Rosaria Champagne Butterfield was a contented, tenured English professor at Syracuse University specializing in Queer Theory and Gay and Lesbian Studies when she set out to write a book on the Religious Right. Why did they hate her and her gay and lesbian community? she wanted to know. An intelligent, thirty-six year old lesbian who considered herself a fine, moral human being, she set out to refute them once and for all. It was part of her ongoing “War against Stupid.”
So she began reading the Bible and meeting with a local pastor as part of her research. The first time through the Bible, she thought it was just a bunch of hogwash. As a postmodernist, it was a given to her way of thinking that any truth claim is as valid as any other. The Bible’s moral prohibitions and unapologetic concept of totalizing truth didn’t even qualify as legitimate ideas worthy of intellectual engagement. They were completely foreign categories of thought for her.
But she was also an exactingly honest intellectual. She knew that even though she was going to write her book from a lesbian, feminist perspective, it was important that she first adequately capture her adversaries’ point of view. Why, then, did Christians believe their understanding of this peculiar book was accurate?
She redoubled her efforts, reading the Bible “the way a glutton eats cookies, not leaving any crumbs,” which, she says, “is kind of normal for an English professor.” An unexpected thing happened:
As I was reading and rereading the Bible, [I noticed] there are many questions in the Bible that are very personal. And I think it’s important, as an outsider as you’re reading it, to take those personal questions to heart. And so I did start to think about those. And it was really in that context that I started to question my own sense that … I had it all right.
Ultimately, the crux for her became the question of God’s authority:
Because it did strike me that I had been wanting to interrogate the Bible, I was a literary critic by training, and what literary critics do is they interrogate things. And so it struck me that I was in the posture of the interrogator. It did make me wonder though. The whole premise of an inerrant and inspired Bible – the premise of it is that the Bible then interrogates you. You don’t interrogate it. And the justification for that is that the Bible is written by a holy God. And I had to stop and think for a moment because, you know, if God did create the heavens and the earth and everything, and if God did set apart a people for himself before he made the stars and the sand, you know every little leaf on a tree, then nothing is higher than God. And therefore, God does have the authority to interrogate me.
That thought began turning her whole epistemological orientation on its head, and through a series of psychological and spiritual twists and turns she likened both to a train wreck and an alien abduction, Rosaria became a born again Christian. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, she became “a new creature in Christ.” It was lengthy, painful process, but a very liberating one, as she details in her 2012 book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.
New Testament Christians – and by that I mean every believer on the backside of the cross – live in a time some call the “Age of Grace,” the concept of grace being set in distinction to the pre-cross era when God’s people were under Mosaic Law.
But saving grace notwithstanding, the moral law has not been nullified. Right and wrong are as absolute and active today as ever because morality and ethics proceed from God’s nature which does not change. Rosaria rightly observed that God’s claim to authority, including the imperatives of morality and ethics, is exactingly totalizing. Authority is claimed, and it is non- negotiable. And, as she discovered, being confronted with this reality can be devastating.
It turns out that Torah derives from the Hebrew verb ‘throw’ (ירה, oryarah). It is the 3rd person feminine singular Hif’il imperfect of the verb. … The Hif’il form of verbs is reflexive, which means that a person receives the action, kind of like (not exactly) a passive construct. With yarah in this form (becoming torah, תוֹרה) It indicates a person receiving something thrown at them, like a blunt object. In an ancient culture like Israel’s, that would indicate someone being hit by something like a shot-put or discus. The emphasis of a Hif’il verb is not who does the action, but who receives it.
Sennitt finds this interesting, he continues, because “it seems to be that the role of God’s word is that it is meant to kick a punch, like a discus or a shot put.”
Yes the Law has been fulfilled in Christ on the cross, and yes, the cross cancelled the debt that consigned us to eternal separation from God (what we call hell). Informed Christians know we are not under law but under grace. But still, the Law remains. And to come under its judgment is crushing. To say it kicks a punch is a gross understatement. I think it’s more accurate to say it kills.
But is that all bad? James Kushiner, Director of the Fellowship of St. James, wrote recently of John Chrysostom, who died in exile around 400AD. Chrysostom wrote:
There is only one thing … which is really terrible, only one real trial, that is sin; and I have never ceased continually harping on this theme. But as for all other things, plots, enmities, frauds, calumnies, insults, accusations, confiscation, exile, the keen sword of the enemy, the peril of the deep, warfare of the whole world, or anything else you like to name, they are but idle tales. For whatever the nature of these things may be, they are transitory and perishable, and operate in the mortal body without doing any injury to the vigilant soul.
Chrysostom reminds us of one of the central truths of the Bible: our real enemy is sin. The Bible also tells us that all of us have, to one degree or another, made peace with it. At the risk of putting it too loosely, we’re sleeping with the enemy. We may even think the enemy is our lover when in reality it’s a traitor and a killer.
If sin is the real enemy but we have made peace with it, then we need to know that, right? And if this is true, then the kick, the punch, the crushing blow is a very real mercy because it gets our attention. It’s like a fire alarm that disturbs a blissful slumber. Or the sharp pain that prompts a visit to the ER.
Most of us can understand the benefit of those kinds of alerts, painful though they may be. But why is the crushing weight of the Law so psychologically disorienting? So psychically painful? Chew on this: Because it’s true. And we know it.
The Interrogatory Moment of Truth
The question for every one of us, then, when (not if) we find ourselves on the receiving end of the blow becomes, What am I going to do now?
Consider three options:
- One can look away from the Law, avoid the blow, saying, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy.” This is the Scarlett O’Hara response.
- One can deny the Law, evade the blow, saying, “Did God really say …?” This is the Serpent in the Garden response.
- Or one can take the blow and allow the interrogation to do its work, and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And this, the moment it proceeds from the heart, becomes the salvation response.
We can acquiesce to the truth that we hate but know is true. Or we can, as St. Paul put it, “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” which can take a variety of forms, including #1 and #2 above and blowbacks that are far worse than those.
The good queer theorist English professor discovered, as has every regenerated Christian since the cross, that acquiescing kills those inner voices that say, “I am okay,” and, “I have it all right.” It destroys the peace we’ve made with our own sin.
The Interrogatory Moment of Truth
It feels like death, but paradoxically, it’s the way to life. Because it is in that moment that we discover the great liberating reality of redemption. The real crushing blow has intercepted. The final blow that would have finished us off for good fell on the cross, and we’ve “crossed over,” so to speak, to the backside of it. We’ve been acquitted.
And we go free.
- God’s Word: discus hit not sleepy solace, by Haydn Sennitt
- My Train Wreck Conversion – “As a leftist lesbian professor, I despised Christians. Then I somehow became one.”
- A Divine Derailment: A Conversation with Rosaria Butterfield
Rosaria Butterfield was raised Catholic but walked away when her best friend told her she’d had sex with their parish priest. She came out as a lesbian while in grad school, and by age thirty-six was a tenured professor of English at Syracuse University specializing in Queer Theory. She and her lesbian partner were active in their Unitarian Universalist Church, and in several gay, lesbian, and philanthropic causes. She was quite content with her life.
As part of her ongoing “War against Stupid,” she set out to refute the Religious Right from a lesbian, feminist perspective and began reading the Bible and meeting with a local pastor and his wife as part of her research. During this time, she would occasionally park her red truck, complete with GLBT and NARAL stickers, near his church and watch families go in, wondering. What did they do there? Then one morning, “I emerged from the bed of my lesbian lover and an hour later was sitting in a pew. … I felt like a freak.”
But she kept going back. In the end, the Bible, which “got to be bigger inside me than I,” refuted her entire world. Conversion was like “a train wreck,” she wrote in her brutally honest book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. “I lost everything but the dog.” She left Syracuse in 2000, and later married Kent Butterfield, a Reformed Presbyterian pastor. Today, they are the parents of four adopted children and live in Durham, NC.
Here, she shares her thoughts on sexual sin and healing.
You struggled in the beginning with even the concept of sin. It wasn’t even a category of thought for you, Is that right?
And the suggestions of sexual sin particularly must have been anathema to a lesbian postmodern thinker.
Yet at some point in reading the Bible, the question emerged in your mind, What if it’s true? Where did that question come from?
That’s the ultimate questions, isn’t it? I was a serious student of Freud. I was steeped very much in the worldviews of Freud and Marx. Those were the predominating thinkers of my generation. And so I had already had a presupposition that sexuality was a powerful, inherent, diverse, human need, and it was individual and there were really no moral prohibitions against it. There might be some social prohibitions, but really, “Anything Goes” is the Freudian dynamic and that was very much my thinking.
And so as I was reading and rereading the Bible, I was also of course a professor of English, and one of the paradigms of knowledge that you have to confront when you profess in English literature is the question of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a word that simply means ‘how you know that your interpretation is accurate.’ And of course a postmodernist would believe that there’s more than one truth, right? There are truth claims, [but] there is no such thing as an overarching, organic or unified or totalizing concept of truth.
And so it was in that context that I started reading the Bible. The first time through I just thought it was a bunch of hogwash, right? Because you’re confronted with moral prohibitions and totalizing truth of an originary incentive. “God declared.” And so, none of this made any sense to me. And so one of the things I needed to start doing as I was reading the Bible was also reading and thinking about how and why Christians thought this was accurate. Because what I was trying to do was write a book on the Religious Right from a lesbian, feminist perspective. Even when you’re writing from a lesbian, feminist perspective, it’s important that you capture adequately your adversary’s point of view. And so I started reading and thinking about some of the different hermeneutical categories that organized Bible reading – inerrancy and inspiration.
So I was reading the Bible, and I was reading it the way a glutton eats cookies, not leaving any crumbs. That’s kind of normal for an English professor. But I was also trying to understand some of the arguments that suggested that the Bible wasn’t just a mythological tale or a story, but an organic whole whose concept of revelation depended on every jot and tittle somehow fitting together.
There are many questions in the Bible that are very personal, and I think it’s important, as an outsider reading it, to take those personal questions to heart. And it was in that context that I started to question my own sense that I had it all right.
There were two issues that were key for me. One is the nature of God and the nature of a triune God. Because it did seem to me that if this book was an organized whole, the cross was its organic center. And so the question of Jesus as the Word made flesh – as someone who did not emerge from history but rather entered into history for the purpose of redeeming a people who were at war with him – was a very powerful idea, especially to someone who considered herself to be an activist and a compassionate person, someone who always wanted to stand with the disempowered and leave the world a better place than I found it. I found the person and work of Jesus to be a very compelling narrative, something I was hungry to learn more about.
But ultimately, I suppose the crux for me was the question of God’s authority. Because it did strike me that I had been wanting to interrogate the Bible. I was a literary critic by training, and what literary critics do is they interrogate things, and so it struck me that I was in the posture of the interrogator. And it did make me wonder though. The whole premise of an inerrant and inspired Bible is that the Bible then interrogates you. You don’t interrogate it. And the justification for that is that the Bible is written by a holy God. I had to stop and think for a moment because, if God did create the heavens and the earth and everything, and if God did set apart a people for himself before he made the stars and the sand [and] every little leaf on a tree, then nothing is higher than God. And therefore, God does have the authority to interrogate me.
It was that juncture that made me stop and pause. God speaks to us through his word. And one of the things that I marvel at in God’s providence was that he had me so deeply in the word, even as an unbeliever. And so, here I was, an unbeliever, but given the gold. Really, given the gold.
I marvel at God’s grace in that. Reading the Bible in order to know God’s will for your life is crucial. Because if I’m standing there in front of my dog and I’m waiting for my dog to meow before I do anything, I’m going to be standing there a long time! I’m going to be wondering what’s wrong with my dog; he’s not meowing! God’s language is the language of the Bible in the same way that the language of a dog is not to meow. I need to know the language in some ways in order to have the ears to hear and the eyes to see. And that’s the way God intended it. So without really appreciating any of this, the Lord had designed for me to be given all of the things I needed to be able to discern the still, small voice of the Lord in the midst of the cacophony of my life.
A Methodist pastor, the Dean of the Chapel at Syracuse, told you that since God made you a lesbian, you could have Jesus and your lesbian lover. “It was an appealing prospect,” you wrote. But you didn’t take it, why not?
[laughing] I don’t know why I didn’t take it. In general, I’m not a very strong person, and I don’t like to hurt people. Probably the hardest thing about my conversion was just the body count. But I’m also a deep thinker. I try to picture a problem and understand it in its logical sequence. I had read the Bible at that point, more than once through. I was really wrestling with it, And it just seemed to me that the only way that his statement could be true, or his hermeneutic could be true is if Jesus didn’t say that he came to fulfill every jot and tittle. It seemed to me that in order for my liberal Christian friends’ hermeneutic to be solid, then I’d have to take the scissors and cut out big chunks of the Bible, including big chunks of the testimony of Jesus. You cannot, it seemed to me, have a Bible with a bunch of holes cut in it and have Jesus of the Bible. Because Jesus is the word made flesh. And if he came to fulfill every jot and tittle, then obviously this question – that Jesus came to set the captives free of the sin that besets us – was also true.
And so the two things couldn’t go together. It did make me go back and read and think about it though. One of the things it made me think about is what it means to be a new creature in Christ. It did strike me that many, many people could make an intellectual consent about general Bible teachings and the general utility of some of the philosophical statements of Jesus. But it didn’t seem to me that you could have the blood of Jesus or the covenant and have the add-and-stir approach. And what I mean by add-and-stir approach is, You know, I’m a lesbian, I’m now reading the Bible; I kinda like this Jesus guy. I’d like to just add him to my worldview and stir, like I might do the Nesquick thing for a quick breakfast for my kids in the morning.
And yet the Bible in no way has room for add-and-stir. It’s death and blood, right? The blood is necessary for the covenant. So it’s a bloody death. It’s the death of the old man; and then being transformed into a new creature in Christ. That’s what the Bible has said. And yet this add-and-stir approach is a different hermeneutic. I did go back and ask him to give me some of his hermeneutical approaches and thoughts on this. [But] it only worked if the Bible was not an organic whole. And the sad thing about this to me is what was at stake. There’s a lot at stake in taking a scissors to your Bible and making big holes. And what’s at stake is that you lose the ability to hear the voice of God, and you deny yourself the ability to communicate the desires of your heart to a holy God.
So, I read. I thought about it. I listened to his arguments. But they didn’t hold up. And then what you got at the end? Forget it! If all you get at the end is another adequate thinker who cared to do good things but ended up maligned by the power structure, I’d rather have a New York Times and a cup of Starbucks..
The entire power of the gospel is taken out of that, isn’t it?
Yeah, totally! It is a completely powerless gospel and it completely works then on the capacity for you to buoy it up through your agendas and interests. I didn’t need that Jesus.
You wrote this: “Sexual sin is not recreational sin gone overboard. Sexual sin is predatory.” What do you mean by ‘predatory’?
Well a predator can’t stop until it kills. A predator is driven to fulfill its lust or its agenda. And one of the things that we Christians have been really squeamish on is talking about how to appropriately deal with sexual sin. And I think too often people think that sexual sin is just a matter of getting the genders wrong, or maybe not having a marriage license, which is getting the timing wrong. Or misusing your computer with internet pornography. And I think that what people need to understand is that whatever is the lust, let’s take pornography – whatever is the driving predatory lust that motivates a person to engage in pornography – that will not be sated by sexual conduct within a Christian marriage. It’s a totally different thing.
It’s a totally different drive, is what’s you’re saying…
It is, and it’s predatory. And so I think we need to be more rigorous in our thinking about what the motivation of sexual sin is and what the solution is. I think that there are a lot of totally wrecked marriages because a pastor said, “Just get married, and it’ll work itself out,” [as if] once you have a legitimate object for your sexual desires, this other problem will go away. Well, guess what! Predators don’t go away. So I think we have to be careful to not presume that marriage redeems sexual sin.
Which goes right to my next question. You continued on about the healing of sexual sin. And you said, “It won’t be healed by redeeming the context or the genders. Most people understand the concept of being forgiven from sin. But what is it about sexual sin that makes it require healing?
I don’t think it’s only sexual sin, but I think sexual sin does have a particular searing effect on a person. It tends to run very deep. One of the holds that it has over a person is the hold over our consciousness, the various ways that pornographic images sear themselves into our imagination. And it has a lot to do with your imagination. And so you repent of a sin, but it’s a sin that feels like it is so deep inside you that once you are done with it you can’t even imagine that there’s going to be any you left. Because it can’t be undone. God doesn’t lobotomize you. He didn’t lobotomize me. So what do you do with those feelings? What do you do with those memories?
And I think that’s where we need to go back for a minute. One of the ways that the Bible is a powerful book is that God intended it to be free and clear of some of the worldviews that snare us today around sexuality. You know, we 21st century thinkers are Freudian thinkers. Even if we’ve never read one sentence of Freud. We have been raised in a culture that sees sexuality as a core human drive. And that is exactly how sexuality is talked about today, and perhaps why we have more programs in sexuality studies throughout the US and Canada and the Western world that good Christians can really imagine.
Freud’s notion of sexuality has erased any need for a soul. [But] where Freud talks about sexuality, the Bible talks about a soul, something that both precedes you and extends beyond you.
The book of Romans teaches us that we are to die completely to our sin. And we have some amazing statements there in the book of Romans about the power of sin to hold us fast and at the same time the competing, and in some ways superior, power of grace to release us from that. One of the challenges, I think, is that we don’t approach the book of Romans from a hermeneutic of obedience. We tend to be pragmatists about this. We tend to say, That’s great for somebody who doesn’t have, let’s say for example, homoerotic fantasies. That can totally work for you. But that’s not going to work for me. And yet, God asks us to extend a hermeneutic of obedience to every part of the Bible, to every passage. And often that means that you feel like in obeying you are jumping off a cliff. You don’t see where you are going to land or how you’re going to manage.
And so I think that one of the things that’s really helpful there, you know when we’re talking about how do you heal from sexual sin.
Let’s talk about first of all how you don’t heal from sexual sin: Number one rule for how never to heal from sexual sin, the big deep dark secret of your life: Go to prayer meeting and talk about Aunt Tilly’s big toe until you’re ready to take the toe off yourself. But never mention your lust; you know. Keep yourself looking good. That’s a great way to never heal from sexual sin. Another good way to never really heal from sexual sin is to secretly feed on doubt.
Psalm 37, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on faithfulness.” Often when we who struggle with sexual sin approach the Bible, we don’t even realize it, but we are feeding on doubt. All we’re doing is running our narrative about how we could never be changed, we could never be healed, we have been like this forever, without realizing that that’s the large Christian story. Were we born this way? You bet! All of us were. It’s called total depravity. And it’s powerful. You can’t deal with a powerful enemy with a squirt gun, you know?
Sometimes sin is something that we court. But other times, sin, you know, grabs us by the throat and we didn’t even see it coming. But if we in our pride refuse to tell our church family how we’re really struggling, [asking] how can we get the counsel we need? How can we get the prayer support we need? Who’s holding on to our ankles as we’re dangling off the cliff?
You’re really just talking about being authentic, aren’t you?
I really am.
You wrote that as you got to know “church people” you found out that they struggled with sexual sin too. That was something of a surprise for you, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was very helpful to know that I was not the only person in this community who struggles with sexual sin. Now having said that, it was also extremely important to me that I was not farmed out into some 12-Step program for sexual sinners. I think it’s very important to not create a situation in your church where the personal narrative of struggle overshadows the power of the gospel to banish the old man and flourish the new.
And I would say too, those older Christian thinkers who were pre-Freudian are very helpful, much more helpful, in dealing with sexual sin than some of the more contemporary thinkers. Here, I’m thinking about John Owen. There’s an extremely excellent revision of John Owen by Kris Lundgaard called The Enemy Within. It’s about besetting sin. And it’s about how discouraging on the one hand besetting sin can be because we repent of it, and we think it’s done, and there it is again the next day. That’s very, very frustrating.
Now, in a Freudian context what we say, and so many people who identify as gay Christians say, “Well, God made me this way; he must want me to be this way.” But can you imagine if we said that about our lying or our cheating or our yelling at our kids or any of the other things that might not merit a 12-Step title? We wouldn’t stop with that. So I think it’s important that we not lose heart in doing good and that we not tacitly or secretly encourage our loved ones in the church to lose heart in their struggle against sin. And one of the ways we do that is when we pretend that we’re all cleaned up, or we give people a sign that says, Don’t pollute me with what’s really going on in your life.
There’s a real shallowness about that.
Yes, there is. And, you know, there’s nothing shallow about the blood of Christ.
You wrote, “Sexuality is of more of a symptom of our life’s condition than a cause, more a consequence than an origin.” What did you mean by that?
Freud would say that sexuality is an originary drive – primal, born with you and won’t leave you. Yours for life. And what we as Christians would say is, of course, original sin – you are born with it. You inherit it. It is a deep, and in some ways, abiding enemy. But the redemption of Christ is not some weak, paltry shellac that we just put over the original sin of our lives. The blood of Christ makes us new. The word of God is a sword, and it cuts so deep it can separate the soul and the spirit. It defines us in a new and different way. And so when we tend to think of our sexuality, we tend to see it as somehow a rite of passage. It defines us, and we tend to think of it as something that puts our life into 5th gear, as it were.
Kind of a “salvation by sex” way of looking at things?
I think that’s absolutely right. And it leads to salvation by some sort of a purported honest disclosure of who I am and where I stand. But that’s not what the Bible says it is. If you’re reading the Bible to understand yourself, you have to put yourself on the altar right there. Because the Bible does not say that you originate with your feelings or that you originate with your total depravity. The Bible says that God made you in his image. That image has been marred, but Jesus, our second Adam, redeems us from our sin and truly gives us new life and new birth. But, as anybody who’s maybe suffered from a broken leg, and there you are recovering from it, it takes a little physical therapy before you can run again. And that physical therapy is meant to be provided through the local church and through the means of grace.
Why do you think sexuality is such an explosive subject?
That’s a good question. I think because we tend to feel it in a very personal way [and] it spills over into our life. I think because for some time now the church has failed to teach how and why the Bible is our true guide to who we are, Christians have relied too much on Christian tradition. We live in a feeling-based society, and without the wisdom and the checks and the balances and the direction and the redemption of the blood of Christ, I think sexuality simply becomes a flourishing, enormous, self-defining, culture-defining paradigm. I also think because we tend to want to see personal authority as the highest of all end goals, autonomy, sexual autonomy, becomes the next obvious step. That I can invent myself in any way I want.
That was the sexual revolution too, wasn’t it?
You said sexual sin must simply be killed. How does one do that?
Yeah, that’s a tough one, isn’t it? First of all, one doesn’t do that once and for all. So we need to give up these vapid approaches to the Christian faith that makes the appeal to the gospel a prosperity contest where you say, Commit your life to Jesus, and it’s all good! So the first thing we need to do is know what our gospel is.
How often is the Christian called to take up his or her cross daily? Daily? Jesus was made to carry his own cross when he made the wood that made the cross. That’s a powerful idea. So, as we pick up our own cross, Did we make the problems that create the burden, the heaviness of that cross? Absolutely. But we’re to take it up daily. And, Can we do that by ourselves? Not necessarily. And the church must provide life-on-life, soul-on-soul, mind-on-mind, and heart-on-heart ministry. That happens in the small intimacy of a confessional church with a careful administration of the sacraments, [and] a committed display of the means of grace.
But, we die to our sin daily; we die to our sexual sin daily. And we should not be so very self-absorbed that we presume that our feelings determine whether or not we’re healed or not. How often have we healed from a broken bone, and it just feels worse before it feels better? The healing of things can be a very rigorous experience. But we’re called ultimately to assume the posture that the psalmist often assumes, not so much of talking, but of listening. And then when we do talk to ourselves, we don’t talk to ourselves using words of doubt but rather words of faith. Words of grace. I’m thinking here of Psalm 62 where the psalmist starts out by saying, My soul, waits in silence for God only. And the Psalm goes on: he’s tormented, and he’s feeling oppressed, and he’s feeling the treachery of the people around him. And then he speaks to himself and he says, My soul, Wait in silence for God only. He gives himself a command, not based on his feelings, but based on who God is.
And so I think that’s, ultimately, how you die to your sexual sin is. First of all, you’re not squeamish about it. You don’t think that the sinner’s prayer’s gonna cover it. You take up your cross daily, and in your life, your relinquished life, the person and the integrity of Jesus Christ is more valuable and viable to you than your own personal feelings. And you kick those feeling out the door as many times a day as you need to.
That’s that idea of being a soldier, too, isn’t it?
Absolutely. And don’t go into war with a squirt gun, cause it’s not going to help.
What did your church, the one you began attending when you were in a lesbian relationship, do right in terms of identifying sin as sin and calling it what God calls it.
They surrounded me, [as] the Psalm says, with songs of deliverance. Very much, my church surrounded me with songs of deliverance. I was immediately integrated and welcomed into the homes of many, many people, including all these really nice, cleaned-up homeschool families.
That was so foreign to you, wasn’t it?
It was! But you know, the honest conversation was not foreign to me. These were also people who read and studied the Bible, so when I would have at it with a question like, Why do you people think abortion is wrong but you support the death penalty? Nobody said, Oh, I don’t know, let me go ask the pastor. Folks really opened up the word for me, showed me some passages, and then talked deeply about some of the struggles that they had in reconciling some [Bible difficulties]. Women’s submission, that was not an easy pill for me to swallow. And some of Paul’s assertions about slavery? I remember saying, Well, okay, you’re gonna tell me that you support slavery? You know, certainly the Bible had been used to do that. What do you believe? That’s when I also learned. People said, Well, do you know what a slave in the Roman context was? [I had to] think about that, I sort of do. A slave in the Roman context was – a little bit like a graduate student, come to think of it. You know, they own you for seven years, at the end you have your citizenship but no money.
So those things were very helpful to me, that this is not a church that glossed over the hard things in Scripture, nor was it a congregation that was afraid to integrate. It also was a congregation that wasn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and step in and help me. And so when one of my students – now we’re getting back to the bloodbath, right? Because when one sinner comes to faith, that puts everybody in her life in crisis, not because of anything necessarily that they have done, but because the gospel has a way of squeezing and pressing people. And when I came to faith, my graduate students, and my undergraduate students, who were working with me in part because of my leadership in Queer Theory and in Gay and Lesbian Studies – [when] one of my graduate students attempted suicide, it was a very scary time. And it was clear to me that I needed my church family to be there at the hospital. But she needed also our lesbian community to be there. And you know what? There we all were in the waiting room. And that was really uncomfortable. And yet, it was also very powerful. Because, if we believe that God hears our prayers, where better to pray those prayers than in the waiting room? Why wait for later, right? There is no later sometimes.
And I think that’s also very powerful that people did not witness to me and enfold me into their families and churches so that I could always remain a Rahab the harlot. For me that was an extension of real Christian hospitality. They witnessed to me with an eye to the true image of God in which I was made. Not to condemn me as an example of what not to do. And they prayed for me and with me in that context.
And for me that’s a very instructive reminder. When we are witnessing to a watching world, are we approaching our really hard core sinner that’s across from us, our homeless, drug-addicted neighbor, and sharing the gospel with an eye that this person might be our pastor someday? What do we see in that person? What does Jesus see in us? Jesus was willing to die for us while we were at war with him. And God is willing to see, even in the smallest of our obediences, great good. So how dare we witness to people and condemn them in our imagination as examples of what not to be? How arrogant! And how lacking in God’s imagination.
All the teenagers I know struggle with sexual sin every nanosecond. And that’s on a good day. So what kind of example, if the best we can do is put forward a works-righteousness Christianity? How is that an example of God’s saving faith? It’s not. And if we give our children in the church the tacit or explicit understanding that you should not sin because you should know better, that completely denies the power of sin and the power of grace. If it were simply a matter of knowing better, then we could go back to my Methodist friend who said I could have Jesus and my girlfriend, right?
In your former life, you drove a truck and sported a butch haircut. How would you describe the transformation of your own identity as a woman?
Yes, that was in some ways the hardest part for me. Everyone’s journey out of sexual sin is a little bit different. For some people the issue is the lust factor, or a particular commitment to a particular kind of sex. For me it had to do with my understanding of myself as a woman. And probably for me the prayer that really tipped me over the edge was, Lord, how could you make someone like me a godly woman? My struggle had to do more with my identity before a holy God and before the mirror of, in some ways, myself.
It was not an easy transformation. I suppose in a little bit, my conversion made me feel like Eve in the garden and I suddenly noticed I was naked. In some ways the first sensibilities I had of myself as a godly woman was a sense that I somehow had been misusing my own dignity and modesty. And I suddenly felt naked and exposed. It was a powerful feeling.
It sounds to me like dressing masculinely was almost a way of rebelling against God and saying, I can’t be a good woman.
It was. I was by no means a butch lesbian, but I did try to go for a non-gendered, non-femininized appearance. And part of that was to indicate to the meat market and to men in an ungodly context that I was not available. Part of the crisis that we have in sexuality is that it can feel, and it can be, unsafe to be even a heterosexual woman in an unChristian context. What are the FBI rape statistics? By no means am I suggesting that only heterosexual women get raped, but that feminized articulations of womanhood are attacked, assaulted, demeaned, abused, and dangerous. And so, as a woman on my own, I was choosing to step out of that particular visual paradigm.
You wrote, “My former life still lurks in the edges of my heart, shiny and still like a knife.” What did you mean by that?
That line got slammed. I had so many people say, That it proof that you’re not really saved. Or that you’re not really healed. To me, it’s just proof that I wasn’t lobotomized.
You know [conversion] is a hurricane, right? And I got to the eye of the hurricane, and what did I meet? I realized that it was Jesus I had been persecuting the whole time. This wasn’t about a career, although it was that. It wasn’t about a worldview, although it was that. It wasn’t about tenure or a book or a girlfriend, although those were all very real things also. It was fundamentally about persecuting the living God. And I have never forgotten and will never forget the price that Jesus paid for my redemption. And I don’t minimize it. I don’t think it’s a small thing. I don’t look at my sins and say, Oh, I was mostly cleaned up. Not at all. And so that edge, and that knife, and the shininess of that, it’s right there. Not right there in a way that suggests I’m going to return to it, or not right there in a way that would suggest that it’s seductive to me. But that it is a caution to me. It is a real part of the journey that God gave me.
And the fact that you were living in a lesbian relationship, or were living the gay lifestyle, really is not particularly relevant to that. You’re just describing yourself as someone who has rebelled against God.
That’s really the big issue. I was not converted out of “homosexuality.” There’s no such thing! That’s not even a category. I went from unbelief to belief. And I do not want to cheapen the blood of Christ to suggest that the biggest testimony of Christ’s work in my life is that I’m a delightful, heterosexual wife and mother. That is not the point!
It’s sort of a side issue.
It really is. It’s God’s choice what he will do with us. He is the potter, and we are the clay. And the clay is not in any way better than the potter. And the clay is never to upstage the potter. In fact that’s a sin, right? That’s our biggie, as we would say. The point is that God has the power to save. And that God has the power to redeem. And that God takes you from darkness to light, that you will lose everything, and gain even more. But there’s grief, and there’s loss, and there’s fear, and there’s agony. And somehow, and for some reason, God decided that we who endure and experience that, we are the ones now beholden to share the gospel with the lost and the suffering and the dying and the hardened. Not the holy angels, who did not go through this. But we, who know the price that Christ paid for our redemption.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
One of the things I wasn’t anticipating when the book came out [is] I was not prepared for some of the deep-seated hurt and anger that this book would spark in the community called the gay Christian community, including the community that calls itself the celibate, gay Christian community. That’s a term used by people who would acknowledge with me that we are born in total depravity, that we are born in original sin, that homosexuality is not God’s design for people, but that it is the mark of a fallen world. But unlike those of us who are part of confessional churches, the celibate, gay Christians would say that God will not change you. That if you are struggling with same-sex attraction, God can redeem you, he can wash you clean, he calls you to obedience and to celibacy, but that your sexuality will not be changed, transformed, healed, or redeemed.
I think it’s helpful to go back to both the book of Romans and to realize that God intends to liberate you from your besetting sin. Yes, Paul has a thorn in his flesh, and yes God doesn’t take that away. But no, we are not to determine what is our portion and our cup. Our inheritance comes from the Lord. You do not go into your Christian life saying, Wow, I struggle with same-sex attraction, I’m just going to have to be celibate and grit my way through this.
Two things come to mind when I think about my friends in the celibate, gay Christian community. One is, churches do need to be more loving and accepting and available to the singles of all stripes and colors in our churches. We have to stop acting as though marriage is somehow a higher calling. Weddings and baby showers still make me lose my mind. I would much rather have a weekend of prayer and fasting for our prodigal teenagers. On the one hand, my celibate, gay Christian friends are right in wanting to say this to us, and I want to echo this with them. But here’s where we differ: There’s nothing in Scriptures that says you should use a descriptive adjective to modify the noun Christian. We are Christians. We do not use our struggles as adjectival modifiers, which, in English grammar, limits the noun.
It sure is, and I think Satan loves this. If we’re Christians, we’re Christians. And the answer is to go back to 1 Corinthians 6:11, “Such were some of you.” And if you diagram that, which I like to do, the subject-pronoun is ‘you,’ the verb linking is ‘were,’ and the predicate-adjective is ‘such.’ You were such. And what’s powerful about that is that linking verb ‘were’ looks like in linguistics an ‘=’ sign with a slash through it. And that’s a very powerful image. You can’t go back. “You can’t cross an ‘=’ sign with a ‘/’ through it. That bridge is broken: Such were you, and you are now, no longer.
And so I feel strongly that we need to be a more unified front on this point, [and] reject all adjectival modifiers. If you’re a Christian, you’re a Christian. And if you’re a Christian, the old man’s dead. We have to be unafraid to say that God calls a people to himself, and we respond to the gospel message. We don’t create our salvation. We couldn’t. Dead is dead.
Nor do we really even identify ourselves. He identifies us.
That’s right. And I think we have to just be suspicious of the doctrine of personal experience. My feelings are as fallen as anything else in me. And God is powerful even over those. My salvation is not dependent on my feelings. God forbid that [that] would ever be that case.
A condensed version of this conversation first appeared in Salvo 25, Summer 2013.
In June, 2002, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attack, 25-year-old Pat Tillman abruptly left a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted in the US Army. He declined all interview requests, asking to be looked upon as any other soldier. Nevertheless, the news turned him into a national phenom overnight.
Two years later, he was shot and killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. At his memorial service in San Jose, CA, carried live by major media outlets, a US Navy Seal, a friend of the family, gave a moving eulogy. He told how Pat had died in a heroic attempt to rescue his platoon brothers from an enemy ambush. “Pat sacrificed himself so his brothers could live.” He was awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest honor awarded for valor in battle with enemies of the United States. The public memorials were ceremonies befitting a hero.
But Pat’s family soon began to suspect there was more to the story than what they had been told. Pat’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, started poking around, and over time the story changed. Meanwhile, as investigations unfolded, the media outlets would cut, paste, and package the story to suit their editorial objectives. Pat Tillman became even more of a news phenom, exactly what he did not want to be. His wife Marie began to wonder, Where was Pat the person in all this?
Eventually, it came out that Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire. It hadn’t even been in an enemy attack. His death had been the result of (at best) a string of poor decisions on the part of military personnel.
Death by friendly fire, while always tragic, is a known risk of deployment. But, “Why, then, award him the Silver Star?” Pat’s father, Patrick Tillman, Sr., wanted to know. What was going on, and why had the family and the public been lied to? A wartime death was one thing, but administrative obfuscation and deception was a whole different matter. Eventually, family pressure resulted in a Congressional hearing which included testimony from top brass all the way up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. All denied knowledge and culpability, and with that, the “case” was closed.
The Death of Understanding
Well, “closed” for everyone but Pat’s family. They’re now convinced that Pat’s death was used as a propaganda tool – by the administration and military to promote the war effort and by the media to sell news. The family’s story is told in the 2010 film, The Tillman Story, directed by Berkeley producer Amir Bar-Lev. It’s a sad and troubling account, but not just because of the war, the death of Pat Tillman, or the propaganda angle. Those are troubling, of course, but there’s a deeper, wider, and more lamentable loss on display over the course of the film. It’s the death of understanding.
The Tillmans have eliminated God from their thinking. Pat’s youngest brother Richard made this clear at the memorial service. “Make no mistake, he’d want me to say this: He’s not with God, he’s f***ing dead. He’s not religious. So thanks for your thoughts, but he’s f***ing dead,” he repeated it for emphasis. This leaves them with no transcendent context from which to understand death or injustice. Yes, they know something about death and injustice, but beyond feeling anger and then taking the story to the public, they have no framework from which to understand it, to understand how it can be made right, or to even understand that it can be made right.
Naturally, they’re grieved over the loss of Pat. But they have no way to process their grief. Naturally, they are angry over the indignity of his death being deceitfully used for war PR and then being lied to. But they have no way to process that anger. Yes, life goes on and they seem to be coping, but still they evince the anguish of unresolved and (worse) unresolvable grief and anger.
And there’s something beyond that. They have no explanation for grief itself. After all, if human beings, including Pat, are nothing more than collocations of matter and energy – no soul, no spirit – there’s really no loss to speak of. The matter decomposes and the energy gets spent some other way, and that’s that. I’m not saying the Tillmans don’t feel legitimate pain. I’m sure they do. I’m pointing out that they have no explanation for their pain. Their pain sits at odds with their worldview.
It’s the same with their feelings of injustice. The Tillmans are angry, and rightfully so, assuming the story as told is accurate. Anger is a legitimate emotion because lying and using people – for any reason – are wrong. Again, I’m not saying their emotional reactions are illegitimate. I’m saying that they have no explanation for them. Their anger and sense of injustice also sit at odds with their worldview.
Because, according to the Darwinian paradigm, which is still the going metanarrative for all non-theistic worldviews, natural selection knows nothing of ethics or morals. It is perfectly consistent with Darwinian evolution, then, for the powerful to use the weak and then dispense with them. What happened to Pat is to be expected, really.
What’s my point in all this? The Tillmans’ very souls cry out in painful testimony to them that something is wrong, very wrong. Their emotions are pointers to God. C.S. Lewis wrote about this in Mere Christianity. He carefully explained how his arguments for atheism broke down because of, not in spite of, his sense of injustice:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
The grief over death proves the value of life. The sense of injustice proves the reality of justice. The darkness proves the light. Or, as you may have heard it more recently from Switchfoot, The Shadow Proves the Sunshine.
But the materialist worldview does not allow its adherents to see through to any of this. So materialists get stuck in anguish, unable to make sense of their emotions. They cannot understand. Isaiah the prophet wrote of those who’ve turned away from God. They “hope for light, but behold, darkness; For brightness, but we walk in gloom. … We stumble at midday as in the twilight, … We hope for justice, but there is none, For salvation, but it is far from us.” (Isaiah 59: 9-11)
But none of them will “fix” anything, if they do not begin from the right foundation, which is God, the fear of whom “is the beginning of wisdom” and the knowledge of whom “is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
[Somebody's] Truth about the Universe and How You Fit into It
In the 1980s, David Christian, a 40-ish year-old professor of Russian history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, became discontent teaching “just the history of one country.” “[N]ot really sure … in a sense, who I am,” he wanted to know about the history of humanity as a whole. “That question forced me back,” he said. “If you want to know about humanity, you have to ask about how humans evolved from primates.” His inquiry continued pressing backward until he was asking about the origins of the earth and then finally of the whole universe. He read widely, synthesized what he found into a course, and began teaching it as “Big History” in 1989.
Bill Gates later saw the DVD series and wanted to make it available to more people. He tracked down Christian and the two founded the Big History Project to disseminate Big History globally, beginning with high schools. The resulting 10-unit, 50-lesson course spanning 13.7 billion years of “universe history” went online in late 2013. The project is funded by Gates’s LLC, bgC3 (Bill Gates Catalyst 3), which is described as a think tank, incubator and venture capitalist firm.
Big History is billed as “a true history course … with a goal of helping students understand a historical narrative and ultimately human civilization’s past, present and future.” Christian and Gates speak of it with infectious enthusiasm. “This is my favorite course of all time,” says Gates. It’s very special because “it creates a framework for so many of the things [students] will learn in other courses.” How was the universe created? Why does it work the way it does? Why do we find ourselves on this tiny planet, buzzing with life? What does it mean to be human? These are the question Big History purports to answer. They fascinated Christian from the beginning and motivated him “because they made me feel I was a part of something absolutely huge and quite wondrous.” “By the end of this course,” he says, ”you’ll have surveyed the whole history of the universe. And you’ll know how you fit into it.”
The question that needs to be asked, though, is, In what sense is this history? When Gates concedes that it “blurs the boundaries between science and geography and history,” he doesn’t go far enough. Take another look at the questions Big History aims to answer:
- How was the universe created?
- Why does it work the way it does?
- Why are we here?
- What does it mean to be human?
These aren’t the questions of science, geography, or history, but of philosophy and religion. Big History purports to be “Universe History,” “Universe History” being the grammatical equivalent of “Russian History” or “Film History.” But that’s not what it is. Big History is a story of the universe, according to a particular metaphysical worldview – the materialist naturalistic, or atheistic one – to be specific.
A broad range of schools are already implementing Big History in the United States and internationally. The project provides all materials and teacher training and offers subsidies to cover additional direct expenses incurred by schools. Given the funding and big names behind it, Big History is sure to be expertly produced, engaging for students, and widely propagated,
But if we take the first definition listed for ‘religion’ on Dictionary.com, “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe,” there is no way to take Big History as anything but an alternative religion. A slickly presented, secular religion, now showing at a school near you.
This article first appeared in Salvo 27, Winter 2013
Greg Spencer of Roseburg, OR, was a police officer in narcotics enforcement in the 1990s. His work kept him immersed in a world of violence, death, and depravity on a regular basis. In addition he was a deputy medical examiner, which meant he had to view autopsies, often on bodies whose life had ended in a horrible death. He was dedicated to his work, but it turned him into a hardened and calloused man, and his first marriage ended because of it.
He left the police force after fifteen years of service and became a cross-country truck driver, but about six months into that, macular degeneration in both eyes rendered him effectively blind. He went on disability, and, with the expectation of being blind and disabled for the rest of his life, got help through the Oregon Commission of the Blind in functional blind living, including white cane and guide dog training.
During this time, he met Wendy – his face softens into a smile when he mentions Wendy – a “born again, on fire believer in Jesus Christ,” who “drug me with her to church.” He met Jesus Christ there. And he married Wendy.
If Greg Spencer’s story were to end there, most of us would consider it a rather happy ending. A man loses his sight but gains salvation, a beautiful wife, and the means to live out a reasonably comfortable life on earth. But his story didn’t end there.
In 2001, he attended a men’s retreat, the topic of which was, “Cleansing of the Mind.” He needed that. He’d not been able to sleep nights because of the horrid, graphic images of bodies, violence, and pornography still haunting his psyche. Sometimes he would wake up screaming from the nightmares. So at the retreat he prayed, Lord, cleanse my mind. Take this junk away. Set me free. Right away, he felt the Lord respond directly, You’re clean.
He opened his eyes. And the next thing he knew, he was reading the little red “Exit” sign behind the speaker in the chapel. Not only had his mind been cleansed of the residue of years among such evil, but his eyes had been healed of their blindness. His vision was totally restored. Even the scar tissue was gone.
A subsequent investigation opened by the state of Oregon resulted in comprehensive documentation, both of his visual impairment and the restoration of his sight, and cleared him of any fraud charges in relation to the temporary collection of disability. His is a current-day, thoroughly documented healing, or in the words on the diagnosis submitted by Dr. Brad Seeley of the Dept. of Ophthalmology, Oregon Health Sciences University, “Unexplained Decreased Visual Acuity.”
The Testimony of Data
Greg Spencer’s story is only one small component of the documentary, Jesus of Testimony, produced by Nesch Productions, but it offers our scientifically “enlightened” age some powerful evidence of the supernatural to chew on.
Though this story is dramatic, most of the two-plus hour long documentary is more of an intellectual discussion with an array of New Testament scholars. Here’s a brief summary:
Part One: Lord or Legend looks at references to Jesus from sources outside the Bible – for example the Roman historian Tacitus and Josephus, an ancient Jewish scholar – that confirm details in the gospel accounts. For example, many non-Christian sources didn’t shy away from calling Jesus “God” or “Son of God.” Some mention that he was known for miracles, even by those who didn’t believe in him. Thallus, a Greek historian, wrote of the darkness on Good Friday, and Josephus tells about the resurrection.
Part Two: Are the Gospels Reliable? gives data on the numbers of extant manuscripts, full and partial, to address the question, Are the gospel texts we have today reliable copies of the originals? It also looks at ancient customs concerning oral traditions and the dating of the writings.
Part Three: Miracles, which is the segment containing the story of Greg Spencer, deconstructs David Hume’s circular argument against the possibility of miracles, on which most arguments against miracles are based today and explains how the empirical sciences, historiography, and forensics go about (or at least should go about) evaluating claims concerning the miraculous.
Part Four: The Testimony of Prophecy. The Old Testament contains more than three hundred prophecies about the coming Messiah. All were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This segment draws out a few of them, establishing the supernatural credentials both of the ancient prophets and of Jesus himself.
Part Five: The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? looks at the practice of crucifixion (a highly reliable means of killing, which the Romans both invented and perfected), the evidence for the empty tomb, and the various theories posited to explain the resurrection away.
Part Six: The Good News gives us the basic New Testament gospel message, and then we hear from two men. Dr. Michael Brown, who says his own story is “from LSD to Ph.D.,” shot heroin and played drums in a rock band with the intention of becoming a rock star until the day he realized how much God loved him and that Jesus had died for him. On that day, he says, God set him free, and he never put a needle in his arm again. Dr. Brown went on to earn a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures. He is the author of numerous books including Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections.
Dr. Craig Keener was an atheist when some people shared the gospel with him. He said, “I’m an atheist; I don’t believe that. Why should I believe that?” and then walked away.
But although they couldn’t give him a good argument for it, they did give him the right content, and after that, God gave him a different kind of evidence. “God gave me the evidence of his own presence,” he says, knowing that some people may not be able to understand that. It was “a certainty that went beyond any other kind of evidence that I could have had because it came directly into my heart.” He didn’t understand the language of salvation that the people had used, and he struggled with God over the implications of it. But eventually his knees buckled underneath him and he surrendered. That was the beginning of his Christian life.
The Testimonies of the Living
Jesus of Testimony is packed with data about this one central figure of human history, Jesus of Nazareth. The information could have been put into book form, but there’s something more human about hearing the scholars speak to it, especially the ones whose lives have undergone such drastic transformations. Greg Spencer didn’t ask God to restore his sight. Dr. Michael Brown didn’t ask for help getting off drugs, and Dr. Craig Keener never asked to be “cured” of his atheism.
The data is compelling on its own. The evidence in human lives, the testimonies of men whose lives have been restored, changed, retooled, if you will, for good rather than for naught, is soul-nourishing. If the historical Jesus of testimony is who he told us he was, this should come as no surprise whatsoever.
Craig Keener, who now teaches at at Asbury Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including, Miracles: The credibility of the New Testament Accounts, has a message for anyone who’ll listen: “If God would take me, … who had blasphemed God’s name, who had spoken against him, if God would take me, God will take anybody who’s just willing to accept the testimony of the Spirit. Jesus rose from the dead, and now Jesus is alive and is Lord of the universe and is ready to transform the life of whoever comes to him.”
- The full film is available online. Click here.
- Healed from Blindness: The Testimony of Greg Spencer
- Jesus of Testimony Trailer
According to its website, The Unbelievers movie “follows renowned scientists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss across the globe as they speak publicly about the importance of science and reason in the modern world – encouraging others to cast off antiquated religious and politically motivated approaches toward important current issues.”
Okay, so let’s unpack that a bit and examine the contents of the film in light of its billing.
Science and Reason
Shortly into it, there is a string of clips, apparently taken from an Australian TV show called Q&A, in which (unbeliever) Dr. Dawkins and (believer) Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, participate in an informal debate. Now here’s something to pay attention to, the truly inquiring free thinker might say to himself, rubbing his hands together and preparing to listen up.
But that genuinely curious viewer-listener would be disappointed if he were hoping to hear a scientific or reasoned argument over the existence or nonexistence of God. Or even just a scientific or reasoned argument at all.
Here’s a little snippet from the Q&A:
Cardinal Pell: Most evolutionary biologists today don’t believe … this crude, fundamentalist version of random selection that you have proposed.
Dr. Dawkins: I do not propose it, and I strongly deny that evolution is random selection. Evolution is non-random selection. Non-random.
Cardinal Pell: Oh, so there’s a purpose to it?
Dr. Dawkins: No! [laughs can be heard from the audience]
Cardinal Pell: Could you explain what non-random means?
Dr. Dawkins: Yes, of course I could. That’s my life’s work.
But we never actually get to hear the explanation, if there was one. Oddly, interspersed between the clips of this discussion, we get selected clips from another debate, at another location, between (unbeliever) Dr. Krauss and Muslim (believer) Uthman Badar. When the film cuts back to Dawkins and Pell, the discussion has moved on.
We can surmise, though, from listening between the clips, if you will, that there was mention of discernible purpose in the universe and some reference to the human inclination to look for meaning:
Cardinal Pell: It’s part of being human to ask why we exist.
Dr. Dawkins: The question Why? is not necessarily a question that deserves to be answered.
There are all sorts of questions that people cannot ask. Like, What is the color of jealousy? That’s a silly question. Why? is a silly question.
You can ask, What are the factors that led to something coming into existence? That’s a sensible question. But, What is the purpose of the universe? is a silly question. It has no meaning.
Sadly, we don’t get to hear what Cardinal Pell said next, as the film cuts away again to Krauss and Badar.
Then it cuts back:
Dr. Dawkins: We do have a scientific understanding of why we’re here. And we therefore have to make up our own meaning to life.
We have to stand up, look the world in the face, face up to the fact that we are not going to last forever, we have to make the most of the short time that we have on this planet. We have to make this planet as good as we possibly can and try to leave it a better place than we found it. [applause can be heard from the audience]
And this is, as far as the film is concerned, the end of the Q&A. It’s also the end of any semblance of reasoned argumentation in The Unbelievers of the basic point purportedly at issue: whether there is reason to believe or unbelieve in God.
Encouraging Others to Cast Off … What?
After the two debates, which we see by clips and switches, the film shifts to a ponderous conversation between Dawkins and Krauss. The two are riding in the back seat of a car when Dr. Dawkins expresses some exasperation with the debate format.
Dr. Dawkins: Well, I got thoroughly fed up with BBC type interviews where you have a chairman in the middle and you’ve got an interesting conversation going on between two … there might be [as many as] five people around the table. And A and B are having an interesting conversation. And so the chairman suddenly says, ‘Well, what do you think about this, C?’ totally breaking the flow and spoiling the conversation, all in the interest of balance and things like that.
And it occurred to me, Why on earth do we bother with chairmen? They’re not necessary. Certainly my recent encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Sheldonian Theater in Oxford (click here for debate), that was completely ruined by the chairman, who was a philosopher and felt it was his role to clarify things. And of course that meant obscuring things.
The two scientists share a knowing laugh. Those silly philosophers who ask clarifying questions. Don’t they know some questions should not be asked?
And to Embrace … What?
Having cast off those questions that should not be asked or that have no meaning by the fifteen minute mark, the remainder of the film consists mostly of this “Dynamic Duo of Science” traipsing the globe, pontificating together, and speaking to sympathetic audiences about the universe “that can come from nothing,” the multiverse “that can be eternal,” and how we are “endowed by evolution” to create our own meaning during our “brief moment in the sun.”
Look at those phrases again. Does this sound to you like the language of science or the language of religion?
Dr. Kraus: I guess the best part of communicating is the excitement. Science turns us on. Science is fun. Science excites us. … I feel it’s so fascinating for me that I want to tell people about it.
Dr. Dawkins (looking off into the distance): Carl Sagan said, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world,” and say to them, “I’m in love with science, and I have to tell the world.”
Do you hear the echoes of religiosity as Dawkins and Krauss pontificate together? These men are not advancing science or reason. These are adherents of an alternative religion.
So don’t ask them silly question they aren’t prepared to answer. Science turns Dr. Krauss on. And Dr. Dawkins? He’s in love, and he has to tell the world about it.
Watch The Unbelievers if you like. But not if you want to hear a discussion based on authentic science or grounded reason. The Unbelievers is about two scientists who are missionaries of Evangelical Atheism.
A typical crowd of tourists, seniors, and schoolchildren on field trips was mulling around the large lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when a young man, wearing full military dress and carrying a cello, walked toward a chair curiously placed in the center of the large room and sat down. He took up his bow in one hand, stretched his other arm to adjust the sleeve, and began playing with calm, expert finesse.
After the opening measures, another soldier musician approached with a standup bass and joined in. A small riser was brought out, and a graying maestro removed his overcoat and accepted the conductor’s baton from an assistant with a cordial salute. An oboe came in with the melody, followed by strings, brass, clarinets, flutes, even a harp.
Mothers holding children swayed with the music. Faces broke into smiles and wonder. A few people started recording the flash concert on their cell phones.
The crowd has stopped mulling around; the rockets, space capsules and bi-plane hanging from the ceiling are forgotten. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by the US Air Force Band under the direction of Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor, is enough to render these museum artifacts, sophisticated as they were in their time, as just so much scrap metal.
Then come the vocals:
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright …
If you look carefully, you can see a few museum-goers wiping away tears while other faces appear close to tears. In fact, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue as you watch.
Now why is this? Why is it that, all those bystanding technological accomplishments notwithstanding, this music has the power to slip right past the intellect and, drawing from unseen wells of emotion we didn’t even know were there, summon the heart to come forth and behold something greater?
Or to phrase the question in the language of science, what is the explanation for this universal phenomenon we call joy? Or rapture? Hold that thought.
Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an atheist named Ken. A medical doctor, Ken is very intelligent and articulate. His mother had passed on a few weeks prior, and the conversation turned to his reaction to it. “I was walking down the street Tuesday,” Ken said, “by an antique shop. And I had looked for a particular kind of double-striped cranberry glass that my mother collects. It’s very rare. And every time I go by this antique shop I look to see if they’ve got any in the window. I’ve never seen it. And I realized as I walked by that I never really need to look for that … ” and here his voice broke away. An emotional wave had struck him, seemingly, out of nowhere, and he couldn’t finish the sentence, I never need to look for double-striped cranberry glass again…
He changed the subject and soon afterward ended the conversation. It made me want to cry for him – not so much for the loss of his mother, but for the loss of his ability to grieve the loss. He feels something very deeply, but he’s cut himself off from both the source and satisfaction of that longing. Ken has rejected belief in God for lack of evidence, yet he misses the evidence that springs from the emotional wells of his very soul.
C.S. Lewis wrote about the innate desire for something beyond. That desire is also a form of nascent knowledge. “Most people, if they had really learned to look in their hearts, would know that they do want, and acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.” The human soul was made to enjoy some objects that are “never fully given – nay, cannot even be imagined as given – in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” He called it joy; he also called it longing. A literary critic, he even at times called it Romanticism. This desire, Lewis wrote, is distinct from others in that it is itself desirable. “To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”
To want to have what? Look at the rest of the words of the first stanza of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” penned by Robert Bridges to be sung to the masterpiece:
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.
Souls aspiring to do what? To soar to uncreated light.
To rise up to God, to be united, or re-united, with our Maker. Why is Ken moved at the remembrance of his mother? Because God made both him and his mother for eternal relationship, and those relational bonds transcend death. Why are museum-goers moved by beautiful music? Why are we moved by beautiful music? Because God himself is beautiful, and he made us to dwell with him in glory and beauty. It’s part of the created order. We long for it, and we know it.
The tears tell us so.