by Andrew Blalock, Christian Philosophy and Religion Teacher at First Baptist School, Charleston, SC
We see them constantly on television shows and in movies: Christians who are Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs! Perhaps my favorite such character is Kenneth Ellen Parcell (hilariously portrayed by Jack McBrayer), the NBC page on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Kenneth is a backwater redneck from Georgia who has come to New York City to fulfill his lifelong dream of working in the television industry. His religious and political views are depicted somewhere on the spectrum from harmlessly strange to repressive and harmful. Perhaps my all-time favorite Kenneth moment is when he exclaims, “Science was my most favorite subject, especially the Old Testament!” No doubt his statement is a witty commentary on the debates that have surrounded Christianity and science during the last couple of centuries.
But does Kenneth Parcell actually represent Christians? I mean, I know we’ve all met people who remind us of Kenneth in some way, but is it fair to say that all Christians are intellectually bankrupt, basing their beliefs on blind faith from their upbringing? What if I told you it’s possible to be a Christian and a thoughtful person? Consider Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health and former Director of the Human Genome Project. Collins has written a book about his own story of coming to faith in God called The Language of God. In the book, he recounts an encounter between himself and one of his dying patients that led him to undertake an investigative journey that ultimately led him to faith:
“My most awkward moment came when an older woman, suffering daily from severe untreatable angina, asked me what I believed. It was a fair question; we had discussed many other important issues of life and death, and she had shared her own strong Christian beliefs with me. I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words ‘I’m not really sure’ … I had never really seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.“
Hear Francis Collins discuss how he came to believe in God here:
But is Francis Collins just some kind of aberration or fluke? (Even a broken clock is right twice a day, right?) Instead, consider that many of the founders of modern science, including Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, and Francis Bacon, share Collins’s perspective. Bacon, considered the father of the Scientific Method, in his essay “Of Atheism” admitted, “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
Christian intellectual tradition includes science but also extends into the arts. Actor Tony Hale, who is best-known for his portrayals of Buster Bluth in Arrested Development and Gary Walsh in Veep, often speaks about the importance of faith in his life and in his art. On NPR’s Fresh Air, Hale talked about his faith and his doubts, saying:
“I think anytime in someone's faith journey, my faith journey also, you go through doubting ... I think you kind of have to go through that, honestly, just to ask the tough questions. ... I mean, life is crazy, and to know that honestly a loving God is walking through it with me is very comforting for me. But yeah, I've been through my own times of just, What does this mean and how can this mean this? And ask the questions. I've thankfully had a lot of people around me who have allowed me to ask those questions, and we've talked about it and walked through it together and struggled through it, and that's very, very important. And it's important to have those people around you can be honest with.”
Listen to the whole interview of Tony Hale on NPR here.
In his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, literary scholar and author C.S. Lewis wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” What did Lewis mean by that? Lewis was trying to express an element of his own personal story. Following the death of his mother as a boy and his adverse experiences at English boarding schools, Lewis became convinced that a loving God could not exist. It was through reading books and conversations with fellow academics like J.R.R. Tolkien that Lewis eventually came to discover God later in life. Lewis had unknowingly been searching for God his entire life, and ultimately both his imagination and his rational mind led him to the conclusion that Christianity is true. The longing that Lewis felt is well described by Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, in her novel Housekeeping:
“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing -- the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”
When Robinson was asked about whether it is hard to write about faith in her novels, she responded, “Faith is one of the great structuring elements in civilization. It has fascinated the best minds of many centuries.”
Not only have academics and scientists recognized the truth of Christianity, but Christianity has been a source of moral conviction and inspiration for ethical reform in significant ways, perhaps none more significant in America than in the case of Martin Luther King, Jr. The America in which we now live is far from perfect, especially concerning issues related to race, but much of the progress that has been made can be attributed to the work of Dr. King. Because of his Christian beliefs, Dr. King saw the racial injustice in America and was compelled to do something about it. He said, “Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice, and justice is really love in calculation.” Dr. King’s dream and vision for America was racial unity, a dream that stemmed from his Christian convictions about the equality of all people and the importance of justice.
So what can we learn from all of these different stories and experiences? First of all, it’s okay to laugh at comedic portrayals of Christianity in movies, books, and tv shows, but one should recognize that these caricatures don’t necessarily represent reality. More importantly, it’s important to know that you don’t have to cut yourself off from intellectual life to become a Christian. In fact, Christianity can help provide a solid foundation for deep questioning and searching for truth just as it did for Francis Collins, Tony Hale, C.S. Lewis, Marilynne Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, it should be said that faith can be a tricky word to define. The truth is that “faith” has many different connotations to different people, but it is vitally important to point out that, in the Christian tradition, faith is not the opposite of doubt. In his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller describes the relationship between faith and doubt this way, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it.” A strong faith requires the process of experiencing doubt, asking questions, and finding answers to those questions. The invitation for believers and skeptics, then, is to begin to examine your deeply held beliefs and expose them to the light of questioning.
For further reading: Check out Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God or the newly released Making Sense of God.
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