Thursday, February 28, 2008

Islamic Reformation?

According to the BBC, Turkey plans to revise the Hadith*. This has the potential to completely transform Islam. The Turkish government takes the position that some of the sayings are incorrectly attributed to Mohammad and some are out-dated. (For more detail see the article.)

The prospect of modernizing Islam excites the imagination. Could they move away from some of the more oppressive rules? Might the more violent interpretations lose favor? We can only wait and see.

Of course, it’s hard not to be a little sympathetic toward the traditionalists – Christianity has had its share of battles over “modernizing” our religion. Of course, my bias says since our religion is true, it shouldn’t be modernized. Muslims will no doubt have the same attitude.

So what position should Christians take toward this move in Islam? May I suggest that we be prayerfully, quietly supportive?

We should support this because, even though this is unlikely to move them toward the gospel, it can only be a good thing if the religion softens some of its hard edges – I think God cares about the oppressed no matter what religion is oppressing them.

We should do it quietly for a couple of reasons. Our reformation was a difficult and at times bloody affair. Islam certainly has the potential for the same problems and more. We don’t want or need to get in the crossfire.

Another reason to support them quietly is that the traditionalists will no doubt attack the modernizers as wanting to imitate or kow tow to the West. Our support will not help them on that point.

Finally, let’s pray for the safety and success of the reformers. This is likely to be a long, slow process. What starts in Turkey may not hit Iran or Saudi Arabia for 100 years. May God grant the reformers success as they seek to soften some of Islam’s rough edges.

* The collected saying of Muhammad which is used to interpret the Koran – making it loosely akin to the Jewish Talmud.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

6 Word Memoirs

You might have already heard about the book of six-word memoirs called Not Quite What I Was Planning. (There's a neat little video on the Amazon page that gives you the gist.)

I started thinking about what mine would be.

I could focus on my inability to dress myself (pants are black; socks are brown) or my not-so-inner child (32 and still play with Transformers).

If I consider the general course of my life, I'm more likely to say: Ridiculously lucky; don't deserve all this.

But maybe more accurately: Frequently get distracted from what's important.

That last one's a bit too accurate. I get distracted so easily. I can bury myself in a hobby or project. I can get carried away in an argument -- in either sense of the word. It's so easy to focus on the next twenty minutes when the next twenty years matter so much more.

And then there are the times I push my kids off so I can do something of minimal importance when I should jump at the chance to dance with Cinderella.

Since we've moved, I've had a little trouble getting back into the groove of blogging. Instead I've spent more time with my kids and helped around the house a bit more. While I hope to get more regular about posting, I don't think I'm going to let it take up quite as much time as I used to.

I'm also going to try to refocus on those things that matter forever, to fix my eyes on the unseen. I want to remember that more important than winning a fight is loving my wife and better than winning an argument is winning a soul.

At the end of my days, I want my six-word memoir to say: "Old is gone; new has come."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Incarnation, Redemption, and Creation

“Would Christmas have come even if we had not sinned?” That’s the question asked in Philip Yancey’s January 2008 Christianity Today column “Ongoing Incarnation.”

He recounts the debate over whether the incarnation was God’s “primary design” (attributed to Duns Scotus) or “Plan B” (attributed to Aquinas*).

“Did Jesus visit this planet as an accommodation to human failure or as the center point of all creation?” I would answer that “Yes!”

There are two things that can be said about this debate. The first is that it is clearly moot. We did fall, so asking whether Christ would have come anyway strikes me as a waste of energy, though you can argue that understanding the Incarnation better is worth any amount of energy.

The second thing to be said, though, is that this debate comes terribly close to diminishing God.

We’re presented with two choices – that Jesus came to correct our situation or that Jesus was always going to come anyway. The truth is that Jesus was always going to come correct our situation.

God was not surprised by the fall. The cross was not His last minute scheme to rescue us. The fall was seen before the beginning of time. Christ’s sacrifice was an integral part of creation from the beginning. He chose to create us knowing He would have to die for us. To claim any less calls into question God’s omniscience and obscures the full picture of His grace.

Yancey encourages modern Christians to embrace Duns Scotus’ “Doctrine of the Absolute Primacy of Christ in the Universe.” And some of what he shares sounds like good stuff: “Those who root their identity in Christ have a holy mission to reclaim territory that has been spoiled.” Amen!

But while Duns Scotus (not to mention Aquinas) may have something important to teach 21st Century Christians, we shouldn’t let ourselves get caught by the notion that God’s plan for creation ever excluded the cross.

* I haven't read that much Aquinas, but I'm skeptical about him seeing the Incarnation, or the cross, as any kind of "plan B," but that's beside the point right now. I do wish Yancey had cited some sources.

Ephesians 1: Creation and Calvary
Ephesians 1: We Get to Know How it Ends!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

How to be a Self-Feeder

Some time back I wrote about Willow Creek and their desire for their members to become “self-feeders.” Becoming a mature Christian requires learning to feed our own souls just as children must learn to feed their own bodies.

How do we become self-feeders? Make the following activities into a lifestyle.

Read the Bible right.
What is reading the Bible “right?” Read big chunks. Read it in context. Read it all. Read it slowly. Read it carefully. Read it thoughtfully.

Don’t read a Bible verse a day. Don’t hopscotch. Read significant sections (at least a couple of chapters) at a single sitting, and move through a book in order. The Bible is not a bunch of one-liners. Each sentence in each book is a part of a whole that is not properly understood except in relation to that whole.

Don’t camp out in your favorite books. You want the whole counsel of scripture, not just of your favorite parts. Too many stay in Psalms or the gospels and ignore the epistles and the prophets. Or vice versa. Which book of the Bible do you read most? Decide right now you’re not going to read it until you’ve read seven other books.

Read slowly. A useful tool in this endeavor is the reading plan. There are tons of reading plans out there, but many have the same weakness: they want you to read the Bible in a year. That’s not a bad goal in itself; it’s good for general familiarity with the whole Bible.

Self-feeding requires more than familiarity, though. You need to really absorb what you’re reading, and that takes time. So if you use a one-year reading plan, cut it in half or more – take two or three years to read it.

There are other reading schemes out there that don’t have this weakness. One suggests you read the same book repeatedly. Short books can be read every day for a couple of weeks. Longer books can be read in large chunks (a few chapters) until you’ve read the whole ten times.

I recently read about a “plan” where you read one of the Gospels and stop to read each reference from the Old Testament (and the surrounding chapters). I haven’t tried it, but it’s an intriguing approach to getting a broader picture of the Bible much like the next suggestion.

I recommend you try reading the Bible chronologically at least once. If not the whole thing, there are lists of chapters than can be threaded together to get the big picture. There are also some devotionals that help with this including Stott’s Through the Bible, Through the Year.

Read it well. However you read the Bible, remember that you’re not reading for distance. Read to understand. Read to remember, to absorb, to consider. Think about what you’re reading. Engage your imagination too – try to put yourself in what you’re reading. Get into it, and it will get into you.

Don’t just read it. Study it.
If you’ve never studied a book of the Bible all by yourself, now’s the time. I’m not saying there’s no profit in studying with a group, and it’s certainly fun, but self-feeders study when there’s no one else around.

If you don’t know how to study the Bible, there are plenty of resources to learn. I’ve recommended Living by the Book before. There are lots of other good ones including How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Methodical Bible Study, and Knowing Scripture.

Bible study is generally broken up into observing, interpreting, and applying. All are important, but interpreting is the one that’s the easiest to get wrong. Learn the rules. And get help.

As these works will all tell you, self-feeding does not mean that you never go to another person – especially commentaries, dictionaries, atlases, and theologies. What it means is that you don’t go to them first. Try to figure out what’s going on yourself. Even if you’re wrong, you’ll benefit from the process.

Keep reading. You can get caught up in studying a book for quite a while. To keep from over-emphasizing one section at the expense of the rest of the Bible, I suggest you alternate – study two or three days a week, read from your plan the other days of the week.

Memorize and meditate.
Reading and studying will get the scriptures in your mind. The idea is to keep them there.

What should I memorize? If you’re going to memorize a verse, try to pick the one that best expresses the main idea of the passage it belongs to. If possible, try to do more. I’ve memorized a few paragraphs including small Psalms. I know people who’ve memorized whole books. Some Muslims memorize the whole Koran. With a little work, you can do anything you set your mind to. Once you’ve memorized, you can meditate anywhere. (Before you’ve memorized, you can still do it with the passage in front of you.)

Do Christians meditate? Yes. Christian meditation is not crossing your legs and chanting or emptying your mind. It is focusing on the scriptures.

The idea of meditating is to work the passage over in your mind, coming at it from different angles, focusing on different parts of it, and most importantly testing yourself against it until you’ve thoroughly digested it.

Application: warm fuzzies vs cold pricklies
Finally, the most overlooked part of any Bible study program is application. If you want to self-feed, this is key. If you don’t put what you’ve learned into practice, all you’ve accomplished is to engage in an intellectual exercise.

If you want to be a mature believer, if you want to be more like Christ, you have to get what you’ve read into your life.

Apply it right. Even when we try to apply, we often let ourselves off with a feel-good generalization – I’ll try to nicer. I’ll be more loving. I’ll give more.

I had a professor who really turned the screws on application, and he was absolutely right, so I’ll tell you what he told us:

A good application is personal, specific, measurable, and time-limited.
“We should help our neighbors more” gives you a warm fuzzy. It is general, it leaves you lots of wiggle room, and it’s un-measurable.

“I will cut Mrs. Smith’s grass by Saturday evening” is a cold-prickly. You will know whether or not you cut her grass. There is no wiggle room. Tell someone else about this for even less wiggle room.

Summing it up.
If you want to grow into a mature believer you’ve got to bury yourself in the Bible, get the Bible into you, and then take what you’ve learned and live it. This is a life-long process with the goal of being more like Christ today than we were yesterday.

What about you?
This has been my advice born from my experience. Anyone have anything else they’d like to suggest? Or maybe tips on how to do the above well? We’d love to hear from you.

5 Questions to Help Your Devotions
Never Read a Bible Verse

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On Public Schools and Christian Education

Out of Ur started a discussion of Al Mohler's Culture Shift and specifically the chapter that calls for an "exit strategy" from public schools. (HT: Scot McKnight)

This issue is important to me because I've got two young girls who will be starting school fairly soon. After considering a lot of people's responses, I wanted to sum up where I'm heading.

Are the schools in trouble? Yes. For a variety of reasons. Set aside the question of whether your kid will get shot or if they'll ever learn to read, the public school system in many areas is actively promoting ideals that are completely opposed to Christianity.

What about Christian schools? A complete pullout of Christian children from public schools could be accomplished if we were to commit sufficient energy and money to the endeavour, but I don't think that is likely to happen. And all too often Christian schools focus so much on being Christian that they forget to be a school.

Can we keep our kids in public schools without losing them to the culture? I think it's possible -- if we're willing to commit ourselves fully to the path we need to take.

It's said that you can't have your kids in school 30 hours a week and expect to counter it with 2 hours a week of church. That's true. But all 30 hours of school is not necessarily spiritually poisonous, and we can commit our evenings to focused attempts to counter whatever damage was done during the day.

The homeschool advocates frequently quote Deuteronomy --"Teach [the law] to your children, talking about [it] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up" (11:19). If we actually did that, as opposed to shuttling them to and fro for every activity from soccer to dance to Bible club, we might actually be able to fight the effects of the public schools on our children.

What?! Did I just include church activies in my list of unnecessary time wasters? I think a great many of them are. Looking back at my childhood, I think a lot of the church stuff we did was just trying to keep us occupied, and some of it was more influenced by the world than the Bible. If you've got your kids at home talking about the Bible, maybe that Tuesday night youth activity isn't necessary.

What will this take? Nothing less than a transformation of our lifestyles. All of your and their evenings devoted to the formation of a Christian mind and worldview while deprogramming the anti-Christian garbage they've been fed the previous day.

Did they read about Heather and her two mommies? You've got to talk about God's design for the family as well as how to respond to "non-traditional" couples and families in a Christ-like manner.

Did they get fed a load about how important their self-esteem is? You've got to drum into them the importance of a Christlike humility and devotion to the good of everyone else over yourself.

Can we do this? Probably not. I think putting your kids in a school that's not fighting against your values is a much more effective and efficient way to educate your kids.

I don't think we have a responsibility to send our kids to the "mission field" of public schools. They're not ready for that fight. If we do not equip our soldiers for battle before the war they are nothing but cannon fodder. I want better for our kids than that.

So what do we do? My suggestion is to evaluate your local schools carefully. If you can deal with what's going on there, feel free to do so. If you can't, I suggest protecting your kids' souls.

My local schools are in a small town in the Bible belt. We can probably deal with them, though that doesn't mean there will never be anything we have to worry about. If I was in the urban northern US or on either coast, I'd probably have to go with private or home schools. Judge carefully and choose wisely.

Good luck to us all.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Politics, Religion, and Brotherly Love

How should Christians respond to political differences with other believers?

It’s all too common for Christians on one side of the political aisle to accuse Christians on the other side of ignoring the Bible (or Christ) over political disagreements.*

When we try to live out our faith, two problems give rise to this unfortunate tendency.

Problem 1: How to apply many scriptures
The Bible clearly says, “Thou shalt not steal.” And, frankly, I don’t know any Christians who think stealing is ok.

The Bible also clearly says to love your neighbor, render unto Caesar, obey the law, be generous to the poor, and be kind to the alien. No one actually questions whether we should do all of those things. What we disagree about is how to apply all of those commands to particular political situations (e.g., illegal immigration).

Problem 2: Many avenues to address one problem
Even when the biblical issue seems straight forward, there are still many ways to approach a problem politically.

Example issue: poverty

Liberal approach: transfer payments (e.g., welfare), government programs (e.g., midnight basketball), government make-work jobs (e.g., FDR’s public works jobs)
Conservative approach: expand economy to create real jobs** (largely through tax policy), private charity

Both groups are trying to do something about poverty. For various reasons, the two groups have very different approaches to the problem. That is not, in and of itself, wrong.

A particular approach may be inappropriate from a biblical point of view. This is an issue to discuss; this is not something about which we should fling accusations.

Disagree lovingly
I’m not saying that no one’s right. What I want to emphasize is that if your brother in Christ is trying to apply the scriptures to an issue, he might come up with a different answer to the question than you. That does not give you grounds to question his sincerity, his commitment to the Bible or Christ, or his salvation.

We can disagree in a loving way and still maintain the unity our Master desires for us.

* If one side is more prone to this than another, that is a topic for another time.

** Not all Republicans or conservatives think of this as a way to deal with poverty. Those people probably do not believe in supply-side economics. They’re likely to focus on private charity – and in the case of liberal Republicans, transfer payments, etc. Most conservatives today do believe in supply-side economics; those who’ve thought it through enough will apply that to poverty.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Do We have Evidence?

Last time I addressed personal experience and when it was desirable with respect to evidence. Our friend Vinny responded by claiming that we have no evidence. Is that the case?

I want to point out up front that this is of necessity a thumbnail sketch of the existing evidence. Whole books have been written on just parts of this question. I’ve written on this topic before as well. What follows is a summary case.

Different Kinds of Evidence
First we have to consider that there are different kinds of evidence. In a murder trial, the defendant can be found guilty without any eye witnesses based on his weapon being used in the crime, his prints being found at the scene, his DNA on the victim, a lack of an alibi, and plenty of motive. A man can spend the rest of his life in jail – maybe worse – without a single eye witness to the crime.

It is claimed that the Gospels don’t count as eye-witness evidence. If that is true, they can still be evidence. But I don’t think it’s true that they aren't eye-witness evidence.

Anonymous Gospels?
Let’s address the names attached to the Gospels. It is true that the names of the authors do not appear in the documents. The fact that they are anonymous does not mean no one knew who wrote them.

The earliest mention of the Gospel writers that we know of exists only as a quote by Eusebius. He quotes Papias (circa ad130) as attributing Matthew and Mark to the traditional authors. The Muratorian Canon then mentions Luke and John (ca 170) followed by Irenaeus (ca 180) who put all four together (Against Heresies 3.1.1) (the “numerology” is in regard to the rightness of there being four gospels (3.11.8), not in the names of the authors). As Roberts points out, the minimal discussion of authorship implies that the matter was pretty much settled, at least for the author and his audience.

Would it be nice if the authors identified themselves? Sure. But we have the traditional names appearing quickly enough that the community could reasonably be expected to know who wrote these Gospels. Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, if someone was going to fake the authors’ names, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are unlikely choices. Fake gospels bear names like Peter, Thomas, and Mary. Who would fake a name like Mark? As Roberts said, “…the anonymity of the biblical Gospels bears the stamp of truth whereas the pseudonymity of the noncanonical Gospels suggests their falsehood.”

Eye Witnesses?
History tells us that Mark’s Gospel is really Peter’s. Matthew and John, also, were likely either written by apostles or from their teaching. So three of the canonical Gospels originate with apostles. What about Luke?

Luke was not one of the original disciples; neither was Paul with whom he is associated. So Luke’s Gospel starts out with a statement of the care Luke took in preparing his work. He claims to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3) – in other words, he’s examined the facts, spoken to witnesses, checked out stories, and presents an “orderly account” of the ministry and passion of Christ.

Honest Gospels
That Luke and the others wanted to give an honest account of Christ’s life is demonstrated by the things they included that could easily have been excluded that cast Jesus or the apostles in a less than ideal light.

Some examples: Christ’s baptism and rejection by His family; the discovery of the empty tomb by women; the apostles’ repeated inability to understand Jesus and their frequent jockeying for position. Was it really necessary to repeat the story of Peter denying Christ in all four Gospels? The authors of these works were clearly trying to keep everything truthful – meaning we can trust them.

Explaining the Facts
Lastly, the story that has been passed down to us is the only one that explains the facts. Secular history tells us that the followers of Christ began to proclaim His resurrection in the same city in which He was killed. It also tells us that His formerly timid followers were willing to die in defense of this belief.

We know that His Jewish followers departed from many cherished beliefs after they began proclaiming this resurrection – including abandoning the Sabbath and worshipping Jesus as God. (Don’t let the Old Testament give you the wrong idea; the post-exile Jews were very strongly monotheistic and shunned any form of idolatry – as Antichous Epiphanes learned.)

The Gospels explain all of this in a way that nothing else can.

Facts and Doubt
These are the facts. Yet some people still doubt. How can these be facts if people doubt them?

The truth is, facts are not always indisputable – even in science. I work in the medical field; I’ve learned that there is great variety in how diseases are treated, and it can all be backed up with some sort of data. The hard sciences are no better. General relativity is as well-attested as any theory out there, and still there are scientists who don’t believe it and are desperately trying to find another explanation for the data. That’s life.

I’m sure you believe in relativity. Millions of people believe in relativity, evolution, the existence of electrons, and more without examining any data at all – much less performing any experiments themselves. They believe what someone told them – someone who also never performed any experiments themselves.

Christianity is not like that. We don’t have fifth generation word of mouth. We have the records of people who either were eye witnesses or spoke to them. As evidence goes, that’s not bad.

I would love to have rock solid evidence that no one could deny, but that’s not what we’ve been given. However, we also have not been given myths made up around campfires by fishermen strung out on peyote. We’ve been given solid, sober account from trustworthy sources that have demonstrated the ability to transform those who trust them.

The Resurrection: A Story No One Would Make Up
What is Faith?

Brief bibliography:
Bruce, FF. The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament
Roberts, Mark D. Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ