Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Skepticism and Renown

Director David Lynch says this about U.S. President Donald Trump:

“He could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.”

Lynch is not necessarily expressing approval here; note that his metric for presidential greatness is the ability to disrupt. That would not be everyone’s measure of a man, let alone a U.S. president.

What Lynch’s comment does point out, though, is that it is not the least bit outrageous for a man to mull over how a contemporary stacks up against the all-timers in his field, whether or not his verdict is a favorable one. This sort of comparison is made all the time, even when only a year or two have passed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Bad Ideas and Good People

A bad idea never once walked into your church on its own. Ideas don’t have legs.

No, bad ideas have carriers, much like the flu; infected people who transport them from location to location to allow them to spread. The carriers have smiles and good qualities and apparent wisdom in other areas of life. They have histories of service to God’s people, kids who are friends with yours, and wives who are sometimes even nicer than they are. They invite you out for meals, they volunteer to run the youth group, or they are found in the basement of the church building of a Saturday with plunger or mop in hand, cleaning assiduously.

Okay, I’ll concede that last one only happens with certain types of ideas ...

Monday, October 29, 2018

Anonymous Asks (11)

“How can I help a non-believer friend who is extremely struggling?”

I’m going to assume (with no evidence) your friend is a girl, since writing “he or she” a thousand times is tedious, but almost everything I’m about to say applies to young men as well.

I too have unbelieving friends who are struggling, so I feel the same deep concern for them you do. I think most Christians will relate to your question.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Semi-Random Musings (10)

When the question arises as to what God will do about the “good people” in our world who have never heard the gospel, it is almost always sick babies or hypothetical aboriginals in jungles half way across the planet the questioner has in view, as opposed to his own mother-in-law who declines to give a moment’s consideration to the lifetime of Christian testimony with which she has been presented.

We also hear many more sermons on Genesis than Ezekiel, so when complaints about God’s justice are raised, it is usually Genesis to which we resort in response: Abraham’s conviction that God does not “put the righteous to death with the wicked”; the salvation of Noah and his family from the flood; Lot’s deliverance from Sodom.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (30)

Disappointment, despite, laziness ... if you take the verses I’ve chosen from Proverbs 15 as representative of the whole, you might get the idea that Solomon’s a bit of a wet blanket.

Thankfully, for nearly every sluggard he describes, there is an upright man. For every broken spirit there is a “tree of life” and a “healing tongue”. For every grieved mother there is a rejoicing father.

It all depends how you want to look at his instruction, and what you decide to take away from it.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Not Playing the Game

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Scales and Panes

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Digression About Possession and Oppression

On my way to work this morning I stopped in at my local A&W for a breakfast burger only to find a crazy person between me and the cash register — or at least he was behaving that way. The three uniformed employees were huddled behind the counter hoping not to get hit, the arms and spit were flying, and the words were coming high volume and a mile a minute. He kept repeating that he had come from jail and was on his way back there, and he made it all seem quite believable.

I suspect he was looking to intimidate the staff into giving him a free meal, but his demeanor had the opposite effect: nobody dared serve him for fear he would sit down and eat his breakfast right there, and they’d never get rid of him.

I gave him five bucks and he went away. Having a conversation with him was impossible. There was nowhere to fit the words in, and he wasn’t hearing anyway.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Anonymous Asks (10)

“How can we know that God is actually real?”

That’s an interesting question, and one that can be approached from a number of angles. The most obvious angle is scientific knowledge. Can we prove in a lab that God exists? Of course not. We can look into a microscope or up into a night sky and witness all kinds of evidence that points to a Creator, but can we demonstrate his existence from these things with 100% certainty to someone who doesn’t believe?

No, we should probably concede that we can’t.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Patriots and Propagandists

The lack of historical perspective and context among the general public is not a new problem. It might be at an all-time high today, though I doubt it; the earthly powers-that-be always have practical reasons for sowing confusion, and the spiritual Powers-That-Be even more so.

But even if ahistoricism is not setting some kind of new record, many of us have a legitimate concern that the media narrative currently being pushed on us is profoundly out of step with reality. Labeling modern conservatives “Nazis”, for instance, is either naive or remarkably devious.

Either way, it is politically useful. Not accurate, but useful.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Deprived of this Grace

I’ve been struck lately by the relevance of the Lord’s kingdom parables to the whole issue of John Calvin’s concept of election.

You may have noticed that the Lord’s disciples appear to be not entirely comfortable with the whole ‘parables’ concept. We know this because they have to ask the Lord to explain the parables to them, and enthuse about it when he does. They obviously find themselves on surer ground when he speaks “plainly” than when he tells stories that require interpretation.

But the Lord explains the reason for parables to them in this way:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”

On the face of it, this sounds terribly determinist, doesn’t it.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (29)

The book of Proverbs is one of the very few places in scripture where context is generally unimportant — even useless. For Bible students, that makes some of the more obscure individual proverbs a little difficult to parse: we are reduced to looking up the meanings of individual Hebrew words, comparing turns of phrase with other Old Testament books from the same period, or resorting to internet explanations of traditional rabbinical renderings.

Or making wild guesses. I don’t recommend that approach.

All the same, if we were to assume Solomon never groups proverbs together by subject for effect, we would be dead wrong.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (4)

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Butler Did It

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Jews and Jews

I recently watched a comedian on YouTube trying to sort out what it is exactly that makes a Jew a Jew. Having only minimal familiarity with the Old Testament, and possessing almost no knowledge of modern Talmudic Judaism, the poor man was entirely at sea, and eager for somebody to explain it to him.

I don’t blame him. The term is used multiple ways by different groups with different things in mind. Sorting out the various claims to Jewishness is not easy, and I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of modern users of the term either get it wrong or use it in such an ambiguous and inconsistent way that nobody really knows what they are talking about.

The biggest contributors to this confusion, oddly enough, are a certain subset of … er … Jews.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Anonymous Asks (9)

“In the Trinity, we know the attributes of God and Jesus, but do we really know many about the Holy Spirit?”

No. Next question.

Kidding, of course. But the question spotlights a truth quite plain to us if we read our Bibles attentively, and that is that not every member of the Godhead gets equal time in the scriptures. This is, I think, by design, and has to do with the nature of the Spirit’s work. In fact, the Lord Jesus told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

Not About Me

Luke records a parable Jesus told about a persistent widow and an unrighteous judge. The point to be taken from it, Luke says, is that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart”.

I have been reading that same parable over and over for half a century as if it has to do with my personal needs of the day, or week, or month. Persist, we have been taught, and God will give you the thing for which you beseech him. Can we get an amen, brothers and sisters?

One of the things it takes some people fifty years of praying to learn is this: prayer is not all about me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Other Cheek

Turning the other cheek is never all that much fun, but lately I’ve begun to see Christian restraint as something more than merely tactical.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously told his followers, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

He did not tell them why, but we may reasonably infer that, like the instruction to love our enemies, turning the other cheek displays our family resemblance to our heavenly Father. (And, of course, there’s the bit in there about reward, but the less said about that the better; we wouldn’t want to look mercenary, would we?)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (28)

One of the richer veins of wisdom that may be mined throughout Proverbs has to do with wealth: specifically, how to get it, how to keep it, and the dangers of being seen to have too much of it for other people’s tastes.

As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes, “Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything.” Wealth is not the ONLY answer to life’s difficulties, and it’s certainly not the BEST answer, but in nearly every situation (even serious illness), money offers AN answer that those without it cannot allow themselves to even consider.

Without further ado, a sampling from this week’s chapter.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Atheists in Foxholes

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Preponderance of the Evidence

“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”
— Abraham

Anyone familiar enough with the Bible to know whether Abraham or Moses came first has almost surely also read Jesus’ story in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus, so I won’t need to explain to you how Abraham, who lived and died more than 400 years before Moses, could speak intelligibly about what either Moses or the Prophets wrote.

In the Lord’s story, Abraham is speaking from Paradise to a dead man in Hades, across the great chasm that divides the two.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso: The Post-Game Show

Scripture cannot be broken,” declared the Lord Jesus. He meant the Old Testament, of course; the New Testament had yet to be written. Today, his words legitimately apply to our entire Bible, but we must be careful not to hurl around the word “scripture” too casually, or to knowingly go beyond what the Lord Jesus intended when he made this powerful and sweeping claim.

My goal in examining the Apocrypha at length was not merely to provide light entertainment by snidely dissing books other people have found spiritually helpful. At the outset, I expressed the hope that the exercise would help us better define what it is about the canonical Old Testament that “distinguishes it from all the other religious writings, folktales, stories and myths with which human history is replete,” and I trust we’ve made good on that to some extent.

Nevertheless, it’s sometimes useful to spell these things out rather than expecting people to read between the lines.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Anonymous Asks (8)

“If God doesn’t like suicide, isn’t what Jesus did kind of like that? Did God send His Son to be murdered?”

Hmm. Maybe I’ll go with the second question first.

Peter’s message to the Jews at Pentecost was: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” That puts the responsibility for Christ’s death squarely where it belongs, I think: God certainly delivered him up, but it was lawless men that crucified and killed him. We can argue that God knew in advance that his Son would be rejected and murdered, and this is certainly true, but everyone involved in putting the Lord Jesus to death made a personal choice, from Pilate to Herod to the soldiers who crucified him, most especially the Jews who cried out repeatedly for his death.

As for suicide, well, that’s another story …

Monday, October 08, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (12)

Throughout this series we’ve been examining ancient books that some non-Protestant Christians feel have been wrongly excluded from our Bibles. I’ve read, summarized and critiqued eleven of the most popular claimants to date, but there are plenty more out there, enough to keep me at it well into the next decade.

Tempting as that may be, I won’t go down that road for several reasons: (1) the further down into the Apocryphal jungle you travel, the feebler and less substantive the contestants become, such that anyone reading them with the least discernment starts to feel like the exercise of critiquing them is something akin to clubbing baby seals on the beach, as opposed to putting up a valiant defence against plausible error; (2) I promised to do a 12-part series, and I plan to keep that pledge; and (3) the reasons for excluding books from the canon begin to repeat themselves.

We wouldn’t want that. After all, figuring out which qualities make the canon the canon is pretty much the point of the exercise, right?

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Specific Enough for You?

Yahoo Answers fields a tough one:

“Were all bible prophesies [sic] written years after the events took place?”

Best Answer: Yes, the ‘prophecies’ in the bible are nothing that go beyond what a kid with knowledge about the world can’t predict. [I’m pretty sure he means “can” there — Ed.] Not to mention things that have always happened.”

That “best answer” is the sort of handwaving you often get from people who haven’t actually read and studied the later books of the Old Testament. The prophets of Israel and Judah frequently made predictions that go well beyond “things have have always happened”.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (27)

We are 27 posts into this series, and I should point out (a bit late, perhaps) that this is not going to be my attempt at a commentary on Proverbs. It’s quite a bit longer than I planned or expected, sure, but nothing remotely approaching comprehensive in scope. There are just way too many bits of sound advice in this book to touch on even a tenth of them. Most must await your own consideration and meditation to reveal their wisdom and impact your life.

The best I can hope to do here is offer a few thoughts and bits of research that seasoned readers of the Old Testament may not yet have encountered, and to offer the occasional incentive for younger Christians to make Proverbs part of their regular Bible reading regimen.

And of course I can tell you which verses jump out at me. Your mileage will surely vary.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Hmm … What Should I Wear to Church Today?

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

Tom: I like track pants and t-shirts myself. It’s what’s most comfortable, frankly. I’ve never liked suits. They’re expensive, and I don’t have any other use for them.

What do you think, IC? Can I sport my sweats in the pews?

Immanuel Can: Ha! You’ll scandalize the little old ladies. And the dour old men will be none too happy either. But I know of no scriptural prohibition on informality. You raise a good question: what is the Christian view of attire, particularly in regard to the meetings of the church?

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Faith of the Calvinists

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (26)

If you’ve ever been part of a conversational Bible study, you’ll probably relate to this statement: One person’s initial take on a proverb may be vastly different from another’s.

Years ago in a small mid-week study, we went around the room over a number of verses in Proverbs sharing what we thought they meant. Now, differences of opinion are to be expected in situations where there exists no real context from which to more accurately pin down Solomon’s intended meaning. But as I digested the various subjective impressions about the text laid out for us, there were times I was convinced we weren’t all reading from the same book.

And of course if you really want to examine an entire range of possible interpretations to seek out the best one, ask a woman what she thinks.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Anonymous Asks (7)

“If Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel, shouldn’t those be the only people on earth? Because when Cain kills Abel, Cain is scared that someone will kill him. But at that time, no one else existed. So who was Cain’s wife?”

Okay, well, let’s start by acknowledging that the Bible doesn’t give us explicit answers to many of our technical questions about the early days of the human race, especially in areas of study that are not spiritually significant. So we cannot say with any biblical authority how Cain got his wife. No Bible student can.

That said, let’s not imagine that either the human writer of Genesis or those who told the story for centuries before him were unintelligent men and women. They were not.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (11)

Obsessive music fans know that every artist or band has a “canon” made up of albums recognized by fans, critics and record labels as official releases.

Once an artist becomes established, however, opportunists commonly flood the market with rough takes on familiar tunes, rejected songs from album sessions, cover versions played once for a lark, and bootleg live tracks of questionable sound quality. While these new offerings usually contain a few rare gems and often provide insight into an artist’s work process, they generally do not compare favorably to music released exactly as the performer intended.

The Book of Jubilees might well be called “Outtakes from Genesis”. At least, that’s what it reads like.