Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Father-Daughter Review: Growing in Godliness

When I was given the opportunity to get a review copy of Growing in Godliness: A Teen Girl's Guide to Maturing in Christ, I almost passed, being a 40-something male. But I do have teen girls, so I asked if they would want to read and review a book with me. One agreed.

This is a short book aimed at teaching girls to "prioritize [their] Christian growth." "Prioritize" is an important word. These things don't just happen. Spiritual growth takes effort in everyone, but teenagers aren't given to prioritizing such long-term things. If they wait 20 years to focus on that, they will eventually look back at those 20 years as wasted years, but it's hard to see that at 16. So I love what the author's trying to do here.

I also loved how she began this project, by looking at our creation in the image of God as both our original state and our goal. I think that's a very healthy place to begin a conversation about sanctification. After that she talked about our purpose, trusting God, learning to accept limits, trust the Bible, love the Church, and pray, and evaluating your results.

As a dad, I felt like this book covered the right ground.

I did have one concern. Though this book is marketed to "teenage" girls, from the first page I got the feeling it was written to 13-year-olds. Is that a problem? Well, maybe.

Now for the 16yo girl's thoughts:

I asked her what she thought of the book overall. "I hate it." Wow. That's kind of strong. She didn't back down.

Her primary complaint was that she felt like it was meant for children, not teenagers. (I guess it was a problem.) She thought the writing style was essentially talking down to her. ("It talks to you like you're a baby.") And she says teens want more direct speech and fewer anecdotes.

Her second complaint was that the author didn't explain the things she should have explained. For instance, the author says you need to connect everything to God, but she doesn't explain why. The book would do better, she says, if some of those anecdotes were replaced by a more scriptural explanation or argument.

Much of the rest, she says, was common sense, things that you would know if you grew up in church.

She did enjoy the chapter on prayer, saying that the author exposed her to new ideas on how to pray.

I asked her how many "stars" she'd give it. She said if it were marketed to pre-teens, she'd give it 3-4 stars. For teens, though, 1 star.

Yikes. I was totally thinking this was a four-star book. Kids are brutal.

I still think the content is basically good, even if it could be fleshed out a bit in places. But this apparently is a book for 11-13yo girls, not "teens." If you do give it to your daughter, plan on talking to them about it; there are places you may need to reinforce.

I can't give it one star, though. This is a good book that was just aimed at the wrong audience; I'll give it three stars.

Link is a referral link.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

How do we know there's anything supernatural about the Bible?

“Edom will become an object of horror; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. As Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown, along with their neighboring towns,” says the Lord, “so no one will live there; no people will dwell in it” (Jer 49:17-18).
tombs of Petra

It’s good to know that the biblical text is reliable, but wouldn’t it be nice to have some kind of sign that the Bible is more than just the words of men? We have that in the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible.

If you don’t believe in God, it’s hard to explain prophecies. Skeptics usually assume that any prophecy in the Bible that “came true” was either so vague as to be meaningless (like a carnival fortune teller) or must have been written after the fact, but that ploy doesn’t work with every prophecy. There are too many of them that are too specific and which could not have been written later.

One of these is the above prophecy against Edom, one of many about them. God promised these long-time enemies (and relatives) of the Jews during the time of the Babylonian captivity that their land would lie desolate. Even if this prophecy were “really written” a couple of hundred years later, that wouldn’t help the skeptic’s case as the prophecy wasn’t fulfilled until 400 years later, after the time of Christ.

After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, “the children of Esau disappear as a separate people from the stage of recorded history.” (1) Edom became a wasteland. In modern times, “the Arabs, in general, avoid the ruins of the cities of [Edom] on account of the enormous scorpions with which they swarm.” (2)

This is far from the only fulfilled prophecy in scripture. Promises against Tyre, Sidon, and, of course, Jerusalem, among others, were fulfilled. Cyrus the Great was named by name before he was even born (Is 44:28, 45:1). The rise and fall of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were predicted (Dan 2).

And, though I don’t want to go into detail now, the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ were predicted in stunning detail hundreds of years before he was born.

The cumulative effect of all of this?

Christ Pantocrator mosaic from Hagia Sophia
“Picture a pond with a sandy bottom and flat rocks on the shore but no rocks in the water. Now picture a boy who discovers the lake and skips a few rocks. A century later another boy also skips some rocks across the pond. Another century goes by and another boy skips more rocks on the pond. Imagine then climbing a tall tree by the pond and discovering that there was an excellent portrait done in mosaic on the bottom of the pond made from the skipping stones. This is what prophecy is like.” (3)

The Bible is made up of reliable historical documents written by eyewitnesses. We now can say that what those witnesses saw had been predicted beforehand. No mere mortal could predict what the prophets predicted. The fulfilled prophecies of the Bible prove there is supernatural power behind the scriptures. If God was behind the prophecies about Tyre and Cyrus, there is no reason to doubt he was behind the Bible’s moral teachings, the gospel of grace, and the hope extended by Christ Jesus to all who trust in him.

(1) David Higgins, quoted in A Ready Defense by Josh McDowell
(2) George Smith, quoted by McDowell
(3) Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics

Image credits:
Petra tombs, Saturn83, creative commons
Christ Pantocrator mosaic from Hagia Sophia, Jim Forest, creative commons

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Do we have any external verification of the Gospels?

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene ... the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1-2).

I want to set expectations low from the outset. There are no non-Christian documents that prove Jesus rose from the dead. For one thing, if any document says Jesus rose from the dead, it’s immediately classified as a Christian document. But there is extra-biblical support for the broad outline of the story, and there is archaeological evidence that the NT writers were, at the very least, not writing high fantasy — that they were writing about the world around them.

First we’ll talk about the non-Christian historical documents. During his life, Jesus was a big nobody. I know, he drew big crowds, worked miracles, and said all kinds of controversial things, but the Roman Empire was a big place, and Judea was an unpopular backwater. Yet another crazy prophet running around Palestine was not going to attract much attention. And in the pre-modern world, the three-ish years of his ministry wasn’t time for much news to even get out.

So the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus comes from several years after his ministry. The primary evidence comes from the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100) and the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120). Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, and rabbic tradition offer a little more material. The relevant passages are interesting, but for our purposes I will only quote historian Edwin Yamauchi’s summary of the picture these various ancient documents paint of Jesus. If we lost the New Testament, what would we know about Jesus?

“We would know that first, Jesus was a Jewish teacher; second, many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; third, some people believed he was the Messiah; fourth, he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; fifth, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; sixth, despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; and seventh, all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshiped him as God.”
Is this enough to make people fall down and worship Jesus? Of course not. But it’s ample evidence that the stories told in the gospels have at least some historical basis.

The second type of evidence is the archaeological data. The question is whether archaeology supports the historicity of the New Testament accounts. In recent history, people have tended to assume the worst. If the NT speaks of a person or place that we have no other information about, it is assumed to be a fabrication. Until the evidence emerges.

One example is Luke’s reference to Lysanias as tetrarch quoted above. As archaeologist John McRay tells it, “For years scholars pointed to this as evidence that Luke didn’t know what he was talking about, since everybody knew that Lysanias was not a tetrarch but rather the ruler of Chalcis half a century earlier.” That is until “an inscription was found from the time of Tiberius ... which names Lysanius as tetrarch.” Time and again critics have accused Luke of being loose with the details or even making things up. Time and again he has been shown to be a very careful historian.

The same thing has happened with some other writers. For example, John 5 tells about Jesus healing a man at the Pool of Bethesda. For years this was cited as proof the John didn’t know Jerusalem because no such place existed. You can now visit the ruins.

Again and again archaeology has vindicated both the New Testament and the Old. This is not proof that the stories they tell are true, but it does provide strength to the argument that the authors were indeed present and trying to recount history rather than just writing wild fantasies.

The stories recounted in the Bible are fantastic. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t really happen. If they did, if a man who died on a Roman cross really rose from the dead, then everything he said is worth paying attention to.

For more information, see The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.

Image credit: The Pool of Bethesda by Robert Bateman, 1877

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Did the gospel writers know what they were talking about?

“For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
If someone were to tell you an incredible, supernatural story, what would be your first question? It would probably be, “Did you actually see it?” You wouldn’t treat an urban legend or a story your friend got from his friend’s cousin’s uncle the same way you’d treat something your friend saw with his own eyes. We want our news to come from people who saw it or, failing that, people who talked to the people who did.

So did the gospels come from people who were there? Some of them. Tradition says the Gospels According to Matthew* and John were written by actual apostles and that Mark’s was a record of Peter’s teaching. Luke “carefully investigated everything” (Luke 1:3) before giving us his account, suggesting that he spoke to as many witnesses as he could get his hands on.

And there were still witnesses. People debate when the gospels were written, but only the most close-minded opponents date them outside of possible lifetimes of witnesses. Conservatives think Mark may have written his gospel as early as the mid 50s; liberals and skeptics put it in the 70s. Dates for Luke range from the late 50s/early 60s to the mid 80s. In either case we’re talking about a period well within the lifetime of witnesses to the kinds of things people would not forget. So if the gospel writers were making things up, there would have been people around who could object.

And the first generation of the church knew the power of eye witness reports. The quote above from Peter is similar to the assurance given by John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). The message of the apostles was “we’re telling you what we saw.” The Church would not have accepted the written gospels if they were from just anyone.

But is there any actual evidence that these accounts come from witnesses? Yes.

There are two “minor” things that I think make a major difference. The first is the use of names and locations in the gospels. As Richard Bauckham has shown in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, the names used in Judea and Galilee were different than Jewish names in other parts of the world, and the gospel writers not only use the right names, but they disambiguate the right names — that is, they know which names are common and make it clear who they’re talking about. So, for example, we don’t need to disambiguate a less common name like Andrew, but we need to know that the Joseph who asked for Christ’s body is the one from Arimathea.

street signs in Israel
In a similar manner, the geography in the gospels makes sense. The right towns have gentiles, and the towns with tax collectors are the kinds of town where you would expect them. Unlike later “gospels” like Thomas or Mary, the canonical gospels go into quite a bit of detail about the geography of Palestine, and they get it all right, suggesting that these stories come from people who were there. As Peter Williams pointed out, you couldn't just google these details back then. The kind of details they casually drop into the narrative are evidence that the stories originated from that part of the world.

The second “minor” thing is something known as undesigned coincidences. For example, in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus asks Philip where they can get bread for everyone (6:1-5). Why Philip? Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:43-44), and as Luke alone tells us, this event occurred near Bethsaida (9:10). Undesigned coincidences are all these kinds of little, insignificant details that really could not have been coordinated but allow one author to clarify another. These are only possible because the authors are telling stories that really happened. Whole books are dedicated to identifying these things, the most recent of which is Hidden in Plain View by Lydia McGrew.

Any one of these things might be brushed off, but together they make a pretty strong case. So I think we can have confidence that we have not believed “cleverly devised fables” but true stories about the most amazing thing that has ever happened in the history of the world. If these stories are true, they beg the question, “What will you do about it?” How should we live if these stories are true?

For more information, see a different Can We Trust the Gospels?, this one written by Peter J Williams.

* I’m not going to go into detail on this, but suffice it to say, if you were going to make up names for the authors of the gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are pretty much the last names you’d fabricate.

Image credit: Tamar Levine under Creative Commons

Part of Christianity 101

Monday, February 3, 2020

Did the gospel writers intend to tell the truth?

“Then everyone deserted [Jesus] and fled” (Mark 14:50).
Even if we have the actual words of the apostles, why should we think they were telling the truth? Especially in the gospels, so many fantastic things are described that it seems obvious that they had no problem making things up.

It’s a valid question. I think the best way to address it is to ask what you would include if you were going to make up a story to start a new religion. You’d make sure the founder seemed wise and witty. Check. You’d give him awesome powers. Check. You’d make sure the leaders of your new religion looked good. Um, wait a second.

It’s called the criterion of embarrassment. Do the writers include things they didn’t have to include, things that are embarrassing? The apostles don’t look that good in the gospels. The twelve consistently misunderstand Jesus (eg, Matt 16:5-7). They act like children (eg, Mark 10:35-37). They abandoned Jesus in the garden, and Peter denied even knowing him (Mark 14:66-72).

Even Jesus doesn’t always look as good as he might. He’s rejected by his own family (eg, Mark 3:21). There are things he doesn’t know (eg, Matt 24:36). He can’t seem to do many miracles in his hometown (Mark 6:5). Most of all, crucifixion was a shameful death. These aren’t things you’d make up. But by including them, the authors show they’re trying to be honest.

One of the authors also included a statement about his honest intentions:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Luke wanted this disciple, Theophilus, to know the truth of the matter. This statement is about as far from “once upon a time” as you can get. Luke is saying “I checked everything out, and here’s the real story.”

But, some will say, the gospel writers had an agenda, they were biased. John even plainly says, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). The apostles wanted people to believe, so they told them what they thought would make them believe.

Duh. Of course they were biased. Of course they wanted people to believe. That doesn’t mean they weren’t telling the truth.

Peter Williams, principal of Tyndale House, wrote in his Can We Trust the Gospels?:

... Bias does not mean we should distrust their record. An innocent man accused of a crime may have a deep interest in proving his innocence, but this bias is not a reason to dismiss evidence he produces. The question, then, is not whether the Gospel writers had an agenda, but whether they reported accurately.
Unless someone is determined to reject the gospels a priori or simply cannot have an open mind because of miraculous stories, there is no reason to doubt that the gospel writers were trying to honestly convey the stories about Jesus.

And there’s a lesson here for us. When the first generation of the church was writing down the oral traditions about Jesus, they chose to tell the stories about their founder and their leaders in all the unvarnished truth. They did not pretend Jesus was universally loved and admired. They did not pretend the apostles were paragons of virtue. They told the truth and trusted God for the results.

Today, though, many Christians are afraid to admit, much less confront, the faults of their leaders. Some are afraid that allowing scandal to come to light may turn people off of the church. Well, the truth has a tendency to come out anyway, and then we look dishonest. We have to be committed to the truth and to living like Christ and let God be responsible for what happens from there.

For more information, I recommend Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Mark D. Roberts.

Part of Christianity 101