Thursday, December 31, 2015

Be Careful What You Outgrow

John Pavlovitz has decided he’s outgrown American Christianity.

I am not losing my mind.
I’m not losing my faith.
I’m not failing or falling or backsliding.
I have simply outgrown American Christianity.

Okay. Well then.

To a certain extent I can sympathize with the sentiment, though perhaps the word “outgrown” might not be the one I’d reach for first.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

With Best Intentions

Sinners crave validation.

When our consciences trouble us, a common first instinct is to seek out sympathetic ears.

For all but the most morally callused that is usually ineffective: most of us can detect when we are being indulged or patronized; when the person listening isn’t buying our sob story but is too intimidated (or uninterested) to fight about it; when their own judgment is suspect or their own character compromised. The sort of comfort such a person gives is wholly inadequate. The alarm bell of conscience just keeps on ringing.

So it becomes necessary to seek validation from those we know to be opposed to our behaviour. If we can convince them, the logic goes, surely we can quiet the voices in our heads.

If only it were that easy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Zombie Church

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Not Her Voice

Everybody wants to be heard. That’s understandable.

To understand and be fully understood is one of the greatest possible states to which human beings may aspire. When perfection comes, “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” says the apostle.

That suggests very strongly that those of us who have a relationship with Jesus Christ are already as fully known as we will ever need or want to be. Think about that for a bit.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nationhood and Angelic Representation

A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. Or at least so says Wikipedia.

Bear this distinction in mind.

What follows is more of an intellectual exercise and a conversation provoker than a specific meditation, but I throw it out there for those who, like me, are intrigued by the details of scripture.

You may be familiar with the concept of the angelic representation of people groups, which is plainly stated for us in the book of Daniel.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Too Clever For Their Own Good

Far too often the mere existence of a biblical record of how fallible, sinful men behave is taken as evidence of what God prefers.

That’s a mistake, whether it is done by unbelievers attacking the character of God and the morality of his instructions, or by believers looking to the frequently sub-optimal choices of Old Testament patriarchs for their standards of acceptable Christian behaviour.

We can and should learn moral lessons from history, of course, but it is foolish to go beyond what is actually written. When we do, we are often being too clever for our own good.

Friday, December 25, 2015

To One and All, A Mary Christmas

“… the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
(Luke 1:35)

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”

So sing the children in John Lennon’s wretched ditty. I really don’t know why he bothered himself about Christmas when he also wanted to “imagine there’s no Heaven”. But each to his own. I’m sure he’s thought better of that since.

At Christmas time, I can’t imagine a more dismal question. Another year over, Lennon accuses, and you haven’t done anything. The poor are still starving, the world is still at war. When are you going to get off your haunches and be worth something?

Ah, there’s nothing like Christmas pudding and the sounds of self-flagellation to improve the seasonal mood.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

My First and Last Christmas Play

I really don’t care for Christmas plays.

Choral programs are tolerable because they at least have Christmas carols, and no matter how often those things get recycled you can’t begrudge people all their traditions. Anyway, some of those carols are quite nice.

But the plays! How many times must I witness people flouncing around in bathrobes, talking like no one in 1st century Israel ever did? How many rickety mangers occupied by plastic baby dolls must one endure? In some places they even parade up some recent mother from the congregation, towing along her screaming newborn, and the old ladies in the front row melt. Then there’s the angelic choir of five teenagers wrapped in shower curtains and crowned with coat-hanger haloes …

To employ the appropriate phrase, “Oy vey”.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Danger of Ordinary

Do you ever find yourself doing essentially the same thing day after day, year after year, and wondering if this is all there is to the Christian life? Sure, you pray, you read your Bible, you spend time with other believers and with the Lord. Most of us look for and find a way to serve God at various times in our lives and plug away at it, sometimes for years. There are precious, encouraging and sometimes exciting moments; there are answers to prayer and things for which we may be very grateful indeed.

But the rest of it? We have to admit it’s usually pretty ordinary.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Throwing Money

My brother once commented (rather perceptively) that I try to solve every problem I encounter by throwing money at it.

He was not wrong. And I’m not the only one.

An elder at one of the local churches in my neighbourhood invited me over for dinner a few weeks ago, and we spent a very enjoyable evening together discussing nearly everything under the sun. One of the subjects he brought up was the regular compensation of pastors.

To his satisfaction, I did the expected double-take.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Cost of Doing Business

Aids to a very effective
ancient form of censorship.
Internet censorship is coming, and it’s coming fast. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

Numerous media sources reported last week that Facebook, Twitter and Google have all agreed to cooperate with the German government in removing hate speech from the internet. Special teams in each company will determine whether content violates German laws and remove it within 24 hours.

Under German law, “hate speech” is speech that “incites or instigates harmful action”. So a mechanism is now in place where quite literally anything may be censored provided it can be said to potentially cause “harm”, as defined by German lawmakers.

Today, that means anti-immigration sentiment. Tomorrow, it could mean anything perceived as homophobic, misogynist or religious. Effectively for Germans it means an end to whatever level of free speech they may have previously enjoyed.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Evil Nature of God

What’s the argument inside the argument?
Over at the Friendly Atheist, Michael Runyan, a former Catholic and retired risk analyst lists 40 problems he sees with Christianity, one of which he calls the “evil nature of God”.*

After doing a little Old Testament math with rather broad strokes, he says this:

“The case can be made that God killed or authorized the killings of up to 25,000,000 people. This is the God that Jesus looked up to and of whom he was allegedly an integral part. That is to say: Jesus himself was an accessory to these massacres. Therefore, Christianity cannot extract itself from these atrocities; it must own them and admit that their God is in fact a serial, genocidal, infanticidal, filicidal, and pestilential murderer.”

Hmm. Let’s think about that a little.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Deconstructing the Narrative

Do you ever find yourself telling God stories? I do.

“Lord, you know I did my best, but ...”

Uh, no. Cease narration. Start deconstructing.

Too many words for one thing, all of them unnecessary. It’s one of those “empty phrases” Matthew talks about. The Lord knows whether I did my best or not. Chances are I didn’t. Maybe it was a 50% effort, maybe it was 80 or 95, but there’s always more I could have done. Because he would do more. He did more.

In any case it’s unnecessary. What I’m really doing is writing a sales pitch for the only Person in the universe who already knows the whole truth of the matter. I often don’t.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: The Dwarves are for the Dwarves

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

The term “postmodern” is not actually all that modern. John Watkins Chapman used it in the 1880’s in relation to art criticism. Umberto Eco has said that postmodernism is less a style or a period than an “attitude”.

The attitude comes out clearly in what is produced by postmodernists in their various fields: postmodern graphic design disdains traditional conventions such as legibility; postmodern music rejects beauty and sometimes structure; postmodern philosophers reject the concepts of subjectivity and objectivity. You get the general idea.

Tom: Immanuel Can, help me nail it down: what is postmodernism?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Greater Sin

Let’s take it as read that all sins are bad by definition. Offensive to God. Destructive to human will, life, character, testimony and interaction. They contaminate the present, give the lie to the past and, even when repented of, may negatively impact the future.

(When considered against the backdrop of the cross of Jesus Christ they’re actually worse than that, but this is intended to be more practical than theological.)

The thing is, not all sins are equally bad.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Quote of the Day (13)

This is so choice that it would be a crime to let it languish in the comments on an older post where few of our readers are likely to notice it.

Immanuel Can writes:

“If you think about it, you’ll recognize what so many of the prophets, from Job to Isaiah to Habakkuk all found: that in this world there’s no straight line between doing the right thing or making the right choice and getting a guaranteed right outcome. The just suffer and the wicked prosper, in many cases.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Happy (Late) Anniversary to Us

Oops. December 11 has come and gone. Totally escaped me.

I vaguely remember our first post was in the month of December two years ago, but the specific date has never really stuck in my mind. Were I better organized we might have done something more memorable to mark the occasion.

Still, I wouldn’t want to let the date pass without taking the opportunity to say thanks to our readers.

Monday, December 14, 2015

You Are Being Manipulated

Mass immigration might be the single most important political issue being discussed in North America at the moment.

Perhaps you are among the small minority of people who have never given much thought to the question of what sort of people — and how many — ought to be allowed to acquire citizenship in your home country. If so, this will probably not interest you much.

But if, like many, you have very definite answers to those questions in mind, and especially if you are one of a growing number of Christians with the inclination to publicly share your thoughts on the issue, I have a gentle suggestion for you:

Stop and think first. There is a very good chance you are being manipulated.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Inbox: Down the Memory Hole?

Tertius writes:

Your chat with IC made me think of ‘I will remember their sins and lawless deeds no more.’ ”

Quite so. IC talked a little about the potential dangers of making dogmatic theological statements on the basis of figurative language, or what are sometimes called biblical “anthropomorphisms”. He points out that the writers of scripture use:

“… human-style metaphors, like the hand of God’, because we know what ‘hands’ are ... not because God the Father has a physical body like ours.”

“I will remember” is another of these human-style metaphors.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Just Do It

Everybody knows it. It’s been Nike’s slogan since 1988. It resonates, and that’s why it’s lasted this long. ‘God helps those who help themselves’, people are fond of saying.

Redneck translation: Git ’er done.

But generally speaking, when God sets out to accomplish something significant, he does not “just do it”.

He could, of course. After all, when God created our universe, he did not call upon angelic consultants. He sought nobody’s buy-in. He simply spoke it all into being. He had no need of a second opinion. He never does.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Open Just A Bit Too Far

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

We’ve talked a lot about Calvinism here over the past two years. We have not talked very much about Open Theism, also referred to as Dynamic Omniscience, which might be said to be Calvinism’s very near-opposite.

By the time the Evangelical Theological Society adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 2006, their decade-long internal debate over Dynamic Omniscience had pretty much petered out. ETS president Tom Schreiner says that for the ETS at least, the debate has “simmered down”.

And yet today the Global Christian Center still lists what it calls the “Open Theism Controversy” among its nine most important issues facing the evangelical church.

Tom: This particular idea about God is clearly not going away. In a nutshell, Immanuel Can, what is Open Theism?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Trinity Matters

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Keeping It In Proportion

The late Richard Feynman was known for his theoretical work in quantum electrodynamics and particle physics. For a scientist, Feynman had an uncharacteristically folksy way of presenting the rationale for his atheistic worldview:

“I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be too local, too provincial.

The earth. He came to the earth. One of the aspects of God came to the earth, mind you! And look at what’s out there. It isn’t ... in proportion.”

But the celebrated physicist and reputed genius is far from the first intelligent person to address the pressing issue of disproportionality in the universe.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Heartless

More women are abandoning their children (and their families generally) than ever before. CNN reports it. The Huffington Post, in a piece too appalling to link to, actually defends it. Indiana has decided to enable it, becoming the first state to install “baby boxes” at hospitals, police stations and fire stations as an easy and anonymous way for parents to give up their infants.

Some would say men have always been quick to stampede for the exits when things get tough, but an epidemic of wives and mothers doing likewise is a comparatively new phenomenon. It may be the straw that breaks Western society’s back.

What we might call natural affection is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The world around us is increasingly heartless.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Close Encounters of the Philosophical Kind

Eric English is emerging. We’re not altogether sure what he’s emerging into, and it actually seems to be kind of intangible. I’m trying to grab onto it, and it’s floating away even as I type. Its essence is something like this:

“The WORD OF GOD is a moment that a human being encounters.”

I hope I’m not misrepresenting Mr. English’s position. He starts from the claim that the Bible is not the word of God, and that to assert that the Bible is God’s word is to diminish what it means to possess the ‘word of God’.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Who Is Being Tested Here?

Carol Delaney, an anthropologist at Stanford who doesn’t believe in God, is trying to analyze the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.

How might such an endeavour go wrong? Let me count the ways ...

A Prior Note About Motivation

When digging up Delaney’s paper I could not help but notice that nearly everyone else who has published something on this subject starts with the question “Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?” With all respect, that’s grabbing the wrong end of the stick. Or really, asking the unanswerable.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Below the Surface

A few thoughts for our Christian readers that I’ve condensed (and hopefully not distorted too badly) from R’B’s excellent series on interpreting scripture via the Jewish perspective. The original posts may be found here, here, here and here.

Orthodox Judaism seeks to understand the first five books of our Old Testament (for them, the Torah) on four levels. These principles may also be applied to the rest of the scriptures.

Having read about schools of thought like Kabbalah, which originated in Judaism, I feared rabbinical exegesis might be a bit wacky and mystical. For the most part that does not appear to be the case.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Five Questions About the Next Generation

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

We’re getting older. We’re not done yet, Lord willing, but more and more I’m realizing that nearly all the really knowledgeable Bible teachers and leaders I knew as a teenager have gone to be with the Lord and even the very average pulpit-fillers of the seventies and eighties have mostly given up their responsibilities to younger men. The missionaries we used to pray for have died on the mission field or come home to retire, and I don’t recognize many of the names I see replacing them. Even the average, decent pew-sitting Christian of my day seems to be getting longer in the tooth and less able to do the things he or she used to do in the local church. Some independent local churches I knew have now hired pastors and others have affiliated themselves with denominations. The local church of today is in many ways less and less recognizable to me.

Tom: To top it off, Immanuel Can, I’m not sure I identify much with the coming generation. They are so different from the young people of my own day. I’m not sure I can picture what the average local church may look like in twenty or thirty years. And yet we have an obligation to those who seek to follow Christ in the days to come. What IS the right strategy to prepare Christian young people to take on the world?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Is Your Faith Boring You?

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Doing It My Way

“For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way.”
— Paul Anka

Individualism is the spirit of this present age. And actually, that is not an unmitigated evil.

I used to think it was. When I was young Christian and more inclined to overreact, I found Anka’s lyrics, popularized by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, more than a little cringe-worthy. I can’t take credit for the impulse since it almost surely came by osmosis from a church environment that tended to read the worst possible motives into every pronouncement of popular culture. Looking back on it, it seems to me the reaction of older Christians to the observations of the pop philosophers of my teen years was generally spot-on, if ever-so-slightly paranoid at times.

But not always.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

It Makes A Good Headline, But ...

... that doesn’t make it true.

In a post entitled There Was Room at the Inn, Rachel Held Evans is off and running again, this time about Syrian refugees and how their situation is morally equivalent to that of Mary and Joseph long ago in Bethlehem when a child was born who would change the world forever.

For Evans, saying no to having Syrians resettled in your neighbourhood is like turning away the Lord Jesus.

Could we have another spoonful of cheesy rhetoric, please?