RZIM summer school – part 2

In part 1 of this mini-series I gave an overview of the RZIM summer school. In this article I’ll dive into some detail about the speakers I listened to and the content they provided. I’m not going to cover everybody, just a few of the folks who spoke more often or whose talks left a bit of an impression on me.

John Lennox

Every morning after worship we were treated to one part of a 5-part Bible study on the book of Daniel. John is always a delight to listen to, and he’s one of my favorite Christian thinkers. If I am looking for a quick answer to a common apologetic question I usually start with the videos at his website. Listening to him feels like sitting down for tea with Grandpa, who just happens to have multiple advanced degrees.

As he went through the book of Daniel he clearly gleaned from it according to the theme of the week (Christianity and its cultural critics) though it was also clear that the book was chosen because its themes conveniently coincided with the theme of the week. Although John’s formal training is not in the domain of Biblical exegesis, in my (also not formally trained) opinion he did a great job of drawing out reasonable conclusions that were faithful to the text. He also brought the story alive, helping explain, for instance, why Nebuchadnezzar would insist that his wise men not merely interpret his dreams, but actually tell him what he dreamt (Daniel 2:5). It seemed relatively clear from the thrust of the dream – even without knowing the exact interpretation – that it had something to do with the mighty falling, and if he told them what he dreamt, those in attendance might just “read between the lines” and (as was common in ancient times) they might just help that little prophecy come to pass. If he described the dream to those in attendance he could be writing his own death certificate.

I never thought of that before. That’s just one example of how John made the text really come to life. After helping us get into the story he drew out insights that were quite relevant to our present time and cultural context.

John also did a few other talks during the week, but his primary role was the morning Bible studies. At the end of the last day’s study he received a standing ovation. It was well deserved.

Craig Evans

Craig was clearly one of the biggest names of the week. He is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about the New Testament world and the New Testament documents. He was also a machine; he just kept feeding us with more and more info without any hint of exhaustion or limitations on his knowledge (at least not in his area of specialization). I’m not sure he’s merely human, though I think it’s safe to say he’s not quite divine. He’s like a New Testament Google with a sense of humor and without those annoying ads.

The second feature of Craig that I thoroughly appreciated was his ability to balance his Christian convictions with his scholarly “neutrality.” No, nobody is completely  neutral, but it is especially important for scholars to be able to step out of their own convictions as much as possible. Craig does this well, and his ability was evinced on multiple occasions. First, the James Ossuary. Craig confirmed that the majority of scholars knowledgeable enough to address the subject confirm the authenticity of the Ossuary. He shared some details about the allegations of forgery and explained how those allegations had been proven groundless. Of course he is still objective enough to acknowledge that, at best, it gives us a high probability, rather than irrefutable certainty, that the Ossuary belonged to James the brother of Jesus, and not some other James.

Regarding the Josephus passage describing Jesus he follows the lead I have heard elsewhere that Josephus did, in fact, have something to say about Jesus (confirming his existence and some broad details of his life/ministry) but that some overzealous Christians in later centuries thought Josephus wasn’t quite generous enough to their Saviour, so they embellished it a little. However, historians have a high degree of certainty that Josephus did, in fact, confirm Jesus’ existence; part of that passage is authentic.

And the shroud of Turin. Craig was very clear that this is a relic from the first century and that the best scientific evidence points to that. Some carbon dating that places it much older than that was simply done in error; this is apparently the scholarly consensus. He is equally clear that there are plenty of bizarre features about it that defy easy explanations (or, in some cases, defy any scientific explanation at all) and some of those features seem almost supernatural. Yet the scholar in him stated, “my own official position is that I don’t take an official position as to its authenticity.” Very good balance.

He shared his own thoughts on one of the strangest passages in the New Testament, near the end of Matthew 27

Mat 27:51-54
(51) Suddenly the curtain in the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, rocks were split open,
(52) tombs were opened, and many saints who had died were brought back to life.
(53) After his resurrection, they came out of their tombs and went into the Holy City and appeared to many people.
(54) When the centurion and those guarding Jesus with him saw the earthquake and the other things that were taking place, they were terrified and said, “This man certainly was the Son of God!”

In his opinion it seems likely that this is another example (like Josephus) where a later Christian tinkered with the original words. Does it not seem strange, after all, that the saints would come back to life on Friday when Jesus was killed, but not come out of the tombs until Sunday? Besides, as Craig points out, “Moses himself could be walking down the streets of Jerusalem and who would recognize him?” Why would nobody recognize Moses? There were no pictures at that time. They had no idea what the saints of antiquity would have looked like.

Craig theorizes that the original probably read something like this,

Mat 27:51-54
(51) Suddenly the curtain in the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, rocks were split open,

(54) When the centurion and those guarding Jesus with him saw the earthquake and the other things that were taking place, they were terrified and said, “This man certainly was the Son of God!”

He says (and I would agree) that it reads much more naturally like this and in all likelihood those two verses do not belong in the original. However, he acknowledges that there are no textual variants to confirm his theory at this time.

So I was very impressed by his knowledge of his field of expertise, his ability (insofar as any human is able) to remain relatively objective in his assessment of the subject matter, and his ability to explain the content to average folks like those in attendance.

Andy Bannister

Andy is a wonderful speaker. He is also more of a cultural apologist. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk on “Is Google driving us mad?” The theme of the talk is that the internet, for all its blessings, is also something of a curse. Not that it is inherently evil, but that it is the kind of tool that naturally exacerbates certain forms of sin in people.

Did you know that there are almost 150 Billion emails sent daily? That includes spam (unfortunately) but still that’s a whole lot of internet traffic. And when you do a little math on the number of email accounts in the world – and considering not everybody has an account, and some people (including yours truly) have multiple accounts – it’s not hard to see why our inboxes are so hard to manage.

Andy drew on the research of several other folks who have studied the impact of the internet on our lives, including both written books (“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr and “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle sounded particularly interesting) but also, and perhaps ironically, internet based research. He shared some stories, including that of a young man who was interviewed for one of the above-mentioned books. The young man politely turned off his phone for the interview and when he turned it on again after the interview (an hour later) he had over 100 messages to respond to.

As he says good-bye, he adds, not speaking particularly to me but more to himself as an afterthought to the conversation we just had, “I can’t imagine doing this when I get older.” And then, more quietly, “How long do I have to continue doing this?”

Such observations raised the thought that perhaps Christian Apologetics should consider some more broad fields, such as “what does the good life look like” and “are we there yet?” It would seem many people – especially young people, digital natives – are wrestling with issues around the proper place for technology in our lives. Of course, it would help if Christians made a point of deliberately and intentionally finding an appropriate balance for all things digital. I’m not persuaded we have entirely emerged from under the thumb of that particular oppressor; we have not yet reached the stage of using technology instead of being used by it.

But what an opportunity; what an apologetic!

Tools for the Task

Multiple speakers contributed to this set of talks, so these comments are not limited to any one of them. The general idea behind this lecture series is that we have to be careful how we approach these subjects. We need to learn certain skills (like asking good questions) and we need to learn how to respectfully examine the views of others, alongside them, in order to better contend for the Christian faith. We also need to consider how to creatively present Christianity, for instance, through the arts.

Readers of this blog will probably know that this concept of engaging in the discussion respectfully is a particular passion of mine. In fact, I self-published a book about it, if you are not already aware. The field of Apologetics does not have a great reputation in the Church and part of that problem is because of the heavy-handed tactics used by some Christian Apologists over the years. John Stackhouse began his talk with a story about an unnamed Christian Apologist who gave a talk once in which he effectively – and, as far as I could tell, more or less respectfully – addressed a question from somebody in the audience who was critical of the Faith. As John left that presentation he was following two unbelievers, one of whom declared, “I don’t care if he is right, I still hate that son of a … ” I don’t know exactly how the unnamed presenter offended them, but it reminded all of us to be particularly cautious to win the friend, not just the argument.

Summary

There are plenty of speakers beyond those I’ve mentioned, but these reflections should give a bit of an insight into the kind of material that was examined, and the quality of the speakers who presented. I won’t be able to attend every year, but I sure wish I could. If you want to take your Faith to the next level I would strongly encourage you to make RZIM summer school a priority in your discipleship plan.

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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2 Responses to RZIM summer school – part 2

  1. TMB2 says:

    When Bart Simpson was sent to karate school, instead of breaking out the numb-chucks, he was given a book to read. The Sensai told him that “You must fill your head with wisdom before you can break boards with it.”

    So you’ve filled your head. What have you done since you got back?

    • Paul Buller says:

      I have already been involved in ministry in a number of diverse capacities over the years. Summer school helped clarify and focus the kinds of ministries that I (and our apologetics group) are working on. We’ve been breaking boards, and we continue to do so.

      The other question (for all readers, not just yourself – I think I know your answer) is whether you began by filling your head with wisdom or whether you just starting going around breaking boards with it.

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