Monthly Archives: December 2021

Best (and Bittersweet) Wrapup of 2021 … Books and More

At the end of each year, I like to take some time looking back over some of best things I have learned, mainly from books (and podcasts), with a wrap-up of some of the biggest stories hitting the Christian world. But before I do that, I would like to report on the most bittersweet moment this past year.

It was the loss of our Italian greyhound, Digby. He was a rescue dog that we adopted, near the time when I learned that my mother was dying of cancer, back starting in 2014. He had been pulled out of a burning house, engulfed by a fire, and he needed a home. Friends who were traveling through Indiana picked him up for us, that we might give him a “forever home”. This sweet little guy gave my wife and I much joy for seven years.

He was in many ways a much better dog than Dooty, another Italian greyhound, whom we lost in 2013. In September, 2020, our newest “family member” was sadly diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. Dogs typically do not recover from this disease, but with certain types of medical treatment, they can live months, or even years after the initial diagnosis, with a good quality of life. Fourteen months later, though, in early November, it became apparent that the condition of this Italian greyhound was rapidly deteriorating. What made his death so much the more difficult was his genuinely sweet disposition to the very end. I marvel at the glory of God that was on full display by this creature.

We will miss this little guy. Hopefully, we will meet someone just like Digby in the New Heavens and New Earth (The first two following pics were from late 2020. The third was from September, 2021. The last one was from November, 2021).







Speaking of bittersweet, here is a remarkable story of forgiveness, displaying the power of the Gospel.  A Christian friend of mine, Debbie Smith, was sexually attacked in 1989, when a man entered her home and dragged her into the woods. He was eventually caught and convicted, after DNA evidence provided a positive match for the suspect. Earlier this year, Debbie spent five hours visiting this man, still in prison, where she told him that she had forgiven him.



Here is my wrap-up for 2021….

This will really show my age here, but just few weeks ago I learned that Michael Nesmith, the lead guitar player and primary songwriter for the 1960’s television pop-group, the Monkees, died at age 78. As a kid, I watched re-runs of that show, and I was drawn to Nesmith’s character, always wearing a wool hat, and who came across as the most pensive member of the band…. Just one little interesting factoid about Nesmith I recently learned: His mother invented Liquid Paper, the typewriter correction fluid, in 1954, as a divorced single mother, trying to raise her son Michael ….  Here is one of Nesmith’s musical creations, that he introduces in this silly video for the television show, “You Just May Be The One.” Mickey Dolenz, the drummer, is the only surviving member of the band:


Onto some things of a more serious nature….

On the bright side, in the midst of disaster, it is really encouraging to see how Christians are working together to help the folks impacted by tornadoes in Kentucky, back in early December…. My wife and I visited family over this Christmas near where the worst tornado, which reached up to EF-4 strength, devastated the towns of Dawson Springs and Mayfield, Kentucky. You could see the damaged inflicted along the path the tornado took crossing Interstate 69 in several places. It made me appreciate the power of nature to inflict terrible damage, and impact many lives, as we could see debris for miles scattered over rural Kentucky…..

On the more problematic side of the church…..

One of the most significant developments that I have been seeing in the American church is the development of what might best be called “progressive Christianity,” as a contrast to “historically orthodox Christianity.” A generation or so ago, this distinction was primarily seen as the difference between “mainline Protestant Christianity” and “evangelicalism.” But with the looming collapse of the Protestant mainline, and the emergence of other churches that do not fit the older Protestant mainline mold, the category of “progressive Christianity” seems like a much more appropriate designation. Unlike in previous generations, when so-called “liberal Christians” went to “mainline churches” (with a few conservatives mixed in, here and there), and “conservative Christians” went to “conservative evangelical” churches, many churches today are a blended mix of everything, that defies easy boundary markers.

As some have said, this blending is an invitation to shallowness…..

We are now living in an age where the specific boundary between “progressive Christianity” and “historically orthodox Christianity” (certainly of the Protestant sort) can become slippery and elusive. On the one side, some doctrinal controversies can cause unnecessary division, and harm the unity of Christ’s body. Yet at the same time, the category of “disputable matters” can also become so broadly and loosely defined that the concept of knowable, absolute Christian truth becomes a meaningless enterprise. Some differences in belief and practice are simply stark and distinctive, and difficult to ignore. The following video dialogue between Sean McDowell (historically orthodox Christian) and Colby Martin (progressive Christian) provides an informative illustration as to what this chasm in the church looks like:


Speaking of controversy 😦   …..  When COVID started to emerge in the U.S., a little under two years ago, I first thought that this crisis might be the spark that would lead to a spiritual revival. Having people crammed up in their homes for weeks on end might encourage a massive wave of interest in spiritual things. But such was not the case. In fact, things have pretty much devolved into an unparalleled amount division in the culture… and 2021 was pretty much the wearisome ballooning of the same craziness that engulfed people in 2020!!

So much of this spirit of division is driven by the flood of post-modernism throughout the Western world. The shady world of fake news and deepfake technology has not helped matters, that is for sure (listen to this Holy Post podcast, if you are unsure what “fake news” and “deepfake technology” is)….. and our American educational system has pretty much robbed a whole generation of a vibrant appreciation of history, a situation that we have managed to export to places outside of the U.S., like the U.K, according to historian and The Rest is History podcaster, Dominic Sandbrook.

This state of affairs is pretty depressing, but there are signs of change in the air. Positive change. Even a gay atheist, like the venerable British historian, David Starkey, who last year ran afoul of the U.K.’s extreme “social justice warrior” movement and virtue-signaling “woke” crowd, laments our culture’s failure to pursue truth. What if every Christian possessed this type of desire to pursue truth?


Sadly, this depressing state of affairs permeates the church as well. Consider the case of Eric Metaxas. A few years ago, despite some earlier misgivings about some of his writings, I imagined that Eric was becoming the type of evangelical public intellectual who could soundly speak for the conservative evangelical movement as a whole. After reading his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was pretty excited about Eric Metaxas’ prospects as a popular-style, evangelical public intellectual. I was very hopeful about Eric, and here on Veracity I have linked to perhaps a good half dozen episodes of his talk show from YouTube (which have all since mysteriously vanished)…

…. and then 2020 came. …  Eric appeared to go off the deep end, uncritically embracing various conspiracy theories (as it would appear). WORLD News Group did an interview with Eric Metaxas in November, 2021, primarily regarding a new book authored by Metaxas, but also to ask the question that keeps popping up in my mind, “Whatever happened to Eric Metaxas?Give it a listen and make up your own mind.

Speaking of WORLD News Group, that sponsors the daily news podcast, The World and Everything In It, that my wife enjoys listening to daily, a shakeup there has everyone scratching their heads. WORLD has historically been on the more conservative side of conservative evangelicalism, under the editorial leadership of Marvin Olasky. I have had issues with some of WORLD’s reporting over the years, but I have also been grateful for WORLD taking controversial stands, in exposing various scandals inside the evangelical world, and Marvin Olasky was largely responsible for that type of journalism. Now, however, Olasky has announced his resignation from WORLD magazine, since a decision at WORLD was made to take editorial control of the magazine away from Olasky.

Olasky has his concerns about the future of Christian journalism: “The trend in journalism these days is to emphasize opinion, not reporting. Reporting is costly; opining is relatively cheap. It can lead to more ‘reader engagement’ in terms of clicks, likes, shares—and subscriptions. Challenging readers or donors can be costly: Supporting proclivities and prejudices is better at cementing loyalty. These days it makes a certain kind of economic and political sense to abandon Biblical objectivity and become known as a liberal or conservative organ.” For someone who is such a resolute conservative evangelical to make such a statement does not bode well for the state of the church.

I am continually being challenged to learn How to Have Impossible Conversations in a digital world where the social media algorithms steer us all into ideological corners, on both the right and the left, and thus facilitating outrage fatigue. Thoughtful, intelligent nonbelievers employ such conservational strategies, to avoid nonsense, but Christians would do well to do the same. Probably the best summary of this problem, from a pastor’s point of view, comes from this interview of pastor Matt Chandler by theologian Preston Sprinkle:

To get a feel for how difficult the situation is, just recently in December, 2021, the Pew Research Forum released an updated report chronicling the rise of the “Nones,” those who say that they no longer have a religious affiliation.  In 2007, the survey indicated that the “Nones” made up 16% of the American population, rising to 26% by 2019.  Now, just a few years later, we are at 29% for the “Nones.” That is almost 1 out of 3 Americans (about 3 out of 10, to be more exact), whereas this was just at 1 out of 6 Americans (about 3 out of 20), a little more than a decade ago.

On the whole, American Christianity does not seem to know what to do about this situation….


Now onto better things….

Before I hit the book review summaries, I like to put another plug in before the end of 2021 for the Cambridge House at the College of William & Mary. I am super-excited about what is going on there!!.This is a great effort to try to put a dent into the growing “Nones” trend, on just one local college campus, here in the United States.

Now, this is perhaps the most exhilarating story of the year… just in time for Christmas. The group of conservative Anabaptist missionaries that were held captive by gang members in Haiti for weeks made a daring escape away from their captors. Wow!! (One of the captive missionaries gives a one-hour testimony of his experience).



Some Book Reviews…..

If there is one thing I appreciate about bike commuting is the ability to listen to audiobooks (and podcasts) while I ride. Not only am I trying to get my body in shape, I am working on getting my mind (and hopefully, my heart) in shape as well. As we are s-l-o-w-l-y emerging out of the COVID pandemic, I have been able to sneak in some great listens during 2021.

First, let me say that I am trying to stay off the 24-hour news cycle, that I believe has been a detriment to the spiritual health of millions of people. We live in an age where evidence-based reasoning takes a backseat to whoever successfully can take advantage of the attention-getting algorithms propagated by social media networks like Facebook. I am thankful for a site like Ground News that takes the current headlines, and simply summarizes the stories, and organizes the reporting media based on an organization’s ideological bias. Another site,, does pretty much the same thing. Websites like these help to quickly cut through all of the garbage.

I want to next list off a few of my favorite podcasts. When it comes to Bible study, nothing else beats Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast. This is some of the best Bible teaching out there today, a combination of verse-by-verse exposition, apologetics, and an appreciation of current biblical scholarship, all wrapped up into one. If you think studying the Bible might be “boring,” then the Naked Bible Podcast is your antidote.

Preston Sprinkle has a wide variety of fantastic interviews on his Theology in the Raw podcast. Beyond theological topics, focusing on history, I have become a follower of The Rest is History, by British historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, which is a lot of fun, as well as being educational. Premier Christian Radio’s C.S. Lewis podcast is a wonderful introduction to the great Oxford Don, Christian apologist, and children’s book author, featuring interviews with scientist/theologian Alister McGrath. Plus, if you have ever wondered what the whole Old Testament Apocrypha was all about, you should try the Bad Books of the Bible podcast, put out by Ancient Faith Radio.

Then there is a whole slew of YouTube channels, such as Sean McDowell’s channel, for great apologetics content; Gavin Ortlund’s Truth Unites, for an evangelical Protestant engagement with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and Matt Whitman’s Ten Minute Bible Hour, a Baptist look at the richness of different Christian traditions.

But hands-down, the most provocative podcast I have listened to this year has been Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill…. It is eye-opening, intense, soul-searching, spiritually challenging, and controversial, all at the same time…. In the wake of Ravi Zacharias scandals, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill gave me a lot to think about how Christians have not handled celebrity pastor Christianity that well…..After just finishing listening to the whole series, with my small-letter “c” complementarianism in view, I confess that I am still drawn to the power, penetration, and conviction of Mark Driscoll’s message. But it is quite clear that Pastor Mark’s theological vision got hijacked by a type of control-freakish machismo that ultimately took down Mars Hill Church from the inside.

It would appear that the greatest threat to Christianity lies not in the surrounding culture, but right in the backyard of the church.

Who needs television and the 24-hour news cycle when you’ve got stuff like this to listen to?

But now for the books….

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, by Carl Trueman. Best book of the year.

  • The Unseen Realm, by Michael Heiser. Trueman’s book only beat this Heiser book, because of the timeliness. But Michael Heiser’s research into the supernatural world of the Bible has completely shifted the way I read the Bible. The Unseen Realm, and its less-academic version, Supernatural, are destined to become classics in Biblical studies, revolutionizing how to approach the Bible as a whole, shaped by the historical context of Second Temple Judaism. I hope to be writing a lot about Dr. Heiser’s work in future blog posts. This has motivated me to dig into the Scriptures, with greater enthusiasm, than anything else I have read in the past 5 or 6 years. In my view, if we are praying for revival in the church, that might explode into a new “Great Awakening” in our culture, I believe it will start by grappling with some of the ideas and thoughts found Dr. Heiser’s books. Review here at Veracity.
  • Embodied, by Preston Sprinkle. This is the “go-to” book I would recommend to understand the crisis of gender identity overtaking the culture today, and its impact on the church, based on solid scientific research and biblical wisdom. However, unlike Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Sprinkle’s Embodied is more focused on how to care for people wrestling with these deeply personal issues, instead dealing with the culture war questions. Embodied was also a very important personal book for me, too. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Two Popes, by Anthony McCarten. A provocative look at the relationship between the current pope, Francis, and the previous pope, Benedict. It is a great movie, too. Review here at Veracity.
  • Welcoming Justice, by Charles Marsh and John Perkins. A short but helpful book that sidesteps around the unhelpful categories of critical race theory and “wokeness” to get at the real story of how the church can effectively combat racism. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Bible With and Without Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. Two Jewish scholars help both Christians and Jews understand why both groups read the Bible, and particularly, the New Testament, so differently.  Review here at Veracity.
  • Finding the Right Hills to Die On, by Gavin Ortlund. When theological controversial erupts in your small group or church, Ortlund’s book is great resource to try to frame what is important and unimportant regarding how to navigate theological controversy. I found this book immensely helpful in trying to navigate a theological debate that has been tearing at my home church, for the past couple of years, and its impact on personal relationships. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr. An otherwise brilliant and illuminating study of the history of women in the church, making an important case for affirming the gifts of women in the life of the church, nevertheless comes up short when it comes to offering a cogent, exegetically compelling interpretation of the Bible concerning women in church leadership. To use a manner of speaking going back to J. I. Packer, Beth Allison Barr’s efforts are well-meaning, positively enlightening, challengingly corrective on certain matters… and yet still “wrong-headed” at certain crucial points. Review here at Veracity.
  • Judaism Before Jesus, by Anthony Tomasino. The best book that I have read that gives you an historical introduction to the “Time Between the Testaments,” between the Old and New Testament, otherwise known as the period of “Second Temple Judaism.”  Review here at Veracity.
  • Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden. A classicist scholar examines the writings of the Apostle Paul, and surprisingly concludes that Paul is not the “bad guy” that so many skeptics, and even liberal-minded Christians, think he is. Review here at Veracity.
  • Still Time to Care, by Greg Johnson. A history of the “Ex-Gay” movement, with a positive challenge for Christians to return to an ethic of care for those who experience unwanted sexual attractions, as opposed to an ethic of cure. Review here at Veracity.
  • To Think Christianly: A History of the L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, by Charles Cotherman. An insightful history into the concept of a “Christian Study Center,” from Francis Schaeffer, to James Houston, to R.C. Sproul, and even to anticipating the new Cambridge House, near the College of William and Mary. Review here at Veracity.
  • Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. A history of some significant moments in the lives of America’s Founding Fathers, and their relationships with one another. Review here at Veracity.
  • A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones (Axis Parent’s Guide). David C. Cook publishers has been putting a great little series of books, aimed at Christian parents, to help them raise their kids. Each book is short, and can be read in perhaps under an hour. I picked up one these via Kindle, A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones, and the material was brief, but entirely helpful. Other books in the series address topics ranging from “Internet Filtering & Monitoring”, to “Vaping”, to the television show “Stranger Things.” If you know of a parent who is swamped with the pressures of raising children in a digital age, books in this series would be a great gift for them.
  • Urban Legends of the Church History, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, and Urban Legends of the New Testament, respectively by John Adair and Svigel, by David A. Croteau and Gary Yates, and by David A. Croteau. These three books in the “Urban Legends” series, published by B&H Academic, do a great job dispelling a lot of the common “fake news” stories surrounding church history and the Bible. Hopefully, this book series will encourage the death of at least some of these fictions that afflict the church. Review here at Veracity.
  • Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, by Alec Ryrie. An historical study in how believers wrestle with doubt. For a “second guesser” like myself, Ryrie’s book has been exceedingly helpful on a personal level. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Legacy Standard Bible. As of December, 2021, the finishing touches have just been put on a new Bible translation (more background here), that has a good deal of momentum behind it, in some circles. The New American Standard Bible has been a favorite of many for decades, along with its cousin, The Amplified Bible, as developed by the Lockman Foundation (These translations are fine translations, but I tend to lean more towards the English Standard Version myself). Pastor John MacArthur, and the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, in Southern California, have taken the 1995 edition of the New American Standard Bible, and have modified it in a way that they hope will emphasize a very traditional outlook on English Bible translation. I have not read through the whole Legacy Standard version (available online), but looking at it so far, the LSB is for those who find themselves frustrated with all of the newer Bible translations. YouTuber Timothy Frisch has a helpful video describing the Legacy Standard, in more detail.

Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.  The Carl Trueman book was more timely, but Heiser’s book will probably have a deeper, longer lasting impact on me.  The second best book of the year I read in 2021.


I have already started on Allen Guelzo’s new biography of Robert E. Lee, and the first chapter or so is simply fantastic. I am looking forward to more good listens on my bicycle commutes in 2022!

For other reflections on the year 2021, see my post from the end of the summer.  Ah, now we await a new year, in 2022! Let us pray that God does a work in the hearts of his people for the sake of the Gospel!!

Before I sign off for 2021, why not another fun tribute to the Monkees, this time with Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids playing “I’m a Believer”…. and to top it all off, here is the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, with her Christmas greeting. She is like the world’s grandmother.

Christian Urban Legends

Were the shepherds at the birth of Christ really despised, social outcasts? This popular story makes for a great Christmas sermon message, namely that lowly, poor shepherds, having the social reputation equivalent to prostitutes, were given the honorary privilege of giving testimony to the birth of the Messiah. Though well intended, it turns out that this is largely an urban legend.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. (credit Wikipedia: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202)

Evangelical Bible scholar, David Croteau, the Dean of Columbia Biblical Seminary, and author of Urban Legends of the New Testament, acknowledges that many other scholars over the years have commented on the supposed despised nature of 1st century Jewish shepherds, citing sources like Aristotle and the Babylonian Talmud, for support. However, Croteau points out that Aristotle was not a Jew, and lived several hundreds of years before Christ, and the Babylonian Talmud was not produced until several centuries after Christ. Furthermore, British Bible scholar Ian Paul notes that the Babylonian Talmud’s denigration of shepherds might have been shaped more by an anti-Christian polemic, rather than the actual historical context. In other words, these are not the best expert witnesses as to how shepherds were viewed by 1st century Jews.

As it turns out, Croteau cites the best evidence that counterbalances this legend directly from the New Testament itself. Luke 2:18 tells us that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” when speaking of the appearance of angels. But the people were not amazed by the supposed fact that these were “lowly” shepherds. Rather, they were amazed by what the shepherds were talking about, that of the birth announcement of the Messiah.

Instead, the Bible holds the profession of shepherding in high respect. For example, Genesis 13 notes that Abraham had much livestock, herds, and flocks of sheep. Also, Exodus 3:1 tells us that Moses was a shepherd, and that before David was king, 1 Samuel 17 tells us that David himself was a shepherd. Jesus himself speaks of being “the good shepherd [laying] down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

True, shepherds were not wealthy, and belonged to the lower class, and thus represented the poor and humble, but they were hardly the social equivalent to prostitutes. With such an established pedigree, from Abraham to David, to ultimately Jesus, the traditional story of the “despised” Bethlehem shepherds simply does not fit the actual data.

Continue reading

Did Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

Merry Christmas, Ye Veracity Readers!

While you are putting the last touches on your Christmas tree, and reading the story of the Nativity to your family, someone is bound to wonder (at least silently, if not out loud), “Do we really know if this ‘Virgin Birth’ story is really true?” …

Anyone familiar with the world of mainstream biblical scholarship will know that the Christmas narratives, which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, have come under a great deal of scrutiny over the last couple of hundred years. As I have addressed elsewhere, critics will cite “contradictions” between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story, as well as problems trying to sync up the Scriptural narratives with sources outside of the Bible, notably the timing of the census of Quirinius.

The story of Herod the Great’s Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, is often singled out as being implausible as well. The main difficulty is that we have no source outside of Matthew describing how Herod ordered the killing of all of the male infants, under the age of 2, in and around the town of Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, the Gospel highlights in Matthew 2:13-15 that Jesus was able to escape the slaughter when his parents took him to Egypt, for safety.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1610-1611, Toronto. By Peter Paul Rubens – Rubenshuis, Public Domain,

A Useful Fiction?

Some have sought to defend and rescue Matthew’s story by suggesting that Matthew was using a type of fictional narrative device, as a means of symbolically associating Jesus with being the “new Moses.” After all, Exodus 1:22 suggests a parallel with Matthew’s story by describing the slaughter of Hebrew infants, while sparing the life of Moses, in the days of Pharoah. The similarities are striking.

The use of fictional narrative devices to communicate truth is not unknown to the Gospels, along with other parts of the Bible. Jesus himself used parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the theme of Jesus being the “new Moses” is indeed a big part of Matthew’s Gospel. But the idea of a fictionalized Massacre of the Innocents undoubtedly will strike some as suggesting that Matthew was simply “making up” a historical detail, by riffing on an idea pulled out of the Old Testament.


We see this same type of criticism about the Bible, more broadly, made particularly by so-called “Jesus Mythicists,” those who believe that Jesus never even existed, suggesting that much of what we read in the Gospels is simply riffing on a whole set of ancient stories of a pagan origin, and not simply depending on stories found in the Old Testament.

New Testament scholar Mike Licona uses the following illustration to show the fallacy of such thinking: ….

…. Most Americans are quite familiar with the story of an airplane, that took off from Massachusetts one morning, that at some point after 9am flew into one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, in New York City, between the 78th and 80th floors, killing everyone on board.

Of course, you probably know exactly what event this is, right?

Are you sure you know what I am talking about??

Are you really sure?


Here is the answer:

It is about the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945.

Some readers might be surprised here, as what immediately comes to mind is 9/11, when the Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower, of the World Trade Center.

Coincidentally, both airplanes hit their respective buildings at the exact same floors! Both planes took off in the morning from Massachusetts. Both planes had no survivors, following their respective crashes. The parallels are striking, are they not?

Nevertheless, we would never draw from this example the conclusion that 9/11 never happened. But you never know what someone might think, 2,000 years from now, assuming humanity is still on this planet by then. Here is Dr. Licona explaining this:

Herod’s Atrocities Were So Numerous, They Were Hard to Keep Track

So, do we really need to accept Matthew’s story about the slaughter of babies as being purely fictional? A closer look at what is already known about Herod suggests that we need not go down that road. There is plenty of material in Herod’s life to indicate that the Massacre of the Innocents is quite plausible indeed. In other words, the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence.

Dr. Paul Maier, a retired historian at Western Michigan University, tells us that Herod was a master politician, who sought to placate his Jewish subjects while seeking help from the Romans. After the Romans conquered Judea in 63 BCE, Herod acted as a governor, representing the Roman emperor. Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, restoring it to a type of glory, reminiscent of King Solomon’s temple. He created the sea port city of Caesarea over a period of twelve years by sinking some ship hulls to create a harbor area. He also built a great palace for himself, theaters, a stadium, and the famous mountain fortress at Masada.

Yet as an ambitious ruler, Herod could be quite paranoid and ruthless. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that after some attempted poisonings within his family, he put three of his sons to death on suspicion of treason. He put his favorite wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean Maccabean princess, to death, as well as his mother-in-law. Towards the end of his life, Herod was so rattled by threats to depose him that he even plotted to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders, a plot that eventually failed. Caesar Augustus remarked that “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Part of the suspicion about Matthew’s account of Herod stems from unwarranted traditions that arose within the church, over the years, that lack Scriptural support. A Byzantine liturgy stated that 14,000 infants were killed by Herod at Bethlehem. A Syrian tradition placed the number at 64,000 infants killed. During the medieval period, an attempt was made to link Revelation 14:3 with the massacre, thus inflating the number to 144,000 thousand!

The problem with these large numbers tied to certain Scriptural narratives is that other facts on the ground make such claims unnecessary. In the case of Herod’s massacre, the town of Bethlehem was known to be pretty tiny. Imagine the Bethlehem in the days of Jesus to be the rough equivalent of a rural American town that only has one traffic light in it. You might miss Bethlehem if you were driving through it and blinked! We are talking about an area, with probably less than a 1,000 inhabitants, having a relatively small number of young children. With that in mind, it is quite plausible to consider that perhaps only a dozen or so of Bethlehem’s male infant population were murdered, which would hardly have measured a blip on the notoriously brutal life of Herod, as reported by those like Josephus.

So, it should not come as a surprise to learn that Matthew was the only ancient writer to have recorded this incident from the life of Herod the Great. While some might still have qualms about the historicity of certain events found in the Bible, a strong case can be made, giving us a great deal of confidence that the story of Christmas happened exactly like what we are told within the Sacred Book.

… And with that, I wish you once again, a Merry Christmas!

Where Do “Live Nativity” Scenes Come From?

A typical nativity creche …. replete with Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, a shepherd and the “Three Kings of Orient are,” much like the one I grew up with. Historically accurate? Not so much. But it does give us food for thought.


Christmas is that time of year when many churches do their best to portray the Christmas story. In the era of COVID, indoor Christmas concerts have become tricky enterprises. But what about an outdoor venue to tell about the story of the Incarnation? What about bringing in live animals, too?!

Ah… Enter in the “live nativity”!

Saint Francis and the “Modern” Nativity

Throughout the history of church, the telling of the Christmas story has been a staple of Christian tradition. But the most well-known version of the “live nativity,” featuring shepherds and magi coming to worship at the feet of Jesus, along with “ox and ass” adoring the baby Jesus, can be traced back to 1223, in Greccio, Italy.

According to St. Bonaventure’s Life of Saint Francis, the famous 13th century evangelist created a manger scene in a cave near this Italian city, with human actors and animals playing various parts to tell the story of Christmas. Pope Honorius authorized the public display, and the popularity of the “live nativity” took off after that.

Yet while kids in particular enjoy nativity scenes today, the art of doing live nativity has some problems… and it is not about how to care for all of those animals! When astute observers read the nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke closely, they soon discover that placing the shepherds together with the wise men “from the East,” does not fit the chronology. However, Saint Francis, was primarily concerned about bringing in all of the various elements of the story, in order to tell a simplified, cohesive narrative, to a medieval European audience who were mostly illiterate, as opposed to following a strict chronology.

Nevertheless, this distortion of what is actually found in the New Testament has created fodder for generations of critics to cast a skeptical eye over the live nativity. While significant challenges for harmonizing the stories told by Matthew and Luke do exist, it is still possible to draw together a consistently whole, coherent narrative, albeit more complex than what St. Francis put together.

A close-up of part of Fra Angelico’s fresco, in Florence, showing the ox and ass peering in from behind their stalls, to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus.


Animals Who Worship the Baby Jesus

One of the more interesting aspects of the St. Francis’ nativity scene, is the use of the “ox and ass.” The popular 14th century carol, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” has the well-known line, “Ox and ass before Him bow, And He is in the manger now. Christ is born today! Christ is born today.

The problem is that in the Gospels, the mention of “ox and ass” is nowhere to be found. But the theological development of this idea across the centuries is a fascinating topic.

An ox and donkey are mentioned in Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Christian theologians across the centuries have looked upon this as an appropriate metaphor explaining why so many do not accept the Christmas story, even today. 

However, if you combine Isaiah 1:3 with the Septuagint reading of Habakkuk 3:2, the connection with Christmas becomes more apparent. Most English Bibles today read Habakkuk 3:2 as based on the Masoretic, or ancient Hebrew text of the Old Testament, something like this (from the ESV):

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

First century Jews across the Greek speaking world, along with the earliest Christians, read from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the phrase “in the midst of the years” reads differently as “in the midst of two living creatures,” as in something like Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton’s 1844 English translation of the Septuagint:

….thou shalt be known between the two living creatures, thou shalt be acknowledged when the years draw nigh; thou shalt be manifested when the time is come; when my soul is troubled, thou wilt in wrath remember mercy.

The first mention of connecting the ox and ass to the Christmas story can be then traced back to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, otherwise known as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, most probably written in the 7th century, as a speculation into some of the otherwise unknown events of Jesus’ life, before he enters his public ministry as an adult:

“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Abacuc the prophet, saying: Between two animals thou art made manifest. In the same place Joseph remained with Mary three days.”

Some may object that an historical look back into the origins of today’s popular “live nativity” might ruin certain elements of Christmas for them. But it need not be thought of that way.

Instead, an honest look at where certain Christian traditions come from should do three things:

  1. It serves as a reminder to non-believers that Christians are not so crazy to believe what they believe.
  2. It prompts the believer to dig more into their own Bibles to more adequately ascertain the truth of what Christians say they believe.
  3. It reminds us all that the story of Christmas is ultimately a great mystery to celebrate and enter into, as we consider the theological meaning of God becoming human, and entering our world.

How Believers Become Unbelievers: A Review of Alec Ryrie’s Emotional History of Doubt

Deconstruction. That is the popular word used nowadays to talk about how certain Christians go through severe periods of doubt about their faith. Some recover from these periods of deconstruction, and continue on with a stronger, renewed faith. Others do not, either hoping to hang onto some sliver or strand of faith, couched within a progressivist view of Christianity, while others simply become agnostics, or even, perhaps, atheists.

It is a phenomenon that hits people ranging from Christian musicians to Bible scholars… I remember the terrible feeling I had, in the pit of my stomach, when I first read Bart Ehrman’s introduction to Misquoting Jesus, one of the first of his many New York Times bestsellers, where he chronicled his story of deconstruction, in the process of becoming a Bible scholar. The scary part was just how similar his story was to mine, at least initially. Ehrman had grown up in a mainline Episcopal Church, with a pretty nominal Christian upbringing, until he got involved with a vibrant evangelical youth ministry, where he describes himself as becoming a “born-again” Christian, in high school.  However, I went off to a secular college, and was strengthened in my faith through my college Christian fellowship. In contrast, shortly after Erhman’s “born-again” experience, Ehrman was drawn into a very “fundamentalist” type of Christian faith, that propelled him towards attending Moody Bible Institute, and then to transfer to Wheaton College.

Wheaton was a more “sophisticated” brand of evangelical Christianity back then, as compared to Moody, but Ehrman was still deeply steeped in a rather rigid form of Christian belief. It was only during his years in graduate school, at Princeton Seminary, when the wheels fell off of his faith. He first lost confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, but finally became disillusioned with the Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering. How was it that a person with such a classically evangelical pedigree, having been educated at some of the best and well known conservative Christian institutions of higher learning, end up throwing away his faith in God? Today, Bart Ehrman is perhaps the world’s most recognizable skeptic of Christianity, having a rather large Internet following, who enjoys a highly visible presence on YouTube. I have personally experienced a number of seasons of doubt, in my own Christian walk, but nothing to the extent to which Ehrman himself went through. Sadly, stories like Ehrman’s have become more frequent in the age of the Internet.

Pastor Joshua Ryan Butler argues that there are four main causes behind deconstruction: (1) hurt experienced in the church, (2) poor Bible teaching, (3) a desire to sin, and (4) street cred; that is, it has become hip these days to doubt. As compared to previous generations, it seems like the propensity towards doubting Christianity has been on the rise. As a blogger writing for an apologetics blog, I still believe that the Christian faith still offers the best explanation for reality. I am confident that not all seasons of deconstruction lead to a completely unraveled faith. Nevertheless, I am still left with the question: What are the historical roots behind deconstruction in our post-modern world? A deeply thoughtful book by Alec Ryrie has been written in an attempt to probe this question for answers.

An Emotional History of Doubt

Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt comes as an aid to help one understand why it is that those from certain Christian backgrounds go through periods of deconstruction. Ryrie, a professor of Christian history at Durham University in the U.K., and an expert in the history of the Protestant Reformation, analyzes how societies that were once overwhelmingly Christian, at the start of the Protestant Reformation, became so secular. Charles Taylor, the Roman Catholic and Canadian philosopher, and author of the monumental, The Secular Age, wondered why “it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?

Ryrie tackles Taylor’s question by providing his own answer. Doubts that lead to atheism are not first prompted by philosophical inquiry, as many believe. Instead, intense periods of doubting are first triggered by emotions born of anxiety, buoyed by changing cultural trends. A reorientation of someone’s moral framework can easily lead to the sentiment of anger, where such feelings are often directed against those in religious authority. The abandonment of time-honored traditions only amplifies the problem. In response, more radically-oriented, liberal Protestants have recast Christian theology in terms of ethics, which ironically has only made the problem worse. The rapid decline of mainline liberal Protestant Christianity provides evidence that this trend tends towards promoting secularism, thus demonstrating the difficulty in sustaining such a revisionist understanding of faith across multiple generations.

I would add that going to an extreme in the opposite direction, from liberal Protestantism, also exacerbates the problem. Certain forms of Christian fundamentalism, in responding to our age of anger and anxiety, end up seeking to double-down on certain theological commitments, as a means of safeguarding theological certainty. But in doing so, the apologetic complexities and strenuous efforts required to sustain such theological commitments become so unwieldy, that they can create a type of emotional exhaustion, all of its own. Once one reaches a certain threshold of that exhaustion, the floodgates of doubt are let loose. Like pulling a loose thread on a sweater, faith begins to completely unravel.

Ryrie makes a case for an emotional history of doubt, as opposed to the typical intellectual history of doubt, as told by many skeptics themselves (think of Edward Gibbon’s 18th century classic apologetic for modernistic skepticism, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). Ryrie’s argument parallels the theme of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, reviewed here on Veracity, which posits that human beings are moved primarily by intuitions, and only secondarily moved by evidence-based argumentation.


Historical Factors Behind the Deconstruction of Christian Faith

Ryrie locates the beginning of the cultural acceptance of atheism, not at the start of the Protestant Reformation, but during the medieval period.  In other words, the seed for the post-modern trend for rejecting Christian faith was planted during the Middle Ages, as the state church started to become crippled by corruption from within, as book reviewer Andrew Wilson observed.

Ryrie’s thesis goes on to indict the Protestant movement for adding fuel to the fire in enabling atheism to grow and flourish in the West, as summarized in Graham Hillard’s review of the book in The National Review. What resonated with me the most in Unbelievers is just how much the variety of conflicting opinions given by religious authorities, in how to interpret the Bible, feeds into skepticism about the Bible itself. Christian group “A” believes that the Bible teaches doctrine “X”, while Christian group “B” believes the Bible teaches doctrine “Y”, which flatly contradicts doctrine “X”. Sadly, this state of affairs has all been done in the name of upholding the Protestant claim of “sola Scriptura;” that is, believing that the Bible, and the Bible alone, teaches authoritative truth.

Ryrie devotes most of his writing to telling stories of how the deconstruction of Christian faith impacted uncertain believers, between the age of Martin Luther in the early 16th century and the beginnings of historical criticism associated with Baruch Spinoza in the 1670s. It was very insightful to learn that such explorations of doubt rarely had much to do with the so-called contemporary conflict between the Bible and science. Instead, deconstruction before the modern era was driven more by anxiety about the instability of one’s personal theological beliefs, and anger at established church authorities for failing to guide and unite believers. As it has been often repeated, “division in the church leads to atheism in the world.” As a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Jeffery Collins, put it, “It wasn’t the books of Hobbes and Spinoza that shook the faith of the people. Rather, the people’s weakening religious certainty cleared the ground for godless philosophers.”

The connection between anger and deconstruction suggests a way of understanding why unbelief has proliferated so much in modern and post-modern periods. Evangelical Christianity enjoyed its greatest hegemony in the United States up until the eve of the Civil War. While some Christians believe that it was the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 that prompted the decline of this hegemony, I would argue instead that it was the moral outrage behind the Civil War that sparked this movement towards skepticism. The failure of evangelical Christianity to address the moral problem of slavery, without triggering a bloody Civil War, only increased anger towards historically orthodox Christianity. We see this also in the decline of Christianity in 20th century Europe, in the wake of two world wars primarily fought on European soil, where religion was used as a justification for the perpetuation of violent atrocities. I would then continue to make the case that moral outrage over the perceived inability of Christianity to ward off the evils of racism, misogyny, hatred towards sexual minorities, and exclusivism (think of the doctrine of hell and divine judgment) fuels the move towards deconstruction in 21st century America. In my conversations with critics of Christian faith, it is the anger towards the perceived lack of an adequate moral vision in Christianity that triggers the process of personal deconstruction more than anything else.

In the last chapter of Unbelievers, Ryrie offers two insights that helps to describe why unbelief has risen so much in the West, particularly since the end of World War 2. First, Ryrie observes that the phenomena of “Jesus Mythicism,” the belief that Jesus never existed, owes itself less to rigorous historical inquiry, and more to the claim that Christianity has lost the moral high ground. Napoleon himself denied the existence of Jesus on several occasions, but Ryrie identifies Napoleon’s reasoning here as based on Napoleon’s resentment towards the “moral authority of a dead Galilean peasant” (p. 196). Secondly, Ryrie argues that the positive moral authority of Jesus, in the modern age, has been superseded by the negative moral authority of Adolf Hitler, as Nazism has largely replaced Satan and all of his minions as being the ultimate expression of the demonic. Ryrie’s conclusion is that the trend towards unbelief will continue, but that at the same time, unbelief will not dominate, as both the believer and unbeliever ironically have an equally vested interest in the future of the Christian faith.

Anger and Anxiety: Unbelief Is Not Just about Questions of the Intellect

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt is an invitation to skeptics to consider how much the emotional dimension of doubt will often supersede the intellectual dimension. With that in mind, Alec Ryrie’s efforts here are less about persuasion, and more about encouraging self-reflection. In other words, rational argumentation rarely works to convince someone out of unbelief. Likewise, for believers undergoing periods of doubt, it is worth considering the role intuitions play in instilling anxiety about faith, as opposed to purely evidenced-based logic.

Personally, I am glad I read Tom Holland’s Dominion last year, before reading Ryrie’s Unbelievers, as Holland successfully argues that even for those disenchanted with Christian belief, the thought streams of a Christian worldview are deeply embedded in Western culture. It is simply in the water that we drink and the air that we breath. In other words, the truth claims of the Gospel of Jesus will continue to haunt the skeptic, even if one accepts atheism. The influence of Jesus of Nazareth is simply unescapable.

In my own spiritual journey, I have experienced extended periods of doubt, but I always find myself sensing that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is that “Hound of Heaven,” who never stops pursuing me, and who will not let me go. Nevertheless, both Christians wrestling with their own faith journey, along with agnostics and atheists, will find Unbelievers to be a helpful tool to process how developments within culture impact personal experiences of doubt in today’s world.

Alec Ryrie offers the following lecture based on the content of his book.

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