On Remembering 9/11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Mrs. Myer’s fifth grade classroom. I remember her coming into the room in hysterics, not being able to express to her students what had happened or why she was so upset. I remember all of the fifth graders making their way into one classroom to watch coverage of everything that had happened. I remember panicked parents coming to pick up their students from school, fearing that more attacks would come. And, although as a ten year-old with no attachment to New York or Washington, it took me a long time to understand the gravity of what had happened, I know I will always remember 9/11.

Every eleventh of September since then, whether in social media or on TV or in public demonstrations, there is a call to “Never forget” what happened on this day in 2001. It is a call to remember what happened, to recognize the importance of that day. And every year, I find myself wondering: What are we remembering? And why?

My general impression is that the generic call to remember implies something like the following: “Never forget that on September 11th, three thousand Americans were killed by Muslim extremists in an unprovoked attack on our country.” And as true as this statement may be, I have been convicted and brought to the conclusion that it is not an acceptable way for followers of Jesus to remember 9/11. So I want to offer an explanation of why this is, as well as present a way of remembering September 11th that I think is properly couched in a Christian view of the world.

Whether intentionally or not, I think there is a latent implication in such a way of remembering that says “this isn’t over yet”—that those who died in the attacks will be avenged. Surely this is the feeling of many Americans; and it is the most natural possible reaction to such an event. But as followers of Jesus, this sentiment cannot be allowed to remain in our hearts or minds. We serve a King who commands a non-retaliatory love of our enemies, and who demonstrates the epitome of this enemy-love on the cross. He prayed for his executioners as they drove the nails into his hands, and he went to the cross to save sinners—to save us—when we were his enemies. He has commanded us not to retaliate against those who do us harm, and this command gives no indication that it allows an exception for evil that is on a large scale. We are to pray for those who persecute us, and this includes militaristic enemies of Western civilization. Hard (even impossible) as it may be, it seems that we are bound by love for our Savior to remove from our hearts any trace of hatred and any desire of revenge for what happened on 9/11.

This mode of remembrance also taps into a disproportionate sentiment of patriotism. The emphasis is on the fact that it was American lives that were taken. This happened on our soil, to our people: to people who believed like we believe and lived like we live. It’s an attack on our way of life, and we take it personally. Again, it is perhaps the most natural reaction we could possibly have. And yet, again, it is one which runs counter to a biblical Christianity and to the character of God. There are no borders in the Kingdom of God; political allegiances do not determine the value of life or the extent to which human beings are created in the image of God. Yes, it is an absolute evil that so many Americans were killed in the attacks of 9/11. But it is an absolutely equal evil that so many men, women, and children have been killed in the Middle East as a result. To citizens of the kingdom of God, national borders do not have the final say in who we love and mourn. As followers of Jesus, we must not allow ourselves to be outraged by 9/11 as something that happened to America, nor should we allow the memory of the tragedy to rally us to an “us versus them” sense of patriotism. Rather, we should view it as something that happened in America, to human beings made in the image of God. And we must also regard all violence that has happened in the Middle East as a result of 9/11 in the same way: not as mindless agents of evil receiving their just deserts, but as violence and evil happening to human beings made in the image of God.

So for followers of Christ, I propose a new way to remember 9/11 each year:

Never forget that on September 11, 2001, men made in the image of God were so twisted by hate and warped by pride that they killed three thousand other human beings made in the image of God. Never forget that apart from the grace of Jesus, we are no more worthy of life than those men were. Never forget that the people around the world who felt, and are still feeling, the repercussions of our reaction to the attack are also human beings made in the image of God. Never forget that we have been commanded to love our enemies. And never forget that while we were enemies of God, He loved us.


Why Being a Christian Sucked

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I can remember thinking (or at least feeling) how terribly boring it was to be a Christian. I could never quite understand how or why speakers and preachers were so excited talking about Jesus. I mean, there was only so much to say before you knew everything there was to know about how to get saved. And after that it was pretty dull; it didn’t take very long to memorize all the rules, and as long as you were obeying those rules then you were pretty much set. I guess I sometimes looked forward to going to heaven, but it was hard to get too excited about that because it was so far out in the future. Also because singing contemporary praise and worship songs in a golden concert venue forever didn’t sound like it would be that much fun.

No offense, MercyMe.
No offense, MercyMe.

But that’s what being a Christian was about, so I just had to smile and make the best of it.  As you may have guessed, mine was not exactly a riveting existence. In fact, though I never would have admitted it at the time, being a Christian sucked. Some of the things that made it suck the most were:

1) Christian Culture
“I know the music isn’t the best, but if you just listen to the lyrics it’s really good.” If I had a nickel for every time I said those words, I could have bought the complete works of KJ-52. I don’t know when it happened, but apparently at some point in the 90s, evangelicals got together and decided two things: 1) All music not explicitly Christian was evil, and 2) Christian music should bear no resemblance to any pre-existing genre of quality music. As a result, many Christians were sucked into the catastrophic black hole of awfulness that is Contemporary Christian Music. I know that at some level this is a personal taste issue, but at another level it’s a fairly objective statement. It all sounds alike, and at some point the songwriters decided that artistic creativity in lyrical composition was entirely optional. But it was the only alternative to the devil’s music on the rest of the radio stations, so we had to listen to it and talk ourselves into believing that it was quality music. On top of Contemporary Christian Music, there were also Christian-produced movies and clothes and various other awful things that they sell at Mardel. And part of our evangelistic message was to convince non-believers that our stuff was just as cool as theirs. Which, of course, didn’t work. Ever. We were a lot like the nerdy kid who’s super into Dungeons and Dragons and constantly tries to convince the rest of the class that it’s totally as cool as sports.

“Jesus is just as cool as Ashton Kutcher! Come to church with us!”

In addition to our continual and pathetic attempts to be pop-culturally acceptable, there was also the political and philosophical world of Christianity. In this world, everything was black and white. Jesus was a Republican, and to stray away from the GOP was tantamount to heresy. Republican presidents were practically given Papal authority over American evangelicals—what they said was infallible, and to question conservatism was to question God himself. Approximately half of our mission to the world as Christians was to get Bush re-elected and attack all decisions made by all Democrats everywhere. Much the same, the philosophical mood within Christianity could generally be summed up in three words: Don’t ask questions. Science and philosophy were obviously wrong and probably evil, because everything you could possibly need to know was written, straightforwardly and unambiguously, in the Bible.

2) Going to Church
Every Saturday night, I got in bed hoping that one of two things would happen: that my parents would oversleep, or that they would forget to wake me up in time for church. Because waking up early on the weekend was the worst. And sitting up straight in nice clothes for an hour sucked. And it was boring because I was already saved and knew everything I needed to know (see intro). And all we were doing was listening to a speaker for an hour, so why couldn’t we just watch somebody preach on TV? Plus, I had to be super friendly with people that I didn’t know very well and only saw once a week, because apparently being friendly on Sunday mornings was something called “Christian community”. But I had to drag myself out of bed and go to church, because that was what Christians did.

3) Being a good kid
I think what sucked the most about being a Christian was that it kept me from doing the things I actually wanted to do. See, I was a good kid. I wasn’t cool enough to be a cool kid, and I didn’t care enough to be a smart kid; so my only real chance at maintaining an identity and avoiding social obscurity at my Christian school was to be one of the good kids. And there were certain things that good Christian kids just didn’t do if they wanted to stay good kids. So to stay a good kid, I had to follow the Three Commandments: Thou shalt not have sex, Thou shalt not drink, Thou shalt not curse. And, of course, the Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt pretend to enjoy not doing these things.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been a high school boy. But if you have, then you know that deep down, these were probably the three things in the world that I wanted to do most. But good Christian kids didn’t do them, so I had to abstain for the sake of my reputation. I pretended that I was proud and psyched to be a virgin; I pretended that being sober at parties was totally more fun than being drunk; and I held my tongue at baseball practice when what I wanted to do most was join in on making dirty jokes with the team. But being a good kid had its perks, I guess. Like…er…not getting in trouble. Yes, being a Christian was about following the rules and experiencing the immense blessing of…not getting in trouble. Of course, following all the rules was a complete buzzkill and really put a damper on my social life. But, it was well worth it to know that I could keep my reputation and that I wouldn’t go to hell.

So I did all of the lame things Christians were supposed to do, and I avoided all of the fun things that we weren’t supposed to enjoy. And it all got me…nowhere. The older I got, the less I wanted to have anything to do with Christian culture. The older I got, the more questions I had, and nobody seemed to have any answers. And most of the time I was just pissed that there were so many limits on how much fun I was allowed to have. So eventually, I just kind of…quit.

The story of what happened between then and now is long and involved and doesn’t belong in a blog. But it’s some years later, and I’m now on staff at a church and about to start seminary. And I am exceedingly excited about both of those things. Because, as it turns out, being a Christian doesn’t suck.

Link to Why Being a Christian Doesn’t Suck

Narnia and C.S. Lewis’s ‘Trilemma’

Something about me that you almost certainly know if we’ve ever had a conversation is that I love C.S. Lewis. His Mere Christianity is one of the primary reasons that I am a Christian at all, and was perhaps the biggest spark for my interest in my field of study. Thus I feel quite indebted to him, both spiritually and intellectually.

I’m in the middle of my annual summer re-reading of The Chronicles of Narnia. All of my Chronicles are dog-eared, highlighted and full of notes in the margins because I plan to write a book someday, exploring how specific arguments and themes from Lewis’s non-fiction play out in the world of Narnia. So I thought I’d start writing some of my thoughts out, and see if anybody actually finds them interesting. I’m going to shoot for one thing from each book, and since I’m reading them in publication order this time through, the first stop is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Lewis’/Professor Kirke’s ‘trilemma’.

The Pevensie children’s adventures in Narnia begin when the youngest, Lucy, enters the realm through a mysterious old wardrobe in the home of eccentric Professor Kirke. She spends several hours there with a faun named Tumnus before returning and excitedly telling her three siblings of her experience. Naturally, the older children do not believe Lucy’s tale, as no time has elapsed in our world during Lucy’s alleged adventure, and they are unable to re-enter Narnia when she takes them to the wardrobe. A few days later, the next youngest of the siblings, Edmund, manages to enter Narnia through the wardrobe along with Lucy. Out of spite, though, he refuses to corroborate Lucy’s story to their older siblings, instead telling them that he and Lucy were simply playing make-believe and that Lucy got carried away. This predictably upsets Lucy to the point of tears and hysteria, at which point the eldest siblings, Peter and Susan, elect to seek guidance from the Professor for how to deal with Lucy’s strange behavior. They express to him their concern that Lucy seems to have developed either a terrible penchant for lying, or worse, that she has begun to go mad. Much to their surprise, the Professor seizes on neither of these options.

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“How do you know,” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

He first asks, in response to the allegations of deceit, whether their experience tells them that Lucy or Edmund (who denied the existence of Narnia) can usually be counted upon to be the most truthful. Peter and Susan both acknowledge that Lucy would normally be the easy choice for trustworthiness. He then dismisses the notion that lunacy could be the cause of the story, saying that it is obvious simply from talking to Lucy that she is not mad. The children realize what he must be implying–that Lucy’s story is true–and begin to express their disbelief, at which point the Professor exclaims:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

The argument is simple (though also brilliant) enough. There are three possibilities: (1) Lucy is lying, (2) Lucy is crazy, or (3) Lucy is telling the truth. The answer is therefore quite obvious (at least to Professor Kirke): Because there is no reason to suspect Lucy of untruthfulness, and no reason to believe she is a lunatic, the most reasonable and most likely conclusion is that she is telling the truth, and that there is a magical world in the wardrobe.

It is an explanatory argument; that is to say, it is not an argument based on empirical evidence or logical first principles. Rather, it takes the evidence that is available and discerns the most probable and reasonable explanation for the situation, based on experience. It is true that, given the evidence the children have, there are any number of other explanations that couldn’t be immediately disproved. For example, Lucy, much out of character, could be lying; she could be experiencing lunacy and delusions; but because some conclusion must be made based on the available evidence, and neither of these explanations seems likely, the most reasonable thing for the children to do is to proceed under the assumption that she is telling the truth. And so goes the wisdom of Professor Kirke, a character who is often considered a literary representation of Lewis himself.

Nearly a decade before the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis presented a strikingly similar argument for the divinity of Jesus in one of his BBC radio wartime talks, all of which would later be written down and published as the bulk of Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

Hopefully the meaning of the term Trilemma is becoming clear, if it was not so already. As Lewis (and Kirke) sees things, there are three real possibilities when someone makes a claim that is extravagant or seemingly impossible: either (1) they are lying, (2) they are crazy, or (3) they are telling the truth. And the greater or more important the claim, the more seriously these three options must be considered. In the case of Jesus, who claimed to be God, each of these options are the superlative in their class: a man claiming to be God is either supremely deluded, supremely deceitful and manipulative, or else supremely and actually God.

Lewis surmises–based on his reading of the historical accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John–that it is very unlikely that Jesus was either a lunatic or a fiend (he wasn’t crazy and he wasn’t a liar); therefore, he concludes, the most reasonable thing to do is to proceed under the assumption that he was telling the truth. Much like Professor Kirke’s defense of Lucy and Narnia, this is an explanatory argument. It is not an argument from empirical proof, but a conclusion based on the most reasonable interpretation of the available evidence. Yes, there are explanations of Jesus’ life and claims that cannot necessarily be disproved: he could have been a good moral teacher who simply got carried away with himself later in life and became delusional; he could have falsely claimed divinity in order to deviously attract a faithful group of followers; but because some conclusion must be made based on the available evidence, and neither of these explanations seem likely, the most reasonable thing for us to do is to proceed under the assumption that he was telling the truth.

Professor Kirke’s trilemma-based defense of Lucy is one of my favorite examples of how Lewis subtly yet explicitly weaves his philosophy and theology into Narnia, in a way that can be both understood by children and enjoyed by theology students.


Link: Epilogue for the Haters (Critics of Lewis’ Trilemma)