Saturday, February 23, 2008

Does God Exist? Do Christians Exist? A Review of the book "Letter to a Christian Nation," by Sam Harris

I've been reading Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation for the second time in a few weeks, and it raises some old questions and issues I've been challenged to re-think. Harris is an atheist, a term he dislikes. He writes, "Atheism is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non-astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist.'" He continues, "Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious... An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to 'never doubt the existence of God' should be obliged to present evidence for his existence - and indeed, for his benevolence, giving the relentless destruction of innocent human beings that we witness in the world each day. An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl - even once in a million years - casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God."
I disagree with Harris on many points since I believe that the existence of a supreme being and creator is perhaps the most obvious fact about this world. I have no plans to embrace atheism. But I find Harris' 91-page book worthwhile reading and I would recommend it to you also. Harris raises the usual questions asked by those who believe, and don't believe in God. How can there be a benevolent all powerful God when innocent people every day are suffering and dying throught no fault of their own? Why such horrible God-given laws in the Old Testament as the orders to kill disobedient children, and to execute people for certain sins such as working on the Sabbath? In fact I believe there are explanations and answers to those questions. Harris also points out some of the contradictions in the Bible and makes a credible argument against the Bible being infallible. I have no problem with those arguments. Many Christians damage the credibility of Christianity by making claims that have no basis in truth or Biblical fact. In order for the Bible to be infallible, the language it's written in would also have to be infallible. No language used by humans is infallible. An infallible language is one in which misunderstandings could not exist. Of course no such language exists. Harris is right in challenging the phony claim, made by many Christians, that the Bible is infallible.
More troubling to me is Harris' report that since the publication of his first book, The End of Faith, which addresses the same issues, the most hostile responses he received came from Christians. I guess we can always count on some Christians giving Christianity a bad name. Just as important is the information that the least religious countries in the world: Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, are also the healthiest as indicated by life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Why do the religious beliefs of Christians often seem to impede human development? If our religious beliefs block human development, can those beliefs actually be Christian beliefs? Harris does acknowledge that not all Christians are alike, that some do not take their beliefs too seriously and use them as weapons against others.
I recommend reading this book because it helped me to see how some other people view Christians. It demonstrates a need to rethink how we as Christians talk about and practice our faith. What kind of impression are we leaving with others? Do my beliefs actually impede human progress? Is God really all-powerful? Harris raises brief, but solid criticism to Christian opposition to evolution, abortion, and stem cell research. He points out that "religion tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering." Harris writes that "religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral." I agree. Christian support for the US military attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan is highly immoral for numerous reasons, but primarily because of the harmful impact those wars are having on the lives of innocent humans. Many of Harris' arguments are very credible and directed at what I would see as Christian mis-interpretation of the teachings of Christianity.
Harris doesn't take into consideration the distinction between Old and New Testaments, or the differences between the various types of literature in the Bible: poetry, history, didactic writings, prophecy, etc., and that each needs to be read somewhat differently, as today we read and interpret differently, a poem, a play by Shakespeare, and the front page of the daily newspaper. Failure to address those factors weakens Harris' arguments. He also seems to assume that the writings from the Bible are believed by Christians to be the work of God with no influence from human culture, as opposed to a hybrid or "cocktail" of writings by men and women inspired by God, but also reflecting strong human and cultural influence, which, I believe, more accurately describes the Bible. Since Harris is not a believer we cannot expect him to embrace the Anabaptist concept that the life and teachings of Jesus is the first principal of Biblical interpretation. This book does illustrate the value of interpreting the Bible through the life and teachings of Jesus although such an interpretation does not adequately respond to all of Harris' criticisms.
Harris would like to see religion eradicated and compares efforts to eliminate religion to the effort to abolish slavery in the eighteenth century. He claims that those who pray are simply "talking to an imaginary friend," He points out, with some justification, that when an atheist contributes to help meet human need, it's a greater act of charity than a Christian doing the same, because at least the atheist doesn't expect to get something, such as eternal life, in return. He rightly reminds us that Christian opposition to stem cell research, to vaccination to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and to condom use actually results in more human suffering and premature deaths.
These challenges to Christianity are what many Christians need to hear. They raise questions we need to face. What kind of impact do my Christian beliefs have on others? Does my interpretation of the Bible make sense in light of what we know about history and science, or are they as ridiculous as believing that the earth is flat? Read Letter to a Christian Nation and I believe you will be inspired and challenged to face your beliefs, and ask yourself some of these important questions that Harris raises.

Previously published in slightly different form in the May, 2007 edition of "The Olive Branch," the newsletter of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship in Boise, Idaho.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


The blinding sun, strikes
lush, green cornfields, smiling down
on a job well done.

Written for a poetry writing assignment at Boise State Univ., 1993

Quicky Love Poem

Eyes of love
In my life
Pause in time
Cause of strife

The sole source
From each heart
Makes us one
A new start

Charge of joy
Surge of hope
Face the dare
We can cope

Time's sweet shove
Past the date
Hearts that love
Meet too late

Here's the way
Each to give
All we can
Helps us live

You my life
You my love
Soon to join
Hearts above

Written for a poetry writing class assignment at Boise State Univ., 1993

An Alphabetical Description of Light

Light is ambiguous
Light is benevolent
Light is complacent
Light is deceptive
Light is ethereal
Light is flirtatious
Light is gracious
Light is hypnotic
Light is intense
Light is jaunty
Light is kinetic
Light is liberating
Light is masculine
Light is nostalgic
Light is ornamental
Light is personal
Light is quick
Light is redundnat
Light is succinct
Light is treacherous
Light is understanding
Light is voluptuous
Light is winsome
Light is xanthic
Light is yielding
Light is zany

Written for a poetry writing class assignment at Boise State Univ., 1993.

Please note that, unless otherwise indicated, all the prose, poetry, and photographs on this blog are the creative property of Leonard Nolt and may not be reprinted or republished in any form without permission. (

Writing from the Authority of the Heart

In her first published colledtion of mostly untitled and un-puncuated poems questions i asked my mother, Canadian Mennonite poet Di Brandt writes: " was / altogether a disturbing category for Mennonites no one knew quite / what to do with it even though God must have put it there for a / reason if we could only know what it was..." and; "...when i was five i thought heaven was located / in the hayloft of our barn the ladder to get there / was straight and narrow like the Bible said if you fell off you might land on the / horns of a cow or be smashed on cement..." These lines demonstrate, among other things, that Brandt's poetry gains a lot from her Mennonite heritage and faith.

Brandt grew up in the Southen Manitoba town of Reisland, a conservative separatist Mennonite village. No books were allowed in her childhood home except the Bible. Brandt is reported to have said that she couldn't start writing until her father died because "he owned all the words." At the age of 17 she left her home and moved to Winnepeg to attend college, a courageous act in that she was the first person in her family to break that isolationist tradition.

When questions was published in 1987 it shocked the Mennonite community. The book criticized many Mennonite practices especially corporal punishment and denounced Mennonite resistance to female experience, sexuality, and anything intellectual.

Brandt has a BA from the Univ. of Manitoba, a Masters from the Univ. of Toronto, and Ph.D in English literature from the Univ. of Manitoba. She also has a Divinity degree from the Canadian Mennonite Bible College. She has worked as an editor for a couple publications including Prairie Fire and has been employed teaching English and creative writing at the Univ. of Windsor and Brandon Univ.

Brandt is a prolific and versatile writer. In addition to questions she has published four other collections of poetry: Agnes in the sky; mother, not mother; Jerusalem, beloved; and Now You Care. She has published other books including Wild Mother Dancing: Maternal Narratives in Canadian Literature, and a collection of creative essays, Dancing Naked: Narrative Strategies for Writing Across Centuries. Her most recent book is a collection of essays called So This is the World & Here I Am In It. Her poetry has been set to mucic and adapted for film, television, radio, video, theatre, CD, and dance. She's also written a poetry suite entitled Sweet Sweet Blood.

Brandt has been nominated for many writing awards and her writing has broadened to include issues of environmental degradation, injustice, violence, and international issues. One awards jury commented on Now You Care as follows, "Di Brandt manages beautifully the difficult job of producing poems that are socially conscious without being didactic. She knows that the best poetry rests on the authority of the heart. Thus, she makes her readers care not only through the pleasures of form and crafted language, but also through the risky honesty of her articulations." Brandt has described her writing as "a kind of passionate accusation." Brandt's poems are stimulating, honest, indignant, and maybe at times even a little scary, but never timid and boring. Her writings can open windows to the lives of not just Mennonites, but all peoples everywhere.

Previously published in slightly different form in the March, 2007 edition of "The Olive Branch," the newsletter of Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship in Boise, Idaho.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


We've been dealing with illness in the family lately. Sore throats, coughing, sneezing, migraines, fever, nasal congestion, and some stomach problems too. Karen missed a couple days of work last week and I was ill for a few of my days off work. I think Zach was first, although his symptoms, except for a cough, lasted only a short while and never showed him down. I still have a cough. Kate was ill also. The adults, especially the grandparents, have been moving in slow motion, sluggishly slipping from bed to sofa and from recliner to love seat, resting leisurely at each one. Taking more and longer naps than usual. Not sleeping as well at night. One day recently when it was 44 degrees outside with a stiff wind and I was the only one home I did what I've been doing for many years. I changed the air in the house. I turned off the heat and opened all the windows and doors, let the wind blow through, flushing all the stale, germ-laded air molecules out the window and down the street. I can't prove that made our house healthier, because that was before Karen got sick. If necessary I'll dig out an old fly swatter and start swatting the germs whenever I see them. It's time for them to move on. They've overstayed this illusion of a welcome they thought they had.