Thursday, January 30, 2014

Only Human?

Mike Grimm is a human being.

Bet ya didn’t know that, huh?

Mike Grimm is the Republican representative who threatened to throw a reporter from a balcony and break him in half because Grimm didn’t like a question the reporter raised after President Obama’s State of the Union address. The question dealt with an investigation to what might be illegal fundraising tactics by Grimm’s staff.

As someone who’s voted for plenty of Republican representatives, at state and federal levels, I’m not on Grimm’s side of the moral issue. Grimm threatened a member of the press, plain and simple. He didn’t vent; he didn’t rant. He threatened. But, as he says in his apology, he’s “a human being.”

I’m sorry; that doesn’t cut it. I’m tired of hearing “I’m human.” It’s a useless excuse.

What does this mean? That humans can’t exercise any more self-control than a wild beast? That humans can’t tell when they’re crossing the line from anger to a violent expression of it? That humans can’t tell what the end result of this kind of thing will be?

Michael Grimm, you are human. That means you have self-control. You have moral discernment. You have a brain that can figure out where this situation is going to take you. Wild critters, so far as we can tell, haven’t got that. But you do, because you are human.

As a Christian, I believe in the fallenness of humans. I also believe that even fallen humans bear, in some degree, the image of God. That’s why I also believe in moral responsibility. Being human isn’t an excuse for being driven by your passions. It’s a reason for reaching out for more.

I’m glad Mr. Grimm apologized; I’m glad he admitted he was wrong. But I’m disturbed, nay, angry that he explained his act by proclaiming himself “a human being.” Leave that part out, and I have no problem with his (so far as I can tell) sincere apology, which the reporter accepted. Say “I’m a fallen human,” and follow that up with a clear “I was wrong,” and I’ll applaud. But let’s not equate being human with wrath we can’t control, or words we can’t keep to ourselves. Too many people have done that already.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I Love My Tablet, But Oh You Kindle!

I may be the only person in America to say this, at least judging from the blogs and tech stories I read. But I really think the Kindle is a better device than a tablet. Now, to explain. I'd had a Kindle 3 (the keyboard model) for 2 years. Two weeks ago, I purchased a Nexus 7. It's a great device, this Nexus. I can check email, Twitter, Facebook, news and favorite blogs on the go. I can watch Netflix and not bother anyone else. I can set the backlight and read in bed and not disturb my wife. I've got the Kindle app and paid version of Moon Reader+ for epub books. It's a do-it-all on-the-go device, and I like the form factor and the all-around capability of it. But it's lousy for reading. It just does too much. And not enough. It does too much when a pop-up tells me I have email, or some app has updated, or there are new tweets for me. Those are distractions from simple reading. They're like phone calls and knocks at the door when I want to be left alone. Reading is an immersive thing, or ought to be. A tablet gets in the way of that. It does too much. And not enough. You want to search with a tablet? The Kindle app won't be much help. Most Bibles for the Kindle, for instance, have "direct verse look-up." Begin to enter the name of the book you want, along with chapter and verse, and the Kindle shows a list from the index. Just pick the verse you want. The Kindle app hasn't got that; nor, for that matter, does the Kindle app have an enabled index feature. And good luck trying to read in full daylight. So there you have it. If what you want is a reading device, forget the hype that tells you a tablet is the best choice, because it isn't. Trust me on this. If you want to read, have an e-reader, and choose to get a tablet, be sure to hold onto your e-reader. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What About Israel?

Thanks to Scot McKnight’s ever-interesting Jesus Creed blog, I found an article by Pastor Jonathan Martin with the intriguing title, “On Israel, the Church, and the Politics of Jesus.” I’d not heard of Pastor Martin before, but I follow McKnight’s blog regularly. It’s certainly one of the livelier, and more diverse, blogs from any seminary perfessor  professor of an evangelical tilt.

What caught me about Pastor Martin’s post is his starting point:  “the relationship of the Church to Israel.” Pastor Martin goes on to write about how most evangelicals view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and says:

“Anything less than a ringing endorsement of all Israeli policies is seen as an affront to the living God.  This position is largely determined by eschatological convictions (beliefs about the end of the world), in which Israel (as a modern nation-state) exists as a fulfillment of prophecy.”

He then follows that with a thoughtful and short essay (well, long for a blog post) countering this idea. It’s balanced and worth reading and, let me add, Martin is a Pentecostal pastor. He comes from a tradition that, for the most part, agrees with the “ringing endorsement.” He gives good reason why he himself doesn’t.

I’ve been wondering for myself about Israel (the nation-state) and the Church. I’m no longer satisfied with the idea that everything Israel does is right and justifiable and approved by God, and must be approved by the Church. What I see in the New Testament is a God who has begun with one man and his descendants but who now calls all nations his. Maybe I can sum this up with the statement:  What nation has God not called to himself? The whole of the New Testament shows this, starting with the Day of Pentecost, when Jewish disciples began proclaiming the glory of God in the languages of the nations. The Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, the heart of the Gentile world (and hated conqueror of Judea). Paul’s final words to the Jews of Rome scolded them for rejecting God’s salvation, telling them:  “God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:28).

There are nuances here, but the main point is this:  How can we interpret the New Testament as saying that a modern state holds a special privilege before God—whether that state is Israel, the US, Russia or whatever state you live in? The issue of Israel as the people of God is not the same thing as the issue of Israel as a state.

Israel as a nation has the right to exist and to defend its borders from legitimate enemies; all nations have that right, so far as I can see in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that everything Israel does is right. And pointing this out doesn’t make us heretics.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Revelation In Translation

Probably the most important thing I learned as a teen-aged Christian was this:  Get yourself a good Bible. Good, as in:  a Bible you can understand. For, once upon a time, among Pentecostals (like me), there was this idea that the only REAL Bible was the King James Version, dropped straight from Heaven on an eagerly-awaiting English-speaking flock. And if you were a faithful believer, you just had to learn to      
English: King James IC
English: King James IC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
put up with find the beauty in the "thees" and "thous" of the King's English of 1611.

I know that the picture of fundamentalist/conservative Christians is one of hide-bound, stuck-in-the-past reactionaries. That's true in some cases, but the Pentecostal pastors who taught me were really quite revolutionary compared to the stereotypes. For one thing, I grew up in the local Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which has always ordained women, and I experienced first-hand ministry under women as pastors. At a time when "Christian Rock" (anyone remember that?) was controversial, my pastors favored it--not that they spun any Larry Norman records. But they never called it "the devil's counterfeit"; to them, it was like a missionary learning the language of the people he/she lived among. And, as for the new Bible translations that began making their way into the pews, my pastors were all for them:  The Living Bible, Good News For Modern Man, The Amplified Bible. . . anything that made Scripture more easily understandable.

My first non-KJV Bible was the Good News version, aka Today's English Version. Then I picked up a New International Version; and then, the Amplified, New American Standard, New King James and English Standard versions. Today, the NIV, NAS and ESV translations are the ones I use most. Out of these came another lesson:  It's important to compare translations before you grab onto a doctrine.

This matters for me because, from time to time, I get to fill a pulpit. And there have been plenty of times when I've had a bang-up sermon from a striking text run through my mind. . . until I researched that text in two or three translations. Suddenly the text changed, and I couldn't support the main idea. 

Example? Well, how about this one, quoted frequently by old-time Pentecostals:  "It's the anointing that breaks the yoke." That's from Isaiah 10:27 in the King James version:  "The yoke shall be destroyed because of the anointing." Yet here are some other translations:
  • "and the yoke shall be destroyed by reason of fatness" (American Standard)
  • "And destroyed hath been the yoke, because of prosperity" (Young's Literal)
  • "and the yoke will be broken because of the fat" (English Standard)
(Translations courtesy of Rick Meyers' e-Sword software)

It's easy to see where the idea of "anointing" comes in; but newer translations make clear that Isaiah is speaking, not of supernatural empowerment, but of freedom (for Judah, from Assyria) and blessing and increase as a result.

Moral of story? If you can't support your "revelation" through two or three translations, maybe you should simply set it aside.
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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Prostituting God

"I think people use the Holy Spirit the way they would a prostitute."

It was kind of a  shocking statement my friend made in our Sunday morning study. He knew it would be, and he apologized before making it, but still he had a point he wanted to make. 

"Christians use God just to feel better," he said. We're not quite so interested in actually doing what God says; we're not really interested in being like Christ. We want to feel a certain way. God is there to make us feel good, to make us feel satisfied.

I'd been about to say something myself--about how Christians react rather than act, and so we have this tendency to live unbalanced lives--but I was, first of all, caught up in what he was saying and, secondly, not willing to push the study into worship-service time (I'm not the study leader, after all). My friend had just made an important point worth mulling over:  The average Christian values a certain kind of experience over and above actual obedience to God. Christians use God.

It put me in mind of something the late Chuck Colson had written in one of his books--that he'd been studying then-current "successful Christian living" books and had a problem with them. "They were all telling me how to get more out of my faith, while I wanted to know how to put more into it." (Roughly remembered paraphrase here; you get the gist of it.) 

The heart of the matter is simple:  Does God exist for me, or do I exist for him? I can't think of any Christian of any stripe who would say:  "God exists for me, of course!" But I can think of plenty of times when I've acted as if God exists for me. God is supposed to make me feel better about myself, comfort me when I'm sorrowful, and make repentance simple and easy. He's supposed to accept my excuses for sin and forgive me and understand that I'm only human and might just go back and do the same thing all over again.

In the United States at least, people tend to think of "spiritual" experiences as "emotional" experiences. They don't need to involve any lasting change of character or personality. They are like one-night stands. It's all about the pleasure they give; no commitment is required.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Read Right (No ‘Rithmetic)

I recently won a much-coveted an earnestly-desired copy of the 3rd edition of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (thanks, Rob Bradshaw—your website rocks!). It’s a basic hermeneutics primer and I’d read good things about it since I first heard of it. So far, it has lived up to its promise.
I, like Professor Fee, grew up in a Pentecostal denomination. I’m still in a Pentecostal church; this one is in a fellowship rather than a denomination. The difference is that fellowships are affiliations; the local churches are entirely self-governing. There’s no hierarchy or governing authority over the local body. This has both advantages and disadvantages; but I digress. The main thing is that, being part of the Pentecostal flock all my life, I’ve heard downright strange stuff. Most of it hasn’t come from pastors but rather from independent teachers. . . or, really, from folks who’ve read something from some of those independent teachers.
I don’t intend to get into names here; there are plenty of websites where you can research the subject. But I have found that folks in the pews typically don’t read their Bibles the way Stuart and Fee say we should. In dealing with Old Testament narrative, for instance, Stuart (the OT scholar of the duo) points out that narratives have three levels. The top level is “metanarrative. . . the whole universal plan of God worked out through his creation.” The middle level is “the story of God’s redeeming a people for his name.” And the bottom level is “all the hundreds of individual narratives that make up the other two levels” (see Chapter 5 if you have the book).

But OT narratives are not, Stuart goes on to say, “allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings.” Nor are they “intended to teach moral lessons.” Yet they often “illustrate what is taught explicitly . . . elsewhere.” This isn’t quite the same as teaching a lesson or giving “the moral of the story.” A life is more than a moral lesson.
I’ve heard a lot of teaching that makes the Old Testament narrative into allegory. Maybe that’s just the Pentecostal way—looking for the hidden “deeper truth” while missing the plain hard-hitting “surface” truth. It’s refreshing to read this quote:  “You will get into all sorts of trouble if you try to find meanings in the text that you think God has ‘hidden’ in the narrative” (p. 102, paperback ed.). That alone is worth the price of the book.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Next Up: Return To Unity

Hoo-wee! Well, we done got through that election at last, didn't we? And we survived! Ain't life grand?

All right, enough of that. Now it's time for some unity. . . something sadly lacking in the United States. What are the chances of reaching it? Maybe not so great.

Daniel Amos
Cover of Daniel Amos
Lots of pundits are throwing around their takes on why this election came out as it did and what this means for The Future. As in:  Future of the Republic, Future of the Democratic Party, Future of the Republican Party, and so on. But reading the future works best when the future becomes the past (this is illustrated in the title of the Daniel Amos song, "It's the Eighties, Where's Our Rocket Packs?" Yes,it's dated; but it makes a point).

There's no question that America is changing. The nation is aging; minorities are growing; "traditional religion" is slip-sliding away. It's easy to point out the failure of old models on both Left and Right; neither has lived up to its promise. Two things are missing:  A frank confession by both liberals and conservatives of where they have failed, and an honest and open debate of what we want to be as a nation.

We've been told for years that most Americans are, in fact, somewhere in the moderate scale (moderately conservative to moderately liberal). This accounts in part for the large number of independent voters who think that neither party truly represents them and who therefore choose no party affiliation. Politics has become the art of drawing folks in the middle to one extreme or the other, against their better judgment. This is not what democracy is meant to be. Democracy is built on finding consensus rather than persuading people to extremes. When parties try to push people to edges that they are not comfortable with, it's no wonder that party power swings from election to election:  Democratic gains in 2008, GOP gains in 2010, close margins in 2012 that (slightly) favor Democrats.

 The change you expect often isn't the change you get. Changing demographics don't necessarily mean wholesale changes in society. There is, I suspect, far more consensus even in the face of change than either Left or Right suspects. At heart, voters want to be safe; they want tomorrow to be like today; they want their children's futures to be better yet. Maybe it's time to build on this.