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June 12, 2010


Matt Mikalatos

Hey Greg--

Yup, I'm nice. And no need to apologize for tirades. As it happens I'm a fan of well-written tirades and to be honest I enjoyed reading yours.

Reading between the lines I gather that you did not enjoy my book, but I hope that you at least enjoyed disliking it.

A couple of quick notes to protect the innocent:

1) I'm 99% sure the Vonnegut reference wasn't generated by my publicist... probably because Vonnegut's name isn't going to sell many books to the mainstream Christian crowd.

2) Western Seminary is an excellent institution, where I never once was assigned C.S. Lewis, Don Miller or George Barna for reading. It's a very serious, traditional seminary with a broad amount of serious theological reading and all the requisite languages and so on. So please don't think that what you dislike about my book need reflect on Western or the excellent professors there.

I do think that you may have misunderstood a few things about the intent, "message" and even proscriptives of the book, but I fear that could easily be the fault of my poor writing. I've debated offering to dialogue about those things, but if I hated the book as much as you did, I'd rather be done with it than discuss it... nevertheless, I'm open to that if you think it would be interesting.

In any case, I'm thankful for the time you put in to read a book that was infuriating you, and that you further took the time to write such a thoughtful review. I really do appreciate it, and I hope that if you're ever in Portland you'll let me buy you a beverage of your choice and we can hang out and talk about something other than Imaginary Jesus, as I think you're a person I would enjoy getting to know.


Greg Horton

Matt, thanks for your more than charitable response. I'm willing to admit that communication is an iffy thing, and as a writer, I've certainly been misunderstood more than once. I don't mind discussing the book, as I believe some of the ideas you raise are good ones and well worth discussing. If there is a point you wish to take issue with first, I'll allow you the first salvo. Seems only fair since I went after your book with fangs bared. As to your points, glad to hear the publicist didn't generate the blurb. Haven't heard back from Michael yet, but if he's responsible, I'll send him a tirade as well. Vonnegut wouldn't generate much interest with Xians, and that may be part of the problem--a general lack of familiarity with the brilliant writers in American lit. I brought up Barna because you gave him a cameo, and, well, it's published by Barna. As a Xian, many years ago, I was pretty sure the man did far more harm than good for the Church, and even as an outsider now, I stand by that assessment. I would enjoy a drink with you in Portland, and as I spend a good part of my time as a wine writer, you'll know my drink of choice. Peace.

Matt Mikalatos

There's an excellent winery (I'm told the wine is good but not excellent, but the winery itself is gorgeous) in the Gorge not far from us that would be a great place to go. And afterward, if it's the right season we could go to the Maryhill Museum of Art, which has some interesting Rodin pieces in the permanent collection, and the rotating collections have recently included Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol.

I agree with what you say regarding Christians and literature... and I find that some who have read Vonnegut either don't understand or don't find it enjoyable because they don't completely agree with his worldview, which is really too bad since his books are excellent. But then again, lots of Christians don't read literature at all, even serious literature by other Christians. I've met very few people who have read the spectacular novel "Silence" by Shusaku Endo. And the number of Christians who have read "The Brothers Karamazov" is likewise slight, which is simply baffling given that it's perhaps the most perfect Christian novel of all time. Of course we're talking in generalities here... it's more reflective of American Christian culture generally than of individuals within it.

Okay, I think I'll start with the main thing, which is the "message" of the book. You seem to imply that the point of the book is a proscriptive "here's how you get to know Jesus... mystical evangelicalism." There are two issues here:

1) I hope the book has more subtlety that you saw in it. It makes sense that you would read it as a typical Christian book of didactic direction, as the weight of the entire genre of modern Christian fiction would suggest that is the case, and certainly there are regular ham-fisted speeches by the characters. A couple of specific examples where I think the assumption of an agenda created a shallow reading would be a) my "treatment of Open Theism" and b) the assumption that the apostles Peter and John were meant to be functioning purely as the apostles Peter and John. Open Theism was, of course, completely dismissed in the book. But neither Reformed Theology nor Arminianism were really given a fair shake, either. And I think it would be right to refer to the treatment of all three positions as lacking in theological and philosophical rigor, which was, in fact, the point. Once you get to the popular level in Christianity, very little theological rigor is applied toward discussing disparate points of view and can be as subjectively and casually decided (and then fervently defended) as a downhill sledding race. The point there was not to champion a certain position, but rather to paint a picture of the common evangelical engagement with the question. In addition, it's a topic that gets (in my opinion) far too much "air time" in Christianity, since I believe it has very little to do with being able to interact with the living Christ. It tends -- at its worst -- to distract from Christian living, not to encourage it. Not to say that one would necessarily get all that from a cursory reading of the text, but rather to say that the assumption that the book is a straightforward "typical" Christian book would preclude such a reading. B) Similarly, your comment that "believe it or not" there isn't an apostle Peter to guide us through the maze of imaginary Jesuses leads me to believe that you saw Peter functioning in the text as the "true" apostle Peter (i.e. as some sort of heavenly messenger or embodied form of the person Peter himself). I think the text has some pretty clear indications that this is not, in fact, the case, and that Peter, John, Mary and Daisy are functioning in a different capacity than the "imaginary" or the "real" (in the embodied "historical Peter" sense). Again, I think it would require that one approaches the text trusting that the book has at least some subtlety to even see this.

These are just a couple of examples to say that the assumption that the message of the book is "Here is how to find the real Jesus" is based in a reading of the text that doesn't take into account that there may be underlying and even opposite points at work in the symbology and narrative. I would personally say that the intended message is a question, not an answer: "Are you interacting with the real Jesus?" The book is designed to leave the reader with questions... if I'm not following the real Jesus, how do I find him? You mention that the book would not be helpful for a seeker, as it doesn't give a straightforward answer to this question, and this is probably the most common complaint I'm hearing from the evangelical community. But of course that's the point of the book. I simply don't think that the "real Jesus" is best found in a book of Christian fiction by some upstart young writer. I believe that Christ and the Holy Spirit truly exist, and the book is designed to leave people in a place of desiring to know Christ, and then trusting that Christ can pick up the conversation from there. This, of course, opens things up the charges of Evangelical Mysticism, and I can't deny that I am, in fact, a mystic (assuming we're using, say, Evelyn Underhill's defintion). All that to say that the book has a great deal more to do with who Jesus isn't than who he is. It's meant to shake people out of their unexamined assumptions and beliefs to say, "Look at the real Jesus. Does he really look like what you think he does?" (Sidenote: I've gotten several unhappy comments that I made Jesus too ugly. The irony of this statement just puts me over the edge. It's so fascinating what we've imagined him to look like.)

2) What appears to be proscriptive in the book is sometimes merely descriptive. This is a great disadvantage of writing in the style I have, where what is historical reality and what is fanciful or altered reality can be difficult to discern. So, for instance, meeting an atheist who is exploring Christianity and seems to be on the path to Christ is not some statement of evangelical preference for the state of humanity, but simply my experience when meeting with the PSU atheists. The story of my wife's healing is not some apologetic for the presence of miracles, but a simple retelling of what actually happened. It gets most complex, of course, in places like the Labyrinth, where I'm using a pretty healthy does of symbolism and altered reality to try to communicate an actual experience in a language that the reader can understand. But I will say that what happens in the center of the Labyrinth (not the scenes leading up to or immediately following) is a straightforward account of my actual experience. I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to get out and go to a prayer labyrinth and they will find the real Jesus, I'm sharing that this one time that happened to me.

Anyway, I'm sure that's more than enough to jumpstart our conversation. I'll try to mention a couple of the more minor points as we go along, but there's a start.

Greg Horton

Matt, thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm up against a deadline today, but I'll read this before True Blood airs (can't miss the first episode of the new season!), and try to respond before the finals game is over. All of that to say, I have a few hours to get two stories written, but I wanted to acknowledge your comment and assure you that I'll digest it and respond. BTW, Silence has always been on my top 10 list, even (especially) as a non-Christian. I've found two Japanese authors that genuinely write transformative literature: Endo and Ishiguro, and if you haven't read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, it's on my top 10 of the first decade of the 00's list.

kristen c

So...please invite me to at least sit at a neighboring table at the wine bar in Portland when you and Matt (and you must invite Donald Miller, too) meet up. I will just eavesdrop.

Greg Horton

kc, of course you and Aaron are invited. Not sure about Mr. Miller. So far, I like Matt better.


Where to begin. Open Theism. After reading your explanation, it makes much more sense. The difficulty I had, apparently, was in deciding at which point in the book the narrator "you" was being a foil or a sincere seeker. You seem to paint him as a foil on the sledding run, but I didn't get a context clue as to when you were switching roles. Fair enough. I'll happily conceded my own misreading there. However, I have to take issue with this: "It tends -- at its worst -- to distract from Christian living, not to encourage it." At its worst, it does, but for any believer, a philosophical position on what God can know and do is what shapes the way she views/interacts with the world. They aren't so easily dismissed. And you realize by now that I'm fairly certain interaction with "the living Christ" is a construct, not a genuine experience, but that is a metaphysical difference we'll have to live with for the sake of this discussion.

As for the apostles, I took them to function at three levels: the men (women) themselves, the Scriptures, and personal mentors in believers' own lives. The first is fine for a whimsical story. The second is problematic for reasons related to hermeneutics, and the third is, I think, an interesting if complex model. I think discipleship in any endeavor requires flesh and blood examples who can carry an apprentice forward, but the modeling has to look like something or someone, and at that point we get to the heart of the problem, which seems to be "who is the real Jesus", as he would be the anthropological model for mentoring. It's a question left unanswered, and is, I think unanswerable.

Shaking them out of unexamined assumptions. I can agree on that point, and as for the via negativa, I do think you do a good job of naming the imaginary jesuses out there, or at least as many as space will permit, but again, I'll need to take issue with what appears to be semantic gamesmanship. "Are you interacting with the real Jesus" seems a question in need of an answer as well as an explanation of its underlying assumption, to wit, that someone can actually know the real jesus, and that he would recognize him when he met him. If I don't know what/whom I'm looking for, how will I know when I've found him? It's the questions mysticism can't seem to answer, and mystics are typically left with an experience that tends to make them kinder (and that is very important) if no closer to being able to explain to apprentices what it is they should be looking for. Mysticism by its very nature is utterly subjective. There are practices that could be called objective praxis that appear to return positive results, but absent a definitive criteria that leads a person to understand when she has in fact moved forward on the road toward whatever metaphysical telos it is she desires, she is left to construct her own subjective criteria, and that opens the door to the creation of as many imaginary christs as she can generate. That was the irony I spoke of in the review.

In fact, I appreciate that you made Jesus ugly. It was a nice touch, and I should have mentioned it in the review. Seems more fitting. On this point we certainly agree.

I took both the labyrinth and the healing of your wife as straightforward narrative, as you intended. Growing up Pentecostal exposed me to things I can't explain, so I take stories like this with very little skepticism, and try to maintain a healthy respect for the redemptive side of religion. Also, I didn't want to pick on the personal side of your story, as you were honest enough to share and it isn't for me to say whether or not life has qualified you through an acceptable amount of pain to be angry with god, on the outs, whatever.

That will probably move things along. I appreciate you wandering over and interacting, graciously.

Matt Mikalatos


I just bought 'Never Let Me Go' at your recommendation... my only prior exposure to Ishiguro was the Anthony Hopkins movie "Remains of the Day." I wasn't a fan, and I'm afraid it prejudiced me against trying Ishiguro. But if you love Endo and say Ishiguro is worthy, then I'm in. I just recently read "Peace Like A River" by Leif Enger which I was afraid was crawling into my top ten of all time until the ending, at which point I collapsed into a heap of disappointment. But it has been sticking with me... bothering me, really. So I might re-read the ending and see if I missed something or took it the wrong way.

Is your top ten on your blog somewhere? I'm guessing you may have some more I would like to try....

Matt Mikalatos

Okay, I'm having commenting issues. I wrote my response and saw it was two notes later than I thought... I'll try to put some more thoughts out there when I get a chance later this evening. Looking forward to the dialogue....

Matt Mikalatos

Kristen -- Hey, any friend of Greg's is a friend of mine. I hope you'll talk when we're at wine and not just listen, as that might get creepy after a while.

Okay, yes, I agree that it's necessary to address questions of providence, and that it certainly alters one's worldview and picture of God, depending on where you fall on the question. It seems that today the question is getting a bit obsessive, and reformed theology is beginning to be used as a test of orthodoxy in some circles. I think that's an unnecessary extreme, and it troubles me. The fact that it's not spelled out clearly enough in scripture to make a clear conclusion that all reasonable people would agree, "that's what the text says," makes me think that it's probably not as big a deal as we sometimes make of it. For me personally, I'm more concerned about the fact that regardless of which position you take, God has an uncomfortably large capacity for human suffering. Whether he's allowing it for his glory or to provide greater leeway for free agents or whatever it may be, that's a question that troubles me. And of course, here is where the atheist has a very elegant solution, because if there's no god then he's not responsible for human suffering.

Ugh. The only thing I dislike more than discovering that someone passionately hates my book is realizing that this same someone is actually a really good reader. Crap. Yes, well done on the apostle question. The only comment I would make (and this doubtless contributes to the hermeneutics question) is that for me they are representing not merely the text of scripture itself, but the Spirit inspired text, by which I mean the "living and active" scripture. Give me some more detail about my weak hermeneutics. I'm guessing that we have some different philosophical ideals related to hermeneutics, but I'd like to hear more about the issues you see there so I'm not making assumptions about what those differences are.

I'm sure this will come as no surprise to you, but for me anthropological modeling is not based purely on mystical experience, but is done within the boundaries of scripture and the church community. Yes, this opens an entire other enormous discussion, but let me sidestep that for a minute to say that mystics (prophets, whatever... and obviously I'm referring to Christian mystics here, but we can talk about the broader mystic tradition if you like) are meant to be under authority in the church, and their mystical experiences must also be examined in light of scripture. Yes, mysticism is subjective, by definition... I don't think, by the way, that mysticism (in the "dramatic" dreams and visions, etc. sense) is necessary for everyone. I've plenty of friends who are followers of Christ who would completely freak out at the thought that such a thing was necessary or even possible. But, in my understanding, one role of the Church is to keep one's mystical journey from going off the rails into the territory of the purely imagined. And I think those things need to stand up to examination, as Peter's vision on the rooftop was carefully examined by the church leadership before they adopted it as authentic. I can practically hear your objections to this already. But, of course, I think that Christ is real and can direct these things.

I'll gladly grant, by the way, that I don't think anyone can fully know Christ in this life, and that we will always be working through misconceptions of him. The apostles certainly believed that we wouldn't know him fully "until he appears." I couldn't figure out a way to show in the book that I still had misconceptions of Christ without making the reader feel like the entire journey was starting over again. But I probably should have worked harder at that.

If there are things from the personal side of my story that you want to pick on, please feel free. I didn't share anything there that makes me nervous, and I have thick skin. Because I am Greek.

Okay, I told my wife twenty minutes ago I would head up to bed, and now I should do it. Talk to you soon.

Greg Horton

Matt, I did a sort of list a while back but can't remember which post it was. It was more sketchy than top 10. I think I use the term more euphemistically for "you ought to read this." I do remember Ishiguro, Kavalier & Clay, and the amazing Oryx and Crake being in the 00's. For the 90's, I can only remember two: Empire Falls, but it was the "last great American novel of the century." Think that was NY Times Book Review, but I could be wrong. It's not far from the truth in terms of the book's power though. The other was Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and anyone who takes religion, theodicy, and cross-cultural communication seriously must read it. At one point I had Gilead on the list, and I still think it's amazing, but I'm less drawn to it now, for obvious reasons. The single best thing I read last year, and it certainly makes any top 10 of the 00's was Lev Grossman's The Magicians. That's a pretty good list off the top of my head. And it seems we've found another point of agreement: Remains of the Day blows hard. Really hard. It's like the producers took a great British/Japanese writer, and instead of doing Kurosawa, they opted for Merchant Ivory. Blech. Anyway, been a long day. I'll respond to the latest tomorrow.

Matt Mikalatos

Have you read "Carter Beats the Devil"? I read it before Kavalier and Clay (which I also enjoyed) but I prefer Carter. I loved "The Sparrow" but thought the sequel was mediocre. I've got the Magicians on my list, and Gilead sitting by my bed. The big problem with Gilead being that I start it, get through about ten pages and then wake up in the morning. I don't ever remember closing the book or what exactly was happening when I fell asleep. I think it may have to wait for a vacation or something for me to give it the attention it needs.

Since you clearly like a little sci-fi, have you read any Gene Wolfe? He's one of my favorite authors, and is right up there with Borges when it comes to weird fiction, at least in my world.

Matt Mikalatos

I'm a huge Kurosawa fan, by the way. The first movie of his I saw was "Dreams" and I'm still a little creeped out by foxes and long tunnels. Also scary dogs that bark at the end of long tunnels. When my most recent daughter was born and wasn't sleeping at night I made her watch all the old samurai movies with me, and she seemed to like them quite a bit. I have all daughters and I have to train up someone to go to samurai movies with me when I am old.

Greg Horton

First the books, then the theology. I read Wolfe when I was a teenager. His New Sun tetralogy is my only experience with him, as it was published when I was in high school and just after. Having grown up on Burroughs, Howard, Heinlein, and Moorcock, it was right up my alley. Read nothing of his since. I gave up sci-fi many years ago for "serious" novels, but have since regained my sanity. I still count Donaldson's Ill-Earth saga among my all-time favs, but the newest trilogy failed to capture my imagination. I have not read Carter Beats the Devil, but I will this summer. Thanks for the recommendation. I have very little leisure reading time these days--teaching nine sections spring and fall and three in the summer fills my days. I'm currently working through 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. It is sweet and funny, but only a serious theology/philosophy/academia nerd could love it.

As for daughters, I have two. My biological daughter is 27 now, and my step-daughter is 15. I got her on Radiohead and Ryan Adams when she was still young, but I haven't been able to influence her movie choices as much. Alas.

And now, providence. I leaned toward Open Theism when I was still in the camp, primarily because I think Reformed theology is only logically consistent because it relies on a circular and closed system. Introduce questions from outside the assumptions and you're labeled a heretic; you are absolutely correct that it is being used as a litmus test these days. (I suspect the SBC will continue to splinter along TULIP/Baptist lines as a result, and I see that as a good thing. Monolithic entities that seek political power are troubling to me, and the SBC is the current worst about it.) Arminianism was initially appealing, but it seemed to flounder on the soft-determinism spectrum. If god knows the future, then the future is still determined, so Arminianism has a nicer god and the same fatalism as Reformed theology. Open Theism avoids both horns of the dilemma, but theists are incredibly uncomfortable with it, primarily because, as you say in the book, omniscience is a necessary attribute of god.

As to that, I should say that I'm not sure god has necessary attributes. The term is, I think, Augustinian, and I'm pretty sure he did more to ruin the movement than anyone until Aquinas. Christians of those centuries would have done better to read Aristotle and leave Augustine to his philandering. God is a concept, and I don't mean to say he doesn't exist; I'm not an atheist. As a concept, whatever attributes he may possess are unknowable to us, so we ascribe attributes to him. Cynically, I would say they are personal preferences, but part of me acknowledges that some believers are more devout than that. However, the Hebrew text is mixed in its understanding of YHWH's power, knowledge, and character; that's because the Tanakh is a midrash, not a univocal document meant to communicate doctrine. Still, I left theism behind completely, so open theism no longer interests me as much, as I no longer believe god is personal, assuming he exists at all. I am a skeptic in the classical sense of the word; I suspend judgment about things I don't/can't know.

Why I think the providence question is important though, is because I believe people orient themselves to the world and take responsibility for their actions and group actions based upon their understanding of providence. No phrase is more devoid of epistemic content than "God is in control." One of my favorite classroom experiments is to parse this phrase. What is he in control of? (I'll leave out natural evil for now, but if he's in control of the weather, he has some explaining to do--Aceh helped usher me out of the faith.) Students typically acknowledge that he is not in control of their choices. Fine. So how do most events, disasters, violent acts, perverse acts, and meaningless, tragic deaths come about? By personal choices. So what then is he controlling?

Apostles/Hermeneutics. I don't think your hermeneutics are the problem. The problem is the application of hermeneutics to the Church's practice systemically. Luther did more harm than good when he handed the Bible to the masses. The ability of the average believer to read Peter and understand what is meant in the difficult passages is zero. It's only slightly better in the ambiguous passages. Readers tend to do better with moral didactic passages: don't be a dick, for example. Allowing that morality/ethics are shaped by particular texts does violence to the text overall. Witness, for example, the utter disregard for the Sermon on the Mount among nearly all Christians, and obsessive desire to control gay sex at the legislative level. It's a combination of justifying my own acts and being completely devoid of compassion with actions toward which I have no inclination. But beyond the moral/ethical problem is the hermeneutical problem of getting at what an entire book or sacred text actually means. As for trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us, so does every other denomination that splintered from its original church over issues where they sincerely felt the HS was leading. If the message was so consistent, we'd still have a radically loving, sharing, pacifist, eschatological community living separately from but loving actively within the communities in which they are embedded. I think you tend to trust the ability of the believer to hear the Holy Spirit; I don't--nor do I think god speaks. What could he possibly be saying other than what Jesus said in Matt. 5-7: don't kill, don't cheat, don't use violence, love sacrificially, etc. If you have time, click on "the experience(ing) of god, final" in the right margin. I address this topic more thoroughly there.

Mysticism. No problem with it, and again, I prefer mystics to power Christians and to pentecostals, but assuming the church has the ability to keep experience from running off the rails brings you back to the question of how they know what running off the rails looks like. They still have to provide a satisfactory answer to who the real jesus is. And as for lining up with Scripture, I think I address the idea of a god who speaks within the context of a community whose canon is closed in that same blog entry. Not to be unkind, but if the canon is closed, there really is nothing more to be said. If all utterances are measured by a closed canon, then god can't help but repeat himself. (Allow me some snark not directed at you.) I'd prefer he spend his time cleaning up messes rather than reminding Christians of what it is they are already supposed to know.

Peter's vision. This one does strike me as an indictment of the Church universal's bad hermeneutics. If they compared his vision to the Torah, there is no way they allowed for that interpretation. However, because they believed that people could still receive new revelations, they were willing to receive the vision as genuine. This, of course, creates another problem for your contention that god is consistent in his dealings with us. This is the second time in the NT that parts of the Torah are shown to be plain wrong. Jesus amending it with his "You have heard it said...but I say to you," is one clear case. Peter's vision is certainly the second. There may be more. Within the church today, attempting to receive a new revelation that contradicts passages of Scripture (as if Scripture doesn't do that on its own) would be considered heretical. Never mind that the text ought to be contradictory because it's composed of passages written by different people with different ideas about the nature, work, and character of god.

I will leave your personal story alone, but i was troubled by the dissolving of the tension in the question of the miscarriage. You end up saying the question seemed petty in light of meeting Jesus. It's your story and your experience, so I'll allow for that, but there are other horrific incidents that can't dissolve into resignation. I won't be accusatory here, as I'm sure you believe that Rwanda, holocaust, child rape, etc., are not suddenly revealed to be petty concerns. Theodicy must be rigorous, and I find that it isn't within theism. It's the primary reason I'm no longer a theist. But I'll save suffering for another post. This is way too long already.

Matt Mikalatos


Time got away from me a bit today, but I do have a half-written reply that I'll try to finish off tomorrow. It says something like, "Blah blah blah I'm a Christian" only much, much longer. Hope you and yours are doing well....


Greg Horton

Matt, not a problem, and btw, that was funny.

dr dobson

Matt--I've really enjoyed your participation here. In honor of your Greekness, I'm ordering two orders of saganaki at dinner tonight.

Greg Horton

dr. d, i read that twice looking for snark. matt, this is high praise of a sort from dobson. he's usually not so nice. you must have won him over. and dobson, if I never told you, i've had a couple bottles of the petite syrah you recommended. it remains one of my favorites available here in okc. their cab was pretty damn good too.


May I get that petite syrah recommendation? I'm enjoying the dialogue here, too.

Greg Horton


Sent from my iPhone

Matt Mikalatos

Dr. D-- Thanks! I'm enjoying being here, too. Although I wish I was wherever you are that you can order saganaki.

And now for the comment that is far too long and should likely be edited for length, content and various other things:

I think you could throw a dart to choose any book of short stories by Wolfe without being disappointed. I'm very fond of the recent "Pirate Freedom!" (which is sort of liking reading a pulp pirate adventure written by a master author) as well as the Wizard Knight books. I just picked up George Saunders' "Pastoralia" and read the first story. He's a little long-winded in milking the same joke sometimes, but I'm excited about the rest of the book, nonetheless. In non-fiction I'm working through "The Devil's Highway" which is quite good, and actually treats the immigration debate as a human issue rather than a political one. Which, by the way, is an issue that completely baffles me... why is it that evangelicals will fight for hours about Piper vs. Wright and their views on justification and the same pastors have nothing to say about the immigration law in Arizona? I don't get it. Any insights?

Ha. My first memory of Donaldson was my dad finishing one of the Ill-Earth books and throwing it across the room. He hated that the main character could never admit to being a "hero." I was maybe... ten years old? I read them later and liked them pretty well, but was probably still too young to really get the complexity of the human relationships.

What do you teach? Philosophy or theology I would guess, though literature seems like it would be an easy fit, too. I have three daughters... 9 and 7 years and a 10 month old. The big break in the middle is the miscarriage season, and the big break after the 10 month old is hopefully us being done having kids, though we're considering adopting eventually.

I agree with you completely about Reformed theology, and I'm sure if anyone ever wanted to murder me they could just shout that I'm not Reformed at a seminary gathering and they would burn me soon after I recanted.

I don't think it's necessarily cynical to say that people project their desired attributes onto God (or their concept of God). Certainly there is easy evidence for that on an anthropological and historical level. Even looking back at paintings of Christ in the 1950's to the "impassive" Christ and comparing it to pictures of Jesus today taking care of the homeless. Or running alongside some kid to make sure he doesn't fall of his bike. Or maybe that was an angel? I might be confusing my Christian kitsch. The question is whether he (assumption of existence here) reveals his character and attributes would be a piece of it, too, right? Because if he does, then there's some obligation to take what he says into account and compare our projected desires for his character/attributes with his self-disclosure.

Of course I do think the scripture is univocal, but I'm sure you've already seen any argument I would come up with on that, and vice versa. Not to say that I don't think there aren't contradictions (of a certain sort). What I mean is, I don't think that the Eastern philosophy of Judaism and early Christianity are always well served by using essentially Greek thought processes to dissect them, if that makes sense. I think that some of the things we get most hung up on are issues that would make the early believers shrug. I know when I worked with Chinese believers, if someone brought up free will vs. predestination they would simply say, "Both are clearly true." And there you have it. But that sort of incompatibility doesn't sit well in the Western context, and we need it all charted out.

I'm interested in that you mention multiple players in the historical development of Christianity and say they did more harm than good... what would be your picture of what would have been a better course? What I mean is, what should it look like today if guys like Augustine weren't screwing it up?

Yes, Christians should focus more on the sermon on the mount and the teaching of Christ in general. And there seems to be some misunderstanding on a very basic level that says that Christians are meant to be some sort of legislative force for the morality of unbelievers, which is probably our heritage from the whole mess of European church/state still working itself out. I do think that both Christ's teachings and his character are clear in scripture and sufficient to build a basic understanding of who he is and what his followers ought to be doing. Of course, he wouldn't even claim someone who ignored the sermon on the mount as his follower, so there's a whole other definitional issue there, but you pretty quickly come up against the 'no true scotsman defense' on the philosophical side. But that doesn't change that Christ had a very stringent accounting of who was truly following him, and that it had very little to do with creed and a great deal to do with action. Oh, and I agree with your description of what the church should look like... I haven't given up on them, yet, and that was part of why I wrote my book, in the hopes that it would shake people out of their misconceptions of Christ and that they would hear his voice. Because of course I think that he does speak, and yes, I know that was one of the most infuriating things about the book for you, that I said just listen to Jesus and do what he says.

I couldn't find your God speaking in a closed canon community post. I'll dig around for it, though. Sounds interesting. I don't see why a closed canon would prevent other communications from one who has always used diverse communications in the past. At least, according to the closed canon, that's what he says. Ha.

As for the theodicy questions, and as it relates to our miscarriage vs. Rwandan massacres, you're absolutely right. The scale and even nature of the evil in those cases are so far removed from one another to practically make them different topics. I don't believe that theology proper has an answer to the theodicy question that is sufficient, because it always comes down to some guess as to the motives of God in why he causes, allows, incites or ignores evil and suffering. And then we're back to projecting what we think is the best answer, and (in my opinion) the scripture's description of why this is seems fragmentary and only addressed tangentially. For what it's worth, here's my view. I believe that God is loving, good and powerful (I hope I am not surprising anyone too much with my sudden swerve from what you would expect a Christian to say). Like any good skeptic, I'm not sure that his motives are clear in allowing evil and suffering to exist on the scale that they do. Since he's omniscient, I assume I may never understand his motives in many things unless he himself explains that to me. I do believe, though, that the eschatalogical end to all suffering and grief is part of his answer to us, a sort of "I'm going to take care of this" promise to us. What that should mean for a Christian is hope about the future (God will bring justice) and a commitment to be part of transforming the world today by confronting and removing evil in the contemporary world, essentially functioning as God's representatives in that sense (of course this breaks down when we start to talk about, for instance, suffering caused by cataclysmic weather... but I'm referring mostly to counterbalancing and eliminating suffering caused by human and/or spiritual agents. Although I think that Christians should be involved in "clean up" from natural disaster as well). All this requires, on some level, setting aside the question of God's motivation and saying that I trust that he cares and is going to take care of all this. Which is not a satisfactory philosophical statement, I know. But on a relational and practical level I think it works. Of course if Christians are wrestling with your excellent recommendation "don't be a dick" it's hard to see how they could go beyond that to being agents of eliminating human suffering in the world, but nevertheless, I think that's what they are called to do. So we should all hold them to it, if they really claim to follow Christ.

I'm sure you saw in the book that the emotional reality of this for me came out through the story of Mary and Martha when Lazarus is dead. When they ask Christ why he didn't intervene to prevent the death of someone he loved, he simply told them that he was the resurrection and the life and asked if they believed.

Then, of course, I meet Christians who couldn't look a GLBT person in the eye and say, "God loves you as much as he loves me" and I just want to get out my butt-kicking boots. I should mention, by the way (unless I already did... this comment is far too long) that the basic confusion in the Christian community-- especially those who think that politics is the answer to the advance of the Kingdom--about moral proscriptives and who those apply to is strange. Clearly the morality lined out in scripture is meant (depending on when/where we're talking) to apply either in a theocracy or within the community of faith. To try to enforce it on people who are not in relationship with God not only makes no sense but is futile.

Okay, I'm starting to feel some good Christian guilt about the length here. I will close by saying that I thought it was really funny that you disliked how Imaginary Jesus assumes all Christians are at the junior high level, but that you also think it was a mistake to give them access to the scriptures.

It's interesting to me, too, Greg, that you still think very clearly like a pastor. I can see that your concern with theology is often how it effects people and their relationships and you are trying to move people toward a better way of living and treating one another. I respect that a great deal.

Okay, off to do some work for the day. Looking forward to your thoughts. Dr. D, would love to hear your thoughts as well...

Matt Mikalatos

Oh hey, I forgot to mention Percival Everett. An amazing novelist with great, deep philosophical content. Check out "Walk Me to the Distance" "Erasure" and "Wounded"... those are three of my favorites. Erasure is probably his most popular one, and I think Wounded is the most powerful.

Matt Mikalatos

Speaking of God having some explaining to do if he controls the weather: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/ondeadline/post/2010/06/lightning-in-ohio-destroys-62-foot-high-statue-of-jesus/1


Matt, regarding immigration, I worked at an immigration firm for two years, and my take is that U.S. evangelicals on immigration can be divided into the following camps:

* Groups that are more religiously than politically conservative, and welcome immigration as a way to convert Mexican and Latin American Catholics

* Groups that are more politically than religiously conservative, and want to slam the borders shut and deport anyone who is unlawfully present

* Groups that don't believe their efforts are well served in the political arena, or else are only focused on abortion.

I don't have statistics available, but it seems that the third group is by far the largest, at least judging by how rarely amicus briefs for either side in immigration cases are signed by prominent evangelical groups, compared to non-sectarian groups, Catholic organizations and mainline Protestant groups.

It's been my experience that most evangelicals (not all, of course) who bother to talk about social justice put a higher priority on keeping harmony in the congregation and not offending the weaker brother than on getting laws right in society at large. In practice, their silence ensures that the authoritarian Fox News watchers who want to deport everyone with brown skin and four names are the voices that outsiders hear. I think this is a big part of why professional advocates of immigration reform tend to ignore evangelicals as potential allies--there may be a lot of Fred Clarks out there, but nobody has heard of them.

Devil's Highway is good; if you ever need to research a new or proposed law, AILA's advocacy page is a good place for analysis by immigration lawyers who actually know how to communicate (most of the time). They have an obvious dog in the hunt in that more immigration means more money coming in for visas, adjustment and natz cases. But most of the real zealots for reform are coming from a background in handling lots of deportation cases (which the kinder, gentler ICE calls "removal proceedings"), which bring in more heartache than funding. They're good folks, and it's a useful place to start.

dr dobson


I had a nice, fancy response drafted here, but somehow lost it to cyberspace gremlins. Oh well. Alas, I’ll try again below.

I am serious about the saganaki--I will order two helpings of it from The Greek Isles, which is nicely situated not far from my house, just north and east of the intersection of A1A and Oakland Park Blvd in hellishly-hot Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I'll chase that with a cliche plate of chicken soflaki and be nicely-taken care of in the food department.

Z, the vino (if you can find it) is a 2005 Girard Petit Syrah. It's great. I described it to Greg as being so beautifully dark and rich that you feel like you could paint with it. If you haven't explored a petit syrah in a while, give this one a whirl (circa 19 to 24 bucks in the shop; 35 to 50 in a restaurant). While I’m on the topic, try also a Truchard Cabernet, Napa, 2005. You’ll love it and the Girard.

Matt, back to the substance of your post above, specifically your remark related to GLBT persons wherein you stated

"Then, of course, I meet Christians who couldn't look a GLBT person in the eye and say, "God loves you as much as he loves me" and I just want to get out my butt-kicking boots. I should mention, by the way (unless I already did... this comment is far too long) that the basic confusion in the Christian community-- especially those who think that politics is the answer to the advance of the Kingdom--about moral proscriptives and who those apply to is strange. Clearly the morality lined out in scripture is meant (depending on when/where we're talking) to apply either in a theocracy or within the community of faith. To try to enforce it on people who are not in relationship with God not only makes no sense but is futile."

Though not of a GLBT ilk myself, my wife and I have perhaps more GLBT friends than so-called “straight” friends here in Florida. We are members of a very open-minded and accepting Episcopal parish church which serves the GLBT community at large in many exciting, yet surprisingly simple ways (our parish leadership, some clergy and many members are GLBT). I was raised in a very conservative part of the country and the closest I ever got to a “gay” person growing up was seeing a stranger with his right ear pierced (as if that has anything to do with it). My wife hit the nail on the head when she said years ago about our church here: “It is far better to err on the side of ‘inclusion’ than ‘exclusion’”. That speaks to a lot of what I think the church misses.

For reasons not important here, I was at dinner last night with several college kids. These kids were from a local church (not my own) and were absolutely going-off about the “Gay Monday” theme night that was being hosted by the restaurant next door to the one we were patronizing. There wasn’t really any “gay night” going on (whatever that means), but they had “heard” that La Bamba (a Spanish restaurant) has “gay night” every Monday night and they thought that was just downright “wrong”. I pressed them on this statement by asking them if they thought “those people” were worthy of God’s love and, by extension, our love (I dared not use the word, "friendship" as that certainly would have elicited a negative response with multiple verses to back it up). They had no answer. Literally, stunned silence greeted me when I asked that question. It didn’t help that their “leader” was a youth pastor at a local, but internationally renowned enclave of Calvinist spew and a seminarian at its affiliated seminary. The point is this: These kids are basically not much different than 99.9% of all other Christians. They have been conditioned to tightly-weave their little circle of Christian ghetto-defining wagons around their neat, little praise-chorus campfires to the point of excluding anything, everything and everyone who poses a threat to those therein. GLBT persons, to them, certainly represent a very real threat to their “Christian” norm. I can unequivocally state without hesitation or reservation that all of our GLBT friends are first and foremost wonderful people, excellent mates and partners to their respective mates and partners, excellent parents to their multiple children and, generally-speaking, have a great outlook and live wonderfully-redemptive lives and are not threatened by others who disagree with them. While your post wasn't at all about the GLBT community and the stereotypical church's "view" of same, I think you briefly touched on a very important topic that I hope I've done some justice to in expanding upon it.

Matt, your participation here gives me hope that there are still those within the faith community who are capable of engaging in healthy dialogue and, at times, debate about these and other important issues. I am quite impressed at the love-fest you and Greg have held here. Joking aside (I wanted to post earlier a one-liner saying nothing more than, “get a room, guys”), our world is enriched whenever debates and dialogue such as this take place. I truly wish more from within the faith community would get that part of life right instead of being intimidated or threatened by it.

I think you’ve added a great dimension to the dialogue and I for one would love to have more of your participation on this and any other topic that Greg is so good at offering.

Greg Horton

Matt, the club is starting to chime in, so I'll try to be briefer with my missives. And, yes, philosophy. No theology. I was disinvited from a teaching position at a Nazarene University when it was discovered I own a hookah and drink wine. Sigh. I also teach Comp and Humanities, and am not qualified to teach Lit--need 18 graduate hours of English for that. Basically, it's intro Phil classes, myth, comparative/world religions, ethics, general humanities, religious philosophy, and comp.

I'll begin with attributes. Barth believed that Scripture communicated God's attributes both specifically and metaphorically, and that metaphors should be taken to mean something specific. To illustrate: if god is spoken of as a shepherd, then the defining characteristics of shepherd should be applied to god. He believed, and I agree, that to change the metaphors does violence to the text and the community. This is best illustrated by the Church Growth metaphor of rancher versus shepherd. The damage has been severe with the application of that metaphor. On this point, we probably have general agreement. Barth, again, says that the only means whereby we can know anything of god is if god chooses to reveal godself by means of godself because he is eternally subject and we are eternally object. That makes a twisted sort of sense, but it gets hung up on the question of which revelation of god is the correct one? Birth, enculturation, family, nationality and personal preference all play a role in determining what faith a person believes. Once you get to metaphysical assertions, I'm out of the game because metaphysical assertions can never be shown to be false or true; it's all a matter of preference. From that perspective people are free to ascribe whatever attributes they choose/prefer and then provide the textual justification for it. Is God love? Yes, most say. Does God love children? Of course? Does God hate murder? Indeed? Then explain the flood narrative...long pause...well, he's god; he can do what he wants. So he doesn't hate murder and love everyone? And so it goes. I tend to prefer Christians who ascribe to god the attributes I prefer, but in the end, it's all the same to me because none of them can be demonstrated or falsified.

Scripture: the contradictions you speak of are certainly there, but there are other more difficult ones. Canonical criticism was a great tool for me in grad school because it allowed me to see the midrash nature of the Tanakh. Nehemiah says, put away your foreign wives. Jonah says, YHWH loves all people, even the most despicable foreigners. Genesis 1 says both genders are created equal and in the image of YHWH. Genesis 2 places woman at the nadir of the created order, most likely to justify an already extant patriarchal assumption. The Torah demands sacrifice. The Psalms insist that obedience is important, not sacrifice. And so it goes. I don't find these issues troubling, and not just because I'm out of the faith, but because people speaking of god's nature and character 5000 years ago probably sound much like folks these days do. We're all sort of hoping and guessing.

History of Christianity. I think the anabaptists always had it more right than the other streams. They believe that Constantine screwed the game when he made Christianity the official religion of the realm. This probably isn't new to you. They also believe that the Church is an eschatological community whose only lord is Jesus; it's why they refuse to run for office and generally stay out of political affairs. That being said, theologically, I loathe Augustine and Aquinas because by systematizing theology along legal/academic lines, they created categories of heresy that are better left as vibrant counter-points to theological dogma. One of my professors was fond of saying that a tradition is an ongoing conversation within a community that is attempting to determine what is best for the community. That's impossible to do when certain topics are declared off limits unless you're speaking the party line. This is why Emergent held such appeal to me at first. What it would look like now? Who knows. I no longer believe much of what they believed is true, but they did possess a ridiculous amount of love for everyone and they did sacrifice their lives rather than resort to violence or power or coercion. There is much to admire there.

Speaking. A closed canon doesn't prevent him from speaking. Just makes it pointless. The post is here: http://theparish.typepad.com/parish/2010/06/the-experienceing-of-god-part-two.html

I'm sure there is enough information to get a rough outline of the character and work of Jesus, but the real Christ? Yeesh. I don't know. So many things he doesn't address. So much ambiguity in some of his sayings and actions. So much we miss because of cross-cultural issues. I will concede the point though that someone just doing what he says in Matt 5-7 would be a far nicer person than most conservative evangelicals I meet.

Ok. Theodicy. No, your answer isn't philosophically sufficient, but that's hardly the point. I decided there is no good answer a while back, long after I read Brothers Karamazov, by the way. And Dostoevsky is right. There can be no answer at the eschaton that will sufficiently answer the question of why so much suffering now. On this we will disagree, I'm sure. However, you do highlight the important part, to me, for Christians: hope for justice in the eschaton and work for the eradication of evil now. Allow me one more plug. On that topic, I was in my cups one night, irritated about a certain Christian's response to humanism and came up with this: http://theparish.typepad.com/parish/2010/02/sandbagging-a-parable.html

I'm even more frustrated now about the level of writing. It's apparent that you can write lucidly and approachably about the most complex of topics. I realize that you can't write everything that's in your head, just as I can't report 20 pages of notes in a 750-word story, but I think you can go a little deeper next time. I hope that's ok to say. After this conversation, it's apparent that the church could benefit from some of your insights and communicative ability. As for my pastoral methodology, it's mainly based on the idea that Christian ethics, irrespective of their referential truth, can be a powerful force for turning douchebags into redemptive human beings. My Christian students do occasionally mention that I help them along in their faith, but I don't do what I do for that reason. I care about words and what people mean when they use them, and I care about people learning to live together. As I write this, I'm less than 24 hours away from interviewing Karl Rove, and Glenn Beck will be on Thursday. The inability of leaders to create lines of communication between disparate peoples is troubling, but the exploitation of misunderstandings is frankly evil. Peace.

Matt Mikalatos


Thanks for the information, and great links. Part of what I wonder about is that some of the "big players"... the pastors that are constantly quoted in Christian magazines and argue about theology and "take a stand" about other issues are silent on this one, when it seems to me to be so clearly about treating human beings with respect... something that cannot be escaped for a Christian who believes in the image of God being a part of every human being (not to say that all Christians believe that, I know some don't. I just happen to think scripture is relatively clear on the point, regardless). I suppose being charitable I would have to assume that they simply don't have the time to feel that they've researched the issue enough to know the "right" position. Or maybe it's that a lot of those pastors come from communities that don't deal directly with immigration issues one way or another. Anyway, it's something that bothers me because I think on the whole "erradicating evil" front this is a growing concern and has all the potential of being one of the key civil rights issues of the next fifteen years.

Matt Mikalatos

Dr. Dobson--

I want so badly to ask if your name is a dig at Dr. James Dobson or if that is actually your name, but I know that's an internet faux pas and yet I can't help mentioning it here in non-question form so that I seem not rude and you potentially might tell me.

As for your Greek place, I want to go to there. I come down to Orlando a couple of times a year for work, maybe I can tack on a day or two sometime and come check it out. It sounds amazing.

I think you're right about a lot of people in Christian community (or, well, probably most any community) having unexamined assumptions. They make life easier, neater and less work. I love your story and am thankful you are in a faith community that is taking loving others seriously. And many thanks for your kind words. I really enjoy dialogues like these, and you and everyone on the site have been very generous and kind and I feel welcome here, for sure, and would love to hang out somewhere other than this ghetto dedicated to my book. So I, for sure, will be keeping tabs and hope to be a regular part of the community here in the future.

Matt Mikalatos


It is absolutely okay to say that you hope I will go deeper in the future. I am a big fan of helpful, constructive criticism. I still wonder how much of your reaction to the book was from the over-the-top reviews and endorsements that might have led you to believe that you were about to imbibe one of your favorite wines, only to discover you were actually getting baby formula served by clowns. Or, to be generous to me, let's make it a frosty bottle of YooHoo.

Frankly, with the misconceptions on the basic level in so many places (within and without the Christian community) about who Jesus is, I really wasn't trying to write a book that would have a deep theology so much as write a book that would kick people back into the search who think they've found Christ but haven't. Sort of a "killing the buddha" moment. And the book has taken a much broader audience than I expected (I was picturing people in their 20s and 30s) and never expected, say, philosophy professors who have read every book of theology ever and are well read in literature to ever pick it up. We put that picture on the cover to scare people away, you know. So when you said it seemed that I had assumed that Christians had a junior high level of understanding, well, it depends on who your target audience is, a bit. And of course we have the issue that I honestly believe (perhaps naively) that they who seek shall find. So for me getting people on the journey is as important as helping give signposts along the way.

All that to say, I have an experiment to propose. What say that you choose 5-10 college-ish people who might fall more into the target demographic of the book. I'll provide copies for those people, and will razor out the endorsements, let's give them the book and then see what they come up with. Will it create useful conversations or just cause people to spin in their own preconceptions? I don't know. But I think it would be interesting to try. I'll let you put whatever qualifications or demographic or guidelines on the experiment that you like. And of course, given that you hated the book, I am totally fine if you would rather protect your 5-10 people from the book instead.

Quick notes: "There can be no answer at the eschaton that will sufficiently answer the question of why so much suffering now. On this we will disagree, I'm sure." Our disagreement on this point is probably more slight than you would think. I would be more comfortable saying, "I can't imagine a sufficient answer at the eschaton for our present suffering." I trust that God has more information and insight than me, and that there may well be something that would be inexplicable to me now that might be explained over the course of, say, a thousand years, or when given an eternal perspective. I have no idea what that could be, but I personally can't say with certainty that such an answer does not or cannot exist.

Genesis 2 showing women at the nadir of creation? Come on! That's just poor interpretation, not what's in the text (I'm not denying it's the historical or majority read of the text, I just don't think that's what the text says). The order of creation culminates in the creation of humanity, and the woman being the last created makes her the crowning glory of creation. I think Genesis 2 argues for the glory of woman. And yes, I know that people will say that woman is the "helper" (or "helpmeet" for all those KJV folks out there), but that Hebrew word is used most often in scripture to refer to God as our helper, so I don't see how that can possibly be sufficient to argue for an authoritative patriarchal structure. I mean, I see it said, but it seems like poor reading to me. And yes, I will admit that it's possible that the Sabbath is the zenith of creation, and not woman. I personally prefer women to sabbath, but I'm a sinful man and maybe I'm seeing it wrong.

I happen to really like the story of Noah (and Utnapishtim, too. I think it's fascinating to look at Noah as a polemic against the "pagan" mythologies surrounding the Israelites). Not the slaughtering all of humanity bit, of course, but God doesn't particularly like that, either, and in fact the Hebrew text says that he "repents" of his action there, which is absolutely fascinating. And I love the part where he puts the bow in the sky, which certainly reads in the Hebrew more like a peace treaty than it does in English. Which actually goes to the theodicy question a bit, in that my understanding of this story is that God is saying, "No matter how evil you become, the solution will never again be to wipe out all of humanity." He self limits himself in the options available from then on to deal with human wickedness. Which is interesting on the macro level more than with specific situations, but I find it something interesting to kick around.

"...the exploitation of misunderstandings is frankly evil." Amen to that, Greg. Will you be close enough to Glenn Beck that you will want to borrow my butt-kicking boots? Because I could overnight them to you.

Tomorrow I head to the zoo with my seven year old. Since this is Portland there is a 70% chance of rain and rainbows, which pretty much guarantees more talking about Noah. I love theology with kids, it's awesome.

Now I find that I have to share a precious story from my children, please feel free to look away, I won't be offended. When my daughter were aged 5 and 3 they were playing "My Little Ponies" and one of the ponies "died." My eldest daughter said, "This pony is dead, but if we pray for her to come to life and wait three days, she will come to life again." I thought that was pretty awesome.

Matt Mikalatos

Oops. I will now argue with myself.

Did I miss that what God repents of in the Noah story is the creation of humanity (because of their wickedness)? And not the subsequent destruction of said wicked humans?

Yes, I did.

Greg Horton

Indeed, you did miss that. But that god repents of anything is powerful textual evidence that god is not perfect, another greek category superimposed on the hebrew text. This is one of the reasons it's troubling when people ascribe "necessary attributes" to god. All that is required is that he/she be way more powerful than us, and knowing more helps too. It's interesting to me that the only all-knowing god with which humans interact across the spectrum of mythology is the god of the Abrahamic faiths and their offshoots. Most other cultures were content with gods who were limited in many ways. (We have discussed pluralism and its impact on my exit from the faith either, but you can see the genesis of it there.)

As for Genesis, we'll have to disagree. It seems apparent that we have two wholly different stories, especially in the order of creation. I'll admit that reading the woman as nadir is eisegesis, but it certainly makes more sense to me than reading her as the pinnacle, especially since god tried to use animals for Adam's companions before he got to woman. Reads more like an afterthought, and I'm not hung up on the helpmeet part, as I understand what the word actually means. The whole 1/2 thing illustrates the folly of reading the text literally, though.

If there is a god, it's probably safe to assume he has more info than me, but I find it impossible to believe there is some deeply esoteric answer that will explain suffering at the macro level. Free will explains it at the micro level well enough, but it certainly doesn't explain tsunamis that kill a quarter million people. And as my friend Jay Kelly likes to say, any argument positing free will as the reason for suffering so as to maintain the goodness of god fails the counterexample test of logic: God is good. Evil happens. Humans have free will which they occasionally use for evil. It is not god's intention. Conversely, god is evil. Good happens. Humans have free will which they occasionally use for good. It is not god's intention. Both are equally possible, so it's a poor argument any way people phrase it.

I'm a fan of the Noah story, too, but when I tell it in class, just to get a rise from students, I typically conclude with, "...and then god murdered everyone else on the face of the earth." That usually shakes students out of complacency and forces them to deal with the implications of a story that is inexplicably used illustratively in church nurseries the world over. It's always been the most powerful indictment against the idea of a god who is not just loving, but love. Anyone is free to argue that the adults are wicked, but it's hard to argue infants are, and they drowned alongside their parents--assuming the story is referentially true.

One of my OT profs was equally fond of the Noah story, but was consistently frustrated with students and pastors who failed to see the irony written into the form of the story. It is a story between parentheses, and those parenthetical statements are the two you mentioned: the wickedness of people and the relenting of god on the point of correcting their wickedness. Noah gets off the boat and promptly gets shit-faced. YHWH recognizes that all his effort was in vain and changes the rules. It's god learning. Not a popular reading in fundangelical circles, but accurate I think. Still does nothing in terms of explaining how god values life and destroys it. I find YHWH far more capricious and schizophrenic than Jesus. Marcion, it seems, was not an idiot.

I will happily take up the challenge. I have five students in mind right now. Here's the taxonomy: one evangelical, one Presbyterian, one agnostic, one atheist, and one Wiccan. This should be fun. Do I need to send you addresses or you want to mail them to me? I will not say anything in advance, nor direct them to my review. That seems fair, and yes, please razor out the Bonhoeffer reference blurb, as that one did set my teeth on edge. They won't see the Vonnegut reference because it was in an email from Viral Bloggers. We'll make it as fair as possible. Enjoy the zoo.


It's nice to see good conversation and dialogue taking place. Most of the time there's talking at others or arguing that is attempting to put someone down or disprove someone in a harsh manner so it's nice to read actual conversation.

Greg, you wrote, "If there is a god, it's probably safe to assume he has more info than me, but I find it impossible to believe there is some deeply esoteric answer that will explain suffering at the macro level."

Personally, I have given up ever thinking there is going to be an explanation of why "bad things happen to good people." I think it is complete nonsense to think that everything is going to be explained in the eschaton because we're not the focus of the eschaton nor are we the focus of God's creation.

Every semester in seminary it seemed that somebody wanted to answer that question or tackle the problem of evil that I've just thrown my hands up and say, "Don't care. Shit happens, deal with it and let's do our best to help those who have suffered." Probably not the best stance to take on the issue but I'm so tired of it and tired of the simple explanations of free will and blah blah blah. That's my take on the issue of evil.

I am also fascinated by the understanding God as a growing God or learning God. The flood is not the last time God repents. God does so after Moses comes down with the ten commandments and wants to off the Israelites. God does it Jonah and the actual word repent appears in the text. It's interesting that you wrote that means God is not perfect (though the act of evil in the world also argues against a perfect God). I have grown to understand that God is a still creating, still growing God and to me it doesn't have to do with perfection but faithfulness of God.

The Noah story is interesting because everyone drowns except Noah and his family and the animals and the reason God does so is because of the wickedness of humanity. I want to say creation but then why do the animals get to be onboard...of course there were only two by two...even though God had earlier intentions of just blotting them out. Noah pleases God (yea he does) and gets to save two of every kind of animal while everyone else is done.

Then God sends the rain and everyone dies but God repents again and promises to never to destory every living creature again. I think I had a point but I don't think so. I think type all of the above to say that it's not difficult to think of God as growing God because I don't think God created the world perfect. I think God is working towards perfection whatever the hell that looks like

dr dobson

Joe--great point on the flood narrative. I think the Incan and Anazizi peoples would have been quite surprised to know that there was a "supreme" being on the other side of the world destroying "all of creation" save for those lucky enough to have heeded the old man's warnings. Seeing that Genesis is one of the youngest books in the Jewish bible, the flood narrative is clearly metaphor (thus supporting your point even more).

dr dobson

Geez, after re-reading my post, it should say "Anasazi". Wow.

Matt Mikalatos

Greg, you can send me your address or theirs, whatever is easiest/best for you. Just drop me a note at matt.mikalatos(at)gmail.com.

I've wondered if the whole 'value of life' question would look completely different from God's perspective simply because he doesn't see death as an end to existence. Clearly he sees value in us not killing each other, but I suppose that could be explained partly by the fact of the image of God. It's an act of rebellion for us to do damage to that image, whether through self harm or harming others.

Dr. D... of course those of us who hold to a literal reading of the Bible would say that the Anasazi and Incan people wouldn't have existed yet at the time of the flood. Convenient!


It seems a little gratuitous to add my own gushing at this point, so I'll just say I agree with everyone above that the frank respectfulness of this discussion is refreshing.

As for the problem of evil stuff, I've found a few of the statements a little off point. First of all, while people (and G-d) killing people, especially clearly innocent people, is certainly disturbing, it is not nearly so difficult a case for the classical theist as that of what Marilyn Adams calls horrendous evils, cases such as a mother murdering her own children in grips of a psychotic break. Such acts represent harder cases because they intuitively destroy the value of the actor's life. It is very difficult to see how such acts can be allowed for by an all powerful loving being. Adams of course thinks they can be accounted for by a universalist account of the eschaton, but the why of allowing such acts to happen in the present seems (to me) just plain too big to be overcome by an all-working-for-the-good narrative. If we take something like Rawls' theory of fairness as a model for justice, then the suffering, say, of the abused child in Ivan Karamozov's famous example, must be explained not by the good of humanity as a whole, but in terms of that child's own good, and such an account just seems impossible no matter how much knowledge you add to what we already know. How can that child possibly be better off suffering continuously in life and then dying than she would have been never living at all?

Greg Horton

Cheek, insightful as always. (BTW, it's game seven tonight and I'm cooking lamb. Get your ass over here!) While I like the way you frame the issue--of course--I'm also struck by a problem with theistic thinking in this area: the idea that suffering is provisional and unavoidable. I agree completely with the second part of the assumption. It seems unavoidable as part of the human condition. The provisional aspect is the most troubling because what's offered is an eschatological justification rather than an explanation for now, and the justification proceeds with two enormous assumptions to animate it: 1. this is definitely the true cosmology, so trust us, and; 2. god is thoroughly good. Neither of those can be demonstrated, so the answer is a promise without a guarantee or guarantor except the assurance of the "evangelist." They never seem to consider the very real possibility that they are dead fucking wrong and that suffering makes no sense whatsoever, nor will it in the eschaton. Matt's rather refreshing humility about the issue is atypical, I think.

The idea that god gives life so he can take it when he wants seems to be a construct to explain away difficult passages of Scripture. Does he value life? Is this life a gift? Is killing the innocent wrong? As I've said before, and it's not original, either the law is an expression of who god is or it's a set of arbitrary rules. If the former, he can't break his own law because it violates his own values and character. If the latter, everyone is screwed and they just haven't realized it yet, because god's character can't be predicted or trusted at that point. Again, this justification also proceeds from the previously mentioned assumptions, and the same problem adheres to this answer. Death is not the end, so god takes life because he knows we'll live eternally. Yeesh. The humanist side of me begs these people for a theology that makes sense now and proceeds from the notion that all of us could be dead fucking wrong.


I share that concern as someone trying to find a way to re-integrate a formalized mythology into my life. Since I really don't care one way or the other what anyone believes regarding the purely metaphysical arguments, the Plantinga-inspired disinterest in present evil as a challenge to theistic thinking seems entirely misplaced. To be fair to Plantinga and the generation of Christian philosophers who have followed in his wake, I'd say that their attempts were meant to respond to a very specific kind of logical attack. Alas, the defense-over-theodicy approach has lead to a widespread attitude along the lines of "There is no clearly sound logical argument against theism. Therefore, the problem of evil is no problem at all." That is unfortunate since the logical problem is clearly not the only one or even the most vital one.

I have to say that as far as theological responses go, Moltmann's is about the only one I can stomach. While saying that G-d suffers with us does nothing to address the logical problem, it is a far more empathic response, which is needed to deal with what I might call "the real problem of human suffering."

Regarding the need to admit that their account might be, and in fact most likely is, flawed is a clear failing of the contemporary church in general, derived I believe from the entirely inappropriate emphasis placed on orthodoxy. This is the scourge of fundamentalism at its worst, and I honestly have no clue as to how it can be combatted in populist terms except to say just wait and let the Pattersons and Mohlers of the world rip each other apart over doxastic trivia.

I'd love to hear a real Christian (real here, in contrast to self-identifying Christians like myself, indicating someone who actually accepts the metaphysical statements as true) be brazen enough to offer as practical theodicy some theology of active doubt and passionate empathy. Alas the metaphysical commitments tend to get in the way of allowing for such suspension of belief. Revision of the faith is just not something I've found any "real" Christians to be at all open to.

Greg Horton

Cheek, you'll be happy to know that Matt's response in the book is very Moltmannian. I first heard the "god suffers with us" model from Borg, but he was defending Christian panentheism, a framework I find frankly absurd. 


It occurs to me that the 3rd person use of "real Christians" in my last might have been rude given your presence here and apparent satisfaction of the term. Please feel free to say so if you think my characterization has been uncharitable. Also, my use of scare quotes was meant only to signify a stipulative use of the term, not to question the real Christianity of such folks. Italics probably would have been more appropriate, but I can never remember which side the '/' goes on, and I've asked Leighton so many times that it's just embarrassing for me at this point.

Greg Horton

You can use html like this <em>text</em> or you can just use CTRL I (command i on mac). TypePad recognized both.

Matt Mikalatos

Hey Cheek--

No worries. I'm not particularly hung up on things like that, or easily offended, either, though I certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness of your clarification.

I do, of course, actually believe all the metaphysics of the traditionally Christian... I'm guessing most people would find me dismayingly orthodox. I wonder if I've missed something when you said that a practical theodicy based in active doubt and passionate empathy would require a revision of the faith. Is there a reason that the "unrevised" Christian couldn't come to that conclusion?

I was thinking today how in Revelation the spirit of the martyrs are crying out to God, asking him "How long, O Lord?" before he will bring justice for their suffering on Earth. It makes me wonder if that couldn't be Biblical evidence that even in God's presence there may be a disconnect between our desires related to suffering and injustice and God's motivations (or at least speed) in dealing with them. An interesting thought, certainly, and it probably messes with some categories for believers who think we are instantly "perfect" in Heaven.

Matt Mikalatos

I should mention that if we're ascribing "real" status to certain Christians, that I find any creed-based definition insufficient. My understanding of Christ's definitions of his followers had a lot more to do with people's actions... I've met plenty of people who believe the metaphysics without applying the actions. I personally would prefer a little misguided theology with more correct action, if those are the choices available.....


I didn't mean to suggest that an active doubt would necessarily require revising the faith, but I do think it requires being open to revision. That openness precludes absolute commitment to any fundamentals of the faith (This may be an overstatement. It might turn out to be enough to allow doubt of some sections of dogma while cordoning off others as essential, though I'd be surprised if anyone were able to give a non-ad hoc account of what those should be).

'Real' was almost certainly the wrong word for general use. As I didn't at all mean to suggest any kind of legitimacy. Instead it comes from my desire to distinguish between the kind of Christianity most of the people around here came out of and a different kind that treats doctrine as irrelevant inasmuch as it doesn't directly impact behavior and yet values the Christian mythology and/or some iteration of the institutional church. My use of in/out terminology probably stems from the fact that the former type typically want to count the latter out. This goes the other way to some extent as well, though my own experience is that its to a lesser extent.

I hope all of this was coherent. If not, blame it on the France-Mexico match that's happening beside it on my computer screen.


Can I just say that this post is more than making up for Glee being in reruns for the summer? Not to trivialize the gravity of the topic, but if you folks could possibly drag this out for about three more months, I'd be ever so grateful.

Greg Horton

J-fo, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention Glee, as I don't think about how much I miss it if you don't talk about it.

dr dobson

Matt--I opted for sovlaki beachside in lieu of the other restaurant. Nonetheless, I just got back home from a great chicken sovlaki platter in your honor.


So in an effort to turn the conversation away from our tragic Gleelessness, let me respond to an earlier post of Matt's:

I'm not sure it's surprising that evangelicals tend to ignore immigration, mostly because (as you mentioned) people nearly always borrow their priorities from the institutional inertia of their reference groups rather than from reflection on principles. I've been out of the subculture for nearly a decade, but the impression I have from the outside is that evangelical groups are still trying to figure out what they are. (I'm not trying to say they're monolithic, but because I'm rusty in speaking the dialect, I'm generalizing, probably too much.) Sometimes they take a stand on principle--it's hard to see what political gain they derive from advocating environmental stewardship, for instance. And I think that's great that they do that. But other times you have leaders speaking out against the civil legalization of same-sex marriage based solely on a particular reading of a sectarian document, and it's hard to see how that isn't banging the drum of Kirche Uber Alles. It's like they're suffering from Southern Baptist envy.

I don't think there's any single, simple explanation for this evangelical schizophrenia. But I do think a lot of it is related to the pressure evangelical churches put on themselves to be the great ecclesiastical unifiers. At least, this is the biggest reason I don't spend much time talking to evangelicals; it comes down to priorities. In theory I think unification is a great goal--I don't belong to any religious group, more out of habit more than on principle, because I do my best work on the fringes between groups as an interpreter. It seems like evangelicals are trying to be this, at least among Christians. But in practice, it really seems like leaders spend more time coddling authoritarians than reaching out to more mainstream groups. (Rick Warren may be in the process of becoming an exception.) I understand that people who have a deep, primal, inescapable need to be commanded are psychologically vulnerable, and need special treatment. It's not a bad thing to be kind to them. But I think there's a difference between making sure they're loved, and giving them command over your priorities.

Courtesy would dictate that I wrap this post up better, but the fourth quarter of the finals demands my full attention. Thanks for commenting, Matt, hope you'll stick around--it's good to have your voice here.

Go Celtics

Matt Mikalatos

Dr. Dobson -- Are you in Heaven? That sounds amazing.

Leighton -- Thanks for the insights. I do hear good things from churches in the border states, and I know at my church we have some great things going on. Some things have to be kept quiet for a variety of excellent reasons which I'll not mention here, but I still think that the most influential leaders in the evangelical community should be saying something. I think you're right that there is probably some ecumenical sensitivity going on, that actually makes a great deal of sense. I'm not sure it's sufficient in the face of what is going on, but it makes sense.

And thanks to you and the whole gang. You've all been very gracious in welcoming me here, and I'm having a great time.

Greg Horton

leighton, damn lakers. i was pulling for the celtics too. everyone here was, in fact, including cheek. he took me up on the lamb/game 7 offer. i wanted to touch on the environmental issue you raised, particularly the idea that evangelicals gain no political benefit from supporting environmental issues. i think that as long as evangelicals can embrace an issue without doing violence to their hermeneutical tradition, they will do whatever is current to bring in people and appear compassionate/cutting edge. that's cynical and oversimplified, but i'm pretty comfortable with it. the greening of xianity is something i've written about in recent years, and it seems that the church is comfortable with appearing green so as to bring in target demographics (hip young people especially), and it's an easy position to justify in light of certain proof texts. my impulse is to believe that most churches place evangelism above political power as long as the issues aren't abortion and homosexuality. at that point, they take refuge in their "biblical witness."

Matt Mikalatos

Hmm. I wonder if the idea that the greening has more to do with evangelism than capitulation to the dominant culture might be a bit overly cynical. It seems to me that the American evangelical Christian culture is pretty strongly influenced by the mainstream culture (just look at how fast we suddenly create "Christian twitter" and "Christian YouTube" and so on). And maybe this is because I live in the northwest, but everyone is "green" here. Christians, non-Christians, Republicans, oil execs, whatever. In fact, the big status symbols are hybrid cars. So, in my experience it's not the churches are "appearing" green... they actually are green. That's not to say that cultural capitulation and involvement and evangelism are mutually exclusive, and certainly culture is "used" for evangelism ("The Gospel According to the Sopranos" anyone?).

Why is the church increasingly focused on "good deeds" recently? I think it has more to do with Bono and Angelina Jolie than with scripture or evangelism (though I think scripture supports it and it's excellent for evangelism).

Anyway, that's my view from here.

P.S. All "real Christians" love the world cup.

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