Archive for December, 2013

Have you heard this before? Adam and Eve weren’t created in God’s image?

December 31, 2013

I am sorry that my little blog here can’t drive more traffic to Jason Micheli’s “Tamed Cynic” blog. According to his most recent post, not a single entry in his “Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross” (he’s posted eight of ten so far) made his Top 5 most popular of the year, despite my linking to them here and here. What can I say? I’m no Scot McKnight.

I’m not recommending that you read his blog for your edification. In fact, almost every week I find something new to get under my skin (which is a credit to his skill as a writer)—and I comment to the sound of crickets. He did tell me that he doesn’t have much time to respond to blog comments, so it’s nothing personal.

But I would love for someone to read yesterday’s post in his Christmas series, and tell me what, if anything, is wrong with the following two statements:

“But according to scripture, Jesus not Adam and Eve constitute the imago” (by which he means imago Dei, “image of God”).

“Rather we only know what ‘sin’ means and the extent to which it defines us because God has come in Jesus.”

On his side, he’s using Colossians 1:15-16 to make his case (which is a lot of weight for those verses to bear). Doesn’t Genesis 1 tell us that God created male and female in his image? Micheli might allow himself some wiggle room by using the word “constitute” (emphasis mine): “Implicit in this logic is the assumption that Adam and Eve were fine before they fell, that they already constituted what God initiated when God declared ‘let us make humankind in our image‘”—as if, perhaps, there’s some difference between God creating in God’s image and the two being so “constituted” in that image? Who knows? I’ve never heard this before.

For the sake of my monthly student loan bills, I’m hoping that my Emory education didn’t fail to teach me something so blindingly obvious that Micheli need not explain himself.

What he is saying is that God initiated but did not complete the process of making humanity in his image. That only happened in the incarnation. I guess there’s no sense pointing out to a Methodist pastor like himself that John Wesley would contradict him, not to mention the plain meaning of Genesis 1. “Let us make,” God says… and so they were made.

Doesn’t Paul, in Romans 7, contradict the idea that we only know what sin is because of the incarnation of Christ? Specifically, we have Paul saying the following:

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’… Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”

Sermon 12-22-13: “Reel Christmas, Part 4: Miracle on 34th Street”

December 30, 2013


Miracle on 34th Street is an insightful movie about faith. Which is odd to say because while the movie, like many contemporary Christmas movies, is deeply concerned about the “true meaning of Christmas,” it never hints at what the meaning is. Still, the parallels between finding faith in Santa Claus and finding faith in Jesus are hard for someone like me to resist.

Miracle speaks to our skeptical age. I hope this sermon does, too!

Sermon Text: Matthew 13:44-46

The following is my original sermon manuscript with videos inserted in the proper order.

Our movie begins on Thanksgiving, with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before the parade starts, a man who calls himself Kris Kringle tries to give the Macy’s Santa tips on how to be a more convincing Santa Claus.

So… Anything happen in the news last week? Unless you were living under a rock, you heard that the A&E Network suspended Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, for the interview he gave to GQ. While I wouldn’t have said it the way Phil said it—and even the family admitted that his comments were “unfiltered” and “coarse”—I strongly agree with the point he was making regarding marriage and intimacy. They reflect the doctrine of our United Methodist Church. I’ve blogged about this issue, and I’d be happy to talk with you if you have concerns. But when I was ordained a few years ago, I stood up and told the bishop, the annual conference, and God that I agreed with the doctrines of our church, and I wasn’t kidding. Sadly, I can’t speak for so many of my fellow Methodist clergy! Read the rest of this entry »

The Second Coming and signs of the times

December 29, 2013

For the first time in nearly forever—I admit with shame—I’m going to preach, briefly, about the Second Coming. It ties into today’s message about Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:21-40: just as they were waiting for the first coming, we Christians are waiting for the Second Coming.

What a marginalized doctrine this is for most of us today! I realize in decades and centuries past, some parts of the Church have overemphasized it, but it’s hard to see that many of us—especially Methodist preachers like me—are in danger of doing that today.

The Bible warns that there will be signs of the end. In a November 28 sermon that attracted little media attention, Pope Francis himself talked about one potential sign that he sees coming true today (see this and that): the intensified persecution of Christians in the Middle East. In his sermon he said:

What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world… You must obey the orders which come from worldly powers. You can do many things, beautiful things, but not adore God. Worship is prohibited—this is at the center of the end of time… [Once we] reach the fullness of this pagan attitude…truly the Son of Man will come in a cloud with great power and glory.

If Pope Francis is talking about the Second Coming and signs of the end, good heavens, why aren’t I?

A new bad argument has emerged from the Phil Robertson controversy

December 26, 2013

phil_robertsonIn my sermon last Sunday I made reference to the controversy surrounding Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson. How could I not? I’ve never seen the show, but many people in my congregation watch it. I asked, “Did anything happen in the news last week?” and there was much laughter. I said:

Unless you were living under a rock, you heard that the A&E Network suspended Phil Robertson, patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, for the interview he gave to GQ. While I wouldn’t have said it the way Phil said it—and even the family admitted that his comments were “unfiltered” and “coarse”—I strongly agree with the point he was making regarding marriage and intimacy. They reflect the doctrine of our United Methodist Church. I’ve blogged about this issue, and I’d be happy to talk with you if you have concerns. But when I was ordained a few years ago, I stood up and told the bishop, the annual conference, and God that I agreed with the doctrines of our church. And I wasn’t kidding.

My point is, I don’t believe that Phil Robertson has been treated fairly… [And then I found a way to tie it into the scripture I was preaching.]

While I was saying this, I posted this note onscreen: “United Methodist doctrine on this subject agrees with most of the universal church, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, as well as evangelicals and Pentecostals.”

If you were anywhere around social media last week, I’d forgive you for being surprised that Phil Robertson’s opinion regarding homosexuality doesn’t represent some redneck fringe, but is in keeping with the teaching of about 95 percent of the universal church. (Let’s remember what a tiny percentage of global Christendom that mainline Protestants now represent.) Among my social media “friends” and followers who are fellow clergy, no one who commented on the topic voiced support for Robertson. How is that possible?

One fellow pastor even characterized Robertson’s comments as “vile—literally vile… They were nearly pornographic.”

Really? Robertson even used the correct anatomical names! Regardless, I wish I didn’t know that if he thought Robertson’s words were nearly pornographic, he doesn’t know what pornography is! Good for him, I guess.

The best commentary I read about the controversy came from this sympathetic piece in The Atlantic:

Or maybe they want to avoid an uncomfortable truth: that Robertson wasn’t expressing “his personal views,” but principles that are intrinsic to his religion.  You see, Robertson didn’t simply attack and disparage the sexual preferences of a minority… No, Robertson’s opinion—couched as it was in scriptural references that suggest he not only owns a Bible, but also reads it—reflects the teaching and practice of historic Christianity and, by extension, the opinion of a sizable portion of the American public. Indeed, according to a June 2013 Pew Research Center survey, roughly half (45 percent) of Americans polled said they believe homosexual actions are a “sin.”

In an apparent effort to convince this demographic that homosexual actions are not sinful, GLAAD spokesperson Wilson Cruz said Robertson’s views are not Christian. The strategy here seems to be “divide and conquer”—separate Robertson from his religion and let public opinion do the rest. The theologians at GLAAD will have to do better, because what Robertson said is not inconsistent with a Christianity that sees the Bible as a source of Divine authority and inspiration—and Louisiana gun-toting evangelicals are not the only ones who embrace that Christianity. On the contrary, Cruz’s statement appears naive when one considers that Pope Francis, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, has previously called gay marriage the work of the devil and “a total rejection of God’s law engraved on our hearts.” Judging by Thursday’s precedent, A&E would fire the pope. And if his public statements on the subject are to be believed, the President of the United States would also receive a pink slip prior to his change of heart in May of last year…

One difference is that Dan Cathy, like Phil Robertson, is from the South. I discern an anti-southern bias—these people are from the South, so they must be bigots. Please!

Meanwhile, I sense that another bad argument is catching on among my colleagues who support changing church doctrine on this issue. At least a few of them linked to or “liked” this blog post, in which the blogger, a United Methodist youth pastor, said that he no longer has patience for theological arguments on the topic of homosexuality:

The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you think homosexuality is a sin. Let me say that again. It does not matter if you think homosexuality is a sin, or if you think it is simply another expression of human love. It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because people are dying. Kids are literally killing themselves because they are so tired of being rejected and dehumanized that they feel their only option left is to end their life. As a Youth Pastor, this makes me physically ill. And as a human, it should make you feel the same way. So, I’m through with the debate.

My Christmas playlist

December 26, 2013

Music plays an important role in all seasons of my life. This Advent/Christmas season has been no different. One highlight, for example, was singing and playing (on guitar) Christmas hymns and carols with a clergy colleague for our churches’ combined Men’s Club last week. Then, on Sunday, I played and sang when a few of us went caroling for my church’s shut-ins.

Thanks to YouTube, I’ll share with you a few unusual Christmas-themed songs that have been on my playlist this year.

The first is a traditional song that I fell in love with when I heard it on a Bob Dylan album. Since Dylan’s people at Sony are Scrooges about sharing his music for free online, I’ll link to this version by Paul Brady. It’s not really a Christmas song, except that it takes place on Christmas morning. Some British army officers are trying to recruit the Irish narrator and his cousin Arthur McBride.

To say the least, their efforts are unsuccessful.

The cousins refuse, politely at first. But Sgt. Napper persists. His sales pitch includes telling them that soldiers have fine clothes, beautiful wives, and money—including the signing bonus he’ll give the two right now if they’ll enlist.

Arthur, the spokesman, declines with this witty riposte.

“But,” says Arthur, “I wouldn’t be proud of your clothes
For you’ve only the lend of them, as I suppose
But you’re dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do, you’ll be flogged in the morning…

“And we have no desire to take your advance
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance
For you’d have no scruples for to send us to France
Where we could get shot without warning”

As you’ll hear, violence ensues. But don’t worry: David beats Goliath.

This next song might be, as one YouTube commenter calls it, the “most depressing Christmas song ever,” but I’m not so sure. At least at Denny’s the narrator isn’t alone on Christmas—and, as he sings, the refills on coffee are always free. The song, “Christmas at Denny’s,” was written by a first-generation Christian-rocker named Randy Stonehill (from 1989, if memory serves). Sadly, no video exists of Stonehill’s performing it, but this is a good one.

When I was a boy I believed in Christmas
Miracle season to make a new start
I don’t need no miracle, sweet baby Jesus
Just help me find some kind of hope in my heart

Another melancholy song, this one from Joni Mitchell. “River” is about a break-up for which the narrator feels responsible. Listen to the tenderness in her voice when she sings, “I made my baby cry.” Christmas is a lousy time to be heartbroken, as everyone knows. She quotes “Jingle Bells” on her piano in a couple places, except in a plaintive minor key. No happy Christmas bells here.

Her album Blue, by the way, is perfect and beautiful—simply one of the greatest things ever committed to vinyl. I love it so intensely that I’m apt to pull an Arthur McBride if anyone says otherwise. Accept no version of the song other than Mitchell’s. When she sings, “I wish I had a river so long/ I would teach my feet to fly-y-y-y-y-y-y,” listen to her voice take off into the stratosphere. Are there actually people who don’t love her voice?

I’m so hard to handle
I’m selfish and I’m sad
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Finally, here’s a song that isn’t a Christmas song, but I dug it out of my collection of 45 RPM records last night and listened to it—I kid you not—14 times in a row. It’s from Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s self-titled solo album from 1988. (Click here to listen to this version.) Everybody hates the production of this album, which tries way too hard to make Wilson sound relevant to MTV audiences, but if you can hear past that, you’ll hear the man doing some of his best songwriting and vocal-arranging.

There isn’t much to the song, lyrically: three couplets, a refrain, with a “la-la-la” bridge. The world is broken, Wilson says in his typically child-like way, and it can only be healed by love and mercy. He and I both know where that kind of healing comes from.

He sells the sentiment with a gorgeous descending chord progression that reminds me of brother Dennis’s song “Forever.” As with some of his other great songs—”In My Room,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and “Time to Get Alone,” to name a few—he melts my heart.

I love this live version with a boy’s choir. By the way, how does Wilson’s voice sound better today than it did back in the ’70s? How did he reverse the years of damage? Getting off drugs helped, I’m sure… But still.

Christmas Eve 2013 Sermon

December 25, 2013
One of my gifts was an old 8-track tape player!

One of my gifts was a portable 8-track tape player from Sears, in the original packaging!

Merry Christmas! I delivered the following homily last night at HUMC for our Christmas Eve services. I’ve emphasized on this blog recently that we don’t have Christmas without the cross, which is a theme of this sermon.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

So, if you were here last Sunday, we looked at the movie Miracle on 34th Street, the original with Natalie Wood. At one point in the film, Kris Kringle gives his enemy a well-deserved whack on the head with an umbrella. We don’t think of Santa having “anger management” issues, but apparently he does.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this: I heard something just last week that I had never heard before: It turns out that St. Nicholas—the one and only St. Nick, a fourth-century Turkish bishop who we now know as Santa Claus—attended the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. The Council of Nicaea was where the Nicene Creed came from. It’s where the church formulated the doctrine of the Trinity. The council had to meet in the first place because a pastor from North Africa named Arius—who we now know as the most important heretic in church history—was preaching and teaching that Jesus wasn’t fully God. And people were believing him. So the church called a big meeting to work it out theologically from scripture.

My point is, while he was attending this council, the one-and-only St. Nick apparently punched Arius in the face.

Now, I know… Someone who’s a saint ought to “turn the other cheek” and all that, but if anyone deserved to be punched, surely it was history’s worst heretic, right?

St. Nick punched someone. It’s surprising, isn’t it?

Tonight’s scripture is full of surprises. It’s surprising that the world’s true king, Jesus, was born not in a palace fit for Caesar in the world’s capital, but in a barn in a small town on the eastern frontier of the Empire. It’s surprising that Caesar’s plan to increase tax revenue in his empire was being used by God as the most important part of God’s rescue plan for the world. It’s surprising that the angels didn’t announce the good news of Christ’s coming to the rich, powerful, well-educated elites but to poor, dirty, and smelly shepherds. I’m the sure the shepherds were surprised that during what should have been just another day at the office, they would instead have the most profound encounter with God. And then Mary and Joseph were surprised when the shepherds came to them and told them about the spectacular angelic light show they’d just witnessed!

Christmas is full of surprises…

Please notice that our scripture doesn’t begin, “Once upon a time.” And even though it features a powerful emperor who’s been corrupted by the “dark side,” it doesn’t even begin, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” No, Luke wants us to know that the story he’s about to tell isn’t a fairy tale or a fantasy: it took place at a certain time in history, in a certain place, involving these real, historical figures. If you’re tempted to imagine that the Christmas story is some sort of cozy fable meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy about “peace on earth, good will toward men,” think again.

God sent his Son into the real world—our world—and although much has changed in 2,000 years, well… unfortunately, much has stayed the same.

As you probably know, we’re celebrating a terrible anniversary this season. This time last year, Christmas took place in the shadow of the events of New Town, Connecticut. I have a high school classmate and Facebook friend—who at the time was just barely hanging on to Christian faith—who sent me a message on Facebook, desperately wanting to know: “How can I celebrate Christmas in the face of what happened in Newtown yesterday?” To which I said, “Well, the same way that Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds, and the wise men celebrated the first Christmas—in the tragic shadow of sin, and suffering, and violence, and death.”

Think about Caesar’s local representative in the area, King Herod. When he found out that a “rival king” had been born, he dispatches his soldiers to kill every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two—probably dozens of infants. Doesn’t that sound like Newtown and a thousand other places in our world?

No, the Christmas story takes place in the real world, a broken world like ours, so often filled with senseless violence and suffering and injustice—a world into which God sent his Son Jesus to save… to heal… and to judge. Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will finally receive the justice they so richly deserve.

I confess this aspect of the Christmas story gets easily lost in our secularized, feel-good, pop-culture Christmases… Notice all these TV shows and movies talk about finding the “true meaning of Christmas”—and by that “true meaning” they usually mean what? Valuing one’s family… helping those in need… being generous rather than greedy… putting people ahead of possessions… making the world a more peaceful place. And all these things are perfectly good, but they actually don’t get at the heart of what Christmas means.

You know what does get at the heart of it? This song that the angels sing in verse 14: In the familiar King James Version it reads, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” That makes it sound like the angels are just so happy, that they’re pronouncing peace and good will toward everyone everywhere. But if that were the case, what good would it do us now? After all, where were peace and goodwill in Newtown a year ago? Where are peace and goodwill today in war-torn areas like South Sudan or a dozen other nations? Closer to home, where are peace and goodwill when we lose our loved ones, when we lose our jobs, when our hearts get broken, when we face divorce or bankruptcy or troubling news from the doctor?

Whatever this peace and goodwill is, it better be something deeper, more permanent than what we normally think of when we think about peace and goodwill!

Fortunately it is… We now know that “peace on earth, good will toward men” in the King James isn’t the best translation. Today, nearly every modern Bible translates the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace”—but not to just everyone. But to those on whom God’s favor rests!”

And who exactly are those people? The people who receive the gift of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, and eternal life that God made possible by sending his Son into the world at Christmas!

Think about it: From the beginning of the Christmas story, even when Jesus was this sweet little baby, the world could not make room for him—“No room at the inn.” So he was sent outside, to a barn, a stable, a place of humility and shame… Rejected by the world from the beginning… When Christ came into the world it was as if Satan said, “This world isn’t big enough for the both of us… One of us will have to go.” And Satan conspired with all the evil forces in the world so that this child, rejected by the world, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a humble wooden manger would grow up to be a man rejected by the world, laid on a humble wooden cross, wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in a tomb.

It must have seemed to Satan that he had won… Wasn’t he in for a surprise?

On the cross, God the Son, Jesus Christ, endured the greatest possible evil in the world in order to transform it into the greatest possible good: Jesus Christ lived the life we were unable to live and died the death that we deserved to die. And he was raised in order to give us new and eternal life.

Now, we who Paul says in Romans 5 were “enemies of God” now have peace with God. Peace with God. We are now the ones on whom God’s favor rests—not because of what we’ve done. We can’t earn God’s gift of salvation! It’s a completely free gift. God’s favor now rests on us because of what God has done.

And this is the kind of peace that those angels were telling the shepherds about.

Notice the words that the angels use to describe Jesus include Savior and Lord. You probably didn’t know that Caesar Augustus also used those titles. So from the world’s perspective, Caesar was Savior and Lord.

So the scripture is presenting us with a choice: Will we place our trust in our true Savior and Lord, or one of the world’s many inferior rivals?

It doesn’t have to be a another person or god that we worship. One “rival” Lord and Savior for me, especially this time of year, is electronic gadgets. Just last week my wife, Lisa, hinted that she might want a particular gadget. She said, “You think we need this?” And I’m like, “Absolutely we do! Are you kidding?” I do this all the time. If Lisa said to me, “Brent, I think we should get an LG 84-inch Cinema 3D Smart TV with six pairs of 3D glasses,” and I’d be like, “Absolutely we should!” “But it costs $16,999 on Amazon.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, but we get free shipping so… it’s totally worth it.” I’m tempted to do this all the time… I think, “If I have this electronic gadget, then I will be happy and fulfilled and at peace. Why do I think those will satisfy me? So that’s a rival

Are there things in your life are acting as rival “saviors” and “lords”? If so, come and see the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

Do you see the sign?

Re-enchanting our world with angels

December 24, 2013
This greeting-card image is not my idea of a heavenly soldier, but she is beautiful!

No, this greeting-card image is not my idea of a heavenly soldier, but she is beautiful!

Christianity Today‘s “Her•Meneutics” blog knocks it out of the park again with this post from Tish Harrison Warren called, “Angels We Ignore on High.” It resonates with me because of my own “conversion” over the past few years to a full-throttled and fully biblical belief in a spiritual realm of angels and demons. Even in the scripture I’ll preach tonight, the classic Christmas Eve text Luke 2:1-20, it’s not those waifish cherubs straight from a Precious Moments nativity set who come to visit the shepherds abiding in the field. Rather, it’s literally an “army” of spiritual beings (usually translated “heavenly host”) who must say, “Fear not,” because they are fearsome.

An army exists to fight. And what are they fighting for? Our very souls.

They’re fighting the battles that Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10-17. Let’s believe in them. Let’s be grateful for them. Let’s even ask God to send them our way when we need them. And by all means, let’s be reminded that, like it or not, we are in a war whose adversaries we often can’t see.

My world has been “re-enchanted”:

A few years ago, I heard an interview with the British theologian John Milbank, where he said, “I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to… disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals.”

He told a story about the Nottingham diocese in England, which he described as “a very evangelical diocese.” They had received a request to participate in a radio show about angels. They surveyed their clergy, asking, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?”

Milbank chastised the diocese saying, “Now in my view, this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy.” He called for a re-enchantment of the church, that we should believe, confess, embrace, and admit all of Scripture and much of church tradition—even the weird stuff…

Somehow, from the deep recesses of my church upbringing, this belief in angels came bubbling up to the surface. I realized slowly that I was increasingly thinking about angels and that I found them amazing and fierce and faithful. I found great comfort in the belief that there were created beings, like me but not like me, who spent their time worshipping and serving God. I looked into them more in the Bible.

So I’m coming out of the closet: I believe in angels.

Yep. Me too.

Sermon 12-15-13: “Reel Christmas, Part 3: A Charlie Brown Christmas”

December 23, 2013


“Something must be wrong with me,” Charlie Brown tells Linus. “I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Then he tells Lucy, “I know I should be happy, but I’m not.” Being a Christian doesn’t insulate us from being unhappy, even at Christmastime. Sometimes feeling unhappy is the price we pay for being faithful to God. Fortunately, we are never without hope, and we can always trust that God is up to something good in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 19:1-13

Click below to watch my sermon, which includes the video clips from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I showed and commented on during the sermon.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[ACBC01.mp4. Time: 2:07]

“Something must be wrong with me,” Charlie Brown tells Linus. “I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Then he tells Lucy, “I know I should be happy, but I’m not.”

Is it O.K. for believers not to be happy all the time—even at Christmastime? Yes. It’s O.K. In fact, sometimes, as people who are struggling to be faithful to God, being unhappy comes with the territory.

Consider no less a man of God than Elijah, who, next to Moses, is the Bible’s greatest prophet. And, like Charlie Brown, Elijah isn’t happy—at least not in 1 Kings 19. In fact, Elijah, like Charlie Brown, is downright depressed. He’s depressed for a couple of reasons: His people, the people of Israel, have turned away from God and have followed after Baal. In the chapter preceding today’s scripture, in a very public demonstration, Elijah exposes Baal as a phony god, which deeply upsets a powerful woman named Jezebel, wife of Israel’s King Ahab. Jezebel is a priestess of Baal. And you might wonder why a king of Israel would marry someone who worships and serves an idol instead the one true God, but that’s how bad things are in Israel at this point! Read the rest of this entry »

St. Nick punched a heretic? You better watch out!

December 22, 2013

Kris Kringle whacks his enemy on the head with an umbrella.

In today’s sermon, I showed clips from my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. I found what I hope were some interesting parallels between the movie and scripture. Like several recent Christmas-themed movies, Miracle is completely “secular”: for a movie obsessed with the “true meaning of Christmas,” it strangely never mentions what that meaning is—as in the God-incarnate-lying-in-a-manger meaning.

Still, as I demonstrated in my sermon, the parallels between “believing in Santa” and “believing in Jesus” are hard for someone like me to resist.

As I was summarizing the plot of the movie, I pointed out that Kris Kringle, like all people who do great good in the world, attracted powerful enemies. In Kris’s case, that enemy was Macy’s self-styled psychologist, whose real job was to administer personnel tests. He thinks Kris is not only delusional for believing he’s really Santa Claus but also prone to violence if someone questions his identity.

On this last score, at least, the pseudo-shrink wasn’t all wrong: Kris does have at least a small problem controlling his temper. At one point, Kris gives his enemy a well-deserved whack on the forehead with an umbrella, which was the basis for Kris’s being committed to Bellvue and put on trial.

Speaking of Santa Claus and violence, I heard something this season about the real St. Nicholas—the fourth-century Turkish saint on whom the legend of Santa Claus is based—which lends a strange, though completely accidental, verisimilitude to the Santa depicted in this movie.

St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea, at which the early church confronted its most important early heresy: Arianism, named after its chief expositor, a North African priest named Arius. Arianism was the belief that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, was “begotten” in the sense of being created by the Father. According to Arianism, Jesus, while of first rank among God’s creatures, was still a creature—literally a demigod—and less than fully God.

From the Council of Nicaea, the Church produced an early version of the Nicene Creed, but more importantly, formalized its theological understanding of God as Trinity, an idea which the church rightly said was implicit in scripture. Read the Nicene Creed and see how careful it is to articulate the differences and similarities between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back to St. Nick: according to a legend that might even be true, he punched Arius while he was attending the council.

I know, I know… Turn the other cheek and all that. But if you’re going to punch just one heresiarch, it may as well be the worst one, right?

All that to say, I appreciate this meme that has made its way around the interwebs recently:


David Berlinski on evolution and the pretensions of scientific atheism

December 21, 2013

devils_delusionYesterday, I read The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. It’s a polemical, savagely funny response to the new atheism of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al., whose unlikely author is himself an agnostic and secular Jew. Why did he, of all people, write a book mostly for Christians like me? Because he noticed that no one else had written it! One’s soul can only withstand so much indignation, after all.

The book clarified my thinking on several ideas I’ve blogged about in the past, including Dawkins’s argument against God, necessary versus contingent things, the mulitverse (or “Landscape”), the universe’s apparent fine-tuning, and attempts by Stephen Hawking and others to explain it away using quantum cosmology. Of the latter he writes the following (which gives you a sense of his writing style):

The details may be found in Hawking’s best-selling A Brief History of Time, a book that was widely considered fascinating by those who did not read it, and incomprehensible by those who did. Their work will seem remarkably familiar to readers who grasp the principle behind pyramid schemes or magical acts in which women disappear into a box only to emerge as tigers shortly thereafter.[1]

After describing the work Hawking did to explain the origin of our universe, Berlinski says that the universe that Hawking found is, unsurprisingly, just the universe Hawking assumed he would find. “If what Hawking described is not quite a circle in thought, it does appear to suggest an oblate spheroid. ¶ The result is guaranteed—one hunnerd percent, as used-car salesmen say.[2]

Berlinski continually highlights the same problem with these guys that I’ve highlighted a few times on this blog. Even if what they say is true (which he doesn’t believe for a moment), they haven’t answered the question, “Why something and not nothing.”

That’s all well and good… What I wasn’t prepared for in this book was his frontal assault on something that I never talk about on this blog: evolution.

In part, I don’t talk about it because I don’t understand it. No one I know understands it. I mean, we may remember some things from our tenth-grade biology textbook, but nothing that would pass muster these days. When the average person says he believes in evolution, all he’s really saying is that he takes on faith that really smart people haven’t misled them on the subject. And none of us wants to appear to be stupid.

Or sometimes when people say they believe in evolution, they’re saying something about a God they no longer believe in, or a church whose doctrines they’ve long since abandoned.

Even before reading this book, I’ve wondered why it’s necessary to talk about “believing in” evolution in the first place? Either it happens or it doesn’t, like any other phenomenon in the realm of science. Why use religious language to describe one’s assent to its “doctrines.”

Berlinski has an idea: because the theory makes little sense, and it’s supported by little evidence.

If the facts are what they are, the past is what it is—profoundly enigmatic. The fossil record may be used to justify virtually any position, and often is. There are long eras in which nothing happens. The fire alarms of change then go off in the night. A detailed and continuous record of transition between species is missing, those neat sedimentary layers, as Gould noted time and again, never revealing precisely the phenomena that Darwin proposed to explain. It is hardly a matter on which paleontologists have been reticent. At the very beginning of his treatise Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution, Robert Carroll observes quite correctly that “most of the fossil record does not support a strictly gradualistic account” of evolution. A “strictly gradualistic” account is precisely what Darwin’s theory demands: It is the heart and soul of the theory.

By the same token, there are no laboratory demonstrations of speciation either, millions of fruit flies coming and going while never once suggesting that they were destined to appear as anything other than fruit flies… If species have an essential nature that beyond limits cannot change, then random variations and natural selection cannot change them. We must look elsewhere for an account that does justice to their nature or to the facts.[3]

Berlinski also argues that computer simulations of Darwinian evolution fail “when they are honest and succeed when they are not.” When the results of one such simulation came in, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, “with solemn incomprehension, ‘the creatures mutated but showed only modest increases in complexity.’ Which is to say, they showed nothing of interest at all. This is natural selection at work but it is hardly work that has worked to intended effect… What these computer experiments do reveal is a principle far more penetrating than any that Darwin ever offered: ¶ There is a sucker born every minute.”[4]

In a recent paper published by an evolutionary biologist named Joel Kingsolver, the author said, “Important issues about selection remain unresolved.” “Of those important issues,” Berlinski writes, “I would mention prominently the question whether natural selection exists at all.”

Finally, I had a laugh at this:

Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.[5]

1. David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 98.

2. Ibid., 106.

3. Ibid., 188-9.

4. Ibid., 190.

5. Ibid., 191.