jasonbwatson

October 21, 2017

Celebrating Halloween: Why Would I?

Tracy Krebs, a former colleague of mine began a recent blog post this way: “As soon as the leaves begin to turn, the anti-halloween-bloggers start popping up on my fb feed…” It is true that the changing colors of the leaves prompt those both for and against the celebration of Halloween to dust off their opinions and post them anew. It is not a topic I have ever engaged in with effort. When asked, I will share what I think. When challenged, I will respond. And I took the blog post of this former colleague, shared on Facebook, as a challenge. Her post was titled, “Can I love Jesus…and Halloween?” Tracy makes it clear that she thinks the answer is yes. I disagree with her on that. But it is precisely because of some erroneous explanations she gives for her position that I feel the need to respond.

She begins her post with a quick overview of the origins of the holiday we now know as Halloween. She correctly traces the beginnings to the Celtic celebration of Samhain, when the Celts “believed that the veil between the spirit realm and physical realm was at it’s [sic] thinnest and that ghosts of the dead (along with other spirit realm entities) wandered among the living” (Tracy’s words). She goes on to say that the Celtic people lit large bonfires in their fields and put candles in their hollowed-out gourds to guide these spirits and left food and wine on their doorsteps to appease them. Furthermore, they had large feasts “during which they purposely honored their dead relatives; speaking fondly of their memories, appreciation and love for them; and, yes, since they believed they were close by for a few hours, would usually try to commune with them” (again, Tracy’s words).

There are a few problems with this. First, supposing it were an accurate description, this practice is not harmless or biblically acceptable. Deuteronomy 18:9-11 says,

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.

Notice several things from this passage: (1) some practices—read religious practices, holidays, celebrations and traditions—of heathen nations are abominable to God; (2) consulting with the dead—which would include communing with, to borrow Tracy’s word—is also an abomination to the Lord. 1 Chronicles 10 makes it clear that Saul suffered serious consequences from the Lord for consulting with a witch—a medium—to summon the spirit of Samuel. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that communicating, communing or consulting with the dead is permissible, let alone encouraged.

But notice that I said “supposing it were an accurate description,” when referring to Tracy’s overview of the origins of Halloween. The reality is, it is not. History.com, in its overview of Halloween, starts off the same way Tracy does: “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.” After that, however, it takes a dramatically different route than Tracy does:

In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By this explanation, the Celts were not honoring their dead relatives, recalling fond memories or attempting to commune with them. Far from it. They were actually making sacrifices to Celtic deities, dressing up in weird costumes and telling each other’s fortunes, which could be “a source of comfort and direction” during the winter. Notice, as well, that the ghosts and spirits that were believed to return were not stopping by for a friendly visit; instead, they were “causing trouble and damaging crops.”

The problems with Christians celebrating such traditions should be immediately evident. First of all, it is not possible to make predictions about the future with any accuracy or legitimacy. James 4:14 says “you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” Second, fortune telling and other such predictions cannot be counted on for direction or comfort. Scripture makes it abundantly clear, in a plethora of passages, that believers are to find their comfort and direction in and from the Lord and His Word. Third, of course, is the offering of sacrifices to pagan deities, something repeatedly condemned in the Bible. And fourth is the trust that was placed in the flame from the “sacred bonfire.” Psalm 9:10 says, “And those who know your name put their trust in you,” speaking of the Lord. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” It is not distorting the passage at all to say, speaking of the Celts, “Some trust in sacred bonfires and pagan traditions.”

Immediately after her description of Samhain, Tracy writes:

This is not unlike the many other cultures around the world that have a day of honoring the dead. Is setting aside a day to honor the dead a bad thing? I don’t see how it is. The Catholics religiously honor their dead and pray for them. Ireland, Scotland, England, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Nepal, the Philippines, and many others cultures current and through history commemorate their dead with a holiday. (Actually, why DON’T we do that?)

Setting aside a day to honor the dead is not inherently a bad thing. We do this in the United States with Memorial Day, in particular, and many individuals and families honor the memory of the deceased relatives on their birthdays or the anniversary of their deaths. But there is a difference between honoring them as in remembering them and honoring them as in worshipping or exalting them. And to the Catholic practice, there is absolutely no point in praying for the dead. Once they are dead it is too late; there is nothing to pray for. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (KJV). Some Catholics, of course, go further and pray to the dead, usually saints, and/or ask them to pray for them, to intercede for them with the Father. This, too, is contrary to Scripture. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Tracy continues in her defense of Halloween by writing, “A simple google [sic] search will tell you that when missionaries came to the Celts, the decision was made to join in their pagan holidays to make converting to Christianity less intimidating.” Um, yes and no. The use of the word “missionaries” is a bit misleading here. These were not people who had moved peaceably in amongst the Celts to spread the gospel. Instead, within just a decade or so of the death of Christ, the Roman Empire had conquered the Celtic territory. They ruled the area for 400 years, during which time two Roman celebrations were blended with the Celtic traditions—Feralia, which was a Roman commemoration of the dead, and a celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. History.com even suggests that this blending is what originated the still-extant activity of bobbing for apples at Halloween, since the apple was he symbol of Pomona.

In AD 609 the Pantheon in Rome was dedicated to honor all Christian martyrs and the feast of All Martyrs day was established. Originally celebrated in May, this was moved to November 1 by Pope Gregory III and expanded to include all saints as well as martyrs. However, according catholic.org, “In Ireland, the Church celebrated All Saints’ Day on April 20, to avoid associating the day with the traditional harvest festivals and pagan feasts associated with Samhain, celebrated at the same time.” An intentional avoidance of the pagan holiday is quite different than “joining in.” Then following the Reformation, “many Protestants retained the holy day, although they dismissed the need to pray for the dead. Instead, the day has been used to commemorate those who have recently died, usually in the past year, and to remember the examples of those who lived holy lives” (catholic.org). Even now the Catholic church emphasizes that October 31 is not a holy day; “It is important to remember these basic facts: Halloween is a secular holiday that comes the night before All Saints’ Day” (ibid).

It is worth noting that the Catholic celebrations in most parts of the world outside of the U.S. are not anything a Protestant would want any part of celebrating. Just a couple of weeks ago I was part of a group of people having dinner with a missionary in Mexico. He has experience ministering in some of the remotest villages in the country. There, celebrating the Day of the Dead is a requirement, and Protestants not participating face persecution. The people are kept in poverty—sometimes even in debt—by the amount of money they are expected to spend to celebrate their village’s saint.

What about Halloween in America? History.com says its celebration was “extremely limited” in New England due to the Protestant beliefs in those colonies. It was much more common in Maryland—which fits, given that Maryland was initially founded as a refuge for Catholics. Gradually, the celebration spread:

As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups as well as the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.

Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween was not yet celebrated everywhere in the country.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing the Irish potato famine, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.

With the influence of these various traditions it became common practice to dress up in costumes. Then, in the late 1800s, there was an intention effort to eliminate ghosts, witchcraft and such from the Halloween celebrations and make them more about community. History.com says parents were even “encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of Halloween celebrations. This would be similar to what many—including many churches—now call Harvest Celebrations. These are fun occasions with food and games and nothing at all related to the dead.

Tracy asserts that joining in pagan holidays is exactly what the New Testament apostles did in order to reach unbelievers, but she offers no evidence and I would challenge her to explain that statement. I know of no such “joining in” that took place.

She goes on to suggest that whether or not Halloween is celebrated as “the Devil’s holiday” comes down to identity and authority. She acknowledges that these is increased demonic and occult activity on Halloween, but she is not afraid of either because of her identity in Christ. Because she identifies as a Christian, claims the authority of Christ and carries the light of the Gospel, she has no fear of the darkness or evil of Satan and his minions. Tracy writes, “So, back to this being the devil’s holiday… Says WHO?? I didn’t give him the right to have a holiday. But every time you say that, YOU ARE! You are coming into agreement with his play to usurp your authority. STOP IT! Don’t give your authority away to that snake.”

Okay, so she admits that this day sees an increase in demonic and occult activity, but she will celebrate anyway because she does not fear that activity and she knows God is far more powerful than Satan. That does not really make any sense—especially when her celebration includes the décor and costumes commonly adopted by those who are celebrating evil and death. See, whether or not you fear evil, there is zero point in celebrating it. When you dress up as ghosts or goblins or zombies, how are you spreading the Light? Earlier this month the Chicago Tribune published a list of most popular Halloween costumes for 2017—for adults and children—based on the National Retail Foundation’s Annual Halloween Spending Survey. What were they? For adults, they included witch (1), vampire (6), zombie (7), and slasher movie villain (9). For children, witch (6) and ghost (9). Why go there? Even if you, like Tracy, do not fear evil, why celebrate it? Why surround yourself with depictions of it? Why think about it? There is certainly nothing here that would be consistent with Philippians 4:8. 1 Corinthians 13:6 says, “Love does not delight in evil” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 5:22 says, “Keep away from every kind of evil” (TLB). Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good…” (NIV). Proverbs 8:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (NIV). None of these verses seem to leave any room for a harmless celebration of evil.

In addition, Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this [present] darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) places” (AMP). Why, pray tell, would any Christian want to celebrate the spiritual forces of darkness? I agree with Tracy that those in Christ have no fear of being defeated by the forces of evil, but I see no point whatsoever in celebrating them.

To the question of whether or not Christian should stand against the celebration of Halloween, Tracy writes,

Well, what is your commission in the Kingdom? Are you not an agent of Light? An ambassador of the King? Is it not your duty to draw the lost to their Savior? How best would that be accomplished when the lost come out of their homes once a year to walk the streets of your neighborhood? Are you attracting them to their Savior by turning off the lights of your house to let them know they are not welcome? Think about the message you are sending out… “Oh they are ‘Christians’ and they think we are evil and worshiping the devil because we are trick or treating…”

You could argue this point legitimately, I’ll admit. I do know some Christians who turn their porch lights on and welcome trick or treaters to their doors on Halloween. They smile and distribute candy and the children go on their way. I think it is possible to do that without condoning the celebration of evil. At the same time, I think it is equally possible to leave your light off and not participate without sending the message that you think those out and about are Satan worshippers. I also know some Christians who have their light on and give out gospel tracts to those coming to their doors. In my own opinion, this is not an effective means if witnessing, especially if no candy or other treat is given along with the tract. To the recipients this will come across as a trick while they were seeking a treat. It will not prompt them to read the tract and is unlikely to lead to their conversion to Christ. In my opinion, it would be better to leave your light off.

But Tracy has a point when she writes,

For the sake of all that is good, turn on your porch light and WELCOME these people! Put on your best costume and decorate your house better than anyone else! Hand out the GOOD candy bars! Everyone who trick or treats knows that there are a few homes that go above and beyond on Halloween and your night is not complete until you have visited THOSE homes… BE. THAT. HOUSE. Draw them in to you!! You have a unique opportunity once a year to meet, bless and pray for (even if just silently) EVERYONE in your neighborhood on Halloween night. At least turn on your light and be friendly… You are representing ALL of us.  Jesus did not shy away from the lost, He went to them. He engaged. (emphasis hers)

I think there can be merit in this. As I said, if you give out a tract along with candy, you may reach someone. You may at least, as Tracy said, have an opportunity to pray for those individuals or meet neighbors you would not otherwise interact with. Here is where she and I differ, though. I would vehemently suggest that if you do this you decorate and dress in such a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with evil. Be your favorite comic strip character or superhero. Stay far away from the zombies and vampires.

Scripture makes it clear that Christian liberty allows for a wide range of choices. Tracy may be within her Christian liberty to celebrate Halloween. I, and others, are certainly within our liberty to abstain. Scripture also makes it clear that not everything we can do is something that we should do, or something that is beneficial or fruitful. That is where I come down. Celebrating Halloween may not be sin (though I do think it could be, depending on the nature of one’s celebration), but I see little if any good in coming from engaging in an activity that is focused on celebrating death and evil. So, I guess the big question for me is this: even if I can celebrate Halloween, why would I?

(Except where otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version).

June 16, 2017

Respecting Religion

You have likely heard about, read about, and even watched or read the exchange that took place on June 7 between Senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, during Vought’s confirmation hearing. There has been much said and written about the ridiculousness of Sanders’ questioning–not to mention the unconstitutionality of it–from all ends of the political spectrum, and I will link a few examples here if you would like to read them for yourself. Aaron Earls blogged about it on The Wardrobe Door, clearly making the point that “all roads lead to exclusion,” and that the opinions of Senator Sanders (and Senator Chris Van Hollen, who expressed an inclusivist view of Christianity during the hearing) are perhaps even more intolerant than Vought’s view that led to the questioning. Others on the conservative end of the political (and religious) spectrum made equally eloquent and passionate arguments against Sanders’ questioning.

Interestingly, those calling out Sanders’ intolerance were not confined to the usual ranks though. Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, wrote, “It was a remarkable moment: a Democratic senator lecturing a nominee for public office on the correct interpretation of Christianity in a confirmation hearing putatively about the Office of Management and Budget.” She went on to state, “It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry. It’s another to try to exclude people from office based on their theological convictions. … This is the danger of relying on religion as a threshold test for public service, the kind of test America’s founders were guarding against when they drafted Article VI.” She concluded her piece by articulating exactly what so many on the other end of the spectrum have been saying about “tolerance” for years: “As the demands for tolerance in America become greater, the bounds of acceptance can also become tighter. Ironically, that pits acceptance of religious diversity against the freedom of individual conscience.”

Even Camila Domonoske, writing for NPR, addressed Sanders’ line of questioning. She provided a reasonable and balanced look at the issue from both sides, citing spokespeople for Sanders, legal experts, Muslim leaders and Russell Moore , president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She correctly reported that views on hell differ, even among Christians: “Different Christian sects, and individuals, have varying interpretations of damnation. The traditionalist view is that eternal suffering awaits all who do not accept Christ; on the other end of the spectrum is the universalist belief that everyone will be saved. And then there are disagreements about what hell actually is.” But the very title of Domonoske’s piece asks the question that ultimately needs to be addressed in light of the Sanders-Vought exchange: “Is it hateful to believe in hell?” (And even if one feels that it is, is such a belief a legitimate subject of questioning in a political confirmation hearing and/or a legitimate reason to oppose or restrict someone from political office?)

I have linked only three examples here and there are many, many more, from all sides, so feel free to find and read those to your heart’s content. It will not surprise anyone who has read the blog with any regularity to know that I found Sanders’ questioning to be out of line and unconstitutional. But I actually want to take a different perspective on the entire exchange, looking instead at Vought’s responses to Sanders. I do not want to throw Vought under the proverbial bus, as he was no doubt surprised by the vehemence of Sanders’ questioning, but he seemed to be uncertain in his responses, unwilling to double down on what he had written and take a firm and unequivocal stance on biblical Christianity. In short, he seemed caught off guard, unprepared to give a defense for his faith.

The apostle Peter addresses the importance of enduring suffering for righteousness sake and being prepared to offer a defense for faith in 1 Peter 3:13-17:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Vought was certainly put in a position by Sanders to suffer for righteousness’ sake. He was, quite literally, asked for the reason for the hope that is within him, and he was indeed slandered and reviled during the exchange. Matthew Poole, in his commentary, said of verse 15, “either that hath authority to examine you, and take an account of your religion; or, that asks with modesty, and a desire to be satisfied, and learn of you.” Sanders certainly fell into the first category.

Again, it is impossible for me or anyone else to say what we might have done were we in Vought’s seat, so I do not wish for this to be seen as an attack on him. But I do wish it to be seen as an encouragement for all of us who claim the name of Christ and seek to be faithful to biblical Christianity. Should we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, will we be prepared to respond? Will we have a defense for our faith, for the hope that is within us, when we are literally in the spotlight? Russell Vought had an opportunity that very few people ever have had or will have, I suspect. He was seated before United States senators, with the opportunity to speak God’s Truth into the congressional record, not to mention to the ears of elected officials and to millions of people across the country and around the world.

Using the transcription of the exchange between Sanders and Vought provided by David French of National Review, I want to imagine what Vought’s answers could have looked like. I am giving Sanders’ questions/comments in blue, Vought’s real answers italicized in brackets and what I would like to imagine could have been said instead in more faithful adherence to Peter’s exhortation thereafter in orange.

Sanders: Let me get to this issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. And that is in the piece that I referred to that you wrote for the publication called Resurgent. You wrote, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned.” Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?

[Vought: Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in the questionnaire to this committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation, and . . .]

Absolutely not, Senator. Islamophobia is a fear or hatred of Muslims and I neither fear nor hate Muslims. I am a Christian and I believe the Bible–both Old and New Testaments–which clearly states that the only way to know God is through acceptance of His Son Jesus Christ as Savior.

Sanders: I apologize. Forgive me, we just don’t have a lot of time. Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned? Is that your view?

[Vought: Again, Senator, I’m a Christian, and I wrote that piece in accordance with the statement of faith at Wheaton College.]

The context of my statement in Resurgent was dealing with the Muslim religion because it dealt with a position taken by a professor at Wheaton College regarding the Muslim religion. But in reality I believe that all people who have not accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, regardless of their religion or their rejection of all religion, stand condemned. I believe that because that is what the Bible says. while there are others, John 3:18 would be perhaps the best example. It says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So, in keeping with my Christian faith, I believe that many people stand condemned.

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

[Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .]

Sanders (shouting): I understand you are a Christian, but this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

[Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .]

Yes, Senator, I do believe that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned because that is what the Bible says.

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

[Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.]

I am not sure if that statement is respectful of other religions or not, Senator. To be honest I am not certain it was designed or intended to be respectful of other religions. That statement was made specifically to highlight the very clear, very important differences that exist between biblical Christianity and Islam. The Christian faith is, necessarily, narrow-minded and exclusive. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” I was articulating and defending that element of my faith, that portion of what the Bible says.

I think, however, that you are missing an important point, sir. I absolutely respect the right of every person to choose his or religion, or to choose no religion. I believe the Constitution of the United States explicitly grants a freedom of religion to everyone in this country. That means that I accept, respect–and would defend–the right of Muslims or Hindus or Jews or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Catholics or anyone else to believe, or not believe, as they so choose whether or not I agree with their religion. So in that regard I have complete and total respect for other religions.

But if by respecting other religions you mean that I have to agree with what they believe or keep quiet about areas in which my faith differs from theirs then I guess I would have to say no, I do not respect–by that definition–other religions. But given the incredible freedom of religion that we hold so dear in this country, Senator Sanders, I cannot imagine that is possibly what you meant.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

To which I would say, if I might Mr. Chairman, that the freedom to believe as we see fit and to speak as we wish–even about those differing and contradictory beliefs–is precisely what this country is supposed to be about.

 

July 31, 2014

Which would you expect to be true?

On July 29 the Christian News Network reported on a psychology class being taught at Ohio State University. According to the report, the school’s Psychology 1100 class included an online quiz which contained this question:

Theo has an IQ of 100 and Aine has an IQ of 125. Which of the following statements would you expect to be true?

* Aine is an atheist, while Theo is a Christian.
* Aine earns less money than Theo.
* Theo is more liberal than Aine.
* Theo is an atheist, while Aine is a Christian.

The report states that, according to the school, the correct answer is the first one. It is not difficult to decipher the implications of this question/answer–Christians have a lower IQ.

An anonymous student told Campus Reform about this quiz item and he was also quoted in the Christian News Network story saying, “Colleges will tolerate pretty much any religion other than Christianity. If colleges really want to give everyone a fair shot, they should stay away from making comments about any religion.” That, of course, would be what neutrality means, right? Not judging or belittling or promoting any one religion over another would be what one would expect in an environment that promotes tolerance and understanding, right?

Now, OSU does have a policy that prevents discrimination on the basis of religion, amongst a variety of other things including “gender identity or expression [and] genetic information….” (See the previous four posts for my comments on this issue). And I am certainly not suggesting that this quiz item was part of some nefarious scheme by anyone at OSU to insult Christians or Christianity. Having said that, can you imagine the uproar had this question used Democrats and Republicans instead of Atheists and Christians? How about homosexuals and heterosexuals? Pro-choice versus pro-life? African-American and Caucasian? What if it had said Atheists and Muslims? I don’t think it takes a whole lot of creativity or mental gymnastics to conclude that the reaction would have been swift and severe. Had any group other than Christians been the group insulted by this question there may well have been someone fired over the incident.

Hemant Mehta, in a blog post on Friendly Atheist, wrote of the question, “it just strikes me as a horribly written, too-simplified-to-be-useful question.” Mehta quotes Kaitlyn Schallhorn of Campus Reform stating, accurately, that the question may have been created by a teaching assistant rather than a professor. No doubt. The problem is, Mehta has zoomed in the fact that it is a lousy question, one that would never be permitted in legitimate psychological study while neglecting the content of the question. He is right about the question but, again, had the question been reversed and Aine-the-Atheist been the one with the lower IQ I doubt Mehta would quite so dismissive of the question.

Mehta suggests what he calls a “simpler solution” rather than getting worked up over the question: “Toss the question and have a discussion in class about how to properly interpret studies.” That would be wise, yes. It may also be a good idea, particularly given that this is a psychology class we are talking about, to have a discussion over why the question is so poorly worded and what impact such an assertion could have on the group being maligned by the implication as well as anyone who believed it to be true. Mehta ended his post with this statement: “There’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that it’s somehow evidence of anti-Christian discrimination.” Maybe not, but it is certainly evidence of the double standard that exists in so many places in the United States when it comes to tolerance and respect for Christianity as opposed to tolerance and respect for almost any other belief or position.

Perhaps more concerning than the fact that a teaching assistant (probably) created this question and it made it into the hands of students taking the course is the statement made by an unnamed Ohio State administrator. This individual, according to The Daily Caller, said that the quizzes are created by graduate assistants and are “typically fashioned based on textbook material” (emphasis mine). See all of the “imagine if it was…” examples above and try imagining any college or university utilizing a textbook which asserted such a thing. Imagine any textbook publisher even publishing such a thing!

All told, this incident will soon be forgotten, and it probably should be. But do not forget that the reality is this: the tolerance so loudly championed by most in this country seldom extends to Christians or Christianity. They want you to believe they are tolerant, but don’t expect it to be true.

November 15, 2013

A budding star?

Last week the Washington Post ran a story on Nadia Bolz-Weber entitled “Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers.” You may have heard of Bolz-Weber; she wrote a New York Times bestseller entitled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. I actually had not heard of her until a colleague showed by the Washington Post article. Unfortunately, what I learned from reading that article and then exploring a bit more online has left me no choice but to comment on Bolz-Weber’s–shall we say, unique–approach to Christianity. No doubt the title of the article mentioned above is enough to clue you in to the attitude she takes.

The Post article calls Bolz-Weber a “budding star for the liberal Christian set.” It describes her appearance this way: “Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.” That is a unique appearance indeed for any pastor, male or female. And while I may not be a fan of a black tank top with clerical collar, Bolz-Weber’s appearance in and of itself probably would not have prompted me to blog about her.

The Post article provides a very quick recap of Bolz-Weber’s life thus far: “A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club.” Going from that kind of life experience to graduating from seminary and pastoring a church would make a dynamic testimony to be sure. And apparently Bolz-Weber has that. Interestingly enough, the Post article also includes several statements that I found encouraging. For example: “The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.” While I personally struggle to reconcile biblical Christianity with many of the positions espoused by social liberals, the point that church should be a place for people who are truly believing Christians and who actually want to hear the Bible preached, not some pop psychology drivel, encourages me.

The article goes on to state this: “In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism.” That is, for the most part, exactly the kind of merging I think is needed in the church today. The “life-changing fervor of evangelicalism” is what the Gospel is all about, and it must not be abandoned or ignored. At the same time, there is a very real need for Christians to work for social justice and serve the poor and live out their faith. I cannot embrace the statement above in its entirety since “inclusiveness” is a not-so-subtle reference to accepting homosexuality, and while homosexuals need to be loved and treated with dignity, the homosexual lifestyle cannot be accepted by anyone who believes that the Bible is the Word of God and means what it says.

But the article follows the statement above with this one: “She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.” Even putting the tattoos aside, the idea that someone can effectively represent and present the Gospel with a foul mouth is dumbfounding to me. Of her use of language generally not heard until late hours on television, let alone in church, Bolz-Weber says, “I don’t think church leaders should pretend to be something they’re not.” I would agree with that. I would also suggest, however, that deciding that being foul-mouthed is simply who she is instead of working to change that part of her life is not only inconsistent with Scripture but demonstrates a contradiction to what she also claims to believe–that the Gospel has life-changing power. God accepts and loves us as we are, but He does not expect us to stay that way. As we grow in relationship with Him, as we progress in sanctification, we should become less and less like the world and more and more like Christ. There is a reason that the language Bolz-Weber is known for using is called profanity–and that is because it is profane! That which is profane has no place in the life of a believer, much less in church.

The Post says Bolz-Weber’s message is this: “Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.” Yes, God does offer grace, and no, God does not love anyone more for doing good things. But forget the golden rule? The golden rule, as it is commonly known, is a commandment from Jesus. This is exactly the way in which Christians are supposed to live. Living this way is how people will know we are Christians! When Jesus gave the golden rule he was turning the way the religious leaders of His day had taught completely upside down. Prior to Jesus, the teaching was not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you. That’s a good idea, of course, but it is a negative command, not a positive one. You could go through life never doing anything to anyone else that you would not want them to do to you and at the same time never doing anything nice, never performing any act of service, never demonstrating love to another person. I can go through life and never hit you upside the head, for example, but that is and of itself is not enough–that is not what Jesus has called us to do.

Continuing on through the Post article I again find moments of encouragement and times when I think “Right on!” Shortly thereafter, though, I am again confronted with times that make me think, “Are you serious?” For example: “Bolz-Weber says she abhors ‘spirituality,’ which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.” Whoa! Hold on now… The God of the Bible is not cranky. Cranky implies moodiness, instability, emotions based on fluctuating feelings. God is none of those things. Yes, God gets angry, but He is angered by sin. He does not get angry because He did not get enough sleep or because He spilled His coffee or because he is stuck in traffic. And the God of the Bible is never without answers. Scripture makes it clear that He is omniscient–all knowing. If He knows all things than there can never be an answer He does not know. Surely there are times when He does not give us all the answers, but that is entirely different from Him not having them.

In a September’s issue of USC’s Religion Dispatches magazine Bolz-Weber was interviewed by Candace Chellew-Hodge, the founder/editor of an online magazine for GLBT Christians, pastor of a church in South Carolina, and author of a “Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians.” In the interview Bolz-Weber says that she was “allowed not to die in exchange for working for God. I’d have to become God’s bitch.” That word refers by definition, of course, to a female dog, but it is a slang word for a variety of things, including “a person who performs demeaning tasks for another; servant.” While being a servant of God is a good thing, the connotation of the word is entirely different from what the Bible has in mind when it describes serving God. Bolz-Weber, no doubt, uses the word for shock value. Later in the same interview, when discussing how God used worked through flawed people in the Bible, Bolz-Weber said, “All God’s favorite people are f_____d up.” Again, the word is slang, and even if Bolz-Weber’s basic message is on target the way in which she presents it is a turn off–it’s offensive. Dictionary.com says of that word, “For many people, the word is extremely vulgar, considered improper and taboo in all of its senses.” In other words, it is certainly not the way to present the Gospel!

Nadia Bolz-Weber has some valuable insights into Christianity and, at times, she is right on. Unfortunately, her desire to be “real” means that she is in many instances actually offensive herself. The message of the Gospel is an offense to the world; the Bible promises us that. Accordingly, there will be times when the messengers of the Gospel are offensive to the world, too. We must be careful, however, to limit our offense to the message, not to our careless handling of it. We must be careful not to confuse God’s acceptance of us for who we are with His acceptance of us staying there. And we must be extremely careful not to present the God of the Bible as someone that He is not.

February 8, 2013

Costly Christianity

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 9:28 pm
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This past Wednesday the students, faculty and staff of the school where I serve spent time learning about persecuted Christians around the world. Students met together in the chapel and watched a couple of short videos, including one that tells the story of a man persecuted and imprisoned in Laos. (You can find plenty of videos about persecuted believers on YouTube). Afterwards the students went by ones and twos to different homes on campus where the groups talked about a specific country where Christians are persecuted and spent time in prayer. We made everything as much like it was a secret church meeting as possible–we had “police” out to interrogate students found walking outside, secret knocks were used to gain entrance to the homes, and meetings were held quietly and in the dark.

It was tremendously enlightening for me to learn about the persecution faced by Christians in Eritrea…a country I had heard of but knew almost nothing about.

There is no way to artificially create a setting that will feel exactly like Christians around the world feel when they literally risk their lives to own a Bible, share the gospel, or gather together in prayer. As I sat in my home awaiting the students in my group, however, I was struck by the thought that I have been going to church my whole life, and I have never felt afraid to do so. There are probably a couple dozen Bibles in my house. And while I have not been as bold as I should be in my testimony most of the time, I have never felt that my life would be in danger for sharing the gospel.

That caused me to ask the famous two-word question, “What if?” What if I did live in an environment where those dangers existed? What if I did put myself and my family at risk by owning a Bible or professing Christ? Would I be willing to do it? Would I knowingly risk imprisonment and torture to possess even a page of the Bible?

The sad truth is, I don’t know. I hope I would…but I think it would be arrogant to say with absolute certainty that I would. I am blessed to live in a country where I can own Bibles–as many as I want–attend church as often as I want, pray openly, and tell others about Christ. I must be very careful, though, not to let the freedoms that I have become an excuse for casual Christianity. My faith does not cost me anything, but I must never forget that it cost God His Son, and I need to remember in prayer those who have given their lives in His service, and those who are still risking their lives for Him today.

Thank you, Lord, for the freedoms I have. Help me not to take them for granted. Instead, help me to capitalize on that freedom and be a bold witness for You, salt and light in my sphere of influence. Help me to remember the men and women who are in prison right now for naming the name of Christ, and thousands more who live in constant danger because of their faith. Give me the courage that they have, Lord, the courage to live a life shaped by costly Christianity. Amen.

September 13, 2012

Lessons We Can Learn

I strive to avoid being overtly political in this blog, but that is not for lack of political opinions or positions. Rather, it is the result of my desire that this space be used for thought-provoking dialogue and not become another political blog that will only be read by people who agree with me.

That said, I have a few comments relating to the handling of the attacks on U.S. embassies in the Middle East, and then some thoughts on what lessons can be taken from these events and applied to the Christian life.

First, I have to join with Mitt Romney, Charles Krauthammer, Mike Huckabee and others and say that I find the statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt to be spineless and inappropriate. While I have not seen the movie, or the trailer for the movie, in question, there is no excuse for the United States, in any way, shape or form to apologize for the freedoms upon which our nation is built. According to the New York Times, the embassy issued the statement before the attack on the embassies in Egypt and Libya occurred. Be that as it may, the statement, which begins with, “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims”–sounds like the result of a politically correct sensitivity seminar. Does the United States really need to apologize that the actions of an individual–actions that are protected by free speech–hurt peoples’ feelings? If the U.S. government is going to assume the role of apologizing every time free speech results in someone’s feelings getting hurt, I have news for you: the government will do nothing else, as this will become a more-than-full-time job in and of itself. There are plenty of people who make comments on a regular basis that I find offensive (yes, Bill Maher, Howard Stern and Roseanne Barr, I am talking to you). I find many of their comments offensive to my sense of decency and politeness, to my Christian beliefs, and to my conservative political tendencies. Yet, never have I received an apology from the government (at any level) for the idiotic statements they make with such regularity, nor do I ever expect to. Why? Because one of the great things about the United States is the freedom that we have to speak our minds without fear of reprisal. I am exercising free speech right now by expressing my dissatisfaction with the actions of the U.S. government. I do not want the government telling me what I can and cannot say, but that means I must also accept that that freedom necessarily allows others to say things that I may find offensive. What should I do about it? Turn it off, ignore it, or, when I feel the need, respond to it, but I would not suggest that the three individuals mentioned above should lose the right to say what they think and I certainly would not expect the government to apology to Christians around the world when those individuals “hurt the religious feelings” of Christians.

(Just to be equitable, by the way, I find plenty of things that Rush Limbaugh, et. al, Ann Coulter and Pat Robertson say to be offensive, too).

The embassy statement ends with, “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Here’s the thing: religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy, yes, but no more and no less a cornerstone than freedom of speech–even when that speech “hurt[s] the religious beliefs of others.”

I do not agree with some of the attacks that I have seen directed at President Obama’s statement made Wednesday morning. I do not see in that statement an apology for America. At the same time, Mr. President, you do not have the liberty to say that the statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt does not reflect the U.S. government’s position, because it does, whether you want it to or not. Every U.S. embassy is the U.S. government to the people in those countries, for all intents and purposes, and whether authorized or not, any statement those embassies may issue becomes–even if only temporarily–the position of the U.S. government. What I do find disturbing is that President Obama’s statement does not unequivocally state that the U.S. will punish those who attacked our embassies. A U.S. embassy is sovereign U.S. soil, and an attack on one of our embassies should be treated no differently than an attack on Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center. Do I want another war? No. But these attacks must not be allowed to pass quietly into yesterday’s news.

So, what lessons are there in this for Christians? First of all, just another clear example of the difference between Christianity and other religions–most strikingly, Islam. Christians do not respond with violence when their faith is mocked, ridiculed or even threatened. Historically, Christians respond in civil disobedience, and they suffer whatever consequences come their way as a result of doing so. Most Muslims are unapologetic about their desire to destroy Christianity…yet Christians do not respond with violence.

Second, we see, through the attack on the U.S., a reminder that what Christians believe and stand for is an offense to some people. Even though no one has suggested that the film that supposedly launched these attacks on U.S. embassies is a product of the U.S. government, the government represents America, and the actions of Americans are reflected on the government. Similarly, Christians will sometimes suffer persecution simply because of what they believe, whether they have taken any offensive actions toward another or not. And, as with the situation described here, Christians must always remember that the actions of anyone claiming the name of Christ will reflect on all others claiming the name of Christ–all the more reason for Christians to demonstrate Christ’s love in all interactions with others.

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