Sunday, February 21, 2021

3. "John Wayne Will Save Your Ass" (book review)

Thus far I have read:

Now on to Chapter 2: "John Wayne Will Save Your Ass"

1. du Mez argues in this chapter that the most formative influences on evangelicalism in the 50s and 60s had to do with evangelical attitudes toward the civil rights movement, toward the war in Vietnam, and toward "family values." We should not be surprised to find that social forces played as strong a role in shaping evangelicalism in this period as actual teaching from the Bible or deep spirituality.

Billy Graham embodies the shift between Democrats and Republicans that took place in this period. "In the middle of the twentieth century it would have been hard to find a Southern Baptist from North Carolina who didn't identify as a Democrat" (33). Here is yet another example of the fact that, in the mid-twentieth century, the two parties switched sides on issues like race. Southern Democrats like Strom Thurman became the southern Republicans of today. 

A theme throughout this chapter is also that evangelicals like Graham tended to favor Republicans who were not particularly religious over Democrats who actually were. But they would "baptize" the Republicans, in effect, and it would become a mutually beneficial relationship. Eisenhauer wasn't particularly religious. But he was a strong, masculine figure, and under him "In God We Trust" was put on the dollar bill and "one nation under God" into the pledge of allegiance.

In 1972, George McGovern was a deeply religious man, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister who grew up in a Wesleyan parsonage. Yet evangelicals chose the non-religious strong man Nixon over him. Nixon nevertheless bowed his head on the platform of a Billy Graham crusade and, at the very least, looked the part to Christian voters. I have similarly marveled that evangelicals much more prefer the non-religious Trump to the devoutly Christian Mike Pence.

This is a period in which it became increasingly difficult for many to tell the difference between conservative and Christian. Conservative meant pro-war, anti-civil rights movement, pro-complementarian family. Those who favored peace, those who participated in civil disobedience as advocates of civil rights, and those who elevated women were portrayed as godless liberals.

2. Although it seems obvious to me, for the majority of its history the US has not been a place of liberty and justice for the slaves of the South or for women. How could anyone seriously even debate this fact? Yet somehow, it is considered unChristian in many evangelical circles to argue that America has never been purely good. How is it debatable that opposition to desegregation in the 50s and 60s was pretty much straightforward racism?

The Christian private schools of the South founded in this period were "segregation schools" plain and simple. The government bused blacks to white schools, and the whites left for private Christian schools. How is this not seen for what it was--Christians pretending that racist moves are done in the name of Christ? Before abortion became the pretext for state's rights under Jerry Falwell's influence, there was the real driving force behind state's rights--opposition to forced integration between whites and blacks.

3. The Cold War also provided the context where conservatism and evangelicalism fused around militarism. President Kennedy spoke of a peace race instead of an arms race and he was blasted by the conservative-evangelical coalition. Barry Goldwater in 1964, another not-particularly-religious Republican could say, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." 

Evangelicals poo-pooed any critique of the Vietnam War. If there were reports of American brutality, well, that's human nature. When a lieutenant killed some 500 Vietnamese men, women, and children, Billy Graham's op-ed in the NY Times simply noted that we all hurt others with a thoughtless word or a selfish deed. Graham strongly supported the war, as did many other evangelicals. Graham's vocal support of Nixon would blow up in his face when it became clear that Nixon was guilty in the Watergate scandal.

du Mez is suggesting that these sorts of events are not the exceptions. She is arguing that they are in the very nature of American evangelical identity as militant, masculine, and white-oriented. I think she is building to the conclusion that evangelical support of Trump is perfectly predictable, not a deviation in any way. 

4. Jack Hyles was one of the first mega-church pastors. He typifies the evangelical of this period. He wrote a book titled, How to Rear Children with one chapter titled, "How to Make a Man Out of a Boy." He warned that boys who do "feminine activities" may end up as homosexuals. When a neighbor boy insulted his daughter, he encouraged his son to go beat the boy, which he did. Spanking should last ten or fifteen minutes. Infants should be spanked too. He once counseled a couple how to avoid arrest after giving more than one hundred lashes to their daughter with a belt.

In this period, "if an evangelical could be defined as anyone who liked Billy Graham, by the 1970s a conservative might well be defined as anyone who loved John Wayne" (54). Wayne of course held appalling views on race but was not atypical of the conservatives of that era. In a Playboy interview, Wayne said, "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility" (57). He also indicated that Native Americans were selfish to resist American expansion.

"Onscreen and off, Wayne epitomized an old-fashioned, retrograde masculinity, and one increasingly understood in politicized terms. A staunch proponent of 'law and order,' Wayne had no time for 'cowards who spit in the faces of the police..." (58). Baptist scholar Alan Bean has remarked that "the unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul; but John Wayne will save your ass" (59). 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

3. The Message over the Words, Part II

Two posts so far in this series trying to realign faith and reason.


6 cont. ... In the pages that follow, I am following a method I like to call "common sense reasoning." Sometimes in discussions of faith versus reason, someone will adopt large, grandiose conceptions like Christian worldviews or presuppositionalism or dogmatics to counter an attempt to invoke reason in these discussions. Perhaps X does not mark the spot. Perhaps, like Kierkegaard and Tertullian, reason does not deserve a seat at the table. Perhaps the Enlightenment and modernism are great enemies of faith.

I don't wish to get into such debates unless it is necessary. I have already invoked the notion of paradigms. I agree that presuppositions are a major element in what we think. I believe that truth is both discovered and revealed.

For the moment, I would simply point out that the books of Reformed epistemology use reasoning. The great dogmatician Karl Barth used reasoning. Cornelius van Til used reasoning. All thought uses what I am calling common sense reasoning. We all use common sense reasoning. Even the most bizarre conspiracy theorist uses common sense reasoning within a more bizarre, broader framework of thinking.

This is my gambit. My gambit is that the basic conclusions I am setting forth are based on such ordinary, common ways of thinking that a reasonable person will see that they are quite likely true. This is how I would say it happened with me. Basic, common-sense reasoning pummeled my counter-intuitive frameworks of thought like water that drips and pours until even the strongest structure begins to crack. And then, like a deluge, the water pours forth. The paradigm changes.

My goal, in the pages that follow, is to drip faith-filled reason on you enough until we eventually see our unexamined assumptions and undergo some paradigm shifts. The goal is that the dam of unreason will break and a more reasonable faith will roll down like waters. In my opinion, we Christians have sometimes contributed to the problems of society because of irrationality disguised as faith. Ironically, I believe we sometimes actually work against God's values in the name of an illogic and irreason claiming to be based in our own religion and hiding in misappropriations of the Bible.

We will see if I convince you.

7. In the case of the Lord's prayer, let me explain why I think any reasonable person will conclude that the NIV of Luke 10 much more likely renders the original text than the King James. I mentioned that I grew up on the King James. The NIV emerged just as I was about to enter my teens. I was given a copy of E. F. Hills 1956 book, The King James Version Defended

Eventually, perhaps those who gave me such resources thought me rebellious for, in the end, rejecting the positions of these defenders. I assure you nothing of the sort was the case. I am a people pleaser. I wanted to fight the fights of my family and clan. Who doesn't want to be a hero, your group's champion? I have long thought that I could have been on a very popular speaking circuit if that idiot common sense reason had not kept unraveling for me what my people wanted to hear.

But common sense reason kept dripping. In the end, I was not interested in finding whether it was possible to argue for the text of the King James but whether that was the most probable truth. I remained on the side of the KJV throughout college. I even wrote a paper in church history class arguing that the manuscripts behind modern versions were corrupt. It was only at the end of my first year of seminary that the flood of common sense reason broke through.

By the way, the response of my church history professor was quite insightful. He wrote that most of the differences between the manuscripts do not reflect some ideological controversy. I had made an elaborate argument that the key manuscripts could have been commissioned by Eusebius and Constantine, both of whom took the wrong position in the Trinitarian controversy of the early 300s. 

But, my professor remarked, most manuscript differences are a matter of simple copying mistakes. Raised to think of the conflict of large worldviews, I missed the simple common sense that you sometimes miss a line when you are copying by hand. It was this simple common sense that would get to me.

We can argue at length about different approaches to manuscripts. Would God allow the majority of manuscripts throughout church history to have a wording that is less original? Would not God have preserved the right wording--understood to be the original wording? Perhaps the more recently discovered older manuscripts did not survive because they were bad manuscripts and people did not copy them! And what if early church fathers quote the "majority text," the text that is largely found in the KJV? Should that not count as much as actual early copies of the Bible?

It was not the arguments over manuscripts that convinced me. Arguments over manuscripts can get pretty complex. If the previous paragraph is any indication, they can also get abstract and philosophical. It is in these sort of conversations that the ingenious can take what seems to be a fairly obvious conclusion and twist your mind into a pretzel.

8. But common sense is pretty straightforward. Is it more likely that some copyist would alter Luke's version of the Lord's prayer to make it more like Matthew's version or that someone would cut parts out of the Lord's prayer? Here I just do not see any real doubt as to what the more likely scenario was.

The Lord's prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 is magisterial. It is no wonder that we use it in church. As such, it is perfectly understandable that the Lord's prayer in Luke would be "harmonized" to fit with the better-known version of the prayer. It is much harder to imagine why someone, intentionally or accidentally, would chop out the pieces "our," "your will be done," and "deliver us from evil."

This common-sense rule of modern textual work is what convinced me. "Choose as original that reading that best explains how the other readings in the manuscripts came about." We create a kind of storyline and, using ordinary common sense, ask which storyline is more likely.

Here is the storyline that seems overwhelmingly likely. Some copyist of Luke, whether intentionally or because he was copying from memory, puts the form of the Lord's prayer known from worship, Matthew's version, into his copy of Luke. This is a fuller and more pleasing version of the prayer. As the more attractive version, it is the one that eventually makes its way into the majority of medieval manuscripts and on into the King James in 1611.

This makes far more sense than some sinister or absentminded copyist mangling the text. But notice that, to go with the other option is to reveal a conspiracy-type mindset. It is no surprise to me, anecdotally, that the King James supporters I know have a penchant for conspiracy theories. This is the very problem that I am getting at in this book. There is a skewed pattern of thinking at work in the church that carries over into society, and it not only hurts the witness of the church but it can actually inflict harm on society in general. [1]

8. Time and time again, we will find that a common sense approach to variations in the manuscripts will point us in the direction of the wording behind modern versions and not the KJV. We can thus step back and formulate the most plausible explanation for what we see in the manuscripts. Here is my overall storyboard for the transmission of the biblical text.

After Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire, the biblical texts could be copied freely and were used in public worship. This open, common worship led to a standardization of the biblical texts. The result was a cleaner, smoother, and more harmonized text of the Bible. It is no surprise that the majority of manuscripts, which come from the Middle Ages, would more or less read the same. It is also no surprise that the King James would use this basic text when it was translated in the early 1600s.

It is also no surprise that the early manuscripts we have discovered, the ones that date to the early 300s and earlier, are not so tidy. There is a common-sense rule in textual study (also called "textual criticism") that says, "Choose the more difficult reading as more likely to be original." That is because time "cleaned up" the text. It just makes sense that the church would "comb the hair" of the text as it was copied. It doesn't make sense that the earliest copyists liked to "mess up the hair" of the text. 

I am not talking about theological errors here. I'm talking about Greek style and aligning the wording of stories and material told in more than one place.

9. What are the theological implications? They are largely the same as the one we pointed out from the fact that we do not insist on reading the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. God does not seem overly concerned with the exact wording of the biblical text. God was concerned with the message, not the precise words.

No doctrine is lost based on whether you follow the King James or modern versions--except a mistaken focus on precise wording in your theology of Scripture. 1 John 5:7 in the King James would be a lovely verse on the Trinity, but the early church fathers argued for the Trinity just fine without ever mentioning it. In fact, this is the most damning common-sense argument against the King James Version of 1 John 5:7 being original. This verse never came up in all the debates over the Trinity in the 300s and 400s! It appears in no Greek manuscripts prior to the 1400s. To argue that the King James is original here requires a level of conspiracy thinking that is ultimately staggering.

So is it any wonder that so many Christians are susceptible to manipulation and public illogic when we are open to such counter-reasoning? After all, so many have been programmed in church to think in terms of conspiracies, and "what you see isn't what you get." Clearly, the educated "liberals" are out to ruin your faith! 

It is also important to point out that I believe the KJV of 1 John 5:7 is true. There is nothing wrong theologically with the text of the King James. This is another important paradigm shift in the making. Debates over the wording of the Bible are not debates over what is true about God, Christ, or these matters of theology. It is rather a question of history. It is simply a question of what the original text of the Bible said, not a question about whether the words in question are true.

Hear me when I say that there is nothing wrong theologically with the text of the King James Version. Like the texts of most modern versions, the KJV gives us a text that is true. Indeed, I consider it a smoother version of the textual tradition, one very suitable for worship. After all, God let the church use that tradition of the text for over 1500 years! Here is another unexamined assumption--why is the original version necessarily preferable to the historical worship version of the Bible? If my question is not immediately clear right now, we will explore further what I am getting at in later chapters.

10. There is a phrase sometimes used called "verbal inspiration." It is the idea that God inspired the very words of the Bible. Certainly, it makes sense that God approved of every word that any biblical author wrote down. But, in the light of the differences in the manuscripts, the freedom early copyists at times seemed to have, even the freedom the New Testament authors sometimes showed in quoting the Old Testament, it would seem that this is mostly a theoretical doctrine. 

What I mean to say is that God does not seem to have been overly bothered with the precise wording that was passed on. The stories you sometimes hear about the carefulness of biblical copyists are stories about Jewish copyists in the Middle Ages, in the 900s. They are not stories about the earliest copyists of the books of the Bible, who sometimes seemed less worried about the precise wording. And again, we do not feel compelled only to read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, which give us the actual words of the Bible. 

It would seem that the message is what is important to God, not the wording. We will continue to flesh out this basic, common-sense insight in the pages that follow.

[1] Long after I had switched paradigms I came across a book called New Age Versions of the Bible. This kind of book is very typical of the kind of source that sounds intelligent and convincing if you do not really know the evidence. Parts of the book gave me a hearty laugh, such as not knowing that metaphysics is a subject in philosophy going back to the Greeks and not just a word used in the more recent new age movement. But suggesting that Alzheimer's might have been God's judgment on some NIV translators is no laughing matter. In the end, this sort of infection of illogic in the church needs to be addressed and rooted out, if possible.   

Friday, February 19, 2021

The message over the precise words 2

continuing my series on Unexamined Assumptions... 


2. The Spirit versus the Letter

1. I was raised on the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. This English translation was a tremendous work of the English language that first came out in the year 1611. For the longest time, when I would quote a verse from the Bible, the words would come out King James. To this day, this version of the Bible continues to have my great respect and delight.

However, like the overwhelming majority of experts, I do not think the KJV gives us the most original wording of the Bible. I do not know how much you know about the history here, so I want to take a moment to explain what I mean. I am not talking about the fact that the KJV uses archaic English that we do not use anymore. That is one thing. I am talking about something else.

When you pick up a Bible, chances are you are picking up one book that is all in English. This observation brings us to the very first "paradigm shift" I want to mention. A paradigm shift is when you change the way you look at something in a fundamental way. Your "paradigm" or framework for thinking about something changes. So you may look at the Bible as one book today. In a way it is, now.

But it was not one book when those books were written. The books of the New Testament were written over a fifty-year period at various times and places. The books of the Old Testament came together over around a thousand-year period. These books were written by different authors. They have different styles. They use words in different ways. They were write in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). 

English did not even exist as a language when this library of books was written. Unless you know the original languages of the Bible, you cannot read its actual words. All translation involves interpretations. Words do not go word for word from one language to another. Christians are not like Muslims who insist you must read scriptures in the original language, like Arabic. The very fact that we allow for translation implies that it is the message of Scripture that is important, not the precise wording.

2. So the King James Version (KJV) is a translation of a library of books now put together into one book. We do not have the original scrolls on which these books were first written. We have copies of copies of copies. None of these hand-written copies or "manuscripts" would seem to be perfect. They all have mistakes from copying, it would seem. Most of the time, it is not hard to figure out where the mistakes are. There is no need to be worried.

But it reiterates a point just made above. It seems like God is far more interested in the message of Scripture than the precise wording of the books of the Bible. 

When the KJV came out in 1611, the original documents were thousands of years in the past. In the 1600s, they had not yet rediscovered very old manuscripts. The copies of the Bible on which the KJV was based were all medieval, from the 900s and beyond. They did the best they could. 

However, since then, we have discovered manuscripts that are much older. They mostly read the same way as those medieval manuscripts. However, there are some interesting places where they differ. For example, the ending of Mark (16:9-20) is not present in the oldest manuscripts discovered of Mark.

Modern translations of the Bible almost all follow the wording that the majority of scholars thinks is most original. Only the KJV and the New King James Version have kept with the Greek and Hebrew wording used in the 1600s. The others go with the wording that seems more original based on the manuscripts that have since been discovered. 

3. I understand the alarm of many when the New International Version (NIV) came out in the 1970s. Having grown up on the KJV, people thought they were cutting things out of the Bible. They immediately thought of Revelation 22:19 and warnings about taking things out of the scroll of prophecy.

By the way, another paradigm shift is to realize that Revelation 22:19 originally referred to the scroll of Revelation by itself. No other book of the Bible was attached to Revelation when it was first written. It was a lone, self-standing scroll that was initially copied and sent to seven churches in what is now western Turkey. The "book of this prophecy" was the scroll of Revelation.

What most experts would say today is that the NIV did not take words out. Rather, the manuscripts on which the KJV was based added words in. It can be hard to get your head around what we are saying here. All English translations are based on Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Although in English, the KJV is older than the NIV, the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts behind modern translations are hundreds of years older than the manuscripts behind the KJV.

In terms of the wording of the underlying text, the King James is a baby, and the NIV is much older.

4. Take the Lord's Prayer in the King James of Luke 11:2-4:

     Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
     Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
     Give us day by day our daily bread.
     And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.
     And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

Now here is Luke 11:2-4 in the NIV:

     Father, hallowed be your name,
          your kingdom come.
     Give us each day our daily bread.
     Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
     And lead us not into temptation.

If you were raised on the KJV, the NIV's version will look very suspicious indeed. It looks like a mangled version of the Lord's prayer. Where is the commitment for God's will be to be done? Where is the prayer for God to deliver us from evil?

It is only natural that many would see a sinister conspiracy here. You look at Mark 16:8, and the NIV suggests that verses 9-20 do not belong there. You look for Acts 8:37 and cannot find it in the NIV. Someone appears to be chopping verses and words out of the Bible!

5. This reaction is perfectly natural. If you were raised reading and hearing sermons from the King James Version, you likely formulated your faith around those words. Those words are the Bible for you. For someone to change them or "take words out" naturally seems like someone desecrating the Bible.

And it is no surprise that there have been a small number of very smart people who have rejected modern versions of the Bible. In the 1800s, there was John Burgon (1813-88), who argued strongly against the developing science of textual study. In the 1900s, there was Edward Hills (1912-81). I know a very smart scholar today who knows the details of the ancient texts far better than I do who would argue that the text behind the King James Version is far more original than that used by modern translations.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of those who are experts on this subject disagree with them. I would go further and say that all scholars of the text with an open mind to the evidence disagree with them. Are those with the minority view intelligent? I would say they are sometimes extremely intelligent. They have to be ingenious in order to argue against what seems to be the most obvious read of the evidence.

6. Here we arrive at a point from the introduction to which we will return over and over again. The pursuit of truth requires that we are actually willing to change our minds given enough evidence or good enough reasoning. Truth is not about finding a way to fit the evidence into my preconceived notions. It is not about finding a way to support the beliefs of my tribe or denomination.

Truth is not about whether it is possible to argue for what I want to believe. The pursuit of truth is about what the most probable reading of the evidence is.

For some, these statements will seem obvious. For others, they are not obvious at all. In fact, to many Christians, these statements are just plain wrong. We need to take a moment to address this perspective. And, ironically, if I really believe in reason and evidence, then I will need to be willing to give them up if reason and evidence so require...

Monday, February 15, 2021

Unexamined Assumptions 1

As usual, the likelihood of me finishing is small, but I have tried over and over to find a way to express my sense of things Christian, biblical, and philosophical. I have started many attempts here. I have started many attempts privately. I have emailed snippets to my children. Let me start again.


1. We cannot help where or to whom we are born. We are born at a place and time, and we have no choice whatsoever in the occasion. We thus learn to swim in a certain water. We are inevitably indoctrinated without knowing it. Even if we rebel against that "indoctrination," the thesis sets the terms of our antithesis. That is to say, our starting point sets the terms for any rebellion.

I was born into a wonderful home. My parents not only believed in God, but they lived in full surrender to God in keeping with their understanding. They were incredibly loving. In fact, as the youngest child and the only boy, I was possibly spoiled. They came to my sports and academic events. They cheered me on. And they bragged to others about me--probably too much.

My parents were intelligent, and they genetically bequeathed to us children an above-average intelligence. None of us are exactly geniuses. I have joked to my children that any biography of me might nicely be titled, "Not Quite a Genius." But we are no dummies. Three of us have been involved with education. One is a nurse. All five of us are involved in ministry.

2. At the same time, our belief system, our paradigms, were fairly simplistic. We had the beliefs of fundamentalists without the rigid flavor. We did not go to movies or eat out on Sundays. But exceptions were made. If your ox falls in a ditch on the Sabbath, you can get it out (Luke 14:5).

I would describe our worldview as "pre-modern." By pre-modern I mean unreflective about our assumptions. We didn't know what we didn't know. Of course, no one can be reflective about all their own assumptions. Perhaps I grew up with a vague awareness of other alternatives. We used the King James Version, although we were aware of other versions out there. We didn't believe in evolution, although we didn't really know much about it. We might make fun of the other options without knowing much of the arguments.

In the 1980s, with the rise of the Christian right, we would conform to the rising "anti-modernism." The difference in my mind between a pre-modern and an anti-modern is that the pre-modern either isn't aware of the other options or only has a vague sense of them. The anti-modern fights them. The anti-modern fights and debates evolution. The anti-modern fights the NIV translation in favor of the King James.

And that seemed fun to me. Again, I never had a harsh attitude toward people on the other side. But the idea of vanquishing the ignorant or perverse infidel was fun. It was the sport, the fun of it. Obviously, evolutionists were stupid. Obviously, there must be something wrong with the character of those who advanced the NIV.

I was not afraid to be around those sorts of people. I had a certain ignoramic cockiness about me. "Bring up your challenges to what I think. I'll figure it out." I was quite confident the side on which I had been born was right about it all. I even thought once in high school, "How amazing it is... what are the odds that I would just happen to be born in the group that had everything right?" 

Of course, those odds aren't good for anyone. In fact, I seriously doubt there is any group that has it all right. The cocky confidence of my certainty in high school and college would begin to erode in seminary and beyond. When I was doing my doctoral work in England I would remark to myself, "I wonder if I would have had less of a faith crisis if I had been raised in a group that was more educated." 

3. I was not smart enough to come up with answers to many of the ideas I encountered as I moved further in my learning. And the answers I read from others often didn't make any sense to me. My Damascus Road experience was Easter Sunday in 1987. For some reason, I read the whole book of Galatians that day, April 19, 1987. I am very thankful to God for that turning point, when I realized that I aligned more with Paul's opponents than with Paul.

Why did my trajectory change? I do think in part I was not smart enough to come up with "ingenious" explanations to support my anti-modernism. Others were and are. But I would say now that they are not really interested in the truth. They simply apply their considerable intellect toward justifying what they already think, toward "cooking the books."

I think also I had perhaps been infected by science. I have always loved math and science. I was convinced of the scientific method long before there were post-liberals to try to talk me out of it. And, ironically, fundamentalism uses the tools of modernism to fight against it. So my quest against evolution developed the very scientific tools that were used to support evolution.

It did not happen all at once, but I eventually became convinced that God was on the side of reason and evidence. I don't mean to say that the "evidence demands a verdict," but that the truth is reasonable. It is not irrational to be a Christian. X usually marks the spot. We should not have to "cook the books" to make the evidence come out our way. 

If you could prove to God that he did not exist, he would say, "Well, what do you know about that?" and disappear. It is of course a ludicrous statement. I say it simply to indicate that I believe God is on the side of truth, of reason, and of evidence. Faith is not usually blind. Faith is reasonable. "I believe in order to understand."

4. I am writing these reflections because I believe the American church has a serious problem, a truth problem. Our fundamentalism and anti-modernism have made us gullible. We are prone to what I might call "magical thinking." While we say we are fighting for the truth, we are often only fighting for our traditions or tribes. We are irrational. We believe conspiracy theories. To put it bluntly, sometimes we not only make God look stupid but immoral.

I believe God looks on our hearts. If we have to have it all figured out, we're in trouble. If we can only get to God by climbing up the mountain to him, we are in trouble. If revelation is not God stooping down to our weakness and speaking in "goo-goo gah-gah," we are in trouble, for that is all we could understand.

Sometimes the Bible plays a strange role in our ignorance. While we may not realize it, we all interpret the Bible. Its meaning and application do not come installed on our hard drives. We have to input its meaning. We have to interpret it. Often, we use the Bible as a mirror for what we already think. We see what we want to see. We make it mean what we want it to mean.

It is a strange thing. A complete imbecile can take a Bible and think that he or she understands the very mind of God when in fact only pronouncing stupidities. The Bible can be a tool of power whereby an idiot claims to speak for God when really only babbling. I am not strictly speaking of intelligence here, for there are plenty of incredibly intelligent idiots. Meanwhile, there are plenty of individuals with the heart of Christ who may not have a high IQ.

Even worse, plenty of immoral people have used the Bible as a path whereby they might seduce the people of the church and the world. Every year we hear of the fall of another spectacular preacher, speaker, or apologist who all the while was involved in some horrible scandal. So we see also that even knowing the truth isn't quite enough. "It is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God but the doers of the Law will be justified" (Rom. 2:13).

Of course, I wonder if these individuals often do not have a balanced sense of the whole truth. I wonder if there are Christian intellectuals who know things with their head but do not clearly manifest "knowing" Christ with their whole heart. I believe the real, whole truth fits with a real knowledge of Christ. But what if many in the church neither know the full truth nor the true heart of Christ?

5. In the following pages I want to share a little of my own intellectual and spiritual journey. I certainly do not claim to be a model of spirituality, and I welcome insight from others in that area. Matters of the Holy Spirit and wisdom are not a matter of science. My sense of things is very much open to revision and growth of understanding.

By contrast, there are many other things that I think I know beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainly, I may be self-deceived. I would be a hypocrite if I were not open to critique on these things. But these are not just my ideas. These are matters that I would consider a consensus of those who know the most about these issues and have an open mind. 

There are always ingenious come-backs. Many will know that I do not always use the word ingenious as a compliment. In my opinion, some truths are so obvious that only an ingenious person could come up with some way to explain them away. My response is usually to smile, admire the ingenuity, and of course suspect that this person isn't really interested in what is true.

Most of these things concern the Bible, but there is inevitably some philosophy and theology mixed in as well. For example, while I respect and am quite fond of the King James Version, I do not think it gives us the most likely original text of the Bible. There are implications here. If God did not think it essential to preserve the exact wording of the biblical text, it probably implies something.

My goal in these pages is to lead the reader to a more informed faith. I know that assumes that my understandings of many things are somewhat informed. You will have to be the judge. You are welcome to lead me on further. The goal is to walk away from an ignorant faith. The goal is to lead us away from a fundamentalist faith. 

I write these words in the aftermath of the 2020 election...

Sunday, February 14, 2021

"Saddling Up" -- book review of Jesus and John Wayne

Trying to read a chapter a week of Kristin Kobes du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne. I did manage to read chapter 1 this week, "Saddling Up."

1. In the age of industrialization in the late 1800s, men were feeling less and less manly. There was also a sense of the "feminization" of Victorian Christianity. Thank goodness for world wars to save us men from all becoming sissies. It's really quite pathetic.

du Mez credits Theodore Roosevelt for helping to revive the "Rough Rider" (although I guess as a young man he was ridiculed for a high voice, tight pants, and fancy clothing. In the 1910s, she argues that Christian men set out to "re-masculinize" American Christianity. "In the early twentieth century, a rugged American masculinity united northern and southern white men and transformed American Christianity" (17).

There was Billy Sunday, former professional baseball player. "As an evangelist for war, Sunday was known to leap atop his pulpit waiving the American flag" (18). However, in general, liberals were more in favor of WW1 than conservatives. For liberals, it was a sense of progress, the "war to end all wars." Well, that didn't work. 

Meanwhile, conservatives believed it trivialized the kingdom to call America a Christian nation. "Such a nation does not exist on earth, and never has existed, and never will exist until our Lord comes again" (19). That was out of Biola. And quite right. Pre-millennialists after all expected things to get worse and worse.

"In a move that seems incomprehensible today, liberal Protestants pounced on this ambivalence, denouncing conservatives' 'un-American' faith and labeling their lack of patriotism a threat to national security" (19).

2. In the time between the wars, the militant masculinity thirsting for the world war got old. There was a desire for something more respectable. Here comes the new evangelicalism of the 1940s. "'Evangelical' came to connote a more forward-looking alternative to the militant, separatist fundamentalism that had become an object of ridicule" (21). Further, "George Marsden one quipped that the simplest definition of 'evangelical' might well be 'anyone who likes Billy Graham'" (23).

This statement was interesting: "Contrary to later myths about 'the good war' and 'the greatest generation,' the military was known as an institution where drunkenness, vulgarity, gambling, and sexual disease abounded" (25).

The last part of the chapter discusses the rise of Billy Graham who embodied a sense that faith does not conflict with masculinity. Graham's rise coincided with the rise of the red scare. Two days before Graham's first LA crusade, Russia successfully tested an atomic bomb. Boom! Graham went viral as he preached the need for repentance before Jesus returned. 

Further, Graham linked "patriarchal gender roles to a rising Christian nationalism" (27). "Satan and the communists were united in an effort to destroy the American home" (26).

Some stars made it cool. Stuart Hamblen, a hard-drinking cowboy singer believed and began to write evangelical songs. "Hamblen was in many ways a harbinger of a new era of American evangelicalism" (29). Pat Boone, the actor-singer was another.

One more person closes out the chapter--John Wayne. Wayne wasn't an evangelical. There's no actual evidence that he ever prayed the sinner's prayer. He became a Catholic at the end of his life. He never served in the military.

But he became a model for evangelical masculinity. "Wayne's embodiment of heroic masculinity would come to serve as the touchstone for authentic Christian manhood" (32).

The fact that Wayne was hardly a Christian reveals something significant, I think. It suggests that a great deal of evangelicalism today has very little to do with Christianity at all. It's just predictable humanity pushed about by the tides of culture and human herd nature. Could it be that a lot of American Christian culture is only tangentially Christian?

Saturday, February 13, 2021

3. "An Uneasy Look at Performance Appraisal," by Douglas McGregor

Continuing my readings from the Principles of Management course I am participating as part of Houghton's new Certificate in Business Administration.

The second of ten Harvard Business Review articles for the course is a 1957 classic by Douglas McGregor on performance reviews. McGregor is known for the concept of Theory X and Theory Y leaders. Theory X leaders lead by reward and punishment. You do well you get rewarded. You do poorly you get dinged. This fits with the "rational goal" model of management.

Theory Y is a more hands-off approach that assumes people will work better if they find their work fulfilling and are self-motivated. It believes people do not necessarily need supervision to do well if they believe in the mission of the organization. This fits more with the "human relations" model of management. 

1. In 1957, performance appraisal plans had three primary goals:

  • to provide a mechanism for promotion, pay increase, sometimes demotion or termination
  • giving feedback and letting subordinate know where they stand, where they need improvement, etc.
  • "increasingly" a basis for coaching and counseling

Apparently, at that time, superiors did not exactly enjoy this part of managing. McGregor suggests there may be some intuitive wisdom at work here, that the way performance reviews have taken place is lacking. He wonders if "playing God" in this way violates our sense of judging the worth of others. "It reflects an unwillingness to treat human beings like physical objects" (135).

2. McGregor sought a new approach, one that fit with Peter Drucker's sense of management by objectives. The core idea is to let the subordinate determine the performance goals for him or herself. The subordinate does so:

  • after a good deal of thinking about his or her job
  • after making a careful assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses
  • after formulating specific plans to achieve their goals
The job of the superior is then to help connect these personal goals, these targets, to the realities of the organization.

3. The first step is for the employee to formulate a sense of the major features of his or her job. This is not the formal position description but a sense of what the person actually does in practice. This involves a dialog between superior and employee until there is some agreement.

Then the employee sets goals/targets for the next six months, specific actions they plan to take. This should include not only the overarching actions ("reorganize the office") but the detailed steps that are required to get there.

At the end of the six months, the employee evaluates him or herself with factual data. In the interview both go over the self-evaluation and set goals for the next six months.

The superior has veto power at every step of course.

4.  This is a shift from appraisal to analysis. The employee "becomes an active agent, not a passive 'object'" (136).

"One of the main differences of this approach is that it rests on the assumption that the individual knows--or can learn--more than anyone else about his own capabilities, needs, strengths and weaknesses, and goals."

In this approach, the proper role of the superior is to help the subordinate relate his or her career planning to the needs and realities of the organization. In discussion, the superior leads the employee to:

  • increased knowledge and skill
  • contribute to the organizational objectives
  • test their own self-appraisal
"The knowledge and active participation of both superior and subordinate are necessary components of this approach" (137).

The emphasis comes to be on the future rather than the past. It is "constructive." The emphasis is on performance rather than personality. 

5. This approach should result in a different attitude toward performance appraisals on the part of both superior and subordinate. Both gain. "No formal machinery is required" (138).

McGregor leaves it to the "traditional ingenuity of management" to invent the methods for this new approach's implementation. It will take more time than before. But it just might lead to better outcomes.

2. "The Manager's Job: Folklore and Fact," by Henry Mintzberg

The Principles of Management course involves reading ten articles from the Harvard Business Review. The first is from 1990 and is titled, "The Manager's Job: Folklore and Fact."

Let me just say that I think the ten roles of managers in this article is gold.

1. The article starts with mention of Henri Fayol's 1916 classic four tasks of management: plan, organize, coordinate, and control. As seen in the previous post, this is the "internal process" model of management. Minzberg gives examples that don't fit Fayol's outline, namely, tasks involving improvisation (open systems model) and relationship (human relations model).

Managers don't always know what it is that they do. Mintzberg aims to describe the manager's job on the basis of research on how real managers actually spend their time.

Four Myths about the Manager's Job

a. Managers are reflective, systematic planners.

In reality, managers work constantly in ways characterized by brevity, variety, and discontinuity. They are action oriented and tend to dislike reflective activities. "A manager is always plagued by the possibilities of what might be done and what must be done" (164). Managers tend to plan in the context of daily actions.

b. The effective manager has no regular duties to perform.

The reality is that managers are often involved in ritual duties. They are not orchestra conductors but regular participants in the action as needed. They often see customers, gather "soft" external information, substitute in more routine places.

c. The senior manager needs aggregated information, probably from some "management information system" (MIS) or "total information system."

In reality, in 1990, managers favored verbal media, telephone calls, and meetings over documents. "Today's gossip may be tomorrow's fact -- that's why managers cherish hearsay" (166). I sense that email and the data dashboards of this time significantly have modified this dynamic. Big data is all the rage right now. Whether it is as effective as everyone seems to think, however, is another question.

Two of the prime uses of information are 1) identify problems and opportunities and 2) build mental models. Mintzberg argues that in 1990, managers tended to do these tasks based on tidbits of information rather than some total information system. This fact may have changed. 

However, I personally do not yet know of a MIS that makes decisions mechanical for a team of wise and creative individuals. Although I am crazy about the data science program at Houghton, I know enough about the black swan dynamic to think someone is going to come along with some serious words to say about it.

Richard Neustadt suggested that Eisenhauer, Roosevelt, and Truman made decisions not on "bland amalgams" of data but by "the odds and ends of tangible detail that pieced together in his mind" (166). "To help himself he must reach out as widely as he can for every scrap of fact, opinion, gossip, bearing on his interests and relationships as President."

Two important points: 1) verbal information is stored in brains--"The strategic data bank of the organization is not in the memory of its computers but in the minds of its managers" and 2) this explains a reluctance to delegate on the part of managers. I hear him, but some of this may be dated.

d. Management is quickly becoming a science and profession.

In 1990, management still involved a lot of judgment and intuition. I imagine it still does.

2. There's a side-box about how to research managerial work. Sune Carlson investigated managerial work in Sweden by having managers keep diaries of their daily work. Richard Neustadt analyzed the behavior of US Presidents in Presidential Power

3. Defining the manager's job.

Who is the manager? A manager is "that person in charge of an organization or subunit" (168). They all have a certain "formal authority" to make certain decisions. From his research, Mintzberg identified ten roles a manager plays that can be grouped into three categories: interpersonal, informational, and decisional.

Interpersonal Roles

The three interpersonal roles of a manager are 1) as a figurehead, 2) as a leader, and 3) as a liaison.

As figurehead, the manager performs certain ceremonial duties (retirements, welcoming, statements). The leadership role can involve hiring and training. Of course we have witnessed a mountain of leadership material these last thirty years. I was generally trained to think of leadership as the highest task and that managerial functions are subordinate to it.

"The influence of managers is most clearly seen in the leader role. Formal authority vests them with great potential power; leadership determines in large part how much of it they will realize" (168).

The "liaison" role has to do with contacts outside the vertical chain of command. Managers in the past have spent much less time with their superiors than with their subordinates, and about as much time with peers as with their subordinates.

Informational Roles

Mintzberg describes three informational roles: 1) monitor, 2) disseminator, and 3) spokesperson.

"Managers don't leave meetings or hang up the telephone to get back to work. In large part, communication is their work" (169).

As monitor, the manager is constantly scanning the environment for information. As disseminator, the manager passes information on to subordinates and the organization. As spokesperson, the manager speaks to those outside the organization. 

In a sidebox, Mintzberg notes that his article was only balancing out the managerial equation. Planning, organizing, coordinating, and controlling are part of the manager's job. But these are cerebral functions. There are also the insightful functions that involve commitment and integrity. "In practice, management has to be two-faced--there has to be a balance between the cerebral and the insightful" (170).

"No job is more vital to our society than that of the manager. It is the manager who determines whether our social institutions serve us well or whether they squander our talents and resources" (175).


The four roles of the manager in relation to decisions are 1) entrepreneur, 2) disturbance handler, 3) resource allocator, and 4) negotiator.

If the manager is constantly monitoring new things in the environment, this information can lead to innovation. "Chief executives appear to maintain a kind of inventory of the development projects in various stages of development. Like jugglers, they keep a number of projects in the air" (171). This is the manager as entrepreneur.

The manager also has to respond to pressures and change outside his or her control. They become a  disturbance handler. "Every manager must spend a considerable amount of time responding to high-pressure disturbances" (172).

The third decision role is that of resource allocator. "The scarcest resource managers have to allocate is their own time" (172). The manager may determine a unit's structure. The manager may authorize important decisions before they are implemented. "Few CEOs approve a proposal -- they approve a person" (171).

A final role is that of negotiator. E.g., to get a hire the manager may have to negotiate.

The ten roles come together into a gestalt. Different types of managers may lean toward one or the other categories. For example, sales managers lean toward the interpersonal. Production managers lean toward the decisional. Staff managers lean toward the informational.

4. Effective Management

"The manager's effectiveness is significantly influenced by their insight into their own work" (173). "Managers who can be introspective about about their work are likely to be effective at their jobs."

Three areas of concern: 1) a lack of delegation, 2) all the information in the manager's head, and 3) working with "management scientists."

a. The manager needs to share privileged information with the right people. Regular meetings with key people are important. "The time spent disseminating this information will be more than regained when decisions must be made" (173). [A special kind of information that needs to be written down somewhere is institutional memory.]

b. The "planning dilemma" is the need for the manager to communicate with the data specialists, and for the data specialists to give to the manager the right kind of information.

c. Turn obligations into advantages and desires into obligations. "Unsuccessful managers blame failures on obligations. Effective managers turn obligations to advantages" (175). Then "the manager frees some time to do the things that he or she -- perhaps no one else -- thinks important by turning them into obligations. Free time is made, not found."

5. Training

"You can't teach swimming or management in a lecture hall." "We are taught a skill by practice plus feedback."

6. Self-Study Questions for Managers:

  • Where do I get my information?
  • What information do I share?
  • Do I tend to act before I have enough information?
  • Do I know enough to make judgments on subordinate's proposals?
  • What is my vision for the organization?
  • How do my subordinates react to my management style?
  • What are my external relationships?
  • Do I have a system of time management?
  • Do I overwork?
  • Am I becoming superficial?
  • How do I use media?
  • How do I blend my rights and duties?

"Competing Values Approach to Management" (book review, introduction)

1. I consider myself an academic entrepreneur of sorts. That's really why I came to Houghton, because I thought it might be a perfect opportunity to exercise some of these skills. One of the creations we saw happen this spring is the beginning of a Certificate in Business Administration.

It's ideal for a pastor wanting to improve the business skills that a pastor is often called on to exercise and yet for which most pastors are ill-prepared. 

Five of us signed up, including me. The first course is Principles of Management. We walk through the course and then take a comprehensive exam at the end to receive certificate credit. It is $200 a course.

In preparation for the exam, I'm going to blog through my reading and preparation. There were three key learning features of the first week for me.

2. The fundamental approach of this book to management is to think of a manager's role as involving four different domains or values that are often in competition with each other:

  • Compete -- the output and goal orientation (rational goal model) -- This is the oldest model of modern times. The goal is profit and productivity. It's the dollar sign. "The ultimate value is achievement and profit maximization" (5).
  • Control -- good processes (internal process model) -- This is the bureaucracy model. You want stability. you want routinization. The pyramid.
  • Collaborate -- cohesion, morale orientation (human relations model) -- Get everyone involved in the process and decision making. It will get more commitment. The circle.
  • Create -- adaptability to circumstances (open systems model) -- Be flexible and able to adjust depending on the environment. The amoeba.

3. Those who have known me in my previous and current roles as a leader would predict that, on the Competing Values Assessment, I scored high on create. I also definitely have an output orientation. I scored fairly high on collaborate too. Predictably, my lowest score was on control. I fully recognize the need for good processes, but I get very annoyed by bureaucracy.

4. The four competing values correlate to varying emphases in the study of management that have played out over the years:

A. The beginning of the twentieth century saw an emphasis on output (rational goal model). Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) was the "father" of scientific management with four basic principles:

  • There should be a science for every job.
  • Pick workers to fit the job, and train them.
  • Offer incentives to follow the science.
  • Plan the work for each job.

B. Then as the century progressed, you had Max Weber and Henri Fayol advocating for a professional bureaucracy. "Routinization leads to stability" (5). Here are Fayol's principles of management:

  • Divide up the work logically to reduce the number of tasks to be done.
  • Give authority and responsibility to the right people.
  • Expect discipline.
  • One superior for each person
  • One plan, one head, one objective
  • General interest over individual interest
  • Give a fair wage.
  • Centralized authority
  • Chain of authority
  • Order -- a place for everything and everything in its place
  • Equity
  • Long tenure of personnel
  • Think out the plan before enacting it.
  • Esprit de corps

Here are the elements of Weber's bureaucracy:

  • division of labor
  • hierarchy of authority 
  • personnel selected for each job
  • Keep good records.
  • Pay your managers.
  • standard rules and procedures

C. In the mid-twentieth century an emphasis on human relations developed in management. A key book in this period was How to Win Friends and Influence People. It became important to pay attention to the needs of the people who work for you and not just to focus on output.

D. Change accelerated in the late twentieth century and the importance of being able to adapt to changing situations became more and more important. Thus the open systems model and the idea of an "adhocracy" over bureaucracy.

Contingency theory emphasizes a leadership that adjusts as necessary:

  • Change the process and procedures as the size changes.
  • Change the technology in relation to the situation.
  • Change the structures and styles depending on the environment.
  • Adjust your approach depending on the people who work for you.
Complexity in the 80s led to the hit book, In Search of Excellence. Then there was Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline in the 90s.

5. The book introduces a number of core competencies of a "master manager." Mastery implies a change in what you know (knowing), your skills (doing), and who you are (being). Character is part of being an effective manager.

The rest of the introduction introduces the process of the book and the first competency. The first competency is to be able to think critically

Thinking clearly involves being able to tell the difference between a "claim," a "ground" or basis for the claim in evidence, and a "warrant" which makes the connection between the claim and its ground.

6. The process of learning in the book is called the "ALAPA model":

  • Assessment
  • Learning
  • Analysis
  • Practice
  • Application

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

A book that's been given a little play right now is Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes du Mez. My goal is to read a chapter a week, but life is very crowded.

I did manage to read the Introduction this past week. Here are some statements I found interesting:

  • The intro begins and ends with mention of Robert Jeffress, a significant Southern Baptist that John Fea calls a "court evangelical." Explaining in 2016 why so many evangelicals voted for Trump, he said evangelicals were "sick and tired of the status quo" (1). The intro ends with a quote from Jeffress before the 2016 election: "I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that's where many evangelicals are" (14).
  • Kristin notes the puzzle that such strong support for Trump presents on its face: Trump "mocked opponents, incited violence at his rallies, and boasted of his 'manhood' on national television. Then there were Trump's sexual indiscretions. Divorce was one thing, rumors of sexual escapades another... the release of the Access Hollywood tape."
  • Various explanations were given: some holding their noses, some choosing the better of two evils, some being transactional to get judges...
  • Her claim: "Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals' embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad" (3). 
  • They "replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ." "Evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them."
I have marveled these last four years that, if cultural evangelicals had wanted a true believer, they should have been happier to have Pence as president than Trump. But no. They preferred Trump. The impeachment would have been a great opportunity to get a "real" evangelical as president, one that would have given judges and the same opposition to abortion. Nope. They wanted the strong man.

  • "When it comes to delineating the contours of modern American evangelicalism, the primary of these four [Bebbington] distinctives is arguable" (5). The four are biblicism, conversionism, activism, and the crucicentrism. She's quite right here. I find this way of identifying evangelicalism rather inadequate.
  • Rather, "what it means to be an evangelical has always depended on the world beyond the faith." Indeed, there is a prioritization and interpretation of these elements at various times and places.
  • In the last couple years, "many people count themselves 'evangelical' because they watch Fox News, consider themselves religious, and vote Republican" (6).
  • Because the application of the four elements often differs between white and black Christians, "just 25 percent of African Americans who subscribe to all four distinctives identify as evangelical." There is thus a prevailing whiteness to American evangelicalism. I've seen this recently in criticism of Lecrae for endorsing Democrats in Georgia. He can believe in the Bible, in conversion, in the cross, and is clearly acting out his faith in the public sphere, but because he plays it out differently, he is canceled.
  • Kobes du Mez rightly sees that culture has forged the identity of current American evangelicalism. Pastors have often been powerless against the force of everything from Dobson to Veggie Tales. Mainline denominations like the United Methodist or Christian Reformed churches are now full of fundamentalists despite the training of their ministers. LifeWay Christian stores turn authors on and off at will.
  • "Denominational boundaries are easily breached by the flow of religious merchandising" (8).
  • "Rather than seeking to distinguish 'real' from 'supposed' evangelicals, then, it is more useful to think in terms of the degree to which individuals participate in this evangelical culture of consumption."
  • "Today, what it means to be a 'conservative evangelical' is as much about culture as it is about theology" (10).
  • "Like [John] Wayne, the heroes who best embodied militant Christian masculinity were those unencumbered by traditional Christianity" (11).
She ends the introduction:

  • "Contemporary white evangelicalism is America, then, is not the inevitable outworking of biblical literalism... it is, rather, a historical and cultural movement, forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations" (14).

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sermon Starters -- "Hard Pressed, Not Crushed"

Title: "Not Dead Yet"
Location: McCrae Brook Wesleyan Church
Date: January 31, 2021


  • The ravages of COVID, the situation in the country, possibly Monty Python skits ("I'm not dead yet")
  • Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, 14, 16-18
  • Prayer
The situation of 2 Corinthians:

  • Paul has been wrestling with the Corinthians for three years -- disunity and factionalism.
  • In one corner, the wise guys who liked Pastor 2 (Apollos) better than Pastor 1 (Paul). 
  • He walked on eggshells in 1 Corinthians. Lost it in a harsh letter. Didn't know if they would listen to him after that.
  • Meanwhile, he runs into big troubles at Ephesus (1:8). He's just left when he writes 2 Corinthians.
  • The tone changes at the end of 2 Corinthians -- chapters 10-13. It's like he finds out they're still not with him. Romans 15:23 reads pretty somber in this light.
I. We may face trouble from the world. 

  • Paul in Acts 19 -- The success of the gospel leads to persecution. On this occasion, he gets out.
  • A lot of Christians are worried about persecution right now. Obviously none of us want that.
  • My tendency to think I'm sick... when I'm not.
  • We are not being persecuted -- Having to wear a mask is not persecution. Having to meet online is not persecution. Losing tax exempt status is not persecution. Having to take pictures at a gay wedding is not persecution.
  • The American church wants to be in power, and it interprets its loss of power as persecution.
  • Paul is thankful for every day he escapes Roman persecution and still prays for the emperor (1 Tim. 2:2). Remember that the emperor of Romans 13 is the same one who will later behead him. Same is true of Peter in 1 Peter 2:13.
  • If we can make the world a better place, I think we should. But our hope doesn't come from a world where everything goes our way.
  • "We are hard-pressed, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
II. We may face trouble from other Christians.

  • This is the big surprise. Paul is probably more troubled by the Corinthians than the Roman Empire.
  • He got pounded by both "liberals" and "conservatives." I don't really like those terms. You don't really know what they mean until you figure out what people are "conserving" and what people are "liberating." In a college setting, who knows what the "liberal arts are." :-)
A. There were the "liberals" at Corinth.
  • They were the ones that insisted on their freedom. "We should be able to go to pagan temples." "We're not under the Law." "This is a free religion." "A man can sleep with his father's wife." They claimed to know stuff. They thought they were more spiritual.
  • This group would not listen to Paul. They mocked him. They were messing up the church he had founded.
  • Paul cared for them. He does crack down on the guy sleeping with his step-mother, but his goal is redemptive. He wants to see the guy saved in the end. More importantly, he tries to show the "libertines" that Christianity is not about my freedoms or my rights. Serving God is freeing because I am surrendering to the way things are supposed to work.
  • Illustration -- sliding on wet pavement. turn the wheel in the direction of the slide
  • In fact, Christ calls us to give up our freedoms when they hurt others or might cause someone else to stumble. It's one thing to stand up for the rights of others, for their benefit. Christianity has nothing to do with standing up for my rights and freedoms.
  • "We are perplexed, but not in despair."
B. There were the "conservatives" at Galatia.
  • After Paul founded the churches at Galatia, Christian missionaries came and tried to correct Paul's teaching that they did not have to become Jews.
  • They are insisting on following the Bible (as they interpreted it). Get circumcised. Follow the Law. Don't eat the wrong things. Don't touch the wrong things.  Don't eat with the wrong people.
  • They really ticked him off. They were messing up the churches he founded. He doesn't consider them to be real Christians (although Luke may have--Acts 15:1).
  • They no doubt felt the same, considered him a filthy liberal, a heretic. "He eats with the wrong people." "He teaches Jews not to keep the Law." "He encourages people to sin."
  • This is the flavor of people that constantly is getting him in trouble with the Romans as he conducts his mission across the Mediterranean. Eventually, they will get him arrested in Jerusalem. 
  • There are right and wrong answers. It wasn't clear at the time. Paul is in the New Testament. In hindsight, we know he was right. At the time, we have to endure our opposition. 
  • "Pressed down, but not crushed"

III. We may face doubts from inside.

  • Paul did--should I have sent that letter to the Corinthians? "Fights on the outside; fears on the inside" (2 Cor. 7:5). Paul's not usually someone to have self-doubts. But even a Paul can get to that point.
  • Romans 15:23 -- Paul probably leaves the east with deeply mixed feelings. 

IV. A cruciform attitude

  • One that looks at ourselves as living a life like Christ. We are crucified with Christ. We will rise with Christ.
  • Read 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, 14, 16-18

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Bob Black's How Firm a Foundation

I want to keep a record of books as I read them this year. I am an alumnus of Southern Wesleyan University (then Central Wesleyan College). I found out last year that Bob Black, one of my college professors, wrote a history of SWU for its centennial in 2006. It's not available on Amazon or anywhere, but I found one on eBay.

It's really well written. These sorts of histories are usually pretty boring, but Bob did a spectacular job. I don't plan to post any notes, but I did read it over the Christmas break and finished it last week. Lots of back and forth between Houghton and Marion College and Central in the early days. 

There are a few books like this one of the Wesleyan colleges. In a world of self-publishing, none of them need to be out of print.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Book Review: Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

I have been reading some oldies with my daughter. I don't expect to reach my goal of a book a week, but I did succeed this past week. I must have gotten my copy of Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning in some used book store in the late 80s. It's a 1962 edition, and one of its previous owners read it in 1985. 

Without taking the time to do a full review, here are some of the things I underlined. First, the book is divided into two parts. The first part and the bulk of the book gives Frankl's reflections on his time in four concentration camps. Then the shorter second part gives a taste of his approach to psychology--logotherapy.

Here are some excerpts:

Part I: His Reflections

  • "The best of us did not return" (4). This was a striking comment. He indicates that in each moment of culling, escaping death in the camps required someone else to die. Those who survived had to be willing to save their own life over someone else.
  • The insult toward them was worse than the beating. (22)
  • "Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire" (36). "The salvation of man is through love and in love." There can be a time when enduring suffering in the right way is the only way to achieve fulfillment.
  • There was "a strong feeling that fate was one's master, and that one must not try to influence it in any way, but instead let it take its own course" (56).
  • "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way" (65).
  • "If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering" (67).
  • Nietzsche --"He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how" (76).
  • "It is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way" (77).
  • A poet --"What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you" (83).
  • "No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people." "Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society... therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards." (87).
Part II: Logotherapy
  • "Logotherapy focuses on the future" as opposed to psychotherapy, which largely focuses on the past. (96) He speaks of a "will to meaning."
  • "The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves but rather detected" (99).
  • "Man is never driven to moral behavior" (99).
  • "There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life" (104).
  • "The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour" (108).
  • "So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now" (109).
  • "Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization" (111).
  • "Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice" (113).
  • "Paradoxical intention" is a solution to anticipatory anxiety. Wish the thing you are afraid will happen, and it will help you release from fear.
  • Address hyper-intention (obsession) by de-reflection, transcending yourself as the focus of things.
  • "Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant."

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Soils in the Church (book starter)

I've been contemplating a book idea, and I wanted to jot down some notes in case a moment comes to write it. The idea is to use the Parable of the Soils to analyze the church (rather than using the normal lens of the evangelism of those outside the church). Why is the church susceptible to the Nixons and Trumps of this world? Why has the church so often stood on the wrong side of justice (slavery, civil rights)?

Seed on the Path

  • There are people in the church who are not in the church. While the church always meets visibly, its membership is ultimately invisible.
  • There are the obvious of those who go to church to get "street credit" or to look respectable, your run of the mill hypocrite.
  • Matthew 7:15-23 -- false prophets who bear bad fruit (with love as the measuring stick), not everyone who says "Lord Lord"
  • Matthew 13:24-29 the weeds
  • Matthew 22:11-13 the improperly dressed
  • Matthew 25:44-46 the goats
  • These are not a matter of belief or orthodoxy. It is about fruit and action (love in action). These are those who do not bear the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. Concern about right belief is a subsidiary theme of the new Testament (e.g., the Pastorals), and even then it is probably more about teaching on living rather than ideas in themselves.

Seed in the Shallows

  • Frontal assault is the point of the parable, inability to stand persecution because of lack of root.
  • But I would like to focus on shallow Christianity, Christianity without proper rooting and anchoring. 
  • Shallow Christians are easily deceived because their roots are misplaced. Our roots should be in Christ, the person, and in the God who is focally revealed as faithful, loving, and gracious. 
  • I think a key to the deception of the church in recent days is a faulty placement of faith in something disguised as the Bible that is not the Bible. So there is rooting in a simplistic understanding of the Bible, something easy for us to understand but that is easily manipulable into ungodliness or an obstacle to true godliness.
  • There is often rooting in a faulty conception of God, a God that is easy to understand but easily twisted into an abuser.
  • Because we are not anchored deep, shallow ideologies take over--ones we may actually think are deep but aren't.

Seed that is Choked

  • The pressures of life is the point of the parable.
  • But I would like to broaden the consideration to anything earthly that takes our eyes off the heavenly reality. These earthly things can choke out a deeper sense of God. 
  • This can be the ideologies and positions of human denominations. 
  • It can be the mistaking of civil religion and political parties with God. There's Christian nationalism. 
  • Any earthly tribe can do it. 
  • Of course, money fits well with the parable ("you cannot serve God and money").

Good Soil

  • The good soil is everything the other soils aren't. It is rooted in Christ, a proper sense of God as love, and a proper sense of the Bible as a witness. Its values are oriented around self-surrender and love. It yields the fruit of love-in-action.

Friday, January 01, 2021

New Year's Goals (2021)

Every year I set goals for the year (e.g., last year). Most of us don't do too well. But it is useful, if nothing else to be able to look back and remember where things stood a year ago.

1. I would like to read/skim a book a week. My daughter Sophie and I read How to Win Friends and Influence People together recently. Starting the new year with Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.

2. I need to continue running. I've signed up for another NY virtual race--1010 miles this year is the goal. 

3. I did not write any peer-reviewed books this year, although I did self-publish my Explanatory Notes on 1 and 2 Thessalonians. It would be nice to write a peer-reviewed book this year.

4. My slow work through interests of my youth inches forward. Goals: P (814); Ca (559); Ch (295); R (198); Q (95).

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Reflections on 2020

This is my annual reflection on the year that is passing. It has been quite a year indeed, the most turbulent of my life I would say. It was the year of COVID. It was (probably) the last year of Trump's presidency. I finished my first year at Houghton and began a second.  

1. I read a number of books this year, not least because of the seminars in which I participated on Race, Evangelicalism, and C.S. Lewis. Here are the main books I read:

  • Surprised by Joy by Lewis
  • Mere Christianity (I had read it before)
  • The Last Battle by Lewis
  • Screwtape Letters by Lewis
  • Perelandra by Lewis
  • The Four Loves by Lewis
  • A Grief Observed and most of The Problem of Pain.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • Chapters from Sin and Its Remedy in Paul, The Use of the OT in Hebrews, and many more.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
  • Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
  • Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb 

2. I became a runner again this year, changed my diet significantly, and lost about 25 pounds. Key was a virtual race across New York this summer in which I ran 500K. I continued to run in the fall. I have an informal goal of running 3 miles under 30 minutes each year and at each age. This year that pace became routine. In fact, I ran 3 miles under 27 once and regularly ran 5 miles under 50 minutes.

3. As I write this post, I have about 6,287 subscribers on YouTube, about 2500 more this year. As a hobby, I continue to post videos on the Bible, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, philosophy, science, and math. I do it for myself. I do get some pretty interesting comments sometimes.

4. When I look back on this year, the word that most comes to mind is blessing. I am enormously blessed. As I make this post, my mother is about to be discharged from the hospital after having COVID. At 94, we took the news of her infection gravely. I do not know why God has spared her and not so many others just as deserving. But we are thankful. It is a story of providence I may share later when things are clearer.

I have been blessed this year at Houghton College. I came here for many reasons last year, a convergence of blessings. I have remarked to a number of people that I have never had to rely on faith more. But God always walks the path with us. I repeatedly find myself looking back and thinking, "Why was I so pre-occupied with direction?" Everything always seems to find its way.

5. Certainly many will disagree with me, but I feel grateful that we have a change of US presidency. I believe history will reveal some sobering truths in the days ahead, truths that should prompt some serious reflection. I became an Independent this year, deeply unsatisfied with both political parties. Somehow it seems fitting to me that a citizen of heaven would sit very lightly to all parties of earthly citizenship.

In the midst of political and social unrest, the church has been deeply divided. This fact suggests that, one way or another, one part of the church has been deeply deceived and/or misguided these last four years. Once things are clear, I believe a major project for the church is to ask why this was the case. I think those of us involved in Christian higher education especially have some reflection to do.  

Onward into 2021!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Three Week Bible Crash Course

Starting Monday, January 4, I'm teaching a crash course survey of the whole Bible with Houghton College. Certainly, a person could take it for college credit, but it can also be audited for not too much. It's the kind of thing a small group or Sunday School class or could do together (possibly as one audit taken together). Here is the link to sign up, and the name of the course is BIBL 101 Biblical Literature.

The format is 1) two short videos to watch each day and 2) a live debrief session at 4pm ET each weekday. The live session is recorded for those who can't come at that time.

Here is the video schedule with Bible readings and (if you want), the textbook:

Week 1 (January 4-10)
1. Monday (Jan. 4)
• Video 1 – The Story of Salvation
• Video 2 – The History of Salvation
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Gospel of Mark.
• Read WN chapter 1.

2. Tuesday (Jan. 5)
• Video 3 – The Beginning of Israel (Exodus 1-19)
• Video 4 – The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20-40)
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Exodus 1-20.
• Read WN chapter 2.

3. Wednesday (Jan. 6)
• Video 5: The Laws of Leviticus
• Video 6: Numbers and Deuteronomy
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Deuteronomy.
• Read WN chapter 3.

4. Thursday (Jan. 7)
• Video 7: Genesis 1
• Video 8: Genesis 2-3
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Genesis 1-23.

5. Friday (Jan. 8)
• Video 9: Lessons from Genesis
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Genesis 23-50.

Week 2 (January 11-17)
6. Monday (Jan. 11)
• Video 10 – Joshua
• Video 11 – Judges, Ruth
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Ruth and 1 Samuel.
• Read WN chapter 4

7. Tuesday (Jan. 12)
• Video 12 – 1 and 2 Samuel
• Video 13 – 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read 2 Samuel.

8. Wednesday (Jan. 13)
• Video 14: Pre-Exilic Prophets
• Video 15: Exilic Prophets
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Minor Prophets.
• Read WN chapter 6.

9. Thursday (Jan. 14)
• Video 16: Post-Exilic Prophets
• Video 17: Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Isaiah 1-12, 40-66.
• Read WN chapter 5.

10. Friday (Jan. 15)
• Video 18: Worshiping through the Psalms
• Video 19: The Poetic Books
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Psalms 1, 3, 12, 18, 23, 42, 50, 51, 82, 97, 100, 105, 119, 121, 122, 136, 137.
• Read WN chapter 7.

Week 3 (January 18-22)
11. Monday (Jan. 18)
• Video 20 – The Mission of Jesus
• Video 21 – Passion Week
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Gospel of Luke
• Read WN chapter 8.

12. Tuesday (Jan. 19)
• Video 22 – The Sermon on the Mount
• Video 23 – Matthew and Mark
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read Matthew 5-7.

13. Wednesday (Jan. 20)
• Video 24: Acts 1-12
• Video 25: Acts 13-28
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Book of Acts.
• Read WN chapter 9.

14. Thursday (Jan. 21)
• Video 26: Paul’s Early Letters
• Video 27: Paul’s Later Letters
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read 1 Corinthians, Romans.
• Read WN chapter 10 and Epilogue.

15. Friday (Jan. 22)
• Video 28: The Gospel of John
• Video 29: Hebrews and the General Letters
• Video 30: Hermeneutics
• Live Time: 4pm ET
• Read the Gospel of John and James.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Luke 1:39-56 Explanatory Notes (Visit to Elizabeth)

The Visitation,
Jacques Daret
The Visit to Elizabeth
1:39 Having arisen,
[1] Mary in those days went into the hill country with haste into a city of Judah. 40. And she entered into the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
We do not know exactly where Zechariah and Elizabeth are from, but it is not Jerusalem. They are from a "city of Judah," in the hill country. Mary's connection with them may suggest that Mary had a priestly lineage. In chapter 4 will we encounter the suggestion that she also had a royal one.

Hebrews 7 does not indicate that Jesus had a priestly lineage, but certainly as Christians we think of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king. The Gospels and Paul are explicit about his kingly role. Luke will explicitly call him a prophet. And Hebrews 7 calls him a priest, whether he descends biologically from Levi or not.

Elizabeth is sixth months pregnant, and Mary will stay with her till she is nine months pregnant. The Gospel does not say whether Mary stays all the way to the birth of John the Baptist. It is the first trimester of Mary's pregnancy.

41. And it happened as Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was full of Holy Spirit.
The model of Spirit-filling in the Old Testament is that the Spirit of God comes on individuals to give them the power to do specific tasks (e.g., Samson) or to prophesy (e.g., Saul). In such cases, the power of God's Spirit is not necessarily associated with goodness or godliness. On the Day of Pentecost, it will become normal for all of God's true people to receive the Holy Spirit and the expectation of godliness and purity will become universal for those filled with the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth is still under the old covenant, although Luke does not make that pattern clear here. She is filled with the Holy Spirit and called for a special purpose, to give birth and raise "Elijah," who will prepare the way for the Messiah. Interestingly, we are never told that Mary gets "filled" with the Holy Spirit, but we can assume she is both because Jesus is greater than John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her (1:35).

We have already seen in this chapter that the coming of the Spirit is not always connected to an act on the part of an individual. John the Baptist is filled with the Spirit from his mother's womb (1:15). The Spirit can come on a person before the person has any real understanding of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist will later confirm his membership in the people of God. Elizabeth's faith in what God is doing through Mary confirms hers.

42. And she called out with a great cry and said, "Blessed [are] you among women and having been blessed [is] the fruit of your womb!
Elizabeth recognizes Mary's honor among women. God has shown her favor and honored her. Blessedness is honor language, something it is difficult for Western minds to understand. Picture a room of people clapping while giving a standing ovation. 

Yet blessing goes beyond honor for something you do, although you can do things that bring you honor. Blessing is a gift of favor. A person can be blessed without doing something. They can be favored by God beyond their faithfulness. 

Mary is a faithful young woman, yes, but there were no doubt many faithful young women at that time. She is favored and honored and blessed beyond them not only because she was faithful but because God chose her beyond her faithfulness. She is blessed among the faithful. She is highly favored by God, chosen to do something no other woman in history will ever do.

The fruit of her womb is obviously blessed beyond all other humans. As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the eternal second person of the Trinity, God himself come to earth. We have the benefit of the Gospel of John and centuries of unpacked Christian understanding. In that light, the greeting seems like an understatement. Of course Jesus is worthy of honor! 

43. "And why to me [is] this, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, behold, as the sound of your greeting came into my ears, the baby in my womb leaped in rejoicing!
The baby John the Baptist leaps in the womb as a sign of what Mary represents. Mary is the "mother of my Lord." This is the first time in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus is referred to as "Lord," although he has already been referred to as the "Son of God" (1:32, 35). The title has been used ten times previously in the chapter but in every case in relation to God the Father.

Acts 2:36 will use "Lord" and "Messiah" as royal titles like "Son of God" and locate Jesus' assumption of them most poignantly after his resurrection from the dead and exaltation to God's right hand in heaven. That moment is like Jesus assuming the throne of the cosmos. The use of the term Lord in relation to Jesus comes especially from Psalm 110:1--"The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand.'" 

45. "And blessed is the one who has believed that there will be a fulfillment to the things that have been spoken to her from the Lord!"
Elizabeth's words began with a blessing to Mary and here they end with that same blessing again. Mary is the one on whom God has not only shown unmerited favor and blessing. She is the one who has believed or had faith in the things spoken to her by the angel.

There is a tendency in Protestantism to make faith and works into opposites or contradictories. The New Testament knows nothing of that. The favor shown Mary is not earned but her actions are consistent with that favor. She is worthy without deserving. Her honor fits her faithfulness although she could have never earned it.

Grace is unmerited favor. We think of it especially when God forgives our sins. It does involve a "work" of sorts, because we normally "trigger" grace by our prayers and faith. [1] Blessing is a specific kind of grace, not one that relates to our sin but to our faithfulness. It is God's gift beyond our faithfulness.

Mary's Song
46. And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47. and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...
This is the "Magnificat." Both Luke's Gospel and Acts are filled with songs and sermons. Magnificat is the Latin for "it magnifies." This hymn has been set to various music over the centuries.

This hymn is in the style of Hebrew poetry, which utilized "parallelism." The most basic form of parallelism is synonymous parallelism, where you say something and then say it again in similar terms. So "my soul magnifies the Lord" is very similar in meaning to "my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

This parallelism helps us with interpretation. For example, if we wonder which "Lord" Mary is thinking of, the mention of "God my Savior" in the second suggests she is thinking of God the Father. Interestingly, expressions that describe God the Father and Jesus the Son are often interchangeable, sometimes making it difficult to determine which is in view. Jesus is the "Savior, Christ the Lord" (2:11), but God the Father is also our Savior and the LORD.

The word soul would be difficult to interpret without the parallel. In the Old Testament and Hebrew, "soul" refers to the whole living being, so we would be tempted to translate this verse as "My person magnifies the Lord." But the parallel of the word spirit suggests Mary is referring to her inner being rather than her whole person, a part of her rather than the whole. 

Her soul in this case is her truest self inside, who she really is. It is the essence of her personhood, the part of her that makes choices. It is the part of her where the longings that aline with her choices come.

That inner essence of her praises the Lord and rejoices in God's goodness. God alone is deserving of worship, and she gives God some small bit of what God deserves--God's "worth-ship." God alone is truly worthy of our honor, praise, and glory.

48. "... because he looked upon the humble state of his servant girl. For, behold, from now all generations will bless me.
God in himself is worthy of our praise. Yet we can also praise God in the context of things he has done. Mary magnifies God not only for who God is but for what he has done in relation to her. All generations will now "bless" her, give her praise and favor. And to this day her prediction has come to pass.

One of the major themes of the Gospel of Luke is an emphasis on God's favor toward the poor. God seems to have chosen Mary not least so that he could exalt the humble. He intentionally did not choose a famous or wealthy girl. He did not choose a woman of privilege from a powerful family. It is clear from the rest of Mary's song that he chose her in part specifically to take someone who was marginal in society and exalt her.

We will see time and time again in Luke that Jesus targets those on the edges of society. He targets the "sick" not the "healthy." He focuses on the "lost sheep," the poor. He ministers to those society does not see, like women and the sick. He looks on Mary in her "humble state" and exalts her above the most "significant" of people in that day, including the Herods and Pilates.

The parallelism here is more "synthetic" rather than synonymous. The second line builds on the first one. God favored a humble girl, therefore, all generations will call her blessed.

49. "... because the Powerful [One] did great things for me--and holy is his name-- 50. and his mercy [reaches] into generations and generations to those who fear him.
The parallelism of these two verses centers on the fact that God is a God who does great things for his people. He has done something great for Mary and blessed her--she will be the mother of the Messiah. Similarly, God's mercy reaches to generation after generation to those who "fear" him like Mary did. And of course his mercy continues to our generation today.

Three characteristics of God are featured in these two verses. God is powerful. God's name is holy. God is merciful. The first two with out the last would definitely be fearful, and we are to "fear" the Lord. God is a God who can "fry us alive." An elephant may mean us no harm, but we might "fear" it if it is prancing around. A million volt fence would have nothing against us, but we would not dare touch it. 

God is all-powerful. There should be a healthy fear of him. His name is holy. It is set apart from all other names. To say that something is holy is to say it belongs to God and should be treated special, not like something that is common or ordinary. To say God is holy is to say that God is God and as a result to fall on our faces in unworthiness.

Yet God is a God of mercy. God wishes us well. As one of my Old Testament professors once said, "The God who can fry me alive loves me." As God we should fear him. As God has revealed himself to us, we need not.

51. "He performed strength with his arm. He scattered the proud in the intention of their heart.
The alignment of God with the humble instead of the proud becomes clearer and clearer as we proceed through the song. Pride was specially offensive in the ancient world, because it suggested that a person was on the same level as the gods. A proud person was just asking for a god to put them in their place by knocking them down a notch.

God is the one with true strength. The proud might be tempted to think themselves strong or lofty. They might make plans thinking that they are in control of their fate. But the intentions of their hearts cannot bring blessing or certainty of outcome. It is God's arm that performs strength. The "arm of the Lord" is a theme in the later chapters of Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 53:1). 

52. "He brought down powerful rulers from thrones and exalted humble [ones].
Rulers are among the proud. You probably know the saying, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It is indeed difficult not to let power go to your head. Often you do not realize it until the time comes to step down from power. Many struggle to give up power and do so too late, after they have begun to unwind the legacy of their good years. Others try to resort to immoral means to try to maintain power after their time is up.

God is always in power. Rulers fall at God's hand, yet he remains forever enthroned. Meanwhile, God loves to exalt the lowly. David was the least of Jesse's sons when God anointed him. God loves to take the lesser and make it the greater.

53. "Those hungering he filled with good [things], and those who are wealthy he sent away empty.
This verse may sound downright socialist, but we should resist interpreting the New Testament through modern lenses and categories. Nevertheless, the statement means what it seems to say to us. The Gospel of Luke repeately emphasizes God's favor on those who lack and his general displeasure with those who have too much.

The economy of the ancient world was quite different from ours. They dealt more with goods, with coinage less central to the world's operations. The basic unit of Greek money, the drachma, was linked to a day's wage, and a day's wage was largely linked to the subsistence needs of a day. Your average person lived from hand to mouth.

Those who stored wealth were unusual and often thought as a more grandiose kind of thief. An old Arab saying suggests that, "every rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief." It is no surprise that the New Testament has very little positive to say about the wealthy. The Gospel of Luke is especially this way, all the more striking since it is dedicated to Theophilus, who was probably a wealthy Roman official.

Mary celebrates that God reverses the fortunes of people in this world. God is portrayed as a sort of divine Robin Hood, who takes from the rich and gives to the poor. There is no sense that the wealthy deserve or actually own their excess. There is a sense that it is unjust for anyone to be hungry. God is a God who sets these imbalances straight.

54. "He helped Israel, his servant, mercies to be remembered, 55. just as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever."
Lest we take these comments in an overly individualistic way, Mary's song ends with a reminder that all these words have to do with the restoration of Israel. God is keeping his promises to Abraham long ago. In Israel, all were meant to prosper. None were meant to be knocked off track into poverty or abject humility. Israel was never meant to be overcome by powerful outside political forces.

In Jesus God was remembering the faithful of the past. In Jesus God was showing mercy to Israel to bring everything back into balance. The lost sheep will be found. The poor and humble will be brought back to economic health. Those who have hoarded power and wealth will be brought down to size.

56. And Mary remained with her about three months, and she returned to her house.
Mary stays with Elizabeth up until the time she is ready to deliver. Luke does not say that she is there when Elizabeth gives birth, but the months add up to nine. Perhaps there is something symbolic here. John the Baptist is preparation for Jesus. When Jesus begins, John the Baptist ends. So Mary leaves as the preparation ends, and John the Baptist begins.

[1] aorist participle, feminine nominative singular

[2] Theologically, both Wesleyans and Calvinists believe that there is grace prior to our prayers, faith, and repentance. This construct makes sense, although it goes beyond what the biblical texts say.