Miracles in Western Culture

Robert Bruce Mullin’s book Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination leads the reader through a fascinating tour of recent history, narrating the ways Western culture has wrestled with the idea of miracles. Here are two quotes from the beginning and end of the book that merit reflection:

Third (and most tentatively), this study suggests that this debate over the miraculous may be one of the principle divisions in religious thought since the mid 1850s, replacing the traditional Protestant-Catholic tension. Many students of late-nineteenth-century religion have noted that something important transpired during these years that altered the religious landscape in a profound way. Within the study of American Protestantism, a split between conservative and liberal–often defined by differences over the authority and inspiration of scripture–usually has been assumed. Indeed when I began this study I took for granted the conservative-liberal model. But I have become convinced that the debate over the miraculous and the spectrum of attitudes outlined in chapter 7 were far more important in transforming religious life than the issue of scripture per se. Finally, as I suggest in the epilogue, this pattern of responses may also help us to make sense of the religious discussion of the late twentieth century, where the issue of the miraculous has reappeared. 3

Second, not only has the debate over the miraculous emerged, but the four views of the interrelationship of biblical signs and wonders and modern signs and wonders… have also resurfaced. As one recalls, these four positions were (1) that the concept of miracle should be abandoned, (2) that miracles occurred during a “limited age,” (3) that “miracles” are important and occur in all ages, and one must use the understanding of the modern spiritual wonders to properly interpret the nature of biblical miracles, and (4) that miracles are common to both biblical times and the present day but one must use the biblical miracles to understand the modern wonders. Over the last few decades each position has found its supporters. Once again “progressive” clergy are calling for an abandonment of the category of the miraculous and are reinterpreting the great gospel miracles, whereas some conservative Protestants continue to maintain the cessationist position. But what seems to characterize the present religious world is the tremendous growth in popularity of positions three and four. Most modern advocates of miracles can be seen as dividing along these two positions. Thus whereas advocates of New Age healing attempt to interpret the healings of Jesus in light of their distinctive metaphysic, individuals like John Wimber and other advocates of sign ministry continue to emphasize the relevancy of biblical categories for the present. 264-265


The Meaning of Secular

Here are nine possible meanings of the word secular that I have devised from listening and pondering. Can you think of others?

(1) Not divine. That is, something that does not inexorably mediate divine will.
(2) Not clerical. That is, something not an expression of, or not under the administration of, an institution whose purpose is to perform “religious” activity (i.e., religious ritual, as Westerners understand it).
(3) Not eschatological. That is, relating to this age, prior to the perfection of all things, and so in some sense participating in imperfection, either moral or else in some sense ontological (e.g., the mortality of human beings).
(4) Not theist. That is, naturalist/materialist/atheist.
(5) Not mono-religious. That is, not of one particular religion (i.e., an institution may be composed of members who represent a variety of beliefs, and so as a body have no single religion).
(6) Not religious. That is, areligious, or religiously neutral.
(7) Not theocratic. That is, not like whatever countries like Iran are.
(8) Not with reference to religious activity. This would be similar to (2), except it would apply beyond relations to religious institutions, to relations to religious rituals in general. So, all activity that’s not a religious ritual would be “secular” in this sense.
(9) Not compatible with God. So, something in fact anti-divine.

One problem with (2), (5),  (6), and (8), is that they rely upon the concept of “religion”, which is itself disputed and ambiguous, and in a Western context usually actually means “something that resembles Christianity”.

Walter White as the (Anti)Christ

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Holy spoilers batman! Don’t go below the fold if you haven’t watched the series finale of Breaking Bad (and still want to).


The Ox Files: The Dumb Ox vs. The Underground Man

Thomas Aquinas

I’m continuing to read more Aquinas’ Summa and it’s more apparent to me that my chief reservation about him lies in his view of what motivates people to act. Here again and again I read him returning this idea that people act rationally toward some kind of final end. This I find flies in the face of what I read when I read Dostoevsky. This is significant because for many Dostoevsky remains one of those authors that can be safely regarded as Christian by just about all Christians (outside of a handful of the most rigorous sectarians). Most notably in Notes From Underground but also in many of his other books Dostoevsky portrays people acting out of very complicated motivations, some of the characters aren’t even sure why they are doing what they are doing it would appear. I would argue that it is precisely this complicated look at human actions and the convoluted psychologies behind them that makes Dostoevsky a writer of world-historical importance.

I don’t get this from Thomas. His view of what moves humans to act seems so tantalizingly simple, yet in trying to understand why people actually do what they do, Dostoevsky’s approach seem, to me at least, to ring more true. And what is that approach? I don’t think I can do it justice in a simple blog post, but it is sufficient to say that Dostoevsky would surely scoff at the idea that our motivations are as simple as wanting that which is for our final end. There are layers of irrationality or self-hatred or pride or spite or frailty that make our motivations constantly suspect. Not only to others but also to ourselves. Reading Aquinas he seems to casually wave all this away. How do Thomists answer Dostoevsky’s apparent implicit critique of their man?

Why Christian Filmmakers Are Not Breaking Bad

I came across this article via Brooks and it pained me because it came so agonizingly close to *getting* why Breaking Bad matters and why Christians shy away from doing similar kinds of work in the arts.

“Unfortunately, (and for a reason beyond my comprehension) Christians have decided that all movies and stories must have happy endings. Perhaps the Christian retail market helped promote that. The Joel Osteen, Oprah, and Chicken Soup books have only helped to perpetuate this false cliché.

The home team doesn’t always win. The husband doesn’t always return to his wife. The person with cancer doesn’t always get healed and sometimes the bad guy gets away. But you wouldn’t know this by watching Christian films, who appear to tell stories which lie about reality and present a world that is just as untrue as it is corny.”

Wow. Dead on. This is why so many Christians have zero interest in Christian fiction, television, movies and so on. Christians are missing the boat, especially now that television seems set to become a new sort of literary canon to replace what poems (ahem, Ozymandias), novels and plays were for the 18th, 19th and early-20th Centuries. But why would Christians tell such bad, unrealistic stories about life? I think the author of the article, Marcus Pittman gives us a substantial clue in the very second paragraph of his own text:

“Walter White, your average Government school Chemistry teacher has a good job, an intact family, and a happy life. Until that is, he finds out that he has cancer.

Desperate for a way to provide for his family and pay the medical bills, Walter White seeks out the help of a former student— now drug dealer and addict Jesse Pinkman—and together they develop a drug empire.”

Did you catch it? Government school. Heh. Posting on a site that is clearly appealing to conservative evangelicals Pittman somehow decides it’s necessary to make it clear that Walter White is not teaching a private Christian institution or homeschooling or whatever The American Vision thinks is better than “government” schools (and let’s be clear, the word “government” is lingering as a slur here). So here’s the subtle little moralizing message, don’t worry, this might happen in those depraved government schools, but it could never happen in a private Christian setting.


Working at a Christian school is not a way to guarantee someone’s faith or their good behaviour or that tragic life events might lead them down a terrible path where they are consumed by their own monstrosity. To be fair I reckon that Marcus Pittman realizes this, yet he still needs to differentiate Walter White and make him other from those who are held up as the ideal educators for The American Vision’s readership. This is the thin edge of the wedge for sentimentality and so I propose that Marcus Pittman has done some young Christian author or screenwriter a favour and unwittingly given them a great idea for a story. Let’s badly break a Christian school teacher. Here’s your story young Christian writer: Respected, oh let’s say… religion teacher at reputable classical Christian school loses faith after a personal tragedy and starts becoming a rising luminary in the New Atheist movement. How do his former students and colleagues react? Let’s not make his former colleagues saintly either, let them get jealous of him, try for petty vengeances. Go.

Don’t chicken out.

Letter From A So-Called Dirty Hippie


Does anyone know what this guy thinks this time around?

Hi there newly-minted war opponents! I welcome your newfound scepticism about the ability of Western military force to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. It was lonely out there in 2003 when I was being told to join with the “sensible” liberals/left-wingers (you know, like Christopher Hitchens) and support the invasion of Iraq to find oil err, the man who tried to kill the President’s dad err, weapons of mass destruction. We were told that this would be a cheap, easy war that would just about pay for itself in oil contracts and other sorts of peace dividends as American troops would be greeted as liberators. Why would anyone be so dumb as to stand with dirty old 1960s leftovers and various Noam Chomsky-type figures (including Noam Chomsky) when someone could do a quick installation of democracy with six easy weeks in Iraq. Why do lefties hate the Iraqi people? And of course most of my conservative-evangelical friends sided with what John MacArthur said here about the war fitting into the Christian just war tradition:

The logic in 2003 seems to have been that war is permissible and even noble under certain circumstances (because it’s used as a metaphor) and therefore that particular war was permissible and perhaps even noble. I want to see how John MacArthur would argue that this is not the case with Tomahawks and JDAMs landing on a few airfields if it was the case for house-to-house fighting in Fallujah or Samara or Tikrit.

I’m also a little surprised at all the concern over the Christian minority in Syria, when it came to the Christian minority in Iraq we were told that the US would protect the ability of missionaries to come in and proselytize and that the ancient Christian communities of Iraq didn’t really count since they were small and in decline and well, ahem, do Eastern Christians really *count* anyway? It would be nice if this represented some kind of growing awareness of a common, ancient, global Christian community that shared an identity across lines of East and West, but I’ll wait and see what happens the next time a Republican ignores the plight of a Christian minority somewhere like that of the Iraqi Christians ten years ago.

Of course I’m sure that this would be the EXACT SAME sentiment that all conservative Christians would express if Mitt Romney/Sarah Palin/John McCain were in the White House and proposing to strike the patrons of Hezbollah who were using chemical weapons on their own people against the wishes of the international community (save Russia). I hope Ian is correct that this represents a lesson learned and perhaps the waning of dispensationalism as a dominant view in American evangelical protestant circles, but I would like to check in the next time that a Republican president proposes military action to see if it is still the case that we need to carefully consider what it means to be a Christian facing the prospect of war or whether we are told to shut up and not criticize a sitting Commander-in-Chief in wartime because our God is bigger than the other guy’s.

Evangelicals, Intervention, and Alienationism

Kerry and Assad at Dinner (ca 2009)

In the midst of the US push for war in Syria—it will be a war, in spite of Secretary of State Kerry’s statements about it being a “limited” strike—I thought I would highlight a couple of good articles on why Christians, especially evangelicals, should not support intervention.

The first is Thomas Kidd’s recent Patheos blogpost entitled “The Roots of Evangelical Opposition to Syrian Intervention.” Dr. Kidd, who teaches history at Baylor, highlights the remarkable unity of Christian groups across denominations and the political spectrum. He writes that some oppose the intervention merely because it is Obama who wants it; others are war-weary; while others have grown in their global consciousness. I am particularly interested by his comments about the waning of dispensationalism as a factor.

The second is Mark Nenadov’s “Against ‘Alienationism’” at Kuyperian Commentary. In this witty and literate piece, Nenadov argues that non-intervention is the better option than engaging in constant wars. I hope that his neologism, “Alienationism,” will enter our political language. It turns the tables on those who call non-interventionists “isolationists”; as though we were heartless geopolitical hermits who care little about what other nations think. The Alienationist is the one who puts his or her nation into a box of worldly contempt.

Both of these pieces give us much to think on in this horrible climate of war. Thankfully the Russians of all people (oh the irony!) have given the U.S. a diplomatic way out—let’s hope and pray that the U.S. uses it!

Private Religious Education Contributes More To The Common Good

It turns out that private religious education doesn’t pump out “ultra-rich snobs and religious hardliners”, at least, according to a recent education survey by Cardus. More than 2,000 former students between the ages of 24 and 39 who attended separate Catholic, Evangelical, or private Christian schools were queried on issues such as charitable donations and civic involvement.

The study concludes alternative school graduates are as likely, if not more so, to be valuable contributors to the “public good.”

Students at independent schools make up for about 8% of Canada’s school-age population, and includes Catholic schools in Ontario funded by the government.

Lead researcher Ray Pennings says the findings help shatter the stereotype that alternative schools have a negative impact on Canada’s multicultural fabric.

“The perception has been that independent schools were for rich kids and religious kooks who were focused on themselves,” said Pennings. “What the study actually shows is that whether it’s social engagement, donating or volunteering, the graduates of these schools are achieving the objectives of public education at equal or greater proportions than the public school systems.”

Graduates of non-government schools took part in more neighbourhood and community groups, but more significantly, they were more likely to vote and participate in grassroots movements. (HT: James KA Smith)

The State Of Marriage Debates In The Public Discourse

This is from Australia and I think sometimes it’s worth seeing how this debate is playing out around the industrialized English-speaking world, as it removes it a tiny bit from the personalities and battle lines right here in North America:

I don’t know if it’s just the camera angle, but the questioner’s angry death-stare does him absolutely no favours here. Now I know that some of those who might oppose same-sex civil marriage might have legitimate beefs with Rudd’s interpretations about what exactly is said about slavery in the New Testament, but what’s significant here is that this is a very similar form to what Dan Savage did in another debate video we posted here a while ago. Claiming that the Bible refers to outdated socio-economic relationships in the area of slavery opens the door to the possibility that the same is true for the Bible and same-sex couples. This argument may be constructed quickly and easily and strikes the audience as plausible. It’s enough that the questioner only has his impotent angry stare and no other answer. Even if Rudd loses the election (as he well might), he is winning this argument in the eyes of many.

Where the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage have harmed themselves (and other Christians as well perhaps) is that the argument for equal marriage now moves the front line to the Bible itself. By insisting initially that the Bible and the Bible alone – as interpreted by conservative evangelicals and/or Roman Catholics – be the template for all human relationships in Western societies, even for those of other religious or philosophical views, they have made the Bible itself debatable. Savage or Rudd can now say, in effect, “You conservative evangelicals and/or Roman Catholics claim this book is what governs how all people ought to interact? Okay, let’s look at all of it here and see what it really says.” This is not confined to problems around unclear wording used in the New Testament or that much of the Levitical law has otherwise been abandoned by Christians, this is now the whole Bible up for debate. I do not know if the opponents of same-sex civil marriage are going to like where this leads.

Some Labour Day Reading

Zach Hoag posted a series over this past summer that was titled “Smokin’ Hot Conversations” about the perception of pastors who go on about their “smokin’ hot wives” as well as the wider world of sexuality and gender in American evangelical circles, particularly from the perspective of various female interlocutors. It’s worth reading views on the matter that is not either from an outsider or from another male voice.