Category Archives: Wrestling with history

Guns, Germs & Steel

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Jarod Diamond is an evolutionary Biologist who spent some 30 years in and out of the jungles of Papua New Guinea. A question asked by an indigenous tribal person sparked a decades long research project that culminated in the writing of this book. The Tribesman asked Diamond why the white people came to his Island with the big ships and amazing inventions, and not the other way around.

Why did some people groups remain locked in the stone age while others advanced into the modern era, ultimately using their superior technology to dominate, displace and in many cases all but exterminate less developed peoples?

It’s not biology — The gap in advancement between Eurasian peoples and the primitive cultures they conquered should not not be explained by means of slower evolutionary development, or anything that might construe biological inferiority. He cited all sorts of scientific data to push the reader away from such superior race conclusions, he also used many personal anecdotes from his time with tribal peoples. Diamond is absolutely convinced that “primitive” peoples minds are not less evolved than his own, in fact, he argues, to the contrary. The real question to ask, according to Diamond, is how intellectually inferior Europeans managed to invent so much stuff! Time and time again in the jungle it was the natives intellect, know how, and savvy that kept him alive. But even still, why hadn’t they figured out how to move beyond the use of stone tools and hunting and gathering as their way of life?

Location, Location, Location — Diamond is convinced that Eurasian peoples, were predisposed for success because of their environment. Diamond realizes that many a judgmental finger will be raised at this point, cursing him for his  “environmental determinism”. He is quick to point out that geography is only the primary cause. Many other less deterministic causes played roles as well, but those roles must be considered secondary.

Domesticate or die — To advance, a society must be able to domesticate seeds and learn to mass produce food. Having regular crops allow a society to settle down into permanent places. Sedentary life-styles with reliable food supplies mean more population, more population increases power and the potential of invention. The domestication of animals also provides a huge leap forward in productivity and sustainability, all creating more space and time for innovation. The cold hard facts, according to Diamond, is that South and North America, Australia, and Africa simply did not have the same number of domesticable seeds available to them. In some cases, like Australia, they didn’t have any domesticable seeds at all! It also turns out that some animals can be domesticated and some can’t. The above mentioned continents just had bad luck with animals. The Eurasian horse can be tamed, the zebra cannot. The Asian bovine, from which all modern day cattle come from is domesticable, the African water buffalo and the North American bison are not. All large possibly domesticable animals went extinct in Australia giving the early inhabitant’s only the kangaroo to work with! The llama in South America was domesticated but it use pales in comparison to that of the horse. Diamond imagines how history would have been rewritten if African tribes had managed to domesticate the rhino and use it with mounted shock troops to wreak havoc all over Europe, but, alas, a rhino doesn’t take kindly to being mounted and will not be mastered.

Germs are nasty! — The possibility of sickness through germs increased as populations grew and began to cluster into cities in Europe and Asia. Natural trade routes established themselves on Eastern and Western lines and germs were free to travel. The germs that caused black death and countless other plagues ravaged Europe and Asia in the middle ages, but the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” certainly proved true. The unprepared immune systems of largely isolated populations of North & South America and Australia were vanquished by the germs inflicted upon them by European explorers. In some cases entire populations of indigenous people were exterminated.

Belief does impact behaviour — Indeed, one of the greatest misfortunes of the wide acceptance of Darwinian evolution is the assumption made by industrialized countries that they must be farther along in the evolutionary process and thus superior. Just like Cro-Magnon exterminated, the Neanderthal, so to must those of the modern age, destroy those of the stone age. In the last 250 years countless millions were subjugated to unspeakable atrocities on the slippery footing of these evolutionary assumptions. Diamond halts to speak of right or wrong because as an evolutionary biologist it is really difficult to speak of morality with any sort of authority. For him things must remain a matter of fact. But the facts, according to Diamonds research, prove there is no connection between intelligence and industrialization and thus any sort of racial or developmental superiority should be done away with. The harsh conclusions of inferiority levelled against less developed people have happily fallen out of favour in the main stream, however, Diamond laments that even so, these prejudices remain deep in the psyche of many moderns.

As a Christian person this is one of the reasons I am not overly thrilled to embrace wholesale the origin theories of evolution. Whenever, “lesser humans” factor into our story, there is precedent to destroy them. This of course, become more difficult, if one has the perspective that all humans are created in the image of God and thus intrinsically valuable.

The sad story of Christianity’s conquest — Unfortunately, not all who claimed Christianity as their world view developed a perspective that valued human life regardless of the state in which it was discovered. Such was the case with the conquest of the Incan empire by Pizzaro.

The story is remarkable: With brilliant trickery, superior weapons, and incredible bluster for being so totally outnumbered Pizarro and 168 soldiers defeated over 30,000 Incan warriors in one day. On that day of battle they managed to capture the Incan king and kill thousands of his soldiers without sustaining a single fatality of their own.

Several of the first hand accounts of the events remain. In them we discover a spirit of gratitude, there is  thanks to God for his grace and mercy in allowing such a miraculous conquest. They sincerely believed a great victory for Jesus had been won that day. Why? Because now the infidel hordes would have a chance to learn about the love of Jesus. They would be prevented from carrying out their terrible human sacrifices, and they would learn their place, for no infidel should be in a position of authority over a Christian. What happened to Atahualpa the Incan King? After using him to extort vast amounts of gold from his people. They condemned him for conspiring against Spanish rule and sentenced him to death. However, if he converted, he would avoid being burned at the stake and receive the lesser sentence of strangulation. He converted, was baptized, and then sent to his reward in heaven. Somehow, there had to have been a better way to bring the “good news” of Jesus to South America 😦

The curse of unity — European city states, constantly fought each other, constantly competed. This forced them to innovate, to develop, to incorporate new ideas. China on the other hand was unified and authoritarian. The emperors word was law. One or two bad idea’s by a Chinese emperor could prove to have enormous negative consequences such was the case with shipbuilding and iron smelting, China was the world leader in these two areas long before the Europeans were. But the emperor decreed that nothing good could come from the outside, so he had all of China’s ocean going ships burned and all designs destroyed. As far as iron development was concerned, the emperor, didn’t like the burgeoning middle class that was resulting from iron innovation, so he decreed all iron developments to cease and so it was. In Japan a similar situation happened. Thanks to early Portuguese exploration, Japan acquired guns. Immediately Japan saw the potential, and quickly developed advanced weapon technology, that is until the ruling class Samurai, offended that commoners could wield such deadly power, outlawed guns. An so it was.

Of course we eat humans — Diamond is so matter of fact in his writing style. In Papua New Guinea we discover cannibalism. This is easily explained. There is a lack of protein because there are no large mammals so naturally humans would eat each other. So there you have it. And so it is, with the natural world. We do what we must to survive, some people win and some people lose. Gun’s germs and steel came to Europeans and Asians because they were able to domesticate seeds and animals quicker. Asians & Middle Easterners fell behind for secondary reasons, so Europeans took over the world.

In my heart I long for more than just naturalistic explanations for what is and I find myself wanting to believe in something that transcends the natural world and gives ultimate hope. Why do I feel that way? I won’t find that answer from Diamond, but even still his explanation for why New Guineans didn’t colonize Europe, is very convincing.

A World Undone

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My first foray into World War 1 history. All through the book I was blown away by the scope, ferocity, and foolishness of the conflict. Below are a few of the highlight’s that stood out to me.

With Generals Like These Words like “insane” came to mind as I learned about many of these generals. My thought is that some of them should have been brought up for war crimes. I get it, it was a different era, and it’s easier to judge from a distance, but still…

  1. General Haige insisted that the solution against machine gun fire was cavalry, because we all know a horse can outrun a bullet. Ummm?
  2. The Germans were so successful with their first uses of gas that they punched a huge hole in the the French line. The only problem is they couldn’t exploit it because their own soldiers were not fitted with gas masks. oops.
  3. British Generals insisted at the onset of the war that airplane technology was an “Expensive and useless fad.” Brilliant.
  4. One of the biggest problems was pride. These generals jockeyed for power, influence, and glory at the expense of literally millions of soldiers. Pride also made it impossible to work together German General Ludendorff said of fellow general Falkenhayn “I can only love and hate and I hate Falkenhayn” The French and British infighting was even worse.
  5. General Haige, agreed to listen to French General Nevils military plans which were terrible, and proved to be insanely costly for both the French and the English, based on the shape of Nevils head! Haige was convinced that the French General’s head shape guaranteed wisdom and success. What the…??? Turns out head shape was a thing in those days.

The horror of it all. At the beginning of the war, the poetry was brave and patriotic. There was glory in war, but things changed midway through. Turns out there was no glory in trench warfare, only gore, blood, mud and suffering. Wilfred Owen wrote the following poem just a few months before he was cut down by the bullets of a German machine gun.

The title of the poem is “Dulce et Decorum” meaning “It is right/sweet” The title mocks the idea that it is good to die for ones country. Calling the notion an out right lie by poems end. Certainly treasonous talk especially in that era. But the war was so costly, so vicious, and so senseless that soldiers could no longer “put a good face on it.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est  Pro patria mori.

The French losses were particularly devastating, (See why under Idea’s have consequences) To  a point that the French army almost deserted. French soldiers headed to the front could be heard on masse, bleating like sheep. To desert was to be shot, to go to the front was to die. So they protested in this way bleating as they marched forward “as lambs to the slaughter.”

A bullet for cowards. Never in the history of warfare was there so much artillery. Far and away this medium of destruction killed the most people. Sustained bombardments would go on for days even weeks. It became too much for many men. They couldn’t function, they shut down, couldn’t follow orders. At first these suffering soldiers were labeled cowards and many were shot, or harshly disciplined. As the war dragged on so many soldiers were shutting down that they realized it must be more than cowardice. They labeled it “Shell Shock”. Unfortunately many of the treatments to get the soldiers back into battle shape were little better than a firing squad.

Idea’s have consequences In France there came into focus at the turn of the century a philosophy of warfare that was held so tightly by the military establishment, that to even suggest other strategies was to end ones military career. In English the strategy was described with one word. “Attack”. It was believed with such fanatical zeal, that defensive maneuvers, strategic retreats or even leave for soldiers on the front lines were not real options. One general was demoted for his observation: “Attacking straight on with flesh and bone will have no success against the gunfire of the 20th century” This philosophy was pitted against, a German killing machine unlike the world had ever seen. The loss of life on the French side as a result is staggeringly difficult to comprehend. Charles De Gaulle would later say that “No amount of courage will be successful against machine gun fire.” He was right, unfortunately the French didn’t accept this fact until the war was mostly over!

You take the Romanians, No! you take the Romanians One would think, that having an entire country join your side of the war effort would be a huge boon. As countries watched the big powers slug it out they gradually joined sides, hoping to pick the winner and enjoy the spoils of victory. Romania decided to throw in with the Allies. Russia was completely against the idea. Of the Romanians they said “getting them to fight was like trying to get a donkey to do a minaret” The Russians preferred the Romanians to remain neutral. They did not. Sure enough, the Germans crushed the Romanians. Forcing the Russians to stop their advance on Germany and spread out their front line out an extra 250 miles. The whole of Romania was easily conquered and the spoils of that conquest helped to fuel Germany’s war effort for a couple more years.

Overcoming the odds to become a hero. He was from a colony, (Australia). (one strike against) He was Jewish (two strikes) He was of Prussian origin (three strikes) and his interest in military strategy was just a hobby (Four strikes) But John Monash rose up through the ranks to become the one of the few good General’s of the war. In addition to being very likeable he was also a master strategist, gifted organizer and creative innovator. His use of co-ordinated attacks using mortars, machine guns, tanks, airplanes and artillery, along with a philosophy that saw no use in wasting infantry needlessly made him not only successful but immensely  popular.

Propaganda and poor communication — the reason why millions more had to die. In Gallipoli, several Allied landings were successful. But the communications were poor, so instead of pushing in land and possibly securing the Dardanelles which would have ended the war a lot sooner the Allies waited on the beaches for orders. Giving time for Turkish reinforcements to arrive.  An opportunity lost. This is just one illustration of a hundred or more where if the communication was a little bit better the war would have certainly ended sooner.

Truth was never really a concern with the media (has anything changed?) All media outlets were controlled by the various war ministries. The job of reporting was simply to make the opposition look absolutely terrible and to make the home team look triumphant. After years of propaganda it was impossible for the belligerent nations to come to terms since they had such incredibly skewed views of each other.

Germany almost pulled it off. I was amazed at how close they seemed to come to victory. If  Ludendorff had gone all in on the attack at 2nd Verdun. If he the German generals would have shelled the supply line going in and out of that one city whose name I’ve forgotten in one of their massive attacks. If they could have kept the USA on the sidelines for one more year. If the Zimmerman telegraph hadn’t been discovered. If the generals from the West and Eastern fronts could have just got along. If General Conrad of the Austrian/Hungarian army had been sacked from his post in 1914. If they had implemented the creeping barrage & storm troop tactic’s on the Western front a year sooner. If they hadn’t been quite so cautious with Schlieffen plan. If 186,000 of their soldiers hadn’t died from influenza.

They were the better army, inflicting 2 million more casualties on the French and English then they themselves received, but it was not meant to be.

A not so great finish Ultimately it was the naval blockade that broke the back of Germany, they were starving to death, and running low on everything needed to carry on a war. Sadly, when the war ended, the Allies did not lift the navel blockade for another 6 months. Costing the lives of some 250,000 German civilians. The plan was not to rebuild Europe after the war, as much as it was to debilitate Germany to such a degree that she would remain feeble forever. This strategy set the stage for the Second World War.

Japan played a minor role in the war, but were at the bargaining table when the world was carved up. They did pretty well, gaining several territories. However, the main thing they were after was respect. They made a specific request that the Americans, Europeans and Australians recognize the Japanese people as an equal race not be discriminated against, fair enough right? Shockingly, or maybe not so shockingly, the great powers denied that request. White man was not yet willing to acknowledge that Asian people were equal to them. It was then that Japan washed their hands of Western influence.

Father, Son, & Holy Spirit –Relationship Roles and Relevance

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Bruce Ware is good for laying down the historical back story for how the Christian church came to affirm the Trinitarian position. Certainly it was a struggle, but it was always a struggle to make sense of what the Scriptures actually said. Faithfulness to the written text was the motivation for the doctrine even if the conclusions went beyond the capacity for full human understanding.

What the Scripture presents is monotheism, but yet at the same time,  3 unique persons emerge from the Bible all having the attributes of deity and the affirmation of deity from the biblical authors. If all three persons are equally God, then whats the difference between them?

The answer to that question is essentially what Bruce Ware’s book is all about.

For Ware the difference comes down to roles. God the Father’s role is that of supreme leader (not to be confused with the title currently given to North Korea’s dictator) He is the highest authority, the one deserving of ultimate praise, the grand architect of all things. Both Jesus and the Spirit acknowledge the Fathers authority even though they are equal in value to him.

God the Son’s role is that of submission. Jesus always yields to the will of the Father. It doesn’t mean that Jesus is inferior to God, only that to obey is divine. It’s not a bad thing to submit is Ware’s oft given refrain during this chapter. He has a reason for driving this point home.

God the Spirit’s role is that of assistant. Ware refers to the H.S.’s job as “the background role” of the Trinity. But certainly it is not unimportant, the Spirit’s work both points people to Jesus and also empowers those who follow Jesus.

The “so what” part of the book is the last chapter. What I liked about his conclusion is his presentation of the Trinitarian God as highly relational, interconnected and interdependent. For Ware this vision of God is also a vision of what we should be like. He takes a well timed swipe at the rugged independence of the western world, and urges us away from the “I did it my way” Long Ranger approach to life that America is famous for.

What I’m definitely iffy on is his efforts to put the members of the Trinity in their proper places. Order is all that seems to matter to Bruce Ware. Yes, they are all equal, But God is first place, Jesus is second place and the H.S. is third place. I don’t believe the Bible makes as many pains to bear this out as Bruce Ware thinks it does. But he has good reasons for pressing into Trinitarian order.

Which leads me to the second thing that I just can’t swallow. Ware seizes upon I Cor 11:3 —  But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God and then launches himself into the conversation about the role of men and women. Just like Jesus submits his will to God so to must the woman submit her will to the will of man. But that’s just the starting point, the conversation quickly moves to a Church polity discussion and I discover that because Jesus submits to the will of the Father, women should not be aloud to speak in church! Wait, what? But don’t worry women because men and women are positionally equal, just like Jesus and God are. It’s just that it’s your job to submit which means you need to keep your mouth closed in church. Yeah, it’s just too much for me. I don’t believe the wonder of the Trinity should be used as a maneuvering point to “keep women in their proper place.” I think a Trinitarian conversation could go in so many better directions, which is why I like Michael Reeves book Delighting in the Trinity a 100x more than Bruce Ware’s book

Believe or Die!

So Josiah removed all detestable idols from the entire land of Israel and required everyone to worship the Lord their God (2 Chron 34:33)

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Once again we see that there’s no real choice in the matter, you have to worship the true God or else. Involuntary religion is the name of the game throughout the entire Old Testament. Often we see examples where worshipping the “wrong God” is a capital offence!

We see this all through Christian history as well. For example, In GJ Meyers book on WW1 I learned that Prussia was originally inhabited by Slavic people. German Christians moved in and with the help of the Teutonic Knights, they crushed the Slavic people militarily. They allowed the survivors to stay on the condition that they would convert to Christianity. Many did and it was from this combination of Slavic and German people that the German Empire of the 1800 and 1900s came to be.

Religious freedom is definitely a new development for the human race. Sometimes Christians can look at the inflexibility of Islam and frown. Certainly it’s lack of religious tolerance today, is a major problem, however Christians need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that they too were we’re forcing people on point of death to accept Christianity.

My question is how does one appreciate the religious intolerance of the Old Testament? Or what can be learned devotionally from reading it? Certainly we don’t want to follow the Old Testament example here and regress into a form of Christianity that forces itself upon others with dire consequences for those that do not comply. So what then?

The New Testament was written when Christianity was a fugitive religion without any power. Is it because of this fact that it’s message for nonbelievers is completely different than the Old Testament? I hope not. In any case the mandate for Christians coming from the New Testament is crystal clear: we are to love our enemies not kill them or force them out. Ok, got it. So we know that the many examples of Christian brutality in human history are definitely outside the margins of what Jesus prescribed. But still the angst for me is in trying to figure out what kind of value there is in the Old Testament here? What’s the lesson? Christians believe that the Old Testament is God’s word too right?

Devotionally speaking it could be an opportunity to thank God that we are in the time of voluntary religion over against involuntary. Perhaps this passage could serve as a warning to us, that even though we enjoy religious freedom, there is only one true God and those who turn away will one day face severe consequences. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil 2:10) We don’t force people to bow nowadays, but it doesn’t change the fact that one day they will. These Old Testament passages serve as a sober reminder that true faith is not found in a smorgasbord of belief options. Salvation does not come from a pick and choose,”It’s all good” kind of universalism. We all get to make our choices nowadays with who or what we worship, but still as in the Old Times there is only one right choice. In graphic and often troubling fashion these Old Testament passages remind us of this all important truth.

Bury My Heart at Wound Knee

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“the nations’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” — Black Elk

Between 1860-1890 the Indians of the United States of America were crushed.

What happened? by 1860 there were a few hundred thousand Indians roaming freely, at that same time over 30,000,000 whites had flooded into the United States, in just 30 years that number skyrocketed to 90,000,000. White people were coming to this new world in mind blowing droves, for a chance at freedom and an opportunity to make a better way for themselves. The white mans way was to settle down and harvest resources in order to become rich. Animals, minerals, land, and lumber, there was so much and it was just there for the taking the white people believed. But then there were those pesky Indians, they spoke a different language, they were “uncivilized” they were nomadic hunter/gatherer people, they just didn’t fit in.

So what do you do? The whites were largely of Christian heritage so exterminating them was not an option. But neither was “move back to Europe” an option. So the only logical solution was to make a deal with the Indians. In the end it wasn’t much of a deal. It was more a terms of surrender. — We are coming, we are taking over your land and eliminating your way of life. However, we will give you food to survive, and land to live on.  If you don’t agree to these arrangements we will hunt you down and kill you.

Whites are Superior — Many whites just simply made the assumption that indians were “less human”. After all whites were far more advanced in so many ways. The court report of one particular case in which two indians were hanged reveals this terrible imbalance of value. “We would never condemn a white man on such scant and insufficient evidence, however we trust we got the right ones and that justice was served.”  Colonel Chivington in a public speech in Denver affirmed the right to kill Indians even infants, by his notorious comment “Nits make lice!”

Manifest Destiny — Many whites, felt a bit uneasy about their treatment of Indians, and so they needed a grand justification for their actions of conquest. They found it in “Manifest Destiny” – The superior light of technology, learning, and the American way of government, politics, cities, farms and production was the enlightened path, it was therefore both necessary and justifiable to advance this righteous path westward at whatever cost.

Indians are people too — In 1874 a sympathetic general, teamed up with a straight shooting judge to help Indian Chief Standing Bear. Hi people were one of the few Indians tribes that were farmers, even though they were peaceful, open to Christianity, and had relatively little land they were shoved off of it and warehoused in a reservation hundreds of miles away. The judge concluded that “Indians were people too, and if they wanted to live peaceable somewhere like Americans they should have the right to” Standing Bear and his people, remarkably, were able to move back to their land.

Corruption — The reservation system proved to be incredibly lucrative for the ring of politicians & businessmen responsible for it. They were able to help themselves regularly to all that was designated for the indians, and since there was no accountability and the indians had no voice, they became rich while the indians suffered terribly on the reservations. This ring viewed the above court case as a direct threat to the reservation system, (and their personal wealth) so they worked tirelessly to discredit the ruling and make sure that the legal system remained squarely on the side of the whites.

Indians happy to kill each other — Tribal divisions had existed for centuries, many of the tribes were mortal enemies of one another. For many they preferred to work with willing White people to eradicate their tribal enemies. The Whites were only happy to oblige.

Breaking Promises — Lots of the promises to the Indians were made in good faith, and many of those promises in the early years gave the indians vast tracts of good hunting land. Its just that no one could have predicted the vast horde of white people that moved to America in the 19th century, and then there was the discovery of gold, and then the need to connect the east with the west, and then the need to farm to support the ever burgeoning white population. In the public eye it was no longer reasonable for 3,000 Souix to inhabit 25 million acres. When millions upon millions of whites were heading west intent to settle on the best possible land. So promises were broken. For most whites these broken promises were shrugged off — the situation had changed. Many Indians went to war over these broken promises, but they had no chance of winning against better equipped whites. — they mostly waged gorilla type war fare, and had small successes here and there, but bow’s and arrows can’t match the power of repeating rifles.

Media — America wanted a story, the media gave them one. A sensational story of savage scalp happy Indians disemboweling hard working honest settlers. Who cares about truth when you can sell a story, and this one sold. The great tragedy was these stories of mixed truth whipped up a fury of hatred and violence against all Indians. “The only good Indian is a dead indian” was the quote that rang through the news media, straight from lips of a general from the West, and so it was believed.

If all men white and red could have been treated with dignity and honour, if all manner of corruption could have been removed from the situation and if promises could have been honoured and true team work embraced when things got complicated do to the vast influx of whites, this story would have had a lot less tears attached to it.

The Enlightenments Effect of Religion – Good or Bad?

They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the  Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13

Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians)  wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44

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With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.

For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.

As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:

There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess.  Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.

If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip  based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.

Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents  are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.

  • Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
  • Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era.  The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
  • Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion.  (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.

Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table.  How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?

Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love.  This is good advice for all the religions of the world.

This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.

 

 

 

 

Scripture and the Authority of God

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N.T. Wright is trying to answer three questions, let’s see how he does.

  1. In what sense is the Bible Authoritative?
  2. How does one understand and interpret the Bible?
  3. Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

In what sense is the Bible authoritative? 

It means God’s the boss. Biblical Authority is shorthand for the God’s authority somehow exercised through Scripture.  Wright does not want us to think that God’s word is a synonym for the written Scriptures (27) It’s not, It’s much bigger than that. The written word is the expression and embodying of the living word. John didn’t proclaim that the word was written down, he proclaimed the the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us.  When the Apostles refused to wait on tables because they wanted to give themselves to the Word of God and prayer, its wasn’t extra time in the Torah scrolls that they were angling for. It was the story of Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection, as the climax of God’s grand story that they needed to focus in on and preach about. Jesus as the fulfillment of all that had gone before could now be teased out of the Torah scrolls with greater clarity if they had opportunity to read them, but make no mistake the Word they were after was the knowledge of Jesus wrapped up in God’s grand story. Wright uses the word “story” 83 times to help us understand that the authority for the Christian is God’s grand story, climaxing in Jesus — this story is the “word of God” which by divine providence came to be expressed in written form through the work of the early writers and compilers.  The Bible is the charter which forms the basis for the fulfilled telling of the story of God at work among his people.

How does one understand and interpret the Bible?

Totally contextual, multilayered, critical realist approach. Everyone got that? We good to move on? I suppose an explanation is in order. First however, Wright takes us on a world wind tour of the history of Biblical interpretation. It’s always good to know where one is coming from!

Marcion made the Scripture into two totally different stories with two altogether different God’s, he tried to “de-jew” the Christian story, and debunk the Jewish one. Allegorical interpretation was a dramatic counterbalance to Marcion’s throw out the bad stuff mentality.  Basically everything in Scripture became a mystical representation of Jesus with absolutely no care for the context. This was a wayward albeit sincere attempt to stick with Scripture, even when Scripture was problematic. (particularly O.T. Scripture) because of it’s lack of control. Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. (51)

The reformers, bucked against the nauseating allegorical interpretations of their predecessors, but their emphasis on grace over law inadvertently set the story improperly against itself at times. The following generations of reformers played around with various interpretive strategies in which they would make distinctions to help with interpretation, for example, Jewish moral law was seen as distinct from Jewish ceremonial law, making the moral applicable and the ceremonial not applicable. Wright gives this the thumbs down, citing that ancient Jews would have made no such distinction. He dismisses dispensationalism as a fanciful notion, and leaves it at that.

Totally contextual means that the cultural context of a Scripture must be considered at all times. Multilayered means that Scripture is like a five act play with each act stacked up on top of the other, with the whole communicating one grand story. The implication is that some Scriptures will mean something in there original context but will also mean something more in the broader context of the story as a whole. It also means that some portions of Scripture will be less important. To quote Wright:

The key point of the whole model, which forms the heart of the multi-layered view of how ‘the authority of scripture’ actually works, runs as follows. Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relationship with the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story. (89)

He fails to define critical realist, even though he twice calls himself one. He uses the term in reaction to postmodern thought which says one persons interpretation is as good as another’s. The term, I think, means that there is an actual true meaning in the text that can be determined with careful study. One interpretation is not as good as another.

As mentioned earlier Wright acknowledges that some parts of the Scriptures are no longer relevant for the ongoing life of the church —not, because those parts are bad, or not God-given, or less inspired, but because they belong with earlier parts of the story which have reached there climax. (39) He captures the idea well with the following illustration:

When travellers sail across a vast ocean and finally arrive on the distant shore, they leave the ship behind and continue over land, not because the ship was no good, or because their voyage had been misguided, but precisely because both ship and voyage had accomplished their purpose. During the new, dry-land stage of their journey, the travellers remain—and in this illustration must never forget that they remain—the people who made that voyage in that ship. (41)

Assuming accurate interpretation is possible, how does one manage to bring the authority of Scripture to bear upon the church let alone the world?

Read the Bible out loud together. To quote him directly:

“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture’, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community.” (83)

It feels perhaps a bit simple, but if we want to bring the authority of Scripture to bear on the church and the world we must read it together out loud. Wright laments how churches have cut out Scripture reading in worship gatherings in order to speed things up, or make things more palatable for seekers. Wright will have none of that. Read, read read he says. Read it in the liturgy, read it in large chunks together, have good preachers preach it regularly. He doesn’t dismiss the notion of personal private study, but that is not what he is driving at, for Wright the proclamation of the word is the heart of Church life and the only way it will ever be brought to bear upon the church and the world.

On the need for ongoing interpretive work

To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions. (67)

On the relationship between Scripture, reason and tradition:

Scripture is the shelf full of books; tradition is the memory of what people in the house have read and understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from that shelf; reason is the set of spectacles that people wear in order to make sense of what they read—though, worryingly, the spectacles have varied over time, and there are signs that some readers, using the ‘reason’ available to them, have severely distorted the texts they were reading. (74)

A Story about the Trinity

Holy_TrinityFrom the very beginning the early church understood the trinity as a mystery that was honoured and respected.  Jesus claimed deity, and yet he was distinct from God, the promised Spirit who came at pentecost was also distinct from God and Jesus and yet was clearly divine. Before Constantine, it wasn’t a hot debate, amazement was preferred over explanation. Love for Jesus and survival were the priorities of those first Christ followers. That all changed however when Christianity became legalized under Constantine. His plan to unify his massive and fragmented empire under the banner of this burgeoning new religion known as Christianity had worked incredibly well, perhaps to well. Christian people began to fight amongst themselves now that they had the time and freedom to attempt an understanding of this great mystery of God’s three in one ness. It wasn’t long before the newly unified empire was at risk of fragmentation, this time along theological lines.

Constantine wanted it sorted, it was time for the church to meet and settle it. One idea that had been floating around since the 2nd century was Monarchialism. This idea portrayed God as one great ruling monarch, but rejected the need to make the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit. Monarchialism attempted to explain the trinity in two different ways:

  1. Modalism — God is one, but he has three modes or three roles that He carries out in consecutive periods of time. Like a single actor that plays three different roles in a theatrical production.
  • Rejected – This view was rejected by the church because it doesn’t accurately account for the interaction of the Trinity in New Testament, like at Jesus’ baptism for example. Also, if these representations of one God are only masks like in an ancient play then it becomes impossible to actually know the real God. The church gave modalism the thumbs down!
  1. Subordinationism — There is only one superior God (Father) who is assisted by lesser god’s of lower rank (Jesus & the Holy Spirit)
  • Rejected – Strongly rejected at the counsel of Nicaea in 325 as shown below.

The struggle to clarify the churches position on the trinity came as a direct result of a guy named Arias. Arias taught that the word who became flesh was a lesser god of a different nature. Jesus was not eternal or omnipotent, Jesus was only God in an approximate sort of way. Jesus was the first and greatest created being, but he was not the eternal God. Arianism in this form continues on in the teachings of Jehovah Witnesses.

Arian thought appealed to pagan converts. They were more easily attracted to the idea of lesser gods, because their pagan heritage which was full of them. Christianity in this form was more palatable to the masses. In the Arian story, Jesus Christ was a divine hero, a loose approximation would be like our modern day super man. Who doesn’t love superman?! He was greater than an ordinary human being, but not the eternal God.

Arias was a powerful speaker and a gifted networker. He also was able to put catchy jingles together that promoted his understanding of Jesus, little kids and dock workers would sing his songs. He was wildly popular, so when he was excommunicated, early in the 4th century, things got ugly. With rioting in the streets going on, Emperor Constantine was prompted to call a church council in the city of Nicaea in 325 a.d. He reminded the 300 churchmen who attended the counsel that church division was worse than war. He gave them one charge. Figure it out! He didn’t much care about the conclusion just so long as everyone agreed with it!

Since Jesus had been worshipped as God in the vast majority of churches across the empire for upwards to 300 years in some places, Arias bold revision of Jesus and his place in the Godhead was met with massive disapproval. He and his supporters were regularly shouted down in the counsel. It was inconceivable that Jesus could be anything less than equal to the eternal God. The creed that came from this council nearly 2000 years ago is still accepted to this day by the vast majority of Christians world wide. Notice the emphasis on Jesus and the three in oneness of God.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made…We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets…

All the Bishops but three signed the creed in 325. Arias and two of his supporters were kicked out of the church. The controversy raged on for 50 more years before Arian thought was officially expunged from orthodox teaching.

The Semi-Arians tried to land a compromise. It didn’t work. They were ready to concede that Jesus was similar in nature to the father just so long as they did not have to say that he was of the same nature. This didn’t fly either — From the earliest of times, Christians believed that If Jesus wasn’t God in the flesh he couldn’t be the Saviour. Semi-Arianism prolonged the debate but a compromise that viewed Jesus as anything less than co-equal with God was not possible.

To the early believers in Jesus, salvation was not about going to heaven to get stuff, as Islam would later teach. It was about being united in the communion of the divine. From the orthodox point of view, the goal was not to attain equality with God or be made into a god as mormonism would much later teach, rather the believer would be welcomed into the fellowship of the triune God. He would belong in the company of God.

The first Christians loved this grand story, A relational God, coming to earth, welcoming the human into fellowship with him through the grace of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.  The earliest benedictions evidenced this incredible three in oneness, II Cor 13:14 — May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  It was the Christian story, not to be changed. Beyond full comprehension to be sure, and a great mystery without doubt, but an absolutely beautiful and glorious story.

Thank you Bruce Shelley your  book Church History in Plain Language, was very helpful.

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.