The Loss of Transcendence and the Death of Humanity

Pardon me as I continue (sort of) my lament from yesterday . . .

We are experiencing, in increasing measure, the slow death of humanity. I don’t mean humans as such (although that might be coming), what I mean is the loss of what makes us human, what separates us from lower animal life. It seems to me that the more technologically progressed we have become, the deeper into nihilism we have fallen. We know more and can do more with greater ease than ever before, and we are far sicker than we have ever been.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent camping trip. Not that long ago it was natural to assume that a family went up into the wilderness (or, at the very least, away from the confusion of the city) to get away from the noise, the hustle, the frantic pace. You left all of that “behind” so you could unwind, relax, shed some of the stress of the “dog eat dog” world. I noticed this past weekend how all of that has changed – and not just a little bit. I was stunned to see that off-road vehicles (we used to call them ATVs) are now almost obligatory for the modern camping family. That, along with mammoth fifth-wheel campers makes most camp sites look like the infield of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. As I stood knee deep in a gorgeous little stream I had to strain to hear the birds and squirrels fuss at each other because the almost constant barrage of four-wheelers on the nearby road made it impossible to hear God’s awesome creation.

It got worse. From time to time I could look up and see the passengers in these noise making contraptions. From what I could tell they were not happy. They were in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere but where they were. Many had scowls on their faces, but virtually all were expressionless. Here they were in quite honestly the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, and they were either bored, or actually pained. They had to get somewhere else fast, so they could not enjoy where they were or what they were doing. Every so often they would come ripping back down the road they had just zoomed up. In a hurry, oblivious to the world of creation around them. Making noise, and utterly, completely unable to here the birds and squirrels chatter and talk to them.

It was so unbelievably sad.

We, as humans, have created a world where we can control virtually everything. If it’s too hot we turn on the air-conditioner. If it’s too cold we turn on the heater. If we are bored we turn on the TV or the tablet or our cell phone. If it is too quiet we blast our stereos or plug our ear-buds into our tablets and tune out the world. I just saw an article pointing out how there are signs of increasing mental struggles of pre-schoolers because of the increasing use of “screen time,” the fact that children do not interact with their physical world, but are increasingly tied to computers, tablets, or cell phones. It has now become the norm that even when we try to “get away from it all” we pack everything up and bring “it all” with us. We haul around our stress, our anxiety, our utter inability to deal with life if we are not stimulated to the ends of our hair follicles.

We have, or at the very least, will soon lose every concept of transcendence, of the “awesome.” When we do we will have lost the very last vestige of what it means to be human. To me that is not theoretical – I have actually witnessed it. People, human beings, created in the image of the Divine God himself, so completely engrossed in technology that they cannot even recognize, let alone appreciate, the awesomeness and transcendence of God’s most holy creation.

I do not have a Ph.D in psychology, but it really does not take a psychologist to recognize that we are a sick culture. Anger, depression, anxiety – all symptoms of a decaying society are rising at an exponential rate. Children are displaying acts of greater and greater violence at younger and younger ages. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are skyrocketing. Young people are identifying feelings of rootlessness and meaninglessness like never before. And, yet, the demand for the next upgrade for a cell phone or the next greatest app is unending.

I am not naive enough to believe that all of this can be reversed if we only clicked our heels together three times and repeated with Dorothy, “I wish I was home.” But, I am equally opposed to the idea that I should just shrug my shoulders and say none of this matters. It matters, and for future generations it should matter very much.

Somehow, someway, in calm and reasoned thought or in pure desperation, we are going to have to learn how to unplug, unwind, and “deconstruct” our over-stimulated lives. Maybe when we run out of fossil fuels and we can no longer drive massive trucks that pull 40 foot fifth-wheel camp trailers we will learn how to live life patiently again. I think learning how to hitch up a horse to a wagon might be valuable for a great many of us. It would, at the very least, teach us that we need to respect and nurture God’s awesome creation.

And, it would be a lot quieter. Maybe we could learn to listen to the birds and squirrels again.

Things Will Never Be the Same (Or, Change is Inevitable, but not Always Progress)

I was going to write a post today, a lament really, about how things have changed, and not for the better. The main source of my melancholy being a recent camping trip. When I was a little boy my family spent a lot of time in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Not every trip was a camping trip, we would often just spend a day on a river, fishing and just enjoying the mountains. Several times each summer, however, we would head out as soon as my father got off work and spend Friday night and all day Saturday on one of New Mexico’s many streams.

I have always wanted to give my daughter the same gift that my father gave me. The problem, as I have come to realize it, is I cannot. It is simply impossible. When I was young the opportunities for “primitive camping” were almost limitless. You could drive up a dirt road, find a little pull off or winding little path down to the river, set up camp and enjoy yourself. Slowly but surely those pull-offs and winding paths were closed off and the only way to camp became official “camp-grounds” complete with water and, in some cases, septic services. And, to be sure, ridiculous camp “fees.” Tents and cab-over campers were replaced with pull trailers, and now massive fifth-wheel camp trailers dominate the countryside. When I was young if we heard our nearest camp neighbor’s dog bark, my dad believed we were too close. Now, as dusk settles all you can hear is a cacophony of electric generators providing power for the air-conditioners and satellite tv sets.

Oh, yeah, the noise. One of my treasured memories is sitting on a rock above a stream, watching the little birds and chipmunks play along the water, and singing my favorite church songs. I was struck this past weekend as I stood by the river by the constant, almost never-ending noise of off-road and ATV traffic. The wilderness is not a place to go and to enjoy nature any longer. It is a place to go and be assaulted with the vanity of humans showing off how much money they have – and their utter disrespect for nature and for their fellow man.

I wept as I realized one of my great dreams for my daughter will never be realized – or certainly not as I expected to fulfill it. She will remember our tent camping experiences, but not in the same way I experienced  the joys that my father gave me.

Then, today I was reminded that on July 16, 1969, three men left the confines of this earth to travel to, and for two of them, to walk on, the moon. So far, only 12 men have done so. But I wonder – at what cost? I don’t mean money, and I certainly understand and appreciate the good that the Apollo moon landings have brought to us. But I ask again, at what cost? For millennia humans have looked up at the moon and have wondered. The moon was always mysterious, even as we came to understand more of its power over tides and even animal and human emotions. When Neil Armstrong stepped off of the ladder of the Eagle, something changed, and we will never be able to undo that. The moon’s mystery has now been revealed (or, at least, some of it has) and there is a part of me that wonders if that scientific achievement can fully be described as progress.

We now have robotic machines on the surface of Mars. There is much talk of colonizing the moon, and even of sending humans to Mars. So, I guess it is only a matter of time until the moon is littered with massive fifth-wheel trailers and fee-only campgrounds. Mars will only be a few years behind. After we have finished trashing the moon and Mars, what will be next?

Not all achievement is progress. Just because we have the ability does not mean we have the mandate, nor the justification, to destroy that which is wild. Sometimes the wilderness needs to remain the wilderness, if for no other reason than to serve as a reminder that we are pitiful human beings, and that we are all too often slaves to our stinking, noise making inventions.

Thus endeth my lament, but not my sorrow.

That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!

The Inescapable Destiny of the Age of Narcissism

Once again I delve into the philosophical . . .

There can be no doubt but what we are firmly entrenched in the age of narcissism. A person could argue when this age began – my guess is back at least as far as the 1960’s – but these shifts in worldview rarely come with crystal clear transitions. We don’t snap our fingers into a new way of thinking, we mostly just sort of ooze into them.

You really do not have to look any further to see the decline of community and a civics oriented approach to life than to look at the decline in the office of the presidency of the United States. I only know of the presidency pre-Ronald Reagan mostly from history books – although I was alive during the Nixon and Carter presidencies. A person could argue that Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and then Reagan all made the presidency about them (in increasing measure), but you can also argue that each of those presidents focused primarily on the health of the nation. Certainly with Reagan you can identify a growing sense of “celebrity” status about the presidency – he was an actor, to be sure. George H.W. Bush got in on Reagan’s coat-tails, but clearly with Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and now with Trump, the decline has been precipitous and, in my humble opinion, cataclysmic. The health and well being of our nation is but a talking point – the race to the White House now is all about the cult of personality, and the narcissism of Obama and Trump in particular was and has been, not to be too inflammatory, obscene. Judging from the crop of Democratic contenders for the right to oppose Trump in 2020, the fall from civility and civics will even be worse (if that’s possible).

But, let’s not just throw stones at the politicians. In every aspect of our American life, the self has utterly and completely replaced the concept of sacrifice and service for the community. In fact, there really is no concept of “community.” Look at the hideous condition of our judicial system. The victim of a crime is brutalized twice – once by the offender and once again when his or her “trial” only serves to minimize the offense and to call into question the legitimacy of the accusation and the right of the victim to obtain justice. Our entire judicial system has devolved into the protection and immunization of the accused, while the legitimate rights of the community, not to mention the victimized, to be protected from such criminals has long since been abandoned.

Consider as well our educational system. Education is, by definition, the acquisition of knowledge and experience that a person has previously not had the opportunity to obtain. In order to be educated, you had to have your ignorance exposed and either corrected, or completely eliminated. Or, at least, that used to be the definition of an education. Now, education is simply the reinforcement of previously held opinions and biases. Colleges and universities are no longer institutions where you attend to have your worldview challenged and expanded, they are now simply places where you go to have your prejudices given official sanction. Primary and secondary schools have become the principle avenue of leftist indoctrination. We no longer teach our children the basics of civics, and “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” we teach social Marxism, gender fluidity, and the skill of demanding one’s personal opinions as absolute rights.

Thank goodness the church is not affected, you say. Ahem, cough, cough. The church is probably one of the worst promoters of our age of narcissism. Consider the average “worship” song these days. Worship is all about “my” relationship with Jesus, my “bff”. We sing and talk about how Jesus died to save “me” and to make “my life” all better. Funny, but you rarely read the New Testament authors write such things. For them, Christ died to save the church – the community of God. While “I” am certainly a part of “us,” the emphasis in the New Testament is on the community, the church, the entire people of God. And, yes, there have always been songs such as “Amazing Grace” which focus on the “I,” (as do a majority of the Psalms). The emphasis of those songs, and Psalms, is on the collective “I.” In other words, there is a community that speaks as the “I.” This is made clear in any textbook that discusses the Psalms. It is a fascinating, and prevalent, viewpoint of the Israelite people. Then there is the purely narcissistic use of the personal pronoun, and what I hear in most contemporary Christian music is entirely that of the latter Americanized version, and not the ancient Israelite version.

The last three or four decades of church growth curriculum has focused entirely on the individual and his or her wants. This is nauseatingly evident in the “Seeker Sensitive” churches spawned by Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek phenomenon. However, it is just as present, although somewhat more hidden, in the “Emergent Church” folly of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Both the “Seeker Sensitive” church and the “Emergent” church reaction were focused on the wants and preferences of the individual. In the case of the “Seeker Sensitive” church the goal was to remove any aspect of “religiosity” from the church (a bizarre and irrational move, if you ask me), and the reaction of the “Emergent Church” was to restore the outward symbols of Christianity while gutting it of its most exclusive (and thus, embarrassing) claims. Thus, a person could be a member of a “Seeker Sensitive” church or an “Emergent” church and have all of their personal needs met, while not even remotely being confronted with the life changing and culture shattering aspects of New Testament christianity.

So, if we are firmly entrenched in the age of narcissism, what is our destiny? Consider, if you will, the parallels between our narcissism and the narcissism of the Roman empire. The emperors increasingly came to view themselves as divine – as gods. It started with their deification after they had been dead for a while, but soon that was not good enough. What good is being declared a god if you are not alive to enjoy divine worship? So, over time the emperors allowed themselves to be declared “gods” (or did so on their own) so they could enjoy the perks of divinity. Also, as the empire grew and became more diverse (losing its sense of “community”) it became more brutal, especially in regard to conquered peoples. Further, strict sexual taboos were weakened to the point of nonexistence. Finally, “Religion” became a matter of publicly placating local deities and was of utter inconsequence beyond matters of personal conscience.

As I see American culture, we are following in the footsteps of Rome almost exactly. Our politicians are increasingly demanding we submit to their cult of personality. In other words, we are to elect them, not for the service they have in the past or can in the future provide to our commonwealth, but simply because they are “divine” individuals and we owe our fealty to them. Our culture is growing more brutal by the year – note, for example, the stratospheric growth of the phenomenon of Mixed Martial Arts gladiatorial fights. We abort babies by the millions, and leave our elderly to die unattended and unloved. Sexual barriers are being dismantled wholesale. We now allow men and boys unfettered access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms just because they “feel” like they are women. The concept of religious belief has been eviscerated. It is okay to be religious, so long as you worship the pagan gods of modern culture, and if you keep your religion to yourself. Do not even dare to make the claim that Christ and his cross destroys the culture of the “prince of the power of the air” as Paul describes it in Ephesians 1.

So, what is our destiny? Where is the Roman empire? Or the Greek? Or the Persian? Or the Babylonian? Or the Egyptian? Yeah, I thought so.

Book Review – The Recovery of Mission (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 284 pages, with extensive endnotes and comprehensive bibliography.

I get my book suggestions/recommendations mostly from my social media feeds, primarily Twitter (I follow a couple of major book publishers) and through blogs and other odds and ends kinds of sources. This book was recommended personally by a “digital” friend – someone I’ve never met in “3-D” but someone who corresponds with me via this blog. I was extremely hesitant at first because (hangs head in shame) I just was not convinced anyone with the last name of “Ramachandra” could write anything of substance regarding Christianity and the plague of pluralism. To my friend’s great credit he kept asking if I had read the book, and so I finally put it on my “wish list.” I eventually had the time slot and the money to buy the book, and I am very, very, grateful to my friend for consistently pushing me to consider it. It is worth every penny, and a significant addition to the conversation regarding where Christianity is headed. I have to note here that the publication date is 1996 – what would the author’s opinion be today?!

Ramachandra begins with a critique of three authors who, independently and with different emphases, seek to blend Christianity into what they would consider a healthy pluralistic religious amalgamation. They each object to any claim of exclusivism by Christians, and in varying ways attempt to prove that every religion has a common core that should be accepted and valued by everyone, and that no one single religion has a monopoly of what is true, or right, or normal. I have to say that this first part was extremely difficult for me to follow, as I am not at all familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism, and the writers the author critiques are related primarily to those East Indian religions. The main culprit of religious intolerance, according to each of the authors Ramachandra critiques, is clearly Christianity, and each of them suggests that it is Christianity that has the most to repent of in terms of humanity reaching a consensus of religious truth and tolerance.

In part II, Ramachandra draws parallels between the three authors and addresses those parallels more generically. It is in this part that he introduces Lesslie Newbigin, which was enlightening to me. Having just recently started reading Newbigin, it was interesting to me to read a critique of Newbigin, although it is a favorable (and constructive) critique.

It was in the third part that I feel the value of this book lies (although, to grasp what Ramachandra says in part III you have to work through the first two parts!) In part III discusses “The Scandal of Jesus,” “A Gospel for the World,” and “Gospel Praxis” (a fancy word for ‘work’ or ‘practice.’) Here Ramachandra specifically points out that in order to be genuine, the Christian message must be scandalous. It is exclusive. It is not authoritarian (as in the mistaken form of Constantinian “Christendom,” but it is most certainly exclusive). The more acceptable a person tries to make Christianity in relation to the major world religions, the less Christian it becomes. In other words, you cannot make Christianity merely a sub-specie of the generic word “religion.” The belief in Jesus of Nazareth is unique, exclusive, and therefore exclusionary of the major tenets of these world religions.

I should add here that Ramachandra does a good job of pointing out a necessary corollary – people who insist that Christianity can be made compatible with other world religions (especially the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism) do not fully understand those religions, or intentionally misrepresent them. The deeper one understands those religions it becomes apparent that they are just as exclusive, and that they are completely incompatible, with Christianity. Stated another way, you really have to  change those religions as much as you would have to change Christianity in order to make each of them compatible with each other.

This point to a huge issue I have with so many proclaimers of Christian pluralists today. One, they utterly misunderstand Christianity. Two, they utterly misunderstand the world view that they claim is superior to Christianity, and that they try to make Christianity conform to. I believe most Christian pluralists today loathe Christianity, and their complete unwillingness to view the Christian faith from the pages of the New Testament, choosing rather to cherry-pick obvious failings of the Christian centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, etc.) makes it obvious their critiques are not genuine. Their blindness to the moral failings of the major world religions is equally disastrous for their agenda. You simply cannot overlook the atrocities committed by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others against persons of differing faiths.

Okay, I apologize for getting a little preachy here, so I have to get back to Ramachandra’s book. He does raise some questions (and points to answers I am not sure I can accept), but in general he remains faithful to what most would consider “creedal” Christianity – the Christianity of the first two or three centuries. Perhaps his most critical question is this – what is the eternal destiny of those who have never had a chance to hear of the saving work of Jesus? The pluralist wants to say that all roads (and religions) lead to God and heaven. Ramachandra will not go there – but he does suggest that the blood of Christ is effectual even for those who have not specifically heard of Jesus. This is a question that is just above my pay grade for me to answer, but as most pluralists will begin with this question in order to push their agenda, it is one that must be addressed by every disciple of Christ.

At over twenty years, this book is just beginning to get a little “long of tooth,” but it is contemporary enough to be valuable for Christians, and especially Christian teachers (preachers, elders, Bible school teachers) to read. Whether you agree with his answers or not, you need to hear and to consider the questions he raises. His deft, and in my opinion, powerful, responses to three different, but common, objections to the exclusiveness of Christ are important to consider.

This book is a valuable addition to the section of my library that includes Os Guinness and Lesslie Newbigin. They write from entirely different points of view, but each in his own way points in the same direction. The faith of Jesus Christ is exclusive, and to be faithful to Jesus his disciples must honestly and fearlessly present that exclusiveness. Any attempt to marginalize or minimize the message of the cross is simply heretical.

Why is that such a hard message for ministers of the church to understand?

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.