The Bible and the West Bank

Bethlehem as seen from the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem

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An unsettling view

This past September, I was standing on the balcony of my friend’s house in Jerusalem. From there, I had a great view of Bethlehem (pictured above). I just stood there and stared, trying to take it all in. The neighborhood we were in is Gilo. Before 1967 and the Six-Day War, this was Jordan, not Israel. My friend pointed out a house down below. The owner was born before 1967. He has a Jordanian passport. That’s because Gilo is on the other side of the “Green Line,” the 1949 armistice line, written with green marker at the end of Israel’s War of Independence.

Following the Six-Day War, Israel annexed Gilo, making it part of Israel proper as it did with the rest of Jerusalem. The world community, on the other hand, regards Gilo as an illegal settlement, like all the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Standing on that balcony, aware of the disputed status of the neighborhood, I felt agitated. While I fundamentally support the State of Israel, I was unsettled by world opinion.

Policy shifts

Last month, November 18, 2019, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, signified a shift in the State Department’s policy toward Israeli settlements in the West Bank, when he announced: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” The very next day, the United Nations overwhelmingly passed one of its one-sided anti-Israel resolutions that deems Israel as occupying Palestinian territory with no reference to Palestinian responsibility. Surprisingly, and marking its own policy shift, Canada supported the anti-Israel resolution, thus regarding the settlements, including where I was standing in Gilo, illegal.

Map based on UN Partition Plan of 1947 (click to enlarge)

The technicalities regarding the legal standing of the West Bank are far more complicated than what many think. The West Bank, a Jordanian designation for the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria, wasn’t intended to be part of Jordan. Jordan annexed it after capturing it in the Israel War of Independence. Under the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, it was proposed that the region was to be part of an Arab Palestinian state; that is, not Jordan, but a state for the Arab Palestinians living in the land, as opposed to the Jewish Palestinians (as they were then called). The term “Palestine” in those days had no ethnic connotation; it referred to the region as inhabited by Jews, Arabs, and others. The UN Partition Plan was passed by the UN and, in spite of the Arab world’s rejection of it, became the basis of the Palestinian Jewish settlement’s declaration of independence. Ironically, there was no outcry following the Jordanian takeover of the region as a part of the War of Independence; no outcry over the exile and murder of the residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. And yet, in June 1967, when Israel recaptured the Jewish Quarter as well as Judea and Samaria as part of the victory in a defensive war and was once again able to establish a presence in their ancient homeland, almost the entire world deemed it illegal.

Changing map of Palestine/Israel: 1947-1967 (click to enlarge)

I find it hypocritical that a country such as Canada can pass judgement on Israel when so much of our population enjoys the fruits of colonization. It is now popular, especially at public gatherings, to acknowledge the historic connection of a locale to the indigenous people who may have lived there centuries before. How they can be certain who the actual original people or peoples were, I don’t know. Be that as it may, in spite of these acknowledgments, to my knowledge, there is no attempt among Canadian governmental leaders to restore these lands to their original inhabitants. Neither has the UN passed a resolution declaring the Canadian Parliament, for example, and other such settlements, illegal.

So much more could be said about the historical, political, and social issues relating to Israel and  the West Bank. Understanding such issues are essential to developing a helpful perspective on a most difficult conflict. But as I stood on the balcony in Gilo, more than any of this, I longed to grasp what God thought.

Christians support of Israel

Some Christians express unwavering support of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. However, in my experience, most people who identify as Christian are either ambivalent or uncomfortable with making any connection between their faith and current issues surrounding the “Holy Land.” They are happy to make a religious pilgrimage to the region where the vast majority of Bible stories happened and “walk where Jesus walked.” Beyond that, modern Israel isn’t any more relevant to them than any other country.

These Christians may take the Bible very seriously yet regard the contemporary land of Israel as having no practical and ongoing relevance to their lives or their theology. They may affirm that Israel the people and Israel the land are central to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), and yet take Jesus’s fulfilment of Old Covenant expectation as a transformation of national and geographic issues to universal spiritual ones. The land of Israel becomes nothing more than an ancient stage upon which to learn grander spiritual truths.

Those Christians who support Israel tend to simply point out the very many land promises God gave to Israel (e.g. Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 16; 25:1-6; 26:3-4; 32:28; 35:12). Apart from treating the land promises of Hebrew scripture as still relevant, they may point to a New Testament passage such as Romans 11:29 (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”) as evidence of God’s ongoing plan for the Jewish people, including the land promises.

The messianic connection

It seems to me that one of the reasons for many Christians’ resistance to the idea that the whole Bible consistently and unequivocally supports the ongoing Jewish divine claim to the land is that it doesn’t seem to have any connection to the centrality of Jesus as Savior. Many believers would agree with the sentiment recently expressed to me by a pastor who said something to the effect that the entire Bible is about salvation. Others term this as “it’s all about Jesus.” As someone whose life has been radically and wonderfully transformed by how the Scriptures vividly point to Yeshua, I understand the emphasis, but there is much more to the Bible than it’s functioning as a spiritual device to create a saving transaction between God and human beings through the Messiah.

The Bible is God’s written revelation to equip us to live effective godly lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This begins with and is sustained by a right relationship with God through trusting in his Son. But that’s just the beginning. The Bible also provides all we need as the basis of how to live life as God intends. Genuine, biblically informed, godliness requires gaining God’s perspective on the world in which we live, including understanding God’s relationship to Israel and the Land. Core to this is the direct connection between Jesus and the land promises to Israel.

Genesis chapter fifteen is well-known for the doctrine of justification by faith. In response to Abram’s concern that, due to his being childless, any inheritance he might have would eventually go to his servant, God clarifies that he will indeed have a son of his own. In fact, he was to have innumerable descendants. In spite of his current state, Abram trusted what God said, which in turn was counted to him by God as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6). But that’s not how the passage ends. In the very next verse, God reiterates the promise of the land. Note how he does it: He directs Abram to offer a special sacrifice, so he laid cut up carcasses of animals on the ground. Abram fell into a deep sleep in which God spoke to him about his descendants’ future bondage in Egypt, eventual release, and land acquisition. Then he saw (either in the dream or awake) a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the carcasses followed by these words: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites’” (Genesis 15:18-21).

This scene depicts an ancient custom of covenant making. The Hebrew for “making a covenant” is actually “cutting a covenant” most likely due to a custom such as this. It appears that when two parties cut a covenant in this way, their walking together between the pieces of the sacrifice was to illustrate that if either party fails to uphold their part of the covenant, then a plight similar to that of the carcasses was to befall them (see Jeremiah 34:18). However, in this case, Abram didn’t walk along with God. Instead God (illustrated by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch) walked through the pieces alone. Abram was to surmise, therefore, that if ever he (or his descendants after him) in any way betrayed the covenantal arrangement between him and God, God alone would suffer the consequences. Whether or not Abram understood the implications of what he saw, there is no doubt that God’s promise to him and his future offspring regarding the land was solemnly guaranteed by a pledge of God’s own life, so to speak.

Apart from the insight God gave Abram concerning the future plight of his offspring (see Genesis 15:13-16), Abram knew little of the complexity of the development of Israel—particularly the covenant given them through Moses at Mt. Sinai. He knew nothing of the specifics of how they would acquire the land under Joshua or the struggles they would face in the subsequent centuries. He didn’t know that his people would be eventually judged by God due to their unfaithfulness or that this judgment would include exile from the land promised to them through him. Yet Israel’s failure to be true to its calling as God’s chosen nation could not result in the absolute loss of the land. For God guaranteed otherwise by pledging to suffer the consequences of Israel’s failure. This he did through the Messiah when he died on the cross.

Readers of the New Testament rightly understand Jesus’s sacrifice for sin as the vehicle through which human alienation from God is resolved. What we have missed is that core to this sacrifice is God’s commitment to Abram and its direct relationship to the Land.

God’s giving of the Land to Abram’s descendants doesn’t automatically resolve the difficult and complex problems of modern Israel and the West Bank. But being aware of the foundational claim of the Jewish people to the Land, the West Bank included, sure makes me feel a lot better about staying with my friend in Gilo.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version.

Half Empty or Half Full?

Bible Teacher Alan Gilman with his half-full/half-empty t-shirt

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“What is that smell!” I blurted upon entering the house. “I don’t smell anything,” my wife, Robin, said in keeping with our well-established roles. I am the “noticer,” especially regarding items of the nose. While she (most of the time) gladly lives life in the moment – an extraordinary quality that certainly helped her in the raising of – not to mention homeschooling of – our ten children. We were living in Port Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, at the time. We had recently bought our first house – a unique house for our unique family. The previous owner took a small rancher and added an addition to the top and back, just about tripling its original size. The construction of the addition likely played a part in what was causing the mysterious smell.

I was sure it was coming from the large pantry under the stairs. Robin graciously cleaned it out, making sure to dispose of any possible culprit and carefully cleaned it down. She thought all was fine. But not to my nose. “It still smells.”

It wasn’t until a friend of ours came over and said the smell (“I told you!”) reminded her of dead rodent that we began our quest unto resolution. Thankfully, w e knew someone with considerable expertise in determining the location of said deceased critters, who discovered the culprit. A dead rat had set up his final resting place in the wall behind the pantry in between the original house and the addition.

Since then I have taken great pride in my ability to (literally) smell a dead rat. After all where would the world be without people like me! Most everyone else is cluelessly living life oblivious to the dead rats rotting in the recesses of their lives, while I know what’s lurking behind the wall. But here’s the downside. I tend also to be suspicious, quickly assuming the negative before sufficient evidence comes to light. So different from my wife who tends to assume the positive.

In a perfect world this difference should wonderfully complement each other. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we are not perfect people. I would find myself frustrated with my wife’s propensity toward the positive, labelling it as denial. I would get so passionate to both identify and fix problems in our relationship and parenting, while I took her lack of alarm to be unhelpful insensitivity to reality (remember the dead rat?).

I remember the time when our eldest daughter was considering moving to Haiti to be a teacher. A small private school had an urgent need and was looking for able souls who were willing to drop what they were doing to help. Since she had spent a few weeks in Haiti years before on an outreach, we were familiar with the challenge of living there. I decided to do some additional research and learned how Haiti is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The subject soon came up at our dinner table and I was taken aback at how laissez-faire Robin was taking the possibility of her precious little daughter (who was about thirty at the time) going to what amounted to be a war zone (in my estimation). So it was obviously my duty to inform my overly trusting wife of the potential danger. To which she retorted: “You are trying to scare me, but it’s not going to work.”

Some of you may not understand how threatening such words of confidence are to someone of our upbringing. In our Jewish culture worry is a value. No joke. Traditionally, Jewish mothers viewed their worry capacity as efficacious in protecting their children. I know life doesn’t really work this way, but deep in my family line is the conviction that someone needs to worry! In our case, the roles were reversed. And so it was. Obviously, Mr. Sensitive had to regularly sound the alarm, because Mrs. Happy-Go-Lucky would probably one day burn the house down and wouldn’t know it. (Note: this is being written from my perspective. Robin’s version is different.)

If you are more like me than my wife, you’d probably agree that the world needs more people like us. People who don’t take things at face value, but are willing to pull back the curtain of the phony exteriors of life in the way Dorothy exposed the Wizard of Oz. But if you are like me you may not be quick to see the destructive nature of my suspicious, worrisome tendencies. I certainly wasn’t.

That’s why I didn’t like thinking too much about Bible verses such as James 1:2, which reads: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” This supposed positive relationship towards hardship didn’t seem to jive with my version of life. The joy James speaks of here, I thought, must be some profound sense of inner consolation that sustains the soul in spite of terrible circumstances. It’s the “anchor of the soul” (see Hebrews 6:19) that keeps us from completely drifting away, while on top of the water, where life really happens, we may be going completely crazy. Honest assessment of reality demands not belittling the intensity of our struggles in the real world. James may not agree, however. Some months ago, I decided to look more closely at his use of the word “joy.” To my surprise, it’s the word “chara.” It’s what the shepherds felt having seen the baby Yeshua. It’s the same word for “rejoicing.” It’s like the Hebrew “simcha,” celebratory joy. Not only does James call for celebration he calls for “all” or “pure” joy.

Accepting James’s words set me on a course of discovery. Perhaps my approach wasn’t so godly after all. Maybe my wife had a point. I was raised to believe that having a cold is likely the first step to an early death (I am only slightly exaggerating). While she claims when a person gets sick, they feel lousy for a while, and then get better. Doesn’t she know the statistics concerning the number of deaths from sickness? Maybe she does, because it turns out far more people recover from illness than not. And I hear worrying about it doesn’t promote healing.

My next biblical discovery also surprised me. I was spending a longer than normal time in my daily Bible reading, pondering over Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As I was reading, I would be drawn back to earlier passages, thus reminding me of the context in which he was writing. As I came to chapter four, I was very aware by that time that much of Paul’s directives to this community was based on his concern over significant unnecessary personal conflicts they were having. It was with this in mind that I came upon this familiar verse:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

Up until then I always thought of these instructions as cautions against impure input along the lines of the old children’s song, “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See.” While something like this may be implied by such words, that doesn’t seem to be Paul’s point. Once I realized that the context of what Paul is writing is relational, then these familiar words take on new (and likely more legitimate) meaning. Paul is here instructing the Philippians and, by extension, us, on how to think about people.

I didn’t realize how much my suspicious tendencies drew me to think negatively about others. I would leverage what I thought was a biblical understanding of human beings to justify suspicion. I was smelling rats where there were none.

This doesn’t mean that we should be naïve. When problems do exist, they should be addressed. The Bible instructs on how to deal with serious issues (see Matthew 7:1-6). But how much energy do people like me put into dwelling on negatives that may not exist? When Paul writes to “think” about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, it’s along the lines of considering or, better yet, pondering. This is not an exhortation to have nice little thoughts, but to focus one’s mind on that which is truly good. So much for suspicion and negativity.

How can we love God with all our minds (see Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37, etc.) if we allow ourselves to dwell upon negative ‘what-ifs’? What place can worry have if we accept that God causes all things to work together for good (see Romans 8:28)? What have we to fear if God is for us (see Romans 8:31ff); we who are vessels of the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 4:7ff), who believe in the one who conquered death itself (see 1 Corinthians 15:54ff).

A close friend of mine, whom I worked with for years, was concerned about my tendency toward negative thinking. Soon after my contract with his firm ended, I received a mysterious package in the mail. It was a t-shirt with an illustration on the front. There was no indication at the time who sent it, but I eventually figured it out. There was just a brief anonymous note on the packing slip that read: “It is what you make of it.” The illustration was of a container. At the top end of the container was fire, a tombstone, lightening, and a skull. At the bottom were birds singing, sunshine, a rainbow, and hearts. As I showed it to my some of my kids, one of them said, “It’s a glass half-full/half-empty!” She was right. My friend was trying to make a point.

One of my justifications for negative thinking has been a supposed commitment to being real. For that reason, I have resisted the principle that life is dependent on our attitude. To me, that always has sounded like make-believe. I would rather be real and serious than be comforted by fantasy. But as I have looked more closely at the truth of Scripture, it’s not about simply having a positive attitude disconnected from reality. It’s taking into account who God really is and what he has really done. It’s seeing ourselves from the perspective of our relationship with him. It’s how we should respond to life’s challenges given his overall purposes in general and for our lives in particular.

Therefore, is my glass half-full or half-empty? Well, what does the Bible say about that? According to King David, it’s neither. The man after God’s own heart, who went through so much, said it best: “My cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Power in Weakness

A funny young guy posing in front of brown background with muscular body shadow reflected on the wall

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My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

What do you picture when you hear “God’s power is made perfect in weakness?” Is it something like “in spite of my weakness, I can experience God’s strength”? It’s something like you get up in the morning feeling like you hadn’t slept a wink. Coffee makes no difference, and you have an impossible day ahead of you. So perhaps you say a quick prayer for help, somehow untapping physical and emotional resources you didn’t know you had. You get into bed that night wondering how you did it and offer another quick prayer, thanking God for getting you through.

I’d say this is a pretty common occurrence for a lot of people (with or without the prayer). We are often surprised that we can do more than we expect. When necessary we find strength we didn’t know we had. That’s a real thing. And whether we believe in God or not, whether we pray or not, it’s something to thank him for. But that’s not what this verse is about.

Human potential is a fascinating thing. Most of us have little to no conception of what we really are. The vast majority of us have more brain power and more physical ability than we realize. It isn’t until the opportunity arises that we reckon with the stuff we are made of. That’s still not this.

Much of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is his critique of certain self-appointed leaders, referred to (in many English translations) as “super-apostles” (see 2 Corinthians 11:5). These were impressive folks, especially in terms of their outward appearance and speaking ability. Paul, on the other hand, didn’t score very high on externals. What he was seeking to show the Corinthians was that what really counted was not personal appeal and human ability, but the genuine nature of God’s power at work through otherwise unlikely people such as himself.

Far from possessing the confident, self-reliance of the super apostles, Paul had suffered greatly for his faith in all sorts of ways. He explains this in detail in chapters four and five of the letter. For example, he writes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Note Paul’s reference to “our outer self is wasting away,” which most likely means that “this light momentary affliction” is an understatement. It’s easy to miss what Paul must mean by his “outer self wasting away,” because he so quickly mentions “being renewed day by day.” The inner renewal is very real, but we need to grasp the implications of this occurring in a body that is “wasting away.” It is here that we can begin to understand how God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is not a booster to otherwise weak persons. He is not a heavenly energy drink giving us the extra jolt we need to make it through the day. When God told Paul, “my power is made perfect in weakness,” this is to say that God’s power and our weakness co-exist within the believer at the exact same time.

Paul illustrates this in an earlier part of chapter four, where he writes: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). The power of God residing in us is treasure contained in weak, fragile vessels. The treasure doesn’t change the quality of the vessel.

On one hand I think we know this. We know God’s power doesn’t turn the fragile clay into durable gold. We still retain our bodies as they are. Yet I have the impression that many assume if the power of God truly resides in us, we would feel the Holy Spirit pulsating through our veins or something like that. Paul, on the other hand, was trying to explain to the Corinthians that God’s power resides in and is expressed through truly weak vessels. God’s power doesn’t make the weak feel strong. It might make the person look strong to others because it is so effective. This is why it is easy to get confused. When God’s power works through a person, we tend to give the person an inordinate amount of credit. Not that we shouldn’t acknowledge a person’s role in their being used by God, it’s that we need to remember that the power in no way originates in the person, but in God.

It’s not just others that confuse the person’s role in being a vessel of God’s power. When we are weak, sensing our inability to be vessels of God’s power, we often look to ourselves for his power, waiting for some sense of emerging ability upon which to rely. But if we understood this as Paul did, then we would know that we are always weak and that God’s power doesn’t depend on a personal sense of strength. Not only does God want to work through us in spite of our weakness. He works through the weaknesses themselves.

When we think of elite athletes, I imagine that we don’t think of them as illustrating strength proven through weakness. But think again. To function at extraordinary levels necessitates pushing oneself to the furthest extremities of their abilities. It’s misleading to observe a medal-contending weightlifter, for example. Their muscles are bursting where we didn’t think muscles existed, while the vast majority of us wouldn’t lift the weights a millimeter off the ground let alone chest level and higher. To succeed, however, they must push themselves beyond their ability to a place where they feel the weakest, where they don’t actually know if they will be able to do it. It is there, in the realm of weakness, where they must go. It is there that strength is proven.

The power of God is proven in us in the same way. That which God wants us to do is beyond our capability. He doesn’t simply want to enhance our humanity, encouraging us to stretch ourselves beyond what we are used to. He wants to accomplish the impossible. Not what seems impossible, but truly impossible. Once we accept that, then perhaps we’ll stop depending on ourselves and depend on him who has the power.

While this can feel overwhelming to think about, the dynamic of God’s power proven through weakness is not a novel idea, nor unique to life in Yeshua. God’s power through Yeshua is available to a greater degree, but it is the fulfilment of a dynamic that began at creation. The second chapter of the Bible tells us: “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). From the very beginning, the uniqueness of human beings is wrapped up with the instilling of the very breath of God. The essence of who we are as God’s image bearers is dependent on his power, not our own. As Paul illustrates, all people were designed to be treasure-filled clay pots.

The power to live as human beings according to God’s design has always and will always reside in God and not in us. That means we shouldn’t expect to feel able to do what God wants us to do. On the contrary, the more open we are to what God wants us to do, the less able we will feel. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you honestly think to yourself that what God is telling you to do is impossible for you, because it is.

This doesn’t mean that you can do anything you want whether you are able to or not. Many well-meaning people are willing to do things they are not equipped to do. If God is not so directing, that is foolishness. Paul certainly had skills in communicating. He was effective in preaching and teaching. Yet he was taxed beyond his ability, not simply in his skill to communicate, but every aspect of life. The challenges he faced as he served God were overwhelming to him. Yet God’s power was made perfect through this weak vessel. He wants to do the same through you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Poop Is Not a Toy

Crossed out Poo emojii

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Did you know that some of the most popular toys this holiday season are poop-themed? I am not talking about novelty items designed to gross you out. There’s that too, but big-name toy and game companies such as Hasbro and Mattel are hoping to make some big bucks via poop-related fun. Don’t believe me, check out the Play-Doh Poop Troop Set or the Pooparoos Surpriseroos Figures. In case you are one of the few people who haven’t seen a poop plush pillow, check it out here. Or how about a poop pinata.

The current poop trend began with the poop emoji. Emojiis are the ubiquitous small digital graphics that often accompany text messages. They are effective and often fun shorthand to express an idea, especially emotions (e.g. 😊 😠 😢). One of the most-used emoji currently is “pile of poo,” or simply “poo,” and is a clump of feces shaped like a soft chocolate ice cream swirl. While it often includes eyes and a smiling face, it is often used to convey a negative reaction to something. But now that it has become so popular in the toy world, the underlying gross factor normally associated with human waste has given way to playfulness and cuteness.

But poop isn’t a plaything; neither is it cute. There is nothing about it that should be appealing, not to mention hug-able. In the Torah (Books of Moses), D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:12-14, God considers it to be “indecent.” The Hebrew word for indecent here is “erva’,” indicating something shameful that should not be exposed. Therefore, the people were required to defecate “outside the camp” and to cover up their excrement. Like the rest of Scripture, a value statement such as this isn’t God simply expressing his druthers. Having designed creation, he knows what is to our benefit and what is not. That’s why communities that disregard this principle by mismanaging human waste invite unnecessary disease and death.

Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you (Deuteronomy 23:24; ESV).

I know these toys and games don’t include real poop, so what’s the big deal? Pooped-themed entertainment is just funny, right? I get it. Taking a normally private and disgusting aspect of life and treating it in such a casual fashion is humorous. But I don’t think we fully understand what’s going on with such a phenomenon.

The reason why poop toys and games are funny is because of the symbolic nature of things. Obviously no one wants a candy dispenser with the real thing on the top (as opposed to this). But what makes it funny depends on what it represents. It’s that it is an image of poop that gets the response. Leveraging waste products as entertainment takes that which is naturally shameful and normalizes it. By making public and open that which is supposed to be private and hidden, we desensitize ourselves to the fact that there is an objective difference between them. Our society increasingly blurs the elements of life as if God-designed distinctives are irrelevant if not illusionary. Right and wrong, good and bad, are viewed as nothing more than personal preferences. Since, as people increasingly think, there are no objective standards of goodness, people shouldn’t be prevented from doing whatever they want with whatever they want. Usually this is modified by “as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” but unless we know how to differentiate the inherent nature of things, we won’t be able to discern potential harm.

If these toys and games are more than just a passing fad, it will be “interesting” to see how the love of the poop emoji affects hitherto sanitary societies. For example it might become far more difficult to teach toddlers not to play with their “stuff.” And that’s only the beginning. There’s no telling what a generation that embraces poop will play with next.

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

 School kids raising hands in classroom

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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

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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

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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.

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Truth in a Soundbite Culture

Word cloud contrasting truth with fake news, etc.

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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

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

Illustration depicting celebrating Israel's 70th anniversary

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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)

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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