Sources, and the origin of the world

I teach history. Every term, in the first session, I talk to my students about sources. I tell them that there are primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from witnesses, people who were there when history was being made. They might be autobiographies and memoirs, diaries, letters, oral histories, or any other record of what people saw and heard and felt. Artifacts can also be primary sources—ruins of buildings, tools, artwork, even garbage. Garbage is a great source of information about the way people live.

Secondary sources come from scholars who interpret the primary sources. They gather as much information as they can, and they explain what happened, and why it happened, and what resulted from its happening. Secondary sources can be very narrow and deep investigations into a topic, or they can be broad evaluations of an entire culture or time period.

Journalism produces a mix of primary and secondary source material. The journalist explains and interprets, but often the journalist quotes a witness directly. The quote from the witness is a primary source, even as the article as a whole is a secondary source. This is true of newspaper accounts, magazine articles, radio and television broadcasts, and internet news services.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia entries, whether printed in books or distributed online, are tertiary sources. Textbooks are tertiary sources. Papers written by students are tertiary sources. Such sources are useful summaries and can be a good starting place for research. However, a student who writes a paper based only on tertiary sources has produced a quaternary source which has no academic value. Beyond the junior high school level, teachers generally do not approve of student papers that are based only on encyclopedias and on the textbook.

After explaining sources to the students, I ask them whether a larger number of primary sources guarantees that historians will understand what happened. That seems like a reasonable proposition, but my test case shows the opposite. On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot and killed. Hundreds of people were present at the time. Many of them had cameras, even moving pictures. Along with the human witnesses, there are numerous artifacts: the injuries to the bodies of the President and Governor Connelly, the gun, the bullets, the clothing of the President and of the Governor, the car, the pavement—all these are primary sources. Yet the secondary sources disagree about what happened. Most witnesses heard either two or three shots; hardly any witness reports hearing more than three shots. Yet many secondary sources insist that the damage was caused by at least four and sometimes up to twelve gunshots. Some secondary sources conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot the President. Others say he was part of a conspiracy. A few say he was investigating a conspiracy to shoot the President but was unable to prevent its success. Many others say that Harvey was innocent of any crime but was framed for the shooting.

If historians are confused about an event that happened just a few decades ago in front of many witnesses, how can people today investigate the origin of the world? There are primary sources—some written documents that describe creation, and many oral traditions about creation—but they do not all agree. Other primary sources exist as artifacts: fossils, geographic patterns, radioactive decay, and astronomic observations, among others. Can investigation of these primary sources be trusted when the conclusions of those investigations match none of the other primary sources that claim to have inside knowledge about creation?

Americans are fond of easy choices between two extremes. One approves of the President’s actions, or one disapproves. One votes Republican, or one votes Democratic. Creation is true, or evolution is true. In fact, there are more than two opinions about the origin of the world. Some Hindus believe that the world goes through lengthy cycles of development, culminating in a catastrophic destruction that is followed by a new beginning. Some ancient Greek philosophers thought that the physical universe is eternal, without beginning or end. Muslims are as divided as Christians about whether the world was created by direct miracle a few thousand years ago or whether it evolved over many millions of years. Some Christians hold to a young earth opinion, while others believe that God worked through the powers he created, planning and developing the world over many millions of years. Some say that God is eternal and unchanging but chose this slow method to create the world, while others say that God himself developed and evolved over the course of creation. Yet another view says that God created the world as it is now in an instant, but that he described creation to Moses over the course of six days.

What did Jesus say? He treated the account of creation written in Genesis as an accurate primary source. Trusting his authority, my opinion is that the earth and the universe are less than ten thousand years old. I view the act of creation as a singularity, as some physicists would say. God spoke, and the world appeared according to his design. He did not plant acorns and wait for them to sprout and grow; he created mature oak trees bearing acorns. He did not wait tens of thousands of years for coral reefs to grow from a single coral creature; he created mature coral reefs containing thousands of coral creatures. Adam and Eve were created with mature adult bodies; they did not grow from babies. Distant objects in the universe are visible from Earth because God created beams of light that extend to the Earth, even though the sources of those beams are more than ten thousand light years away.

I admit that I may be wrong. As I have written before, when I meet Jesus face to face in the new creation, he might tell me that I took the first chapters of Genesis far too literally. If so, the two of us will have a good laugh about my mistake. On the other hand, those who reject Jesus because they refuse to believe in a literal creation by an all-powerful God will not be laughing on that Day.

The primary job of the Christian Church is to warn sinners of the consequences of their sins and to introduce those sinners to the Savior who rescues them from evil and death and promises everlasting life. When our conversation disintegrates into arguments over creation versus evolution—or arguments over abortion, or homosexuality, or other matters that are important but not vital—only the devil wins. We have time to debate important matters, but we must be careful not to neglect the vital matters. At times, like Paul, we must know nothing aside from Christ and Him crucified. That matters most of all. J.

Trouble rarely comes alone

My daughters dance. They dance in competitions, and some of them have reached championship levels. They also dance for programs. They dance in schools and nursing homes and libraries. They dance in community events and ethnic festivals. They dance in parades. They dance in churches and in taverns.

Because they dance, they also practice. Imitating an idea of their dance teacher, I bought four 4 x 8 sheets of plywood and taped them to the garage floor to give them a private dance studio. The wood warps and flattens due to weather conditions, and the duct tape has to be replaced periodically, but the convenience of a place to dance cannot be beat. All they have to do is open the garage door, back the car onto the driveway, plug in their music, and they are ready to dance.

Our house includes a two-car garage with two steel garage doors. Since the day we moved in, half the garage has been filled with boxes of things that are not a car. (Yes, even with a 388 square-foot workshop and storage shed, we also had to keep things in the garage.) Over time, the contents of the garage have changed. More and more, they include the property of family members who have gone off to college—and I am very happy that none of those boxes were transferred into the shed.

One of the garage doors, the one on the storage side, broke several years ago. The door tangled with something, probably a bicycle, and the steel cracked and tore at the top of the door. The door could still be opened and closed manually, after I fixed it with some scrap lumber, but it could no longer handle the energy of the mechanical opener. I knew that the door would have to be replaced before the house could be sold, but we were willing to live with a faulty garage door.

When the shed burned two weeks ago, the items that could be rescued, and some that are being inventoried to be replaced, were moved into the garage. That means that the car sits in the driveway now, and it also means that the dance studio is closed until further notice. One of my daughters moved a few items to get to one sheet of plywood, which she pulled onto the lawn to practice. She left the plywood out, but I didn’t want the grass to die, so I put it away. Later that night another daughter wanted to practice. I told her she could get the plywood out again, but I wanted it returned to the garage when she was done.

She did not put the plywood far enough into the garage before closing the door. The door tangled with the plywood and began to crack and tear the same way that the first door had broken.

I researched online to check the cost of a new garage door. First I looked at the web sites of the big hardware stores to learn what the doors alone would cost. Then I researched the work required to install a garage door. In the past I have had to reattach springs that had broken, which is difficult enough; I decided that I could not handle the entire burden of replacing the doors. I found a local company that specializes in garage doors, noted that they had an online coupon, and made arrangements to have them provide and install the two doors.

The workman came Tuesday. That meant that I had to get up early Tuesday morning and empty half the garage so he would have room to work. I was carrying boxes of material left behind when family members went to college. I was carrying boxes of old toys—a toy kitchen set with a large box of plastic food and plates and so forth; a box of Lego blocks; a box of Lincoln Logs—you get the picture. I was also moving things that came from the shed and things that replaced what had been in the shed—a new lawnmower, a seven-foot artificial Christmas tree (which I assembled at the end of the driveway to air it out), rakes and shovels, a World War I footlocker that had belonged to my grandfather—again, you get the picture. The lawn was covered with boxes and assorted items. It looked as though we were having a lawn sale; I even joked about putting up a sign that would say, “Nothing here is for sale!” Then, when the garage doors were installed and the bill had been paid, I had to put all those things back into the garage.

As a result of all that lifting and carrying, I have irritated a pinched nerve in my neck. Every few years the problem flares up—some years ago I underwent three months of physical therapy after the family doctor discovered that I had lost strength in my right hand because I was not using it due to the pain. Although the pinch is in my neck, the pain extends the length of my right arm, often aching in my elbow and forearm. Two fingers in my right hand are numb. When I had physical therapy, I was taught stretching exercises that help to relieve the pressure on the nerve, so I am returning to those exercises, as well as occasionally swallowing medicine for the pain.

I am reporting problems, but I hope it does not sound as though I am complaining. I am happy to have two new garage doors; that work would have needed to be done when it came time to sell the house. I also need to repaint seven rooms, plus two bathrooms and three closets, and then replace the flooring before the house can be sold. Since I am hoping for a job offer in a different city, I might go ahead and start working on that painting soon. J.

Catching up

In the two weeks since my workroom/storage shed went up in flames, I’ve been dealing with that reality as well as reaching several other landmarks.

The insurance company sent a pair of adjusters to look at the damage and estimate the cost of repair and replacement. They indicated that contractors would probably prefer to raze the structure and build from the concrete slab rather than trying to replace all that was damaged by the fire. After considerable study, they estimated the cost of replacement, subtracted our deductible and depreciation, and handed me a check. The check had to be sent to the holder of the mortgage, since that company’s name is also on the check; someone will sign the check for the company and mail it back.

In addition to the cost of the building, my insurance policy also includes contents of the building. As a result, my family and I have spent much of the past two weeks listing everything that was in the shed, then researching the cost of replacement. That started the day after the fire, when I went to the hardware store to replace tools that I need to use this spring. The next replacement purchase was the lawnmower, which did not appear to be damaged, but which started once, ran twenty or thirty feet, and died, refusing to start again, even after I replaced the air filter. Children’s clothing and toys, which my family was gradually removing to donate to the church for its periodic rummage sale, now has to be listed, photographed, and in most cases discarded. Some homemade dresses are being saved for their nostalgic value. Then there’s the Christmas decorations. Many of the ceramic and glass figures were scalded by the fire. I will soon make arrangements with a professional cleaning company—recommended by the insurance company—to see what can be saved rather than replaced.

Meanwhile, I am inviting general contractors to place a bid on the work to replace the building. Many of my readers probably know a lot about general contractors, but some might not know about them. (Mrs. Dim didn’t understand them. When I asked her if she could recommend a general contractor, she told me not to use the one she had used. He showed up once, then took her money but sent other people to do the work.) General contractors oversee a building project, but they hire various specialists, such as carpenters, roofers, and electricians, to do the work. A person can save money by not using a general contractor, but that saved money is balanced by the time it takes to negotiate with each specialist, along with the necessity of knowing enough about construction to speak with those workers and to know that they are doing what they should be doing. The insurance company recommends a general contractor.

One general contractor came to the property the same day she was called and promised to email a bid. I haven’t received that email yet. A second general contractor did not return the phone call for two days, promised to come by on a certain day, and did not show up. A third came to look at the shed and wanted to know how much money the insurance company provided so his bid could match the insurance payment. I told him I planned to get several bids and compare them all to the insurance company’s evaluation, but he said he would submit a bid with a paragraph promising to adjust his figures. I’m hoping to receive one more bid, so I have three to compare.

All this overlaps wrapping up the school year and preparing to teach a summer class. At the same time, I have started my summer writing project, a study of the parables of Jesus. (I will post a few chapters, but since I plan to publish the whole book through amazon, I don’t want to share the entire work for free.) My car—a 1999 Ford Escort—crossed the 200,000 mile mark this month. I have seen license plates from forty-seven different states this year, but I am still looking for Maine, Rhode Island, and Delaware. And the exhibit I curated is open until the first of July. J.

Gentleness and respect

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16, NIV).

“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15, NIV).

Since the founding of the Christian Church, each generation of believers has used available technology to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The writings of the apostles were copied and saved on scrolls, but before long they were collected in codex form. The printing press and less costly paper made written communication easier to distribute—the Bible itself, as well as books, sermons, tracts, and other explanations of the Bible’s message. Now the internet and social media have opened a new world of communication to the Church, making outreach, apologetics, and irenics easier than ever before. Printed material can be smuggled into a country that censures writing, but the internet sneaks across borders far more easily. Peter preached to thousands of people on Pentecost Day, but the potential audience for any internet posting can extend to many millions.

Those of us who belong to Jesus Christ have wonderful opportunities to share his promises with the world. I know that God blesses our efforts where and when he chooses. I know that all the saints on earth remain sinners, subject to the devil’s temptations to fumble our attempts to share the Gospel. My heart is broken, though, over the many samples I have seen of Christians tarnishing the name of Christ by failing to describe our hope with gentleness and respect. I am doubly heartbroken over the many times I have seen Christians debate one another online, not with mutual love and respect, but rather biting and devouring each other.

Written communication has pitfalls, and those pitfalls only increase on the internet. Much of our personal communication is helped with facial expressions, body language, and variations in tone of voice that do not appear in writing. (Emoticons help a little, but only a little.) Close friends sometimes develop a banter that, to strangers, sounds hurtful and even abusive. Language that amuses some people repels others. As Christians post and as we comment on other posts, I believe we need to keep certain ideas in mind so our words bring glory to Christ and his Church rather than embarrassment and shame.

First, I do not think rhetoric and logic alone can change the heart of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God—the writings of the prophets and apostles through whom he spoke. They can be quoted directly, or they can be summarized, paraphrased, and explained. In any case, our best weapon against the devil and the sinful world is God’s Word. Our best way to lead other people to Jesus is to use the very words that changed our hearts and made us believers.

Atheists and agnostics who have already encountered God’s Word and have rejected it are unlikely mission opportunities, although God is capable of working miracles even in hardened hearts. If rhetoric and logic are not enough to change their hearts, surely ridicule and demeaning language will not accomplish that goal. Even when they choose to communicate using ridicule and demeaning language, I do not think that we bring glory to God and do his work by reducing our language to their level rather than writing with gentleness and respect.

Gentleness and respect are not only for unbelievers. When communicating with fellow believers, gentleness and respect are even more required. The Church on earth has been divided into many sects and factions, contrary to the will of Christ and of his apostles. True Christian unity cannot be accomplished by compromise, watering down the truth to a pulp that all will accept. Rather, each of us is called to defend the truth, but to do so gently, respectfully, and drawing on the power of God’s Word rather than relying on our own reason and understanding.

When you disagree with another Christian, consider the level of your disagreement. Are you correcting heresy? By all means, counter dangerous lies with the truth, but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you responding to heterodoxy? By all means, communicate with fellow believers about our differences, hoping to work toward greater unity within the Body of Christ—but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you differing over a case of Christian freedom? Perhaps—for the glory of God and for the strengthening of your faith—you are refraining from something not forbidden by Scripture. (This could be eating meat sold in the marketplace, dancing, playing cards, drinking moderately, or any other practice that Christians are free to do and free not to do.) By all means, share the benefits you have seen in your fasting, but do not criticize those who choose not to fast in your way. And, if you choose not to fast in a way that benefits a fellow believer, refrain from judging or criticizing your brother or sister in the Lord.

When two Christians are disagreeing over the meaning of a passage of Scripture, stop and consider the hermeneutical principles each is using. Is one reading the Bible evangelically while the other is reading legalistically? Is one seeking prophecies of future events while the other considers all prophecies already fulfilled in Christ? We read the Bible and discover differing messages—possibly one of us is guilty of replacing exegesis with eisegesis, but the root of the difference is probably in hermeneutics.

Those of us who are one in Christ will remain diverse, not only in language and culture, age and gender, wealth and social status, but in political opinions, artistic preferences, and the like. We can and should discuss these differences, but always with gentleness and respect. In the United States last November, some sincere Christians voted for Trump, others voted for Clinton, and still others voted for third party candidates. Even if you question the judgment of other people’s votes, their political convictions do not make them heretics.

In my case, I consider liturgical and traditional worship more reverent and more meaningful than contemporary worship. I have learned, though, that other Christians are blessed through contemporary worship. Their way of worshiping does not make them heretics, or even heterodox. I am more concerned about teachings in liberal Christianity. Some of those teachings are truly heretical, and they need to be opposed with the truth of the Bible—but always with gentleness and respect.

Finally, the devil and the sinful world delight in hiding Christ’s Gospel under distractions and diversions. Proper places and times can be found for discussing science and religion, archaeology and the Bible, abortion, patriotism, men and women and how they relate to each other, and many other topics. Often these topics are a barrier to the Gospel—a barrier to proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. No one has been changed from a nonbeliever into a Christian by being proved wrong about some peripheral topic. The Gospel itself is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Pardon my rant. I’ll try to be better now. J.

Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.

Definitions

This is the first part of a three-part post. In this first part I will define some terms used when discussing religion, particularly Christianity. In the second part, I will provide historical context using many of these terms. In the third part, I will finally get around to saying that which I want to say.

  • Agnostic: uncertain whether or not God exists. Many agnostics are quiet about their lack of certainty, but some agnostics insist that certainty about God is impossible. The latter group regards theists and atheists as equally insincere about their convictions.
  • Apologetics: the effort to communicate religious beliefs to others, often in an attempt to convert the others to the same beliefs. Not to be confused with the usual meaning of apology, in which one admits that one was wrong—in this sense, an apology is a defense of what one believes to be correct.
  • Atheist: certainty that no god exists. Many atheists are quiet about their lack of faith in any god, but some atheists overtly insist that there is no god and that all religions are based on lies and delusions.
  • Catholic: (when used of Christianity) united and present throughout the world. All Christians on earth who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, and all those with him in Paradise awaiting the resurrection, are members of the catholic Church.
  • Conservative: 1. In any context, wanting things to stay the way they are, resisting change; 2. In Christian thought, holding to the historic teachings of the Church, demanding that doctrines not be changed. (compare liberal)
  • Contemporary: in the context of Christian worship, using recently-written songs and an informal structure of worship that consists largely of songs, prayers, readings from the Bible, and preaching. (compare traditional and liturgical)
  • Cult: 1. in an academic context, a New Religious Movement not based on any older religion, or one that contains enough syncretism to be treated as a new religion; Among many conservative and fundamentalist Christians, a religion based upon false teachings, often centered around a powerful personality
  • Deist: belief in a God who created the world and established the rules of morality, but who is inaccessible. Deists do not believe in miracles or prayer or a personal relationship with any god.
  • Ecumenical: An effort among Christian groups to unite the Church into a single organization rather than many competing organizations. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians sometimes accuse ecumenical efforts of watering down doctrine for the sake of shallow unity.
  • Eisegesis: warping or twisting a passage from the Bible to make it seem to support a certain thought or belief (compare exegesis)
  • Evangelical: based upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Exegesis: studying the Bible to discover what it says (compare eisegesis)
  • Fundamentalist: defining membership in Christianity based on acceptance of a list of beliefs. Fundamentalism began in the United States early in the twentieth century, but the word is now used for movements within Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism as well. The list of beliefs created by Christian fundamentalists usually includes the doctrine of the Trinity, the identity of Jesus as both truly God and truly man, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus as the only source of salvation, inerrancy of the Bible, acceptance of miracles (especially the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection), and the future bodily return of Jesus.
  • Gnostic: claiming to have secret knowledge about religion (especially Christianity) that goes beyond the teachings found in the Bible. Gnosticism was common during the growth of early Christianity, and is often thought to have been revived in the New Age movement within Christianity.
  • Heretic: one who denies a key doctrine of Christianity, such as the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, or the humanity of Jesus. Heretics are generally regarded by Christians as outside the true Church.
  • Hermeneutics: the set of principles that guide a reader of the Bible—a way of practicing exegesis and avoiding eisegesis. Differences among Christians often result from different hermeneutical approaches.
  • Heterodox: one who is mistaken about certain important doctrines but correct about the key doctrines. Heterodox people are generally regarded as fellow Christians with the same Savior and the same hope of heaven in spite of their differences. (compare heretic and orthodox)
  • Indigenous Religion: a religion long practiced among a small group of people with the same culture, usually a minority surrounded by a more powerful culture which follows a different religion. Indigenous religions are still practiced among some Native Americans, Africans, Pacific Islanders, Siberians, and the like.
  • Irenics: the effort to communicate among groups with differing beliefs, generally in a non-confrontational manner. The term irenics is derived from the Greek word meaning “peace.” Accordingly, irenics can be described as peaceful coexistence of people whose beliefs differ, although irenics includes communication about their differing beliefs. (compare pluralism)
  • Liberal: 1. In any context, wanting things to change, believing that a situation can be improved. 2. In Christian thought, accepting changes in doctrine, whether as a response to scientific discoveries, a response to changing social conditions and perceptions, or the ecumenical movement.
  • Liturgical: in the context of Christian worship, following the order of worship that was developed in the early Church, generally including the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, all of which are songs derived from passages in the Bible. (compare contemporary and traditional)
  • New Religious Movement: in an academic context, a group of religious beliefs and practices that has come into being within the past several centuries (see cult and sect)
  • Orthodox: one who is correct about all Christian doctrines. Naturally, every Christian considers himself or herself orthodox and judges others to be heretic or heterodox.
  • Pluralism: a society in which several religions coexist without violent confrontation. The United States is often described as a pluralist society.
  • Sect: 1. In an academic context, a new religious movement that arises within an established religion. 2. Among many conservatives and fundamentalists, any Christian group that is heterodox rather than orthodox.
  • Syncretism: blending two or more religions. The Old Testament prophets preached against syncretism involving Canaanite religion and the religion of Israel. In more recent times, Santeria and Voodoo have appeared as New Religious Movements derived from Christianity blended with indigenous religions of Africa.
  • Theist: certain that God exists, that he has thoughts and feelings and personality, and that one can have a personal relationship with God.
  • Traditional: in the context of Christian worship, maintaining the same form of worship rather than developing new forms of worship. Often a synonym for liturgical. (compare contemporary)
  • Unionism: groups of different beliefs and practices worshiping together. Sometimes used of different religions worshiping together, sometimes used of different forms of Christianity worshiping together.

Up in flames

When I went to bed last night, I wondered if I would think in the morning that the day’s events had been just a bad dream. But the smell of smoke was too pervasive and the memories too vivid for me to think that I had dreamed about the fire.

The day began normally. I had been at work for two hours when the phone rang. I answered it and heard a voice saying, “The storage shed is on fire! I’ve called 911, but they aren’t here yet!”

People like me want to believe that we respond calmly to a crisis. Sometimes people like me say foolish things calmly in a crisis. “Do you think I should come home, then?” I asked. Of course I was out the door and on my way home as quickly as possible.

The drive home takes twenty minutes. I spent those minutes praying two things–that no one would be hurt, and that the house would be protected. I also reminded myself to breathe and to pay attention to traffic. The fire trucks were there when I arrived home, so I parked down the street. The fire was contained by then, and the firefighters were preparing to soak the contents of the shed to ensure that no hot spots would reignite.

A family member had used a power tool in the shed that morning. She did nothing wrong–she used the tool correctly and put it away when she was done. But some fault in the outlet began a small smoldering that was not immediately evident. Twenty minutes later, the same family member took some garbage to the curb and decided to bring back the recycling bin–the latter task is something I generally do when I come home Friday evenings. Her spontaneous decision to do so yesterday gave the opportunity for her to see flames and smoke far sooner than they would have been noticed otherwise.

When we bought the house, the shed was already part of the property. It is about ten feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. The front end had workspaces with shelves underneath and pegboard on the walls for hanging tools. The back end had shelves on the walls for storage. To the right of the entrance we kept lawn and gardening tools and an area for potting plants; to the left was workspace for carpentry and the like, with hand tools hung on the wall and power tools on the shelf below. Beyond that was a work table with boxes of clothing and an antique, homemade dollhouse that had been given to the children. Beyond that were boxes of outgrown toys and clothing, disassembled cribs, and the like. On the back shelves were boxes of holiday decorations.

I was already doing triage in my head while I drove home. The tools were all replaceable and probably covered by insurance. The children’s clothing and toys were things we were slowly removing, donating them to the church for its rummage sale. The Christmas decorations would be the saddest loss, but I was resigned to that loss already so long as no one was hurt and the house remained safe.

No one was hurt. The house remained safe. The fire fighters had been delayed because they were giving a program at a school. One of the children had asked them what would happen if there was a fire somewhere while they were at the school. They had said they would leave to fight the fire. A minute or two later they got the call about our fire.

The lieutenant told us there was a clear V-shape of damage from the outlet where the fire began. It traveled up and then crossed the length of the shed, following the air flow. The lawnmower was on the floor of the shed. Although charred boxes fell onto it, it was undamaged. A tank of gasoline, half-full, was on the floor of the shed about five feet from where the fire began. It survived unscathed. The power tools, on the shelf under the work area, were likewise unharmed. The hand tools that had been hanging on the wall were gone. Our grill for cooking with charcoal was, of course, unharmed, but the electric starter for the coals melted completely and will need to be replaced.

After the firefighters left, I called our insurance company. As they began the claim process, they advised me to take pictures of the building and its contents, then to begin removing contents that were not damaged. After taking pictures, we started at the front, taking out the lawnmower and power tools and other items that had survived. The antique dollhouse was, ironically, harmed much in the pattern of the shed that contained it–most of the damage to the roof and upper structure. As we worked our way to the back of the shed, moving aside charred and burned boxes, we could see that the boxes holding Christmas decorations were darkened and soaked but not burnt. One by one we carefully carried those boxes to the driveway and inspected their contents.

We did not have time to do an item-by-item inspection. Some of the ceramic and glass decorations had been damaged by the fire, but we set all that aside to handle later. Most of the clothing that had been on the work table was merely soaked and smoke-scented. We spread those items out on the grass to dry and to freshen in the breeze. The day was dry, sunny, and windy, which made it ideal for rescuing the clothing. It looked much as if we were preparing for a garage sale, and we wondered if we should post a sign saying that these things were not for sale.

Some items came to mind before we could enter the shed; others came to mind as we worked our way through the shed. Four wooden folding chairs–probably older than I am–survived, although they will be to be refinished. Handmade children’s clothing of sentimental value was found and proved to be unhurt. Even a box holding a stamp collection was retrieved from a lower shelf, essentially unharmed. The primary loss was the building itself, but the insurance adjuster has not yet looked at it to tell us so.

In spite of the trauma of enduring a fire on our property, my family and I feel that we have been blessed by the Lord. No one was injured by the fire. The house was spared. (The corner of the shed where the fire began is about ten feet from the nearest corner of the house. Two large oak trees next to the shed could have spread the fire, but we’ve had a wet spring and they remained unsinged.) Insurance will cover most of the loss. I expect to order a dumpster and clear the remaining contents out of the shed. I have been hoping for a while to receive a job offer in another city; this event may have helped to prepare for a move by forcing us to deal with extraneous possessions before the urgency of packing. Many people (including some of our neighbors) can see only loss in a fire like this. My family and I see instead how all things work for good. J.

Misunderstanding the Rhythm of the Rain

I can’t believe that I’ve been misunderstanding that song all these years!

In 1963, the aptly-named Cascades released their only hit single, “Rhythm of the Rain.” It rose to number three on the Billboard charts and has been a staple of Sixties stations and compilation recordings ever since. As a writer, I respect copyright laws, so I will not quote extensively from the song.

The premise, though, is that a man is mourning the loss of a friend. The rain is both expressing and interrupting his grief. He calls himself a fool, which—until today—led me to believe that he had caused the end of a relationship. I thought that he blamed himself for her departure.

Over the past weekend and during the middle of this week, that song has been running through my head. After multiple repetitions in my mind, the song’s true message suddenly burst upon me. I googled the lyrics to make sure that I was right, and I am indeed right.

“The only girl I care about has gone away, looking for a brand new start.” It’s happened to me; it happens to a lot of people. But nowhere in the song does he claim that she left because of something he said or did. She just left. Now he’s sad. He misses her badly. He wishes that she would return.

“But little does she know that when she went away, along with her she took my heart.” If she doesn’t know how he feels about her, they must not have had much of a relationship. Perhaps he was too shy to try to get closer to her. Perhaps other circumstances kept them from being boyfriend and girlfriend. For whatever reason, she left for her new start—maybe a new job, maybe life in a new city. Possibly she got married. Now he sits alone and mourns her departure, wishes she was back, and knows that he cannot build a relationship with someone else because he’s still stuck on her.

This is why he calls himself a fool: not because he caused a relationship to end, but because he’s heartbroken over someone he never dated, someone who doesn’t even know how much he cares about her. He calls himself a fool because he allowed his heart to stay with this woman who has left. The rain is not going to tell her how he feels, no matter how he pleads with it. If he never had the nerve to say how much he cared, it’s too late to say it now. And he is miserable without her, even though he was never really with her.

“Oh, listen to the falling rain—pitter-patter, pitter-patter.” One hopes that he soon gets out from under this cloud and learns that life goes on. It would be sad if he spent years missing the one who got away when they were never even together. J.

May Day and Christian freedom

The first day of May is roughly half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. For more than two thousand years, this date has been marked by celebrations in Europe and in North America. Romans marked Floralia, Celts observed Beltane, and Germans commemorated Walpurgis on or near this date. While many neopagans try to restore these ancient celebrations, some Christian groups make the day an occasion to remember Mary the mother of Jesus and/or Joseph her husband. Meanwhile labor groups, socialists, and communists all mark the first of May as International Workers’ Day.

For some people in North America, the expression “May Day” is associated with a call for help, since the same syllables spoken in French mean, “Help me.” In one May Day tradition, children or families leave baskets of flowers or sweet treats by the front doors of their neighbors or their friends. Another involves dancing around a pole while winding colorful streamers around that pole to celebrate the springtime. About the only May Day celebration I observe is to set the alarm to awaken me with a song for May Day, “The Merry Month of May,” from the musical Camelot.

A few Christians are opposed to any event or ceremony remembering a date once used to honor pagan gods. Drawing inspiration from God’s prohibition of mixing Canaanite religious practices with the worship of the true God, such Christians oppose even Christmas trees and Easter eggs. They fear that such worldly traditions dilute the meaning of Christian beliefs. They note that most of the earliest Christian communities established in North America ignored–and in some cases banned–the celebration of Christmas. In particular, the maypole appears to resemble the Asherah pole of the Canaanites. God’s prophets severely criticized those Israelites who took part in the custom of the Asherah pole.

Clearly, any effort to honor any god other than the true God is idolatry. Christians should oppose efforts to revive ancient religions, be they Greek and Roman, Celtic and Germanic, Egyptian, Babylonian, or Canaanite. Does this mean, though, that any practice even remotely associated with false religion must be banned among Christians? Does God’s Old Testament position against the Canaanites mean that Christians today should be like the Taliban and ISIS, destroying historic treasures and works of art because they were created to honor false gods?

Paul told the Colossians, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16). Although the immediate context of those words applies more to Jewish holidays such as the Passover, I am convinced that Paul would say the same thing about Christmas trees, Easter eggs, carved pumpkins, and even maypoles. Paul proclaimed Christian freedom. He counseled that such freedom be practiced with restraint, that love for one another should prevail over doing what one is free to do. But Jesus can be honored with traditions that once had pagan meanings. Nothing in creation is so tainted by false religion that it cannot be reinterpreted to proclaim the true message of the Living God.

For Paul, the test case involved meat sold in city markets. That meat generally had first been offered on an altar to a pagan God. Paul did not forbid Christians to buy and eat such meat. He told the Romans and the Corinthians that each believer should follow his or her conscience. Those who feared that buying and eating such meat honored a false god should not buy and eat it. Those who saw that meat is meat and it did not matter where it had been were free to buy and eat. Paul added, though, that those who were untroubled by the past history of the meat should not eat it in the presence of those who were troubled. Out of love for fellow Christians, one should abstain from eating meat when those Christians are around. In their absence, freedom to eat meat was not restricted.

Many aspects of modern life seem tainted to some Christians. Because their consciences are troubled, fellow Christians lovingly limit their freedom to partake of worldly pleasures in the presence of those who are troubled. No kind person would drink wine or beer in the presence of a recovering alcoholic, one still struggling to resist the temptation to drink to excess. In the same way, any Christian is free to enjoy rock music, Harry Potter books and movies, Dungeons and Dragons, dancing, playing card games, or anything else that is not specifically prohibited by God’s commandments. A Christian is free to decorate a Christmas tree, color and hide Easter eggs, carve pumpkins for Halloween, and even celebrate May Day–so long as that Christian is careful not to offend others by these celebrations.

Christ’s victory over evil has set us free from the power of evil. As the redeemed, we are the property of God, and we wish to do nothing that brings shame to his name. Bear in mind, though, that Christians bring shame to God’s name by legalism, defining Christianity by rules and regulations rather than by free forgiveness and purifying grace. To the pure, all things are pure. Any Christian is free to fast–to deny one’s self alcoholic beverages or meat or rock music or books about magicians–but no Christian is free to demand the same fast from others. Whatever we do, we do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, bringing glory to God through his name. J.