Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.”

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

This slogan has been bugging me lately. It didn’t come from the Bible. Yet it’s an idea that is often expressed by sincere, well-meaning Christians who (I think) intend to convey the centrality of a saving relationship with Jesus. But both halves of this statement are deeply flawed. Christianity is more than the requisite relationship; it’s a religion.

[Note: I’ve included Scripture links here, not to prooftext or portray myself as an expert (I’m not), but for the benefit of any who might not recognize the source of the Biblical terms or ideas presented here. The sources presented are mostly just samples and are by no means exhaustive.]

Relationships

A saving relationship with Jesus is certainly the only path to salvation (John 14:6), but we – and new believers in particular – need to clearly understand what that relationship is, how it comes about, and what it means once we enter into it.

First, let’s look at a more familiar human relationship, marriage: One person initiates contact with another, names and phone numbers are exchanged, invitations for coffee or a movie or a royal ball ensue, romance blossoms, a proposal is made and accepted, plans are made, and the two are joined in marriage. What’s important to see is that by getting married, they enter into a covenant that, once entered, produces a change of state from single to married; There is no in-between – they are in either the single state or the married state. Having entered it, the couple remain in the married state until death or divorce ends the marriage.

The formation of a saving relationship with Jesus is similar but also very different. All of the actions are undertaken (Romans 5:8) and brought to completion by God, not humans (John 19:30). God makes the initial contact and God “proposes” to us. God consummates the relationship by his grace and we are born again (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Peter 1:23, Titus 3:5). At that moment, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us, an event called justification. We enter at once into a covenant that produces a change of state from cursed to justified (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are no longer God’s enemies, we are now his children. There’s no in-between – we are in either the cursed state or the justified state. Having entered into the justified state, not even death or divorce can send us back to our previous cursed state (Romans 8:38-39). It is finished.

But being in a relationship means much more than entering into a new state; our lives should reflect our changed state. Married people don’t go on living as if they were still single – at least not if they want a healthy marriage. And the Bible tells us very clearly that justified people shouldn’t go on living as if they were still cursed. Jesus wants us to abide (“remain”) in him (John 15:4), to go beyond the moment of justification to actively participate in an ongoing process of sanctification, by which the Holy Spirit works within us to conform us to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Being a Christian – being a disciple of Jesus – begins when God brings us into that relationship with Jesus, but it doesn’t end there. To be effective ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we need religion.

Religion

Somehow, the idea that Jesus hates religion has been working its way through the Church like the yeast of the Pharisees. An early proponent of this extraordinary claim was an Internet sensation named Jeff Bethke. He posted a video rap entitled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. It was mostly nonsense but contained enough harmful ideas that I was moved to comment on it here. In that post, I explained why, if the word religion has any standard, generally-accepted meaning* (and is not merely a convenient straw man invented to launch an Internet career), Christianity is most definitely a religion. If the reader will pardon the vanity of quoting myself, I wrote that

Jesus selected and taught the apostles. He picked his own theologian (Saul), renamed him Paul, personally trained him, sent him out to plant churches, and inspired him to write letters explaining the Christian religion to them. Paul wrote about both doctrine (grace, salvation, the sacraments, and much more) and such practicalities as accountability, church governance, and the qualifications of elders and deacons. I don’t understand why Jesus thought those were good things if religion is a bad thing. When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus left behind an organization complete with a mission statement.

Since that post, I’ve thought more about ways that Christianity looks suspiciously like a religion:

But why do we need a Christian religion? After all, when we are saved, the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence to begin the work of sanctification (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit knows everything there is to know about how we should live, so can’t we just let the Spirit lead us and do what we feel led to do? Do we really need all that other stuff? For that matter, do we really need Scripture? The answer, of course, is a resounding Yes! (Romans 7:21-23) Why? Because we are led by lots of spirits in many directions, and we just aren’t wise or holy enough to always recognize the leading of the one true Spirit. To “feel led” carries the risk of being led by emotions, not by God’s will. Jesus knew that; he knew our tendency to go astray; he knew our true nature. So he gave us a religion to help us live out our new life in him.

Good milk, bad milk

No one would claim that the existence of milk that has been adulterated with arsenic justifies a condemnation of all milk. Yet the most common defense of this slogan is that Jesus spoke against the religion of the Pharisees. Another is that the Old Testament contains many condemnations of Israel’s religious practices following the Exodus and the giving of the Law. But in neither case was the sincere desire to practice the Law ever condemned. The religion was never the problem; it was how people practiced it that was the problem. Just as a mother provides pure milk for the health, growth, and wellbeing of her child, it was pure religion – both the Law and the religion that Jesus entrusted to the Church – that was given to the Jews and to us for our spiritual health, growth, and wellbeing.

And, of course, Jesus was never critical of his own religious legacy outlined above.

   


* “The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” (Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition)

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O frabjous day!*

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

The Curmudgeon is back! And someone has produced an open source version of the defunct Windows Live Writer, my favorite tool for writing blog posts. And it’s Spring! I’m sure I’ll have something important to say soon….

*"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

— Lewis Carrol, The Jabberwocky

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Why I don’t hate Jesus’ religion

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I started to write a response to the video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” shortly after it appeared, but never got around to posting it. The video turned up on my Facebook timeline this morning, so I guess it’s still getting views. That being the case, I decided to freshen up the post and belatedly publish my thoughts. My comments are based on a transcript since I grew up reading, not watching videos.

This video – the work of a man named Jeff Bethke – has had more than 27 million views on YouTube. As a Christian (that is, an adherent of the Christian religion), I find his love of Jesus admirable. Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say. I know I don’t understand the title of his video. Maybe it was just meant to be catchy – a title that might send a video viral and get a lot of attention. It worked.

A catchy title is one thing, but I don’t understand the content either. To be clear, I know who Jesus is and why Jeff might love him. It’s the hatred of religion, including, apparently, the Christian religion, that I can’t quite fathom. Perhaps a starting point would be to define what it is that he hates. Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition (in my and many others’ opinions the best paper dictionary) gives us a good working definition:

The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.

If Jeff has made up his own definition of religion to rail against, then there’s no point in responding. But I assume he understands the word to mean something like the definition above.

I’d like to answer some of the questions Jeff asks and challenge a couple of his claims.

Jeff: What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?

Grumpy: I’d ask you where you got the notion that Jesus came to abolish “the service and adoration of God” and “obedience to divine commands … in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” My Bible says Jesus came to encourage those things, not abolish them.

Jeff: What if I told you voting Republican really wasn’t his mission?

Grumpy: I’d wonder if maybe you were under the mistaken impression that voting Democrat (or Green or Whig, or some other party) was his mission.

Jeff: What if I told you “Republican” doesn’t automatically mean “Christian”?

Grumpy: I’d remind you that "Democrat", "minister", "poet", "wife", “student”, and "cowboy" don’t automatically mean “Christian” either; then I’d ask why you’re obsessed with Republicans.

Jeff: And just because you call some people “blind” doesn’t automatically give you vision?

Grumpy: Neither does it mean the blind have vision. I assume you’re talking about spiritual blindness. Are you promoting blindness? Or discouraging the recognition of it in either ourselves or others? The Bible doesn’t encourage spiritual blindness and it doesn’t direct us to either ignore or affirm spiritual blindness.

Jeff: I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars?

Grumpy: Jeff, you have fallen for a secular myth; the reality is that religion has played only a minor role in starting wars. If you think about it, religion can’t really do anything. Only people – sometimes acting as they believe their religion directs them [see definition above] – can do things like start wars. If that’s what you mean, I’d ask you, if religion is so bad, why did adherents of the Christian religion abolish the slave trade in England? Why did Christian religious organizations establish countless medical missions in Africa? Why are they so quick to respond with help in places like Haiti or Japan or the Gulf Coast or Joplin, Missouri, or Indonesia?

Maybe some religions promote war while others promote peace. Maybe some religions spread through murder and conquest while others spread through martyrdom and sacrifice.

Jeff: Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor?

Grumpy: Another good question and here’s yet another – why does it sometimes build modest buildings or none at all and feed the poor, the homeless, the displaced, and the refugee? Why do you think it’s a zero-sum game? Don’t you believe God’s resources are sufficient to build dedicated houses of worship that express his grandeur and feed the poor?

Jeff: Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce?

Grumpy: Or welcome them and their children and provide help, support, and encouragement? Do you honestly mean to say that you’ve never seen anyone who embraces the Christian religion do these things? If you haven’t, you need to get out more.

Jeff: But in the Old Testament God actually calls religious people “whores”. Religion might preach grace, but another thing they practice.

Grumpy: You’ve discovered hypocrites. Congratulations. You’ve doubtless found them in churches. You’ll find them on street corners and all over the internet; you’ll find them on YouTube. You’ll even find them among the most ardent lovers and followers of Jesus.

Jeff: Now back to the point: One thing is vital to mention, how Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums. See, one’s the work of God, but one’s a man-made invention

Grumpy: A “man-made invention”? Jesus selected and taught the apostles. He picked his own theologian (Saul), renamed him Paul, personally trained him, sent him out to plant churches, and inspired him to write letters explaining the Christian religion to them. Paul wrote about both doctrine (grace, salvation, the sacraments, and much more) and such practicalities as accountability, church governance, and the qualifications of elders and deacons. I don’t understand why Jesus thought those were good things if religion is a bad thing. When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus left behind an organization complete with a mission statement. At least that’s what my Bible says.

Jeff, you say you love the Church. But you hate the structure that Jesus left behind to preserve, guide, and grow it. You exhibit a trendy cynicism about “organized religion” that seems to arise from an inability to separate the structure from the jars of clay Jesus entrusted it to.

Jeff: See this was me, too, but no one seemed to be on to me, actin’ like church kid while addicted to pornography. See, on Sunday I’d go to church, but Saturday gettin’ faded, actin’ as if I was simply created to just have sex and get wasted. See, I spent my whole life buildin’ this façade of neatness.

Grumpy: This seems to be an indictment of your own hypocrisy – passing as a “church kid” while denying in your life everything the Church stands for – not the religion of Jesus Christ. Do you actually hold that religion responsible for your sins? Still, it couldn’t have been a complete failure – that religion introduced you to Jesus.

A final note: I doubt this video did anything to reform those parts of the Church that need reforming, but it may have misled some Christians into believing that the Church is Jesus’ enemy. I’m pretty sure Satan enjoys the idea that the religion Jesus created – the service and adoration of God as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in the Bible – should be scorned by his followers. And the video seems to have launched a career in social media and YouTube consulting for Jeff. I was going to read some of his blog posts, but they turned out to be videos too.

Posted in Christianity, Culture, Personal | 2 Comments »

What do educated evangelicals know?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Chuck Queen is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky and author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. He posted an opinion piece entitled “It’s time for evangelicals to come out for evolution” on the ABPnews/Herald (Baptist news) web site. He decries the fact that “76 percent of evangelicals doubt that life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection” and thinks it’s time for evangelicals to get with Darwin’s program. And it’s up to the educated ones to take the lead in transforming the great unwashed masses of presumably uneducated evangelicals:

Educated evangelicals know that the creation stories were never intended to be history lessons or science reports, because the Bible is not a history or science book.

Educated evangelicals also know:

• That evangelical Christians need not fear or deny the enormous amount of scientific data supporting evolution.

• That the story of evolution and the biblical story are not mutually exclusive.

• That a healthy faith welcomes and is informed by science.

As an educated evangelical myself, I thought to challenge Pastor Queen’s assumptions about what we know. I preserved our dialog and present it here. (Notes: My last comment was not published before all comments disappeared from the page. I have inserted a link and added a little formatting that was not possible in the original online conversation.)

Grumpy: "Educated evangelicals" also know that Darwinian evolution is a theory that has some explanatory power but is unable to explain some phenomena, such as the Cambrian Explosion. And educated evangelicals know that no form of neo-Darwinism (natural selection operating on random mutations) has ever been observed in nature or demonstrated in the laboratory. Educated evangelicals also know that such evolutionary staples as junk DNA have been debunked by ENCODE and other studies. And educated evangelicals know that evidence for evolution is so shaky that its promoters have had to come up with such outright propaganda as staged photographs of peppered moths and Haeckel’s phony drawings of embryos. Finally, educated evangelicals know that there is no settled science and that claims that there is are made by people whose livelihoods, philosophical views, tenure, or government grants require propagating the myth that evolution is, to use your word, "truth". Yes, definitely a truth that evangelicals should "come out for".

Pastor Queen: I know . . . I shouldn’t have used the term "educated evangelicals" because it sounds condescending. Sorry about that. Should have used the phrase "evangelical university and seminary professors." I stand by my claim that if the truth were told many, if not most, evangelical university and seminary professors hold to some form of evolution. All of us see God engaged in the process. Exactly how is the great mystery of divine oversight and creaturely freedom. And I stand by my claim that they know that the Genesis stories as "religious myths" contain much truth, though the truth is not factual or historical.

G: Thanks for the reply and the clarification. IMHO, it all depends on what you do with the first five words in the Bible. They aren’t "In the beginning, God engaged …". They are "In the beginning, God created …. " If those five words aren’t a "myth", then God created. He didn’t "engage in the process"; he was the process. If the first five words contain any falsehood, then there’s no reason to accept the rest of them. Ultimately we’re left with what the extra-Biblical sources confirm about the historical Jesus – he was a moral teacher who did some parlor tricks (essentially what the Jesus Seminar would have us believe). In similar fashion, you seem to be suggesting that we limit our understanding of God’s role in the creation of all things to what can be confirmed by extra-Biblical sources masquerading as science.

Let me state unequivocally that I’m no fan of "creation science"; it’s nothing more or less than the flip side of "evolution science". They both start from an a priori assumption (a statement of faith, if you will) and conform their results to that assumption. The former assumes a literal interpretation of Genesis while the latter assumes philosophical naturalism. Neither assertion can be confirmed by science and so both subvert the open-ended inductive reasoning that is at the heart of real science. More than one neo-Darwinist has claimed that his/her explanation must be correct because "evolution is true". That is pure religious dogma, not science. It is the logical equivalent to Ken Ham saying his explanation must be correct because "the Bible, literally interpreted, is true".

On a final note, I just retired from teaching in the Purdue University School of Technology. I am indeed an educated evangelical who is not fooled by the propaganda flowing from the multi-billion-dollar evolution industry.

PQ: Surprised that you take such an either/or, binary view of the Genesis story. You well know life doesn’t work that way. We shouldn’t expect God to.

G: Life/death; sheep/goats; good/evil; obedience/sin; banquet/darkness; wheat/tares; wide way/narrow way; these seem pretty binary to me. No, I don’t expect God to work like his creation does. If you take "created" to mean "engaged in the process" in Genesis, you might as well take Jesus "died" to mean Jesus "fainted". Acceptance of random mutation/natural selection (which is what evolutionists mean by "evolution") is a way point on that slippery slope.

Concluding thoughts

My problem with Pastor Queen’s enthusiastic support of evolution (as explained today – the explanation shifts to accommodate observed reality; see e.g.horizontal gene transfer”) is the words “random” and “natural”. “Random mutation” is mutation that is accidental and undirected – meaning it could not possibly have been directed by God. “Natural selection” is selection that occurs through a purely naturalistic process (e.g. “survival of the fittest”) – meaning God could not possibly have supernaturally intervened to produce a species he desired. The “theistic evolution” Pastor Queen espouses is logical nonsense, an oxymoron.

Ultimately, Pastor Queen is advocating a worldview that is commonly known, not as Christianity (theism), but as atheism. This seems a strange enterprise for a Christian pastor. Perhaps, as he composed the perfect title for his piece, he carefully considered the meaning of the phrase “to come out”. But to come out of the closet of philosophical naturalism – as Pastor Queen seems to have done – one must be in the closet to begin with. I doubt that most “educated evangelicals” are in that particular closet. Progressive “Christians”, yes, but not evangelicals, educated or otherwise.

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Why I Joined the NRA

Monday, April 29th, 2013

When the news broke that Lance Armstrong would cop to doping, some commenters started to call the organization that he founded, the LIVESTRONG Foundation, into question.  Bloggers, talking heads, and bloviating pundits love to demonize both people and organizations. 

It’s true that some people and organizations are thoroughly bad and have no redeeming qualities, but you don’t get any Internet buzz by calling them evil.  The demonization industry depends on hiding or denying the good side of its targets.

At the time of Armstrong’s confession, I briefly commented that he was both a hero and a villain.  His bad deeds didn’t cancel the enormous service that LIVESTRONG has provided to cancer survivors.  I didn’t mention that I also made a contribution to LIVESTRONG that day.  One reason I donated was to make a tiny but useful (to LIVESTRONG) statement that the demonization industry can be ignored.

Ultimately, it was one of MSNBC’s ample stable of resident fools, Lawrence O’Donnell, who convinced me to join the NRA.  The demonization industry (of which Obama is the honorary President) has made the NRA its favorite target.  And there are times the NRA has made the demonizers’ job too easy.  Then O’Donnell claimed that

[the NRA is] in the business of helping bombers get away with their crimes [because their] effort to guarantee that American mass murderers are the best-equipped mass murderers in the world is not limited to murderers who use assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

I knew I had to join and make my tiny but useful (to the NRA) statement.  I don’t know if O’Donnell decided to be utterly ignorant of what the NRA actually does or if he decided to cynically ignore it in order get some cheap pub from equally ignorant/cynical fans.  In the end, it worked – both for him and, in a small way, for the NRA.

I don’t think I’m demonizing MSNBC or O’Donnell.  I honestly don’t know of any redeeming qualities possessed by either one.

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Sunday Dinner: A Parable of the Modern Church

Monday, February 25th, 2013

I knew a family once who always had busy, crowded Sunday dinners together. They lived in a big, old house that had a huge living room and an old-fashioned formal dining room. As the family dinners grew with grandchildren, cousins, and friends, Grandpa turned the dining room into a parlor and the living room into a veritable dining hall. He built a long table that could seat 20, 25 in a pinch. With additional chairs and folding tables, they could accommodate 35 at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Grandma usually fixed roast beef, ham, or fried chicken, potatoes, a vegetable, and homemade rolls or bread. As people became more health-conscious, they asked Grandma to add a second vegetable. After that, she often served a fruit platter or a light soup, sometimes skipping the potatoes. It was a bit more work, but some of the kids pitched in and sometimes even Grandpa helped out. Sunday dinners remained a beloved tradition.

One day, some family members announced that they had started eating vegetarian (strictly speaking, they were “lacto-vegetarian” because they didn’t object to dairy products). They asked Grandma if she could add a vegetarian alternative to the meat dish. So Grandma found tasty meat substitutes and learned to cook tofu.

Family and friends continued to enjoy their time together around the long table, sharing not just dinner, but their lives as well. It was there that Grandpa told everyone he had decided to retire; baby announcements, job changes, engagements, reports of illnesses, and prayer concerns were all heard first at Sunday dinner.

Then a few of the vegetarians told the rest of the family that they just couldn’t bear to look at “those poor, dead cows, pigs, and chickens”. They still wanted to come to Sunday dinners and visit, so they said they would eat their strictly lacto-vegetarian dinner at the kitchen table.  They were joined by a few others who had decided to adopt a vegetarian diet. Having people eating in the kitchen was inconvenient, especially with all the extra dishes she was preparing, but Grandma soldiered on.

As people settled into their Sunday dinner routine, news and concerns from one table didn’t always get carried over to the other. A vegetarian friend who particularly enjoyed Grandma and Grandpa’s company found it hard to choose between tables and simply quit coming to dinner. A couple of roast beef fans who were especially fond of some of the vegetarians also found choosing too difficult and started making other plans. A few die-hard meat-and-potatoes types even thought about establishing a vegetable-free zone in the parlor.

One or two people got mad at the vegetarians for separating themselves and they too quit coming. And one by one, as a favorite friend or relative drifted away, more people stopped coming. Finally, Sunday dinners came down to Grandma and Grandpa and an occasional child or grandchild sharing a simple meal at one end of the large and mostly empty table.

One Sunday, as she looked at all the empty space, Grandma was suddenly very sad. She had tried to give everyone what they wanted, but she couldn’t give them the one thing they needed – a desire to share food and fellowship together despite their differences.

Posted in Christianity, Personal | 2 Comments »

A new home and a new look

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

After a couple of months of effort, The Curmudgeon has progressed to a new blogging platform – indeed, a new blog. The climb from Blogger to WordPress with a brand-new custom theme is just about complete. There are still some tweaks to the design, some broken links, and some formatting changes required by the move to a wider format. The move seems to have scrambled some of the links (including the “newer” and “older” entries) If you spot any problems, please leave a comment. Thanks for visiting.

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