Reflection on The Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray

Say what you will about Murray, he is a pretty honest guy. And these days that is a rare quality. He is willing to say what many are not, and willing to ask questions which make people squirm. The on-the-ground feel of the book was one of its strengths. Murray draws on his travels and conversations for first-hand experience of the realities on the ground. Upon this foundation he builds his arguments using carefully researched statistics and citations.

I think there is a counter-argument to be made, and I hope it is made publicly. The problem seems to be that these important conversations and debates are so often being shut down with slurs and slanders before they can even begin. Despite the fact that Murray everywhere rejects far-right nationalism and racism, a quick glance at the reviews in major outlets shows that these accusations are often made.

While the entire book was interesting, the most fascinating part to me, as a Christian, was chapter 16, titled “The feeling that the story has run out.” In this chapter, Murray delves into the big questions: “What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” and reflects on the inability of modern Western Europeans to come up with satisfying answers: “the answers to these questions that we have held onto for centuries seem to have run out.” With striking clarity, Murray argues that modern Europe, with its culture of human rights and freedoms, is built on “beliefs that we have left behind…” And yet, despite acknowledging that this has prompted some “to become better acquainted with our own traditions,” such as Christianity, he says multiple times that modern people “cannot force themselves into sincere belief.” It is clear that he finds this to be true for himself as well as others.

In another striking part of this chapter, Murray reflects on a quote by Richard Dawkins to the effect that the theory of evolution bequeathed to us by Charles Darwin has solved ‘the greatest of all mysteries’: “Right there is the gulf that now exists between the accepted secular-atheist world view of our culture and the reality of how people live and experience their lives. Because although Dawkins may feel that our mystery has been solved – and although science has indeed solved part of it [notice how Murray is more modest in his claim than the ever-bombastic Dawkins] – most of us still do not feel solved.” Turning to the fact that humans are now shown to be highly evolved apes, he says “we also know that we are more than animals and that to live merely as animals would be to degrade this thing that we are. […] We know we are something else, even if we do now know what that else is.”

Perfectly anticipating my exasperation at his clear-headed insights and half-answers, the next line is: “Of course religious people find talk like this frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, ‘Why do you not just believe?’ Yet this latter question ignores the most likely irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal-truth claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.” He is exactly right that I find it frustrating, but he is exactly wrong about the question I would pose. ‘Why do you not just believe’ is a stupid question to ask someone whose intellect and reason have raised objections to the content of Christianity. Real faith does no violence to the intellect, although it may transcend it.

The most crucial part of the quote above is Murray’s listing of his two main intellectual objections to belief: ‘science’ and ‘historical criticism’. So the questions should be: ‘Why do you believe science and historical criticism make belief impossible? Have you taken the time to read the best responses to those objections? Why is it that there are leading thinkers in nearly every advanced field of scientific knowledge who are devout Christians? Do you understand the science better than them?’ It’s almost like he’s read the pamphlets put out by the atheists and thrown up his hands and said “so it’s hopeless – no intelligent person can believe this God stuff!”

But Murray is certainly correct that one cannot simply choose to believe. There is a mystery to true conversion; as Jesus explained to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Even once the intellectual objections are dealt with, there is a surrender, a yielding, an unveiling, an inner transformation, which only the Spirit’s work can accomplish.

God’s Jealousy, Part 2

It is in the writings of Hosea (the entire book, but especially chapters 1-3) and Jeremiah (chapter 3) that the metaphor of spiritual adultery is developed and clarified. God is Israel’s husband; Israel is God’s bride. But while God is a good, loving, and faithful husband, Israel is described as an adulterous, wayward, promiscuous, whoring wife. Portions of Ezekiel (chapters 16, 23) are so graphic that I wonder how many churches could even stand to hear them read out loud. No wonder Ezekiel didn’t rank atop the podcast ratings… his message was not often pleasant. The language in these passages is jarring, profoundly unsettling, and offensive. And that is precisely the point.

We, like the Israelites before us, are far too adept at euphemising, excusing, minimizing, and denying sin. Needless to say, God seems to take a different view – judging the unfaithfulness of his covenant people to be heinous, evil, and personal. And perhaps that personal element of betrayal is what this metaphor of spiritual adultery really conveys like nothing else. It is one thing to sin in a judicial sense against the law of a good judge, and it is one thing to fall short of the standard of your benevolent master, but it is something quite different to blatantly cheat on your spouse with other lovers.

Just think about the relational dynamics of the first two pictures of sin in contrast with the third. As a lawbreaker and a stumbling servant, I could still look my Lord in the eye, admit my mistake, and vow to do better. But not so easily if my unfaithfulness is personal betrayal to such a jealous and faithful spouse. This is what makes the metaphor of spiritual adultery so powerful, and for the guilty party (that’s you and me, folks) so devastating.

But in that moment of terrible realization, when all the excuses and side-stepping is done, and you find yourself sitting slumped on a pile of ashes, a new light shines. That new light is the incredible promises of reconciliation, mercy, and restitution that we find in the very same passages that moments ago revealed the ugliness of our sin.

Consider Hosea 2:14-20

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
    I will lead her into the wilderness
    and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
    and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
    as in the day she came up out of Egypt.

“In that day,” declares the Lord,
    “you will call me ‘my husband’;
    you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
 I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
    no longer will their names be invoked.
 In that day I will make a covenant for them
    with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
    and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
    I will abolish from the land,
    so that all may lie down in safety.
 I will betroth you to me forever;
    I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
    in love and compassion.
 I will betroth you in faithfulness,
    and you will acknowledge the Lord.

Or Jeremiah 3:14-15

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.

Or lastly, Ezekiel 16:60, 62-63

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you… So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

The language of spiritual adultery is the nuclear weapon of sin-exposition. It’s God’s most potent form of argument, and to those with ears to hear, it is profoundly humbling. Embedded in the book of Hosea is this idea that God would come at his people with such severe denouncements so that they might realize their sickness and seek him.

We see this amazing interaction in Hosea 5:13-15, followed by 6:1-3.

“When Ephraim saw his sickness,
    and Judah his sores,
then Ephraim turned to Assyria,
    and sent to the great king for help.
But he is not able to cure you,
    not able to heal your sores.
For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
    like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
    I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.
Then I will return to my lair
    until they have borne their guilt
    and seek my face—
in their misery
    they will earnestly seek me.”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us know the Lord;
    let us press on to know him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”


Here are five things I think we can take away from reflecting on God’s Jealousy.

1. Seeing God’s jealousy forces us to un-domesticate God.

There’s an element of unpredictability in God’s jealousy. He is merciful and patient, but woe to the one who experiences the heat of his holy desire! As C.S. Lewis put it so well, he is good, but he is not safe. This is such a needed remedy for us sleepy believers who have a strong tendency to domesticate God with our selective memory and reading. Even Psalm 23 underscores this when at the end David writes “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The verb  translated “follow” literally means “to pursue, chase, persecute.” There’s an intensity and an intentionality that is lost in translation. Instead of capturing the predatory spirit of the verb, we are left with the rather limp image of a puppy following a child.

2. Seeing God’s jealousy sobers us about our sin, and our redemption.

I touched on this earlier, so just a quick word. In light of all that we’ve seen, our sin is uglier than we thought. But the beauty of the gospel is that this ugliness only serves to humble us further (to remember and be ashamed and never again open our mouths, as in Ezekiel 16), and to underscore, highlight, and magnify the depth of the mercy and the sweetness of the grace that would so completely forgive such misdeeds.

3. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us realize the seriousness of God’s covenant with us.

Here’s one where the Scriptures really have to renew our typical way of thinking. We are so accustomed to the optional, leave it if you don’t like it, take it for a spin, no strings attached kind of deal that we can import that kind of thinking into our relationship with God. But the truth is that we are in a covenant with God, with covenant obligations to be faithful and to worship Him alone. This is not the typical we way we frame our Christianity, but that is probably more due to our cultural bias than to a balanced Biblical understanding.

4. Seeing God’s jealousy helps us understand some of the ways God works in our lives.

If God is a jealous God who, in the words of Zechariah 8, is “very jealous… burning with jealousy for” his people, then this might help explain how he deals with us. Looking back on my own life, I definitely see God’s jealousy as one of the reasons he allowed me to go through burnout in ministry. When ministry becomes a rival lover, it becomes very dispensable to God. I suddenly go from Very Important Leader to entirely replaceable. Indeed – for my soul’s sake, I must be replaced, rebuked, brought to repent, and then perhaps restored. Likewise, in all our lives, a function of God’s love is that he brooks no rivals. A redefinition of love for some of us, maybe, but love indeed.

5. Seeing God’s jealousy reminds us that we don’t get to pick and choose which attributes of God we like.

There is a counter-intuitive argument to be made that I first heard from Tim Keller. The argument rests simply on the nature of relationship. If we deny the authority of Scripture, and do away with the troublesome aspects of God’s deeds and character (as defined by our enlightened cultural moment, of course), what we are left with is inevitably a glorified reflection of ourselves. A deified mirror image of our own beliefs. But this is plainly not a God with whom you can have a real relationship, if by real relationship we mean, among other things, the ability to challenge, surprise, and rebuke. The God of orthodox Christianity is revealed to us, and we must change our minds and our beliefs to line up with that revelation; not change the revelation to line up with our own thoughts.

 

 

 

God’s Jealousy, Part 1

Having recently studied and spoken on God’s Jealousy, I thought I would take time to put down in written form some of what I shared with the good people who were willing to listen to me.

In James 4:4-5 we encounter some unusual language.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?”

Specifically, the words adulterous and jealously seem strangely out of place. The context makes it clear that physical adultery is not what James is currently addressing, and the idea of God as jealous is not a common one in the New Testament. So how do we make sense of this? What is James trying to say?

Interestingly, the only other place in the NT where adultery is used in a clearly non-physical way is in Matthew 12:39, where Jesus says “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Even more tellingly, the parallel passage in Luke excludes the word adulterous from the same phrase. Luke 11:29: As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

This underlines the Old Testament roots of this language and metaphor. Because why, you say? Well because Matthew was written to a Jewish audience that would immediately have connected the adultery language to those scathing passages in Jeremiah and Hosea with which they were familiar. Luke’s audience, however, was primarily Gentile, and would not have made that connection (thus, I’m assuming, he left it out to avoid the confusion).

So to the Old Testament we must go! We begin all the way back in Exodus 20, in the smoke and thunder of Mount Sinai. In delivering the second commandment, God explains the prohibition of images by saying “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Remember that these words, spoken by the Lord, are some of the very first revelations of himself to his people, who at this point did not have the written law, and were only now receiving the tablets of stone. God is explaining to them what kind of God he is, in contrast to the gods of Egypt or Canaan.

Follow the story to Exodus 32 and we find that the people, having waited 400 years for rescue in Egypt, couldn’t wait the full 40 days for Moses to finish up his business on the mountain. They violate the second commandment in creating and worshiping the golden calf, and then when Moses comes back down the mountain he is, as they say, not impressed, children. Kind of like when I stomp down the stairs and find the kids’ playroom looking like a tornado, a bomb, and a group of chimps had a rave, except very much more so.

So in Exodus 34:14 God says “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” He has gone a step further from using jealous as an adjective to describe himself and has made it a proper noun – God’s very Name. Jealous. In the next verse, he describes the pagan worship of the Canaanites by saying “they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice for them.” This use of sexual language to describe religious practice begins a long theme winding through the whole of the Old Testament, even if at this point it isn’t clear what exactly is meant, but it is growing clear that there is a link between God’s jealousy, the covenant, and this language of sexual sin.

We find the same language used in Deuteronomy 31 to describe Israel’s future covenant unfaithfulness. “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.'” Here we see that this language of prostitution is clearly linked to breaking the covenant – an important clue as to the full meaning of this metaphor.

As with so many Biblical themes, what we find in seed form at the beginning of redemptive history grows and unfurls as that history progresses. At this point it would make sense to come away thinking what does this mean?; but further revelation, especially through the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah, will make it crystal clear.

And that’s what we’ll look at in Part 2.

A Very Boring-Sounding Title: The Foundation of True Discourse

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“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I can’t understand how anyone could believe that.”

“Anyone who thinks that is a complete idiot and understands nothing.”

We’ve all heard people say things like this, and most of us have said some of them ourselves. But the more I observe people interacting in person and online, the more I see how destructive such attitudes are towards the goals of honest conversation and true discourse.

It is the most natural inclination of any group with shared beliefs to reinforce those beliefs by developing arguments against the beliefs of others. This in and of itself is fine and good. This is why Christians study and discuss the wrong beliefs of Muslims, Mormons, and atheists, and why Camaro enthusiasts talk trash about Mustangs. The last thing we want is to say that one belief is as valid as another, or else we end up with plain old relativism and that is about as helpful as a set of black and white traffic lights or pharmacists who only administer placebo pills. 

And yet something critical is lost when the Camaro Club members come to believe that the Mustang is a useless piece of junk and quite literally the worst car ever made, or when a Christian says that Muslims or Mormons or atheists are completely deceived and know nothing about God or the world. What is lost is simply the truth. In the effort of preserving and reinforcing one’s own beliefs, it is all too easy to leave the realm of truth and reality. Constructing crude caricatures of opposing views is so rampant in religious and political discourse that its easy to lose sight of how harmful and destructive it is. And it isn’t just harmful for the one being caricatured. No – it is even more harmful for the one doing the caricaturing, because even if that person holds the view that is really true, he has left the realm of truth in his attack on the other, and is now frankly unable to convince anyone else of the truth.

Why is this? It’s because of a very simple and understandable reaction that always occurs when someone hears their own beliefs misrepresented. It’s essentially impossible to be convinced by an argument that is not addressing your position. And if I can narrow the focus a little bit to an especially guilty party of which I am a guilty member, we Christians are constantly doing this. The other partners in this fumbling waltz of misfired arguments are the atheists, who I daresay are just as bad. 

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I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Christians quote Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”” and then proceed to argue that atheists are all fools and if they had any working brain cells they would see that God exists. Now, the scripture is true, and in the last analysis, when all things are revealed and our profound blindnesses are cured, it will be obvious that it is a foolish thing to say there is no God, sort of like it is a foolish thing to say there is no such thing as speech. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectly understandable why someone would be a committed atheist. In fact, I am quite sure I would be a committed atheist if I had been born to atheist parents and if God had not so clearly intervened in my life; there but for the grace of God go I and you too.

The truth is, if the deepest pre-supposition you held was that there is no such thing as the supernatural, God, or anything beyond the physical world, then it makes sense to look at all the data available and conclude, like so many do, that the universe somehow came into existence through a big kablamo and that by endless chance life came into being and through countless eons evolved into what we see today. A lot of very intelligent, sensible people believe this. Likewise, atheists should be able to imagine how an intelligent and thoughtful person could come to believe that God created all things and that Jesus is the son of God.

We need a kind of intellectual empathy that says “I can see how you could believe that.” 

This is the foundation for any conversation which might actually bear the fruit of mutual understanding, growth, and maybe even epiphany. 

Defending the truth is a vital and worthy objective. But often in the interest of defending the truth we build walls instead of bridges, creating insular intellectual communities instead of winsome truth-telling communities, based in fear instead of love.

Someone I know came back from a conference a few years ago and told me “Post-modernism is so stupid!” I don’t disagree with the fact but the sentiment is not likely to convince many post-modernists. Forgive the analogy but if you want the dog to come inside you’re going to have to do something other than throw sticks at it. 

Republicans routinely demonize and draw caricatures of the Democrats, who then turn around and return the favour with interest. Christians get together and make fun of those stupid know-nothing atheists, who also get together and chuckle at the poor misguided fools who believe in an imaginary omnipotent being. And then there was the guy in my class who had decided that any and all Japanese cars were ugly and stupid and that only Fords and Chevys were worthy of appreciation, a position so untenable that it was hard not to laugh. 

Building walls of mutual incomprehension will do a good job of preserving the status quo but it will also prevent any actual conversation and – most shockingly of all – any realization of our own errors and wrong beliefs. Ultimately it is the path to ignorance, blindness, and even hate and violence, for there is a sense in which the kinds of mental attitudes I’ve described contain the seeds of the dehumanization necessary for violence. 

Thoughts on the Silence of God

The silence of God is deafening. A great, insufferable poison cocktail of blinding, putrid, stinging vapidness. The child is concussed, disoriented. His arms are outstretched, but they reach only coldness where warmth faithfully met them once. Walk in this direction, guided by faith, reason, and experience, and walk on into nothing. Walk on and reach nothing. Confused, he turns to another direction. Try any direction you like and walk your strength and nerve away, until only raw neurosis is left. What is this abandon? 

The Word will set me back on a right path. It will help me keep my way pure, will be a lamp unto my feet. Surely. It will be a light for me in this darkness. Show me again the great vistas, the mountain ranges and rolling hills and unbelievable sunsets that came alive to me as I took in this Word. But what trickery is this? Even the great Sword is become dull to me. It does not cut through this thick skin, does not separate bone and marrow and lay my heart bare. The words all run together and melt on the page, pooling together in tasteless soup. Even my beloved passages, my broken cisterns, my heavy laden and weary heart, my great redemption, are so intolerably familiar, so utterly known and not to be rediscovered. Every word has been read, and nothing shines forth anew. “You may as well turn away because the longer you wait the more emphatic the silence becomes,” as Lewis so properly put it.

If ever I have been thirsty of soul it is now, but nowhere can I find that which satisfies. If the preaching is good, I grow frustrated at my unaffectedness, my hardness and blindness of heart. If it is bad, I grow frustrated at the dispensers of such thin spiritual gruel, such shallow platitudes pretending to be balm for the aching soul.

The silence is screaming now with lies, voices not His but the others, the pestilence which stalks us in the night.

Atheism doesn’t scare or attract me, really. Maybe it is different for others, but for me it would only be a thin veil excusing my indulgence in every imaginable craving my heart ever had. A great justification, no not that one, for sin and rebellion. No, the fear is not of atheism but of flat, lifeless Christianity. Never revived, never renewed, just tired and fat and comfortable, suspicious of “all this excitement” in others. God, kill me first. But rather, be true to yourself and meet me in my distress. 

Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 3

Continuing from the last two posts…

“Their religious lives, however, do not satisfy their consciences at the deepest level, and so there is a powerful underlying insecurity in their lives. Consciously they defend themselves as dedicated Christians who are as good as anybody else, but underneath the conscious level there is a deep despair and self-rejection. Above the surface this often manifests itself in a compulsive floating hostility which focuses upon others in critical judgment. Thus a congregation of Christians who are insecure in their relationship to Christ can be a thorn bush of criticism, rejection, estrangement, and party spirit. Unsure in the depth of their hearts what God thinks of them, church members will fanatically affirm their own gifts and take fierce offense when anyone slights them, or else they will fuss endlessly with a self-centered inventory of their own inferiority in an inverted pride.”

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 2

“Sometimes with great effort [church members] can be maneuvered into some active role in the church’s program, like a trained seal in a circus act, but their hearts are not fully in it. They may repeat the catchwords of the theology of grace, but many have little deep awareness that they and other Christians ‘accepted in the beloved.’ Since their understanding of justification is marginal or unreal – anchored not to Christ, but to some conversion experience in the past or to an imagined present state of goodness in their lives – they know little of the dynamic of justification. Their understanding of sin focuses upon behavioral externals which they can eliminate from their lives by a little will power and ignores the great submerged continents of pride, covetousness and hostility beneath the surface. Thus their pharisaism defends them both against full involvement in the church’s mission and against full subjection of their inner lives to the authority of Christ.”

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Watching Out for the Wrong Thing

“The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”
This short paragraph in letter 25 of the Screwtape Letters made me realize that I often watch out for the wrong thing, or guard against the extreme that I am in the least danger of falling into. For example, I am by nature a bit timid and reserved. I don’t like confrontation at all. If I’m honest with myself I’m far more often a coward than a bully, and yet I am usually far more worried about not being ‘too bold’ or ‘too forceful’ than being a coward. The error I’m likely to fall into is lack of boldness and yet I usually guard against excessive boldness. This seems backwards.
Likewise, in my spiritual life I tend to avoid structure, discipline, and rigid plans. I like my freedom. I guess I tell myself I’m guarding against legalism, but let’s be honest, I am far more likely to fall into laziness and complacency than ritualistic legalism. On top of that, one of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit is “self-control” (Gal. 5:23).
I think this is true corporately as much as it is individually. In some churches, worship times seem to be emotion-free.
“Leave your affections at the door please.” Worship is more of a cognitive assent to propositional truths. They say they are guarding against emotionalism, but let’s be honest – their danger is not emotionalism but intellectualism. The opposite is true of other churches of course. It seems that when there are two groups who emphasize opposite ends of a given spectrum, the effect is to polarize both towards extremes as they react against the other, which frankly leaves each one worse off than before.
We all land at different places on a number of continuums like this. I find it helpful to zoom out a little bit and gain some perspective on the whole.

There is Nothing God Cannot Ask of Us

The moralist and legalist pays his taxes and demands his rights from God. There are certain things God cannot ask of him. The gospel Christian has come to understand he deserves nothing good, and so relinquishes any concept of rights before God. In the gospel, there is nothing God cannot ask of us.

This is why the legalist cannot handle too much suffering. It is essentially a breach of what he thinks is the deal or contract between him and God.

Any insightfulness in these words should be attributed solely to Tim Keller.