FILM REVIEW: The Case for Christ

I took a much needed break from my research and writing cave this afternoon and went to see the The Case for Christ, which is based upon the best-selling book by Lee Strobel. The film tells the story of Strobel’s journey from committed atheism to Christianity, detailing (in much shorter form) the months-long investigation he carried out by reading widely and interviewing atheist, agnostic, and Christian scholars.

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I must say up front that I get nervous when I hear about new Christian films. Some of them are so cheesy and poorly-acted that they’re an embarrassment, quite honestly. But, I had heard impressive praise from friends for the Strobel film (and he is, after all, my colleague 🙂 ), so I made a plan to see it at the theater.

**This is an honest review!**

I’m not going to rehash the plot–from the trailer you can get a great idea of the content. Instead, I’d like to comment upon why I think this is a beautifully-made film and one believers should support with ticket purchases and recommendations.

  1. The acting is excellent. Crucially, the actors who portray Lee and his wife Leslie did an outstanding job. What was a delightful surprise was that the secondary characters were every bit as believable and endearing. Alfie, the woman who shares Christ with Leslie early in the film, was my favorite, but the Christian in Lee’s office at the Chicago Tribune was a close second (he was hilarious).
  2. The portrayals of the various real-life scholars were compelling. The conversations Lee has with them are, by necessity, condensed down into a few main points, but this is handled very well. I think someone not knowledgeable in apologetics would be encouraged to learn more. The actor cast as a 1980 William Lane Craig was great.
  3. Skeptics are portrayed with the utmost dignity. The main atheist in the film, one of Lee’s older, father-figure friends, is intelligent and well-read. Lee goes to him for skepticism reinforcement from time to time. The agnostic psychology professor was presented as a thoughtful and elegant lady.
  4. I can tell you, as a child of the 80s, the set, costumes, hairstyles, and cars (!!) were spot-on. I spied an original Home Interiors owl print that my mom had in our house when I was in elementary school. 😀
  5. No Christianese!!! Thank you, Lord! Even the conversion prayer (which I was worried about) felt authentic; it wasn’t the mechanical, repeat-after-me “sinner’s prayer.”
  6. The deep humanity. You see the main character in his best and worst moments. Emotional scenes–especially those showing marital conflict–are realistic, not over-the-top. I love that the film makes clear that Lee’s atheism was about more than a perceived lack of convincing evidence for Christianity while not diminishing the fact that the actual evidence was a major factor in his conversion.
  7. Non-cheesy, chuckle-worthy humor in just the right spots.
  8. Realistic in terms of not shying away from themes such as over-indulgence in alcohol, slightly edgy language (not profanity), etc.
  9. Ecumenical (hooray!). One of the experts Lee visits is a Roman Catholic priest and former archaeologist who really knows his stuff about ancient manuscripts. However, it made me laugh when the priest pulled, from the dusty shelves of his church office library, the original P-52 fragment. Ha!! (I don’t think he calls it that, but the shape of that fragment is so iconic, there’s no doubt that’s what the filmmakers used.) One funny thing I noticed is that when the priest gives the count for surviving New Testament manuscripts, he uses the current total, which I’m pretty sure is significantly higher than the total was in 1980.
  10. Lee Strobel himself makes a brief cameo. See if you can spot him. 🙂

Go see it! Well worth your time. I’ll definitely be purchasing the Blu-ray when it becomes available.

Communion: Holy Sacrament or Mere Sign?

In honor of Maundy Thursday, I have updated a piece I wrote a little more than a year ago. So much of what I said then is what I’m reflecting on this Holy Week, so I thought I’d repost it. 

I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. For that reason, it is difficult for me to admit that for more than three decades, I never stopped to investigate the concept of sacrament. In fact, if you had asked me to define the term 18 months ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give an entirely correct response. I have no excuse for this gap in my theological knowledge; I’m sure it was mentioned at some point in my Essential Christian Doctrine courses in grad school, though I have no solid memory of any in-depth discussion of it. Once I began exploring the liturgical/sacramental traditions of Christendom through research and church attendance, some pivotal questions surfaced.

Why do sacramental/liturgical traditions view and conduct things like communion and baptism so differently? It certainly isn’t all about aesthetic preference; theology is at the core of these practices. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to carry these out? What is meant by “sacrament”?

Please understand that it is not at all my intention to criticize anyone’s perspective; rather, I wish to articulate why my personal view dramatically changed.

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and sacramental/liturgical Protestants don’t all have the same view on the number and exact nature of the sacraments. For example, the Roman Catholic church recognizes seven: baptism, Eucharist (Holy Communion), confirmation, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage. Sacramental/liturgical Protestants, such as Anglicans and Lutherans, only recognize baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments, since these were instituted, commanded, and modeled by Christ. 

Even though all of the above-mentioned Christian traditions hold these two sacraments in common, there is a difference (in general) between the non-Protestant and sacramental/liturgical Protestant beliefs about them. For instance, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches hold to transubstantiation–the belief that the bread and wine are quite literally mystically transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ’s body. This does not mean they believe the elements turn into Jesus’s biological material; rather, the elements are transformed into the essence of His flesh and blood but not the physical accidents (that’s a philosophical term). Most sacramental/liturgical Protestants would deny this but yet affirm that, in a very real yet mysterious way, Christ is present in Holy Communion and His once-and-for-all sacrifice is thereby symbolized.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, and many of my family and friends are still members of that denomination. I have enormous admiration and respect for their commitment to the right handling of Scripture, diligent personal Bible study, and emphasis on close community. Typically, the practice of communion in non-liturgical/sacramental Protestant churches (at least in my 30+ years of experience) is a quarterly worship service add-on. The officiant invites believers to participate and then reads the Scripture that records Christ’s last supper with His disciples prior to His crucifixion. Sometimes there is a moment of silence during which believers are meant to privately examine their hearts and repent from sin. Plates are passed with tiny cups of grape juice and small fragments of bread or unleavened wafer (the elements). Prayers of blessing are said over each prior to consumption. Communion is done as a symbolic practice of remembrance of Christ’s work for us.

I have a personal confession to make: In all my years as a Christian participating in communion, I had never been able to get over a sense of awkwardness and incompleteness in the ceremony, though I didn’t have an explanation for why. I did look forward to “communion Sundays,” as I craved an atmosphere of solemnity and visible, tangible acknowledgement of the meaning and holiness of the meal.  But I often felt as though something was missing. I remember how on many Sundays, I would place my empty juice cup in the tiny cupholder bolted to the back of the pew in front of me with a very real sense of deficiency.

In 1 Corinthians 11:24-28, the Apostle Paul recounts Christ’s words about Holy Communion:

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“The Last Supper” by Harry Anderson

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

There are three things that really stand out to me about this passage. First of all, the practice of communion was commanded by our Lord. “Do this,” He said. Second, He calls the practice a remembrance, and Paul explains that it is a proclamation of Christ’s crucifixion. Third, Paul gives a sober warning about the necessity of coming to the table in a worthy manner–having confessed our sin with a penitent heart.

The book of Acts, our earliest text of church history, tells us that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) and that “on the first day of the week” they “gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7). Sunday, the Lord’s resurrection day, was recognized through gathering together and observing Holy Communion. The indication is that this was a weekly act of Christian devotion that was accompanied by specific prayers. The writings of the Apostolic and other Ante-Nicene Fathers are further testament to the importance of Holy Communion in the early church. 

In the Anglican tradition, Holy Communion is a sacrament. What does that mean? The simplest way to explain it is that it is “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Holy Communion is a means by which our faith is fortified, by the grace of God, in a deeply incarnational way. We are creatures of body and soul, and therefore such outward, physical expressions of worship feed our whole person. There is beautiful mystery in how this happens…yet it does! I believe this is exactly why Christ commanded the practice. I love how Rev. Gavin Pate of All Saints Dallas put it: “It is a meal of sustaining grace, embodying the prayer of Jesus, that Our Father would ‘give us this day our daily bread.'”

At my church, HopePointe Anglican, Holy Communion  is a serious and beautiful affair that I have found deeply nourishing. All those who have been baptized and are walking in repentance are invited to participate. We kneel together at the rail in front of the Lord’s table as a visible communion of believers hungry for Christ. When the broken bread is pressed into my upturned palm, I am told, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” or “The body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” When the wine chalice is presented to me, I am told, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Afterwards, it is difficult to stand, as I want to remain there indefinitely, prostrate before my holy God. My heart cries out, “Lord Jesus, I remember!”

Alister McGrath: “Richard Dawkins vs. C.S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life”

Several weeks ago, I once again had the enormous pleasure of hearing Dr. Alister McGrath lecture at the Lanier Theological Library here in the greater Houston area. Dr. McGrath is a Image result for alister mcgrathleading scholar in the discipline of Science and Religion; he holds advanced degrees in both biochemistry and theology, having served in a biophysics research laboratory at
Oxford before turning to theological studies. He now serves as Andreas Idreos Professor in Science and Religion at Oxford. His scholarly and popular level work is a great asset to the Christian community. I use his
introductory textbook as a main resource in the Science and Faith course I teach at Houston Baptist University (next term begins in May, and the course is available fully online!).

A high quality video of Dr. McGrath’s lecture is now available. Enjoy!

Lecture by Alister McGrath from Lanier Theological Library on Vimeo.

Resource Alert! Cold-Case Christianity for Kids

I’m a huge fan of J. Warner Wallace’s work. As a former atheist and cold-case homicide detective, he offers such a fascinating and compelling voice to Christian apologetics. I recommend his books, Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene all the time, usually with the comment, “Hey, if you’re a fan of detective drama, you’ll love the angle this author takes concerning the evidence for Christianity.” The diagrams and other illustrations make the books as entertaining as they are informative. After hearing that J.W.W. and his wife Susie were working on a kids’ version of Cold-Case Christianity, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

ccc-for-kidsCold-Case Christianity for Kids is an outstanding resource for children in the upper elementary and middle school age range (approximately 9 to 13, I’d say, but that’s probably being a bit conservative). The cover design is appealing, and the text is saturated with the type of helpful sidebars and fun graphics found in the grown-up version. I particularly like that the book is written as a story in which the reader is immersed as a participant; this is engaging in the best sort of way–it’s encouragement to really think about the body of evidence for yourself rather than simply read what the other characters conclude from it. All along the way, as the book covers various areas, such as science and the reliability of the Gospels, it explains the proper way to analyze evidence using detective techniques. So, not only does the reader get a taste of the objective evidence for Christianity, they also get some entry-level training in good critical thinking.

I unreservedly recommend Cold-Case Christianity for Kids. It’s a valuable resource both for its quality content and for the ongoing discussions it is sure to spark!

How Studying the Great Books Enhances Apologetics

Confession: Sometimes it feels like I’m going to be in school forever.

Like today. I feel like that today. I’m procrastinating on a Sophocles essay by writing this blog post.

I love learning. I mean, I REALLY. LOVE. LEARNING. But there are most certainly days when I dream about what it would be like to not have a paper deadline pressing down upon me! If all goes as planned (I’ve lived too long to believe that things always go as planned), I’ll defend my dissertation and graduate in December of next year. Pray for me, I beseech thee!

Usually, when people discover that, in addition to my academic and ministry work, I am a doctoral student, they immediately conclude that I’m working towards an advanced degree in apologetics. They’re surprised to learn that I’m actually doing an interdisciplinary humanities degree through a Great Books program (my chosen concentration being philosophy). I’m usually asked to explain what that means and why I chose this route.

Photo from my personal library--The Great Books of the Western World

Photo from my personal library–The Great Books of the Western World

Many have never heard of the Great Books of the Western World, also referred to as the “Western canon.” Basically, this refers to a collection of major works, from a wide variety of genres and academic disciplines, that have significantly shaped human thought in the West on many important topics. The canon contains some of the most ancient literature still in existence and goes all the way through major scholarly works of the 20th century.

Through nearly 2500 years of writing, we see unbroken threads, commonly spoken of as the Big Ideas–ideas that are both ancient and contemporary, ideas that have endured because of how deeply they connect to the human condition: the existence of God, the nature of man, and what it means to live “the Good Life.” Basically, who are we, where did we come from, where are we going, and why does it matter? (Or, does it matter?)

When I first began investigating PhD programs, I didn’t dream of doing anything other than apologetics or philosophy of religion. Yet, one divine neon sign and seven semesters later, here I am, and I’ve discovered that there couldn’t have been a better course of study for me. Being immersed in the Great Books has transformed the way I approach conversations on philosophy, science, and Christianity (the triad of my academic and ministry passion). Here’s why.

Understanding the intellectual history of the Big Ideas shapes the way you think and talk about them. Before my current academic journey began, I didn’t fully appreciate the fine pedigree behind most philosophical arguments related to major apologetics topics. The ancient Greeks were debating some of the same things we still debate today.

For instance, some of the pagan (lowercase “p,” meaning not Jewish or Christian) arguments for a rational mind behind the cosmos have endured extraordinarily well, due to their strength and the fact that they transcend scientific progress. When we point to the features of the cosmos and mankind that seem to suggest a transcendent mind, we’re standing on the shoulders of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Copernicus, Augustine, Aquinas, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Planck,  and Einstein. Note that not all of these were monotheists, yet in their observations of the world and of mankind, they all had sharp insights about the rationality of nature that are strongly resonant with orthodox Christian theism. We are deeply indebted to them.

When we’re able to point to the ideas promoted by great minds of history, we’re not saying, “Look, a really smart guy in the past believed this, so it must be true.” That’s a fallacious statement. What we’re saying (or should be saying) is, “Notice how great thinkers of history have understood ultimate reality; look how they integrated their observations of the world with metaphysical considerations. Their approach is insightful and instructive.”

Here’s an example from my own work. Often, when I quote from the works of great scientists of history who were also devout Christians, an atheist will respond to me with something like, “Oh, they were Christians only because they lived before the Enlightenment and before Darwin” (Alert: genetic fallacy). Logical flaw aside, this response demonstrates much ignorance about precisely how these scientists viewed the relationship of science, reason, and religion. Examining their philosophy reveals that they would very likely have had no problem whatsoever incorporating modern scientific theories into their Christian worldview, because they would have realized, as many contemporary scientists and philosophers have, that science itself doesn’t entail the worldview of scientific materialism. You can have the former in all its glory without the latter and all its misery. I LOVE how the great Stanley Jaki (a Catholic priest who held doctorates in both physics and theology) put it: being a “guru of evolutionism” (scientism) is an entirely separate thing from being a good scientist who studies evolution. The trouble is, many try to justify the former with the latter. That just doesn’t fly.

Okay that last part was a little bit of a rabbit trail. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

All of that to say, I have grown tremendously in my understanding of the importance of intellectual history. Ideas and arguments we may consider great are, way more often than not, rooted in thought that goes back centuries if not millennia. (The same goes for views we may disagree with!) Reading, in the original sources, how opposing ideas have interacted down through the ages is both encouraging and enlightening, offering a much richer picture of any scholarly discipline we pursue. I have found that it is a framework in which apologetics truly flourishes.

If you would like a very readable, easy introduction to the Big Ideas of Western thought, I highly recommend this collection of short essays (actually, they’re edited TV show transcripts) by Mortimer Adler, a man who has been described by many as the most broadly educated man of the 20th century. I have this on my shelf, and I return to it periodically. Happy reading!

How to Think About the Great Ideas 

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March for ALL Women, Including the Unborn Ones

The so-called “Women’s March” last weekend officially excluded some pro-life sponsors, making their pro-abortion perspective even more explicit. So essentially, it was a march for women willing to promote that agenda. I didn’t follow much news of the march, but this photo came across my Twitter feed:

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The tragic irony of this photo is that here we have an African American woman glorifying, and rallying for, a procedure that takes the lives of five times more African American babies than white babies. This amounts to approximately half of unborn African-Americans. Another irony is the fact that  sex-selection abortions  take the lives of a vastly disproportionate number of girls. The women of tomorrow.

The “choice” argument for abortion rings so very hollow. Let us not forget that in the United States, over one million lives are ended by abortion each year, and of all the reasons documented for abortions, only 1% of patients say that their pregnancy was the result of rape.

This weekend, in Washington DC, will be the March for Life 2017. If you can, go and march for all women: the pregnant women who deserve so much better than abortion and the unborn women who deserve to live. If you cannot attend, pray. Pray for women in crisis pregnancies who are considering abortion, that they will choose life, have the care and support they need, and have wisdom in choosing adoptive families for their babies. Pray for the hearts of abortion providers to change, the way this doctor’s heart did. Pray for women who now have to live with the pain of having an abortion in their past, that they would know the beautiful forgiveness and glorious redemption that Christ offers.