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15 November 2019

Sock-puppet theology: Meditation gone bad.

Let’s begin with a frequently-misunderstood passage, which I’ve elsewhere discussed in more detail.

Hebrews 12.1-2 KWL
1 Consequently we, being greatly encircled by a cloud of witnesses,
throwing away every training weight and easily-distracting sin,
can enduringly run the race lying before us,
2 looking at the start and finish of our faith, Jesus.
Instead of the joy lying before him, Jesus endured a cross, dismissing the shame.
Now he sits at the right of God’s throne!

This is a sports metaphor. Since we do track and field events a little differently than the ancient Romans did, stands to reason Christians will mix up some of the ideas. The “cloud of witnesses” among them: It refers to the runners. It’s our fellow Christian witnesses, running through dirt, kicking up dust. Since today’s stadiums use polyurethane and rubber tracks—so we can actually see the runners, not a massive dust cloud—we don’t recognize the historical context of this verse anymore. Hence Christians guess at what νέφος/néfos, “cloud,” means… and guess wrong. Usually it’s heavenly spectators.

So now lemme bring up John C. Maxwell’s book Running with the Giants. I worked at a church camp a decade ago, and this book was inflicted upon me as a devotional. Leadership principles are Maxwell’s shtick, and he had 10 leadership principles to share. Like many a Christian, he wanted to put ’em into the mouths of bible characters, so it’d look like these principles come from bible. And since he knows little about historical context—and certainly doesn’t care, ’cause it’d make book-writing so much harder… well you can quickly see why I dislike this book.

The book begins with Maxwell envisioning a stadium with Christian track ’n field going on. From time to time, a great figure from the bible comes down from the “cloud of witnesses” in the stands, to encourage us runners. They’re not running with us, in Maxwell’s imagination; they’re all done. Now they have stories and life lessons to share; which is the point of the book.

After getting these life lessons from Abraham, Esther, Joseph, Moses, and Noah, by the sixth chapter Maxwell was so jazzed about all their good advice, he “can’t wait to act on the empowerment I have received” from them, “to put it to good use.” Maxwell 79

Except none of it came from them. Maxwell put all the words in their mouths. As anybody who knows historical context can tell, ’cause very little of what he imagined his “bible characters” said, are what they’d actually say. Far more what a present-day motivational speaker says.

14 November 2019

Using your imagination to meditate.


The kids, and their robot in the red galero, have a not-at-all-awkward conversation with a buck-naked pre-genitalia Adam and Eve. Aníme Óyako Gekíjo episode 1, “Adamu to Eba Monogatari”

When I was a kid there was a Japanese TV cartoon called Aníme Óyako Gekíjo/“Anime Parent-Child Theater,” which Americans know better as Superbook. Christian TV stations used to air it every weekday. Your own kids are more likely to have seen the 2009 American remake.

In the 1981 original, two kids named Sho and Azusa discovered a magic bible which transported them, and their toy robot Zenmaijikake, back to Old Testament times. (Yeah, they all had different names in the English redub: Chris, Joy, and Gizmo.) The kids would interact with the bible folks, who somehow spoke Japanese instead of ancient Hebrew, and were surprisingly white for ancient middle easterners.

Well in the first series they did. In the second series—also called Superbook in the States—Pasókon Toráberu Tántei-dan/“Computer Travel Detective Team,” the kids totally ignored the bible characters ’cause they were trying to rescue a missing dog. Which is best, I suppose: Less chance they’d accidentally change history, and whoops!—now we’re all worshiping Zeus, and Biff Tannen is president. (Well…)

Obviously we haven’t yet invented time travel, and it’s not possible to have any Superbook-style adventures. But a whole lot of us would love to check out the events of bible times, and maybe interact with it. It’s why there are bible-times theme parks in the Bible Belt, like The Ark Encounter or The Holy Land Experience, which Christians flock to. (Or, for about the same price, actual real-life Israel, which I far more recommend.)

But when time travel or pilgrimage are out of the question right now, it is possible to meditate on a story from the scriptures, by imagining ourselves there as it happened, watching it as it took place.

Some Christians call this practice Ignatian meditation, after St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In his 1524 book Exercitia Spiritualia/“Spiritual Exercises,” he taught his followers to not just contemplate certain passages in the bible, like Jesus preaching in synagogue or temple, or teaching students, performing miracles, getting born, getting crucified, paradise, hell…. Instead, really mentally put themselves there. Imagine breathing the air. Feeling the weather. Hearing the sounds, smelling the smells. Being in these places.

The idea is to stop thinking of these events as merely stories, but as real-life history. Stuff that truly happened. Stuff the prophets and apostles truly experienced. Stuff where God came near and interacted with humanity—same as he does now. Stop looking at them from the outside, and visualize yourself in the inside, in the bible, fully immersed in the story, just as you’re fully a part of God’s salvation history now.

Try this with the passages you’re reading now. Put yourself there, in your mind. See what new insights come out of it.

13 November 2019

The fear of what meditation might “open you up to.”

Years ago in a prayer group, our prayer leader asked us to sit a moment and meditate on the lesson we’d just heard.

“And I know,” she said; “some of you are worried about this whole ‘meditation’ thing. You’re worried it’ll open you up to evil spirits or something. Well, you’re Christians. It won’t.”

She didn’t go into any further detail; she wanted to get to the exercise, and didn’t want to spend the rest of prayer time explaining why it won’t happen. I’ve got time, so I will explain.

There are a lot of Christians who are big on what they call “spiritual warfare.” Which isn’t at all what the scriptures call spiritual warfare, i.e. resisting temptation: They think spiritual warfare means we fight evil spirits. Mostly by praying against them, but often by constantly, carefully watching out for boogeymen. Because they believe evil spirits are everywhere. Everywhere. Behind every corner. Even in the corners of our prayer closets. Waiting to pounce.

This dark Christian mindset makes ’em super paranoid. They call it being watchful or vigilant, but really it’s a lifestyle of fear. The sort of fear actual evil spirits can use to keep Christians far away from anything unfamiliar. Particularly new stuff the Holy Spirit himself is introducing into our lives to encourage growth and fruit. If it doesn’t look like the stuff their church does, or the popular Christian culture, or even just looks like something they don’t feel like doing, they presume that’ can’t be of God. Thus they follow their comforts instead of Jesus, and never doubt the two might not be the same thing at all.

So, meditation. As I said in the appropriate article, the middle eastern stuff is about filling our minds instead of blanking them, and the Christian stuff is about filling our minds with God. We think about him. We contemplate him. We go over what we read in the bible, what he’s shown or told us recently; anything God-related. Eliminate distractions as best you can, and do some deep thinking.

But if all you’ve known thus far are the pagan forms of meditation—if, really, you’re surrounded by it—you’re gonna think that’s the default. Maybe wrongly presume “Christian meditation” is an attempt to Christianize the pagan stuff. Except, as your paranoid dark Christian friends might warn you, some pagan practices can’t be Christianized. They’re just too inherently wrong.

Well, we’re not appropriating the eastern practices. If you know your ancient middle eastern or Christian history, you’ll know people have been practicing Christian-style meditation for at least as long as easterners and Hindus have. Our practices developed and evolved very differently. ’Tain’t the same thing. No matter what physical traits we might share—like sitting down, closing one’s eyes, controlled breathing, concentration. No matter what external accouterments we might also have in common—maybe soothing music, candles, privacy, whatever. If you’re worried the tchotchkes might lead you astray, go ahead and leave them out. But don’t believe the rubbish of fearful Christians who don’t meditate, and clearly lack the fruit of peace.

12 November 2019

Meditate.

MEDITATE 'mɛd.ə.teɪt verb. Think deeply or carefully about something.
2. Focus one’s mind for a period of time, for religious, spiritual, or relaxation purposes.
[Meditation mɛd.ə'teɪ.ʃən noun.]

Mention meditation to the average person, and images immediately come to mind of sitting cross-legged on the floor, hands out, eyes closed, humming “Om” or something mindless. ’Cause you’re trying to blank your mind.

And that’d be eastern meditation. It’s the sort we find among Hindus, Buddhists, and Californians. It’s grown in popularity because it’s a useful way to get rid of stress and relax. But it’s not middle eastern meditation, the sort we find among Christians.

Well, assuming we even meditate. Many don’t. Those who do, stumbled into the habit and don’t realize we’re actually meditating. Or we were given other names for it, like “contemplation” or “practicing God’s presence” or “Christian mysticism”—a term which tends to weird dark Christians out just as much as “meditation.” Many such Christians are terrified that if we practice any form of meditational exercise, we’re opening ourselves up to evil spirits, which’ll quickly rush in like shoppers on a Black Friday, and demonize us. (Assuming they even can demonize someone with the Holy Spirit in ’em. Dark Christians might officially teach it’s not possible… but always allow for the possibility. Yes it’s a paradox; they don’t care. Whatever keeps us fearful and cautious.)

I explain elsewhere why that sort of thinking is ridiculous. In proper Christian meditation, we open ourselves to nothing and no one but God. It’s not about blanking the mind, hoping insight will somehow fill the vacuum. Just the opposite. It’s about filling the mind. Namely with God.

We sit, stand, lie down, hang upside down—whatever position works for you—shove every other distraction out of the way, and think. Hard. Turn an idea over in our minds. Analyze it. Play with it. Repeat it till it’s memorized, or till we understand it better. And ask God questions about it: What can he reveal to us about this?

Yep, it’s a form of prayer. Which makes it all the crazier when dark Christians tell us, “Don’t do that! It’s demonic.”

Yep, this practice may sound mighty familiar, ’cause you’re already doing it. You just didn’t realize it was called meditation. People tend to call it “thinking really hard,” and when we talk to God about it, “lifting it up in prayer.” It may be a regular discipline; then again maybe not. But Christians stumble into meditation all the time, because it’s so useful. And it really oughta become a regular practice.

11 November 2019

What do people think Jesus is?

Mark 8.27-30, Matthew 16.13-20, Luke 9.18-21.

Provincial leaders in the Roman Empire liked to suck up to their emperors, which is why there were cities named Καισάρεια/Kesáreia, “Cæsarea,” dotting the empire. Ancient Israel had two. The usual city referred to in the New Testament as Cæsarea is also called Cæsarea Maritima; it’s on the Mediterranean coast of northern Israel. The other is in Philip Herod’s province, so it got called Cæsarea Philippi. Today it’s called Banias.

Banias is actually an Arabic distortion of its original name, Πανειάς/Paneiás. It was named for the pagan god Pan. Likely Pan was originally Baal-Gad, one of the many Baals in the middle east, and when Alexander and the Greeks attached Greek names to everything, they referred to this Baal as Pan. The Greeks depicted Pan as a goat-man with a flute, but Pan comes from πάντως/pántos, “everything”: It’s a nature god, and therefore the god of everything. It’s considered a minor god because it didn’t have a large following, but Pan-worshipers thought their god was a big, big deal. They built a big ol’ shrine to Pan there, and it’s still there for tourists to gawk at.

Overt paganism tends to creep out certain religious Christians, who stay far away from any “wicked” city which practices such things. Of course Jesus knows all about the covert paganism going on in our supposedly “righteous” cities, which is why Caesarea didn’t bug him any more than Kfar Nahum… or Jerusalem. People are messed up no matter where you go, and our “righteous” avoidance of the appearance of evil doesn’t make us any more holy, or score us more karma points with God, like we imagine it does. On the contrary: We can’t minister to the lost when we’re “too good for them,” and we’re not all that good when we refuse to obey God and love our neighbors, pagan or not. Jesus doesn’t discriminate in that way, so of course he took his students to such cities.

In a city named for Caesar, you’d naturally see monuments dedicated to Caesar-worship. Herod 1 had deliberately built a temple there for the purpose. (Yeah, he also rebuilt the LORD’s temple in Jerusalem, but don’t think for a minute he did it for anything other than political reasons.) Technically they weren’t worshiping him, but his genius (pronounced 'ɡɛ.ni.us, not as our English word 'dʒin.jəs), his guardian spirit. Our word genie comes from the Latin word… and the Greek word for it would be δαίμων/démon.

But over time, Romans stopped worshiping the guardian spirit and simply worshiped the Caesars directly. After each Caesar died, the Roman senate voted to declare them to be gods. They believed whenever you worshiped ancestors as gods, they actually became gods; the Olympians would actually have to include ’em in their pantheon. Some pagan Romans didn’t even wait for ’em to die, but worshiped the living emperor as a god. Same as the ancient Egyptians worshiped their pharaohs.

So that’s what people said the Caesars were… so naturally Jesus wanted to talk about what people said he was.

Mark 8.27 KWL
Jesus and his students went into the villages of Caesarea in Philip Herod’s province.
On the road he was questioning his students, telling them, “What do people say I am?”
Matthew 16.13 KWL
Jesus went into the Caesarea area in Philip Herod’s province,
and questioned his students, saying, “What do people say about the Son of Man?”
Luke 9.18 KWL
It happened while Jesus was praying alone, though with the students around him,
he asked them, saying, “What do the crowds say I am?”

As you know, plenty of pagans nowadays admit Jesus is a wise man and great moral teacher… and little more. Muslims, and some Jews, say he’s a prophet… and again, little more. People of other religions, plus nontheists and skeptics, say much the same as the pagans, although they’re more honest in their disregard: Wise or not, they have no interest at all in following him.

So what do we Christians think he is?