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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Curse of Exclusivity

Exclusivity -- it seems to be the ultimate evil. You can believe a lot of stuff, but if you believe that your view is the only right view, that's wrong. It's arrogant. It's stupid. It's ... evil.

This revulsion toward exclusivity has its roots in the post-modern mind. Post-modernism believes that truth is relative. If truth is relative, how could any truth be the exclusive right truth? I mean, seriously folks, come on! What are you thinking?! It's so obvious that the simplest mind can see that!

Of course, it only takes the simplest of minds to see that there is a problem with that. Beginning with the empirical, 2+2 can only equal one number and no others. There is only one right answer to that mathematical equation. It isn't arrogance or ignorance or stupidity that leads you to answer "4". It's simply the truth. It would seem, then, that not all truth is relative. (If you would still like to believe it is, see how it goes over with you when the cashier at the local fast food joint short-changes you. It's the right change from their perspective. How dare you try to impose your reality on them? Yeah, I think you see it, too.)

Exclusivity shouldn't be such a problem to people. It is simply a result of standard logic. Everyone knows, "We can't both be right" when our viewpoints are in total opposition. In fact, it is the only reason to discuss when we disagree. If we could both be right with opposing viewpoints, we'd simply both be right and go on our way. There would be no reason to defend a view. The opposition is right, too! But logic demands that something cannot be both A and NOT A at the same time and in the same sense. So opposing views have to be discussed, defended, resolved.

It seems, in truth, that the claim of exclusivity only becomes a problem when it comes to religion. In America, all religions have equal protection under the law. Somehow we've construed that to mean that they have equal validity. Therefore, to claim that "My religion is valid and yours isn't" is the epitomé of arrogance. All religions are valid. Interestingly, nearly all religions make the claim to exclusivity. Very few say, "It just doesn't matter." Most claim to be the exclusive way, and the only hope the outsiders have is to convert to their beliefs. So, here we are, stuck with a logical difficulty. It defies the rules of logic for all religions to claim to be exclusive and be correct. They might all be wrong, logically, but they can't all be correct. If there is "a true religion", only one of them can be correct.

It would be nice if we could all just get along. Christians do have a problem, however. We claim to be followers of Christ. Christ said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). The exclusivity claim in Christianity doesn't come from a perspective we hold, but from the One who founded Christianity. Now, if we are to be Christians -- "followers of Christ" -- we're in a dilemma. He said it. We can either follow it or not be followers. We can't be both. Here, think of it this way. I want to be just like Ted. Ted loves polyester slacks -- wears them all the time. They define him. Me? I hate polyester and only wear blue jeans. I might say I want to be "like Ted", but if I refuse to be like Ted, it's a lie. I'm not a "Tedian".

So, here I am, a Christian with a leader who claimed exclusivity. I understand that it might be offensive to some. I understand that it might sound arrogant. And God knows that I'm not smart enough to claim I'm always right and everyone else is wrong. But I'm stuck. If I want to be a follower of Christ, I have to agree with what He says ... and He claimed to be the exclusive path to God. True arrogance for me would be to say, "I'm a follower of Christ ... but He was wrong." Hey, I didn't claim that Christianity is the exclusive path to God. The One whom I follow did. I can either follow there, too, or stop being a follower, but I can't have it both ways. So maybe, just maybe, you who don't like the exclusive claim of Christianity could cut us some slack. We're stuck here.

Friday, March 30, 2007

A "Fan" Responds

I can't seem to find the place to enter a comment, or I would. Chalk it up to a lack of Internet skills. But my post regarding the importance of the Crucifixion was the subject on Street Prophets, where they assured the reader that faith trumps orthodoxy.

I won't comment on the majority of the post. I won't try to defend my position. I won't deny that I believe orthodoxy to be important. I won't deny that I believe that it is important to believe the truth or, in other words, that orthodoxy (defined as "right thinking") trumps faith (defined as "what you believe to be true"). He says there that I believe that "spiritual bankruptcy" is necessary to get to salvation, and I can't disagree (nor, it seems, does Christ in the Beatitudes). There's no point in trying to argue these issues. Here is what I wanted to comment on.
Nothing in Pastor Shuck's original post comes out and says that Christ sacrifice was unnecessary.
I don't mind being disagreed with. I don't even mind being misrepresented. (I have never suggested that Christians must all submit to a 7-day, 24-hour Creation to be considered orthodox or believers, for instance.) I would suggest that you revisit Pastor Shuck's post. I think you will find that he specifically says that Christ's sacrifice was unnecessary. Actually, what he says is "I and I imagine others have let go of the need for substitutionary atonement." He is arguing that Christ did not die for our sins because substitutionary atonement is a myth (and he argues elsewhere that neither did He rise from the dead) and that this story along with much of the Bible is myth.

While one might argue that "a group of people culturally linked by an eastern mindset" might be "free to take some liberty with details in pursuit of a larger truth", it seems that the "larger truth" of Christianity is precisely that Christ died for our sins. Shift it to metaphor or mythology if you like, but that is the undeniable message of the New Testament ... that is being denied by John Shuck.

And that is my objection -- not detail, but the primary message. Remove the Cross as essential and the Resurrection as important and you remove the Gospel in its entirety. It's not in the details; it is the message of the Bible and Christianity. Remove it and you remove any distinctive in Christianity whatsoever -- and, of course, any reliability to the doctrines of the Bible. In other words, folks, go there, and you're on your own. I'm not saying, "Don't go there." I'm saying if you do go there, don't call it "Christian."

(And may I say, in passing, that it is an honor to be noticed by someone as important as Street Prophet?)


I am not a conspiracy buff. I don't buy into the "CIA wants to read your thoughts" alarms or really believe that the government has a covert base with aliens on it. In fact, you have to go a long way to convince me about almost any of the popular conspiracies that are floating about. So this is very painful for me to write. But ...

Why is it that there is so much on TV about homosexuals? More to the point, why is it that the constant, unabating message thrown over and over and over again at me in sitcoms, murder mysteries, and TV movies is "homosexual is normal and there's nothing immoral about it"? Every character that is against homosexual behavior is a loon, a psychopath, a dangerous or dubious individual. Many of them are supreme caricatures of the "religious right." In fact, almost as often as I get a message on TV about how there is nothing wrong with two people of the same gender having sex with each other, I get a message that all religious folks are crazy. Very often the message goes hand in hand.

I don't seem to be able to escape this constant barrage. For instance, Wednesday night there was Bones on Fox, a series about a forensic anthropologist who helps the FBI solve murders by examining bones. Last night's episode was about a murder in a church cemetery. And only a fool would believe in an invisible Being you couldn't touch, taste, or hear. What idiots, these believers in the supernatural. The normally capable FBI guy that handles the tough work was constantly belittled because he believed in God. Really intelligent people, you see, know better. What theism had to do with a forensic anthropologist solving a murder I don't really understand. It looked to me like gratuitous insults. Then there was Crossing Jordan, a series about a Boston medical examiner (Jordan Cavenaugh), and the murder cases the ME's office gets involved with. In this one, a murdered mother had her unborn baby cut out. Gruesome, to be sure. Why? Well, as it turns out, a whacko religious group hates homosexuals, and this mother was one. It was almost amusing to me the way that the "righteous" characters (the ones not against homosexual behavior and the ones who had no religious beliefs), bandy about Scripture references to put those nasty religious people in their places. (I bet you could guess one of them without even trying. "Judge not that you be not judged." Yeah, that had to be in there, ripped out of context, misused and abused.) This one was particularly gratifying because it hit both of the issues. It told us that homosexual behavior is perfectly moral and religious people are nuts. And that's just from what I saw in one night.

I don't like to think that there's an actual concerted effort here. And maybe there isn't. But I've heard too many times that there is nothing at all wrong with homosexual behavior and not even once that it might be immoral to think that it's an accident. And if I could find a religious character who is not portrayed as a loon, I might think that there was just an imbalance. But there appears to be no one who is willing to express the true Christian view on the topic or to portray a Christian as a thinking, caring individual. The only views we get expressed on the topics at hand are anti-Christian. In the Jordan episode last night they even clearly and cruelly mocked the tagline of so many, "Hate the sin, love the sinner." Yeah, that can't happen, right? Only a crazy person would suggest it could.

I spend a lot of time defending my faith. I have to provide reasons for what I believe. Those who disagree don't really have to offer rationale because, well, they're in the majority, and the majority rules. So it's only doubling the effort when I not only have to defend what I believe but also have to fend off what I don't believe. And when they gang up on us, making what appears to be a concerted effort to lie about our beliefs, our character, our perspectives ... well, I can see where those folks under the altar (Rev. 6:9-10) are coming from.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Have Nothing

Many churches today are working on being "irresistible", or, at least, acceptable to the people around them. Their goal is noble: Reach the lost. Megachurches have sprung from this approach. Bill Hybels built Willow Creek from this approach. Rick Warren actually went door to door in his community asking marketing-type questions about what they did and didn't like about churches and what would make them come. He grew Saddleback Community Church to over 50,000 folks with that strategy. And others are hot on their tails, trying to emulate their success.

One of the first things to come off the sermon topic list was "sin". Jesus said, "Men love the darkness" (John 3:19), a way of saying that no one wants to hear about their indiscretions and how they need to change. Everyone knows the annoyance of the stereotypical mother who is always nagging her adult children to change, to be better, to fix this or that in their lives. No one likes that. No one. So what do we do instead? That's easy. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace ..." (Gal. 5:22). Who doesn't want to hear about love, joy, and peace? "I will ask the Father, and he will give you a Comforter" (John 14:16). Who isn't happy to hear about a Comforter? "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:4). Is there anyone who doesn't like gifts?

There really is a lot of "good news" in the Gospel. Forgiveness, restoration, new life, friendship with God, the power of God at work in us, oh, the list goes on and on and on. And to ignore or slight these is to miss the point. There's just one catch. These are not the starting place.

The rich, young ruler came to Jesus and asked for the good stuff. "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 18:18). Good work! You've recognized that Jesus is good. You've recognized that He's a teacher. You see that He has the answers to life in general and eternal life specifically. Excellent! What does Jesus answer? "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Luke 18:22). The man came to Jesus full. He had his own righteousness. He had money. He had everything. All he wanted was to be sure about the hereafter. Jesus told him that the thing that was required was ... emptiness. That the young man lacked.

Jesus told a famous parable about two people who went to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Before we dismiss the Pharisee, look a little longer. We've come to think of "Pharisee" as "hypocritical", perhaps even "legalistic". Jesus, however, had lots of good things to say about them. He had bad things to say, too, but lots of good things. Look at the real goodness of this Pharisee's prayer.
"God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." (Luke 18:11-12).
Sure, sure, it's arrogant, but not as arrogant as it looks at first glance. He's doing all the right things and he's proud of it, but look what he says at the beginning: "God, I thank You that I am not like other men ..." He was proud, but proud of what he perceived God had done in his life. What's wrong with that?

Jesus said of the tax collector whose only prayer was "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" , "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other" (Luke 18:14). What was the difference? The Pharisee was full. He had what he needed. The tax collector was bankrupt.

This is the recurring theme of the Gospel. Yes, yes, yes, there is much good to commend it. We should know, appreciate, enjoy all of it. But the first requirement of coming to Christ is spiritual bankruptcy. The first requirement is a hunger and thirst for righteousness because we have none. The first requirement is the real and awful recognition of our sin and its horrors to God. The first requirement is "Nothing in my hand I bring; Only to Thy cross I cling." So when we try to make our churches more acceptable by leaving aside that particularly noxious topic of sin, we leave aside the first step. Without bad news, there can be no good news.

Does your sin bother you? If it doesn't, have serious questions about your spiritual state. Do you think that you are morally superior to others? Perhaps you haven't recognized the depths of your own depravity. Do you think that unpleasant things shouldn't happen to you? Perhaps you're not clear on where God found you. Worse, maybe He hasn't. We must enjoy the good news that God has given, but it starts with a true realization of the bad news of our sin. Remembering will teach us gratitude and humility and contentment and patience. Now who doesn't want all that?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Science is the Answer

Okay, that was a very short post and I've seen so much of this of late that I had to publish this as well.

Over at Moral Science Club in the comments to an article about abortion, an anonymous commenter says, "Why do we keep on trying to use religion to guide people's behavior when we have science?" This isn't a unique perspective. While you would expect this to be the position of laboratories and institutions of "higher learning", I've also seen it postulated by "pastors" and other "church officials". Somehow along the way much of our world has decided that "science" is the measuring stick by which all things are determined. Not only does science determine what is true about the physical universe, but it is also the decision maker about what is true about the supernatural (which, scientifically, is dismissed), the psychological, religion, and even the moral universe. Oddly enough, not even scientists seem to catch the nonsense of such a position.

Science is defined primarily as any kind of objective knowledge. That, of course, is the broadest definition. More accurately, science is the systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. According to Isaac Newton, it is predicated on gathering observable, empirical, measurable evidence, subject to specific principles of reasoning. Science is based in the natural world. Since the supernatural, by definition, is outside of the natural world, science can have nothing to say about it. Still, it tries. If it cannot be observed or measured, it doesn't exist. Science has spoken. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. And no one can offer a single, reasonable link between observable, empirical, measurable evidence and morality. If it is observable, empirical, measurable evidence, then it ceases to be morality and changes instead to pragmatism.

The basic requirement of science is that the information must be based on observable events that can be verified by other researchers operating under the same conditions. This, by definition, eliminates the concept of a "miracle." A miracle is defined by the dictionary as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause (Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006). An event that "surpasses all known human or natural powers" cannot be verified by other researchers operating under the same conditions. Ergo, it doesn't exist! This, of course, is nonsense. The inability of a particular method to test for something doesn't define that something's reality. If something is defined as a singular event, a method that requires repeatability cannot have anything to say about that event's existence.

According to wikipedia, "Scientists never claim absolute knowledge of nature or the behavior of the subject of the field of study." This is because of the nature of science. The scientific method is always open to falsification. The idea of scientific study is to verify or falsify ideas. As such, science ends up quite subjective in many areas. Just listen to the news sometime to see what I mean. Eggs are bad for you. Oh, no, eggs are good for you. Drinking coffee is bad. No, it is actually good. Chocolate is bad for you. What we meant to say is that chocolate can save your life. Even the "knowns", like the Law of Gravity end up less than perfect. When approaching the speed of light, gravity approaches non-existence. Oops! So much for that Law. So how is it that a field of study that is defined as constantly in flux and readily falsifiable becomes the standard by which all truth is known?

I don't mean at all to denigrate science. Science has its great value. Science has a long history. Plato and Aristotle were early scientists. China is known in ancient times for inventing things like the compass and gunpowder. Mathematicians in India had models of our solar system centered around the Sun as early as the 6th century. The Scientific Revolution took place in the 16th century, starting with men like Copernicus and Galileo, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica laid the groundwork for such givens as the Law of Gravity and the Laws of Motion. The thing to note in this revolution, however, is that most of its participants were Christians. Their idea was simple. If God is a rational being, then His creation ought also to be rational. As such, we should be able to study His creation and figure out how it works. The idea was "thinking God's thoughts after Him," a line by astronomer Johann Kepler. Newton believed that his book would lead people to believe in God. Modern science, then, has its origins in a Christian worldview. Discarding this view has not made science more stable or reliable.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who argued, much to the delight of atheists everywhere, that the existence of God cannot be proven. To the chagrin of said atheists, Kant also argued that if there is no God, there can be no grounds for morality. For morality to have any weight, there must be justice. If you look around, you must admit that justice is not always served. Therefore, for morality to have any weight, there must be ultimate justice. For there to be ultimate justice, there must be an Ultimate Judge. This Judge must possess certain characteristics. He must (quite obviously) be absolutely just. He must be above any moral failure Himself (Good). He must know all the facts perfectly (Omniscient). He cannot be able to be swayed by outside influences (Immutable). He must be able in all cases to carry out the sentence (Omnipotent). And so on. I think you begin to get the idea. If we eliminate God in favor of science, we will have a dandy sense of what goes on in our world. Well, our physical world. Well, somewhat of a dandy sense, since what we know is constantly changing. And that's how science is supposed to operate. It's an excellent way for human beings to understand their world. It is a perfectly awful way for human beings to determine whether or not something exists beyond the natural world or whether or not something is moral or ethical. These things fall outside of the realm of "science". In answer to the question at the outset -- "Why do we keep on trying to use religion to guide people's behavior when we have science?" -- it is because science has nothing to say about guiding people's behavior, and using science for that purpose eliminates morality and justice, a result we cannot survive.

Solar System Warming

In an earlier (and clearly less than serious) article, I suggested that we should execute those of us responsible for Global Warming. Well, it appears that the problem is worse than we suspected.

It appears that NASA has discovered (or rather known for years) that the polar ice caps of several planets, dwarf planets, and large moons in our solar system are shrinking. I've seen reports from 2001, 2003, and 2007 documenting the decline of the Mars ice caps. Wow! Apparently the middle class, SUV-driving, fossil-fuel-consuming, refusing-to-recycle United States has a larger impact on the universe than we had originally imagined! Not only are we destroying our planet. We've managed to warm the solar system.

And while I might question this source, it still makes me wonder: Why is it that the leadership of the middle class, SUV-driving, fossil-fuel-consuming, refusing-to-recycle United States hasn't made their own move to alter their lives to fix this crisis? Consensus aside (because, as has been pointed out by multiple sources, "consensus" is not science -- ask Galileo), if this is such a crisis, why is it that those who are so convinced that it is such a crisis aren't acting on it themselves yet? If it is true that you always act on what you really believe, one has to wonder ...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What Truth

I've already mentioned John Shuck, a Presbyterian pastor in Tennessee. So please remember when you read this that it isn't about John Shuck, but the ideas in question.

He has decided to preach a sermon about how "Good Friday" was not good, and how the cross is not good news. In his article, Good Friday is Not Good, he gives this summary of the concept of substitutionary atonement:
Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden. In so doing they sinned. They committed the original sin. By sinning they dishonored God and could not be in God's presence. So they were cast from the garden. Not only that, but their sin was transmuted generation by generation. All humanity, by nature of its humanity, is in a state of sin. They owe a debt to God that they cannot pay. Humans owe the debt but only God can forgive the debt. But God just can't cancel it. So God becomes human. Because Jesus is born of a virgin, he is not tainted by human sin. Jesus, the God/human cancels the debt by dying on the cross taking the sin of the world onto himself. Jesus is substituted for us. All who believe in this story have their debt of sin cancelled. They get to go to heaven when they die. All who do not believe in this story are still in their sin. They get to go to hell.
We'll leave off the juvenile "believe in this story" approach. Any Christian knows it is not "believe in this story", but "faith in Christ" that saves. But we'll move on. He tells us how he came to the conclusion that this story is not valid:
I think ultimately, it was Charles Darwin's theory of evolution that put this dogma in the museum of "fossilized beliefs that once were interesting." If humans evolved from lower life-forms and over billions of years of evolution, then the Adam and Eve story is obviously a myth.
We are fortunate to have science along now, the god of this age, to correct any foolish notions that religion might have had. Heaven and Hell, "in the image of God", and all that nonsense is fortunately available for discard, or, as he puts it "in the museum of 'fossilized beliefs that once were interesting'."

Finally, on the meaning of the cross, this is what he comes up with:
The cross symbolizes the meaninglessness of terror, cruelty, and violence for which there is no answer. If the cross is to mean anything for us today, it is that it represents the absence of goodness. It is the horror of humanity's crimes against humanity.
I know that Christians everywhere would like to respond with ire and Scripture. Don't bother. If Adam and Eve are myths, and the Resurrection is a myth, if essentially all those Bible stories are fabrications made simply to make a point, not to express truth, then arguing that the Gospel consists of Christ crucified and resurrected won't carry much weight. Save yourself the effort.

I don't seem to be able to gather the ire that perhaps I should. There is no outrage in me. I'm saddened that someone who calls himself a "Christian pastor" has decided to toss out everything that makes it "Christian." I'm disappointed that someone who associates himself with a major church organization like the PCUSA does so with complete disregard for what the PCUSA claims to believe. To me, the honest thing for people who disagree with the stated beliefs of an organization would be to leave that organization, not attempt to subvert its beliefs. And I'm confused with this position at all. If there is no need for atonement, by what means do we suppose that we can be right with God? If we just "want to" and God chooses to accept that, in what sense can He be called "just"? And if "science" is the determiner (by the way, most of science has discarded Darwin's theory of evolution because it just didn't work), how are we to determine anything at all? Science by definition is constantly in flux, finding, correcting, changing, discovering. How can we know anything if that which is our prime source is constantly shifting? It's all painted very nice, but it's all so confusing when you give it any thought.

I'm not angry with Pastor Shuck. I'm saddened by his position that eliminates anything "Christian" from Christianity. I'm disappointed by his dishonesty as a "Presbyterian" who disavows Presbyterian theology. And I'm confused by his ideas which seem to leave me with fewer answers than before. But I suspect that there would be no dialog in cases like these. I'll just be labeled "intolerant" or "narrow-minded" or some other name for believing that the Bible is actually the Word of God and science might be wrong and the discussion would end. It's sad. I know that "the truth shall set you free", but I can't figure out how this "truth" frees anybody.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why I Am A Calvinist

Why am I a Calvinist? Many people would assume that I am a Calvinist as a product of bad teaching or poor upbringing. This would be a mistake in my case. I was raised in a good, standard, Dispensationalist, "Arminian" home. I put "Arminian" in quotes because I never thought of myself as an Arminian. I believed I was a Calvinist because those rotten Arminians believed you could lose your salvation, and I didn't. As it turned out, I was a 1-point Calvinist and a 4-point Arminian ... as I suspect a lot of you are. (And even that one point wasn't accurate.) So it wasn't upbringing or early teaching that got me here. No, it was much worse. Truth be told, I am a Calvinist for two reasons. First, I was dragged away from my original upbringing, kicking and screaming, by Scripture and evident reason. What could I do? But, second, I found that, once here, I didn't want to leave.

What Scripture and evident reason pushed me into this perspective? The easiest, clearest, first, and least surmountable was the declaration that Man is evil at his core. So insurmountable is this that most "Arminian" (I'm trying not to use the term in an insulting sense, but just as a denominator, so to speak.) statements of faith include it. It doesn't take a Calvinist to see that "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Fine. We're all in agreement. The problem, unfortunately, is that we aren't. As I looked into this condition of Man, I found that very few viewpoints were taking it into account. I believed like most of you that the Holy Spirit "woos" unbelievers, "calls" to them, tries to win them over. I believed like most of you that we had to first place our faith in Christ ("Accept Him as your Savior" was the phrase) and then we would be born again. This faith was something that we came to, something that we found once we had received sufficient enlightenment to recognize our need and His sufficiency. Nice. But none of this took into account what the Bible had to say about our natural condition.
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it (Jer. 17:9)?

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:9-12).

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:5-8).

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14).

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience -- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph. 2:1-3).
And this is only a partial list. Let's face it, folks, the Bible paints a pretty bleak picture of Man in his natural condition. And yet, when I started looking into what I believed, I found that none of what I had been told took this condition into account. If the idea was that I could eventually become enlightened enough to the truth and place my faith in Him, how did that take into account that the only intention of my heart was evil, that my heart was deceitful and sick, that no one seeks for God or does good (Isn't accepting Jesus "doing good"?), that the flesh has no capacity to do anything that might please God, that natural man cannot understand spiritual matters? And, of course, there was the worst condition -- dead. I asked people. "What does Paul mean by 'dead'?" They told me, "Oh, that means spiritually dead." So, if we are, because of our sin, spiritually dead, by nature haters of God, what must occur to make us willing to lay down our arms against God and receive His gift of His Son?

"Oh," they told me, "'dead' doesn't mean 'dead-dead'." (Seriously ... that's what they told me.) "Just because you're dead in sin doesn't mean that there's anything actually dead." Yes, that's what I was told, and that's what I believed for a long time, but it became impossible to hold this bizarre position ("The Bible says 'dead' and we believe 'dead', but it doesn't mean 'dead'."). So I was forced to surrender to the weight of Scripture and conclude that natural Man is dead in sin, inclined only to evil, and completely without hope unless God first installs a new, living, spiritual nature in him.

Of course, the "evident reason" that went to work was that if the first point -- "the Total Depravity of Man" -- was as true as the Bible seems to say, then the rest must follow. God wouldn't choose to save dead people for any conditions in them; He must do it for His own good purposes (AKA Unconditional Election). He would insure that Christ's death actually accomplished the salvation of those whom He chose to save (AKA Limited Atonement). When God chose to save someone, there would be nothing that could withstand His decision (AKA Irresistible Grace). And those whom He chose to save and paid for in full would certainly be maintained to the end (AKA Perseverance of the Saints). I found that the logic was unavoidable, and that Scripture seemed to hold it up. So, I was convinced by Scripture and by evident reason to be a Calvinist against the "norm" and against my upbringing. I was dragged into this kicking and screaming, so to speak.

Then I found that I didn't want to leave. You see, nowhere in Christianity is the grace and sovereignty of God more emphasized than here. If Man is as bad as Scripture says he is and as much without hope as we believe he is, leaving him only with the option of being transformed to new life apart from any choice or any merit within himself, that is grace of a magnitude that I didn't previously comprehend or appreciate. And if it is God's choice, not Man's, that is a sovereignty I didn't see before. It is this grace and this sovereignty that I don't want to leave. To me, it's a scary world if we are the deciders. So many Christians see God as a "hands off" kind of God, letting us choose what we will and hoping (and, to be fair, working so) that we will come to Him. He's a "gentleman", almost but not quite a hostage to the sin that has beset His creation. He has a plan to overcome it in the end, but so few people are cooperating. Eventually He'll just end it all. That God terrifies me. I prefer the God who "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11), who accomplishes everything He intends (Job 42:2) -- the Absolute Sovereign. That's where I find my comfort in times of difficulty and doubt.

Why am I a Calvinist? I am a Calvinist because it's what I see in the Bible. I'm a Calvinist because it makes sense. I'm a Calvinist, finally, because it provides me with a bigger image of God, a smaller image of me, and the highest comfort in tough times. So ... what have you to offer?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Where Your Treasure Is

Jesus told us something that no one can really dispute. "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21). In other words, your passions and intentions will be aimed in the direction of those things you value most. Not a difficult or even particularly Christian concept. It's simply a truism.

It is a useful truism, however. We are not always clear on what we value most, but we can use this little truth to give us clues. Do you pursue those things that are best for people around you or for yourself? That should tell you about what you value more. Do you work hard at getting more stuff or do you work hard at giving more? That's a clue to what you value more. Are you primarily concerned about health and comfort or about doing what God wants of you regardless of your feelings about it? That's a giveaway as well. Look what Paul said:
7 Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith -- 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained (Phil. 3:7-16) (ESV).
(I told you we'd come back to this.)

The question I started with was "Where is your treasure? What do you value most?" Paul's answer is simple, yet stunning. The only thing that he counted as valuable was "knowing Christ Jesus" (3:8) All the things that Paul had -- breeding, education, connections, power, zeal -- he placed in the "liability" column of his life. The only thing in the "asset" column was "knowing Christ Jesus." The only thing that he could add to the "asset" column was knowing Him better. And it wasn't the joy or comfort of Christ that Paul sought to know better. He wanted to know the power of His resurrection (3:10), but for what end? Well, Paul really wanted to know Christ in His suffering (3:10). He wanted to "share His sufferings" and become "like Him in His death" (3:10). The reason Paul wanted to know the power of His resurrection was so that he could become perfect by dying to self and rising to Christ (3:10-12). Paul's ultimate value, his real treasure, was knowing the suffering of Christ and the power that would follow to make Paul not only righteous through faith (3:9), but righteous in action (3:16).

So we ask ourselves, "What do I treasure?" Paul treasured knowing Christ and His suffering. He lived it ... dying for it. He clearly demonstrated where his heart was. I suspect that our treasures aren't nearly as noble. I suspect that we suffer from selfish treasures. We want to be comfortable knowing that this life is "but a vapor" (James 4:14). Foolishness. We want to be healthy and wealthy, knowing that these things are temporal. Nonsense. We do not want to suffer at any cost, although we know that trials produce in us perfection (James 1:2-4). I suspect that Paul was speaking to too many of us when he wrote, "If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you" (3:15). Perhaps we need to realign the things we treasure the most. Maybe then we'll see the realignment of the heart that we know we need.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Will He Find Faith?

I am loath to attribute the following statements to their maker. The duty to properly attribute statements to their proper source forces me to do so, but understand that the source is not the issue. When we make the source the issue, we miss the point. This is not intended as an attack on the source, but a discussion of the ideas and their ramifications.

On his blog, "Shuck and Jive", Pastor John Shuck of Tennessee asks the question, "What if we found the body of Jesus?" He concludes that it would be irrelevant to Christianity:
Critical study of the Bible and the study of comparative religions have combined to shatter the historicity of the resurrection. I would guess that many who call themselves Christian regard the resurrection symbolically. For many of us, the resurrection is a myth or a metaphor.
No question. No doubt. The resurrection is a myth, and any thinking person knows that. History proves it. The Bible says it. What are you thinking?
While I believe the gospel accounts of the resurrection are more in the realm of fiction rather than history, I find the risen Christ a valuable symbol or perhaps archetype.
The biblical concept of the resurrection of Christ is only a symbol, a metaphor. "He lives within my heart." There is no reason to believe He actually rose from the dead.
If resurrection simply referred to the resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus as a matter of history, then the resurrection would not be a matter of faith. I don't "believe" that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It is a fact of history that be documented by evidence.
Indeed, if the Bible documents the physical resurrection of Christ and you believe it on that basis, it isn't faith. Documentation is "evidence" and things believed by "evidence" are not things believed by faith. Thus, the Resurrection would not be a matter of faith. Think, people, think!

This post is a product of an article I read from Jim Jordan over at Moral Science Club, but it's also a product of my thinking of late regarding our "improved Gospel", the question of a trivial resurrection, and the decline of the church in our time. I guess we've pretty much determined that we can say whatever we want about Christ and Christianity as long as it makes people more receptive to our message. The real issue isn't that God became flesh and dwelt among us, dying on the Cross on our behalf, and rising again. The real issue is to make nice people out of bad people. The real issue has nothing to do with "born again", "spiritual life", "a new creation". God is not in the business of making dead people into live people. He's in the business of making unhappy people into happy people and immoral people into more moral people. Don't get all bogged down in that Bible stuff. It's metaphor, myth, mystery, not Truth. All we really need to be concerned about is that people be nice to other people, and that people are happy and psychologically healthy. Oh, and give to the poor. That's important. This post is a product of the concern I share with Christ: "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8). Indeed.

Pastor Shuck, Bishop Sprong, and the like notwithstanding, it is not true that the Resurrection is a trivial issue, that the Resurrection was not physical, and that it doesn't matter. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). Paul bases his position not on mere conjecture or pure, unsupported "faith". (In fact, "pure, unsupported faith" doesn't exist biblically.) He bases his position on facts.
I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
Paul says, "This isn't minor. It is the essence of the Gospel: Christ died and was raised." He goes on to say, "Don't believe it just because I said it. Believe it because of the witnesses. Hey! Go ask them! There was Peter and the others. There were more than 500 eyewitnesses to His Resurrection! Yes, some of them are dead, but not all. Ask them! I saw the Risen Savior! Don't believe it without evidence. Believe it because of the evidence." John says the same sort of thing.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands ... (1 John 1:1).
"We're not telling you stuff we 'believe'. We're telling you stuff we've seen, heard, touched!"

You may choose to believe that the Resurrection is a metaphor, that it didn't actually happen physically. If you choose to do so, you choose to reject all the eyewitness accounts. You choose to call those who speak of touching Jesus after He rose again as liars. Their accounts of speaking with, hearing, touching, and eating with a Resurrected Savior are lies. They based their lives, their reputations, and the subsequent faith of all followers on lies. We can disagree on the exact content of Communion. We can disagree on the precise mode of Baptism. We can disagree on the sequence of events leading up to the Return of Christ. There is lots of room for discussion and valid disagreement. But denying the Resurrection of Christ, according to the Bible, is a denial of the Faith. It removes any reliable source for Christian belief and eliminates any reason to believe that Jesus actually conquered death on the cross. It makes Him a mere man, a feeble attempt at making an earthly government who failed miserably and died for his troubles. To all of this I would urge, "Let God be true though every one were a liar" (Rom. 3:4).

Friday, March 23, 2007

More Religious?

I recently heard a conservative radio talk show host argue with a caller that American is more religious today than it was in the 60's. He said that there are more Christians, more religious people than ever before. He said that Evangelicalism didn't even exist back then. Is it true that America is more religious now than it was in the 60's?

I'm not so sure, just from history. The term, "evangelical", as it refers to a body of people, was used first in the 1500's in reference to the Lutherans as opposed to the Calvinists. It was expanded to include all Protestants. In the 19th century it began to be used as it is today to differentiate between religious liberals and conservatives. The basic definition of "Evangelical" as a group included the belief that the Bible was reliable and was the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice (sola scriptura). It included an emphasis on a "born again" experience, encouraged missions work, and focused on the saving work of Christ on the cross. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) began in 1942 as part of a drive to counter the loss of influence of biblical Christianity as shown in, for instance, the Scopes Trial of 1925. The World Evangelical Alliance formed in 1951, joining believers from 21 different countries. So, historically, the fact is that Evangelicals have been around for much longer than the 1960's.

Iain Murray's book, Evangelicalism Divided, discusses the history of Evangelicalism for the latter part of the 20th century. His book details the decline of Evangelicalism. Replacing this original drive for sola scriptura and the doctrines that follow, neo-evangelicalism has taken hold in America and elsewhere. In an effort to be acceptable, the more conservative Christian groups have compromised their doctrine, as explained in Dr. Murray's book. So while there is, perhaps, a larger set of "religious people" today, they are the watered down version, the "acceptable" type.

The largest problem with the concept that America is more religious today than it was in the 60's is the Bible itself. Jesus made a stunning statement that is often overlooked in our drive for converts. "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matt. 7:12-13). Both the gate and the way that leads to life, according to Christ, are narrow. While America enjoys "many Christians", Jesus's assessment was "There are few who find it." While 65-75% of Americans claim to have had a "born again" experience, Paul suggests that "the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor. 1:18).

Some think that Christians have more power and more numbers today than ever before. The Founder of Christianity says, "Few will find it". I am concerned that there are many who will face Christ on the Last Day, happily assure Him that they did much for Him, and hear, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matt. 7:23). It is my goal to make sure that I am not one of them, not deceiving myself, and that you might be careful to check on yourself as well.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Intelligent Design

A while back I heard this brief outline of the argument for Intelligent Design. It went like this. If you are on a hike and you come across a rock, you think, "Oh, look, a rock." You hike on further and you find one rock on top of another. Do you think "Oh, look, what an interesting natural formation" or do you think someone put it there? How many rocks do you have to see piled on top of each other before you begin to think that someone is doing it?

The rock explanation was just an illustration when I heard it. In my recent travels, however, I actually found it. While the Earth has multiple places like this, we traveled through separate places that had rocks piled on top of each other in a way that was just staggering to behold. Going from San Diego to Arizona, you pass through a mountain range that I think is called the Laguna Mountains. A good part of these mountains are ... well ... bizarre. They look like some super giant race backed up some super giant dump trucks and poured out boulders that made mountains. These mountains look like huge debris piles of boulders. I can't find any logical explanation for it in science. And some of them are balanced so precariously that it looks like the tiniest breath of wind would bring them down. But they've been there for as long as history can record.

Okay, so we move on. Going on out I8 to I10, we come to a small Arizona town called Wilcox. Just outside Wilcox you come across this strange and extremely brief area with rocks sitting on rocks sitting on rocks. They too are balanced in impossible ways. There is no reason, it seems, for these massive boulders to still be sitting on top of each other ... unless Someone had done it on purpose.

I know, I know ... this isn't the best argument for Intelligent Design. I just found it amusing that I found in nature two real examples of the simplistic explanation that someone gave me a while back. I have a much harder time, looking at these huge rocks balancing precariously yet unmovingly on each other, saying, "Wow, what an interesting natural formation" than "Wow, tell me there is no Designer!" Indeed, I know the Artist.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Accusations of Politics in Washington

Okay, I'm confused. What is it that has the Bush haters in such an uproar now? I'm trying to figure out what went wrong here.

I'm sure you all know the story if you're following the news at all. Democrats want to subpoena high ranking people in the White House for a public interrogation on the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys. Congress is calling for the resignation of Alberto Gonzalez, who had publicly admitted that the situation wasn't handled correctly. The accusation is that it was a political move.

So, I looked up a previous Attorney General, Janet Reno, Bill Clinton's Attorney General. Did you know that shortly after taking office in March, 1993, she fired all U.S. Attorneys? Some questioned the move. It looked a lot like partisan retaliation for investigations into friends of President Clinton. Oh, wait, that's what the accusation is regarding Paul Charlton, U.S. Attorney for Arizona ... except Charlton is one man, and Reno fired them all. Oh, you remember Reno. She deported Elián González, refused to investigate the campaign finance fiasco in 1996, and was the one in charge of the Branch Davidian disaster in Waco. Tell me again ... why wasn't she fired?

So, the Department of Justice fired 8 of their U.S. Attorneys. Apparently that is a criminal act or something. They don't get to fire attorneys. Certainly not for political reasons. It is nonsense to think that the people who work for the president's administration (whoever that president may be) should be "on board" with the president whom they serve. All presidents are required to keep on all U.S. Attorneys, regardless of their performance, persuasion, or politics. If it means that they scuttle administration, so be it. This is politics, people! Politics should have nothing to do with it! Oh, wait ... that makes no sense.

Is there any wonder why I'm confused here?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Choose a Gift

In the movie, Open Range, the doctor's sister wants to give the cowboy who is about to go out and get himself killed a token of her affection. She presses the locket into his hand, but he hands it back. "I can't take it." She makes a fascinating remark. "It's not your choice when it's a gift."

What a unique idea! You see, the common perspective is that we have to choose to receive a gift. But this simple character in this certainly secular movie begs to disagree. She believes that a gift given is a gift given, regardless of the choice of the person receiving it.

What gifts do I have in mind? Well, there are a few. First, there is the gift of Christ. Of Him, Isaiah says, "Unto us a Son is given" (Isa. 9:6). There is little doubt that Christ was a gift from the Father. Do we have the option of refusing that gift? I mean if we don't choose to accept Him, is He any less a gift to us? Okay, that one is hazy. How about this? Scripture speaks of faith as a gift. "To you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil. 1:29). To the Romans Paul says, "God has allotted to each a measure of faith" (Rom. 12:3). These are just a couple of the places we find this. Peter writes his second epistle "to those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours" (2 Peter 1:1). Faith is a gift. Now, while I would without a doubt argue that we choose what to do with this gift, I am asking if we get to choose whether or not to receive it.

Indeed, when we begin to think about it, the list gets long. Life, breath, family, friends, food, shelter ... just about anything you care to name is a gift from a gracious God. Do we get to reject them? We don't, for instance, actually have the power of life and death. That belongs to Christ (Rev. 1:18). We don't choose our families, and no matter what we choose to do with them, they don't stop being our families. We might choose to forego food or shelter for a time, but unless God is granting us death (another gift we cannot choose to refuse), only for a time. The Bible even calls suffering a gift to us, the will of God, His purpose, a product of His love for us. We don't get the option of refusing that one, although most of us would.

I don't know. Many people place a lot of emphasis on our choice of whether or not we receive the gift of salvation. But John says this:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).
If, as most believe, that "received Him" is a product of our choice, then it's not entirely accurate to say, "nor of the will of man." On the other hand, "It's not your choice when it's a gift," perhaps we're giving Free Will too big a part in this equation.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Democracy for All

We're still in Iraq today because we're trying to stabilize the situation so democracy can take hold. However, there are questions about whether Iraq (or most other Middle East countries) can handle democracy. What does it take for democracy to work?

There are a couple of fundamental necessities for the successful operation of a democratic country. The essence of democracy is "one person, one vote", but there is, in that simple concept, a deeper implication. "One person, one vote" assumes that everyone will abide by that. It assumes that no one will override the outcome by force. It assumes that the people doing the voting are people who are willing to acquiesce to the will of the majority. In other words, for democracy to work, there has to be a willingness not to be selfish. This problem is only exacerbated when it comes to the real government we enjoy and are hoping for in Iraq -- a republic. In this form of democracy, the "one person, one vote" only goes so far as to elect representatives. The people then must be willing to bow to the results of that vote and to the choices of those limited representatives. Alan Coren said, "Democracy consists of choosing your dictators after they've told you what you think it is you want to hear." While that is a bit more cynical than I am trying to get across, you get the idea. For a country to operate as a republic, the people of that country must have an underlying morality that allows, even encourages them to surrender their desires to those of others. It requires a high level of trust and a low level of self and aggression.

America, when it was established, was a place ripe for such a government. And it has served us very, very well. When we came to be a nation, we were very Christian, and these requirements are very Christian. "Let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Phil. 2:3-4). "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves" (Rom. 13:1-2). "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). And this has been recognized for some time regarding the moral necessity in democracy. Karl Marx suggested that when people in a democracy discovered that they could vote themselves money, they would bankrupt their country. Bill Murchison wrote, "No morality, no democracy. It's as simple as that.

So the question for Iraq is do they have the moral values required to sustain a democratic government? It's hard for me to say from here. If we based our answer on what the media is telling us, the answer would be a resounding "No!" From all appearances they live in a purely dog-eat-dog, "looking out for number one" world. That kind of societal morality cannot support democracy. So it looks bleak for Iraq.

But the real question to me isn't there; it's here. We've watched a radical decline in our own morality in America. Part of the Puritan Work Ethic, for instance, was "What can I provide to help my neighbors?" Now it's "What can I do to make me more money?" Patriotism, high moral values, a sense of the divine, these things are all on the decline and all very necessary for democracy to function. Indeed, I'm not really sure if, were we to be trying to establish democracy in America today, we'd have the fundamental moral basis to sustain it. Once established, there is momentum, but how long do we have before the momentum is lost and the moral decline overrides it? Already loud voices are trying to shut up those who disagree. We've condoned as a nation the murder of millions of unborn babies because of the whim of mothers. (Talk about an "Inconvenient Truth".) Minorities, illegal aliens, and the like all have protection, but Christians are considered open targets for insult and castigation. It won't be long (relatively speaking) before the moral system that established this country is outlawed by this country. Then where will we be?

I think it is a valid question whether or not Iraq can handle democracy. Do they have the moral core required for such a government? I am equally concerned about my own country. I'm not so sure that we are sustaining a sufficiently moral core to sustain our own democracy. Where will that lead us?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Missed Messages

Odd. Somehow, somewhere along the way, certain items became taboo in the Church. First is the mind. The popular Church has grown largely anti-intellectual. "Think not" would be their cry, it seems. Oh, they do it with words from the Bible. "Lean not on your own understanding," they say, "which means you're not supposed to use your brain." "We walk by faith, not by sight," they say, "and everyone knows that 'sight' refers to 'logic'." There is a rampant distrust of learning, scholars, higher education, or "too much thinking." I'm sure most of us have heard the phrase "too heavenly minded to be any earthly good." That's the concept.

With the ejection of the mind comes the castigation of tradition. Now, the Roman Catholic Church regards tradition as equal to (or perhaps higher than) Scripture in authority, but Protestants have rejected tradition wholesale. With it goes Church History and anything else that smacks of "that was then." I was stunned, for instance, to read at Monday Morning Insight that the author was delighted that people who liked traditional church were completely repelled by his church, as if "traditional" was evil and "new" was good. Perhaps it's a late date backlash to Roman Catholicism's view of tradition as authoritative, but it's amazingly pervasive in the non-Catholic churches today.

There are more, mostly accompanying these two big ones, but these two are particularly disturbing to me. They are disturbing because they stand in stark disagreement with the Bible. On the use of the mind, for instance, the Bible is not vague. It is part of the Great Commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37). How, then, are we required to neglect the mind? After 11 masterful chapters from Paul on Christian doctrine to the Romans, he concludes that we should, in response, offer our bodies as a sacrifice to God. The first step in this process, he tells us, is "the renewing of the mind" (Rom. 12:2). How then are we to neglect the mind? Over and over Scripture calls for us to change how we think. God Himself offers to reason with us (Isa. 1:18). How, then, are we to neglect the mind?

As for tradition, despite the Roman Catholic over-stating of its importance, the Protestant removal of tradition is not a biblical position. While Scripture condemns "traditions of men" which clearly countermand biblical teachings, Paul says, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us" (2 Thess. 3:6). It is not, then, "tradition" that is the problem, but the source of that tradition.

We are living in a post-modern society that holds to relativity. This relativity holds that there is no truth. Instead, what you feel is important. And, following with that, much of the Church has rejected thinking in favor of personal enlightenment. And while our American society worships youth and rejects tradition, it appears that, again, the Church is following closely with the world's perspective. Is it a good idea to reject thinking and tradition? Ask the older generation. You see, the Bible teaches that we get wise teaching from them. Maybe we should listen?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

You Shall Be Holy

We have a good God. He has promised us peace that passes understanding, love that we cannot comprehend, joy that isn't of this world. He is the definition of good. So it isn't too surprising when we begin to think that it is His primary goal. God wants us to be happy, to be whole.

That thought, however, is shortsighted. The Bible says something different. We are only visitors on this planet, just passing through. We are ambassadors from another kingdom. And we have a calling: "You shall be holy for I am holy" (Lev. 11:45). Jesus repeats the demand in Matthew: "You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). Funny thing, though ... as much as we are eager for comfort and wholeness, we don't seem too eager to pursue holiness.

In a passage (that we will need to examine more fully later) in Philippians, Paul speaks of perfection:
12 Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect , but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16 however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained (Phil. 3:12-16).
Isn't it interesting? Paul says that he hadn't attained perfection, but goes on to say "as many as are perfect, have this attitude."

There is a sense in which we have not arrived at perfection, and there is another sense in which we are perfect already. The "already" is a positional perfection, a judicial perfection. We have been declared righteous by God. Now, we know that we aren't practically perfect yet, and this is the perfection Paul says he hasn't attained.

In verse 16, Paul says "Let us live up to what we've already attained." In other words, "You've been declared holy, partakers of the divine nature, perfect in Christ; now live it!"

There is a sense in American Christianity that we are to move away from "works". It is a reaction to works-based salvation. Unfortunately, works are a primary message of the Scriptures. Fortunately, the works -- the practical holiness -- to which we are called are a product of changed lives. So be sure to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure" (Phil. 1:12-13). Ask yourself, "Am I pursuing happiness ... or personal holiness?" If you're at all like me, I fear the answer will be convicting.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Traveling Mercies

It's not an uncommon phrase. "Let's ask God for traveling mercies on this trip." So I had to ask. What do we mean by "traveling mercies"? I mean, think about it. Mercy means justice suspended, so to speak. It is a punishment withheld. What does that have to do with traveling? Grace, on the other hand, is an undeserved kindness. "Traveling grace" makes sense. We would like God to protect us on the trip -- a kindness we don't deserve.

I have decided, in reflection, that my objection is to be rescinded. It is a product of a standard view we all carry around, whether or not we admit it, that we're basically good people. Christians especially think "I deserve ___" and fill in the blank with good things. After all, we're God's children, God's special chosen, God's adopted. What's "mercy" got to do with it?

The truth is simple. When Adam ate the fruit in the garden, had God terminated human life at that moment He would have been perfectly just. Ever since then, if God were to terminate anyone at any time, He would be perfectly just. We are sinners. Christians have been declared just by the work of Christ on the Cross, but we are sinners. We know this because none of us has yet arrived at perfection.

So if God were to kill me on a trip across country and give me eternal life on the other side of my death, it would be great mercy and grace. Real mercy, then, is when I survive another day. Real mercy is when I take another breath. And the fact that we returned from our trip safe and sound is indeed "traveling mercies".

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Traveling Fool

So we just spent the last couple of weeks traveling. We did a road trip from southern California to Louisiana and back. You'd be surprised at the variations in landscape that occur in that limited space. Long roads through varied deserts (yes, deserts vary). Unique mountain structures. There are some mountains in southern California that look exactly like massive dump trucks offloaded piles of boulders and some in Arizona that have impossibly balanced rocks. Then there are the vast forests of eastern Texas and Louisiana, a radical change from the deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the rest of southern Texas. One is struck with the sheer size of the country and wonder how anyone could have predicted back in the 70's that the world would be overpopulated by the year 2000. Apparently those guys didn't get out much.

The more interesting variation was the people. Southern Californians tend to keep to themselves. They aren't hostile or anything, but neither do they tend to acknowledge your presence. Contrast that with the walk my wife and I took in an Alexandria, Louisiana neighborhood where the occupants of cars driving by waved a friendly greeting and one neighbor came out and invited to have us join him in a jog.

Going across this southern portion of the country, I got a glimpse of our Border Patrol dollars at work. We had to have gone through half a dozen Border Patrol inspection points. In only two (actually, only one, since we went through it twice) was there actual activity. In this one in Arizona (both times through), there was an agent with a dog randomly sniffing at cars and another making eye contact with each and every driver before waving them through. In the rest, it was ... nonsense. In most cases there was a stop, but no agents there. Instead they were all clustered off to the side someplace ignoring the vehicles passing through. In one it was actually appalling what we saw. An agent was there in the inspection booth, hand in the air with a "go ahead" motion swirling around. She never once looked up from the book she was reading. You could have passed through with a bus labeled "Illegal Aliens Bus Lines" and she wouldn't have seen it. She was intent on the romance she was reading or whatever. Now, I have a great deal of respect for the job that the Border Patrol does, but this didn't exactly inspire me.

And I have discovered the real money-making job to get into: road work. Everywhere we went there were roads under construction, destruction, repair, rerouting, something, all the time. The poor you always have with you, but road work will be an eternity of employment. But I am not actually complaining. Much of those that were not under repair should have been.

What was really remarkable was the people on this trip. We visited with Holly and her husband and the grandkids. That was nice. In the Dallas area we visited with cousins in Plano, third cousins twice removed in Flower Mound (yeah, we did the math on that one), old friends from California who had moved to McKinney. In Louisiana we got to spend several days with my grandfather and his wife. Now, as I get older, "old age" seems to move, but I think these two qualify no matter what at 90 and 88. I was reminded of my own mortality, realizing that one never knows from one day to the next who will be here tomorrow. But most of all it was the people on the trip itself. My wife and I enjoyed the traveling company of my parents. These are godly people, very generous and loving and a joy to be with. My mother and I enjoy a highly unusual relationship in that we share a passion for God. Many of our discussions were on Him and His Word. How many sons have that privilege with their mothers?

One other observation/question: What is up with gas prices? When I started this trip, I paid $2.29 a gallon for regular gas here in Arizona. Now, comparing apples to apples, my last fill up was $2.67 a gallon. That's a lot of change in a short time. Worse yet, in California it was $2.97 a gallon (at the cheapest spot). (Most places I saw were $3.19 a gallon or more.) So what's with this "cross the California line and save 30 cents a gallon"? Oh, wait, I get it. California pumps and processes their own oil. No, wait ... that should make it cheaper there than anywhere else. I'm telling you, folks, I just don't get it. This kind of stuff makes me lean toward the conspiracy theory approach.

Well, it was a good trip. I thank God for traveling mercies (a phrase my mom and I discussed at one point ... and you might hear about in the coming days). I thank God for family. I thank God for home. And it is a very nice country in which He had me be born. Thanks for that, too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The God Box

It is my sneaking suspicion that many of us have shortchanged God. It's an easy, essentially human thing to do. We begin to think that, since we were made in His image, He must be like us. God had to warn people off that notion more than once. He used Balaam the prophet to tell Balak, "God is not a man" (Num. 23:19). He used the prophet Samuel to tell King Saul the very same thing (1 Sam. 15:29). He tells the wicked, "You thought that I was just like you" (Psa. 50:21). It's an easy mistake, underestimating God. And my second suspicion is that this is a dangerous mistake. If idolatry is defined as "worshiping a false image of God", and our mental image of Him is a false one, are we committing idolatry? And it doesn't take a Bible scholar to figure out what God thinks of that particular sin.

The big item that occurs to me in this is the general perception that God is a "nice God". We tend to think that God's highest concern is our happiness and wholeness. We think that God doesn't do "mean" things, things that we would classify as harsh, painful, unpleasant. We put God in this "nice" box ... and then find that it is a contradiction of God's Word. He's not there.

When the evil of 9/11 occurred, Christians rose up to defend God. It was actually stated by prominent Christians, "God is a gentleman; He does not interfere." And we all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that God would never allow such a thing. It's evil Man's fault. That we can deal with. It's sin in the world, not some plan of God. So when a Hurricane Katrina strikes with devastation, not evil, they step in again. Now, your insurance policy calls such things "acts of God", but well-meaning Christians assure us that God didn't have anything to do with that either. No, no, it's just nature, not God.

Apparently no one bothered to ask God. He doesn't seem to mind at all taking credit for such a thing. He tells Israel, "I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these" (Isa. 45:5-7). Well-meaning Christians declare, "Natural disasters are just that -- natural" and God taps them on the shoulder and says, "No, I did that." And we've misjudged God. Well-meaning Christians point to the fallen towers and say, "God is a gentleman", but the Bible says, "The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Prov. 16:4). Paul claims that God "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11). And while we would agree that God doesn't cause evil, God is quick to caution us that He can use it if it accompllishes that which suits His will. "Oh," we say, "but surely God only wants us to be happy and comfortable." The idea doesn't play in reality or in Scripture. Instead we are told, "For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:6). It's hard to fit that into our pleasant little "nice God" box.

There are things we know, and things we infer. We know that God is good, but we infer that this means that He does only "nice" things. God's idea of "good" is far more expansive than ours can be. What is "good" to God is not our normal thinking, and how God achieves it is not our normal thinking. As a result, we stand on the verge of being idolaters worshiping a false god that we think is the God of the Bible but is actually only a god of our incorrect inferences. We need to let God out of that box, to allow Him to be God. Instead of conforming Him to our image, we need to conform our thinking to His image. I suspect that when we do, we will find a God far greater than anything we had imagined.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Partakers of the Divine Nature

1 Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ:

2 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 3 seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.

5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.

10 Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; 11 for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Peter 1:1-11).
I'm just coming off Peter's epistles. (If you were paying attention, you might have noticed.) This passage is stunning, for multiple reasons. Look at it for a few moments. It's worth it.

I'd like to grab a phrase and examine the area around it to flesh it out. Now, you be good Bereans and check me, but I think this is correct. The first phrase is "partakers of the divine nature" (1:4). Now, before we get crazy and think, "Oh, we become little gods" (because some lunatics think that), let's not go there. The phrase is a reference to the amazing benefits all who "have received a faith of the same kind as ours" (1:1). It refers to the Spirit of God within each of us. It refers to the mind of Christ that we enjoy, the work of God in each of us "to will and to do His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12), the power of God at work in us (Eph. 3:20). It refers to His divine power that "has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness" (1:3) But when we see the phrase "partakers of the divine nature", I think the impact should be sufficient to shake the popular but ridiculous notion of so many that it's possible to be a Christian and have no effect on your life. That's just not possible.

So, what is it that makes us "partakers of the divine nature"? Follow it closely, because the answer is astounding. According to Peter it is "through the true knowledge of Him" (1:3). That's it. No secret plan. No careful process. No "12 steps" or any such thing. When we truly know Him we become partakers of the divine nature. So when we have a relationship with Christ, that, alone, is all it takes to bring us under the divine influence, the power of God. It is not possible to avoid it. And it is not possible to come away from such a thing unchanged.

This is why ("For this reason") Peter tells the results of this fact -- a change in behavior. Our characters are changed. "Peter says "in your faith (the starting point) supply ...". Indeed, he says to be diligent about it. No, not merely diligent. In all diligence. Listen carefully. Peter is saying that because you are a partaker of the divine nature, you need to work. You need to work hard. Add to faith. Construct a whole list of character traits. Now, remember, you're doing it because (as a result of) you are a partaker in the divine nature. But be diligent to supply these traits in ever increasing amounts.

I think that's important. Don't anticipate perfection at the start. Be diligent to add these things in small amounts. Add a little at a time. The point is not instant perfection; the point is an ongoing process of working to add these.

The other phrase is in verse 11: "Entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you." First, it is future tense. We understand that we "have been saved", but we most often forget that we "will be saved". How is it, though, that entrance will be supplied by Christ? This is assured if we are "diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you" (1:10). If you make that certain, then we will be supplied entrance into the kingdom. And how do we make certain? By being diligent to add these character traits. And on what basis do we add those traits? On the basis that we partake in the divine nature. And how do we partake in the divine nature? We partake in the divine nature by knowing Him. In other words, if you know Christ, He supplies everything pertaining to life and godliness ... right where we started.

It's a false belief that someone can know Christ and not be changed. It's a false belief that the Christian life is without demands. The demands of Scripture are not small, but the resources to those who know Christ are not small either. You must be diligent to add to your faith, but it occurs because we are partakers of the divine nature. It just doesn't get much better than that.

Monday, March 12, 2007

When Hope Seems Lost

There are times in my life when, examining the world around me, I get nigh unto despair. Sorry. I spent the last week in Louisiana. There are times when I approach the feeling of hopelessness. Look around. Mothers are leaving children. Fathers are leaving children. Marriage is in disrepair. Children are being abused. Families are dissolving. Divorce is on the rise. What hope is there?

Look around long enough and I begin to feel, "What's the use?" How will the families of tomorrow survive? How can kids raised in divorce, abandonment, abuse, and worse grow up to have healthy, happy families? Worse, how can people whose idea of "father" is "that guy who beat and humiliated and raped me all my life" come to a happy, proper relationship with our heavenly Father? It can all seem so hopeless.

And then I remember two things. The first is the construct of the human being. It seems, against all odds, that even though humans are desperately evil, there is encoded in their DNA the truth about such things. While children may be raised in horrendous situations, it seems that, under all the horror, they still know what a good parent looks like. They may not have experienced one or even seen one, but they still know what it looks like. A good parent listens, cares, loves, provides -- all the things that God does for us. And they know what they need to do to be that good parent. They may not do it, but they know it.

And the second is like unto the first ... likely because they're closely interrelated. The second is the biggest because it is the character of God. Knowing that God designed us, knowing that He is Sovereign, knowing that He is good and will always bring about the best, we can relax when things look hopeless. That's even bigger than the nature of the human being.

It's true in many cases. God is the answer. And when I start to feel like things cannot possibly work out, I am reminded once again that the Maker of the Universe causes all things to work together for good. Life gets bizarre, and is often unpredictable, but God will always do what is right. That's something on which to place my hope.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Trivial Resurrection?

There is no small fervor over the reports that there is proof that Jesus outlived the Crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene, and had children (a marginally popular anti-Christian story line that has surfaced multiple times in recent years, as in The DaVinci Code and others). Christians are upset. Anti-Christians are gleeful. And the "thinking" ones are saying, "What does it matter? It makes no difference to Christianity if Jesus actually rose from the dead or not." To which I reply, "What are you thinking???!!!"

The argument that someone has DNA evidence to prove their story is too ludicrous to imagine. If forensic experts have bones and no comparative source -- no reference -- the DNA from those bones will be unidentified. Since Jesus never provided a DNA sample, it is utter rubish to say, "Aha! We've found his DNA." So let's not get our knickers in a twist. No thinking forensics person would buy the story, let alone an archaeologist with any modicum of intelligence. It's a non-story.

What is a story is that there are people out there claiming to be "Christian" who deny the Resurrection, or at least marginalize it. "It's not important." Let's look at the steps one must make to get there.

First, let's be clear. Most of those who are claiming that Jesus was married with children are not claiming that He was a father, at the young age of 33, left a widow and child. They are claiming that he survived the crucifixion (if it ever actually happened at all), lived on, married, had kids, and died of at a ripe old age. This isn't a denial of the Resurrection. It's a denial that he died for us.

Beyond that, though, we have a ways to go to get to their position if we go with a real crucifixion and death. We have to believe that We are not saved by Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, it was His sacrifice on the cross that saved us. That sacrifice was sufficient. (Teaser question: On what do we base that conclusion?)

Now, Paul makes it clear that "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, and your faith also is vain" (1 Cor. 15:14). So while we might agree that His sacrifice alone was sufficient, it would appear that 1) Paul (and the other New Testament writers) believed Jesus rose from the dead, and 2) it wasn't a minor issue.

"That's okay," they tell us. "Jesus simply rose spiritually. There need be no physical resurrection." That's a nice original approach, but we're it hasn't answered the problem. Paul and the other New Testament writers are not ambiguous. Jesus didn't rise spiritually; He rose physically. "That's okay," they tell us. "You see, they were simply confused. What actually happened to Jesus's body wasn't known."

Do you see how far we've come? What do we have now? Let's take stock. Well, those writers were understandably upset, so they couldn't be relied on to give accurate accounts. That means that your Bible shouldn't be trusted, which is fine with most of those who are going along with this.

But here's the rub. What did the physical resurrection of Christ prove? Paul says it foreshadowed our own resurrection. That's not trivial. But it also declared to the world that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was sufficient. If Christ did not rise, then it simply showed that he was a misguided soul who died for a cause. What a shame. If He rose from the dead, then it shows that the sacrifice was sufficient! "But, we don't need that," they would complain. "The Bible says that it was sufficient." But didn't you just tell us that the Bible shouldn't be trusted?

There is too much at stake to surrender the physical resurrection of Christ. It was declared in the Gospels, defended by Paul, and a key point since. It is a fundamental difference between Christianity and every other religion. It goes to the core of Christianity and the reliability of its source book, the Bible. It is so important that I don't believe that a person can deny the Resurrection and still be considered a Christian.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Tough Read

John's first epistle is perhaps the hardest book in the Bible for me to read. Oh, there are difficult books. Wading through Leviticus isn't easy. Psalms is pretty easy, but very long. Hebrews takes some effort. But in terms of the "rake in the face" effect, 1 John is the toughest for me. You know the "rake in the face" effect. You're walking peacefully along, no worries, and then you step on that hidden rake in the grass that whacks you in the face. That, for me, is 1 John.

The epistle is full of "ifs". An "if" is a conditional statement. "If this, then that." There is a sense in which the book is a test. "If" you pass the test, you're in. If not ... well, you don't want to fail this test. But part of what makes this book so difficult to read is the apparent benevolence for which it is written.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).
It doesn't get much better than that. John wrote this letter to believers so they would have assurance that eternal life was theirs. How nice! And then you begin to read by what measure John helps Christians be assured.

If you walk in the light (1 John 1:7).
If you confess your sins (1 John 1:9).
If you keep His commandments (1 John 2:3).
If you do not love the world or the things in the world (1 John 2:15).
If you do not practice sin (1 John 3:9).
If you have the world's goods and help your brother (1 John 3:17).

This is just a sampling. It is very "works" oriented. And the standard is very demanding. Now, none of this suggests that salvation is achieved by works, but it is quite clear that those who are born of God are radically altered, a change that is clearly reflected in how they live their lives. John flies in the face of the popular belief that one can come to Christ, be saved, and come away unchanged. It just doesn't work that way for John.

This epistle is a hard read. One needs to be careful when reading it. There are two probable errors of extremes. One extreme is to toss it, basically. "Oh, John's not saying anything of the kind. If you read it that way, you're reading it wrong." There's just no avoiding it. John is using the works of the person in question as an indicator of whether or not they actually have a functioning relationship with God. That ought to be a sobering thought in everyone's life. John's epistle should be hard to swallow, because the way is narrow.The other error is to take it to the other extreme. It's possible to overreach with this book. It's possible to demand perfection and perfection only. That is also a mistake. Be careful not to read that into 1 John, because it's simply not there.

I recommend the book with care. But I admit it's hard for me to read. I haven't arrived at perfection, and I'd like to. Not in this life, I suspect, but it would be nice -- the sooner the better.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Truth in Advertising

Advertisers are required by law to tell the truth about their products. Realtors are required by law to tell you the downside of the particular property you are looking at. Oh, they can tell you all the positives, but if they don't tell you that this brand new kitchen is a result of a nasty fire 3 years ago, they've violated the law. Yet, it seems, Christians aren't required to tell the truth about the gospel. Why is that?

We're quite good at "Come to Jesus and He'll solve your problems." We're heavy on "love, peace, joy." We're happy to tell people about how God can solve their marital difficulties and fix their financial problems and heal their physical infirmities. And while I suspect we might oversell these a bit, I still think we're basically being honest. However, in our glee to share all this happy information, we are careful to avoid certain promises from the mouth of God that don't "sell" too well.

Paul wrote, "To you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Phil. 1:29). How nice! We have the immense privilege of believing in Him! (Of course, many think it is their divine right, but we won't go there right now.) And not only do we have the immense privilege of believing in Him; we also have the immense privilege of suffering for His sake! Now, how often is that included in our altar calls?

Jesus said some marvelous things in John 15. He told us to abide in Him and bear fruit. He told us these things "that your joy may be made full" (John 15:11). He speaks of loving one another. He tells us we are His friends. He tells us He chose us. All such wonderful stuff. So why is it that we seem to close out the chapter in our messages just before He gets to the other promise?
"If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, `A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well" (John 15:18-24).
There's a grand promise. "They hated Me; they will hate you." It is followed by a more grand promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit, but we seem to miss this promise from Christ that we will be persecuted.

This recently came home to me in reading through 1 Peter. Peter is a fiend for suffering. He mentions it again and again. Don't be surprised. Expect it. We were called for this purpose. It is God's will. And I think, "Why don't we notice this?"

Sure, it's not a "selling point", but Jesus told His disciples that before they followed Him they should "count the cost". Shouldn't we be telling prospective disciples the same thing? Aren't we obligated to tell the truth? Sure, there is comfort beyond compare in our suffering, peace that passes understanding, the Spirit Himself within, but if we don't tell people it's coming, they are likely to be victims rather than disciples. Shouldn't be telling the truth in our advertising of the gospel?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Medium and the Message

Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar, wrote, "The medium is the message." McLuhan believed that the content of the message wasn't nearly as important as the medium by which it is conveyed. I suspect there is more truth to McLuhan's perspective than we would immediately recognize.

According to recent studies, it is suspected that one of the leading causes of and major reasons for the radical increase in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) among children is television. Children's health organizations are now warning that children before the age of 3 ought not be subjected to any video screens whatsoever. Others are saying that it should be severely limited prior to the age of 5 years old. Why? It isn't the message. It's the medium. Children in their early years of development have brains that are also developing. Television short-circuits that development. The rapid flashing images, the completeness of the medium (that is, the sound and sight), and the multisensory overload causes these developing brains to be damaged and makes for a higher demand of stimulation as they get older. Thus ... ADD. There are multiple problems, all brought about by allowing young children to watch TV. And that's completely apart from the content of the viewing. But it's not just children. A recent study said that the adult brain is more active when you are asleep than when you are watching television. Why? Again, not the content, but the medium. The television provides almost no room for mental activity. You aren't filling in an blanks. With a book, for instance, you are drawing the pictures in your mind. But with television the medium fills in all the blanks. And, of course, there is the simple mathematics of time. If the average television time is 6 hours a day, what are they not doing during that time? What more constructive, more beneficial, more valuable things could be done in that spare time that is consumed instead by nearly useless sitting and staring? Without even considering the content, the medium of television is a problem. The medium is the message.

There is another medium that bears its own message. This medium has an almost magical capacity to bypass the thinking portions of the brain and go directly to the emotions. It can almost cause physical movement without conscious attention. It can alter moods, going from content to angry or from angry to calm, just be being present. The content of this medium isn't nearly as effective as the medium itself. That medium is music.

Music is an amazing invention of God. As early as Genesis 4 musicians are mentioned in Scripture. David's first claim to fame was the music he played that calmed King Saul's evil spirit. Music was part of the fabric of the first Temple, and music was part of God's plan to bring down the walls of Jericho. Music is an amazing invention of God. It is also a powerful tool. Tools, by their nature, can be used for various purposes based on the one using them. Music, too, can be used for various purposes. It can calm the savage beast or raise a riot. It can lead you to sublime peaks and plummet you to depression's deepest valleys. It can bring a tear to your eye or a smile to your lips. Music is a tool, and failing to recognize it is like playing with a running saw. It might do something good, but it's more likely going to hurt someone. And while very, very few people seem to realize it, rashly applied music is very capable of hurting someone.

I did a little research and was interested in what I found. According to wikipedia, rock and roll music originated in the late 40's. This is the period immediately following World War II -- the period immediately following the creation of the group of people known as "teenagers". And this type of music was a product of teenage angst. The undeniable underlying thought in the music was sex. Indeed, wikipedia says, "The term 'rock and roll', which was black slang for sexual intercourse." Everyone knows the phrase, "Sex and drugs and rock and roll." The music is designed to appeal to the appetites, and it does it well. It appealed to the rebellion in youth, and it did it well. When it lost its shock value, it morphed into new forms, with shock as their appeal. Punk, rap, hip-hop, "alternative", they were all designed to express largely the discontent and anger that the youth have toward society.

Now we carry this musical message into our churches. We borrow the back beats and rythms and scrape off the old words, substituting praise, but the medium hasn't changed its message. It still aims its appeal at the senses. And somehow we're fine with that. Sensual music is good. It helps us praise God. It lifts our spirits to Him. We are completely unaware, it seems, that this is definitely a case where the medium is the message ... and the message doesn't match the intent. Are we sure this is the route we want to go? Is this actually the kind of music that we believe God enjoys? There is a wide variety of choices out there. I'm just wondering ... is the world's sensual rebellion the best we have to offer God?