Wisdom Ancient and Modern Archives

December 2, 2005

Terry Eagleton on God

I have just finished reading After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003) by Marxist cultural theorist Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is hard on postmodernism and even harder on God. Brilliant prose stylist that he is, Eagleton gives forceful expression to the problems atheists have with the existence of God.

1.If God truly existed, the world would be a better place.

Eagleton writes thus about those who claimed God to be the ultimate foundation of the universe: ". . . if God really was the foundation of the world, he had clearly rustled the whole thing up in a moment of criminal negligence and had a lot of hard explaining to do. Quite why he needed to provide us with cholera as well as chloroform was not entirely obvious. The whole project had clearly been insanely over-ambitious and required some radical retooling. It was hard to reconcile the idea of God with small children having their skin burnt off by chemical weapons" After Theory: 195).

2.The idea of God is superfluous; it is not essential to understanding the universe.

"What you needed from a foundation was a sense of why things were necessarily as they were; but God was no adequate answer to this. . . . God is the reason why there is anything at all rather than just nothing. But that is just a way of saying that there really isn't any reason" After Theory: 195).

". . . if it [the world] worked all by itself, then where was the need for a God? We could develop instead a discourse which accepted the world in its autonomy and left aside its absentee manufacturer. This was known as science. God had been made redundant by his own creation. There was simply no point in retaining him on the payroll" (After Theory: 196).

It was [Friedrich Nietzsche] who pointed out that God was dead, meaning that we no longer stood in need of metaphysical foundations" (After Theory: 197).

3.The idea of God is not harmless; it burdens society with unwanted consequences. For example, it gives rise to totalitarian societal monsters like fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism "is an attempt to render our discourse valid by backing it with the gold standard of the Word of words, seeing God as the final guarantor of meaning" (After Theory: 202).

". . . the paranoid principles of fundamentalism are far more likely to bring civilization crashing to the ground than cynicism or agnosticism. It is deeply ironic that those who fear and detest non-being should be prepared to blow other people's limbs off" (After Theory: 205).

4.The existence of God cannot be demonstrated or proven; it is therefore not a fact or a truth.

Absolute truths "are truths which are discovered by argument, evidence, experiment, investigation. . . . Not everything which is considered to be true is actually true. But it remains the case that it cannot just be raining from my viewpoint" (After Theory: 109).

"Culture only seems free-floating because we once thought we were riveted in something solid, like God or Nature or Reason. But that was an illusion. It is not that it was once true but now is not, but that it was false all along"(After Theory: 57).

5.The idea of God is simply a projection of the human psyche. It is an exercise in anthropomorphism.

The idea of God is the construct "of those who want an authoritarian superego or Celestial Manufacturer to worship or revolt against" (After Theory: 177).

"This God is also a wizard entrepreneur, having economized on his materials by manufacturing the universe entirely out of nothing. Like a temperamental rock star, he fusses over minor matters of diet, and like an irascible dictator demands constant placating and cajoling. He is a cross between a Mafia boss and a prima donna, with nothing to be said in his favour other than that he is, when all is said and done, God. . . . The real challenge is to construct a version of religion which is actually worth rejecting. And this has to start from countering your opponent's best case, not her worst" (After Theory: 177).

For what its worth, here are my reflections on these points:

1.If God truly existed, the world would be a better place.

I say simply this: 1) Not believing in God won't help alleviate the suffering of innocents. If anything, billions of human beings with no foundational belief in something higher than themselves could well make this planet even worse by adopting a selfish carpe diem philosophy; 2) Despite the innocent suffering it may occasion, adversity makes the world better by keeping humans humble. If we had heaven on earth, where would be the challenge of living or the impetus for character building? Perhaps the world as it is makes sense--even with the idea of God.

Complaining that a "good" God would have given us "heaven" on earth seems like whining to me. The same people will say they wouldn't want to live in heaven anyway because it would be too boring. Bottom line: Refusing to believe in God out of pique, spite, or sour grapes won't make the human condition any better.

2.The idea of God is superfluous; it is not essential to understanding the universe.

Until someone comes up with a better explanation than an eternal universe, some "first cause" will always seem logical and necessary to the average person. Galileo, Newton, and Faraday were all believers in God. So are many contemporary scientists. Einstein frequently made reference to the "Wise One" and to other terms he used to denote a creative mind behind creation. There is a "will-to-believe" that is historically common to humanity and to its efforts to comprehend what is. The idea of God has a good track record of giving human life meaning and purpose. Those who say there is any real meaning apart from transcendent meaning are "whistling in the dark."

As Eagleton writes, "Dead bodies are indecent: they proclaim with embarrassing candour the secret of all matter, that it has no obvious relation to meaning. The moment of death is the moment when meaning haemorrhages from us" (After Theory: 164). Just imagine a society of hedonists trying to get all they can in this life before their personal meaning bleeds away. The idea of God does not seem so superfluous.

3.The idea of God is not harmless; it burdens society with unwanted consequences. For example, it gives rise to totalitarian societal monsters like fundamentalists.

As Eagleton says, you have to counter your opponent's best case, not his worst (After Theory: 177). Marxism is not to be judged by the abuses of Stalin, and theism is not to be judged by the worst it produces either. Human beings are capable of perverting every good thing.

On balance, religion has been a civilizing force that has fought slavery, built hospitals, and founded universities. Would a completely non-religious society be egalitarian and compassionate or would it be a Darwinian jungle of masters and slaves? We will never know. The societies whose leaders reject or ignore religious teaching don't strike me as particularly noble. But whatever one may speculate about a future world without religion, it is clear to fair-minded people that our present civilization has often benefited from its religious influences.

4.The existence of God cannot be demonstrated or proven; it is therefore not a fact or a truth.

The ability to prove or disprove God's existence by human methods would make humanity the arbiter of God's existence. Ambiguity and uncertainty deny humanity that power. It seems God is content to be a "value" rather than a "fact" in human philosophical terms. If he does in truth exist, what difference should it make how we mortals categorize him?

Perhaps the very persistence of the idea of God surely counts as some form of evidence. I think that's what the old bumper sticker meant by saying "God is Dead—Nietzsche / Nietzsche is Dead—God." In other words, philosophers come and go, but theism, like DNA, persists.

5.The idea of God is simply a projection of the human psyche. It is an exercise in anthropomorphism.

Could it be that atheism is a projection of human pride and self-sufficiency? Assertions like these are simply statements of unbelief. They prove nothing.

I should think atheists must find cold comfort in their disbelief. Some who will to disbelieve may feel superior to the "benighted" believers they scorn (see Nietzsche). They may take pride in their ability as conscious beings to defy the ultimate meaninglessness of existence (see Henley's poem "Invictus") and in their opportunity to create a personal, if transitory, meaning (see Jean-Paul Sartre). Others may feel sorry for believers who are psychologically unable to accept the reality of their eventual non-being (see After Theory: 213-214).

Pascal's wager says believers have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If our individual consciousness faces extinction at death, then atheists will be unable to exult in the conclusive proof that they were right. If consciousness survives death, then atheists will have to deal with that to their eternal chagrin. While Pascal's argument may seem too calculating to produce sincere faith, it nonetheless illustrates the cold comfort of unbelief.

December 5, 2005

A Brief Philosophy of Life

I think it is useful to articulate core beliefs clearly and succinctly. It clarifies thinking and makes it possible to share one's life experience with others. While life is complex and should not be oversimplified, we should all be capable of outlining the basic principles we live by.

Here are mine:

1. Keep your own doorstep clean.
(From the seventeenth-century English proverb: If everyone would keep his own doorstep clean, the whole world would be clean)

It is difficult to help others if you need help yourself. It is difficult to persuade others to accept your advice unless you have personal credibility. Therefore, I try to keep my own life under control.

Recognizing, over the years, how difficult it is to accomplish this one objective, I have made it a priority.

Keeping your own doorstep clean involves, among other things, earning a living, living below your means, providing for future needs, maintaining good health habits, nurturing your personal relationships, being a good citizen, being a good neighbor, and living with as much personal integrity as possible.

2. Lead a life that is outwardly simple yet inwardly rich.

The best life is a life of moderation. I try to avoid both conspicuous consumption and joyless asceticism. Simplicity often involves setting boundaries and saying “no” to otherwise worthwhile activities. It is a constant process of making choices. As I observe the world around me, it often seems that nothing is as uncommon as the ability to apply common sense to the vagaries of life.

Making your life inwardly rich means directing your life toward a set of worthy yet attainable goals. To a large extent, these goals must be self-defined and will vary according to the individual’s talents and inclinations. For me personally, a rich life involves reading and writing.

3. When in doubt about to how to act, adopt the wisdom of the New Testament.

I have found the Christian life rewarding. I enjoy the company of committed Christians. Following the principles of the New Testament has yet to betray me. The wisdom of the New Testament is summed up, to my mind, in certain key passages I have tried to memorize and repeat to myself regularly: Matthew 5:1-12; Matthew 22:36-40; Galatians 5:22-24; James 3:17-18; Philippians 2:3-8; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; James 1:26-27.

By the words “when in doubt,” I mean such things as when in doubt about which career path to follow, when in doubt about what your priorities should be, when in doubt about what is the most ethical choice to make, when in doubt about how to treat another person.

December 6, 2005

African Proverbs Compiled by Kane Mathis

A bird is in the air, but its mind is on the ground. (Mandinka)

A person should not forget where he came from and what is important.

A ripe melon falls by itself. (Zimbabwe)

All things happen in good time.

The dead say to each other: “Dead one.” (Mandinka)

The pot likes to call the kettle black.

A student doesn’t know about masterhood, but a master knows about studenthood. (Mandinka)

A disciple is not above his master.

Every time an old man dies, it is as if a library has burnt down. (Mandinka)

Every person is a storehouse of oral tradition.

Even the Niger River must flow around an island. (Nigeria)

Sometimes even the strongest must turn aside.

Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. (Nigeria)

Those who write history are its heroes.

The hunter does not rub himself in oil and lie by the fire to sleep. (Nigeria)

Human life does not prosper without common sense.

Even the mightiest eagle comes down to the tree tops to rest. (Uganda)

No mortal is above the laws of nature.

Although the snake does not fly, it has caught the bird whose home is in the sky. (Ghana)

The lowly can do what they put their mind to do.

A man does not wander far from where his corn is roasting. (Nigeria)

People are practical and tend to their own self interest.

December 14, 2005

Reading the New Testament for the First Time

I recently heard Al Franken, reared as a Jew, say he had never read all of the New Testament. I suspect many Christians haven't either.

Actually, the New Testament isn't that long and isn't that hard to read with enjoyment. It's definitely not as obscure or boring as some other ancient religious books. But it can be intimidating (and a little boring) if you read the "books" of the New Testament in the order in which they occur in modern Bibles.

The 27 "books" of the New Testament were grouped long ago by category. The four gospels (introductions to Jesus, but not biographies) come first, then Acts, then various letters addressed to specific churches, then letters addressed to individuals, then general letters (or essays) addressed to Christians at large, then the final book, Revelation, that encourages Christians to bear up under trials and keep the faith.

The traditional order of the books is roughly chronological in that the gospels deal with the life and teaching of Jesus, whereas the other other books speak to issues that arose in Christian assemblies after his death.

There is no good reason, however, to read the "books" in this particular order. They are not, for example, grouped in order of composition. Some of the letters were written before the gospels were composed. Acts is a sequel to Luke but is arbitrarily separated from Luke by the gospel John because Acts deals with events after the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, it is better not to read the gospels back-to-back inasmuch as they repeat much of the same material. A reader of the New Testament can better appreciate and enjoy the individual personalities of the gospels by spacing them out.

Some of the letters are less theologically dense than others, that is, they require less knowledge of the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) and the culture of Judaism in the first century. These less difficult letters generally outline what the Christian spirit and lifestyle should be.

In the Middle Ages, the "books" of the New Testament were divided into sections called "chapters" and, later on, into "verses" so that people could refer to passages accurately and locate them rapidly. These divisions also make it convenient for someone to read the New Testament in short segments without getting unduly bored or overwhelmed.

That said, I suggest you read the New Testament "books" for the first time in the order below. By reading just three or four "chapters" a day, you can read the entire New Testament in 90 days or less.

1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy
2 Timothy

1 Peter
2 Peter

1 John
2 John
3 John

1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians

Al Franken and others, take note. Here is a three-month reading plan to let you know where Christians in the red states might be coming from. It also will provide you with ammunition to refute "right-wing Christians" who are not really as Christian, by New Testament standards, as some would have you believe.

January 9, 2006

What Exactly is a Hypocrite?

Lake Superior State University recently released its 31st annual List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. Over the past few years, these words and phrases have included hunker down, person of interest, junk science, chad, metrosexual, first-time caller, and dawg.

I would like to nominate a word I think is both over-used and misused—the word hypocrite. I hear this word constantly on National Public Radio, on talk radio, and on national news programs such as Dateline, 20/20, and 60 Minutes. It is usually used by politicians in reference to other politicians, but it also appears in the mouths of reporters and commentators in reference to a whole host of Americans.

What exactly does the word hypocrite mean? Basically, it is a transliteration of the Greek word that originally meant "a play-actor" and, more specifically, "one who wears a mask"—-as all ancient Greek actors did. In its original positive sense, a hypocrite was an entertainer who acted in a play. In a more neutral sense, a hypocrite is someone pretending, like all actors, to be someone else.

As far as I can tell, Jesus was the first person to popularize the use of this word in a negative, metaphorical sense. He labeled various religious leaders of his day, mostly scribes and Pharisees, as hypocrites. What kind of person was he describing? Here are five possibilities:

1. A self-deluded person—someone who is incapable of perceiving the enormous gap between the teaching of scripture and his own behavior;

2. A disingenuous person—one who pretends to be sincere and straightforward, yet who is in reality cunning, crafty, and ultimately insincere;

3. A show-off—one who pretends to be more important than he really is, someone who loves the limelight and needs to feel important;

4. An imposter or dissembler—one who pretends to be what he is not in order to derive some personal gain (social, political, or financial) or simply the thrill of deceiving others and thereby controlling them;

5. An inconsistent person—someone who is unable, for whatever reason, to both "talk the talk and walk the walk," a person whose actions sometimes belie his words.

The word most often appears In the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus uses it primarily in the second and fourth senses. Religious hypocrites are those who practice their faith not to glorify God but simply to be seen by other people, thereby winning their approval and admiration. Winning approval is not all they seek, however. They often pretend to be righteous in order to conceal or to justify their own unrighteous deeds. Sometimes their unrighteous deeds are done out of pride or the desire for power over others; sometimes they are done simply for personal material gain. Hypocrites are those who hear the word of God but who do not do it. They may even preach the word of God, but they do not practice it (see Matthew 6:1-16; 7:1-5; 15:1-9; 22:15-19; 23:1-33). In Jesus' opinion, hypocrites are going to hell (Matthew 23:33; 24:51).

These days, however, most people casually use the word in the fifth sense to denote anyone whose behavior is inconsistent with some remark he has made or some position he is alleged to hold. This usage does not suggest insincerity or deceit as much as it does either a lack of logic or the inability to live up to one's professed ideals. Writers of the New Testament occasionally use the word this way as well (see Luke 13:15 where the synagogue leaders are willing to help an animal on the Sabbath, but, inconsistently, will not grant Jesus permission to heal a human being. Peter's inconsistent treatment of Gentile Christians in Antioch is also called hypocritical behavior by Paul in Galatians 2:13).

I think calling people hypocrites in this sense is often tantamount to calling them human. Everyone of us is a hypocrite by the standard of perfect consistency. Virtually everyone makes New Year's resolutions he doesn't keep. Everyone makes little compromises he would prefer not to make. Everyone changes his mind at times and decides to reject as false or inadequate what he previously might have thought or said.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Self Reliance," went so far as to say that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Inconsistency at times may be simple honesty—a recognition that the general rule does not always apply. It may also be a sign of intellectual honesty, humility, and maturity.

We are not hypocrites every time we are inconsistent. We are hypocrites in the truest sense of the word when we are deliberately devious and manipulative, when we say what we actually do not believe in order to impress, deceive, or exploit others. To use this word of strong accusation correctly ought to require a clear proof of the culprit's intent.

I believe we could improve civil discourse if we all stop calling people hypocrites unless we have indisputable evidence of their imposture. Yes, there are real hypocrites in the world, but we destroy the power and usefulness of the word by using it--all too frequently--to denote mere inconsistency.

January 10, 2006

Things to Teach

When I was a boy, one of my responsibilities was to shine my shoes on Sunday morning before church. My father taught me how, and I derived a certain pleasure and satisfaction from acquiring this simple skill.

These days, I don't think most boys wear shoes that need to be shined, but the need for one generation to relate to the next in simple ways remains.

Here are ten things an adult can teach a young child. They require no special tools and no more than 15 minutes each. You can teach these things as a parent, as an uncle or aunt, or as a "Big" in Big Brothers and Sisters.

1. How to replace a toilet paper roll.

2. How to thread a needle and sew on a button.

3. How to identify common flowers and trees.

4. How to replace a car's air filter.

5. How to play chess (a universal game that requires no electricity).

6. How a toilet works.

7. How circuit breakers turn off the electricity.

8. How to check the oil level and tire pressure on a car.

9. How to shake hands (or clap) properly.

10. How to unstop a clogged sink.

This list is vastly incomplete. It may be more directed at boys than girls. I am interested in your comments and suggestions.

Whatever we may deem appropriate, let's all intentionally take a moment to interact with the next generation by helping a child learn to work (wash a car), explore (visit a bank), play (shuffle cards), and serve (help deliver Meals on Wheels).

Just as I remember my dad, a child will always remember you for explaining a "mystery" or teaching a practical little skill. Leave a legacy; show something "cool" to a child.

January 16, 2006

The Two Cultures of American Higher Education

Confucius once said, "A wall of dried dung cannot be troweled" (Analects 5.9). By this he meant that a student who has no desire to learn cannot be taught.

Contemporary learning theorists generally make the assumption that students will learn if given the proper kind of instruction. Teachers have only to ascertain the students' learning styles, develop an effective motivational plan, and provide appropriate instructional activities. If students don't learn, the argument goes, then the teacher hasn't really taught correctly, because effective teaching implies learning in the same way that curing implies healing.

Confucius never understood it this way. "It's not how wet the water is," he might have said, "it's how soluble the soil is." In other words, teaching is never a sufficient cause of learning. Teachers cannot make unilateral guarantees because learning is work done by the students. Students (from the Latin studere, to be eager) are those who want to learn, who strive to learn, and who bear the ultimate responsibility for learning. The question is not simply "How do students learn?" but "How can the educational system ensure that students take responsibility for their learning?"


Teaching implies a social contract between instructor and student involving mutual obligations. Teaching suggests a handshake, not something one bestows on another. Too often in American higher education, teaching remains but a proffered hand because cultural conflict hinders or distorts cooperation between teacher and student. Even in racially, socially, and economically homogeneous classrooms, conflict exists in America between the student culture and the teacher culture.

The student culture plays the "forgetting game." In this game, you forget by midterm what you have "learned" during the first weeks of class. Because you intend to remember by semester's end only what will be on the final exam, you dread a comprehensive final. As soon as the term ends, you typically dump your term papers in the trash and sell your books back to the bookstore. Formal education is a rite of passage, an inconvenience you endure until you obtain a valuable credential.

Without understanding this culture, it is difficult to explain why students pay tuition for classes they attend spasmodically, why they applaud when classes are unexpectedly dismissed, why so many fail to take notes, complete assignments, bring their eye-glasses to class, or even buy the textbook. Any theory of learning that doesn't take into account this student culture is doomed to naïveté.

Faculty members usually come from the counter-cultural minority that loves learning for its own sake. In their idealism, they are committed to their discipline, to the pursuit of truth, and to the value of critical thinking. They see education, with Cicero, as "an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity" (Pro Archia Poeta, VII, 16). They teach not only because teaching involves the sharing of knowledge but because "docendo discimus"--we learn by teaching. They admire the retentive mind. To forget what one has learned at great cost of time and effort causes deep remorse and regret. Libraries are their temples to remembrance and their vaccines for forgetfulness.

This is not to demonize students or deify teachers. Students can be models of responsibility and dedication. Teachers can be superficial, narrowly-educated, and even anti-intellectual. But on balance, two distinct cultures definitely exist in contemporary America, cultures that shape human identities and govern behaviors. This is not to blame students individually or collectively. The students' cultural behavior reveals not so much what they are as what our educational system has made of them.


Conflicts between cultures are best settled by politics--the process of bargaining between opposing interest groups. Teachers and their classes constitute opposing interest groups: The teacher desires the students to learn the subject and to learn to think; the students, with many notable and laudable exceptions, desire to earn credit with as high a grade as possible. Tension naturally develops between these two groups, and political compromises arise in order to keep both sides relatively happy.

Neither group is powerless. Teachers assign grades, but students can complain and resist. Part-time teachers and untenured teachers often find they cannot succeed without satisfying the student culture. Tenured professors also want to be liked and to see their programs flourish. In economic hard times, the very existence of a position or program may depend on student enrollments. No one completely escapes the market-driven reality of classroom and campus politics.

The faculty's power to wield the stick or offer the carrot lies in the grading system. Students focus on high grades because of their inherent prestige, their usefulness in maintaining financial aid, their importance to graduate and professional schools, and their clout with prospective employers. Grade inflation at all levels has caused the majority of students to expect A's and B's. Few today can say with a straight face that C is the average grade. Ours is a no-fault society where correction is indistinguishable from criticism and where the gracious and egalitarian ideal exerts cultural pressure on teachers to be generous rather than rigorous.

Students are not so much concerned with the internal validity and reliability of tests as with the outcome of the process. They are committed to a benevolent relativism. A fair test is a test on which more than one student makes an A. By this logic, those who do best should have A's, and the remaining grades should be raised proportionately. This is what today is referred to as "curving grades." Teachers unwilling to adjust test grades in this manner are at the very least expected to drop the students' lowest test grades from consideration when determining the final grade. A fair teacher is a teacher who helps students "succeed," not an impartial evaluator.

Temptation to cook the grade books rears its head with the close of every semester. Among teachers and students a conspiracy of silence sometimes develops whereby the teacher's grade says in effect: "I won't let it be known that you haven't learned psychology if you won't let it be known either." Teachers who continue to grade on some absolute standard of excellence often find themselves discredited as unreasonable or discouraging. One problem with student evaluations of teaching is that students have difficulty distinguishing between the teacher as teacher and the teacher as grader. Instead of evaluating the teacher's teaching, they frequently choose to evaluate the teacher's grading. Good teaching, in the mind of many students, is teaching that empowers them to earn a good grade.

Political compromises between the faculty culture and the student culture have made the objective assessment of academic outcomes within the classroom difficult if not impossible. You never know whose grades to trust. Graduate and professional schools have put increasing emphasis either on selected grades they still deem valid (e.g., calculus and organic chemistry) or on the results of standardized, multiple-choice tests like the MCAT, the GRE, the LSAT, and the GMAT. Sadly, advanced GRE's for many disciplines do not exist.

Universities get by with giving unreliable grades because universities are not academically accountable to anyone with clout. Who is the university's customer? The students are throughput; their parents pay the bills but don't actually use the product. The society of the future ultimately judges the university's product. Yet society cannot focus a response to individual colleges, and the future remains mute.

Universities must deal with economic accountability as well. As a business, every college answers to its bottom line. Alexander Astin, professor of higher education at UCLA, has observed that "academics seem content to define educational excellence in terms of what we have, rather than what we do." This unfortunate definition works because, in a pragmatic society, economic accountability (what we have) always takes precedence over academic accountability (what we do).

Academically accountable teachers must prove that their students have learned something; an economically accountable teacher must demonstrate retention and program growth. Daniel Boorstin, an American cultural historian, has remarked that "democratic societies tend to become more concerned with what people believe than with what is true." Universities, too, have been more responsive to student satisfaction than to student academic growth. Their concern for keeping students happy and matriculated means that the student culture has slowly but surely attained parity with the faculty culture in shaping the university's "system"--the sum of all traditions and practices that time has hallowed.


Many will see no need for change. After all, the emperor is clothed; the system works in its own way. Compromises have been reached to accommodate both culture and human nature. Since cultures possess such great inertia, attempting to change the American academic culture may well be an exercise in futility. At the least, it will require a cultural revolution.

For the record, I propose a three-point plan for solving the fundamental problems created by generations of cultural and political compromise:

1.Set general education goals in terms of competency rather than in terms of classes.

As long as students earn degrees simply by collecting course credits like stamps, they will be tempted to take the path of least resistance.

General education goals (those normally achieved in the first two years of college) should be streamlined, clarified, and uniformly measured. If, for example, students must know how to speak Spanish using the present, past, and future tenses, let them demonstrate that ability in order to meet the standard. If they must know mathematics or history, let them show their competence in some way other than passing a class with a "D" or better.

Nothing is achieved except on purpose. If educators cannot articulate clear objectives, it is doubtful they can consistently attain educational goals. Although it is easy to indulge in the wishful thinking that students exposed to higher education automatically take away with them a "je ne sais quoi" of great value, cold objectivity suggests just the opposite: In classes where objectives are vague, students learn little and retain little of what they do learn. The question is not, "How difficult will it be to agree upon objectives?," but rather "How can we expect students to learn if the objectives are unclear or unreasonable?"

2.Allow for greater self-pacing and individualization.

People always try to beat a system they perceive as unjust. Individual students learn neither in the same way nor at the same rate. Putting thirty or three hundred students in the same classroom and assuming they all will learn a similar amount in fifteen weeks has frustrated generations of students and teachers. If students are to take responsibility for learning, the college must provide a high degree of flexibility and adaptation in order to recognize individual differences and address individual needs.

New technology makes this possible. But the system has to catch up with the technology. The registrar's office, for example, should be prepared to put only two credits of a four-credit course on the transcript if the student has mastered only half the course objectives. Too often, bureaucratic foot-dragging prevents educational reform. It is the will to change, not the capability, that is missing in American higher education administration.

3.Reform testing and grading.

Students must have the opportunity to take tests when they are ready, not simply when the material has been "covered" and the teacher is ready. Testing and grading must become increasingly independent of the classroom, not only because carelessness and abuse vitiate the process but because the individualization of education requires more flexibility.

The current system strains the relationship between student and teacher, tempts professors to assign grades for other than academic reasons, and promotes a "judge not that ye be not judged" atmosphere. An evaluation system that openly accepts poor work as passing work clearly needs reform.

The creation of departmental testing centers where students can go on their own to take tests will not cost a exorbitant amount, but it will restore objectivity to a system that has become more and more corrupt. Teachers whose jobs are on the line will no longer be tempted to give "open book" tests in the hope that their students will at least appear to succeed. What happens, sadly, is that students who feel no accountability for learning eventually begin to fail tests where the answers lie before their very eyes. Then what is the teacher to do? This pressure to make students appear successful must be removed from the teachers' shoulders if American higher education is to retain its integrity.

To paraphrase the philosopher Robert Nozick, if one cannot say of the typical American university, "The emperor has no clothes," one can nevertheless conclude that "The clothes contain no emperor." Culture and politics as reflected in the system really determine whether students will or will not assume their share of responsibility for learning. Students and teachers are intelligent, well-meaning people trapped in a flawed system they did not create. Confucius said, "A piece of rotten wood cannot be carved" (Analects 5.9). It is time to invest some creativity and energy in reforming the system.

Time to Cop an Attitude

We live in disturbing times amid the sounds of wars and rumors of wars—yet so have countless others over the millennia of time. Despite threats to the security of our nation, to the security of our retirement portfolios, and even to the security of our social security, many others in the world have it worse than we do or have had it worse. We need only think of the ethnic conflict in Sudan, the chaos in Somalia, or the trials of a man named Job.

Job was a wealthy man. He had interests in ranching (7000 sheep), farming (500 yoke of oxen), and transportation (3000 camels and 500 donkeys). Job was successful in business, devoted to family, and faithful to his God, yet his God allowed an adversary called Satan to take everything Job had and then cover him with sores to boot.

In Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Many commentators have criticized the epilogue of the book (Job 42:10-17) as shallow, superficial, and psychologically unsatisfying. How can money ever compensate for injustice? How can ten lost children ever be satisfactorily replaced by ten others? Whatever our modern assessment of such questions, two aspects of the epilogue teach us a remarkable lesson about attitude.

First, Job names his three new daughters. We aren't told the sons' names, only those of the daughters. The meaning of those names is Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eye-Shadow. Despite all his suffering, Job never lost his appreciation for beauty. He gave his beautiful new daughters beautiful names.

Second, Job gave his daughters an inheritance among their brothers. He wasn't required to do that in the context of his culture and time. One presumes he did it out of love and generosity, maybe even out of a sense of fairness since he knew well what it was to be treated unfairly.

We Americans are subject to vagaries of political and economic forces that are nearly as beyond our control as Satan's activities were beyond Job's control in the ancient story. The way to find peace amid insecurity, as an individual and as a nation, is to focus on beauty, generosity, and justice. To choose one's attitude is to secure one's peace.

January 19, 2006

Four Approaches to Investing in Stocks

As one reads the literature of stock investing, it becomes clear that the world of investing, like the Christian world, is divided into denominations. Each denomination of investment philosophy thinks it knows how to get to heaven (that is, make money), but each has a different idea of how to do it. Sometimes the differences are radical.

Each time you buy a book on investing or check one out from the library, it pays to know which denomination it represents. Here are four basic denominations (or approaches) to investing in common stocks.

INDEXING (Motto: "Don't try to outsmart the market.")

Plan: Invest in mutual funds such as one finds in the Vanguard (, Fidelity, or Pimco families that are geared to various market indexes. Allocate your assets among different kinds of funds (for example, small cap/large cap, value/growth, domestic/foreign/emerging) in order to optimize risk and return.

Books to Read:

Armstrong, Frank. The Informed Investor. New York: Amacom, 2002.

Ellis, Charles D. Winning the Loser's Game: Timeless Strategies for Successful Investing. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Malkiel, Burton G. The Random Walk Guide to Investing. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.

GROWTH (Motto: "Buy a few eggs you know will hatch.")

Plan A: Momentum Investing ("The trend is your friend"); buy and sell stocks that have the most favorable outlook over the near term, usually six months to a year. Day traders represent the extreme in momentum investing.

O'Neil, William J. How to Make Money in Stocks. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.

O'Neil, William J. 24 Essential Lessons for Investment Success. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Plan B: Sweet Anticipation ("Buy high and sell higher"); buy and hold companies that grow sales and earnings at stable rates well above average, which, in turn, produce high profit margins and above average return on equity. These companies typically have high P/E ratios and low dividend yields.

Buffett, Mary and David Clark. Buffettology. New York: Rawson Associates, 1997.

Buffett, Mary and David Clark. The New Buffettology. New York: Rawson, 2002.

Lynch, Peter. One Up on Wall Street. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

VALUE (Motto: "Buy a dollar for fifty cents, over and over again.")

Plan A: Contrarian Investing ("Buy fear and sell greed")--buy stocks that are temporarily out of favor as evidenced by low P/E ratios, low price-to-book ratios, and low price-to-cash-flow ratios.

Dreman, David. Contrarian Investment Strategies: The Next Generation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Wanger, Ralph. A Zebra in Lion Country. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Plan B: Fundamental Investing ("Plant a seedling and watch an oak grow"; "Buy a bargain and wait"). Create a margin of safety by buying and holding stocks that are selling at substantial discounts to their cash or liquidation values. Determine the spread between the price of a stock and its intrinsic value. Look for low price-to-book ratios, a continuous record of high dividend yields, and strong underlying assets or cash flow.

Graham, Benjamin. The Intelligent Investor. 4th revised ed. New York: Harper Business, 1973.

Klarman, Seth A. Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing for the Thoughtful Investor. New York: HarperBusiness, 1991.

Vick, Timothy. Wall Street on Sale. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999.

INCOME (Motto: "Dividends don't lie.")
Buy stable businesses that have low levels of debt, a low beta, and a long history of steadily increasing dividends.

Klugman, RoxAnn. The Dividend Growth Investment Strategy: How to Keep Your Retirement Income Doubling Every Five Years. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2001.

Miller, Lowell. The Single Best Investment: Achieve Lasting Wealth with Low Risk, Steady Growth Stocks. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1999.

Tigue, Joseph and Joseph Lisanti. The Dividend Rich Investor: Building Wealth with High-Quality, Dividend-Paying Stocks. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

As you read about the different approaches, you will decide which makes most sense to you, which most fits your personality, and which offers the best return given the time you have to devote to investing. Good luck, and see you in church.

January 27, 2006

Who You Callin' a Jerk?

Don't be a jerk. Don't dump your trash on the road. Don't park in the handicap space if you aren't handicapped. Don't drive drunk. Don't smoke around gas pumps. Just don't be a jerk. Jerks think first and foremost about themselves and what they want. They are insensitive to the feelings and welfare of others. Jerks put their own convenience, their own wishes, and their own pleasures ahead of what others need or think. Being a jerk is basically the opposite of being a decent human being.

Does the word "jerk" have a masculine ring to your ears? Maybe so. But I have seen my share of female jerks. Society merely calls them different names. And just as self-centered behavior is not limited to one gender, it isn't limited to the non-religious either. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist jerks abound as well. "Reverends" who are unfaithful to their wives are jerks. I shudder when reporters refer to one of them as "the Reverend" So-'n-So. Televangelists who solicit contributions from poor widows and spend the money on big houses and fancy cars for themselves are jerks; they are not even genuine Christians because what they are doing has no relation to the anti-materialistic teachings of Jesus.

As I look at the world of yesterday and today--at civil war in Africa, poverty in Central America, injustice at home, and corruption just about everywhere--I see the accumulative influence of many jerks in key positions of power. As I observe single-parent families, recreational drug abuse, and obscene salary differentials between management and labor, I behold the ravages of selfishness. Always looking out for self rather than for others strikes me as the root of all evil. The love of money simply provides a special case in point. Being a jerk constitutes the foundation of immorality and unethical behavior. So, don't be a jerk--whether for heaven's sake or for humanity's--just don't be a jerk.

April 17, 2006

Who Reads the Bible Literally? Everyone and No one!

Reading the Bible literally is not what defines certain Christians as conservative or fundamentalist. Rather, it is their choice of which passages to read literally and which to read figuratively.

What exactly does it mean to read something "literally"? Well, it means taking each word at its face value and allowing each word to possess only it denotative meaning. It means dismissing any figurative or connotative meanings, including the possibility of exaggeration for effect, irony, metaphor, poetic allusion, or evocative imagery.

Every reader of the Bible interprets some passages literally (like Genesis 27:11 or 1 Timothy 5:23) and everyone understands some parts of the Bible figuratively (Psalm 23:1 or John 10:7). No one--not even the most hardcore fundamentalist--reads everything in the Bible literally, because that is simply impossible.

Why? Because very often the Bible will not allow you to read it literally. It will ridicule you if you do. Let's look at a few examples in the Gospel of John.

1. John 2:13-22 Jesus and the Temple Authorities
v. 19 "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."

The Jewish authorities interpret this saying literally, v. 20
The narrator explains the metaphor, v. 21
Even Jesus' disciples misunderstand at the time, v. 22

2. John 3:1-14 Jesus and Nicodemus
v. 3 "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Nicodemus interprets this saying literally, v. 4
Jesus partially explains the metaphor, vv. 5-6
Nicodemus remains a bit confused, v. 9

3. John 4:7-15 Jesus and the Woman at the Well
v. 10 "He would have given you living water."

The woman interprets the statement literally, vv. 11-12
Jesus partially explains the metaphor, vv. 13-14
The woman again takes the metaphor literally, v. 15

4. John 4:31-38 Jesus and his Disciples
v. 32 "I have food to eat that you do not know about."

The disciples interpret this saying literally, v. 33
Jesus explains the metaphor, v. 34

5. John 6:33-35 Jesus and the Hungry Crowds
v. 33 "The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

The listeners interpret this saying literally, v. 34
Jesus explains the metaphor, v. 35-40

6. John 6:51-63 Jesus and the Jewish Religious Leaders
v. 51 "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Jewish religious leaders take this literally, v. 52
Jesus expands the metaphor, vv. 53-59
Jesus' own disciples say they don't understand either, vv. 60-61
Jesus explains (sort of) that he was speaking figuratively, v. 63 Confused by too many metaphors, many of Jesus' followers abandon him, v. 66

Does the writer John think Jesus intended for his sayings to be taken literally? Not at all. In fact, John seems to delight in showing how clueless it is to take Jesus literally. Those who interpret Jesus as speaking literally rather than figuratively, directly rather than indirectly, are portrayed as spiritually obtuse.

In several modern translations, about one-third of John's gospel is printed in verse form in order to underscore its basically poetic character. Lest you think this propensity for figurative language is limited to John's gospel, you have only to read Matthew 16:5-12, where Jesus upbraids his apostles for not understanding that his metaphor, "the leaven of the Pharisees," referred to their teachings. Jesus is one of the world's most famous poets, but he is rarely recognized as such because he was a prose poet.

Critics of the religious right often accuse Christian conservatives of "reading the Bible literally." This is, at best, a half truth. Let me explain why.

What the critics mean, I think, is that "fundamentalists" are those who believe that certain miracles recorded in the Bible are historical facts. Here are some examples:

Ten Bible Stories that Many Christian Conservatives Read as Literally True:

1. God created the world in six calendar days (Genesis 1:1-31).
2. God destroyed the whole world in a gigantic flood, saving only eight people (Genesis 7:17-23).
3. God turned all the water in the Nile River into blood (Exodus 7:17-20).
4. God divided the Red Sea and made a dry pathway through it (Exodus 14:21-22).
5. God made the walls of Jericho fall flat at the sound of a trumpet (Joshua 6:20).
6. God caused the sun to stand still in the sky for 24 hours (Joshua 10:12-14).
7. God caused a shadow made by the sun to shorten by ten steps (2 Kings 20:9-11).
8. God killed 185,000 Assyrians in one night in order to save Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:33-36; 2 Kings 19:35).
9. God caused the prophet Jonah to be swallowed whole by a big fish, then spit out in three days (Jonah 1:17-2:10).
10. God impregnated a virgin named Mary (Matthew 1:18-25).

Yet this criticism, "reading the Bible literally," is a half-truth because it leaves the impression that all conservatives read all of the Bible literally. This is not accurate. In actuality, conservatives debate vociferously among themselves as to what should be interpreted literally and what figuratively. But they all agree that nobody can read everything literally.

In fact, I have noticed a strong tendency among Christian conservatives to read many biblical texts figuratively. Here are some examples.

Ten Statements of Jesus that Many Christian Conservatives Do Not Read as Literally True:

1. Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).
2. Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).
3. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (Matthew 5:42).
4. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).
5. Truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you (Matthew 17:20).
6. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you (Luke 6:27-28).
7. When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:12-13).
8. If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).
9. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (Matthew 20:26-27; Luke 9:48).
10. All who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52)

Please notice the difference. The passages conservatives read as historically, literally true are one-time events set in the ancient past that have little or no direct bearing on the conduct of everyday life today. The passages not read as literally true are those that have radical implications both for the everyday life of individuals today and for the domestic and foreign policies of governments.

I dare say that taking the ten statements of Jesus mentioned above at face value and applying them literally and systematically to world affairs would dramatically change the world—probably for the better, all things considered.

So, I modestly propose that all of us resolve to stop using "reading the Bible literally" as a pejorative catch phrase. Surely liberals and conservatives alike can agree on this simple statement: "We should not always take the Bible literally, but we should always take it seriously."

May 2, 2006

Winnie's Family

Chocolate ice cream after school

Thinking Jesus was pretty cool

Charcoal chicken and homemade bread

Bible stories right before bed

Potato salad and brown baked beans

Knowing what agape really means

Washing dishes just by hand

VBS in the holy land

Gentle touches and secret smiles

Going barefoot for many miles

Fudge cake at potluck then 42

Tickles and teases only for you

Love joy and peace calmly abide

Always at church doors open wide

November 14, 2006

Ten Pieces of Advice I Wish I Had Taken Forty Years Ago

1.Floss your teeth every night. I haven’t had a cavity since I began flossing 35 years ago. I wish I had started 40 years ago.

2.Learn to invest when you’re young. Most people don’t wake up until it is too late. The power of compound interest really only works for those who start young.

3.Wash where the sun don’t shine. Wash your bottom well every day and you will likely avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of hemorrhoids.

4.Read the classics ten pages per day. At the rate of 10 pages a day, you can read any book, no matter how long or how difficult. It is rewarding.

5.Drink water in restaurants. What you save will help you find something to invest. The habit will also help cleanse your body of toxins.

6.Stretch your hamstrings. You often won’t realize you’re old and stiff until you’re old and stiff. Stretching makes you look and feel younger.

7.Plant a tree or start a small garden each time you move to a new house. Revel in the silence of growing things.

8.Assemble and organize your random thoughts and those miscellaneous pieces of information you want to keep over time. Put them in a five-subject spiral notebook or record them electronically, but save them systematically so you know where to find them.

9.Exercise daily. Walk a couple of miles or the equivalent thereof. It is time well-spent.

10.Play games with those you love: card games, board games, word games, whatever. The time you spend together will bond your relationship far more than passively watching some screen.

March 20, 2007

Advice to My Sons Upon Graduation from High School

1. Develop your talents. If you do what interests you--and do it well--you can make a living and find satisfaction in your work.

2. Experience all you can. Continue to grow and expand as a human being. Widen your horizons. Give your life balance.

3. Never shun the difficult. Life will require you to prove yourself over and over again anyway. Relish the challenge.

4. Search for good teachers. A great teacher will make any subject worthwhile. Take the teacher, not the class.

5. Be gracious to others. Respect their feelings. Believe in their sincerity. They will respond to you in kind.

6. Be ready to laugh at yourself and your work. Laughter is uniquely human, so cultivate your sense of humor.

7. Smile whenever you can. Human relations are important. Smiles lubricate human relations by putting others at ease.

8. Criticize sparingly, if at all. Always criticize instructively.

9. Do nice things for people. Buy someone a soda from time to time. Give a little gift. Do someone a service or a favor.

10. Try to leave everything you touch a little better than you found it.

11. Practice the art of serenity and detachment. Never blame others for what happens to you. Never make excuses.

12. Take care of your body. Eat in moderation. Get enough sleep. Exercise daily. An investment in good habits will pay off as you grow older.

13. Be as modest, cheerful, and polite as you can. A combination of quite competence, good humor, and common courtesy will find its reward.

14. Learn from the New Testament what your attitudes should be. Live the ideals of Matthew 5-7, Philippians 2-4, Romans 8 and 12.

15. Marry a sincere Christian. It can make all the difference in the happiness of your life.

March 21, 2007

Is It All Relative?

Is it unethical to eat meat? Many people today think it is. They argue that animals have the capacity to suffer and do suffer both in the merciless way they are raised for slaughter and in the slaughter houses themselves. These same people maintain that a vegetarian diet is better for human health. They note that Adam and Eve seem to be vegetarians in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:30; 2:9-16) and that Daniel purposely abstained from meat in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace (Daniel 1:8-16). Considering the world’s food shortage, they say, more food could be produced by giving up meat products, since animals raised for slaughter consume huge quantities of agricultural products and land area that could be redirected toward human consumption.

As Christians, you probably view the question of eating meat as a personal preference that has no ethical implications. After all, the Bible nowhere forbids the eating of meat per se. In fact, we find extensive teaching in the law as to which animals may be eaten (Leviticus 11) and as to how one should consume the meat of animals that have been sacrificed (Leviticus 7:15; 22:30) in religious ceremonies. Jesus seems to have had no qualms about eating meat. In his famous parable, the father who commands the fattened calf to be killed and served for dinner is a symbol for God himself (Luke 15:23).

I use this example to underscore a major difference between secular ethics and Christian ethics. Secular ethics are usually based on argument and reason whereas Christian ethics are based primarily on the revelation of God found in scripture. Christians do reason, but they reason mainly about the meaning and application of scripture. In addition, they sometimes give pragmatic reasons to buttress and defend scriptural teaching that may otherwise seem arbitrary. Generally speaking, if an action does not contradict a clear command, example, or principle found in scripture, it is considered a matter of opinion rather than a matter of right or wrong. On the other hand, if an action does go against a clear command, example, or principle of scripture, it is considered wrong, no matter what reasons or arguments can be marshaled to defend it.

What is the difference between sin and unethical behavior? Sin is something God disapproves of; unethical behavior is something society and moral philosophers disapprove of. They may overlap, but they are not always the same. Randy Cohen makes the interesting observation that there can be solitary sin, but there is no solitary unethical behavior. You can sit at home and covet your neighbor’s wife. That is a sin. But for people who don’t believe in a God that reads your mind, ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved, until you try to seduce your neighbor’s wife. You see the difference. God is able to look upon the heart and see secret sin. Human beings cannot call something unethical until they know for sure it has actually happened.

Another clear distinction between secular ethics and Christian ethics is that the former tends toward relativism and the latter toward absolutism. In philosophical terms, relativism is the idea that any system of ethics is a reflection of the customs of the society in which it operates. To a relativist, saying that slavery is wrong merely means that my society disapproves of slavery. Relativism essentially says that whatever the majority of a particular society believes is right or wrong is indeed what is right or wrong, but just for that society.

For the relativist, ethical truth can and does change. For example, in the 1950’s, the majority of Americans believed homosexuality was wrong. Fifty years later, homosexuality is portrayed favorably on many television shows and in many movies. Public and judicial opinion has changed to the point that homosexuality is considered an alternate lifestyle, but not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, in the 1950’s, smoking was considered entirely acceptable. Today, smoking is often banned from restaurants and public places, and society increasingly looks upon it as harmful, dangerous, and the wrong thing to do.

Subjectivism is an extreme form of relativism. For a subjectivist, to say something is wrong is simply to say that I personally disapprove of it. If someone else does not disapprove, it is not wrong for that person. According to subjectivism, you cannot argue about ethics because ethics is simply personal opinion, the expression of attitudes or the expression of personal wants and preferences. There is no such thing as an objective moral fact.

Whenever someone says, “That’s just your opinion” or “It’s all relative,” in regard to an ethical question, that person is often expressing the subjectivist viewpoint. There is no absolute truth, only subjective personal opinions. For Christians, ethics is based on the character and revealed will of God (1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 3:3; Hebrews 12:14). Christian humility recognizes that Christians may not fully comprehend or correctly apply those objective moral facts, but that does not alter either their existence or their authority.

It is difficult to convince secular people that Christian teachings about ethics are factual rather than subjective. C. S. Lewis attempts the task in his book The Abolition of Man. Because secularism is based on reason rather than upon revelation, secularists accuse Christians of confusing their belief statements with reasons. For example, we Christians say sexual promiscuity is wrong because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. For secular philosophers, our claiming to have the Holy Spirit is a belief statement, but certainly not a rational, compelling reason to forbid sex between consenting adults who may not even believe in God.

Most secular moral philosophers are not complete relativists. They cannot bring themselves to say that slavery is right or that the genital mutilation of females is right just because some society practices it or accepts it. They cannot bring themselves to say that Hitler and Stalin were moral men simply because they were national leaders supported by the majority of their country’s citizens. Moral philosophers base their ethical ideas on reason and argument, but they realize that society as a whole mostly ignores them. Their arguments have no authority behind them. They stand or fall on the persuasiveness and personality of the philosopher or politician making the argument.

In some ways, the same holds true for Christians. This side of eternity we can never prove the validity of our faith statements. The way to persuade unbelievers that God is right and relativism is wrong is not by reasoning better than they do but by living better than they do and dying better as well.


1. If we as Christians believe our moral and ethical standards are absolute, do we therefore have the right and even the responsibility to impose them on others who are not Christians? For example, was Prohibition a good idea that should be reinstated? Is the movement to ban abortions a good thing or misguided? Should we try to legislate morality?

2. When my cousin’s 12-year-old daughter got out of my car, she opened the door into a parked car, leaving a visible dent. I asked my cousin to leave a note. She refused because she didn’t want to pay for a repair. Should I have left a note myself with her name and number? With mine?

3. We are writing a will and want to leave all our money to our two children. One is very rich and the other lives almost hand-to-mouth. Do we divide equally or give the poorer one a greater proportion?

4. As a teacher, sometimes I make mistakes grading a test. Sometimes when an answer is wrong I inadvertently mark it as correct. If the student brings this to my attention, I praise him for his honesty, then take off the points. Is this right, or should I let him keep the points because the mistake was mine?

5. In one of his novels, Ernest Hemingway wrote this: “What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Is this a good ethical rule-of-thumb to follow? Why or why not? What if you feel good because you’ve done the right thing?

6. My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. Recently her condition has deteriorated and her doctor has warned me she soon will need to be placed in a nursing home. With my power of attorney, should I transfer her assets to my name so that when she enters the nursing home she will qualify for Medicaid, thus preserving her small estate?

7. What do you think about eating meat? Can anything be wrong if it is not considered wrong by Scripture? For example, slavery is not expressly condemned in the Bible. Does the Bible consider slavery to be wrong? The same goes for gambling. Is it okay since the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn it?

March 27, 2007

What are Christian Ethics?

The Christian life resembles a three-legged stool. For the stool to stand firm, each leg must rest securely in place. The three legs are faith, fellowship, and fidelity. Faith entails knowing God and trusting him for salvation through Christ; fellowship implies being a functioning member of Christ's body; and fidelity means showing loyalty to Christ by living a worthy life. Without each of these three supports, the stool shakes, the Christian walk begins to stumble.

The word "ethics" comes from a Greek adjective that means "pertaining to character." "Morality" derives from a Latin word that the Roman orator Cicero (106-43 BC) used to translate the Greek word for ethics. In modern times, ethics is the study of how we ought to behave; it asks questions about what is right and wrong. Morality is the set of rules we live by, rules that reflect the expectations of our culture, the demands of our religion, or some combination of both. You might say that ethics is theory and morality is practice—sometimes indirectly linked.

For Christians, ethical and moral behavior relates directly to fidelity--living a life that honors Christ's sacrifice, but it pertains to faith and fellowship as well. How we as Christians understand God, ourselves, and our relationship to others provides the basis for how we act in specific situations. With the Holy Spirit's help and guidance, we reach spiritual maturity by informing our minds, deepening our relationships, training our emotions, and disciplining our behavior (Romans 8:11-17; 1 Corinthians 2:11-16).

Christian ethics touch upon thought, feeling, and action. "The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matthew 12:35). From the "treasure of our hearts," thoughts and feelings, come the actions that ultimately prove ethical or unethical, good or evil.

Ethics point the way to living a good life. The study of ethics is a practical attempt to learn how to live, just as the study of politics is (in theory, at least) a practical attempt to learn how to make society flourish. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), the purpose of ethics was finding how to be happy or fulfilled, because the person who lived a good life, he believed, was also a person with a strong sense of well-being.

Christian ethics have an added dimension because Christians believe that goodness is a characteristic of God. To be good is to be like God and eventually to be with God. To know good, one must know God as he has revealed himself and live according to that knowledge (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Simply knowing about God does not produce ethical behavior, as the scandals occasionally created by certain prominent Christians demonstrate. "Even the demons believe" we read in James 2:19. By the same token, the reverse is true: Even believers are capable of demonic behavior.

Practical ethics attempt to identify the qualities that exemplify good character. We test the validity and usefulness of ethical principles as we apply them to specific moral decisions about behavior. Should a Christian own a restaurant that serves alcoholic beverages? Should a Christian banker charge interest on loans to fellow Christians? May a Christian wife ever divorce her husband and remarry? Can a Christian activist justifiably shoot at a doctor who performs abortions? Can Christian soldiers kill in the service of their country?

Easy answers to ethical questions rarely exist because rules of thumb do not always suffice in difficult situations. These lessons do not attempt to ask or answer every ethical question. They simply seek to provide adults with food for thought and discussion about what it means to become more Christ-like.


1. Is it worse to be called “immoral” than to be called “unethical”? What is the difference? For example, is immodesty unethical or immoral? What about murder? What about divorce?
2. Aristotle says that "activities in conformity with virtue constitute happiness." His definition assumes that in order to be happy a person must have the physical means to engage in good activities. What do you think the term "happiness" means to a Christian? Do you agree that happiness depends to some degree at least on having a sufficient number of possessions?
3. If a law-abiding driver accidentally kills a child who darts into the road, American society does not consider that person unethical (although African society might). Does ethical or unethical behavior require intention or premeditation? If you and the grocery checker accidentally overlook a small item in your grocery cart and you do not discover that you have taken it without paying until you are putting your groceries in the car, are you obliged to go back into the store and wait another ten minutes in line to pay for that item? After all, you did not intend to steal it. Can you think of another example of unintentional wrongdoing? Is all unintentional wrongdoing guiltless?
4. In making ethical decisions, Christians experience the reality of God. James Gustafson says that the practical purpose of Christian ethics is to aid Christians in "discerning what God is enabling and requiring them to do." Tell about something you did or didn't do because you thought God would approve or disapprove.
5. If bombing a residential area would hasten the end of a war and save thousands of lives, would it be morally right to kill innocent women and children? How does the rule "You shall not murder" apply in this case? How does it apply to cases of personal self defense or to capital punishment?
6. Paul seems to suggest that rules (or laws) are the means to an end rather than the end itself (Romans 2:12-15). Can you imagine an ethical life without following rules or laws? Are there other approaches to ethical living aside from following rules?

April 23, 2007

Whose Values, Whose Virtues?

Values and virtues are not the same. The word "values" was first used in its modern sense by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche thought nothing was good in itself, but only because someone "valued" it. He meant his use of the term "values" in preference to "virtues" as an attack on conventional morality that he perceived as weak, foolish, and meaningless.

When we read that values should be taught in the public education curriculum, we might ask what values the writer has in mind. Influential citizens tout many secular values that are rarely if ever alluded to in scripture: egalitarianism, cultural diversity, privacy, environmentalism, vegetarianism, feminism, animal rights, capitalism, a woman’s right to choose abortion, patriotism, democracy, academic freedom, and gay rights, to name only a few. Values are indeed what some group deems valuable, but values do not necessarily constitute a part of Christian ethics. In fact, certain secular values may become the enemy of Christian virtues if they contradict biblical teaching or if they take priority over weightier concerns that lie closer to the heart of God.

Values are human choices. Christian ethics stand upon principles that come from the mind and character of God (for example, Leviticus 19:2). In the process of "values clarification," students confronted with a moral dilemma usually must begin by responding to the question, "How do you feel about this?" As Robert Bellah and his colleagues write in Habits of the Heart, "In modern morality, utility replaces duty; self-expression unseats authority. 'Being good,' becomes 'feeling good.' Something moral is something you feel good after; something immoral is something you feel bad after, which implies you have to try everything at least once. Acts are not right or wrong in themselves, but only because of the results they produce, the good feelings they engender or express." Such an attitude often finds expression in contemporary song lyrics such as when Elvis sings, "Baby, if it feels so right, how can it be wrong?"

Values are ideas and attitudes that result in moral decisions. Christian virtues are those character qualities necessary for pleasing God and living an authentic Christian life. Christians try, insofar as possible, to make biblical virtues their own core values. For example, Paul writes in Philippians 2:4-8, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross!" Paul is urging Christians to become humble altruists, based on the example of Jesus.

Choosing certain values and rejecting or subordinating others lies at the heart of Christian ethics. Ethics, like time management, involves making difficult choices between competing values or activities and then sticking with those choices. Understanding what is right is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for doing what is right. It is equally essential to pursue the right with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength.


1.What does the phrase "family values" suggest to you? What do you think it might mean to a non-Christian?

2.Do you think that some values can be subversive of Christianity? Name some non-Christian values not already mentioned in this lesson. Can you name any non-Christian values that actually conflict with Christian teaching?

3.Write down what you believe to be the top five core Christian values. What are your reasons for choosing these values? In what way do you think these are the "weightier concerns" that lie close to the heart of God?

4.What do you think Robert Bellah means by the assertion that "self-expression unseats authority" in modern morality? Can you cite some examples from personal experience of authority that has been overthrown by those who want the freedom to express their personal values? Have you encountered any Christians who want to unseat biblical authority in order to follow a contemporary value?

5.Which biblical values do you think contemporary Americans have the most difficulty accepting? Are there any that you yourself have difficulty accepting?

6.Do you know of Christians who have behaved badly in public or private? Why is it that some Christians know perfectly well what is right yet fail to do it?

Continue reading "Whose Values, Whose Virtues?" »

Is the Golden Rule Sufficient?

Many witticisms are made at the expense of the Golden Rule. For example, it is sometimes paraphrased as "Do unto others before they do unto you" or reinterpreted as "The Golden Rule means that those who have the gold make the rules."

Is it enough to say, "Just live by the Golden Rule and you'll be all right?" The term "Golden Rule" refers to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." A parallel passage is Luke 6:31, "As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

In his book Morals and Values, Marcus Singer explains two possible interpretations of this Golden Rule. The first may be called the particular interpretation, "Do to others WHAT you would have them do to you." According to this interpretation, we should apply the rule by asking ourselves what in particular we want others to do or what we would want if we were in their place.

If you were a landlord trying to follow the particular interpretation, you might allow your tenants to live in your apartment rent free. Why? Because if you were in their place, you would definitely want a rent-free apartment. By the same token, if you were a jailer, you would let your prisoners go free, because that is exactly how you would like to be treated if you were a prisoner. Obviously, there are problems with this literal interpretation of the Golden Rule.

Another view is known as the general interpretation: "Do to others AS you would have them do to you." This interpretation does not consider what in particular we want others to do or what we would do were we in their place. Rather, the general approach asks us to consider the general ways in which we would expect others to behave. That is, what we want is for others to take into account, in a reasonable way, our interests, feelings, and needs when they act. Similarly, we are to treat others by the same standard that we want them to apply in their treatment of us. We want them to be fair, just, and reasonable. That is how we should treat them, too. The landlord should treat tenants fairly and not exploit them. The jailer should treat prisoners humanely.

The Golden Rule requires that the same standard of fairness or justice be applied to behavior, no matter who performs it and no matter who benefits by it. It demands that we take into account the wishes and desires of others, even if we do not always accede to them. It is a method for dealing with moral questions without being controlled by self-interest.

The Golden Rule cannot stand alone because it is predicated on principles of justice and fairness that exist outside the rule itself. Without a standard of justice or fairness, it would be impossible for us to apply the Golden Rule reasonably because there would be no common understanding of justice. As Joshua Halberstam has noted in his book Everyday Ethics, another underlying assumption behind the Golden Rule is that you love yourself. People who hate themselves tend to misapply the rule. For Christians, furthermore, any concept of justice must connect to other values like love and compassion. If our sense of fairness is somehow biased or flawed because of selfish blindness or lack of compassion, we will probably fail to apply the rule correctly. In commenting on the Old Testament principle, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18), Paul writes, "Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10). In short, it is love for others that makes the Golden Rule shine.


1.You are responsible for hiring a new accountant. One of your old friends has applied for the job. Although other applicants have better credentials, you believe your friend could do the job satisfactorily. On the basis of the Golden Rule, would you hire your friend? Shouldn't we show loyalty to our friends just as we want them to show loyalty to us?

2.Janet and Jennifer are college roommates. Janet works at a donut shop and Jennifer at a fast-food restaurant. When Jennifer goes to the donut shop, Janet always gives her a free donut. Should Jennifer give Janet a free hamburger when she comes to the restaurant? Explain why this situation relates or does not relate to the Golden Rule.

3.Does the Golden Rule presuppose that what I wish others to do to me is the same as what they would wish me to do to them? Can you give an example of how different people might have different expectations of how they should be treated?

4.Confucius (c. 551-479 BC) once said, "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you." Some say this negative formulation is more humble and modest because it prevents moral harm without presuming to impose one person’s standards on another. What do you think?

5.In what way does the Golden Rule require you to put yourself in another's place or to imagine yourself to be the other person? If Christian soldiers followed the Golden Rule, could they ever deliberately try to kill someone?

6.Another biblical rule is "Do unto others as God has done unto you" (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 24:17-18). In what way, if any, does this rule offer a different perspective from the Golden Rule?

April 27, 2007

Is It Ever Permissible to Lie?

Lying is one of the most common practices in human society. We usually lie because it is not in our self-interest to tell the complete, honest truth. A real-estate agent tells a client a property won't last long on the market in order to motivate that client to buy. A secretary says the boss is "on another line" when she really isn't. A student tells the teacher he forgot to bring his homework when actually he never got around to doing it.

The general rule holds that truth should never be violated. If society is to function efficiently, its citizens must have the security of being able to believe their fellow citizens. Following this principle, individuals must be willing to suffer occasional inconveniences, embarrassments, and financial losses by always telling the truth. But clearly, many who tell lies don't believe the fate of society stands or falls on their absolute truthfulness. Is lying ever permissible behavior?

Lying is verbal deception. The liar makes statements that intentionally attempt to deceive or mislead. A basketball player who makes a head fake and causes an opponent to leave his feet prematurely is a deceiver but not a liar. Society obviously accepts some deception as "part of the game." For many people, lying is simply part of earning a living. Lawyers may lie to protect their client's confidences. Doctors may lie to patients in order to calm their irrational fears. Salesmen may lie to customers to preserve a fair commission. Journalists may lie in order to get information about a story. Even presidents may lie to protect what they consider to be the national interest. Some see lying as necessary for survival in a highly competitive world.

Lying is effective because human beings seem to be "hard-wired" with a predisposition to believe. Our natural inclination gives others the benefit of the doubt. Were this not the case, we could accept nothing we hear or read without independent confirmation. This means that veracity is the norm expected in human relationships. Any lie constitutes a deviation that must be justified.

The Bible strongly condemns lying (1 Timothy 1:9-10; Psalm 5:6; Revelation 22:15), but will God punish any and every lie? If using force to prevent a murder would be justifiable, why wouldn't telling a lie to prevent a murder be justifiable? Isn't that what Rahab did to protect the spies in Canaan (Joshua 2:4-7)? What about white lies that harm no one? Can a girl make a false excuse if she doesn't want to date a boy? Can we give false compliments or express false gratitude for a gift we don't really like? Can we lie to children about Santa Claus or the stork or the quality of their art work? Can an employee lie to protect his company from embarrassment if the lie does no harm to the customer?

Most Americans never encounter a crisis where lying is necessary to personal survival or to the survival of friends and family. Yet throughout the world, civil wars, invasions, political persecution, and other terrible events put moral considerations to the supreme test. Are there limits to Christian heroism or should a Christian always be ready to die rather than to lie?

In her excellent book entitled Lying, Sissela Bok notes that people who rationalize their own lies as justifiable usually don't like to be lied to themselves by their doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, or political leaders. We perceive the full impact of a lie only when we view lying from the perspective of the person being lied to.

Lying is dangerous because it eats away at a person's dignity and integrity. One lie usually leads to another, and people delude themselves as they make excuses for their lies. Habitual liars often become skeptical that real truth or really truthful people actually exist. Lying and the cynicism it produces eventually undermine one's faith and Christian influence.


1.Are evasion and suppression of information forms of lying? For example, a preacher is told in confidence that a teenager is pregnant out of wedlock. A few days later, a member asks him, "Have you heard that Julie is pregnant?" What should he answer?

2.Is lying necessary to success or even survival in certain jobs or professions? May we lie to enhance our company's image or to avoid embarrassment to our employer? What about lying to enhance our own personal image or our own personal advantage? Do you remember any "spur of the moment" lies you have told that you wish you had somehow avoided?

3.When professors write inflated recommendations or assign grades of good or excellent to students who in reality are more average than outstanding, are they liars or are they simply compassionate, generous, and altruistic? Where does one draw the line on lying for the benefit of others?

4.In Exodus 1:15-21, the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh and were blessed. Who were some other famous biblical liars? Were any of them (other than the midwives and Rahab) praised for lying?

5.Is it a sin to lie if the lie is part of a practical joke? Is it permissible to lie in order to spare another person's feelings? Give some examples.

6.In order to save valuable time, business people sometimes try to end long phone calls by telling "white lies" like "I have someone in my office" or "I have someone on another line" or "I have to leave for a meeting." Is lying justified in these cases? At what point does a "white lie" cease to be harmless or trivial? What are some alternatives to telling "white lies"?

7.In John 7:8-10, did Jesus lie about going to the feast? Why or why not?

April 28, 2007

Is Perfectly Legal Morally Right?

A common occurrence in recent times is to see a president, senator, or representative proclaiming vigorously to the press, "I have done nothing illegal." Somehow such statements fail to convince anyone that the speaker has been acting irreproachably. Yet the implication is that whatever is legal is also ethical and moral--at least to a satisfactory degree.

Before expelling a student for buying a term paper or dismissing a faculty member for sexual misconduct, a university will often consult a lawyer because an action that seems morally justified may in reality be legally untenable and open the school to damaging litigation. Just because an act causes Christians to feel righteous indignation does not necessarily mean it will be punished by a court of law.

What is the relationship between legality and morality? Are some actions legal but immoral? Are Christians free to do what is illegal as long as it is ethical? Are Christians free to engage in any and all legal activities? May Christians skirt the law as long as no Christian ethical rules are broken?

For example, there is a tax penalty for married couples: Under current tax codes, a married couple pays more taxes than two singles living together do. Is it ethical for a young Christian couple to exchange vows in church before God and their fellow Christians and yet avoid higher taxes by never securing a marriage license that would make the marriage official?

Eleanor Holmes Norton (1938- ), the representative of Washington, D.C., in the United States House of Representatives, has said, "The law is not a system of values but a system in search of values." Yet Christian lawyers and accountants sometimes make their living by suggesting practices that, while they may have the appearance of impropriety, are in reality "perfectly legal." In this way, the law becomes the minimum standard of values by which the propriety of any action may be tested. The law deems acceptable anything that meets its minimum standards.

Lawmakers may write laws contain wording or loopholes that favor certain special interests. For example, laws may exact harsher penalties for "blue-collar" crimes than for "white-collar" crimes. Do some acts seem more wicked than others because certain social or racial groups engage in them more frequently than one's own particular group?

As American society becomes increasingly post-Christian, lawmakers may even begin to write laws that Christians consider to be wrongheaded or immoral themselves. Laws that protect gay and lesbian rights, for example, may force a Christian landlord to rent to homosexual couples. In the past, Christian pacifists have disobeyed draft laws by refusing military service. Many Christian groups have opposed legal decisions that accord doctors the right to perform abortions. How are Christians to react when what they believe is a moral duty becomes illegal?

Profanity, pornography, homosexuality, adultery, divorce, drunkenness, slander, abortion, and gambling have already been decriminalized either partially or wholly by the legal system. It is imprudent, therefore, for Christians to legitimize automatically whatever the law allows. The legislative actions that have legalized highly questionable or openly sinful practices underscore the reality that our governments are not Christian theocracies. Lawmakers have found it inadvisable and usually unworkable to force Christian ethics upon non-Christian citizens. This separation of legal codes from ethical codes makes the law an uncertain moral authority for Christians.


1.From a Christian perspective, is it ethical for a millionaire to pay no income taxes at all because of questionable yet technically legal tax shelters? Is it fair to society when the rich pay few if any taxes?

2.Can a Christian be morally right but legally wrong? Give an example. Does the silence of scripture make something morally permissible? For example, the Bible does not condemn speeding in a car. Is it morally wrong to exceed the speed limit?

3.Aside from the examples given in this chapter, can you think of other behavior that is perfectly legal yet morally wrong for Christians? What about laying off thousands of long-time employees in order to increase profits? Under what circumstances could that be unethical for a Christian executive?

4.How scrupulous does Christian morality have to be? For example, if your auto insurance policy does not list your teenager as the principal driver of a particular car, are you justified in let him or her drive it on a regular basis? If this is neither illegal nor immoral, is it unethical? How so?

5.It is not illegal to charge interest on a loan. In light of Deuteronomy 23:19-20 and Psalm 15:5, may a Christian charge interest on loans to other Christians?

6.The gay rights movement illustrates the conflict between societal values and Christian morality. The law in some states prohibits discrimination against homosexuals in employment and housing. To what extent should the legal values of justice and fairness take precedence over the biblical teaching that homosexuality is sinful? Would you rent an apartment you owned to a homosexual couple if the law required you to?

April 30, 2007

Are Christian Ethics Relevant?

In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), a Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian and theologian, maintained that the radical ethic of Jesus was an "interim" ethic conditioned by his mistaken expectation that the world would soon end. Although Schweitzer admired the spirit of Jesus and believed it had power for today, his thesis implied that radical teachings such as "turning the other cheek" or "going the extra mile" make the best sense to those who believe the world will end within their lifetime and who feel as a consequence that earthly pride, possessions, and power mean little.

For over a century now influential writers and philosophers have suggested that much of our thinking comes from the cultural and social contexts in which we as individuals live. In other words, all human thought is relative rather than absolute. Some have gone on to say that all moral statements and judgments are nothing but expressions of personal preference, of personal attitudes or feelings, none of which is any more authoritative than any other.

One Christian variation of this type of thinking is to say, when confronted with a rebuke from scripture: "Well, that is just your interpretation." The implication is that your understanding of what the Bible says represents your personal preference or feeling rather than an absolute truth. Because this relativism has shaped the views of typical Americans, one finds that even Christians may greet moral judgments with skepticism rather than shame, especially if those judgments are directed at them or their families.

The definition of virtue in general and specific virtues in particular has varied from age to age. Although Aristotle admired courage, justice, self-control, and generosity, he never mentions qualities such as kindness and compassion in his Nicomachean Ethics. Different cultures have had widely divergent views on the value of human life. Just because different standards of ethics are found across time and culture does not mean, however, that each and every standard has equal merit. If one can condemn the Nazi Holocaust as immoral, one can also decry racial segregation, slavery, genital mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide, and other acts condoned by certain cultures.

The question remains: "On what basis can one morally condemn those practices?" If it is impossible to provide a rational justification for morality, as some contemporary philosophers hold, how can you criticize something like the Holocaust that appears so obviously wrong? This is the dilemma of secular ethical thought: Is it ever possible to resolve moral questions and disputes?

Christian ethics are relevant today because they fill a void that no secular moral system has yet managed to fill satisfactorily. Many unbelievers claim they cannot believe in God because evil exists in the world. But by the same token, if physics, brain chemistry, and evolution explain everything, then they, not God, are to blame for evil. No one can escape the reality of evil through unbelief. Indeed, the best alternative to despair lies in the faith that a good God will someday make things right. In similar fashion, imitating the goodness of God provides the only real solution to the moral dilemmas human society faces.

Jesus never explained his ethic in terms of an imminent end to the world. In Matthew 5:48, he says that men must be perfect because God is perfect--not simply because the world is coming to an end. In rejecting divorce, Jesus does not say, "Judgment Day is approaching." Rather, he reminds them that ". . . from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). The rationale for Christian ethics is always the character and will of God. The message of an unchanging God remains as relevant as ever to an unchanging human nature.


1.Emotivism is the view that all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, attitude, or feeling designed to evoke emotions. There are no objective and independent standards of right and wrong, only individual preferences. Morality is determined either by polling those preferences ("right" is what people typically prefer) or by bargaining to determine which preferences will take priority ("right" is whatever compromise people negotiate). Suppose that Beavis and Mother Teresa observe a group of children pouring gasoline on a cat and setting it on fire. Beavis says, "Cool!" Mother Teresa says, "How terrible!" Who is to say which one has the appropriate reaction? How would Beavis and Mother Teresa reach a compromise? What examples of emotivist thinking do you see in contemporary life?

2.Utilitarianism is the ethical system that explains human action in terms of attraction to pleasure and avoidance of pain. Morality, in this view, is a cost-benefit decision that depends on the consequences of one's actions and nothing else. What is moral is that which produces the greatest good (happiness or pleasure) for the greatest number. If making one person a scapegoat would restore peace and order to an entire organization or community, would the desirable outcome justify harming that one person? Was Pontius Pilate following a utilitarian ethic? If you were a utilitarian, how would you decide which actions would result in the greatest good and the least harm?

3.Aristotle believed that people had to be intelligent in order to be good, that is, in order to make correct moral choices. Does scripture ever indicate that smart people have a better opportunity to be ethical than slow-witted people? What does the Bible teach about limitations to one's responsibility for making moral choices? Are young children, the severely retarded, or the mentally ill responsible for their acts?

4.Much of secular morality is predicated on the notion of "human rights" such as privacy or freedom to choose. Do human rights really exist independently of legal or constitutional rights? If so, what is the rationale for their existence?

5.What do you think of the advice, "Let your conscience be your guide"? Is the conscience a trustworthy guide to moral decisions? For example, if you knew that your car did not meet the pollution or safety standards of your state even though it had been certified by a lax inspector at a local gas station, would you still be morally justified in driving the car? Would your conscience let you?

6.Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) thought people could reason their way to moral truth without divine revelation. He suggested that a moral rule is true if we are willing for that rule to be followed by everyone all the time. For example, if we can wish that everyone would always tell the truth, then "Always tell the truth" would be a valid moral rule. Would the rule "Always treat everyone with complete and utter impartiality" be an ethical rule acceptable to Christians?

May 3, 2007

Are Some Virtues More Important ?

The thorniest moral decisions we make are those that involve a conflict between two moral principles. In the novel Les Misérables, Jean Valjean becomes a criminal when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Which is the dominant principle, respect for another's property or duty to provide for one's own family? Perhaps a more typical instance is when someone asks you to divulge a secret in such a way that to refuse to answer would be to give the secret away. Which is the dominant principle, consistent truthfulness or showing loyalty to a friend by lying to keep a secret confidential?

Christians often sense a conflict between justice and compassion. For example, a Christian professor is working with a college student who has a learning disability. Despite being given double the time for completing tests and assignments that other students receive, the student still cannot meet the learning objectives of the course. The student has passed all the other courses required for graduation; only this one is lacking. Should the teacher show Christian compassion and pass the student (even though the teacher intends to fail other students with similar test grades) or should she grade totally impartially on the basis of what the student does on the tests? Which is more important, giving the student what he merits (justice) or giving the student special treatment appropriate to his needs (compassion)?

Conflicts like these suggest to many people that moral rules (for example, "Show fairness by treating everyone alike") cannot be absolute. Utilitarians maintain that situations require rules to be modified or ignored. The basic idea behind situation ethics is that we occasionally have divided ethical loyalties. One principle, such as saving a life whenever possible, may take precedence over another principle, such as always telling the truth. In that case, the moral rule is: "You may violate a moral rule if you do so for a reason that all rational persons would accept as right were they in your position."

While hypothetical crisis situations underscore the potential for ethical conflicts, most of the ethical questions Christians face daily pertain to conflicts between virtues and personal values. For example, you have twenty dollars of discretionary income to spend, do you give it to famine relief in Ethiopia or do you spend it on a movie with popcorn and cokes? Here lies a conflict between a virtue (altruistic generosity) and a value (aesthetic enjoyment of a night out). How should a Christian choose? Can a choice be avoided without self-deception or bad faith? What should be the guiding principle in making the decision?

Sometimes Christians face moral choices that involve self-interest without overt selfishness. Suppose you are a 52-year-old man with a wife who earns no income and a child who has just started college. Your boss asks you to falsify information in a bid so your company can win a contract. You realize that, at your age, it would be difficult if not impossible to find another job that would support your family. Which virtue should outweigh the other, honesty and integrity or loyalty to your family? Christians often face choices where, although life and death don't hang in the balance, serious consequences will nevertheless result.

Virtues do conflict at times. For those who believe in absolute moral rules or laws, such conflicts can create intense agony, since one good must necessarily be sacrificed to another. For those who believe in situation ethics, such conflicts represent a powerful temptation to behave in a self-serving manner. It is where virtues come into conflict that we truly recognize the limits of rules and our need for the mind of Christ.


1.Have you or someone close to you ever faced a situation where you felt your job was threatened by an ethical question? Describe the situation and how you handled it.

2.Can you find any instances in the Bible where two virtues (for example, justice and compassion) conflicted? What happened?

3.Some Christians traveling with their families will not stop to help people stranded on the highway for fear of endangering their family members. Are Christians obliged to show compassion whenever it is called for or should concern for safety take precedence over compassion? How would you handle such a situation?

4.In Judges 4:17-22, Jael lures Sisera into her tent and drives a tent peg through his temple. In the context, would you call this an example of justifiable homicide?

5.In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul compares faith, hope, and love and concludes that the greatest of these three is love. Are we to conclude from this passage that virtues can be ranked in order of importance? Why is love greater than the other two?

6.Are there limits to Christian heroism or should Christians always be ready to sacrifice everything in order to retain their moral integrity? For example, should you renege on a promise if keeping that promise meant you would lose your family's life savings?

May 6, 2007

How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part One

The Bible is a primarily a book of stories that illustrate principles. The story of Abraham teaches the principle of trust in God; the story of David loyalty to God despite one's flaws; the story of Paul courage and commitment; the story of Jesus the love of God and the power of self-sacrifice. Jesus himself told fictional stories in the form of parables to drive home the points he wanted to make. Stories have multiple levels of meanings and teach many lessons. Each of us as individual Christians attempts to relate the stories of biblical characters as well as the stories of godly parents and fellow Christians to our own life story. We try to give the stories renewed life in our own lives.

In addition to stories, the Bible also teaches morality by listing virtues and vices or by giving commands and exhortations. Because the vices seem to outnumber the virtues, critics have characterized biblical ethics as a negative doctrine composed of endless "Thou shalt nots." Careful readers recognize this criticism to be unfair since the Bible clearly promotes active good as opposed to the passive avoidance of evil. But lists and exhortations do lack the human interest of stories. Stories show how principles of courage and devotion actually come alive. Lists of virtues test our will, insight, and judgment by challenging us to remember them and to apply them as specific cases arise.

How does one take a list of virtues and apply it to the dilemmas of daily life? How does one answer the basic question "What am I to do"? Here are some tests Christians may use to make ethical decisions.

ONE -- The Scriptural Test: Does the Bible endorse or approve what I am about to do?

Biblical teaching does not cover every form of questionable human activity, but it does treat some broad categories. For example, gambling and abortion do not appear in scripture, but greed, murder, and selfishness do. The Bible does not expressly condemn slavery or racial segregation, but it does teach us to love other Christians as friends (John 15:12-17) and to seek the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:24).

One weakness of the scriptural test is that it is open to abuse by legalism. Some may distort the spirit of God's word by emphasizing the letter alone. Those who seek to justify themselves will say that unless the Bible specifically condemns something by name, it is all right to engage in that activity. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for using legal technicalities and human rationalization to subvert the spirit of the Mosaic law (Mark 7:9-13).

TWO --The Personal Test: If I do this, will it make me a stronger or a weaker Christian?

Paul writes in Colossians 3:9-10, "Do not lie to one other, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator."

If something we contemplate doing is not in keeping with our new, born- again self, we should not do it. Each of us has a Christian conscience that warns us when what we are doing is inconsistent with our duty to glorify God.

Sometimes this personal test may make us overly punctilious, as was the case of those whose conscience would not let them eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Romans 14:1-18; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). On the other hand, we may manipulate our conscience by rationalizations in such a way as to silence its voice. No one can apply the personal test effectively without some degree of lucidity and good judgment.

THREE - The Fellowship Test: If I do this, will it bring reproach on the body of Christ?

Christians ethics are not solely a personal matter. As members of a body, the church, we must always consider how our individual actions will affect the body as a whole.

Some of the Corinthians were evidently engaged in lawsuits against each other. Paul is shocked that they would air their dirty linen in front of unbelievers (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), thereby bringing reproach upon the church from outsiders.

At times, ministers have shamed the churches they serve by building up unpaid debts in the community. In other cases, members have been arrested for drunk driving or taken to court for engaging in deceptive sales schemes. Elders have been known to embezzle church funds to finance their own businesses. All such practices bring shame upon the family of God.


1.Each of us needs practical wisdom to make right choices. A young man once asked an old man why he was so wise, "Because," said Uncle Zeke, "I've got good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience--well, that comes from poor judgment!" Can you think of ethical lessons you have learned from mistakes of judgment you have made in the past? Tell your story.

2.What Bible story has helped you to make a specific ethical choice in your own life? What Bible story means the most to you in terms of its practical moral applications?

3.Do you know of any cases where people have used scripture to justify immoral behavior? For example, someone may quote "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" to justify taking brutal revenge.

4.Suppose you are facing the choice of either defaulting on a debt or subjecting your family to many years of personal and financial sacrifice in order to repay it. Which of the three tests discussed would best help you make your decision?

5.Suppose your daughter has become pregnant out of wedlock and tests indicate the child will be born with a serious birth defect. Would any of these three tests help you decide whether or not to seek an abortion?

6.Do the leaders of the church have the right to tell you how you should behave? For example, if a Christian widow decides to remarry a man who is not a Christian, should the elders tell her she is making an unethical decision (based on 1 Corinthians 7:39) that is not in the interests of the body? What if it is a Christian widower who decides to propose to a non-Christian?

May 7, 2007

How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Two

Because the Bible is a book of principles and examples, individual Christians have to apply those principles and examples to their own lives. Is it immoral, for example, to drive an expensive sports car when a more sensible economy model will transport you from point A to point B just as effectively? Shouldn't Christians invest their money in good deeds and charitable causes rather than in luxury automobiles? Each of us has to make such choices.

The affluence of America challenges Christians to make moral decisions. The temptations of the good life may lead to sins of omission as well as sins of commission. In our self-indulgence we may forget the poor and oppressed, the very thing Paul was exhorted by Peter, James, and John not to do (Galatians 2:10).

Here, then, are three more tests we may use to examine our actions.

FOUR -- The Fairness Test: How will this affect the lives of other people?

Will what I do serve the good of the greatest number or will it be entirely selfish and self-serving? This is the utilitarian test. When confronted with a moral choice, we typically think first about practicality and personal self-interest. Then we agonize over whether there exists a conflict between our own well-being and the will of God.

Yet the will of God is not some abstraction. The will of God is that we be righteous, that we do what is honest, kind, and considerate, that we look to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:24). Is it right for a Christian banker to refuse a home loan to a black family that wants to buy in a white neighborhood? Is it just for a Christian executive to lay off loyal, longtime employees in order to increase efficiency and profits?

Christians sometimes act as though an inexorable economic law--and not God--rules the universe. They justify their actions for reasons Adam Smith would approve rather than for reasons Jesus Christ would approve. Ethical questions are lordship questions. Whom do we serve?

FIVE - The Universal Test: What would it be like if everyone did this?

This is a restatement of what Kant called the "categorical imperative." Would you be willing for anyone and everyone to engage in this practice if they were in your shoes? Diversity is in most instances a good thing. We wouldn't want everyone to choose dentistry as a profession; we wouldn't want everyone to have the same sense of humor or the same taste in clothing. But it would be highly desirable if we all agreed about what was right and wrong.

To a large degree, we do. As C. S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, human beings in all cultures believe people ought to behave "morally." They cannot rid themselves of the abiding conviction that truth is better than falsehood or that loyalty is better than treachery or that love is better than hate any more than they can change the color of their hair. The trouble with this natural moral law in human nature is that, while people recognize the law, they resist applying it to themselves personally. The Universal Test requires us to apply to ourselves the standards we expect of others.

SIX - The Stewardship Test: Will my doing this be a waste of my God-given life and talents?

God has made us free moral agents and has set within us a sense of responsibility. The stewardship test appeals to this realization that we are accountable for our time, our money, and our actions (Matthew 25:14-30).

Is it moral for a Christian to buy and use drugs? Are we free to abuse our bodies or waste our money? As servants of God, we are custodians, not owners. The claim, "It's my money (or my life) and I'll do with it as I please," holds no weight with God. Much of the evil we do could be avoided simply by remembering that we are stewards of God's grace.


1.Fairness is based on the notion of what one deserves. Everyone should get his just desserts. For example, it would not be fair to give the gold medal to the runner who finished in fifth place--just because he was your grandson. Why is it that other people "deserve" to be treated right? Can you think of instances in the Bible in which, according to this definition, God was not fair?

2.Are we really responsible for sins of omission? Is that reasonable or unreasonable? Give some concrete examples.

3.Is how we spend our money always a question of Christian ethics or only sometimes a question of ethics? If sometimes, how does one distinguish between when it is and when it isn't?

4.Suppose you had a choice between buying yourself a new dress or set of golf clubs and making a donation to famine relief in Africa, which would you probably choose and why? What would Jesus do?

5.Should you offer a bribe to a policeman in Mexico who stops you for some minor traffic violation or who delays you at the border "just because it's the way of life down there"? Is it bribery if you pay someone to let you do something that is perfectly legal? In such a case, aren’t you really a victim of extortion rather than a perpetrator of bribery? Does Scripture condemn giving bribes, taking bribes, or both (cf. Prov. 17:8, 23; 18:16; 19:6; 21:14)?

6.Are moral choices free or do you sometimes feel "caught" in a riptide of circumstances you are helpless to resist? Can you give some specific examples from your own experience?

May 8, 2007

How Can You Know Right from Wrong? Part Three

Christian ethics involve much more than simple rule-keeping. Ethical behavior requires us to seek the mind of Christ. Rule-keeping alone is inadequate for several reasons. First, rule-keeping may be done for the wrong reason, like the teenager at home who eats his vegetables just so he can have dessert but who stops eating vegetables at college when Mother is no longer around. Hypocrites are those who superficially keep rules for ulterior motives.

Second, biblical rules are often too general and too few in number to cover every ethical case that arises. Inevitably one has to use judgment to apply the rules that exist appropriately. Is abortion ever permissible in cases where the mother's life is endangered or in cases of rape or incest? Is divorce ever permissible in cases where there is no adultery but extreme physical and mental abuse? Only prayerful deliberation and sound judgment can apply biblical teaching to such painful questions.

Third, rule-keeping may degenerate into legalism wherein rules are kept for their own sake with little understanding of the principles that lie behind the rules or of greater principles that take priority over the rules. The Pharisees had made keeping the Sabbath into an inhuman rule that flew in the face of compassion, and Jesus condemned them for this mindless and mean-spirited rule-keeping (Matthew 12:1-14).

The purpose of these "tests" of right and wrong is not to create a set of rules but rather to establish practical procedures for developing the mind of Christ, which is the foundation of all Christian ethics.

SEVEN - The Influence Test: Will my doing this influence others to become Christians? Will it influence my family members and fellow Christians to become stronger or weaker?

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

People seem to understand the influence test better than any other because they know that actions speak louder than words and they recognize the influence others have had on them for good or evil.

EIGHT - The Publicity Test: Would I want everyone to know I have done this?

Secrets abound in human society: corporate secrets, state secrets, and personal secrets. Doing things "under the table" seems like the only way of accomplishing certain ends. But it is extremely dangerous for Christians to do anything "under the table." Paul wrote that "God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:16), and Jesus said: "For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light" (Luke 8:17; 12:2-3).

Would you want it known that you paid your female employees less than your male employees for doing exactly the same job? Would you want it known that you supplied false information on your tax return? Would you want it known that you took office supplies from work to use for a Sunday school project at home?

Privacy and the need for confidentiality preclude our telling every secret we have or know, but Christians should always behave in such a way that the cold light of publicity would only enhance their reputation for integrity.

NINE - The Reasonable Person Test: Am I behaving in a way that any reasonable person would approve were he or she in my position?

This final test is akin to the publicity test, yet with a difference. Sometimes we may do something that conventional public opinion might frown upon. For example, as an elected representative we may break a campaign promise not to vote for a tax increase upon coming to the realization, after an exhaustive study of the matter, that a tax increase represents the overall best and fairest solution. Sometimes judges have to anger the majority in order to protect the interests of the minority. This does not mean they harm the majority, only that, by showing mercy or doing justice, they may trouble, inconvenience, or simply ignite the righteous indignation of many.

Applying this test assumes that a "reasonable person" possesses lucidity, the clear perception that something is true or right even when it is unpopular, against the common wisdom, or against one's own self-interest. Without this insight of lucidity, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to make courageous moral decisions that run counter to culture.


1.Can you illustrate the limitations of rule-keeping from your own experience? For example, can you think of a situation where someone did wrong by rigidly adhering to the rules?

2.Of the nine tests discussed, which two do you personally use most often or find most practical? Do you know of some other valid tests not mentioned in these chapters?

3.Some states require that, as a matter of public record, state universities must publish the salaries of their employees. Do you believe Christian colleges should keep the salaries of their administrators and faculty members secret? Should any Christian business keep salaries secret? Why or why not? Do secret salaries ever lead to ethical abuses?

4.Who has influenced you most for good? Who has influenced you most for evil? Can you think of specific Christians, aside from family members, who have become notable examples of virtue or sinfulness?

5.In the 1950's and 60's, some white congregations refused to allow blacks to be baptized in their baptisteries out of the conviction that the races should always be kept separate or simply for fear that their white members would then refuse to be baptized in a "contaminated" baptistery. Was this unethical? Explain your answer in light of the nine tests.

6.Can people who are ignorant, emotionally volatile, or unreflective and lacking in good sense be held responsible for their acts? Is it true that a person may be "just plain stupid" instead of immoral? Give some examples.

May 9, 2007

Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part One

Fear and reason provide the chief motivations for not doing wrong. You hesitate to cheat on your income taxes because you might be audited and fined. You avoid sleeping around because you could contract a venereal disease or AIDS. You don't steal because prisons are not ideal places to spend one's life. The young girl who exclaims, "If my boyfriend got me pregnant, my mother would just die!" is appealing to her fears as a rationale for avoiding teen pregnancy.

Reason gives another, more sophisticated, justification for avoiding bad behavior. Self-actualization and personal fulfillment require me to lead a good life. I can ensure a higher quality of life both now and in my old age through temperance (refusing to smoke or take drugs), moderation (eating less fat and sugar), and self-discipline (exercising regularly or losing weight). I can promote democracy and the American way by exercising the virtues of citizenship, tolerance, responsibility, and fairness. I can win the confidence of customers and succeed in business through honesty, generosity, trustworthiness, self-reliance, and perseverance. I can avoid guilt, loss of self-esteem, and interpersonal conflict by abstaining from premarital sex. The many good reasons to do right will outweigh any motivations I may have to do wrong.

With fear and reason at our side, do we need Christ in order to lead ethical lives? Do we actually need the revelation of God in scripture, since most of what we learn in scripture about ethics serves merely as a confirmation of the lessons fear and reason have already taught us? Reason instructs us to respect life and property ("You shall not murder or steal"). Fear reminds us that those who steal and murder may themselves be robbed or killed. To what extent are Christian ethics distinctive? Where is the need for Christ in ethical decisions?

One crucial problem with fear and reason is that they don't work. Despite the menaces of the penal code and appeals to logic, people still persist in committing crimes and immoral acts. Fear and reason do not seem to have much control over the human impulse to do evil. Furthermore, neither fear nor reason can motivate anyone to engage in selfless virtues like laying down one's life for a friend or spending one's life caring for an invalid. It is something beyond the power of fear or the plausibility of reason that has the potential to make people truly good.

Paul argues in Romans that law, while well-intentioned and good, cannot save us because, ironically, law only serves to increase sin as its regulations provide a convenient foil for the perverse human will (Romans 5:20-21; 7:7-25). Telling a little boy not to step in a puddle seemingly makes him only more intent on doing so. Adults behave similarly. Salvation comes only through the grace of God that enlightens and transforms our perverse will to sin. By the same token, true virtue is a by-product of the salvation that gives us a new life, a new spirit, and a new will (Romans 6:1-7).

Paul contrasts the letter (that is, law with its carrot of reason and stick of fear) and the Spirit. The letter brings death while the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). It is no wonder, then, that the cardinal Christian virtues are represented as the fruit of the Spirit and that living virtuously is called living by the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25).

Paul does not tell Titus to justify his moral teaching through appeals to reason or by threats of damnation in hell. Instead, he tell him to remind Christians that they have been saved by grace. He justifies ethics and morality by pointing Christians to the sacrificial death of Jesus in the past, to renewal through the Holy Spirit in the present, and to the hope of eternal life with God in the future (Titus 2:1-15; 3:1-8).


1.Suppose you are in the check-out line at the store and the clerk forgets to charge you for an item. Would you call it to her attention? Why or why not? Would fear or reason adequately motivate you to do so?

2.Can you think of anything besides fear, reason, or grace that might motivate you to do the right thing? What about feelings of benevolence, empathy, or conscience? Do these provide sufficient motivation to do right or avoid wrong?

3.If fear and reason are inadequate to deter wrongdoing, is grace any more effective? Is grace too abstract to provide much motivation to the average person? Tell what motivates you the most to do right instead of wrong.

4.A preacher once said, "The only thing that rules can do is remind you that you are lousy at keeping rules." What do you think he meant? Do you agree? Was he implying that rules are totally without value?

5.In the first half of the twentieth century, activities such as going to movies, "mixed bathing" (going to a pool or beach with members of the opposite sex), playing cards, and dancing were considered immoral behavior. In what way, if any, should our "new birth" affect our thinking about these activities? Can you think of similar activities that were once condemned but that Christians now engage in without the same degree of guilt?

6.In what sense do you think the "gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38-39) has made you a better person? How precisely do you feel the Spirit working in your moral life?

May 10, 2007

Why Do Ethics Need Christianity? Part Two

The Christian view of ethics is at once pessimistic and optimistic (1 John 5:19). It is pessimistic because it holds that neither fear nor reason nor conscience nor benevolent feelings nor empathy can consistently motivate the average person to do good. Selfish interests and passions play too great a role in influencing our ethical decisions. But the Christian view is optimistic because it stresses that, by the grace of God, our sinful minds can be enlightened so that we can know what is good and desire to do it, even when we may not actually do the right thing (Romans 7:22-25). And beyond this enlightenment of the mind, there is forgiveness for the incidental sins we invariably commit (1 John 1:8-10).

Can an atheist be an ethical person? All of us know of or can imagine atheists or agnostics who give generously, who behave honorably, who show kindness and consideration, and who are eminently likable people. From Antiquity to the present, certain individuals, as Paul implies in Romans 2:14-15, have followed a natural law of morality that broadly squares with the revealed will of God. In this sense, yes, atheists have the potential to be ethical. On occasion they even demonstrate more sensitivity and humanity than do Christians. But these atheists who display a high standard of personal morality by Christian standards are frankly rather rare, and many of the principles they follow have been "caught" from the Christian culture in which we in the West have all lived for more than a millennium. Studies show that when religion is taken seriously, it influences people's attitudes in all areas of ethics. Churchgoers are typically more involved with charitable or service activities than non-churchgoers, and, according to polls, they donate more money to charity.

One has to go back to Plato and Aristotle to discover the distinctiveness of Christian ethics. While the ancient Greek philosophers praised and practiced temperance, courage, justice, and prudence, they basically ignored or rejected the virtues of humility, sacrificial love, compassion, forgiveness, faith, and hope that characterize the Christian way. Their society thought nothing of slavery, infanticide, and ruthlessness. When one Greek city conquered another, it was standard procedure to kill all the males and then sell the women and children into slavery. After centuries of Christian influence on our society, one may easily forget that non-Christian ethics had serious shortcomings, many of which are still powerfully at work in the world and have yet to be overcome.

Someone has said that the only remedy for history is forgiveness. Two thousand years of exposure to Christian ethics has obviously not made the world into a utopia. The fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden still governs to a large extent the course of world events and individual choices. Without forgiveness, Christians would by now have abandoned the quest for ethical excellence as a futile if not laughable project. Instead, we find the courage to struggle against our sinful natures because there is forgiveness and because we have the first fruits of salvation through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Forgiveness in Christ binds the Christian view of ethics into a coherent whole. Christians enjoy the security of being saved by grace instead of works. Far from dulling our sense of moral responsibility, this realization gives us fresh hope to struggle on against the powers of evil that daily threaten or defeat us. Ethical standards alone may condemn us, but God's mercy brings newness of life that springs up in our hearts like living water (John 7:37-39). We love others because God first loved us, and this remains the cornerstone of Christian ethics (1 John 4:11-12).


1.Do you feel burdened or liberated by your faith in Jesus Christ? That is, do you feel that Christians can or cannot live their lives as freely and fully as non-Christians?

2.Do you think a committed Christian could live a nearly sinless life if he or she really tried? Explain what you mean.

3.Have you ever known a "noble unbeliever"--a non-Christian whose conduct was, as far as you could tell, basically blameless? Describe this person. What do you think motivated his or her model behavior?

4.Some claim that Christianity is merely therapeutic: It makes us feel better about ourselves without actually changing our fundamentally selfish behavior. How would you answer this charge? Is Christianity primarily a salve for our guilty consciences or does it convict us to change our self-indulgent lifestyles?

5.Suppose that one day you find a paper bag with $500 dollars in it and no identification. No one would ever know what happened if you keep the money. Would you take it and simply ask God to forgive you? Would it make a difference if it were $5, $50, or $50,000?

6.Has God forgiven the sins of America's past (for example, the betrayal and conquest of the American Indians, the exploitation of human beings through slavery, the aggressive appropriation of land from Mexico through war and intimidation, the violent abuses of racial discrimination)? Does the passage of time confer legtimacy upon what was originally acquired by violence and aggression? Do contemporary Christians have a moral responsibility to in some way atone for or remedy these sins of the past?

May 11, 2007

Are Christian Ethics a Barrier to Success?

What if you never told convenient white lies? What if you always kept your word, even when it cost you significant sums of money? What if you always put your loyalty to Christ first and refused to work on Sunday or at other times when the saints met? What if you consistently put the interests of others ahead of your own? What if you put family and church priorities ahead of professional priorities? Could you survive in the real world? Could you be a success?

Four out of five Americans say selfishness is a serious national problem, but four out of five also say having a high-paying job, a new car, and a beautiful house is important to them. This type of thinking can be styled as compartmentalization: What concerns society as a whole and me as an individual are two different things. I'm okay, but society is not. This curious lack of introspection leads to self-satisfaction and complacency on the one hand and to an angst about the decadence of American civilization on the other.

Compartmentalization distinguishes between public morality and private morality. I can berate the criminal justice system yet mail all of my personal bills using stationary and stamps taken from the office. I can decry the rising tide of sex and violence in American society yet watch "R" rated movies, MTV videos, and soap operas all week. I can become indignant at the social injustices perpetrated by a "corrupt" congress yet feel no compunction about divorcing my wife.

Making the walk consistent with the talk is the challenge Christians face. Desires and aversions that overwhelm fear, reason, and the Spirit's guidance often drive smart people to make dumb moral choices. Desiring prosperity, we have an aversion to wearing unfashionable clothes or to driving an old car. Desiring freedom, we feel an aversion to being tied down by responsibilities. Desiring novelty or adventure, we develop contempt for the routines of tradition or daily existence. Desiring prestige and success, we pursue self-interest and avoid any threat to our self-esteem or financial security.

Contemporary culture teaches us to put our individual desires and aversions on the throne. What is more, culture justifies yet another form of compartmentalization by claiming that there is no one single moral standard to live by but instead many different standards, some of which apply to family, some to business, some to sports and recreation, and some to politics. According to this view, what is right or wrong for an individual will depend on the standards of the arena in which he or she has to make the decision. Right and wrong for society as a whole are ultimately determined by election results, jury decisions, public opinion polls, consumer surveys, and market forces.

Because ad hoc standards are nebulous and because the results of polls change on a monthly basis, modern morality resembles a will o' the wisp that can never seem to decide which of its desires or aversions should take priority. People make moral decisions inconsistently, almost whimsically, depending on which of the confusing ad hoc standards appeals to them most at the moment of decision. Even Christians, influenced by this cultural mentality, will do what they know is wrong simply because they "feel like it."

True and authentic Christian ethics challenge us to transcend the values of our culture by incorporating the eternal values of God into our lives in a consistent manner, regardless of the personal cost. In this sense, Christian ethics are profoundly counter-cultural, and it takes courage to stare their implications straight in the eye inasmuch as our comfort, convenience, and material well-being may lie at risk. Thanks be to God his grace is sufficient even though our own spiritual fortitude may not always be!


1.Is scorning worldly success the first step to an ethical Christian life? Why or why not? Is it true to say, "It's a lot easier to be moral if you don't mind being poor"? Comment on Proverbs 30:8-9.

2.Are Christians who patronize "R" movies or watch steamy soap operas hypocrites when they decry the evil influence of sex and violence in society? To what extent does art influence and eventually shape personal morality?

3.Do you know of Christians who compartmentalize their ethical lives? For example, they act according to one set of values at work and another at church or at home. Describe what you have experienced.

4.In what practical ways do we let the Spirit control our moral lives and bear spiritual fruit? How can we ensure that it is Christ and not self or culture that directs our choices and actions?

5.The politics of morality usually keys in on private issues like abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. Why not address public issues like economic policy and the redistribution of wealth? Can you point to examples of how people separate private and public morality? Does the Bible make any such distinction? What does scripture have to say about the morality of society as a whole?

6.In the O. J. Simpson criminal trial of 1995, lawyers asked the jurors to right the wrongs of a racist criminal justice system on the one hand and to heed the evidence, the voice of reason, and the cries of justice on the other. When values conflict in modern society, to what standard do people turn when making serious decisions?

May 17, 2007

Is "What Would Jesus Do" a Good Question to Ask?

Although this may seem to be a legitimate question, there are several problems involved.

1.Many if not most situations don’t require this question to be asked.

Question: Would Jesus choose onion rings or fries?
Answer: Jesus would have chosen what he personally preferred and so should you.

Question: Would Jesus admit to defrauding the IRS?
Answer: Jesus wouldn’t have defrauded the IRS to begin with.

2.Sometimes there is simply no clear answer to this question.

Question: Which of my two job offers would Jesus accept?
Answer: Probably neither.

Question: Which of these two women would Jesus choose to marry?
Answer: Perhaps Jesus could make a good marriage with either one.

Question: Would Jesus square dance?
Answer: I have no earthly idea.

3.It fails to recognize that I am not Jesus. I am a radically different person.

·Jesus could perform miracles. I cannot.
·Jesus was a spiritual giant. I am a spiritual pygmy.
·Jesus did not make mistakes. I make lots of mistakes, so how can I ever be sure what he would do in my place?
·Jesus was both human and divine. I am only human.
·Jesus came to die for our sins. I have a different role.

Question: Would Jesus protest the death penalty?
Answer: Well, he didn’t when it was imposed upon him. But, then again, my role is not to die unjustly for the sins of world.

Question: What would Jesus do about hunger in the world?
Answer: Perhaps he would perform a miracle and feed the five billion. I cannot do that.

4.It tempts us to project our own biases and assumptions onto Jesus.

Question: What would Jesus drive?
Answer 1: Jesus wouldn’t drive. He would walk or take the bus to preserve natural resources and to limit pollution of the atmosphere.
Answer 2: Jesus would drive whatever made his ministry more effective.
Answer 3: Jesus would drive a hybrid car in order to set a good example of concerned moderation.

Question: What would Jesus say about the homosexual lifestyle?
Answer 1: He would harshly condemn it as against the law of God and nature.
Answer 2: He would express love and compassion for those trapped in situations over which they have no control.

5.The question may be interpreted as inherently judgmental and divisive.

·It implicitly judges anyone who fails to ask the question;
·It implicitly judges anyone who gets a different answer from mine.

Question: Would Jesus serve as a bomber pilot and bomb innocent civilians in order to win a war?
Answer 1: Absolutely not. He was the Prince of Peace.
Answer 2: Yes he would, if that was what it took to preserve our freedoms and those of innocent people who are being tyrannized.

6.It does not take into account a holistic view of Jesus.

·Answering the question “What would Jesus do?” is not simply an intellectual exercise in moral judgment.
·To answer the question correctly, one would have to consider Jesus’ personality, generosity, warmth, wit, creativity, compassion, and divinity. How can anyone do that?
·What would Jesus do? He would almost certainly do something I did not expect, almost certainly something surprising. Remember Isaiah 55:8-9. For example, consider this:

Question: Jesus, what should I do about paying taxes? (Matthew 17:24-27)
Answer: Go catch a fish and look in its mouth for your tax money.

Better Questions to Ask:

1.What did Jesus tell me to do in the New Testament?
2.What do I think Jesus would want ME to do? Given all I know about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, which option should I choose?
3.How can I glorify God in this situation?

May 18, 2007

Why Do Some People Not Believe in God?

1.Belief in God is a superstition that arose over time based on human fears and hopes, fears of the unknown and hopes for protection against both those fears and the forces of nature. The idea of God was the human imagination’s attempt to explain the unknown and the inexplicable. Now that we understand the world better, we do not need to imagine God as an explanation.

2.Religious belief has been, and still is, a source of hatred and strife. The competing claims of the various religions cannot all be correct. Indeed, they tend to cancel each other out. If there were a God, he surely would have revealed himself more clearly and convincingly.

3.Religious belief has obviously evolved like everything else. Monotheism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ancient peoples were animists or polytheists. They didn’t believe in one God so why should we? Indeed, why should we, who are no longer primitive and barbarous, believe in any God at all?

4.Most belief in God is founded upon “proof” supplied by miracles. Real miracles, like "the sun standing still," are violations of the laws of nature and are, as such, impossible. People believe in miracles because human nature enjoys the agreeable emotions of surprise and wonder. Nevertheless, there are no undisputed miracles recognized by the scientific community. It is strange that, if such things as miracles really are possible, we never see them happen in our own day.

5.Belief in God is not necessary to establish good government or good morals. The existence of pedophile priests, adulterous preachers, and active church members who embezzle money, deal drugs, or commit serial murders proves that belief in God is no barrier to unlawful and indecent acts. Society can develop a system of laws and morality independent of religion.

6.Religion tends to divorce morality from the reality of human and animal suffering. It allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are not. Many aspects of religious morality have nothing to do with suffering and its alleviation. On the contrary, religious morality sometimes inflicts unnecessary suffering on innocent human beings or animals.

7.The order, beauty, and seemingly wise arrangement of the universe do not necessarily point to a supreme and benevolent intelligence called God. If God created the universe, who created God? To say that God, by definition, is uncreated simply begs the question. In point of fact, when we look at the natural world, we see extraordinary complexity, but we do not see optimal design. We see redundancy, regressions, and unnecessary complications; we see bewildering inefficiencies that result in suffering and death. For example, children sometimes choke to death because the human respiratory and digestive systems are connected at the pharynx.

8.To infer that every effect in the universe has one and the same cause is illogical. Experience teaches us that separate effects have separate causes. One cause does not produce a multitude of varied effects. A cause is limited and proportioned to its effect. One cannot repeatedly go back to a specific cause to find new or additional effects. God may be a hypothesis, but there is no proof God is the ultimate cause of all we see. Other hypotheses exist as well that are just as logical if not more so. Furthermore, the design of the universe is no sure foundation for religion because it tells us little or nothing about the character or will of God separate and apart from his power and intelligence.

9.Religious dogma and science often disagree. To read many parts of the Bible as literally true (like Genesis 1) is simply preposterous from a scientific standpoint. Religious belief has often stood in the way of scientific progress from the time of Galileo (the truth that the earth revolves around the sun) to the present (the potential benefits of embryonic stem-cell research).

10.The sacred books of the various religions are not credible. The Bible, for example, is not scientifically credible (Joshua 10:12-14); it is not historically credible (Luke 23:44-45); it is bloodthirsty and odious (1 Samuel 15:3; 32-33; Joshua 6:21; 8:25-26; 11:20; Leviticus 27:29; Numbers 31:7-17; Deuteronomy 3:6; 7:2). Furthermore, the Bible contains many internal contradictions (for example, the attribution of a quote from Zechariah 11:12-13 to Jeremiah in Matthew 27:9-10) and inaccuracies (for example, the inaccurate estimate of the number pi in 1 Kings 7:23; 2 Chronicles 4:2).

For all these reasons and others, some people do not believe in God.

May 20, 2007

When In Doubt About What Is Ethical

When I was a teenager, I would sometimes read dangerous books. What do I mean by “dangerous” books? Well, I mean books that I thought had the potential to destroy my Christian faith. For example, I read Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and mathematician. I read The Philosophical Letters of Voltaire in which he makes a scathing attack on the Christian apologetic writings of Pascal. What I discovered, to my great surprise, was that neither Russell nor Voltaire really had any understanding of what genuine Christianity was all about. Their criticisms, far from shaking my faith, seemed to me rather ridiculous because I realized that, unbeknownst to them, they were attacking a straw man and not Christianity itself.

Another dangerous book I remember reading was Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. It was a book on that touted a new morality, and I read it with trepidation lest it destroy the foundations of the Christian morality on which my life was built. Fletcher maintained that ethical decisions should depend on the situation in which they arise rather than on some eternal principal. Although the new morality caused quite a stir in the 1960’s, the old foundation of Christian morality still remains. Meanwhile, the book Situation Ethics is no longer in print.

What struck me as unconvincing about Situation Ethics was Fletcher’s constant appeal to highly unusual, exceptional situations rather than to what we generally encounter in ordinary life. For example, he asks, “Would you lie if Nazi storm troopers knocked at your door demanding you hand over any Jews you were sheltering?” At the time, it seemed highly unlikely that would happen to me, and, sure enough, it never has. But I am confronted day by day with very ordinary situations that require a decision on how to act. Often, there is no specific directive in scripture that tells me what I should do. Sometimes I find myself in doubt as to what exactly a Christian should do it such a situation. What do Christians do when they are in doubt?

Let’s begin with an example drawn from Randy Cohen’s book, The Right, the Wrong, and the Difference:

"One rainy evening I wandered into a shop, where I left my name-band umbrella in a basket near the door. When I was ready to leave, my umbrella was gone. There were several others in the basket, and I decided to take another name-brand umbrella. Should I have taken it, or taken a lesser quality model, or just gotten wet? -I. F. S., New York City"

All right, what should someone do in this situation and why? Notice that the person is in doubt. She doesn’t want to get wet on a rainy night, yet someone has either purposely or mistakenly taken her umbrella. What should she do?

Randy Cohen agreed with her action of taking an equivalent umbrella. He added that, to be on the safe side, she might have taken a lower-quality umbrella, thus ensuring that no one will leave the shop shortchanged. His answer, however, is based on the assumption that no theft had taken place, only the mistaken switch of one umbrella for another. This seems to me like a convenient assumption that allows you to rationalize taking something you know isn’t yours. If, indeed, a theft had occurred, someone will eventually leave the shop without any umbrella at all.

What should a Christian do in a dubious situation like this? Are there any principles to guide? As a Christian, I disagreed with Randy Cohen’s answer. I thought the lady should have left the shop without an umbrella, even at the risk of getting wet. Of course, she should have given her name to the shop keeper in case her umbrella was returned or in case one was left over at the close of the day, but she should not have taken an umbrella she knew for certain was not her own. After all, if someone had stolen her umbrella, then she in turn, by taking an umbrella herself, would have been stealing another one from someone else. But on what biblical teaching do I base such advice?

I think there are four general principles that apply in dubious situations:

1.The Principle of Self-Sacrifice: Jesus left us the supreme example of self-sacrifice by his death on the cross (Phil. 2:4-8). Peter says that as Christ suffered, so we should expect to follow in his suffering steps (1 Pet. 2:21). This passage pertains to persecution, but I think it applies equally to the suffering that comes from putting the interests of others above your own. Paul alludes to this principle in 1 Cor. 6:7, where, instead of endorsing lawsuits against fellow Christians, he says, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” The principle is this: It is better to suffer an unjust wrong than to do wrong yourself. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Therefore, it is better to get wet than to take an umbrella you know is not yours and risk making someone else suffer.

2.The Principle of Surprise. In 1901, Mark Twain spoke these words to a church group: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” Christians should surprise people by their self-sacrificial behavior. One notable characteristic of Jesus’ teaching is that people were surprised by it, even his own disciples (Mk. 1:22; 6:2; 11:18; Mt. 19:25). They were surprised by its originality, by its authority, and by how radical and challenging it was. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, if effect, that if you behave in conventional ways, how can you be considered a holy and peculiar people (Mt. 5:46-47).

3.The Principle of the Extra Mile. In his teaching, Jesus emphasizes going beyond what is expected (Mt. 5:40-41). This is an elaboration of the surprise motif. I think Jesus means that Christians can gain the attention and respect of non-Christians only by exceeding their normal expectations. In their ethical behavior, Christians should not be calculating the minimum they can do and yet still be considered ethical. Rather, they should go beyond the minimum, thereby making a statement of their commitment to ethical excellence.

4.The Principle of Noblesse Oblige. This French phrase expresses the idea that special people have special obligations and duties that derive from who they are. Peter says, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our status as saints or holy ones obliges us to behave nobly. Noble behavior exceeds ordinary expectations or assumptions. It calls us to holy living, not simply moral or ethical living.

To my mind, following these four principles would lead a Christian to say: “When in doubt, take the high road—and by 'high road' I mean the road of holiness and self-sacrifice."


1.When an ethical situation involves personal gain or loss but has no clear and easy answer, the temptation is always to rationalize the situation in our favor (in other words, avoid getting wet). Do you agree or disagree that the Christian approach, on the contrary, is to be self-sacrificial? Can you give an example?

2.Telemarketers offered us a free weekend at a fabulous ski resort if we attend a one-hour sales presentation. I’d love to go, but my husband thinks it would be unethical since we have absolutely no intention of purchasing a time share. What should we do?

3.My dad takes me to a lot of baseball games and always buys the cheapest tickets in the park. When the game starts, he moves to better, unoccupied seats, dragging me along. It embarrasses me. Is it okay for us to sit in seats we didn’t pay for?

4.I’m a university professor, and I often get unsolicited copies of textbooks from publishers in the hope that I’ll adopt them for my course. They clutter up my shelves until book buyers come through, offering cash for review copies. Is it wrong for me to sell them and pocket the money? Should I donate them instead?

5.I frequently carry a can of soda or a package of snacks into the movie theater. Does the theater have the right to insist on “No Outside Food”?

6.The mandatory meal plan at my college allows you to eat as much as you want but prohibits taking food out of the dining hall. However, I think it’s okay to slip a sandwich in my backpack for an afternoon snack. My sister believes this is tantamount to bringing an extra-large purse to a Holiday Inn buffet. What do you think?

May 21, 2007

When I Say, "I Am a Christian"

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not bragging.
I’m admitting I am flawed and need help.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I don’t think I know it all.
I’m searching for truth with an open heart.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not claiming to be perfect.
I share the shortcomings of all humanity but trust they can be overcome.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not shouting, “You are lost.”
I’m saying, “I think I see a way out of this mess. Let’s go together.”

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I don’t think life is a bed of roses.
I have my share of sickness and heartache, which is why I need hope.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not pretending to be superior.
I’m confessing I can’t make it on my own.

When I say, “I am a Christian,” I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority; I know only that I am loved and forgiven.

My adaptation of the writing of Carol Wimmer (1988)

May 22, 2007

The Bible as Literature

1.People are fair only to those whom they love. --Nicholas de Chamfort (1741-1794)

Those of us who love literature tend to be gentle with it and give it the benefit of the doubt. I think of the Bible as literature. It makes a great deal of difference whether one sees Genesis 1 as a poem or as a scientific treatise. Likewise, Jonah read as religious satire is different from Jonah read as history, and Revelation seen as apocalyptic literature reveals something other than Revelation understood as precise prognostications.

2.Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. --Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The Bible is messy. It was composed over a period of 2000 years—and that was 2000 years ago. Few books are like it. It is not politically correct. One reason it has lasted so long, I think, is that its grand themes are remarkably consistent and not contradictory. The Bible can always answer its critics by saying, “I have been influential now for 4000 years. What have you done lately?”

Reading the Bible well requires the perspective of centuries. One temptation is to read it anachronistically by viewing it only through the lens of contemporary literary theory, contemporary science, or contemporary progressivism. But the worst temptation is to read it at once ideologically and prosaically.

3.A poem should be equal to: Not true. --Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

Literature by definition requires the suspension of disbelief. If we attend a play or movie and do not suspend disbelief, we will soon say to ourselves, “This is ridiculous,” and walk out.

The suspension of disbelief does not imply that literature is a pack of lies. It means that in order to appreciate its truth and benefit from it, we must approach it as it is.

Like all good literature, the Bible has the ring of truth: Abraham is a liar, David is an adulterer, Moses has anger issues, Jesus sweats blood at the thought of his impending death. If the Bible is occasionally violent and harsh, it is also brutally honest and even-handed.

There is more to the Bible than meets the eye. It is subtle, surprising, and difficult to pigeonhole. It speaks to the human condition and the wisdom of the ages. That is why, as I write, it is being studied in graduate classes at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton—as well as at Bob Jones, Liberty, and Oral Roberts.

Is the Bible sometimes odious (Joshua 6:21; Psalm 137:7-9; 2 Kings 2:23-24; Leviticus 20:9-10, 27)? Perhaps. But far more often it is uplifting and inspiring. Those who find the Hebrew Bible too violent and cruel may choose to read the New Testament as an “amendment” to the Old.

Yet ironically, Jesus in the New Testament, to the dismay of some modern Christians, acts like too much of a pacifist—more willing to die than to fight.

Believer or skeptic, we cannot make the Bible over in our own image. It is what it is—equal to and, in that sense I think, profoundly true.

May 23, 2007

The Bible as Literature: Questions

1.Is the Bible really literature?

If the Bible were put on trial for being literature, there is ample evidence to convict. Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, is pure poetry. Certain books of the Bible must have left their original readers scratching their heads like a college freshman reading Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Just read Zechariah, Ezekiel, Isaiah 53-55, or Daniel 10-12.

2.Was the Bible originally intended to be literature?

Yes, it was intended to be read as sacred literature. Why use poetic structures, meter, metaphors, similes, imagery, dramatic dialogue, irony, elaborate wordplays, and a host of other literary devices so abundantly if one intends only to write informative prose? Newspaper reporters don’t write that way.

3.Is it a mistake to read the Bible as literature?

No, since that is what it is. To read it otherwise makes it something it is not and often leads to huge misunderstandings.

4.Was the Bible intended to be taken as truth?

Yes, but as literary truth—as poetic truth—not simple prosaic truth. Sacred literature can be authoritative and true without being simplistic.

5.Is the Bible consistent or contradictory?

Let’s put it this way: It believes itself to be consistent. The biblical writers see themselves as complementing each other, not contradicting each other. Each of them knew and revered the biblical texts that had come before. They had no intention of contradicting what they believed to be inspired.

To the extent we see contradictions, we may be missing their point or reading what they wrote in a way they did not intend.

Does the Bible contradict itself or complete itself? Jesus himself feels free to take issue with the Hebrew Bible of his day (Matthew 5:21-48), yet without denigrating it. The reason is, I think, that he saw himself as fulfilling its original spirit, while dismissing as inadequate the literal letter (see Matthew 5:31-32).

Three final comments about reading the Bible:

1.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by association

A book is not liable for the sins of those who misuse it. Just ask Karl Marx. If theological lunatics have used the Bible as their happy hunting ground, that does not make the Bible a bad book.

Human beings have a tendency to pervert and abuse the good. Some criminals lure “good Samaritans” in order to rob and kill them. That does not make being a good Samaritan a bad thing. Being misread by fanatics is a cross the Bible has to bear, in a manner of speaking.

2.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by categorization.

The Bible is not defined by other books it may be compared to. You cannot say Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, and Monarchists are all the same because they talk politics.

The Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad-gita are all different and must stand or fall on their own merits.

3.One must be careful not to attribute guilt by presupposition.

When discussing the nature of the Bible, it is always tempting to beg the question. It is easy to create a straw man (for example, by presupposing what the Bible intended) and then burn (or idolize) the straw man.

Whether the Bible is “The Good Book” or “The Bad Book” often depends on the mindset of the person reading it. The Bible reads differently through the eyes of faith than through the eyes of doubt. And yet ironically, the presuppositions of both faith and doubt can turn out to be erroneous.

May 24, 2007

Biblical Literacy

What biblical background should a young Christian graduating from high school have? I have divided this list into three categories: Knowledge (facts and skills to master), Comprehension (concepts to understand), and Application (integration of faith and daily life). These suggestions are meant to be representative and not exhaustive or narrowly prescriptive. Many fine substitutions could be made in the memory work list, for example, but the passages mentioned give an idea of the quality and quantity of what young Christians should know.


FACTS: Young people should know. . .

·The books of the Bible in order, including the number of books in each testament.
·The primary characters and events of the Bible in chronological order.
·The 10 commandments (Exodus 20).
·The beatitudes (Matthew 5).
·The names of the 12 apostles.
·The names of the 12 sons of Jacob.
·The types of biblical literature (for example, history, poetry, prophecy).
·The basic outline of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
·The key elements of Bible geography (for example, the names of the main countries, rivers, bodies of water, cities, and mountains).
·The names of at least three translations of the Bible.
·The known authors of the New Testament books.
·The steps to salvation—what one must do in order to be saved.

SCRIPTURE: Young people should be able to locate and quote. . .

·Genesis 1:1.
·Psalm 1.
·Psalm 23.
·John 3:16-17 (the Golden Text).
·Galatians 5:22-23 (the Fruit of the Spirit).
·Matthew 6:9-13 (the Lord’s Prayer).
·Matthew 7:12 (the Golden Rule).
·Matthew 22:36-40 (the Great Commandments).
·Matthew 28:18-20 (the Great Commission).
·2 Peter 1:5-8 (the Christian Graces).
·Acts 2:37-39.
·Hebrews 11:1.
·1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
·Philippians 2:3-8.
·Philippians 4:4-7.
·Ephesians 2:8-10.
·John 14:6.
·2 Timothy 3:16.

SKILLS: Young people should be able to demonstrate how to. . .

·Locate a passage of scripture quickly.
·Use a concordance or marginal reference.
·Locate and label key points of biblical geography on a map.
·Word a short prayer.
·Plan a personal or public devotional.


CONCEPTS: Young people should understand and be able to explain. . .

·The meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross (the atonement).
·The difference between the Old and New Testaments.
·Key biblical terms (for example, law, covenant, holiness, repentance, righteousness, gospel, faith, grace, mercy, love, redemption, church, baptism, hope, sin, forgiveness).
·Words describing the various types of biblical literature (for example, psalm, proverb, prophecy, parable, gospel, epistle, apocalyptic).
·The purpose of concordances, commentaries, atlases, and Bible dictionaries.
·The meaning and importance of the church.
·The differences between different translations, including the strengths and weaknesses of three in common use.
·The essence of great New Testament teachings (for example, the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, the qualities of church leaders in 1 Timothy 3, the marks of a true Christian in Romans 12, the importance of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13)
·The content or distinctive theme, briefly stated, of at least half of the books in the Bible (for example, Genesis—Adam to Joseph; Exodus—the story of Moses; Job—suffering; Psalms—poetic expressions of faith and praise; Jeremiah—the destruction of Jerusalem; Haggai—rebuilding the temple; Acts—the spread of the early church).


APPLICATIONS: Young people should be able to apply biblical principles in everyday life in order to. . .

·Explain to a friend how to become a Christian.
·Influence peers by setting a good example of personal morality.
·Serve others and show God’s love.
·Establish personal priorities and make good choices.
·Relate well to family, friends, and other people in general.
·Distinguish between Christianity and culture.
·Bear the fruit of the Spirit and grow in spiritual maturity.

May 25, 2007

What are Parables?

Jesus often spoke in riddles so his enemies could not entrap him (Mark 4:11-12, 33-34). These riddles we know as parables. The writer of Proverbs refers to "the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:5-6), that is, wise sayings couched in figurative language that cannot be understood at first glance. You might compare the lesson of a parable to a diamond engagement ring hidden in some everyday object to surprise and delight the bride to be.

The word "parable" is an English transliteration of the Greek word parabole from which we also get the mathematical term "parabola." The Greek word refers to setting two things side by side for the sake of comparison. A parable is essentially a comparison, couched in figurative language, that has religious or moral significance. In Luke 4:23, for example, Jesus classifies the proverbial taunt, "Physician, heal yourself," as a parabole. It is a parable inasmuch as it makes an invidious comparison: Jesus to a quack doctor.

A parable, therefore, can take several forms (taunt, proverb, riddle, wise saying, or story), but it always involves some sort of comparison. When Jesus asked, "Can a blind man lead a blind man" (Luke 6:39), he was speaking in parables just as Ezekiel did when he said, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Ezekiel 18:2).

When the people of Jesus' day first heard his parables, they apparently did not understand them as readily as we do today. After all, the parables have been analyzed and explained for 2000 years. It is easy to forget that, on first hearing, their meanings often seemed mysterious. In his parables, Jesus compared the familiar (everyday objects or experience) to the strange (his revolutionary teaching about the kingdom of God). His enemies certainly sensed they were being attacked in the parables, but it was difficult for them to pin him down (Luke 20:19).

The most familiar parables are those twenty or so comparisons that Jesus developed into stories (for example, the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son). Interestingly, not one of these story parables is recorded in the Gospel of John. Most of them appear in Matthew and Luke. Intended no doubt both to teach and to delight, these story parables represent complex comparisons that may have multiple levels of meaning.

One danger in studying the parables is that the reader may over-interpret by reading too many comparisons into the story. Parables are normally not allegories. In an allegory like John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, virtually every detail of the story represents a point of comparison, whereas in a parable, Jesus usually has only one main point to make. The interpreter of a parable must eat the meat and discard the bones. Misunderstanding a parable generally involves mistaking bones for meat, that is, making something major out of a minor detail.

Jesus used his parables to disarm his listeners much as Nathan did with David (2 Samuel 12:1-15). The indirect comparisons deflected the anger of his enemies while clothing his message in the power of human interest. The ordinary objects compared—wineskins, vineyards, mustard seeds, fishing nets, shepherds—are no longer as familiar to us today as they were to their original audience. Ironically, while the literal meaning of a parable may require some explanation for modern readers, the figurative messages remain clear and true because people themselves have changed less inwardly than their surroundings have changed outwardly. To read a parable is to read literature. The parables of Jesus call us to imagine an ancient time, to look beneath the surface, and to experience the affective power of story.


1.How many main points does Nathan's parable have in 2 Samuel 12:1-4? Is Bathsheba the little lamb?

2.In 2 Kings 14:9-10, Jehoash, king of Israel, sends a parable to Amaziah, king of Judah. What point was he trying to make about the thistle and the cedar? Why do you think he used a parable to make it?

3.Do you believe in the power of stories? What is a fictional story that has had significant meaning for you or that has directly influenced your life?

4.Do you know any modern parables you can relate? Have you yourself ever used a parable to make a point?

5.Although John's gospel does not have any story parables, it nonetheless contains several examples of metaphorical language (John 3:8, 29; 4:35-38; 5:19-23; 8:12, 35; 10:1-5, 7-9, 11-13; 11:9-10; 12:24, 35-36; 14:6; 15:1-2; 16:21). Pick two of these passages at random and explain why they are parables or why they aren't. Is every comparison a parable? If not, what turns a comparison into a parable?

6.Jeremiah 10:3-4 has sometimes been called the "Christmas Tree" passage because some readers have seen it as a attack on Christmas trees. What do you think this passage is talking about? Is it a parable? Why or why not?

May 26, 2007

What is Gossip?

A recent newspaper article cites a British study as saying men gossip as much as women. I have often wondered what people really mean by the word "gossip." Is gossip any conversation that refers to an absent third party? Is history merely gossip about the dead?

Obviously, people are interested in other people, both dead and alive, and talk about them frequently. Is gossip any chatty talk or is it, by definition, always critical and negative?

Here is what seems to me to be the biblical view of gossip.

·Gossip is sensational speech about the private, personal lives of other people. (Proverbs 11:13; 20:19)

As a famous socialite was reputed to say, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

·Gossip is usually unsubstantiated speech based on rumor and hearsay. (see Proverbs 17:9)

As one gossip said to another, “I’ve already told you more than I know.”

·Gossip is covert speech, typically comprised of tales whispered behind a person’s back. (see Proverbs 18:8)

·Gossip is unnecessary speech, often amounting to foolish and idle chatter. (see 2 Timothy 5:13)

·Gossip is unflattering and unkind speech whose intentions are dubious at best. (see Romans 1:29-30)

One form of gossip is discussing other people’s character flaws. Another is listening to such talk and discussion.

·Gossip is generally harmful and hurtful speech, harmful to reputations and hurtful to feelings when discovered. (see 2 Corinthians 12:20)

·Gossip at its worst is deliberately malicious, untrue speech, the essence of slander. (see 3 John 10)

Gossip, I would conclude, is unverified information about a person’s private life that he or she might prefer to keep hidden. To avoid gossip, we should apply the Rotarian test to what we say:

1.Is it the truth?

2.Is it fair to all concerned?

3.Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4.Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

May 27, 2007

How to Justify a Materialistic Lifestyle

·Materialism as Sport: “The money is just a way of keeping score.” “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

·Materialism as Style: “You can never be too rich or too thin.”

·Materialism as Achievement: “Those who say that money is the root of all evil are those who don’t have any.”

·Materialism as Self-Esteem: “A man is worth as much as he has and has as much as he is worth.”

·Materialism as Therapy: “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

·Materialism as Security: “Money isn’t everything--as long as you have enough.”

·Materialism as Happiness. “Those who think money doesn’t buy happiness don’t know where to shop.” "It's easy to be content with your lot if you have a lot to be content with."

·Materialism as Success: “Make enough money, everything will follow.” “Money is good, more money is better.”

·Materialism as Self-Reliance: “God helps those who help themselves.”

·Materialism as Civic Duty: “The more I buy, the more jobs I help create.”

·Materialism as Christian Duty: “A man who does not provide luxuries for his own is worse than an infidel.”

·Materialism as Philanthropy: “The more I have, the more I can give.”

·Materialism as Calling: “Money is the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling.”

·Materialism as Inevitability: “All economic behavior proceeds from self-interest.”

May 28, 2007

In the Bedroom: Christianity and Sex

In November of 2001, a small film entitled In the Bedroom received critical acclaim. It is the story of a college-age student who has an affair with a young woman who is separated from her abusive husband. The husband finds out about the affair and kills the student. But the central characters in this movie are really the young man’s parents. We witness their terrible grief at the loss of a talented and beloved son, a grief that threatens to destroy their own marriage. Finally, another murder occurs as the father, a mild-mannered physician, decides to take the law into his own hands and exact vengeance on the man who murdered his only child.

The title, In the Bedroom, suggests many things: First, the sexual intercourse itself that entails terrible consequences; second, the murder stemming from the abusive husband's discovery of the student in his estranged wife’s house; and third, the final scene as the father returns home and climbs into bed after taking his vengeance. Everything of significance is connected to a bedroom. The title underscores the theme of privacy. All these events happen in secret or behind closed doors, yet we see how private acts may publicly and permanently damage the lives of so many people.

From a Christian viewpoint, one obvious moral of the movie is that there is no such thing as safe sex if it is illicit sex. Curiously, though, most critics reviewing the film never talk about sexual immorality as precipitating the tragedy. Rather, they choose to see the student’s murder by a jealous husband as the crucial event that unleashes all the ensuing misery.

I believe the greatest gulf between Christian ethics and secular ethics lies in the realm of sexual morality. Christian ethical behavior demands sexual purity and holiness (Ephesians 5:3-5; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Matthew 5:27-28; 31-32; 15:19-20). Sexual holiness restricts sexual intercourse exclusively to marriage (Hebrews 13:4) and demands that the marriage be heterosexual as well as monogamous (1 Corinthians 6:9). Following Old Testament teachings, it also limits the choice of a heterosexual marriage partner by, for example, excluding close relatives (Leviticus 18).

Secular ethics, on the other hand, sees Christian sexual taboos as unnatural, psychologically unhealthy, and unrealistic. If ethics asks the question, “What ought one to do?,” secular ethics concludes, “All other things being equal, one ought to do what comes naturally; one ought not repress the natural inclinations of human sexuality.” For secular ethics, sex before marriage is not wrong in and of itself, nor is homosexuality. Secular ethics respects the marriage vows, of course, but the wrong it sees in sex outside of marriage is disloyalty or imprudence, not adultery. And disloyalty or imprudence, while regrettable according to secular values, may sometimes be justified by one’s personal quest for self-fulfillment and by one’s individual pursuit of happiness. Secular values may compensate for secular shortcomings, just as the Christian virtue of love "covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

For Christians, fornication and adultery count among the worst of sins and can never be justified. The very words “adulterer” and “adulterous” are used in scripture as insults, as one-word encapsulations of an evil, wicked, sinful, and depraved society (James 4:4; Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38). When the Christian leaders met in Jerusalem to decide what should be required of Gentile converts, only four demands were made, one of which was to abstain from sexual immorality (Acts. 15:19-20).

Secularists tend to dismiss Christian views on sex by labeling them Puritanism or Victorianism. In part they do this, I think, because they are wary of attacking Christianity (and Judaism, for that matter) head-on, something that would be politically incorrect in a nominally Christian country. But they also do it because they realize consciously or unconsciously that so-called Puritanism and Victorianism are distortions of true Christianity and therefore easy targets. Christians need to be careful about giving their opponents ammunition by succumbing to the faults of Puritanism and Victorianism such as pettiness, hypocrisy, reductionism, self-righteousness, and authoritarianism.

Non-Christians may well ask, “Why is the Christian God so hung up on sex? It is natural, it is enjoyable, it is cool and sophisticated, and, if properly conducted, it is harmless.” Some of the Corinthians were saying much the same thing to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. The way Paul answers them is interesting. He doesn’t argue against sexual immorality pragmatically by making a list of its dangerous consequences. Rather, he talks about Christian integrity--what it really means to be a Christian.

To the argument, “It is natural,” Paul replies that one day God is going to destroy all things that are natural. To the argument, “It is enjoyable,” Paul replies that we can become enslaved by our pleasures and lose our dignity. To the argument, “It is cool and sophisticated,” Paul says that, in reality, it is degrading because it compromises the Holy Spirit of God within us.

In Christian ethics, what you are determines what you ought to do. Genuine Christians do not behave well mainly because it contributes to the greater good of humanity; they do not behave well to avoid contracting a disease. Rather, they do right because they believe they share the divine nature of God. Their bodies are meant for God (1 Corinthians 6:13), that is, meant to be inhabited by God. Their bodies are the members of Christ and dwellings of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:14, 19). Already, to that extent, Christians are divine beings and, as such, should live holy, divine lives. That is why, Paul says, “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). The purpose of sexual purity, and indeed of all Christian ethics, is summed up by Paul’s conclusion, “So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

God confined sex to marriage because marriage was intended to be a faithful and committed relationship, a proper place for the intimacy and powerful emotions involved. Faithfulness is an essential quality of godliness. The Bible describes God as faithful (Deuteronomy 7:9-11), and clearly implies that those who want to be like God will shun sexual immorality and the selfishness it embodies.

Much of the modern world, however, does not acknowledge God, and consequently sees no ethical problem in the pursuit of sexual pleasure so long as it does no obvious and irreparable harm. But in all intellectual honesty, we all are well aware that sex outside the bounds of faithfulness often leads to pain and hurt. Films like In the Bedroom send a message to society, whether the critics care to admit it or not. If you think sexual intercourse outside of marriage is harmless, see the movie.


1.When I was a teenager, it frustrated me that my mother would watch her favorite soap opera every day. I considered her daily dose of trash TV, with all its adulterous affairs, to be inappropriate viewing for a Christian. Was I right or was I a little priggish prude?

2.Is polygamy adultery? Should an African with four wives who is converted to Christianity be compelled to divorce three of his wives?

3.Victorianism has the reputation of lumping any and everything remotely associated with sex (dancing, shorts, mixed swimming, even flirting) into the category “sexual immorality,” effectively putting a hedge around the sin. What do you think about this?

4.What would you say to a granddaughter if she told you she was moving in with her boyfriend without the sanction of marriage?

5.Is a marriage ceremony necessary to beginning a sexual union? Is a faithful common law marriage acceptable in God’s sight?

6.Sometimes an elderly man and woman will move in together and, for reasons pertaining to their estates, decide not to marry. Is it right for unmarried couples to live together, even if there is no sex involved?

7.If you were to see a good friend’s husband or wife romantically involved with another person, should you tell your friend about it? When should one get involved in other people’s sexual sins and when should one keep silent?

8.Would it be morally acceptable for two Christian homosexuals to live together as a couple if they were sexually faithful to one another?

May 29, 2007

Christian Approaches to Work and Money

1.Choose voluntary simplicity: Deliberately live on as little as necessary so you can spend your surplus time and resources on altruistic pursuits rather than on making money.

“Frugality is good if liberality be joined with it. The first is leaving off superfluous expenses, the last bestowing them to the benefit of others that need.” –William Penn (1644-1718)

Biblical Example: John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4; 11:8, 18)


*Financial discipline and independence
*Time to work exclusively for good causes


*Simplicity without creativity easily becomes penury.
*You may be unable to help others monetarily.

2.Earn all you can, then practice “radical philanthropy” by giving away 50-90 percent of your income.

“Work as hard as you can to make all the money you can, and spend as little as you can in order to give away all you can.” –John Wesley (1703-1791)

Biblical Example: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8)


*Satisfaction of living an altruistic life
*Sense of being able to make a real difference in many human lives


*You find that all your time is spent in the process of making money.
*You are sorely tempted to keep more and more for yourself and your family.

3.Practice moderation: Deliberately choose a lifework that will provide you with a decent but not extravagant living.

“I am indeed rich, since my income is superior to my expense, and my expense is equal to my wishes.” –Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

Biblical Example: Agur (Proverbs 30:8-9)


*Time for church, family, and other people
*A sense of balance in one's life


*Moderation may lead to mediocrity and regret.
*Modest means do not allow for grand dreams. You will never be able to do as much good as you would have liked.

June 4, 2007

Judaeo-Christian Religion in a Nutshell

Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)

Exodus 20:1-17
Leviticus 19:18
Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Deuteronomy 7:6-11
Deuteronomy 10:12-13
Deuteronomy 16:20
Psalm 15:1-5
Proverbs 6:16-19
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
Isaiah 58:6-9
Amos 5:14-15
Micah 6:8

New Testament

Matthew 5:1-12
Matthew 22:34-40
Matthew 28:18-20
John 13:34-35
Acts 5:30-32
Acts 10:34-43
Romans 8:1-14
Romans 12:9-21
Galatians 5:13-14, 22-24
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
2 Corinthians 5:17-19
Philippians 2:3-11
James 1:26-27
1 Timothy 6:6-10
1 John 5:3

June 5, 2007

Compassion: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-35)

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a highly developed sense of justice and a thoroughly atrophied sense of compassion. Search as you may in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, or Seneca you will not find compassion mentioned as a virtue. Indeed, they seem to have considered compassion, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and self-sacrificial love as signs of moral weakness rather than moral strength.

Not so in the Bible. Compassion and mercy, two synonyms, play a major role in both Old and New Testaments. The God of the Old Testament is portrayed far more often as a God of mercy than as a God of wrath. The references are too numerous to list (for example, Psalm 86:15; 111:3-5; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:19, 27, 28, 31). Likewise Jesus was a man of compassion (Matthew 15:32; 20:34; Luke 7:13) who repeatedly reminded his audience that God preferred mercy to sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; 23:23).

The lawyer (that is, a scribe or an expert in the law of Moses) who asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" was apparently embarrassed by the elegant simplicity of Jesus' answer. Eager to prove that his question was profounder than the answer acknowledged, he adopts the Socratic method and asks a follow-up question, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replies this time with a parable that shifts the focus of the question.

It is certainly tempting to allegorize the parable of the Good Samaritan. One could say that the priest who made the temple sacrifices represents ritualistic yet emotionally empty religion and that the Levite who assisted the priests represents those who would substitute "church work" like cleaning the building for good works like ministering to the poor. It both cases, the point would be an attack on superficiality versus substance.

These are valid lessons, no doubt, because parables have multiple layers of meaning. But once you start to allegorize, it is difficult to know where to stop. What does the innkeeper represent? What do the two coins represent? What does the donkey represent? When you starting assigning a significance to each and every detail, it becomes difficult to isolate what Jesus really intended the main point of the parable to be.

In this story, Jesus teaches above all that loving our neighbor as ourselves requires us to show active compassion. The religious leaders who passed by may well have felt sorry for the man, but they did nothing. That is the point. Ironically, the despised Samaritan who put his compassion to work was the one who proved to be a true neighbor.

The lawyer had asked a passive question, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds with a dynamic question, "Who became a neighbor to the man in need?" Jesus shifts the focus from who should be the object of our love (which implies "What are the limits of my responsibility to love?") to how we ourselves should approach showing love ("How can I help? Who needs me?").

Christians need to show more kindness and compassion without neglecting to engage in corporate worship and clean the church building (Matthew 23:23). Jesus isn't saying compassion and ritual/routine are mutually exclusive activities, only that the former has greater priority than the latter. Compassion is faith in action (James 2:8-18), something one does as opposed to something one merely feels. As such, God expects Christians to show compassion to their husbands, wives, and children as well as to the poor and oppressed. To compartmentalize compassion and apply it only to those (often rare) occasions when we deal with someone in need outside the family or church is to miss the point of the parable by applying it too literally and narrowly. Nowhere is compassion more necessary than in our most intimate relationships.

As Portia says in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, "The quality of mercy . . . droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven" because "it is an attribute to God himself" (IV.1.185,195). We show compassion because we want to be like God, not simply as a way to curry favor with him or to obey his law. The lawyer wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. The answer is simple yet profound, "Love God and show compassion."


1.Was the good Samaritan a great man of God or simply a warmhearted, generous person? What do you think is the difference? Compassion is often expressed by acts of generosity. What is the difference between compassion and generosity?

2.Is the Parable of the Good Samaritan a parable about the evils of racism and prejudice? Why did Jesus choose the Samaritan as his main character? Was Jesus telling the lawyer to look upon the Samaritan as his neighbor?

3.How would you rewrite this parable today? Who would be the priest, who the Levite, and who the Samaritan?

4.What are the most notable acts of compassion you personally have seen (as opposed to having heard of or read about)? Do you see yourself as compassionate?

5."Compassion," one writer said, "is Christianity in overalls." Do you agree that this is an adequate image? How would you describe Christian compassion?

6.How specifically can Christians show compassion on a regular basis (and not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas)? Do you think it is easier to get involved in "church work" than to do acts of compassion?

June 6, 2007

Anti-Materialism: The Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21)

In the novel Don Quixote, Sancho Panza quotes an old Spanish proverb that says, "A man is worth as much as he has and has as much as he is worth." In other words, money and the possessions money can buy are the common standard of value. Money is the mark of worth and the symbol of success. No wonder that someone has said, "Our society believes in life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness."

A man in the crowd surrounding Jesus appeals for justice; Jesus responds with a parable against materialism. Why is this 2000-year-old parable so applicable to modern American society? For one thing, materialism never goes out of style. We need not believe that materialism came along with the age of industry and technology. All societies have been materialistic because human society revolves primarily around materialistic purposes and pursuits. Materialism, in its most basic sense, is unavoidable.

Materialism in this parable, however, represents a preoccupation with possessions that eventually manifests itself in greed, covetousness, selfishness, pride, and presumption. It is no accident that God refers to the rich man as a "fool" (verse 20) because Psalm 14:1 says "The fool says in his heart there is no God." Psalm 14:1 and its parallel Psalm 53:1 are not condemning atheism. Rather, they refer to those fools who, in their arrogant presumption, believe that God will not punish their folly.

In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls greed (aka materialism) "idolatry" because greed substitutes things for God. The materialist trusts in money to provide protection and security—hence our talk about "financial independence" and "social security." But scripture says, "Trust in God" (Proverbs 3:5-6; 11:28). There is a fine line between financial responsibility, which the Bible commands (1 Timothy 5:8), and financial idolatry, which it condemns (1 Timothy 6:17; Luke 16:13).

Jesus tells the parable in such a way that God's condemnation of the rich man’s materialism at the end really comes as a surprise. At first glance the man seems eminently reasonable and provident. He has a problem: too large a harvest, and he has a solution: build bigger barns. What could be wrong with that? The critical moment comes in verse 19 as he concludes his monologue with the self-admonition, "relax, eat, drink, and be merry." The use of wealth, not its existence or manner of storage, determines the main point of the parable.

Actually, the rich man makes his fatal miscalculation in verse 18 where he talks about "my" grain and "my" goods. In Psalm 50:10, God says "the cattle on a thousand hills" are his. People are presumptuous to assume that their wealth is their own to spend on pleasures or on personal security. The only real rich people are those who are rich toward God, who have treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul explains that being "rich toward God" means being rich in good deeds, that is, “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Can Christians lead lives that are outwardly lavish yet inwardly rich toward God? Many would like to think that material success is a direct blessing from God and a sign of God's favor. They preach the gospel of health and wealth. Make a donation to the church, and God will give it back to you a hundred times over. But in this parable, Jesus takes the position that riches are more deceitful than delightful. The fragility of life should make Christians focus on the eternal. People die; wealth will be dispersed. Only those who are rich in good deeds will please God.


1.When the Roman soldiers asked John the Baptist, "What should we do?," he told them, "Be content with your wages" (Luke 3:14). The writer of Hebrews says, "Be content with what you have" (Hebrews 13:5). Is it wrong for Christians to ask for pay increases or to belong to unions or associations that lobby for pay increases?

2.There is a saying, "Enough is as good as a feast." Should Christians drive expensive cars or buy houses far larger than necessary to lodge their families? Are such practices a misuse of God's gifts?

3.There are many more scriptures on the topic of materialism than on the topic of abortion. Why do Christian groups tend to focus on certain issues to the exclusion of others? Can you cite other examples?

4.A preacher once said, "Our goal as Christians is to live on less and less and to give more and more. Our goal is to see all we possess as belonging to God and not to us." Do you think he was stating biblical truth? What are the implications of such a philosophy for you?

5.An old Quaker once said, "If thou ever have need of anything, come to me and I will teach thee how to live without it." Where is the line between asceticism and materialism, between conspicuously doing without on the one hand and conspicuous consumption and consumerism on the other?

6.Give some examples from your experience of people who have been rich in good deeds, generous, and sharing. A generous rich man who lost his fortune once said, "The only things I have left are those I have given away." Do you know of anyone who has ever suffered as a result of his or her generosity?

June 7, 2007

Mercy: The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

The parables of Jesus often violate our expectations. In a sense, Jesus designed them to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." The parables contain unlikely heroes (the unjust steward) or unanticipated outcomes (the two sons who do the opposite of what they say). As God said to Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8). To the extent that the parables reveal the mind of God, they have the capacity to perplex, and one of God's riddles is that "the last will be first and the first last."

Peter occasioned this parable by asking the selfish question, "What's in it for us?" (Matthew 19:27). He wanted to know what the apostles' payoff would be for following Jesus so faithfully. While confirming that his disciples would have their reward, Jesus told a parable to temper their pride and self-righteousness.

In the first century, most people worked long, twelve-hour days for meager wages. The owner of the vineyard goes out at dawn to hire workers for a denarius a day. Whatever the coin might have been worth, one coin a day wasn't much, but the laborers seem to have agreed it was the going rate. The landowner keeps on hiring workers, at 9 a.m., then 12 noon, then 3 p.m., and finally 5 p.m.--the eleventh hour counting from 6 a.m. and just one hour before quitting time. "Doing something at the eleventh hour" comes from this parable.

The surprise hits in verse nine: Those who worked only one hour are paid just as much as those who worked twelve. The protests begin. No injustice has been done because those who have worked all day are receiving the agreed-upon wage. The basic issue is indignation at the landowner's largesse. The early workers resent the good fortune of those who came late. Those who had worked long and hard for their wages begrudged those who had not, but they also resented the landowner's inexplicable generosity. Generosity isn't fair unless everyone gets an equal share of it.

What if the owner had given the late workers a denarius and the early workers nothing? What if he had given the late workers two coins and the early only one? In either case, he would have been doing something other than he said he would do. By giving everyone exactly the same wage, the landowner shows himself to be both just (a man of his word) and merciful (a generous man who gives people more than they deserve).

The point of the parable is not that God can do anything he wants or that salvation is by grace alone. After all, everyone worked at least part of the time. The point is that the disciples should not be asking "What's in it for me?" because in God's eyes we all are worthy of the same grace and unworthy of any special treatment that might cause pride or arrogance. The first shall be last.

Jesus goes on to make the same point later in the same chapter. When the mother of James and John asks that her sons be given special seats around Christ's heavenly throne, Jesus reminds them that "whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:26).

The Pharisees especially needed this parable about mercy. They looked down upon the masses of country folk who were ignorant of the law and the ritual purity regulations. They looked down even further at sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes. They looked down the furthest at those who were not Jews at all. Jesus is reminding them that God's mercy is extended to every stripe of human being. You cannot look at God and tell him what to do with his grace. You cannot tell God who can and who can't be saved. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matthew 5:7).


1.Does this parable teach that some people earn their salvation by works (the early workers), some by a combination of works and grace, and a few by grace alone (the eleventh hour workers)?

2.Many believers in Christ think other believers should not be saved for various reasons. For example, some conservative Christians might think a Catholic like Mother Teresa has not met the doctrinal requirements for salvation. Are there any sincere believers in Christ you think should be damned? Would you be disappointed in God if he saved someone like Mother Teresa?

3.In this parable, justice and mercy complement each other. In other situations, justice and mercy often conflict. For example, a teacher may fail a student who has worked hard because, despite the expenditure of effort, the student simply did not pass the tests. How should Christians resolve conflicts between justice and mercy?

4.Like the early workers in this parable, people will often react by saying "That's not fair!" when what they really mean is "That doesn't help me any!" Have you seen other examples of misplaced righteous indignation? When is fair truly fair?

5.The doctrine of the sovereignty of God says God can do anything he wants. In this parable, Jesus compares the landowner (who is both just and generous) to God. But could God in his sovereignty act in a way that was generous but unjust? In other words, is God bound by the concept of justice?

6.How would you define mercy? When is mercy appropriate and when is it inappropriate?

June 8, 2007

Obedience: The Wise And Foolish Builders (Matthew 7:24-27)

We send dogs to obedience school. Why can't we send our children? The answer seems to be that we would be better off using the money to buy lottery tickets. People with conscious free will cannot be trained like dogs. People can be lectured on the importance of obedience or taught what they should obey, but people can also choose whether or not they will act in accordance with that teaching. Human obedience is ultimately voluntary--a matter of the will.

The conflict between obedience and disobedience plays a central role in biblical literature. Adam and Eve did not obey the command to abstain from the fruit of one tree. Noah obeyed God's command to build an ark. Abram listened when God told him to go into a far country. Lot's wife ignored the angels command not to look back. Abraham obeyed the order to sacrifice Isaac. Virtually every story involves a critical moment when people must chose either to harken or to harden. Pharaoh asks the archetypal question in Exodus 5:2, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?"

When Moses brought the people into the Promised Land, he left them with two basic admonitions: Love and obey (Deuteronomy 11:1). He set before them a blessing and a curse, a blessing if they obeyed God's commandments and a curse if they disobeyed (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). Alternating periods of obedience and disobedience structure the remainder of the Old Testament period. Samuel made the classic statement when he confronted King Saul at Gilgal: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22).

King Saul was a model of superficial obedience. He thought he had obeyed the gist of God's command (1 Samuel 15:20), but in reality his "obedience" amounted only to self-indulgent, self-deluding disobedience. Why do people disobey God? Sometimes, as in Saul's case, because God's commands strike them as illogical or impractical. They simply disagree with God. Sometimes it is because they don't care, or because they have other priorities, or because they, like Milton's Satan, just want to be free to do as they please. Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven (Paradise Lost, I. 263).

In this brief parable at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the point that talk is cheap. His sermon will mean nothing unless his disciples obey him and put it into practice. A tree is judged by its fruit (Matthew 12:33), so people are judged by their deeds and not merely by their knowledge or good intentions. Jesus sets up a clear contrast: those who obey versus those who disobey. One builds his house on the rock, another on the sand.

This dualism of Jesus is what most separates him from the post-modern thought of contemporary America. Jesus did not see a lot of gray area. He saw mostly either/or. In Matthew 7:13, he says there are two gates, one wide that leads to destruction and one narrow that leads to life. In John 8:42-44, he implies we can have only two spiritual fathers--God or the Devil. You cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:13) because a person cannot have two masters.

All of this seems quaint at best to modern thought. But Jesus uses dualism to call people to decision and to action. Jesus has no truck with the "paralysis of analysis." You're either in or you're out; which shall it be? He refuses to agonize over complexities and contradictions, but calls his disciples to start building a life on the rock of his teachings.


1.Do you remember a time you deliberately disobeyed your parents? What did you do and why?

2.Not putting into practice the lessons we learn from scripture constitutes one form of disobedience. Can you think of others?

3.One form of labor unrest is "working to rule," whereby an employee does his or her job perfunctorily, "according to the book," but without any creativity, initiative, or enthusiasm. Give an example of someone who "obeys" God externally without doing it from the heart. Is that always bad? Does it matter why one obeys?

4.Are you troubled by the dualism (either/or) of Jesus? Does his teaching seem overly simplistic? What do you think of the charge that Jesus was too inflexible?

5.Can Christians be trained to obey God? What does it take to encourage human obedience? Is disobedience an inevitability for many?

6.To what extent does attitude substitute for action? Despite disobeying God's commands, David was called "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). What was it about David that compensated for his disobedience?

June 9, 2007

Forgiveness: The Unforgiving Debtor (Matthew 18:21-35)

A sign in a church parking lot located in a busy downtown area read as follows: "We forgive those who trespass against us, but we also tow them." Nothing is more difficult than sincere forgiveness; nothing is more common than prolonged resentment and unwillingness to forgive.

Whenever we see civil wars or so-called religious conflicts, we are seeing the incapacity to forgive played out in all-too-human acts of inhumanity. Yet how can one forgive if the offender never asks for forgiveness or, worse still, if the offender unrepentantly continues to offend? What are the limits of a Christian’s willlingness and ability to forgive?

This was the question Peter asked: "Lord, how often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?" Jesus answers Peter with a riddle: "I do not say seven times but seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV). Nothing Jesus taught could be more radical than this, so he tells a parable to help his disciples make sense of it all.

In the "Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor," Jesus uses exaggeration for ironic effect. First, he tells about a king who has forgiven his vassal an enormously large sum. According to the Antiquities of the Jewish historian Josephus, the total tax revenue for Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, and Perea for one year amounted to 800 talents. The sum forgiven was 10,000 talents.

Secondly, Jesus exaggerates the mercilessness of this unforgiving man compared with the kindness of the king (10,000 talents was 600,000 times more than the 100 denarii debt). Whereas the king totally cancels this monumental debt, asking no repayment whatsoever, his pitiless vassal seizes his own debtor by the throat to demand repayment. Not only does he refuse to pardon the paltry debt, but he throws the man in prison (cf. towing the car) to be tortured until he comes up with the money.

The point of this parable has nothing to do with the borrowing and lending practices Christians are to follow. It has everything to do with seeing our human affairs from God's perspective. Forgiveness relates directly to mercy. We forgive others because God took pity on us. And if we need more incentive to forgive than following the example of God, Jesus reminds us on more than one occasion that only to the extent we forgive others will we ourselves be forgiven (Matthew 6:12-15; 18:35; Luke 6:37).

Does this parable teach that forgiveness is only for those who ask forgiveness? After all, both debtors begin by asking for time to pay. And didn't the apostle John write that IF we confess, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9)? It is certainly easier to forgive someone who admits to wrongdoing than to pardon someone who brazenly continues to behave in the same unkind, unjust, or unreasonable manner without any hint of remorse.

Scripture should never be used to accommodate our own human agenda. Although we as resentful people want to believe that forgiveness has its limits, what shall we do with the example of Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34) or of Stephen as he was stoned to death (Acts 7:60)? Certainly, the executioners of Jesus never asked for forgiveness or showed any regret for their behavior. When Jesus commands non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42), he does not set conditions. Instead he concludes by saying, as the Revised English Bible translates, "There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds" (Matthew 5:48). Forgiveness, Jesus says, like mercy, can have no preordained limits.


1.What is the most difficult situation you have been called upon to forgive? How did you feel and do you still feel about trying to forgive that offense against you?

2.In Romans 12:21, Paul says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Do you know of an instance where someone overcame evil with good?

3.This parable seems to link an unforgiving spirit with ingratitude. What connection, if any, is there between forgiveness and gratitude?

4.Peter's question concerns a "brother." Must we forgive a non-Christian enemy or is our obligation to forgive limited to fellow Christians? Does forgiveness mean you don't sue someone who wrongs you or press charges against someone who assaults you?

5.Are Christians to forgive and forget? If you forgive someone, can you nevertheless remain cool and distant? Can you limit your contact with that other person for fear they may hurt you again?

6.Sometimes it is said that a person is "too proud" to forgive. What relationship do you find between pride and the unwillingness to forgive?

June 10, 2007

Unselfishness: The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

An editorial cartoon once featured the picture of a great stone monument with four levels:


Around this idol scores of people were worshipping, and the cartoon's caption read: "Speaking of American cults. . . ." Christianity in America has rarely if ever been as popular as the cult of selfishness. Fathers who spend their limited income to buy fancy mud flaps for their pickups instead of formula for their babies serve at the altar of selfishness. Newspapers tell the stories of parents, addicted to selfishness, who leave their children alone while they shop, party, or even vacation. Someone has rightly said that we live in a post-Christian era whose God is Self.

The Bible, however, never uses the words "selfish" and "selfishness" per se, perhaps because the radical individualism that has come to dominate the Western psyche since the Enlightenment was not characteristic of ancient thought. The modern preoccupation with inalienable individual rights, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization did not exist in its current form. Much more emphasis was placed on responsibility to community and submission to God.

Whether or not there was a word for it, selfishness clearly existed in ancient times. The tenth commandment was "You shall not covet" (Exodus 20:17). Covetousness was the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:19-21) who put the whole people of Israel at risk because of his own selfishness. David acted selfishly in his affair with Bathsheba, and the parable of Nathan underscores God's indignation (2 Samuel 12:1-10). Ahab and Jezebel selfishly appropriated Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). Whether the overt crime was theft, adultery, or murder, the root cause in each case was nothing but selfishness.

The “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus” stands alone among Jesus' story parables in that it names one of the characters. This has caused some to believe that the parable is non-fiction. But because the name "Lazarus" means "God helps," most commentators think Jesus created a fictional character to symbolize the poor and oppressed who depend solely on the mercy of God (see, for example, Luke 1:52-53; 4:18-19).

This parable never states what it was that doomed the rich man to Hades. Was being rich the chief sin that sent him to hell and poverty the chief virtue that sent Lazarus to heaven? Does God, like Robin Hood, take pleasure in simply turning the tables on people? If not, what is the lesson of the parable and why didn't Jesus specify a particular vice? In the context of Luke 16, Jesus clearly focuses on the dangers of loving and misusing money. The unspoken sin of the rich man is clearly selfishness. He used his wealth to dress and eat sumptuously, never paying the slightest attention to anyone but himself.

Paul says that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should teach us to be unselfish (Philippians 2:3-11). He seems to be alluding particularly to those who preach the gospel out of impure motives, including rivalry, ambition, and a desire for personal influence or profit (Philippians 1:17).

Selfishness has a much broader scope than materialism. We may be selfish in demanding our own way as well as in seeking to use our possessions solely for our own benefit. To be inconsiderate, rude, headstrong, and willful is basically to be selfish. Jesus set us an example for living that may be summed up in words of Paul: "Love is never selfish" (1 Corinthians 13:5, REB).


1.What are some of the most common forms of selfishness you encounter on a daily basis?

2. Are men more selfish than women? What are some ways marriage partners can show Christ-like unselfishness?

3.Would you be more inclined to be unselfish if someone returned from the dead to warn you? Do you agree with Abraham that selfish people would pay no more heed to one risen from the dead than to scripture?

4.Do you think division in the church is often a manifestation of selfishness? What various disguises does selfishness take?

5.Selfish people are jerks--they thoughtlessly take advantage of others yet typically feel resentful when any sacrifice is asked of them. What are some practical ways we can teach our children not to be jerks?

6.Do you identify more with the rich man or with Lazarus? How specifically are we rich Americans to avoid the rich man's fate?

June 11, 2007

Repentance: The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-31)

An old proverb says, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back." Males have a reputation for stubbornly refusing to turn back when it appears to females they are lost on the road. They drive on and on in hope of finding that familiar landmark. Yet men are not alone. Most people believe it is important to stick to their decisions. Once they have a set a course or taken a stand, they despise appearing weak or indecisive by flip-flopping to another position. Politicians will hold on fiercely to discredited platform planks simply because it seems more statesmanlike not to waver in one's convictions. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure that you are indeed on the wrong road.

Changing your mind is not easy, especially if you have publicly staked your credibility or your ego on a particular opinion. Teenagers, in particular, find it galling to admit their parents might be right. A young man would rather turn blue from cold than admit openly he should have worn a jacket as Mother suggested. A young woman will go to great lengths to avoid confessing she made an error in choosing a friend. As someone has said, "Everyone complains of having a bad memory, but no one complains of having bad judgment."

Jesus admired those who had the capacity to change their minds and lives for the good, those who recognized they were wrong and who did something about it. He called that openness to change repentance, and repentance was the first message Jesus ever preached (Matthew 4:17). Repentance is a radical change of mind and outlook, not a one-time act of obedience. Northrop Frye calls repentance a "spiritual metamorphosis."

The power of this parable lies in its simplicity. Two sons say one thing, yet do another. What is the difference between the two? Are both examples of repentance? Change, of course, does not have to be for the good. One can be traveling down the right road and turn back as well.

The difference lies in the psychological tension. By refusing his father's command, the first son creates suspense in the listener. Why does he refuse? How will the father respond to his disobedience? The first son puts himself at risk, and the conflict cries out for resolution. Something dramatic is about to happen if he follows through on his bold refusal.

The second son risks little by making an empty promise. There is no open defiance. Even if he doesn't go to work, he can always make some excuse to placate his father. Perhaps he fell ill or forgot or was called to an emergency. He has hidden his intention to disobey under the cover of polite hypocrisy.

As in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” or the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders” or the “Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor,” the emphasis is on what one actually does. Jesus asks, "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" (verse 31). It is hard to read minds, easy to read actions. True repentance has tangible, measurable results.

When I feel selfish, stubborn, and willful, I think about this parable and it brings me back to my senses. Am I going to do God's will or my own? As one has said, "Most people are either repenting or rationalizing." Christians need a heart of repentance. Indeed, the first four beatitudes seem to describe the penitent attitude God desires (Matthew 5:1-6). It may well be that David was a man after God's own heart primarily because he had the capacity to repent.

Just as the father in this parable gives his son time to reconsider and repent, the kindness and patience of God spares us when we rebel against what we know is right. God gives us space to have second thoughts, but only we can adopt the attitude of being open to them. Repentance is a life to be lived, not a doctrine to be learned.


1.Can you tell a story from your own life where you have made an “about-face,” a 180 degree turn?

2.Writing to a group of Christians, Paul seems to imply it is easier to persuade people to be baptized than to convince them to repent (2 Corinthians 12:21). Would you agree? Why?

3.Whenever the two words "repent" and "believe" are used together in the New Testament, repentance precedes faith (Mark 1:15; Matthew 21:32; Hebrews 6:1). How would you explain this order? How is it that one must repent in order to believe?

4.Repentance is often associated with sorrow and remorse. Ancient Jews repented in sackcloth and ashes (Matthew 11:21). Why? Can repentance exist without regret?

5.There is a saying, "It takes a big man to admit he was wrong." "Big" in what sense?

6.Josh Billings once said, "It is much easier to repent of sins that we have committed than to repent of those we intend to commit." Do you agree that repentance is a permanent change of outlook and not just a one-time act? Can you give examples of people who rationalize rather than repent?

June 12, 2007

Accountablilty: The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)

The sign posted by the staff of the photocopy center read as follows: "The lack of good planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." This cold truth affords little comfort to the procrastinator who needs to meet a deadline. When we find ourselves in a fix, all we want to think about is how to get out of the fix. Dwelling on our past improvidence or imprudence seems somehow irrelevant and unproductive.

Few Americans like to be held accountable for the past. As a people, we have traditionally looked to the future, believing it will be better and brighter than the past. Consequently, it does no good "to cry over spilt milk." What is important is "to cut your losses and let your profits run," "to get on with your life." This think-positive attitude has much to say for it, provided one can indeed admit the mistakes of the past, deal with their consequences, and accept responsibility for improving the future.

Procrastinators are among the most optimistic of people. They blithely assume no last-minute snags, illnesses, or emergencies will occur to ruin their good intentions to get things done just in time. The five girls in this parable who brought no extra oil for their lamps never imagined the bridegroom would be so late or that their friends would be so unwilling to share or that extra oil would be so difficult to buy. They optimistically assumed their good intentions to attend the wedding banquet would suffice.

Unfortunately, circumstances force these casual optimists to take responsibility for their lack of preparation. Their companions refuse to give them oil, and the bridegroom takes no compassion on them when they return later with lighted lamps. He leaves them out in the cold with nary so much as an "I'm sorry." Paul says, "Behold the goodness and the severity of God" (Romans 11:22). This parable deals with the severity of God toward those who are unprepared to meet their Maker.

Prudence was one of the four cardinal virtues of Antiquity, but the word "prudence" in modern English seems slightly quaint and passé. It is no longer a word we commonly use. Perhaps we could substitute "common sense" for "prudence," but that kind of sense is not so common. Neither do we like to use the words "sensible" or "wise" in everyday speech. They somehow suggest a stuffy righteousness that makes us uncomfortable.

The “Parable of the Ten Virgins,” which appears only in Matthew, comes late in the gospel, just two chapters before the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Chapters 24 and 25 are full of warnings about the end of time, about making good use of one's talents, about the differences between sheep and goats, about the need for vigilance, wisdom, and prudence.

After two thousand years of waiting for the Bridegroom, many Christians have become complacent and some have fallen asleep. Lamps are not shining brightly. Often, they are no longer even lit. We pursue our religious activities perfunctorily, showing little zeal for God and little anticipation of the Second Coming. We identify all too well with the church at Laodicea to whom Christ says, "You are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were either cold or hot! Because you are neither one nor the other, but just lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16).

Jesus says, "Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour" (Matthew 25 13). Be alert, be prepared, be wise, be prudent. When the Devil is a roaring lion, he may keep you awake, but when he lulls you into complacency or indifference, you become most vulnerable. God holds Christians accountable, not only for their present behavior but also for their duty to anticipate.


1.In the Bible, there exists a constant tension between God's free gift of grace and mankind's responsibility to respond to that grace by living right. How is it possible to depend on God for salvation, yet still be filled with zeal for good works?

2.Lack of preparation is only one form of spiritual foolishness. What other kinds can you think of? What exactly does it mean to be an imprudent Christian?

3.The doctrine about the end of time is called eschatology. Do you think the Christians you know are concerned or unconcerned about the return of Jesus? To what extent do you yourself have an eschatological outlook in that you think often about Christ's return and being prepared for his coming?

4.If you knew for sure that Jesus was coming again exactly four years from now, how would it affect your life and your daily activities?

5.How would you describe a person who is fully prepared to meet God? Have you known such people? What specifically does it mean to “prepare to meet your God”?

6.Do you believe Christians are less zealous today than in the distant past? What is it about Christianity that Christians are still willing to die for? What is it that Christians in general seem no longer willing to live or die for?

June 13, 2007

Tolerance: The Wheat and the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30)

The problem of evil challenges the Christian faith. When the innocent suffer, the good die young, and the evil prosper, it is hard to come up with satisfactory explanations. Perhaps the best and only answer is to echo the sentiments of the farmer in verse 28: "An enemy did this."

Evil in the world is a given, an inescapable reality. No one knows precisely how or why the devil came to have this power to do evil. No one knows how long his evil doing will continue. How to react to pervasive evil poses a dilemma for Christians. Should we be fatalistic about it and accept it submissively or should we fight against it with all our powers, even if, admittedly, we don't have any earthly chance of winning? How do you deal with the effects of enemy activities?

One simple approach to combating evil is refusing to add to it. Some people who proclaim Christ are ready to kill doctors who perform abortions; others engage in civil war against other believers in Christ (Orthodox Serbs against Catholic Croats, Protestant Irish against Catholic Irish); still others bitterly fight and quarrel within the confines of their own Christian fellowship. Whether the enemy is without or within, some feel the misguided obligation to pull and burn weeds. Unfortunately, history has always shown that "a crime in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion."

Jesus did not believe that one bad apple would spoil the whole barrel. He believed not in the power of rotten apples to corrupt, but in the power of God to preserve. Therefore, he takes a curiously relaxed position about the presence of evil in the world. He implies in this parable that we should tolerate evil men until God in his own good time decides to punish them in his own just way.

To tolerate evil is not to condone it. It is merely to recognize that more harm can be done to Christian character by trying to fight fire with fire or evil with evil than by patiently allowing God to repay (Romans 12:17-19). As T. R. Glover once wrote, "The Christians of the second century out-lived, out-thought, and out-died the pagan." It is entirely possible that out-living our enemies is more important to God than out-fighting them.

Both in the world and in the church, good and bad are mingled. The weeds in this parable, an annual known to scientists as darnel or lolium temulentum, resemble the wheat so closely that only when the two come into ear can they be distinguished. The owner of the field commands that the weeds be left to grow because their roots have intertwined with those of the true wheat. They cannot be forcibly separated before the harvest of the grain.

Tolerance means a peaceful coexistence that neither approves of evil nor denies the ability to distinguish good from evil. Rather, peaceful coexistence testifies to faith in and dependence upon the power of God. Christians must not "play God" by attempting to punish others. They must remain faithful and trust in God to right all wrongs, as indeed he will at the Day of Doom (1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 14:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15).

What place is there then for Christian activism? Christians always enjoy the freedom to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). We may freely give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, shelter to the homeless. We may comfort and care for the sick (Matthew 25:34-40). Christians can educate the ignorant and counsel the distressed. Within our local church family we may rebuke with humility and exhort with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:2). Without violence or harm to anyone, we can speak the truth we believe and yet be tolerant and gracious in spirit.


1.Do you agree that Jesus believed in non-violence and non-retaliation? How does his teaching in Matthew 5:38-48 relate to this parable? What about the famous exception of his cleansing the temple (John 2:13-16; Matthew 21:12-13)? Does that action effectively negate his teaching about non-violence?

2.Jonathan Swift once wrote, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." From your personal experience, do you know of any examples that would support or contradict this observation?

3.Jesus begins this parable by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field." Does the field represent the kingdom of heaven, the world, or something else? On what do you base your judgment?

4.André Suarès has said, "There are no heresies in a dead religion." How can Christians escape the danger that tolerance may lead to indifference or neglect?

5.Christian tolerance implies a respect for the right of others to accept responsibility for their convictions and actions. Do you agree that people have a right to be wrong? To what extent can Christians fellowship those believers who, whether for lack of knowledge, spiritual maturity, or good judgment, believe or practice what is wrong?

6.Which forms of Christian political activism are legitimate and which are not? Should Christians separate themselves from politics or fight for justice through the political process? Can you justify your answer from the New Testament?

June 14, 2007

Humility: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)

Being a Christian does not confer the social advantage it once did. There was a time in America when membership in a prominent church could bring a businessman respectability in the community and valuable contacts. But in this essentially post-Christian age, the term "Christian gentleman" has a slightly archaic ring to it. One's religious affiliation has become a private matter of little interest to the general public, and there remains but little prestige in belonging to the "right" church.

No matter how much one may regret the declining influence of church membership on American social life, this loss of clout has had the healthy effect of reducing religious hypocrisy and pride. Because it no longer pays socially or financially to be a Christian, church pews hold fewer people who merely pretend to be Christian and fewer still who see Christianity as a means of upward social mobility. In this sense, ironically, Christianity has actually benefited from its decline in popularity.

Obviously, it has not always been so. In the time of Jesus, religious leaders such as the scribes and Pharisees enjoyed moral authority and social standing. But the religious pride of the Pharisees had not so much to do with their social, economic, or political status as it did with their legalism. They felt superior to others because they kept the rules and regulations of the law more scrupulously than the worldly Sadducees, the ignorant hoi polloi, and the ungodly sinners. Their religious pride flowed more from self-satisfaction than from social status.

The Pharisee in this parable is clearly self-absorbed. A preposition in verse 11 is difficult to translate. Some take it that he prayed "to" himself, that is, silently. Other translators believe the context demands "about" himself. Whatever the case, he definitely had a list of religious reasons that declared him righteous both by omission and commission. As was the case with Job of old, nothing was wrong with his righteousness, and everything was wrong with his attitude.

How ironic that pride, the greatest sin, is neither something you do nor something you fail to do. The greatest sin is a bad attitude, an unholy state of mind. Someone has said that "pride is an attempt to maintain a favorable image of oneself that differs from reality." Differs from what reality? Nothing indicates this Pharisee was a hypocrite. He undoubtedly did give liberally and fast regularly. He probably was honest in business and faithful to his wife. Pride's favorable image does not run counter to everyday reality. Instead, it contradicts the reality of God's perspective that we human beings are but humble servants who deserve no special credit for doing our duty (Luke 17:7-10).

The tax collector seems to realize that "today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster." To paraphrase Shakespeare's Macbeth, all human vanity, arrogance, and pride merely light the way to dusty death. They represent knowledge without wisdom, competence without compassion, and learning without love. The tax collector, a self-confessed sinner, throws himself upon the mercy of God, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls (1 Peter 2:25).

Worldly pride tells us we are respected by other people. Spiritual pride tells us we have earned God's favor. Whether worldly or spiritual, the more we think we know or have achieved, the greater the temptation to attribute that knowledge or success to our own effort and to look down upon those who know or who have achieved less. Jesus implies that we are what we are by the grace of God. From this vantage point, we realize that Zacchaeus, another tax collector, was saved not simply because of the good deeds he pledged to do but because he was a "son of Abraham," a man who trusted in God (Luke 19:9).


1.What signs of worldly pride, if any, do you see in the Christianity today?

2.What signs of spiritual pride, if any, do you see? Is division within the church sometimes caused by spiritual pride?

3.Do you agree or disagree that church membership is no longer a social or economic advantage in American society? Have you known of Christians who tried to use Christianity for personal advancement?

4.Law is God's revelation of what is right and wrong. Why, then, is legalism dangerous? Do you know any specific examples of misguided legalism?

5.We are saved by the atonement of Christ, not the attainment of man. How can one best cultivate an attitude of humility before God? What are some concrete, practical methods?

6.The Pharisee had his list to convince God of his righteousness. What do you think most Christians would put on their lists? Are tithing and fasting prominent on the Christian lists? If not, why not?

June 15, 2007

Steadfast Love: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

My son, Zane Williams, has written a song called Hurry Home about the unwavering love of a father for his daughter. This song touches a lot of hearts and over the years has won him several prizes, including a $20,000 award as the Maxell Song of the Year in 2006. Part of Hurry Home’s appeal is that it echoes Jesus’ “Parable of the Lost Boy.”

People are sentimental about "unconditional" love and deeply desire it, but what is it really? What exactly is love without any conditions? Does it mean, “I will always love, accept, and support you no matter what you do?” Is it saying, “Abuse me, reject me, steal from me, lie to me, curse me, ignore me—whatever—I will always love you and provide you a home”? I guess that would make unconditional love the ultimate expression of enabling and co-dependence.

The “Parable of the Prodigal (or Foolishly Extravagant) Son” is not really about unconditional love. The parable works on several levels. In the context of Luke 15, it is about the joy of angels over human repentance, about the solicitude of God for lost souls, and about the dangers of whining, mean-spirited “elder-brother” religion as practiced by the begrudging Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

All this notwithstanding, people typically respond to the parable these days as an illustration of God’s strong and persistent love for humanity. What is interesting, too, is how they extrapolate the lesson to mean that human beings as individuals should imitate God by demonstrating unconditional love to other individuals, whatever they may do, however they may act.

Granted, the father in this parable orders the fatted calf to be killed and runs to meet his younger son without ever knowing for sure if he is a changed man or not. But we as readers of the story know the son is repentant, and perhaps we are expected to infer that the father, representing an omniscient God, knows that as well. This doesn’t detract from the father’s joyous reception, generous forgiveness, and loving spirit, but it does provide perspective.

As the poet Maxine Kumin notes, God in the Bible is loving but has “a nasty temper when provoked.” Can one reconcile the “unconditional” love of the parable with the nasty temper? In her book, God is No Fool, Lois Cheney aptly remarks, “Christ showed us a new side of God, and it is truly wonderful. But he didn’t change God. God remains forever and ever, and that God is no fool.”

However we have self-indulgently redefined it, God's love from a biblical perspective is covenant love. As a result of his covenant with Abraham, for example, God pledged to always seek the best interests of Abraham’s descendants. Through Jesus, Abraham’s seed, that pledge has been extended to include everyone (John 3:16-17). But just as God lost patience with Israel and scattered the lost tribes, just as he lost patience with Judah and sent the nation into Babylonian Captivity, so God’s love can be severe if covenant is broken by the human party. It is steadfast not in the sense that it never corrects, punishes, or rejects but in the sense that it never goes away.

Parents always have a place in their heart for a child, no matter how wayward. They grieve for rebellious children as David grieved for Absalom (2 Samuel 18:31-33), as the father in the parable no doubt grieved for his lost boy. But to love steadfastly is not to love foolishly; it is to love deeply and well.


1.Why do people long for "unconditional love"? Is it the desire to get something for nothing or something more than that?

2.Jesus says in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, I repent, you must forgive him.” Is this a brief description of unconditional love?

3.To what extent can Christians play God? If we can play God by being loving and generous, can we play God by killing people who provoke or disobey us? Is our imitation of God restricted to his good side or is it unrestricted?

4.The term “unconditional love” does not appear in the Bible. Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7? Does it have limitations or conditions?

5. How exactly is the elder brother in this parable at fault? Is it his resentment? His unforgiving spirit? His pettiness? His legalism?

6.Unpack the comment, “God is no fool.” In what biblical sense is this true and what does it imply?

June 17, 2007

Commitment: Treasures (Matthew 13:44-46)

You have to be careful about pressing the details of a parable. Jesus does not always illustrate his points with admirable characters. The unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) and the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-9) are not role models to be followed but simply life-like characters whose stories teach a lesson. The same goes for the protagonist in his “Parable of the Hidden Treasure.” This fellow definitely is ignoring the Golden Rule when he enriches himself by exploiting a landowner's ignorance. But so what? Jesus is not talking about the moral way to conduct business. Rather, he is focusing on the kind of passionate commitment required to enter the kingdom of God. To miss the focus is to miss the point.

Commitment to the kingdom of God has always been a rare and precious commodity. In fact, commitment to anything outside oneself and one's self-interest seems contrary to the self-absorbed individualism of contemporary America. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett once attended a modern wedding where the bride and groom pledged in their wedding vows to remain together "as long as love shall last." "I sent paper plates as my wedding gift," Bennett remarked.

Someone has observed that truth is not necessarily the most powerful thing in the world. Sacrifice and commitment count for more than truth, however eloquently expressed, because people will generally follow example over advice. Albert Schweitzer, the musicologist, theologian, and physician who won a Nobel Peace Prize for devoting his life to serving the poor in Africa, wrote that "Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing."

The two treasure parables that Jesus tells are not really about the search for truth or enlightenment per se. While the discovery of the precious pearl resullts from purposeful effort, the treasure hidden in the field is an accidental bonanza. These parables focus mainly on how the lucky finders react once they discover the treasures, not on how they happen to find them. And how they react is a reflection of both their character and their commitment.

Some, like the pious young man (aka the Rich Young Ruler) in Matthew 19:16-24 and Luke 18:18-30, blanch at the prospect of gung-ho commitment if it implies losing financial security. But there doesn’t seem to be a pragmatic bone in Jesus’s body. Those who would possess the kingdom of God must be ready to sell or risk everything because they believe in the transcendent value of the other world to come.

What should such total commitment imply for the typical American Christian? In his The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce sardonically defines a Christian as “one who follows the teachings of Christ so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.” But what sort of commitment does Jesus expect of his followers today? A life of commitment so far as it is not inconsistent with a comfortable retirement? With a home on a golf course? With an epicurean lifestyle?

The parables of the treasures relate to laying up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The danger facing the complacent modern church is that it has become "the bland leading the bland." For Jesus, entering the kingdom of God required a passionate commitment demonstrated by radical anti-materialism and selfless generosity. The challenge is how to maintain such a zeal over the decades of life without its becoming destructive of family and, ultimately, of self. The eschatological ethic of Jesus haunts us because of its call for a total commitment we cannot clearly conceive.


1.The American composer William Schuman, asked how he had managed to compose so much despite his other professional responsibilities, replied that commitment could be defined as 600-1000 hours a year devoted to a specific activity. If a Christian devoted 10 percent of his or her income and 10 hours a week to Christian service, would that amount to total commitment? Would you include corporate worship and fellowship in that 10 hours?

2.An old joke says that the difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Do you think a Christian can be involved in church work without being truly committed to the kingdom? If so, how?

3.In the Bible, the internal is never separated from the external. Those who offer their heart and life to God, like the Rich Young Ruler, are typically asked to prove their sincerity by giving up many material things. Is it possible to be both committed to the kingdom and committed to financial success?

4.Have you personally taken any deliberate risks as a Christian? What did you learn from the experience?

5.If every Christian were a missionary or a Mother Teresa, who then would provide the financial support for such missions? Some have decided instead to become vocational missionaries who, like Paul, support themselves by "tent making." Do you consider yourself a vocational missionary?

6.Describe a Christian you know who is truly committed. What characterizes that person? Is this person an exception to the rule?

June 20, 2007

Bible Trivia Quiz

True or False

According to the Bible, . . .

1.God created the world in seven days.

2.Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins.

3.Along with seven family members, Noah took only two of every kind of animal on the Ark.

4.Jonah was swallowed by a whale and was vomited out three days later.

5.Wise men from the east presented gifts to the baby Jesus as he lay in the manger.

6.The last book of the New Testament is known as “Revelations.”

7.The Ten Commandments are numbered differently in the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

8.One or more of the gospels quotes Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

9.Eve disobeyed God by eating an apple, then tempting Adam to eat from it as well.

10.Jesus was born in Bethlehem on December 25th.

The answers are below.

1.False: God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:1-3).

2.False: The New Testament does not specify their relationship. Luke 1:36 says their mothers were related, but does not say how.

3.False: He took two of each unclean animal and seven of each clean animal (Genesis 7:2)

4.False: Jonah 1:17 says it was a “big fish” that swallowed up Jonah.

5.False: Matthew 2:11 says Jesus was in a house. Matthew 2:16 suggests that the wise men arrived a considerable time after Jesus was born since Herod orders all the male children in Bethlehem who are two years and under to be killed.

6.False: The New Testament itself doesn’t assign names to its books, but the last book has traditionally been called Revelation, without an –s, or the Apocalypse, which is a transliteration of the Greek word for revelation.

7.False: Jews, Catholics, and Protestants do number the Ten Commandments differently, but their Bibles all read the same and do not actually contain literal numbers. The precise wording of the ten depends on how you break them out of the text in a list. Nevertheless, since the complete text is the same, the commandments are the same for everyone, depending, of course, on how the commands are spun by different commentators.

8.False: None of the gospels records this saying. The author of Acts (thought to be Luke, a colleague of Paul) quotes Paul as saying Jesus said it (Acts 20:35).

9.False: The Bible does not specify what kind of fruit it was (Genesis 3:12), but given the climate of Iraq, it probably wasn’t an apple.

10.False: The New Testament does not say in what month Jesus was born, much less on what day. Since shepherds were in the field overnight (Luke 2:8), it might have been spring, but no one knows.

Misperceptions of the Bible abound in popular culture. Some, like these, are factual. Others are theological. The Bible, it seems, is not an easy book to get straight.

June 21, 2007

Grammar Tips for Preachers: Seven Deadly Sins

I think preachers should work to eliminate grammatical errors insofar as possible. While they probably will not annoy the uneducated by using correct grammar, they definitely will alienate the educated by not using good grammar.

“Slips in grammar can only distract your reader [or listener] from what you are saying, and start him thinking, unflatteringly, about you.” --Sheridan Baker, The Complete Stylist, 1966

Here are seven deadly grammar sins to avoid.

1.Failure to use a pronoun in the objective case after prepositions and transitive verbs

Wrong: Satan is crushed when Jesus is precious to you and I.
God chose to save you and I.
What you tell me in confidence is between you and I.

Correct: Satan is crushed when Jesus is precious to you and me.
God chose to save you and me.
What you tell me in confidence is between you and me.

Comment: Using only one pronoun makes it clear: God saves me.

2.Failure to make subjects and verbs agree

Wrong: There’s two reasons why I think that’s obvious.
You see some scriptures on the screen. I'll tell you what each one of them are.

Correct: There are two reasons I think that’s obvious.
I'll tell you what each one of them is.

Comment: There is not a subject. It is an introductory adverb.
"Each one" is the subject. "Them," referring to the scriptures, is not.

3.Failure to use the subjunctive in contrary-to-fact clauses

Wrong: If I was in heaven, I’d be singing God’s praises.

Correct: If I were in heaven, I’d be singing God’s praises.

Comment: Use the subjunctive were when the clause indicates a situation that is not actually the case: "If I were you" or "If my uncle were a woman."

4.Failure to distinguish between the verbs “lie” (intransitive) and “lay” (transitive)

Wrong: When the Samaritan arrived, the man was laying in the road.

Correct: When the Samaritan arrived, the man was lying in the road.

Comment: Lay requires a direct object. Don't lay an egg by misusing these verbs.

5.Failure to use a pronoun in the subjective case as the subject of a sentence.

Wrong: Me and Bill made some hospital visits last night.

Correct: Bill and I made some hospital visits last night.

Comment: In a compound subject, be humble and put yourself in second place. Remember, "The first shall be last." Once again, using a single pronoun makes it clear: "I made a hospital visit."

6. Failure to distinguish between “may” (a yet existing possibility) and “might” (a possibility that existed in the past but did not materialize).

Wrong: The apostle Paul may have journeyed as far as Spain.

Correct: The apostle Paul might have journeyed as far as Spain.

Comment: “May” is present tense, “might” is past tense.

7.Failure to use apostrophes correctly.

Wrong: You must understand a scripture in it’s context.
Our care group will meet at the Smith’s.

Correct: You must understand a scripture in its context.
Our care group will meet at the Smiths’.

Comment: Possessive pronouns don't have apostrophes: Hi's is obviously wrong. The possessive of nouns can be singular or plural. Since the Smiths are a family, their house belongs to all of them, not just one.

June 22, 2007

Flavors of Christianity

The variety of human beings never ceases to amaze me. Despite all our commonalities, we differ so much from each other in subtle ways. The food we like, the music, the books, the movies, the hobbies, the pet peeves, the sly preferences—all these and many more mark us as individuals.

So it is, too, with our Christianity. Reading the same New Testament, we see different areas to emphasize and to identify as the essence of the Christian faith. Listed below are “flavors” of Christianity I have observed. Most Christians, of course, are “Neapolitan” in the sense that they combine two or more flavors in varying proportions. If you are a Christian, which flavor or flavors are you?

1.Propositional Christianity—Christianity is knowing, understanding, and believing a certain set of doctrinal propositions. To be a Christian is to know and accept the truth.

2.Spirit-filled Christianity—Christianity is feeling the comfort, guidance, power, and presence of the Holy Spirit in your life.

3.Service Christianity—Christianity is living an authentic life of sacrificial service to something outside yourself.

4.Character Christianity—Christianity is living a holy life that pleases God and honors the name of Christ. It is a faithful life of moral and spiritual integrity that follows the example of Jesus.

5.Ascetic Christianity—Christianity is the imitation of Christ, including his suffering and sacrifice. To be a genuine Christian is to live simply as Jesus did and to crucify the flesh with all its passions and desires.

6.Mystical Christianity—Christianity is to experience oneness with God through contemplation. It is to lose one’s individuality in the sea of God, to catch a vision of eternity, to sense the divinity within, and to feel the divine bliss of heaven.

7.Liturgical Christianity—Christianity is experiencing the beauty and holiness of God through the avenue of formal worship. To be a Christian is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

June 25, 2007

The Wisdom of the New Testament

In an earlier entry, I briefly described my philosophy of life. The third principle of that philosophy was to follow the wisdom of the New Testament.

I want to unpack what I mean by that statement. In the tradition of late-night television, I have put together a top-ten list of wise advice taken from the pages of the New Testament. This list, of course, is representative but not comprehensive.

10.Owe no one anything except love (Romans 13:8)

I remember being startled as a teenager at the realization my parents were not obeying this direct biblical command. They owed money for many things. In fact, I think most American Christians are in debt. Debt is what has made America great, right?

Well, Paul’s advice is still good. Stay out of debt. Don’t borrow money for anything that does not appreciate in value. That way, you will escape a myriad of temptations and the distinct possibility of financial bondage.

9.Remember that bad friends corrupt good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Choose your friends carefully. The people you associate with will shape your character and your behavior. In a real sense, over time, you are only as good as the company you keep.

In the context, Paul is advising Christians to avoid the “eat, drink, and be merry” crowd. Their definition of substance abuse as fun is shallow and self-destructive. Find friends who have a more serious purpose in life, and they will help you find genuine happiness.

8.Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (Ephesians 4:26-27)

Don’t let your feelings fester. Don’t harbor resentment. Advice columnists often encourage married couples to kiss and make up before they go to sleep at night. This advice, I believe, comes indirectly from this passage, and it has been one principle on which many successful marriages have been founded.

James says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Avoid letting anger gain a foothold in your life.

7.Look out for the interests of others and not just your own (Philippians 2:4).

Deuteronomy 16:20 records Moses are saying to the people of Israel, “Justice and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land.” The point is this: Never exploit or manipulate other people. Act in their best interest even when it is not always in your own.

To the extent that a nation’s foreign policy is guided only by self-interest and not by justice, that nation is not Christian.

6.Never take vengeance (Romans 12:19).

Vengeance is destructive whether it takes place on a personal, national, or international scale. The current war in Iraq is, in some sense, an act of vengeance for the 9-11 bombing. World War II resulted, to a large extent, because the victorious powers in World War I took vengeance on their enemies and imposed burdens too heavy to bear.

Good Christians do not seek vengeance and neither do Christian nations.

5.Examine yourself carefully before you criticize others (Matthew 7:1-5)

It is absolutely essential to judge others in order to choose good friends or a good marriage partner. The context of this passage makes it clear that Jesus is talking about self-awareness and self-examination, not about some absolute refusal to make judgments.

The wisdom of ancient Greece is sometimes summed up in the phrase “Know thyself.” Jesus is saying we should assess our own lives lucidly before we attempt to criticize or correct others. The wisdom of the New Testament says, “Keep your own doorstep clean.”

4.Seek peace and pursue it (Hebrews 12:14).

Jesus is not known as the Prince of Peace for nothing. The theme of peace pervades Christianity: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

One scripture I have committed to memory is James 3:17-18. The wisdom from above is first pure then peaceable, and a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. In Romans 12:18, Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Those who want to live happy lives and promote the common welfare should make peace a priority.

3.Do honest work so you may have something to give (Ephesians 4:28).

Honest work is a good thing. Its purpose is not fame and fortune but the ability to support yourself, your family, and your generosity to others in need. The so-called “Protestant Work Ethic” is not so much Protestant as biblical. As Max Weber noted, its original intent was not to create a capitalistic economy but to do the right thing, that is, to help others.

2.Overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)

Life is a struggle. For some, it is more of a struggle than for others. Although evil can gain the upper hand, history also shows that evil can be overcome by good. Doing right is always right, and doing wrong is always wrong. If we consistently try to do the right thing, the Bible says we will find strength to endure the troubles of life and often strength to overcome them.

1.Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33)

Living a good life is about setting priorities. Sacrifice to set the right priorities and, in the long run, you will never regret it. Money will not seem important on your death bed. Being surrounded by loved ones who love you and looking back on a life well-lived will allow you to die in peace. Follow the wisdom of the New Testament and, in all likelihood, you will die at peace amid the praise of those who follow after.

June 26, 2007

How to Explain Away the Bible

1.Explain that the passage is to be taken figuratively, not literally.

Obvious: “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 18:9)

Less Obvious: “If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)

2.Explain that the passage is to be taken in a relative sense, not an absolute sense. We should relate the passage to our own times without taking it exactly as it is written.

Obvious: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but. . . with good works.” (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart.” (1 Peter 3:3)

Less Obvious: “Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” (Titus 2:4-5)

3.Explain that the passage applies to a first-century historical situation rather than for all time.

Obvious: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:27)

“Abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols.” (Acts 15:29)

Less Obvious: “The women should keep silent in the churches. . . For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 11:34-35)

4.Explain that the passage pertains to the old covenant at Sinai rather than to the new covenant at Calvary.

Obvious: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths.” (Deuteronomy 16:16)

“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 21:12)

Less Obvious: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

“Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord.” (Leviticus 27:30)

5.Explain that the passage pertains to one individual or group rather than to everyone for all time.

Obvious: “Use a little wine for your stomach’s sake.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” (Luke 10:19)

Less Obvious: “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22)

6.Explain that the passage applies to individuals but not to societies or to governments.

Obvious: “I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” (Matthew 5:39)

Less obvious: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” (Romans 12:20)

7.Explain that what is commanded has been superceded by another command or principle.

Obvious: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans.” (Matthew 10:5)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ. . .” (Ephesians 6:5)

Less Obvious: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is head of the church. . .” (Ephesians 5:22)

8.Explain that what is referred to is a miraculous gift no longer available to Christians today.

Obvious: “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them.” (Mark 16:18)

Less Obvious: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)

“The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. . . . Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:15-16)

9.Explain that the command is an ideal to be taken seriously but not a firm obligation to be taken literally.

Obvious: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39)

“Give to whomever begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” (Luke 12:33)

Less Obvious: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other. . .” (Romans 13:8)

10.Explain that the passage reflects the cultural standards and practices of the ancient Jewish or Roman world and therefore does not specifically apply to our culture today.

Obvious: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Romans 16:16)

“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)

“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.” (1 Corinthians 11:5)

Less Obvious: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12)

Conclusion: One basic reason there are so many divisions in Christianity is that some religious groups explain away more scriptures than others do. Furthermore, even within certain churches, some members are willing to explain away the “obvious” but not the “less obvious.”

As the church historian Everett Ferguson has written, explaining away scripture “leaves our theology or our interpretation as the authority, not the words of scripture.” He further warns that, “The text itself is our authority, not our reconstruction of the context” (Women in the Church. Yeomen Press, 2003, pp. 39-40).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to understand the meaning of many texts without choosing either a literal or figurative reading. Our task is to read the scriptures as intelligently as possible using logic, reason, knowledge, and understanding. Sometimes this amounts to “reconstructing” the text using linguistic, literary, cultural, and historical insights in order to clarify what the text actually meant to its original readers.

Beyond that, however, lies the question of what significance certain biblical texts have for us today. Sometimes it is difficult to obey commands that seem arbitrary or anachronistic. Are we to live and worship exactly as Christians did in the first century or do we have some latitude? What we choose to ignore or retain about first-century Christian faith and practice will have profound implications for our Christianity.

Whatever the case, whenever we study the Bible, we would be wise to begin by reading each text literally, as if for the very first time, so that we feel the full force of its words. Only after meditating on the literal meaning of a text should we ever proceed to explain it away, domesticate it, discount it, or allow it to lose the power to amaze, disturb, and convict us.

June 30, 2007


Although arrogance, murder, stealing, lying, and oppressing the poor are all great sins in the Old Testament, idolatry ranks number one. The story of Israel is a story of idolatry virtually from beginning to end. Abraham's ancestors worshipped idols (Joshua 24:2), and the descendants of Abraham worshipped idols in Egypt (Joshua 24:14). Even before the children of Israel reached the Promise Land, many had already begun to worship Baal, the god of Canaan (Numbers 25:1-5). King Solomon himself became an idolater (1 Kings 11:4-8), as did Jeroboam, the first king of the northern state (1 Kings 12:25-30). Eventually, persistent idolatry brought about both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (2 Kings 17:6-18; Ezekiel 7:1-9; 8:5-18; Jeremiah 2:20-25).

As the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) once noted, only intelligent beings are superstitious. Animals worship no gods and make no images to bow down before. Something in human consciousness draws us to believe in powers that are beyond our ken. Although idolatry may seem a curious relic of the past, one need only observe the prevalence of astrological forecasts in the newspapers or the new age crystals dangling from rear view mirrors to realize that belief in supernatural forces is alive and well.

In ancient times, idolatry was a form of nationalistic superstition that claimed the sovereignty of local gods over human affairs such as agriculture, war, and personal success. In one wryly amusing passage (1 Kings 20:23-30), the counselors of Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, tell him the reason they are losing battles to the Israelites is that the Israelites have a mountain god. If they fight in the valley, they reason, their army will win the victory. In 2 Kings 5:15-18, Naaman, healed of his leprosy by God, requests two mule loads of Israeli dirt. Even though he believes in the true God, he still thinks he must stand upon the physical ground of Canaan in order to worship. The distinctive idea of the Bible is that one righteous God rules over all the earth (Exodus 19:5).

This monotheism, as articulated in Deuteronomy 5-6, forms the foundation of biblical religion. What Moses taught in the wilderness of Sinai, Paul was still proclaiming in Athens well over a thousand years later (Acts 17:22-31). God, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made with human hands. He cannot be tied down, pigeon-holed, or domesticated. He is not the product of a self-serving, superstitious imagination. Instead, he has revealed himself through the history and experience of a people whom he has chosen. His incredible deeds on behalf of this people constitute the proof of his existence.

Monotheism contains important ethical implications. First is the brotherhood of mankind. Since we have all been created in the image of one God, we all have similar worth. Second, because God is holy, righteous, and good, all ethical values derive from his revealed nature and character. Third, because God is the sovereign Lord, to place our confidence and trust in other values or forces constitutes sheer folly. In other words, racism, relativism, and rugged individualism are all sins against monotheism.

To love God means to be sure you are serving the right God (Deuteronomy 30:15-17; 13:1-5). Although few people in modern industrialized countries ever bow down before idols to pray for a good harvest or a good job, many bow the knee to the capitalistic "god" of economics whose prophet is Adam Smith. They truly believe that economic laws set irresistible boundaries to human conduct. In reality, something doesn't have to have an altar or a temple to become a false god; you simply have to trust it and obey it by letting it determine your behavior and values. The first commandment is plain, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).

July 1, 2007


Most of us recognize that each human being has to learn how to live with other people. Relationships, both formal and informal, give structure to daily life. As the philosopher Alphonso Lingis has noted, all relations are contractual, involving rights and obligations. We have invisible bonds with our family members, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our co-workers--even with those of our own age group, race, or profession--that entail mutual albeit unvoiced commitments. In times of crisis such as floods, droughts, or sickness, farmers from around the country will help fellow farmers to survive. We see aunts and uncles adopting their orphaned nieces and nephews. War will unite the most diverse elements of a nation in a common effort to resist a common enemy.

Covenant is a biblical term for a solemn contract that defines our relationship to God. Throughout time, God has made covenants with individuals such as Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:8-17), Abraham (Genesis 15:18; 17:7-14), and David (2 Samuel 7:8-16) or with entire groups such as Israel (Deuteronomy 4:13; Judges 2:1) and spiritual Israel--the members of Christ's kingdom (Hebrews 8:6-13; 12:24; Galatians 4:24-31; Romans 4:16-17). Covenants typically involve promises and stipulations, threats and blessings (Deuteronomy 27:12-26; 28:1-14). They are commemorated by physical signs such as a rainbow (Genesis 9:13), the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:11), tablets of stone (Deuteronomy 9:9), salt (Leviticus 2:13), blood (Exodus 24:8), and wine (1 Corinthians 11:25).

"Relationship" conveys the force of "covenant" better than "contract" because the covenant was warm, intimate, and caring. While a covenant is a type of contract, covenant says far more than contract about the length and strength of commitment. The covenant God made with Noah not to destroy the world again by flood was a perpetual contract. His promise to bless Abraham's seed and David's kingship has been eternally sealed in Jesus Christ. Paul says God has not forgotten his old covenant with Israel. In a sense, God's covenant, like his call, is irrevocable (Romans 11:26-29) because God's love is faithful.

A man criticized for breaking his promise replied that it didn't really matter because he could make another just as good. God faithfully keeps his commitments. To understand God's idea of covenant is to catch a glimpse of God's character (Nehemiah 9:7-8). The Old Testament contains a unique word, chesed (pronounced with a hard, guttural consonant like the German ach) that has challenged its English translators for generations. Variously rendered as "faith," "loyalty," "loving kindness", "steadfast, unfailing love," and "covenant solidarity," it represents the persistent love of God that remains loyal even when betrayed, that keeps faith even with the faithless (Isaiah 54:10).

This proactive, pursuing love of God explains in large part the salvation history recorded in the Bible's pages. "For God so loved the world. . ." seems to summarize God's offer of the covenants both old and new. The word "testament" in Greek also translates as "covenant." Each time we open the Bible's to one of its two distinct parts, each time we partake of the Lord's Supper, we are reminded of God's promised love and of our corresponding obligation to emulate that covenant loyalty through good behavior.

Keeping the provisions of a covenant requires integrity. As time marches on, our interests change, our situations alter. Something within us calls us to cut loose from the past and from old commitments. Politicians forget their promises; business partners part ways; spouses break their vows. Too often it seems that dogs have better reputations for steadfastness than humans. Throughout history, however, a faithful body of believers--called "the remnant" by prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel--has always joined God in remaining loyal to the covenant.

July 2, 2007


When we think of law, we generally envision a code of regulations designed to suppress antisocial behavior. Such was not the chief intent of the law given to Moses. Just as covenant signaled a personal relationship like that between parent and child, so the law was meant to be the guidance a parent gives to children for their health and welfare. Covenant and law are inseparable. Indeed, the Bible calls the law, as typified by the Ten Commandments, "the book of the covenant" (Exodus 24:7; 2 Kings 23:2, 21). In Hebrew, the word torah, usually translated law, actually means teaching--religious instruction about the responsibilities of covenant life (Jeremiah 6:19; Job 22:21-22; Proverbs 3:1).

God never intended the Jews to view the Mosaic law as a set of rigid, burdensome, and irrelevant rules. The prophets never teach that outward acts, however correctly executed, have any efficacy whatsoever apart from a sincere love for God. As Jesus, Paul, and James noted, the essence of the law was first to love God and then to love one's neighbor (Deuteronomy 11:13-15, 22-23; 15:7-11; Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). Without those loving prerequisites, perfunctory obedience to regulations and rituals was always odious in God's eyes (Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8).

God never intended people to view the Mosaic law as a means of meriting forgiveness. God's favor was the reason for the law's existence rather than a reward for obeying the law. God chose Israel because he loved them for Abraham's sake, not because he expected perfection from them (Deuteronomy 7:7-11). Jews call the Ten Commandments "the Ten Statements," and they consider the first one to be: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). All obedience to law is predicated on gratitude and represents a loving response to God's mighty acts of grace and mercy (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).

As it eventually does to all good things, human sinfulness twisted and perverted the law. Jesus clearly taught that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill or perfect it (Matthew 5:17). Paul also asserts that the law of Moses was holy and good (Romans 3:31; 7:12). What both Jesus and Paul opposed was the misunderstanding and misapplication of the law on the part of religious leaders who substituted ceremony and rituals for personal holiness and adherence to regulations for true religion. When Paul writes, for example, in Ephesians 2:15 that Christ abolished the law, he is referring to the ceremonial law that men had enthroned and that Christ's personal sacrifice rendered obsolete. The moral law, reflecting God's unchanging, loving character, did not change. Obviously, it is the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) as well as of Moses that we should love God and one another.

As Paul explains in Galatians 3-4, Gentiles (non-Jews) were not included in the Sinai covenant God made with Israel. They benefit, however, from the covenant promises God made to the pre-Mosaic Abraham, and they enjoy peace with God through Christ. Justification through ceremonial law-keeping (circumcision and sacrifice) could never have saved the Gentiles. If it could have, then Christ died for no purpose. But even for the ancient Jews, ritual law-keeping never satisfied the need for grace they felt (Psalms 103:8-11; 51:1-2).

God gave his law to Moses as a gift of mercy. It was not a poorly conceived idea on his part that needed to be rectified later. It was simply the teaching of a prior covenant. Now Christians are under a new covenant. While the old ceremonial law has been replaced, their faithfulness to the moral teaching of scripture remains the barometer of their salvation. If Christians disdain the law of Moses, they have not yet attained to the mind of Christ.

July 3, 2007


Everything in the Bible hinges ultimately on the love of God. The phrase "love of God" is ambiguous in English. It can mean either "the love God has" or "the love one has for God." In the Bible, the first meaning predominates. God's spontaneous, sovereign love for the patriarchs that he later bestows on the whole nation of Israel provides the dominant motif of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:7-10; Hosea 11:1-9; Isaiah 49:14-18). Likewise, God's universal love for all humanity serves as the driving force of the New Testament (John 3:16-17; Romans 8:38-39; 1 John 4:7-21).

Throughout the Old Testament, writers make reference to the particular love that God had for Israel (Deuteronomy 23:5; 1 Kings 10:9; Isaiah 43:4). God loved Israel in the sense that he preferred that nation to all others (Malachi 1:2-3). Hebrew idiom often used the words love and hate to express preference. For example, when comparing two wives in Deuteronomy 21:15, the Hebrew that literally says "if a man has two wives, the one loved, and the other hated" is perhaps better translated, "if a man prefers one of his wives to another." Similar usage contrasts Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29:31 and Hannah and Peninnah in 1 Samuel 1:2-5. The sense is not that Jacob hated Leah or that Elkanah hated Peninnah. They simply had preferences. This linguistic contrast explains the "hard saying" of Jesus in Luke 14:26. Jesus is not saying his disciples should hate their families. Rather, he emphasizes they should not give their family loyalties priority or preference.

Are God's preferences selective, exclusive, or discriminatory? By their very nature, they certainly are. There is no arguing personal taste. "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated" (Romans 9:13). God is a person, and he has his preferences. It would be inaccurate to say that God capriciously or arbitrarily picked Israel to be his instrument of revelation. The Bible portrays God as having genuine tenderness for his people. His love remains mysterious and unmerited, but it is no less real or sincere. God has done special things for the Jews because he loves them. Recognizing this love, some conservative French Christians sheltered Jews from the Nazis during World War II. They reasoned that if God had shown such love to these people, how could they do any less.

In the Old Testament there are two main words for love, ahabah and chesed. Ahabah denotes the election-love described above, a love limited only by the will or nature of the lover. Chesed, discussed in the entry on covenant, is the love of loyalty and faithfulness that does not exist apart from a formal covenant relationship. The miracle and majesty of divine love shows itself in this: Although God alone has the power to choose his beloved and the power to dissolve that relationship, he always remains faithful (Deuteronomy 4:31). Instead of giving up on humanity because of Israel's idolatry and sinfulness, he chose instead to expand his love for Abraham to include every human being.

We take our cue for unselfish loving from God. All of us know by natural instinct how to love the lovable and to love those that love us (Luke 6:32-33). People will die for their beloved family, friends, and country. But God's love teaches us to be loyal even when we don't feel like it. God's love shows us how to live unselfishly and even to sacrifice ourselves for enemies and sinners.

This unique variety of love, expressed in the New Testament by the Greek word agape, finds eloquent description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It really is too wonderful to conceive. Meditation upon this love humbles the ego and drives it to a confession of inadequacy. The agony and ecstasy of the Christian walk consists in striving to model the faithful love of God in all of one’s relationships. Although unworthy of the challenge, Christians have been called to reflect God's character.

July 4, 2007


The Bible plainly teaches that Abraham did not discover God. God appeared to Abraham. Likewise, Moses did not go to Midian in search of God, but God spoke to Moses in the land of Midian. A distinctive idea of scripture is that God has always sought special people for reasons known only to him. People like Gideon, Samuel, David, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Saul of Tarsus come to mind, among many others. Jesus said to his apostles in John 15:16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last."

Election was not, in and of itself, an original idea. The kings of pagan nations also felt their gods had chosen them for greatness. They typically attributed their selection to some personal attribute their god admired in them. But the God of the Bible seems to prefer underdogs and nobodies. As part of their regular worship, the people of Israel were commanded to remind themselves that they were descendants of "a wandering Aramean" (Deuteronomy 26:5). Scripture makes it patently clear that Israel was not chosen for its physical, moral, social, intellectual, or spiritual merit (Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Ezekiel 16:3-7). God chose Israel to keep his promise to Abraham (see Psalm 105:38-42). Why God chose Abraham reverts to the mystery of election.

Whom God chooses, he always chooses for service. Although Israel prospered as a result of God's faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham, God blessed Israel for his name's sake, that is, to show he was truly God by doing the impossible for this puny nation (1 Samuel 12:22; 1 Kings 8:41-43). Furthermore, he called Israel to spread the truth of ethical monotheism by becoming a moral and spiritual beacon to other nations (Isaiah 2:2-4; 42:6-8; 43:10). Election is never a free ride. It entails becoming an instrument of God's peace. Because Israel largely failed in fulfilling its service responsibilities, Jeremiah prophesied the creation of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God elected a new Israel, the church, but the service requirement remains in effect (1 Peter 2:9-12). The church is not simply a Jesus club, a society of like-minded people who meet for mutual edification. It is the Israel of God, chosen and called--chosen to receive his grace but also to feel the cost of that grace, called to be a new creation and to maintain a higher ethical standard (Galatians 6:15-16). Like those who survived the Babylonian Captivity, the church is the faithful remnant--the bit preserved by God (Romans 11:5-7; Matthew 22:14). Yet the distinctive idea behind the remnant concept is that the remnant is saved to save others; the stump is eventually expected to produce branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Election is not predestination, if one means by predestination a destiny that cannot be refused. Thoughout history, people have cast their election aside. In Jeremiah, the vessel that fails to realize the intention of the potter is refashioned into another vessel (Jeremiah 18:4). Although God does not create people who are doomed to hell from birth any more than a potter would make vessels with no other thought than to destroy them, pots do become marred for one reason or another. Faithless Israel marred itself through idolatry and sin while God remained faithful. In scripture, election and predestination are always positive. God chooses people for glory, not for damnation (Romans 8:29-30), but it is up to them to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).

God predestines people in love, not wrath (Ephesians 1:4). Christians have been chosen, not for privilege or pride, but for service, whether noble or menial (Romans 9:20-21). Forsaking complacency and self-righteousness, the chosen of God are called to serve others with all heart, mind, and strength, relying on eternal promises for the strength to do so.

July 5, 2007


The Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Indians, and Greeks all sought after wisdom. The word "philosopher" comes from the Greek word for "lover of wisdom," and history clearly shows that no nation or people has ever cornered the market on wisdom. The book of Proverbs quotes foreign sources such as King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1-9), and several statements found in the proverbs or in the civil law given by Moses have parallels in the earlier writings of Egyptian wisemen and Mesopotamian law books. These include similar teachings about carrying off landmarks, using false scales, gossip, ox-goring, redemption from slavery, and the worth of a good name.

The ancient Jews treated wisdom as basically a practical matter. It could be summed up in the question, "What is the best way to ensure a happy life?" Although Old Testament writers identify God as the source of wisdom (1 Kings 3:28; 4:29) and occasionally ascribe wisdom to God himself (Isaiah 10:13; 31:2; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15), wisdom in the Old Testament most commonly represents a human rather than divine characteristic. In the Old Testament sense, wisdom usually meant practical knowledge and competence. Solomon is said to have been wise because he administered justice well (1 Kings 3:11-28), wrote proverbs and songs (1 Kings 4:29-34), and answered hard questions (1 Kings 10:3-6). His wisdom, however, did not make him perfect, neither did it prevent his participating in idolatry.

The Bible's originality consists in maintaining that human wisdom has little meaning apart from the fear of God. The value of knowledge depends upon the kind of God you worship. As Proverbs 9:10 states, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." The numerous passages that echo this truth do not imply that wisdom is like a journey whose first step is the fear of the Lord and whose subsequent steps include other virtues. Rather, the word "beginning" in these texts means "heart" or "essence." In other words, the fear of God constitutes the wisdom we need most. In Job 28:28 we read, "The fear of the Lord--that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding."

Obviously, the word "fear" in English has negative connotations. We recognize that fear is normally the root cause of hatred. But fearing God in the book of Proverbs links directly to ethical monotheism (Proverbs 3:7; 8:13), and the parallel constructions of Hebrew poetry underscore that the fear of God is synonymous with shunning evil (Job 1:1, 8;2:3; 28:28). To respect and honor the one righteous God means to behave morally, because that is God's primary concern. "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

In Proverbs 16:6, the writer parallels the fear of the Lord with chesed or covenant love. That is because chesed on the part of human beings means "godliness"--the love for God we show by doing his will and by fulfilling the requirements of the covenant. To fear God is to serve him with all faithfulness (Joshua 24:14). None of these passages refers to a dread of the spirit world such as one finds in voodoo religion. On the contrary, when the people of Israel were frightened at Sinai by the thunder, lightning, darkness, and smoke, Moses told them, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning" (Exodus 20:20).

The Bible maintains that no life can be sound that misunderstands the nature of God or that neglects his law. By keeping the law of God, we demonstrate our wisdom and understanding to others (Deuteronomy 4:6). We cultivate a wisdom revealed by the Spirit that leads to eternal life (1 Corinthians 2:6-13).

July 6, 2007


When God put to death seventy men of Beth Shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord (1 Samuel 6:20), the people of Beth Shemesh exclaimed, "Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?" But in Hosea 11:9, instead of threatening to destroy, God says he refuses to bring destruction on northern Israel because "I am God and not a man--the Holy One in your midst." How is it that in one passage God's holiness explains his wrath and in another it explains his mercy? The idea common to both situations is that God is not human--he does not act in the way human beings naturally would.

Holiness means "otherness," God's complete separateness and awesome difference from everything and everyone else. Otherness does not mean remoteness, because scripture always presents God as being close (Deuteronomy 4:7; Isaiah 57:15; Acts 17:27-28). Otherness does not indicate passivity. The God of the Bible is not the deist God who set the universe in motion according to immutable physical laws and then took his leave. In scripture, God is known by what he does in the world, often by mighty acts that defy physical law like parting the Red Sea or stopping time. Otherness signifies those qualities and attitudes that define the Lord God alone.

Holiness in the Bible has both literal and figurative manifestations. Taboos abound in the Old Testament: touching or looking into the ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7; 1 Samuel 6:19-20), offering unauthorized fire (Leviticus 10:1-3), touching holy ground (Exodus 19:12-13). The positive sign of God's holiness consists primarily of his shekinah, his "glory" or bright cloud of presence (1 Kings 8:10-11). Moses' shining face (Exodus 34:29-35) and Jesus' dazzling clothes (Mark 9:2-8) reflect the glory of God, the outward sign of his holiness.

The sacrificial system of the old covenant was a physical tribute to holiness. It came about because God commanded that the first-born of man and beast was to be consecrated (made holy) to God (Exodus 13:2, 12-13; 22:29) as a tangible sign of loyalty. As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, God allowed people to substitute their best animals in place of their children, thereby instituting the sacrificial system. Sacrifice, literal or figurative, represents the holy offering of human lives to God (Romans 12:1).

While physical taboos and sacrifices had their place in raising human consciousness concerning the divine, awesome otherness of God, these practices were not distinctive to ethical monotheism. Most religions had and have similar taboos or rituals. The originality of biblical teaching about holiness is that God's holiness manifests itself most fully not in his fearsomeness but in his righteousness (Isaiah 5:16; 6:1-7). God made ethical demands on his holy nation because of his own holy nature (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; Psalm 15; 24:3-6; 1 Peter 1:13-16). Indeed, the whole ethical system of the Bible is founded upon the holiness of God, and scripture teaches that religion is good for morals only if you serve a holy God.

For Greeks like Aristotle, the excellence of human beings lay in their ability to reason. Living the life of reason, therefore, enabled intelligent, educated people to fulfill their human potential. The moral life was simply the cultivated, reasonable life that led to complete human fulfillment. The standard by which the prophets judged human conduct, however, was neither a reasoned ideal nor the brotherhood of man. To the contrary, it was an "inhuman" standard based on the holiness of God. God, not reason, conferred excellence on people by making them a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9-10). And God, not reason, is the ultimate judge of character. It is only in knowing God and his holiness that people have any hope of understanding his righteousness.

July 9, 2007


"That's not fair" is one of the most commonly heard complaints in American society. If we understand the word "fair" as meaning "treating everyone the same," it is usually impossible to understand what the person is really saying. For example, if a student with dyslexia makes a low grade on a test, he or she may exclaim, "That's not fair; I wasn't given enough time to finish!" But in reality, that person was given exactly the same amount of time as every other student taking the test; it was simply insufficient.

Those in favor of affirmative action (giving hiring preference to minorities or women) say it isn't fair to judge minority applicants and majority applicants on the same basis because systemic factors give built-in advantages to white males. In other words, purely equal treatment can never really be truly equitable because so many factors obtain. "That's not fair" often means in reality: "You haven't taken into account my personal situation and acted accordingly in a gracious and merciful manner."

In scripture, the words "justice" and "righteousness" go hand in hand. There is one Hebrew word for "justice" or impartial, unbiased judgment and another for "righteousness" or conformity to a standard of right. Forms of these two words frequently appear in the same verse as virtual synonyms, although "righteousness" is essentially a broader term (Psalm 103:6; Isaiah 5:16; 59:9). Sometimes, writers use the Hebrew word for "righteousness" in the more limited sense of "justice" (conformity to a standard of impartiality) and English translators translate it by the word "justice" (Psalm 11:7, NIV, REB). On the other hand, one never translates the specific Hebrew word for "justice" (mishpat) by "righteousness."

All this may seem confusing, but the point is that the English language has no one consistently good way to translate the Hebrew word "righteousness." It is simply too elastic and evocative a word. In English, the word "justice" is more commonly used and therefore more important than "righteousness." But from a biblical perspective, it is impossible to render justice without understanding the standard by which it must be rendered. That standard is God's righteousness.

Righteousness means "conformity to a norm." That standard does not have to be strictly ethical. Judah declares that Tamar (who disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce him) was more "righteous" than he (Genesis 38:26). Why? Because she had been obedient to the requirements of the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) while he had neglected his responsibility. David was more "righteous" than Saul because he had honored the subject-king relationship while Saul had betrayed David's loyalty (1 Samuel 24:17).

Righteousness in scripture often means behaving according to the requirements of covenant relationship, which involves showing faithful obedience on man's part, faithful love on God's (Deuteronomy 6:25; Psalm 103:17-18). When Paul says that in the gospel "is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith" (Romans 1:17, ASV), he means that God's covenant love has been passed from Abraham to us through Christ. In both the Old Testament and the New, God's righteousness becomes an umbrella term for his saving power (Isaiah 45:21; 46:13; 51:4-5; 61:10; Psalm 51:14).

Is the righteous God of the Bible just (fair and impartial) or is he merciful? Thankfully, one can say he is both. Sovereign lords like God are not forced or obligated to be just. If they are just instead of arbitrary and capricious, it is because they have a prior disposition toward goodness, kindness, and mercy. Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power over others, we should seek to be righteous like God, adhering to strict standards of both justice and mercy. "The holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness" (Isaiah 5:16).

July 10, 2007


Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why couldn't God, in his infinite mercy, simply say "I forgive you" to those he thought deserved forgiveness? In the answer to this question lies the doctrine of the atonement. The English word "atonement" refers to being "at one" (or reconciled) with God. Why was humanity estranged from God in the first place, how exactly did the reconciliation take place, and what does it mean for us today?

In his book Christus Victor, Gustaf Aulén outlines three main approaches to the atonement. According to the Classical View, which predominated from the second to the fourth century, sin is the byproduct of bondage to an evil supernatural being, the devil (1 John 3:8-10; 5:19). Human beings were originally created free moral agents, but the devil enslaved them and became the "prince of this world" (John 12:31; 16:8-11). In order to redeem mankind from slavery, God had to pay Christ as a ransom price. Dying on the cross, Jesus exchanged himself for humanity and became the devil's possession, but Christ was stronger than Satan and broke free from his bondage when he broke the bonds of death (Hebrews 2:14-15; Romans 6:6-10).

The Latin View developed from the fifth century through the Middle Ages. According to his view, God is holy and cannot by nature accept sin in his presence. Unless delivered from sin, humanity faces eternal estrangement from God, but since people are all sinful, no mere human sacrifice can meet the demands of divine justice. Motivated by love and mercy, God himself satisfies his own sense of justice by sending Christ as a sinless man to make the necessary sacrifice (1 John 2:1-2; 4:10). God as man propitiates himself, thereby demonstrating both his justice and his mercy (Romans 3:25-26).

The Pietistic View arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to this view, there was no literal ransom paid to the devil or complicated legal process of satisfying divine justice. Sin is a matter of the heart. People are sick with sin, and Christ came as a spiritual physician to heal humanity by calling for a new birth and by leaving a perfect example sealed by his selfless death. We are saved by becoming Christ-like in our moral lives. We know we are saved because we feel harmony and peace of mind.

Scripture uses poetic images and word pictures to explain the atonement: the lamb on the altar (propitiation), the relative who has fallen into slavery (redemption/ransom); the loving family (adoption), the estranged relationship (reconciliation), the battlefield (victory), the doctor's office (healing), the sheepfold under attack (rescue), and the law court (justification). Is one of these more theologically accurate, precise, or correct than the others? Are they all simply approximations or illustrations?

Some things are clear. The death of Jesus underscores the horror of sin and God's hatred for it. People are dying in sin and need a savior. Christ's atoning death incarnates God's love and mercy (Romans 5:8). Atonement is God's initiative from first to last (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). It is unthinkable to exploit God's love and loyalty by continuing to sin (Romans 6:1-2). Therefore, as redeemed people, we should live lives worthy of the Master whose name we now bear (Colossians 1:9-10; Ephesians 4:1-3).

Atonement is in the past; salvation is in the future. As we have been justified by his blood, so we will be saved by his life, that is, by his resurrected life when we, like him, are resurrected unto eternal life (Romans 5:9-10). God will preserve us from the devil unless we consciously rebel and return to the devil's bondage (Romans 8:37-39). These truths resonating within the hearts and minds of believers provide the purpose and motivation needed to live the ethical life.

July 12, 2007


The Greek word translated "grace" appears over 170 times in the New Testament, yet only a few of those occurrences actually refer to what is commonly thought of as the biblical doctrine of grace. A common meaning of grace (charis) in classical Greek was "loveliness" or "that which is pleasant and attractive." Many are familiar with the “Three Graces,” three beautiful women portrayed in many paintings and sculptures. This seems to be the sense of the Greek word in passages like Luke 4:22 and Colossians 4:6.

Obviously, people like what they find attractive. Thus, charis also has the meaning of "favor" or "approval" in Luke 2:40, 52 and Acts 2:47. When we approve of something or someone, we endow that object of approval with our "good-will," yet another sense of the word (Acts 14:26; 15:40). This good-will may even take the form of an appreciative gift, whether monetary (1 Corinthians 16:3) or non-material (2 Corinthians 1:15). Hence, grace came to mean a gift.

When God is the giver, the gift may be a blessing (2 Corinthians 9:8), a special endowment for service (1 Corinthians 15:10; Romans 1:5; 12:3; 15:15), or even the gift of eternal life (1 Peter 1:13). This gift, above all, is God's love showered upon an undeserving humanity in the form of Jesus the Messiah (John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:5; Acts 15:11). Thus, the unearned gift of salvation made possible by the death of Jesus is known as “grace” (Romans 3:21-25; 4:4; 11:5-6; Ephesians 1:7-8; 2:5-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:4-7).

In yet an even broader sense, “grace” in scripture becomes a figure of speech, contrasted with "law," that designates the Christian dispensation (Romans 6:14; 1 Peter 5:12; Galatians 2:21). Grace in this sense more or less equals Christianity: You enter into it (Romans 5:2), abide in it (Acts 13:43), or fall from it (Galatians 5:4). The gospel of Christ is synonymous with the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24) because Jesus Christ was the ultimate gift.

Although the actual word for grace appears on the lips of Jesus only twice (Luke 6:32 in the sense of "credit" and Luke 17:9 in the sense of "gratitude"), the concept of God's generous forgiveness shines through parables such as “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-24), “The Pharisee and the Publican” (Luke 18:9-14), and “The Laborers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-16). Both Jesus and Paul seek to restore the original teaching of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Psalm 103:8-12; Micah 7:18-20) that the rabbis of their day had perverted into an empty legalism. God's election of Israel, his covenant, his steadfast love, and his deliverance from Egyptian and Babylonian captivity were all examples of grace. The Old Testament never suggested that God forgave sin as a reward for sacrifice, quite the contrary (Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-27). Sacrifice was intended only to be a grateful response to God’s grace (Psalm 50:7-15).

Seeing oneself as the unworthy recipient of God's generous gifts should have a direct bearing on one’s ethical behavior. In the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” (Matthew 18:21-25), nothing is more despicable than refusing to show mercy after one has been shown mercy. If God's grace does not change our attitude toward others, then we have totally refused to know and imitate God. From beginning to end, the Bible is a book about the free gifts of God. No room is left for human pride, arrogance, presumption, or self-sufficiency because each of those qualities implicitly rejects the notion of humble gratitude.

Paul says in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin, paid by a check drawn on the devil's account, is death. You earn them. By contrast, the gift of God is eternal life. You neither earn nor deserve it. Because God saves us in spite of our failures, we should love others in spite of theirs. While this doesn't mean we should let them exploit us, it does mean we should always act with their welfare in mind. Being gracious is the epitome of godly behavior (Proverbs 14:31).

July 28, 2007


Like righteous and grace, the word "faith" has several meanings. The Greek word pistis (pronounced PISS-tiss) is variously translated in the New Testament as belief (mental acceptance), faith (trust, confidence), and faithfulness (trustworthiness). Obviously, since these are far from synonymous, one must carefully examine the context of a particular passage to decide which of the meanings applies.

When the word is applied to God, as in Romans 3:3, it is usually translated as "faithfulness," since we conceive of God as so omniscient and independent as to preclude his "believing" something or "relying" on something in a literal sense. The word is also translated faithfulness in Matthew 23:23 (to denote a quality that the Pharisees, although believers, lacked) and Galatians 5:22, where it denotes a fruit of the Spirit that will come to characterize Christians who already believe and trust God.

Faith in the New Testament is both the intellectual conviction that God exists (James 2:14-26; Hebrews 11:6) and the spiritual conviction that, though Christians were unrighteous in our own right, they have become righteous in Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28). In a skillful yet subtle way, Paul links the dual meanings of faith and faithfulness theologically. Non-Jews trust God to save their souls as a direct result of his promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his seed (Galatians 3:14, 29). Although Romans 1:17 is notoriously hard to interpret with precision, it may well mean that God's righteousness is revealed from Abraham's covenant faithfulness (when he was ready to sacrifice Isaac) to Christ's covenant faithfulness (when he offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross). Like Abraham and Jesus, the righteous, whether Jew or Gentile, live by trusting in the promises of God.

Biblical faith is not simply credulity. It has intellectual content based on a coherent message (Romans 10:17) and on the historical evidence of Christ's identity, ministry, death, and resurrection (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Biblical faith is not absolute certitude. It requires a mental "leap" that transcends mere rationality (Luke 8:22-25; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 17-19). If one could be absolutely sure of God, every sane person would be compelled to acknowledge God. If there were no room for doubt, there could be no virtue in faith.

Biblical faith is not superstitious trust; it is not a religious rabbit's foot to rub in tough times for luck. Jesus said that those who trusted superstitiously in their direct lineage to Abraham were totally misguided (Matthew 3:9). For Paul, it is one's imitation of Abraham's complete trust in God and his faithfulness to the covenant that makes one Abraham's heir in faith.

Biblical faith has moral implications. Scripture presents faith as the inward compulsion, not only to trust God but to demonstrate that trust in obedience by bringing forth fruits of righteousness. According to Galatians 5:6, faith expresses itself in love. The shield of faith quenches the burning arrows of the devil, by which Paul no doubt suggests not only the intellectual arguments for disbelief but the many specific temptations to do evil (Ephesians 6:16). By putting their trust in Christ and the power of his saving death, Christians crucify themselves and die to the secular life of sin. In this sense, the moral life Christians live is lived by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20) and by faithfulness to the new covenant. James vividly contrasts lifeless intellectual assent with true faith that proves its existence and power through good deeds (James 2:14-17).

Faith has personal implications (Hebrews 11:24-27). For Christians, as for Moses, faith is the source of moral courage. When people genuinely catch a vision of the invisible God, they no longer fear earthly dangers and deprivation in the same way. To believe and obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19; 5:29) is to tap the very fountainhead of courage. Therefore, as the hymn says, "faith is the victory that overcomes the world."

July 29, 2007


Atonement describes what God has done for believers; worship entails what believers do for God. The word "worship" is an remarkably inclusive term. In the New Testament alone, several Greek words (plus their numerous variants) are occasionally rendered as "worship" in English translations. These terms variously refer to pagan worship (Acts 17:23), to Jewish rites performed by the priests (Hebrews 9:21), to Jewish worship by laymen (Acts 8:27; 12:20; Luke 2:37), and even to perversions such as the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18).

Religious ritual permeated life in ancient times. Overt atheists were few and far between, and religious shrines of every stripe dotted the landscape. People engaged in all sorts of ritual activities to show their piety. As part of their worship, they offered animal and plant sacrifices, went on pilgrimages, prayed, fasted, played music on instruments, chanted psalms of praise, observed religious festivals, read scripture, taught, and were taught. Pagans even engaged in prostitution with temple harlots as a form of worship. The who, what, where, how, and why of worship played no small role in their daily existence.

Into this world of worship came Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet in the tradition of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah--yet more than a prophet. Speaking as one having authority, he addressed many of the issues related to worship. The writer of Hebrews even compares the ministry of Jesus to high priestly work (Hebrews 8:1-6). Although Jesus participated in services at his local synagogue (Luke 4:16-22), it was clear he intended to emphasize internals over externals. When the woman at the well asked him questions about proper worship, he maintained it should be done “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:19-24), which probably meant that true worship in the future would be focused on the Messiah (Jesus himself) rather than on a particular place.

What constitutes true worship is a chief concern of both Old and New Testament writers. Just like Isaiah (Isaiah 1:12-17), James affirms that pure religion has more to do with doing right than performing rites (James 1:27). In order words, "worship" and "service" are not separate entities but part and parcel of each other. In a similar vein, Paul says in Romans 14:17-18 that the kingdom of God is not a matter of externals (eating and drinking) but of internals (righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit). The one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to both God and man. Earlier in Romans, Paul takes the word that described the ritual duties performed by Levites in the tabernacle and changes its color to include all aspects of the Christian walk. Offering one’s body as a living sacrifice and transforming one’s mind to discern the will of God signified true worship for Paul (Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 3:2-11).

Although one occasionally reads in scripture about Christian assemblies and what went on there, the emphasis is never on the rituals. In fact, Paul pauses in his teaching about corporate worship to talk to the Corinthians about a better way of worship called love (1 Corinthians 13). No wonder, then, that the term "worship service" never appears in the New Testament, nor do any of the many Greek words translated as worship refer directly to the corporate assemblies of Christians. No writer offers a specific list of activities to include in Christian assemblies. What is known about early Christian worship comes indirectly from brief allusions or criticisms. That doesn't make the rituals of the assembly unimportant, it simply puts them into proper perspective.

Just as Jesus told the Pharisees they should value justice and mercy over tithing spices (Matthew 23:23-24), so New Testament writers tend to replace the literal meanings of words for ritual worship with figurative senses of "spiritual service" like godliness, benevolence, and evangelism (1 Timothy 4:7-8, 5:4; James 1:26-27; Romans 12:1-2). True worship takes place seven days a week.

July 30, 2007


Many churches are beginning to allot more time on Sunday morning to "fellowship," by which they mean time for members to interact with other members on an informal basis over coffee and snacks. While social interludes are no doubt helpful in building relationships, they do not represent true fellowship in the biblical sense. Fellowship is not small talk over coffee and cookies, nor is it playing regularly on the church softball team. Fellowship in the New Testament generally refers to sharing the spiritual blessings of Christ's death and resurrection and to the particular behavior that results from such a common bond. From a scriptural point of view, the communion service is actually the truest period of focused fellowship.

Fellowship is partnership in a covenant. The children of Israel formed a fellowship as the joint beneficiaries of covenants God made with the patriarchs, with Moses, and later with David. Christians share fellowship in the new covenant of Christ's blood (Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Scripture goes to great lengths to emphasize that one’s sharing in Christ's suffering can be just as literal as it is figurative (Romans 8:17; Colossians 1:24; Philippians 3:10). Sharing in Christ's suffering ultimately means a life of service rather than privilege (Matthew 20:22-28), hence the ethical implications of fellowship.

The signs of fellowship in a New Testament sense are not pastries and potlucks but baptism (Galatians 3:26-28), the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1), a transformed life (Romans 6:4-14), the Lord's supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), and the hope of eternal life (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; 2 Timothy 2:11-12). To the extent Christians lose sight of spiritual blessings by taking them for granted, they lose contact with the wellsprings of Christian morality, the spiritual understandings and values that set their priorities and shape their reactions to what life throws at them.

The most common Greek word for fellowship, koinonia, occurs 19 times in the New Testament and has somewhat different connotations according to each context. In 1 John 1:3-7, fellowship with God, Christ, and other Christians implies leading humble, sincere lives as new creatures forgiven of sin. Fellowship and immorality are mutually exclusive because fellowship with God means sharing the ethical character of God (2 Peter 1:4). In Philippians 2:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 13:11-14, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit evokes a gentleness that results in harmony, unity, and cooperation among brothers and sisters who share the same Spirit.

In other contexts, "fellowship" comes to mean the tangible expression of a common spiritual bond. When Peter, James, and John gave Paul and Barnabas the "right hand of fellowship" (Galatians 2:9), they were offering them their moral support. When the Macedonians contributed to the poor saints in Jerusalem, Paul called it the "fellowship of service" (2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13; Romans 15:26-27). When the Philippians sent money to support Paul's ministry, Paul alludes to it as "fellowship in the gospel" (Philippians 1:5; 4:14-19). The Hebrew writer says that sharing (this same word for fellowship) material resources with other saints is a Christian sacrifice pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:16).

Fellowship in scripture is more active than passive, more participation than association. If one has fellowship with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, one’s moral life will reflect the ethical nature of divinity. If Christians have fellowship with other Christians, their common participation in the blood of Christ will translate into a peace-loving, generous attitude. If people lack moral integrity, kindness, and love, they are not in fellowship with God or with one another, no matter how many donuts they eat at church.

July 31, 2007

Do You Observe the Law of Moses?

1.Would you put to death anyone who works on Saturday? Exodus 31:14-15; Numbers 15:32-36

2.Would you kill your rebellious children? Leviticus 19:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21

3.Would you execute all those who commit adultery? Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 22:22

4.Would you kill anyone who practices homosexuality? Leviticus 19:13

5.Would you put to death anyone who practices bestiality? Leviticus 19:15

6.Would you kill anyone who calls herself a medium or a fortune teller? Leviticus 20:27

7.Would you execute anyone who misuses God’s name? Leviticus 24:16

8.Would you insist on capital punishment for every murderer? Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16, 31

9.Would you put to death anyone who bows down to idols? Deuteronomy 17:2-5

10.Do you put tassels on all your clothes to remind you of God’s commandments? Numbers 15:38-39

11.Do you believe it is unlawful to charge interest on loans? Deuteronomy 23:19

12.Do you refuse to wear garments that are a cotton-wool blend? Deuteronomy 22:11

Unless you answer “yes” to all these questions, you do not observe the Law of Moses.

August 7, 2007


When I was a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I used to haunt W. K. Stewart's bookstore on Fourth Street. I still remember its distinctive smell, the aroma of good paper and polished wood. I still see those rolls of brown wrapping paper and hear the crisp shearing sound as sheet after sheet would tear along the black blade poised above the roll.

Most of all I remember the books--Great Illustrated Classics, Modern Library Giants, the Everyman series, and, best of all, Scribner editions embellished by N. C. Wyeth. The long, narrow store was a cornucopia of books. They climbed the high walls and meandered on to balconies. Leaning over those balcony railings, I seemed to be peering down into a maelstrom of learning and imagination.

Bookstores aren't quite the same anymore. It isn't that metal shelves have replaced the wood or that slick plastic bags have beaten out brown paper. The smell is different, more antiseptic, and the books are different, too. The lower ceilings and lower shelves bespeak a lower reason for existence.

As one enters the typical chain bookstore these days, the order of procession is painfully familiar. On your right clamor the best sellers, on your left the bargain remainders or beefcake calendars. Behind them, the computer-related manuals herald the arrival of cooking, gardening, auto repair, and get-rich-in-real-estate. Like icons in little niches, the classics in paperback, now consigned to flashy covers, look on the hubbub with an air of mournful painted piety. Philosophy, relegated to a corner spot near the floor, has been neatly condensed into a couple of titles, perhaps Plato's Dialogues and Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

"The worst thing about new books," said Joseph Joubert, "is that they keep us from reading the old ones." I wonder if our collective memory is not becoming shorter as we spurn the rich strangeness of the old for the glossy familiarity of the new. I wonder if standardization, monotony, and vacuity are good for the human spirit.

I am not particularly drawn to retail bookstores these days. They seem to expect less of me and less of themselves. There are no sounds to delight, no heights from which to peer, no scents to captivate the mind.

August 8, 2007

The Humanities in Public Life

Nearly 25 years ago, William J. Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal (31 December 1982) in which he described the humanities as "shattered." They lay in ruins, he wrote, because relativistic thinking had eroded the consensus on which they were based.

Such a gloomy pronouncement failed, I think, to take into account the difference between the humanities in academia and the humanities in public life. Whatever the state of humanistic learning at the university, the humanities in everyday life are alive and well. They prosper simply because they make life more tolerable by enriching our inner lives.

The term "humanities" is too often bogged down in academic definitions. Historically, it has referred to the study of classical languages and literature. More recently, the humanities have become, in Bennett's words, "philosophy, history, literature and so on." But in reality, much as language is the dress of thought, these curricular subjects are but manifestations of the invisible.

The humanities exist in three dimensions: the affective, the ethical, and the contextual. The business of the humanities in public life is to promote taste and sensibility, to guide the formation of good judgment, and to illuminate life by providing illustration and precedent. The role of the humanities is to delight and challenge us as we reach for our full potential as human beings.

By this standard, the humanities are flourishing. In the best film, television, fiction, and non-fiction, we find appeals to the imagination, appeals to human dignity, appeals to moral indignation, and appeals to the need for perspective, for looking back, for reconsidering the past. The humanities are word-centered, but those words may be written or spoken. They may be read silently or listened to, read aloud or interpreted. Today, those words are generally accompanied by images that demand our attention and that shape or reinforce their meaning.

Fortunately or unfortunately, people do do not clearly and consistently associate the word "humanities" with those moments that add to the enjoyment of life and leisure. They yet are unaware that the experiences they have come to treasure are not essentially technological or scientific but humane. Technology provides the medium, the humanities provide the message.

The challenge, therefore, is not to defend the humanities but to illustrate them, not to bewail their decline but to demonstrate their presence, not to indict their misuse but to propagate their power. The humanities teach us that while there are few absolute certitudes in life, yet there are many certainties. And one of those certainties is this: to promote creativity, taste, tolerance, integrity, insight, and wisdom is a happy task, and one that cannot help but succeed.

August 9, 2007

Learning Other Languages

The Bible is full of interesting stories. One begins in Daniel 1:3-5 where the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has just captured Jerusalem. First he plunders the city and then he issues a command. He orders that a group of young, intelligent Jewish noblemen be taken off to Babylon (today's Iraq) for one express purpose: to learn the language and the literature of the Babylonians.

Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel and his friends to Babylon because he wanted the Jews to know their conquerors. Thousands of years ago, this king understood a fundamental principle--it is impossible to understand or to penetrate a culture without learning the language of that culture. Language is the purest expression of a people's culture, the key that can open all the other cultural doors.

It is equally noteworthy that, although handpicked for their ability to learn, the young Jewish nobles were still required to study the language full-time for three years before entering the king's service. The ancient Babylonians knew that even for the best minds under the best conditions, language learning was a long and demanding task.

We don't know the methods those Babylonians used to teach their language and literature. But it is clear they taught all four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. We don't know how fluent Daniel eventually became in his second language, but I personally imagine he was rather like Henry Kissinger--an eloquent speaker and writer, yet one who always had a slight yet distinctly foreign accent.

Assuming the American educational system is only half as efficient and intensive as that in ancient Babylon, American children should study a foreign language for an uninterrupted six years, beginning in the seventh (or preferably sixth) grade. Small schools in small towns should at the least require Spanish, since even they will be able to find Spanish teachers readily. Those in larger cities and those in magnet schools should have a wider range of choices, including Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.

I am convinced that only when Americans as a whole become more sophisticated in their knowledge of other countries, languages, and cultures will American foreign policy begin to avoid the catastrophic errors into which it so clumsily falls. Like Daniel, young Americans need to be trained for leadership in a diverse world. They need to understand their enemies as well as their friends, and understanding, Nebuchadnezzar knew, begins with learning language and literature.

November 10, 2007

My Christian Witness

I believe that genuine Christianity, with its emphasis on love, compassion, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and ethical behavior, is the only remedy for human sinfulness and for the violence and injustice of history itself.

I am engaged in a lifelong search for authentic Christianity, within and without my own self. I may never find it in perfect form, as so beautifully described in the pages of the New Testament, because human beings like me are too weak, foolish, and fallible.

Nevertheless, if I myself strive to be faithful to Jesus, his ideals, his kingdom, his church, and his cause, I believe I will not go far wrong. Indeed, I have already found true Christianity in its proximate form and have been blessed by seeing the living Christ, sometimes clearly, sometimes faintly, in the good, honest, and sacrificial lives of many Christian people.

So I stay in the church and keep up the search, realizing all along, as Jesus did, that only in self-sacrifice is there any real honor and enlightenment.

Are you interested in joining me as I search?

November 28, 2007

The Four Legs of the Christian Table

Buddhism seems to have a fondness for numerical lists. One could cite, for example, the Eight-fold Path or the Four Noble Truths or the Five Precepts. Judaism, likewise, has its Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13), and the practice of Islam can be condensed into five core requirements.

Numbers, however, are not often associated with Christian lists. How many beatitudes are there (Matthew 5:1-11)? How many qualities comprise the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)? How many Christian graces did Peter name (2 Peter 1:5-7)? I dare say few Christians could tell you the exact number of these relatively well-known items without counting them out on their fingers.

Although the New Testament nowhere gives such a list, I personally think there are “four legs supporting the Christian table,” four pillars that structure and support the genuine Christian life. They are good behavior, good deeds, spiritual growth, and personal ministry.

Good Behavior

God expects Christians to behave. Galatians 5:24, for example, says “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Consequently, real Christians are those who demonstrate self-control. They are faithful to their spouses, work hard to support their families, obey the law, and, in general, demonstrate high standards of honesty and integrity.

Nevertheless, Christians recognize in all lucidity (and, preferably, in all humility) that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy. Why? In part because deep down we don’t always want to behave well, and at times we don’t. Simply put, our “crucified flesh” still leads us to commit sins of omission and commission in spite of our better angels—and we know it.

Good Deeds

Being good and doing good are not really the same. Being good is private and doing good is public. Christians visit the sick in the hospital; they fix food for the sick who are home-bound. They give money to charities and they volunteer on behalf of charitable organizations. They try to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated, sometimes at personal sacrifice. It is no accident that the phrase “Good Samaritan” refers to a New Testament story (Luke 10:25-37).

Nevertheless, good works (or good karma) do not earn salvation. Good deeds, from a Christian view, constitute a grateful response to salvation, not a means of meriting or deserving salvation. To the extent God judges Christians by their good behavior or good deeds (Romans 2:6-8; 1 Peter 1:17), he is evaluating their gratitude, not their perfection.

Spiritual Growth

The chief purpose of Christianity is not, as some would have it, to make this world a better place. The primary aim of genuine Christianity to get to heaven and take others along. It is easy to overlook this fundamental fact and to make Jesus more of a do-gooder than a savior or sin-bearer.

This world is not our home; we’re just a-passing through. We try to do as much good as we can on the journey, but it is our eternal soul, not our temporal body that needs the most care and feeding (Matthew 11:28-29; Luke 12:20-21; Mark 8:36-37). As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason—to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

Personal Ministry

Christians who have won the Nobel Peace Prize include Albert Schweitzer (1952), Mother Teresa (1979), and Jimmy Carter (2002). They were recognized for their outstanding personal ministries. But a point often overlooked is that every Christian should find a ministry that transcends everyday good deeds.

The word “ministry” implies an intentional and persistent effort to accomplish something worthwhile to honor the name of Christ. It could be founding a hospital in Gabon, tending to the dying in Calcutta, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, or offering legal services to the poor. It could also be, depending on one’s gifts and circumstances, extremely simple, modest, and inconspicuous. It could even be a ministry of scholarship and writing.

Christianity believes that to whom much is given, much is expected (Matthew 25:24-30) and consequently the New Testament portrays the “Way” of Christ as active rather than passive. The word “ministry” is a fancy term for service, and, as Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

So these are, in my judgment, the four legs of the Christian table. If one leg is missing, the Christian life wobbles and often topples. Be good, be kind, be holy, be fruitful—these are watchwords of the Christian faith.

December 5, 2007

What Does "Trite But True" Mean?

It appears many visitors come to this site in search of information about the phrase “trite but true." While not an expert on semantics, I thought I might take time to explain what the expression means to me and why the website bears that name.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, the word “trite” derives from the Latin tritus, which is a past participle of the verb terere, “to rub.” Originally, trite meant “worn out by rubbing.” A trite garment was frayed. A trite road indicated a well-beaten path. This sense of “worn out by use” soon took on the expanded meaning of “worn out by constant repetition.” People applied it to speech or thought that was hackneyed, commonplace, stale, and devoid of any novelty or originality.

The expression “trite but true” is paradoxical in that it implicitly contrasts two human values: novelty and truth. The adversative “but” suggests that novelty and originality are not always supreme virtues. Even if something has been repeated a thousand times, it may still be as true as ever. And truth is a good that trumps the human lust for novelty, what Samuel Johnson called “the hunger of imagination.” Just because a notion is new does not mean it is true. Just because an idea is old does not mean it should be discarded as worthless.

I believe that much of what is good for human life and happiness is often dismissed as trite. “Spend less than you earn.” “You have to be a friend to have a friend.” “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” A person can build a life on such bromides.

By this token, I like to say that Christianity is trite but true. By Christianity I mean the way of Jesus as it is revealed in the New Testament--and not at all every distortion or perversion that has cloaked itself in the name of Christianity over the course of history. Certainly, Christianity has endured through the ages in large part because many generations have found the message of Jesus eternally fresh. But familiarity also breeds contempt with the result that nations once called Christian are less so or no longer so.

The purpose of this site is to explore how things considered “trite” may also be profoundly “true.” Consequently, as time passes, I am seeking wisdom not only in the Bible but also in other writings that no longer have the blush of youth. Whether “tried and true” or “trite but true,” the moral genius of the past can surely guide the future.

December 11, 2007

Bozo and Jesus Debate the Issues

It is difficult to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Jesus' teaching without comparing it to conventional wisdom. Modern Christians have become so adept at spinning what Jesus said or deftly ignoring it that they have basically grown deaf or become anesthetized to what he was actually saying.

To illustrate, here is a "debate" between Jesus and conventional wisdom (which I have, perhaps ungenerously, personified as “Bozo”).

Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Bozo: I like you Jesus. I really do. But sometimes you say things I don’t completely agree with. This is a good example. I think it is a lot more fun to receive than to give. After all, you get to keep what you receive or regift it or sell it on eBay. If that’s not “blessed,” what is? If you give it away, it’s gone, period. What are you thinking, Jesus?

Jesus: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).

Bozo: Jesus, bless your cotton-picking heart, you've never been married. I think Dr. Laura understands the valid grounds for divorce a lot better than you. Even Dr. Laura says there are four A’s that justify divorce, not just one: adultery, addiction, abuse, and abandonment.

You just don't seem to understand how couples can just grow apart and no longer want to stay together. If men and women can’t divorce one another, human happiness is definitely in peril. Divorce is part of what I call “natural religion,” because it is only natural.

Jesus: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

Bozo: There you go again, Jesus. You obviously do not fully understand the rationale for preemptive war. Really, we need to kill evil people first before they have a chance to hurt us. Some people just need killing. That’s the plain truth. If no one resisted evil people, evil nations would take us over. You must have led a pretty sheltered existence, Jesus. I don’t think you realize how bad evil can be.

Jesus: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

Bozo: Look, Jesus. These days, panhandlers are as familiar with your Sermon on the Mount as good Christians like me are. They use it as a tool to make us good Christians feel guilty and extort money from us. Like, when you tell them to go away, they say, “God bless you.”

Now that we have welfare and Social Security to provide a safety net, along with big banks to give sub-prime loans, I don’t really believe this applies the way it might have in your day.

People should be working, not begging. Just look at how low the unemployment rate is! Just look at how many immigrants we have working all around the country. If somebody is willing to work, he can. Better that than begging.

Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24).

Bozo: Very funny, Jesus. You’re joking, of course. I mean, how can capitalism work if Christians don’t get rich, reinvest their money in businesses, and create jobs? Where’s the incentive to build our economy? Watch out or people will starting thinking you’re some kind of pinko socialist.

You're a nice guy, Jesus, but you don’t always think things through. Take for example the time you turned that water to wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). There was another case of setting a bad example. In my humble opinion, people might even say it was giving a drunk a drink. All I can say is that I would have respected you a whole lot more if you hadn’t done it.

Jesus: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Bozo: Whoa, now, bro! You know very well that’s not humanly possible, unless maybe some guy is gay. Even Jimmy Carter said he lusted in his heart. Did that make him commit adultery and be unfaithful to Rosalynn? No way! It just doesn’t make sense. You are setting the bar impossibly high, aren’t you? You‘re just messing with us, aren’t you?

Jesus: “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).

Bozo: Now wait just a dad-gum minute, Jesus. If I sell all I have and give it to the poor, I’ll make my own family homeless and put them on welfare. What then? Who’s going to bail us out?

Furthermore, once I give all I have to the poor and they spend it. What then? They can’t come back to me a year later. My money machine has done give out. Can’t you see how short-sighted your advice is?

Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28, 30).

Bozo: With all you have been saying, it doesn’t seem very light to me. I think you’re being a little disingenuous there, Jesus. Let’s be honest and admit you lay a pretty heavy burden on people. Luckily, we know how to ignore it and let it slide.

We do it for your own good, of course. What would people think of you if your followers did exactly as you said? It would be chaos, you have to admit, and it would all be your fault. You ought to be grateful.

January 4, 2008

The Qur'an

On December 7, 2007, I finished reading the Koran for the first time. I had heard it was a classic of literature, written in the purest and most beautiful Arabic. Frankly, I was expecting to read a work of some power and majesty, given that Islam has over a billion adherents. What I found surprised me.

The Koran is derivative

I was surprised to find very little narrative or poetry in the Koran. Most of the characters it mentions are lifted from the Hebrew Bible (for example, Noah, Job, Abraham, Lot, Moses, Pharaoh, Jonah). Their stories are briefly retold, but there is little original narrative (for one of the few exceptions, see 18:60-99). The main point in each story is that a righteous prophet was rejected by evil men and later vindicated, just as Muhammad felt righteous, rejected, and sure to be vindicated (see 35:4, 25-26).

Little is new in the Koran other than the claim that Muhammad is God’s true and final prophet. The idea of one sovereign God comes from the Hebrew Bible. So does the claim that he created heaven and earth in six days (32:4) or the command to abstain from pork and blood (2:173). The portrait of God as merciful to his people and harsh toward unbelievers, hypocrites, idolaters, and reprobates originates, once again, in the Old Testament.

The Koran is repetitive

I was surprised at how uncreative the Koran is. Paradise is always described the same way—a garden with rivers, fountains, plenty to eat and drink, silk garments, gold jewelry, and beautiful, good-natured virgins to serve as brides (for example, 2:25; 3:195; 4:57; 5:85; 29:58; 30:15; 31:8; 35:33; 37:40-49; 38:51-54; 43:70-73; 44:51-54; 55:54-56). Hell is also described over and over again using basically the same words. It is a burning hot place where nineteen cruel angels pour boiling water down your throat or burn off your skin only to replace it with new skin to burn so you will continue to feel the pain (4:56; 8:50; 10:4; 11:106-107; 40:70-72; 48:13; 55:43; 56:41-56; 74:26-31).

The righteous are those who believe in God, who believe Muhammad is his messenger, who believe the Koran comes directly from God, who do right by widows and orphans, who give alms, and who pray regularly (9:71-72; 23:1-10). The damned are those who do not (5:85-86; 10:69-70; 33:64-66; 43:74).

The same language is used incessantly to rehearse a litany of warnings and threats. Sad to say, the Koran is boring.

The Koran is defensive

Purportedly, God is the speaker in the Koran, and Muhammad has memorized what God said so he could recite it for others to copy down (3:7; 6:155; 12:2, 111). Throughout the book, however, one has the distinct impression it is Muhammad putting words in God’s mouth (see, for example, 33:28-34 where God lectures the prophet’s wives or 33:50-52 where God tells Muhammad with whom he can have sex).

I was surprised at how defensive the Koran is. Obviously, Muhammad was under constant attack and felt the need to have a ready reply to whatever his attackers might say. Among the most interesting parts of the Koran for me are the passages where God quotes Muhammad’s detractors and then tells him how to reply to them (for example, 10:37-38; 11:12-13; 34:3; 43:30). I can hear them calling him a madman, an imposter, a liar, a charlatan, and so forth. I can hear them challenging him to show them a miracle, to show them how God has blessed him by making him rich, or to prove conclusively that what he is saying is true. I can hear Muhammad’s defiant retorts (for example, 5:17-18; 43:23-24).

Because the prophet is so often on the defensive, the boasts and promises of the Koran often seem hollow and insecure. The Koran constantly makes assertions that Muhammad and his followers confirmed by military conquest rather than by reason or by miraculous signs.

The Koran is corrosive

Even for believers in Muhammad and Allah, the Koran is brutal. Thieves must have their hands cut off (5:38). Disobedient wives can be beaten (4:34). Adulterers are to be given 100 lashes (24:2). God’s deterrents are vicious, and since these directives come directly from Allah by way of Gabriel, the angel of God, they are not subject to amendment as far as devout Muslims are concerned.

The Hebrew Bible contains a few imprecatory psalms where the poet calls down curses on his enemies, but the Koran feels like one long imprecatory rant. The warnings and threats—to believers and unbelievers alike—come fast and furious.

To say the Koran is sectarian and menacing is a huge understatement. Of course, it is one thing to be spiritually threatened with hell after death. It is another to be physically threatened with death in this world just because you are bound for hell in the next. Although God is the one delivering the threats against the infidels, you definitely have the impression He would be happy for his faithful to make good on them even before the afterlife begins.

I suppose it is comforting to a good Muslim to have assurance he is on the winning side, to know that God will be merciful to him and merciless to unbelievers. It is equally comforting for Muslim men to know they are superior to women (2:223, 228; 4:34). But from the unbeliever’s vantage point (or the woman’s), the Koran contains nasty threats that are both serious and ominous. In the hands of true believers eager to be God’s avenging instruments on earth (see 3:151, 157-158; 4:95, 100; 5:33; 9:5, 29, 111, 123), the Koran can easily become incendiary.

Long story short, the Koran is a disappointment. As an unbeliever (in Muhammad), I found little wisdom or uplift there, in other words, little reason to believe. If you doubt what I say, read it for yourself.

Note: The sura and verse references given above are to The Qur’an, trans. By M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

January 8, 2008

One Verse in the Qur'an

I admit I did not read the Koran in the original Arabic. But I didn’t read it in English either. The only copy I owned was a French translation (Le Coran, trans. Kasimirski, Paris: Garnier-Flamamarion, 1970), so I read it in French. Later, as I started writing my review of the Koran, I realized I needed to reference an easily available English translation since my readers would probably not have any access to or understanding of the French translation I read.

To my surprise, the numbering of the verses in my French translation did not precisely match the numbering in the English translations. I wondered why. Even more shocking was that many interesting verses I had underlined in the French translation did not say the same thing in the English. Sometimes a verse was hardly recognizable because the meaning had so radically changed.

Consequently, I did a little checking into these matters. Here is what I found.

The numbering of the verses is different because there are two systems of numbering. Up to the 1930s, western scholars of the Koran used the numbering found in an edition of the Koran by Gustav Flügel, Corani Textus Arabicus (1834). This numbering system has been supplanted by the one used in what is called the Standard Egyptian Edition (1928). Hence, older translations use the old numbering system while more recent translations use the newer official system.

The marked difference in the translation of certain verses is a thornier issue. Although I don’t read Arabic, I do read a bit of Hebrew, which is a related Semitic language. I know that translating the Hebrew Bible is more difficult than translating the Greek New Testament because of the nature of the Hebrew language.

We simply don’t know for sure what certain ancient Hebrew words actually meant in their time because these words occur only once in the Bible, and the context gives no clear indication as to what they might have signified. Outside the Bible, there are no other ancient Hebrew texts from which to draw further information. Furthermore, questions about spelling, verb tenses, poetic syntax, and idiomatic usages create uncertainty in various places.

All of this applies to medieval Arabic as well. As one scholar has written, “Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand.” I take it that, for the average Arab, reading medieval Arabic is a bit like reading Chaucer in the original would be for the average American, or even worse. What is more, the Koran alludes to stories and events that seem to have confounded even the earliest Muslim scholars.

To illustrate what I mean, I have chosen part of one verse in the Koran, sura 4:34a (new system) or 4:38a (old system), to serve as an example. The differences in translation are striking, and I wonder if this is owing to the obscurity of the language or to the controversial content.

In the tenth edition of The Glorious Quran by Muhammad Pickthall (Des Plaines, IL: Library of Islam, 1994), the verse reads as follows: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.”

Here’s how N. J. Dawood’s translation, The Koran with Parallel Arabic Text (London: Penguin Books, 2006), goes: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them.”

In The Noble Qur’an (1993), a translation published in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one reads, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g., their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.).”

Contrast these three translations with that of The Qur’an by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford UP, 2004): “Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husband’s absence.”

Consider the same verse in Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton UP, 1993): “Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). So women who are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it.”

The French translation I read says (in my own rather literal translation), “Men are superior to women because of the qualities by which God has raised the former above the latter, and because men use their goods to provide for women. Virtuous women are obedient and submissive; during their husbands’ absence, they carefully guard what God has ordered [them] to preserve intact.”

Which of these translations most accurately conveys the true message of the Koran? I leave it to you to decide, but I personally suspect it is the one that sounds the most medieval and the least politically correct.

January 12, 2008


One of the most gripping news stories of 2006 was the murderous assault on ten Amish girls at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania. Five of the girls died from their wounds, and the murderer, Charles Roberts, killed himself.

What was most dramatic about this senseless slaughter was the reaction of the Amish community. Dozens of Amish neighbors attended Charles Roberts’ funeral on October 7, 2006. They hugged the killer’s widow and other members of his family. Later, they donated money to the widow and her three children.

This demonstration of Christian forgiveness was inspired by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44-45), and to forgive as we wish to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12). Their attitude was shaped by the command to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22) and by the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Their refusal to retaliate or seek revenge came also from the teaching of Paul who wrote in Romans 12:19-21, “Never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God.” “To the contrary,” Paul continued, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Their willingness to forgive moved the watching world as much as the tragedy itself.

Contrast this with a recent statement by presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to the effect that Iranians who harass American warships in the Persian Gulf should be prepared to see the gates of Hell. What relation does that statement have to the teaching of Jesus? I suspect that those who fear Huckabee will let his religion determine his thinking are, in reality, quite wrong. Would that true Christianity did influence his thinking!

Forgiveness, in a real sense, is refusing to harm someone who has harmed you. It is impossible to forget a major offense, but it is possible to do no harm in return. As my friend Rusty McLen says, “Forgiveness means I am going to trust God to deal with that person.”

Sadly, those who don’t believe in God are basically forced either to retaliate themselves, to somehow reconcile with the offender, or to ignore the offense (that is, if offense is such that the law won’t intervene on their behalf). They have no God to relieve or rescue them from the pain of rage, resentment, and recrimination.

From a Christian point of view, to forgive and forget is telling the devil, “I am not taking that hurt back. I am not giving you a foothold in my heart.” Forgiveness understands that what someone does to us is not the ultimate issue. What hatred, anger, and bitterness do to the human heart is the big issue.

“Hatred and anger are bonding emotions just like love,” McLen explains. “They form a chain that is attached to a stake of offense. That chain of bitter resentment limits your range of motion if it is wrapped around your neck. Forgiveness is cutting the chain as close to the neck as possible.”

Forgiving does not mean we won’t try to protect ourselves against further hurt, just as “forgetting“ an offense is not really the absence of memory. But forgiveness does recognize that, long-term, an unforgiving spirit within us typically creates more risk of further hurt than did the original source of harm. As someone has said, “Refusing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for someone else to die.”

The Amish community suffered grievously from that unprovoked attack, but it understood the wisdom of Jesus. To the extent the Amish Christians internalized the teaching and example of Jesus, to forgive and comfort was the natural thing for them to do. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:9, "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing."

Forgiveness is the only remedy for human history; it is a blessing to which Christians are called.

May 6, 2008

Human Nature and the Christian Way

Human nature wants to have its own way; Christians submit to the will of God (James 4:7).

Human nature looks out for its own interests; Christians work for the good of others (Philippians 2:4; 1 Corinthians 10:33).

Human nature is eager to receive honor and reward; Christians ascribe all honor and glory to God (Mark 10:17-18; Acts 12:23).

Human nature fears shame and contempt; Christians are happy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

Human nature expects pay for its services; Christians volunteer without asking for a reward (Matthew 10:8).

Human nature attends carefully to worldly affairs; Christians pay attention to things eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Human nature grieves at any loss of goods; Christians lay up treasure in heaven where none of it can be lost (Matthew 6:20).

Human nature is greedy and grasps more readily than it gives; Christians are content and esteem it more blest to give than to receive (Acts 20:33-35).

Human nature finds comfort in material things; Christians seek comfort in God and God’s people (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Human nature takes pleasure in friends and relations who are like-minded; Christians show love for everyone, even their enemies (Matthew 5:44-46; 22:36-40).

Human nature cultivates the rich and powerful; Christians are impartial, treating rich and poor alike (James 2:1-9).

Human nature is quick to complain; Christians bear patiently with courage (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Human nature desires recognition, praise, and admiration; Christians desire humility and eternal wisdom (James 3:17-18).

The more, therefore, that human nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is one’s Christian walk.

Adapted from Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, book 3, chapter 54

Human Nature and the Christian Way

Human nature wants to have its own way; Christians submit to the will of God (James 4:7).

Human nature looks out for its own interests; Christians work for the good of others (Philippians 2:4; 1 Corinthians 10:33).

Human nature is eager to receive honor and reward; Christians ascribe all honor and glory to God (Mark 10:17-18; Acts 12:23).

Human nature fears shame and contempt; Christians are happy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

Human nature expects pay for its services; Christians volunteer without asking for a reward (Matthew 10:8).

Human nature attends carefully to worldly affairs; Christians pay attention to things eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Human nature grieves at any loss of goods; Christians lay up treasure in heaven where none of it can be lost (Matthew 6:20).

Human nature is greedy and grasps more readily than it gives; Christians are content and esteem it more blest to give than to receive (Acts 20:33-35).

Human nature finds comfort in material things; Christians seek comfort in God and God’s people (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Human nature takes pleasure in friends and relations who are like-minded; Christians show love for everyone, even their enemies (Matthew 5:44-46; 22:36-40).

Human nature cultivates the rich and powerful; Christians are impartial, treating rich and poor alike (James 2:1-9).

Human nature is quick to complain; Christians bear patiently with courage (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Human nature desires recognition, praise, and admiration; Christians desire humility and eternal wisdom (James 3:17-18).

The more, therefore, that human nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is one’s Christian walk.

Adapted from Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, book 3, chapter 54

November 19, 2008

Yes, I Have Read the Book of Mormon

Mormon missionaries often ask, “Have you read the Book of Mormon?” I personally get the feeling this question implies you cannot criticize a book you have not read. Since few have actually read all of the Book of Mormon, the question opens the way to a presentation by undermining anyone’s grounds for rejection. Sometimes I respond simply by asking, “Have you read the Koran?” But in all fairness, it is true you can’t comment intelligently on a book you haven’t read, so I determined to read the Book of Mormon this year just as I had read the Koran last year.

The Book of Mormon, like the Koran, is rather painful to read. I handle books like these by reading them only five or ten pages per day. Since the Book of Mormon is slightly over 500 pages, it took me about 100 days to read it. One other advantage to this approach is that, by reading slowly, you can take better notes and ruminate more on what you read.

In chapter 16 of his book Roughing It, Mark Twain gives an excellent account of the Book of Mormon, which he describes as “chloroform in print,” a descriptive phrase that has yet to be excelled. As Twain notes, the Book of Mormon is composed of 15 shorter “books,” the longest of which is the Book of Alma (150+ pages). If you had to identify favorite passages among Mormons, I think most of them would come in the last third of the work. This means you have to slog through a lot to get to the “good part.”

While I cannot improve on Twain’s trenchant comments about the Book of Mormon, I want to make my own independent observations that reiterate, document, and expand on some of his thoughts.

1. The Book of Mormon is plagiarism gone amuck. It is a shameless pastiche of the Bible. Countless words, phrases, and whole passages are lifted verbatim from the King James Version of both Old and New Testaments (2 Nephi 12-24 = Isaiah 2-14; Mosiah 13: 12-24 = Exodus 20:5-17; Mosiah 14 = Isaiah 53; 3 Nephi 12:3-14:27 = Matthew 5-7). The minor borrowings are simply too many to enumerate. Ether 12:6-22 is a pastiche of Hebrews 11. Ether 8:8-11 derives from the story of Herod’s daughter’s dance in Matthew 14:1-10. Helaman 10:4-11 reprises Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:13-20.

2. The Book of Mormon is relentlessly dull because it is so wordy, tedious, and repetitive. Sometimes the wordiness is downright comical. In Jacob 4:1, for example, the writer says, “I cannot write but a little of my words because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates.” Then he proceeds to repeat the phrase “and it came to pass” 28 times in chapter 5 alone, one of the most confused examples of English prose imaginable. If writing on brass plates is so difficult, why so much repetition and useless verbiage? The Book of Mormon began recycling long before it became trendy. Instead of recycling plastic, however, it recycles the same names, ideas, and phrases over and over and over (4 Nephi, for example, just rehashes all that has gone before).

3. The Book of Mormon is badly written. It seems to admit that fact to itself. Ether 12:23 notes that criticism will arise because of “our weakness in writing.” He rightly remarks, “I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words” (Ether 12:25). Consider this sentence: “And it came to pass that Moroni felt to rejoice exceedingly at this request, for he desired the provisions which were imparted for the support of the Lamanite prisoners for the support of his own people; and he also desired his own people for the strengthening of his army” (Alma 54:2). Such confused prose and confused narrative abounds in the Book of Mormon (see, for example, Alma 23-25). I personally feel sorry for highly educated Mormon English teachers who feel compelled to defend this book.

4. The Book of Mormon strikes you as somewhat surreal. Most of it is predicated on a detailed belief in something that supposedly has not yet happened—the advent of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the book is chock full of anachronisms. Mosiah, for example, purports to be written in 124 B.C., yet it mentions “Mary” the mother of “Jesus Christ” (3:8), the resurrection of Christ (16:7-8), and the ascension of Christ into heaven (18:2). Other naïve anachronisms include “the twelve apostles” (1 Nephi 13:40), “Bible” (2 Nephi 29:3), “churches“ (2 Nephi 26:21), the “baptism” of Christ along with the descent of the Holy Ghost in the form of dove, “the atoning blood of Jesus Christ” (Helaman 5:9), Jesus in the tomb for “three days” before rising (Helaman 14:20), and speaking in the “tongue of angels” (2 Nephi 31:5-14).

5. The Book of Mormon is obsessed with the spirit of revelation and prophecy (3 Nephi 3:19; 6:20; 29:6). It is, of course, this inspiration from heaven that permits such detailed looks into the future. Prophecy is the device by which absurd anachronisms become legitimate and writers can mix quotes from the Old and New Testaments in the same breath (for example, 2 Nephi 30:12-17 which uses language from Isaiah 11:6-9, Matthew 10:26, and Luke 8:17). It is interesting to see Jesus himself in 2 Nephi 26:3 borrowing language from 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelation 6:14, books yet to be written.

6. The Book of Mormon is preoccupied with themes of the early American republic: the “cause of our freedom” (Alma 60:30), “rights”, “privileges,” “their freedom and their liberty” (3 Nephi 2:12), doing “your business by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:26), a “land of liberty” (Mosiah 29:32), “free government” (Alma 46:35). Representative government is instituted (Mosiah 29:25), monarchist traitors denounced (Alma 51:5-6; 60:17-18; 3 Nephi 6:30), and conspiracies to overthrow political freedom detected (3 Nephi 7:6; Ether 8:18-26). The Book of Mormon is a thoroughly nineteenth-century American book, not a book of antiquity.

7. The Book of Mormon sets out to clarify and improve upon Christian doctrine as set forth in the Bible. It carefully clarifies issues that nineteenth-century Protestants longed to have clarified. Has the age of miracles ceased? See Moroni 7:27-29. Do young children need to be baptized? See Moroni 8:5-24. What is the significance of baptism? See 3 Nephi 7:25. How should a baptism be performed? See 3 Nephi 23-27. What should be the name of the church? See 3 Nephi 26:3-10. What exactly is the gospel? See 3 Nephi 27:20-21. What is true faith? See Alma 32:17-21. Numerous doctrinal sermons, evangelistic sermons, and hortatory sermons sprinkled throughout the text explain all the essential beliefs a true Christian must have.

8. The Book of Mormon is strangely fatalistic. Despite all the preaching and teaching, despite all the missionary activity and conversions that take place, righteousness never seems to last very long. The Book of Mormon has a bloodthirsty view of humanity (Mormon 4:11; Ether 14:21; 15:2). The Holy Spirit, the blessings of prophecy, and good Christian living don’t seem to count for much over time. People always return to their sinful ways and eventually self-destruct.

9. The Book of Mormon is full of prophets who talk like nineteenth-century protestant preachers. They speak of “the plan of salvation” (Jarom 2). They extend “invitations” to be saved (Alma 5:62). They call on people to “repent and be born again” (Alma 7:14). They speak of life as “a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). They explain archaisms in King James English that nineteenth-century readers might misunderstand (e.g., the word “charity” in 2 Nephi 26:30 and Ether 12:34) and clarify that, despite what you might gather from the Bible, the earth moves, not the sun (Helaman 12:15). The book seems not only to contain anachronisms but to be itself one long, sustained anachronism.

10. The Book of Mormon is not that controversial from the standpoint of Christian doctrine. I think conservative, charismatic Christians of the twenty-first century would object to little or nothing professed in the book. Virtually all of what is controversial and heretical about Mormonism (e.g., baptism for the dead, multiple gods, temple ceremonies, polygamy) does not appear in the pages of the Book of Mormon. This gives support to the contention that the Book of Mormon was originally an early nineteenth-century novel stolen before it was ever published, then revised and adapted by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon for their own purposes. The Book of Mormon is badly written, but it is clearly within the bounds of standard Christian doctrine. It was written by someone intimately familiar with the Bible and with nineteenth-century biblical theology.

I close with a few specific observations.

1. Unlike in the Bible, there are no important female characters in the Book of Mormon. It is entirely male-dominated. In the entire book, I noticed only one woman mentioned by name (Sariah in 1 Nephi 5:1). All women seem to do is produce male babies who eventually become fodder for slaughter in battle.

2. Unlike the Bible, the Book of Mormon is skin-color conscious. God curses the Lamanites by making their skin turn black (2 Nephi 5:21). Six hundred years later, God blesses the Lamanites by turning them white again (3 Nephi 2:15). Black is not beautiful in the Book of Mormon.

3. Some stories in the Book of Mormon would make great Monty Python sketches. Check out Alma 17-18 (Heroic Arm Slicing); Alma 44:8-20 (Get Scalped and Come Back Fighting); Ether 3:6 (The Finger of the Lord); Ether 15:23-32 (Last Man Standing Falls); Helaman 16:1-8 (The Leaping Prophet); 3 Nephi 28:7-40 (The Three Immortal Missionaries).

4. If you ever wonder where Mormons get their zeal for door-to-door evangelism, read Alma 26:23-29 to learn about some of the first Mormon missionaries.

5. According to Ether 15:2, in the final conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites one side alone lost two million people "slain by the sword." That's a lot of sword fighting. Two million is nearly five times the number of American soldiers killed in World War II.

What happens when a work of fiction is presented as truth? Some people in the eighteenth century objected to the rise of novels because they were “lies” foisted upon the public as truth. Over time, thoughtful people came to realize that fiction is not really a lie but potentially a form of imaginative truth. Fiction could be “true” insofar as it was “true to life” and provided insightful aesthetic pleasure. In my view, the Book of Mormon is inferior fiction that is neither true to life nor aesthetically pleasing. Is it a lie? I prefer to think of it as influential fiction. And yes, I have read the Book of Mormon, but I never plan to read it again.

March 24, 2009

Why Most People Believe in God

Why do most people believe in an ultimate reality, an intelligence behind the universe, that is called God? Children, of course, may grow up believing or not believing in God because of their parents’ influence, but eventually thinking adults decide for themselves to maintain or reject their childhood faith or, sometimes, to reject their family’s lack of faith and become believers.

Believing in God is an act of the will. People choose to believe and to suppress whatever doubts they have. In a previous post I gave the reasons some people do not believe in God. Here are the reasons why I think most people make the choice to believe.

1. People believe in God because they don’t like the alternative. They want to believe in truth and justice as absolutes. They feel repulsed by the concept of a universe without absolute values where only chance, necessity, and self-interest reign.

“If there is no god, then there will be no time when the blind will see and the deaf will hear and the lame will walk. If there is no God, there is no hope of a time when all will be made right.”

Jeff Jordan, “Not in Kansas Anymore,” God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, ed. Thomas V. Morris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 134.

2. People believe in God because they see order in the universe. All science is predicated on the assumption that order exists, that the same experiment, properly conducted, will yield the same result every time. They think there must be some overarching intelligence behind a regular, predictable world that can be described by mathematical equations.

“It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out. . . . Perhaps future developments in science will lead to more direct evidence for other universes, but until then, the seemingly miraculous concurrence of numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence of an element of cosmic design.”

Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983) 189.

3. People believe in God because they are convinced there is a universal moral sense implanted within human beings by divinity.

“The concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes). It thus seems to be a phenomenon approaching that of a law, like the law of gravitation or of special relativity. . . . As best I can tell, this law appears to apply peculiarly to human beings. . . . It is the awareness of right and wrong, along with the development of language, awareness of self, and the ability to imagine the future, to which scientists generally refer when trying to enumerate the special qualities of Homo sapiens.”

“After twenty-eight years as a believer, the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God. More than that, it points to a God who cares about human beings, and a God who is infinitely good and holy.”

Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006) 23, 218.

4. People believe in God because such belief gives meaning to their lives and to their experience.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.“

C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?" They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses (1945; London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962).

5. People believe in God because they have had some personal experience that has convinced them of the existence of a spiritual reality beyond the natural.

“The expression ‘mystical experience’ is often used by religious people, or those who practice meditation. These experiences, which are undoubtedly real enough for the person who experiences them, are said to be hard to convey in words. Mystics frequently speak of an overwhelming sense of being at one with the universe or with God, of glimpsing a holistic vision of reality, or of being in the presence of a powerful and loving influence.”

Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992) 226-227.

6. People believe in God because they feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by believing in God.

“Blaise Pascal computed the value of a religious life. . . . The value of eternal happiness must be infinite, said Pascal. If you grant this, he reasoned, it pays to be religious. For if eternal happiness is like the prize in a lottery, and even if the probability of your winning by leading a religious life is very small (like that of the ticket-holder in the lottery), your mathematical expectation (or the value of your ticket in this eternal lottery) is still infinite, for any fraction of infinity is infinite.”

Edna Kramer, The Mainstream of Mathematics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951) 171.

Someone has said, "I would rather live my life as if there is a God, and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find there is."

7. People believe in God because they generally like believers better than unbelievers, and they take this as evidence that believing in God is better for one’s personal character and mental health (not to mention society's) than not believing.

If you watch the documentary Religulous (2008), you will most likely be struck by how unattractive a person the filmmaker and interviewer, Bill Maher, is. Most believers in God would rather be ridiculed about their beliefs than become the snarky, arrogant, and amoral persona Bill Maher likes to inhabit.

No doubt there are many noble atheists, but, historically, those known for their sainthood have virtually all been believers in God.

“I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa, where I found much righteous endeavor undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society or a Humanist leper colony.”

Malcolm Muggeridge, "Me and Myself” in Jesus Rediscovered (New York: Pyramid Publications, 1969) 157. Originally printed in The Observer, 15 December 1968.

Belief in God is known as theism. Theism does not require belief in any of the specific deities worshiped by the great world religions. A theist believes in an ultimate reality, a transcendent mind of the universe, but not necessarily in the God revealed in the Bible or in the Koran or in the Bhagavad Gita.

Theists generally settle on an idea of God they find attractive and convincing. A theist might be a deist like Voltaire who conceived of a being who set the universe in motion but who did not personally interact with that universe. A theist might be a pantheist who sees divinity suffused in nature. A theist might also be a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. Whatever the case, these are the primary reasons why most people choose to believe in God.

April 14, 2009

Religions and Philosophies of Life in Epigrams

Hellenism says, “Be moderate; know yourself.”

Epicureanism says, “Be calm; enjoy yourself.”

Stoicism says, “Be strong; control yourself.”

Confucianism says, “Be superior; correct yourself.”

Buddhism says, “Be detached; enlighten yourself.”

Hinduism says, “Be mindful; merge yourself.”

Judaism says, “Be holy; behave yourself.”

Islam says, “Be submissive; bend yourself.”

Existentialism says, “Be authentic; create yourself.”

Pragmatism says, “Be practical; accept yourself.”

Materialism says, “Be industrious; maximize yourself.”

Aestheticism says, “Be refined; cultivate yourself.”

Christianity says, “Be unselfish; give yourself.”

I have adapted and expanded these epigrams from an anonymous source. Can you correct, add to, or improve upon them?

June 8, 2009


Tout est perdu, fors l’honneur” (All is lost, save my honor). These were the words that King François Premier of France penned in a letter to his mother after his defeat and capture at the Battle of Pavia in Italy (24 FEB 1525). I have been thinking about honor recently owing to two events.

In November of 2008, the professional golfer J. P. Hayes disqualified himself from the PGA Tour Q-school when he discovered he had inadvertently made two shots on one hole with a golf ball not approved for competition by the United States Golf Association. His admission of an honest mistake (his caddy had handed him the ball) cost him a 2009 PGA tour card and, presumably, quite a bit of money. When interviewed about his decision to self-report a violation no one else would have noticed, Hayes said, “I didn’t feel like I had an option. We play by the rules.”

Another incident came in January of 2009. Micah Grimes, the coach of a high-school women’s basketball team in Texas was fired for refusing to apologize after his team beat another team 100-0. Grimes responded, “We played the game as it was meant to be played. My values and my beliefs . . . will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

What is honor? What exactly did François Premier have left? What did the girls play basketball with? Did J. P. Hayes deserve to be praised and Micah Grimes deserve to be fired? Hayes strictly followed the golfer’s code of honor and won acclaim. Grimes somehow broke his principal’s code that you should not run up the score on a hapless team—and it cost him his job.

Honor can mean “esteem” or “acclaim” as in “to be held in honor.” But that is not the sense it has in the examples I have given. In these, honor is adherence to a code of behavior, formal or informal. Slogans like “A day’s work for a day’s wage” or “A man’s word is his bond” represent simple codes of honor. The motto of the West Point military academy is “Duty, Honor, Country,” a phrase made famous by the graduation speech given by General Douglas MacArthur on 12 May 1962.

Honor in and of itself is not a biblical virtue, although the concept appears in the Bible. It is not a biblical virtue, I think, because honor as adherence to a particular code of behavior is an ambiguous term. Whether one’s honor is good or bad depends on the legitimacy of the code of behavior it obeys. Muslim fathers, uncles, and brothers who perform honor killings (murdering a daughter or sister, for example, who dates a non-Muslim) are not particularly honorable according to Western standards. Honor, in an of itself, is not a virtue. Is there really honor among thieves?

Sometimes honor is simply quixotic, vain, or self-serving. Lord Cornwallis, the British general, surrendered to George Washington’s forces at the Battle of Yorktown, but he refused to offer his sword to Washington (or even to attend the surrender ceremony) because it was beneath his honor. Instead, he instructed his lieutenant, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, to present the sword of surrender to Washington’s French ally General Rochambeau. Rochambeau refused to accept it and pointed to Washington. Washington then refused to accept it and pointed to his lieutenant, Benjamin Lincoln.

I have always considered my father and my father-in-law to be great men of honor in the best sense of the term. From my youth, I have been keenly aware that my father lived by an unwritten code. Once, when I was quite young, I was severely provoked (as I remember it) by the remarks of a neighborhood girl. I lashed out and hit her. Upon learning about this, my father let me know in the strongest terms that I was never again to hit a female, no matter how provoked. I am happy to say I never have, but it was my father’s code of honor that has constantly guided me in this and other matters on which I have had to choose a course of action.

My own sense of honor is a bit prickly. I have resigned secure, high-paying jobs simply because I didn’t like the way business was being done. In retrospect, my code of honor may have been too delicate and recherché for my own good, but at least, if much is perdu, like François Premier, I still claim my integrity.

June 9, 2009

The Doctrine of Moral Equivalence

I am indebted to Dennis Prager’s thought-provoking book Think a Second Time (New York: HarperCollins, 1995) for bringing to my attention the “Doctrine of Moral Equivalence.” The DME is the idea that one cannot or should not make fine distinctions between behaviors considered immoral or unethical. This idea takes many forms.

• You can’t fight violence with violence because all forms of violence are wrong. By this reasoning, capital punishment is wrong because it is responding to a wrong (typically murder) by doing the same wrong (execution).
• All life is sacred. The life of a dog is just as important as the life of a human being.
• A person who steals 10 dollars is just as bad as a person who steals 1000 dollars because a thief is a thief.
• Western capitalism is no more justifiable than Chinese communism since both have committed injustices and have infringed upon human rights.
• Christianity is just as dangerous a religion as Islam since both Christians and Muslims have, over the course of history, slaughtered those they believed to be infidels (unbelievers).
• George W. Bush was just as bad as Adolph Hitler since they both used strong-armed tactics to get their way and because their policies have resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.

Prager argues, rightly it seems to me, that this Doctrine of Moral Equivalence is wrong because one can indeed assign degrees of turpitude. The measured violence used by police to protect society is legitimate and not to be compared with the gratuitous violence of a Mafia hit man. A person who makes personal use of supplies at the office is not as evil as the chief financial officer of the same company whose risky and fraudulent activities eventually drive the business into bankruptcy, thereby stealing the livelihood of its employees and the capital of its stockholders. George W. Bush certainly did not committed crimes against humanity on a par with those of Adolf Hitler.

Nonetheless, I believe Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, errs when he implies that Christianity affirms the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. The question arises, “Who speaks definitively for Christianity? Who determines what Christian doctrine is or is not?” Do you quote the Pope or Billy Graham? Jeremiah Wright or Jerry Falwell? Mother Teresa or Jimmy Carter? Obviously, over the centuries many have claimed to speak as Christians or in the name of Christianity, some more stridently, eloquently, and authoritatively than others. But claiming authority does not make it so. Christianity is, after all, as it is in the mind of God, not as it may be half-perceived or half-distorted by its various human adherents.

Nevertheless, in order not to beg the question one must ask, “How can anyone know what Christianity is in the mind of God?” The only reliable answer, to my mind, must lie in the core document of Christianity, the New Testament, since it constitutes the closest thing Christians have to ultimate and authentic authority in Christian doctrine. Any latter-day revision that contradicts the original teaching of the New Testament must naturally meet with skepticism, for if one cannot trust the New Testament as a doctrinal standard, why should one trust anything in Christendom?

The New Testament, plainly and simply, does not teach the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. For example, I John 5:17 states, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” Later Christian writers will clarify by distinguishing between venial sins (wrongdoing) and mortal sins (sins that lead to eternal punishment in hell). In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus concludes that those who intentionally do wrong bear greater responsibility than those who do wrong in ignorance. While ignorance of the law is no excuse and wrongdoing is wrongdoing, nevertheless intentional wrongdoing and ignorant wrongdoing are not morally equivalent.

Luke 12:48 also says that “to whom much is given, much is required.” This conveys the notion that some people are more morally responsible than others simply because they are better educated, more intelligent, more spiritually enlightened, or better endowed with financial resources than certain others. In other words, according to Jesus, both nature and nurture may conspire to create a lack of moral equivalence in the eyes of God. The idea that all human beings are sinful and in need of God’s grace (that is, forgiveness by way of atonement) in no way suggests that all human beings are equally sinful.

Prager’s contention that Christianity espouses the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence derives primarily, it seems, from Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies, which a number of Christians have taken to be an endorsement of pacifism—the belief that it is always wrong to kill. It is Prager’s belief that some people just deserve killing. Among these, he includes Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Charles Manson (Think a Second Time, 192). He believes that pacifism is a logical extension of the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. If it is always wrong to kill, then killing Hitler would be just as bad as killing an innocent child.

His point is well-taken, and I would say that the majority of contemporary Christians, despite the teachings of Jesus, have renounced pacifism for pragmatic reasons. But the question remains, “Is original, authentic Christianity, as conceived in the mind of Jesus and God, fundamentally pacifist?” The answer to this question, I believe, is “Yes.” Jesus recognized that vengeance and retribution will never solve the problems of the world. The Middle East is still held in the throes of implacable hatred simply because both the Muslim and Jewish religions believe in vengeance and in the fundamental idea that some people just deserve killing. For Muslims, polytheists and atheists deserve killing (Koran 9:5; 10:4), not to mention anyone who slanders the prophet Muhammad or denigrates Islam. For Jews, anyone who would deny them the holy land of their ancestors deserves killing, as do those who would attack or kill innocent Jews.

The pacifist ethic of Jesus (loving your enemies and turning the other cheek, Matthew 5:38-48) is a heavy burden for conscientious Christians to bear. But it is not the Doctrine of Moral Equivalence. Jesus clearly recognized that some people are guiltier than others and some sins more deserving of punishment than others. Killing is wrong, not because one murder is as unjustified as another but because the mindset that “some people just deserve killing” is ultimately destructive to humanity and leads to the sea of misery in which we find ourselves drowning. It is for God to dispense judgment and justice, not human beings (“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,” Romans 12:19 alluding to Deuteronomy 32:35).

It is an article of Christian faith that if we treat people kindly and altruistically, they will eventually respond in the same way and the world will be a better place. If others don’t respond in kind, at least Christians will have done their part to make this world a better place and will have secured for themselves a place in the world to come. As G. K. Chesterton famously wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult; and left untried.”

July 23, 2009

Guilty Pleasures

I have guilty pleasures. Several, like Georgia Mud Fudge Blizzards from Dairy Queen, involve chocolate, but some relate to books. Reading books by the Marxist literary and cultural critic Terry Eagleton is one of my guilty pleasures. Indeed, the first of my posts on “Trite But True” was inspired by After Theory (2003) in which Eagleton critiques belief in God.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found Terry Eagleton “defending” religion in his latest book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). I use quotation marks because Terry Eagleton is still an atheist, but, curiously, he finds religion more congenial to his Marxism than the liberal humanism so prominently displayed in the recent books of militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great)and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).

I enjoy reading Terry Eagleton because his prose is often eloquent, stimulating, and insightful. His clever analogies make me smile. For example, he says the contention that science and technology have made religion superfluous is like “saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov” (7). He further observes that “science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are” (10).

Eagleton sees four worldviews competing for dominance in our time: liberalism (both economic and humanistic), socialism, religion, and science (136). In the books by Hitchens, Dawkins, and their ilk (a group he labels “Ditchkins”), he finds secular liberalism trying to ally itself with science against religion.

“The difference between science and theology,” Eagleton opines, ”is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present” (37). Thus, religion is fundamentally no more opposed to science than is socialism, and science must not become the private domain of liberalism or be commandeered to serve its capitalistic agenda.

While Eagleton rejects religion as simply unbelievable, he does see Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in their purest forms as compatible with his ideal of socialism. “The mainstream Christian theology I have outlined here may well be false,” he writes, “but anyone who holds to it is in my view deserving of respect” (33). “I also seek to strike a minor blow on behalf of those many millions of Muslims whose creed of peace, justice, and compassion has been rubbished and traduced by cultural supremacists in the West” (34).

As a radical thinker, Eagleton finds a kindred spirit in Jesus. “If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do” (27). Obviously, though, Eagleton would rather deliver lectures at Yale than end up dead himself, so his radicalism is mainly limited to his thoughts. But liberalism can never become a true ally of religion, he maintains, because “the advanced capitalistic system is basically atheistic” (39). Why? Because its values, beliefs, and practices are “godless.”

What really unites socialism and religion, according to Eagleton, is their sense of “tragic humanism,” by which he means “that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own” (169). Neither religion nor Marxism is as optimistic about human nature and human perfectibility as is a secular humanism that puts its faith in the idea of progress and firmly believes religion is the chief obstacle to such progress.

While I find Eagleton’s spirited defense of biblical theology gratifying, I also view it as disingenuous. As an unbeliever, he must know that the socialist’s faith that “the powerless can come to power” (27) is far different that the Christian’s belief that Christ was “crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). Socialism and Christianity may be compatible in many regards, but they have completely different outlooks. The New Testament’s solution for sin and suffering comes at the Day of Judgment—and not by revolution on earth.

Likewise, Eagleton’s naïve appreciation of Islam seems wrongheaded. If he has read the Qur’an (3:28; 4:56; 8:55; 9:5; 98:6), he is surely aware that it does not suffer infidels gladly. Were he to loudly proclaim his atheistic views in Bagdad or Kabul or Islamabad, I doubt he would find “peace, justice, and compassion” for very long.

Ultimately, Eagleton is not so much defending religion as he is taking advantage of a golden opportunity to criticize liberalism, the sworn enemy of his socialist philosophy. You might say he is temporarily and hesitantly making religion, the enemy of his enemy, his friend.

“Our age,” he says, “is divided between those who believe far too much and those who believe far too little” (137). I suspect he himself belongs in the latter category. While his critique of liberalism as an ideology without the moral authority, intellectual insight, or political will to defend itself is often spot on, he never makes a convincing case for his own Marxism. It, too, has already been weighed in the balances of history and found sadly wanting.

The books of Terry Eagleton are my guilty pleasures. They are rhetorically and stylistically satisfying, but the food for thought contains a lot of empty calories and, in the last analysis, is not very good for you.

October 20, 2009

The Four Faces of Jesus

The portrait the New Testament paints of Jesus is complex, even paradoxical at times. Jesus in the four gospels can be both harsh and gentle, this-worldly and other-worldly, plain-spoken and cryptic, practical and idealistic, all-embracing and exclusivist.

What is interesting about this portrait is that the contradictory elements of Jesus’ ministry and teaching can be handled in various ways: 1) They can be accepted and reconciled, as Christianity traditionally has done; 2) They can be questioned and deconstructed, as many speculative critics have done, and 3) They can be selectively highlighted or ignored, as commentators with a particular agenda have done. In short, the outwardly simple yet actually complicated portrait of Jesus in the New Testament is quite evocative and lends itself to multiple interpretations by a host of theological spin doctors.

It seems to me that Jesus has basically four faces in the New Testament: Jesus as Humanitarian, Jesus as Savior, Jesus as Lord, and Jesus as Judge. Gentle Jesus falls into the first two categories whereas as tough Jesus characterizes the last two. The emphasis you choose to put on the various categories will determine not only your attitude toward Jesus but your view of Christianity’s ultimate meaning as well.

Jesus as Humanitarian

In Acts 10:38, Peter is credited with summarizing Jesus’ ministry as follows: “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This is Jesus the do-gooder—a person who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, causes the blind to see, and even raises the dead.

This Jesus is a humanitarian not only because of his good deeds but because of his irenic spirit. He counsels us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive others endlessly. This Jesus cares about the poor and downtrodden. He is kind and compassionate. He calls for deep introspection and says that mercy should triumph over justice by reason of the fact that all of us have failings. “Let him who is without sin . . . be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). He challenges us to do unto others as we would do unto him (Matthew 25:31-46).

This is the sweet Jesus who can say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Among those who favor Jesus the Humanitarian are Thomas Jefferson, Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, and, more recently, John Howard Yoder.

Jesus as Savior

Jesus describes his own ministry as “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He said this to and about Zacchaeus, a wealthy man, so he was clearly referring to the spiritually lost rather than the socio-economically lost. Matthew 9:11-13 refers to “tax collectors and sinners” as the people Jesus came to heal of their spiritual infirmities.

A humanitarian might spin this by saying that Jesus is only figuratively “saving” those who exploit the poor by convicting them of their greed and inhumanity, thereby putting them back on the humanitarian highway. But in the total context of the New Testament, something more seems to be at stake. The name “Jesus” means “God is salvation,” and the angel in Matthew’s gospel says to Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Likewise, Peter says in Acts 5:31, “God exalted [Jesus] as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” To forgive sins in the generic sense used here and elsewhere means far more than simply to prick someone’s conscience or call someone to a higher standard.

The apostle Paul, a contemporary of Jesus, gives the most eloquent descriptions of Jesus as Savior. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Or again, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5). The other writers of the New Testament uniformly agree with Paul as well as with John the Baptizer who is reported to have said, upon first seeing Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Saving people from their sins is a positive characteristic, even if it carries more religious and metaphysical baggage than pure altruism. But Jesus as Savior, although comforting, can be arbitrary. It is this Jesus who proclaims, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Among those who stress Jesus as Savior are Billy Graham, Pope Benedict XVI, and basically the entire Christian establishment.

Jesus as Lord

While you might admire Jesus as a model humanitarian or appreciate his self-sacrifice on behalf of your sins, it is quite another thing to make him your Lord and Master. Yet, tough Jesus demands first place in the lives of his followers. He says quite plainly, “”If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father or mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:26). Shortly afterward, he continues, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

The shocking force of these words has led to the distinction between clergy and laity in the Catholic Church. The priests, nuns, and monks who pledge to sacrifice their worldly possessions, ambitions, personal pride, and sexual relationships epitomize a commitment to make Jesus the sole ruler of their lives. The Catholic clergy basically is charged with modeling “literal” Christianity and bearing the load for the less-committed laity (although even the clergy is seldom required to renounce everything).

Of course, the New Testament does not make any clear distinction between clergy and laity. It calls all Christians to submit strictly to the teachings of Jesus. As Peter said at Pentecost, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Paul says similarly, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). In other words, Jesus is the Lord of every living Christian.

What exactly the lordship of Jesus means for the average Christian remains somewhat unclear. Traditionally, it means leading an increasingly holy and blameless life, making a concerted effort not to bring the name of Christ into disrepute. For missionaries, it means giving up the comforts of the United States for the sake of taking Jesus’ message to foreign lands. For Christian activists within and without the USA, it means making the personal sacrifices necessary to challenge the system and bring about a greater measure of justice in the world.

Among those who have emphasized Jesus as Lord are Saint Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and, more recently, Shane Claiborne (see Jesus for President, 2008).

Jesus as Judge

While Jesus is famous for saying “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), he himself is commonly portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme judge of all humanity. Speaking of himself, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27).

This theme of Jesus presiding over the Day of Judgment appears often in the New Testament (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). The apostle Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Elsewhere, Paul’s language becomes even more vivid as he describes “the Lord Jesus. . . revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Revelation 2:23 has Jesus saying, “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”

Theoretically, those who accept Jesus as Savior and Lord have nothing to fear from Jesus as Judge. Nevertheless, the question of who will actually be among the saved and who among the damned remains an open (if commonly avoided in polite conversation) question. Tough Jesus is no fool. He knows who has been faithful to his teaching and who has not. And he will judge.

Among those who have presented Jesus as Judge are Jonathan Edwards, Ray Comfort, and many a street preacher.

So What?

The four faces of Jesus explain much of what passes for “Christian” behavior. Those who hold up Jesus as Judge are sometimes tempted to play the role of his executioner—all the while forgetting the admonitions of Jesus the Humanitarian to be humble peacemakers. Those who model Jesus the Humanitarian appear tempted to believe they can create heaven on earth. In my view, their reluctance to acknowledge the essential sinfulness of humanity and the impossibility of a perfect (or even semi-perfect) world makes their efforts quixotic. In the final analysis, people need a savior more than a social worker. People must change from the inside before they can hope to change their outward condition.

Those who play at religion without accepting Jesus as Lord tend to practice a domesticated Christianity whose significance hardly rises above that of the Kiwanis Club. Their un-Christ-like behavior leads to accusations of hypocrisy and ultimately gives Christianity a bad name. On the other hand, those who renounce everything to serve God and others are dismissed as radicals pushing a model impossible for everyone to follow. Even to accept Jesus just as Savior lays one open to the accusation of seeking “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” without giving a hoot about what happens in the here and now.

So where does the golden Christian mean lie? Is it really feasible to be the kind of disciple Jesus called his followers to be? This tension between the demands of Jesus and the realities of living is what gives Jesus his eternal edginess and what makes him both appealing and enigmatic to generation after generation. In its youthful idealism, each generation thinks it can somehow solve the problem of how to bring peace on earth, goodwill to men.

When I was a teenager, I read the gospels carefully and wrestled with their implementation. I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. I tried to live a simple, non-materialistic life. I agonized over whether it was wise to give panhandlers the change in my pocket since Jesus had said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). I memorized the Sermon on the Mount. I tried to live a pure life and abstained from alcohol, drugs, pornography, and sex before marriage. I contemplated how, with my talents, I could best serve the cause of Christ.

Over the years, however, I have concluded that despite all I have tried to do or be, I am still a most unworthy servant who falls far short of the ideals Jesus set. I am still selfish, to a noticeable degree, with my time, money, and talents. I have yet to give it all away to others in need (see Matthew 19:21). I still get angry at those who do me or others wrong, even if I do not retaliate. I forgive only in part. I still invite my friends to dinner instead of lame, halt, and blind (see Luke 14:13-14). I do good, but I do it moderately. I am critical of the sins of others and wish they would be as responsible as I am (see Luke 18:9-14).

As an inveterate sinner in heart if not always in deed, I am aware of my need for the grace of God, the continual pardon of my sins and shortcomings. While I try not to abuse the grace of God, I feel completely lost without it (and often even with it because I fall so short of Jesus’ standards). As Christians, we walk a tightrope between self-righteousness and self-loathing. Ultimately, in despair of measuring up, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

In an earlier post, I gave my philosophy of life. I still have no better answers for how to live. In my mind, I see the four faces of Jesus, some smiling at me in kindness, some sad with disapproval. The greatness of the Bible, in my opinion, is that it forces us all not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought but to think soberly “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Romans 12:3).

February 1, 2010

Biblical Presuppositions

In his book, The Soul of Christianity (2005: xvi), Houston Smith writes that Christians “don’t even bother to ask if life is meaningful. They take for granted that it is.” It occurs to me that the meaningfulness of life is only one of many presuppositions that inform the biblical text. Human civilization was already thousands of years old when the Bible was written, and the Bible’s presuppositions reflect the accumulated wisdom of these millennia of human experience.

Of course, something presumed usually remains unstated since it is thought to be commonly known and agreed upon. The policy that “things that go without saying go even better with saying” is often neglected both in the Bible and today. As a result, modern readers unaware of biblical presuppositions sometimes misunderstand the Bible because they think its silence on a certain matters means that its writers hadn’t considered the question seriously, or that they were indifferent to the issue, or that they were non-prescriptive, thereby leaving posterity the freedom to do as it wished because “the authority of the Bible does not address this subject.”

A signal example of this tendency appeared in an article by Lisa Miller in Newsweek magazine (December 15, 2008: 28) where she writes, “While the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman.” We might think her implication is that since the Bible does not explicitly define marriage, we moderns have its blessing to define marriage as we wish. But it is perhaps more accurate to say she is implying that religious people who accept the Bible as a rule-book for life have no authoritative grounds on which to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Lisa Miller’s article either willfully or unwittingly misses the point that the Bible presumes adherence to an ancient code by which sexual relationships were carefully delineated (cf. Leviticus 18). The common-sense definition of marriage as between a man and a woman is assumed as self-evident in the Bible, and only sexual aberrations are discussed at any length. Miller tacitly concedes as much when she goes on to say, “The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours” (30), which is to say, “Even if the Bible did define marriage explicitly, it wouldn’t make any difference to me. I’m just messing with you.”

Here are a few other biblical presuppositions that I find interesting and important:

1. Comprehensibility: The Bible assumes people can understand what is written in its pages. It does not see itself as a book of riddles or as hopelessly inconsistent and confusing or as impossible to understand except by the most thoroughly educated. The Bible is addressed to the common man.

2. Mental Health: The Bible presumes its readers are mentally healthy. This is what validates the golden rule, for example. “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12) makes sense only if people in general are not sadomasochistic. It presumes you are mentally healthy, want the best for yourself, and therefore know what would be a good way to treat others.

3. Common Sense: In addition to presuming that marriage is between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation, pleasure, and intimacy (and sometimes for economic or political reasons), the Bible does not specifically condemn abortion because it assumes that abortion is an absurd notion. In the ancient world, children constituted your family’s workforce and your social security insurance, not to mention your posterity. It was only logical to have as many children as you could feed.

4. Human Decency: The Bible believes (without ever saying it) that people can recognize human decency when they see it. It also assumes that leaders have a God-given obligation to be decent to those whom they lead because leaders on earth, to a certain degree, stand in the place of God and play God with the lives of others.

5. The Possibility of Transformation: The Bible assumes that people can change permanently for the better. Paul, after giving a laundry list of bad guys, tells the Corinthian Christians this: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). The endless exhortations found throughout the Bible presume people can actually change if they so desire.

I find that many of these biblical assumptions constitute the bedrock of what we call Western (and American) Civilization. If you assume the world is incomprehensible, you have no motivation to do science and discover how it works. If you assume people are psychologically unreliable, you cannot form community. If you assume people are inclined to act wickedly, there is no expectation of altruism or mutual aid. If you think people cannot change and that they are fated to remain whatever they are, you have no encouragement for making the world better. Finally, if you do not believe in God, there is no reason to believe life is ultimately meaningful.

Thousands of years of human experience tell us that certain positive presuppositions have fueled human progress—and they basically have been passed down to us in the Bible.

February 23, 2010

Grace and Legalism

What characteristic most distinguishes Christianity from other world religions? Someone has suggested it is “grace”—the idea that one is saved solely by the unmerited sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross and not by any form of human merit or action.

Now “salvation” is largely a Judeo-Christian term, but the basic concept of getting right with God and being rewarded with eternal bliss has its counterparts in other religions as well. Muslims yearn for paradise; Buddhists seek enlightenment; Hindus desire to merge with the Absolute Soul and escape from the cycle of reincarnation.

The question, of course, is how does one attain ultimate bliss either before or after death? Is it a free gift with no strings attached or is it earned in some form or fashion? Most religions maintain you have to do something, even if, as some Christians say, it is as basic as just believing in Jesus as the Messiah and trusting in his atoning sacrifice.

Hindus have to seek the knowledge that helps overcome bad karma with good karma. Buddhists must look within themselves to conquer desire and acquire a true perception of reality. Muslims must uphold, insofar as possible, the five pillars of Islam to please Allah. Jews must attain the holiness of character and action that God requires. But in every religion, at least to some extent, it is the benevolent nature of deity or reality that allows such a path to bliss even to exist.

So, in the broadest sense, all religions have some notion of a universal benevolence one might term grace. But in the narrower sense, most religions teach that blissful outcomes are the result of human efforts rather than of a purely divine initiative. Christianity teaches that salvation is a divine gift whose only attached string is that the gift must be accepted.

Legalism is, in a way, the Christian counterpart to the teaching of most world religions that human action and initiative is essential. Legalism, like grace, has both a broad and narrow sense. Broadly speaking, it is the idea that one can please God only by adhering scrupulously to a law or a code of conduct. Narrowly speaking, legalism is the process of thinking like a lawyer and trying to define precisely every word and intent of that law code.

To give one simple example, a Christian legalist would see the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:32 to constitute a Christian law about divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Defining the meaning of each word in this law would then be necessary in order to obey the law perfectly. The paramount question becomes, “Is there a legal loophole that might justify divorce and remarriage for a good Christian?” If not, is there any way around this law of divorce—say, a generous policy regarding annulments?

The foundation of legalism is the belief that salvation depends on keeping the law, a human activity. The forgiveness found in Jesus (or, for Jews, in connection with Yom Kippur) goes only so far. If you continue to break the law of God, the sacrifice of Jesus will eventually lose its efficacy and forgiveness leading to salvation will become impossible. As Hebrews 10:26 says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”

The tension between grace and legalism is strong in Christianity. Even Paul recognized it in the first century (Romans 6:1-4) by alluding to those who thought that grace (free pardon in Christ) might be a license to sin all the more. This tension is usually resolved by saying that good behavior is a grateful response to grace, not a way of earning salvation. As Thomas Erskine said, "Religion is grace; ethics is gratitude."

But this does not solve the tipping point issue: At what point does repeated bad behavior nullify grace? Even more to the point, exactly what kind of bad behavior will bring about a Christian’s damnation? Some Christians say, “Once saved by grace, always saved by grace.” Others are not so sure. They think the Bible teaches there are many things you can do to lose your salvation (e.g., Hebrews 3:12; 6:4-6; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 Corinthians 9:27).

A more subtle form of legalism is patternism. Patternism is the assumption that there is in the New Testament a detailed blueprint for the conduct of Christianity. Patternism becomes a variant of legalism when the perceived blueprint becomes a law in and of itself, and lawyers must argue over every detail of the pattern.

For example, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, the writer lists the qualities one should look for in bishops (overseers) and deacons (servants) of the church. In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul says an overseer should be “the husband of one wife.” According to patternism, this quality is a qualification that must be carefully defined. Obviously, the qualification requires an overseer to be married. But does it mean an overseer can never have been divorced (one and only one wife)? Does it mean an overseer cannot be a widower (one living wife)? Does it mean an overseer can never remarry if his first wife dies (one wife forever)?

Patternism taken to the extreme sees most everything mentioned in the New Testament (or even not mentioned) as a potential law whose infraction might send a person to hell. According to this thinking, divorcing a mate for any reason other than proven adultery is a grievous sin. But so is having a church kitchen, since kitchens are not mentioned in the New Testament. So is having multiple communion cups, since scripture says Jesus took “the cup.”

The list of prohibited things can be quite long, and one violation is just as damning as the next since God expects complete obedience. The lawyers of the church must constantly argue over what is binding and not binding, which practices unmentioned in the New Testament are mere aids to legal activities and which are illegal additions to the scriptural pattern.

For centuries, Christians have had to navigate between the extremes of legalism and license. Legalism often casts doubt on the hope of salvation because you never know if have lived just right. Patternism adds to the number of “laws” that must be followed and leads to even more bickering and division over how those laws must be obeyed. License, ironically, is just an egocentric form of legalistic thinking. License says, “If there is no law preventing it, I can do whatever I want.” The focus is still on outward constraint or absence of constraint rather than upon an inward directive to find and do what is truly right.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” Despite how human beings distort it, religion is ultimately about magnanimity rather than pettiness. In Hinduism and Buddhism, everyone is eventually "saved," thanks to the fact that reincarnation gives you a billion or more tries to get it right. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam give you only one lifetime, but they assure you God really wants you to be saved—if you will only give Him a little cooperation.

March 29, 2010

Unfair Ways to Argue or Debate

1. Use emotionally-charged words.

Example: Barack Obama is an ultra-liberal who is leading the country toward socialism.

Remedy: Translate the other person’s speech into emotionally neutral words before considering the soundness of the argument itself.

2. Label an opponent in an attempt to discredit him or her. This is also known as “poisoning the well.”

Example: Barack Hussein Obama is nothing but a closet Muslim.

Remedy: Point out that discrediting an opponent is not a valid form of argument because it merely distracts attention from the real issue or issues under discussion.

3. Make statements in which “all” is stated or implied but “some” is true.

Example: Democrats are for bigger and bigger government.

Remedy: Put the word “all” into your opponent’s statement and show it is false. All Democrats are not in favor of bigger government.

4. Prove one’s point by selected instances.

Example: Barack Obama is an extremist because he attended a church whose preacher made outrageous statements.

Remedy: Point out the fact that one instance taken out of context does not offer conclusive proof.

5. Extend an opponent’s proposition by contradiction or by misrepresentation of it.

Example: You Democrats think you can cure every social ill by throwing money at it.

Remedy: Restate the more moderate position that you are defending.

6. Defend one’s position by the use of a formulaic phrase that sounds true but is not.

Example: "Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire." "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."

Remedy: Analyze the formulaic phrase and demonstrate its unsoundness or irrelevance.

7. Divert the conversation to another question, a side issue, or make some irrelevant (yet often controversial) objection. This fallacy is often called a “red herring.”

Example: That’s the kind of argument Communists used to make, and look where it got them.

Remedy: Refuse to be diverted from the real issue. Restate the real question under discussion.

8. Prove something with a logically invalid argument, such as the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Example: Barack Obama gets elected and the stock market tanks. That shows he is bad news for American business.

Remedy: Ask the opponent to explain more clearly the connection between the statement and the proof. Might there be another reason the stock market went down?

9. Recommend a position because it is the mean between two extremes.

Example: John McCain is the best candidate because he is neither as liberal as Barack Obama nor as conservative as George W. Bush.

Remedy: Deny the usefulness of compromise as a method for discovering the truth. All candidates can be shown to be the mean between two extremes of one kind or another.

10. Use a syllogism with an undistributed middle term, often in the form of guilt by association.

Example: All liberals are citizens. All Democrats are citizens. Therefore, all Democrats are liberals.

Remedy: Make a diagram to show that the argument is unsound because the middle term (common to both the major and minor premise) is not universal, that is, not all citizens are either liberals or Democrats.

11. “Beg the question” by proposing a conclusion based on a premise that has not been proved. “Begging the question” is assuming the truth of something yet to be proven.

Example: Republicans must be smarter than Democrats because they have more money.

Remedy: Show that this begs the question by assuming that intelligence is directly related to the size of one’s bank account. Try to focus in on what the fundamental question is.

12. Argue in a circle (aka using "circular reasoning").

Example: If you want to help small business, vote Republican. Republicans are the party that supports business. Therefore, you must vote Republican candidates in order to support small business.

Remedy: Arguing in a circle is a longer form of begging the question, involving more than one step. Show that the point in question, in this case, that Republicans are the only pro-business party, has been assumed but not proven. Consequently, the conclusion is not necessarily valid.

13. Suggest something is true merely by repeatedly affirming it.

Example: Democrats are tax and spend liberals who have no respect for fiscal responsibility.

Remedy: Point out that just saying something repeatedly, loudly, or even eloquently doesn’t necessarily make it so.

14. Appeal to some admired or famous person as if he or she were an authority on the question when that really is not the case.

Example: Chuck Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee for president.

Remedy: Show that it is an appeal to an unsuitable authority, someone who is implied to be an authority on the question but who, in reality, is not.

15. Attempt to sound authoritative by using technical jargon (or sometimes pseudo-technical).

Example: Your account is safe on this website. It is protected by end-to-end 128 bit encryption.

Remedy: Modestly ask the speaker to explain in plain English what the jargon means. Explore the argument for flaws. For example, risks to Internet security are not limited to the lines of communication.

16. Use leading questions to draw out damaging admissions.

Example: When did you stop beating your wife?

Remedy: Refuse to be trapped by leading questions whose very wording assumes a mistake or fault.

17. Appeal to a “recognized” authority.

Example: Warren Buffett endorsed Barack Obama.

Remedy: Consider whether the person reputed to have authority had a sound reason for making the assertion attributed to him.

18. State a doubtful proposition in such a way that it fits with the thought habits or the prejudices of the hearer.

Example: A person with a name like “Barack Hussein Obama” ought to be the president of Kenya rather than the president of the United States.

Remedy: Show that the proposition is irrelevant to the real subject under discussion.

19. Suggest false alternatives.

Example: In his heart of hearts, is Barack Obama really a socialist or a capitalist?

Remedy: Show that the choice is not either/or.

20. Attempt to discredit an opponent by ridicule.

Example: If Barack Obama can’t even bowl decently, how can he lead the free world?

Remedy: Show there is no connection between the two statements that supposedly relate to each other.

21. Argue that something is true because it has not been proven false or false because it has yet to be proven true. This is making an appeal to ignorance.

Example: The State of Hawaii will not send me a copy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Therefore, Obama does not have an American birth certificate and is not qualified to be president.

Remedy: Show that just because someone has not personally seen an object does not mean it doesn’t exist. Explore what would be adequate proof of a proposition’s truth or falsehood.

22. Play upon the ambiguity of a word (or someone’s ignorance of its true meaning) to make an argument appear sound when it actually is not.

Example: Barack Obama is in favor of legitimizing the marriage of homosexuals because he is himself a homo sapiens.

Remedy: Document the true meaning of the word (such as “homo sapiens”) and show that it has nothing to do with the matter in question.

23. Create a “straw man” by offering a weak or ridiculous analogy to your opponent’s argument and then refuting it, thereby “refuting” your opponent’s argument as well.

Example: Socialized medicine often leads to rationing heath care, and rationing heath care will ultimately result in death panels that decide who should live and who should die. We don’t want a system that encourages the formation of death panels.

Remedy: Show that the “straw man” (here the “death-panel” system of health care) is a ridiculous misrepresentation of the matter under consideration. No one is proposing a plan that would allow the formation of death panels. The “death-panel” model is a straw man that is easy to dismiss, but it is not relevant to the argument because it is not the model being proposed.

This list was inspired by Robert H. Thouless, How to Think Straight: The Technique of Applying Logic Instead of Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944): 171-179. Obviously, the examples are modern and may not be the best. If you know of unfair arguments I have overlooked or if you can come up with sharper examples, please comment.

July 24, 2010

Crystallized Intelligence

It stands to reason that the intellect of youth and the intellect of age are different. The human brain is an organ of the body that, like the arms, lungs, and legs, is stronger in one’s younger years. It is funny and sad at the same time to see a 45 or 50-year-old man trying to play basketball full court with the younger guys. And although the current world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, is 40 years old, he, too, is considered past his prime. The highest rated chess player in the world, based on tournament results, is Magnus Carlsen, and Magnus is only 19. A professional chess player in his forties is much like a professional baseball player or a professional golfer in his forties: He may still play very well on a given day, but his overall performance is slowly in decline.

Are we surprised that many if not most of the world-changing discoveries in science and mathematics were made by young people? Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the special theory of relativity. Isaac Newton was 22 when his discovery of the generalized binomial theorem led to the creation of calculus. In poetry, the same often holds true. John Keats composed his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to Autumn” before turning 24. Arthur Rimbaud wrote “Le Bateau ivre” at 17. Jesus, another great poet, died at 33. I sometimes wonder what his thinking would have been had he lived another 33 years.

José Raúl Capablanca, the world champion of chess in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, wrote an interesting description of himself for The New York Times in 1927 (when he was soon to be 39 years old). He compares himself as an older player to himself as a young challenger in 1911. Using the royal “we,” he writes: “At San Sebastian in 1911, our first international encounter, we did not have much confidence of carrying the chief prize, but we had plenty of ambition . . . . Today we have plenty of confidence . . . but most of our ambition is gone. Then we were practically ignorant of our opponents’ qualities, but we had a tremendous capacity for work. Today we know our opponents thoroughly, but alas! our capacity for work is not the same. Then we were very nervous and upset. Today we are cool and collected and nothing short of an earthquake can ruffle us. We have more experience but less power.” Capablanca lost his title that year to a younger man and never regained it.

Most of us older folk can relate to what Capablanca said about himself. His analysis becomes only more germane as one moves into the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. We perceive that the raw intelligence of youth (the power) has been replaced by the crystallized intelligence of age (the experience). What are the characteristics of crystallized intelligence and how is it, in some ways perhaps, complementary to the raw intelligence of youth?

I believe crystallized intelligence presents at least three qualities: self-knowledge, perspective, and clarity.

Self-knowledge: The older we become, the more self-aware we generally become. We come to know who we really are, what our strengths and weaknesses truly are. We are less likely to deceive ourselves with flights of fancy. As we grow older, we become more curious about our grandparents, our parents, and the family tree in general. The senior intellect is more retrospective, more interested in making sense of the life it has lived and the self it has experienced.

Perspective: Cumulative thought and experience teaches us that intelligence and wisdom often do not cohabitate. The older mind tends to be more realistic and wary. It has learned that beauty and character do not always inhabit the same package, that de-accumulation may triumph over accumulation, and that many things represent a waste of both time and money. As the poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) once wrote:

When I can look Life in the eyes,
Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the Truth,
And taken in exchange--my youth.

Clarity: The term “crystallized” suggests hard yet clear. The older mind, while not as agile or quick, has a sharper sense of what it knows and doesn’t know. It may not be as powerful, but it is more settled. It often prefers non-fiction to fiction, and finds that passages of text (in, say, the Bible or the Declaration of Independence or a novel) deemed obscure in youth take on new meaning with age. Stendhal famously said that one could not fully appreciate his novel, La Chartreuse de Parme, until one had passed 40.

The reason baseball managers, basketball coaches, and head football coaches are rarely in their thirties is because the coach, while no longer able to perform spectacularly the sport he coaches, has nevertheless the insight, perspective, and perspicuity to tell young players how best to achieve excellence in the sport. In that sense, age can say, “Do as I say, even if I personally cannot do it myself.” No doubt, some young players resent this, but in time, as we know, they will come to appreciate its validity.

Crystallized should not imply fossilized. Older minds, to be sure, must keep on taking in information, keep on processing experience, and keep on refining ideas. The old and the young must work in tandem for society to be at its best. A church, for example, without at least three generations among its membership, remains incomplete and lacking. “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait” (If youth but knew, if age but could) is a French proverb that still holds true. In short, age with its perspective and clarity can be of great service to youth with its power and acuity.

December 14, 2012

Does Teaching French Have a Future?

Sitting in the waiting room of an automobile dealership while my car was being repaired, I overheard the conversation of a customer and a salesman as they waited for the sales manager to appear. “My son-in-law just got out of the Air Force, and he can’t find a job anywhere,” the customer said, “I don’t understand why; he speaks three languages.” “But what can you do with that,” the salesman countered, “hold a conversation?”

For some years now, it has been a family joke that all I can do with my knowledge of French is hold a conversation. There is some truth to that. It took me ten years of studying French before I really felt comfortable holding a conversation, before I actually knew I could talk about most anything to anyone without embarrassing myself. Reading Flaubert can in some ways be easier than holding a conversation. But that dodges the real question. Is learning French worthwhile in and of itself or is it largely useless unless combined with other knowledge and skills? And do large numbers of Americans feel an urge to converse in French, especially given the years of effort it requires?

The utilitarian arguments for learning French, in my experience, simply do not persuade doubters. Most people recognize that studying a language for two or even four years is not mastering a language. To conduct serious business in any language takes many years of study and practice. Ironically, the language you spend years mastering may not turn out to be the one in popular demand by the time you need a good job. When I was young, pundits said Americans needed to learn Russian. Now, the fad is to learn Mandarin Chinese or Arabic or Pashto. Who knows what the future language du jour will be?

The argument that studying a foreign language opens a whole new cultural world is not that compelling either. After all, deep cultural insights come mainly at higher levels of language proficiency when you can read sophisticated prose and poetry or experience the culture first-hand by living in it on its own terms—experiences few American students will ever have. Furthermore, cultural insights are not automatically beneficial. Sometimes experiencing a foreign culture only reinforces your ethnocentrism, especially when the contact is as superficial as that of most American students.

The claim that studying a particular foreign language opens the mind to understand the nature and structure of language is valid, but arguably someone could acquire much the same understanding in less time and with less effort by studying linguistics. When I was reading Homer in the original Greek, my professor suggested to our class that it was good for our English. I loved studying classical Greek, but that statement struck me as absurd. Besides, who, beyond an elite, actually needs to know the nature and structure of language?

Attempts to quantify the value of studying the humanities ultimately seem pointless to me. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. For most students, the purpose of studying a foreign language is to fulfill a requirement either for admission to college or for graduation from college. That is the primary utilitarian reason. Which language they choose, however, depends sometimes on what is available, sometimes on the advice of parents, and sometimes, magically, on their own personal dreams and predilections. French has a future to the extent it can capture the imagination of young people.

France did fuel the imagination of many Americans from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century to ex-patriots like Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright in the twentieth. When I was growing up in the 1950s, France seemed to be at the height of its popularity. Movies like An American in Paris (1951), Sabrina (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Funny Face (1957), and Gigi (1958) honed the image of France as a place of sophistication and style where dreams could come true. Ella Fitzgerald made Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” a big hit in 1956. No wonder, then, that French was the most commonly taught foreign language in the 1950s and continued its dominance until around 1967, when it was clearly beginning to lose ground to Spanish. France continues to charm many Americans, although it has evidently lost much of its allure among opinion makers such as film directors, song-writers, and politicians. Mitt Romney doesn’t like to advertise that he speaks French.

Does French have a future? Yes, of course. It has a future as long as France has a future. It has a future because of France’s glorious past and vibrant present. But the cultural hegemony of France, which once had a strong claim to exist, has declined, and stereotypes of France seem, generally speaking, to command the minds of average Americans. The real question is, “Does France have a future in American classrooms?”

Ultimately, the motivation to learn French, believe it or not, is much the same today as it was for Thomas Jefferson long before he became an ambassador. As a young man, his imagination was inspired by writers like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. His house was full of products imported from France, products he found both useful and pleasing in their style and sophistication. In purely utilitarian terms, it is hard to complete with Spanish and Chinese, but for “culture vultures” France competes quite well.

Almost forty years ago (March 1975), Jon R. Kimpton was arguing in the French Review that French was “for humanism, for culture, for literature.” He saw himself, even then, as a voice crying in the wilderness of utilitarianism to return to the old paths. While high culture should not be the sole aim of French studies, Americans simply do not associate French with practicality and probably never will. At best, they associate French with glamor and exoticism, with something different from the humdrum of pragmatic American culture. American French teachers, I think, must either work that angle or be kicked to the curb.

Young Americans deciding which language, if any, to study are only incipient “culture vultures.” Many of them know in their idealistic heart of hearts they want something more than practicality, but that spark has to be fanned into flame. Today, no longer aided by the popular culture of movies and music, the local French teacher has to do the fanning. Years ago, I met a retiring French professor who had run a small but successful program for many years. He loved French, and the students loved him. French today has a future in the United States to the extent that French teachers can project love for the language (in all its manifestations) and for their students. American students and schools, in turn, will be fair only to those teachers and electives they love.

January 5, 2013

Is Christianity Garbage?

Recently I read a comment an atheist made about Christmas movies. He noted that in a long list of favorite Christmas movies featured on the website, there was not a single movie about the birth of Jesus or about Jesus himself. All the films listed were about Santa Claus, the Christmas spirit, or some heart-warming incident that took place in December. While remarking the irony (and absurdity) of such a list, the atheist in question nevertheless thought it was justified because the Christian story is, as he put it, “garbage.”

Now whatever you think about the truth of Christianity’s claims, Christianity is not garbage. Christianity has done far more good in this world than harm, and anyone who denies this is either ignorant of history or intellectually dishonest. To the extent that evil has been done in the name of Christianity, it has been done contrary to the teachings of Jesus. As someone has said, “Christianity is not a source of savagery and fanaticism; it is the chief victim of savagery and fanaticism.” Like many good things, Christianity has often been co-opted by evil people for their own purposes. But despite the perversion of Christianity by some professing to be Christian, more good than evil has been done over the centuries because of Jesus’ influence.

It is important, I think, to distinguish between the influence for good on individuals and the influence for good on societies or entire nations. Christianity has influenced many individuals to be more kind and unselfish (remember Chaucer’s parson), but its influence on the broader culture has been much slower and spasmodic. Sometimes people reproach Christianity for spawning wars such as the Crusades or the European civil wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This seems remarkably naïve to me. War has been a constant throughout human history. Pre-Christian Europe was racked by war and conquest, as was pre-Christian Africa, Asia, and North America. The “Prince of Peace” may be criticized for not having eradicated the human propensity to violence, but he cannot be held responsible for inspiring or encouraging it. Christianity may have been a pretext for war, but it has never been the true cause of war.

Christian teaching has made individuals better, and over time the cumulative effect of those millions of individual behaviors have served to make society, or at least Christian societies, marginally better. Humanity as a whole still has a long way to go. I have a Chinese friend who did not grow up with any Christian influence but who has been stuck as an adult by the altruism of Christian behavior in America as contrasted with the daily life he experiences in China. Christians simply behave better toward one another and toward others than do the Chinese who have no religious upbringing. Christianity emphasizes generosity over selfishness, patience over anger, honesty over greed, forgiveness over hatred, and humility over arrogance. Where human nature is allowed to express itself uninfluenced by Christianity, you may expect the latter traits to overshadow the former.

Perhaps someone will object that they know several kind, compassionate, and noble people who are not believers in God. If they are North Americans or Europeans or South Americans, I would suggest that this is probably because they have been reared by Christian parents or at least in a society imbued over the last millennium with Christian values. They may not consciously recognize the source of their character traits and values, but you may be sure that Christianity is probably somewhere at the root.

Christianity has not been able to reform human nature entirely. That was not its intention from the outset. The goal of Christianity was and is to reconcile humanity to God despite the human inclination toward evil (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). That said, Christianity has tried to make the world a better place both one person at a time and nation by nation. As I write, Christian missionaries are at work in Russia, Ukraine, and China attempting to undo decades of atheistic indoctrination. Unfortunately, the moral progress of continents and nations is glacially slow. Slow, to be sure, but not completely unnoticeable. If American politics are slightly less corrupt than, say, Afghan politics, it is due in large part to the Christian foundation of our nation. If not that, then what does make the United States more amenable to justice and human rights than other nations?

I believe any unbiased historian must admit that Christianity has played a key role. The abolitionists of the nineteenth century were primarily Christian. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by the daughter of a Christian minister, Henry Ward Beecher. The British slave trade was abolished largely through the efforts of William Wilberforce, a committed Christian. One may counter that southern preachers justified slavery using the Bible, but the simple truth is that their Christian theology was wrong. The New Testament nowhere justifies slavery or presents it as something desirable. Written in the days of the Roman Empire, it recognizes slavery as a societal reality dating from a pre-Christian antiquity, but it strives only to attenuate the evils of slavery, not to defend slavery itself.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa, where I found much righteous endeavor undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society [a British socialist association] or a Humanist leper colony.” Granted, in our day there are a few secular organizations like Doctors Without Borders (1971) that do amazing charitable work, but they are following the lead of a long and distinguished Christian tradition, for example, the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).

Christians have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other group, secular or governmental. Think about The Red Cross (1863), started by Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910), reared a devout Christian in Switzerland. Dunant was also the father of the Geneva Convention and received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Consider The Salvation Army (1865), started by the Methodist minister William Booth (1829-1912). Goodwill (1902) was founded in Boston by Edgar J. Helms (1863-1942), a Methodist minister and social innovator. Alcoholics Anonymous (1935) sprang from ideas provided by an Episcopal rector, Sam Shoemaker (1893-1963), who led the American branch of a Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. The list of Christian good works is nigh endless.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish author and radio host, has said, “Imagine it’s midnight, and you are walking in a very bad area of the city. You’re alone in a dark alley, and all of a sudden you notice that ten men are walking toward you. Would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just attended a Bible class?” I think that says it all. Whether Christianity is true or not, I may never know in this life, but I am absolutely sure it is good and beautiful. Christianity is by no means garbage.

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