Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Threat of Literalism


A Facebook recommendation from a friend of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina Bible Challenge group troubled me. He wrote,
"Something we all need to bear in mind: the 'Threat of Literalism.'"

He linked to a piece by a Ken Kovacs on the CatonsvillePatch (Catonsville, MD) From Feb. 14, 2013 which was begging for a fisk. The opening sentence is a dead give-away,

"No, not liberalism (I don’t ordinarily consider that a concern) – I’m troubled by literalism."
The writer does not define liberalism, but his lack of concern likely alienates a certain segment of his potential audience from the get-go. He next proceeds to define literalism with lots of scare quotes and perjoratives as follows,

"Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty. Literalism is an obsession (and it is an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the 'letter of the law,' with the need to nail down (sometimes, literally) what is true and not true and then defending that 'truth' at all costs. It’s a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight 'hold' on reality. It’s a way of being that is suspicious (maybe paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality, because for the literalist, for example, there can only be one interpretation of a text – whether it’s a religious text (such as the Koran or the Bible) or a secular text (like the U. S. Constitution) – only one meaning, only one way to be and one way to believe in this world."

That makes for a pretty frightening image doesn't it? Never mind that his definition of an idealized literalist creates a black and white, one way and only way to think, tightly held 'truth', and helps the writer turn his version of a literalist into the world's greatest bogey man...

"So, why is literalism such a threat? Because, quite simply, the literalist bent undergirds and stands behind the many expressions of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) unleashing its toxic effluence throughout the contemporary public square."
It is so refreshing to read the non-toxic effluence of the liberated mind. Notice that he fails to define fundamentalism while equating literalism with fundamentalism.

"The unmitigated fact is that reality is infinitely more complicated and complex than fundamentalists will acknowledge, actually more than they are free to admit."
Add "simple minded" to obsessive and  maybe paranoid.

"Fundamentalism, especially the religious variety, is the very opposite of freedom. It’s a form of bondage."
Add masochistic to simple minded, obsessive, and maybe paranoid.
"It’s a defense reaction against the ever-increasing intricacies and challenges of the contemporary world."
Add knuckle dragging to masochistic, simple minded, obsessive, and maybe paranoid.
"Fundamentalism might be viewed, as one commentator has said, as a refusal to see beyond the vested and small certainties that do more to hold off the unknown, than give answers."
Add blind to masochistic, simple minded, obsessive, and maybe paranoid.
"As a result, fundamentalism and its bedfellow literalism have inflicted untold most damage against the very world they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve, the world of religious faith."
Fundamentalism and literalism are thus joined in a committed lifelong monogamous, covenantal, bed sharing relationship. A blind, masochistic, simple minded, obsessive, and paranoid  relationship perhaps. I wonder if they have a web site?

When a revisionist really gets going, expect them to pull out sayings from noted theologian "X" or distinguished professor "Y" in hopes this will lend credibility to their point of view (which is after all the "only one way to be and one way to believe in this"). So get ready to be taken on a ride,

James Hollis, Jungian analyst and writer, suggests that literalism is actually a form of religious blasphemy because it seeks to concretize (nail down, define) and absolutize the core experience of the Holy, of God – a God, if God, who cannot be controlled or defined; a God, as theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted, who was Wholly Other, a God who remains ultimately a mystery. And a mystery is not the same thing as a puzzle (which can be solved); a mystery is always enigmatic and is therefore inherently unknowable. The German theologian Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) reminded us, "A God comprehended is no God." Even for Christians who confess that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God the world has ever known or will know (as I do), this does not mean Christians are free to say we have an exhaustive knowledge of God. Humility of knowledge is essential whenever we attempt to make truth claims. Thinking we comprehend the truth is a fantasy. I’m not saying the truth doesn’t exist or that it’s completely inaccessible; it just means we need to remember that our “hold” on it is always elusive.
Come on, can't you say something stronger than that about those psychos? Oh yeah, here it comes,
"Hollis, whose writings I admire and enormously respect, even argues that literalism is a kind of psychopathology in need of deep healing (redemption?). From his many years as a psychotherapist he has come to see that a way to gauge mental health and emotional maturity is the degree to which one is able to tolerate what he calls the triple A’s – ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety. The ability to hold these in tension – and not escape into literalism and fundamentalism, into strategies of avoidance – is a way to test our psychic strength. I can certainly resonate with this. The literalists (of all varieties) I have known and know (and love) have difficulty tolerating ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety. They use their faith or their political ideology to bolster themselves against, hide themselves from the triple A’s that define the human condition."

Change "maybe paranoid" to "definitely psychotic".

The reference to Barth has to be balanced by somebody who we can really trust and believe (not that we can trust or believe anybody or anything if we carry this argument out to its logical end). Let's see, who can we dredge up? I know, a pagan philosopher!
"Writing twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 490-420 BCE) might provide wise counsel to our troubled, conflicted age, and offer some hope: 'Concerning the gods,” he wrote, “I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what form they are; for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.'  We could all use a little more humility and intellectual honesty like his in the public square."

I can only hope that my fellow Upper South Carolinian Bible student sees the threat posed by the process of building intellectually dishonest straw men as an enemy. That process will create dangerous feelings of pride and self-confidence.

Those real enemies will not be as easy to topple. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Do You Handle A Problem Like the Spirit of Truth?

I have heard it said that some preachers dread having to deliver the sermon for Trinity Sunday. I guess to them it seemed difficult enough to talk about each person of the Trinity on their own, but to have to tackle all three at once, and to explain it all in 10-15 minutes to a bunch of mind numbed pewsitters might be too much. Over the years, I have heard a lot of these sermons, some good and some bad. I have heard the Trinity described as giving us boundaries, I have heard that we tend to gravitate towards different sides of the Trinity at different times in our lives, I have heard it called a great mystery that might be too great for the preacher to address as our preacher suggested today, I have even heard it called a human construct, or that Tertullian in 211 or 212 AD is somehow to blame.

Why is the Trinity a stumbling block for some?

Possibly because we tend to study things by breaking them down into their component parts, and then studying each part by breaking it down further, and further, and further until we have something small enough to easily grasp, but by which point we have a hard time seeing the greater whole from whence we began.

Or maybe because it represents a great truth that mere humans cannot put into words?

Nevertheless, I suspect many a preacher tried to do so today.

But how can anyone present a believable explanation of that spiritual truth to an age that lacks faith in Truth itself?

How would Jesus as presented to us by John have handled it? Would he still claim the following:

"I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.
Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.
All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you."
John 16:12-15 (KJV)
There is definitely something premodern in the notions of
a) a spirit,
b) a spirit of Truth, and
c) that there is such a thing as "all truth".

And what about St. Paul? Would he feed us with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in just a few short lines and expect us to swallow it whole?
"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us."
Romans 5:1-5 (KJV)
From the standpoint of this lowly pewsitter, I think the fact that we wrestle with the Spirit of Truth is a good enough sign for me that he does exist, just as the fact that we continue to wrestle with the Trinity, and that we get all beat up and bruised as a result, is a good sign that it exists as well.

I leave you with the following questions:

1. So how do you handle a problem like the Spirit of Truth?

2. Is your Spirit of Truth another person's Spirit of Truth?

3. Are certain new things that come along (such as same sex blessings in the Episcopal church) an action of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth as some claim, and how can you be sure?

4. Do you regard the doctrine of the Trinity as somehow binding or impeding the Spirit when He is said to be doing something new in the Church?

5. Can the Spirit of Truth act in ways that are contrary to the words of the Father and Son as found in scripture?

6. How does your church handle this?

Here's one of my favorite preachers on the subject of Q. 5,
"I hold that there is a perfect harmony and unison in the action of the three People of the Trinity, in bringing any person to glory, and that all three cooperate and work a joint work in his deliverance from sin and hell. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is merciful, the Son is merciful, the Holy Spirit is merciful. The same Three who said at the beginning, 'Let us create,' said also, 'Let us redeem and save.' I hold that everyone who reaches heaven will ascribe all the glory of his salvation to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three People in one God."

~ J.C. Ryle Tract: Christ is All (h/t Eric Kowalker at the linked Ryle site)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places...

As I continue on with my study of Isaiah, I sometimes find myself seeing reflections of current events in Isaiah's words. Today, it is the image of a stormed raked, desolate cityscape where you might find people shaking their fists at God, or cursing, or giving thanks to Him while others might be quietly mourning and praying for a better future.

Isaiah 51 (KJV)

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.

Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.

For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.

Hearken unto me, my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation: for a law shall proceed from me, and I will make my judgment to rest for a light of the people.

My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the people; the isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust.

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath: for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner: but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.

Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings.

For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation.

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?

Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.

I, even I, am he that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass;

And forgettest the Lord thy maker, that hath stretched forth the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; and hast feared continually every day because of the fury of the oppressor, as if he were ready to destroy? and where is the fury of the oppressor?

The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit, nor that his bread should fail.

But I am the Lord thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The Lord of hosts is his name.

And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.

Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out.

There is none to guide her among all the sons whom she hath brought forth; neither is there any that taketh her by the hand of all the sons that she hath brought up.

These two things are come unto thee; who shall be sorry for thee? desolation, and destruction, and the famine, and the sword: by whom shall I comfort thee?

Thy sons have fainted, they lie at the head of all the streets, as a wild bull in a net: they are full of the fury of the Lord, the rebuke of thy God.

Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine:

Thus saith thy Lord the Lord, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:

But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over: and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.

Readings from Isaiah that are selected for Sunday worship services seem stripped of God's power and might, his wrath, and thus we often lose our fear of the the Lord. Reading Isaiah in its entirety re-clothes God in all his "awesomeness" for those of us who need to be prodded and nudged out of our self-confidence. Disasters such as the recent storms in Oklahoma are wake-up calls to those of us who are prone to feelings of being in control.

When confronted with tragedy, I often turn to the Bible for comfort, only to find a mixed message of comfort and fear such as I find in Isaiah.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10, Acts 17:11), and for me, I need reminding of that beginning over and over.

Forgive me Lord, but I just don't like these kinds of reminders.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Cost of Pentecost

Pentecost usually comes to our town about the same time that people start their summer vacations. It never generates the bump in attendance that Easter or Christmas do, and fewer and fewer people these days make a point of wearing red on Whitsunday, but after all we are celebrating the gift of the third person of the Trinity are we not, and shouldn't that be a biggie?

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it as,
"A feast of the universal Church which commemorates the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ, on the ancient Jewish festival called the 'feast of weeks' or Pentecost (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10). Whitsunday is so called from the white garments which were worn by those who were baptised during the vigil; Pentecost ('Pfingsten' in German), is the Greek for 'the fiftieth' (day after Easter).

Whitsunday, as a Christian feast, dates back to the first century, although there is no evidence that it was observed, as there is in the case of Easter; the passage in 1 Corinthians 16:8 probably refers to the Jewish feast. This is not surprising, for the feast, originally of only one day's duration, fell on a Sunday; besides it was so closely bound up with Easter that it appears to be not much more than the termination of Paschal tide.

That Whitsunday belongs to the Apostolic times is stated in the seventh of the (interpolated) fragments attributed to St. Irenæus. In Tertullian (On Baptism 19) the festival appears as already well established. The Gallic pilgrim gives a detailed account of the solemn manner in which it was observed at Jerusalem ('Peregrin. Silviæ', ed. Geyer, iv). The Apostolic Constitutions (Book V, Part 20) say that Pentecost lasts one week, but in the West it was not kept with an octave until at quite a late date. It appears from Berno of Reichenau (d. 1048) that it was a debatable point in his time whether Whitsunday ought to have an octave. At present it is of equal rank with Easter Sunday. During the vigil formerly the catechumens who remained from Easter were baptized, consequently the ceremonies on Saturday are similar to those on Holy Saturday."
Maybe if somebody could come up with the Pentecost version of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny then church attendance might enjoy a pre-summer boost. How about a bonfire? That has a nice pagan touch and might bring in the unchurched...

Okay, maybe that was a dumb idea.

Bad pewster!

How about a nice church service with lots of hymns about the Holy Spirit, and a good long sermon?

Maybe not if the kid's Sunday school is out for summer, but hey, we tried.

Today's service strayed somewhat from the lectionary which I believe suggested the following:
Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9; Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27).

Instead, we heard Acts 2:1-11, Psalm 104:25-23, 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, and John 20:19-23 which I believe are from the BCP lectionary.

I am not quite sure how we got off the RCL, but given the problems with the RCL that we have been tracking, this might not be a bad thing.

Still, we did not get to hear Peter's logical explanation for why the apostles were not drunk on the morning of Pentecost:
"But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:
For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day."
It is a good thing the flaming tongues of fire did not appear during happy hour!

Unforunately we also missed the O.T. tie-in,
"But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;
And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:
And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come:
And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved."
At least our guest preacher today was able to confess that something really remarkable happened that day that transformed the eleven from a small group hiding in an upper room into the missionaries, martyrs, and saints who spread the great news, something a bit more news worthy than being able to speak in foreign tongues, the Gospel message itself. 

I could not help myself, but when our preacher painted a picture of the eleven hiding behind closed doors anxious about whether or not the next knock on the door might herald their arrest, I wound up thinking,

"Knock, knock"

"Who's there?"

"The IRS"

"The IRS who?"

"The IRS who wants to know the content of your prayers."

"We were expecting an Advocate!"

I guess people these days aren't terribly interested in the Pentecost. After all, that Holy Spirit thing could really hamper one's lifestyle.

One thing you can count on: If a Pentecost were to happen to you today, it would be a very taxing thing indeed, but it would be the one tax increase that is really worth voting for.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Worst Sermon Ever? The Presiding Bishop Explains Away Paul and the Female Slave

While vacationing paying a pastoral visit to Curaçao this past weekend (on my dime?), our Presiding Bishop delivered what may be her worst sermon ever. I suspect she did not study my blog post from 3 years ago which I reposted this Sunday about the missing verses from the lectionary selections for Sunday: Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21 (See RCL and the Abbrevelation of John) for amongst other misinterpretations she said,

"The reading from Revelation pushes us in the same direction, outward and away from our own self-righteousness, inviting us to look harder for God’s gift and presence all around us. Jesus says he’s looking for everybody, anyone who’s looking for good news, anybody who is thirsty. There are no obstacles or barriers – just come. God is at work everywhere, even if we can’t or won’t see it immediately."

No obstacles or barriers as long as she ignores verse 15 (left out by the lectionary editors) which seems to directly contradict the P.B.,
"Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood."

There certainly appears to be a barrier for those creatures. I wonder if John included preachers of falsehood in with those who practice falsehood?

Now, that was not the part of her sermon that initially caught my attention, nor was that what led me to suggest that this might be her worst sermon ever. No, it was her interpretation of the story of Paul and the slave girl that left me shaking my head. You may recall the version that Luke gives us in Acts 16,

"Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days.
But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities." Acts 16:16-19 (KJV)
I understand that there are different takes on this passage, and here is mine: Paul does let the possessed girl cry out her message for several days before he casts out the spirit. One might guess that this kind of hawker might draw in the crowds initially, but being praised by the demonically possessed seems counter-productive to Paul's ministry. Paul heals the girl, freeing her from possession, but in actual fact it is not Paul doing the healing, but Jesus Christ whom Paul rightly invokes.

Our P.B. has a very different opinion, and after she worms the obligatory remarks about homosexuality into the Gospel, she... well, read it (emphasis added) for yourself...

"We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end.  We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong.  For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected."
"There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it.  Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God.  She is quite right.  She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves.  But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.  It gets him thrown in prison.  That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!    The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns."
"An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God.  The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand.  This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor.  This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household.  It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her."
"Paul is annoyed perhaps for being put in his place"!  I don't get it, but I can only assume this is a reflection of the modern attitude that Paul was an arrogant, self righteous, homophobic, hung up, misogynist who needs a little put-down from revisionist teachers and preachers so that today's congregations won't take Paul's letters too seriously.

Paul deprives the girl of her "gift of spiritual awareness"! Are you kidding me? The girl was possessed! (Remember this comes from the leader of a church that believes that homosexual marriages are a gift from God, so with that in mind, demonic possession as a gift from God makes perfect sense).

"Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it." Oh, she must really dislike Paul, but the fact is that Paul sees demonic possession as something that is neither beautiful nor holy, whereas our Presiding Bishop sees it as a gift from God. Bad Paul: destroyer of God's gift. This too fits the revisionist picture of Paul as an intolerant man who is merely a reflection of a first century value system that we have mercifully outgrown.

"She, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!"
Now this is going too far. Does God's nature include possession?
"The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns."
The amazing thing is that anyone with a bishop's miter on her head would spread the supposition that Paul had forgotten God in the first place.

"This time, Paul remembers who he is..."
The P.B. has identified the earliest recorded case of Transient global amnesia!

"It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her"
Well Jesus, through Paul, wouldn't have healed her that's for sure!

Never mind the fact that Paul freeing this girl from slavery, the slavery of possession, seems totally lost on the P.B. The whole thing has me thinking of what Paul would do if he had to listen to this woman harping on and on for however many years that we have had to listen to her revise the Bible.

Later in her sermon the P.B. reveals a touch of problematic ideation when she says,

"Looking for the reflection of God’s glory all around us means changing our lenses, or letting the scales on our eyes fall away. That kind of change isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s the only road to the kingdom of God."

The problem is that we are not the ones who are capable of changing our lenses, nor are we capable of removing the scales from our eyes. Those things come as true gifts from God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. We cannot be our own instruments of change. If we could, then we would not need a Great Physician.

In researching this blog post, I ran across "Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary" which the P.B. should have checked during her sermon prep,

"Acts 16:16-24 Satan, though the father of lies, will declare the most important truths, when he can thereby serve his purposes. But much mischief is done to the real servants of Christ, by unholy and false preachers of the gospel, who are confounded with them by careless observers. Those who do good by drawing men from sin, may expect to be reviled as troublers of the city. While they teach men to fear God, to believe in Christ, to forsake sin, and to live godly lives, they will be accused of teaching bad customs."

Pass the Blue Curaçao, I think I need to make a Blue Hawaiian... or two... or three.

                                  From Cocktails in Charleston

Transient global amnesia here I come!

Addendum, from my Bible study on 05/21/2013

I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom;
Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.
2 Timothy 4:1-5 King James Version (KJV)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

RCL and the "Abbrevelation of John"

I posted on this 3 years ago, and this week I see that I am not alone in sensing a problem with today's suggested reading from Revelation. Dave Halt at  Benedict, Birettas, and Beets posted on the issue as he noted it during his sermon prep. This particular reading, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-12, creates what one might call the "Abbrevelation of John" (should that be added to the Revisionist Dictionary?). When read without the imprecatory verses, the Abbrevelation of John sounds sweet and soothing, and perfect for the unsuspecting Sunday sheep. Unfortunately, most lectionary edits seem to result in this, a pasteurized scripture.

 The lectionary cycle is such that once a reading is written into the schedule, like clockwork, like a meteor shower, like a bad penny, it keeps on re-appearing. So, I will repost this from May 16, 2010.

A Warning to the Writers of the RCL

I usually blog about the Sunday sermon, but this was really bugging me today.

This Sunday's readings highlight one of my pet peeves, and that is the problem of the "missing verses." We use the Revised Common Lectionary for the assigned readings, and quite frequently this presents us pewsitters with an expurgated version of the Bible. What they did today to Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-12 sounds innocent enough,
12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.
13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.

16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’
17The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

20 The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen

I wonder if they just wanted to make things sound pretty by cutting the verses of warning,
v. 15
"Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood."

We sure should have heard that one the day after the consecration of Mary Glasspool in Los Angeles. I know, that verse is exclusionist (bad), and we are living in the age of theological pluralism (everybody gets in), and rationalism (there is no absolute truth so there is no absolute falsehood), but at times like this, I am beyond suspicious of the motives of the composers of the RCL.

And also left out was the part that the RCL really, really should not have tried to expurgate, vs. 18-19
"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."

Uh oh...

So, if you did not hear the full text today in church, and if your preacher did not point out the omissions during their sermon, please ask them if they believe that John's Revelation is prophetic, and ask them if they believe that God wants us to hear the whole thing, and ask them why they feed God's sheep skim milk instead of whole milk.

Then, advise them to read the whole text, or else use the omission for useful instruction to the congo. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Moral Desensitization and the Church: Comfortably Numb

Sitting at a traffic light the other day, waiting for a left turn signal, I became acutely aware of the sound of my car's turn flasher relay, "Click, click, click, click..." After 120,000 miles in this vehicle, one would think that only an unusual sound would trigger my conditioned mind to pay increased attention. This is the principle behind alarm bells and sirens: they are unexpected, and they are designed to trigger a alertness response. Unfortunately, not all persons respond to all alarms (witness recent studies showing that children will sleep through the sound of most smoke detectors), but if enough people respond appropriately to an alarm, then some lives can be saved.

The problem with alarms and sirens is not just that some people do not respond, but that many more people become desensitized to the sound with the result that the alarm is often ignored and people perish.

Desensitization is defined as,
"(1) in psychology, a form of behaviour therapy in which an anxiety-provoking stimulus is repeatedly paired with a relaxation response, either in the imagination or in real life (the latter known as in vivo desensitization) in order to eventually eliminate the anxiety response and replace it with the relaxation response. In systematic desensitization a hierarchy of increasingly anxiety-provoking stimuli is established and each stimulus is paired with the relaxation response in turn, beginning with the least feared and working towards the most feared. Also known as reciprocal inhibition therapy; (2) in medical practice, treatment of a hypersensitive response to an allergen, by deliberate exposure to a very small, and then a gradually increasing, dose;
(3) with reference to repeated dose of a drug, a progressive decline in its effect."
Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine by Churchill Livingstone © 2008 Elsevier Limited. All rights reserved. (
Desensitization can be intentional/conscious, or non-intentional/subconscious. When it comes to the changes in attitudes in the Episcopal church towards homosexuality, I tend to suspect that both intentional and non-intentional desensitization have played roles in the shift from seeing homosexual behavior as contrary to the Church's teachings to seeing such behaviors as a blessing to the Church. This shift has taken place in spite of the alarms raised by voices within and without the Episcopal church.

The desensitization process in the church occurs each time a modern day Henny Penny gets intentionally hit on the head with bombshells such as non-celibate gay bishops, or the authorization of same sex blessings (intentional desensitization) and Henny  reacts by crying, "The Denomination is Falling!" and the foxy-woxy bishop snaps her neck (radical intentional desensitization) and this stimulus is paired with the seminary Dean saying reassuringly, "Don't believe everything you hear" or "All is well" (the relaxation response).

One interesting finding of recent research into alarms and warnings is that children are more likely to awaken to an alarm that uses the voice of a parent than to the sound of an obnoxious electronic tone (link to "Pediatrics" Journal article).

Over the next few weeks, I will be working my way through Isaiah, and I have to be especially careful to not become desensitized to the repeated warnings of the prophet (the voice of alarm from God?). Sixty-six chapters of Isaiah can do that to a person, and I for one have been known to fall asleep while wading through Isaiah. My attention was raised to the dangers of nodding off into reassured bliss by the stern warnings I saw this week before and after reading the familiar and comforting,
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel."
Isaiah 9:6-7
This is set immediately after such words as,
"For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire." Isaiah 9:5
And a few verses following the promise of the appearance of the Prince of Peace we hear,
"For the people turneth not unto him that smiteth them, neither do they seek the Lord of hosts.
Therefore the Lord will cut off from Israel head and tail, branch and rush, in one day.
The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.
For the leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed.
Therefore the Lord shall have no joy in their young men, neither shall have mercy on their fatherless and widows: for every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
For wickedness burneth as the fire: it shall devour the briers and thorns, and shall kindle in the thickets of the forest, and they shall mount up like the lifting up of smoke.
Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire: no man shall spare his brother.
And he shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry; and he shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied: they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm:"
Isaiah 9:13-20
I hope I don't get desensitized to Isaiah this time around. The consequences of ignoring the alarms he raises are far too great.

The results of the desensitization of the Episcopal church to the immorality of the spirit of the age as evidenced by church closures, departing dioceses, and declining membership should be warning enough for us to stay alert, to shout the alarm, and to use the Father's voice to rouse the sleeping children (who by this point of time in the Episcopal church are most probably resting peacefully amongst the "comfortably numb").

"There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship's smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move
But I can't hear what you're saying

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye

I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I... Have become comfortably numb"

Pink Floyd "Comfortably Numb" 1979, "The Wall" (link to

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Elijah the Kind Hearted

Today was "Youth Sunday" at our church, and in lieu of the assigned readings, we were treated to a new version of Elijah and the prophets of Baal found in 1Kings 18:20-40, although today's version claimed to go up to verse 40a which protected the kiddos and the congregation from the harsh ending.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here it is,

So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together unto mount Carmel.
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.
Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men.
Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under:
And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.
And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.
And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.
And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.
And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down.
And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name:
And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.
And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.
And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.
And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.

And here is the full verse 40,
And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
The cleaned up version the kids presented today had the prophets of Baal cheering the local college football teams (a nice touch) and had Elijah's God lighting His fire on cue (with some nice special effects), but left out the parts where the prophets of Baal cut themselves (probably a good idea), and more importantly, changed the ending so that the prophets of Baal wound up converted and praying to the God of Elijah instead of being slaughtered down by the Kishon.

I admit, that it might require some added instruction for our impressionable youth to understand the slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and one can only hope that at some future date they revisit this part of 1 Kings. Until then, they and most of the congregation are left with the impression that Elijah was a kind hearted prophet and not one who scared the you know what out of people.

Do I consider this to be an example of Biblical revisionism?


Is it harmless?

More about the Kishon brook/river can be found at including some nice pictures of the Kishon site where it is said that the slaughter of the prophets took place (2/3's of the way down the page).

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Religious Education Leading to Deconversion: A Case Report and a Larger Uncontrolled Experiment

The other day I was reading the weekly e-blurb put out by our church, and I noticed the following,
"The Adult Forum will begin a new book, John Shelby Spong’s Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, on May 5 at the regular 9:30 class meeting time. Everyone is welcome. No homework is required. We read aloud from the book (a paragraph by each person) for about 20 minutes, and then we discuss. Here is a brief description from the back cover of the book:

'For two hundred years, scholars have been analyzing one of the most important books ever written—the Bible—and overturning much of what we once thought we knew. Everyday Christians, however, are not privy to this deeper conversation. It is for these people that renowned bishop and author John Shelby Spong presents Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, a book designed to take readers into the contemporary academic debate about the Bible.'”
At least they have the good sense not to call it a Sunday school class (even though it will be held on Sunday mornings in one of the church's classrooms).

Don't you just love the "Everyday Christians, however, are not privy to this deeper conversation" comment?

Remembering that the first rule of digging a privy is to locate it a safe distance from the community's source of drinking water,

I started to wonder if I might be able to demonstrate what happens when "everyday Christians" become privy to that "deeper conversation" and try to mix it with the "living water" of Christ.

Let me begin with a case study from a former blogger, a former "everyday Christian", and a former full time "pastor and associate pastor" who decided to go back to school and wrote the following back in 2007:
"There is a 'liberal arts' college near my home, so I enrolled. This is where the defining moment occurred. I was given special permission to take two religion classes, Religion 101 Old Testament and Religion 102 New Testament, and I even added in Religion and the Arts, World Civ., and a required orientation class. I get to my religion classes with a pretty well established Christian worldview, based solely on my experiences up to that point in my life. I had never gone to school to be a pastor but I had been one, and was one at this time. I found out in the first couple of classes that I attended, I was…misinformed about a great many things. To this point, I had always believed the bible was without error, God’s own words. I believed that the stories in the bible were not just stories but actual accounts of history. I believed that Christianity was THE road to God, the afterlife and its rewards. I believed anybody that had not had a “salvation” experience was lost and destined for hell. I believed that the bible writers were all taking dictation from their 'God' phone and simply writing what he said down. I believed that the bible was some how one book that was stretched out over several thousand years. What I learned in that one semester of college literally blew my mind!

It would take up too much of your time to go into all the changes. Let’s just say that most of what I believed was…erroneous."
In contrast, his later seminary experience was more supportive of his earlier worldview,
"The classes were more of what I expected when I first started my secondary school work. Everyone there shared the same Christian worldview I was accustomed to it and it was more…comfortable. I wasn’t really challenged at all at these classes, but I was getting some hours under my belt and I felt pretty good about that."
But the story does not end there,
"Influenced by my friend and authors such as Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, some Philip Yancey and Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Mike Yaconelli, Gordon Atkinson (Real Live Preacher, especially his early stuff), and more recently Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and Donald Miller, I started to come to terms with the fact that I had completely left religion, the church, and all it had to offer."
Okay, I know he didn't say that he was reading Spong, but I believe that the effect would have been the same.
"I am not a Christian as most would define Christianity. I don’t want to be associated with, in my humble opinion, this dilluted version of religion. I define religion as the method by which we seek 'God'. I agree with Margaret Cho’s statement, 'I wish Jesus would come back and say, ‘THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!!' I really believe that Jesus would really be appalled at what has happened and is happening in his name.

I am not an atheist. I define atheist here to mean the 'belief' that there is no God. I have not come to that conclusion in my journey thus far. Even though I may not view God as I once did, I haven’t rejected the idea of something bigger than myself in the center of it all.

I am somewhere in the middle of these two. Maybe agnostic thiest is the appropriate term if it is defined as one who views that the true value of certain claims, in particular the existance of 'God' is unknown or inherently unknowable but chooses to believe in God in spite of this...
Next we get a summary of beliefs which might pass for a creedal statement for the "spiritual, not religious":
"It would take a great deal of work to correctly define 'God' as I understand him/her, but I would like to put down a few thoughts.

I believe 'God' is not described very accurately in the bible, especially the Old Testament. I think it is more accurate to say that the authors of the biblical books were defining 'God' as they saw him/her, much like I am doing here. In the world that we live in now, I don’t need to Wow you with amazing stories of 'God's' works and deeds. Its just not necessary. Because of our current world’s fascination with high energy entertainment, we already get a steady dose of this without my having to awe you with the amazing feats of 'God'. So I won’t. 'God' is 'God', how can I add to that without seeming like a complete idiot?

I believe I have a duty to love others unconditionally. This is not an easy task and may never be made manifest in my life during my lifetime but I will try.

I believe I am responsible to my wife and two boys to love them, nurture them, protect them, teach and learn from them, support them, acknowledge them, guide them based on my life experiences, and just be there for them in all their needs. They are mine and I am their’s.

I believe mankind has an innate desire to be with one another. I believe the statement, 'No man is an island'. There is something about community, in all it’s forms, that is a very good thing. We are not meant to walk alone.

I believe somewhere in time, my questions will be answered. No matter what, I will get to the bottom of it all. No matter if the Christians are right or the atheist is, I will one day know and until then, I must journey on."
An isolated case report can only serve as a hypothesis generating bit of data. What might be the greater effects of scores of Bishops, priests, professors, and authors sowing seeds of doubt into thousands of enquiring minds?

A larger data set and controlled experiments are needed. Fortunately, we have such data from the Episcopal church statistics pages which tell the tale of the uncontrolled experiment we call the Episcopal church. While the teachings of Borg and Spong are not officially part of church doctrine, if you scratch the surface of a revisionist church leader or the surface of one of their congregants you are likely to find evidence for the aforementioned creedal statement lurking in the minds of many an Episcopalian.

Perhaps I assume too much, but the net effect of the teaching of doubt over traditional religious conviction may be seen in the evidence of Bishop Spong's former diocese which has lost 27% of its members over the past 12 years (the decline started well before that, during his reign).  (Diocese and Parish stats can be researched here)

The pernicious effects of books such as "Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World" on the church as a whole, and the resultant risk of deconversion for individuals, lead me to suggest that this book should be considered inappropriate as a study material in church on Sunday mornings, especially when an "everyday Christian" might happen to walk in on the discussion, unless of course the discussion were to be led by a priest who was using the book to illustrate the hazardous lure of the heresies espoused by the author.

Otherwise, give it the sniff test and steer clear like this guy did: