Sailing from Byzantium (Book Review) Collin Wells

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Big Idea: For a long time historians have viewed the history of the Byzantine empire as little more than a millennium long uninspiring tail of decay. Certainly, if territorial expansion is the measure of success for empires than this assessment would have to be true. However Collin Wells makes the case that the cultural influence of this “forgotten empire” upon it’s three neighbours was and continues to be absolutely massive.

To the West: It was Byzantine humanists that taught the Italians to read and appreciate ancient Greek literature. The rediscovery of Greek thought that inspired the Renaissance happened because Byzantines monks carefully transported and meticulously copied these ancient greek texts for their Latin patrons. Without this investment the renaissance would never have happened

To the East: It was a Byzantine love for rational inquiry which led to the golden age of Islamic Science. As the Arabs conquered Byzantine lands they allowed themselves as illiterates to be taught by their captives. Eventually the Greek approach to gaining knowledge through rational inquiry was reacted against and completely squashed in the muslim world, laying the foundations for some of the more radical elements of Islamic thought that we see today.

To the North: The Byzantine empire managed to spread Christianity to Slavs, Bulgarians, and Russians creating a bond that transcended boarders and shaped the belief system of countless numbers of people.

Little bits of interesting:

  1. My way or the highway — The Byzantines were not very tolerant of variant versions of Christianity scattered around it’s empire. The persecution was so bad that when the Muslims came conquering in the 600’s, many un-orthodox Christians welcomed the invaders as liberators.
  2. Icon’s got to go! — For a long time Byzantine Christians were known for their Icons. Then a debate happened, all these images were actually idolatry it was said. God’s judgment would surely come. No! said the other side the icons are not worshiped as idols they are merely reminders of who we worship. Should they stay or should they go? War was where the decision would ultimately be made. Do we win or lose when we have the icons? They lost some battles, so it was time to burn and bury the icons. Eventually they came back but not for quite a while.
  3. The first bobble heads — In the 5th century, asceticism was all the rage and Simeon of Antioch was its rock star. His claim to fame was a 30 year run atop a 50 foot pole. He was so popular that people traveled all the way from Britain to just to catch a glimpse. Soon budding young entrepreneurs capitalized on the craze by creating and selling commemorative Simeon dolls!
  4. Rationalist inquisition — We’ve all heard about the Spanish Inquisition. Ultra religious people torturing people for not having enough faith. In the Muslim world in the 9th century almost the exact opposite kind of inquisition happened. It was an inquisition that tortured ultra religious people for not having enough reason! The leader, Al ma mun, was enamoured with the rationalist thought of the Greek Byzantines. Science, medicine, philosophy was the way forward for Islam. Muslim hardliners resisted this new openness to reason, so he rounded them up and tortured them until they accepted a more rationalistic doctrine. Significant people were martyred, and it became the rallying cry for a brand of Islam that would staunchly repudiate any kind of rationalism. This anti-reason version of Islam won and from its stream flows sharia law, the Wahhabi, and Osama Bin Ladin.
  5. I love my booze — Vladimir of Russia was tempted to convert to Islam in the 900’s he liked the part about how all carnal desires would be fulfilled in the after life. But he didn’t like the thought of giving up wine in this life “Russians cannot live without wine” he said and began shopping for other religions
  6. Sketchy conversion — God himself must live at the Haggia Sophia, said the Russians who investigated the possibility of becoming orthodox, but even the this dazzling architectural masterpiece in Constantinople wasn’t quite enough to make him and his Russian people convert. What did it was a war. The great Byzantine city was in trouble and needed soldiers. They offered a royal princess’s to Vladimir in marriage if he would fight for them on the condition that he would convert. He did, and Christianity came to Russia thanks to war, politics, and violence.
  7. Fresh Harvest – The Slav’s were the harvest field. Roman Christianity wanted to win them over and so did the Orthodox. They even got in fights over this. The Orthodox won. How? They decided that the Slav’s should hear the gospel in their own language. They helped them write their own language and then translated their liturgies into it. This horrified the Roman church who were certain that the language of the church must remain in latin. They stuck to their guns, and lost the Slavs to the Orthodox.

Christian History in Plain Language (Book Review) Bruce Shelley

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I love history, so I am bias, but I think that even a non-history person would be captivated by this book. Shelley captures well the heart of history, which is a story well told. In this volume it’s the story of Christianity. The glories and wonders of it, as well as the dirty laundry. He knits the whole story together by telling lots and lots of fascinating little stories along the way.  This is not a history book that buries you with mind numbing lists of dates, places and events. Yes, they are in there but covertly woven into incredible, despicable, charming, disgusting, and miraculous stories of real people like you and me.

I know it sounds crazy, it’s a history text book after all, right? but I couldn’t put the book down and I learned so much.

I think it should be pointed out, that Shelley is not interested in glossing over the less glorious side of the Christian story. You will not just find a celebration of what is good in this book about Christianity but also an evaluation and analysis of what was not at all good.

Is God anti-gay? (Book Review) Sam Allberry

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Sam Alberry is a Christian with a unique perspective. He admits that he is same sex attracted, but yet he stands resolutely opposed to fulfilling those attractions. He answers the question of his book title with a negative. Sam is certain that God is not anti-anyone, but if so, then why must he deny himself?

Gay is not who I am — He believes It is unhealthy for sexual preference to be the fundamental identifier of a human. This is why Sam prefers the term “same sex attracted” over the term gay. Just like it would be off to lock someone into the identity of carnivore simply because they like to eat a steak on occasion so to would it be inappropriate to lock someone into a sexual identity. A human is far more than what his natural appetites might be. To build an identity off of this one part of humanity is unfair to the human.

Sex outside of marriage is a bad idea — He believes that sex was intended to be so much more than casual. In a way, sex is like a post-it note. The first time you use it, it sticks well, but when it is reapplied too many times, it loses its capacity to stick to anything. We are simply not designed for multiple sexual relationships. Sex becomes less relational, more functional and less satisfying as a result. Sex is designed to irreversibly knit two people together. When it’s used for anything other than this, despite what the sitcoms preach, there is emptiness, brokenness and devastation.

Marriage needs both genders — He is also convinced that marriage is rooted in gender. It’s the great reunion. God made Eve from Adam, and then in a brilliant stroke, He puts them back together permanently through the sexual union that comes with marriage. Marriage according to God, says Sam, can only be the reunion of these two genders.

Let’s just be friends — According to Sam, a common problem among SSA people, including himself, is what he calls “friendship heroin.” Sam’s tendency, is to develop an unhealthy emotional dependancy on another person. If he is not careful he can get “high” on the affirmation of this friend which can easily result in intense but unhealthy longings. According to Sam, simply knowing this and being able to work through the dangers of “friendship heroin” together, and not “freaking out” is very helpful for people with SSA that really just want regular friendships, not the unhealthy addictive versions.

The Bible is clear — Sam has been told innumerable times that the Old Testament has lots of rules that the modern Christian doesn’t adhere to, so why can’t homosexuality just be one of those now irrelevant rules? Sam’s answer: Jewish civic law and Jewish temple law have been fulfilled in Christ. Those rules don’t apply anymore. However, moral law finds itself restated in the New Testament — specifically covering this particular area. If one wishes to give in to SSA and live in a lifestyle that allows for the fulfillment of those longings, he will have to do it, in opposition to what the Scripture says, something Sam is not willing to do. To quote him directly: “Life is far, far better when Jesus is at the centre, and far, far worse when anyone or anything else is.”  because of this belief he is willing to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. Which is actually the calling of all Christians.

I applaud Sam’s tremendous courage to speak out. I am certain that homophobes on one side of him will criticize him unmercifully for his admission to SSA, surely he can’t be a Christian, they will say. On the other side, religiphobes will take shots at him, incredulous as to how he could possibly deny his sexuality for the sake of what they are certain is out dated and inaccurate dogma.

Click below to watch a short video of Sam explaining his unique position.

Sam from Living Out on Vimeo.

The Purity Principle (Book Review) Randy Alcorn

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For anyone left in our western world still interested in the concept of moral purity this is a helpful little resource.

Big Idea: Purity is always smart, impurity is always stupid. There is such a thing as moral law and it is as sure as the law of gravity. Test the law of gravity by stepping off a cliff you’ll get hurt. Test the law of purity by engaging in impurity you’ll get hurt

What loads of people will disagree with: What is moral purity then? Sex is a privilege inseparable from the responsibilities of the sacred marriage covenant. To claim the privilege apart from the responsibility perverts God’s intention and breaks the law of moral purity.

A lingering uncomfortable truth: Our society has in many respects muted the natural consequences for breaking moral law. We can prevent disease and eliminate the possibility of unwanted children. We can even alter any social stigma connected to sex outside of marriage. However there is no contraceptive for a guilty conscience. Even if the physical and cultural toll has been lessened through science and humanist philosophy, the emotional, psychological, and spiritual toll has not.  The social landscape of our society remains littered with the carnage of broken hearts and broken lives.

Final observations: When it comes to breaking moral law, it rarely if ever, just happens, the battle for moral purity takes place in the mind, and it is lost in one hundred silent secret steps before any large leaps into impurity happen.

Perhaps the three greatest greenhouses for the growth of immorality are anonymity, loneliness, and leisure time. Remove these three from peoples lives, and immorality would sharply decline.

Good Without God (Book Review) Greg Epstein

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Big Idea: Humans do not need any kind of deity to inform us on goodness. The idea purported by religious people that non religious people simply cannot be good unless God is in the picture is absolutely reprehensible. The human is good because we have evolved to be so as a survival mechanism. We evolved to see the value in taking care of our kin. We’ve come to understand the helpfulness of reciprocity, (mutual back scratching). We are keenly aware of the value of a good reputation, and we’ve discovered that greater personal health is the result of unselfish actions. It is for these reasons, not any divine reason, that humans are good to each other. We have bound ourselves to living out these discoveries through social contracts, and through the inner voice that is inside of every human. Ultimately, what matters is dignity, dignity is embodied in the golden rule and is brought to full flower in an atmosphere of freedom and equality.

What I liked: Epstein is very critical of romantic love, as am I. Understanding love as merely some sort of mystical feeling based connection devoid of commitment and self sacrifice has been a really bad idea for human flourishing. Epstein is also a strong proponent monogamy, as am I, how with his philosophy, he arrives at this position with such conviction is a mystery that alludes my ability to solve, but at least I agree him.

What I did not like: In short, a lot. I will be as brief as possible highlighting only the major points of disagreement. The review would become tedious if I attempted to counter everything that I objected to.

  1. His victim mentality reaction to something he entirely misunderstands. Right here in the seed of inspiration for his book he stumbles. Epstein is convinced that religious people think it’s impossible for him to be good without God. He is hurt, wounded, insulted, and angry at such a suggestion. He cites C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Rick Warren, and Al Mohler to substantiate his accusation against Christians. In all his efforts Epstein grossly misrepresents Christian thought. All Christians every where believe that all people are capable of doing good deeds. Yes, Christians believe that all people are sinners in need of a saviour, so in a real sense no human is truly good without God’s salvation, however, no Christian believes that a person is incapable of good works. The question for the Christian as it relates to doing good things in the world is not can you be good without God, it is how does one determine what good is? That’s the question. With follow up questions being, If goodness is not an absolute how can one know it or enforce it? or Why be good if God doesn’t exist? Finally Epstein gets around to answering these questions sort of, but not before he wastes entirely to much ink getting all hot and bothered rebutting something Christians don’t even believe.
  2. His punting Hitler to the Christians. While he is all worked up, he makes a misguided attempt to communicate to his readers that Christians are more than likely the bad guys, since Hitler was a Christian. Really? Yup, Hitler said he was doing God’s will once and he made sure the belt buckles of his soldiers had inscribed on them “God is with us” — see he is a Christian. I wonder if anyone would conclude that Epstein was a Christian if they found a U.S. dollar in his pocket — see, right there in his pocket it says “in God we trust.” In truth, as early as 1935 Hitler was foaming at the mouth claiming that Christianity in it’s accepted form was an invention of the dirty Jew. He claimed that national socialism (Nazism) was the true fulfillment of Christianity. One could only be a true Christian if he was part of the Nazi party. Hitler lamented the fact that his country was rooted in Christianity, it’s principles of grace, mercy and forgiveness were weak and revolting to him. He is on record for wishing that Germany had been rooted in Islam or Paganism, according to his thinking those religions were more conducive to his principles of evil, hate, and violence. When the confessing Protestant church and the Roman Catholic church resisted Hitlers hostile takeover of Christianity, he killed them. He had good reason however because it was these Christians (not humanists) that were committed to his overthrow.
  3. His cavalier acceptance that evolution somehow proves origins – “We accept the scientific evidence for evolution as overwhelming”  With that simple sentence Epstein concludes that he knows with reasonable certainty how life originated. A conversation about origins has nothing to do with science or evolution. Any position on origins requires a massive step of faith that probably should be discussed. But its not important to Epstein, to him evolution is true, God is beside the point, moving on.
  4. His belief that Mother Teresa is bad like Hitler – He links the two. What was Mother Teresa’s great sin that puts her in the company of a “Christian” such as Hitler? She failed to embrace Epstein’s worldview that accepts sexual freedom in all it’s forms. Never mind that she gave her life up for the good for the poor. Anyone who doesn’t have the same life stance as Epstein better be careful, they might end up on the bad boy bus with Hitler.
  5. His understanding of good lacks a moral imperative. According to Epstein, the human cannot with 100% certainty know what is good and what isn’t, however, he suggests goodness is connected to human need and interest. Trial and error, is the only mechanism to figure out the mystery of goodness and social contract is the only means to enforce it. Simply stated goodness is determined by self interest, pragmatism, and majority rule (if you happen to be in a democracy) Epstein isn’t totally comfortable with this so he makes statements like “of course rape is bad, you don’t need a God to figure that out.” but what if a culture decides that there is a need and an interest in rape? What if the powers that be form a social contract that make it so? What can be said? What can be done? Epstein knows that he is on thin ice, because this has happened in the past and is happening currently. (In Africa, South East Asia, and some Western sub-cultures) Even more unnerving for a humanist like Epstein is the use of social darwinism, an invention of humanism, to justify such brutalities upon the undesirable, unwanted, and unhealthy. What is his response? “Even though this has happened in the past it doesn’t mean we ought to do it now.” However “ought” implies a moral imperative, and where does the moral imperative come from in this system? That’s a good question, with no answer, which creates a huge problem. C.S. Lewis is still right, when absolute morality is debunked only “I want” remains. We can only hope that we humans will “want” the right things, the human track record however, doesn’t support this hope.
  6. He misunderstands the relationship between faith and reason. He says reason is more important than faith, but any philosopher understands that reason is always rooted in faith.
  7. He glosses over humanisms dark side, and then blasts the Bible without explanation. Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin all had some massive earth altering humanistic thoughts. Stalin adopted Marx’s thinking and killed more people than anybody. Hitler adopted Nietzsche’s thoughts, not Jesus Christ’s, and plunged the world into the greatest war ever. Margaret Sanger adopted eugenics which comes directly from Darwinian thought and pushed hard for the forced segregation and sterilization of undesirables. He spends almost no time wrestling through these very challenging problems that come with humanistic thought. He ignores them or dismisses them in a sentence or two as misrepresented and that’s it. He then quotes a couple Bible verses that appear to paint women as inferior to men and slavery as a justifiable option. This is his launching pad to ridicule the Bible and those who believe it to be true. Of course he doesn’t actually look at the context of those verses, or wrestle with what scholars have written about them. He just blasts away.
  8. His use of tired old reasoning to dismiss the idea of God - In four different places in the book Epstein posits that If God is real and all powerful, yet allows so much suffering in the world, he must be evil or powerless. In either case, this God who doesn’t fashion the world as Epstein would wish it is beneath his dignity to worship. I get it. There is nothing new here. The world is a messed up place. Why? The Christian has a ready answer. But Epstein isn’t really interested in hearing it. The humanist has no answer, and no real reason to care either, save maybe self preservation, which has little to do with authentic caring. So the humanist does a curious thing, he yells at a God that doesn’t exist, for not doing more to help the mess that is the world.
  9. Silly word games – He recognizes that all is not rosie in the humanist world, what does he do? He says, “oh, that bad stuff, that’s secularism not humanism.” Without humanism we do not have secularism.
  10. His careless merging of religions. He refers to the Wahabi and Evangelical Christians as essentially the same. This is simply not true. A pang of guilt should be felt in the heart of anyone who with such broad brush strokes links the muslim sect that produces Al-Qaeda with evangelical Christianity. The two groups are in different universes of philosophy, belief, theology, and practice. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either completely mis-informed or sinister.
  11. His disdain for historical accuracy — Epstein shares three ancient religious narratives, one of the Buddha, one of the biblical character of Job and one of Jesus. He completely butchers all three stories, misquoting and misrepresenting the narratives with gleeful impunity. In the end, he dismisses his care free retelling of these stories by indicating that it’s impossible to know history anyway. This is not scholarship, this is junk.
  12. His dismissal of Christian charity as “soul saving” and not really caring — Virtually every hospital, orphanage, soup kitchen, recovery program, educational institution and charity of any kind In the West and countless places around the globe were started by Christian people to help others. Epstein ignores all this, digs around for a while until he finds a story about some humanist nurses in Boston who for a few years help some sick people. He praises their actions and takes a poke at Christians by saying “see these nurses were actually interested in helping people not saving their souls” Christians are supremely motivated to help people because its right. A concept humanists are unable to embrace. Humanists help people for a litany of reasons but never for an absolute reason which is why Christians will always take the lead in helping people in need.
  13. His standard fare complaints against the wickedness of Christianity – The crusades come up, and so does the inquisition. Yes, countless atrocities have been committed in the name of some deity. Countless more have been committed without the invocation of a god’s name (Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Mau Zedong, Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Vladimir Lenin to list a few) none of which, conveniently enough are discussed in this book — A “body count” to determine whether the idea of “God” or “no God” is better is hardly a worthwhile exercise. Why does he bring it up? I’m not sure he want’s to educate as much as he wants to inspire a disdain for world views other than his own.

Forgiveness or Justice?

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Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive….Pay back the guilty as they deserve.

2 Chron 6

So which is it forgiveness or justice? In one breath Solomon asks the Lord to forgive the people. Seconds later he asks God to pay back the guilty and vindicate innocent.
I don’t think forgiveness comes at the expense of justice. It’s not necessarily a one or the other kind of thing. A victim can forgive the criminal but the criminal may still need to go to jail. Forgiveness removes my hand from the throat of the one who hurt me. Forgiveness means there is no more ill will, hatred or need for revenge between me and the person who violated me. However because the human is wired for justice it is certainly possible that the forgiven man may still need to “pay his debt”. In fact one could say he must. The Christian God is a God of love to be sure and forgiveness but he is also equal parts a God of justice. God is simply not going to sweep human wickedness under the rug — justice matters to God, which is why it was imperative that Jesus die. The cross of Christ is the greatest mixing of justice and love there is. Yes, the Christian is forgiven by God because of Jesus but we must never forget that a massive price was paid to satisfy the righteous need for justice. As a result, Christians care deeply about justice. The wicked must be held responsible for their evil actions, and in some cases on earth this is possible. However in other places where it’s not possible, because of corruption or the complete absense of a justice system what then? Would a Christian embrace vigilante justice? No. There are times in life when a Christian will not be able to see justice served. In those moments the Christian will still forgive but he will definitely trust that the judge of all things will serve justice one day upon the perpetrator.

How Times Change

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If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God

I John 4:2-3

People were acknowledging the deity of Jesus quite readily in the first century. No one had any doubts about that. The things that Jesus accomplished could only be the work of God. What people just could not believe were his claims of humanity! Platonic thought was so strong in that time. It was common knowledge that God and human don’t mix. The spirit is good the flesh is not. Therefore Jesus could not be a for real flesh and blood human. John does his best to counter any story that minimizes or denies Jesus humanity. Any one who talks like that, John says, is nothing but bad news. How times have changed. Now, in our sophisticated modern world virtually everyone is willing to acknowledge the humanity of Jesus, but for sure not his deity.

Ghosts don’t change people, God does

But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

At first glance this verse seems to be completely false. Surely if someone returned from the dead and spoke to me I would listen to them infinitely more than I would listen to the words of Deuteronomy or Malachi!
However I do think the point is sound because it reveals the power of the human will. No external pressure or evidence will by itself change one’s perspective on God. Only the words of God breathed into the heart of man can affect lasting change. The rich man and his brothers were radically devoted worshipers of money and not even a ghost would be able to detach them from their devotion. It worked in Dickens “a Christmas Carol” but Jesus is saying it wouldn’t work in real life. I suspect Jesus is right. For someone’s allegiance to change to God from money, sex, power, fame, self love, materialism or any such idols as these It will only be the words of God that do it.

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Judgement and Reward

How does Christianity influence behavior? One way (though not the greatest way) is with the threat of judgment and the hope of reward. In James 5 we have a number of appeals for certain behaviors and In every case the reader is told that if he does not comply there will be “judgment and slaughter”, if he does however, the Lord will return and blessings will abound.

For years the Catholic Church held people in absolute captivity with threats such as these. Then the Protestant Reformation happened and we were told that it is “faith alone” that saves us and not to worry so much about these threats. Now the secular revolution has happened and any sort of view with eternal judgment and reward has been tossed aside. If there is no judgement and no reward then what is to keep the human in line? For what reason should I or should I not behave in a certain way? Simple guidelines come forward: Do whatever you wish just try not to hurt too many people. Why not hurt people? If it’s not “God’s going to kick your ass if you do” then what is it? My humanist friends rush to answer the question, for humanity to flourish we all understand that rarely is it advantageous to hurt people. So we just decide not to and that’s good enough – God need not have anything to do with it.

I find it very curious that as humans we have not discarded the idea of reward and judgment altogether. We instill it into our children, it’s built into our laws, we see it in our music and movies. The inescapable morality that is hard wired into every human creates a very judicious nature that compels us to think in terms of judgment and reward — Is it such a big step to think that there might be an eternal version of what we know to be true in the every day? I don’t think so.

It also seems to me that in good times where we have riches, power, influence and all the comforts of life that it becomes much easier to talk about good behavior without God. However in the midst of economic and social crisis if there’s not a Divine interjection that both warns us and cheers us on it becomes immensely difficult, perhaps even impossible to prevent humankind from devolving into the brutality that characterizes the fight for survival. IMG_1079.JPG

The Devils Wisdom

It sneaks in quietly through an unlocked back door. A tiny little thought, a tinge of resentment and a pinch of disgust. He seems to be more successful than I. He is better than me at something, I don’t like him for this fact. I need to be number one. I need to be the one that people talk about. I need to be the one that people are the most impressed with. I need to restore my preeminence, but I need to do it in subtle ways or I might be unmasked and shamed. What’s the plan? At first nearly imperceptible boasts about myself followed by subtle, soft & gentle lies about my competitor. Slowly I build myself up and tear him down. I am the champion again. This is the devil’s wisdom that destroys our world. God’s wisdom pursues peace and rejoices in the successes of others with a pure heart. God preserve me from this devilish darkness and give me that pure heart.
James 3:14 & 16 – But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up this truth with boasting and lying…For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. IMG_1069.JPG

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