Archive for January, 2014

Dodging the Issue

January 24, 2014
Consider this e-mail that we received the other day fascinating.  I’m torn between being amused and infuriated, while trying hard to stay on the amused side.  The e-mail reads as follows:
Hello,
I am a parent of a student at —–  Elementary and resident of — ———. My daughters girl scout troop is planning a neighborhood girl scout cookie sale at the corner of —– and —— on Saturday from 2 to 4 pm.  For the safety of our first graders, we plan to set up our table afew feet back from the street on the large grassy area. Since this is the corner where your church sits, we wanted to let you know that we will be there in case you see us in that space. If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know. Otherwise, please stop by and say hello or even buy some cookies! Thank you, 
I find this fascinating.  The author never asks permission.  They never directly acknowledge the fact that they will be on our property, though the very fact that they sent the e-mail in the first place demonstrates that they know they will be.  Their rational for this is the safety of the children, which is presented as a self-evident necessity beyond discussion.
Now, to be clear, I don’t have a problem per se with this arrangement.  I’m happy to give someone permission to sit on our property and sell Girl Scout cookies.  What I have a problem with is someone who doesn’t ask about using our property, but simply informs us that they will be using it.  Of course, if something were to happen on our property, the fact that they had simply asserted their right to be there for safety reasons would not stop a calculating sort of person from pursuing a lawsuit for damages.  
I wonder how understanding the author would be if I informed them that our church had decided to have a prayer vigil for our own purposes.  The author’s residence was determined to be the perfect location (based on whatever criteria – undisclosed – we chose to use).  We don’t want our members to simply be on the sidewalk – that’s kind of dangerous – so we’ll be standing in the author’s front yard.  For safety’s sake.  We aren’t asking permission, simply informing the author, so that if they see us standing in their yard, they’ll know why.  
I’m pretty sure that this would be considered ridiculous.  I’m trying to figure out how the author wouldn’t recognize the same oddness in their e-mail.  What would you say to this person?  Would you say anything?

Wet Bar Wednesday – Mimosa

January 22, 2014

We were making the dinner the other night, and decided to have breakfast for dinner, a family favorite.  One twist on the dinner is that we were making french toast rather than pancakes.  The other twist is that we wanted to have a drink with it.

Wife:  Too bad there aren’t any breakfast-themed drinks!
Me:    Are you kidding me?  Leave it to the professional.
Wife:  <Rolling eyes>
Knowing my wife doesn’t like Bloody Mary’s, I grabbed a bottle of champagne gifted to us by one of our international students and a carton of orange juice.  If you have champagne flutes, that adds a real touch of class.  But frankly, you could serve this in a sippy cup and it would be just as delicious.  While I am very proud of my liquor collection, my glassware collection is abysmal.  It does, however, consist of a few flutes, so out they came.  
The history of the mimosa is somewhat cloudy (as is typical).  It is potentially linked to an English drink called a Buck’s Fizz, but is generally said to have originated at the Paris Ritz in the 1920’s.  
Mimosa
  • 1 part champagne
  • 1 part chilled orange juice (traditional – you can substitute other juices as desired)
Pour the liquids in (order probably doesn’t seem to matter, but I generally do the OJ and then the champagne).
This is a light and refreshing drink that also impresses people.  You don’t need to break the bank on a top shelf champagne, either.  

WWJD?

January 21, 2014

The standard go-to response for certain Christians trying to find their way through a sticky ethical/moral morass.  It’s an admirable goal but oftentimes a difficult one to attain.  We can know what Jesus did, but extrapolating what He would do from what He did is no easy business, and perhaps even a dangerous one. Still, we’re compelled to try, it seems.

So a colleague of mine posted this article a few weeks ago on Facebook, where an evangelical attempts to refute some of the standard conservative Christian objections to issues where Christian business owners are expected to provide services for things they don’t approve of, such as gay marriages.  I think that overall it is very good food for thought.  
However compellingly it is written, it seemed less than convincing though, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I think my finger is closer to the mark now, so I’ll offer these thoughts on Mr. Jethani’s article.
First off, I’m in favor of anything that promotes intelligent dialog, regardless of whether or not I agree with the stance of the other person.  I think Mr. Jethani has written a very respectful article, and I appreciate that greatly in light of much more polemical material out there.
1.  The Biblical Argument – Mr. Jethani refers to the situation of Naaman the Aramean in 2 Kings 5 as grounds for his argument that Christians should not consider participation in an event they don’t agree with as inappropriately condoning, supporting, or encouraging that event.  Naaman begged from Elisha to assure him that God would forgive Naaman when his duties called him to escort his king to a pagan temple to worship, necessitating Namaan’s kneeling alongside his king, even though Naaman was not worshiping the pagan deity.  Elisha does indeed send Naaman back with an assurance that this is not problematic to God.
However, this is an exception given in an overall Hebrew/Israelite culture of very strict separation.  Hebrews were not permitted to interact casually with foreigners.  They were intentionally separated from the people around them as an offering to God and a light to the world.  And it was God who commanded this. So if you’re going to go to the Old Testament in search of an example of radical inclusiveness, you’re really fishing in the wrong waters.  Much of the point of the Old Testament was that God commanded a separation that his people were not only unable, but also often unwilling to keep, necessitating God’s chastisement and judgment.  Naaman’s exemption from this requirement recognized his rather unique situation, both as a convert to worshiping the Hebrew God, and his existing, prominent role.
Frankly, Mr. Jethani’s later arguments about how baking a cake for a Hindu service or an atheist wedding or any other non-Christian event would, logically, be the same thing as baking a gay marriage cake is far more compelling, though not in the way he intends it.  He is pushing for a consistency that we are uncertain applies in the particular instance of the Colorado baker.  Frankly, Jethani’s logic is good.  But it leads to the greater assertion that a business owner should be able to say who they will and won’t serve.  If the business owner, Mr. Phillips, is willing to bake cakes for other non-Christian weddings, but not for gay marriages, there is a personal inconsistency on his part.  But is personal inconsistency a grounds for overriding his personal freedom to run his business more or less as he sees fit?  Which leads directly to…
2.  The Discrimination Argument – Here Mr. Jethani equates refusal to design a custom wedding cake for a gay marriage with refusing to service people of another race, something we all agree is not a good policy or way of being human or Christian.  However, are these really the same things?  We assume that discrimination of any kind is always wrong.  However, that is not the case.  Discrimination can be a matter of which side of the issue you happen to stand on.  
Legalized discrimination, is a different matter.  Stating in the law that people MUST discriminate against others is certainly wrong.  However recognizing that different individuals have different tolerances and prejudices is by and large a matter of understanding human nature.  I’m not sure that attempting to legally force people NOT to discriminate is ultimately any more helpful or ethical than forcing people TO discriminate.  
I’ll go out on a limb and say that what anti-discrimination laws have done over the last few decades is not eradicate racial prejudice.  We’re reminded on a regular basis that this still exists, long after we thought we had eradicated it.  Rather, what anti-discrimination laws have done is require people to be more creative when they decide to act on their prejudices.  Now, instead of a business owner telling someone that she won’t hire them because of their age, or the sexual preference, they must come up with another reason.  They do so at their own risk.  They might be taken to court and accused of being discriminatory even if they didn’t say or do anything technically discriminatory. 
Ask anybody over the age of 55 who is looking for a job and they’ll be the first to tell you that their age is working against them even though it is illegal to not hire them because of their age.  We know discrimination.  It exists and always will exist at a personal level.  Whether a culture or society decides to institutionalize that discrimination is another matter.  
Forcing business owners to do things that they don’t want to do is not a good thing, whether insisting that they do discriminate or that they don’t discriminate.  Respecting personal attitudes – particularly in our age of alleged tolerance – seems the far more reasonable thing to do, understanding that different people will act in ways that we do or don’t personally approve of.  And we can take our money elsewhere accordingly.  
(As an aside, I still feel like this is a wobbly argument on my part, like I’m overlooking something basic.  Either that, or I’m just so indoctrinated about these things that attempting to question them automatically makes me doubt myself.  Either way, I’d very much like some intelligent thoughts on it)
3.  The Slippery Slope Argument – Just because businesses are forced to make changes doesn’t mean churches will.  Again, racial issues are used as the blueprint for this argument.  The government hasn’t forced churches to marry people of different races, therefore the government won’t force churches to marry people of the same sex.
This argument would be a lot stronger if we hadn’t had 40+ years of intervening cultural and political revolution.  This argument would be a lot stronger if the government had not repeatedly and consistently tried to force religious organizations and churches to violate their faith fundamentals for a purported larger good.  But the government has tried these things.  Very recently.  The government is succeeding in a large degree still with Obamacare, even if it has failed in other venues.  
I’d like to think that the social revolution of 40+ years ago was a wake up call to churches, a moment when God uti
lized secular powers to demonstrate to churches that they were going down the wrong path, pursuing a line of theology that is nowhere supported in the Bible.  Today, I don’t know of any churches that would still argue against inter-racial marriages.  I’d like to think that this is the result of better Biblical scholarship rather than just indoctrination.  But it may have taken the State to get that internal dialog going.  The State never needed to force churches to marry different races together because (at least in my naive understandings), churches by and large admitted that they were wrong and voluntarily modified their practices.  
But just because the State could function in that way in one instance doesn’t mean that every time the State acts it will have a properly corrective function on the Church.  And it doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that the State will never utilize legal precedent to force changes in practice (if not in doctrine) in a religion.  
Frankly, the Church-State relationship seems to have changed dramatically since the late 1960’s.  As such, to predicate this argument solely on what happened back then seems naive.  While I’d like to side with Mr. Jethani’s optimism on this count, current events don’t allow me to.  
I’m still grappling with this article and the points Mr. Jethani makes.  I think the strongest arguments are likely to be made on the principles of free enterprise, rather than religion.  The dangerous precedents that are being set here are primarily economic ones, not religious ones.  Once again, I think that painting this issue over what a business owner can and  can’t do as a religious issue is a way to mask a more far-reaching encroachment on personal liberty, something that everyone should be concerned about, regardless of your particular religion or sexuality.  

Talkin’ ‘Bout Change

January 20, 2014

Preaching about the need for congregations to change and adapt to the changing culture that surrounds them is dangerous work.  On the one hand, it might go in one ear and out the other with no intermediary stoppage, leading a preacher to bouts of  (brace yourself for the Gratuitous Big Word of the Day, which I had to look up to make sure I was using it right) apoplexy.  On the other hand, people might listen and decide that we need to really talk about this.

Which is what happened yesterday, which is kind of cool.  And Dangerous.
Congregations talking about change is nothing new.  One of the many difficulties lies in the fact that, until it’s really too late, there isn’t much active pressure on either a congregation or a pastor to change.  We’re all used to doing things a certain way.  I’m as comfortable with that as anyone, so as a pastor it’s particularly hard to change, even if talking about change is easy.  Talking about change gives the appearance that I actually want change, which means that nobody can blame me down the road if things get rough.  Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  
Meaningful change is driven by a purpose or need.  Clearly articulating that need or purpose is the most critical aspect of engaging in change, I suspect.  If you don’t clearly (and honestly) identify the need or purpose for change, then the changes you come up with may not be the changes necessary to satisfy what you really wanted to do.  Cue the response – Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  
For congregations, the hidden assumption in most discussions of change is that what we really want most of all is to keep things the way they are.  Ironic, isn’t it?  We know we need to change, because we don’t have enough people here on Sunday mornings to pay the utilities or the mortgage or the pastor.  Evangelism becomes driven not by the genuine desire to share the Gospel with those who may not have heard it or experienced it yet, but rather as a means to keep things the way I like them.  
It’s not bad to like things a certain way and want to keep them away.  It’s deadly not to take this into account quickly in your discussions about change.  
Parishioners aren’t the only ones prone to this.  Pastors have been brought up and trained to perpetuate things being done in a certain way.  As added reinforcement, major denominations tie pension plans and medical insurance plans into membership.  Now if we make any major changes, there’s a personal risk to the pastor.  I might lose my pension.  I might have to find alternate health coverage.  I might have to pick up a side job to make ends meet.  So pastors are naturally shaped to talk about change without identifying the elephants in the room.  All of which leads to the cued response – Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  
For congregations with an older demographic the obvious answer is to go after young folks.  For many years and in many places this happened automatically.  Your kids and grandkids and greatgrandkids grew up in the church and moved into positions of leadership vacated by the older generation.  People had more kids on average, so congregations often enjoyed long and healthy lives because of these factors.  It’s natural to assume that this is the solution to a congregation’s issues – bring in young families who will grow the church biologically rather than through evangelism.
National trends and the clarion warnings regarding dramatically reduced church attendance and membership in younger generations reinforces these ideas.  We have to reach the young people – we have to figure out how to get them into the churches!  
Why?
I fear that more often than not, it isn’t only because we’re concerned about the eternal salvation of these folks, though I don’t doubt that this plays a role in the urgency.  The other urgency is that these are the people who will continue earning and tithing and supporting the congregation so that things remain mostly as they are.  
The problem is that for many folks under 40 or even 50, membership and attachment mean different things than they used to.  More shocking still, perhaps, is that many of those same folks don’t need a church to fulfill all of their social and relational needs.  They need to hear the Gospel.  They need the Sacraments.  But in terms of social activities?  Maybe they have better options already.  
And maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe this is a very good thing.
Not because Church as we have experienced it for the last 500 years at least (just speaking of Protestant churches) was wrong or bad.  It was and is good – very good!  For many people.  But culture has changed so radically in so short a time, that it isn’t drawing the younger people.  That isn’t an indictment of the Gospel or the Bible or the Christian tradition, it’s just that the central role that the congregation played in people’s lives is less and less important.  
Not that the Gospel or the Bible or Christian fellowship should be or can be less important – these are still central to our identity!  But the need for the traditional trappings of these things becomes more challenging when you don’t have people able (or willing) to maintain these things into the future.  Passing on the church buildings and the quilting clubs is not the same thing as passing on the faith.  
If we can discern these things carefully, I suspect that change becomes immediately more terrifying, but options may appear that just weren’t visible before.  Of course, I could be terribly wrong.  I have grown tired of reading whatever the latest best-selling book on leadership or church transformation is.  Until I hear about something that really seems to be working, I’m going to save my money and my time to try and focus on keeping the Gospel forefront for myself and the people I speak to.  Some people might consider that to be laziness.  I hope it’s not.  Lord knows I’m as good as anyone at painting my faults up as spiritual maturity.  
But I can’t shake the fact that the New Testament isn’t one long evangelism program.  It describes certain people who were evangelists, and it describes other people who weren’t.  And it insists on this terrifying and annoying thing – that the Holy Spirit is actually the one at work bringing people to where God wants them to be.  And where He wants them to be seems to be places where the Word and Sacraments are taken seriously as the most important things.  
And if I happen to be wrong about all of that just remember –  Hey, don’t blame me – I’ve been telling you guys we need to change for years!  

Reading Ramblings – January 26, 2014

January 19, 2014

Date:  The  Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14); 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25

Context: We continue the season of Epiphany, which emphasizes the divinity of our Lord, just as the season of Christmas emphasized his humanity. 

Isaiah 9:1-4 — Chapter 9 follows strict warnings in Chapter 8.  Isaiah is not to participate in the evil of the people he speaks to.  The leaders of God’s people in Judah fear the alliance of Israel to the north with Syria.  They seek ways to eliminate this threat, yet Isaiah is called to reassure them that all they need is faith and trust in the Lord.  They don’t need to seek the advice of spiritualists, or advice from the dead (8:18-22).  Those who seek wisdom apart from God’s Word live in darkness.

It is this darkness that Chapter 9 contrasts with, by announcing a light—a light that comes not from human wisdom or ungodly spiritualism, but rather from God himself.  Those who wander in fear and darkness will be given hope and reason to rejoice, but in God.  This prophesy applies not just to the imminent destruction of the northern coalition against Judah, but also to God’s final victory over his people’s enemies—sin, death, and Satan who deals in both.  As such, these verses show us the power of God’s anointed one, Jesus the Messiah.  Because he is no ordinary man, the victory that He will achieve will truly be cause to celebrate and praise God forever. 

Psalm 27:1-9(10-14)— The assigned verses speak of confidence in the Lord.  We need never fear the worst that the world can do to us, because when the world has done with us what it will, God has promised to do for us what He will.  This psalm is a supplication for assistance, but also a declaration of faith—there is no foe or trouble that is the equal of our God!  Because our God is victorious, so shall we as his people be!

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 — With these verses Paul begins to deal head on with the major issue facing the Corinthians—an issue that will manifest itself in various ways which Paul must deal with individually throughout the his letter.  The core issue is conflict.  A lack of unity.  To begin with, that unity is displayed in factions—different people boasting or casting aspersions on others based on who baptized them.   Paul quickly dismisses such disagreements as completely inappropriate.  Baptism is in the name of the triune God, not the name of the individual pastor or apostle applying the water and Word.  There is no boasting in this.  The cross must retain the centrality and power that it is intended to, for it is the cross and empty tomb wherein our hope lies, not in who happened to baptize or catechize us.  While this surely must seem silly to a world obsessed with who we know or what connections we have.   The irony is that our hope and obsession should be with the only connection who can and has saved us—Jesus of Nazareth.

Matthew 4:12-25 — Having endured Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee.  John has been imprisoned for speaking truth to power.  Jesus moves away from the lands near Jerusalem and back to his native Galilee.  He does not go to his hometown of Nazareth, however, but rather to the coastal town of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Matthew connects this with the reading from Isaiah 9.  Jesus begins his ministry of preaching, and his message is one of repentance and the approaching kingdom of heaven. 

A dilemma might be inferred between this account of the call of Andrew and Simon and the account we read last week in John 1.  It appears at first glance to be contradictory accounts.  John’s account has John the Baptist directing his disciples to Jesus, while Matthew’s has Jesus calling them to himself.  However, there is not a necessary contradiction.  Rather, we need to understand the fuller chronology that these two accounts—combined—relate. 

Matthew states that Jesus was baptized and then driven into the wilderness to face Satan (Matthew 3:13-16).  This was in the lands east of Jerusalem near the Jordan River, which is where John was baptizing.  Jesus then returns to Judea and the vicinity of Jerusalem, and it is at this point that John the Baptist testifies about Jesus’ identity and Jesus meets some of his future disciples for the first time.  These disciples then accompany Jesus back to Cana in Galilee for a wedding festival (John 3).  It would seem from Matthew 4 that Philip and his brother Simon are from this area to begin with.  They have perhaps gone down to be baptized by John and to learn from him for a while, but their normal home and work life is back in Galilee. 

After the wedding feast, Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem for the Passover (John 2:12-13).  It is at this point that Jesus hears of John’s arrest, and leaves Jerusalem to return to Galilee.  Here he meets up with Andrew and Simon again (who perhaps returned home separately from Jesus).  They have already committed that they would become his disciples, and He now formally calls them into this role at this point.  It is for this reason that they can so quickly leave their work behind—they had already been making arrangements to do so. 

Jesus begins preaching, and his preaching is good news to those who hear it—the good news prophesied by Isaiah.  As such, people are attracted to this Word, and Jesus begins selecting from those listening the men whom He will personally teach and equip over the next three years.  Jesus speaks with authority, and his chosen disciples are willing to leave behind their occupations and lives in order to follow him.  Likewise, we should be willing to follow where our Savior calls us, trusting in the Good Word to sustain us. 

 

Marriage Muddles

January 18, 2014

People continue to lobby and argue for the continued modification of marriage to legally include not merely someone of the same gender, but multiple persons.  

This essay argues that marriage arrangements should be as myriad as the people who make them up.  Whatever makes you happy.  The essay is confusing – every child she knew growing up came from a married, heterosexual family unit.  Yet she asserts that “innumerable” people were doing different things.  Further, she asserts that both “race” and “health” were factors in some of these alternative arrangements, though I’m not certain how either race or health would dictate, in and of themselves, an alternative family arrangement.  The heterosexual family unit seems to pretty universally exist among every race.  And while there are probably some health conditions that would preclude marriages of any kind, I’m not sure how health would preclude specifically heterosexual marriage.  
That’s not even inquiring about “circumstances” that made heterosexual (and monogamous) marriage unattainable or undesirable.  
Her definition of family is interesting as well – emphasizing shared property, child-rearing, and activity in their neighborhoods and communities.  I’m not sure I would agree that these are the defining characteristics of a family, though they are often associated with families.  Further, her suggested way forward to accommodate family structures of any size and type is to gut any legal meaning to the term marriage, and instead create civil unions that are actually a form of business partnership.  
On the flip side of the argument is this essay, arguing about the importance specifically of fathers in a family.  While it is a fairly well documented fact that children who grow up without fathers around are far more likely to struggle to achieve economic independence and health, it is certainly not something that is talked about much in the fracas to redefine marriage as a basically arbitrary arrangement.  In the ongoing economic and political argument over how to have an economically healthier nation, the role of fathers is basically ignored in favor of wealth redistribution and other “solutions”.  
How hard we must work to avoid acknowledging what history ought to teach us is obvious – families matter.  Their composition matters and their stability matters, not just to the individuals who comprise them but the larger society of which they are the basic building blocks.  

Disclaimers

January 17, 2014

This year is my blog’s eighth anniversary.  That’s kind of hard to wrap my head around – that I’ve been writing here for that long.  Granted, the volume of my writing was a lot smaller in the early days, but still.  I believe that this will by my 1400th post.  I’ve had hundreds of comments along the way.  If I’m reading my hosting information correctly, on average 400 people visit this site each day.  That’s about 12,000 hits a month.  While I still suspect that about 10,000 of those are from a deranged schnauzer somewhere in Oklahoma that has figured out how to hit the refresh button on the browser to release a Snausage every couple of minutes from a web-enabled doggie tin, it’s still pretty cool.  

So thanks to all of you reading out there.  I hope you’ll continue  to share posts that you find helpful with others.  Or tape them to dart boards or gun range targets and vent your frustrations that way.  If you have suggestions of things you’d like to hear more about (or less about), feel free to let me know.  I don’t promise to listen to you, but it will get factored into the mental mix.
The reality that readership has grown from a handful of the morbidly curious to a lot of folks I don’t even know about arrived in the mail today.  A letter from Samaritan Ministries letting me know that someone had joined and listed me as their referral.  I presume this person did so because they learned about the program from this blog.  Samaritan was notifying me that, assuming this person doesn’t immediately drop out of the program again, we’ll receive a referral bonus of almost half of one month’s share.  Thank you for mentioning me – what an unexpected blessing!
But, in the interest of full disclosure, that means that I’ve received compensation from Samaritan Ministries for referring someone (inadvertently!) to them.  I just wanted you to know that.  I will still write about them, and I’ll still be objective (I’m certainly not on the payroll, and I believe in being honest in my comments).  But if it matters to you, be aware that there’s the potential that I may benefit from my discussion of this alternative to traditional insurance (and the less traditional Obamacare).  It isn’t my intent or goal to benefit, but apparently it can happen.  You’ve been warned.
As an aside, Samaritan is growing like crazy.  They’ve had larger enrollments every month since at least September, each month setting a new record for 1-month enrollment levels.  They’re scrambling to adjust their infrastructure to handle all of the new clients.  Apparently a lot of other Christians (it’s only open to Christians who affirm a basic statement of faith, among other things) are also having second thoughts about the government dictating health insurance to them as well as dictating what they have to pay for other people’s health benefits.  
Or it could just be a wild, crazy coincidence, y’know?
If you know anyone in the Peoria, IL area who has a programming background, put them in touch with Samaritan as they’re hiring.  If you’re worried about the direction mandatory insurance is headed, check this out.  It may not be for you.  Read the fine print, particularly the fine print about what IS and IS NOT covered.  I’m not an insurance salesman, nor a qualified representative of Samaritan.  All I try and do is talk about my experience with them.  Only you can determine if it’s an option that might be good for you as well.
I’ll also report that each month with our information about who to send our card, prayers, and monthly share amount to, we receive a newsletter from Samaritan Ministries.  There are a variety of different topics – some health related, some theologically oriented, and some that blend the two.  I do NOT necessarily endorse any of those writings/points of view/interpretations.  
This is, incidentally, only the second time in eight years that I’ve received anything for my writings.  The first was a very awful book that someone requested I review and sent me a free copy.  It was not a pleasant read, not a pleasant review, and not a very pleased author.  I haven’t had any more requests to do reviews.  Go figure.
So once again, thanks to all of you who are encouraging with your comments and readership.  And thanks to that schnauzer.  You must be huge by now.  

More Thrivent Fun

January 16, 2014

Not that this is particularly surprising, but there’s more to the story about Thrivent’s funding of pro-abortion groups.  If you need a background refresher, I blogged about this here, here, and here.  

It turns out that, despite Thrivent’s ban on funding for both pro-life and pro-abortion groups, there are pro-abortion groups that are still receiving funding.  This funding is coming not from Thrivent members and clients, but rather from Thrivent employees through an internal program.  
Again, this shouldn’t be a surprise.  It should be (and is) disappointing.  

Summary

January 16, 2014

A tip o’ the hat to the ever salient Gene Veith, who provides a handy summary of the top Biblical archaeology finds of 2013.  Definitely worth a look at!

Book Review – Zealot

January 14, 2014

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

Random House, 2013
Thanks to Helen for gifting me with her copy of this book!  
Zealot is a book based on the idea that we can best understand Jesus not by looking at what the primary historical documents about him (the Gospels) say, but rather by assuming the Gospels and most all of The Bible to be patently inaccurately – fabricated by well-intentioned or not-so-well-intentioned folks and therefore of practically no historical value.  Aslan is by no means the first historian or author or even theologian to utilize this approach, but he is the latest and, in an age when anything that purports to dismantle Christianity and the Bible gains a fair amount of fame, Aslan has certainly enjoyed a great deal of attention.
He bases his approach to Jesus on an understanding of the historical era in which Jesus lived, and on his rather narrow description of Jewish zealots of the first century – people passionately committed not only to the Word of God but also freedom for Israel (or at least Judah) from Roman control.  Aslan asserts that since there were more than a few people who attempted to rally popular support against Rome in this timeframe, and they were executed for sedition, then this must have been Jesus’ frame of reference as well, in which case Pilate’s execution of him for sedition must have been fully warranted.  Aslan turns Jesus from a religious figure into a political one.  
By rejecting Biblical authority or even helpfulness on Jesus, Aslan must construct his Jesus almost wholecloth, with nothing more than scant historical references to other zealots to guide him in his construction.  Aslan provides some very good references to other figures of the time who considered themselves – or were considered by others – to be the Messiah.  All of these others have been relegated to the ashes of history by everyone but historians.  Their messages and intents failed with their arrests and executions.  
Aslan misses the single biggest issue that separates Jesus – whether as a political or religious figure – from any other person of his day, or indeed any other person in history, and that is the resurrection.  Christianity is centered on the reality that Jesus was killed and buried, but did not stay dead and buried.  Aslan admits that he has no way of  making sense of this allegation, or of the fervent insistence which his followers held to this allegation even when their own lives were at stake.  The single-most important aspect of the life of Jesus of Nazareth is the resurrection, and while Aslan is honest in saying he can’t account for it, he essentially ignores it, politely treating it as an ahistorical matter.  In other words, history is not (or should not be, or cannot be) concerned with the accounts of the resurrection.  To my mind, a refusal to engage with this event historically leads one to suspect that the historical evidence for the event must not match up very well with the author’s preferred beliefs about it.  Aslan describes himself as a former Christian, and perhaps dealing with the resurrection historically would be too contradictory to his position on the subject.
In any event, the book must be read as an interesting exercise in fiction.  Aslan is a good writer, and the book is by and large interesting, mixing creative historical dramatization to bring historic events to life more vividly.  But it must remain fiction, a curious hypothesis that chooses to assert itself by ignoring the oldest historical documents about it’s subject.  This is difficult work at best, and a purely imaginative effort.  While he may capture the spirit of Jesus’ day with accuracy, his attempt to capture Jesus as well must remain firmly fictional.  
My greatest irritation with Aslan’s work is the great arrogance that he presents with.  In Aslan’s world, all of academia is settled and firmly behind his facts (not his facts about Jesus, necessarily, but facts about Biblical interpretation, dating, authorship, etc).  He does not purport to rely on one strain of scholastic tradition and work – he presumes to claim that he represents all of it.  There are no contradictory opinions.  Biblical scholarship is monolithic in its opinions.  
This is not the case by a long shot.  Aslan relies on certain strains of Biblical scholarship, namely those strains that generally reject actual historic tradition and understanding of Scripture and instead reinterpret authorship and dating of authorship to support unrelated presumptions about the material.  It is not true that all Biblical scholars believe that most of the New Testament was written after 100 AD.  The casual and uninformed reader will learn nothing of the rather diverse scholastic opinions and attitudes regarding the Bible.  This is a discredit to the book and the author, who is obviously more concerned with stifling any other possible viewpoint than honestly acknowledging the fact that his assertions are not backed up by Biblical scholarship in the unified manner he often presents.
This is not an academic work, but rather a work of persuasion.  Aslan is a gifted writer and a gifted historian, other than the fact that he refuses to accept that the Bible could possibly be trusted as a historic document.  That is unfortunate, but at least Aslan is very honest about this in his introduction.  The reader must keep this bias firmly in mind as they read the rest of the book.