Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Back To Your Corner!

Interesting off-air experience on The Morning Cruise this morning: Dave and I picked up the phone during a song, just after a break we did on some remarks made yesterday by President Bill Clinton. Seems that the former President was quoted as recently throwing out a hypothetical: "Suppose you're a voter, and you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that candidate can deliver anything. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you gonna' vote for?" I paraphrased this, then suggested a universal experience. You know how you listen to something as it comes out of your mouth, and a half second later you say, "Whoops, that might be taken the wrong way!" Apparently, that happened to Clinton, who, realizing Senator Hillary Clinton was about to make her speech at the DNC said, "This has nothing to do with what's going on now." To me, the mishap seems very human and slightly humorous. Not so to our friend on the phone.

Phone rings, we answer: "Hi, The Morning Cruise."

"Hey. I've been listening to you guys for a while now. You really should stick to your mission and not talk about politics!"


Click. Drone.

Oh well, it was a critical call. We get those from time to time. No worries. I do wish the guy had engaged us in conversation, though. Instead he threw the grenade and bolted (a common tactic in spousal communications, by the way, and not very effective). I don't know if he was angry, in a hurry, driving or just dropped the phone. Anyway, while I have no problem with this gentleman's distaste for our content, I do have a problem -- a big one -- with the underlying pre-supposition that a "religious" station should avoid certain topics of conversation. Now, I've been doing this job for a while, and I know there are certain topics that our target audience finds so distasteful they should generally be avoided. Politics is one of them. So why did I do this, and what's my problem with the caller's criticism? I did the story because while the content was politics, the subject was the universal experience of foot-in-mouth moments. My problem with the criticism is the implication that our mission disallows us to share an observation or opinion about what's going on in the world of U.S. politics, or any other "secular" subject, for that matter.

That mentality illustrates what's been wrong with American Evangelical Christianity for the last 80 years. Rejecting our call to arms in the culture wars following the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies and the embarassing 1925 Scopes trial, we built ourselves a religious ghetto, safe from the messy conflicts in the real world "out there." I had a small opportunity today, as part of our mission, to counter that isolationist tendency. If you heard the break (around 9:25 A.M.), you know I was very careful to use the honorific titles President and Senator, I did not voice any partisan position and I used President Clinton's faux pas to illustrate something "we all do."

Don't you think we need Evangelical Christians to model respectful, engaged interaction with the real world machinations of our democratic republic? I thought Rick Warren did an excellent job of it with Senators Obama and McCain during the Saddleback Civil Forum. True, he was "civil," and roundly criticized for it in the unimaginative media. Yet hundreds of comments I read highlighted the beauty of a discussion with two political rivals that did not focus on rhetoric and rivalry, but substantive issues like character flaws, personal and national values and the dynamics of world leadership. I couldn't even tell if Rick was a Democrat or a Republican. I just knew he was interested and engaged. He had a platform, and he used it to benefit humanity -- everyone, not just the activist crowd.

There really is no interest on The Morning Cruise, or The JOY FM for that matter, in more political content or commentary. There are plenty of media outlets that can supply political news, views...bruise and snooze, whatever. What I am scrapping for in this rant is the right to perform our mission, "encouraging people and strengthening the church," by refusing to stay in the "religion" corner. The day any subect of real life in the real world (suited for our family audience) becomes in principle off-limits is the day we fail to fulfil our mission. Chuckling at our shared humanity encourages people. Demonstrating respectful, aware, engaged interaction with the leading news of the day equips Christians for dialogue with the real world and thus strengthens the church.

I only wish the gentleman who called would have been willing to have this conversation rather than simply relegate us to the well-marked, easy to manage corner of his mind reserved for "religion." God help us if we have to stay there.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The God Delusion

The Richard Dawkins of The God Delusion is arguably the most unpleasant author in all of Darwinian scientific literature: intellectually superior and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving hatemonger; an angry, totalitarian elitist; a scolding, christophobic, classist, culture-killing, history-revising, misinformed, dis-informing, preening, self-congratulatory, pompous bully.
That, in a nutshell, is my evaluation of the persona of the narrator - Richard Dawkins - in The God Delusion. Can a Christian learn from such a hostile voice? Can the acclaimed author, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, the most prolific and powerful proponent of atheism in our day, be used by God to teach and chastise? God can make even an atheist’s rant into a song for his glory, and he has done so with Dawkins’s bestseller.

I found reading The God Delusion to be an experience that was offensive but also instructive, corrosive yet corrective and ultimately fruitful. And I believe any thinking Christian would profit from the exercise of working through Dawkins’s many arguments for atheism and objections to biblical faith.

Richard Dawkins is part of a company of visible and volatile atheists, the so-called “Four Horsemen,” whose coincidental attack on religion (predominantly American Christianity) was recently concentrated in a series of books released in 2006-2007. The God Delusion has been the most read, with over 1.5 million copies sold. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation square the unholy quartet.

Dawkins’s principle argument (Ch 4 in the most popular American paperback edition - “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”) rests on an unstated premise – a worldview pre-supposition of naturalism. I tried to take it apart and critique it in a talk recently given to my class in Christian Thinking at Cornerstone Church. The mp3 audio and companion handout are available in the “Bill’s Audio Teaching” section of this blog. Because the quality of the recording was nearly un-recoverable, you may want to download it and tweak it on your own player. If I get a better recording, I’ll switch it out right away. I’ll also try to clean up the transcript and post it, for those who prefer to read.

The best single source for a Christian perspective and critique of Dawkins’s book is The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath. McGrath is an Oxford professor of historical theology and also holds a doctorate in molecular biology. He wrote with his wife, Joanna, who is a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London. While many readers may not have the energy or interest to read The God Delusion on their own and instead opt for reading the McGrath’s book or some similar critique, there will be others who should take the challenge of listening to Dawkins not only as the sneering anti-religionist, but also as one whose misunderstandings and misgivings give Christian thinkers a foil for re-examining some important issues of faith and witness.

We’ve all become familiar with the grand “evolution vs. creation” debate in its many forms, gumming up the works from Parliament to U.S. public schools. Many of us who hold a view we believe to be consistent with the Bible find Darwinian models of evolution unacceptable, yet we hardly know why, much less how to dialogue with their proponents and defend a different view. My point in the talk is that one need not be a research biologist or astrophysicist to see the faults in Dawkins’s main thesis. Simple principles of analysis and reasoning reveal that Dawkins often speaks with more passion than precision in The God Delusion. Still, at his best, the significantly gifted professor enlightens his students, even those who wouldn’t want to be enrolled in the course.

The result is that those Christian readers who can critically interact with The God Delusion will find that some of the stances we have taken to defend our supernatural worldview and our faith in the God who stands behind it are not always strong ones. Instead, we have often demonized our opponents and sought to overpower them politically intellectually, that we might control the cultural battlefield.

Dawkins cannot be easily overpowered. But for that very reason, wrestling with the arguments he presents, if we are strong enough in our understanding of Christian faith and worldview, can only make us stronger and more honest, weaker in ourselves but stronger in faith and dependence on Christ. The exercise will, I trust, yield a more effective witness to the very voices whose stridency drowns out the same human heart-cry we all carry about in this broken world – the cry to be known by One whose knowing means salvation and eternal life.