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Looking Down [A Few Verses] Might Be Good

The theme running throughout the White Horse Inn broadcasts and Modern Reformation issues this year has been “Recovering Scripture.” Such a recovery is needed in many areas of our doctrine of Scripture as has been pointed out many times this year already. However, under-girding all of these discussions is a desire to have Scripture properly interpreted. There are many directions one could go in a discussion about “hermeneutics” (the interpretation of Scripture), but the most basic is that a passage needs to be read in context. To isolate (a.k.a. rip, tear, wrench) a particular text from its context may mean that the interpretation that one arrives at can be severely flawed and damage can be done to the clear meaning of Scripture not to mention the application that is drawn for the hearers/readers of such an interpretation.

One of the easiest contexts to look at is the immediate context–what does the rest of the chapter, section, or book say that can give insight into a particular passage? Now this may seem obvious to many of you, but yet it isn’t always done in the church today.

I subscribe to a daily devotional from a very popular pastor today. The body of the e-mail contains a Scripture passage (rarely does this ever span more than one verse), the devotional itself (containing a brief explanation of the passage and then application), and finally a prayer (I rarely can stomach getting this far). Every morning I cringe at what I am about to read. Most often the text is totally misinterpreted in a “word of faith/name-it-claim-it” direction which is to be expected from this pastor, but there are times when this pastor has so blatantly missed the immediate context of the passage he is looking at that it needs to be called out.

Do All That is in Your Heart

Scripture

“Then Nathan said to David, Do all that is in your heart, for God is with you” (I Chronicles 17:2).

Today’s Word from ____

What is in your heart today? What are the dreams and desires deep on the inside of you? Maybe you want to start a business, or ministry, or go back to school. Whatever is in your heart, ask the Lord to confirm it to you. God leads us by desires, but we have to first submit our desires to Him. Sometimes we have to allow Him to change our desires, but know that He is always out for your good. It says in the book of Psalms that God gives us the desires of our heart. That means He places desires within us then brings them to pass so that we can live a fulfilled life here on earth. I believe David did this very thing. He was known as a man after God’s own heart. He submitted His heart to the Lord, and then Nathan came along and said, “Yes. Do what is in your heart. God is with you.” Whatever is in your heart today, submit it to the Lord. Trust that He is out for your good and working behind the scenes on your behalf. As you put your faith and trust in Him, He will guide you in the life of victory He has in store for you! (emphasis added)

If you aren’t familiar with 1 Chronicles 17, here are the first four verses:

1 Now when David lived in his house, David said to Nathan the prophet, “Behold, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under a tent.” 2 And Nathan said to David, “Do all that is in your heart, for God is with you.” 3 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, 4 “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: It is not you who will build me a house to dwell in.’ (1 Chronicles 17:1-4 ESV).

So David wanted to build a house for the Lord, and he mentioned it to Nathan. Nathan said go ahead and do it (as this “devotional” pointed out). However, Nathan was wrong!! Even though he was a prophet of the Lord, he merely assumed that this would please the Lord. God came to Nathan that night and told him that the desires of David’s heart WERE NOT God’s desires and that in this matter God WAS NOT with David as this pastor requires to make his message sound in accord with Scripture. Later in 1 Chronicles chapter 17, Nathan tells David all the words of the Lord (v 15) which leads to a beautiful prayer of David recognizing that God is going to build a house for David not David building a house for the Lord (vv 16-27). Taken out of its immediate (the next two verses are pretty immediate!) context this passage can be used–no, twisted–to justify doing whatever our hearts desire because it must be from the Lord.

I hope it is clear from the example above that seeing the immediate context helps prevent us from making a determination about a particular text that is clearly not what the text has to say to us, let alone the original audience. However, not looking at the immediate context actually give more work to the interpreter. There are places in Scripture where one text is expressly explained by another text. This can be seen most clearly in some of the parables of Christ given in the Gospels. (Note: the WHI will be doing a six-part series on the parables from October 10-31.) All of the Synoptic Gospels include Jesus’ own explanation of the “Parable of the Sower” (see Matt 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15) which is a great benefit to us as a guide to how the parables themselves are to be interpreted.

When you are looking at the parables one of the things that an interpreter needs to do is determine what the characters and the items in the parable represent. Doing this task has led many to wrongly interpret the parables, but at times these people do way more work than they have to.

Here is our second example of missing the context:

When Weeds Spring Up

Scripture

“Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away’” (Matthew 13:24, NIV).

Today’s Word from _____

Jesus is telling a parable in Matthew 13 about a man who went out to his field and planted wheat in the ground. He sowed good seed. This represents that he was doing the right thing, honoring God with his life, and being good to others. But while he slept, an enemy came in and planted weeds. The man didn’t know what had happened. He was expecting to have a great harvest; after all, he did all the right things. But the weeds sprang up among his wheat.

Sometimes, things happen in life. Weeds spring up that we didn’t have anything to do with. The key is to keep the right attitude and keep focusing on the goodness of God. When these unexpected challenges happen, we can say, “It’s just another weed. I didn’t sow it. I don’t have to reap it.” Then we can keep the door open for God to move on our behalf.

Today, don’t let the weeds take root. Don’t let discouragement creep in. Instead, lift up your eyes of faith to what your father God can do for you. Keep believing, keep praying, and keep hoping because your harvest is on the way! (emphasis added)

The passage cited comes from the “Parable of the Weeds” in Matthew 13:24-30. This interpreter did the hard work and came up with his own identifications in the parable. We are the man, what we plant are our “good deeds,” and the weeds are “unexpected challenges.” Once I read this I opened my Bible and turned to Matthew 13. My eyes skimmed over the headings and I found “The Parable of the Weeds Explained” just five verses later!! Again the immediate context was missed. Let’s see a more authoritative interpretation of this parable:

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (Matthew 13:36-43).

Wow!! Instead of a “parable” focusing totally on man and what we are doing, Christ says this parable is about himself, the kingdom of God, and the close of the age. What a total contrast from what the devotional said this parable is about! The “application” we are to draw from this parable is completely different as well.

Devotional – “Today, don’t let the weeds take root. Don’t let discouragement creep in. Instead, lift up your eyes of faith to what your father God can do for you. Keep believing, keep praying, and keep hoping because your harvest is on the way!”

Christ – “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”

One talks about a harvest of personal blessing today, whereas the other tells about a harvest that will come at the end of time with eternal significance. If you happen to feel blessed now, then you don’t need the interpretation of the devotional. However, Christ’s interpretation of this parable needs to be heard by all men and women everywhere and in every time because “law-breakers” are liable to the fire of God’s wrath. But the good news is that in Christ God’s people have been planted as children of the kingdom, are counted righteous, and will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

So what are we to do? God’s Word is the final authority and everything that is preached “in the name of the Lord” needs to conform to Scripture. This is one of the roles that elders are to have in the church-to maintain the purity of the preached Word. However, laypeople too can do this. Listen to what Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews [from Berea] were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

You might be thinking that what I have presented here is a worst case scenario picking out two specific devotionals. I really do hope and pray that this is the case; however, my wife heard a sermon while visiting a large Evangelical mega-church where the pastor stopped his Scripture reading one verse short. By doing so all he preached on was man’s duty (law) instead of what God has done through Christ (the Gospel).

James 3:1 gives some very humbling (and scary) words concerning teachers of God’s people, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The pastor who wrote this devotional and who millions of people hear every week will be held accountable for these blatantly false interpretations of Scripture and he will be judged with a greater strictness. Paul tells the young minister Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). This is the goal of anybody who steps into a pulpit (I guess now days it “steps behind a pulpit” if there is one in the first place): we are not to be ashamed because we rightly handled the word of truth. The same cannot be said for the examples given here.

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Glenn Beck’s Jesus

Glen Beck is quickly becoming the Oprah of the Right, at least when it comes to books he mentions and approves: they experience a meteoric rise from obscurity to the bestseller list. As part of Beck’s continuing (and cringe-inducing) God-talk, he mentioned a book recently titled, The Greatest Words Ever Spoken: Everything Jesus Said About You, Your Life, and Everything Else by Steven K. Scott. Steven K. Scott is also the author of several other similar sounding books: The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: King Solomon’s Secrets to Success, Wealth, and Happiness and The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived: Secrets for Unparalleled Success and Unshakeable Happiness from the Life of Jesus.

Just writing the titles is enough to make you gag.

What’s wrong with these kinds of books? Not least is that they make Jesus a philosopher, a guidance counselor, and a life-coach, when he really is Lord and Redeemer. In many ways, Scott and others like him stand in the stead of Thomas Jefferson who created his own Bible, filled with the teachings of Jesus but devoid of the miracles of Jesus. Jefferson considered Jesus a great moral example but had no time for the rest of the Bible’s teaching on sin, judgment, grace, and recreation.

It’s not surprising that Beck would endorse such a book. It fits perfectly with his emphases on moral revival and self-help patriotism. This is the kind of Jesus that Beck’s “Black Robe Brigade” can get behind.  After all, even rabbis and imams can recognize and appreciate a Jesus filled with common sense wisdom about morality, success, and wisdom. Such a Jesus isn’t offensive, but thankfully such a Jesus never walked the earth.

There’s a darker side to all of this. What happens when one attempts to live by the Law, even if it’s dressed up with promises of success rather than threats of judgment? Consider this comment from an Amazon.com reviewer:

Wouldn’t recommend the book. Seller was excellent tho. Lost faith in God and will probably put this book up to resell. Seems like it repeats a lot. Maybe I just read the gospels and many events are recounted each time. If you are a Christian I think you would like having this, I personally have felt like Job much too long and have given up on God’s “favor and blessing”. Better luck to whoever reads this.

God’s favor and blessing aren’t found in unparalleled success and unshakeable happiness, but in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Any attempts to find God’s blessings or general wisdom for living outside of that historical reality will only lead to failure and condemnation.

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The Myth of Neutrality

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer.  You know Hitchens, of course, as one of our era’s most infamous atheists. He is the author of God Is Not Great and makes frequent appearances in the pages of Vanity Fair and Atlantic Monthly. Hitchens was recently interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about his battle with cancer. He told Cooper that despite facing death, he still doesn’t pray and he will not pray. So, he said, we shouldn’t believe any reports about a deathbed conversion; he is secure in his nonbelief.  When asked about the reports of groups of Christians who are praying for his health, Hitchens expressed gratitude for their kind thoughts but said that they shouldn’t waste their breath praying to a God who does not exist.

Hitchens, a former socialist turned conservative commentator, has spent the better part of the last ten years as an advocate for what has become known as the “New Atheism.” The so-called “New Atheists” are not just blandly agnostic or politely atheistic. They are militantly atheistic, relentlessly in-your-face with their rejection not just of Christianity but any form of theism.  They present a special challenge to American Christians who have long enjoyed a place of privilege: even where Christianity was rejected, it has been given a place of honor among competing religious philosophies. It has had a sort of first among equals approach that has lifted Christianity above the fray and removed it from the kind of criticism that it must now bear.

With the rise of the New Atheism and the willingness of writers like Christopher Hitchens to actively and relentlessly criticize Christianity, we have entered into a new era. I, for one, welcome it: not least because the New Atheists have done us all a significant favor by deconstructing the myth of neutrality.  By the myth of neutrality I mean that belief that asserts religion is a personal matter, that it doesn’t matter if you are religious or not, and that being religious or nonreligious makes no real difference in one’s life.  The New Atheists have not been satisfied with saying that religion is banal or meaningless. They believe that religion is a menace. Because of this belief, it is not enough for them to not be religious themselves. They work hard to convince others not just of the foolishness of religion but also of its danger.

Unfortunately as our interview with Kenda Creasy Dean revealed, the church is facing an epidemic of unbelief and apostasy among its teens and young adults. As a pastor, I see evidence of this trend first hand: teens flirting with unbelief, thinking about rejecting Christianity because they wonder if it really matters what they believe. When I ask, “why are you considering walking away from what you once professed?”, the response is usually an apathetic shrug. “It just doesn’t matter,” people say. “It doesn’t matter if Christianity is true. I just want to live my life my way without reference to God.”

And this is why we must be forever grateful to the New Atheists. They say, it does matter: it’s a matter of life and death. According to writers like Christopher Hitchens, religion (Christianity, even) is hateful, violent, and dangerous. It is not enough in their view to be apathetic toward it, you must actively resist and reject it; you cannot be neutral.

This is what the Bible says, too. There is no neutrality when it comes to God.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)

According to the Bible everyone, everywhere has an innate knowledge of God. Everyone knows something about God (specifically, his eternal power and divine nature). That knowledge, however, is suppressed. Humankind attempts to bury that knowledge beneath a sea of false worship.  This means that apathetic agnostics and atheists old and new are not merely ignorant of God, they are actively resisting and defying what they know to be true.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work through the Book of Exodus with my congregation. Specifically, I think that this truth gives us insight to how Pharaoh answers Moses in Exodus 5:2. In Exodus 5, Moses and Aaron are making their first appearance before Pharaoh, requesting time for Israel to travel into the wilderness to worship the Lord. In response, Pharaoh asks, “Who is the Lord?”  What sort of question is this? Is it a reflection of Pharaoh’s ignorance of his Hebrew slaves’ religion? No, this isn’t ignorance. Pharaoh is defiantly rejecting God. He not only claims to not know the Lord, he refuses to obey his voice and asserts his own authority in response to the prophet’s message from God.  Although the original Hebrew lacks emoticons, it’s not too difficult for us to hear Pharaoh sneer as he asks, “Who is the Lord?”

Pharaoh is a clear example for us of those who not only refuse to acknowledge God but actively resist him. Pharaoh’s unbelief is an expression of rebellion against the God that he innately knows.  But Pharaoh doesn’t just reject the natural revelation that he can observe in the creation and that is written on his conscience.  Pharaoh is also rejecting special revelation from Moses and Aaron.  The prophet of God has spoken, giving Pharaoh a direct and personal message. But Pharaoh compounds his guilt by rejecting not just the shadow of knowledge he has of God, but even the clear knowledge.

This defiance of God leads to the brutal oppression that Pharaoh unleashes against Israel. It isn’t enough for Pharaoh to dismiss two crazed prophets of a deity he doesn’t know. He must also persecute and torment the people who did profess to know this God. In so doing, Pharaoh shows us how the “myth of neutrality” gives way to the tragic trajectory of unbelief: Unbelief cannot stop at a mere intellectual rejection of God. Since such intellectual rejection isn’t neutral, you must fill in the vacuum with something to worship. In Pharaoh’s case, he had plenty of idols to worship, but more than anything was his own enthronement of self-determination: rejecting God’s voice and directive he asserts his own authority, and he unleashes his power in defiance of God.  That final act of aggression is the end result of intellectual rejection.

If you are toying with belief in God, thinking about rejecting him in order to determine your own life, know that in the end you will not be mildly opposed to Christianity or even apathetic toward it. The path of rejection leads to oppression and persecution. Unable to quiet the persistent testimony of nature and conscience, those who reject God must unleash their rage against God and his people. This is why Christians are persecuted around the world. This is why you are mocked and made fun of by your nonChristian friends. Those who lash out against God and his people are demonstrating how Exodus 5 is still relevant to us today: there is no neutrality with God.

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Give Me That Old Time Religion

Several weeks ago I conducted a funeral for an elderly grandmother, a life-long Presbyterian. In addition to her life-long commitment to Jesus Christ and her hope in the gospel, this grandmother is to be commended for passing on the faith. Surrounding her hospital bed as she died were her children and grandchildren, each sustained by hope in the resurrection.

As their mother and grandmother died, the children and grandchildren decided to sing together. Out came the iPads, iPhones, and Blackberrys as each family member scrolled through their songs or surfed the web for something that the entire family could sing. Several suggestions were made: a hymn, a praise chorus, a Scripture song, a Gospel tune, a contemporary worship song, but sadly the group soon discovered that they could not find a song that they all knew. This family, bound together by a faith that passed through the generations, couldn’t sing the songs of their faith.

Eventually they did find one song: yes, “Amazing Grace”–the first verse at least seems to be known by almost everyone, everywhere! But what was striking to me as I heard this story relayed was that for each succeeding generation it became increasingly difficult to find a song to sing. The grandmother and her generation probably had hundreds of songs that would have been familiar across denominations, stretching back for hundreds of years. The children (now middle-aged), however, only had perhaps a dozen or so songs that they could sing together. The grandchildren (all in their twenties) couldn’t find one song that they all knew. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know their parents’ praise choruses or their grandparents’ hymns, they didn’t know their own generation’s songs.

Of course, what’s strange about this is that their generation is living in a time of unprecedented production of Christian music.  But because the Christian music industry prizes innovation and change, no song ever has the time to become “their” song. When the economic engine is driven by new songs, there is never time for songs to become tried and true songs. Churches compound the problem by constantly updating their “set list” to reflect the songs being churned out by the industry. The result isn’t just a severed connection with the past (as tragic as that may be); this generation is losing its connection to one another. Unless you attend the same congregation (and perhaps the same genre-specific service), you won’t know the songs that your cousins are singing.

This isn’t so much an argument for hymnody (there are better ones than this anecdote), it’s rather a plea for unity: there are very practical consequences to age segregation in the church and a constant reinvention of the mission and marks of the church and a lust for the new and improved. The division of the church along theological lines sometimes can’t be helped, but it’s certainly possible for us to reverse course and find unity across generational lines.

The responsibility to achieve that unity doesn’t just belong to the pastors and church musicians who sometimes determine the cultural situatedness of the congregation, responsibility must also be borne by those who sit and sing and pray and listen. Will they choose to immerse themselves in the history, language, and speech of the faith? Will they reach across generational divides so that when it comes time to sing at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb we won’t all be looking at one another in confusion and dismay?

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Calvary Chapel Catholic

King's College - New YorkA guest post by Rev. Dr. Brian Lee from Christ Reformed Church, Washington, DC

There are a lot of interesting ways to slice the recent dust-up over Dinesh D’Souza’s selection as President of the King’s College in New York City, covered thoroughly in a recent article at Christianity Today. We could consider what it tells us about politics and cultural transformation as the core identity of evangelicals, or how it illustrates the transformation of Christian institutions away from their founding principles. But perhaps most interesting is what it says about the status of the doctrine of the church in evangelical circles, and the degree to which individual believers conceive of themselves as atomistic units, defined only by their own faith and experience.

D’Souza is a Roman Catholic married to an evangelical, and has been attending a Calvary Chapel for the last ten years. But none of these ecclesiastical relationships or practices defines him:
“I’m quite happy to acknowledge my Catholic background; at the same time, I’m very comfortable with Reformation theology,” D’Souza told Christianity Today. “I’m comfortable with the evangelical world. In a sense, I’m part of it. …I do not describe myself as Catholic today. But I don’t want to renounce it either because it’s an important part of my background.I’m an American citizen, but I wouldn’t reject the Indian label because it’s part of my heritage. I say I have a Catholic origin or background. I say I’m a nondenominational Christian, and I’m comfortable with born-again.”

Apparently, church membership is like citizenship or cultural self-identification, and we are as free to associate freely with various churches as we are to hold dual citizenship or celebrate our hyphenated ethnic heritage as Indian-Americans, or whatever the case may be. Understood thus, America is as much a theological as well as cultural “melting pot.”

Of course, this flexibility is not unrelated to the fact that the Reformation theology D’Souza is comfortable with is characterized by him as reflecting “an intramural type debate and squabble” among Christians. King’s College Statement of Faith clearly upholds Reformation principles of “Scripture alone,” justification by imputation via “faith alone,” and denies the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. What does it mean to “completely adhere to” such a statement of faith as required by King’s, and not renounce a Roman Catholic faith which explicitly endorses the opposite?

One solution is provided by the Statement of Faith itself, which appears to provide the ultimate escape clause. The introduction notes that:
“We accept those areas of doctrinal teaching on which, historically, there has been general agreement among all true Christians. Because of the specialized calling of our movement, we desire to allow for freedom of conviction on other doctrinal matters, provided that any interpretation is based upon the Bible alone…” (italics added).

This caveat is utterly ambiguous, and doesn’t identify whether it is referring to the list of 17 doctrines that follow, or allowing for some subset of them to be negotiable. The key, however, is in those words italicized above: “Because of the specialized calling of our movement…” Huh? More ambiguity here, but one isn’t sure whether to praise King’s for recognizing that it is at best a “movement” and not a church, or to challenge them for so flagrantly confusing the gospel with cultural transformation.

The Rev. Brian Lee (PhD) is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, D.C.. For any information on the church, contact him at pastor *AT* ChristReformedDC.org

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Atheists Know More About Religion?

According to the Los Angeles Times, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has just released the results of a recent survey on general religious knowledge, and apparently atheists and agnostics outperformed religious adherents.

For example, most Protestants were unable to identify Martin Luther as the leader of the Reformation, whereas those who identified atheist or agnostic were more likely to answer this and other questions correctly.  Just below them were Jews and Mormons.  In fact, according to the article, Mormons fared better than Evangelical Protestants in their knowledge of the Bible.

This matches up nicely with the work of Kenda Creasy Dean, project researcher for the National Study of Youth and Religion.  In her new book Almost Christian, Kenda argues that Mormons are more intentional about passing on the faith than any other religious body in the U.S., and her chapter devoted to this phenomena is titled, “Mormon Envy.”  Michael Horton recently interviewed her for a White Horse Inn broadcast, and that will be available at whitehorseinn.org beginning Sunday, October 3rd.

The survey results also confirm our own White Horse Inn polling data.  In a survey we conducted of approximately 70 Christian adults at a recent Evangelical convention we found that less than half agreed with the statement, “There is no one who does good, no not even one. There is no one who seeks God.”  The quotation is from Psalm 14, Psalm 53 and Romans 3, and is one of the principle proof texts for the doctrine of original sin.  Most of the Christians we interviewed were not only unfamiliar with these Bible verses, but were in active disagreement with the theology promoted in these texts (Program note:  the White Horse Inn episode featuring the results to this recent poll will air in late November).

We also conducted a poll in 2009 of approximately 100 individuals at a Christian Music event (70% of whom were young Christians between 13 and 25) and the results were even more troubling.  When we asked about the same verse from Romans 3, we found that only 1 out of 3 recognized it as a Bible text and agreed with its content (31% to be exact).  You can find the complete results to this 2009 survey here.

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New Mosque vs New Church

This interactive map from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows the locations of 35 proposed mosques in the United States that have encountered community resistance.  According to the Mosque Study Project 2000, 688 new mosques have opened in the last ten years.

According to a 2007 report from Leadership Network, nearly 4,000 new churches are started each year in the United States. The simple math is that new churches outnumber new mosques by nearly 59 to 1.

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Chain of Grace?

So my wife was running some errands this morning and drove through Starbucks to get some coffee. When she pulled up to the window, the cashier said her coffee would have been $3.05, but the guy in the car ahead of her had already paid for it. Odd, she thought, but a nice treat and blessing with a sick little girl in the back seat and a stressful day in front of her. Then the cashier went on: there’s been a chain of nine cars that have done this, each has paid for the person coming after them. She told my wife that she could “take her blessing” or pass it on to the person behind her. If it had been me, I probably would have driven off–I hate chain emails and this smacks of something similar! But my wife, being who she is, paid for the person behind her (spending an extra $.80 for their nicer cup of coffee) and then felt guilty for being a little irritated at having to keep the chain of blessing going.

Blessings aren’t supposed to come with chains (either literal or figurative). The only blessing that really is a blessing is one of pure grace, with nothing expected in return (or “paid forward” as the case may be). I think this is a great illustration for how most of us live our lives with a sense of “sanctified karma” rather than gratitude. Sanctified karma says that we’re getting what we deserve, so we’d better do something nice if we ever hope to receive something nice in return. Rather than being motivated by gratitude, we’re motivated by guilt or by a twisted sense of selfishness. Living and giving out of gratitude allows us to give in the face of rejection, to love in the face of criticism, and to live out of our identity as God’s sons and daughters that we have been freely given in Christ.

May all your acts of grace be given without chains!

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Interpreting Humpty Dumpty in light of other “2nd nursery rhymes”

There are so many things to be thankful for when it comes to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. If you’re a monthly partner with the White Horse Inn, you heard Mike Horton on the bonus track for the September 19th broadcast list a number of areas where we not only agree with Wright but benefit from his scholarship and popular writing (you can find out more about our partnership program and its benefits here). Of course we also have strong disagreements when it comes to issues like justification. Along that line, we have something special in the works that will be announced around the time of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta in mid-November!

So, in light of both our appreciation and criticism of Wright, we offer up this post from the funny fellows of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology: how N. T. Wright would read that great nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty.”

Tom Wright Reads Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Clearly the writer is telling an Israel story, and here alludes to the Temple.  This echoes other lines in early 2nd Nursery Literature, such as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard (the “storehouse” of the Temple) and the bone (resurrection life) which she sought for her dog (“Gentiles”). “But when she got there, the cupboard was bare and the poor little doggie had none.”  The temple had nothing to offer the Gentiles, and they thus remained in their state of Adamic sin and decay.

So here, too, one should not be surprised to discover that the Temple and its “wall” are bankrupt. The next line, then, is not a shock, but an expectation:

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

Again, this is patently a forecast of the Temple’s destruction (and contra Crossan and Borg, an entirely possible historical forecasting).  Doubtless this claim is intended to lead the reader to ponder the eschatological recreation of the Temple. Since Humpty stands for the Temple, he seems to be sharing in the divine identity, functioning as the locus of God’s presence, not outside of, but within creation.

Of course, this fall is an exile of sorts, the loss of God’s presence. The tension is palpable: how will humpty’s story not turn out dumpty?  In other words, this line presupposes what I have called elsewhere the great metanarrative of humpty, not least the promise of resurrection.

But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put humpty together again.

So the Temple will be built again, but not by human hands. Many have undertaken to suggest that this passage runs counter to a belief in resurrection. But this atomistic reading of the text lacks imagination. Of course, it is the king himself who will put humpty together again, and this great act will complete the metanarrative.

After all, Humpty is the place where the Creator God is resident with his creation. But the human inability to recreate Humpty does not negate all human effort for creation, which should be done in light of the proleptic nature of the king’s restoration of Humpty and all creation.

Written in Durham Cathedral, dedicated to Rowan Williams’s left eyebrow.

The author, Jason Hood, also links to “Bultmann Reads Mother Goose.”

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Would Grace Make a Difference?

The other night on a local news-talk station, the usually acerbic hosts were having a pleasant conversation with the communications director for the Humanist Association, which has been sponsoring ad campaigns across the country with slogans like, “Be Good for Goodness Sake,” “No God, No Problem,” and “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.”

When asked to describe the central tenet of humanism, the guest quoted the writer Kurt Vonnegut’s definition: “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” I was struck by the stark simplicity of that statement and I wondered if Vonnegut or any other humanist who might use that term had ever experienced grace.

If this is a good definition of humanism, it certainly sets humanism against what passes as religion (earning the favor of gods or God by our moral performance and fearing reciprocation if we fail to live up to divine standards), but it doesn’t take account of grace. The Christian concept of grace, of course, is the idea that we don’t get what we deserve (either rewards or punishment); instead, we get what Christ deserved by his life and death in our place.

I’ve also recently finished reading Frankie Schaeffer’s recent book, Patience with God, and in it he traces the relationship between many of the New Atheists and their religious upbringing. He asserts that in his own life and in the lives of many of those he chronicles, grace was absent (perhaps believed in, but life never functioned according to it). Is there a relationship between the desire to throw off the tyranny of the Law by embracing oneself as “Lord and Savior” and ignorance of grace?

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