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America: Land of the Soft and Home of the Victim

I begin my 2017 musings in a minor key, but addressing an issue that I believe is important if Americans in general, and Christians in particular, are going to make any kind of difference in the world today. If you narrow the audience down to members of the Churches of Christ, then I would say this topic rises to the level of urgent, if not critical.

I shall begin by posing a question (two actually): When, and how, did Americans become so soft? How is it that we have become a nation of victims?

I recently viewed a video clip of some twenty or thirty something year old who was discussing the issue of the problems facing millennials (the generation born in the 1990’s and into the 2000’s). He was making some really good points: this generation was raised by parents using a defective parenting philosophy. This was the generation that was told it was impossible to “lose” and that no one was “superior.” Everyone gets a trophy or a medal, no matter if you come in first or last. Parents were told to become their children’s best friends, and the child’s self-esteem is the be-all and end-all of parenting. Also, technology has had a significant impact on this generation – from smart phones to iPads to social media platforms, this generation is truly drowning in technological inventions. This has created an entire set of social problems – a millennial can have hundreds of “friends” and thousands of “likes,” and yet be utterly alone and bereft of any social skills whatsoever. Additionally, this is the age of instant gratification. From microwave ovens to instantaneous download speeds, this generation simply does not know how to wait. Patience? That is so yesterday – or worse.

Then, just when I thought the speaker was on to something, he launched into a blistering indictment of modern culture and how “we” were going to have to act if this generation was to be salvaged. “We” (and I’m not really sure who he was speaking to, although corporate America seemed to be the general focus of his tirade) are going to have to change everything so that this generation can cope. These poor little darlings are so fragile, so soft, that any challenge to their survival is going to have to be overcome by anyone and everyone who is not a millennial (because, obviously, the millennials did not create any of these problems, so how can they be expected to solve them?)

Assuming his earlier points were valid (and I thought he was pretty astute), let me ask a few follow-up questions:

  • Which generation alive today was raised by perfect parents? I defy you – no generation has been perfect, and every generation has had to deal with dysfunctional family situations.
  • Which generation has not been told they are brighter and smarter and more likely to succeed than their parents? In other words, which generation has been told they are the one exclusion of the evolutionary family tree? I posit that none have been.
  • Which generation has not been significantly impacted by technology? My grandfather, for instance, was born before the Wright brothers made their first flight, yet he lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Can any millennial claim to have witnessed that kind of technological leap? I dare say, NO.
  • Which generation alive today was not handed a critical, life changing and potentially world altering political crisis? I would suggest there is only one – the one generation that claims to have had life the worst – the millennials. World War 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam – these were real shooting wars, and the last three involved the use (or at least the potential use) of atomic weapons, so, please, do not tell me that the events of 9/11/01 or the election of Donald Trump qualifies as a real crisis.

I think I could go on, but I hope you get the point. The millennial generation is no worse off, and in a number of ways is so much safer and more prosperous, than any generation in recent memory. Yet, to hear the majority of Americans talk today, you would think we are the most impoverished, insulted, abused, and persecuted culture to have ever existed. How did we get so soft?

And, lest you think I am drawing a line of distinction around Christians, think again. Just let someone say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been resurrected. Persecuted?? Because prayer has been taken out of public schools?? Because homosexuals have been granted the “right” to get married?? From what I hear from a lot of “Christians,” prayer has been removed from a lot of churches and “Christians” have long been trashing the sanctity of marriage as well, but I suppose that is a rabbit that will better be chased on another day.

My point is that we, as Americans – and that includes Christians equally, if not more – have raised victimology to a fine art. Everyone is offended by everything these days. Political correctness has not only destroyed higher education (exhibit “A” – the number of colleges and universities that had a collective emotional melt-down the day after the general election), but it has permeated and is in the process of destroying the church as well. Preachers should not be worried about Hollywood or Washington telling them what they can or cannot preach – they should be worried about the members in the pews who do not know the definition of the word “sin” or the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. Jesus did not die because humankind was perfect – he died so that his disciples might be made perfect. And the only way his disciples can be made perfect is to die themselves – die to the world that is so blatantly seeking to destroy the church today.

I have no idea what the future holds for America. Politically and socially we are on a downward trajectory and I personally see no reversal in the near future. If we continue this head-long plunge into narcissism I fear for the future of the Republic. However, we as a nation have proven ourselves to be incredibly resilient against a number of enemies, so maybe we can overcome our own seeming desire for self-annihilation as well.

As regards the church, this I know for sure. We will not be able to save ourselves. Humankind never has, and never will be able, to overcome this depth of fatal self-absorption. We are going to have to return to being a people of the cross – that horrible symbol of God’s judgment on human hubris – if we are going to have any meaningful message to speak to the world.

In the vernacular of the day, we are going to have to put on our big boy pants and suck it up, buttercup. We are not the victims, we are the sinners. We, the church, collectively and individually as members of it, are all “miserable sinners” (in the words of the older Anglican confession. Sadly, even that has been modernized.). We are going to have to start preaching against sin and we are going to have to start practicing both positive and negative church discipline. If we (the church) had been faithful to our mission we (society as a whole) would not be in the mess we are in now. So, let’s be honest with ourselves, honest with God, and honest with the world.

Let us pray that in 2017 we can have the courage to stop being victims, and start being responsible disciples of Christ.

Some Meandering (and Possibly Pointless) Thoughts After My Final Semester of Teaching

Just a bunch of thoughts going through my head as I wrap up what appears to be my final semester of teaching . . .

~  As opposed to what a many people are thinking and saying, I am not terribly optimistic about the generation of students now in college and just entering college. Every week students presented the most inarticulate, grammatically butchered, and incoherent writings I have ever had the displeasure of reading. I know my experience relates to one tiny slice of one small school, but if my experience is anywhere close to average, the educational system in the United States is in an abysmal condition.

~  On a related note: identifying this rising generation as the “Entitlement Generation” will not be far off. Simply being registered in a course, and submitting the most banal of intellectual production, should guarantee a superior grade. Students who cannot follow the most simple (and direct) instructions as given in the course syllabus will raise Satan from his tomb if they are given the critique their work deserves.

~  I won’t even get into the issue of “helicopter parents.”

~  From the “intellectual whiplash” department – I absolutely despise the concept of allowing high school students to take university level courses. If the purpose of high school is to prepare a student for college, logic must follow that said student is not prepared for college until, wait for it – – – after graduating high school! So, imagine my great shock when I discovered that the #1 student in one of my courses this semester was a high school junior. That situation deeply disturbed me. First, I must congratulate the young scholar because she obviously takes her education seriously and has parents that are equally involved in her development (I know the family, and no, they are not “helicopter parents.”) But, what does that have to say about those who are 2, 3, and sometimes 4 or more years older than she is? Honestly, when a high school junior can write with greater clarity, and with more intellectual acuity, than a second, third, or fourth year collegian, something is seriously wrong!

~  In New Mexico this issue is compounded with the state mandate that a high school student must graduate with at least three hours of college course work. Mandated!! This is pure insanity!! Why should a student, who is not qualified and has no interest in college, be forced to take, and complete, a college course? All that is accomplished is that the college course they are enrolled in is watered down so the unprepared and unmotivated high school students can pass. Oh, but the high school looks good, the college gets the tuition money (from the state, no less), and everybody is happy, happy, happy. Actually, everybody is either drunk, drunk, drunk or disappointed, chagrined, and perplexed.

~  Do you realize that in the state of New Mexico, it is possible to graduate from high school with the equivalent of an Associates Degree from a college? Am I the only one who can see the absurdity of this??

~  In the midst of all this woe, misery, and administrative flagellation, I have been blessed to have come into contact with some of the most wonderful, amazing, and talented young people. As a generation as a whole, I am utterly depressed when I think of this crop of offsprung. Individually, however, there are some amazing young minds – and hearts – among this generation of “millennials” or whatever their sociological moniker is. The hurdles they face in life are epic – not only the garbage that my generation has dumped in their lap, but also the profound difficulty they will have in overcoming the lethargy and narcissism of their peers. As with any generation, some will succeed, and some will fail.

~  Finally, I really must tip the old Fedora to some truly amazing people – the high school teachers and the university professors who daily have to fight an inept and dangerously ignorant legislative process that has crippled the American educational system. It will only be when local school boards have their full power returned to them (read: parental control!) that this debacle will be fixed. I honestly do not know how many teachers survive. But, I know some teachers, and I have been mentored by an amazing administrator who cares so deeply about her students that she can (somehow) fight the ignoramuses off of her back long enough to enter the classroom and do what she loves to do. Such is the story in every school everywhere. My daughter’s teachers are my everyday heroes. What they are asked to do, with what they are given, in the time constraints to which they are limited – is simply unbelievable.

~  Sorry for all the pessimism and negativism. Maybe tomorrow I’ll share how I would fix all of this if I was to be elected king for a day. Until then, thanks for flying in the fog and please return your tray tables to the upright and locked position – it’s gonna be a bumpy flight…

Reader Question: “Easy Believeism and the Churches of Christ”

A post or two ago I referenced the “easy believeism” that was sweeping the Churches of Christ, and a reader queried me as to what might my opinion be regarding the source of such a phenomenon. Never one to be short of an opinion, I will do my best to answer – and, it must go without saying that although this is my opinion, it has been shaped by decades of observation and years of research in the Restoration Movement.

In brief, I believe there are two reasons for this “easy believeism” – or “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it. To begin, I have to present a little historical background. At the conclusion of the Civil War, and up to and including the beginning of the First World War, the Churches of Christ as a communion were basically poor, uneducated southerners. Those congregations that remained within the Churches of Christ in the north were still considerably less affluent than their close cousins, the instrumental Disciples of Christ/Christian Church. The reasons are fairly simple to understand: those congregations with money (and therefore community prestige) soon felt nothing wrong with adding a piano or melodeon into the worship. If you could not afford one, it was easier to argue against having instruments of music. Those congregations that were fully capable of building an elaborate building, hiring a full-time preacher, and yet remained “acapella,” were few, but they did exist. In the south the story was much different. Congregations were poor – “located preachers” were few and buildings were bare bones. Instruments were out of the question both by doctrine and necessity.

At the same time, Churches of Christ were virtually entirely pacifist. Both during and after the Civil War many leading southern preachers argued strenuously against participating in the war. Following that war, the members became solidly anti-war, and when WWI broke out this became a problem. By the end of the war the government had turned an evil eye on preachers within the Churches of Christ – and the fellowship as a whole – for what was considered “seditious” behavior. If you did not agree with going to war against Germany, that meant you supported Germany. Nothing could be further from the truth, but since when has “truth” mattered to the government? Oops, I digress. So, by war’s end, the tide had turned, and the majority of members of the Churches of Christ had become war hawks – at least in a limited sense.

The pendulum swung back slightly in the years between WWI and WWII, but following December 7, 1941, it would have been very difficult to have found a vociferous pacifist among the preachers of the Churches of Christ. Nationalism and patriotism once again reigned supreme, and even those who held to their pacifist leanings found ways to support the war effort in non-combative ways. Another development occurred after WWI, and was reinforced with the prosecution and winning of WWII. The Churches of Christ “crossed the tracks” when it came to wealth and influence. No longer were congregations housed in little frame buildings – now Churches of Christ sported huge complexes complete with all the newest and finest accoutrements, minus, of course, any instruments of music for worship.

So, roughly speaking within about 50 years the entire culture of the Churches of Christ changed. Congregations went from being counter-cultural, poor, and pacifist; to being culturally savvy, affluent, and wrapped in American Nationalism. Although the 1940’s through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s were a time of exponential growth for the Churches of Christ, huge fissures began to be visible in the foundations that united this “undenominational” denomination. As the 1980’s blossomed and we have now turned the corner into the new millennium, it is obvious (at least to some like me) where those fissures have led.

First, many of the most prominent, “big name” and influential preachers and speakers within the Churches of Christ today grew up in the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. They are also the children (and sometimes grand-children) of the sexual revolution (and anti-authority revolution) and the “me generation” of the post WWII baby boomers. They are embarrassed by the intra-sect fighting that took place after the war, and the (admittedly) sometimes vitriolic attacks on other groups. They became the most highly educated, and clearly the most affluent and well respected, “pastors” of mega-congregations that the Churches of Christ have ever witnessed.

With that new-found respectability, and sometimes popularity, has come a profound pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Now, remember, this journey to cultural accommodation started with both a rejection of pacifism and a growth in financial status as far back as the turn of the 20th century, not the 21st. So, my first answer to the question regarding “cheap grace” in the Churches of Christ has to do with the almost complete acceptance of, and even frequent promotion of, American nationalism and the enculturation that has come with it. The “must have” speakers within the Churches of Christ today are not the fiery prophets of the late 19th century, but the slick, polished, suave, charismatics that large stages and multi-site congregations demand.

At the same time this cultural shift was occurring, there was a similar doctrinal shift taking place within the Churches of Christ. (Note, some would argue the doctrinal changes created the cultural changes, or that the cultural changes sparked the doctrinal changes – I think the two are much more interconnected, and neither one “created” the other). To make a long story short, the Bible became less and less the cornerstone for settling questions of faith and decorum. I have witnessed in my own life a significant devaluing of Scripture, both within the church assembly itself and in the lives of individual Christians. Churches of Christ used to answer questions with, “the Bible says” or “Scripture teaches.” Increasingly I hear excuses for how we should NOT listen to certain passages of Scripture because the culture of their day is not reflected by our culture, therefore our culture is controlling. Which gets me right back to reason #1. This can be demonstrated in so many different areas – questions regarding marriage and divorce, the importance of baptism, restoration of the fallen, and, yes, instrumental music in worship and the increasing demand for equal roles for women in worship.

So, what caused this head-long fall into “easy-believeism” or “cheap grace” in which “I’m okay, you’re okay” and we can’t even critique other faiths because Jesus said, “judge not, lest ye be judged”? Why is it that so many congregations of the Churches of Christ have fully immersed themselves (pardon the pun) into evangelicalism and the quasi-universalism that flows from it? Why are so many congregations taking the name of Christ off of their building and replacing with words like “Community” or “Fellowship”?

First – the members of said congregations have become absolute slaves to the culture of the times, in which “tolerance” is the new golden rule and “exclusivism” is the new pariah.

Second – at the same time these congregations were making the move to total cultural adaptation, they were jettisoning the one foundation that had set them apart from other religious groups, and that was a reliance upon the Bible as the only sure foundation for settling questions of faith and practice.

It is not hard to be a member of these congregations. On the other hand, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to appear and preach he would be hanged again, not because he was a Lutheran, (ecumenical Churches of Christ would LOVE that) but because he demanded absolute total discipleship – and blatantly rejected nationalism and “cultural Christianity.” I’m afraid Jesus would not be accepted either – he was never very well accepted by the social or spiritual elites.

Muddy Waters and Shattered Wells


Cistern (Photo credit: Chris Hunkeler)

Okay, so I am not going to start out 2014 with a happy, happy, happy post. But this post has been “building” inside of me for some months, and I finally decided to take some time to put it in writing. I hope it is not too depressing.

Let me begin with the word of the LORD, as penned by Jeremiah:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils;
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13, RSV)

I have been studying and teaching over the past 18 months in the field of philosophy. Now, to be sure I am simply a neophyte in this field, my studies have been more along the lines of “tread water as fast as you can to keep from sinking” rather than any esoteric deepening of mankind’s understanding of itself. However, if I may say so myself, my studies have proven to be somewhat fruitful in that my eyes have been opened to the depths of understanding that I have hitherto been blissfully unaware.

As the old saying goes, “ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise.” Or something like that.

The LORD revealed to Jeremiah two substantive sins: the sin of rejecting Him, and the sin of attempting to replace Him with a broken and useless substitute.

I have come to realize that the church is facing two equally critical sins today. Perhaps they are the same as the sins in Jeremiah’s day. They are certainly related.

In the language of philosophy, today’s church is facing a crisis of epistemology and ontology. Put those terms in “Freightdawg” language and what I am talking about is that the church is facing a crisis of knowing what is truth and how to determine truth on the one hand, and on the other hand it has lost its understanding of what it is supposed to be.

First, the church today has lost its confidence in Scripture. While there is much talk about listening to Scripture, and studying Scripture, and hearing the “Word of God,” much of what is being discussed is just a thin veneer of biblical language glued to a plank of particle board made up of human intuitions and interpolations. You only have to enter into a conversation regarding the role of women in the public worship service or the issue of homosexuality to discover how shallow this veneer really is. Passages of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) that have been viewed for centuries as being unambiguous are now discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. There are typically three reasons for excising certain passages of Scripture that are now seen as “controversial”: (1) the author of the passage was writing in a culture that was (according to the modern worldview) ignorant and repressive, therefore the writings of said author cannot be relied upon today; (2) especially in regard to the supposed writings of the apostle Paul, the passages which are viewed to be repressive and “unChristian” are delegated to the sub-apostolic time period, therefore nullifying their “Scriptural” authority, and (3) regardless of their inclusion in the Christian canon, these backward and repressive texts are superseded by the “progressive” nature of the Word of God in which the literal words of Jesus are supposed to take precedence over any previous or later misinterpretations of God’s ultimate will.

You see, we are to look beyond the text to see what Jesus REALLY meant, not look to the text to see what the Holy Spirit lead the New Testament (and, I might add, the Old Testament) authors to understand what the will of God is. But, this is all a mirage, a phantasm. We cannot move “behind” the text to find out what the will of God is. It is doubly dangerous to posit that we can determine what God’s “progressive” will would be, especially if that “progressive will” is seen to be in direct contradiction to his previous “revealed” will.

To bring in a picture from church history, what these neo-liberals are asking the church to swallow is a huge helping of Gnosticism, without the giblet gravy. We are not to trust the real Scripture, we are to seek some ephemeral, non-corporeal, ghostly “essence” of what Scripture should be.

And, amazingly enough, what these Gnostic-come-lately’s discover in their “proto-Scripture” looks exactly like them: postmodern intellectuals who want to be loved by everyone, accept every form of piety no matter how heterodox, and welcome every syncretistic practice and belief into the church no matter how foreign to the revealed Scripture.

This leads me to my second point: the church has lost its purpose. The church was never supposed to be a social club where all who wanted admission were granted membership simply upon the payment of annual dues and the memorization of the secret password. The church is the post-Pentecost identification of the “people of God” that formally dates all the way back to Abraham. This people is not identified by their desire to be a part of some earthly social organization, but rather they are identified by God’s choosing and their submission to HIS standards of belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis).

Simply put, if you disagree with God, or you continually act in ways that are contrary to His revealed will, you cannot be a part of this “people of God.”

I have simply grown weary to the point of nausea with individuals who claim to have a high view of Scripture in one breath and then in the next breath (or in the next sentence) begin to explain why we cannot trust Leviticus or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because these books or portions thereof violate some post-modern sensibility.

Either the author(s) of the Torah and the New Testament apostles were guided by God’s Holy Spirit or they were not. There really can be no middle ground, no “hedging” of our bets. We cannot have the revealed Word of God and at the same time look for another “intended” word of God. It is time the church demand of its leaders a firm commitment: in the words of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Do you believe in me or not?!”

The LORD told Jeremiah very succinctly: if you reject Him you must depend upon your own devices, your own strength, your own ability in order to survive. Realistically, all that means is you end up with a mess of broken cisterns. Those cisterns might sustain life on a minimal level, but nowhere close to the abundant life provided by the living streams of God’s Holy Spirit.

The church today is trying to exist by drinking muddy waters from shattered wells.

Let us go back to the pure water of God’s life giving words. Our eternal existence, and the future of the physical church, depends upon it.

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Bumper Sticker Theology That Makes Satan Proud

Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marbl...

Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You’ve all seen the bumper stickers on cars that identify the car owner’s particular brand of theology. Everything from “I found it” to the little outline of the little fish to the one that has all the religious symbols that supposedly spells out “Coexist.” I’ve often wondered why anyone would want to put a saying or slogan on the rear end of their car, but religious expressions truly mystify me, and some even anger me. Can we really reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to a 3 – 5 word slogan? It seems to me that some of the worst enemies of the church of Jesus Christ are the religious hucksters that try to promote it.

But those obnoxious little pieces of glued on vinyl do not even hold a candle to the pseudo-religious bumper-sticker theology that is being paraded around in the recent (and very emotionally laden) battles over abortion, homosexual rights, and even the immigration debate. Just this past weekend the local newspaper editor opined that the very fact that the Old Testament prohibition against homosexuality is found in the same book as the prohibition against wearing a garment with two types of material woven together makes it obvious that the prohibition against homosexuality is a silly, superstitious and ridiculous belief to maintain in today’s far more intellectually developed world.

Leona's bumper sticker.

Leona’s bumper sticker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my pantheon of truly outstanding theological observations that rates right up there with, “Jesus never condemned homosexuality.”

But how about, “Jesus commanded his followers to never judge anyone, so who are you to judge (and you can take your pick here) someone who has an abortion, someone who practices homosexuality, someone who follows Mohammed, Buddha or doe not follow any religion at all?”

I suppose in a way I could put up with that kind of theology if it were not for one thing: much of it is being promoted by individuals who consider themselves to be disciples of Christ – blood bought, Spirit filled, Word of God believing followers of the Son of God.

I’ve often wondered why there are no clear “frontal assault” types of attacks against Christianity in the western world today. I am not denying that in certain parts of the world simply to confess Jesus is a certain path to death. But here in the United States, and in Europe, and to a very large extent in South America, there are no outright pogroms against Christianity. That has been a curiosity to me. Why, if God and Satan are locked in a never-ending cosmic battle, is the western hemisphere so “off-limits” to a no-holds-barred, bare knuckle fight to the finish?

I cannot speak for any other geographic area, but I have come to the conclusion that at least in the United States, Satan does not have to expend that much energy fighting against the church because the so-called “Christians” are doing such a good fighting his battle for him. It is the “Christians” who are fighting against each other and splitting the churches. It is the “Christians” who are consuming the alcohol and propping up the pornography industry. It is the “Christians” who are keeping the abortion mills operating at peak capacity. It is the “Christians” who are promoting and supporting the homosexual agenda. How could it be otherwise? If, in poll after poll and in survey after survey a majority of people in the United States professes at least a marginal belief or following in Christianity, how could these behaviors be supported and promoted if it is not for the fact that so-called “Christians” are doing the supporting and the promoting? (Polls that reveal a decline in church attendance do not reveal a corresponding lack of allegiance to “Jesus Christ.” What people are saying is, “Jesus yes, church no.” It is that particular form of “Christianity” that I speak of here.)

Simply put, if everyone who even marginally claimed to be a “Christian” actually started following in the footsteps of the Crucified One, this country would change profoundly, and it would change virtually overnight.

But that is not going to happen. It is not going to happen because most Americans believe that the church is God’s concept of a constitutional republic. Every man, and every woman, gets his and her vote. If you don’t like the results, lobby for a new election and get more people to vote with you. If you don’t like the law, simply vote in another one. Morality is what the majority says it is. Faithfulness is being true to your own self, and the self that you woke up with this morning, not necessarily the one you woke up with yesterday. There is no universal truth, only a universal desire to be loved and appreciated. The greatest sin is thinking that sin exists.

I believe that as the gap between biblical faithfulness and contemporary “religiosity” grows the inevitable result is going to be that the true church of Christ will have to “grow” smaller in numbers and greater in faith and resolve. There really can be no other way. If there is no difference between the “world” and the “church” then there is no church. God’s people are to be holy, distinct, separate from the world (Leviticus, 1 Peter). If we, as disciples of Christ, fail in that calling we will not only doom ourselves to an eternity of separation from God, we will doom our generation from the chance to know that God.

Cover of "The Screwtape Letters"

Cover of The Screwtape Letters

But, we are NOT going to convince this world of the need to know God with insipid theological slogans slapped on the rear bumpers of our cars. Especially not the ones that make Satan proud to be our father below. (With obvious thanks to the work of C.S. Lewis and his Screwtape Letters).

Aircraft Accidents, Professionalism, and the General Decline of Education

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transf...

The Star-Child into which Dr. Bowman is transformed, looking at Earth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, that topic line ought to generate some curiosity. Truth be told, I’m kind of curios about it myself. I have some ideas about where I want to go, but we’ll see if I can get there or not.

The United States has been shocked over the past several weeks over two seemingly unrelated major aircraft accidents. In the first, an Asiana Airlines plane coming in for a landing in San Francisco clipped a sea wall and burst into flames as it slammed to the ground. In the second, and most recent event, a UPS plane also coming in for a landing mysteriously got well below the landing path and slammed into a hill a short distance from the runway. In both accidents there were fatalities. The reason “why” something tragic like those accidents occurred can never take away the pain of the loss of those human lives.

There are major differences between the two accidents. The planes were built by two different designers. The first was a major people-carrying airline, the second strictly a cargo carrying jet. The first had at least three pilots in the cockpit and was landing in the daylight with good visibility. The second had two well-qualified pilots, was landing at night (or, extremely early morning) and there were reports of low clouds and less than perfect visibility, although not low enough to mandate a precision instrument approach.

The questions are baffling: Why would (at least) five well qualified and highly trained professional pilots fly two state-of-the-art modern jets right into the ground? Why were there no distress calls in either case? Why did the automated systems in the planes not alert the pilots with enough time to recover from their low approaches? Were the pilots too fatigued? Were they distracted by other aspects of the planes’ highly technical computerized flight systems? Was there insufficient or defective communication between the pilot-in-command and the pilot flying as first officer? (Just because a pilot is listed as “captain” and “first officer” does not necessarily mean each was flying in that capacity on that leg. It is customary for captains and first officers to alternate legs of flights so that each can log time as “pilot-in-command” time in their log books, and to log take-offs, landings, instrument time, night flight, etc., as necessary components to keep their credentials up-to-date. Captains fly from the left seat, first officers fly from the right seat, regardless of who is “pilot-in-command” on that leg).

It is interesting, but speculation has focused on one common thread in both accidents – the growing dependance on automation and the resulting loss of piloting skill among super modern jet pilots. As computer technology has become more and more complex inside these jet cockpits the role of the pilots has morphed. Modern jet pilots are far more “systems managers” than they are “stick and rudder” pilots. Few jets are manufactured with cables connecting the pilot controls to the flight surfaces, meaning that there is no “feel” experienced by the pilots. In the case of the UPS plane, the pilots fly with a little joy-stick mounted on the side of the airplane, much like a computer game controller on your family entertainment center. The computer is constantly evaluating every control input by the pilot, and in some situations will actually override the control input by a pilot. No doubt this is a good thing in some situations, but, once again, it removes certain command decisions from the pilot. The maddening thing is the pilots are not required to know less: in fact, they must learn more – but they are not learning more about flying, they are learning more about managing complex computer systems. Perfectly good airplanes are not supposed to be flown into the ground. Something is very wrong with our technology obsessed culture.

We are not altogether in the situation that Dave faced with HAL in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but we are getting close.

As I write this it is still far to early in either accident to know for certain why each accident occurred. Knowing a little about cockpit management and having studied some accident reports I can think of some scenarios for the first accident (the Asiana flight at San Francisco) but the UPS flight is simply a mind-bender to me. UPS is a top-notch, extremely well run organization with some of the best pilots around. Flying freight is a great gig. No passengers to complain, relatively uncrowded skies to fly in, great companies (UPS and Fed-Ex for sure) and extremely lucrative pay packages. I am sure that both of the pilots on the UPS flight were living their dream. That they would fly that jet into the ground is, to me, simply unimaginable. I suppose some day we will know what happened in those last few seconds, but it simply defies common logic at this point.

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Which, in a long and circuitous route, brings me to my third topic – that of the decline of education in the United States today. In many ways we are the most technologically progressive and the most educationally regressive society that has ever existed. Our college students can operate virtually any type of computer equipment with expert proficiency and yet many cannot write a coherent English sentence. Our elementary school children are taught that spelling does not matter as long as they can get close to how the word sounds. Students are promoted to the next grade level with no regard for their ability to perform, but simply because holding them back would damage their fragile self-esteems. And now, with the explosion of on-line (so called) education, more and more people are being given certificates and diplomas for accomplishing nothing more than watching a few videos and taking a few multiple choice on-line tests.

In economics, if you continually print more and more paper dollar bills, the overall value of those bills drops. Our “one dollar” bill is nowhere close to the value it had several decades ago, simply because the Federal Reserve keeps printing more and more and more, just to prop up the economy. In education, when you hand out worthless and meaningless diplomas and certificates you are in effect “devaluing” the value of your diploma or certificate. Quite honestly, a high school diploma does not mean as much as it once did. And Bachelors degrees and Masters degrees are catching up with blazing speed.

If you read this space often you know this is a common rant with me. I just hate to see education go down this road. We should be demanding more, and all we are doing is demanding different. There is something tragically wrong when a child can enter college and not be able to spell correctly, write a coherent sentence, and to be able to analyze a complex paragraph or short story. I have no idea how the folks in the hard sciences are doing – maybe they are faring better. I just know what I hear and see, and it is not pleasant.

The sad thing is it is not the student’s fault that they are not being taught. You cannot learn what the teacher refuses to teach. I wonder if the “group promotion” concept did not have more to do with the educators’ fragile self-esteem rather than the students’ need to be recognized. If all of your students pass on to the next grade you must be a pretty good teacher, right? Who cares that they cannot read, write, or do basic math. Just pass them up to the next teacher and make those students his or her problem.

I guess that works to a certain degree.

Until airplanes start falling out of the sky for no good reason.

(Editor and author’s update: After posting this the lovely and very perceptive Mrs. Freightdawg gently questioned me – okay, she lowered the boom on me. Because of my rather injudicious choice of language, it might appear that I am accusing individual teachers of blatantly refusing to teach the necessary basics of education. This is NOT what I intended to convey. Many teachers are forced to teach nonsense and they deeply resent having to do do in order to teach to some governmental standard. I feel for those teachers. When you are between a rock and a hard place it is impossible to find a comfortable position.

That having been said, I stand by my assertion that the overall product of the American educational system is just weak. Maybe the problem goes way beyond the local and state schools systems. Maybe it is totally a failure at the federal level. Whatever the cause, the answer is simple: go back to basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and basic fundamental science courses.

If I offended any teachers out there I am sorry – that was not my intent. My purpose was to draw attention to the dismal product of our overall American educational system. Until we lean how to fix that, our children will always be at risk, and ultimately, so will our culture.)

Yes, Virginia, There is a Truth


postmodernism (Photo credit: versionz)

“Postmodern” philosophy stands or falls on one basic premise: there is no ultimate truth. Postmodernists may not say this, because that statement basically admits to foundationalism (the foundation here is that there is no foundation). But from the French philosophers who birthed the idea to Brian McLaren and further on down there is a non-ceasing repetition of the concept that in “modernism” there was an assurance of truth, but now that humans have moved past that infantile concept, we can do away with any suggestion of an “absolute, bomb-proof truth.”

And, folks, that idea is gaining an incredibly strong foothold in the church. Just look at how major Christian fellowships have changed, and in some cases, even reversed, their public proclamations regarding same sex relationships.

So, today I was doing my daily Bible reading, and the New Testament passage was in Ephesians 4. I am reading in God’s Word Translation, as I am trying to vary my Bible reading so I can stay abreast of translation changes and also to get a fresh reading of the text. Because God’s Word Translation is written in an easy-to-read format the sentences are shorter, and so I will quote the text from v. 20, although the phrase I want to emphasize is found in v. 21:

But that is not what you learned from Christ’s teachings. You have certainly heard his message and have been taught his ways. The truth is in Jesus.

Wow. I have read Ephesians, like, probably a gazillion times, and yet because that last phrase is typically presented as a clause and not a complete sentence, its power never really hit me. Until today, that is. By putting the phrase in its own separate sentence the translators did us a huge favor. They brought out the power and the force of those five little English words.

(As an aside, this is why we are to read multiple translations. Sometimes even the best of translations get things wrong, and sometimes even the worst of translations get things right. I am learning to truly appreciate the God’s Word Translation, although I will admit that it too has its flaws. Every work of a human being will have weaknesses, but this is a solid translation, and worthy of a print purchase or download if such a option is available.)

Notice three things about this verse: (I apologize, I’m a preacher so I tend to think in triads)

1.  There is a truth. Paul does not mince his words. I have been amazed at the myriad efforts that are made to deconstruct John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” I would give you some of those deconstructions, but they are so confusing that I don’t understand them. How can you say that Jesus does not say something that he not only says, but emphasizes? And yet I had an instructor attempt to do that very thing. Jesus may have said it, but he did not mean what he said – and the reason he did not mean what he said was that we have to make room for all the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and other fringe religions to be able to make it to heaven. So, for the postmodern preacher, no effort should be spared to make Jesus say something he clearly did not say.

Obviously, Paul missed out on the postmodern interpretation. BOOM! In one incredibly powerful little sentence (or phrase, if you use an older translation), Paul says there is a truth.

2.  That truth is identifiable. Paul did not speak about some nebulous, impossible to define concept that floats somewhere in the netherworld and is impossible for humans to obtain (as exists in a Platonic worldview). Nope, for Paul the truth was pretty easy to find, and in fact it is pretty easy to teach. Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians that they had, indeed, been taught this truth. They did not need to go to some postmodern seminar to be told that such a thing did not exist. They knew it existed, because they had experienced it.

3.  That truth was located in a flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth. The truth is in Jesus. “In Christ” or “in Jesus” or “in the Lord” are some of Paul’s favorite expressions. It is one of the most theologically pregnant expressions in the New Testament. You could study that phrase for months and not exhaust the depth of its meaning. But, suffice it to say here that this rock-solid, bomb-proof truth is found in the person of Jesus, and it is into this Jesus that we are baptized, and it is into his life that we are resurrected to walk as new creatures.

Many years ago a little girl wrote a letter asking if there was a real Santa Claus. A newspaper editor penned what has become a classic in 20th century journalism, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Today millions of people all across the globe, but especially here in the United States and in North America are asking a fundamental question: “Is there a truth, and if there is, where can I find it?”

Yes, world, there is a truth. It is rock solid, it is bomb-proof, in fact it is Roman crucifixion proof. That truth is in Jesus of Nazareth. That truth is Jesus the Christ, resurrected and coming back.

That truth, my friends, will get you through a lot of foggy days!

In Defense of Religious Exclusivism

20100212 - Batman & Robin on absolute truths -...

20100212 – Batman & Robin on absolute truths – generator (Photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL))

In case you have not noticed, I am a religious exclusivist. Beyond that, I am a biblical exclusivist. Furthermore, I am a Christian exclusivist. I understand everything through the lens of what it means to follow Christ. These aspects of my life are as solid to me as the ground upon which I walk.

Because the entire thrust of our “postmodern” culture is to denigrate and exclude exclusivists (I love the irony of that concept), I wanted to post a defense of exclusivism, especially my view of Christian exclusivism.

I believe in biblical, Christian exclusivism because I believe the Bible communicates that particular viewpoint from Genesis to Revelation. In the Bible we see a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, obedience and disobedience, faith and fear. In the opening scenes of paradise, there were two trees in the center of the garden – one of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life (and therefore, its opposite would be death). Our first ancestors chose disobedience over obedience, fear over faith, and so the choice of everlasting life was removed and they were given death.

Throughout God’s most explicit law there were constant reminders to separate the clean from the unclean. The Aaronic priesthood, in particular, was to constantly teach the people of the difference between the holy and the secular, the pure from the profane, the good from the evil (Lev. 10:10). The prophet Ezekiel soundly criticized the leaders of Israel for that very failure – they ceased to separate the holy from the profane, and so even God’s holy Name was profaned (Ezekiel 26:23-31). The great prophet Isaiah preached a message condemning the people for reversing God’s order, and for calling “good, evil; and evil, good” (Isaiah 5:20). Getting even more specific, in the New Testament we read that Jesus himself told his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6). The early disciples obviously learned this lesson well, as Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, told the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If I am wrong in teaching that there is a clear divide between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the secular, then I believe I am in good company. It is the responsibility of those who believe otherwise to convince me of their belief. Likewise, if there is another path to God other than that of Jesus, it is the responsibility of those who believe that to convince me of their belief. But, to be honest, they have a tall order to overcome the plain teaching of the biblical text.

I offer these defenses of my position of biblical, Christian exclusivism:

1.  Our actions betray our underlying beliefs. If I refuse to sail on the ocean because I believe that my ship will fall off into the abyss once I get to the edge of the horizon I am betraying that I believe in bad science. If I believe that “all roads lead to heaven” and that there is no ultimate distinction between the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular, then I am betraying a flat moralistic view of humanity. In that regard there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler. Each served his or her nature as he or she saw fit. I utterly reject that concept. There is a vast difference between that which is holy (marriage for example) and that which is profane (pornography, marriage’s ultimate opposite). Those who argue “there is no sacred/secular divide” reveal their humanistic epistemology. They decide truth based on their humanity, not upon God’s divinity.

2.  Two people cannot hold epistemologically opposite beliefs (that is, two different truth claims) and be in “fellowship.” I cannot be in fellowship with a follower of Joseph Smith because I simply cannot accept the myth that he spoke to some angel named “Moroni.” I cannot be in fellowship with one who holds unswervingly to the teachings of John Calvin because I cannot accept the basis upon which he interpreted large sections of Scripture. I can agree with him or her that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority, but Calvin was working from a theory of human depravity that I simply reject. If I reject his view of human depravity, then I cannot follow Calvin’s concept of the redemption of that depravity.

This has very specific applications when it comes to relating to various religious, and I might even add, “Christian” groups. For a couple of critical examples, either baptism is or is not  the defining moment of salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Note: it is not an experience of magic, but it is a critical event. Therefore, when someone tells me that baptism is optional, that salvation can be obtained through the incantation of a special “prayer” or “opening up one’s heart to Jesus” I have to object. That is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to be true to the teachings of the New Testament I have to reject these other human substitutions. Second, either the Lord’s Supper is or is not a central part of our worship experience. Here again, many would argue that it is optional, and that it can be observed on a haphazard schedule, or no schedule at all. Once again, that is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to follow what the New Testament teaches, I must take the Lord’s Supper far more seriously than that.


Communion (Photo credit: williamhartz)

3.  This leads me to my third point: even if someone tells me that they have a very high view of Scripture, if they take certain central teachings of the Bible and modify them to meet their cultural or historical practices, then I simply cannot trust that they do, in fact, have that high view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture means that we modify our beliefs and practices to match God’s word, not the other way around. I do not in any way question a Roman Catholic who believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but I do have to question their application of that belief when they teach that Mary was conceived miraculously (devoid of any human lust) and that she has special mediator powers with Jesus and God. Likewise, I have to question the doctrine that a person can be saved “by grace alone through faith alone” when the apostle Paul never said anything remotely close to that. Paul did say we are saved by grace through faith, but he clearly taught a saving faith is expressed through baptism and, following that, a life of continual sanctification.

4.  This leads me then to suggest that such a person cannot truly trust me when I hold epistemological beliefs in direct contrast with theirs. I often wonder how someone can consider me to be in perfect fellowship with them when I disagree with that person on virtually every doctrine they hold. “Oh,” they say, “we only differ on matters of opinion, but we are unified by our faith in Jesus.” Maybe we are. Maybe I am wrong. But when we disagree about what it takes to enter the body and blood of Jesus, when we disagree about the central commemorative event around which our worship is built, and when we disagree about the very process of that worship, then I have to ask, just how unified are we?

5.  Which then leads me to my last point: Am I condemning the person with whom I disagree in the sense that I am speaking for God? NO! Absolutely not. Remember my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. Such a person may be wholly obedient to God and God may in His wisdom and grace accept those with whom I disagree, just as I hope He forgives me of my theological errors and accepts my human failings. But, in my limited human understanding, I cannot be in fellowship with someone whose foundational beliefs differ from my epistemological beliefs so radically. I cannot say, “I believe ‘X’ is true, but if you believe ‘Y’ is true then that makes ‘Y’ true.” In matters where God has spoken, either ‘X’ is true or ‘Y’ is true, but they cannot both be true.

The advantage to being an exclusivist is that, if I am proven wrong, I can change my mind and hold to a greater understanding of truth. If I have said something here that is clearly false, I ask you to correct me. I can only learn from someone who disagrees with me, or who knows more about a subject than I do. A moral or theological relativist has nothing to offer me. (This is why, with some notable exceptions, I find very few theologians born in the late 20th century that are worth reading. No one believes anything anymore. No one holds any convictions. The theological landscape is just so pathetically vanilla now.)

Evil is not good. Wrong is not right. Dark is not light. Secular is not sacred. Profane is not holy. Truth is not what we decide it to be. Jesus did not die to free us to follow our own hearts. “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God” is not a morally, nor is it a religiously, relativistic statement.

Some beliefs just naturally exclude others, and that is where I am right now. As Martin Luther is so famously quoted as saying, “I can do no other.”

The Danger of Single Verse Theology

six flight instruments; basic-T, basic flight ...

six flight instruments; basic-T, basic flight instruments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to return to the image that I have used for so many of my early posts, and the image for which this blog is named. Just for a moment I want to talk about the importance of using six main instruments in the process of flying in instrument weather conditions (abbreviated as IMC).

When flying in weather in which there is no outside reference to the horizon a pilot has to depend upon 6 primary instruments. (Technically there can be several others, but I will limit my comments to the process of keeping the plane where you want it to stay). As the pilot transitions into the landing phase of flight another set of instruments comes into play, making the process even more complicated. In modern aircraft several of these instruments may be projected on one visual screen (a “glass cockpit”) but I was never fortunate enough to fly in one of those.

The six main instruments pilots use in IMC are the airspeed indicator, the artificial horizon (attitude indicator), the altimeter, the rate of climb (or descent) indicator, the turn coordinator (or turn-and-bank indicator), and the heading indicator. These instruments are made of different components (either gyros or some other system) and are powered from different sources (either a vacuum system connected to the pitot-static system or electricity). All six instruments must be kept in a constant “scan” or serious problems can develop. The reason for the different construction and the different power systems is so that if the electric fails, or a gyro breaks, or the pitot-static system ices over the pilot still can keep the plan flying and can actually land safely.

The six primary instruments provide a system of redundancy so that if one instrument or even an entire system should fail, the other instruments not affected can be used for safe flight. Now, to be sure, an instrument failure constitutes an “in flight emergency” and the number one goal is to get the landing gear on the asphalt a soon as possible, but pilots practice flying by what is referred to as “partial panel” all the time, just so they can learn to use various instruments to keep themselves alive. For example, the airspeed indicator, the rate of climb indicator, and the altimeter can all be used to verify whether the plane is in a climb or a descent. The turn coordinator and the heading indicator (as well as the compass) tell the pilot if the wings are level or if the plane is turning. All of this information is displayed on the artificial horizon – so it is frequently used as the “fixated” instrument. But it is also prone to fail – I’ve had several fail on me, but luckily they always went out in visual flight conditions.

English: Attitude indicator (artificial horizo...

English: Attitude indicator (artificial horizon). Title: VMS Artificial Horizon Image Number: AC96-0223-3 Date: 1996 Keywords: artificial, horizon, guage, simulator, S-Cab, Vertical Motion Simulator, VMS Description: Artificial horizon guage. VMS S-Cab (vertical Motion Simulator) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The trick is not to “fixate” on one single instrument. If you do, and that instrument fails, you can kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry. Even if that instrument is working properly, if you fixate on it you can still kill yourself and your passengers in a hurry if you are not paying attention to what your other primary flight instruments are telling you.

What in the world does this have to do with theology?

Today, as in every age, many theologians have decided that all they need for their system of theology is a reliance on a single verse of Scripture. I call this, profoundly enough, Single Verse Theology. I am very familiar with single verse theology because I am a part of the church that many have accused of only using Acts 2:38 for our theology of baptism. I do not feel like this is a fair accusation, and I can demonstrate that baptism is taught in virtually every book of the New Testament. However I will grant one argument: we have certainly fixated on Acts 2:38. That is a weakness in our theological history. But we are far, far from being alone in the single verse theology crowd.

  • The “saved by grace through faith” crowd uses Ephesians 2:8 as their single verse. No other verse of Scripture needs to be quoted nor studied – Ephesians 2:8 trumps everything.
  • Roman Catholics point to Matthew 16:18 as the “single verse” that justifies their teaching of the primacy of Peter.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:22 is used to justify those who do not allow food in the church building. Actually, all they need is the first phrase of the verse.
  • Hebrews 10:4 is quoted by those who believe that the sins of the pre-Christian faithful were “rolled forward” until the cross, because it is obvious (to them) that no one could be forgiven without the death of Jesus.
  • Those who are agitating for women to take over the role of spiritual leadership in the church point exclusively to Galatians 3:28 for their reason of existence.

It does not matter to the proponents of these single verse theology proponents that many other passages of Scripture can be used to counter-balance these verses. I do not deny that any of them are in the text, although I certainly deny that they are always being used by their defenders as the context in which they are found dictates that they should be used. So really what we have here is not simply the reliance upon a single verse for an entire theology, but frequently a misuse of that single verse.

The point is not that these are bad, “satanic” verses that need to be cut out of our Scriptures. The point is that they need to be read in context, and also in light of many other passages of Scripture that show another aspect of the truth of God’s word. For example, I believe completely that Christians are saved by grace through faith. I believe that because Paul teaches us that in Ephesians 2:8. But I also believe that baptism is an essential response of that faith, and that it is in the rite of baptism that we are saved (1 Peter 3:21, and that dreaded Acts 2:38 passage among many others). I believe that Peter had a special place among the 12, but that no single apostle had the “primacy” of all the rest (the book of Acts and Paul’s rebuke of Peter in the book of Galatians teaches us that), and that Matthew 16:18 in no way teaches an unending apostolic succession. You cannot read Hebrews 10:4 in the way it is frequently used if you have read Leviticus 4-6 (10 times in these chapters we are told the priest will make atonement and the guilty party will be forgiven. I don’t make these things up, folks. Read it for yourself). And finally, Galatians 3:28 is a wonderful statement of equality of salvation within the body of Christ, but it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with service in the church or responsibilities of spiritual leadership. Other passages in 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Timothy and Titus ARE specifically dealing with the responsibilities of spiritual leadership. These passages cannot be ignored or explained away simply because Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that there are no multiple layers or ranks of blessedness when it comes to our salvation in Christ.

Fixation on a single instrument has killed many pilots. It is dangerous even in good conditions. When systems or instruments fail it is almost always fatal. Single verse theology is dangerous even when the verse is used in context and is correctly defined. When that verse is taken out of context, or when that verse is bent or twisted to fit a theologians cultural understanding, that single verse theology becomes fatal. Remember, Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus during his 40 days of temptation. Simply being able to find a verse in the Bible that supports your opinion does not mean that you have discovered that God has blessed your position.

It is a far safer exercise to find out what God has said throughout his history of salvation that has to bear on a specific subject. Difficult, yes; time consuming, for sure; frustrating (because we are so frequently challenged to amend our position) absolutely! But if you want to keep your wings level and your nose flying straight and you want to land your little aircraft safely on the ground that never shifts, it is the only way to fly.

Keep your scan going. Lose the single verse theology. Fly safely, with every instrument you can possibly use to make sure you are hearing the true, and entire, Word of God, and not the lie of the evil one.

The Letter of 1 Corinthians and the Postmodern Cultural Conundrum

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscript of the Epistles written by Paul in the new testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.

Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.

Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.

Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.

The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.

As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.

In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.


Corinth (Photo credit: photographical evidence)

The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.

I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.

I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.

But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.

Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.

But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.

And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.

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