June 30, 2010

Hollywood’s Brush with Religious BeliefFilms and Faith

Many people today assume that faith in God amounts to “blind faith,” the idea that there is no objective evidence or logical reason to believe that God exists; faith is simply a subjective feeling or emotional choice. While it is okay to have a personal feeling that God is real to you, it is not okay to publicly announce that God exists and has certain characteristics for everyone. Our society is immersed in the subjectivication of belief.

Faith as irrational belief has become a favorite tool in the hands of today’s atheists. The latest salvo of atheist attacks on Christianity incorporate the notion that faith is irrational. Atheist Richard Dawkins, for instance, writes, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”[1] More recently in his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins insists, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.”[2] Journalist and author of god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens, has written, “Faith is the surrender of the mind; it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals.”[3]

But faith as subjective feeling is also prevalent among Christians, as well. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, discussed in an interview with WORLD Magazine his own religious beliefs, stating, ". . . salvation is ultimately based on faith, is in fact a leap of faith."[4] Gingrich is simply repeating a concept that comes from the 19th century philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) who had argued that spiritual reality is known by an irrational “leap to faith.” Kierkegaard insisted that one entered Christianity not by way of logical proofs but simply by a leap to believe that God became man in Jesus.

Francis Schaeffer used a visual metaphor for Kierkegaard’s notion by placing objective facts of nature into a “Lower Story” and faith into an “Upper Story”—completely separating these two ways of knowing, thus, illustrating how faith is inaccessible to reason by dividing knowledge into two realms: the realm of facts that pertain to the natural world that is known through reason, and the realm of faith-commitments regarding the supernatural (God, angels, the after-life) that originate from an inner choice to believe.

Films and Faith

Hollywood screenwriters and directors have helped move Kierkegaard’s views into mainstream culture, as the idea of faith as an irrational leap is prevalent in many popular movies. Religious faith is portrayed in a variety of ways. For example, in the film, Indiana Jones: Search for the Holy Grail, Indiana, played by Harrison Ford, must retrieve the cup of Christ to save the life of his father (Sean Connery). Indy makes it through a long corridor of deadly obstacles only to find he is standing at the edge of a deep chasm. He hesitates, but finally takes a “step of faith” and finds, to his surprise, he is actually walking on a camouflaged footbridge. This scene illustrates “faith” as believing something even in the face of contradictory evidence.

In a slightly different vain, the film Revolutions, the third episode in The Matrix trilogy, involves a final scene where the Oracle is asked if she always knew that Neo was “the one” who would free mankind from slavery to the Matrix of intelligent machines. The Oracle replies, “Oh, no, but I believed, I believed.” Here we find that faith means believing without actually knowing, it is more of a hunch or strong desire.

The Polar Express is a children’s story of a young boy who does not believe in Santa Claus but is whisked away on a train to the North Pole where he comes in contact with all the hustle and bustle of Christmas eve and the merriment of the elves. As the boy begins listening intently for the ringing of the reindeer’s bell, he finally gives in to the possibility that Santa is real as he repeats, “okay, okay…. I believe, I believe, I believe,” and turning, he stares up into the bearded face of ol’ Saint Nick! Thus, we come face to face with the notion that believing something real hard makes it so.

And one final illustration of faith is given in the 2010 blockbuster, The Book of Eli. Eli (Denzel Washington) is told by God to take the last surviving copy of the Bible on a walking cross-country journey to its final destination on the west coast for safe keeping. At one point of the story, his traveling companion, Solara (Mila Kunis), begins the following dialogue:

Solara: You know, you say you've been walking for thirty years, right?
Eli: Right.
Solara: Have you ever thought that maybe you were lost?
Eli: Nope.
Solara: Well, how do you know that you're walking in the right direction?
Eli: I walk by faith, not by sight.
Solara: [sighs] What does that mean?
Eli: It means that you know something even if you don't know something.
Solara: That doesn't make any sense.
Eli: It doesn't have to make sense. It's faith, it's faith . . .

This time we are told that faith does not have to make sense because it’s just . . . faith. It’s interesting to note (spoiler alert!) that as Eli is blind, so he depends on “blind” faith to get him to his destination.

Biblical Faith

In comparing the popular version of faith with a biblical perspective, we find the main definition of faith is found in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV).

Some read this by putting the emphasis on “hope for” and “not seen.” This interpretation seems to agree with the idea that faith means working up a sense of inner assurance when there is no real evidence or reason to support it. We can’t see it, sense it, or reason to it, but we believe it anyway. Like Indiana Jones, we just step out “in faith” and hope for the best. However, I suggest that a better English translation of Hebrews 11:1 is this: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (NKJV, italics added).

The term “substance” refers to that which is “set under” as a support. This means there is substance, i.e., something substantial, to one’s faith. It’s not a “step of faith” seeing nothing! Instead, it is knowing what supports you before taking a step. It’s not a “step in the dark” of ignorance; it’s a step into the light of reason!

The other key word is “evidence,” referring to proof, or a personal conviction based on the facts. This is very similar to the idea of forensic evidence used in courts of law. What we find when we examine a biblical definition of the word “faith” is totally different from what many people assume. It turns out not to be “blind” belief, but a personal conviction based on solid evidence.

EVIDENTIAL FAITH

What kinds of facts support your faith as a Christian? The New Testament provides many examples. Take, for instance, when Jesus was eating his last meal with his disciples before his death (see John 14:8–14). Philip asks Jesus for proof of his deity. Notice that Jesus does not respond to Philip, “Just believe, Philip, just believe!” but, instead, referred to the “evidence” of his miracles that Philip had witnessed, thus providing tangible proof of his deity.

Or consider how another follower of Jesus, Thomas, seriously doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead. This is a legitimate doubt, since people don’t normally come back from the dead! We pick up the story in John 20:24–29. In this passage Jesus does not say to Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe, just believe.” No, Jesus first provided physical evidence by offering his hands and side for Thomas’ inspection. Thomas believed that Jesus was alive from the dead because he saw and touched Jesus’ pierced body. He had evidence, in this case physical evidence, which convinced him of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.

Apart from these historical evidences, there are various logical arguments for God’s existence that provide a rational foundation upon which to base one’s faith commitment. Noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig offers a number of these arguments on his website reasonablefaith.org, and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy J.P. Moreland provides an excellent overview in his book, Scaling the Secular City.

In summary, the Bible defines faith in a totally different way from the common understanding. Faith is not wishful thinking, blind hope, or surrender of reason. Biblical faith is a decision to believe something about God or Jesus based on evidence, the kind of evidence that would stand up in any court of law.

The next time someone says that faith is a leap, point your friend to the Bible’s definition and explain that faith is not a leap into the dark, but a leap into the light of reason!

Footnotes
  1. A lecture by Richard Dawkins extracted from The Nullifidian (December 1994), http://richarddawkins.net/articles/89.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 308.
  3. Christopher Hitchens, Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!, Season 3, Episode 5: "Holier Than Thou" (May 23, 2005), quoted from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Christopher_Hitchens.
  4. Marvin Olasky, ”Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong,” WORLD Magazine 22, no. 13 (April 14, 2007): http://www.worldmag.com/articles/12837.

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