Friday, August 31, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Facts and Opinions

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

I read it in the New York Times. And frankly, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. The Times distinguishing between fact and opinion in a rational way? The Times pointing out the deficiencies in modern education?

Who’da thunk it?

Tom: As in the wee hours of every Friday, I have with me career educator and teacher of philosophy Immanuel Can. IC, is it your experience that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts?

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Failure to Launch

Stock characters are those fictional roles we recognize instantly: you know, the incompetent police officer, the clueless secretary, the crooked lawyer, the rebellious teen, the uptight schoolmarm … and so on. You see them on TV all the time.

There’s a new one going around lately: the adult child. This is the mid-twenties son or daughter who still lives in his parents’ basement, having his meals cooked and his laundry done for him, blithely confident that the world outside — the world of careers, responsibilities and independence — is overrated. His harried, weary parents pray for him to move out and make his way in the world or for some nice girl to come and snap him up. But he knows very well that for now he has it good. Being too old for his parents to control but too needy for them to abandon, he is free to devote his time and assets to playing video games, going to clubs, flirting with girls and hanging out at the beach. A periodic trip to the employment office is all that is necessary to convince his parents of his helplessness.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Novelty for Novelty’s Sake

Everybody loves novelty — even Christians. Not infrequently, to almost everyone’s regret, Bible teachers feel compelled to give it to them. Nothing gets the attention of a jaded or even a mature audience like a new twist on an old theme, or flipping a well-known phrase so that it jars the ears.

Have you heard about the “Prodigal Father”? No prizes for correctly guessing which parable of Christ is getting a pair of truly original online treatments this time.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Anonymous Asks (2)

“If your father tells you to kill someone and you say ‘no’, would that be considered a sin?”

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: It might be useful to consider some of the things the Bible says about authorities and how Christians are to respond to them. There are things your father could demand of you that are less obviously evil than murder. It might be interesting and instructive to consider an order from Dad like “You can’t date THAT girl!” or “We had you baptized as an infant. Don’t you DARE think about getting baptized again!”

Sound like fun?

Monday, August 27, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (6)

The Old Testament is home to more than a few really long books.

Jeremiah (33,000+ words), Genesis, Psalms and Ezekiel stand out from the crowd. Exodus, Isaiah and Numbers form a second tier. At just shy of 20,000 words, Luke is the longest NT book, well down the list. And as far as apocryphal writings go, Ecclesiasticus weighs in at a staggering 26,741 words, longer than all but five canonical books.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking,” wrote King Solomon. We rightly make an exception to that rule when we know a writer was carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The question is, was Joshua ben Sira “carried along”, or was he just unusually verbose?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Non-Negotiable Nomenclature

Jesus can be referred to many different ways.

It started before he was born. For example, one well-known prophet said, “call his name Immanuel.” During his ministry some called him Rabbi, as Jewish teachers were often known. Later, the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ?” As for his disciples, both before and after his resurrection they referred to him almost exclusively as Lord.

The list of his names and titles is lengthy and something significant would surely be lost if we dismissed even the least of them. That said, there are three without which we cannot possibly preach a complete gospel or maintain a balanced, accurate perspective on Jesus.

You might call them non-negotiable nomenclature.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (21)

I will say this, and I will say it again: there is no substitute for the prayerful, meditative, daily reading of scripture. None. You cannot be the functioning, useful, growing, joyful, discerning Christian that God means you to be without it.

Sure, in every generation there are plenty of Christians around the world who can’t read, and there have been plenty throughout history who have had much smaller portions of God’s word to mull over and put into practice than are available to us today. But none of that matters to you or me, does it, because we CAN read.

And of everyone to whom much is given, much will be required. That’s our problem in a nutshell.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Story Time with Harmonica

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

I’m not even sure how to describe this, but I’m going to give it a go.

Publishers Weekly’s ShelfTalker, “In which children’s booksellers ponder all things literary, artistic, and mercantile,” has a piece on a hot new trend sweeping the nation’s libraries: story time with a drag queen.

Mixed groups of three- to eight-year-olds are invited to come and enjoy a spoken word performance from men like “Harmonica Sunbeam” dressed as women (there is a picture with the article but — fair warning — it can’t be un-seen).

Tom: IC, is it possible to normalize something so bizarre and decadent, even with the power and budget of big corporations and the education system fully committed to it?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Saints and Ain’ts


Are there any better words in all of scripture than this? Personally, I don’t think so.

Many people have a fondness for John 3:16, or Romans 8:35, or Ephesians 2:8-9 … all very great passages, I’ll admit; but for me, nothing anywhere comes close to the freedom, joy and consolation of the words above.

Maybe today I can tell you why.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Anonymous Asks (1)

“The Old Testament is full of stuff that causes controversies and makes people who agree with it look bad: slavery, plagues, genocides ... an angry God. We’re Christians. We worship Jesus. Why not get rid of those books and concentrate on the New Testament?”
— Anonymous

Excellent question, touching on issues many struggle with. But as difficult as the Old Testament may be for some, there are at least three compelling reasons we can’t afford to overlook it, minimize it or reject it outright.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (10)

Disagreeing with other Christians online is a bit like pulling off a Band-Aid® stuck to the hairiest part of your arm.

There is what I call the “Big BUT” disagreement. This kind starts slowly, with a spate of complimentary disclaimers — “Now, I love this Bible teacher, he’s a great guy and I admire him immensely” — and always ends with a great big “BUT ...”

Or there’s the exquisitely self-effacing “We’re All Just Learning Here” disagreement, which makes every biblical issue a matter of opinion and gives you a convenient way of escaping with a few shreds of dignity intact if it turns out everyone thinks its your interpretation that’s out to lunch.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (5)

In 2017, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld published a work of fiction entitled Hitler in Hell, in which he speculates about what Adolf Hitler might have thought of things like the post-WWII development of Western society, the internet, feminism and the eternal destiny of dogs. In the same book, van Creveld also provides one of the most perceptive and comprehensive military overviews of WWII I have ever read.

It’s a clever device: packaging a truthful historic account in a form sure to be a good deal more widely read than a college textbook.

Who knows, maybe today’s candidate for biblical canonicity was written with similar aims in view.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (20)

We now find ourselves with an interesting and hotly contested portion of Proverbs to consider.

Unitarians argue that it describes for us the origin of God’s Son, the Logos, or the Christ. Their conclusion is that the Son is not, therefore, equal to God, but rather his greatest creation. Likewise, Jesus Christ is said to be not uniquely God’s Son, but only one son among many.

And here I didn’t think there was all that much in Proverbs to “hotly contest” until we get to chapter 31 ...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Irrationalization: Call No Man Father

There are two ways for, let’s say, a flabby, aerobically-inadequate middle aged blogger to approach a task like getting over a six foot hurdle. One way is to recognize that he is horribly out of shape and begin regular exercise and training.

The other way is to lower the bar … or maybe even remove it entirely.

I have always been fascinated by our ability when reading the Bible to explain away that which would be perfectly clear if understood in its natural sense. Sadly, doing so is almost always a recipe for spiritual disaster. A much safer practice is to confirm that the word of God says what it says, even when it condemns us. To let God be true and to let every man be a liar, and let the theological chips fall where they may.

All to say, I happened across a spectacular piece of religious rationalization this morning.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The “No Harm” Argument

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

You’re all familiar with this one. It’s a defense for something traditionally considered immoral that usually begins with a variant of “if two consenting adults want to …”

We could call it a “no harm” argument. It’s the idea that if nobody’s demonstrably hurt, nothing wrong happened. But even the New York Times recently poked holes in it.

Tom: Immanuel Can, is it possible to have a sin without a resulting injury?

Immanuel Can: The short answer? No, I don’t think it is.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Getting Reading Right

So I got talking with a guy the other day.

Those of you who know me know I’ve made my career among secular people. Philosophy being my thing, I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of different sorts of people — many very far from Christian. But in this case, I was talking to a youngish Christian who had been pulled sideways by reading too much of the Unitarians and various Gnostic sects before getting his grounding in scripture. He’s got shaken about the general reliability of scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and a variety of other issues, and he’s working his way through them.

I asked him what he thought was the touchstone of truth. He’d already expressed doubts about large sections of scripture, so I wanted to know what he was relying on to show him what was reliable and what wasn’t.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

God’s Sovereignty vs. the Idiocy of Man

What happens when, as Christians, you or I make a mess of our lives in very serious, potentially permanent ways?

I ask the question not as someone with a theoretical curiosity, but as someone who has a habit of doing so.

So, really, where is God when, as his servants, we make complete and utter idiots of ourselves?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (4)

This week, our journey through ancient Hebrew and Greek literature produces what looks like a first among our candidates for Old Testament canonicity: a letter.

The New Testament is full of letters. Acts and Luke are early candidates, and once we hit Romans, almost everything else is too. The Old Testament preserves a few missives to or from various dignitaries in its books of history, but to the best of my knowledge the book-length letter is a New Testament phenomenon.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Tom Doesn’t Take a Breather

Once in a blue moon one of our readers (usually the ones who don’t know our writers in the real world) expresses the desire that we write something a little more personal. The closest I probably ever get to that are these annual “state of the blog” posts to notify you all that I’m going on vacation and you’re about to be bombarded with a bunch of recycled posts for two weeks.

Not all that personal, really, I suppose. Also, we’re not about to bombard you with ten straight oldies this year ...

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Anathema

“If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”

This is Paul’s fourth-last sentence in his first letter to the Corinthians. It’s a pretty decisive concluding statement, and I’ve always wondered about it just a little.

I mean, it’s awfully strong language, making it difficult to argue that the apostle is merely using rhetoric to make his point. It is literally, “Let him be anathema,” meaning “doomed to destruction”.

One might well ask the question, “Is that exactly fair?” For a lack of love?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (19)

When the U.S. congress passed The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) in 2007, it is highly unlikely they anticipated triggering a cereal grain price jump of 67.4%, or that the rising food prices that resulted from the passage of the bill would end up plunging nearly 70 million people into extreme poverty.

What prompted the EISA? In theory at least, it was the desire to reduce dependency on foreign oil, scale back greenhouse gas emissions and keep the price of gas down. None of these are bad ideas. While I am as easily attracted to conspiracy theories as the next guy, I doubt the average elected representative planned on starving the third world to reduce U.S. gas prices.

But the unintended consequences of the Act have caused and continue to cause near-incalculable damage. This is where wisdom comes in.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Your Bible Is An Anachronism

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

Juan Cole at Alternet.org has bucketloads of fun in an article entitled “If the Christian Right Wants to Get Worked Up About Sexual Controversy, They Should Read These 5 Bible Passages”. He goes to town on Solomon’s 300 concubines, Abraham and Hagar, etc.

In a forlorn attempt at evenhandedness, Mr. Cole tosses in this disclaimer: “Ancient scripture can be a source of higher values and spiritual strength, but any time you in a literal-minded way impose specific legal behavior because of it, you’re committing anachronism.”

Tom: Immanuel Can, one of things I love most about Mr. Cole is the unquestioned assumption that each scripture he cites is a “gotcha” moment to the religious right. Like none of us have seen these passages until his article came along …

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Mean Girls and Mean Theology

The teen film Mean Girls (2004) is sort of a cult classic with the kids at the school where I teach. Everyone knows the story, even though the film is getting a bit old now. The star (Lindsay Lohan) is certainly no teenager anymore, as any number of her recent escapades in the press will attest. But somehow the plot line still works. On April 28th, the anniversary of its release, the Toronto Sun, that bastion of fine journalism, proudly proclaimed it “still the ultimate teen movie”.

I sure hope not.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The Commentariat Speaks (14)

Wherein Jill destroys my most recent post by condensing it to a tiny fraction of its length and adding all the stuff I should probably have written in the first place:

“I think we do have needs for human connections that our spouses can’t be expected to satisfy. That is the joy of same sex friendships. A husband may be willing to reassure you once that your haircut wasn’t a disaster; your woman friend is willing to talk about it until you feel okay.”

Sometimes Avoidance IS Purity

Aimee Byrd has a new book out entitled Why Can’t We Be Friends? The subtitle, Avoidance Is Not Purity, pithily advances her thesis: that because evangelicals view ourselves as “time bombs on the brink of having an affair — or of being accused of having one,” we miss out on the joys of friendship between the sexes, fail to give expression to our “siblingship” in Christ, and are a less-than-optimal testimony to the world.

For a thesis, maybe it’s not the worst idea ever. But it’s right up there.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The Help

Adam had a job to do.

Further, he had his job before Eve was in the world, and before the need for her was ever established. The Genesis account reads, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” While God undoubtedly had other things in mind when he created man, the very first task to which he set his new creation was the working and keeping of a garden.

Adam’s sole recorded bit of moral direction from God in the unfallen world also preceded Eve’s arrival.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (3)

As we have seen repeatedly in the first two installments of this series, the standard Protestant Old Testament is not the only version of the Bible out there. Other versions exist, most of which contain a wider and more varied selection of religious books than our own Bibles.

For Catholics and those in Orthodox churches, no consideration of the relative value of the Apocryphal or Deutero-canonical texts is necessary. Their episcopate takes a position on their behalf and says to them, in effect, “Here’s your Bible.”

Protestants, on the other hand, have no central governing body to decide such issues, and I have yet to come across any local church’s statement of faith that addresses the canonicity or non-canonicity of these “extra” books. Which means it’s up to us to either evaluate them for ourselves, or else opt to put our trust in the folks who made decisions about such things in years past.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Joshua Twice

If you’ve had occasion to visit many Christian homes, you’ve almost certainly seen this phrase prominently displayed in a frame somewhere near the front door:

“… as for me and for my house, we will serve the Lord.”

It’s a great aspiration for any Christian home and worth recalling frequently — so it’s certainly suitable as a wall hanging. However, as is common enough with many pleasant-sounding snippets taken from the pages of the Bible, the original context is obscured by its popularity.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (18)

Anyone who reads here regularly probably already knows I am highly suspicious of claims the Bible teaches egalitarianism. Fairness, absolutely. Justice, always. Equality, in the sense it is currently used politically, not so much.

That said, there are aspects of God’s dealings with mankind that are indeed universal. For example, every single man and woman on earth can reasonably anticipate the judgment of God, either in this life or in a coming day. Likewise, God’s has displayed his love to the entire world and offers salvation freely to all. Again, the offer of fellowship with Christ is extended to any who will open the door and let him in. These things are universals, not limited to a privileged few.

We should probably add wisdom to this list.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Rule Upon Rule, Line Upon Line

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

Tom: Immanuel Can, we’ve both done a little Bible teaching over the years in local churches. I have been noticing a trend toward verse-by-verse Bible teaching over, say, topical messages, and I’m wondering if you’re encountering the same thing.

Immanuel Can: It varies. I do think I’ve seen a mild trend that way, but not exclusively so. What makes this interesting to you, Tom?

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Finally! An Elected Official We Can Believe In

When I was a little kid, I have to admit I wasn’t much of an athlete. Having been raised with different games and sports than were popular in the country to which my family had returned, I had only opaque knowledge of the rules, and little practice at executing the conventional skills. So I was equally lousy at football, baseball, basketball, soccer and even volleyball, and only marginally competent at hockey.

It would be years before I caught up to my peers who had been raised with those games. Nevertheless, I tried. And I played, whether I was good or not.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

On the Supposed Misuse of the Old Testament

Online commentators argue that the apostle Paul misuses the Old Testament.

Some of these are garden-variety cranks, determined to prove all English versions of the Bible inaccurate. They insist reading the Jewish Tanakh is the only way to go. There’s really no placating people like that. Others set Paul against Jesus, maintaining that only the words of Christ really matter, and that the writings of the apostles are unreliable, inferior and downright wrong. Still others, like Pete Enns, object particularly to Paul, arguing that he read the Old Testament out of context, failing to respect what its authors intended to communicate.

How does the average Christian reply to such accusations?