By Christopher Cudworth
For Christmas this year a dear and close friend offered me a gift of The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent by Erwin W. Lutzer with Steve Miller.
This friend of mine has been to Israel several times. She has converted to Judaism and back again to Christianity. She has searched her soul deeply and trusted God to make some of her most difficult life decisions for her.
Our relationship has included many theological discussions during more than 30 years of association. I know her heart and she knows mine. So I not take her gift of this book to me seriously.
So sat down to read it and this is how the book begins, with a chapter titled “The Day the Levees Broke.”
“The problem was not Katrina.
The problem was that the levees broke. And, as a result, millions of tons of water inundated the City of New Orleans. When it was over, the city was practically destroyed and nearly 1000 people had died. If only the levees had been strong enough to hold back the water, New Orleans might have been able to survive the catastrophe.”
Perhaps to those unfamiliar with the history of resource abuse and strained attempts by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide safety for the City of New Orleans, those opening statements might seem sensible enough. Surely if the levees were strong enough, the logic goes, the water would not have gotten through.”
But here’s the rub. The strength of the levees was not the problem. The problem was instead manifold. For one thing, the storm surge caused by Katrina was the largest ever created by a tropical storm in the United States. A post on the site Weather Underground describes it this way.
Hurricane Katrina of 2005 produced the highest storm surge ever recorded on the U.S. coast–an astonishing 27.8 feet at Pass Christian, Mississippi. This bested the previous U.S. record of 22.8 feet, which also occurred at Pass Christian, during 1969’s Hurricane Camille. According to the NHC Katrina final report (PDF File), Hurricane Katrina brought a surge of 24 – 28 feet to a 20-mile stretch of Mississippi coast. Fully 90 miles of coast from eastern Louisiana to Alabama received a storm surge characteristic of a Category 3 hurricane. The colossal damage that resulted has been documented by blogger Margie Kieper during a series of blog posts that ran in the summer of 2006. The contents are reproduced here, and consist of an introduction explaining why the surge was so large, and 16 parts exploring the damage done to each stretch of the Gulf Coast ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
So it wasn’t the levees breaking that produced the flooding in New Orleans. It was the height of the storm surge from Katrina, which at some points was 18 feet higher than the tallest levee. A levee cannot stop water that overtops it that way.
There were some cogent factors as to why the storm surge stayed so high once it reached shore. Over the past 70 years human engineering of the coastline has resulted in a drastic reduction of coastal wetland habitat and marshes that once served as a buffer for the region against coastal weather activity. Normally a large expanse of wetlands can absorb much of the energy of a storm surge and slow it down. That reduces the height of the water. No amount of levee building can replace these natural coastal systems. So again, it was not that the levees were not strong enough. It is the fact that human activity has undermined the natural balance of the coastal ecosystem.
The strength of the Katrina storm system might also be a product of human impact on the environment. For years climatologists have predicted a potential rise in the number of tropical storms and also a rise in their intensity. This would be a projected effect of global climate change and warming of the oceans. The heat exchange in warmer waters helps tropical storms intensify. The result can be larger storms and higher winds. That combination can produce higher storm surges.
Shallow assumptions = shallow conclusions
So the assumptions Erwin W. Lutzer makes in beginning his book about worldviews and religious philosophy exhibit a shallowness in ideological framework. That is, he ignores too much reality in his opening allegory to have credence on the subjects he is about to address in his book. The flawed allegory demonstrates a brand of ideological thinking that ignores facts in favor of favored fictions.
This is a problem too seldom addressed in theological discussions. We all know that fundamental religious worldviews love to ignore science in favor of crediting everything on earth to the creative or destructive power of God. By using the paradigm of Katrina and blaming the flooding of New Orleans on the manmade levees, Mr. Lutzer exhibits the habitual credulity of so many conservative Christian thinkers. By focusing so strongly on the tenets of what he wants the levees to symbolize about the modern church and its so-called battle against the surge of Islamic foes in the world, he loses the ideological battle from the start.
Concerns for the church
It is bitterly ironic that Lutzer immediately goes on to complain that the Christian church is shrinking in America. “The church in the West has already felt the first stirrings of a storm directed against it, and without question the speed of the wind and the height of the waves will intensify as time moves on. The question is whether the church will have the strength and the courage to withstand the growing onslaught. The question is whether the levees will hold.”
Well Erwin, we’re glad you got your fears out there on the table. But your allegory does actually reveals the real problem with the shallowness of modern day fundamental Christianity.
A levee against a tidal wave of reason?
Have you ever considered the real reasons why the church is weakening in America? Because the Moody Bible Institute (and Moody Radio) from which your views so proudly emanate is prone to promoting a version of Christianity that is both rigid and brittle. The inflexibly fundamental version of faith promoted by the Moody Bible Institute with its support for creationism as science and its intolerance of homosexuality and the Constitutional right to abortion in America are anachronistic at best and a warped and dismissive interpretation of scripture at its worst.
Modern day Pharisees and the Pope who calls them out
Perhaps if conservative Christianity comes out of its doctrinal hole as Jesus warned the Pharisees to do during in his time on earth, then perhaps the faith would have an opportunity to actually breathe some spirit into society. At least Pope Francis of the Catholic Church seems to get this concept. His advocacy on behalf of science and social integration is thought leadership much overdue in this world.
Pope Francis nails the Moody Bible Institute to the wall with his statement that “laws that don’t lead to Jesus are obsolete.” And you can already hear the conservative instincts kicking in when modern day Pharisees hear such statements. “Well, you can’t lead a homosexual to Jesus if they won’t give up their lifestyle…” and such statements are right where the Moody-heads aim their sites when challenged to change their doctrine.
A tough read
And so it will be difficult indeed for me to read Erwin W. Lutzer’s book The Cross in the Shadow of the Crescent. if the introduction is any indication, its philosophy surely lurks beneath a cloud of fear and ostracism. These two methodologies seem to be held dear by conservative faith.
This is one Christian who prefers to breathe the clean air of progressive thought. Where science can be reconciled to faith. Where intolerance is not the first rule of order in the church. And where the bigger picture and natural events in this world are not consigned to doctrinal symbolism designed to scare believers into that weird zone of religious contrition and holy war.