How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.

Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)

The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.

When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:

“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Acts 14:15-18

This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.

Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.

Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!

By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.

We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?

Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.

In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.


A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.

Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented.  Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.

Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.

We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.

The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.

We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

The Extraordinary Generosity and Hospitality of CS Lewis

CS Lewis believed there are no ordinary people, and he lived as if it were so.

The statue outside the library in the Irish town where CS Lewis was born
depicts him, as the Narnia narrator Digory Kirke, stepping into a wardrobe.

Ever since I read Mere Christianity in college as a new believer I have been a lifelong admirer of CS Lewis. He may be better known for his children series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia. He wrote other fiction, including a trilogy of science fiction novels, but Lewis more than just a write of fiction.

Lewis was a first-rate Christian thinker with an ability to tease nuanced meaning out of complex ideas with rare clarity in his writing. Having been an atheist almost into his 30’s. Lewis came to Christianity with a wealth of knowledge in the classic languages and literature.

His autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, is a literary cornucopia of allegorical references to the classics. Ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic and Germanic writings were the universe in which his mind operated and found meaning.

When he became a Christian, and he looked back on that wealth of knowledge with new insight, and, indeed, the language of classic literature became the background and (in some ways) the springboard for his belief in “the true myth”, as he came to call it: the life, death and resurrection of God who became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

While Lewis is known for being a Christian apologist in addition to being a writer of children’s fiction, he was first and foremost a scholar of classic literature. He was a lifelong professor of English Literature with tenures at Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). His books include a highly regarded and well-used critique of Paradise Lost and a textbook on Sixteenth Century English literature.  

To say that Lewis was a prodigious writer and thinker is to understate the fact. He wrote over 30 books of varying types in addition to his “fulltime job” as a distinguished university professor and sought-after speaker.

Given the legacy of thought and writing that Lewis generated, one might suppose that Lewis had no time for the more mundane matters of life. One might suppose that his ego was as prodigious as his works. One might be wrong about such suppositions.

Lewis was one of a kind. Born in 1898, Lewis didn’t marry until 1956. One might suppose that bachelorhood allowed him the luxury of time, but Lewis made a different kind of lifetime commitment that infringed greatly on his time. Lewis took in a woman he didn’t know and cared and provided for her until she died.

The backstory is that Lewis and Paddy Moore met as soldiers in the trenches during the Great War (WWI). They made a pact with each other that the survivor of them would take care of the family of the other if one of them did not survive he war. Lewis, himself, was injured and ended his involvement in the war in the hospital, but Paddy Moore went missing and was never found.

True to his word, CS Lewis, who had interrupted his college years to volunteer for the war, took Paddy’s mother and sister in to live with him on a very modest student’s budget. Lewis cared and provided for Mrs. Moore the rest of her life – a total of 30 years – often doing the household chores himself. After she developed dementia and was moved to a nursing home, Lewis visited her every day until she passed.

Perhaps because of that care and provision, Lewis lived a very modest life, but he always found time for hospitality. Lewis was, perhaps, as generous with his hospitality as he was productive in his writing and professorial vocation.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Lewis opened up his home to several groups of children forced to evacuate the big cities. Lewis also regularly hosted the Inklings on Thursday evenings in his classroom for nearly two decades. (They met alternately at the Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately known as The Bird and Baby) on Tuesdays at midday).


The Inklings was more or less an ad hoc group of writers and thinkers who met to discuss their literary works in progress and whatever other subjects suited their fancy, often late into the night. J.R.R. Tolkien was a faithful member of this group from the beginning, reading the Lord of the Rings to his fellow Inklings, who critiqued it, before it was published. Including a small handful of regulars, the group included about 15 frequent visitors and another dozen infrequent visitors and guests over the years.

As noted above, Lewis married later in life. The marriage, itself, was an exercise in hospitality.  Lewis opened his home to Joy Gresham Davidman, a writer from New York city, and her two sons David and Douglas. They eventually married in a civil ceremony so she could gain British citizenship, but what began as a gesture of generous hospitality, turned into true romantic affection.

They were married a short while, by a priest this time. Joy had developed cancer, and their wedding vows were exchanged in a hospital. They had four more years together when Joy went into remission, but cancer eventually claimed her. Their unlikely story is the subject of the movie, Shadowlands, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. Lewis also wrote about her death in A Grief Observed.  


But all of this is prelude to the real purpose for which I write today. My inspiration comes from Douglas Gresham, one of Joy’s sons, who was very young when he went to live with his mother in the home of CS Lewis.

Continue reading “The Extraordinary Generosity and Hospitality of CS Lewis”

When the Smoke of Battle Clears, Where is God?

God is bigger than the battles in history and the lives of all the men who fought them, but He is with each one of us.

My great, great grandfather, Enoch Jones, and his brother, Silas Jones, fought in the Civil War for the north. They were members of the 40th Illinois Infantry, Company F. They mustered in August 10, 1961, at Springfield.

In March 1862, the 40th Illinois, 46th Ohio and Morton’s Battery was organized into a Brigade commanded by Colonel Hicks under General Sherman, and they boarded transport ships that carried them up the Tennessee River. They re-combined with the 6th Iowa under Colonel McDowall and entered the Battle of Shiloh. It would be their first armed conflict.

The north took a beating at Shiloh. The 40th Illinois was commended for standing ground under heavy enemy fire even after their cartridge boxes were empty. A total of 196 men of the 40th Illinois were killed or injured in the one battle, including Colonel Hicks.

Silas suffered mortal injuries. He mustered out of this life two weeks later. Enoch mustered out of the 40th Illinois Infantry on May 15, 1865, two days after Jefferson Davis was captured and one month after President Lincoln was assassinated. The north was victorious, but at great cost.

Enoch saw action at the Battle of Shiloh, Siege of Vicksburg, Battle of Missionary Ridge, Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and Siege of Atlanta, and other places before he returned to a humble life in central Illinois. Enoch didn’t participate in the famous “March to the Sea”, because he took a bullet in Atlanta. The bullet drove a button into his chest, but that button saved his life. It earned him the Purple Heart my parents have to this day.

I was fortunate at a Civil War memorabilia show years ago to find a tattered and yellowed dairy written by another volunteer in the 40th Illinois Infantry. He was in a different company, but his periodic reports of the movements and activities of the Brigade gave me a ground level view of the experiences of my ancestors as Union Civil War infantrymen.

When the diary opens, the author anticipates with patriotic and religious confidence the mission they are about to partake. The 40th Illinois was a completely voluntary unit. The diary expresses a kind of righteous hope and abandon to the cause of fighting for God and for country.

I could not help but think of the horrendous carnage of human and equine life they would encounter. Sinew, flesh and bone left exposed to the gaping air as the smoke slowly drifted off future battle scenes. The groans of shattered men lying in their own blood would be the only sound remaining as infantrymen regrouped to count their ranks. Trees splintered by the shrapnel of canons and muskets would stand starkly against the acrid stench of gunpowder lingering still that gaping air.

Did they know what they were in for?

I recalled seeing Civil War physicians’ bags. They carried saws, and picks, and hammers and other objects of painful reminders of the brutality of war without modern anesthetic or antiseptic. Saws saved what was left of the living by cutting off limbs susceptible of gangrene. Many, like Silas Jones, survived the battle with injuries only to die later of infection.

Knowing these things, I was intrigued to read the thoughts and expressions of resilient faithfulness to the duty fight for God and country continue on the pages of that diary after the Battle of Shiloh, and all the way past the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Then the diary ended – abruptly. No resolution. No postscript. No clue as to why it simply ended.

I can only imagine the writer mustered out early – maybe in Atlanta. I assume he wasn’t as lucky as my great, great grandfather. But I am not writing merely to tell a story of my ancestor. There is a bigger picture.

Continue reading “When the Smoke of Battle Clears, Where is God?”

Listening While White: Respecting the Image of God in People of Color

Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people.

I feel like I need to begin this with a request to “hear me out” (at the risk of appearing apologetic). I am a white, evangelical Christian. The title recognizes who I am. I realize as I wade out into these waters that they are treacherous today. Many are the rocks on which ships with good intentions have been dashed.

Should I even have to say that people of color bear the image of God? I shouldn’t have to say it, but I feel I need to say it nevertheless. Why?

That impulse, alone, signals to me that something is not quite right.

I just read that slavery is “the original sin of the United States”. It colors our past (pun very much intended). It continues to leave its imprint on the present. I have to admit to finding some truth in that statement.

Obviously, race is the subject of this article. But not just race. I am writing about Christianity, generally, and the church universal and global.

If any group ought to be able to speak with wisdom into the race issues that we continue to face, it should be the Church, right? Yet, we see as much segregation in the church as a whole as we do in society.

Spoiler alert. God has been orchestrating the entire course of human history from the beginning to this end:

“A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb….”

Revelations7:9

This is God’s endgame. Are we onboard with the plan?

This is the unity for which Jesus prayed for his followers. (John 17:20-23) Jesus, himself, broke down the dividing wall that separates people. (Eph. 2:14) God began working though His Holy Spirit toward His endgame soon after Jesus died and rose again, working through Paul and the disciples to break down the wall between Jew and Gentile. (See Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius)

We won’t participate in achieving the unity for which Jesus prayed without recognizing the big picture – the kingdom of God – and the foundation on which we all stand – Jesus. Given the purposeful prayer of Jesus for unity among his followers, disunity that exists in the Church means we have failed in some way to focus on the things that should unify us. We have allowed differences that shouldn’t matter to divide us.

If the endgame includes people “from every nation, tribe, people and language”, then we should not allow those kinds of differences, at least, to divide us. Racial matters should be a non-issue. We should be one in Christ, right?

Continue reading “Listening While White: Respecting the Image of God in People of Color”

Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out

The exposure and expose of a wildly popular myth

I have written about Tom Holland before and the book he published called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. The story about the book has intrigued me since I heard him talk about it. I am taking my time reading through it.

We all have a perspective, right? We come to whatever we read or hear with certain assumptions that have developed in our thinking. Affirmations of those assumptions sit well, but challenges to those assumptions do not rest easy. You know what I am talking about.

Holland challenges assumptions from all sides, including his own. For that reason, it’s a challenging read, but all lasting growth of any kind comes through conflict and tension.

Holland is a historian with a particular focus on ancient, classical history. He chose dinosaurs over the Bible as a young child. He was more taken y Pontius Pilate than Jesus Christ as a teenager. The ancient, classical world and likes of Julius Caesar captured his imagination. His passion became both avocation and vocation.

When Holland wrote a book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, that painted Islam in a candid and critical light, Holland was criticized and challenged to do a similar history of the assumptions that underlie his worldview. The criticism was fair, so he set out to do it.

His worldview? Holland is an atheist and modern humanist. His worldview is undergirded with ideas like human rights that are equal and unalienable, separation of church and state, the value of scientific endeavor and the social necessity of charity and good will.

When he set out to write a book tracing these values back to their sources, he was not predisposed to assume where he would find them, though he certainly had assumptions and presuppositions. Like the paleontologist sifting through layers of a dig site, though, Holland did his work.

Beginning with Darius and the great Persian Empire, he sought to uncover the roots of modern western thought from one empire to the next. Holland was looking for the roots of ideas that inform the modern western mind.

He did not focus on the usual events that historians often catalogue. He focused on thoughts as they developed and the people who championed them and events as they influenced those thoughts and ideas.

In the ancient world, as one might expect, many of those ideas were garbed in metaphysical dress. Holland’s focus, though, is always on the those thoughts and ideas that continue in our modern values today. The ones that died off, like the dinosaurs, are only interesting side notes to that history.

Much of the book explores the world of gods and beliefs, which seems like an odd thing coming from an atheist, but all the more intriguing. Those were the ideas that animated the ancient world. The beliefs of the ancients are the evolutionary precursors to our modern thought. In those layers of metaphysical sediment lie the traces of our modern values.

In sifting through the soils of history, Holland identifies the roots and beginnings of the ethics and values that ground his worldview as a humanist in the sedimentary layers in which they arose. As often is the case in such endeavors, Holland makes some startling discoveries.

What Holland carefully and methodically uncovers is one seismic development that sets and defines the course of the history of the western mind – a metaphysical Cambrian Explosion” our western thinking is founded on, permeated with and inextricably intertwined in Christian ideas.

Thus, when Holland gets into the Enlightenment Era, he exposes a disconnect that arises out of that soil – an incongruity that bears some candid analysis for its deviation from the origin and trajectory of historical developments to that stage. That the very essence of Enlightenment thinking is sourced from the root it seeks to dig out is both ironic and dangerous, like the man sawing the branch that supports him.

Continue reading “Holland Digs Up the Root of Modern Western Values as Others Attempt to Dig It Out”