Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Three-Run Triple

That's how I would describe the third installment of Thomas Cahill's "Hinges of History" series entitled, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. To complete the analogy; his first book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, was a home run in the 8th or 9th inning for a team down by a few runs but who ultimately wins, revitalized by the solo shot. I was not expecting that book to be as good as it is and dedicated myself to the whole series, after having read it. It enlightens us on an aspect of Western history that we know little about and gives me greater appreciation for Celtic Christianity's role in the history of the Church and Her development and influence in that particular period. Cahill's second book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, is a flat out grand slam (read my views on it here). It is vital for every Christian to be intimately familiar with the Old Testament. Cahill makes the point that, in order to truly understand who we are and from whence we've come as a civilization, it is vital for every westerner, regardless of religion or lack thereof, to understand Jewish history and how they revolutionized the world.

So why is his latest book a three-run triple? I've scored this hit with particularity. First of all, I just can’t bring myself to call it a home run, due to that fact that Cahill would not allow himself to proclaim that Jesus is God or that the New Testament proclaims such a message. I John 5:12 states, "He who has the Son has the life." If you don’t believe that Jesus is God, you don’t "have the Son." While, refreshingly, Cahill often challenges some of the popular and ridiculous conclusions of the Jesus Seminar — and others of their ilk — regarding the historicity of the Gospels, at other times he follows the modern, antisupernaturalist scholarly line, proposing that the divinity of Jesus is a development of the later Church and not something that anyone who actually knew Jesus actually believed.

"In this dialogue [between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4], as in the one with Nathaniel [in John 1], Jesus possesses some of the ease and humor of the Synoptic Jesus surely, but he is now all-knowing, which he is never shown to be in Mark and Matthew, and of which there are but occasional flashes in Luke." (p. 268)

"… never shown to be in …"?!?! A cursory reading of any Gospel reveals Jesus as divine and each clearly portrays Him as sharing in the Father's omniscience. To deny this is to be caught up in the criticism and skepticism of a New Testament scholarship that won’t let the Bible say what it actually and plainly says. For all of the wonderful truths that Cahill brings to light, I can’t call his book a home run because he won’t call Jesus God or let the early Christians believe that He was. The book has many such uncomfortable and ultimately disagreeable moments and it is clear that he did not even try to engage with any conservative New Testament scholarship that would challenge these critical/skeptical views.

But on to the three runs. As with his other books, Cahill writes compellingly and makes connections that aren't always made in Biblical/historical studies. The first chapter of the book is a 50-page account of Greco-Roman history and how that history involved and influenced the Jews. This introduction sets the stage for the kind of Savior that the people in the first century, of whatever persuasion, would have been expecting. The remaining chapters reveal how Jesus met all such expectations, no matter how unexpectedly He may have done so, and how His Person is interwoven into the fabric of our civilization in a way that we will never be able to get rid of, nor should we attempt to. Cahill talks about Jesus as a new believer might, with fresh insights that those of us who have walked with Jesus for some time may have forgotten or at least failed to reflect on recently. The book is not recommended for someone looking for Evangelical exposition or even broadly Christian theological reflection. It is recommended for someone who is looking for good writing and a perspective on Jesus that is unique and that will cause you to be that much more appreciative of your Christian heritage. I don’t intend for the three runs to correspond to three particular truths that I think Cahill poignantly illiterates. I do intend for the three runs to convey that, even though it's not a home run, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is worth reading and has whet my appetite for book four.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Quick Word About Character

Now that it's been a week since the Boston Red Sox destroyed my beloved Angels in the ALDS, and I've had a chance to calm down, I think I can write more reflectively and less reactionary on what I observed. I can't make any excuses for the Angels because the Red Sox beat them in every conceivable category. So, my comments are not so much about the details of the game as they are about how the game was played. My basic thoughts are the same as they were a week ago, I'm just less hot-headed about them. It does help my soul that the Red Sox are down two games to one in the ALCS. Go Cleveland!

I'll start off by saying that my observations don't have a lot of statistical verification. As I'll explain, I'm working from a very small sample and what I have to say may be contrary to reality. But all I have to go on, in this case, are my observations so, I'll speak my peace and let those of you who can refute me, do so in the comments.

Since 2002, I've been to approximately fifty Angel games and watched about as many on TV. I've listened to probably a hundred but, as you'll see, that doesn't help my case. I've also watched several hundred video clips of game highlights. In that same time period, I've seen maybe five Boston Red Sox games that didn't involve the Angels, and none of them were live. Obviously, we're dealing with imbalanced research and substandard investigative reporting.

However, the imbalance highlights my point. You see, in all of my experience with the Angels, it isn't often that they show poor character. Back when Troy Glaus was an Angel, he would swear every few games after a strikeout, which is amazing considering how often he struck out. Jarrod Washburn had a tendency to swear every now and then when a batter would hit one out of the park — also amazing considering how often he gave up home runs. And our wonderful Texan, John Lackey, doesn't always display his best side when he has a bad outing. When things are going well for the Angels, there is relatively little showboating or grandstanding. No throwing of the bat or raised arms when it is clear that the ball is headed out of the park and definitely no "joyful swearing?" when a double play is turned. In general, I'm proud of how the Angels carry themselves as they play the game.

The Red Sox have a completely different field presence. During the last few weeks of the season, I saw Dustin Pedroia — likely this year's rookie of the year — turn a double play and let out an enthusiastic "f*@# yeah!" When Jonathan Papelbon struck out an Angel to end the inning in the second game of the ALDS, there was no mistaking that he felt it necessary to give us all a, "yeah, yeah, f*@# yeah!" This is what the Red Sox do when they do something good! Not to mention that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez — in this year's ALDS, at least — couldn't hit one out without throwing the bat, admiring their performance for what seemed an eternity and walking half way to first with their hands raised in the air. Their showboating or grandstanding puts Barry Bonds to shame.

After realizing that the Red Sox are a team full of the kind of people that I don't want my son to grow up admiring , i.e. people with lots of talent but with egos and attitudes that render that talent morally worthless, and that the Angels are, for the most part, the kind of people I want my son admiring, I found myself actually believing the ol' cliché, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." I would have loved to watch the Angels take the World Series this year, to see Vlad Guerrero finally get a ring, to see Garret Anderson prove himself in the latter part of his career. But if they'd have had to act like the Red Sox to do it, no thanks. I'll settle for the AL West Championship and proudly dress my kid in Angel gear, knowing that the character they exhibit is the kind I'd like him to exhibit as he grows up and learns to play sports, study in school and live life. Character does matter. Keep it up Angels.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

"No Conflict Between Science and Religion" - What in the World Does that Mean?

On the recommendation of a family member, I started reading Jimmy Carter's 2005 book, Our Endangered Values. I've only read half of it, but I find myself pulled in 2 directions.

On the one hand, Carter seems undoubtedly Evangelical, having shared his faith in Jesus Christ with world leaders and dignitaries whose faiths are indifferent, if not hostile, to his own. He has studied and taught the Bible in a local Church setting for decades. I respect this about President Carter and am jealous of his zeal for evangelism.

On the other hand, while I agree with Carter that America's moral values are in serious trouble, I attribute the cause of moral decline to the exact opposite of whatever he attributes such decline. For example, he believes that the social conflict in America over Church-state relations is not due to the fact that the government (more specifically, the legislature) is taking a stronger stance against Christianity and Its values, but because religious fanatics (fundamentalists, the religious right, etc.) are pushing their morality on the public and forcing religion into politics. I find Carter's logic invalid, his examples circumstantial and his conclusions unsound.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Chapter 5 of Carter's book is titled, "No Conflict Between Science and Religion." Before starting the book but having browsed the table of contents, I was intrigued and excited to read what he had to say. I also believe that there is no conflict between science and religion and thought that Carter and I would have something to agree on here. However, as I began to read the book and experience the discrepancy described above, I realized that it was highly likely that Carter meant something utterly different than I mean by that phrase. And sure enough, upon reading the chapter, I now know that I have a completely contrary understanding of the relationship between faith and science than does Carter.

At some point in the course of reading the chapter and realizing our disagreement, I recalled that Francis Schaeffer had written a piece about the relationship of science and religion with a similar title to Carter's chapter. I checked volume 2 of Schaeffer's complete works and there it was, No Final Conflict. I doubted highly that Schaeffer and Carter shared the same view but, due to my initial error in judgment about Carter, I wondered if even Schaeffer and I shared the same view. I imagined the 3 of us, all espousing that there is no conflict between science and religion, having three radically different relationships in mind. It's not the potential different perspectives on the relationship that troubles me but that the 3 of us could have different views and all call it the same thing. I have a book entitled, Science and Christianity: Four Views wherein, obviously, 4 different views about the relationship between science and faith are fleshed out. Needless to say, none of the views are called the same thing and the titles clearly describe the content of the perspective, without equivocation.

So I read Schaeffer as well and, thankfully, came to realize that his view of the relationship is quite similar to mine, and quite the contrary of Carter's. But I am still, a week later, working through the reality that "no conflict" can mean two different, and quite opposing things. Let me summarize the views and then let Carter and Schaeffer speak for themselves.

No Conflict: Carter Style - Science and religion do not conflict because the former deals with fact and the latter with faith. Science describes the physical world and how it works, while the Bible describes spiritual world and God's message to man. The conflict we experience is the result of trying to make the Bible relate to science or science to the Bible.

No Conflict: Schaeffer Style - Science and religion do not conflict because both general revelation, i.e. science and special revelation, i.e. the Bible both come from the same non-contradictory God. Whatever conflict we experience as fallible human beings is the result of our inability to rightly understand one or the other.

I believe that most of the supposed conflict between science and faith that we hear of today is the result of a Carter style worldview that is inherited from the Enlightenment. A foundation stone of current secular western thought is the independence of science from religion, a demarcation that says the two don't have anything to do with each another. When we try to mix them we get nothing but contradictions. The Bible says that God created man but science says that man is the result of a mindless evolutionary process. Christianity tells us that the universe has purpose and direction but science shows no sign of these things. Rather than try to wrestle with these problems, if we relegate the Bible to only being God's spiritual message and let science describe empirical reality, we avoid the conflict. Here's how Carter puts it:

1. "I had always understood that we didn't need scientific proof for the existence or character of God. In fact, whenever there was adequate physical evidence to prove any theory or proposition, then we didn't need faith as a basis for our belief."

2. "It seems obvious to me that, in its totality, the Bible presented God's spiritual message, but that the ancient authors of the Holy Scriptures were not experts on geology, biology, or cosmology …"

3. "Whenever there is a scientific discovery or a theory that is proven by the observation of facts, these are just additional revelations to fallible human beings of truths that have always existed. They cannot possibly have an adverse effect on the status of the omnipotent Creator of the entire universe."

4. "The existence of millions of distant galaxies, the evolution of species, and the big bang theory cannot be rejected because they are not described in the Bible, and neither does confidence in them cast doubt on the Creator of it all. God gave us this exciting opportunity for study and exploration, never expecting the Bible to encompass a description of the entire physical world or for scientific discoveries to be necessary as the foundation for our Christian faith."

Carter's position is clear – science and religion do not mix and were never meant to. Controversy arises when we try to cross the firmly established lines between them. If we let each speak only to its own appropriate sphere, all is well.

But do we live this way? Can we live this way? Did God intend for us to live this way? When we ask these questions, Carter style "no conflict" seems to present problems. We don't live as if the science and religion don’t relate. When I read the intricate details of Israel's history (including the miracles) in the Bible, I get the sense that I am supposed to believe both the history and the spiritual significance. In fact, the spiritual significance is deepened and strengthened because it is historical. Conversely, when science tells me that smoking destroys the body I, knowing that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, see smoking as a negative activity both physically and spiritually. Life doesn't allow us to slice it up and keep its spheres separate and neither does God want that. Of course we don't, "need scientific proof for the existence or character of God." God reveals Himself through many means other than the merely scientific. Nonetheless, He gave us proof, scientific proof (see the results of Intelligent Design research), and it would be foolish to ignore it. So, it seems, Carter's version of no conflict depends on an idealistic impossibility. In addition, Carter's position that faith is not necessary to believe something that has been empirically verified shows that he doesn't understand the Biblical idea of faith nor how much faith is required even in the scientific realm.

But where does that leave us? Science and religion often do seem to conflict. If we are going to propose that they don't, we have some explaining to do. Here's Schaeffer's view:

1. "And there is a reason for being shaken [if the Bible only addresses the spiritual], for there is no reason to keep what the Bible says religiously if we have put it in an upper story and thrown away that of which the Bible speaks when it touches history and the cosmos. God could have given us the religious truths which He sets forth in the Bible in a theological outline. … But instead of this, He gave us religious truths in a book of history and a book that touches on the cosmos as well. What sense does it make for God to give true religious truths and at the same time place them in a book that is wrong when it touches history and the cosmos?"

2. "The Bible is not a scientific textbook—in the sense that science is not its central theme, and we do not have a comprehensive statement about the cosmos. 'The Bible is not a scientific textbook' is true in the sense in which we have just spoken. But many people use the statement in a different way—that is, to say that the Bible does not affirm anything about that in which science has an interest. When the statement is used to mean this, it must be totally rejected. The Bible does give affirmations about that in which science has an interest."

3. "What the Bible teaches where it touches history and the cosmos, and what science teaches where it touches the same areas do not stand in a discontinuity. There must indeed be a place for the study of general revelation …—that is, a place for true science. But on the other side, it must be understood that there is no automatic need to accommodate the Bible to the statements of science. There may be a difference between the methodology by which we gain knowledge from what God tells us in the Bible and the methodology by which we gain it from scientific study, but this does not lead to a dichotomy as to the facts. In practice, it may not always be possible to correlate the two studies because of the special situation involved; yet if both studies can be adequately pursued, there will be no final conflict."

So, when it comes to science and religion, like with the rest of life, we have our work cut out for us. We know that God is one and that His truth is, therefore, unified. There is no real, ultimate conflict between science and religion, no matter how irreparable the breach might seem to us now. When science says one thing and the Bible says something else, we can't side step the issue by proposing a dysfunctionally compartmentalized perspective. Carter style "no conflict" will not work in the long run. Rather, we trust in our consistent God as we strive to integrate the truths of science and religion, understanding that there is, in fact, no final conflict but a beautiful, eternal harmony, even if we never grasp it on this side of Heaven.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Visit this Blog Forum ... Every Day

I'm ashamed that I haven't recommended this site before now. I check it every day and, even if I were able to read one post each visit, I still would not be able to keep up with all of the great stuff found here. The forum is Scriptorium Daily and features blogs by several professors, all of whom teach in or are affiliated with the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. I may be partial because I'm a Biola graduate and thoroughly enjoyed and had my life changed by the classes I had with several of these professors (though not, unfortunately, as a Torrey student). But even if I am biased, I think you'll find their posts encouraging, stimulating, humorous and insightful. Topics address everything from politics to art, cultural commentary to literature, theology to film. I especially recommend Fred Sanders' posts under the avant-garde category where he offers artistic, literary and theological criticism of his children's artwork. If it doesn't bring a smile to your face, you need to re-prioritize your life. Happy reading!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

More Theological Thoughts (mine and others')

On the 3rd Thursday night (approximately) of each month during the school year, a small group of American and Ukrainian Evangelicals get together to talk about the burning theological issues that we are wrestling with. One of our members started a blog for our group, which you can access here, or via my list of other blogs. It's summer, so there isn't a lot going on, but once the semester starts and we get to meeting again, I trust the blog discussion will increase.

Most recently, there, I posted my assessment of a debate between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I post on that blog even less frequently than I do on this one. Nonetheless, feel free to check it out. That post has a link to the debate, if your interested.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Determining Evangelcial Reality

I recently read two articles from different publications that, quite providentially (or quite coincidentally, depending on your point of view), discuss the same phenomenon but come to two radically divergent conclusions. They both discussed whether Evangelicalism in the mid to late 1900s fostered intellectual and cultural engagement with unbelieving society in order to effect change or whether its negative imagery and language of despair when talking about society hindered such engagement and the integration of faith and learning for Evangelicals. George M. Marsden argues the former in "The Born Again Mind" from issue 92 of Christian History & Biography (CHB), while James A. Patterson argues the latter in volume 49:4 of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) in his article, "Cultural Pessimism in Modern Evangelical Thought: Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry and Charles Colson." Had I not read the articles within mere days of each other, I would have found myself in agreement with both authors. However, since I did read them so close together, I am forced to process the seeming incompatibility. What better place to process than a blog? If my process is bad or my conclusions wrong, someone can let me know. After a few caveats and a presentation of Marsden's and Patterson's positions, I'll state my conclusion. After that, lemme have it!

Caveat 1: JETS is an academic journal, while CHB is a popular magazine. It may not seem fair to compare articles from such mismatched sources, but in this particular case, I think it’s permissible. Masden is not the kind of scholar who would play loose with the facts in order to get an article published. A large majority of his research and writing has been devoted to the history of Evangelicalism, making him qualified to write a popular article that is spot on regarding the facts and their interpretations. This is not to make less of Patterson, rather, it is to say that we can trust Marden's article regardless of CHB’s more popular focus.

Caveat 2: It took me quite a while to get my mind around the key difference(s) between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. In fact, knowing what I do, there are still times when it is difficult to distinguish between them. In my opinion, it may be better to divide between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist forms of Evangelicalism, rather than between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. (I'm going to withhold a firm commitment until I finish reading Marsden's Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.) In any case, the fact that "fundamentalism" is now primarily understood as a pejorative sociological/psychological term rather than a descriptive religious/denominational one means that a lot of defining is required before any significant progress is going to be made in this discussion. I mention it here simply because it directly relates to how I address the issue at hand. If you disagree with my understanding of this distinction, it may cause you to disagree with my conclusion.

After discussing the varied activities of key Evangelical leaders in the mid 1900s, which were attempts to initiate a revival in Evangelical scholarship and engagement with academia, Marsden has this to say:

"From these and other modest beginnings, a genuine renaissance in evangelical scholarship would grow geometrically throughout the next decades. By the 1970s and 1980s, not only were many evangelical colleges assembling excellent faculties, but increasing numbers of evangelicals were publishing in the academic mainstream and taking their places in the broader university culture. Today this growth continues and has burgeoned into a considerable force in American academia. All over the country, outstanding evangelical students are crowding into graduate programs …" (p. 38).

To Marsden's list can be added the continued growth and recognition of Evangelical colleges and universities as legitimate contributors to U.S. higher education in areas beyond the purely religious. Also, the public debate stirred up by the Intelligent Design movement — which contains no small number of Evangelicals — definitely reveals the attempt and success at engaging culture intellectually. And, as mentioned here, there are a growing number of excellent, big-budget, wide-release films being produced by Christians, some of whom are Evangelicals.

Patterson, on the other hand, paints a starker picture. He readily acknowledges that the desired goal of Evangelical leaders, namely, Schaeffer, Henry and Colson, was to positively influence academia and culture for the Kingdom of God. However, he proposes that the harshly critical expression and "us vs. them" mentality of these leaders actually hindered the accomplishment of their goal.

"While Schaeffer, Henry and Colson all made notable, albeit sometimes, indirect, contributions to the Christian higher educational enterprise, their cultural stridency may actually have been counterproductive for the challenge of integrating faith and scholarship. … The confrontational, attack-mode style that often accompanies ‘dark age’ rhetoric undercuts the mission of evangelical Christian higher education. First, it seems likely that some of those exposed to such language, especially students and their parents, will be more apt to dismiss the culture than to engage it seriously. … Second, hostile, combative, and even exaggerated descriptions of contemporary culture threaten efforts to integrate faith and scholarship by undercutting concepts of general revelation and common grace." (pp. 808, 819, 820)

So, who’s right? Did the Evangelicalism of the past half-century promote and inspire the intellectual and cultural engagement that we now see? Or does our current situation — which, while positive and encouraging, forever demands of us prayerful, prudent and persistent action — exist in spite of the well-intentioned but "counterproductive" and "undercutting" efforts of Evangelicals past?

I side with Marsden for four reasons:

1. Biblically: The New Testament is filled with language about "the Kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness," "the Church and the world," "the people of God and the people of Satan," that Evangelicals use in their writings and speeches about secular culture. And yet, Christianity worldwide — which, knowingly or unknowingly, has as its authority New Testament teaching — is continuing to grow and flourish in spite of the fact that the Bible uses such rhetoric. Patterson's argument is weakened by saying that Evangelicals hurt the Church by doing something that the authoritative teachings of the Church do themselves.

2. Logically: If Evangelicals, using whatever language, constantly and consistently encouraged cultural and intellectual engagement and, decades later, Evangelicals are more engaged culturally and intellectually, it seems logical that their tactics were effective in accomplishing their goal. For Patterson to say that some people would hear or read Evangelicals and respond with a Fundamentalist attitude toward culture and academia — Fundamentalists encourage separation from culture and approach a separatist form of academics — doesn't seem to logically follow.

3. Common Sensically: Social and religious developments and movements almost always are associated with lots of intentional and passionate activity on the part of those effecting change. Newton's First Law of Motion, "objects at rest tend to stay at rest," seems to apply here. How can we explain the current state of Evangelical engagement if, on Patterson's appraisal, the Evangelical attempts to encourage such engagement were discouraging, even damaging, to what they were trying to accomplish? It makes much more sense to interpret the situation as Marsden does. After World War II, Evangelicals began to advance cultural and intellectual engagement, they were successful at this, and now Evangelicals are more culturally and intellectually engaged. It seems that their harsh descriptions of culture and the bleak future they envisioned without an Evangelical renewal inspired the change that they sought.

4. Personally: Having graduated from an Evangelical institution — one that, oddly enough, has Fundamentalist roots but which, years ago, took an aggressive and exciting Evangelical turn — and now working with an Evangelical mission, I can say that all of the doomsday language about culture and academia do, in fact, inspire rather than discourage engagement with culture. I am surrounded by Evangelicals who have been, directly or indirectly, affected by Schaeffer, Henry and Colson, and we all want to see our culture and society won for Christ. In fact, I can't say that I personally know anyone who holds a strict Fundamentalist attitude toward culture.

For these reasons, I consider the work of Evangelicals since the mid 1900s to have been unbelievably positive in spurring the Church on to engage the culture. One can find Evangelical influence in almost every sphere of life. This couldn't have happened by accident. I also consider it a privilege to be part of Evangelicalism and the work that is going on worldwide. The Evangelical Church in Eurasia is in the midst of the Fundamentalist controversy but, as happened in the west in decades ago, the Church is moving toward a more aggressive and active program of cultural engagement. This is a lot of fun to watch, even if it at times it feels like a one step forward, two steps back situation. And, above all, I consider all of this to be part of God's sovereign plan to expand His Kingdom, save the perishing and glorify Himself. To watch the Church take the light of Christ to the world and to see the world transformed as a result is exactly what the Holy Spirit wants, and it makes Satan cringe and cower. May the spirit of Evangelicalism continue to carry out the task God has entrusted to it, even if that includes being a prophetic voice in a culture that is still a far cry from what it could and should be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Finally Finished College

I officially received my bachelor's degree in 1995 and have even received a couple of master's degrees since then, but it wasn't until a few days ago that I really finished college. Allow me to explain …

During my junior year, I took a class on C.S. Lewis taught by Lewis scholar Jerry Root. Back then, professor Root lived in Santa Barbara and commuted to Los Angeles every Thursday to teach the class. His was one of the most — if not the most — popular courses to take so, as is common in a big lecture class, you didn't get a lot of one-on-one time with the professor, especially considering he was only on campus once a week. Consequently, in order to calculate final grades for students, he had us turn in a reading report that specified how much of the required reading we had done. He combined this with the grade for our research papers to determine our final grade. Actually, he had us do the calculating on our reading report and so, if we'd done our calculations correctly, we knew the grade we were getting for the course. If we were right, he'd give us what we had calculated and it would show up on our report cards at the end of summer. Those who were too anal/obsessive-compulsive and couldn't wait until the end of summer for their report cards could give him a self-addressed, stamped postcard and he would send them their grade in late June. I was one of those who just couldn’t wait.

I had received an "A" on my research paper and, desiring to do just enough work to get a 90 percent for my final grade, I figured that if I read 7.2 of the 8 books required for the class, that's what I would get. There was only one or two required books for the course; the rest of Lewis' books were divided up by genre/theme/category, and we had to read one from each genre/theme/category. One of the categories was a list of books by authors who influenced C.S. Lewis. When I got around to reading one of those books, I was almost out of steam for the semester. So, I picked the shortest book on the list and read one-fifth of it. I calculated my 7.2 books read and my 100 percent on the paper, turned in my reading report with final grade calculation and ended the semester content in my soon-to-be-confirmed-by-postcard "A-".

A few weeks later, I received the postcard in the mail and immediately noticed that it had an awful lot of writing on it for something that only needed an "A-" inscribed on it. I proceeded to read something along these lines:

"Eric, You read 7.2 books and got an ‘A’ on your research paper, expecting to get an ‘A-’ for the course. You valued your ‘A’ at 100 percent when, in fact, an ‘A’ is only 95 percent. You would have had to receive an ‘A+’ on your paper in order to read 7.2 books and get an ‘A-’. As it stands, you should receive a ‘B+’ for the course. However, I've given you an ‘A-’. READ THE REST OF WILLIAMS THIS SUMMER!!!"

The book professor Root referred to is The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church by Charles Williams. I was grateful for professor Root's overwhelming grace and favor and had every intention of reading the book.

Fast forward to May 2007. I was preparing a sermon on Matthew 6:33-37, Jesus' words on taking oaths and fulfilling vows. My study revealed that Jesus wants us to avoid the way of the world and the sinful habit of making all manner of oaths and vows in an attempt to appear trustworthy and honest when, in fact, we have no intention of carrying out the oaths or vows made. Jesus wants us to be so trustworthy and honest that our word is enough. If it turns out that an oath or vow is necessary to uphold the truth, then it is not wrong to make one (just as Paul did several times in his letters). But by no means should we be making oaths or vows that we don't fulfill or that we make for manipulative purposes. As I thought about an example to use for this sermon, I could think of a good number of cases when someone didn't fulfill their oath or vow to me, but I didn't think that a very appropriate way to communicate the message. I continued to ponder as I studied the passage.

And, as you most assuredly have guessed by now, as I studied it came to mind that I still had never read The Descent of the Dove. If anything qualifies as being an unfulfilled oath/vow, that does, even if the circumstances are a tad unusual. Professor Root gave me a better grade than I deserved in faith that I would finish reading a book over the course of a few months and I, 13 years later, still hadn't read it? Ouch! It's actually quite embarrassing, but it served as the perfect example for my sermon. Of course, the thrust of the message was to be trustworthy and honest, and if I was going to admit that for 13 years I'd been walking around with an as-of-yet uncompleted B.A., I had to close the sermon with a commitment to read the book. I did just that and told the congregation to give me a few months to get and read the book before checking up on me and keeping me accountable on the matter.

I Amazoned the book and my parents passed it along to a team from our home Church that we met up with in Germany for a conference. I started reading it there just over two weeks ago. My wife, on Father's Day, gave me a few uninterrupted hours to finish the last chapter of the book. Now I can tell people that I finally fulfilled my vow, and that I finally finished college, over a decade after receiving my diploma.

I wish I could finish this entry by praising it as the best book I have ever read or by saying that it changed my life in some way. Actually, I found Williams' thick British English distracting and his liberal amalgamation of Church history (labeled "unconventional" by his admirers) unhelpful in conveying his point. Rather, I finish this entry with a simple sigh of relief and a prayer of thankfulness that God continues to change me for the better, even if it involves a bit of shame at times.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Still the Best Movie Ever

I watched my favorite movie about two weeks ago and it hasn't lost a bit of its splendor. The movie is Unstrung Heroes, starring John Turturro, Michael Richards, Andie MacDowell and others. I first saw this film when it was released in theaters in 1995, bought it soon after it was released on video and have managed to watch it about once a year since then. I'll get to the main reason why I like it so much in a moment, but first I want to discuss a realization I had after this most recent viewing that has increased my appreciation for the film all the more.

When I watched the film for the first time, I was taken in by the stellar performances of all of the actors. I was, and still am, a huge Seinfeld fan and it was exciting to see Michael Richards do something great outside the confines of that show. The uniqueness of the storyline also grabbed me as I was, and still am, more prone to watch an action, sci-fi or comedy film than a drama. The affective message of the film missed me back then as my emotional retardation was at an all-time high in my early twenties. The more I watched it however, the more I began to understand what was going on in the film and to appreciate not just the good acting and unique story, but the emotional cord the movie strikes. After about 2000 or so, I've managed to shed a tear at every viewing (sometimes just a small tear, but sometimes I cry so much as to be embarrassed). Very few things do that to me, so Unstrung stays at #1 for that reason also.

But the main reason I like Unstrung so much is because of the worldview it advances. Despite the growing number of successful and excellent Christian films that are making it to the big screen, Hollywood continues to consistently present belief in God as a joke, an error, an offence or, ironically, as an evil. Pastors, priests, missionaries and Christians in general are often presented as exceptionally wicked or exceptionally stupid when, in fact, the exceptionally wicked are infinitesimal in comparison with the total membership of Christianity and the exceptionally stupid exist at every level of society, regardless of gender, race or religion. However, in this movie, which is set in a Jewish context, religion is seen as a vital part of life and a much-needed correction to the metaphysical and methodological naturalism of one of the characters. Admittedly, the religious characters are oddballs but in an endearing sense, not in the stereotypically negative sense as such characters are usually presented. The film's message is that it takes science and religion to make proper sense of life and that embracing one does not demand a rejection of the other.

Allow me to reproduce a dialog from the film that represents what it is trying to say. Four characters are involved: Sidney (the naturalist), Danny and Arthur (Sidney's religious brothers) and Steven a.k.a. Franz (Sidney's son who, after spending some extended time with Danny and Arthur, has begun to engage in some Jewish religious practices). The four are sitting around a table in a coffee shop where all but Sidney have just prayed for their food …

Arthur: May I have the salt, Franz?

Sidney: His name is Steven! And what are you doing teaching my son to pray? You have no right. Everything I stand for is to be able to have these kids to believe in their own abilities. Not some fairy story about God in Heaven. You know where Heaven is? In the minds of morons.

Danny: Well you're wrong Sidney.

Sidney: What?!?!

Danny: You're wrong! Because when you desert the beliefs of your father you are in Gehenna, Sidney. Now it happens, one day…

Sidney: Bullshit!

Steven/Franz: What's Gehenna?

Danny: It's the valley of lamentation, the valley of groaning!

Sidney: It's the valley south of Jerusalem where they burn their garbage!

(Arthur: It's not garbage, it’s junk.)

Sidney: Religion is a crutch! Only cripples need crutches!

Arthur: A crutch isn't bad, if you need it, Sidney.

Steven/Franz: Yeah.

Danny: All of us are cripples in some way.

Sidney: Well, I'm not! (Turning to Franz) Your mother and I have decided, you're coming home.

By film's end, Sidney's aggressively atheistic, overly scientific worldview is revealed as inadequate to deal with the complex and disastrous events in his life, while Arthur and Danny's religious fanaticism shows hopes of being tempered. One is left with the sense that as the family reconciles, Steven/Franz will grow up with a healthy and robust religious worldview, albeit without Christ, and with a properly balanced and informed notion of science. This is the kind of movie I'd love to see produced more often and I don't see myself tiring of it anytime soon. I highly recommend this movie to any who haven’t seen it, which, from my experience, is a lot of you. Watch and be encouraged that at least sometimes, even if ever so rarely, Hollywood can send out a positive religious message.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Happiness is ...

9 - 1
6 - 2
4 - 1

Those are the scores by which the Angels swept the cross-town rival, NL West, first-place Dodgers over the weekend. So that you don't have to do the math, that's a cumulative score of 19 - 4, and our only HR of the series didn't even come off the bat of Vlad Guerrero. We have a .600 winning percentage and have a 4.5 game lead in the AL West. This, my friends, is what I like to call, "good stuff." Especially considering that not too long ago we had the worst road record of any team in the majors (except for maybe KC), every one of our pitchers was getting hit like it was spring training and, on the rare occasion that one of them was having a good game, our offense (with the exception of Vlad) was performing worse than I did when I was in little league. It's great to be pitching well, hitting well and winning games. There are a number of more important things in life than the Angels, but I have more spring in my step as I take care of those things, knowing that all is well in Anaheim.

I realize that we are about to play the burning-hot Tigers, in Detroit, and that it is still fairly early in the season (which my wife will remind me of until September 1). That said, I'm enjoying the part of my life that I've given to baseball and, with my son, will joyfully and proudly wear my Angels gear in the baseball-less land of Ukraine.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Something I Don't Recommend

Becoming the unexpected, de facto, on-site director of an M.A. extension program offered by an American seminary in a country like Ukraine, just as it is starting out, hasn't allow this blogger the time desired and/or necessary for weekly posting. The good thing is that now I have a whole bunch of thoughts and stories to blog about so, here goes …

A few weeks back, I was preparing a lecture on the cosmological argument for God's existence. Reading Stephen T. Davis' God, Reason & Theistic Proofs I came across the following syllogism (the numeration has been changed to make sense outside of the context of the chapter in which it is written):

1. Every existing being is either a NB or a CB (every existing thing is either contingent or not)
2. All existing CBs have HCs
3. All CBs are such that they exist at any given time t only if all their HCs also exist at t
4. All CBs are such that at some time they fail to exist, and one of the times they fail to exist is before they exist
5. There is no first moment of time
6. All existing beings are CBs
7. A given CB, namely, x, exists now
8. All of x's HCs exist now (3, 7)
9. A given HC of x, namely, y, has existed for an infinite time (2, 3, 5, 8)
10. y is a CB (6)
11. All CBs begin to exist at some point in time (4, 5)
12. At some past point in time y began to exist (10, 11)
13. At some past point in time y did not exist (12, 5)
14. y has not existed for an infinite time (13)
15. y has both existed for an infinite time and has not existed for an infinite time (9, 14)
16. (10) and (6) are false (10, 6, 15, RAA)
17. Therefore, y is a NB (1, 16)
18. Therefore, at least one NB exists (17)

Here's some notes to help make sense of the above argument, if you're interested:
-CB = contingent being
-NB = necessary Being
-HC = hierarchical cause
-RAA = reductio ad absurdum
-1 through 5 are assumptions
-6 is a premise that the cosmological argument disproves
-7 is a premise known a posteriori
-15, being logically inconsistent, requires that we find the problem premises somewhere above it
-6 is the most likely candidate

This form of the cosmological argument is obviously much too complicated for an introductory course in apologetics, so I wasn't planning on teaching it. But I did try my best to grasp it so that I would be able to follow Davis' full argument. The problem was that I was working through this at about 1:30 a.m. Usually, working this late isn't a problem for me. However, it turns out that working through syllogisms that late at night, right before bed, wreaks havoc on my ability to sleep well when, strangely, nothing else intellectual has such a power over me. Between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. I woke up four times, each time because of a nightmare involving some crisis that could only be solved by a syllogism. The one situation that I can still vaguely remember is one in which my wife and child were in danger as I frantically tried to compose the syllogism — that was both sound and valid, of course — that would deliver them. Ridiculous! I woke up from one of these dilemmas at 5:45 a.m., happy that I would at least be able to sleep peacefully for those final, precious 15 minutes. Wrong-o buddy bean! 5:55 a.m. had me sweaty, heart-racing and frantic from yet another solvable-by-syllogism-only scare.

So, while I whole-heartedly recommend Davis' book as an understandable, well-argued and levelheaded treatment of the theistic arguments for God's existence, I don't recommend it as bedtime reading. That is, of course, unless you prefer to have logic's dark side torment you as you sleep.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Real Missionaries

A few weeks ago, while waiting outside of our Church for Josie to arrive with Dietrich so that I could help her up the stairs with the stroller, a man who attends our Church engaged me in conversation. He is not a "baptized member" of our Church, regularly refuses to actually enter the room where our Church meets, and under no circumstances receives Communion so, without inquiring, I've come to assume that he is a seeker. Alex and I started out talking about a friend of his who moved to America several years ago. This friend initially sent money back to Ukraine to support his family and friends but, as he began to make more money, he sent less and less home. Alex wanted me to tell him why. With no answer to give to such a particular and relative question, we moved on to his questions about why Hollywood always portrays Russia as the enemy and so on.

At the very end of the conversation, however, Alex broke down as he expressed his appreciation that we would make the sacrifice to move to Ukraine and to learn the language and culture in order to serve the people here. He said he didn't understand why, but he appreciated it — and he walked away with tears in his eyes. In spite of the discouragement that comes when you have a hard time understanding and/or communicating with someone, moments like these are used by the Spirit to encourage and remind us that God is using our efforts and sacrifices to impact peoples lives.

But those efforts and sacrifices seem particularly small when compared to the sacrifices of the early American Evangelical missionaries. Having just finished the Spring 2006 issue of Christian History & Biography, focusing on Adoniram and Ann Judson, it seems wrong to consider myself a missionary. It takes us about 24 hours, doorstep to doorstep, to get from our apartment in Kyiv to the home of a loved one in America. It took the Judsons four months. We are learning Russian with the help of endless resources, teachers and locals who know English quite well. The Judsons had to learn Burmese from scratch, develop a usable grammar and translate the Bible themselves. We are serving a Church and a seminary that are primarily run by Ukrainians in a country with 2,800 Evangelical Churches and several hundred thousand Evangelical believers. When the Judsons arrived in Burma, there were no Churches and no believers. We communicate with our family and friends regularly, via telephone, e-mail, blogs, CDs and DVDs full of pictures and videos, and visits from home or to home when possible. The Judsons had to wait for the rare occasion when a tradesman who could hand-carry their correspondences back to America would pass through, and they rarely visited home or received visitors. We have a wonderful missionary sending agency that takes care of us very well and has been around for decades. The Judsons were sent out only two years after the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was founded; they were among its first missionaries. Our life seems pretty good by comparison.

2012 will mark the 200-year anniversary of when the Judsons left for Burma. Incalculable progress has been made in the quantity and quality of missions and in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. I consider it a divine privilege to be part of the missionary endeavor of the universal Church and particularly part of the heritage of American Evangelical missions that began with the Judsons. And I thank our many, many supporters for making it possible for us to serve in Ukraine – even if, by comparison, we don't seem like real missionaries.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Just a Glimpse

Seminary is in session and my blog output has dropped significantly. Nevertheless, I've been carrying something around with me for weeks that must be shared. Here she goes …

Being a father is wonderful beyond description. It is amazing to feel and express my love toward our little Dietrich and to watch him react and respond to us. To see him grow and develop is to witness a miracle in process. To pray for him with Josie is a privilege as well as an exercise in projection. I want for Dietrich things that I've either had and lost, tried for and failed to reach or, on occasion, never thought of desiring for myself. But with only 4.5 months behind him, Dietrich has his whole life ahead of him and I want him to pursue it with a passion that brings joy to himself and glory to God. It's a lot to put on the shoulders of a little boy, I know, but since he can't even recognize himself in a mirror yet, I'm confident that I'll obtain some parental realism before my hopes and dreams have too adverse an affect on him.

The point is that I have love for Dietrich that I didn't know I had. It's a different kind of love than I have for my wife, obviously, but I didn't know it would be so obviously different. And the realization of this new, paternal love hit me like a sledgehammer a few weeks ago when we took Dietrich in for his immunizations. The same thing happened when he received immunizations a few weeks after he was born, but the repetition confirmed it. As I sat there, holding Dietrich in my arms, which gave him a sense of safety and security, I dreaded the inevitable moment when the nurses would stick the needles in his legs and he would scream out in shock and pain, onto which I would project feelings of betrayal and forsakenness. My son shouldn't have to be in such pain and I am the one responsible for it. Nothing in years has made me cry (in the bad way) quicker than when I offer my son to the ladies with the needles and then, instantly, he begins to cry in a way that he only does when I offer him up to be pierced. I feel as though I've betrayed him and hurt him and as though the blame for his suffering lies squarely on my shoulders. After the injections, Josie and I hold him and talk to him and do what we can to calm him down. But for days I feel the weight of that moment. Even with all of Josie's reassurances that it was done for his good — all of which I consciously understand and comprehend, but that just don't remove the pain from Dietrich or myself — I feel an emotional pain that far outweighs the physical pain of a few shots. It's horrible, absolutely horrible.

But in the end, Dietrich is human, he's fallen and lives in a fallen world. While innocent from a human standpoint, he needs Christ's sacrifice as much as the rest of us do. These spiritual realities notwithstanding, I can hardly bear to see him suffer — even when it's for his own good! Just think what our Heavenly Father must have felt when His perfect, innocent (humanly and spiritually) and beloved Son suffered and died. And He did not die for any benefit to Himself, but for our benefit. In my newly discovered paternal love for my son, I've gained greater respect and awe for the Father's love of His Son, and will offer deeper praise and adoration to Him for His sacrifice of His Son on our behalf.

"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." II Co. 5:21

Monday, January 15, 2007

What If It's Not Historically True?

During Thanksgiving dinner, a conversation ensued about whether or not the events recorded in the Book of Job actually took place. Of course, most critical scholars reject Job's historicity, so those who agree with the critical scholarly consensus, but who wish for Job to still have some meaning, have some explaining to do. Some do this by asserting that the truths taught about God, Satan, man and the problem of evil in this beautifully poetic, albeit mythical, story are still true, even thought the events that convey the truths are not.

I made a feeble attempt to defend Job's historicity — I'm not very good on the spot unless I've recently studied the idea under discussion and even then … — but over the next few days, one statement kept nagging at me: "Whether or not the Book of Job is literally true doesn't make a difference in my day-to-day life." Everything in me revolts against such a statement because I believe the Bible to be a completely relevant Book that should make a difference in our day-to-day lives precisely because the things in it actually happened. The picture of God and His sovereignty found in the Book and Job's character under utterly unique and horrible circumstances cries out for us to live with a bigger picture of God and a humbler view of self. I don't think the message cries out so strongly if the story isn't literally true. However, I couldn't think of a precise way to argue that point with someone for whom Job's historicity doesn't make a difference. So, as is the case with many of the thoughts that give us pause throughout our lives, since the topic didn't come up again, I stopped thinking about it.

Until a few days ago, that is. Amidst the slew of Evangelical books published in the past decade addressing postmodernism, I actually found one worth reading. It is Heath White's Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian. If you don't quite have a handle on postmodernism and would like a place to start, this is it. If you do have a handle on postmodernism and would like a fresh perspective on how the Church ought to live in such an age, read this book. Even if you don't care about postmodernism at all, read it. It's just that good.

Anyway, in addressing the importance of the Bible's literal historicity, White, with characteristic simplicity and clarity, says:

"So let's ask: why is it so important that the Bible be (literally, historically) true, rather than merely instructive or edifying or inspirational? The answer, I suggest, is that the Bible is fundamentally the record of God's action in history. It begins with God initiating history in creation; it continues with God's calling Abraham and forming a special people, the nation of Israel. It passes to the life of a genuine historical man who was also God and to the founding of a uniquely inspired institution, the Christian church. It ends with the promise of a future divine intervention in history, a final judgment. The message of the long trajectory of the salvation story is that God acts in this world for the purposes of judgment and redemption. He has in the past with others: he will in the present and future with you. That's the story's point, and it isn't a very plausible point if the story isn't basically—literally, historically—true."

On the one hand, I admit that denying Job's historicity doesn't deny the historicity of the whole Bible. We don't have to believe in Job the way we are called to believe in the Resurrection. On the other hand, where lies the line of demarcation between those Books and events accepted as historically, literally true and those that aren't? If we don't have to declare Job a myth, why should we? A number of Evangelical scholars readily admit that Job has gone through stages of redaction. For instance, there is no need to believe that the story's participants originally spoke in such constant rhythmic, poetic patterns. At the same time, there is no need to deny that all of the main elements of the story have a historical core, of which the opening and closing chapters seem to be trying to convince us. I think the message of the Book of Job carries more weight if it literally and historically took place. Rather than side with the critical scholars, many of whom deny that God exists or that He acts in the world, I choose to trust those scholars who take the message of the Bible seriously, but not blindly, and who seek to figure out how the Book of Job can be so beautifully dramatic and poetic yet still preserve for us a literal, historical account of God acting in the world, a message which gives us hope that He can and will do so with us as well. I could be wrong, but with no reason to believe that I am, I'll let the story speak to me as most of my fellow believers throughout history have let it speak to them, i.e., more powerfully because it actually happened.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Let's Not Overstate the Case

In the December 2006 issue of First Things journal (#168), J. Daryl Charles writes a stimulating article titled "Protestants and Natural Law." The thrust of the article is that, over the last few centuries, Protestants have lost a robust natural-law theology as it exists, for instance, in the Roman Catholic Church. With such a loss, Protestants lack any adequate basis for a moral apologetic or for contribution to civil society. To prove his thesis, Charles points to three Protestant theologian/ethicists who not only lack a positive natural-law theology, but actually denounce a role for natural law in Christian theology. His examples are Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. On the basis of his research, Charles makes claims like:

"[Protestants] are remarkably joined in their opposition to natural-law thinking."

"Many, Protestant Evangelicals in particular, presume that natural-law thinking fails to take seriously the condition of sin and places misguided trust in the powers of human reason debilitated by the Fall."

"Despite the cleavage between theological fundamentalists and progressives, objections to natural law have united most Protestants."

I was disturbed by Charles' general claims about Protestant objections to natural law, in spite of his initial caveats, for a number of reasons. First of all, during the more than 10 years I spent as a student in an Evangelical institution, I became adequately acquainted with natural-law theory and theology, and not primarily in negative categories. Second, after reading the article, I checked my primarily Evangelical library and easily found extended and very constructive discussions on natural-law theory and theology. And I would hazard a guess that the Evangelical theologian/ethicists that I checked out are at least as representative of the Protestant Evangelical community as are Charles' examples, if not more so. I have never heard of John Howard Yoder and, while recognizing that as a fault, it makes me think that he might not be as representative as Charles would like him to be. Combined with the spectrum of opinions that exist about the orthodoxy of both Barth and Hauerwas, or at least their continuity with general Protestant thought, these realities should give rise to significant skepticism about Charles' sample.

Norman Geisler, in the prolegomena to his 4-volume Systematic Theology, Carl F.H. Henry, throughout his 6-volume work, God, Revelation and Authority, and Scott Rae, in his introduction to ethics, Moral Choices, all give significant attention to natural-law theory and theology and the role it should have in thought, word and deed. A positive article on natural law is found in the very recent New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, which was published by InterVarsity Press, an Evangelical publisher. This data simply does not align with Charles' negative portrayal of the place for natural law in Protestant thought.

But the purpose of my reflection is not to refute Charles' thesis or to defend the place of natural law in Protestant, namely Evangelical, thought. I want to use his example as a warning for all of us, especially myself. I think there is a genuine temptation for each of us to speak of things about which we know very little as if we knew a great deal about them. We may have read about some point of view or even a point of view as expressed by an actual proponent of it and make claims as though we were thoroughly acquainted with such a point of view. This is quite dangerous. Not only are we likely to speak falsely about the particular view, we may, depending on our company, lead others to think as falsely as we do. Another potential problem is that we will exaggerate our claim such that we attribute to a large group what is only the view of a portion, possibly a small portion, of the group. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Charles is not adequately acquainted with the development of natural law in Protestant thought. He is eminently more qualified to discuss the matter than I. Nor am I saying that we should never speak about anything until we know it thoroughly. My warning is that we should be honest in our conversations and careful in our speech so that we don't overstate our case, as I believe Charles has. Undoubtedly, some Protestants lack a proper theory and theology of natural law. But I think Charles has given into temptation when he says that many Protestants, especially Evangelicals, are remarkably united in opposition to natural law.

I know this warning may not sound particularly insightful or novel. It shouldn't. We should all be living this way. The problem is that we don't. I used to say a lot of things about Democrats because I didn't know very many. Now that all of my in-laws are Democrats, I don't say as much any more, or at least I don't speak as categorically. I want to close this entry with a very poor bit of advice that was once given to me by a pastor and give just the opposite. After a sermon that included a discussion of various world religions, I asked this pastor if he had read the Bhagavad-Gita, which I bought and was skimming after a trip to India. He said something like, "Eric, I don't read anything by unbelievers. I don't want to give time to the enemy. I read books by believers that tell me about unbelievers. That spares me a lot of effort." Don't do that. Rather, let us be diligent in our study, honest with our findings and careful in how we pass on that which we have had the privilege to learn. We may have to talk less and listen more but that may not be such a bad thing.

Monday, January 1, 2007

A New Year or Just Another Day?

During the course of yesterday's sermon, our pastor told the congregation that he had a secret to share with us. The secret was that tomorrow (i.e. today, January 1st) was nothing special. This secret, of course, was revealed during his message about what we should be reflecting on as the new year comes upon us. So, even though tomorrow, i.e. today, is nothing special, we should be reflecting on the fact that we, as believers, are of one spirit with God (I Corinthians 6:17) as we celebrate the new year. Nonetheless, the statement was clear: The incoming of the new year is nothing special.

Initially, I was in agreement with our pastor. I had been thinking the past few days that the entrance of the new year doesn't have any specific spiritual import. When we do things like make resolutions, we are simply trying to do things, or to stop doing things, that we should have stopped doing, or started doing, before now. Even our reflecting, if we are reflecting as Christians, is something that should be done much more frequently than once a year. I have thanked God countless times for the myriad of events and blessings that have occurred throughout this year — our 3rd anniversary, finishing language school, going back to America, the birth of our beautiful baby boy, a safe return to Ukraine — why does reflecting on them as this year ends and the next begins make it more appropriate or special?

But then, the new year arrived. My wife and I naturally reflected on the great things that 2006 brought us and how great a God we serve. And I began to think about what I could do differently this year to improve my moral and spiritual quality of life in the coming year. If I really believe that today is nothing special, why am I using it as a special time?

I don’t have a solution to this puzzle. I still ideally believe that today is nothing special but maybe that's just the thing. Ideally, today shouldn't be special. But I am far from ideal. It is because of my failure to adequately reflect on a regular basis and because of my failure to correct my bad attitudes and actions as they reveal themselves that I need a concrete event to mark change or a new beginning. I will try to adjust my schedule to allow more time for prayer and I will try to read through the Bible in a year, starting today. Ideally, I would have responded to my conscience and the convictions of the Holy Spirit to do these things 6 months ago, when I began to feel their weight. I didn't. So here I am, at the beginning of 2007, committing to act on those promptings. Is it because today is special? Yes and no. No, because it's just another day. January 1st is no more special than June 1st, if I would have responded then. But, yes, today is special because it is the day that I am choosing to act as I ought to act, choosing to strive toward the ideal, choosing to give myself more fully to God as I ought to have 6 months ago. In this way, the new year is quite special indeed. May the God Who promises to one day make the ideal a reality strengthen each of us this new year as we live for Him.

Happy 2007!