Have you ever heard the phrase, “the perfect storm”? The idea was first introduced through a book by Sebastian Junger, later made into a movie starring George Clooney, called The Perfect Storm.
It was based on a true event.
In October of 1991, all the elements came together to create the most powerful storm in recorded history. It struck just off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was really three storms in one: a hurricane, energy flowing from the Great Lakes, and a frontal system sweeping through New England.
It created an almost apocalyptic situation in the Atlantic, with boats encountering waves of 100 feet, which is the equivalent of a 10-story building. It was the National Weather service that called it “the perfect storm.” It took the lives of many people, including the six men aboard the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail, made famous through its Hollywood depiction.
Since then, whenever multiple dynamics come together to create an overwhelming impact, it is called a “perfect storm.” When it comes to modern assaults on faith, a perfect storm can be found in the combination of the ideas of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud.
The Cosmological Attack. Copernicus initiated what can be termed the cosmological attack. In determining through his telescope that we live in a heliocentric universe, as opposed to an Earth-centered one, he challenged more than the centrality of human existence on planet Earth; he brought into question the trustworthiness of faith itself.
At the time, the official teaching of the Christian Church considered anything other than an Earth-centered universe heresy. Of course, the church’s position was wrong. It wasn’t that the Bible was wrong, only their interpretation of obscure texts that had been skewed by the bias that the Earth needed to be at the center of creation to uphold the special nature of God’s creation on Earth. No such assertion was necessary to the doctrine of creation, much less the doctrine of humanity, but the damage had been done.
Religious pronouncements on matters of public discourse have been automatically suspect ever since, and modern cosmologists now speak to issues of faith and philosophy with greater authority than priests and theologians.
The Biological Attack. Darwin’s assault was not cosmological; it was a biological attack – or, perhaps more accurately, anthropological. In Origin of Species, this minister’s son contended that the origin of humankind could be accounted for in ways other than direct spiritual activity – namely, natural selection.
No matter that the theory of macroevolution continues to have its fair share of detractors in regard to it failing to account for the actual origin of species (e.g., one of the pushbacks against naturalistic evolution is that you need self-reproducing organisms in place for natural selection to even begin), the very idea of an alternative explanation rooted in science proved compelling. And of course, few believers at the time considered the idea of theistic evolution.
Nonetheless, the damage was done. Neither Earth nor human beings were pictured as the center of the universe.
The Psychological Attack. Then Sigmund Freud launched a psychological attack intimating that the idea of the soul itself is conditioned. God is nothing but a projection of our desires. We want there to be a God, so we imagine such a being. Or as Voltaire wrote in 1770, “Se Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”).
Forgetting that such an argument would war against the integrity of many of the intellectual achievements of civilization, including his own theory of psychoanalysis, Freud hit his target in the same manner as Darwin. There was now an option to explain spiritual conviction apart from faith, but seemingly rooted in that which was intellectually apprehensible.
Why am I raising these three volleys against faith?
I mean, really, aren’t they a bit dated? (Yes, they are.)
But they’re dated only in the sense that they have done their work. The ideas behind these three attacks continue to fuel the skepticism of those who aren’t even aware of the origin of their doubt.
The cosmological attack laid the groundwork for the godmongering among the new physicists, and the declaration that God is officially dead and that science and religion do not mix.
The biological attack laid the groundwork for continued assaults against the Bible in terms of “literal interpretations” and a dubious attitude toward its integrity.
The psychological attack laid the groundwork for a subjective approach to all matters related to faith, making it a private, personal matter akin to color preference or preferred vacation spot.
Many have responded to the three attacks above in light of a Christian mind. But sometimes, we seem to forget what it really means to fire back at these attacks and what to use as our weapon.
Here is your answer:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:16-17, NIV).
The Apostle Paul knew that in the gospel was the very power of God. Of the six possible words for power that he could have used from the Greek language, he chose the word dunamis, which is where we get our word for “dynamite.”
It’s interesting, too – there is no definite article used in this verse in the original Greek. I don’t want to get too technical, but it’s actually quite significant. It means that it doesn’t say that the gospel is the power of God, but a power of God.
In other words, it’s not simply something that God uses from time to time; it is – in itself – a power. The gospel itself contains power and energy. It doesn’t bring power, it is power, energized by the Holy Spirit Himself. The gospel is not a worldview, a philosophy, or an argument that you try to win.
When you share the gospel, you are unleashing a force that brings together everything for a moment of eternal impact: the message of the gospel, the power of God, and a living human soul.
It is the very power of God turned loose.
So yes, know the ideas shaping our world. And yes, know what underlies the thinking of those who question the Christian faith. And yes, know how to answer the skepticism.
But also know the power of the gospel.
And then, for Christ’s sake, fire back.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Baker).
Joseph and Francis Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle.
On the tenability of the theory of evolution, see Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box; Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial; William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design.
Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism.
Philip Clayton, The Problem of God in Modern Thought.
Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.