Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Truth Out of Balance

When I’m working, I leave my car in a seven-storey public parkade across the street from a hospital. Recently it was thought prudent to increase the number of available parking spaces for disabled drivers, so the necessary repainting was done and the usual signs posted.

That would have been fine, except that the increase in disabled spaces was an order of magnitude greater than the need it was intended to address; ten times the number required even in the busiest hours of the average day. Virtually the entire second floor of the parkade is now empty morning, noon and night. Thirty drivers who would otherwise have paid for space in this busy downtown parking lot are stuck looking for accommodation elsewhere, and the City loses the revenue from their daily custom. On the bright side, the strategy virtue-signals magnificently, so the town hall clerks and administrators are likely unperturbed.

Christian instruction can be a bit like that parkade. We only have so much space in our craniums. A truth stressed out of proportion pushes other truths out of place.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Right Place, Wrong Way

Christendom is full of people getting to the right place the wrong way.

“Well, that’s a good thing,” we might say. “The important thing is that we get there, right?”

That’s certainly true. Correct conclusions matter. They affect what we do and how we live. But how we arrive at them is often just as important.

In his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Dr. Jordan Peterson gets to a pretty good place by examining dominance hierarchies in lobsters. No, I’m not kidding.

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Bright Thought for a Brisk Winter Morning

Life is affliction.

Too dark an opener? Maybe. But it’s true.

It’s too short for one thing, gone before we fully appreciate it. “Dust”, says Moses. Like a dream. We wither like grass. We are swept away like a flood. Seventy years on average. Eighty maybe, if we’re unusually robust. Almost nothing. At some point after we enter this world, we discover that death is a universal reality. From that moment on, the spectre of our own imminent demise and that of all those we love hovers over, informs, taints and affects every moment of our lives. Affliction.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

On the Mount (15)

There’s a useful little spiritual truth called the Corban Principle. That’s just my name for it; I’m sure I owe somebody older and godlier for introducing me to it, but I can’t for the life of me remember who ought to get the credit.

Anyway, it comes from that passage in Mark where the Lord Jesus calls out the Pharisees for allowing religious Jews to reduce their financial obligations under the Law by giving sums of money intended for the upkeep of aging parents to the synagogue instead, which effectively put the money in the hands of the Pharisees.

The practice was called Corban. It was an end-around the spirit of the Law of Moses, and the Lord called it “making void the word of God”.

The Corban Principle simply stated: God doesn’t want anything from you or me at someone else’s expense.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Wintry Landscapes

“A wintry landscape of unrelieved bleakness.” That’s Lutheran scholar Martin Marty’s take on Psalm 88.

One of the difficulties encountered by those of us who like to go scratching around the Bible to background its characters is that, just like in the phone directory, lots of different people have the same name. That makes certainty an issue. Names like Mary, John and James appear all over the place. Disambiguators help, of course, and the Holy Spirit provides them here and there: Mary Magdalene, James the son of Alphaeus, and so on.

This morning I’m more than a little curious about Heman the Ezrahite, the poet credited with the aforementioned “wintry landscape”.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: This Little Christian Went to Market

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Some years ago I had the movie The Big Kahuna recommended to me.

While for the most part it’s a movie with an unexpectedly charitable take on the motives of conservative Christians, there are a few moments in which the writer cannot resist taking a shot. One is in a conversation between Phil, the main character (a weary agnostic salesman played by Danny DeVito) and Bob (an evangelical junior salesman played by Peter Facinelli). Apparently, the younger man has committed the gross offence of having spoken to a valued customer about his faith without making any sales pitch for the industrial lubricant company both men are paid to represent.

DeVito’s character, Phil, is irate at the missed sales opportunity.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ya Really Oughta Know …

“ ‘History never repeats’,
    I tell myself before I go to sleep.”

— Neil Finn, 1981

Well, that’s reassuring. We’d never want a second Black Plague, a second Holocaust or even a second Hurricane Katrina, would we? But if Finn is right, we should perhaps ask ourselves the obvious question: Why study history?

After all, if it never repeats, then knowledge of the past is useless to guide us for the future. What use is it to think about the South Sea Bubble or the Cold War when we know that the unique circumstances that made each possible will never exist again?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Two Kindreds

“All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.”

The Psalms declare that God made the nations.

By “nations”, the Psalmist means the natural ethnic divisions of our world; the families, clans and specific language groups that exist almost from pole to pole. The Hebrew term for these divisions is gowy; the word goyim is thought to be related.

David’s not speaking here of states or republics or empires or flags or unions — those grand expressions of the will of exceptional and powerful men, held together by law and force of arms, that spread across whole continents only to disappear into the history books when an even greater will or a bigger army rises up against them.

No, he’s talking about something smaller, more fundamental, more instinctual and longer-lasting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Godly War Cry

Kathy Kelly argues that there is “no such thing as a just war”. Jim Foxvog argues that trust in God demands national pacifism. One comes at it from a secular perspective, the other from a Christian perspective, and both wind up in the same place: War is wrong, period.

You know, it seems to me that the writers of the Psalms might just disagree.

Psalm 83 is a godly war cry.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Truth Recycled

Novelty can be overrated.

Oh, people like to hear new things. An original twist on even the most well-worn religious theme is bound to perk up an ear or two.

One of the more remarked-on features of Jesus’ earliest ministry was that it was accompanied by demonstrations of spiritual authority. Unclean spirits fled at his rebuke. But Mark records that at least part of the excitement in Capernaum was that the Lord’s teaching was thought to be new.

And new ideas get people talking.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

On the Mount (14)

Words are usually coined when we need to make useful distinctions not obvious in the current vernacular. If we have at our disposal a nice, precise bit of language to describe a particular concept, we generally use it. If we don’t, we have to either cobble ourselves together a new one from other familiar words (I’m currently fond of “crybully” and “humblebrag”), or borrow one from another language (schadenfreude is getting a little long in the tooth, but it’s still a beaut).

This is an ongoing process, for obvious reasons. Through repeated misuse, the semantic range of our existing vocabulary expands relentlessly until we get to the point that we can no longer make those useful distinctions that are such a critical component of communication.

All to say that if you can distinguish between the current, debased usage of “profanity” (offensive language), “obscenity” (morally offensive language) and “swearing” (profanity), good luck to you.

I can’t. Or really, this generation can’t.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Better Idea

My head is a tangle of ideas this morning, so let me set about trying to untangle them for you.

Thread One: Dr. Emidio Campi is convinced that “the Christian message of salvation becomes futile unless its implications are extended throughout the whole of human life, into political, social and international structures.”

Thread Two: John Calvin’s view of the Church, which provoked the aforementioned rather ecumenical outburst.

Thread Three: Psalm 80, an Asaphian meditation on the restoration of Israel.

Whew! How would you like a bowl of that for breakfast?

Friday, January 19, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Culture and the Gospel

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: I’m going to temporarily suspend our self-imposed five-sentence limit, Tom, in order to tell you a story about something that happened last year when our provincial standardized test was performed.

You need to know that teachers are all given a specific script for what they are and are not allowed to tell students on the day of the test. They are expressly forbidden to go beyond this script, and doing so is grounds for firing. Teachers cannot add any directions, explanations, definitions or any other kind of information to this. They are not allowed to give any guidance once the test begins, no matter what a student wants or needs. It’s standardized, period.

One of the questions on the test asked kids to imagine a picnic, and then write based on their imagining.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Leadership: It’s a Dog’s Life

It seems everybody today is complaining about the lack of leadership in the local church. Those appointed to lead are not leading at all, or they’re leading too much. Either the whole church is failing to stand for anything, or else arbitrary and inflexible leadership is killing off the life of the church by strangling it with tradition, routine and rules. No one likes how things are running, but no one is terribly sure what a better style of leadership would look like.

Oh, there’s no end of advice out there.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

No Apologies

Someone asks “Where did Cain get his wife?”

A question like that, we all have a pretty good idea where it comes from and where it’s going.

The insinuation is that Cain had sex with his sister, and the implication is that we should be really, really offended by this, always assuming it ever took place.

But it’s not really incest that’s the issue.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Unseen Footprints

Ignore the title. I promise there will be no sentimental poetry today. You can all breathe easier.

Circumstances are very much open to interpretation.

When an angel appears to declare to you the meaning of events you have just gone through or are about to witness, you can be 100% sure you’ve got cause and effect in the correct order and rightly attributed.

Otherwise, well, we’re kind of in the dark. Or at least twilight. Taken on their own, the meaning of even very unusual events can be ambiguous.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The 1,600 Year Conspiracy

We made him up.

Or so goes the story. By “him” I mean Jesus Christ. By “we” I mean human beings with an agenda.

On the surface it’s not a bad thesis. After all, you can’t rigorously prove biblical inspiration. Oh, you can make the claim, and you can demonstrate from the text that the apostles, prophets and Jesus himself claimed it too. You can make the case that inspiration is a reasonable and logical inference, and you can argue it from the sorts of behaviors these supposedly sacred words produce in the lives of those who obey them.

But can you demonstrate with 100% scientific certainty that the text of our Bibles is really God speaking? No.

And if it isn’t? Well, then ... we made him up.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

On the Mount (13)

Divorce in Western societies is epidemic; that much we know.

Statistics vary and are interpreted variously, but we can probably agree without too much debate that the number of divorces both in the world and throughout our churches is way, way too high; in 2014, 0.32% of the total U.S. population got divorced.

Surprisingly, that is trending downward. It was 0.4% annually at the dawn of the new millennium.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Out at the Margins

Drew Brown has a post up at assemblyHUB on the subject of outreach to people who call themselves LGBTQ or some variation thereof. (In the interest of greater inclusion, the acronym keeps changing faster than anyone can keep up, including those who use it to describe themselves. Even the HUB can’t seem to type it the same way twice.)

Sexually transgressive lifestyles are the subject of numerous online debates between believers at the moment, but most are about whether churches should accept individuals who engage in deviant practices as active members. Pragmatic considerations about how Christians can carry the gospel to people living life out at the margins rarely come up.

When they do, they seem to veer to one extreme or another.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Church of the Revolving Door

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Almost all in-groups, public or private, have some form of disciplinary process in place. At work, if you engage in behavior the company defines as “harassment”, you will generally find yourself in front of a supervisor and a Human Resources rep, either to be written up or dismissed. The NFL regularly suspends players who don’t comply with its codes. Even Twitter will freeze your account for expressing what it considers to be inappropriate political views. All of this is standard procedure.

Tom: If you read a fair bit of recent online commentary, you might be forgiven for thinking that contemporary evangelical churches are the only institutions in existence that have no self-policing mechanisms in place.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Next [De]Generation

“There are three types of lies,” Mark Twain famously quipped, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

I know he was overstating the case somewhat, but my time in higher education has given me plenty of opportunity to see that he was not far off. Statistics have a way of impressing people with the apparent solidity of the numbers they generate. Many of us, especially the numerically inclined, tend to think they’re telling us something profound, truthful and scientific. But I have discovered that often they are not, and until you know how the numbers were obtained and how they are being interpreted, you can never be quite sure how solid they really are.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Clerks and Dossiers

“Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!”

That Psalm 74 is a doozy, and it doesn’t easily resonate when we try to apply it to church life in 2017 in our (comparatively) easy-going Western world. The Asaphian contemplation of Zion in ruins appeals to me poetically and dramatically, but in our day the “sanctuary” (assuming any of us would recognize a sanctuary if we saw one) is not burning, and the enemies of God have not recently taken their axes to the dwelling place of his holy Name.

Well, not visibly anyway.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Better Than Good

It’s all too easy to slip into legalistic thinking.

I don’t mean that I’m likely to find myself imposing an archaic, rigid moral framework on others — there’s not much danger of that sort of legalism. But I tend to default to a very binary view of the will of God. Black and white. On and off. Good and evil. Avoid the bad stuff and you’ve had a good day. And I’m probably not alone in that.

I didn’t get up this morning hoping, praying and planning to express Christ to others in the very best possible way. I should’ve, but I didn’t.

Monday, January 08, 2018

True Diversity

We’re all about diversity these days. Multiculturalism and immigration policies in North America are bringing us into contact with different cultures, backgrounds and assumptions that were not on the radar of our parents and grandparents unless they were world travelers.

Paul notes that in the body of Christ, diversity in the type, use and context of spiritual gift is both acceptable, anticipated and actively empowered by God:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”

So in our roles and service in the church, Christians are indeed diverse. But in other ways, don’t all believers have to be more or less the same?

Sunday, January 07, 2018

On the Mount (12)

The question came right out of the blue.

It was entirely ingenuous, I think. There was nothing calculating about the teenage girl who asked it. I don’t think she was looking for a pass on any particular sin of her own; she was just curious how God works.

I was discussing a portion of the Sermon on the Mount in Sunday School — the part where the Lord says, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I wasn’t trying to be especially relevant or anything, but you know teenagers.

So she says, “But if you’re already guilty before God just from looking, why wouldn’t you just go ahead and act on it then?”

Good question.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

A Late New Year’s Thought

I’ve always been kind of a non-conformist. Can’t post a New Year’s thought on New Year’s. Almost didn’t post one at all. You may have noticed IC usually writes almost all the seasonal posts here. If something’s expected, I have real difficulty delivering.

I just don’t much like marching in lockstep or following the crowd. If I find myself surrounded on my way from Point A to Point B, my first question is “Where are we going and why are we going there?” My second question is “Who’s leading us?” by which I really mean, “Does this person have even the foggiest notion what he’s doing?”

That wariness is a product of having followed a bunch of people who, well … didn’t.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: How I Didn’t Meet Your Mother

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.


Catholic, Protestant, whatever: some Christian folks are making the case you’ll have better luck finding a spouse in a bar or restaurant, through friends or online than you are going to have finding a man or woman in your own local church worth partnering up with for life. And Dreher agrees.

That’s quite a claim, IC. Where did you meet your wife?

Immanuel Can: At church, first. But we didn’t get interested in each other until we started working together, serving the Lord at a university. My experience may or may not be indicative, though.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Infinite Improbability and the Multiverse Hypothesis

I’m going to start this post with an apology. I’m sorry.

I usually don’t go all egg-headed and philosophical in this space. I think that usually truth can be spoken plainly and simply, and it’s my aim to do that. Every now and then, though, I run into something that is bugging a whole bunch of people — Christians among them — and that just can’t be treated without going off the grid. This is one of those issues. If I lose you, don’t worry; this probably isn’t an issue that’s come up for you, and it needn’t worry you. Tomorrow there may well be a post that suits you more directly.

On the other hand, if you’ve run into the arguments below, you might be very glad for some help with them even if it takes us into deeper waters. So I’m going to risk it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Looking Past the Millennium

The so-called “Lord’s Prayer”, prayed by millions over centuries, includes the request that “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That line is taken as mere aspiration by many and blithely ignored by many more. Lately it doesn’t get recited much in public at all. But the kingdom is coming, and it’s coming here. One wonders exactly how that will go over.

The millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ is a “must”, as G.B. Fyfe puts it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

God’s Great Data Repository

Humanity’s drive to preserve itself is acute and perpetual.

How does the next generation come to know who we are and what we have learned? Our wisdom, our knowledge — our very selves, if that were possible — need to be passed on. In doing so, it is thought, we give our own lives meaning. On their way to the grave, even hardened materialists appeal to the notion that they will somehow “live on” in the memories of those with whom they interact. That hope is illusory: human memory degrades with astounding rapidity.

The invention of electronic data storage appeared to provide a solution.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Children in the Marketplace

As Rachel Held Evans is always telling us, Christians in the West have it real good. And for once, she’s not completely wrong.

When we compare our current situation to that of believers in Muslim-majority countries today, or to that of the apostles or Old Testament prophets, or to saints throughout the last two millennia who have been persecuted and even martyred for confessing the name of Christ, there’s not a whole lot for us to complain about.

Still, even if it most often takes the form of generalized online carping rather than direct personal attacks, Christians in North America do encounter hostility now and again. Such occasions provide good opportunities to assess exactly what it is to which the unsaved are reacting so negatively.