Worldviews, Worship, and Wineskins

The Gospel at Work in Every Context

The American Church: Media Victim?

Say the words “church” today and, depending on your hearers, one of several images will enter their minds.  This is because the church is diverse. Fifty states, diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, diverse cultural backgrounds, diverse theological emphasis. Many people view this diversity as evidence that the church is not unified, and therefore its foundational claims are false. This is a non-sequitur, and while some disunity is negative, the diversity in the American church today can be viewed from the positive end of things as well: in gospel centered Christianity, we are united on essentials and (on our good days) gracious when it comes to non-essentials.  The current generation of churches, in fact, have moved in a decidedly “non-denominational” direction, in part because of the bad taste of unneccessary division in decades past. But I digress…

The ugly version of the church that is so beloved by the American media is a straw-man. Not that the church is without its problems, but when public perception of the church is fed by news stories of only the worst actors in the church (think pedophiles, gay-bashers, con-men and the like), and the good stories are ignored, the result is a skewed understanding of who the church really is.

The ugliness is there, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen it and, to my shame, contributed in some ways. There are evil men in church leadership. There are prideful wolves with dubious motives, heads full of knowledge and hearts full of greed. There are those who have an overdeveloped “us vs. them” mentality. There are those hypocrites who are content to have cute religious gatherings with music and give not a care to the broken world of poverty and pain outside the walls of the church. There are all of these things and more, including the unholy alliance of “evangelicals” to unsavory political characters. But those things aren’t new, nor are they the end of the story.

There are also redeemed souls who, while not perfect, are the essence of Christ. They are humble, kind, and forgiving, because they have been forgiven. There are salt-of-the-earth men and women who faithfully and selflessly serve their congregations and communities for DECADES with little thanks and no expectation of earthly reward. I know them. Norm, Jerry, Suzy, and dozens of others who simply follow Jesus because they have been transformed by the power of his life in us.

There are young people, too. Not enough, but they are there: bright and full of potential, signing away their culturally perceived rights to earn a comfortable lifestyle in exchange for serving Jesus in the third world. I know a young man who has funded several of his own trips to Lesvos to assist refugees fleeing from ISIS. I know a young mother who had it made as a real estate agent, and left her home and extended family to establish an eco-farm in rural Cambodia. I know a young couple who left their familiar surroundings to learn Mandarin and share the love of Jesus in Taiwan, and a Woman who spent close to twenty years ministering to poor people in central China.

The dramatic stories of overseas missionary sacrifice sometimes eclipse the ordinary, stateside brilliance of Jesus-followers together, but they are there as well.  Families who host soup kitchens, week after week, year after year. Couples who foster and adopt. People who give generously, no, scandalously because they have been freed from greed and believe sincerely that nothing belongs to them. Pastors who labor in small churches for years with no expectation of increased pay: many need to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.

There are more than anecdotes: there is statistical support to show that Christians and churches generally make a positive impact on their community.  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/03/31/what-do-churches-contribute-to-the-community/

Once upon a time, this was common knowledge.  That’s one reason why churches have always been tax-free in the United States. Is it any wonder that when public opinion turns against the church, the voices calling for the end of church exemption get louder and louder?

Let’s not be naive.  The church has always enjoyed unpredictable popularity. We have rightfully earned the skepticism of those outside. A group of people associated with the Spanish inquisition (however loosely) should be. So what if the majority of us are decent, hard-working people who give back to the community? Even on our best days, Jesus promised that the world would hate us…(John 15:18). Why wouldn’t the stigma of our past and present shame hang over us?

We can’t be too concerned about public opinion. I have encountered people who would craft the strategy of their outreach based on the perception of the community. This, I believe is a mistake. We are to serve Christ first and let him take care of our reputation. What if we are misrepresented?  “Blessed are you when others revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

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The Well-Tuned Car and the Awful Driver

Some general observations on politics:
Conservatives emphasize personal responsibility. We need that. Liberals emphasize social responsibility. We need that too.
Conservatives celebrate the hero. Heroes deserve recognition. Liberals are advocates of the victim. Victims deserve an advocate.
Conservatives love freedom. Liberals love safety. Whether we can have both is debatable.
Both conservatives and liberals have faith in mankind: liberals have faith that man is essentially good. Conservatives have faith that man will fail us at every possible point.
Because of this fundamental disagreement on the essential goodness of man, liberals and conservatives will always be at odds. Here’s how:
Liberals will constantly blame the system when things don’t go right. Sometimes the system is to blame, but usually it’s individual people that are to blame. The liberal approach to politics has typically been to grow government programs in order to address problems that are fundamentally human: laziness, greed, selfishness, racism, hypocrisy, etc. This approach is like getting a mechanic to fix a perfectly good car when the problem is the driver. Conservatives aren’t above the problems of humanity (laziness, greed, selfishness, hypocrisy), but they generally recognize that the solution is not to set up a government program, vis-a-vis Mrs. Clinton; “I believe what we need in America today is more love and kindness.”
Certainly we do, Mrs. Clinton. But the Federal government has an abysmal record of dispensing love and kindness, unless you mean dollars and cents.
This political cycle doesn’t promise to provide us with a viable conservative answer to Clinton’s saccharine plan for improvement of the human condition. In fact, even when conservatives had everything they wanted, (during the Reagan administration), the country was still plagued with problems: laziness, greed, selfishness and hypocrisy. Even if we contend that the economy was growing under Reagan, we must ask: is economic stability and growth the final measure of human flourishing?
My point is this: the human condition is not bettered when we have more money and live longer, but when humans behave betterly. (I would prefer a full life of fifty years amongst fine, upstanding people than eighty with scum, wouldn’t you?) But there has never been a system of government that has been able to address the poor behavior of humans. We have tried rehabilitation of every kind: education, housing programs, youth enrichment programs, vocational assistance and government health-care. Have we succeeded? Is there less racism today than there was twenty years ago? Is there less violent crime? Less tax-fraud or embezzlement?
Liberalism and humanism tout the grand achievements of mankind: discovery of DNA. Manned missions to the moon. The erradication of smallpox. What we have failed to do is to master the human soul. Along with our lofty achievements, we have managed to devise huger and more efficient ways of destroying one another. The industrial revolution wasn’t the next step forward in evolution, it only magnified the existing potential of mankind: both for good and evil. And 200 some-odd years later we are in the same place as ever–trying to fix the car when the driver is the problem.
What then is the answer? The only avenue to alter the human condition is to change the affections and motivations of the human heart. The Jesus of the Bible offers the only solution to the broken human heart: be born again. With Jesus, it might not even matter what car we were driving (which political system we use to get along). Communism would work, if the communists were hard working and honest. Capitalism would work, if the capitalists were generous instead of greedy. Democracy would work if the democrats weren’t corrupt. Anarchy might even work, if the anarchists were well behaved and kind! But there is only one person with the power to make those kinds of people: Jesus. And the offer of heart change only comes on his terms: absolute surrender! Will you surrender to him today?

Created to Worship

worship-black-whiteHumans are made to worship. You can see this played out everywhere there are people. We worship the sky, the sun, animals, statues…even each other. Even in this day, when our culture has largely lost the concept of worship, we still worship. Money, celebrities, classic cars…all these and more have the power to absorb our attention and affection. Carl Sagan, celebrated host of the original “Cosmos” series demonstrated a visceral awe at the created universe that has been called Pantheism. That’s worship. Even the Humanist movement, which is blatantly non-spiritual, worships the human. Have you seen “Interstellar”?

What the Bible shows us is that we don’t truly understand ourselves; truly find ourselves until we find the proper object of our worship. The Apostle Paul, in Acts 17 publicly spoke to the Athenians gathered at the Areopagus. They were professional worshipers, crafting idols to represent every conceivable deity under the sun and above it. They had even set up a shrine to “the unknown God”, just so they wouldn’t offend anyone by leaving them out. (Picture your grandmother at Christmas, trying to make sure all of the grandchildren have received equally valuable gifts.)

Referring to that shrine, Paul said “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it…made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.”

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.

Worship is that the heart of who we are. We cannot deny the impulse to lose ourselves in awe and wonder. The promise of the gospel is that when we find the proper object of worship (or rather are found by him), we are complete. This is why in scripture we are warned so consistently against idolatry. Its like God is saying “I am actually not far from you. Don’t settle for that counterfeit!”

Not only does idolatry rob you and I of the fullness of life that comes when we find the proper object of worship, it grieves the heart of God. Picture a husband or wife cuddling up to a picture of their spouse instead of the living, breathing version. (This shouldn’t be too hard, since pornography creates the opportunity for that scenario). Doesn’t it strike you as absurd? The spouse who is left out may experience feelings of jealousy. This is God when we pour our affections out on something other than him: the jilted spouse.

That isn’t to say that there is no space in the Christian life for relationships, pursuits and interests other than Christ. The healthiest married couples do not live in a social vacuum: they enjoy other friendships, good books, and hobbies, all in their proper context. God made pleasure. He made us in such a way that we would enjoy a sunset over the mountains, but he intends for the awe that is generated to be channeled into worship for Him, not worship of the sun. God made us artistic beings, but we should not worship the art. He made food for us to enjoy, but we should not worship our stomachs. He invented sex, but it was intended to reflect the intimacy we might have with him; not replace it.

In short, “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Much of our confusion, dysfunction and pain comes from worshiping the gift instead of the giver.

 

Choose Your Battle Wisely: Self or Society?

I heard an earth-shattering observation that concerns the two main approaches to life in Western society. According to the observer, religious communities generally raise children to believe that man is basically evil and the purpose of religion is for for man to battle the evil in his heart. Communities that raise their children in the absence of religion tend to emphasize the need for change in society rather than the need for personal change. The battle, according to this theory, is either within oneself, or without.

While we can grant that there are exceptions to this rule, it seems to be a great way to begin to explain many phenomena in American culture. Can you find religious groups that are interested in making an impact in society? Certainly. Are there non-religious folks who emphasize self-help? Of course. There will always be outliers, but the theory is a helpful tool in understanding competing worldviews in the mainstream.

Call me cynical, but each approach offers false hope. The child who was reared in religious circles often finds himself disillusioned with the church (or whatever tradition she was raised in). In spite of all his effort, he is no less sinful than he was last year, or the year before. Likewise, the social activist will often run out of steam when his ideals are rejected at the polling station…or when the ideals are implemented, but fail because of the human element.

Which philosophy is right? Is it the human heart that needs correction, or society? Where is the failure?

In short, both. While a multitude of societal ills would be cured if real heart change has occurred, Social Action is not necessarily a bad thing. It just seems to treat the symptom rather than the disease. But neither approach (self-improvement or social action) will work. If you have not been down one of these paths and found yourself exhausted and disillusioned, you need only look to history and see the legions of examples of folks who have failed to improve the individual or the group. Real change begins with the heart. If my own experience is any indication, the human heart resists change like water resists oil!

Historically, how can one change the human heart? The Bible says that we are born into sin, powerless to change the evil inclinations that are part of the fabric of human souls. We are cursed. The only hope is for something more powerful than evil to work its power from within. This isn’t possible by imposing an ethical code! Good preaching cannot change the heart! Good education and social reform have proven powerless in the battle against evil–just look at crime rates in communities with lots of social programs.

What must we do? Jesus was sent to defeat the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). He once told a prominent wise man that the only way to see the Kingdom of God is to be born again (John 3). The only agent of change in the human heart is its creator. How is this different from battling the evil in our own hearts? Self-improvement is a scam. God’s improvement comes with the promise of power, renewal and love. And when individuals are transformed by God’s power, societies tend to change as well.

10 Myths About Missions

Courtesy of The Gospel Coalition:

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/10-historical-myths-about-world-christianity

Jennifer Roback Morse lectures on sex and sexuality at Harvard University

WINTERY KNIGHT

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse

Dr. Morse delivers a talk based on her book “Smart Sex” at Harvard University.

The MP3 file is here. (21 Mb)

Topics:

  • the hook-up culture and its effects on men and women
  • cohabitation and its effect on marriage stability
  • balancing marriage, family and career
  • single motherhood by choice and IVF
  • donor-conceived children
  • modern sex: a sterile, recreation activity
  • the real purposes of sex: procreation and spousal unity
  • the hormone oxytocin: when it is secreted and what it does
  • the hormone vassopressin: when it is secreted and what it does
  • the sexual revolution and the commoditization of sex
  • the consumer view of sex vs the organic view of sex
  • fatherlessness and multi-partner fertility
  • how the “sex-without-relationship” view harms children

52 minutes of lecture, 33 minutes of Q&A from the Harvard students. The Q&A is worth listening to – the first question is from a gay…

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Denton on Explanatory Power of Evolution

Michael Denton, in highly technical terms, questions the explanatory power of evolution for speciation…as far as i can tell.  He explains that while microevolution, which is an observable process, is a scientific certainty, the transitional forms which would provide supporting evidence for macroevolution are absent.  He also appeals to several examples of complex biological processes and abstract biological features which provide no survival benefit, bringing into question the possibility that they developed in response to survival pressures.  This is the first in a three part series.

http://inference-review.com/article/evolution-a-theory-in-crisis-revisited-part-one/

Objections: Can the Bible Prove Itself?

creatoin-of-man

Part 1: “Unity in Diversity”

It’s as if he were saying, “I’m speaking to you on every available frequency.  Are you listening?”

The last post briefly surveyed the evidence that the Bible we read today is essentially the same as it was when it was written. That makes it a collection of Reliable texts.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the events reported in the original manuscripts were real.  Is it possible that the Bible we have today is an entirely accurate reproduction of ancient fraudulent documents?  Could the events reported in the Bible have been fabricated?  If so, Christianity is the greatest hoax ever to have been perpetrated against humanity!  If not, the implications are far reaching…

Are there reasons to believe that the Bible is not only faithful to the original documents, but a truthful account of ancient events?  In this post, we’ll have a look at the evidence within the Bible itself, as opposed to historical and current evidence from outside the Bible.  We would say these are “internal” and “external” evidence for the truth of Scripture.

Internal Evidence  Does it make sense to use the Bible to show that the Bible is true?  What if I were to rent an office, buy a lab-coat, selling my services as a physician?  People might ask, “Why should I believe you are a doctor?”  If I respond, “Because I say I am a doctor”, there isn’t a good reason to trust my medical opinion.

Isn’t that the same thing as using the Bible to show that the Bible is true?  Not really.  The Bible isn’t actually one book, but a corpus of writings.  It is like an entire library of “peer reviewed” material.  The Protestant Bible is composed of 66 individual books, in a variety of genres, written by 40 different people from every walk of life, in 3 different languages, on 3 different continents, over a period of roughly 1500 years.  The amazing thing is they all talk about the same person.  No other religion has this type of authentication or pedigree.

Just for fun, imagine that there was a supernatural being who created everything in existence.  Let’s also suppose that this being wants to be known by humans and have a relationship with them.  How would he make himself known to us?  In the event that there is a creator who wants us to know him and have a relationship with him, the Biblical books (and God’s recorded activities therein) are entirely consistent with the types and consistency of messages he would give.  In other words, God might reasonably be expected to use every available means of communication, and each would say the same thing.  Unity within diversity.

The Protestant Bible is composed of 66 individual books, in a variety of genres, written by 40 different people from every walk of life, in 3 different languages, on 3 different continents, over a period of roughly 1500 years.

What does that mean?  Think about ideas and beliefs for a moment.  The ideas that people have are constantly changing.  We have ideas about the meaning of life.  Ideas about families.  Ideas about government.  About music.  About God.  Fifty years ago, popular opinion on each of these topics was radically different from what it is today!  If the Bible were written based on popular opinion about God and life, the “truth” would shift dramatically in the space of 1500 years.  Yet, the Biblical record shows us the same picture of God throughout centuries.  This is what the term “unity of scripture” means.

“Diversity” indicates the nature of Biblical texts to reflect cultural influences of their time.  For instance: the first 5 books of the Bible are written by Moses, who was raised in the Egyptian Royal Court.  He would have been familiar with the language known as “Akkadian”, and we would expect to see the influence of that language in his writing (if we were familiar with ancient near eastern languages).  Is that what scholars see?  Yes.  Another example?  Okay, in the “exilic” books (written when the Jews were deported to Babylon) we would expect to see the influence of the Chaldean (Babylonian) language, which is the case.  Each book reflects unique stylistic traits of its human author (divinely inspired), yet maintains the same, ancient ideas about its divine author.

Not only are the themes of Biblical books consistent throughout, they come in multiple literary genres (poetry, historical narrative, personal correspondence, etc.) and contain accounts of miracles performed by God and others, for the purpose of vindicating his message.  It’s as if he were saying, “I’m speaking to you on every available frequency.  Are you listening?”

One type of miracle in particular is used multiple times in the Bible: prophecy.  Predictive prophecy is especially effective at demonstrating that the Bible should be taken at face value.  The next post will give a basic introduction to predictive prophecy as internal evidence for the truth of the Bible.

Objections: The Bride Has a Black Eye

Hypocrisy, greed, immorality and corruption all serve to keep the eye of Christ’s Bride perpetually blackened in the public opinion of America.

It’s trite and it’s cliché.  It’s so very mainstream in Christian circles.  But the Church in America is losing ground.  She is under attack.  Statistics show us a very clear, very disheartening picture.  Kids that grow up in church are leaving Church the minute they have the choice.

There are a number of reasons for this, and the intention here isn’t to list all of them, but to highlight one and offer one *partial* response.  It’s obvious that the climate of our culture has become hostile, aggressive, angry and caustic toward Christians.  Some of the anger is warranted: pedophilia in the Church is outrageous and good reason for an emotional response.  Hypocrisy, greed, immorality and corruption all serve to keep the eye of Christ’s Bride perpetually blackened in the public opinion of America.  But the critical thinkers among us (Christian or not) must admit that the behavior of someone’s children doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of the parents.  Some parents have rotten children.  Including God.  This shouldn’t be a barrier for people to get to know Him.  Our message (and lifestyle!) needs to be able to cut through the noise and present Biblical truth beyond the context of 21st Century Evangelicalism.

This is why Worldviews, Worship and Wineskins will feature an apologetics series called “Objections”.  Each post will focus on a major mainstream objection to the Christian worldview and offer a Biblically based response.  Some people that might find this helpful are those who have never really questioned their faith and are encountering difficult questions at work or school, those who have grown up in a Church environment and are experiencing real doubt, or those with loved ones who are facing doubt.

Difficult questions can be a good thing.  Though they are usually painful, a season of doubt can end up strengthening someone’s faith.  God is not threatened by difficult questions.  In Isaiah 1.18, He offers this appeal to Israel: “Come, let us reason together.”  The book named after Job features that man’s extended questioning of God’s methodology and motives.  In the end, Job was vindicated as having done no wrong.  The minor prophet Habakkuk was also confused about God’s methods, and makes his discomfort openly known to the Lord!  Questions are good.  There are no new questions.  People have been asking the same questions for thousands of years, and there are many good answers.  Does the Bible have all of the answers?  No.  God restored Job’s wealth and cured Job’s disease.  But He didn’t answer Job’s questions.  Sometimes God leaves questions unanswered for unknown reasons, probably so we will exercise trust in that area.   The Bible doesn’t have all the answers.  But it has the right answers to the most important questions.  “Objections” might be able to point you or someone you know toward the right answers that believers have found for thousands of years.

“but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

One word of caution: we mustn’t kid ourselves into thinking that the right answers alone will effectively convert the unbeliever.  1 Peter 3.15 gives us God’s foundation for apologetics: “but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”  Those are instructions: what to do.  Verse 16 tells us how and why: “However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.”  Peter understood that good reasons won’t always convince hard hearts.  Jesus expressed it another way in Luke 16.31: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

In fact, many people don’t even really care if the central claims of the Bible are true.  For most of us in the “first world” today, Jesus represents the cure to a disease that we don’t have.  Jesus offers forgiveness of sin before death and eternal life afterward, along with fellowship with God on both sides of the grave.  Sin is an archaic, draconian concept, to be dealt with by using guilt management techniques.  Eternal life and fellowship with God are irrelevant because our material comforts have blinded us to our glaringly obvious spiritual needs.  So the conversations swirling around faith can have little meaningful impact if the Holy Spirit has not done the work of preparing hearts for the gospel message.

Why, then, should we bother?  If the anti-Christian world will not be persuaded to follow Jesus with good reasons, what is the point of providing good reasons to follow Jesus?  Let’s circle back around to 1 Peter 3.15–“so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.”  Not only are we commanded to have good reasons, we are commanded to conduct ourselves in such a manner that our aggressors will seem shameful to themselves and others.  For those who come armed with examples of corruption and hypocrisy in the church, our respectful response needs to include sound Biblical reasons to be faithful in spite of the behavior of others, and a Godly example that counteracts the shameful lifestyles of others.  This may serve to bolster the faith of others whose faith might otherwise be withering under the hostility of a world that hates God.

When that happens; when followers of Jesus can face, with grace and poise (sometimes by saying “I don’t know), the objections of seekers and scornful alike, we become one small voice in a growing chorus.  We say, together, “I don’t have all the answers.  But I have enough.  And I know the One who can fill in the rest.  Would you like to meet him?”

 

Objections: Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed Over Thousands of Years?

The Christian faith is based on the Bible.  The Bible is our ultimate authority, because in it, God has specifically uncovered His plan for mankind.  A lot rests on the Bible.  If it is untrue in its fundamental claims or otherwise, we who follow it are “of all people, most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:19.  This leads many people, both Christian and otherwise to ask a crucial question regarding the Bible: is it true?

Let’s look at three important questions that relate to whether the Bible is true:

Hasn’t the Bible changed over time?

The popular illustration of the telephone game serves to discredit the reliability of the Bible.  But is that actually how the Bible came to us today?

One of the first rules of translating ancient documents is to use the oldest sources possible.  The reason for this is that the older a document is, the closer to the original document it is.  Later copies have potential to have copying errors, modifications by editors and such.  In this sense, the “telephone” illustration is correct.  For this reason, translators are forever evaluating source documents.

Not only do they ask “how old it it?” and “How close to the original?”, they are concerned about two other criteria.  How many copies are there?  A higher number can demonstrates that the piece was widely accepted and in high demand.  Lastly, how much variation is there between copies?  This is where the “telephone” principle comes in.  Lots of variation gives us room for doubt about the content of the original, little variation gives translators a higher degree of certainty about what the original work contained.

To summarize, older, more numerous and consistent works give us a greater degree of certainty about what the original documents contained.

The graphic below is a handy chart showing what sources translators have used over time:

BibleComplChart

Notice that more recent translations don’t rely on previous translation work to build newer translations, as the “telephone” analogy would lead us to believe.  Rather, modern translations go to the oldest sources possible, in order to preserve the original sense of the Biblical texts.

How reliable are the sources?  How do Biblical manuscripts compare with other ancient works?  When you use the 3 main criteria (age, number and internal consistency), the New testament is hundreds of percent more accurate than other ancient documents!  Check out the graphic below:

ntgraphic

As you can see, the New Testament is in a category all alone in terms of its reliability.  No other ancient document comes close to this degree of reliability.  This should put the “Telephone game” analogy soundly to bed.

 

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