Worldviews, Worship, and Wineskins

The Gospel at Work in Every Context

Spawn of DaVinci Code (A Response to “Three Answers to Good and Evil That Were Cut From The Bible”)

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Contemporary Bible critics are generating heaps of online and other discussion with their claims: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene  The early church doctored the Canon because of political pressures.  The Canon was really information control; a cover-up.  The central figure of Christianity was a fabricated myth, based on repeating themes in Pagan religions.  The problem with these claims is that most of them are exaggerated, misrepresentations of actual history or complete fabrications.  They often rely heavily on the genetic fallacy, dismissing conservative scholarship on the topic simply because it was authored by conservatives.  Bart Ehrman, himself a former Christian, discusses part of this issue in his 2012 article in the Huffington Post, which you can find here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html More recently, Huffington published an article titled, “Three Answers to Good and Evil That Were Cut From the Bible” by Dr. Joel Hoffman.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-joel-hoffman/three-answers-to-good-and_b_5748286.html

Hoffman’s work falls neatly into the category of sensational “click-bait misinformation described above.  Like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, the piece presumes from the start that the Bible is flawed.  The difference between Hoffman’s work and Brown’s is that Hoffman’s pretends to be scholarly commentary, while Brown doesn’t hide the fact that he writes fiction.  Dr. Hoffman’s article is academically and theologically disappointing for three reasons.

First, he demonstrates either a willful obscuring or a fundamental ignorance of the meaning of Deuteronomy.  Hoffman attempts to portray the Pentateuchal sermon as a meta narrative explanation on suffering, while it is obviously a legal “suzerainty” covenant, similar to others in its day.  The covenant agreement in Deuteronomy applied to the ancient Hebrews, whom God had chosen for himself and delivered from Egypt.  It wasn’t a set of universal axioms, as Hoffman claims.  Simply put, Deuteronomy was a set of promises between two parties (the Israelites and God) and those two parties alone.

Second, Hoffman doesn’t even attempt to address the conservative position on Canon, but presents his case as though any ancient writing that one might fancy has an equal footing with the traditional Canon.  This is a typical maneuver for skeptical religious scholars of late, as well as many in the New Atheist school: they either ignore, insult or mischaracterize conservative scholarship without actually addressing it.  Admittedly, Hoffman’s tone is not at all caustic toward conventional Christian thinking, except in the fact that he assumes from the start that we have been wrong all along, and never shows us why.  It’s an arrogant assumption, which essentially says, Conventional Christian thinking on the Canon is wrong.  Why?  I don’t have to explain, it just is.  

Perhaps Hoffman would resort to the genetic fallacy?  The Canon is wrong because the early Church had a hand in its formation.  Well, he doesn’t explicitly state that, so it becomes difficult to follow his reasoning without reading between the lines.  Like this one, concerning the Book of Enoch:  “Written before the Book of Daniel and quoted in the Book of Jude, Enoch was amongst the most beloved and popular writings in antiquity, but it was whitewashed from mainstream religion in the first millennium AD.”  That sentence is a prime example of the subtle undermining of two hundred or more years of conservative scholarship on the Canon.  Let’s briefly dissect three different items:

One. “Written before the Book of Daniel…”  Is there a consensus on the dating of Enoch?  What about Daniel?  What Hoffman is not telling his readers is that the entire premise of liberal vs. conservative scholarship hinges on the dates when the books were authored.  Earlier dates have been the official position of the church since the church fathers, some of whom personally knew the authors, first wrote about scripture.  Their position was only questioned during the time of the enlightenment: nearly two millenia after the books were actually written.  How does it stand to reason that the enlightenment thinkers (who would categorically deny the possibility of a miracle, and thus had a vested interest in explaining the existence of scripture in a non-miraculous light) were in a better position to evaluate the authenticity of ancient documents than the people who wrote about them, essentially before the ink was dry on the page?  (C.S. Lewis wrote a great essay on that topic here: http://orthodox-web.tripod.com/papers/fern_seed.html) Hoffman’s tone of finality and lack of explanation on these points is intellectually dishonest and inappropriate for a popular platform such as Huffpo.

Two. “…whitewashed from mainstream religion…”  In so many words, Hoffman accuses the church of mishandling the Canon.  What were their criteria for Canonization?  What books would have qualified if Hoffman had his say-so?  Which, if any, would be excluded, and why?  Again, **crickets**

Three.  “…whitewashed from mainstream religion in the first millennium AD.”  What?  As an historical statement this is so broad and vague that it hardly means anything.  Of course, it is a popular piece, but still…Who did the whitewashing?  How was it done?  Did they tell people to have the book burnt?  Did they stop producing more copies?  Did they ban its sale?  Did they just not endorse it?

The first two disappointments covered in this post (misrepresentation of Deuteronomy and silence on central Canon issues) are really nothing compared to the third.  Hoffman’s characterization of orthodox Christian teaching on suffering is sadly incomplete.  The irony is that his premise accuses the orthodox position of the same thing, viz. the title: “Three Answers to Good and Evil that Were Cut From The Bible”.  Astonishingly, Hoffman’s version of the Biblical teaching on suffering includes no mention of the Messiah.

Why is the Messiah a fundamental in the Biblical meta-narrative on good, evil and suffering?  He is the central character in Bible.  He is mentioned in nearly every Canonical book.  One of his stated purposes is to “defeat the works of the devil.”  In the battle for the soul of humanity, no one person figures more prominently.

Of all the reasons that the Messiah is relevant, nay, central to this conversation, the most important reason is the Messiah’s answer to suffering: the Messianic ministry of presence.  The ministry of presence essentially works like this: I, the eternally pre-existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent Messiah will be with you.  Many Messianic predictions in the Old Testament concern his suffering.  Many also concern his proximity to the brokenness of mankind.  One of His best nicknames is “Immanuel, God with us.”  Daniel chapter 3 demonstrates this principle perfectly: He didn’t rescue Nebuchadnezzar’s victims from the fire, but he joined them.  

It might be said that he Bible doesn’t clearly answer the “why” of suffering, although there are some clues.  What it does is offer the more important answer of “whom?”  To whom shall I turn when the world is caving in on itself?  The God-man who knows all about suffering because He’s traveled the road to hell and back on my behalf.  The one who has all my tears in a bottle and knows the number of hairs on my head.  The one who has promised ultimate justice in response to temporal injustice.  Delayed gratification for the faithful, rest for the weary, forgiveness for the guilty and rescue for the prisoner.  The Messiah is the ultimate answer to the condition of man.  To my knowledge, no other major religion has this central feature: a deity who loves us and identifies with us.

Hoffman portrays a neutered and gutted version of the Biblical answer to suffering.  His straw-man version has dissonant, disjointed voices that either offer moral platitudes or lamentations over the dismal state of the world.  In reality, the Orthodox Canon recognizes the fallen nature of the world and promises a remedy in the form of a rider on a white horse who has already begun His work of restoration in the hearts of his people and will finish it by re-creating the Heavens and the Earth, complete and without suffering.

Dr. Hoffman doubtless generated some conversation, probably sold a few copies of his book.  Huffington Post has probably benefited from his material by selling advertising embedded in his article.  But has the truth been told, or is it buried beneath the layers of DaVinci Code-styled click-bait?

Worldview summary (updated)

VISUAL UNIT

Updated worldview summary by Cameron Blair from FEVA. PDF version (3.5 MB)

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Four ways to read Revelation

VISUAL UNIT

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A diagram contrasting the four main ways of reading the book of Revelation, in terms of the timing of the events in relationship to the original and contemporary readers. Adapted from ‘The Unveiling’ studies by Phil Campbell (www.mpc.org.au). PDF version (127 KB)

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What’s Next?

Encounter. Encourage. Engage.

multiplicationThere’s only one way to do the thing that is set before us and there needs to be some intentional shifting in order for that to happen. I don’t necessarily believe we are off track as much as I believe we are ripe for a shift of focus from the current platform. The present and the past don’t need to be discounted or disparaged to step from here into the future. You don’t have to tear down to build up.

There is always dialogue, discussion and debate about the place of the “mega” church in the schematic of the Kingdom. Can this be the intention, where a large percentage of resources go to self-sustainment, staffing and mortgage payments? Can this be right, as super-star preachers are elevated to a place where pride is a constant threat? Are these big buildings really the end game?

The next step in that debate…

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The ISIS Crisis and the Myth of Progress

Speculating about the religious violence in Iraq from the comfort of my sheltered, suburban vantage point feels crass.  My children are not under threat of beheading.  My wife is not in danger of being raped and forced to marry a murderous terrorist.  There is little chance of me being nailed to a cross or hung. But there is an important point about what is going on that can’t be missed.  It has to do with the optimism of progressives and humanists, and why that optimism can’t be sustained.

One-hundred years ago last June, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, precipitating the worst war the world had ever seen.  The zeitgeist of the age was summed up in the slogan, “better and better, every day.”  Hegel’s dialectic theory of history was a model that predicted each era improving on the previous.  Early in the war, an ancient poem by the Roman Horace was a rallying cry for supporters: Dulce Et Decorum Est.  How Sweet and Honorable it is to Die for One’s Country.  As casualties mounted and trench warfare plunged men and animals into depths of suffering not known since the middle ages, the poem was rewritten with an ironic and bitter tone, lamenting the monumental losses and “man’s inhumanity to man.” (Francis Schaeffer’s phrase).

One-hundred years later, I fear we are at the same place.  There is a widespread belief that the inhuman acts of yesteryear are gone, banished in the light of knowledge and progress.  How can progressives account for this week’s events in Iraq?  “Religion.”  They might say.  “Fundamentalism.”  But this is a fallacy which requires gross historical cherry-picking to sustain.  If progressives wish to attribute brutality to only religious movements, they have yet to account for explicitly anit-religious brutality that has occurred in the few decades since Franz Ferdinand became the first casualty of World War One.  Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol-Pot and their dozens of henchmen murdered more people during the 20th Century than any religious movement in the history of mankind.  If we look back further, we see that the French Revolution, based on Enlightenment principles, also ended up in a bloodbath.

The point is that we can’t put faith in any system or human institution.  No political party, no philosophy, no religion or social program has the power to overcome the trump card of humankind’s evil.  Paris Reidhead called us “monsters of iniquity”, and rightly so.  Christians and our apathetic hypocrisy.  Muslims and their lust for domination.  Humanists and their deceitful arrogance.  Those who claim no flag and point the finger at everyone else.  We are all monsters of iniquity, each with the potential to sink to subhuman lows.  How else did ordinary Germans become cruel prison guards at Auschwitz?  Are the acts we are seeing today in Iraq subhuman, or simply human?  They are on par with human behavior in every period of our mottled past.  History shows us that humans in each generation are typically guilty of grotesque evil.  This is humanity: infinite potential for good, locked into an eternal struggle with our own evil.

What is the answer?  Not a political system.  Not more education.  Not more information or study.  All of these have proven their failure to redeem our brokenness.  The answer is not a policy, it’s a person.  The person of Jesus, who would have us to pray for our enemies in the Islamic State. What?  Yes, Jesus told us to pray for those who persecute you.  Today, I would prefer to be sniping them one at a time with a .308, or mowing them down with a minigun from a helicopter. Maybe that’s what needs to happen on one level.  But I don’t have that option.  So in the meantime, I’ll write and pray.  And urge you to pray with me.  Pray for the victims and terrorists alike.  And pray for our political leaders, flawed, evil and with feet of clay.  They need prayer as much as the rest of us.

Friday Night Mystics: David Brainerd

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1718 – 1747

For his few, troubled years, David Brainerd’s life left an indellible mark on his generation.  In the intervening years, his reputation and life’s work have been somewhat underrated, perhaps overshadowed by his friend and associate, Jonathan Edwards.  Brainerd’s main contribution was in his pioneer missionary work to Native Americans, but he is most remembered today for his personal prayer journal.  This firebrand burned so brightly and hotly for the Lord that he worked himself to an early grave, spending his last weeks in the home of Edwards.  He finally succumbed to Tuberculosis and consumption on October 9, 1747.

David Brainerd’s diary was reproduced for posterity, to his relucant acceptance, only after much pleading on the part of Edwards.  Below are two exerpts:

“I thought the Spirit of God had quite left me; but still was not distressed: yet disconsolate, as if there was nothing in heaven or earth could make me happy.  Having been thus endeavouring to pray — though, as I thought, very stupid and senseless — for near half an hour, then, as I was walking in a dark thick grove, unspeakale glory seemed to open to the view and apprehension of my soul.  I do not mean any external brightness, for I saw no such thing; … but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before, nor any thing which had the least resemblence of it.  I stood still, wondered, and admired! …  My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God, such a glorious Divine Being; and I was inwardly pleased and satisfied that he should be God over all for ever and ever.  My soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency, loveliness, greatness, and other perfections of God, that I was even swallowed up in him; at least to that degree, that I had no thought (as I remember) at first about my own salvation, and scarce reflected there was such a creature as myself.”

“I knew not what to say to my God, but only lean on his bosom, as it were, and breathe out my desires after a perfect conformity to him in all things.  Thirsting desires, and insatiable longings, possessed my soul after perfect holiness.  God was so precious to my soul, that the world with all its enjoyments was infinitely vile.  I had no more value for the favour of men, than for pebbles.  The LORD was my ALL; and that he overruled all, greatly delighted me.”

Everyone Worships Something

We were made to worship. Everyone worships something whether they realize it or not. Even people who don’t subscribe to any particular religion with a formalized system of worship…they worship too. Want to know what you worship? What is the first thing you think about when you wake up? What do you spend your spare time on? Where does your expendable income go? That is what you worship.

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” So says the Westminster chatechism. If this statement is true, men and women attain their highest human potential in an ironic fashion: by the willful abnegation of self and exaltation of another.  This is true worship.  This is where the irony of the human condition is most clear: we are most fully human when we abdicate our perceived right to self-worship, and spend ourselves worshiping God.

Friday Night Mystics: King David’s Sacred Romance

Here is a working definition of a Christian Mystic: someone whose soul is wedded to the pursuit of intangible joy in the presence of God.

David, King of ancient Israel is the week’s feature. Many of the psalms give us very personal insights into the rollercoaster-ride that was David’s prayer life. Many read like a love letter, and it’s no wonder!

God describes His relationship with His people using a number of metaphors: Father to son. King to subjects. Master to slave. Even Mother to infant! (Isaiah 49.15) The picture found in many eschatalogical passages (scripture concerning the end times) is that of a groom to his bride. God wants your affections.

David understood this affection without having the New Testament to guide him. Have a look at Psalm 63:

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be give over to the power of the sword;
they shall be a portion for jackals.

But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.”

Supremacy of Jesus

“Jesus Christ stands alone, unique and supreme, self-validating, and the Holy Ghost declarees Him to be God’s eternal Son.  Let all the presidents and all the kings and queens, the senators and the lords and ladies of the world, along with the great athletes and great actors–let them kneel at His feet and cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!'”  A. W. Tozer

It’s Time to Kill that “Soulmate” Myth

This post will start off sounding really cynical to some of you, but please hang out until the end, because this is an important idea to grasp if you want to succeed in romance.  First let me tell you what I’m NOT trying to say.  When I was fresh out of high-school, I experienced something very common for people fresh out of high-school: a breakup.  I had moved far away from my girlfriend and the distance was killing it.  Not only that, but all of the dramatic life changes that people experience at that stage were killing it.  Many of you have been there.

I have a dear aunt who was newly divorced at the same time.  We commiserated often.  She listened to Sarah McGlachlin and we mourned our losses.  It was foolish for me to consider that our pain was similar: she had three children and well over a dozen years from her ex-husband.  I had teenage infatuation and a few months.  But my aunt was gracious to me.

One day she commented something to this effect: “At least you still believe in true love.”  To which I responded, “I’m not sure I do believe that.”  It was a foolish thing to say, in retrospect.  I had no idea what I was talking about.  But my views on love have changed since then, and I’m glad to report that this post is NOT a polemic against romantic love or even a cynical rant against the saccharine emotion that Hollywood tries to pass off as love. Those are good things that are too-often understood in distorted ways.

Take Jerry Maguire, for instance.  In the climactic scene typical of romance movies, Jerry confesses his feelings for Dorothy with the unforgettable line, “You complete me.”  This is the downfall of popular beliefs on romance.  The pressure that was placed on Dorothy at that moment was a burden too great for any mere mortal to bear.  It is unfair.  We aren’t made to complete each other or to find completion in any human relationship, not even marriage.

That’s why the myth of the “mail-order” soulmate needs to die.  The idea that somewhere out there is your perfect match who will share all your interests, laugh at all your jokes and put up with all your baggage without any fuss is setting people up for failure.  Soulmates like that are earned over a lifetime of heartbreaking compromise, sacrifice and plain old hard work.  Not predestined in the stars.  They are cultivated intentionally, not granted automatically.

I think this is one reason that so many long-term relationships never lead to marriage and so many marriages fail: Person “A” doesn’t “complete me” a-la Jerry Maguire, therefore, he/she must not be my soulmate.  Time to look for my soulmate in Person “B”. Obviously that is a sweeping generalization, but one that I believe has real traction in our romance-infatuated culture.

There is an underlying spiritual dysfunction that is associated with the soulmate myth.    In a world that has very little use for God, the impossible pressure to “complete me” has been taken off God and placed on human relationships, especially romantic relationships.  This is idolatry, plain and simple.  So not only are we setting ourselves up for failure by placing too much pressure on our romantic counterparts, we are robbing God of the deep, soul-adoring worship that He deserves.  I may have just lost some of you who aren’t concerned with religious affection.  (Dorothy from Jerry Maguire might say, “You lost me at idolatry.”)  But I’ll stand by my claim: what human relationships can never attain in terms of emotional satisfaction, a “sacred romance” will.

That isn’t to say that romance isn’t a good thing.  That isn’t to say that there is no place for romance in healthy marriages.  To the contrary: without romance, intimacy and bedrock commitment, marriages will wither on the vine.  Every time.  But the elevation of romance to the end of all relational emotion is detrimental to our thinking.  Here’s why:  God designed the marriage relationship as an means to an end, not an end itself.  In other words, He didn’t invent marriage just so we could get married, there is a purpose to it.  Besides procreation.  Besides sexual fulfillment.  Besides companionship.

God designed the marriage relationship to be a reflection of the relationship he desires with us.  In the New Testament, the church is called the “bride” of Christ.  It’s brilliant, really.  Sheer genius.  God uses a universal human institution as a relational metaphor, so we will understand just what He is getting at.  He wants an exclusive commitment.  He wants adoration.  He wants emotional closeness.  He wants us to grow in our understanding of him over the long-term.  He wants us to work hard to not offend Him!  He wants our relationship to bear fruit.  He wants to be our soulmate.

So if we kill the soulmate myth, where does that leave marriage?  Does it lessen the emotional impact of romance?  Just the opposite.  What could be more romantic than realizing that your closest human relationship is modeled after an eternal, all-powerful being who literally died just so he could be with you?  What could have a more powerful aphrodisiac effect than knowing that the person who stretched out the heavens and laid down the foundations of the earth wants–no, COMMANDS you to make love to your spouse (1 Corinthians 7.3-5)?

The effect of killing the soulmate myth DOES take the pressure off of your significant other to be and do for you what only God can be and do.  Soulmates aren’t assembled on some conveyor belt, ready to go, right out of the box.  I’m convinced that God isn’t waiting for you to find THE ONE, but one of potentially dozens.  Although He does know which one you will choose–which poses several more questions about free will and God’s sovereignty, none of which bear addressing right now.  All of that to say, when you and your romantic interest decide that you are in it for the long-haul, be prepared to do the work and build your own soulmate.

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