Posts Tagged ‘Newsweek’

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 10: A Virgin Will Conceive

December 9, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-19

It’s almost Christmas, which means we can expect another front-page cover story any day from Time or Newsweek quoting skeptics who publicly question the truthfulness of the Christmas stories included Matthew and Luke—especially the virgin birth. Inevitably, these skeptics will say that the evangelists included the virgin birth in their gospels because they wanted their readers to know how special Jesus was. “After all, look at the way he was born!” The virgin birth, according to them, is a “pious legend.”

This is nonsense!

Let’s be clear: Matthew and Luke don’t include the virgin birth because it somehow helps their case for Christianity. No one then or now would read the gospels and think, “I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God before, but now that you tell me he was conceived miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit, I’m sold!”

They’re also not including the virgin birth because they had to in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Prior to Matthew, no one regarded this verse as a messianic prophecy that the Messiah would need to fulfill. Matthew knows as well as anyone that Isaiah, in his context, was prophesying, not about a future Messiah who would have to be born of a virgin, but about King Ahaz’s wife, or perhaps his own wife. Her son would be a sign that Judah’s enemies—the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria—would soon be destroyed, and Judah would be spared. At least for a while.

Matthew is using Isaiah to say that Israel’s ultimate salvation and hope is found in the birth of this new son, who is the Messiah. As with all Old Testament citations in the New Testament, the writer wants us to recall the context of the verse he’s quoting; he’s not proof-texting to find a verse or word that makes his case.

Matthew and Luke knew as well as we do that getting pregnant—apart from an unprecedented miracle—requires both a man and a woman. This was, after all, why Joseph originally decided to divorce Mary. He believed that she had been unfaithful—as would any reasonable person.

The most plausible reason, then, that Matthew and Luke risk telling us about the virgin birth is that they believed it was true.

N.T. Wright said:

But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel—in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways—and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself. Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals with it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the holy spirit? ¶ That is a question everyone must answer for themselves.[1]

If you struggle to believe that the virgin Mary conceived by an act of the Holy Spirit, you’re in good company! Even Joseph didn’t believe it—at least at first! But don’t give up. 📲 Follow the link to this article, which explains why it’s perfectly reasonable to believe in the virgin birth.

1. N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 7.

It must be Christmas (or Easter): Newsweek trolls Christians again

December 27, 2014


Two Christmases ago, I wrote the following about Newsweek‘s semiannual Christian-baiting cover story. Their article that year was written by every atheist’s favorite New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, and his embrace of the “pious legend theory” regarding the virgin birth.

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

To their small credit, Newsweek at least employed a writer in Ehrman who has credentials—an actual Bible scholar at a university, however far outside of mainstream scholarship he may be.

This year’s cover story, written by an uncredentialed journalist named Kurt Eichenwald, never lets facts stand in the way of a good story. I’m not exaggerating: Nearly every paragraph is wrong—wrong on facts, wrong on history, wrong on Bible scholarship (obviously). The title of the story, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” couldn’t be more ironic.

Let’s start near the beginning, with one of his first supposedly factual assertions:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

Oh, dear. If he means to say that no one today has read the original autographs of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that make up our Bibles, then that’s true, but only trivially so. By that standard no one has read any ancient writing. But even worse: when we read Homer or Sophocles or Plato, we’re not only not reading the originals, we’re reading a translation (assuming we don’t know Greek) of copies of copies of copies that are far less well-attested than anything in the New Testament.

But even worse: Assuming Smithsonian Magazine is telling us the truth, by that standard we also haven’t read Shakespeare. Only copies of copies of copies:

Even if you’re a regular visitor to London, it’s probably never occurred to you to stop in to see William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts at the British Museum or Library. That’s just as well. There are no original manuscripts. Not so much as a couplet written in Shakespeare’s own hand has been proven to exist.

When Eichenwald says that we’ve only read a “bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times,” he’s either, at best, stunningly ignorant or at least incredibly disingenuous. How else can we interpret his words?

Where does this “translations of translations of translations” nonsense come from? He’s wrong, for example, when he asserts that the King James Version was a translation of the Latin Vulgate. (Mr. Eichenwald: Wikipedia is your friend. Or I think I might lend you my parents’ old World Book Encyclopedia.) The Douay–Rheims is an old Catholic English translation of the Vulgate, but even modern Catholic translations—like the New American Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and their descendants—translate the Hebrew and Greek.

The King James translated a collection of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts known as the Textus Receptus. Newer Bible translations are generally more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek because they’re based on older manuscripts than the ones the Church had access to in the seventeenth-century. The fact that we have access to so many manuscripts means that we can be more confident that our Bible reflects what its writers originally wrote.

Regardless, the King James isn’t even a “translation of a translation”; it’s a translation of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, just like any similar ancient writing, except, as I’ve noted, we have access to far older and more reliable manuscripts of biblical books than we do of other ancient writing.

I could go on, but this is literally in Eichenwald’s first section. It doesn’t get better, I promise.

And then there’s the tone of the piece. Here are the first two paragraphs:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

Who exactly are these Christians “waving their Bibles” and “screaming their condemnations of homosexuals”? Surely if there were enough of them to “gather in football stadiums by the thousands” I would have seen more than two of them on a city street corner in the past 20 years.

Or is he conflating evangelical Christians (not to mention faithful Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Christians) with the late Fred Phelps, whose Westboro Baptist had about a dozen members, mostly from the same family.

Given his sweeping generalizations, it’s hard to disagree with Michael Kruger’s assessment that this hit piece “goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.”

I won’t hold my breath.

Regardless, scholars are responding to his piece. Dr. James White is one of them. You can watch or listen to his in-depth response here. On Twitter, Eichenwald accused Dr. White of “name-calling” when White said that he was ignorant. But when you don’t know Hebrew or Greek, when you haven’t formally studied church history or Christian theology, when all your research is, at best, second-hand, what other word should we use? Ill-informed? Is that better?

You’re either ignorant or you’re lying. At least being ignorant isn’t a knock against your character.

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 »

About Bart Ehrman’s Newsweek cover story

December 19, 2012

newsweekcoverIt must be either Christmas or Easter, because one of the major newsweeklies is featuring New Testament historian Bart Ehrman in its pages. You know Ehrman—the former self-described fundamentalist-turned-agnostic. Several years ago, he was the go-to Bible guy for the New Atheist movement. His defection from the ranks of Christian believers gave him extra credibility in their eyes. (Never mind that traffic on that particular highway flows in both directions.)

Still, Ehrman proved to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution. For example, his book-length defense this year of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (a proposition, by the way, doubted by no serious historian) rankled many erstwhile skeptic friends. And, truth be told, he doesn’t say anything about the virgin birth in Newsweek that any mainline Protestant seminarian isn’t exposed to in the first semester of New Testament class. There’s nothing new or startling here—only a rehash of 200 years of modernist thinking.

Heck, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Ehrman was just another friendly liberal Christian, like so many others in academia. For him, the virgin birth is pious legend communicating theological rather than historical truth—you know, if you go for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, how else is Ehrman going to come across in Newsweek? The editors must imagine that they have more than a handful of Christian readers, and heaven knows they need all of them they can get!

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

I’m no historian or Bible scholar, but I spot a couple of problems with Ehrman’s point of view. First is his insistence that evidence within the Bible itself doesn’t count—that we need independent corroboration. This is a double-standard. Modern historians who study the ancient world accept single-sourced evidence all the time. From what I’ve read, if we required independent corroboration before we believed anything in the ancient past, we would have to be skeptical of much of what we otherwise take for granted.

Besides, except for Mary herself—who we know for sure was a member of the early church—who else could have possibly witnessed the Annunciation and reported what happened? Were those shepherds abiding in the fields supposed to call the New York Times or something?

Also, to what end would the early church invent a virgin birth account? The premise behind the so-called “pious legend” theory is that Matthew and Luke (or the people behind their traditions) invented the Christmas story in order to sell the idea that Jesus was the Son of God—that they were adding an extra layer of divinity to Jesus to really hammer home the point. Look—here’s a rather literal way in which Jesus is God’s Son: God impregnated Mary!

To which I say: As if!

As if people living in the first century were really gullible. As if the ancients didn’t know the facts of life. As if they didn’t know that babies were only conceived by a human father. The premise behind the pious legend theory is obviously wrong. Why else does Matthew report that Joseph wanted to divorce Mary? Because this naive first-century carpenter of course had no trouble believing his fiancée when she told him about her pregnancy? Hardly! The New Testament writers knew that they weren’t helping their cause by including a difficult-to-believe story about Mary’s conceiving a child without a human father. Moreover, given that the Church could have arrived at most of its theological commitments about Jesus without the virgin birth (both the Gospel of Mark and John have no Christmas story, and Paul makes only a passing reference to it), why introduce a new problem into the story unless—oh, yeah—you happen to believe it’s true?

No, what’s beneath Ehrman’s point of view, I fear, is the chronological snobbery that people in the ancient world were dummies, and now we know better. I don’t buy it.

But Ehrman isn’t a believer, so what else is he going to think? What about those of us who are believers? Is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth? As with most miracles in the Bible, if we already believe that a good God created this universe—which requires a rather large intervention in the physical world (without which, obviously, there would be no physical world)—is it really so much harder to believe that God intervened in Mary’s life in this way? If so, why?

In his wonderful new book on the first Christmas, Pope Benedict puts his finger on the answer. Regarding the virgin birth and the resurrection, he writes:

These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?

Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.[†]

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 56-7.

“Heaven is real,” says this week’s Newsweek

October 15, 2012

Many people will be talking about this week’s Newsweek cover story, “Heaven Is Real,” and for good reason: It’s a beautifully written first-person account of a near-death experience (NDE), written by a scientifically minded person—a well-respected neurosurgeon—who knows exactly how crazy it will sound to his skeptical colleagues.

His NDE is different from many others that we know of, simply because he experienced it during that time when the part of his brain that controls thoughts and emotions, the neocortex, had been disabled due to an attack of bacterial meningitis. He was, for all practical purposes, brain-dead.

I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.

All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

He writes that during his journey in the heavenly realm, he was accompanied by an angelic being, a woman, whom he describes as follows:

The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

If nothing else, let’s pause a moment to appreciate the author’s literary skill—the man knows how to write! Digging deeper, I find his account credible and consistent with scripture and the message of the gospel. NDEs, while hardly any kind of slam-dunk proof of God or the afterlife, are not nothing, as I’ve written before. 

I’m willing to accept that, for whatever reason, God gave Dr. Alexander this experience. This is no big leap for me: when friends or parishioners tell me that God intervened in their life, or communicated something to them, or worked a miracle of some kind, I tend to believe them. God, I believe, does these sorts of things all the time!

I’m glad that other Christians have also embraced him and his story.

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church. The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the stained-glass windows recalled the luminous beauty of the landscapes I’d seen in the world above. The deep bass notes of the organ reminded me of how thoughts and emotions in that world are like waves that move through you. And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.

Andrew Sullivan’s personal Jesus

April 10, 2012

One of you asked me if I was going to blog about Newsweek‘s annual Jesus cover story, which gets published every Easter. Usually these stories get some aspect of Easter or Christianity spectacularly wrong—based on some controversial theory that a wide consensus of theologians, Bible scholars, and historians discredited years earlier, but which has only now filtered out to the general population.

These stories will often feature, for example, atheist Bart Ehrman, every skeptic’s go-to Bible scholar. His publicist stays very busy every Easter and Christmas. (As this story proves, however, even a broken clock is right twice a day.)

This year’s cover story isn’t nearly so bad. Once you get past the provocative cover headline (“Forget the Church; Follow Jesus”), it’s a rather humble opinion piece by a practicing Christian, center-right political columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan.

I like Sullivan. He’s wrong about a lot of things, but there isn’t much to sink my teeth into here.

Christianity, he writes, is in crisis. What he really means is that the form of public religion known as “Christendom” no longer holds sway in the western world. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, but that’s beside the point: Christianity is, in fact, growing by leaps and bounds once you look outside the western and northern hemispheres.

Failing to look outside the western and northern hemispheres, however, is precisely Sullivan’s problem. He can’t see how captive his imagination is to post-Enlightenment thinking. Jesus, he argues, was apolitical. He advocated for a mostly private and ethics-based spirituality. The church, therefore, following his example, should only intervene in public life when it can do so in a non-sectarian way.

This is completely wrong, of course. Jesus was a far bigger threat to earthly principalities and powers than a mere insurrectionist like Barabbas, whose place Jesus took on the cross. When Pilate sentenced Jesus to death for sedition (falsely, he believed), he had no idea he was sowing the seeds of Rome’s destruction. As N.T. Wright and others have said, when the early Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” they were also saying who wasn’t Lord. And if Caesar wasn’t Lord, then his empire was in trouble. The political ramifications were staggering, as Rome would soon learn.

In fact, it’s hard to see how Christianity, if it were being faithful to itself, wouldn’t be in conflict with any earthly kingdom, including the western liberal and capitalistic versions with which Sullivan is enamored.

Even though he denies it, it’s hard to see how Sullivan isn’t advocating for a “privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere.”

Finally, a word about his view of the church. To Sullivan’s great credit, he continues to be, as I said, a practicing Christian: he still goes to church. I like that. (Not that she ever asked for my opinion, but I was disappointed when author Anne Rice dropped out of church a while back because of its perceived failures.)

I agree with Sullivan that the church, in all its confessional and denominational manifestations, often fails to live up to its calling in the world. It’s embarrassing how badly it falls short of what Jesus wants his church to be.

But what are we supposed to do?

I’m an embarrassment to the church sometimes. How can I place myself above it? John and Charles Wesley themselves should disown me if they were alive today! Who am I to get on some high horse about “what’s wrong with the church.” I’m what’s wrong with the church. Not always, of course. I believe I’m getting better by God’s grace, and I’m trying to be part of the solution, but still… I should be glad that the church, this hospital for sinners, made room for one more.