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Friday, Jul 25, 2014

From 'Good News' to Not-So-Good Stories: Using Reason for Christian Faith

October 18, 2013|6:41 am

The "good news" of the New Testament gospels has been around for nearly two thousand years. Good stories have been around for thousands of years longer. However, good stories nowadays are not what they used to be. Many readers of today enjoy historical mystery novels tied to themes of ancient and Biblical history. This whole genre received a big boost in 2003 with the publication of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, followed by a movie release in 2006.

These novels typically present a lot of factual material, including vividly accurate historical settings, events and characters. Fictional characters drawn from modern times are usually included also. They fight gun battles with each other as they pursue an ancient hidden treasure or decode a mystery. There is generally a high ratio of gun fights and "tough talk" dialogue to intellectual decoding work.

Along with historical facts, however, these authors often inject a subversive, anti-Christian religious perspective or an outright treatise against the Gospels. Recent examples include the following:

1) The supposed discovery of a lost gospel by Jesus Christ or one of his disciples in which Jesus is described as a mere mortal –
not divine and not resurrected. The original discovery of such heretical documents is often attributed to the infamous and mysterious Knights Templar-always a popular subject of historical fiction.

2) The discovery of a large cache of lost, non-canonical gospels and other "biblical" texts (including Gnostic gospels), that were banned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. These texts treat Jesus as merely a wise moral teacher, not a divine Savior.

3) A claim that Old Testament cities, towns and rivers traditionally believed to be located in Palestine and Judaea were actually situated in western Saudi Arabia, southeast of Mecca!

4) The presentation of contemporary Christians as a cabal of militaristic "Dominionists" bent on waging holy war on everyone else in order to achieve political control of the world and bring about the Apocalypse. Christians are therefore being equated with radical Arab Wahhabists, including Islamic terrorists.

It is easy for readers of historical mystery novels to be taken in by anti-Christian and anti-Biblical assertions, because these are usually mixed in with actual historical facts. The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, for instance was a real event – a meeting of Catholic bishops presided over by Emperor Constantine the Great (and resulting in the Nicene Creed). For the Christian reader, these may be fun stories with "dangerous liaisons."

The modern Internet and blogging culture aggravates this problem. Facts, opinions and pseudo-factual claims are easily thrown together in today's virtual media universe. Transmission to the public is so fast that verification and critical evaluation of statement validity fall by the wayside. Traditional hard-copy media fact-checking procedures break down. Scientists have recently noted that it is harder for people to make good decisions nowadays because too much information is available (Sharon Begley, "Brain Freeze," Newsweek, March 7, 2011).

For the Christian reader, Biblical heresy easily finds openings to proliferate, and historical mystery fiction has become a popular niche for today's heretical thought. The fictional context dulls the reader's critical faculties. The novelist promotes a disconnect between reason and faith.

The Biblical mystery novel, with its hidden codes and lost codices, is part of a larger, modern-day "intellectualization of religion" phenomenon. But today's Christian believer can fight back. He or she can use reason in support of faith. Reason for faith actually has an impressive historical pedigree – going back to the Platonic philosophy of St. Augustine and the Aristotelian thought of St Thomas Aquinas.

A relatively simple example of using reason for Christian faith can be cited in the case of Jesus' burial shroud as it was found by his followers in the empty tomb. The Gospel of John states:

Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb.
 He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had
 been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from
 the linen (John 20: 6-7 (NIV); see also Luke 24: 12).

The position of the burial shroud, laid straight out lengthwise on the floor of the empty tomb, is supportive evidence for the Resurrection – i.e., a direct, upward raising of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus' body had been stolen from the tomb, the tomb robbers would have been hasty and careless. The burial shroud would therefore have been: 1) taken away with the body, or 2) bunched up and discarded as a misshapen lump of cloth in a corner of the tomb. Instead, the shroud and folded face cloth were both found in a position of simple neatness, thus consistent with the Resurrection.

This type of reasoning can be done by any thoughtful Christian. You do not necessarily have to be an "ivory tower" academic or Biblical archaeologist. (Archaeologists, however, are making progress in digging up evidence for Biblical histories and chronologies. See, for example, recent studies in the Holy Land presented by Associates for Biblical Research on their website, www.biblearchaeology.org.)

Steven Garofolo, president of the National Apologetics Training Center in Charlotte, North Carolina has warned that atheists are now very active in written attacks against Christianity and the Bible. Some of these writers use the misleading argument of "moral relativism" in their critiques of the Gospels. They assume that, because one cannot absolutely prove the factual truth of the Gospels, that arguments some books were forged are therefore just as valid as the Christian position.

When evaluating the Gospels from a logical standpoint, one should apply the principle of Occam's Razor – the simplest, most direct line of reasoning is likely to be true. By the late first century to second century AD, there was already a broad consensus among early Christians concerning which New Testament books they believed in. These were the four main Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), Acts and the Pauline letters, plus a few other books. The reason for this belief is straightforward – these books purported to be eyewitness or close to eyewitness accounts of Jesus' actions and ministry. These books were dictated or written down within a few decades after the Crucifixion, around 45-75 AD (plus John a little later, about 90 AD).

The so called "Gnostic" gospels do not follow this simple chain of logic. They were written much later – well into the second century or after – and are more in the nature of (Greek-related) philosophical-mystical interpretations rather than eyewitness-based narratives of Jesus' ministry. The Gnostic books did not achieve the same level of acceptance among early Christians as the future canonical books.

There is another, motivational-type argument that can be made against the Gospel forgery thesis. Such a thesis implies that early Christians would have been impelled by adverse desires for money or power to forge and alter their holy books. These assumptions, however, are not realistic during the first centuries of the Christian era. First, the population attracted to Christianity during this period was not generally well-off; it included many slaves and freedmen. Thus, there was little in the way of prospective monetary reward available to a Gospel forger.

Second, few early Christians were seeking political power or political office – the Kingdom of God was to be in Heaven, not on Earth. Absent the occasional threat of persecution, most of them were content to live and worship within the dominant earthly power of their day, the Roman Empire. They followed Jesus' exhortation to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." There was little to motivate a Gospel forger to incite or lead a political rebellion.

Human reason is a unique gift from God. There is nothing like it in the animal kingdom. Such a gift should not remain idle in Christian hands. Christian vigilance requires both reason and faith in today's multi-media world of story and seduction. Christian reason is also a way of partaking in the Bible's own sacred wisdom of the ages.

Gary W. Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. and holds a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University. His doctoral dissertation was on the subject of welfare reform in Maryland. He has published several articles on social science and is currently working on a paper about Christian and political philosophies underlying President George W. Bush's Faith-Based Initiative of 2001.
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