Sunday, January 22, 2012

Does Love Win? Or are we Erasing Hell?

After seeing how everyone denounced Rob Bell's Love Wins, I had to read it. I had already read Bell's Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Came to Save Christians. I like Bell's writing style. I was especially drawn to what he wrote in Velvet Elvis. After spending a lifetime coming from a religious tradition that says, "we are the final word in how to follow Jesus" the idea that as our understanding of God and the Bible grows, changes, and matures, so does our faith - as does how we come to God.

Back to Love Wins. The first time I read it, I loved it. It's an easy read and I finished it in a couple days. This is the exact quote of my Goodreads review:

Regardless of where you fall in your conclusions of what the Bible says about Heaven and Hell, the questions raised by Bell in this book are questions thinking Christians should be asking…
You see, the thing I love about Rob Bell's writing is that he never says, "this is what I believe, and I want you to agree with me." And that's a habit our ears have a hard time breaking, because that's the spiritual writing we're so used to. But Bell's writing says, "Maybe you need to challenge what you've been taught about this; maybe we should be asking questions about what we've always thought; maybe we should be discussing these things." Bell is all about "wrestling with the text."

So I wondered, even after I read it, why everyone was all up in arms about Love Wins. Bell never says he doesn't believe in Hell, or that there's not a Hell, or that everyone is going to Heaven. He questions all our traditional teaching about Hell, asking if this is what the Bible really says. Asking if the way we preach Hell is truly Biblical, especially when we often use it to attack, and it's driving people away. And what if "being saved" isn't just about looking forward to a life after this one, but it's also about how we live the life we currently have?

According to, Love Wins came out March 15, 2011. And Francis Chan's answer to Love Wins, Erasing Hell, came out less than four months later. I can't help but wonder how much of it he had written before Bell's book came out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After reading Love Wins a second time, and hearing people saying how good Erasing Hell is as an answer to Love Wins, I had to pick up the latter book.

I know that the back of Erasing Hell says,

Like you sometimes [Chan and second author Preston Sprinkle] don't want to believe in hell. But, as they write, "We cannot afford to be wrong on the issue"...This is not a book about who is saying what. It's a book about what God says...It's not a book about arguments, doctrine, or being right.
  But this is obviously a direct answer (attack?) to Love Wins.

Everything about the book seems to scream, "Rob Bell is wrong, and I'm going to show you how I'm right."

The title of the book is even:  

erasing hell: what God said about eternity, and the things we made up

And the arrogance pervading this book starts on the first page of the introduction where Chan suggests that reading this book is "necessary".  

The funny thing is, as much as this book claims to only be true to what the Bible says, there sure seem to be a lot of inconsistencies, logical problems, and things that just don't make sense.

The book labels Rob Bell as a Universalist on the 4th page of the 1st chapter - using a quote taken out of context. To be fair, the book later admits the quote is taken out of context - but that's in the footnotes. A cheap shot. But then this same passage is taken context a second time in the same chapter.

And while reading it, I seemed to come across a lot of arguments along the lines of "Rob Bell doesn't come out and say this, but this is what he means" and "Rob Bell says this, but he doesn't really mean it".

When I got to chapter 2, I was already bothered by a lot of what I read. Chapter 2 spends a lot of time describing what many 1st Century Jews believed, rather than discussing what the Bible says. Then it says "Bell suggests that when Jesus used the word 'hell' (gehenna) He referred to a garbage dump outside Jerusalem...", giving the reader the idea that this is Bell's idea. Only later do we learn that this idea has been around for 1,000 years. Then it says "Much of what Bell says about hell relies upon a legend from the Middle Ages." I was confused at the phrase "Much of what Bell says about hell" because Bell only talks about Gehenna for a little over one page! 

Then in Chapter 3, Erasing Hell suggests that Matthew 25 is talking about "believers" vs. "unbelievers". (This is where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.) Wow. Way to put words in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus separates those who helped and cared for other people from those who did not. And this really gets to the crux of "Love Wins". The point of the book isn't to say "There is no hell" (even though Chan says that's what it says) or that "No one goes to hell", but to revisit the way we preach hell at people. As I mentioned above, to try to question and discuss whether or not we've actually held a Biblical view of hell. To consider the importance of alleviating suffering and bringing heaven to this earth. To be careful how we use the idea of hell to exclude people. Which is exactly what Chan does here by completely changing what Jesus says. 

And by the time I got to chapter 3, I got tired of writing my thoughts down, so I just kept reading.

Over and over, Chan talks about how he desperately wants to believe there is no hell, but just can't because God says there is. This gets extremely patronizing, because the words he's putting in Bell's mouth: that Bell takes what he wants from the scriptures and ignores the rest. And in a final challenge in chapter 6, Chan lifts up the straw man "Rob Bell doesn't like or believe what God says about hell" and strikes it down rather summarily. 

Chan asks, "Are you sure you're on the right side?" Really? Is that the point of Jesus coming to redeem mankind - so that we could choose "the right side"? Are we supposed to spread the message of Jesus so we can try to get everyone else "on the right side"? Or are we supposed to spread the message of Jesus because it's a better way to live? Because God is sovereign and deserves our love and devotion? Because it's better to love than to hate? Because it's better to serve than to take? (Um...see Matthew 25 to see what Jesus says on the subject.)

Ultimately, it's not our job to tell everyone who doesn't go to church that they're going to hell. It's not our job to judge everyone who has died and determine where they went. It's our job to bring a message of love and hope to the world. Just because there's a hell, doesn't mean that's the first thing out of our mouths when we preach the "good news" of Jesus.

And this is (what I think is) the summary of Love Wins, taken from Chapter 6: 

First, we aren't surprised when people stumble upon this mystery [Jesus], whenever and however that happens. We aren't offended when they don't use the exact language we use, and we aren't surprised when their encounters profoundly affect them, even if they happen way outside the walls of our particular Jesus's gathering...We are not threatened by this, surprised by this, or offended by this... 

Second, none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will. 

Third, it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people's eternal destinies...

Chan says some great things in this book. I think it's a great essay on what the Bible says about hell. And Chapter 5 is a great thesis on the things we miss as Christians (Jesus condemns those who attack each other with words, he condemns racism, and not helping the poor.) But it's hard to overlook the rest of it.

Why do I always feel like an apologist for Rob Bell? Because I believe everything he writes? Everything he says? Because I want to be his disciple? No. Because I believe he's calling us to think, to challenge, to dialogue - and I think that these things have been squelched enough - and that squelching has turned people from God. I think Bell's message is important - that we need to examine ourselves and be sure that what we believe truly comes from God. We can't do that without wrestling with it - and that's all Bell is asking us to do.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Spiritual Disciplines: Simplicity (2 of 2)

I already talked about simplicity, so this is more of a practical application. Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, suggests 10 ways that we can live the outward expression of the discipline. I did a little digging on these for the Bible class I was teaching and attempted to come up with what the Bible said about many of these things.

1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.

Foster talks about clothes and cars and condos. I think it's related to what Peter says:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:3-4)
I like this verse because it's about focusing on what's inside of us, rather than what's outside of us. This is a tough one to swallow in our culture. I'll try to stop here before I get on my soapbox on how wearing your "Sunday best" is unscriptural.

2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.

I mentioned 1 Corinthians 6:12 when I talked about fasting, below. ("I will not be enslaved by anything.") I really what Paul says because it's about letting something else enslave us - regardless of what it is. It could be almost anything. Foster talks about a friend who was addicted to his newspaper. I recently had to delete half the apps from my phone for that very reason. (Yes! Including Angry Birds! Or especially Angry Birds!)

3. Develop a habit of giving things away.

We don't own anything; it all belongs to God.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it... (Psalm 24:1)
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
(1 Chronicles 29:11-12)
This one is hard for me - but I've tried to learn it a little from my wife, Krista (who is very good at it). When I have something I like to feel ownership of it, and I like to keep it nice. I like to tell myself that this is the good quality of stewardship, but I'm beginning to feel like it's an excuse to own things. I don't like to lend things out if I feel like someone won't take care of it like I do. But I need to feel less of an ownership of things and be more giving. Krista loves to give things away, much to my chagrin.

4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.

I feel like this is related to #2 and our addiction to get the next new thing. Like all the people who have to get the newest version of their phone, calling themselves "early adopters". (When someone says that, all I hear is "this is my excuse to spend money on something I don't need.") But it really hit home to me as I taught this lesson from my iPad. I want to come to my own defense and say that my iPad is the only money I've spent on a computer in the last 5 years, and I use it all the time, but that's another excuse. Maybe I just need to be happy with what I have.

5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.

This is related to #3 for me, and those verses apply here, too.

I don't like to borrow stuff. I do when I don't feel like I can go buy it or I just want to use it temporarily - but there's nothing worse in the world than borrowing something and having to return in worse condition than when I got it. And I love the feeling of ownership. If there's a book I like, I have to own it. If there's a movie I like, I have to own it. This is almost an addiction (for me) and is also related to #2. I think it was someone in our Bible class that said, "ownership improves the quality of our experience," and that seems to be so true.

6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
(Psalm 19:1)
We need to remember to look around and see the beauty of God in creation. Wouldn't that solve a lot of our problems? It seems like that always gives me a "big picture" view. It reminds me that life is much bigger than whatever little problem I'm having right now.

7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all "buy now, pay later" schemes.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7)
I'm not a fan of Dave Ramsey, but honestly, I see the wisdom in this.

8. Obey Jesus' instructions about plain, honest speech.

Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt 5:37)
What happened to simple honesty? And why do we have the same problems as people did 2,000 years ago?

9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others. Foster writes,

Do we sip our coffee and eat our bananas at the expense of exploiting Latin American peasants? In a world of limited resources, does our lust for wealth mean the poverty of others? Should we buy products that are made by forcing people into dull assembly-line jobs? Do we enjoy hierarchical relationships in the company or factory that keep others under us? Do we oppress our children or spouse because we feel certain tasks are beneath us?

Often our oppression is tinged with racism, sexism, and nationalism. The color of the skin still affects one's person in the company. The sex of a job applicant still affects the salary. The national origin of a person still affects the way he or she is perceived. May God give us prophets today who...will call us "from the desire of wealth" so that we may be able to "break the yoke of oppression."

I don't have a specific verse for this. Because this is what all of the teachings of Jesus were about. The fact we so often miss this just shows how we miss the point of the gospel.

10. Shun anything that distracts from seeking first the kingdom of God.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt 6:33)
'Nuff said.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Spiritual Disciplines: Simplicity (1 of 2)

I think this is the only discipline less popular than fasting. (And maybe when I make sweeping comments like that, I'm saying more about myself than about my culture.)

It's funny. It seems like every time I hear a sermon preached on a particular subject, the speaker says, "The Bible talks about this subject more than any other." I've definitely heard that said about money. Money seems to be a popular subject to talk about if you have a particular soapbox about it, or if you're a Dave Ramsey fan. Otherwise, not so much. It drives me crazy that every time story of the "Rich Young Ruler" is discussed (you know, in Mt. 19 where Jesus tells that guy who was keeping all the "rules" that he should sell everything he has and give to the poor), people are always quick to point out that the purpose of this story was for Jesus to say that nothing should come between us and God. That riches were only this particular man's hang up, and it really only applies to us in a generic way, but not a specific way. I'm not comfortable with this explanation - particularly in a society that is very stuck on the accumulation of "things".

Luke records Jesus saying, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)

And in Luke 12:33-34, He says, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Jumping back to the blessings and woes, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." (Luke 6:20 and 24)

Finally, in Luke 6:30, He says: "Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back."

Apparently, Jesus didn't want us overly focused on material things. This is not a subject that's easy to tackle.

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that "this Discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent life-style".

But it's not simply about getting rid of everything and living an ascetic lifestyle. That may be missing the point.

I came across an interesting document at the website of a church in California (Indian Christian Assembly).

One of the things that the article suggested was that, "The discipline of simplicity is the conscious act of not being tied to the things of this world."

The article also listed a couple quotes about the discipline:

“Living simply means adopting a lifestyle that avoids unnecessary accumulation of material items. It helps us seek outward detachment from the things of this world in order to focus our lives on the leadings of the Spirit. Living simply entails clearing our lives and our houses of spiritual and material clutter so as to create more space for faithful living.” – Catherine Whitmire (Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity)
“Simplicity does not mean getting rid of all your possessions, but rather integrating them into your life’s purpose”- Mary Gregory (quoted in the same book)
I don't think it's just about the stuff you have, or how expensive it is. This runs much, much deeper than what we have, what we own, and what we buy. It's more about what we want. It's about embracing a culture where we are defined by what we drive, what we wear, what we buy, and what we do for a living. This is hard, because it's much deeper than the things we surround ourselves with. It's not just about the stuff - it's about a way of life and a way of thinking.

Foster brings this back to not worrying about things in this life, like Jesus talked about in Luke 12. He talks about how simplicity is freedom from anxiety:

"Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes. If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety. This is the inward reality of simplicity. However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have i not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live 'the simple life'."
It's called a discipline for a reason. It's not easy. But if this is something we truly practiced, I think we would be amazed at the blessings we would have.

Since this is so stinking long, I'll have to finish my discussion of simplicity later, where I'll talk about 10 things that Foster suggests we can do to simplify our lives.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Fasting must be everyone's favorite spiritual discipline. We're all about denial of self, aren't we?

Actually, I think that's what makes this discipline so difficult. It's denial of self in a way we're just not used to. Food is the last thing that many of us allow ourselves to indulge in completely, without restriction. Complete hedonism. It's tough to reverse that.

I did some calculations, and after going to church for 40 years, I figure I've heard somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand sermons. I haven't heard a single sermon on fasting. Maybe it's the particular religious tradition I grew up in. But what makes it weirder is that we have examples of the early disciples in doing it (Acts 13:1-3, 14:23), Jesus did (Matthew 4:1-2), He expects us to do it (Matthew 6:16-18, 9:15), and it's described as a form of worship (Acts 13:2, Luke 2:36-38) . If there's something that people would suggest is required of us, you'd think it'd be fasting. But I don't remember it listed among the "5 acts of worship" in the many sermons I heard on that topic as a kid.

Richard Foster suggests that fasting can reveal some of the things in life that control us, citing Psalm 69:10 ("I humbled my sould with fasting"). - and mentions that fasting can reveal the things in life that control us. This takes on even more meaning when I read 1 Cor 6:12 ("All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything"). We all have things in our life that control us. For a lot of us, food falls into that category.

This brings us full circle back to denial of self. Jesus says annoying stuff like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24) and "any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple"(Luke 14:33).

That's what this life is all about, isn't? Dying to self? I think that's why we don't commit. Ironically, we don't want to give up what little control we think we have over this life. It must look silly to God.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

I hate that the intro to each of these blog posts is a comment about not writing blog pots. But, there you go.

Continuing going through the spiritual disciplines, we come to prayer next. This is a spiritual discipline that Christians everywhere seem to practice - in private and in public; it is talked about, preached about, and taught about.

But when I really got down to thinking about prayer, in all its ubiquitousness (is that a word?) it still seems as mysterious to me as meditation. (See previous post.)

I come from a cessationist tradition that denies miracles in the present day; but all my life, I've heard people pray to God asking for things like healing of the sick (and praising God when He's healed them). I have trouble putting these two things together. This past April, after the tornados in Alabama, I heard story after story of people saying that God protected them because they prayed. What about the people that prayed that weren't protected from the tornados? And just this morning in church, someone prayed about how he knew God loved us because of our material blessings. At times, I've asked God to help me pay the rent, and praised Him when I was blessed with the ability to make the payment. But a lot of people don't have material blessings, and can't make ends meet - but if they're asking for these things from God and He doesn't provide, does that mean He doesn't love them? (Of course, there's a whole other set of posts about our role in helping the less fortunate.)

It made me start to wonder how much praying was tied to meditating. I guess, when all else fails, read what Jesus said about it:

I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15:7)
This really got me to thinking. We like to throw around trite sayings like, "God always answers prayer - sometimes he says, 'Yes'; sometimes 'No'; sometimes 'Not now'." I've always hated that saying. But my own preferences aside, maybe the problem with us and prayer is that we don't know what to pray because we don't know God. We're not in tune with Him. Maybe it's taking that time in quiet meditation to understand who He is and what He wants that we're missing. Sometimes I look around at our current Christian culture, witnessing the hate, the hypocrisy, the utter selfishness we tend to project, and I wonder if we really understand God.

People always ask for things in prayer, adding "if it's Your will"; but I'm wondering, based on Jesus said - shouldn't we know?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Spiritual Disciplines: Meditation

Yeah...I said I was going to start blogging again. Maybe I lied.

I've got a lot I wanted to put on here, but haven't had the time to fish it out of my head and put it on paper (screen).

But in our current church curriculum we're studying the Spiritual Disciplines for the next 2 months. I thought I'd follow Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster, and use that as a jumping off point for study and discussion.

Last week, we talked about Meditation.

Foster talks about a few different types of meditation:

  • Meditation where you ponder a short passage or scripture
  • Meditation where you turn your concerns over to God
  • Meditation where you think about God's creation - seeing God's glory in the creation around us
  • Meditation on the events of our time and understanding their significance

But if you look for the word meditation in the Bible, you'll have some interesting findings.

As Foster notes, David talks about meditation a lot in the Psalms. The first Psalm talks about the man who is blessed and says that he meditates on God's law day and night. I've actually been reading Psalm 119 recently (for example, look at verses 97-104). Here, the words translated from the Hebrew mean to ponder, study, reflect.

But try looking for it in the New Testament - you may not find it. The King James lists it in a couple places, but you won't find it in the English Standard Version, the New International Version, or The Message. (The ESV uses meditate once - to mean premeditate. And the KJV uses it in the same passage; but the only other place it uses the word, the ESV translates practice - 1 Timothy 4:15.)

Of course, we do see Jesus spending a lot of time finding a lonely place to be in solitude with God. Foster lists the following passages through the Gospels: Matthew 4:1-11; 14:23; 17:1-9; 26:36-46; Mark 6:31; Luke 5:16; 6:12.

So we see the example of Jesus; but I was curious if there were any teachings about it. All Foster talks about is "hearing the voice of God" (which confused me for a bit - I'll get to that in a minute). But the absence of the word meditate made me wonder - does Jesus ever tell his disciples to do this? He talks about prayer a lot, and while there seems to be some overlap between meditation and prayer, (meditation would use more contemplative prayer), they are separate spiritual disciplines.

But then I stumbled across the word consider which is used throughout the teachings of Jesus as well as the epistles. The first place I found it was Matthew 6:28.

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin...

The word that is translated into consider is actually a word that is a combination of two other Greek words: kata (meaning doing something intensely) and manthanō (meaning to learn or understand). It's the only time this word is used in the Bible; but I think it makes sense that we can say Jesus is telling us to "contemplate these things" or "meditate on these things".

And what's interesting about this passage - if you go back to the types of meditation Foster mentions, this seems to incorporate 3 of the 4: turning your concerns over to God, meditating on God's creation, and meditating on scripture (the last because, well, this is a scripture).

It gets even more intriguing if you look at the word used in Luke 12:22-29: not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing... Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

The word consider here is also two Greek words put together to make one word. But while the first part of the word is the same used in Matthew, meangin to mean doing something intensely, the second part of the word comes from a different word: noeō, meaning to observe, perceive or understand. So Luke uses a very similar, but different word to convey the same message.

These Greek words are translated as different words throughout the New Testament. I'll stop with one last example of the word that's translated as consider in the passage from Luke, above. It's used in Matthew 7:3:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

Here, the word see just means "to look at". The word notice is the same word translated consider, above: to observe intensely. Personally, I think it's telling that Jesus tells us we see the problems in other people lives, but we need to really spend some time contemplating our own faults. But maybe that's just me.

Robert Foster states in his book that Christian meditation is the ability to hear God's voice and obey His word. This confused me at first - I was thinking "hearing God's word" as reading the Bible or being told about the Gospel. I thought, "how can meditation be about hearing and obeying God's word?" But he's talking about a more literal hearing of God's voice - and obeying that. He goes on to mention Bible passages on communing with God, including several from Acts that talk directly about Jesus guiding the early Christians.

I think that the Bible teaches us - through the example of Jesus, through the way the Holy Spirit led the Christians in the book of Acts, and through some of these other verses, that it makes sense to take time out to just sit and consider, or meditate on, or contemplate these things.

There's definitely history here - just look at Deuteronomy 11:18-19.

You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Should it be any different for us?

But my question is: can we literally hear the voice of God today?

I'll have to meditate on that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


As I mentioned yesterday, today we started our Bible class. After I talked about what I posted yesterday, I posed this light, easy question:

Is a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis necessary to our faith?

I think the discussion that followed was a good start for the first class. Our church has people from a wide range of backgrounds. There are people who believe that the 6 days of creation were literal. There are people who believe that evolution was God's mechanism for creating man. I think it's going to be an interesing study.

A few things that I didn't realize - the idea that the first chapter of Genesis may not be literal isn't a new idea.

Origen, the church father, scholar, and theologian who was born about 150 years after Jesus died, wrote:
Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars— the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. (On First Principles, Book IV)
Many medieval rabbis (and Torah scholars) considered the creation story to be symbolic rather than literal. From The Jewish Virtual Library:
Maimonides, one of the great rabbis of the Middle Ages, wrote that if science and Torah were misaligned, it was either because science was not understood or the Torah was misinterpreted. Maimonides argued that if science proved a point, then the finding should be accepted and scripture should be interpreted accordingly.
This can be found in the The Guide to the Perplexed written by Maimonides. See also the Maimonides entry in the Stanford Philosophical Encyclopedia.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Tomorrow morning I'm going to start teaching a Bible class. I'm stepping into this with a bit of trepidation. I'm not qualified. And if I'm on a journey of faith, who am it to be teaching others about God's will?

So, maybe it'll be a chance for a number of us to start a discussion. To really look into what God says, and think critically about it. I'm nervous, but I'm praying I'm moving in the right direction.

I'm going to open tomorrow with my vision:

I want this to be a collaborative Bible study. That means that I want us all to be able to contribute to the discussion. I don't believe I'm qualified to be teaching - to impart my knowledge of God and God's word to you. We all have a lot to learn, and we all need to be better students of the Bible.

So, I'll lead the discussion. I'll tend to read and research, and guide the discussion. And keep us on track when we need to be focused. But, if we want to get off-track, and follow where the Spirit leads us, that's fine, too. I don't want to be all over the place, but if, when we're taking a specific path, you find that you've got something you want to understand, research, or discuss, bring it up. Maybe that can be our next discussion.

I'm hoping we can use this to jump-start some Bible study in our own lives. In addition to coming here and discussing these things, we all need to be able to go back and do our own reading and research. If I had a Ph.D. in New Testament Theology, maybe I'd be qualified to share the depths of my knowledge with you, but as it is, I think we all need to be studying and teaching each other. I hope that's ok.

So, we're going to use the Bible as our primary source. But - we all know that we all read the Bible a little differently. The greatest Bible scholars have read the Bible differently. And what we're working with here is a a translation of a copy of of a copy. So I think we need to be able to disagree, and have discussion, and read other sources.

If you've read something that contributes to the discussion we're having. - in a book, or a blog, or a Facebook status - feel free to bring it. I think that reading outside sources is important and necessary. Regardless if we disagree with them or not. They may be more important if we disagree with them - that will make us study harder and dig deeper into God's Word. And God's Word says that teaching is a spiritual gift - and I don't see anything that says that teachers can't be writers, bloggers, or friends on Facebook. Always keeping in mind what Paul said to the church at Thessalonica: "Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good."

St. Augustine (in the 5th Century) wrote something that I really like:

"In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture."


Back from the dead? I need to stretch some of my writing muscles. It's been too long. I'm back, as the creepy girl from Poltergeist might say.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I put my stupid hat on when I left work today. Just before I got in my car I noticed something hanging from the rearview mirror of another car. After I stood there for minute trying to read it and figure out what it was, I noticed two people in in the front seat of the car. They were probably saying, "Why the hell is that freak staring at us?"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Themes of the Individual vs. Society in the Film Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This is a speech I recently presented at a Toastmasters meeting. 

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831. It has been made into several movies, including a popular black and white classic in 1939 and the well-received Disney film in 1996.

The book and movies explore several themes, but I want to concentrate on one in particular – that of the Individual versus Society. This is a literary theme where a character's main source of conflict is with society, or with social traditions.

A sub-theme of the Individual versus Society that I identify with (and that I may have made up) is about the pressure by society to not be different. About compelling the individual to blend in. Sure, society pays lip service to “being yourself” but when you look around, everyone is asking you to look a certain way or act a certain way. Being true to yourself, regardless of what society thinks, is a timeless theme.

It's ultimately about the breaking of societal norms, when those norms are immoral or unethical. For example, society judges us on how we look. And here, the ideals of society are in direct conflict with what is good and right. All you have to do is turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or watch a movie, and you can see how important outer beauty is. And yet, we all know deep, down, that that’s wrong.

In the early 1930's Alduous Huxley wrote Brave New World partly in response to a fear of losing one's identity as the world became more industrial and fast-paced. To highlight this them, one of the characters in the book compares being different with murder, coming to the conclusion that being different is much worse. He says,
“Murder kills only the individual...Unorthodoxy [being different] threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at society itself.”
In the Disney version of the film, our protagonist is Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. He is hideous. He knows he is deformed and ugly. He has a bit of a phlegmatic temperament and tells his gargoyle friends in the Notre Dame cathedral things like, “I'd never fit in. I'm not normal.” From the very beginning of the movie, we see that he knows that with the importance that the world places on how we appear, he would never be welcome by the townspeople. As a baby, he was so disfigured, that the powerful Judge Claude Frollo, after accidentally killing his mother nearly threw him down a well before being stopped by the Archdeacon outside the cathedral. But Frollo persists, pronouncing “This is an unholy demon. I'm sending it back to hell, where it belongs!”

Which, upon reflection, isn't exactly the kind of scene I'd write for a children's animated film.

But Judge Claude Frollo, the story's antagonist, is convinced by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame to raise the child under his charge.

We see what type of man Frollo is in a scene of the movie that takes place soon after, when he sings to Quasimodo, “You are deformed, and you are ugly.” Since Quasimodo never leaves the cathedral, he wants to attend the annual Festival of Fools, which Frollo calls a gathering of “Thieves and hustlers and the dregs of humankind, all mixed together in a shallow, drunken stupor.” He sings to Quasimodo, “They'll revile you as a monster.” And Quasimodo echoes, “I am a monster.”

I promise this was a kid’s movie.

Frollo represents everything that is evil about our society, only existing to promote what he feels is right and ignoring everyone else's welfare.

Judge Frollo brings in Phoebus, Captain of the Guard, because he despises the gypsies who have infested Paris and wants to eradicate them. Frollo is the part of society that propogates these hateful feelings against anyone that deviates slightly from his idea of normal. He explains to Phoebus that his job will be to find the hidden sanctuary of the gypsies and bring an end to them.

So the Festival of Fools begins. Being a public official, Judge Frollo must attend, and is accompanied by Phoebus.

But Quasimodo, disobeying Frollo’s desires also comes to the Festival.

And there, he meets the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda, who shows him kindness. She is, indeed, the only person to ever truly treat him with any kind of love because everyone else is afraid of how repulsive he is. And when he is treated like a monster at the Festival, she is the one that comes to his rescue, in direct defiance of Judge Frollo, who demands that she be detained by Phoebus.

As Esmerelda leads the guards on a merry chase, Phoebus seems entranced by her. He chases her into Notre Dame, but cannot arrest her in the church, so he sets her free.

Quasimodo helps her escape the cathedral though guards are stationed at every door. He has finally found someone who can look through his outer shell and see who he really is. He is completely smitten with her, and his Gargoyle friends (remember, this is a Disney movie) sing to him and convince him that she's in love with him.

Now we cut to Frollo in his bedchamber, where we find out that not only is Quasimodo in love, and not only is Phoebus completely taken by her, but Frollo is also infatuated with the exquisite Esmerelda.

There he sings a song titled Hellfire, and this is probably the creepiest scene I've seen in any Disney movie. He sings about how he, too, is in love with Esmerelda, “Tell me, why I see her dancing there, why her smoldering eyes still scorch my soul.”

As an image of Esmerelda dances in the flames and smoke of his fireplace, he continues, “Like fire, Hellfire, this burning in my skin; this burning desire is turning me to sin.”

Seriously? I’m wondering now if I should have watched this with my 7-year-old daughter.

Frollo goes to find out what Quasimodo knows, mentioning to Quasimodo that he will have a thousand guards attack the hiding place of the gypsies at dawn. This tricks Quasimodo and Phoebus (who has now turned against Frollo) to go to warn them. They unintentionally lead Frollo there followed by all the guardsmen, who capture Quasimodo, Phoebus, Esmerelda, and the gypsies.

Quasimodo is sent back to his tower in chains and watches as Esmerelda is about to be burned at the stake. But, at the last minute, our protagonist breaks free, climbs down from the tower, saves the girl, takes her up to Notre Dame, holds her above his head and in his booming voice, cries, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”

In the chaos, Phoebus is freed, the gypsies are rescued, and probably all of Paris is saved from Judge Frollo. He of course climbs the church and attempts to kill Esmerelda and Quasimodo, but in his haste to murder them, falls to his death.

And so we come to our, uh, happy ending.

Does our protagonist, the repellent, revolting Quasimodo, going against all tradition, get the girl? Of course not!

Esmerelda marries the handsome captain of the guard. And Quasimodo's ok with it; almost as if he realizes that he is too much of a monster to be loved by someone so beautiful. And the worst part of society triumphs over the individual. In the end it's Quasimodo who saves Esmerelda's live, putting into motion the events that save all the gypsies and lead to the death of Frollo. But, alas, that's not enough to allow him to be a normal part if society and he lives his life alone in Notre Dame while the beautiful people live happily ever after.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lent, Addiction, and Failure

Today is Easter Sunday. Lent started on Ash Wednesday this year on February 17 - about 40 days ago, not counting Sundays. Many Christians take this time of year to think about the time Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, and his impending death at the end of his ministry (remembered on Good Friday).

This year, during Lent, I attempted to be more observant of the fasts, and to attempt to make it more of a season of confession, repentance, and reflection. Once again, I failed miserably.

I planned to observe the Friday fasts, which are, if I read correctly, a single normal-sized meal, as well as two smaller meals that don't add up to a whole meal. Plus, no meat. (Meat is considered warm-blooded animals, so fish is OK.)

Also, I decided I'd give up coke. So no soda. No pop. At all.

And, I made a daily commitment to read, study, and pray. To take some time to take a spiritual inventory. Of where I am, where I need to be.

I did OK on the first two. Just OK, because I messed up eating meat at least once on Friday, and stretched the "small meal" thing a bit. Also, I slipped up on the cokes a few times. But it was better than last year when I messed early on, and by the end, I was completely disregarding the commitment I made.

But that last one, I totally blew. I started reading the Bible through a while back - and thought I'd Twitter comments at
@ChronoBible (Chronological Bible). I wanted to pick it back up during the last 6 weeks, but didn't really. And I didn't spend the time in reflection I intended, either. More than usual, I guess. Which is good. I guess. But nothing like I intended.


But I think I learned something. The Fridays were a real eye-opener. I've talked a lot before about food, and eating, and gluttony. It's a struggle I've had all my life. Although, I was a skinny kid, and it really didn't show up until I was in college. (By the time I gained the freshman 15 - and the sophomore 15 - people were saying I looked good. But then came the junior 15, and the senior 15, and the 2nd-year senior 15...)

Back to Friday fasts. I'm not sure what hole I'm trying to fill by shoveling piles and piles of food into my mouth. But for some reason, during this season, I realized the obvious. I just don't need to eat so much.

Well, duh.

But this is why I've always been fascinated by psychology. How can I know a simple fact, for many, many years, yet not fully comprehend, understand, and internalize the implications of that fact except through some weird spiritual discipline? It's things like this that give me faith.

The first two steps in a 12-step program are:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable


2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

It's been this 40-day process that has given me a different way of looking at eating. I have to say it's that "Power greater than myself" that did the work.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Blind Side (spoilers?)

The Blind Side was a pretty good film. But for some reason, I just couldn't enjoy it. I kept waiting for something tragically climactic to happen. I was nervous through the whole thing.