Category Archives: Religion

The Agency of the Adversary

In Job 1–2, we see a couple scenes of a heavenly council. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). I think a common view of these scenes is to see Satan, the Adversary, barging into heaven to bring his accusations uninvited. I’m told, however, the language does not support this idea. The sentence above could just as easily describe a day when the angels came before the Lord and Michael was among them. The point of the scene is what Satan has to say. In short, the Adversary was one of the heavenly council at this time. (And if he was not, how could he have barged in anyway? No one gains an audience with God on his own terms.)

Why was he there? What purpose could this being serve in the council of God? That’s the most disturbing message in the book of Job. It’s much easier to view God as the conqueror of evil, someone who hates evil will a pure hatred, and he is that, but evil persists like weeds in my yard. (In that sense, my yard is the epitome of evil.) God does hate wickedness and all the rebellion that has brought evil into our world, and he is the Almighty, able to snuff it all out. A new dawn is coming that will overtake the night forever and “take hold of the skirts of the earth” in order to shake the wicked out of it (Job 38:13), but that dawn has yet to come. Today, evil still has a place in creation.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. Continue reading The Agency of the Adversary

The Innocent Suffering of Job

Since last August, I’ve been leading our Sunday School class in a discussion of Job. I didn’t think we’d take it chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse, but we have. My expectations were set by my casual reading of a difficult book. Reading this ancient poem on my own is almost fruitless and fairly boring. It’s much more rewarding to go through it with a reliable guide. Everything I’ve learned has been through Christopher Ash’s commentary, which is just as readable as I had heard (recommending with two links).

Perhaps the difficulty of reading through this long, dialogic poem is the reason so many of us don’t get its central message. We bog down in the long-winded complaints and accusations, coming away only with the idea that God can run over anyone he wants and make it all right again in the end. But the tension point of Job’s argument is one we still miss when trying to apply God’s Word to our own or other people’s lives—that Job is completely innocent.

The first couple chapters present to us a man who is “blameless and upright, who fear[s] God and turn[s] away from evil.” That’s how his character is summarized for us upfront, and God repeats that description (2:3). Job is brought to the point of death “without reason.”

No matter what other questions we have about that, we have one truth to apply to our lives—innocent suffering exists.

Many people naturally believe that just about all suffering has a reason that can be avoided. The pain in our lives can be avoided by the proper regimen of diet, respectable living, and sound thinking. If you find yourself in pain or hardship, you’ve either caused it yourself or God is judging you for something. Seek the Lord, these people will say, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to get out of this trial. Because the trial is unnatural. The trial is not how God intends your normal life. Suffering doesn’t just happen.

But Job tells us it does.  Continue reading The Innocent Suffering of Job

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

The choir of the Bible school where I work is just wrapping up a tour of Germany. They got to visit a number of notable Reformation sights. I was impressed by a video they posted on Facebook, where they got the opportunity to sing a Bach piece at Bach’s tomb. I was hoping to post that tonight, but at this point it’s only on Facebook.

So here’s one (filmed in our chapel) that is on YouTube — a number which (I believe) is part of their repertoire in Germany. “Grace Alone.”

The Offensive Cross

World News Group has a good read for the Saturday between, an excerpt from Brett McCracken’s book, Uncomfortable.

One of the most offensive things about the cross of Christ has always been its leveling aspect, giving “insider” access to prostitutes, tax collectors, and the pariahs of society just as much as to religious and cultural elites; to Gentiles just as much as to Jews. The wretched thief on the cross didn’t and couldn’t do anything “good” to save himself, but Jesus still welcomed him into his kingdom.

This is offensive.

He follows this with a recounting of a marvelous scene of forgiveness. “Our pride makes it hard for us to stomach the notion that ‘earning’ or ‘deserving’ are not words that exist in God’s vocabulary of grace.”

A Generation of Theological Orphans

I was scared into the kingdom by one of those late-’70s “Left Behind” films. Nothing could be more important than to stand for the truth, even in the face of the anti-Christ’s persecution.

We Saw You at the Pole, where evangelical students gathered ostensibly to pray for the country but also, honestly, to thumb their noses at all those worldly humanists who wanted to take away our right to pray in schools.

We ate apologetics books like communion wafers—and were about as nourished. What we learned was to argue, to corner our opponents in their intellectually unfurnished corners, defeating them with our theistic strength and consistency.

And then something happened. Our Merlins and Gandalfs became Barnums and Baileys.

A months ago, Jared C. Wilson wrote this piece on a shifting tide. Let’s keep praying the waters will flow in the most beneficial direction for everyone.

In memoriam: Billy Graham, 1918-2018

Billy Graham in Oslo
Billy Graham preaching in Oslo, 1955 (National Archives of Norway)

I actually worked for Billy Graham, for a few months, back in the 1970s. Not in any notable way — in those days the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters were in Minneapolis. I went to work in the “Decision Building” during a year I took off to pay for my last year of college. I did bulk mail work, mostly slinging mail bags around, though they did “promote” me to operating a Phillipsburg Inserter machine before I decamped for a higher paying job. But I distinguished myself by writing a letter to the Minneapolis Star & Tribune to dissent from a critical article they published about Billy.

I’m old enough the remember the man in his prime. My home church, a Lutheran pietist congregation, was pretty leery of Baptists in those days. But Billy was an exception. He could pretty much do no wrong in our eyes. And the funny thing was, in general he deserved it. Ethel Waters, a Graham convert and supporter, writes in her autobiography, To Me It’s Wonderful, how she immediately got suspicious the first time she saw his picture: “He’s too good-looking.” But no hint of sexual scandal ever came near him personally (he was an early adopter of what we now call the Mike Pence Rule).

I don’t think we’ll see his like again. I’ve long held a superstitious fear that God was delaying the judgment America deserves so long as Billy was alive. Without him, will there be anyone to stand in the gap?

Enter into the joy of your Master, William Franklin Graham.

That Maddening Book

That Hideous Strength

At that moment the door opened and a voice from behind it said, “Well, go in then, if you’re going.” Thus admonished, a very fine jackdaw hopped into the room, followed firstly by Mr. Bultitude and secondly by Arthur Denniston.

“I’ve told you before, Arthur,” said Ivy Maggs, “not to bring that bear in here when we’re cooking the dinner.” While she was speaking Mr. Bultitude, who was apparently himself uncertain of his welcome, walked across the room in what he believed (erroneously) to be an unobtrusive manner and sat down behind Mrs. Dimble’s chair.

Some people have been discussing C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength lately on Facebook, and I thought I’d make a few comments on the blog tonight – though I’m relatively sure I’ve said these things here before.

That Hideous Strength may be my favorite of all C. S. Lewis’s works – though the competition is fierce. And yet the book has maddening weaknesses – which nevertheless contribute in their way to the ultimate success of the work.

The commenter on Facebook had exactly my experience reading it. First of all, it’s a much longer book than the previous entries in the Ransom trilogy. It’s also a very different kind of book, not at all what the fan of Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra is probably expecting. Instead of mystical space opera, we’re confronted with an earth-bound, genre-bending urban fantasy, consciously modeled after Charles Williams’s novels.

And here’s the killing thing – the first few chapters are undeniably dull. The first time I read them, it was plain work to slog my way through. Many, many readers, I’m sure, have just given it up. Continue reading That Maddening Book

Reading report: ’12 Rules for Life,’ by Jordan B. Peterson

12 Rules for Life

If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate? How is it propagated? It’s a one-sided, deeply ideological theory….

Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing….

I’m reading Jordan B. Peterson’s bestselling juggernaut, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s a book remarkable for restating the obvious – which is a revolutionary act in the 21st Century West. I’m not ready to review it yet, but it’s so interesting I thought I’d share a couple thoughts.

The book contains elements that make me want to stand up and cheer, and elements that trouble me – particularly in its treatment of Christianity. To be sure, there’s no denigration of Christianity here – in fact, Christian doctrine and morality come in for a lot of praise. But the book is written from a naturalist, Darwinian perspective that would make me furious if the same statements came from, say, the leader of a liberal church.

But of course, the source is what makes the difference. I’ve noted before that a man walking toward me may be farther from me than a man walking away from me. But the man walking toward me may reach me in time, while the man walking away will get further and further away. Peterson has, by his own account, gone from Christian faith to atheism in the past. Then he started thinking his way through the great questions, and gradually began to see the simple, practical wisdom of Christianity (and other great religions, to be sure), which he sees as the beneficial fruit of evolutionary processes.

I hope and pray that Jordan B. Peterson will come to faith in Jesus Christ in time. But it seems to me that his current agnosticism places him, for the moment, in the ideal place to do an important work. If he were a believer, his book would be cordoned off in the “Christian Literature” section, and nobody would notice it. His skepticism gives him credibility.

Did OT Writers Misunderstand God’s Kindness?

In his two-volume book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, [Greg] Boyd argues that such “violent” injunctions come from the “textual” God of the misguided ancient Near Eastern biblical author with his fallen, violence-prone worldview (“thus says Moses/Joshua”). These aren’t instances of “thus says the Lord”—the “actual” God whom Jesus represents. Boyd’s “cruciform” hermeneutic emphasizes how the character of God is displayed in the power-surrendering, non-violent, self-giving Christ on the cross. If this is what God is really like, then we must rethink how we view violent OT texts—and even certain New Testament (NT) passages.

This is our author Paul Copan summarizes the book he reviews, telling us what its author intends. He presents Boyd’s points in brief and then criticizes each one.  I’d like to add my own thoughts to Copan’s, but I know nothing compared to what he has written, so go read it yourself.

If anything, Boyd should chastise the redeemed martyrs, who are actually petitioning God to “judge [krineis] and avenge [’ekdikeis] our blood” (Rev. 6:10). Indeed, he should oppose the satisfaction of “heaven . . . and you saints and apostles and prophets” at God’s just judgment: “Rejoice over her . . . because God has pronounced judgment [’ekrinen . . . to krima] for you against her” (Rev. 18:20). That believers shouldn’t take personal vengeance, but to call on God to bring judgment, is anchored in both Testaments and in Jesus himself.

Intelligence — the low kind and the artificial kind

It reached 27 degrees today where I live, and that feels pretty good after the cold stretch. Yesterday I was able to wear my Mad Bomber hat with the ear flaps up, and today I was able to switch to a flat cap with ear flaps. The sun doesn’t go down till about a minute after 5:00, which means I can at least begin my homeward commute with the car lights off, sparing my battery a little work. (I’m thoughtful like that.)

I’ve been listening to a bit of Glenn Beck in the mornings recently. I’m not a big fan of his, but I had to stop listening to his competitor on the other talk network, Mike Gallagher. Mike is a very nice guy, I’m sure, but I’ve grown more and more to suspect that he isn’t terribly bright. He thinks with his heart, which annoys me. It’s like a conservative operating with a liberal’s equipment. What made him dead to me, though, was a day some time before Christmas, when a listener called in to his show to repeat the canard that goes, “Well, you know, Abraham Lincoln owned slaves.”

[For the record, in case it comes up, Abraham Lincoln never owned a slave. Not one. Nor did his father, who was an abolitionist. Lincoln’s wife’s family owned slaves, it’s true, but the Lincolns never did. I’ll reconsider the argument if the person making it is willing to take responsibility for all his own in-laws’ actions.]

But Mike Gallagher, with his national microphone and a staff of assistants, didn’t bother to refute the assertion. He just said, “Well, Lincoln had a lot of problems in relation to black people.” Then when angry listeners (like me) called in to complain, he just said, “I didn’t say he owned slaves.”

In my opinion, all conservative talk show hosts are morally obligated to let no one ever get away with saying Lincoln owned slaves. That obligation is right up there with shooting down the “Bush blew up the Twin Towers” theory.

Anyway, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, I listened to a piece of Glenn Beck’s program. He was talking to a science fiction writer about the concept of Artificial Intelligence. They were agreed that humanity is in grave danger, in the fairly near future, of being surpassed and perhaps enslaved by something like androids. The Singularity, it’s called – the day when machines become smarter than humans.

Let me go out on a limb and say it – I am not worried about the Singularity. Continue reading Intelligence — the low kind and the artificial kind

Pearls, swine, etc.

Here’s what I told my co-workers when I led office devotions today.

Recognize this Bible verse? It’s Matthew 7:6:

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.”

I’ve always taken that verse to mean “Don’t waste too much time trying to preach or witness to stubborn and obstinate people. Go on and plant the seed in more fertile soil.”

But when I read it recently in my own devotions, in The Lutheran Study Bible (ESV), I was surprised to find there an entirely different interpretation.

The ESV Bible appends it to the first five verses of the chapter, in a single section. Verses 1 through 5 go like this. You’re probably familiar with them, especially Verse 1. It’s probably the most quoted verse in the Bible nowadays.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the purpose of this passage is not to forbid us from judging anyone – indeed, further on in the same chapter Jesus tells us to judge teachers by their fruits. His point, as you no doubt see, is that we need to ruthlessly examine ourselves before judging, to make sure we’re not practicing the very sins we’re condemning in others. Judging, Jesus tells us, is a dangerous thing. It’s like a knife – if you don’t grasp it the right way, you’ll cut your own hand.

What I’d never heard of before I read the notes in The Lutheran Study Bible (and none of the pastors present had ever heard it before either, which made me feel a little better), is the interpretation that says that the “pearls” in Verse 6 are not the words of the gospel. The pearls are our fellow Christians. If we practice hypocritical judgment, our injustice drives those pearls out of the safety of the congregation, into the world, where “dogs” and “pigs” will devour them.

Ever heard of this interpretation before? The editors of The Lutheran Study Bible aren’t known for eccentric thinking.

The death of a fruitful man

I went to another funeral today (they come more and more frequently these days), down in Kenyon, Minnesota, my home town. The departed was Jim, one of my dad’s cousins. In point of fact, his farm was right across the road from ours – probably a half mile from house to house, due to the distance between our driveways and the length of his driveway.

In spite of our kinship and proximity, I never knew Jim terribly well. Turns out there was more to him than we ever guessed – farmer (we knew that), helicopter mechanic in Korea, electrician, small businessman, lifelong learner, short-term missionary, skier, and parasailer.

But the achievement that impressed me most, and must have impressed everyone there, was that he left behind a large number of descendants. He and his wife had had five children, and with their grandchildren and their spouses they filled up several pews in our little church.

The virtue of leaving a large family (with a godly heritage) behind is something any Bible character would have understood. Not for them the anxious handwringing of the modern man or woman, wondering if he/she might be “wasting their lives” if they expend their energies and financial resources on “mere” child-rearing. The idea that leaving a large progeny behind is a noble goal went without saying in Bible times.

As I thought about Jim’s life, it occurred to me (and I said it to the widow), that he had lived a really good life. In basic human terms, stripped of fripperies and cheats like ambition and acquisition, he had lived a truly blessed life in a charmed place in a charmed time in history. There are only a few things that matter when you’re on your deathbed, and Jim was rich in them.

Which made it all the more poignant to read this article over at Threedonia (it contains links to a Smithsonian article; I’ll let them have credit) about the great evil and suffering inspired by a book we all trusted back when I was in college: Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. (No Amazon link; the heck with it.)

The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. “The results were horrific,” says Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, a classic 1987 exposé of the anti-population crusade. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

But better that than being a Science Denier, I guess.

How Do Christians Handle Pain?

“Any attitude that emphasizes hope while ignoring lament comes from a naïve and unrealistic optimism that contradicts our actual experiences. Lamenting without hope, on the other hand, is equally unrealistic, a kind of unfaithful cynicism that ignores God’s activity and crushes us in its unrelenting despair.”

Professor Kelly Kapic talks with ByFaith about his 2017 book which presents itself as “a theological meditation on pain and suffering.

As we close out our celebration of the Almighty becoming a man, Kapic’s book may be just the theological conversation we need to see ourselves as people with originally good, now broken by sin, physical bodies. It’s understandable that we often pray for God to take away our pain and sickness, but as Kapic notes in this video, all of us are either growing older or dead. What we feel and can do now in our bodies is part of the real world in which God calls us to bring him glory.

I regularly get emails from people who have read the book and speak of discovering the role of lament as if for the first time. That tells me, if I am hearing correctly, that we might not be doing a very good job of displaying this biblical expression in our corporate worship and Christian experience.

(See also this listing from WTS Books)