Category Archives: Random

the absenteeness is not the point

I was struck by James McGrath’s being struck¹ by Allan Bevere’s treatment on God as absentee landlord. Part of what struck me about the whole thing was that Bevere only mentioned the idea in passing (and really as a follow-up point to his overall case), yet McGrath snatches up that passing comment and makes a rather definitive (albeit brief) statement about it: you’re wrong, Bevere; God is an absentee landlord, and the Jesus says so. And by doing this (i.e. contradicting Bevere’s comment), McGrath, in effect, undermines the overall point that Bevere was trying to make, which was: in spite of our perceptions and experience, God is near, God is listening, and God answers. Absentee landlords don’t do those things.

But the other part of what struck me was McGrath’s support for his counterargument: “that very image of God [as an absentee landlord] appears in one of Jesus’ parables”. Seriously? We’re going to make definitive theological statements from extremely limited data? Aside from Matt 21.33-40–the parable McGrath has in view–we might be able to rope in Matt 25.14-30 and… oh, wait; that’s really all we have. And we’re going to make definitive theological statements because of an interpretative decision about a parable? Especially when the absence of the landlord is not even the primary focus?² C’mon; we have to do better than that. And are we to ignore the fact that the parable describes the landlord as essentially going on vacation and returning; he’s not skipping town and hiding out because he’s a deadbeat, a swindler, anti-social, pick-your-pejorative-description. And are we going to ignore the fact that the same emphasis appears in the only other parable that somewhat suggests an absentee landlord: the dude goes away on a trip, but he comes back. And let’s not overlook the fact that the other parables about a landlord/landowner show him as not absent.³

Sure, McGrath (rightly) points out that “Absentee landlords have been hated by ordinary people down the ages” and admits that he’s been wanting “to do a study of the negative images of God and the kingdom of God in parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels”. But my two basic questions would be:

  1. Are the two parables in question truly presenting God as an absentee landlord–i.e. the kind that are timelessly hated–or are they focusing on something else, thus making the absentee dilemma a moo point?
  2. Similarly, are the other parables truly presenting “negative images of God and the kingdom of God” or are they merely using the dramatic to make a point–you know, like parables do–or are the parables only being perceived as negative because their contents and meaning are misunderstood?

¹ Apologies for the ads and occasional delays in page-loading. It is a Patheos site.² Umm, hello: the bit found vv34-39 is far more problematic than a landlord being temporarily absent. In other words, the primary issue in the parable is not the (temporary) absence of the landlord; it’s the evilness and wickedness enacted by the hired workers while the landlord is away on vacation.
³ And please, for the love of bacon, do not come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, this discrepancy in the portrayals of God as landlord raises serious questions and doubts about both the reliability/authenticity of the accounts and the theological message being advocated.” Crap! It’s a parable.

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ignorance is bliss

Two days ago, on the Facebook, I linked this always pleasant bit of information: we dodge extinction because a huge asteroid will sail right past us on Halloween. (And by “right past us” I mean, c. 300k miles). What gave me a slight chuckle was the article’s admission that this asteroid was just discovered, as in: “Oh crap, there it is; and it’s coming fast.” No time to rustle up some guys from an oil rig, train them in space flight, launch them into space, blah, blah, blah. Nope. This cosmic beanbag is almost here. It also gave me a chuckle because the story reminded me of something I read from Bill Bryson, who always gives me a chuckle.

After supplying a useful analogy for the sheer number of asteroids and the Earth’s interaction with them, Bryson writes:

As Steven Ostro of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has put it, “Suppose that there was a button you could push and you could light up all the Earth-crossing asteroids larger than about ten metres, there would be over a hundred million of these objects in the sky.” In short, you would see not a couple of thousand distant twinkling stars, but millions upon millions upon millions of nearer, randomly moving objects–“all of which are capable of colliding with the Earth and all of which are moving on slightly different courses through the sky at different rates. It would be deeply unnerving.” Well, be unnerved, because it is there. We just can’t see it.”

–Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), 171

A few pages later, Bryson unfolds the really good news:

I asked [Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke] how much warning we would receive if a similar hunk of rock [i.e. the one that caused the Chicxulub crater] were coming towards us today. “Oh, probably none,” said Anderson breezily. “It wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye until it warmed up and that wouldn’t happen until it hit the atmosphere, which would be about one second before it hit the Earth. You’re talking about something moving many tens of times faster than the fastest bullet. Unless it had been seen by someone with a telescope, and that’s by no means a certainty, it would take us completely by surprise.”

–Bryson, 179

The next three pages are fairly detailed educated guesses as to what would happen next. It ain’t pretty. Happy weekend, everybody.

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seeking help from other book-fiends

I’ve run into a problem and I need some help. Years ago I created a list of all the books in my personal library, and I did this primarily for insurances purposes–and to keep track of which books my brother would borrow. Thus, this first edition was simply an alphabetical catalog (see here: Personal Library, which needs to be updated, seeing that I’ve added some, read more, and deleted a few). I then used the list as a way of noting which ones I’ve read cover-to-cover, since that is a goal of mine. Hence, the highlighted entries. More recently, and still keeping the previous reasons in play, I decided to use the list as a way of organizing my collection–i.e. cataloging them for shelving purposes. But, it was here that I ran into a problem: How to do the cataloging.

My original thought was to follow standard practices and use a numbering system. But that raised the question: which one? Dewey? Or LC/Call Number? If Dewey: flexibility or rigid faithfulness to the numbering? And if LC: short version or long version? Here is a screenshot of the file where I attempted both systems, mainly to see which is easier to do:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 09.51.47

So, along with the minor questions above, here are my broad questions to my fellow book-fiends: how do you keep track of your books and catalog/shelve them? (Or do you even bother?). Is there a program you use that you would recommend?

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really struggling to see a difference

A friend posted this link, which describes–albeit in brief form–the eschatological views of “Jehovah’s” Witnesses. Apart from item #4, I am at a loss for how these view differ from those found within Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism.

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gee, that was subtle

On the heels of their most recent convention, here in ATL, and thus ostensibly (re)energized for mission, the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses were out in full force this past Sunday.[1] By way of example, our little neighborhood, which is held together by a single half-mile-long road, was peppered with six or seven teams of JWs. Exuberant. Excessive. Overkill. Pick your term.

When I saw one team begin to mosey up the front walk, I bolted downstairs to meet them at the door. Not because I was bored, or genuinely excited to see them as I would an old friend, or wanted to hear their version of the gospel. My haste was rooted in the fact that Ashley just fell asleep and she truly needed a nap. A sudden ringing of the doorbell would not help that cause.

So I opened the door and was immediately met with a greeting that suggested the dude went to the Joel Osteen school of public speaking, only with more volume. As politely as I could, I interrupted and told him we just got our daughter down for a nap. He graciously lowered his voice, apologized, and proceeded to hand me two brochures–one on how to improve my health, and the other on a mix of apologetic-type issues. I took the brochures, said thanks, and we parted ways.

Curious, only because I like to see how the JWs approach certain things, I glanced at the table of contents in the apologetic-like brochure. My eyes quickly fell on the article entitled, “Who is the Antichrist?“. This might be either because I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on Dispensationalism (don’t ask why) or because the other topics appeared rather dull. Either way, I knew I had to read the Antichrist bit. So I did. I must say: the contents of the article matched the exuberant, excessive, overkill, and–to add another term–hubris of their swarming our little neighborhood. While I laughed at some of it, there was one thing that caught me off guard.

The first few paragraphs were decent and generally not out of sync with the small handful of biblical texts on the Antichrist. They did well to point out the fact that John speaks of many antichrists in the world, and that an antichrist is one who denies Jesus as God’s Messiah and as having come in the flesh. But then two summary remarks in this first part gave me a good chuckle. In reverse order:

Clearly [in these passages], John understood the antichrist to be all who deliberately spread religious deceptions about Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teachings.

Fair and true enough. And

People or organizations making up the antichrist spread lies, deny that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and try to distort the relationship between God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who make up the antichrist claim to be Christ or his[2] representatives, but since “they went out from us,” they deviated from true Bible teaching.

The theological and cognitive dissonance in these statements is astounding. And that’s what made me laugh. The very thing that the JWs characterize the antichrist doing is the very thing they themselves do! The christology of JWs, if I can label it that way, is not only extremely low but also out of step with biblical evidence. They deny the true nature of Jesus by making him a lesser god, or at least one like God but not identical with God. Thus, they distort the true relationship shared between Jesus and God. However, both of these are the result of a faulty hermeneutic the JWs use, only they don’t see it as faulty.

As with any sales pitch, there’s a “But wait, there’s more” type claim in the second part of the article. After having explained what the antichrist does, the article proceeds to identify who the antichrist is specifically–or at least the kinds of characteristics that make identification easy. They offer two key markers, again in reverse order:

  1. Antichrists are those who, through countless and needless varied translations of the Bible and the promotion of such translations, routinely “omit God’s personal name, Jehovah, from the text. . . . The result? They identity of the true God becomes even more shrouded in mystery.” While I don’t have the time to go into the specifics, what’s funny about this claim is not just its absurdity (and its reliance on a faulty premise) but the JWs’ failure to recognize the perpetuation of a different error. In other words: the JWs, in criticizing others for omitting God’s personal name, fail to see the fundamental error in their own insistence of including a “name” for God that’s not even a word.
  2. But the leading characteristic of the antichrist? Simple: “the churches [propagating] the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming that the Father and the Son are part of the same entity. The antichrist thus shrouds in mystery the identity of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ.” Once again, the theological and cognitive dissonance is amazing. And sad. But there’s something more, something rather disturbing. The effect of this claim is that every (orthodox) Christian church who affirms the age-old, firmly established doctrine of the Trinity, rooted in a clear and faithful reading of John 1.1-4, are the antichrist. In other words: non-JWs. The further implication is that such is the case because orthodox Christians are like those who, according to John (as cited by the article), “went out from us”–i.e. away from true biblical teaching. The “us” in this case would be the JWs. But historically, theologically, and ecclesiastically speaking, it is the JWs who broke from orthodoxy and formulated their own (distorted) beliefs based on their own (faulty) hermeneutical principles and practices.

[1] I’m anticipating a similar effect in a month so, since they have yet another convention scheduled for mid-July.
[2] I didn’t mistype. The article deliberately refuses to capitalize the pronouns for Jesus vis-à-vis those used for God, and this is because of their particular (and peculiar) view of Jesus’ identity. Though, strangely and oddly enough, they have no qualms about capitalizing the term “Son” when speaking of Jesus.

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on affirming “non-credal” creeds

Not too long ago, while searching for employment, I happened upon a job opening that looked promising and appealing. It was in my field, it was at a good school, and it was in a city that we love (though I would certainly melt in the summer months). Yet two out of the four desired qualifications presented a challenge for me. One, the school wanted someone ordained in the Southern Baptist convention; two, the candidate needed to affirm, in good faith, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (2000 BFM).

Despite the fact that the first qualification had a “must” attached to it, I decided to see if there was any flexibility in the requirement. I asked because, while I grew up Baptist (here is my early childhood church) I neither remained nor was ordained in that denomination.[1] The kind and helpful people at this school responded by stating (quite understandably): since they are a Southern Baptist school, the ordination requirement is extremely firm; there’s no bending it. However, if I wanted to serve in an adjunct capacity, then the requirement would be lifted. Although, the second one would still apply–i.e. affirm, in good faith, the 2000 BFM–and a third one would be introduced: affirm, in good faith, the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI).

The requirement of needing to affirm, in good faith, the 2000 BFM and the CSBI struck me as rather odd for at least two reasons. On the one hand, historically and traditionally, Baptists have prided themselves on being non-credal;[2] their longstanding mantra was, “No creed but the Bible” (which, strangely enough, functions as a credal statement). On the other hand, the Preface to the CSBI clearly states: “We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight” (emphasis added);[3] yet the requirement of needing to affirm the Statement, in good faith, for the purposes of gaining employment sounds rather credal–not to mention in conflict with the nature and intent of the CSBI. This would seem to be reinforced not only by the implied corollary of the requirement–i.e. no affirm, no job–but also the qualifier, “in good faith.”

Tangent, but a necessary one: In 1798, Barton W. Stone sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church. In order to obtain that goal, he needed to pass a type of examination before a group of governing Presbyterian ministers.[4] One of the determinative questions in that examination was, “Do you receive and adopt the ‘[Westminster] Confession of Faith’ [WCF], as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible?” The problem was that Stone had two hiccups with the WCF: the doctrine of the Trinity (he didn’t understand it), and the doctrines of election, reprobation, and predestination (he rejected them). And Stone knew that if he said “No” because of these two points, he would fail the exam and not be ordained. So rather shrewdly, he said: “I do, so far as I see it consistent with the word of God.” He passed.

This type of response used to be acceptable–even commendable–for it represented the freedom of conscience, or: the ability and permission for ministers and/or teachers of the Bible to teach in accordance with faithful, disciplined interpretation and the guidance (or, “illumination”)[5] of the Spirit. However, in the case of the particular school I contacted, the inclusion of the qualifier “in good faith” in the required affirmation would seem to disallow that ability and permission. What do I mean? Would I be permitted to accept/affirm the two documents as guidelines for orthodoxy and not creeds with exclusionary powers–because that’s how they present themselves? Would I be able to say, “In good faith, I affirm the 2000 BFM and CSBI as far as I see them consistent with Scripture”? Or to come at this a different way: would I be free or allowed to disagree with parts of both “creeds” and openly discuss such things in the classroom if prompted?

If the answer is yes, then I will admit the error of my assessment. If the answer is no, then we have a problem, and the problem is twofold. First, “in good faith” no longer relates to acting in accordance with with one’s conscience, but comes to mean an “all-or-nothing” affirmation. This takes us right back to the issue of the documents functioning as creeds–i.e. determiners of one’s acceptance or exclusion.[6] Second, that “all-or-nothing” affirmation comes at the expense of one’s conscience and it winds up undercutting the nature of a “good faith” acceptance.

In other words: if I want the job, and yet I happen to disagree with either the 2000 BFM or CSBI (or both) in part or whole, I would have to affirm the entire contents and teachings of both documents, teach in accordance with them, and do so in such a way that I appear to agree with their entirety, when in reality I do not. Thus, while I would be conducting myself in a manner that reflects (or even exemplifies) the desired requirements of the school–i.e. acting “in good faith” (i.e. full acceptance)–I would be doing so in a way that is dishonest to my theological and academic conscience. In essence (or effect), I would be intentionally and knowingly misleading the institution and the students I might teach, giving the appearance of full acceptance of the 2000 BFM and CSBI when such acceptance does not exist. That, by definition, would not be acting “in good faith”.

Needless to say: I did not apply for the full-time version of the job, and I will not apply for the adjunct version. In good faith, I just can’t.

[1] If you’re curious, in 2002 I was (technically) ordained into the non-denominational Christian Church–which, strangely enough, is a classified denomination. To avoid confusion and strange looks, I usually tell people my ordination was into the Christian Church/Church of Christ tradition–i.e. the net result of the Restoration Movement in the US.
[2] Although, the Preamble to the 2000 BFM oddly says otherwise.
[3] Though, it is worth noting, the underlying tone of the CSBI Preface (and the Statement itself) comes across as a rather credal.
[4] For a fuller account, see John Rogers (ed.), The Biography of Elder Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself (Cincinnati, 1847), 29-30.
[5] I’m going to side-step the idea of “illumination” as a valid doctrine. Suffice it to say that I have problems with it.
[6] And I’m setting aside the curious fact that the 2000 BFM removed a key statement from its earlier edition–i.e. the 1963 BFM. In the Preamble to the earlier edition, it was stated: “Throughout their history Baptist bodies, both large and small, have issued statements of faith which comprise a consensus of their beliefs. Such statements have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority.”

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from the seedbed

In the mail yesterday, I received a copy of the Seedbed Sower’s Almanac. It’s a creative little booklet, with various bits of pastoral insight and adverts for new resources. It has also contains a few short articles related to Wesleyan theology. One of the bits of insight, by Howard Synder, caught my attention: the “Fourteen Favorite Ways to Twist the Gospel”. While I don’t think I am permitted to reproduce the entire contents, I think I’m safe in teasing you with the topic-points that Synder gives. Here they are:

  1. Interpret the gospel primarily through Romans
  2. Focus solely on “personal salvation”
  3. Make heaven the goal
  4. Support the clergy/laity split
  5. Think economics and politics are not directly gospel concerns
  6. De-prioritize community
  7. Neglect the Old Testament
  8. Limit justice to personal righteousness
  9. Neglect intercession
  10. Make believers instead of disciples
  11. Substitute heaven for the kingdom of God
  12. View faith as just a part of life
  13. Disregard Genesis 9
  14. Divorce discipleship from creation care

What he has to say about each one is insightful. I would encourage you to get a copy of it, if you can, so you can see the rest.

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