June 16, 2008
The case of the 2000-year old sprout
About 33 years ago, Dr. Charles Dorothy and I visited the historic site of Masada in Israel. Again, some 23 years ago, I revisited Masada with my wife, Lorraine. She was fascinated by the fact that she could reach down and find fragments of first century old pots and oil lamps lying on the ground.
Masada is a huge, 1,300-foot high rock that stands on the edge of the Judean desert. In 37-31 AD, Herod turned the rock into a fortress, with his own three-tiered castle at the cooler north end. In 66 AD Masada fell to the Jews under the leadership of Menahem, son of the founder of the Zealot movement. During one of the many power struggles of the time, Menahem was murdered. He was replaced by his nephew Eleazar.
The Romans, as might be expected, did not take kindly to the Jews takeover of Masada and they took steps to get it back. Under the leadership of the Roman general Flavius Silva, the Romans laid siege against the Jewish occupiers. The Jews, though trapped atop the rock, were able to hold out until 72 AD because of a large water cistern that filled up in the rainy season, and massive Roman graineries that were full of grain.
When the Romans finally broke through, they found 962 insurgents - men, women and children -- all dead by their own hands. At the urging of Eleazar, they had chosen death rather than submission to the rapes and abuses of the brutal Romans.
Now, 2000 years later, "Scientists using radiocarbon dating have confirmed that an ancient Judean date palm seed among those found in the ruins of Masada in present-day Israel and planted three years ago is 2000 years old -- the oldest seed ever to germinate.
"The seed has grown into a healthy 4-foot-tall seedling..." (Los Angeles Times, 6/13/08).
Perhaps the seed is symbolic if the Jewish people - no matter how long the Jews have lived in exile, for 60 years now, they have been growing and flourishing in their own land. Despite the wicked intentions of enemies all around, they have found ways to survive. May God continue to preserve His Jewish people. --Brian Knowles
June 10, 2008
Is Our Pain God's Problem?
Is our pain God’s problem? If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow so much suffering? These kinds of questions—sometimes called the problem of theodicy—have long bothered believers and nonbelievers alike. These questions are especially pressing now as we face the AIDS pandemic, widespread hunger, and environmental degradation—not to mention the grief that humans can cause one another. Our two guests for this new Beliefnet Blogalogue have devoted part of their lives to addressing these issues. Bart Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of God's Problem and Misquoting Jesus, among many other titles. N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and has taught at McGill, Oxford, and Cambridge. His books include Surprised By Hope, Evil and the Justice of God, and several other titles.
I shared this Ehrman-Wright dialogue with several of my friends and quickly received this reply back from Dr. Candace Mitchell in Colorado.
Thank you so much for including me in that mail list. I truly enjoyed reading the discourse between these two, obviously, well-studied men. I’m not taking the time to make any comments, but a few things off the top of my head that I observed:
The crisis in faith suffered by Dr. E is the sort of issue that most Christians grapple with in the beginning of their faith (or so I have seen in my limited/naive experience); it’s surprising to see him dealing with this specific issue at this point in his life/”faith,” and I can see why Dr. W, then, assumes that the question of suffering is simply a backdrop for abandoning Christianity due to other, unnamed issues.
2. WHY is a man who is an admitted agnostic teaching religious studies at a major university, and is this a problem? (Rhetorical: obviously, we recognize it ISN’T a problem for the big U’s….they do this all the time….) One could argue that these sort of appointments are exactly the kinds of catalysts that turn young people away from (or possibly deepen?!!, but probably more often turn away) the teachings of God. Young people, in their 20’s, are so impressionable, and in a culture where we make heroic those who are academically intelligent, these young people fall “victim” to this crisis experienced by their professor (no doubt overwhelming in its manifestations in his teaching). It is a shame; it is HIS crisis, not theirs. And yet, what is he teaching them??
3. I wonder, as in the movie Expelled, if the current trends in evolutionary biology have influenced him in his loss of faith?—as it seems to happen so often at major universities.
4. A take I have on suffering: suffering is relative. Many of the situations Dr. E ascribed as “insufferable” today would be considered as just a factual part of life 50 years ago (e.g. diseases/birth defects, natural disasters). Remember, the hurricane didn’t take out New Orleans—the broken levees took out New Orleans. 200 years ago, without levee technology, people wouldn’t even be LIVING along the coast. So, presto, we now have “suffering” because man is living where he shouldn’t be but can as a result of technology. We now know what it’s like not to lose our infants to disease because we have mass vaccination and eradication of some major infections, but 200 years ago, such was not the case. It was just fact that some babies would die in infancy—this is not to diminish the loss to those parents. But Dr. E acts mortified that people are hungry or diseased in today’s life; hasn’t it always been so? And in fact, during Abraham’s life, wasn’t it proportionally magnified, compared to today’s technology? And yet, did Abraham consider certain conditions as suffering? In the south, it’s common for some people to die of heatstroke during the 107 degree summers. And people talk of the “Suffering” of the poor because they don’t have air conditioning. This talk seems almost a non-sequitor to me—even when I was a child, just 30 years ago, it was unusual for homes to have air conditioning. And the corollary: where is the opportunity for service to one another if no one else is going through challenging problems (or what might be called “suffering”?) It’s almost as if Dr. E would have people be challenged, but he would like for God to abbreviate this just shy of “suffering.” I agree with Dr. W that this emotion-laden approach to this problem seems just a bit, well, melodramatic. And to what end?
5. I wonder if Dr. E never fully understood God—as exampled by some of his statements about Old Testament writings. And his perspectives are why I think it’s soooo important for Christians today to study the OT. Many, many of them never fully appreciate that a kind & loving God also manifests fairness/equality and, even, vengeance. The message of Jesus is rather incomplete in this regard if taken in isolation (which, of course, Jesus never meant for it to be….). Dr. E seems to actually view “The Hebrew God” as a rather punishing fellow—I would submit because he never had a full understanding of the scriptures (I know, I know, it was his “life’s work” blah blah blah, as if men can’t dedicate their lives to fruitlessness in the name of “academia”—and don’t do so all the time).
I enjoyed their banter. Thanks.
P.S. I had one other thought: as man has lived longer and stood on the shoulders of other men before & their discoveries, we have learned and advanced. And surely God knew that would be so. He gave us the aptitude for this. So, in a sense, one could view suffering as a challenge that man is partly supposed to solve or, at minimum, ameliorate. And we never do it perfectly, but it is a worthwhile endeavor. This may be the viewpoint one could take when all that emotionalism of Dr. E is removed from the issue.
May 5, 2008
15-year old Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) Appears Semi-Nude in Vanity Fair
Editor's note: You've probably heard the flap about this wholesome Disney child-star who did some sexy, suggestive, and revealing photo shots for a popular magazine (below is a link to one of many articles on the subject). Millions of young girls look up to this star and likely take their cues on living life from her. Last October my friend, Merle Vines, gave a message at our Feast of Tabernacles celebration held in Priest Lake, Idaho, in which he used the example of Hannah Montana and her parents and handlers. His point, I think, was the careless regard for the protection of our children from exploitation--increasingly common in our culture. We teased Merle about his keen knowledge of the country music scene (I'd never heard of Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley's dad, which I guess indicates how out of touch I am). I recently wrote him that I don't keep up with that "fluff fluff stuff." Below he responds in his typically colorful style. --Ken Westby
May 1, 2008
Hi, all. I wish every Christian in our wealthy nations could see some of the stories that daily come across my desk so that they could appreciate what they have where they live, and also see what Christians in other countries have to put up with. I have traveled extensively in Mexico and South America and have seen squalor firsthand, but what these Christians have to deal with in Muslim countries goes way beyond what I saw in Latin America. At least in Latin America most of the governments do not have an active policy of trying to exterminate Christians as is the case in many Muslim countries. --Ken Ryland
February 28, 2008
The more I learn about everything, the more I realize how little I know about anything. Consequently, I find it ever more difficult to write assertively or authoritatively. Writing about Israel is especially difficult.
Not everyone who reads this blog agrees on who or what is Israel. For the record, when I use the term "Israel" I'm not writing about the US, the UK, the nations of NW Europe, Australia or Canada; I'm writing about the tiny nation that sits in the eye of the Mid-East's hottest political maelstrom. (Do maelstroms have eyes?)
President Bush not long ago proclaimed that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors could be achieved. He fanaticizes that if only the "Palestinians" can be given their nation, all will settle down and peace will break out in the region.
Fat chance. As Cal Thomas pointed out in his column: "Since 1937, there have been 18 formal attempts by commissions, conferences, resolutions, summits, and other gatherings to persuade the Jewish lamb to lie down with the Arab lion. All have failed." The President's noble attempt to make it happen on his watch will end the same way.
Israel's claim to the land -- eretz Yisrael -- is based on the Bible, history and a UN mandate. The Arab's hostility to Israel is also based on theology. Until that theology changes, the hostility will continue.
No external pressure is going to bring about theological change within the Islamic world. As yet, there is no major sign of it happening as a result of internal pressures either. So Israel and the Palestinians are at an impasse. Bush plans to revisit Israel in May. It may be his last change to accomplish what no other President before him has achieved.
Meanwhile, Palestinians and various terrorist groups continue to lob missiles into Israel. Last year (2007) some 2,774 rockets or mortars were fired off against Israeli citizens peacefully pursuing "normal" life. Anytime Israel retaliates against these attacks, it is portrayed in our Arabist Press/Media as the bad guy and the Palestinians as martyrs. For every attack and counterattack, new vows of revenge emanate from Palestinian terrorists. The whole stupid cycle of destruction, death and heartache continues on ad nauseum.
Will the nations of the Middle East ever become a peaceful, democratic, civilized part of the human race? Or will this barbaric insanity continue until Messiah comes? Ezekiel 38 seems to suggest the latter, but your guess is as good as mine - and mine isn't very good. --Brian Knowles
January 23, 2008
Of Interest to Christians
I consider myself to be a "generic" Christian -- that is, a Christian without a denominational brand name. The world of Christianity is made up mainly of nominal, denominational Christians, many of which are in competition with each other. The more denominations, the more politics. When one denomination dominates the political picture, it seems to use its power to oppress other kinds of Christians. Two small but significant examples come to us via Reason magazine, Feb., 2006:
"The town council in San Nicolas, Mexico, has voted to expel 40 families, all of them evangelical Protestants, from their homes. Meanwhile, officials in the town of San Antonio Las Rosas have declared that only Catholics may live there and have cut off electricity to evangelicals."
Canada, the country of my birth, has also generated its own brand of politically correct anti-Christian nonsense:
"Bob Du Broy, vice president of a Christian music station in Ottawa, wants to start another station devoted to spoken Christian programming. There's just one problem: Canadian broadcast regulations require him to devote 71 minutes of airtime each day to other faiths, for 'balance.' Still, he's lucky; Canada banned religious programming completely until the early 1990's," Reason, Feb. 2008.
This approach to programming is Canada's version of the U.S. "fairness doctrine" under which equal time must be devoted to opposing views.
Clearly, freedom of religious speech has fallen on hard times in some places. The more our Western cultures drift incrementally into secular socialism, the more we will see the suppression, marginalization, and curtailment of the Christian faith -- especially those forms of Christianity most closely based on the Bible. --Brian Knowles
January 13, 2008
Of Interest to Christians - Big Brother Government Getting
In our time, government everywhere seems to be growing out of control and finding ways to micromanage more and more aspects of our lives. Three instances suffice to illustrate.
The first item comes from the International Herald Tribune, January 11, 2008: "Next year in California, state regulators are likely to have the emergency power to control individual thermostats, sending temperatures up or down through a radio-controlled device that will be required in new or substantially modified houses and buildings to manage electricity shortages...in emergencies, the utilities could override customer's wishes."
In the U.K., the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has thrown his weight behind a move that would allow hospitals to harvest the organs of dead patients without anyone's consent. "The proposals would mean consent for organ donation after death would be automatically presumed, unless individuals had opted out of the national register or family members objected," The Telegraph, January 13, 2008. Think of the potential for abuse there!
Also in Britain, there is a move to "chip" prisoners in order to keep tabs on them via satellite. They've proven this technology works with dogs and it was only a matter of time before they found a reason to apply it to humans. "...instead of being contained in bracelets worn around the ankle, the tiny chips would be surgically inserted under the skin of offenders in the community to help enforce home curfews. The radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, as long as two grains of rice, are able to carry scanable personal information about individuals, including their identities, address and offending record," The Independent on Sunday, January 13, 2008.
In sum, governments somewhere want to control the temperature in our homes, our organs after death, and the whereabouts of former or present prisoners. Of course the chip technology could be applied to any classification of people any government wanted to keep track of -- including Christians. It's only a matter of time before privacy and personal sovereignty become artifacts of the past. In our increasingly Orwellian world, government micromanagement of more and more aspects of our lives seems to be the order of the day. -- Brian Knowles
December 15, 2007
An Army of Lost Children
In much of the Third World life is cheap - especially for children. In Latin America, there are some 17 million street children. They are homeless, aimless and willing to do almost anything to survive.
Survival lasts an average of 3 - 4 years. Many are forced into prostitution at a tender age. In this "profession" they are horribly abused and exploited. They are robbed of their childhood and their innocence.
A large number turn to crime, and to drugs. If a child is caught up in family-related crime, he can pay with his life.
The combination of hunger, sickness and drug use can permanently damage both their physical and their mental health.
Only 18 percent of these hapless children are biological orphans. The remaining 82% are "social" orphans, having been forced to flee their homes due to neglect, abuse and violence. According to a 2006 UN report, some 16 of these street children are murdered every day. Many of these murders go unreported.
So who's doing anything about this scandalous and heart-breaking situation? Many small, underfunded, indigenous organizations and churches are trying to help. Most of them are scarcely making a dent in the problem. One organization that has a small, but well put together, program is Hope International, based here in California. For more information, go to www.hopeunlimited.org. --Brian Knowles
December 11, 2007
Of Interest to Christians
Not all of the news is of specific interest to Christians. Frankly, I don’t care about “the Daily Britney” or the antics of Hollywierd’s other lowlifes. Many of the “stars” of the movie and television world are not ideal role models for the generation on the brink of adulthood. We can appreciate their craft as entertainers, but not always their morals or their leftist politics.
And the ugliness of political power-seeking leaves something to be desired. It is hard to believe that the personnel of the current round of Presidential debates represent the “best & the brightest” of tomorrow’s leadership. Woe unto the world if the right person doesn’t wind up in the White House! But, as someone said, “We get the leadership we deserve.” That’s what happened to Israel in ancient times (I Samuel 8:6-21).
In recent times, many books have been published lamenting the decline of the West. Yet, sometimes we are surprised. Church news coming out of the UK, for example, suggests that Christianity in that country has fallen on hard times. Churches are empty or near-empty and Christian leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury are said to be morally compromised. But there is good news: 42 percent of Brits still pray! One out of six of those pray every day, while one in four pray at least once a week. When you consider that Britain’s population is more than 60 million -- that means there are at least 25 million people in the UK who pray.
Of those who prayed, some 57 percent said that praying changed what happened in their life and 32 percent said they’d actually seen the results of prayer in their lives. Even among those who were not affiliated with any religion, one in eight prayed “sometimes.”
According to the report on Breitbart.com (November 10, 2007), “The proportion of people who prayed varied throughout the country, with London coming up as the ‘prayer capital of the UK’ with nearly three-quarters (73%) saying they prayed.” Yorkshire (from whence my family hails) and Humberside reported the lowest number of prayers – 24 percent.
The survey also revealed that the younger Brits are, the less likely they are to pray. Some 16-27 percent of 16-24-year olds prayed, while 61 percent of those over 75 prayed. Old age, experience, and one’s presence in the “departure lounge” of life has a tendency to sober one up. Ecclesiastes 12:1 comes to mind: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…” --Brian Knowles
December 11, 2007
Nehemiah’s Wall Uncovered
I can’t remember how many sermons I delivered on the Book of Nehemiah – many I’m sure. It was always one of my favorite Biblical books for illustrating many spiritual lessons. Nehemiah was a wine steward cum wall-builder. In 52 intense days, he and his support crew built a wall around ancient Jerusalem. Even in those ancient times the Arabs opposed the project (Nehemiah 2:19 ff.). Now, Nehemiah’s hastily constructed wall, built under divine blessing, has been found. “The section of the 2500-year-old Nehemiah wall, located just outside the Dung Gate and the Old City walls facing the Mount of Olives was dated by pottery found during a recent dig at the site…” (Source: Jerusalem Post, November 28, 2007). Dr. Eilat Mazar says of the find, “This find opens a new chapter in the history of Jerusalem. Until now, we have never had such a wealth of finds from Nehemiah’s period.” Dr. Mazar is also credited with excavating much of the old City of David at the south end of Jerusalem, and with finding portions of the king’s palace. She has also found an ancient tower located on the wall at the site. The dig has been underway for about three years now and it promises to yield yet more treasures from this early period in Israel’s history. --Brian Knowles
- December 7, 2007
World's First Theological Discussion was between the Serpent and Eve
Surprised? Theology (theo=God; logy=knowledge) concerns itself with the knowledge of God--what he is like, what he requires, etc. Read about their "deep" theological probings which are quoted in Genesis 3:1-6. This Serpent-Woman dialogue is quite revealing and typifies the common pattern for much discussion about God. Eve was clearly at a disadvantage to this "crafty" fallen angelic being known elsewhere as Satan or the Devil. He was ever so smooth and a master at pushing the right buttons to move the discussion in his direction.
The Serpent asked Eve, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" He was challenging her knowledge of God's actual words and was suggesting that God had forbidden any and every tree. The assumption of his question is that God had unfairly forbidden too much.
Well, Eve didn't initially buy the Serpent's characterization of God's commands and she set the record straight saying that God said she and Adam could eat of every tree in the entire garden but one--a specific tree called the Knowledge of Good and Evil located in the middle of the Garden in Eden. This is quite a different picture of God's command, one that is very generous and minimally restrictive. And the restriction had to do with the couple's well being as she understood it, so that they not touch that particular tree and die. There may have been hundreds or even thousands of trees in the garden, yet only one was forbidden. Eve is unaware that her facts--of what God actually says and does--is be irrelevant to the direction this conversation will soon take. An unfortunate pattern of much theological debate even today.
The Serpent now gives Eve his take on what is really going on with God. First, "you will not die," so relax on that score. God doesn't want you to have something quite good, something he himself has, but wants to keep from you. The Serpent is directly challenging the truth of God's statements and suggesting that God's motives are suspect. He injects an element of doubt. Don't be so sure that God isn't keeping something you really need and will want to have. The Serpent-Eve dialogue is about God. God's commands are restrictively burdensome and are designed to deprive humans from experiencing knowledge that would be desirable. Eve buys the Serpent's reasoning as it seems to fit with her naturally selfish, yet naive, desires. You know the rest of the story.
The Serpent's theology is that God can't be trusted for truth; he must be suspect; his motives are not pure; he wants to keep people from deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, good and evil; God want to keep people from having fun through sin; and God's threat of consequences for disobedience is a lie. This is not a very good yet an all too common perception of God.
Where do most people get their ideas of God? Where did you get yours? From parents, Sunday School, secular education, the street? We got them somewhere. How accurate to the facts is our theology? Warning: study and deep thought required to answer these questions.
There is no question that much (most?) of the world's myriad religions are a confusing muddle of doctrines, practices, and worship. But one fact holds true for any particular religion--pagan or Christian--or denomination within a religion: All forms of doctrine, practice, and worship arise, flow from or devolve from that particular religion's concept of God. Theology embodies one's particular concept of God and forms the shape of one's religion.
If your God is a wrathful character that can be pacified by throwing a virgin into a volcano, then that become a part of the worship rites. If your God is so insecure and prickly so as to be offended by a little school teacher lady who allowed her class of Sudanese students to name a stuffed Teddy Bear after the prophet Mohammed (which came to crisis status last week), then the teacher lady must be killed to protect God's (Allah's) honor. If you believe God created some humans to be saved and others to writhe in the fires of hell for eternity, then you are at home with other Calvinists who must be conflicted over the mysteriously arbitrary nature of God--a God that doesn't appear all that loving and merciful..
People form their religion based on their concept of God. This is true for Calvinists, Lutherans, Mormons, Pentecostals, Catholics and any group you want to name. This is why their doctrines and practices vary. They are doing what they think God wants...as they conceive him. You can see why getting your theology right to begin with is the key issue: knowing who God is and what he is like and what he expects of those he created in his image. These are the big issues that should inform the nature of our religious beliefs and practices.
The task of developing an accurate and true theology is not as daunting an enterprise as you may think. God has made the task possible by his own self-disclosure in Scripture and Creation. He tells us what he is like, what he has done, what he expects of us--and he has a long historical track record to validate his self disclosure. The data are best read without tradition-tainted glasses. You'll be surprised how much can be known about God. And I believe you'll find theology is the most exciting of all studies--and the most important. It reigns supreme above all other fields of knowledge.
Eve let another creature pawn off upon her his own bad and prejudiced theology. We should know better. Why not start your quest for a true theology by mediating upon God's self-disclosure found in Jeremiah 9:23-24, and continue from there. --Ken Westby
October 25, 2007
Iran continues to threaten an already dangerously volatile Mid East mess. Russia, N. Korea, China and Syria are standing with Iran and against the U.S. and allies. These trouble making nations are actively supporting Iran’s desperate quest for nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The threat is real and scary for Israel, Europe, and the U.S.
The Persian nation is large, wealthy, educated, nationalistic, and led by Islamic radicals committed to the destruction of Israel, Christianity, and Western civilization including the “great Satan,” the U.S.A. To not take this threat seriously is akin to ignoring Hitler as he threatened Europe in the mid 1930s. At that time Hitler’s Nazi regime had invaded nobody, gassed nobody and burned nobody in ovens. Some foolish politicians in bordering nations like France and England said that Hitler was all talk and diplomatic appeasement would calm him down. Well, we know what fools those politicians were. About 50 million people died after Hitler launched his war and genocide.
Those foolish voices fill our political chambers today. If they are listened to we might expect a similar Hitler-like disaster. Islamic Persians are awaiting the prophesied Twelfth Imam to bring about a new Islamic era of greatness from the apocalyptic ashes of a coming world war. Hitler prophesied a thousand year Reich and was working toward it beginning in 1927. When the Nazis took power in 1933 things began to speed up. The well-kept German records showed that between 1927 and 1933 about eighty-five people a year were voluntarily sterilized. Under the Nazis, at least two million human being had been forcibly sterilized at the rate of about 450 per day.
Soon things were stepped up to dispose of the “utterly useless” by gassing. German research went to work and the chemical giant I.G. Farben produced prussic acid gas under the trade name of Zklon B and sold it to the Nazis for use in concentration camps. The company had stockpiled enough of the lethal gas to kill more than 200 million people, more than thirty times the actual number of people destroyed. One can only wonder how many people would have been left to rule had Hitler’s Third Reich actually conquered the world. Millions died in the world war Hitler began, but many more millions would had been murdered had the war not been fought to stop him.
We should learn from the past. Had Hitler been stopped before he launched WW II, millions of lives could have been saved. Nevertheless, fighting him to defeat at the cost of millions of lost lives ended up saving countless millions, and equally important, kept freedom alive. George Santayana’s warning holds: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Some foolish voices may “remember” the past, they just choose to ignore it.
Please pray that our leaders have the wisdom and courage to act wisely in the face of the Iranian threat. Pray that they not ignore the costly lessons from history’s mistakes. Pray that they do ignore the short-sighted political winds of popularity and avoidance. Iran is not going away and we must decide how to deal with this ancient foe of Israel. Time is running out.
To close on a positive note, we know how the story ultimately ends with God’s peaceful Kingdom ruling the world. May Thy Kingdom soon come! --Ken Westby