For the Shame of the Gospel

We have gotten away from the pure and simple message of the cross, that Jesus came to die for sinners and give them salvation.


We live in interesting times. We have taken for granted for a long time in the United States that we are a Christian nation. Christians are fighting through political means and on social media to convince this country of those origins and to hold on to them. In my opinion, we has moved past those Christian origins, and I am not sure we will ever go back short of a revival of orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.

Current attitudes in popular culture and among the intellectual elite in the US view the Christian heritage negatively, to the extent that people admit we have a Christian heritage. People view Christians as privileged, wielding power, and oppressive. The positive connotation that went with the word, Christian, in our past has been replaced with a negative. This has largely happened in my lifetime.

Christians have not always deserved the positive connotation that unquestioningly followed the reference, Christian, in the past. Neither do Christians deserve the negative assumption that is evident today. While people may have previously distinguished the errors and failures as departures from the actual message of Christianity, that “nuance” (not that it is very nuanced) is being lost today. Moderns increasingly equate Christians with those errors and failures. The exceptions have swallowed the rule.

We (Christians) need to be mindful in this realization that we can be guilty of the same failure to recognize the distinctions and nuances in “others” as well. Most Muslims, for instance, are not terrorists. Most feminists, gays, transgender people and other people who do not see the world as we do are just trying to find meaning and purpose, healing from their pain and happiness in life. They aren’t the enemy. They are the people Jesus died for.

But, I digress.

Christians are the most oppressed religious group in the world today, but you wouldn’t know it in the United States. It isn’t the kind of news that gets published or that anyone wants to hear. It doesn’t fit the current narrative on Christianity that has developed in the west.

It may be that people don’t want to hear it because Christians have had it pretty easy. Christians in the US are viewed as the reigning social oligarchy. The consensus that is building is that Christianity needs to be toppled from it superior position.

Indeed, Christianity has enjoyed a long and enduring influence in the west, unlike most other areas of the world. Christians are considered the “privileged” who are now on the defensive as the “others” renounce that privilege and demand recompense. It seems to defy common understanding in the United States to consider Christians an oppressed group.

That privilege doesn’t exist in most other parts of the world where, ironically, Christianity is growing fastest. While the Church in the United States is losing ground rapidly to “the nones”, Christianity is growing fastest and gaining ground in countries most in which the environment is harshest and most hostile to the message of Jesus.

Maybe this is a reflection of the difference between the Gospel of Jesus and the institution of the church – the difference between the simple message of the Gospel and the burdensome structure of religious Pharisees. Just as “others” no longer understand the difference between the Gospel message and the errors and failures of the Church, equating and conflating the two, the Church in the US has largely lost its way, no longer shining like a bright light on the hill as Jesus intended.

The vestiges of Christian power and influence are evident everywhere, but it is a blighted and obsolescent infrastructure that is crumbling and washing away. The cultural momentum that is gaining steam threatens to displace it altogether from its place of position in the social commonwealth. The current oligarchs in that marketplace of ideas threaten to oust the Christian voice and banish it from the public square.

As I survey the voices I hear, what I see that is being opposed is the voice of Christian power and influence. It isn’t so much the Gospel, but all the infrastructure that has been built up around it, that people are opposing. People don’t (very often) object to the simple message of the Gospel, They don’t even know or appreciate what it is! The message of the Gospel is effectively hidden behind the more public scaffolding of the Church.

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Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript


I have taken some time in previous blog articles to summarize my comments about an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. Ehrman talks about his early induction into a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that possibly factor into his loss of faith, and the most recent articles address a modern view of miracles that avoids wrestling with evidence of the resurrection, and an observation that I share with others: that atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible similarly (two sides to the same coin).

One way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible.  For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition.  Either the Bible is all literally true, or it is all literally false.

This is a false dichotomy.  It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical meanings, context, and many other things.  It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.

Harris’s reliance on Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind.  If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim.  That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point. They don’t believe in miracles so they don’t take evidence of miracles seriously, whatever the evidence is.

This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me.  Yet, Harris is a scientist.  Erhman is a scholar.  While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.

When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools.  Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes.  This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.

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Lost Boys with Guns

Depositphotos Image ID: 184293546 Copyright: belchonock

The gun debate rages on anew, with the flames refueled by the Florida school shooting. Other potential causes of our unique problem with gun violence, mass shootings and school shootings in particular are being identified, usually by the gun advocates. Mental health, removing God from schools and religion from public life, and other things. Do we have a gun problem? Do we have a mental health problem? Do we have a lack of purpose and meaning problem? I think the answer is probably, yes, to all of the above, but there is another problem that no one seems to be talking about. At least, I haven’t seen anyone talk about it until I read an Op-ed article in the NY Times today by Michael Ian Black, The Boys Are Not All Right.

In reading his piece, it dawns on my that, together with whatever other problems we have that contribute to make the United States the only country in the world in which school shootings occur on a regular basis, we have a boy problem. We have a problem with our boys. Our boys are not all right!

It shouldn’t be rocket science for us to realize that girls don’t do mass shootings. They just don’t. Most mass shootings are committed by adolescent boys or young, college-age men. The exceptions are older men. Girls don’t shoot people up like that.

This statistic should jump out at us!

Why are mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, committed by boys and by men? What is the difference between boys and girls, men and women, that explains this phenomenon?

Another fairly obvious statistic is that the incidents of mass shootings and school shootings, in particular, have risen exponentially in the last 30 years. In fact, just 40 years ago, mass shootings were quite rare. Now they have become routine, regular, common-place – whatever you want to call it. We aren’t even surprised any more. What has happened in the last 30 years to cause this spike in mass shootings and school shootings?

I think Michael Black has turned over the stone to a possible answer. My thoughts on the subject, inspired by his article, are linked here

via The Lost Boys with Guns.

 

In My Time of Dying

Photo courtesy of yours truly, Budapest Hungary

I have experienced an awful lot of dying in my world recently. People that I know, friends and family of people that I know, one after another, many people in my world are dying lately.

Frankly, from the moment we are born, we begin to die. This isn’t a pleasant thought, but this is where my head is going as I read my Facebook feed, offering condolences, prayers and thoughts, one after another.

Our cells begin to die off from the moment we are born. Sure, they regenerate. Our cells die off and regenerate throughout our lives. As our lives go on, however, the dying process speeds up, it picks up in intensity, the dying outpaces the regeneration and it results, eventually, in our natural deaths… if something doesn’t kill us sooner.

It could be depressing to think about. On the other hand, it is natural. This is the way it is.

Why do we even care?

Really, why does death bother us so much? Does my dog think about dying?

If death is simply a fact, a matter of life, a natural phenomenon, what’s gotten into our heads about it? How do we explain our preoccupation with death?

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Spirit and Truth vs. Self-Made Religion

It isn’t things from outside that corrupt a person, but things from inside.

Depositphotos Image ID: 91001324 Copyright: carlosyudica

In a previous blog article, I talked about the shadow of things to come. Paul says that following rules and observing religious ritual is just a shadow of things to come. Later in the same chapter in Colossians, Paul explains in more detail what he is getting at. When we are focused only on the do’s and the don’ts and on observing religious rituals, we are focused on the wrong things.

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle,  Do not taste,  Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

Paul isn’t advocating that followers of Christ abandon self-discipline and self-control and do whatever they like. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2) But, following Jesus doesn’t mean stepping up religious observances and following rules and regulations more closely. The focus on rules and rituals entirely misses the point.

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Reformation and Renewal

If we aren’t willing to renew our wineskins periodically, the old ones wear out and don’t hold the new wine like they did when they were fresh.

depositphotos Image ID: 10694365 Copyright: rumifaz

Since some of us are celebrating the Reformation today. I don’t really care about Halloween, so I figure I should say something about the Reformation.

You might call me a reformed Catholic. I grew up in the Catholic Church. When I encountered Jesus Christ, the living Son of God, who shed His glory to become a man, walked in obedience to His own purposes, died on the cross for our sins, and rose again from the dead, my life changed.

When I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I left the Catholic Church for greener pastures and still waters. I have been involved with and visited many churches since then, and I am still looking for greener pastures and still waters. Along the way, I have learned that Catholics haven’t cornered the market on rigid structures and white-washed tombs.

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Interplay of the Word and the Spirit

God works through “the word” He gave us through the writers of the New Testament, along with His Spirit working in us to guide into truth.

Depositphotos Image ID: 36662225 Copyright: alexraths

I recently heard a Sermon on Matthew 3:15. The verse was posited for the proposition that believers in Christ should be baptized as a public expression of faith in obedience to God. This is a pretty fundamental proposition that most Christian denominations would advocate in some form or another.

In Matthew 3, John the Baptist has been preaching repentance, turning to God and baptism to make the way for one who “is coming soon who is greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals”.[1] This was Jesus, of course. Then we are told that Jesus went to Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, and John tried to talk him out of it, saying, “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you….”[2] This is the context in which Jesus makes the statement that was the focus of the sermon.

The New Living Translation of the Bible was used for the textual reference. I tend to use the ESV and NASB translations because they are more literal. They are word for word translations, rather than phrase for phrase (or idea for idea) translations, like the NLT. The word for word translations tend to be considered more accurate and more authentic to the original text. These are things I was thinking as I listened to the message, and I wondered what difference a more literal translation would make.

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