We don’t have a theodicy, yet.

We don’t have a theodicy, yet.

This last weekend brought the first in a four-week class I’m teaching at our church on “Critiques of Christianity.”

This session was on: “The Problem of Evil.”

And sadly, but appropriately, it came after yet another terrorist attack in England.

THE DANGER WITH APOLOGETICS

Terrorism aside, my worry with some “apologetics” is that Christians often approach objections to the faith with “girded loins” and “sword in hand.”

Indeed, one popular (and quite good) apologetics text even features a sword-fighter on the cover, slashing away at an unseen opponent.

To be fair, the illustration is rooted in a biblical call to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1.3) and “give a defense” for “the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15). And the Bible itself can speak of being armed with the “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6.17).

Still, the optics of “stab-n-slash” apologetics are (shall we say) not the best for winsome dialogue.

After all, few people change their minds because they lost an argument.

Which brings us to the problem of evil.

THEODICIES 

For some, the very fact that evil exists is seen as disproving an “all-good” and “all-powerful” God. The claim is quite familiar: If God were all-good, he would not want evil. And if God were all-powerful, he could prevent it.

In response, theists have crafted various “theodicies”—which give answers as to why an all-good and powerful God might nonetheless permit evil.

The most common theodicy is termed the “Greater Good Defense.”

In short, this argument says that perhaps some worthy goods can only be achieved with the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil.

Of course, this all sounds quite rational until one is blindsided—experientially—with a form of evil that is hardly academic:

A child facedown in a backyard pool.

A pedophilic camp counselor.

A cheating spouse.

Or perhaps even harder are those things that we (unfortunately) call “acts of God.” My colleague’s son was killed by a lightning strike.

And to amend the words of Ta-Nihisi Coates: “The [storm cloud] cannot be subpoenaed.” Just ask Job.

TWO ATTEMPTED ANSWERS

Nonetheless, the so-called “Greater Good defense” comes in two major forms: Appeals to divine glory, and appeals to human freedom.

  1. Glory Theodicies. 

In so-called “glory theodicies,” the greater good is the glory God receives as he contrasts, judges, and ultimately conquers evil.

From this perspective, God is seen as even more exalted, gracious, and holy when set against the dark backdrop of sin and death.

Unfortunately, in some forms (namely: divine determinism), this view also can impugn God’s good character.

After all, a determinist deity seems willing to ordain all manner of atrocities in pursuit of his renown. And what kind of god is that?

Hence, a second and more popular theodicy is called “The free will defense.”

  1. Free Will Theodicies.

The greater good here is not “free will,” but something more significant: the possibility of a genuine love relationships between God and humans.

As the story goes, “Love” requires freedom, and for creatures freedom means the possibility of pain.

In the view of C.S. Lewis:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.

And more extensively:

Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.

But there are issues here as well.

One objection is that the human will seems hardly “free” in many instances. Hence Scripture (e.g., Rom. 7) sometimes paints a picture of the will as being bound apart from God’s grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit

(Incidentally, both Calvin and Wesley agreed on this.).

Our liberty is limited in a thousand ways—by genetics, environment, and other actors.

Hence absolute freedom is a pipe dream. You’d have to be high to believe in it.

The options, then, are that humans either had free will and lost it. Or we retain some measure of it only by God’s grace and Spirit.

Either way, the free will defense (which I actually find quite helpful) still presents us with unanswered questions.

And that brings us to the title of this post.

WE DON’T HAVE A THEODICY, YET

The name of the class I’m teaching (“Critiques of Christianity”) is proudly stolen from one taught by one of my old seminary professors: Dr. Rick Lints.

And as I looked over my old handwritten notes, I found scribbled there this phrase:

“We don’t have a theodicy, yet.”

The point here is not that appeals to glory and freedom are useless, but that they do not fully crack the code of monstrous evil.

They too stand silent before Auschwitz.

And they too fall short when we encounter evil personally. As proof, even C.S. Lewis famously repudiated (if only briefly) his earlier theodicies when his wife Joy died of cancer.

Even he—the greatest “apologist” of the last two centuries—did not yet have an adequate theodicy.

As the Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance argued, evil cannot be rationally explained, because evil is not rational.  It exists contra ratio and contra Deum. 

After all, what is rational about the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London?

What is rational about the repeated decisions of, say, Anthony Weiner?

Come to think of it: What is rational about some my decisions?

For these and many other reasons, we don’t have an adequate theodicy.

“YET”

But the next word is important also—“Yet.”

The hope of Christians is not that we will explain evil—but that we will “outlast it.”

Hence the Scriptures (and famously, the book of Job) offer no full answer to “Why bad things happen to good people.”

That’s a modern question, not a biblical one.

In Scripture, we learn only that God opposes evil, that he will one-day end it, and that he invites us to be part of the campaign—frail and faulty though we are.

Sword-less but well armed.

13 Reasons Why Not

13 Reasons Why Not

There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.

In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.

Boycotts build bestsellers.

And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.

So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.

THE STORY

The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.

Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.

At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.

The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)

At other points, however, the show is badly broken.

And not just for moral reasons.

ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED 

With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.

Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”

“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.

The assessment is fairly simple:

  • Athletes are dumb and despicable.
  • Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
  • And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.

While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.

The real problem, though, runs deeper.

THE BACKLASH

While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.

In the view of Trevin Wax (here):

In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.

For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.

Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.

To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.

In Wax’s even harsher judgment:

Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.

And I’d add: her parents.

While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?

And that’s a dangerous depiction.

THE OTHER HANNAHS

If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.

And we must.

The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.

Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”

Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.

13whynot

As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.

“I was bullied terribly.”

“I was raped in high school.”

“I thought no one would believe me.”

Or worse yet: “No one did.”

Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.

For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.

They are the ones who deserve an audience.

And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.

“Ocupado”

“Ocupado”

On Catholic Crosses, Welcoming a Son, and “Being Gangsta”

When I was five or six, I remember being allowed to visit the local Dollar General Store to spend “my very own money” on whatever I liked.

I selected a massive golden crucifix on a gaudy golden chain.

I was (and am) a Gangsta.

Upon showing the purchase to my parents, I was informed that I had made a slight mistake. This was a “Catholic” cross, as evidenced by the gold-plated Jesus hanging from it.

While we were cool with the Catholics, I was told that “Our crosses are empty.”

The point, for Protestants, is that Jesus is no longer on the cross—he’s risen—so we prefer our sacred death-devices to be unoccupied. Or for my Spanish readers: desocupado.

El Jesús del hospital

Fast-forward thirty years and I sit now inside a Catholic hospital where I will also be allowed to spend some of my “very own money”—but it’s been worth every penny.

Yesterday, we unexpectedly welcomed our fourth child (Theodore Brian) three weeks early.

Teddy

And right above my head, as I now type, there is another Catholic crucifix.

And somehow it seems fitting.

Yesterday, when Teddy was born, he was having some trouble breathing. While the doctors weren’t too worried, his respiration was far more rapid (that’s: rapido) than desirable. And to make matters worse, he could not go to Brianna’s room to in such a state.

So there I sat in the nursery—stripped to the waist so he could feel my skin—singing “Hush little baby” in front of a plate-glass window through which onlookers watched a topless professor who probably looked like a pasty primate trying to “nurse” a baby (*despite some gender confusion).

Mire mamá, un chimpancé blanco

Thankfully, Teddy is fine – but as I sit now under a suspended Christ, I am thankful for the Catholic crucifix. It is not necessarily better than its more triumphant counterpart, and in some ways it may occasionally be prone to fetished misconstrual.

But in some settings—like the hospital—it also seems more helpful.

By it I was vividly reminded that mine was not the only Son to struggle for breath in a world that is harsh and cruel compared to that from whence he came. And unlike mine, this other Son could not feel his Father’s presence, much less his skin.

Eloi, Eloi…, he screamed, and was not comforted. 

Señor Grünewald

Rewind five hundred years and a man named Matthias Grünewald sits painting an altarpiece for a monastery that doubled as a hospital.

891px-matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_-_wga10723
M. Grunewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece

The location, Isenheim, in France, had been afflicted by a terrible plague that manifested in festering sores upon the skin.

Like Jesus, its survivors were forever scarred.matthias_grc3bcnewald_-_the_crucifixion_28detail29_-_wga10790

Famously, Grünewald infected Christ. He chose to paint the sores upon the Savior.

The message was clear. As the Book of Hebrews states: We do not have a High Priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our travails (Heb. 4.15). He knows. He’s been there.

He knows what it’s like to gasp for breath, to have a prayer go unanswered, to feel betrayed by friends, belittled by cynics, and beaten up by bullies. He was murdered naked in front of his own mother. And while the good news is that the cross is no longer ocupado, sometimes it helps to see—yes, actually see—the Catholic version.

Because while language is a gift, some images transcend translation.

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people.

But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement.

In the midst of such butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering Christians, and to investigate the whereabouts of his old mentor, Father Ferreira.

While Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, rumors swirl that he has now renounced his faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must know if this is true.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, Rodrigues is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The old priest has adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In his place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture would free them. His choice was their torture or his own “apostasy.”

Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that the Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

Indeed, this excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, as Rodrigues is faced with the terrible choice, he looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn down and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his cross, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christian to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


Available here.

 

A year of blogging

A year of blogging

My wife informed me last week that it’s been one year since I started this blog.

Given that, I wanted to take a moment to say thanks to all who’ve read these posts!

It’s been a lot of fun for me and though we’ve now surpassed the one year birthday, I’m still “young, scrappy, and hungry.”

I enjoy academic writing and have slowed my blogging just a bit in order to finish a book-length project, but this site has allowed me to speak to more than just fellow academics, and for that I’m grateful.

Here were the five most popular posts from the past twelve months:

5) The House of Mourning: A piece on grief

  • I wrote this to mark the one year anniversary of the passing of my brother-in-law, Daniel Berg. Yet despite that specific reason, I’ve been touched by how universal are these sentiments. As Nick Wolterstorff writes: “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.”

4) How Genius Happens: The untold story of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

  • On a daily basis, this post gets more reads than anything I’ve written (probably because it was picked up by a Leonard Cohen fan site). It’s about how good work happens over time, and it attempts to dispel some myths about how easy it is for truly gifted people to make good art.

3) The trouble with millennial bashing (a response to Simon Sinek)

  • This piece weighed in on a favorite punching bag of contemporary culture: the so-called millennials, and it attempted to challenge some (I think) silly assumptions about why we’re all so terrible. It’s about questioning statements that sound smart at first even while they lack solid evidence to back them up. Yes! and Boom!

2) When patriotism goes too far

  • Here I relived my childhood fixation with Lee Greenwood and considered some ways that Christians should and should not be “patriotic.” There was even a saxophone solo.

1) Evangelicals and Trumpism: 

  • My most popular post (by far…) had to do with the biggest item in the news–the 2016 election (surprise, surprise). While I wrote on evangelicals and the election more than once, this piece resonated most and was even picked up by a national news site. Many kind words and some hate mail followed–parts of which even contained punctuation. We all survived.

SOME OTHERS

While the above posts were most popular, I also enjoyed thinking about these issues as well:

  • A post a about Jesus and pagan god of revelry: “Saving Bacchus: How C.S. Lewis redeemed the pagan god of wine and wild parties” (here)
  • A triad of posts on race and policing: (here), (here), and (here).
  • A piece on body image: “The Naked God: The cross and body shame” (here)
  • And a piece on the middle ground between doubt and certainty (that I hope to expand into a book eventually): “Christian, learn to say Perhaps” (here).

Thanks for reading over the past twelve months and I look forward to writing more in the year to come.

~Josh

 

 

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

As a parent in that purgatory known as “potty training” I am of course familiar with Taro Gomi’s #1 Bestseller: Everyone Poops.

 

It is pearl of wisdom.

 

And since it has also been quite lucrative, I’ve even pondered writing my own classic to address a universal issue plaguing our society.

I call it Everyone Skews—a grownups guide to confirmation bias.

To save costs, we could even steal some illustrations from the Gomi classic (see especially the donkey and the elephant).

The need for such a book should be obvious: Everybody is biased at some level.

And in a highly polarized environment we become especially adept at spotting bias in “them” while being blind to it in “us.”

As Wittgenstein once said: “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”

TYPES OF BIAS

In fact, there are many types of bias (see here)—and each should probably be taught with the kind of rote memorization once reserved for multiplication tables, and now replaced by Taylor Swift lyrics.

Examples include:

  • Projection Bias
  • The Gambler’s Fallacy
  • The Anchoring Effect, and
  • Current Moment Bias

But this is not about those.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Confirmation Bias (or “Myside Bias”) is the tendency we all have to focus only on claims that reinforce what we already believe.

As the argument goes, we humans can interpret almost any evidence as a confirmation of our existing opinions.

And this can make us stupid.

In the words of George Dvorsky:

We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. … It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias … And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.

One result of this is what I call a “silo culture” (see here) is a general lack of listening.

WHY DOES IT SMELL FUNNY?

This is dangerous, because to quote Rosaria Butterfield (yet again): we all tend to become sentimentally attached to our bad ideas.

Hence the children’s book for grownups.

While Everyone Skews, more problems come when we deny that our biases stink like those of other people.

“Sure that other News network smells funny, but mine smells like roses and truth. It even says so on the label.”

(Never mind that both are driven by the same quest for ad revenue that guides Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)

CAN I FLUSH IT?

A further danger with confirmation bias is the evidence suggesting there is little correlation between one’s understanding of a given issue and one’s confidence in understanding it.

A sign of this comes in a recent Yale study (here) involving—and I am not making this up…—how a toilet functions.

The study asked folks to rate their understandings of basic processes, including zippers and how a bathroom stool works.

Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because …(Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

[The researchers] see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.

But while such ignorance is fairly unimportant when it comes to toilets, it is more dangerous in other areas:

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban [or any other position] without knowing what I’m talking about.

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” … And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem.

BELIEVING THE LIE

Interestingly, the New Testament goes even further.

In Romans 1, Paul attributes the universal human rejection of God (a fairly serious bias), not merely to ignorance or lack of evidence, but to our active “suppression” of the truth.

This is how deep bias runs.

As Paul argues, we all want to “believe the lie” at certain points because lies are more convenient.

Because of this, we need something more than information.

We need Grace.

In some ways, this startling diagnosis should encourage a certain patience when dealing with the biases of others, because I realize that I am prone to even more egregious truth suppressions.

THREE PRACTICAL STEPS

Apart from a gracious overthrow of previous perspectives, there are some practical steps to breaking bias. Here are three simple ones:

  1. Admit the problem.

I can’t have my biases challenged if I don’t admit their existence.

While some folks are clearly more biased than others, there is no view from nowhere.

Every perspective–including mine–carries with it certain blindspots and prejudices.

No one is completely fair and balanced.

So claiming to be so is either ignorance or duplicity.

  1. Irrigate your ideas.

Idea irrigation happens as we expose ourselves to new and differing perspectives. The goal here is not to adopt opposing viewpoints (they might be wrong), but to understand them and (this is important) to encounter them in their most cogent form.

Along these lines, I recently heard a libertarian colleague tell me that he gets all his news from periodicals (not the rubbish heap of Cable News).

Then he told me that he subscribes to thoughtful publications from opposing angles. That seems like great advice. Read diverse thinkers who know how to write in complete sentences.

  1. Embrace Surprise.

As the biochemist Isaac Asimov once said:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’.”

What he meant was that our greatest advancements come not when our old presuppositions are confirmed, but when they’re rattled—and we notice it.

Thomas Kuhn called these “anomalies.”

They are observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm.

Along these lines, some scientists are now encouraged to start a “Surprise Journal” (see here) in which each entry chronicles three things:

  • The moment of surprise.
  • Why it was surprising.
  • What this tells me.

The point is to fight confirmation bias and to turn the dissonance into a moment of discovery.

What if more than just scientists did this?

What if we began to notice (and even delight) in those instances in which our presuppositions are surprisingly upended?

In my view, that would be a good thing.

Because all facts are friendly when you’re chasing truth.


 

For more on bias and what a proper information “diet” looks like, check out The Information Diet, by Clay Johnson (here).