War on Holidays

Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas unless someone said something inflammatory. Rather than waiting for Uncle Hubert to bring up the tax plans or Cousin Elmer to launch into his annual tirade of racism, I decided to jump the gun and be the first to offend you this season.

Many Christians, American evangelicals in particular, take time every year to decry the so-called “war on Christmas.” As proof of this war, they cite two perennial battles: “X-mas” replacing “Christmas” and the ubiquitous “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas.” I’d like to address each in turn, moving from hard fact into my own thoughts, as it were.

First, the hard facts: “X-mas.” Many well-meaning Christians see the term as nothing more than the blatant removal of the name “Christ” from his own Mass, so to speak. An X, it’s said, could stand for anything at all — or even for nothing at all. The problem, however, is that the character in question isn’t a Latin X, but a Greek chi, which just happens to have the same shape. The chi is the first letter in “Christos,” Χριστος, the word glossed as “Christ” in the pages of the New Testament. The single letter X was often used as an abbreviation for “Christ” in early Greek church literature, much the same way you might sign your own name with just a single initial. Indeed “IX”, meaning “Ιησους Χριστος” (“Iesous Christos,” “Jesus Christ”), or even “XC” (the first and last letters of “Christos” in capitals) are prevalent shorthand in the original biblical manuscripts. “X-mas” isn’t taking Christ out of anything; it’s just saving ink and paper in a very, very old way. A biblical way, even, that was later adopted in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance by English speakers. This battle in the war on Christmas only arose because Christians don’t know their own history — and that’s the fault of the Church, not the secular culture. Don’t hate; educate.

If the “X-mas” battle is waged out of ignorance (and I do mean ignorance, not stupidity, so don’t conflate the two), then the “happy holidays” battle is born of arrogance. A look at any calendar will reveal a significant list of holidays, religious and otherwise, during the month of December. Obviously not everyone celebrates the same one. “But we have the right one,” Christians say, “the original.” Well, yes and no. As far as it relates to purely Christian faith (and one disconnected from its Jewish origins), yes, Christmas is our one and only December holiday. But it certainly isn’t the original winter celebration for all peoples. Pagan yule festivals, celebrations of the winter solstice, and even the Jewish Hanukkah all pre-date Christmas by several hundred years. In fact, the first recorded celebrations of Christmas in December date to around 336 — over 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, despite those two events being celebrated since they first occurred. Moreover, Jesus was most likely born in spring or early summer. And you have to take into account the fact the gifts of the magi weren’t presented until Epiphany, or Old Christmas, observed on January 6 (which is why all my beloved nativity sets are wrong). Of course, after Christmas was first celebrated, other holidays were created. Kwanzaa, originating in 1966, is perhaps the newest of these and one of the only ones ethnic and not religious in origin. In any event, Christmas doesn’t win by virtue of age.

Thus we see there are many holidays, old and new, being observed in the final month of the year. We could spend a lifetime deciding what each individual celebrates and whether to wish them “happy Hanukkah,” “joyous Kwanzaa,” “merry Christmas” . . . you get the idea. Instead the all-encompassing “happy holidays” now suffices. Unless, of course, you believe in this particular battle in the “war on Christmas.”

Again, with this knowledge in mind, to assume this battle exists is arrogant. It presupposes we alone have the only holiday which ought to be observed and demands everyone else recognize our religion in the public sphere, whether they adhere to it or not. (“Merry Christmas” is an intrinsically religious, explicitly Christian statement, is it not?) Yet we as Christians would be horribly offended, outraged, even, if Jews required us to wish them a blessed Hanukkah or if our culture suddenly issued a “Joyous Kwanzaa!” mandate. We would be so offended, in fact, we would welcome “Happy holidays!” because we would realize our holiday was included in the expression instead of being omitted by default. Instead of viewing the phrase as inclusive of others as well as ourselves, however, we pridefully demand our day — and only our day — become the center of the December universe. Hubris at its finest. (And a far cry from the humility of a God born in a feed trough.)

Lest anyone find me anti-Christian or, worse, anti-Christmas, let me temper any perceived vitriol in my previous words. I do personally believe Christmas to be the “correct” winter holiday, and I wish everyone would celebrate it. I prefer to be wished a “Merry Christmas!” as that is the holiday I will observe. And yes, I understand the impulse to “correct” people as a way of evangelism — but it’s a terrible method. You don’t want to tell someone to enjoy their “pagan” holiday; very well. But you will never make them love Jesus by snidely sneering, “Merry Christmas” to everyone wishing you “happy holidays.” It’s not truth spoken in love; it’s pedantry spoken in defense.

This year I issue you a challenge. The next time someone bids you “happy holidays” and you find you can’t let it go, strike up a genuine conversation with them. A polite one. Ask them what they’re celebrating and wish them well in it. Let them know about Christmas and what it truly represents if they open the door to it, but don’t try to shove a creche down their throats. Regardless please understand Christmas is one of the holidays included in the phrase. It’s not an attack; it’s a good-nature well-wishing designed to bless people whose other holidays are as dear and precious to them as Christmas is to you.

You can even go a step further: learn about those other days. That way you’ll know what you’re talking about when you engage in dialogue. Learn about Christmas, too. Understand “X-mas,” Christian history, and the variety of Christmas customs surrounding our holy day.

To my readers of all stripes: happy holidays. (And to my Christian readers: a blessed Advent — after all, it’s not Christmas yet.)

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Ecclesia Reformata

One of my favorite things about seminary wasn’t a major prayer event or some grand scholarly function, although those were great, too. It was having German food every October 31st. Wursts, sauerbraten, potato salad . . . I ate more like a king than a monk (while many of my classmates instead opted for the ubiquitous pizza). Aside from indulging my love of German cuisine, the meals reminded us all of our theological heritage as Protestants.

October 31st is Halloween for most, but for theology nerds like yours truly, it’s first and foremost Reformation Day. On this date in 1517, The Reverend Father Martin Luther, O.S.A., a professor and priest in Wittenberg, Germany, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church. The world was never to be the same again.

Luther’s original document is almost exclusively devoted to refuting false beliefs about indulgences, but he would come to author a number of tracts and books taking issue with papal authority, purgatory, transubstantiation, the wealth of Rome, the role and importance of the Bible, and myriad other subjects. By far, however, even beyond his translation of Scripture into the vernacular, his most significant and most lasting contribution was his rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. We are not forgiven of our sins because of our deeds or because we purchased a piece of paper granting us an indulgence; we are forgiven by the free grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ — nothing more, and nothing less. The Roman church had lost that truth across the centuries, and it took Luther to remind them.

Or try to, at least. Through the excommunication of Luther and the edicts issued at the Council of Trent, which began some thirty years later, the Roman Catholic Church made its position clear: it had never erred, in doctrine or in practice, and therefore would reform in no way. Unfortunately for the Bishop of Rome, it didn’t matter what Trent decided. The Protestant Reformation had begun. The ranks of the Reformers grew, and Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, Menno Simons, and countless others joined Luther in his protest.

None of these were perfect men; none will ever be granted sainthood today. Luther himself was a virulent anti-Semite. Calvin ruled Geneva with a theocratic iron fist, burning perceived heretics at the stake. And yet these flawed, imperfect men were the chosen vessels for the return of theology ad fontes. They alone could bring the Church back to the Bible and bring the Bible back to the common laity. Without these men and men and women like them — John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Katharina von Bora, Jan Hus, and others — there would be no Bibles in your homes today. Even now you would not be able to offer your opinions of holy Scripture.

We thank God for the Reformers.

But we do not accept them uncritically.

Much of what passes for “Reformed theology” is, in my own estimation, itself unbiblical. Too often the Reformers threw out the theological baby with the ecclesiastically Roman bathwater, and our worship is the poorer for it. Moreover, the nascent Protestantism almost immediately fractured, and we must now live in the reality of 30,000 Protestant denominations. Schism has given births to tens of thousands of other schisms. The Church will never again be whole as long as she remains on this side of eternity. By outright rejecting even ecclesial tradition and insisting on Scripture as the sole source of truth, the Reformers paved the way for the billions of individual interpretations of the Bible we now see, each equally valid, each without the normative force of historical, traditional interpretation. These things give me pause. While I fully embrace the necessity of the Reformation, I do wish at times they hadn’t reformed quite so much, tried to fix things which weren’t broken.

Nevertheless, the Reformation was, is, and is to come — ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. Today we should remember the beginning of that road. Let us celebrate the brave work of a German monk five hundred years ago today — soli Deo gloria.

The Protestant Inquisition

Like it or not, we’ve all seen it happen. Maybe we’ve even done it ourselves to some poor, unsuspecting soul. We made a matter outside of Scripture the litmus test for someone else’s Christianity. In more fun phrasing, we launched our very own Protestant Inquisition. Torquemada and Ximenes apparently stopped the Spanish Catholics too soon, and we Protestants eagerly accepted the mantle of Grand Inquisitor.

First, though, let’s all admit orthodoxy exists. There is an agreed-upon set of essential dogma which no one can disbelieve and rightly be considered Christian. These are the basics of the faith: the existence of God, His Triune nature, the life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus, things like that. You know, all those things we’ve put into creeds and handed down for a couple of thousand years expressly for the purpose of preserving the essentials of the faith. (Yes, I’m referring to those exact creeds a lot of Protestants don’t want to say they believe because they’re not verbatim in Scripture. But that’s another soapbox.) These are essential, necessary doctrines. Other things classify as orthodox without being strictly necessary for one’s salvation: respect for the sanctity of life (not just the unborn, and not just humans), a proper sexual ethic, membership in a local congregation, all that jazz. Those are also things we should lovingly defend from a biblical perspective.

Protestant Inquisitors don’t stop there, however. Instead they judge your soul based on any number of other, sometimes ludicrous, factors. I’ve seen more than a few church signs proudly declaring to the world their congregations are KJV-onlyists, fundamentalists, dispensationalists, premillennialists . . . the list goes on. It may get “our kind of people” in the pews, but it tells me, as someone who falls into none of those camps, I would never be welcome to attend their church; they would never consider me as truly Christian.

Those are some of the more popular criteria used by the inquisitors, too: Bible translation, eschatology, and antipathy towards theological liberalism as that congregation defines it. Another major criterion is political affiliation. More than one Protestant Inquisitor has told me liberals don’t go to heaven; anyone who isn’t a registered Republican (if you live in the U.S.) goes straight to hell. (As a registered Independent, I guess I’m a lost cause here, too.) But I seem to have overlooked Jesus’ voter registration status, party platform, and his favorite country in Scripture. (I really didn’t; they aren’t there.) I’ve written on this a few times previously, so I won’t belabor the point here, but from a biblical perspective, I believe both major American political parties to be equally anti-Christ, just in different ways. Still, that doesn’t stop people from making party choice a matter of — or a precursor to — salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

All of those litmus tests fail at precisely this point. If we are indeed saved by grace through faith (Reformation at 500, people), then it is unbiblical to add additional requirements. Yes, we are told that our Christian lives subsequent to that crisis moment of accepting Jesus are to have certain do’s and don’ts, but those aren’t threshold requirements. If we all had to be perfect before becoming a Christian, no one would be a follower of Jesus. All we can do is grow in sanctification after our baptisms, sinning less and doing good more. As we grow in holiness, we grow closer to a biblical model of Christian perfection — one that would still fail all those unbiblical tests administered by the Inquisitors.

If only their tests matter — if I may only be a true Christian because I read a certain Bible, vote a certain way, subscribe to a certain faith tradition, or believe Jesus will come back in a certain fashion — then Christ died for nothing. His passion, his crucifixion, his blood is insufficient to cover my sins, grant me absolution, and give me eternal life. He needs me to do more beyond what he himself did for me. It is a weak savior indeed who depends upon the actions of the Men he came to save. There are other gods on the market who promise to be powerful enough to do those things for me without added rules or extra effort on my part, and that frankly makes them more appealing to a lot of people.

Halt the Protestant Inquisition. Stop adding requirements beyond the word of God, you Pharisee. Help people come to a God of Holy Love, not a Judge of Human Law. Their souls depend on it.

 

Lights, Camera, Inaction

In case anyone was worried, I’m not dead yet. And no, I don’t intend to shut down the blog. I realize my posts have been sporadic over the last few months, and I apologize. The problem has been the constant hustle-and-bustle of life in ministry. OK, alright, “hustle-and-bustle” should more accurately be “constant frenzy of doing more than I should but it all has to get done somehow, and I still need a few hours a day to sleep (unfortunately),” but you get the idea. Life gets crazy for us all at times, and it has been for me for quite a while.

A wise man once said, however, that when we absolutely don’t have time to slow down, we absolutely need to more than ever. The moment I tell myself I can’t afford to take a five-minute break is the precise moment that five-minute break needs to begin. My problem is that I’ve never been well-acquainted with inaction. I don’t take naps, I don’t sit in the recliner staring at the walls, and I don’t stretch out on the couch to watch television for a few hours (in fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve even sat on my couch in the last three years). Instead I read, I write, I clean something, I organize something else, I play an instrument, anything that will keep mind, body, or (ideally) both engaged.

That’s one reason I’ve missed blogging. It’s my idea of relaxing for a few minutes during an otherwise hectic day. I know, I know, I’m weird; I get it. But we all do different things to relax, and this is one of mine. (If you don’t judge me for that, then I won’t judge you for that last Andy Griffith marathon.) So what do you do? What are your hobbies? How do you unwind?

We aren’t designed to go-go-go 24/7. The loathsome necessity of sleep should teach you that. Even beyond sleep, however, we need those aforementioned hobbies, time with other people, something and anything which will force us to leave work behind and be elsewhere for a while, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Rest is good for the soul.

If you’re like me, though, you need a periodic reminder of that fact. Personally I always have to go back to Genesis 2. After all, if the Almighty took a day off, I probably should, too. And so He did: “By the seventh day, God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day, He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done” (Genesis 2:2-3). Now, I don’t believe God overexerted Himself and needed to rest anymore than I believe He created the universe because He was lonely; both portray a god in want, and an incomplete god is not the God we worship as Christians. But for some inscrutable reason, God rested, and He told us to follow that pattern (Exodus 20:8-11//Deuteronomy 5:12-15). As Christ taught, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Clearly, then, God knew we would need rest in a fallen world and gave us the means to acquire that rest. It’s just notoriously difficult to make ourselves do it. Would any of us meet the Sabbath rest requirements? Can we do so little for a full twenty-four hours? The overwhelming majority of us, I’d wager, view the weekend just as the chance to work at home, to accomplish everything we didn’t have the time to do or were too tired to do during the week after we came home from working at our jobs. Hobbies and inaction fade into the background, get stored up for our retirement years. Work, doing, is everything, right down to the core of our identities. This is why the suddenly-unemployed have identity crises and why one of the first questions we ask someone new is, “what do you do,” second only to, “what’s your name.”

But we must take time for inaction, especially when we feel we can’t. We have to learn to slow down, rest, delegate, postpone. (Unless you’re a serial procrastinator; if so, ignore that last bit.) We are not human doings but human beings, and every so often we have to take the time to simply be.

Hopefully that means I’ll blog again next week.

Civil Unrest

In an unprecedented move, I’m forced to blog twice in one week. Both yesterday’s post and this one are very much needed and come from a pastor’s heart. Forgive me in advance if I offend you, but if biblical truth offends you, line up with it. It won’t change, and I won’t apologize for it. But I am not the source of biblical truth and am therefore subject to error. The views below which are outside of Scripture are my own, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, least of all the Almighty. I debated saying anything at all, but circumstances demand a faithful response.

———————————————————————————————-

I’m not sure we qualify to call ourselves the United States of America anymore. We’re states alright, and this is still America, but united, we are not. Right now, we’re divided on everything surrounding our values and our history. Racism, Civil War statues, Nazis . . . I thought these matters were settled.

Apparently not.

Let me say two things that absolutely should not be controversial. First, racism is evil. Always. Period. For many reasons. We know from the creation narrative we are all made equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). All human beings bear that stamp of divinity we call the imago Dei irrespective of race, ability, age, or other factors. We further know from Galatians 3:28 race has no bearing on access to God or value in His eyes. Finally, Revelation 7:9 explicitly states people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” assemble in heaven. No one is less-than in or omitted from the kingdom of God based on race, ethnicity, or other criterion other than relationship to Jesus Christ. And if that’s not enough to convince you, please remember: Jesus isn’t a white man.

Secondly, if racism is evil, which it clearly is, Nazism is as well. It is a militant racism, militant discrimination. The ideology of genetic/racial/religious superiority is so vile, so abhorrent, the world banded together to put a stop to its spread. If your ideology has its roots in the origins of the Holocaust, if it can be directly linked to genocide, if its hero is one of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the planet, then you need a new ideology. Don’t call it “free speech,” and certainly don’t call it “American patriotism.” We, as a country, fought in a world war to put an end to it. The swastika is our enemy, not our greatest good. And when our president fails to denounce it outright until pressured to do so, we have problems. It shouldn’t be that difficult to say Nazis are a bad thing.

Again, those things shouldn’t be controversial. What I’m about to say will be, however, especially in my context.

The matter of the Confederate statues is, well, beyond simple description. The statues that aren’t being moved or removed are being forcibly pulled down by angry mobs. In America. Those people say the statues represent the glorification of the great American evil, slavery. They argue (rightly) we don’t have statues to the losers of the other wars we’ve fought. And the country that would see them as true heroes and patriots, the Confederate States of America, no longer exists. Just as we have no monuments to Benedict Arnold, they say, we should have no statues of other traitors to the United States.

On the flip side, Southerners are notoriously proud of their southern heritage, and they bristle at the things going on the “godless” (I prefer “frozen”) North. The Confederacy, it’s argued, wasn’t about slavery but about the overreach of the federal government impinging upon states’ rights to govern themselves. The men of those statues are heroes who stood against tyranny to preserve a way of life. Tearing them down, they say, is tantamount to rewriting history and ignoring the sins of our own government.

Clearly only one group is correct.

Right?

I’m not a historian. It still seems to me, though, that slavery was the rallying point for a laundry list of states’ rights violations. In this way, the debate over slavery was the greatest symptom of a deeper problem, and so it became the public face of the war. I could easily be wrong. Regardless it is undeniable the men on those monuments fought to keep slavery in practice. Period. It was a constitutional right in the CSA, and we cannot pretend otherwise just because popular opinion surrounding slaveholding has changed. To deny this is to be guilty of erasing history — the very charge leveled against those calling for the removal of the statues.

This is a salient point. We must never destroy, whitewash, or deny historical truths. But neither can we diminish or abrogate the force of those truths by comparison to other historic evils. And the prevalence of precisely that is what demanded I write this today.

I’ve seen many people argue in favor of the South by saying African-Americans cannot speak about slavery from a special position since whites and other races have been slaves at various points in history as well. I personally refer to this as “illegitimizing of anger”: you can’t be angry because I deny the reason for you to be so is valid. In this specific example, it’s frankly outrageous. American enslavement of Africans has been widely recognized as one of (if not the) cruelest forms of slavery on record. But even if that were not true, why can’t we say it was evil and call other forms of the institution evil, too, and just stop there? Why not cry out against all forms of slavery, including current ones, instead of saying everyone was a slave so get over it? It’s infuriating we are unable to accept the realities of evil.

But wait, the common objection goes, no one alive in the U.S. today was ever a slave; they have nothing to complain about. The men on those statues did have slaves or at the very least fought for others to keep theirs; there’s your necessary historical component. By way of analogy, would you want a statue of your great-great-great-grandmother’s serial rapist and murderer on display in the town square as the local hero — because, after all, nothing ever happened to you personally? I thought not. I can agree this sort of argument can seem out of hand at times (you can’t use “my ancestor was a slave” as an excuse for everything), but it doesn’t make it less true on the whole for the discussion at hand.

A second disturbing comparison I’ve been seeing lately is likening the display of Confederate statues to Jews keeping Auschwitz in existence — because, as we all know, the Confederate battle cry was “Arbeit macht frei.” This comparison states we keep the one around as a reminder to ensure such evil never happens again, and so we should keep the other for the same reason. Remind me, though: what large, vocal minority of the German people wave swastikas around and treat concentration camps as places of hero worship? Oh, right, they can’t; it’s illegal in Germany. We, however, treat those statues, those graven images, as idols and elevate them as ideals; similar idolatry of Buchenwald is unthinkable. The comparison fails since we simply don’t see the generals of the CSA as villainous, as evils which should never recur.

Suppose, then, you still personally attribute positive meaning to the CSA monuments and maintain your stance as the historically-correct view of them. That’s what they stood for when erect, in other words, and that’s their only true meaning: champions of states’ rights against a government who only served some of her people. Original intent is all that matters, you say. I’m afraid this argument won’t hold up, either. Statues are symbols, and the meanings of symbols change over time. There are countless crosses worn by Christians, for example, because the naked cross represents atonement accomplished, salvation, and resurrection in our religion. Its original meaning, of course, was the torturous death of criminals and political dissidents. Wearing a cross around your neck in the time of the Roman Empire is unfathomable; it’d be like wearing a pendant of an electric chair today. The meaning has shifted.

Or let’s borrow an analogy from language. If I saw you laughing, smiling, and in a generally good mood around a century ago, I may easily remark to you, “You’re gay today.” If I did that to certain people in our own time, I wouldn’t escape the encounter with all of my teeth still in my head. “Gay” no longer refers to “happy.” It refers to homosexuality. The term can no longer be used even as it was a century ago — and many words change meaning more than once across the years. Now you can say we just need to educate the public and reclaim the original intent, but history shows us it doesn’t work that way; what has passed is past. Simply put, the meanings of symbols change over time, be it right or wrong, and we must live in those present realities.

In our current society, with our current problems with racism, discrimination, and neo-Nazis, maybe the loving response is to remove icons which have come to represent those evils, evils the figures in the monuments valued for themselves, regardless of other earlier meanings. The Civil War itself will never be forgotten; that’s guaranteed. It won’t be removed from our history books or cultural memory regardless of how many statues we don’t have around. (And the historiography argument cuts both ways, anyway). Again, it’s just not going anywhere. It won’t be forgotten, but it needn’t be glorified, either — war never should be.

As a Southerner and an Appalachian — and a fairly conservative one at that — let me close with an appeal to you to truly love your neighbor as yourself and to frame this issue in those terms. If the reason we insist on keeping those statues is “I’m culturally vindicated” and not “I love you,” they need to come down. Likewise, if the reason to tear them down is “We’re historically vindicated” and not “We love you,” they need to stay up. I personally say it may be time for their removal — not because of political correctness or pressure, not even out of concerns of historiography, but out of love for my brothers and sisters.

And remember: old soldiers never die. They just . . .

. . . fade . . .

. . . away . . .

Eclipse-O-Rama

If you were in my office earlier today, you would have overhead me say, “I don’t believe this. I’m going to have to do something I haven’t done in a long time: I’m going to have to go after the heretics myself.” They aren’t heretics, mind you — false prophets at worst — and I really don’t feel like dignifying their terrible teaching with a response on the day of the big event itself. But too many people have bought into it, including fellow clergy, and I have to be a good shepherd and do my part to steer the flock back to sanity.

Before I begin discussing the things swirling around the eclipse, it’s important for you to understand the target of my rebuttal. I hate to link to these sorts of things, but a good overview of both the general feeling and some details of the insanity surrounding today’s eclipse can be found here and here.

Now then. On to reality.

I want to start with a few comments on the nature of biblical prophecy itself, something we tend to artificially inflate (or, conversely, limit) enough as it is. Biblical prophecy can best be explained by the refrain of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones: “Prophesy . . . and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says'” (Ezekiel 37:5,9,12). It’s not speaking in coded riddles, even if some actions are a bit weird. It’s declaring, either openly in words or in symbolic actions later explained, the word of the Lord. It’s telling a specific people a specific message from God. God doesn’t speak in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook it takes modern science to interpret; He is not the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33, KJV). His word will be ordered, understandable, and available to all — not just so-called “prophecy experts” (most of whom are just trying to sell books — the very definition of a false prophet [see 2 Peter 2:3,14-15 and Didache ch. 11]). It’s not all doomsday; it’s not all judgment; it’s simply “This is what the Sovereign LORD says.”

With that said, let’s look at some of the specific things people are saying about the eclipse.

First, it’s crucial to understand every dire warning being expressed right now is possible only through a specific theological framework and a specific hermeneutic (way of interpreting the Bible). Those specific frameworks in use in this matter are collectively known as Dispensationalism, and as a minister in the American Bible Belt, I can say that it is the bane of my existence. Dispensationalism holds a few key beliefs:

  • There are seven ages of history (“dispensations”) corresponding to periods of salvation history (the exact number varies)
  • There will be a literal seven-year tribulation period where the world is in chaos
  • The Church will be raptured out before the great tribulation begins
  • Christ will literally reign on earth for a literal 1,000-year period following the great tribulation (a belief known as dispensational or pre-tribulational pre-millennialism). Note that in this scheme, Jesus is required to come back a third time following the tribulation.
  • Revelation is considered strictly prophecy (futurist reading)

Dispensationalism is unheard of in church history until the 1830s. Please understand: no one prior to the 1830s ever believed any of these things, or, if they did, it was perhaps one belief out of the set and never a fully coherent theological system. Dispensationalism caught on in America but was soundly rejected in the rest of the world for not aligning with historic Christian teaching.

If we, too, rightly reject Dispensationalism in favor of historic Christian orthodoxy, the doomsday prophecies surrounding the eclipse fall apart.

  • The seven-year period between eclipses is the seven-year tribulation period. There’s not a seven-year tribulation period, so this fails. It also requires us to know the exact date Jesus will return (so the tribulation can begin), something the Bible time and time again tells us is flatly impossible, for not even Christ himself knows.
  • Gentile nations like America are specially judged during the great tribulation, something heralded by sun signs. Again, there is no great tribulation, so this is false.
  • The so-called “Revelation 12 Sign.” Revelation 12 was never previously applied in such a way, typically being read historically as the birth of Christ, the birth of the Church, or the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven — all legitimately possible interpretations given the full context of the chapter. Rev. 12:1 states, “A great sign appeared in heaven.” In English as well as in Greek, “heaven” is singular, the New Testament way of referring to the dwelling place of God. By contrast, “heavens,” plural, refers to what we call sky or space (as in Matt. 3:16, for example). Note: there are many instances of the plural including the dwelling-place of God, but very, very few cases in the New Testament of the singular referring to space/atmosphere, making it incredibly unlikely this is something referring to constellations. In any event, the Revelation 12 Sign relies upon a futurist reading of only select verses, which are then taken out of context.

Other parts of the “eclipse as judgment” scheme fall apart as well:

  • The temperature of the sun is the same as the next Hebrew year. But only on one temperature scale. And of course the numbers had to align eventually; that’s how numbers work.
  • One pastor calls this “The Sign of Jonah,” quoting Matt. 16:4 (skip ahead to 15:40 for the Jonah bit). It’s easy to see why he chose that specific verse. A similar passage, earlier in Matthew, explains the sign of Jonah as the resurrection, just as it has traditionally been interpreted: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
  • The second eclipse path crosses this one’s path on the New Madrid fault line, signalling disaster via earthquake. Really? Your best biblical prophecy is “X marks the spot”?

It should be obvious, then, there are no biblical bases for interpreting the Great American Eclipse as an omen of judgment on the country. It’s just a fascinating phenomenon.

With that said, Scripture does make it plain God judges wicked nations and evil empires — and we are both. We do well to fear divine wrath and straighten up our act. And we, as Christians, shouldn’t need to witness the sun blotted out of the sky to see that. It should be readily apparent through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit alive in us.

Outrageous

We seem to have entered the phase in human history when everyone gets viscerally angry about everything. I wish it were at least limited to the realm of politics so I could quietly sip my tea and talk about those lunatics in Washington without sounding hypocritical or myopic. “Partisanship has gotten so bad,” I would say, “nothing gets accomplished. They just yell and squabble and bicker and vilify. About everything.”

And so they do; I can’t deny that. But such prominent displays of outrage are increasingly ubiquitous, no longer confined to the Parliament — er, Senate floor. If you disagree with me in opinion, I’m entitled to my rant on social media. If you’re at variance with me in facts, I get to rave. If you quote foundational historic documents, I can scream at you. If I can make the focus of a thing about a tangential issue, say racism, sexism, or privilege, then I can get other people to share my outrage. (Granted, some things are about racial and gender inequality, but I daresay a lot of things cast in those lights simply aren’t — but they wouldn’t be as incendiary without that particular element inflated.)

It’s gotten to the point a lot of people are mad at everyone being so mad. Meta-anger.

Scripture teaches us anger isn’t inherently sinful. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have cleansed the temple and cursed the fig tree, nor would Paul tell us to be angry without sinning. The kind of anger we see on display most often, however, seems to cross that line. Remember the death threats against people who wouldn’t provide services for same-sex “weddings”? The riots and looting following police shootings? Or perhaps anger-induced sins of omission, letting justice be undone just because the victim or someone around him/her angered those in power? Somehow we can no longer “be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26).

To me, this speaks of a deeper issue. Yes, it can easily (and perhaps even rightly) be argued people simply want things about which to be outraged. In a world of false love (pornography), false sorrow (“I’m fine”), and false friendship (Facebook), maybe we’re instinctually trying to hold on to a genuine emotion, and the easiest to grasp is rage. Maybe we need to be livid just to feel human. If so, God help us all. But I don’t think that’s really it. I think, at base, our restraint of outrage is simply the latest victim in the war against self-control.

Make no mistake: there is most certainly an ongoing war against the virtue — the fruit of the Spirit — known as self-control. The onslaught comes from media (Hollywood, television, books, music, news programs); from science (when unchained from the norming forces of biblical morality and used as a justification for all manner of things); from simple selfishness and pride; and from a host of other factors we collectively call the world, the flesh, and the devil. Self-control gets in the way of “fun” and consumerism, while a lack of it evades and erodes that nagging sort of religion we all know does nothing but impedes progress. The Galatians 5:23 self-control, in context, opposes “sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). It further opposes materialism, debt, and bad attitudes about job satisfaction, the size of your house, and “my church just isn’t feeding me.”

When we lose self-control, yes, we gain things like massive credit card debt and adultery and outraged rants on Facebook. And yes, we lose decency and civility. But we also lose a proper view of both the self and the other. Id and ego become terrible twin gods, and we worship them at hundreds of altars for thousands of dollars. The other becomes, not a fellow human being, but just another object to be consumed, sacrificed on one of those altars to the self. Instead of controlling the self, the self is in control — which means God is not.

And that’s just outrageous.

We need to reclaim self-control. Simple willpower is not enough, for our fallen human wills can never choose the good every time (or at all in the absence of God’s grace). We must rely upon God, upon a Strength made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). May we return to worship, to prayer, to the word and the Word who stands behind it. May we place God upon the throne of our hearts once more, and experience, not rage, but shalom, a peace which surpasses all understanding.

The Dead and the Dying

I’ve been putting a lot of research lately into the life cycle of local churches. In America, the average church is seventy-eight years old, and more churches close than open every year. But why? As our population continues to grow, we should be adding churches, yes, but we shouldn’t need to shutter existing ones. Add people, add congregations — not add people, subtract congregations and then add fewer than you closed. So why is this the trend?

Two reasons seem to dominate the discussion. First, fewer Americans attend services regularly, as the number of people claiming a Christian affiliation is at an all-time low, percentage-wise. They call this “the rise of the nones” — those individuals who, when presented with a list of possible religions, check the box marked “none.” These are people who do not claim to be Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, or anything else. It could be they’ve always been atheistic, agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or something else entirely. It could even be they grew up in a religious household and just lost their faith at some point in life. Regardless, the nones are one of the (if not the) fastest growing “religious” groups in America. As more and more people choose to opt out of a religious affiliation, fewer and fewer walk through the doors of the local church. Without people to donate to keep those doors open, they close forever.

The second major reason we close more churches than we open is that people choose to let their churches die. I’m not suggesting a group of malcontent Machiavellis get together in the church basement and strategically plot the demise of the congregation. I’m saying the members and leaders of the congregation are unwilling to either see the need for change or to enact the changes which are necessary for the survival of the church. These churches will only allow things to be done according to the preferences of existing members, saying in effect they’d rather die than allow x to happen — and so they do. After years of denials and refusals to adapt to the communities around them, they close their doors forever. And the saddest part? They have only themselves to blame.

Churches like that rarely come out and admit that’s what’s happening, though. Most instead will loudly aver time and time again just how open they are to change — yet they never allow change to happen. They will vow to do whatever it takes, anything at all, to keep the doors open — then politely refuse to lift a finger because, well, change means change, and change requires action.

With those attitudes — with the “us first” mentality — these churches quickly slide downhill. Members become older, and as they (inevitably) die, no younger people rise to replace them. Youth groups dwindle and perish as teens age out of the group or as youth volunteers simply quit. (Most of those newly-minted young adults, I’d wager, will leave the church, either their home congregation or the capital-C Church Universal.) Without new members coming in or the natural advancement of younger members, the congregation literally dies. Without enough donors to provide support, the church first loses staff and then closes the doors completely and permanently. Life support measures fail, and the patient dies.

All because members want it their way. They don’t want to give up what they have in order to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead, they carefully remodel their church buildings into stained-glass tombs, mausoleums of The Good Ol’ Days.

Aside from the selfishness and arrogance it takes to do that, it’s just plain sad.

Church consultants say only two things can happen to a church on life support, one just doing what it’s always done and refusing to change. On the one hand, it can simply die over time, with the remaining members joining other congregations. Alternatively, it can preemptively sell (or give) its properties and other assets to a new church or ministry. The members will still go their separate ways, but the edifice will live on to provide a home for a new, vibrant body of believers. Sadly, those two options are generally agreed upon as the only ways forward for those on life support. Once a church hits a life expectancy of 5-10 years remaining, the experts say it’s nigh impossible to save.

There are exceptions, of course. The people may finally commit to change and turn things around. Those changes will have to be sweeping and dramatic, and they will probably cost many members who leave as the church they know dies to become something else. They may prove financially expensive as well. For those reasons, exceptions to the 5-10 rule seem few and far between.

Before we lay all blame for dying churches at the feet of culture, then, let’s look at ourselves. Are we truly committed to doing whatever it takes to reach lost souls (short of sacrificing the integrity of the gospel)? Do we truly believe the desires of others come before our own preferences? Has your church placed itself on life support?

Only you can answer those questions.

Answer them honestly.

Burn the Witch

I currently live in a little community called Salem. For better or for worse, I’ve yet to see any witches skulking about, even on Halloween (when you’d expect at least a small one asking for candy). Maybe the infamous events of 1692 in another Salem are still fresh on everyone’s collective mind, or maybe the opposite is true: we think so little of magic and witchcraft in our age of reason and science it’s too silly even to pretend to be a sorcerer.

Interestingly, and perhaps dangerously, magic has been discarded by the average person as something incredulous at best or non-existent at worst, banished to the realm of myth — yet the Bible very much treats it at reality. From Genesis 41:8 (Pharaoh’s court magicians) to Acts 19:19 (sorcery in Ephesus), witchcraft is presented not only as real, but also as decently prevalent. The world of the ancients is steeped in magic. Witches practiced a number of forms of magic, including divination, necromancy, conjuration, astrology, and others. And all of it was soundly condemned by the word of God. Exodus 22:19 is arguably the most famous of such passages: “Suffer not a witch to live.” Similar condemnations and prohibitions are found throughout the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:26-28,31; Deuteronomy 18:9-14; 1 Samuel 28:9; 2 Kings 9:22; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 8:19-20; Micah 5:12; Nahum 3:4; and Malachi 3:5 to name a few (and to provide a taste for the scope of its treatment in the OT). The New Testament retains the classification of magic as something evil and ungodly in places like Acts 8:9-25,19:19; and Galatians 5:19-21. Sometimes the Bible associates it with the worship of false gods, as in the Torah, and sometimes it’s a simple “don’t you dare,” but the message is clear: witchcraft is real, and it is evil.

Some of the more “enlightened” folks of the twenty-first century will take issue with this. Surely we can’t base reality on a several-thousand-years-old book. We can’t know what that magic looked like, so we must bear in mind the words of author Arthur C. Clarke in Clarke’s Third Law: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Even if the witches weren’t simply advanced beyond their contemporaries, we are, and so surely our increased knowledge of science will tell us how they did what they did without resorting to some sort of supernatural explanation. After all, says this worldview, even miracles are only things science has yet to explain.

Not so, says the biblical paradigm — thus launching a thousand witch hunts.

The Inquisition burned many at the stake, and two of the most common charges were heresy and witchcraft. Two hundred years before the Salem Witch Trials, two German inquisitors composed the Malleus Maleficarum — the Hammer of Witches, a book attributing everything from a lack of faith in women to a healthy female libido to magical origins. I doubt many real witches were ever successfully prosecuted through the ages, but it didn’t stop men and women alike from being (perhaps mostly falsely) accused of sorcery.

In one regard, identifying a witch may be easier in our own day and time — most will admit it up front. Magic seems to have captured the imaginations of many, and for some, just dreaming about it isn’t enough. Those few flock to religions proud of a magical heritage and active witchcraft, such as the various strains of Wicca, shamanism, paganism, and druidism. Most practitioners are proud of their magic and, while they may not be listed under “Wizard” in the Chicago phone book, they don’t hide what they do, either. Just as in ancient times, magic has become part of household religion, with deities worshiped ranging from Hecate to Odin to the Triple Goddess and back again. Entire families of witches exist, parents raising their children in Gardnerian Wicca the way others raise them in Christianity.

It is, in a word, not good. (OK, that was two words.)

The Church can ill-afford to embark on more disastrous witch hunts, and we are far removed from burning anyone alive. Our job is to share the love of Jesus with all those who need it, witches included. We need to show the dangers of magic and offer a better way (not “more weight”). Everyone needs the salvation offered by Christ. We all need to lay aside everything and anything which interferes with our relationship to God.

Some place certain magic-related books, movies, and games in this category. The only reason I ever read the first Harry Potter book, in fact, was because my father wanted to know how truly evil the books were, so he bought a copy, tossed it to me, and said, “Here. You read faster than I do. Tell me what you think.” Most things like that, I feel, present no threat to anyone. Fantasy is precisely that: fantasy, not reality, and it’s not difficult to distinguish between the two. Additionally, any fan of fantasy can tell you about good Christian fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?). As long as a person remains oriented to reality, no harm will be done by reading books about wizards. (Even if such things do inspire on kid in a million to pursue real magic, they will quickly learn the true thing is nothing like the storybook version.) The risk is truly minimal, and the rewards of sharing fairy tales with your children are priceless.

Even so, remember: there is no distinction between white magic and black magic in the eyes of God. All magic is sinful; all seeks power from sources outside of the Almighty. May we keep from sinning while showing love and mercy to those who, like us, fall short of perfection.

So don’t gather the firewood for the witch hunt.

Myths of Intimacy

I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.

There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships?  Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.

One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.

Wheels within wheels . . .

At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.

Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.

To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.

I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.