Why I’m Not Giving Up Sugar For Lent

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Lent crossYesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar. It has been customary since the days of the early church to observe this season culminating in Holy Week by focusing on repentance, prayer, and fasting. Certainly, by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, Lent was an established tradition. In our day and age, Lent has also become a time for discussion of what fasting means. The term “fasting” normally refers either to going a while without any food, or to reducing the amount or variety of food for a longer period of time. Either way, fasting is usually done specifically for spiritual reasons. In Christianity, fasting is most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, largely because the Roman Catholic church has codified what, when, and how much someone should eat in order to officially be fasting. (Essentially, Catholics who are fasting can eat one regular-sized meal and two small meals a day, but no snacks and on Fridays, no meat other than fish) However, fasting is also observed by other Christians, although it is generally phrased as “giving up {fill in the blank} for Lent”, where the thing being given up can be pretty much anything. The purpose is not only to exercise self-control, but to draw the focus towards Christ.

As it is generally practiced, giving things up for Lent seems to me to be pretty similar to a New Year’s resolution, except with a specified end date. Some people participate in this tradition by focusing on “giving up” a certain vice, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems to imply that it’s okay to pick up that bad habit again after Easter. Other people decide to give up certain types of food. I get the impression that giving up processed sugars is one of the most common forms of Lenten fasting in twenty-first century America. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like a lot of people are motivated by the health benefits or the possible weight loss, rather than spiritual reasons.

For a couple years when I was in college, I gave up certain specific types of foods for Lent. The past few years, I’ve considered it. In fact, this year, I had briefly been planning on fasting in a fairly traditional sense by giving up several different types of food and essentially limiting my intake to a few specific staples. The reason I decided against that fast is pretty personal, but I decided to blog about it anyway because it’s helpful for me to put my thought process into words and because there’s a chance that someone out there might find this helpful to read.

Once or twice previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact that I have struggled with eating disordered tendencies. I’m not going to go into the details and tell the whole story, but the relevant detail is that I’m very prone to going through phases where I essentially take a break from normal eating. I’ve never been severely underweight or dangerously malnourished, but I definitely have engaged in eating habits that count as fasting. But for me, it’s not a religious thing at all. On the contrary, it’s a distraction from God.

various types of sugarThat may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain. In our culture, there is a trend of self-righteous attitudes about foods. Vegans and vegetarians often make it sound as if they view themselves as being morally superior to meat-eaters, which makes some degree of sense, since most people choose veganism or vegetarianism because they’re ethically opposed to eating animals. But people who eat low-carb diets or low-sugar diets or gluten-free diets often act the same way. Overeating and being overweight are associated with a lack of self-control and a lack of priorities, whereas a rigidly defined diet is associated with good self-control and balanced priorities. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not morally wrong to have junk food every now and then. In fact, I don’t think it would be taking Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 out of context to mention those verses here. Jesus was referring to the Pharisee’s dietary rules when he said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but rigid dietary rules defined by health guidelines are comparable to rigid dietary rules defined by Jewish law.

Of course, eating disorders are very different from—and in many ways, contrary to—a focus on healthy living and a clean diet. Even the attitude is opposite, since people with eating disorders are almost always highly self-critical rather than self-righteous. But most people with eating disorders have been influenced by that cultural idea that eating the wrong things is disgusting, unclean, and perhaps morally wrong. Eating disorders that are characterized by undereating are often (if not always) just an extreme of that concept, in which eating is seen as unclean in and of itself. Compulsive undereating tends to be driven by perfectionism and low self-esteem that is so extreme that it’s just as self-focused as arrogance and self-righteousness. For someone with a history of a restrictive eating disorder, even one as minor as mine, fasting doesn’t make room for Christ-centered thoughts, it makes room for more eating-disordered thoughts.

My decision not to give up unhealthy foods for Lent was based partly on the fact that it might lead to long-term unhealthy habits, but it was mostly because it would serve no spiritual purpose for me. I don’t want to sound preachy here, but I think that even people without eating disorders might sometimes be fasting for the wrong reason. Giving up processed sugar or cutting back on carbs or consuming fewer calories are all things that people often do for themselves, either to benefit their health or to make themselves look better. If your Lenten fast is making you focus on your health, then it isn’t really a fast, it’s a diet. Even if you are giving up something that isn’t food and isn’t health-related, it isn’t really a fast if you’re focused on yourself.

The important thing to remember in Lent is that we are all sinners, (no matter how much or how little sugar we eat) and that sin is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that nothing we do, not even willing self-deprivation, can get rid of that sin or fix the problems it causes in the world. The only thing that can solve the problem of sin is Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the time of year for us to remember how sad that is, but when Easter comes, it will be time for us to again focus on the joy we have in our salvation. And that joy and that salvation have nothing to do with what you eat during Lent.

There’s This Book I’m Reading, Episode 8

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The dangerous thing about working in a library is that you no longer feel a need to control the urge to collect books. Since you constantly have the opportunity to help yourself to as many books as you want, for free and for a short period of time, you forget about the expense and the clutter that result from buying books frequently. I’m used to coming and going with an armload of books. I think that’s a good thing in and of itself, but then late one evening, I found myself in a bookstore. I spent too much money that day, because books are cool and I wanted to take them all home with me. Every single one of them, but a few dozen in particular. Instead, I only got six.

Simply Good NewsOne of the books that caught my eye was Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good by N.T. Wright, a biblical scholar in the Church of England. I used to read a lot of books by biblical scholars written for a popular audience, which is probably why I gravitated towards that particular title on that particular evening. Usually, I don’t actually enjoy such books. For one thing, they generally aren’t theologically solid. In college, I was taught that every Christian denomination besides Roman Catholicism could be lumped into two categories: evangelical or liberal/mainline. That’s an extreme oversimplification, but it does seem to be true of Christian books written for the popular audience. In particular, there are a lot of books that are more concerned with debunking Christianity than affirming it, but still claim to be Christian books. Those are the worst, not only because they are full of half-truths that deliberately undermine people’s faith, but because they tend to be full of absurd straw-man arguments, they often take the approach that the author’s credentials make him more reliable than the Bible itself, and they are written for the purpose of sensationalism rather than truth. Many theological writers for the popular audience will grasp at any excuse to say that the canonical gospels are unreliable, but will then ignore their own logical principles in order to promote non-canonical writings of uncertain origin or authenticity. Those books will claim that they are taking a historical approach to Christianity and viewing all ancient documents without allowing their beliefs to bias them, but that’s just rhetoric. What they are actually doing is trying to come up with new and sensational ideas to write about in order to attract lots of readers and build up their names as theologians so that they can sell even more of the next sensational book they might write. Of what I’ve read, Bart Ehrman is the worst. If I was important enough to have a nemesis, my nemesis would be Bart Ehrman, because he’s especially bad about a lot of those things.

So, for all those reasons, I went into Simply Good News without much confidence that it would be a book of any theological value. I just finished it immediately before giving this blog post a final re-write, and my overall evaluation is that it’s incredibly suspenseful. It has kept me on the edge of my seat (if I’m even sitting down instead of pacing around the room while reading) and I have had a hard time putting in down. For a novel, that would be the sign of success, but for a nonfiction book told in non-narrative prose, suspense doesn’t really seem to be the point.

The reason I find it so suspenseful is that I can never be quite sure where Wright is going. For the first 23 pages, he equivocates on the meaning of the phrase “good news” (and points out that the word “gospel” literally means “good news”, which he introduces as if it’s a little-known fact) without being specific about what the “good news” of Christianity is. I hoped that he would rightly identify the good news as salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I was more than a little afraid that he was writing this book for the purpose of proposing a new idea of what Christianity is all about. Fortunately, Wright did eventually get around to pointing to the cross and the empty tomb. To my delight, he introduced the “good news” by quoting the Bible: “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible; he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, although I’ve cut out part of the quotation.) At that point in the book, Wright seemed to be deliberately avoiding addressing the reality of sin, which meant that the gospel is really watered down despite the fact that that’s what he’s specifically trying not to do. But at least he isn’t redefining Christianity itself, which is something that happens all too often.

So, throughout the first three chapters, I was pretty pleased with Simply Good News. I wouldn’t say that I agreed with every word of it, but it was refreshing to read a book of this type that is not dismissive of the Bible, and is not a self-help/inspirational book disguised as religious literature. In fact, much of what Wright has to say in the early chapters of this book is to lament the fact that popular Christianity in our culture so often takes that route, treating Jesus as a wise man who gave good advice rather than as our savior. That’s very true. To use the over-simplified distinction that I was taught in college, evangelicals tend to see Jesus as a moral leader whose example must be followed, and liberals tend to see Jesus as an advocate for equality and social justice. Neither of those concepts are devoid of truth, but they’re not what Jesus’ mission was about, and they’re not what the “good news”  really is.

About eight pages into chapter four was where the suspense started to pick up again. By then, I had basically come to the conclusion that Simply Good News was indeed a good book that sets forth to put the Christ back into Christianity, not just in the sense that it talks about Jesus, but that it recognizes Jesus as the Christ who came to save the world from sin and death, rather than just a cool guy who came to tell us all how to be cool, too. Even the beginning of chapter four, in which Wright asserts that the Bible can be trusted, and in which he dismisses Ehrman’s pretense at scholarly superiority without mentioning Ehrman by name, is really great. But then Wright starts describing three “problems that prevent those in our time from grasping the idea of good news”. The very first of these “problems” is an over-emphasis on the redemption. To quote from page 65, “The church has latched onto a way of speaking about the gospel that goes like this: you are a sinner, deserving death; Jesus died in your place; therefore believe in him, and you’ll go to heaven after all. This can be shortened even further to something like, Jesus took my punishment. This assumes, first, that I deserved it, and second, that because Jesus took my punishment I therefore go free. There are many churches in which preaching the gospel means little more than repeating, explaining, and illustrating this statement.”

To which I can only say, “Yeah, you got a problem with that?” Because I belong to a church body that puts the emphasis on the cross and the salvation that comes from it. And that’s a good thing, because what can be more important and more precious than salvation? Of course, no pithy statement about Jesus includes every truth that can be found in the Bible, but pointing to the Law and Gospel message of sin and salvation is the closest you can get to fitting the whole of Christianity into a nutshell.

But, as it turns out, Wright’s objection to this description of the good news is basically that he has heard it in contexts where there are other theological problems happening. In particular, he associates it with the idea that dying and going to heaven is the end, and not understanding that the new creation is more good and more permanent than whatever it is that happens to us between death and the end of this world. (Granted, that is something that is rarely discussed, and may come as a new piece of information to many people who read Wright’s book.)

Wright spends most of the rest of the chapter discussing two other problems that are extremely prevalent and not talked about enough. One is what Wright calls the “split-level world”, that is, the idea that God lives upstairs and the world is down here and that there’s a boundary between the spiritual and the “real”. This perspective is characteristic of Deism, a not-really-Christian belief that God created the world but hasn’t been really involved in it for a while. But a lot of individual Christians take a similar approach in any number of ways. The whole “spiritual not religious” thing is one of those ways, as is the idea that religion is not something that we should discuss in polite conversation outside of specifically religious contexts. According to the heading of the section, Wright essentially sees this problem as a conflict between the philosophies of rationalism and romanticism.

The other problem Wright discusses in this chapter is best summed up in delightful phrase “chronological snobbery” which he uses on page 85. Since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has been obsessed with the idea of progress, and that concept has been fully engrained into the minds of pretty much everyone born in the last couple centuries. We look at history as if things are progressively getting better. Certainly, in many specific areas, that is true. Medicine, technology, scientific knowledge in general, living conditions in most places… but not truth or morality. But yet we use the statement “It’s the twenty-first century!” as an argument for changes in moral or social perceptions, and we take it for granted that “progressive” means “good”. We all know from the events of our personal lives, as well as major news events, that change can be either good or bad, but any changes in societal values are perceived to be a good thing. That isn’t always false, but it isn’t always true, either, and I personally think it’s especially dangerous in the postmodern era, since postmodern thought is, by definition, so anti-universal-truth, and therefore anti-Christian. I could say more about both of these topics, but since I’m writing about Wright’s book, for now I’ll just say that, for those twelve pages, Wright totally gets it right and that I would whole-heartedly recommend that section if it was practical to recommend small sections of books rather than whole books.

The remainder of the book contains a number of valid points and interesting discussions, but it gradually drifts into evangelical-leaning territory. In fact, near the end of the book, Wright contradicts earlier statements of his by restating the “good news” several times, using words like “glory” and “honor” rather than “Christ” or “Jesus’ death and resurrection”. Worse, he spends a lot of pages talking about us as Christians “becoming good-news people”. I think he may have meant that in a third-use-of-the-law kind of way, and I appreciate that he mentioned the idea of vocation a couple times, but still, that phrase implies legalistic ideas, as if our Christianity only “counts” if we behave correctly. Earlier in the book, I had been slightly disturbed that Wright was so determined to describe heaven as a place on Earth, (Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth?) but I had come to the conclusion that he was talking about the new creation. But now, in light of the last chapter of the book, I’m a little skeptical about whether that’s what he meant. It also occurred to me towards the end of the book that Wright never discussed the sacraments, which is a pretty glaring omission that I’m surprised didn’t bother me sooner.

All in all, my takeaway from this book was that I’m really glad I’m Lutheran. Every part of this book that I agreed with and thought was well-articulated were the parts that sounded like they could have been written by a Lutheran, and every one of my quibbles and qualms has to do with the fact that it wasn’t more in line with confessional Lutheran teachings. But what struck me most is that everything that Wright introduced as a surprising and unusual perspective that will enlighten his readers is something that Lutherans already know and preach as the gospel truth. (Minor pun intended) To Wright—and, evidently, to his readers—it actually seems like an unusual perspective to treat Christianity as good news about divine deliverance rather than as advice. But in confessional Lutheranism, Jesus’ death and resurrection is always the central message, and Jesus’ role as savior is always the point. Wright stresses that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament, which he puts forth as something that most Christians don’t understand, and that therefore detracts from the “good news.” But that’s how I’ve always been taught to see the Old Testament. In fact, the current Sunday morning Bible study where I go to church is looking at how the familiar Old Testament Bible stories point forward to the cross. (Shout out to Pastor Fisk. In case he happens to see this blog post, HI PASTOR FISK!) Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you too may hear this Bible study!  Wright seems to think that he’s saying something downright revolutionary by talking about the resurrection of the dead and the new creation, but Lutherans talk about those things sometimes. Wright is dismissive of a redemption-based description of Jesus because it sounds to him like it portrays God as being unloving, and he writes as if he is introducing an unfamiliar idea by pointing out that the very reason that God wanted to save the world was because he loved it so much. But that’s exactly what Lutherans hear in church every Sunday.

In short, I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in a little religious food for thought, but I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who is hoping to have questions answered. It’s a lot better than most of the Christian books for the popular audience, but it definitely has its shortcomings.

More Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say

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Martin LutherA little more than a year ago, I wrote this blog post, expressing my annoyance that Martin Luther is often incorrectly associated with certain liberal ideas such as a mistrust of organized religion and the subjectivity of biblical interpretation. Seriously, Martin Luther is among the most misquoted historical figures of all time. According to the Editor’s Introduction to the Augsburg Confession in the 2006 publication of the Book of Concord, the time-honored tradition of grossly misquoting Luther dates back to 1519 in a book written by John Eck for the purpose of turning people against Luther. But I think that some of the current non-Lutheran viewpoints associated with Luther actually have the opposite purpose; they come from some people’s desire to claim that Luther’s reforms were heading in the direction that certain current denominations are going. At any rate, Luther never wanted the Bible to be subject to personal interpretation and he by no means believed that religion is a one-on-one individualistic relationship with God that doesn’t have anything to do with church. That’s basically what I said in the aforementioned blog post from last summer.

It has come to my attention since then, though, that Martin Luther’s name has also become associated with transcendentalist ideas. There are a number of popular bogus Luther quotations that get posted all over the internet, and I am aware of one particular facebook page that bears Martin Luther’s name, but has posted the words of Romantic-era transcendentalist poets with the assertion that they have some connection to Luther’s teachings. I later unfollowed that page after noticing that the admin had done that kind of thing on several occasions, but I am disturbed to know that such a page exists and that there are many people who repost those things with the idea that those heretical (or, at best, heterodox) quotations are profound, true, and consistent with Lutheran beliefs.

Transcendentalism is the philosophical idea, associated with Romantic-era literature as well as with a few much older beliefs, that nature is itself divine. Depending upon who is being quoted and what the context of the statement is, transcendentalists may assert either that there is no God apart from the natural world, that God speaks to us directly through the natural world, or that He can be studied by immersing oneself in the natural world. Transcendentalism can be rectified with various different beliefs about what God or the gods are like, but it is not consistent with biblical Christianity. In all fairness, I suppose it is technically possible for someone to be a Christian with a transcendentalist point of view, but this cannot be supported by scripture and is not in keeping with Lutheran doctrine. (I am here defining “Christian” as a person believing in the existence of the triune God, viewing the Bible to be God’s Word, and having faith in the salvific work of Jesus Christ, who was both true God and true man and who lived a sinless human life and died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for the sins of all humankind so that we may have eternal life in heaven.)

Luther quoteThere are several fake Luther quotes out there that speak about finding God in nature. The most famous of these is “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Another one, which is very similar and perhaps is just a variation on the same quotation, says, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime”.  There are others out there on the internet that are along the same vein. Not only have the people of the internet been unable to cite a source for these statements, but they don’t even sound like Luther. Martin Luther’s rhetoric is not known for being cutesy and fluffy. He certainly had a way with words, but he often used it to disagree with people who taught false doctrine. Basically, if you can use a quotation as the caption for a beautiful and inspirational picture of the natural world, either it’s probably not a Luther quotation, or you’re probably pretty bad at captioning your pictures. Here’s a website that gives genuine Luther quotations. (I would like to point out for the record that Luther did not specialize exclusively in insults and name-calling; he also had much of importance and significance to say about God.)There’s also a twitter page where someone posts these Luther insults in response to false doctrine that Joel Osteen puts on Twitter. Frankly, I think that Martin Luther would approve of this posthumous use of his words. It’s very much in keeping with the way he used them when he was alive. It’s certainly more consistent with Luther’s personality and his beliefs than are vague transcendentalist statements about finding God in nature.

I have no doubt that Martin Luther was as capable as anyone else of acknowledging the beauty of certain aspects of the natural world, and that he appreciated the fact that God had created that beauty. You don’t have to look any farther than the Small Catechism (for example, the explanation to the first article of the creed) in order to see that Luther saw creation and every good thing in it as a direct gift from God. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging that God created something good and thinking that he communicates with us through it.

It is commonly said by Christians of all denominations that we can see God’s hand in the natural world, and this is certainly true to some extent, but God does not literally speak to us through nature. In fact, the existence and beauty of the world around us obviously does not constitute proof of the existence of God, because if it did, there would be no atheists or agnostics. Even if someone was to conclude that there is a God just by looking at plants and rocks and shining lakes and majestic sunsets, they wouldn’t be able to know anything else about God from those sources of information.

Jesus on the CrossOne truth that we can learn from the natural world is that people aren’t the only beings that experience disease, destruction, and death. Even in a relatively wild and untouched place, there will be plants and animals that suffer and die and rot, and that may suffer and/or look ugly in the meantime. While it’s true that the creative hand of God can be seen in nature, the destructive effects of sin are also written there very clearly. And nature doesn’t tell us which is which; if it wasn’t for the actual real Word of God, we would have no way of knowing that God gave us a perfect world and that it was sin that damaged it. Many people actually do see the imperfection of the world as evidence that God either doesn’t exist or that he isn’t entirely benevolent. Those are the doubts that come from ignoring the Biblical teachings about sin. Furthermore, the natural world doesn’t inform us that this destruction caused by sin isn’t the end of the story, that God has already fixed things for us. There is nothing in nature that tells us about Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection. To receive all of that crucial information, we need the real Word of God, which is the Bible. And Luther never said anything to the contrary; he firmly believed in Sola Scriptura.

Anyone who claims that Luther said or believed otherwise is misrepresenting him. And anyone who says or believes otherwise themselves is placing faith in something other than God by reading divine messages into something that God has never said He would use to communicate with us. It’s essentially a belief in omens and signs, no different than in many pagan religions. At best, it’s a form of superstition that shouldn’t blend with Christianity, and at worst, it’s a completely non-Christian religion that is particularly evil because it falsely calls itself Christianity.

Stuff That Isn’t in the Bible

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Five in the morningMistakes

“You are worth dying for.”- Jesus

You are worth dying forFor the sake of not being mean, I’m not going to specify where I saw this or who put it there. (Although I am rather hoping that they will see this blog post and realize that my objection to it went beyond the fact that it involves ending a sentence with a preposition.) The context where I first saw it isn’t actually a relevant point, because this phrase can be found in many places on the internet, and it would seem that it’s something of a cliché in the internet Christian community. As great as it is that many people use the internet to talk about religion, the problem with the internet Christian community is that it tends to be dominated by clichés.

The problem with this particular cliché is that it attributes a quotation to Jesus that isn’t actually from the Bible. One must always be careful when putting words in Jesus’ mouth, and when I say that one must be careful, I really mean that one shouldn’t do it. Paraphrasing is a dangerous thing when the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting is not clearly made. That’s true in academic writing and it’s true when talking about God.

I’m not saying that paraphrasing is bad in general, because it isn’t. As an English major who is used to writing a lot of papers, I can’t deny that there is definitely a place for paraphrasing. If I tried to deny that, I would earn the disapproval of many professors. Sometimes, paraphrasing is the most efficient way to make a point, especially when you’re trying to express a simple idea by referring to a text that discusses multiple ideas and therefore uses complex language. Sometimes, it’s the best way to draw together two related ideas that come from different texts. Paraphrasing is often necessary in order to have an opportunity to use your own writing style and voice, and it’s the only way to show your professor (or any other reader) that you actually understand what you’re saying and have put thought into your topic. Some of those reasons to paraphrase can definitely apply to talking about the Bible, and others may or may not, depending upon the context. But, just as in any form of academic writing, it’s always important when talking about Jesus to distinguish between an actual quotation and paraphrasing.

The idea behind this particular cliché paraphrased quotation is obviously to express Jesus’ love for us, which is so great that he willingly sacrificed himself to pay for our sins. That’s a good idea to express, and it’s Biblical and true and important. The problem is that it isn’t really what that phrase is saying. It’s way too easy to equivocate on the word “worth”. Actually, I’m not sure that even counts as equivocation, because the misunderstanding is what the expression is actually saying, and the intended meaning requires redefining words a little.

CrucifixThe problematic word here is “worth”. “Worth” is an expression of value, and value is generally understood to be a property of the thing being valued, not the person by whom the thing is valued. To say “you are worth dying for” is to imply that the “you” being addressed has inherent worth and is worthy in and of him/herself. This is contrary both to Lutheranism and to Christian doctrine in general. It is important to understand that our worth and worthiness are not the reason that Christ died for us, they are a cause of the fact that Christ died for us. In and of ourselves, we are not worth anything, and we certainly are not worth something as valuable as the life that Jesus sacrificed for us. If this cliché included the prepositional phrase “to me”, that would help a little, but there’s still something wrong with the fact that “you” is the subject of the sentence while Jesus is being pushed into a little prepositional phrase. Yes, it’s true that there are many Bible verses where the word “you” is the subject, but that’s different because every Bible verse is surrounded by a large and rich context. (That is, the Bible) A religious cliché that doesn’t come from the Bible has only an implied context, so if it doesn’t stand on its own, it’s in danger of saying something it really doesn’t mean. (Or at least, we really hope that’s not what it actually means.)

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

Even though the intended meaning behind “You are worth dying for” is a Biblical idea, the accidental meaning is directly anti-Biblical because it contradicts Romans 5:6-8, which says, “ετι γαρ Xριστος, οντων ημων ασθενων ετι, κατα καιρον υπερ ασεβων απεθανεν. μολις γαρ υπερ δικαιου τις αποθανειται; υπερ γαρ του αγαθου, ταχα τις και τολμα αποθανειν; συνιστησιν δε την εαυτου αγαπην εις ημας ο θεος, οτι ετι αμαρτωλων οντων ημων, Xριστος υπερ ημων απεθανεν.” Or, in other words, (English ones) “For Christ, when we were still without strength, according to the right time, for the ungodly he died. For rarely for the righteous will one die, yet for the good man, perhaps someone would even dare to die, but God commends his love for us that, we being sinners, Christ died for us.”

(As a side note, I confess that about 70% of the reason for my recent inclination to use Greek words on my blog is that it makes me feel clever, even though I realize that there’s a big difference between knowing something and knowing how to look something up. But it’s worth noting that about 7% of the reason for my use of Greek words is that Greek is just awesomer than English, and the other 23% is that quoting Bible verses in Greek is more accurate because the New Testament was in Greek in the first place. And I think that those are both valid reasons. As another side note, I would like to acknowledge the likelihood that I may have made a mistake in the preceding paragraph. As yet another side note, I would like to point out how excited I am that I only had to peek in the King James a little bit to figure out what the Greek of Romans 5:6-8 is in English. And, yeah, I think that’s enough side notes for now.)

I hadn’t really thought ahead to how I was going to finish this blog post, and now it’s morning and it’s time for me to do daytime stuff, so I’m just going to leave it there.  The end.

A Good Friday Blog Post with Greek Words in It

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Jesus' arrestI noticed something fascinating and awesome during the Good Friday service today. It was in the Passion reading from John 18 and 19, and the particular verse was John 18:8, when the chief priests and officers have arrived in the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Twice, Jesus asks them who they are seeking and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” John 18:8 is Jesus’ response the second time. In the ESV, the verse reads, “Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’” The bit that made me notice something fascinating and awesome was the “let these men go” bit. I remembered hearing on Worldview Everlasting, my favorite youtube addiction, that there’s a certain Greek word that is often translated “forgiven” that can also be translated as something along the lines of “sent away” or “separated”, among other things. (Which is really interesting, because it means that the phrase “your sins are forgiven” is equivalent to “your sins have been sent away”)

Even after much searching, I have failed to find the Worldview Everlasting video in question, and I actually don’t remember exactly what it said or which verse it quoted. (Although I think it may have been Matthew 9:2) I did, however, find the Greek word in question.  It is αφίημι and the various forms thereof. For example, the last phrase of Matthew 9:2, “Your sins have been forgiven” in the ESV, is “αφίενταί σου αί αμαρτίαι”in Greek.  αφίενταί, according to a certain library book, is the present passive third-person form of αφίημι.  And the beginning of Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (in the Lord’s Prayer) is “καί άφες ημίν τά οφειλήματα ημων.”  άφες  is the second-person imperative active form of αφίημι. I have here in front of me a book that has approximately a bajillion examples of places where forms of αφίημι are found in the Bible, with a variety of different English translations depending upon the context. The point is that it is indeed a word that means forgive/ let go of/send away, etc.

The other point is that John 18:8 is in that list. (Or at least, it’s presumably there somewhere; I can’t actually find it at the moment, and I am hereby acknowledging that, just in case I’m wrong that it’s a form of the same word.) According to the internet, in the Greek, John 18:8 reads, “απεκριθη Ιησους, Ειπον υμιν οτι εγω ειμι. ει ουν εμε ζητειτε, αφετε τουτους υπαγειν”, except that I left out all of the accent marks and stuff because I’m too lazy to deal with them. (Also, some things, like the breathing marks over leading vowels, don’t appear to exist on Microsoft Word. That’s annoying.) The part that the ESV translates “Let these men go away” is the part that says “αφετε τουτους υπαγειν” in Greek. (Incidentally, τουτους is a pronoun, not a noun, so wouldn’t it make more sense for the English translation to be “Let them go away”?) αφετε is evidently the second-person imperative form of αφίημι. That’s not speculation; I looked it up to be sure, and that is indeed what the plural second-person imperative of a Greek verb is supposed to look like.

So, to make a long story short, I have spent the last few hours using various books and internet resources to verify that the Greek word used in John 18:8 was indeed the word I thought and hoped it was. A better and much quicker way to verify this would have been to ask Pastor before I left church, because the fact that I don’t actually know Greek rather holds me back from knowing what stuff means in Greek. But, y’know, on Good Friday we’re supposed to leave church in silence, so that’s what I did.

crucifixThe interesting point that I have thus far failed to make is that it’s cool that the word used in John 18:8 is the same as the word translated “forgive” because of the reason Jesus was being arrested, and then crucified. At the moment of his arrest, Jesus told his captors to forgive/let go his disciples, rather than arresting them too, just as, through his death on the cross, Jesus forgave/let go us from our sins, rather than condemning us for them.

The point of all this, in summary, is that forgiveness and salvation come through Christ’s sacrifice. Yeah, that’s basically what I was getting at here.

Why Young People Leave the Church

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I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I've taken myself. So here's a picture of my family's church in Arkansas.

I was going to use some random pictures from Google of pretty churches, but I decided It would be better to use pictures I’ve taken myself. So here’s a blurry and low-quality picture of my family’s church in Arkansas.

I frequently read or hear things about how few “young people” there are in churches, and how the youth of this generation doesn’t care about religion and is falling away from the faith. The definition of “young people” will vary depending upon the context; it could refer to a specific narrow demographic group, usually high-school aged kids, or it could just be the opposite of “elderly” in a binary system where everyone is either young or elderly. It doesn’t really matter; regardless of how you define youth, it is statistically true, at least in many congregations and denominations, that there are a lot of elderly people and few young people. At least in this society, it is accurate to say that young people as a demographic group are falling away from the church. Sometimes people comment and complain about this in order to criticize young people for leaving the church and sometimes they’re criticizing the church for losing young people.  In either case, it’s understood that something must be done to bring young people back into the church.

People offer lots of reasons for why young people might have a tendency to leave the church, and most of these reasons imply possible solutions. For example, it is often said that young people don’t like liturgy, and that a contemporary worship style encourages teenagers and young adults to attend worship and to develop an emotional affinity for church. I had thought this was actually a very recent idea, but I once saw a non-denominational hymnal from the 1920s that claimed that young people are so emotional that they can only be drawn to religion by singing hymns that are very emotionally charged. Hence, I-Love-Jesus theology becomes preferred over Jesus-Died-For-Me theology. This is a problem, and I highly doubt that it has any success in drawing young people into the church.

Then there are some people who say that young people leave the church because church is boring or irrelevant. I think this may be a more valid argument because I actually have heard former Christians or Christmas-and-Easter-only churchgoers say that church is boring. It would seem that this actually ties very closely to the reason in the previous paragraph, because the proposed solution is often the same: dispense with the liturgy, change the musical style, and present a more modern and socially relevant image to the world. Let youth group activities take precedence over worship, use pop culture references to keep things interesting, and make sure that the clergy come across as being cool and fun people. The problem with this is that it turns church into a social group and a genre of entertainment. If the desired young people start coming to church for the fun and the society, they will only stay for the fun and the society. People can get tired of a favorite band or a favorite genre of movies after loving it for a few years, and people can drift away from a set of friends over time. In the same way, people can get bored of a fun and culturally relevant church just as easily (and in fact, much more easily) as they can get bored of a liturgical and confessional church. You can’t combat a person’s tendency to get bored by catering to their changing tastes. But boredom becomes irrelevant when the topic at hand is understood to be important. Someone can stop liking their favorite food, but they can never get tired of eating. Someone can stop liking their favorite TV show, but that won’t drive them away from television itself. Someone can get bored with their favorite hymn or stop being fascinated by their favorite Bible verse, but they won’t get bored of religion if they realize that religion is more than whatever personally relevant message they are currently getting out of it. A clear law and gospel message is always relevant, and if that’s what people are hearing, people aren’t likely to get bored and aren’t likely to let temporary boredom drive them away from the church.

101_9768Another commonly offered explanation for why young people might not like to go to church is that religion is too full of rules and accusations, and that most of these Christian values are hypocritical anyway. If we want to bring young people into the church, we should therefore tone down the morality and emphasize God’s love. In other words, we need less law and more gospel. That would certainly be true in a congregation that was too legalistic in the first place, but it doesn’t work to remove all references to sin. If you do that, you’re throwing out every aspect of theology, because things like forgiveness and grace and salvation lose all of their meaning when sin isn’t acknowledged. The result of this is a church that portrays God as nothing more than a benevolent guiding spirit who loves us. That is certainly appealing, but in the long run, it’s much less appealing than the message of a God who loves us so much that he sent his only Son to live a sinless life and die to pay for all of our sins so that we might have eternal life. That story has some gruesome and disturbing chapters, but it’s a story with a much happier ending, and besides, it’s true.

Personally, I think it’s pretty obvious what’s really driving young people away from the church. It isn’t that church is too boring, too old-fashioned, or not cheerful enough. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The problem is that this society doesn’t acknowledge the fact that children are intelligent and easily interested. Our culture caters to children’s short attention spans, propensity to become bored, and undeveloped thought processes when those are traits that children don’t actually have. I think we actually encourage kids to become bored quickly by letting them know that we’re afraid they’ll become bored, and we discourage them from being curious and intellectual by letting them know that we’re afraid they won’t understand things. Therefore, everything is dumbed down for kids, and that includes religion. For example, when I was a little kid in Sunday school, I frequently was made to sing a certain fun, interesting, and easy-to-remember song that went like this:

“Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord! RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND, RIGHT FOOT, LEFT FOOT, HEAD! Father Abraham had many sons/ Many sons had Father Abraham/ I am one of them, and so are you/ So let’s all praise the Lord!”

If you’re still reading at this point, I’m betting that you skipped most of the words of that song, or at least skimmed over it pretty quickly. I got pretty annoyed and impatient just typing it out. I was going to cut it off in the middle, but I decided not to do that because my annoyance and any reader’s disinterest in those lyrics is exactly the point I’m trying to make. In contrast, here is a song that Martin Luther wrote for children in 1531:

“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word/ Curb those who fain by craft and sword/ Would wrest the Kingdom from Thy Son/ And set at naught all He hath done./ Lord Jesus Christ, Thy pow’r make known/ For Thou art Lord of lords alone/ Defend thy Christendom that we/ May evermore sing praise to Thee./ O Comforter of priceless worth/ Send peace and unity on earth/ Support us in our final strife/ And lead us out of death to life.”

Do you notice a slight difference between these two songs? For example, do you notice that the first one is repetitive, boring, and demeaning to the intelligence of anyone who is told that they’re supposed to like it because of the fact that they’re a child? And do you notice that the second one is more interesting, more meaningful, and doesn’t drive you berserk with its utter inanity before you’re even halfway through the second verse? Do you notice that the first song would make you want to rip out your own vocal chords if you were forced to sing it on a regular basis while the second song is something that would actually be enjoyable to sing frequently? Also, it’s worth noting that it has a tune that is more interesting and aesthetically pleasing (by virtue of the fact that it has a range of more than three notes) while still being quite simple and easy to sing. As a young person and as a former small child, I feel qualified to say that young people don’t appreciate having their intelligence insulted by stupid and annoying ditties and that young people have good enough attention spans and enough emotional maturity to be capable of understanding that church isn’t supposed to be a form of entertainment. If young people are being driven away from the church, maybe a good solution would be to stop forcing young people to sing “Father Abraham.”

Happy Epiphany!

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EpiphanyToday is Epiphany, one of those holidays that I think should be a much bigger deal than it usually is. Then again, as I often use this blog to say, I am in favor of holidays in general and think that every holiday should be a really, really big deal. However, I think that Epiphany in particular is one of the most underrated holidays in the entire year. We should celebrate Epiphany not only by observing it in church, but also by baking Epiphany cookies, going Epiphany caroling, posting Epiphany greetings on our facebook pages, and not being in school yet. This year, Epiphany conveniently falls on a Sunday, but when it doesn’t, we should have Epiphany Day church services anyway. And it goes without saying that we should write blog posts about how much we like Epiphany.

Google translate says that this is "Epiphany" in Greek. Greek is awesome; it saddens me that I don't know it.

Google translate says that this is “Epiphany” in Greek. Greek is awesome; it saddens me that I don’t know it.

I like Epiphany a lot. I’m not making comparisons here; I’m not necessarily saying that I like it any more than any other holiday. But it is cool. The word Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation, which is a fancy word for an event that shows something. (Therefore, the word epiphany has also entered the English language as a word that refers to a sudden realization.) In terms of the holiday, the thing being shown is the incarnation of Jesus, and the event showing it is the famous journey of the wise men.

Here’s a fun fact that is fairly well known, but still worth saying: We don’t actually know how many of them there were. Matthew 2:1 just says “wise men from the east”, it doesn’t specify a number. Apparently, the reason we tend to assume that there were three was that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Also, it is worth noting that “wise men”, “magi” and “kings” are not synonymous. As far as I know, there’s no reason to believe that the wise men were royalty. They were probably rich, since they had gold and frankincense and myrrh to bring as gifts to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean they were kings. In fact, the title of the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is wrong on three counts, because there also is no reason to believe that the wise men were from the orient. I’ve heard that they were probably from Persia, although I don’t know how certain that is. The Bible also makes no mention of rubber cigars, but I’m inclined to believe that part of the song.

wise menFor me, the really interesting part about the wise men is the fact that they brought myrrh. I bring this up partly because it was mentioned in the sermon in church today, but I’ve heard it a number of times before and have always thought it was interesting. Once upon a time, I didn’t know what frankincense and myrrh were, so I just linked them together in my head with gold because I knew what gold was. As I have since learned, frankincense is a type of incense; you set it on fire and it smells good and acts as a metaphor for prayer rising to heaven. Myrrh is a spice which was used in burial. Those are some odd gifts to give a baby. I mean, the gold could obviously be set aside for his college fund, but I’m sure Mary and Joseph didn’t want to encourage Baby Jesus to play with fire or to take up embalming as a hobby. The reason that the myrrh is interesting in this context is that it foreshadows and points out the fact that Jesus’ death and Jesus’ birth were linked; they were part of the same mission. The other two times that myrrh is mentioned in the New Testament both have to do with the crucifixion: Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh to drink while he is on the cross (Mark 15:23) and he is buried with myrrh. (John 19:39) I’m not claiming that there are great theological hidden meanings in the motif of myrrh; Jesus’ crucifixion is equally significant regardless of what gifts he was given as a baby, but I still think it’s kind of interesting.

Just to round out my Epiphany Day blog post and to make sure that there’s something of substance in it, here is a link to one of my favorite Epiphany hymns, and here is the tune. And one more thing: you now have my official permission to take down your Christmas decorations if that’s really what you want to do. My own Christmas tree will stay where it is for a few more weeks, but at this point, that’s a matter of personal preference rather than an expression of the fact that it’s still Christmas. Because it actually isn’t Christmas anymore.

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