Archives For History

Jack-O-LanternI’ve written a bit on Halloween in the past, and I’ve even engaged in a very gentle debate with some of my coworkers on whether or not it’s appropriate for a Christian to Trick-or-Trick (here). Some people can be dismissive about this issue (myself included), but there are significant factors involved. It deserves careful thought.

Here’s what no one should ever do on Halloween, or any other time of the year:

  • Worship Satan
  • Call upon evil spirits, enlist their aid, or try to appease them
  • Celebrate evil
  • Harm other people or their property, whether through physical or magical means

If Halloween means any of those things to you, run from it. If taking your kids door to door to ask your neighbors for candy implies any of the above listed activities to you, then find a suitable alternative. I have no agenda to convince anyone to go against their conscience. My simple and slanted thoughts are offered only for those who aren’t sure what to make of Halloween.

Here’s what you need to know. Halloween has pagan roots. I have not done the work to verify this, but I’ve read it a couple of places and it sounds right. I’m not interested in finding a credible source to verify the pagan roots because they don’t bother me. The names of our planets have pagan roots. So do the names of the days in our weeks. So does the timing of our celebration of Christmas and several of our Christmas traditions. Same with Easter.

So the roots are pagan. Do we throw it out? Honestly, why not? Definitely feel free to stop celebrating Halloween. There’s no reason why you need to. I’m not going to argue that it’s the Christian thing to do.

Halloween Hula GirlsBut here’s something to consider. Kids have fun on Halloween. My girls love to play dress up any day of the year, so they have a good time when all of the kids in our neighborhood dress up. Our country happens to celebrate National Dress Up Day on October 31. That makes for a fun night for my kids. This event also happens to coincide with National Share Your Candy Day, which my kids also happen to love. So it’s fun for them to go door to door, say hi to the neighbors, bump into them on the sidewalk, talk about each other’s costumes, and share candy with each other.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe my neighbors are engaging in the occult on Halloween. They’re having fun. They’re atypically social on this one night. Some of my neighbors have decorated their lawns with spiders, tombstones, and ghosts, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that they won’t conjure a single dead soul or perform a single hex on October 31. They’re not thinking through the cultic connections of some of the original Halloween practices; they’re just enjoying what our culture has made Halloween into: National Dress Up Day / National Share Your Candy Day.

I’ll admit that I could be wrong here. My neighbors could be sacrificing goats in their backyards. But from everything I know about them, they’re not closet occultists. I’ll also acknowledge that while my neighborhood doesn’t seem to be into Satanism, yours might be. If so, don’t engage in their celebration of evil. That’s an easy decision.

But statistically speaking, your neighbors and mine are more likely to be naturalists than Wiccans. Which means that they don’t believe ghosts, spirits, curses, or the any other supernatural manifestations are real. I’m pretty convinced that my neighbors are not worshipping Satan—not because I think they’re too Christian to do such a thing, but because I don’t think they believe in Satan or anything similarly “unscientific.” I think they’re dressing up and sharing candy.

To me, this means we all have an individual choice to make. You can view Halloween according to its pagan roots and avoid it as a celebration of evil. You’re entitled to make that decision, and I won’t look down on you at all. You’ve got to do what’s best. Or you can view Halloween according to the way its modern celebraters see it—as a day of fun and games and sociability. I’m choosing to see it that way, and I hope you won’t look down on me for that.

Vampire TeethIt may be difficult to overlook the evil origins of Halloween, but our Christian predecessors thought it was possible—even beneficial—to take a pagan celebration and rework it into a reminder of good things. That’s why Christmas is when it is, why Easter is the way it is, and why we have All Saints Day at the close of October. Maybe they were wrong, but they took a celebration and tweaked it for what they believed to be God’s glory. In my view, our culture has handed us a gift in weeding out the actual Satanism of some early Halloween practices and giving us a night of fun and games. They’ve done the hard work of systematically forgetting all of the pagan implications and viewing it in terms of the imagination.

If you’re still up in the air on the whole issue, ask yourself whether it’s possible to redeem National Dress Up Day / National Share Your Candy Day for the sake of your friends and neighbors.

You are free to decide.

 

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the seriesReview of God & the Gay Christian

Having read several reviews of Vines’ book over the last 24 hours, let me begin my critique on a different note. I don’t assume that Vines is reading his view into the text. Last time I checked, I’m not God and I don’t have direct access to his interpretive motivations. What I do have access to are his vines 1actual biblical and historical arguments, and it is these that I will discuss in these blogs.

I also want to set aside the whole “overturning centuries of tradition” critique. Yes, church tradition is non-affirming of gay and lesbian relationships. It was also non-affirming of a heliocentric solar system until Galileo dared to go against centuries of well-established tradition. I’m unashamedly Protestant; I believe that the God-breathed text can (and sometimes does) overturn tradition. While the tradition argument should be considered and weighed, it’s a bit of a red herring. Vines knows that he’s going against tradition. But 80-90% of his book shows why he believes that the authoritative Bible challenges this tradition. Such a proposal is bold, if not risky. But it’s not inherently wrong—if you’re Protestant.

So again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It’s not that I don’t like pudding, or that I think Vines is a bad cook. But the pudding he’s served up is missing some key ingredients.

A major thread throughout his book is that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world” (pg. 104; cf. chapter 2), and this is a serious and necessary claim. Think about it. Paul’s language in Romans 1 could be taken to refer to straight people having gay sex—they exchanged the natural function of the male/female. And if Paul didn’t know what we know now, that some people are simply born gay, then perhaps he wouldn’t have said what he did. Or, put differently, since same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world (the cornerstone of his argument), then Paul could not have such people in mind. Paul was only condemning straight people who got bored with heterosexual sex and ventured into new, same-sex territory to satisfy their hyper-lustful urges.

My initial thought is: does it matter? If we were able to bring Paul up to speed with all of our psychological wisdom, would his argument in Romans 1 look different? Or, isn’t it a bit bold to think that we in 2014 have arrived in our understanding of sexual orientation? In 400 years or 800 years, will people look back on our silly and backwoods scientific views, just as some look back on Paul’s (seemingly) patriarchal views? The ever-changing fields of psychology and social science are suspicious starting points for moral arguments.

But let’s grant Vines’ assumption. Let’s say that our modern understanding of sexual orientation is as polished as we think it is and therefore a valid starting point to read the New Testament. Houston, we still have a problem: Ancient concepts of same-sex orientation did exist in Paul’s world.

I’m not sure if Vines ignored or simply did not come across the piles and piles of historical evidence that works against his thesis. Only God knows. In any case, if you’re genuinely interested in this discussion, you need to know that the ancients did in fact have beliefs about what we now know as “same-sex orientation.”

Aristotle for instance said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b). In other words, some people are born with same-sex desires. Some ancients even speculated about certain biological defects that cause some men to desire other men. One writer explains that males who desire to be penetrated are born with a physiological vines 3defect where semen is abnormally secreted into the anus and sparks a desire for friction (Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26; cf. 879a36-880a5; 879b28-30). Soranus, the Greek physician from Ephesus, also believed that same-sex desire is shaped more by nature rather than nurture, but locates the source of the desire in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134).

We can certainly write off such speculations as unscientific, barbaric, and downright wrong. And we should. But the veracity of such claims about orientation is irrelevant. What matters is that ancient writers were making such claims about orientation. It is clear that at least some of Paul’s contemporaries believed that same-sex desires were biological.

Some writers were not as specific—or creative—as the medical texts cited above about such orientation, yet they still seemed to believe in a form of what we would call homosexual orientation. Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Paul, presents a mythological account about why some people desire sex with the same gender. He says that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitalia to women and women genitalia to men. In other words, some women are trapped in men’s bodies and some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). The account, of course, is mythical and humorous, but nonetheless reflects ancient assumptions that desire for same sex intercourse is inherent. Less mythical is Lucian’s report of a woman named Megilla who says: “I was born as a woman like the rest of you, but my mind, desire, and everything else in me are that of a man” (Dialogue of the Courtesans 5:4). Today, we would say that Megilla was a lesbian—or transgendered—even if such categories were not available to the ancients.

Bernadette Brooten—an affirming scholar, by the way—has gathered evidence from ancient astrological texts, which suggested that sexual orientation was determined by the arrangement of the stars. One text says: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men” (Matheseos libri viii 7.25.1). Dorotheos wrote her astrological poem, Carmen Astrologicum, right around the time Paul was sending his letter to the Roman church. In it, she says that if the sun and moon are at a particular location when women are born, they “will be a Lesbian, desirous of women, and if the native is a male, he will be desirous of males” (2.7.6). After looking at many more examples, Brooten concludes: “Contrary to the view that the idea of sexual orientation did not develop until the nineteenth century, the astrological sources demonstrate the existence in the Roman world of the concept of a lifelong erotic orientation.”

I could list many more examples of ancient concepts of sexual orientation, but suffice it to say: Vines’ claim that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world,” which is crucial to his entire argument, ignores a wealth of historical evidence to the contrary. Maybe Paul did not have any concept of sexual orientation, or maybe he did. In any case, we cannot appeal to the absence of such a view in his cultural environment and then project it upon Paul as Vines does. When Paul therefore says that “men…gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (Rom 1:27), he is not revealing ignorance about sexual orientation.

There’s no reason—no good historical reason—to believe that Paul was unaware of same-sex orientation.

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

With this series of blog posts, I want to help you better understand the way in which the Bible was written so that you can get more out of your Bible reading. Specifically, I will be exploring the different literary genres in which the Bible was written.

Perhaps that sounds startling: “I thought the Bible was the Word of God. Why are we considering literary genres?” The simple answer is: because that’s the way God chose to record his inerrant, infallible Word. Leland Ryken explains:

“The Bible is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a work of literature. The one thing that the Bible is not is what Christians so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached. The characteristic way of expressing religious truth in the Bible is through story, poem, vision, and letter. By comparison, expository essays, theological discourses and sermons are a relative rarity.”[1]

So if God chose to use literary genres in communicating with us, we need to understand those genres so that we can better understand what he is saying to us. (Note to overachievers: If you want to go more in depth, Grasping God’s Word by Duvall & Hays has clear and helpful discussions of each of these genres.)

 

Tips for Reading Narrative

NarrativeHere’s how narrative passages tend to function: they tell stories. Mind blowing, I know. But it’s important to recognize this simple fact. (Keep in mind that when I call them stories, I’m not implying that they’re fictional.)

Narrative passages aren’t written about us. They’re relaying past events. Narrative passages describe more than they prescribe. They show more than they tell. These stories describe what happened. They’re not prescribing a course of action for us. They’re showing us what God and his people have done. They’re not directly telling us what to do.

Now, there is much that we can learn from narrative passages about God, his truth, and his will for our lives. But we have to first examine the stories as they have been recorded, and then we can wrestle with how these passages might or might not relate to us today. Here are some tips for doing that:

 

1. Read theologically, not moralistically.

I stole this concept from Preston Sprinkle. So often, we read narratives to find moral examples to follow. We want to imitate Joseph or David or Abraham. But we shouldn’t do what they did in every case. For one thing, these characters are flawed, so we need to ask which aspects of their lives are worthy of imitation. For another thing, God has plans for us that probably don’t involve ruling Egypt, slaying literal giants, or fathering nations. I suggest that we read not primarily to find out what the narrative tells us about David, but to find out what the narrative tells us about God. The passage tells us about God by telling us about David, but the hero in every biblical story is ultimately God, and we would do well to always keep that at the front of our minds.

 

2. Identify the setting.

While Greek mythology takes place in an imaginary world, biblical narratives are set against a real life backdrop. These events took place in real history, in real nations, in the midst of real cultures. So identifying the setting of the story will help us better understand what is going on. Sometimes you can figure this out from the passage itself, other times consulting a good Study Bible will be helpful in learning more about the setting.

 

3. Identify and assess the important characters.

Gandalf vs. SarumanWho is being set up as the hero? Who comes out looking like a villain? Does the narrator provide any clues as to who is “good” and who is “bad”? What makes the difference between a good and bad character in this story? (E.g., Is Jonah a good character because he’s a prophet of God? Are the Ninevites bad characters because they were a godless nation at the beginning of the story?) Are certain characters contrasted? How do we learn more about a given character by the comparison that is made to another character? (E.g., in The Lord of the Rings, we learn more about Gandalf the Grey by contrasting him with Saruman the White. Or looking at the Bible, what do we learn about David by comparing him to Saul when Goliath confronts the Israelites? What do we learn about David by comparing him to Uriah when David steals his wife?)

 

4. Trace the Plot

What is the setting at the beginning of the story? What conflict arises that needs to be addressed? How is that conflict addressed, and what is the outcome? If we don’t understand the plot line, we don’t understand the story.

 

5. Look for repetition.

Is the narrator repeating any phrases in the story? If so, these can be significant for understanding what he wants us to see in the story. For example, the entire book of Genesis is structured by the phrase “these are the generations of…” which turns up 12 times in the book. The book of Judges tells us four times that “in those days, there was no king in Israel” and twice that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Acknowledging these features can help us see what the narrator wants us to see.

 

6. Assess the story as a whole and ask why God wanted you to hear it.

God recorded each story in the Bible for a reason. Analyze the story as a whole, and then consider why God put that in the Bible. How should it affect you? The story isn’t about you, and you’re not meant to go out and directly repeat it. But God wanted you to have the story. What do you learn about God by reading the story? What do you gain by seeing the ways that God has worked in history? What do you learn about the nature of bravery and fear and hope and faith by reading this story?

And perhaps most importantly, what do we gain by having this story as opposed to a simple statement? (E.g., Why is it beneficial to have the story of God leading his people miraculously out of slavery in Egypt, rather than a simple statement that “God cares for his people”?)



[1] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 41.

Genealogies are lame. Admit it. Only Bible college students pretend they’re interesting. And yet the Bible is full of them. For those readers who are unfamiliar with the term “genealogy,” these are the long lists of names that you skip through as you’re reading different sections of your Bible. You read the first few lines of “so and so begat so and so,” then you realize that this isn’t going to end for awhile, so you skip to the next story.

If genealogies are so tedious (and they are), then why are there so many in the Bible? The answer begins in the first few pages of our Bibles.

When humanity rebelled against God, choosing to believe the Serpent’s lies rather than God’s benevolent commands, God cursed the Serpent. Significantly, this curse involved offspring. And offspring means genealogies. God said to the Serpent:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:15)

Adam and Eve had blown it. Humanity was now plunged into a cycle of sin and death. The Serpent would continue to wreak havoc in this world. But one day, the Serpent’s head would be crushed by a descendent of Eve.

From that moment on, genealogies mattered immensely. What could matter more? A descendant of this woman would turn the whole thing around. So watch that genealogical line closely. When Eve begat so and so and when so and so begat someone else, eventually we will find our Snake Crusher. (By the way, this may be a part of what Paul is referring to in 1 Timothy 2:15.)

The last genealogies we see in the Bible end in Jesus, the Snake Crusher, the true offspring of Eve who would undo the harm done in the Garden. Luke’s Genealogy goes all the way back, drawing a straight line from Adam, and from that moment in the Garden, directly down to Jesus.

So when you encounter a boring list of names in the Bible, feel free to move on to the more exciting parts. But don’t forget that everything in the Bible matters—even the genealogies.

 

Seneca

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of suffering. Specifically, I raised the age old question, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” And although I have spent a lot of time looking into the Bible’s answer to this question, in yesterday’s post I explored one of three similes that Seneca, a first-century philosopher, gave in order to explain why the godly suffer. Yesterday’s simile was of the godly as “disciplined children.” Today I will continue by looking at two other similes: “proven soldiers” and “victorious athletes.”

 

Proven Soldiers

Seneca compares the godly who suffer to proven soldiers. Whereas the raw recruit turns pale at even the thought of a wound, the veteran warrior looks undaunted upon his own gore, for he knows that his blood has often been the price of his victory. “In like manner, God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, those whom he loves.” For this reason, the philosopher argues, God actually afflicts the greatest of all people with illness, sorrows and misfortune. These situations are compliments rather than curses, evidence that this child has been deemed worthy of God’s purpose. Furthermore, through suffering, God makes his children to be a pattern for others: in fact, they are even born in order to teach others how to endure hardships.

When good people suffer, then, their hardships serve as affirmation of their character and as an opportunity for growth. In a phrase that echoes Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4, Seneca states “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.” So also, returning to the military metaphor, Seneca says that Fortune chooses to confront the courageous rather than to waste time by contesting the weak. Lady Fortune cries out:

Why should I choose that cowardly fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power—he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face…I am ashamed to meet a man who is so ready to be beaten.

Therefore, while Fortune disdainfully passes these people by, she seeks worthy opponents—the brave, the stubborn, the unbending—those against whom she can flex all her might.[1]

 

Victorious Athletes

Having used the similes of disciplined children and proven soldiers, Seneca appeals to the experience of athletes.[2] He claims that the great person cannot be approved without an encounter with suffering. Those who are truly misfortunate, then, are those who have never been misfortunate. Without hardship “no one will know what you can do—not even yourself.” He continues by likening untested character to a runner who races in the Olympic Games without any other contestant. How absurd! This person may gain the prize, but he did not win the race; he may have the crown, but he does not posses the victory (coronam habes, victoriam non habes).

 

Conclusion

Finally, like a good teacher, Seneca answers his student’s questions with more questions:

How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you always wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace and ill fame…if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause rather than through pain?

Of course, Seneca’s teaching does not serve as a substitute for the Holy Scriptures. But his examples can complement them. And without “ruining the question with an answer,” perhaps Seneca’s similes can encourage my students and even you in the midst of divine fatherly discipline, battles with hardships and marathons through suffering.



[1] Cf. Robert Service’s “The Law of the Yukon”: This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: “Send not your foolish and feeble, send me your strong and sane—Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat. Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons…”

[2] Cf. Heb 12:1-3; 1 Cor 9:24-27,

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