Increasingly Irreligious America (It’s Not All Bad)

Two Muslim men once came to our Sunday worship service. The morning’s Scripture text, from the Book of Genesis, featured the story of Abraham’s visit to Egypt. Muslims revere Abraham and regard him as one of the special messengers God sent humanity. Something I said in the sermon offended our guests, who got up noisily and stormed out.

I talked to one of the men afterwards, and set up a time to meet at a local restaurant. Each of us brought along a friend and we discussed our faith perspectives. At one point in the conversation, my new acquaintance stated that everyone born in the U.S. is a Christian, unless born to parents from another religion. From his perspective, if you were born in the U.S. to parents who were not Jews or Muslims, you are a Christian.

Likewise, he said a person born in a Muslim country to Muslim parents is a Muslim. He added that he or she may not be a good Muslim, but that was irrelevant. Good or bad, he or she was a Muslim.

I told him the Bible teaches that people are not Christians by birth but by second birth, by conversion from one state to another. I pointed him to texts like John 3, where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” and Acts 2, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

But the idea that race or lineage does not automatically make a person a Christian was not something he grasped. As far as he was concerned, if you were born in the U.S. and are not something else, you are a Christian.

From what I can tell, his viewpoint is broadly shared. Most Americans believe themselves to be Christians, even though many rarely or never attend church, don’t know even the basic doctrines of the faith, and have never been baptized. Of the founder of the faith, they know little. They cannot articulate what he taught and have never even considered the possibility of acting on his instructions. The idea that a Christian will – or at least should – do what Jesus taught is to them completely novel.

Many Americans can only loosely be called Christians, even those who self-identify as such (about seven out of ten people). This makes any genuine entrance into the Christian faith more difficult: why enter when you are already in? It also makes understanding who Jesus really is, and practicing what he taught, seem entirely optional.

In recent years, there has been an upswing in people who do not identify with any religious group. Sociologists sometimes refer to them as “nones” because of their response to the question about religious affiliation on the census. Many people, especially parents of “nones,” view this trend with apprehension, but I think it is, overall, a positive step. Most of these people never were Christians by any objective biblical or historical standard, but didn’t know it. They assumed, like my Muslim friend, that they must be Christian because they were born in America and were not Jews or Muslims.

Acknowledging that they are not Christians is a first, critical step. Though this can be extremely painful, both for the person and for friends and family members looking on, it is necessary.

For most people, the next step is to realize the faith they have rejected is only a caricature of the real thing. They were right to discard it. They are like the woman who says she dislikes crab but has only tasted the ground fish meat and other body parts – “crab-stick,” as it is commonly called – that is sold in supermarkets.

Eventually, people must be introduced to the real thing – to Jesus himself and his teaching. Many will be surprised by what Jesus is really like, what he taught, and the kind of life he makes available to those who trust him. Surprised and, I think, eager to learn more.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/9/2017

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America Needs a Workable Sexual Ethic

Not Matt Lauer too. I liked Matt Lauer. He seemed like a down-to-earth guy, someone who enjoyed his work and was good at it. Unlike some of the people on television, I never felt like Matt Lauer thought he was better or more important than his viewers.

Let’s remember that the accusations of sexual harassment against Mr. Lauer are just that: accusations. They have not been proved and in our legal system a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. That would have been an easier presumption to maintain if Lauer had not been the latest link on a long, fast-growing chain of powerful people who have been accused of immoral and even illegal sexual conduct.

In the past, the nation has been willing to overlook such accusations. The careers of Bill Clinton, Clarence Thomas, and Donald Trump were not destroyed by their accusers. But since the revelations concerning Harvey Weinstein opened the floodgates, that seems to be changing – at least for now. Powerful men are losing their jobs and watching their careers and legacy dissolve before their eyes.

When I say powerful men, I am aware that women have also been accused. But let’s face it: the vast majority of accusations have been levelled against men: Charlie Rose, Glenn Thrush, Jeffrey Tambor, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Louis C. K., Steven Seagal, Kevin Spacey, George H. W. Bush, John Conyers, and a host of others.

Several times during this flood of revelations, I have thought of the poem “Man in Space” by contemporary American poet Billy Collins. In it he explains why women in science fiction movies “are always standing in a semicircle, with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart, their breasts protected by hard metal disks.” The reason, of course, is men.

What can we learn from the deluge of allegations? That men are evil? That power corrupts? That there is a dangerous imbalance of power between the genders?

We may need to relearn these old lessons, but we must also come to grips with America’s need of a workable sexual ethic based on a healthy view of sexuality. Such a view is profoundly absent in the culture at large, where sexual pleasure has been elevated to an ultimate good. Hollywood and the advertising industry are culpable in propagating this lie, and the consequences are everywhere evident.

The Bible and, based on it, Christianity, provides a healthy view of sexuality, but we are so far down the rabbit hole that even Christians are largely unaware of it. The Christian view is not a return to Victorian era ethics but an advance to an ethic based on love and respect for God and people, a love and respect constructed on a foundation of genuine spirituality. As Dallas Willard put it: “The human body becomes the primary source of pleasure for the person who does not live honestly and interactively with God, and also the primary source of terror, torture, and death.” Our culture is painfully aware of the need to build a new sexual ethic, but it is largely unware of the need for a foundation to support it.

There is another lesson to learn from this, one that has implications for Christians. The idea that cultural necessity trumps God’s standards of morality – that we must, for example, elect a Roy Moore, even though he may have committed horrendous acts because we can’t afford to lose the Senate – is profoundly unchristian. Didn’t St. Paul demolish the idea that we must “do evil that good may result”? Didn’t he warn that evil can only be overcome by good, and not by doing further evil?

The idea that a political agenda is more important than right and wrong is, as David Brooks has pointed out, a form of idolatry. Whenever a person places trust in some form of power (the Democratic or Republican parties, for example) above trust in God; whenever a person is willing to sacrifice to that power, especially when it is his or her moral integrity that is being sacrificed; whenever a person acts on the idea that ultimate good can come from secondary means, he or she is committing idolatry.

The final words of St. John’s first letter remain disconcertingly apropos for our age: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/2/2017

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Find Your Place in the Divine Comedy

Christians sometimes say that it is important to “think biblically.” That is, in fact, the title of a book by a well-known American Christian leader. But how does one do that? Does one try to fill one’s thoughts with passages of Scripture? Or does thinking biblically have to do with remembering and referring to biblical teaching on all the various subjects that come up during the week? Or is it really about making decisions that conform to biblical doctrines or commands?

Thinking biblically probably involves all these things, but it also goes beyond them. One can routinely refer to biblical passages and even use Bible verses in the decision-making process and still fail to think biblically. Worse, one can use Bible verses to support decisions that are antithetical to biblical thought.

For example, people used biblical verses to support slavery in Europe and America. People have used biblical passages to support polygamy. When Jesus was teaching in Israel, people felt justified in opposing him because of their convictions about Bible texts.

I have occasionally been asked to view teaching videos and provide a critique. The teacher relies exclusively on the Bible, I have been told. Yes, the teacher referred to Bible verses constantly, but many of those verses were lifted out of their context to support a point of view. Further, the teacher disregarded important passages that did not fit the argument being promulgated. The teaching turned out to be counter-biblical despite the profligate use of Bible verses.

Biblical thinking does not start with using the Bible to support a doctrinal or ethical position. The truth is, if one comes to the Bible looking for support for a previously assumed position, he or she will probably find it. Such an approach, which has been all too familiar in Christian history, has been disastrous. The Holocaust, one must never forget, happened in a “Christian country” where some of the world’s best biblical scholars and theologians lived and worked.

Making decisions that are consistent with biblical teaching is of course important, but that is where biblical thinking leads, not where it begins. People who try to begin there will fail to make biblically-coherent decisions because they have got things in the wrong order. Biblical thinking does not try to force the Bible into our story but rather brings our lives into the Bible’s story, that is, the God’s.

Seeing oneself and one’s world as an ongoing part of the biblical narrative is the first step toward biblical thinking. To do so obliges a person to ask, “Where are we in God’s story?” It requires a person to accept the fact that he or she is not the story’s protagonist but is in a supporting role.

But there are other stories, competing narratives, which make this first step toward biblical thinking difficult. In the West, and particularly in America, there is another narrative that is told, a ubiquitous tale about the autonomy of self-made individuals. It is a story about freedom and self-actualization and the removal of limits. In this narrative a person makes not only his own way but his own self. People do not discover their purpose in life; they create it.

This narrative, which is always playing loudly in the background of our lives, can temporarily drown out the biblical narrative. Worse yet, it – the very short story of contemporary life – can be mistaken for the one true story of the world. Giving credence to its tale of autonomy and self-creation has led moderns and post-moderns to the irrational belief that they can shape the world to suit their fancies. It has undermined the concept of the common good, exacerbated the loneliness of twenty-first century American life, and led to confusion over gender identity and healthy sexual expression – for a start.

The cure for these troubles is not found in marshaling Bible verses but in entering the biblical story and submitting to one’s place in it. It is a great and exciting story, a Divine Comedy, where good triumphs over evil and love outlasts hate. Within this story the Bible makes sense and its truths shine like a lamp to our feet and a light for our path.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/18/2017

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If I Could Change One Thing, It Would Be Me

My wife and I recently traveled to Texas to visit our son and daughter-in-law and to do a little hiking in the Hill Country. For many weeks before our trip, I researched flights, car rentals, lodging and hiking trails. I usually did this at night, when I was already tired, which might explain some of the trouble we had on our travels.

I booked our flight flights on Southwest and kicked in the extra money to be in the first group of borders. (Southwest does not assign seats but does arrange boarding order.) On our way to the airport, we stopped at Ikea to pick up some shelving for our other son and daughter-in-law, who had checked inventory online to make sure we wouldn’t waste our time.

But the inventory list was off, and we were unable to get all the shelves that were needed. By the time we left Ikea, I was getting anxious about the time. The airport wasn’t far, but finding off-site parking and getting a shuttle took time. Getting through security was delayed. For some reason, TSA agents always seem to choose me to search, and it happened again: “I’m just going to slip my hand beneath the waistband of your pants…” (“You’re going to do what?”)

We hadn’t eaten, but I thought we would have time to grab a quick bite at McDonald’s. I was wrong. Our flight had been changed to a different gate, and by the time we got there the early boarding group, of which we were supposed to be part, had already boarded. My hopes for an exit seat and a little extra room for my six-foot-four frame were dashed.

That wasn’t the worst part. I used to get a stabbing pain – like an icepick right through the eye – a few minutes into the descent. Though it only lasted for thirty seconds or so, it would bring tears to my eyes. I hadn’t had that pain since I underwent surgery to straighten my nose five or six years ago – until this trip. This time the icepick went right between my eyes.

When we got to Texas, I discovered I had booked our rental car at the wrong airport. I asked the agent if we could change airports, and he said, “Sure. Just let me calculate the cost.” Instead of $248, the cost would now be $798. So, we grabbed a shuttle back to the airport, hopped aboard a taxi, and $65 dollars and about an hour later were at the right car rental place.

By the time we started the forty-five-minute drive to our hotel it was 11 PM. Unfortunately, our GPS couldn’t find the hotel, and neither could we. Nor could anyone else – I asked three people. Our forty-five-minute drive took an hour-and-a-half.

The next morning, we discovered the liftgate on the rental car didn’t work – the car I rented so we would have room for family to ride. And when it started misting, it became clear the washer fluid reservoir was dry.

So, pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I was tired and frustrated, and already fretting about returning the rental car on our trip home. But the return trip could not have gone better. The rental car company charged less than expected. A taxi was already at the facility, as if waiting for us, and charged just a little more than half the fare of the first cab. When we arrived at the airport, we discovered we had TSA pre-clearance – don’t know why, but we weren’t complaining. Though we were the 29th and 30th people in line, respectively, we somehow got first row seats – the most leg room on the plane. There were no icepicks on the way home, and the plane touched down about a half-hour before our ETA.

If I could change one thing about this experience, it wouldn’t be the rental car or the icepick pain, it would be … me. I would relax. “Each day has enough trouble of its own,” Jesus reminded us, and isn’t it true? Yet he managed to move through the world in a relaxed and confident manner, though the troubles he faced were bigger than rental cars and thirty-second pains. I hope to learn from him to do the same.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/11/17

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Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

Church members often ask pastors the same questions again and again. One of the more frequent ones, with a preamble, goes something like this: “Pastor, I need to get a new Bible. What would you recommend?”

It’s no wonder people ask. There is a dizzying variety of English translations of the Bible on the market. Look up a passage on biblegateway.com and you will have over 50 different English versions to choose from. Adding to the confusions is the fact that many of the versions come in a variety of packages: study bibles, teen Bibles, children’s Bible, men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, and more. There are coloring book Bibles, single women’s Bibles, “tween” Bibles, military Bibles, men’s Bible, Catholic Bibles – the list goes on ad absurdum. Christian Book Distributors offers almost 13,000 products under their “Bibles” category.

Most Bible versions fall somewhere on a spectrum between what is known as dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence translations. What that means, simply put, is that some versions try to translate thought for thought (dynamic equivalence) while others try to translate word for word (formal equivalence). In dynamic equivalence translations, the translators seek to provide the English reader with an experience like that which a first century reader would have had.

Perhaps the best of the dynamic equivalence translations is the immensely popular New International Version. The translation committee, comprised of notable scholars, writes in the preface, “The first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers. This has moved the translators to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts.”

Note that it is the Bible writer’s meaning the translators were going for. This is the NIV’s strength, but also its weakness, since the writer’s meaning is not always obvious and, thus, interpretation and not merely translation is required. But since interpretation is sometimes debatable – famously so in some passages – the reader must hope that the scholar’s interpretive skills are as good as his or her translation skills.

On the other end of the spectrum, the formal equivalence approach to translation, one finds the New American Standard Bible. Because this translation attempts to translate words rather than thoughts (though in a word order that makes sense to English readers), the NASB is a much more wooden translation.

This is the NASB’s weakness, but also its strength. It is more likely than the NIV to include conjunctions and connecting particles, and to follow the original language in its multiplication of subordinate clauses. Though this makes for clumsy English, the translated sentence is truer to the original writer’s style and linguistic thought pattern.

It should be said that all major translations fit somewhere on a spectrum between dynamic and formal equivalence. The NASB must interpret the writer’s intent at times, just like a dynamic equivalence translation, while the NIV will translate most words and phrases just like a formal equivalence translation.

So, one kind of translation attempts to be truer to the writer’s thought, while the other tries to remains truer to the reader’s understanding. How does one choose?

My recommendation would be that one not choose and instead purchase both a good dynamic equivalence translation like the NIV or the NLT along with a good formal equivalence translation, like the NASB or the ESV, and consult both.

What about the King James or Authorized Version? Does it have a place? I think it does. The King James is without question the greatest work of literature in the English language. The Psalms sing in the King James like in no other translation. But the King James, published in 1611, did not have access to many of the oldest biblical manuscripts that archeologists later uncovered. Though the King James should have an honored place on the bookshelf, it should not, for this reason, be one’s only translation.

As important as translation work is, even the best translations will do no good if they are not read. Even the worst translations will do some good when they are read by people who really want to know God and do his will. The best choice a person can make when it comes to the Bible is to pick it up and read it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/4/2017

P.S. After reading this column, a friend wrote that whenever his former pastor was asked which translation is best, he would answer: “The one you will obey.” That about sums it up.

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The Invasion of Wild Boar: 500 Years Later

The Invasion of Wild Boar: 500 Years Later

Tuesday, October 31, marks the 500th anniversary of the day on which an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Nailing his provocative theses to the door was not meant to be an act of rebellion, but an invitation to academic debate. The Wittenberg door was a little like a Facebook page: it was a public place that invited comment and critique.

The principal subject of the theses was the issuance of papal pardons. Luther did not deny the pope’s right to issue pardons, but he argued that the pope’s authority to pardon and remit penalties was limited to sins committed against the pope and penalties pronounced by the pope, and did not extend to sins committed against God and penalties pronounced by God.

The primary motivation behind Luther’s theses – the irritation that provoked him to act – was the Church’s practice of selling indulgences to fund, at least as Luther understood it, the building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, under Pope Julian II. These indulgences were promises of the remittance of the temporal punishment, in Purgatory, for sins.

Luther was disgusted by the way some priests were “hawking” indulgences, preying upon simple believers who had hardly enough money to feed and clothe their families. He considered it an affront not only to the poor, but to the pope, and submitted that the pope would choose rather to see St. Peter’s “go to ashes” than “be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.”

The 95 theses did not come out of the blue, nor was Luther the first person to recognize corruption within the church. There had been reformers prior to Luther, like Wycliffe and Hus, and reformers who followed Luther, like Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin and John Knox. But Luther’s 95 theses set in motion a transformation of European and western society.

But the theses were not Luther’s most radical act, nor the one with the greatest impact. He went on to translate the New Testament into German, making it possible for common people to read the Scriptures. According to the renowned church historian Philip Schaff, Luther “made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house.” This may have done more to animate the Protestant movement than anything else.

The Church of Rome responded to the theses and to their author in a variety of ways. Luther was given the chance to recant his views, which he steadfastly refused to do. Instead of recanting, he buttressed his views with theological supports, claiming the pope and the Church were amenable to the Scriptures, advocating the priesthood of all believers, and challenging various Church doctrines.

The Pope responded by calling Luther a “wild boar that had invaded the Lord’s vineyard,” declared many of his theses heretical, and excommunicated him. But there was no stopping the movement Luther had begun. As the Reformation spread across Europe, the Council of Trent was convoked to condemn the principles promulgated by Luther and his fellow reformers. But the council also acted to halt the abuses and corruption which had rallied the reformers in the first place.

After 500 years, there are still significant doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. The gap between them is arguably wider now than it was on the day the Augustinian monk nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door. Resolution of those differences is unlikely and is not, perhaps, the best place for Catholics and Protestants to spend their time.

Rather than seeking doctrinal resolution, the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, should seek continuing reformation. Her watchword must be, as Karl Barth stated it: “Reformed, and always reforming.” The need for reformation didn’t end in the 16th century.

But reformation must be more than a historical memory; it must be an ongoing lifestyle. Catholics and Protestants alike must confess their sins – not least, those committed against each other – and ask God to search them, restore them and reform them. If they do, they have a chance at something even more important that doctrinal agreement. They have a chance for brotherly love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/28/2017

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What Teleportation Teaches Us About Our Entanglement With Christ

When news broke this summer that Chinese scientists had engineered the successful “teleportation” of a photon over a distance greater than 300 miles, Star Trek fans around the globe rejoiced. It was, however, a belated celebration: teleportation has been around as a serious theory for twenty-five years and has been a reality in the lab for twenty.

On the other hand, one might argue the celebration was premature. If one defines teleportation as the transfer of an object from one place to another without crossing intervening space (what Scotty does when Jim Kirk is in trouble), then what the Chinese performed was not teleportation. The object, a photon, was not transferred, but information about the object—its quantum footprint, so to speak—was.

While Star Trek fans might be disappointed, scientists, technology companies and the intelligence community are thrilled. Because “teleportation,” or “telephresis” as some scientists prefer to call it, happens instantaneously and without crossing intervening space, it may have the potential of providing hacker-proof communications security and next-generation cryptography.

This kind of teleportation is possible because of the strange interaction of subatomic particles, which physicists refer to as “entanglement.” According to Randy Isaac, a solid-state physicist and executive director emeritus of the American Scientific Affiliation, a particle can be entangled with another particle in such a way that their quantum properties, such as position, speed and spin, are linked. An action performed on the first particle instantaneously affects its partner particle, regardless of the distance between them in space or, as Einstein taught us to say, spacetime.

Entanglement is weird and, though scientists have come to accept and exploit it, they do not pretend to understand it. Einstein himself refused to believe it, deriding it as “spooky action at a distance,” but it has turned out to be true. There is a connectedness in the universe that defies explanation. A change in a subatomic particle on this side of the galaxy will instantaneously make a difference in an entangled particle on the other side. This is not science fiction. It is science fact.

Subatomic particles are not the only things that are entangled in our universe. So are we. We are entangled with one another and even with creation—something we are only now discovering, but which Paul asserted to be true in Romans 8. God designed humanity this way from the beginning. It is part of what makes us great. We are entangled with people we do not know, from places we have never been, at times we have not existed, in the deep past and in the unknown future.

The entire human race can be conceived as one large, interconnected thing, stretching across space and time. If we could see what God sees when he looks at humanity, we would not only see a hundred billion or so disconnected individuals but a human race that is more like a massive body with a hundred billion parts.

Human entanglement, and the “spooky action at a distance” it makes possible, is responsible both for the damaged state in which humanity now finds itself and the glorious future which awaits it. It made the consequences of the first Adam’s sin impossible for us to avoid, but it also makes the consequences of the second Adam’s obedience possible for us to share.

Theologians are just as hard pressed to explain the mystery of humanity’s entangled relationship with Adam as physicists are to explain quanta’s entangled relationships with each other. While physicists talk about quantum field theory and supersymmetry and employ equations like Schrodinger’s Wave Function, theologians talk about federal headship theory and natural headship theory and employ concepts like covenant and imputation.

In both cases, the theories are useful without being complete. This is one reason an analogy like this—and it is only an analogy, not a source of evidence—is helpful. It reminds us that theories can be useful, even when we know them to be incomplete. The theories help us explore and explain other data both in the physical sciences (like wave/particle duality) and theology (like the necessity of the incarnation).

Because of the God-designed capacity for human entanglement, the choices of two men—the two men, the two Adams—has affected all humanity. The first Adam tripped and we fell. The second Adam died and we live. The first Adam’s trespass brought condemnation. The second Adam’s obedience brought justification.

The chief complaint against theological explanations of entanglement has always been its unfairness: Adam sins, and I’m condemned? He trips, and I fall? How is that fair? Clearly, it is not. Fairness is: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). That is fair but it’s hardly better, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thankfully, God is more than fair, as the Apostle Paul points out in Romans 5:15: “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

This analogy, like all analogies, has its limits. Quantum entanglement is, according to Isaac, fleeting and hard to sustain. In contrast, Adam entanglement is stable and, as we inevitably discover, hard to break. But entanglement with Christ is eternal and provides a stronger bond than the forces of nature can establish.

The capacity for entanglement was not a design flaw, even though it left us tangled up in Adam’s fall. Through it the creator planned to reverse the fall by uniting himself to Adam’s race in the incarnation, and by uniting Adam’s race to himself in what theologians call glorification. Whatever wonders quantum entanglement brings will not compare to the eternal weight of that glory.

First appeared on 10/17/2017 on the Christianity Today website

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