Friday, November 30, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Baptized Into What?

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

I’m going to quote a full minute of a recent sermon on the subject of the New Testament teaching about baptism here because I want to fairly represent what this particular pastor was trying to communicate. A punchy line or two out of a message is fun, but may distort the speaker’s intent. In this case, providing the entire context makes that intent quite clear.

“I believe that the commission to baptize all nations was given to the church.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Present Perfect

Everybody likes gifts, they say. Still, some are better than others.

A funny story: My in-laws were on their way to a wedding. Along the roadside, a hack artist was selling a number of truly horrible original oil paintings. (Doubtless this poor soul labored under the delusion he was some sort of Michelangelo.) Anyway, my relatives pulled over for a look. These ‘masterpieces’ were supposed to be landscapes, but they all looked like they’d been painted with a really fat brush using earth tones, pale blues and dark blacks. (If you imagine an explosion in a factory that produces toothpaste, peanut butter and licorice, you’ve roughly got the aesthetic here.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Devout … and Out

Lydia of Thyatira was a devout woman, a worshiper of God. When the Lord opened her heart, she became a convert to the faith. Many devout Greeks in Thessalonica were also persuaded by the message of Paul and Silas. Titius Justus was yet another devout man. He demonstrated his nascent faith by giving Paul shelter when the apostle was opposed and reviled in Macedonia.

But not all devout people responded favorably to the gospel when it was presented to them in the first century. In Pisidian Antioch, the “devout” women served as shock troops for the Jews persecuting Paul and Barnabas.

In ideological conflicts, we call such people “useful idiots”. They believe in what they are doing, but are grossly misinformed or insufficiently attentive. They are being cynically manipulated by others.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Merchant of Menace

We don’t get a lot of detail about pre-Genesis Satan in our Bibles, though few things have had a more dramatic and far-reaching influence on our world than his interference in God’s creation.

There is no straightforward literal retelling of the history of Lucifer’s rebellion to be found in either Old Testament or New. Rather, we are treated to a series of vignettes that cast light on various aspects of the demonic rebel heart. They illuminate Satan’s real nature by comparing him to historic figures and to the sort of people we know very well indeed: characters that populate our literature and people whom we can observe all around us.

Satan is a liar, an accuser and a murderer. So says the scripture. So it is.

But Satan is also a deal-maker, a trafficker, a trader and a businessman. Perhaps we are less inclined to think of these things as intrinsically evil.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Anonymous Asks (15)

“How do you not focus on what people think of you?”

I was a missionary’s kid. My first few years of public school were spent in another country, with a dominant culture that was anything but North American. I missed the Beatles, Star Trek (until it was syndicated) and the Adam West Batman TV show. I missed Woodstock. I heard about the U.S. putting someone on the moon from halfway across the world and days after it happened. I didn’t play hockey or football or baseball. When I returned to North America, I didn’t know any of the bands that were popular and I had an obvious British accent. I wore the wrong clothes and had the wrong haircut. To top it off, in school I was placed with kids I was well ahead of intellectually but well behind culturally and interpersonally.

All of this created pretty much the perfect storm of Grade 5 nerd-dom. Socially speaking, I couldn’t do anything right in school. Not a thing.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

They Ate and Drank with Him

“God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Based on his personal experience, Peter could have finished this sentence any number of impressive ways. He could have said, “God made him appear to us ... who saw with our own eyes the rolled-back stone and the empty tomb,” or “... who witnessed him perform miracles,” or “... who were shown the marks of his crucifixion in his hands and his side,” or even “... who saw him taken bodily into heaven and heard the testimony of angels about it.”

Instead, he talks about sharing food with the risen Christ: “God made him appear to us who ate and drank with him.”

Saturday, November 24, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (34)

In raising his children, my father maintained a keen sense of the big picture. He would always encourage my mother when things seemed most hopeless. I can assure you that happened with regularity: my father traveled, and Mom had an unvarnished, highly realistic, frequently-reinforced view of all the basest aspects of male teen behavior.

Somehow she survived. Hope, maybe.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Heresy and Clerisy

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

It’s been a while, but Gretta Vosper is back in the news again. (Immanuel Can and I discussed her previous exploits here and here.)

This time, the United Church minister — the denomination’s only out-of-the-closet atheist — has dodged a bullet in the form of a looming heresy trial. Turns out the UC’s just couldn’t bring themselves to pull the trigger. The United Church General Council says Vosper will not be placed on their Discontinued Service List, and she may continue to offer God-free services to a handful of aging parishioners.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Total Depravity: Can’t We Come Up With A New Term?

I was talking with an ardent Calvinist about this article. He is firmly committed to “total depravity” as meaning that human beings are black, wicked and “dead” so far as God is concerned, devoid of any kind of goodness, light or value: utterly deplorable and despicable. I understand the misguided humility that drives him, but I don’t buy his argument, and I don’t like the term “total depravity”. I think it’s misleading. This is what I wrote to him:

The Meaning of “Death”

One of the things you said you believed, Sam, is that because the Bible calls us “dead in trespasses and sins”, that must mean that we are totally valueless, like a corpse, before God saves us; and that like a corpse, we are incapable of response before God regenerates us. As you said to me, “Dead means dead”.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

An Iceberg in the Gulf of Mexico

I sat in an office meeting last Saturday morning listening to my fellow managers discuss internal company changes that were, to everyone there, more than a little disconcerting. The afternoon shift supervisor had a clear note of panic in his tone as he anticipated what personnel moves upper management might be contemplating.

Understandably. Nice guy, but he’s got a doctorate in something esoteric that’s all but useless in the real world and I’m quite sure hasn’t the slightest idea what he’ll do if he’s suddenly unemployed.

I’m not about to tell you that I’m a whole lot better qualified myself, or that looking for another job has any great appeal to me. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands, and I suspect millions, all across North America who are staring down similar situations these days.

It’s not just potential unemployment that’s scary, is it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Having It Both Ways

Charles Cutler Torrey was an American historian, archeologist and scholar. In 1901, he founded the American School of Archeology in Jerusalem and taught Semitic languages at Yale for almost 30 years.

Eighty-eight years ago, Torrey’s record was as credible as any other secular authority whose job was analyzing and dating ancient manuscripts. Then his book Pseudo-Ezekiel and the Original Prophecy (1930) was released, setting out his theory that the canonical book of Ezekiel was actually written much later than originally thought, in the third century B.C.

Torrey’s book remains of sufficient interest that it was reprinted both in 2008 and 2013. Amazon calls it “culturally important”.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Anonymous Asks (14)

“How do you stay on a spiritual high?”

Hmm. I think we might be asking the wrong question here.

Ezekiel was probably never closer to God than the day his wife died, but I suspect that day was in many ways the lowest point of his life. A “spiritual high” it was not.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Credentialism and Truth

“As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”

The Jewish religious authorities came teeming out of the woodwork to harass the apostles for two reasons. Primarily it was the public proclamation of resurrection through Jesus that irked them. Resurrection was a huge bone of contention for Sadducees in particular, who did not believe in it. Adding the name of Jesus to the mix, a man the authorities had only recently had put to death, only compounded the problem.

But we should not overlook Luke’s observation that they really did not like the apostles teaching the people.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (33)

Antisocial behavior, innuendo, laziness and false confidence: there’s a lovely quartet for you.

Misty water-colored memories. Four more ancient proverbs, each of which reminds me of somebody I know or knew, usually more than one. Sometimes they remind me of me. Times change, people don’t. Not really.

Thankfully we have the word of God to guide us, because not too many of us seem to learn much from history.

And they don’t really teach history anymore anyway.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Feeding the Gators

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

Tom: Let’s do something a little different today, Immanuel Can. I was thinking about the social implications of that clip you sent me this morning from the action-adventure video game Red Dead Redemption 2. It seems like that might be worth talking about from a Christian perspective.

Do you want to take a crack at describing it?

Immanuel Can: It’s hard to imagine if a person has not seen modern video games. (Of course, for those who have children, avoiding video games is all-but-impossible nowadays.) A lot are now story-based, but a lot are also what’s called “first-person-shooters”, designed to let players kill a lot of characters as they move through a maze or follow some kind of prepared story line.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The End of Evangelism

There is general fear being widely expressed among evangelicals today that we are not reaching people the way we used to. Certainly the numbers of people in the modern West who are becoming Christians seems to be slumping, and a lot of us are a bit nervous about the trend.

Is the Age of Evangelism Ending?

According to Bible.org, one problem is that the professional clergy people and leaders are not stepping up, and that church ministries and programs are not going out to reach people. Meanwhile, The Evangelism Institute has found that while 85% of evangelical churches have a pro-evangelism statement in their constitution, less than 5% of the people are actually involved in doing something with it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Doctrine Worked Out

Truth has implications.

Jesus Christ was manifested in the flesh, giving us a visible, tangible template for what godliness looks like in action, and an example to follow. He was vindicated by the Spirit, demonstrating that resurrection power is available to transform human lives. He was seen by messengers, meaning we can believe what we hear and take it to heart because it has been repeatedly substantiated. He was proclaimed among the nations, meaning that he does not play favorites with men, and neither should we. He was believed on in the world, meaning God’s plan for this planet does not merely involve taking people out of it, but transforming it. And he was taken up in glory, meaning that we can look forward to an eternity in which we will share that glory with him.

No theological point is without practical consequences.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Drawn Away

“But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.”

It’s not just young widows who need to worry about being drawn away from Christ by worldly passions, and it’s not just women more generally. The symptoms and objects of earthly desire vary from person to person, but the unshakable conviction that the grass on the other side of the fence is somehow greener than the grass on my side is a lie of the devil we must all contend with.

Here, the specific passion in view is not anything evil. In and of itself, the impulse to marry is not abnormal or unhealthy. Everybody wants to know and be known, to feel secure, to have someone to care for and to care for them.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Anonymous Asks (13)

“If the stars are so far away and it would take millions of light years for them to be seen from earth, why do we see stars?”

Ah yes, the perplexing problem that the appearance of age raises for creationists.

The standard difficulty is not about whether it would have been possible for God to cause starlight to provoke its usual reaction from Adam’s retinas in a nanosecond rather than taking light years to travel to earth from the moment the stars were created. Obviously someone powerful enough to speak the universe into being could make both light and human nerve endings dance to any tune he pleased.

No, the standard complaint is moral rather than practical; something like “Wouldn’t it be a bit deceptive of God to bend what we perceive to be the established rules of science?”

No.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Building Blocks of Reality

The Old Testament is full of hints, winks and nudges. Or so it seems to me.

For example, I cannot read Abraham’s words to Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb,” without marveling at the subtlety of the wording. It works as a double entendre in either Hebrew or English. Was Abraham a straight man or a prophet? I can’t tell you, but I love that line. From thousands of years down the road we look back and say, “He certainly did.”

That’s not a comment on our cleverness, of course.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (32)

Some proverbs are absolutely straightforward. Perhaps most were in their day. For example, when we read “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue,” it is all-but-impossible to misunderstand. Much might be said by way of application, and examples could be cited both from scripture and personal experience, but the basic concept is not the least bit enigmatic.

Others? Well, time, linguistic and cultural differences have a way of obscuring meaning.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The State of Theology

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

David B. was kind enough to forward us this link to a recent survey by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research about what Americans believe about God, Jesus Christ, sin and eternity.

Tom: Apparently they are doing this every couple of years now. Having regular new data sets to browse can be useful in noting trends of one sort or another. We discussed the LifeWay 2016 survey in this space, if I recall correctly … yes, I do. That was the one where, based on the frequency of their heretical answers, my fellow writer Immanuel Can was inspired to refer to some of the respondents as not so much Christian as “ ‘Christian-flavored’, like a really, really bad kind of tofu.”

How’s the tofu this year, IC?

Thursday, November 08, 2018

A Bigger House

“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”

The household of God is his church. That should be an uncontentious statement. Paul says it plainly to Timothy.

Where we have difficulty is in defining what it is exactly we mean by “church”. Many modern teachers interpret Paul’s instructions to Timothy as if he has in view only church meetings; as if the church only really exists in the moments its members come together. This is useful if, like egalitarian Margaret Mowzcko, one is attempting to argue that 1 Timothy 2:9 refers to women praying out loud in public gatherings of God’s people, something that is not obvious from the passage.

It is also wrong.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Into the Crucible

“The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.”

If for some reason you needed to melt gold at home, you could actually do it with an acetylene torch, assuming you have the right sort of container to melt gold in. Gold becomes liquid at around 1,943°F (1,064°C). Once you’ve tried melting gold, silver is comparatively easy, melting between 1,640 and 1,762°F (893-961°C).

The process by which precious metals are refined and purified is intense. Going from solid to liquid can’t be much fun either. If we are to learn anything from the first two clauses of this verse, it is that our Father does not bring us to the place of crisis trivially, nor does he do it in order to leave us as he found us.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Everyone’s a Mark

Ever idly browsed the internet of an evening only to find your peaceful reading experience disturbed by an alarming pop-up notification to the effect that you have been diagnosed with a computer virus?

Thankfully, the folks dutifully alerting you to your imperiled status are willing to provide just what you need: for $29.99 — or considerably more — they will happily outfit you with downloadable software guaranteed to purge your hard drive of all current infections and keep the baddies away for 12 months, after which a further $29.99 — or considerably more — is required to guarantee your ongoing ability to browse in peace. Since you so obviously need it, you ought to consider that perfectly reasonable. In fact, they will retain your credit card info and simply treat your purchase as a subscription so you’ll never have to trouble your little synapses about computer security again.

Isn’t that sweet of them?

Monday, November 05, 2018

Anonymous Asks (12)

“Where did God come from before he created earth, animals and humankind?”

This is the kind of question that could be asked two entirely different ways. The first is out of curiosity. The second is out of an obdurate refusal to believe anything that can’t be stringently proved on one’s own terms.

Since I have no idea where this anonymous questioner is coming from in his current thinking, I’ll answer it both ways and trust he’ll take it appropriately.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Should Elders Give Orders?

Frank Viola’s Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity is a vitally important — even radical — reassessment of the church that attempts to encourage evangelicals out of clericalism and into something much more like what was taught by the apostles and practiced in the first century. Several summers ago, I examined it here, here and here.

There is much to be said for Viola’s vision of the church. He’s got so many things absolutely right that I struggle with critiquing him at all out of concern that in doing so, I’ll end up minimizing all the wonderful things he has to say. Viola condemns paid clergy, one-man domination of a congregation, professionalism, corporatism, passive pew-sitting, lack of congregational involvement and all kinds of bad practice that has crept into our churches from the corporate world and other faulty models — all things we have criticized repeatedly in this space.

There are, however, two areas in which I believe Viola has missed the boat, if only by a few seconds. One is the women’s role. The other is the authority of elders.

Specifically, one can come away from Viola’s books wondering if elders should ever give any orders at all; if the organic leadership model he champions precludes the giving of strong verbal direction of any kind. I will argue it does not.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (31)

The Western world has no lack of powerful people. Still, the rulers of today’s first world countries are constrained to a much greater extent than many of us think by the political systems in which they operate and by the vagaries of public opinion.

All Western leaders test the political climate with internal polling before making significant moves. Canada’s Justin Trudeau, for instance, rarely makes even a public statement without his entire inner circle weighing in. Donald Trump, often accused of being unilateral and arbitrary, accepts the rulings of lower court judges and the limitations of working through Congress.

I suspect the Israelites of Solomon’s day might not recognize our leaders as real “rulers” at all.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (5)

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

Tom: We’re in the middle of batting around commonly misunderstood Bible verses. Here’s another frequently-quoted line for you, IC, this one from Proverbs:

“As he thinks within himself, so he is.”

I mentioned in another post a few weeks ago that I’ve often found other people understand individual proverbs very differently from the way I understand them. This one is no exception.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

An Islamic Court Finally Gets Something Right

Malaysia’s top court has ruled that non-Muslims can no longer use the word “Allah” when referring to God. This despite the long-standing trend of Christians and other groups using the same name to refer to God in scriptures, prayers, songs and normal conversation.

The word isn’t a local Malay one, but rather a borrowing from Arabic. However, some Malaysians have no other word in their current vocabulary to refer to the Supreme Being. But apparently the two-thirds of the Malaysian population that profess Islam are now going to have exclusive use. Authorities worry that failure to distinguish Allah as a unique understanding of Divinity could result in confusion and lead people to be converted away from their religion. So they’ve legislated away the confusion.

Sounds about right to me.