This is one of the most challenging, and fascinating, books I have ever read.
Although it is a decade old now, its account of the science of genetics is still relevant. The author, a respected genetics and biochemical researcher, takes the reader from the basics of DNA and genes to important questions about disease and genetic engineering.
And he raises (and answers) some deep ethical questions from a christian viewpoint.
Author Denis Alexander has an impressive resumé, beginning with study at Oxford, a PhD in biochemistry. Since then he has worked for almost half a century in biological research.
He has helped establish several university biochemistry and genetics departments and laboratories. More recently, he has worked in molecular immunology and cancer research in the UK.
Alexander is an evangelical christian who believes that science and christian faith are quite compatible. As a biologist he is quite comfortable with evolution. In 2006, he helped set up the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, and was for a time its director. The Institute is “interdisciplinary research institute improving public understanding of science and religion.”
He has written a dozen books and numerous scientific papers. We can know that he is well qualified to write this book.
The complexity of genetics
I have never studied biology, so I found the initial chapters quite challenging. First is an overview of the history of genetics and patterns of inheritance. Then the book plunges you into a world of biochemical molecules and processes – nucleotides, mRNA (messenger RNA), codons, tRNA (transfer RNA), amino acids, genes and so much more. This allows Alexander to explain how the information in genes is used to build new cells.
I had to read these early chapters several times to get it into my head as much as I could. But these chapters are necessary as they support the discussion of topics such as:
How animal and human bodies are built from initial conception through the growth of many different types of cells (more than 200 in humans).
How the twenty-one thousand protein encoding genes in the human body can be switched off or on in different cells.
How genes can vary and mutate.
With this basic understanding, Alexander goes on to explore some interesting topics such as:
The genetics of human evolution, and how genes are crucial in explaining how natural selection works.
The complex tree of life, and how genetics shows common ancestry.
The variations in the human genome (our complete genetic material – 23 pairs of chromosomes) and the diversity in the human race.
The genetic basis of disease.
Epigenetics – inheritable changes in chromosomes that change characteristics without changing the DNA sequence. This was one of the most fascinating chapters, and explained a lot about disease and the body’s processes of combatting them.
In the last few chapters, Alexander discusses the deepest questions of human life, ethics and medical science:
Genetic engineering – it happens naturally as well as via human intervention, but how far can and should we go?
Genetically modified foods – not as scary as some think (he says).
Stem cell research – why stem cells are so important, and why we may be able to use different processes to achieve the same result.
Human identity – are we really no more than gene machines?
God and evolution – is evolution wasteful, and why would a good God use such a process based on suffering and competition?
Determinism and human responsibility.
I found his responses to these questions quite sophisticated and interesting.
He shows that christian opposition to the idea of evolution is really only recent. God has used evolution to create humans (and all life). He says genetics provides one narrative about the world, while theology provides another. The christian narrative explains how science is possible – because the universe conforms to reliable laws.
He believes that DNA manipulation has great scope for reducing disease and suffering. But he doesn’t believe determining the characteristics (e.g. height, IQ or hair colour) of a child is likely any time soon (if at all). Most of these characteristics are determined by hundreds of genes, so engineering them would be impossibly difficult.
I thought his discussion of determinism and responsibility didn’t answer the difficult questions. He says we are not determined by our genetics because there is so much scope for variability in genetic inheritance and epigenetics. But he didn’t explain how a physical brain could escape the determinism of cause and effect processes. (I find that no less a person than philosopher Michael Ruse agrees. Apparently Alexander is a “Developmental Dual-Aspect Monistic Emergentist” on determinism. My understanding is limited, but I don’t feel that is an explanation of a difficult question.)
I heartily recommend this book
If, like me, you think genetics is a crucially important aspect of life, and you want to understand it better, I encourage you to check out this comprehensive and authoritative book.
President Donald Trump has been a contentious and divisive figure right through his presidency. This has reach new heights now that he has not won re-election.
Christians have been deeply polarised by him. I want to explore this polarisation and where it is leading the evangelical church in the US, and to some extent elsewhere.
I am not an American, but I believe there are some important lessons for us all to learn.
If you are a white evangelical who supported Donald Trump, some of what I say here may not be agreeable to you. Please only keep reading if you feel OK about that.
Christians support Trump
White christians have been strongly supportive of Donald Trump. It seems they see him as a champion sent by God to protect America from its enemies, especially secularism.
The US is a christian nation, they believe, but their faith and religious freedoms are increasingly under threat. And so Trump supporters welcome the political power that will preserve the way of life that they believe is God-given. They want to “Make America Godly Again”.
This religious view spills over into some very political matters.
They are fearful that immigrants will take away American jobs (this appears to be a bigger concern than stopping abortion).
They fear that globalisation and socialism will take away freedoms and more American jobs. Some go even further and see a global UN-based conspiracy imposing on them and taking away their freedoms.
They often see christianity as teaching free market capitalism and opposition to government regulation and welfare.
National security and preventing terrorism are important.
Many fear that crime is rising and black Americans are dangerous.
The outcomes, not the man?
Surveys show that white christians generally have a positive opinion of Donald Trump’s character. Some see him as a fellow christian, many see him as honest, ethical, patriotic and unselfish. (Non-whites generally see him in a much less favourable light.)
Other white christians recognise his character flaws but see him as God’s chosen vessel to achieve their goals despite his weaknesses. It is the outcomes that matter.
Pastors & prophets
For all these reasons, white evangelical leaders and pastors have been especially enthusiastic in their support for Trump. They pray for him with great fervour, in their churches, and gathered around him in his office.
Looking for Biblical support, some see him as a modern day Cyrus, the pagan king in the Old Testament who nevertheless served God’s purposes. Some have said that they don’t want a President who follows Jesus’ values of non-violence and love for enemies.
Perhaps most enthusiastic have been prophets. Prophecy has been a divisive and difficult issue since the time of the Old Testament prophets, when kings had to choose between the genuine and the false. The unruly use of spiritual gifts, including prophecy, was an issue that Paul had to address in three chapters in 1 Corinthians.
Many christians believe today that the gift of prophecy is no longer given by the Holy Spirit. But some churches and groups place great store in the gift. And so various prophets have been prophesying God’s positive plans for Trump, including that he would win this recent election.
When it became apparent that the results were against Trump, at least one prophet apologised for being wrong (though he has since taken his apology down until the legal appeals are resolved).
But the majority came out even more strongly. Trump was God’s man, the corruption of the election would be exposed and Trump would assuredly win in the end. As I write this, many faithful evangelical christians are praying for the truth to be revealed and Trump to be vindicated.
Obviously the actual outcome will be a real test for these prophets. We can only wait and see if the election result is successfully challenged, and if it stands, how the prophets respond.
Other christians oppose him
A smaller number of white christians, and a larger number of non-white, opposed Trump right from the beginning. And at the recent election, many previously conservative christians voted Democratic for the first time in their lives. Their objections run deep.
They see him as a narcissistic conman who habitually lies and deceives to achieve his own ends. They see him as subverting democracy to get his own way, and corrupting the Republican party in the process.
These christians believe Trump is careless of the people Jesus told us to care for – the poor, the sick and the stranger. They cite remarks they see as racist, sexist, misogynistic, violent and insulting. They say these comments are lowering the tone of American society. They want their children to grow up in a world with respect for everyone, especially women, blacks and minorities.
Harming the church?
Many christians believe the evangelical endorsement of Donald Trump has driven people, especially younger ones, from the church in droves. Some believe this will be fatal to the future of the church.
This concern led some christians to fund billboards contrasting Trump’s values with those of Jesus.
Explaining the differences
This polarisation of christian views cries out for an explanation. How can people following the same Jesus come to such opposite views on such an important matter?
The criticisms are strong and well-based on the teachings of Jesus. How then can conservatives support Trump?
Some justified concerns
Donald Trump’s core support seems to come from lower socio-economic whites. They have some legitimate concerns, perhaps over-stated.
Secularisation. America is becoming less christian. But trying to hold on via legislation is not a wise or effective way to halt the tide (see 2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Perhaps they should examine the state of the church, especially some of the excesses, the financial and sexual scandals. Perhaps reform should start in the church?
Loss of privilege. With the emancipation of women, and the weakening of racial barriers to blacks and other minorities, white males have lost some of their position in society’s pecking order. But equality is good for society, and it is hard to see how christians can argue otherwise.
Loss of jobs. Globalisation has taken jobs offshore. But this happens (1) because of relatively high wages in the US and (2) the nature of capitalism which benefits the rich more than the poor. But voting for a conservative free market political party may not actually help.
Insecurity. All of this, plus the over-stated threat of terrorism, has left many people feeling less secure than they once did. They look for someone to recognise their insecurity and fight on their behalf.
But other conservative concerns do not appear to have been so well-founded.
Conspiracy theories about climate change, Covid and mask wearing, the United Nations and the deep state seem to shape christian opinion more than they should.
Fears of a socialist takeover misunderstand what socialism is and misrepresent what progressive christians believe. If taken seriously, they would make Jesus a socialist.
It seems there is still covert racism and sexism in many christian churches.
Psychologists have found that we all tend to react intuitively and quickly to ideas and situations. Reasoning is a slower process, and can end up being a rationalisation of what we have already decided intuitively.
When we are confronted with new ideas which threaten our established viewpoint, we tend to push the threatening ideas away and hold onto the beliefs we have found positive. Our pre-existing beliefs determine what we will think more than the new facts, no matter how much evidence there is.
This rationalisation of our “safe” beliefs is called motivated reasoning. It is particularly strong in people who want to defend the status quo, which of course is often political conservatives.
Motivated reasoning tends to affect who we listen to and believe, and what facts we are willing to consider. So we end up with biased information.
We all tend to think this way, for it isn’t always sensible to spend energy reviewing beliefs that have served us well. But if we allow it to take over our reasoning, then we will miss many helpful and even life-changing insights.
It seems that some parts of the christian church may have allowed fear, faith and dogma to displace reason and evidence. As a result, some christians may be cut off from truth or reality in some areas of their thinking (e.g. climate change). This seems more common with conservative christians, but is possible with progressive christians also.
What would Jesus think?
Micael Grenholm has examined the attitudes of American christians to political and social issues, as revealed in a September 2020 survey. The picture isn’t a pretty one. He compares the contrasting values of black and white evangelicals, and finds:
70-80% of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump, but only 20% of black evangelicals.
In giving reasons for their support of either candidate, white evangelicals were much more likely than blacks to care about controlling immigration and having conservatives in the Supreme Court, and much less likely to vote for someone who supported universal healthcare and care for the disadvantaged.
White evangelicals were much more likely than blacks to overlook Trump’s “moral failings” and lack of truthfulness.
Micael comments: “I find these stats to be devastating. This isn’t merely about what party to pick on election day – this is about our discipleship. ….. Many [white evangelicals] don’t value the lives of the poor and vulnerable as much as black Christians do.”
Jesus cautioned us that we can too easily get caught up in wrong thinking. Not all who identify as his followers are actually known by him (Matthew 7:21-22).
He also warned of the dangers of wealth. He told a parable (Luke 12:13-21) of a “rich fool” who amassed wealth but died before he could enjoy it. He urged us to instead be rich towards God. (Look up “rich” in a concordance and see how often Jesus spoke about it.)
These warnings are especially relevant to those of us who live in the first world. We are already living in a highly materialistic culture, so it is easy to think this is normal.
So I am left wondering if the 21st century western church, of which I am part, and especially the US evangelical church, has lost sight of Jesus and become enmeshed in a religion of patriotism (“christian nationalism“) and self. Francis Shaeffer long ago described these values as “personal peace and affluence”.
This seems to have led to motivated reasoning that justifies unchristian values to protect what is held dear, and to believe supportive ideas without evidence. Christians who take an extreme attitude to faith (assuming it means believing things contrary to evidence, when it should be understood as trusting God for what we have good evidence for) are probably more able to divorce themselves from facts and evidence.
Thus they are able to believe that someone who has been found out telling thousands of untruths is nevertheless telling them the truth, and so never check to see if the facts are different to what they have been told.
There is evidence that conservative politicians deliberately emphasise and exaggerate negative ideas to play on the electorate’s fears. Conservative politicians and business leaders have even deliberately targeted christians because they know they can be influenced in this way, both now and in the past.
And the prophets?
The prophets are a worry. These prophets, and others before them, seem too often to predict what they want to be true. Sometimes perhaps that is what God also wants, other times it may not be. We will soon see if their predictions about Trump are true.
But it seems modern day prophets, taking a lead from Ezekiel, think that weird behaviour is part of the role. This video disturbed me.
Should they be believed? That isn’t up to me, but to their churches and spiritual communities. But it may be a time for christians to reconsider who they believe among their pastors, their prophets and their news media.
Many christians, both conservative and progressive, believe this is a time of shaking and change. They have different reasons for thinking that, and a different result in mind.
The conservatives seem to want to go back to a golden age when society was christian and everyone felt secure in that – well the affluent whites did, anyway. The progressives want to move forward to a new church where the poor, the marginalised and the minorities are welcomed and Jesus’ teachings are followed.
I for one am praying that christians will know where the Spirit of God is calling them.
Truth before tribalism
It is easy for us to be caught up in tribalism – following our group and its way of thinking in a way that closes us off to truth from outside our tribe.
Jesus promised the Spirit would lead his followers into truth (John 16:13), and that truth would set us free (John 8:32). Truth is important, and Jesus is the truth (John 14:6).
We don’t need to be afraid of new information. We can be open to new truths. Our christian tribe isn’t always right.
There’s a whole bright world of God’s kingdom “out there” (as well as within us).
Apology & thanks
If you disagree with what I have written here, but have nevertheless read through to this point, thank you. I’m sorry for anything that may have distressed you. But perhaps you may read the final section with an open heart and consider. Thanks again.
If all this is at least partly true, how can we be part of change? It isn’t straightforward.
To improve the likelihood of people being willing to hear new information, it must be presented “in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction”.
If we start with the facts, motivated reasoning will likely kick in. But if we start with shared values, and make a connection on that level, there is more hope that the person will be able to accept the information when it comes.
This post has certainly not done that, for most people who read this blog are likely to be progressives, and I write for them. But conservative and progressive christians surely share some common values (although it can be hard to find them sometimes), and we need to look for them.
If this isn’t done, I fear the present polarisation and division will continue towards schism, which cannot help the kingdom of God.
Mark Scandrette offers the best practical insights into being a disciple of Jesus that I have heard.
If you want to follow Jesus better, or want to help others to grow in their faith, read on.
When Jesus made disciples
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Christians believe he was much more than that, but he was at least a teacher, with his own disciples, just like other rabbis of his day.
And like other rabbis, he taught his disciples by many different methods – example, parable, questioning, discussion and debate, events from daily life, and interpretations of the Torah.
By travelling and living with him, they learnt his understanding of God, the scriptures and how to live.
Being a disciple entailed a whole-hearted commitment and discipline to learn and follow the rabbi’s teachings and example.
And Jesus’ parting instructions to his disciples, recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, were to go on to make disciples that obey his teachings just as they had been taught (“teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you”).
We are meant to still be following those teachings, applying Jesus’ principles into our very different life situations.
It is obviously very different for christians today. I won’t try to describe all the differences, but I want to focus on one that I think is important.
We christians with a European Protestant heritage have made discipleship too academic and theoretical. Too much about learning and not enough about behaviour.
Too often (I believe) we teach new converts a simple set of requirements:
read your Bible,
come to church,
tell others about Jesus,
don’t have sex (until married) or do drugs, and
if you are really spiritual, go to Bible college.
These are fine as guiding principles, but they are nowhere near as holistic as Jesus’ discipling. They are nowhere near “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you“.
This, I believe, tends to result in modern disciples being shallow and theoretical in a faith and life that is knowledge-based, dependent on trained ministers, and living very similar lives to the world around them.
The distinctives that Jesus said should make us salt and light in our communities seem too often to be lacking.
Jesus as “salvation object”
Too often we western Protestants treat Jesus almost as a “salvation object”. As if he only came to die for our sins. We see it even in the Apostles Creed, which jumps straight from his birth to his trial and death.
As if his teachings don’t really matter.
Sometimes preaching on the gospels ignores or misses the reality of Jesus as a first century Jewish rabbi, and interprets his teaching and parables as if they were only about his atoning death.
If the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is discussed, it is too often seen as too idealistic to be actually lived out.
Jesus’ teaching about living
Jesus taught a lot about how his disciples should live. We see it throughout the four gospels, but especially collected in one place in the Sermon on the Mount.
What if we took those teachings seriously?
What if we took seriously Jesus’ command for disciples to obey all that he taught? What if we moved beyond the confines of western evangelicalism and committed ourselves to living out teachings like loving enemies and being generous to the poor as well as evangelising?
Enter Mark Scandrette
This is the point where Mark Scandrette’s ideas come to the fore.
Mark is a San Francisco based writer, teacher and christian leader. For a while he was a pastor, but now he has a leadership and teaching role in a loose collective of christians who are trying to live out the way of Jesus in practical ways. They believe that this will be:
more true to Jesus,
more fulfilling to us,
a blessing to those around them, and
a more effective witness to the world.
They do this primarily via “experiments”.
Experiments …. because we don’t know everything
Instead of arguing about the meanings of words, or being worried about the social gospel, instead of feeling that Jesus’ teachings are too radical to be lived, Mark suggests we try experimenting.
Try different ways to close the gap between how we want to live and how we are actually living.
What if we took a step towards Jesus’ teachings on wealth and materialism by experimenting with living more simply? And see what happens.
What if we took a step towards loving our enemies or righting injustices instead of just talking about it?
What if we tried out practices in our lives that change the way we think and behave, and we do it together?
What if we tried to see what life can look like in the kingdom of love?
First steps in experimenting
We read Mark’s book about a year ago and attended a workshop he led in Sydney just before the pandemic closed everything down (he just squeezed back into San Francisco before the deadline).
Since then we have made a small beginning in trying these ideas out with a small group of interested christians.
I think this is one of the most important developments in my life as a christian, and one of the most critical challenges for the twenty-first century western church.
I think the events of 2020 are showing that it is time for the western evangelical church as a whole, and for many (most?) individual congregations to move beyond their traditions and adapt to the times.
And I think Mark’s experiments could be one of the new ways in which we need to walk.
But wait! There’s more!
Next post I’ll discuss a few of the practices we have tried, and a few more that we are considering or have read about. Don’t go away! 🙂
William Dever spent thirty years conducting archaeological excavations in Israel and nearby. Now in his eighties, he continues to write and lecture.
This book is his latest. It covers the Old Testament in the period up until the capture of Jerusalem in the early 6th century. In it he outlines how archaeology confirms or questions the Biblical accounts.
He writes as a non-believer, but isn’t antagonistic to Christian and Jewish belief.
My interest in this book
I reviewed a previous book of Dever’s, Beyond the texts, in 2018. It was a detailed account of the archaeology of Israel covering the period of about 1300 BCE to 600 BCE, the period when Israel was forming as a nation and the period of the monarchy.
I found that book fascinating, in both the archaeological detail and in the picture he painted of Israel at that time. So when I saw this new book, I was immediately interested. It was effectively a follow-up, his broad conclusions from the archeology on the question of what in the Old Testament is historical and of cultural value.
There are many conclusions and opinions in Old Testament archaeology, from the minimalists who tend to think the Old Testament contains very little that is historical to the maximalists who think it is mostly historical.
A layperson like me has to find some middle ground. I would judge Dever to be slightly on the minimal side of centre, with no belief in the supernatural. So as a christian, I will likely accept a little more than he does. But he provides a solid basis for me to start from.
What does archaeology tell us?
The book follows a pattern where he addresses each period by telling the Bible’s story and outlining what archaeology can tell us. Then he puts the two together by saying what he thinks we can conclude about the history and what we can learn from it all.
Many of this book’s conclusions can be found in the earlier book, but this book’s scope is broader and it contains little of the archaeological detail of Beyond the texts. So it is easier and shorter reading.
His broad conclusions?
The patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc)
These stories were told to explain origins and teach about life. The historical and cultural settings are generally correct and the authors probably used early sources that had been told and re-told for centuries. Archaeology cannot verify the stories themselves, which appear to have been “fictionalised” though probably not totally invented. Some elements appear quite fantastic.
Moses and the Exodus
There is evidence of Hebrew (or other Asiatic) slaves in Egypt, used for building works. And there may be evidence that some slaves escaped to Canaan, but he thinks the numbers were more likely in the hundreds than millions. Beyond this, he believes there is no evidence for the Exodus and little evidence against it (apart from the numbers).
Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land
Here there is plenty of archeological evidence and most of it is against the conquest account in the first half of Joshua. The archaeology shows there were never 2-3 million people in Canaan at that time, though there WAS an identifiable nation of Israel. Most of the cities said to be taken by Joshua were not destroyed at all, or not at that time. Nevertheless there is evidence of much warfare, and the destruction of the cities of Hazor and Bethel do more or less match the Joshua account.
The accounts in the second half of Joshua, and the book of Judges, appear much closer to the archaeology and the historical evidence. In these sections there was no large scale and total invasion, but a slow process of cultural change.
Living in the land
Here, the Biblical accounts (in Judges and Samuel) ring true to the archaeology, although the individual stories cannot be verified. People of disparate cultures and religions lived side by side, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Gradually the nation of Israel formed and its culture and religion became more dominant.
This is perhaps my favourite chapter as it gives interesting insights into the geography, culture and living conditions of the time.
The monarchy and the end
There were kings over the nations of Israel and Judah, from about 1000 BCE to 586 BCE when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and took the leading citizens into captivity. While archaeology cannot confirm the individual stories, Dever says the Biblical accounts ring true to what we know. Many aspects of the history of these times are confirmed in the histories of surrounding nations.
The evidence suggests to him that the religious beliefs and reforms of the priests and some of the kings in Jerusalem had less effect than we might think on the common people in the countryside. From figurines, household altars and occasional inscriptions, it seems that Yahweh was often worshiped as a tribal god with his consort Asherah. It probably wasn’t until the destruction of the kingdom of Israel and the captivity of the people of Judah that most of the Jews followed a truly monotheistic religion.
Has archaeology buried the Bible?
Dever’s general conclusion is that the “historical” sections of the Old Testament are a mixture of fact and legend (in various proportions), told for moral and national identify purposes.
As an unbeliever, he can take an objective view, but he is also sympathetic to the cultural relevance of the Bible to western Christians and Jews. So he draws some moral or life take home messages from the text. I found these the least convincing part of the book.
I am comfortable with the general thrust of his conclusions. They agree in principle with how CS Lewis viewed the Old Testament, although he takes a more sceptical view than CS Lewis did.
The Exodus story is of particular importance for both Christians and Jews. Dever is sceptical about most aspects of the story, though some other scholars see a little more history there.
As a christian, I feel free to believe God was at work through this whole process. I feel we cannot in truth hold to the Bible’s history being accurate, but we should rather be somewhat agnostic about the events before the monarchy. I think we can hold this view without it harming the integrity of our belief in Jesus.
Dever’s conclusions and my slightly more positive assessment may be a little scary for some christians, but I believe there is nothing to fear and much to be gained.
OT of course. Evolution v Creation, but could live with that. But Noah’s ark and a worldwide flood? So much killing commanded by God? I can’t believe in a God like that any more.
What are you gonna do?
Stop going? But it doesn’t help me work out what’s true. How do you deal ?
Stopped going too. Was easy when Covid hit. I hang out over coffee with 2 mates who kind of think the same. It helps.
Is criticising OT like questioning God?
I guess. But what’s wrong with that?
Saw a friend from church last week. Told me I was opposing God. What??
Do you think God’s going to punish you?
No. But I feel disloyal.
If Jesus said we should love God with our whole heart and mind. Surely he would want us to use our brain?
I read an atheist blog, said if we can’t believe OT, we can’t believe any of it.
Doesn’t make sense. There were heaps of different authors writing over hundreds of years. Surely some could be right while we doubt others?
Isn’t that questioning the Bible? Shouldn’t we just trust it?
Think we’ve got to take it as is. It clearly ISN’T all accurate history. There’s inconsistencies, different versions of the same stories, strange teachings.
So doesn’t that destroy it all?
Only if you begin thinking it MUST be all true because God wrote it. If you think people wrote it with help from God, who knows?
Just accepting it for what it is was a great relief to me.
Didn’t have to defend things I couldn’t believe any more. Didn’t have to try to defend evil actions by God.
I see that. Doesn’t that mean NT might be wrong too?
Nah, historians who say OT is doubtful in places also say NT is way more historical. I think belief in Jesus has a very strong historical basis.
But Jesus believed in OT didn’t he?
Yeah. But not like some people think.
What do you mean?
I’ve read that Jews thought differently than we do about their scriptures. They seemed to accept that it sometimes told two different stories. And that it could be interpreted in different ways.
You mean when Jesus and Paul changed things they quoted from OT?
Yeah. Means we’re not being as disloyal as we might think.
So what’s the value of OT then?
It was Jesus’s scriptures. We can’t understand him without understanding OT. I believe it’s the scriptures God intended us to have. Instead of giving us some set in stone teachings about God that we find hard to believe, it shows us the process that God used to reveal himself to the Jews. We can learn so much from it.
Sounds good. But how do you know? Maybe you’ve got it wrong.
Maybe. Maybe not. Helps to pray for wisdom you know.
Pray? What do you pray?
Ask the Holy Spirit to teach me what’s true and what’s not. And how to understand OT.
Any lightning bolts? 🙂
Lol! Haven’t been struck down yet. But I feel at peace about it all.
Has thinking like this affected how you feel about Jesus? You were always an enthusiast!!
I do think differently. But I don’t love him less. Maybe more.
How does that work?
He just seems more real. And I don’t have to think maybe he’s going to smite someone, like Yahweh. He really is love, and I can hold onto that.
And I feel motivated to care for the poor and suffering, just as he did.
Well, hang out with us next Sat am. Meet a few others who are going through the same stuff.
What is a christian? There’s always been some differences in how people and denominations define what it means to be a christian. But lately it seems the gap is widening.
Is a new religion of christian nationalism being formed?
It all began so well
Christianity is named after Jesus, who is believed by his followers to be the Christ, from the Greek word meaning the anointed one. This refers back to the Jewish idea of the Messiah, an anointed king who would come from God to rescue them.
So Jesus came as a king who was announcing God’s loving and just rule over all who saw this as good news …. and eventually everyone.
Jesus showed what God’s rule looked like (people healed, relationships restored, justice announced and God’s forgiveness received). And he gave his followers guidelines on the way they should live.
Drifting from the core
His followers worked hard at spreading the good news and working out the implications of his teachings. You can see the start of that process in the New Testament.
But Jesus’ followers are as human as anyone else, and so they slowly drifted away from some of his emphases, and gradually added layers of hierarchy and tradition to his teachings. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good either.
Moving in different ways
Several emphases can be seen in the historic christian church: worship of God, serving people through acts of mercy, teaching doctrine, evangelism, etc.
But when Emperor Constantine embraced christianity, a new emphasis was added: civil religion = subverting religious belief to serve the purposes of the state and those in power.
This abuse of christianity to gain secular power was exemplified in the Holy Roman Empire, which “envisioned itself as a dominion for Christendom”. The history of the Holy Roman Empire includes struggles for power between Emperor and Pope, and also mutual support where the Emperor supported the Pope and the Pope crowned the Emperor.
But in America and Australia today there seems to be a new edge and a revival of civil religion in the form of christian nationalism.
Jesus as a path to power?
In my lifetime, christians have tended to be divided politically between those who supported political conservatism, especially regarding sexual ethics, and those who followed more progressive and justice-based politics.
But surveys show that in recent years, large numbers of US christians seem to be placing their emphasis on neither morality or justice, but on a President who they see “fighting for their beliefs and advancing their interests”, even if they see his character flaws and dependence on misinformation and fake news.
Donald Trump tapped into this in 2015 when he promised if he was elected President “Christianity will have power …. you’re going to have plenty of power.”
It seems this emphasis wasn’t any accident, but the result of a lot of serious political organising. It apparently started with christians wanting to “take back America for Jesus”, and bringing back “pro-life” policies was the rallying cry.
These christians weren’t following the core christian value of being a servant, they wanted power to control who was selected to the judiciary and who made the laws …. and more.
Christian nationalism in the US “seeks to merge Christian and American identities”. To be American is to be Christian. It draws heavily on Old Testament themes of Israel as God’s people, and sees the US as having a similar “manifest destiny”.
It seems that christian nationalism offers the strongest support for christians voting conservatively, even though “appeals to civil religion rarely refer to Jesus Christ”.
Some pastors fear their congregants value Donald Trump above Jesus.
In Australia, the Australian Christian Lobby has taken to labelling as “Marxist” activities that sincere christians support. We are trying to follow Jesus’ teachings to care for the poor and marginalised (Matthew 25:31-46), to act as servants not seeking personal power, and to stand in opposition to the values of power and privilege (Luke 22:25-26). But we are instead called “Marxists”.
This puts political conservatism above the clear teachings of Jesus, and demonises those of us who are trying to follow him.
The logical conclusion?
This blurring of the lines between America and the kingdom of God has been a developing theme, and things have been said that should disturb christians:
When christians who supported Donald Trump had to face his apparent ethical shortcomings and irreligion, they harked back to Cyrus in the Old Testament. Just as Cyrus served God’s purpose in liberating the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return to Judah, so, it is said, Trump is God’s servant, despite his flaws.
Trump has used religious language to describe himself (“the chosen one” to take on China in a trade war) and has quoted a radio host saying the Jewish people liked him “like he is the second coming of God”. It is fair to say these comments were to some degree ironic, but his supporters have endorsed these views.
Trump’s heavy-handed photo opportunity with a Bible in front of a church in Washington was seen by many as reminiscent of Emperor Constantine “co-opting Christianity in the service of power”.
Donald Trump’s daughter, Tiffany, at the 2020 Republican Convention further blurred the distinction between God and America: “God has blessed us with unstoppable spirit. His spirit, the American spirit.“
“Let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire.”
This is an adaptation of Hebrews 12:1-2:
“let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith”
So Pence has slipped into substituting the American flag and “this land of heroes” for Jesus.
Now I would normally be quite prepared to believe that Pence has just used familiar language to make his patriotic point. But when his comment is seen in the context of all that came before, it is hard to believe this isn’t something bigger and deeply disturbing.
What’s a christian response?
Surely, regardless of political persuasion, christians need to be concerned about any “worldly” movement that seems to place itself alongside or above Jesus and his teachings?
Shouldn’t we be concerned about efforts to take power over other people to protect our own privilege (Luke 22:25-26, Philippians 2:3-8)? Shouldn’t government exist to promote freedom for its citizens?
Shouldn’t we reject christian nationalism and any attempt to marry patriotism with following Jesus? Shouldn’t our prime loyalty be to the kingdom of God? Shouldn’t we give our political support to the party and candidate that we think best reflects the teaching of Jesus, without thinking that person and party actually ARE God’s kingdom?
Will the true christian please stand up!
Are we heading towards another major split in christianity?
….. where those christians who blur the distinction between patriotism and the kingdom of God completely split from those who try to heed Jesus’ very clear, though very difficult, teachings on serving others?
….. where two roads diverge – the road of service and the road of secular power?
….. where christian nationalists achieve the power to control and shape society. Where they take away some of the freedom to choose, even if badly, that God gave human beings. And where they lose the next generation and lose touch with the real “author and finisher of our faith”.
Let Jesus have the last word (Luke 9:23):
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
Someone I know had an interesting picture come into their mind recently.
They were lying in bed, about to drift off, when they “saw” a group of people standing near the edge of a cliff, a little like the one in the picture above. The people were looking this way and that over unexplored territory.
In the picture, they were christian leaders, and they were trying to discern how God was leading them in the new world we find ourselves in as Covid-19 changes so much of our lives.
This picture chimes with some interesting observations.
Q: How many christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Change ????
It’s an old joke, but it highlights how hard it can be for many churches to try something different.
As one church said recently: “When you do something in church once, it’s innovative. When you do it twice, it’s a tradition. And when you do it a third time, you hear people say: “We’ve always done it that way!”
Missiologist Mike Frost recently blogged about how “while we’ve longed for things to get back to normal, we also keep telling each other that there will be a new normal, that in some ways things will be very different in a post-COVID-19 world.”
This is true in churches as it is in the wider world. The example he chooses is preaching, suggesting that 10 minute sermons or homilies may be the new normal similar to a view I argue for in Sermons – a poor way to make disciples). He says:
“Perhaps COVID-19 will be the unwanted and unpleasant catalyst that will force Protestant churches to reshape our methods of teaching, as well as our liturgies, to align more with what we know about the ways people like to learn.”
Action as well as talk
I have been encouraged to see churches that are seriously asking God to show them how they need to change to see the kingdom of God come in this new “normal”.
Love your neighbour
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought great stress and difficulty for many people, even in our affluent communities. Many people need emotional and tangible support.
So many churches have jumped at the opportunity to serve the communities around them.
In the UK, more than a hundred churches have joined together in the Love Your Neighbour network, to offer food or a phone call to people around them doing it tough, providing specialised advice, helping out at hospitals, and providing hot meals for hard-working emergency workers, hospital staff and school students.
I have heard of other churches, in Australia and elsewhere, starting or enlarging their food banks, or supporting food banks operated by other organisations.
Are services the best way to disciple people?
I have heard of two churches who have decided that online services are not the best, or only, way to make and equip disciples.
One is developing a fortnightly pattern, with services on the first Sunday of the fortnight, but only a shorter prayer meeting on the second Sunday. The leadership team argues that listening to a sermon (or zoning out during it!) isn’t enough to equip God’s people for works of service (Ephesians 4:12).
(It was never enough, but it has taken a pandemic to assist this forward thinking leadership team to understand this.)
Instead of the second service in the fortnight, discipleship groups will be ramped up. Church members are being encouraged to not only attend one of these groups, but to take greater responsibility for their own discipleship. Resources are being prepared to better equip group leaders and church members in growing in their faith.
Some churches in the UK have found that a lot of non-church people are watching their online services, and joining online Alpha groups in much greater numbers than normal. These churches are considering retaining the online events even when they are not restricted in face-to-face meetings, because it is clear that God is using them.
Praying …. and expecting some new
A number of churches are praying for God’s guidance in entering this new territory. Some have found inspiration in passages from the Old Testament prophets:
“Give careful thought to your ways.” (Haggai 1:5)
“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them …. Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 42:16 & 43:18-19)
It seems that some believe that God has new opportunities for them in our destabilised world, and they don’t want to miss the moment.
The picture of the leaders examining the vista before them to explore new paths wasn’t the only one.
A second picture followed the first. It showed a kindly pastor gently placing his congregation members into a box like a child packing away his toys, as he prepared to return to doing things exactly the way they had been done before.
He knew that way would be easier for all of them.
Is God speaking to us?
Some of the churches I respect most are saying: “Don’t miss the opportunity!” They are urging their congregations to “Reset“, to listen for the Holy Spirit, to be ready for change.
I think it may be a case of having the ears to hear and the eyes to see. Or not.
Times change. People’s concerns change. Once the worst accusation a christian could make against another christian was that they were a heretic. But now there is a greater sin than heresy among first world christians.
It is the sin of socialism!
Why is this socialism such an evil in some christians’ minds? What should christians believe about this?
Was Jesus an anti-socialist and capitalist? Was he a socialist?
Let’s look at the evidence.
From his own mouth
I am a follower of Jesus, which means I try to follow his teaching as best I can understand them, and as best as I am able to apply them to my life today.
So I need to know what Jesus taught, from his own mouth.
Attitudes to money and wealth
In the Old Testament, wealth was often seen as a sign of God’s approval. For example, Psalm 112:2-3:
The good man’s children will be powerful in the land; his descendants will be blessed. His family will be wealthy and rich, and he will be prosperous forever.
But Jesus seems to have taught against this idea. Time and time again he told stories and sayings that illustrated a negative attitude to the wealthy and support for the poor.
In Matthew 13:22 & Mark 4:19, Jesus talked of “the deceitfulness of wealth”.
In Luke 21:1-3 he remarked favourably on a poor woman who have a modest donation to the temple.
In the parable of the rich man & Lazarus (Luke 16:16-31), the rich man ends up in hell while the poor man ends up in heaven. (Note, this is a parable. I don’t think it is a true picture of the afterlife and who goes where.)
In contrast, I cannot recall any teaching of Jesus that shows a positive view of wealth.
Warnings to the wealthy
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13
“Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because your true life is not made up of the things you own, no matter how rich you may be.”
“Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 19:23,4, Mark 23-25, Luke 18:24-25
“Sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor. Provide for yourselves purses that don’t wear out, and save your riches in heaven, where they will never decrease, because no thief can get to them, and no moth can destroy them.”
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
Encouragement for the poor
“Happy are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours!”
Luke 6:20 (Matthew 5:3 says “spiritually poor”.)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed.”
“Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor.”
So it is clear that Jesus spoke very strongly against the wealthy and in favour of the poor. It makes us feel uncomfortable, but they are all his teachings.
Nevertheless we have to be careful in applying these teachings. For Jesus’ ministry was also supported by several wealthy women (Luke 8:1-3).
We may therefore believe that Jesus’ strong statements should be interpreted as overstatements to emphasise his teaching. But however we interpret them, they stand as a strong warning of the perils of seeking wealth, especially if it leaves others poor.
Jesus’ brother James got the message!
Jesus’ brother James’s teaching is so strong, we might mistake him for a Communist if it wasn’t in the Bible.
“Listen, my dear friends! God chose the poor people of this world to be rich in faith and to possess the kingdom which he promised to those who love him. But you dishonor the poor! Who are the ones who oppress you and drag you before the judges? The rich!”
“And now, you rich people, listen to me! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches have rotted away, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be a witness against you and will eat up your flesh like fire. You have piled up riches in these last days. You have not paid any wages to those who work in your fields. Listen to their complaints! The cries of those who gather in your crops have reached the ears of God, the Lord Almighty. Your life here on earth has been full of luxury and pleasure. You have made yourselves fat for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent people, and they do not resist you.”
Not only …. but also
The rest of the New Testament continues the theme.
Mary in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) says God: “sent the rich away empty”.
And Paul warns: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. Forthe love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” 1 Timothy 6:9-10
Care for the poor, the suffering and the marginalised
The whole Bible is full of instruction to care for the poor, the suffering and the marginalised.
The prophet Amos spoke over and over against those who oppress the poor. Isaiah did the same, and said God wanted to see his people sharing their food with the hungry and providing the poor wanderer with shelter (Isaiah 58:7).
Jesus echoed this in his famous, and terrifying parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), where entering into a joyful or bitter afterlife is based on treatment of the poor and suffering. (Again, this is a parable. But the message is very clear.)
When the apostles welcomed the new convert Saul, they urged him to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). And when an angel opened up a new world to the centurion Cornelius, it was in part recognition of his “gifts to the poor” (Acts 10).
Paul we should aim at equality in resources (2 Corinthians 8:13) and James insisted on equality in treatment (James 2:1-4).
What do we do with all this?
There is a delicate balance here. The Bible teaches God’s immeasurable love, his amazing grace, his willingness to forgive and restore. We don’t have to try (futilely) to earn our salvation.
But equally strongly, the scriptures make it clear that generous and caring behaviour is required of those of us who follow Jesus. Our faith is dead and useless if we don’t (James 2:17).
Am I over-reacting?
I don’t think so. In my life, I am probably under-reacting. These things are difficult.
So, was Jesus a socialist?
I’ll leave you to be the judge.
But let’s remember that caring for the poor, being wary of wealth, seeking equality and seeking first the kingdom were christian virtues long before socialists took some of them up.
What I’m not saying
I’m not saying how we should vote, and what government programs we should support.
I am saying that christians should take these teachings of Jesus seriously and apply them in our lives, including how we vote, and in deciding our priorities.
For the same teaching in a different form, listen to the Alpha Band’s Rich Man. I became a fan of the Alpha Band after the three musicians toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue back in 1975/76.
Protestant church services have taken a familiar form since before any of us were born. But the coronavirus pandemic seems to be changing all that – for some churches at least.
Could this be a time when sermons are replaced by something better?
Why sermons fail
I’ve long been a critic of the western Protestant church’s reliance on sermons as a means of teaching and discipling. (My page on why sermons are a poor choice has had over 7400 views since 2011.)
Numerous studies have been done of how our brains process information, and it turns out that lectures and sermons don’t fit the brains we have.
After 10-15 minutes of information, short term memory is likely to be overloaded, and very little more of what we hear is processed or remembered.
Listening to a sermon is a passive activity, and our brains retain ideas best when we are actively involved in learning.
As a result, most people don’t remember sermons so they don’t learn much and they don’t change much. Their main benefit is that people feel good after a good sermon.
These days the internet provides many ways to learn and grow, and most people don’t really need to listen to a minister in church to get what they need.
Better ways to make disciples
There are many better ways to teach and encourage via active learning and transformational teaching:
Keep it short (10-15 minutes max).
Use voice and visuals.
Have discussion times before, during and/or afterwards.
Get listeners to teach each other or put something into practice immediately.
Most important: use other methods of teaching and discipling such as:
self learning via research
one-on-one and mentoring
Break things up, use different learning and practice approaches (a “magazine format”).
Leave some loose ends for people to follow up themselves.
This doesn’t mean that we should NEVER have sermons. Sometimes (e.g. when there is a visiting expert or a specially important topic) then a monologue talk may be the most suitable option.
There seems to be a lot of resistance to making changes, for both good and not so good reasons:
It is just easier to prepare one talk for 200 people than to use other methods, even if those other methods are better.
Sermons are what ministers have been taught to do, and change would be a challenge.
Some churches want to control what the congregation learns, and sermonising achieves this.
Some ministers enjoy being up front. Have you noticed how many younger ministers and leaders seem to like posting photos of themselves preaching?
Congregations often expect a sermon and wouldn’t appreciate something different. Sometimes this may be because they would prefer to be consumers than active participants.
Signs of change?
But change has been forced upon us by the coronavirus and the need to slow the spread of this disease. Most churches have gone online, with varying degrees of success.
I have checked out a number of online church services. Some churches have tried to copy their “normal” services as closely as possible. But others have adapted more.
Sermons filmed outside, “on location”, perhaps somewhere that has some relevance to the topic. This allows filming from different camera angles (including using a drone) and allows breaks while the camera dwells for a moment on the scenery or something happening nearby – a good opportunity for the short term memory to process information.
Shorter talks, because it is easier for people to switch off an online sermon than walk out of “normal” church.
Shorter talks mixed with testimonies, reports of ministry activities and dialogue – again helping people to focus.
Many churches have begun or ramped up community welfare in this time, and that has given opportunity in the service for leaders in this ministry to share what they are doing. Again, keeps things moving and not getting boring.
But will it end when (if?) Covid is eliminated?
Churches may find that, having become comfortable with meetings via Zoom, many people may not want to go back to passively listening to monogue sermons.
Perhaps COVID-19 will be the unwanted and unpleasant catalyst that will force Protestant churches to reshape our methods of teaching, as well as our liturgies, to align more with what we know about the ways people like to learn.
Having set up strong social welfare ministries and become much more aware of needs in the community, many churches are likely to continue these ministries and stay more involved with the community around them. This will likely change the way they run their services.
I know of several churches that are praying that God will lead them into new ways after they return from lockdown.
One is planning to meet in their building every second week. On the other week, people will meet in homes, watch some sort of video from the church and then spend time together as a christian community.
Another church, which currently rents the building they meet in, will stop renting and for a time at least, only have online services plus home “churches”.
Others will continue with both face-to-face and online services, which suggests some of the current innovations will remain.
Many people have had the opportunity to look at other churches online. Churches that won’t change, and continue with long (often boring) monologue sermons and cookie cutter services may find that people will look elsewhere.
Not all churches need to change for the new environment. Small missional communities meeting in public places, set up before the pandemic, have met online and attracted interest from people not wanting to be part of a more traditional church. They will continue in the same way when they come out of lockdown, but with new members.
Perhaps the long monologue sermon is on its way out in many churches. I can only hope.