Monday, December 31, 2012

Theological and Religious Reviews 2012

          Here's a few links to read about the year:

The Gospel Coalition.

Christianity Today.

Huffington Post.

          So, yeah, it's been quite an eventful year.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Preview of Hillsong United's "Zion"

          Hillsong United has a new album coming out in February 2013 entitled Zion, almost two years exactly after their release of their previous studio album Aftermath. The title song of Aftermath strongly emphasized and celebrated the Doctrine of Atonement. Zion, however, judging by its description in the trailer, seems to focus on Kingdom come and the Church's role in it, juggling the paradoxes and emphasizing servanthood, perhaps giving a nod to what Matt Chandler calls "The Gospel in the Air."
          Curious. As opposed to the beautiful simplicity of Aftermath, "Zion" is a biblical, complicated and more ambiguous term, especially to the theologically-untrained. However, Hillsong United has, for years, written poetic lyrics with exegetical astuteness and maintained the centrality of the Gospel (and good ecclesiology, for that matter) in their worship leadership.
          I'm anxious to see what this album has to offer. Below is the trailer. Enjoy!


Thursday, December 27, 2012

What and What Not to Say About God's Will and Judgment

          It’s almost sadly predictable. Christians in this country seem to know exactly why God allowed or perpetrated tragic events in our country. And, without seeming prayerful consideration, biblical qualification or compassion, they make sure people know about it. 
          So it should be no surprise that, in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, that some claim that God, at the very least, allowed this massacre because of banned school prayer, removing God from school, etc.
          I don’t have the space or energy here to give my interpretation of the tragic school shooting or delve into theodicy. My clear thought is as follows:
          Let’s not presume to know or declare God’s will in such specific and tragic circumstances.
          Especially in the face of mourning. Especially when the ones suffering are the neighbors whom we’re called to sacrificially love. 
          We should be careful to believe such confidently-stated yet biblically-unjustified interpretations of God’s will and judgment, or anything similar. Earlier this spring, there was a shooting at a college where, not only is God “allowed,” He’s even celebrated. Hurricane Katrina destroyed more churches than casinos. The list of questions and doubts goes on, and it also seems to insultingly oversimplify (and underestimate) God’s will to assume it in such political, convenient and, to be honest, nation-centered terms.
          In closing, it’s in fact very biblical to suggest our country (or any country or the world, for that matter) is inviting God’s general judgment with our disrespectful disregard for Him and His Word, and with our continual failure to be a moral and peaceful society. (I know such an idea is offensive to some people). However, it’s not biblical to go further and declare a specific tragedy as God’s wrath because of a specific deviance.
          Some more good thoughts here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Don't Forget That Christmas Did Happen

          Anticipating the "post-Christmas blues," I thought you might enjoy this video from ShiftWorship.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent Candle Monologue #4: Cato the Intellect

          For our Advent candle lightings this year, our church is having actors/actresses from our drama ministry are performing historic-fiction monologues of first-century individuals who are processing the words of Christ from a certain angle and then celebrating his birth. Enjoy!

          Salutations, dear gathering of Christians. My name is Cato. I’m an aspiring intellect and philosopher, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about how I became a follower of ‘the Way,’ as we Christians call it. I’m not the best public speaker, so I prepared my testimony on some notes here. 
I would not have known about Jesus the Christ had it not been for the man you know as Pontius Pilate.     We were always very different people. He spent decades in the military while I spent decades in school. Pilate spent a lot of time as far away as Judea, whereas I went and stayed as close to Rome as I could. But we had two things in common. We were both born in Bisenti, fifty miles or so from Rome, and, until recently, we were both very cynical about religion. We were what you would call “pen pals” for most of our lives.
          Pilate didn’t really get along with the Jews he oversaw. He just didn’t understand why he couldn’t decorate Jerusalem with images of the state religion, even if only at night, or why he couldn’t use just some Temple money to build a town aqueduct, having the Jews contribute to their providing government. He always had a temper that got him into trouble with Emperor Tiberius. 
          But I consider myself to be an open-minded person. My cynicism about religion doesn’t come from any type of grown insensitivity or experience with stubborn religious folk. I’m just so used to seeing religion used for political career or personal convenience.  Senators in Rome flaunt their fake devotion to gods, whom we somewhat copied from the Greeks, so they can climb the political ladder. Pharisees have been known to be publicly explicit about their rituals and followed laws in their lifestyles, so that they get governmental benefits for being “religious.” I guess, in all the religions I’ve encountered, I’ve rarely seen followers who are giving a god some royal respect, being willing to sacrifice personal lifestyle, career and even safety for a king.
          That’s why I was so fascinated by Pilate’s last letter to me. He wasn’t whining about how he’d been disgraced and fired by the Empire for massacring some Samaritans. Pilate’s my friend, but I supported Governor Vitellius in that decision. Pilate, in his last letter, was still talking about his bewildering conversation with Jesus of Nazareth.
          Like I said, Pilate was no weakling. Quite the opposite, and to a fault. But he was so rattled by Jesus. Jesus stood before Pilate, tortured and bleeding, and said that his kingdom is not of this world, and that he’s come to testify to the truth. Pilate, a longtime religious cynic and a military man who’s long served an empire that mostly transitions leadership by assassination, struggled with the battered Jesus’s confident words. 
          Pilate wrote to me, trying to process all of this: “He’s blameless and he’s not threatening Rome, so why is he being executed? And why aren’t he or any of his followers trying to stop it? If his kingdom is of another place, then what is he doing here? What is this truth to which he’s testifying? You know I’ve never believed much in truth.”
          I learned later, exactly, what Jesus was saying. Pilate never really understood paradox. Jesus the Christ would die to set people free from the ultimate cost of their wrongdoing. He would rise again from the grave to conquer death. So, in essence, Jesus reigned, as King, from the throne of an execution tool: the cross. That’s a king I’d serve. And if his kingdom is of another place, why is he here? I think it’s a loving and compassionate effort to testify to this very truth.
          So, as I light this candle, I think of the birth of Jesus the Christ as the promised King, who came down to earth from His Kingdom in order to testify to the truth. He has conquered death for us and reigns in all of our hearts, and we are to serve him with thankfulness and respect. Because Truth is not something flexible that gets twisted for self-convenience. It’s something that we’ve seen fellow Christians sacrifice and even die for.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tebow and the Theology of Football, Part II?

          Has a lot changed for Tebowmania in a year? Actually, maybe not.
          In case you forgot last year, Tim Tebow, an impressive rookie and first-round NFL draft pick, became the starter for the struggling Denver Broncos (their record was 1-4). Despite Tebow's very-different QB style and his inability to put up decent QB stats, the team, with Tebow under center, found ways to win and went 7-4 for the rest of the season. Under Tebow, they clinched a division title, a long lost playoff berth, and even a victory over the defending Super Bowl contenders: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
          Such a seeming miracle story was causing people (Christians and otherwise) to jump to some extrabiblical conclusions about the Christian view of the supernatural and God's involvement in human affairs, particularly football games. So, I wrote this post.
          Jump one year later. I was always curious why the New York Jets acquired Tebow. At first, Rex Ryan's Jet subculture didn't seem like a good fit for him, and now neither does their offense. So, Tebow may be getting a lot of unfortunate bench time, but Tebowmania and its miracles are still very much alive, according to a fascinated atheist and (non-Jet fan) columnist from the New York Times.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Carols Now a Form of Bullying?

          Another episode in our society's continuing attempted integration of faith, culture and state is happening in the Northwest.
          An anonymous group of parents in Montana are objecting to the repertoire of the elementary school's Christmas concert. So, a conversation will happen between the superintendent and said parents. Here's a portion of the letter:

          "With many of the children in our neighborhood up here being Jewish and Buddhist, as well as a few Muslim and atheist students, we were assured that this year it would be a secular program. One of the largest complaints last year were the young children singing about ‘their lord.’ This was concerning to many families and it was clear that several of the students were uncomfortable.

          "We have no problem with it being called a Christmas concert, it’s just the fact the material should be secular. Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. These are things that offend no one, but when the children are singing about their lord and savior, Jesus Christ ... public school is not the place."

          You can read the rest here.
          This isn't a surprise to me, as I've long noticed that the mainstream's most popular Christmas carols have little or nothing to do with the incarnation of God. But there's a few quirks to this complaint.
          First, it's interesting that, in this and other contexts, theological lyrics are objectionable, but titles with etymology or another connection that "smacks of the pulpit" (e.g. Christmas, St. Nicholas, holiday, etc.) are not. Second, it ignores an interesting argument from a special education professor that the popular, secular and supposedly non-offensive song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" actually promotes bullying.
          The article closes with a slideshow and list of new school taboos that could argue that the very definition of "bullying," for example, is becoming eerily and harmfully inclusive.
          My take? As a Christian pastor and musician who has studied music history and some ethnomusicology and, in the past, sung and participated in songs of and in multiple "religious" contexts, I'd take a multi-religious public school concert rather over a religion-free one any day. This will help better build community in the school, and it'd be a lot better of a concert, musically, too. (Sorry, but "non-offensive songs" tend to be low quality musically, etc.).
          But it's sad to think that songs that speak of a loving God coming down to the lowly earth in humble human form to serve, sacrifice and save mankind from itself is a form of "bullying."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Advent Candle Monologue #3: Hadassah the Shepherd's Wife

          For our Advent candle lightings this year, our church is having actors/actresses from our drama ministry are performing historic-fiction monologues of first-century individuals who are processing the words of Christ from a certain angle and then celebrating his birth. The one below is written by a creative and theological volunteer, Summar. Enjoy!

          My name is Hadassah. I am the wife of Simeon the shepherd. Oi! What a life is the life of a shepherd’s family. Much drudgery and toil. My husband must work long hours day and night tending and caring for our sheep. He must be very careful, for they are our livelihood.  
          Our sheep have many enemies: disease, wild animals, thieves, and dangerous terrain. Not to mention the sheep themselves, they are not the smartest creatures that ever lived. They will follow the wrong one right to their deaths. If they fall over, they can’t get up without help, and they are easily frightened and confused.  
          The life of a shepherd’s family is full of hard work, and it’s very monotonous.  Every day the same thing – watching the men come in and go out to take the flocks to pasture. So when something exciting happens in the town, or someone new comes – it is very momentous
          So this man named Jesus came to our village, teaching. Everyone went out to hear him.  I have never heard any man speak the way he did. His presence was so commanding, yet so gentle at the same time. Even though he was a carpenter by trade, he came to our village, full of shepherds, and spoke about shepherding as if he was one. He knew so much. My friends and I were amazed at how well he understood the life of a shepherd and the ways of sheep. 
          Last month, he taught something very interesting to us shepherd families , he talked about the difference between the hired hands and the actual shepherds  – how they will run away and leave the sheep unprotected at the slightest sign of danger.  How true this is – just last year a thief managed to get into the pasture with our sheep and  that rascal Elias just ran off in fear and left the sheep all alone to be stolen. We lost 10 sheep that day! 
          My husband will always try to protect his sheep and frighten away the wolves and thieves. But this Jesus, he then said something remarkable he said that He was the good shepherd and he lays down my life for the sheep. Now any decent shepherd will do all he can to protect his sheep, within reason, but if it is between my husband’s life or the sheep -well- he would let them die. But this Jesus said he was a shepherd who would lay his own life down for his sheep. He called us his sheep. 
          Well, now -all this time later- that unusual teaching makes sense to me. I suppose he’s right. We are a lot like sheep. We are frightened and confused, and we often follow the wrong ones even to the point of death. And when we fall in life, it is very hard to get back up on our own. Now it has happened: He did die and willingly lay down his life. He obeyed Father God’s commands and gave his life for his sheep. I now understand that I am His sheep and he saved my life from the thief of my soul. 
          I light this candle in honor of my good shepherd who knows me and willingly laid down his life for me.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Fun: Taylor U.'s "Silent Night" B-Ball Tradition

          Taylor University (in Upland, IN) may not boast a large student body or be anywhere close to a blossoming metropolis, and its basketball team may not reach NCAA's Final Four anytime soon. But its basketball program experiences a yearly tradition that made it, this year, to CBS Sports (thanks to my brother for the link). You can read the whole story here, with videos. (Apologies for one PG-rated word in the article).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hillsong's "We Have a Savior"

          Our church has been singing Hillsong's new "We Have a Savior" this Advent. It's been received quite well. Have you heard it? The music video's below. Check it out!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Noah's Ark and Flood Possible, Says Archaeologist

          The archaeologist who does a lot of underwater exploring (and found the Titanic) suggests that it's quite possible that Noah's ark and flood happened. You can read about it here. While we can't know (as with the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife") how much any "finding" reported in mass media has been through scholarly circles, this is an interesting find.
          Maybe they should consult the makers of this film.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent Candle Monologue #2: Marrah the Servant Girl

          For our Advent candle lightings this year, our church is having actors/actresses from our drama ministry are performing historic-fiction monologues of first-century individuals who are processing the words of Christ from a certain angle and then celebrating his birth. The one below is written by a creative and theological volunteer, Summar. Enjoy!

          Hello. My name is Marrah, I am… well, I was a slave in the household of Maccabees until a few weeks ago. I was sold as a slave because of the debts of my father. My life was difficult. My master was stern and cold, and my daily life often involved abuse and neglect.  I served as a house slave, often waiting on the guests of my master.  
          One man’s visits that I dreaded, was Benjamin.  He was hard and angry and very wealthy.  He never let anyone forget his superiority or abundant wealth. Whenever I served him and my master I always felt demeaned and scorned. One day, Jesus of Nazareth visited our town, and it was rumored that Benjamin had an encounter with this Jesus.  Rumors were spread that something miraculous had occurred. Months went by and we never heard or saw Benjamin.  Not that I was bothered by his absence, I rather enjoyed the reprieve from all the degrading remarks. 
          Not long ago word came that during the Passover that same Jesus had been crucified. Some of us were sad others confused, but all in all that news didn’t change our daily lives. We were all still slaves of a hard-nosed master with no hope of ever being free due to the magnitude of our debts. 
          Then the most amazing thing happened. Benjamin showed up at my master’s house. I noticed right away that he was different somehow. He did not speak to me as harshly or make derogatory comments to me. As I stood by serving my master and Benjamin, I heard Benjamin tell the story of Jesus and how he had died to become the savior of the world and how he had paid the debt of sin for anyone who would believe.  I saw Benjamin break down crying as he told my master of how sorry he was for the awful life he had lived and now how he felt that it was his duty to make things right by serving Jesus for the rest of his life, helping people the way Jesus had helped him. 
          Then he looked over at me and said to my master, “How much is her debt?” My master was shocked and asked why – Benjamin insisted that he tell him the amount.  My master told him, but said that it didn’t matter. Even if my debt was paid, he had no intention of giving up the labor he received from me. Benjamin then took out his wallet and gave my master the amount I owed and then told him that he would stay and work in my place.  Benjamin said that Jesus had taught that serving is better than being served. 
          Much to the astonishment of my master, Benjamin took my place and took the role of a servant in Maccabee’s house and allowed me to go free. Just as Benjamin gave up his superior place in society to take my place as a servant, Jesus left his place of superiority and came to serve many more, erasing indebtedness with his sacrificial death. Today I gladly serve the Lord Jesus Christ. What less could I do for all that he did for me?  
          I light this candle in honor of Him choosing to lay down his life as a ransom for me and all who believe in him.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Gospel According to the Late Christopher Hitchens

          One year after the notable Neo-Atheist's passing, a graduate school colleague of mine wrote this for the Huffington Post.

          "Christopher Hitchens, one of our era's most eloquent atheists, died a year ago this month, and in his memory I thought I might share my favorite Hitchens quote with you. It speaks clarity into some of our nation's post-election identity crisis, and it's the kind of thing both believers and non-believers should cherish about Hitchens' work."

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Advent Character Monologue #1: Manahem the Priest

          For our Advent candle lightings this year, our church is having actors/actresses from our drama ministry are performing historic-fiction monologues of first-century individuals who are processing the words of Christ from a certain angle and then celebrating his birth. I wrote two of the monologues, and a theological and creative volunteer in our program, Summar, wrote the other two. Below is the first. Enjoy! We'll have one each subsequent Monday.

          Shalom. My name is Manahem, son of Jaron. I am a Levite, born and raised in Galilee. I was appointed and have been a priest for 34 years. There’s a lot to that general job description, but it seems what I do the most is sacrifice. 
          I’ve helped to put all kinds of crops and animals on the altar, and for all kinds of reasons. Some people are really sad to see good crops or cute and healthy animals go because of something they did. Others just don’t care. It would depress you to know the hypocrisy I see in our political leaders and how they take atonement, the idea of being right with their Creator God, for granted.
          Atonement is something I take very seriously. It’s my job to help toward it. I know I’m a bit biased, but I’m proud of the sacrifice ritual and God that I’ve served. Most our neighboring pagan nations and their gods either have borrowed from our holy book or sacrifice things, sometimes even humans, just to feed and manipulate impersonal and angry gods. But our God is holy. He will not be manipulated, and He very much desires our atonement with Him.
          Still, my job sometimes depresses me because, sometimes, I see people basically buy and self-justify their wrongdoing with their sacrifices. And I sometimes wonder . . . if I was God, would these sacrifices really be enough to cover all the injustice and evil that I know these people do?
          So, it piqued my interest when I saw these large crowds gathering to hear this commoner speak. His name was Jesus, son of Joseph, a carpenter. For a commoner, this Jesus knew a lot about the Levitical Law that I had spent so many years studying. He didn’t take it for granted like King Saul did. 
Jesus said he wasn’t going to abolish the Law, but fulfill it. Wasn’t exactly sure what He meant by that at first.
          He also said that to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law. I was somewhat intrigued by this. I know a few Pharisees. They’re good about ritual and sacrifice, but I know they have a few skeletons in their closet.
          But what I didn’t understand until later, though, even as a priest that specializes in altar sacrifice, is that He was becoming the perfect sacrifice to atone for people who had violated the Law. Jesus wasn’t sacrificing crops or animals. He was sacrificing himself has someone born under the law . . . and as someone who never violated it. Now, no more animals and crops are necessary to atone with God. 
          So, as I light this candle, I think of Jesus, the son of God the Father, coming to earth as a perfect embodiment. Not only is he the perfect sacrifice, but He is the perfect temple, as people come to Him to approach God the Father. Jesus is also the perfect priest as He is someone who, more so than me, takes atonement with God very seriously. Amen.