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30 October 2019

Relativism. (’Cause we aren’t all that absolute.)

RELATIVISM 'rɛl.ə.də.vɪ.zəm noun. Belief that truth, knowledge, and morals are based on context, not absolutes.
[Relative 'rɛl.ə.dɪv adjective, relativist 'rɛl.ə.də.vɪst noun.]

Relativism is a big, big deal to Christian apologists. I’ll get to why in a minute; bear with me as I introduce the concept.

Some of us were raised by religious people, and were taught to believe in religious absolutes: God is real, Jesus is alive, sin causes death, love your neighbor. Others weren’t raised religious, but they grew up in a society which accepts and respects absolutes. Like scientific principles, logic, mathematics, or a rigid code of ethics.

The rest—probably the majority—claim they believe in absolutes, but they’re willing to get all loosey-goosey whenever the absolutes get in their way. They might agree theft is bad… but it’s okay if they shoplift every once in a while. Murder is bad… but dropping bombs on civilians during wartime is acceptable. Lying is bad… but it’s okay to take an iffy deduction on their taxes. And so on. These absolutes aren’t all that absolute when it conveniences them. So they’re not really absolute; they’re relative.

Yeah, it’s total hypocrisy to claim you believe in absolutes, but regularly make exceptions for yourself. But just about everybody does it. We Christians in particular: We judge others—sometimes harshly—for making mistakes, but we live under grace; we’re forgiven, not perfect. Still hypocrisy though.

And recognizing this, a number of people have decided to straight-up deny anything is absolute. Everything’s relative. Usually, all things being equal, certain things are true. (Like the bible’s proverbs.) But we can always make exceptions to these truths; therefore none of these truths are absolute. Sometimes they’re false. Postmoderns are known for doubting whether every “absolute truth” is really all that absolute. But these relativists insist nothing’s absolute. At all.

29 October 2019

Prayer’s one prerequisite: Forgiveness.

Mark 11.25, Matthew 6.14-15, 18.21-35.

Jesus told us in the Lord’s Prayer we gotta pray,

Matthew 6.12 BCP
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

He elaborated on this in his Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6.14-15 KWL
14 “When you forgive people their misdeeds, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
15 When you can’t forgive people, your Father won’t forgive your misdeeds either.”

And in Mark’s variant of the same teaching:

Mark 11.25 KWL
“Whenever you stand up to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone.
Thus your Father, who’s in heaven, can forgive you your misdeeds.”

And he elaborated on it even more in his Unforgiving Slave story.

Matthew 18.21-35 KWL
21 Simon Peter came and told Jesus, “Master, how often will my fellow Christian sin against me,
and I’ll have to forgive them? As many as seven times?”
22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as many as seven times,’ but as many as seven by seventy times.
23 This is why heaven’s kingdom is like a king’s employee who wanted to settle a matter with his slaves.
24 Beginning the settlement, one debtor was brought to him who owed 260 million grams silver.
25 Having nothing to pay, the master commanded him to be sold
—and his woman and children and as much as he had, and to pay with that.
26 Falling down, the slave worshiped his master, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
27 Compassionately, that slave’s master freed him and forgave him the debt.
28 Exiting, that slave found his coworker, who owed him 390 grams silver.
Grabbing him, he choked him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 Falling down, the coworker offered to work with him, saying, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
30 The slave didn’t want to, but went to throw him in debtor’s prison till he could pay back what he owed.
31 Seeing this, the slave’s coworkers became outraged,
and went to explain to their master everything that happened.
32 Then summoning the slave, his master told him, ‘Evil slave: I forgave you all that debt, because you offered to work with me!
33 Ought you not have mercy on your coworker, like I had mercy on you?
34 Furious, his master delivered him to torturers till he could pay back all he owed.
35 Likewise my heavenly Father will do to you—when you don’t forgive your every fellow Christian from your hearts.”

The “delivered him to torturers” bit Mt 18.34 makes various Christians nervous, and gets ’em to invent all sorts of iffy teachings about devils and curses and hell. And misses the point: God shows us infinite mercy. What kind of ingrates are we when we don’t pay that mercy forward?

28 October 2019

Jesus is the gate: Don’t go around him!

John 10.1-10.

Right after Jesus cured a blind guy on Sabbath, for which the guy’s synagogue threw him out, Jesus commented some folks only think they can see, but they’re blind as well. Then he segued straight into talking about sheep. Like so.

John 9.40 – 10.10 KWL
40 Some of the Pharisees were listening to these things, and told Jesus, “We aren’t blind too.”
41 Jesus told them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin.
You now say ‘We do so see’—and your sin remains.
1 Amen amen! I promise you one who won’t enter through the sheepfold gate,
but gets in some other way: This person is a thief, a looter.
2 One who enters through the gate is the sheep’s pastor.
3 The gatekeeper opens up for this pastor, and the sheep hears the pastor’s voice.
The pastor calls their own sheep, and leads them out.
4 Whenever the pastor drives out their own sheep, they go on ahead of the pastor,
and their pastor follows, for they know their pastor’s voice.
5 The sheep will never follow a stranger, but will flee from them:
They don’t know the stranger’s voice.”

Sounds like a non-sequitur: He goes from blindness to sheep? But the connection between the situation with the former blind man, and pastors properly leading their sheep out the gate, is that blind or not we oughta be able to hear. The sheep don’t need to identify their pastor by sight; they can hear. Strangers don’t sound right.

And yeah, Jesus is the good pastor. (Or “good shepherd,” as Christians like to call him.) Although we actually haven’t got to that analogy yet. We do in the next verses, and I’ll write about ’em later. Be patient.

In the meanwhile Jesus isn’t yet saying he’s the good pastor. In this bit he’s the gate.

John 10.6-10 KWL
6 Jesus gave them this analogy. That audience didn’t know what he was talking about,
7 so Jesus told them again, “Amen amen! I promise you I’m the sheep’s gate.
8 Anybody who goes around me is a thief and looter. But the sheep won’t hear them.
9 I’m the gate. When one enters through me they’ll be saved,
and they’ll enter, exit, and find pasture.
10 A thief won’t come unless it’s to steal, murder, and ruin;
I come so the sheep might have life, might have abundance.”

25 October 2019

When a well-known Christian quits Jesus.

Back in July, Christian popular author Joshua Harris announced he’s no longer Christian. Which was a bit of a shock to people who hadn’t kept up with him—who only knew him from his books, particularly his best-known book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Which no doubt has prompted a lot of headlines and comments about Harris kissing Jesus goodbye. I had to resist the temptation to use that for this article’s title.

I was obligated to read I Kissed Dating Goodbye at the Christian school where I taught. Some of my students’ youth pastors were inflicting it on them. It’s basically his promotion of “courtship,” as certain conservative Evangelicals call sexless, heavily chaperoned dating. In the book it’s how he claimed God wants people to find their mates. In my article on courtship, I pointed out the bible depicts no such thing; courtship is entirely a western cultural construct. Nothing wrong with it when it’s voluntary; everything wrong with it if your parents or church force it upon you.

Which should really tip you off as to what sort of “Christianity” Harris was immersed in. When you’re convinced our western cultural standards is as Jesus would have us live, y’got Christianism, not Christianity. And once you realize you got that wrong, it’ll shake your faith, as it absolutely should. But the danger of that shaking is you might think it’s all wrong, top to bottom, makeup to marrow—and quit Jesus.

I don’t know if that’s exactly what happened to Harris. He might describe it as far more complicated than that. No doubt there were a number of factors in his decision to leave Christianity. But superficially… it sure looks like it.

Harris certainly isn’t the first well-known Christian to go apostate, and whenever this happens, it tends to shake all their Christian fans. “Wait, I was following him, and he went wrong… so what does it mean for me?” Only that you oughta be following Jesus instead, so do that! But if you’re really nervous that you mighta been taught some untruth, relax. You’re not justified by your beliefs; you’re justified by trusting God. Keep trusting him, ask the Holy Spirit to help you inventory your beliefs to see whether any are misbeliefs, ditch any wrongness or heresies you find within you, and you’ll be just fine. God’s got you.

24 October 2019

Altar calls: Come on down!

ALTAR 'ɔl.tər noun. A table or block used as the focus for a religious ritual, particularly offerings or ritual sacrifices to a deity.
2. In Christianity, the table used to hold the elements for holy communion.
3. In some churches, the stage, the steps to the stage, or the space in front of the stage, where people go as a sign of commitment.

During our worship services, sometimes Christians are invited to leave our seats and come forward to the stage. It’s called an altar call.

Thing is, we’re not sure how the term originated. ’Cause the stage, or the front of the stage, wasn’t called an altar back then. The altar was the communion table. My guess is people were originally instructed to gather by the communion table. In a lot of churches, that altar is front and center; in the church I went to as a child, it was right in front of the preacher’s podium.

But when evangelists held rallies, whether at a concert hall, sports arena, outdoor stadium, theater, high school gym, or grade school cafeteria, or any venue where there is no communion table, they’d say “Come to the altar” anyway. Force of habit, I guess. So people came forward… and assumed something around there was the altar. The stage, perhaps.

You realize when we don’t clearly define things for the people of our churches, people just guess. And guess wrong. It’s why so many Christians don’t know what a soul is. Hence many new Christians have guessed the stage is the altar, so the word has evolved to mean a stage too. As if the people on stage are our ritual sacrifice to God. (Considering how some of them mangle the scriptures, some butchering is apparently still part of our services. But I’ll stop the ranting there.)

Anyway, altar calls used to generally be for people who wished to become Christian. The evangelist would invite ’em forward, and a pastor or elder would lead ’em in the sinner’s prayer. In many churches this is still true; it’s the only reason they have altar calls. “Come lay down your life at the altar,” is the idea: Submit to God, accept his salvation, let Jesus be your Lord, and let him make your life more abundant.

The altar call began as a dramatic way for people to visibly demonstrate they repented and were turning to God. They didn’t do altar calls in the bible though. John the baptist and the first Christians preferred baptism. But nowadays, churches expect you to go through some sort of baptism class first, so the altar call became an acceptable Evangelical substitute: Wanna give your life to Jesus? Come forward. One of our prayer team will pray with you.

Not every church does it, of course. In really large churches it’s not practical to move masses of people to the front of the auditorium. Some churches don’t approve of the public display. Show-offs will act like they’re publicly repenting, and really they’re just trying to get attention. Certain emotionally unstable people will come forward to every altar call, and go through the whole ritual time and again: They’ll repent, they’ll get prayed over, they’ll have a nice cathartic cry… and they’ll come back next week and do it all over again. Do they ever actually repent? Maybe. But really they’re there for the emotional release.

So if they don’t do altar calls, they do something like it: “If you haven’t yet received Jesus, meet us in the fellowship hall after the service,” or “Come talk to me about it later.” It’s a lot less emotional… which they prefer, ’cause it means people put some thought into turning to Jesus, instead of letting their emotions sway them. Speaking for myself, I don’t care whether it’s an emotional or thoughtful response; either can take. Likewise people can rethink, then turn their back on, either response. The important thing is we have some venue where people can turn to Jesus.