Saturday, March 07, 2015

God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation, by David W. Saxton

With regard to Christian piety, we live in the age of the judges. What constitutes Christian piety? Each defines it by what is right in his own eyes. So practices that used to be distinct to Eastern or New Age religions now seem to have become common aspects of evangelical piety. Practices that used to be distinctive to the Roman Catholic Church are appearing more and more often in the context of evangelicalism. So in modern evangelicalism, “meditation” has a wide variety of connotations.

Now whatever shortcomings they may have had, the Puritans certainly sought to ground their faith and practice in the Bible. We may disagree about the extent to which they accomplished that aim, or about whether that was even a good aim in the first place. But they left plenty of clear instruction with regard to the practice of meditation. Unfortunately, that instruction is still couched in the language of the seventeenth century. The difficulty most people find in learning how to read Puritan literature is simply too large an obstacle to reading their writings. So Saxton has taken that literature and presented it conclusions in language that is clear and accessible to the modern reader. He offers a clear definition of biblical meditation. He also discusses various types of meditation distinguished by the Puritans. Then he gives directions on how the modern believer can begin to develop and grow in his own practice of meditation.

For me, the only detraction to the book is the author’s practice of making a point, then remaking the point four or five more times by quoting a variety of Puritans on the issue. Now some find that approach attractive, and for them, this will be a welcome aspect to the book. For me, it is inefficient, and slows the book down. The same material could have been covered in fifty to sixty pages had the Puritan quotes had been eliminated. But since the subtitle of the book specifies the Puritan practice, I suppose the numerous quotations from the Puritans have their place.

In sum, this is a book recommended to help you in your Christian walk.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When Is It My Circus?

In response to my post yesterday, someone raised the reasonable question, “When is it my circus?” I’ll attempt to answer that with a some questions.

First, is the issue or the heterodox teaching directly affecting my church? I’m understanding “church” broadly here, so it can refer either to a single congregation or to a denomination. If your answer is, “No,” it’s not your circus.

Second, if your answer to Question One is, “Yes,” then ask yourself if you are qualified to respond to the issue. If not, it’s not your circus. Here is where many Young Prophets make their mistake. They have a little knowledge, and often not much maturity, so they think they are qualified. Ponder the “am I qualified” question seriously before you decide that you are.

Third, if you are qualified, you need to ask yourself the best way to handle the situation. Those suffering from YPS generally decide that the best approach is a scorching blog post, calling out the “false teacher.” Direct contact with the “false teacher,” or attack on the “false teacher” via the blogosphere generally results in two things: defensiveness on the part of the “teacher” and his followers (circling the wagons), and dismissal of the critic. Remember, false teachers generally don’t think of themselves as false teachers.

But a more effective approach is to deal directly with those in your church who are affected by the teaching. Find out why they are attracted to the teaching. Is there perhaps some shortcoming in your own ministry that is causing these folks to look elsewhere? But don’t go into attack mode. Gently lead them into a more correct understanding of the biblical teaching. You are dealing with the sheep, not the wolves.

But what if you’re not qualified, but you still think there is a problem? Seek counsel from older, wiser, more qualified men. Perhaps there’s not a real problem. Perhaps there is, but in either case, wise counsel will help you see things more clearly.

Finally, whether you are qualified or not, pray. Pray for wisdom. Pray for God to raise up men qualified to deal with the issue and willing to deal with it. As I said in the last post, Jesus cares more for his sheep than you do. Such prayers will be answered.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Young Prophet Syndrome

“During my early years, I never heard my parents speak negatively of any other church member or pastor. Later, I learned of circumstances where they could have had cause for grievance or offense, but I grew up believing every Christian was every other Christian's brother and friend. Fast forward to the 21st century: the Internet Age. Now, it seems that it is the job of a Christian to keep every other Christian in line theologically and behaviorally. And should they step out of line, I should immediately express my disdain in a tweet or blog all in the name of "defending the faith." Heretics, compromisers, false prophets, Pharisees, we're quick to label anyone who has a different opinion. I've done it. I might do it again.

I still believe that the best defense of the Gospel of Jesus is a person who lives out His teachings, not a person on a soapbox.

"This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:35

The above quote was sent by a friend who asked me to comment. It was written by Tony Moore. Now I have no idea who Tony Moore is, though I suspect he is not the Tony Moore who at one time was a member of Iron Maiden.

The quote does draw attention to a problem in the American church that I have dubbed “Young Prophet Syndrome.” It is the syndrome in which a young man (though young women are not necessarily excluded) discovers the joys of theology. Having discovered theology, and having a little bit of knowledge, he begins to see heterodox doctrine all around him. Having a concern for Christ and His church, the young man then concludes that it is his duty to call attention to, and correct, the rampant heterodoxy he sees all around him. That is the “prophet” part. He thinks he has been called by God to execute this duty.

In earlier days, there wasn't much harm done by these folks. They had no platform from which to speak. So, while they might prove themselves an annoyance to less theologically-oriented friends and neighbors, that was pretty much where it stayed. Now we have the Internet, and any fool with a computer and an Internet connection can display his folly to the world. It’s not a new syndrome; it just has a new visibility.

For the most part, this is a phase that certain folks go through, but they grow out of it. That might still be the case, but now, nothing ever dies on the Internet. So those criticisms take on a life of their own, making life miserable for all concerned.

But the young prophets, however badly managed, do point out another problem. That is, there are dozens, if not hundreds of Christian ministries whose doctrine seems to be less than orthodox. Yet there is no mechanism for calling those people to account. They are apparently accountable only to their boards, which may or may not be equipped to deal with real theological problems in the ministry. And it appears that, as long as the money keeps rolling in, the views expressed will not change.

Is that frustrating? Yes, but Young Prophet Syndrome is no cure to the problem. So how do we cure the YPS? There probably is no cure. But I would simply suggest to those who feel the YPS call (yes, you know who you are) to rethink the call. I have found a particular Polish proverb very helpful here. “Not my circus; not my monkeys.” Ask yourself, “Is this really my circus?” If not, then leave it to someone whose circus it is. Remember, Christ cares far more for his church than you do, and he will take care of these things in his time and in his way.

There are times when it is right and proper to speak: when it is our circus. But it’s usually not our circus.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Perry Noble and the Ten Whatevers

Perry Noble, for those who don’t know, is the Senior Pastor of the multi-site megachurch Newspring Church in Anderson, SC. On Christmas Eve, he preached a sermon that, to put it mildly, did some funny things with the Ten Commandments. The blogosphere lit up. He addressed the fallout here: and here: I had not intended to get into the mess because it’s not my circus, they’re not my monkeys. But a couple of folks I know who have connections to that church have asked me to comment.

There are two fundamental problems with Noble’s rewriting of the Ten Commandments. The first is his source of revelation, his Israeli friend. Noble reports the information he got from this man as follows: “The word command implies words of force or power as a General commands his troops. The word mits'vah is better understood as a directive. To see the picture painted by this word it is helpful to look at a related word, tsiyon meaning a desert or a landmark. The Ancient Hebrews were a nomadic people who traveled the deserts in search of green pastures for their flocks. A nomad uses the various rivers, mountains, rock outcroppings, etc [sic] as landmarks to give them their direction. The verb form of mits'vah is tsavah meaning to direct one on a journey. The mits'vah of the Bible are not commands, or rules and regulations, they are directives or landmarks that we look for to guide us."

There is almost nothing in this statement that is correct. The connection of “command” to force and power applies as much to “directive.” The etymological connection to tsiyon is almost certainly a false connection, so the implication drawn from it is false as well. His assertion about the verb tsavah meaning “direct on a journey” is completely without foundation. In a standard Hebrew lexicon (dictionary) of biblical Hebrew, these are the definitions for tsavah: 1. To lay a charge upon; 2. To charge, command; 3. To charge, command (there are some subtle differences between 2 and 3 having to do with the object of the command); 4. To commission; 5. To appoint, ordain. There is nothing here about directing on a journey, and the verb is not so used anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. In short, the man’s information is fundamentally flawed, and Noble, as a pastor, had the responsibility to check the information. He didn't do so.

The second fundamental problem with Noble’s rewriting is the direction he takes the commandments. In both Judaism and Christianity, the Ten Commandments have been understood as the foundation of moral law. In Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus sums up the commandments (using the word “commandment,” by the way) as duty to love God and to love one’s neighbor. Thus, the commandments direct us outward, away from ourselves. But Noble’s rewriting (see the second link above) makes all of the commandments all about me. No wonder people liked it. In the solipsistic universe of modern American evangelicalism, it is always all about me. It’s not all about God. It’s about what God can do for me. It’s not about my neighbor; it’s about what God can do for me. God has been dethroned, and I have become the center of the universe.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Do You Want a Singing Church?

While I appreciate what he says, I think he’s simply wrong on some points, so I’ll take it point by point.

First point: Yes. Absolutely right. Couldn’t agree more.

Second point: No Absolutely wrong. Couldn’t disagree more. He no doubt knows more about the use of the organ in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods than I do. But I grew up in a church with an organ. I worshiped more recently for more than twenty years in a church with an organ. My conclusion is that unless the organist is very careful the organ overwhelms singing. As a result, rather than screaming the songs, in order to hear themselves over the sound of the organ, most people just don’t sing. A piano is a much better accompanying instrument. Organ vs. guitar is simply a false dichotomy.

Third, fourth, and fifth points: He fails to realize that three is a contradiction of four. What is a choir if not a performing group? And the voices of the choir will do much more to help the congregational singing if they are actually scattered throughout the congregation, rather than being collected in one place up front. Otherwise I agree with the fourth point, as well as getting rid of the lead singer, which is just a one-man choir performing up front.

Sixth and seventh points: Not only is the singing in church too much, it is often unsingable by the ordinary person, because it was written for a soloist. This also relates to the thirteenth point. The singing outside of church is usually too little because people don’t know tunes. While I’m not an advocate of exclusive psalmody, one of the strengths of the old Scottish Psalter was that you could sing through the entire psalter even if you only knew a handful of tunes.

Points eight and nine: I’m in general agreement here. Though for many churches, the choice of space is limited by resources and availability. If a church is in a position to build its own building, acoustics is certainly one factor to take into account.

Points ten to twelve: Again, general agreement here. I read music, so I find myself frustrated by lyrics on the big screen. I enjoy learning new tunes, but I do better learning them if I have music to read. I have also found that many of the newer songs are “unpredictable” from a musical standpoint: that is, they go up when you expect them to go down, or some such.

Finally, the point being made is to ask ourselves the question, “Is there enough substance to what we sing that it is worthwhile to put out the effort to actually learn it and to sing it?”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Seven Common Misconceptions Corrected

Read it first. Granted, the author teaches Old Testament at Brandeis, so he’s not just a journalist working with material he doesn't really know. But it appears to me that some of his misconceptions are views that no one holds anyway. Hence his “corrections” are either irrelevant or represent a liberal/critical scholarly consensus that does not hold outside of those circles.

Misconception 1: The Ten Commandments are the most important part of the Bible. Since I don’t know anyone who actually holds this view, and I have never seen this view expressed in print, it appears to me unlikely that this is a “common” misconception. The rest of his comment draws attention to the fact that the 10 Commandments (or 10 Words) are differently enumerated by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. (Maybe the topic for another post.)

Misconception 2: We know what the original text of the Bible is. This he denies. But, within certain parameters, I think he is wrong. Texts in the Old Testament period tended to be copied and preserved with a fair amount of care. He vastly overstates his case here, and the Dead Sea Scrolls undercut his case severely. Though there is some variation between the Dead Sea Scrolls texts of Old Testament books, and the modern Hebrew texts that we have, the differences are actually fairly minor, as any standard textbook on Old testament text criticism makes clear.

Misconception 3: The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are different names for the same books. Granted, as he observes, the Old Testament of the Roman Catholic Church contains a number of books that are not contained in Protestant Old Testaments. Once we get past that, however, the common conception is correct. I will agree, to some extent, that order matters, but the fact remains that Protestant Old Testaments contain exactly the same books as Hebrew Bibles contain. It may be a bit of an oversimplification to say that Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are different names for the same books, but it is not wrong, hence not really a misconception.

Misconception 4: We know the order of the biblical books. If he means by this that we know the original order of the biblical books, then of course it is a misconception. The Hebrew Bible does not have a set order (different printed editions have different orders of books in the Writings section). But in a certain sense, so what? He doesn't really indicate why this might be a bad misconception.

Misconception 5: Everything in a prophetic book is by that prophet. That view is not held in the liberal academy. So in Brettler’s mind, it is a misconception. However, the view that the books of the prophets hold the writings of those prophets was the common view of both Judaism and Christianity until less than two hundred years ago. The fact that we don’t have the original books written by the prophets is beside the point. To Brettler, there is evidence that indicates the some (if not large) portions of the Old Testament prophetic books are by authors other than the named prophets. I have never found that evidence compelling.

Misconception 6: The Bible is history. Well, again, Brettler has something of a point, but it is also overstated. The Bible is not history as history is written today, since history as written today does not allow for explanation of events being orchestrated by God. But the Old Testament does tell us about historical events. Archaeology neither proves nor disproves biblical events. Archaeological discoveries can either lend support to the biblical account, or raise questions about the biblical account, but whether the biblical account stands or falls is generally determined by the author’s views about the Old Testament itself. For example, there is currently debate in scholarly circles about whether the kingdom of David actually existed as it is described in the Old Testament. Archaeological discoveries to date cannot tell us that. But those who hold that it didn't, hold that view, not on the basis of archaeology, but on the basis of their views about the Old Testament.

Misconception 7: All the Psalms are by King David. Again, I don’t think anyone actually holds that view, so Brettler’s objection is irrelevant. The real question is whether David wrote those Psalms that are referred as “of David” in the psalm titles. I see no good reason to deny those to David. Saying that “scholars do not attribute any of Psalms to King David!” is simply not true, unless you automatically define as “no scholar” anyone who holds that David wrote some of the psalms. Again, Brettler has overstated his case, and has done so based primarily on the basis of his presuppositions about what the Old Testament is.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Little Fun for Christmas, Suggested by Andy Webb

After the immaculate conception[1] of Jesus, Joseph was instructed by an Angel to take his pregnant wife Mary[2] to his hometown of Bethlehem[3] where he was told Jesus would be born. Mary and Joseph, and their little donkey[4] all set off for Bethlehem led by a star[5]. When they reached their destination they hoped[6] to stay at the inn in Bethlehem but they was no room so they stayed in a wooden stable[7] surrounded by all sorts of animals[8]. Then on the still and snowy evening[9] of December 25th[10], Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him on straw[11] in a manger. Mary immediately noticed that something was very special about this baby because he didn't cry when he was awakened by the noises made by cattle in the stable[12]. Later that evening[13], 3[14] kings[15] from the east who had followed the same star all the way to where it had stopped over that stable in Bethlehem[16] arrived by camel[17] to give Jesus presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Shepherds also came to play music for him[18]. A poor little boy also arrived to worship Jesus and because he had no present fit for a king to give, Mary said it would be fine if he played his drum for him.[19]

[1] The immaculate conception, a doctrine not taught in the Bible, refers to the conception of Mary, not that of Jesus.

[2] Joseph was instructed by the angel not to put away Mary. She was at the time not his wife, but his betrothed.

[3] Joseph went to Bethlehem because of the census, not because he was told by the angel.

[4] There’s no mention of a donkey.

[5] The star only occurs in reference to the magi.

[6] This hope may be implied, but it is not explicit, so it is ruled out of order.

[7] No mention of what the stable was made of.

[8] No mention of animals in the stable. There may have been some there, or they may have been moved out.

[9] There is no mention of either “still” or “snowy.” We are also not told what time of day it was when Mary gave birth.

[10] The date is a later invention. No date is given, or even clearly implied, in the text.

[11] No mention of straw in the text.

[12] This whole sentence is confabulation, so it’s hard to tell how many errors are in it.

[13] The kings arrived some time later, though we do not know how much later.

[14] The number of persons is not mentioned.

[15] They were not kings, but magi.

[16] Well, sort of. The magi had seen the star, and on that basis headed to Jerusalem. After being sent out by Herod, they followed the star, which “stood over where the child was” (NASB). We presume that the family was still in Behtlehem.

[17] Their mode of travel is not mentioned.

[18] Shepherds came, but to worship, not to sing.

[19] This whole sentence is confabulation, so again, the number of errors is difficult to determine.