Just a little over a year ago, the world was well underway in making a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What we all hoped would be a short-term problem, turned into a long, drawn out situation that has created more and more turmoil in an already increasingly divided world, having a definite impact felt on the Christian church. Now, as efforts towards making several effective and safe vaccines available are signaling towards an ultimate end of the crisis, I thought it would be helpful to share some lessons I have learned over the past year or so, as we head “officially” into the Summer of 2021, near the start of the summer solstice.
Towards the end of the post, I will make an important announcement about the future of my postings at Veracity. So, please stick around for that.
In summary, I have learned that as human beings:
- We are intuitive creatures, who only allow analytical ways of rational thought to revise our thinking when our intuitions let us down;
- We are sacramental creatures, who need concrete expressions of the divine to makes sense of life;
- We are religious creatures, who crave transcendent ways of viewing the world;
- And that Christians need to preach the weird stuff of the Bible. The story of the God of the Bible, as revealed in Jesus Christ, makes the most sense about reality.
We Are Intuitive Creatures
One of the most defining aspects of contemporary life in 2021 is how we are all connected to one another via amazing progress in Internet technology… and the results of this new world we live in are mixed. On the one hand, the distribution of knowledge has grown at an accelerated rate, which in some ways is really good. You can pretty much learn how to fix anything these days, just by watching someone’s YouTube video. During the pandemic, a lot of folks were beginning to wonder why they should poor thousands of dollars into an advanced education in college, when you can learn nearly anything on your own, through an Internet-connected laptop.
We live in interesting times.
Spiritually speaking, resources that were once locked up in physical libraries are now available via the Internet. Any high school kid can “fact check” a Sunday sermon in a matter of seconds with their SmartPhone, to see if the pastor is making something up or not. The growth of great Christian apologetic resources on YouTube is simply astounding. What would before take hours of research, making multiple trips to the library, a bookstore, or visits with your pastor, or waiting for some televised interview on cable TV or over-the-air TV station, can be resolved fairly easily by going to YouTube’s search bar and looking for what you are interested in. I wrote a blog article about this roughly two years ago, but now things on YouTube, with respect to Christian apologetics, have exploded. Here is a list of my top SEVEN YouTube apologist channels I currently follow…. great stuff to listen to while riding my bicycle during the pandemic:
- Dr. Sean McDowell : Son of apologist Josh McDowell, Sean teaches at BIOLA, and he has a number of gracious dialogues with Christians and non-Christians alike, pertaining to a defense of the Christian message. Sean is one of my favorite all-around YouTube apologists right now (Alisa Childers is a close second: A former singer for the Christian band ZoeGirl, she has great videos critiquing so-called “Progressive Christianity.”)
- Capturing Christianity: Cameron Bertuzzi has some of the best interviews with scholars and apologists, covering a wide variety of topics, but mostly with an interest in philosophy. Cameron’s background is primarily in photography, and not really in academia, so that makes him just a normal guy asking pretty basic questions, with a few philosophy nuggets tossed in here and there (he loves William Lane Craig).
- Inspiring Philosophy: Michael Jones probably has the biggest apologetics channel on YouTube, with over 200K subscribers. MIchael is a big fan of C.S. Lewis and his goal is to create a high quality video to address every known apologetic issue out there, particularly in the realm of the science/Bible debate.
- Theology in the Raw: Preston Sprinkle, one of the nicest persons I have ever met, is pretty much the “go-to” guy to interview interesting people in the area of big cultural debates today, including LGBTQ issues and racism, areas that most other apologists tend to shy away from.
- Ancient Egypt and the Bible: Dr. David A. Falk is an egyptologist, who specializes in the intersection between archaeology and the oldest texts of the Bible, particular with respect to the Exodus. Falk is a “Late-Date” proponent for the Exodus, and a professionally trained archaeologist, providing a lot of helpful correctives to the Tim Mahoney Patterns of Evidence franchise of Christian films, from his “Perspectives on the Exodus” series.
- Risen Jesus. Mike Licona is probably my favorite New Testament scholar on YouTube, particularly with respect to defending the Resurrection.
- Truth Unites: Gavin Ortlund is a Reformed Protestant, Gospel Coalition guy who has some interesting apologetics content, but he is best known for gracious dialogues with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox conversation partners. I have learned a lot about other Christian traditions, besides my own, through Gavin’s videos.
That is just a short list! If you know of other YouTube channels that have benefitted you, as you were stuck at home during the pandemic, please let me know about them in the comments section below.
During the pandemic, there has been an extraordinary increase in fascinating interviews with Biblical scholars and thought leaders, as so many smart people who have studied the Bible for years were stuck at home for months. Over the past year or so they have been able to share their knowledge with the online world, that anyone with a decent Internet connection can access, view and listen to, while doing all sorts of mundane tasks, from doing laundry to riding a bike near your home (like I have done during the pandemic).
However, this ease of access of information has come at a heavy cost, as our ability to adequately filter out overwhelming amounts of disinformation, has been hampered by our intuitive senses, that often only serve to reinforce our own assumptions, rightly or wrongly. Nowhere has this been so greatly seen as in the world of social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc. Such platforms know how to redirect your attention to articles, videos, etc. that match your interests, that tailor to your own assumptions, and blind you from seeing evidence that might challenge those assumptions. They can also send you down rabbit holes, that can sometimes be difficult to get out of!
Furthermore, if and when we do venture out from our information silos, the experience of hearing a different point of view can be very disorienting. This is particularly a problem for children and other young people, who are now growing up with a SmartPhone (apparently) glued to their hands, and their eyes absorbed in what they view on a screen. Being physically isolated during the pandemic, and being forced to use screens all of the time has not helped matters. Parents: Do your children a favor and keep them away from Smartphones until as late in life as possible.
On top of that, the way we use words and phrases seem to be changing at an increasingly rapid rate. Take for example the phrase “cancel culture.” About two years ago, the idea of “cancel culture” primarily referenced the practice in educational institutions whereby students were being shielded from listening to alternative points of view, on the basis that harm was being caused by simply hearing other points of view. Now in 2021, the phrase “cancel culture” has a plethora of applications, whereby being “canceled” can simply mean voicing a disagreement about a particular topic. However, voicing disagreement is not the same thing as restricting the freedom of speech. This definition of “cancel culture” is far removed from the original context I have experienced working in a university setting. It is as though the goal posts keep moving all of the time when it comes to how words and phrases, having significant cultural impact, are used in conversation.
Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high, as young people are having an incredibly difficult time trying to navigate our online social media world. When was the last time you had a meaningful, reflective, face-to-face conversation with someone below the age of 18?
Jonathan Haidt’s incredibly informative book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, makes a lot of sense of these conflicting phenomena. Haidt argues that we are primarily motivated by our intuitions, and only secondarily motivated by rational, logical thought and empirical analysis. In other words, if our intuitions lead us in a certain direction, we become less likely to trust sources of information that drive against our intuitional instincts. In our informationally overloaded world, we are mainly inclined to trust authorities that align with our assumptions, and will tend to distrust evidence presented from other sources that we distrust. All of the various debates over the coronavirus, the vaccines, Black Lives Matter, the 2020 Presidential election, etc., all painfully demonstrate how the intuitive nature of humanity can sometimes cause exasperating conflict.
Some see all of this as a sign of the “End Times.” That very well maybe, but either way, it makes the task of navigating our post-modern world very challenging, particularly for the young.
Typically, we only consider alternative points of view when certain life experiences cause some sort of cognitive dissonance with our preconceived intuitions. For young people in particular, who have not had enough life experiences to build up a set of firm, intuitional boundaries, our complex online world can simply be overwhelming.
Here is another case to make my point. I have been trying for years to get various Christian friends interested in studying Christian apologetics. As Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has said, as a stern warning, you really are not doing evangelism in the post-modern world if you do not have at least some basic grasp of Christian apologetics. But I have learned that many of my fellow Christians never bother with thinking about apologetics until they encounter a loved one who has left the Christian faith. This is particularly a problem for parents. When a son or daughter, raised in a Christian home, walks away from church, it is typically only then that I meet Christians who begin wondering what type of evidence there is to the Christian faith. However, in my view, the best way to make use of Christian apologetics is BEFORE your son or daughter leaves the Christian faith…. NOT AFTER!!
There are no easily articulated answers here. But it does help to understand why people think and act as they do, and how they handle evidence, whether they be Christians or not. Knowing this has helped me to learn how to have better conversations with other people, as evangelical apologist Greg Koukl has so helpfully demonstrated with his basic introduction to Christian apologetics, Tactics.
Following our intuitions is not always a bad way to go. Properly calibrated intuitions can be a very good thing in that they can keep us from being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” as Ephesians 4:14 reminds us. We rely on our intuitions most of the time anyway. It only leads to trouble when you are staring reality in the face, and you flat out deny that reality.
Sadly, I have seen many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, simply dig their heels in and cling ever so tightly to their intuitive assumptions (NOTE: I have done this before myself, so I need to be careful when being so preachy here!!!). The fundamental problem is that many people simply believe what they want to believe, without considering all of the available evidence…. and if we are all honest, we generally have neither the time nor the interest to pursue the deep questions of life, until life situations force us to take stock of where we are at. I have had to change my mind on a number of issues over the years, in light of the evidence presented to me. It can be very painful to go through that kind of a process. It can be quite humbling. But I do not regret having gone through it. Learning the truth is worth it.
One particular area where we see this dynamic at work is in terms of how and where people get their news. The fracturing of the journalism industry makes it more difficult to even get the right “facts” to move conversations forward. Big Tech censorship does not help much either.
One tool that I have now found useful is GroundNews, a website that crawls the Internet to look at how different media organizations portray news stories, and ranks each news source for each news story on a sliding scale; for example, leaning right or leaning left. Ground.News is a helpful resource to make sure I do not get stuck and blinded in an information silo.
We are Sacramental Creatures
Some Christians balk at the idea of “sacrament,” as it may sound to some as being “too Roman Catholic,” but such hesitancy is unwarranted. As Saint Augustine famously said, a “sacrament” is simply a visible expression of an invisible grace. Many Christians have spent a decent chunk of the last year and a half watching church services online. But while viewing something via a screen is better than being totally disconnected from a church, it just is not the same as actually being physically present with someone else.
When it became reasonably safe to do so about a year ago, my wife and I began to meet again physically with our small group Bible study. This became our lifeline. Matthew 18:20 talks about where two or three are gathering, Christ is present among us. Nowhere have I experienced that reality more than being in physical fellowship with fellow believers. I had endured many Zoom sessions on a laptop, but nothing compares to being in a room with other Christians, studying God’s Word together.
This is what being a sacramental creature is all about. Being physically present with another believer makes the teaching of Scripture regarding the nature of the church all the more real. I have greatly benefited from online sermons and podcasts, over the past year and a half, but nothing beats sharing a “fist bump” with another Christian, as we “break bread” together over a meal, or even sharing snacks in someone’s home, and enjoying Christ-centered discussion. Gathering together in something like a small group is that visible expression of an invisible grace. When you take something rather mundane, like sitting down in someone’s living room with an open Bible, and praying together, it can be a journey into the sacred.
This whole notion of experiencing sacrament, through meeting in a small group Bible study, has helped me to better appreciate the role of Christian practices that are intended to reveal the great truths of the Christian faith, most significantly through acts like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (but not exclusive to those practices!). We need those practices designed to allow us to enter into certain mysteries, that I simply can not explain through words in a blog post, though writing about it does help to frame how to think about it. I have become more convinced that living through concrete expressions of Scriptural truth impacts us in ways that are nearly impossible to articulate intellectually.
Sadly, those very things that God uses to reveal truth to us, in non-cognitive ways, are often an occasion for bitter theological disputes, that tragically serve to divide people. Consider all of the church splits throughout Christian history over the nature of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. We see it also in more contemporary issues, like the relationships between men and women in the church and family (the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate), and in spiritual warfare, and in experiencing the person of the Holy Spirit (the charismatic vs. cessationist debate). These all speak to sacramental realities at their core.
However, perhaps these debates all point to how important it is for Christians to revel in the importance of sacrament. If we are going to experience God through concrete expressions of Christian practices, we should be concerned about getting it right, theologically! Let us enter in and enjoy the presence of God as we experience the Divine through sacrament!
We are Religious Creatures
This will surely upset some people who read this, but I am more convinced than ever that this is true: As the so-called “Christian” West descends more into post-Christian, post-modernity, I have become increasingly aware that while the world around us seems to be becoming “less Christian,” this does not mean that people living in a secular world are becoming less religious. Recent trends show that the opposite is more likely the case.
Political causes are increasingly taking upon themselves religious overtones. Whether it be QAnon conspiracy theories on the right, or neo-Marxist ideologies and critical race theories on the left, we are witnessing what happens when people fail to fully engage the Christian Gospel, in its fullness. Ideologues, whether they be on the right or the left, can be just as dogmatic and intolerant as the so-called dogmatic and intolerant Christians they left behind, when they left the church (assuming they grew up with any real exposure to genuine Christian community to begin with).
The QAnon world of certain segments of the right, is particularly embarrassing, as more than a few of my Christian friends have appeared to buy into large chunks of the narrative. A lot of the enthusiasm associated with QAnon is closely associated with valid concerns over the direction of America, and the sense that the Judeo-Christian heritage of the nation is getting lost. However, much of this excitement over QAnon, and all things similar, stems in large part from professing Christians having a greater interest in politics than in participating in the communal life of a local church and fulfilling the Great Commission. If we were to focus on having better conversations with our non-believing neighbors, we would probably be less motivated to expend so much energy on political causes that often generate more heat than light.
For example, a recent survey, with data prior to the COVID-19 crisis, indicates that roughly 40% of Christians who identify themselves as being “born again” evangelicals attend church only one time per year, or less. The drop in church attendance has been on a slight, steady decline for at least 12 years. With attendance statistics like this, it is no wonder why there is not as much discipleship going on in our churches as there should be.
These right-wing extremes are evident in popular culture, and bring about ridicule of Christians in the media. One brief example will suffice. One particular Congresswoman, several weeks ago, has compared efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccination as encouraging “exactly the type of abuse” as murdering Jews in gas chambers during the Holocaust.
Really? Weeks later, this same Congresswoman apologized for making her vaccination-holocaust comparison after visiting the Holocaust Museum. I surely appreciate her apology, and think that there might be other satisfactory methods of defeating COVID, aside from vaccination (the presence of antibodies from a previous COVID infection, the possibility of using ivermectin as a treatment, etc.), but why it took her weeks to figure out that associating COVID-19 vaccination promotion with the Jewish Holocaust is a horrible comparison is beyond me.
But please allow me to poke at some of my progressive friends on the left, too: Take for example the Black Lives Matter movement (and its academic counterpart, Critical Race Theory) that engulfed the world in 2020. In one sense, Black Lives Matter seeks to continue the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, associated with the Christian-inspired leaders of the 1960s, like Martin Luther King, Jr., in an effort to end racism. When framed around that narrative, the message of Black Lives Matter is a positive call for real change and transformation. White American evangelicalism needs to hear more of the voices of African American Christians…. and vice-versa. There are some good signs that these type of conversations are indeed happening. Celebrating today, Juneteenth (technically tomorrow), goes a long way towards that end.
However, there is another side to Black Lives Matter, and many other things “woke,” that have sought to repudiate the Christian message with yet a different religious alternative, but not a better one. Take a walk across a college campus these days, and try to talk with someone about “Black Lives Matter” and you will know what I mean.
To put it another way, Critical Race Theory can be a valid tool to use to address certain issues regarding racism. But the problem with any tool is that it can easily evolve into becoming an entire worldview, that can distort reality. In other words, a hammer can be a great tool to drive in nails. But if a hammer is the only thing in your tool bag, then after awhile, everything begins to look like a nail. When that type of thinking sets in, you end up with an ideology, if not an alternative religion, that becomes impervious to self-reflective analysis and criticism.
Christians have historically preached a message regarding “original sin,” but in Black Lives Matter, the language of “original sin” can get replaced with a message of systemic racism. Instead of everything being reduced to sinning against a Holy God, now everything gets reduced to being something about race. Having a “spiritual awakening”, a hallmark of evangelical faith and life, gets replaced with having an “awokening,” whereby certain segments of society are encouraged to embrace one’s unconscious racism. Color blindness as a virtue, whereby we celebrate with MLK a vision of where someone is judged by the content of their character, instead of the color of their skin, is replaced in the new religious narrative with an appeal to be extremely conscious of the color of a person’s skin, flipping the MLK narrative on its head. Instead of the Christian message of forgiveness, the new narrative has no place for forgiveness, only a call to become an “ally,” and accept one’s miserable state (If people could just sit down and listen to African American thinkers, such as Columbia University linguist and atheist, John McWhorter, we would all receive a huge dose of common sense).
Historian Tom Holland’s most excellent book, Dominion, explores these themes more fully, for those who have the interest to dig into this more deeply. Suffice to say, as more and more turn their attention away from the Christian faith (or towards a watered-down version of it), they ironically turn more and more towards different religious ways of thinking, that serve as shallow copies of the Gospel, counterfeits that simulate the illusion of spiritual wisdom, without genuine spiritual power existing behind it. It will be interesting to see how support for things like QAnon conspiracy theories and Black Lives Matter will continue on in the future, or if some will begin to look for something more, all to realize that what they longed for all along can be found with Jesus!
Christians Need to Preach the Weird Stuff in the Bible
One of things that really struck me in reading Tom Holland’s Dominion last year during the pandemic is his challenge for Christians to preach the “weird stuff” in the Bible. The Bible has plenty of “weird stuff” in it, but most of the time, that “weird stuff” becomes an occasion for embarrassment for a number of Christians.
Tom Holland is a respected historian from the U.K., who walked away from his Christian upbringing during his teenage years. For decades, Holland spent much of his life thinking just how unimpressive, and irrelevant, the story of Christianity can be. But over the past ten years or so, this atheist has changed his tune. Tom Holland now sees that the secular world that he so greatly values and treasures would not have been possible if it had not been for the role of the Christian faith in the history of humankind. A number of other profound and influential cultural thinkers in our day, ranging from atheists like Jordan Peterson, to orthodox Jews like Ben Shapiro, to gay intellectuals like Douglas Murray, echo that same type of appreciation for the Christian story, despite their hesitancy to accept historical Christian faith as their own. Yet when asked what makes Christianity so distinctive for Tom Holland is what he called the “weird stuff” in the Bible.
Ironically, far too often, Christians will try to play down the “weird stuff” in the Bible, in order to try to make it all seem more palatable to skeptics. Now, this does not mean that we should embrace wacky, irresponsible interpretations of the Bible. But it does mean that we should endeavor to understand how the Scriptural writers of the Old and New Testaments viewed reality, and really try to get into their heads as to how they saw God and how they saw the world. As Dr. Michael Heiser puts it, an author whom I have been reading a lot lately, if something in the Bible is “weird, then it is important.”
Let us face some facts as Christians: Virgin birth, Resurrection, Angels, Demons, the Trinity….. these are all examples of “weird stuff” in the Bible that make sense to less and less people in the 21st century. Instead of shying away from this “weird stuff,” Christians ought to embrace this “weird stuff” and tell the world around them why the message of the Bible makes Christians look different.
The secular world around us does not need some wishy-washy expression of Christianity that merely parrots what the surrounding culture is saying, and then slapping Christian labels on top of it, to give it a flavor of “Christianity.” I find that most people out there who are interested in learning about the Christian faith really want to try to understand what the Bible is all about…. especially the weird stuff. In my own Christian journey, I find that by actually thinking through some of the weirder parts of the Bible, more carefully, that I begin to better appreciate just how radical the message of the Bible is, as best embodied in the character and person of Jesus.
An Announcement About What I Am Now Doing on the Veracity Blog… And the Future
I have been writing for the Veracity blog since about the fall of 2012. I have been thoroughly enjoying it over the years. But long-form blogging just is not what it once was, as in those early days. Today, the whole realm of social media really makes productive, invigorating conversation very difficult, if not impossible. For one thing, people just seem too bombarded with information, lacking sufficient enough tools out there to filter the good stuff from the bad stuff. This is a confusing state-of-things, but thankfully, we do have a lot of good Christian resources out on the Interwebs (see my recommendations on YouTube above for some examples)!
Though long-form blogging is not the same as what you find on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, dealing with some of the less-than-helpful comments on the Veracity blog has been becoming less enjoyable. Thankfully, some of the best dialogues I have had has been with thoughtful commenters, and that has been wonderful. Sadly though, far too many blog comments seem to be more about “virtue signaling,” as in “I disagree with you, so I will leave a snarky or self-righteous comment, just to show how good a person I am, and how deluded Clarke, the author of this blog article is.” Now, I know that I am never going to make everyone happy, and I have learned a lot from making mistakes in online discussions, too. But sometimes I get too many comments that never lead to anything fruitful, and this damages the soul. Rarely does this type of engagement lead to good-faith kind of conversations, which are the kind of conversations that I want to be after.
I originally started writing on this blog to stimulate better conversations within my own local church family. For those of you who are reading this blog, and fit in this category, I thank you for your continued interaction with me, and appreciate all of your comments, and I want to continue in those insightful and generous conversations.
However, I frankly get more interaction with people outside of my own local church family on the blog. I am not entirely sure why that specifically is the case, other than the fact that I do not participate in some of the more popular social media apps (like Facebook), that a lot of my local Christian friends like to use. I much prefer reading something like a letter, a carefully crafted blog post, or even better, a book, than I am in slogging through a barrage of “pithy” Facebook comments, that typically engender more frustration than enlightenment, in the current social media landscape.
I have met some really fascinating people via Veracity, from all over the world, and really look forward to meeting some of you in-person some day! But such interaction with people who only connect via the Internet, and who live far away, is just not the same as having flesh-and-blood encounters with human beings living within my own local community.
I write all of this to explain why my frequency in posting has been dropping off during 2021. This downward trend will likely continue. I want to try to continue to use Veracity as a means of publishing book reviews, and preparing educational materials for use in adult Bible classes, with an aim to stimulate better conversations in Evangelical Christendom. I still have several blog posts queued up, so I am not completely going away.
However, the biggest contributor to this change of frequency in posting is actually technical. Veracity is a WordPress blog, but WordPress has been making some changes to their platform that have really become painful. WordPress is in the process of retiring their “classic editor” in favor of a newer style of editor. Unfortunately, that newer style of editor is clunky, less user friendly, and does not work well in all web browsers. I will give it another shot to see if WordPress can get their act together, but I feel more inclined at the moment in bagging WordPress completely, and moving to some other platform, like SubStack. WordPress is nice in that you do not get distracted by annoying advertisements, so hopefully something will improve here. We will see how well all of this goes over the coming summer months.
In the meantime, stick around for some of the next blog posts showing up over the following weeks, featuring some reviews of some books that I have found really helpful. Blessings to you all! Keep the faith in Jesus!!