Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

Reflections on Judy

There’s a moment in this movie that just pierced the heart of it for me. The heart of who we all really are.

Judy Garland (real name Frances Gumm) is sitting in a British GP’s surgery. It’s 1968, the angry concert promoter is sick of her unreliable behaviour, and has (in his wisdom) sent her to the doctor for vitamin injections. A last ditch effort to save his future concert dates and his bank balance, not Judy’s health problems.

Injections won’t help.

Hers is a story of control and manipulation, of being at the mercy of the brutal Hollywood system. We’ve already been treated to sobering scenes of her as a younger woman making “The Wizard of Oz”. (Do I ever want to watch that movie again?) Judy has lived a life mixed through with privilege, public adoration and emotional abuse. It has led her to this point. She sits now in this doctor’s surgery. Stripped bare. Not physically. But in every other way. She’s 47 years old, but still the child that is unable to stand up against the dominating and controlling voices that have moulded her.

A middle aged doctor is staring into her gaunt face. He’s expressing professional concern about her low weight, her tracheotomy scars (“I tried to kill myself,” she admits). But he does not add to the verbal abuse she has endured. Rather, his is a voice of concern and wistfulness.

He looks off into the distance at one point. “I had a real thing for Dorothy Gale when I was growing up. She was so earnest. So concerned about doing the right thing. What touched me most was how kind she was to her dog.”

A precious childhood memory plays on his face, while a resigned, exhausted world weariness is ground into hers. The actress who had once been Dorothy.

Judy wasn’t a difficult person because she was born that way. She was nurtured and made that way. It left her permanently yearning, with the need to belong.

Reflecting on Judy, I’m struck by how fragile human beings are. I don’t mean our physical make up. I mean how delicate the thing is. The thing that is us. The Bible states that “God created human beings … reflecting [His] nature,”[1] and so this makes us valuable. Whatever anyone else says about us, God looks at us and sees someone He crafted. Our unique personality somehow reflects the attributes of God Himself. Whatever happens, we are precious to Him.

And yet – we can allow other people to crush that unique personality we’ve been gifted with. Perhaps it’s our need for affirmation and our compelling drive to please other people that crushes us. Maybe we’ve just allowed other people to blot out who we are, and gotten used to living as if they matter more than us. This is a road to frustration and loss in life. For Judy, it meant medicated pain, the relational chaos that comes from never truly belonging, and ultimately a life cut tragically short. Yet that pain is not what God has intended. His intention was for us to flourish as unique people.

As we reflect on these things, maybe we look with empathy at Judy and her life. Perhaps some of us look with recognition. “That’s me,” we say to ourselves. There will be no quick fixes for us. But perhaps the important question facing us is – will we decide to take a step in the right direction today? Consider accepting the statement I pointed to above? That God’s original intention was to make us good. Even if people and life has stripped it from us, they have no right to do so. Ask Him to give you back the goodness that belongs to you, and the life he has for us to live.

[1] Genesis 1:26 – 28, The Message translation.

Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.

Embracing “Where the Lost Things Go”

mary poppins

During her promotional tour for Mary Poppins Returns, I heard Emily Blunt say that, at the start of filming principal photography, Rob Marshall held his actors back from visiting the Cherry Tree Lane set. His intention was to wait until the conditions were just right, the lighting and the set build was complete, and the Mary Poppins score was playing over the studio sound system. Only then were the actors allowed to take their first steps back into the fictional world they were going to bring back to life for us. She remembered the emotional experience this was for the wonderful Dick Van Dyke.

I feel the filmmakers have beautifully succeeded in capturing the tone and the voice of the original classic movie (tho apparently not P L Traver’s original vision!) and again brought a positive message out for adults and children alike. Bravo, guys.

As a child who watched the original with his sister Annie, I always felt that the song “Feed the Birds” somehow captured the heart of that original story in a poignant, almost painful way. George Banks, and his opportunity to learn to cherish his family over his career. Similarly, I feel the new song “Where the Lost Things Go” does the same for Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. Whether it be the painful loss of the children’s mother, the agony of the loss of the share certificate that Michael and Jane hunt for, and the threat of the loss of the house.

Well maybe all those things

That you love so

Are waiting in the place

Where the lost things go.

The message of the song that Mary Poppins sings to the children is that nothing is lost without a trace. They may be out of place, but they are in a place where we will find them again.

Back in 2007, my family lost Annie, and she died way too young leaving her children behind. You can imagine the effect Mary Poppins’ new song had on me in the darkened cinema. As I think about it, this is a gentle song that fiercely faces reality. Life involves loss. It is the nature of life, it is the experience of every person at every time. It’s a universal experience. And yes – we dwell on those things or those places or those people who seem lost to us now. But – they only seem to be lost.

Memories you’ve shed

Gone for good you feared

They’re all around you still

Though they’ve disappeared…

Nothing’s gone forever

Only out of place.

This is a song of hope for all of us. How beautiful it was when the children sang the song back to their hurting and broken father. It’s a lovely sentiment. But is there any reality to it for real life? Outside of the confines of the Mary Poppins fictional world…in our all too real lives…does this song work still? When we’ve lost people, jobs, status and position… When we face the insecurity of Brexit. Does the song still work? Do our lost loved ones only live in our hearts as a cherished memory? Is security still possible for us in the midst of uncertainty? Listen to the final verse.

So maybe now the dish

And my best spoon

Are playing hide and seek

Just behind the moon

Waiting there until

It’s time to show

Spring is like that now

Far beneath the snow

Hiding in the place

Where the lost things go

 

As I listened to this, it reminded me of something. There’s a phrase, an idiom, a refrain that is repeated throughout the Old Testament…about those who die being gathered to their people.

“Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 35:29)

“All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation …” (Judges 2:10)

And the message of the New Testament takes this on further. Jesus himself teaches that “My father’s house has many rooms … I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2)

The message of Christianity is not just that God is preparing a place where he longs for the lost people to go. But rather, there is a place waiting for them that they will recognise as their home. What’s more…those who we have lost…are waiting to welcome us when we die.

Believe me – I know the pain that results from the realization that I’m never again going to enjoy my little sister’s company, watch her selfless life choices, and listen to her encouraging voice. That was a tough truth to grapple with. And – I expect I’ll experience this challenge again when I lose future loved ones. Yet – in the midst of this challenge – there’s a real hope that the Bible, and “Where the Lost Things Go” reminds me of.

So maybe now the dish

And my best spoon

Are playing hide and seek

The day is coming when we will find each other again. I recommend playing this game as someone who knows and loves the Jesus who is preparing this home for us…because there’s no guarantee we will experience that home otherwise. But why would anyone reject such a wonderful offer? That meets the longing in all of us…brought out by Mary Poppins…to be reunited with everyone we lose? Jesus wants it for each of us.

 

 

 

RESPONDblog: Christianity’s Not As Mysterious As You Think

I found myself at Vasquez Rocks National Park this weekend. Actually – this was completely intentional. I was hunting for a shooting location used by the makers of the Original Series of Star Trek from the 1960s. What can I tell you…? I’m nerdy like that.

The episode I was thinking of is called “Arena”; Captain Kirk finds himself facing the war like Gorn creature on the surface of an asteroid with a suspiciously “earth-like” atmosphere. Which is handy. A superior race, the Metrones, have decided that Kirk must fight his adversary to the death. Not so superior, eh? In reality – William Shatner was acting his socks off with a poor guy sweating in a green rubber suit.

I wanted to find the spot where their iconic battle happened. After all…I remember watching the episode as a child.

My strategy on arriving at Vasquez Rocks National Park was to launch myself “Kirk like” into the mysterious and rugged countryside…to explore various trails and various rock formations in the 35 degree heat. “That looks kinda familiar…maybe they filmed it there? Oh no – hang on – maybe it was here? Man…I’m hot.”

After an hour or so trudging around in the oven like heat…I returned to the visitors centre for a rest. I sensed that I hadn’t really found what I was looking for. Walking back to the car…I noticed a big sign that I had driven past an hour ago when I first entered the park. It read, “To the Rocks” – with a big arrow pointing up a well built road to my left.

Genius that I am – I asked myself – “Hang on. Why don’t I follow that arrow…and just drive up that road? I wonder what’s up there?” I jumped into the car…drove up the signposted road…and eventually arrived at a large visitors car park. Exiting the car…I looked around. I was already hot…but I was getting warmer. I recognised these rock formations.

I began chatting on Twitter with my friend Alan. I explained what I was doing and – very helpfully – he sent me an image of the Star Trek episode that showed the location I was looking for. I gulped at the image on my phone screen. Raising my head, I looked again at the entrance to the visitors car park I had just driven through.

Would you believe it?

Star Trek had filmed the iconic Gorn battle scene HERE – within the visitors car park at the end of the road!! Of course. With so much equipment…the lights and cameras transported by truck…the film crew needed a wide space to set things up. It made perfect sense to use the car park. It’s slightly disappointing to me though that the scene was captured…in a car park. This Star Trek episode has lost some of its mystique to me now…

On reflection – I made this trip much much harder for myself than it needed to be. I hadn’t actually rewatched the episode on Netflix before travelling to the location…I was working from memories and assumptions in my head about what the location looked like. Life would have been easier…if I’d just googled a picture first. Worse – when I arrived at the park…I didn’t follow the clear and obvious signage that was provided and staring me in the face! I decided to purposefully wander off into the countryside instead.

In the end…finding what I was looking for was really easy and straightforward. It just required me to look at the source material…and follow the obvious instructions that were available.

It occurred to me as I reflected on these hilarious mistakes, that this might not be too different from how many people approach Christianity. One friend…sceptical of Christianity… said to me recently, “Why don’t I get it like you, Stuart?”

Well – maybe its like me hunting for the iconic Kirk vs the Gorn location without watching the episode first? We’re relying on our half remembered ideas about what Christianity is about…but why don’t we just go back and look at what it actually IS all about? The life of Jesus as documented in the New Testament. How about we actually read what, say, the Gospel of Mark actually records that Jesus said and did?

Further, so many people I’ve spoken to assume that the claims of Christianity are unreliable today. Their starting assumption is that the history of Christianity is very complicated…and so one needs to dig really deeply to work out what actually happened to cause the Christian church 2000 years ago. And frankly – that is too much work for most people. Well – perhaps we are missing the clear and obvious signpost that is staring us right in the face? We’ve dived off into the countryside…and come up with nothing useful as a result. And we’ve probably given up. Instead – why don’t we come back to the starting point and follow the clear signage that has been provided to lead us to what we’re looking for? Stop assuming its hard and complicated – and just follow the road and see where it takes us?

You know, historians have identified that the oldest and so the earliest description of Christian belief is recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. There’s an ancient creed written there in this letter that predates all of the layer gospel biographies of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) by decades. The creed itself may date to just a few months after Jesus’ crucifixion…capturing what the first Christians stood for. This is the clear and obvious signage that I’m talking about. What does it say?

“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born”

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV

It’s not complicated. Its laid out clearly. Just follow the signpost. Jesus was raised from the dead – this fact was widely accepted and assumed by both friends and enemies of Christianity during the 1st century. The first Jesus followers worked to help other people become friends and followers of this Jesus too. He was crucified on a cross, but he’s not a dead, ancient figure of history. He’s a vital and real person who is still alive today.

So why don’t we get this? Possibly because…we think we know better. Can I suggest to you…from experience…that we don’t know better. Christianity is worth “getting”. It really is. And it’s not hard to do. It just requires us to lay aside our wrong thinking…and follow the evidence provided.

As I drove away from Vasquez Rocks and pointed my car to home, I laughed out loud as I joined highway I-14. What did I find funny? You can actually plainly see the Star Trek shooting location as you drive up the highway! It’s SO obvious. It’s clearly laid out for all to see…it’s not mysterious..not hidden away in some obscure spot in the desert.

All you have to do to find what you need…is first not convince yourself that finding it is just too hard. And second, follow those signs that point to Jesus Christ.

RESPONDblogs: Was Jesus’ Tomb LOST rather than EMPTY?

thelosttomb

During Easter this year, there was a startling claim made by Israeli Geologist Doctor Aryeh Shimron – “the Son of God was buried with nine other people, including Judah, son of Jesus and his wife, named Mary.” In other words – Dr Shimron is claiming that scientific methods have been used to refute and dismiss the 2000 year old Christian claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth physically from the dead following his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities during the AD 30s.

 

This is fascinating – but when one looks at what he is saying – the case he proposes is pretty weak to me.

 

The tomb in question is not a new discovery at all. The Talpiot tomb was unearthed during the 1980s. And the original case for identifying the Talpiot tomb as the permanent resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and his wife and children took quite a stretch of the imagination.

 

This case was made back in 2007 when movie director James Cameron (I’m a big fan of his movies) made a big media splash claiming that the final resting place of Jesus had been identified…his documentary entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” focussed on the Talpiot tomb. This became a great exercise in film making and marketing – but according to Doctor Gary Habermas…there wasn’t much solid history being done.

 

Cameron’s excitement was down to the discovery of Ossuaries bearing names. First century Jewish custom was to return to the grave a year after your loved one’s interment; at this point the burial clothes only contained their bones. The bones were retrieved from the tomb and placed in an Ossuary which then usually remained in the tomb. In the Talpiot tomb, various Ossuaries were discovered bearing familiar names, including Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph), Maria (Mary), Yose (Joseph/ Jose), Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus) and Mariamene e Mara (Miriam and Martha).

 

Could this represent evidence that Jesus of Nazareth died a normal human death? There is a box with his name on it containing bones, after all. What of the claim that Jesus of Nazareth married Mary Megdelene (Mariamene) and bore a son named Judah? Is this a reasonable inference based on the available evidence?

 

The majority of scholars who work in this field of history claim no it is not – many problems and unwarranted assumptions are being made by the filmmaker and his team. So what historical problems and assumptions exist with the 2007 case that James Cameron made?[1][2]

 

1 – Studies by scholar Richard Bauckham demonstrate that these names were VERY common in this region during the first century. There were lots of men named Jesus, women named Mary, Josephs, etc. In fact, the name Jesus has been found on 22 Ossuaries in 99 tombs. Joseph appears on 45 Ossuaries. And Mary is THE most common female name in the ancient Jewish world.

 

2 – The Jesus in the tomb was clearly known as “Son of Joseph”. But we know from the New Testament record that the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth didn’t call him that.

 

3 – The Talpiot tomb has been identified as an expensive one. Jesus of Nazareth and his family were not wealthy at all; they were the equivalent first century peasants.

 

4 – It is highly unlikely that the family tomb for Jesus of Nazareth would be found in Jerusalem as his family was not from Jerusalem originally.

 

5 – The ancient Jewish custom involved reuse of these bone boxes over time. An archaeologist who oversaw the original Talpiot tomb find estimated that ten Ossuaries contained the remains of seventeen people and that the surrounding tomb contained the remains of another thirty people. Of course, there is no way to tell if the bones in the box correspond to the name on the box. But it is very straightforward to tell that there are probably multiple remains, presumably of people bearing the same common name, in a single bone box.

 

6 – The introduction of DNA evidence in the case certainly brings an air of authority and “statement of fact” to the proceedings! Scientists are certainly considered the thought leaders of our day. Yet a valuable scientific method is being used here to produce data which must be reasonably and honestly interpreted. This interpretation is vulnerable to presuppositions. Such is the case in the Talpiot tomb.

 

The DNA evidence shows that there are no positive connections between anyone found in that tomb. This lack of a DNA match is used by Cameron’s team to infer a marriage relationship between Jesus and Mariamene. But this inference is unwarranted. No shred of evidence for this relationship exists. This lady could have been married to anyone in this tomb…or she could have been a daughter or lived decades after the Jesus named on the Ossuary. There is no way to be sure, particularly given the Jewish habit of burying extended families in shared tombs.

 

 

In summary – the scholarship of today is not impressed by Cameron’s “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. So I propose that we should be wary of its conclusions too.

 

jesus_ossuary2_sm

Coming back to the new case being proposed by geologist Doctor Shimron, what about the case he is proposing? Is it stronger? Perhaps he has uncovered more data linking and identifying the remains in some way?

 

It appears not.

 

Doctor Shimron’s case relates to a separate Ossuary known as the James Ossuary; it has an inscription on it which reads “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”. Doctor Shimron is attempting to prove that this Ossuary originated in the Talpiot tomb. This is significant to Shimron because, if he can do this, then he can bolster Cameron’s case. The New Testament documents record that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother named James. Given all the names found in the Talpiot tomb, if there was also a box labelled James there…then the evidence begins to stack up!

 

Doctor Shimron is trying to prove the link between the James Ossuary and the Talpiot tomb by comparing the muck and dust (patina) encrusting the Talpiot Ossuaries with the James one. If it is the same muck, then the Ossuaries must have originated in the same tomb. Right?

 

While scholars are interested by Shimron’s methods, it appears that his conclusions are again unwarranted and join Cameron’s claims as being unlikely at best.

 

1 – The James Ossuary had been in circulation during the 1970s, many years before the Talpiot had been excavated. How can an artefact originate in a location which is currently undiscovered and unopened?

 

2 – The dimensions of the James Ossuary are very different from the dimensions of the discovered Talpiot Ossuaries. It would not have fitted physically into the available space in that tomb.

 

3 – The James Ossuary is viewed with some suspicion by historians. Its origin is unknown. It was not excavated by an archaeologist; it appeared on the antiquities market during the 1970s. This means that the inscription on the Ossuary might be a forgery, added to increase the value of the item to potential buyers.

 

 

Has Doctor Ayreh Shimron finally made a convincing case that Jesus of Nazareth was married, had a child and died a natural death? Based on the evidence provided, no he has not.

 

But what is compelling (I would suggest) is the 2000 year old evidence that undergirds the Christian claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.

  • The original first century tomb wasn’t mysterious at all; it was well known and owned by Joseph of Arimathea who was a Jewish leader.
  • As soon as the Christian preaching of a resurrected Christ began, all it would have taken to stop this movement would have been to open the tomb and retrieve the body.
  • And the content of the early Christian preaching was surprising and unlikely in itself. They spoke of a crucified Messiah who had been raised from the dead right there at their time. This is so far outside the construct of ancient Judaism, that something incredible must have happened to provoke it within Jesus’
  • All the historical sources agree that very soon after Jesus’ internment, the tomb was empty.
  • The sources also agree that he appeared physically to up to five hundred people during a short period following his crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners.

 

 

Are we ever going to find the tomb containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth? I think not, because…

 

“He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen.” Matthew 28:6, NLT

[1] Gary Habermas, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Response to the Discovery-Channel Documentary Directed by James Cameron,” Dr Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed April 16th 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/The_Lost_Tomb_of_Jesus/losttombofjesus_response.htm.

[2] Gary Manning Jr, “New Claims Regarding the ‘Family of Jesus’ Tomb,” The Good Book blog, accessed April 16th 2015, http://www.thegoodbookblog.com/2015/apr/13/new-claims-regarding-the-family-of-jesus-tomb/.

RESPONDblogs: Is the Christian Claim of Jesus’ Resurrection Just Wishful Thinking?

i_want_to_believe

In 1961, the first big Alien Abduction claim hit the public consciousness. Barney and Betty Hills, from Portsmouth New Hampshire, reportedly had a Close Encounter with…something. It has cemented them and their claims firmly in pop culture.

 

And this raises a question for me. As I raise my eyebrow at the Hills’ outlandish claim, I wonder whether the New Testament’s report of Jesus physical return from the dead is any less outlandish and fanciful?

 

Let’s go back for a moment to the cold war tensions and paranoia of 1961. It wasn’t just a new decade marked by musical brilliance and Moon shots. Aliens were also reportedly doing medical procedures on unfortunate folks who were going about their daily business!

 

What exactly was Barney Hills claim?

 

Driving home one evening, they thought they saw something unusual in the night sky. Actually – many people including the US Military later agreed that something weird was happening that night. They reportedly stopped the car and took a good look. But the bright lights – and the erratic behavior of the object – began to freak them out. So they hurried back to their car and drove on. Before long – it became apparent they were 35 miles further down the road than they should have been. They appeared to have lost time!

Many weeks later, following a period of disrupted sleep and nightmares, they reportedly went thru regression hypnosis. And this brought out vivid details of little bald grey captors, operating tables and medical procedures.

Actually this is only the first well documented case of Alien Abduction – throughout the next 20 years, a number of similar claims were made by apparently ordinary people with no apparent reason to lie.

 

The New Testament contains 2000 year old eyewitness reports from apparently ordinary people too.

  • Reports of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, followed by the grief and shock of his friends.
  • Reports that these grieving people then subsequently encountered their friend back from the dead at various different times and places over a 40 day period.

 

Sounds pretty unlikely – right? Dead people don’t come back. Aliens don’t abduct people driving home in their cars.

 

Whatever historical event you are trying to verify – whether mundane or fantastical – historians apply 5 criteria to test the solidity of the report.

A solid Historical claim will:

1 – be supported by multiple, independent sources

2 – be attested to by enemies (hostile witnesses) as well as friends

3 – include embarrassing admissions which reflect honest reporting rather than creative storytelling

4 – be supported by direct eyewitness testimony

5 – be supported by early testimony making legendary development impossible

 

The problem with the Barney and Betty Hills Alien Abduction claim is – by the criteria laid out above – we do not have a solid Historical report.

The only witnesses were the alleged abductees. There are no independent sources or witnesses – either friendly or hostile – to the Hill’s claim.  While other people agreed something strange was seen in the night sky that evening in September 1961, no other witness to the alleged Close Encounter exists. We’re right to be skeptical – their case is historically unverified.

 

So – what about the Bible’s claim that God raised Jesus from the dead? (Acts 2:24) Well – a historical case based on a minimal set of data does exist. What is this data and how solid is the case?

 

DATA POINT 1 – The Death of Jesus By Crucifixion

This fact is attested by every Gospel, and many non-Christian sources too. For example – Roman historian Josephus, Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata as well as the Jewish Talmud itself.

Jesus crucifixion meets the historical criteria of multiple independent eyewitnesses, early sources and enemy attestation.

Some have proposed that – maybe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. He merely swooned, was then buried and was then revived in the cold tomb.

But this doesn’t work.

  • Roman executioners were excellent torturers and executioners
  • Jesus faking his resurrection goes against his moral teachings
  • There are no early reports he was wounded and not killed
  • A half dead Messiah could not serve as the foundation for a belief in the Resurrection. If his friends had encountered him bloodied and bleeding…they would not have called him the Lord of Life. They would have called him a doctor!
  • Jewish thinking said, only once at the end of human history would the dead be raised. This means that – on encountering Jesus alive again after his crucifixion –his followers would naturally have just assumed he didn’t die. Yet this is not what they claimed. It is highly culturally unusual for the Jewish early Church to proclaim him as Christ crucified and raised from death.

 

DATA POINT 2 – The Empty Tomb

All naturalistic theories that attempt to explain away the Resurrection presuppose the empty tomb. The body was reportedly gone.

From the beginning, the hostile Jewish authorities claimed that Jesus’ followers had stolen his body to fake his resurrection. But this claim gives no reason WHY they would have done so.

Further – the claim that the disciples stole the body does not work within Jewish culture at that time. There was no expectation of a Messiah who would become the suffering servant; who was executed shamefully by the Gentiles, and then raised bodily before the general resurrection at the end of time. Rather – Messiah’s were ten a penny in ancient Jerusalem. If your Messiah got themselves killed – you either gave up and went home, or you hitched your wagon to a different one. But the idea that Jesus followers stole his corpse and faked his resurrection just wouldn’t have entered their minds at that point in Jewish history.

Finally – if the disciples stole the body – this doesn’t explain the conversion of Christianity’s 1st century enemy turned Apostle – Saul who became Paul.

Surely if someone had managed to produce his rotting corpse and deposit it in the middle of Jerusalem for all to see….that would have been an end to it. But they could not.

DATA POINT 3 – The Post-Resurrection Appearances

Scholars cite 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as the earliest snapshot of Christian belief about Jesus. Paul claimed to receive this creed from the original Apostles many years before he wrote his letter. Scholars date the creed to within months or weeks of the crucifixion itself.

Three of our four minimal facts are recorded there as an early statement of belief – Christ died, his tomb was discovered empty and he was seen by his closest friends. And then more than five hundred people saw him at once.

The early date of this creed rules out legendary embellishment because there simply wasn’t time for legends to develop. And besides – the eye witnesses were still alive at the time this was passed on.

Yet over hundreds of years some legends did develop; they are referred to as the 3rd century Gnostic Gospels. In comparison to the New Testament’s stark and excited eyewitness reporting, the Gnostic Gospels are full of bizarre and fanciful imagery.

 

Some have suggested hallucination as an explanation for the appearances. People saw what they wanted to see. But Psychologists have ruled this out. Hallucinations are private experiences yet crowds of eyewitnesses reportedly witnessed the risen Jesus. Remember, Jews would not expect to see a raised Jesus anyway. And finally – hallucination does not explain the empty tomb itself or indeed Saul’s conversion to Christianity.

 

DATA POINT 4 – The Origin of the Christian Faith

Within one generation of Jesus crucifixion, “the Way” had spread to Europe, Asia and Africa. If Christianity is the effect – then what was the cause?

Well – surely the most obvious cause is the Apostles belief that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. And this belief transformed people’s lives. The cultural worship practices of Jewish people changed. Church moved to a Sunday.

Could the Disciples have stolen the body and made it all up? No lie or shared conspiracy or mistaken observation has the explanatory power to ignite the Christian church in human history.

 

IN SUMMARY

Jesus resurrection is based on historically verifiable evidence – it meets the 5 requirements outlined earlier in this blog. However unusual the event, there is powerful evidence of the event’s historical reliability. Even though we don’t understand how it happened – this does not preclude us from historically accepting that it did happen.

 

Really?

You’ve got to be gullible to believe Alien abduction reports – right? In the same way, dead men do not rise!

Hold on a minute –

The historical basis of the resurrection is incredibly strong. And no one claims Jesus was raised from the dead by natural means. Christians simply repeat what the Bible eye witness accounts say – that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Besides – you don’t have to understand something to accept the truth of it. Ask any Scientist to explain human consciousness; where does it come from? Then ask them what energy really is. They don’t really know. If Scientists can accept these things even though they don’t understand how and why they work – can’t we accept Jesus’ Resurrection as true based on observable and historically verifiable evidence?

Logic and Leadership

Since Leonard Nimoy’s death last week, I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite episodes from old school, 1960s Star Trek. It’s titled The Galileo 7.

Mr Spock takes a small team in a shuttlecraft to explore a region of space. Bad stuff happens and – long story short – they crash land on a planet. What’s worse is that the crash causes a leak in the shuttlecraft fuel pipes…so they cannot take off again to re-join their friends aboard the Enterprise. Worse still – there are big scary cavemen type monsters on this planet who have a rather good aim when throwing their long, sharp flint tipped spears! Two of the crew get speared pretty quickly (they aren’t wearing red shirts, either). What’s more…the polystyrene rocks on this planet are given a real hammering by the monsters as spears are thrown from every direction at Spock and his team!  This is the first team Spock has ever led – and it is a real baptism of fire for him.

 

We see life from a different perspective when we are leading rather than following. Don’t we? It’s easy to blame the leader when things are hard. But what do we do when things are hard…and we are the leader? When everyone in the team is looking to us for the next step?

 

I think what I love about this episode is the way it shows the logical Mr Spock deal with the stresses of leadership. Yes, his situation on the planet is grim. They don’t have many options open to them. Spock’s signature logic allows them to quickly identify all the choices available. But there is a much bigger issue under the surface of all this. And it’s about how Spock relates to the people he is leading – his team. Unfortunately, his head is so locked into a logical analysis of their problems, he isn’t able to give his small team any emotional support and encouragement. And this frustrates them.

 

Why? Leaders aren’t just problem solvers. We aren’t just sources of solutions. We are also a source of emotional presence, of personal warmth, of belonging. Because the people that follow us need more than just confidence that all the problems will go away. They also need to be able to feel that they are known and valued and belong in this team. That we are moving forward together – and actually our relationship is the foundation for all the solutions ahead of us. Spock had it upside down – the solutions were more important than his people – and it drove that team nuts! Leaders – be with your team as you work together to achieve great things together.

 

Back to the plot –

Captain Kirk spends time searching for his friends…but an urgent task takes priority and – even though his search is not complete – he has to turn the Enterprise around and start to move away…leaving his lost friends trapped on the planet…doomed.

 

But Spock finally cuts a break; Scotty is on his team and works out how to turn their phaser weapons into a fuel source for their spacecraft. It will leave them unarmed amongst the monsters, yet it will allow the shuttlecraft to take-off and orbit the planet once. The plan works – they take off and they make orbit. But they only have enough fuel to make one circle of the planet. Space is big. They cannot see the Enterprise which must be long gone…they have overcome so many obstacles to survive the monsters and take off…but to what? A pointless orbit followed by certain death.  Everything seems hopeless for the crew. Logic has gotten them this far…but it has left them in a place of ultimate despair.

 

And it’s in this place, the unexpected happens.

In a momentary flash of desperation – Spock ignites all their remaining fuel. This causes the engines to ignite and burn hot…shooting out of the rear of their tiny craft for a short while. What is Spock doing? As Scotty points out, he is desperately sending up a flare even though he believes there probably isn’t anyone there to see it. Yet incredibly the Enterprise DOES see their flare go up. And as their tiny shuttlecraft starts to burn up in the atmosphere, Spock and his crew are rescued by Captain Kirk in the nick of time.

 

I think this episode makes a great point. Logic and systematic thinking can only get us so far. As you listen to some people talk, it sounds like they believe Science holds all the answers for mankind. That life is only about the measurable and the controllable. But what Star Trek shows us is that this is a poor, one dimensional approach to life. Science is important – yes – but if we view it as mankind’s sole end…and the only tool in our toolbox…then we are selling the multi-dimensional, emotionally and relationally designed people around us short. Further – if Spock had not leapt beyond logical laws – and ignited the fuel in his craft – he would not have saved his team. If he had not let out the biggest, and the most emotion filled “HELP!”…then the episode would have ended very differently indeed. Logic only gets you so far – relationship and emotion fills the gap.

 

Personally, I’ve worked in a field of science for 25 years and I’ve solved lots of problems as a result. But frankly…as I sit here writing…I cannot remember any of them! What I can remember tho are the faces of the people that I’ve worked with, and the time we spent getting to know each other. The lasting effect they have had on me.

 

I am also a Christian, I believe in a personal, relational God who loves us and who really entered human history to show us that. And I’m a Christian because one day I personally sent up an emotional, metaphysical flare myself and said – I don’t know if anyone is out there…outside the material confines of our Universe…but if you are there God, please hear me. Please listen…and please help. He did…and he continues to do so.

 

Perhaps we are happy to restrict our perspective on life to the stuff we can measure and control; you reject the metaphysical. But like Spock…I wonder if our life choices and our private longings actually point away from our narrow words…and towards the bigger reality that is there for us!

 

Don’t let the wise brag of their wisdom. Don’t let heroes brag of their exploits. Don’t let the rich brag of their riches. If you brag, brag of this and this only: That you understand and know me. I’m God, and I act in loyal love. I do what’s right and set things right and fair, and delight in those who do the same things.

Jeremiah 7:23-24, The Message

RESPONDblog: Is belief in God Reasonable? Kalam says YES.

football

Imagine you are walking thru a forest with a friend. And you come across a ball sitting on the grass. It’s a football. And as you pick it up…you realize it’s not just any football. It’s finely stitched together and covered with signatures from the victorious England squad who beat Germany in the 1966 World Cup!

 

What would your reaction be? Hey – wait a minute. This is valuable. The way England are playing these days…I can’t foresee us winning another World Cup soon…we need to treasure this and look after it!

 

You might also wonder – who does this ball belong to? They must be gutted that they lost it!

 

And as these thoughts are running around your mind…your friend says to you…”Just leave it. Let’s keep walking.”

 

Any reasonable reaction to that would be – “Huh? Wait a minute. We can’t just leave it here. Someone carefully stitched this together. And it’s so valuable…it MUST belong to SOMEONE.”

But your friend goes on – “It doesn’t belong to anyone. It wasn’t stitched together it just happened in the forest all by itself. Let’s not look into the reason this football is here and who it belongs to……”

 

Now – in your mind, please expand the size of that football. Let it grow to the size of the Universe itself.

These strange responses from your friend about the football are so familiar to me. Because I hear them and read them all the time.

  • The Universe just happened.
  • It doesn’t belong to anyone
  • It wasn’t carefully stitched together

 

In the same way that these reactions are pretty strange and unreasonable when applied to the football…they are also strange and unreasonable when applied to the universe. Only much more so.

This is the essence of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. You can learn a bit more here:

 

 

Is it reasonable to believe that God exists? Well – the Kalam Cosmological Argument says this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause

 

Are the premises of this argument reasonable? I would say – YES absolutely! Our own life experience tells us that Premise 1 is true. Things don’t just appear! There is always a cause behind them.

 

What about Premise 2? Well Scientists have been telling us that the Universe exploded into being at a point in the past – the Big Bang. I’m not going to argue. Many have…but their theories have not really stood the test of time. Big Bang Cosmology is the predominant scientific understanding.

 

So if Premise 1 is true and Premise 2 is also true, then it follows that Premise 3 must be true.

The Universe has a cause.

 

The only way we can prove the Universe didn’t have a first cause…is to find a way to reject Premises 1 and 2. Personally – I wouldn’t reject them. And I’ve not read or heard any convincing arguments to cause me to want to reject them. So this means that Premise 3 stands.

 

Strikes me that…if the Universe has a cause…that cause must be incredibly powerful, outside of space and time. And for anyone who has ever taken a cursory glance at a Bible will tell you…that sounds very much like God.

 

“Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding.” Isaiah 40:28, NLT

Before the mountains were born, before you gave birth to the earth and the world, from beginning to end, you are God. Psalm 90:2, NLT

 

Now…speaking of miracles…if we can just get England to play better in the next World Cup!

RESPONDblog: It’s Bigger on the Inside

doctorwho-8144-2

“It’s bigger on the inside!”

This is generally the reaction when someone first steps into the famous blue Police Box; the outer shell of the best ship in the universe. When you enter, you are stepping into a humming time and space machine with an interior sitting in another dimension, and an engine powered by an exploding star time-locked in the act of becoming a black hole. No wonder the Doctor’s latest companion starts out on their journey with a shocked expression.

There is something that fires the imagination when we suddenly get a sense that things are not necessarily what they seem. Whether we encounter it in fiction, or we sense it during of one of our own personal and very ordinary days. The realization that – ‘It’s bigger on the inside’ – can spark curiosity and excitement in some, perhaps even fear or cynicism in others.

But what if?

What if there really is something we have been passing by and ignoring in our lives. We’ve not taken any notice of it because it’s so mundane. Yet all the while, it is actually bigger and more striking than we could ever imagine. But we’ve got to look inside to realize it.

The average British man on the street wouldn’t blink twice at a blue Police Box in the 1960s. That’s one reason why it was a genius move for the BBC to make the Doctor’s TARDIS look like one. We’ve lost the sense of it a bit now, but Doctor Who posed a provocative statement to the people who first encountered it. The TV show declared that the mundane can be the door to the extraordinary! You might think you know all there is to know. But even the most ordinary and unexciting thing can be a door to stuff you just would not believe!

Now – I reckon you’ve lost count of the number of hotel rooms you’ve slept in that had a Gideon’s Bible in the drawer by the bed. Many times – you probably didn’t even open the drawer in the first place! But it was there. You have probably walked or driven past countless churches in your life. And you didn’t give them a second thought. Well – what I am saying today is this. ..

God and church might seem mundane – even out dated and as irrelevant as a 1960’s Police Box standing on the corner of a 21st century street. But guess what – there is adventure waiting inside. Christianity is the door to a future that you could never anticipate or imagine. Yes, you expect your eyes to fall on to the cramped space, 4 bare walls as you swing those doors inward. But what you actually get – blows your mind.

What I am saying  is this. There is a God…

Who crafted our Universe so that we could enjoy it

Who stepped into time so that we could know him (that’s who I and countless other Christians have discovered that Jesus is)

Who hand crafted us to achieve great things in the years we are alive on this beautiful planet

 

In fact – here’s a little bit of what he says on the subject:

“I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out – plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.” Jeremiah 29:11, The Message

Perhaps we’re thinking today – God show up? Yea right! He’s had plenty of opportunity to make a difference in my life already – and I’ve seen nothing of it. God show up? Give it a rest.

Well – maybe he’s actually been closer than you’ve realized. In the days, months and years that have led us to this point, we’ve thought that we were the master of our own destiny. But maybe he’s been waiting in the wings for longer than we knew. Maybe even in the midst of the tragedies we have suffered, he has been there.

And maybe – he’s just waiting for us to enter thru his doors. He’s not going to force himself on us. But he longs to travel thru life together with us. Caring for us, our special friend…on a journey full of the unexpected. A journey that will give us real…and perhaps unexpected hope.

I think Jesus knows what he’s doing. And adventure with him is just a step away.

But even more than that – at the end of the journey when our time aboard as his companion is drawing to a close…as we face our life’s end…he will take care of us and bring us safely back home. He promises it. He’s committed himself to it.

Our future will be better because there was a day when we personally and honestly discovered that God and church…the mundane …was actually completely extraordinary.

Wait a minute – “It really IS bigger on the inside!”