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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:

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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, AllSides.com, 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.


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.

Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. A Short Review

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, associated with turkey, stuffing, football, and time with family and friends. This year for me, it is also a time to remember some American history about the founding of the republic.

Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers is a Pultizer Prize winning book detailing some of the more important incidents in the founding years of America. Ellis relates to the reader several stories that show how men like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others all worked together to form the American experiment. Sometimes those efforts were in harmony with one another, at other times, not so much. Such tales include the infamous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and the story of how George Washington issued his famous “Farewell” address after serving as America’s first president.

I normally review books that have theologically-minded content, whereas Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation is mostly political history. But theological potent topics are not avoided by Ellis. The story of how the debate over slavery nearly divided the early American republic is carefully handled by Ellis, as appeals to the Bible were part of that contentious debate. That “revolutionary generation,” from Adams to Jefferson, was not able to resolve the issue, and they essentially agreed not to talk about it, preferring that the next generation handle the matter.

Ellis’ insights into the “founding brothers” reveals a wide-breadth of research. For example, I gained a better understanding as to how Thomas Paine, the author of the American Revolution’s most popular pamphlet, loaded with arguments from the Bible, Common Sense, became increasingly unpopular as a political critic. When Washington announced that he would no longer serve as president, due to failing health, Paine caustically wrote a newspaper article asking if Washington had become a traitor to the cause of the Revolution. Paine also prayed for the President’s imminent death! Wow. This little nugget of information helps to explain why Paine had the boldness to wage a full-scale attack against historically orthodox Christian faith, with his book promoting Deism, The Age of Reason.

George Washington has been remembered as someone who was “untouchable,” but the division between Washington and Paine illustrate the beginnings of partisanship that still plague our 2-party political system today, Washington being on the more “conservative” side and Paine on the more “liberal” side.

My favorite part of Founding Brothers was Ellis’ description of the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, during the early years of the American experiment. Adams and Jefferson, who eerily died the same day, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, were originally close friends during the Revolutionary War period. But their friendship broke apart when Adams served as President and Jefferson served as Vice President. It would take close to a decade before their friendship would begin to mend, through a series of letters shared back and forth between the two men, in the waning years of their lives.

My biggest take away from Founding Brothers was in realizing just how much these “founding brothers” had in common. Though very few of them would have considered themselves as fully embracing an historically orthodox commitment to the Christian faith, they nearly all largely held to a common Judeo-Christian worldview, with respect to the importance of public virtue and in sharing similar moral values. For example, while both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson viewed the Christian notion of the afterlife as being nothing more than a metaphor, both men embraced the moral teachings found within the New Testament as being foundational for the success of American democracy. It is difficult to imagine how the American experiment could ever be successfully re-created in our day, when so many fundamental assumptions linked between Western culture and Christianity are under contention, in popular discourse.

If you like learning about the history of the “Revolutionary Generation” you will enjoy Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers.


Still Time to Care: Moving from Cure to Care for Those with Unwanted Same-Sex Attraction

When did Christians move from an ethic of care to an ethic of cure of unwanted, same-sex attraction persons? And what can Christians do to move back towards an ethic of care?

These are the central questions addressed in pastor Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church’s Failed Attempt to Cure HomosexualityBefore the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, talk about “homosexuality” was largely a taboo subject. But in Johnson’s book, he chronicles numerous anecdotes of Christian leaders caring for persons who experience unwanted, same-sex attraction, in those years.

 

How Christians A Few Decades Ago Cared For Same-Sex Attracted Persons

One of C.S. Lewis’ childhood friends, Arthur Greeves, would have then probably classified himself as a “homosexual.” Lewis, perhaps the most well-known English speaking Christian apologist of all time, greatly treasured his friendship with Greeves, above all others. When Lewis became a believer in Jesus, Lewis first entrusted his story of conversion to Christianity with Greeves. Even though Lewis fully supported the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, and Greeves never experienced a change in his sexual orientation, Lewis never wavered in his friendship with Arthur Greeves.

When Francis Schaeffer first entertained guests at L’Abri in the 1950s, many seekers of truth who struggled with unwanted same-sex attraction were welcomed at the famous Swiss Christian study center. Schaeffer’s focus was on engaging seekers with their larger faith questions, as opposed to singling out issues regarding sexuality. When a high-profile member of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration was outed out of the closet as being a homosexual, Reverend Billy Graham urged Johnson to have compassion on the man as a human being, as opposed to categorically rejecting him out of condemnation.

These are all examples that author Greg Johnson has in his book of Christian leaders, who while upholding the biblical teaching that reserves marriage as being between one man and one woman for one lifetime, nevertheless modeled how other Christians can serve others by choosing to care for those who experience unwanted same-sex attraction.

This all seemed to change by the late 1970s, when such efforts to care for others were replaced by efforts to cure homosexuality, by offering the promise to make homosexuals into becoming heterosexual.  The so-called “Ex-Gay” movement was born.

 

How the “Ex-Gay” Movement Changed the Popular Narrative for Christians… and How It Eventually Failed

At the head of the “Ex-Gay” movement was Exodus International, an umbrella organization encompassing many smaller ministries that sent the message that “change is possible,” suggesting that certain techniques could be followed that could change someone’s sexual orientation. Exodus International was dissolved in 2013, when its then president, Alan Chambers, publicly stated that Exodus had oversold its claim that “change is possible.”

What led to the rise and then ultimate fall of Exodus International? As the story unfolds in Still Time to Care, groups like Exodus International were using reparative therapy (what others call conversion therapy) to try to change someone’s sexual orientation. Reparative therapy is based on a controversial application of Freudian psychology, based on the assumption that homosexuality is a correctable mental health ailment. In 2012 however, Chambers had declared, after years of Exodus trying to use reparative therapy, that “the majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them, have not experienced a change in their orientation.” Popular media outlets, like with Netflix’ 2021 documentary Pray Away, features interviews with other former Exodus leaders coming to the same conclusion as Chambers (Unfamiliar with the documentary? Preston Sprinkle interviews Tony Scarcello about it on YouTube).

Author Greg Johnson uses the analogy of a “Potemkin Village” to describe what Exodus had tried and failed to achieve. In 1787, Grigory Potemkin was a provincial political authority in Crimea and a love interest in the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. When Catherine the Great toured Crimea via boat along the Dnieper River, Potemkin sought to impress the Empress by dressing up peasants as wealthy merchants and setting up temporary village facades alongside the riverbanks, giving the illusion that the area was experiencing prosperity, despite the actual desperate poverty of the region. Once Catherine’s entourage left one of these temporary villages, Potemkin had his hired peasants breakdown the village facades and move them down the river ahead of Catherine, and then reassemble the same village in another location, in an effort to continue to impress Catherine as she resumed her river tour.

Exodus International, collaborating with other ministries like James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, had for years paraded individuals at fund-raising events and conferences as examples of those whose orientation had changed from gay to straight. In many if not most of these cases, those same individuals would later renounce their “conversions” as yet mere facades, repeated examples of a Potemkin Village. Tragically, Johnson also documents other former Exodus leaders who committed suicide, to further hide the shame of such facade conversions to heterosexuality.

The meteoric rise and fall of many Exodus leaders and the rebound effect throughout the larger culture has been nothing short of spectacular, particularly over the last decade. For example, when President Obama first took office in 2009, he was publicly committed to honoring traditional marriage as being between one man and one woman. But by the end of Obama’s second term, the broader cultural views about marriage had dramatically shifted, along with the President’s. Prohibitions against same-sex marriage, at the federal level, were declared unconstitutional. The language of “LGBTQ” was no longer a taboo in polite, civil conversation, becoming an accepted dimension of post-modern culture. All of this happened during those waning years of Exodus International’s dissolution.

Estimates vary, but Johnson notes that about 700,000 persons over a near 50 year period went through some sort of reparative therapy. Various studies over that period indicate that despite recorded claims of high-success rates, the actual success rate for changing one’s sexual orientation has been extremely low, perhaps as low as 2%. That means that some 98% of those 700,000 persons have walked away from reparative therapy with an extremely disillusioned, if not outright angry attitude towards the “Ex-Gay” movement.

 

Changing the Emphasis From “Becoming Heterosexual” to “Becoming Holy”

Pastor Greg Johnson laments the once well-intended yet ultimate failure of reparative therapy organizations. But he is hopeful that Christians can and are returning to an ethic of care, as opposed to an ethic of cure. The goal for ministry with those who experience unwanted sexual attraction should not be to try to “pray the gay away,” and convert someone from being a homosexual to becoming heterosexual. Rather, the emphasis should be on becoming holy.

What makes Still Time to Care so invaluable a resource is that pastor Greg Johnson himself is one of those persons who experiences unwanted same-sex attraction. However, instead of following the cultural trend affirming same-sex marriage, Johnson still believes in the traditional, Christian sexual ethic of marriage being between a man and a woman, for a lifetime. For those like Johnson, this might mean a life of celibacy, surrounded by supportive friends. For others, it might mean living in a mixed-orientation marriage, where one spouse is heterosexual and the other is not.

Johnson believes that even those like himself can flourish as Christians and human beings, while seeking to mortify the flesh against the spiritually devastating effects of sin, and by resisting temptation. However, the key to doing this is by being apart of Christian communities that offer emotional and spiritual support along that journey towards sanctification and holiness. In other words, one can live without sex but you can not live without friends.

While many churches wrestle with the wider cultural trends to affirm same-sex marriage, and entire denominations are splitting over the issue, Still Time to Care offers a vision for historically, orthodox Christians to return to an ethic of care, inviting people to share their stories and be a part of authentic Christian community.

Greg Johnson’s Still Time to Care offers a history of how the “Ex-Gay” movement created a Potemkin Village for almost 50 years, a great facade to look at, but not much really behind it.

Sadly, too many Christians still get hung up over terminology. Granted, most sensitive thinkers tend to shy away from terminology like “homosexual,” as that term sounds too clinical and impersonal. However, when it comes to historically orthodox-minded believers in the midst of the struggle, should such persons be called “celibate gay Christians,” “single gay Christians,” or “Christians who experience same-sex attraction?”

There are some who argue that any of the above language is somehow still a concession to worldliness, and therefore inappropriate for Christians to use about themselves. Thankfully, there are newer Christian ministries, like Revoice, that are trying to help Christians move past such debates over terminology and towards providing supportive communities for believers at all stages along the journey. Greg Johnson’s message is hopeful: Yes, there is still time to care!

 

Moving From a “Sexual Prosperity Gospel” to a Gospel of Care

Lest someone think that books like Still Time to Care represent some type of “trojan horse,” a harmful ideology being injected subversively into the church, one should note that Greg Johnson includes a whole chapter carefully dismantling the revisionist arguments presented by those like Western Seminary’s James Brownson, in his Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, and Karen Keen’s Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships. For example, Brownson borrows from William Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” argument to make his case for same-sex marriage. Keen states in her book “The biblical authors don’t write about the morality of consensual same-sex relationships as we know them today…. To say that the biblical authors object to prostitution or pederasty is not to say that the authors object to monogamous, covenanted relationships.”  Sadly, a wide range of evangelicals, including former Christianity Today editor David Neff, author Tony Campolo, the late Rachel Held Evans, and MOPS speaker Jen Hatmaker have embraced such revisionist arguments, thus undermining an historically orthodox sexual ethic. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  (See this short essay by Johnson summarizing his critique of this form of revisionism).

Christians, who desire to uphold the historic Scriptural teaching on marriage, may still find themselves at a loss in terms of how to care for persons, experiencing such sexual attractions, who either embrace revisionist views on Christian marriage, or who reject Christianity outright. The old Christian adage of “loving the sinner, and yet hating the sin,” can ring very hollow in the ears of those disillusioned by the unthoughtful efforts of Christians to try to change them. However, one can still have a positive relationship with someone else, even if there is no agreement on the definition of marriage. Learning to care about others does not necessarily entail having perfect agreement on these matters. Rather, caring does require learning how to listen to others, and empathizing with their story.

Is change still possible, for altering someone’s same-sex orientation? I would not want to preclude the idea that God performs miracles (I believe God does), but we must very careful here: My conclusion from reading Still Time to Care is that yes, it might be possible, but not likely. That might sound pessimistic, but it is better to be realistic than misleading people with a false hope, however well-intentioned it is. We can not try to “force God’s hand” to do something which does not appear to be within his sovereign plan and purpose. Furthermore, even if some do claim a radical transformation, in terms of sexual orientation change, it is wholly inappropriate to promise that everyone will have such an experience.

Just as the “prosperity gospel” offers a false hope that any and everyone who follows Jesus will have the best health, the best career, the best automobile, and the best marriage, and so on, so it is with a “sexual prosperity gospel” associated with the “Ex-Gay” movement, that promises that following some religious formula will automatically lead to a sexual orientation change. An inappropriate emphasis on seeking after such change can be a setup for future failure, in a person’s walk with Jesus.

Though some still cling to the optimistic aspirations of the “Ex-Gay” movement, focusing on sexual orientation change, like Andrew Comiskey’s Desert Stream Ministries, Andrew Rodriguez’ PyschoBible, and Stephen Black’s First Stone Ministries, and others affiliated with the Restored Hope Network, the personal failures left in the wake of Exodus International’s demise have left a negative taste in the mouth of thousands and thousands of people, a tragic situation which is difficult to ignore. Admittedly, even those in the Restored Hope Network are shying away from reparative therapy these days, while still pursuing other possible avenues for change. The sad tales that Still Time to Care documents continues to serve as warnings for us all.

On the other hand, efforts like pastor Greg Johnson to promote care, as opposed to cure, are welcomed by those disillusioned with the “Ex-Gay” movement. A renewed emphasis on listening, community, and encouraging friendships is deeply needed, particularly as hostility towards historically orthodox Christians views on marriage increase in our culture. We need a new generation of C.S. Lewis’, Francis Schaeffer’s, and Billy Graham’s who can demonstrate what it really means to care for others in the name of Jesus.

Look here for more information about Greg Johnson’s book, Still Time to Care. I listened to the audio version of the book, but  the print and Kindle versions of the book should be released in December, 2021.

For more posts on this topic, please consider the following blog entries at Veracity:

Looking for more help if you struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction, or if someone you love has that struggle?

  • The Revoice Conference. Sponsors an annual conference where fellow Christians, who experience same-sex attraction, but who want to uphold the historic Christian ethic can find support.
  • The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender. Directed by author and theologian Preston Sprinkle, the Center provides valuable resources for parents, individuals and churches, in the areas of sexuality and gender identity, with endorsements from trusted authors and leaders like Jackie Hill Perry, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, and Karen Swallow Prior.

Halloween is Not Pagan

All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day, is upon us again, along with a plethora of social media stories about the supposed pagan origins of Halloween. A quick Google search gives you countless reports of Halloween originating from an Irish Celtic new year festival, Samhain, and being connected to ancient pagan worship practices. I remember first hearing this story given by a well-meaning local pastor who visited a Christian college fellowship back in the 1980s.

Admittedly, I can understand why many Christians today have serious misgivings about Halloween. As a high school teenager years ago, I was part of the problem. When I could hear young trick or treaters walking down our street, I would put my Pink Floyd Echoes album on my turntable, and crank up the speakers to scare the kids. Halloween has indeed become a time of mischief, and the glorification of the occult.

However, if you take a closer look at history, the development of these darker traditions and celebrations popularized by contemporary Wiccan and neopagan groups actually originated in a mishmash of superstitions and religious practices that have arisen since the 19th century, primarily here in America. Contrary to the popular idea that Christians “stole” Halloween from pagan cults, like the Druids, the real origin of Halloween goes back hundreds of years prior to today’s “trick or treating,” when Pope Gregory in the 9th century instigated the move of the Western date for All Saints Day from the springtime to November 1st. This had nothing to do with the Irish Celts. If anything, the Irish more probably picked up the November 1st date from the English, as the Irish were known for celebrating All Saints Day on April 20, which is actually closer to the Christian practice in the springtime, more common in the Christian East.

Christian apologist and YouTuber Michael Jones at Inspiring Philosophy has a helpful short video sorting out fact from fiction about Halloween. For a concise and highly educational article summarizing the same, I would recommend a new blog post by Tim O’Neill at HistoryForAtheists, who specializes in debunking bad history being promoted by atheists and other skeptics.

In the meantime, have a wonderful All Saints Day (and its eve), which might better be remembered as Reformation Day!


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