Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Peace and safety

I turn on the news and see endless stories of ISIS which almost seemingly sprang up out of nowhere—as if “rising out of the sea.” I learn that they are extraordinarily well-funded and have rapidly taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq, including military bases containing aircraft. As they crucify and behead their enemies, especially Christians, some have said they are more brutal than Hitler or Stalin. ISIS would like to develop a one-world government or “caliphate” and are now being called a clear and present danger to the West.

Meanwhile, thousands of people—including many Christians—are fleeing Islamic extremists in Nigeria and Cameroon. The persecution of Christians is widespread in Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Eritrea, Mali, Pakistan and numerous other places. In fact, for the first time in history American Christians are being dragged into court for simply living out their faith!

Elsewhere, the Israeli/Hamas war goes on, thousands continue to be slaughtered in Syria, and the Russian military is on the doorstep of the Ukraine. Iran continues to develop nuclear weapons and North Korea continues to develop the means to deliver the nuclear weapons they already have. If all that wasn’t enough, someone from the CDC is now saying that the Ebola epidemic is out of control!

I pinched myself and I don’t’ seem to be having a nightmare, so I’m beginning to feel like I’ve stepped into the beginnings of a futurist view of Revelation 6 and 13! But there’s nothing to be concerned about, right? At least we in the West live in peace and safety (1 Thessalonians 5:3-11).

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review of Aslan's Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

 My article on Reza Aslan's Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, published in the Minnesota Christian Examiner, 2007.

Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan is a New York Times bestseller, and for good reason. Aslan is a brilliant story-teller. In Aslan’s story, Jesus grew up under the oppressive rule of corrupt temple officials and brutal Roman overlords. It was a time of numerous uprisings by Jewish rebels and would-be-messiahs who sought to overthrow Rome by force. All this helped to foster Jesus’ resentment and rage against the rich and powerful.

According to Aslan, Jesus shared the anti-Temple feelings of other Galileans and his preaching of the kingdom was “a call to revolution, plain and simple” (120). Armed only with zeal, Jesus was welcomed as royalty as he rode into Jerusalem and confronted the Temple authorities with his claim to be Jerusalem’s rightful king. As a result, Jesus was arrested and executed by crucifixion, which the Romans reserved for the most serious political crimes.

So if Jesus’ message was a call to revolution, why don’t the Gospels tell the story this way? Aslan’s answer is that the Gospels were all written after the fall of Jerusalem by Christians who didn’t know Jesus and were trying to distance themselves from the rebellion. They, therefore, revised the story of Jesus to remove the fact that he was a zealot.

I found myself enthralled by the story and even agreeing in many cases. I agree with much of Aslan’s historical background material (though not always with his “spin”). I agree that most Jews in Jesus’ day opposed Roman rule and that some actively sought to overthrow it. I agree that Jesus thought of himself as Israel’s Messiah and that he envisioned a literal kingdom on earth. I also agree that Jesus was crucified by the Romans on charges of sedition.

But while there is much with which I agree, my disagreements are far more significant.

First, just because Galilee was a violent province before and after Jesus’ lifetime does not mean that Jesus grew up preaching a call to revolution.  Imagine, for example, a book detailing all the violence of the civil rights era and arguing that Dr. King, therefore, must have been an advocate of violent revolution! Jesus’ peaceful message, like that of Dr. King, was “radical” because it was so countercultural.

Second, while I agree with Aslan that Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, Aslan seems to think that this fact must necessarily mean that Jesus was a zealot intent on overturning Roman rule. Aslan seems unaware that many Jews in Jesus’ day thought the Kingdom of God would be established by the direct divine intervention, not by human violence. They need only wait and be faithful until God acted.

Certainly the Essenes were one such group. Interestingly enough, Aslan argued that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist who may have been influenced by Essenes. Yet Aslan doesn’t even entertain the possibility that Jesus agreed with the Essenes in their view that the kingdom would come by divine intervention, not by revolution.

Third, the extreme skepticism Aslan brings to the Gospels is unwarranted. He argues that the only two firm historical facts we can know about Jesus are that Jesus “was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.”(xxvii), and that this resulted in his crucifixion by the Romans. Aslan seems unaware that even most of the radically skeptical Jesus scholars believe that the Gospels contain more historically reliable information about Jesus than this.

More significantly, however, although Aslan says “there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus,” (xxvii) he builds his case on other facts in the Gospels that he considers to be reliable. It appears that Aslan is very skeptical of everything that undermines his theory but accepts everything that he thinks may support his theory. Unlike many serious Jesus scholars, Aslan never sets forth the criteria by which he determines what is reliable.

Fourth, Aslan’s creative writing skill is one of the strengths of the book, but it is also one of the most serious weaknesses. Many readers will no doubt find it impossible to tell where the facts end and the creative storytelling begins. For example, when Aslan describes Jesus’ followers as “hiding in Gethsemane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords” and adds that they “will not be taken easily” (147), the reader is led to imagine a well-armed band of resistance fighters hiding out in wait for the Romans. This impression is pure fiction.

In Aslan’s view the reason not one ancient source presents Jesus as a zealot is because they were trying to cover up Jesus’ true identity.  On the other hand, a second possibility might be that the reason none of our ancient sources present Jesus as a zealot is because Jesus—like the Essenes and other Jews of his time—was not preaching rebellion against Rome but was proclaiming God’s direct intervention. Jesus was warning people to repent in preparation for the day when God would directly intervene in human affairs to set up his kingdom.

This second option is precisely what the Gospels teach, it coheres well with what we know about first century Jewish groups, and it does not require extensive, speculative historical re-imagination.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bill Maher: God is a "psychotic mass murderer"

The Washington Times (Saturday, March 15, 2014) reported that “during a conversation on the biblical story of Noah,” Bill Maher called God a “psychotic mass murderer” who “drowns babies.”  Maher asked, “What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?”

If Maher is going to attack over a billion Christians and Jews around the world, he should at least get his facts straight. The story of Noah in the book of Genesis does not portray God as punishing “everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at.” According to the story, the whole earth was “filled with  violence” and “ever inclination” of people’s heart “was only evil all the time,” “all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” and the whole “earth [was] filled with violence” (Genesis 6:6-12).

The story implies the culture of the entire world was thoroughly and pervasively wicked and violent. We might imagine a culture in which rape, robbery, murder, torture, retribution and revenge were the norm, with no hope of turning things around. I haven’t seen the Noah movie but if I were going to produce such a movie it would have to be rated R for violence.

By way of modern examples, think of cultures in which lying, cheating, stealing and corruption are a thoroughly ingrained part of life. Think of cultures in parts of the world in which children are taught lies from earliest ages in an attempt to foster rabid hatred against Jews; or other cultures in which children are taught how to shoot and decapitate anyone who gets in the way of whatever they want. Think of cultures which imagine they are serving God by kidnapping, raping and torturing innocent women and children—often by the hundreds or even thousands (or in Sudan, by the millions)!Think of the honor killings and revenge killings that go on in the world. Now imagine an entire world like that with no civil restraint and no mediating good influence. That’s the story of Noah.

When Maher goes on to attack Christians for “the restrictions they put on themselves” it sounds like he is actually angry at the restrictions that the biblical God would put on human behavior.
Those of us who side with Noah in the story, believe that God, as the creator, has every right to restrict the behavior of his creation—especially since those restrictions, if actually followed, would produce a much more loving and peaceful society. We also believe that the Creator has every right to put an end to horrible wickedness and start over, which is the story of Noah.

Those who hate God’s restrictions and oppose the God of the Noah story, are unwittingly siding with a culture of pervasive corruption and intense, world-wide violence.

I’m sure Maher doesn’t believe a word of the story, of course, but if he’s going to criticize it, he should at least take a few seconds to read it and criticize it for what it actually says rather than creating a straw man that he can blow down.

Maher's response tells us much about his own rabid hatred of Christians, but nothing about the story of Noah. (And by the way, he needs our prayers, not our hate mail)!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Witnesses for Jesus

I recently attended a pastor’s workshop in which the leader—if I understood him correctly—taught that Christian witnessing is about telling what God is doing in your life.

Like many others, my life has often been filled with enormous emotional pain. When I was about six years old my cousin and best friend was walking behind a horse when he was kicked in the head and died. My best friend and brother-in-law was crushed in the back of the garbage truck he was working on. My two younger brothers died suddenly of massive heart attacks. My father-in-law died of Lou Gehrig's disease. 

My mom and dad both died of emphysema (and other complications) struggling for every breath they could get. My first grandson died during delivery. The pain of all of these deaths put together doesn’t even compare with other emotional pain I’ve experienced.  I suspect that if I shared with others that this is how God has worked in my life, they would say, “You Christians can’t even get drunk to ease the pain! Why would anyone want that?!”

I suspect that the workshop speaker was talking about sharing the good things God is doing in our lives, but that can be deceptive. Becoming a Christian does not mean that life will then be a bed of roses—it may become a bed (or crown) of thorns! The fact is that God often works through the trials in our life.

Take St. Paul for example. Imagine Paul telling people how God had worked in his life: Before he met Jesus, Paul was well-respected and rising in status faster than many of his contemporaries. After he got saved and started preaching Jesus, Paul got death threats in Damascus, Jerusalem and elsewhere. He was run out of town in places like Pisidian Antioch,  Iconium, Thessalonica and Berea. He was stoned nearly to death in Lystra, and was imprisoned in Philippi, Caesarea and Rome.

In Second Corinthians11, Paul summarizes what God was doing in his life saying that his ministry had resulted in hunger, thirst and sleepless nights. He says that five times he had been whipped, three times he had been beaten with rods and once he had been stoned. Before finally being beheaded he would spend years in Caesarean and Roman confinement—and we’re not talking modern prisons with weight rooms, basketball courts and TV’s. It was more like darkness, cold hard floors, and vermin.

Jesus taught that those who would follow him should count the cost—because it could cost everything! Those who leave the impression that following Jesus will solve all your problems are lying to you!

Telling people what you think God is doing in your life is hardly sharing the Gospel! The Gospel begins with the biblical teaching that “all have sinned and come short God’s perfect standard.” Our sin has separated us from God and places us under his terrible wrath. Paradoxically, however, in God, love and wrath coexist. In his love, God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, and endured mocking, beating and torture on a cross as a sacrifice to save all who would turn to him in repentance and faith (i.e. allegiance, loving devotion).

Following Jesus in faith does not always lead to personal peace and prosperity in this life. In fact, for many people following Jesus makes life worse—for some, much MUCH worse! But we follow a Lord who endured unbearable suffering for us. Why would we expect anything different?

Bottom line, being witnesses for Jesus involves talking about Jesus, not necessarily about what you think God is doing in your life.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gay rights and religious freedom

Suppose a member of PETA owns a private photography company. Further suppose that the owner of a local butcher shop asked the photographer to take pictures for an ad promoting the butcher shop.  The PETA member refuses saying that to promote butchering animals would violate his conscience. Should this PETA member be forced by law to choose between violating his conscience or going out of business?

Suppose a gay man owns a sign company and someone from an anti-gay group wants some signs made for a protest against gay marriage.  Should the gay man be forced by law to make signs promoting something that undermines his own beliefs and lifestyle?

Suppose an atheist owns a catering company and wants to refuse service to a local church because she can’t in good conscience support an activity that promotes belief in God. Should she be forced by law to do so?

Suppose a Muslim owns a local trucking company. A small liquor store wants to hire him to ship some wine from the warehouse to the store. Should the Muslim be forced by law to do so or go out of business?

The answer in all four cases is absolutely not! To force people to violate deeply held principles is not freedom, it is tyranny. To force people to violate religious convictions, as in the last example, is even worse because it is forcing people to disobey what they believe is the will of God!

For those who are too young to remember, gay activists (not all gays are gay activists and not all gay activists are gay), began their fight by appealing for tolerance. They just wanted tolerance for their views and lifestyle. Now that they are a powerful force in American culture they have turned out to be among the most intolerant people on the planet!

It is not enough for them to have a dozen photographers in town that would love to have their business—they want to sue the one photographer who cannot in good conscience support gay behavior. It is not enough for there to be a dozen bakers, or psychologists, or printers, or caterers, (or whatever), they want to sue the one who cannot in good conscience support gay behavior.

This is not freedom. It is intolerant and hateful—and if they succeed it will be tyranny.