Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Forgiveness by any other name is still liberating

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

One reason that I don’t understand why some Christians fear open-ended scientific investigation is that there is only one source of truth – God.  Every path that leads in the direction of truth leads in the direction of God.  Any open-minded researcher who does not contort his particular path to point in a philosophically preferred direction will inch closer to that one source, even if that source is itself supernatural and therefore beyond the reach of science.

So I would expect (and have seen countless times) that observations in the secular world often confirm truths revealed in the Bible.  Paul Graham is a computer scientist/entrepreneur who has provided examples – very likely unintended – in his essay “The Top Idea in Your Mind".  He says of forgiveness (“it doesn’t deserve space in my head”),

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them.

As both an entrepreneur and professional problem-solver, Graham appreciates the utility of free-floating thought – “what you think about when you take a shower in the morning”.  These thoughts are driven by our “top idea”, i.e. the most pressing or interesting problem we are confronting.  His experience matches my own exactly, so I assume it’s fairly common (although the setting may differ).  As he observes,

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want think about.

Graham points to money and disputes as especially destructive “top ideas” – a short list that ought to resonate loudly with Christians.  Money and disputes (relationships and forgiveness) are important topics in the Bible generally and in Jesus’ teaching in particular.  Graham’s observations provide practical guidance to Christians:  Don’t focus on money and attend to our relationships; this will make room for a better “top idea”.  Pursue God’s will for our lives and let him pick the problem that our drifting thoughts will attend to.

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Unlike Solomon, Supreme Court divides the living baby

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

The First Amendment, the first of the ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution known collectively as the Bill of Rights, is short:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

On Monday, the Supreme Court cut the living – if nearly comatose – First Amendment in half.  In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez the court announced its decision that you can have freedom of assembly or free exercise of religion, but not both.  Briefly stated, the Supreme Court ruled that the Christian Legal Society at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco cannot bar from leadership any student – Muslim, atheist, Wiccan – on the campus.  If the Christian students at Hastings want to peaceably assemble, they must give up the free exercise of their religion.

The fascism of the left has grown suddenly more powerful. 

You can read the legal society’s summary of the case here.  Some useful commentaries can be found at Human Events, Beliefnet, and First Things/On the Square.

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A toxic orthodoxy

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

The title of this post is my own; I doubt my “guest” here would agree with it. But I think that threats of retaliation and un-Biblical litmus tests do indeed suggest some level of toxicity. I have previously written about ill effects of dogmatic insistence on a young Earth and a literal six day creation. In a recent commentary on Moody Radio, Bryan Litfin, Associate Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, identified some others. With his permission, I have reproduced his remarks below.

Misplaced Priorities
by Bryan Litfin

I had a disturbing experience recently when I was interviewed on Moody radio about the viewpoint held by some Christians called “progressive creationism.” I’ll explain what that is in a moment, but my goal isn’t to rehash that topic today. It was the response from listeners that disturbed me, and that’s what I want to focus on. I think it’s an example of misplaced priorities when it comes to the Bible’s emphasis.

Basically, progressive creationism argues that God created the universe over billions of years. This is not the same as Darwin’s evolution, because progressive creationists do not hold that man descended from other hominid species. They say God directly created certain species, including man, over billions of years. It’s an old-earth view of creationism. In this way, God’s Word and the scientific record can be reconciled. Again, my point here isn’t to revisit that topic.

It was the response from listeners that disturbed me. When I said on the radio that progressive creationism is an acceptable Christian view, and indeed one I find plausible, some listeners responded negatively. They wrote letters to me and to Moody vehemently disagreeing. That of course is fine; there’s nothing wrong with theological debate. But there were accusations flying as well, including the suggestion that certain creationist viewpoints must be a litmus test for teaching at Moody. There were threats about withholding donations, or not sending students to Moody, and even accusations of infidelity to God’s Word. Though I didn’t feel personally threatened by all this, I was bothered by the lack of discernment I was hearing. I thought, “Is this what we’ve come to in the American church today? Have we been so deluded to let a side issue become the centerpiece?”

The Bible doesn’t make a big issue of the age of the earth. Man has done that. Scripture emphasizes God as Creator, absolutely. But the specific “how” isn’t something that reverberates throughout the Bible. Defending six-day creationism is not the lynchpin of faithful Christianity. Nor is belief in evolution the root of all evil in the world. What science textbooks teach about human origins in the public schools is not a make or break issue for us.

We as believers have got to let creationism assume its proper place in our list of priorities. Sure, it’s an issue for debate among Christians. But when it comes to the unbelieving world, it’s time to stop attacking science as some massive demonic conspiracy, and stop attacking scientists as godless reprobates. Instead, it’s time for Christians to embrace the scientific enterprise, and engage unsaved scientists in serious debate and charitable apologetics.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve got to start spending our dollars wisely. There’s only so much money to go around. We live in a world full of massive human need and suffering. Should we here in America become obsessed with our own culture wars at the expense of such need? When children are literally starving to death, and widows are oppressed by thugs, and orphans multiply daily, and young girls are forced into prostitution, day after day after day – do we really need a museum with animated dinosaurs and displays about Noah’s flood? Seriously – where do you think Jesus would spend his time? As for me, I have a hunch it would be with the poor and the oppressed.

For Moody Radio, I’m Bryan Litfin.

Professor Litfin is the author of Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction.

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PCUSA: Obfuscating the Bible

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

As an academic (Computer Information Systems), I usually appreciate other academics’ creativity. I enjoy novel ways of thinking that lead to interesting and maybe useful results. But not when the academic is trying to make the Bible hard to understand.

The utterings of theologians and Bible scholars must be approached with caution and often taken with pounds – not grains – of salt. A professor doesn’t get tenure by writing “Calvin was right.” No, getting tenure generally requires the production of ever more novel and esoteric ideas. This is especially true when grants are involved. That’s fine in most fields but not when explaining God and his Word.

I am not a theologian or a Bible scholar (just a lay student of the Bible), so I don’t keep up with what is all the rage in this global academic village. But as a Presbyterian, I sometimes read about what Presbyterian scholars are up to. “No good” is often an accurate summary. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current debate over homosexual practice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess I often wish God would lighten up a little. I’ve worked with and been friends with homosexuals most of my adult life. I’ve worked in college, community, and summer stock theater. (Accuse me of stereotypes if you will, but it is what it is.) I lived at a YMCA in New York for a while – not “the” YMCA of Village People fame – but not much different. I team taught an adult Bible study on homosexuality with a friend who was trying to escape “the life”. (He has since quit trying, but I still greet him as a beloved brother whenever I see him.)

It grieves me that as a man married to a woman I can enjoy sexual intimacy within Biblical bounds but these friends and colleagues can’t. God, however, didn’t ask my opinion. He sets his standards and I can’t change them. Neither can I ignore them or urge other Christians to. Theologians and Bible scholars shouldn’t either, but too many do.

The PUP report, for example, contained the astonishing assertion that the Bible’s teaching on same-gender sexuality is too “diverse, subtle, and complex” to make any determination of what it actually says. Had they asked, I would have referred them to the excellent Scripture and Homosexuality by Dr. Marion L. Soards, a professor at the very liberal Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Unlike some of his colleagues he is indeed able to read and understand what the Bible says. (My friend and I used Dr. Soards’ book and How Will I Tell My Mother? as resources for the class.)

But there are plenty of Presbyterian academics who want us to believe that the Bible was written for intellectuals with advanced degrees. To these exalted few, we poor yokels in the pews are unable to grasp what the plain text means without their intervention. Strangely enough, what they present is often an obfuscation* of what the Bible says, not a clarification. (I have written before about the PCUSA’s penchant for word games.)

Such were the speakers at the recent Covenant Network victory celebration. Walter Brueggeman and Stacy Johnson gave attendees what they wanted hear – strained exegesis that they can use to claim that the Bible says what they wish it said. James Berkley (the Berkley Blog, formerly the Institute for Religion and Democracy) has written in the Layman Online about the talks by Breuggeman and Johnson.

Presbyterians who want to know what a faithful academic has to say about the Bible would be better served reading J. Gresham Machen, Francis Schaeffer, or the aforementioned Dr. Soards.

* Obfuscate: To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand: “A great effort was made . . . to obscure or obfuscate the truth” (Robert Conquest).

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My Brief Testimony

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Our Associate Pastor challenged the session (board of elders) to condense our personal testimony into the five-minute format she used while she was with Campus Crusade for Christ. This is mine:

I was an indifferent high school student and flunked out of college three times. I went from there to being a hippie and borderline bum. But doors always seemed to open and I took the correct turn at nearly every fork in the road. I survived my wanderings at a time when friends were dying in Vietnam or jumping off buildings because drugs convinced them they could fly.

I found my way back home to Illinois mostly intact. In the space of a year, doors started to open. My temporary job as a State tax clerk put me in a position to learn computer programming. Suddenly I had a career. A new university in town reached out to non-traditional students for graduate school – and you couldn’t get much more non-traditional than me. Within a few years, I was an experienced software developer with a Master’s degree in political science. I had it made.

Even as I was flunking out of college, I envied my teachers. Despite my indifference, I still liked and respected most of them. I admired their commitment. Graduate school reinforced that attitude and caused me to think about going into teaching myself. I had practical experience in computer science and a degree that qualified me to teach in a community college. When the instructor of a programming class at the local college had to back out at the last minute, I got the job and was hooked. The next September I was in Missouri teaching full time. I really had it made.

My life was always characterized by intellectual curiosity and a hunger for truth. That hunger was somewhat satisfied by teaching and research in computer science, but I knew that in the grand scheme of things, my academic interests weren’t all that important.

I had looked for God – or something – since high school. I searched in philosophy, in Eastern religions, everywhere but in the church that I had rejected by the time I reached fourth grade. In hope – certainly not in faith – I started praying to a God who probably didn’t exist. After five years in Missouri, I took a job as a university professor and moved my family to Indiana. I really, really had it made.

Weeks after our arrival, a pushy neighbor had my older daughter in a church group before I could begin to object. That led to occasional attendance at church and exposure to preaching that actually made sense. One of those sermons introduced me to the book “Mere Christianity”. The author, C. S. Lewis, overcame all of my intellectual objections to the faith I had rejected 35 years earlier.

I finally asked that unknown and possibly absent God to tell me if all that I was learning about this man Jesus was true. He replied by opening the most important door, the door to faith in his Son Jesus, and I stepped through it on Christmas Eve, 1989.

So what’s different? I am still curious and still seeking truth. But now I know where to look. I know that God created the universe and everything in it, so He is the source and the standard for all truth. I know that I’m not the fine fellow I thought I was but I also know that my shortcomings – which are more grievous than I ever imagined – are both correctable and forgiven. I no longer teach computer science, but I do teach the Bible at every opportunity. I’ve found my shortcomings softening.

I worry less.

Most important, I’m not afraid of flying any more. Let me explain that. I never feared being dead because I was pretty sure being dead just meant you no longer existed. How could that be unpleasant? You wouldn’t be there to experience it. But I did fear flying because I feared the process of dying – I was afraid it would hurt. And it very well might when my time comes. But now I know dying is not just a dreadful way to end everything. No, it is another door with the best possible place – heaven – waiting on the other side.

I said earlier that doors always seemed to open and I always seemed to make the wise choice. Looking back I see that God was with me, using my dumb decisions to move me in the direction he intended. For that reason, my favorite verse is Romans 8:28 – We know that God works all things to the good of those who love him and are called according to his holy purpose. My life testifies to that.

That pushy neighbor? She’s become a beloved friend and something of a surrogate mother. And now I really, really, really have it made.

[Addendum: In August, God opened another door. I’m back to teaching computer information systems. No more getting up at 5:00 for my daily hour-and-a-half commute, no more getting home, eating dinner, and being too tired to do anything. I’m doing what I love three miles from my home. God gave me my life back.]

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Christianity: What’s wrong with teaching creationism?

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

By “creationism” I don’t mean the fundamental truth that the universe was created from nothing by an intentional act of God. I accept this truth without reservation. I take “creationism” to mean a strictly literal interpretation of the seven days of creation described in Genesis 1:1-2:3. I would not dissuade anyone who embraces this understanding of the text. But teaching it as an irrefutable fact has long troubled me. Here are ten reasons why.

There is no Biblical command to teach creationism. Christians are called to make disciples, to baptize, to serve, to be obedient, to preach the gospel. Nowhere are Christians told to preach creationism.

The Bible does not itself claim to be a source of scientific truths. It reveals its spiritual purpose in many passages in both Old and New Testaments, but nowhere more clearly than in Paul’s words to Timothy: “… from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17, emphasis added) The Bible’s eternal significance is in the fact that it is God’s own witness to His son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not appear to attach any special importance to the seven days of creation. He referred often to the Old Testament in his teaching. Yet the only time he specifically mentioned creation was in the context of marriage when he referred (in Matthew 19:4-6) to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:5-25.

Focusing on the mechanics of creation diminishes the glory of God’s act of creation. The four most important words in the Bible may be the first four – “In the beginning, God”. God wants us to see that He himself existed before He created everything else. How He created everything else is insignificant compared to the fact that He did create everything else.

A 15 billion year-old universe takes nothing away from God or His work. Many Christians find the idea of God lingering over His creation for thousands of millions of years truly awe-inspiring. To know that God could create in an instant a universe that would explode into the vast expanse it is today, that He could foresee the ages which would yield exactly the product He intended, that He infused His reason, order, and laws into the material universe and that it has remained obedient to His commands ever since – to know these things is to know of an infinite God who is powerful and majestic beyond human comprehension.

Using the Bible to contradict science invites science to contradict the Bible. To say that any scientific principle lies at or near the foundation of our faith is to expose our entire faith to scientific evaluation and criticism. The Bible is full of scientific inaccuracies. Science’s complete exoneration of Galileo after the Church’s fanatical persecution of him probably did as much to undermine public faith in the Bible’s teachings as any event in the past thousand years. It produced the illusion that everything in the Bible can be disproven by scientific means.

To a seeking non-believer, creationism can be an impediment to faith. Many people appreciate the obvious utility and validity of science. Yet it is possible to show someone with an appreciation of science that the story of Jesus, if true, was an event so extraordinary as to be beyond the reach of science. For this person, belief may begin with an understanding that while Jesus’ story might have been a myth, there is no evidence that it actually was a myth. It could have happened. Science has no means of disproving the Biblical account of Jesus or of evaluating his eternal spiritual significance. An understanding and appreciation of science is not an impediment to faith in Christ.

So far, so good. But creationism goes on to demand that the hearer accept more than Jesus’ miraculous birth and resurrection and the plan of redemption these events fulfilled. He or she must also accept a story about creation that is directly contradicted by a large body of credible scientific evidence. This person can easily equate faith with myth and abandon it – not because of unwillingness to accept Jesus for who he is but because of unwillingness to accept a secondary, non-essential understanding of a passage at the beginning of Genesis. This is tragic. Nothing about Jesus – his person, his work, or his central role in salvation – is in any way dependent on the amount of time it took to create the universe. It is Jesus himself, not the story of creation, to which we are to be witnesses.

Creationism compels students to choose between school and Sunday school. If teachers and scientists are portrayed as foolish, ignorant or evil when it comes to the origin of the universe, why trust them at all? To be sure, students need to know that scientists sometimes overstep their bounds and attempt to answer spiritual questions. But they must also realize that the Bible does not address all human concerns and can be misapplied when its message of hope for salvation is taken out of context. Students need to be guided into the spiritual maturity necessary to evaluate claims made on both sides and to find the boundaries of such claims for themselves.

Creationism demonizes science. This produces mistrust, suspicion, and cynicism where there should be openness tempered with healthy skepticism. After all, science is not the invention of Satan. Science grew out of a deep and abiding faith that the God of the Bible created the universe and that it embodies His own characteristics of immutability and order. The last thing we need in an era of stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering is for Christians to withdraw from the debate because they cannot engage the scientific community.

Creationist dogma marginalizes Christians who accept the idea of an ancient universe. These Christians see much in modern scientific thought that validates the Bible’s account of God’s causative role in creation. Do they have an inferior faith? Do they love Jesus less? Insistence on one view or the other creates an artificial division in the body of Christ that must delight the Enemy. All Christians share a common belief in God the Creator of Heaven and Earth and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord. We can reasonably and lovingly disagree on how long God spent doing the creating.

I sometimes think that this is a disagreement that should never have escaped from the seminaries. But there is an opportunity as well. Jesus said that our unity will show the world that God sent him (John 17:22-23). Our unity is based on our common identity in Christ, not on our views of Genesis 1:1-2:3. Perhaps we Christians can show the world that despite our disagreements over the details, we are one in our love for Christ and for each other.

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Christianity: In defense of Rabbi Weiss

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

I occasionally look in on CNN’s token conservative, Glenn Beck. A few weeks ago, he briefly interviewed Rabbi Yisroel Weiss of Jews United Against Zionism. Weiss had gained some notoriety for his criticism of Zionism in the face of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. Beck’s manhandling of his guest led me to the conclusion that he didn’t really grasp what the Rabbi was saying, perhaps because Weiss was basing his remarks on Torah, not on conventional political wisdom.

As a Christian who has spent a fair amount of time in the Old Testament, I think I understood what Weiss was saying. His criticism of Zionism proceeded in parallel with an argument I have often had with other Christians – that the modern state of Israel is not the ancient Israel of the Torah or the Christian Bible.

Consider the differences: Ancient Israel was created by God, while the modern state of Israel was created by the U.N. The original boundaries of ancient Israel were established by God, while the original boundaries of the modern state of Israel were established by diplomacy. Ancient Israel had a king – first God himself, then a succession of human kings – while the modern state of Israel has a parliament and a Prime Minister. Ancient Israel was ruled by the Mosaic Law given by God, while in the modern state of Israel is ruled by civil law promulgated by the Knesset. There’s a pattern here.

It seems to me that ancient Israel, the geographical and political entity, is gone. Its territory was conquered by a succession of neighboring countries, its priestly government was swept away, its last holy temple was destroyed by the Romans. Ancient Israel now lives on in the same form in which God originally created it – as a spiritual and ethnic entity, a nation without borders, God’s Chosen People, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The result of these earthly events and others was the Diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people from the Promised Land. But the disappearance of ancient Israel was not just the product of stronger neighbors and an expanding Roman empire. It was – as Rabbi Weiss reminded me – the very will of God, prophesied by Moses as the people of Israel prepared to enter the land of Israel:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, emphasis added)

Conquest and Diaspora, the beginning and the end of ancient Israel – the Scriptures reveal the history and meaning of these events to Jews and Christians alike. Rabbi Weiss and I would probably disagree on what a new Israel will look like, but I think we agree that its construction will not be the work of human hands obedient to human will. What God has given and taken away can be restored only by God.

I am not presuming to judge a theological debate among Jews. The Talmud is a mystery to me. No doubt there are different Jewish theological perspectives that run counter to that expressed by Rabbi Weiss. But his comments lifted my own doubts about the Biblical (not political) legitimacy of the modern state of Israel out of the realm of theology and into the realm of current world events. Viewing these events – past and current – as a Christian, his observations ring true to me. And they raise uncomfortable questions about a faithful Christian response to the ongoing violence in the Holy Land.

No, I am not in any way defending the Arab states’ unwavering hatred of the modern state of Israel. Iranian President Ahmadinejad is still a raging lunatic. There is no justification for suicide bombers or any other brand of terrorism. Contemporary Islamic fascism is easily the equal of the last century’s German fascism. The people of Israel deserve the opportunity to live in peace and security. So do Palestinians who renounce the terrorist tactics of the government they chose.

I don’t believe that Islam’s war against Jews is God’s will. But I do know that it’s not a good idea to mess with God. He alone will choose the time and means for the restoration of his nation of Israel. I question whether God chose the U.N. in 1948 to do the job. David Ben-Gurion certainly didn’t look much like the humble servants God had chosen in the past – the fugitive shepherd Moses or the Persian cup-bearer Nehemiah, for example. And, so far, the fruits don’t look the same either.

I have no answers, no suggestions to the world’s leaders. All I have – thanks to Rabbi Weiss – is a new-found conviction that I need to view the Mideast conflict in a new way and seek God’s will as I do so.

[Rabbi Weiss’ views are summed up in this speech.]

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