Posted by: gmscan | September 20, 2016

Confronting the New Paganism

[The Federalist just published this piece, so I figured it is now safe to post it here]

Mollie Hemingway had a very nice article in The Federalist the other day in which she identifies the current sexual obsession as a new religion. She writes –

This new religion has fervent adherents and strict dogma, but it’s also true that the doctrines are still being formed. Now that marriage has been redefined away from sexual complementarity, the project to redefine the sexes themselves is moving forward. The doctrines governing biological reality, monogamy, polygamy, beastiality, pedophilia, and other issues will continue to be debated in councils and forums.

She overlooks the Holy Sacrament of abortion in her list of dogmas. That is the one practice that is beyond debate in this new paganism. Despite the political rhetoric of “pro-choice,” this religion’s expectation is that pregnant women should get abortions and celebrate doing so on Twitter and YouTube, and it doesn’t matter much if the expectant mother has been coerced by boyfriends or family members as long as the Temple of Planned Parenthood is fed new sacrifices.

All of this is actually depressingly familiar. These conditions are strikingly similar to the paganism practiced in Ancient Rome about the time Christianity came along, as Rodney Stark describes in his classic, “The Rise of Christianity” (1996). Perhaps we can learn how to deal with the New Paganism by looking at how Christians were able to replace the Old Paganism in a very short time (at least by historical standards)

Now, before the hordes of atheist Federalist readers fire up their snarky comments about spaghetti monsters in the sky — relax. Stark’s book is a sociological treatise, completely avoiding any mention of divine intervention, or even much about Jesus. He even uses the secular designation of “Common Era” (C.E.) in his dates, rather than the A.D. (anno domini, or “Year of our Lord”).

How the Christians took over Rome

Stark examines the early Christian movement strictly on the basis of social practices and how the values of the Jesus movement provided cohesion in a pagan empire that was already falling apart in the First Century.

The primary problem was low fertility. The empire wasn’t producing enough children to replace the population. This is something we are familiar with today. Europe, Russia, and especially Japan, all have declining populations. Roman leaders knew this was a problem and tried to encourage greater fertility. Stark says, “in 59 B.C.E. Julius Caesar secured legislation that awarded land to fathers of three or more children (and) in the year 9 the emperor Augustus promulgated laws giving political preference to men who fathered three or more children and imposing political and financial sanctions upon childless couples.” But none of it worked and there were “serious population shortages” by the second century.

The reasons are many, and Stark studies them all. Rome was extremely male dominated. Roman men didn’t have much use for women partly due to widespread homosexuality and prostitution. Stark quotes Baryl Rawson (author of “The Family in Ancient Rome”) as writing, “one theme that recurs in Latin literature is that wives are difficult and therefore men did not care much for marriage.”

Even when Roman men did marry it was often to pre-pubescent girls of age 12 or less. Abortion and infanticide (especially of female babies) were commonplace and “justified by law and advocated by philosophers,” including Seneca, Plato, and Aristotle. Plato advocated that abortion be mandatory for women over age 40. Of course, abortion was dangerous and often resulted in the death or infertility of the woman.

As a result of these practices there was an extreme shortage of women in the Roman Empire. Stark reports that there were “131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome and 140 males to 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.” It was very rare for even large families to have more than one daughter – “A study of inscriptions at Delphi made it possible to reconstruct six hundred families. Of these, only six had raised more than one daughter.”

When the Christians came on the scene they radically changed all of this. They absolutely prohibited abortion and infanticide within their own ranks. They also prohibited homosexuality, and applied the same standard of chastity and fidelity within marriage to both men and women and gave women much higher social status than the Romans allowed.

Given these advantages, women were more likely to convert to Christianity than were men. The Christian community soon enjoyed a higher female to male ratio and actually had a surplus of marriageable women. Many of these women took pagan husbands and ended up converting their husbands as well, resulting in a far higher fertility rate and a growing presence within the empire. Stark calculates that Christianity grew at a rate of 40% per decade in the years 40 to 350, from perhaps 1,000 believers in 40 A.D. to nearly 34 million by 350 A.D.

But there was another phenomenon that boosted Christian growth. That was the sudden onset of two epidemics, one in 165 and the other in 251. The first one was likely smallpox and the second measles. In each case, they produced devastating mortality, killing as much as 30 percent of the population each time.

The pagan response was to flee as far from infected people as possible. Even the famous physician Galen fled to his country estate in Asia Minor to wait until the danger was past. Neither pagan scientists, priests, nor philosophers had an explanation of the calamity – it was just the whim of the gods and there was nothing that could be done about it.

The Christian explanation was radically different. It was God testing and judging humans. Even though some of the faithful might die, they would also be rewarded in the afterlife for their response to the crisis. And what did God expect the response should be? He wrote it all down in Scripture – love your neighbor as yourself, care for the sick and the lame, act as the Good Samaritan acted. And that is exactly what they did – they cared for one another even in the face of death.

The consequence of this caring could easily been seen as miraculous. Stark writes, “Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more.”(emphasis in original). This nursing could be as simple as providing hydration and nourishment until the patient recovered. As patients recovered, they would be immune from the disease and could care for the newly sick without fear.

So, while pagans were abandoned and left to die in droves, Christians fearlessly cared for their own (and later for their pagan neighbors) and recovered in large numbers. Which religion would seem more appealing?

After all this, Rome did not decline because of invasion by “barbarian hordes” (as many of us were taught in school), but through depopulation. The barbarians were invited in to take over abandoned farms and serve in Roman armies, while Christianity grew to become a majority religion in just a few generations.

What does this mean for Christians responding to the New Paganism?

First, Christians must get used to being a minority in a pagan world. We have to drop the nostalgia for the 50s and 60s, which were an anomaly for church attendance. For most of our country’s history fewer than 50% of the population attended church at all. Many churchgoers in the post WWII period did so only for social or business reasons with no actual understanding of the faith. Because of that, the church did indeed include many “Christians” who were bigoted and mean-spirited and this alienated substantial numbers of people who were looking for true faith.

In today’s climate Christians have to restore Christ’s message of love and joy, and not just talk about it, but live it every day. That does not mean accommodating ourselves to the pagan world, but witnessing for Jesus within that world. We don’t win over pagans by diluting our faith, but by living it out.

To do that we have to identify the world for what it is – that is pagan, not some wishy-washy term like secular. Today’s pagans have their own gods just as surely as the Romans and Babylonians had theirs. These include the gods of sex, political power, and celebrity. They are every bit as futile as the Roman and Babylonian gods were. They fail to bring meaning or contentment to their devotees, instead they bring emptiness and dissatisfaction. Worshipping such gods is sad and pathetic and we should feel compassion for the people who are lost in paganism and welcome them when they arrive at our door looking for meaning.

Next, while social conditions today are not identical to those of Roman times, the similarities are striking. A society that invests itself in homosexuality and abortion will terminate itself in a generation. We may not practice infanticide today, but we have replaced it with sexually transmitted disease.

This latter is rarely discussed in pagan circles because it might deter some of the activities they treasure, but STDs have become a serious crisis in the United States. As the chart below shows the incident rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in the U.S. far surpasses that of Europe, by a factor of ten for gonorrhea and a factor of well over 50 for chlamydia, almost entirely among young people of ages 20 to 24. Further, these diseases are evolving into “super bugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. There is currently only one form of antibiotic that is effective against gonorrhea. 


Chlamydia is especially insidious. It is often asymptomatic, but can result in permanent infertility if left untreated. Yet in 2014 there were 1.4 million cases reported. That is one hell of a lot of young women who may discover a few years later that they are unable to bear children. The “hook-up culture” will prove to be a bitter legacy when even the CDC is recommending monogamy as the best way to prevent the disease. Suddenly, Christian standards of behavior may look pretty appealing.

And, while pagan practices lead to infertility, evangelical Christians are having babies. One estimate from an atheist web site is that “Mormons and Christian evangelicals have nearly twice the birth rate of non-religious Americans… Globally, the Pew Research Center expects people with no religious affiliation to shrink as a proportion of the world’s population from 16% in 2010 to 13% by 2050. Much of this is not Muslim but Christian as Christianity is exploding in China and Africa.

It will be pointed out that one of the biggest differences between ancient Rome and modern pagan society is the status of women. Today women are liberated and free to be whatever they want to be, and Christians no longer provide the advantages to women they did in the early days. That would seem to be indisputable. And yet it is also true that women disproportionately suffer the consequences of the New Paganism. Women, far more than men, suffer from STDs. Women, far more than men, are left to rear children born out of wedlock. It is women, not men, who have to get the abortions and suffer the emotional and physical results. It is women, not men, who suffer from sexual predators unrestrained by moral codes. It is women, not men, who are sold into the global sex trafficking market. Indeed, pagan “liberation” seems to have mostly liberated men from taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions.

These are big prices to pay for pagan liberation. A faithful Christian community would offer women all of the advantages of education, career advancement, and self-determination enjoyed by Pagan women without the negative consequences. A faithful Christian community will tend to the ill and the hopeless, as we saw during the Ebola crisis. A faithful Christian community will demand moral behavior from men every bit as much as women. A faithful Christian community will identify pagan practices as sinful, but welcome such sinners with love and compassion. A faithful Christian community will see the image of God in every human being, regardless of race, class, or national origin.

Who would not be attracted to such a community? It may be the only hope that is left for a society that has gone so badly off the rails.



Posted by: gmscan | February 21, 2016

Is He a Christian?

I started writing this long before Pope Francis’ comments on Donald Trump

It is a question that is often posed, not only about Trump, but about Barack Obama and other political and even religious leaders. For that matter, it is something we wonder about other people who attend our churches but behave in ways that seem to undermine Christian values.

The politically correct answer to this question is usually, “Who am I to judge what is in his heart? He says he’s a Christian and that’s good enough for me.”

But, while there is plenty in Scripture cautioning us against judging other people, there are also admonitions that run in the other direction. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians —

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ESV)

Paul also wrote to Timothy,

“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. “(1 Timothy 5:20-21 ESV)

So, it seems pretty clear that Christians have a responsibility to hold each other accountable for their actions. If someone who claims to be a Christian is engaged in sin, he should be publicly chastised, and shunned if he doesn’t correct his ways. But this does not apply to non-Christians. They are not bound by the standards of Christian behavior.

Now, Paul also says:

“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:1-4 ESV)

This instruction seems to be more about internal church practices: how communion is served, who is eligible for baptism, the order of liturgy, and the like. These are cultural preferences, having little to do with the tenets of faith. Some people like praise music, while others prefer traditional music. Some churches hold communion every week, while others have it less often. Some worshippers are staid, while other like to whoop and holler. We shouldn’t “quarrel” over these matters, but should welcome each other as fellow believers.

Of course, there are many who show-off their religious practices more for public consumption, to make themselves look good to the community, without much actual faith behind it. Jesus recognized these folks –

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6 ESV)

These cautions apply to all of us as faithful believers. But there are additional warnings for people in leadership positions. These leaders can lead the faithful astray with false teaching, sometimes knowingly, other times simply because they have other agendas and misinterpret Scripture to suit their political or social preferences. Jesus called them false prophets —

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20 ESV)

Peter spoke of this, too –

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” (2 Peter 2:1-3 ESV)

And Paul added –

“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” (Romans 16:17-18 ESV)

So what are we to make of all this? To identify such a false prophet, we obviously have to use judgment, or if you don’t like that word, call it discernment. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, it is expected of us. Faithful Christians cannot allow people who claim to be brothers and sisters to mislead, by word or action, other people who may be on the fence about Jesus. We have to be willing to boldly declare that this person is not speaking the truth.

Now this gets complicated because none of us are perfect. We are all sinners and hardly in a position to lord it over others. We are often charged with hypocrisy because we cannot live up to the standards we have set for ourselves. We have to ask for forgiveness on a daily basis and (try to) “go and sin no more.”

Our relationship with God is private and personal. It is in our room with the door shut. We cannot tell what another person is doing in his room with his door shut. But we most certainly can tell what that person is doing and saying when he comes out of his room and is acting in public. If those actions and words do not comport with Christian standards, we are expected to call him on it publicly.

If such a person flaunts immoral behavior and brags about never asking forgiveness, we need to speak out and say this is not Christian behavior. He cannot be allowed to continue to mislead people by calling willful defiance of God a Christian act. Jesus warned about causing others to stumble: “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6 ESV)

Pope Francis got it wrong about Donald Trump. It isn’t his position on immigration that should make people question his Christianity, but his declaration that he never asks for forgiveness.







Posted by: gmscan | November 26, 2015

On Thanksgiving

I was asked to do the Devotion at a church meeting last week. I thought I would share it with you today


Many of us are frustrated, angry, and scared by what we see in the culture around us.

The United States has always been a Christian nation, but in the past few decades we seem to have lost that.

Today the corruption seems to have reached a critical mass and every day there are new erosions of morality and new attacks on Christianity, and even on Christians themselves — from Roseburg, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.

But we are not the first to experience this. The writer to the Hebrews wrote –

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those who were in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence, because it will be richly rewarded. (Hebrews 10: 32-35)”

Two thousand years later, Charles Colson wrote in “The Sky is Not Falling” –

“So do we have reason for hope as we stand in the opening decades of the new millennium? Absolutely. The reason can be stated in three simple words – “the empty tomb.” Christ has overcome death and sin, and that same power is ours by faith. We must overcome the temptation to despair. It’s true that the forces in the culture war are not evenly matched – for we have an army of angels on our side. And those who are with us will always be far more than those who are in the world.”

Let me add my own view.

God has chosen us to contend with Satan’s corruption. God never gets it wrong. We are chosen because God knows that, with His help, we are up to the challenge.

Let me close with a passage that is usually saved for weddings, but should be remembered every day –

“And yet I will show you the most excellent way…. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 12:31b and13:4-8)

Pray with me –

Father, as your Son said, we would rather not drink from this cup. We would rather have the world as it used to be – easy and comfortable. But easy and comfortable is what got us here, and what gave the Deceiver a chance to gain influence. We will confront him, Lord, but we will do it with love. Thank you for choosing us. Keep us strong in the coming days as we share your love with the world. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Posted by: gmscan | November 19, 2015

We Need a Christian Response to ISIS


The Federalist ran this story on Wednesday, but they truncated the end of it. Here’s the whole piece, in case you are interested.



Watching and reading all the news about the Paris attacks by eight Muslim fanatics has been disconcerting. All of the analysis has been about how we should respond diplomatically and militarily. These things should certainly be done, but there is a gaping hole in the analysis – the religious response.

It is hard for the secular Western press to grasp, but ISIS is primarily a religious movement. These people take their religion very seriously, indeed — to the point that they are perfectly willing, even joyful, to sacrifice their lives in obedience to God.

To most of the Western press this idea is madness – mass insanity. The secular media has little doubt that God is a myth and it is beyond their belief system that anyone would die in service to a fantasy. To the extent they recognize religion at all, it is the type of westernized milquetoast mainline religion that is mostly a cultural artifact. People who go to church do so for nostalgia. They take comfort in ancient rituals and traditions. Nobody can actually believe this stuff.

Yet people have been willing to die in service to God for a very long time. All of the Apostles except John did so, as did many thousands of Christian martyrs during the reign of Nero. Even today thousands of Christians are being killed, even beheaded and crucified, because they will not deny God. While Christian martyrs and Muslim terrorists are both willing to die, only the latter are willing to execute others for their beliefs.

That is a very big difference. Christians believe people come to Jesus because the Lord has called them, not because of social pressure or terroristic threats. All Christians can do is show love, preach the Gospel, and witness to what Jesus has done in our own lives. Then we pray that our example and our witness will open the hearts of others to be more receptive to the Spirit of God. Most of us aren’t very good at this, but that is the model we try to follow.

And it works. Millions of Muslims are converting to Christianity as a result.  I was at a recent conference that featured the Lapp Brothers as speakers.  The Lapps are Old Order Amish who were prompted to become missionaries by the international attention given to the Amish after the example of love and forgiveness after the 2006 school shooting in Lancaster Pennsylvania.  They have traveled all over the world explaining how the Amish were able to do this. One of the trips took them to a medical mission in Iraq, where one of the Iraqi physicians said to them, “When Muslims come here, they come to kill, but Christians come to help. How can I become a Christian?”

Some of the people associated with ISIS are simple sociopaths, some are Baathists hoping to regain power in Iraq and take revenge on the Shia, as the New Republic contends,  but there are also many who are looking for meaning in their lives and a higher purpose than just working and raising families. This latter group has been deceived by the Great Deceiver. They have been taught to submit to a God who wants all infidels killed. What a dismal religion!

These are people who need to hear the Good News that the true God loves them and will forgive them no matter what sins they have committed. They may be born again into fellowship with Jesus and become adopted as sons of God.

So, we need a three-pronged approach to dealing with this growing threat. We certainly need a military response to contend with the power hungry. We need diplomacy to coordinate our efforts with other nations and look for peaceful solutions. But we also need to work on the spiritual side to help those who are idealists see that they have been fooled into worshipping a false God. That true meaning in this life comes from serving, not killing, others.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the Western media started telling that side of the story?



Posted by: gmscan | July 30, 2015

Eulogy for the American Republic

Like you, I have been wrestling with the implications of the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, especially for Christians and the church. I will be posting some thoughts on that shortly.

But, knowing that very few people have the time or the patience to read 100 page court decisions, I wanted to share an excerpt of John Roberts’ dissenting opinion (below).

Roberts can be a terrific writer and thinker – when he wants to be (not so much on his two Obamacare opinions). And here he is at his best. Here he is calling out the 5-person majority on the Court for its total abrogation of the limited role of judges in our Republican form of government. This has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with the principle of self-government. He says, “Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role.”

Essentially he is saying that the democratic process on this issue was working just fine, until the Court stepped in to abort it. It is far easier to destroy than to build, and here the Court has been willing to throw away the bedrock relationship between the people and their government in service of a trendy, faddish idea in social experimentation. Once gone, we may never get it back.

Obergefell –Chief Justice John Roberts Dissenting (pp. 24 – 27)

The legitimacy of this Court ultimately rests “upon the respect accorded to its judgments.” Republican Party of Minn. v. White, 536 U. S. 765, 793 (2002) (KENNEDY, J., concurring). That respect flows from the perception—and reality—that we exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases according to the Constitution and law. The role of the Court envisioned by the majority today, however, is anything but humble or restrained. Over and over, the majority exalts the role of the judiciary in delivering social change. In the majority’s telling, it is the courts, not the people, who are responsible for making “new dimensions of freedom . . . apparent to new generations,” for providing “formal discourse” on social issues, and for ensuring “neutral discussions, without scornful or disparaging commentary.” Ante, at 7–9.

Nowhere is the majority’s extravagant conception of judicial supremacy more evident than in its description— and dismissal—of the public debate regarding same-sex marriage. Yes, the majority concedes, on one side are thousands of years of human history in every society known to have populated the planet. But on the other side, there has been “extensive litigation,” “many thoughtful District Court decisions,” “countless studies, papers, books, and other popular and scholarly writings,” and “more than 100” amicus briefs in these cases alone. Ante, at 9, 10, 23. What would be the point of allowing the democratic process to go on? It is high time for the Court to decide the meaning of marriage, based on five lawyers’ “better informed understanding” of “a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.” Ante, at 19. The answer is surely there in one of those amicus briefs or studies.

Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role. They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges. And they certainly would not have been satisfied by a system empowering judges to override policy judgments so long as they do so after “a quite extensive discussion.” Ante, at 8. In our democracy, debate about the content of the law is not an exhaustion requirement to be checked off before courts can impose their will. “Surely the Constitution does not put either the legislative branch or the executive branch in the position of a television quiz show contestant so that when a given period of time has elapsed and a problem remains unresolved by them, the federal judiciary may press a buzzer and take its turn at fashioning a solution.” Rehnquist, The Notion of a Living Constitution, 54 Texas L. Rev. 693, 700 (1976). As a plurality of this Court explained just last year, “It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds.” Schuette v. BAMN, 572 U. S. ___, ___ –___ (2014) (slip op., at 16– 17).

The Court’s accumulation of power does not occur in a vacuum. It comes at the expense of the people. And they know it. Here and abroad, people are in the midst of a serious and thoughtful public debate on the issue of same- sex marriage. They see voters carefully considering same- sex marriage, casting ballots in favor or opposed, and sometimes changing their minds. They see political leaders similarly reexamining their positions, and either re- versing course or explaining adherence to old convictions confirmed anew. They see governments and businesses modifying policies and practices with respect to same-sex couples, and participating actively in the civic discourse. They see countries overseas democratically accepting profound social change, or declining to do so. This deliberative process is making people take seriously questions that they may not have even regarded as questions before.

When decisions are reached through democratic means, some people will inevitably be disappointed with the results. But those whose views do not prevail at least know that they have had their say, and accordingly are—in the tradition of our political culture—reconciled to the result of a fair and honest debate. In addition, they can gear up to raise the issue later, hoping to persuade enough on the winning side to think again. “That is exactly how our system of government is supposed to work.” Post, at 2–3 (SCALIA, J., dissenting).

But today the Court puts a stop to all that. By deciding this question under the Constitution, the Court removes it from the realm of democratic decision. There will be consequences to shutting down the political process on an issue of such profound public significance. Closing debate tends to close minds. People denied a voice are less likely to accept the ruling of a court on an issue that does not seem to be the sort of thing courts usually decide. As a thoughtful commentator observed about another issue, “The political process was moving . . . not swiftly enough for advocates of quick, complete change, but majoritarian institutions were listening and acting. Heavy-handed judicial intervention was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict.” Ginsburg, Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade,            63 N. C. L. Rev. 375,   85–386(1985) (footnote omitted). Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause. And they lose this just when the winds of change were freshening at their backs.

Posted by: gmscan | June 19, 2015

Is Religion Disappearing?

Politico ran a big article headlined “Religion is Disappearing. That’s Great for Politics,” by Michael Shermer  the other day. It is inspired by a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showing a surge in the number of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans.

The Pew study generated intense reaction, both defensive and triumphant. I want to look at some of the implications of the study, but let’s first dispatch Mr. Shermer’s ill-informed triumphalism.

He begins with a bang – “Before the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, most politicians kept their faith to themselves.” For evidence he quotes Harry Truman saying that he isn’t impressed by people who “publicly parade their religious beliefs,” Dwight Eisenhower being irritated by a Pastor who was bragging that the President was attending his church, and LBJ expressing support for the separation of church and state.

Apparently he missed FDR’s prayer for the D-Day invasion of Europe that included these words, “And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade” and ended with, “Thy will be done, Almighty God.”

Or that Eisenhower began his first inaugural speech with a prayer

“Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.

“Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.

“May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen.”

Shermer is gratified that religious affiliation has dropped somewhat since the 1990s, noting that the Pew survey finds that the religiously unaffiliated has grown from the single digits to the “now respectable two-digit 23 percent of adults of all ages, up from 16 percent just since 2007.” But he seems ignorant of the fact that the post-war era in the United States was an anomaly in many ways. After the war the U.S. had the only viable industrial economy in the world, which led to an era of incredible prosperity and economic dominance. And the primary threat was “Godless Communism” which led to an extraordinary attachment to the church. Indeed, the Eisenhower archives reports that church membership grew from 43% of the population in 1920 to a peak of 69% in 1960. Church involvement has been slackening ever since the peak in 1960. What we are seeing today is a good old-fashioned “reversion to the mean.”

Indeed, two years ago Pew found that 37% of American adults attend church services weekly.  This proportion had held steady over the prior decade, suggesting that todays’ commitment to organized religion is not much different than it was in the 1920s.

So Shermer gets his recent history wrong, but he is no better on ancient history. He says, “The rules made up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include more and more people.” He notes that Moses did not come down from the mountain with a mandate to convert the Canaanites to Judaism. But he completely skips over Jesus’ Great Commission –

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. ‘” (Matthew 28: 18-20)

Shermer is also a big fan of the Enlightenment, missing the idea that the Reformation had a lot to do with Enlightenment thinking. For one thing, the Reformers strongly believed that everyone should read the Bible for themselves, which advanced printing dramatically and lead to mass literacy. Enlightenment concepts like the separation of church and state were intended to keep government out of the business of the church, not the other way around. Many Enlightenment thinkers, like Isaac Newton, were devout Christians. Shermer likes the Enlightenment ideas of “equal treatment under the law,” “the equality of women and minorities,” and so on, without realizing that Scripture was preaching those principles some 1500 years before – as Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, still, there are some disturbing things going on within Christianity in America today, though it isn’t what Shermer thinks. For one thing, Americans who decline any religious affiliation aren’t necessarily non-believers. Pew identifies 22.8% of the population as “unaffiliated,” but of that only 3.1% are atheists, 4.0% agnostic, and the rest simply don’t identify with any particular church.

But even those who self-identify as Christian may not really be Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. In 1985, Robert Bellah identified the predominant religion in America as “Sheilaism.” In his book, “Habits of the Heart,”  he writes

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

There are many, many people, even in the pews on Sunday, who believe that God just wants us to be nice, and if we are we get to go to Heaven. Popularity is the most important value – kind of like joining a sorority.

But there is nothing new about any of this. In an essay, “Your Own Personal Jesus,” Michael Horton writes

(Alexis de Tocqueville) concluded, “So each man is narrowly shut up in himself and from that basis makes the pretension to judge the world.” Americans do not need books or any other external authorities in order to find the truth, “having found it in themselves.” American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) announced that “whatever hold the public worship held on us is gone or going,” prophesying the day when Americans would recognize that they are “part and parcel of God,” requiring no mediator or ecclesiastical means of grace. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” captured the unabashed narcissism of American romanticism that plagues our culture from talk shows to the church.

Horton identifies this as a form of Gnosticism –,

In the American Religion, as in ancient Gnosticism, there is almost no sense of God’s difference from us — in other words, his majesty, sovereignty, self-existence, and holiness. God is my buddy or my inmost experience, or the power-source for living my best life now. God is not strange (i.e., holy) – and is certainly not a judge. He does not evoke fear, awe, or a sense of terrifying and disorienting beauty. Furthermore, all the focus on making atonement through a bloody sacrifice seems crude and unspiritual to Gnostics when, after all, the point of salvation is to escape the physical realm.

Again, nothing new. In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin said there is “an immense flood of error with which the whole world is overflowed. Every individual mind is a kind of labyrinth, it is not wonderful, not only that each nation has adopted a variety of fictions, but that almost every man has his own god…. There is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity.” He worries about “the small number of those who believe,” and notes that many “ask how do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names? Nay, they even dare to question whether there ever was a Moses. Were anyone to question whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Cicero, would not the rod of the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly?”

This was in Geneva in 1536. Christianity has always been a minority religion. Humans have always elevated their own immediate concerns above God. Sure, there have been times when people dutifully paraded to church. Perhaps it was when there was a state religion, or when it made sense for a person in business to go in order to make business contacts (like the Rotary Club), or perhaps a crisis like 9/11 drove people to church for comfort. But how many people have actually believed that God himself became a man and walked the earth? Or that on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead? It is all contained in the Apostles Creed, which is supposed to be the unifying statement all Christians can subscribe to –

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


People may recite this in church, but how many actually believe it, compared to how many treat it as some magical incantation they are expected to repeat? I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure it is less than half, maybe far less. Even in seminaries, I am told future pastors are often taught to avoid anything that is supernatural and scholars search for natural explanations of miracles – Jesus didn’t really die, he must have just been in a state of shock. Paul didn’t really encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he just had an hallucination brought on by the scorching sun or perhaps feelings of guilt. No wonder these “church leaders” are unable to convert nonbelievers, they don’t themselves believe in much. A Congregational pastor in Maine once told me that if I smile when the sun comes up I am a Christian. I thought what the hell kind of religion is that? What would I need your church for?

The truth is that people are not “converted” until God calls them. Missionaries know this. It isn’t the power of persuasion by the missionary that brings people to Christ, but the Holy Spirit. Still, believers can have an enormous impact on their societies, no matter their numbers. The faithfulness of persecuted Christians in the Middle East has opened the eyes and hearts of a number of Muslims. In ancient Rome, the joy of Polycarp and other Christians in their martyrdom had a profound effect on their persecutors, which eventually resulted in the entire Roman Empire adopting Christianity.

American Christians are blessed with wealth and comfort. We are not persecuted, though we may be mocked and scorned. That is not much of a burden to bear. And if mockery drives pseudo-Christians from the church, that may not be such a bad thing.

Posted by: gmscan | May 22, 2015

Christian Missions and the Spread of Democracy

It has long been evident to me that the most successful societies in the world are former British colonies – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and to a lesser extent India and South Africa. I have usually attributed this to the British embrace of capitalism, merit-based civil service, and widespread education.

As long as these nations followed that model they prospered, but when they went off the tracks and experimented with socialism (as India did for a while) or dictatorship (as Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, is still doing) they failed.

Now comes Robert Woodberry of the National University of Singapore to argue that I have missed the point. The American Political Science Review has published a breathtaking article by him, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy.”

I say breathtaking because of the comprehensive statistical analysis underlying his argument. He doesn’t just correlate missions with democracy, he also accounts for most other plausible explanations and he looks at conditions in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceana and even regional differences within many of these countries.

What he finds is that wherever “conversionary Protestant” (CP) missionaries went, they laid the roots for modern democracy. Often these were associated with British colonies, but not always. There were British colonies that had few missionaries and these areas were not especially well equipped for democracy, and missionaries went to places the British were not and had the same democratizing effects.

As we have seen with recent efforts in the Middle East, democracy is far more than a matter of elections. There are underlying conditions that must be met before democratization can succeed. Woodberry writes –

 “… Conversionary Protestants were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary associations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These innovations fostered conditions that made stable representative democracy more likely – regardless of whether many people converted to Protestantism.”

He goes on to explain that fundamental to the beliefs of Protestants is the idea that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves. This was much less true for Catholics prior to the twentieth century. This one factor lead to a number of missionary activities, including helping indigenous people develop a written language (for the first time ever in some cases), printing Bibles and religious tracts in local languages, setting up schools to teach people how to read, organizing non-governmental (and often non-religious) associations. They also worked to reform abusive colonial governments, especially in the British colonies, where they had more influence.

None of this is to say that all Protestants were kind or enlightened. –

“Of course, Protestant economic and political elites were as selfish as anyone else. Protestant slave owners fought slave literacy, and Protestant settlers exploited indigenous people: however when missionaries were financially independent of the state, of slave owners, and of white settlers, missionaries undermined these elite co-religionists in ways that fostered democracy.”

So it wasn’t Protestantism per se that created the conditions for democracy, but the presence of missionaries who respected indigenous people enough to find them worthy of conversion. Woodberry explains –

“… Non-state missionaries moderated colonial abuses, particularly when abuses undermined conversions and in British colonies (where CPs had greater influence). To reach their religious goals, non-state missionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anticolonial political organizations, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.”

Today we may think of missions as mere footnotes in the historical sweep of economics and ideology, but Woodberry argues that prior to the mid-twentieth century, “missionaries were the main source of information about life in the colonies.” They were well educated and dwarfed the presence of other organizations such as labor unions and NGOs. They had financial resources that were greater than all but the largest commercial banks.

Their interest in printing and distributing Bibles and religious tracts largely drove the growth of printing throughout the Western world and in the 19th century, Bible societies were among the largest corporations of any kind. The American Bible Society printed and distributed over one million Bibles between 1829 and 1831, at a time when the total number of households in the United States was only about three million. He writes –

“CPs printed so many vernacular texts that it forced (indigenous) elites to respond. For example, within 32 years of importing a press to India in 1800, three British missionaries printed more than 212,000 copies of books in 40 languages and, along with other missionaries, created the fonts and paper that dominated South Asian printing for much of the nineteenth century.”

Woodberry notes that the availability of printing itself was not sufficient reason for the creation of mass literacy and newspapers. China, Korea and Japan all had printing hundreds of years before Europe, they had moveable metal type long before the Europeans and they had thriving mercantile classes, but literacy was largely confined to the elite and newspapers were never developed before the arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century.

Wherever the missionaries went, they started schools for mass education of indigenous people, often against the wishes of white colonizers. They also imported the organizational models and tactics they developed during the movements for abolition, temperance, and other social reforms back home to third world countries in the 1800s.

Finally, the Protestant missions were mostly not sponsored by the state. This gave them a level of independence from colonial rulers that made it possible for them to actively oppose abuses in several ways, especially in British colonies. The missions were financed by a broad mass of the faithful back home. These supporters could be mobilized to lobby parliament against abusive colonial governors. The missionaries generally came from reformist traditions back home and could apply those lessons with indigenous people, and the missionaries realized that colonial abuses made religious conversion much harder. As a result, wherever missionaries were most active, the colonial governments were pressed to curtail forced labor, apply similar legal standards to whites and non-whites, and allow the creation of organizations of local people.

All of this – mass printing, literacy, activism, and civic organization – created the conditions, skills and experience for local populations to better run their own affairs and participate in democratic governance independently not only of colonizers but also of the traditional elite in their own countries.


Posted by: gmscan | April 20, 2015

Post Modernism?

Jodie Gallo and I have been exchanging e-mails and I want to share with you his fascinating take on “post-modernism” as it may apply to theology. I think it is thought provoking and I hope you will add your thoughts.

First, I should say that Jodie and I are poles apart on politics. Yet I have deep respect for his understanding of Scripture. I find it heartening that we can share our thoughts, our questions, and our doubts without all the snark that usually accompanies social media. As he says below, we may never find “the truth” in this lifetime, but that should not prevent us from growing our understanding. Here is his post, and I will follow with my comment to him.


Hi, Greg

I’m no expert on “post modernism”. What follows is the danger of having a little bit of knowledge. It would probably get me an “F” in whatever Humanities Course teaches it these days. But that never stopped my from shooting my mouth off…

What I meant was that it is impossible to read the Bible without reading it through the lens of our own experience, culture, and language. And we always project on to it something of ourselves. This is what I think the fundamental insight of Post Modern methods is all about, and I think they got it from the insights of Modern Physics: One cannot hope to read the Scriptures objectively. But one can look at them from many angles and from the sum of those angles learn more than by reading them just the one way.

The way I see it, 18th and 19th Century Theology assumed the insights of Classical (Newtonian) Physics which say that the Universe is a giant machine that operates according to immutable Laws that can be learned and articulated. We study (read) the Universe to learn these Laws, and then if we obey them we can live better, and we can make machines of our own that operate according to the same laws, from steam engines to space ships. The industrial revolution validated that insight. In Theology, the Scriptures are treated like the Newtonian Universe, and if we study them diligently they too will tell us God’s Laws and God’s Truth.

20th Century Theology, at least after say 1945, assumes the insights of Modern Physics which tell us that the Universe is made up of interacting quantum particles whose properties and behaviors sometimes literally depend on how we study them. We can’t discern the Laws of the Universe directly because our perception of the Universe is filtered by the limitations of our sensing tools, and its properties can literally change as a consequence of our attempts at observation. Thus what we see is not reality in its pristine state, but the convolution of reality with our interaction with it. Clearly any laws we might derive from our observations are therefore subject to scrutiny, and we must always look for new ways to test, correct, and enhance our knowledge.

There is even “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle”, that says in a nutshell that we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time (like we can of a planet). It turns out to be a fundamental property of nature in quantum physics that nailing down certain properties denies us the ability to discern others.

In Post Modern Theology, the Scriptures are treated like the quantum Universe. We can’t really see or comprehend them for what they are. We filter them through the lenses of our own culture and language, and we project on to them our own preconceived notions of what they mean. And so we are always trying to devise creative ways to get around our own biases and lenses, to tease out of the Text its “true” meaning(s). And there are things that are permanently locked up that we can never know.

I am comfortable with that approach. There are Biblical texts that attest to it as well… ironically. In Revelation, John sees “the book”. It is sealed shut with seven seals, and it cannot be opened, its mysteries locked away, till someone worthy can be found to break them. The slain Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) is found to be worthy, and as He breaks the seals we get to see what they are: The things that prevent us from actually knowing the contents of “the book”. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, our claims for vengeance for the martyrs, and even the mysterious silence of Heaven (!). It’s really a marvelous vision, and represented often in Christian arts and crafts as a bleeding lamb holding a cross sitting on a closed book, the book having seven seals holding it shut. (Apocalyptic cults have a field day with it – usually focusing on the seals, and missing the elephant in the room: that we are still prevented from knowing the contents of “the book” ).

But there is also a Nihilistic twist in recent post-modernism that suggests that maybe there is no reality at all, or that if there is, we can never find it and so it doesn’t really matter. That “the book” is filled with empty pages. Indeed quantum physics in the last 50 years has been frustrated in its search for the ultimate law of Physics. It has reached an impasse. The deeper they look, the more emptiness they find, emptiness held together with more emptiness by mysterious math equations that are completely incomprehensible even to those who fully understand them. Truth, absolute core Truth, if it is out there, remains illusive. So the Nihilism that comes from that frustration, applied to Theology and applied to Scriptures, tells us that maybe its all a myth, a blank screen, and the only thing that really exists is our own socially constructed reality that we project on to it.

Being bi-cultural myself, I recognize how much of what we think of as reality is indeed merely a social construct, but I am not ready to go all the way. At least not to the Nihilistic conclusion that since it “all depends”, therefore none of it is real to begin with.

We just have to be patient.

Even when all we do is project on to the Heavens our own thoughts and feelings, some thing, or some one, out there, reflects them back to us, modified and enhanced, as if sung in harmony. That Mirror, that Voice, it belongs to the Who we are looking for. Or maybe better yet, looking for us. Maybe what really holds the Universe together is Life. Nobody knows what that is, but it was God’s Breath of Life, breathed into Adam’s lungs, that turned the ashes of inanimate atoms like Carbon and Hydrogen and Oxygen, and the sub atomic particles they are made of, all strung together, into a living breathing thinking feeling human being. What is “Life”? Is all of Nature perhaps actually “alive”? Maybe >that< is the missing law. Where and what is the boundary between not alive and alive? What causes it? Nobody knows, but in Christ we know we have life, and we can live life abundantly, and “death” does not get the final say.

Douglas Adams made fun of quantum physics and its effect on all the other intellectual pursuits in his radio series “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Did you ever follow it? A race of pan-dimensional beings built a super computer to find the answer to the “ultimate question about life, the universe and everything”.  It was called “Deep Thought”. The answer it found turned out to be ‘42’, which set off a quest to find the proper question that would make the answer make sense. The punch line in the end was that you cannot both know the “question” and the “answer” at the same time. Heisenberg. I happened to be studying quantum physics in college at the time, and we all found the radio series to be an immensely satisfying humorous look at the search for “Truth”.

I am comfortable with the humor, the challenges, and the ultimate mystery at the end of our rainbow search for Truth. The Psalmist pleads

Make me know Your ways, O Lord;

Teach me Your paths.

Lead me in Your truth and teach me,

For You are the God of my salvation;

For You I wait all the day. (Psalm 25:4-5 )

And Paul answers the Psalmist towards the end of Romans, practically in ecstasy:

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)”

Post Modernism teaches us to be humble again, about what we think we know. And to enjoy living in the Mystery. We don’t get our arms around Truth. But maybe, if we are lucky, Truth gets His arms around us.




This is a beautiful piece of writing — and thinking. Thank you for it. I wonder if you would allow me to post it on my blog, either with or without attribution.

It has taken me a while to respond because of Springtime chores around here, mulching, tilling the garden, cutting back old growth, etc. Things that would once have taken a day or two to accomplish take a lot longer these days.

In any case, I find nothing here to object to, quite the opposite. I come at it from the very different perspective but agree with your balancing act. I know people who are pretty wrapped up in the Human Genome project. They once thought it would “unlock the door” to basic human biology, but are discovering the deeper they go the more mysteries they discover.

That seems to be true throughout science, as you say. There may be things we are incapable of knowing and that is fine with me. As a layman, I look around my world and am humbled by my own limits. My dog knows things I will never understand and it isn’t just her senses of smell and hearing. She knows when I am coming home even from miles away.

Scripture tells us things we are only now beginning to understand — the Big Bang, that time is mutable, that there is existence outside of our known universe. And I agree that we read Scripture through our own cultural lens. Most of Jesus’ parables, for example, were not telling us how to run our day to day affairs, but what the Kingdom of God is like.

I bristle when people use “science” as a cudgel. Science is wonderful in revealing to us the majesty of the natural world, but science has never had a lock on “truth.” Today’s science tells us how wrong yesterday’s science was, and tomorrow’s science will make us all look like fools. But we have an impulse to discover (at least those of us in the West — other cultures seem more content with acceptance). It is hubris to think we have arrived at understanding. Our understanding will always be partial.

But the same is true with theology. We will never understand God, and thank God for that. What a small God He would be if we COULD understand Him.

So, again, thank you for your very thoughtful insights.


Posted by: gmscan | March 26, 2015

Recent Books

As you know, I am an avid reader. I get most of my information from the printed page, and I like my books printed so I can make marginal notes, underline, and dog ear them. I don’t worry about preserving the binding. I CONSUME books.

Since I came to Christ I have been reading Christian books a whole lot. I will discuss a few below. But now and then I try to take a break and read something completely different. So, the last time I was at Sam’s Club a book by Dean Koontz popped out at me. I like Dean Koontz a lot. He has replaced Steven King as my favorite horror author. I like his Odd Thomas series and have read most of those. But this book is called “The City,”  and Koontz hasn’t written much about urban environments. Most of his settings are suburban or rural. So I thought it would be interesting.

It is. It’s a fun read, which I won’t bother describing here. Except for one thing – I may try to escape Jesus, but He won’t let me. Not that this book is explicitly Christian, but one of the essential characters is an angel called Miss Pearl by the protagonist, a boy named Jonah Kirk. She feeds him prophetic dreams, leads him to his gift, which is piano playing, and bolsters him when he needs it most. Here’s an example –

She sat silently beside me for a while. Then: “If you trust me, believe what I’m about to say, it’ll help you in the darkest times.”

Speaking into my hands, I said, “What is it?”

“No matter what happens, disaster piled on calamity, no matter what, everything will be okay in the long run.”

I spread my fingers to filter my words. “You said you can’t see the future.”

“I’m not talking about the future, Ducks. Not the way you mean. Not tomorrow and next week and next month.”

Frustrated, I said, “Then what are you talking about?”

She repeated, “No matter what happens, everything will be okay in the long run. If you believe that, if you trust me, nothing might happen in the days to come to break you. On the other hand, if you won’t take to heart what I’ve just told you, I don’t expect things will turn out as well as they could.”

This is a conversation that might have taken place between Jesus and Paul before he set out to convert the Gentiles. It is a truth known by the Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by ISIS. It is true for all of us believers. No matter what happens, everything will be okay in the long run.

This was supposed to be a break from my Christian reading. Oh, well. So what are the Christian books I was taking a break from?

Well, I read Charles Colson’s “The Sky is Not Falling.” This was Colson’s last book before his death. It is meant to buck up Christians as they deal with the growing secular attacks on Christianity in the United States. I learned a lot here, especially about some of the recent court decisions. One example was a 2006 ruling by a federal judge against Colson’s Prison Fellowship. The judge decided that evangelical Christianity is somehow not protected by the First Amendment because it is a fringe cult distinct from other Christian faiths such as Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Greek Orthodoxy, and other denominations such as Lutheranism, and Presbyterians. He said it tends to be “anti-sacramental” downplaying “baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, (and) ordination…” Colson comments that his Baptist friends will be quite surprised to hear this.

Colson urges Christians to reassert orthodoxy, work to change the culture and the political climate, and most of all live fruitful lives within their own communities. These sound like pretty thin remedies, except for the knowledge, as Dean Koontz wrote above, that everything will work out in the end. God guarantees it.

But Colson references quite a few other books and that is how I came across “God’s Battalions,” by Rodney Stark. This is a detailed history of the Crusades and my reading it was timely given President Obama’s citation of the Crusades as equivalent to Islamic terrorism at the National Prayer Breakfast. He was, of course, wrong as I describe in my write-up in The Federalist.

Then I needed something more uplifting. Fortunately my wife, Nancy, had bought me “The Grave Robber,” by Mark Batterson for Christmas, and that was just what I needed. It is very well written and uses the seven miracles of Christ as described in John’s Gospel as a jumping off point. He then describes how reflections of these miracles still happen all around us today. I talked my men’s group into studying this book, so I get to read it again.

Speaking of Nancy, I also read her new book Mikha’el  several times as she was writing it. This is the best thing she’s ever written. It is the story of a young girl who has prophetic and disturbing dreams that seem to come true too often. As she grows, she comes to realize that she is being guided by the Archangel Michael who has protected her from harm her entire life so she can play a critical role in the coming battle between good and evil.

I then turned to “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand.  Here’s another book I didn’t expect to be particularly Christian and I thought I would check it out since the movie was so well reviewed. It is, of course, the heroic story of Louis Zamparini, an Olympic running star who becomes a flier in the Pacific Theater in World War Two. He is captured by the Japanese and has a horrific experience in their POW camps. I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand it omits what is the most important part of the book. After the war, he has a terrible time adjusting to civilian life and becomes am abusive drunk until his wife gets him to go the a Billy Graham revival where he turns his life over to Jesus and spends the rest of his life ministering to troubled teens in California. This is easily the best non-fiction work I’ve ever read and, while it is thoroughly documented, it reads like an action-adventure thriller.

Finally I read Jonathan Edwards’ “Religious Affections.” (There are many, many editions of this book, Here is a link to Amazon’s list, though the edition I read doesn’t seem to be included)  This is an abridged edition published in 1984 by Multnomah Press and edited by James M. Houston as part of a series of “Classics of Faith and Devotion.” The editor has updated archaic language and shortened sentences and paragraphs to make it more readable to today’s reader. The result is really wonderful, though still not an easy read. It was written to moderate some of the fervor that came out of the Great Awakening of the 1740s and restore a more Biblically-based spirituality among believers. Edwards’ meaning of the term “affections” is not how we use the term today. He means something like passion, but less intense and emotional.

If , like me, your knowledge of Jonathan Edwards was a brief mention in school of his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this work is an eye opener. Far from a fire and brimstone preacher, Edwards was thoughtful and gentle. The greatest religious affection in his view is love. He writes, “The Scripture speaks of no real Christians who have an ugly, selfish, angry and contentious spirit. Nothing can be more contradictory than a morose, hard, closed, and spiteful Christian.” But even here, he is kind and forgiving, and adds, “Yet allowances must be made for our natural human temperament with regard to this as well as to other things.” We are all far from perfect, but with grace we are growing to be more Christ-like all the time.

He also anticipates some of what Bonhoeffer would write 200 years later, “But a true Christian can delight in religious fellowship and conversation, yet he also delights to retire from all fellow men and converse with God in solitude.” He notes that even Jesus (or especially Jesus) needed to often step away from the disciples and the crowds to spend time alone with the Father.

I also read an e-book published by Modern Reformation and edited by Michael Horton on “The Many Faces of John Calvin.”  This was frustrating because it seemed the various contributors each had their own axe to grind and were trying to stuff Calvin into their own boxes. So, my next project is to tackle John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” (Again, there are many editions available)  Wish me luck.

Posted by: gmscan | January 24, 2015

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Fortress Press

I just finished reading a new translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” It is well worth looking at.

If you don’t know already, Bonhoeffer was the greatest Christian martyr of the 20th Century. He was executed by the Nazis just before the defeat of Germany in World War Two for participating in a plot to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was also a great theologian and pastor. He was a founder of the “confessing church” movement that resisted Nazi attempts to rewrite Christianity. The Nazis wanted to drop the Old Testament and turn Jesus into an icon of Aryan superiority. Their hatred and persecution of Jews was both genetic and religious. They didn’t accept that any Jew could become a Christian. Most of the churches in Germany went along with this — some enthusiastically, others were just cowardly and wanted to work “within the system.”

Some time ago I read Eric Metaxas’ terrific biography “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” but this is the first I’ve read of Bonhoeffer’s own writing. He is a fabulous writer, but more than that, his thinking is fresh and vibrant even sixty years after he wrote it.

I was especially struck by how he sees Jesus everywhere and in every Christian. We are each human, of course, but Christ is alive inside each of us, and Bonhoeffer sees the Jesus within us – not figuratively, not metaphorically, but actually. Maybe this is not a new thought to you, but it is to me. I have tended to view Christians as people who believe — some half-heartedly, others whole hog — but that belief resides in the mind as an understanding. But to Bonhoeffer, we are partly Christ in fact. He is growing within us, and the longer we follow His way, the more he grows.

So, Bonhoeffer addresses the Christian community as a grace allowed by God. He writes –

“The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the Cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the exclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.”

What a stunning thought to the American mind! We have always been, at least nominally, a Christian nation. Being a Christian is no great challenge for us. It is the default position, it has been what we were expected to do. Of course Bonhoeffer was living among Nazis and the Nazis tolerated Christians only if they replaced the Cross with the swastika. He says –

“It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace.”

He cites “the imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands” as examples of isolated Christians. Think of the house churches in China or the underground believers in Muslim lands reading smuggled Bibles. It would be a joy for such followers to be free to worship with each other in public and without fear.

So, we experience “incomparable joy and strength” when we meet with other believers. But, “what is an inexpressible blessing from God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trampled under foot by those who receive the gift every day.” It is easy to forget that this gift can be taken from us at any time, so “let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts.”

Bonhoeffer uses his experience in running an underground seminary to model what an ideal community of Christians might be like. I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but briefly, he deals with the following –


Bonhoeffer is very concerned about people who bring their own expectations into a Christian community. Such people can deaden the community by measuring it against some subjective standard and criticizing it when it doesn’t match up. He sees this as narcissism (though he doesn’t use that term) – “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.”

He is especially critical of pastors who find their own congregations lacking – “Pastors should not complain about their congregations, certainly never to other people, but also not to God.”

He says that, however challenging it may be, God has placed us in a particular situation for a reason and we need to set aside our pride and listen to what God is saying about the situation.

I’m not sure I completely buy this, since I myself left a PCUSA church for one that I believed was more faithful to Scripture. But I left only after much prayer, so God may have placed me in the church to be exposed to apostasy and God may have wanted me to leave it as a witness to others. Many others left that church after I did, so perhaps God wanted me to set an example for these others.

The Day Together

Bonhoeffer says when we awake we should be still and let God have the first word of the day – “The early morning belongs to the church of the risen Christ.” I like this idea — that the rising sun belongs to the Risen Son. Bonhoeffer says, “Scripture reading, song, and prayer should be part of daily morning worship together.” Now, keep in mind that Bonhoeffer was coming from the context of running a seminary where a group of students were housed together. Obviously most of us do not live like that, and community worship is not possible for us first thing in the morning. Still the idea of starting each day with Scripture and prayer is something we all can do.

He especially likes the idea of reading and praying the Psalms first thing in the morning. Bonhoeffer argues that the Psalms are the prayers Jesus prayed, and were written in anticipation of Christ. Not all the Psalms apply to us personally, but we should still pray them because they all apply to Jesus, so we are praying not to Jesus but with him. Like the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms will show us how Jesus wants us to pray.

He never falls from his focus on Jesus. This is unlike the modern American focus on what God is or will do for us. Bonhoeffer writes –

“It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment.”

Now, I don’t agree with everything Bonhoeffer says. For some reason he objects to singing in harmony and prefers unison singing, kind of like Gregorian chant, I guess. He dismisses bass and alto voices as calling “everybody’s attention to their astonishing range and therefore sing every hymn an octave lower.” Sorry, but some of us have voices that have to be an octave lower or we wouldn’t be able to sing the melody at all. It isn’t vanity.

He deals with a whole lot of other topics that I won’t go into here – communal meals, work, evening prayers, the need for alone time even when (or especially when) living in a community.


But there is one topic I want to focus on a bit. He calls on Christians to confess their sins to each other, quoting James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another.” This is something I know many people are very uncomfortable with. He says, “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone in our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.”

This is beautifully written. He says, “You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” He says, “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community…. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all its power.”

He urges us to confess our sins to another Christian. Not to make a big show of it, but do it privately, in confidence. He clarifies, “Does this mean that confession to one another is a divine law? No, confession is not a law; rather it is an offer of divine help to the sinner.”

If you find this idea alien, as many Protestants do (after all isn’t confession a Roman Catholic ritual?), you have never been to an AA meeting. Members of AA are not shy about confessing their many, many sins to the rest of the group. And guess what? People do not react in horror. They are far more likely to laugh with recognition, because we have all done that and worse. We are amazed at how stupid and irresponsible we have been and we are grateful that we do not have to be that way any longer. I should add that having other people laugh at our transgressions also mitigates the shame we feel, it frees us from the burden of carrying our shame alone.

And, isn’t that what Jesus promised us? He said —

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Isn’t the burden most of us carry the burden of sin and shame?

Bonhoeffer, concludes this section by writing –

“To whom should we make a confession? According to Jesus’ promise every Christian believer can hear the confession of another. But will the other understand us? Might not another believer be so far beyond us in the Christian life that she or he would only turn away from us without understanding our personal sins? Whoever lives beneath the cross of Jesus and has discerned in the cross of Jesus the utter ungodliness of all people and of their own hearts, will find there is no sin that can ever be unfamiliar.”

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