Oct 17, 2014

Atheism's metaphysical evidence problem

Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor from Notre Dame, notes that theists generally don't seem to have good responses to atheists' arguments, but that's because "few of them hold the positions the arguments refute."

Many contemporary atheists, on the other hand, have a problem where they hold a position their position refutes. As Gutting writes in the New York Times' philosophy blog:
The weakest intellectual aspect of current atheism is its naïve enchantment with pseudo-scientific biological and psychological explanations of why people believe. There are no doubt all sorts of disreputable sources for religious belief, and the same goes for rejections of religion. But it's just silly to say that there's solid scientific evidence that religious belief in general has causes that undermine its claims to truth . . .
I suspect that most atheists think scientific evidence -- evidence that ultimately appeals only to empirically observable facts -- is the only sort of evidence there is.
That may be their assumption, but how do they show that it's correct? It certainly isn't supported by scientific evidence, since that tells us about only what is empirically observable. The question is whether there is anything else.
That is to say, this species of atheism is a form of logical positivism.

Logical positivism holds that a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically. By that standard, though, the statement "a statement is only meaningful if it can be verified empirically" is not meaningful, since it cannot itself be verified empirically. The verification standard can't be verified by its standard. There's no test that could be run, no observation one could make, no measuring that one could do that would show whether or not the statement about meaningful statements is a meaningful statement. This is a problem.

Logical positivism can be thought of as a kind of trick to rid the world of metaphysics. It appears to be quite effective, except that it is itself metaphysical.

Oct 16, 2014

Jesus on the battlefield in a WWI poster raising funds for the Presbyterian Church's "Victory Fund Campaign."

Oct 13, 2014

The fight behind the scenes of evangelical films

Five months before the big-budget Left Behind reboot hit theaters, evangelical movie producer Paul Lalonde was fighting with fans.

Lalonde was still editing the film. The score was still being written and foreign distribution deals negotiated. He had better things to do than take to Facebook and argue with Christians who had no clue about the business of movies but very, very firm ideas about how things should be done. Yet there he was, typing comments on an open thread on the film’s official Facebook page, pleading with people to give the movie a chance.

It was exasperating. He was getting testy.

Lalonde, who has been a believer in evangelical movies since he saw his first rapture movie as a kid in a church basement in the 1970s, was frustrated at accusations that the remake was just about money. He was exhausted by questions about whether Nicolas Cage could do a good job as an actor in an evangelical film, since he wasn't "covered in the blood of the lamb." He was exasperated at people telling him they liked the old Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron and couldn’t see anything good coming out of Hollywood versions.

Had he even asked Kirk Cameron to be involved in these movies?

Why did Hollywood have to ruin everything?

"Your accusations are insulting and unnecessary," Lalonde finally wrote. "The reason for a remake, even though it may not be the answer you have pre-determined to be the right one, is to reach a wider audience . . . There is nothing wrong with ‘Hollywoodized’ if it means the same thing to you as it does to me. Christians deserve bigger movies too with great actors, and high production values."

This has been the debate about Left Behind.

Read the entire essay, "Are Evangelical Films Destined to Leave Secular Audiences Behind?" at Religion Dispatches.

Oct 11, 2014

'Comin for to carry me home'

Margie and Enoch Sullivan and the Sullivan Family Band perform "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":

The Sullivan Family was dubbed the "first family of bluegrass" by Bill Monroe, the man who also dubbed bluegrass, "bluegrass."

"You know we started before it was named bluegrass music," says Margie Sullivan, in a public television documentary.

Enoch and Emmett Sullivan started performing at children with their father, the pentecostal preacher Arthur Sullivan (not to be confused with Sir Arthur Sullivan, the British hymn writer). The elder Sullivan experienced a miraculous healing in 1939, after two oneness pentecostal ministers walked five miles to his house in Washington County, Alabama, to pray for him. Sullivan dedicated his life to ministry, and was ordained in a oneness pentecostal church, the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus. He formed several of his family members into a band to accompany his preaching, a fact celebrated in a song written by his youngest brother Jerry in "Sing Daddy a Song."

The lead singer of the band was Enoch's wife, Margie. Margie Sullivan, ne Brewster, was also the child of pentecostal evangelist. He died when she was 13, however, and she travelled with a female evangelist named Hazel Chain until she met Enoch at a revival in 1949 and married him. Margie was 16 at the time, Enoch 18. They then formed the Sullivan Family band  and preformed together, along with family, until Enoch's death in 2011 at the age of 79.

They were "huge regional stars," popular among white Southerners, according Marty Stuart, a country music star who got his start touring with the Sullivans in the early 1970s. "They played pentecostal churches, they played camp meeting revivals, bluegrass festivals and George Wallace campaign rallies. How's that?"

Several members of the family are still performing.

Oct 8, 2014

Seeing Francis Schaeffer from a historical distance: 3 quotes

Think for a moment about what the Christian movement, especially its Evangelical wing, was like before Schaeffer came upon the scene in the Sixties. Most believers were unaware that there was such a thing as a 'Biblical World View.' They figured that, aside from Christians being a bit more honest and less immoral than the world and (for fundamentalists) abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, and movies, there did not need to be that much difference between them and non-believers in their whole approach to life. They did not think the intellectual, social, and cultural issues of the day anything they needed to be concerned with. And so they watched the Christian consensus they had come to take for granted evaporate to the point that our Supreme Court was able to legalize the mass murder of unborn children and, until it was too late, they had no idea that it was even happening.

It is hard today to remember how radical Francis Schaeffer was in the Sixties when his call for speaking historic Christianity into the Post-Christian world with intellectual integrity, his call for holistic world-view thinking, and his call for living out 'the lordship of Christ over the total culture' were first sounded.
-- Donald Williams, "True Truth: Francis Schaeffer's Enduring Legacy"
Schaeffer wanted evangelical Americans to become soldiers of history rather than careful students. He was one of the wave of gurus who, like generals of prophets and big personalities before them, offered evangelicals an alternative authority, a rubric of certainty at a time when the consensus on the Bible's status in American culture was shakier than ever. While he inspired some young evangelicals to get to the bottom of the stories he told in pursuing graduate degrees in history and philosophy, on a larger scale Schaeffer's ministry was a grand and clever exercise in anti-intellectualism. 
-- Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason
Many Christian scholars today criticize Schaeffer, not only because of his reliance on modern rationalism, but even more because his interpretation of the course of western history, what he called 'the flow,' was problematic in its details . . .  
That said, Schaeffer's primary significance is not in a lasting critique of western thought, not in a reasoned apologetic that would necessarily be persuasive today. His arguments have not stood the test of time in terms of their historical veracity or philosophical soundness. He was not the scholar, philosopher, or great theologian that his publishers liked to claim on his book jackets. Rather, Schaeffer is significant primarily because when he came back to the United States in the mid-1960s most American evangelicals were still in the throes of fundamentalist separatism, in which Christian public identity manifested itself primarily in an attempt to shun the secular world. Schaeffer was the most popular and influential American evangelical of his time in reshaping evangelical attitudes toward culture, helping to move evangelicals from separatism to engagement.
-- Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Oct 6, 2014

Alcoholics anonymous and the definition of religion

David Foster Wallace had trouble with the religious parts of 12-step recovery programs. As his biographer D.T. Max notes, the author found the aphorisms ridiculous and the simple belief in a "higher power" to be wishful thinking.

But then, Wallace might have misunderstood the nature of religious parts of the program. As the "crocodiles," the gruff recovery veterans, say in Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, "It's not about whether or not you believe, asshole, it's about getting down and asking."

Federal Appeals Court Judge Thomas J. Osowik said more or less the same thing recently in a ruling in his Ohio courtroom. His language was more suited to a court room than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but the point was more or less the same.

The case: A man named Johnny Miller was convicted of robbery and sentenced to "community control" in lieu of five years in prison. Court documents show a condition of that alternative sentence was mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. About six months after his sentence, Miller was caught  forging attendance records by his parole officer. The courts extended Miller's sentence of "community control," and then he sued, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.

The government, Miller claimed, was supporting an establishment of religion by making him attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. "It is incontrovertible," the suit said, "that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is fundamentally based on a religious concept of a higher power."

Osowick rejected the claim because AA is not about belief. It's about getting sober. That means, he said, it's not religious.

Oct 4, 2014

'Every day when I wake up'

In the grace of your love
You don't turn me away
In the grace of your love
There is no other way 
In the grace of your love
Every day when I wake up
In the grace of your love
In the grace of your love
Luke Jenner, frontman of the dancepunk group the Rapture, talks about his religious conversion in 2009:
For me it felt like I had tried everything else with this grieving process and I'd been to therapy, but I needed to put something to practice -- it was literally the closest spiritual place to my house. I learned how to pray just by hanging out with these grandmas and when I wouldn’t show up they were like 'hey where were you, we missed you.' That was really important to me, having that kind of energy around, old lady energy. 
Yeah just kind of nurturing, can't screw up, I just found that really powerful . . . I grew in an era of nihilism like gangster rap and Kurt Cobain and people killing themselves and mental illness and drug addiction. Having a son now, and with my mother taking her own life . . . I started looking for positive music and I wanted to make something joyful, that didn't avoid grief or pain but was transformative in nature. I joined a church choir for a while
Jenner says that for him, conversion was like escape from "this tunnel where I was trying to be cool."

The band broke up earlier this year.

Oct 3, 2014

The 'Left Behind' audience

Jackson Cuidon read the Left Behind books as a kid. He watched the movies that starred Kirk Cameron in 2000, 2002, and 2005. He knew he wanted to watch the remake starring Nicolas Cage, which comes out in 1,820 theaters today.

You might say Jackson Cuidon is a Left Behind fan.

Except one thing.

He hates Left Behind.

"I had so many feelings about the books -- strong ones," Cuidon writes in his Christianity Today review of the new "Left Behind" movie. "I was ready to be upset about this movie, is what I'm saying -- upset at a movie based on books that I felt totally mischaracterized my faith."

Cuidon wasn't as upset as he expected to be by the Nicolas Cage remake, in part because the film seems to him to be a straight action flick rather than, like the novels, an action flick pretending to be especially Christian. Not that he liked the movie. He pans it in his review, writing, "It has many, many faults, and almost no positives."

So Cuidon isn't a fan, even though he's consumed a lot of this cultural product over the years. His relationship with the series is complicated.

He's not the only one.

Left Behind was and is a mass culture phenomenon. It had and has a mass audience. That means the audience is diverse. Some people are fans in the simplest sense but other people -- many people -- consume this culture for other reasons, their own reasons, with their own varied and complicated responses.

Cultural critics too often treat mass audiences as if they were all the same. They assume a homogeneity. The audience is taken to be a simple, single-minded thing, which can be explained by explaining the culture being consumed. Popular culture is simplistically taken as evidence of how people think and what people think, based on the unsupported idea that people consume culture because they enjoy it, and that "enjoy it" means identify with it, agree with it, and accept it without thinking.

Audiences are more interesting than that, though.

Oct 1, 2014

"I write these things being absent"

A WWI and WWII monument in Pfäffingen, Germany:

The scripture reference would appear to be wrong, here. Possibly the monument-maker was using a Bible with an alternative numbering, but I can't a German Bible reflecting that. It seems there is a mistake. The words come from 2 Corinithians 13:11 not 13:10. 

In the Luther Bible, 2 Corinthians 13:10 says "Derhalben schreibe ich auch solches abwesend, auf daß ich nicht, wenn ich gegenwärtig bin, Schärfe brauchen müsse nach der Macht, welche mir der HERR, zu bessern und nicht zu verderben, gegeben hat." None of these words match the inscription of the monument.

The words inscribed in the monument in the small town near Tübingen come from the next verse, which reads in full: "Zuletzt, liebe Brüder, freuet euch, seid vollkommen, tröstet euch, habt einerlei Sinn, seid friedsam! so wird der Gott der Liebe und des Friedens mit euch sein."

In the King James English, 2 Corinthians 13:10 reads: "Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction." This seems an unlikely inscription for a war memorial.

The words in stone come from the verse after that are more suited to the purpose: "Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you."

The abbreviated inscription can be translated, "Finally, dear brothers, have one mind, be in peace.

Pfäffingen had a population of about 400 at the time of the First World War. Nonetheless, 24 young men from the village were killed in the war. The first died the month the war started, on August 6, 1914. The last died a few days before the end, on November 7, 1918.

There are 32 names on the monument from young men killed in the Second World War, at the time the village still had a population under 500. Twenty-two of the 32 men died in the last two years of the war, 1944 and 1945.

Sep 30, 2014

A comic for Calvinism

Golden Rules, a comic book by Seth T. Hahne, is "an argument for the innate depravity of the human soul."

Which is to say: it's about moral philosophy and peeing men.

In an interview with Christ and Pop Culture, Gregory Allen Thornbury, president of The King's College in New York, says this is also an excellent example of evangelical use of art. He says,
It is a very arresting way of getting people's attention to think about this sort of pervasive, never-ending culture of soft narcissism that does not attend to daily habits. And in our daily habits are all the things that add up to culture.
Golden Rules is didactic. It doesn't tell a story that disguises an argument. It makes an argument. Interestingly, this ends up making it seem less didactic than it otherwise might.

There do not seem to be plans for comics to complete the old Calvinist acronym TULIP, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints. The comic for T, however, which is an argument based on the "public space" of toilets, can be purchased at Hahne's comics review site, Good Ok Bad.

Sep 29, 2014

'Resident Aliens' and the complications of polarization

In polarized and polarizing America, there's a deep division on the question of the relationship of religion and politics (among other things). A Pew poll released last week reports that this particular polarization has now reached a point of equilibrium: 49 percent of Americans say religious groups should be speaking out about social and political questions; 48 percent say they shouldn't.

The scale would appear to be tipping. The study found "a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics."

This is expressed in a number of ways: There's a growing majority concerned about religion's decline influence in America, for example. These's also a growing minority who want churches to endorse political candidates (which is not allowed for churches claiming exemption from taxes).

Many people have the very strong sense that America is now composed of these these two sides.

But the sides, as expressed in that polarization, in that poll, are probably not as unified as they appear.

People who want religion to influence politics often differ widely on what that means. People who want religion separate from politics are not all the same either.

An example of the diversity of both ideas can be found in a collection of short essays published in the Christian Century the same day the Pew poll was released. The essays are written by Christian theologians and pastors, many from mainline Protestant churches, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.

Sep 27, 2014

'You told me that the world is full of sinners'

You told me that the world is full of sinners
And placed a bible at my feet
I could hardly understand you
I had just learned to chew my meat
I heard that you were calling on The Lord
Asking for answers, for some relief
Heard that you were calling out my name, my name
And you cried for a whole week
Said 'have you seen my son, he's lost in the world somewhere
I pray for him every day but I know he ain't seeing Your ways
Is he all right now, is he all right?'