Thursday, July 24, 2014

Acts 8:30-31: The Need for Good Bible Teachers

So Philip ran up to it [the chariot] and heard him [the Ethiopian eunuch] reading the prophet Isaiah.  He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"  He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"  And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him (Acts 8:30-31 NRSV).
A few semesters back I had a challenging student.  She was a young woman who knew her Bible quite well (or maybe we should say that she was well-versed in her particular theological interpretation of the Bible), and she was notably devoted to her faith.  She wore full-length skirts every day and remarked in class once about not watching television at home.  So she was both knowledgeable and pious (others would say legalistic, but that is a different discussion).  Either before or after class, she liked to stop me and chat for a few minutes about a Bible verse or tell me about her pastor's message from the previous Sunday.  Our cordial relationship quickly went south, though, when I talked about the Christian doctrine of Trinity one day in class.  See, this young woman belonged to a Oneness Pentecostal denomination.  Her denomination taught that the doctrine of the Trinity was a manmade tradition added over time to the beliefs of Christianity.  So that day she stayed after class to ask some questions about the Trinity (or at least that's what I initially thought was happening).  I tried my best to explain the belief to her and tried to show her Scriptures that pointed in that direction.  But, as I found out, she wasn't staying after class to learn or have her questions answered.  She was staying to argue.  This was an opportunity to convert the professor (ironically, I try my best not to impose my beliefs on students but often times students try to impose their beliefs on me).  Once I realized what was happening, I became irritated.  I cut the conversation off after a laborious 50 minutes.  I actually had to go to my next class.  The student, however, was not content with letting the conversation go.  Over the weekend, she starting sending me a string of emails with Bible verses and theological assertions.  She kept tossing around statements like, "Jesus is God."  And, "God's name is Jesus."  She pummeled me with red-lettered verses: "I and the Father are one."  I emailed back and clarified myself.  Growing frustrated, I told her she was free to believe however she wanted, but she needed to know that her position was an extreme minority within global and historic Christianity.  If she was right, the vast majority of her brothers and sisters in Christ were wrong.  I told her to ponder that.  Obviously that statement provoked her.  The final email she sent me was equally provocative.  She claimed that the Bible was an easy document to understand.  If one just had faith and the guidance of the Spirit, one could understand the truths contained therein.  You don't have to have academic degrees or credentials to understand the Bible.  You don't have to be some kind of professor or scholar; you just need to be a person of faith.  The implication was obvious.  She by faith understood the truth.  I, the academic type, was blinded to the truth by my intellectualism.  I sent her one more email.  In this email I told her I would no longer speak with her about this particular subject.  That was the end of it.  She didn't speak to me much the rest of the semester.  At the end, she got an "A" and moved on.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ecclesiology: The Red-Headed Stepchild

Among evangelical Protestants, too little attention has been paid to the doctrine of the church-- what it really means to be Christ's body in and for the world (Howard A. Snyder, The Community of the King).
Earlier this year I read a couple minor news stories involving mega-church pastors, stories that probably went under the radar for most folks.  Both stories have continued to stick with me because of one intriguing commonality: utilitarian logic.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Bum with the Guitar

I parked my green commuter bike next to a rusted old black bike rack.  Nearby sat a bum on a park bench, strumming a cheap acoustic guitar.  His melodies were barely discernible over the ambient noise of the lunch hour traffic.  Try not to make eye contact, I thought.  Avoidance-- the great urban defense mechanism.  If I acknowledge this man’s presence, he will just ask me for money, I rationalized.  A gentle voice speaking inside: “Don’t ignore this man.”  I turned to the man and smiled.  “I’ll watch your bike for you,” he said.  Later I returned and the man was still there, playing his guitar and guarding my bike.  An unexpected conversation.  The man played a simple gospel song for me.  Be careful of tuning out the world, I learned.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Hindu and the Christian

Two great thinkers walked through the woods together.  For awhile they were silent.  Enjoying the presence of one another, listening to the sounds of nature, and watching the world around them.  The Hindu was the first to break the silence.  “As I observe that which surrounds me, I see God everywhere.  I see God in the plants.  I see God in the animals.  And I see God in you, my friend.”  The Christian smiled; he had been thinking something similar.  “I agree,” he said.  “Everywhere I see the fingerprints of the Creator, especially in you and me.  In us I see the image of the Creator, and I feel in my bones that the life coursing through my veins is a life breathed into me by my Maker.”  The Hindu nodded in response and the two walked further, once again falling into silent reflection.  The next time the Christian broke the silence.  “As I observe the world around me, I see that in God we live and move and have our being.”  The Hindu smiled; he had been thinking something similar.  “Yes,” the Hindu replied.  “I see that too, and, as I reflect, I give the name Brahman to God and the name Atman to the life I have in myself.”  The two continued to walk together in quiet meditation until they came to a fork in the road.  The Hindu gestured to the left.  “Let us go this way, my friend.  As I look down this path, I see that not only are we made in God’s image, but we are God.  All is one.  Atman and Brahman are one.”  The smiled disappeared from the Christian’s face.  He looked at the path on the right.  “I’m sorry, my friend, but I can walk with you no further.”  The Christian wished the Hindu well, shook his hand, and quickly disappeared down the path that led to the right.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Merry Robin

A spring robin sang merrily in a majestic old oak tree.  Her breast shone brightly in the noonday sun.  She worked carefully on building her nest.  A well-placed stick.  A beak full of pine needles.  A bit of a vine.  All knit together into a home for her soon-to-be laid eggs.  Below on the forest floor a woodsman worked with an axe.  The old oak tree was attractive to him as well.  In the strong and tall limbs, the woodsman saw a rocking chair and a bookshelf.  Whistling along with the merry robin, the woodsman swung the heavy axe with power and strength.  Up above, the robin continued to follow her maternal instincts, ignorant of the reality below.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Philosophy Matters

But there are some people, nevertheless-- and I am one of them-- who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.  We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy.  We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics).
The first college class I remember taking was Introduction to Philosophy.  The class met at 8:00am in a building that was subsequently torn down a year or two later.  I entered college as an undecided major.  Therefore, I spent my first year getting most of my general education requirements out of the way-- MUSC 100, PHIL 100, SOC 105, and BIOL 121 were my core classes fall semester.  Lots of folks seem to hate these general education classes.  They grumble and complain, asking, "Why do I have to take philosophy or public speaking or western civ?"  Many students imagine that these classes will never be "relevant" to them later in life (they are of course failing to appreciate the logic of a liberal arts education).  Introduction to Philosophy class being a prime example of this.  As far as I can tell, most students consider the study of philosophy to be a rather impractical burden.  Why spend a bunch of time reading arguments about the nature of truth by some stuffy old white guys?  Aristotle and Kant would appear to have little benefit to the average person (here, though, is a good article on why even plumbers should read Plato).  People universally ask, "Yes, but what practical value does this have to my life?"  I suppose this is a valid question.  Plato's utopian dream in Republic might not have a lot of direct application to stay-at-home mothers just trying to keep their sanity.  Aristotle's persistent insistence on moderation in Nicomachean Ethics might not have a lot of direct application to a chemist working in a laboratory (or maybe it should).  Plenty of books fail to have a practical application, especially if one doesn't attempt to put the book into practice (the Bible being a prime example!).  However, the mistake a lot of people make when looking at philosophy is believing that philosophy is inherently impractical.  That somehow thinking and ideas make little impact on the world around us.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  The way we think and the ideas we have leave an indelible mark on the way we live.  There is, therefore, nothing more practical than philosophy-- ideas matter and philosophy matters.

Monday, June 2, 2014

On Success

My senior year of high school our math department head administered a competitive test to the best math students in the school.  Maybe seven or eight students from each grade level were selected, meaning that about thirty students took the test.  The test consisted of only ten or twelve questions.  The questions were designed to be very difficult, require creative thinking, and challenge students to really stretch their minds.  I think the test lasted at least an hour, maybe even two.  Now this test was graded in a unique way.  You got something like 3 points for a correct answer, 1 point for a blank answer, and -1 point for a wrong answer.  This created an extra element of strategy to the test; guessing was not a good idea.  A blank test would receive more points than a test with a bunch of wrong guesses.  So you only wanted to answer the questions you were sure you knew how to answer.  I was one of the students hand-selected to take this test.