TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

24 November 2017

Worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

How religion works in wealthy countries.

Matthew 6.24 • Luke 16.13

In the United States today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the second-biggest shopping day of the year. Used to be the biggest, but that’s now Monday. In order to get customers to shop on their day off, stores offer outrageous sale prices, and many shoppers are so greedy and impatient they’ll do horrible things to one another.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how American merchants have exported the shopping day to other countries, in the hope of kick-starting their Christmas shopping as well. Strikes the United Kingdom’s pundits as odd; why are they suddenly participating in an American phenomenon? And if so, why don’t they get our Thanksgiving too? Although as American merchants have proven, they really don’t care so much about Thanksgiving: They’d have us interrupt our holiday and start shopping Thursday if they can. And they do try.

The myth is it’s called black because merchants do so well, their ledgers are now “in the black” instead of “in the red”—they’re finally turning profits in the fiscal year, instead of losses. This is a lie. The police, who have to break up fights, work crowd control, and deal with trampled or beaten victims, began calling it Black Friday, and the name stuck.

Black Friday is one of our culture’s more obvious examples of Mammonism, the worship of wealth, money, material possessions, and the joy of pursuing all that stuff. Our word Mammon comes from something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, repeated in Luke.

Matthew 6.24 KWL
“Nobody’s able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”
Luke 16.13 KWL
“No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

A few of the more recent translations drop the reference to Mammon and translate this verse, “You cannot serve both God and money” (GNB, NIV, NLT), or “You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB, NRSV). Thing is, mamonás/“Mammon” isn’t the Greek word for wealth; that’d be hríma. It’s an Aramaic word with a Greek ending tacked on, as if it’s an Aramaic name. Hence people extrapolated the idea that Mammon is a person, and since Jesus says you can’t serve this person as well as God, it must therefore be another god.

A false god of course. But some god which competes with the LORD for our devotion. And since the Aramaic mamón is a cognate of the Hebrew matmón/“secret riches,” Mammon must therefore be a god of riches or wealth or money.

In Luke when this statement comes up, Jesus had just told the Undercharging Bookkeeper story: A shifty bookkeeper made friends by undercharging his master’s creditors. Lk 16.1-9 Jesus concludes, “Make friends for yourselves out of the embezzling Mammon.” Lk 16.9 And in the following Luke passage, the Pharisees rejected this teaching of Jesus because they were filiárgyri/“silver-lovers.” Lk 16.14

So is Mammon a money god? Or simply Jesus’s personification of money? Or a mistranslation?

23 November 2017

Thanksgiving Day.

If your country doesn’t have a national day of thanksgiving, that’s a bummer. But you can still give thanks any time.

In the United States, we have a national day of thanksgiving on November’s fourth Thursday.

Who are we giving thanks to? Well, the act which establishes Thanksgiving Day as one of our national holidays, provides no instructions whatsoever on how we’re to observe it. Or whom we’re to thank.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the last Thursday in November in each year after the year 1941 be known as Thanksgiving Day, and is hereby made a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as the 1st day of January, the 22d day of February, the 30th day of May, the 4th day of July, the first Monday of September, the 11th day of November, and Christmas Day are now made by law public holidays.

—77th Congress, 6 October 1941
House Joint Resolution 41

The Senate amended it to read “fourth Thursday in November,” and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law. So it’s a holiday. But left undefined, ’cause our Constitution won’t permit Congress to pick a national religion, nor define religious practice. Article 6; Amendment 1 Not that Congress doesn’t bend that rule on occasion. Making “In God We Trust” our national motto, fr’instance.

Though our government is secular, the nation sure isn’t. Four out of five of us Americans call ourselves Christian. I know; we sure don’t act it. (Look at our crime rate. Look at the people we elect.) Regardless, a supermajority of us claim allegiance to Jesus, which is why we can bend the Constitution so often and get away with it. Our presidents do as well; our first president was the guy who first implemented a national Thanksgiving Day.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.

—President George Washington, 3 October 1789

Yeah, Americans point to other functions as our “first Thanksgiving.” Usually a harvest celebration by the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. Although technically the first Christian thanksgiving day on the continent was held by the Spanish in Florida in 1565—followed by another in Texas in 1598, and another by the Virginia colonists as early as 1607.

Over time, colonial custom created a regular Thanksgiving Day, held in the fall. Sometimes governments declared a Thanksgiving Day, like the Continental Congress declaring one for 18 December 1777 after the Battle of Saratoga. But Washington’s declaration in 1789 didn’t fix the day nationally (and he didn’t declare another till 1795). States set their own days: In 1816, New Hampshire picked 14 November, and Massachusetts picked 28 November.

It wasn’t till 1863 when it did become regular:

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—President Abraham Lincoln, 3 October 1863

Lincoln and his successors declared Thanksgiving every year thereafter.

22 November 2017

The bible: An inspired anthology.

God got people to write ’em. And God gets people to understand ’em.

Inspire /ɪn.spaɪ(.ə)r/ v. Breathe in (air); inhale.
2. Fill with a positive, creative feeling; encourage.
3. Fill with the urge or ability to do or feel something; provoke.
[Inspiration /ɪn.spə'reɪ.ʃən/ n.]

Whenever we Christians talk about inspiration—inspired prophets, teachings, and writings—it’s assumed God did the inspiring. He’s the one who breathed into us. One word we regularly translate “inspired” is theó-pnefstos/“God-breathed,” which is how the NIV prefers to treat “God-inspired” in this verse:

2 Timothy 3.16 KWL
Every God-inspired scripture is also useful for teaching,
for disproving, for correcting, for instruction in rightness.

It’s more than just “I was so excited about my thoughts of God, I decided to create this for him.” It’s God involved with, and behind, this creation process. The Holy Spirit, living within the teacher, prophet, or author, pointed ’em God-ward. Got ’em to describe God with infallible accuracy.

This is what Christians tend to believe about the books and letters which make up the bible: It’s inspired. The Holy Spirit got its authors to describe God with infallible accuracy.

Some of us believe it’s not true of anything else: God inspired the bible, but he’s not inspired anything or anyone since. Which is bunk; of course he has. But Christians aren’t universally agreed about anything other than the bible. (And not all that universally on the bible.) God inspired the bible… but whether he inspired anyone since, is kinda left up to our best judgment… which ain’t all that consistent.

In any event, those who think the bible is inspired, but nothing and no one else is, tend to wander into bibliolatry, which is a whole ’nother problem. And it’s downright weird to hear continuationists, Christians who believe God still speaks to his people directly or through prophets, unthinkingly repeat the claim nothing but the bible is inspired. It stuns ’em when I point out how their beliefs contradict one another. (People aren’t always aware of how much bad theology they have floating around in ’em.)

Fact is, if human beings can’t or couldn’t be inspired, we wouldn’t even have a bible. ’Cause inspired people wrote it, inspired Christians compiled it, and inspired Christians uphold it. True, these inspired people were and are fallible humans. But as people follow the Holy Spirit, he guides us to truth, Jn 16.13 and steers us clear of sin and error. In the moment, we can (and do) write and prophesy infallible stuff. Once done, we might (heck, do) slip up, sin, and make mistakes, and fall right back into fallibility. But the stuff done by the Spirit’s power is still good. The writings in the bible are still authoritative. So we kept ’em.

21 November 2017

God’s unmerited favor.

No, seriously: We don’t earn it. We can’t.

When the LORD chose Avram ben Terah, renamed him Abraham, Ge 17.5 promised him the land of Kenahan/“Canaan” and had him relocate there, Ge 12.1-3 and promised him an uncountable number of descendants, Ge 13.16 it wasn't because Abraham was a good man.

You might’ve known this, but in case you didn’t, go read Genesis again sometime. Most of the Abraham stories involve him screwing up one way or another. Abraham had loads of faith, but that was the product of his God-experiences; it came after God made all his promises. Abraham wasn't a particularly outstanding specimen of humanity.

So why'd the LORD establish a relationship with him and his descendants? Grace. Pure grace.

When the LORD sent Moses to rescue some of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt, patiently dealt with all these Hebrews’ misbehavior thereafter, and finally got their descendants to Canaan and helped them take the land, it again wasn’t because the Hebrews were good people. Read Exodus and Numbers: Without constant supervision, they’d go idolatrous within a month! Miraculously supply ’em with daily bread, and they’d still grumble they had it better in Egypt… despite all the slavery and infanticide. The Hebrews were just awful to their God. So why’d the LORD even bother with them? ’Cause he promised Abraham he would. Dt 7.7-8 ’Cause grace. Pure grace.

When Jesus decided to save me, what had I done to merit saving? Not a thing. I was a little kid. Not a good little kid either. I could be a tantrum-throwing brat when I didn’t get my way. (I still can be, which is why I gotta keep that misbehavior in check. God help my poor nurses if ever I go senile.) Plenty of Christians will easily confess they were just as rotten when they first encountered Jesus. Why’d he save us anyway? ’Cause he loves us. ’Cause grace. Pure grace.

Christians love to describe grace as “unmerited favor.” It’s more than that—it’s God’s entire attitude towards us, which includes unmerited favor. And often we forget the unmerited part: It really isn’t deserved at all. Totally unfair. Often inappropriate. It breaks all the rules of karma. We shouldn’t get it!

Hence there are a lot of people, Christians included, who still strive to achieve good karma. Who try their darnedest to be good people, try to balance out any bad in their lives, and make it so they do merit God’s good favor. Who think the whole purpose of good deeds is to make ourselves worthy of heaven. They forget God doesn’t work like that. At all. He forgave us already. He makes us worthy of heaven. Ep 1.15-23

Why? Nah; I’m not gonna repeat it just now. Go back and read it again.

20 November 2017

Patience. Or longsuffering. Either.

How angry Christians lack it, and how to work on it.

Years ago I casually mentioned to someone I was praying for greater patience.

He. “Aw, why would you do that to yourself?”
Me. “Why, what’s the problem?”
He. “You realize how God teaches you patience, right?”
Me. “Of course. He’s gonna make me practice.”
He. “And life’s gonna suck. You’re gonna wind up in more situations where you gotta be patient. You’ll have to wait for everything.”
Me. “So everybody’s been telling me. They’ve been about as encouraging as Satan itself. You sure it didn’t send you? Get thee behind me.”

Yeah, don’t tell the dude who’s struggling with patience that his life’s about to suck. He’ll turn on you.

But it’s something we Christians need to strive for. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit, one of the ways love behaves, and impatient Christians wind up exhibiting works of the flesh like anger, unforgiveness, argumentativeness, and unkindness. Much of the reason Christians get a bad reputation with pagans is because of how we get when we’re impatient—and how we justify the impatient behavior with cheap grace. Not cool, folks.

However. Strive to actually attain patience, and we’re gonna come across Christians who thick-headedly joke, “Oh, you’re praying for patience? Good luck with all that. Man are you gonna get reamed with it.” Again: Not cool.

True, there’s a faction of Christians who imagine once we become Christian, the Holy Spirit downloads fruit into our character like a scene from The Matrix. Doesn’t work that way. Wish it did. But these Christians, imagining they somehow have patience even though their behavior proves they don’t, try to interpret all sorts of other things as patience. Most commonly despair: Just give up. Quit striving. Stop hoping. (And quit feeling.)

The rest of us recognize God wants his kids to be patient like he is. So we gotta bite the bullet and pray for patience. And yes we’re gonna slam into a lot of situations where we simply gotta wait things out.

But don’t forget: God is kind. When we get into those situations, we who seek God’s patience are gonna find we’re somehow, somehow, actually able to bear them. Before, we’d lose our cool in minutes. Now we don’t. (True, some of us now take a few more minutes. It’s still more.) We acted in faith, and the Spirit’s reply was to grant us his patience.

See, all those nimrods who tell us, “Ooh, you prayed for patience; now life’s gonna suck” have forgot God is kind. He’s not interested in developing our characters through suffering. That’s how humans behave. That’s how parents and drill sergeants work. God’s not a jerk. He develops our character through our obedience. Not through our disobedience, so now we gotta pay some sort of karmic debt. That’s not grace, and God does grace.

So when we seek God and strive to obey him, when we put our faith in his ability to equip us for every good work, he gives us opportunities to practice that obedience, and he empowers us with those very traits we’re looking for.

God’s a relational being. So—no surprise—he wants us to develop fruit through the relationships which we have with other people. Think of it as hands-on experience. ’Cause once we have the hang of it, we’ll have to apply that patience towards every future relationship we develop with new people. Including some people whom we’ll need to be very patient with. But in the meanwhile, we gotta work on being patient with friends, family… and enemies.

Yeah, that’s no fun sometimes. Do it anyway.

17 November 2017

“…But what if that message is from the devil?”

On psyching ourselves out of sharing.

In my early days of learning what God’s voice sounds like, from time to time an idea’d pop into my head, and I’d wonder—as one should—whether the idea was mine, God’s… or Satan’s.

I kinda blame my Fundamentalist upbringing. Y’see, there were a number of people in that church who insisted God doesn’t talk to people anymore, and anybody who claimed to hear from God was really hearing Satan. The effect is it makes a lot of Christians really wary of prophets. And, because the Holy Spirit actually does speak, really wary of listening to God for themselves.

So I’d be at a bus stop, and the idea’d pop into my head, “Go tell that person ‘God bless you.’ ”

And my knee-jerk reaction would be, “Is that God’s voice, mine, or Satan’s? After all, what if that person’s really anti-God right now, and my ‘God bless you’ prompts some sort of angry tirade? What if that person’s a cult member who sees this as an opportunity to try to convert me? What if…? What if…?” and so forth.

Okay. Back away from the Fear for a moment, and consider this rationally: Why on earth would Satan want anyone to be blessed? And thanks to my paranoid knee-jerk reaction, this obviously ain’t my idea.

Simple process of elimination: God wants this person to hear, “God bless you.” Not necessarily because it’ll have a profound impact on them (although in my experience, sometimes it does). Or an impact on ’em yet. But more positivity in the world? More grace? More love? What’s the problem?

Well, other than me. Most of the time my long lists of “What if?…” meant I’d talk myself out of doing anything. Humanity’s usual practice is to avoid risks, to listen to that self-preservation instinct, even when it’s cranked too high, and the devil’s poking at us to crank it even higher by inserting ridiculous worst-case scenarios into our minds.

But y’see, our unwillingness to act, our willingness to listen to the Fear, is what kills growth in our ability to hear God. Because if we’re not gonna listen and follow, the Holy Spirit’s not gonna bother to give us instructions. And that’s most of what he tells us. Not little feel-good nuggets of wisdom, suitable for sermon topics and happy thoughts. He wants obedience. Same as always.

So how do we break this cycle of hearing, but holding back?

It’s best we get prepared. Figure out the appropriate reaction to when the Spirit drops something into us. Then follow that—instead of our knee-jerk worries which lead us to do nothing.

16 November 2017

Christians who lack faith.

Who don’t get much done.

Nope, didn’t title this piece “Christians who doubt.” Because everybody doubts. Which isn’t a bad thing. Jesus doesn’t want us to be gullible followers who can’t discern the difference between truth and rubbish. Mt 10.16 If we just put our faith in people indiscriminately—believe everything our friends tell us, believe everything our political parties tell us, never fact-check our preachers to make sure what they’re telling us is valid—we’re gonna be such fools. Doubt away.

But there’s a very particular form of doubt Jesus objects to most, and that’s doubting him.

So when we talk about “Christians who lack faith,” it’s about Christians who lack faith in Jesus. Not Christians who doubt their preachers and church leaders and churches. Sometimes those folks will try to mix ’em all together, and insist if you doubt them you doubt Jesus. Nope; ’tain’t the same thing, and don’t let ’em tell you otherwise. People will fail you, and Jesus is the only exception. Trust him; trust them as long as they remain trustworthy. (And forgive them when they screw up, ’cause they will. We all do.)

Still, there are a lot of Christians with the opposite problem: They trust their churches and church institutions. Less so Jesus. They trust people they can see, but they haven’t yet seen Jesus, so a lot of times they treat him as imaginary.

Often Christians’ll passively trust Jesus. By which I mean we figure he’ll be there for us eventually. Like when we die and need to get into heaven. Or at the End, when we need to escape the End Times. Or otherwise somewhere in the future. We figure Jesus’ll sort everything out later. While this certainly resembles faith, it’s often just procrastination: We’re putting off our problems because we figure Jesus’ll sort them all out in the end. It’s a half-step up from figuring the universe will sort everything out. It’s just as naïve. But more on that idea another time. I’m talking about not trusting Jesus now.

Now? Yep. We don’t trust him enough to do as he says. Go where he goes. Take the risks he tells us to. Listen to the Holy Spirit’s instructions or corrections. Where we are is more comfortable than where he wants us. We trust circumstances, not Jesus. That’s what I mean by unfaith.

Christians find all sorts of “Christian”-sounding excuses to dodge acts of faith. There are entire theological systems based on evading Jesus. Really popular ones too.

There’s the bunch who claim all the bible’s instructions are only for other dispensations. That Jesus’s lessons on his kingdom don’t apply till the End Times, or some other far-off idealistic future. They act as if it’s coming, but according to their timeline it won’t be around for another seven years. But that seven-year endpoint keeps sliding away. They keep putting it off, putting it off. They’ll follow Jesus then. Meanwhile, procrastination. (Which explains the fruitlessness—they’re procrastinating that too.)

There’s the bunch who claim the Holy Spirit stopped doing stuff in the present day. Often the same bunch, but there are a number who claim no, the Spirit does act; just nowhere near as often as bible times, and not as invasively as the Pentecostals claim. It becomes their excuse for treating him like he’s seldom there… or not there at all. Don’t let him guide them, empower them, help them. Imagine he’s far, not near. Imagine he’s imaginary, not real.

There’s the bunch who don’t trust the Spirit to instruct, guide, and convict fellow Christians. Instead they imagine that’s our job, so they spend a lot of time correcting everyone. Well, convicting everyone. Both Christians and pagan. ’Cause since the Holy Spirit’s not around—and they aren’t listening to him any—the fruitlessness stands to reason. When we don’t leave judgment and conviction in the hands of the only righteous judge in the universe, and imagine we’re all alone out here, we get weird and paranoid and heavy-handed and cultish. We certainly won’t even trust fellow Christians.

Then there’s the bunch on the other extreme: They don’t trust anything. Not apostles, not Jesus, not the bible, anything. But they will trust TV talk show hosts and clever teachers. And never double-check ’em against anything.

15 November 2017

Changing God’s mind.

And those who say God never changes his mind.

If you know your bible—heck, if you’ve seen The Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston—you know the Hebrews had a major lapse when they were at Sinai. The previous month, the LORD handed down his 10 commandments, then Moses went up the mountain to get more instructions, and while he was gone the people decided they wanted an idol. Whether this idol was meant to represent the LORD or some other god, we don’t know. What we do know is the idol violated the very command the LORD handed down last month. Ex 20.4-6

Understandably, the LORD was pissed.

Exodus 32.9-14 KWL
9 The LORD told Moses, “I see this people. Look, the people are stiff-necked.
10 Now leave me: My rage is hot towards them. I’ll end them. I’ll make you a great nation.”
11 Moses begged his LORD God’s face, saying, “Why this hot anger towards your people, LORD?
You brought them of Egypt’s land with great strength and a steady hand.
12 What will the Egyptians say?
‘He brought them out for evil, to kill them in the mountains, to end them from the face of the earth.’
Repent of your hot anger! Relent of the evil you plan for your people!
13 Remember your slaves Abraham, Isaac, and Israel,
You swore by yourself to them when you spoke to them:
‘I’ll increase your seed like stars of the sky.
I give your seed all this land, like I said. They’ll have it forever.’ ”
14 And the LORD relented of the evil he said he’d do to his people.

That’s right. The Almighty backed down. A lowly human got him to do it.

And it’s not the only passage in the bible where God changed his mind. There are dozens. Here’s a few notable instances:

  • God regretted making humans. Ge 6.5-7
  • God regretted making Saul king. 1Sa 15.11
  • God relented from destroying Jerusalem with plague. 2Sa 24.16, 1Ch 21.15
  • God showed Amos two visions that he immediately took back after Amos protested. Am 7.3, 6
  • If a nation repents, God takes back the disaster he had planned for it. Jr 18.8, 26.3, 26.13, Jl 2.13-14, Ps 106.45 Like Judah Jr 26.19 and like Nineveh. Jh 3.10
  • If a nation goes rogue, God takes back the good he had planned for it. Jr 18.8, 10 And gets really tired of doing this. Jr 15.6
  • We used to be God's enemies, but now we're his friends. Ro 5.6-11

Problem is, this flies in the face of the beliefs of many Christians. Because they don’t believe God changes his mind. Ever. At all.

14 November 2017

Some people don’t wanna argue. And they’re right not to.

Apologetics isn’t about picking fights. Don’t use it that way.

An acquaintance of mine just started an “apologetics ministry.” Currently it consists of his blog, his Twitter account, and a whole bunch of his spare time. You know, exactly like TXAB, except I don’t do apologetics.

Except dude went out and created a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Got board members. Accepts donations. He’s seriously hoping to turn it into a full-time job. He got really irritated with me for calling it “getting paid to argue with strangers on the internet in his pajamas.”

But that is what he’s up to. He’s doing it “for Jesus,” but still. He considers it a vital, necessary ministry—that there simply aren’t enough Christians out there, arguing with strangers on the internet, whether in their jammies or not. I’d beg to differ, but he claims they’re not good apologists—not as informed as he is.

If you’re picking up the idea I’m not as jazzed as he is about his burgeoning “ministry,” you’d be so right. Yet he’s hardly the only Christian apologist I’ve met who covets a career in it. And some of ’em actually have made it a career. Because other Christians are convinced there needs to be an army of pajama-clad Christian warriors, armed with the “sword of the Spirit”… and stabbing away at flesh and blood. Ep 6.12-17

Every so often these “ministries” beg me for money. I don’t sign up for their mailing lists; I get put on them ’cause they figure a Christian blogger would be sympathetic to their plights for regular salaries and to keep the lights on. One group, I kid you not, wanted donations ’cause they wanted to open a coffee bar in their office, complete with a commercial espresso machine. Since Google Maps reveals their office is in an out-of-the-way office park, I deduced the only ones partaking of donor-supported coffee would be them, and unsubscribed from their mailing list with extreme prejudice. Entitled first-worlders; I tell ya.

But back to my apologist acquaintance. Exactly who’s his “ministry” ministering to? The people he wants to pick fights with in the YouTube comments? Or him?—’cause if he can get enough financing, he can spend all the live-long day debating strangers on the internet. (Yes, yes, “for Jesus”!) It can become his day job, instead of his nighttime hobby. As is the case of most of the apologists I know, who never bother to set up a whole nonprofit corporation around themselves.

Why am I so dismissive of the idea? ’Cause argumentativeness is a work of the flesh. Ep 5.20 That’s what he’s really about. Not leading people to Jesus, like an evangelist. Shoving people towards Jesus, like a bully.

And in such people’s hands, the gospel is no longer good news. It’s bad. The fruit of such tactics are people who flinch at the gospel—and if they’re actually successful, more argumentative Christians. More people who think it’s okay to be a dick to all people, that they might by all means save some. Because they’re doing it “for Jesus.” And hey, if they can gather enough donors, it must mean Jesus has blessed their undertaking right? Surely money must mean divine approval.

I’m gonna take a break to throw things, then be right back to rebuke this idea further.

13 November 2017

Graceless advice.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I don’t really have to remind people that TXAB has an email link. I get questions on a fairly regular basis about all sorts of stuff. Usually asking my opinion about various Christian practices and movements, which I often wind up turning into TXAB articles on the subject.

And sometimes people ask for personal advice, which I’m much less likely to turn into TXAB articles. ’Cause they’re dealing with particular specific things. If I just posted these emails for the whole of the internet to read, it feels like a huge invasion of privacy. Even if I heavily censored them. The rare times I’ve done it, I tend to rewrite them entirely, which is why they kinda sound like me.

Not that this stops the various advice ladies from doing this on a daily or weekly basis. But then again, the people who send them questions know precisely what they’re getting into. If you send “Dear Abby” a letter, it’s gonna get published. So, best you hide certain details, because you don’t want the neighbors to deduce who you are, or who your spouse is. Sometimes people hide too many details for fear of getting outed, which means “Abby” can’t give an accurate diagnosis, which is why professional therapists aren’t always happy with the advice ladies.

Whereas the people who send me stuff obviously don’t expect me to blab this stuff all over the internet. ’Cause they do share confidences, hoping I’ll keep them. Which I will, with some caveats.

But there are limits to my expertise. I get a lot of questions about depression. Not because I suffer from it myself, but because a lot of people just plain do suffer from it. And when they go to their fellow Christians, they’re often given the lousy advice to try and pray it away. I regularly remind these people they need to see a doctor. Depression is a legitimate medical condition, and I’m not a psychiatrist. (My graduate psych classes dealt with education, not mental illness.) Go talk with a doctor and get a proper diagnosis. Don’t just send an email to some blogger: Go get actual help.

And if you read the advice ladies, they’ll often advise the very same thing. There’s still a lot of stigma in our culture against seeing a psychiatrist. Too many people think a mental disorder isn’t an illness, but a moral failure, caused by sin, exacerbated by devils. Exactly like the people of Jesus’s day thought of physical disorders:

John 9.1-2 KWL
1 Passing by, Jesus saw a person who was blind since birth.
2 Questioning him, Jesus’s students said, “Rabbi, who sinned? He or his parents?”
because he was blind since birth.

Jesus had to state, “Neither,” then cure the guy. But to this day people still act as if a birth defect is an “act of God,” and still act as if depression is because of some unconfessed sin or something. We’re so quick to judge, and slow to help.

Judging—which we Christians are allowed to do with one another, 1Co 5.12 provided we don’t use double standards—is a fairly simple process when we have an easy-to-understand scripture. If you’re asking me about bible, most of the time the scriptures are cut-and-dried, and I can easily tell you about ’em. I can give as quick a decision as any small-claims court show, like Judge Judy, who wraps up those cases really fast when the law is clear. I’ll just quote the appropriate proof text, bang the gavel (metaphorically; I don’t actually own one, and I’m not using my hammer on my wooden desk), and we’re done.

But most of the questions I get aren’t black and white. If they were, most people woulda figured ’em out themselves. They’re about debatable interpretations of the bible, and people figure they need an expert to help ’em navigate, figure I sound like I know what I’m talking about, so they come to me. But unlike a know-it-all apologist or “bible answer man,” I’m slow to judge. I’ll tell you what I think it looks like. I’m not gonna condemn you if you honestly come to another conclusion. You gotta stay true to your conscience, Ro 14.1-4 as do I. I’ve no business declaring you wrong; what do I know?

So I’d likely make a really unentertaining advice lady. What people want are snap decisions, and I don’t always have one of those.

10 November 2017

“Prophecy scholars”: Neither prophets nor scholars.

These are the folks who write all the End Times books.

I’m Pentecostal. So whenever I see an notice or ad for an upcoming “prophecy conference,” they tend to refer to prophets. Actual prophets. Meaning people who’ve learned to listen to the Holy Spirit—and thereafter share with others what he’s told them. True, some of ’em practice some really iffy methods of identifying his voice. But when Penecostals, charismatics, and most continuationists refer to prophecy, we literally mean the same thing we see done in the bible by Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Simon Peter, and Paul of Tarsus. They heard God; they shared what they he told ’em; that’s prophecy.

Outside Pentecostal circles—though not far outside Pentecostal circles, ’cause from time to time it gets in here—is a whole other type of “prophecy conference.” There, they aren’t at all talking about hearing God. They mean predictions about the End Times. They’re throwing a conference ’cause they wanna tell you what they think the apocalypses mean.

Um… didn’t God deliberately make those visions difficult to interpret, their details near-impossible to pin down, lest people try to make their own plans for the future which do an end-run around him? Well, insist these “prophecy scholars,” not really. ’Cause they were able to figure ’em out. They got a system!

Yep, figured out how to connect the dots. They were more discerning, more clever, more devout, more studied, more fervent, than all the other Christians before them. All the supposedly level-headed folks who insist we’re not to bounce to conclusions based on coincidence and fear-based illogic: They’re wearing blinders. Wake up, sheeple!

So come to their conferences. Pay the admission. Buy their books. Donate to their ministries. Subscribe to their websites. Hire them to preach at your churches. ’Cause they’re not giving away their teachings for free, y’know. They gotta pay the bills.

Anyway if you ever make the mistake of going to the conferences, led by “noted prophecy scholars” (many of whom you’ve never even heard of, unless you or your church have already blown hundreds of dollars a year on their stuff), you’ll notice their definition of “prophecy” is precisely the same as that of pagans. In other words, prophecy isn’t hearing from God; it’s about predicting the future. It’s only about the future. And, warn these guys, it’s likely the near future!

Well okay, they’ve been claiming that for the past two centuries. But unlike their prophecy-scholar forebears, their interpretations are gonna be correct. ’Cause discernment, cleverness, devotion, study, yada yada yada.

09 November 2017

The ungracious “doctrines of grace.”

Calvinist soteriology, which they call “grace”—which isn’t really.

Doctrines of grace /'dɒk.trɪnz əv greɪs/ n. The six points of Calvinist soteriology: Deterministic sovereignty, human depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, efficacious grace, and certainty in one’s eternal destiny.

A number of Calvinists aren’t all that comfortable with the title “Calvinist.”

For various reasons. Some of ’em don’t like being part of an “-ism.” They consider their theology part of a long, noble, five-century tradition. (Some of ’em try for longer, and claim the ancient Christians also believed just as they do. But good luck finding anyone other than St. Augustine who’s comfortable with determinism.) In any event they want their tradition defined by something grander and longer than the reign and teachings of a solitary Genevan bishop, no matter how clever he was.

Others concede not everything John Calvin taught is right on the money. They won’t go so far as I do, and insist Calvin’s fixation on God’s sovereignty undermines God’s character. But obviously they’ve a problem with other ideas which undermine God’s character. Like double predestination, the belief God created people whom he never intends to save, whose only purpose is to burn forever in hell. Calvin figured it’s a logical conclusion of his system. But understandably a lot of Calvinists hate this idea, and have tried their darnedest to get out of it—with varying degrees of failure.

Regardless the reason, these Calvinists prefer to call themselves “reform Christians.” I first learned the term from my theology professors, who much preferred it. It reminds everyone they’re part of the Protestant reformation. As far as some of Calvinists are concerned, it’s the only truly reformed part of the reformation: The other movements capitulate to Roman Catholicism too much for their taste.

The problem with relabeling? Yep, not every reform Christian is Calvinist. Lutherans and Molinists aren’t necessarily. Arminians (like me) and Anabaptists sure aren’t. If you’re Protestant, reform means your movement and theology goes back to the 1500s reformers, and embraces the ideas of scriptural authority (prima/sola scriptura), salvation by grace (sola gratia), justification by faith (sola fide), and atonement by our sole mediator Christ Jesus (solus Christus). You know, stuff just about every Protestant believes—plus many a Catholic and Orthodox Christian, even though their church leadership might insist otherwise.

The other label both “reform Christians,” and Calvinists who don’t mind their title, like to use is “the doctrines of grace” to describe their central beliefs about how God saves people—or as we theologians call this branch of theology, soteriology. They’re called “doctrines of grace” because God saves us by his grace, right? What else might you call ’em?

But like I said, Calvin’s fixation on sovereignty undermines God’s character. And in so doing, they undermine much of the grace in this system. Grace is God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people. But when Calvinism describes salvation, you’ll find not only is it not gracious: It’s coerced, involuntary, hollow, and sorta evil.

08 November 2017

The legion of evil spirits.

Jesus meets a man filled with thousands of demons.

Mark 5.1-10 • Matthew 8.28-29 • Luke 8.26-31

Let’s begin with northern Israel’s geography. First there’s Kinneret, the lake.


The Galilean sea.

On its east is the province of the Galilee, named for the word galýl/“circle,” referring to its circle of towns. Jesus lived there. On its west is the Dekápolis/“10 cities,” a region of Syrian Greek city-provinces created by the Romans after they conquered Syria in 65BC. Jesus visited this territory often, and it’s where today’s story takes place.

In Old Testament days the Dekápolis belonged to the Hebrews. Today part of it is called the Golan Heights. In Jesus’s day, even though it was full of Greek-speaking Syrians, it was still considered part of Israel, and still part of the territory Antipas Herod supervised. But it was full of gentile, Greek-enculturated pagans.

By Greek-enculturated I mean they lived like Greeks. Alexander of Macedon had pushed his own culture everywhere he went, and in fourth-century BC Syria it seriously took hold. Greek language, Greek dress, Greek food, Greek religion. The Syrians worshiped a mixture of Syrian, Canaanite, and Greek gods. I’ve been to their ruins; these people weren’t Jews by any stretch of the imagination. They were so Greek, whenever Jews thought of gentiles, they thought of these guys… and thought of Greeks.

The ruins include lots of monuments to Greek deities. The major deities were called theoí/“gods,” and the lesser deities were called daimónia/“demons.” Or as the KJV calls them, devils. To the Christian mind, all these deities are devils. 1Co 10.19-20 And they were everywhere. Anything and everything was dedicated to a god or demon. Every monument was set up to honor something or someone. If a noble human, there was a caveat that the monument also honored whatever guardian demon protected that person, so when you remembered the person, you were meant to also worship their demon. The hillside was full of these monuments. You could see them from the beach.

And that’s where our story begins: Jesus and his students, after crossing the lake, landed on the beach, in full view of a cluster of monuments. And in full view of some wild man who was living among the monuments, who eagerly—and in utter terror—rushed down to meet him.

Was he of two minds about meeting Jesus? More like of 2,001 minds. Dude was full of devils.

07 November 2017

Jesus stops the weather.

A miracle which wholly upended his students’ worldview.

Mark 4.35-41 • Matthew 8.18, 8.23-27 • Luke 8.22-25

Right before this story, Jesus had a really long day. He’d been teaching the crowds, likely healing the sick, and he needed some sack time. So he got the idea to cross the Galilee’s lake.

Mark 4.35-36 KWL
35 Jesus told them when that day became evening, “Can we cross to the far side?”
36 Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus as-is into the boat. Other boats came with him.
Matthew 8.18 KWL
Jesus, seeing a crowd round him, ordered his students to go to the far side of the lake.
Luke 8.22 KWL
This happened one day: Jesus entered a boat with his students
and told them, “Can we cross to the far side of the lake?”
Matthew 8.23 KWL
Entering the boat, Jesus’s students followed him.

The authors of the New Testament called this particular body of water a thálassa, a word which gets translated as “sea” because Homer used it for the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks really just meant any large body of water. Properly, our English word “sea” is saltwater, and connected to the ocean. (It’s why the way-bigger Great Lakes aren’t seas: Though connected to the ocean, they’re freshwater.) This lake is freshwater, 166 square kilometers (64 square miles), and 212 meters below sea level. Mark Twain liked to compare it to Lake Tahoe, which is in my part of the world—but Tahoe is a mile high and 490 square kilometers, so I’m figuring Twain just eyeballed it.


The Galilee’s lake/“sea.”

Today, and originally, it was called Kinneret. Nu 34.11 In Greek this became Ghennisarét (KJV “Gennesaret,” Mt 14.34, Mk 6.53, Lk 5.1) but the Galilee’s tetra-árhis/“quarter-ruler” Antipas Herod (only called “king” ’cause he was still descended from royalty) had renamed it “Tiberias” Jn 6.1 to suck up to the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus. The locals weren’t fans of the emperor, nor the new name. Obviously some of ’em still used the original. But if you were in earshot of someone who wanted to enforce “Tiberias,” you could get away with calling it “the Galilee’s lake.” ’Cause it is.

I crossed it on a speedboat, which took about an hour. By way of comparison, Jesus’s students were sailing, which takes longer, unless you’re rowing, which takes even longer.

So Jesus, who had a nice comfortable cushion to rest on, expected to catch a few hours’ shuteye. But Kinneret is notorious for its unpredictable weather.

Mark 4.37-38 KWL
37 A great windstorm began. Waves were throwing water into the boat, so the boat was already filled.
38 Jesus was in the stern on a cushion, sleeping.
The students roused him and told him, “Teacher, don’t you care we’re dying?”
Matthew 8.24-25 KWL
24 Look, a great shaking happened on the lake, causing the boat to be covered in waves.
Jesus was asleep, 25 and coming to rouse Jesus, they said, “Master! Save us! We’re dying!”
Luke 8.23-24 KWL
23 Jesus fell asleep while they sailed.
A windstorm came down on the lake, and they were swamped and in danger.
24A Coming to awaken Jesus, they said, “Chief, chief, we’re dying!”

Matthew describes it as a great seismós/“shaking,” a word we tend to use for earthquakes, and maybe an earthquake triggered the storm. Regardless this windstorm was big; anywhere between a strong wind and hurricane. It meant they had to reef the sail and row, but the winds were enough to swamp the boat. They were in danger of capsizing.

Yet none of this woke Jesus. Which Christians have historically interpreted as a likely-supernatural confidence in his Father to keep him alive to complete his mission, but y’know, Jesus might have been just that tired.

06 November 2017

“Be still and know that I am God.”

It’s not about being quiet.

Psalm 46.10

Most people shorten this verse to simply, “Be still and know that I am God.” But sometimes they actually do know the entire verse:

Psalm 46.10 KJV
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

When people do remember the rest of this verse, they tend to recall (and prefer) a translation without that bothersome word “heathen” in it. The word goyím properly means “foreigners,” which we also translate “foreigners” or “nations”—the Amplified Bible, ESV, NASB, and NIV went with “I will be exalted among the nations,” which works better for them. Be still, know God is God, and if everybody can just chill out and meditate for a bit, God can be exalted by all the nations, round the world.

Yeah, this tends to be considered a meditation verse. I’ve been in prayer groups where Christians have talked about meditation, and they misquote Psalm 46.10 all the time. “Remember, we’re just trying to be still and know God is God.”

Other times Christians wanna encourage one another to relax. People get agitated, emotional, panicky, flustered, and once again Psalm 46.10 pops up: “You need to just be still and know God is God. God’s on the throne. He can solve every problem.” Or less patiently, “Can you be still for a minute, and know God is God?”

Actually, this less-than-patient last example, though still wrong, is closest to what Korah’s sons were talking about in this particular psalm.

03 November 2017

Not faith, but a faith.

And we’re not saved by faith.

Faith /feɪθ/ n. Complete trust or confidence in someone/something.
2. Religion: A system of beliefs and practices about God.
3. A strongly-held belief or theory, maintained despite a lack of proof.
4. A name Christians like to give their daughters. My niece, fr’instance.
[Faithful /'feɪθ.fəl/ adj.]

I bring up the definition of faith again ’cause today I’m writing about the second definition: A system of beliefs. A religion. The word most people tend to mean when they talk about faith: “Oh, you believe in that stuff because you have faith.” By which they often mean the magical ability to believe in goofy rubbish. Or, if they’re being more generous, they mean we have a religion—and the religion requires us to believe in goofy rubbish.

So that’s what pagans mean when they speak of “people of faith”: People who have a religion. Particularly the people who like to insist, “No I don’t have a religion. I have a relationship.” (Which implies they’re not consistent in their religion, but I wrote on that elsewhere.) Okay fine: If these people wanna insist they have no religion—even though they totally do—we’ll just use the synonym “faith,” which they appear to have no beef with. But we all know it means “religion.”

For such people, “religion” only means dead religion—all ritual no relationship, all actions no beliefs, all behavior no trust. But call it “faith,” and emphasize the living part which should be at the core of living religion, Jm 2.26 and they’re fine with it.

Here’s the problem (’cause you knew there was a problem coming, didn’tcha?): In using the word “faith” to mean “religion,” Christians often mix up the two definitions and imagine them to all be one and the same thing. When we say we have faith, we don’t merely mean we trust God. We mean we have religious faith: We believe doctrines. We have foundational truths which we base our Christianity upon. Hopefully we’re orthodox—or at least we’re pretty sure we are.

Is that the definition the scriptures use to mean pístis/“faith”? Not even close. No, not even the verses where we think we can overlay the religion idea on top of it. Faith always means trust, and usually trust in God. It only means religion in our culture.

Not Jesus’s, nor the apostles’, nor the folks who came before. When Abraham believed the LORD, and was considered righteous for it, Ge 15.6 this wasn’t at all Abraham’s embrace of religious doctrine. It was a personal trust in a personal God, with whom Abraham held a personal relationship.

But like I said, Christians’ll mix the definitions together. The result will be all sorts of interesting heresies.

02 November 2017

Tongues trigger emotion. Don’t let that misdirect you.

It’s an emotional experience to pray with God’s power. But we’re called to more than that.

1 Corinthians 14.20-21.

Praying in tongues is an emotional thing.

Y’see, when we pray tongues, it’s usually because we aren’t sure what to say to God. We’re too overwrought to say anything. Or there are so many thoughts in our head, and we can’t sort out what to prioritize. Or we don’t even know what’s going on, so we can’t articulate anything, but we know we oughta pray. Or we have prayed, but it wasn’t enough. For these and many other reasons, the Holy Spirit has granted us the ability to let him say it for us. Ro 8.26 But y’notice in all the circumstances I listed (and the dozens I haven’t), emotion’s a big part of it.

Here’s the catch. It’s also possible to pray tongues when we don’t know what to pray—but initially, feel nothing. That’s right. We haven’t resorted to tongues because we wanna pray; we’ve resorted to tongues because we wanna feel. We’re seeking the emotion which comes along with prayer-tongues. Less so God.

And the symptom of that problem is when we’re not praying with our minds.

1 Corinthians 14.14 KWL
When I pray tongues, my spirit prays. My mind isn’t fruitful.

When we’re praying tongues (or rote prayers,) we should engage our minds. Prayer’s about communicating with God, not getting a heavenly buzz. So there should be some communication on our part, right? Some thought about what to tell God, how to praise him, our needs, others’ needs, even what scriptures we’ve been turning over in our minds. Never pray brain-dead. Turns too easily into dead religion.

Okay. The anti-tongues crowd don’t really care about any of this stuff. They’re just looking for an excuse to ban tongues. So whenever they get any hint we’re praying brain-dead, they pounce. Blow it up into something profoundly awful, some form of egregious sin. If we pray tongues, but in any way aren’t praying mentally (that is, enough for their satisfaction), they figure ’tis better we didn’t pray at all.

Which is completely wrong. Tongues are good! They build us up, 1Co 14.4 because they’re prayer. Since when is prayer bad? Okay, yes, when we have wrong motives. When we’re praying for the wrong things. Jm 4.3 But God doesn’t have to answer such prayers with yes. And if we’re listening to him as we should be, the Holy Spirit can always straighten out our defective motives.

Hence Paul and Sosthenes’ simple solution to the problem of mindless prayer:

1 Corinthians 14.15 KWL
Why is this? I’ll pray by my spirit; I’ll pray by my mind.
I’ll sing by my spirit; I’ll sing by my mind.

Anyway. I bring up mindless prayer ’cause I’m focusing on the emotional dimension of tongues. It gets to the core of why the apostles had to correct the ancient Corinthians about their prayer practices: They, too, were praying in tongues for all the wrong reasons.

01 November 2017

Bibliolatry: When Christians straight-up worship the bible.

When reverence for God’s word crosses a line.

Christianity is based on the person and work of Christ Jesus.

I hope you knew this already. Most of us do. But you’re gonna find a strain of Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, who consider Christianity to be based on the bible. As a result they’ve exalted the bible to a really high position in their belief system. Nearly as high as God. Sometimes even higher, and we call that bibliolatry. They call it all sorts of other things—a “high view of scripture,” or love and respect for God’s holy word, or Christian apologetics in which they argue for the bible’s centrality and preeminence. But Jesus is meant to be center and preeminent, and if you put anything else there, it’s idolatry. Even when it’s the bible.

In my experience, bible-worship tends to happen most often among cessationists. No, they’re hardly the only ones who do it. But once you insist God turned off the miracles, and won’t talk to us anymore, what’re you left with? Well, your bibles. And this is why they exalt their bibles: It’s the only thing they have left of God. It’s like if your mother abandoned you as a child, but left you a note saying she loves you: You’re gonna cling to that note, and make it the most precious thing you own. (Or you’re gonna bitterly throw it out, but I’m not discussing apostasy today.) It tends to become a substitute for your mother—and for cessationists, the bible’s become the substitute for their Father.

Or the Holy Spirit, ’cause they imagine his only job nowadays is to give ’em a warm fuzzy “inspired” feeling whenever they’ve correctly understood the scriptures. Or Jesus, ’cause they argue the only way to have a relationship with him is to read about him—as opposed to talking with him, obeying him, getting empowered by him, and all the stuff which constitute the actual Christian life. Nope, if they reject such experiences ’cause they imagine they don’t happen anymore, they won’t know him. Just about him.

So insult the bible, or show it what they consider a lack of respect, and they figure we’ve committed blasphemy. They’ll even call it that; as if we could slander a bible. It must be treated with nothing but the greatest reverence. Never set your bible on the floor. Never doodle in it. Never toss it onto a table. Protect it in the biggest, thickest bible covers. To treat it as an ordinary book, is as if we treated God with anything other than majesty.

Heck, some of ’em aren’t even hiding their idolatry. They’ll actually say God and the bible are equivalent.