Biblical Themes in “The Hobbit”

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, the third and final film in the series, releases in theaters December 17. RTB editor and fan of the book and film series Sandra Dimas stopped by my office to discuss some of the themes in The Hobbit.

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The-Hobbit-Battle-of-the-Five-Armies-poster-9-691x1024The story begins with Bilbo Baggins leaving his cozy hobbit hole to join Gandalf and a band of dwarfs on their quest to reclaim vast treasures. Along the way, Bilbo experiences deep personal growth. Do you think this could relate to our faith and stepping out of our comfort zones?

It strikes me that both Lewis and Tolkien (I tend to think of them together) were very good at telling stories and then integrating them with theological, spiritual, and moral lessons along the way. So I can definitely see Tolkien picking that up. He was a great storyteller. In terms of Christian spirituality, I think there are a lot of things in life that compete for our attention—work, even our families, as important as they are. But when we come to know the Lord we begin a spiritual path. Like Bilbo’s path, the spiritual path has great benefits, but it also has challenges and difficulties. That’s how I see it connected to spirituality.

One of the main characters, Thorin Oakenshield, is consumed with greed and claiming what is his, even when faced with an impending war. What does this say of the corrosive power of greed, and how do we keep this in mind as we make our mental Christmas lists?

We live in a capitalist world in which people are weighted and measured by the kind of cars they drive and clothes they wear and home they own. And I think as a father and husband, there’s a side to me that wants to get my family something really nice to communicate that I care for them deeply and that I’ve listened to them and taken the hints. I’m aware of what they’re telling me. But on the other hand I think it’s very easy to be caught up in a merchandise culture and forget that the thing we truly care deeply about is our family. It’s not the things that they can give us; it’s them. We want their love and to enjoy that relationship. Greed is a big problem and I’m not surprised that Thorin’s greed would have application in ours lives.

After realizing his error, Thorin states, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” What can we learn from these poignant words?

That’s a wonderful sentiment. Ultimately we look for the joy of being with those we love. A lot of that can happen without a big price tag. It’s certainly easy to be caught up in the gift giving of the season. Though there’s nothing wrong with purchasing gifts for our loved ones, it’s true that the best things in life—love, humor, and the joy of being together—are free.

Speaking of the joy of being together, in The Battle of Fives Armies dwarfs, wood-elves, men, and the great eagles come together, not for joy, but to fight against their mutual enemy, but it takes some effort to band together. There’s a lot of peace and even sacrifice that need to take place. It brings up the question, how can we Christians avoid infighting and band together to fight for good?

The New Testament speaks of brothers and sisters in the Lord living together in peace, alluding to what’s going to happen in the new creation. The more I read about Lewis and Tolkien, the more I see how they were so deeply shaped by their WWI experience. That was a gruesome war—young men being in the trenches fighting and dying and being replaced by more young men. It seems like Lewis and Tolkien in their own way were trying to come to grips with the brutality and sorrow of the war, to rise above it all and move ahead, to overcome all of that pain and live in peace. Those are very strong themes.

Overall, The Hobbit reminds us that even someone small and lowly like Bilbo can change the world. This theme reminds me of the shepherds at the nativity. They were lowly and insignificant, yet they were called to worship the Christ child and then, beyond that, change the world by proclaiming that the Messiah is born.

That’s a great point. I like it! During the nativity and the advent season, we of course celebrate the coming of the Lord. Yet when you think about the shepherds who probably had very little in terms of what they could give, it’s a powerful statement that they got to witness this extraordinary event. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, was this lowly handmaid and yet she’s involved in this incredible truth. I think in some ways that’s kind of what God does in our lives. He finds us, and most of us are pretty ordinary folk, we don’t have any claim to fame, but God works in our lives and develops our character and allows us to see what awaits us in the new creation. The 12 apostles were also pretty ordinary folk. We’re reminded to see what God does in the lives of people who are ordinary and not terribly famous but willing to leaving their hobbit holes, so to speak.

Tolkien was great at developing characters like Bilbo and Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Simple, lowly characters who left their lives of comfort and changed the world. That’s pretty powerful.

You’ve read more fiction than I have, but I have to say Tolkien sells so many books because he tells stories that hook people and they relate to these individuals in the story and probably they see themselves or others. That’s a powerful thing to do, to get the reader to relate to the story and maybe see yourself or see God in that.

Absolutely. Tolkien was phenomenal at communicating deeper spiritual truths in works of fiction. Would you like to offer any final thoughts on The Hobbit, and, more importantly, do you plan to see it?

Yeah, I’d like to see it. With Tolkien, he was able to draw on a lot of difficult situations to write some really beautiful stories—stories of hope, of purpose. His work informs us that God brings good things out of really bad situations. Christmastime is a great time to grow spiritually in anticipating the coming of the Lord and reflect on the common individuals who are part of the nativity story. We can think about peace, humility, the danger of the sins that just grab hold of us, and how the Lord comes to free us. Those are wonderful elements that people like Tolkien can use in their writings to change people’s lives, giving us hope, a sense of purpose, and challenging us to grow as their characters have grown.

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For more on The Hobbit, see “Big Truths from The Hobbit.”

 

The Incarnation in Light of the Image of God

153704788The doctrine of the Incarnation (God coming in the flesh) stands at the very heart of historic Christianity and is celebrated around the world at Christmastime (known in the traditional church calendar as the Advent season). Borrowing from the fourth-century Christian church father Athanasius, C. S. Lewis unpacks the meaning of the Incarnation and explains the reason for the importance of Christmas in a single sentence:

The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.1

The Incarnation teaches that the eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity, took unto himself a human nature and became man without in any way diminishing his deity (cf. John 1:1, 14, 18; Philippians 2:5–6; Colossians 2:9; 1 John 4:1–3). Christian orthodoxy therefore views Jesus Christ as a single person who, nevertheless, possesses both a divine and a human nature. Those two natures find their union in the person of Christ (called the hypostatic union). This theological understanding of the Incarnation led the ancient Christians to refer to Jesus as the theanthropos (Greek: the “God-man”).

Undoubtedly, the Incarnation doctrine involves much divine mystery. When it defined the doctrine officially, the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) didn’t attempt to explain just how Christ’s two natures were unified with his personhood. But it seems biblically correct to infer that humankind’s creation in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27) at least anticipated the Incarnation.

It would appear that by making humankind in his divine image, God then also made it possible to take a human nature himself. In this way, the imago Dei status of human beings foreshadows and facilitates the Incarnation.

Theologian Anthony Hoekema asserts, “It was only because man had been created in the image of God that the Second Person of the Trinity could assume human nature.”2 In other words, God made humans in his image because, all along, he planned to become one at the Incarnation in order to redeem lost sinners (2 Timothy 1:9–10). So, in some sense, the human nature of Christ was specially adapted via the imago Dei to accommodate the divine nature. Thus Jesus was fully God and fully man but remained a single person.

Though the Incarnation remains enigmatic and beyond full human comprehension, I hope identifying this connection between the doctrines of creation and the Incarnation will provoke Christians to both think of and be grateful for the great and deeply mysterious truth-claim that stands at the very heart of Christmas.

Allow me to close with one of my favorite Christmas carols:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Endnotes:

  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 154. In this quote, Lewis slightly rephrases a statement made by the ancient church father Athanasius (ca. 296–373).
  2. Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 22.

 

 

Science and Faith: An Interview with a Biochemist

Through RTB’s Visiting Scholar Program, we often have the pleasure of hosting and working with experts in various fields of study. Earlier this year, RTB welcomed Dr. Russ Carlson, a biochemist who has contributed to important research on complex carbohydrates and taught at the University of Georgia for 26 years. Russ received his PhD in biochemistry from the University of Colorado in 1976, and currently serves as an emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.

I had an opportunity to talk with Russ on my podcast, Straight Thinking (you can listen to the episode here). On behalf of Reflections, RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with Dr. Carlson to discover how his faith and research intersect and how he approaches apologetics in his own outreach efforts.

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Let’s begin with your scientific discipline. What do you research?

I do research in biochemistry and molecular biology. My research has mainly focused on how microbes interact with host cells, whether they’re pathogens (in my case, the microbes are bacterial pathogens) or symbionts (in which case, the interaction is beneficial to both the microbe and the host).

I work at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. The surfaces of all cells—including the bacterial cell and the host cell—are coated with a complex array of different carbohydrate structures. These structures are the first point of contact between a microbe and the host cell. So complex carbohydrates play a role in determining pathogenicity in a pathogen and the ability of a symbiont to carry out its function inside a host cell.

Where do you see evidence for design in this field of research?

I’ve been asked this question a lot and sometimes my mind just goes blank because I can’t think of a point in that process where I don’t see evidence for design. The evidence is in everything.

If biochemists see a specific molecular structure, we want to determine its function. We want to understand the structure-function relationship of the molecule. Any biochemist will assume that there is a function (that is, a purpose or meaning) for a molecule. All scientists operate under those assumptions. For me, this is an assumption that’s really supported by my Christian faith. I believe function, meaning, and purpose are best explained as the products of a Mind and support intelligent design.

On a personal level, how does being a scientist impact your faith?

One of my favorite things as child, and later as a college student, was solving mathematical, chemistry, or physics problems. It was just fun to see what the solution was and to understand what was happening. And, further, the fact that we can understand these things in nature was an awesome feeling.

Now, as a research scientist, I still find that it’s an awesome thing to understand just how a molecule is made, what its structure is, and what its purpose is in the cell. It really gives a sense of joy.

Would you say such understanding is a connection to the Creator?

Yes, and I think it is for a lot of scientists, whether they’re Christian or not. But I think that if a scientist is a Christian, this understanding increases the satisfaction of the discovery. You feel a connection with God because you’ve understood something He’s made and how it works.

Understanding how something works in nature is a powerful confirmation of what God did and how awesome He is. Understanding brings more strength to my faith, rather than detracting from it.

That’s awesome! Continuing on the personal note, whom would you name as the critical mentors in the development of your faith?

I had great examples. My father was a pastor; he and my mom were tremendous examples of what it meant to be caring, compassionate people whose motivation was to help others in their present circumstances and help them spiritually to know God and what He did for them through Christ. My wife, Cheryl, came into my life at a time when I was dealing with some questions and her parents also were tremendously important in my life.

And at school, during my time of questioning Christianity, it was my science professors who were very encouraging to me in my faith. The questions I faced were created by some of my theology professors. That’s where the challenge came for me.

That’s very interesting. Now you have had the opportunity to be a professor yourself. How did you reach out to the students you taught?

A number of years ago, a lecture by Walter Bradley challenged me to do something I’d never thought about before. That was to identify myself as a Christian during my introductory lecture to new students. So, I did that. After telling students a bit about myself, I would end by saying, “The most important thing in my life and my wife’s life is our faith in Christ.” And then I’d start the course.

The first year I did that a handful of students approached to ask me about evolution and how to be a scientist and a Christian at the same time. My wife and I decided to invite these students to our home for dinner and a discussion on faith and science. We’ve been doing that for quite a few years and it’s been very encouraging to us and to the students. It’s been rewarding for Cheryl and me to see young people who are serious about their faith and pursuing truth.

Some of the students, both Christians and nonbelievers, are under the impression that there’s a great conflict between science and faith. Many of them don’t understand that Christianity was instrumental in the development of modern science. Researchers that we consider fathers of certain disciples—like Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, James Clerk Maxwell, and Robert Boyle—were men of faith. I think it’s unfortunate that science students know nothing about the beliefs of these people. It seems to me that this idea of a conflict between Christianity and science comes from their education. This is a great disservice both to the students and to science.

What advice would you give to someone who wants talk to college students, or their own children, about science and faith?

Don’t be afraid of pursuing the truth. We can pursue His truth by examining and studying both nature and Scripture. And we don’t have to be afraid of apparent conflict—further study will often set things right.

If someone asked you, “What’s the best evidence in support of Christianity?” what would you tell them?

There’s five things I would list: (1) Jesus really did exist as a historical figure; (2) He was crucified on a cross and buried in a tomb; (3) the tomb was found empty; (4) many of His followers claimed to have seen Him after he died; and (5) Christianity formed out of these followers’ eyewitness accounts and many of them were willing to die for their beliefs.

All of these facts are recognized as pretty reliable. I think the best explanation for them is that Jesus is who He says He is, did what He said He did, and did it for the reasons He gave. This, for me, is the strongest evidence for the Christian faith.

10 Reasons to be Thankful for the “Shy” Member of the Trinity

One of the most distinct doctrinal tenants of historic Christianity is the Trinity—the belief that one God exists eternally and simultaneously as three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three persons in the Godhead share equally and completely the one divine nature, and are therefore the same God, coequal in power, nature, and glory.

A theologian friend of mine once described the Holy Spirit as “the shy member of the Trinity.” His point was that the Holy Spirit often deflects attention from himself and instead points people to the Father and/or the Son. Here is a specific scriptural example of the Godhead unity and equality where the Spirit specifically bears witness to Christ:

But when the Helper [Holy Spirit] comes, whom I [Son] will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he [Holy Spirit] will bear witness about me [Son] (John 15:26).

Though the Holy Spirit humbly defers to the other members of the Triune Godhead, the Spirit is not shy about his work in salvation. In fact, the Holy Spirit is the central person of the Trinity at work in applying the completed redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the lives of Christian believers. While all three persons of the Godhead are equally divine, this Thanksgiving I’m specifically grateful for the 10 following ways the Spirit works in our salvation.

1. The Spirit convicts us of our sin.

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:7–8).

2. The Spirit regenerates us.

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4–5).

3. The Spirit enables us to say—with true conviction—“Jesus is Lord.”

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

4. The Spirit reveals Christ to us.

“These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10–11).

5. The Spirit enables us to worship authentically.

“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3).

6. The Spirit imparts God’s love to us.

“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

7. The Spirit dwells in us.

“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” (Romans 8:11).

 8. The Spirit helps us to pray.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27).

9. The Spirit incorporates us into the church.

“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

10. The Spirit makes us realize God is our Father.

“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6).

In this time of thanksgiving let us reflect in gratitude to the Triune God. And may these verses prompt you to acknowledge and give thanks for the awesome work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation.

 

 

Ethics in “The Hunger Games”

How do the choices we make in pursuit of an end goal impact the outcome of our endeavors? If our cause is worthy enough, are we excused from ethical considerations in our efforts to achieve it? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

These were the questions on RTB editor Maureen Moser’s mind after reading Mockingjay, the third book in author Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. She knocked on my office door recently to discuss ethics and consequences. Whether you plan to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 or not, I hope this post will provide some food for thought. (Possible spoilers included.)

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ac09894e-3903-11e4-93ff-bc764e11a888In the Hunger Games, it’s obvious the Capitol is untrustworthy and cruel, but then the leaders of the rebellion also pull some very dirty, even brutal, tricks to win the war in Panem. If you are fighting for the “good guys,” are you ever justified in using unethical tactics to achieve victory?

I think many people, perhaps Christians especially, would say that the means should never violate the ends. That is, a sound approach to ethics means you must have a moral end and moral means to getting there.

One big challenge in war is that the nature of warfare often changes strategies. Philosophers, theologians, and ethicists can come up with a sound ethical code—but applying anything to the battlefield is difficult. During World War II, the Allies occasionally cut corners despite the American policy of not targeting noncombatants. The bombing of Dresden, for example, killed many civilians. So did the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have sympathy for people who have to make those choices. Ethics requires a lot of thought and reflection, but in combat, you have to make instant decisions. You have a second or less to decide if you’re going to shoot or be shot. It’s not easy to know if your means is ethically compatible with your ends. I have a lot of admiration for noble soldiers because they act justly when they could be abusive. It’s easy for me, sitting at my safe desk, to criticize people on the battlefield. My tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.

War is often evil, always regrettable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary to fight—because if you don’t, the greater evil will prevail. Of course, it’s never comfortable to reason out what the least of the evils is.

The scenario in Mockingjay, of replacing the corrupt Capitol with a new government, brings up an interesting question. When you accept an ends-justify-the-means-mentality, are you building your new beginning on a history of doing things that are ethically unsound?

That’s a great point. I think it’s true that most new wars begin because of the way the old war ended. The ending of World War I caused real problems that historians suggest contributed to the onset of World War II. Also, the way the Second World War ended raised complications for the Cold War. Winners of wars, even though justly fought, must be very careful in how they treat conquered enemies.

In American history, I look at the aftermath of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s policy was to let the South off easy and extend forgiveness. But Andrew Johnson’s administration, which followed Lincoln’s assassination, was about as bad as Lincoln’s was good. The country has paid a heavy price for it in the form of bitterness and racial tensions. Perhaps showing mercy would have been the better policy.

What about the question, would it be wrong to lie to Nazis in order to protect Jews? In this scenario would the ends (saving a life) justify violating one of the Ten Commandments?

If you were hiding Jews and the Gestapo came to your door, most people would agree that you should lie to the soldiers about the refugees’ whereabouts. These questions have been debated for a long time. In general, there are two schools of thought among Christians regarding such scenarios.

Some people would say that lying to the Gestapo agents is something you have to repent of, but it is the lesser of two evils. So, it’s a bad thing to break the Ten Commandments and to lie intentionally—but in this case, it would be the lesser moral offense.

The other school of thought would argue that the greater good of saving a life would mean that that intentional deception was no evil at all. People in this camp would take the view, and I agree with them on this point, that the greater good principle would mean that you haven’t done anything wrong at all.

This brings to my mind the story in Exodus about the Israelite midwives who lied to Pharaoh in order to save the Hebrew male babies. And God rewarded them for it by giving them families of their own!

Yes, in such a case, I would argue that the value of life outweighs your obligation to your political leaders. Personally, I would agree that it would not be wrong to intentionally deceive an evil power that is out to crush innocent human life.

This doesn’t mean I think intentional deception is an easy thing to do; hopefully our conscience tells us that telling the truth is right. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to make that kind of choice, which also puts you and your family at risk. The Corrie ten Booms and Sophie Scholls of history have shown extraordinary moral strength.

We’ve been discussing big topics and intense scenarios. For those of us who will not likely face such choices, how might the ethics we’re talking about apply to everyday life?

I do think many of us face temptation to cut corners. There’s a moral flaw in any theory that allows you to hold an ideal, but then allows you to cheat, lie, and destroy in order to achieve that thing. We have the opportunity to live out the greater good everyday of our lives. If we’re morally strong with the small things, then the more likely we’ll be morally strong when the big things come along.

We need a morality that’s deeply grounded in some form of revelation. I think any kind of secular grounding doesn’t work; we need a broader principle to guide us—love God and love your neighbor. This means we don’t lie to our neighbors and we don’t cheat our neighbors. It isn’t always easy. The Christian life can be very challenging, but I think it’s a deeply rewarding one.

Definitely. Any thoughts you’d like to close with?

Yes, for the New Year’s resolution episode on my podcast Straight Thinking this year, I’ll be sharing a list of thought-provoking movies. I think movies are great, especially the ones that have you walking away from the theatre wondering, how would I respond to that? I hope people will choose to go see movies like that and it sounds like the Hunger Games series raises some issues that need careful thought.

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Additional resources

 

Reflections on War

The Second World War is the largest single event in human history, fought across six of the world’s seven continents and all its oceans. It killed fifty million human beings, left hundreds of millions of others wounded in mind or body and materially devastated much of the heartland of civilisation.

— John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Penguin, 1989), 5.

133636309To say that war is a difficult and controversial topic is a huge understatement. Nevertheless, it is a reality of our world. Its potential for devastation makes it all the more imperative that we think carefully and deeply about it. And there’s no better time than Veterans Day to ask the difficult questions about war.

War is always tragic but is it ever necessary? Is it possible to conduct a just war? How have Christians approached these difficult questions about military conflict?

Below are links to articles and podcast episodes where I attempt to think carefully about the issue of war.

Thank a veteran of America’s armed forces today for his or her service to our great country.

Articles

  • “Ken’s Top 50 World War II Films” (Part 1 and Part 2)

Podcasts

 

 

 

Do We Derive Pleasure from Sports Violence?

The problem of football is football. Which is to say, it [NFL football] is consciously merchandising violence.

— George Will, Fox News Sunday, September 21, 2014

78738805I have been an avid sports fan from the age of nine. Prior to that my interest was presidential politics—I was the only fourth grader in my class who could name all of the candidates running for the presidency in 1968. But once a childhood friend introduced me to athletics everything else took second place. Sports became my religion.

If I wasn’t playing, I was watching televised games or collecting cards or discussing statistics. To my parents’ regret, school studies didn’t derail my passion for sports. I relished the competition and physicality offered in sports.

As an adult, sports are no longer a religion for me; nevertheless, I remain a genuine fan, happy to watch a good game and discuss a team’s potential with friends. (The Dodgers and the Lakers are particular favorites.) I have even enjoyed practicing the martial arts with a church friend who is a seventh-degree black belt. During these sessions I still experienced a rush when I delivered or received a hit.

I say all this to demonstrate that, while most people see me as a quiet, reflective, and easygoing person, the physical activity that comes with contact sports is just as thrilling for me as it is for many others. Engaging in contact sports and watching such contact in sporting events on television tends to appeal to my inner tribal instinct.

But this raises a difficult question: Is it appropriate for people, Christians in particular, to derive pleasure from watching or participating in sports violence, especially when such forceful contact results in injury? NFL football has drawn criticism for the growing amount of medical evidence that NFL players are seriously prone to post-career brain illnesses. For example, CBS’s Face the Nation program reported on September 21, 2014, that the “NFL says 28% of players develop debilitating brain conditions.”

Should this type of information cause us to reevaluate the reasons we enjoy sports so much?

The Concerns with Football

I’ll admit that my own bout with a life-threatening brain illness has sharpened my sensitivity to such reports. Let me start by acknowledging that there are many good things connected to American football. This sport has helped many young men grow in strength, maturity, and responsibility. Working hard and together as a team toward a common goal pays dividends for life. Football has also made it possible for many players to receive a college education. I also acknowledge that the NFL is seriously seeking to improve players’ protective equipment, for example, developing new helmets that can limit injuries to the brain.

And yet, to engage in any activity but especially voluntary sports that could damage the brain is highly risky. As I know from personal experience, when the brain is not working properly either through disease or injury a person’s whole life is thrown into turmoil. While it is not the goal of football to hurt players, it is nevertheless a game of overwhelming force. Concussions, the root cause of brain injuries reported among retired players, are a common occurrence. Sadly, the incredibly destructive effects of concussions are often not genuinely felt or discovered until years later. So, are football fans receiving pleasure and excitement from watching a game that involves future permanent mental impairment for an increasing number of players?

Some fans may say that they enjoy football for the amazing athletic ability of the players, not for the physical contact. It is indeed impressive to see a 6-foot-5-inch, 350-pound lineman sprint a 40-yard dash. But imagine how it feels to be in that player’s path. A full-force collision with a man who possesses such bulk, strength, and speed can lead to serious injury. It seems the tremendous athletic ability of these world-class athletes increases the risk. And although much of this article (as well as the public discussion) has focused on American football (arguably the most popular sport in America at this time), this critique rightfully extends to other sports that involve intense levels of physical contact, such as boxing, mixed martial arts, hockey, and rugby.

Having expressed these concerns, I’m back to considering how they should impact Christian sports fans like myself and how they should influence our enjoyment of the game.

Should Christians Enjoy Sports Violence?

It is not my intention to tell Christians what sports they should or shouldn’t watch. I think decisions like that are matters of individual conscience before God in the spirit of Romans 14. In fact, as with many of the issues that fall under the Romans 14 category, there may not be one right answer concerning sports violence. And I certainly don’t want to make people feel unnecessary guilt for enjoying what is often a helpful distraction from the stresses of life. Rather, I simply would like to encourage Christians to ask themselves honestly whether it is possible that they are deriving pleasure from violence in sports.

This question is not a new one. Ancient Christians discussed whether it was ever morally acceptable to attend the gladiator matches in Rome. In an article entitled “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome,” author Keith Hopkins notes,

St Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of a Christian who was reluctantly forced along to the amphitheatre by a party of friends; at first, he kept his eyes shut, but when he heard the crowd roar, he opened them, and became converted by the sight of blood into an eager devotee of gladiatorial shows.1

Now, I don’t think football or any other modern sport should be equated with the gladiator matches of ancient Rome in which, on some occasions, contestants were killed. But the story relayed in Augustine’s Confessions does illustrate that athletic violence can have an appeal, even for Christian believers.So if you, like me, are a sports fan and you plan to watch a game (or games) this coming week, I’d encourage you to begin by asking yourself what you enjoy most about the game. What is it specifically about the game that gives you pleasure? Where does the excitement come from? What gives you a rush? Would you enjoy the sport just as much if the game were less physical?

For me personally, I have begun asking such questions of myself and the answers have led to some adjustments in my sports-watching habits. I hope this article will encourage further critical thinking about such important topics among my fellow sports-loving believers.

Listen to my RTB colleagues and I discuss this topic, particularly as it relates to football, on this Straight Thinking episode: “Christians Deriving Pleasure from Watching Violent Sports.”

Endnotes

  1. Keith Hopkins, “Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome,” History Today 33 (June 1983). If you’d like to read the story Hopkins mentions for yourself, see Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), bk. 6, 8, p. 121–23.

 

 

 

The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 4 (of 4)

PEDuring the month of October, RTB editor Sandra Dimas and I have discussed the seven deadly sins and their virtuous opposites. This week we conclude the series with pride and envy. In case you missed the previous articles, you can click on the following links to read part 1 (sloth), part 2 (greed and gluttony), and part 3 (anger and lust).

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Let’s start with envy. How would you define this sin?

Envy is when I can’t be happy about something good happening to you because I’m so needy that I want everything to be given to me. It’s such a self-centered lack of generosity.

What about the virtue that contrasts envy?

In contrast to envy is charity or being grateful. I can be grateful that something good happened to you because I love and care for you. Thus I extend charity or gratefulness to you and to others.

Can I ask which of these deadly sins you struggle with the most?

For me, I’d have to say envy. When I was playing baseball as a young man, I envied friends who signed professional baseball contracts. Now I envy my apologist friends whose books sell better than mine do. There was a particular book I didn’t think was half as good as mine, yet it sold like hotcakes! Everyone was just falling over themselves trying to get this book. (laughs) So, I’m aware of envy, but I think it also probably depends on the season of my life, which sin I’m most susceptible to.

Now let’s talk about the big sin of pride.

C. S. Lewis said there were two kinds of pride. The first is a humble pride where you have a low self-image. The second, which according to Lewis is a much worse form of pride, is the diabolical pride, where you don’t care what anybody thinks and you don’t value the opinion of anybody—not even God. Lewis also said pride is the anti-god state of mind.

Is this “anti-god state of mind” why some would consider pride the worst of these seven deadly sins?

Pride is this antispiritual state of mind where it’s difficult to be generous and loving because you have contempt for everybody but yourself. Is it the worst of sins? Lewis thought so, and a lot of people would agree. Saint Augustine said the sin of Lucifer was that he exalted a good thing (himself) above the greatest thing (God). If pride is what made Lucifer the devil, it’s a pretty serious state of mind because it puts you at odds with others and with God.

What is the contrasting virtue to pride?

Contrasting pride is humility, which means you stop comparing yourself to others. Instead you recognize that whatever God does in other people’s lives doesn’t mean that you’re the odd man out. It just means that God’s grace flows over into all kinds of people’s lives.

Earlier you mentioned a “humble pride.” How would you compare “humble pride” with true humility?

Pride is the ultimate competitive state and always at odds with everybody else. Humility is accepting acknowledgment with gratitude. Christians sometimes get this false sense that humility means we deflect compliments. But being made in the image of God means God has put His fingerprint upon us. We have inherent dignity and moral worth.

Can you give an example of when you’ve experienced true humility?

A young man once shared with me that something I had written brought him out of a state of depression that could’ve led to suicide. I felt immediately humbled. I thought, how would I ever know that God could use something I had written to powerfully impact somebody’s life? What a wonderful thing that God would use a difficult writer like me for His glory.

You mentioned previously that medieval theologians formed the list of seven deadly sins. It seems that behaviors once considered vices are applauded today. Greed might be considered good because it’s good to be successful. Pride is considered good because too many people have low self-esteem. Sloth is good because you deserve to binge on Netflix. For that matter, gluttony is good because you deserve to binge on cupcakes.

I like your cupcakes, by the way.

Oh, thanks. (laughs) But do you think today’s Christians can look at these “deadly” sins as true vices rather than things we should strive for?

It’s helpful to realize that much of our sins are not directly doing the wrong thing but taking good things and misusing them. Instead of recognizing that food, money, sexuality, and so forth, are gifts, we misuse them. Sometimes we demand more than these things can give us. We’re asking finite things to meet a need that only the infinite God can fulfill. In Confessions, Augustine writes that “you’ve made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest until they rest in thee.” We were made for God.

How do these sins affect how we engage God? It seems they strip away our trust in God.

I think that’s a great point. Jesus called Yahweh Abba, which is an Aramaic term of endearment. Some scholars would say it is equivalent to “daddy.” When we lose control of ourselves, we’re not trusting in God’s fatherly care for us, His sovereignty.

Any final thoughts on this topic?

We’ve discussed the deadly sins and cardinal virtues, but there are also the theological virtues. Those are faith, hope, and love. I think the seven deadly sins show a lack of affirming faith, hope, and love. That may be the heart of it: we’ve lost our faith, hope, and love. Thus we’re scrambling to hold onto every thing we can get our hands on.

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For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.

 

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Quote of the Week: Michael Reeves

When you proclaim Jesus, the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father, you proclaim the triune God.

—Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 37–38.

The Seven Deadly Sins, Part 3 (of 4)

This week RTB editor Sandra Dimas and I continue our discussion on the seven deadly sins and the contrasting virtues. Read part 1 and part 2 to see which vices and virtues were already discussed.

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ALKen, so far we’ve discussed sloth, greed, and gluttony. Now let’s take a look at two more sins. Let’s start with how anger can become a sin. What does Scripture have to say about anger?

The Bible says, “In your anger, sin not.” Jesus became angry. He went into the temple and turned over tables. I’ll bet you Paul felt anger, too, when his dignity and the dignity of his companions was cast aside or by hypocrisy he saw in the religious leaders.

Considering this, what is an acceptable reason for someone to become angry?

Anger is sometimes a very appropriate response. For example, if somebody were harming someone I care about, being angry over that would be perfectly justifiable. I can tell you, though, it’s very difficult not to sin when your anger has reached a certain level.

When does anger become a sin?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been angry where you’ve lost control of yourself. I have. When this happens you are enormously vulnerable to do something you may regret for a long time. You’ve lost all of those resources that keep things in check. Anger can cause people to lose control over their actions—and unchecked anger could even lead to murder. Think of how road rage over this small little thing can lead to someone pulling out a gun. How vulnerable we all are when we lose control of ourselves. So, while anger is a good thing in the appropriate context, it’s such a powerful emotion that it could lead to some of the worst sins—either murdering someone or using slurs that degrade people.

What is the contrasting virtue to anger?

The contrast to anger is meekness, that is, composure or self-control. When Peter talks about doing apologetics he talks about doing it with gentleness and self-control.

In fact, 1 Peter 3:15 influences how we at RTB engage apologetics.

Right, and that’s a very powerful thing. When people hear your presentation, even if your arguments are good, if they think you have an arrogant attitude or you come across as impersonal, that affects persuasion. We’re persuaded for reasons other than just intellectual ones. We don’t often think of a champion apologist as being meek, but it’s certainly there and needed.

Yet people often misunderstand meekness as synonymous with weakness. Can you explain the distinction between the two?

I think in the minds of many people meekness means you let people push you around and don’t stand up for yourself. Jesus said, “I am meek and lowly of heart, take on my yoke. I’m gentle of heart.” It seems to me that there was nothing about Jesus that was weak. He could talk to the Samaritan woman at the well. He could touch the lepers. Or He could stand up to the religious leaders of His time. So I don’t think meekness involves letting people abuse you or push you around. It simply means having a deep sense of self-control and composure. It’s about treating other people with dignity because we are all made in the image of God.

Let’s now discuss the sin of lust and how that differs from sex.

Like the other deadly sins, lust is misusing something that was originally meant to be good. Sex according to the Christian worldview is a good thing. It’s a God-ordained thing. In fact, whenever Yahweh talks about His relationship to the covenant people, the analogy is marriage. When Jesus talks about His intimacy with the church, it’s marriage. So there is this sacredness to marriage and sexuality.

What sort of behavior would be identified as lust?

Sex becomes lust when it is out of control and out of the proper context of marriage. But it’s also lust when we use the other person for sexual pleasure rather than an expression of love and giving in charity. I think in our culture sex has become a type of idolatry. Pornography is a very serious problem and some of the statistics I’ve read indicate that even among Christian men pornography is a problem.

With the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey (and its film adaptation coming out next year), it seems that lust is an issue for women as well.

You’re right.

How has sex become a type of idolatry?

By saying that sex is the end all, be all, as if your hedonism would bring this incredible fulfillment. In reality, when I have talked to people who have had multiple sexual affairs and relationships, they often seem very lonely and unfulfilled. Thus people have made the case that married people are happier.

What virtue contrasts lust? And how do we battle the sin in our lives?

That would be purity, which is self-control in a physical way. I think the power of sin points to the deep sense of grace. The only way we can be saved and the only way we can have godliness is through the gift of God’s grace—His love, His forgiveness, His empowerment.

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We will conclude this series next week with the deadly sins of envy and pride.

For more on the seven deadly sins, see Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle.