The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions


The radical quality of the love of Jesus stands out over and above all other examples. I have written on this before (the Christian expression of the Golden Rule compared to other religions). Most other world religions express some concept of the Golden Rule, but not in the way that Jesus did.

Other world religions state the Golden Rule in a limited way, such as not doing things to others that you would not want them to do to you. It’s the idea of refraining from doing evil. Under that concept of the Golden Rule, we simply need to avoid doing evil to our neighbors. There is no compulsion to do good to them. Ignoring your neighbor would be perfectly acceptable on the this principal.

Most major world religions do not express Golden Rule positively, as Jesus did: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Doing unto others is an affirmative duty. Simply refraining from doing them evil is not the concept of the Golden Rule expressed by Jesus.

Jesus made this clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable begins with a man who was robbed and left injured on the road. A priest and Levite (the priestly cast of Judaism) walked by the man on the other side of the road, ignoring him, while a Samaritan (an outcast to Jews) crossed the road to tend to the injured man. The good Samaritan was the example of the person who demonstrated love for a “neighbor” because he didn’t just ignore the injured man lying in the road.  The idea of the Golden Rule that Jesus expressed includes an affirmative duty to do  good.

To be fair, some religions come close to an affirmative expression of the Golden Rule, which I affirm in the previous blog piece, but there is one additional expression of the Golden Rule that stands alone: that is the concept of loving even our enemies and doing good to those who intend evil toward us and do us harm.

I think of these things as I pause from listening to Douglas Murray in a discussion with Esther Riley on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley, the host. (See Douglas Murray and Esther O’Reilly – Christian Atheism and the search for identity. The video is embedded below.)

Douglas Murray, an atheist and openly gay man, makes the observation that most Christian tenets can be found in other cultures, save one: that is the principal that of loving and forgiving even our enemies. Loving and forgiving our enemies is the ultimate statement of the Golden Rule. Even when we have enemies who intend to do us harm, and even when they actually do us harm, Jesus says, “Forgive them.” The conversation got into some recent examples of that expression of love and forgiveness that I will explore.

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God In the Dark

We don’t expect to find God in our darkest places, and yet He is there.


Jess Lester, journalist writing for Christian Premiere Magazine out of the UK, told her story recently on the Unbelievable podcast in an interview with Justin Brierley. She is Jewish by descent and culture, but she attended a Christian school in her youth. Her parents are no-practicing Jews, but her grandparents were observant.

She grew up with exposure to the Judeo-Christian world, but God was more of an intellectual idea to her than a personal reality. As a teenager, however, she consciously turned her back on God when her very good friend suffered a brain hemorrhage that left her unable to speak. Jess spent several days a week in the hospital with her friend trying to help her speak again, only to experience her friend suffer another brain hemorrhage that left her brain dead.

After her friend’s parents took her off life support, Jess was devastated. She poured herself into her friend’s recovery and prayed along with the family for healing, and God didn’t deliver. God took her friend, she thought, and it angered her. Why would He do that to such a good person?! This experience led Jess to reject God openly and consciously. Following her friend’s death, Jess lived in open rebellion and defiance toward God.

Over the next few years, things went from bad to worse for Jess. She drank, did drugs and slept around in open hostility to the God she thought took her friend from her. She also fell into depression to the point where she had suicidal thoughts and even planned her own demise.  She got desperate, admitting to her mother that she needed help, but the turning point came in a very unlikely place.

Jess attended a concert where a favorite band of hers, the 1975s, were performing. They sang a song that that was defiant toward God. She had played it a dozen times a day and knew the lyrics well. It wasn’t a Christian song in any sense of the term, but she found herself crying out in the middle of the concert these lyrics: “Jesus, Jesus show yourself to me!”

While the lyrics are meant more as a taunt than a plea, she made it her plea from her heart. Looking back now, she says this is when God responded. Subtly at first, it became more apparent to her as time went on that God was with her in her dark times, and He was reaching out to her. I won’t recount the details, here, but they are well worth listening to, along with the other guests that were interviewed for the Christmas Special – Dean Mayes, Jess Lester and Rupert Shortt Share Their Stories.

This story reminds me that we do not always find God in the pious, religious places where we might expect Him. God is everywhere, and that means He is with us in our darkest times and in the darkest of places. While the song that prompted Jess Lester to cry out was actually anti-Christian in its intended meaning, God used that song that Jess knew well as the vehicle by which she connected with Him.

Jess makes the point in telling her story that things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good. That idea of God using bad things for good purposes comes from the Old Testament story of Joseph, who was left for dead in the bottom of a well by his own brothers and taken off into slavery.

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A Discussion about the Influence of Christianity on Western Civilization by Two Non-Believers

What is the the impact of Christianity on the values and assumptions of western civilization?

Dionysus Bacchus Wine statue portrait

In my college English classes, I recall the attitude that Tom Holland conveys in a recent interview of he and AC Grayling by Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable? podcast: Did Christianity give us our human values? Neither Holland nor Grayling are believing Christians, so I was intrigued to listen to what they had to say.

Holland explained that he was raised in the Anglican church, but he found Christianity to be “dull” at an early age. He was much more drawn to the ancient, classical world in the same way he was drawn to dinosaurs when he was younger. “It was big; it was fierce; and it was extinct. To be honest, I was very much on the side of Pontius Pilate: the eagles, the togas, the glamour of it. Jesus becomes slightly dull in comparison. He was a loser, really.”

Tom Holland says there wasn’t a dramatic moment in which he lost his faith. It was more like his faith was a dimmer switch dialing down. He says, “My faith was essentially blotted out by the sun of my fascination with the classical world.”

This was more or less the attitude I remember in the education of my youth. In my high school Latin class, we celebrated Roman society, even dressing in togas one day for some kind of holiday party in class. In 1978, just before I set off for college, Animal House, the movie, practically turned the toga party into a curricular activity.

I remember distinctly a professor explaining through an entire class on Milton’s Paradise Lost why Satan is the most appealing character in that classical work. The theme of naïve innocence and initiation into the world of knowledge that brings with it the thrill of discovery and loss of that innocence runs through all of English literature.

The loss of innocence is a rite of passage. The world of knowledge, being equated with that loss of innocence, is more fun, interesting and downright exciting. “Religion” (Christianity) was viewed as a desperate attempt to hold on to that naiveté, even while the proverbial horses of lust, titillation and wonder about the forbidden world are escaping the barn.

Tom Holland, like my worldly professors in college, gladly left the “dull” world of Christianity behind.  When he set out to write history, he was drawn to write about the Greeks and Romans of his youthful fascination. This effort took him to a surprising place. He says, “I found the experience of living in the minds of people like Caesar, … people I had deeply admired as a child, almost hero worshiped … increasingly unsettling.”

Through the process of researching and writing history, Holland has come to realize that the present values of humanism, secularism and liberalism that are prized in western society find their roots in Christianity. They realization of the impact of Christianity on the values and assumptions of Western civilization was “sharpened” for him in the process of writing a book on the history of Islam.

Holland recalls that he found himself coming to the conclusion that “[much of what] Muslims believe about the origins of Islam are actually mythic, are back projections”. Muslim critics repeatedly complained of the book he wrote on the Islam, challenging him that he wouldn’t dream of subjecting his own beliefs and values to the same critical review. Thus, Holland says, the book he wrote most recently, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, began as an attempt to subject the origins of his own cultural values to the same standard of critical review.

He says that the book was his effort to take the criticism to heart and to trace the thread of his own humanist, liberal values back to see “where it leads through the labyrinth”.  Speaking of that effort, the culmination of which is now in print, he says,

“Ultimately, it leads back to Christianity, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in almost all of the essentials, myself, my friends, the society in which I live, the whole of the west is so saturated in Christian assumptions that it is almost impossible to remove ourselves from them.”

This is not the post-modern, post-Christian narrative that I have heard elsewhere. Indeed, AC Grayling, the other guest on the podcast that inspires this blog today, takes a different view. That is the subject of the interview. The interview is worth a listen, whether you might side with Grayling or with Holland. The fact that Holland comes out of the atheist camp to announce what he has determined from his research is noteworthy. Therefore, I publish this short blog post and invite you to listen along to this interesting discussion.

The Danger of Triumphalism in the Church


Marcelo Gleiser, a Brazilian physicist and astronomer and currently Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, won the Templeton Prize for his outstanding contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.[1] He is an agnostic, but he isn’t hostile to religion or faith. He maintains an open mind, stating:

“Atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method….

“Atheism is a belief in non-belief. So you categorically deny something you have no evidence against.

“I’ll keep an open mind because I understand that human knowledge is limited.”[2]

In listening to Gleiser recently on a podcast[3], I was reminded of another gentleman I listened to recently. Dr. Soong Chan-Rah, an evangelical professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. On first glance, these two gentlemen might seem like odd companions in my thoughts, but they inspire this blog piece.

Gleiser grew up in Brazil. His mother died when he was 6. He described that her death led him into a dark time in his life. He was Jewish and lived in a conservative Jewish community, but it wasn’t Judaism that led him out of the darkness that threatened to undo him as a young boy. It was science.

Gleiser was drawn by the wonder of science and scientific discovery. His interest in science was sparked by the gift of an autographed photo of Albert Einstein from his uncle. It became his “altar”, and it led him to become fascinated with the “exploration of the mysterious”. He left the darkness of his teenage years with a purposeful decision to engage the mysteries of the world to find answers.

Though Gleiser reveres science, and even speaks of it in terms like an idol, he isn’t hostile to faith, and he is humble enough to make room for the possibility of God and spiritual reality. Hearing him talk about the limits of science and possibilities of faith from “outside the fold” can be instructive. Dr. Soon Chan-Rah doesn’t come from the outside of faith, but he also introduces a perspective that is outside the framework of typical American evangelicalism.

Dr. Chan-Rah didn’t tell his story in the talk I listened to, but he is obviously Asian by descent. I bring that up only because it suggests he has a perspective that isn’t colored wholly by the fabric of western civilization.  I think it is vitally important that we hear from outside perspectives, lest we never question the assumptions we take for granted – the extra-biblical (and maybe unbiblical) influences that creep in with our cultural environment that go unquestioned.

Dr. Chan-Rah spoke about the noticeable influence of lamentations in the Old Testament, and the conspicuous lack of lamentations exhibited in American evangelical culture. For an example, about forty percent (40%) of the Psalms might be characterized as lamentations. Whereas, only about twenty percent (20%) of the songs in modern American hymnals might contain some form of lament, and those songs often go unsung in our church services. As for contemporary Christian music, we might be hard pressed to find more than five (5) songs out of the top one hundred (100) containing any form of lament.

Whether the math is exactly right, the point is clear. We don’t engage in lament in our American evangelical culture to the same degree as reflected in the Scripture. Chan-Rah attributed that cultural characteristic with several things, including the sense of triumphalism that has permeated our culture. That observation is what brings me to write this blog piece. Please allow me to explain.

Continue reading “The Danger of Triumphalism in the Church”

Perspective and Worldviews

We should not hold on so tightly to our own perspectives that we cannot be molded by God’s eternal perspective and gentle hand.


It’s always interesting to listen to people who come from outside our own circles. I have become a religious listener of the Unbelievable Podcast hosted by Justin Brierley in the UK. The difference of perspective that is driven by our different experiences, individual, familial and cultural, is the subject of this piece.

Two recent podcasts come to mind. The first included two Christians, one with an egalitarian view on women and the other with a complimentarian view on women (Unbelievable? #MeToo and the Church: Egalitarian vs Complementarian • Natalie Collins & Phil Moore). The egalitarian position is the progressive view, and the complimentarian position is the conservative view. That seems obvious enough. What interested me was not only the difference in opinions, but the influences that shaped those opinions.

The other podcast (Unbelievable? Render unto Caesar – Should the church keep out of economic politics? Andy Walton vs James Price) involved two more Christians, one with a view that the church should speak to politics, and another with a view that the church should not speak to politics, but should stick to theological things. These guys, being from Great Britain, turn the American views of these things on their heads. Thus, a difference in perspective that prompts me to write this blog piece.

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The Importance of Relationship, Trust and Commonality

The Gospel isn’t primarily a what, but a Who – Jesus, who transforms people who follow him.


This morning I have listened to a podcast and read an article on the same theme: Christians who desire not to be defined by the things they are against. I didn’t go searching for themed material today, these things came together organically as I went about my daily habits of listening to a podcast first thing in the morning and reading throughout the day.

Early this morning, I listened to Justin Brierley interview Christian evangelist, Kevin Palau, and Sam Adams, the gay mayor of Portland, OR, on their unlikely friendship.  Later in the morning, as I was waiting on hold on the phone (for along time I might add), I read an article in Relevant Magazine: Don’t Be Defined By What You’re Against. I will add that the verse of the day on the Bible app is Psalm 90:12 (“So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”)

While these three sources of material may not seem like thematic material, I assure you they are. Beginning with the interview, the evangelist, Palau, explained the motivation for engaging with the City of Portland in civic service. Palau recognized that Christians were known in the community primarily as people who were opposed to certain things, and not anything positive – let alone as followers of Jesus.

Palau also recognized that Christians were distrusted by the community, and so he set out to regain the community trust. The first thing Palau and his church did was to respond to the needs of a local public school that was failing. Not only did they show up; the showed up in such force that people took notice. What was supposed to be a day of work turned into an ongoing labor of love.

Palau and his church were so successful in making a positive impact that they inspired churches around the community to adopt schools, and the schools, in turn, embraced the church involvement. The involvement caught the attention of the mayor of Portland and his chief assistant, Sam Adams, who would later become mayor himself.

Palau and Adams are an unlikely pair to become friends, but that is what they are today. Adams is the first openly gay mayor of Portland. Palau is an evangelical evangelist. Adams confirms Palau’s concerns by agreeing that he previously only knew evangelicals for what they stood against, but now, he says, there are more things they agree on than disagree on.

Adams recognizes that they have some fundamental disagreements on key issues for both of them, but those areas of disagreement are no longer the defining characteristic. They now join hands on addressing areas in which they agree and have formed a long-term friendship as a result.

Palau has built a bridge without compromising his faith. As a result, Adams and the community no longer view evangelicals only for what they stand against; they also see what evangelicals stand for.  The community now knows that the Gospel means more than calling out sin. It means meeting peoples’ needs, loving people and offering hope. The Gospel isn’t primarily a what, but a Who – Jesus, who transforms people who follow him.

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Homosexuality and the Church

What we need is for the church to have the conversation on homosexuality better.


I am a big fan of Justin Brierley’s podcast, Unbelievable! on Premiere Christian Radio in the UK. The theme of the podcast is to interview persons with different viewpoints on a variety of subjects that usually focus on some aspect of faith. Often the interviewees include a person of faith and a person of no faith. Sometimes, the interviewees are people of different faiths. The podcast that aired on November 24, 2018, included two Christians on different sides of the debate about homosexuality: How should gay Christians express their sexuality?

David Bennett “grew up in an agnostic/atheist home” but became a “conservative” Christian, while Justin Lee represents the mirror image of David’s experience. Justin grew up in “a very devoutly Christian home”.

Justin relates that he understood that being a Christian meant “taking a loving but principled stand against homosexuality” and that “being gay is a sinful choice”. He felt it was his obligation as a Christian to speak out and encourage people not to be gay. He believed that God would “lead people out of homosexuality”. He believed that homosexuality was a choice, which is what his Southern Baptist church taught.

But then, Justin came to realize that he was same sex attracted himself. In spite of praying and believing that God would change him, his feelings didn’t change. He struggled with that realization until he came to believe that same sex attraction is not a sin. Though Justin is still single, he now engages in ministry to the gay and lesbian community who he says have been left adrift by the greater Christian community.

These two men, both same sex attracted, have come from opposite shores, crossed in between, and take different positions in respect to homosexuality and faith. They engage in a very thoughtful, honest and thought-provoking conversation with Justin Brierley in the podcast.

You can hear the whole thing by clicking on the link in the first paragraph above. Meanwhile, I will summarize their divergent experiences that cross over from opposite shores below.

Continue reading “Homosexuality and the Church”