Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Friday, April 02, 2010

texas church offers big prizes for easter

Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Christi, Texas is planning an unconventional Easter service:

YOU are the next winner of The Ultimate Giveaway! That's right...With nearly $1 MILLION in prizes and giveaways, this Easter, everyone will win something at Bay Area Fellowship! And, wait...that's not all. Each service we're giving awayFREE FLATSCREENS, LAPTOPS...and CARS!!! Be here beginning April 1 (, this is no April Fool's joke). This is the real deal! No tricks, strings or fine print! Show up and let Bay Area Fellowship bless YOU this Easter!

Because on this holiest weekend of the year, it's important for Christians to come together for fellowship and a chance to win big prizes. The resurrection is nice, but free laptops are what the gospel is all about.

Honestly, this is cheap grace at its worst.

Pastor Bill Cornelius justifies the giveaway:

“We’re going to give some stuff away and say, ‘Imagine how great heaven is going to be if you feel that excited about a car,’ ” lead Pastor Bil Cornelius said. “It’s completely free — all you have to do is receive him.”

That is simply not the gospel of Jesus, who taught that following him could cost us everything (see Luke 14:25-35), who told one would-be follower to sell everything first (see Matthew 19:16-30), who said that we must deny ourselves if we truly want to follow him (see Luke 9:18-25), and who assured his first followers that they would be hated and persecuted (see Luke 21:12-17).

The claim that "all you have to do is receive him" is not the least bit biblical. Jesus never asked anyone to receive him. He told them to follow, to deny themselves, to leave behind their old lives. In return, he promised that they would be disliked by everyone.

That's far less exciting than winning a new flat screen TV. But if we want to claim the name of Christian, we ought to take Jesus' teaching seriously.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 13, 2008

the church of america

In a recent Townhall article, Michael Medved writes about the possibility (or impossibility) of an atheist president. (hat tip: Daylight Atheism)

Medved says:
Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones.

Medved is not merely wrong, he is very confused about his faith.

I've written previously about my concerns with civic religion. It seems to me that nothing can be more destructive of genuine religion than to let it be co-opted by those in power.

For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?

Then there’s the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words “under God”? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn’t, he’d pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.

Yes, these are the solemn duties of the head of the Church of America, according to Michael Medved. Because if the President doesn't know who to thank on Thanksgiving, or wants to revert to the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance (the words "under God" were not added until the 1950s), then the Church of America will collapse.

A non-Christian (like Joe Lieberman) could easily preside over state occasions because even though his faith differs significantly from that of the Christian majority, his obvious attachment to faith in God and Old Testament principles shows sympathy, not hostility, to the generalized value of faith.

This just underscores my objections to civic religion. There is nothing about Thanksgiving or the Pledge of Allegiance which is in any sense Christian. Patriotism is not a Christian value. Kingdoms rise and fall, and all that.

Thankfulness is good, but it is not exclusively Christian, or even religious. If an atheist president urged Americans just to be thankful, I don't see how anybody could object. After all, if Americans didn't know who to thank without explicit orders from their leaders, we'd have to call it the Cult of America.

Personally, I don't care what the President says on the fourth Thursday of November, or how he or she recites the Pledge of Allegiance. That's not the foundation of my faith -- or, for that matter, any part of my faith. Civic religion often amounts to no more than lip service -- inserting the word "God" into an otherwise secular observance or ritual. Civic religion is an insincere and shallow attempt by the state to force God into a box.

Medved considers the recent candidacies of Joe Lieberman, a Jew, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, but then adds:

There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups. For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does.

Medved overstates the case here, I think. Granted, Sam Harris would have trouble connecting with voters in Pascagoula, Mississippi. But not all atheists are contemptuous of people of faith.

And let's face it -- though many recent Presidents (and Congressional leaders) have been very vocal about their Christianity, most of them have not lived up to the standards they proclaimed were they were elected. From Bill Clinton's affair with an intern, to George W. Bush's deceptions leading to the invasion of Iraq, our leaders haven't demonstrated Christian values while in office.

I don't think an atheist could do much worse. Chances are, the average atheist would be better: Maybe that's what Medved is really worried about.

Modern secularism rejects the notion that human beings feel a deep-seated, unquenchable craving for making connections with Godliness, in its various definitions and manifestations. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadist preachers, Islam understands that yearning but “infidel” America does not. Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism.

I think Medved does state some truth here: Osama bin Laden wants his followers to believe that Western society is godless and decadent. Medved misses the mark, though, in his claim that the proper response is "the citation of our religious traditions and commitments," especially when the only examples he can list involve secular traditions that have had the word "God" grafted in.

By replacing God with "God," civic religion maintains the appearance of godliness while emptying the words of meaning. The United States may be the most overtly religious nation in the Western world in the way we speak, but our actions tell a different story. The ever widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing number of families who can't afford needed medical care, the violence of our inner cities, the ongoing decimation of nature, all testify that this is not a nation under God. It is a nation of short-sighted, self-centered individuals who think invoking the name of "God" is enough. Osama bin Laden is not the only one who is not fooled.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, March 16, 2008

the chick-fil-a church

A couple years ago, it made for a good joke. But how quickly life imitates satire! The North Point Community Church in Atlanta has replaced outreach with franchising. Franchisee Eddie Johnson of Cumberland Church in Nashville explains ten ways that Chick-Fil-A restaurants serve as a model for North Point and its affiliates.

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this is similar to what the mainline denominations have always done. On the other hand, there are some disturbing differences.

In #2 of his ten parallels with Chick-Fil-A, Eddie Johnson says:

Our church model is not going to offer a gluttonous “buffet line” of ministry programs for every type of interest group, life stage or bible study we can possibly offer. Our mission is simple. It is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We seek to do it by creating helpful, engaging and irresistible environments that help people take that “next step” towards a small group.

Forget about ministry, just get people into small groups. Christianity lite. Who needs discipleship when you can play it safe with fellowship? (Of course, many of the mainline denominations have the same weakness.)

In point #6 Johnson speaks of the "innovative concepts" that he expects will fuel the future growth of his church.

One cool thing we did at Cumberland Church this past summer was to have a Sunday worship band TOTALLY on video. Yes, video. The worship set was previously recorded at a live service at North Point. ... While not everyone liked video worship, it gave us a "Purple Cow" for discussion and debate in the community about what is and isn't "worship".

Cumberland Church's web site explains that the church often uses videos from North Point for their sermons on Sundays. Last summer they tried using imported worship music too. And why not? If the sermon is being preached by someone from another city in anther state, who is completely disconnected from the worshipers of this congregation, why not disconnect the songleaders too? After all, it might spark a debate about what worship should be. And surely debate is what Sunday morning worship is all about.

What kind of Christianity is that?

8. Just like Chick-fil-a, I can be in business for myself, but not by myself. North Point now has 3 campuses and 14 Strategic Partnership churches.

This is one of the things the Chick-Fil-A church gets right, unlike many megachurches across the U.S. Still, this is no innovation. This concept has been a part of mainstream Christianity for two millennia. We can see it in Paul's letters to the young churches. We can see it in all the denominations.

Underlying all of this is the disturbing paradigm of church as consumer product, and nowhere is this philosophy stated more clearly than here:

5. Just like Chick-fil-a, we strive to know what matters to our customers.

This attitude is common among megachurches, but it seems to be seeping out into the mainline churches, as shrinking congregations turn to outside growth consultants or focus groups to help determine the church's future plans.

I'm not convinced this is healthy for Christianity.

It may be that Christianity is not in step with 21st century American culture. If this is indeed the case, the answer is not to add technological dazzle to Sunday morning to appear more hip. The answer is not to drop ministry in favor of getting people into small groups.

The answer, it seems to me, is to get back to what the church did right in the early days: To care for each other, to provide for neighbors' needs -- neighbors inside the church and outside. To take a stand against the excesses of the popular culture. To speak up for those who are down. To give until it hurts. To be willing to face ridicule, even ostracism. To fast and pray, to listen for the voice of God to help guide the church in its future plans.

On second thought, that all sounds too hard. I don't think I could do it. I'd rather sit at my computer and type snide comments.

But maybe, just maybe, God expects something better.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, March 01, 2007

the lost tomb of jesus

It's become an annual tradition: As Easter approaches, it is almost inevitable that someone will bring forth a claim that will overturn everything we think we know about Jesus and the early Christians.

This year's claim comes from James Cameron, producer of the Titanic move, and Simcha Jacobovici, director of The Exodus Decoded. They have teamed up to create the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which will air Sunday night on the Discovery Channel. Just in case anyone has not heard about it, the film alleges that a tomb discovered in Jerusalem in 1980, containing coffins with the names "Mary" and "Jesus son of Joseph," among others, is the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth. Already, I've read about a thousand blogs commenting on the film. (I read way too many blogs.)

What can I possibly add? Nonetheless, I feel compelled to comment.

It seems to me that, of all the claims made by the filmmakers, two stand out: The statistical evidence, and the DNA evidence.

Some bloggers' response to these two claims has been visceral, something like: "You can prove anything with statistics. These are all common names. And whose DNA are they comparing it to? This whole thing is a hoax, and James Cameron is a boogerhead." This type of knee-jerk response really does not refute the claims, and if anything, only serves to give free publicity to the film.

A more healthy, skeptical approach begins by trying to understand exactly what is being claimed. On closer inspection, the actual claims do not appear to be so impressive.

Statistician Andrey Feuerverger has given a probability of more than 99% that this is the tomb of the Jesus of the New Testament. Specifically, he says the odds are 600 to one. How did he get this number?

First, Feuerverger took the estimated frequency of each of the names Jesus, Joseph, Mary, Jose, and Mariamne in ancient Jerusalem, based on surviving historical sources. Then he multiplied the percentages together to see how likely it was to find this exact combination together in a tomb. It turns out that, even though each of the names are common, finding all of them together is not very likely. Only one in 2.4 million tombs would be expected to have all five of these names together. Next, Feuerverger divided the total by four, to account for possible unintentional biases in the sources that historians have used to determine name frequencies. This gives a more conservative estimate of one in 600,000.

Next, if I'm reading it right, this number is divided by the total estimated number of tombs in first century Jerusalem, about 1000. The final result is 1 in 600, that is, if there were 600 parallel worlds with the same overall name frequencies but different actual combinations, we should expect only one world to produce more than one family with this same combination of names.

Thus, in 599 out of 600 parallel worlds, if we find a tomb where these names match the members of a known historical family, it must be the same family.

Based on my knowledge of statistics (and I'm not an expert but I do have some understanding) I'd have to say that Feuerverger's analysis is sound -- as sound as the data.

But wait a minute. Jose? Mariamne? Who are they? What do they have to do with Jesus?

One coffin contains the Hebrew name Yose, which can be translated as Jose or Joses. In Mark 6:3, Jesus is said to have a brother named Joses. One coffin has the Greek name Mariamenou|Mara. Archaeologist Amos Kloner, who excavated the tomb, says this should be read as "Mariamene also called Mara." The name Mariamene, which other scholars have rendered Mariamne, is a variant of Miriam.

We know of no member of Jesus' family named Miriam. Mark 6:3 indicates that he had sisters, but their names are not given. The makers of The Lost Tomb of Jesus have speculated that this Mariamne is none other than Mary Magdalene.

This is where the DNA evidence comes into play. The filmmakers were able to get debris from the "Jesus son of Joseph" coffin and the "Mariamenou|Mara" coffin, and have it tested for mitochondrial DNA. The bodies have long since decomposed, although a few bone fragments remain. Many bones were found on the floor. Nevertheless, the samples of DNA indicate that the individuals from these two coffins are not related by blood. According to the filmmakers, the most plausible explanation for this is that they were married.

Now it's time to inject a healthy dose of skepticism into the discussion.

Here is a complete list of coffins found in the tomb, and the inscriptions (if any) found on each, as catalogued by Amos Kloner. Of the inscriptions, the first is in Greek and the rest are in Hebrew. In parentheses is the English equivalent.

1. Mariamenou|Mara (Mariamne [also called] Mara)
2. Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judas son of Jesus)
3. Matya (Matthew)
4. Yeshua bar Yehoseph (Jesus son of Joseph)
5. Yose (Jose)
6. Marya (Mary)
7-10. (no inscriptions)

Of the six coffins with names, four are male names. If Mariamne is not related by blood, she could be the wife of any of the four. As far as we know, the probability should be equal for each. Or she could have been married to a man buried in one of the four tombs without inscriptions. We don't really know whose wife she is.

I've also seen the suggestion that Mariamne and Mara were two people, perhaps a mother and daughter buried in the same coffin. If so, which was the mother and which was the daughter?

There are just too many possibilities that cannot be excluded. The suggestion that Yeshua and Mariamne were married simply would not stand up to statistical scrutiny.

And speaking of statistical scrutiny, let's take another look at Feuerverger's numbers. Let's suppose for a moment that Mariamne is simply another name for Mary (Magdalene). If so, the 600 to 1 ratio is off. Mary, according to the Lost Tomb website's data, is about 40 times more common than Mariamne. That reduces the odds to 15 to 1.

Or does it?

Let's suppose for a moment that Jesus really was married to a woman named Mary. If the woman in the tomb is named Mariamne -- a similar, but different name -- what are the odds that it truly is the same person? Is it possible that Mary Magdalene was also known as Mariamne (also called Mara)?

In the Greek text of the gospels, she is almost always referred to as Maria, but in a couple places (Matthew 28:1, John 20:18) she is called Mariam. Is that close enough to make the association with Mariamne Mara?

And what is a man named Matthew doing in Jesus' family tomb? No Matthew is listed among Jesus' brothers in the gospels -- only James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3). So where are James, Judas, and Simon?

And what about this Judas son of Jesus? If the Jesus of the gospels had had a son, wouldn't someone have mentioned it? Wouldn't the boy have been automatically accepted as a leader of the early church, just as James was?

And really, if Jesus had a son, what are the odds that he would name him Judas?

Looking at all the evidence, there are some remarkable coincidences between the family of Jesus and the tomb that is the subject of this documentary, but the cumulative weight of the differences is too great to ignore. The exact combination of names may be rare -- as any exact combination would be -- but given that many of the names don't even match, there is little reason to imagine that the two are the same family.

Update 3/4/07: Dr. Feuerverger's website has a text document that discusses the assumptions that went into the calculation. He acknowledges that several of the assumptions are contentious. Also, Scientific American has an online article discussing the statistics.

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 05, 2006

the american religion

Simon Cozens has an excellent post entitled Christianity versus American Christianity on his blog, God School. (Hat tip: Richard at Connexions.)

Cozens begins by quoting a New York Times article about the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd, a megachurch pastor in Minnesota who has begun preaching that churches should not be so involved in politics. As a result of his sermons, Boyd has seen membership drop by 20 percent. Some former members of Boyd's church have openly criticized him for not being sufficiently supportive of Republican causes and candidates.

Cozens makes the argument that American Evangelical culture has produced a separate religion, "a syncretic folk religion, based primarily on American nationalism," with a morality grounded in "a highly selective and individualistic reading of the Old Testament," mixed with "bits of consumerism, Zionism, Republican political values, and corporatism for good measure."

This religion is completely separate from the historic Christian faith, says Cozens. It's not a branch of Christianity, not a form of Christianity, but a different religion entirely.

The salient point from Cozens's post is a quote from the original New York Times article:

"When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses," Mr. Boyd preached. "When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross."

Seeming to underscore the point, Friendly Atheist points to a news item about Nichole Shultz, an atheist college student in Burbank, Illinois, who has reached an out of court settlement with the city after she objected to an image on the vehicle sticker required by the city. The sticker depicts a soldier kneeling before a cross. Burbank mayor Harry Klein had previously stated that the cross represents not Christianity, but fallen U.S. soldiers.

The mayor's statement should send chills down the spine of every Christian. To suggest that we should think of the cross as anything other than a symbol of Christ's victory over sin and death is a threat to the church's autonomy. It may not have been the mayor's intent to threaten the church, but it is a fact that the way we use words has an effect on our thinking.

I've seen something similar happen in my own hometown. I came home from college for Christmas break in 1990 to find the town embroiled in a controversy. Every year the historic Rice County Courthouse in Lyons, Kansas is decorated for Christmas. Among the decorations are four large displays, one on each side of the building. One of these displays was a nativitiy scene. Someone from the county objected that a religious display on public property was a violation of the separation of church and state. The vast majority of the townsfolk wanted to keep the display, but to avoid running afowl of the Lemon Test, civic leaders began saying that the display was simply a rural or pastoral scene. Many residents adopted this line. The nativity scene was essentially removed -- with the blessing of the very people who thought they were supporting it -- even as the physical display remained. There is more than one way to remove religion from public life.

When civic religion oversteps its bounds, when government officials try to make Christian symbols subservient to their own political agendas, Christians should resist. Jesus is not a tool to be used at the whim of the powerful. When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

please tell me it's satire

I found this link at Street Prophets. Apparently, actor Stephen Baldwin has become a born-again Christian. But some of the things he says in this interview don't square with the Christianity that I know.

Some choice excerpts:

SB: I represent the new breed of Christians, baby, that are gettin' ready to kick ass in the name of the Kingdom.

Radar: So can you name the seven deadly sins?
SB: Dude, I'm totally clueless.

Radar: Lust, greed, sloth, gluttony, wrath, envy, pride.
SB: Although wrath in the Bible isn't a sin.

Radar: Can you name the Ten Commandments.
SB: Gosh, I should know this. I spank my children because they don't know this. Let me think....

SB: See, that's the bad rap the born-again thing has gotten. What being born-again means for me is that I'm having so much fun in this interview that we're not going to go out and get an 8-ball of blow tonight and go crazy. That's what born again means to me: Inasmuch as I'd like to do that, gosh, I'll just go home and read some scripture with the wife.

Radar: How about a game: Say Armageddon happens today. Of the following, who would go to Heaven, who would go to hell?
SB: I can't do this, you psycho!

Radar: Pauly Shore.
SB: Ugh.... I don't know. By the time I get my hands on him he will.

Radar: Mel Gibson.
SB: They're frying the guy, but everyone's not considering one thing. He was wasted! Does that make it all right? No. But if he said it and he wasn't drunk, then I would have little to no mercy for the guy.

I've never heard of Radar Online, and I'm not familiar with Stephen Baldwin. About half the article reads like a real interview, and half reads like a parody. What's the deal? Is this legitimate? Please, someone, tell me it's satire.