Monthly Archives: May 2017
A number of years ago, my parents took a cruise ship to Alaska. On that trip, my mother found an attractive dream catcher, and she gave it to me as a birthday gift. I hung it up in my car, around the rear view window mirror, just as a way to remember her, and her thoughtful gift to me.
So, I was really caught off-guard a few years later, when a Christian friend of mine was offended that I had that dream catcher hanging in my car. Some Native American cultures historically revere dream catchers as religious symbols, intended to protect children from bad dreams and evil spirits. But the larger Pan-Indian movement in the 20th century, in an effort to raise awareness of Native American cultures among the majority population, adopted the dream catcher as a cultural symbol. Not all Native Americans share the exact same spiritual beliefs as the Ojibwe tribe, from where the dream catcher most probably originated years ago. My mother looked at it as a memorabilia keepsake, something she wanted to give to her son.
Christian apologist John Oakes, at the apologetics blog Evidence for Christianity, that I highly respect, has an article explaining why he personally would not have a dream catcher in his car. We both agree that having a dream catcher is a gray area, in the “disputable matter” category, as found in Romans 14. Oakes does not think a dream catcher is sinful, but he personally would not have a dream catcher, as it might offend someone else, just as eating food sacrificed to idols might personally offend another Christian, in the first century church.
I support most of what Oakes is saying, but I take a different personal position. It is important to remember the context for Romans 14. There were Christians in the first century, who came out of pagan backgrounds, where eating food sacrificed to idols was readily practiced. Such practices would offend the conscience of those believers from those backgrounds, so this is why the Apostle Paul urged other believers, from different backgrounds, to carefully avoid insulting the conscience of the more sensitive believers, by avoiding such practices.
In the case of my Christian friend who objected to my mom’s dream catcher, this friend had no Native American background. Much less did this friend have any association with the Ojibwe tribe. Neither was this true of my mom, nor myself. Therefore, it was not anyone’s conscience that was being “offended,” but rather it was the rumored idea my friend had in their mind, of a dark power, that possibly someone, somewhere might be troubled by the presence of a dream catcher.
Though I appreciate my friend’s concern, that followers of Christ should reject idols, my response is this:
The effort that we could expend in trying to remove all things in our lives that might possibly offend someone, somewhere in the world, is a fool’s errand. To apply Romans 14 in this manner, takes the text out of its appropriate, New Testament context. It would be a form a perverse legalism to constantly police our lives, searching for those practices or artifacts that might trouble someone, somewhere. The meaning of symbols constantly changes across various cultures today, being appropriated and re-appropriated with different meanings, quite frequently.
For example, the radical Islamic State (ISIS) has destroyed countless precious cultural artifacts of ancient Syrian culture, all in the name of stamping out idolatry. Technically, those Muslims were right in declaring various statues as polytheistic idols, from a past era. But would someone be tempted to worship these idols today? Possibly, but this is highly, highly unlikely. Most moderns view these artifacts as testimonies to history, and we therefore grieve their loss. As such destructive ideological extremism spreads, the preservation of valuable cultural heritages becomes more important than ever.
Just think about the evolution of the swastika, discovered by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, and more recently, the Confederate flag. At one time, these were symbols with positive meanings, but not anymore.
As Christians, we regularly use terms like “Sunday,” “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “Wednesday,” etc., to describe the days of the week. The Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries refused to use that terminology for weekdays, as those names correspond to pagan gods, which were worshipped hundreds of years ago, during the pre-Christian era of Europe (the same logic applied to the first eight months of the Roman calendar). So those early Quakers would use terms like “first day,” “second day,” “third day,” etc., all very biblical terminology, to faithfully describe the days of the week. But to my knowledge, there are no people today, nor in the 17th century, who come or came from such pagan backgrounds, who might have or had such sensitive consciences. I do not see Christians today clamoring for altering the names of weekdays, who wish to rid our minds of such supposedly pagan mindsets, who might be tempted to worship the sun (Sunday), or the moon (Monday), or Thor, the god of war (Thursday).
Now, suppose I actually know someone, who would ride in my car, who really came from a background, where a dream catcher did possess some religious or spiritual meaning. They might see my dream catcher as an implicit endorsement, tempting them towards a spiritually harmful practice.
This would be an area where Romans 14, with respect to “disputable matters,” would be applicable. I would hope that in this case, I would discreetly take down my dream catcher, and slip it into my glovebox. I would not want something I have to become a stumbling block in their journey towards Christ.
But until then, I like having that dream catcher visible, as a way of remembering how much my mother cared for me. If there are any other Christians, who continue to object, I would say this: They probably have too much time on their hands, and they would be better off putting their efforts to rid our lives of “idols” to better use.
Did Saint Francis of Assisi really say, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words?”
In a sermon delivered by one of my (very fine) associate pastors this past week, there are good reasons to doubt the quotation’s authenticity. Even though the quote is regularly presented in sermons, etc., there is little evidence that the famous medieval Christian from Assisi, Italy ever said this.
The quote is typically used to suggest that Christians should focus more on their quiet witness, with acts of mercy and compassion. But often, the result is a silencing of the Word of God, an excuse for disobedience, something the Scriptures warn against (Acts 6:1-7 ESV). This is not an either/or issue. Believers are called to love people with good deeds and to verbally proclaim the message of Jesus. We should not neglect the latter for the sake of the former.
As is often done with Jesus of Nazareth, our impression of the historical Francis of Assisi reflects many of the cultural values of the times, and the real story gets lost. In 1972, Italian film producer, Franco Zeffirelli, made a film on the life of Saint Francis, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Zeffirelli portrayed Francis as an idealized Christ figure. Francis embodied a pure example of non-violence, harmony with creation, and freedom from materialism.
When I first saw the film, I was deeply drawn to the message. But when I watched it again some years later, Francis began to appear like a cartoon figure. Was this guy for real? How did he and his order of brothers support themselves financially? What motivated the people in his day to follow and admire Francis? Was Francis really a pacifist?
I had more questions than answers. As I listened to the Donovan soundtrack, I found myself keeping the tune of Hurdy Gurdy Man in my head, and I began to suspect that Zeffirelli’s Francis looked a whole lot like a Woodstock-era hippie. I mean, I could almost smell the scent of marijuana rising up from the movie screen.
So, I finally sat down to read a scholarly biography, by André Vauchez, Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint. Vauchez proved to be a difficult read for me, but he got his point across. The story of how biographers have memorialized him, over hundreds of years, is just as diverse and complex as the life Francis actually lived in the late 12th to early 13th centuries. Histories of Francis often reflect the values of his historians, just as studies of the historical Jesus, often reflect the values and prejudices of those Jesus historians.
However, one thing stood out from Vauchez’s work. The Franciscan order that Francis founded was foremost a preaching order. Proclaiming the Gospel of Christ came first.
One of the most remarkable episodes of Francis’ life was during the Fifth Crusade, when Christian armies were up against Islamic armies in Egypt. In 1219, Francis did not come as a warrior, but as a peacemaker. Yet contrary to some popular opinions today, as reflected to a certain degree, in the 2016 docu-drama film, The Sultan and The Saint, Francis was not trying to paper over the differences. Rather, he purposed to gain an audience with the Muslim leader, Malik al-Kamil, with the intention of sharing the Gospel with him and winning him to Christ. Francis crossed enemy lines, was captured and threatened with decapitation, but he negotiated his way to see this Sultan, al-Kamil. The Sultan asked Francis if he came to convert to Islam. Francis declined, insisting instead on sharing the Gospel of Jesus with the Sultan.
We have no record of the actual conversation that Francis had with al-Kamil. But we know that the Sultan even allowed Francis to stay in the Islamic camp and preach to the Sultan’s soldiers for several more days. Evidently, the Sultan was so impressed with Francis’ boldness, that he granted him safe passage back across enemy lines.
The Sultan was not persuaded by Francis’ message to embrace Christ, but Francis’ visit nevertheless had a positive effect several years later. In 1229, three years after Francis’ death, al-Kamil did negotiate a peace agreement with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, a man who grew up in Assisi, knowing Francis as a long time friend.
Needless to say, Saint Francis did “preach the Gospel at all times.” But clearly in this case, he used words.
Following is a 7-minute clip from the 1961 film, “Saint Francis of Assisi.” Though it looks like they used staging scenery from early Star Trek TV episodes, you can get the basic contour of the traditional telling of the story of Francis meeting the Sultan…. Another book I have wanted to read, like Vauchez’s, but more accessible, is Augustine Thompson’s, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, given a positive review at First Things magazine.
Veracity blogger-in-chief, John Paine, has done it again with another Veracity “Vlog,” otherwise known as a “video blog.”
Now, I know that a number of my Young Earth Creationist friends are not too crazy about the “Big Bang Theory,” as they argue that the Big Bang can not be found in the Bible…. and I am not talking about the TV show, but rather the cosmological theory….
But try this one on for size:
- Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent. (Psalm 104:1-2 ESV)
The continuous expansion of the universe, that results from the cosmological Big Bang, ties in very well with the psalmist’s metaphor, of God “stretching out the heavens like a tent.”
Okay. I am not necessarily saying that a psalm writer was consciously thinking about the modern physics of cosmic radiation, underneath his Middle Eastern tent, over twenty-five hundred years ago.
That would be a “stretch!”
Yet we are dealing with not just a human author, but a supernatural author, as well. It seems to be more than mere coincidence that God’s Word just happens to have a metaphor, that perfectly matches the description that astronomer Edwin Hubble first discovered in 1929. As John Paine demonstrates, the history of the universe from science is a good argument to help people who do not accept the Bible, to consider the possibility of believing in the God of the Bible.
True, having conversations with your neighbors about the Big Bang, rarely by itself will lead them to profess faith in Jesus. But it can create a pathway to share the Gospel. Otherwise, to refrain from appealing to general revelation in our conversations, is like trying “to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
Think about it.
Perhaps the connection between the Bible and the Big Bang is not such a “stretch” after all.
If you are still a bit confused, Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross at Reasons to Believe gives us some background on the Big Bang Theory (two videos, about 90-seconds each). If you want to know more about how we at Veracity approach the debate over creation, just find the search field on the Veracity blog, type in “creation” or “creationism,” and click GO!….. (SLIGHTLY OFF-TOPIC: John Paine filmed the promotion video for Faith Bible College. Check that out, too!)