Over the past month, these are the events in faith, science and culture that have been catching our attention.
25 December – Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has apparently rediscovered religion. A self-declared atheist for several years, Zuckerberg posted a message on Christmas Day wishing Facebookers a ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah’. When a commenter asked, ‘But aren’t you atheist?’ Zuckerberg replied, ‘No. I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.’ The speculation is that a meeting with the Pope in the summer, plus prayer at a Buddhist shrine in China a year earlier, were important milestones.
23 December – Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence was released and has been acclaimed as ‘one of the finest religious movies ever made’, but also panned as ‘inert, humourless and overly devout’. Based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel, Silence (1966), its subject is the reception of Christianity in Japan in the 17th century, and the violent persecution which believers faced. See the official website, plus sample reviews by Vox (which loved it), the Guardian (which wasn’t impressed) and Premier Christianity (which hails it as ‘a masterpiece on persecuted Christianity’).
22 December – Jesus sites in Jeruselem – are they real? Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, offered a ‘real or not real’ guide to some of the biggest sites on the pilgrim trail in Jerusalem. The feature is a good reminder of the mixture of genuine sites still on the ground in Jerusalem, as well as the places which have more than a bit of make believe about them.
19 December – Unbelieveable? the Premier Christian Radio programme where believers and unbelievers meet and debate all things religious, featured a conversation between Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens and National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson just before Christmas. They debated a recent report which recommended cutting back the role of Christianity in the UK to make space for other faiths and humanist points of view. Details and the MP3 here.
16 December – Fredric Heidemann, a Michigan attorney, wrotes about how he lost his atheism through his love of Lord of the Rings. His atheism fell apart as he processed the question, ‘How could a made-up fantasy world reveal anything about the “truth”?’
15 December – Little Books of Guidance are a series of booklets which UK publisher SPCK has been producing for a couple of years. They expanded the series with four new booklets, each of them offering thoughtful, informed responses to some of the biggest questions about faith. The new booklets, Who was Jesus? Why believe in Jesus’ Resurrection? Why be Good? and Why did Jesus have to Die? supplement earlier booklets on prayer, heaven and the Bible. Worth reading or giving to someone you know.
7 December – Alister McGrath is featured in a new video, where he talks about his academic journey from chemistry to theology, and from atheism to faith. He says that as he studied chemistry at Oxford University, he came to accept that ‘faith and science could not only exist alongside one another, but actually could talk to each other, could enrich each other.’ The video is part of the Oxford Conversations series.
3 December – The ‘tomb of Jesus’ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has been opened for the first time in 500 years for repairs. Archaeologists discovered a crusader cross from the 12th century, carved into a marble slab covering where the body of Jesus might have been laid. This doesn’t prove that Jesus was buried there, as tradition claims, but it does show that the site has been revered as the resting place of Jesus for a very long time.
Christianity Today magazine hailed the event in this way: ‘For the first time in half a millennium, church officials have allowed access to a tomb even more famous than that of “King Tut,” the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.’ Also see a good summary article in the Independent.
2 December – Stephen Hawking met Pope Francis. Hawking was in Rome for a conference, ‘Science and Sustainability’, which covered the impact of science and technology on the planet. It was organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican. Earlier in the autumn, Francis said that evolution and Big Bang theory are real and that God is not ‘a magician with a magic wand’, which hopefully made the meeting between him and one of the world’s most famous atheists a little easier. The Christian Post reported that ‘Francis warmly greeted Hawking by touching him on the shoulder and also praised Hawking for his brilliant work.’
Photo of the rotunda over the tomb, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem: Luxerta