Happy Easter!

So it seems as though a Resurrection Sunday greeting is appropriate. Here’s a question that occurred to me: Does it make any sense to find a greeting such as Happy Easter or some other religious greeting offensive? I started going through the possibilities. A hypothetical: I am greeted Happy Thus-n-such…

  • If I share the beliefs of the greeter, then receiving those greetings is a no-brainer.
  • If I don’t share the beliefs of the greeter but hold out the possibility that they may be right, then I am receiving good wishes in the name of a higher power that might actually be able to exert some positive influence toward me.
  • If I don’t share the beliefs of the greeters and am also certain those beliefs are untrue, then I have still received the good wishes of someone. Those wishes may, in my mind, carry no divine weight, but they still bear the good intents and hopes of the giver.

I’m keeping it simple here. Phrases such as Merry Christmas, Happy Haunakah and the like aren’t generally imbued with double-meaning. If, for some odd reason, they would be given in that way, then I would find offense as the deceit and trickery.

And I think it impossible for such a greeting to be both genuine and yet still convey any sort of ill will or malice toward the receiver. That would be either an oxymoron and in the category of deceit or a sign of mental illness on the part of the greeter.

So, provided I haven’t left anything out, I wish you and yours a Happy Easter.

The Da Vinci Code & Christianity

leonardo.jpgHaving already shared my thoughts on the book as a novel, now I’ll talk about the religion, the conspiracy, and the hubbub. It’s not hard to see why some people got upset. Accusing the Roman Catholic church of a grand conspiracy to suppress Jesus’ real identity. Claiming that ritual sex acts were performed in the very heart of Solomon’s Temple. Wow! Brown should just be happy he didn’t insult Zizou.

At the same time, I can see why people are fascinated with the story Brown tells. People love to be in on secrets. Couple that with a present predisposition to assume institutions – religious, political, business, etc. – are covering something up, and viola! Instant best-seller. Do I buy Brown’s claims? Let’s see…

Code Claim: Jesus was married and had kids… whose descendants live today!
Bald Truth: So what? I can’t think of how this would materially change anything. I’d always assumed Jesus was single, but what if he was married? What if he had kids? Doesn’t make him less man or less God. Doesn’t call into doubt his sinless nature. Regardless where the historical evidence leads I don’t see where this is a big deal. Am I missing something?

Code Claim: The Catholic Church engaged in a massive conspiracy to cover up and destroy the truth about Jesus.
Bald Truth: First off, I’m on the more skeptical side when it comes to institutions. Second, no one can deny that the Christian church in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, have been on the wrong side of the argument from time to time over the last two thousand years. That said, I’m not buying what Brown is selling. I think something went wrong when the church allowed itself to be adopted by the state under Constantine, but the fundamental doctrines were already in place. Furthermore – and I’ll admit this will sound flimsy to some – I think God has had a hand in preserving the faith through all the make up we’ve tried to slap on her… and not thru some secret society. Jesus was God’s ultimate revelation, and that revelation has not been secreted away.

Code Claim: The ultra-secret Priory of Sion has preserved an alternate “history” throughout the millennia.
Bald Truth: Could be. People love a secret. What I dispute is the claim that this alternate “history” bears resemblance to reality.

Now, I’m no expert. There are enough other sites that weigh in on the historical evidence and claims. I’ll highlight one: mark Roberts has an extensive series of posts under the heading, The Da Vinci Opportunity. I haven’t read everything – there’s lots! – but I’m willing to bet he and I would be pretty much on the same page.

I Like Musicals

There. I said it. I’m out of the closet. I like musicals. Particularly musicals adapted to film. The Sound of Music? Love it! Chicago? Moulin Rouge? Yes and yes. Jesus Christ Superstar? One of my top three all time films.

So, last night Kerri and I watched Rent, and I quite enjoyed it. Good songs. Good stories. And who wouldn’t want to see Detective Greene pirouette? I missed the firestorm when Rent first arrived, and it’s probably a good thing. I doubt that I would have given it a fair shot. Today, however, I’m glad to have seen it. It’ll be one I keep my eye out for should a touring company come through Dayton. If I’m forced to complain, I’ll say the vocals could have been a little stronger over the music is some places. There were times where I found it hard to understand the lyrics.

Rent’s central question remains: “How do you measure a year in the life?” Perspective is a theme I often find myself revisiting. (Warning: Brutal honesty and unfocused rambling ahead!) Late last night Kerri and I sat on the back porch listening to the drunken idiot with the megaphone lead his fellow morons through an orgy of mud wrestling and pyrotechnics. In the depression of the moment, my thoughts vaccilated between wanting them to blow off a few fingers and die of alcohol poisoning to lamenting the fact I had to live in a neighborhood where this, or something similar, occurred nearly every 4th of July. At some point, Kerri said, “It could be worse,” and as usual she’s right. I’ll take fireworks over car bombs any day… though I’d rather there be neither.

But then, what is the real problem? It is that there are destructive idiots in the world? Or is it that there are destructive idiots near me and my family? My how easy it is to recast everything in terms of the second question. Out of sight, out of mind, right? A big part of life is striving to maintain the right perspective, one that sees the larger world and not just the one that exists within the walls of my home, my job, my car. That’s the challenge I face. That’s the challenge we all face.

How do you measure a year in the life? How about love?

Seems like a good standard for measurement to me.

Rantz & Armegeddon

Huh! How do you like that. Somehow I deleted the comment Rantz left on my comment page.

Rantz – I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to pick this up from memory.

So, Armegeddon. If I remember correctly the student had some panic over June 6, 2006, and it’s numerical “significance.” In fact, that seemed to be what sent the student searching for answers.

Well, clearly the world didn’t end, (Or perhaps it did while I was sleeping and I’m now a part of the Matrix.) so I’m not sure where to go with this. How about a cursory overview of Christian eschatology – that is the end of the world – as I, a layperson, understand it?

Everything hinges on the return of Jesus. This is the one thing that ties all the positions together, though there is a fair amount of disagreement in the details.

OK, on the one end of the stick you’ve got the fundamentalists. They take a very, well, literal view of the symbolism found is apocalyptic books like Revelation. They are keen to assign specific people, places and dates to those texts. Think of the Left Behind series, and you have the general idea. Some wind up looking foolish, as one “end of the world” after another passes without event. You could also call them escapists, because most think Christians are getting sucked up into heaven at some point during the course of events.

On the other end you’ve got the humanists. They strip most – if not all – of the supernatural from these same Biblical texts. (At the extreme they will deny the physical resurrection of Jesus.) As a result, the “end of the world” as they see it comes when humanity finally learns to get along. For the humanists, Jesus’ return is strictly metaphorical.

I would not put myself in either of those camps. In fact, this is a place when I’m a bit unsettled in my personal belief. But I’m OK with that. I’ve got enough to busy myself with for now – stuff like grace. However and whenever it all works out, well… it’s not like I get to re-write the script.

Rantz & The Trinity

Celtic Trinity KnotOver on my contact page Rantz asked for help with a couple questions a student brought to him. First, I think it’s cool that he has this kind of rapport with a student. Second, I think it’s cool that he’d ask me for my input. So, let’s see if I can help. I see three big topics: Armageddon, the Trinity and Biblical inspiration. I’ll start with the Trinity, since Trinity Sunday is this weekend.

Lectionary Sidenote: For those who aren’t familiar, some churches follow what’s called a lectionary. It divides the year into seasons that roughly follow the life of Jesus, punctuated by special commemorative Sunday. For example, Easter – the season not the day – ran from mid-April thru last Sunday, June 4th. Next is a period of “ordinary,” or counted, time that lasts until Advent, or the Christmas season. This coming Sunday, June 11th, is one of those punctuations: Trinity Sunday.

Each week, churches that use the lectionary focus their worship and devotions around a set of themed texts. These texts rotate on a three-year cycle. (The Bible is a big book, you know.) The Vanderbilt Divinity Library has a wonderful on-line lectionary. The readings for this Trinity Sunday are here.

OK, back to Rantz and his student. Here is the question:

The thing she had the most trouble with was the trinaty. [sic] I tried to explain the whole one in the same idea and all that, but she kept saying that since it was God who created Jesus in Mary, Jesus could not therefor be God. I was not really sure how to explain it. Could you assist me with that?

Whew! I pick the easy one’s don’t I?

Show Me the Trinity!

OK, first things first: Nowhere in the Bible is the Trinity isn’t spelled out in nice, neat, mathematical, textbook terms. Oh it’s in there; just not like some would like to see it. Start at the beginning, Genesis. The language used in the creation accounts indicate the presence of all three Persons of the Trinity. Consider this awkward sounding bit: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.’” There is one God, yet we’ve got plural pronouns. This is one early allusion to the Trinity, one God in three Persons.

The Gospels are a bit more clear, particularly John’s. Jesus says stuff like: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?” and, “…just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that [believers] will be in us….” He also talks about sending his Spirit which will be in us. So, the Trinity’s all there, even if it’s not as obvious as we’d like.

Was Jesus Created?

Now let me move on to a misunderstanding expressed in the question above. Rantz, speaking for the student, says, “it was God who created Jesus in Mary.” Not quite accurate from a Christian standpoint. Jesus wasn’t created. Yes, he was born, but long before he was born he existed. In fact, he preexisted creation, living in the eternal past with God the Father and God the Spirit.

What happened in Mary’s womb, is that God was born. The invisible, unseen (That’s redundant, isn’t it?) God of eternity past, put on flesh and became manifest as a baby boy. An illustration: Some eastern religions (Hinduism comes to mind, but I could be wrong.) have this idea of the human soul existing eternally, and periodically that soul takes on flesh. Got it? OK, I’m not sure how much I agree with the idea, but take it and apply it to God. God, existing as eternal spirit, took on flesh and became a man, the guy we know as Jesus of Nazareth. Now, I’m not saying this is any easier to understand, but it is not the same as saying God created Jesus.

Metaphors, Metaphors, Metaphors

OK, three metaphors for talking about the Trinity. Remember: they’re metaphors, so don’t get carried away.

  • The triple-point – Science geeks will know this one. Did you know that at a particular combination of pressure and temperature a substance will coexist as a liquid, solid, and gas? ‘Tis true. You can get liquid water, ice and vapor at the same time under the right conditions. The metaphor should be obvious. One substance, three phases; or one God, three Persons – all at the very same time.
  • Time – I heard this one on D. James Kennedy’s radio program, Truths that Transform, years ago. He used time, expressed as past, present and future, to illustrate the Trinity. He has this great statement about time, into which he substituted the Persons of the Trinity, but I haven’t found it in print anywhere. (I love some help if you know what I’m talking about.)
  • Ceiling fans – I have Jon Reid to thank for this one. Look at a ceiling fan. Three, four, maybe five blades. Turn it on high. Now you’ve got one blade. Seemed to help Samantha (my five year old) when she was asking at bedtime one night.

Trinity – So What?

Last thing: Why does the Trinity matter? I’ll let Sarah Dylan Breuer say it for me. From her lectionary blog:

The doctrine of the Trinity says that God’s eternal nature is as relationship — that God was, is, and always will be Love. And love isn’t about understanding; it’s about trusting, and committing, to someone who is Other, different, incomprehensible. Because when we claim to love because we think we comprehend, we are only loving what’s also in us. We call that “narcissism.” Love requires an other.

So the doctrine of the Trinity gives me hope for our Christian community. We are made in the image of the God who is Love. We are made in the image of Love. Love is what we were born for, and the universe arcs toward it. Love is our home, to which God is calling us. We don’t need to understand. We need to listen. Indeed, when we think we understand, we stop listening.

I’ll stop talking now, and see what you have to say about this.

Economics and Birthdays

This was in Monday’s Writer’s Almanac:

We don’t know when Adam Smith was born, but it was on this day in 1723 that Smith, the economist who popularized the idea of free trade, was baptized in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. His first important book was The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he argued that all people are selfish, but that the combined selfishness of many people benefits everyone. He wrote, “[We are] led by an invisible hand … without knowing it, without intending it, [to] advance the interest of the society.” He developed this idea in the book for which he is best remembered, Wealth of Nations (1776). That book established many of the most important principles for economists for the next two hundred years.

Adam Smith wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Today is also the birthday of the economist John Maynard Keynes, (books by this author), born in Cambridge, England (1883). He’s best known for his book The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published during the Great Depression in 1935. He argued that governments can correct severe depressions by spending lots of money, even if it means running a deficit, to put people back to work. Keynes greatly influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and his ideas have been used to justify budget deficits ever since.

Interesting that these two men share a birthday, or something like it. Also interesting that the birthday is so close to my own. (At least it’s interesting to me.) A couple thoughts to share… mostly on Smith.

Invisible Hand

Invisible Hand? Not So Much

The Invisible Hand is broken… if indeed it ever existed. Within the constraints of perfect competition, the Invisible Hand the collective selfishness might (See my next thought.) work out to the benefit of most… or at least many. Not in today’s economy, which is a far cry from anything resembling perfect competition. Atomicity? Nope; try oligarchy. Homogeneity? Perhaps, but billions of marketing dollars are working hard to obfuscate that fact. Perfect Information? Equal Access? Free Entry? Not if the oligarchies have anything to say about it… and they do!

No, the Invisible Hand of the market has been bound and gagged. Motivated self-interest serves only the self, and those who possess power are best able to serve themselves.

Selfishness Is NOT an Agent of Good

It is noteworthy that Smith doesn’t say, “People will overcome and progress beyond selfishness, attaining to a more noble fundamental value.” No, he says in effect: “We’re all selfish bastards, and that ain’t gonna change. Fortunately, there is Something beyond our selfish little souls to protect us from each other.”

As a Christian I have to respond, “Close, but not far enough.” True Something is kind enough to protect us from ourselves to an extent, but it doesn’t end there. There is the possibility of real transformation of the soul. Self-interest need not be our driving motivation. Instead, our souls can be moved by genuine love.

Check Please!

The economic difference between Republicans and Democrats has nothing to do with accepting or rejecting Keynesian theory. Maybe it did at one time, but not anymore. Both parties embrace a bigger government role, because it protects their power and position. They only quibble over where government should expand next.

I was ready to shut the door on politics in 2004. Today, the door still remains cracked… but just a little. I’ve got some thinking to do here, still.

China Isn’t Socialist

Huaxi Village - NPR.org

Quick quiz, just two questions:

  1. What’s the opposite of “capitalism?”
  2. What’s the opposite of “socialism?”
    (Hint: They are not opposites of one another.)

That realization came as a surprise to me the other day. I suppose I always knew they weren’t opposites. I’d just forgotten.

I was listening to All Things Considered on the way home Tuesday, and I caught their feature on rural China, which has been running all week. This particular installment was on Huaxi village in Jiangsu province, an interesting story of a centrally planned model for economic prosperity.

There were two comments that put me over the edge. One is from Wu Hao, a local who had studied abroad and returned to the village in order to run one of the textile factories. In heavily accented English he said, “I feel so happy because I make a good salary. Everything is okay.” (I’m pretty sure that’s what he said; it was a heavy accent.)
The other is from his uncle, Wu Xie En, the current party secretary and BMOC. Via translator: “Huaxi is a small place. If all we did was farm, at best we’d just be able to feed and clothe ourselves. We wouldn’t be able to get rich.

Now back to the quiz. Here are the answers. Continue reading

Why Did Jesus Have To Die?

I’ve been reading (My Bedtime Reading list is horribly behind; I’ll try to get to that this week.) and thinking and listening and talking and changing. It had been a while since I had to put together a concise answer to the title question… much less one for a four year old. Last night, however, Samantha gave me the opportunity. Let me know what you think of my efforts.

As I was tucking her into bed, she made a standard request for me to sing her a song. I wanted to sing (or hum, as I didn’t remember many of the words) "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." I told her it was an Advent song; she asked what Advent was; and during the explanation Jesus’ death on the Cross came up. Ever full of questions, Samantha asked, "Why did Jesus have to die?" This was our conversation slightly edited to remove the some of the repetition essential to conversations with four-year olds and to remain more or less on topic in the way four-year olds don’t:

"God wants us to do two things. What are they?

"Share."

"Right! Sharing is one way we love other people. God wants us to love other people. What’s the second thing?"

"Obey God."

"Right! God wants us to love him, and the way we do that is by obeying him. So, the two things God wants us to do are to love him and to love other people.

"Now, do you know what sin is?"

Silence.

"When we don’t love God or other people that is called sin. Remember the line from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us…’"

"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

"Right! Sin, that’s when we don’t love each other and God. Now, what happens when we sin, when we don’t love God and each other?"

Silence

"You and I are really close, right?" She nods, and I illustrate this by putting my hands together. "Remember a few weeks ago when you called me a silly name, but wouldn’t tell me what it was?" She nods again. "What happened to us?"

More silence.

"We came apart, didn’t we?" I pull my fingers apart just a little bit. "By not answering my question and disobeying, some sin got in between us and pushed us apart a little bit. And if more and more sin gets in there, then we get further and further apart." Now my hands are a few inches apart.

After a short digression on what a relationship is, we return to the topic at hand. I continue using my hands to illustrate.

"Now, just like how sin can come between two people, sin can also come between God and people and push apart their relationship."

"Everybody has a relationship with God."

"No, sweetie, not everyone."

"Why not?"

"Well, because of sin. God always wants to have a relationship with people, but sometimes there’s just too much sin in the way. Some people don’t want to have a relationship with God. Others, because there is so much sin in there, they don’t even know that God wants to have a relationship with them.

"So, back to why Jesus had to die. Jesus came and died on the Cross, so that all the sin that gets between two people and between people and God can go away. It’s like Jesus does this to the sin." At this point my hands are a couple inches apart. I blow between them and clap my hands together. "Because Jesus died, the sin can be blown away and people can be back together with each other and with God."

Thankfully, she didn’t ask how Jesus dying makes it possible for the sin to go away. Nothing was coming to mind.

As we returned to the initial topic of Advent, she commented that Jesus was going to come back one day. (Must have picked this up in Sunday school.) I said, "I can’t wait, because then all the sin that’s left everywhere is going to be blown away and never come back again." By now she was getting into the blowing and clapping along with me. "And that is gonna be great!" With that, I hummed the song.

So, how’d I do?

God’s Promise to Abram: Part 3

Continuing our exploration of God’s promise to Abram found in Genesis 12:3.

I will bless those who bless you,

I will curse those who treat you with contempt,

and all the peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.

Noting that the first couplet promises a curse on some while the second promises a blessing on all, we must work thru an interpretation that reconciled both couplets.

The first option rooted the second couplet in history and the first in eternity, and it is a pretty common interpretation by my gauge. Now, let’s look at the reverse.

Option #2: Temporal curse; eternal blessing

First, let’s talk about the curse. It is rooted in time and visited upon those who curse Abram. Like before, cursing Abram could be literal and limited to those who had opportunity act in Abram’s lifetime, or it could be extended vicariously to Abram’s descendants as a whole or to a particular descendent such as Jesus. Because the curse is rooted in time, limiting the scope to the historical Abram is a more viable reading than if the curse is rooted in eternity. Regardless, the effects of the curse are felt in history.

When searching to name the curse my mind immediately goes to economic, military, or socio-political effects. These are all rooted in history, and we can conceive of situations where some are blessed and others are cursed. Once you determine what it means to curse Abram (literal vs. vicarious among other considerations), you can appropriately identify the groups who have suffered, are suffering under, or will suffer from the curse. Similarly, you should also be able identify those groups who have received, are receiving, or will receive a blessing because they have blessed Abram, since we would expect the reasoning to be consistent.

Moving on, the blessing given to all is something that transcends time and lasts forever. If you’re attached to an eschatology that includes some sort of eternal curse, such as hell, then this interpretation will raise the hair on the back of your neck at minimum. Once again, however, our personal inclinations have no real bearing on whether or not a particular interpretation is correct. The consensus of all scripture, tradition, reason and spiritual insight are needed. (As I write this I’m discovering that I’m not probably a “sola scriptura” kind of guy. If you are, feel free to omit the portion of the above sentence between, but not including, “scripture” and “are,” correcting for subject-verb agreement.)

Interesting to say the least.

God’s Promise to Abram: Part 2

In Part 1 I introduced a potential contradiction found in God’s promise to Abram. Somehow God promises that some with be cursed AND all will be blessed. Since blessings and curses are opposites (I’d be interested to hear an alternative view, as I haven’t been able to come up with one that made sense.), then must deal with a potential violation of logic. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense. It is in the conditional clause that we can resolve the tension within the two promises, so let me present…

Option #1: Eternal curse; temporal blessing.

(Quick note: I understand the first couplet contains both a curse and a blessing. I am simply referring to it as a curse for (1) clarity; (2) expediency; and (3) because the contradiction is found in the curse.)

This is probably the common interpretation among evangelicals whether they know it or not. With this understanding, God thru Abram is going to give a blessing rooted in history to all people, but at the end of time some will be cursed eternally. The eternal curse is commonly called hell, but I’ll get into that in a minute.

The only way I can think of to understand how the blessing for all is temporal is to root the blessing in Jesus, the Messiah of all and a descendant of Abram. The other blessings given to all people are those things which I will call “general blessings,” things like rain and sun. It don’t think, however, that the promise is the general blessing that God has given everyone from the beginning of time, because this passage is forward looking. The verbs are future tense. The blessing to all – indeed all the promises contained within verses 2 and 3 – is something that will come and not something already in play. Rooting the promised blessing in God’s general blessing feels contrary to the passage’s weight. It would be like promising to give my kids the clothes they are already wearing. It’s nice, but it’s anticlimactic. This is the story of Abram’s calling and the origination of Israel. The promised blessing must be correspondingly grand, and a Messianic blessing qualifies.

Let’s move onto the eternal curse. The curse is visited upon those who curse Abram. Now, he’s been dead for a long time, so there is needs to be some sort of exchange, some way to vicariously curse Abram in order for God’s curse to have an eternal component.

(I suppose, one could argue that only those who cursed Abram in a direct way will suffer from an eternal curse, but this seems silly. If you do that, then you must also extend the reasoning to the blessing contained in this couplet. This leaves a bunch of people who lived before and after Abram who are unaffected by this eternal promise. Again, given the passage’s weight, such a narrow reading seems unlikely to be correct.)

What or who is the substitutionary Abram? It is Jesus, the Messiah. Those who curse, or reject, Jesus are the ones deemed to have cursed Abram and are thus themselves subjected to the promised eternal curse. This flows nicely out of the reasoning that the blessing to all from the first couplet is the Messiah.

So, those subject to the curse are subject to it in some final or eternal sense. There’s no need to argue about eternal punishment or annihilation or other theories here. Suffice to say: this curse is the last word for those who suffer under it… whatever that might mean.

As I said, this is pretty much the standard line of thinking among evangelicals I have known. A common problem people have with this interpretation is the apparent contradiction created when God, who is love and goodness, chooses to punish people eternally, and I have to say that this is something of a concern for me. Without going beyond this one verse and ignoring my personal displeasure with eternal punishment (which has no real bearing on whether or not the interpretation is correct), let me point out what I think is a weakness.

This interpretation reverses the order of the couplets as they are recorded in scripture. As I read the passage, the curse comes first, and the blessing to all people follows. I like to think this is significant, and it should aid our interpretive efforts. I’m certainly open to correction on this, particularly if it turns out that the English translations have taken some sort of liberty with the arrangement of two couplets.