Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Getting Lost Down the Knowledge Rabbit-Hole or When Learning Can Shut You Down

photo: Pixabay
Recently I have been stuck in a trap. It's a trap that says, "You don't know enough to write anything relevant on [insert a topic here]. You need to learn more and study harder before you can have an intelligent statement on that." Consequently, I haven't been doing much writing lately. I have become intimidated by my book cases, which are three-quarters packed with unread books. Books are surrounding and taunting me. There is so much that I don't know--so many people who are smarter and more learned. How can I possibly have anything to write about?

Writing a blog entitled The Christian Intellect has added another layer of intimidation. I have actually fallen prey to the wrong-headed thinking that I was trying to dispel with this blog, namely that the intellect isn't something high brow--for professor-types only. It is simply how we think about things. A Christian intellect is a mind devoted to Christ--a mind that is being renewed by the Spirit and transformed. The idea for this site was that every Christian is called to renew their mind and learn to see the world through the lens of the New Creation. It's not about impressing people with theological jargon or quoting Luther and Aquinas.

Reading and listening to lectures or sermons is part of the process of developing your thinking, but writing is also an important element. As the saying goes: "Thoughts disentangle themselves passing over the lips and through pencil tips." (I cannot find a standardized version of this quote nor verify its origin, but it's a useful phrase none the less). In other words, we clarify our thoughts when we are forced to shape them into coherent sentences and paragraphs. We write in order to learn.

I have also heard from multiple sources that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it! Far from being experts, some teachers are only a couple weeks ahead of their students in terms of study. If writing is a way of processing and learning information, then teaching can be even more so because you are actively engaging your brain on multiple levels.

It is easy to get sucked down the knowledge rabbit-hole. It is easy to get lost in a wonderland of ideas, scratching your head and asking, "Where do I even begin?" It is tempting to sit back and let others engage in hashing out theology or biblical studies or philosophy or apologetics while we watch from the sidelines. Maybe that next book, sermon, or lecture will frame everything just right and we will feel expert enough to write or teach on a topic. When we do this, we are not truly honing our Christian intellect. Honing the intellect will require us to charge "once more unto the breach, dear friends."

So let's not worry about being pretentious. We want to learn to think well--think clearly and deeply on important issues. But we need to remember that there is never a point at which a person can be said to have arrived. There are always more books than we can read. There are brilliant minds that we haven't yet encountered. I don't have everything figured out. I'm just a guy who wants to grow deeper in my walk with Christ and put my intellectual capacities at his service. How about you?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"No Crying He Makes" and Other Christmas Myths

One of my dad's favorite holiday pastimes is demythologizing Christmas songs. His sermons are regularly sprinkled with anecdotes about the "little drummer boy" not existing and "the three wise men" not being present on the night of Jesus' birth. One year he even picked on the fact that the Bible does not say whether Mary rode on a donkey, a camel, or a cart...or maybe had to walk on her way to Bethlehem. 

Consequently, I now have this hobby as well, much to my wife's chagrin (sorry honey). She feels like I'm always trying to rain on everyone's parade. As we listen to Christmas songs, I like to think through the lyrics and see if they gel with reality. What can I say? Many of them are full of myths about Christ's birth, and those myths can damage of the message of Christmas.

For instance, our songs and paintings would have us believe that the baby Jesus never cried. The song Away In a Manger puts it right out there: "the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes." He was the most inhuman baby you ever saw with a halo around his head and group of people standing around at a fair distance gazing on the new born Son of God. This is the baby of a religion--not history. Notice the Gnostic tendencies that have crept into this picture (Gnosticism views the spiritual/non-material world over the physical one). Is crying a sin? I don't think so. Jesus was fully human as well as fully God, so why would he not cry as a baby? One of the important reasons for the birth narratives is to show us that Jesus was human. He can identify with the lowest of the low.

Our songs have a way of sticking with us--especially since they play the same twenty-five in various iterations from October through December. They have a way of influencing the way we imagine the birth narratives. So do Christmas cards. They deliver this portrait that seems so ideal, so air brushed, so fake. I, for one, can't identify with a calm and sanitized birth and viewing session in a barn. 

The version that I read in scripture is a lot more complicated. This Christmas I would encourage you to reread Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 with fresh eyes. What does the text say? What does it not say? What is emphasized in each? We always need to go back to the Bible. I think that when we immerse ourselves in the story as the gospels present it we will find that we can connect with it in richer ways.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Son Of A Preacher Man: a Book Review of Barnabas Piper's The Pastor's Kid

In Evangelical Christianity, many pastors have risen to near celebrity status. Everything they do, everything they say is under the microscope. Even if a pastor isn't nationally or internationally known, it is likely that they are well known within their community. People could pick them out of a crowd at Pizza Hut or Wal-Mart. But there is a unique group of people who are along for the ride but have never asked to be singled out. They did not respond to a "call." They did not necessarily climb into the spotlight of their own volition. They may not even have a full understanding of their spiritual standing. This special group of individuals are singled out just the same. They are the pastors kids--otherwise known as PKs.

Barnabas Piper grew up knowing all about the joys and trials of such a life. His dad is John Piper, internationally recognized preacher and author of numerous books. Now Barnabas is a skilled writer and author in his own right, and he has some things to say. But he does not write this book to throw his family under the bus (John Piper actually wrote the foreward) or piggyback on his father's noteriety. He writes this book to give readers an inside look at what it is like to be a PK and to help PKs themselves deal with some of the issues that they have faced--or as the subtitle has it, help with "finding your own faith and identity."

Most pastor's kids that I have known, myself included, cannot win. People assume that you are a trouble-maker or put you on a pedistal. Neither one is fair. People make many other assumptions, as well, and treat you accordingly. That is partly what this book is about. Barnabas also gives many insights into the difficulties that PKs face, so that pastors and congregants alike can avoid doing damage to these unique individuals within our churches.

This book has been really good for me. For most of my life I have been a PK, and now I am in the ministry myself. I can identify with quite a bit of what Barnabas has written concerning the difficulties and blessings of growing up in that kind of environment: I was often under the microscope, expected to be the leader, and preached at in the home. But I am also reminded of how blessed I have been to view my experience in a (mostly) positive light. There were some negatives to be sure, but my parents worked hard to avoid several of the pitfalls that he describes in this book. I even received a lot of mentoring in ministry by my dad and had the blessing of learning many skills that serve me well now. But I know other PK's who weren't as fortunate.

 Barnabas doesn't claim to speak for every PK, but I think he speaks for a majority. He doesn't write merely from his limited experience--he has spent time interviewing other PKs and doing research. As a matter of fact, not all of the situations or criticisms that he offers are a part his own experience at all--and, so, I think it rings true to the general experience of PKs. The simple fact is that most of us are measured against our fathers, rather than as the individuals that we really are and we were (or are) held to a higher standard than the rest of the youth of the church.

What ar PKs to do? How do we respond? The reality is, and I speak for numerous PKs, I do not care what my father thinks about many things. I am not a chip off the old block. He has influenced me and taught me, and now I am taking my own lane and going my own speed. And that is what PKs must be able to do. We must choose to do it, and the church must let us (kindle location 479).

I recommend that anyone in ministry read it and take note; PKs read it and know that you are not alone; and congregants read it with an eye to supporting and praying for their pastors and their kids.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Does It Profit a Church If It Gains the Whole World and Loses Its Soul?

"The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks
out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear.
Then he tries his best to duplicate that, and bring his finished product into a
marketplace in which others are trying to do the same. The public, turning to
our culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing but its own
reflection. The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts blindly in the future."

--Dining With the Devil, by Os Guinness p.59 citing a quote from Context, 15 April 1991, p.4

This quote strikes me as true. It's a symptom of the attractional model church that peddles the "gospel" for it's own self-serving aims: growth, popularity, power. Churches have turned people into numbers. We want to get butts in the seats and keep them there...and if we have to take the sting out of the gospel to do it--then so be it. We tweak the music and our dress codes. We build gyms to make our facilities more appealing. We modernize the children's programs. We want to be accepted in the community. But where is the substance? Where is the awe of God? Where is the power?

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.
Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number
of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.   --2 Timothy 4:3

What is the purpose of the church? According to Revelation 5:10, we are "a kingdom and priests to our God." We can't cater to the "needs" of some people at the cost of the church's holiness or the gospel message of repentance from sin and toward discipleship.

The interesting thing is that we have tried to make the church so palatable to the world that we have lost our uniqueness. In his book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, James K. A. Smith states this well:

Worship, then, needs to be characterized by hospitality; it needs to be
inviting. But at the same time, it should be inviting seekers into the church
and its unique story and language. Worship should be an occasion of
cross-cultural hospitality. Consider and analogy: When I travel to France, I
hope to be made to feel welcome. However, I don't expect my French hosts
to become Americans in order to make me feel at home. I don't expect them to
start speaking English, ordering pizza, talking about the New York Yankees, and
so on. Indeed, if I wanted that, I would have just stayed at home! Instead, what
I'm hoping for is to be welcomed into their French culture; that's why I've come
to France in the first place. And I know that this will take some work on my
part. I'm expecting things to be different; indeed, I'm looking for just this
difference. So also, I think, with hospitable worship: seekers are looking for
something our culture can't provide. Many don't want a religious version of what
they can already get at the mall. And this is especially true of postmodern or
Gen X seekers: they are looking for elements of transcendence and challenge that
MTV could never give them. Rather that an MTVized version of the gospel, they
are searching for the mysterious practices of the ancient gospel" (78).

Here's a unique attractional model for us:

"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."--John 12:32

It's easy for us to point fingers at our churches, ministers and elders, but let us not forget that the Church is made up of people, people who are buying into this mode of being, as well. We have to be different. We can't be afraid to stand out. If we look like the world, talk like the world, think like the world and live like the world then what in the world is there for the world to see in us? The salt has lost it's saltiness.

It's time for us to be different--be godly. It's time for us to have a sense of Awe in worship. A.W. Tozer nails this on the head in The Knowledge of the Holy.

"The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen
above its religion, and man's spiritual history will positively demonstrate
that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or
base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God" (1).

In a world full of talk--the world wants to see action. But not mindless action. They want to see God in action. They want to see His people in action and acting as if they believe that He is truly there. What do people see in us?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Making Sense of 3 John: A Proposal

A couple of years ago a friend and I were talking about reading the Bible, when he admitted that he struggled with where to start. Not knowing where to begin, he began with one of the shortest books of the Bible he could find--3 John. He didn't get much out of it and was curious to know what in the world he was supposed to make of it. What he didn't know is that there are many people in the course of studying the Scriptures who have asked that very same question.

The letter of 3 John is a personal letter written to Gaius. By and large it covers personal and church business--"I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health...I have written something to the church but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority..."(vv. 2, 9). In other words, there's not a lot of meat on the bones for "daily devotions." You don't see many t-shirts or coffee mugs with verses from 3 John. Why is it in the New Testament? How are we supposed to read it?

While studying Introduction to the New Testament, I found a helpful solution in the work of Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson has written a helpful book--The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. He proposes a theory that all three Johannine letters were written as a packet.

"3 John was most likely a letter of recommendation from the elder to Gaius, certifying that the carrier of the other two letters, Demetrius, was to be received with open arms. Second John was to be read to the entire assembly as an introduction and cover letter for 1 John, which is not really a letter at all but an exhortation, closer in nature to a homily. The Johannine letters thus make most sense when viewed as parts of the same epistolary package" (562).
Based on this this theory, read the letters in reverse order and see if 2 and 3 John make more sense. Personally, I have found this method helpful and believe that it is a solid theory. It explains why the two shorter letters would have been collected into the New Testament and it gives a context for understanding 1 John.

You may be like me and wonder, "Why, then, would these letters be placed in reverse order within the canon?" The answer may be found in the fact that the epistolary material in the New Testament is arranged by length. Paul's letters start with the longest (Romans) and end with the shortest (Philemon), Hebrews is anonymous, but is associated with the Pauline circle, so it stands alone after Paul's letters. None of this arrangement is based on chronology. It is arranged by length. The Johannine letters most probably were arranged in the same way for the same reason.

I encourage you to try the theory for yourself and see if it yields any insights or if it holds up to scrutiny. Please let me know what you find.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Is Jonathan K. Dodson's Book "The Unbelievable Gospel" Really That Great?

"I am not an evagelist. I haven't led thousands to Christ. There won't be a long receiving line of eternal souls waiting to thank me at the golden gates of the New Jerusalem" (17). Thus Dodson begins his book on evangelism. What could he possible have to say about the topic after making this claim?

Christianity Today selected Jonathan K. Dodson's book, The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing, as their 2015 book of the year in the apologetics/evangelism category. Robert E. Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism, lauds the book, saying, "This is evangelism for the 21st century." These were high praises, but when I saw my professor and President of Asbury Theological Seminary, Timothy C. Tennent's, write up I took note. "Jonathan Dodson in The Unbelievable Gospel demonstrates, once again, that he is one of the church's leading thinkers in knowing how to present the gospel effectively in an increasingly postmodern world."

I read it for myself and loved it for several reasons.

1. He can write clear, entertaining prose without resorting to the antics of some hip, "relevant" types. I hate it when writers try to pretend that they are not writing but, rather, simply talking with you. Their writing is riddled with fragments and ill-conceived punctuation. It makes me wonder if they should really say, "I didn't write it. I dictated it. I shouted it into a tape recorder over the Columbus Day weekend, then handed it to my agent and said, 'Sell this.' He's the one who turned it into a book" [Stephen Colbert, I Am America (and So Can You)]. However, that cannot be said of this book in the least. Dodson can clearly write--and well at that. I found it a pleasure to read several chapters at a time.

2. He is upfront about his own struggle and weakness when it comes to evangelism. He doesn't try to come off as some pro that will teach you all the tips and tricks. Because of this authenticity, he also emphasizes that...

3. Not all of his stories have happy endings. Some of them are unfinished. Dodson stresses that we don't need to see these examples of rejection or back-sliding as failures because it is up to God. We are called to work with God, but the weight of the task is not on us.

4. He understands the need for apologetics in evangelism. There are many people in our country right now who do not have a basic Christian framework from which we, as evangelists, can draw. Not everyone feels the need for the forgiveness of their sins. Not everyone is geared towards cookie-cutter gospel presentations. In fact, many people have serious questions about Christianity, God, and the Bible. They are looking for serious answers. Dodson writes, "Thinking faith isn't a matter of rehearsing canned apologetic defenses; it's a commitment to thinking deeply about the implications of the gospel in various cultures and then working to communicate that to people in those contexts" (88).

5. He doesn't offer a script. He holds up a simple, yet multifaceted, gospel.
A few years back my wife and I were in a class at church that studied Evangelism Explosion. It set our teeth on edge. None of the young people in the class connected with the approach. It was too formulaic. What's more we found that it tended to push for a "sale" based on how satisfied or happy the target was with their life. This book will have none of that. Dodson shows that canned formulas and rehearsed speeches are the kind of stuff that makes the gospel unbelievable to non-Christians.

Dodson understands that we can't approach different people with a one-size-fits-all method. He displays that the New Testament shows people engaging the gospel from different angles. He highlights the five "gospel metaphors" that he finds in the NT and shows how they maybe the entry point in connecting someone with Jesus: justification, redemption, adoption, New Creation, and union with Christ. For each of these "metaphors" he shares a story of how he has used it to share the gospel. I found this approach helpful.

All in all, this book is the best take on evangelism that I have read (or heard or even seen). It is easy to read yet intellectual. It is serious but unpretentious.  So, to answer the question: Yes, Jonathan K. Dodson's book The Unbelievable Gospel really is that great! I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: This book was provided by in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a positive review.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Myth? Pushing "Evidence" Beyond the Christmas Story

"Shepherds Delight" by Neal Fowler is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Memes are circulating faster than ever. Stories "go viral" in a matter of minutes. Fictitious emails, doctored pictures, and urban legends rehashed as fact spread like wild-fire thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Having fallen prey to several of these in the past, I have become alert to some tell-tale signs and usually follow up by going to to see if it's "too good to be true." Nine times out of ten it is.

The other day my dad asked me to sit and watch a video with him called "Bethlehem: Beyond the Christmas Story" from Day of Discovery, hosted by Jimmy DeYoung. I have no previous experience with this ministry or the scholarship of Mr. DeYoung, so I had no idea of what to expect.

DeYoung presents a theory that the birth of Jesus took place in a room that shepherds used to birth sacrificial lambs. This room is purported to be at the base of an edifice we know only through Scripture and some rabbinic writings--Migdal Eder (Tower of the Flock). According to him, the shepherds that were tending to their flocks in the fields of Bethlehem were no ordinary shepherds but rather levitically trained shepherd who watched over the flocks destined for Temple sacrifice. As such, he claimed, they would have been familiar with the prophesies about the messiah's birth in Bethlehem. Then he offered up another intriguing morsel to tie up all the loose ends.

This final claim really caught my attention because it sounded so odd to me. He stated that when these shepherds delivered a lamb, they would wrap them in swaddling clothes and lay them in a manger until they calmed down. They didn't want the disoriented lamb to thrash around and twist a limb and thus be ineligible for sacrifice.

The supposed proof that unified this theory was that the angels never told the shepherds exactly where to go in order to find the baby Jesus. According to this theory, they didn't need to because a message of messiah born+wrapped in swaddling clothes+lying in a manger=the birthing room at Migdal Eder. Interesting theory...and also a little too neat and tidy for my taste. Lambs wrapped in swaddling clothes sounds like the very kind of thing people would have latched on to and talked about a lot, so why am I just now hearing about it? It's not like I have my head in the sand. I read commentaries and other material on 1st century culture and customs--books by guys like Victor Matthews, Craig Keener, Kenneth Bailey, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington III. So I set out to check the sources (if it gets overly detailed, this is because there are scores of blogs and websites that are touting unsourced hearsay in this matter).

To make this easier, let's break it down into individual claims:

1. Shepherds at Bethlehem were temple shepherds, caring for flocks destined for sacrifice.

2. There was a birthing room under Migdal Eder (the Tower of the Flock) in or around Bethlehem.

3. Shepherds wrapped new born sacrificial lambs in swaddling clothes and laid them in mangers to keep them from harming themselves and disqualifying themselves for sacrifice.

First of all, DeYoung uses Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century scholar who relied on late source material for many of his deductions. Since Edersheim's time the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi library have shed new light on the 1st century life and thought. Still, I wanted to be generous and thorough, so I pulled a copy of Edersheim's The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah to see what he actually wrote. His claim that Migdal Eder was linked in Jewish expectation to the Messiah finds it's source in the targum (translation/commentary) Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 35:21. However, current scholarship dates this targum to the 4th century A.D., so this doesn't necessarily tell us what 1st century expectation was.

 Edersheim makes a case for priestly shepherds based on a couple of passages from the Mishnah (Shekalim 7:4 and Bava K. 7:7). These seem to check out and reputable scholars, such as Keener, have allowed for the possibility.

However, Edersheim says nothing about the structure of Migdal Eder (and neither do the Biblical texts Genesis 35:21; Micah 4:8), nor does he say anything about these priestly shepherds swaddling newborn lambs. So, I referred to all reputable sources in my personal library that might speak to Migdal Eder or priestly shepherds or swaddling. My conclusions have led me to believe that...

Mr. DeYoung, secondly, seems to use anecdotal evidence or pure conjecture to make this theory more appealing. 

If such a practice as swaddling sheep and laying them in a manger were documented by historians, I am confident that I would have found some evidence for it in the works of careful and thorough commentators and historians as F.F. Bruce, William Barclay, Ben Witherington, Craig Keener, or N.T. Wright. However, the only place I can find any evidence of such a practice is on blogs, none of which cite any sources.

Also, DeYoung repeatedly claims that it was a 2-story stone tower, but where he gets this information is beyond me. He states that the remains of such a tower have not been discovered, but then he states that there was a room in the lower level of this tower where the shepherds would birth sheep. DeYoung admits that they have looked for the remains of this tower but could find none, so without archaeological or textual evidence for the design of such a structure I have no idea how he can make these claims.

 If someone can prove me wrong, I would love to see hard evidence. Sometimes I feel like the Grinch, but thinking Christians need to be careful to investigate information before they pass it along. Don't take everything you read or see at face value.

That being said, my conclusions are that the status of this tale is: unknown. While there is some Biblical and extra-biblical evidence for such a place as Migdal Eder in the vicinity of Bethlehem and possibly tied to the revealing of the messiah, we have no proof or usable evidence for what such a tower would look like. Moreover, while the Bethlehem shepherds may have been priestly shepherds, we have no documentation on how they delivered their sheep.  If I could re-title Mr. DeYoung's theory, I would have to call it Migdal Eder: Beyond the Evidence of the Christmas Story.