Magnificent Obsession – Why Jesus is Great

Today my new book came out in the UK – it works as a companion to both The Dawkins Letters and also the just out Solas collection on Why I am Not An Atheist .  Rather than just being a book that deals with theism, it is an ‘apologia’ for Jesus Christ. Or rather it explains why Jesus Christ is the reason for believing.  Please pray that it will be used by the Lord to bring many to Himself.   Meanwhile here is the introduction…..you can order the book from CFP, all good bookshops or off Amazon….Image

Magnificent Obsession

Why Jesus is Great

 

Introduction

 

 “Now let me at the truth that will refresh my broken mind”

Mumford and Sons – The Cave

 “I would believe if I had the evidence”  is the oft repeated and not unreasonable claim that many make when it comes to God.  What is unreasonable though is when the statement is made with the assumption that there is either no, or insufficient evidence.   Bertrand Russell was once asked ‘Lord Russell, what will you say when you die and are brought face to face with your Maker?’ He replied without hesitation: ‘God,’ I shall say, ‘God, why did you make the evidence for your existence so insufficient?’.  This book is written to challenge that assumption.

I once had the privilege of debating the English comedian Marcus Brigstock on Premier Christian Radio’s ‘Unbelievable show.  He was perceptive, receptive, open and searching. “Though I seek to express myself through comedy a lot of the time, there are some things I’m deadly serious about, and the desire for a workable and available deity in my life is one of them.”[1] This book is written for Marcus and those like him.  I too am deadly serious about showing who God is.

In 1997 I wrote a response to Richard Dawkins The God Delusion entitled The Dawkins Letters, little suspecting how much interest this would generate.  Having spoken widely Scotland, the UK and many parts of Europe and the USA I am intrigued and greatly encouraged that there is such interest in religion in general and Christianity in particular.   The New Atheists thought that they were going to offer the coup de grace to a religion that was dying. Instead they seem to have woken up not only the church, but many outside it, who are now beginning to think about questions they would not have contemplated a generation ago.   If you are one of them, welcome to a new world.  Welcome to a world of hope and the possibility that you are more than just a blob of carbon floating from one meaningless existence to another.  Welcome to a world of truth, meaning and love.  Welcome to a world where you will find who you really are and why you are really here.  These are grand claims but I hope and pray that as you read this, your mind will be blown at the staggering wonder of the truth.  I pray that you will not only gain an understanding of why so many people continue to believe in God, but also that you will come to have your own faith challenged (I realise of course that if you are an agnostic or atheist, you will claim that you do not have a faith, but allow me to point out that in fact all of us have a faith position – including you.  There are many things you believe and act upon that you cannot absolutely prove.  More of which later.)

This book began life as a response to the late Christopher Hitchens’s ‘God is not Great’, but has morphed into something much more.  It really is my answer to the question I was asked by the leader of an atheist society at a Scottish university – “Ok, I admit you have destroyed my atheism, but what do you believe?” .  I was there to address a mixed group of atheists, pagans, Christians, not quite sure Christians and wannabe Christians.   It was a sincere question and one that I have heard many times over the past few years.    I can give many reasons as to why I am a Theist (I list ten for example in The Dawkins Letters) but only one as to why I am a Christian.  The clue is in the name:  I am a Christian because of Jesus Christ. And therein lies the problem.  What does that mean?  Is it anything more than a mere Christian soundbite?

It is to answer that question that these letters have been written. They are addressed to a person whom I call ‘J’.  Unlike Jesus ‘J’ is not real, but is rather a conflation of many of the people whom I have had coffee with, corresponded with or just generally had a chat about these things.  Every question in these letters is a real question from a real person.  And I suspect that many of them are questions that you will have had.  At the very least I hope that you are a person who asks questions, rather than just pre-supposing that you know the answers. The story is told of a Christian student in the University of Edinburgh who thought he would be what Christians call ‘a good witness’ by going into his philosophy lecture early and writing on the blackboard (this was some time ago – if you are under 40 ask an older person what a blackboard is!) ‘Jesus is the Answer’, before heading out of the lecture theatre.  When he returned with his fellow students he was somewhat pleased to see that his chalk written words were still there for all to see.  But underneath someone had written ‘What’s the question?’.   I do believe that Jesus is the answer, in a way that goes far deeper than you can possibly hope or imagine, but we first have to ask the questions.   As we look at who Jesus us we will find ourselves being provoked to ask the questions that really matter, and hopefully see how incredible and wonderful the answer of Christ is.

You will note that what I am not doing is saying ‘just believe in Jesus’.  You can’t believe, you can’t have faith, without knowing something about the one you are to believe in.  Blind faith is a rather successful lie put about by the Father of Lies (the devil not Dawkins!).  Faith by definition is not blind.  Or at least Christian faith by definition is not blind.  We believe because we see Jesus. It is not so much this intangible thing called ‘faith’ that matters, but rather whom the object of our faith/trust is in.   What I want to do is present you with the evidence for Jesus Christ in the hope that you will come to see.  As John Newton, the converted former slave trader wrote in his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace, “I was blind but now I see”. 

The other difficulty that so many people have is the question of truth.  Indeed they often give up in despair – like Pilate, we ask ‘what is truth?’ and like Pilate we too think that it is impossible to be sure of truth and so we shrug our shoulders and walk away certain only of one thing – that what we cannot know is not worth knowing.   This is another lie that has caused so much of our culture to be mired in cynicism and bogged down in the quagmire of relativism.  But what if there is truth and that truth is found in a person – the one who said ‘I am the Truth”? Like Albert Camus I have a passion for an absolute and beautiful truth. I do so because like Mumford and Sons I believe that there is a truth that will refresh not only our broken minds but also our broken bodies, our broken hearts and our broken societies.

Let me add a qualification. When we say that we can know Christ we are not claiming to know everything.  Christopher Hitchens asserts ”And yet the believers still claim to know!  Not just to know, but to know everything.[2]  Either Mr Hitchens has met some very odd Christians (not impossible I know) or he was not quite telling the truth.  I have never come across any believer who believed that they could know everything, never mind that they did.  However we do claim that we can know, and are known by, the One who knows everything.

And when we claim to know God, or that God is knowable we are not setting ourselves up as the ultimate judge.  We use ‘know’ in the sense of relationship with, rather than knowledge about a subject.  Herein lies the arrogance and faith of those who think they have the ability to sit in judgement upon God – our finite minds daring to think we can critique his infinite.   “The arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him is incapable of finding him.  For it already implies that we deny God as God by placing ourselves above him, by discarding the whole dimension of love, of interior listening; by no longer acknowledging as real anything but what we can experimentally test and grasp.  To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do so is to abuse not only God, but the world and oneself too”. [3]

This notion that we have not only the ability but the right to judge not only the character but the very existence of God is deeply ingrained in our culture.  I think of the  eleven year old boy from Huddersfield who asked ‘what do I say to my friends who say there is no proof for God?’   I suspect that his friends had not engaged in deep philosophical study or been regular attenders at church.  They are just repeating the meme of our atheistic culture which both assumes that there is no proof and that we are capable of making the judgement that there is no proof.

The wonderful Roman Catholic writer GK Chesterton wrote  “My own case for Christianity is rational; but it is not simple.  It is an accumulation of varied facts, like the attitude of the ordinary agnostic.  But the ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong.  He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons.”[4]   My own case for Jesus Christ is rational.  It is not simple.  It is an accumulation of varied facts.  It is climbing Mount Improbable in order to prove to you the existence and worth of Jesus.   I have often met some of the more emotive and arrogant atheists who demand ‘show us the evidence’.  The trouble is that they are not asking a question but making an accusation.  They are declaring there is no evidence and therefore everything you say will automatically be dismissed.  It’s a bit like arguing with a conspiracy theorist – you can never win because everything you say is part of the conspiracy! There are those who will read this who will automatically dismiss every piece of evidence presented here, just because it does not fit their worldview and faith.  Their starting point is that there can be no evidence.  They trawl the internet filtering out ‘inconvenient truths’ just to reaffirm themselves in their faith.  However I have hope.  Firstly that you are reading this precisely because you want to find out and you are a little bit more open-minded.  Secondly if you have this kind of closed mind – watch out.  Christians believe in the Holy Spirit who is able to melt the hardest heart and open the eyes of the blind!  He may even use what you read in these letters to draw you to himself.

Speaking of the heart.  Truth is apprehended and comprehended by more than just the mind. Pascal’s reflections on this subject are interesting “We know the truth, not only through our reason, but also through our heart”[5] .  It is possible to feel the truth.  “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”[6]  And that truth is felt and known through Jesus Christ – “Jesus Christ is the object of all things, the centre to which all things tend.  Whoever knows him knows the reason for everything.”[7] Please note that this last quote from Pascal is not saying that Christians have stumbled across the theory of everything, but we have come across the reason for everything.    So real knowledge is found when we know Christ.  We know in our experience and in our spirit.  We know also in our mind. Which is why Calvin says that we need to stretch our minds to Christ.  In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  What is being said here is that our search for truth is holistic involving every aspect of our being.  To know the truth you need an open mind, open ears and an open heart.  And it is helpful to belong to an open community.  I say all this because my aim is that you would be convinced of, and come to know the truth, in your heart, mind and spirit; that you would think, feel and breath, the Truth.  It is beautiful beyond belief.

How did we get the title of this book?  The BBC used to have an excellent programme called Everyman.  One of these documentaries, How to get to Heaven in Montana, was a fascinating insight into the life of a Hutterite community in that wonderful State.  The pastor of the group had died and his children had, in Hutterite terms ‘gone wild’.  They dared to go into town, visit the cinema and even drink alcohol!  Then they had become’ born again’, as a result of which a split developed in the community.  The Everyman team spent a year with the community and recorded how the two sides lived together.   It was a beautiful documentary superbly filmed with some fascinating insights.  One of these was when the pastors son, one of the ‘Born Agains’, who had become the leader of the new group was asked by the interviewer, ‘what does Jesus Christ mean to you?’  I will never forget his answer.  His eyes filled with tears as he quietly declared, “Jesus?  He is beautiful…he is my everything….he is my magnificent obcession”.    The French philosopher and mathematician Pascal would have agreed – “Jesus is the centre of all, the object of all: whoever knows not him, knows nothing aright, either of the world or of himself…..In him is all our happiness, our virtue, our life, our light, our hope.” [8]

But that still leaves us with the question of where we find Jesus.  This was forcefully brought home to me by a reality tv programme which unusually for such a programme had a great deal of reality in it.  It was a kind of parent swap, in which two teenagers from England; drunken, sexually promiscuous, rude and ignorant, came to live with an African American Baptist pastor and his wife in Atlanta.  It was a moving and fascinating programme as they struggled to understand one another and come to terms with their common humanity in a culture clash that was brutal.   No more so than when the voice behind the camera asked the young man as he headed to the airport, what he had made of the whole event.  “These people are alright,” he opined, “they’re really into this Jesus bloke, aren’t they?  Jesus – he seems alright.  Where can I find Jesus in England?  Is he in the yellow pages?”.  That question haunted and continues to haunt me.  Here was a young man shown respect and love, because of Jesus and he wanted to know where he would find Jesus in his home country.  It is the key question.  How can we find the real Jesus?  The answer is that he has to find us.   We are so ignorant of who he is that he himself has to come and reveal himself to us.  It is as though you have arranged to meet someone at the airport but you don’t know who they are or what they are like and you stand there with a piece of paper with their name on it.  And then that wonderful moment when they approach you and identify themselves.  You have been looking for them, but they are also looking to reveal themselves to you.   That is what Jesus does. He is the One we are looking for; and he is the One who is looking for us.  He brings enlightenment – he is after all, the light of the world.

One other thing before you read the letters.  They are highly personal.  Even more so because they are being written after I experienced a serious illness during which I almost died.  I could tell you that I walked down a dark tunnel, saw a light and met Christ who told me to return to earth to tell people about him.  And then this book would be no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list – because yes, people are that gullible and do prefer the sensationalism of lurid tabloid style super spirituality.  I could do that, but I would be lying.  Nothing so sensationalist happened.  I was close to death, thousands of Christians all over the world were given a burden of prayer.  They prayed.  And their prayers were answered.   I was healed, thanks to the skills and care of the doctors, nurses and physios at Ninewells hospital Dundee, and the X factor of prayer and the Holy Spirit.  I do believe there is a purpose in my being left on this earth – for my family and to be able to tell people about Jesus Christ.  I do not ask you to believe because of my kind of near death experience/dream.  My aim is simply to muster all the evidence I can and point you to the beauty of The Truth, that you might come to see and experience Him for yourself.   Enjoy!

“…what in me is dark

Illumine, what is low raise and support;

That to the highth of this great argument

I may assert eternal providence

And justify the ways of God to men.”

John Milton – Paradise Lost – I:22-6

 

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)


[1] Marcus Brigstock, God Collar

[2] Hitchens – God is Not Great – p.10

[3] Pope Bendict – Jesus of Nazareth – p. 37

[4] GK Chesterton – Orthodoxy – Hodder and Stoughton  1999 – p.222

[5] Pascal – Pensees – no.110

[6] Pensees – no. 423.

[7] Pensees – no. 449.

[8] Blaise Pascal – Thoughts on Religion and Philosophy – London 1894 – p.142


8 thoughts on “Magnificent Obsession – Why Jesus is Great

  1. What a beautifull intriduction to this book. I for one will have to purchase a copy now and if not for your knowledge, for your clear passionate and tentative relationship with Jesus that I wish to have. Thank you..

  2. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8). Really? Your annotations just link back to the intro. I was looking for valid arguments against atheism to determine if the book would be something I would be interested in purchasing.

    1. MAgnificent Obsession is not written primarily as a riposte to atheism – for that have a look at our book ‘Why I am not an Atheist?”. I posted one chapter on this blog. Magnificent Obsession is more an argument for Christianity….you can get both!

  3. David

    I read your book earlier this year. While I do have a detailed review in the back of my mind, my new job in London and new lifestyle of early nights, lots of exercise and strict diet of fresh food and vegetables means that the time I once spent hunched over my laptop arguing with everyone on the Internet I could find is severely curtailed and I don’t know whether I’ll ever get round to writing or publishing it.

    Thank goodness for ipods and audiobooks: they mean that I can continue with my intellectual pursuits while chopping carrots…

    I agreed with one passage of your book: Manic Street Preacher’s analysis of the human situation is “spot on” and their 1994 album, The Holy Bible is a masterpiece of “pain with any real hope” (what would you have liked; the album to finish off with pat-happy sing-a-long from Lifeblood or Rewind The Film?)

    Since today is the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, I thought that my own commemoration might be of interest to you.

    Best wishes

    Ed/MSP

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