You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

You rule!

               I’m finishing up a two-week intensive course on the book of Daniel. One of the key goals of the course was to focus on the text of Daniel to understand the primary message that the original author intended to communicate to the original audience. There’s a lot of discussion about the book, but a close reading of the text surfaces one clear idea: God establishes and removes kings. You can substitute the idea of ‘political sovereignty’ for the idea of kingship. God determines who will rule a country and the people of God should look to Him even when under an unreasonable monarch. 

               The most important difference between the political situation in the book of Daniel and the modern political situation here in the United States is that of sovereignty. Who rules the country? While our political masters might exercise a lot of authority, they are ultimately accountable to the people. Every four years, the people express their will by voting for the politicians who best represent their desires. Ben Franklin has been attributed with this saying: “In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.” So in the American system, political sovereignty comes from the people, who then elect representatives to carry out their desires and set the direction for the country. 

               The connection to the book of Daniel provides a warning to believers who are apathetic and uninvolved in the political system. You see, just as God gave sovereignty to the kings of Babylon, He also removed their kingdom and handed it over to the Medo-Persian empire, and then the Greek empire and then the Roman empire. And now political sovereignty in our country has been handed to us: the people. If we fail to exercise wisdom in ruling our country, we face the very real possibility of losing the right to govern ourselves. This isn’t an endorsement of any political candidate, but a reminder of two things: God gives and removes political sovereignty and that responsibility has been given to the people. We need to very carefully exercise that sovereignty by involvement in the political process, lest God remove our right to govern.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Healthy Paranoia

               I’m not paranoid, but I am suspicious. You see ‘paranoid’ means that you falsely believe that ‘someone is out to get you.’ I’m suspicious that someone actually is ‘out to get me.’ And I do have some good reasons to be suspicious… That marks the difference between paranoia and suspicion, the paranoid doesn’t have good reasons to believe he’s in danger, but the suspicious man does have good reasons. It seems to me that the line between the two is pretty thin. It could be that a little healthy paranoia (apparently excessive suspicion) could save a fellow in a tight spot. But then he’s not paranoid, because the sudden appearance of the ‘tight spot,’ proves that his paranoia actually was healthy suspicion. 

               Reading through the book of Daniel for an excellent class in seminary; chapter 2 reveals a restless King Nebuchadnezzar who has had a dream. He calls for his wise men and demands that they tell him both the dream and the interpretation. When reading biblical narrative, paying close attention to details can clue you in to important elements in, or the reason for the story. In verse 8, the king accuses the wise men of bargaining for more time which seems reasonable. But in verse 9, the time reference intensifies as the king accuses the wise men of wanting to lie to him ‘until the times change.’ So perhaps the wise men are stalling… until there’s a new king. Ancient near eastern politics was a contact sport to be sure. Stop watching your back for even a minute and your best friend might decide to become your replacement. As the passage moves on, Daniel receives the dream and its interpretation from God and before reporting to the king he exults that God is the one who ‘changes times’… And the meaning of the dream relates to the changes of kingdoms. I wonder if Nebuchadnezzar’s paranoia was actually a healthy suspicion after all…? In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar comes out okay, after some pretty bizarre and humbling circumstances. It’s worth a close read, and the story got me thinking about when is paranoia healthy for the Christian? 

               It seems to me that a little paranoia can go a long way to help the believer avoid sin. You remember, sin, right? That sneaky little thing just waiting for the moment when you feel like you have it under control and then BAM! It’s got you, again (sigh). It’s out to get you and you know it… because it’s happened before and you’ve been warned about it! My favorite example is when God tells Cain that ‘sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it’ (Gen. 4:7). In this situation, what is true for Cain is true for me and you as well.  Sin is waiting for you; it’s just right over there. And if you’re sitting there thinking that you know someone who needs to be a bit more paranoid when it comes to sin: dear reader it’s you… and me… and everyone. As the saying goes: ‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.’

 Hebrews 12:1-2 “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How to choose your religion...

I know this is a lazy post, but still worth a few laughs. Credit goes to whomever I "borrowed" this from on FB.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reconstructing Ice Cubes

Imagine you find a small puddle of water on your kitchen floor. Maybe there are a few unique contours or pieces of dust. You wonder how it got there, and it occurs to you that one of your kids probably filled a glass with ice and dropped a piece. A quick survey of the kitchen reveals a glass full of melting ice cubes and the obvious purple color of grape Kool-Aid. What was the exact contour of the ice cube that dropped onto the floor? If you open your freezer, you’ll notice the shape of the remaining cubes, approximate their volume and determine with confidence that the puddle on the floor is indeed the remains of one of your ice cubes. Because of the evidence in front of you, you can form a piece of knowledge: a justified, true belief about how the water came to be on the floor. Your knowledge is justified because you have good reasons to believe what you see: the empty glass, the size of the puddle, the ice in your freezer and the urchin with the Kool-Aid moustache. You believe you know what happened based on this evidence and when you confront your child and the little tyke confesses (unlikely, but it’s a thought experiment, roll with it) to dropping the ice you have confirmed the truth of your belief. You know what happened. 

But imagine for a minute that inside your freezer is the entire world of frozen water. On one side are pieces of formed ice: cubes, chips, chunks, shaved ice, semi-circles, and whatever else you can imagine. On the other side are all the various forms of snow: ice balls, big flakes, medium flakes, flakes like dust, sleet, freezing rain and hail. And let’s not forget natural ice: icicles, frozen ponds, ice floes, and icebergs. Now the complexity of your identification of the exact frozen material that formed the puddle on the floor has gotten quite a bit more difficult. While the size suggests one of the semi-circles, it could just as easily melted from a small mound of snowflakes. The harder you peer at the puddle, the more you realize that answering the question has become much more difficult. Especially if there is no errant child with a Kool-Aid moustache running about. You eliminate many of the natural ice formations as too large to create such a small puddle, but you are still faced with too many choices. You simply don’t know what ice formed the puddle. You can reconstruct any number of possible scenarios which explain the puddle, but you cannot say that you ‘know’ what happened because there is a not enough evidence to narrow your options. You can have good reasons, but not believe them. You can have strong beliefs, but weak reasons. You might even hold the truth, but have neither good reasons nor strong beliefs. Such is the conundrum of knowledge. 

Applied to Biblical studies, this problem of knowledge creates a lot of tension within Christianity. Some of the questions we ask just don’t have enough evidence to provide a confident response. I remember my Pentateuch students peppering me with question after question: Do you think dinosaurs were in the Garden of Eden? Do you think Moses wrote the Pentateuch (see Michael’s earlier post)? What about the flood, was it local or universal? My answers go like this: yep, most of it, and universal. Now ask me: why do you believe these things? You see we have moved from my belief to my justification for that belief. The nagging question is: are my good reasons enough to make my belief a statement of knowledge? Is it actually true? Well, even though I have good reasons and I’m probably right (you agree with me, don’t you?), I don’t feel comfortable calling at least one of the above assertions ‘knowledge.’ This is the curse we face when positing a reconstruction of history, there are some things you don’t have enough information to say that you know what happened. You see, the wise believer learns that there is more than one way to reconstruct the historical situation from the ‘puddle’ of evidence which we have before us. He or she learns to make arguments based on good evidence, but to also recognize the difference between knowledge and belief. He or she also learns the difference between a good question (one for which there is enough evidence to form an opinion) and an interesting question which simply does not have an answer. For example: did Adam and Eve have navels? Believe what you want friend, but they didn’t. I know it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Got Angry?

I recently got into a discussion with a friend wherein I said that I was upset, but not angry. He rejected the distinction and challenged me to offer Biblical support for my assertion. Whenever someone challenges you to support something from the Bible, in my opinion, they pretty much have their mind made up. From here you begin trading evidence and comparing authorities with little result except an increase in, well… anger. Although it might be frustration… or confusion… or some other word that represents an internal emotional state. 

Understanding the degree of emotional states related to anger requires an understanding of the linguistic concept of semantic range. Almost every word we use has a range of meaning, which can then be applied to various contexts. The context limits the application of the particular term: it defines the use of that word in that context. There are many examples that work well in English; Greek and Hebrew are no different. An easy one is the word ‘trunk.’ What does that word mean? You might identify an elephant’s nose, a box used to store clothes while traveling, the main branch of a tree or the rear storage compartment of a vehicle. So in my situation, I made a distinction between being upset and being angry that my friend rejected; but do the words of the Bible represent various degrees of emotion related to the internal emotional state we call anger?

One of the standard reference tools that deals with semantic range and biblical words is a lexicon (dictionary) that arranges words by ‘semantic domain.’ The title: ‘Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains,’ is not only catchy, but also clearly describes what the work intends to accomplish. It arranges the words used in Scripture according to the overlap in meaning. Section 88 deals with ‘Moral and Ethical Qualities and Related Behavior,’ subsection X deals with ‘Anger, Be Indignant With.’ This subsection lists 21 different words for anger which cover a diverse range of emotional states, all of which could be translated by the English word ‘anger.’ The context would then limit the focus of the word for anger to a specific situation. If I used the word: χολάω (cholaō), the basic use in various contexts indicates that the word means: ‘to have a strong feeling of displeasure and antagonism as the result of some real or supposed wrong.’ But other words are used in different contexts which indicate emotion that is out of control: θυμός (thumos) in various contexts means: ‘a state of intense anger, with the implication of passionate outbursts—anger, fury, wrath, rage;’ ἄνοια (anoia) is used to indicate: ‘a state of such extreme anger as to suggest an incapacity to use one’s mind.’ Each of these words can be translated by the English word ‘anger,’ but there is a substantial difference in what the words mean in context. 

So when I told my friend that I was upset, but not angry I meant that yes, I was disturbed at a perceived wrong, but no so consumed with emotion that I was unable to continue the dialogue. He still rejects the distinction, and I’ve dropped the discussion, deeming it more important to move on rather than continue to beat the proverbial dead horse. I suppose the lesson in all this is to choose your words carefully and be ready when someone disagrees with you to continue the dialogue and seek resolution. I am resolved with my friend and we have both taken ownership of poor communication having taken the time to listen to one another and seek the fellowship of believers in Christ. And that is more important than the distinction between terms.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Present-tense Christianity

It seems to me that many contemporary Christians have a pretty casual attitude toward their religion. Christians acknowledge that a restored relationship to Jesus Christ solves one huge problem: what happens to me after I die? Well, the ‘right answer’ says, because of my trust in Christ’s death on the cross, I’ll go to heaven upon my demise. Whew… we dodged that bullet, now what’s for lunch? But, hold on for just a second… shouldn’t our relationship to God provide something now? What are the present-tense benefits of Christianity? Here’s at least a partial list and I invite you, dear reader, to add to what’s here.

While many in modern culture would reject this proposition, I believe the Bible provides the definition of and reason for right conduct. Acceptance of Christianity as a worldview component requires a reliance on the Bible as the standard of ethical conduct. The apostle Paul connects the knowledge of sin with the standards revealed in the Old Testament in Romans 7:7, saying: ‘…if it had not been for the Law, I would not have known sin.’ (ESV) Sin is the violation of God’s commandments, both positive and negative. So the Christian relies on the Bible (the Old Testament even) to know right from wrong. 

Closely related to the knowledge of right and wrong are guidelines for doing right toward God and other people. How should I deal with a difficult spouse (not mine) or recalcitrant children (well… sometimes mine)? In the abstract, the ‘greatest commandment’ tells me to love God above all else and to love my neighbor as I love myself (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; and others). This principle becomes concretized (I like that word) through many examples, both positive and negative. What does it look like to love God, or to love other people? Love for God involves a reorientation toward His priorities: to think, believe and do what He wants. King David forms a great example of what NOT to do in his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11): instead of love toward God and neighbor by honoring ethical and legal responsibilities, David committed both adultery and murder to make her his wife! So Christianity in the present tense not only defines what is right and wrong, but also demonstrates what proper love for others looks like (and doesn’t look like)! 

This present-tense of Christianity helps us understand right and wrong conduct toward God and man, providing both positive and negative examples, but it also provides a system of accountability and correction. No matter one’s social position, God is over all, observes all, and provides judgment for all. In family relationships, Scripture provides that children shall obey their parents, and that parents shall deal properly with their children. Members of the community submit to leadership, which in turn submits to God. One of the most interesting examples of God’s correction of human arrogance comes through the book of Daniel where king Nebuchadnezzar looks over his kingdom and revels in his achievements. Such revelry ignored God’s establishment of the monarchy as a means for the positive benefit of society. For his arrogance, Nebuchadnezzar was afflicted with boanthropy (yep, real word) a mental disorder in which the afflicted believes himself to be a bull and he lives accordingly (Daniel 4:29ff.). God humbled Nebuchadnezzar because he incorrectly exalted himself and forgot that God establishes human rule and authority. God is the ultimate authority who holds accountable those people who live outside normal channels of human justice. Submission to legal authority honors God, whether that submission is from the earthly king to the Heavenly, from adults to legal authority or from children to parents. At each level of status, God supervises and provides ultimate accountability for wrongdoing. 

What does Christianity provide for you in the present tense? I submit for your consideration that Christianity provides a framework for interpersonal relationships which defines right and wrong conduct (toward God and man), shows examples of both, and provides accountability for persons of every status. Ineffectiveness in this model comes not from the model, but from human weakness in its application. Sometimes our love for others is ‘tough love,’ which means that we have to call out wrong behavior, based on the standards of the Bible and ever mindful of our own human weakness. I’m sure that what’s written here only scratches the surface, so feel free to make your own suggestions. Let’s just start thinking of our relationship to Christ as something present not only in the future, but also here now to help us live and form a right society.