The Hard Questions Have Already Been Asked

As I wrote on Wednesday, I believe strongly that Christians do not need to be afraid of hard, honest questions about the Faith.  One reason is because the hardest questions have already been asked, by Christian theologians themselves.  Often, in fact, the people asking those questions were the theologians of the ancient church, people like Origen and Augustine.  (Origen, to cite one example, took on the opening chapters of Genesis and wondered–15 centuries before Darwin–whether the biblical account was meant to be taken literally.)  There are many good, hard questions that you and I haven’t ever considered, but I guarantee you that someone else has considered them.  So the next time someone asks you a hard question about faith, don’t panic, but say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”  Then, hit the library and find out what the ancient church had to sat about the matter.

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A Faith Unafraid of the Hard Questions

I believe very strongly that the Christian faith has nothing to fear from hard questions.  If what we believe is True, then it can withstand even the most intense cross-examination.  In fact, I think we ought to welcome hard questions, because hard, honest questions are often used by God to bring people to faith.  This was certainly the belief of the great missionary and evangelist E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), friend to Gandhi and missionary to India.  In his missionary work Jones often fearlessly debated with people who were hostile to Christianity, and in his most famous book he explains how he came to be unafraid of even the hardest questions about faith.  Facts, he realized, are faith’s friends.

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In his best-selling book The Christ of the Indian Road (1925), Jones writes:

“I have found a good many nervous Christians since coming home who are afraid that this whole thing of Christianity might fall to pieces if someone should get too critical, or if science should get too scientific. Many of the saints are now painfully nervous. They remind me of a lady missionary with whom I walked home one night after a very tense meeting in a Hindu theater. She said, ‘Mr. Jones, I am physically exhausted from that meeting tonight.’ When I asked her the reason she said, ‘Well, I didn’t know what they were going to ask you next, and I didn’t know what you were going to answer, so I’ve been siting up there in the gallery holding on to the bench with all my might for two hours, and I’m physically exhausted!’ There are many like our sister who are metaphorically holding to their seats with all their might lest Christianity fall to pieces under criticism!

I have a great deal of sympathy with them, for I felt myself in the same position for a long time after I went to India. The whole atmosphere was acid with criticism. I could feel the acid eat into my very soul every time I picked up a non-Christian paper. Then there came the time when I inwardly let go. I became willing to turn Jesus over to the facts of the universe. I began to see that there was only one refuge in life and that was in reality, in the facts. If Jesus couldn’t stand the shock of the criticism of the facts discovered anywhere, if he wasn’t reality, the sooner I found out about it the better. My willingness to surrender Christ to the facts was almost as great an epoch in my life as my willingness to surrender to him…. I saw that [Jesus] was not a hothouse plant that would wither under the touch of criticism, but he was rooted in reality, was the very living expression of our moral and spiritual universe—he was reality itself….

The only way to kill Christianity is to take it out of life and protect it. The way to make it shine and show its genius is to put it down in life and let it speak directly to life itself. Jesus is his own witness….

I am therefore not afraid of the question hour, for I believe that Jesus underlies our moral and spiritual universe deeper than the force of gravity underlies our material universe.”

from The Christ of the Indian Road, by E. Stanley Jones

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“By The Waters of Babylon”

In 1937 warplanes bombed and destroyed the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain.  The bombing was carried out by the German and Italian air forces at the request of the Spanish Fascist government during the Spanish Civil War.  Several years before the horror of the Second World War, the bombing of Guernica was one of the first in which modern warplanes bombed a defenseless civilian population.  Pablo Picasso painted his anti-war masterpiece Guernica as a response to the atrocity; the American writer Stephen Vincent Benét did something else: he wrote a haunting short story.  You should read it.

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When you read the story, note that Benét wrote it in 1937: before World War II, before incendiary bombing (practiced by both the Axis Powers and the Allies) became one of the facts of the war, before nuclear war was even an evil dream (in fact, before even the discovery of nuclear fission), before Hiroshima, before Planet of the Apes and The Road and The Walking Dead.

(The title is an allusion to Psalm 137, written by the Israelite exiles in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.)

Click here to read Benét’s post-apocalyptic short story.

Why Is the Bible So Difficult?

Why is the Bible so difficult to understand?  Anyone who has ever tried to read the Bible has probably wondered why God didn’t just make the whole thing a lot clearer.  The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis wondered the same thing, so you and I are in good company.  Here’s his answer.

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In his fine little book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes:

“We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form–something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table….

“[However] we may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself [i.e., Jesus], in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired.  He wrote no book.  We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context.  And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system.  He preaches but He does not lecture.  He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the “wisecrack.”  He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another.  His teaching cannot therefore be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be “got up” as if it were a “subject.”  If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers.  He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question.  He will not be, in the way we want, “pinned down.”  The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.

Descending lower, we find a somewhat similar difficulty with St. Paul.  I cannot be the only reader [He’s definitely not alone in this, as I have asked this EXACT same question many times!  –AF]  who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition….

“Since this is what God has done, this, we must conclude, was best.  It may be that what we should have liked would have been fatal to us if granted.  It may be indispensable that Our Lord’s teaching, by that elusiveness (to our systematizing intellect), should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and tempter, breathing a new atmosphere, suffering Him, in His own way, to rebuild in us the defaced image of Himself.”  [My emphasis.  –AF]

from Reflections on the Psalms, by C.S. Lewis, pp. 112-114

In other words, the Bible is not so much to be learned as to be experienced.  Perhaps the truth that the Scripture conveys can’t be truly learned in any other way.  Perhaps the difficulty is part of the point.

So, the next time you stumble across something in the Bible you don’t understand, don’t give up: God is trying to tell you something important.

 

 

 

 

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Dallas Cops: Freedom’s Martyrs

We live in a culture of overstatement in which the words “freedom,” “hero,” and “tragedy”–among other words–are overused to the point that they are almost meaningless, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the five Dallas police officers murdered last Thursday are freedom’s martyrs.  Here’s why.

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Martyr is a Greek word that means “witness.”  The early Christians used the word martyr to refer to those believers who refused to compromise their faith in the face of the hostile Roman Empire.  In their refusal to apostatize, they were witnesses to their belief that Jesus was Lord, and not Caesar, and they were witnesses to the power of sacrifice.  Rather then killing the church when they killed the Christians, the Romans found that the church actually grew when it was persecuted.  In fact, Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, famously said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The Dallas police officers are martyrs–witnesses–because of the circumstance of their deaths, which, though I’ve had several days to think about it, still strikes me as extremely powerful.  The police officers who were killed were killed because they were protecting the protesters who were there to criticize the police.  When shots were fired, the officers ran toward danger, not away from it.  I think it’s fair to assume that most of the police officers in downtown Dallas last Thursday disagreed with the claims and conclusions of the Black Lives Matter activists, and yet they were there to ensure those activists’ right to peaceful protest.  The murdered police officers are freedom’s martyrs, because in their deaths they bear witness to the freedom so many of us take for granted, namely the freedoms specified in the First Amendment.

Tertullian thought that the deaths of the early Christian martyrs caused the church to grow stronger.  It remains to be seen if the deaths of the Dallas police officers will cause our society to do the same.  We could choose to use their deaths to further our own partisan purposes, in which case the murdered men will have become propaganda.  Or, their deaths could wake us up and cause us to dedicate ourselves to working towards a society worthy of their sacrifice and of the freedoms they died protecting.

Which will it be?

 

 

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A Brief Thought on Suffering

I woke up early Friday morning to the news that five Dallas police officers had been murdered, and I immediately started frantically texting the cops who are part of my church to see if they were safe.  When the first response came back–“I am here on the scene, but I am okay”–I was overwhelmed with gratitude. And then I felt guilty that I felt grateful, because the fact that my friends were safe necessarily meant that someone else’s weren’t.  But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?  We are all so nearsighted when it comes to suffering.

Dallas Police Chief David Brown collects himself while talking about Thursday night's shooting during a news conference, Friday, July 8, 2016, in Dallas.  Snipers opened fire on police officers in the heart of Dallas Thursday night, during protests over two recent fatal police shootings of black men. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)
[Dallas Police Chief David Brown (source: Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle via AP)]

General McChrystal and the Butterfly Effect

In fall 2003, General Stanley McChrystal was appointed the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, giving him authority over what were the best-trained, best-equipped, and most-lethal special operators in the history of the world.  And yet, these elite soldiers (Navy Seals, Delta Force commandos, etc.) were unable to stop impoverished jihadists from using the most basic technology to create mass murder in Iraq.  Why?  McChrystal’s answers have a lot to do with the realities of leadership in the 21st century.

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Stan McChrystal

Like most Americans, I’d heard of General Stanley McChrystal from his time in the headlines during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I’d seen a TED talk he’d given on leadership, but a few months ago I stumbled across a couple of interviews with General McChrystal on the Tim Ferris podcast that made me think: “This guy is impressive.”  (You can find the long interview here and the much shorter follow-up here. Recommended.)  On the podcast, General McChrystal and his former aide-de-camp Chris Fussell mention a book they’d written called Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.  I read the book, which confirmed my impression: these are impressive guys.

The Problem with Al-Queda

When General McChrystal became commander of the JSOC in 2003, he was frustrated by his force’s apparent inability to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  McChrystal may have had enormous resources at his fingertips, but his special operators always seemed one step behind AQI’s terrorists, and the result was a bloodbath in Iraq, exemplified by the September 30, 2004 bombing of an opening ceremony at a brand new water treatment plant in Baghdad that killed 41 people, including 35 children.

The U.S. military easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s army during the invasion, but, in the occupation, a small number of impoverished terrorists were literally destroying the country.  How?

The answer, General McChrystal learned, had to do with complexity.

Complexity and the Butterfly Effect

In everyday usage, we tend to use the words complicated and complex interchangeably, but in Team of Teams General McChrystal points out that in chaos theory complex refers to situations that are made up of innumerable possible causes and effects such that correctly forecasting or planning for an outcome is literally impossible. Weather, for example, is an example of a complex system.

The famous butterfly effect refers to the idea that, in a complex system, a very small change in input can produce a great difference in output: the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Africa might (but not necessarily) result in a hurricane in Brazil.  The weather man can forecast the next hour’s weather with relative accuracy, but forecasting weather a week from now is just a guessing game, because weather is a complex system: there are just too many variables.

The modern world is a complex world, which means that small inputs can make a great difference.  The problem for McChrystal and the U.S. was that AQI was set up to thrive in a complexity, whereas JSOC, for all its power and wealth of resources, was not.

Team of Teams

On the small level, the individual SEAL and Delta Force and intelligence teams at McChrystal’s disposal were excellent, but the organization of JSOC itself hindered cooperation and made adaptability impossible.  The main strategic advantage of AQI, on the other hand, was precisely in its ability to adapt.  McChrystal’s insight was that if JSOC was going to defeat AQI, it would have to become as adaptable as its enemy.

The individual SEAL and Delta Force and intelligence teams were already capable of adaptability, which is why there were so effective; McChrystal’s reform was to get them working together as a team of teams.  He did this by constantly pushing authority down the chain of command, even when that meant relatively junior officers were making decisions with huge national security implications.  He required each of the various groups in his command to send one elite operator to work with the other groups, so that trust began to be built between teams.  He conveyed a daily briefing that involved hundreds of participants (via video) from all over the world so that information could be shared as widely as possible.  Over time, these and other reforms began to enable the JSOC to effectively adapt to AQI’s tactics, and one of the stories McChrystal tells in the book is how these reforms enabled JSOC to track and kill Zarqawi in 2006.

Conclusion

Team of Teams is an interesting, thorough book (I’ve only referenced a very small part of its content here), but I’m not totally convinced by its argument.  General McChrystal and his co-authors argue that in our complex world, a great team or team of teams is a greater strategic advantage than a great leader.  I agree with that, as far as it goes, and I think the insights in the book about how to create an organizational culture that is adaptable and resilient are helpful.  But, I can’t help thinking that part of the story of the book is also that it takes a great leader to create that kind of organizational culture.  Maybe the kind of leader who could lead that kind of change would end up thriving in any situation, complex or not.  The Admiral Nelsons of the world might just make any team successful.  A team is important, but a team requires a leader.  As Bill Hybels likes to say, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  As I said, the more I read General McChrystal’s book, the more I thought, “This guy is impressive.”

 

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex Worldby General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell

★★★         worth reading

 

 

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English Lesson: “Disinterested” vs. “Uninterested”

One of my concerns here in Fox and Hedgehog land is language.  Language matters, because language expresses and enables thought.  The right words used in the right way can help us express exactly what we want to express.  One of our occasional features here on the Hedgeblog will be about the proper use of words; I want to help you avoid the mistake of using one word when you ought to use another.  In our first installment, I’m talking about the words “uninterested” and “disinterested.”  What’s the difference?

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Today, people often use the word “disinterested” when what they really mean is “uninterested.”  The two words should not be interchangeable: disinterest means something different than uninterest.  Disinterest does not mean a lack of interest or curiosity; rather, a disinterested party is one that is impartial, that has no stake or interest in the argument.

So, e.g., I am uninterested in the outcome of The Bachelorette: i.e., I don’t care and I don’t want to care.

To cite another example: a judge in a courtroom should be disinterested but not uninterested.

Make sense?

Hillary Clinton and James Comey

FBI Director James Comey was clearly not uninterested in Hillary Clinton’s emails; a better question: was Director Comey disinterested?

See why language matters?

 

P.S.

I’m not picking on the Democrats; I don’t know anything about indictments and security clearances and the like–the Clinton email example is just one picked from today’s headlines.

 

 

 

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“If You Can Keep It”

As Benjamin Franklin left the deliberations at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia stopped and asked the old man: “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”  To which Franklin replied, “A republic, madam–if you can keep it.”

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This republic that Franklin and the other founders gave us isn’t inevitable: it is a precious gift that must be tended and cultivated, like a garden.  On this Fourth of July, I’m thinking about the gift I’ve received to be a citizen of this republic and the stewardship of the people who passed that gift on to me, and I’m thinking about my responsibility in turn to pass it on to the children who will come after me.

A sacred responsibility.

 

 

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The Somme Began 100 Years Ago Today

The Battle of the Somme began exactly 100 years ago today, July 1, 1916.  By day’s end, the British Army alone would suffer over 57,000 casualties, and 20,000 of His Majesty’s young soldiers lay dead in the filthy mud.  That obscenity is worth reflecting on today.

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[A British Tommy rescuing his mate during the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. ]

 

Progress is a Lie

We modern people are so arrogant.  We believe that because we can split the atom and transplant the kidney that we are more advanced than the people who came before us.  We believe in Progress.  In fact, we worship it.

But Progress is a lie.  The Somme is the result of Progress.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, all the right sort of people–cultured and cosmopolitan–knew that man was progressing toward a glorious future, and that scientific knowledge would enable us to obtain greater and greater mastery over the physical world.  However, in their Promethean arrogance the smart set overlooked the stubborn fact that scientific knowledge might give us mastery over the physical world, but it does nothing to give us mastery over ourselves; splitting the atom and transplanting the kidney doesn’t make us wise.

Modernity Began at The Somme

The late literary critic (and decorated WWII combat veteran) Paul Fussell believed that modernity began on July 1, 1916.  That first day of slaughter at the Somme was the beginning of a century of slaughter.  Mass graves, pointless killing: that’s Progress, and that’s who we are.

The Somme, 100 Years Later

100 years later, we have the iPhone and the Global Positioning System and the defibrillator.  Today, all the right sort of people know that humankind is progressing toward a glorious future, and that death and disease will find their end in Silicon Valley.  The inconvenient history of the Somme, if we choose to acknowledge it at all, is just one more example of the pitiful ignorance of past generations.  Unlike them, however, we have Progress, and Progress will make us perfect.  Progress is our God.

So much for progress.

 

 

 

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