Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Makoto Fujimura is a well-established painter based in New York City. That is rare enough, since so many artists perish as artists in that high competitive art world. But Furimura, who is Japanese-American (the significance of this will become clear below), is an evangelical Christian. He has been associated with Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which is pastored by prolific and best-selling author, Tim Keller.
Fujimura has given major exhibits and received significant grants. But he is not a “religious” painter who depicts biblical scenes or characters. Neither is his public predominately Christian. He has carved out a reputation by the uniqueness and skill of his artistic vision, one that fascinates many. While he is a Christian, Fujimura does not draw his inspiration so much from classic Western realistic painters as from twentieth century abstract (or nonrepresentatinal) art and from artistic sensibilities and techniques from his native Japan. These involve novel application devices and pulverized metal. His works often radiate an incandescence rooted primarily in color and materials—not in perspective or direct representation. These paintings can be quite mesmerizing on paper (I have yet to see one in person). Fujimura does have themes in mind for each painting (however arcane these may be to some observers). He has written on his philosophy and practice of art in a book called Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture (NavPress, 2009), on his blog, and elsewhere. More of his paintings can be found in Soliloquies (2009), along with those of Georges Rouault.
Now Fujimura has illustrated the Four Gospels, which uses the English Standard Version. In so doing, the book continues the ancient Christian tradition of an illuminated manuscript. After the invention of the printing press, when Bibles would be mass produced, the illuminated manuscript fell out of favor for practical reasons. Theologically, one might worry that Christians would view the Bible more as an artistic ornament rather than the special revelation from God; but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with adorning Scripture with fitting illustration. Scripture itself speaks of “the beauty of holiness,” and the beauty of God himself, so there is no reason to forbid an illustrated Bible.
The editor of Crossway Publishers, Lane T. Denis, explains the solid rationale for this book in his preface. He quotes Fujimura as saying, “I can do nothing to enhance the Word of God. I can only tremble at the expanse of vision that the Word of God led me to during my work on this project.” This is good to know, since so many artists view their work as augmentations to or substitutes for divine revelation. The artist as Bohemian prophet is a false vision that often dogged and deranged twentieth century (or modernist) art. (On his, see R.J. Rushdoony, The Death of Meaning [Ross House Books, 2002], chapters 5-6; and Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art [Princeton University Press, 1975].) As a good Protestant and artist, Fujimura is not thus bewitched.
Denis explains carefully what contributions Fujimura makes to this book. They are extensive and multi-faceted:
Five large-scale paintings, including the frontispiece “Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)” (64 x 80 inches), and four opening plates (48 x 60 inches), one for each of the four Gospels; eighty-nine initial letters, each painted (and many adorned with gold flecks and foil) specifically for each chapter opening throughout the Gospels; as well as more than seventy individually painted illustrated reflections and embellishments, complementing the Gospel text on each two-page spread throughout the Gospels.
Similarly, the cloth-bound covers of The Four Holy Gospels are adorned with dramatic gold foil and red foil flourishes, representing the glory of God revealed in the four Gospels, and blood of Christ poured out on the cross.
Fujimura writes a short introduction explaining what he has done in the book and delving into his methods and aims. In the last two paragraphs he evinces a deep sense for the sorrows of the twentieth century, and the hope that only Christ can bring. “May we be deeply aware that Christ’s tears shed two millennia ago are still powerfully present in this world, as the medium of hope and new creation.”
But, one may ask, how can an essentially abstract painter illustrate a Bible, beyond augmenting the lettering? My response may disappoint the reader, but one must simply come and see. One can make out some figures (such as the tree on pages 16-17), but in other cases one is left with more of a feeling of wonderment. However, the illustrations never overwhelm the text itself. In other words, I take this project to be a success, but not an uncontested success. Some will be left puzzled or disappointed. It does break new ground without being innovative for innovation’s sake; the curse of much modernist art.
The Four Holy Gospels is a large and expensive volume that comes in a sturdy and gorgeous slipcover. But it is far more than a coffee table book (although it will not fit on most bookshelves). It should be read and beheld, beheld and read. For many, it will be celebrated as the revival of a venerated and august art form.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Gary Cox, How to Be an Existentialist. Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip, and Stop Making Excuses. Great Britain: Continuum, 2009. 123 pages. Hardback. ISBN-10: 1441139877; ISBN-13: 978-1441139870.
Existentialism, although not in its heyday, is not dead. It claims that God is dead and that man is alone, permanently alienated in an absurd universe. Recent books and articles seem to attempt to revive the philosophy initiated in post-war Germany and France in the 1950s and 1960s. Francis Schaeffer interacted with the leading atheistic existentialists of his day, such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Karl Jaspers (see The God Who is There[InterVarsity, 1968] and How Shall We Then Live? [Fleming Revel, 1976]). But many claim postmodernism has taken over the helm from existentialism as the more appealing and trendy secular philosophy—at least for those not committed to philosophical materialism of the tough-minded sort. For example, Richard Dawkins would claim neither existentialism nor postmodernism as his worldview.
Gary Cox, a proud atheistic existentialist, has written a brief and punchy treatise calledHow to Be an Existentialist: Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip, and Stop Making Excuses. The subtitle may prove attractive to those tired of victimology, psychobabble whining, and the naturalistic determinism that claims we have no free will. The cleverness of Cox’s title and book is that he defends existentialism in a how-to format, a genre enormously attractive to Americans with their optimistic proclivities. But this mood comes as a bit of a shock, since atheistic existentialism typically affirms the grim story of a meaningless (because godless) universe in which there is no life after death, and no divine guidance. To cite Sartre, we are “condemned to be free,” and man exists as a “useless passion”
Unlike postmodernism, which tends to emphasize culturally-formed beliefs at the expense of individual choice (“the disappearance of the subject”) without appealing to objective truth, atheistic existentialism tries to root itself in objective truth and place the individual in the driver’s seat. There are no supernatural consolations. You are responsible for your life. Meaning is in your own dying hands. Enjoy it while it lasts. Or, as Cox, sums up his thesis in the last sentence of the book, “Life has only the meaning you chose to give it” (113). (Please do not let the aspiring pedophiles, Nazis, sadists, rapists, and their ilk know about this philosophy.)
While many existentialist works are bulky tomes suffused with technical vocabulary (often including vexing neologisms) and convoluted reasoning, Cox’s book is crisp and clear. He knows the works of the big boys (particularly Sartre), but he can bring the gist of it to the masses.
Cox is exclusively concerned with atheistic existentialism, although various theists have claimed the mantle, such Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel; and, most influentially, SØren Kierkegaard. But Cox spends little time attacking theism. He pronounces God dead, and then teaches us how to celebrate after the funeral.
There lies the first devastating defect. The case for theism is strong and getting stronger through scientific evidence (courtesy of the Intelligent Design movement) and philosophical argument. All the classic arguments for God’s existence have been refined and strengthened in recent decades. (See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics [InterVarsity Press, 2011], chapters 9-17.)
However, Cox is correct that without God, everything changes. We cannot cling to uniquely theistically-based beliefs, if we deny theism itself. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his parable called “The Madman” in The Gay Science, when we stop believing in God, our entire view of ourselves and the universe changes radically. There are no objective standards for goodness. There is no meaning to history.
But there is a very simple and direct critique of Cox’s program of meaning- making and personal responsibility in an absurd universe.
- Because there is no God, everything is absurd. (Cox takes Sartre’s position on this, as opposed to that of some atheists who try to find objective moral meaning.)
- Humans are simply parts of the godless and absurd universe.
- The part shares the quality of the whole.
- Therefore (a), there is no room for meaning-making or personal responsibility.
- Therefore (b), everything I do is absurd, including my “choices.”
This is deductively valid argument. If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Cox falls into the same philosophical trap as Sartre (his hero): They posit the radical freedom of human beings in an otherwise determined and meaningless world. As apologist Cornelius Van Til would say, this is akin to building “a ladder of water.” When Sartre was once pressed as to how meaningful human freedom could emerge from an impersonal and material world, he simply replied that it was “a mysterious upsurge of freedom.” This is hardly an explanation.
As Albert Camus said, existentialism attempts to transcend nihilism, the worldview that says everything (human choices included) is absurd and pointless. The German philosopher, Max Stirner, embraced this worldview, as did some twentieth century painters. However, this attempt to transcend nihilism misses the mark, since there is no basis on which to dignify the human person, according to atheism. Materialism leads to nihilism, and there is no exit.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that humans are made in God’s image and likeness, are placed into a world of objective meaning given by God, and are morally responsible to God for all their thoughts and actions. The existentialist objects that this limits human “freedom.” But it only limits autonomy from God, which is hardly meaningful freedom. This attempted autonomy from God—wherein the human will arrogantly claim supremacy—only ends in a vain attempt to transcend the prison of an impersonal, immaterial, and purposeless universe that is, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “just there.”
Therefore, however breathless or pugnacious Cox’s advice may be, it is built on sand; and, as Jesus said, the building cannot stand (Matthew 7:24-27). Or in the words of the Psalmist:
Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain (Psalm 127:1).
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain (Psalm 127:1).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Professor of Philosophy
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Robert Darton from The Case for Books [Public Affairs, 2010]) on the virtues of the book. The book is
great for packing information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand (133; see also Douglas Groothuis, “The Book, The Screen and the Soul,” in The Soul in Cyberspace [Baker, 1997]).
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.--Marshall McLuhan, 1962.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
There is no good reason to have video games in the youth room of a church. They get too much of that elsewhere. Let church be a place that is different, reverent: a place to learn and pray and praise--and not, for God's sake, a place to be further distracted. I taught in a room today that had six video screens, and I had to kick out (politely) give kids playing video games. Should be ape the insanity of our culture? No, we must expose it.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Friday, January 11, 2013
Herman Leonard, Jazz (USA: Blomsbury, 2010. 320 pages. $65. Hardback. ISBN-10: 1608193330; ISBN-13: 978-1608193332.
Sadly, jazz photography is not a part of mainstream American culture today. By jazz photography, I mean photographs of jazz musicians, either playing or in other situations. Leonard’s photographs are usually related to their music in some way, he also catches his subjects in other contexts. One could also speak of a jazz style of photography (whether it be of jazz itself or not) which the best jazz photographers bring to their craft. In the introduction to the book, Quincy Jones is quoted as saying, “I used to tell cats that Herman Leonard did with his camera, what we did with our instruments” (8). He was a jazz man whose instrument was the camera, and was accepted as such by the musicians he so artfully and intimately captured.
But one might argue that photography ill fits jazz, since it freezes a moment in time. There is no beat, no group improvisation, and no swing. You do not tap your foot to a photograph. That is, the musical medium of jazz may not comport with the visual medium of photography. When the medium mismatches the message, a kind of aesthetic violence is perpetrated—even when few notice.
The essence of jazz is syncopation and improvisation (usually within an ensemble, but also in solo settings) within a uniquely American tradition of the music (the origins of which are disputed in the literature). A jazz photographer faces the daunting charge of getting “into the moment” or “into the groove,” to try to seize something unique, often beautiful, and evanescent. Herbert Leonard has achieved this arcane art in black and white photographs, spanning a half decade. Although he later worked a bit with color, he insightfully says, “When you are looking at a black and white picture, your brain doesn’t have to work as much, You’re looking at a graphic shape rather than the colour value—and in that sense, the image becomes stronger” (303). Or, as Reggie Nadelson writes in the introduction, “Many of Herman Leonard’s photographs tell a complicated story; sometimes you have to look two or three times to see it all” (9) Leonard bids us to slow down, fix our gaze, and behold the scenes and souls he studied. No multitasking should be involved.
This is not landscape photography, but people photography. The subject matter is usually musicians in unique motion, making music with others (or waiting pensively backstage). The human figure bears its own mysteries, crying to be unlocked and revealed through some manner of representation. People move and surprise; jazz moves and surprises. As jazz critic Witney Balliet (who resided high in the firmament of jazz writers) famously said, “Jazz is the sound of surprise.” By contrast, the photograph is static, inert. Nevertheless, the essential spirit of jazz may be hinted at or implied in the parts, even in the mute graphic representations, as Leonard himself states: “I was always impressed by the simplicity of great artists like Picasso who could take a charcoal and do a little line sketch and you’d see the whole character of the person. I thought I could do that with light” (300).
And so he did. A skilled photographer uncovers the philosopher’s stone and endeavors to steal the essence (or near essence) of the whole from a fleeting part. Through film, the artist searches for the apotheosis of the form, or at least to approximate it. Few have this nascent gift or develop it into an art. Leonard did, and people noticed.
This large book is gloriously filled with images from the great performers of jazz in this sixty-year career, beginning in the late 1940s. Most of them were taken in the 1940 and 1950s. We are graced with the visages Ella Fitzgerald, many of Miles Davis, covering his entire career (what a noble face—if not character—he had), Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, and many more. One photo simply depicts Lester Young’s hat atop his saxophone case, with a cigarette balanced carefully on an empty Coke bottle. Leonard understands light, figure, foreground, focus, and background brilliantly. (Few of these photographs were posed; when they were, they had nothing to do with the cheesy, corning, narcissistic posing of today.) He was especially masterful in capturing—of all things—cigarette smoke, which was ubiquitous in jazz performances of the time he records. The smoke is keenly articulated and forms a sort of nimbus on the jazz musicians. The photo of a young Dexter Gordon most effectively uses this technique (which Leonard discovered accidently), for the cover of Jazz, by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux (W.W. Norton, 2009). Leonard’s camera angles are often arresting as well (there are no cliché portraits), often seizing that elusive jazz expression of pure intensity of joy and longing and pain. Although you will not likely find this in any systematic or biblical theology, this is where jazz meets general revelation.
General revelation is the doctrine that the one true, infinite, personal, and triune God of the Bible reveals truth about himself and creation in ways outside of the biblical text and specific supernatural acts. For example, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1; see also Romans 1:18-21). And humans themselves bear the divine image (Genesis 1:26; 9:1; Psalm 8). In Cornelius Van Til’s words, we are “finite replicas” of God, although fallen and far east of Eden (Romans 3:14-26). As such, even if these image bearers fail to recognize God as Creator and Redeemer, they cannot exchange their essence for something else, something of their own choosing.
One aspect of the divine image is creativity. As Dorothy Sayers wisely noted, in Genesis one, the only thing we know about God is that he is a personal Creator. If, then, he makes humans in his image, then it is logical to infer that one of their distinctive qualities would be creativity. Even the non-Christian is gifted with the ability to transcend the merely material or machine-like arrangements of the created world. As free-jazz pioneer and journeyman, Peter BrÖtzmann recently said in a biographic film called, “Soldier of the Road” (2012), “Music comes from another world.” We are all creators in some way, and some develop this capacity through the rigors and ecstasies of jazz. When the jazz musician is in the flow of creative intelligence, he is, in a sense, touching something objectively real about God’s creation at a deep level—and he may be manifesting that reality to those listening as well. A sense of this intrepid enterprise can be represented in black-and-white photography (and film, but that is another story).
Yet, the Christian critic may strenuously object that all of this talk is merely worldliness. As James said, part of pure religion is to “keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27; see also 1 John 2:15-17) After all, jazz had (at in least part) its beginnings in New Orleans’s houses of ill-repute. So many jazz musicians have used illegal drugs and some died of drug overdoses (notably the inimitable alto saxophonist Charlie Parker at age thirty-four and the singer Billie Holiday (penniless) at age forty-four). Even more debauchery may be chronicled. All this is true—and painfully irrelevant. God is the giver of every good gift (James 1) and liberally gives gifts even to those who rebel against him. (Of course, some jazz musicians have claimed to be Christians, such as pianist Mary Lou Williams and Duke Ellington.)
Christian philosopher, scientist, and apologist Blaise Pascal helped explain this enigma of the human condition. He argued, humans are now “deposed royalty.” We are great given our divine origin and image, but deposed, given the fall into sin. This is true for both Christians and non-Christians. Therefore, we are a strange mixture of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, intelligence, and stupidity. (See “Deposed Royalty,” in Douglas Groothuis, On Pascal [Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003].) If one cannot hear greatness in the arrangements and playing of Duke Ellington or selected saxophone solos of John Coltrane (such as in “A Love Supreme”), one does not likely understand the medium or its meaningful mysteries. (For an approachable and learned introduction to the art form of jazz, see Why Jazz: A Concise Guide [Oxford, 2012.] On the importance of understanding higher and lower levels of culture, see Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989].)
Jazz, a book of jazz photographs by a jazz photographer (Leonard is known for photographing nothing else), offers a double helping of common grace and reason to praise the God who made us—saved and unsaved—in his image. First, we can thank God for jazz itself, that unique, uniquely American, varied, and ever-compelling art form. (For one of the few Christian reflections on jazz, see Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove [Zondervan, 2009].)
Second, this collection of memorable photographs of jazz musicians has its own eloquence and charm qua photography. These photographs should be beheld, not simply viewed. (I owe this distinction to Marva Dawn, which she made in Talking the Walk [Brazos, 2005].) To behold something is to let its objective reality affect one’s very self. To behold demands more than giving an object a glance or a glimpse. One lingers when one beholds something, such as a fine painting, a sculpture, or a photograph. Consider the King James Version of John the Baptist’s exclamation about Jesus, “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John is not merely calling others to note that Jesus has entered their visual field. Beholding takes discipline and focus, especially since our culture is saturated by moving images, usually of little worth, but which are highly stimulating and difficult to avoid. I am only now learning to behold vintage and valuable contemporary photography as an art form; however, I know that one looks at the foreground, the background, the lighting, and the angle of vision. Further, we can ponder the peopleand their setting by noting facial expressions, body posture, and by imaging ourselves entering the photograph.
Jazz splendidly offers the careful observer a portal into American musical culture, and even a glimpse into the souls of musicians, made in the image of God. For that, we should be grateful to God, the divine artist.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Professor of Philosophy
Wednesday, January 09, 2013
Love Your God with all Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul
- J.P. Moreland
- Jan 9, 2013
- Series: Denver Journal Volume 16 - 2013
J.P. Moreland, Love Your God with all Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, 2nd ed. Colorado Springs, CO, 2012. 295 pages. $15.99. Paperback. ISBN-10: 1617479004. ISBN-13: 978-1617479007.
Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith. They know little of the riches of deep understanding of Christian truth, of the confidence inspired by the discovery that one's faith is logical and fits the facts of experience, of the stability brought to one's life by the conviction that one's faith is objectively true. - William Lane Craig in Passionate Conviction.
J.P. Moreland’s masterful book is an apt antidote to what his distinguished colleague, William Lane Craig laments in the quote above. After reading Love Your God With All Your Mind attentively (with all electronic devices turned off), one will begin to know, by the grace of the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), the “riches of [a] deep understanding of Christian truth.”
As a long-time Christian philosopher and apologist, when I read the first edition of this book, I was thrilled because the author, one of the most important and astute Christian philosophers of our day, developed a thorough, readable, deeply challenging spirituality of the sanctified intellect. More than that, I have used this modern classic as a textbook in many classes for many years, and I often recommend it as a tonic to the anti-intellectualism and fideism that sadly plagues much of Evangelicalism in the United States.
The spirit of the second edition does not differ from the first (published in 1997), and much of the material is repeated. However, Moreland, who is distinguished professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, has added two new chapters that give an apologetic for Christianity from natural theology and the evidence for the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although seasoned readers of Moreland (as I have been, since Scaling the Secular City ), will find much that is familiar here; chapters seven through nine set forth a muscular and articulate defense of essential biblical truths. Despite having read many of the arguments before, I discovered some profound new arguments to add to my apologetic quiver. Especially fascinating was the edition of a three-page argument from natural beauty to the existence of a divine Artist (175-177). This species of natural theology has not been adequately addressed in recent literature, to my knowledge.
The book is divided into four parts: (1) Why the Mind Matters in Christianity, (2) How to Develop a Mature Christian Mind, (3) What a Mature Christian Mind Looks Like, (4) Guaranteeing a Future for the Christian Mind. It also includes a long Appendix by Joe Gorra “on recommended resources” and another on “recommended organizations.” Rather than summarizing each section, I will highlight some of the many strengths of this volume.
First, like the apologist, philosopher, evangelist, and social critic and activist, Francis Schaeffer (1912-84), Moreland has a passion for the living God, for truth, for pertinent communication to our generation, for people, and for the objective truth of the Bible. (On this, see James Sire’s noteworthy introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Schaeffer’s landmark book, The God Who is There .) While Moreland, like Schaeffer, has the spiritual gift of evangelism, he is, unlike Schaeffer, a professional philosopher of the highest caliber, having written a voluminous corpus of work in the philosophy of religion, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of science, and more. And unlike some prolific evangelical authors (who shall remain nameless), these works are all impressive and worthwhile. But unlike most philosophers, Moreland has also written articles and books for the popular audience. For example, his book, The God Question: An Invitation to a Life of Meaning (Harvest House, 2009), is a marvelous apologetic aimed at the common thinking person. I could go on by citing The Virtue of Happiness and many more.
Second, Love Your God With All Your Mind is peppered with real-life examples from Moreland’s impressive ministry experience of over forty years. (In this, it resembles Schaeffer’s The God Who is There.) Before becoming a full-time academic, Moreland planted two churches and worked with Campus Crusade. Even after entering the scholarly world full-time, he continues to reach out to the world around him in many creative ways. This challenges the reader to not only develop a Christian mind, but to faithfully apply it to all of culture under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Third, while intellectually fertile on a theoretical level, the book is replete with specific examples and exhortations on how to cultivate the life of the mind for the cause of Christ. Moreland spends some time on the concept of intellectual virtue, appealing (without addressing the scholarly details) to what is called “virtue epistemology”—a practice Jesus himself defends (see chapter five of my book, On Jesus [Wadsworth, 2003]). I find this practical emphasis (rooted in intellectual wealth) to be rare in books on the Christian mind and cultural engagement. For example, Moreland urges us to pay scrupulous attention to our grammar when we speak, and to hold others linguistically accountable for this as well. This is no curmudgeonly pet peeve for the good professor. As Moreland says to those who resist his advice, “Isn’t a developed intellectual love for God worth the price of an initial embarrassment at such correction. After all, the alternative is to continue to allow one another to speak incorrectly and fail to realize the intellectual benefits that come from the correct use of language” (129). Moreland also offers sagacious advice concerning adult education in the church, preaching, and outreach. For example, he rightly advises that Christian education be made intellectually rich by requiring texts, assignments, and a fee for attending. This adds weight to what otherwise is often no more than a Christian coffee and donuts clutch.
A short review cannot do justice to a book long on knowledge, reason, wisdom, and passion for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, read it—and reread it. Then apply it for the glory of God.
Douglas R. Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Professor of Philosophy
Monday, January 07, 2013
- Christopher Hitchens
- Jan 4, 2013
- Series: Denver Journal Volume 16 - 2013
Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (New York: Twelve, 2012). 104 pages. $22.99. Hardback. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.
Christopher Hitchens is dead, but he lived long enough to tell us of his dying. Reporter extraordinaire, atheist provocateur, prolific author, and acerbic commentator and debater, Christopher Hitchens died in 2011. His dying was (quite fittingly) a literary morbidity: he wrote of it in a small, posthumously published book called Mortality. (The book also includes a foreword by Graydon Carter and an afterward by Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow.) Unlike most, who die un-narrated deaths, he knew of his impending demise, retained his writing prowess, and lived long enough to tell us of his dying. In so doing, he reveals how one very articulate and intractable atheist came to terms with his imminent demise. Hitchens was an iconoclast (even writing a book against Mother Theresa called, in bad taste, The Missionary Position), a masterful conversationalist, and intrepid enough to write on some topics he was not fit to pronounce upon. Consider his best-selling and embarrassing harangue, god is not Great (2006). This anti-religious sentiment pops up throughout the book, hurled more as hand grenades than laid out as arguments. I will address a few of these below, particularly the question of the logic of prayer. (Hitchens’s lack of philosophical acuity is painfully obvious in his debate with Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, which is available on line.)
In the middle of a book tour for a memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens came down with severe symptoms that were later found to be esophageal cancer, a rapid and rarely curable form of this perennial plague on humanity. Hitchens tells his story without self-pity or lugubrious detail. In fact, he writes with a kind of detachment—here are the facts; here are my reflections on them—but not without some pathos. This slim volume is a less a lament than a report, which is apt enough, given Hitchens’ vocation. But it, nevertheless, discloses something of the sting of death, inflicted on one without the hope of the gospel. Hitchens remains a naturalist to the end: everyone dies; there is no afterlife; that is the way it is—and I might as well write about it.
Hitchens does his best to defeat the Grim Reaper, but progressively realizes that his chances of recovery are slim and finds no reason to hope against hope. So, he submits to whatever may slow his death, ameliorate his pain, and give him more time to write and speak. He is never sentimental, and offers some astute insights into dying, albeit dying without hope in the world to come. Nevertheless, Christians have an entirely different perspective on mortality, as Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13; see also vs. 14-18).
As he dies writing, Hitchens considers some clichés on the matter, such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s often-invoked-but-seldom-thought-through aphorism, “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” Hitchens once thought this profound, but changed his mind in the grip of mortality. Yes, suffering can strengthen one, but it also tears one down. He says, “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker” (60). Hitchens then goes on to reflect on the truth of this statement as illustrated in the life of Nietzsche himself (60-63), a man much enfeebled—especially in his intellectual judgments—through certain turns of circumstance, particularly the debilitating mental illness that closed out the last decade or so of his tragi-comic life.
Of course, Hitchens had no recourse to the concept of the fall of humanity is space-time history, but Christians realize that “life under the sun” (Ecclesiastes) is replete with suffering, pain, and unfairness—much of it seemingly meaningless, as the Preacher said:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11, KJV).
East of Eden (Genesis 3; Romans 3) and before the New Jerusalem descends on to the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21-22), we live in the time between Christ’s resurrection and the consummation of all things at the Eschaton. What does not kill us, may or may not make us stronger. However, if we are “in Christ” (as the Apostle Paul so often says) we can know that our suffering (even when not understood) is not wasted or finally absurd, since Christ himself ensured the final victory over sin, death, and hell through his Cross and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Therefore, we soldier on, bruised, bloodied, betrayed, benumbed by the scorched sorrows of this groaning world (Romans 8:18-26), and yet with a hope that “does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:5). Sadly, in Mortality, Hitchens reflects, instructs, and rebukes, but he could not hope that the final enemy of death would ever be defeated. In fact, in his demise he continued his apologetic against religion and Christianity. Consider his contemptuous argument against prayer, which is a staple of the Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
After writing of Christians who told him that they were praying for him, Hitchens attacks the very logic of prayer. He gets off to a snickering and clever start by quoting Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary: “Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy” (21). Hitchens dilates on this by explaining the apparent absurdity of a mere mortal informing the Immortal Sovereign on how He (God) should govern the universe. One could set up the argument this way (although Hitchens does not put it in an analytical form).
- God is sovereign and all-good.
- Humans are mortal and sinful.
- Therefore (a), God has no need for prayer by mortal and sinful humans, given his character (1).
- Therefore (b), Humans have no need for prayer, since it would be superfluous at best and presumptuous at worst.
But this line of argument commits the straw man fallacy by misconstruing the nature of prayer, biblically understood. First, there are many dimensions to prayer besidesintercession (asking God to do something in the world). The Bible is graced with many prayers and many kinds of prayer, including praise, lament, confession, thanksgiving, and more. Second, intercession is not meaningless or illogical if God is sovereign and all-good. Consider this counter-argument:
- God, who is sovereign and good, has instituted intercession as one means by which he rules the world. That is, God ordains both the means (including intercessory prayer) and the ends (the final result of his sovereign will).
- God instructs us on how to engage in intercessory prayer in the Bible and enjoins us to pray accordingly.
- Therefore, we should intercede with God according to biblical truths, as best we can ascertain them as fallen mortals.
There is nothing illogical about the above argument; it makes perfect sense. To those who say, “If God is sovereign, why pray?” one can retort, “If God is sovereign, why eat?” (This is from a lecture given by the late philosopher and theologian Greg Bahnsen.) God has set up the world in such a way as to make prayer meaningful. Further, prayer can shape the character of the one who prays, whether or not our requests are granted. Spirit-led prayer changes us for the better, whatever other effects it may have. Christians can and should hold firm to these truths, Hitchens’s (well-written) banter to the contrary.
Sadly, some Christians responded in an ungodly way to Hitchens’s disease. Hitchens quotes a statement from a web site that gloats over his malignancy, since Hitchens was such an ardent atheist and cutting critic of Christianity.
He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire (12).
Orthodox Christians should, on the basis of the Bible, believe in an eternal hell and its divine justice (Matthew 25:31-46); but this website’s manner of exulting in eternal torment is both unnerving and unbiblical. Jesus himself lamented over the rebellion of his own people.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matthew 23:35).
Or ponder God’s statement through the prophet Ezekiel: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32).
The death of Christopher Hitchens at age sixty-two robbed the world of a brilliant wit, a flamboyant character, and a larger-than-life life. But living larger than life—apart from Christ, life itself (John 10:30)—does nothing to defeat death. We should lament the loss of Hitchens’s gifts, but lament even more the loss of Christopher Hitchens himself, given his unrepentant rebellion against the very God who gave him those literary gifts.
Douglas R. Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Professor of Philosophy