Wednesday, December 28, 2011

So Many Translations

I grew up KJV-Only and remember hearing people play up the confusion factor of "so many different translations." While if you took every translation made and put them in a stack, it might seem overwhelming. However, Bible translations aren't made to necessarily stand in parallel with everything that has come before it. A new Bible translation is designed to move the overall translation of the text forward, both in terms of accuracy to the original manuscripts, and proper representation in today's continually evolving languages.
I put together a list of the major translations in use by English-speaking Christians today, excepting sectarian translations such as the NAB(RE) which is(are) designed for Catholics, and of course the NWT which is designed for Jehovah Witnesses. The major, non-sectarian translations in use today are:
ESV (English Standard Version)
HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) This one could almost be considered sectarian as it seems to be a phenomenon of the Southern Baptist Convention.
KJV (King James Version)
NASB (New American Standard Bible)
NIV (New International Version) Variants such as the TNIV, NIVI, and NIrV had minor impact.
NKJV (New King James Version)
NLT (New Living Translation)
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)

Older versions such as the ASV, RSV, Good News, Darby, Moffatt, etc. have become minor translations, although the RSV is still a go to for Catholics who like neither gender-sensitive translations nor the NAB(RE). Conservatives who like the RSV have moved to the ESV.

So we have only 8 translations today of any real importance. To simplify matters even further, we need to look at the generational shift between versions, to illustrate the evolution of Bible versions, specifically their usage. I can divide our list into three generations, and I'll include the RSV because of it's importance to this task:

The first generation:
RSV
NASB
KJV

The second generation (what users of first generation Bibles moved to):
NRSV (non-conservative RSV users)
ESV (conservative RSV and NASB users)
NKJV (NASB and KJV users)
NIV (KJV users)

This second generation shift (for those who actually made the shift) represents the initial market. In other words, first generation translations lost readership as the second generation Bibles appeared.

The third generation (what users of first generation Bibles moved to):
NLT (NIV users)
HCSB (NIV and NKJV users)
ESV (NIV and NKJV users)

Interestingly, the ESV came around the same rough timeframe as the NLT and HCSB, but filled a niche that primarily catered to conservative RSV users. Having come so late in the game, it also qualifies as third generation for those NIV and NKJV users who trended in a more conservative direction theologically, perhaps some who had jumped ship on the RSV already, given that there was no conservative answer to the NRSV for over a decade.

Ultimately, only the second and third generation Bibles (and the KJV, for special reasons) really find a home in most church settings these days. This leaves us with only seven major translations: KJV, NIV, NRSV, NKJV, ESV, NLT, and HCSB. Not that confusing anymore, is it? Especially if you disqualify the HCSB as an SBC-specific translation, which I am tempted to do, except I don't have enough hard data to be certain.

The NKJV is a special case to me for several reasons. One, it should have replaced the KJV in 99% of the cases where other versions are not suitable. That it hasn't can only be chalked up to sentimentalism and KJVOism and the fact that some people just can't change no matter what. Second, the NKJV was never really given enough credit, in my opinion. It is an excellent translation that stands in rebuke of much silly translation you sometimes see these days even in otherwise respectable versions. I'll also point out that the NKJV is the officially sanctioned New Testament for use in the Eastern Orthodox church.

The NASB users are interesting to me. I can see it as a study Bible when I see people drag it to church and I can tell that is their main Bible I just wonder. While the NASB is written in clear English, it just doesn't read well. How they put themselves through that is beyond me.

Well, enough rabbit trails. I prefer the NRSV myself, even(definately) over the NIV2011, if I had to give it up, I would probably go with the NKJV.

Fundamentalism and the Church at Ephesus Part 3: The Importance of Love

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.’”

-Revelation 2:1-5

We come now to the chief criticism Christ lodged against the church at Ephesus—that they had abandoned the love they had at first. It is interesting that in exhorting the Ephesian church to love, he says that they should “do the works [they] did at first”, calling “love” a “work.”
In my time among fundamentalists, the explanation of this criticism capitalized around the concept of “working out of love for God.” The application of this interpretation usually centered on making certain that your ministry involvements were rooted in a love for God, and not mechanical.
However, that interpretation and application is based on the assumption that the “love [they] had at first” is merely a love for God. The text gives no warrant to limit it in this way. The NIV and NLT both render this as “first love”, which I find very suggestive of the two commandments which Christ identified as the greatest of all:

“‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ ‘He said to him,
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

-Matthew 22:36-40

All the law and prophets hang on the commandments to love God and your neighbor. This was a message the Pharisees needed to hear. This was a message Ephesus needed to hear. This is a message fundamentalists need to hear.
That this “first love” is combined love for God and others is obvious in two ways. In Matthew 22, Christ groups them into a single category on which the law and prophets depend. Secondly, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that these two loves must go together:

“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

-1 John 4:19-21

Love for God cannot exist separately outside of love for others. The Apostle John understood Christ’s commandment in this way as well.
Many of the independent fundamental Baptists I have been around have attempted to qualify this dual love for God and neighbor by declaring that this condemnation especially concerns evangelism (or “soulwinning”). In other words, the church at Ephesus grew cold in their witness to a lost and dying world. Again, however, this is reading something into the text that is not there. The love we are commanded to have for others extends to all people, not just those in a particular category. Christ said clearly, that we must love our neighbor. If we ask with the lawyer, “And who is my neighbor?” we then recall the story of the Good Samaritan that the concept of “neighbor” extends to everyone we encounter (Luke 10:29-37). Christ could have used a story of preaching and conversion to illustrate neighborly love, but He did not.

Moreover, what we find in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians that the main love he exhorted them to was love for others in the church:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
[…]
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
[…]
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
-Ephesians 4:1-3,15-16,31-32

If the Ephesians struggled with loving brothers and sisters in Christ (at least by the time of the writing of the Revelation to the Apostle Peter), then it is highly likely that their love for God and those outside the church suffered too. Love is love is love; to partition it is to turn it into an insidious form of hatred. Thus, Christ did not need to talk about what kinds of love the Ephesians needed to work on. The Ephesians just needed to LOVE.

To understand how it is that the Ephesian church ceased to love as they ought, we can tie in the previous discussions on this letter. In Part 2, we looked at what the Ephesian church did right, in sticking to the truth and challenging error. In Part 1, we looked at the importance of the unity of Christ’s church universal. The fact that Christ has to challenge them on unity and love in light of their doctrinal strength suggests a picture of this church that matches closely with today’s fundamentalists.

From this letter and the exhortations to unity in the epistle to the Ephesians, we get the picture of a church that has let doctrinal correctness trump Christian love. The Ephesians had evidently engaged in some form of ecclesiastical separation that denied Christ’s ownership of all the churches and the essential unity of the body of Christ. Such separation thrives on an “us vs. them” dynamic which would have trickled down to result in internal discord at Ephesus and an “in or out” view towards the lost.

Such a situation accords well with today’s fundamentalism. Anyone acquainted with fundamentalism has heard derogatory remarks made towards evangelicals (“evanjellyfish”), liberals, and others. This is simply the outworking of ecclesiastical separation where lines have to be drawn and an “us vs. them” dynamic is maintained.

The basis for ecclesiastical separation is a voluntarist, (pseudo-)creedal ecclesiology that defines Christian community not through receiving of God grace, but through mental assent to a set of propositional truths. Therefore, such an ecclesiology has further warrant to prosecute from within those who do not line up with the specific, stated positions of the leadership.

Lastly, in the interest of doctrinal purity, relations with the unbelieving world must be carefully managed. This is why the saved/not saved distinction is so strong. Either you are with us, or not; and if you are with us, you will do things our way. Today’s fundamentalists are highly evangelistic, and consider “born-again” conversions as the ultimate spiritual achievement of the church on earth.

Ultimately, love is conditioned on assent to a specific application and outworking of the gospel without respect to the spiritual consciences and giftings of the believers. If you are unsaved, it is held that your greatest need is to get saved, so any type of social work that is not overtly evangelistic is derided as “social gospel.”

The exact expression of doctrine trumping love in the ancient church at Ephesus may not have exactly matched what we find among today’s fundamentalists, but it, in all likelihood, followed the same trajectory in making love conditional upon acceptance of a particular application of revealed truth.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Call to Action

When we define ourselves by our associations we mold those associations into our own image. To an extent, an association is always molded by its members. To another extent, such molding is simply a deluded self-projection onto the group. It can be a positive delusion that conveys belonging where it does not exist, or it can be a negative delusion that denies belonging where it does exist. Such self-projection onto the broader group is ultimately unavoidable and can be exploited as a matter of power, being the exploitation of one's own projection to redefine others into your influence, or the exploitation of another's projection to deny the what inconvenient truths it may bring to light. Thus, groups are ever shifting, ever changing, molded and serving the centers of power while disenfranchising the sincere and confounding the honest. So it is in the age of the individual, the tyranny of the institution gives way to the silent mockery of a false association that is only ever defined by the strong who constantly shift the contours of that association to expel the minority. "We are autonomous" and yet "we stand in solidarity"; "We agree on these matters" and yet "we don't agree"; "there is room for you" but "you don't really fit in here." The individual is wont to give up and return to a simpler time, and what passes for thoughtful critique is easily reduced, as deemed necessary, to thoughtless generalities that "no longer apply." Bias then becomes a useful tool in admitting the reality of a situation when the theory has slithered away into the dicey equivocation that plays confidence tricks on the human mind. At some point one must stop and say, "it is so," when others insist it is not. The establishment of reality in the face of plausible falsification is the first courageous step toward action that lifts the individual above the new tyrannies established through the occupation and subsequent subversion of that old association that once guaranteed life and happiness. Our task is then first to understand reality, and then proclaim it against the contrary equivocations of the tyrants, then set ourselves to independently associate and occupy in the face of tyranny. Gone are the days of argument; present with us is the necessity to act, to take, to occupy this world as if it were ours, because it ours, and it is this truth above all that tyranny seeks to blind us to.

Fundamentalists and the Church at Ephesus 2: Standing Against Corruption

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.’”
-Revelation 2:1-3

The ancient city of Ephesus in the time of the Roman Empire was a city of influence. It was a religious, commercial, and cultural center. The fourth largest city in the Roman Empire, Ephesus was the ruling center of Asia Minor and was regarded as a seat of learning. The library of Celsus and the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) were there.
Ephesus lay at the west end of one of the main trade routes into Asia and had easy access to two others by water. Much of the commercial activity combined with temple activity to create a symbiotic relationship between commerce and religion. Such relationships were common at that time.
The opposition to Christianity in Ephesus (and many other Hellenistic Roman cities) came from multiple directions. The first obvious opposition involved the fact that pagan worship and practices infiltrated normal, everyday life. In this vein we read in the New Testament about Christians arguing over meat that, while bought in the common market, had been once offered to idols. The markets were often connected to a temple that also functioned as a banking center. The second form of opposition involved the imperial cult—the worship of Caesar. (Sometimes the promoters of this type of worship found the Christians useful as an ally against pagan worship.) The third form of opposition was Epicureanism. The church after Constantine did such a thorough job of silencing the promoters of this philosophy that we tend to underestimate its prevalence during the time of the Apostles.
Such non-Christian influences would have been exceptionally strong in a large, important, metropolitan city like Ephesus. However, the Ephesian church also had to beware of wolves from within, false teaching from false teachers that would destroy the church. Paul warned them:
“From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. When they came to him, he said to them: […] Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.”
-Acts 20:17-18a, 26-32

Ephesus had to be on guard, and test those claiming the name of Christ. The stakes were too high. Paganism, worship of false gods, godless philosophies, and heretical doctrine were strong enemies at Ephesus.
Christ starts out by stating “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance.” “Works” here means “achievement” or “accomplishment.” So then Christ is saying that He knows what the church at Ephesus has accomplished, how they have labored or toiled, and how they have endured patiently. The rest of Christ’s praise will spell out the toil of Ephesus, which begins by declaring “I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers”. The Ephesian church was intolerant of sin and wickedness.
The next praise delivered is, “you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.” The connotation of the word “apostles” here should not be understood to mean only apostles such as Peter, John, and Paul who were commissioned of Christ directly. The Greek word translated as “apostle” means a messenger, and was applied in the New Testament not only to those we recognize as Apostles but prominent ministers of the church such as Barnabas, Titus, and Epaphroditus. The church at Ephesus tested all who came to teach and to minister to ensure they held a pure gospel untainted with heresy, paganism, or the godless philosophy of the times. Other churches suffered at the hands of false teachers such as the church at Galatia. But Paul had spent two whole years at Ephesus teaching them and later warned them directly to keep watch for this. The Ephesian church was not about to let the same thing happen to them.
Christ has one last praise before beginning his criticism: “I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.” Christ commended Ephesus not just for what they were doing, but for their endurance and steadfastness in holding the truth firmly.
Ultimately, the works of the church of Ephesus involved guarding the truth from error and not tolerating sin. In this toil, they were steadfast and strong. One might say the church at Ephesus was stubborn in resisting compromise.
This description fits historic fundamentalism to a tee. As a reaction to modernism, fundamentalism has always insisted on standing for the truth against the tide of error whether cultural or academic. They test Christian leaders to determine if they are holding to the truth or not. Fundamentalism has placed tremendous importance on doctrine and the correct interpretation of Scripture.
Fundamentalists have a reputation for tirelessly preaching against the sin and wickedness of the world. They are not content to achieve doctrinal purity but also desire to achieve holiness and blamelessness before the Lord. This holistic “search for purity” is a defining characteristic of Fundamentalism.
These characteristics were considered praiseworthy by Christ and ought to be considered praiseworthy by us as well. It is easy to be blown about with every wind of doctrine. It is easy to allow sin into our lives. It is also very easy to allow our hearts to grow cold and our zeal for Christ to wane. Historically, fundamentalism has had much to teach the church at large about the need for truth, purity, and endurance.
Even those in the church who strongly disagree with fundamentalism should not consider fundamentalists outside of the body of Christ. For one, that is up to Christ. Secondly, the church should seek to imitate these good qualities—just as much as fundamentalism ought to be willing to learn from other parts of the church.
A complete history of fundamentalism is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important here, when considering what is called “fundamentalism” in the modern day, to recall that the original fundamentalist movement underwent a split in the 1940s. One of the resulting groups, the evangelicals, was not willing to renounce engagement with modernism and from other parts of the church that had accepted modernist thinking to various degrees. The other group, what we recognize as today’s fundamentalists, insisted on secondary separation, not only being unwilling to engage modernism but also being unwilling to associate with those that did.
In the next part, I will explore the pitfalls facing Ephesus and why I believe today’s fundamentalists have fallen into them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More Thinking on Peak Oil and the Future

What are some positive outlooks on the Peak Oil scenario?
First, I must say up front that the only way out that does not involve a challenge to our energy usage both now and growing into the future would be the development of fusion power to point where it can be deployed on the electric grid. With such an unlimited power source, you could power the desalination plants to solve our water crises, you could power the electrolysis to generate plenty of hydrogen for other applications including fuel cells for transportation and the continued production of agricultural fertilizers. It would be the perfect solution and the gateway to a truly new and better world.
Unfortunately, fusion (in both hot and cold/LENR varieties) is far from fully developed and proven. It is often said that is has been 20-25 years away for the last 30-40 years. If I could have one wish granted, it would be that fusion would become a feasible and modestly priced power solution immediately.
Short of that, our best hopes lie in solar. Continued work and development on solar materials and installation have the potential to mitigate the peak oil crisis on a very significant level. As a matter of fact, I have installed on my computer a client that is helping the Harvard Clean Energy Project discover new and cheaper solar panel materials. This is distributed computing project that anyone can join. It is truly a race against time.
My hope is that solar power gets widely deployed on a personal level relieving stress on the grid. In other words, I think every home should be equipped with solar panels. It only makes sense in a world of declining fossil fuel supplies.
Solar could POSSIBLY advance far enough to provide the type of unlimited energy that fusion would provide, but I doubt it. Solar isn't a growth strategy, in my opinion. It is a rescue strategy. It has the potential to carry us through difficult declines in fossil fuels. But mankind will absolutely need fusion to continue the kind of growth seen during the age of oil.
As a sidenote, and in relation to yesterday's post, the upcoming US occupation of Saudi Arabia won't mean that the world will be starved of energy. Much of the rest of the world will have progressed or will progress into solar and wind to the point that they can maintain a slightly lower standard of living, combined with oil they are able to obtain. But the US will control the world stage, sharing oil with China as a matter of mutual economic interest, and other allies as it sees fit.
I mentioned Turkey and Japan as rising players on the world stage. Turkey will move away from Europe to fill the void left by Saudi Arabia. It will ally with other Islamic middle eastern nations and provide regional leadership. Japan will likely rise to forefront of green technology, perhaps especially as it relates to automobiles.
If alternative energy solutions don't meet the demand produced by declining fossil fuel supplies, one of the first modern amenities to go will be air travel. It will become extremely expensive, resulting in airline bankruptcies, leaving only specialized charter services to the rich. For the common man, traveling long distances will involve rail or hybrid motorcoach, likely at rates comparable to air travel today.
Our world will strive mightily to maintain modern medicine and information technology and the Internet, with overall success. Increased virtualization of life will be seen as one key to solving our dilemma. Do more online, less in real life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Peak Oil as a Key to Our Times

Peak Oil is a term used to describe the event where the production of fossil fuels reaches its maximum, where approximately half of all available oil has been pulled out of the earth. Aside from those who believe in the abiotic theory of oil (which is implausible for many reasons) it is widely accepted that fossil fuels are a limited, or non-renewable, resource. As someone put it, there aren't any new dinosaurs.
Some believe that we will continue to make new oil finds to offset the peaking production from existing oil fields. That peak oil is a real phenomenon is easy to see on a national level... the US, for example, hit peak oil production around 1970. The UK hit peak oil production around 1999. Many other nations have peaked as well. Increasingly, we are reliant on middle eastern sources of oil and new, harder to get oil. That we are even discussing the extraction of oil from Canadian tar sands is evidence of how close we are to the end of abundant oil.
The dates for worldwide peak oil have varied. You will often hear 2006 as the date when oil peaked. Many have said we will see peak oil in 2012-2015 or even 2020. The difficulty in identifying peak oil is a result of overinflated reserve numbers from oil producing nations as well as the lagging economic consequences of peak oil. Peak oil will only be obvious in hindsight.
If we are alert, we can see the signs. Oil is the lifeblood of our economy. It is used as fuel for transportation, energy generation, and heating. It is used to create all manner of petrochemical-based products such as medicines, paints, plastics. Fossil fuels in the form of natural gas are used to create the fertilizers which grow our food. So then when our economy outgrows the supply of oil, oil prices skyrocket, and the economy goes into recession or depression. Oil prices drop in response. The economy recovers, and then begins to grow again. Oil prices skyrocket again, and again the economy goes into recession or depression. This occurs because the peak of oil production becomes a plateau for a while as the economy goes through one adjustment after another. At some point, the economy enters an indefinite, never-ending period of wrenching stagflation since the production curve is dropping too much to permit any recovery at all. It's the 1970s all over again--ten times worse, ten times longer.
Much more could be said about Peak Oil but I want to get to my main idea. Peak Oil theorists seem to take it for granted that once we past Peak Oil, it will be obvious and everyone will wake up, only too late. If only! It will not be so. US foreign policy in the middle east has and will continue to be about sustaining America's dominance as it relates to the petrodollar. The Carter doctrine will be taken to ever increasing extremes and times get tougher. The American people will be given new and different villains to hate.
Follow the money, but this time, I encourage you to follow the oil! Iran will continue to be a convenient enemy as proxy for Islamic fundamentalism across the middle east. We will never invade Iran, but we very well may use Iranian-backed meddling in other middle eastern countries as a pretext for invading countries we would never invade otherwise. So here it is, my friends. I predict that by 2020, the US will occupy Saudi Arabia. Post-2015, only Saudi Arabia promises enough oil production to offset the wrenching economic downturn that will occur by then as a result of peak oil-influenced contraction. The war will be sold to us as a means to save Saudi Arabia from Islamic fundamentalism or Iranian control. But it will, like Iraq, be about oil.
A little more about my timeline. We are in the midst of a new normal, economically speaking. After the downturn of 2008 we came up a bit then settled back down, but consistently higher than our lows. We will grow again; indeed we are growing now and have been since June 2011. By the summer of 2012 it will become apparent that things are improving. We will continue to grow (at what rate I cannot tell) until 2014/2015, at which time we will approach the production limit of oil and prices will spike, resulting another market crash in late 2015. The step down effect of this crash will make THAT crash MUCH worse than 2008, resulting in mass unemployment, major bankruptcies, and societal unrest. I do not look forward to 2016 at all.
The timeframe between 2016-2020 will be very troubled, but will most likely include the US occupation of Saudi Arabia as a matter of securing the oil supplies necessary to maintain legitimacy at home and power abroad. It will likely be accomplished under the hand of an extremely nationalistic Republican president who will be elected in 2016. And America will support it and him.
2020-2023 will be the coalescence of a new world order around US economic and military dominance which will surpass even what we have seen until now. Turkey and Japan will rise in stature significantly on the world stage. De facto annexation of a willing Canada by the US is also a possibility due to geopolitical concerns and the oil situation.
My predictions past 2015 could be up to one US presidential term early but more than likely not.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Fundamentalism and the Church at Ephesus, Part 1: The Unity of Christ’s Body

“‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’”
-Revelation 2:1-7


Fundamentalists have their place among the churches of Christ. It is Christ who is Lord of all and judge of all. Whether one wants to be a fundamentalist or not, that is a different story. To a great degree, the Christian’s choice in this matter depends on a number of factors including where they began to learn of Christ and certain psychological needs—but this is a topic for another time.
In the book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 we find seven letters addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It has often been posited that these seven churches, in order, represent stages that the church will go through from the time of the apostles to the return of Christ. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but what is certain is that these letters are intended to address seven entirely different churches with entirely different strengths and weaknesses. I believe that we can see parallels between the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 and Christian churches today.
Where fundamentalism has taught on these letters, the focus has typically been to smear all other Christian churches as Laodicean and worthless, and to occasionally claim that fundamentalists are like the church at Philadelphia. They would like to see themselves as a Philadelphian remnant in a Laodicean age. It should suffice to simply reply that situation is much more complex than that—there are seven types of churches, not two; and anyone with a passing familiarity with fundamentalism knows better than to accuse them of the type of brotherly love that the Philadelphian church was commended for!
Moving past any misinterpretations of the seven letters to the churches, we see a pattern in each letter. There is a description of Christ that is particularly relevant to the church, praises for what the church is doing well, warnings over things that need to corrected, and finally, an eternal promise that fulfills what the church is seeking. Each of the seven letters follows this pattern except for the letter to Philadelphia, which contains no warnings.
It is my belief that the church at Ephesus is representative of today’s fundamentalist churches. In a series of articles, I hope to shed light on the spiritual condition of fundamentalism in light of what Christ had to say to Ephesus. In this article, we will examine the identification of Christ as the steward of the churches.
Christ begins by reminding the Ephesian church that He fellowships with all of the churches—He “holds the seven stars in his right hand [and] walks among the seven golden lampstands”. This is not the only time in Scripture were the Ephesians are reminded of this truth. In Ephesians 2:17-22, the Apostle Paul tells them:

“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

The unity discussed here is more than unity within a single assembly. Paul begins by teaching that through Christ, both he and the Ephesians have access to the Father by one Spirit. Because of this, all of us in Christ are being “built together” as a “whole structure” with Christ as the “cornerstone”.
(Some fundamentalists will object to the idea of a “universal” church and a refutation of such arguments will have to wait for another time. However it is already pretty easy to see that the New Testament teaches a “universal” church.)
Paul elaborates further in Ephesians 4:1-7:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.”

“One body and one Spirit”—Christians who have access to the Father through “one Spirit” also constitute “one body”, as seen here and in Ephesians 2. The church of Christ was always intended to be ecumenical in nature—the universal membership of her members in a relationship with the Father through the Son by the Spirit. The Gospel is supposed to be a unifying force.

“A life worthy” of the Christian calling is one that bears others in love, and maintains unity and peace. The Ephesians needed to be reminded of the necessity of the unity of the universal church.
Today’s fundamentalists need the same reminder. Ecumenism is derided by fundamentalists, with some of them even rejecting the concept of a “universal” church. Some Baptist fundamentalists go even further and claim that the only legitimate churches are those Baptist churches that have descended in an unbroken line from apostolic times.
The Gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ which allows us to enter into a relationship with the Father through the Son by the Spirit. It is this relationship that ensures our membership in the body, not any creed or code of conduct. It is a relationship that is begun under the conviction and enlightenment of the Spirit of God and continued in the same manner. This enlightenment involves sin, and righteousness, and judgment. It manifests as faith in Christ and works toward men.
Both faith and the works are the manifestation of being indwelt with the Spirit of God. Pitting “works salvation” against “grace salvation” is missing the broader reality of our salvation being brought to pass through birth into God’s family through the Spirit. Salvation is wrought neither by works nor by mental assertion to propositional truth but by the regenerating power of the Spirit of God. Works and faith follow this regeneration. We are saved by an initial act of grace on God’s part, not faith or works (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14).
Being a part of the family of God is enough to command unity with others who have been regenerated in like manner. It is truly the baptism of the Spirit that unites as one. Denominational divisions may be necessary to provide order within each local assembly, as each denomination follows different traditions and interpretations. However there is no excuse for inter-denominational condemnation.
Ultimately, the Lord Jesus Christ will bring every church into judgment. Christ warns every church except Philadelphia that unless they repent, He will remove their “lampstand from its place”. Fundamentalist churches stand in danger of this as much as any other church.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mystery Babylon

Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose.
And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.
-Gen 6:1-8 (NKJV)

The "sons of God" and the "daughters of men" have raised many questions with some claiming that it represents the interbreeding of angels and men. My point in this post is not to go into that debate except to make a short case for a fully human explanation, and use it to shed light on what the Scripture means when it talks about Mystery Babylon. I am going to be approaching the Scripture from a traditional inerrantist framework as I discuss this issue, despite any misgivings I have about that whole topic at the moment.
An immediately relevant passage to the whole identity of the "sons of God" is found in Matthew 22:25-30, where Christ tells us that the angels do not marry. This indicates that angels are sexless beings and thus incapable of such relations with humans. Additionally, God calls them "flesh" in verse 3 of Genesis 6.
In verse 4, the Hebrew word for giants is indicative of someone with great stature. This seems to be descriptive of the children of the sons of god who were "men of renown." These giants or "Nephilim," as the Hebrew may be transliterated (see NIV and NRSV), were such not so much in the sense of their physical stature (although they may have been) but of their social stature.
The situation being described is best explained by an article from Associates for Biblical Research titled "Who Were the Sons of God in Genesis 6?" The solution proposed there indicates that these "sons of God" actually references a system of divine kingship where earthly rulers legitimize their standing and activity through collusion with preists and general manipulation of religion:

"Clever men (priest-nobles) manipulated the populace’s religious instincts to cause them to follow and obey the local god’s “son.” He owned the people and land, in theory at least. And he acted either as god (in Egypt), or as his representative (in Mesopotamia and other cultures). When all the literature and monuments were used to glorify and exalt this man as the son, or representative, of god, religion became the opiate (binder and blinder) of the people! Manipulation of religion for political purposes began in Sumer, was picked up in Akkad (Old Babylon), revised with the same themes in Assyria and Neo-Babylonia, was enjoyed by Persian monarchs, captivated Alexander and his successors (Antiochus “Epiphanus” means “the revelation of god”), and was copied by Rome. (It is even found in Africa, the Far East, and the Americas.)
"'There would be nothing extraordinary in a worldwide diffusion of divine kingship: the doctrine evidently has exercised a great fascination over the human mind. Greece and Rome shook it off in their youth, but returned to it in their old age. When Alexander claimed to be the son of Zeus he was merely continuing, reviving, or borrowing from the East an ancient belief that the first-born of the king was really the son of a god who had assumed bodily form in order to lie with the Queen, a belief which was current in Egypt under the Early Dynasties of the Empire, if not earlier. The later Romans had to accept the divinity of kings with their empire...Having thus re-established their sway over Western Europe the divine kings of the world did not again surrender it except to another Divine King, a Spiritual King, incarnated once for all in order ever after to rule over the souls of men' (Hocart 1927: 15–16).
"This is most interesting when one recalls that Nebuchadnezzar (a “divine” emperor whose name may mean “Nebo has protected the succession-rights”) had a vision in which kingdoms having divine kingship were finally smashed by the kingdom of Christ, the true King who was truly Divine (Dn 2)."

You may recall the dream in Daniel 2 that prophesied five kingdoms: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, and one last kingdom. Each of the first four kingdoms was characterized by a cult of divine kingship. The last kingdom at its destruction will be characterized by the same thing. This is WHY the kingdom of the Antichrist is referred to as Mystery Babylon, as it follows in the grand tradition of claiming divine headship and blessing.
The Antichrist truly is a figure that is a counterfeit Christ, setting himself up as a son of God in the tradition of Genesis 6 and Babylon.

The lesson is to be truly wary of any religious or spiritual justification for political entities or activities. More generally, we are warned about the dangers of integrating church and state. Truly in America, that group that is known as the religious right is playing with fire and imbibing of the spirit of Mystery Babylon.

I personally stand against all recognition of political realities in the church, be it advocating for a candidate, promoting political change, opening up the church as a voting location, or even commemorating July 4th or any other patriotic event. I prefer to not even see an American flag in the church building.

Taking the discussion in a little different direction, I find it interesting in the article where it discusses religion as the opiate of the people. This reminds us of Marx's evaluation of religion. Marx's distaste for religion appears primarily grounded in the historical reality of divine kingship, whereby the political rulers of this world utilize religion to maintain their power and oppress the common man. The honest Christian cannot deny that this is this case with religion. It is enough to make one want to give up on religion entirely ...especially in 2011 America where the religious right and the Tea Party are on the march against dozens of supposed "bogeymen" like Obama, healthcare reform, taxes on the rich, gays in the military, etc. If this is Christianity then I want no part of it.

If we take the futurist view that the end times are coming in the future, how is it that our modern, enlightened society moves from social democracy to a place where it will once again accept some idea of divine kingship? Will this divine kingship utilize some co-opted form of Christianity?

It is tempting but I must resist the temptation to see America's religious right as the precursor to Mystery Babylon. Certainly it is wrong-headed and abominable, and something that Christians must refrain from being a part of. However I am convinced that any coming Antichrist figure will be atheistic. Daniel describes his god as a "god of forces," suggesting some naturalistic spirituality.

The current world economic crisis is setting this stage for resource wars and armed conflict. On the other side of these things lay a new, improved world that will have nothing to do with the old order of things. I believe the American christian religious right is setting the stage for its ultimate destruction, and all of Christianity will be caught in its wake. Our society will continue to modernize and progress away from religion in general. Christianity may come to be viewed as the primary contributor to an upcoming world crisis. In fact, the strong alliance between Christianity and unfettered capitalism (Tea Party, etc.) is setting the stage through which both capitalism AND Christianity will become hated relics of the past.

Monday, August 08, 2011

WinFF and the Removal of libfaac from FFmpeg

If you attempt to encode MP4 video with WinFF using later versions of FFmpeg, you will get an error:
Unknown encoder 'libfaac'

libfaac has been removed from FFmpeg for licensing reasons. So instead of using the following option to encode AAC:
-acodec libfaac

Use FFmpeg's experimental encoder instead:
-acodec aac -strict experimental

In WinFF, you can go into Edit>Presets and make this change to the affected preset, then click "Add/Update" and then "Save" when you are done.
Of course, the experimental codec is just that. YMMV. If you really want libfaac, there are special unofficial builds of FFmpeg on the web that include libfaac.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Where Have I Been

It has been almost two months since my last post. Most of the readers of this blog are people who pull up something I wrote by using a search engine, then move on. Average time per visit is just under one minute according to sitemeter statistics. However this blog is based on me. This blog is about the evolution of my Christian identity.
If you are a regular reader you will remember that recent posts have been very anti-Christian in tone. I am not sure how much more I have to say about my Christian identity at this point. It hangs by a thread. Trying to define it just makes it more senseless. Writing about it is a way of trying to take stock and define it, so that gets me nowhere really fast.
If you are scratching your head then go back and read my posts on Teddy Bear Christianity and Christian Nihilism (end of May, beginning of June 2011).
I have contented myself with the idea that there is a higher power, as opposed to atheism. I tried to remove the concept of God from my thinking but my psychological makeup means that this results in depression for me. But I think this is less some indicator of a "God-shaped" hole as it is a signifier that I am just screwed up mentally because of a lot of what I have been through.
That leaves the question of my relation to Christianity. In this matter I have contented myself that I am "theologically agnostic" ecumenicalist. If there be any truth to Christianity then the impulse of the Spirit courses through the universal church as it exists today in its imperfection. If there is any truth in the Bible it is this, that we see Christ as one who sees himself in a dark mirror, and when He returns, we shall know Him face to face, for we shall be raised to His likeness. I'll not curse the Catholics. I'll not berate the Baptists. NT Wright puts it best, the ecumenical nature of the church as Christ intended it is understood in the universal membership of her members in a covenant relationship with the Father through the Son. Maybe I mangled that and if so, apologies to Wright. The Gospel was supposed to be a uniter, but has now become the greatest divider.
I've seen beyond the hide-bound assumptions about justification and millennialism that my Baptist upbringing thrust upon me. I've seen enough to know that I can't limit my perspective like that anymore. Be honest, how many of you reading this thought my aforementioned reference to a "covenant relationship" had something to do with Calvinism/Reformed Theology? That's what I am talking about... most evangelicals (including fundamentalists) who are raised with any sense of theology at all are raised with such a narrow, sectarian sense of it that it ends up functioning primarily as a tool for cavilling and dissention. A simple exposure to different streams of theological thought would have been enough to break such an assumption and set your possibilities among a number of different theological contexts.
I am reminded of the old KJVO high school friend who accused me of following James White just because I quoted him in an argument against KJVOism. Not so!
My mother-in-law is certain that out church is Reformed in theology because we had a Sunday honoring some of the leaders of the Reformation. Not so!
So much theology is no more than an elaborate "label and dispense" scheme. How can theology truly matter in such a context?

If there is any salvaging of my Christian identity it is to ground my theology in the true Gospel, which means understanding theology in an ecumenical-convenant context that honors the diversity and universality of the church.
I'll bet the second part of that sentence was a real let-down for some of you after that first part!


NRSV vs. ESV

As you may know, I prefer to use the NRSV translation of the Bible. I have noticed lately a lot of people in my church carrying around the ESV. Commenter "Michael" over here puts into words my EXACT feelings about the ESV:

"The reason why the NRSV is stylistically superior to the ESV is because the translators devoted a lot more time and attention to the task than did the ESV translators.

"The NCC authorized a full revision of the RSV in 1974, the work of the translation committee was completed and approved in May 1989 and published later that year as the NRSV. So they spent 15 years working on it.

"By contrast, the ESV was conceived as a kind of knee jerk reaction against the publication, in England of the NIV with Inclusive Language in 1996.

"Now, let me be clear, I share some of the skepticism about inclusive language, so my problem isn't with the fact that they are skeptical about inclusive language, my problem is that their opposition is knee jerk, unthinking, reactionary, an emotional reaction and not the product of careful reflection.

"The ESV was first conceived in 1997, the committee was put together in 1998, and the first edition was published in 2001.

"They didn't really devote the necessary time and attention to the task that they should have, because they were in a rush to get it out as soon as possible."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fix for Microsoft Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000 Stiff Spacebar

I just purchased a Microsoft Natural Ergo Keyboard 4000 from Best Buy, since my wrists were starting to complain. It is a great ergonomic keyboard; however, one thing is exceedingly bothersome... the stiff space bar. If you don't hit it just right there is too much resistance.

I searched the web for solutions. I ran across http://www.paulstravelpictures.com/MS-Natural-Ergo-Keyboard-Sticky-Spacebar-Fix/index.html , which suggested one of the following:

1. Twist the ends of the sway bar under the space bar, or
2. Remove the sway bar altogether

Neither worked well for me. I finally came up with a solution that really solves the problem:
Break off the inner sway bar clips.

If you pull out the space bar and look underneath, the metal sway bar is secured in two places on both sides. I pulled the following picture from the site above and added arrows to show you what to do. What you what to do is break off one side of both inner clips:





Update 2/12/15: I recently bought another one of these keyboards and have found that the space bar is just fine as is and I haven't needed to do this. It seems like Microsoft has improved the keyboard in recent revisions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Church "Growth", Comfort Zones, and Cliche Theology

There are two separate issues I want to talk about in this post. Issue number one is the concept of being the concept of comfort and the Christian. Issue number two is the concept of numerical growth.
It has been said that you can't do anything for Christ until you get out of your comfort zone. I understand the motivation behind this. People can sometimes let their petty preferences get in the way of serving God. Unfortunately, it remains bad advice.
The concept of comfort can have various meanings. For example, I am sure my pastor is would not be comfortable letting a secular rock band perform on Sunday morning. Okay, that's fine; no one would suggest that the pastor needs to "get out of his comfort zone" on that. You may remember when the Apostle Paul considered going into the region of Bithynia, but the Spirit prevented them. Evidently, Paul did not have a comfortable feeling about going into Bithynia, though he desired to spread the gospel. The Holy Spirit has made him uncomfortable with the idea.
Something can be a good thing to do, when considered on its own. Witnessing to people is considered a good thing to do. But there is a time and a place for everything, and yielding to God's leading means allowing him to redirect your good intentions when necessary.
Beyond the issue of being UNcomfortable in a spiritual way, is being comfortable in a spiritual way. God equips us each for specific service, which, if we are trying to follow Him, we will find joy and peace in doing. The peace is spiritual comfort in ministering in the way you have been enabled.
Telling people that they have to get out of their comfort zone to serve God encourages people to go against what might be the leading of the Spirit. God gives us peace about doing right and warns us about doing wrong. When we ignore our reservations or give up our contentment with where God has us as so much selfish comfort, we can get ourselves into trouble.
The truth of the matter is that we then set ourselves up against whatever standard of service is being advanced in the name of "getting out of your comfort zone." If the pastor says "you need to get out of your comfort zone and do X, Y, and Z," you'll cast aside any critical thought, adverse leading, or reservation because the pastor has implicitly labeled those as selfish hindrances keeping you in "your comfort zone." Few people will stop and question the unstated assumption that any reason for not doing X, Y, and Z constitutes an excuse for staying "comfortable." It is a form of manipulation. Biblical exhortation motivates through the word of God, not rallying people, or manipulating people, or short-circuiting people's critical thinking, or psyching people up.
The second issue pertains to the issue of numerical growth. It has also been said that evangelism is how God grows the church numerically. It may be the source of growth, but it cannot be the main purpose of evangelism. Anything is judged by how it serves its purpose. If evangelism does not result in a sufficient quantity of results, then there is a problem, if the purpose of evangelism is to grow the church numerically. And increasingly, such a problem has to be solved through promotions and other gimmicks, or through brute force in getting more people out. Evangelism's main purpose is witness. We are witnesses of Christ. We sow the seed through our witness and God causes the harvest to come in His time. We plant and water and God gives the increase. He doesn't ALWAYS give increase. He isn't OBLIGATED to give increase. Insisting that evangelism is a means of increase turns the true purpose of evangelism on its head and demands of God what He never promised to consistently provide. More tragically, it changes the motivation for evangelism from love for a lost world to a desire to grow the church.
Sadly, even the most exegetical of teachers can end up with cliché theology. "Sin will keep you from this book, and this book will keep you from sin" theology. "Attempt great things for God, expect great things from God" theology. Little sound bites for a sound bite world that line up with Scripture loosely and imperfectly. Man's wisdom espoused without constantly and consistently setting it within the context of Scripture is a road that slowly transforms a community of believers from Bible-based to man-based, from a community based on faithful teaching to a community focused on the stature of the organization called "church". Perhaps the pastor expects people to understand the context automatically. To understand his heart? But how soon are we all want to substitute our comprehension of God and Scripture for God and Scripture themselves. It is more convenient.
…and often more conducive for pushing the church in the direction of quantitative growth, be that attendees or buildings or whatever. The growth of any church is none of anybody’s business. God will grow it when He is ready.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Christian Nihilism

I have finally found a way to neatly define my frustration and dissatisfaction with Christianity. It came about as I considered how I feel about life. I think that it would be better if none of us existed. I see no purpose for our existence in this temporal world. If I think that way, I am a nihilist.
And yet, I "call" myself a Christian. Isn't a Christian nihilist an oxymoron? It's like saying one is a believing atheist. Nonetheless, I Googled "Christian nihilist" to see what I might find.
I discovered an argument made by Friedrich Nietzsche against Christianity:

"If one shifts the center of gravity of life out of life into the 'Beyond' – into nothingness – one has deprived life as such of its center of gravity. The great lie of personal immortality destroys all rationality, all naturalness of instinct – all that is salutary, all that is life-furthering, all that holds a guarantee of the future in the instincts henceforth excites mistrust. So to live that there is no longer any meaning in living: that now becomes the 'meaning' of life."

Christianity's preoccupation with the eternal is a form of nihilism. This temporal life is worthless and pointless except as it is used to further our connection with eternity. Paul said, if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are most miserable (1 Cor 15:19). That statement is often taken to indicate that we have hope in Christ for this life as well. But I am not certain that's what Paul is saying, especially in light of the many places where Paul talks about the glory to come and our eternal hope.
No, I believe that what Paul was saying in that verse is this: if only in this life do we hope to be resurrected into glory with Christ, but nothing actually happens after death, then we are stupid--we are most miserable because we have staked everything on this.
There is no hope IN THIS LIFE for the Christian. The only hope, the only glory, the only center for the Christian, is eternity.
Christianity thus, as Nietzsche puts it, has "deprived life AS SUCH of its center of gravity." Christians are nihilists. Our temporal existence is meaningless apart from the destiny of our soul, which is held in Christian theology to be the true essence of a man.

The amazing observation out of all of this comes when you consider the antagonism of Christianity towards "godless" evolution and atheism. The thinking Christian will often be quick to reduce such positions to nihilism, without thinking about the nihilism inherent in his own faith.
It also becomes the answer to the common arguments against evolution that are based on the supposed improbability of evolution, or general evidences of intelligent design (the eye, Einstein's cosmological constant, etc.). The one who doesn't believe in God gives this world no purpose because of how he supposes it came to exist; the one who does believe in God gives this world no purpose because this world is condemned. At least the atheist can construct and work toward a better future. The Christian has resigned this world to plagues, Armageddon, and the fires of judgment and has no hope except in death.
If God's creation is so great you would think Christian theology would accord earthly life a higher importance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Teddy Bear Christianity

I asked a question of several Christians today. How can you prove that it is God that leads you, and not your own imagination? I have received no answers or comments.
It seems that most Christians derive their comfort from Christianity, and not God or Christ. Those Christians who say they derive their comfort and joy from God or Christ actually derive their comfort from their perceptions of Him. The Scriptures say that he who comes to God must believe in his existence and that he rewards those who seek Him. If you in fact are firmly convinced in this fashion, no amount of empirical evidence will sway you, for such evidence is merely appearance and not reality to you. God will answer in His time, and bless those that wait.
But given enough time, anything can and will happen. Possible outcomes increase exponentially with increased time, and upon this axiom rests the concept of biological evolution. What is the difference between ascribing the works of chance to God, and ascribing the works of God to chance? (Unless you are Calvinistic to the extreme, the question is valid.) Even more to the point, the argument against biological evolution by appeal to its general unobservability (outside of bacterial and viral adaptations) stands in high inconsistency with the argument for God's intervention despite the lack of evidence for it by appeal to "God's timing." If you want to see evolution now, I want to see God answer your prayer now.
The Scriptures tell us that faith is the substance of hope, and stands as evidence of what is not yet apparent. The requirement of faith in God negates any argument for the existence of God, because true faith would keep on believing even if no God existed. The requirement of faith itself is an indicator that no empirical or logical proof for God exists; His existence is a mere possibility. Otherwise, of what value is faith?
A god could choose to hide himself from man's perception in any explicit manner, forcing man to tentatively infer his existence if they choose to recognize him. That god would be no more tenable than a non-existent god.
The biblical writers resorted to the argument from design as a primary basis to prove God's existence, but as Bonhoeffer put it, we live in a "world come of age." Regardless of your position, viewed neutrally, evolution is as much a possibility as creation. Even if the brightest theologians agreed together tomorrow that evolution and the Bible were compatible, and laid out a solid framework for interpreting Scripture in such a manner, it does not demand that God's existence be recognized. Placing God's creation within an evolutionary framework is entirely different than making evolution dependant on God. Such a synthesis would serve only as a plausible explanation for the faithful--its utter inability to make the universe dependant on God's existence ultimately makes it a fatal capitulation.
If the people of God experienced God it might not make any difference. But the requirement of faith makes the experience of God one of interpretation. God is who we believe Him to be, because each of us believes we have the truth. Why then would our experience of God not be consistent with truth? If we are uncertain about the truth, then we are uncertain about God, and we are faulty in our experience of Him.
In our desire to experience Him, we strive for certainty. Those like me who give up certainty, have no ground upon which to experience Him. Certainty as a solution is confounded by the fact that those with the most certainty most certainly disagree.
But all of this misses the point when you consider these deliberations as reflections of a top-down Christian religiosity. The more compelling arguments for religion come from those who began with a spiritual experience and continued from there. Indeed, this epiphanaic spiritual experience is the bread and butter of any true religiosity. This bottom-up religiosity remains subjective but finds its basis in experience, albeit personal experience. Increasingly, however, Christian communities form around shared beliefs rather than shared experience. What is one to make of this except that God remains a product of interpretation and not experience?
So we see how Christianity is not driven by the experience of God but by sectarian conceptions of Him. Even those who have the most profound experiences ultimately submit themselves to this sectarianism. And we return to my original point, that Christians are not so much comforted by God as by how they perceive God. They believe God must feel and act toward them in a certain manner and that is a comfort. This is much like my two-year-old deriving comfort from his teddy bear, which is an inanimate object, or an older primary-age child spending time with an imaginary friend. It is a Teddy Bear Christianity.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Important Tools for Online Learning

I have been taking classes online for about 1 1/2 years now at American Public University, and there are a few things you should definitely purchase and/or have on hand to help you be successful.

1) Access to a notebook and one additional computer, both with Microsoft Office 2007 or newer.
I typically use my notebook, but when that went out, I used my desktop. Now my desktop needs repair, but I have my notebook. Online classes don't stop for computer problems. Also, don't try to get by without Microsoft Office. Some classes will have requirements that pretty much force you to use Office. Having at least one of your computers be a notebook gives you a tremendous amount of flexibility in studying and completing assignments.

2) MLA/APA/Chicago templates for Microsoft Word
I got mine from www.referencepointsoftware.net . These will be an invaluable life saver.

3) A current style guide.
You are likely to have to purchase one as part of an English class, but if not, get one. This will tell you all the rules about how your papers should be formatted. You will want to refer to it anytime you are not sure what to do or what things should look like. I use the one by Diana Hacker.

4) Subscription to Easybib.com
This tool will make it snap to generate reference lists for your papers and other assignments in whichever format you need. Most of the time, entering a web address or ISBN is sufficient to generate a properly formatted reference. It will tell you what information is needed. Also, it has a feature that will generate proper citations. Invaluable!

5) Subscription to the Encyclopedia Britannica online
This one is a little pricey at $69/yr, but it is a real help given the fact that most professors dislike or outright ban Wikipedia references. Use Encyclopedia Britannica online instead and you can present it as a reputable source. Very easy to lookup almost anything, and each article provides relevant outside web sites to also check out.

6) A printer
Before submitting that paper online, print it out. You really need to make sure it looks good printed, and there is nothing to compare with reading your printed out assignment for finding mistakes and errors.

7) Dropbox
You will likely be using multiple computers for your studying. Keep your college files and assignments automatically synched across all your devices with dropbox.com. Another tool you can't go without.

8) Have more than one browser loaded on your computer
It is often easier or advisable to have your virtual classroom loaded in one browser while using another for research. If a rogue website takes down your browser you don't want to lose work if you are typing directly into the classroom.

9) PDFSam ( www.pdfsam.org )
Download your PDF-based e-textbook chapters and combine them with PDFSam. You will have a whole-book PDF that is great for searching. Go a step further and do a select-all in your whole book PDF and paste into Notepad, then save as a text file for super-fast searching of the entire textbook.

10) The local library
Explore your local library's inter-library lending programs. Often they will have agreements with local universities that make their entire collections available for you to borrow. Never underestimate the advantage of real-life books in online learning. Even if your online course doesn't require a lot of research, grabbing related books from the library puts additional information and perspectives at your fingertips. Additionally, most libraries have free wifi, making it a great backup connection in case your internet goes out. Just take your notebook to the library!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Equal Elder Rule vs. Congregationalism

Much of the motivation for promoting equal elder rule comes from the desire to avoid unscriptural single pastor rule. That debate, however, ignores the concept of congregationalism, in which the congregation as a body rules. Opponents of equal elder rule point this out quickly, that equal elder rule is still rule by a few men at the top, when the New Testament gives us a concept of leadership that is more congregational.

Here's the rub: congregationalism is like communism. It's never been tried in its true form. Like communism, congregationalism usually stops at the point where a strong leader is guiding the group, but full control never actually gets turned over. The man in charge stays the man in charge and that's the way it is.

The reason for this is simple: most people are followers. Most people are sheep. Some will question leadership, some will oppose leadership, but most will meekly "baa" and go whatever direction the leader(s) takes them. This is the Achilles' heel of any democratic system.

I am not a sheep. Maybe I used to be a long time ago; but I am not any longer. When I sit in a church a watch people soak in nonsense from the pulpit it makes me upset. When I go to church and watch people jump onboard with the latest church push without asking questions it makes me sad.

That pure congregationalism is impossible vis-a-vis the typical human nature is shown clearly in the Scripture. Remember at Mt. Sinai the people of Israel said they did not wait to deal with God directly, they would rather that Moses tell them what to do. Nothing has changed!

This is not to say that a church should not be organized around congregational principles, and that the elders MUST rule. But there should be multiple equal elders, so that when the people invariably begin to follow and idolize them, they can be held in check, and held accountable.

Again, this is WHY the New Testament pattern is multiple equal elders in each church.

I say multiple "equal" elders, because I want to distinguish it from a hierarchy of elders such as a pastor at the top and assistant pastors under him. Then, when the people invariably come to expect them to rule, there will be "equal elder rule," not "single pastor rule," which is destructive and abhorrent.

Some might criticize my position as too pessimistic. Certainly, it could be said, such a "vacuum of power" is a concept that takes root among worldly estimations of leadership. Didn't Christ say that the greatest among us will be our servant, in direct opposition to the Gentile form of power that lords it over another? So then my position is taking for granted that the church will buy into the world's concept of power and rulership.

Well, here is where is gets even sadder. That's true! The basis of the egalitarianism that Christ identifies with his disciples and, by extension within the church at large, is based on service. But not just any service, but service to one another. In-reach service. "Each joint supplying" service.

Pastors, in their quest for growth, exchange this type of service for organizational service. That is to say, service now becomes primarily an outreach affair. Inward service is neglected/assumed/put in second place.

But wait a minute, you say. Aren't I advocating a "our four and no more" concept of church?

Absolutely not! Let's welcome the lost with open arms! But the assembly of believers exists to take care of itself, first and foremost. Evangelism is incidental to the assembly, as individual believers go out into the world.

Let me bring it all back in. Pastors give their assemblies a corporate mission/vision/purpose, co-opting "every joint supplieth" service into outreach ministry involvements. Christian service goes from defining the assembly to advancing corporate mission, thus in turn requiring corporate rulership.

The members of the church begin to require a CEO type leadership from their pastor at this point, and that's what they get. And frankly, most pastors aren't up to it, and burn out. In the quest for growth lies the seeds of their destruction.

It may seem like I am offering two different explanations. That's true, but it only serves to show that this situation is the fault of both pastors and members. Pastors that adopt a mission/vision/purpose for the church outside of itself deprive themselves of the opportunity to develop that "every joint supplieth" service that, in defining the church, ensures the continuity of congregational rule. On the other hand, members who view the church as just another organization expect out of pastors great and mighty things, and put them up in place they have no business being. All of these tendencies can be guarded against somewhat through the concept of equal elders.

The church exists for itself. Evangelism is incidental. Anything else requires a level of organization and rulership that subverts New Testament church polity. This is the hidden, unexplored issue that confounds much of the debate between equal elder rule and congregationalism.

Lastly, this is an issue that transcends denominational lines. We all ought to consider these things.

Thoughts on Social Security

I had to write about Social Security for a college class, so I started to dig into the issues since I never really paid close attention to it before. Below are my findings, a solution, and thoughts on privatization. Enjoy!

How Social Security works:

Workers pay social security taxes as part of FICA. The SSA pays out existing claims and puts the rest in a trust fund (3).
[Workers] --$$--> [SSA] --$$--> [Existing Claims] --$--> [Social Security Trust Fund]

This is the way the system was designed.


How the Social Security Trust Fund works:

Money put into the Social Security Trust Fund gets invested in special issue Treasuries (3):
[SSA] --$$--> [Social Security Trust Fund] --$$--> [Treasuries (government debt)]

Money removed from the Social Security Trust Fund involves the liquidation of these Treasuries (3):
[Treasuries in the Social Security Trust Fund] --$$--> [SSA]

Again, this is the way the system was designed.


In 2015, according to current projections, incoming Social Security taxes will not be enough to pay out benefits. At that point, the trust fund will have to be tapped, and this is where part of the controversy comes in: where will the US Government get the money to repay the Treasuries (4)?

On the face of it, this isn't strictly a Social Security problem. This is a government budget problem. If the Social Security Trust Fund is gone, it's because the government spent it without offsetting it by decreasing borrowing on the open market.

This is the question that defies a solid answer. Had there been no surplus Social Security taxes flowing into the Social Security Trust Fund, would government borrowing have remained the same? If so, then we as a nation have truly saved that money, and any tax increases necessary to pay it back would have occurred regardless of the existence of Social Security. If our government used that money to increase its overall borrowing power, then paying back Social Security will incur an additional burden we would not have had otherwise (2).

Suffice it to say, if we as a nation truly saved that money, and Congress did not use it to increase borrowing power, it's not a big deal.

But let's consider the more likely case where Congress took the bait and increased borrowing in response to Social Security surpluses. Let me state again: Social Security is not to blame, Congress is. Congress either 1) did not tax appropriately and/or 2) overspent. But in neither case were their actions forced by any burden imposed by Social Security (2).

Having to raise taxes to pay back the Social Security trust fund is not the fault of Social Security, it is the fault of Congress, and such tax increases are necessary only because Congress under-taxed and/or overspent. Social Security is a red herring to deflect responsibility. And it is sick and sad, because it places the burden of our wayward Congress on the backs of retirees.

General tax increases to preserve the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund by providing funds to repay the Treasuries are a commentary on our federal government's long-term fiscal responsibility, not an indictment of Social Security.

However that's only part of the problem. In 2037, the Social Security Trust Fund itself will run out (4). It is at this point that Social Security truly becomes a problem in and of itself. Several scenarios present themselves:

1. Congress stops all transfers to the SSA as a matter of fully repaying the Social Security Trust Fund. Nothing else is done. Social Security FICA taxes are enough to pay 78% of benefits (4).

2. Same as #1, but Social Security FICA is increased. Social Security benefits remain the same.

3. Have Congress continue transfers to the SSA as a matter of supporting Social Security in the absence of Social Security Trust obligations. Nothing else is done. Social Security doesn't change.

4. Same as #3, but Congress continues transfers in a reduced amount. Nothing else is done. Social Security is able to pay out 90% of benefits.

5. Same as #4, but Social Security FICA taxes are increased. Social Security benefits remain the same.

Before making a selection, you should know that Social Security benefit obligations level off after 2035. This is important, because it occurs before the Social Security Trust Fund runs out. You really need to look at Figure II.D5 in SSA Trustees' 2010 report to understand the situation (4). What you will see there is:

1. Social Security surpluses running out circa 2009.
2. Social Security roughly breaking even until 2015.
3. Social Security benefits outstripping Social Security FICA income as it dips into its Trust Fund from 2015-2037.
4. Social Security reaching a maximum deficit of 1.5% GDP in 2035.
5. Social Security deficits reducing slightly until 2052, and then staying mostly even until 2067.
6. By 2085, the Social Security deficit is still slightly below the 2035 maximum.

Follow me here. In the first part of my post, I stake the position that Congress is responsible for repaying Social Security Trust Fund money. Because they are OUR Congress, we should accept whatever taxes are necessary to do so. By the time Congress is through paying off Social Security Trust Fund obligations, any reduction in transfers to the SSA after that point are a tax CUT. Because the Social Security deficit peaks before that point, merely maintaining those increased taxes and continuing transfers to the SSA is enough to solve the problem.

However, I fully understand the desire to avoid extra post-2037 expenses. The 2010 Social Security Trustees' report indicates that immediately raising the Social Security FICA tax to 14.24 percent from its 2010 level of 12.4 percent will, in addition to Congress paying back the Social Security Trust Fund money, ensure the solvency of Social Security until 2085 (4). At a US median household income of $52,029 (2008), that's an additional $957.33 a year per family over 2010 rates (5).
That's the "increase taxes only" route. The trustees' report tells us that an immediate cut equivalent to 12 percent of benefits would also achieve the same goal (4).

But what is the problem with this? These measures (benefit cuts and Social Security FICA increases) will come as costs to the citizen ON TOP OF general tax increases needed for Congress to repay the Trust Fund. We can't afford that now, but neither should we let Congress and ourselves out of the obligation to repay the Trust Fund. The Republican strategy seems to be one of avoiding fully repaying the Trust Fund through draconian cuts to Social Security. That's not the fair and moral thing to do.
The better thing to do is leave Social Security alone FOR NOW, and focus on repaying the Social Security Trust Fund in full. Do that, and you've solved the problem until 2037, at which time we can either continue our transfers to the SSA (problem solved) or reduce them with an equal offset from a combination of Social Security FICA hikes and benefit cuts (problem solved). Yes, we are looking at increased cost, but that is a consequence of changing demographics.

Repaying the Trust Fund and making Social Security less of a value (higher cost for less) isn't something we can absorb all at once. Let's focus on the Trust Fund now. If we can come up with the fiscal discipline to do that, we can afford to wait a bit longer to solve the longer-term Social Security problem. If we can't come up with the fiscal discipline to just repay the Trust Fund, adding an additional FICA burden or benefit cut isn't going to make it easier to do so.

Also, keep in mind that a percentage of the new taxes needed to repay the Social Security Trust Fund would have been needed anyway, in proportion to the amount of government borrowing that was not done on the open market due to Social Security Trust Fund Treasuries.

Now that we understand that every FICA dollar is needed to pay benefits, plus more, what would we be left with to privatize? I can't find an answer to this from anyone promoting privatization. This is probably because privatization, as a mainstream idea, went down in flames under G.W. Bush. If it had taken hold then, the surpluses from 2004-2009 could have been used to bootstrap such a scheme. Now, frankly, it's too late.

A powerful indictment of privatized Social Security is the finding of Stanley Logue in San Diego, CA. In 2004 he decided to go back and compare what his 45 years worth of Social Security FICA contributions would have earned under Social Security versus what they would have earned on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The surprising finding was that the stock market investment lost out by about five thousand dollars (1).

It is also important remember that, fundamentally, Social Security is a form of insurance, NOT an investment scheme (1). The goal isn't to generate the highest payout for citizens, it is to preserve capital so that there is something to pay retirees. It is for this reason that Social Security is not a "Ponzi scheme."

Failure of privatized Social Security would only require new and costly government outlays to make up for that failure. Failures of this sort have been seen in Britain (1).

The idea that we could restrict such retirement accounts to safe investments fails too. One of the most aggressive "safe" investments, "Money Market" funds, barely even keeps up with inflation (6). Buying government debt, another "safe" option, is exactly what our current system is doing!

Of course, the recent economic misery is just a nail in the coffin for this bad idea.


(1) Francis, David R. "One Man's Retirement Math: Social Security Wins." CSMonitor.com. December 27, 2004. Accessed April 14, 2011. http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1227/p01s03-cogn.html.

(2) Greenspan, Alan. "Economic Outlook and Current Fiscal Issues." Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. March 2, 2005. Accessed April 13, 2011. http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/testimony/2005/20050302/default.htm.

(3) HowStuffWorks. "How Does the Social Security System Work?" HowStuffWorks. Accessed April 14, 2011. http://www.howstuffworks.com/question385.htm.

(4) The Trustees of the US Social Security Administration. "2010 OASDI Trustees Report--financial Outlook for Social Security." Social Security Online. August 9, 2010. Accessed April 14, 2011. http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/2010/tr2010.pdf.

(5) US Census Bureau. "USA QuickFacts." US Census Bureau. November 4, 2010. Accessed April 14, 2011. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html

(6) Waggoner, John. "5 Things You Can Do Now to Prepare for Rising Inflation." USATODAY.com. April 23, 2009. Accessed April 14, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/money/perfi/columnist/waggon/2009-04-23-inflation-hedges_N.htm.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On the ABC 20/20 Special About IFB Abuse

Some of you may have watched the ABC 20/20 special on Friday, April 12, 2011, concerning sexual abuse in IFB churches.

What we have been hearing about the Catholic church, we are now hearing about IFB churches. I think the two situations are similar. Some will respond that the Catholic church issue is more dangerous because it is the priests who are molesting, but that misses the issue, I think. The issue is that in both the Catholic and the IFB churches, what abuse HAS gone on was covered up well. The issue is not so much the abuse, as molesters can be found everywhere and anywhere that depraved men are able to give into their lusts. The issue is the cover up.

One way I was disappointed in the 20/20 special was that they didn't do enough to tie IFB churches together. One blurb about going to the same colleges was all that I saw. Another unfortunate omission was any fleshing out of what I call the Man-O-God syndrome, or excessive pastoral authority. It is the excessive pastoral authority that is the ROOT of IFB churches' tendencies to cover up, not just sexual abuse, but many, many, other abuses. It is this excessive pastoral authority that gives rise to accusations that IFB churches are a cult.

It is in this way that attacking IFB churches over molestation charges is precisely the wrong way to bring to light IFB error. I can understand that such attempts are the cry of victims seeking redress. I also understand that such attempts are an attempt to harness the sensational nature of molestation charges in the fight against IFB error. But in the end it doesn't stick, because it comes across as so much mudslinging. Now I think surely that these IFB churches ought to be held accountable for covering these things up, and the perpetrators dealt with. But as a broadside against the IFB network of churches in general, it's not going to be effective; rather, it has the potential to backfire.

The molestation charges, for one, don't tell the whole story of IFB cover-ups. You've got numerous "Man-O-Gods" scattered throughout IFB-dom guilty at this very moment of adultery, financial mismanagement, theft, spiritual abuse, and yes even sexual abuse. You've got "Man-O-Gods" controlling and dictating their church members' lives (whether that be requiring them to ask permission or demanding veto power). And it all gets swept under the rug because he's the "Man-O-God." As the English Lord Acton said:

"I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King [and "Man-O-God" -ed.] unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."

And so we see at the very bitter end of all of this that it boils down to bad theology: the concept of power as expressed in IFB churches, that of a single "benevolent dictator," is entirely unscriptural. The New Testament gives us a pattern of equal elder rule for a reason.

So what's the right way to attack this? Expose all manner of "Man-O-God" wrongdoing and cover-up. Show how these "Man-O-Gods" abuse their position in myriad ways. No corner of IFBdom will escape the scope of THAT investigation.

But us Christians don't have to wait for another episode of 20/20. We need to reaffirm our commitment to Scripture and to Biblical church governance, and reject single-pastor rule.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Applicational" Teaching

There is no section in the Bible titled, "How to Have a Godly Marriage and How to Raise Kids."
Surely, the Bible has things to say about those topics. But they are scattered against a background of general Judeo-Christian belief and world-view. The Bible itself is a story of God's dealings with man. We treat our spouses properly, and raise our children properly, as an outpouring of what we already have in Him. Our dealings in this life in whatever positions we find ourselves in are informed and guided by our understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no right or wrong for the Christian outside of the mind of Christ, which operates in love according to His goodness and mercy to all of man's predicament and suffering.
This is why I do not like applicational teaching. The silver, gold, and precious stones of I Cor 3 are not workbooks on how to do some-thing or how to be the best some-one in a particular relationship or area of life. They are the teachings of the word of God as they inform us of Christ's mind towards our lives and the world. We go to Him, we learn of Him, we stand in awe of Him, and we come away automatically equipped in the Spirit for whatever calling God places in our lives.
Applicational teaching, then, not only refocuses our view of Scripture from a book detailing the love, grace, and holiness of God to a how-to manual, but in doing so it trends toward legalism. This is what we would expect when it is suggested that our lives in a certain area be lived according to particular guidelines not explicitly stated in Scripture.
"'Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'"
-Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV

Friday, March 11, 2011

APU / AMU /APUS Class Discussion Board Assignments

As a student of APU (American Public University), discussion board postings make up a large part of my class work. I have found it rather frustrating to digest all the different requirements of each class's discussion board posting guidelines and deadlines which often results in me losing points the first few weeks. To remedy this, I have created a sheet to be filled out the first day of class. I am posting it here so other APU / AMU / APUS students can benefit. This sheet will quickly help you determine the DB requirements for your classes. You can copy and save as a Word doc for future use.

DISCUSSION BOARD REQUIREMENTS DATA
IMPORTANT:
Be certain to reference the Announcements page, the Syllabus, and the instructor’s initial post for the Week 1 DB assignment. The information you need may not be included or the same in all of these places.
IMPORTANT: Additional DB assignments on any given week not listed elsewhere may be nested within other DB assignments for that week, and/or with the instructor’s posts on that week’s assignments, and/or as an instructor response to another student. Multiple DB assignments typically only occur on week 1 but keep an eye out for them throughout the course.
IMPORTANT: Directly email your instructor in the case of any discrepancy or any items below that are not explicitly spelled out in your course pages or materials.

CLASS ONE: ENTD221

DAY ORIGINAL POST DUE BY: Wednesday

DAY FOLLOW-UP POSTS DUE BY: Sunday

MIN REQ RESPONSES: 4

LENGTH: 2-3 Para

CITATION STYLE: APA

REFERENCES REQ? Yes NUM REF REQ: No req

SUBMIT ASSIGNMENT? Yes ATTACH POST(S) TO SUBMISSION? Yes

ADDT’L WEEK 1 DBs NUM & TITLES: 3 - APA style, Checkin, Introduction

CLASS TWO: POLS210

DAY ORIGINAL POST DUE BY: Friday

DAY FOLLOW-UP POSTS DUE BY: Sunday

MIN REQ RESPONSES: 2

LENGTH: No req

CITATION STYLE: Chicago

REFERENCES REQ? Yes NUM REF REQ: No req

SUBMIT ASSIGNMENT? Yes ATTACH POST(S) TO SUBMISSION? No

ADDT’L WEEK 1 DBs NUM & TITLES: 1 - Introduction