Category Archives: Evangelicals

Apologize This!

In a country where 37% of people describe themselves as “born again” and presidential candidates kick off campaigns with prayer rallies, one might assume Evangelical Christians would feel secure. But they don’t – they are arming for a siege.

There was a bunker-like atmosphere during a crisp and overcast weekend in late October as over 2,000 Evangelical academics and students gathered for the 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics sponsored by the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Their redoubt was the Northside Christian Academy (motto: “Preparing Students for Eternity”) in a leafy northern suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I used to believe Christians had two brains — one was lost and the other was out looking for it,” thundered Josh McDowell, one of a parade of electrifying, Baptist preacher-style thought leaders who relied more on rhetorical razzle than PowerPoint slides. “The problem with many Christians,” he complained, “is you can’t give me an intelligent reason why you believe what you believe.”

Like many of the conference keynotes, McDowell is absurdly media-savvy, a prolific presenter, author or co-author of 120 books including the 15 million-selling More Than a Carpenter, about you-know-who. Other far-right erudites on the agenda included Gary Habermas (36 books, half of which attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection), William Dembski (20 books, including the first on Intelligent Design published by a university press), and Michael Brown (20 books, popular radio host).

Apologetics is the opposite of an apology. The mission of the conference was to equip academic Evangelicals with talking points to defend their position on topics such as “The Nature of God,” “The Best Objection to Evolution,” “Refuting the New Atheism,” and “Philosophical Foibles of Modern Physics.” A discipline as old as religion itself, apologetics basically means “explaining our beliefs to outsiders.”

Outsiders were not much in evidence among the well-behaved crowd of believers, but they hovered in the skies like a metaphorical Death Star. Indeed, among the 120 sessions wedged into two endless 12-hour days, one by S.E.S. professor Richard Howe was called “The Religion of the Force: A Look at Star Wars.” After betraying a mastery of minutiae as impressive as that of any Star Warrior in a wookie suit, Howe concluded: “The Force in Star Wars is very much like what you find in witchcraft and the occult.”

More seriously, the assembled apologists feared what they ominously call “The Culture,” which they see as an almost overwhelming Force of God-denying moral wafflers, evolutionists and sexual predators. The most chilling presentation was Josh McDowell’s “One Click Away” about the horrors of — believe it or not — internet pornography. McDowell spewed a torrent of statistics that I can only pray are not true: 67% of 12-25 year olds go to porn sites; 56% of divorces are caused by porn; one-third of eight year-olds “regularly” view sex acts online.

Yikes. Of course, the 70-ish McDowell is a professional yarn-spinner who claims to have delivered 24,000 talks over 51 years, which at an average of 1.3 per day makes one wonder. But his point is clear: Our kids are being podnapped by a liberal culture that is the moral equivalent of a pack of wild boars. This might seem beside the apologetic point until you realize the #1 Evangelical “proof” for the existence of God is the so-called “moral argument,” i.e., that there is an obvious universal standard of right and wrong that would not exist were there not a universal creator. Anyone who denies this standard – or that it comes from God – is guilty of “relativism,” about as close to a curse word as you’ll get from this crowd.

McDowell’s talk was an outlier in that he didn’t mention the Darth Vader of the conference, a man potentially more famous in Evangelical circles than in his own family: evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Moreso than the other members of the so-called New Atheist anti-God squad of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins is seen as a deadly adversary because of his mastery of the evidence for evolution.

Why are Evangelicals so obsessed by evolution? In the words of William Dembski, a floppy-haired academic and Intelligent Design apologist with impressive credentials (Ph.D.’s in math and philosophy), “They [i.e., evolutionists] really think this makes a case for atheism.” He’s troubled by the so-called “theistic evolution” movement championed by scientist-Christians such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, who believe in God without rejecting evolution.

Next time: The most dramatic plenary!

Are You For Real?

The best-selling non-fiction book of the year so far is Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. It purports to be the story of a four year-old boy’s near death experience during a harrowing appendectomy and a three-minute visit with Jesus in Heaven.

Before I started reading it, on a Hertz courtesy bus in Charlotte, North Carolina, with piped-in gospel music, I assumed little Burpo would bring back some wisdom from Jesus. I was wrong. The savior Burpo meets has little to say to the living beyond a few platitudes about loving children and how “nobody’s old in Heaven … and nobody wears glasses.”

No, the book’s real purpose – and, I suspect, its appeal – is deeply apologetic. It claims to provide nothing less than “documentary” evidence for the existence of God. Again and again, Burpo’s father is astounded by his son’s seeming omniscience while under the knife: “How could my little boy know this stuff?”

The elder Burpo is a pastor in what he describes as a “one-horse town” in Nebraska an hour from the nearest Wal-Mart. To a skeptic, little Colton Burpo’s “evidence” is underwhelming. For example, he describes Jesus as having beautiful eyes, a white robe, a sash, a gold crown and wounds. “How could my little boy know this stuff?” repeats his father. Perhaps he saw a picture — say — at church?

Colton Burpo comes back to life spouting the basic dogmas of Evangelical Protestantism. The Jesus he meets seems not to have read anything other than Daniel and the Book of Revelation. “There’s going to be a war,” the boy warns, “and it’s going to destroy this world.”

Make no mistake, the stakes are high for Evangelicals, as high as forever. It’s touching to witness how desperate they are to find conclusive proof they are right, after all.

Mike Seaver, Believer!

Remember Kirk Cameron? He appeared on 167 episodes of the TV series “Growing Pains,” part of that late 1980’s phenomenon of affluent-family situation comedies with aging hippie parents who spent too much time at home and kids were who were mildly more censorious and “together” than the grownups around them.

A cute teenage boy, Cameron has aged into an identical 41-year-old man with an absurdly boyish face lit up from inside. His personal website warns women between 35 and 45 that they “may suffer from a medical condition now known as ‘Seaver Fever’” (Mike Seaver was the name of Cameron’s “Growing Pains” character), and he’s got that right.

Fun to reminisce, of course, but what does Cameron have to say to The God Project Dot Net? Plenty, it turns out. A self-described atheist as a young man, Cameron had a sudden, Paul-like conversion one day while sitting in his car listening to a book on tape. Today he is something of a professional evangelical preacher, father of six, founder of Camp Firefly for sick children – and co-founder with Ray Comfort of a reality TV ministry called “The Way of the Master” (quoting Mark), now in its fourth season.

Comfort is an ex-New Zealander who sees himself in a strictly evangelical line from John Wesley to Charles Spurgeon to George Whitefield – dirt-scorching revival preachers whose primary mission was true conversion of non-believers, including other Christians. His LivingWaters organization, based in California, runs an online university, posts daily cartoons, “Weekly Witnessing Clips,” and even global “Christian Persecution News” (“Maldives Arrests, Deports Indian Teacher for Owning Bible”).

Comfort’s sermon “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” is what converted Cameron in his car, and Seaver Fever is the best thing to happen to Comfort’s ministerial outreach since his own conversion in 1972. Together, Comfort and Cameron created “The Way of the Master,” which – they say – airs on 31 networks in 70 countries and has sold more than 20,000 copies. It’s a naked how-to-convert kit, and the TV show finds Comfort and Cameron trotting around the globe confronting unbelievers with the Truth – very much in the tradition of early evangelists such as Paul, Titus, Timothy and Silvanus.

Comfort is more of a writer, but Cameron is a master of TV and his outreach strategy is obviously video-centric. In 2007, he and Comfort took the affirmative side in a 90-minute “Nightline Face-Off” in Manhattan on the topic “Does God Exist?” Opposing them were two amateur atheists and web video stars (“Blasphemy Challenge”) named Brian Sapient and Kelly (no last name; big hooters).

Cameron started:

“We’d like to show you that the existence of God can be proven, 100 percent, absolutely, without the use of faith. And secondly … I want to pull back the curtain and show that the number one reason that people don’t believe in God is not a lack of evidence, but because of a theory that many scientists today believe to be a fairytale for grownups.”

He refers, of course, to evolution. Evangelicals are touchingly obsessed with evolution. But I’m convinced they are dead wrong in assuming it is the big barrier to mass conversion. The barrier is much wider and deeper, consisting mainly of indifference and – I think – our great distance from death. People forget that it’s only in the 20th century people stopped routinely dying young. Antibiotics are a better proselytizer for atheism than evolution.

But back to “Nightline.” Atheist Sapient (whose name is Latin for “smart,” which makes me think it’s fake), laid it out there: “We are here to respond to [Cameron’s] claims.”

Let the sniping begin. The exchange on video starts here. We’ll talk about what happened next time.

What’s Your Problem?

Rock Star Bart Ehrman

Beliefnet (“Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith.“) always struck me as a kind of front for conservative political propaganda disguised as interfaith sharing, but it’s actually more benign. At times — as in those glorious days of April, 2008 — it sports a spirited, erudite dialogue on issues deep and wide.

What happened in April, 2008? Why, that’s when Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman and Rock Star Bishop N. T. Wright faced off in a religious studies Battle of the Bands over the deepest issue of them all: If there is a God, why is there so much darn suffering?

It’s not a new question, of course: Job faces it, suggesting the earliest Jewish communities had the same debate as Ehrman and Wright. But it’s inspiring to stumble on such a live Christian dialogue between two such well-armed combatants.

These two are about as famous as it’s possible for Christian academics to be these days. Ehrman has appeared on “The Colbert Report” more than once, and Wright is also a strong-selling author who’s probably met a few celebrities. They’re scholars who know the texts backwards (Hebrew is read from right to left – get it?).

But there the similarities end. Ehrman is American; Wright is British. Ehrman was a Southern Evangelical who gradually lost his faith. Wright was an Anglican Bishop, a self-described Calvinist, and very much a believer.

Their debate started with an entry Bart Ehrman contributed to the “Blogalogue: Debates with Spirit” section of Beliefnet titled “How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith.” The occasion was the publication of his unapologetic screed, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”

“For most of my life,” Ehrman starts, rather ominously, “I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation.” At some point in his mid-20s, it seems, his Biblical scholarship led him to reject the evangelicals’ (quite silly) doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture, but he stayed a Christian for 20 more years.

But he had a growing problem with suffering. Where was God in disasters? Where was God in Cambodia and Colombian mud slides and so on. The stats he rattles off are despairing: a child dies of starvation every five seconds; every minute 25 people die because they don’t have clean water; every hour 700 people die of preventable malaria. “Where is God in all this?”

Reflection led him to the more nuanced Christological view that Jesus points the way toward God, showing us that “He is a God who suffers.” That is, basically God’s answer to suffering is to make sure we don’t suffer alone. He doesn’t remove or prevent pain but allows us to soldier through it (unless we die).

Then, some ten years ago, Ehrman realized he “simply no longer believed the Christian message.” He just didn’t believe God answered prayers, intervened and would come again in glory. It’s an intellectual trip he’s on, of course, but it’s one a lot of us can relate to.

[Up Next: a very — ahem — spirited debate ensues …]

And He’s Back!

Hello, girls! We’ve missed you, and we know you’ve missed us here at The God Project Dot Net. We’ve been formulating our blueprint for becoming a weapon of mass instruction, emerged from the caves of hermetic introspection and limned the cave paintings of destiny. You’re welcome. Air kisses.

Last night we decided to think like the wretched Millennials with whom we work and type our most pressing existential question into Google. So we fired up the H.P. laptop and typed these four words: “IS THERE A GOD”

And God answered! Hah … kidding. Although I couldn’t help but notice the first two letters of the most popular search engine on the planet are “G” and “O” — which you might say spell “GO” and you might say spell two-thirds of you-know-who. (“Seek and you will find” – Matt. 7:7)

What comes up? A lot of interesting stuff, actually. There’s a paid link to a guy who’s taken it upon himself to evangelize former atheists like himself (GodEvidence.com), apparently giving his own money to Google for the privilege (every click on a sponsored link costs the advertiser money). There’s a link to an interesting article by the late genius philosopher and professional atheist Bertrand Russell we’ll get to later.

And there’s a helpful guide at the innocuous-sounding EveryStudent.com  by a woman named Marilyn Adamson, laying out “six straight-forward reasons to believe that God is there.” Since these are pretty much the six go-to reasons cited by Evangelical apologists these days, I’ll share them here (sans snarky commentary, which we have outgrown):

  1. Complexity of the planet and of life — this is the usual argument that the Earth is the perfect distance from the sun to sustain life, water has key qualities like floating when it freezes, etc. Adamson also points to the complexity of the human brain with an inadvertently humorous sentence: “The brain functions differently than other organs. There is an intelligence to it.”
  2. Universe started somehow — even if we accept the Big Bang, who was the Big Banger? She quotes Robert Jastrow: “The universe flashed into being, and we cannot find out what caused that to happen.” (“Message from Robert Jastrow,” LeaderU.com 2002)
  3. Uniform laws of nature – again, quoting an eminent scientist out of context, as Evangelicals often do: “The fact that there are rules at all is a kind of miracle” – Richard Feynman (“The Meaning of It All,” p43)
  4. DNA as a kind of programmed map of instructions for life – “You cannot find instruction, precise information like this, without someone intentionally constructing it,” says Adamson.
  5. Personal argument about the yearning some feel in their hearts for God — what C. S. Lewis in “Surprised by Joy” called “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.” By this argument, the God Project Dot Net itself can be seen as proof of God’s existence … which may well be true.
  6. Jesus as a “specific picture” — miracles, proclamation, etc.
By number (6) she’s run out of steam. But the other points are interesting — particularly, I think, number (5).

No Man Knows the Day or the Hour (Except Me!)

Waiting for the Rapture?

Every tin-pot prophet who would predict the End of Days comes up against what would seem to be a highly problematic text:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Jesus — the Big Banana, Jr. himself — makes this statement about the coming of the Kingdom in identical language in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32. (Such verbal identity, by the way, is used as evidence that Matthew had Mark in front of him when he wrote his Gospel.)

Since it comes from Jesus, Christian fortune-tellers who would like to predict the “day or hour” of the coming Kingdom need to explain it away.

And they do. But how?

Edgar Whisenant, author of the infamous bestseller “88 Reasons the Rapture Will Occur in 1988,” dealt with it directly. In fact, rebutting Jesus’ statement makes up Reasons #1 and #2.

Reason #1: There are 24 time zones on our planet and always “two days existing on the earth at the same time,” Whisenant points out. So any singular Rapture event will happen at 24 different times on two different days at once. But “the faithful,” he says, can know “the year, the month and the week of the Lord’s return.” Ah, of course. Jesus lets us know the week!

Reason #2: Quoting a Joe Civelli of Pensacola, Florida, Whisenant focuses on micro-parsing the Greek word “know,” which he and Joe claim has two different meanings. They convince themselves (if not us) that the passages use the word (“oida“) in such a way that “no one knows” actually means “no one knows easily but if you try hard you can know.” Thus is black, precisely understood, actually white.

Our old, old friend Harold Camping is less insulting, if rather more tortured. His free pamphlet “No Man Knows the Day or Hour?” takes this passage by the balls.

Camping takes the original position that, in fact, it was impossible for Christians to know the “day or hour” until the late 20th century. In Acts 1:8, Luke has Jesus say that “the Holy Ghost is coming upon you.” Camping takes this to mean that gradually, as the Kingdom nears, its dates emerge — but only to Camping and his followers.

His theology is complicated but essentially privileges his own sect. In fact, Camping believes the Church Age ended in 1988 and God stopped saving people. This fact is why he enrages so many other Evangelicals, whom he believes to be damned. (It does, however, confirm my theory that Millennials are Satanic.)

Sounding like any good 2nd century Gnostic or member of a Greco-Roman mystery cult, Camping concludes:

It is the true believers who know the time (the hour) and much about Judgment Day (the day).[!!!]

It’s Not Me, It’s You

Rapture-Ready Kitten

Last Monday, 86 year-old “humble Bible teacher” and millionaire failed Doomsday prophet Harold Camping emerged to say he wasn’t wrong, after all.

His cognitive dissonance lasted precisely one day (Sunday) — a “very difficult time,” he admitted, when he “was wondering, ‘What is going on?'”

Not, apparently, a mistake, blunder, faux pas, outrageous misreading of Scripture or insulting and irresponsible display of arrogance. No, “what is going on,” he concluded, was that “God brought Judgment Day to bear” — it’s just “we didn’t see any difference.”

Say what? What about all those earth-shattering catastrophes he’d predicted as recently at last Friday? A kind of technicality.

Camping dug into his Bible on Sunday and found a text that let him off the hook, for now.

Revelation 9:4 continues a sci-fi vision where “locusts” are said to appear out of a smoke cloud and:

“… they were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.”

And in 9:5, we are told these locusts “were not given power to kill them [people without the seal], but only to torture them for five months.” During which time we — the unelect — will suffer “agony” like the “sting of a scorpion.”

Now, this passage certainly contains the key phrase “five months.” No doubt. Camping takes his literally. But what about the rest?

No “locusts” I can see — so they’re symbolic. Of what? Unclear. Although recent bad weather was taken to be a sign of impending Rapture pre-5/21, this passage would seem to preclude it. But near my house in Northeast Minneapolis last week, a tornado most definitely DID “harm the grass” and a whole bunch of “plant[s]” and “tree[s],” in direct defiance of Scripture.

So the locusts are unruly. What about the “agony” of the unelect. Notice any more pain than usual, sinners?

And then there’s that crucial “five months.” Camping’s original Rapture date required interpreting Noah’s “seven days” of warning as 7,000 years. So those “five months” should be equivalent to at least 150,000 years, right?

Perhaps October 21st won’t be so bad after all.