Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Born Is the King of Israel

 …I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name… 

-James, Acts 15:16-17, quoting Amos 9:11-12 (NIV)

In church a week or two ago, singing one of the songs that we only sing around Christmas, a thought struck me. Maybe it’s occurred to you, too, and if so then maybe you’ll be interested.

     We were singing The First Noel. Now, I have to say, this is not one of my favorite songs of the season. It sounds pretty enough, I suppose, but it’s a little repetitive, its language is awkward, and it rhymes are clunky. But as we sang it this year, it was the refrain that stood out to me: 

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,

Born is the King of Israel.

Isn’t that odd that we get together on Sunday mornings and sing hymns about the King of Israel? Isn’t it odd that we commemorate his birth every year? I mean, we wouldn’t think of doing that for a king of Spain, say, or a Roman Emperor. For some reason, though, the fact that Jesus is the King of Israel is still acknowledged in the Scripture and music that’s meaningful to us — the huge majority of whom are non-Jews — during Christmas.  

     It’s true that, as Christianity became disconnected from its Jewish moorings, the kingship of Jesus has also been unmoored from Judaism. It does’t sound strange to describe Jesus as “king of kings,” or “king of the world,” or even, personally, “my king.” But now and then, whether in a couple of Christmas songs or peeking through the New Testament, we still refer to Jesus as “King of Israel” or “King of the Jews.” 

     So maybe you’ve noticed this before, and you’ve asked, “Why?” 

     Let me see if I can get across why it matters that Jesus is the King of Israel. Not that he isn’t King of Kings. Not that it isn’t appropriate for you to think of him as your King, and yourself as his subject. But I want to try to tell you, if you don’t already know, why we should still see him as the King of Israel. And you may not know, because it’s something that the church, in our desire to communicate the gospel to non-Jewish people, has sometimes put aside as unimportant and irrelevant.

     In response to that impulse, let me remind you that the Magi in Matthew came to worship Jesus because he was to be King of the Jews. He wasn’t going to be the king of their country. But somehow, through their astrology, God communicated that this King of Israel would be significant to them, too — significant enough that they should go on a long and dangerous journey to honor him. 

     Throughout all four Gospels, Jesus is referred to constantly as the King of Israel, the King of the Jews, and the son of David. Both Peter, in Acts 2, and Paul, in Acts 13, preach that Jesus was a descendant of David and thus heir to David’s kingdom. In 2 Timothy, Paul urges Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel…” It was part of the gospel that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the King of Israel from David’s line, who would come to save his people. Twice in Revelation, Jesus is called “the Root of David,” emphasizing that he is Israel’s rightful king. The New Testament won’t let us overlook the fact that Jesus was the King of Israel.  

     The reason it remained a part of the early church’s gospel, even as the good news of Jesus spread into non-Jewish places and among non-Jewish populations, is that it isn’t just about the usual politics and dynastic succession. The King of Israel was an idea full of controversy, expectation, and most of all hope. The word Messiah just means “one who’s anointed” — like a king was anointed. The one who would save Israel from its enemies and deliver its people a time of unprecedented prosperity, peace, and security would be a king.

     But that doesn’t exactly answer our question, does it, about why it still matters to non-Jewish people two millennia later that Jesus is the King of Israel?

      Well, very simply, the coming of the King that would save Israel was always supposed to have implications for the whole world.  Listen to these texts about the time of the Messiah:

     “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat  the LORD and seek  the LORD Almighty. I myself am going.’  And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the LORD Almighty and to entreat him.” (Zechariah 8:20-22)   

     Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us  his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war  anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,  for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:2-4) 

There’s this from Isaiah, about the “chosen one” from Israel who God delights in and on whom he will put his Spirit:

I will keep  you and will make you to be a covenant  for the people and a light  for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:6)

     Those three are just a small sample, but maybe enough to make the point; the Messiah, the King of Israel expected to come and save his people, would also be the Savior of the world. Nations would come to him to learn the ways of God. Disputes would be settled, war as a way of expanding and finding security would end, because everyone would have plenty. The Messiah would be a light for all nations, freeing them from darkness and captivity.

     In Acts 15, James explicitly connects what he sees happening in the growth of the gospel among the Gentiles with the Old Testament expectation that God would “rebuild David’s fallen tent.” James believed that’s what he had done in Jesus. 

     This is why it matters still that Jesus is the King of Israel. This is why it should still matter to us, spiritual heirs to the promise of the prophets and the fulfillment of their prophecies that Jesus, the King of Israel, would be a light for the Gentiles.

     May we share that light with a dark world. May we be those who invite others from among all nations to “go at once to…seek  the LORD Almighty.” 

     Born is the King of Israel. 

     Let’s never stop singing that song.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Lighting Your Corner of Christmas

         The people walking in darkness 

 have seen a great light; 

on those living in the land of deep darkness 

 a light has dawned….

           For to us a child is born, 

 to us a son is given, 

 and the government will be on his shoulders. 

And he will be called 

   Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 

 Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

-Isaiah 9:2, 6 (NIV)

     Chattanooga, Tennessee — where, it happens, I grew up — is the home of Miguel Wattson, an eclectic eel who lives at the Tennessee Aquarium. (Watt-son…get it?) Miguel, it seems, is a very talented eel. For one thing, he has a Twitter account -- and unlike other celebrities he’s responsible for sending his own Tweets. (Full disclosure -- most of them are just electrical sound effects like ZZAP, KRAK, and POW. But, you know, he doesn’t have fingers…) But that’s not his most spectacular talent at all. 

     Each year in December, Mr. Wattson lights up a Christmas tree in the Aquarium’s “Rivers of the World Gallery. Sensors are hooked up to Mr. Wattson’s tank, and his shocks — which he emits when he’s looking for food — cause the lights on the tree to flash on and off with varying degrees of brightness and power speakers that create sound effects. (Scroll down to the video.) 

     One of the things I like about Christmas — and, in fact, the other holidays celebrated this time of year — is that light is an important tradition. Maybe it’s because it gets dark so much earlier this time of year, at least in this hemisphere. It’s nice, though, to drive through my neighborhood and see the lights strung on houses and bushes and trees, lighting up yards that are normally dark by 4:30. 

     Lights are certainly an appropriate symbol for Christmas, more so even than Santa Claus, Christmas trees, reindeer, or stockings hung by the chimney with care. Looking forward through the centuries, Isaiah saw a “great light” coming to illuminate people walking in darkness. He located that light in a child to be born, a child who would lead his people by relieving them from their oppression, taking away their burdens, turning war into peace, and establishing a new world of justice and righteousness.

     I know, most of us string lights without thinking of all that. We put them up thinking that they look pretty, or that they make us feel happy, and that’s fine. Putting them up might even be just one more chore we have to check off our Christmas to-do lists, in between buying gifts and baking cookies for the office Christmas exchange.      

     The problem is that a symbol that no longer connects to its meaning isn’t really a symbol anymore, is it?

     It’s hard to deny that something like that has happened with Christmas. It originated in probably the fourth century, as a feast day for the church that marked the birth (or, in the East, the baptism) of Jesus. Its date was chosen, perhaps, because it’s the shortest and darkest day of the year, after which everything gets brighter. Through the centuries, it kind of soaked up other local celebrations and traditions. We sometimes decry the commercialization of Christmas in our age, but the industry built around the conglomeration of holiday traditions and gift-buying that we celebrate today isn’t new. It arguably began in the 19th century. The early church wouldn’t have recognized the idealized Dickensian Christmases of 200 years ago any more than they would have recognized the multi-holiday winter celebrations of today. That isn’t a problem; there’s a lot about our world two thousand years later that the early church wouldn’t recognize. It’s just a fact. 

     Some Christians today think that we’re being persecuted if we’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas just like the Cratchetts in A Christmas Carol. But those Westernized Christmases of two hundred years ago were not necessarily any more Christian than our celebrations today.  Some Christians just choose not to be a part of the commercialization of the Holidays, effectively conceding to Santa Claus. More of us just kind of roll along with the current, putting up our trees and buying our gifts like everyone else, and occasionally remembering that, somehow, we need to “keep Christ in Christmas.”

     Which brings me back, somehow, to Miguel Wattson.

     If we want to keep Christ in Christmas, I really don’t think it’s going to be by going back in time to the days when every town square had a nativity scene and everyone said “Merry Christmas” to everyone else. Neither, obviously, are we going to keep Christ in Christmas by giving in to the impulse to max out all our credit cards and make Christmas into nothing more than a retail bacchanal.   

     To keep Christ in Christmas, look to the Christmas eel of Tennessee. Miguel Wattson is using what the Lord has given him to light his corner of the world this Christmas. If an eel can do it, so can we.

     “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples. Paul called the church “the body of Christ.” The light of Christ is generated in our world — if it’s generated at all — by people who follow him. That light that dawned at his birth on all those people walking in darkness dawns in our world when Christians live like he taught us to live and are busy doing the things he told us to do. Yes, it really is that simple. 

     So as the Holidays begin this year, you might ask yourself what the Lord has given you that you can use to light up the corner of the world that you inhabit. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It won’t necessarily come in the form of an extravagant gift, or a perfectly set table, or a stylishly decorated home. The light of Christ is best seen in the dark places, so perhaps that’s where you should let the light he’s given you shine. Shine it where people are hurting, where they’re full of sorrow and regret and grief and pain. Shine it where people are lonely. Shine it by including in your celebrations those who otherwise would be sitting alone in empty apartments or houses. 

     Keep Christ in Christmas by making a giving list instead of a gift list. By serving instead of being served. Keep Christ in Christmas by forgiving those who have hurt you, and by asking for forgiveness from anyone you may have injured. Keep Christ in Christmas by being an agent of peace on earth, not just a recipient. Light up your world with acts and words that glorify God, lift up Jesus, and proclaim the gospel.

      You might even create more light than Miguel Wattson. 

     I wouldn’t be shocked.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Christmas with King Herod

 …[A]n angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 

-Matthew 2:13 (NIV)

The part of the Christmas story that never gets represented on cards or Christmas decorations is one we need to talk about. Just because Linus didn’t quote it in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special doesn’t mean we should ignore it. In some ways, it’s the part of the story that rings truest to life.

     King Herod — called “the Great” because of his building projects — elected to massacre the children of some of the people he ruled rather than risk losing his and his family’s claim to the throne to some newborn Messiah. 

     Even in our world, jaded as it is by constant media coverage of every atrocity ever committed by any government, Herod’s actions stand out. It’s directed, surgical in its precision: he had every boy in Bethlehem two years old and younger murdered. Like every tyrant before and after, his interests came before the loss of innocent lives. His and his family’s future had to be secured at any cost, even at the cost of anyone else’s. 

     Not the first time, or the last. The Rohingya in Myanmar. Blacks in apartheid South Africa. Kurds in Turkey and Iran. Indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand. Jews in many countries throughout the world. Christians, Hindus, and Muslims in many places. All have suffered at the hands of oppressive governments more interested in their own prosperity than in the well-being of human beings who have done nothing wrong. 

     Ah, but we don’t have to go too far away or too far back in time to see it, do we? American expansionist dreams displaced indigenous populations from sea to shining sea. People kidnapped from their homes across oceans and bought and sold and worn out and discarded as property built much of what we take for granted. When Black people cried out for justice in the Jim Crow era, they were systematically put down by a government unwilling to listen to them. By and large, those in power are invested in keeping things at status quo, and they can justify whatever they need to justify to make that happen. 

     Mary, in her song in Luke that we looked at last Sunday, sings about a God who “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” When government prevents or obstructs the flourishing of human lives, she says, God brings them down. In their place, he raises up those in humble circumstances, the ones previous administrations ground under their bootheels. This was true in her own life; God brought his people’s Savior to them through her, a young woman in a “humble state.” The birth of Jesus is about that reversal, about the ways God works to raise up the humble and bring down those in power. Jesus’ first skirmish with the authorities shortly after his birth foreshadowed the antagonism of the religious authorities and his final confrontation with religious and civil authorities at his trial and execution. When the Roman governor put The King of the Jews on his cross, he didn’t know what he was saying. But he was right. Jesus was taking his throne. 

     Our nation, like many before it, cloaked our national goals in religious terminology.  That made it easier for us to convince ourselves that we were on the side of right: “civilizing” those “savage” indigenous people, for instance, or that we were benevolent slave owners who improved the lives of the human beings we forced to work for us. White religious leaders in the south conflated the goals of the civil rights movement with “Godless Communism” as an excuse to oppose them. 

     All of that should remind us that authority can’t be trusted, that it will always defend its own interests at the expense of people it has injured and broken, and that religious terminology and ideals often make the best stealth technology to hide its true motives. 

     In my Harding University alumni magazine for Fall 2021, there’s a cover story about Elijah Anthony and Dr. Howard Wright, who in 1968 — as it happens, the year I was born — became the first African-American students to earn bachelor’s degrees from Harding. At Homecoming this year, Harding renamed the building we always called “The Administration Building” “The Anthony and Wright Administration Building.” 

     The Administration Building. I never noticed anything in the article acknowledging the fact that it was The Administration that kept Harding segregated until 1963, in spite of student, alumni, and faculty calls for integration long before then. Or that the date of Harding’s integration coincided suspiciously with the Civil Rights Act, which removed access to federal funds from any college or university that remained segregated. Which might make cynical people wonder about the university’s motives. 

     I’m thankful that Mr. Anthony and Dr. Wright were acknowledged. I wish some of the students denied entry to Harding through the years because of the color of their skin, some who I know personally, had also been acknowledged in some way. Along with the evil of an administration that kept Black students off the campus of a university that they called “Christian.”

     But I wonder if back then I would have been able to see through the rationalizations justifying segregation to the real reasons — that people in authority had stuff they wanted to defend, and that they’d do what they needed to do and advocate what they needed to advocate to make sure it was defended.

     How do we respond today when people raise their voices and cry out for justice? Do we look the other way? Do we look for conspiracy theories and draw false equivalencies to justify doing what’s necessary to quiet those  voices? Do we trust in “authority,” even though we should know full well that authority has its own agenda? 

     That last one is the temptation for me, I think, as a white man who has often been well-served by the other white men who have usually wielded that authority. I haven't felt its knife edge. Often, their agendas suit me, too, in the short term at least. And so maybe I’m more inclined to take their rhetoric at face value and trust their systems instead of hearing the genuine voices of people in need of justice, righteousness, compassion, and mercy.

     We wear the name of a Savior, however, who from the beginning proclaimed a kingdom that was in opposition to earthly authority. He taught us how to fight it, too, with a power “not of this world”: by loving and caring for “the least,” by inviting the poor and humble to our tables, by turning the other cheek to authorities so incensed by Jesus’ kingdom that they’d slap us in the face. He taught us to look for ways to serve instead of looking to be served. He taught us to find glory in humility and distrust the prideful and arrogant. He taught us not to let fear for our own well-being get in the way of offering ourselves, and he taught us to forgive those in power who would harm us for following him instead of going along with them

     He taught us that no authority — civil, religious, or otherwise — takes precedence over the kingdom he came to open to all people. 

     I’m reminded of the late Representative John Lewis’ famous quote: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” When we refuse to go along with authority guarding its own agenda by trampling others, we might find trouble. But we’ll never be more like Jesus. 

     I know, that doesn’t make as catchy a tune as Deck the Halls. Still, that is Christmas. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Sin City

 Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person… 

-Matthew 15:17-20 (NIV)

If you’re planning holiday travel and you want to avoid temptation, titillation, or other exposure to bad behavior, WalletHub has helpfully compiled a list of the Most Sinful Cities in America. Using metrics like violent crimes per capita, thefts per capita, excessive drinking, charitable donations as percent of income, adult entertainment establishments per capita, tanning salons per capita, and percentage of adults who don’t exercise, WalletHub came up with a score in seven categories: Anger and Hate, Jealousy, Excesses and Vices, Avarice, Lust, Vanity, and Laziness. Then they added the scores and ranked 182 cities.

     I bet you’d guess which burg reigns as The Most Sinful City in America pretty quickly; it actually goes by the name of Sin City. Las Vegas — Top 6 in the categories of “Greed,” “Lust,” “Vanity,” and “Laziness” — takes the title. It isn’t even really close, either; the distance between Vegas and its closest competition is almost 7 points, much more than the distance between any other two cities on the list.

     St. Louis, Houston, and LA are next. The Gateway City is first out of the gate in “Anger & Hate” and “Excesses & Vices” (the only city on the list with two “1’s”) and 8 in “Jealousy.” Houston has a problem (See what I did there?) with “Lust” (#1) and “Vanity” (#2), and Los Angelenos are no angels in the same categories (#2 and #1). Denver rounds out the Top Five, with mile-high scores in “Lust” (9) and “Vanity” (14), but only one other score in the Top Twenty (18 in “Anger and Hate”).

     My town, Chicago, checks in as the ninth Most Sinful City, behind Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Miami, but ahead of Memphis. Chicago is your kind of town if you’re into “Vanity” (6), which might seem odd until you realize that the sun doesn’t shine much here in the winter so I guess we need a lot of tanning salons. We’re also 12th in “Jealousy” and 13th in “Lust,” but only 48th in “Anger and Hate,” suggesting that the thing we get a lot of bad press for, violent crime, is maybe not quite as bad relatively speaking as some might think.  

     There are some other surprises. Orlando — where The Happiest Place on Earth is located— is 19th on the list, with Top 25 finishes in four categories (“Vanity” - 12, “Lust” - 15, “Anger and Hatred” - 16, “Jealousy” - 25). Little Rock, 14th on the list, is the Most Jealous city. The Greediest is Reno, with Vegas second, which may not surprise you and might make you wonder about a correlation between legalized gambling and generosity. You might not be shocked that Washington is the next Greediest, depending on how you’re feeling about our government. But would it surprise you to learn that the next four are Missoula and Billings, MT, and Warwick and Providence, RI? You might stereotype LA as the Most Vain city, and it is, but would you have guessed Houston as Most Lustful? Baton Rouge as Laziest?

     Sin, of course, is usually pretty easy to find, wherever you are, much more so than the list suggests. It’s also harder to quantify. Is it fair to assume, for instance, that tanning salons equal vanity? Do reported charitable donations accurately reflect generosity? Does theft always correlate to jealousy? And in a world where “adult entertainment” is as close as a computer or phone, doesn’t the prevalence of strip clubs in a city have more to do with the commoditization of lust by unscrupulous people, the differing degrees to which municipal governments regulate such businesses, and the economic realities of the women who dance there, than it does as a marker of a particularly lustful population?

     WalletHub’s list sounds like something that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time might have come up with. They liked to think that sin was out there, among the pagans and irreligious. Jesus called them hypocrites, accused them of playing the role of religion while harboring in their hearts the kinds of sins they would have laid waste to others for.

     See, the more we can locate sin somewhere else, in other cities or at least outside of ourselves, the better we can feel. We can feel proud, we can feel righteous, we can feel in some sense superior to the “degenerates” in the casinos or the “drunks” in the bars or the “perverts” in the strip clubs or the “thugs” who rob and kill or even the “vain” tanning salon patrons or the folks too “cheap” to donate to church or charities into the personification of sin. Conveniently, that takes the focus off our own sin.

     And make no mistake, that sin is there. You may have never darkened the door of a casino or strip club or bar or even a tanning salon in your life. You may give generously and would never commit a violent act. But that doesn’t mean you haven’t hated, or that you haven’t acted out of jealousy and covetousness, or that you haven’t lusted or been greedy. Jesus says that the cause and impetus for sin isn’t located out there somewhere, as though avoiding it is a matter of GPS and a good list of the Most Sinful Places. The Pharisees, after all, had a detailed GPS and a very specific list. They had definite convictions about people and places to avoid. But Jesus called them hypocrites because, as scrupulous as they were, their hearts were far from God. 

     Your heart. That’s the thing. Not the organ that pumps blood around your body, but the very center of who you are, when all the other layers are peeled away. Sin isn’t outside, Jesus says, it’s inside: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” So avoiding sin isn’t a matter of avoiding certain places, people, or influences — though certainly what we’re regularly exposed to can very definitely influence our hearts. But you won’t avoid sin simply by avoiding places or people. If a change of heart doesn’t occur, sin will be with you wherever you are.

     I don’t know, maybe you’ve been more focused lately on sin being “out there” — in another place, another part of the city, another political party, another family, another group of God’s people. It’s understandable, because sin "out there” gets all the headlines. But “out there” isn’t what defiles us. It’s what’s “in here,” and we see that in what comes out in unguarded or secret moments.

     Thankfully, God is in the heart-changing business. The prophet Joel told Israel to “tear your hearts, not just your garments,” meaning that they should truly repent of their sins from the core of who they were. Paul told the church at Rome to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Jesus wanted his disciples to know that sin comes from the heart so that they could deal with their hearts. He warned them, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” — some of our heart problems come simply from valuing the wrong things. He reaffirmed the greatest command from the Old Testament: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And then he showed us what that looks like and gave us the Holy Spirit to help us. 

     So resist the temptation to make your lists and locate sin “out there.” Do the hard work of confronting it in your own heart. Repent of the attitudes and secret prejudices and habits of thought that come out as ugly words and actions. Do your dead level best to turn your heart toward loving God. And trust that he’ll help you.

     May our hearts be new.

Friday, December 3, 2021


      …[T]he reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
     "What is truth?" retorted Pilate.

-John 18:37-38 (NIV)

How do we know what we think we know?

     If that sounds to you like one of those out-of-touch-with-reality questions that preachers and theologians sometimes ask to introduce pointless meanderings about fine points, well — maybe you aren’t paying attention.

     I don’t spend a lot of time with social media: I post a few times a week. Check Twitter and Facebook more or less daily, but not for very long. And in that relatively small engagement I have with social media, even I see frequent sharing and retweeting and liking and loving of information that’s misunderstood, or decontextualized, or misapplied, or just downright false. 

     And I see that some of those doing the sharing and retweeting and liking and loving are Christians.

     Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’ve seen the conspiracy theories and discredited (and even retracted) “news” stories and satire that gets spread around the internet as real news. Maybe you’ve seen the commentary and opinion pieces that take on the weight of “truth” simply because they have names that people trust or admire attached to them. Maybe you’re familiar with the memes that are never really attributed to anyone but seem to just bubble up from the muddy undercurrents of the internet?

     Especially for a believer, passing on an untruth — even if you didn’t know it was untrue at the time — ought to set off alarm bells. This is especially so if it involves slandering a person, a  human being created by God and for whom Christ died — which is what most of the false information populating social media and news feeds is created to do, in fact. 

     If you’re aware of that, then I circle back to my initial question: How do we know what we think we know?

     Let’s be more specific: as Christians, people who follow “the truth that is in Jesus,” the one who was born and came into the world to testify to the truth, how do we know what’s true in our world? And how do we keep from passing on falsehood — probably meaning well, but contributing to the fog of untruth that seems to fill our world right now?

     Maybe you’ve guessed by now that I have a few suggestions.

     Let’s start with this, something that goes back to New Testament times: If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! It’s right at that moment where we’re just sure, just absolutely positive that we’ve found a smoking gun or are exposing a big lie, that we often make a mistake. Certainty about everything is not a Christian virtue. Paul reminds us that knowledges puffs up, but love builds up. You can have knowledge that isn’t related to truth in the slightest. And you can be acquainted with truth that doesn’t answer all your questions. Too often we’re certain about things that don’t warrant certainty, and we’re doubtful of basic facts.   

     My second suggestion is an application of the mandate placed on all doctors: “First, do no harm.” Don’t be a part of the problem. If you think you’d like to pass something along in social media or email, or even clip it out of a magazine and send it to your grandkids, maybe do a little research first. Don’t assume the original poster has done the research; countless false conspiracy theories and fake news stories are  widely circulated every day because no one bothers to check them out. And once they’re out, it’s hard to get them back in. Don’t be part of the problem; before you repost, retweet, share, or send, research. And not just in media outlets that specialize in news you like. You know those social media posts that start with “The mainstream media won’t tell you this”? Most of the time, there’s a simple reason for that: It isn’t true.

    Third, ask yourself whether this story is worth your time. Paul says we ought to be “very careful” how we live, because we're supposed to be “children of light” who set our minds on pleasing God and staying away from darkness. We’re supposed to “[make] the most of every opportunity” and understand God’s will for us and live by the Spirit instead of wasting our time with foolishness. Much of what passes for “news” — even if it’s true — doesn’t fit many of those categories. It’s hard to imagine how passing on stories of dubious validity and even more dubious value could possibly help us to set our minds on pleasing God, living by the Spirit, and making the most of every opportunity. 

     My fourth suggestion is to be aware of what and who instructs you. I was reminded of this when I saw a quote by Daniel Darling, who is a pastor and the senior vice president of National Religious Broadcasters. Darling says that this problem of Christians passing on lies, slander, and manipulative ideology has been caused by the fact that “many [Christians] are catechized more by their favorite niche political podcast and pundits and politicians” than by the Bible. I would add “preachers” to that list, because some propagate false information from their pulpits. Maybe you’ve heard that word catechized in its noun form, catechism, and are tempted to disregard it because we don’t use a catechism. You’d be mistaken about that, though. The word comes from Greek, and it just means “to instruct.” And of course we use a catechism: our catechism is Jesus, and the Scriptures, and the church. Paul reminded the church in Ephesus of how they “learned Christ” and the difference that should make in their lives. Luke says his gospel is intended to validate the certainty of his readers’ “instruction” — katechethes in Greek. Apollos is said to be a man who “had been instructed (katechemenos) in the way of the Lord.” 

     Darling fears that too many Christians are being instructed more in the way of their favorite news channel celebrities than in the way of the Lord. He fears that too many of us are learning Trump or Biden instead of Christ. He thinks that we might be more certain of the things taught to us by our news feeds and social media accounts than we are of the gospel. It’s hard to disagree, since it seems that many of us spend far more time with those instructors than we do with Jesus. That shouldn’t be. We still believe, don’t we, that Jesus testifies to truth? We should be learning from him, and learning him, and then we’ll have a proper filter through which to hear and process everything else.

     Remember: When we like, click on, retweet, share anything, algorithms deliver us more of that kind of content and less of the stuff with which we don’t engage. So our timelines become increasingly filled with content that reinforce our perspectives — whether it’s true or not. And that doesn’t even take into account bad actors who produce much social media contact in order to manipulate you, not share truth.     

     Social media can be a wonderful servant. It makes a terrible master, and a terrible teacher.

     Look to Jesus for truth: truth about what’s factual, but even more importantly, truth about how to live. Look at him for the final word about the truth of what you think you know, and what you tell others is true.


Friday, November 26, 2021

English Bible Translations: Favorites

      But be people who do the word, not merely people who hear it and deceive themselves. Someone who hears the word and doesn’t do it, you see, is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror. He notices himself, but then he goes away and quickly forgets what he looked like. But the person who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and goes on with it, not being a hearer who forgets but a deer who does the deed — such a person is blessed in their doing.

-James 1:22-25 (The Kingdom New Testament, 2011)

This is the tenth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. The series starts here, if you’d like to go back and review the older posts.

     I thought I’d finish up these posts with a list of five translations I find myself using the most. Some of them we’ll have looked at already. A couple will be new. I’ll also include a list of three digital Bible study resources I use regularly. I’m including these, not because I think anyone ought to necessarily use what I use, but because it can be challenging to make heads or tails of the sheer number of translations, revisions, and paraphrases available in English. My list includes the translations I’ve found myself coming back to again and again.

     First, a word about criteria. I choose to use — or not to use — a Bible translation for basically two  reasons:

A solid base text. All of the “witnesses” to the biblical text — full and fragmentary manuscript copies, versions in ancient languages, and quotations from church leaders older than any known manuscripts — need to be compared and collated. None are exactly alike, and so a lot of detective work has to be done to figure out what the original texts of the Bible actually said. The scholars who have done this work have produced Hebrew Old Testaments and Greek New Testaments with significant variant readings noted called critical editions. They’re the bases on which all good English translations rest.

     The introductions of most Bible translations will indicate which critical editions were used. Most modern translations come from some edition of the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (Greek New Testament) and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart Hebrew Bible). These are considered state of the art. A few translations (like the KJV and NKJV) use Greek and Hebrew critical editions considered by most scholars to be less reliable. A few (the ESV is an example) use critical editions that differ from, but are not necessarily less reliable than, Nestle-Aland or BHS.

Readability. I’m looking for contemporary language, nothing archaic. I prefer a translation that sounds more or less like people speak and write today. The Bible was originally written in the contemporary language of regular people, and I think a translation should be as well. There’s no reason at all that an accurate English translation of the Bible shouldn't be understandable to anyone who understands English. Especially for public use, I want a translation written at a 7th grade or below reading level. (Almost all modern translations are.)

So, roughly in order of usage, here are my top five English translations:

  1. The New International Version. For me, the NIV hits the perfect sweet spot of literalness and readability. Those who prefer more literal translations will tell you it’s too paraphrased, and those who like paraphrases will tell you it’s too literal. That suggests to me that it occupies a solid middle ground. It’s versatile, equally good for personal devotional reading, deeper study, and public use. It benefits from having been around a long time, and from having plenty of resources for improvement. Its 2011 revision smoothed over some rough spots. It’s a committee translation, which guards against bias. It’s available in most every digital platform and in countless formats and editions in binding and paper. 
  2. The New English Translation. (Not to be confused with the New English Bible!) Also called the NET Bible. This isn’t one I’ve mentioned so far, but I use it nearly every day. It’s a fairly free translation from 2006 that sometimes settles on some interesting or odd readings, depending on your perspective. For me, its chief feature is a set of extensive notes — almost 61,000! — that contain more word-for-word readings, explanations for the translation adopted, possible alternate translations, and excellent study notes. It’s also a committee translation. The really great thing about it is that the translation and its notes are available for free online. It’s also available in Bible study software like Accordance. You can buy a binding and paper version as well, if you prefer. 
  3. The New Revised Standard Version. This is a more literal but very readable translation, in the best tradition of the King James Version. A revision of the Revised Standard Version, it’s a frequent choice for pew Bibles in mainline Protestant and some Catholic churches. It’s also a committee translation that incorporates Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and (for the Old Testament) Jewish scholars. Again, it’s available in most every digital Bible study platform, and in binding and paper in a huge variety of formats.
  4. The New Living Translation. In fairness, I should mention that my son works for the NLT’s publisher, Tyndale. That being said, I’ve used the NLT since it was published in 1996, long before they employed him. It isn’t as free as the translation it originally aimed to revise, the Living Bible, but it’s still a very free translation, bordering on paraphrase. (Though it includes notes that often provide more literal translations.) That isn’t a negative, though; sometimes comparing the NLT with a more literal translation gives me a new insight into a passage that I hadn’t considered before. It’s a committee translation, like the others on my list so far.
  5. The Kingdom New Testament. This one you likely haven’t heard of. It’s a New Testament-only translation by N.T. Wright, originally from his very accessible series of commentaries on the New Testament. Wright, formerly Anglican Bishop of Durham and now a senior research fellow at Oxford, is one of the pre-eminent New Testament scholars of our time. He is also a good writer and has a strong commitment to the authority of the Bible for the church. Wright’s translation is very British (as you’d expect) and free. It will surprise you in places, and in other places make you scratch your head, but all in all it’s a translation I get a lot out of. I’ve most recently read through the New Testament in this translation.

     I could probably do another post on digital resources, and maybe I will sometime. The best variety of translations are on websites like Bible Gateway and YouVersion — both have 60 or more English translations available. Both also have reading plans, study guides, and other resources that you can use individually or with others, as well as useful mobile apps that give you access to Scripture from your phone or tablet. Monthly subscriptions give you access to other resources. 

     I also use Accordance Bible software, available for Mac, PC, iOS, and Android, which offers different modules that include numerous translations, commentaries, study notes, atlases, lexicons, dictionaries, and other resources, all cross-referenced with the text. Currently, the starter package is on sale for $49.95.

     I hope this series of posts has been a blessing to you. If you’re struggling to read the Bible, maybe a new translation will help. If I can be of assistance, leave a comment or contact me.

     May God bless you as a doer of the word.

Friday, November 19, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Twentieth Century, Part III

      Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

-James 1:22-25 (The Message, 1993)

This is the ninth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here. The fifth on the King James Version is here. The sixth on nineteenth century English translations is here. The seventh and eighth on twentieth century translations are here and here.

     As we have noticed, twentieth century English Bible translations fall roughly into three categories: committee translations that remained more or less faithful to the wording and rhythms of the King James Version, committee translations that had little to no attachment to the King James Version tradition, and new translations by individuals. In this post, we’ll look at some important translations by individuals. 

     The advantage of a committee translation is that committees provide diversity and prevent quirky and idiosyncratic translations. With an individual translation, there’s no such protection. Many of the twentieth-century individual translations are more paraphrase than true translation. To some degree, any translation is a paraphrase, but for our purposes a paraphrase is a restatement of the biblical text  as an aid to understanding. In that way, paraphrase usually borders on commentary. 

     That’s certainly true of The Living Bible, a paraphrase written by Kenneth Taylor and published by Tyndale House in 1971. Taylor originally created The Living Bible to aid his kids in understanding the Bible. He used the American Standard Version as a base text, and didn’t consult any of the original languages; he simply rewrote the ASV using contemporary vocabulary, figures of speech, grammar, and measurements.

     The Living Bible has sold over 40 million copies, and has been translated into about 100 languages. It had its critics, however; some found fault with what they called “dumbing down” of the biblical text. Bible scholars mostly ignored it, and some church leaders criticized it for perceived doctrinal biases.  

     You can see a good example of some of the strengths and weaknesses of The Living Bible in its handling of 1 Peter 3:18. The NRSV renders the verse: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…” 

     The Living Bible reads: “Christ also suffered. He died once for the sins of all us guilty sinners although he himself was innocent of any sin at any time, that he might bring us safely home to God. But though his body died, his spirit lived on…” While the language is contemporary and understandable, it clearly interprets more than it translates. (Note how it explains what “the righteous for the unrighteous” means.) Some of its interpretations are debatable, as when it renders “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” as “though his body died, his spirit lived on.” That reading leaves in question the bodily resurrection of Jesus, incorrectly makes “flesh” equivalent to “body,” and assumes that “in the spirit” is a reference to Jesus’ human spirit and not the Holy Spirit.

     In the late 1980s, Taylor and Tyndale House Publishers invited a team of 90 Greek and Hebrew scholars to revise The Living Bible. It was published in 1996 as The Holy Bible: New Living Translation.

     Another example of a paraphrase written by an individual is The Message, by Eugene Peterson. Peterson was a Presbyterian church leader in Maryland who felt the need for a translation that would “bring the [Bible] to life for…those who hadn't read [it] because it seemed too distant and irrelevant and those who had read [it] so much that it had become ‘old hat.’” He thought of his translation as an extension of his work as a pastor: "always looking for an English way to make the biblical text relevant to the conditions of the people."   

     The Message uses American expressions and slang to a degree not seen in any other translation. A vivid example is found in Peterson’s translation of the Lord’s prayer: “God, Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what's best— as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.”

     As you can see, the translation is very interpretive in some places: “reveal who you are” instead of “hallowed be your name,” “set the world right; do what’s best” for “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The Message can open up new understandings of biblical texts, but sometimes at the expense of other possible meanings obscured by its choice of words. On the whole, The Message is probably best as a secondary Bible, not one used for serious study and reading. 

     A few other less well-known twentieth-century individual translations probably deserve mention.   

     The Bible: A New Translation was published by Scottish theologian and minister James Moffat in 1922. Moffat’s intent was “to offer the unlearned a transcript of the Biblical literature as it lies in the light thrown upon it by modern research.” C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. often used Moffat’s translation. The translation was one of the first to tend toward paraphrase. It was quirky in that Moffat rearranged the order of chapters and verses based on his judgments about the content, authorship, and historicity of the texts. He also used different typefaces throughout the first five books of the Old Testament to indicate his opinions concerning a widely-held (and now outdated) theory about authorship. These quirks make it a difficult translation to use, though it is very readable and understandable. (Though the “modern” language now sounds a little dated!)

     In 1931, Edgar Goodspeed, a professor at The University of Chicago, published The Bible: An American Translation. Like Moffat, Goodspeed’s intent was to offer a translation “based upon the assured results of modern study, and put in the familiar language of today.” As the first Bible translation to use an “American” English, Goodspeed’s translation was controversial, but influenced the others in this post. It was also influential for  J.B. Phillips, who in 1958 published the very popular The New Testament in Modern English, originally written for the youth group at the church he pastored. 

     English translations of the Bible need to be accurate — true to the original text — and they need to be understandable. But it isn’t quite that easy. A translation that is very true to the original text but not understandable is not accurate, because it doesn’t communicate the message of the Scriptures to people. All translations grapple with the necessity of being understood. As the ones we’ve looked at show, all aim to keep the words of God from “going in one ear and out the other”so that we can “act on what we hear.”

     May we be faithful. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Twentieth Century, Part II

      Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead, put it into practice. If you listen to the word, but do not put it into practice you are like people who look in a mirror and see themselves as they are. They take a good look at themselves and then go away and at once forget what they look like. But if you look closely into the perfect law that sets people free, and keep on paying attention to it and do not simply listen and then forget it, but put it into practice—you will be blessed by God in what you do.

-James 1:22-25 (Good News Translation, 1966)

This is the eighth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here. The fifth on the King James Version is here. The sixth on nineteenth century English translations is here. The seventh on twentieth century translations is here.

     As we noticed in the last post, twentieth century English Bible translations fall roughly into three categories: committee translations that remained more or less faithful to the wording and rhythms of the King James Version, committee translations that had little to no attachment to the King James Version tradition, and new translations by individuals  

     In the last post we looked at twentieth century translations within the King James Version “family.” In this one, we’ll take a look at several committee translations that are distant relations at best.  

     The first of these chronologically was the New English Bible, published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press (1961 New Testament, 1970 Old Testament). It was translated by three committees of biblical scholars and a panel of literary advisors to help shape the English. The result was a striking translation of beautiful English style that was unlike any English Bible that had come before it.

     The New English Bible was based on the theory of dynamic equivalence; instead of translating word-for-word, the translation committees used a "thought for thought" strategy, translating the meanings of phrases or whole sentences instead of individual words. C.H. Dodd, a member of the translation committee, explained that the translators "...conceived our task to be that of understanding the original as precisely as we could... and then saying again in our own native idiom what we believed the author to be saying in his.”

     As an example, John 1:1 in the Revised Standard Version says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” which is unchanged from the King James Version. The NEB, on the other hand, translates: “When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was.” While it isn’t as literal a translation of the Greek, and doesn’t sound like the KJV, it’s still a very accurate and arguably more understandable translation.

     The NEB was generally well-received when it was published, but it has its drawbacks. It’s very British in style and vocabulary, which can make it less useful for Americans. The NEB also fairly frequently rearranges the order of verses and chapters to line up with the translators’ opinions about the original text, which can make it difficult to use. A 1989 revision, called the Revised English Bible, removed many of the Britishisms and most of the rearrangements of the text.

     Around the same time, in America, another attempt was being made to disentangle the English Bible from the Tyndale/King James Version style and vocabulary. This completely new translation has gone by several names: The Good News Bible, Today’s English Version, and currently The Good News Translation. It was developed by the American Bible Society to respond to a need among missionaries in Africa and the Far East for an English Bible that was easy to understand. The GNT New Testament was published in 1966. The Old Testament was published gradually between 1970 and 1975. In 1976, the full Bible was published as The Good News Bible: The Bible in Today's English Version

    The GNT also follows a thought-for thought translation philosophy. For example, Exodus 15:25 in the Revised Standard Version says: “And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” The word sweet there is a good literal translation of the Hebrew, but it can be misleading to English speakers. The point isn’t that the water became sugary, but that it was no longer “bitter”and became drinkable. The Good News Translation reflects this in its translation: “Moses prayed earnestly to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood, which he threw into the water; and the water became fit to drink.” The GNT also translates “piece of wood” instead of “tree,” though the Hebrew can be translated “tree” — presumably so English speakers don’t picture Moses uprooting a whole tree and throwing it into the water! 

     Strong sales of the GNT showed that there was a market for a somewhat freer but more readable translation. Our next translation tapped into that market to ultimately become the first to displace the King James Version as the best-selling English translation in the world. The New International Version, published in 1978 by the International Bible Society (now called Biblica), was developed by a committee of 15 evangelical scholars on the principles of dynamic equivalence. In addition to using the standard scholarly Greek and Hebrew texts as the basis for their translation, the committee also consulted many other sources, especially in the Old Testament. Extensive notes on the text are included, especially where compelling alternate readings are found. 

     The NIV has been criticized (as every translation is) for some of its choices. While in some places it is free, it is often quite literal as well. Some areas of critique have included translating the word sarx in Paul’s letters as “sinful nature” instead of the more literal “flesh.” (But most English-speakers today think of the physical body when they think of “flesh,” and that’s not all that Paul has in mind when he uses the word.) In some cases, the NIV does interpret instead of simply translating, as in Luke 11:4, where the NIV has "for we also forgive everyone who sins against us" instead of the more literal "for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us” (though the context indicates that the “debt” is wrongs committed against the one praying).

     The NIV was updated in 1984, 1999, and 2011. There was also a 1996 revision in the UK that incorporated gender-neutral language, but it wasn’t published in the US due to significant opposition from evangelical groups. Many of those revisions were finally incorporated into the 2011 update and/or in 2005’s Today’s New International Version. The NIV has also been the basis for countless study Bibles and specialty Bibles. It has sold over 450 million copies, and is the best-selling English translation in the world.

     As we’ve seen, the Tyndale/KJV tradition dominated English Bible translation for centuries. Translators were wary of sounding too different from the Bible that all Protestant readers — and many Catholics — were accustomed to. But the many twentieth century English translations that updated or departed from the KJV style remind us that Bible translation should be ever-evolving. Jesus said that his words never change; but as language changes, so does the way we hear him. A Bible translation is only successful to the degree that it makes God’s unchanging words known to always-changing human beings.