An interview with John C. Lennox,
Author of Against the Flow
The concepts of tolerance and political correctness are having a chilling effect on the public practice of Christianity. That’s why readers will find Dr. John C. Lennox’s new book Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Monarch Books/March 27, 2015/ISBN: 978-0857216212/$19.99) incredibly timely. Lennox, who has defended the Christian faith in debates against the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, gives every follower of Christ the intellectual foundation they will need to argue the role their faith should have in the public discourse.
While anyone who has spent time in a Sunday-school classroom is familiar with the biblical story of Daniel, Lennox mines this classic historical account to encourage cultural bravery in Christians trying to find their place in a postmodern society. The story of these four young men born in the tiny state of Judah around 500 B.C. and captured by Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, is one of extraordinary faith in God lived out at the pinnacle of executive power. The book of Daniel describes in detail how each of them eventually rose to senior positions of administration.
Q: You have studied and lectured on a number of different biblical topics – why did you choose to write Against the Flow about the biblical story of Daniel?
It is one of my favourite narratives in the Bible because it records the life of an individual who was prepared, even when he was given high office, to publicly stand up for God, despite being under immense pressure to renounce or privatize his beliefs. He didn’t just maintain his private devotion to God, but a cutting-edge public witness which is much rarer.
Q: Why should every Christian be familiar with the themes found in the story of Daniel?
Much of the book is of direct relevance today. Babylon is the ancient version of our secular society, and Daniel and his friends were called upon to stand for their faith even though they were in a tiny cultural minority. They did this in the full glare of publicity rather than run away to form a ghetto. Their values were challenged – is there anything of absolute value or is everything merely relative? Are our religious beliefs just a result of our upbringing? What evidence is there that the supernatural realm exists? What do we do if God’s law clashes with human law? When is the status of humankind compared to animals? Do we live in a closed or open universe, and how ultimate are the laws of nature? Does the Bible have any predictive power? The real weight of many contemporary intellectual spiritual, moral and ethical questions come out clearly in Daniel’s remarkable book.
Q: Babylon, where Daniel was captive, was a hub for commerce, culture and education. How was this possible when it was built on false religions and moral ambiguity? What can modern Christians learn from this juxtaposition?
This was one of the questions that Daniel and his friends must have contemplated. Was the sheer scale and might of the city a sign of God’s favour or even a confirmation of the power that the Babylonian gods wielded? Yet, as the story shows, Babylon was built on very shaky and inadequate moral, spiritual and philosophical foundations as we see in Daniel’s analysis of the reasons for its ultimate demise.
Q: Why do you call the times in which we live a “modern Babylon?”
The city of Babylon is used throughout the Bible to describe a society that has turned away from God, indeed is founded on defiance of God basing its confidence on human ability and intellectual capacity to “make a name for itself.” Its ancient ziggurat was a forerunner of the modern skyscraper and all that such buildings symbolize. It was a powerful city within which a plurality of beliefs existed and the same kind of idols that its inhabitants worshipped (many of which were based on deifying the laws of nature) still predominate in society today (sex, greed, power, wealth, etc). Daniel, though he lived in Babylon didn’t live for it. He, like Abraham, lived for a heavenly city which has true foundations and whose architect is God.
Q: Why do you think Daniel and his friends were able to rise to power in the midst of such a corrupt culture?
What is interesting about their rise to prominence is that they were not prepared to keep their faith in God a secret, which they could easily have done in order to save themselves. Instead, they deliberately stood up for their belief in the public sphere and, as a result, crucially, they were seen to be different (in a positive sense). Daniel was known for his “insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom” (Daniel 5:13). His life was such that his accusers were unable to find anything to charge him with (Daniel 6:4). He also showed immense courage to interpret the dream for Nebuchadnezzar, as the King had already threatened to execute his wise men for their inability to do so. Nebuchadnezzar’s promotion of Daniel was a result of Daniel’s obedience to God. Those that honour God, he honours.
Q: What should the focus be for Christians who have found themselves placed in positions of power and influence?
The focus of all Christians should be to live for God in whatever sphere of influence they are in. It is in our work environments that our faith in God is most likely to be tested. People in positions of power are under particular pressures. In one sense they have a great opportunity because of their influence, but in another they have a great responsibility, as well as much to lose. Yet these concerns were exactly the same for Daniel who provides an amazing model for us today, whether or not we are in positions of power.
Q: It would be hard to find a child who grew up in church who has not heard the story of Daniel in the lion’s den – but this is more than just a thrilling story – what does it tell us about the relationship between law and religion –specifically, the Jewish religion?
The genius of Daniel is that it shows how important law and legislation is. Once laws are passed they can be very difficult to overturn and it can be too late to protest about them. So in Daniel a central theme is about how we should focus on living under God’s law in a culture that is prepared to pass laws that discriminate against believers publicly expressing their faith.
Q: What has been the effect of political correctness on the public practice of the Christian faith? Could Daniel have identified with this?
There is a pressure in society to respect all different viewpoints and to keep our faith private, so we don’t ‘offend’ anyone. One problem with this is that it causes confusion about how to judge between different ideas (their truthfulness), for example, or right and wrong. In society we have relativized the absolute and yet we can’t live without absolutes, so we tend to do the opposite and treat as absolute what is merely of relative value – like money, power, status etc.
Q: You say in Against the Flow, that there is one point Richard Dawkins has made that you completely agree with. What is that point and what does it mean for Christians?
Dawkins is not a postmodernist, nor am I. We agree upon the fact that there is such a thing as truth that is independent of you and me. We agree that if someone makes a truth-claim, then you should be able to ask them what evidence they have for holding that viewpoint. Christians don’t have to be philosophers or academics, but they should be able to give reasons for the hope that they have (1 Peter 3:15). Yet this is not a one-sided thing, as the same must go for the naturalistic beliefs that most atheists hold.
Q: Why do you think our culture has accepted the idea that faith has little or no place in the public discourse?
A major reason for this is a misunderstanding of the word. The new atheists have helped to propagate the notion that faith is believing in something in the absence of evidence. This is an idiosyncratic and incorrect use of the word and is what is usually referred to as blind faith. My faith in Christ is evidence based – the main evidence being the resurrection in history and my own experience. It is also helpful to remember that faith is indispensable to science. No one would do any science if they did not believe = have faith in the fact that = science can be done.
Q: What is the proper place of Christianity in today’s postmodern society?
Although our culture is informed by postmodernism, most people believe in truth in one form or another and certainly in areas they consider important. There are several worldviews in our western culture today – naturalism and Christianity being two of them – and what I object to is atheistic naturalism being regarded de facto as the default world view. That is not the case – all worldviews ought to be free to enter discussion in the public space.
Q: Do you see the stand for righteousness in a wicked culture as being in competition with Christian compassion?
I wouldn’t see the two as being in competition with each other, as the key is how we convey our faith to others. We must always communicate righteousness in a way that also conveys our compassion. This isn’t always easy, which is why we have to ask God to help us in our conversations.
Q: You have debated well-known atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. What was one of your most challenging debate moments? Most rewarding?
The most challenging thing is probably after a debate, when you process what was said and what might have been said. The most rewarding part is hearing from those who have been helped by them, such as those who have subsequently become Christians or those whose faith has either been strengthened or revived by seeing the discussions. One of the motivations for doing them is that people are influenced by what public intellectuals say. It is not surprising that if Stephen Hawking says there is no God, people think “who am I to question him?”
Q: What is the single most important lesson for the Christian from the life of Daniel?
It is intended to be a clarion call to our generation to be courageous and to not to lose our nerve and allow the expression of our faith to be diluted or squeezed out of the public space, thus rending us spineless or ineffective. Hopefully it will help strengthen our resolve to swim against the flow, not only to put our heads above the parapet, but also to make sure in advance that our minds and hearts are prepared, so that we do not get blown away in the first salvo!