Thursday, February 14, 2019

Stories and Scenes

I want to expand on the idea behind my previous post, The Tale of the Faithless Bride. We say the keys to studying the Bible are context, context, and context. It is vitally important to read any scripture in the context of the surrounding text. A sentence can only be properly understood in its paragraph. A paragraph can only be understood in conjunction with neighboring paragraphs.

Then there is historical context — we can't try to make a text written in the 10th Century BC mean something that it could only have meant in the 1st Century AD. There is literary context — you don't interpret poetry like epistles or epistles like poetry.

There is also a narrative context. A story is made of scenes, and a scene can only be properly understood in terms of the story.

For example, the tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife is a scene in Joseph's story. In isolation it is a story of virtue as Joseph honors God and his master by refusing her advances. That's not a bad story.

But it's really a scene in Joseph's story. First Joseph is betrayed by his brothers. Then he is betrayed by his master's wife and, ultimately, his master. But "the LORD was with Joseph" as the text reminds us repeatedly. In the context of Joseph's overall story, this episode is another example of, as Joseph later put it, God intending for good what people intended for evil. God uses this event to providentially maneuver Joseph to a place where he will be able to save Egypt and the covenant family from the coming famine.

In the same way, Joseph's life is a scene in the story of the founding of Israel. All of the events that happen to Joseph serve to explain how the covenant family got from Canaan to Egypt. It reveals God's providence in the creation of Israel along side the tales of Isaac's miraculous birth and the exodus from Egypt. Joseph's story, as interesting as it is, only exists because God was doing something bigger than that.

And the story of Israel (from Genesis 12 to Nehemiah 13) is a scene in the story of redemption. Genesis 1 and 2 tell how mankind was created. Gen 3 recounts the fall. Gen 4-11 tell just how bad things got (while also explaining some things about humanity). Then in Genesis 12 God starts his rescue plan; we meet Abram whom God has decided to set apart to create the line from which the Messiah will come so that "all peoples on earth will be blessed." Then the Israel "scene" takes us to the turning point of the story — the arrival of Christ.

And, yes, that means that the life and ministry of Jesus is a scene in the overall story of redemption. For all its immense value to us, it is not properly understood apart from the larger story.

The Bible is a story. It is the story of how humans fell and God rescued them. And even though we know how it will end, we are waiting to see exactly how the final chapter will play out. The climax is still to come when the Lion from the Tribe of Judah will return to claim what is his, punish the wicked, and restore what was lost. Then the story will be complete. But that won't be "the end." It will be a new beginning.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Tale of the Faithless Bride

The story of Hosea is one of the most difficult in the Old Testament. God told him to pick a woman of ... poor reputation and marry her. He gives her a good life. She cheats on him. A lot. She leaves him. She gets into trouble and gets sold into slavery. And God tells Hosea to buy her back and take her home with him again. How would you like to be that guy? Instructed to marry a woman who's going to cheat on you. But there was a reason for it:

All of this is a living allegory to show Israel how God feels about Israel.

Moses told them, "The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples" (Deut 7:7). In fact, God chose them before they even were a people. He took a barren old couple with no prospects and not only made them prosperous but gave them descendants. These descendants were slaves in Egypt with nothing to offer him; he freed them and gave everything they could ask for. They immediately start worshiping idols. He corrects them again and again, but each time they go back to whoring after other gods. Finally they get taken off into slavery. But there is a remnant that God brings back to him.

And all of this is a living allegory to show us how God feels about humanity.

God made special, unique creatures and put them in a literal paradise. They were charged with ruling the planet in his place. From dust to regents for no good reason. And they rebelled. God pursued them, and they rebelled again. Again and again. Though they were to be kings, they sold themselves into slavery to sin and the devil. So God bought them back at the cost of his own blood. Again there is a remnant, those he has kept for himself, who God brings to himself, making them now not regents but princes, children of God and the bride of Christ.

It's been asked why God put so much work, so much energy into caring about what happens in a tiny strip of land in a corner of the Middle East. But that tiny strip of land shows the whole world what God is like.

And somewhere, someone — perhaps angels, perhaps someone else* — may be wondering why God puts so much work into caring about what happens to a tiny pale blue dot orbiting an insignificant yellow dwarf on the edge of boring galaxy. But that pale blue dot shows the universe what God is like. He chooses to place his affection on the unworthy and pursues them until he has perfected them "in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace" (Eph 2:7).

*If you haven't, I highly recommend reading CS Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The New Testament Out of Order

After I put together a reading plan to introduce my kids to reading the Bible for themselves, our pastor asked the congregation to join together and read the New Testament in 90 days. [sigh] OK.

It's really doable. The plan (pdf) involves reading 3-4 chapters most days, and some days you only read one or two. We're talking 10 minutes a day or less for an average reader. I'm encouraging my kids to do this because the whole church will (hopefully) be participating.

Unfortunately, I hate reading the synoptic gospels back to back to back. It feels too repetitive (which is funny considering I read 2 Timothy straight through every day for the last week).

But there's nothing divine about the order in which the books of the Bible are arranged. In fact, we know that our order of OT books is different than the one used in Jesus' time. The traditional NT arrangement gives primacy of place to the gospels, but the remaining books are arranged more or less on size.

So I decided to work out a thematic arrangement of the NT books, groupings built around one of the gospels.

Group 1: Matthew, Hebrews, James, Romans, Ephesians
The first three are the most "Jewish" books in the NT, so it seems fitting to put them together. But they have a heavy emphasis on obedience, so the faith/grace emphasis of Romans (also written to a Jewish audience) and Ephesians provides a counterweight.

Group 2: Mark, 1-2 Peter, Jude, Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy
Mark is traditionally seen as Peter's gospel, so I group it with Peter's letters. Then forming a group around persecution, false teachers, and the end times seems natural.

Group 3: Luke, Acts, 1-2 Corinthians
Luke and Acts go together like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. But they're huge, so this short list actually has the most chapters. The letters to the church at Corinth fit the "gentileness" of this section.

Group 4: John, Philippians, Colossians, 1 John, Titus, Philemon, 2-3 John, Revelation
Grouping John's gospel and letters is natural. And while all the gospels reveal that Jesus claimed to be divine, John's gospel puts it on giant billboards with flashing lights just like Philippians and Colossians (and Revelation, for that matter). Titus, also, calls Jesus God in the plainest of terms. I put Philemon here because it traditionally goes with Colossians. (Reading Philemon and 2-3 John on the same day helps keep this within the 90 days.)

So to anyone who's ever gotten to Mark or Luke and thought, "Ugh, this story again?", I offer this reading order as an alternative. And if you have never been bothered by it, reading them "out of order" still may make the familiar feel new again.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A Different Kind of Bible Reading Plan

open Bible
It's the time of year when people go looking for a Bible reading plan. I have put together something different from the usual. It will in no way enable you to read the Bible in a year. Not even close.

This plan is geared toward three groups. The first is people who're new to the whole proposition. I created this primarily for my teenagers; it's time for them to put away the devotionals and just read the Bible. The second group is those who don't read the Bible because they don't know where to start or it's intimidating. The third is people for whom Bible reading has gotten a little stale.

This plan is made up of three sections. The first takes a reader through is a guided overview of the storyline of the Bible from creation to new creation in about a month (or if you want to do it all at once, a couple of hours). It includes some tips for digesting what you're reading.

The second part is a smorgasbord of beautiful passages, hard passages, favorite passages, and strange passages from all over the Bible. This group will take about three months to read in bites of one to three chapters a day. The idea is to get a sense of the variety that exists within the Bible, to make the experience enjoyable, and to get people in the habit of reading daily; by the time this section is complete, a total of four months will have passed, and hopefully that habit will be established.

The third section recommends some whole books to start reading — two gospels and then the easiest epistles. More suggestions are made to help folks get the most out of their reading. From there I hope people will continue the habit of thoughtful, reflective reading for the rest of their lives.

The reading plan can be found here. I think you need to download the pdf before you can print it. If it doesn't work, let me know, and I'll try to do something different.

You'll notice that there are no dates on the readings. Someone can start this on July 1 as easily as Jan 1. People shouldn't need to wait until the new year to start reading the Bible.

I hope someone out there will find this useful.

Photo credit: John Harris Pe

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Humility of God

C.S. Lewis' comments on "the Divine humility" from The Problem of Pain have been rattling around in my head for years now, and it's still such an amazing thing.
"[I]t is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up 'our own' when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer ...."
How well this describes how God deals with us.

God revealed himself to Jacob only when he was fleeing his brother's vengeance.

God did not choose a great nation for himself. He chose a nation of slaves who were groaning under their burden.

And when that nation rebelled against him, they never repented until they were beaten down by enemies, until they had nowhere else to turn — and God took them back. Again and again.

Naaman did not turn to the God of Israel until he had leprosy.

Paul did not bow the knee to Jesus until he was struck blind.

Jesus himself did not appear to a nation at its prime. He appeared to a people that had been subjugated again and again, who were groaning under the burden of Roman rule, who were starving for a word from God after centuries of silence. Only then, when pride was broken, did the Word become flesh and make his dwelling among us.

And God did not come as a conquering king, astride a great horse, leading a mighty army. The one who "measured the waters in the hollow of his hand," and "with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens" was born as a baby with a little wrinkly hand that couldn't reach around his mother's finger. The LORD of Hosts appeared in the flesh, not attended by armies but by a few shepherds.

But pride wasn't broken completely. So the God-Man allowed himself to be killed for the crime of claiming to be exactly who he was. In doing so he bought for us forgiveness of our sins.

And still, we choose him only because we have no choice. As Lewis said, "It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts."

When we had no hope, God came to rescue us. When we realize we have no choice, God accepts our meager offerings of a torn, filthy life. And then he gives us everything, making us "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ," not slaves, or even servants, but sons and daughters.

Take some time to marvel at the God who came to us because we had no hope. Give thanks to the God who accepts us even though we call to him, not from the mountain top, but the pit. Worship the Savior who gives us everything even when we have nothing to offer in return.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

When Ra Created the World

Illuminating the Old Testament

The Genesis 1 creation account bears a striking resemblance to other ancient creation myths, demonstrating that the author(s) simply copied from existing materials and chopped out the other gods.

At least, that's what we've been told.

Archaeology has discovered a number of ancient creation myths from the part of the world that produced the Bible. And there are some similarities between the stories. What does that mean for us?

I don't think it means anything until the similarities are examined with the differences.

When you want to compare the Bible to the Egyptian creation myth, you have to ask which one. There were several, and they were all different, though there were some similarities. One, though, is particularly telling. There are so many versions online, each a little different, and many omitting the most ... interesting part. Here is one that keeps it. And I'm sorry.

[These are] the words which the god Neb-er-tcher spoke after he had come into being: "I am he who came into being in the form of the god Khepera, and I am the creator of that which came into being, that is to say, I am the creator of everything which came into being. Now the things which I created, and which came forth out of my mouth after that I had come into being myself were exceedingly many. The sky (or heaven) had not come into being, the earth did not (exist, and the children of the earth, and the creeping things had not been made at that time. I myself raised them up from out of Nu, from a state of helpless inertness.

I found no place whereon I could stand. I worked a charm upon my own heart (or, will). I laid the foundation [of things] by Maat, and I made everything which had form. I was [then] one by myself, for I had not emitted from myself the god Shu, and I had not spit out from myself the goddess Tefnut; and there existed no other who could work with me. I laid the foundations [of things] in my own heart, and there came into being multitudes of created things, which came into being from the created things which were born from the created things which arose from what they brought forth.

I had union with my closed hand, and I embraced my shadow as a wife, and I poured seed into my own mouth, and I sent forth from myself issue in the form of the gods Shu and Tefnut.

Said my father Nu: 'My Eye was covered up behind them (i.e., Shu. and Tefnut), but after two hen periods had passed from the time when they departed from me, from being one god I became three gods, and I came into being in the earth.'
Yes you read that right. The god in question copulates with himself. After that, the new gods, Shu and Tefnut, mate and produce more gods who produce more gods, etc, etc.

Now, not all of the Egyptian creation myths include the self love mentioned above, but they all share the same general pattern: The first god or gods are created/create themselves. Then they create other gods. These gods are the personification of various aspects of the natural world — eg, the sun, the wind. So the creator god immediately makes more gods to help him create and run the world.

Read against this background, I think the differences between the Egyptian accounts and the Genesis 1 account are quite telling. The story of Genesis does not begin with the creation of YHWH. He is already there. He does not need help creating and running the world; he speaks and it simply happens. Unlike many ancient creation accounts (the Sumerian version is another popular "source" the Bible is alleged to have copied from), there is no epic battle wherein the victor uses the loser's body to create the world.

In the Egyptian accounts, humans just kind of happen. In the Sumerian account, they are created as slaves. In the Genesis account, they are created as stewards and friends.

It's been suggested that there is a polemic element to much of the Old Testament. If so, the similarities are supposed to highlight the differences. I think comparing the Bible's creation story to those of the Hebrews' neighbors makes it clear what the author was trying to say:

God did not begin; he is. God is eternal.

God created the world alone; the sun, moon, wind, and ocean are not gods. There are not multiple gods struggling against each other. There is one god, and he is sovereign.

God did not struggle to create the world; he spoke, and it was. God is almighty.

If the creation account is a polemic, the message to the hearers — the early Israelites — was that YHWH, the God who brought them out of Egypt, was far more powerful than either the Egyptians or anyone else had even dared to dream and that he had a plan, a purpose for humanity. This is the truth that they, and we, are given to give us strength as we face a world that desires to defeat us.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Remembering the Great Cloud of Witnesses

November 1st is All Saints' Day, the day set aside to honor "all the saints, known and unknown." We don't have to hold to the Roman Catholic idea of saints as special Christians to remember and respect those who have paved the way for us.

We should remember Abraham, the man of faith, the progenitor of the line of Christ. 

We should honor Moses who followed God into facing down the most powerful king of his day.

We should give thanks for the example of David who showed us that a man after God's own heart can still sin — and be forgiven.

We should honor 
Peter, the leader of the church who was still so very fallible, and Paul, the persecutor of the church who became its greatest apostle, and Stephen, who showed us that we can face death with the same attitude as Christ.

Let us learn from the example of Polycarp who preferred the arena or the flames to blasphemy saying, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

And Justin, the apologist who chose to lose his head rather than his soul, saying, "No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety."

And Jim Elliot who went into the jungle saying, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose," and never returned.

Let us remember Athanasius standing contra mundum, Luther at Worms, Latimer at the stake who taught us the truth was worth everything.

As we hold our Bibles, let us give thanks for Tyndale and Rogers who gave their lives so we could have it in English.

And for Brother Andrew and all those who have risked and even given their lives to take the scriptures to the world.

Honor Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm as well as Edwards, Lewis, and Schaeffer who taught us to think about the faith, and Spurgeon, Wesley, and Graham who taught us to share it.

Thank God for the legions of pastors and teachers who never made it into history books but devoted themselves to teaching the next generation about Jesus. 

Thank God for the white haired saints that have gone on to their reward who told you about Jesus, who showed you want it meant to live for him.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith."

Friday, October 19, 2018

Religion in Political Discourse

Does religion have any place in political discourse?

Tim Keller recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times: How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t. It's a great piece, and I recommend you read it. That's not what I want to talk about though.

In the comment section of the article, one of the "NYT picks" comments caught my attention. It's a reasonably well-written example of an attitude I've been seeing more and more in recent years, so I will paste it here:

“As a strong believer in the separation of Church and State, I believe that religion has no place in political discourse. I am sick and tired of so-called Christians and other faith-based groups, using their religious beliefs to influence public policy. You want to pray. Fine. Go to church. You want to live your life in accordance with some religious belief. Fine. Do it in the privacy of your home. But, do not use your religious belief to argue that your right to free speech is infringed upon when you are asked to bake a cake for a same sex couple, provide birth control under your company’s health insurance plan, deny science, etc. In short, do not use your religious beliefs to deny my right to live as I see fit. To influence public policy which denies millions of women, minorities, and children, access to health care, abortion, voting rights, civil rights. I am simply fed up with the hypocrisy to the so-called religious people in this country preaching to the rest of us who simply want to live our lives freely and openly without the burden of dealing with someone’s else’s gods foisted upon us.”
To an apparently growing segment of the population, the mere fact that your point of view is based in your religious beliefs makes renders it out of bounds.

Aside from the fact that "the separation of Church and State" isn't in the US Constitution, aside from the fact that this view is at odds with the actual text of the 1st Amendment and Article VI Clause 3 of the US Constitution, it's simply illogical.

The commentor's basic point is that my religious beliefs shouldn't have any affect on what I do outside my church or home. Do whatever you want in private, but don't let it affect how you live your life. Especially don't let it affect how she lives her life.

But she wants her ideas to affect how I live my life. She believes same-sex marriage is good and right, so I must act like it is too. She believes abortion is good and right, so I must act like it is.

Why? Because her ideas aren't based on a religion and mine are. That doesn't matter. But is that really even the case? There are millions who say they are "spiritual but not religious." You don't have to belong to an established religious organization to have "spiritual" beliefs. And in the same way, she has spiritual beliefs — whether her beliefs are that there is no god or that whatever god exists doesn't matter. Her religious beliefs may be different from mine, but they are really just as religious. And she not only wants to live her life based on them, she wants me to do so too.

She doesn't really want people to keep their religious beliefs in private. People acting on their religious beliefs open hospitals, run orphanages, and feed the hungry. They've opposed slavery, wars, and the abuse of women because of their religious beliefs.

And that's the way it's supposed to be. Jesus says if your beliefs don't affect the way you live your life, you don't really believe them.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: Scientism and Secularism

I don't want to become all book reviews all the time, but I think this book is important, so I decided to run another review already.

When I saw that JP Moreland's Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology was available for free review copies, my first reaction was that it sounded kind of heavy and I didn't want to read that right now. Then I thought about my teenage daughter and the questions she's been asking, the things she tells me about her classmates and teachers. Yeah, let's go ahead and read it now.

Scientism is variously defined, but it's safe to call it "the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality" (26). Anything else — such as moral or spiritual claims — is not true knowledge and is therefore subjective. In other words, if it's not "science" it's just opinion.

In this new paradigm, faith has been redefined. Instead of being trust based on what you know, it's belief without or even in spite of evidence.

Maybe that would be appropriate if scientism were true, but Moreland shows that the philosophy (for that is what it is) is self-refuting both on its face and because science rests on a foundation of unprovable but necessary building blocks (e.g., logic, mathematics). He goes into detail about some things that science cannot explain but theism can, and he explores ways to integrate Christianity and scientific exploration.

It sounds heavy, right?

It's really not that heavy. Chalk it up to Professor Moreland's excellent communication skills. Even when it gets deeper into the philosophy, it's pretty easy to read and follow his argument.

Is it a perfect book? Of course not. In particular, some of his examples are a little iffy. His background is in chemistry, but he draws them from physics, and sometimes they fall a bit flat. Also, I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea of doing science without methodological (as opposed to philosophical) naturalism.

But his arguments are sound and his warning is necessary. In just a few decades we've gotten to a place where anything that isn't measurable is treated as opinion. It will only get worse unless people push back.

Which is why I give this my rare five-star rating. I dearly wish everyone would read this book. This is another free ebook that I'll be picking up in hard copy.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: Christian Ethics

Mortimer Adler says, when you critique a book, you're supposed to critique the book the author intended to write not the book you wish he'd written. It's in that spirit I set out to review Wayne Grudem's Christian Ethics.

I was excited when I saw it was available for free review copies. This is an area in which I haven't read much, and there are so many moral issues either giving us trouble now or looming on the horizon, so I was eager to dive in.

Grudem says, "I have written this book for Christians who want to understand what the Bible teaches about how to obey God faithfully in their daily lives." It was written to serve as a textbook or a guide for the lay believer, and it can be read straight through or readers can dip into whichever chapters address their particular concerns. The format is very similar to his Systematic Theology. He gives his arguments in a cleanly laid out format, then he provides "questions for personal application," a list of special terms from the chapter that appear in the glossary, and a bibliography of other works that weigh in on the same topics, followed by a scripture memory passage and a hymn.

He lists six "distinctive features" of his book: a clear biblical basis for ethics, clarity in the explanation of ethical teachings, application to life, focus on the evangelical world, hope for progress int he unity of the church on ethical issues, and a sense of the urgent need for greater ethical understanding in the whole church. I totally agree that those features characterize the book, most especially the first.

The first part of the book lays down a foundation for the discussion of ethics: where do they come from, why do we care, how do we know God's will? Then he discusses the possibility of the impossible moral conundrum (ie, where the believer must choose between sinful options) and how to use the Old Testament for ethical guidance. After that he launches into the various ethical topics using the Ten Commandments as organizational headings. (For example, under "You shall not steal", he handles property rights, "work, rest, vacations, and retirement," increasing prosperity, poverty, business ethics, and more.)

Now it's time to "critique the book the author intended to write." So how'd he do? If you're familiar with his other work, it'll come as no surprise that he's thorough, thoughtful, and clear. You may not always agree with what he says, but he says it well. I think he let himself off a little too easy on the topic of impossible moral situations, but this is a very, very difficult area that most of us — thankfully — will never really experience.

On the individual issues he was, again, very thorough and, in my humble opinion, completely biblical — and honest when he's going beyond what the biblical text actually says. I do wish he gone into more detail on medical and/or genetic "improvements" on humans (one of the issues looming on the horizon), but it's hardly a classical problem at this point.

My only real complaint comes from the book I wish he'd written. I was hoping to get a more generalized methodology for approaching new issues. I expected something like that in his chapters on "factors to consider in making ethical decisions" and using the OT for guidance. I didn't really get what I was looking for. I don't know if such a thing doesn't exist or if I was just expecting too much. Or perhaps that's simply not the book he set out to write.

Judging the book he wrote on the grounds of what he says he intended to do, it's a good book. It's not the only such book (he lists many, many others), but it's well written, comprehensive, and thoroughly biblical. I got the electronic version for free, but some day I'll probably pick up a hard copy for the shelf.

I reserve that fifth star for only the most important books, but this one would easily be four stars. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of biblical ethics and to everyone who's not.