Be a Zombie for Christ!

Be a Zombie for Christ!

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

          O. K., I have your attention.  What could the guy be thinking.?  Isn’t a zombie a dead person inhabited by some alien life form?  Well, the idea of a Christian application of this bizarre concept came right from the Apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  And further, “. . .  if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:10-11).

          Let’s think a few minutes about the implications of this jarring metaphor of Christian “zombies.”  None of us would desire to become like the zombies in movies, who move about mindlessly, controlled by an inhabiting animation or by some magical power.  But in reality, unless we have accepted Christ as Lord, we are in a similar state of being, for we are governed by what Paul calls “the flesh,” by which he means not just the meat that covers our bones, but our fatal attraction to putting our slowly dying bodies in the driver’s seat of our lives.  We are urged by Jesus not to invest in that which is temporary, but in that which is eternal (see Matt. 6:25-34).  If we hold on inordinately to these decaying bodies we live in, we submit to a truly terrifying kind of zombieism, which Paul describes in more detail. 

In our natural condition, Paul says, we are “dead in [our] trespasses” (Col. 2:13).  “For while we [are] living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, [are] at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Rom. 5:5).  But does not God’s law direct us how to live for Him in moral perfection?   How then can it be the source of our being controlled by sin?  Because in trying to keep that Law perfectly, we find ourselves in a battle that is unwinnable using only our natural resources:

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (Rom. 7:13-17)

We are not fully aware of the horrors of this captivity until we have been “crucified with Christ” and thereby delivered from our sinful slavery to these dying carcasses.  “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).   

Here is a kind of take-over of our bodies that we can embrace just as a captive rejoices at being delivered from prison.  What a scandal it would be if we were to act as if we were still incarcerated after being freed from jail.  Rather, we are told,

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.  (Rom 6:12-14)

Or, as Paul sums it up in Romans 8:2, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

          Far from being a threat to our welfare, being a “zombie” for Christ offers us freedom from the “death in life” that we are born into as fallen creatures.  If we are to be taken over by an outside force, much better to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit than by the decaying spirit of the flesh.

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Cardio-Circumcision

          We are used to seeing various kinds of body piercings and skin adornments displayed in public, but have you ever seen anyone with circumcised lips?  Or circumcised ears?  Probably not, since we have trouble even visualizing what such physical alterations would look like.  The source of this terminology comes from Scripture (Ex. 6:12; Jer. 6:10), but it is obviously intended to be interpreted metaphorically, along with the often-repeated references to circumcision of the heart (e.g., Deut. 5:16).   This turning of circumcision into metaphor is bold, even a bit shocking, but it is a revealing instance of using physical reality as a bridge to spiritual truth. 

Like any metaphor, figurative circumcision is rooted in physical circumcision.  Although the practice of excising the male foreskin, particularly for newborn infants, is now a common medical procedure, its religious significance has its origin in God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, first instituted by God as a sign of His Covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14) and later reinforced under Mosaic Law (Josh. 5:2-6). Since the ritual inherently applies only to males, the question arises as to how it signifies God’s Covenant with all His people, male and female.  I would suggest that seating this procedure in the male reproductive organ carries significance in two ways.  First, in the patriarchal society of ancient Jews, men bore the primary responsibility for seeing that the meaning of the Covenant was passed on to the next generation; the circumcision of their male sons at eight days old was a commitment to teach those sons what it means to serve God.  Second, circumcision of the foreskin betokens a dedicated channeling of male libido under the Lord’s discipline.  The man is not free merely to pursue his own lust, but is to dedicate this intimate part of himself to honoring God, through marital fidelity and self-control, thus assuring the perpetuation of a pure line of God’s Chosen People.  So we see that the rite of circumcision betokened much more than the physical marking that took place in infancy.

Scripture actually places more emphasis on circumcision of the heart than on physical circumcision.  Even in the Old Testament, where physical circumcision is required, there are more references to inner circumcision than to physical circumcision.  Circumcision of the heart, as presented to the children of Abraham, involves above all submission to God’s will and obedience to His commandments.  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” Moses tells the Israelites in Deut. 10:16.  He also tells them that “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).  What begins as a command for outward obedience to God’s law ends up as a challenge to go beyond the outward process of being physically marked for the Covenant to being spiritually marked by the Covenant.

Under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the requirement of circumcision was laid aside, along with the rest of the ritual laws about animal sacrifice and Temple worship.  Nevertheless, some Jewish Christians from among the Pharisees insisted that circumcision was still necessary for those accepting Christ and the New Covenant.  This issue came to a head in the Jerusalem Conference of all the Apostles and leaders of the church (see Acts 15:1 ff.), at which it was determined not only that circumcision was not required of uncircumcised Gentiles who became Christians, but that the core of the New Covenant was salvation by grace, not by meritorious works of law-keeping.  Peter testified how God had shown him that the Good News was as much for the Gentiles as for the Jews, and God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15: 9-11).

Thus, under the New Covenant of salvation by grace, not only was circumcision not required, but it actually became a stumbling block to new Christians, for it came to represent a dangerous emphasis on salvation by works.  Paul thundered against this heresy in his writings, as in Gal. 5:1-6:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. 

Nevertheless, the figurative, deeper meaning of circumcision is still very much in evidence in the New Testament, as in Col. 2:11-15:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

 

In this passage, baptism, like circumcision under the Old Covenant, marks one as a participant in the New Covenant; and though it is a physical act, it signifies and expects an inner change that equates to “circumcision of the heart.”

          We conclude, then, that even a God-ordered ritual has no spiritual value within itself; it becomes significant only when it represents, and results in, an ongoing ordering of the mind and heart toward God.  The Lord wants to make His mark not just in our bodies, but in our souls.  The command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” is still relevant.

 


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

           

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

A Twilight Musing

 

          A while back a friend who spends part of each year in France responded to some great difficulties I was having with the French word of encouragement, “Courage” (pronounced “koorage,” as in “garage,” accent on the last syllable).  Recently I found that a similar sentiment (“take heart,” or “be of good courage”) is prominent in the Bible, and I would like to consider the theological significance of the idea behind those phrases.

          In the Old Testament we find exhortations to the people to “Be strong and courageous” (Deut. 31:6, Josh. 1:8) and to “take courage” (II Chron. 15:7-8) in going about what God has told them to do.  In the New Testament, Jesus Himself several times encouraged those to whom He was ministering to “take heart” because He was going to meet their need for healing or for the forgiveness of sins (or both).  In the case of the man let down through the roof by his friends (Matt. 9:2-3; see also Mk. 2 & Lk. 5), Jesus said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  When blind Bartimaeus cried out for help to the Master and Jesus responded, the blind man was told by the disciples to “take heart.  Get up; He is calling you” (Mark 10:49).  To the woman who timidly touched His garment in order to be healed, He said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22).  The point of a parable told by Jesus about a persistent widow asking a judge for justice is that his disciples “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

 Jesus established the principle that “taking heart” is an attitude of trust that God is willing and able to strengthen us and to meet our needs.  Such encouragement (you see “courage” embedded in that word?) urges boldness to replace reticence and assurance to replace doubt.  When Paul is threatened with assassination, God assures him that he will be protected: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome" (Acts 23:11).  

Paul, in turn, assures the Corinthians that we can be buoyed up even when we are experiencing bodily suffering.  His own suffering is mitigated by the assurance that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (II Cor. 4:14).  Consequently, “We do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16).  Moreover, God has “given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  So we are always of good courage. . . , for we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5:5-7).

We may wonder when we suffer hardship if we are loved by God, but the writer of Hebrews tells us (quoting from Proverbs), “Do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,  because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:5-7).   

          We can draw some helpful conclusions from all of this for our daily living. 

1.    God knows and empathizes with our struggles, and He wants to encourage us not to give up, but to persevere and be strengthened by the experience.

 

2.    God has not engineered us for failure, but for success in spiritual growth.  He calls us to Himself to experience healing and forgiveness.

 

3.    Taking heart and being of good courage consists of consciously choosing the way of faith—complete trust in the goodness of God and confidence in the future if we leave it in His hands.

 

So when we are under stress and feeling discouraged (again, that embedded word), we can remember that God admonished the fearful Israelites to be bold in going in to conquer the promised land: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh. 1:9).  And we can recall that Jesus tenderly raised a man paralyzed by his sins by saying, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2).  Strength and healing come from the courage God gives us when we need it most.

           


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

9 Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus

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Christianity begins with Easter. Without the resurrection, there is no Easter. According to the apostle Paul, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain,” meaning that if the resurrection of Jesus never happened, then Christianity as a whole crumbles (1 Cor. 15:14).

How can we know that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened? Is our faith in Christ firmly placed and supported by evidence, or is our faith misplaced and in vain? In an effort to demonstrate that our faith is well-placed in Christ, I will share nine brief evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, each of which begins with the letter “E.”

 

1)     Early accounts. The majority of scholars believe that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in 30 A.D. The four Gospels were written within just a few decades of the death of Jesus (70-95 A.D. according to critical scholars). Most of Paul’s letters were written prior to 60 A.D. Additionally, Paul records an ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which notes the appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups; this creed can be traced all the way back to within a few years of the resurrection itself (this creed dates to 30-35 A.D.).[1]

 

The sources for Jesus are remarkably early, especially in comparison to sources for other ancient historical figures. For example, consider Alexander the Great, one of the greatest leaders and military minds in ancient history. The earliest sources for Alexander are nearly 300 years after his life; the best sources (Arrian and Plutarch) are even later (400+ years after his life), yet they are still considered trustworthy. With Jesus, we have sources within 10 years of his life, and a number of other sources within 20-70 years.

 

2)     Eyewitness accounts. According to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, over 500 people saw Jesus alive, in addition to Peter, James, Paul, and the rest of the disciples. At the time Paul reported these events around 55 A.D., many of the individuals Jesus appeared to were still alive and could be interviewed (this was roughly 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

 

In addition to the people who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, eyewitness testimony is foundational for the New Testament as a whole, with every book either being written by an eyewitness or by someone under the direction of an eyewitness. One of the greatest examples of this is 2 Peter 1:16, which reads, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”[2] In other words, Peter wasn’t just reporting news that he heard, but rather something he saw with his own eyes.

 

3)     Extra-biblical accounts. The events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are mentioned by numerous individuals (Christians and non-Christians) from outside the New Testament. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus is referenced by more than ten ancient sources (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara-Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Talmud, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, etc.). The disciples’ experiences with the risen Jesus are reported by several extra-biblical sources as well (Josephus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, etc.).

 

4)     Embarrassing details. When dealing with historical events, one piece of evidence that lends credibility to an account’s authenticity is the inclusion of embarrassing details. All four Gospels mention that several women were the first to find the tomb empty, which makes them the primary eyewitnesses (Mt. 28:1-8; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-10; Jn. 20:1-2). This is significant because in first century Jewish and Roman cultures, women were looked down upon by men and their testimony was frequently regarded as untrustworthy. If the writers of the Gospels were making up a story that they wanted people to believe, they would have stated that men were the first to find the tomb empty. Why didn’t they do that? Because they wanted to tell the truth (women were really the first to find the tomb empty).

 

5)     Enemy attestation. Even Jesus’ enemies didn’t deny that the tomb was empty. They had an alternative explanation for how the tomb became empty (the disciples stole Jesus’ body; Mt. 28:11-15), but they acknowledged that the tomb was empty nonetheless.[3]

 

Enemy attestation is a powerful form of testimony that involves an enemy stating something in favor of the opposing view. Enemies have nothing to gain when they do this. In the case of Jesus, the enemies of Jesus certainly didn’t have anything to gain by reporting that the tomb was empty – but they did so anyway.

 

6)     Empty tomb. There are a number of reasons to believe that the tomb was empty,[4] one of which involves its location in Jerusalem. The Romans, Jews, and Christians knew where Jesus was buried; the location of his tomb was no secret. When Christians began spreading the news (in Jerusalem) that Jesus had risen from the dead, the Romans and/or Jews could have simply removed the body of Jesus from the tomb and displayed it in order to shatter the “hoax.” However, Jesus’ body was never produced; if it was we would have certainly heard about it from the critics of Christianity, particularly the second century skeptic, Celsus, who wrote against the resurrection.

 

7)     Emergence of the church. No historian would deny that thousands of people began following the life and teachings of Jesus in the first century shortly after his “alleged resurrection” (Acts 2:41). This number continued to grow rapidly throughout the remainder of the first century (Acts 2:47). There are several extra-biblical accounts to verify the emergence of the early church (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Suetonius, etc.). How can the sudden emergence of Christianity be explained apart from the resurrection of Jesus?

 

8)     Entirely changed lives. Prior to Jesus’ death, and for three days while he was in the grave, the disciples were skeptical and afraid (Lk. 24:21; Jn. 20:19).[5] However, after Jesus’ resurrection, the lives of the disciples were entirely different; all of them were persecuted and many were martyred as a result of their belief in the risen Christ. James (the brother of Jesus) and the apostle Paul experienced radical conversions as well. Like the disciples, James and Paul also subjected themselves to persecution and martyrdom because they were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.[6]

 

Skeptics may comment that the transformation of these individuals (the disciples, James, and Paul) is insignificant, since it is normal for people to convert from one set of beliefs to another. However, the cause of these conversions is different. People usually convert to a particular religion because they hear the message of that religion from a secondary source and believe the message. The reason for the transformations of the disciples, James, and Paul is quite different; they are the result of what they actually saw with their own eyes: the risen Jesus.

 

9)     Expected event. On numerous occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus predicted that he would die and rise again (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:21; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 9:22; Jn. 2:18-22; 10:17-18). In fact, Jesus predicted these events so frequently that his predictions actually became common knowledge (Mt. 27:62-64; 28:6). It’s one thing to make a prediction; it’s another thing to predict something that actually happens. Jesus’ predictions regarding his own death and resurrection suggest that he really is the Son of God and risen Lord.

 

Despite the amount of evidence provided above, let’s remember that the resurrection is more than a fact to be proven; it’s the culminating event in God’s redemptive plan on behalf of mankind – and it has incredible implications for our lives today. The shed blood of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead are not distant events in history, they are present realities that make it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins (Heb. 9:22), experience and enjoy an intimate relationship with God (1 Pet. 3:18), undergo radical transformation (Gal. 1:23), and carry out all that God has called us to do in our lives (Mt. 28:20). The resurrection of Jesus also gives us hope for the future – since death was not the end for Christ, we have hope that it won’t be the end for us either (1 Cor. 15:22, 35-58).

 

Happy Easter! Enjoy celebrating the risen Jesus this weekend, knowing that your faith in him is well-placed and supported by a vast amount of evidence.

“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. Prior to his current positions, Stephen served as youth pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in State Road, North Carolina. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


 *Note: This article was a community effort; it would not appear as it currently does without the thoughtful help of several of my apologetics students at Liberty Christian Academy, including: Kaadia Preston, Drew Thomas, Olivia Jerominek, Gillian Howell, Savannah Summers, Keana Starbird, Sarah Nelson, Jackson Downey, and Hunter Krycinski.


Notes:

[1] A New Testament creed is a statement of faith that was often recited verbally by groups of early Christians, most likely when they gathered for worship in house churches. Here are a couple of modern day examples of “creeds” or statements that we are well aware of due to the number of times we have heard and repeated them ourselves: (1) secular “creed” – “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall… (Can you finish the rest of this statement?); and (2) Christian “creed” – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” (Can you finish the rest of this statement?). In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul records a creed like this – it was one that was very familiar to early Christians due to the number of times they heard and repeated it themselves. What is interesting about this creed is that it predates, or comes before, Paul recording it in 1 Corinthians in 55 A.D. Scholars actually trace this creed to 30-35 A.D.

[2] Also consider these verses, which further support the claim that eyewitness testimony is foundational to the New Testament as a whole: Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-49; John 1:6-7; 21:24-25; Acts 1:6-8; 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 4:20, 33; 10:39-42; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 1:1-3.

[3] This is also referenced by the second century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr.

[4] Here are a few additional reasons to believe the tomb was empty: (1) several women found the tomb empty and told others about it – this is an embarrassing detail (see evidence 4); (2) the enemies of Jesus verified the tomb was empty and spread the news that the disciples stole his body in order to explain its emptiness (see evidence 5); (3) if the tomb wasn’t empty, then no one would have believed the disciples when they claimed the tomb was empty (see evidence 7); and (4) if the tomb wasn’t empty, the lives of the disciples wouldn’t have been transformed (see evidence 8).

[5] This is another embarrassing detail. The fact that the disciples doubted and denied Jesus is a detail that doesn’t paint the disciples in a positive light. Embarrassing details usually increase the perceived credibility of a historical source.

[6] The transformation of the disciples is referenced in several extra-biblical sources, including: Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Clement of Rome, and Pliny the Younger.

Gracious Forbearance

Dr. Matt Towles has taught English at Liberty University since 2007. Before coming to Liberty, Matt taught at every level, from elementary school through high school to college. He also serves as Elder and as Lead of LifeGroups at Blue Ridge Community Church.

It’s a kind of confession, I suppose, to say it like this: the death of Luke Perry horrified me. The news alert from TMZ had me fishing through my memory. I realized that I’d never seen a single episode of Beverly Hills 90210, but I had certainly seen him in the movies 8 Seconds and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He wasn’t a stranger, but he was just a celebrity—I knew him, but I didn’t. Yet there I was, horrified. Luke Perry died of a stroke at the age of 52.

It’s embarrassing, really; the death of a teenage heartthrob from my high school years troubled me more than it probably troubled most married 43-year-old men with a full-time job and kids. I have a mortgage for mercy’s sake. I can’t go in an afternoon funk over the death of a celebrity that I’d never met. I have work to do, a wife to cherish, children to love.

And that’s where my connection to him clarifies. When I was 42, I had a couple strokes of my own. A year and a half later, there are times when I don’t move very well, I get tired easily, or my emotions rise to the surface more quickly than they did before. I’m not conspicuously disabled, though my physical abilities are truly blunted in ways that I notice and mourn over: my left side doesn’t work as well as my right, I get tongue tied easily when I’m tired, and my memory for names (though I was never all that great) has gotten worse.

And it occurred to me: Luke Perry got the easy way out. He didn’t have to work through emotional or relational issues like I do. He didn’t have to face life after nearly stroking out in a McDonald’s parking lot like I did. He got to die and not deal with the rest. Of course, it’s terrible to think like that. Death isn’t usually seen as the easy way out. But there I was, horrified by the death of a stranger, and in a terribly selfish way.

Millions of people heard about Luke Perry’s death by stroke and probably did what I did: they searched their memories, found one, and remembered. They put it all together to form something rational, real. (The word [re] member means, quite literally, to put it back together). Trauma disregards the normal process of piecing things together, so when I put my memory of Luke Perry together, I immediately made it personal, without so much as a straight logical thread to follow into or out of my fog of horror.

Even now, though, I really can’t make a step-by-step rational argument for why I was frustrated that Luke Perry got to die from his stroke, but I didn’t from mine. To crib from Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.” (Pensees 277). I have emotions, brand-new, strong emotions, and I have no idea why. Like, none. My wife, on the other hand, handles emotions like a professional—really. She is in training to get her license in Professional Counseling (with a concentration in trauma, no less). Yet in our conversations, she has made the real and consistent choice to be my wife, not my counselor. I’ve been to counseling. I’m not very good at it.

“What were you thinking when that happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“That must have been terrible.”
“I know.”

Just multiply that snippet about a thousand times, and you’ll begin to understand why I’m drawing up papers to recommend my wife for sainthood.

“Luke Perry. The 90210 guy.”
“I remember that show.”
“He died of a stroke.”
“Oh, no. That’s terrible.” Silence. “You going home?”

Going home. That’s our code for leaving work and driving home and taking off my shoes and sleeping. I’m not sure why being barefoot clarifies my thoughts, but it does.

I didn’t want to tell her I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t want to admit that my afternoon was ruined by the death of that guy in that one show that neither of us had ever watched. I didn’t want to tell her that living was harder. I wasn’t suicidal, but I still lived in the daily shadow of a life I still needed to live. As John Cougar Mellencamp put it, “Oh yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of living is gone.” I didn’t want to die, but I certainly didn’t want to live this way. And I was horrified by the reminder that there were other options, besides fighting each day for a life as a dad, husband, teacher, brother, son, elder, and friend.

But she already knew that. She knew that having a stroke and then not dying is tough. It’s one thing to be thrilled to be alive (which I am) and also to see someone die and think he got the easy way out.

That’s terrible. She meant it was terrible for me to face. My horrified response to Luke Perry’s death is most certainly human—the death rate is 100%; we’re all going to die—so each of us must cultivate some appropriate response to death, even the death of someone we do not know. John Donne’s now-famous proclamation that “No man is an island, entire of itself,” assumes the positive comfort of a community of people marching toward its individual and collective demise. Yet, Donne reminds us that though death is a human reality, there isn’t much comfort in the dreaded reality of our lives, no matter how good life may be: “any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." According to Donne, we live in the midst of the caroling of the bells, announcing the death of another human. As a consequence, we are not only reminded of our death, we are diminished by the death of someone else.

Terrible, indeed. Yet the person I knew who could best help me when I needed it the most might also be hurt the deepest by my confession. I had nothing, really, but a scattered mind, mixed with embarrassment that such a shallow pop-culture icon ruined my day. That, and a phone.

She probably could have done all kinds of things. Reminded me that I should have this handled by now. Reminded me of people with REAL trauma who have had to deal with much WORSE things than a couple strokes. Reminded me that a little prayer and a spoonful of sugar…

She could have done all kinds of things.

Yet she answered the phone. And she didn’t try to fix it or counsel me or anything like that. She listened. And then she gave me grace, even if it meant for her hearing something that was incredibly painful to hear. She listened. She took the time to give me grace. I was trying my very best to be the very best husband and person I could be, but the only thing I could muster up the energy to do was to call her. I couldn’t even think about going home and taking off my shoes and napping.

Where I live in the United States, the Christian faith puts quite a bit of emphasis on having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though I’d like to admit that I believe that truth—a relationship with Jesus is important—it’s an incomplete truth. We need a community of believers who have the courage to proclaim, however they may, a paraphrase of the Apostle’s Creed: “This is my faith. I’m proud to profess it.” The locus of our faith is in the resurrected Christ, but the evidence of our faith is found, quite often, in how we interact with one another.

We should not wonder, then, that there may be times when the pain of someone else becomes the focus of our ministry for that hour, that day, or even that season. We serve a risen Christ whose body carried the horrors of the cross in addition to the horrors of humanity. It’s no wonder that we ourselves might recognize the pain that each of us carries. We know how to pray and to serve and to carry those burdens. I know my wife knows, because she has learned from the man acquainted with grief, Jesus himself.

The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

The Spirit of Party and a Few Simple Rules of Political Discourse

The work required to love one’s neighbor as oneself, whether political foe or ally, is real, worth it, and not something we can opt out of, and intentionality neither to exaggerate differences nor to be minimally charitable isn’t privileging being nice or likeable over being salt and light. It is simply what a modicum of decency and civility, not to mention any realistic prospect for productive discourse, ineliminably requires. It’s not always easy to know what love looks like, but we can know it doesn’t it doesn’t look like hate.

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Mailbag: Why Would God Harden Pharaoh's Heart?

Question: Can you offer any insight into God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? If God is good, why would he do that?

Answer: Eleonore Stump, in her magisterial Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (and an older article on sanctification, freedom, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart), offers some very useful insights that may shed some light on this topic. In a nutshell, we’re as human beings all of us, to one degree or another, internally fragmented, double minded, and in a real sense our deepest freedom is compromised when there’s a fundamental disconnect between our (1st order) desires and our (2nd order) desires about our desires. So if I have an overwhelming desire to gamble but a desire not to have that desire, I’m in that sort of dissonant state and my deepest agency is somewhat compromised.

Suppose I ask God for help and to take away my desire to gamble, and in an act of miraculous deliverance he does. He’s not thereby vitiated my freedom by this gift of sanctification; to the contrary, he’s enhanced it, by enabling my first order and second order desires to move into alignment and for me to live more effectively as the person I want to be.

An inverted example is a case like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Nazi propagandist, who wanted his own heart to harden so he wouldn’t feel compassion for the suffering Poles when he saw a graphic account of the hideous atrocities they were suffering at the hands of German soldiers. “Be hard, my heart, be hard,” he told himself. On reflection his choice was to be that kind of uncompassionate person. His first order desire, at least fleetingly, was one of compassion, but his second order desire, which more accurately reflected who he wanted and deliberatively chose to be, was not to have those compassionate desires.

If God, suppose, were to intervene and harden Goebbels’ heart, taking away some of that compassion, he would be bringing Goebbels’ lower and higher order desires into alignment, making him a more internally integrated person. Rather than detracting from his free will, in a real sense he would be enhancing it a bit. He certainly wouldn’t be making Goebbels less free. God would be giving Goebbels what he really wanted down deep, what he chose when, presumably he could and should have done otherwise. (For all we know, God doing this might help Goebbels see the horror of his choices and choose to repent and change course.)

So when Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God hardened it even more, God was actually honoring Pharaoh’s choice, not detracting from his freedom. God loves us, and desires that none would perish; love isn’t just what God does, it’s who he is. But God will also honor our choices if we decide to hold on to sin tighter than we hold on to him; if we renounce the only ultimate source of Joy there is, we may just get what we want.

That’s the basic idea, and I think it’s a helpful analysis to get our minds, at least a little, around what’s going on in the Pharaoh passage that, for many, poses quite the bête noire of OT stories. Of course the clearest picture we have of the immeasurable love of God is the cross; the Pharaoh passage is one of those challenging ones we have to think about a bit more to understand—in light of the cross.


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With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He is working on a sequel with Walls that critiques naturalistic ethics, a book to be called God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. They are under contract with Oxford University Press for a third book in the series, a book that will chronicle the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, VA.  

A Model for Apologetic Preaching

            Most preachers I talk to about apologetics and preaching agree that the two can and should go together, but few have a workable model for developing apologetic sermons. Thus, I developed an approach to preparing apologetic messages that utilizes the acrostic STEPS. Before I share the details of the STEPS model, a word about two types of apologetics: negative and positive. Nash’s definition of the two is helpful:

In negative apologetics, the major objective is producing answers to challenges to religious faith. The proper task of negative apologetics is removing obstacles to belief…. In negative apologetics, the apologist is playing defense. In positive apologetics, the apologist begins to play offense. It is one thing to show (or attempt to show) that assorted arguments against religious faith are weak or unsound; it is a rather different task to offer people reasons why they should believe. The latter is the task of positive apologetics.

Given the difference between negative and positive apologetics, I adapted the STEPS model to address each approach. Here is how STEPS works for negative apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Challenge

            Given the concern in negative apologetics to defend the faith against attacks, the starting point in developing an apologetic sermon outline for negative apologetics is to specify the apologetic challenge the sermon intends to address. The preacher’s goal at this point is to initiate a connection with the audience based on the topic under consideration. While there is not necessarily one “right” way to do this, it may prove useful to quote an opponent of the Christian faith, followed by a question.

Tell the Critic’s Best Argument

            Having identified the apologetic challenge, the negative apologetic sermon now includes the best example of an argument in favor of the position stated in the challenge. At this point the preacher must take the time to learn and accurately represent the views of those he is engaging. God is not honored nor are the saints helped when strawmen are built and attacked. Always present the opposing view’s best argument.

Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge

            At this point the preacher will present what the Bible and other sources say about the apologetic challenge. The focus of the preacher turns from answering the critic to offering reasons to believe the Christian faith despite the apologetic challenge being discussed. When sharing the answer to the apologetic challenge the preacher is helping the hearer understand that the Christian faith is both reasonable and based in divine revelation.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            It is possible to present the first four parts of the STEPS model within a sermon that is broader than just the apologetics (e.g., a message about foolishness could include a discussion of the fool’s denial of God’s existence). However, if the message is wholly apologetic, then the preacher’s last responsibility is to summarize and offer a gospel invitation relevant to the audience (i.e., if evangelism, then the gospel portion is an invitation to believe and repent, but if discipleship, then the gospel portion is an invitation to trust God more deeply; if both, then both).

 

And here is how STEPS works for positive apologetics.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            In a positive apologetic message, where the goal is to present a positive case for belief, the preacher begins by specifying the apologetic topic. This approach sets the expectation with the hearer that the sermon will provide reasons to believe. It will help the preacher connect with his audience if, when introducing the apologetic topic, he avoids the language of doubt (though such language may prove helpful with negative apologetics), focusing instead on inviting the hearer into a deeper consideration of the positive case for believing.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            After specifying the topic, the preacher gives the hearers a few key reasons why the topic is important. It will help the preacher to think in terms of doctrine and practice at this point. Help the listener understand the doctrinal significance of the topic, how it relates to overall Christian theology. Likewise, discuss how the topic generally relates to living the Christian life, to the practice of faith.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The topic has been presented and its significance considered, so the preacher turns to a presentation of the biblical and rational basis for believing whatever is under consideration. This is the central apologetic content of the message, where the argument in favor of the belief is put forth in clear and compelling terms. While the preacher’s goal is not to harangue his hearers and browbeat them concerning the topic, he should make an impassioned case for “the hope that is in [him]” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            This is where the preacher transitions from apologetic case-making to practical application. How does the apologetic topic relate to the hearers? The emphasis at this point in making apologetic realities fit real life needs.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            As with the STEPS model applied to negative apologetics, so it is possible for the positive model to be a part of a message dealing with something not exclusively apologetic. If so, there is not necessarily a transition to a related invitation. However, if the positive apologetic message is stand-alone, then the preacher will conclude by summarizing and making a transition appropriate to the topic and audience—unbeliever, believer, or both.

Conclusion

            I realize it is probably easier to understand STEPS in an actual sermon. At this point, however, what is most important is the basic structure. In the next two weekly installments I will present actual sermon manuscripts, one for negative apologetics and one for positive apologetics.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

A Twilight Musing: The Education of Jonah

 

                  Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh.  We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction.  But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).  Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.”  So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.

          Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).  God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide?  I can do you one better than the hold of a ship.  How about the belly of a big fish?”  From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh.  He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom.  But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!

          We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book.  First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy.  God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”

          The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values.  When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad.  But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die.  God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing?  God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

          We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.


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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

         

         

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Making the Case: Apologetic Preaching and Abductive Argumentation

            Doing apologetics requires some level of logical argumentation. Groothuis explains that “apologetics means philosophical engagement, and philosophy trades in logic.” Though logic and argumentation may be difficult for some Christians, apologetics without arguments quickly reduces to assertions and becomes a denial of Peter’s command to “be ready to give a defense” (1 Pet. 3:15). Is there, though, a preferred style of argumentation for apologetics, especially apologetic preaching? While I think that all forms of valid argumentation could have a place in apologetics at some point, it is in abductive argumentation that apologetic preaching may find its greatest ally.

What is Abductive Argumentation?

            Simply stated, abductive argumentation hopes to arrive at an inference to the best explanation without claiming a standard of certainty usually associated with other types of logical arguments (e.g., deduction or induction). This is not to deny any Christian’s testimony and the certainty they possess based on the coming together of reason and faith in their minds and heart. Rather, abduction seeks to point toward certainty without “demanding it” based on the outcome of a particular logical construct. Admittedly, discussions of argumentation can quickly get to a pretty heady level, and that is certainly not the goal of using abduction in apologetic preaching. However, preachers will make some type of argument, so the matter is really how they will argue, not if they will. Here’s an example of how abduction might be stated in the form of premises and conclusion related to a moral argument for God’s existence.

            P1: Most of us recognize that some things are morally good, and some are bad.

            P2: We applaud the child on the playground who stands up to the bully. We boo the bully    for picking on others.

            P3: If the bully changes his ways, we praise him for becoming a better boy. If the bully         reverts to his bullying, we consider him to have started acting badly again.

            P4: Why do we conclude that standing up to the bully is good, or that bullying another is       bad? We do so because we have a standard of what is good and bad by which to assess what    we and others do.

            P5: The Christian claims that this standard is based on who God is, and that our sense of good and evil relates to our being made in God’s image.

            C: Thus, Christianity provides a reasonable explanation—possibly the best explanation—for     the human experience of good and evil.

The goal of making an abductive case like this is to let it build in a cumulative manner that moves intentionally toward the goal of offering—not necessarily demanding—that the Christian conclusion is reasonable and may be the best answer. In preaching particularly this type of abductive approach provides a couple of important benefits.

A Couple of Reasons Abduction Helps in Apologetic Preaching

            First, because it claims to come to an inference to the best explanation, abduction offers a manner of apologetic reasoning in preaching that avoids being overly dogmatic. As Baggett and Baggett explain, “the procedure of abduction goes like this: we come across something that needs to be explained, then we identify a range of possible explanations, and then we narrow the list down to the best one.” Some apologists might chafe at this approach, claiming that the apologetic enterprise should insist on certainty, and that apologetic preaching, especially, should prefer more than an inference to the best explanation as an outcome. However, there is a sense in which claims to absolute certainty may lack explanatory power when it comes to how faith forms around what is “hoped for...[and] unseen” (Heb. 11:1-2). Is the Christian worldview compelling? Absolutely. Is there evidence worthy of consideration? Of course. However, the ideas of certainty associated with argumentation are not something found in the pages of the Bible, but in the later developments of modern thought, which has a decided bias against the idea of biblical faith. Abduction is a way to keep the apologist in check against the temptation to overconfidence in the power of his arguments, and to help him remember that there is more involved in coming to faith than syllogisms and rationality.

            Second, abduction can help preachers avoid oversimplification. This is an error that apologists fall into when they think a simple syllogism is all that is needed to make the case for some aspect of Christian truth. Rather than accepting that one cannot with absolute epistemic certainty prove the existence of God and the truth of Christianity, apologists may assume that their personal convictions are equivalent to philosophical standards of truth and certainty. They assume that belief is simply a matter of following the premises to the logical conclusion and expect that their hearers only need to follow the logic of an argument to come to belief in God or some other Christian claim. Yet, conversion is ordinarily a process that takes time and possibly numerous conversations, and it is only the exception that finds a person coming to Christ after hearing only one argument. Like Paul in Athens sharing the gospel on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34), the abductive argument in the hands of the apologetic preacher offers a reasonable explanation of the audience’s circumstances while presenting the Christian worldview. Some may scoff, some may decide to hear more, and some may believe—whatever the outcome may be, the cumulative abductive case for faith has been made.

Conclusion

There is certainly much more that could be said about abduction in apologetic preaching, but I trust its conduciveness to humility and avoiding oversimplification are somewhat clear. In the next installment I will present a model for developing apologetic messages.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Equipping the Saints: Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship

              I’ve been preaching for over thirty years. I’ve preached a lot of sermons in that time, and most were directed to believers. I consider preaching to be my primary means of equipping disciples. It’s not that I don’t engage in other activities to aid the flock—I also counsel and mentor and provide general pastoral care. However, preaching is my main disciple-making practice. Apologetics has a role in this, but I confess that I have not always appreciated its importance nor have I (until recently) carefully considered why apologetic preaching as discipleship is fundamental to my calling as a preacher. Yet, in God’s kindness He has broadened my vision for preaching, and here are few of the things I am learning about the rationale for apologetic preaching as discipleship.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Helps Remove Obstacles to Christian Growth

              Growing, active Christians will inevitably experience doubts about the content of their faith or the surety of their relationship with the Lord as they grow and are tested. To paraphrase Luther, the Christian cannot keep all doubts away any more than a man can control the birds that fly around the trees in his yard. Also, if Christians are engaging their culture and sharing their faith, they will eventually encounter someone who is hostile to the faith and armed with one or more substantive arguments.

              When Christians experience these challenges, apologetic preaching for discipleship can help address the doubts and provide answers to challenges to the faith. Sometimes, as Habermas explains, doubt is intellectual, sometimes it is emotional, and sometimes is it a matter of refusing to believe out of rebellion. Regardless of its source, apologetics through preaching can help the Christian move past doubt to faith and obedience. Apologetics is like a coin with two-sides: one side focuses on those who are not yet Christians, and the other side focuses on those who already believe. Both are legitimate roles for apologetics, and when a pastor knows this and takes seriously his responsibility to preach sermons that include apologetics, he helps his congregation grow in spiritual maturity.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Aids in Teaching the “How” of Apologetics

              Like it or not, a preacher’s congregation will learn how to do certain things by the way the preacher does them. For instance, how a preacher regularly explains the gospel at the time of invitation will have a pedagogical effect on the congregation over time, and they will likely explain the gospel in terms similar to their preacher. This is not necessarily a problem if the preacher is careful of his method and cognizant that he is teaching by doing, especially in the pulpit. The upside to this phenomenon is that when it comes to apologetic preaching as discipleship, a preacher can both equip the saints with apologetic content and with apologetic presentation skills.

              While the congregation may not acquire the precision and polish of their pastor, they can learn the basics from his delivery method. This is, in part, how Augustine taught his mentees to preach and teach during his years of ministry as pastor and bishop in North Africa. Smither explains that, “the daily disciplines of prayer, scriptural study, and reading, as well as regular interaction with Augustine’s teaching, prepared many monks for a possible future in church ministry.” Smither also reports that much of Augustine’s apologetic material (e.g., against the Donatists, against Pelagius, against the Manicheans) was developed and presented in the context of training his mentees. Thus, Augustine provides an excellent example of how what is said in a sermon or teaching conveys both content and method to the hearers. Apologetic preaching for discipleship is one of the means to convey such content and methods to the people of God.

Apologetic Preaching as Discipleship Serves as a Means to Guarding the Flock

              When pastors commit to apologetic preaching as discipleship, whether for a specific series of messages or as an ongoing practice in all messages, they are helping maintain the right and left limits of orthodoxy within the congregation. This aspect of apologetic preaching is sometimes easily overlooked, yet faithful and regular apologetics in the pulpit sets a certain tone in the congregation, making clear that false teaching and attacks on the faith will be addressed, and biblical orthodoxy will be maintained in the spirit of speaking the truth in love for the sake of edifying and protecting the body. Though this practice cannot guarantee false teaching will never find a place among the brethren, it is true that through regular preaching that explains and defends the Christian message, a congregation can and will gravitate toward consistent orthodoxy. Taylor offers historical support for this in his exploration of the role of apologetics in the first three centuries of the church, explaining that through the use of apologetics the early church stood firm against encroaching heresy by offering “justification for belief in and commendation of Christianity.” When faced with attempts by heretics to alter “one or more aspects of the deity, death, and resurrection reports as they related to Jesus,” these early apologists helped “establish the credibility of Christianity.”  Likewise, when pastors commit to apologetic preaching today they help believers live within a hostile culture without sacrificing their distinctive beliefs. Perhaps one of the greatest though underutilized weapons in the preacher’s arsenal when it comes to doctrinal purity is the practice of regular apologetic preaching for discipleship.

Conclusion

              Apologetic preaching as discipleship has much to commend itself to preachers, as does apologetic preaching as evangelism. What about the type of arguments used in apologetic preaching? In the next installment in this series we will consider why abductive argumentation is well-suited to apologetic preaching.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Why Write an Autobiography

A Twilight Musing  

Recently I felt moved to write an autobiography.  You may ask why I think an account of my life is worth recording and who I think would (or should) read it.  Those are questions worth asking and answering, so I will proceed to do so.  (Perhaps we could call it my apologia autobiographica.)  My basic reasons for undertaking this task are three: (1) Everyone has a story, and the best time of life to tell it is from the vantage point of advanced years, and my four-score and one qualifies.  (2) An account of my life, if written from a Christian perspective, should be a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness, so it has the potential of being an encouragement to others.  (3) Recording the events of my life will provide some documentation for our children and grandchildren to understand better their relationship to the past.  And in a more personal way, I want to leave some information about myself that enables them to know me after I’m gone.

One of the stereotypical characteristics of older people is their being inveterate story tellers who patch together episodes in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner.  I want to tap into this inclination to look back and recall events, but give it structure and thematic unity.  My theme would be to recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks for the many people whose lives contributed to the formation of my character and the development of my skills.  Some of these may be obvious and stand out, while others rendered their services so unobtrusively as to be easily forgotten.  A carefully written record will assure that even my quiet benefactors are recognized.  I remember, for example, the loving attention given to me and others by “Miss Addie,” my first Sunday School teacher.  She never drew attention to herself, but she introduced scores of little children to Bible stories and the love of Jesus over the years.  In contrast, my mentor and sponsor in college days was a larger-than-life professor named James Culp.  Dr. Culp took me under his wing and held out the vision of pursuing an academic career.  I worked as his student assistant in my senior year, and he nominated me for a graduate fellowship that paid my way for the first year of a doctoral program.  After I completed my Ph.D. and was employed as a college teacher myself, he continued to be interested in what was happening to me and rejoiced in my successes.  Miss Addie and Dr. Culp differed greatly in their visibility and the sophistication of their help to me, but I owe them both a significant debt of gratitude.

It has taken a full lifetime for me to come to the state of confidence I now have in the absolute reliability of God.  He has, so to speak, rolled up an overwhelming “track record” of meeting my needs and giving me the strength and resources to do the tasks to which He has called me.  Some account of these experiences is appropriate to share with others—not to brag about, but to give praise to God.  Some of my examples were epiphanies of God’s goodness and dependability, but others were more diffused blessings, like having godly parents who taught me the Word of God and moral responsibility, and having educational opportunities that fostered my intellectual development.  Prominent among the notable instances of God’s provision was His identifying an adult foster care home for our daughter, Cynthia, whose Huntington’s Disease-generated behavior had exhausted our mental and spiritual resources.  Thanks to our being unexpectedly connected by a politician with some influential people, Cynthia was placed in a foster care home within a week of the initiation of procedures.  I hope that more examples of both kinds of God’s good gifts will be of benefit to others and bring Him praise.

Nobody has requested that I write this treatise, so there is no guaranteed audience for it, but I hope that my children and grandchildren, in particular, will see its value once it’s done (a point in time that seems to recede farther the more I write!).  My efforts will have been rewarded if their eventual personal interest in this record morphs into a broader appreciation for the larger history that concerns us all.  Valuing the records of the past is a much-needed perspective in the present Western culture of chronological snobbery.  Our society places so much value on the present and on the supposed advancements of the future that the past seems irrelevant.  Whereas the truth is that we don’t even know who we are without some serious attention to understanding the past.  Even more important for Christians is the fact that their faith is founded in the history of God’s work with His people, and that history is the substance of the Gospel message.

In writing about oneself, it’s difficult to strike a balance between egoistic projection and transparent honesty.  I hope there is something to be gained in reading about both my supposed successes and my failures.  I will do my best neither to exaggerate the one nor to gloss over the other.  Beyond the mere relation of events, I want to present to potential readers some sense of how I see my life experiences and how my understanding has changed over the years.  Of one thing I’m sure: For my having reached this point in my long journey with mind and body pretty much intact, God is greatly to be praised.  I hope that my account of that journey will supply more evidence of His goodness.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Finding God in the Darkness: What I Learned in the Hospital

A Twilight Musing

          I recently went through nine days in the hospital being treated for severe pneumonia. It was the longest hospital stay of my life, and it was extremely stressful, both physically and spiritually. But it was revealing as well. I learned that Satan will take advantage of us when we are most vulnerable, and that God can and will cause us to grow spiritually when we are subjected to unavoidable interruptions to our comfort.

          The onset of my crisis was quite sudden. Although I had already had a visit with my primary care physician and received an antibiotic to combat my infection, a return visit quickly turned into a fast trip to the emergency ward and immediate application of measures to keep me from lapsing into a life-threatening condition. I was subjected to an intense regimen determined by the medical professionals, and I was merely carried along on its tide. Needles were inserted, and IVs attached. I was pumped with fluids and antibiotics, subjected to prescheduled vital sign checks, and perpetually tethered to a bunch of tubes that had to be hauled along whenever I got out of bed. Had I been knocked out, I would have not known what was going on, but I was awake most of the time and had to grab naps when I wasn’t being waked or poked or prodded by nurses and their aides.

          The first two nights after being admitted were the most trying. Because of the medications being administered, I was hypersensitive to physical and psychological stimuli, so that during those two nights I felt a palpable presence of Evil, and I had to battle fear by calling out to God to deliver me from it. During the initial nights I had a frightening sense that I was being subjected to the equivalent of an endless loop of bizarre dreams, like clips from a horror movie. Something was messing with my mind. But God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to regain some spiritual equilibrium after a couple of days. During that first part of my stay, I felt myself enveloped in a kind of heart of darkness (a la Joseph Conrad). I didn’t feel God’s Presence, but I kept hanging on to my intellectual conviction, reinforced by long experience, that God was present and that His Love was working on my behalf. In that situation, I could exercise choice only in how I reacted to the medical regimen I was being subjected to.

          Strategically, I had to be content with short naps, rather than extended periods of sleep. Once I accepted that process, I found peace in not expecting more. One of the nurses talked to me in the middle of the night, after I had complained about being unable to sleep because of all the sounds and activities around me. She explained how my (and other patients’) expectations in a hospital stay need to be brought into line with hospital objectives and practices. “Most people come to a stay in the hospital expecting to rest, whereas the purpose of a hospital stay is to be cured of your illness. Once that is accomplished, we send you home to rest.” That would seem to be analogous spiritually to the instruction of Jesus (see Matt. 6:25-34) not to worry, to trust God for sufficiency in all that we need, and to experience the peace that that trust brings.

My encounter with Darkness during these nine days in the hospital was unique in my experience, and I want never to repeat it. Nevertheless, it gave me a new perspective on the Christian’s struggle with Evil. Darkness can be a very effective teacher, but its lessons require a radical sacrifice of our comfort.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

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Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Lighten Our Darkness

Lighten Our Darkness

Mother Teresa described her mission as lighting ‘the light of those in darkness.’  ‘Darkness’ is ancient, Scriptural prophecy’s description of the state of wayward Israel.  They are ‘those who lived in a land of deep darkness.’  This biblical assessment of ‘the land of deep darkness’ corresponds well with a broader characterization of the dark state of human existence.

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Three Ways that Apologetics Helps Preaching

Photo by  Andrew Seaman  on  Unsplash

              In the first article I made a plea for pastors to include apologetics in their preaching ministry. In this article I share three ways that apologetics helps preaching. As a lead in, remember that there are two general types of preaching that pastor do—preaching for evangelism and preaching for discipleship. As the three ways I present will discuss, apologetics can help with both types.

1.       Apologetics Helps Overcome Obstacles to Faith in Evangelistic Preaching

In evangelistic preaching, obstacles to belief can be based on rational and passional barriers formed when a person is ignorant of the coherence and defensibility of the Christian message. Apologetic content in evangelistic preaching can help overcome such barriers to belief by addressing common objections to the Christian faith. For example, the central doctrine of the Christian faith is arguably the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12-19). However, since the first reports of the resurrection were made to Jewish and Roman authorities there have been attempts to disprove the claim (Matt. 28:11-15). Each generation of Christians since Christ resurrected has also encountered detractors from the resurrection, and this generation of believers is no different. A recent survey in Great Britain concerning beliefs about the resurrection reveals that, of the 2,010 adults surveyed, 50 percent do not believe the resurrection happened, and of the respondents identified as active Christians, 43 percent do not accept the biblical account of the resurrection as accurate. Thus, when preaching a gospel message that is dependent upon the doctrine of the resurrection, the evangelistic preacher should anticipate that many in his audience likely reject the doctrine, and proactively defend is as part of a cumulative case supporting the Christian gospel.

2.       Apologetics Helps Overcome Doubt and Equips Believers in Discipleship Preaching

              In discipleship preaching, besetting doubts and answers to attacks on the faith of Christians by an unbelieving world can be addressed by including apologetic content in sermons. Through apologetic preaching for discipleship, believers are able to better overcome their own doubts (cf. Heb. 11:1-2), and to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). For example, as the barrage of writing from the New Atheists demonstrate—including the frequently vitriolic and one-sided attacks upon Christianity by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—Christians are often susceptible to challenges based on a lack of preparation to answer apologetically-oriented questions. Believers might be harangued by opponents of the faith with questions such as: How could a loving God command the genocide of the Canaanites? or How could anyone believe a Bible that was assembled in the early third century by misogynistic, power-hungry men in league with Constantine and bent on controlling people? The researcher knows from personal experience with his own congregation that an accessible series of apologetic-infused messages targeting believers and addressing such concerns can provide great strength and resources to a struggling congregation. Such messages can also buoy the pastor’s spirit amid the persistent concerns and doubts raised by those he shepherds.

3.       Apologetics Adds Overall Depth to the Pastor’s Ministry Abilities

              In both apologetic preaching for evangelism and discipleship, the preacher will spend considerable time learning apologetic content and preparing it in such a way to make it accessible through his preaching. As this happens, the preacher’s apologetic knowledge and abilities increase and will usually overflow into his broader pastoral ministry. For example, learning apologetics concerning which theodicies are most helpful in addressing the problem of evil provides a pastor with greater ability to offer pastoral counsel when someone is looking for answers to personal or societal tragedies. Likewise, when a pastor becomes better equipped with apologetics in his preaching, he is likely to show an increase in confidence related to evangelism, and, in turn, become more intentional about evangelizing and encouraging his congregation to do the same. As he does so, it is reasonable to think that the same apologetics that helped his confidence rise will also become a focal point in teaching others to evangelize.

Conclusion

              Other reasons attain regarding why preaching benefits from apologetics, but these three get the conversation started. In next week’s article I will present three ways that preaching specifically relates to moral apologetics. Until then, keep defending the faith in the pulpit.

 

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part II)

Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”

Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.

We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron:  "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”

And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.

Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.

Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”

That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”

At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part 1)

Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the most recognizable passages in literature—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The description is simultaneously timeless and time-bound: written in Victorian England, depicting the eve of the French Revolution, but somehow no matter how much time passes, it seems that they ring perpetually true. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Isn’t it always?

In short compass, Dickens manages to draw from his historical moment a broader truth about the human condition: “[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We humans, it seems, are continually caught between two extremes: our promise, creative potential, and idealistic possibilities on the one side and our hubris, destructive capacities, and cynical bent on the other. If you don’t believe me, a quick glimpse at your social media feed will prove my point.

Okay, yes, admittedly—we’re nowhere near French-Revolution-era craziness. No one’s brought out the guillotines. At least not yet. But I daresay that most of us can recognize something of our current cultural moment in this iconic Dickens quote. We rally behind one another in the wake of national disasters, volunteering our time and money to restore communities; meanwhile other communities are languishing in the thrall of opioid abuse. Our technological and artistic ingenuity is at an all-time high, with brilliant new gadgets and imaginative creations released daily, while fraud and corruption, violence and ill-health run rampant across the country.      

How then do we proceed? What might provide some hope in these troubled times? There are a slew of answers on offer, many of them politically focused—protest, lobby, legislate, vote, agitate. While I don’t think those responses are wrong per se, I do think that absent a personal, individual revolution of the wills and characters of those who make up society, these political maneuvers will merely widen the divide between us, and deepen the challenges we face. Dickens, concerned as he was with the state of Victorian culture and its societal tendencies that had ground many of its people down, suggests another avenue for correction. George Orwell—of all writers—found something about this vision compelling, even if he himself preferred the political: “There is no clear sign that [Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown,” Orwell reflects, “or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.” 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I think, follows this same line of thought. She has, in fact, identified Dickens as an important influence on her work. Like Dickens, Rowling is asking about the cause of our woes and what remedies are on offer and, I argue, drawing similar conclusions. In the pages of her seven highly imaginative, fantastical Harry Potter books, we find—surprisingly enough—a realistic world much like ours, filled with characters that mirror the best and worst of us and who experience the very same joy and despair. Like us, Rowling’s wizards and witches long for good to prevail over the evil they see around them and sincerely want to do the right thing. Well, most of them anyway.

But those others are just as instructive in the moral arc of Rowling’s story and especially in the lessons it provides for readers. Because, let’s face it, Rowling—like most great storytellers—is a master teacher. Harry Potter is not simply set at a school; the series itself is a school, training readers to recognize, prefer, and enact what is good and right. The venerable Roman poet Horace famously said that literature should teach and delight, and Rowling executes his charge well, as readers watch her characters navigate situations that challenge their heart and mind, identify and hone their values and beliefs, and ultimately shape their very selves in their moral choices—for good or ill.

At the center of this education, of course, is the enchanted Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each year, young wizards throughout Britain await their acceptance letters with bated breath (or for muggle-borns like Hermione, are taken by surprise by them). These spirited scholars head off each fall to the fabled Scottish castle, to take up exotic subjects like transfiguration, potions, herbology, and the daunting defense against the dark arts. Here they get initiated into the world their older siblings and parents have already been a part of—learning to fly, caring for magical creatures, and finally trying their hand at apparition. It’s a fanciful world, and I know we’d all welcome our own Hogwarts invite. But as whimsically as it’s described, we can’t forget that the curriculum is not merely fun and games for these students. It’s real, hard work. They train, practice, fail, try again. They sometimes face disagreeable and downright cruel professors yet have to learn the material despite those challenges. Those O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s won’t pass themselves.

These magical skills are crucial to living in Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s world, and the three friends have varying degrees of success mastering them. Arguably these wondrous features are what make Harry Potter the phenomenon it is. Readers thrill at the games of Quidditch, imagining the students aloft on their broomsticks. They cheer for Harry as he participates in the Triwizard Tournament, putting his magical training to the test. Without the children’s initiation to magic, they’d have no access to Platform nine and three quarters or Diagon Alley, no Patronus charm to fend off the dreaded Dementors. The spells and charms and magical properties of myriad objects in Harry Potter enlarge the story’s possibilities to be sure. Pictures move and talk, invisibility and shape-shifting are live options, as are mind reading and talking with snakes. But, even though magic is at the crux of the Hogwarts curriculum, these magical techniques do not constitute the real education the books offer—neither to the characters nor to the readers. These, in fact, are mere machinery, available to the good and bad characters alike. In fact, someone as wicked as Voldemort has magical abilities at least as strong as those of the virtuous Dumbledore, if not more so. On a smaller scale, we see this contrast play out between Harry and his friends and Draco Malfoy and his.

In The Sorcerer’s Stone these children arrive at Hogwarts full of promise, and in many ways, both sets of friends follow the same path: taking classes, learning their spells, and growing in magical acumen. But that similarity is of little concern to the story; what matters more—what is in fact crucial—is that their paths diverge, as they learn (or reject) the deeper lessons and inculcate in themselves (or don’t) the virtues of friendship and love. They—and we—learn well what Dumbledore notes in The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What the contrasts between Harry’s and Draco’s friends show is that an education caught up in teaching only technique—encouraging children’s hands and minds but not guiding their heart—is not one worthy of its name. I think we all know this, but that often doesn’t translate to the dominant view of education in our own world. We don’t have magic, of course, but technology seems to function similarly for us. Who hasn’t, at least once, been wowed by the newest gadget? Every year we hear about new medical advances, feats of modern engineering, and manufacturing capabilities that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clark captures the connection well with his proverbial quip, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

As with those in Harry Potter, we can easily confuse (or prefer) technical expertise and training with humane education. In many higher education circles, this shift toward the technical and practical—this emphasis on vocational training over the liberal arts—is just about complete. The number of humanities majors are shrinking, and fewer state dollars are going to support the liberal arts overall, deemed too impractical to add value to communities. On one hand, this shift is understandable. People need jobs. The market is changing, and demand for technical skill is on the rise. However, the danger, as I see it, in getting so fixated on these technological pursuits, we might become mindless technophiles, subordinating all else to what Neil Postman has identified as “the sovereignty of technique and technology.” 

In other words, we might mistake the means of education for the end of education. But, as Postman notes, “Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.” The Harry Potter series knows (and shows) that, although the magic it depicts (and the technology of our world that it mimics) may mesmerize us, it is neither the cause of nor the solution to our deepest human problems. Instead, the story directs our attention to other, more fundamental concerns—the virtues that make the real differences in the characters’ lives and well-being, chief among them are humility, courage, and love. These virtues are the bedrock of a good life and our full development as human beings; they nurture and grow our spirit and soul. These are the lessons taught by Rowling, learned by Harry and his friends, and inculcated in the readers’ imaginations.