Should We Do What the Bible Says?

I’ll admit, that’s a pretty clickbaity title, but bear with me. First of all, what is the point of the Bible? If you asked a Christian, they would probably say something like, “to learn about God and how to live a Christian life.” Probably other things too, it’s a big book.

And that’s the problem: the Bible is a very big, very complex book (66 of them, actually). There is history, Jewish law, poetry, prophesies, letters to people, and more. The Bible also has a lot of R-rated sections, more than even most Christians realize sometimes. One thing I have seen when people attack Christians and the Bible specifically is that they point to a particularly gruesome section and say, “Wow, this is your moral compass?” They also make the charge of hypocrisy since we have a holy book with all these terrible things in it that we don’t actually believe we should do. An example of this might be Judges 11, where the judge Jephthah makes an idiotic vow that if God helps him defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he gets home. What did he think was going to happen? Anyway, it turns out it’s his daughter. He’s trapped by his vow and so he sacrifices her, something neither he, nor God, nor anyone wanted him to do.

That’s a horrific story, but here is where it is important to divide the Bible into two areas: descriptive and prescriptive. Simply put, descriptive means “this happened” and prescriptive means “you should do this.” The majority of the Bible is description, and we know this intuitively. Otherwise, all Christians would build an ark, build a wall around Jerusalem, go on a missionary journey around Turkey and Greece, and so on.

The problem is deciding which parts are which. Here are some principles I think we can use:

  1. The characters in the Bible are flawed people

The Bible is pretty clear about what is good to do and what isn’t and yet it is also brutally honest about the people in it, even the people we might call heroes of the faith. There are only a few people in it that are covered universally positively and none of these (except Jesus, of course) takes up more than a few verses. Critics of the Bible might point to, say, Abraham (who pretended his wife was his sister because he was afraid for his life), and wonder how we could see him as any sort of an example of how to live. First of all, no one said anyone in the Bible except Jesus is perfect and no one said we should emulate everything they do. Also, that is precisely the point of Christianity, that God uses us despite our flaws and sins. We don’t have to be perfect to be used by God, just willing to trust him and be used by him.

  1. Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law

The Jewish law (usually considered the first five books of the Bible), which is the majority of the you-should-do-this portion of the Old Testament, is just that: it’s the Jewish law, and so it is not something that Christians have to follow.

“Wait, what about the Ten Commandments?” you’re probably saying, if you’re still reading after that last paragraph. Clearly, we need to follow those. Yes and no, in my opinion. We can’t just forget them, but in the Gospels Jesus  reveals the principles behind the commandments that we need to follow.

A lot of Christians probably routinely break the 4th commandment by doing some sort of work on Saturday (or Sunday), but the point behind the commandment is to rest and make time for God and for things besides work. On the other hand, some of the principles are much harder than the commandments: not only is adultery a sin, but also lustful thoughts; not only is murder bad, but also murderous hate for someone (Matthew 5:21-22, 27).

There is obviously value in the Old Testament, which is why it’s there, but it’s not a rule book for Christians to follow. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.

  1. You have to take verses in the context of the whole Bible

It is very easy to cherry pick verses of the Bible to make a case for one thing or another—so easy, in fact, that people have been doing it since the Bible was a thing, I’m sure. We must remember that the Bible was written to specific groups of people in specific cultures for specific purposes. There are universals in the Bible, but also a lot of things that are cultural for that time.

For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV). It seems pretty clear that Paul doesn’t approve of women teachers and pastors, but I think if you look at the New Testament as a whole, you can see that this is not a universal of the Christian faith, but a cultural point specific to that time and even then, possibly just Paul’s opinion.

At this point, critics could make the charge that we are just revising parts of the Bible that aren’t socially acceptable anymore, to which I would respond: yes, exactly. The central tenets of Christianity do not—and cannot—change: specifically “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27, NIV). That is what we should do and that should never change. How we carry out a lot of the aspects of the religion we call Christianity do change with time and culture.

In conclusion, the Bible has a lot of purposes and Christians are not claiming that every verse is something that we should do. Clearly, we should each study the Bible to see what it really says. There is, of course, a lot of debate on what parts of the Bible Christians today should follow, but this is my take on things. What do you think?

I Walked with Jesus

I debated where to put this post, either on my fiction blog or my Christianity/religion blog since it kind of goes on either. When I read the Bible, I’m struck by the interesting details it decides to put in, or leave out. For instance, Exodus tells us the names of three Israelite midwives, but not the name of the Pharaoh. There are a lot of stories hinted at behind the text. This is a piece of speculative fiction that guesses at what might have taken place behind the scenes of one of the most famous events of the Bible.

I Walked with Jesus

I was shaken awake to the worst day of my life. The room was still dark and for a moment, I wasn’t sure where I was. Then I remembered I was in Matthias’s house, and it was he that was shaking me.

“Cleopas, get up. They’ve arrested the Master.”

A stab of fear went through me. This is what I had been dreading for some time. Everyone knew the chief priests and Levites had it out for him.

“When was it?” I asked.

“Sometime last night,” Matthias said. “He was with the Twelve in a garden in the mountains when they took him.”

“How?” I was on my feet now, groping for my cloak in the semi-dark.

Matthias pushed the door open farther and the dawn light filtered in. When he spoke, his voice was low and troubled. “They say that the Iscariot betrayed him to the Romans and the priests.”

No, that wasn’t possible. I knew Judas Iscariot. He never would have done that. In our travels with the Master, I was one of the ones that went ahead to make arrangement for food and lodgings. Judas carried the money and he would give me some to pay for things. We talked often, and he hated the Romans. He was devoted to the Master.

There were six of us staying at Matthias’s house for Passover, and we pushed our way through the crowded streets to the temple where we thought we would might find out news. That was the wrong move, and we ended up in a crowd of tens of thousands. Finally, we saw another of the Master’s followers who said he was at the governor’s palace. That was a bad sign. We made our way there, arriving an hour later to hear the terrible news: our Master, Jesus of Nazareth, had been sentenced to death by crucifixion.

My despair was only rivaled by my fury at the Twelve. How could they let this happen? I had loaned my sword—the sword my father had given me—to Peter specifically for this purpose, to keep the Master safe. Peter was one who kept saying he would die for the Master, but from what I heard, Peter was alive somewhere and the Master was about to die.

Crucifixions were are held in the same place, a hill overlooking the city called the Skull. My grandfather said that before the Romans came, the Skull had been a vineyard. Now the trees there held an entirely different sort of fruit. I avoided that area, but others said that sometimes the bodies on the crosses stayed up there until the birds had had their feast and the bones fell to be gnawed by wild dogs. All I could think as we pushed through the Passover crowds was that this would not have happened if I had been there, been one of the Twelve. I would have died protecting him.

As soon as we made it through the Gennath Gate, I could see the three crosses starkly against the morning sky. There was no way to tell which one was him. Even close up it was hard to tell. All three men were naked and had been beaten, but the one in the middle was the worst off. He seemed to be bathed in blood. Then I noticed the placard on the cross above him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. It seemed like mockery.

Matthias had collapsed beside me, weeping and tearing his clothes. I spotted a few of the Twelve as well as other followers. Peter was nowhere to be seen, I noticed bitterly. I wished I could show how I felt, like Matthias, but no tears came. Instead, with my soul wailing, I turned and stumbled back into the city.

I spent the rest of the day wandering like a ghost through the holiday crowds. About mid afternoon, the sky darkened and a wind picked up. I felt the earth shake and people around me cried out. It was as if the earth itself was mourning.

I stayed alone and isolated with my thoughts. What was I supposed to do now? I had been destined to take over my father’s pottery business but when Jesus came through our town and everyone went out to listen to him, I realized that this was the first time I had felt hope for Israel. Sure, lots of other wandering preachers came through, but most of them spoke only about military victories over the Romans and vengeance on the Jewish collaborators and tax collectors. Jesus was the first one whose words rang true for me.

So I left, carrying my father’s wrath and curses on my back. I was never one of the Twelve, that special inner circle that surrounded him at all times, but I was one of the outer circle, the seventy-two. Jesus sent us out once to spread the good news. I was paired up with a man from Caesarea named Antonio. He was Roman and didn’t know Aramaic very well, so I had to do most of the talking. I was scared stiff, but I did it, for Jesus. We prayed for people and they got better. Demons left people. It was amazing.

As I came back from that spiritual high, I found that my father had died. The family had disowned me, and my cousin had taken over the pottery business. Jesus was all I had after that.

I returned to Matthias’s house that evening to hear that the Master was dead and they had found Judas. He had hanged himself, which meant he must have betrayed Jesus. I was sick with grief.

We stayed around for another day. Some of the others in the house got in contact with the Twelve, or Eleven now. For myself, I didn’t want anything more to do with them. In my mind, they had all betrayed the Master just as much as Judas. Why did he pick the unworthy ones for his inner circle? The thought spun in my head like a whirlpool. Matthias and Justus and I and all the others here would have stuck by him. We would have protected him.

“I guess that’s it,” I said, as we sat around a cold dinner, munching on stale flatbread. “I should go home. Maybe my cousin needs an assistant to prepare the clay.”

My hometown was a village on the coast, not far from Joppa. Justus was going home too and since he lived about seven miles from Jerusalem along the road I would take, in a small town called Emmaus, we decided to go together.

We said we would get an early start, but neither of us was eager to get home, so it was late afternoon before we started off. I decided to spend the night at Justus’s house and then make the rest of the journey the next day.

All roads leading out of Jerusalem were filled with pilgrims returning to their own towns, but the atmosphere seemed more somber than normal for holiday travelers. Justus and I were talking about the last week, pondering yet again if there was anything we could have done, when I noticed a man walking near us, listening. He was all alone and was not carrying any supplies or bags like a normal pilgrim.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

Surely, he had heard our conversation. “You must be the only pilgrim who hasn’t heard what just happened in the city,” I said.

“What happened?” he asked. This man must have gone to his relatives’ house and just stayed inside for the whole Passover.

“Jesus of Nazareth was executed,” Justus said. “He’s been traveling all over the country for the last few years. You must have heard of him.” We started telling more and as we did, everything just poured out, the hope we had had that was now crushed into oblivion like an ill-formed vessel on the potter’s wheel. It felt good to tell someone else what had bounced back and forth between us for days.

The man listened patiently, but I sensed he didn’t understand the tragedy of what had happened. “Don’t you see?” I said at last. “We thought he was the Messiah. He said he was. And then he died.”

The man smiled. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Of course the Messiah had to suffer and die before he could ascend into glory. Don’t you believe what the prophets said about him?”

“Of course we do,” Justus said, although it was obvious he didn’t know where the man was going with this. I didn’t either.

“Let me explain it,” the man said. “Do you remember reading about when our ancestors were in the desert? God sent a plague on them, and Moses made a bronze serpent to save them.”

He went on and on, from Moses to David to Isaiah and the other prophets, pointing out all the places where the Scriptures had talked about the Messiah. There was something so familiar in the way he spoke and he was a clearly a scholar of the law. I tried to think if I had seen him in the temple or one of the local synagogues. He would have gotten along well with the Master.

Before we knew it, the sun was low on the horizon and the outer fields of Emmaus were visible. We reached the street that led to Justus’s house.

“Come have dinner with us,” Justus said.

“I have a long way to go,” the man said. “Many places to go and many people to see, I’m afraid.”

“It’s almost dark,” I said. “You have to come eat with us and stay the night.” I was also secretly hoping that I could walk with him the next day. For whatever reason, this man made me feel for the first time since I saw the Master nailed to the cross that there might be some hope left in the world.

“Okay,” the man said and nodded. “I’ll come eat with you.”

Justus led the way to the house. His parents and sister’s family were there, and they all greeted him warmly with hugs and kisses all around. I thought with some trepidation what my own homecoming would look like the next day. The stranger and I stood to the side until Justus’s father came over and welcomed us in and seated us at the table. He put the stranger at the head of the table.

“Thank you for inviting me here,” the man said when we had all gathered to eat. He picked up a piece of bread and looked up briefly. “And thank you, Father.” He pulled it apart and began passing out pieces. It was what the Master did before every meal, every gesture and word the same and then I knew. Somehow, impossibly, this was the Master, alive. My eyes met Justus’s and I saw he knew too.

“It’s you!” I cried. The Master smiled and nodded. The next moment, he was gone.

There was an uproar around the table, the children yelling in surprise and shock.

“He’s alive!” I said to Justus, and I saw he had the same thought. “We have to tell the others.”

Ten minutes later, we were hurrying out of Emmaus, clutching a handful of bread and olives that Justus’s mother had insisted on us taking if we were going to skip dinner. The trip we made back took much less time than on the way to Emmaus, but we were exhausted when we returned. We followed the walls around to the Sheep Gate and were admitted through the night gate.

Luckily, Justus knew where the Eleven were staying. We banged on the door for a few minutes until James came out to open it.

“It’s Justus and Cleopas!” we shouted. “Let us in. We have good news.”

We waited until we were in the room with all Eleven. “We saw him, the Master,” I said. “He’s alive.”

A few laughed, a sound of pure joy. “We know!” they said. “Peter saw him too.”

Peter. I glanced over at him. Why did he deserve to see the Master again? I was about to confront him and demand my sword back when Jesus appeared in the middle of us. Everyone stopped talking. Even after walking with him for hours, I was shocked into silence. Some of the others looked terrified.

“Don’t worry, it’s me,” Jesus said. He held out his hand to Nathaniel, who was closest. “See, I’m real. I’m not a ghost.” Nathaniel took his hand and for the first time, I noticed the hole where the nail had been driven in.

The others crowded around him after that. I turned and saw that Peter was hanging back. He looked stricken and ashamed. Jesus was talking to the others and did not even look over. I suddenly felt bad for Peter, the one who had always been right at the Master’s side, always first in everything.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Peter. He turned to me. “For what?”

I hugged him. “For everything in the last few days.” He didn’t look like he understood, but he nodded.

I stayed in Jerusalem for a few weeks after that. Jesus would appear to us now and then, but he didn’t go out and preach openly anymore. A week after Passover, Peter and the other Galilean fishermen left to go back home. I thought that was it, but they showed up a few days later, talking about how Jesus had appeared to them and about a huge catch of fish they had gotten. Peter seemed more himself again, and I gathered he had made things right with the Master.

Then the day came when Jesus appeared to us and told us to be ready the next morning. He met us while it was still dark and we walked together out of the city. He took the road towards Bethany, and I wondered if he was going to start traveling and preaching again, as if nothing had happened.

I found myself walking next to him. It was the first time since that walk to Emmaus that I had had time to talk to him alone.

“Why didn’t you tell us it was you, when we were walking to Emmaus?” I asked him. “Why keep it from us?”

“I told you it was me with every word I spoke to you,” he said. “Your eyes were just too clouded with grief to see. You saw, in time.” He was right, of course.

We left the road just before we got to Bethany and climbed up a hill. There, with the morning sun breaking through the clouds in the east and dew sparkling on every grass blade and leaf, he said good-bye to us. I didn’t want to see him go, just as he had come back to us. He hugged each of us.

“Keep up the good work,” he said to me and I nodded, tears finally springing to my eyes. Then he was rising into the air and disappeared into the clouds.

We all walked back to Jerusalem together. We stayed together for a few months, but eventually we started to leave the city, each going his own way. I traveled around with Justus and wherever we went, we told people about the time we had walked with Jesus.

Inequality in Grief

Last Monday, April 15, 2019, I was shocked to turn on the news and hear that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Not only is it an especially beautiful structure, it is also my favorite cathedral, despite not having visited it. I have even built a cathedral in Minecraft based on it. All day long, I felt sick whenever I thought about it and the fire that was consuming it.

However, this puts me in a conflicted situation. Objectively, I believe that a person’s value is greater than that of a building. People have eternal souls but any physical thing is necessarily going to be destroyed eventually. Yet here I am mourning the loss of a building when people suffer and die all the time and I don’t feel the same sense of loss.

Let me say right now that I am not saying we should not mourn the damage done to Notre Dame. I felt the same way when Namdaemun, the Great South Gate of Seoul burned down in 2008. It is nonsensical to say that we should not grieve because there are possibly worse things happening in the world. That would be like never celebrating good things because there might be something better that could happen.

One problem is that human suffering is so common, it is easy to get inured to it. I’m sure if cathedrals burned down every week, we’d soon get used to it, unfortunately. Still, I find it disturbing that I don’t have the same amount of feeling for the tens of thousands of people who die every year from gun violence or opioid overdose. It’s true that I don’t know those people, but then again, I’ve never been to the Notre Dame cathedral either. Part of it is how much media coverage something gets, but that doesn’t seem like a good excuse either.

I’m also not saying that we need compelled to take the entirety of the world’s suffering on our shoulders. No one has the strength to do that and I don’t think it would be productive to do so. Still, there should be a way to better reconcile one’s beliefs with one actions.

The obvious solution is to do what we can in our own sphere of influence, but in today’s increasingly global world, what is that sphere and how much is enough? Yes, I should help the people in my community, but what about victims of the civil war in Syria or Yemen or kids stuck in the sex trade in southeast Asia or many other tragedies I could discover with a quick Internet search? It’s true that merely empathizing with people or feeling bad for their situation doesn’t always translate into action, but there is often something we can do.

The problem is that something covers the whole spectrum from nothing to everything. For some people, the problems of the world seem so big that they collapse into apathy. On the other extreme is what I call the Schindler Paradox: the more you do, the more you worry there was more you could have done. At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, after the title character has saved many Jews from destruction, he looks around and wonders how many more people he could have saved. As long as he still has any possessions left, then he could have done more.

So is there any hope in this situation? How can I reconcile my belief in the primacy of human beings with not empathizing more with those who are suffering and then, acting proportionately?

What do you think?

Are You Good?

Are you good? What does that even mean, to be good?

Most people, if asked this question, would probably answer yes, or would say, “I try to be good” because nobody’s perfect, right?

First of all, let me say that “good” is such a broad term that there are many ways to define this, but we’ll use the accepted moral definition where, for example, helping an old lady across the street is good, while pushing her down and stealing her purse is not good. I think we can all agree on that.

Here are four possible definitions of what it might mean to be good.

1. Good is an action

This is the easiest way to measure goodness and least stringent definition. If I do a good deed, then I’m good.

The problem with this definition is that our minds easily find objections to it. After all, if a mass murderer gives a hundred bucks to the Red Cross, does that make him good, based solely on that one act? Not likely. Clearly, this approach is too binary and simplistic for the real world. We need more.

2. Good is an average

This is much more in keeping with the way most of us think. It is in keeping with the idea of karma. Good and evil are a balance and if over the course of our lives, we do more good than evil, then we’re (basically) a good person.

The problem with this view is that we need to define what time period we’re talking about. What if a person is a saint for 60 years and then becomes the worst devil the world has ever seen for 10 years? Can we really still say he is a good person as he commits the rape and murder of hundreds of innocent people, if the average of their life was spent doing good?

You might say, “He was a good person but he’s not now.” But that means you are taking a smaller time to average the good and bad deeds and if we reduce the time period enough, we are back to the first option. So let’s go deeper.

3. Good is a direction

Here is a way to reconcile the problem we had in #2. Perhaps goodness is a direction that we are facing: we are good when we try to be good and keep trying every day to get better. The man who was good in his youth has changed the direction of his life and now he is facing the wrong way: he is a bad man now. This is a more satisfying position because it’s the effort that matters, not just the results. Sure we fall sometimes, we do bad things, but nobody’s perfect.

The problem with this view is similar to the second one. How do we measure these shifts in direction? I, for instance, am a person who really tries to be good. I am nice to pretty much everyone, and I like to help people. But then I have a bad day where I am nasty and dismissive and selfish. I get petty and treat people unfairly. Am I no longer a good person on that day?

You may be tempted to give me a pass on that one. Everyone has bad days and after all, it’s the overall direction that matters. But now we’re back to the law of averages and if a single day of terrible deeds doesn’t matter, then how long does it take to stop being good? Is a week short enough or do you have to be terrible for a whole month? There is one more position that is quite uncomfortable and very depressing.

4. Good is a location

I don’t mean a physical location. I mean that either you are good or you’re not and once you do anything that is not good, then you are not good. This view is terrifying because as we all know, literally no one is perfect and that is what this view requires.

Let’s use a metaphor. “Goodness” is soup and “badness” is cyanide. If you are making soup, how much cyanide is acceptable? Hopefully, for the people who will eat it, none. Using this metaphor, we can see how different the other views are from this last one. #1 says that as long as there is some soup in the pot, never mind how much cyanide there is, it’s fine. #2 says that as long as there is more soup than cyanide, everything’s okay, and #3 says that as long as you keep trying to put soup and healthy things in the pot (even if some cyanide sneaks in), then it’s okay and no one can blame you, because nobody’s perfect. #4 says that if there is any cyanide in the soup at all, then you’re in deep trouble.

Unfortunately, this is the view the Bible holds. In Mark 10:18, someone refers to Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus replies, “”Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says blatantly, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

So what’s the point? If we’re supposed to do something that’s impossible, why try at all? Jesus might as well have told us to jump to the moon.

But that is exactly the point of Christianity. We can’t be good except through God. The cyanide of evil and sin are already in the soup that is our lives and we can’t strain it out, no matter how fine a strainer we use. Short of dumping the whole pot down the sink and destroying ourselves, we are stuck with poison soup.

But there’s hope. Right after Jesus says that no one is good, his disciples ask the obvious question “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus replies, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

This is the beauty and simplicity of the matter. Not only can we not make ourselves good, we don’t have to. If God pours his antidote into our poisoned soup, it doesn’t matter if there is a little poison or a lot: it takes it all out.

This flies in the face of concepts like karma. After all, if we do evil, we should suffer proportionately. A man who kills 10 people should receive 10 times more punishment than the man who kills one person. But God says that everyone’s soup is poisoned, no matter if by genocide or by one white lie.

In 1992, a man named Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and convicted of killing and eating 17 people, along with other gruesome acts. He was sentenced to 16 life sentences and his name quickly became a byword right next to Hitler for the evilest of people ever born. He was beaten to death in prison two years later but before he died, he apparently became a Christian.

Of course, that is between him and God but if he did become a Christian, then God’s antidote wiped away all the poison in his soup, and there was a lot of it. He died a good person, not because of anything he did, but because of God’s forgiveness. God made him good.

Why Christians Are Not Atheists Minus One

Richard Dawkins, in the book The God Delusion, contends that everyone is an atheist, at least concerning some gods. He says, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

Here is what he means. As a Christian, I don’t believe that Zeus was a god. I don’t believe Dagon was either, or Molech, or Horus, or Vishnu, or Thor. Dawkins and I agree 100% on these, since neither of us believe in the divinity of any of these. We both believe they were only myths and stories. We only differ on the issue of one deity among millions. Thus, why not go the whole way and wipe the board clear of all deities, since I’ve already discounted 99.99% of all deities?

Dawkins approaches this as a mathematical problem, so let’s use a mathematical metaphor to look at it a bit closer. Let us compare Hinduism, Christianity, and atheism. If one god equals $1, then the Hindu is a millionaire, the Christian has one dollar, and the atheist is broke (or if you prefer a negative metaphor, the Hindu is hopelessly in debt, the Christian is $1 dollar in debt, and the atheist doesn’t owe anything.) Thus, a Christian is seemingly much closer to an atheist than to a Hindu. Dawkins’s whole argument hinges on this proximity.

Here is why he is wrong.

How much is a god worth?

In the above example with money, someone with one god seems closer to someone with no gods than to someone with 10 gods, since 1 is closer to 0 than to 10. However, how much is a god worth?

To better illustrate what I mean, let’s multiply all the numbers in the above metaphor by a billion. While 1 seems closer to 0 than to 10, we know that in practice a man with 1 billion dollars is vastly closer in status and lifestyle to someone with 10 billion dollars than to someone with no money at all. In fact, for all practical purposes, the two billionaires are identical in how they conduct their lives, and only the number in their bank account shows the difference.

Not all gods are created equal

Of course, the number of discrete deities a person worships is not the whole story, because as everyone knows, the question is not one of gods, but of belief systems. Religion is rarely an à la carte menu where we pick and choose. I doubt you could find a person in the world who worships Thor, Ganesh, and Manitou and only those three.

Not to mention, not all gods are created equal. Most gods who are part of a pantheon are simply overpowered humans, in their behavior, appearance, and actions. There is a reason why Thor is part of the Marvel superhero universe and the God of the Bible is not. A trillion minor nature gods of woods and streams collectively do not compare in the least to the Creator of the universe.

Theism is binary

Finally, the real distinction between polytheists, monotheists and atheists is not one of numbers: it is binary question, a matter of existence versus non-existence. Does the world exist of only the things we can see and experience and measure with our physical senses or does it only contain a spiritual dimension that is unknown to our five senses? The Christian and the Hindu (and all other religions) see the world in the same way, the natural world with a spiritual realm overlaid on it, while atheists see the world as nothing but the natural world.

This is the real distinction, and it is an irreconcilable divide that cannot be bridged. If there is a God, then the purely naturalistic world of atheism is smashed to bits, and if there is no God, then the theistic worldview is destroyed. There is no congress of belief between a monotheist and an atheist merely because the number of deities they believe in differs by one.

 

Does Prayer Work?

Apparently science has investigated and the results are in: studies have shown that surgery patients who receive prayer are no more likely to get better than ones who don’t. So there it is: prayer doesn’t work. Right?

I had to laugh as I listened to how the scientists set up this experiment and then as the atheist I was listening to gleefully shared the results. I realized that there is a fundamental misconception with many people about exactly what prayer is.

A lot of people wonder what the point of prayer really is if we only have a slim chance of getting what we ask for anyway. What’s the point of wasting time asking God for something when He’s either not going to give it to you anyway or He was going to give it to you whether you asked or not? Why pray at all?

Prayer is an area that I believe many people—Christians and non-Christians alike—get wrong. Christians get frustrated when their prayers aren’t answered and think God either doesn’t care or is testing them. Non-Christians pick it apart as a defective vending machine that doesn’t work most of the time, not unless you keep hitting it just right. However, there is an important thing to remember about prayer.

Prayer isn’t mechanistic.

The fact is, though, that prayer is not a vending machine and to think of it in such mechanistic terms is to totally miss the point. Prayer is not a magic spell where you say the right words in the right way and get the result you want. Prayer is about a relationship. Instead of a vending machine, here is a better metaphor to picture.

You are a four-year-old child and God is your parent. Can you imagine a scientific study done on the effectiveness of a four-year-old’s requests to their parent?

“Can I have a pony?” “No, dear.”

“Can I have a glass of water?” “Sure. Here you are.”

The study would undoubtedly conclude that most of the requests weren’t granted and most of the ones that were were things the parent would have given them anyway. So there you have it: it is pointless for a four-year-old to talk to their parents.

Absurd, I know, but it shows the point. The kid isn’t talking to their parent and asking them for things just as a means to an end (although that doesn’t mean they don’t really want whatever they’re asking for). They’re talking to them because that person is their mom or dad. Talking to them is what they do.

The relationship is key.

When we pray, it is because we have a relationship with God and this makes a huge difference. If a child asks her mom for a snack, the mom will probably give it to them (unless it’s right before dinner), but if another kid asks for one, the mom will probably say “Who are you?” The difference between this and prayer is that God is actively wanting to enter into a relationship will all people, whereas most parents don’t want to adopt random children off the street.

Why God doesn’t answer all prayers

So why doesn’t God answer my prayer? The honest answer is, God knows. It may be easy for an outsider to see why a parent might refuse a child’s request: for example, if they ask for a cookie two minutes before dinner, but even in that situation, we might not know what is going on in the parent’s mind.

There are times when it is something that wouldn’t be good for us. I know of a child who once insisted on riding home in the trunk of the car. Her parents obviously refused to let her, no matter how much the child cried and whined. There was no downside to this plan to the child, but the parents knew better.

There might be times when something better is coming. We have very limited imaginations sometimes in our prayers. When I was a new graduate from university, I was working in a hotel when the manger quit. I applied for the job even though I was 22 and had no managerial experience. I prayed to get that job, which included a much higher salary and a free apartment attached to the hotel.

I didn’t get the job. Instead, 8 months later, my wife and I got jobs at a school in Korea, which led to a whole range of new experiences and career opportunities. Not only was that better in the long run than running a hotel, but looking back I know that I would not have been happy as the manager. Even now, I don’t think I would enjoy managing a hotel and back then, I would have been overwhelmed with stress after a short time.

I realize that this doesn’t answer all questions and there are many situations which don’t make sense. Why was this person healed from cancer, but that one died? It is too easy to try to find rationalizations, to try to guess why, but I believe that is a mistake. The fact is that we don’t know and we cannot know, at least in this lifetime.

So, why pray? We pray because God is our heavenly parent who loves us and we want to talk to him and have a relationship. We should pour out our sorrows and worries, our triumphs and secret desires because he loves us and wants the best for us. He loves to lavish blessings on us even if they don’t always come in the ways that we want or are looking for. We pray to learn to know God and build that relationship that will last forever.

This is my perspective, at least. What do you think?

The Window of Words

I love words. They are like small windows that open up onto huge realities. Even grammatical words can hold large truths in them. There are times when our language is simply not capable of expressing what we need it to, but many times words contain a great deal more than we ever think about. This is especially true with the Bible, where a lot of meaning can be packed into only a few words. I feel sometimes that if we could fully understand a single verse of the Bible fully, we would be wiser than any person in the world.

Take Psalm 23 for example. It’s probably the most famous chapter in the Old Testament. Many people have it memorized (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”) especially in the King James Version. The problem is that the more we know something, the less we think about it. Do you actually think about what every word means when you sing the national anthem or Happy Birthday? Probably not. Those don’t matter much, but when it comes to the Bible, there can be a lot of truth hidden in every syllable. Let’s look at the first verse of Psalm 23 in closer detail:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1 (KJV)

The — This means something that is unique and definitive. This excludes any others from the same plane, letting it stand alone in our minds as we invoke it.

Lord — A king and a ruler. The monarchical term is a metaphor for God’s relationship not only with us, but with all of creation. He is above all, ruling and overseeing everything. (Here, of course, we see a limitation in human language: the English word Lord indicates male even though God is neither male nor female.)

Is — Even though it’s small, this is one of the most significant word in the whole language, a statement that something exists. It is in the present tense, which indicates not only existence in the present moment, but for an unspecified amount of time, stretching into the past and on into the future.

My — This shows there is a personal relationship on some kind, a connection to myself. We are not talking abstracts here: this is something that affects each and every one of us intimately.

Shepherd — This is a metaphor that shows the nature of the relationship. There is a lot packed into these two syllables. It contains the image of a flock of sheep ranging around the countryside, seemingly on their own, but always under the watchful eye of the shepherd. When they wander away, he finds them. When they get stuck in a bush or fall down a hole, the shepherd gets them out. A sheep has nothing to be boastful of. It is constantly and totally dependent upon the shepherd for safety, food and water.

I — Like “my”, this makes it personal. However, “I” is the subject, the one who must do something. The first sentence was a statement of fact. This is where we come in to do our part.

Shall — This word isn’t used much anymore, but is similar to “will”. “Shall” is a word of definiteness. If words like “might” and “maybe” are sand, “shall” is a granite boulder, something that can be depended on. We can rest in peace within the promise of this future certainty.

Not — This word is a solid wall that divides the existent and non-existent. “Not” nullifies of what comes after it. We can have faith that God will keep us always on the right side of “not”.

Want — In this situation, this mean being insufficient, or lacking in some way. It brings up the image of hunger, loneliness, parched throats and empty spirits. In God, we will not lack for what we need, because God does not know insufficiency. He is completeness itself and joined with him, no part of us can remain incomplete, any more than a submerged cup can remain empty.

 

And that is just one verse. Behind all words, especially ones that hold such great truths, there is a whole universe waiting.

 

This piece is an updated version of one I posted on Facebook in 2011.

Welcome to the Green-Walled Chapel

Welcome. Come on in and sit down and let me tell you where you’ve found yourself.

This is the Green-Walled Chapel, called such because it is a recently built annex to the Green-Walled Tower, my other blog. Let me tell you why it is here.

I have been wanting to start this blog for some time, but until recently I didn’t have much time to run two blogs at the same time. Usually when asked to tell a bit about myself, I mention that I am a Christian and a writer. The Green-Walled Tower is my (mostly) fiction blog, but because of this I never felt it was a good place to share a lot about my faith. So that is why this is here.

First of all, here is what the Green-Walled Chapel is not. It is not a cathedral, a place where one person proclaims and many listen. It is not a place of preaching. It is not a place of condemnation. It is also not a place for bad logic or personal attacks.

One of the reasons I chose a chapel is that a chapel is smaller and more personal (also, it matches the word “tower” in syllable and stress pattern). The Green-Walled Chapel is:

1. A place where everyone is welcome, from all denominations, faiths and religions, or no religion at all. We might not agree on everything, but I want to create a constructive, open environment.

2. A place to wrestle with the big questions of faith, religion, and philosophy

3. A place to speculate

4. A place of honesty and logical arguments

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copyright David Stewart

5. A place of respect, no matter what. I welcome different points of view, even if we can’t agree, but always with respect.

Finally, this blog, as well as my beliefs, are based on the idea of objective truth, that reality is a certain way whether we agree with it or can every know what it is. That is what I am interested in searching for.

I hope to post every week, on Monday morning to give you something to start your week with. I would post more, but for the moment, that is all I can do. If you find something you find intriguing, infuriating, or commendable, please comment and share with others.

So again, welcome. Make yourself at home.