The Reluctant Convert

February 14, 2013
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I saw a recent biographical article in Christianity Today regarding the conversion of a former left-wing lesbian professor to Christianity. Such a story is rife with implications about many of the issues concerning the gay rights debate today – whether sexuality can change, whether it is hateful or hurtful to question sexual identities, how Christians should view homosexuality and vice versa. But that is not what interested me as much as the fact that the author was a reluctant convert. Such people fascinate me in part because I was such a convert – I was a happy person, intellectually settled and spiritually uninterested – not at all what is now defined as a ‘seeker’. Though I had a passing familiarity with what church entailed I was not at all raised in a Christian home. Yet God gripped my life and I could not shake Him. I never felt like I pursued God so much as I was doggedly pursued. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield explains in a similar fashion how she fought against the power that compelled her:

I started reading the Bible. I read the way a glutton devours. I read it many times that first year in multiple translations. At a dinner gathering my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend J cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine. “This Bible reading is changing you, Rosaria,” she warned.

With tremors, I whispered, “J, what if it is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?”

J exhaled deeply. “Rosaria,” she said, “I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed that God would heal me, but he didn’t. If you want, I will pray for you.”

I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not fit in. The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth.

I fought with everything I had.

I did not want this.

I did not ask for this.

I counted the costs. And I did not like the math on the other side of the equal sign.

Of course such an incident is not uncommon in Christianity; one of the earliest and most notable converts was the apostle Paul, who as Saul was literally knocked down blind and upbraided by the person of Christ whom he despised up until that point. C.S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton had similar experiences. It seems such folks are amongst the most insistent Christians with regard to the verifiable truth of their faiths – perhaps because they must wrestle with the inevitability of their own experiences.

Either way I think the very fact that such folks exist is contrary to the way believers are often portrayed by skeptics. Rather than hopeless and desperate people clinging to religion as the last chance for happiness, many believers were in fact convinced and content skeptics who were run to ground by a living and insistent God who would not give up on them.


Observations – MLK Day Version

January 21, 2013

You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God… We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”

– Martin Luther King, from his speech, “The American Dream” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965.

The Silliness of Atheists on Christmas

December 18, 2012

Personally I am rather indifferent to the imagined ‘War on Christmas’ and all that entails, in large part because I don’t believe Christians should focus so much energy on a single Holiday during the year, and partly because Christmas with all its materialism and stress has much bigger problems than atheists.

Nonetheless a recent effort by the American Atheists demonstrates that there is as much silliness coming from the atheists as anyone else on the issue. In an effort to promote atheism, the atheists have again erected a large billboard in Times Square contrasting Santa Claus with Jesus.

In many ways the billboard displays how ignorant they are of the culture they live in; while Santa Claus took his final form as a result of American advertising campaigns, he is firmly rooted in Christian history in the form of St. Nicholas, of which the name ‘Santa Claus’ is a derivative. Some atheists of course might point to pagan influences, but those influences are no less religious.

Attempting to retain the joy of Christmas and excise its religious content is in many ways typical of the nonsensical nature of Western atheism, which enjoys the culture, morality, prosperity and knowledge of the West while attempting to deny its overtly Christian origin. They assume that such things can exist apart from the content of Christianity, though there is no evidence of this whatsoever – culture comes from somewhere, and it’s roots are invariably spiritual.

It’s part of the reason why atheism at its root is ultimately the refuge of the ignorant. To be an atheist requires willfully ignoring history and to some extent the reality of the human condition.

Some may think this a harsh assessment, but they are the ones putting their ignorance on display on a large billboard in the middle of Times Square.

Is the Bible Stupid?

November 27, 2012

I have been quite busy lately managing a household of three teens with my wife, working full weeks and spending many extra hours in my work as a school board chair. As a result I haven’t been doing the reading, writing and discussing that I do in less busy times. So I have been doing a bit of catch up recently and something that caught my eye was a series over at Mike’s The A-Unicornist’ blog. Mike occasionally comments here so I stop by there when time permits and see what he is on about. Recently he did a short series called “Why Christianity is b***s***”. Obviously the title was meant to evoke the civil dialogue Mike always strives for.

Nonetheless, the series itself is the usual collection of Sunday school level objections that ancient people could never suggest anything of value to us obviously superior modern people. Most of it is just a vague re-hash of the New Atheist claptrap that every single New Atheist regurgitates to other audiences of New Atheists. It amazes me how constantly amused they are with such obviously limited material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to type ‘Ditto’ in the comments section of better known blogs like Jerry Coyne’s or PZ Myer’s?

Nonetheless Mike does say something at the end of his first installment (another intelligently named piece called The Bible is stupid – one can almost hear the third grader in him yuck-yucking at having thought up this title – “Hey, guys, I called the Bible stupid! Funny, huh?!”) which caught my eye. At the end he makes what I think is a somewhat intriguing point:

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up — profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

I like this because it is one of the rare times when a skeptic actually puts on the table what they expect the Bible should say rather than merely criticizing what it does say. It’s allows us to explore the assumptions that go into rejecting Christianity.

Mike gives three things that he thinks would distinguish the Bible and give us warrant to accept it as revelation.

The first is “profound scientific insights”. This one comes as no surprise because if one has read Mike’s posts (or any New Atheist’s posts for that matter) one knows that scientific knowledge is his gold standard for knowledge. Ironically atheists most appreciate science because they think it allows them to explain the universe apart from God, so why profound scientific insight would lead us to believe in the Bible isn’t clear. However, atheists also tend to believe science has been the greatest boon to mankind, so if He truly existed, presumably God’s first order of business would be to fill our heads with scientific knowledge. But would this actually be so wise? As Mike himself points out, the Bible contains many insights into healthy living – disease controls like cleanliness and quarantine. It also talks about caring for the environment and how we might best use the resources we are given. Those are fairly profound insights which despite our own knowledge, we often fail to employ today. But knowledge isn’t merely a benefit; knowledge is power. The same knowledge which allows one to understand microbes and prevent disease can also be used to turn those those microbes into weapons. We expend a significant amount of effort trying to keep some societies – like Iran and North Korea – from gaining certain scientific knowledge about nuclear engineering because we understand they could use it for great evil. The same engineering principles that allow us to transport ourselves quickly across distances creates other societal problems like pollution and the breakdown of communities. So raw scientific insight isn’t all that helpful unless it occurs within a cultural context already tempered by moral considerations.

And to his credit Mike does mention “timeless moral instruction” as one aspect of revelation. Why he doesn’t find a set of instructions like the Ten Commandments to be ‘timeless’ isn’t clear. Quite obviously if we lived in a society where everyone was honest, avoided taking what wasn’t theirs, unselfish and respectful of others property as well as making truth the highest priority and occasionally resting from our labors, the world would be a deeply and profoundly better place. Imagine no third world corruption, no wars driven by greed, no murders over petty disputes, no fathers prioritizing work over time spent with family and friends and people respecting each other’s lives and property. No one can argue this wouldn’t transform human experience in the most amazing ways – humanity would have the ability to achieve in ways it never has before.

Jesus distills it down even further for those who can’t handle ten laws – He reduces all human morality to two simple rules – love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. A world that could follow the simple rule of loving others as we loved ourselves would be as close to heaven on earth as we could possible imagine – in practice it would eliminate greed, most poverty, the suffering we intentionally cause one another and a significant portion of suffering caused by neglect. It is nothing if not timeless and profound.

So in this respect the moral instruction Scripture gives certainly meets the criteria Mike proposes for a revelation from God. Like most atheists, Mike might point out that others have come up with similar rules, and so why should we consider the Bible to be special in this regard? But the fact that the rules are simple doesn’t make them any less timeless or profound. In fact if the precepts Jesus taught were actually the way humans were intended to live, then we would expect that we would have some inherent inclination to come up with such rules. The Bible makes it clear that all humans have consciences that instruct them in what is moral – so it doesn’t surprise me when others come to the same conclusions about the best ways for humans to live together.

So given the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teachings and its pervasiveness at least in the Western world, why don’t all men act morally? If mere knowledge were sufficient then we would expect the knowledge of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings to be sufficient to modify human behavior. And yet every single human continues to act selfishly and greedily in some form or another despite their moral and scientific knowledge. Knowledge is plainly not enough because what is wrong with humanity is not what we know, but our refusal to do what is right even when we know what is right. This is why the primary purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to convey knowledge, but to transmit the truths about our broken relationship with God and how it might be restored – because it is only through a restored relationship to God that we experience transformation and transformation is necessary to experience actual moral renewal for individuals, and for societies. This in turns leads to the stability and prosperity that allows us to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge and material wealth.

This leads to Mike’s third contention that a revelation from God would be “clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues”. Understanding mankind’s corruption and corruptibility explains why even though the Bible’s message of salvation is so simple a young child or mentally handicapped person can comprehend it that  people still fight over theology and traditions inside and outside the church. No one is above above this aspect of human nature – Mike wants atheists to have power and influence, and I want believers to have power and influence on our society, yet both groups can succumb to the corrupting influence such power brings.  No one is innocent in this regard. Such disputes aren’t evidence against the Bible but a primary evidence for it’s fundamental contention that human beings are sinners – that is they are corrupted in such a way that they don’t do what they ought. 

The Bible claims there is an escape from this downward cycle through spiritual transformation. Now the Bible may be wrong in this regard, but  if it is wrong nothing Mike suggests here will make a difference because humans already reject the knowledge they have. All civilizations fall and human endeavors grow corrupt and if and if there is no God, there is no escape from this. We are what we are and our fate is what it is.

Like most New Atheists Mike speaks as a beneficiary of the millennia long effort in Western Civilization to incorporate Christian values. He assumes because he inherited and internalized these values that they must be inherent to humanity and no outside agency is necessary to preserve these qualities – but this belies a profound ignorance of history, which has demonstrated again and again humans are always a generation away from barbarity. What is stupid isn’t the Bible, but the notion that knowledge is alone sufficient to transform human lives.

A Prediction

November 6, 2012

I am always reluctant to put such things in writing because I am certainly no prognosticator, but Romney will win this decisively.

Friday Fun-ness

November 2, 2012

I’m going to miss him when he is gone:

How Mitt Won the First Debate and Why the Rest Don’t Matter

October 30, 2012

There has been some time to reflect on the debates between the Presidential candidates so now is a good time to consider why they transpired as they did and where they leave the race. I contend that only the first debate mattered – and to understand why, one must not only look at how the actual debate played out but what President Obama’s strategy was leading up to the debate.

In the months and days leading up to the debate, the Obama campaign had one strategy, and that was to attempt to completely eliminate any good will the public might have for Mitt Romney. And so we got ‘he destroys jobs’. He killed people with cancer. He hadn’t paid taxes for ten years. He was conducting a war on women. He hates black people. He hates his Hispanics. He hates Gay people. He hates 47% of the people. This sort of campaigning was very effective – no one was talking about Obama’s actual performance as President and a significant number of people were convinced Romney was the Mormon anti-Christ or possibly even Shiva, destroyer of Worlds.

The Obama team adopted this strategy in part because it had no significant positives to play. They could only repeat “Osama Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!” so many times before people started asking questions about the economy and the current state of the Middle East, so it was necessary to divert attention to the Horror That Is Mitt Romney. And up until the debate this strategy was very effective.

The reason it was effective was because Obama had a press that was willing to oblige him when it came to communicating a narrative. Nonetheless, while this constant barrage of negativity about Romney certainly undermined Romney’s campaign it was also undermining Obama’s preparation for the debate. This was because the debate required the President to answer a competent and capable opponent, whereas Obama had been preparing for the straw man he had made Romney out to be. He had bought his own caricature of Romney.

Of course when people tuned in to one of the most widely viewed Presidential debates in thirty years they saw quite a different Mitt Romney. Rather than being aloof and arrogant, Romney was engaged, informed and personable. He eloquently criticized the President’s policies without seeming to attack the President, and he was clear if not precise with his own plans for dealing with the economy. Obama on the other hand seemed irritated, unclear, disengaged and reactionary. He was clearly caught off-guard. By all accounts, Romney dominated the debate.

But what is interesting is that Romney didn’t need to dominate the debate – he just needed to show up and not be the demonic figure the Obama campaign had made him out to be. By attempting to turn Mitt Romney into a right-wing cartoon character, Obama inadvertently set him up to easily win the debate. In common parlance this is called overplaying your hand. By not being that guy, and by performing well, Romney was able to go above and beyond expectations and this has since shifted the momentum in his favor.

Interestingly, this is one of the great failings of the secular left. For atheists, Christians aren’t just wrong – they are dumb, dangerous and delusional. To the Occupy Movement business owners don’t just have their own interests, they want to rape the planet and exploit the poor. To radical feminists social conservatives aren’t simply interested in protecting the unborn or preserving the family – they are conducting a ‘war on women’. This is why anytime conservatives are given a fair hearing before an objective audience they come across as eminently reasonable and convincing, because they are never the evil caricature the left makes them out to be. It’s also the reason the left frequently tries to shut down conservative speakers in public settings and in the media, because they can’t control the message. Secular leftism is an empty philosophy which only exists in a subsidized vacuum like a university or newspaper; it never produces useful policies or consistent worldviews that a person of reason or experience would adopt. So it relies on the denigration of its opponents, not pointing to its own successes.

This of course doesn’t amount to a guarantee that Romney will win – many factors may come into play there. But if Obama loses this election, this will be the reason why.