Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bits and Tidbits, May 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"What does it really mean to be a pastor?"

Now this is worth a look. Here's a great, though too-brief, interview with Eugene Peterson, on PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly:

Watch the full episode. See more Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Prophecy vs. Prediction

So, as far as I can tell, the Rapture predicted by Harold Camping, et al, didn't happy on Saturday. (If it did, then a lot of us are apparently sorely mistaken about the Gospel.) In the wake of the non-event, a noticed a handful of people (on Facebook and Twitter, most notably) questioning whether Camping was a false prophet. Some went so far as to invoke Old Testament requirements (especially from Deuteronomy 18:20) regarding the putting to death of false prophets!

So, was Harold Camping acting in the capacity of prophet? Or was he merely making a prediction? And what's the difference?

Old Testament Prophets
In the most restricted sense of the term, a "prophet" is one who is appointed by the Lord to serve as the one who speaks on behalf of God, often to call God's people into faith and belief, which is usually accompanied by turning from sin and returning to the Lord. Prophecy was often accompanied by the foretelling of future events, always with the goal of advancing this call for belief and return.

One of the earliest prophets so appointed, for example, is Aaron, the brother of Moses: when Moses complained to the Lord about his appointment to lead the people out of Israel, the Lord graciously relented and named Aaron as the one who would speak (Exodus 7:1). Later, Aaron and Miriam (Aaron's sister, who served as a prophetess-- Exodus 15:20) are told by God, "When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams" (Numbers 12:6).

In the accounts of prophetic work in the Old Testament, the prophet would often be told to say to the people, "This is what the Lord says" (or in more archaic English, "thus saith the Lord"); that phrase would set apart the words the proceed from the prophet as being one of his specific prophecies, those things which might be tested to be true or untrue. At other times, they are recorded to speak with the authority of God, and while they don't state specific words given to them by the Lord, it is clear that the Lord is Himself behind their words (think of Elijah before the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18, or Elisha's interactions with Naaman in 2 Kings 6).

New Testament Prophets & Beyond
In the New Testament, we read of John the Baptist as a prophet-- he is often considered to be the last of the "Old Testament" prophets, in that the function that he served was similar to those Old Testament prophets who preached a message to the people of Israel to return to God and prepare for His coming in judgment. Jesus functioned as a prophet also (after all, we ascribe all three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King to Him), foretelling many things about His own death and resurrection, as well as prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem and calling Israel to return to the Lord. John the apostle, in the vision recorded in Revelation, was also given prophetic insight into future events, and specific warnings for particular churches.

Other than that, the function of prophecy in the New Testament was more one of verification than of foretelling: prophecy is named as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with healing, tongues, and interpretation of tongues-- all of which are understood to be means of verifying whether those claiming to be true teachers were actually accompanied by the Holy Spirit in their teaching. Many (myself included) believe that these gifts are no longer given by the Holy Spirit, because we now have a completed Bible by which to verify what the gifts served to verify in the New Testament church.

Even among those who believe that they continue today, to the best of my knowledge (and I confess that I am not well-versed in the teachings of these segments of Christianity), prophecy is not considered to be a source of new words from God in the sense that it was in the Old Testament and, to a more limited extent, in the New Testament. In other words, few or none of these teachers would assert that such prophecies need to be recorded and eventually added into our Bibles. Rather, they are considered either to be a continuing work of verification-- and I am aware that some churches hold to this firmly, even to the point of questioning or rejecting the claims of faith of those who do not demonstrate one or more of these "sign" gifts-- or, perhaps more commonly, to be someone who boldly proclaims the teachings of the existing Word of God as found in the Bible.

Prediction & Harold Camping
For Harold Camping to claim that he knew the precise date of the apocalyptic events (as he did) as a matter of biblical prophecy would be, in essence, to advocate for a new revelation from God. Were this to be the case, then Camping's teachings should either be added to Scripture (if they are true) or he should be ignored and disregarded. Had he lived in Old Testament Israel and the latter been the case, there would have been scriptural merit in calling for his stoning.

But there are plenty of people who make predictions that are not claiming any unique divinely-given inspiration. People predict the weather based on scientific data, the winners of ball games based on statistical information, or how much cash they will need at the grocery store based on their personal experience. If they are off a bit, or completely wrong, they may have consequences: a persistently-inaccurate climatologist will eventually be out of work; a gambler whose statistical analysis regularly leads him to bet on the wrong team will either quit or run out of money; and an under-estimating grocery-shopper may have to put the ice cream and cookies back on the shelf.

Harold Camping's predictions were similarly based: he amassed data and information that he believed led to a particular conclusion regarding what he understood to be the end-times events. But as far as I know, he never stated, "This is what the Lord says," nor even claimed that his insight and predictions were given to him by God.*

There are still consequences: though their website is still boasting that May 21 would be the day of Rapture, I would imagine that many of the listeners and followers of Family Radio International are now skeptics, if not cynics, about the prediction-ability of Camping, et al. Some have reported that Camping has been unavailable for comment since his prediction has been demonstrated inaccurate. I'm sure some regret giving money to support this cause.

But Harold Camping is no prophet, false or otherwise. And to treat him as such is to take his false prediction more seriously than it needs to be.

*Harold Camping, in a booklet distributed on the Family Radio International website (We Are Almost There pdf), implicitly denies that the Scripture is "closed"-- not in the way we typically think of that, in the sense that there are new words and chapters to be added, but by claiming that the ongoing interpretation of the Bible by way of codes, recognition of specific events that are "hidden" in the descriptions of Scripture, etc. are a "third testament" of sorts. While I think this is chicanery that should be condemned, I don't believe it quite qualifies as a claim to "prophetic" insight; even within this framework, there is room for the interpretive conclusions to be wrong.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Good tunes transcend genre

I've mentioned before that I think good pop songs translate into bluegrass well. I think this might be a more broadly-applicable truism: good songs (or tunes, in the example below) will carry over well into different genres pretty easily.

Witness, for example, this song from acoustic guitar genius Andy McKee:

Now, here's the same tune performed in a heavy metal style:

Pretty good either way, right? Aside from the fact that it took the heavy metal guy three tracks (rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and a drum track-- I can't tell for sure if there's a bass track, but I don't think so) to do what Andy does single-handedly-- or, well, double-handedly-- I'm impressed either way.

Say, maybe this explains why Darius Rucker has been able to make the transition to country music!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A great mystery solved...

Here's a great piece from Crave (a CNet blog): Over or under? The science of toilet paper orientation. Definitely worth a look.

I appreciate how thorough they've been, including the "resting sideways on the tip of a garden gnome's hat" option.

(HT: Cameron)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Misplaced celebration

In November of 2001, one of Marcie's best friends got married. While Marcie, her friend, and the rest of the bridal party spent the day before the wedding doing, I don't know, wedding stuff, a couple of the other husbands (that I already knew) and I set out to find something to occupy our time. One of them suggested the shooting range: both of these guys had a couple of handguns with them, so we set out for a range that I knew of in that town. It had been a while, too, since my last time shooting, so I was glad for the practice in handling a firearm.

When we got to the range, my two companions (both of whom are, and were, Christians and leaders in their church) expressed great excitement, not just over the time at the range, but at another idea. They asked the range manager, "Do you have any silhouette targets in the shape of Osama bin Laden?" "Those are our best-sellers," replied the manager matter-of-factly.

I thought I was going to vomit.

In reflection, the thing that struck me about that event (apart from the fact that these guys brought multiple handguns to a wedding weekend) was the pairing of the casual indifference with which everyone around me of shooting people, and fantasizing about doing so, with a bloodthirsty hatred for bin Laden and his like.

A similar wave of nausea and disgusted shock hit me last night, when-- in the wake of the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a U.S. military operation-- the television news showed video of crowds celebrating in the streets, chanting, "U.S.A." as if one of our athletes had won a major Olympic event; friends and "friends" on Facebook and Twitter posted similarly, boasting and even gloating of how great this achievement is.

I understand the need and importance of the operation against Osama bin Laden, and recognize and even appreciate the significance of his removal from terrorist activity. Doubtless, bin Laden's death will mean the reduction of terrorism in general, if only eventually and perhaps only mildly (and what I mean by that is, 1) our leaders are already bracing for an increase in terrorism in the short term, in response to this killing; and 2) surely terrorist activity will not entirely cease or even be substantially reduced by the killing of the one man, regardless of how great a leader he was among terrorists). He was a military combatant, and lived by the sword; consequently, he died according to the same principles by which he lived. Surely everyone knew that this-- death by firearm, or bomb, or missile, in the face of military aggression-- was the reasonable and eventual end of this man, whose entire life seemed to be singularly-focused on wreaking fear, grief, and death upon as many of those with whom he disagreed as possible.

I also recognize the cultural implications within the U.S. of this accomplishment: a spirit of patriotism, national cohesiveness, and support for our military troops will certainly follow in the days and weeks to come. Civic commitment and national identity are both good and vital to the health of a nation in general, and I pray that both will abound for the sake of our nation's health. Likewise, our soldiers deserve our support and do not receive enough of it; an event like this can be, as so many of the commentators offered last night, a "shot in the arm" for both the troops and we who support them.

Nevertheless, a handful of things about how we, as a nation, have handled the last 12 hours or so make me cringe:
  • Celebrating death. I find it very hard to accept that anyone who celebrates death also has a clear sense of the fact that all of humankind is made in the image of God. The inherent dignity of every man or woman, regardless of how evil or sinful they may be or have been, demands that we grieve all death. To celebrate death is a terrorism of the soul, waged against the image of God Himself.
  • Mistaking prominence for justice. I've noticed how many have declared "justice has finally been served" regarding the killing of bin Laden. But this isn't justice. Instead, by asserting that the death of this one man is equivalent to the justice deserved for the death and pain of so many thousands, we give Osama bin Laden-- and his evil acts-- the power and authority that they sought in the first place, while simultaneously stripping his victims and their families of the right to hope for true justice. Mr. bin Laden was just a cog in the larger machine-- a large cog, but still only a cog. True justice requires more than just the death of a sinful, broken man.
  • Moral hypocrisy. There's something not a little ironic in military actions that, in response to the killing of 3000 people in a terrorist attack, results in the death of 40,000 of our own soldiers as well as tens of thousands of civilians in other nations. I'm somewhere in the middle on this one, because I fully acknowledge that the 9/11 attack could be, and was, construed as an act of war against the U.S., but I don't believe the resulting response has been balanced, nor has it been fully justified. At very least, I don't quite buy the "high ground" attitude that so many are taking with regard to killing Osama bin Laden. (David Sessions covered this well today at Patrol.)
  • Frightening Zionism. The United States is not the Promised Land. The Old Testament promises for the nation of God's people do not apply to America. The American military forces are not the army of the Lord. And Christians, our citizenship in the U.S., however important, is secondary to our citizenship in the true Kingdom of God (and no they are not the same!). Consequently, Christians ought not feel free to cry out that the killing of Osama bin Laden is a victory for Christ!
  • Your violent spirit is terrorizing me. People who speak in language and with ideas that can only be described with words like, "vengeance," "bloodthirsty," and "merciless" scare me as much as the threat of terrorism does. At least with Islamic extremist terrorists, most of them are overseas and far away; what's clear from the news, Facebook, and Twitter, is that there are plenty of terrorist-spirited people really close to me. How long will it be before the same hatred and venomous attack that they hold for Osama bin Laden is turned toward me? Here's what I see: that none of us is any different from Osama bin Laden in our sin or in our capacity for it. Ours may be different in kind, and it may be different in degree, but it is not different in capacity.
  • Whither redemption? One of the most compelling parallels that I have ever heard is that of Osama bin Laden to Saul of Tarsus: a middle-eastern religious fundamentalist extremist who persecuted and murdered Christians out of hate and spite. Yet Saul of Tarsus became Paul the apostle, through the power of Christ's redeeming work. And the message of redemption in Scripture points me to conclude that vengeance and even justice are not the primary concerns of the Christian; redemption is. How many of the Christians who are celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden ever prayed for his conversion and repentance? If we know ourselves and what we have been redeemed from, we long for the redemption of others. If all we feel for others is contempt and condemnation, perhaps we don't know and recognize the depth and degree of our own redemption.

Everyone has responded differently to the events of the last decade; one friend of mine now considers it part of his pastoral duty to be prepared to protect the innocent and defend the defenseless-- with force, if necessary-- so he bought a pistol, applied for a carry permit, and now is ready in mind, body, and conscience to shoot with lethal intent should an event occur that might call for it. While I respect my friend's thoughtful convictions, my response has taken me to the other end of the spectrum: while not a "pacifist" in the pure sense of the term, I find violence-- foreign and domestic, military and civilian-- to be more and more repulsive to me, and though I recognize the need for truly just war, I have a high standard of what I would consider just in the case of war.

At the bottom line, I won't claim that my convictions with regard to violence and war are the right ones, but I believe they are carefully thought-out and consistent with Scripture. The issues listed above, though, I am convinced are not consistent with Scripture, and therefore they are not right.