April 29, 2009

American Patriots and the Bible?

"THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW 'A LIGHT FROM ABOVE' SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot's Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation's history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text."

This is the sales pitch for one of the newest Bibles from Thomas Nelson Publishers, The American Patriot's Bible.

Before I say anything, let me say that I am grateful to have been born in America and I do love my country when it's at its best. I'm in debt to the men and women of the armed forces who have sacrificed everything for our sake. What I'm about to say is in no way a denegration of their service or the service of others who've sacrificed to make our country great.

That being said, a Bible such as this is misleading at best and idolatrous at worst.

America is not a "Christian" nation. We are a secular democracy with a large number of Christians in it. Our founders were not Evangelical Christians. Many, if not most, of them were Deists. From Thomas Paine's repudiation of the God of the Bible to Thomas Jefferson's neutering of the New Testament, it's easy to see that the desire to paint our forefathers--who were AMAZING statesmen and country-builders!--as saintly devotees to Jesus can often override the actual record of history.

The fact is that this nation's history is not one of a shining beacon of hope, a New Jerusalem, a city on a hill, or any other hagiographic ideal. For every example of national goodness, there is one of national evil. One cannot merely brush aside historical realities such as the genocide and displacement of Native Americans, colonial slavery, Jim Crowe laws, Chinese labor abuse by the railroads, or the heretical notion of Manifest Destiny as minor blemishes on an otherwise spotless record.

No. Judgment begins in the house of the Lord! We must take a long hard look at our nation's past...and present...and steer clear of any self-aggrandizing or revisionist history which would downplay our corporate guilt. Wrapping the text of Scripture in a "God-and-country-America-the-beautiful" packaging is either extremely naive or extremely blasphemous...or possibly both.

Jesus was crystal clear in stating that His Kingdom "is not of this world" and that He would belong to no political ideology or nationalistic patriot movements, even among His fellow Israelites. In fact, this is in large part why the same crowd that praised Him as Israel's long-awaited conquering king on Palm Sunday became disallusioned and called for His crucifixion on Good Friday. Pharisees and Zealots were the two main patriotic parties within 1st century Judaism...and Jesus openly rebuked their "God-and-country" ideology, which was one of the reasons they were able to persuade the crowds to call for His death. (For more on this, see the extremely detailed historical work by N.T. Wright on Jesus' clash with the powers of His day in "Jesus and the Victory of God".)

Despite the rhetoric we find on the lips of many, Jesus is not Right-Wing. Jesus is not Republican. Jesus is not an American Patriot.

And despite the rhetoric of the other end of the political spectrum, it's equally false that Jesus is Left-Wing, a Democrat, or an America-hater.

Jesus will not be dragged into any of our petty political squabbles. Nor will He favor the citizens of one nation over those of another. His Church permeates all kingdoms and cultures and it is that Church to which we ultimately belong, regardless of our particular national or ethnic pride.

Throughout the last two millennia, various nations have tried to co-opt the Bible in order to bolster their political power or appeal to the Christians in their midsts. But any Bible which seeks to infuse ideological, political, personal, or cultural views with the timeless truths of Scripture is on dangerous ground. When it comes to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the American flag has no more significance or pride of placement than that of Honduras, New Zealand, Angola or Vietnam. Yet I have a feeling that many of the same critics of translations such as the TNIV, NLT or NRSV which try to translate culturally as well as grammatically are likely the target demographic for this newest moneymaking attempt by the publisher.

I'm sure the publishers, editors and contributors to this project have the highest intentions and truly desire to spread the Gospel to everyone, in this case, the niche market of "Patriots". But as someone whose life is devoted to the full-time study and teaching of the Inspired texts, and who has also has seen firsthand the lack of access among many Christians around the world to a good translation of the Bible, much less a good study Bible, I feel a mixture of annoyance, outrage, saddness and grief when I continue to see bookstores throughout America filled with such marketing gimmicks. Most of them are either silly (The "Rainbow Study Bible") or sentimental (The Soldier's/Fireman's/Policeman's/Sportsman's/Sailor's/Couples/Precious Moments Bibles), and are therefore often benign. However, one that perpetuates the myth that America is "God's Country" and furthers the stereotype of Christianity as being a Western or Euro-American religion is irresponsible...and borderline idolatrous.

For a great take on being a faithful Christian without falling into the trap of political ideology, check out "How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative" by Roger Olson.

April 26, 2009

The Blast Furnace God

I taught on Malachi chs.3-4 this morning for my last Sunday on staff at GSUMC and spent time talking about the imagery found in these chapters regarding God and the imagery of refining, furnaces and fire:

“I am about to send my messenger,
who will clear the way before me.
Indeed, the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his temple,
and the messenger of the covenant, whom you long for,
is certainly coming,”
says the Lord who rules over all.

"Who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can keep standing when he appears?
For he will be like a refiner’s fire,
like a launderer’s soap.
He will act like a refiner and purifier of silver
and will cleanse the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.
Then they will offer the Lord a proper offering.
The offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
as in former times and years past.

I will come to you in judgment.
I will be quick to testify against
those who practice divination,
those who commit adultery,
those who break promises,
and those who exploit workers, widows, and orphans,
who refuse to help the immigrant
and in this way show they do not fear me,”
says the Lord who rules over all.

“For indeed the day is coming,
burning like a furnace,
and all the arrogant evildoers will be chaff.
The coming day will burn them up,”
says the Lord who rules over all.
“It will not leave even a root or branch.
But for you who respect my name,
the sun of vindication will rise with healing wings,
and you will skip about like calves released from the stall.
You will trample on the wicked,
for they will be like ashes under the soles of your feet
on the day which I am preparing,”
says the Lord who rules over all.

There is so much in these two chapters of Malachi (originaly just one chapter in the Hebrew Bible--4:1ff in our Bibles corresponds to 3:19ff in the Hebrew text). However the image of refining fire made me think of a quote from one of the best books I've ever read about God's nature, particularly in relationship to the question of evil and suffering, by theologian John Stackhouse from his book "Can God Be Trusted?":

“Theism does not affirm that God is always ‘nice’
or pleasant or kindly.
God’s goodness is absolute purity,
as much like the purity of a blast furnace
…as it is like the indulgence of a
sweet grandmother.
God always thinks without error, incompleteness, or prejudice.
Such a God may not always be likeable, nor always comfortable.
But such a God may well be worthy of worship."

Thoughts to ponder...


April 21, 2009

"But I don't have a good testimony..."

Sometimes we feel like we need to have a really "good" testimony--you know, drugs, sex, crime, etc. that Jesus saved us from! But many of us don't have such a testimony. If you are one of these people, I offer this song for your encouragement!

And in the spirit of T.R.U.T.H.'s lyrics, I wanted to share my own story with the Dojo readers since many have never heard it:

“You’re just a Christian because you’re a preacher’s kid who was raised that way in the Bible belt!” That accusation haunts me continuously. Would I still follow Jesus if I had been born in Mongolia? Or Bosnia? Or what if I was raised as a Bedouin tribesman in Saudi Arabia? Would I still devote my life to a Jewish carpenter who walked the earth nearly 2000 years ago; who supposedly came back from the dead and will one day come again to judge humanity and usher in paradise? Would I still buy into the idea that all my wrongdoings and failures could be done away with if I just believe that this carpenter was God himself and that he had paid the penalty for my disobedience by being nailed to a cross like a common criminal? I honestly don’t know. The ‘what if’ game is impossible to play accurately so I’ll have to stick to the ‘what is’ game instead.

What is true is that I was raised in a home where God’s existence was not an idea; it was reality. Prayer was not a ritual; God actually listened. And more than that, he responded. My father was a pastor of a small inner-city church in one of the roughest areas of our city. Crime, drugs and poverty were prevalent in my neighborhood; yet through it all, I constantly saw God provide for his children. Unlike many children raised in Christian homes, faith in God was never forced on me; it was natural. I had no reason to disbelieve in the God whom I talked to every night as I drifted off to sleep and who continuously answered our prayers. No, God’s existence as well as my relationship with him was a given.

My first encounter with unbelief happens to be one of my earliest memories; I was about 3 or 4 at the time. My sister and I were in my room playing; Mom and Dad were in the living room.

“James-Michael,” my Dad said, “Come in here for a minute.”
I got up from whatever game we were playing and walked in to the hall. My parents were sitting on the couch and it looked like they had been talking. My Dad looked at me very calmly but very seriously and said,
“You know, some people don’t believe in God.”
As he said this, I can still remember the look of anticipation on his face of my reaction.
“Okay” I said and walked back into the room to resume my game.

I don’t know what they were expecting, but I think they just wanted to prepare me for the fact that throughout life I would encounter people who didn’t see things the way I did. The reason I wasn’t surprised or shocked, I think, was because somehow I already knew that though God was real, for some reason, a lot of people didn’t believe that.

Now apparently at this part of the story I’m supposed to say that throughout my childhood I began to question my belief in God and that my parents told me to ‘just believe’, or something like that. Then I’m supposed tell how when I finally left home I realized that my beliefs were just those of my parents and how I went on a personal quest for truth and realized that my parents were just na├»ve or ignorant because of their faith in Jesus. Well, none of this happened. Whenever I had questions about God or Jesus or the Bible or anything else, my parents listened intently and then answered those questions while encouraging me to verify these answers for myself. Because of this and because of the fact that most of my friends in high school weren’t Christians, when I left home my faith had already been challenged and confirmed time and time again.

This process of challenge and confirmation of the message of Jesus continues even today. I constantly come across reasons people give for their unbelief. However, those reasons always seem hollow and never able to stand against the overwhelming amount of reasons to believe. Other religions and worldviews can’t seem to answer coherently life’s questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? Where do we get right and wrong? What’s more, as I look at the lives of my friends who don’t have a relationship with the God who created them, I can’t help but notice how directionless they are—constantly searching for truth while at the same time denying truth itself. No, I have no reason to doubt and every reason to believe.

Do I only believe because I was raised that way? No; but it certainly didn’t hurt. You see, truth is truth whether we’re raised with it or not. The fact that I was raised in a home where Jesus was a reality has no bearing on whether or not Jesus is, in fact, a reality. Likewise, if I were raised in a home in India where Shiva and Vishnu were revered, it would have no bearing on whether or not they exist. This whole line of reasoning is faulty and in my limited experience, is an accusation used to dismiss Christianity without having to deal with the actual person of Christ. This is why I refuse to indulge in the ‘what if’ game and stick to the ‘what is’. For the ‘what is’ is all that matters for any of us.

So ‘what is’ the truth? It is this: Jesus was who he said he was—God in the flesh. God’s existence should be a given, and for me, it is. The evidence against believing has been examined and been found wanting. I know the Lord not only propositionaly, but also personally. Do you? Do you even want to? If not, fine; I can’t make you believe. But if any of this has piqued your interest, then I’d love to talk to you. I’d love to hear about where you come from and what you think. I’d most of all love to introduce you to the One your heart longs for. What do you say?

April 20, 2009

Great quotes for Dojo readers

I came across some of my favorite quotes from my college days and I wanted to share them with the Dojo. Feel free to add your own!

“If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you: but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.” --Don Marquis

“…the evidence was only God’s way of getting his foot in the door of my life.”
--Josh McDowell

“If you want to know what water is don’t ask the fish.” --Chinese proverb

“Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.”
--John Cage, artist

“If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving…” --Martin Luther King, Jr.

“You never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” --Augustine

April 7, 2009

Want to bring the Dojo to a church near you??

So as many of you know, one of my passions is getting to open up Scripture to those who've never been exposed to its treasures, or if they have, have only gotten glimpses on occasion. During the last 5 years at Good Shepherd, I've been able to do this full-time as Discipleship Pastor, and it's been wonderful.

But as much as I (and Talbot) would prefer, not everyone is able to come take a Passage class or Sunday morning class at Good Shepherd.

So, after I officially step down from my position at the church on April 30th, I would love to continue equipping believers as much as possible regardless of location or church home.

That being said, if your church, ministry or a church or ministry you know of would benefit from any of the following topics or courses, I'd love to come teach and help them go deeper in their knowledge of God's Word. Here are some courses and topics I've taught on that would work well in various formats (i.e. Sunday School class, Weekend seminar, evening class, small group or retreat settings, etc.):

Seminar Topics or Short-term Studies

The Bible for the Rest of Us – a course covering Scripture’s origin, translation, interpretation and most importantly, how NOT to interpret it (6 sessions)

End-Times Craziness - a look at the various views Christians have of the end times and where they come from in Scripture (2-4 sessions depending on level of detail desired)

Jonah: More Than a Whale! - a 2-session look at the book of Jonah that goes beyond what we learned as kids.

In the Beginning - a 2-3 session look at Gen.1-2's account of creation

Honor and Shame - a 1 session study of Paul's letter to Philemon

Who am "I"?? - a 2-3 session study of Romans 5-8

"Whatchu talkin' bout, Jesus?" - a 2 session look at different translations of the Bible and why they matter (also called "Say What?"...for those who are too young or too old to recognize the quote!)

144K - A 1-2 session study of the 144,000 in the book of Revelation

"Fulfilled or Filled Fully?" - a 1-2 session study on Matthew's use of the OT

TULIPs and Daisies? - a 2-3 session look at Calvinism, Arminianism and salvation in Scripture

Before Abraham was, I AM - a 2-4 session study on the divinity of Christ (aka. "The Trinity for dummies")

Extended courses:

Apocalypse Now AND Then: Revealing Revelation (10-12 sessions)

Romans in Context – (10-12 sessions)

It’s Worth Everything: The Letter to the Hebrews – (8-10 sessions)

Exodus: Movement of God's People - (10-12 sessions)

Numbers: Into the Wilderness - (8-10 sessions)

I don't have a set teaching rate or speaking fee (as I find that a bit presumptuous personally). So if there's a little country or store-front or house church that wants to offer courses like these, but can't bring in someone to teach them, I'd hate to know it was because of money! Likewise, if a church had been blessed by God financially so that they are able to generously bless those who teach Scripture, and wanted to offer these type of courses to their congregation, I see that as God's sovereign way of handling the provisions for those He calls to minister to His Bride. :)

So at the risk of sounding shameless in self-promotion, please share this list of topics with your Pastor, ministry leader, or other Christians who might be interested. And if they are, have them email me at jamesmichael7@yahoo.com for scheduling and logistical discussions. (In fact, feel free to beg, or even camp outside their office door and go on hunger-strike until they agree...Pastors and Ministry Leaders love that kind of thing...)

Okay, this already sounds more like an infomerical than I'm comfortable with, so thanks for reading and helping to spread the word.


ps: And just to provide some extra street cred, Here's a not-at-all-posed-or-staged shot of me hard at work preparing amazing teaching experiences for one and all...

See all the books? Isn't this what you're supposed to do when marketing your services? That's what all those really credible and trustworthy local Law Firm commercials do, so it must be the way to go!

(Okay, I admit it...those aren't real books. They're really just a facade behind which to hide my secret cache of nunchucks, throwing stars, Simpsons DVDs and numerous 20th degree Black Belts in every deadly art known to man...including Indian Leg-Wrestling.)

Christians, Israel, the Law and Covenant...what's it all about??

Just wanted to let the Dojo readers know that there's a pretty good discussion between myself and a few friends regarding all these issues happening on one of my earlier posts. Check it out and tell others about it. This stuff is actually extremely relevant beyond the walls of theological discourse...



April 1, 2009

It's time for another song. If this doesn't fire you up...

...I don't know what will. There are few sounds I enjoy more than hip hop laid over solid instrumentals. And when the lyrics are on par with the best worship lyrics out there I like it even more! So if you're looking for something to play while driving, working out, or just whenever you want to worship God in an edgier way I recommend "Joyful Noise" by two of the best hip hop artists on the planet right now, Flame and Lecrae:


ps: and for Hip hop-illiterate out there, here's a link to the song with lyrics on the screen! :)

JM's Audio Teaching Archive

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

Bruce Lee quote of the day...