The Bible: Faith’s Basis

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that the Messiah (ESV: Christ) died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Does your faith depend on the Bible? Or does it depend on God? Is it believing in the Bible that makes someone right with God? Or is salvation the result of believing in Yeshua (Jesus)? I think even the most biblically impassioned would say their faith is in God, that their reconciliation is based upon what Yeshua did for them through his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead. While the Bible documents what God has done, it’s not faith in the Bible that saves us, but the faith to which the Bible testifies.

Does it follow then that our faith is not based on the Bible? A reasonable conclusion, no? Scholar N.T. Wright in his book “Scripture and the Authority of God” makes a good case for Scripture’s authority being understood as God’s authority exercised through Scripture. In other words, the Bible’s authority isn’t in and of itself. It has authority, but only as it is an expression of God’s authority.

I can see why some people would want to correct what they perceive to be an unhealthy overemphasis on Scripture. Obviously, the Bible isn’t God or a god. Without a vibrant, humble, and dynamic relationship to the God of the Bible, it can easily become an idol. Yeshua’s charge of hypocrisy on the part of some of the religious leaders of his day demonstrates how we can get wrapped up with Scripture, all the while being disconnected from the God whom it reveals. It’s so easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are being true to Scripture and yet have little or no connection to the one who inspired it.

But can we have authentic connection with God apart from Scripture? Yeshua didn’t seem to think so. After his resurrection, he joined two despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus incognito. We might think the key to convincing them of his identity would have been to show them that he had come back from the dead, but that’s not what he did. Instead he said to them:

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

The Messiah deemed it necessary to instruct his followers in the Scriptures first before revealing himself as the resurrected Lord. His resurrection was essential, but only within the context of Scripture.

Paul concurs as he states that both Yeshua’s death and resurrection were “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Without the Scriptures, meaning the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament), Yeshua’s resurrection is a paranormal phenomenon open to interpretation. Yes, five hundred plus people claimed to see him after he died (see 1 Corinthians 15:6), and there is good reason to regard their testimony (as documented in Scripture) as valid. But what it all means is not self-evident. The implications can only be understood via God’s written revelation. Without the Scripture, the resurrection is no basis for faith. What the resurrection does is confirm Scripture. The Jewish Bible was already true; the resurrection fulfills its anticipation, taking that truth to the next level in its historical development for both its original audience and the rest of the world.

So, while the resurrection confirms Scripture, our faith is based on the Bible after all. By the time the Hebrew Scriptures were completed, God had instilled in the Jewish people an understanding of God and life, which included their anticipation of a coming deliverer (aka “the Messiah”). The road to Emmaus was not the first time Yeshua appealed to Scriptural authority as the basis for who he was and what he was doing. Throughout his life, he lived according to its precepts and fulfilled its expectations. He understood like no other that these writings were endowed with his Father’s authority. Following his ascension to heaven, his Jewish followers continued to base their teaching on Scripture.

Seeking to base our faith on God and what he has done outside the bounds of Scripture not only leaves the Bible unnecessarily vulnerable to abuse, but also everything the Bible teaches, including God himself. This may seem overly reactive, but that’s only because at first such an approach appears to be a genuine reflection of God’s truth as revealed by Scripture. Yet once the biblical moorings are cut, it isn’t long before the content of our faith becomes skewed beyond recognition, and we find ourselves shipwrecked along with every other man-made attempt to remake God in our own image.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

How to Teach the Bible to Children Even When It Is Complex

 School kids raising hands in classroom

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

By Alan Gilman. Originally posted on the Gospel Coalition website (Canadian Edition), July 16, 2018.

While preparing to teach a Bible class at a small Christian classical academy, I encountered a sticky theological and philosophical issue, which I thought it best to avoid. These are only children after all. They can only handle so much, right? But as we read one of the passages that included the issue, which I was trying to avoid, a sixth-grade student raised their hand: “What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?”

I took a deep breath. How does one explain a biblical statement with significant implications regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility—something theologians and philosophers have grappled with for centuries and still do? I shared with the class that there are also references to Pharaoh’s hardening his own heart, that there appears to be an interplay between Pharaoh’s stubbornness and God’s response to it. Whatever I said and however I said, it seemed to satisfy the student and the class (at least for the time being).

I share this story to show that children can handle complex concepts when given the opportunity. They are often more able to learn more than we give them credit for. In light of this, I want to share a few thoughts on teaching children the Bible and complex theological concepts.

Don’t Assume They Won’t Understand

In the mid-70s, I first encountered the ability of young people to grapple with deep theological concepts. I was a fairly new believer, and I was working at a large Jewish camp in Quebec. It wasn’t a religiously oriented camp, but we did have special programming on the Sabbath. I was still a relative novice regarding the Bible, but I’d become somewhat familiar with its contents pretty quickly. One Saturday morning I helped organize discussion groups where the children rotated from room to room for presentations and short discussions with a spiritual theme. I had found a book for children that covered some key Bible characters. I don’t remember why I chose the section on Job, but I was amazed at how keen the children were to discuss the issue of unjust suffering.

Years later, I played a taped lecture for my own children (the oldest was 16) by Cambridge University theologian and musicologist Jeremy Begbie. The lecture spoke on how particular aspects of music can uniquely illustrate important theological concepts. Not only did my kids understand it, they loved it!

I did, however, have to pause the recording and explain what Begbie was saying. Vocabulary choice and specialized technical terminology can be an obstacle at any age. But once the unfamiliar words were explained, my children grasped and retained the teaching. I am not saying that all children can grasp a high level of complexity, but the assumption that they necessarily require simplicity is unfounded.

Accessible Does Not Mean Easy

Our own general approach to the Bible as adults plays a part in how we oversimplify Scripture in order for children to understand its precepts. The Protestant Reformation provided a much-needed correction with regard to the individual’s relationship to the Bible: it was rightly understood that every believer should have unfettered access to Scripture.

But wresting control of biblical understanding from church leaders, thus providing large-scale accessibility of the Scriptures to the masses, doesn’t make the Bible easy to understand. Yet that appears to be what a lot of people expect. They think, if we can sufficiently understand the Bible without formal theological training, then understanding it must be easy-peasy. But that’s not a logical conclusion. Ability to do something doesn’t imply that it’s easy to do.

Do the Hard Work of Exploring Theology

If we allow ourselves to be honest about the Bible, we might accept that much of it is difficult to understand. Tragically, we too often cope with the difficulty by oversimplifying our theology. Preachers can succumb to the temptation of portraying themselves as biblical experts, reducing multidimensional, ambiguous, nuanced stories into moralistic, formulaic sayings. If anything, the Bible repeatedly forces us to stop and think, inviting us to ponder and plumb its depths.

Does this mean that understanding the Bible is only for highly trained professionals? No, the problem isn’t our inability to understand the Scriptures’ complexities, but that we are too easy on ourselves, insisting that it be simple when it is not. Proverbs 2 encourages us to seek for wisdom as hidden treasure. That’s back-breaking, difficult, and sometimes confusing work, but it’s worth it and it’s doable.

When I teach the Bible to adults, I am aware that many are used to simple teaching. But that doesn’t stop me from exposing them to its grand vistas and unsearchable depths. I am careful to explain my terminology but confident that human beings made in God’s image and indwelt by the Holy Spirit are more than able to grasp the intricacies of theological complexity when given the chance.

If children can, so can you. To help children plumb the depths of Scripture, we need to first take the time to ponder, not just read. It can be surprising how much more we can get out of our reading by taking time to think it over.

Don’t neglect the author. Pray for God’s illumination before, during, and after you read. As you are able, set extra time aside to study passages of interest or difficulty. After you have prayerfully searched the Scriptures, look up what others have written. If you are not theologically trained, you can ask someone to point you to reliable resources. The more you grapple with the complexity of Scripture, the better you will be able to draw your children into the vastness of God’s revelation.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

The Indivisible Scriptures

Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts side by side

Hebrew & Greek biblical manuscripts

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)

This past spring, popular megaplex church leader, Andy Stanley, presented a three-part sermon series, entitled “Aftermath,” described on his church’s website as: “Jesus’ resurrection launched a series of events that introduced the world to his new covenant and new hope. But old ways don’t easily give way. Not then. Not now” (http://northpoint.org/messages/aftermath/). In part three of the series  Stanley claims that the early Jewish believers called for a sharp disconnect between the fledgling New Covenant community and the Hebrew Scriptures. Much can be said to critique Stanley’s approach and many of his specific statements, but what I wish to demonstrate here is that his attempt to undermine the ongoing authority of the whole Bible is not new. From the ancient heretic Marcion, who claimed the New Testament “god” was different from the Old Testament “god” to the Nazi-inspired “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life” to Andy Stanley’s attempt to make Christianity “irresistible,” there have been all sorts of intentional schemes to tear the Hebrew Scriptures away from Christianity. While many believers immediately reject such anti-biblical ideologies, you may be surprised to discover how common negative views of the Old Testament really are.

Two gods?

Do you find how God is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures overly harsh? If so, you may be further along the road to Marcionism than you may realize. Refusal to accept that the God who commanded Joshua to exterminate the nations of Canaan is the same God who through Jesus blessed little children and offers you forgiveness, then you may actually believe in two (non-existent) gods. The one God of the entire Bible may be difficult to understand, but not impossible. God himself succinctly expressed his complex and integrated character to Moses:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

“Merciful and gracious… but who will by no means clear the guilty.” God is both merciful and just. From Genesis to Revelation, God is always and forever consistent with himself.

Breaking an essential bond

We break the connection between Old and New Testaments every time we create illegitimate contrasts between them. For example, when Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of old” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), are taken to mean “You have heard that it was written to those of old,” that assumes that Jesus is contradicting, not interpreting, Moses. Is not twisting “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (Torah) or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17) into abolishing the Torah and the Prophets an attempt to unhitch the New from the Old? And this is in spite of what Jesus says in the second half of that same verse: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”? “Fulfill” here cannot mean “to put an end to.” Rather, it indicates Jesus’s intention to demonstrate bringing the Hebrew Scriptures to their fulness by truly living them out and to equip others to do the same.

This would be a good place for me to clarify that there are indeed contrasts between the Testaments. How Scripture is to be understood and applied must be in light of our living in the Messianic age – these days of the New Covenant since Jesus’s coming. The Levitical sacrificial system is no longer in force nor is the Israelite theocracy, even though the sacrifice of the Messiah and his kingly role are central. The homogeneous makeup of Israel as the people of God has been extended to the ingrafting of the nations without the need of initiation rites. Yet this reconstitution of God’s covenant relationship to his people should not lead us to assume a casting away of the foundational function of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the unconditional, eternal promises to Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But doesn’t John chapter one, verse seventeen, for example, distance the New Testament from the Old? It reads: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” This wording is found in the King James Bible and many other, though not all, popular English versions. But the “but” isn’t in the Greek. It was added in these translations, because the translators deemed it to be implied. The problem is that the implication may be more due to prejudice towards the Hebrew Scriptures than sound scholarship.

The addition of “but” in this verse fuels the law vs. grace false dichotomy. Christians have often taken Paul’s insistence on faith being the sole basis of God’s acceptance as necessarily devaluing the books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was certainly concerned about an aspect of rabbinic teaching that regarded the embracing of Torah, not faith, as the sign of genuine covenant relationship with God. According to this traditional view, only born Jews and converts to Judaism can truly fulfill that role. The New Covenant opens the door to non-Jews to find full acceptance by God outside of the community of Israel. The term “law” in such contexts is a reference to the rabbinic system they erroneously assumed to be based on Torah, rather than the contents of the Books of Moses themselves.

Grace isn’t an exclusively New Covenant concept. Paul demonstrates that right relationship with God has always been established on the basis of grace through faith. The term, “grace,” is to be understood as God’s enabling power freely given to those who trust him, as reflected through all those who have been faithful to him from Abel onwards. The  contrast between Moses and Jesus in John 1:17 is one of degree and application, hearkening back to Jesus’s words from Matthew about “fulfillment.” Grace doesn’t nullify the essential role of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the contrary, we can’t fully understand grace apart from it. Through Jesus the satanic oppression of sin is broken, thus enabling anyone anywhere to know the God of Israel and be filled with his Spirit. What was experienced by a few in a relatively small region of the world is now accessible to all everywhere through the New Covenant.

The Law as negative

Another way some disconnect the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament is even though they passionately value God’s Law, they do so only in a negative sense by focusing exclusively on how it demonstrates our need for God. Doesn’t Paul make a case for this?

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

The Torah’s function in illuminating the human sin problem is core, but is that it? Is this all that’s behind these words from Paul to Timothy?

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Are we made “complete” (meaning “mature”) and “equipped for every good work” by the Hebrew Scriptures showing us nothing but how sinful we are? You might think that’s why Paul told the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13) that Israel’s failure in the wilderness should act as an example – a bad example – to them. If so, you may have negative prejudicial glasses on. Israel did act badly. But how do we know this was ungodly behavior except that the Books of Moses plus commentary from the Psalms inform us of such? Paul’s goal for the Corinthians wasn’t only that they wouldn’t follow the bad example. It was that they would act in the desired godly manner as revealed in these Torah stories. The effectiveness of these examples is that they reflect the reality of life and God’s will regardless of the time period.

This is what Paul is talking about when he reminds Timothy that “all Scripture” is essential for godly living – “all Scripture” meaning, as it did in the entire early church, the Hebrew Bible, since there was no New Testament yet. Not only did Paul regard the Hebrew Scriptures as effective, they were also sufficient. This may be difficult for many Christians to accept, due to how much they are ignored, with or without the negative sentiments I have outlined. This in no way downplays the inspiration and authority of the New Testament. Rather it emphasizes how foundational and effective the Hebrew Scriptures were (and should still be) for believers.

The “Old” Testament

Then there’s the title itself, “the Old Testament.” You likely have never thought about how this way of referring to it devalues it. First, Old rather than New automatically sounds negative to modern ears as in “Tired of the same Old Testament? Try the new and improved one!” Of course, that might be due to we moderns’ overly positive take on progress. Be that as it may, it doesn’t accurately describe this sacred collection. It’s misleading, in fact. While the Old Covenant (“testament” being another word for “covenant”) given through Moses at Mt. Sinai plays a central role in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s revelation of truth in these writings isn’t limited to the covenantal arrangement itself.

There are obvious passages that are outside of the Sinai covenant. All of Genesis through Exodus chapter nineteen precede it. The Book of Job doesn’t have covenantal references nor do some of the prophetic messages given to non-Jewish nations. Even within the narrative context of the Sinai covenant itself and its specific directives (commandments), we discover universal truths about God and life that both predate and outlive it. This is why I prefer to use the term, “Hebrew Scriptures.”

The New Testament’s dependency on the Hebrew Scriptures

Finally, contrary to popular misconception, the New Testament doesn’t stand on its own. This is not to say that it can’t or should never be read on its own. It’s that it understands itself as being based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only is it filled with hundreds of direct quotes from, and allusions to, the older writings, the concepts of God, righteousness, sin, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, Messiah, the Holy Spirit, and on and on, are all deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. To read the New Testament apart from its scriptural context is to leave it open to great abuse and manipulation. To unhitch the Hebrew Scriptures from our faith is to cut ourselves loose from God himself.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Weather Changers

The words, "Extreme Weather Warning" superimposed upon a thermometer and an golden sky

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

It’s getting hot in more ways than one. After an unusually cool beginning to our summer, the Ottawa area, where I live, is about to be engulfed by a significant heat wave. The anticipated temperature for our national holiday, Canada Day, this Sunday, July 1, is 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit). That’s high enough. But with the humidity, it may feel more like an all-time record-breaking 47 C (116.6 F)!

Such heat can be very oppressive. No energy. No motivation. It’s nearly impossible to think.

Also oppressively hot is the current social environmental condition. With yet another setback against religious freedom in Canada earlier this month when our supreme court decided against Trinity Western University, the heat of secularization continues to melt the traditional values that undergirds Canadian society. Certainly, a liberal culture claiming to celebrate diversity would have even a bit of room for an excellent, well-established and distinctly Christian educational institution to train lawyers. But no, a different kind of diversity prevails. One that enforces a new morality of sexual expression intolerant of biblical values.

The normal response to a heat way is escape. Hunker down. Stay cool until it passes. But is this how God wants us to respond to the growing encroachment of government forces? Just wait for the weather to change?

And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. (Matthew 8:25-26; ESV)

What would you think if I told you that God calls us to be weather changers? Am I stretching the metaphor beyond reasonable limits? Think about it. Are we not followers of the great Weather Changer himself? Remember the disciples in the boat, thinking they are about to die by drowning due to a massive storm, while the Master was asleep in the back? Several of them were weather experts, being fishermen. Based on conventional wisdom, they weren’t overreacting. They were finished as far as they were concerned. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus (or “Yeshua” as they would have called him) completely changed their environment. He didn’t simply hold off the devastating effects of the extreme weather event. The result was a complete positive transformation  – “a great calm” (Matthew 8:26).

This story is designed to encourage us to confront extreme weather – not so much about the impending heat wave. Better than that! We are reminded that when we are in the boat of life with the Messiah, we are not to view ourselves as victims of our environment, praying for nothing more than survival. We are to be weather changers.

Following Simon Peter’s confident declaration of Yeshua’s messianic identity, Yeshua said “I will build my kehillah (English: assembly, congregation, church) , and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Gets pretty hot the closer you get to Hell. But once we are assured that Hell won’t win, we can relentlessly storm its gates.

If we are overwhelmed by the heat, we may find ourselves like the disciples in the boat, thinking it’s all over. Yeshua may not be sleeping, but he may as well be, given how things are going. But when was the last time you sought to arouse him, allowing him to size up the situation, and watch him do the impossible? That won’t happen as long as you think Hell is winning.

While I am not looking forward to the weekend weather, it will pass. As for the current social climate, that’s another thing. Hell’s heat isn’t going to dissipate on its own. By prayer and his Word, God has given us what we need to refresh a sweltering oppressive culture.

Want to help me change the weather?

Be a weather changer by partnering with me. Click here to donate now.

Truth in a Soundbite Culture

Word cloud contrasting truth with fake news, etc.

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Never before have we been fed so much information in such condensed packages. At one time soundbites dwelt solely in the domain of radio and tv news. These audible quotes served the purpose of supporting or illustrating the main points of a story. For example,

News anchor: Mayor Jones reserved special praise for his team of volunteers after winning his third term.

(Cut to Mayor Jones soundbite) “I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for your tireless and sacrificial service without which we wouldn’t be here today!” (Boisterous applause and cheers)

The soundbite in this fictional account doesn’t add much in the way of information, rather it draws the listener or viewer into the mood of the occasion that mere description tends to lack. Soundbites continue to be used this way, which is fine. I have no issue with the soundbite itself, it’s that it has become all too common as the culture’s chief communication medium. This is not to say that the traditional soundbite hasn’t been misused. It is all too easy to isolate a comment or part of a comment to create a false narrative. Quotes taken out of context are no different from outright lying, especially when done intentionally. But even apart from intention the soundbite as an information nugget is always somewhat dangerous because for it to effectively represent reality it must be presented within its original context. Otherwise there is no control on how it might be taken.

Soundbites and context

We are not normally conscious of how context controls even the simplest of communication. When you walk down the street you don’t abruptly stop at the corner because the red octagonal sign tells you to. Neither do drivers of vehicles require a “go” sign. Stop signs don’t state, “Vehicles stop here before proceeding when safe.” They simply display the word “STOP.” The humans are expected to understand the intent of the command, which we do most of the time. We are not conscious of the vast amount of prior knowledge that is assumed for the stop sign to be effective. Soundbites function in a similar manner. As long as their context is sufficiently grasped, they can communicate effectively and truthfully. Without that context, they are meaningless at best and misleading at worst.

We live in a soundbite culture. Not that it is due to the soundbite itself, but that most of the information we consume today is presented in very small bits. Technically these are not all soundbites. They are headlines, memes, short clichés, scripted and non-scripted talking points, and brief portions of larger items. How many of us simply peruse social media without taking the time to thoroughly read the accompanying article when there is one. We watch clips of interviews, not the whole interview. Even then, entire interviews are rarely available. Instead we are given edited versions tailored to suit the agenda of the information provider.

The soundbite culture feeds on itself. We have easy access to more information and a greater variety of information resources as at no other time in history. It isn’t possible to take it all in, however, and so we scan and skim, thinking we are in the know. But there is no way to retain all the bits of information we scan, and due to the soundbite nature of the information, we are acquiring impressions not content. After all, soundbites provide mood and illustration, not information. That we also tend to engage information sources solely according to our own ideological preferences further skews our perception of reality.

Truth and reality

Truth is the word we use to describe reality. If someone says it is raining, then they are creating an image in our minds of a weather condition that has the potential of affecting how we might prepare to go out. Either it is indeed raining, confirming that the statement “it is raining” is true, or it is not, thus rendering the statement false. This illustrates what truth is. Much of life is far more complicated than whether or not it is raining. As in the case of the stop sign, even a simple example assumes a very complex context, but the essence of the nature of truth is clear. Truth requires matching what is being communicated to reality.

Traditional soundbites, quotes, headlines, and other examples of concise communication by their very nature cannot convey truth. They can potentially highlight it, illustrate it, even summarize it. But as standalone isolated phenomena they are not sufficiently capable of being a vehicle of truth. Reality by its very nature is complex. Even the smallest cell is an intricately complex system. How much more are human affairs. Yet we seem to be satisfied with boxing up complex issues into supposedly manageable simplistic categories. It’s far easier to define people with terms like “left” and “right,” for example, than to take the time and energy to unpack who they really are and what they are truly saying. Complexity cannot be captured in soundbites. The only way to effectively communicate truth is to give it the time and energy it deserves.

Anyone interested in communicating truth needs to accept the reality of our soundbite culture. But accepting it as the overwhelming driving force it is needn’t mean we have to play by its rules. And how can we? If truth can’t be conveyed in a soundbite culture, truth providers have to play by a different set of rules altogether.

Building a culture of truth

Some of the most successful players within new media aren’t playing the soundbite game. Who would have thought that some of the most popular YouTube videos would be in the form of three-hour-long, in-depth political analysis shows? If the trend continues, it’s likely that traditional media companies will get on board and provide similar long-format shows.

This is not to say that long-form communication always equals truth. Inaccuracy and deception aren’t dependent on format. On the other hand, long-form is necessary for truth, because truth is dependent on context which is always larger than a soundbite container.

Recently a Facebook friend posted an image of a very nasty message on a religious organization’s outdoor sign. The sign was taken as evidence of the alleged nefarious nature of this type of group. The problem is both the sign and the organization were faked. All it took on my part was a quick web search. It turns out that there is a website that allows users to create realistic photos of various signs by adding your own wording. This is potentially damaging stuff. But it can only do damage within a soundbite culture. I posted a correction along with a suggestion to delete the post, which they did.

This is one way we can work to restore truth in a soundbite culture. However, no one person can analyze and respond to every soundbite. But if more of us insist that information be provided with supporting context, then perhaps others will become more sensitive to this need.

What we expect from others, we need to demand from ourselves. To be part of the solution and not the problem requires that we no longer give in to soundbite culture’s lure. We should make sure we do the necessary factchecking before posting something, and, even better, draw people into the necessary depths of real information by only sharing within broader context. This likely would entail sharing less often, but then what we do share will be that much more accurate and effective.

The Bible’s role in building truth culture

As God’s only authoritative inspired revelation, the Bible is the remedy for any form of information breakdown, soundbite culture included. But in order to effectively communicate God’s written Truth in a soundbite culture, we need to do so on the Bible’s own terms. The Bible isn’t a collection of soundbites, but rather a complex, profound, and remarkably cohesive collection of diverse writings.

Understanding the Bible requires great sensitivity to context. Because of the lack of biblical literacy in our society, something that was taken for granted not that long ago, we can’t broadcast quotes, memes, and pithy sayings based on Scripture and expect them to be understood. That some people are courageous enough to bear the stigma of flashing “John 3:16” at a large public gathering is commendable. But who today knows what John 3:16 means, let alone grasp the depths of biblical truth within this verse. I expect that there are some people who, deep down in their hearts, have retained the genuine meaning of such a Bible verse, and who when encountering such signs may be awakened to its ancient Truth, but these people are quickly disappearing.

An adequate defense

Peter reminds us to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). A simple “I believe in Jesus” doesn’t cut it today. To give a reason for our hope requires a careful and sensitive unpacking of biblical truth. That might be difficult at a bus stop, but quite possible if you continue the conversation on the bus.

Years ago, I heard Edith Schaeffer, wife of Francis Schaeffer, speak on one of her favorites subjects, “Christianity Is Jewish.” She even wrote a book on it. As she related stories of discussing this subject with interested folks, she would say how she would resist giving quick answers on this topic. Instead she would arrange another time to sit down and explain in detail. Quick answers, such as “Jesus was Jewish,” or “the early Christians were Jewish” accomplishes little. So much misunderstanding has occurred on this essential biblical topic that it takes time and patience to properly unpack it. It’s the same for almost any biblical topic today. We do no one a favor by shortchanging them on Truth with soundbite theology.

Does this mean that biblically based soundbites (Bible verses, pithy sayings, etc.) have absolutely no place today? Not necessarily, as long as you make sure to also provide their broader context. Putting up a stop sign where needed and understood is helpful. Traffic signs that do nothing but confuse, kill people. Before sharing a soundbite, think carefully of how it will be taken. Use soundbites to point to a well-thought-out article or book. You can lead people directly to the Bible as long as you don’t create an expectation that it, too, is an expression of soundbite culture by being nothing more than a collection of heart-warming sayings.

The biblical context

How you yourself read the Bible makes all the difference. The soundbite culture drives you to mine the Bible for soundbites. We might call it reading, but how many of us who read the Bible with any measure of regularity don’t actually read it at all. Instead we skim a chapter or part of a chapter hoping to find a nugget that might warm our hearts.

But didn’t Yeshua (Jesus) quote Bible verses? Yes, but he understood them within context. It would have been common for Jewish men like himself in those days, regardless of his being the Son of God, to have at least the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) memorized. Insisting we read the Bible within context is the first step to overcoming the control of soundbite culture. Almost every statement of Scripture is related somehow to its immediate and broader context. Think of how the Bible opens with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To some extent this is an introductory statement, but it actually assumes prior knowledge of the concepts therein. God is not explained. Besides the fact that he is never fully explained in Scripture, the only way to gain a reasonable grasp of God’s identity and character is to keep on reading. It isn’t until early in Genesis chapter twelve that the reader is given sufficient information to identify God. This is when he first associates himself with Abraham and the Promised Land, which is the primary context of almost all the rest of Scripture.

Considering context when reading and studying the Bible must be done on several levels and all at the same time. This needn’t be as daunting as it might sound, especially if we are patient with the process. Words need to be understood within the context of the phrases and paragraphs they are in. Just because a word means something in one context doesn’t mean it means that in all contexts. Every sentence or paragraph is also part of a sectional context which in turn is an essential part of its book. Each book needs to be read within the scope of the overall unfolding of the entire Scripture. Paul’s letters, for example, would make no sense unless they are read knowing that the long-awaited Messiah has come. The older books of Nehemiah and Esther are meaningless unless one understands the Babylonian Exile. Finally, in order to grasp how the historical scope of Scripture functions, one must also be aware of the overall storyline.

God’s epic story

Tragically, many attempts to describe the storyline of the Bible is through a collection of soundbites. Instead of highlighting the actual story elements of Scripture, it has been all too common to exclusively focus on its Messianic highlights. Messianic expectation and fulfillment is an absolutely essential aspect of Scripture. Without it we are all lost. Even so, the messianic component of Scripture is a theme of the story, not the story itself. Yet by focusing almost solely on the messianic theme, we are reinforcing the soundbite culture not confronting it.

But if the messianic component is not the story, what is? The Bible is God’s epic story of his rescue of his creation through Abraham and his descendants. Paul’s soundbite on this is found in the book of Galatians (remember, there is nothing wrong with soundbites in and of themselves. Within context, they can be most helpful). Paul writes, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Galatians 3:8).

This greatly packed statement is a wonderful summary of the biblical narrative. And yet soundbite culture has skewed its meaning. The common assumption that the term “gospel” is code for “Jesus died for your sins,” collapses this inspired summary of the plans and purposes of God as revealed in the Bible into a prooftext of overly individualized disconnected spirituality. If the gospel (good news) is no more than a reference to what Jesus did, then mining the Bible for messianic soundbites is in order. But the good news is much bigger than that. The sacrificial death of the Messiah is core to the Bible’s story, but it isn’t the whole story. Paul’s soundbite summarizes how the nations are included within God’s rescue operation of the creation. The good news is since Jesus is now King, the curse that has oppressed the creation and its inhabitants since Adam and Eve’s initial disobedience has been broken, thus providing the opportunity for every tribe, nation, and language to experience the blessing first promised to Abraham.

Conclusion

Experiencing and being the instrument of God’s blessing requires we confront the soundbite culture. Attempting to reduce truth into bite-sized digestibles, robs it of its fullness. Thus, the soundbite culture misrepresents reality. Through Scripture we have been entrusted with the only divinely authorized resource that can break the destructive nonsense derived from oversimplification. Let’s not buy into soundbite culture any longer. Instead, let’s embark on the long and sometimes difficult journey of complex truth. It may be challenging at times, but well worth it, not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Facing Obstacles Canadian Style

Something most unusual happened as I was getting back to Ottawa from my Vancouver Island trip Monday night. As the passengers on my flight disembarked, the door at the end of the Jetway leading to the terminal building was locked with no airport personnel in sight. It was so strange after being cooped up in an airplane for over four and a half hours to feel trapped like that. You can’t correctly perceive the number of people via the photo above, since I was near the front.

But facing this obstacle in itself was not the most unusual part. It was how this group of mainly Canadians (myself included) handled it. It was virtually silent. We just stood there until someone came along to let us out. Perhaps a passenger went back to the plane and said something. I have no idea. But, however long we stood there, it was calm and quiet. I would guess that in many other places in the world, a near riot would have broken out. But not in Canada’s capital!

I suspect that most of you would regard how we handled this situation as exemplary. There was no need to panic, not that there ever is. Yet, I wonder what was going on inside people’s hearts. The silence may have been due to a slight case of shock, since it was so unexpected. And we were tired after the flight. But wouldn’t a little bit of verbal processing have been therapeutic, not to mention get the door unlocked sooner?

I have often wondered how much Canadian politeness is actually unhealthy fear of exposing our true thoughts and feelings. I know that in spite of our apparent self-control, much complaining goes on. But perhaps that too stems from our inability to properly deal with truth and reality.

Canadians are often viewed as some of the nicest humans on Planet Earth. Much of that is genuine, I am sure, and yet our most popular sport, hockey, is one of the most violent activities outside of war that has ever existed. Great sport, but I wouldn’t call it “nice.” Might we Canadians possess an inordinate amount of unresolved aggression? Just asking.

How much help of all kinds isn’t being received, because too many people resist being fully honest with themselves and others. The good news of the Messiah in its fullest expression includes infinite resources to heal and help with every kind of need there is. But until we give ourselves permission to express what is really going on with our lives, the door to God’s provision will remain shut to us.

Reason To Celebrate: Reflections on Israel’s 70th Anniversary

Illustration depicting celebrating Israel's 70th anniversary

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children. (Isaiah 66:8)

I just returned from a very fruitful time teaching to a wide variety of groups on Vancouver Island. I was primarily in the Victoria area, but also presented my “God’s Epic Story” seminar in Ladysmith about an hour north of there.

Being in one of the most beautiful regions on this planet during a very gorgeous time of year wasn’t lost on me. The Lord provided all sorts of wonderful surprises along the way, both in terms of delightful scenic spots and in spending time with old and new friends.

But a week ago Monday was especially difficult for me as it marked 70 years since the birth of the modern state of Israel (according to the Gregorian calendar) and the U.S. became the first country to move its embassy to the capital, Jerusalem. That wasn’t the difficult part,however. What was difficult was the time I spent scanning major Canadian news sources only to discover that they buried the story and/or portrayed it as a Palestinian tragedy. That was a day of Palestinian tragedy is clear, but none of these news outlets provided the kind of complex coverage needed to paint an accurate picture of the whole situation.

The entire world would do well to applaud the achievements of the State of Israel in spite of – even because of -all its challenges. That we have lived to see this day is a great privilege. For 2000 years the Jewish people were relegated to the fringes of both history and the world community. Only a few, first among Christians and only later Jews, aligned themselves with God’s promises in the Bible, and began to envision the return to Zion. Against all odds, from the early Jewish settlers until now, Israel has not only survived, but thrived, and has become a blessing to the world through its advancements in all kinds of technology, all the while facing an existential threat each and every day.

To miss this great accomplishment is to be blind to a miracle of God.

Those who can’t accept Israel’s existence, but rather believe they have a claim on the Jewish people’s divine inheritance understandably cannot join in the celebration. I do believe that the bulk of responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians falls on the shoulders of their own leadership. The refusal to negotiate in good faith and to work toward a compromise agreeable to both parties has been the cause of ongoing strife and unnecessary suffering.

That the media in Canada and elsewhere allows the arrogance and nearsightedness of the Palestinian leadership to define the narrative is absolutely irresponsible and fuels the deception and destruction. Israel cannot compete for media attention when groups like Hamas allow civilians, including children, to purposely be in harm’s way. Such tactics must be condemned. We should insist that all terrorist activity stop, and not be given a public platform in the meantime.

The establishment, survival, and thriving of Israel is a key component of the grand epic story of God as it demonstrates in such practical terms his enduring faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That all is not well shouldn’t distract us from celebrating this great milestone. At the same time, let us pray for the region that peace may come, and that King Messiah will reign over all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

In Celebration of Biblical Narrative: A Biblical Critique of Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan B. Peterson lecturing in Toronto

Jordan B. Peterson presenting the first of his series on “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories,” May 16, 2018, Toronto, Canada

How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep! (Psalm 92:5)

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Jordan Peterson & the Bible

You may have heard of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian university professor and psychologist, who first caught the public’s attention by posting a series of YouTube videos on why he would not submit to government-imposed compelled speech. Then a few months ago his extraordinary interview on British television with Channel 4’s Cathie Newman went viral. The occasion was the promotion of his latest book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” what has been #1 or thereabouts on Amazon for some time.

One of the most unusual things about Peterson’s teaching is his love for the Bible in spite of his own uncertainties about God. Last year he did a twelve-part public lecture series in Toronto called, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories,” where he endeavored to analyze several stories from the Book of Genesis within a strict psychological framework. His appreciation for Scripture isn’t isolated to talking about Bible stories. Biblical references are strewn throughout his “12 Rules” book.

We must keep in mind that Peterson doesn’t come to the Bible as a believer in its divine authorship. While not discounting the reality of a spiritual or mystical dynamic to Scripture, he treats the Bible as the product of higher consciousness, the result of billions of years of evolution. For him, that the Bible stories are no more than a fruit of human achievement doesn’t take away how incredibly profound they are. He continually marvels at the biblical narrative, saying such things as “this is something really worth thinking about for a very long time!” As someone who is driven by a desire to (in his words) “get to the bottom of things,” he proposes that in one case at least, the story of Cain and Abel, this may be a story with no bottom, in other words: infinitely profound.

Peterson’s awe of the Bible is refreshing, especially in a day when the mainstream regards it as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. It helps that he apparently tries to approach Scripture at face value without being burdened by theological and religious interests. He has no need to fit this or that into his own or anyone else’s theological or ideological systems, freeing him to fully ponder and to expound. He does have a particular perspective, however, which I will discuss below.

Peterson has certainly given us something to think about with regard to the depths of Scripture. The tendency among so many true believers is to overly simplify the Bible, as if the goal of God’s written Word is to make it as easy to understand as possible. There’s also the popular misconception that every passage only has one meaning. While it is appropriate to encourage people not to run wild with the text – a common occurrence throughout history, we cannot and should not diminish its depth.

Since the Bible’s origins are in God, should we not assume that its depth of meaning would be virtually infinite? Not that it can mean anything we want it to, but what it does mean is of such a complexity that we may never fully plunge its depths. I am not implying that it’s inappropriate to simplify it for children, for example. Part of the Bible’s ingenious complexity is that it can be engaged at every level of intelligence by every culture. Just because a child can appreciate a great classical symphony or novel doesn’t mean that such great works don’t also contain overly complex meaning to mine for generations. If scholars and others can wax eloquent over a Beethoven symphony, a Shakespearean play, or a da Vinci painting, how much more the divinely inspired written Word of God!

Peterson through an authentic biblical lens

Peterson’s apparent lack of theological bias doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring a particular perspective to Scripture. Apart from his evolutionary presuppositions, he views the unusual profundity of the Bible through the teaching of the highly influential psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Peterson understands many of the Bible stories in terms of “archetypes.” In generic, non-Jungian, terms, an archetype is a most basic, original, or best example of something. While the Jungian understanding of archetype includes the generic meaning, for Jung (and Peterson), archetypes are an expression of collective human consciousness. This is how they account for similarities found in ancient stories, biblical or otherwise. It is why certain themes in literature and film resonate so strongly across time and cultures. So, according to this way of thinking, at its core, the origin of archetypical stories emerged out of human imagination. As Peterson explains in his biblical lecture series, he understands God himself as a projection of human imagination. That doesn’t lead Peterson (at least in his own estimation) to diminish the concept of God or the benefits of belief. Yet combining a Jungian perspective with his passion for the Bible is potentially a dangerous path. Hereon in I will use prototype to refer to the generic, non-Jungian understanding of archetype to avoid associating it with the Jungian version.

Instead of accepting the Bible’s assertion that human beings are the creation of God, Peterson’s god finds his origin in human consciousness. This is where his take on Scripture collapses. On one hand, Peterson demonstrates a level of respect for the Bible that puts many believers to shame. But he doesn’t, at least at this time as far as I know, accept what the Bible actually says about the God who is at the center of the very stories he is enraptured with. On one hand, he is wonderfully overwhelmed that humans could have reached such a level of consciousness to come up with such profound stories, yet this necessarily implies that these same people were totally off base in their understanding of God, the Bible’s most central character.

Moreover, the Bible also clearly views its own origins as being inspired by God (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). Peterson would have to say that they either knew their claiming of divine inspiration wasn’t true or they were mistaken. If the former, then the Bible lacks integrity. If the latter, so much for higher consciousness!

Claiming that the stories are the result of highly developed imagination means they are made up. However, the Bible doesn’t present its narrative sections as expressions of imagination. Most of the most profound scriptural narratives, including describing the supernatural, are presented as occurring within normal everyday life. The Bible, for the most part, lacks the normal literary clues of fiction. So again, we face the integrity issue. Can we highly value a collection of writing that presents fiction as fact?

Is it reasonable to conclude that stories such as these could be the result of imagination? I am continually struck by how truth is stranger than fiction. The most unusual, interesting, encouraging, troubling, profound stories are the ones that really happened. Key to the belief in archetypical stories is that they reflect reality extremely accurately, not only as a record of fact, but due their impact on minds and hearts. That’s why great fiction draws upon classical themes. Attempts at fiction which are not rooted in reality and truth tend not to endure. Therefore, is it not more reasonable to assume that the power of the Bible’s stories is rooted in their actually happening instead of being fanciful projections of the mind?

The Bible’s inspiration is not solely found in its recording of actual events, but in how it presents its contents. The Bible doesn’t simply tell us what happened, it also provides insight into God’s involvement. For example, we are not only told that God created people, but that we are made in his image. We don’t just read about wild disasters endured by the Egyptians, but that they were initiated by God as an expression of love for his people. King Saul didn’t just slip into dysfunction, God gave him over to evil spirits because of his arrogance and insubordination. Yeshua didn’t just die an unjust death. He gave himself for our sins. That there were other interpretations of these events at the time is likely. God’s interpretation is what the Bible is all about.

A most profound book

Yet, in spite of Peterson’s Jungian misunderstandings, he is still correct about the profound nature of Scripture. Years ago, I knew someone who was enamored with the stars to the point that he knew all their names. He was an atheist, and yet gazing at the stars filled him with not only awe and wonder but appreciation as well. That he had no one to whom to express that appreciation didn’t prevent him from such a sensation. His rejecting the stars’ divine origin didn’t prevent him from regarding them as profound. Astronomy is worthy of human investment whether or not God is explicitly acknowledged. I assert that knowing the Creator puts that sphere of study on its best footing and increases the potential for understanding. Still, as God’s creation, they themselves are worthy of awe. A person needn’t know the painter of a great painting to appreciate it. It’s the same with the Bible. What makes Peterson so unique is that he hasn’t given into the prevailing political correct view of this book, which has provided the foundation for what’s good in Western Civilization. He is able to appreciate it on a great many levels regardless of its origin.

If Peterson is in awe of the Bible, how much more should we who accept its divine origins be in awe? That these narratives reveal God shouldn’t lead us to acknowledge that and nothing more. It’s not as if giving him credit for the Bible’s creation is its only objective. That God is at the core of Scripture should lead us further into its depths, not keep us in superficiality.

God chose Scriptural narrative as his fundamental teaching tool. That’s why there is more to learn from a very brief Bible story than volumes of abstract explanations. We learn about the value of marriage from Adam’s reaction to seeing Eve for the first time. We are confronted with the loneliness and challenge of being faithful to God through Noah building an ark for years and years. We are encouraged that we can be useful at any stage of life by God’s call of an elderly, childless man to be a blessing to the entire world. We are invited into grappling with life’s utter confusion when that same man is directed to sacrifice his miracle son. We learn about the pain of character transformation through Jacob’s wrestling with God. We are given the gift of how to be free from the trap of bitterness through Joseph’s forgiving his murderous brothers. We discover that God can use us in spite or great wrong by his choosing of Moses. We are exposed to the reality of becoming a leader the hard way through David’s hiding from jealous Saul. I am not saying that these are the only things that can be gleaned from these stories. We can pick any of these or others and make long lists of additional helpful insights, not to mention that each item on these lists may be further expounded virtually forever.

The Messiah: fulfillment & illumination

A word about how the Messiah functions within the Scriptural narrative: Yeshua’s unique role is often misdirected to eclipse, rather than illumine, the rest of the Bible. While it is right to emphasize his person and work as “fulfilling” the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Covenant’s sense of fulfillment doesn’t mean “to finish off something” or “to put an end to something.” Rather it means “to bring it to the full,” thus providing all sorts of color and texture to the older stories that were not as clear before. Far from diminishing and devaluing the Old Testament stories, Messiah’s coming allows us to delve even deeper into the Bible’s depths. Not only does Yeshua brings fuller meaning to Scripture, under the New Covenant we are also offered the gift of the Holy Spirit, freely given to believers both as God’s agent of Scriptural illumination and the one who enables us to live out the Scriptures effectively.

Yeshua is the Bible’s central prototypical character. The way he embodies the Hebrew Scriptures is uncanny. This leads some scholars to deem the earlier writings as unnecessary. But that misses the point. Instead, Yeshua’s unique character gives greater meaning and integrity to the grand narrative. Is it not reasonable that when the God who revealed Scripture, embodies himself that even the smallest detail of his written revelation would be found in him? The ways Yeshua incorporates the Scripture should send us back to these stories over and over again to discover more and more of the treasures of knowledge and wisdom they contain.

Delving into the Bible’s depths

The Bible is indeed full of prototypical stories. What Paul writes regarding Israel’s wilderness wanderings is true for all scriptural narrative: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6). These stories are not simple moral tales or allegorical pictures of otherwise lofty spiritual principles. There is something about these real-world events that reflect the truth of God and life in a way no other stories can. Other stories may or may not echo biblical truth, but the authentic prototype for those truths is only to be found in the Bible. And that these stories really happened to real people just like us in real places and times invites us to not only engage these stories but share in similar experiences today.

What prevents us from being in a state of rapturous awe worthy of the Bible’s divinely inspired depth? I have already mentioned the tendency to overly simplify or be limited by strict theological categories. The former keeps us superficial. The latter blinds us from unfamiliar and unexpected insights. In addition, misunderstanding the grand narrative of the Bible undermines the richness of its overarching story. Neglecting its story reduces it to a collection of disconnected moralistic principles. Spiritualizing Israel, for example, skews the concrete aspects of Scripture into overly interpretive abstract concepts. This all results in a theological and philosophical commentary overlaid upon the pages of Scripture, thus fooling us into thinking we are reading the Bible when we are actually rehashing our preconceived ideas. What can be more boring than that!

But the Bible isn’t boring. If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by its depths as we grapple with how to live godly lives in these difficult times, we will discover fresh heavenly nourishment each and every day. And most importantly, unlike the great classic works, the Bible’s author is alive and available for consultation. Therefore, we needn’t be intimidated by the challenge of delving into Scriptures’ depths. God will be our guide.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version