Now that the last days of summer are waning, I am writing a post to reflect on some spiritual matters that I have been considering lately.
As we near the end of August, 2021, aside from Hurricane Ida bearing down on Louisiana, what is on the minds of many is the deteriorating situation in Kabul, Afghanistan. The obvious quandary is that the Taliban has not had a very stellar record in the area of upholding basic human rights, to say the least. The situation is particularly precarious for women and young girls, due to the strict Taliban interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Critics of the Christian faith have for years sought to fault the Bible for promoting misogyny, but those claims pale in comparison to the strict, Taliban readings of the Koran, regarding the treatment of women.
A friend of mine who served in the U.S. military recently sought to help an Afghan interpreter and his family leave the country. A few days ago that interpreter and his family arrived safely in Virginia, but the status of others left behind in Afghanistan is unknown. Furthermore, we must remember that there is a small, yet vibrant Christian community in Afghanistan, who have endured persecution under previous Taliban rule. We must pray for all who are facing extremely difficult circumstances, that God might deliver them from this crisis.
Please, Lord, protect the weak and powerless, and deliver them from danger. Let your loving Truth be made known to these people.
Reflections on a Meme: An Iconic Photo Examined
As an American, I particularly feel the angst of the loss of American prestige, following after the speedy fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban, after America’s longest active military involvement, in another country, during the entire history of the United States. More than a century ago, the British had to learn their lesson about how difficult it is to achieve military success in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, it was the Soviet Russians who faced the futility of gaining the upper hand in that country. Now, it is the turn of the United States to face the same scenario. When I saw the first video reports of people falling off of C17 planes, trying to leave Kabul, it made me think immediately of the Fall of Saigon, in 1975. I vividly remember the television reports, back when I was in middle school.
The most vivid iconic image, that many people living then remember from the Fall of Saigon, is the photo taken above, by Hubert Van Es, a Dutch photojournalist, during those last days in South Vietnam. What I recall of this photo is that it compresses, in one picture, the terrifying story of American personnel fleeing the country, in those final days. Here I remember the last military helicopter landing on the top of the American Embassy in Saigon, rescuing the last Americans to leave the embassy, just hours before the VietCong took over the whole city.
However, upon closer research, I have since learned that nearly everything I thought about this photo was wrong…. and yet is still true at the same time. Here is what I mean by that:
- First, this is not a military helicopter. It was owned instead by the CIA.
- Secondly, this is not a roof on the Saigon U.S. Embassy. Rather, it is the top of an apartment building, that was used by the CIA.
- Thirdly, the people climbing up the ladder are not Americans. They are South Vietnamese, hoping to avoid capture by the North Vietnamese Communists….
- And this was not the last helicopter out of Saigon.
Ah, a myth deconstructed. Nevertheless, despite all of these discrepancies, none of these facts undercut the reality at hand; namely, that the United States had to make a hasty retreat, after a decade of fighting, when American firepower dropped more bombs during that decade than all of the bombs dropped by ALL sides during World War II, combined.
There is a Bible lesson to be drawn from all of this: Just as the Hugh Van Es photo compresses the story of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in one photo, the four Gospel accounts compress together different aspects of Jesus’ story, to tell about Christ’s Resurrection.
Critics of the Christian faith will often point out a whole list of “contradictions” in the Bible, particularly when it comes to discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. Such criticisms are made by both atheists, who attack the “inerrancy” of the Bible, as well as apologetically-trained Muslims, who believe that the Koran corrects many of the “errors” found in the New Testament. Many Muslim apologists argue that the Christian New Testament was corrupted, and therefore, God needed to come along with the Koran to correct all of the mistakes about God that the Christians made. For example, some Muslim apologists believe that the Koran “corrects” the New Testament understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, which they believe originally stated that the Father, Jesus and Mary made up the divine Triune persons of God. Various Muslim apologists will also assert that the New Testament mistakenly teaches that Jesus was crucified, when it was really someone else who was crucified in Jesus’ place, thus rendering the Christian claim of the Resurrection to be misplaced. Therefore, the Koran “fixes” these type of errors, that have crept into Christian Bibles.
One particular atheist website, The Skeptic Annotated Bible, lists twenty “contradictions” surrounding the four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection.
There are a couple of responses to be made to these type of claims. J. Warner Wallace, a former Los Angeles police detective and atheist-now-turned Christian, is not threatened by such discrepancies in the Gospel accounts. In all of his years doing police detective work, he has come to accept that no two witnesses to a crime tell exactly the same story. Furthermore, even if two witnesses were to tell the same story, that would be a good sign that the witnesses are colluding together to concoct a narrative that is not trustworthy. So, the fact that we have four different accounts of the Resurrection, that vary regarding certain details, actually affirms the historical reliability of those Gospel accounts.
Many of the historical details that result in such supposed “contradictions” can be readily explained. Even the tougher ones have been considered over the many years of Christian history, and do not possess enough force to overthrow the fundamental witness, at the heart of the Christian claim, that Jesus actually rose Bodily from the Dead.
A lot of difficulties presented by claims of Bible “contradictions” often result from inappropriate expectations resulting from overly strict views of biblical “inerrancy.” Some hold to exceedingly strict definitions of biblical “inerrancy,” that make little allowance for discrepancies. Does it really matter if the different Gospel accounts make different statements regarding the exact number of women who came to visit the tomb? Or the question of whether there were one or two angels at the tomb? Or the question of the time of day when the women went to visit the tomb, before or after sunrise? Regardless of how satisfactorily all these discrepancies can be resolved or answered, none of this undercuts the fundamental claim that Jesus really rose from the dead. In other words, we may not be able to totally figure out how all of the Gospel accounts fit together, but the Scriptural story about Jesus’ Resurrection is still true.
Instead of insisting on “technical precision,” a more modest yet entirely historically orthodox case can be made that the Bible is “inerrant” in that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. In particular, the use of compression literary techniques need not compromise a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Christians can and do debate about what the best interpretation should be regarding certain Scriptural passages. Nevertheless, we must be careful to avoid two extremes, that of insisting on being too nit-picky in certain Scriptural details, versus being too careless and apathetic in addressing those same details of what we read and study in the Bible.
In my own experience, too many Christians tend towards the latter approach of sticking their head in the sand. An overwhelming number of believers tend to be too careless and apathetic, as opposed to being too nit-picky. But both extremes are wrong-headed approaches to the Bible. Personally, I have found that by trying to do in-depth research on various, so-called, Bible “contradictions” that I gain a deeper and more exciting love for the Bible, and for what God wishes to teach me through the Inspired Text.
A Word About the Coronavirus
If there is one thing that I have learned over the past year and half, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is this: the social media environment created by the Internet has given us a virtual cesspool of information, that makes it exceedingly difficult to parse through the lies and get to the truth. Christians should be known for being seekers of truth, but based on many of the Internet usage habits that I have observed, we are not doing the best job of displaying humility and discernment as we seek to know the truth, even during the current public health crisis.
Frankly, the situation depresses me. Still, I find hope in that when people, even Christians who get misled by what they read on Facebook, are able to sit down and have face-to-face conversations, where people feel free to open up as to how they acquire information and describe their thought processes in coming to their conclusions, it is refreshing to discover that there is something valuable in having such open and honest dialogue.
As far as the coronavirus goes, the whole situation is still a moving target. However, there are a few things that we can bank on as correct: We had an opportunity earlier in the year to squash this thing, but we missed it. With new variants following their evolutionary track, to try to survive, it will be difficult to assess the near term impact brought about by breakthrough cases, where people get infected with variants of COVID even after being vaccinated. In the long term, COVID-19 will be with us for a long, long time. Essentially, COVID-19, along with its related variants, will become just like the common cold and the flu. We will have to deal with this for the rest of our lives.
The silver lining in all of this is that the COVID virus, while still dangerous and life threatening for some, is not as lethal now as it once was during the early stages of the pandemic. Thank the Lord. Once we get through the current Delta, Gamma, etc. phase, we will have to face the new normal that COVID will eventually join both the common cold and the flu as all highly contagious and yet much less lethal health situations to deal with. Like everyone else, I am tired of masks, but most people have survived on the planet, with the common cold and flu bothering us in fits and starts. COVID will become the same thing. Using a mask will eventually become a personal choice, as opposed to being a government or employer health mandate, hopefully sooner than later.
In the meantime, we should do what we can to try to defeat this thing. The irony of the new variants is that a good case can be made that the evolutionary mechanism in the coronavirus has managed to work around the efforts by the vaccines to kill the virus. So, in one sense, you can blame the vaccinated for that. The vaccines were never promised to be the magic bullet to defeat the coronavirus. Nevertheless, the vaccines are still the best tool we have currently to defeat the virus… and it is at least an order of magnitude safer than not doing anything to defeat the virus. Otherwise you are just a “sitting duck,” as Dr. Francis Collins says, the director of the NIH.
The vaccination of children is still quite controversial, as well as various other non-vaccine solutions, such as getting tested for antibodies, for those who have been infected with COVID, and other possible drug treatments, like ivermectin. I personally believe that we should ship those vaccines in the United States that are currently being set aside for children and send them overseas to those areas of the world that vitally need them for their adult populations. The bottom line is this: despite the risks, unless you have good medical advise otherwise, getting a COVID vaccine is still the way to go.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast
Allow me to discuss some podcasts for a moment: The most encouraging podcast that I have listened to this summer is the C.S. Lewis podcast, with Oxford University theologian, Alister McGrath. Simply wonderful. McGrath is one of the world’s leading experts on C.S. Lewis, and he brings out some of the best insights into the life of perhaps the greatest English-speaking apologist in the history of the Christian world.
But I have to say that the most impactful podcast that I have been listening to over the summer has been The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast, put out by Christianity Today magazine. The storyline was developed by Mike Cosper, a former pastor who holds to a version of evangelical theology that I am most closely aligned with, that syncs in well with the theological vision behind The Gospel Coalition, a loose network of churches that sprang out from the combined efforts of Tim Keller, D.A. Carson and John Piper. Most Christians will probably not be interested is this type of thing, but if you are at all interested in where evangelicalism as a movement is today, and where it is headed, I would recommend this podcast.
In the podcast, Mike Cosper walks us through the story of Mars Hill, one of biggest churches in the United State, in Seattle, Washington, that grew out of a living room in 1996 to becoming a mega-church by the early 2010s, only to spiral towards collapse after the resignation of its controversial pastor, Mark Driscoll, in 2014. But the story is not just about Mark Driscoll. It is a much bigger story about the precarious story of mega-church style evangelicalism, catapulted into the cultural limelight driven by celebrity personalities, like Mark Driscoll.
It is hard to say where the podcast will eventually go with its story, but the lessons learned so far are both enlightening and disturbing at the same time. Even though Mark Driscoll is a complementation (for example, believing that women should not be elders in a local church), the story also encompasses the downfall of Willow Creek Church founder, Bill Hybels, an outspoken egalitarian (believing that women should be serving as elders in a local church). No one gets a free pass on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast.
Cosper weaves throughout the narrative the relationship between how God can work wondrous things in transforming the lives of thousands of people, while also acknowledging that human sin, in the form of pride, and a thirst for power, can easily corrupt the best of intentions. I will confess that I really resonate with a lot of what Mark Driscoll preaches about, even as he is now a pastor again in Arizona. He is like an evangelical Christian version of Jordan Peterson, and he is willing to say a lot of things, with courage, that most pastors are unwilling to say, but that at times, still needs to be said.
But that in no way should be used as an excuse for the abuse that happened in his church in Seattle. For those unfamiliar with the Mark Driscoll story, Driscoll had been accused of exerting a very authoritarian kind of control over his church’s elder board, resulting in the firing of some elders, with an eventual backlash that led to Driscoll’s dismissal as senior pastor.
Perhaps one of most difficult but significant episodes was in listening to Cosper’s interview with Joshua Harris, the evangelical superstar author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, who walked away from his marriage and his faith, just a few years ago. You get a fascinating glimpse into the growing phenomenon of “former” or disillusioned Christians working through a process of deconstructing one’s faith. A blogger like Esther O’Reilly found this particular podcast episode to be quite depressing, and it is, but it is still a cautionary tale of which Christian leaders should take note.
The theological themes preached by Mark Driscoll help to explain why Mars Hill became such a large and influential church in Seattle, one of the more progressive and secular cities in the United States. My heart goes out to the problems faced by young men in our culture, who are simply drifting through life, as blogger David French ably explains in his review of the podcast. Critics of the podcast, however, rightly point out problems with this type of journalism, as Liam Thatcher observes, as a type of voyeurism that is more addictive than necessarily helpful. In other words, not everyone should listen to this podcast, despite it being helpful for some. I personally could do without a lot of the bleeped out profanity.
But if you have read my review of pastor Jon Ritner’s book on the problems of the typical evangelical mega-church, church growth strategy, you will find a theme that crosses over between that book and the podcast. I have to say that Between 2 Kingdoms blogger John Ehrett hits it uncomfortably right on top of the nail here, in his conclusion about the podcast series: “The pejorative ‘Big Eva’ is not a phrase of which I’m usually fond, but it seems apt here: where confessional identity is optional, dominant modern conceptions about power and human freedom will always sneak in through the back door.”
For those unfamiliar with what Ehrett is trying to get at, allow me to try to translate: In modern evangelicalism, there is a certain aversion away from denominationalism that has both a positive and negative side to it. On the positive side, a rejection of denominationalism indicates that there is a sense that evangelical Christians should keep their vision solidly focused on Jesus as our pastor, and not get side-tracked by endless debates about theological controversies that often create denominations in the first place. But on the negative side, a rejection of denominationalism is often used as an excuse to remain shallow in one’s faith, giving us an excuse to avoid the hard work of doing serious Bible study, and a deeper and intentional exploration into the mysteries of our faith. When that happens, our love for the Truth grounded in the Word of God can easily get replaced by a sense of loyalty towards a gifted and capable leader. In other words, the mega-church movement can easily produced persons with a shallow faith that substitutes a solid grounding in Scriptural truth for a solid adherence to a popular pastor, a celebrity-driven culture that sadly mirrors what we find in the secular world, drawn to Hollywood movie actors, political personalities, sports figures, and rock music stars.
Finally, Something Bible Geeky, and Something Cool and Useful… Plus a Surprise Announcement
I need to end this, as much of what I have said above is not terribly happy. Part of what I have been feeling lately has also been driven by some sadness in my own life: My wife and I have been part of a wonderful, weekly small group Bible study for the past 4 1/2 years, that was our lifeline during the midst of the pandemic, and for various reasons, many of them very good, that group has finally come to an end (even though we have promised to meet together monthly for reunions). I am still working through some of my grief here…. So I will wrap a few things up….
Here is something Bible Geeky…. I mean really Bible Geeky. But you will probably be hearing about it more within the next few years. If you are familiar with the academic discipline of textual criticism, you will know that this is the study of how ancient Biblical texts have been copied down over the years to give us the Hebrew and Greek baseline texts that Bible translators use to give us contemporary translations of the Bible. Before the current digital era, scholars used meticulous methods that required a lot of hands-on work to try to give us the most accurate texts to be used for Bible translation purposes. Now, in the day of advanced computer technology, scholars have developed something called “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM), that helps scholars use computers to sift through thousands of copied manuscripts that will enable us to have even more accurate Bible translations in the future.
This “CBGM” is quite a mouthful, but the basic idea behind it is that this will help scholars make better decisions in trying to figure out what phrases in our copies of Scriptural documents were original or not. For example, when we read Mark 1:1, in the ESV translation, we read: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” A good study Bible will have a footnote for this verse, stating something like, “Some manuscripts omit the Son of God.” This means that the last phrase “the Son of God” does not appear in certain ancient manuscripts.
CBGM offers the possibility that scholars will be able to make better judgments as to whether or not “the Son of God” should remain in the main text of your Bible, versus being left aside in a footnote. Just this summer, a CBGM version of the Gospel of Mark has been produced, which has made the Bible nerdy world of scholars get all excited. Within a few years, we should be seeing some small changes to newer Bible translations that reflect the benefits of this type of research.
So then, with one quick blurb here towards the end, let me now talk about something really cool and useful. The STEP bible, that I discovered in late 2019, has made a wonderful upgrade to its features. It is an online and FREE Bible study tool that is totally awesome. Until recently, the STEP Bible only supported the English Standard Version of the Bible. But now the capabilities have greatly expanded. The new STEP Bible now has a whole new set of Bible translations available to compare different passages of Scripture together, such as the NIV 2011 and NASB 1995. What is really cool is the inclusion of the NET Bible, the New English Translation, complete with all of the hyper-linked notes. The built-in concordance feature is fantastic! This is now my top online Bible study resource. And, yes, it is all entirely FREE!! So, check out the new STEP Bible!!!
Now the Surprise Announcement!
Longtime readers of Veracity will know that I work on staff at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. I am really excited to announce that the web page for the NEW Cambridge House Christian Study Center is now online… View it here! I will report more on the Cambridge House in future Veracity postings, but in short summary, you should know that a loose network of folks who care about students, staff, and faculty at William and Mary have been praying for something like this to happen for several years now. Really exciting stuff!
Have a great rest of your summer. Look out for more book reviews on Veracity coming this fall.
Bonus little treat:
If life gets you too sad, then I have found the perfect anecdote for you. Not heavy spiritual or theological…. this is just plain fun!!
During the pandemic, one family decided to take joy into their own hands and put out a bunch music videos from their living room. The husband/father is a professional musician, but he has his whole family in the act. One young boy is on the drums, the other young boy plays electric and bass guitar, and their youngest girl is the backup singer…. and their mom runs the camera. It is the Clark Family Creative.
Below is their version of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” followed by one of their most popular videos, their rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Enjoy!!