Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Allah, Odin, and Thor: Mythical Gods of War, Not of Love

Writing on the PJ Media blog, David Forsmark reviews Brian James' novel Ragnarok and, along the way, has some very interesting things to say about religion:

Americans have a na├»ve view of religion.  The religious freedom that is so ingrained in our tradition — and our Constitution — has morphed beyond tolerance to a sort of anthropomorphic acceptance of pretty much anything.

In other words, in order to prove how tolerant we are, we take our basically Judeo-Christian view of what religion and God should be, and assume all other religions share the same goals, have the same values, and are just differing manifestation of the same loving and just God.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the God of the Bible is unique in the history of the world’s religions.  From Baal to Zeus, from Jupiter to Allah and Odin, the gods of paganism are capricious masters, not loving fathers.  Control is their goal — when they think of humans at all — not justice or peace.

But saying so is sooooo judgmental!

Marvel Comics master storyteller Stan Lee took the most interesting of the Norse gods, Thor, the God of Thunder, and made him a crusader for truth, justice, and maybe even the American Way… or at least Western values.

But think of it from the view of the Vikings — what could be more capricious and destructive than the god of the weather?

But of course, a self-centered, destructive superhero who loves war and longs to be worshiped would make for a crappy comic book.

On the serious side, though, a misunderstanding of a leading world religion has serious implications for most of the current world conflicts.

Even George W. Bush mouthed the diplomatically convenient canard “Islam means peace.”  Yes, and Pravda means “truth.”

A non-rebellious slave is at “peace” with his master, too.

As Nonie Darwish writes in her seminal books Now They Call me Infidel and Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law, the notion of a loving Father God who oversees a brotherhood of men is something she never encountered until she immigrated to the West.  It is a Christian concept that Muslims adopt when living in Western cultures in order to fit in, or because they aren’t particularly informed about their religion in the first place (and want to fit in).

Perhaps because the Quran gives lip service to Jesus, or because of its Middle East origins, or because, quite coincidentally, the main ethnic group that follows Islam is also descended from Abraham, many act as though Islam is somehow related to the Judeo/Christian tradition, however distantly.

But Allah is much more like every other pagan deity… no matter how far flung.

Forsmark goes on to talk with Brian Cherry who, under the pen name Brian James, has recently published Ragnarok: The Hammer, Book One in a planned trilogy of novels set in the present day about the Norse prophecies of Apocalypse.

Since the end of any religion is one’s eternal destiny, we started there.  Brian told me that Odin and Allah agree on the surest — and quickest — way to heaven.  Not through faith in a Savior, but through sanctified violence.
Although I’m sure the original myths borrowed many of Odin’s circumstances directly from the Bible, his personality is much closer to that of Allah.  The first thing that comes to mind is that he would have loved suicide bombers.
Those who went to Valhalla didn’t go there based on a belief in a savior, enlightenment or good works.  You went to Valhalla based on a good death in battle.  Odin would have adored warriors who killed thousands of their enemy by crashing an airliner into a building.  Dying during the act would have assured their place in heaven.
The Vikings also had their own 9-11, as Cherry explains.
The Vikings were also the world’s first (and arguably most successful) terrorists.  They would appear quietly out of nowhere and often someplace that was undefended…a soft target.  The attack on the Lindisfame monastery in 793 is not only an act of overt terrorism, but accepted by most as the start of the Viking age.  They did what they did in Odin’s name, and they believe with his blessing.  That is not much different than Allah smiling on his followers for killing the helpless in his name.
Lindisfarne was the home of the famed monk Saint Aiden, a center for evangelization throughout northern Europe, and known for an illustrated copy of the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John known as the Lindisfarne Gospels.  When Thomas Cahill wrote How the Irish Saved Civilization, he had in mind people like the Lindisfarne monks.

To the Vikings, followers of Odin, the Lindisfarne Monastery was as major a symbol of Christianity as the World Trade Center was a symbol of the capitalist West to certain followers of Allah in 2001.  And there was little booty to be gained from the raid, which was conducted in as bloody a way as possible and sent shudders through Christendom.  The scholar Alcuin wrote, “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”

The followers of Odin did not start their war on Christianity with the attack on Lindisfarne, as Cherry explains.

Odin and Allah both seemed to have a major problem with Christians.  Before the Viking age of the Norse started with the attack on the Lindisfame Monastery, the pagan followers of Odin persecuted and purged Norway of Christians.  This started in late 772 or early 773 AD.  The Quran (as the inspired word of Allah) also shows an intolerance for Christians and Jews.

About this time I can hear someone who had the same history teacher as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton yelling, “Hey! What about the Crusades?”

Look, like Odin, Allah made his first appearance somewhere around the 7th century. Conversion was more by force and violence than by rhetoric.  While Obama seems to adopt the Third World position that Islam is the organic and legitimate religion of Arab regions, it’s worth remembering that Alexandria, the great city of Egypt, at one time was a central city of early Christianity.

So, while the Crusades, whatever their wisdom or excesses, took on the mission of “liberating the Holy Land,” to act as though it was some imperialistically religious, unprovoked attack is to pretend [the D-Day invasion at] Normandy was an act of aggression against a peaceful country.

Okay, that's just a start.  Read the rest at PJ Media.  And, by the way, you might want to add PJ Media to your bookmarks.  They publish lots of good articles and have fun doing it.

Ben Stein on "America's Exceptionalism"

A simple, but wonderful reminder of the extent to which God has blessed this great country from Ben Stein
I had always planned to be a historian and I still spend much of my time reading history. When I do, I am struck by a few dramatic truths.

The first is that life in America, at least right now, at least for most of us, is simply great. I’m reading a book about “Hitler’s Central European Empire” by a recently deceased historian named Jean Sedlar. She writes in great detail about the horrifying brutality in the region from Finland down to the Balkans in the period roughly from the late 1930s to the end of World War II.

Every ethnic group at war with every other ethnic group. Every nationality wanting to kill their neighbors. Two totalitarian states, the Soviet Union and The Third Reich crushing everyone in their path.

The suffering of untold millions, the gruesome living conditions, the fighting, the fleeing, the hiding, the starving, and the dying just went on endlessly. There was no end of pain from the Baltic to the Adriatic.

As we saw much more recently in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, that kind of ethnic and religious hatred persists to this day.

When I read about this, or read about the torment of my fellow Jews even in a supposedly highly civilized nation like France in World War II or about the staggering viciousness in the drug trade in Mexico right now, or the endless civil wars and mineral wars in Africa, my head reels at the cruelty of man to man.

Then my wife and I take our dogs out for a walk in our neighborhood in Los Angeles and the lawns are green and the birdies are singing and soon we will have some French toast — and life is great. No wars, no ethnic hatreds, pretty much everyone accepted and taken at face value as a fellow citizen, brother and sister.

I mention this because I am like you. I worry constantly. About my son and his family. About getting older. About the hideously ugly house someone is putting up across the street from me. About the ‘flu.

But when I think about our lives in America right now, and compare them with what life is like and has been like for so many hundreds of millions — no,

Billions — of human beings, I cannot help but feel as if God had shone a special privilege and blessing upon America.

I know this is not allowed and it’s called American exceptionalism and it’s academic poison. But it’s true. God really has blessed this glorious land, from sea to shining sea, and compared with the privilege of living here in 2013, no problem I have right now means much. What glory to live here.

Thank you, God, thank you.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Top Ten Reasons Ash Wednesday Is Better Than Christmas

10.  No braving crowded malls looking for Lenten gifts.

9.  No pressure to send “Merry Ash Wednesday” cards.

8.  No need to lose weight after the holiday.

7.  No need to fight culture wars over putting “Jesus resisting temptation in the wilderness” displays on public property.

6.  No celebrity holiday albums; e.g., The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Forty Days & Forty Nights” or Andrea Bocelli singing, “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days.”

5.  No Ash Wednesday sitcom specials; e.g., "The Charlie Brown Ash Wednesday Pageant."

4.  No made up characters, e.g., Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (oops, sorry kids!) to obscure the real meaning of the holiday.

3.  No loud and tacky Lenten sweaters.

2.   “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” extremely difficult to use in consumer marketing strategies.

1.  Nobody ever says, “Ash Wednesday is really all about the children.”

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mississippi Maintains Hold as Most Religious U.S. State

A Gallup survey released this week reveals that Mississippi remained the most religious US state in 2012, with 58% of its residents classified as very religious.  At the other end of the spectrum, Vermont remained the least religious state, with 19% of its residents classified as very religious.  The results are based on more than 348,000 interviews conducted as part of Gallup Daily tracking in 2012, including more than 1,000 interviews.

Overall, 40% of Americans nationwide were classified as very religious in 2012 — based on saying religion is an important part of their daily life and that they attend religious services every week or almost every week. Thirty-one percent of Americans were nonreligious, saying religion is not an important part of their daily life and that they seldom or never attend religious services.

A separate poll released by Gallup in January indicated that the percentage of “nones” in the U.S. — those not identifying with any particular religion — remained relatively flat in 2012 after growing 1.1 percent in each of the previous two years.

The rise of the “nones” is a much-chronicled phenomenon, their ranks swelling by 22 percent over the past four years.  Even so, a recent book titled “God is Alive and Well” by Gallup's editor-in-chief, Frank Newport, speculates that “religion will be even more important in years ahead," based on analysis of various factors and trends.

Go to the full article for a list of the most religious and least religious states, along with a map showing Gallup's findings for each state.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lent and the Gospel

Over at Stand Firm, David Ould has posted an excellent piece entitled, "Mardi Gras is not the Gospel," in which he reminds us that the idea of Mardi Gras as "a blow-out before you get serious about sin" is not the Gospel.  He could not be more right.  The "binge-purge" approach to Mardi Gras/Lent is even more dangerous to our souls than physical binging and purging are to the body of a bulimic

I will add the thesis—controversial to some, I am sure—that Lent (at least as some people understand it) is not the Gospel either.  Repentance, as David Ould points out, is both instantaneous (“today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts”) and lifelong—as in the quotation from Martin Luther: "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."  We do not have the luxury of choosing the timing of our repentance.  We do it when God calls us and convicts us or else we don't do it at all.

So, strictly speaking, Lent is not about repentance, because we cannot hasten or defer our repentance or choose a season in which to repent; it is about acts of penance, which is a different matter.  As I observe the acts of penance in which some engage in Lent, it seems that some are attempting to make a personal atonement for sins, when the only atonement that will ever take care of our sins has already been made, once for all, by Jesus Christ.

All this is not to say that there is no value in Lent—far from it!  A time, whether it be a weekend retreat or a 40-day period, in which we spend time in devotions that draw us closer to God, is of enormous value.  Such times are penitential, in that they will undoubtedly include self-examination and confession of any known sins.  In these times we can grow spiritually and find new direction for our lives and ministries.  And, sometimes, acts of self denial such as fasting help us to focus our resolve during this time and demonstrate to God and ourselves the seriousness of our undertaking. 

The problem comes when we think we are doing something virtuous when we manage to give up things for 40 days that, in actuality, we ought to give up 365 days a year.  Or when we reduce our right standing before God to a game of addition and subtraction—as though our salvation depended on the good we have done outweighing the bad.  Or when we think that God delights in sacrifice more than mercy, or that petty acts of contrition can bridge a chasm that could only be bridged by the death of God's only-begotten Son.

We would do well to remember the purposes for which Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the wilderness.  He had no sins for which he needed to atone.  We have no sins for which we are capable of atoning.  If we could, what He did for us—what He had to do for us—would not have been necessary.

In a holy Lent, we need to spend time being reminded of our need to trust in the providence of God (“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”), the supremacy of God (“Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only”), and the sufficiency of His Word (“Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”).

So Lent is really much more about what God adds to our lives as we spend intentional, focused time with Him rather than what we give up, because the Gospel is always about what God has done for us, not about what we do for Him.

New Jersey firefighters sworn in on iPad Bible app

Although I use the ESV Bible app (free!) on my iPad, I'm still not too sure what I think about this.

From here:

Last week, several Atlantic City firefighters took their oaths of office using not a physical Bible, as is tradition, but a Bible app on Apple's iPad.

According to a report, officials had scheduled a ceremony to promote several Atlantic City Fire Department workers to Battalion Chief and Fire Captain, but upon commencing the proceedings it was noticed that no one had thought to bring a Bible to City Council Chambers.

One attendant, though, carried Apple's popular tablet computer along with him. The iPad owner pulled up ― or downloaded, as the report is not clear ― a Bible app. The firefighters then swore their oaths, each placing his hand on the iPad with the Bible app open.


Friday, February 01, 2013

A View from South Carolina

I wouldn't ordinarily reprint an entire article, but I want to make sure this one doesn't get lost, deleted, or locked behind a subscription firewall at some point.  From a South Carolina newspaper, the Orangeburg Times and Democrat:
It's not about sex

January 25, 2013, 6:00 am  • 

By now you’ve heard that the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has left the national body called The Episcopal Church.  And you may know that the national Episcopal Church is claiming all the property of all the churches in the Diocese of South Carolina, which has indeed left that national body.  But you may not know why.  The Episcopal Church wants you to believe that it’s all about sex - or, rather, that it’s all about the supposed closed-mindedness of traditional former Episcopalians here in South Carolina, which prevents us from understanding the needs of homosexual people.  The truth is that this conflict has to do with two very different understandings about the Holy Bible.  This difference in understanding leads us to two very different perceptions about human beings and the world in which we live.

We traditional, orthodox, “Bible-believing,” “conservative” Christians of the Anglican Communion have always believed that the Bible means what it says.  The Bible is literal history, poetry, prophesy, song and revelation.  God has put every word there for a reason.  We must not add to it, and we must not take away from it.  Often, upon the broad base of the literal meaning of the Holy Scriptures, God has also layered metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic meanings, as well.  But here is the point: The Bible is the Word of God.  It is true.  And because God wants to communicate with us clearly and not confuse us, it is usually straightforward and plain in its meaning.  Of course, there are parts that cause us to scratch our heads, but God gave us His Word to guide us and to illuminate our lives, and not to befuddle us.  When God says something, He means it.  His Word is truth.  Therefore, for traditional Christians, the Bible directly influences our understandings of ourselves, our world and our world view.  Some things are right, and some things are downright wrong.

For non-traditional, heterodox, post-modern, “liberal” Christians, the Bible is a book of inspirational stories and pretty poetry.  Some of it is good, and some of it is not.  One can pick and choose what one likes and discard the rest.  Keep the stories about love, doing good things and being kind to others, and throw out the ones about doing battle with sin, being judged by God and the reality of hell.  I’m OK, you’re OK.  Everybody goes to heaven, no matter what they’ve done or what they believe.  For post-modern “liberal” Christians, their “pick and choose” view of the Bible deeply influences their understanding of themselves, their world and their world view.  The world and truth are relative things, depending on your point of view.

In this conflict, the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina subscribes to the first traditional understanding of the Bible, and The Episcopal Church believes the second post-modern “liberal” view of the Holy Scriptures.  Therefore, it is not surprising that The Episcopal Church is moving closer to giving Holy Communion to unbaptized people, now has an official liturgy to bless same-sex unions (if the bishop says it’s OK), and now permits cross-dressing, transgendered and “questioning” individuals into the ordination process as future clergy of their church.  How did they get to this point?

More than 100 years ago, the bishops of The Episcopal Church failed to discipline the leaders of their seminaries.  Somewhere in the late 1800s, the deans of General Theological Seminary (in New York), Virginia Theological Seminary (in Northern Virginia) and the seminary at the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tenn.) began to hire liberal professors from Europe who did not believe in the literal truth of the Bible.  These liberal professors saw the Holy Scriptures as merely metaphorical and allegorical stories that pointed toward a transcendent God whom they believed no one could truly know.  They did not believe that Jesus Christ was really born of a virgin, or that He truly performed any physical miracles, or that He was truly and bodily raised from the dead.  These liberal professors coined a new word for people who believed in these fundamentals of the Christian faith: “fundamentalists.”  They meant it as a pejorative term for Christians who took any of the Bible literally.  Of course, these “modern” professors did not trumpet their lack of belief, but, carefully and selectively, over the years, they began to teach this false brand of dish-water Christianity to future clergy, who would become future bishops.

This process of undermining the authority of the Bible took a long time to infiltrate the top leadership of The Episcopal Church, but it did.  Bishops of The Episcopal Church, who believed in this “modern” view of Scripture, worked slowly and steadily to bring liberal seminary deans to most of their seminaries.  These liberal deans then worked hard to hire more liberal professors.  And these professors formed the minds and faith of Episcopal clergy.  The bishops and the seminaries were, in the meantime, careful not to “let on” to the laity about the truth of what they really believed concerning the doctrines of our Christian faith.  The lay people in the pews did not know that things were changing until “talk” began to surface in the mid-1960s about a need to change the prayer book.  The great majority of lay people in The Episcopal Church did not think the 1928 Book of Common Prayer needed to be changed.  It is a beautifully written prayer book, based on the King James version of the Bible, and more than 90 percent of the text is directly from the words of the Bible itself.  But the bishops and the seminaries thought it essential that the old prayer book be changed.  The church was “behind the times” and needed to catch up with the modern age so as to draw more people into The Episcopal Church.  The church “needed change” they said, but they were careful not to be too clear about what that change entailed.

There was “trial use” of different possible liturgies, and the 1928 prayer book was taken out of the pews “for the time being” so that parishioners could experiment with the type of worship, which the church “really needed for the future.”  Then, there was talk about ordaining women to the priesthood, and before anyone knew it, 1979 was here, and The Episcopal Church had a new prayer book and women priests were being ordained. Some long-time members of the church thought that something “fishy” was going on when the leaders of The Episcopal Church told their clergy and lay people that they could no longer use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer at all!  They insisted that there could only be one prayer book, “for the sake of unity,” and that the 1928 BCP had to go.  What were they afraid of?  We now know.  They could never have instituted all the changes into The Episcopal Church that they were even then envisioning with that troublesome old 1928 Prayer Book hanging around.  We know the rest of the story.

Not only did The Episcopal Church have a new prayer book, but they threw out the old hymnal and got a new one.  Then they began to ordain openly homosexual individuals as clergy.  Then they ordained an openly homosexual priest, who was in a “partnered” relationship with another man, to the office of bishop.  And now, since the year 2003, most of the bishops of The Episcopal Church feel comfortable saying things like, “The Church wrote the Bible, so the Church can change it!” and, “There is no absolute truth, but rather a multiplicity of truths - we all have our own truth ... ,” and, “ ... Oh, that’s just what Paul said (meaning, therefore we can discount it).”  Have such beliefs, which led to such changes, helped to grow The Episcopal Church as originally promised?

In the late 1950s, The Episcopal Church proudly counted its numbers at around 4.6 million members.  Today, after all of the above changes in practice and belief, most honest statisticians count their active membership at a little fewer than one million.  It seems as though all of those changes didn’t work too well.  And remember, the change in sexual morality, as demonstrated in such innovations as same-sex marriage, was only one of the many changes instituted by the liberal leaders of The Episcopal Church.  You see, when the foundation of the inerrant truth of the Bible was knocked out from under The Episcopal Church, the whole edifice began to crumble.  That is what happens when we turn away from the truth of God, as revealed to us in Holy Scripture.  We can only hope and pray that perhaps one day, The Episcopal Church might consider returning to belief in the truth of the Bible.

Larisey is rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Orangeburg.

Not surprisingly to readers of this blog, there is a lot I could say about this piece.   While I agree that a change in prayer books was a part of the demise of orthodox Christianity in the Episcopal Church, I would not have assigned it as large a role in that demise as this writer does.  But then he is rector in a parish that still uses the 1928 BCP, so that change naturally plays a larger role in his estimation.  For me, it is not about preserving the thees and thous of the 1928 BCP but preserving its underlying theology that is most important. 

Fr. Larisey is right about the loss of confidence in the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible as the key factor in the Episcopal Church's decline.  As a seminary educator for 30 years and dean and president of an Episcopal seminary for 10 of those years, I believe he is right about the pivotal role played by the seminaries.

Fr. Larisey ends his piece on a hopeful note, as writers often try to do:  "We can only hope and pray that perhaps one day, The Episcopal Church might consider returning to belief in the truth of the Bible."  But what would that look like in reality?  Repentance?  Revival?  The Bible itself and the history of the Church show us the way.  Such a return can indeed happen by God's grace and in the power of His Holy Spirit.  I only wish I could be as hopeful as Fr. Larisey that it might.  What are your thoughts?