Thinking Out Loud

August 6, 2018

Theologians Who are All Knowledge and Little Experience

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:40 am

Over eight years ago, I used a phrase which may or may not exist (probably doesn’t) from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind to make a point about secular journalists who try to cover stories about religion in general and Christianity in particular.  At the time, I wrote,

There’s a scene near the end where the French scientist — his name is Lacombe — turns to lead character Roy Neary and says, “I envy you, Mr. Neary.”

But the next line, the line that has been stored in my memory since the picture released was not heard next. Here’s exactly how I remember the line, “I envy you, Mr. Neary; I study the phenomenon, but you have had the experience.”

After the movie, for 30 minutes, no searching the internet would reveal the phrase the way I am recalling it. Did I invent this? Or do I have two movies confused? Arrrrgh! I am so sure that line is accurate!

I then pressed into the application:

…We are studied and examined by all manner of journalists, academics and those who simply find us to be a psychological curiosity. But ultimately, their reports are lacking because they don’t have the necessary experiences to fully empathize with the Christian spiritual condition. (In a previous generation, that sentence would simply read, ‘They don’t have the Holy Spirit.’)

You can also turn this around.

The next time you’re in discussion with someone who you don’t feel is totally on the same wavelength, ask them, “Are you a student of the phenomena or have you also had the experience?”

Or how about, “Would you like to have the experience?”

This summer, I realized that this also applies to those of us who are Christians, but are trying to make sense of a denomination with which we have no familiarity. We have a sort of textbook knowledge of what they believe, but it’s missing all the fine tuning and nuances which would be gained by greater intimacy. We would never consider darkening the door of their churches even though ostensibly, we’re Christians and they’re Christians. 

You can take this another direction.

There are people whose preoccupation with Christianity is largely academic; scholarly; historical; theological. While they are busy analyzing and dissecting the doctrinal systems to death, there are others out there who are simply enjoying; living; experiencing. They’ve reduced to academic terms what other people are living out abundantly. They’re writing blog posts, articles, books; all trying to classify and clarify what is for others simply the reality of following Jesus.

I concluded,

I maintain that many of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis are simply observers, many watching from the outside. I often compare it to someone who encounters a log cabin filled with people on a cold, snowy day. Inside people are standing by the fireplace, laughing and drinking hot cocoa. The person outside watches with their face pressed against the window while the ice, snow and drizzle piles up on their winter coat and hat. 

Even if the line isn’t exactly in the movie as I remember it, it’s an appropriate metaphor to contrast those who are immersed at an academic level from those who are immersed in a life of faith.

Are you part of this family, or are you observing, as though from outside, with your face pressed against the window?

Why not come inside?

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October 5, 2017

What You Don’t See Just By Looking at the Amish

I don’t know offhand if the Amish permit what’s called here “Agritourism” — in other words farm tours — but I have something that would be of greater interest than seeing the hay lofts or furniture making workshop. I’d like to sit down with an Amish elder and discuss the underlying faith, specifically their faith and how it informs their customers. It beats driving around Lancaster, PA and going, “Over there! It’s another one!” and then snapping camera-phone pictures of these precious people simply trying to live their lives in peace.

This week, I got a bit of an insight into the type of information I’m seeking. I work two days a week at a Christian bookstore that my wife and I coincidentally happen to own. When an audio book came in missing the shrink-wrap usually found on audio products1 I considered the idea of listening to a few minutes of it as, despite the various podcasts and sermons I listen to constantly, I have no personal experience with audio books.

Then I discovered the book was voiced by none other than Christian Taylor, one of the regulars at The Phil Vischer Podcast.2 I decided to see (or hear) what her vocational labor produced.

The audio was for the book Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World by Susanne Woods Fisher.3 Interspersing Amish proverbs with anecdotal stores would make this a fun read, but it was probably a bit of a challenge voicing a reading of the book.

Putting it as simply as I can, there is a world here which, while it may seem strikingly different to observe as a tourist, is actually more different than you think in terms of the underlying principles which guide everyday life in an Amish family and an Amish community.  They live out an ethic which is certainly rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus, but in many respects almost goes beyond that high standard in terms of everyday life.4

Even if I could embed myself in an Amish family for a week, I don’t know that I could ever expect to fully get it without having spent a lifetime being educated and shaped by their community values, passed on from generation to generation. They live in a world without electronic media and yet possess a wisdom many of the rest of us cannot imagine. Their formal education ends at Grade 8, yet they have better literacy rates than in other neighboring rural areas. Their children are given responsibilities that would boggle the minds of parents who bubble-wrap their kids in the cities, such as driving a team of mules to plow a field.5 And their pace of life means they see things which the rest of miss while driving Interstate freeways at 70 mph.

I enjoyed the (audio) book, but I find myself wanting more; more than I can get from simply packing up the car and heading off to Amish country or Mennonite country to simply look at them.6

I want to take a month and be them.7


1To my readers in other countries: For years records, tapes and CDs in North America have come plastic-wrapped, as we don’t want to get to get germs, at least that’s what a record vendor in England told me years ago.

2As in “…We’ll talk to Skye and Christian, too, but we’ve got no guest this week for you…” (Show theme song.) Christian is a voice actor. christiantaylorvo.com

3Oops! Fisher wrote Amish Peace in 2009. In an earlier version of this blog post, I identified the book as The Heart of the Amish which she wrote in 2015. This appears to be a different book, not a title update. My bad.

4The stories about forgiveness will break you.

5Full disclosure: The book admits this freedom results in a much higher rate of Emergency Room visits due to injuries compared to other children in rural areas.

6Pennsylvania or Ohio or Western Ontario would be the destinations of choice for such an excursion. The book notes the Ohio Amish have a lower percentage of people living in farm communities.

7I would probably not be able to give up my phone or internet connection. Today, several houses share an outdoor phone booth of sorts which is for making calls, not receiving them. That would be somewhat insufficient.


Christian responds:

Related: A 2010 article I wrote about the Amish and the concept of being separated from the world.

Photos: Daily Encouragement by Stephen & Brooksyne Weber.

September 10, 2012

Learning More About Other Faiths

For Christian publishers, any kind of reference book can be a tough sell, and the sub-category of “world religions” isn’t likely to produce a chart-topper anytime soon.  So I always appreciate it when authors and publishers go out of their way to produce helpful material in a form that is more accessible to the average person.

Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day (Bethany House paperback) is one such title, and the “15 minutes” in question is probably more like ten minutes for most of us, if that.  For someone like myself — eternally doomed to confuse Hinduism and Buddhism — books that provide a refresher course like this are always needful, and Garry R. Morgan, who teaches missions at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota even provides a bonus “extra minute” with an always interesting sidebar.

The book has 40 chapters and covers 24 distinct religious groups, with five sharing parts of two chapters, and others having multiple chapters.  (Christianity  5; Islam 6; Folk and Aboriginal religions, Buddhism and Hinduism 3 each; Judaism 2.)

Sometimes there are similarities between other faiths and our own.  Here’s a paragraph from the book with parallels added:

…Conservative Judaism leaves to each congregation whether or not they will accept a female rabbi (sounds familiar, my denomination is wrestling with this right now). The person who actually leads the synagogue services, however, is the cantor, or hazzan (in other words, the worship leader or worship team is in charge of the service). Large congregations seek a cantor who not only sings but will also compose original music. Usually the cantor is also responsible for coaching young people in Hebrew as they prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah (in other words he doubles as the youth pastor).   (Okay I stretched that a bit, but not much.) 

Or this paragraph about Islam,

Islamic beliefs and practices are based on the Qur’an, the Sunna and the Haddith. The Quar’an is held to be sacred scripture… Many questions about faith and practice arouse after Muhammad’s death, so Muslims asked those who had known the prophet and were still alive what he said or did in various situations. These were eventually written down and collected into the Sunna (or Sunnah) meaning “Traditions.”  Although not considered a holy book like the Qur’an, in daily life the Sunna is moved more frequently. (Which reminded me of what some view as a concern that although we have the gospels, in many of our churches, the majority of New Testament sermons are based on what Paul wrote, not the words of Jesus.)

The book is also ever dealing with the question of which groups deserve a chapter and which are simply mentioned in the context of a larger body, which bears on the question, what constitutes what the larger group would consider a “cult” and at what point do these subset groups become a religion in their own right. (Or if you want to go for the pun, in their own rite.)

Books like this are tough to write because, while this one will mostly be sold through Christian bookstore and online channels, there is always the possibility (and for the publishers, the hope) that the title will appear on the shelves of mass retailers like Barnes and Noble in the U.S. or Chapters/Indigo in Canada; which means you don’t know that a member of that group won’t flip through a copy to see how they’re represented.

And I wondered if there was something of this behind a sentence that appears early on,

At the publisher’s request, this book intends to be descriptive rather than evaluative or polemic.

so I contacted the author at Northwestern. Garry Morgan was gracious enough to write back:

Garry R. Morgan

…They encouraged me to not hide my own faith, but to just describe what the various religions believe and practice, without an overtly evangelistic “here’s how you share the Gospel with a ….” section.

Even in my World Religions courses at Northwestern College, where all the students are professing Christians, I strive to be fair and accurate in describing the religious beliefs of others (I tell my students my goal is to teach in such a way that a follower of the religion sitting in the classroom would agree with my description, even if they disagreed with my assessment). So, I don’t think the book would have been substantially different without that request. Had I assumed an all-Christian readership, I might have added suggestions for appropriate responses to the various religions (e.g. “You can’t love your Muslim/Hindu/etc. neighbor and fear them at the same time.”). I did find it challenging at times to use vocabulary or phrasing that non-Christians would understand (it’s surprising how ingrown one can become teaching in a Christian environment). I think keeping the potential non-Christian reader in mind helped sharpen my writing.

Certainly the problem of becoming ‘ingrown’ is behind the need for this book. While I learned a lot reading this — including reading some chapters twice — and especially enjoyed the sidebars at the end of each entry, I lamented the absence of a concluding chapter to bookend the very helpful introduction. In a way, Garry Morgan provided the missing element to me in his note, and I offer it here alongside my recommendation of this title:

I do believe the Christian faith is truly unique. I think that comes out in the first chapter on Christianity in the book. My hope is that non-Christian readers would do their own evaluation and come to the same conclusion, and that Christians (who I assume will be the vast majority of readers) would have a resource for better understanding what others believe in today’s increasingly globalized society.

A copy of Understanding World Religions was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Graf-Martin a book promotion and publicity agency that comes alongside publishers and authors to increase visibility for key titles in Canada. 

Quoted sections page 60 and page 69.  The book is 174 pages and retails for $12.99 U.S.

Other books in this series include, Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day and Understanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day both by Daryl Aaron.

October 5, 2011

Wednesday Link List

More newsy stuff this week, rather than blog links per se…I get to play news anchor…

  • Tennessee teachers supervising students at the annual See You At The Pole events are in trouble for praying along with the students at the event. “Teachers have not been banned from praying, but if they do – it must be done out of sight and earshot of students, the newspaper reported.”  Read more on this confusing development at The Tennessean.
  • Young abolitionist Zach Hunter is now 19, and his three books, including the popular Be the Change have been reissued by Zondervan to reflect his current look.  He recently did a guest post at Huffington Post. “When I was 12 I started a campaign to end modern-day slavery. I wasn’t a theological prodigy. I was just an awkward, pre-adolescent kid trying to follow Jesus. I heard about people being bought and sold and abused day in and day out and I couldn’t imagine Jesus being O.K. with it…. Occasionally, I’ve received some criticism about encouraging this kind of passion in my generation. Mostly, it comes from people who share my faith — I’ve even been told, ‘It’s great what you and your friends are doing, but why aren’t you just preaching the gospel when your whole generation is going to hell?…Continue reading at Huff Post…
  • Never was an event so well-named

    James MacDonald finds himself defending the decision to include T.D. Jakes in next year’s sequel to the one-day Elephant Room Conference.  “I believe modalism is unbiblical and clearly outside confessionalism, but I do not believe it represents Bishop T.D. Jakes’ current thinking. Whether I am right or wrong is something that will be discovered in the Elephant Room where our purpose is, as Pastor Mark [Driscoll] posted, ‘to talk to people rather than about them.'” Read more at James’ blog, Vertical Church.
  • Oh, and here’s a recent sample of what he’s defending himself against.  Thabiti Anyabwyle writes, “This isn’t on the scale of [John] Piper inviting [Rick] Warren. This is more akin to Augustine inviting Muhammad. This invitation gives a platform to a heretic… Can the Lord squeeze lemonade out of this lemon? Absolutely. I pray He does… What should MacDonald do now? I’m not even sure.” Read more of this at TGC.
  • If the above word, modalism, is new to you, it was covered on this blog in a lengthy article back in February, Why Are Non-Trinitarians Included Among ‘Christians’?
  • Mexico considers solving the divorce problem by issuing a marriage license that expires in 24 months. ” Mexico City lawmakers want to help newlyweds avoid the hassle of divorce by giving them an easy exit strategy: temporary marriage licenses… that would allow couples to decide on the length of their commitment, opting out of a lifetime. The minimum marriage contract… could be renewed if the couple stays happy. The contracts would include provisions on how children and property would be handled if the couple splits. ‘The proposal is, when the two-year period is up, if the relationship is not stable or harmonious, the contract simply ends,’ said Leonel Luna, the Mexico City assemblyman who co-authored the bill.” Read the full article at Reuters Faith World.
  • Another news story from Reuters Faith World…  A few years back, this was one of the few Christian blogs to look at the ban on minarets (Muslim prayer towers) in Switzerland.  Now the country’s lower parliament has voted to ban face veils as well. “By enacting a ban, Switzerland would follow other European countries such as France, the Netherlands and Belgium which have either already proscribed veils or are debating such measures, sometimes encountering sharp condemnation from civil rights and Islamic groups.”
  • The supreme court will not hear a case brought against World Vision in regard to hiring practices.  “The Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari lets stand an August 2010 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of World Vision and against three employees who were fired after the organization concluded that they did not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God.” More details at Christianity Today.
  • A Texas oil change shop will service your car for only $19.99 if you will quote John 3:16 from memory.  Legal experts in the state can’t find the owner is in violation of anything from a consumer retail business standpoint.  But one customer didn’t recite the verse and got billed for over $46.  Is this a positive move for the business owner or a liability?  And is it a definite liability for Christians who abhor this evangelism methodology.  Dallas attorney Andy Siegel said,    “The study of Bible has many rewards, [but] I’m not sure if God intended for a lube discount to be among its many riches.”  More, with video at CNN Religion.
  • Also at CNN, an in-depth review of Belieber, the book examining the faith factor in the life of pop star Justin Bieber.  The star told Rolling Stone, “I feel I have an obligation to plant little seeds with my fans. I’m not going to tell them, ‘You need Jesus,’ but I will say at the end of my show, ‘God loves you.’ ”  Read more at CNN.
  • Time Travel Piece of the Week:  A short word bite from Steven Furtick on Church Hopping, It’s Time to Stop The Hop. “If you’ve fallen into the trap of church hopping, let me encourage you: embrace your place somewhere where God can use you. At the end of your life, God’s not going to be impressed or pleased that you saw what He was doing at ten different churches. He’s going be more pleased that you were a part of what He was doing at one church.”
  • If you think all the great ministry ideas have been covered, you could always start an underwear ministry.  No, it’s not a reference to Mormon underwear, rather: “Every day with no fanfare, the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver… receives all kinds of donations… But one recent drop-off was so unique it could not go unnoticed — a donation of 3,500 pairs of men’s underwear. Calgary residents Robb Price and Brent King delivered the gift…the first of 10 deliveries they plan to make at homeless shelters between Vancouver and Halifax. Read more at Christian Week.
  • Wrapping it up this week with the graphic that’s been on so many blogs; How The Denominations See Each Other.  The bottom right corner credits this to ThomasTheDoubter.com where it was posted on September 15th, and also to the Subtle Designer blog, where it’s described as being a copy of a similar infographic done about higher education.  (You might need to switch to full screen.) Enjoy!

August 6, 2010

Let’s Look at the Amish

Somewhere near the end of our vacation, we were in a town where suddenly a horse and buggy appeared in the opposite traffic lane. Not knowing if my wife had noticed, I simply said; “Amish;” to which she replied; “Oooh! Let’s look at them.”

The strange remark — which I got right away, but you may not have — is a dry reference to people we know who say they are going to go to Pennsylvania to “look at the Amish.” Not shop in their stores and buy jams, jellies or crafts from them. Not spend a week helping out on one of their farms — the way one might volunteer on an Israeli kibbutz — as much of an adventure as that would be. Not attending one of their worship services.

No… just “looking at the Amish;” the way we might visit a town if everybody there had two heads.

But maybe, just maybe, we should take a minute to ‘look at’ (in the sense of ‘consider’) the Amish.

While everybody else in Christendom has suffered the fate of slowly being dominated and shaped by the spirit and culture of the world, these people have managed to truly understand what it means to be “set apart;” what it means to not ‘give in’ to the dominant culture and its ways of seeing the world.

And isn’t that

…continue reading here…

Photo is from Daily Encouragement by Stephen & Brooksyne Weber.

May 28, 2009

The King James Only Controversy: Still Going, 15 Years Later

Filed under: bible, Christian, issues — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 1:34 pm

king james only controverseyIt’s a rather pathetic indictment against Christians that the arguing of the ‘secondary anointing’ on or ‘divine inspiration’ of one particular translation — and one only — continues to drag on.   When James White first released The King James Only Controversy (Bethany House) in 1995, he probably expected the debate to die down; the KJV-Only camp to mellow out, move on to weightier spiritual matters, or disappear altogether.    He probably never figured there would be a need for him to be releasing an updated edition in 2009.

My take on this book probably differs from others in that I see the book as having value beyond the stated subject.   It’s a great window in the Bible translation process and it’s also an excellent study on key scriptures, many of which are widely known and taught from as they appear in the KJV.    So you don’t have to have a friend or co-worker who is KJV-Only to appreciate exhaustive study that went into producing the original work and its updated edition.

(I should add here that I’m a huge follower of Bible translation issues.   Counting two complete reads of the original, this marked my third trek through this book.)

But the book also exceeds its mandate by leaving us with the questions,

  • “Why do some people in the church spend such great amounts of energy on topics which always produce dissension and are often preoccupied with peripheral concerns?”
  • “Why do some people bring their presuppositions to the table instead of being open to the exchange of logic and facts?”
  • “Why do people with extreme views have to compound their offensiveness by engaging in extreme rhetoric?”
  • “What damage has been done to Bible-reading by incorporating verse numbers that isolate sentences and phrases, losing the flow of extended passages?”

Although the average layperson may be intimidated by Greek and Hebrew words, most of the book can be appreciated without formal theological study; though there may be times when one needs to simply pause to take in the finer nuances of the various translation comparisons.   White himself is very balanced and fair in this treatment, admitting that sometimes the KJV serves us well, but pointing out where more recent translations have provided us with greater clarity.    He resists the urge to retaliate against the KJV, though later on devotes a shorter chapter to some familiar KJV passages which are cause for concern.

Though I don’t think he says it blatantly, much of the KJV-Only argument resides in the treatment of individual versus as opposed to gaining the meaning from the context of a larger passage.   The verse numbers, in this case, do us a disservice.

The new edition mentions newer translations — particularly the ESV —  and the update also cites many online sources in the expanded footnotes.  It also discusses the challenges to the Bible’s authority that have come from the intellectualism of groups like The Jesus Seminar or the fiction of books and movies like The DaVinci Code.

While the book is clearly not for everyone, those drawn to this topic will be well-rewarded, though many may have already acquired the earlier edition.

~ Part of Baker/Bethany House bloggers book review program.

Footnote:  Another publisher had a small booklet on the King James Only movement which came out in the mid-’90s as well.   It was published as part of a series, all the rest of which deal with various cults.    Seriously.

…If you check out this book, you may also enjoy How To Choose A Bible Translation For All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss.

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