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Monthly Archives: October 2020
I think I’ll watch a movie on election eve, probably “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and has a stellar cast, including the great James Stewart.
In the movie, an unlikely replacement is chosen for a recently deceased U.S. Senator. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, taken advantage of by a worldly-wise press, and pictured as a dumb ox to the nation.
Senator Smith runs afoul of some corrupt senior members, who determine to ruin him, vacate his seat, and replace him with a more compliant member. Plans are made and steps are taken to humiliate the young senator, break him, and drive him out. In spite of the temptation and corruption, Smith manages to remain true. It is, in many ways, a story for our time.
“Mr. Smith” is my plan for election night. I won’t be watching the results into the wee hours of the night. I will pay no attention to the exit polls. By election night, I will have already done what I can do to influence the election – pray and vote – and what I cannot do, control the outcome, I will leave to God.
Perhaps this seems too laissez-faire. This is, after all, the most important election in our lifetimes – or at least that is what people keep saying. Even if they are right, fretting about the outcome will not change it. Worry will accomplish nothing, as Jesus explicitly taught. I will pray and vote, but I will trust God with the outcome.
The Bible pictures God as big enough to handle circumstances, even ones that are as volatile as ours. The psalmist says that God brings down one person and exalts another. The prophet adds that “he sets up kings and deposes them.” I think the same could be said of presidents. This election will not and cannot undermine God’s supreme authority.
Still, what if America gets it wrong? What if we, confused by fake news and misled by spin masters, choose the wrong person?
A few weeks ago we started on an exploration of the gospel and we are continuing our adventure today with a journey into First Corinthians. Someone might wonder why we are jumping from the Old Testament directly to the New Testament letters without stopping in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Surely the Gospels are important. After all, they give us the word “gospel” more than twenty times, most frequently from the mouth of Jesus himself.
Nevertheless, there is good reason to go to 1 Corinthians next. The Gospels are the good news story full-blown. 1 Corinthians 15, on the other hand, is the gospel in brief, a summary that was well-known and oft recited by early Christians. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul bullet points the big story of the Gospels and gives us something we can get our arms around.
This is not the only gospel summary in the New Testament. You can find others in Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 2, but it is important to remember that these are summaries, not full accounts. They bring to mind the events recorded in the Gospels, like the Cliff Notes on Romeo and Juliet bring to mind the events in Shakespeare’s tragedy. They remind, they do not replace.
Sometimes people say that 1 Corinthians 15 is the gospel, but that is like saying the Cliff Notes are Romeo and Juliet or that the blurb in the TV Guide – American bar owner becomes embroiled in wartime intrigues in Morocco – is Casablanca.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes the big story of Jesus, bullet points it, and gives us something we can memorize and repeat. There are four points in this summary but that number could be expanded. That’s the problem with a summary: if you don’t stop somewhere, it ceases to be a summary and becomes a copy. Paul could have added, for example, the day of judgment, which he says in Romans 2:16 is part of the gospel. But he resisted the temptation to give us a longer summary and stuck to four points.
A passage in the prophet Isaiah seems to me to capture the current state of our nation: “Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”
The journal “Science” published the peer reviewed paper, “The spread of true and false news online,” by Soroush Vosughi and others in 2018. The authors drew on an exhaustive study of Twitter feeds from 2006 to 2017, which examined around 126,000 news stories tweeted by 3 million people more that 4.5 million times.
We are in a series on the gospel titled Finally, Some Good News. Such series frequently begin in the New Testament, as if Jesus and the Evangelists had invented the word “gospel.” They didn’t. They discovered it in the Old Testament, and what they found there shaped their proclamation.
When Jesus burst onto the scene with the good news – the gospel – that the kingdom of God was at hand, his fellow-Jews knew what he was talking about. They had learned about it in synagogue when Isaiah was read, particularly chapter 52. When they heard Jesus urging them to believe the gospel (the good news), it was Isaiah’s gospel that was in mind.
Isaiah 52 begins with God shouting, “Awake, awake!” An observant reader will know that God is echoing words addressed to him a few verses earlier, when someone told him to wake up: “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD” (Isaiah 51:9). (In the vernacular: “Wake up, God! Roll up your sleeves and get to work.”) But in chapter 52, God answers: “I’m not asleep. You’re the ones who need to wake up. I’ve got good news for you.”
That good news came at a time when a mountain of bad news had piled up around the Jewish people. They had just come through a long and ruinous war. Death was everywhere. The land had been pulverized; the capitol city devastated. Israel’s temple – the sanctuary of their God – had been razed, which indicated to ancient people that the god of that temple had been defeated. The population had been systematically and forcibly deported to a foreign country.
Now fast-forward hundreds of years to Jesus’s announcement of the arrival of Isaiah’s good news (Mark 1:14-15). The Jewish people were once again standing in the shadow of a mountain of bad news. The government had been deposed, the army disbanded, and foreign soldiers patrolled the streets. Taxes were impoverishing people. The foreigners were even meddling in their worship, appointing, and removing high priests at will, corrupting their most sacred institution.
Today, we stand in the shadow of our own mountain of bad news. A pandemic is killing us. Politics is polarizing us. Churches around the country are closed and many will never reopen. Domestic violence is surging. Opioid addiction is devastating. Unemployment is high, the stock market is volatile, and the potential for election violence is looming.
But on this mountain of bad news, a voice is announcing good news – the same news Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed. I think it’s time we had some good news.
In September, the British news website “The Guardian” published a story written entirely by an AI – an artificial intelligence that “learned” how to write from scanning the Internet. The piece received a lot of press because in it the AI stated it had no plans to destroy humanity. It did, however, admit that it could be programmed in a way that might prove destructive.
The AI is not beyond making mistakes. I noted its erroneous claim that the word “robot” derives from Greek. An AI that is mistaken about where a word comes from might also be mistaken about where humanity is headed. Or it might be lying. Not a pleasant thought.
Artificial Intelligence is based on the idea that computer programs can “learn” and “grow.” No less an authority than Stephen Hawking has warned that AI, unbounded by the slow pace of biological development, might quickly supersede its human developers.
Other scientists are more optimistic, believing that AI may provide solutions to many of humanity’s age-old problems, including disease and famine. Of course, the destruction of biological life would be one solution to disease and famine.
Hawking worried that a “growing” and “learning” computer program might eventually destroy the world. I doubt it ever occurred to Hawking that his fears regarding AI could once have been expressed toward BI – biological intelligence; that is, humans – at their creation.
Did non-human life forms, like those the Bible refers to as “angels,” foresee the dangerous possibilities presented by the human capacity to “grow” and “learn”? Might not the angel Gabriel, like the scientist Hawking, have warned of impending doom? Continue reading
We are in the second week of a series on the gospel titled, …Finally, Some Good News. This week and next, we will explore the biblical context of the gospel. We need context. Truths without context warp into half-truths and untruths. Doctrine without context becomes heresy. Content without context brings confusion.
Let me give you an example. A man was driving along a narrow country road with his German Shepherd in the back seat and his Sheltie in the front. A pickup came speeding around a curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced the man and his dogs into the ditch.
There were injuries and the car was totaled, so the man sued the driver of the pickup. While he was on the stand, the counsel for the defense said to him: “I want you to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: Did you or did you not say at the time of the accident that you were ‘perfectly fine’”?
The man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when … ” but the lawyer interrupted him. “Just answer the question ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Did you or did you not say you were ‘perfectly fine’ at the time of the accident?”
“Well, I was driving with my dogs … ” The defense attorney stopped him again. “Your honor,” he said to the judge, “this witness is evading the question. Would you please insist that he answer?” The judge said, “Well, he obviously wants to tell us something. Let him speak.”
So the man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when this truck came around the curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced me off the road and into the ditch and the car rolled over. The driver stopped to help and saw my German Shepherd had been thrown from the car and was badly injured. He went to his truck, got a rifle, came back, and put her out of her misery. Then he saw my Sheltie had a broken neck, so he dispatched him too. Then, still holding the gun, he asked me if I was okay. And I said… ‘I’m perfectly fine.’
Context is important. If we don’t get the biblical context for great words like “gospel,” we will invent our own, our ideas will be skewed and our actions will be disproportionate to the truth.
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries people chose the term “post-truth” as their “word of the year.” Questions about truth and even doubts about there being such a thing pervade society. A number of things have brought us to this place, not least of which is the ubiquitous presence in our lives of social and news media.
Our days are saturated with information, whether about people we know on Facebook or about the president of the United States on the evening news. Some of this news (and in certain settings, much of it) is either fake or what I call “enhanced” news. Fake news reports something that is not true and has not happened as though it is true and has happened. Enhanced news presents something that has happened but does so in a way that is intended to move the reader or listener in a certain direction.
When I am in the car, I frequently listen to classical music, which is presented on a platform that includes hourly news updates. The corporation behind that news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. But for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words that at best reflect the new staffs’ biases and at worst expose a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. That is enhanced news.
Can we trust what we hear? Did you know that many of the online sites you visit employ tools to covertly influence your thinking? Some are relatively straightforward (paying people to submit likes or to become followers), while others are more sophisticated, like stuffing online polls, forcing site owners to take down stories, crashing entire sites, and more.
A study from Carnegie Mellon found that something like 45% of tweets on the coronavirus originated from bots – automated computer programs – instead of people. Evidence points to China’s and Russia’s involvement. Furthermore, 80% of the most retweeted posts on Twitter came from bots. The “likes” that boost a post and give it visibility often come from bots created by people who are trying to game the system.
In this environment, who can we trust? I say, “In this environment,” but fake and enhanced news is not news; there is nothing new about it. Fake news has been a thing throughout our lives. What’s more, it was a thing in our great grandparents’ lives and a thing in the lives of the apostles and prophets. Fake news has been around forever. It’s just the form it takes that is new.
The difference between real news and fake (or enhanced) news is that someone tells real news because something has happened. Someone tells fake news because they want something to happen. Keep that difference in mind for a few minutes.
We are starting a series today on the gospel: what it is and what it means. In the weeks to come we will look at the context of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the consequences of the gospel. What do we do with the gospel? What does it do with us?