyond the realm of science since the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven.

Keller distinguishes between believing in evolution as a process and embracing philosophical naturalism – the view that everything has a natural cause. He argues that when evolution is turned into an “All-encompassing Theory” we are no longer in the arena of science but of philosophy. It is assumed by many that most scientists are atheists on the grounds of their atheism. Citing Alister McGrath, a theologian with an Oxford doctorate in biophysics, Keller claims that this is inaccurate. McGrath shares from his personal experience that most of his atheist colleagues brought their assumptions about God to their science rather than basing them on their science. Their guiding philosophy of philosophical naturalism was firmly in place before they engaged in any scientific exercise.  Our presuppositions concerning what we believe about God’s existence will color the way we interpret the data.

Keller concludes by admitting that belief in miracles is difficult. He refers to the account in Matthew’s Gospel when the apostles meet the risen Jesus. We are told that some doubted. Why would this be included in the Bible unless it really happened? It should be enouraging to us because we learn that not only modern, scientific people struggle with miracles. Even the first century apostles struggled to believe. Finally, Keller speaks to the purpose of miracles. They are not random magic tricks used by God simply to impress people. Miracles performed by God are for the purpose of restoring the natural order of the world. The natural world is presently disordered and reeling from the effects of sin. God’s miraculous intervention in the world is always restorative in purpose. Miracles are fortastes of the kind of world we all want deep down inside: a world that is free of disease, hunger, pain, and death.

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In chapter five, “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Keller addresses the common objection that a loving God cannot also be a God of judgment. He argues that this objection is based on very specific, alternate beliefs. For one, he locates this objection within the context of Western individualism. He does this to show that our disdain for the idea of judgment often comes from our deep belief in personal rights. We insist that the individual is the ultimate determiner of right and wrong and that no one is in a position to condemn me for what I believe. Naturally, the teaching on divine judgment is very foreign and even offensive in this cultural milieu. For this reason Keller requests that we consider our cultural location when we are offended by the teaching on hell. The concept of God as judge is no problem for many non-Western cultures. In fact, many of these cultures find the Western objection to divine judgment odd. He therefore admonishes us not to be so quick to allow Western cultural sensibilities to be the final arbiter in judging whether Christianity is vaild or not.

Keller goes on to emphasize that the God of Christianity is a God of both love and justice, and that these are in no way at odds with one another. He argues that “all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love.” In other words, God’s wrath points us to his opposition to sin – the cancer which eats aways at his good creation. Understood in this way, God’s wrath flows from his love for what is good, beautiful and right since God himself is all of these things. Further, the fact that we were made to be in relationship with this God means that our capability to thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential is lost when we forsake relationship with him.

With this in mind, here’s how Keller defines hell: “Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever…it is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” What makes Keller’s explanation of hell so helpful is that he places it within the context of a comprehensive understanding of sin. Sin is not primarily breaking God’s laws (that is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem). Sin, most basically, is building our identity, our very lives, on anything other than God. Since we were not made to live like this, we experience personal disintegration which results ultimately in self-absorption. C.S. Lewis said this: “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE HELL unless it is nipped in the bud.” God does not send people to hell kicking and screaming. Hell is the freely chosen destination for those who prefer to live apart from God. God exercises wrath by removing his presence from them and abandoning them to themselves. It is a prison of eternal self-centeredness, misery, and torture. To quote Lewis again, “There are only two kinds of people – those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.'”

Keller brings the chapter to a close by asking where we get our notion that God is a God of love in the first place. He argues that it is not deduced by simply looking at the natural order, nor is it found in other religious texts like it is in Christianity. He suggests that the ultimate source of this idea is the Bible itself, and since the Bible claims that God is both a God of love and judgment, we shouldn’t be so fast to conclude that they are contradictory.

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Last night Katie and I saw Wicked while on vacation in Rochester, NY. It was very entertaining; I highly recommend seeing it if you ever get the chance. Afterwards, we got a backstage tour from a friend who is a member of the cast. I definitely went home with a greater appreciation for what goes into a musical of this magnitude. Our friend was in the ensemble, but is also the understudy for Glinda, and will be playing that role in the next three shows. We missed out by one day. How’s that for timing?

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Season 4 is now in the books with only two seasons to go. I don’t know about you, but I was on edge for the entire finale. Once we got to the halfway point I couldn’t believe that we still had another hour remaining. I must say though that the second hour seemed to be filled with lots of long commercials.

The episode began where last season left off, with post-island Jack and Katie meeting outside of an airport. Season 4 comes full circle with this scene as the flash forwards had been working up to this moment all season fleshing out the details of how Jack and Kate got to this point. The episode concludes with the revelation of who was in the coffin from last season. Did you even think Locke was a possiblity? I certainly didn’t. Locke is now known as Jeremy Bentham, the same name of the 19th-century utilitarian philosopher. I’ll let you do the online research to find out more about the Jeremy Bentham from history, but there’s surely something significant about going from one philospher name (John Locke) to another. Does this mean Locke’s character will undergo some kind of change? Why was he going by a new name in the first place? Was it to protect himself from Widmore or someone else seeking information about the island? Whoever killed Locke/Bentham and made it look like a suicide could be associated with the same man whom Sayid killed for spying outside of Hurley’s mental institute. Any theories? How will they get Bentham’s body back to the island? I’m sure this will be a compelling storyline moving forward.

I don’t know that this was my favorite season finale (I’d have to think about it more) but it was the most intense I think. I can’t believe Ben killed Keamy, causing the C4 to explode on the frieghter. Wasn’t it creepy when Christian Shephard appared to Michael, told him he could now go, and then Michael along with the freighter exploded? How awful was it for Sun to watch her husband blown to pieces? Or was he? Do you think Jin is dead? I don’t. I I don’t think Sun does either. At the very least she’s holding on to hope that he’s still alive. Maybe this is why she’s using her new power and position off the island to play Widmore and try to discover the location of the island. How about Sawyer jumping from the helicopter so the others on board could find rescue? Sawyer’s become a fairly nice guy, hasn’t he? You gotta love his one-liners and nicknames. My favorite from this episode was when he called Lapedius (the pilot) Kenny Rodgers. Now we know why Ben was wearing a winter coat when he time traveled to the Saharan desert; apparently Antarctica is below the island! I thought this scene was very cool as it was obviously an allusion to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Ben climbs down the ladder where it is ‘winter’ and what do we see? A lampost. Ben proceeds to break the ice off a big wheel which he then turns. What happens? I have absolutely no idea. What do you think happened? Lapedius certainly didn’t have a clue as he got the best view from the pilot’s seat in the helicopter. We know the goal was to move the island, but who knows what that means for sure? I don’t think it moved to a different physical location as much as it disappeared and returned (will return) in a different time period. Click here for some good articles about how science is rightly used in LOST.

One thing I really enjoyed about this episode was the way it incorporated aspects from previous season finale’s. When the Oceanic 6 see the light coming towards them from Penny’s boat it reminded me of the season 1 finale when Sawyer, Jin, Michael and Walt see light from the Others boat coming towards them. As the Oceanic 6 are rescued, we meet the Portugese men working for Penny who were introduced to us in the final scene of the season 2 finale. And as already mentioned, this episode began where season 3 left off. Speaking of the Oceanic 6 rescue, I didn’t even think about the possibility of Penny being the one to rescue them. I wasn’t expecting the Desmond and Penny reunion to happen this season. Next season should be interesting keeping in mind that Ben is on a mission to get even with Widmore by killing his daughter Penny. As for Walt, it was good to see him again. Wow, the kid’s really growing up, isn’t he? I appreciated the Jack vs. Locke, science vs. faith dimension making an appearance in the conversation about Jack leaving the island. There’s much more we could talk about from this episode, but believe it or not I do have a life apart from LOST.

I give the season finale a very favorable grade. It was captivating, provided some resolution, and in good LOST fashion left us with many questions. What did Miles mean when he insinuated that Charlotte had been to the island before? I thought this was a possibility (read my previous post here). How will the Oceanic 6 make it back (along with the dead body of Locke/Bentham)? What are the bad things that happened once Jack left the island? Where is the island now and what’s going on there? What’s so awesome about LOST is that it’s like a novel because the producers take the time to tell a quality story. The only downside for us is that we can’t go on and read the next chapter when we want. In fact, we have to wait eight months in this case.

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The season finale of LOST is upon us. Party at my house. Come watch it!

In chapter four, “The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice,” Keller points out that many who oppose Christianity intellectually do so because of personal disappointments with Christians and churches. These disappointments run deep and undermine the plausibility of Christianity for many. In this chapter Keller specifically deals with the character flaws of Christians, the issue of war and violence, and finally the issue of fanaticism.

Addressing the flawed character of Christians, Keller gives the oft-repeated quote that “The church is a hosptial for sinners, not a museum for saints.” While not excusing the flaws exhibited by Christians (think of the well publicized failings of Christian leaders), he mentions that it’s commonly believed that a person must clean up his or her life in order to have a relationship with God. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that right standing with God is not based on a person’s morality, but on who Christ is and what he’s done. Growth is a process; sometimes believers make mistakes and live inconsistently. Whether we like it or not, the church is filled with morally flawed people.

Keller admits that violence done in the name of Christianity is a fact that cannot be overlooked. There’s nothing to explain away or make excuses for. He rightly shows though that secular communities have been just as guilty of oppression and violence as religious communities. The conclusion to make, therefore, is that there is a violent impulse in the human heart – whether a person is religious or not. The reality of violence in a society “is no necessary refutation of the prevailing beliefs of that society,” but rather an indication of something real and ugly about the human heart.

The issue of fanaticism is one that Keller believes to be the biggest deterrant to Christianity for the average person. By fanatics he is talking about those who loudly express their disapproval of anything that even smells remotely like “immorality.” These fanatics strike outsiders as intolerant and self-righteous. Keller likens fanaticism to moralism. Moralists assume they are right with God because of their right behavior and doctrine. This naturally leads them to feel superior to those who act or believe differently. What’s surprising is that Keller’s critique of fanatics is not that they are too committed, but rather that they are not committed enough. He says, “Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling. The people who are fanactics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough….What strikes us as over fanactical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.” 

Keller concludes the chapter by suggesting that the solution for violence and oppression is not a watered-down Christianity, but a more robust expression of the faith. The Bible itself contains resources for criticizing injustice. The biblical prophets and especially Jesus leveled severe criticisms at religious folk who perpetuated oppression and violence. The Bible accounts for the violent impulse in the human heart, detailing the tendency people have to use religion as a means to gain power over others.  Thus, Keller remarks, “The typical criticisms by secular people about the injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique itself.” What is needed then is a deeper Chritianity, not a moderated version. When Christians commit injustices in the name of Jesus they are not acting consistently with the central message of Christianity: Jesus himself died as a victim of injustice and yet offered forgiveness to his enemies.

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