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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Demolishing the Intellectual and Moral Pretensions of Christianity?: My Review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation

If you are an intellectual Christian or aspiring to such, at some point you will need to engage the so-called "Four Horsemen of the New Atheism"--Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennent, and Sam Harris. These four men (Hitchens lost a battle with cancer in 2011) are not so much atheists as anti-theists. Their books are popular and influential. As such, I believe that we, as Christians, need to be informed and able to articulate a response. So when I spotted Sam Harris' little book, Letter To a Christian Nation, on the discount rack at the bookstore, I snatched it up and bumped it to the top of my reading list.

 Weighing in at 91 pages, I thought it would be a quick read. I was wrong. I was wrong because I was compelled to dialogue with the book, rather than passively read it. I filled the margins and spaces between sentences with questions and retorts of my own. I would go back through an argument and find the holes and fuzzy logic. It was mentally stimulating to read someone with whom I disagreed at nearly every turn. I rather enjoyed it and just might make it a habit.

This "letter" was written in response to so-called Christians who had "written to tell [him] that [he was] wrong not to believe in God" after the publication of his first book, The End of Faith (vii). He states that "the truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse" (vii).

First of all, it saddens me that so many "Christians" resort to anger and bad-mouthing people for whom Christ died--even if those people refuse to accept it. This adolescent reaction stems from the inability to give thoughtful and learned answers for the hope they have. It is a sign of fear or a clear indicator that other idols occupy the place of Christ in their hearts. While such snarling is unbecoming of a disciple, it does not diminish the reality of the Christian gospel. 

Harris fails to cite any of these "murderously, intolerant" rantings. Later in the book he does lampoon certain passages, leaving me to suppose that these could be the verses that Christians threw at him. He deems these verses morally wanting, but in engaging these passages he smuggles in his own premise that these Old Testament laws are "timeless wisdom." He fails to read them in their context and commits the same intellectual fallacies as the Christians he is berating.

Interestingly enough, Harris is of the opinion that "there is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer" (75). By this point in the letter he has used a snide and snarky tone for seventy-five plus pages, made sweeping assumptions, groundless claims, and moral judgments of his own. He blames religions, in general, for most of the world's conflicts. His basic thought seems to run that:

 Religions give people different opinions about the way the world should be run. Different opinions lead to conflict and war. The world needs to talk its problems out, but religions stand in the way of discourse. However, my atheistic scientific naturalism holds no presuppositions and is therefore neutral and the only way forward.

In other words, "if you don't hold to my worldview, then you are a narrow-minded idiot." I can only imagine Mr. Harris flailing a baseball bat while he spews his disgust over the moral judgments of Christian and Islamic worldviews (and, oh yes, he conflates these two every chance he can get). As Alister McGrath points out in his book Why God Won't Go Away, "Any worldview based on an exclusivist metanarrative (a controlling story) has the potential to provoke hostility...Get rid of religion, and conflict and violence will simply find other occasions for their emergence and other grounds for their justification" (71, 79). The anger than emerges out of the "new atheism" in books like this, as well as on atheist websites and forum demonstrates this clearly enough.

In the end, I found this letter to be pure rhetorical tripe that relied on false inferences, unsubstantiated claims, non sequitur arguments, straw men, and gross double standards. He fails to show how atheism provides a moral framework for a world filled with love and self-sacrifice. 

On the one hand, he spins religion as a by-product of evolution, but then claims that it causes the greatest evils. He claims to believe in objective truth, believes that certain behaviors are moral reprehensible and should be punished, makes a case for abortion as a lesser of two evils, and yet sits in judgment on a god that would ever dare to kill anyone. 

His ethics are utilitarian when they suit his needs, but he moves to emotionally based appeals when they don't. In brief, it falls far short of "demolish[ing] the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms" (Harris, ix).

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Greatest Mystery Of Christmas

Today is Advent Sunday, and while the world may kick off their Christmas celebrations with Black Friday (how fitting in a consumer driven society), the Church has the grand opportunity to use this season to reflect upon the doctrine of the Incarnation. This is our time to ponder and stand in awe of the ultimate mystery that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory" (Jn 1:14). We often do a good job of understanding that Christ was born of a virgin and was born into poverty. We contemplate the events surrounding His birth as so much history. Then we skip to the Atonement. He came to die. The end.

It is true that one of the reasons Christ came was to die to redeem us, but maybe we shouldn't rush to the end of the story during this time of year. We have Lent, Good Friday and Easter to contemplate those aspects from a Church calendar standpoint. But this time of year is the season to wrap our minds around the fact of Emmanuel--"God with us." God one of us. The Incarnation is mind blowing. Trying to understand the intricacies of the Theandric Union can either fry our brains or fill us with wonder at the greatness of Almighty God.

Luther wrote: "It is not for the angels to be proud of Christ's incarnation, for Christ did not assume and angelic but a human nature. Therefore it would not be a surprise if the angels looked at us with envy in their eyes because we human beings, creatures far inferior to them and sinners besides, are placed above them into an honor so high and great. They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood" (Serm. on Col. 1:18-20 quoted in Thomas Oden, The Word of Life).

We have a God who can identify with us! He knows, in an experiential way, our struggles and weaknesses. This is one of the messages of the Advent season. What might it mean that God became flesh? Not just in a systematic theological sort of way but in a personal way. Do we need to sit back and think about that one for a while? That's what this season is all about. That's the greatest mystery of Christmas.

(Originally published 2009 under the title "God With Us" @

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My First Lesson On Not Being A Biblical Scholar of the Gaps

I was in the sixth or seventh grade when I learned one of the most foundational principles I would carry forward in my work as a Bible student and theologian. I was in the middle-school Sunday school class at my church. The teacher, Cindy, didn't seem particularly comfortable teaching middle-schoolers--especially know-it-all preacher's kids. But she was dedicated to two things--the Bible and making her students think.

I wish I could remember what she was teaching or how she was teaching it. Unfortunately, all I remember is where it ended up. She must have been talking about the dinosaurs and how they fit into creation, when I spoke up as a proponent of "the Gap theory." Bad move on my part.

At some point in my childhood, someone had explained to me this theory that the reason dinosaurs did not appear in the Bible was because there was a "gap" between Genesis 1:1--"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" and Genesis 1:2 "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep..." The Gap Theory runs that God created the heavens and the earth in verse one but by the time that we've made it all the way to verse two, we find it formless and void. Logical conclusion? God created a good earth populated with dinosaurs and other creatures and then destroyed that world for unknown reasons before starting over in Genesis 1:3.

The first thing Cindy said was, "Show me where or how you can find that in the Bible." In other words, she wanted me to prove my case with evidence. So I went home and pulled all our reference books that talked about the lost world of the Gap. I made photo copies for her of my extensive research, but she was unimpressed. 

"I'm not talking about what someone else says. I'm talking about showing me evidence from the Bible."

I went back to work, and you know what I found? Nothing. The Gap Theory had a gap in Biblical credibility. It also had a gap in logic. While it is possible that there is a gap in time between passages, it is unprovable  from silence. When I looked at how it stacked up with the other possible explanations of the data, it was the least credible.

This lesson has formed me in how I interpret the Bible. Even though my teacher didn't know it, she was showing me the difference between eisegesis (bringing outside ideas into the interpretive process) and exegesis (interpreting from the text). We shouldn't try to make our square peg fit into a round hole, rather we should allow the peg to dictate what hole it will fit. As students of the Word, we can't afford to build our arguments or beliefs on thin air. We need to push towards evidential arguments from exegesis. But not only that--we need to push students in our churches to think and study for themselves. It's never too early to learn that lesson.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why and How To Use Biblical Commentaries

Last week I had a conversation with a gentleman about reading and understanding the Bible. In the course of our talk he made a comment that he didn't put any stock in commentaries. I wish I could say that this was the first time I had heard someone make such a statement, but it wasn't. Sadly, I have talked with several folks who have a "me and my Bible" approach to study, meaning they pick up the Bible, interpret it for themselves, and believe that it means whatever they understand it to mean. Their line of reasoning is that God wrote the Bible to communicate with people for all time, so it just can't be all that complicated.

Some people are skeptical of scholars and commentaries in the same way I am skeptical of used car salesmen and contractors going door-to-door. The prejudice seems to run that these learned types are trying to take away our time-honored understandings of Scripture and baffle us with BS (that's Bible Study if you are easily offended). These well-meaning people fail to realize that any time they talk with someone else about the Bible, hear a sermon or a Sunday school lesson on a particular passage they are listening to commentary. Commentaries are merely a person's reflections on a book of the Bible. The best ones present sound exegetical proofs for their inferences and subsequent case for interpretation. Commentaries are conversation partners we invite into our dialogue.

Other Christians have the opposite problem. Rather than engage in a conversation with several informed voices, they read one or two commentaries and take everything they have to say as God's honest truth without doing any of their own study. No interpretation of Scripture outside of the Bible is inspired, so we can't afford to hand off our brain to another interpreter. So, what is the proper way to use commentaries in the service of Biblical interpretation? Read two or more only after you have conducted your own study.

My mentor, Dr. David Bauer, always teaches his students to inductively study the Bible, looking to such things as key terms and definitions, book survey, immediate and broader book context, word usage, NT and OT usage, etc. before they ever pick up a commentary. However, reading a few commentaries is an important part of interpretation because without other scholars weighing in on a subject it can be quite easy to see what you want to see in a particular passage. The scripture doesn't belong to you or me--it belongs to the Church, and it is in the community of faith that we should interpret it.

If you are new to reading commentaries and are not sure how to get started, you should know a few things. There are several types of commentaries aimed at different levels of learning. There are devotional commentaries, which illustrate the scholar's interpretation but offer few to no proofs along the way. These can be edifying (or even good for sermon helps) but they aren't helpful for a student engaged in deep study. You need to be able to understand how the commentator got there. Commentaries of this type would be Matthew Henry's Commentary or N.T. Wright's "New Testament For Everyone" series.

Then there are exegetical commentaries, which build a case for an interpretation from the text using such things as original languages, grammar, context, historical background, etc. There are numerous types of these with various levels of technicality. Some are easily read by a lay person while some are difficult for an academic. Personally, I use the IVP New Testament series, Tyndale New Testament series, Word Biblical Commentaries, New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) and New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT), and New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC) to name a few. If you want further help in selecting good study resources, I highly recommend Dr. Bauer's An Annotated Guide to Resources For Ministry.

Once you find some that work for you, don't feel the need to read them like regular books. They are reference tools. A good one will be laid out in such a way that you can dip in at the points in the conversation where you are interested or need clarity.

Please let me know if this has been helpful to you or if you have any thoughts or questions.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Getting Rid of Negative Thoughts

Unless your name is Pollyanna, you have probably had some days and nights where negative thoughts took over and darkened your mood. I'm not just talking about waking up on the wrong side of the bed and having a bad morning. I'm talking about a long-term funk.

A few weeks ago I started feeling a bit down-in-the-mouth with no clear reason. My wife would ask me what was wrong, but I could not articulate the problem. No one thing seemed to be the culprit. After ten or twelve days of this nonsense I sat down with my journal and decided to do a "brain dump" of everything negative that I could think might be a factor. I wrote a paragraph: gray weather, lack of exercise, bad eating habits, a few frustrations at the church, some disappointments on a couple of projects...

Then I wrote a heading--Blessings--and began to note some of the things for which I was grateful. My dad had my sister and me do this when we were kids. Before I knew it I had quite a list of blessings and my mood had improved.

Every time I do this exercise I can hear my dad singing "Count Your Blessings" in  the background.
"Count your many blessing name them one by one and it will surprise you what the Lord has done..."

This is a useful way to get our minds out of a cycle of negativity. Why do our minds move towards entropy? Why do worry, bitterness, frustration, and guilt crop up more frequently than peace, contentment, and hope? And misery loves company, so the cycle continues, spiraling down, down, down until we're depressed. The negative thoughts bounce off each other and echo in our minds with increasing intensity until we no longer know the source. Writing helps us sort things out.

But is this the best way to maintain a positive outlook on life? Is this the type of exercise that Paul was advocating in his letters, particularly in the letter to the Philippians? "Rejoice in the blessings always..." That is not what it says, but rather, "Rejoice in the Lord always." Do you see the difference? Blessings and circumstances can change--just read Job. Jesus does not.

Theologian Leslie Newbigin was once asked whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. He replied, "I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead." That is a powerful statement. Optimism or pessimism have to do with the state of things in our world. Are they improving or going to improve or are they declining with no hope of recovery? Neither. Christ is risen.

What in creation does that mean? Not creation but New Creation. Two verses of Scripture will help me illustrate how I understand this. First, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, the new has come" (ESV). Except that isn't what the Greek technically says. It says, "Therefore, if anyone [is] in Christ a new creation. The old things have passed away; Behold! has emerged the new." The Greek doesn't indicate that the person is new, but rather that in Christ they live in a new creation...a new creation that is emerging. It is not fully here, but it will be one day.

The second passage that speaks to this issue is five chapters later in 2 Corinthians 10: 5. Paul writes, "We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of  God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (ESV emphasis mine). The context of the passage indicates that we don't wage war through physical means but through ideas and truth. We are to take every thought captive--that means our own fallen and sinful thoughts too. We make them captive to Christ Jesus because, as the verse in chapter five shows, those who are in Christ have a new creation. The rules have changed. Christ has risen. Death has been reversed. The ultimate consequence of the fall has been stripped of its power and now we can have eternal life in relationship with God. Everything else is peanuts compared with that.

So when we find ourselves depressed it does us good to think on positive things, but those positive things shouldn't simply be the material or circumstantial blessings that God has given us. Rather we should look to the blessing we have in Christ. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:3 ESV). Through Him we have New Creation. We need not choose between optimism or pessimism--the victory has already been won.

So when you find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, fix your eyes upon Christ "and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace" (Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, Helen Howarth Lemmel).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Apologizing For the Gospel

It seems that everyone is entitled to their opinion these days, even if their opinion is crass, disrespectful, unpatriotic, ignorant, or down-right devoid of objective proof. Scientific naturalism is touted with religious zeal as the answer to all of life's problems, while moral relativism is being championed with equal fervor. Somehow these two worldviews seem to be tag-teaming Christianity to shut us up. Naturalism likes to proclaim "facts" that eliminate God while relativism states that there are no absolutes. All opinions are equally valid unless, of course, your opinion is exclusive. This truth claim is self-refuting, but so many people in our culture, including those inside of a Christian worldview, are so unschooled in basic logic that truth claims like this often go unchallenged or become outright accepted. Thus, many Christians give away ground and apologize for the exclusivity of the Gospel.

Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary
Everyone may be entitled to their own opinions, but not all opinions are equally valid. An opinion is simply a person's interpretation of a particular matter. Opinions are subjective. But objective truth still exists, and our opinions only hold water insofar as they comport with reality. Imagine that you see a person standing atop a 20 story building who is about to walk off the ledge, and you say, "Get away from the edge! You will fall to your death." The person cheerfully states, "Oh, I won't die. The law of gravity doesn't apply to me. As a matter of opinion, I doubt whether or not gravity is even real." Who do you think would be right? They may be entitled to their opinion, but their opinion would be dead wrong.

Christianity is not based on subjective truth claims. We may have experiential reasons for holding onto our faith. The apostle Paul had such a starting point for his beliefs on the Damascus Road, but his subjective experience never stood alone. However, so many Christians that I have talked with retreat into subjective reasons for their faith in Christ without having objective backing. "You ask me how I know He lives...He lives within my heart," as the old song goes. Or more recently, "God's not dead. He's surely alive. He's living on the inside, roaring like a lion..." "Heaven is for real" because some person had a vision, near death experience, or the like. Don't hear me saying that these reasons are wrong or invalid, they are just not very useful for interacting with skeptics. 

We need to be able to apologize for our belief in the Gospel--not in the English sense of the word but in the Greek sense. The branch of Christian study dedicated to offering reasons for our faith and defending it is called apologetics. Apologetics has nothing to do with being sorry for our beliefs or opinions. It comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning 1.) A speech of defense, defense, reply 2.) The act of making a defense. Peter exhorts all believers to this when he writes, "...always being ready to [apologia] to anyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you..." (1 Peter 3:15 NASB).

As long as we lean on opinions and subjective reasoning we will constantly be lashing out in anger or apologizing for our beliefs in the face of a belligerent world. We need not apologize for the exclusive claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, rather we need to apologia for the hope that we have. We need to be able to go further than "how I know" into "and here is how you can know as well."

If you have not examined the evidence for Christ, then I greatly encourage you to listen to the apostle Peter and do so. Faith is not against reason. Our faith is reasonable.

If you need a good starting point, I recommend  The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel or Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

10 Ways To Build Your Intellectual Muscles

Photo by Georg Holderied Via
I don't know about you but I have Intellectual Envy. Not in a sinful sort of way but in a "what in the world would it take me to learn and grow and write and think like that person!?" sort of way. I read writers like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Lewis, Chesterton, and N.T. Wright (to name a very few), wanting to know if there is a remote chance that I could learn to be a deep and seasoned thinker too. Are some people just born with "it"? Is it a false hope to aspire to join the company of such learned thinkers?

Some people are surely born more adept at learning than others, but even if you are of average intelligence there are some things you can do to sharpen the knife. I know that I want to do everything I can to increase my mental capacity in the service of God. But how? This question has put me on task to researching ways to build intellectual muscles, and, while there are surely many more, here are some sure-fired ways to get started.

1. Prayer.

James 1:5 states, "If anyone lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Jesus promises us that if we ask, seek, and knock then we shall receive, find, and have open doors (Matt. 7:7-8)

2. Read. Read. Read.

--Reading just a little each day may decrease your risk of Alzheimer's disease, according to some recent studies.  
-- A recent poll found that 27% of Americans didn't read a single book last year. If you read 20+ books in a year, then you are within the top 20% of readers in the US.

--Read a variety of authors in a field. I know some people who are so obsessed with a certain author that they lock in their heels on an issue without bothering to see what others have to say on the topic. Nothing could be worse for mental growth. Beware of the sound of one hand clapping!
--Read old books and new. C.S. Lewis said, "It is a good  rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself  another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read on  old one to every three new ones" (from the preface to On the Incarnation).

--Read authors with whom you expect to disagree. It's easy to read someone who thinks like you or believes the way you do, but real intellectuals "keep their friends close and their enemies closer" as it were. If you want to interact with the world of ideas then you will need to read those voices contrary to your own.

3. Evaluate what you read or watch.

There is a difference between passive and active/critical learning. Learn to question books or TV, analyse them, and weigh the evidence. Just because it's labeled "history" or "science" doesn't mean that it is fact. Learn to look for signs of careful scholarship and basic presuppositions.

4. Teach or explain something to a beginner or child.

It's amazing how your mind engages when you suddenly have to simplify complicated, abstract, or even commonplace items and occurrences for beginners or children. See if you can simplify things to their basic level without becoming reductionistic.
5. Practice integrated reasoning.
According to the book Make Your Brain Smarter, by Sandra Bond Chapman and Shelly Kirkland, integrated reasoning develops a stronger frontal lobe. Integrated reasoning is looking for ways to connect what you are learning to your life. Interestingly enough, it seems that Bible studies have encouraged this for years.

6. Experience "Meaning Threat."

 Do you know that frustrating feeling when what you are reading, seeing or experiencing makes no sense? That is what researchers are calling "meaning threat." Researcher Travis Proulx from the University of California at Santa Barbara says that when you experience it your brain goes into overdrive. During their research, Proulx and his college, had people read stories by Kafka and watch David Lynch movies before taking tests. They found that the people who had tried to make sense of nearly incoherent material, were almost twice as accurate when taking tests.1  You can simulate "meaning threat" by reading bizarre stories or even going through culture shock--anything that pushes you to make sense of your situation.

7. Learn to ask more and more pointed questions.

My mentor Dr. David Bauer once told me that "the key to having profound insights is in examining the details." How do you get to those details? Ask more pointed questions. Ask questions of everything.

Little children are naturally curious. As we get older, we become more confident in our knowledge and begin to assume that we have more answers. But what if we could begin to ask who, what, when, where, how, why, what is the significance? For instance: Who made this fruit cake? What exactly is in this fruit cake? When was this cake made and when am I really going to eat this? Where can I throw this fruit cake away without Aunt Margaret finding out? How am I going to reply when she asks me how I liked this disgusting brick of liquor-filled Skittles? Why did she buy this for me in the first place? What is the significance of giving someone a nasty cake that no one eats?
You get the drift.

8. Take a stroll

By stroll I mean something different than just a jog with your headphones in and listening to a podcast or pop song. I really mean a walk for the sake of being out of doors, breathing fresh air, and taking notice of the world around you. Men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien loved country walks and they did alright for themselves.

The fact is the human mind can only take so much input. If we don't take time out of our schedules to reflect on the information that we are receiving, we won't properly digest it and turn it into productive insights. Walking is a great way to step back from lectures, books, sermons, and podcasts. Take this time to process. It also benefits your health.

9. Puzzles, riddles, codes.

Back in the day before Candy Crush Saga and Angry BirdsThe Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory stole all of our time, people had things called brains and they kept them sharp with word games, puzzles, riddles, and the like. When was the last time you played a game of chess, go, or sudoku? How about a crossword puzzle? Cracking a secret code can be a very stimulating experience. These types of exercises help your memory, improve you deductive ability, and can help us learn to concentrate (a sorely need skill these days).

10. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

We tend to become like those with whom we spend our time, so it's important for an intellectual novice to join the company of brighter minds. This is a great way to kill complacency and push yourself towards excellence. If you look around your group of friends and realize that you are the top thinker, then it's time to find a sharper cohort.

There you have ten ways to improve your intellectual muscles, which of course will benefit your mind for Christ as well. Please leave a comment and share tricks and tips that you have found helpful. I would love to hear from you.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright--A Book Review of Yawning At Tigers: You Can't Tame God So Stop Trying

When I first read the title of this book, I was intrigued. What in the world does yawning at tigers have to do with the topic of trying to tame God? Hook. Set. Reel it in. Maybe you too are intrigued. You should be.

In Yawning At Tigers,Drew Dyck discusses several topics centered around the theme of God's holiness and love. While it is difficult to summarize this book in a paragraph, I can give you a drive-by, whistle-stop tour. 

We like taming God because it makes us feel safer and in control. At the same time, we get bored because we thrive on awe. By and large, churches in Western culture have lost this sense of awe and holiness and our worship suffers for it. Reading scripture reveals how far we've gone off the mark. Worship is a natural response to holiness. We have become obsessed with safety and security, but God is dangerous and calls us to live dangerously. But, lest we get too focused on His otherness, His hiddeness, or His dangerousness, we must also look at His nearness, tenderness, and intimacy. God is a God of Holy Love. He is the Word made flesh. We are to take our cues from God as found in Jesus Christ. [End of tour]

There are many reasons why I like this book. First, Dyck writes well and with style. I felt that he was writing about something that really mattered to him and that he had wrestled through over a period of many years. He's not trying to ride the wave of angst filled books on why Christians aren't doing a good enough job. I sense that he has read deeply and observed first-hand the issues he addresses. His end notes are littered with references and he gives numerous examples from his own travels and church life. It all comes together with clarity and authority. (Great job, Drew!)

Plus, he actually used his gifts in writing to tell stories and convey imagery rather than sending me to some website to watch a quick video. If you haven't read enough of my book reviews to know--I hate that. I'm reading a book. Don't have me go to some other site. Bloggers and website developers will tell you, that outside links can increase your "bounce rate." In other words, it pulls you out of the experience of reading. If you are planning to write a book, let my plead with you to take a lesson from Dyck or any other good writer--write, don't refer out. This ends my diatribe...Let me continue.

Secondly, this book is all of the things that Crazy Love should have been but wasn't. I'm almost reluctant to draw the comparison/contrast, but over and over again I thought, "This book is so much better than Crazy Love. It's balanced, well-written, and not confusing in its call to action." But don't misunderstand me--Dyck isn't asking to be compared or contrasted. This isn't a debate or academic exercise. It is its own thing.

Thirdly, and this is really a subset of the second point, Dyck realizes that if we have a spiritual malaise or Christian lifestyle deficiency, then it stems from our theology and lack of experiencing God. There is no brow beating in this book. His solution is to look to God and the Gospel to overcome our idols. He writes, "Too often we answer the question by looking around instead of up. We take our cues from ministry models that succeed in attracting  lots of people. Even weighing biblical passages that stress purity against ones about love can miss the point. What we need to do is look at God. I'm convinced his very nature holds the secret. The divine otherness and intimacy provides the model for how we can relate to outsiders with both conviction and love." And there's more where that came from.

In short, Yawning At Tigers is a well-written, engaging, and thoughtful book. Grab a copy, give it a read, and let me know what you think.

P.S. You can follow Drew Dyck on Twitter @drewdyck. If you found this review helpful, please leave me a comment and/or tweet me @pastornickjones.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Over-Simple Faith? Over-Simple Gospel?

"...the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity."  
                                                 --Alfred North Whitehead

I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Seamands for drawing this quote and its implications to my attention. It was a good dose of validation when I heard it, and I immediately knew that many of the frustrations I have had with the modern church/Christian music thought process is because of this concept. Many in the Christian world today fail to understand this concept.

Let it be noted that I don't endorse Whitehead's Process Theology. I just think he's right in saying this statement. Albert Einstein said something similar when he wrote, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Yet again, someone else has said, "Simplicity is not the same thing as simplistic." These quotes together make a good platform from which to launch my own questions. 

 How simple are our sermons? How simple are we making terms like "gospel" and "faith"? How simple is it to be a Christian? How simple-minded are our congregations?

I ask these questions because I have seen a strong push to over-simplify the gospel, salvation, Christian-living and Christian-thinking. We have books like The Bible for Dummies and sermons that seem to have been plagiarized directly from them. We have worship music and popular Christian songs that reflect the same theological framework as Aaron Neville's song says "I don't know much, but I know I love you. And that may be all I need to know."

I understand that people have to start simply and work up to the complex, but when we set the bar at the theological equivalent of "Chop Sticks" instead of Rachmaninoff we short-change believers who then can't "give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1Pet 3:15).

There is a big difference between a child playing a simple tune on a piano and a professional playing the same song. That difference is that the child can only play the simple song (and probably poorly at that), but the professional has the skills to play it with full control and mastery. It's fine that the child starts her music career where she does, but she should grow in her skill and her ability as she moves forward in life.

I think the writer of Hebrews would be frustrated with the depth of the average Western Christian and his/her lack of knowledge. This statement could easily have been written to the North American church today:
"We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Heb. 5:11-14)
The motive behind this movement to over-simplify the gospel, salvation, and discipleship is most likely to meet people (simple people) where they are. We've taken these concepts and put them on the bottom shelf. The real problem that I see is that many are leaving them on the bottom shelf without telling people that a richer and deeper experience can be found on higher shelves. 

In the forward to Scot McKnight's book The King Jesus Gospel N.T. Wright writes, "For many people, 'the gospel' has shrunk right down to a statement about Jesus' death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it. That matters, the way the rotor blades of a helicopter matter. You won't get off the ground without them. But rotor blades alone don't make a helicopter. And a microcosmic theory of atonement and faith don't, by themselves, make up 'the gospel'" (kindle location 85 of 3110). I agree wholeheartedly.

My daughter has a BabyLit™ book called Pride & Prejudice: A Counting Primer. It tells the basic story of Jane Austen's class novel through pictures and numbers, but it would be a travesty if someone believed that this baby book was all that was needed to get the Pride and Prejudice experience. How much worse is it that mainstream North American Christianity is passing off skim milk as "all you need to know."

We shouldn't be in such a rush to strip our faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ down to its bare essentials that we strip it of its power. If we strip too far, many in the Christian world today may find that their emperor has no clothes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Examine the Evidence Like A Cold-Case Detective

What would happen if a cold-case detective turned his skills towards examining the truth claims of the gospels? Would the Bible come up wanting? Would he expose faulty evidence and discredit their reliability? J. Warner Wallace is such a cold-case detective, and he shares his findings in his highly readable book, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels.

Detective Wallace did not grow up in a Christian home, attend church, or read the Bible for the first 36 years of his life. As a matter of fact, he was an avowed atheist who liked to antagonize Christians. Once he finally sat down to study the Scriptures for himself—using all his skills in forensic statement analysis, eye witness questioning, and abductive reasoning—he discovered something startling. He was coming to believe that the gospel accounts were actual eye-witness testimonies. Throughout this book Wallace shares his own journey of coming to faith in the Scriptures and the God of whom they give testimony. And it is not a journey of existential angst or subjective emotion but one of a man examining the facts and weighing the evidence.

For a culture that is so steeped in police procedural shows and courtroom dramas, this book offers an understandable and relevant gateway into Bible study, defending your faith, and becoming better skilled at examining and weighing evidence. In order to bridge the gap between good old-fashion police work and Biblical case-making, Wallace uses examples from cases he has worked to illustrate how these methods are fully accepted in our legal systems, therefore we should find them to be credible methods for investigating the claims of the Bible. This blend makes for an enjoyable and thought-provoking reading experience.

Some Christian apologetics books may be content with telling readers what to believe through theological and/or philosophical reasoning. These are important and have their place, but J. Warner isn’t satisfied with simply stating his findings and telling readers why they need to believe. He takes it further and gives instructions on how to think and do the hard work for yourself. In his first ten chapters, he sets out to teach his readers how to become detectives through “ten important principles”:

1.       Don’t Be A “Know-It-All”
2.       Learn How To “Infer”
3.       Think “Circumstantially”
4.       Test Your Witnesses
5.       Hang On Every Word
6.       Separate Artifacts From Evidence
7.       Resist Conspiracy Theories
8.       Respect the “Chain of Custody”
9.       Know When “Enough Is Enough”
10.   Prepare For An Attack
In the second section of the book, he walks the reader through applying these principles to the claims of the New Testament.

While this book is by no means comprehensive, it offers a window into the hows and whys of evidential reasoning. Wallace focuses his work on the gospels and makes an excellent case for them being reliable sources for our faith. He does not spend time on philosophical or scientific reasons for Theism in general. Rather he hones in on historic and critical reasons why Christianity is reasonable—given the evidence. If you are the type of person that avoids enjoyable reading in favor of stodgy academic material, then this book is probably not punishment enough for you. Thankfully, you should be able to find plenty of reading material up your alley among the stacks of doctoral dissertations at your local seminary. However, if all you read is cotton candy fluff (and first of all, thank God your on this blog because there’s hope for you yet!) then this book is equally not for you. To my mind this book has an excellent blend of entertainment and educational content. Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Do We Do With Fallen Theologians?

What do we do with less than perfect (or downright problematic) theologians and Christian leaders?
Of course all Christians sin, but there is sin that would seem to disqualify a person for public ministry based on some of the implications of I Timothy 3:2-10 and the surrounding passage. There are also examples from the Old Testament with Eli’s sons and many others throughout scripture.

Over the past several months I have read several articles about John Howard Yoder, including a very good article in The Other Journal about Yoder and the problems of his legacy. John Howard Yoder was the most prominent advocate of Christian Pacifism during the late 20th century and one of the theologians that moved the modern study of pacifism and Anabaptist theology to the mainstream of Christian academic thought.

Yoder, from evidence that has been gathered over a long period of time, was sinning in a way that deserved some type of censure and real rebuke (and maybe legal prosecution.) The evidence says that Yoder sexually harassed women, exposed himself, and abused his power with female students. It is likely that he coerced women into having sex (which may have crossed the line to rape) although no charges were ever filed with police.

The Other Journal article and other blog posts have suggested that Yoder was, by his own definitions, violent against women in a way that his public theology was opposed to.  

The Other Journal article notes that Yoder used the Matthew 18: 15-20 passage to stop or hinder his victims from speaking out against him similarly to the way that Sovereign Grace Ministries and others have used the passage to stop public discussion of sexual abuse of children. Or how it has been used to terrorize victims long after the initial abuse by forcing victims to confront abusers and forgive them publicly while not holding the abusers accountable for actually changing their actions.

So what do we do with Christians that not only sin, but use church structures to hide their sin?

Social media and blogging are both blessing and curse in this regard.  While, social media and digital space can allow victims to be heard, the rise of very narrowly concerned ‘watch bloggers’ can lead to its own problems. It was at least partially blogging that forced the exploration of Yoder’s sin.  Long work by Recovering Grace eventually led to Bill Gothard being removed. And bloggers played key roles in SGM and a variety of Catholic sex abuse cases. 

But there are also bloggers that have raised concerns that have proven unfounded, and the recent case of the suicide of Ergun Canor’s son is a case where a watch blogger may have gone too far and possibly contributed to pushing an unstable teen over the edge. (Although in this case there has been a clear apology and some good introspection that we might be able to learn from.)

It does not take long to find someone that calls exposing sin gossip. However, my concern is that the meaning of the word gossip has become slippery. Is it possible to address issues of sin within a church without it being gossip?  Should church discipline only happen within a local congregation? Is there a place for censure or disassociation if there is not a oversight role (especially in the Evangelical world where church and ministry autonomy is a common practice)?  What about nationally known pastors and ministries that have a footprint that is far larger than their physical geography?

As Christians, I think we have a particular call to listen to the less powerful, the victim, the poor and the non-institutionally connected person. I have been aware of (and sometimes participated in) too many instances of institutional or personal cowardliness where something could have been done but wasn’t because of fear (of losing income, prestige, reputation, influence, etc.)

What I do know is that we need to find a way to hear victims, appropriately call perpetrators of sin to repentance (and assist them toward restoration), and we need to depend on God’s strength to allow us to overcome our fear and do the right thing, especially when it is hard.

I, also, think that ‘rules’ are not going to solve any of these problems.  There is no rule that will allow a person to know where the hard line is between real concern and gossip.  Our motives are always a little mixed.  Rules often keep the powerful in power instead of elevating the concerns of the powerless.

And after all of this, how do we appropriately use Yoder's theological work, which is an important voice for peacemaking, even though his personal life seems to counter his theological contributions?

So here is the start of some questions that have been troubling me and that I don't have answers to:

  • How do we build institutions that take the reality of sin into account better than some of our predecessors have done?
  • How do we appropriately use the theological work of flawed theologians? (And all theologians are flawed as this post rightly notes.)
  • How do we rightly value claims of victims and the less powerful while still protecting against unfounded claims?
  • How do we appropriately lead flawed leaders toward restoration and flourishing while not excusing ongoing sin?
  • How do we create institutions that value repentance and restoration over image and reputation?
  • And how do we deal with the sin of nationally known pastors, theologians or authors that our outside the scope of our own immediate circle of contacts?

Guest post by Adam Shields 
Adam Shields currently writes at, is a stay at home Dad, and a part-time non-profit consultant.  Adam reads about mostly young adult fiction, science fiction/fantasy, history or biography and Theology and listens to a lot of audiobooks.
Follow him on Twitter @adamshields

Friday, August 29, 2014

Is There A New Model For Christians Engaging the Culture...Even Politics?

Photo by Vox Efx via
I must admit that I don't love thinking or talking about politics a great deal. As I've said before, it tends to stir up the pot and lead into areas of conversation that I don't know a lot about. If I'm going to get into a heated discussion, I would prefer that it be over theology, biblical studies, or even bacon rather than politics. However, I can't let myself slide on the subject and still consider myself an aspiring Christian intellect. must all understand exactly what role we, as Christians, have in engaging our culture--even the messy quagmire that is politics.

Previously, I have written about examining the subject through the lens of H. Richard Niebuhr's five Christ and culture paradigms. To be honest, I really only tackled three of them (Christ against culture, Christ transforming culture, and Christ and culture in paradox). The main reason for this abridged treatment was that I was sticking with material that I had written about earlier and considered the stronger models. There are elements of these three that I like, but none of them completely rings true for me as a stand-alone approach. 

A Critique of Niebuhr's Whole Framework

 In his book Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century, Dr. Timothy C. Tennent critiques Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigm in four ways:

"Niebuhr's understanding of culture was constructed on the foundation of secular anthropology...Because he understands culture as 'the work of  men's minds and hands,' he inadvertently secularizes culture, creating an unbiblical dichotomy between human cultural activity and Christ...To bracket God from culture is an effective denial of the Incarnation, whereby Jesus stepped into our history--into human culture--as a particular man...[His] entire perspective on culture assumes a Christendom framework...[And his] conception of culture is not set within an eschatological framework that sees the future as already breaking in to the present order...Niebuhr never articulates an understanding of the Holy Spirit as God's empowering presence bringing the New Creation into the present order. Instead, his secularized view of culture, which puts God in a supracultural category, robs his entire project of the eschatological perspective that is so central to all Christian thinking" (163-166).
Dr. Timothy C. Tennent

A New Model?

Critiques are all well and good (some people seem to think it's a spiritual gift), but is there a helpful solution--another way of looking at this whole Christ and culture interaction? Dr. Tennent says, "Yes," and proposes a Trinitarian, "New Creation" Theology of Culture. He presents it this way:

The Foundation of the model is that...

1. The Father is the source, redeemer, and final goal of culture.
    "God is a sending God. However, it should be clear that whether God the Father is sending prophets, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or His church into the world, His ultimate purpose is to draw entire peoples and cultures and, indeed, the entire cosmos into communion with His divine life" (177).

2. The Son is God's embodiment in human culture.
     The life of Jesus shows us that God the Father validates "the sanctity of human culture." Jesus was a real person who lived in a real culture. But Jesus' life also provides us "the basis for cultural critique."

3. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the New Creation
     At Pentecost, Christ empowered his followers to be his witnesses in the world--witnesses of the New Creation--by giving them the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who transforms.

Once he lays this foundation, Tennent moves on to spell out the key features that emerge from the New Creation model. "First, as Christians, our primary cultural identity is in the New Creation...Second, we recognize that ultimate meaning can be found only in the triune God...Third, the church is the corporate, community witness to every culture of the New Creation" (187-189).


You may be thinking, "Great! That may be a better model for thinking about missions and how we interact with culture in general, but how does this new model really speak to how we tackle politics in particular?"

Here's how I see it working. Christians are called to be involved in God's transforming work in the world because in the cross and resurrection the New Creation has begun, even though it is not fully realized. We should fully engage our culture as citizens who's home is in the New Creation. This means calling out the sinful patterns of this world by preaching and living out the Gospel. The hope and the transformation is found in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ rather than in a political system.

Christians have effected change in our world and politics in such ways as helping to end slavery in the Western world and ending apartheid in South Africa, but Christians don't always persuade governments towards a Christian-worldview.  If culture refuses to change or maintains laws which Christians deem immoral, the boldest and prophetic statement the Church can make is one of civil disobedience, saying, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29). Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them out as sheep among wolves after all.

In America we have presupposed a Christendom framework for far too long. Look around. Christendom has collapsed, and the Church doesn't have the power it once did in this country, or the rest of the West for that matter. Christendom is about having the balance of power. But neither the early Church (pre-Constantine) nor Jesus Himself wielded power. The examples of Christ and the early Church are of loving sacrifice as witnesses to the truth. The Gospel is about the weak things of the world shaming the wise--strength in weakness.

So, if it is possible to achieve healing for the broken structures of our world by speaking within the political sphere, just as Joseph, Esther, or Daniel did, then I believe Christians have the duty to be involved in the process. But, if governments are unwilling to surrender to the Gospel, our duty is to peaceably stand for the truth through non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.

What I propose is not the most popular model at the moment, but it is the one that I find in Scripture. Does this model make sense within the canon of Scripture? What arguments do you find that may contradict this view? Please share your thoughts.