May 19, 2006

My Da Vinci Code Apathy and Our Ignorance of History

I've been laboring for a while over whether or not to write a response to The Da Vinci Code. I read the book last year and took quite a few notes in preparation to answer some of the more outrageous and slanderous claims that Dan Brown makes in it. But in light of the avalanche of books, articles, websites, and blog posts increasingly in play it seemed pointless to repeat what had already been said so well and so many times elsewhere. It also seemed hardly worth dignifying with a response given how laughable its assertions and historical research turn out to be.

The Da Vinci Code is filled with so much low hanging fruit and so many howlers that it's hard to resist picking on it, especially given that Brown and many of his fans take it so seriously. Of course, many respond, "Relax, it's just fiction." But I'll let Brown speak for himself on that matter.

In his NBC Today Show interview, Matt Lauer asks him, "How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?" to which Brown responds, "Absolutely all of it." And on his own website's FAQ section he says, "[I]t is my belief that some of the theories discussed by these characters may have merit" and "The secret described in the novel has been chronicled for centuries, so there are thousands of sources to draw from."

As to whether or not his readers are taking him seriously, let me just offer this one Amazon review as an example of the atmosphere surrounding the book:
The Da Vinci Code is so much more than a gripping suspense thriller. Dan Brown takes us beyond the main plot and leads us on a quest for the Holy Grail - a Grail totally unlike anything we have been taught to believe. With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for one, had never known existed...or even thought about. I found myself, unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown's research - only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me.
The sad thing is that the general public is so historically illiterate that they have no immunity to the kind of provocative conspiracy that Brown's book weaves. For this reason he can make claims like, Jesus' deity (vs. His being merely human) was first proposed and voted upon at the Council of Nicea, and the average Christian, much less non-Christian, would be lucky if they had ever even heard of this or any other council.

For these reasons, some response to the claims of Brown's novel is important. But it is hard for me to feel the urgency to do so in light of the fact that even the usual critics of classical Christianity find the historical content of his novel to be sloppy and eccentric. It would be a different matter if he had some liberal scholars in his camp, but so far as I know, the count stands at zero. And when secular sources like CNN and US News & World Reports are publishing critical reviews of the book that sound as though they are authored by Christian apologists, then I have to wonder what work is left for someone like me.

As for Christians who ask me if they should read this novel, I would say go ahead, knock yourself out. While not edifying (but perhaps entertaining), it's at least a good conversation starter with non-Christian friends who have most likely already read it. But if reading this novel leads to distress over the veracity of one's faith, I would say that now's as good a time as any to grow up and take what you claim to believe seriously enough to think that its origin and history are actually important and interesting areas of study. God is to be found just as much in the contents of your Bible as He was in the process of publishing it and bringing it down the corridors of history into your hands.

May 08, 2006

Debating Abortion - Going Deeper

For those interested in pressing deeper on the issue of abortion (and bioethics), here are some resources I would recommend.


Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights - Francis J. Beckwith
Top Guns

Here are some high-profile individuals who are working on the leading edge of bioethics, philosophically or legally:


May 06, 2006

Why Die For a Lie?

In order to show that the founders of Christianity were earnest about what they professed, Christian apologists often point out that they suffered horribly in the defense of their claims. According to Scripture and historical tradition, all of the apostles (except John) and armies of the disciples of Jesus died as martyrs for preaching and practicing the beliefs that we know as orthodox Christianity. In fact, (unlike many other movements, like Mormonism) history does not offer us any account of apostolic insiders who recanted of their beliefs or blew the cover of the "divine conspiracy."

As the argument goes, people may die for what they mistakenly believe to be a lie, but they do not die for what they know to be untrue. For example, Muslims may fly planes into skyscrapers earnestly believing that a virgin-filled paradise awaits them, but they do not happen to be the primary witnesses to the founding events of Islam. It is not as though they themselves have heard the voice of Gabriel reciting the verses of the Qur'an and are now dying in testimony to that experience.

On the other hand, the immediate disciples of Jesus were martyred for the beliefs about those things for which they were first-hand witnesses. It was either true or they were throwing their lives away in defense of a fiction. (Of course, they could have been somehow deluded about what they witnessed, but then we have the problem as to why they all had the same very specific and consistent delusion.)

My web friend Sam (ephphatha of Philochristos) has addressed the question of how some of the disciples died. He does so in answer to the challenge that perhaps our claim that they were martyred for their faith is merely a mistake, or is simply an extension of the larger Christian conspiracy. As one atheist put it to me regarding a similar issue, all such evidences are part of a great phantasmagoria of myth and deception. If this is true, then I must commend the Church Fathers for their thoroughgoing brilliance, and perhaps I will call myself a Christian anyway merely to bask in the genius of this meta-narrative.

To be honest, I have never interacted with a skeptic who questioned the record of the martyrdom of the earliest Christians. This one is usually granted, perhaps on the strength of the testimony of the Church Fathers and the secular writers, or perhaps because the martyrdom is rationalized by them on other grounds. However, this could be a case similar to the denial of the very existence of Jesus: there are those who do so, but it is not the mainstream position of critical scholarship.

On the Stand To Reason radio show of last Sunday (April 30, available in podcast) this very topic was raised. One of Greg Koukl's callers addressed the "dying for a lie" question, and this skeptic referenced Jim Jones as a counter-example, i.e., someone who knew he was a fraud yet died anyway. It is unusual for me to be disappointed in Greg's handling of such issues, but this was one of those rare occasions. Greg granted the Jones case as an exception to the rule. But that begs the question as to the legitimacy of the rule, and whether or not the apostles were just such lunatic characters as Jones happened to be.

What Greg might have done was to point out that Jones was not submissively tortured and/or slain in defense of his cultic truth claims; he committed suicide in order to avoid the ugly consequences of his schemes. It was just a larger example of fleeing public scrutiny and legal threats, which are what brought him to Guyana in the first place. Jones died to avoid embarrassment and prosecution, not because he refused to recant of his testimony. Criminals and financial failures do this all the time. It is an act of cowardice and defeat, not martyrdom.

By contrast, the followers of Jesus boldly marched into the face of trouble and proclaimed their "fiction" in the public square. Additionally, there is no equivalence among the apostles to the power base and sexual perks that folks like Jim Jones, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith enjoyed as a result of their "frauds." As far as the records reveal, the earliest Christians had nothing to gain and everything to lose for claiming that another man was God in the flesh, raised from the dead. And they consistently chose "loss" for the sake of the Gospel, and were forced to do so in droves for the next three centuries until Constantine finally and officially ended the persecution of Christianity.


May 03, 2006

Bad Arguments Against Abortion

In a previous post I critiqued various bad (though common) arguments for abortion. But to be fair, it should be admitted that there are numerous equally bad arguments against abortion that are regularly employed by pro-life advocates.

I do not relish the task of offering criticism to my allies in this cause, especially those who are on the front-lines doing thankless and heartbreaking work (I was very moved by some of what I saw as I searched for relevant graphics). I hope that what follows will be taken as constructive criticism by anyone guilty of these defenses.

"Abortion stops a beating heart"

While this is indeed true in the case of most abortions (heartbeat begins between the 5th and 6th week), it gives credence to the idea that personhood is simply an earned label that depends on the possession of some predefined attributes or level of development. And if heartbeat is the magic attribute, then we can have no grudge against things like embryonic stem cell research and the "morning after" pill.

Additionally, where heartbeat may seem relevant to some, brain activity may be the measure for another, and self-awareness may be the criteria for still others. Singling out heartbeat begs the question, "Why that attribute?" and opens the door for petty negotiations over the definition of "life."

The pro-life perspective is that life is not defined according to its appearance and performance, but, rather, is intrinsic to the new and distinct human being that comes into existence at conception.

"Abortion hurts women"

While it may be tactically effective to point out the personal, subjective drawbacks of having an abortion, the resulting emotional or physical impact on the mother is not the fundamental concern of the pro-life position. If this were not true, then we would have little to say to the woman considering a second abortion who has no (stated) ill effects from her first procedure. And it would be a downright embarrassment to our cause if some positive health benefit could somehow be linked to aborted pregnancies.

The objection to abortion relates to the effect that it has on the unborn child — it's lethal — and would stand regardless of how the mother is impacted by it (threat to her own life aside). Given the assumption of what we believe abortion represents, pandering to the concerns of the mother here is a bit like asking an armed robber not to pull a heist because it might keep him up at nights.

While it is certainly true that women tend to suffer long-term emotional damage from having had an abortion, this fact should not stand as a defense unto itself. It should be connected with the reason that this is so: that they intuitively know that they have murdered another human being — their own child, no less.

"I regret my abortion"

Planned Parenthood would prefer it otherwise, but it is important to note that many women later regret their "choice" due to bothered consciences, later education of all the options, or a transformed worldview. However, this does not constitute a principled argument against abortion. Simply because some women regret their abortions, it does not follow that all carefully considered abortions will be regretted. And what can be said against those women who stridently proclaim their pride and peace over their own abortions? While it may be the case that they are deluding themselves, psychologizing them will get us nowhere.

Again, the pro-life defense does not hinge on the effects of, or a woman's feelings toward, the procedure; it is the nature of the procedure itself that is at issue.

"Women deserve better than abortion"

And children deserve better than death! The problem is that this diverts attention away from the issue and back onto the needs of the woman, just as some of the above defenses do.

This statement seems to imply that there are other options besides abortion (which is certainly true), and that abortion is simply a second-rate choice that is unworthy of the woman. But if it indeed remains a valid choice, then who is to say that it is the wrong choice for any given woman? We may just as well claim that Baskin Robbins customers deserve better than vanilla ice cream.

We don't need to sell adoption or keeping the child as better choices; we need to make abortion an unthinkable choice.

"If Mary was pro-choice there would be no Christmas"

While this is striving to express the truth that the fetus is ontologically the same being as the adult it will become, framing the argument like this has problems on so many levels I don't know where to begin. Here are a few of its shortcomings:
  • It begs for a response like, "If Hitler were aborted there would be no Holocaust."
  • You cannot assume that your audience is Christian and would therefore care about Christmas, at least not as it is celebrated by Christians.
  • If our concern is merely for the potential good that can come of having any particular child, then one might question the morality of limiting the size of your own family. If you've stopped at two kids, just think what the 3rd might have become!
  • It may have been a bad thing to have lost Jesus (or force a do-over on God), but the objection to abortion does not depend on the realized potential of the child being aborted. Abortion would still have been wrong even if the child grows up to be an unremarkable person.
  • This is just bad theology. Do you suppose God would have picked a "pro-choice" vessel, much less allow her to ignore what the angel had told her she was carrying and run off to the nearest pagan herbalist for an abortifacient?

On a positive note

But it's not all bad news for pro-life defenders. I did happen to run across a few relevant and well packaged arguments against abortion, aside from the more academic defenses.

A few suggestions

While banners and picket signs do not offer much real estate for carefully reasoned arguments, I think there is room enough for improvement. Here are some slogans that occur to me, which more closely reflect the heart of the pro-life position.
  • A "person" is not a label
  • Life begins at conception, not consensus
  • Why just the unborn? Why not "unwanted" toddlers too?
  • It's not an appendix; it's a child
  • Embryo, infant, toddler, teen: Just stages in the life of a being
  • "Life" is not assigned when the mother's inclined
  • A human doesn't become "me" by stage and degree
  • I'm pro-choice too, as long as murder isn't one of 'em
  • "Person" at birth? Just another way to say, "Out of sight, out of mind"
  • You're just a lump of tissue too
  • If personhood depends on mental capacity, then I should have more rights than you.
  • If persons are just what we agree on, then we vote "conception"
  • You say "birth," he says "self-awareness," she says "3rd trimester": so when does the "person" fairy come anyway?


Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN