Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Secularization: Asking the Right Questions

Perhaps my favorite quote of all time, which curiously has not appeared here before, is from Hans van Campenhausen: "It is the wrong question to ask, and therefore, as one might expect, has no right answer." This is the approach that Stephen Prothero took to questions raised by secularization theory. Secularization theory, which very broadly stated, is the belief that society is marching progressively on toward irreligion, raised questions about the anomaly of a developed Western society like America which was curiously still so religious. This, shockingly, turned out to be the wrong question, given that--in Prothero's words--"Secularization theory has run aground, as grand theories often do, on the shoals of historical facts."

Instead, Prothero offers this thought-provoking question which may turn out to have been the right one all along:

Today what needs explaining is not the persistence of religion in modern societies but the emergence of unbelief in Europe and among American leaders in media, law, and higher education.

Welcome to the World, Beagles

Here is a bit of heart-wrenching, heart warming news about a group of Beagles rescued from a Spanish laboratory.

Unfortunately, beagles’ notoriously obedient dispositions makes them ideal for experimentation. According to the Beagle Freedom Project’s website, they are the breed of choice for lab testing of pharmaceutical, household, and cosmetic products due to their ability to adapt to life in a cage and the fact that they are relatively inexpensive to feed.

When the beagles are no longer needed for research, some labs contact organizations such as ARME, who then work to find good homes for the dogs.

This heartbreaking (that soundtrack!) video was filmed back in June, when the organization gave nine lab beagles a second chance at life. We dare you not to be moved by that first beagle’s initial tentative steps and soulful eyes.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Nonsense of Choice

In a recent discussion with a proponent of the "let them choose" philosophy of religious child-rearing, my conversation partner was shocked by my suggestion that such a proposition was functionally impossible to achieve. It boggled his mind that I would suggest that the very act of raising a child at all is a process of "indoctrination" (his term, and a favorite of those who oppose parents passing on religion to children). In fact, I had the audacity to claim that all parents indoctrinate their children with their own ideology, even if that ideology happens to be religious apathy, religious pluralism, or positive irreligion. Your children will take their cues from you and develop in response (either positively or negatively) to the ways in which you behave. In the words of J. C. Ryle: "Imitation is a far stronger principle with children than memory. What they see has a much stronger effect on their minds than what they are told." The "let them choose" advocate was unconvinced, I suspect in part because of a contemporary anthropological fallacy that irreligion is a biological or psychological default, a neutral rather than a positive state.

More recently still, I was delighted to discover that Stephen Prothero had apparently read our conversation and retroactively written my thoughts back into his 2007 book:

Some friends tell me that they don’t bring their sons and daughters to worship services or talk with them about their faith because they want their children to be free to choose a religion for themselves. This is foolhardy, not unlike saying that you will not read anything to your daughter because you don’t want to enslave her to any one language. The fact of the matter is that you cannot avoid teaching religion to your kids; if you offer them nothing, you are telling them that religion counts for nothing.

Sure, I would have liked a citation, but I suppose I will settle for the tacit affirmation of my highly original argument that irreligion is a positive position and, consequently, an attitude of "let them choose" is self-defeating.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Knowledge and Franchise

Attention Americans: you are disenfranchised by your own ignorance. Sure, technically everyone (well, almost everyone) in America has the right to vote, but the idea that this vote belongs to you and is cast by you as a free exercise of your will is an illusion. The very fact of Americans collective ignorance is a de facto relinquishing of the vote to people who have, whether themselves ignorant or not, purport to be the possessors of authoritative knowledge. In the words of Stephen Prothero:

Few Americans are able to challenge claims made by politicians or pundits about Islam’s place in the war on terrorism or what the Bible says about homosexuality. This ignorance imperils our public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads and effectively transferring power from the third estate (the people) to the fourth (the press).

Prothero writes here specifically of religious ignorance, but medical and economic ignorance play their part as well. In accepting ignorance as a necessary evil in our busy pursuit of the American dream, we defer judgement to those who we assume are more knowledgable than we. In reality, the electoral process boils down to little more than a contest between various groups of talking heads to see who can convince the largest mass of ignorant viewers that they are best informed. In the words of E. D. Hirsch, "the right to vote is meaningless if a citizen is disenfranchised by illiteracy or semiliteracy.”

For Christians, my advice is always simply not to vote, not because you are ignorant but because you are keenly aware that there is no participation in the political process which does not involve gross violations of the Christian ethos. To those who are not Christians, or to those Christians who insist on voting, I can only hope that you will make an effort to learn your religion from theologians, your economics from economists, and your medicine from doctors (and not, might I add, from Dr. Ron Paul or Dr. Sanjay Gupta, but from less obviously partisan physicians). Or, as James Madison put it, "A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Missouri Man, Angry About Bigotry, Apologizes

Controversy erupts in Springfield, MO:

A businessman has apologized for briefly posting a sign in the window of his Springfield gelato shop informing those in town for a convention of religious skeptics that they were not welcome at his Christian business.

Andy Drennen apologized in a letter posted Monday on the website Reddit. He said he posted the hastily drawn sign in his shop, Gelato Mio, on Saturday after seeing someone attending Skepticon delivering a mock sermon and cursing the Bible.

It is telling, as always, to see the way that the irreligious react to the offenses of the religious and ignore their own. After all, all the Pastafarians did was hold an entire convention themed around publicly degrading religion generally and Christianity specifically. That certainly doesn't warrant so heinous a response by a Christian as considering, for ten whole minutes, denying these faithful few their gelato. It is nice that Christians, unlike skeptics apparently, do not feel the need to swarm and combat with overwhelming force any perceived offense. I'd like to believe it is some healthy mixture of turning the other cheek and shaking the dust off our feet.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Episcopal Church Wins, Still Manages to Lose

Following the 2003 appointment of Gene Robinson by the Episcopal Church as its first openly gay bishop, there was understandable distress among congregants causing some to "flee" the jurisdiction of the American Episcopals for more conservative climes. To the congregation occupying the oldest Episcopal church building in Georgia, the church says "good riddance" and offers this legally upheld eviction notice as a parting gift:

An historic church building in the city of Savannah belongs to the national Episcopal Church, not a breakaway congregation that left the national church following the naming of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, the Georgia Supreme Court said on Monday.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "allows (the local congregation) and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans. But it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America," the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in a 6-1 vote.

In other news, the national leadership of the Epsicopal Church has also officially ordered all the faithful to cut 1 Corinthians 6 out of their Bibles.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Family Forum

I track American politics in part because I think they are the most entertaining form of reality television and in part because, as someone who happens to live on American soil, they have a certain pragmatic relevance for me. Naturally, I have been watching the bevy of Republican debates and can honestly say that the Thanksgiving Family Forum, held in a church by a Christian organization, was by far the most painful to watch. For me, at least, the worst part isn't even difficult to isolate. It wasn't Rick Perry talking about the values "this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers" (you remember, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Rabbi Goldberg). It wasn't even the extremely unsettling attempt by Rick Santorum to convert his infant daughter's struggle with almost certainly terminal Edwards Syndrome into politcal currency. It was this theologically disasterous thought by Michelle Bachmann:

I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government.

Let's forget for a moment that she claims a "biblical worldview" and immediately directs us to the Declaration of Independence and not the Bible and focus on what it means for theology to suggest that if God created us then He necessarily created human government. There are certainly theological systems (dreary, Calvinistic systems) which insist that it is appropriate to speak of God as the creator of everything we create because He created us. I wonder if Bachmann would be ready to endorse the implications of that theology (as so many of its more honest adherents are), that this makes God not only the author of civil government but also the author of various other sins like abortion, rape, nuclear war, and any other human malevolance imaginable. That logic paints a very scary picture, which is why so many of the rest of us are willing to accept a moral disconnect between what God has created and what we create as His creations.

The one bright moment in the whole affair is when Ron Paul contrasted the decentralized post-Exodus Israel and the centralized Israel of the kings, with the shift to the latter being (consistent with explicit biblical statements) perhaps the most destructive turn in Israelite history. His point, of course, was that human governments are nasty things that should be limited or avoided altogether when possible. The whole hermeneutical exercise had profound Lipscomb overtones--as Lipscomb would make a similar point in his works with the story of Samuel and Saul about the folly of civil government--though the two men arrive at very different ultimate conclusions. Delightfully, though Paul also endorsed the Augustinian view of just war (citing the saint by name), he admitted that just war theory is in tension with the experience of the early church and Christ's own emphasis on peace. For his own betterment (though perhaps not that of the American political landscape), I cannot help but hope that Paul will take that final ideological step and realize that government is so nasty that, as a Christian, he ought to just wash his hands of the whole endeavor.

Of course, then what would everyone be left with? Newt Gingrich and his profound answer to the worldwide Occupy Movement: "Go get a job, right after you take a bath."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Skeleton of Christian Literacy

In his work Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero offers what he calls a "Dictionary of Religious Literacy." It represents his attempt to ennumerate the bare minimum of what an American needs to know to qualify as religiously literate. What it amounts to in practice is a relatively short list of terms from the world religions and their definitions which are most relevant to civic life in the United States. It was interesting for me to peruse through that list, in part to learn new things that I supposedly should have known all along but also to evaluate just how well I stacked up against his minimum of religious knowledge.

My interest in religious literacy is somewhat different, however, from Prothero's. His concern is primarily with religious knowledge as a civic duty, as a way for all people to adequately navigate the social and political landscape of Christian-dominant but highly pluralistic America. For my part, I lament religious ignorance because it leads to religious excesses and abberations. To be a Christian and to not understand basic truths about the Bible or about the main contours of Christian theology is to invite disaster into your own thinking. The proliferation of ever more ridiculous sects and abominable ethical systems in American Christianity is, I believe, a direct result of the ongoing biblical and theological illiteracy of most American adherents.

With that in mind, I would like to offer what I believe are the core Christian facts which every American Christian ought to know by adulthood in order to successfully navigate the social, political, and theological landscape of America's Christian pluralism. I will divide my list into two fifty point sections: a primary literacy and a secondary literacy. They correspond roughly to what I believe a person should learn in from their earliest childhood and what should be built onto this base knowledge later, perhaps in high school. Let it be noted that some of these concepts may appear at first glance to be quite deep and complex. For example, if I list "Synoptic Gospels" as an area of knowledge of a literate Christian, I do not expect every Christian to be able to navigate the intricacies of two source theory versus four source theory versus the Farrer hypothesis or even to know what those are. It is enough to simply know what the term "Synoptic Gospels" means, i.e. which are the Synoptic Gospels and why, so as to know it if it should appear in an adult conversation about inspiration, canon, or higher criticism. With that disclaimer out of the way, here is my own skeletal outline of a literate Christian:

Primary Literacy

1) Name the books of the Bible in order.
2) Distinguish the Torah.
3) Distinguish the Gospels.
4) Distinguish the Epistles.
5) Identify Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel,
6) Noah,
7) Abraham,
8) Isaac,
9) Jacob,
10) Joseph,
11) Moses,
12) Joshua,
13) David,
14) Solomon,
15) Esther,
16) Daniel,
17) Jonah,
18) Mary and Joseph,
19) John the Baptist,
20) Jesus,
21) Peter, James, and John,
22) Judas Iscariot,
23) Pontius Pilate,
24) Stephen,
25) and Saul/Paul of Tarsus.
26) List the 7 days of creation,
27) the 10 plagues,
28) and the 10 Commandments.
29) Be familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel,
30) Sacrifice of Isaac,
31) Parting of the sea,
32) Giving of the Law and the golden calf,
33) Fall of Jericho,
34) Slaying of Goliath,
35) Fall of Jerusalem and exile,
36) Nativity,
37) Baptism of Jesus,
38) Temptation in the wilderness,
39) Feeding of the 5,000,
40) Clearing of the temple,
41) Passion, resurrection, and ascension,
42) Conversion of Saul,
43) and the conversion of Cornelius.
44) Be able to recite the Shema,
45) Psalm 23,
46) Lord's Prayer,
47) Golden Rule,
48) John 3:16,
49) Great Comission,
50) and either the Apostle's or the Nicene Creed.

Secondary Literacy

1) Name the Deuterocanonical books.
2) Distinguish the Prophets (Major and Minor).
3) Distinguish the Pauline and Johanine Epistles.
4) Distinguish Synoptic Gospels.
5) Identify Seth,
6) Ham, Shem, and Japheth,
7) Ishmael,
8) Aaron,
9) Gideon,
10) Samson,
11) Ruth,
12) Samuel,
13) Saul, King of Israel,
14) Jeroboam and Rehoboam,
15) Hezekiah,
16) Josiah,
17) Elijah and Elisha,
18) Isaiah,
19) Jeremiah,
20) Ezra and Nehemiah,
21) Job,
22) Lazarus,
23) Mary Magdalene,
24) Matthais,
25) Phillip,
26) and Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy.
27) Be able to list the Twelve Apostles.
28) Be familiar with some of the distinctive beliefs of Catholics,
29) Lutherans,
30) Presbyterians,
31) Baptists,
32) Methodists,
33) Pentecostals,
34) and Mormons.
35) Be able to identify Augustine,
36) Thomas Aquinas,
37) Martin Luther,
38) and John Calvin.
39) Distinguish between Pharisees and Sadducees.
40) Be familiar with Matthew 5-7,
41) John 1,
42) Acts 2,
43) Romans 1-6,
44) 1 Corinthians 15,
45) Ephesians 2:8-9 and James 2:14-26,
46) and the broad strokes of Revelation.
47) Be able to roughly explain a Christian understanding of Trinity,
48) Divinity of Jesus,
49) and sin and salvation.
50) Define the term "evangelical."

A Little Note About a Big Issue

The following represents the fortuitous collision of a personal pet peeve of mine with an ongoing discussion among a very limited circle of friends and family. For most, the information within will seem a little like reinventing the wheel or, perhaps more damningly, like toppling a strawman. For those of this mindset, let me just encourage you to ignore this or, at the very least, trust that it is necessary (if not to vindicate a theory that by no means needs my meager defense than at least as a means of personal, public catharsis).

It is tragic to me that certain outmoded theories of personality still exist, particularly those binary understandings of personality that want to lump large segments of society into one category or another. I have in mind particularly left-brain/right-brain (from here on, "LB-RB") theories of personality, though my calumny can be just as easily applied to other once serious psychological theories that now only persist in the bloated lexicon of pop psychology (e.g. type-A/type-B personalities). Rather than mounting an exhaustive critique of LB-RB theory, I think a more constructive approach might be to offer a positive alternative. Thus, I give you the Five Factor Model, a theory which attempt to measure personality along five personality continua: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Here are the reasons why I think the Five Factor Model is superior to other models, especially the LB-RB theory:

The Five Factor Model is grounded in serious, ongoing scientific research. Notably, so many of the theories which dominate in pop psychology are no longer current in the psychological or neuroscientific communities. LB-RB, for example, was a product of research in the 1960s on split brain patients, and its formulation was tied social theories about breaking away from "oppressive" traditional (linear, left-brain) ways of thinking. Similarly, type-A/type-B theory was part of medical research going on the in 1950s which has also since been exceeded. The Five Factor Model, in contrast, is the subject of ongoing psychological and scientific debate to determine its strengths and its limits. As one example, consider ongoing attempts to translate the theory into languages and culture other than English to test its universal applicability.

The Five Factor Model allows for a balance between heredity and environment. There is no denying that there is some genetics involved in personality. One need only look at children who grew up estranged from a parent but who nevertheless express many of his or her characteristic personality traits (i.e. sons of divorced parents who grow up just like their father's anyway). The LB-RB model, however, doesn't allow for much of anything beyond heredity to play a role. By claiming to tie personality directly to the anatomical make up of one's brain, it makes personality something static and intrinsic. In reality, our personalities are shaped by our experiences as much as our genetics; who you are is more than your DNA. Testing of the five traits that make up the Five Factor Model shows that each trait is influenced roughly equally by heredity and environment, reflecting a more balanced approach to the nature-nurture debate than you receive in LB-RB theories.

The Five Factor Model is first and foremost descriptive, not predictive. There is a temptation when we classify anything, but particularly something as abstract as personality, to take that classification and apply it like a hard-and-fast rule. This temptation is particularly pronounced with LB-RB theory because it so neatly claims to predict modes of thinking and therefore types of behavior. "Person X will never be an artist. He's too left-brained." That sort of thinking limits not only the ability of people to explore and excel and grow, but it limits the thinkers ability to interact authentically with people who are so surgically sorted into artificial categories. Proponents debate the degree to which the Five Factor Model can be used to predict behavior, but all agree that the five traits it offers are a useful tool in describing and understanding behaviors. It is more open to the question "why do you think you did that" than the prediction that, inescapably, "you will do that."

Finally, the Five Factor Model gives a more complex and thus more believable picture of human personalty. The biggest flaw in most forms of binary thinking is precisely that they are binary. As with Hegel's view of history and Zoroaster's view of deity, collapsing a complex reality into two broad categories is almost always erroneous. LB-RB theory tries to simplify reality and convince us that there are essentially only two kind of people. It is a tantalizing prospect, but our experience teaches us that there are millions of kinds of people. The Five Factor Model harmonizes better with our experience of people because it makes personality a combination of any number of five variables, each of which a given person can possess to varying degrees on a continuum. For example, why do we have two supremely organized women, both friendly toward people, thirsty for new ideas, and generally unfazed by problems in the world, one of whom becomes a big-time defense attorney and the other a mild-mannered suburban librarian. The LB-RB model has no answer for why two people who manifest the same kind of thinking would have radically different life paths. The Five Factor Model recognizes that people can be almost identical in numerous personality categories (four of the five in this example) and still have very different personalities and different paths in life based on small differences in certain personality features (in this case, degree of extraversion). That is only one rough analogy, but the point is simple: personality is a complex reality that requires a complex understanding that binary modes of thinking simply cannot satisfy.

Obviously, any attempt to quantify personality and to put people into categories (even five factored categories) is going to suffer from the same pitfall of oversimplifying and artificially labeling realities which we fundamentally do not understanding. Just because no theory is perfect, however, does not mean that all theories were created equal. It is time for serious-minded people to cast aside antiquated modes of thinking and convenient tools for ordering their world and advance into the messier but more useful methods presently endorsed by the psychological and scientific communities. Anyone interested in the Five Factor Model might consider a wonderful little book, very accessible in its writing style, written by a professor at the University of Newcastle and published by Oxford University: Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pope Kisses Man and Sues

When I read the other day about the new Benetton ads featuring manipulated images of world leaders kissing, I cannot say I was shocked. After all, this is the same company that brought us bloody babies and people dying of AIDS. Shock imagery is their standard operating procedure. So the picture of Obama kissing Chinese President Hu Jintao, which was the big controversy when I first saw the articles, was nauseating but not surprising. (Amusingly, the White House is pretending to be upset because of a "policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes" and not for the more obvious reason, that it looks like the Chinese president is totally dominating him in that picture.)

I apparently missed that, in addition to a host of political world leaders, the clothing company had included a pair of religious figures in its repertoire: the pope and Egyptian imam Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb. The Vatican sprung into legal action almost immediately, claiming (rightly) that the advertisement was "offensive not only to the dignity of the pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers."

It didn't take long for Benetton to remove the ad from its website, but what's the point? The image (which I won't share here) has already gone viral. In fact, searching for the above image of Obama, you are likely to get more results featuring the pope's picture than the president's. The company's purpose was, as always, to generate controversy; it has done so with tremendous success. In an era so jaded that very little shocks us anymore, you have to credit Benetton for having the genius to imagine giant pictures of the pope kissing a Muslim man and the chutzpah to make that imagination a reality.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Reading Recommendation for the Illiterate

Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy undertakes in a brief span to quantify, explain, and propose corrections for the rampant religious illiteracy of Americans. In simpler terms, Prothero attempts to unravel the paradox that, while Europeans tend to be religiously knowledgeable and irreligious, Americans are pious and religiously ignorant. Religious Literacy is too short a work, at just under 150 pages of actual exposition, to argue any of its points substantially, but this is just as well because Prothero is not covering any radically new ground. Instead, the work functions as an interesting resource both as an introduction for those who, as part of their general religious ignorance, are unaware that there is a problem and as a synthesis for those who are already plagued by worry about our collective idiocy. The book is carefully organized along three lines of thought:

What is the problem?

This is by far the most gripping section of Prothero's work, not because he uncovers a problem which we are all startled to find exists but because he quantifies it in ways that highlight its embarrassing severity. It is here that Prothero shocks the reader with a rapid succession of ever more embarrassing facts: one in five evangelicals believes in reincarnation, most American adults cannot name even one of the four Gospels, most American adults cannot name the first book of the Bible, a significant percentage of high school seniors believe Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, only one in three Americans can correctly identify Jesus as the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and one in ten Americans believes that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. These facts, gathered from scientific surveys, are interspersed with more anecdotal tributes to American religious ignorance: a woman who believes God created Eve out of an apple, another who thinks Matthew was swallowed by a whale, most Americans cannot name more than five of the Ten Commandments, and more. Worst of all, there are not statistically significant discrepancies between religious groups. Evangelical Protestants do marginally better in surveys than Catholics, for example, but they are nearer to one another than they are to getting right. In some cases, evangelicals do even worse, as with the 60% of evangelicals who believe that Jesus was born in Jerusalem compared to only 51% of Jews. The real force of all these statistics is to re-sensitize the reader to the claim that the religious ignorance in America is no trifling matter. It is easy to say that we should know more about the faith claimed by some 80% of Americans; it is something else to come face-to-face with the cold, hard statistical reality of our own shortcomings.

Why is there a problem?

Unless you suffer under the delusion, as is the case with much of the institutional religious right, that the ongoing march of aggressive secularity is the cause of religious illiteracy, Prothero's answer to the question of "why" will not be shocking. The rise of widespread religious ignorance, especially Christian ignorance, is tied by Prothero to the American process of religious democratization, à la Nathan Hatch. It was the anti-institutional, anti-clerical, anti-intellectual impulse of distinctively American revivalism--particularly in the Second Great Awakening, but also, according to Prothero, in the post-war revival of the fifties--that began the deemphasizing of religious knowledge. The unlikely and unwitting alliance of liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism resulted in a subordination of religious knowledge to religious feeling and of orthodoxy to orthopraxy. The onus of responsibility and thus of guilt falls not the deliberate atheist but on the amnesiac Christian who has forgotten his or her duty for pedagogy.

Notably, in a justifiable effort to stop Christians from shirking their guilt in the rise of a the religiously ignorant, I believe Prothero goes to far in exonerating secularity as such. I agree, certainly, that the religious right's attempt to blame active and self-aware secular pressure is misguided, perhaps even destructive as it encourages Christians to continue to ignore their need to be the front line in resurrecting religious knowledge. It is worth remembering, however, that democratization--with its anti-institutionalism and anti-clericalism--is itself a secular impulse of Western culture. It is a more pernicious form of secularity in so far as it has been quietly accepted as if a religious truth and erodes religious knowledge, among other things, from within. In Prothero's defense, however, his work is perhaps not the place to make such a subtle argument.

How do we fix the problem?

Here, Prothero's proposal is as bold as it is unlikely. He insists that, as a civic duty, every high school student should take a mandatory course in the Bible and world religions. He reasons, quoting Warren Nord: "How can anyone believe that a collegebound student should take twelve years of mathematics and no religion rather than eleven years of mathematics and one year of religion Why require the study of trigonometry or calculus, which the great majority of students will never use or need, and ignore religion, a matter of profound and universal significance?" While some might suggest that having a course dedicated to the Bible is somehow giving preferential treatment to one religion, Prothero insists that having such a specialized course is a logical, educational, and civic necessity. Without commenting on the validity of any religion or religion at all, he correctly notes that the Bible--not the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching or even the Quran--has been the most influential work in the history of Western culture. It is the Bible and the Christian religion which dominate the American political and social landscape like nothing else. Those ignorant of Christianity in America are intellectually anemic in ways they would not be if similarly ignorant of Sikhism. In Prothero's own words:

Some have argued against Bible courses in the public schools on the grounds that they somehow “establish” Judeo-Christianity. For these courses to be fair, this argument goes, teachers need to give equal time to all the world’s scriptures, treating the Bible as one sacred text among many. This is absurd and impractical. Of course, students can learn much from reading the Quran and the Tao Te Ching. But the Bible, which the Supreme Court has described as “the world’s all-time best seller,” is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, the Zend Avesta of the Zoroastrians or Scientology’s Dianetics makes no educational sense. (And what teacher has the hours—or the training—to give “equal time” to all the world’s scriptures?)

The most intriguing part of his proposal is his examination of its legality. Showing a surprisingly broad knowledge of legal decisions regarding religious curricula, Prothero helps the reader to navigate constitutional issues surrounding his proposal (which, I should note, is by no mean peculiar to him but is being taken up in various forms on all sides of the political spectrum). His conclusion, which one struggles to disagree with, "Supreme Court justices are all but begging public schools to teach about religion."

In short, Religious Literacy is an intriguing little work which marches us through the morass of our own benightedness and, perhaps overly optimistically, proposes a way out for Americans. While I struggle to imagine a world in which Prothero's national proposals become a reality, his work has forced me to think about what might be done on a more local level, particularly by parents and churches. Many of the hallmarks of literacy according to Prothero I did not learn until I began formal education in religion. Looking back, I realize that they are facts that all Christians should know, not the least of which those of us who come from religious traditions which purport to give special place to the Scriptures.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: An Invitation (Ch. 22)

I realize that, from the outset, I promised that this series would be about how you can read Revelation rather than how you should read it. I have done my best to hold true to that promise, trying to offer a way for the troubled Christian to engage Revelation without being overcome by the hairsplitting nuance of Christian eschatology. This final thought will try to tread the fine line between describing a facet of the book and prescribing a hermeneutic for it. A problem arises, however, in that the final section of Revelation has something critical to say of the way that most people today read Revelation. The conclusion of the text, which traditionally ties any literary work together, specifically lends itself to something other than a strictly eschatological interpretation. In other words, John spends a great deal of time talking about the end but that vision of the future is not an end in itself. John tells us "what must soon take place" with another purpose in mind.

He is not shy about revealing that purpose to his readers either. In fact, from the beginning, John announces how he intends his readers to receive his work: "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near." The sentiment is paralleled in the final passage: "And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book." What precisely does it mean to "keep" the words of a prophecy? Certainly John is not talking about merely possessing them. The NIV renders the term as "take to heart" and the NASB as "heeds." John himself gives no shortage of clues about what he means. Consider these verses which follow after the call to "keep" the words of Revelation:

-- When John falls down to praise the angel, the messenger repeats one of the central commands of the book: "Worship God."

-- "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let...the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy."

-- "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done."

-- "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."

It is almost as if, realizing that he is running out of papyrus, John feels the need to hammer his point home with a quick repetition of essentially the same command: obey. In a way that ought to be telling to modern readers, John does not spend his final moments in an exposition of the cryptic future that he predicts. Instead of stressing the when and the how of Jesus' coming, he merely assumes that coming and proceeds to tell us how we should respond. "The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let the one who hears say, "Come." And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price." With these words, we discover that Revelation is not a history book written cleverly in advance of the events it records. It is an invitation to the lost and an exhortation to the found. Jesus is coming soon. How will you react to that good news?

The beauty of realizing this overarching message and purpose for Revelation is that it transcends all our petty disputes. The wonderful, terrible God of judgment offers salvation to His church and solicits a response of obedience and praise from it. That message--more clearly and surely stated than any eschatological supposition--applies to the pre-millennialist and the post-millennialist alike. This preterist and the idealist are both compelled to read His glorious works and fall down at the feet of the Son of Man. The outpouring of God's wrath convicts us all, regardless of where (if anywhere) you want to locate the rapture relative to the tribulation. That is not to say that some of these issues are not mentioned in Revelation or that there discussion may not be relevant, to an extent. It is merely an effort to demonstrate that John has an intention for his text that our modern descent into polemical madness has caused us to forget--or at the very least to subordinate to petty squabbling. That Jesus is coming seems to be enough for the author and when he is coming seems to be precisely the kind of irrelevant thinking Jesus warned us against. John tells us what our first response to his text should be, and it isn't to construct an eschatological timeline. The Spirit invites us to come, to wash our robes, to persist in holiness, to worship God, and to relish the blessings we have as those who have heard and kept the words of the prophecy. "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: All Things New (Chs. 21-22)

With the dual climax of victory and judgment now behind, the narrative turns toward the denouement. The great villain leaves the scene for ever and, with the exception of some brief exclusionary phrases, all unpleasantness is behind John. What remains is to see the great reward for which the witnesses of the Lord have endured, to realize the promise that is issued in the death of Christ (depicted in the beginning of the book as the slain Lamb) and finally ensured under the triumphant Christ(depicted at the end of the book as the conqueror on a white horse). God declares, "Behold, I am making all things new." Suddenly the world is returned to a pristine paradise, edenic in its appearance only more wonderful still. The Tree of Life is reopened to public consumption without that pesky Tree of Knowledge to wreak havoc with humanity. The river and the garden are accompanied by a great new city that represents Jerusalem as it ought to have been: pure, wonderful, and with God at her center. The imagery is enough to tantalize a lifetime's worth of imaginings.

Yet, as easy as it may be to delight in the particulars of the picture offered up to us as our hope for eternity--and that delighted is heightened when we consider just how unpleasant the narrative has been to this point--there is a more important theme at work here. Before God declares that all things will be made new, before we tour the New Jerusalem, before the thirsty are promised the waters of life, and before the whole chorus lapses into an eternal doxology, a voice from heaven makes an initial pronouncement: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." In this is the actual resolution of the tension in Revelation. As with the entirety of Scripture, the real villain has not been Satan but separation. Through the entire narrative, the persistent scene has been of the commands of God in heaven and their actualization on earth. God stands at a distance throughout as He works out His plan of justice and, ultimately, reconciliation.

This desire that God should be our God and we His people has been a persistent theme in Scripture. It is the essence of God's covenant with Abraham which in turn forms the whole basis for the divine work of election and redemption in the world. It was the purpose of Israel's sacrificial system of atonement that God should have some tangible presence with His people. It was the reason Solomon built the temple and the reason he knew it was ultimately inadequate. It both explains Israel's disintegration and exile and fuels their hopes for return. Paul will use it to warn Christians against repeating the sins of Israel. This ardent hope, both of God's and of humanity's, John depicts as fulfilled. His readers then, as we do now, knew that God's dwelling with humanity was still merely a promise only partially fulfilled with the gift of His Spirit for His church, but they understood after centuries of having the theme reverberating over and over again in the Scriptures that all their hope rested on the fact that God would someday break through the barriers which separate us.

It is interesting that this declaration of achievement precipitates every other blessing which is offered. Because He is there, God will wipe away all tears, and "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore." Our former mode of existence, living apart from God, is no more. In the New Jerusalem, there is no temple anymore. After all, it was merely a symbol of God's presence; the New Jerusalem needs no inadequate symbols. The city will be beautiful radiance of fine jewels because it has "the glory of God." This radiance of God replaces the very sun, and all people will walk in His light, by His light. It is He who bids them drink from the river of life. There will be no doubt, no idolatry, no sin, because God is present and has taken His people unto Himself. Cast in this light, the final scene of Revelation becomes for us a call to refocus our hope, to strip ourselves of any superficial desire to escape this material world into a heavenly realm of mansions, robes, crowns, gold, and even more substantial things like release from disease and death and sorrow. All these are accidents. The true substance of our hope is that God should be, in a real and tangible sense, our God and that we may be purely, reverently, joyously, His people.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Joy and Judgment (Chs. 19-20)

Judgment is something of a frightening theme throughout the book of Revelation. The theme is constant throughout the text. In the prologue, John warns that "the time is near" and, in his greeting, goes farther by warning that "every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail[a] on account of him." While John adds the resignation, "Even so, let it be" there is a certain sense in which you can expect the churches not to want to put their own "amen" on that particular sentiment. In the letters which launch the book, the prospect of judgment for the clearly flawed kingdom of God is frightening. The insinuations included in those letters are given teeth as God acts on His promise of judgment for the rest of the book. Stars fall from the heaven, rivers dry up, monstrous locusts torture humanity, and they are finally harvested into a winepress and crushed to death. Judgment is ugly business.

It would stand to reason then that when the time for final judgment actually rolled around that the Christians in the narrative of Revelation would respond to the prospect of judgment much in the same way we do, with fear, trembling, and uncertainty. It is curious to find that just the opposite is true. After looking on to chapters of the terrible outpouring of God's wrath, the Christians approaching final judgment are positively exuberant. In the course of a single chapter there is a cluster of three of the most exultant hymns of the entire text. First the great multitude sings:

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for his judgments are true and just;
for he has judged the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth with her immorality,
and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.

And the elders answer, "Amen. Hallelujah." Then a voice from the throne says:

Praise our God,
all you his servants,
you who fear him,
small and great.

Then the multitude begins again:

Hallelujah!For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure.

Given that the final roll call is about to be taken, we might expect a great deal more trepidation on the part of the multitude. Instead, they are praising God specifically for the truth and justice of His judgment. Too often, we take away from the text of Revelation just how frightening is the wrath of God, and that is, as far as it goes, an appropriate message. That is not, however, the primary message that the multitude in heaven seems to be taking away from the cosmic judgment drama that it has seen unfold. Quite the contrary, they seem to take note of just how righteously God has dispensed His justice. If you think back on the recipients of divine wrath, they are the sexually libertine, the idolatrous, the apostates, the murderous, and the avaricious. More than anything, however, it is the unrepentant. Quietly, subtly, John issues in Revelation no less than ten different calls to repentance or rebukes for being unrepentant. Faced with the continuous experience of divine rebuke and a constant stream of witnesses to the Gospel--including John, those beheaded for Christ, anyone who reads the text of Revelation, the squatters living under the altar, and other notables--the most notorious targets of God's wrath are those obstinate members of the human race who would still rather debauch, murder, and steal than direct their worship to its appropriate object.

It is no wonder then that the church, clothed in the pure white linen which is "the righteous deeds of the saints," should welcome God's judgment. They have correctly understood the Gospel, that salvation is for all who would turn from sin and to God. Wrath, in contrast, is reserve for those who stubbornly and in spite of all divine prompting prefer sin and death to righteousness and life. This disposition of the church is vindicated as judgment finally plays out. The righteous rule with Christ, heavenly fire consumes the enemies of the church, Satan is cast into the eternal fire with the beast and the prophet, Death follows shortly after into the pit of fire, and all humanity is fairly "judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done."

Judgment should scare us. Clearly Jesus expects it to when he invokes it during the course of his ministry and when he employs the prospect of it to inspire repentance among the churches in Revelation. On the other hand, the fear of the prospect of judgment is certainly only a means to an end. In the final reckoning of things, judgment is not something to be feared but something to delight in, not because we relish the prospect of punishment but because we delight in our service of a just God. Judgment, as much as it is an expression of wrath against evil, is first and foremost the moment our salvation is actualized. It is the moment when, after a life of service and devotion, we come before the throne to hear that our names are written in the Lamb's book of life. All too often, our collective Christian imagination sees final judgment as a moment of intense fear as we stand before a stern judicial figure rescued only by a last minute intercession of Christ as our advocate. The image Revelation gives us is different. It is one of joyous anticipation, in which we can cry out confidently in advance "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just."


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On the Anniversary of David Lipscomb's Death

I stumbled across the following quote some time ago while doing some work on David Lipscomb. I was touched by it, being myself deeply influenced by the man, and thought it would be appropriate to share it here on the 94th anniversary of Lipscomb's death. It is an entry from the diary of Price Billingsley, a younger contemporary and great admirer of Lipscomb's. These are his thoughts the day after Lipscomb died upon seeing his body for the first time:

Not soon can I forget today. Early this morning I was called over the phone by Bro. Leo Boles and informed of the death of David Lipscomb, and asked whether I could be at the funeral...I then got my first sight of the dear old Brother Lipscomb dead. I was amazed to see how fine looking and tall he was when straightened out in the casket. I saw him when he was dying, and a more abject object of decaying senility I never before beheld - body and soul distraught in the parting! But did I pity him? I pitied myself for not being as ready to die as he! But today he rested in the composure and dignity of death and nobility sat upon his features as though stamped by birth, and he showed the youth and preservation he had lacked for twenty years. I could not doubt that there lay the form of a great man! - how great it will take us all some years yet to find out. And I found the relief which violent weeping gives that I have not known for years! Nashville has always seemed the city of David Lipscomb - I have never been there with that thought out of mind completely. This conception has colored all my varied relationships to that busy and hard to grasp melting pot and [kaleidescope] beehive of strange energies. And today the shock I suffered when this spell came from off me when I knew it to be no longer his city - that his body had now gone back to the dust and his white soul to heaven - - left in a state bordering collapse. I did not realize how much I had loved and leaned upon him! And tonight I am broken and sad.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Fall of Babylon (Chs. 17-18)

The next two chapters of Revelation are a continuation of the great battle sequence that began in chapter twelve, but their tone is decidedly different. Much in the same way the first chapter of Genesis tells the broad story of creation and chapter two zeros in to tell a more specific part of the story, the pronouncement of the fall of Babylon appears to be a snapshot taken from some point in the earlier narrative. An earlier angel has already declared that Babylon is fallen--part of the eternal gospel of God--and with the pouring out of the seventh bowl of God's wrath, the heavenly host declares "It is done." What this passage does, therefore, is take a closer look at what the collapse of Babylon looks like, and it does so with a poetic flair for the macabre reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets.

Many of the same themes that have persisted thus far are revisited in this passage: the terrible and wonderful nature of God, the consequences of human actions, the contrast between right and wrong worship, and, of course, the inevitability of God's victory over evil. There are, however, new insights which can be gained from looking at this passage independently. It tells us something about the nature of evil in the world. Over the course of the narrative there are numerous distinct groups of "villains," all of whom interact with one another and all of whose interplay has something to teach. There is, figuring prominently, the woman variously referred to as the prostitute or as Babylon and the beast on which she rides. There are the kings of the earth and the nations who have debauched with the prostitute, the merchants of the sea who are dealers in human souls, and the ship builders whose avarice was satisfied by the trade in the ports of Babylon.

The first and most noticeable fact when reading through the poetic tribute to the destruction of the woman is how neatly interwoven all of these evil forces are. They all stand back and wonder at her fate and suffer, either directly or implicitly, from the plagues that are brought upon her. It is clear that evil is a complex enough entity that it is self-sustaining. The sexual licentiousness of the woman satisfies the lechery of the kings of the nations, and the subservience of the nations satisfies the woman's lust for power. The gluttony of Babylon feeds the avarice of the merchants and ship builders, and, of course, greed is always willing to subsidize consumption. Evil is a self-perpetuating cancer in the world. It delights in itself and feeds itself until it grows beyond any individual sin into a web of related villainy.

Yet, even as we watch Babylon suffer with all her sinful subsidiaries suffering vicariously through her, it is interesting to note at the outset precisely what vehicle God uses to prompt the destruction of Babylon. The angel interpreting the vision for John explains, "And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire." It is not a heavenly army or even God (directly) that will instigate the fall of Babylon. It will be the very beast and the ten kings--the ones who will "will make war on the Lamb"--who will turn on the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and they will devour her flesh. It is interesting that the saints, rather than being called on to participate in God's righteous judgment of Babylon are called out of the city before it self-destructs. And there is no better description of what evil does here. It turns on itself. It implodes. Evil is, at its core, self-defeating. In practical terms, how often do we see one evil dictator overthrown not by righteous forces promoting peace and justice but by another, more powerful, evil dictator? It is the nature of evil to take on all comers, including other forces of evil.

The result is the classic image of eternity as a snake eating its own tail. Evil, as depicted here, is a reality which is always simultaneously feeding itself and devouring itself. It makes for an interesting contrast to the goodness of God which is infinitely sustaining without ever consuming. In chapters to come, the promise of God will be depicted in these kinds of inexhaustible terms with a city that never crumbles, a sun which never sets, a garden which never withers, and a life which never ends. With evil, in contrast, we may take comfort in the fact that its very attempts to sustain itself inevitably result in moves to destroy itself. Divine providence is such that it allows evil to persist because, in persisting, it destroys itself. Babylon is fallen, and only she is to blame.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

The End of an Era

Goodbye, JoePa.

The big question that keeps running through my mind is "why?" What did JoePa do to deserve a perfunctory phone call bringing an even more perfunctory end to the most storied career in college football history? After all, he did what was legally required of him, which is precisely why there are no charges against him. He is a football coach and not a detective. When an allegation came across his desk--one of what we should imagine were countless accusations, suppositions, and rumors to be reported to him over 46 years--he reported it to the people whose job it was to launch an investigation. Could he have done more? Of course. Hindsight has a beautiful clarity to it. (Imagine if Sandusky were innocent and JoePa had led a crusade slandering a civic leader and founder of a charitable organization. Would we be any less judgmental then, armed as we are with afterthought?) The fact that JoePa himself recognizes, in retrospect, that he could have done more and offered as a voluntary penance his own retirement ought to have been enough. The difference would have been allowing a man who has revolutionized the public image of your university (so that people even care if there is a scandal there) and dedicated more than half of his life to developing and mentoring college athletes to coach four more games.

That apparently seemed like too magnanimous a path to the board of trustees. Why? What was JoePa's crime?

“I’m not sure I can tell you specifically,” board vice chair John Surma replied when asked at a packed news conference why Paterno had to be fired immediately. “In our view, we thought change now was necessary.”

Well that's a little vague. Perhaps they could clarify for us why they felt the need to eschew all courtesy and professionalism and destroy a four decade career over the phone.

Asked why he was fired over the phone, Surma said, “We were unable to find a way to do that in person without causing further distraction.”

So, in short, they remove the greatest fixture in college sports, ultimately confound the university's fundraising ability, athletic ability, and character, and incite mob violence, and their reasoning for doing it was "I don't know" and for doing it the way they did "It seemed convenient."

It all leaves me feeling a little unsatisfied. The victims have not been healed, the perpetrators have not been punished, and Happy Valley is no happier. I hope, in addition, that the board of trustees have trouble sleeping tonight.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Three Angels (Excursus 2)

There is a gem buried in the midst of the great battle narrative. In chapter fourteen--just as God begins His earthly victory to mirror the preexistent victory in heaven--three pronouncements are offered by three angels. It's placement in the text would seem to suggest that the angels serve merely as end time heralds of the final triumph of God, yet John introduces this passage with a curious pronouncement of his own: "Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people." It is clear that John intends this message to transcend its place in the narrative. This is a three point sermon for eternity, and its message is no less potent now than when it was recorded.

Grasping the beauty of the passage requires understanding the chiastic structure of the three proclamations. The words of the first and the third angels are almost perfect parallels. The first angel declares that people of all nations should worship the Lord. The third angel gives a gruesome image of those who worship the false gods instead. In a chiasm, the outer parallels function to emphasize the more important central text. It is the message of the second angel that is the key to this enduring homily: "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality."

What appears at first glance to be a simple statement of fact--shorter, plainer, and less engaging than the passages around it--actually functions as the explanation for the messages of the other two angels. It was suggested previously that the purpose of the whole battle narrative of chapters twelve through sixteen was to demonstrate to Christians who had every reason to feel as though Satan was winning that in fact God would be and always was the victor. The same theme resounds here and functions as a call to worship in the "eternal gospel." God is victorious and the devil defeated, therefore worship God and despise the devil. At the crux of the narrative, the angels repeat and apply the message of the text in a way that bears our renewed examination.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Trojan Horse of Error

The July edition of the Gospel Advocate has a scathing article denouncing the most recent update of the NIV as "a Trojan horse of error that will destroy the faith of many." The author further charges the translators with having suffered an "erosion of faith" and embracing "the errors of current Protestant theology that [the translation] poses a threat to sound doctrine." In short, "the updated NIV is a greater danger to faith than any other major English version of Scripture."

While I certainly do not agree with all the changes being made, I am equally opposed to this kind of alarmist language which attributes to the discretion of translators the power to make or break faith or distills differences of opinions into a loss of true Christian piety. I find the spirit of the article objectionable, but--since facts are more easy to quantify an objection to--I will turn to the two features of the translation which the author.

The first supposed flaw of the updated translation is its embrace of feminist theology. As expected, this takes the form in part of a shift toward gender inclusive language. A general skepticism is, of course, warranted by the politically motivated shift to take gender exclusive language from a language that has gender inclusive terms and translate it into gender inclusive language in a language that is notoriously resistant to gender inclusivity. Certainly the more intellectually honest approach is to leave the text as it stands and allow readers to infer inclusivity rather than to misrepresent the language in an effort to offer what the translator has decided is an accurate representation of the spirit. Where I stop short, however, is joining the author in his judgment that "the feminist agenda is rampant in the revised NIV."

What the new edition displays is at most an overcorrection for centuries of failures--due mostly to the shortcomings of English, but perhaps in part to the androcentrism of our culture--to correctly render genuinely inclusive biblical language. For every Acts 18:27, which the author points out scandalously implies that "the sisters were involved in writing the letter" of introduction for Apollos, there is a counter-example such as 1 Corinthians 7:24 which, in the traditional gender exclusive, is theological nonsense. In fact, the verse in 1 Corinthians provides a particularly potent example. The 1984 NIV, which the articles author voices few if any objections to, renders the text "Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to." Taken literally, Paul seems to free women here to do as they please relative to their social status: slaves can revolt, wives can desert, and so on. Of course, such a suggestion is nonsense since Paul only verse before explicitly included women in his teaching. What's more, the verse itself does not have the gender exclusive "each man" as the translator renders it. It merely says "each" and leaves the reader to supply the noun (which in this case is probably the gender inclusive, grammatically masculine term anthropos). It is almost as if the newer translation gets it right in rendering the text "each person."

In fairness to the article's author, however, there is more to the "feminist" shift than simple gender inclusive language. Specifically, the author cites a change in the language of 2 Timothy 2:12, which the old version rendered "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" but which in the new edition reads "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." Outrageous, no? The author suggests that, with this shift, "the revised NIV is parroting theories advocated by feminist theologians" which allow for a woman to lead provided she is offered this authority rather than seizing it for herself. While clearly not the scholar of feminist thought that the article's author is, I can certainly tell you that the shift from "have" to "assume" (which is within the semantic range of the term authenteo) does not change the four principle features of this verse: (1) women cannot teach, (2) there are restrictions on women's authority, (3) women ought to be quiet. The fourth, of course, is that this passage will still represent the number one reason that feminists are angry at the Bible no matter how you try to blunt the translation.

The second flaw, which curiously is offered less space than the feminist invasion, is the way the new NIV seems to undermine a young earth theory of creation. The author notes a troubling "attempt to destroy a literal reading of the creation account" through "imposed" formatting which "indicates the creation narrative is to be
read as poetry." The article takes aim at those who would capitulate to theories of an old earth or evolution which just happen to be en vogue at the moment. "The translators of the NIV brush aside a literal understanding of creation and reduce all difficulties to poetic incidentals. You don’t want to believe in six days of creation with God specially calling everything into existence? No problem. The opening section of the revised NIV lends itself to theistic evolution or any other theory you might want to embrace." What the author does not address is how simply breaking the text up into metered lines can somehow open up new hermeneutical possibilities not before available. Does he not realize that theories of theistic evolution and non-literal readings of Genesis antedate not only this aesthetic change by the editors but also such trivial historical events as the fall of the Roman Empire. Not being a scholar of Hebrew, or much of a poet, I have no idea whether or not the decision to represent Genesis 1 as poetry is warranted. I am, however, quite certain that a literal reading of the Genesis text is not dependent on the text's formatting as prose any more than a non-literal understanding is dependent on a poetic presentation. The change in text alignment is certainly not, as the author's subtitle claims, a "Destruction of Foundations" unless one's faith is founded on the span of time it took God to create the earth.

Given my largely agnostic views about the scientific origin of the universe, I find the author's protestations about Genesis 1 misguided but mostly innocuous. In contrast, it is always so unnerving for me, as someone with thoroughly conservative views about gender economics, to hear the hue and cry raised over any incursion of "liberal" or "feminist" sentiments into translations. Do we really believe that the biblical view of man- and womanhood is so vague, so fragile that it can really be undermined by translational subtleties? More importantly, what does it say about Christians when we inject such vitriol into these issues. I believe that women should stay out from behind pulpits. I do not believe that their failure to do so constitutes a lack of faith, a surrender to liberal, secular feminism, or a disqualification from salvation. While I know many, the Gospel Advocate author likely included, disagree, but even so the perceived (and I cannot stress that term strongly enough) endorsement of a different gender economy by the translators of the new NIV surely does not represent, on their part, a lack of faith, a surrender to liberal, secular feminism, or a disqualification from salvation. The divisive rhetoric that says that it does is what undermines not only all prospects of Christian unity but also any hope of evangelism in a world which already believes that Christianity's métier is infighting and unbridled dogmatism. It is, in short, bad form.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Great Battle (Chs. 12-16)

After reading the triumphant announcement of the last section in which the kingdom of God is declared to have come at last, it is a bit jarring, to say the least, to enter into this next narrative. The triumphant which is announced is immediately contradicted, at least in appearance, by an ensuing struggle between God and Satan. It begins with the image of a great dragon poised to prey on the newborn infant of promise, an image familiar to Christians familiar with the stories of Moses and Jesus. While the latter is almost certainly who John intends to portray, there is a sense in which it is the principle and not the identity of the unborn child that is important. This is a child for whom God has a definite purpose in the working out of His will. The dragon's menacing purpose is a direct attempt to contravene God's will. In predictable triumph, God spirits the newborn into the throne room and guides the woman into a prepared safe haven. As for Satan, God sends his soldiers out to meet him and, inevitably, they triumph.

Cast from heaven, and frustrated in his attempts to find the woman, Satan turns his wrath on the rest of her offspring (which, interestingly, yields an interesting parallel to the Pauline image of Christ as the new Adam with Mary as the new Even...but I digress). Thwarted time and again, suddenly Satan meets with tremendous success on earth, something heaven was aware would happen: "But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!" First a beast rises out of the sea, tempting humanity until "all who dwell on earth will worship it." Then a second beast rises out of the earth and persecutes anyone who does not worship the first beast.

This apparent victory would resonate with John's audience. It is hard to imagine that John isn't intentionally describing the practices of the Roman government with regard to the imperial cult. Christians were under tremendous social and political (even capital) pressure to worship the genius of the emperor. In the syncretistic culture of the early empire, one could be any religion he pleased provided that it didn't conflict with the state religion. Most didn't. Christians, however, worship only one king of kings, and their refusal to burn incense to Caesar would be the impetus for persecution for centuries to come.

What John makes clear and what it is ultimately critical even today is that the victory of Satan on earth is only apparent. Reading chapter thirteen in isolation would lead any intelligent person to believe that Satan has the upper hand and that God and His people are left to look on in horror as the mighty power of the beasts wins the many and destroys those who resist. John makes clear for his readers, however, that the fact that Satan is even wreaking havoc on earth is a product of his constant frustration at the hands of God. God stopped him from devouring the baby; God prevented him from finding the woman; God cast him down out of heaven. Satan stands in a position of perpetual defeat, even before he begins to work his deceit on an unsuspecting humanity. Every time a Christian gets the impression that Satan is triumphing, John commands us to remember that he is only here "winning" because he has already lost.

And, what's more, he has a lot more losing left in him. Chapter fourteen opens with a return to the triumphant imagery of chapter eleven. Jesus is depicted standing gloriously atop Mount Zion as if to say, in simplified English, "...98-99-100. Ready or not, Satan, here I come!" When he does come, it is with power, as the following passage contains some of the book's most gruesome imagery. The sinful peoples of the earth are "reaped" like grapes with a sickle, dropped into a winepress, and crushed so that their blood created a flood as high as a man's shoulder covering an area a little larger than the distance between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. If the "great winepress of God's wrath" weren't enough, there are seven bowls of His wrath as well, which are poured out with consequences vaguely reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt: rivers into blood, hail, boils, darkness, and more.

The point is not, however, the particulars of God's victory of Satan and his beasts but the finality of it. With the pouring out of the seventh bowl of wrath, the angel says, "It is done" and, in fact, it is. When we next encounter Satan some time later, he is bound, and, when he is released, it is only for a perfunctory final skirmish before he is forever cast into hell. With this, John offers comfort and strength to an audience that ultimately is deceived by appearances (a favorite trick of the devil's). Everywhere around them they are confronted by overwhelming evidence that God is absent and the devil triumphant, but these illusions are nothing more than fleeting artifices for a defeated enemy. The great battle narrative of Revelation reminds us that Satan stood defeated before he ever set about his program of leading the world astray. He is not winning now; he is certain not to claim victory in the future.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

In Other News

It appears that Detroit Lions fans have better taste in music than professional football loyalties. Said one fan in response to the selection of Nickelback as the halftime entertainment for the iconic Thanksgiving game:

This game is nationally televised, do we really want the rest of the US to associate Detroit with Nickelback? Detroit is home to so many great musicians and they chose Nickelback?!?!?! Does anyone even like Nickelback? Is this some sort of ploy to get people to leave their seats during halftime to spend money on alcoholic beverages and concessions? This is completely unfair to those of us who purchased tickets to the game. At least the people watching at home can mute their TVs. The Lions ought to think about their fans before choosing such an awful band to play at halftime.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Kingdom Come (Chs. 10-11)

After, perhaps, the Resurrection, these chapters represent one of the most triumphant and exultant scenes in all of Scripture. It represents a glimpse of the promises which have sustained the church since the time of Jesus' ministry. The mighty angel straddling the world has announced that the fulfillment of the mystery of God will be delayed no longer. Finally, after the terrible trials endured by the faithful and the horrific wrath exacted upon the whole earth by God, the kingdom of the Lord is come. The whole company in heaven announces that "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever." The twenty-four elders sing still another new song of praise to Lord God Almighty. The temple in heaven is opened and the ark--the symbol of God's presence with His people--is revealed with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. The servants of God are rewarded; the destroyers of the world are destroyed; God is glorified. Hallelujah! Amen.

Yet this triumphant image is preceded immediately by a cold reminder of the reality of the church's road to that glorious moment. First, John is commissioned once again to prophesy, the very behavior which has landed him in exile on Patmos to begin with. This calling is illustrated graphically with the little scroll which, if you'll pardon the pun, proves a bitter pill to swallow. If it was not already obvious, the eating of the scroll foreshadows the hardship which will always be associated with enlistment into the divine cause.

The succeeding narrative continues this theme, as John records the prophetic career of two witnesses sent to preach to a city. He goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate for the reader the awesome power of these witnesses. If they are harmed in anyway, the aggressor will die by that same means. Any offense against them is met with a consuming fire which pours from their mouths. They can shut up the sky, turn rivers to blood, and inflict upon the people any plague imaginable. No sooner has John told us how tremendous is their power, however, then they are martyred on the streets of the city and left their to rot. The two witnesses who stood before the throne of God and wielded His power on earth suffer the same seemingly ignoble fate as so many simple Christians in John's audience.

The story does not end there nor should our retelling of it. The witnesses are raised, the oppressors punished, the final trumpet sounds, and the Lord reigns. The one truth does not, however, change the other. That there will be vindication one day does not promise any easy road today; the treacherous path to God does not negate the magnitude of His promises. In fact, the two play off each other as they do in this passage. It is precisely the hardship which is endured which make the triumphant announcement of the kingdom so sweet. It is precisely the promise repose of the divine reign that makes the bitterness of the journey bearable. The rapid succession of what appear to be three loosely related stories--John and the little scroll, the two witnesses, and the seventh trumpet--in truth resound this very theme. God's demands on His people are great, His rewards greater still. We can forever take comfort in this, allowing our hope for salvation be the force which sustains us and spurs us toward greater heights of faithfulness.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Two Woes (Ch. 9)

The fifth and sixth trumpets are the first and second (of three) woes to be poured out on the earth. Even more than the trumpets and seals that came before them, these woes seem to be little more than a senseless raking of creation across the coals. The first woe involves the unleashing of an army of monstrous locusts with human faces and scorpion tails. They are empowered to torture--the divine permutation of "enhanced interrogation techniques"--all of creation for five months, such that "in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them." When the five months of unrelenting torture are complete, God is kind enough to oblige the wishes of humanity. The sixth trumpet blows, and the second woe comes in the form of two hundred million chimera-esque warriors tasked with killing one third of the world's population. In the course of a few lines of text, we have a level of carnage that would put Saving Private Ryan to shame.

Yet while so much of the text thus far has focused on revealing truths about the nature of God, John is clearly using this narrative to teach the reader something about the nature of humanity. The moral of the story, tact deftly on to the tail of all the bloodshed is this little revelation: "The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts." That thought, arriving as it does so rapidly on the heels of that awesome display of divine might, justifiably boggles the mind. The foolishness of the lost who pray to the mountains to protect them from their creator has already been highlighted, but with this scene they are shown to truly scale the heights of folly. God reveals Himself in power, in a way which is so patently undeniable that one would assume that humanity could not but turn to God and plead for mercy. That assumption would be incorrect.

With brutal clarity, John displays for the reader the human penchant for obstinacy. Like a divine reversal of the paradisial garden in which Adam and Eve were given every opportunity to avoid sin and found a way to sin anyway, at the end of the world God gives His creation the most powerful motivation imaginable to repent of its evil and turn to its creator. Still, it clings to its idols of murder and theft and sexual licentiousness, not to mention more tangible idols. With two sentences, John challenges the "if only" rhetoric still in use today. "If only God would still speak to us." "If only we had some proof that Jesus rose from the dead." "If only He would give us a sign." The fact of the matter is that even if someone where to be raised from the dead in their midst, they would not believe.

Contemporary Christians can take away from this a comfort that we have been specifically blessed for having believed without having seen. More importantly, however, it is a cautionary tale meant to keep us from wandering into the pitfalls of wanting just a little more proof than we have. We cannot be too often reminded that faith requires...well, faith. It is not about proof, whatever proofs may exist. It is not about well-reasoned arguments, whatever reasoned arguments we can make. It is about belief in and trust of a self-revealing God. It matters little whether we are hard pressed on every side by an oppressive Roman government or by the onslaught of evangelistic atheism. We must remember in whom we have faith and how paramount that faith is. I cannot help but recall the old hymn and concur that I know not why God's wondrous grace to me He has made known, but I know whom I have believed. That should be, for me, enough.


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.