Fire at Notre Dame, the Massacre in Sri Lanka, and the Enduring Significance of Christianity in a Post-Christian Time

Apr 25, 2019

In this episode, Nathan and Cameron discuss the tumultuous events surrounding Easter, and consider the light they shed on the power of the gospel in dark times.

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Cameron McAllister - @CamMcAllister7
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Nathan Rittenhouse: Hello, and welcome to Thinking Out Loud. Thinking Out Loud is a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope. I'm your cohost Nathan Rittenhouse.

Cameron McAllister: And I'm your cohost Cameron McAllister.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Cameron, it's been interesting to see that churches, or people in churches, have been in the news a lot in the last week or two, and unfortunately, a lot of that has to do with tragedy, but it's fascinating to me that in our time of what many are kind of heralding as a post-Christian era, just the reminders that we have that Christianity is not gone from the face of the earth, and the reminders that we have of the real problems and struggles that face religious people in our world.

The first one that I want to talk about is the burning of the cathedral in Notre Dame, and since we're English, we're going to say Notre Dame. I was shocked by the non-religious response to that. I mean, I know there's a phenomenal religious heritage there. I mean, any time you have a building where multiple kings have been coronated, and Napoleon Bonaparte, Joan of Arc, I mean, so there's historical significance to it. But then you see things like the CEO of Apple Tweeting about Apple donating money to this. Help me think through that a second, because it's one of those where it was a bit of a shocker to me, the seeming visceral response that a lot of the world had toward that fire.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I think it was...It hit me on a pretty...on sort of a gut level, I think many of us. But, I had, because I grew up in Europe, I was in not too far from France, in Vienna, Austria, and like France, Austria has lots of these beautiful cathedrals that are architectural marvels, and they draw people from all over the world. But they're kind of regarded more as museums than houses of worships these days.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, so what, like 13 million visitors a year or something?

Cameron McAllister: Right. And Notre Dame, I mean, certainly one of the great wonders of Western Europe, but to watch it burn, first of all, I think we're all seeing it happen in real time. I mean, our modes of surveillance just capture it right there and then. And then you watch the steeple fall, and it's just really horrifying. But, I think for me, one of the most moving moments, and again, surprising moments of the whole ordeal...And sorry, if I sound a little repetitious here, I did actually write a little bit about...I wrote a small article, sort of a reflection on the fire at Notre Dame. But, it was watching that small crowd, well, actually no, it was pretty large crowd, gathered at the site of the fire worshiping, saying prayers, and singing hymns. And I just wondered how long has it been since we've seen that kind of public act of worship in those streets there in France. So that was pretty remarkable.

But yeah, it does seem to point...There was a sort of haunted aspect to the response from the world, and from everyone, especially those who are outside the church, because there was this real sense of sorrow, and there was just this kind of...Yeah, you got the impression that people really thought this church is very, very significant, and that something very sad was happening, and that this church represents more than just stones and stained glass. And I think that was really fascinating.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think you see phrases like, "It's a symbol of hope," where people were referring to its heritage, and so I think in some ways, as you see the flames and you see that the building and the spire collapsing, that it almost is like the crumbling of a heritage, so to speak. And I think sometimes it's easy for us to get caught up through certain news cycles as the saying, "Well, you know, the world is ready for the church to burn, basically, good riddance, let's move on." But I think the global response, as far as I could tell, was the opposite of that, and so that was interesting to me.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, we hear that over and over again, a lot about, yeah, growing hostility to the church. But, on the other hand, experts, social critics and sociologists, keep reminding us that the secularization thesis, that as we would get more educated and as science progresses, we get less and less religion, religious, that that actually is time and time again proven to be false. And globally speaking, that that's not the case at all. But, that's why it was interesting to see this take place in a nation like France, which would certainly rank as one of the more secular in many peoples' minds, I think, and yet, this response on the ground...And by the way, I was also hearing from missionary friends who were informing me, "Yes, France is very secular in many ways, however, there is a very strong Christian presence in the nation, very robust."

So, that was a fun kind of piece of news to hear right there in the midst of all of that, as well. So yeah, we have a lot of assumptions, and then a catastrophe like this happens, and it's very, very revealing. A crisis tends to reveal what's really under the surface, and this certainly did that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah. Yeah. Well, if I can shift gears just a second here, and bring in another element of this and hop to another part of the world, some of the listeners might be following along with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and the pro-democracy movement there. And again, I was shocked to see that another public display of Christianity where one of the main leaders of the movement was a pastor of one of the churches in Hong Kong there, and my best shot at his name is Chu Yu Ming. He's a pastor of a Baptist church there. But, taking a stand for human rights and civil disobedience, and he's in court. He's looking at a prison sentence. I think that NPR just reported today, they were looking at about 16 months. I think it could have been a lot longer than that.

But, what's fascinating is that the Hong Kong Free Press printed his full speech from his trial, and he's quoting from Scripture, I think three or four passages from Scripture, talking about the ministry of the Gospel. And it's just fascinating to me to think, wow, this is another interesting moment in our time where the Hong Kong Free Press is running a statement about a pro-democracy movement, spearheaded by a Christian leader, who is quoting Scripture, as printed in the Chinese...And so, that's another...It's the opposite, I think, of the cathedral burning, but again, it's another kind of a unique public highlighting of something that's happening within the church.

Cameron McAllister: And it's also showing that the continued significance of Christianity. It's on the one hand, Notre Dame Cathedral is mourned, and on the other hand, in another nation, where there's a very different political system in place, Christianity is recognized as significant and possibly a threat to that political system, because once again, if you acknowledge Christ as Lord over all, that will put you at odds with existing power structures. And it's hard not to hear about this pastor making this speech before all of these powerful officials and not think of the book of Acts, and think of the Apostle Paul or Peter hauled in front of tribunals, speaking in front of large gatherings of people where their leaders demand that they retract their views or that they explain themselves. But, the fact that the Free Press printed that speech, you're right, that really is interesting, because if they think that his views are so dangerous, then here they are being disseminated, in a sense, to the public. So that really is kind of an interesting point about contradiction.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, and when you said the thing about Acts, it's also interesting that the title of that article is I Have No Regrets; We Do Not Give Up, Reverend Chu's Umbrella Movement speech ahead of sentencing is...He's not asking for any special favors. He's just saying, "Look, this is what we believe. This is what we're doing." And it almost is one of those Acts moments of, "Hey, do we obey God or you?" kind of thing.

So anyway, in some ways, there's a bit of a spark and a fire there in this church also, as it's engaging its culture, and I just thought it was interesting that as you kind of have a fire and maybe a symbolic collapse of one thing, you see that the church isn't suppressed because of what's happening to its building. And it actually made me think of when Jesus and the Disciples are walking out Jerusalem one time, and the Disciples are sort of amazed by the Temple, and they say, "Hey look, what massive stones, and what magnificent buildings," and Jesus says, "Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on top of another. Everyone will be thrown down."

And so, I think we've had a fascination with the heritage of buildings and the massive history and structures, and the prestige that comes from real estate and construction, but it's also interesting to see in that Jesus doesn't promise that religious institutions and buildings will withstand the world, but it's the church that exists independent of the building. I think there's a neat juxtaposition there between what we see happening in France with the collapse of a building, certainly not of a religion, just the collapse of a building, and then a reminder in the Hong Kong episode of the vitality of a faith and its impact on the world around it, a church movement, so to speak, that isn't based on a building.

Cameron McAllister: Right, yeah. It's interesting. You haven't read the article that I wrote, Nathan, but I also kind of made a similar point. I drew attention to Jesus' cleansing of the Temple, and then when the religious leaders, you know, he's essentially gone after all these centers of commerce and all of these stalls, and all of these merchants who have set up shop in the Temple, and he's driven them out with a handmade whip of cords. When the religious leaders and authorities demand a sign or some justification for this rash display of authority, he says, "Destroy this Temple and in three days, I will raise it up." And then, of course, their rejoinder is very much along the lines of the classic human response that you were referencing, wow, they just put a lot of stock in the real estate and these bricks and this mortar, and they say, "Well, it's taken 45 years to construct this Temple, and you will rebuild it in three days?" And of course, Jesus is referring to the Temple of his body.

It's an interesting note, and this could be maybe a transition point for us into some more sobering news, but that yes, all earthly temples will crumble, even glorious earthly temples, like Notre Dame, however the body of Christ's Temple endures. This is why the resurrection, it cannot be emphasized enough. We cannot...It is of the utmost importance. It's either true or it isn't, and everything hands on it. I think we can bear that in mind.

You know, what was interesting, Nathan, as we approached Easter, there were two articles...Well, not two articles, there were two...One was an article and then one was a horrifying news story in Sri Lanka. But the contrast between them both is really striking. Maybe, Nathan, were you aware of the interview with the president of Union Theological Seminary that took place in the New York Times?

Nathan Rittenhouse: No. Well, wait a second, go ahead.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, so-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Describe it to us.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, so the president of Union Theological Seminary was interviewed about the subject of Easter, and she gave-

Nathan Rittenhouse: No, I did not read this one.

Cameron McAllister: Well, essentially she gave many of the sort of tried and true classic mainline liberal responses. I think one of the main ones that she gave was she said, "Well, the resurrection, a physical resurrection, no, that's not really that important and probably didn't happen, but the real significance of Easter is that love triumphs, and that's much more exciting to me than any physical resurrection." So you have that.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Great.

Cameron McAllister: Right. And then you have these attacks in Sri Lanka, these terrorists attacks. I think the death toll is now at 359, so as of this recording, so it's continuing to rise. Certainly one of the most heinous attacks. And some scores and scores of those victims who died were Christians who were worshiping on Easter. And so, on the one hand, here in the United States, you have this president of this liberal, this mainline seminary declaring that a physical resurrection is not necessary. All we need is the triumph of love. It's an interesting sentiment. It's not entirely clear what that means. And then you have those who are perishing on the very day that we celebrate the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. It just struck me that in those circumstances where there is such loss, and for those who are left, who have lost loved ones, friends, family members, who are just reeling, those who are Christians.

You know, I just keeping thinking of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 15 where he says, "If we have hope in Christ in this life alone, we are of all men most to be pitied," because the resurrection is the hope, not just for this world alone, but of the world to come and of life everlasting. And so, in those circumstances, it just struck me that the stark contrast between hoping in some sort of lofty, symbolic, metaphorical sentiment, and hoping in the real tangible, living Savior, I thought that was really, really striking.

Nathan Rittenhouse: I think so. Yeah, I think the contrast there really clarifies what's at point, or what's at stake. It's also been interesting, and I'm wondering if the statement that she gave to New York Times doesn't fit with more of a general sense of trying to round off the edges of difference or not draw lines of distinction. I think you see some of that with kind of the people talking about Easter worshipers instead of Christians. Or, even the fact that a lot of the news coverage of the bombings in Sri Lanka, and now are pinning this on the government of Sri Lanka for not responding to credible intel in advance. And through all of this, what we're missing is like clarity in language about what actually happened.

So yeah, maybe a government was negligent, but that doesn't make them the cause of extremist ideology. And so, we're very odd right now as a culture of shifting blame around. I mean, even all of the stuff about the rise of ISIS is based off of climate change. Well, that's a whole fascinating hypothesis, but you're still...It's almost like we're looking for ways to exonerate bad things that come out of religion, or not talk about them, or to...I don't know what I'm trying to say here. It just seems like we're not actually talking about the actual issues. While we feel like we need to say something, but then we say something that's so ambiguous like, "Love conquering is more important than physical resurrection," which when you slow down and just think about the words that we're hearing and responses on these things, it's just what does that even mean?

And so, I think that's maybe my sense of frustration there. My thinking on the reason behind that is that I think we are at a time when we feel like commitment to an idea automatically leads to extremism, and extremism is de facto bad. And I got to thinking about this when we have a service on Thursday nights during Holy Week. It's our communion and love feast. We have a meal together, wash each others' feet, have communion in that way. And I was talking about the extremism that Jesus calls for, and how we assume that extremism is bad, but when you look at the extremism that Jesus calls us to, being totally committed to and being extremely clear about what it is that Jesus is asking, if you're extremely committed to the way of Christ, that is the most hospitable and loving and hopeful way of living in the world, and of treating other people with dignity and compassion. That's a fascinating difference.

But, if we think about what Jesus is calling us to and the precision, it is a form of extremism to be extremely committed to this one type of thing. But that type of extremism that Jesus calls us to is the best foundation for genuinely loving others, for having compassion, for securing the rights of. And so, Christianity uniquely calls us to a form of, if we run it to its logical and extreme conclusions of radical outreach and care for the other. And so, I think, as a Christian, I do want to be...Man, it sounds weird to be. I do want to be a bit of an extremist, but I want to be extremely like Jesus in the way that he interacted with other people, and I think that's the safest form of extremism for the world around us as we try to be clear about the impact that ideas have, and how they conflict with each other sometimes, and how they interplay with politics.

I don't know, am I getting myself in trouble or am I making sense there?

Cameron McAllister: Let me try to save you from trouble. No, I'm just kidding. No, it's-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, dig me out of there.

Cameron McAllister: Well, if the extremist language trips you up a little bit, think about it along these terms. I think you're right, Nathan. Christianity, Christ calls us to total commitment. Now, most people, I think nowadays, would think of that as a form of extremism. Well, okay, you can love Jesus, and you can perhaps live a life of devotion, but just don't get crazy here. Don't get too carried away. That's where all of the extreme language does come in, because-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Don't think He meant what He actually said.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, well, essentially if you break it down, that's what a lot of people...That's what they would prefer. You know, I want Jesus on my own terms. Let's keep Him at bay. But, if He calls for total commitment, in fact, Jesus' own language is way more uncompromising than total commitment. He says to die. He said if you want to follow Him, you have to take up your cross. So, you have to die to self. You have to be willing to lay down your own life. Why? Because He did the same for you.

I mean, if Jesus weren't, according to Christianity, the great forerunner here, the one who went ahead of us and set the example, this would be a crushing burden, but it's not on us alone. Scripture, as it always informs us, "We love because He first loved us," and He's the one who set the example. We take up our cross because He first took up His and died for us. But He didn't stay dead. He rose from the dead. This is why the resurrection, a physical resurrection, is of the utmost importance. He rose from the dead, therefore, those of us who have placed our hope and our faith in Jesus Christ and follow Him, we're no longer dead in our trespasses. So, even though we will experience physical death here on Earth, we won't...Death, it's not final. We are promised eternal life, and our hope is in Christ and His coming kingdom.

And so, is that a form of extremism? Yes, but as Nathan pointed out, if your extremism...What does it push you to? What does it push you to do? Because in a sense, I think there's an inevitability to extremism, as Nathan has defined it, meaning a total commitment to something. You're going to be totally and completely sold out, committed to something, to some cause, to some person, to some idea, to some notion, so what is it? Is it true? Is it good? Is it beautiful? So much hangs on that. If you're committed totally and completely to some political system or anything lesser than God, whether it's money, politics, family, friends, relationships, it will destroy you. Christ alone...Why is this a form of extremism that is healthy and holistic and wholesome? Because what does Christ call us to do? He calls us to take up our cross and to love the Lord with all that we are, and to love others as ourselves, to see everyone, including our enemies, as our neighbor.

I mean, that's a kind of extremism that, if everyone were to practice it, would revolutionize the entire world. So it's...yeah.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah, well, I think what we're...the difficulty...The difficulty and the beauty of it, at the same time, is that Jesus Christ calls us to conform to a standard and a pattern that is unnatural to us and objectively exists outside of our own thoughts and feelings. That's not a popular message. On the other hand, since it does objectively exist outside of us, then it has an eternal durability to it, and He can say, "The gates of hell will not prevail." There's a real robust, solid thing there that actually is called the church, that can't be burned down, can't be blown up, can't be put in prison, that will continue because it's outside of the realm of mutilation by humanity. And so, on one hand, yes, it is a standard that I need to conform to that's outside of myself, the life of Christ. On the other hand, it's a standard that can't be destroyed because it doesn't operate in the categories in which humanity has been able to weaponize itself against that standard.

There's almost a connection that I want to make here between the importance of the physical resurrection, the promises of Christ, the spiritual stability that He brings to our physical world, and the longevity of the church that gives us hope, and I think that's the key thing that you see in all of the references to the physical resurrection is a genuine foundation of hope that's preached all throughout the New Testament as it links all of these ideas together.

So we're sort of, I think, trying to grapple with a post-Easter, post-resurrection stability for grappling with the way that the church is embedded in the world and highlighted in our news cycle this round.

Cameron McAllister: Yeah, I mean, I think if you've been following along the news, these past two weeks, there's certainly there are a lot of sobering items, but I think one of my overall takeaways from this conversation, Nathan, has been that the significance of Christianity has never been more, I think, apparent, in many ways. And that's a surprising feature of our age because it's supposed to be diminishing, and yet, I think time and time again, these tragedies are highlighting the power of the resurrection. Even for those who don't necessarily yet recognize it as true, I think there's a dawning recognition of its importance that's happening, and I think we'll see more of that, especially as there's more resistance to the Gospel. And also, as we experience that in our own nation, here of the United States, where Christianity is increasingly less and less comfortable in our cultural landscape, I think we're going to see more and more of its real powerful, enduring significance. And again, I think that's, for me, that is a hopeful sign.

Nathan Rittenhouse: You know, it made me think when you were saying that, of the time when Jesus is teaching and teaches some tough stuff, and a lot of His disciples leave Him. And then He turns to His closest disciples and says...He doesn't change His position. He doesn't go running after those who were leaving, "Wait, wait. I changed my mind. Let me pander to your request." He turns to His disciples who were still there and says, "Do you also want to leave?" And so, He's standing firm on His positions, calling it like He sees it, doesn't flex to the whims of the people, but then turns to those closest to Him and says, "Do you, too, want to leave?" And they in response say, "To whom should we go? Where should we go? You alone have the words of life."

And so, it's a simultaneous recognition that the standard to which Christ calls us as the church, and His people who are part of the church, is a high calling. It is a real task. It's a joyful one, but also comparatively, "To whom should we go?" What are the other options, and I think as you've been saying, that as we continue to see shifts in culture, there might be some reflective clarity that happens here where we say, "Hey, you know what? Compared to the alternatives, just on a practical level, this really does make sense and does describe the world in the best terms."

Cameron McAllister: Yeah. I hope as you've listened, you've also found a sense of hope here in the midst of all of this. I'm using the word hope a lot, but really, I think, these have been sobering days, and again, a lot of the cultural analysis tends to be a little bit bleak at times. And also, I think we get tired of...It's not so much the news cycle. It's the fact that everybody has to try to give their perspective, their particular angle, their take on the story. And I think when, especially the massacre that took place in Sri Lanka, we need room simply to sit back and mourn.

But, I think it's also the powerful picture of the hope of the resurrection, as well. That even in circumstances this dire, these men and women were gathered on that very day to worship the living God who conquered the grave. And I just think there is something so powerful about that. So it's been-

Nathan Rittenhouse: Well, I think the power is, is that what the world considers to be the end is just really the warm up.

Cameron McAllister: Right. Yep. And lest that sound trite to you, remember that the Apostle Paul calls the sufferings of this world momentary light affliction. That's a pretty amazing phrase that becomes more haunting the older I get.

Nathan Rittenhouse: Yeah.

Cameron McAllister: But hey, thanks for hanging with us once again on this wonderful day with this sort of meandering discussion. We hope it's been instructive, challenging, and helpful to you. But, you have been listening to Thinking Out Loud, a podcast where we think out loud about current events and Christian hope.

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