Friday, March 31, 2006

Errors and Facts About The Da Vinci Code

I was lying in bed in a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, unable to put down Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. I’d brought it with me in January and found it to be a good read. In his own words Brown sums up the story in this way: “A renowned Harvard symbologist is summoned to the Louvre Museum to examine a series of cryptic symbols relating to da Vinci's artwork. In decrypting the code, he uncovers the key to one of the greatest mysteries of all time…and he becomes a hunted man.”

The movie version opens on May 19. It’s creating a lot of controversy, especially for Christians. Why?

The answer is because Brown intends The Da Vinci Code to be a work of historical fiction. In the book he writes: “Fact: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Brown himself, whether out of conviction or commercialism, has done everything possible to persuade readers that he does believe just what the book says. He has insisted on the accuracy and factual nature of his information and theories. On his website he writes: “Many historians now believe (as do I) that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?”

That is a good question. Here’s another one: How historically accurate is The Da Vinci Code? The answer is: not very. Here, for example, are five major historical errors.

Error #1: The 4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are not the earliest gospels. The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary existed before or during the time the New Testament Gospels were written. Fact: There is no evidence for this. These two Gnostic gospels were written in the late second century or possibly even in the third century. No scholar thinks that the four biblical Gospels were written any later than the last half of the first century.

Error #2: Jesus is a “great man” or “prophet” in the earliest historical sources but was later proclaimed “divine” at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century A.D. Fact: Jesus is called “God” (Greek theos) seven times in the New Testament, and he is called “Lord” (kyrios) in the divine sense many times as well. This means that in the oldest sources we have Jesus is considered to be divine. Since the New Testament documents were written well before the Council of Nicaea Brown’s claim is false.

Error #3: Emperor Constantine suppressed the “earlier” Gnostic Gospels and imposed the canonical Gospels and the doctrine of the divinity of Christ on the church. Fact: It is simply not true that the Gnostic Gospels were suppressed during the period when they arose. They were never recognized as authoritative in either the Eastern or the Western church. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington states that “lack of recognition is not the same as suppression. The four biblical Gospels were recognized as sacred and authoritative by A.D. 130. This was long before Constantine was born.”

Error #4: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Fact: The Gospel of Philip, which Brown uses to support this idea, is a Gnostic document from the second century. The Gnostics clearly taught that human sexual expression was defiling. Gnosticism was strongly ascetic. They would have discouraged marriage.

Error #5: The Dead Sea Scrolls along with the Nag Hammadi documents are the earliest Christian records. Fact: There is nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls about either Jesus or Christianity. They are entirely Jewish documents. The Nag Hammadi documents did not exist before the late second century A.D., with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas (which is dated sometime in the second century A.D.). Clearly the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents are not the “earliest Christian documents.” This is one of the most laughable ideas in The Da Vinci Code.

In addition to such major errors there are a number of other lesser errors. For example, Brown spreads the “urban legend” that the I.M. Pei sculpture has “666” glass panes. He ignores art scholars when he says that Mary Magdalene is seated next to Jesus in da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper.” His allusion to Walt Disney as one of the people who has promoted the Magdalene myth through movies like “The Little Mermaid” is sheer speculation. And Penn State University Professor Norris Lacy, in his essay “The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown and The Grail That Never Was,” writes that Brown has the whole Grail legend wrong anyway. Lacy states: “The conclusion, it would seem, is unavoidable: Brown’s ideas are elaborate, fascinating, and wrong.”

Fact: there are so many errors of information and history in The Da Vinci Code that on the Internet it is now becoming a bit of a game to see how many of the multitude of errors you can find. N.T. Wright says that “details abound which make the first-century historian snort and want to throw the book into the fire. “
I bet the movie is going to be a good one. Ron Howard is a brilliant director, Tom Hanks is one of our best actors, and the story is a real page-turner. But, as N.T. Wright says, the idea that, in the words of one of Dan Brown’s characters, Jesus was “just a good man” who “walked the earth and inspired millions to live better lives” is a modern trivialization that, to do them justice, even the Nag Hammadi documents do not perpetrate.

The Islamification of the West: Part 3

See Francis Fukuyama's excellent essay on "Eurabia" in Slate. What, according to Fukuyama, is the problem with Europe? He writes: "The problem that most Europeans face today is that they don't have a vision of the kinds of positive cultural values their societies stand for and should promote, other than endless tolerance and moral relativism."

The Islamification of the West: Part 2

Norway's controversial Islamic refugee Mullah Krekar tells an Oslo newspaper: "We're the ones who will change you. Just look at the development within Europe, where the number of Muslims is expanding like mosquitoes. Every western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries are producing 3.5 children. By 2050, 30 percent of the population in Europe will be Muslim... our way of thinking... will prove more powerful than yours." Krekar added that the "materialism, egoism, and wildness" of "western thinking" has altered Christianity. As regards this latter point, Krekar is surely correct. As an ideology Western materialistic hedonism is neither transformational nor revolutionary.
In 1974 Algerian President Houari Boumedienne spoke before the General Assembly of the United Nations and said, "One day millions of men will leave the southern hemisphere of this planet to burst into the northern one. But not as friends. Because they will burst in to conquer, and they will conquer by populating it with their children. Victory will come to us from the wombs of our women.”
The The Force of Reason Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci argues that Europe will be conquered by being turned into "Eurabia."
In just three decades Europe has become home to an estimated twenty million Muslims.
So has begun the Islamification of Europe and, potentially, the entire West.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Answering Mackie's Logical Argument from Evil

(Philosophy of Religion students take note: I have made two posts re. Mackie's essay - this one and one below.)

Here’s “the Logical Problem of Evil,” as formulated by the philosopher J.L. Mackie. This has been called "Mackie’s triad":
i. God is all-powerful.
ii. God is wholly good.
iii. Evil exists.
These three are thought to be logically inconsistent. This means one cannot affirm - simultaneously - the truth of all three statements.

b. Mackie adds some explanatory rules to make the inconsistency more obvious. Mackie believes that:
iv. A good being would always stop evil from happening. This means that a good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
v. An all-powerful being is able to stop evil from happening. It can do anything. There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.

With these two explanatory rules added, Mackie thinks the logical inconsistency is obvious. Thus, for Mackie, to believe in the existence of God is positively irrational (= illogical).

Mackie's argument can be put in the form of what is called a logically "inconsistent triad". In this argument form, three propositions are inconsistent with each other such that one cannot hold all three at the same time without holding a contradiction. Holding such a contradiction would be like believing that:
a. This object is round.
b. This object is square.

It’s impossible to consistently or rationally believe both of these at the same time. Thus Mackie's argument from the problem of evil is an argument that seeks to demonstrate that the traditional theistic definition of God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil. It concludes that God cannot possibly exist if evil exists. Mackie argues that the theist cannot rationally believe in God's existence given the existence of evil.

Now NO ONE ACCEPTS THIS ARGUMENT AS A PROOF OF GOD’S NON-EXISTENCE TODAY. (See William Rowe's footnote #1 at the end of his essay in Pojman, Philosophy of Religion.) WHY NOT?

Mackie's strictly logicl argument today as largely discredited. The problem with this argument is that it assumes something false. This has to do with Mackie's first explanatory hypothesis (# iv. above). It assumes that a good being would prevent every evil it can under any circumstances. This assumption is false. It seems clear that there are circumstances in which even a perfectly good being would allow some evil. These are cases where allowing those evils are necessary for bringing about certain kinds of good things. In other words, all that is needed to refute Mackie's logical argument is to show that there is at least one instance where suffering is needed in order to produce a greater good.

Therefore it seems impossible to conclusively prove that there is no good reason for some particular evil. This is because we can see that there are good reasons for certain kinds of evil. Some evil may be necessary for the realization of a greater good. Therefore, there is no way to conclusively (i.e., with logical necessity) prove that God does not exist on the basis of evil.

Most – nearly all – philosophers agree on this. Again, see the atheist William Rowe's work on this. The argument has shifted from the logical argument from evil to what is called “the evidential argument from evil.” That's what Rowe's essay is all about. Instead of a strictly logical argument such as Mackie's we now have an inductive, probableistic argument.

For arguably the best book on the evidential argument from evil see Daniel Howard-Snyder's The Evidential Argument from Evil.

Monday, March 27, 2006

J.L.. Mackie on Free Will and Evil

J. L. Mackie, in his famous essay "Evil and Omnipotence," believes he has refuted the free will defense (FWD) of the problem of evil. FWD states, according to Mackie, that "evil is due to human free will."
Mackie asks this question: "If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man's freely choosing the good on one, or several, occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obvious better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good."
Here's why I think Mackie's point fails. The choice to love requires the choice to not love. God is a being whose essence is love. God is a relational being, and desires relationship with his created beings. God wants persons to love him, as he loves them. Only if there is a possibility to choose to not-love can love be meaningful. Note also that "love" cannot be fully explicated by "logic." And "relationship" cannot be so explicated either. Mackie's "logic-only" hermeneutical tool cannot make sense of either love or relationships.
But now a question might arise: If loving requires a choice between to love or not to love, then how will this apply in heaven? On the Christian view of heaven surely there will be no evil or "non-love" towards God. If love requires making a choice between good and evil then how can we be said to love God in heaven? I think the answer to this is as follows. On earth we make the choice to either love God or not love God. In heaven we will have eternal relationship with the One we have chosen to love. In heaven the personal presence of God will be so infinitely overwhelming that it will be relationally impossible to choose not to love God.
Here's a simple analogy to explain this. We can imagine that there exists at least one person who, if a guarantee of perfect health for himself and all his loved ones were freely offered to him with no strings attached, that he would take it. Of course because he has free will he could choose to not take this offer. But we can imagine this particular person to be so overwhelmed with this offer and so filled with grtitude that, even though he could refuse, he will not refuse.
Now, multiply this example by infinity, and one can see how in heaven, even though we will have free will and could choose to not love God, such a choice will be relationally impossible and will not happen.
This right raise another question: why then does God not reveal himself to us in such a way here on earth that we will freely choose to love him? The answer to that is: such an act on God's part would be too coercive, and for all practical purposes take away our relational free will.

Linda and Me

Here is a picture of me and Linda from sometime in the early 70s.

Henri Nouwen & Thomas Merton

Two of the great spiritual influences on my life are the Roman Catholic writers Thomas Merton (far right picture) and Henri Nouwen (left picture). Nouwen and Merton both spent countless hours in prayer and meditating on Scripture. They both acquired an ability to hear the voice of God. They are both enourmously gifted in communicating God's voice to us. I am not Roman Catholic, so at times I separate out some things from their writings. For example, when they write about the Eucharist I am not in agreement with some of what they write because, theologically, I do not place the Eucharist as the summum bonum of spirituality. Yet it remains true, for me, that God has spoken a lot of things to me through Nouwen and Merton.
I receive daily Nouwen-thoughts from his writings and a once-a-week Merton quote from his writings. You can get the Nouwen stuff here and the Merton stuff here.
Here is an example of what is, for me, a great quote from Merton: "The only thing worth living for is sanctity. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand. You will travel in darkness in which you will no longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself to other men. Those who have gone by that way have finally found out that sanctity is in everything and that God is all around them. Having given up all desire to compete with other men, they suddenly wake up and find that the joy of God is everywhere, and they are able to exult in the virtues and goodness of others more than ever they could have done in their own. They are so dazzled by the reflection of God in the souls of the men they live with that they no longer have any power to condemn anything they see in another. Even in the greatest sinners they can see virtues and goodness that no one else can find. As for themselves, if they still consider themselves, they no longer dare to compare themselves with others. The idea has now become unthinkable. But it is no longer a source of suffering and lamentation: they have finally reached the point where they take their own insignificance for granted. They are no longer interested in their external selves.” - Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 59-60.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Praying for Abdul Rahman

This story is heart-breaking for me. Abdul Rahman is refusing to convert back to Islam. For that he faces a possible death penalty. He was seen openly and publicly walking with his Bible in hand. His own family turned him in to the police.
Rahman's trial judge told reporters that "We will invite him again [to convert back to Islam] because the religion of Islam is one of tolerance. We will ask him if he has changed his mind. If so we will forgive him." (Trial judge Ansarullah Mawlazezadah) The picture on the right is the trial judge holding the "evidence" of Rahman's Bible.
I have written e-mails to the Afghanistan U.S. Embassy, an Afghan governmental office, Al-Jazeera, and some U.S. Islamic centers asking for help for this brother in Christ. The articles on him and his situation are being printed in newspapers internationally. For an international list of articles see here. And, be very thankful for living in a country that allows us to express our faith openly.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Pray for Abdul Rahman

Pray for Abdul Rahman, a brother in Christ in Afghanistan, who could be facing a death sentence for converting from Islam to Christianity. The entire story can be read here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Real Jesus Sermons

Thanks to John Turner and Dave Nutt for getting my recent sermons at our church's website. In September 2005 I began preaching chronologically through the 4 Gospels. I view each message like a brick in what will eventually be a strong tower. My goal is to reveal the Real Jesus, cutting away as many cultural accretions as possible. Also contributing to this series of sermons are Joe Atkinson (our church's founding pastor) and Josh Bentley (our youth pastor).

Archaeological Discovery in Israel

"Underground chambers and tunnels used during a Jewish revolt against the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago have been uncovered in northern Israel, archaeologists said Monday. The Jews laid in supplies and were preparing to hide from the Romans during their revolt in A.D. 66-70, the experts said. The pits, which are linked by short tunnels, would have served as a concealed subterranean home." Read more here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What If the Disciples Made Jesus Up?

The philosopher J.P. Moreland has an interesting article entitled “A Legendary Jesus and New Testament Dating,” to be found here. Moreland briefly responds to the following questions: What if Jesus' disciples just made the whole thing up? What if Jesus was just an outspoken guy who inspired a legend which inspired a religion?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hume's Fork

Two very famous David Hume quotes illustrate what has come to be known as “Hume’s fork.” This is an either-or situation regarding only two cognitive possibilities; viz., truths of reason and truths of “fact.” Note that, for Hume, any language that is neither a truth of reason or a truth of fact is to be “cast into the flames.”

Hume writes: "All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic... [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing."
- Treatise of Human Nature

And Hume again: "If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."
- Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

What shall we think of this “fork?” One way to understand it is as a precursor of Logical Positivism (exemplified by, e.g., the early 20th-century philosopher A. J. Ayer). Logical Positivism has been sufficiently refuted as follows.

  1. Call Hume’s words from the Treatise P1 (Premise 1).

  2. Truth is confined to either “truths of reason” or “matters of fact.”

  3. If a putative statement is neither of these, then it’s only good for starting a fire; i.e., it is cognitively worthless.

  4. But P1 is itself neither a “truth of reason” nor a “matter of fact.”

  5. Therefore P1 is worthless and to be tossed into the flames.
Hume’s fork is thus rendered, by its own truth test, to be itself not true and to be tossed into the flames. In the same way philosophers such as the later Wittgenstein discarded Ayerian Logical Positivism's "verification principle" in the early twentieth century.

Current New Testament Scholarship

I am currently reading things by the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. There is an unofficial N. T. Wright web page that has a lot of his articles and lectures. As we are now approaching Easter check out his excellent article on the resurrection of Jesus. And, for the really long version, check out his highly reviewed book The Resurrection of the Son of God. See also Wright’s “for everyone” books on the 4 Gospels. I am currently reading Mark for Everyone devotionally. It's a very good example of a great scholar bringing things down to a common level.
My other two very favorite New Testament scholars are Ben Witherington and Craig Keener. Witherington’s socio-rhetorical commentaries are immensely helpful. I used his s-r commentary on Acts a few years ago when preaching through Acts. Witherington also has an interesting blog where he responds to a variety of biblical and other issues. For example, see his post: "2 Tim. 3.16-- On the Inspiration and Authority of Scripture."
Craig Keener’s commentaries on Matthew and John are massive, brilliant, well-written. Probably no one in the world understands the socio-cultural background on the New Testament better than Craig. I am also very privileged to know Craig. The picture was taken at his home as he and his wife Medine and son David had me over for dinner when I was at Palmer Theological Seminary in January. Medine is from the Congo and made an delicious African meal with what she called "bony fish!"
I am especially using all three – Wright, Witherington, and Keener – as I am now preaching through the life of Jesus and the 4 Gospels.

Plantinga on ID

See Alvin Plantinga’s recent article on Intelligent Design here.

Monday, March 06, 2006

N.T. Wright on Authority & the Bible

I just purchased N.T. Wright's book on biblical authority, entitled The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. Wright also has an essay on biblical authority here, much of which I understand to be in the book.
Many will not be familiar with the "Bible wars" of thirty years ago (Harold Lindell's The Battle for the Bible, Jack Rogers' response, and so on). These were the "inerrant" vs. "errant" debates. Wright has a good handle on this and shows, among other things, how the whole debate was miscast and, in relation to the actual Bible, anachronistic. Wright's work will provide very good reading for any Christian interested in the question "Why should the Bible be considered authorititative as the Word of God?"
Wright is especially good in claiming that evangelical inerrantist views actually have a low view of the Bible. Wright's work, as well as that of Craig Keener and Ben Witherington, warn us how to avoid making "the Bible into something which basically it is not," and give us a perspective and a hermeneutic that is far more authentic to the Bible itself.
I also really like what he has to say about "story authority." Consider, e.g.: "Story authority, as Jesus knew only too well, is the authority that really works. Throw a rule book at people’s head, or offer them a list of doctrines, and they can duck or avoid it, or simply disagree and go away. Tell them a story, though, and you invite them to come into a different world; you invite them to share a world-view or better still a ‘God-view’. That, actually, is what the parables are all about. They offer, as all genuine Christian story-telling the does, a world-view which, as someone comes into it and finds how compelling it is, quietly shatters the world-view that they were in already. Stories determine how people see themselves and how they see the world. Stories determine how they experience God, and the world, and themselves, and others. Great revolutionary movements have told stories about the past and present and future. They have invited people to see themselves in that light, and people’s lives have been changed. If that happens at a merely human level, how much more when it is God himself, the creator, breathing through his word."

Fundamentalist A-religionists

The Muslim/Danish cartoon crisis tells us something about Christianity in America. A lot of Muslims are fundamentalists. Which means (among other things) they actually believe, and believe in a certain way. Which also means: they do not believe in Western values (to a certain degree).
In this crisis we see mutual shock. It is the shock of clashing worldviews, of conflicting paradigms. It is the shock of a religious sensibility confronting a-religion.
Such Western-American a-religiosity is what we believing Christians now face. The public media-driven John Edwards-ish mockery of Jesus has been going on for some time now. It is not simply for humor. I call this fundamentalist a-religion, and there is a real edge to it. It is really an angry thing. It is rude and bitter and, I think, wounded. Beware cornering a wounded animal, especially if it controls the media. The wounded priests of the a-religious worldview are out to crush believing Christians and much as fundamentalist Muslims want to behead a-religious Danish cartoonists.