The Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith represents a wide range of theological perspectives. This guest editorial only represents the personal/academic views of the author.

 

How the Reformation Changed the World
Reflections at the Beginning of the Reformation Year 2017
John A. Maxfield
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Concordia University of Edmonton
Spring 2017

Google “Reformation 500” and links to multiple webpages appear, detailing local and global events focusing on the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. The Lutheran World Federation, an international ecumenical federation and communion of many (but not all) Lutheran church bodies, has been gearing up for this anniversary jubilee for the past ten years. Five hundred years is a long time by almost any measure. Civilization, scholars generally agree, began about five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia and along the Nile in Egypt, so the past five hundred years marks a tenth of the span of human civilization. Christianity, the world’s largest religion, has endured for just over two thousand years if one marks its beginning with the proclamation of the apostles that Jesus was crucified not just as a victim of Roman brutality but as a divinely given sacrifice for sinners, and that God raised Him from the dead to live and rule as Lord. So the Reformation marks the most recent quarter of the history of Christianity.

Today, and indeed for the past four hundred years, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation has been celebrated on the annual date of October 31st, the date (the eve of All Saints Day in the Church’s marking of time) Martin Luther is said to have nailed to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany the Ninety-Five Theses, more properly titled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Some skepticism has emerged in recent generations regarding the evidence for that event of nailing his theses to a church door, often portrayed (since nineteenth-century Romanticism) as the heroic if not rebellious action of a German monk, hammer in hand and with a crowd looking on with fascination. But there is no doubt that on October 31, 1517, Luther mailed (“posted” in a different sense) his disputation theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, that either that day or soon after Luther also sent his proposed debating points to his more immediate ecclesiastical supervisor, the bishop of Brandenburg, as well as to several friends and humanist scholars he thought might be willing to respond to the questions he was raising, by letter if not in an actual debate. There is also no doubt that the Archbishop, after finally receiving them in late November, sent Luther’s disputation theses to the papal curia in Rome suggesting that perhaps there should be an investigation; that Luther’s theses and the reactions to them soon created a curfuffle in the Church; and that within the next year formal heresy proceedings would be initiated against the Wittenberg friar and Doctor of Theology. Finally, it is a matter of fact that in the aftermath of this “Luther affair,” which formally ended (as far as the Church’s papal hierarchy was concerned) with his excommunication on January 3, 1521, Luther continued to be protected in his homeland while his ideas for the reform of Christianity slowly began to be implemented in many localities, first in German-speaking areas of Europe and then more broadly, all in the face of the Church’s condemnation. With his genius for communicating in the German language, making use of the technology of printing, Luther became the most popular author of the century and the spread of Reformation ideas became the first mass-media event. By the end of the 1520s the Reformation was taking root, and usually a local church jurisdiction would celebrate the event annually on the date the reform was formally introduced in a given region. Beginning in 1617, such annual were generally held on October 31st, thus acknowledging Luther’s raising questions about indulgences as the catalyst that began the Reformation.

But what of it? In a modern world that appears to continue on a path of secularization (at least in the West) that began with the French Revolution over two hundred years ago, what is the significance of the Reformation? Indeed, as historians seek to make sense of world history and engage in the abstraction of defining major movements and historical periods, the modern world with its values of freedom, equality, and tolerance is usually viewed as beginning with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and not the sixteenth-century Reformation. The period in West European history once celebrated as the Renaissance and Reformation now usually goes by the rather bland name “early modern.” Even if the era is recognized as a period of significant transition, among historians of European culture (wherein the Christian religion played such a significant role) the Reformation is often viewed not primarily as a time of progress and flourishing but as a time of tragic conflict and division. That hardly seems worthy of celebration, much less ten years and more of marking the occasion.

History, that is, the narrative (or narratives) of the past, is most often written more-or-less chronologically, with the passage of time marking various developments, usually analyzing relationships of cause and effect. But the questions posed by historians are generally posed from the opposite direction, looking backwards. Historians frequently are seeking to answer questions that betray their opinion of the present—roughly either “How did we get to this wonderful time in which we live?” or “How ever did we get into this mess?” While historians mostly scorn the “Whig interpretation” of history that once fashionably traced the (wonderful) development of the British system of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, historians of various ideological convictions still (one might say with increasing fervency) raise questions about the conditions that caused the rise of (intolerant) monarchical absolutism; or the liberation of modern, Western women from the shackles of patriarchy; or the emergence of tolerance from the bigotries of the past; or the rise of international terrorism inspired not just by political aspirations or oppression but by religious as well as political fanaticism. Views of the Reformation among historians today include viewing it as a cause (ironically via a religious revolution) of modern secularism, as a movement of rationalization or “disenchantment” of the world (though only partial—Protestants still believed in a God who intervened in human history but rejected the Roman Catholic traditions of the saints doing so), as the first major (failed) revolution of the Common Man against social hierarchy and economic injustice, as both the permanent division of the Western (Latin) Catholic Church and the long-awaited reform and further Christianization of that same Church.

If we view the Reformation along the lines of the goal of historical narrative according to one of its most outstanding practitioners from the past, Leopold von Ranke ((1795–1886), that is, not to judge its outcomes “for the instruction of future ages” but “merely to show how it essentially was,” we still can recognize in the sixteenth century an epoch of significant change, indeed one of the major transitions in the history of Western civilization and indeed the world. As his opponents pressed him in the aftermath of his theses on indulgences, Martin Luther eventually came to seek not just to reform the Church but to change Christianity. The Reformation did so, as large areas of European Christianity came to reject the papal governance that had ruled the Catholic Church for nearly a thousand years. That meant new structures of political authority and ecclesiastical authority, and for good or ill this meant changes in society and politics throughout Europe. And as European culture encountered the world in an age of discovery, it encountered that world in the form of a Catholicism invigorated in many ways by the challenges of its Reformation division, and in various forms of Protestantism, and all these manifestations of a changed European culture in turn shaped both the old world and the new.

WHY I AM NOT AN ATHEIST
Bill Anderson PhD
bill.anderson@concordia.ab.ca
Religious Studies
Winter 2016

 

I always wanted to be an atheist. I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. I grew up in a working class Scottish home with lots of love, many benefits and much happiness! No philosophy was more drilled into me than this: Be your own man. Stand on your own two feet. Do your own thinking. And don’t let anyone influence you—no matter who they are. Being an atheist is the ultimate Scottish working class philosophy.

When I got to my mid-teens, I started to philosophize about many things more seriously. I especially tried to figure out how I could reject any concept of God. But I got stuck. My limited knowledge of the universe led me to one firm conclusion: The universe is extremely complex and delicately balanced—and could not have just “happened” by itself through numerous coincidences. This was an irrational idea that I could not intellectually accept.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t know that its technical reference was the “Teleological Argument from Design”. The Teleological Argument from Design is, in my view, the most powerful argument for the existence of God.

Another argument that forced me to reject atheism was the Cosmological Argument. While I’m an “arts” person, I do know that for every effect there is a cause. This means that the universe must have had a First Cause, i.e., a Creator. I know that both of these arguments have been sorely tested in recent decades.

By the way, I don’t pretend that my arguments are as sophisticated as say, Professor Richard Swinburne of Oxford University, who will be our keynote speaker at our 2016 conference on “Atheism and the Christian Faith” here at Concordia University of Edmonton on May 6th and 7th. But they are so substantial and forceful that I cannot reject them on rational grounds.

However, these arguments were not enough for me to become a Christian: You can’t argue a person into Heaven. The question then became: Ok, now what? There must be a god, a creator, but he cannot be “personal”. I based this on the problems of evil and suffering, as well as unanswered prayers in my own life. Therefore a person cannot have a “personal relationship” with God. It took a literal, miraculous “Damascus Road” conversion experience on a construction site before I “saw the light”. Or as Jesus puts it in John 3: A person must be “born from above”, i.e., by the agency of God’s Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, that’s not the end of the story. My faith has been tested many times over the past 36 years that I’ve been a Christian. As a pastor, I’ve never really fit in the church, seminaries or denominational offices. Moreover, I did my PhD under the atheist biblical scholar Robert Carroll at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I learned a great deal from him and I am eternally grateful to God for him (though he wouldn’t view it that way).

As a professor, a recurring question that I ask my students is: “When the atheist reads the Bible, they are objective—true or false?” My response is that its “so false I can’t even begin to tell you”! Atheists, being human like myself, have baggage and are often prisoners of their emotions with political agendas too—and these will skew our interpretations of texts and lead to Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation Bias says that we will find what we are looking for regardless of the evidence or we will interpret the evidence in the light of our own biases and without full context or openness to alternative positions eg atheism. Psychologically and emotionally, atheism suits me: I just can’t make a rational case for it. That is the necessity of keeping our emotions out of it and employing objective protocols when doing academics—especially in biblical studies. Because if Christianity isn’t objectively true, then I want out: It’s not worth the hassle and humiliation in today’s society.

Of course the title of my editorial is a pun on Bertrand Russell’s classic treatise on atheism entitled “Why I am Not a Christian”. But I think Andy Partridge says it more concisely and powerfully in the XTC song/video “Dear God”. In both works the “usual suspects” are rounded up as insurmountable problems to theism and the Christian Faith: Problem of Evil, Innocent Suffering and Theodicy (Justice of God or life isn’t fair). Russell also attacks the Cosmological and Teleological Arguments in his treatise; where he ironically falls acutely into his own criticism of reductionism and lack of imagination.

These problems can be summed up in Epicurus’ syllogism “Inconsistent Triad” which is picked up by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in DialoguesConcerning Natural Religion. There are many variations of this syllogism but it basically goes like this:

1)           God is all-loving but not all-powerful; or

2)           God is all-powerful but not all-loving.

3)           Because evil exists, there cannot be a perfectly good, all-loving and all-powerful God.

I am totally empathetic to these works and the problems they raise. However, existence, reality and theology are far more complex than this simplistic and reductionistic syllogism. But, as a PhD in Old Testament Theology, I know that there is no biblical answer to these genuine problems.

As a pastor, however, I practice “Lived Theodicy”. I agree with the atheist’s legitimate complaints and simply come along side suffering people and empathize with them. I also know from the Book of Job and the example of Jesus that our sufferings are meaningful and purposeful. Indeed, all my sufferings in life have given me the experience and empathy to minister to people deeply.

Having said all that, my faith is not based on what I do not know. I don’t believe in blind faith. I know that I don’t know much as a human being vis-à-vis an all-knowledgeably wise God. So my reasonable faith puts these problematics into suspension until I am received into the Absolute.

My Christian Faith is based on what I do know about God. I know that there is a Creator and the evidence of the universe supports the Three Os of Theology Proper: God is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. The Three Os are also reasonable grounds for the belief in miracles. I know that God is LOVE from the Bible (1 John 4.8), the example of Jesus and by living life in this beautiful creation (with all its downsides as well). I know from theology that God is holy (perfectly moral) and therefore cannot be unjust or unfair. I know that the Gospels are eyewitness historical documents as verified by archaeology (contrary to the very trendy and naughty documentaries to the opposite that are often based on conspiracy theories). I know that God became human in the form of Jesus and that the Gospels documented his good person, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. This eyewitness testimony is a substantial basis for Christian Faith. That is why I am not an atheist and why I am a Christian.

 

 

WHAT’S WITH ALL THE ZOMBIES?
A Christian Interpretation of Zombie Culture
Bill Anderson PhD
Religious Studies

Winter 2014

Zombies are everywhere! They are ubiquitously found in books, movies, comics, video games, TV shows and on the streets (zombie walks). What’s with all the zombies? What is the significance and meaning of zombies in our culture? Zombies are saying something to us about us—but what?

In my pride and prejudice (something no scholar should have!), in my ignorance, my initial critical assessment was (watching my son play Call of Duty Zombies): “I don’t know if the zombies are on the screen or behind the controls”. Or as one of my son’s online friends put it: “Every game has #@$%*@#* zombies in it—whoopty doo”! That, of course, expresses a doubt that there is much original or interesting or even good art to be found in zombie culture. Like my son’s friend (my son is naturally like this too): I am resistant to any popular trends and treat them with the utmost suspicion and scepticism—something all good scholars should do.

But even Timothy Madigan, in an editorial for Philosophy Now, had to begrudgingly concede the centrality and significance of the “Zombie Invasion of Philosophy”. Indeed Zombies are a complex reflection of who we are as individuals and culture—which raises very serious issues and questions. Zombie culture is telling us that life is a great big profound mystery—larger than any one of us as an individual. Actually, I think that zombies are a much more intelligent, deep, sophisticated and multi-layered metaphor for many of the struggles we are encountering on both an individual and societal level—even eclipsing Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein (and that’s good art!).

Irony is intrinsic to zombies: We can either be a victim of them or critically enlightened by what they are saying. So for example: If we are not thinking about what zombies are saying, we ironically end up a zombie with thoughtless, ceaseless and meaningless activity. This ceaseless activity also has the effect of desensitizing and numbing us eg to violence or purchasing. If we critically engage zombies as scholars, we will be blown away by the depth of questions and issues they raise. There are so many examples that I could explore in this article—but I will limit to a few.

My recent journey to zombie enlightenment began by watching my 16 year old son playing Call of Duty Zombies. Given that he is a lot more intelligent than me, I should have known that he knew something I didn’t. Then I heard a voice while driving in the vehicle with my son: A divine voice ironically infused in the death metal of COD Zombies—the voice of Elena Siegman. This in turn led me to the musical genius and mastermind of the COD Zombies music: Kevin Sherwood—who will be our keynote speaker at the Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith 2015 conference on Religion and Pop Culture.

As already noted: Zombie culture is intrinsically ironic eg they are the “living dead”. Sherwood masterfully conveys this irony and the anxiety of our existential angst by employing the Doctrine of Ethos in his music. The Doctrine of Ethos is a Greek philosophical concept that says that the music must “embody the idea or theme it is trying to convey and produce an effect on the listener”. This can be heard in the COD Zombie Canon—music composed for Call of Duty Zombies. Irony can be heard in Sherwood’s employment of Elena’s angelic voice emanating out of the genre of death metal and the anxiety of our existential angst in the “haunting effect” that won’t leave the listener alone. I am haunted by this music and its ideas as I listen to it on the way to work—and it haunts me all day long—and has done so for over a year now . . . .

Based on the Creation Theology of Genesis 1, I see theological analogies with Sherwood’s COD Zombie Canon—and its all good! Taking matter that God has already created (Genesis 1.1-2), Sherwood brings order (by the structure of his music) out of chaos (the zombie apocalypse). He brings beauty out of ugliness through his music and Elena’s voice eg the “Beauty of Annihilation”. Sherwood brings good (art) out of the evil of zombies. This is an example of how critical analysis enlightens us to profound ideas and beautiful art (including the graphic design of COD Zombies)—if we are, as scholars, open to learning.

Another prime example that explores the complexity of zombies is AMC’s The Walking Dead and Talking Dead. Talking Dead is a weekly debriefing of the episodes of The Walking Dead by guests from all walks of life. As an educator, I said to my wife and son last weekend that what excites me most about Talking Dead is the fact that The Walking Dead generates so much thinking, analysis and dialogue from all kinds of non-scholarly people in our culture. It means that people are thinking and talking about the big questions and issues! They are not becoming the ironic victims of zombies and watching “mindless” entertainment! They get it!

Marilyn Manson, in a recent TD, said that The Walking Dead is not about zombies: Its about “morality”. While I am sure that he would not agree with my take on it, we are a morally conflicted society who intuitively know that our views on morality are not working very well for us. Rick struggles with this very issue personally and as a leader. As a pastor, I see this moral confliction every week as students come for pastoral care—often related to the breakdown of the family and or romantic relationships—something for which I have nothing but compassion.

Adam Savage from Myth Busters made the point in TD that the prison in season 4, which has kept Rick’s community safe and secure for a while now, is actually a metaphor for us in society. As the prison walls teeter from the outside (representing external threat), a virus is killing survivors from the inside (representing internal threat). Savage comments that this really reflects our delusion: We think that we live in a stable society with a stable government. But intuitively we all know that governments can collapse (as reflected in the recent shut down of the US government) and put us into chaos. That is what the apocalypse represents: The breakdown of order into chaos—the reversal of Genesis 1 and the effect of Genesis 3 as ultimately reflected in the Book of Revelation. Even if we do live in the security of the prison, individually we can die from infection. The prison metaphor really represents the bondage that we are all in regardless of where we are: We are all trapped by circumstances whether we admit it or not. No one is safe nowhere at no time: Death is a clear and present danger for us all—and that’s what zombies represent. Moreover, zombies question whether we’re really free at all (individualism) or are we all the victims of circumstance (determinism)?

Christianity is represented in The Walking Dead throughout. We see theological questions raised about theodicy (“justice of God”), faith, hope, destiny and purpose. Hershel is a Christian man—with wisdom, grace, compassion, guts and practicality. In season 2, Hershel asks Rick if he believes. Rick answers that the last time he prayed to God about his son, he walked out of the church to the sound of a hunter accidently shooting his son and nearly killing him. Many of us have struggled with the unfairness, evil and hurt that life in the world can bring us. Rick and his confliction and lostness (is he a farmer or a cop?) represents this acutely in TWD.

In the episode Internment, Hershel raises the leitmotif of destiny, purpose (reason) and meaning with Rick. He tells Rick that no matter how bad the chaos, destruction and death, there has to be a reason for it, a higher purpose (meaning)—and that we need to persevere. Zombies represent the relentless pursuit of evil leading to death. Or as Sherwood puts it in his song Beauty of Annihilation: “They’re all around me. They’re waiting for me . . . . Descending. Unrelenting”. Perseverance is another theme in zombie culture—as reflected in Sherwood’s song Abracadavre: “I can’t give in. I won’t give in”. Hershel says that, no matter what, we must go on in life and hope for a better afterlife.

Indeed, meaning is yet another idea that The Walking Dead raises. So what if we survive the apocalypse, is there any meaning to living like this—killing, stealing and scavenging just to survive? Many people ask this of their 9-5 job. Are we any better than the zombies? Or do zombies actually have it better by not being conscious nor feeling any pain? These are questions that The Zombie Invasion of Philosophy in Philosophy Now asks. Sherwood asks in one of his songs “Where Are We Going [in life]?” . . . .

Hershel also represents hope and faith in The Walking Dead as noted in the Talking Dead. In Internment, we see Heshel’s courage and strength as he treats the viral patients and watches them die and change into zombies. Darrell comments that Hershel is a “tough sombitch”—to which Hershel replies with wise confidence “I am”. Hershel has a deep love and compassion. He hates death and killing because he is a life-affirming believer and “healer”. In season 2, he held out hope for a cure to the zombie virus in relation to his loved ones in the barn. Nonetheless, as he sits on his prison bed, after a long shift of rounds, he opens his Bible to read it—but breaks down and can’t.

Savage in TD wonders if Hershel is losing his faith and if the zombie apocalypse has finally worn him down. Being a scholar of biblical wisdom, I don’t see it that way. I see parallels with Job—a man who is in an acute faith crisis because of all the chaos and suffering life has thrown at him. Yet he never gives up on God and what he believes. He doubts, questions and rails on God but he perseveres. Job and Hershel are not in denial about the chaos, suffering and death they are experiencing in the real world. Hershel and Job are realists who are intelligent enough to understand the issues—but brave enough to keep on going. I view Job as a “tough sombitch”.

I also understand the problems that people and our society have with Christianity. But I am unwilling to surrender to the darkness that I view has only partial truth and is ultimately a “dead end”. Intuitively zombie culture knows that there’s got to be something more to life in the material world—and that there has to be some kind of “after life”. Or as Sherwood puts it in his song Where Are We Going?: “Where do we go [after life]?” I think that there is a clearer and better explanation for reality that is not limited by the material world but is found in metaphysics—and specifically the Christian Faith.

As a Christian interpreter of zombie culture, I see zombies as a reflection of our deep internal struggles with the big questions and issues of life and death. To quote Sherwood again: “How do we know?” This question inherently raises issues about epistemology: How much we can know and how do we know what we know? . . . .

Essentially I think that zombies are an intuitive reflection of the Fall in Genesis 3—divinely revealed in Scripture (how we know)—but existentially (theologically) experienced by all human beings (reality). What zombies are really all about is Original Sin that brought chaos and death into the world. Zombies reflect our sinfulness and the ugliness from within (low self-esteem based on moral wrongs) and without (chaos, death and destruction in the world). They represent a “living hell” of our own making. Zombies reflect our obsession with death and deepest anxieties and doubts about where we go after we die. The Book of Revelation calls this the “Second Death” or the “living dead”. Unlike Revelation, there is no Gospel of Zombies—just death, destruction and meaninglessness. Zombies are a “dead end”. But the Book of Revelation promises a “new heaven and a new earth” with a resurrected body and eternal purpose.

My bottomline analysis is that zombies are really all about our intuitive need for a Savior and eternal life. We are in a living hell of our own making—and we can’t kill, steal, scavenge or think ourselves out of it—and we know it! We have an intuitive knowledge of this truth vis-à-vis the Fall of Genesis 3—and that is why we are so anxious and hopeless in a dark and ugly world represented by the prevalence of zombie culture.

The anxiety of who we really are, and how we are a part of the problem (including our denial), is reflected in Sherwood’s song Always Running: “I’m running from the something that I’m coming from . . . . and becoming one means I’m running from all I am”. In my view, the something that we are always running from is Original Sin.

The church, while historically very flawed, is really the community that people are looking for—not the prison of our own making in The Walking Dead. It is the only real community who together will survive the apocalypse eternally. Because even if we survive the apocalypse in the material world—we all have to die—and then what? The church is “living living” that transcends our historical and sinful nature by faith—full of meaning and purpose in this world—who will rise again from the dead to the resurrection of eternal life.

This we see in Hershel in The Walking Dead. Hershel dies in the most violent way with a smile on his face and peace in his heart—knowing that he had lived a meaningful and purposeful life with full assurance of the resurrection unto eternal life. He lived and died this way all because of his Christian Faith based on the atoning death and resurrection of Christ.

Jesus created us and wants to redeem us. Jesus, like Hershel, died in the most violent way in the context of the evil of religious, cultural and political chaos. The ugly irony of the cross brings sense out of senselessness, purpose out of evil, clarity out of confusion, order out of chaos, beauty out of annihilation, atonement for sin, and life out of death. Jesus said that “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. Jesus is the Answer people are really looking for as reflected in the questions and issues of zombie culture.