Cherry-Picking and Proof-Texting Favorite Scriptures

I saw something the other day that kind of ruffled my feathers. It was another one of those appeals to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV translation) Now, I know nothing of the person who made the appeal, or the setting. But, I just wonder, was the appeal made in context – and did the speaker have the entirety of Jeremiah in mind as he made the appeal?

You see, very, very rarely will anyone include v. 10 in the quotation of v. 11 – “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Note the sequence – you are going to be led captive into an exile in a place you think is absolutely godless and degenerate -and you are going to have to stay there for 70 years while I punish you for your misbehavior. Then, I will bring you back because I know of the plans I have for you . . .”

In the entire pantheon of misquoted, cherry-picked and proof-texted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 has to rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5, and maybe even higher.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are rife with warnings that would limit, or even supersede, 29:11. I wonder, for example, if the speaker who so proudly appealed to 29:11 has ever read, or considered, 18:5-11,

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and deeds.”

I know this may just be me, but all of the trite little memes and what-not that you see on social media quoting Jer. 29:11 get really old, especially if you know the story of Jeremiah, and the impassioned pleas that God made through the prophet that were utterly ignored by the leadership, and most of the population, of Jerusalem. Yes, Jer. 29:11 is a wonderful and grace-filled promise. But – taken in context – it is just the silver lining to a very dark and destructive cloud. I am just not at all certain that those who teach this verse so glibly really understand the depth of the verse.

This is just one more example of my almost never-ending mantra – we have to stand under Scripture, not over it, and we have to humbly submit ourselves to the entirety of the meaning of a passage for us to “rightly divide” the truth intended by the Holy Spirit.

Let us continually strive to climb higher by ascending lower.

How to Spot a Fake, and a Real, Expert

Okay, a little background here. I have been blessed (?) with a little extra free time recently, so I have been doing some extra cleaning, some gardening, and generally just trying to keep my mind, and fingers, busy. Last week my wife, her mother, and our daughter went for one of my wife’s regular check-ups. I had even more time on my hands. So I started “surfing” You Tube. I watched this and that, and then I came across a firearms professional by the name of Paul Harrell. I watched one show, and then another, and then another.

If you are even remotely interested in firearms (I am by no means a gun nut, but I do hold an appreciation for them) you owe it to yourself to watch a Paul Harrell video. They are mostly around 20 minutes long and packed with a lot of cool demonstrations and advice.

So, anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah –

Paul Harrell has two episodes in which he discusses (1) how to spot a fake expert in the field of firearms, and (2) how to spot a real expert. The first list  (he gives five clues) is really focused on firearms, so it is really not pertinent to theology. However, his discussion on how to spot a real expert is spot-on perfect. The two episodes really struck a nerve with me, and so I decided to see if I could modify his first list to give five ways to spot a fake Bible or theological expert, and I will give his three ways to spot a real Bible or theological expert along with some “expert” comments of my own.

HOW TO SPOT A FAKE BIBLE OR THEOLOGICAL EXPERT:

  1.  They know nothing about the subject at hand, and really do not have any way to have learned about the subject. This is so obvious when someone, even many preachers, attempt to prove a point by referring to the original Greek or Hebrew. They are not an expert in Greek or Hebrew (or archaeology, or Ancient Near Eastern culture, etc) but they really want you to think they are. They are fakes.
  2. They have read a book, or attended a seminar, or maybe they have only heard a sermon, but they are an expert anyway. These are the one trick ponies – how many times have you been regaled by an “expert” who has read exactly one book on the subject, and even that by a non-expert himself. I am so familiar with this through my experience with Dietrich Bonhoeffer “experts.” They might have read Discipleship or maybe Life Together, and all of a sudden they are “experts” on one of the most enigmatic and multi-faceted theologians of the 20th century. No they are not! They are fakes, and need to be called out as such.
  3. They come to a conclusion and then argue backwards. How many of you have heard a sermon or attended a class on John 2, and based solely on the conclusion that Jesus would never corrupt anyone or lead them to sin, prove that the wine he created was nothing more than grape juice (not sure whether it was Welches or Ocean Spray, but never mind). Well, the text clearly indicates that the wine was of such superior quality that it was disturbing to the master of ceremonies that a social miscue had occurred. But, what of the first conclusion? Did Jesus never give anyone the opportunity to sin? He healed on the Sabbath, driving many to seek to kill him! Is murder not a sin? He raised people from the grave – were they exempted thereby from ever sinning again? I will firmly assert that Jesus never tempted anyone to sin, but why would creating wine for a wedding festival be considered a temptation? If that is true, then God himself is the greatest source of temptation in the whole world! (Didn’t he create everything?) You see, if you come to a conclusion first, and then argue backwards to prove your point, you can be an expert (although fake) at anything.
  4. Closely connected, they fall back into the “everyone knows” something argument, therefore never needing to prove their point. “Everyone knows” is the ultimate trump card – so if you disagree you are obviously not part of “everyone,” and who wants to be a nobody! But “everyone knows” is a pathetic appeal to ignorance that proves that the speaker is really a super fake expert, and they need to be told to bring their evidence with them next time.
  5. Finally, fake experts are simply terrified to be imperfect – their entire life and well being are dependent upon their being superior in every detail of every subject. They teach in abject fear that someone, somewhere might know more than them, or be able to prove them wrong, so they surround themselves with sycophants and those who are absolutely bedazzled with their superior intellect. This is why when they are challenged in public, so many of them have a cadre of defenders that shout the challenger down. The grand guru is simply not to be questioned. Fakes never like to have their metal proven, so they rarely speak without their body (and reputation) guards handy.

Okay, let’s move on to Paul Harrell’s three ways to spot a real expert, and I will add some comments of my own (clearly marked with a bold heading).

HOW TO SPOT A REAL EXPERT: (FROM PAUL HARRELL)

  1. How they deal with the unknown. Real experts want to learn, to be corrected if they are mistaken, and are curious about new developments in their field. Comment: This is so true in Bible studies! I had the blessing of studying under some of the finest true experts in their respective specialties, and each one of them demonstrated this trait. They studied, they read, they attended seminars, they wrote for fellow specialists to critique. They never stopped learning. True, honest experts deal with the unknown in humble, seeking, searching ways. And they are quick to respond graciously when they are taught something new.
  2. Real experts avoid using absolute terms like “always” and “never.” Because, connected to point #1, real experts know that there is always (oops) something new to learn, even if they are specialists in a field, especially one as diverse and expanding as firearms. Comment: need anything be said here beyond Paul Harrell’s comment? Using absolute terminology gets a person in dangerous ground very quickly, and biblical experts rarely use such words (although, I don’t want to say never!) So many times in Bible study we want certainty – we want absolutes where there simply are none. An expert will admit this (exposing his lack of omniscience), but a fake will not. A fake will give the audience what they are searching for, often illegitimately.
  3. Real experts look the part without looking like they are in a costume. This one is a little tricky, but there is simply a sense of “genuineness” that an expert portrays, that a fake cannot. A fake may dress up like an expert (and use all the right words), but they just do not fit the part. Comment: Once again, this is so true in church settings. If you cannot be an expert, all you have to do is become a bully by impression and fancy language. Real story – I know of an individual who was hired to perform a function that was, apparently, beneath his view of himself. So, he had everyone refer to him with a title that he had not earned and he was not qualified to wear. He even wore a garment that would verify his fake title, and the very fact that he wore it demonstrated how much of a fake his title was. The thing is, the title he could have worn was respectable, and he had earned the right to wear it. But, it was just not “expert” enough, so he made himself to be more important by claiming something that was utterly fake.

In most of our churches there are real experts, and there are fake experts. We are probably each experts in something – at one time I was almost an expert in issues related to Cessna 402 and 404 aircraft. Today, I doubt I could get one off the ground. I know nothing about farming or cattle ranching, but if you ask me about Dietrich Bonhoeffer I can give you a fairly educated answer. I would starve to death if I had to earn a living repairing cars or welding something, but let me teach a class on the book of Revelation and I can give you your money’s worth. Just because you are not an expert in Greek does not mean that you cannot teach a class on the gospel of Matthew – just don’t try to fool anybody with knowledge you do not have.

So, there you have one of my favorite all time posts about theology, and it came from watching a bunch of You Tube videos about guns.

Who would have thunk it?

Just Wondering – A Relationship Question

Before I ask the question, I have to set the context. This question applies to total strangers, or perhaps distant interactions, not those we know intimately or those whose behavior patterns are well known, not only to us, but to virtually all who know them. Okay, now that is settled, let’s move on to the question –

Do people respond to us the way we have treated them, or do we treat people as we anticipate that they will respond to us, thereby encouraging them to respond as we have treated them? In other words, in our initial reactions to people, are our interactions the result of honest responses, or are they more the result of projected feelings (prejudices)?

If I see someone, and based solely on skin color, hair style, clothing style, tattoos, facial hair, or some other external identifier, decide that person is a threat to me, how will they respond? Do we not guarantee their response by our defensive behavior? Or, if we see someone whom we define as being attractive, intelligent, wealthy (or at least as wealthy as we are), do we not encourage a friendly response by our body language, our eye contact, and especially our language?

I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel that most of those who read this blog would agree that to judge someone solely by initial impressions is ethically wrong. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is perhaps simplistic, but it holds a great truth. We are not to judge a person’s character by mere transitory externals.

But, what changes when we treat someone we know with contempt, with loathing, with slander?

I have just recently become intensely aware of how vicious former friends and colleagues can become to one another. This is not a recent development – hear the words of the psalmist,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked with the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)

The pain of which the psalmist wrote speaks deeply to me right now.

There is something profoundly offensive – sinful – when a person turns against a former friend, colleague, confidant. If we are to treat those with whom we have no prior interactions with respect and dignity, why is it suddenly acceptable to treat our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with utter disregard? How can it be pleasing to God that we turn our backs and shun those with whom we have broken the bread and sipped the wine at the Lord’s table?

Did Jesus not say that the world would recognize his disciples by the way they love and respect one another?

I’m stepping on my own toes here, so please no one think I am setting myself on an ivory pedestal. If I am speaking biblically here, it is as a prophet, and to be perfectly honest, prophetic words are often as difficult to hear for the prophet as for the audience.

So, let us make a covenant with our God to never treat a brother or sister in Christ with less regard, with less respect, with less love and concern, than we would  treat a total stranger.

Let us ascend by climbing lower!

White Lies, Big Lies, and Extraordinarily Monstrous Lies

A new word has crept into my vocabulary, although not by my choice. That word is “gaslighting,” and I just noticed it reappearing in a number of different contexts. I had to keep looking it up – I would find out what it meant, then forget about it, and then it would show up again and I would have to go through and look it up again.

I would suggest you look up the word in a modern on-line dictionary  (or maybe two or three to make sure you get the full nuances), but in the “Freightdawg” version, gaslighting refers to someone who lies blatantly and unreservedly, then denies any form of deception, invokes every form of belittlement and stops at nothing to tear down the defenses of his or her victim, both mental and physical. Over time, the victim believes he or she is going crazy, and sinks deeper and deeper under the spell of the one who is doing the gaslighting.

I actually thought I was reading a definition of “politician,” but I digress.

The thought occurred to me this morning that millennial generation and the generation that will follow are, and will be, the most gaslighted generations ever to have lived. As a culture, we are simply losing the ability to identify white lies, big lies, and even the extraordinarily monstrous lies.

Major corporations lie without the smallest recrimination. How can you tell that a politician is lying? – when his or her lips move. I think most are aware of the egregious lies that are part and parcel of advertising, but how many of us are actually aware of the lies that are told via movies and television shows? Lies and lying are not just the rare foray into trickery and deception that once was recognized, but scorned, by earlier generations; now lies and lying actually comprise the majority of both our verbal and non-verbal communication.

Now, this is where the concept of gaslighting comes in. It is one thing to lie, and then when caught, say, “Oops, you caught me – that was a lie, and now you know.” Gaslighters, on the other hand, go beyond simply lying, and accuse the innocent victim of being crazy for thinking that the lie is a lie. “How dare you think that I was lying when I said you could keep your doctor and your health insurance!” “What do you mean, to suggest that a person cannot choose their own gender?” “You must be crazy to think that our culture will survive past the next 12 years!”

The next step is to belittle the victim, to make the victim feel insecure and mentally unstable. So, Christianity becomes a disease for thinking that biology actually matters for something, that it is a matter of constitutional law that a person has the right to the free exercise of his or her religious beliefs, that raising a child belongs to the purview of the parents and not the state government. Slowly, but inexorably, the defenses of the victim(s) are chipped away until finally there is nothing left but to rely upon the supposed wisdom and benevolence of the gaslighting bully.

Precisely what is happening on a massive scale in our American culture.

What to do? I hate to sound like a “Chicken Little” here, but the time has come for all who are concerned to literally question everything. I know that sounds radical – and there must at some point be a place of a secure foundation – but I have come to the point that I just do not trust anyone anymore (a bit of hyperbole, to be sure, but close). I cannot trust the government or any elected officials, I  surely do not trust advertisers, I am far too familiar with academia to trust the “assured results of scholasticism.” To be honest, I’m even having a bit of a time trusting spiritual leaders who seem (at least to me) to be far more concerned with placating and pleasing our modern culture than in submitting to God.

I find solace in reading the Old Testament prophets. Repeatedly they warned the Israelites “Do not trust in the military, do not trust in silver or gold, do not trust in foreign alliances, do not even trust your own feelings or intellect. There is one and only one you can trust: trust God and serve him with all your heart, soul, and strength.”

I can trust God, and I can trust those who trust in God alone. Everything else is but a white lie, big lie, or extraordinarily monstrous lie.

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

A Solid Hit and a Whiff

As I used this space to address President Trump yesterday, I feel it is only appropriate that I return today and give him the credit he deserves for his comments regarding the shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton OH.

First, I appreciate his denunciation of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. I felt like those were strong statements, and much needed. He also earned my applause by calling for stricter laws regarding the sale of certain weapons (although, background checks are notoriously weak in preventing the kind of attacks we saw over the weekend). He also called for the passage of so-called “red flag” laws, which I also support, that allows for family members to notify law enforcement officers of erratic and potentially dangerous behavior, and if found to be credible, allows those officers to remove firearms from someone. Here in Colorado the state government has passed those laws, and completely inexplicably to me, all the rural law enforcement agencies immediately rebelled and said they would not comply. Holy insurrection, Batman! Here is a tool to keep a lunatic from possessing enough firepower to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and the law enforcement agencies say they will not enforce it? Talk about nuts. But I digress.

Where I feel President Trump failed, and failed miserably, is to acknowledge that his words have fostered a great deal of racist behavior, bigotry, and, yes, actions of white supremacy. I did not expect a confession, though. Trump does not apologize, it is not in his personality, and certainly not in his vocabulary. So, I give him respect for his denunciations, and credit him with a total whiff in regard to taking any kind of personal responsibility.

Before I hit “publish,” I must also comment on the utter hypocrisy of the left regarding these shootings. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the shooter in Dayton was a radical leftist, and had strong leanings toward leftist anarchists rather than the alt-right, looney-toon white supremacists that attracted the shooter in El Paso. So, where is the outrage from the Democratic contestants for the White House? Where are the calls for the radical left to be shunned and censored? You won’t hear that kind of language from the Democrats, because those radical leftists are the very base of the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a whole host of others. Former President Barack Obama came out with a blistering attack on those who promote fear and hatred, and not once did he acknowledge that these extreme leftists depend on stoking fear and hatred of those with conservative, mostly Christian values. If I gave President Trump one thumb up and one thumb down, I have to give former President Obama two thumbs down. Not only did he not acknowledge the militancy of the far left, but along with President Trump, he utterly refused to confess his own responsibility in fostering a climate of racism and bigotry in this country.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we must rise above this political morass. We must demonstrate the self-sacrifice and “love of one’s enemies” demonstrated by our Lord. We can not accomplish this by promoting, or even countenancing the kind of hatred that is being spewed by both the far left and far right in this debate. There is only one way for Christians to respond –

We ascend by climbing lower.