October 29, 2008

Christians suffering persecution in India right now

For those who haven't heard yet, radicals in the Indian state of Orissa have been killing Christians and destroying their property, schools and orphanages. There is some history there involving the killing of a radical Hindu leader and the blaming of Christians for it, as well as previous tensions between radicals and Christians in that region.

Please help get the word out about this human rights violation. The largest democracy in the world should not have things like this happening within one of its states.

Here's a story from India's national newspaper as well:

Christian federation condemns Orissa violence

NEW YORK: The Federation of Indian Christian Organisations in North America
has expressed shock over continuing violence against Christians in Orissa and
demanded an immediate inquiry and replacement of the local police and
paramilitary forces by the Army to stop “ethnic cleansing by Hindu
fundamentalist outfits.”
The federation, in a statement, demanded the
dismissal of the State government which, it said, had failed to protect its own
It rejected the contention of the State government that the
situation was under control, saying six more churches were burnt since that
statement was made by the authorities. Hundreds of Christian houses had been set
afire and more than 60,000 Christians were hiding in forests without food and
water. Also, the number of missing persons was rising, it said.
radicals are making plans to cleanse Orissa of its Christian population. The
brutal mob goes on raping nuns and beating up priests. There have been more than
3,000 forcible re-conversions to Hinduism,” it said.


Here is another story that focuses on a pastor and his family's struggle there: http://www.morungexpress.com/frontpage/orissasreality458.html

Please pray for the persecuted and help raise awareness of it any way you can.


October 24, 2008

Cheap T's that can change the culture...

For those who may not know about it, the banner at the top of my blog is to a website dedicated to educating society regarding the issue of abortion. They take a grassroots approach, particularly on college campuses (where future legislators and judges are currently residing!). They recently released a series of limited edition t-shirts with one of my favorite of their tag lines for $7.50 each.

Now a t-shirt for under 8 bucks is usually a good thing. But a t-shirt for under 8 bucks that raises awareness of social injustice and whose proceeds go toward educating others about it is a great thing! So if any of you want to join me in sporting some sweet gear for a righteous cause, drop by


and snatch one up for you or someone you know who'd wear it. And help spread the word about abort73.com to everyone you know. It was just such grassroots action among 19th century British citizens that helped pave the way for William Wilberforce's ultimate victory in Parliament that abolished the slave trade. If ol' Wilby was around today, I'm sure he'd be rockin' the $7.50 Lapis blue abort73.com t-shirt...just like me.

Change minds, change culture, change the world


October 23, 2008

Two excellent new study Bibles

In my "Bible for the Rest of Us" class, we spend some time covering various Bible translations, their differing interpretive approaches, translation theory, and study Bibles. If you've taken the course, you've heard me recommend when studying Scripture (as opposed to simply reading for devotional purposes alone) if you are unable to read the original Hebrew or Greek it is best to use three translations: a "thought for thought" translation, a "word for word" translation" and one that sits somewhere in the middle. This gives you the best access to the ways that various translators handle the passage you're studying. It's also important to use good study Bibles for serious study of Scripture. There are so many lame study Bibles on the market that it's important to be discerning and to know what to look for in Bible you're going to spend between $30-$80 for!

My personal recommendation for translations to use is the following:

"Word for word" - ESV or NASB
"Thought for thought" - NLT
Base translation - TNIV/NIV or HCSB
Those provide a great range for getting a feel for the original words of the Inspired text. In addition, however, it is important to have access to a good study Bible. The purpose of a study Bible is to supplement the texts of Scripture with notes, maps, charts and other background information that help explain the texts in their original contexts and historical settings. Without such knowledge, we run the risk of reading things into the Biblical passages that the authors (and the Original Author Himself!) did not intend.

My recommendations for good study Bibles in a Base translation are:
The Archaeology Study Bible - NIV
Life Application Study Bible - various translations
TNIV Study Bible/NIV Study Bible - the TNIV edition is far better, in my opinion
The Quest Study Bible - NIV

Recently, I've come across two new study Bibles representing each end of the translation spectrum that I wanted to let the Dojo know about. I recommend them both!
The NLT Study Bible
The ESV Study Bible

These two study Bibles are fantastic. They have slightly differing purposes and theological leanings, but both fall within the general Evangelical stream of Biblical scholarship. I've found the NLT study notes very helpful in my recent study and teaching of the Song of Songs. The ESV study essays at the beginning of the OT are extremely insightful and do a great job summarizing overal themes that are important to understand in order to make better sense of the Bible as a whole. Another great thing about the ESV study Bible is that if you buy it, you get access to the online version for free (which is a fantastic bargain, particularly if you need digital access to the information in it)!

Anyway, I've only had a chance to scratch the surface in my use of these tools, but so far I've been thoroughly impressed and am glad to have them on my shelf at arms reach. I hope you are able to enjoy the same.

Be blessed,

Edit on 10.25.08 - I wanted to note also that the ESV Study Bible contains, at the end, 250 pages of Biblical/Theological resources that are extremely helpful and informative. There are essays on the following: Biblical Doctrine, Biblical Ethics, Interpreting the Bible, Reading the Bible Theologically, Reading the Bible as Literature, Reading the Bible in Prayer and Communion w/ God, Reading the Bible for Personal Application, Reading the Bible for Preaching and Worship, The Canon of the OT, The Canon of the NT, The Apochrypha, The Reliability of the OT Manuscripts, The Reliability of the NT Manuscripts, Archaeology and the Reliability of the OT, Archeology and the Reliability of the NT, The Original Languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, The Septuatint, How the NT Quotes and Interprets the OT, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Liberal Protestantism, Evangelical Protestantism, Evangelical Protestantism and Global Christianity, The Bible and Contemporary Judaism, The Bible and Other World Religions, The Bible and Islam, The Bible and Religious Cults, History of Salvation in the OT.

This collection of resources is almost like having a brief overview of the first year of seminary courses. I applaud the editors for their inclusion of all this for the average reader to go deeper in his or her knowledge of the faith overall.

Also, the NLT Study Bible has a nice feature where certain key words in the text are noted and in the margins, the original language word is given and cross-referenced for word study purposes. This is helpful in a less literal translation such as the NLT where key words are often missed in the translation of the text into more fluid and understandable English.

October 22, 2008

Thoughts on Rob Bell's new book "Jesus wants to save Christians"

I just finished reading Rob Bell's new book, "Jesus wants to save Christians" (Zondervan) yesterday and thought I'd shoot out a quick blog about it. If you don't know who Rob is, he's the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible church in Grand Rapids and the speaker in the popular NOOMA short films.

When I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to be just another critique of commercialized Christianity from an emergent perspective. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't. Rather, it is an overview of the Biblical concepts of slavery, redemption, oppression, luxury and salvation told in Rob's near stream-of-consciousness style of writing.

The titles of the chapters are such that you have no idea what they're going to be about, but once you've read each chapter, its title makes perfect sense. The chapter titles are:
Intro - Air Puffers and Rubber Gloves
1. - The cry of the oppressed
2. - Get down your harps
3. - David's other son
4. - Genital-free Africans
5. - Swollen-bellied black babies, soccer moms on Prozac, and the Mark of
the Beast
6. Blood on the Doorposts of the Universe
Epilogue - Broken and Poured

Throughout the book, Rob does not hide his distaste for the type of Christianity exemplified by the "God and Country/Let's take back America for God" crowd (i.e. the Religious Right/Moral Majority/etc.). Though he doesn't single out any particular individual or group who fit this category, he does offer compelling examples of how such thinking is often more about establishing worldlyl "Empire" rather than the Kingdom of God. He critiques views of war at the expense of social justice, which epitomizes the Evangelical Christian stereotype in a thoroughly unapologetic, yet non-combatitive way. Perhaps the quote that summarizes his main thrust best is the following from p.161:
"As Paul says, 'We don't fight with those weapoins.' A church's authority
comes from somewhere else - it comes from how we've been broken open and poured out, not from how well we've pursued power andlobbied and organized ourselves to triumph. This is why when Christians organize politically and start flexing that muscle, making threats about how they are going to impose their way on others, so many people turn away from Jesus.

Jesus' followers at that point are claiming to be the voice of God, but they are speaking the language of Caesar and using the methods of Rome, and for
millions of us it has the stench of Solomon."

Some criticism:
Perhaps my main criticism of "Jesus wants to save Christians" is that while Rob thoughtfully addresses current issues of injustice and oppression, casting them in light of Biblical examples of such, he does not say a word about the most horrific oppression going on in our country every day. In his desire to distance himself from the Religious Right, he (perhaps unintentionally) never once mentions the injustice of abortion-on-demand. This is too bad because it would've provided another perfect example of Christians (mostly mainline) buying into and condoning or perpetuating a facet of Biblical social injustice. Just as oppressive financial systems are modern day examples of the "Mark of the Beast", the institutional injustice of abortion-on-demand is a modern equivalent to the ancient worhsip of the Canaanite gods through infanticide and child sacrifice. It's surprising Rob never mentions this, especially since one of his influential mentors, Ray Vanderlaan, is quite passionate about pointing out such injustice.

[Note: While there are many Christians, particularly of the Westminster persuasion (i.e. Reformed/Calvinist/etc.) who have critiqued Rob's (and Ray's) overall system of hermeneutics, use of later Jewish sources and his "postmodern" views of Biblical authority, I find myself in agreement with Ben Witherington's conclusions regarding this and direct the reader to his more comprehensive review for more discussion.]

I also felt like some of the presentation of the facts/stats were somewhat superficial. Comparing the amount spent on military budgets with the number of social ills in the world is too simplistic. The counter arguments are never addressed (i.e. without this amount spent on the military, there would be exponentially higher number of social ills, etc.). While I don't disagree with much of Rob's overall argument, I think a more thoughtful engagement (or at least an awareness of the differing views) is needed.

Another minor criticism of the book is that the endnotes where skimpier than I would have liked. I'm a big advocate of careful background research, particularly when discussing ancient texts or events and while the book isn't aimed at a technical audience, it would be nice if the notes reflected the amount of study that Rob puts in.

What I liked:
The edges of the puzzle [those of you who've taken Bible for the Rest of Us with me know what I'm referring to by that phrase!] - I think that the best part of "Jesus wants to save Christians" is that it gives a wonderful overview of the big picture of the Biblical narrative. He weaves events in Israel's history--some well known, some obscure--into a tapestry that often brings an "Ah-ha!" moment to the reader as stories are connected in ways they have likely never thought about.

Exposing the pseudo-gospel of America as God's favored nation - I found myself in agreement with Rob about the way in which many within Evangelical Christian circles (particularly those with the most media/political influence!) have merged patriotism with faith in a dangerous way. The comparison of the Pax Romana with many Christians' view of America's role in the world was a well-needed challenge to all of us who claim the name of Christ. There is a constant need among God's people to do some serious self-evaluation...particularly at this time in our nation's history!--when we find ourselves to be in a position of power or secular influence.

Overall conclusion:
I wholeheartedly recommend "Jesus wants to save Christians" to every follower of Christ. Even if the outworkings of our faith in the realm of the political or social sphere differs in the end from Rob Bell's, his Biblical overview is both fascinating and thought-provoking. The book was much more "Biblical Theology" than "Social Ethics" in its scope and challenges all of us in our views of God, wealth, oppression, power and salvation. I found it much better overall than either of his previous books (Velvet Elvis and Sex God), particularly because of its presentation of the overall story of God's people found in both Testaments of Scripture.

And for those of you who hate reading...it comes in audiobook format too! :)

October 10, 2008

Things are just getting worse and worse...really??

Isn't our culture so depraved? Wasn't it better off when we were growing up in a God-fearing society?

My answer, whenever I'm asked this in class or whenever it's discussed is always "No, things are not getting worse. This world is no more Fallen now than it's ever been in the past." Usually the "our culture is heading headlong into hell in a handbasket" (alliteration is fun!) line of argument is made by those who long for "the good ol' days"...you know, usually sometime around the 1930s-50s...

...when there was Great Depression, World War, Nuclear proliferation, and let's not forget about good ol' Jim Crowe laws!

No, today's culture is not any worse now that it's ever been. At least, I'm not convinced that it is. When I read the Hebrew Bible, I see cultures who have state-run fertility goddess worship orgies and child sacrifice. In the New Testament, I see state sponsored (and required) polytheism and Imperial slavery. Christians in the US, particularly down here in the Bible belt, who feel that we're so much worse off now than in the past need to ask ourselves two questions:

1. How many more believers are there in the world today advancing the Kingdom of God?

2. When's the last time you were required by the local government to take part in a pagan feast and/or ritual sex in honor of the local gods and goddesses?

It seems to me that good and evil, sin and righteousness, justice and oppression have always been part of this Fallen world and have been equally prevalent in every age. It also seems that in every age, there are those who long for "the good ol' days." Need proof? Listen to this critique of current youth culture:

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they depend on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wild and impatient of restraint!"

--Hesiod (Greek poet who lived 800 years before Jesus' birth!)

I suspect people will always feel this way--that culture is spiraling out of control, things are worse now than ever before, and young people are growing up in a moral abyss--until Jesus returns and puts everything right.

In the meantime, I believe we must continue to live somewhere between the Religious Fundamentalists' gloom-and-doom outlook and the Religious Liberals' naive optimism regarding the human spirit's ability.

Lord, help us stay balanced lives; for your truth is almost always in the middle of the extremes.


JM's Audio Teaching Archive

Check out sermon.net/jmsmith for some of my messages and teaching sessions:

Bruce Lee quote of the day...