Horror and Holiness

I have often wondered why many churches do not have portrayals of the crucifixion on prominent display. I’ve heard remarks about how the empty cross (which is quite pervasive) is a symbol of Christ’s work for us and of His definitive victory over suffering and death. This is a wonderful sentiment. At crucifixionthe same time, I think crucifixion imagery is a powerful representation of the costliness and horror of sin. Prior to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for the redemption of mankind, animal sacrifices were performed by God’s priests. I can only imagine the full-on sensory assault of that experience: the death of an innocent animal, the sight and smell of the flowing blood, the smell of the burning meat, the pungent smoke rising from the altar.

Ritual animal sacrifice is no longer required for atonement, but I believe we still need frequent sensory reminders of the nature of sin and its blight upon our souls. As Christians, we are indeed a redeemed people, destined to spend eternity in the presence of our Savior. Yet in the here-and-now, we’re carrying out the work of sanctification that prepares us for our place in the New Jerusalem. What am I being sanctified from? What is it that needs purging from my heart every single day that I walk the earth in this not-yet-glorified body, in this imperfect state of my soul, that I may be more like my Savior?

In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis brings before the mind’s eye vivid imagery of human sins such as pride, selfishness, unforgiveness, hatred, and cruelty. The observer grieves for those who are obliviously steeped in the cesspool of sin.  One of the over-arching themes of the allegory is that Heaven and Hell cannot be married–they are fundamentally divorced. It is the cosmic contrast of the two that needs to be continually before our mind as we live out our faith, and consciousness of sin is critical, just as our recognition of God’s holiness is.

As a mainstay of our spiritual formation, we should  meditate upon the doctrine of sin and make sincere lamentation a major part of our devotional life.  We must understand the seriousness of sin and its spiritual ramifications. I’m reminded of David’s hauntingly sorrowful song of contrition in Psalm 51, how he implored God to cleanse him, to restore his soul.  I endeavor to be more repentant, and I find that a better understanding of the horror of sin is necessary.

But here’s the wondrous thing: The more deeply I meditate upon my fallen-ness and the filthy ugliness of my sin, the more acutely I sense the resonance between my redeemed soul and the Lord Jesus Christ. In contrasting the monstrosity of my daily rebellion with God’s holiness, the purity and beauty of His nature and the undeserved robe of righteousness he has enveloped me in stand out in sharp relief, so preternaturally clear in my mind that they seem almost tangible. My desire for Christ-likeness is intensified , as is my gratitude for his saving grace.

For me, crucifixion imagery has a special poignancy, and it has become more prominent in my private prayer practice as I make entreaties for forgiveness: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Thinking Outside the “Women Box”

It surprises many people to hear that my ministry work rarely involves exclusively female audiences. I think there’s a pervasive (and mistaken) assumption that women working in any theology-related field are (naturally!) active in women’s ministry. The truth is, the vast majority of the teaching and training I’ve done has been for mixed audiences of men and women, from young adults to post-retirement seniors. (After all, apologetics and worldview education are not gender-specific disciplines.) This hasn’t been an intentional thing on my part; it’s simply a direct reflection of the nature of ministry invitations I’ve received. I confess that this has led me to what I have come to recognize as an unfair conclusion: that women’s ministry leaders haven’t realized the urgent need for training women in the basics of apologetics as part of focused Christian discipleship, and that women who often participate in the women’s activities at their church aren’t particularly interested in such things, anyway. I also admit that I have experienced a measure of cynicism and pessimism on this account, but I’m glad to be able to say that God has done some heart surgery on me over the course of this year, and my attitude and outlook is being transformed.

A  few weeks ago, I conducted a 2-day apologetics training event for a large group of women leaders at a Bible church in southern California. When the invitation to teach had first come months before, I was quite surprised by the description of the event, and in the weeks leading up to it I wondered how well-received the material would be.  It turned out to be one of the most deeply satisfying ministry experiences I’ve ever had. After each of the five sessions, the women posed excellent, insightful questions and spoke about conversations they’d had with unbelievers in their families and with women they’d encountered through the outstanding community outreach ministry they’ve developed. They were enthusiastic about becoming better-equipped to defend the truth in love. They clearly understood the importance of relationship-building when it comes to authentic evangelism, but their conversational experiences in such a secular region of America has also taught them the necessity of having answers to higher level questions about things such as moral relativism, religious pluralism, science-faith integration, and the reliability of Scripture.  Hence, the reason for the training event. At the end of the weekend, I was so inspired by these culture warrior women that I honestly didn’t want to leave!

open-cardboard-boxI keep imagining the revolution that could happen in other communities across the nation if more senior pastors were persistently outspoken in their exhortation to women congregants towards developing the intellectual skills that have become indispensable to the evangelism of unchurched, well-educated women. The fact is, many of today’s non-Christian career women and mothers on a career hiatus are seeking knowledge of higher truths…but perhaps their search is not always emotion-driven and perhaps they have no deficit of close, loving relationships in their lives. How do we appeal to those who are instead drawn to rational, thoughtful dialogue about God, religion, morality, and hot social issues?  As ambassadors of the greatest teacher who ever lived, we need to be able to meet these women where they are, in a manner that honors their minds. This requires focused training in the context of women’s ministry, yes; but simply offering educational opportunities isn’t sufficient. There needs to be an ethos of intellectualism in the church as a whole, fostered by higher leadership, with emphasis on the need for both genders to develop their minds as a living sacrifice.

Yearning for Artistic Beauty and Sacred Space

Earlier this month, my family visited western North Carolina to spend some time with my dad and to enjoy the cooler temps and mountain scenery. Despite the fact that my husband and I both grew up in NC, neither of us had ever been to downtown Asheville, so we chose a hotel a few minutes from the area. Though most of our sightseeing involved mountain views and waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we made time to see some of the city, as well. At the top of my “To See” list was the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, a century-old Roman Catholic church designed by one of the architects who contributed to the design of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate (largest residence in America).

This wasn’t my first time inside of a Roman Catholic church; I’ve attended Mass here in Houston, and I’ve toured stunning historic Catholic churches in Israel. Nevertheless, the few minutes I spent sitting in the back pew of Saint Lawrence’s were no less spiritually profound: the reverent silence; the stunning beauty; men and women kneeling in prayer amid flickering candles; the majestic crucifix suspended above the ornate altar; the sublimity of the domed ceiling. I let it all wash over me, realizing once again how much my soul longs for the experience of sacred space. Here are a couple of photos of the church’s interior. It features the largest self-supporting elliptical dome in North America:


Basilica 2

These images don’t do it justice. It was breathtaking.

In the Protestant tradition, the statement is often made, “The church is not a building, it is a people.” I understand the point, and I realize that the material things of this world, including stones, bricks, and tiles, will pass away while the body of Christ endures. However, I have a deeply-held conviction that God values human artistry, and that design and craftsmanship are a vital form of worship and glorification of the Creator. As beings made in His image, we are unique among all other creatures in that we can reflect Him in our creative endeavors–visual arts, music, architecture. Contemplating the Basilica was an intensely worshipful experience, one that drew my mind to the transcendent. This is what objective beauty does, as the standard of the good, true, and beautiful is the very character of God himself.

I lament the utter lack of artistry in many Protestant church buildings. While some have architecture and interior design that is aesthetically pleasing (and practical), they typically do not visually convey a sense of the sacred, they do not inspire an elevation of the soul through unusual beauty. I subconsciously long for these things, and I know this to be so because of how strongly I am affected when I do experience a place like the Basilica.  I’m not saying that a building can have any mystical powers; I’m saying that consecrated spaces designed to reflect God’s majestic beauty as well as humanly possible fulfill a universal spiritual need. We long to be closer to His beauty, and sensory experiences give us glimpses of Him that are not achieved through other means.

In his book, Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts, Philip Ryken argues that “God is a great lover of beauty, as we can see from the collection of his work that hangs in the gallery of the universe. Form is as important to him as function.” Ryken discusses the exacting beauty of the Tabernacle, right down to the colorful embroidery on the priestly robes, in an effort to emphasize this. Obviously, aesthetic considerations were of the utmost importance, and artisans were selected and inspired by God Himself. The beauty conveyed the holiness of God. The best artistry, says Ryken, will “satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God has made for his glory.” These were, to be sure, major goals of the Tabernacle structure.

After (reluctantly) exiting the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, my father, who is a Baptist minister, turned to me and asked: “Why don’t the Baptists build churches like this?” I think more and more American Evangelical Christians are awakening to this need and are making efforts to recover what has, to a great extent, been lost.

I encourage you to make a point of experiencing and contemplating human art and architecture that has been set apart and purposed to communicating the sacred. You may be surprised by how much it enhances your devotional life.

All This Sudden Outrage…So Where’s All the Training?

Since the expose’ of the horrific, gruesome practices going on behind the “pro-women” facade of Planned Parenthood, there has been more outcry from the church over the egregious injustice being done to unborn human beings than I can remember ever witnessing. In case you missed it, one of the sting videos released over the past week includes footage of a dead baby being dissected for its body parts, then the doctor calls it “another boy!” Absolutely chilling and gut-wrenching. Yes, we should be outraged.

The questions that keep going around and around in my mind are:

1. In light of the fact that 1 MILLION children per year are chemically burned, crushed,  and/or dismembered before being suctioned from their mother’s womb, why hasn’t there been this level of outrage all along? 2,700 babies a day, ladies and gentlemen. Many people don’t realize that in America, it is possible to get a legal abortion at any stage of pregnancy. A woman seeking a late-term abortion may have to travel to a specific state with the requisite abortion laws, but the fact remains that babies who would be viable outside of the womb can be legally killed within the womb in America. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 1.2% of abortions are performed after the 21st week of gestation. (The threshold of viability is usually said to be 23 weeks, but there have been some cases of younger preemies surviving.) This comes out to about 12,000 post-21-week abortions a year. That’s 33 babies a day.

2. Where is all the pro-life training? The most effective defense of the unborn is widespread education on the philosophical, bioethical, and theological issues that pervade this debate. Imagine the impact the church could have in this area if it were diligently working to equip believers with the intellectual tools required to be intelligent, articulate, pro-life voices in the public square. Moreover, it would likely reduce the number of professing Christians who identify as “pro-choice” (and there are a LOT). Why doesn’t every church in America offer and strongly encourage such training? There are excellent resources available; a great small-group study resource is The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture. Additionally, apologists with the ability to train others in sanctity of life issues can be booked for focused seminars or as part of general apologetics events (I happen to think all apologists should be trained in this area). Check out Life Training Institute for events and speakers working full-time for the pro-life cause.

Yes, we are deeply grieved over the inhumanity and injustice of this atrocity called abortion. Women and their babies deserve so much better! Let’s do something about it.

Dear Apologist…

Please note that the domain name for my blog has changed. If you use a bookmark instead of a subscription, please update it to either http://www.melissatravis.com or https://hcchristian.wordpress.com. 

This week marks the five year anniversary of my Coming Out as an Apologist, the day I posted my very first article here. I’ve been reflecting on all that has come to pass since that day, including the crucial lessons learned, some of which were learned the hard way (in some cases, that is an understatement). Five years doesn’t sound all that impressive when you consider how long many eminent thinkers in my field have been plowing ground, but I believe I have gained some wisdom worth sharing.

Here are three (okay maybe four) insights I wish someone had shared with me very early on.

1. An apologist’s most effective work is often done in small, humble settings (for free) rather than creatively-set stages in mega-church auditoriums. That local group study, where you form real relationships with a few devoted learners who are thirsty for the knowledge you have to impart; that spontaneous, tough question from one of your kids while  you’re driving all over town running errands; that coffee with a longtime friend who is struggling with fear and doubt. These appointments matter, and they matter much more than you know. A “sage on a stage” can do marvelous work for the kingdom, to be sure; but all too often, apologists (particularly emerging ones) make the mistake of gauging their fruitfulness by the number (or lack thereof) of public teaching/speaking invitations they receive or by-lines they have accumulated. This is terribly misguided. Always be ministering, in whatever setting entrusted to you; be joyful and thankful for even the smallest opportunity to use your giftedness. This demonstrates obedience and faith in God to open just the right windows of opportunity when you are sharpened sufficiently and your heart is prepared. My prayer is always “Here I am, Lord, send me!” but I have no place being finicky about where that happens to be.

hurricane_eye2. Do not underestimate the ripple effect of your work, but realize that  you may not see past the first few ripples in this lifetime. Think of the butterfly effect theory. Every action taken in faithfulness reverberates outward and forward as time goes on, in ways we cannot imagine. Treat every ministry moment as if it is the most important of your life! One summer, while teaching a study at my church, I had a conversation with a grandmother concerned by the fact that her unbelieving son (a former believer) and daughter-in-law were raising their kids in a godless home. The grandmother had never studied apologetics herself (a fact she deeply regretted), and asked me to recommend a book to help her talk with her grandkids, who were coming to visit for the summer. I completely forgot about the conversation until one day, months later, she approached me at church to tell me that her granddaughter had become a believer, after spying the book at her grandmother’s house and reading it without prompting. Think about that. All I did was suggest a book title. Only God knows the full impact that one short conversation will turn out to have.

3. Be knowledgeable about the work being done by others in (or coming into) the field, and be willing to promote quality work as often as you are able. My personal practice is to plug the notable work of others at every opportunity, whether it’s previewing a book and offering an endorsement, blogging about a great new resource, or writing social media blurbs about them. Of course, promoting your own work is necessary, but when we exhibit Christian charity towards our co-laborers by drawing deserved attention to their unique ministries, we are building each other up and furthering the mission of apologetics most effectively by making a broader range of resources better known. (I’m very excited about two upcoming books that I’ll be blogging about in the near future: One of the Few by Jason Ladd and Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side by Natasha Crain.)

4. Do not neglect your own spiritual formation. It is the most important part of equipping yourself for effective ministry. Seek to continually improve the quality of your prayer life and your study time. Be worshipful in both. Mind your moral compass diligently. As Douglas Groothuis has so beautifully put it, “Christian defenders need to know the arguments of apologetics, but they must also find their moral bearings to bear the truth nobly…Rather than packaging and selling an image, the apologist should build his ministry on integrity, service, repentance, and prayer.” (Christian Research Journal, Vol. 37, No. 2)

There you have it. Go forth and prosper.

Is Design Dead?

So I said to the teacher,

“Please consider design.”

He said, “We haven’t had that thesis here since 1859.”

(Weird Al, are you listening?)

1859 was the year Charles Darwin published his landmark treatise, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The book is included in the Great Books of the Western World canon, and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written and thoughtful piece of natural philosophy. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. Consider the poetic language of this passage:

As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications. 

Origin, Chapter 4

I find it remarkable that the majority of folks who recite the “design is dead, Darwin killed it” mantra haven’t actually read Darwin; they’ve only read popular (sometimes weirdly slanted) articles or books about Darwin’s work, or heard agenda-driven pop-atheists sing Darwinian praises. I find it all rather strange. How do they know Darwin killed design? How did he do it? These are key questions to ask the design opponent.

Darwin’s scientific work actually did little to nothing to discredit design, properly defined. His philosophical goal (which he makes clear in the Origin) was indeed to demonstrate that there is no need to postulate a Creator to explain the diversity and complexity of living things. He fell prey to the same mistake in thinking we see today: the belief that scientifically elucidating natural history and the workings of the natural mechanism (allegedly) behind it somehow rules out a designer of both the mechanism and the resulting organisms. In other words, thinking that the physical cause of something automatically eliminates the possibility that purpose and intention were involved. But how does that follow? No amount of scientific advancement could ever demonstrate this, because it lies in the realm of metaphysics–it goes beyond the physical.

One of my favorite early modern philosophers, Thomas Reid, made this point nearly a century before Darwin published the Origin:

A Physical cause is different from a final cause. The physical cause hunts out the laws of Nature from which the phenomena flow…but the final cause again hunts out the end which Nature had in view.

Lectures on Natural Theology, 1780

(Reid was a devout Christian, and his use of the term “Nature” is thoroughly design-oriented, not merely personified. He had insightful things to say about laws needing a law-giver, mechanisms needing an ultimate first cause, and the foresight apparent in the natural world.)

Today’s design advocate may rightfully claim that Darwin’s philosophy failed miserably, but they don’t have to challenge his scientific theory (common descent driven by natural selection) in order to defend their own position. Note: this is not to say that the Darwinian view of biological history and evolutionary change doesn’t have scientific weaknesses. What I’m getting at is that a defense of design doesn’t rely upon pointing out the shortcomings of evolutionary theory. 

Then what, exactly, is the design advocate’s mission? It is an integrated project of science and philosophy; an examination of the features of the natural world and the use of that data to support premises of philosophical arguments. Here are a couple of examples of how this works. The first one is completely irrelevant to Darwinism, as it deals with the origin of the universe itself. I include it to emphasize how broadly design theory should be defined. The second example is related to evolutionary biology, and it demonstrates that biological design theory doesn’t depend upon Darwin’s science being wrong.

1. It is an undisputed scientific fact that the laws and constants of the universe exhibit a stunning level of fine-tuning, such that even minute differences would have prevented the possibility of any life at all in the cosmos. No stars, no planets, no chemistry. The statistical odds of this finely-tuned state occurring by blind chance are effectively zero. The design advocate uses this data to support the philosophical claim that there was intelligent, conscious governance of the physical event by which the cosmos came into existence.

2. Biochemistry has revealed that the genetic code far exceeds the complexity and multi-level integration of any manmade code ever produced. Think of our most advanced computer software—it’s utterly stone age compared to the genetic code. The design advocate uses this data to support the philosophical claim that this type of intricacy and level of functionality strongly suggest behind-the-scenes intelligent engineering. Note that this claim has nothing to do with Darwinian common descent, and it doesn’t rule out Natural selection as a mechanism. The opponent of design will respond that the mechanism driving “descent with modification” is blind and autonomous, but this too is a philosophical claim. At the end of the day, the physical evidence is all we have scientific access to.

I’ve greatly simplified the above arguments; many sophisticated versions of these are used and many counter-arguments have been made. But I wanted you to get the gist of exactly what the real issue is.

In the project of scientific apologetics, I believe the best and wisest approach is to take Darwin off the table altogether but be able to explain why his scientific theory is extraneous to the discussion. This allows you to find a common ground starting point in your conversations. Otherwise, you and your interlocutor will end up talking past one another and/or missing the true core of the dispute.