No Matter What Kind of Day You’re Having …

… watch this video.

It’ll either make a crappy day better or it’ll give you one more reason to smile.

And it’ll remind you of why dogs are so freakin’ awesome.

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Why More People Should Pay Attention to Rachel Held Evans Right Now

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Rachel Held Evans’ newest book A Year of Biblical Womanhood sounds like it should be required reading for everyone in this country.

Rachel spent a year living out the literal interpretation of the Bible’s commands toward women. All of them. The result is a book that shows that the biblical ideal of what it means to be a woman isn’t as straight-forward as a good number of people insist that it is. Even a good number of conservative Christians don’t obey all the commands, so how do you decide between the rules that are still required and which are not?

On the surface, this may sound like an intramural Christian squabbling match without much relevance to the outside world–and unsurprisingly, Rachel is being accused of hating the Bible–the truth is that the question of biblical interpretation affects each and every person in our country.

Don’t believe me?

Many people are opposed to same-sex marriage, adoption by gay couples, and supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because they don’t believe the Bible supports same-sex relationships.

Many people don’t want the theory of evolution taught in the classrooms because they believe it contradicts a particular interpretation of Genesis 1 and Romans 5. (In my non-original opinion, that entire debate has little to do with the age of the earth and much to do about the existence of Adam.)

Many people stand behind Israel, regardless of what it government does, because they believe the Bible says that that state has a role to play in the divinely appointed end times.

Many people support the death penalty on the basis of verses like Genesis 9:6.

I could give more examples, but I think the point is clear enough: how Christians interpret the Bible directly impacts how their non-Christian neighbors live.

The question of how to read the Bible, then, is not just a question that’s important to only Christians.

So when someone like Rachel writes a book that calls into question the manner in which a large segment of Christians interpret their collection of holy books, specifically as it relates to the treatment and roles of women in church and society, I think outsiders would do well to start listening to what both sides are saying.

Because at some point, what both sides believe is going to affect them.

Review: ‘Inerrancy and the Gospels’

Do the gospels contradict themselves?

It’s not a topic I’ve thought much of in recent years, in part because my interest in apologetics has dwindled and because I no longer view inerrancy as something that’s essential to the Christian faith. (That is, I don’t think the Bible needs to be perfect in order to be trustworthy or authoritative.) That said, there are still challenges we must address, such as why the gospels sometimes give conflicting information about what appear to be the same events.

Or is it really conflicting?

Vern Polythress would argue no, and in his book Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization, he seeks to prove it. Published by Crossway, Inerrancy and the Gospels spends a good deal of its time addressing supposed contradictions in the gospel accounts, as well as providing readers with information on, among other things, the importance of genre; how our mental images formed by a text might be incomplete; the use of language; and more.

All of these discussions come into play when Polythress tackles some of the more well-known (apparent) contradictions in the gospel accounts. You can probably list some of them: the cursing of the fig tree; the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter from the dead; the calming of the storm; and the centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his daughter.

Polythress makes use of historical Christian thought (though his resources are limited to within the Protestant tradition) when discussing these matters. For example, in his chapter on the fig tree, Polythress quotes John Calvin, who, writing on the matter, stated that Mark does not contradict Matthew by being more distinct on the timing of events. (For those readers who are unaware of this seeming problem, the question is whether Matthew and Mark differ in when the fig tree withered as a result of being cursed by Jesus.)

Polythress argues that Matthew compressed the events in his account:

“I believe it is likely that we have here another case where Matthew has employed compression. Matthew has given us a minimal account, taking up two verses (21:19-20) for the heart of the action. Mark takes our verses for the same actions (Mark 11:3-14, 20-21). Moreover, Mark has made the whole account more complex by separating the two stages of the action into two distinct days, with the cleansing of the temple in between. Matthew, by comparison, gives the whole history of the interaction with the fig tree ‘in one blow’, so to speak, and lets us quickly grasp the curse and its consequence. There is clearly something to be gained by this compressed approach” (146).

Anyone who’s read the text knows that Matthew states the fig tree withered “at once”; again, this is where the apparent contradiction is made between Matthew and Mark. Regarding this matter, Polythress argues that the Greek expression from which we get “at once” in English has some variation in its meaning.

“The rapid withering of the fig tree contrasts with many common withering processes, which would typically take several days or several weeks. The fig tree withered with unusual rapidity. Matthew is not precise about just how long it took” (147).

Polythress’ point, then, is that Matthew’s use of the phrase “at once” (in Greek) does not automatically contradict what Mark wrote.

What I Liked

The discussion topics I just mentioned were probably my favorite part of this book. I had anticipated a book in which the author just tackles every single (apparent) contradiction among the four gospels. What I read was something better. Not only does Polythress address those issues, but he also tries to establish a new foundation for the reader. That’s a good thing, especially when you consider that the reader is going to continue to face arguments against the gospels and can’t always rely on another writer to debunk them. To borrow the oft-repeated phrase, Polythress didn’t try to catch a fish to give to a hungry person; he’s trying to teach a hungry person how to fish.

That the entire book isn’t entirely devoted to examples of apparent contradictions is a good thing, because the author is not only looking to debunk misunderstandings but also equip his readers with a new way of reading the Bible. That is, in my opinion, the main strength of the book.

The other strength is that, for the most part, Polythress presents common-sense, informed responses to people who insist that the Bible contradicts itself—and, by extension, cannot be inspired by God as Christians claim it is. Some of these arguments have been repeated elsewhere, but for newcomers, this book should be helpful in countering the claims of hostile skeptics and honest inquirers.

What I Didn’t Like

The book isn’t without its weaknesses, and I spotted one on the very first page. The opening paragraph of the book has a footnote stating that the books of the Bible had been decided upon by the Jews. The problem is, there wasn’t a uniform understanding among Jewish communities as to what should be meant by “Scripture”. The Sadduccees and Pharisees differed on which books belonged in the biblical canon, with the former only accepting the first five books of our Old Testament. (This is the reason Jesus refers to Exodus and not, say, the more obvious choice of Daniel when debating the Sadduccess on the matter of the resurrection.) Instead of acknowledging the rather complicated history of the development of the Bible, Polythress takes for granted that everyone back then knew what the Bible was supposed to be—and so there’s no need for us to question it.

Of course, this statement is flawed. Not only was there not a single view among the Jewish communities of Jesus’ day, but even the church in its first few centuries wasn’t totally united behind a canon list. That makes the first two sentences of the book suspect:

“In the centuries after the Bible was written, the church recognized that it was the word of God and treated its contents as trustworthy. But in modern times some people have come to question that conviction” (13).

The problem is that it took Christians a few centuries to decide upon the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Most books were agreed upon, but a handful were considered suspect. I don’t know how Polythress can argue that the early church saw all the books as trustworthy when they weren’t in full agreement as to which books were to be considered Scripture in the first place. This idea that no one in the church questioned the trustworthiness of the books that comprise our Bible is simply incorrect.

Another weakness relates to Polythress’ discussion on the fig tree. As noted above, he states that the Greek expression for “at once” leaves some variation as to the amount of time to which it is referring. Polythress then argues that this variation means that Matthew isn’t necessarily contradicting Mark on the matter. And the two authors might not contradict themselves on this at all. But then, if the phrase contains that much variation in its meaning, then we can’t be certain that Polythress is correct in stating that the two gospel writers don’t contradict. If there’s that much variation in the phrase, then how can we be sure as to how Matthew was using the term? Maybe he really was arguing that the fig tree withered immediately. I’m not an expert in Greek so I could very well be wrong, but it seems to me that this amount of variation means that, in the question of whether Matthew and Mark contradict each other here, we have a draw, not a definitive answer.

Should You Buy This?

It depends on how much you’re wrestling with the question of harmonization among the gospels. If you don’t think that the Bible needs to be inerrant in order to carry the authority of God, then you probably don’t need to read this. If you feel that inerrancy is an essential of the Christian faith (and on this, we can disagree), then you might benefit from Polythress’ work.

A Welcome to the New-comers

Justin Lee recently linked to my review of his forthcoming book, Torn. Since then, I’ve gotten some new visitors to the site.

So consider this a friendly welcome! Hope you find some stuff you like. 🙂

All the Things I Could Say about the Church …

It’s been a few months since I’ve regularly been a part of a church in my area. And for that, I’m thankful.

I’ve gotten to the point where I’m sick of the culture that’s often created in houses of worship that were supposed to be a place of prayer for all nations. This culture manifests itself in different ways, but how I’ve seen it played out, repeatedly, is that you’re only “in” and loved for as long as you attend; show any deviation from your devotion, and your status remains questionable.

This is the culture that talks about how great it is that God loves us all, freely, without reserve–and yet allows only certain individuals to be truly accepted. The rest are “welcomed” in the sense that they’re not going to be stopped from walking through the door and finding a chair.

Now I know, the church is full of imperfect people, and I think it’s a truth of Christianity that you can never really be considered part of the church until you’ve learned to trust Jesus and recognize that you yourself are imperfect. But what I can’t stand is how easily the crimes of Christians are written off. When someone who isn’t a part of “us” commits a sin, we say they’re going to hell for it. When Christians commit the exact same sin, we say they’re under grace. To be clear: I find grace beautiful. I just can’t stomach using it as a way to never really address the deep-seated problems in our congregations.

I saw all of those things in excess at my last church. Those are primarily the reasons why I’m not looking forward to finding a new one.

I know I need a new one. Jesus didn’t save only me–he is saving a church. It is through the church that the Lord works, and I cannot join Him in His mission without standing with the church because the heavenly Husband and His imperfect Bride are on a mission together. St. Cyprian was right: you can’t have God as your Father without also having the Church as your mother.

I’m convinced that my resistance is temporary (and I do feel it fading). What helps me is to remember something very important:

The worst things I could say about the church are also things I could say about me.

I can complain about how others don’t love people like God does, but my complaints will never address the fact that I don’t, either. I was in my last church for a long time and fit in well for a good while, so any atmosphere in which people weren’t loved like they should have been was just as much my doing as it was other peoples’.

Maybe I needed to be completely out of a church in order to see that in myself. I don’t know. But what I do know in my time between churches is that there is virtually no complaint I could level at other Christians that isn’t also applicable to me–and maybe the reason I find it so easy to complain is because I’d rather point the finger than look in a mirror.

How the Religious Right is Trying to Fulfill the Prophecy It Wrote

Apparently there was a campaign this past Sunday for pastors to explicitly endorse a candidate in this presidential election. According to the Daily Beast, hundreds of sermons were to have been mailed to the IRS in a direct challenge to the law that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates.

The IRS doesn’t intend to do anything, and it’s not hard to imagine why: enforcing this law would give the Religious Right the persecution scenario that it’s been preaching about for years.

We hear it on a regular basis: this Supreme Court ruling will mean less freedom for Christians. Four years ago, Focus on the Family wrote a “letter from the future” outlining all the horrors that would happen to Christians if Barack Obama were elected president. And how many times have you been told some story about a pastor in Canada who was supposedly arrested for opposing gay marriage (and how many times have you ever actually seen proof that this happened)?

If there’s anything the Religious Right does best, it’s pretending that it’s under direct attack by its government and society on a 24-7 basis, in spite of its success in getting laws passed that reflect its values. One example: North Carolina, which passed the anti-gay-marriage Amendment One in May with more than 60 percent of the vote. The Right lives in a fantasy world. It exists in a predominantly Christian nation and has tremendous pull with a major political party–and yet it believes that it is the minority, the holder of persecuted values, the marginalized defender of a truth that you could possibly be arrested for believing.

These organizations see it as their duty to protect Christians. The skeptical side of me sees it as an attempt to stay relevant, as it’s hard to fathom why the existence of all these groups would be necessary in a culture in which things are pretty good for the Christians. These groups like to picture themselves as the modern-day version of Paul Revere, looking for the first sign of liberals on the horizon.

I’m glad the IRS isn’t doing much more in response to this campaign. It’d only lead to a bunch of fear-mongering headlines on Fox News and a slew of e-mail campaigns by “Christian” organizations claiming that the persecution they’ve been talking about for so long is finally coming to pass.