Meditations After a Monday at Barnes & Noble

On the Sadness of Sam Harris and Diane Setterfield

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Founder & Teacher,

A trip to Barnes & Noble on my day off takes me beyond the Star Tribune and NPR in my daily culture dose of postmodern pronouncements. Consider Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006). It is ranked as the fourteenth best seller in the nation at Amazon as I write (just behind Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). It begins like this:

Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse.

Later he says that not believing that man evolved from lower life forms is like not believing the sun is a star. Our nation is being overrun with anti-intellectual people who scoff at true science. The Intelligent Design movement is a scheme to replace science with religion by people who get PhDs to provide a cloak of respectability for their anti-science agenda. And so on.

What makes Harris’ book postmodern and not simply modern is that it treats Christian “fantasies” not merely as rational errors, but as dangerous cultural and political power plays. I have no desire to scoff at this book. There is too much right-wing, radio-show-type Christian scoffing. Besides, I am old enough to be Sam Harris’ father (I was twenty-one when he was born), and that makes me want to rescue a son, not skewer a peer.

Of course, he thinks I am the one who needs to be rescued. My concern for us evangelicals is not that we bash Harris but that we try not to give the impression that we fear science, and that we make clear that we want Sam Harris to have the freedom to say false things about us.

So my dip into Harris’ book was good for me. I may even read more. I don’t fear it. I wish he didn’t fear us. God, he should fear. But I will do all I can to keep my fellow Christians from playing God. As long as Christ’s kingdom comes not by the sword but by the Spirit and the Truth, I will resist the unholy union of conscientious church and coercive state. I stand with those who believe that Christ is the best foundation for a view of the state that refuses to enforce Christ. I also stand with those who believe that true science (not presuppositional secularism) will not contradict true biblical interpretation.

* * *

Then I looked at Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale (Atria, 2006). I turned it over and read one of the most up-to-date pieces of postmodern counsel I have ever read. At first, I thought it was a blurb for the book from Vida Winter:

My gripe is not with lovers of the truth, but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney, when the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with her long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing rocking safety of a lie.

No, Vida Winter is not a critic praising the power of this book. She is a character in the novel, and this is a quote from page five. Again, I feel no desire to be clever about the contrast between “hard-boned” truth and the “plump comforts” of a story. My main response is the feeling of wonderment that people today really believe this. And then I feel pity. And then a desire to find some way to shock them out of the trance. What shall we say?

First, this is good writing. Weak metaphysics, but strong metaphors. Listen for the consonance (the hard c’s) in, “What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?” Feel the sounds: “wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney” . . . “the rain taps at the window with her long fingernails.”

Second, the writer of this paragraph has probably never really feared for her life. And almost certainly not for her eternal life. “Plump comforts of a story” will not soothe if you have three minutes before your hijacked plane incinerates you on the Pennsylvania plains.

Third, I wonder why she equates “story” with the “soothing rocking safety of a lie,” instead of asking whether the greatest story might be true? Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis have helped us see that the reason “myth” or “story” have such power is not because they replace truth but because they resemble Truth.

Fourth, I pray that those who see themselves in this paragraph will discover that 2,000 years ago the Truth became flesh and dwelt among us. He is “hard-boned” but not “fleshless.” His name is Jesus Christ. He is the center of the true story of God’s saving history. It is not the “soothing rocking safety of a lie.” That is why his story will bring “succor” and “consolation,” not just when the wind howls and the rain falls, but when breath fails and we slip through the lips of eternity.

Thank you, Barnes & Noble, for a good day off.

Pastor John