Monday, November 22, 2010

Crumbs for the Little Dogs

Matthew 15:21-28

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon." 23But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us." 24He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25But she came and knelt before Him, saying, "Lord, help me." 26And He answered, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs." 27She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table." 28Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.

In this text, we see a number of things: rebuke; rejection; modern minds may see ethnic bigotry; persistence; love; disdain; unwavering faith; miracles; reward; affirmation; prayers answered; acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord.

Verses 21-22: 21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon."

A Canaanite woman – Women were not, to put it mildly, highly esteemed in 1st century Palestine. They were, at best, second class citizens. Jesus, as we have seen in other places in the Gospels, acknowledged womens' important roles in the kingdom and affirmed them as blessed and beloved of God. Ultimately, we see that pattern repeated in this story, but not in these verses. That she was a Canaanite hints at the rejection – or apparent rejection – we see in the next few verses.

The Canaanites were dispossessed of their land as far back as Abram. Genesis 15:17-21 tells us that the “Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates...'”which included the land of the Canaanites.

Both before and after the covenant in which the land of the Canaanites is given to Abra,, God promises children to Abram – later Abraham – and promises he will be the father of many nations, with descendants numbering as the stars. See Genesis 15:5; 17:6-8. In fact, in 17:8, the land of Canaan is promised to Abraham. This “everlasting covenant,” as it relates directly to the Canaanites, is repeated in Psalm 105:10-11.

The Canaanites had a long history of struggle with God's people. The Canaanites were descendants of Canaan, son of Ham. Abraham's descendants, both through Ishmael and Isaac, were descended from Noah's son, Shem. Historically, they had been devotees of Baal and even sacrificed children to that idol. Apparently by Jesus' time, some level of enmity existed even though Israelite Jews and Canaanites lived in close proximity.

Verse 23But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying out after us."

What is the significance in Jesus not answering her plea? Some commentators suggest that pattern seen elsewhere in scripture, and born out in our own lives, is that God does not always “answer” when we call, at least not in the short term. Others suggest that the silent was actually communication. John Calvin, in one of his commentaries on this chapter, supposed that Jesus, while silent, “spoke within the mind of the woman.” He added:

In this way the Lord often acts towards those who believe in him; he speaks to them, and yet is silent. Relying on the testimonies of Scripture, where they hear him speaking, they firmly believe that he will be gracious to them; and yet he does not immediately reply to their wishes and prayers, but, on the contrary, seems as if he did not hear.

The deafening silence in response to our supplications can be one of the greatest tests of faith. Waiting for an answer also reminds us who is in charge. What is one of the first things we deal with is parents? We struggle to find the appropriate balance between promptly caring for our children's serious, immediate needs – food, changing a diaper – and being at their beckoned call. God, assuredly, does not struggle with that but there is, nevertheless, a parallel. Sometimes He, as father, makes us wait because that is best for us.

Other commentators suggest Jesus was simply steeling the resolve of the woman. Faced with his initial silence, she had to choose between pressing forward with her petition or giving up hope, maybe rejecting God altogether. Earle, Sanner and Childers, in the Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol 6, p 149 cite Carr: “Jesus, by his refusal, tries the woman's faith that He may purify and deepen it.”

Verses 24-25: 24 He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25But she came and knelt before Him, saying, "Lord, help me."

When Jesus does answer, without directly granting or denying her specific request, i.e. that her daughter be delivered from demonic possession, He explains His purpose is to minister to His own people. As the woman did in verse 22, she reaffirmed His lordship. This, to me, has several interesting facets. First, one not a member of the “house of Israel” recognizes the Messiah. “Son of David,” according to John Calvin, was (to paraphrase) a messianic marker. Thus she, a foreigner, perhaps even a pagan (as opposed to a “God fearer” Gentile), acknowledged the lordship of the Jewish Messiah. Second, she personally acknowledged His lordship over her! She gave herself over to Him, surrendering herself, calling on His saving mercy.

Remarkable in this story is the tie-back to the covenental theology of the Jews. I am certainly no scholar and know little or nothing about the intricacies of that belief structure. But it's hard to miss Jesus showing Himself to be a good Jew steeped in the Old Testament. As various commentators have noted, Jesus' ministry really never reached beyond Judea. The Apostles, of course, carried the message to the Gentiles, spreading it all over the Roman Empire. Jesus, though, really ministered primarily to His own people. Here He expressly refuses – or at least hesitates – to extend the blessings meant for God's people to Gentiles.

A fascinating parallel is Abram/Abraham's “everlasting” blessing with God at the expense, if you will, of the Canaanites and others. Jesus' blessing, tied up in His Father's covenant with Abram/Abraham, was refused to this lowly Canaanite woman...or so it first seemed.

Verses 26And He answered, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs."

Little disagreement is found over Jesus' meaning when He responds by telling her it is not right to cast “the children's bread” “to the dogs.” If He didn't call this poor woman a dog, a major insult in that culture, He certainly compared her to one. Earle, Sanner and Childers argue that Jesus actually might have uttered this with a nudge and a wink as something of a rebuff or rebuke to His disciples. The original Greek does not refer to a “dog” like a filthy street dweller despised by that culture, but as a “little pet dog” with which children would play. If so, there was no rebuke in His response. It was an inside joke between Him and the woman.

We tend to see Jesus in a terrifically serious light. Some of that is because we have only text, without benefit of facial expressions and body language. Any modern day American who tries to communicate by text and email knows that meanings can be completely obscured, indeed lost, when all you have to go by are words on a screen. Mark Driscoll, in his book Religion Kills, argues for a funny Jesus, a man with a great sense of humor. If some of the minority commentators are right, this might be one example of our Lord busting some chops.

Covenantal theology reappears. John Calvin explains the significance of the “children's bread” as:

To make the meaning plain to us, it must be understood that the appellation of the children’s bread is here given, not to the gifts of God of whatever description, but only to those which were bestowed in a peculiar manner on Abraham and his posterity. For since the beginning of the world, the goodness of God was everywhere diffused—nay, filled heaven and earth—so that all mortal men felt that God was their Father. But as the children of Abraham had been more highly honored than the rest of mankind, the children’s bread is a name given to everything that, relates peculiarly to the adoption by which the Jews alone were elected to be children

Thus, Jesus was not being distantly metaphorical. Children were God's chosen ones; His adopted kids.

Verse 27She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table."

This one verse is packed full of theological punch! It is heavy and rich, like spiritual cheesecake. The next verse gives this one its full weight and meaning but I will still address them separately.

Crumbs are “small fragments, especially of something baked (as bread.)” One could not live on crumbs. Usually they are discarded. Here, they are left for the dogs. Not given to but left for the dogs. They are so small as to amount to almost nothing. These crumbs have fallen to the floor. It is hard to know what importance this idea held in that culture but we, in a society of overabundance, where our poor are fat, it's hard to conceive of being pleased with crumbs on the floor.

Moreover, consider how the Canaanite woman's willingness to take the crumbs contrasts with our 21st century conception of Christianity. Think of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that we hear preached on cable TV. God, we are told, wants to give you everything your heart desires because He loves you! But is that what we see in this story? No. We see a master that wants us to want and be happy with only the crumbs!

It must not be ignored whose crumbs are being lapped up; the crumbs from the master's table. His crumbs – whatever they might be – are better than abundance from other sources.

Verse 28Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.

Dovetailing nicely with the discussion on verse 27 is Jesus acknowledgment of this woman's “great faith.” She was willing to take a little – even after apparently being rejected or at least put off for the moment due to her race. She endured what may have been great personal insults. Yet she persisted in calling on Jesus to save her child.

The crumb concept is fitting in an ironic way. She and Jesus saw her as asking for very little, but what could be more important to a parent than the healing of an afflicted, suffering child? A lesson in here, maybe, is reflected in that irony. When we ask for the right types of blessings from God, He sees them as little things. God's kingdom, we see in scripture, often operates in contradictory ways: the first shall be last; the meek shall inherit the earth; he must increase, I must decrease; you must lose your life to gain it, etc. Be willing to take the crumbs and God will richly bless. Maybe a more apt way to put it is that the crumbs will satisfy your needs, another apparent contradiction; defying human logic.

There are parallels, too, between this woman's great faith and the faith necessary to move mountains. Not to make too much of the “crumbs” concept, but as Jesus said, having only faith the size of a mustard seed is necessary to move mountains. Having faith enough to accept the crumbs from the master's table is sufficient to cause you to experience in an almost inexpressible miracle.

More likely, as with the mustard seed, the issue isn't quantity but quality. What God gives us, even if we think it is not enough, is sufficient! That little mustard seed, similarly, grows into a large tree, as Jesus explained. Willingness to take the crumbs amounts to great faith because it necessitates reliance on God. Analogously, planting that mustard seed with the expectation that one day it will turn into a great tree – a hope that must battle some doubt – requires belief, nurture and, most importantly, patience!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Call

I've been wrestling with some kind of "call" by God to "ministry." I don't know what that means. It waxes and wanes, but the call has been there for a few months now.

Right now, I'm a bit stressed at work. If I could just be a lawyer and focus on the actual substance of my job I might feel better. But I find myself working the phones and trying -- with staff help -- to line up a bunch of witnesses for a trial. For one reason or another, I can't seem to get to the point of actually working on the trial stuff itself.

At the moment, the last thing I want to do is work or think of work. But it's all consuming. When work gets like this, sometimes I run to God. Sometimes I run away from him. Now I feel like I want to run away from work, into the safe arms of some sort of work that has actual meaning and purpose.

This is a lousy way to look at work, especially for a Presbyterian. We, after all, helped make the so-called Protestant Work Ethic what it is. Work, for work's sake, has value in that worldview. Now, though, I struggle to see value beyond my paycheck. I only see value in service to others on a spiritual level. The stress, though, puts me in a position of not seeing value in the work that I am given to do.

Within a week, I'll get a short reprieve and life will be good again...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rush Limbaugh, M.Div.

Yesterday, I had the distinct displeasure of hearing Rush Limbaugh attempt to define the "tenets" of the Christian faith, and fail miserably in doing so. I have nothing against Mr. Limbaugh, particularly. I'm also not a huge fan and I'm certainly not a "Dittohead."

The context of Rush's remarks was that President Obama recently said, in trying to articulate why he is a Christian, that he holds to the Golden Rule (though he didn't refer to it by its moniker) and (rather oddly) that he should be his brother's keeper. Limbaugh, in suggestion that the President doesn't understand his own declared Christian faith, had this to say on yesterday's show:
RUSH: Now, ladies and gentlemen, you have to forgive me here, but -- and not disputing -- President Obama says he's a Christian, that's good enough for me. And there's a lot of people who do not know details of their own religious belief. But the Golden Rule is not a precept of Christianity. I hate to point this out, but the Golden Rule does not emanate, originate, from Christianity. And this brother's keeper business? That's not Jesus. I hate to say this, but Jesus Christ did not talk about brother's keeper. That is from the story of Cain and Abel, and even that story is misunderstood. The story of Cain and Abel -- my brother's keeper does not mean, "I'm going to take care of my brother or take care of my sister". The story of Cain and Abel, Cain killed Abel, and then he said he had no idea. He denied it. He denied killing Abel, and then said to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Meaning, "What, is he my responsibility? He's not my responsibility, I didn't kill my brother." Now, a lot of people misunderstand all this, but the Golden Rule doesn't come from Christianity, and Cain and Abel is not, "I'm going to take care of my brother and I'm going to take care of my sister," and Jesus Christ has nothing to do with either one of them
RUSH: The code of Hammurabi is from ancient Babylon. Many people's first experience to the Golden Rule is actually... like my brother, David, told me that he first heard of the Golden Rule when he opened up a fortune cookie at the Purple Crackle Club in East Cape Girardeau, Illinois, and the fortune cookie had the Golden Rule in there as a fortune. How many of you have you seen the Golden Rule as a fortune in the fortune cookie? Now, the code of Hammurabi is from ancient Babylon, which is modern Iraq. Ancient Babylon is modern Iraq. You could even find the story of Cain and Abel in the Koran -- sorry -- the Holy Koran, as Mrs. Clinton points out. And so was the Golden Rule. I'm getting a lot of e-mails that the Golden Rule is in the Old Testament, that it's in the New Testament, but it's the Code of Hammurabi, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, do unto others. But the point is, I am my brother's keeper. There is an effort -- the reason why this is important, there's an effort by the left to say that Jesus was a socialist, and they are using this to turn many evangelical people into global warming people. We are the stewards of the planet and so forth.
What Limbaugh is (quite foolishly) suggesting is that because the Golden Rule, in some other expression, predates Christian, that it's not a tenet of the Christian faith. Mr. Limbaugh simply does not understand Christianity.

If you believe that the "tenets" of the Christian faith are expressed in the New Testament, you need only look to the New Testament to see if the Golden Rule is in it. By golly, it is! Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 7:12, " Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." As recorded in Luke 6:31, "And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise."

It is completely and utterly irrelevant that the Golden Rule might be expressed outside the New Testament or even in some form or fashion in the "holy books" of other faiths. The point that Limbaugh made was that the President, in paraphrasing the Golden Rule and pointing to it as evidence of his personal Christian faith, did not express a Christian belief.

That would be like saying that because the concept of "democracy" did not originate in the United States, valuing democracy is not valuing an American ideal or belief. If Limbaugh were correct, any expression of Christian beliefs that incorporated the Ten Commandments would not be expression of Christianity, at all, but of ancient Judaism. That, of course, would be foolishness.

Mr. Limbaugh should stick to politics and stay away from teaching the Bible.

Friday, September 10, 2010

International Burn a Mosque At Ground Zero Day

I am no fan of Islam, radical or otherwise. But that's not really what's on my mind. It's 9/11, the on-again-off-again "International Burn A Koran Day" at the tiny church in Florida was originally set for today. Protests against the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" still rage in NYC. President Obama is wringing his hands, worried about how these storms of controversy will cause us Americans to be perceived abroad. Meanwhile, Pastor Terry Jones somehow appointed himself -- probably not entirely by accident -- the voice of American Christianity. These are exciting, scary, and even bizarre times.

With that as a backdrop, a few things have been nagging at me.
  1. At the risk of being judgmental, I don't understand why Pastor Jones and his church members fail to see that they would be forsaking Jesus's commands to love your neighbor as yourself and to do unto to others as you would have them do unto you just to prove that they have the right to burn some books. Just because you have the right to offend someone doesn't mean you should.
  2. I must confess that I have been impressed (at least somewhat) by the willingness of at least one Imam to talk to Pastor Jones and make a promise to approach Imam Rauf about the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. It's nice to see that Muslim leaders -- at least a few -- are willing to at least consider that things done in the name of their faith might possibly be the cause of all this backlash, what the media is calling "Islamaphobia."
  3. That our President, General in Afghanistan and Secretary of State are concerned that the burning of a few so-called "holy books" would put "Americans in harm's way" or "endanger the lives of our troops" in Afghanistan or Iraq proves precisely what many "Islamaphobes" have been trying to say: Islam is not a religion of peace, but a religion of war, terror and death. That we have to be concerned that Muslims would kill human beings over the burning of a few hundred copies of their "holy book" is a pretty good indicator that something is aschew in that religion. Bibles are destroyed in other countries, but Christians don't murder people in retaliation.
  4. I appreciate, as indicated, that Muslims are now forced to start considering why there is a backlash in this country. But rather than go on the defensive, why not spend time, energy and resources to de-radicalize elements within their own faith? If all the terror committed in the name of Islam is really the work of "a few extremists," the de-radicalization process shouldn't be terribly difficult. Instead of trying to convince me your faith is a "religion of peace," why don't you show me that you do not tolerate murder in the name of allah? In other words, do some housecleaning and then get back with me on your sales pitch.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ground Zero liberalism

The so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" seems to be the topic du jour in the culture wars. As G. K. Chesterton advises, it is good to put forth the points on which there is agreement before taking the contrary position. I agree that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, both as I read it personally and as a matter of law, permits Muslims to erect mosques on the private property of their choosing, subject to zoning and other "reasonable" restrictions (that apply to everyone.) If you consider yourself a liberal (small L) and your "support" of the Ground Zero Mosque is on First Amendment Grounds alone, I think we find ourselves in agreement and there is nothing further to discuss. The mosque must be permitted.

But, what I observe amongst liberals -- and it's not just with this particular issue, but has been repeated many times post 9-11 -- is some sort of support of Islam on what I think could only be broadly labeled as "tolerance." It's the typical liberal viewpoint that "I'm OK, you're OK (unless you're a white, Christian, male Republican.)" Except that I never get the impression genuine tolerance is being expressed. Rather, leftist support for Islam seems like a "stickin' it to the Man" attitude. It's a case of, "Let's see, Christians don't like Islam and I don't like Christians so I'll say Islam is OK." I know there are people that so hate what they believe to be Christianity that they support anything that could not be possibly mistaken as Christian.

I'll put it plainly. If you are a Liberal, in the post-modern western sense, and you do anything but vehemently oppose Islam, you are a fool and a hypocrite. Those things you say that you dislike about Christian fundamentalism are the foundations for Islamic morality, but are heaped on by the gallon. Islamic morality is also enforced by violence and terror. Islam's followers don't believe religion is a "private matter." You might want to read up on Sharia law or just take a gander at how things run in Iran to see this is the case.

You think conservative Christians are "hateful" for opposing gay marriage? How does it sit with you that (supposedly) 4,000 people have been executed in Iran since the revolution for being homosexual? You don't like that fundamentalist Christians believe that the man should be the "head of the house" -- you probably don't understand what this even requires of the man? How do you feel about women being stoned in Muslim countries for allegedly being adulteresses?

Do you like the idea that fathers and brothers (in diverse places across the Muslim Middle East) will murder girls in their own family if a husband reports back that the young lady was not a virgin (meaning he could not tell that she was)? There should be nothing more abhorrent to you than "honor killings."

Islam is not progressive. Islam is not "inclusive." Islam is not "tolerant." Muslims are not "pro-gay." Islam's followers are not anything that you think that the rest of us should be. So why aren't you speaking out against them? Other than the old worn out line that "Islam is a religion of peace," Muslim don't even pretend to share post-modern western liberal values. So why do you support them streaming into our country, building their places of worship wherever they like?

You will rue the day, and it may be in our lifetime, when they are of sufficient numbers to, within a democratic system, influence government policy. You'll wish the mean-spirited Euro-American conservatives were in power, suggesting you home-school your kids and honor your husbands.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Silversmiths of Artemis

Artemis or Diana was the chief goddess in Ephesus in the first century. She, of course, is mentioned in Acts. Chapter 19 describes how the Apostle Paul was run out of town because his proseletyzing was based for the business of the silversmiths who made little carved idols of Artemis:

21 When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 So he sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time.
23 And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. 24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana brought no small profit to the craftsmen. 25 He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: “Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. 26 Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. 27 So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed,whom all Asia and the world worship.”
28 Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” 29 So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions. 30 And when Paul wanted to go in to the people, the disciples would not allow him. 31 Then some of the officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent to him pleading that he would not venture into the theater.

Acts 19:21-31(New King James)

This story in particular caused me to pause and ask, "Who are today's silversmiths of Artemis?" We always hear about some person promoting this or that belief, system, self-help technique, diet, or even religion. Often, at least secondarily, they enjoy considerable monetary gain as a result. What I don't hear asked much is, "Who stands to gain (materially) by ridding this country (or even the world) of the Gospel?" Materialiasts -- which, I think include hardcore socialists and well as dedicated money-minded capitalists -- have to acknowledge much of human action (good and bad) is done for some sort of material gain.

Who stands to gain in the United States if the Christians withdraw from society as was demanded of Paul in Acts 19? I have a list:

  • Pornographers. Forget all this nonsense about freedom of expression. Sex is a drug and pornographers peddle it to make money. Lots of money. They don't provide people with pleasurable experiences in the name of charity. I've checked various sources and seen a wide range of numbers. I don't think being accurate about the dollar amount of the porn industry is especially important since we are talking about billions of dollars. Consider that something like $10 to $15 Billion moves through the American economy per year for "adult entertainment." Do you think the purveyors of "adult entertainment" like Focus on the Family calling for social change in this area? As certain as I'm sitting here typing this, I know that they don't want mental health experts convincing the public at large that sex addiction is real and destructive, a view that many secular health professionals seem to hold these days.

  • Public colleges and universities. I've seen first-hand how the social agendas of the members of various departments -- bureaucracies really -- are anti-Christian, anti-traditionalism. Those in academe don't want to hear opposing views, really. They want to ensure that tuition and tax dollars continue to roll in to fund them promoting their own worldviews. For such a small minority of people, those that run our public colleges and universities really act as oligarchists. A Christian society, meaning some sort of plurality of practicing Christians, is a threat to them. So they silence Christians or, worse yet, demand that their views conform to the new standards. Perhaps I am turning this around, putting the cart before the horse so to speak. Maybe they are motivated not by the money the schools rake in but by their social and political agendas; the funding just ensures they can continue to promote those agendas. But we see that they have created a society in which the need for their services ensures their continued funding and, therefore, continued existence. They've convinced us that the only way to "get ahead" or to "be successful" in life is to get a college degree. Indeed, college grads do considerably better (in many social categories, not just income) than people without degrees. I'd not quibble with that. While I would not go so far as to say that this is some sort of purposeful conspiracy or grand scheme, I do believe those in academia recognize a sea change in society's moral outlook would be bad for (their) business.

  • Hollywood. An entire book could be written on this subject and I won't try to tackle it at length. I feel comfortable declaring, though, that an orthodox Christian worldview is bad for the movie-making and television industries (and the modern entertainment industry more broadly.) Remember the furor created over The Last Temptation of Christ? Who could forget all the hub-bub over The Da Vinci Code? Surely those controversies drove people -- tens, maybe hundreds of thousands -- to the theaters in those instances. But imagine if people actually decided they were not going to fill their heads with some of the stuff that Hollywood produces. Imagine millions of people refusing to set foot in theaters because the movies had objectionable themes. What would happen if hundreds of thousands of Christians stopped going to or renting movies produced by studio A or starring actors B, C and D. That was the kind of effect Paul was having in Asia by proclaiming the gospel.

Jesus said, "And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved." Matthew 10:22. Will we be hated because we, as Christians, are bad for business? Do they already hate us because they perceive a threat to their lucrative livelihoods?

Surely the 18 year old skeptic about ready to start college, who doesn't have two nickels to rub together, can afford to be philosophical about Christianity. He can dislike it because it doesn't jibe with what he has been told in school about "tolerance" or "acceptance" or "open-mindedness." But not everyone is that kid. He'll see things differently at 40 than he does now.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


It's safe to say that the orthodox Judeo-Christian view of remission of sin is that something must be sacrificed, a blood offering must be made, to appease God's wrath or stay His judgment. I've never really quibbled with the truth of that, but I've never quite understood why that is the case. Couldn't He accept us doing jumping jacks or cartwheels as acts of repentence? Couldn't the giving of alms take the place of the physical sacrifice of either an animal, under the Judaic cultic practices, or a Man, i.e. the crucifixion of Jesus, God incarnate? After all, God is God, right? He could accept any mode or act in remission of sin. Or could He.

There's an incredible amount of theological and philosophical study on this issue. I don't claim to know what most of the great minds think about it. I don't claim to have new thoughts, but only thoughts or ideas new to me.

Like my fellow modern man, my personal inclination is to say that there's something incredibly cruel, even wrong, about killing an animal -- to say nothing of a sinless God-Man -- to appease God's anger at my sins. It seems unjust in a way. I don't fault skeptics for finding it so, but I, through faith, trust that God's plans and ways are better than any of which I could possibly conceive.

It must be remembered that the sacrifice rituals performed as laid out in Exodus and Leviticus were nothing like vicious acts of bloodlust. While it's true a spotless (innocent) animal died in the process, the offered animal was eaten by the priests. Understanding that, only vegetarians and vegans would be left to say that no justification, whatsoever, for the sacrifice could be made on modern terms.

While it is hard to come to grips with its unpleasantness, its ugliness (again, to our modern way of viewing things), I see that is precisely why ritualistic sacrifice might have had to occur. Certainly modern people would be troubled that their wrongdoing cost a cute little lamb its life. If I knew something had to die to clean up the mistakes I made, and that this process would need to be repeated as my sins piled up, I might be more hesistant to err. I might be more willing to exercise discipline, to try to flee temptation. I might take more seriously my faults.

What would seem more unjust than to kill an innocent man for the crimes of another? To us, there is not much we would find more appalling. Yet, that is the lesson of the cross. Someone else was tortured to death for your lies, lust, anger, violence, cruelty, pettiness, impatience, gluttony, or hatred.

You might be man or woman enough to live out your life according to your own will if you knew that only you would have to account for that. That might seem contrary to our selfish natures, but I've heard many people in my life say they didn't mind the idea of Hell. They say, half jokingly, half seriously, "Oh, what does it matter, I'm going to Hell anyway!"

But consider that, to make up for those shortcomings, someone else had to die. What if someone else already died a horrible death to clean up your mess? Would knowing that cause you pause to examine your life?

Roman Catholics believe that Jesus' crucifixion is -- and this is my way of explaining it -- re-enacted in the Mass and that Jesus daily presents His crucified body before the Father to stay His judgment, to cover your sins. If that is the case, you can't be content to say, "Well, He already died and we no longer sacrifice animals so this is taken care of."

Ultimately, a blood sacrifice is a deterrent. It's a wake up call. You already have your own soul to account for; do you want another's blood on your hands as well?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

God's Story: A Five Act Play

I prepared this for a recent presentation at our local Church's Theology on Tap. It is a commentary on N. T. Wright's book, The Last Word. I've not corrected (the several) typographical errors in it.
Adopted from The Last Word, by N.T. Wright
For Theology on Tap, June 8, 2010

“God said it, I believe it and that settles it.” Some of you have heard that phrase. It’s
the sort of thing you’d see on a bumper sticker on a big old Cadillac, driven by a white haired lady.
I heard one southern preacher repeat that phrase and say, “It doesn’t matter whether I believe
it! God said it and that settles it!” For someone like my grandmother, who took everything in
our Holy Bible at face value and cared nothing for what anyone else might have thought of her for
it, that type of approach to the Bible was completely sufficient. Those of us, though, who have been
confronted by a clever skeptic or the typical post-modern American who cares little for what a book
thousands of years old might have to say, “God said it and that settles it!” doesn’t really cut it.

What does it mean to say that “God said it”? Even if I want to believe it, how am I to know
exactly what to believe? What no longer applies – like animal sacrifice – and to what must there be
strict adherence? How are we to know these things? How do debates, which end up back at the
“authority of scripture,” get resolved? The issue of scriptural authority is not settled even within the
church as a whole and certainly not amongst scholars and theologians.

We could fill libraries on the subject, but one resource I found helpful was The Last Word:
Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. I am doing the
book an injustice to sum it up in a sentence, but I will anyway. Essentially, Bishop Wright takes
what something of a middle-of-the-road approach between Biblical literalism and liberalism. For
Bishop Wright, there is no doubt that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but he attempts to make
sense out of that, give some tips for how it be read so as to bridge the gap between competing
views of scripture. My talk focus on highlights I personally found most helpful.

“Authority of Scripture”

In the Protestant tradition, Bishop Wright urges, emphatically, that the Bible is both the
authoritative “God’s Word” and that it should be translated and understood “literally.” But, unless
you’re like my Grandma, those ideas, without explanation, don’t get you very far.

He argues, “‘Authority of scripture’ is a shorthand for God’s authority exercised
through scripture.” God, not the Bible, is our authority. While that seems simple, sometimes that
gets missed, especially on the conservative side.

The Five Act Play

I found Bishop Wright’s description of the Bible as a “five act play,” each act being distinct,
fitting in its time and place, as extremely helpful. The acts:

1. Creation
2. The Fall
3. Israel
4. Jesus
5. The Church

We are living in the Church age, not Creation, not the Fall. We cannot return to Creation.
We do not walk with Jesus through first century Palestine. We live in the age in which the Bible,
mostly the New Testament, is the foundation for our faith, the guidebook for Act 5.

An analogy demonstrates this point and helped me sort out how we might make sense out of
the debate over the validity of, say, the Old Testament in the post-modern world. Why might we
not still sacrifice animals and keep slaves or observe the Jewish food laws? He explains:

When travelers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave
the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their
voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both the ship and voyage had
accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the
travelers remain...the people who made that voyage in that ship.

Perhaps the best example of this line of thought anywhere in the New Testament is one of
the earliest: Galatians 3:22-29, where Paul argues that God gave the Mosaic law for a
specific purpose which has now come to fruition, whereupon that law must be put aside,
in terms of its task of defining the community, not because it was a bad thing, but
because it was a good thing whose task is now accomplished. But, as the whole letter
indicates, the people of God renewed through Jesus and the Spirit can never and must never
for get the road by which they had traveled.

(Last Word, pp 57-58.)

Tradition and Reason

The modern and post-modern worldviews tend to elevate “reason” over tradition. In the
extreme, there is no place for tradition that cannot be supported by reason. Most people, though,
really don’t know what they mean when that hold to that type of view. Obviously we as Christians,
Protestant and Catholic, give varying degrees of importance to tradition but all see it as important.
It seems we fight amongst ourselves over how much weight to give each in all matters of faith,
including the scriptures.

Bishop Wright, an Anglican, makes a pretty good case for harmonizing both tradition and
reason. With regard to tradition he says:

Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the
church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our
responsibility in the Communion of the Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the
final say or making them an ‘alternative source,” independent of scripture itself. When they
speak with one voice we should listen very carefully. They may be wrong. They
sometimes are. But we ignore them at our peril.

(Last Word, p 117.)

Secularists, skeptics, atheists, agnostics and even theological liberals would dismiss much or
all of scripture on the grounds of reason. But the church, I believe, should embrace it as a vehicle
for revelation. The place of reason, Bishop Wright says, in applying scripture is:

Likewise, reason will mean giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and
paying attention to lexical, contextual, and historical considerations. Reason provides a
check on unrestrained imaginative readings of texts (e.g. the proposal that Jesus was really
an Egyptian freemason...)

‘Reason’ will mean giving attention to, and celebrating, the many and massive discoveries in
biology, archaeology, physics, astronomy, and so on, which shed great light on God’s world
and the human condition. This does not, of course, mean giving in to the pressure which
comes from atheistic or rationalistic science. We must never forget that science, by
definition, studies the repeatable, whereas history, by definition, studies the unrepeatable.

(Last Word, pp 119-120.) Reason does not become an “independent source” of authority, over
scripture and tradition, but is a “necessary adjunct” to them.

Honoring Scripture, i.e. Making it Authoritative

He proposes five (5) ways of honoring scripture, i.e. making it authoritative.

A Totally Contextual Reading of Scripture:

Where Bishop Wright parts company with Christians on maybe the more fundamentalist end
of the spectrum is with his rejection of scripture as a compendium of “timeless truths.” He does not
say, of course, that scripture has no meaning for us in the modern age, but that it has context and is
rooted in the places and times of its writing:

We must be committed to a totally contextual reading of scripture. Each word must be
understood in its own verse, each verse in its own chapter, each chapter in its own book,
and each book within its own historical, cultural and indeed canonical setting...All scripture is
‘culturally conditioned.’ It is naive to pretend that some parts are not, and can be treated as
in some sense ‘primary’ or ‘universal,’ while other parts are, and can therefore safely be set

(Last Word, p128.)

A Liturgically Grounded Reading of Scripture:

Essentially what Bishop Wright means by reading scripture liturgically is that it should take
“central place” in our “public worship,” regardless of tradition. We shouldn’t avoid verses we don’t

There is simply no excuse for leaving out verses, paragraphs or chapters, from the New
Testament in particular. We dare not try to tame the Bible. It is our foundation charter; we
are not at liberty to play fast and loose with it.

(Last Word, p 132.)

A Privately Studied Reading of Scripture:

While Bishop Wright does not express it in exactly these terms, one of the criticisms leveled
against the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura (or even more extreme views of scripture and the
individual) is that too much of an emphasis on personal study can easily lead to heresy. You can
imagine that a group like the Branch Davidians became what they were because a mentally ill man
like David Koresh was left to figure out scripture on his own and, worse yet, teach it to others.
Charles Manson thought he was fulfilling the events described in Revelation when he ordered his
“family” to go on a murdering spree.

He does say that “western individualism” tends to make “personal reading” primary and
“liturgical reading” secondary, and posits that the order should be reversed, as he did in the book.
He treats private study as more of a function of personal devotion, but stresses it has a purpose in
the larger body:

If it is part of the privilege and duty of each Christian to study scripture, and to read it
devotionally, it is important that the wider church should be able to hear what individual
readers are discovering in the text. Of course, not all private readings will come up with
significant new insights; but many will.

(Last Word, p 134.)

A Reading of Scripture Refreshed by Appropriate Scholarship:

Bishop Wright describes “Biblical scholarship” as “a great gift of God to the church.”
Holding to the Reformation’s “emphasis on the ‘literal sense’ of scripture,” he explains that we are
not necessarily wise to “take everything literally,” but instead must, “‘discover what the writers
mean’ as opposed to engaging in free-floating speculation.” (Last Word, p 135.) So, for instance,
the literal sense of a parable is its intended meaning, not treating it as an historical anecdote.

Biblical scholarship should “explore different meanings,” not for the sake of being modern or
scholarly, but because, “Any church, not least those that pride themselves on being ‘biblical,’ needs
to be open to new understandings of the Bible itself.” This approach prevents us from “being blown
this way or that by winds of fashion,” or, “being trapped in our own partial readings and distorted
traditions...” (Last Word, p 135.) He’s careful to caution liberals about “thumbing their noses” at
“cherished points of view,” reminding them the purpose of biblical scholarship is to “serve the

A Reading of Scripture Taught by the Church’s Accredited Leaders:

By leaders, Bishop Wright is referring to not only to church hierarchy and pastoral staff, but
to Sunday School teachers and home group leaders. He reminds us that church hierarchy are often
muddled in the business of running the church and, thus, do not have the time to give the church
“careful and prayerful study of the text;” they turn to old sermons in the can. The “leader’s” role is
primarily to teach, he argues:

If, therefore, those called to office and leadership roles in the church remain content merely
to organize and manage the internal affairs of the church, they are leaving a vacuum exactly
where there ought to be vibrant, pulsating life...[H]ow much more should a Christian
minister be a serious professional when it comes to grappling with scripture and ...If we are
professional about other things, we ought to be ashamed not to be properly equipped both to
study the Bible ourselves and bring its ever-fresh word to others.

(Last Word, pp 138-139.)

I like that he, following the Reformers’ reference to the sacraments as God’s “visible
words,” says that sermons should be “audible sacraments.”


What I like about these five (5) points is that they are very organic and all fit
together nicely. We might wish to consider whether we can appreciate scripture and
allow these different approaches to it to help the word become authoritative in our church
body and in our personal lives.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Be Ye Separate Part 1: Public Prayer

The culture wars are being fought over hot button socio-religious issues and some of those issues not only seem to be further distancing (in a negative way) Christians from society, but they are even dividing the Church itself.

I would like to start flushing out what I see as a new perspective that I'm gaining. It's new to me, but I don't pretend or claim it to be a new idea. This perspective has existed, in some form or fashion, almost over the entire life of the Church. But it's new or different in the sense that I don't hear other evangelicals holding or pronouncing this perspective.

In short, I'm starting to believe that the best thing for both the Church and society is for Christianity to be removed from the public (and by that I mean governmental, not societal) sphere. I hope explain why as this series (I don't know what else to call it) continues.

II Cor. 6:14-17 says:

14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For youb]" class="footnote">[b] are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“ I will dwell in them
And walk among them.
I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.”c]" class="footnote">[c]

17 Therefore

“ Come out from among them
And be separate, says the Lord.
Do not touch what is unclean,
And I will receive you.”d]" class="footnote">[d]
18 “ I will be a Father to you,
And you shall be My sons and daughters,
Says the LORD Almighty.”e]" class="footnote">[e]

I hope to explore and apply this commandment to the way I feel some of these societal (legal, political) issues to be unfolding and I'll start with public prayer.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is well known to most politically astute Americans. It reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Entire books could be and have been written about the import of this most sacred amendment and how it has been changed -- I'd argue corrupted, poisoned -- over the last 60 years. I am not going to take that approach here.

Here are some cases which have applied to public prayer. Engel v Vitale (1962) stands for the proposition that required recitation of a prayer, even non-denominational prayers, are unconstitutional. Time set aside in public schools for religious education is also unconstitutional. Zorach v Clauson (1952).

More recently, in Santa Fe Ind School Dist v Jane Doe (2000) the US Supreme Court found unconstitutional student-led prayers which were to be broadcast over the public address system before high school football games.

We recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of various occasions so as to mark those occasions' significance...But such religious activity in public schools, as elsewhere, must comport with the First Amendment." wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

Similarly, Prayers delivered by clergy at official public school graduation ceremonies are unconstitutional. Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 (1992).The fact that a prayer is nondenominational or voluntary does not render it constitutional. The U. S. Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on whether student-initiated nonsectarian graduation prayer is constitutional, and the lower Federal courts disagree on the issue.

School officials, employees or outsiders must not offer prayers at school assemblies. Even if attendance is voluntary, students may not deliver prayers at school assemblies either. Collins v. Chandler Unified School Dist., 644 F. 2d 759 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 454 U. S. 863 (1981). See Santa Fe Independent School district, supra.

There's little or nothing left of school-sanctioned prayer and student-initiated prayer might only be permitted under very limited circumstances.

I notice in these cases -- and the cases involving "Under God" in the Pledge, "In God We Trust" on money, or the Ten Commandments in public buildings -- those arguing for public Christian prayer try to sell a non-sectarian prayer to get around the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The idea is that if a prayer is not exclusively Christian it cannot be offensive or coercive and, therefore, should be permitted. Federal courts haven't seemed to buy that argument, at least not broadly.

That is where I, as a Christian, think it's time to rethink this battle! What good is a non-sectarian prayer and why would we as Christians want people to say that prayer? Why would we want non-believers to say a prayer to a God which they refuse to serve? Will God bless a nation of people who say words they don't mean for the sake of tradition?

Jesus, before teaching us how to pray (the Lord's prayer), clearly and unambiguously addressed the issue of public prayer and cautioned against it. Matt 6:5-7 says:

5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.a]" class="footnote">[a] 7 And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Then, of course, Jesus commanded us to pray to "Our Father, who art in Heaven..."

Does Jesus condemn all public prayer in these passages? I do not believe so. The verses suggest that the intention of one's heart is at issue. If you're praying to be seen, to be thought of as pious, you pray in vain. Any public prayer potentially runs afoul on such grounds. We should at least question the motivation for prayer "on the street corners" before doing it. Even a prayer to the One True God could be an error if done out of improper motivation.

Likewise, the Ten Commandments get at this:

3You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Exodus 20:3-6.

It seems to me that a prayer to anyone but the Lord God is a prayer to another god. That, it seems patently obvious, is idolatry. For me personally, I'd rather not pray than pray to some amorphous god that is representative of that being adored by various faiths of the world. That god is not God!

President Obama is well known for his non-sectarian public invocations. People are starting to take notice and question whether or not that approach makes any kind of sense or, worse yet, does damage.

"The larger danger isn't for the Obama administration, it's that the prayer becomes so vacuous," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and an editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. "That, to me as a person of faith, is a larger worry."

See also this blogger's excellent article


I think it's time to stop fighting this battle. Instead of pushing for insincere, if not idolatrous, public prayers, let's try to win souls. Let's put that energy and money into serving people in the name of the True God.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Strangely dim

There's some risk in saying what I'm about to say. One, it could be taken as preachy or holier than thou. Two, it could appear prideful or suggestive of some belief of having arrived. I present this humbly and in awe of God's power, and not my own.

As a kid one of the worship songs frequently sang in our Church was "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," written by Helen H. Lemmel in 1922. The refrain goes

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His Glory and Grace.

If you know me well you, might be scratching your head. I tend to feel very uncomfortable with this kind of flowery expression of love for God. Maybe it's my masculinity fighting against sentimentality.

More than the specific words, though, I am struck by how true the refrain is in my life. While I wouldn't express it the way that the song does, it captures it perfectly. The more I get to know God through studying the Bible, communing with Him through prayer, and sharing my thoughts with other believers, the less important the things of "the world" are.

This type of change can happen over a short period of time. Just a few months ago, I was focused on music and writing and whatever my (secular) hobbies and interests were. But God has turned my mind both inward (looking at my spirit) and upward (looking to Him.) I find myself losing interest in things that even weeks ago captured my imagination.

I will readily admit that this type of transformation, if you want to call it that, has taken place in my life in the past. In each instance, it has "worn off," as if it were a fad or trend. I suspect that my corrupted human heart and mind tries to flee from God -- rebel against Him! Hopefully that is not the case now.

Whatever the future holds I do not know. But I am certain that the more you focus on God the less important everything else will be to you.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

For Ernie

William Ernest "Ernie" Harwell died at age 92 after a year-long battle with cancer. Everyone from Michigan -- and baseball fans from around the country -- knows (and most likely loves) Ernie. He was a Hall of Fame broadcaster, a giant in his field.

Bloggers are blogging. Facebookers are posting memorials. Email reminiscence are spreading. Message boards are lit up. Thousands are paying tribute to Ernie on this sad day.

The theme I keep seeing over and over is how Ernie is and was so much a part of our memories, often of simpler, happier times. A lot of us connect Ernie's golden voice to lovely Michigan summer days spent in the backyard, at the park or on the boat with our fathers, uncles or friends.

I'll always link Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey's radio call of Detroit Tigers games to days spent with my Pop. I see him in the backyard, working on some new project, fixing up the boat, cleaning fish, digging a well, working on one of the cars or even gardening. Pop, who passed away in 1997, liked me to believe that he wasn't a Tigers fan, but he always had the game on the radio if he wasn't watching it on TV. In some way that is hard to describe, Ernie connected me to Pop and for that I will forever have great feelings for Ernie.

But those feelings, which a lot of us Detroiters share, are not the measure of Ernie's greatness. I prefer to think of Ernie as a great human being who happened to be a very gifted broadcaster. I'm convinced that you'll not find a single person on this planet that would have a bad thing to say about Ernie. He oozed kindness, humility, warmth, friendliness and a genuine love of people. You didn't even have to know him to know that about him. He was one of those people that you could just tell was not faking it. He was genuinely a person of tremendous character, as evidenced by his involvement in our community.

More than that, he professed Jesus as his savior and, unlike a lot of us, actually demonstrated that by his actions and deeds. He was one of the few public Christian figures I've followed in my life that appeared to actually have Christ-like qualities. I'm not deifying him, but only suggesting he had what Christians refer to as the "fruits of the spirit."

We all knew this day would come and we knew it would come sooner rather than later. It is, in a way, sad that it is now here and he has now passed. But I'd like to believe he is rejoicing in heaven and God has said to him, "Well done thy good and faithful servant."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tents of Shem: a new online community

I've been asked by a dear friend to help him with a website. I feel very important to have the title of "Admin." Seriously, I love what the site is all about and I'm pleased to share it here.

For us, this is a Christ-centered online community where we'll tackle any number of topics. We hope both Christians and non-Christians will join and participate in the community. All are welcome.

Look! Squirrel!

When I started this blog I made a commitment of sorts that I would regularly post, mostly as a way of continually working through whatever creative urges I might have.

Since then I've picked up other hobbies: other blogs, playing bass, heavy reading and study, wasting time on Facebook, and, now, I'm administering another website.

I've not forgotten this little blog, but work, family, the grind of daily life, hobbies and other stuff have kept my focus elsewhere. I hope to write more here in the coming months.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Untitled cultural critique no. 1

What follows is scattered, unorganized and rambling. It's rather free-form and somewhat influenced by the meds I'm taking to kill a crippling headache. But here it is anyway:

Until I had something like an epiphany yesterday, I viewed the United States -- or at least certain elements here -- as preserving western culture. I've been very defensive on this point, despite hating certain aspects of our culture, mostly the trashier elements. The truth, though, is that several decades ago this country started down the road of culture toward an elevation of pop culture above high culture, history, tradition and faith. Pop culture is no longer culture as such but is nothing more than a hodge-podge of entertainment opportunities.

Reality TV
Celebrity worship and stalking
Obsession with sports
The complete blur between news and entertainment
Abandonment of objective journalism
Music made by and for pretty people
Grossly disturbing views of beauty
Sex sex sex

There is little that is high or elevated. Nothing is sacred in Post-Modern America. If it dulls your senses -- mindless crap on TV -- or gets your adrenaline pumping (MMA), it's good.

The closest we get to spirituality these days, without being blatantly "religious," is to do yoga.

Traditionally western spirituality, primarily European brands of Christianity, seems to be in serious decline. Churches have to come up with various ridiculous gimmicks to get butts in the pews. The only western music left is pop-rock. Easter is about the bunny. Christmas is about shopping and eating until you can't move. Thanksgiving is about getting wasted on the "biggest bar night of the year." I won't even talk about what the mouthbreathing frat boy party types have done to St. Patrick's Day.

If the people didn't have Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken and Keith Olberman telling them the "truth," they wouldn't have a clue where to find it for themselves. Reading and self study are out; the History Channel (a great resource, no doubt) and wikipedia are in.

Americans seem hell-bent on being European. At least the elitists on the left do. Europeans seem to be coming more American, though they're not honest enough to cop to it.

It seems to me that much of what made the western world free, prosperous and progressive has been thrown out and replaced with cheap, plastic imitations.

America is not preserving western culture. It is destroying it, at least the more classical variety. In some ways are critics in the east are right and have been right for awhile.

The more I see this the more I find myself wanting to withdraw.

Admittedly I'm a product of Post-Modern American culture. I like popular music, I love the internet. I like sports and enjoy being entertained. Yet, I feel myself slowly peeling away. TV here has been replaced with books, some limited movies and even contemplative time (music, prayer, study, writing.) I care not for the goings on of celebrities. I'm more interested in St. Augustine, John Calvin, the Founding Fathers and C. S. Lewis had to say than what Limbaugh and Olberman think.

There is no longer a place for people that see things in this way. We're eccentrics. "Boring." "What, you don't have cable? What's wrong with you? Too cheap?" "You don't know what's going on with Tiger Woods?"

Friday, March 19, 2010

The politics of "outrage"

I can’t remember the last time I went to yahoo, msn or some news site and did not see some story in which a person or group was expressing “outrage” over the thoughts, comments, actions or deeds of another person or group. “______ outraged by _____ who _____.” “Group expresses outrage over _____ comments.” Just troll the online news sites and you’ll see this is true.

It’s not really my place to challenge someone else’s emotions or feelings on an issue. Sometimes how you feel about something can’t be helped. I do notice, though, that this “outrage” is very often over general comments made by one person or group, usually something perceived as offensive. Maybe I’m not very sensitive but I’m amazed at how often the “outrageous” comment or thought seems rather benign or trivial. Think of the “outrage” by “immigrants’ rights groups” over the “illegal alien” Halloween costume last fall. Consider the “outrage” expressed by strangers over Tiger Woods’ numerous infidelities.

Whether right or wrong, it seems that people in this day and age – and this seems global – enjoy being angry. It’s as if they relish declaring “outrage” in public. I’m not sure what people would do if they couldn’t be angry. I’d like to think their lives would be better if they let things roll off their backs more easily.

Am I outraged by their outrage? No. But I’m definitely a little amused and slightly confused by it most of the time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Those that have gone before me

On this St. Patrick's Day, as in holidays past, I reflect on the lives of my Irish ancestors. Sadly, I know little about the lives of those that came to America from Ireland other than names, and dates of birth and death. I can imagine, though, that they lived hard lives. The Ireland of the mid to late 1800's was not a particularly hospitable place except for those of the Protestant ascendancy. The famine nearly gutted the country. Those that survived the famine but could not escape to the "new world" were not left with little opportunity.

Coming to America couldn't have been much easier. Civil war era Irish immigrants often ended up on the Union Army. Anti-Irish bigotry in the U. S. was high into the early 20th century. Nothing was handed to those that came here; they had to make their way.

I believe that my great-great grandfather was killed in a railroad yard in Detroit when he was crushed by train car. There was no worker's compensation scheme at the time and his wife was left to raise my great-grandmother and other children on what money she could scrape together by doing laundry for the Catholic church.

I really wish I knew more stories like this. I know that they bore burdens I could not even imagine in soft, cushy, post-modern America. The blessings I have are at least indirectly the result of the great sacrifices they made. If I could say one thing to those that have gone before it would be, "Thank you!"

(The photograph is of the church yard of Bangor Abbey, County Down, Northern Ireland, the resting place of some of my Irish (Protestant) Ancestors.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What place, then, for a creator?

Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is a fascinating book. I can't imagine there's a better primer out there explaining space-time to ordinary folks like you and me. I'm glad I've read (almost finished) it.

I must admit, though, to my bias. I believe in a creator. I'm not a literal Biblical creationist in the sense of believing that in the span of 6 earth days as we know them God created everything we see. But I do believe He is the creator in some form or fashion.

I was concerned that reading something like this book might shake my faith. I feared that rational, scientific data and argument would punch holes in my worldview, my cosmological view and, ultimately, my personal faith. Much to my surprise, Dr. Hawking, quite inadvertently, has bolstered my belief in God.

How could that be? Hasn't our modern understanding -- knowledge -- of the universe eliminated the need for a creator? Surprisingly, the view Dr. Hawking refers to as the "classical" modle of the universe, i.e. that, it is finite, has boundaries and presently expanding at the same rate in all directions, is the adopted position of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican embraced wholeheartedly the "Big Bang Theory" because it holds that the universe had a beginning, precisely what is suggested in Genesis. Dr. Hawking would agree that a boundary-less space-time, begun at a point of singularity, would suggest the necessity of an "appeal to God" as the spark (since there is no better explanation, seemingly.)

Not surprisingly, Dr. Hawking and others in the scientific community are not content to leave it at that. Perhaps they are right to continue to probe these questions. However, Dr. Hawking and some colleagues seem hell-bent to get around what the observable universe shows.

This is not the place to address Dr. Hawking's "proposal" in detail. Frankly, I am not sure I could explain it to anyone, certainly not in a more intelligent, easy-to-understand way then he does in the book. I suggest you read Chapter 8 to get a grasp of what the "proposal" is.

To grossly oversimply his position, Dr. Hawking argues that any understanding of the universe should incorporate relativity and quantum mechanics. Because the laws to which the universe now holds did not apply in the trillionths of seconds after the start of the "Big Bang," a new model should be constructed such that the laws always held. To do that, Dr. Hawking proposed an infinite universe with a boundary, a universe which has always been:

The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe. With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started - it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwood and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundaries or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator? (Hawking, The Illustrated A Brief History of Time, 1996, p. 181.)

As of the time of writing the book, Dr. Hawking was careful to say, "I'd like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite 'without boundary' is just a proposal. It cannot be deduced from some other principal." (Hawking, p. 175).

So what's the harm in this proposal? I suppose there is no harm in us humans asking these questions and coming up with the best answers that can be deduced. My gripe (among many), if you will, is that scientists, often in their arrogance, fail to explain that how thin some of the evidence is for their conclusions. Dr. Hawking admits that observable universe lines up with the "classical" model. Why abadon a model that fits the evidence for one that is purely theoretical and, worse yet, not supported by the evidence?

Maybe I am naive or just ignorant. I'd not be shocked if I turned out to be both. But I was surprised to see that Dr. Hawking's proposal is based on "imaginary numbers" and simple "mathematical devices" he admits are "tricks":

That is to say, for the purposes of the calculation one must measure time using imaginary numbers, rather than real ones. This has an interesting effect on space-time: the distinction between time and space disappears completely. A space-time in which events have imaginary values of the time coordinate is said to be Euclidean, after the ancient Greek Euclid, who founded the study of the geometry of two-dimensional surfaces. What we now call Euclidean space-time is very similar except that it has four dimensions instead of two. In Euclidean space-time there is no difference between the time direction and directions
in space. On the other hand, in real space-time, in which events are
labeled by ordinary, real values of the time coordinate, it is easy to tell
the difference – the time direction at all points lies within the light
cone, and space directions lie outside. In any case, as far as everyday
quantum mechanics is concerned, we may regard our use of imaginary time and Euclidean space-time as merely a mathematical device (or trick) to calculate answers about real space-time.
The book details the reliance on "imaginary numbers." Again, I suggest you look more closely at it if you want your own understanding. Still, it seems to me that an appeal to numbers that do not exist and which are not part of "real space-time," i.e. the space-time in which we actually exist, seems like foolishness at best and bad science at worst.

Paranoia might be driving my feelings on this. But I can't help but feel this type of scientific approach is all some kind of shell game, designed to direct attention away from the evidence of divine intervention in our universe. It appears that science simply isn't content to coexist with belief in the Almighty (or an almighty), even when the evidence dictates it should.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Full circle

He's 15. Blind. Confused. Somewhat incontinent. Shaky. Very little of the spunky, fiery personality he had is left. But he's still with us and seems to some of life's pleasures. Clearly, though, the end is not too far off.

As I walked him this morning -- in the bitter cold -- hoping to get him to go to the bathroom outside, he straggled behind and frequently stopped, causing me (accidentally) to drag him. When he walked, it was as slow as he could go without falling over.

Frustration gripped me, the cold increased the tenseness in my muscles. "Come on, Fritz, just go to the bathroom already!"

Then it hit me. I flashed back to his days when he was in "Puppy Kindergarten" class at one of the local big box pet stores. It was Spring 1995 and I was still living at home. He was the cutest little puppy, a ton of fun, a bit aggressive, but very likable. I loved him and I was glad to take him to obedience training just to spend time with him.

Even though he graduated, he was a poor student. While other puppies dutifully walked in the circle on their leashes, Fritz would dig in his heels and make me drag him. The instructor -- a lady I cared for not at all, who had an obvious dislike of Mini Schnauzers -- insisted that I drag him until he capitulated and would walk at my side. During the walk sessions, he spent more time on his back legs and butt than on all fours. It was particularly funny when he did this to the instructor. I felt a bond with him; I was glad he was sticking it to the teacher.

He was pretty easy to house train. But there were accidents he had in the house as a puppy. It was typically my job to clean up his messes. I didn't like it but I understood that it takes puppies time to learn the ropes.

The flashback left me with a love and warmth for this animal that I had forgotten was there. I felt sorry that he is moving toward the end of his life, that he's physically failing and that he doesn't have the vibrance he did a decade ago. I felt a little guilty for worrying about the inside of the house and for dragging him out in the bitter cold. I remembered that old dogs can't necessarily control when and where they go to the bathroom. That's no longer a luxury they have.

I was happy and sad to remember him as he had been. I was glad he's still here but questioned whether or not that should be the case. I was thankful that he has given my family all those years of unconditional love, companionship and entertainment.

Most surprisingly, I realized how much the end looks like the beginning.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

For Rabbie

Tomorrow, January 25, is the 251st birthday of Scotland's great poet, Robert Burns. In his honor we'll toast with whiskey, sing songs and enjoy the love of family and friends.

Here's one of his most famous and beloved poems, "To A Mouse," in both the Broad Scots and English

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Small, sleek, cowering, timorous beast,
O, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With hurrying scamper!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With murdering plough-staff.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not, sometimes, but you may steal;
What then? Poor beast, you must live!
An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request;
I will get a blessing with what is left,
And never miss it.

Your small house, too, in ruin!
It's feeble walls the winds are scattering!
And nothing now, to build a new one,
Of coarse grass green!
And bleak December's winds coming,
Both bitter and keen!

You saw the fields laid bare and wasted,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
You thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel plough past
Out through your cell.

That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!