The God-Talk Club and the Gay Guitarist – II

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, places, events, and organizations and those in reality is entirely the product of the author's imagination. Copyright © 2014, Henry E. Neufeld.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, places, events, and organizations and those in reality is entirely the product of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2014, Henry E. Neufeld.

(This is part 2 of a 2 part story. Read part 1.]

“I disagree with that. Rather, I allow my LGBTQ members full participation without making a scene about it. They know, I know, and my church council knows what’s going on. I don’t perform same-sex weddings because it’s contrary to the rules of the church. Yes, I’m ignoring the position of my church that homosexual activity is contrary to scripture, but it’s not quite clear what one is supposed to do about that anyhow.”

“And what do you do with the clear teaching of scripture?” asked Jerry.

“Clear teaching of scripture? It is to laugh. I do the same thing about that as you do about the command not to eat shell fish or pig. I see you eating a hamburger every so often.”

“But Paul took a clear stance against homosexuality.”

“I don’t think it’s so clear as all that. Paul didn’t have a concept of someone being homosexual by nature. He spoke of doing things against nature. And few such relationships at the time could be considered consensual. So no, I don’t think the teaching of scripture is any clear than, say, the teaching of scripture on the ordination of women.” As he said the last, he looked Justine right in the eyes. “Yes,” he added, “I’m acquainted with Romans 1[:24-32], Jude around verse 7,  1 Timothy 1[:8-11], and  1 Corinthians 6[:9-11]. I just don’t think those refer to consenting relationships between people who are naturally attracted to persons of the same sex.”

Jerry looked back and forth between them. He couldn’t seem to figure out who to address. His problem was not confusion. He was stunned by this sweeping dismissal of clear scripture.

Justine responded first. “I understand how one might dismiss the Old Testament passages as part of the ceremonial law, though I think there are principles from us to learn from just about any of those laws. But I don’t think we can so easily dismiss the New Testament. And with Paul’s restatement of the prohibition, I think we draw the Old Testament passages back into the discussion.”

“I find it difficult to see how you draw in passages from the Torah into a modern discussion when the penalty involved was death. If the one part applies, why not the other? I mean, I sincerely hope there is nobody here who supports the death penalty for being gay.” Mandy again looked more serious than usual, and sounded more tense.

Nobody volunteered to support the death penalty.

Bob Norman took up the conversation. “There are people in the world, Christians, in fact, who do believe the death penalty should still apply. We’ve seen such laws proposed and some even passed in various African nations. We even have churches here in America who have ties to those who advocate those laws.”

“Yes,” said Mac. “Who here has condemned those laws and taken action against them?”

Both Mandy and Justine raised their hands, an act that seemed a bit ludicrous in the informal group.

Ellen broke in. “I’m wondering if Justine wouldn’t rather be talking about something else right now. I imagine she’s spent the last month or so talking about nothing else!”

“Oh, I want to talk about it. I wanted to talk about it in a group that was less inhibited. I like to really tear a subject apart. There’s no other way I can be sure I’m doing the best I can to understand and do the right thing.” Justine actually did look more relaxed than when she had arrived.

“OK,” said Mark. “I want to know what the two of you have done about these anti-gay laws in Africa.”

“I’ve written letters to church leaders supporting these moves, and contributed money to groups working to oppose them,” said Mandy.

“I’ve stuck to letter writing and I’ve condemned that attitude from the pulpit,” said Justine.

“But how can you?” asked Bob. “As I see it, those folks in Africa have the courage of your convictions and you don’t.”

“No, I have the courage of my convictions. They have the courage of theirs. I believe we no longer live in a theocracy. I believe we no longer live under the law. So I don’t have to apply a legal penalty to these actions. I opposed them because I believe they are destructive of a good and proper life in this world and they are destructive of people’s souls in the next.”

“Amen!” said Jerry again.

“What’s destructive is hate,” said Mandy.

“Hate? Do you really believe I hate gay people?” asked Justine.

“I don’t actually believe you hate, though it’s hard for me not to think so. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d mistake your attitude for hatred. The problem is that you enable people to hate by telling them that other people are less than you and I are.”

“But I say that everyone is a child of God. We are all the same before God.”

“But some of us can stand on the stage and play a guitar and others can’t.”

“My guitarist agreed to those rules.”

“He agreed to pretend.”

“You seem to think it was impossible for him to refrain from sexual activity. Did you not teach your own teenagers that they didn’t have to engage in sexual activity before marriage?” Justine and Mandy were now focused directly on one another.

“I did. But you keep missing the point. You require that a gay person deny who he is in order to fit into your world of what is permissible. It’s not that my children’s desires were evil in themselves, and I could point them to the legitimate time and manner in which they could be fulfilled. It’s not good to be alone—that comes from Genesis 2. But one of my children, my oldest daughter, is a lesbian. And I didn’t tell her that she was somehow less than a person, that she should be less fulfilled than the others when she came out to me.”

“Oh Mandy!” exclaimed Justine.

“Oh no you don’t!” exclaimed Mandy. “Don’t even think of being sympathetic, as though I was grieving about something! Not only do I love my oldest daughter unconditionally, I am proud of her in each and every way and I wish her and her future partner—she’s not in a major hurry, but I think there’s someone on the horizon—the very best. I will love them both in the same way. I’m incredibly blessed.”

There was another moment of silence.

Mandy grinned without much humor. “Afraid to continue the discussion considering someone has skin in the game, so to speak?”

“No,” said Jerry. “I still believe what I did. But I didn’t realize we were talking personally.”

“But that’s precisely the problem!” said Mandy. “You don’t talk personally, but people hear personally. We’re talking about real people. I’ve just made it more personal by revealing my daughter’s sexual orientation. And incidentally, I have permission to do so. She’s extremely open.”

“No idea where she gets that from,” said Mac to chuckles all around.

“OK, I’ll do what you suggest,” said Jerry. “I want to know what you do about the plain teaching of scripture. And despite the usual dismissal from Mark, I think scripture is rather clear.”

“I see it a bit differently than Mark does,” said Mandy. “I think the passages of scripture that are normally quoted are actually speaking against gays. What I believe is that those statements were not the end of the matter. God is still speaking. I think some church uses that as a motto, in fact [The United Church of Christ].”

“So God is now saying something completely different than he ever said before?” Jerry was very wary of the idea of God speaking in modern times. It was, in fact, one of his major issues with Justine.

“Of course God can say something different than he ever has before. Consider Isaiah 56:3-5 vs. Deuteronomy 23:1. In Deuteronomy a eunuch would be excluded from the congregation, but according to Isaiah, the day was coming when such would be welcomed.”

“Being a eunuch is not the same as homosexuality. The homosexual has a choice.”

“I’m not trying to compare the two. What I’m saying is that God can say one thing and then another. God may be unchanging but humanity and human circumstances are not. So God’s commands to us can change with our circumstances. I think that today the applicable scriptures dealing with LGBTQ persons are those that talk about supporting the downtrodden and proclaiming freedom. Contrary to you, and even Mark, I think it’s my duty to make it easier for my gay brothers and sisters to become a full part of the community. I would not be satisfied with pretending that ‘the problem’ doesn’t exist. It’s not a problem; it’s people. We, as Christians, should be all about proclaiming liberty to these captives. I don’t need to explain every scripture that applied to a particular time. The ethical teachings of Jesus lead this way inevitably.”

“I understand that this is an emotional issue for you, Mandy. It’s your daughter.”

“So first I’m inhibiting conversation because it’s personal, and now you inform me that the reason I believe what I believe is that I have a daughter who is a lesbian. How condescending! Have you asked yourself why my daughter was able to come to me and say, ‘Mom, I find that I’m attracted to other women.’ That was because she knew I would still treat her as my daughter and as an important human being.”

“I’m glad there are parents like you,” said Bob. “I have a student who was thrown out of his house after he came out. The things his parents said about him were terrible. He’s living with an uncle and aunt who are somewhat supportive.”

Justine looked back directly at Mandy. “So to you the only response is support. What would you say if your daughter came to you and said, ‘Mom, I find I just have to have cocaine in order to live.’?”

“That would be different, and I think you know it. She was not born a drug addict.”

“But that brings it back to the fundamental issue. I don’t think either Justine or I believe that this is either something someone is born with, nor do we believe it’s harmless,” said Jerry.

Justine nodded. “I know how everyone reacts, but in the end I have to go with what scripture teaches. I don’t think this is something we’re born with any more than any other tendency to sin. I believe it must be overcome in the same way. While I risk making people feel rejected when I reject their sin, I would be doing something even worse if I condone something that is harmful to them and to their immortal soul.”

“I agree,” said Jerry. “It sounds easier to go along with what society is doing. Face it, that’s what’s happening. Society accepts homosexuals, so we in the church decide we have to do it. But it’s not the right thing to do. It’s not the loving thing to do. Even though others proclaim their love for this guitarist in Justine’s church, Justine is the one who really does love him. She loves him enough to rebuke his sin.”

“And this is why,” said Bob, “that I oppose religion so strongly. Even when Mandy comes to a very good conclusion from a human point of view, there’s plenty of scripture to support the much more dangerous attitudes of Justine and Jerry. I just don’t think religion is safe.”

“Even I don’t think religion is safe,” said Mandy. “I think it’s important. I think there really is a God. But ‘safe’ is not a word I’d use for it. Then again, I don’t think atheism is ‘safe’ either. In fact, Bob Norman, you live in a dangerous world!”

“OK,” said Mac. “Let’s not go down that road any further. We’ve already torn up one subject for the day.”

“I want to know what’s been happening in Mark’s life. We haven’t heard from him in two years!” This was Ellen, diverting hostility as she often did.

“Well, I was sent for a year and a half to be an associate in a large church, and then just a month ago, the pastor of a church about 20 miles north of here died, and I was called to take his place. So I’ll be in the area for some time.”

“Excellent!” said Ellen. “Then we can see one another more regularly!”

“Always provided Justine and Jerry want to get beat up,” said Bob darkly.

“You think we got beat up?” asked Justine. “I think it depends on your point of view. Jerry and I have stood for what we believe, based on the Bible, which is the source of our beliefs. So I, at least, am fine with the discussion.”

“And,” said Mark, “that means Justine thinks Mandy and I are ignoring scripture. Each in our own way, of course!”

“You are,” said Jerry, but in the tone of someone who knew the subject had run its course for the evening.

“Same time, same channel?” asked Ellen.

“I’m game,” said Mandy.

And so the revival of the God-Talk Club was accomplished.



The God-Talk Club and the Gay Guitarist – I

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, places, events, and organizations and those in reality is entirely the product of the author's imagination. Copyright © 2014, Henry E. Neufeld.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters, places, events, and organizations and those in reality is entirely the product of the author’s imagination. Copyright © 2014, Henry E. Neufeld.

Jerry Simonson lowered himself gingerly into the overstuffed chair. He was wondering whether it was safe or sanitary. He shouldn’t have. The decor of The Roadside Cafe may have looked like a cross between accidental and tornado aftermath, but it was a decor that was carefully maintained. It was more likely that the owner had purchased a new chair and carefully made it look scruffy, without damaging it in any important way, than that he would put in anything dangerous.

And here was the new manager, Ellen, who had been a waitress here since the first time Jerry had been in the place. One of his great sorrows was that she remained a loyal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints despite his best efforts to witness to her about the gospel in the orthodox form in which he knew it. She personally handed him his drink. She didn’t have to do that now that she managed the place. The owner only checked on her every few weeks. Ellen ran the cafe, and business was booming.

“Hi Jerry,” she said with her usual cheerful smile. She’d gotten married about six months before, and married life clearly agreed with her.

“Hello, Ellen. Still keeping busy around here?”

“Busy?” Ellen laughed. “This place practically runs itself.”

“I doubt that,” said Jerry.

“I’m very good at my job, so it looks that way,” said Ellen, grinning.

“How do you manage to keep this place looking so, ummm, accidental?”

“Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?”

“Perhaps. I miss the old gang. Everyone moved away bit by bit.”

“Well, not everyone. Justine is still in town, but I think she got too busy. And, I think, afraid to be seen in public. Too many people want to talk to her. But I have news!”


“You’re going to see her tonight!” Ellen looked delighted. She had probably forgotten how hard a time Jerry had dealing with Justine, now Dr. Justine Reeder with a brand new diploma from the seminary testifying to the fact that she had earned a Doctor of Ministry degree. And while she had worked her way through the seminary, first earning her MDiv and now this DMin, she had been growing the tiny, independent, charismatic congregation she pastored into one of the largest churches in the city. In fact, the church had moved into a new facility less than a year before.

“How do you know that?”

“She called me. She wanted to get out of the pressure cooker. She wondered if the atmosphere was still the same. I assured her it was.” She paused. “Now don’t you go attacking her because she’s a woman preacher. She’s a godly woman even if she is somewhat misguided.”

Jerry didn’t know exactly how to handle that. To him Ellen was more misguided than Justine, even though he actually found himself more offended by Justine, since, with that Doctor of Ministry degree and at least a passable knowledge of scripture, she should have known better. “It will be nice to see her,” he said after a pause.

“You don’t know what’s been going on?” asked Ellen.

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”

“It was Justine’s church that fired that gay guitarist.”

The story came back. In fact, his pastor had talked about it from the pulpit, but he hadn’t identified the church. So that was Justine Reeder. Well, at least she hadn’t compromised completely on the issue of homosexuality. He remembered his pastor’s statement. By allowing openly gay people to be members of the church, the door had been opened to more problems. The lesson his pastor had drawn from this was that any compromise just led to more compromise. Jerry was trying to remember precisely what had happened, but he couldn’t recall the details. He didn’t want to ask Ellen. Despite his disagreement with Justine on the issue of women in ministry and the gifts of the Spirit in the modern church, she was an orthodox Christian on the major doctrines—Trinity, Incarnation, bodily resurrection, the inerrancy of scripture, and salvation by grace even if she did put an Arminian twist on it. So he didn’t ask.

“Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t realized it was her church.”

Ellen just looked at him. Sometimes Jerry could be so … so closed and narrow in his vision. Despite their differences in doctrine, Ellen genuinely liked Justine and was disappointed that she had come to the cafe less and less as her church had grown.

“And how’s my favorite killjoy?” Jerry barely had time to recognize the voice before he felt an arm go around his neck and hug him as much as it was possible in that position. Then the woman herself bounced over to a nearby hassock and perched on it cross-legged.

“I’m doing fine,” said Jerry. A woman in her 40s had no business looking that good. Definitely no business perching cross-legged on a hassock. Where should he put his eyes? Staring her in the face seemed to be the only option.

“Ah, ‘fine’ he grates out, not at all happy to see me.”

“I am happy to see you.”

“Ah, I see. ‘By faith Jerry Simonson received Mandy Kelly without insulting her’,” Mandy paraphrased.

Ellen had never figured out whether Mandy knew how much she bothered Jerry. Mandy tended, despite her years, to seem young and innocent. She hardly could be, considering she had four children herself and an apparently happy home. She hadn’t been in the cafe for a couple of years, however.

“So what’s been keeping you away?” asked Jerry.

“Doctoral studies. I’ve been writing a dissertation. I successfully defended it last month.”

“What was the subject?”

“Technology education. I’ve been doing consulting with several companies.”

“Still homeschooling your children?”

“Absolutely! Well, except for Emma who is 19 now, and pretty much on her own. She has already completed a degree with a double major in information technology and psychology.”

“Congratulations!” Jerry was truly impressed.

“Wow! That’s wonderful!” said Ellen. “I’ve always so admired you and the way you raise your family.”

“It works for me,” said Mandy. She was aware that homeschooling didn’t work for everyone, but she had been 100% successful by just about any measure of success she could think of.

“So what brings you here tonight?” asked Jerry after a pause.

“I’m planning to annoy Justine,” said Mandy with a grin.

“Oh please!” said Ellen. “Justine needs some peace.”

“On the contrary,” said Mandy. “Justine is spoiling for a fight. She just wants to do it with folks who are straightforward and friendly, even when they disagree. I’m guessing you’ll be on Justine’s side this time, Jerry.”

“You mean about homosexuality?”

“Yes, the gay guitarist.” Mandy rolled her eyes a bit.

“The gay guitarist?” asked someone new. It was another of the old regulars, Mark Morton. Mark had completed his MDiv, and then, with exceptions made to all the rules, his DMin from the seminary. Then he’d left to take up his first pastoral position.

“Yes,” said Mandy. “Justine fired a gay guitarist from her praise band. Oh, and welcome back. I guess you’re now the Rev. Dr. Mark Morton.”

“Mark will do fine,” said the Reverend Doctor. But one could tell he was pleased at the acknowledgment of his accomplishments.

“Let’s  be accurate,” said Ellen. “Since Justine’s church doesn’t hire musicians, Justine didn’t actually fire the guitarist. She said he could no longer play in the band until he was in compliance with the moral standards of the church.”

“So he can return whenever he’s no longer gay?” It was another newcomer, though Ellen still saw Bob Norman frequently. He just hadn’t been part of their group discussions for some time.

“Actually,” said Ellen again, “it seems none of you have really followed this. Justine’s church does not say that being gay is contrary to the church standards. Sex outside of marriage is. The guitarist admitted he was sexually active and living with his same-sex partner.”

“But of course he can’t get married, so, unlike heterosexual couples, his only option is celibacy. Besides, I wonder if people would have been so quick to gossip about his situation if he had been straight and living with his girlfriend. Would they have even noticed?” This was Mandy.

“Which shows that your religious rules are nonsense.” Bob’s tone was that of one giving the final conclusion. “Why you religious people feel you have to regulate people’s sex lives so much is beyond me. Jerry here probably thinks the kid should be stoned too, and I mean with rocks, not the good stuff.” He laughed at his own joke, but he was the only one.

“Stoning?” It was a slight drawl, and it announced the arrival of Rev. Justine Reeder. “I reserve that punishment for true infidels!”

There were a few more chuckles this time. “Well, with your outdated and unenlightened view of human sexuality, it’s only a small step further.” It was typical of the group that Justine’s gibe about stoning infidels was ignored.

“On the contrary, I think it’s a huge step, and considering there are people who actually advocate taking that step, I think it’s appropriate for me to distinguish myself from them. I asked one young man not to participate in the band at church because he was not living up to the moral standards of our congregation. I didn’t ask him to leave. I didn’t take away his right to free speech, and I definitely did not in any way threaten his life.”

“And if he now spirals into depression because he has been rejected, what then?” asked Mandy.

“I will offer to be there for him at any time. I have told him that I continue to love him as a person and to pray for him. I have admonished our congregation not to use derogatory terms for gays or lesbians, but to treat them as persons Jesus died to redeem. I don’t hate him. I do think he has made choices that will, ultimately, hurt him and others. Those choices are not my doing.”

“So, to summarize, if he commits suicide it’s not your fault,” said Bob.

“It’s not my fault, though it would bother me a great deal, yet that is not the most important thing I said. The most important thing I said was that I would continue to love him and treat him with respect.”

“But he can’t play his guitar, exercise his gift for music, in your congregation. If he stays there, he must remain cut off from part of who he is.” Mandy looked to Jerry more serious than he had ever known her to be. Now he knew where she stood on this issue.

“True. But there I have other responsibilities,” said Justine.

“To protect people from what this young man does in the privacy of his own home?” It was Mac Strong, meaning the whole group was back again.

“Unlike you,” said Justine, “I believe that homosexuality is a destructive behavior that is the result of sin in the world. So I do believe it is important to protect people from it.”

“You think people will be influenced to be gay?”

“I think people will be influenced to give in to impulses to sin. We all have impulses to sin. People have impulses that would lead them to sex outside of marriage. That’s a destructive behavior, I believe, and so our church standards say that sex should be reserved for marriage. Our rules say that if you want to be in a position of leadership, you agree to live up to those standards. I see no reason to treat a same-sex attraction differently.”

“Except that you require that there be no legitimate outlet for those whose attractions are same-sex.”

“Yes, if one has only same-sex attractions, then the call of God is to celibacy.”

“Amen!” said Jerry.

“I knew you’d agree, though I believe your pastor would prefer we kept gay people out of the congregation.”

“He draws the line at church membership. If you are to be a member you agree to live up to the church’s standards. He, and I also, believe that you open yourself to more trouble by allowing church membership to those who refuse to live up to biblical standards.”

“Such as gossips?” said Mandy.

“I don’t know what gossip has to do with it,” said Jerry.

“The gossip that led Justine to discover that her gay guitarist was living with a partner.”

“I don’t see it as gossip,” said Justine. “People who were concerned with the reputation of the church and the influence on the young people informed church leadership of a problem. We dealt with it.”

“Ah,” said Mac, “I think I get it. There’s reporting and then there’s gossip. When you report what someone is doing in order to get them into trouble, you’re doing a service. When you report someone just because it’s interesting, you’re a gossip.”

“I would say, rather, that when one reports things that need to be reported, and does so to the proper authorities, that person is not gossiping. When one simply talks about other people, with no real concern for the truth, then that’s gossip.” Jerry spoke slowly and deliberately, trying to catch the loopholes.

“But what I wonder,” said Mark, “is whether you allow gossips to be members of your church.”

“I know we have gossips in ours,” said Justine, “but if someone persists in such behavior while in a position of leadership, he or she would be removed.”

“And how many times has this happened?” asked Bob. “I’m just checking on your consistency.”

“I’ve had to admonish people for gossiping several times. I’ve never had someone who persisted.”

“So let me get this straight,” Bob continued. “You would have admonished your guitarist, I mean, told him that he had to cease living and/or having sexual relations with his partner, and he decided to ignore you, so he was removed. What if he said he’d stop?”

“That’s more or less it. There’s behavior that is not permitted in the leadership of our church. If anyone says that they will return to complying with our church standards, I believe them. Repeated offenses would be another matter.”

“So, Mark, what do you think about this?” asked Mac. She’d always wondered about Mark, who never seemed to be very rooted. Here he was a pastor, and she couldn’t have told you three things he believed for certain. She even had her moments of wondering whether he believed in God.

“We generally ignore it,” said Mark.

“Ignore it?” said several people at once.

“Yes. We don’t announce that we’re accepting gay people into our church’s leadership, but we go ahead and do it. Under the rules of my church I can’t perform a gay wedding, but I don’t have to take official notice of someone’s sexuality in church.”

“Amazing!” said Jerry. “You just ignore a major swath of morality and pretend it’s not a problem.”

[This is part 1 of a 2 part story. Go to part 2.]


The God-Talk Club: Naturalism and Miracles

Prevailing model of the origin and expansion o...
Is it just an appearance of age?Image via Wikipedia

“Hey guys, I have this quote from Albert Mohler about evolution,” said Bob.

“So let’s hear it,” said Mac.

Bob quoted:

As I have stated repeatedly, I accept without hesitation the fact that the world indeed looks old. Armed with naturalistic assumptions, I would almost assuredly come to the same conclusions as BioLogos and the evolutionary establishment, or I would at least find evolutionary arguments credible. But the most basic issue is, and has always been, that of worldview and basic presuppositions. The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions. Indeed, the entire enterprise of Christianity is based on supernaturalistic, rather than merely naturalistic, assumptions. There is absolutely no reason that a Christian theologian should accept the uniformitarian assumptions of evolution. In fact, given a plain reading of Scripture, there is every reason that Christians should reject a uniformitarian presupposition. The Bible itself offers a very different understanding of natural phenomena, with explanations that should be compelling to believers. In sum, there is every reason for Christians to view the appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin. (Quote of the Day on Jesus Needs New PR – while this story is fiction, the quote is real, as is, of course, Dr. Albert Mohler!)

“It seems pretty unremarkable to me,” said Jerry.

“It sounds to me like he’s saying God lied and we can’t really do science,” said Mark.

“How is that?” asked Jerry.

“If God makes the universe appear old, but it isn’t, what’s the purpose? It seems deceptive.”

“Maybe he’s testing our faith,” said Justine.

“Testing your faith?” asked Bob, puzzled.

“Yes. He’s trying to see if we’ll believe him or not.”

“But Justine,” said Mark, “it seems that he’s asking us whether we believe him or our senses.”

“I’d say it’s more like a test as to whether you believe an ancient book written by primitive people, or the best evidence of your own senses,” put in Mac.

“It seems to me,” said Jerry slowly, “that we’re making an assumption here. Why would God need to make the physical universe at any particular time in its history? Why is the default position that it should look its actual age?”

“Why not make the universe look just the age it is?” asked Mark.

This is a work of fiction. All persons and events, with the exception of the reference to and quote from Dr. Albert Mohler, are products of my imagination.

The story is part of the God-Talk Club Series.

Copyright © 2011, Henry E. Neufeld

“Well, lets say God created more people than just humans here on earth. Let’s say he also creates an intelligent race on a planet that orbits a sun a couple of billion light years from here. If he made the universe look like it was just 6,000 years old, the distance would have to be very small. So I would think the universe needs to have the appearance of age in order to accommodate the space for all of God’s creation.”

“But how would that work with oil and coal? Those imply that there was death, whereas in your scenario, God wouldn’t have created life that early. Yet he plants the remains of life under the soil so we’ll see evidence that there was life way back then.”

“Well, he had to provide oil somehow,” said Jerry. “Why do you choose one method over another?”

“I don’t suppose we could be wrong about what formed the oil, could we?” said Justine, cutting Jerry off.

“I was about to say,” Jerry continued, “that an alternative explanation there was that geological formations were created by the flood, so, as Justine says, oil might have been produced in a different way than modern scientists believe.”

Bob was shaking his head. “This is just amazing. All of science is swept aside because your book must be true! Unbelievable!”

“I bet Mandy doesn’t have any problems with it at all. Do you, Mandy?” said Mac.

“No, I don’t. I have no problem with God using evolution to create and diversity life.”

“Well, technically, evolution isn’t the process that creates life. That’s abiogenesis,” said Mac.

“On the contrary,” said Bob, “while the processes may be somewhat different, some of the same principles of variation plus selection may well apply. We just don’t know precisely–or even generally–how it works.”

“Yet you believe it happened,” said Jerry, looking puzzled. “Why is that?”

“It seems pretty clear to me,” said Bob. “There’s life. It must have gotten here somehow. We have a number of excellent leads, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose one or another will work out.”

“That seems to me to be a rather incredible statement of faith.”

“I suppose you drive a car,” Bob responded.

“Yes, I do. But don’t try comparing the way a car works to theories of abiogenesis.”

“No, that isn’t my point. Is it faith that makes you believe your car will run?”

“No, I know how the car works, and it has worked before.”

“Precisely! I know how science works. In one area after another ignorance has been displaced by leads and ideas, and then finally to explanations. I believe it will work this way too. You call that faith. I call it learning from experience.”

“But you still trust science. Scientists have been wrong so many times. Why do you think you have it right now?” This came from Justine.

“Oh, I have no doubt that,” said Bob. “I’m wrong about many things. What I do know is that science has successfully solved problems and come up with new information. And many of those ‘wrong’ answers were quite workable in their context. Newtonian physics handles quite a lot of problems even if we do know its limitations now.”

“I want to get back to an earlier point,” said Jerry. “I still maintain that Bob’s statement is a statement of faith. He believes in science. He believes it can solve everything. I can solve many problems on my calculator, but no matter how many I solve, it doesn’t mean I can solve everything. Science can solve many puzzles, but that doesn’t mean it can solve everything.”

“But the problems you can’t solve with your calculator are of a different nature than the ones you can,” said Bob. “I think the origin of life is a similar problem to the ones we have already solved. I see no reason why it cannot be solved as well.”

“To me the creation of life is a very different problem from birth even of new species,” said Jerry. “But I also want to go back to an earlier point that Mark made. Mark, why would you say that Dr. Mohler’s statement makes science impossible. Certainly many people who believe as he does do carry out scientific research.”

“One consistent thing about people is that they are inconsistent,” said Mandy.

“Let Mark answer,” said Jerry.

“If God lied in one area–the appearance of age–then how can we trust anything else. He could have set up the evidence to mislead us intentionally.” Mark looked thoughtful and troubled.

“I don’t see how God is lying,” said Jerry. “We’re misinterpreting the data.”

“But it seems to me that God is intentionally making us misinterpret the data. God could quite easily create the universe 12 or 13 million years ago and then create life now. Then it would be what it appeared to be. I just don’t like the idea that God is making it impossible for us to use our senses.”

“But Dr. Mohler argues that some of this is the result of sin,” said Justine. “The universe is messed up because of sin. That’s why we can’t interpret it correctly.”

“Or even more,” Bob added, “because we’re sinful we can’t interpret the data correctly.”

“But what does sin have to do with the appearance of age?” asked Mandy.

“The flood is certainly a result of sin according to the Bible,” said Jerry. “If it produced the appearance of age in the rocks, that appearance would be a result of sin.”

“Well, scientifically, the idea that a worldwide flood created the oilfields and coal deposits is quite ludicrous,” said Bob.

“You’re sure that’s not something that will be revised,” said Justine.

“In general, revisions of scientific theories don’t involve completely invalidating well established laws,” said Bob. “They usually result in adjusting or refining. No, I don’t find it likely that science will be revised sufficiently to allow a worldwide flood to explain geological features such as oil fields.”

There was a pause. “What I don’t understand, Mandy,” Bob continued, “is how you can stomach being associated with someone like Dr. Mohler, when you know what he’s said is nonsense.”

“I have the same problem,” said Mark.

“I don’t think what he said is nonsense. I disagree. I’m not embarrassed to call him a brother in Christ. That may not mean that much to you, Bob, but I think Jerry and Justine can understand what I’m saying. I don’t agree with his comment about naturalistic assumptions, because I believe in God, I think as much as he does. But I can disagree, even vehemently disagree, without despising.”

“I guess we’ll have to discuss ‘naturalistic assumptions’ some other time,” said Jerry. “I don’t see how you get away from them.”

“I have no problem with science sticking with naturalistic assumptions. If they didn’t, what would theologians have to do?” Mandy was grinning.

But it was time for the group to part for the evening.

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The God-Talk Club – New Year’s Resolutions

Two New Year's Resolutions postcards
Image via Wikipedia

“So what’s your New Year’s resolution,” asked Ellen, looking at Mac.

“I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. Come to think of it, I don’t do resolutions at all. I figure I am who I am.”

“Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay,” intoned Jerry.

“Trying to make me into a Christian, Jerry?” asked Mac.

“No. Well, yes, but this wasn’t an example of it. It sounds to me like you’re living like that text.”

“Making a resolution just makes me tense. If I really decide to do it, I do it. Making it a resolution just makes it harder.”

“Well, I like to make resolutions,” said Ellen.

“I bet you keep them, too,” said Mandy.

“I do!” exclaimed Ellen, smiling. “How would you guess that?”

“You just seem like the sort of straightforward person who wouldn’t like resolutions if she didn’t keep them. You’re just too happy with the idea. It has to work for you.”

This is a work of fiction. All persons and events are products of my imagination. It’s part of the God-Talk Club series, where you can find a list of characters. Copyright © 2010, Henry E. Neufeld.

“Well, it does,” said Ellen. “But it sounds like not doing resolutions works for Mac as well.”

Mandy was always impressed by how easily Ellen dealt with differences. The group had ignored her as their waitress until she had kind of pushed her way into the discussion.

“I always try to get my church members to make resolutions and do so publicly, so that other members can hold them accountable,” said Justine.

“Whoa,” said Bob. “That sounds spooky!”

“What’s spooky about it?” asked Justine.

“Well, all that trying to control people’s lives. ‘Holding people accountable’ sounds a little authoritarian to me.”

“But nobody makes them do it,” said Justine, truly puzzled.

“I bet there’s a lot of social pressure. Emotional manipulation.”

“I don’t see that at all,” said Justine.

“What happens to a member who doesn’t make a public resolution?” asked Bob.

“Well, nothing. We don’t have some sort of punishments or anything.”

“Will the rest of your group look down on them if they don’t make a resolution?”

“I wouldn’t think so.”

“So how to you encourage them. Do you call it a good thing to do?”

“Of course I do.”

“So if they don’t do it, then it’s a bad thing.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“Well, at least not as good.”

“Well, true. I do think it’s better if they do.”

“So there’s social pressure to do it. They’ll be thinking that others will think less of them if they don’t make a resolution, make it public, and be ‘accountable’ as you say, to the church.”

“OK, yes, but I don’t see how that gets us to social pressure and manipulation.”

“But it seems obvious to me.”

“I think your problem, Bob, is that you’re making voluntary participation equivalent to manipulation.” Jerry joined the conversation for the first time.

“But there’s a thin line between social pressure and unfair force or manipulation, or even just plain controlling behavior.”

“But you don’t know that the people in Justine’s church behave that way.”

“No, but I do know that some churches are overly controlling. I think we should go out of our way to avoid that.”

“I’m sure it can go too far,” said Jerry. “But on the other hand, we could give up all forms of social control and accountability. Wouldn’t that also be bad?”

“Well, I think churches having less control would be a good thing.”

“But you don’t think all private associations are a bad thing, do you?” asked Mandy.

“Well, I really don’t think much of most organizations that try to control their members and ‘hold them accountable.'”

“You don’t like private organizations at all?” asked Mandy.

“Oh, I like private organizations. Groups of people who are like-minded on some issue or another. They work together because they like to.”

“But you assume my church members aren’t there because they like to be?” asked Justine.

“Oh I don’t assume that. But church membership is very important in American life. I think many people are there just because there is social pressure to be there.”

“In this part of the country I doubt that,” said Jerry.

“What about fraternities and sororities?” asked Ellen.

“I really don’t like them all that much. They pressure young men and women to follow a social norm rather than be themselves.”

“You’re no fun,” said Ellen. But she said it sweetly.

“How do you do that?” asked Bob.

“Do what?” said Ellen.

“You can put somebody down so very gently.”

“I didn’t know I was putting anyone down,” said Ellen.

“That’s probably it. You actually say it like you like me.”

“But I do like you,” said Ellen with a slightly puzzled frown.

“The thing about Ellen,” said Mac, “is that she’s easily the most genuine person in the room. She is just who she is.”

“But I think all of you are!” exclaimed Ellen.

Everybody laughed. Mac shrugged and lifted her hands, gesturing her surrender.

“But I’m still not comfortable with what Justine is doing,” said Mark. “I don’t think whatever we say should apply to churches more than any other group of people. But Justine’s ‘accountability’ thing still makes my skin crawl.”

“What about it is so bad?” asked Justine.

“Getting up in front of the church and making your resolution? Asking other church members to hold you accountable? These people might not be your friends. They might just be looking for gossip. Why would I want to make a real resolution in front of them?”

“Well, they’re supposed to be your family,” said Justine.

“That’s biblical,” added Jerry.

“But how does it work in practice?” asked Mark. “I suspect that many people do spread gossip about things they find out while they’re holding people accountable.”

“People do gossip. It’s a sin, but they do it anyhow.” Justine shrugged.

“So perhaps we should be careful how we do things in that case,” said Mandy.

“So you don’t like the idea either,” said Justine.

“No, I don’t really. I’d encourage people to make resolutions. I’d encourage them to find friends who can hold them accountable. But I’d suggest they do it with a few friends.”

“Well, I take seriously the idea that we’re the body of Christ. We’re even told to confess our faults one to another.”

“I just see that as potentially very dangerous considering we can’t be sure everyone in a particular church is following the same spirit.”

“Don’t you think the churches in New Testament times had similar problems?” asked Jerry.

Mandy paused a moment. “I suspect they did, but we don’t know precisely how they applied ideas like confessing faults one to another. Was it in a group setting with the whole church? Was it with a few trusted people? I don’t think we know.”

Jerry was intent. The New Testament church subject got his attention. “I’d suggest we do know. That’s why gossip is so high on the various lists of sins. They confessed to one another, and one of the things they held one another accountable about was gossip!”

“I’d suggest instead,” said Mandy, “that we don’t really know the details of how they dealt with these problems, and perhaps we should use some contemporary wisdom.”

“I’m with Mandy,” said Mark.

“Wow,” said Ellen. “I just ask whether people have made resolutions, and it becomes a philosophical debate! I thought it would be fun to compare notes.”

“OK, I’ll go with that,” said Bob. “Just because I don’t like the whole church thing doesn’t mean I don’t like resolutions. I have made a resolution to complete three scientific papers I’ve been working on and get them published this year.”

“Oh, thinking of moving up to the college or graduate school scene?” asked Jerry.

“And just how would it be ‘moving up’?” asked Bob.

“Isn’t that the normal career path?”

“Perhaps, but I think the place for science education in this country right now is at the high school level. I’m going to stay where I am, teaching kids about science.”

“So why do you want to publish those papers?” asked Jerry, genuinely puzzled.

“Professional development, contribution to science, and yes, a good bit of ego.”

“I can understand that,” said Ellen.

“So what’s your resolution?” asked Bob. “You started this!”

“My resolution is to read one serious book every week next year.”

“That’s a good one,” said Mandy.

“So what’s yours?” asked Ellen, looking at Mandy.

“I have resolved to start my doctoral studies online. I’m interested in technology education. I’ve been intending to start for a long time and just haven’t gotten around to it. Next year is the year.”

“What about you, Jerry?” asked Mandy after a short pause.

“I’ve determined to share my faith with at least one identifiable person each week next year.”

“Make me feel like a target,” muttered Bob.

“I didn’t mean convert you. Just share my faith. But you’d only count as one person, even if I do share with you every week during the year.” It was the closest Jerry came to joking.

“So what is yours, Justine?” asked Bob. “You’re making all your church members do resolutions. Surely you have!”

“Yes, I have, but I wonder if I should share it with you.” Justine was grinning.

“OK. I deserved that.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. My resolution is to include our young people more in church leadership. By the end of the year, I plan to see young people active and in leadership in every area of the church. I’ve made a chart so I can track it.”

“Yay!” Ellen clapped her hands. “What about you, Mark?”

“Oh, I haven’t made any resolutions. I’m more like Mac. I do what I do, and don’t make a special issue of days.”

“Well, at least it’s not a Christian vs. Atheist issue this time,” said Bob.

“Be thankful for small blessings,” said Mandy.

And that was the end of the evening.

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The God-Talk Club and Merry Christmas

Christmas in the post-War United States
Image via Wikipedia

*Jerry joined the group last, looked straight at Bob and said “Merry Christmas!” Not only did he say it, but he said it cheerfully and with attitude.

“I see you enjoy annoying me,” muttered Bob.

“I thought you’d be offended,” said Jerry. “Isn’t that the normal atheist response to a simple greeting?”

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said Mac. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Well, it does bother me,” said Bob. “I wouldn’t say it offends me. But it annoys me that Christians don’t acknowledge that there are people who aren’t buying into their holiday.”

“Don’t you even exchange presents?” asked Mark.

“Only as much as I’m forced to by the season. I’d rather just deal with birthdays and more secular or political holidays. I’d go with 4th of July presents, for example, or maybe Constitution Day presents. Those would be good.”

“Bah humbug!” said Mac. Mandy laughed.

“I’d think you, of all people, would understand,” said Bob.

“Oh, I understand in a way. It’s just that I don’t feel the need to fight a major cultural event. Christmas is no more religious than New Year’s Day to most people. Even the Christians who celebrate it don’t really get that religious. A Christmas Eve service or Christmas Mass, but the rest is about family, money, and gifts.”

“But what if someone starts pushing the religious stuff at you?” asked Bob.

“Well,” said Mac and paused. “I’m trying to figure out how that would be any different from someone pushing religious stuff at you any other time of the year.”

“But during the Christmas season it’s everywhere. Bell ringers, Christmas parties, church services, and everybody wondering whether you’re going or not.”

“I don’t see how you’re forced to get involved in any of that,” said Mandy.

“It’s the constant bother. I can’t go through a day without having someone come at me with their religion.”

“What I find offensive is that everyone at stores and in public offices wishes me Happy Holidays. The big holiday is Christmas. Why can’t they say it?”

“But what about Hanukkah or Kwanzaa? Don’t you think they deserve mention?” asked Mark.

“I have no problem with them being mentioned,” said Jerry. “But I still think the big holiday is Christmas. I know it’s not a popular position, but we are a Christian nation.”

“Except where we’re not,” said Mandy.

“What do you mean?” asked Jerry.

“I really don’t see that much ‘Christian’ about our nation,” said Mandy. “I don’t mean separation of church and state stuff. I’m not talking about politics. But what does a motto like ‘In God We Trust’ mean when we pretty much don’t trust in God? What’s ‘one nation under God’ when we really don’t look to God in any of our decisions. I don’t see anything in our official documents or in the way that we live that makes us a Christian nation.”

“But we should be,” said Justine.

“Why?” asked Mark.

“You’re studying for the ministry,” said Justine. “Don’t you think it’s good for people to accept Jesus, put their trust in God, and be under God?”

“I think those are good things, but I have a hard time seeing why they should be part of our country’s laws. That seems to be trying to force people to be religious.”

“Or spiritual,” said Mandy.

“So not only do you want to wish me Merry Christmas, Justine, you want to force me to believe as you do,” said Bob.

“No, I wouldn’t force you to believe, but I would require you to show respect, and I would require moral behavior. The Bible says that God blesses those nations that obey him.”

“I think that’s misapplying God’s promises to Israel–a theocracy–to another nation,” said Mandy. “There’s no reason to see America as specifically chosen by God.”

“You know,” said Mac, “this is a bit off the topic we started with. Jerry, apart from wanting to turn us into a theocracy …”

“That’s not true!” said Jerry interrupting.

“… Why do you want to offend people like Bob? What would it hurt you to say ‘Happy Holidays’ to people who don’t believe in your religion?”

“Because it is my religion! I don’t see why I should have to pretend otherwise.”

“But I wouldn’t think you weren’t a Christian if you wished me Happy Holidays,” said Bob. “I’d just think you were polite!”

“It doesn’t seem polite to me,” said Bob. “It seems weak. It seems like we’re afraid of our differences so we have to conceal them.”

“That’s probably the one good argument I’ve heard,” said Mandy. “But I still don’t agree. I think we acknowledge that there are differences, and that it’s OK.”

“But I don’t think differences are OK. I think Jesus is the savior of the World and only those who believe in him will be in heaven. The rest will go to hell, and that’s not OK!” Jerry was vehement. “I want nothing to do with religious pluralism.”

“I’m not talking about religious pluralism. I’m talking about courtesy,” said Mandy. “I also expect we’ll have differences as long as there are humans on earth. I’m willing to live with that. I see no point in trying to force people, and until we can be 100% certain we’re right, I think we should celebrate differences.”

Bob, Mac, and Mark applauded. Justine looked thoughtful. It was Bob that broke up the discussion.

“I’m afraid, folks, that I must go,” he said. “I have to attend a holiday party.”

That gave everyone a good parting laugh.

*This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and events are products of my imagination. It’s part of the God-Talk Club series. Copyright © 2010, Henry E. Neufeld.

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The God Talk Club Defines Cult – II

[Continued from The God Talk Club Defines Cult – I]

“I think if I was setting out on a journey of any kind I’d want to know precisely where I’m going,” said Bob.

“I agree!” said Jerry.  “That’s why orthodoxy is so important.”

“But you really can’t agree on what’s ‘orthodox’, can you?”

“I think that the vast majority of Christians for the last 2,000 years have been able to define what orthodoxy is.  The Bible is God’s Word, the trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, salvation by faith, and so forth.”

“But, …” Mandy said and then paused.  Then she resumed.  “I’m just wondering if you regard me as an ‘orthodox’ Christian by your definition.”

“Well, so far as I know, you are.  I have some problems with the way you understand righteousness by faith, and I think your view of scripture is a bit weak, but it generally falls within the boundaries of orthodoxy.”

“But you just mentioned the virgin birth.  I consider the virgin birth metaphorical rather than a genuine, physical miracle.  I suspect it was an explanation for the questions about Jesus’ ancestry while at the same time explaining his evident divinity.”

Jerry had his mouth open, but Bob cut in, “Evident divinity?”

“Yes,” said Mandy.  “I think the best explanation for the way people responded to Jesus was that he exhibited that divine authority to those who were perceptive, even when he might not have looked like much to physical sight.”

“Oh,” said Bob.

“But aren’t you calling the gospel writers liars?” asked Jerry.

“I don’t think so.  I think they used the best explanations they had.  Mark and John were happy with the baptism, but others wanted more.  But that’s not really why I brought the topic up.  I don’t accept the virgin birth as a physical, historical realty.  Am I now a cultist?”

Jerry was stunned for a minute.  First, he wanted to convince Bob that there was one way of salvation, and one Christianity which he needed to accept or reject.  Now one of the Christians in the group was denying what he felt was essential.  Was it a moment to de-emphasize the differences, or did he need to stand up and be counted?  He really wished Mandy had not brought the topic up.

Of course, the decision wasn’t really all that difficult.  Jerry couldn’t really pretend very well in any case, and he didn’t think it would be right.  “On that point you’re not orthodox,” he said slowly.  “And I do consider it an essential point.  I’m not trying to judge your salvation, but you’re denying what I consider an essential pillar of Christianity, and in effect you’re calling God a liar.”

“Calling God a liar?” asked Bob and Mac together.

“Yes,” said Mandy before Jerry could reply.  “With Jerry’s view of Biblical inspiration he could hardly say otherwise.  I’ve said that certain Bible writers claimed something happened, but it didn’t.  I see the Bible as people’s experience with God.  Jerry sees it as God’s infallible, inerrant Word.”

“But doesn’t it make you angry that he calls you unorthodox?  Isn’t that a bad thing amongst Christians?” asked Bob.

“I’m sure some people get angry about such things, but I know what Jerry believes, and I know I disagree, so I would be more disturbed if he pretended he believed something he didn’t.  But Jerry,” she said, turning back to him, “I’m wondering whether you really regard me as a sister in Christ or not.  Am I a cultist?”

“As far as I know,” Jerry responded slowly again, “you have accepted Jesus Christ as your savior and depend on him for your salvation.  Your beliefs, especially your comments on the virgin birth and by implication about scripture, are wrong and extremely dangerous.  As to whether you’re a cultist or not, I can only hope that your beliefs are not the norm in your church.  I know you claim to accept the creed–‘born of the virgin Mary’–and I hope your church really does and thus I can call it orthodox.”

“So it’s possible that any Christian denomination might not be ‘orthodox’ then, and not just the Latter Day Saints,” said Mandy.

“I think Christianity is defined by the historical doctrines that have been held universally by the church.”  Jerry’s voice was now very firm.

“So what about Justine’s church?” asked Mandy.  “I know you and she disagree on a number of doctrinal points.  They do all that tongue-speaking stuff, which you don’t.  You don’t think women should be pastors and she is.”

“I’m quite certain that Justine is completely orthodox.  We can debate more minor issues.  You believe in the virgin birth, don’t you?” Jerry addressed the last to Justine.

“Yes I do.”  Justine had been quiet.  It had been a revelation to her that Mandy, who often defended her on other issues, quite casually denied what to her was unquestioned Christian doctrine.

Mac wasn’t done yet.  “In that case you probably wouldn’t have trouble with Seventh-day Adventists either, would you?”

“Well, I have some of the same problems with Adventists that I have with Mandy regarding salvation by faith.  They seem to be depending on their works.  They also seem to think they have an exclusive inside track.  So I have my doubts about them, but regarding the major doctrines in the Christian creeds, I think they’re orthodox.”

“But you think some of their doctrines are dangerous as well,” said Bob.


“This still just illustrates my point.  If I wanted to be a Christian, I’d have to figure out which one of your many groups, if any, has it right, and join that one.  I think that’s terribly confusing.  You don’t even agree on how one determines just what is right.  Mandy thinks it’s largely individual.  Ellen has modern, or sort of modern revelation.  You and Justine thinks it all comes from the Bible.  Oh, I forgot.  Justine also thinks there can be modern prophets who might give a message directly from God right in her church.”

“It would have to agree with the Bible,” said Justine.

Jerry nodded.

“Well, all this leaves me thinking ‘Christianities’ not ‘Christianity’.”  I think you all ought to get your act together before you start converting other people!”

“Do all atheists agree?” asked Jerry.

“Point,” said Bob.  “But then I’m not trying to convert you to my religion.”

“Really!” exclaimed Jerry, and everyone laughed.

With that the group started break up.

The God-Talk Club Defines Cult – I

Ellen brought everyone their food and then sat down herself and joined the group.  They were no longer surprised, as this had become a habit with the group, and they all knew Ellen had an arrangement with the owner.

“So why don’t you just let one of the other waitresses serve us?” asked Bob.

“Because I like to do it.  It just feels right.”

“I’m still surprised that you just work as a waitress.  You’re so smart; you could do anything you want,” said Bob.

“But what I want to do is this.  Why is that so hard for you to understand?”

“Bob’s a bit of an elitist,” put in Mac. “According to him, if you’re smart enough to be a scientist, then you should.”

“I’m not an elitist; I just like people to live up to their potential.”  It was rare for Bob to be offended, but he looked offended now.

“But doesn’t it matter what they want to do?” asked Mandy.

“I just can’t see how someone would want to be a waitress if she had other options,” Bob replied, but he was looking at Ellen.

“I think what I want to do is the second most important thing, right after what God wants me to do,” said Ellen.

Jerry said “Amen.”  Bob favored Ellen with a disgusted look.  Mac said, “Well, I agree with the ‘want’ part, anyhow.”

“Ellen,” said Justine, “Why don’t you tell us what you like about being a waitress.”

“I like making people happy.  I like meeting people and getting a chance to chat with them.  Sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s annoying, but I’m learning alot while I work here.  It also gives me a chance to be a witness.”

“You mean your boss is OK with you proselytizing?” asked Bob.

“No, not at all.  I don’t want to proselytize.  But my regular customers eventually find out who I am.  Tell me, Jerry.  Haven’t your conversations with me changed your view of Mormons?”

“Well, I still think you’re wrong.”  He grinned.  “But yes, I think I do understand better how you can believe what you do.”

“See?” said Ellen.  “I’m doing some good here.  How many other jobs would have given me a chance to talk to Jerry.  And I’ve learned many things from him as well.  And from all of you.”

There was a pause.

“But that’s just a benefit.  I enjoy serving people.  That’s why I bring the food here even when I’m not on the clock.”  She paused and grinned mischievously at Bob.  “Besides, it annoys you, and I admit I enjoy annoying you.”

There was a moment while everyone was stunned.  Ellen had never needled anyone; it just seemed contrary to her personality.  They wondered what would happen.  Bob was already offended by Mac’s charge of elitism.  Would this make him really angry?

But Ellen had read him right.  Bob laughed.  “OK, you win this round,” he said.  “But I’ll be back for more.”

“But I have a question for all you good Christians,” he continued, “And it has to do with Ellen and her faith.”

“Shoot!” said Mandy.

“Ellen is LDS.  I read up on their beliefs on the internet the other day.  I found any number of Christian sites that attack their beliefs and call them a cult.  What makes a group a ‘cult’?”

[For official LDS information, see  For an example of an orthodox Christian apologetics ministry, see Christian Research Institute.]

“Well,” said Jerry, “I call any organization that claims to be Christian but doesn’t uphold orthodox Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, the incarnation, they atonement, and salvation by faith a cult.  Often they’re smaller organizations and demand extreme personal loyalty.”

“There are more than 13 million Mormons.  That’s not small as denominations go.”

“Doesn’t that offend you?” asked Bob.  “He’s just called you a cult, and he certainly doesn’t think that’s a good thing.”

“Well,” Ellen replied, “You think my beliefs are stupid, don’t you?”

“Well … ”

“Be honest!  I know you think all of us believers are a few sandwiches short of a picnic.”

“OK, I’ll be honest.  I can’t imagine how you can both be as intelligent as you all appear to be and still believe such ridiculous things.”

“So why should I be offended? I believe that through Joseph Smith and our movement God chose to restore the true gospel that had been lost by the churches of ‘orthodox’ Christianity.”

“But you don’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity, and you accept scripture that is not part of the Bible,” Jerry exclaimed.

“But where in the Bible is the Trinity defined?  We accept that there are three distinct beings, united in purpose.  I think we’re more biblical than you are.  Your doctrines come from early church councils, not the Bible.”

“But the Trinity is a Biblical doctrine.  All the elements of the doctrine are there in scripture.  All the councils did was pull the definition together into one place.”

“And I believe the councils were wrong,” said Ellen.

“And you say you believe this on the basis of the Bible, but in reality you base your belief on the Book of Mormon.”

“I believe God revealed himself through the Book of Mormon, yes.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the Bible.  I believe orthodox Christianity did not preserve the Bible as they should.  And you have added much to the Bible through various writers and your confession of faith.”

“No, confessions of faith and other writers don’t supercede the Bible.  You accept the Book of Mormon as superceding the teaching of the Bible.”

“I could debate that, but I’d rather ask you whether your church requires people to accept the Westminster Confession.  Do you?”

“Well, yes, we do.”

“Why don’t you just ask them to accept what the Bible teaches? Why do you have to define it more?”

“Well, because many people have misinterpreted the Bible.”

“I agree.  We just disagree as to who has it right and who has it wrong.”

“Which always makes it interesting for an atheist such as myself,” said Bob.  “I not only have the question of whether there’s a god or not, I have a variety of different Christians, all of them claiming I should believe their particular detailed doctrines.”

“I’d suggest that the question of God’s existence might be primary, and that most of the rest of these discussions are rather trivial,” said Mandy.

“Trivial?” exclaimed Jerry.

Bob laughed.  “You see, you guys can’t even agree on what’s important.”

“I’d suggest that you get to decide what’s important,” said Mandy.  “If you look at this as a decision between various groups of people and whether they understand God correctly or not, you’ll always find things confusing.  A spiritual journey is personal in so many ways.  Who you make the journey with is just one aspect.  You don’t even have to agree on everything in order to enjoy the journey together.”

[To be continued …]

The God-Talk Club and Haiti

*“I don’t understand how you can believe in a loving God in the face of what we’re seeing on the news right now,” said Bob Norman, bringing the small talk to a halt.  In that informal way they had, the God-Talk Club was now in session!

“It is difficult, isn’t it?” said Jerry to the group as a whole.  Bob looked surprised at Jerry’s response.

“You do believe in a loving God, though?” said Bob, making it a question by his tone.

“Well, yes.  But I don’t believe that I have all the answers.”

“You’ve just shattered Bob’s impression of fundamentalists,” said Mandy.

“I’m not a fundamentalist,” Jerry retorted.  “I’m conservative, I’m evangelical, I’m orthodox.  I’m not a fundamentalist.”

“But Bob thinks you are,” Mandy insisted.

“I bet Bob thinks you are a fundamentalist,” said Jerry.  “Don’t you?” he continued, turning to Bob.

“Well yes,” said Bob.  “I have a hard time telling the difference between you various religious people.  There’s always the fact that you believe in God and I don’t.  That’s such a large difference that distinguishing one denomination from another just takes too much energy.”

“Hmmm!  Me as a fundamentalist.  That takes some getting used to.”  Mandy managed to combine shock and innocence in her look.

“But all this doesn’t answer my question,” said Bob.  “Just how do you deal with it?”

“It’s difficult for me, I admit,” said Jerry after a pause.  “I know that God is the creator.  I know that He takes responsibility for everything (Isaiah 45:7).  But just because I admit it’s difficult doesn’t mean I don’t have any sort of answer.  It just means it’s difficult!”

“So give,” said Bob.  “Do you believe God is punishing Haiti for its sins, like Pat Robertson?”

“Well, I believe Amos 3:6 -‘Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?’ (ESV)  God is responsible for everything, which makes the question difficult.  But unlike Pat Robertson, apparently, I believe that God has as much against this town as he has against Haiti.  Rather than thinking that God did this to Haiti, I think it happens because this is a sinful, dangerous world, and thus such disasters are possible.  It was Haiti this time.  It might be a tornado coming right through this building next time.”

“But how does that make God a loving God?” asked Bob.

“It doesn’t.  I believe God is a loving God because He is with each and every person in disaster.  He doesn’t prevent it, but he goes through it with us.  He’s right there.”

“I think the way God shows his love is through us,” said Justine.  “My church already has a team ready to leave.  We’re just waiting for the right moment.  Our folks are builders, and they won’t be needed for a few days, so we don’t want to go in too early.”

“I always wonder about these church teams,” said Mac.  “Amateurs can mess up the works.”

“I expect that from Bob, but not from you!” said Justine.  “How do you know we’re amateurs?  In fact, we have a very qualified team and they’ll be going in with all the proper support, coordinated with the proper authorities.  I don’t know the details, but we’ve taken years building a properly certified response team.”

“I’m sorry Justine,” said Mac.  “I didn’t realize.  I had just heard of a group driving into the country from the Dominican Republic that hadn’t done their homework.  Fortunately they were turned back.  That kind of people just get in the way.”

“I heard that some Christian groups are sending in pastors.  What do these people need with pastors?  They need food and water, not to mention getting dug out of the rubble!”  Bob was looking annoyed again.

“I think that’s a pretty narrow attitude,” said Mandy.  “Why do we send grief counselors in after a disaster?  People need more than physical relief.  I agree there must be some priority, but many of the Haitians are Catholic.  I think last rites would be important to them.”

“I don’t mean to deny people their comforting superstitions,” said Bob.  “But I wouldn’t want to contribute to it.”

“Surely you don’t let that stop you from giving,” said Jerry.  “I know you’re plain-spoken to the point of being rude, but I think you really care.”

“Oh, there’s a good answer to that.  Richard Dawkins has created a fund for us infidels to give to.  It’s called Non-Believers Giving Aid.  That way we can give without supporting religious organizations.”

“That’s great,” said Ellen.  “I was wondering if you had anything like that.  I’ve given through my church (LDS Aid).”

“I’ve given through my home church,” said Mark (UMCOR).

“Me too,” said Jerry (PCA-MNA).

“Our church as well,” said Mandy (PCUSA).

“I went with the same option as Bob,” said Mac.

“So now that we know we’re all doing something, with Justine admittedly in the lead with an actual team, what more can be done?” asked Bob.

Everyone was quiet for a moment.  Nobody wanted to say “Give more money.”  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to.  Pretty much everyone planned on doing that as soon as they could.  It just didn’t seem to meet the need.  They suddenly felt that the God-Talk Club needed to do something specific.

“OK, I’ll start it.  Justine, is there a way I can give to your team without it going to pay for a chaplain?  That’s just not something I’m willing to do.”

“I can understand that.  I’m going, but I happen to be qualified to do several tasks that are required by the team.  I might preach if I’m invited, but that’s not the purpose of the team.  We’ll be working on housing.  I could designate your money to buy building materials.”  She paused.  “You all do understand we’re not part of he initial response.  It could be weeks before we go in.  It depends on what priorities others set.”

“Yes, we understand that.”  Bob pulled out a checkbook and started writing.  “I’m taking your word on how this is spent,” he added.

In a minute Jerry’s check joined Bob’s.  “I doubt the two of you have ever donated to the same cause before,” said Mac.

“Doubtless you’re right, and it’s even more surprising that it’s a project for Justine’s church.  But this feels right.”

Nobody noticed that Ellen had left until she returned with a couple of other waitresses carrying large plastic cups.  The manager followed.

“This lady here, a regular at our cafe, is going to be taking a team to help rebuild in Haiti.  We’re going to pass around these cups, and I know you will all be generous.”

[While this post is a work of fiction, the aid agencies referenced (except, of course, for Justine’s fictional church) and linked are real and are actively engaged in Haiti relief.  I do believe that the fictional people in my God-Talk Club stand for many millions who are doing their little bit to aid the people of Haiti.  Find a trustworthy agency to support, or a person or team that is going to do the work on the ground and give them your support.]

The God-Talk Club and the NIV2011

After Ellen had brought everyone their orders, she joined the God-Talk Club group herself.

“Wow,” said Mark.  “We have a full house.”

“I just got off work,” said Ellen a bit defensively.

“You don’t have to justify yourself,” said Justine.  “I like it when you can join us.”

“My boss is a little bit touchy about having me join one of the groups that meet here.  I think he’s afraid I’ll offend someone about their theology, and then they might not come back.”

“If anyone was going to get offended in this group, they’d probably already be gone.”  Jerry had worked his way through some bad moments with the outspoken group.

“Speaking of offending, I have a question for the Christians in the group.”  Everyone turned as Bob Norman spoke.  He wasn’t that regular, but he could always start a big argument with just a few words.

“OK, I’ll bite,” said Mandy when Bob didn’t continue.  “What?”

“I’m wondering why you Christians need so many different Bibles.  It would seem that you could get it right with fewer tries.”

Both Mandy and Jerry started to answer, then tried to defer to one another, then finally Jerry spoke.  “You don’t make new translations because the others didn’t get it right, but because language has changed.”

“But I was reading the other day somewhere that there were new revisions of the New Living Translation and some translation, Christian Standard something or other, I believe.”  Bob looked at Jerry, expecting him to fill in the blanks.  Jerry looked blank.

“That’s probably the Holman Christian Standard Bible,” said Mandy.  “It’s closely related to the Southern Baptists.  And yes, I’ve read that it is being revised.”

“OK, so what about it?  Is the Bible getting updated?” asked Bob. “I remember now what I read about yesterday.  It’s an NIV2011.  The 1984 edition isn’t good enough, there has to be a 2011 one.”

“I wouldn’t say updated,” said Jerry.  “Sure, scholars can make errors translating, but mostly the improvements are in the language used.  I’ve used both the original NLT and the updated NLT and there really isn’t that much difference.”

“Sometimes there are new discoveries that help us understand some text better,” said Mandy. “You know, the Bible is a very ancient book from a very different culture.”

“It’s good to learn new things,” said Justine.

“My church teaches that to some extent the message of the gospel was lost and that the Bible does need some correction,” put in Ellen.

“But the changes aren’t very significant,” Jerry objected.

“What about 1 John 5:7-8?” asked Mac.

“I can’t get over how you just come up with these verses,” said Bob, bemused.

“I like to know the Christian stuff.  Then they can’t put something over on me.”

“What’s the problem with 1 John 5:7-8?” asked Jerry.

“It’s in the KJV, but it’s not in most of your modern versions.  It’s the best text you have for the trinity, and it’s not really in the Bible!”  Mac emphasized that she felt she had scored by drawing the ‘1’ with her finger in the air.

“I don’t need 1 John 5:7-8 to teach the doctrine of the trinity,” said Jerry.  “It doesn’t really change anything.”

“Don’t you base all your beliefs on the Bible?” asked Mac.

“It depends on whether you mean ‘on the Bible as a whole’ or ‘on one single text’,” said Mandy.

“Precisely,” said Jerry.  He was always glad when he could agree with Mandy, as he thought she was the most committed and well-informed Christian in the group, other than himself.  He was less sure about Justine.  But Mandy still had a tendency to take a subject to places he’d rather not go.

“But you don’t have any text for the doctrine of the trinity,” said Mac.

“We have lots of texts!” said Jerry.

“Well, no single text that expresses the doctrine,” said Mandy.  “But there are lots of doctrines that are that way.  That’s why we write doctrinal statements.  They summarize what we have learned from scripture.”

Mac had her mouth open, but Bob cut in.  “I know enough about Christianity to know that we could spend all evening on the trinity and never discuss anything else.  I want to know about Bible translations.”  He paused.  “How can you trust a book that has to be updated regularly, and that has been translated so many times.”

It was Justine who responded this time.  “I hadn’t heard that translation would damage the original book.  I don’t see what the number of times the Bible has been translated has to do with anything.”

“Well, you lose something in translation, so if you translate a translation, you lose a little bit more,” said Bob.  “I don’t mean that many different translations of the same text are make it less accurate, though I don’t understand why Christians can’t come to an agreement on just how it should be done.  I’m talking about translating translations.  The Hebrew is translated into Greek, then the Greek into Latin, then the Latin into English.  How accurate can the final result be?”

“But that isn’t what happens to Bible translations,” said Justine, looking puzzled.  “I’m studying Greek now at the seminary and I will study Hebrew, and we read the texts in the original languages all the time.  Why would anyone translate the Bible from Latin today?”

“Bob is probably referring to some of the older Bibles,” said Mark.  “I know that Catholic Bibles had to be translated from the Latin text up through Vatican II.  We learned about that in church history.”

“But even Catholic Bibles today are translated from the original languages,” said Mandy.

“True,” said Mark.

“You’d have a hard time finding a Bible translated from Latin on a bookstore shelf today,” said Jerry.  “I did see a copy of the Douay-Rheims version in our church library the other day, but nobody really uses that.”

“Wasn’t the King James translated from the Greek in the Old Testament?” asked Bob.

“Well, they compared the Greek, but they worked form the Hebrew text.”  It was Justine again.

“You know, Justine,” said Jerry.  “I didn’t know you were studying Biblical languages.”

“I’m taking a concentration in Biblical studies for my Master of Divinity.  I’ve been studying the history of the Bible and I’ll get both basic Greek and Hebrew.”

“Interesting,” said Jerry.

“You’ll have to revise your opinion of her again,” said Mandy with a mischievous look.  Jerry was annoyed.  Why did Mandy have to say that out loud?

“Jerry doesn’t approve of women as ministers,” said Mac.

“My church wouldn’t allow them,” said Ellen.

“OK,” said Bob.  “This group is too easy to distract.  I’d love to talk about how reactionary barbarians can’t get that women can do pretty much any job, but let’s do it another time.  I want to hear about Bible translations.”

“I wonder what reactionary barbarians do,” said Mandy.  “Do they swing from trees?”

There was a moment of silence.

“OK,” said Bob.  “This time I didn’t stick to the subject.  So you’re all agreeing that most Bible translations are made from the original languages.”

“Yes,” said Jerry.

“But not from the original manuscripts, right?”

“No.  We don’t have the original manuscripts.”

“So that is one reason for revised Bible translations, isn’t it?  You find new and better manuscripts, so suddenly you know that your Bible is in error and you correct it.”

“I don’t know if I would say it’s in error.  But certainly if we find a better text we will follow that with new translations.”

“If it was wrong and you have to change it, then I’d say you corrected an error.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” said Mandy.  We take the best readings we can from what we have.  If we didn’t correct it when something better came along that would be silly.”

“But that’s not really the major reason for revising Bible translations,” said Jerry.  “It’s more a matter of translation philosophy and changes in modern languages.”

“But why can’t you agree at least on how the Bible should be translated?”

“Why should we?” asked Mandy.

“Shouldn’t there be a right way and a wrong way?”

Justine started laughing.  “Have you ever learned a foreign language?”

“Well, I learned some Spanish in High School.”

“No translation is exact, Bob.  There’s not just one right way to do it.  We’ll even get multiple correct translations in class where we’re supposed to be translating very literally.”

“One of the big issues with the NIV2011,” said Mandy, “is the issue of gender language.  For example, should a group that is made up of both men and women be called “brothers” or “brothers and sisters?”

“Which one does the Greek use?” asked Bob.

“Neither,” said Mandy.  “The Greek uses a Greek for some reason.”

“Yes, I know,” said Bob.  “But what does it mean?”

“It refers to a group of people that includes both men and women in some cases.  What English word or phrase does that?”

“Here’s where Mandy and I disagree a bit,” said Bob.  “Not that there cannot be variation, but I’d prefer to use brothers, which has always been understood to apply to both sexes, while she wants the women mentioned explicitly.”

“But isn’t there already a revision of the NIV that does that?” asked Mac.  Bob was again surprised at her knowledge of Christianity.

“Yes,” said Mandy.  “There was the TNIV which has been quite popular for that reason.  It’s hard to say what the NIV2011 will be like, though it will likely use some of the vocabulary of the TNIV.”

“And this doesn’t bother you?” asked Bob.

Mandy shrugged.

“You know,” said Jerry.  “I bet that if we all agreed on this topic you’d be thinking that we were suppressing dissent.”

“I never said anything of the sort!”

“But that’s your impression of Christians, isn’t it?”

“Well, I do think you suppress free thought by expecting people to adhere to doctrinal statements.”

“Ah, doctrinal statements,” said Mark.  “I can’t deal with those tonight.  It’s about time for me to be going.”

And with that the group began to break up for the night.

The God-Talk Club and the She-Bears

[This is a work of fiction, from my God-Talk Club series. – added 11:42 central time]

Small talk was dying down and everyone had their drinks.  Mark had a question:

“I’ve been given an assignment,”1 he said to the group, and I’d like your thoughts.

“What is it?” asked Mandy.

“We’re supposed to write a 10 minute homily on 2 Kings 3:23-24.”

“Ten minutes?  That’s going to cramp your style.  You can’t tell them everything you’ve learned in your seminary classes.”  Mandy was laughing as she said it, and Mark took it in good humor.  He really did like to put his whole seminary training into each homily.

“Ten minutes,” echoed Jerry.  “You can’t really get to the meat of a scripture in that period of time.

“I didn’t know you Presbyterians had long sermons.  I thought you generally had about 20 minute homilies,” said Mandy.

“Not at my church.  It’s more like 30-40 minutes, and sometimes we get more in the pastor’s Sunday School class.”

“Oh, you learn something new every day,” said Mandy.  “But we should get back to Mark.  What are your questions?”

“Well,” said Mark and paused.  He felt like he knew what he’d hear from each person and was almost afraid to start.  “It’s such a violent story.  Elisha seems to get offended and so he slaughters a bunch of kids.  Where’s the moral in that?”

Justine, Mandy, and Jerry started talking at once, then started to apologize to each other.

Over the confusion, Bob Norman cut in.  “OK, I’ll bite.  What is this story of the she-bears?”

“You don’t know that one?” exclaimed Mac.  “That’s  a skeptical staple.  A Christian says ‘God is love’ and you say ‘But what about the she bears?’  I’m going to have to revoke your skeptic’s license.”

Bob was working on getting used to Mac.  He was a science teacher, an atheist, and quite convinced, but he had been raised in a conventionally religious home, one where he didn’t see church all that often.  Until he had gotten together with the God-Talk Club he hadn’t argued religion that much.  He just didn’t believe.

Mac, on the other hand, seemed to think that the purpose of skeptics was to argue with Christians.  She knew more about Christianity than most Christians.

“So what is the story?” asked Bob, looking at Mac.

“Well, this prophet named Elisha was walking along, and some children started taunting him about being bald.  So he cursed them and called some she bears to maul them.  The bears got 42 of them.”

Jerry cut in, “Well, not precisely.  How about we read the text as it’s written?”

Jerry pulled out his Bible and read:

(23) He went from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”  (24) And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD.  And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. — 2 Kings 2:23-24 (ESV)

“OK,” asked Bob, “so why are they telling this guy to go up?  And is this Elisha you’re talking about?”

“Well Elijah had just been taken up into heaven, so the boys were suggesting that Elisha do the same thing,” said Jerry.

“But I don’t believe that anyone can go up to heaven,” said Bob.

“Why don’t we discuss the story based on what the people who wrote it believed?” asked Mandy.  She barely cut off Jerry who had been about to argue the point.  He again thought about how hard it was for him to take Mandy seriously because of the way she behaved, yet she had these flashes of wisdom.

“Maybe the boys didn’t believe that Elijah had ascended either,” said Mark.  “They might have been suggesting that Elisha was lying.  Elisha was the only witness, after all.”

“That’s quite possible,” said Mandy.

“But it doesn’t help us much in understanding the story,” said Jerry.  Whatever their reasons they were taunting God’s prophet.”

“So Justine,” said Bob, turning to look her right in the eye.  “What would you do if some children in your congregation were taunting you?”

“Well, it would depend on what they were doing,” she answered.  “If they’re just joking, I’d laugh and go on.  If they’re threatening me, I’m going to deal with it.  Worst case, I might call the police.  I’ve had some teenagers who needed police intervention.  I don’t like it, but it happens.”

“But you wouldn’t curse them, or, in the absence of readily available she-bears, you wouldn’t release the dogs on them,” said Mac decisively, as though she thought she had just won a point.

“Precisely,” said Bob.

“But Justine isn’t a prophet,” said Jerry.

“So?  She’s a pastor.  Isn’t that close enough?” asked Bob.

“I hardly think so.  Elisha was the greatest prophet of his time.  It would be more like taunting the president,” said Jerry.

“But the secret service doesn’t shoot adults who taunt the president, much less children,” said Bob.

“Supposing a teenager–and these boys could be teenagers–was carrying a handgun and waved it at the president.  Then what would happen?” asked Jerry.

“It’s quite possible that the secret service might shoot the teenager.  But there’s no indication these children were carrying guns, or swords or spears,” said Bob again.

“But there’s nothing that says they didn’t either.  They might have been very threatening.”  Now Jerry looked like he was making a point.

“But wouldn’t that be adding something to the text?” asked Mark.

“Well, we’re adding to the text whether we assume they’re little children or teenagers, and whether we assume they had no weapons or lots of them.  It doesn’t give us those details,” said Jerry.

“So shouldn’t we deal with the text as it is?” asked Justine.  “It seems to say that taunting the prophet was enough provocation, and that God responded to Elijah’s curse by sending the she-bears.  I don’t particularly like it, but that’s what it says.”

“Well, actually, I don’t think so,” said Mandy.  Everyone started looking right at her.  “The text doesn’t tell us whether Elisha’s action was justified.  It just tell us that it happened.”

“So is it possible that Elisha might not be doing the right thing here?” asked Mark.

“I think so.  I think Elisha was tired and angry and so he cursed the children.”  Mandy had that “mother concludes and has made the point to the children” look she got from time to time.  The fact that she was sprawled carelessly sideways across an easy chair detracted from the effect.

“So why would God honor his angry request?” asked Jerry.

Mandy considered for a moment.  “Because he was God’s prophet.  What would happen if he cursed someone and nothing happened?  God has to go hunting for a new prophet!”

“I really don’t think that’s an appropriate way to speak about  a prophet.  Surely a prophet wouldn’t do wrong in a situation like this,” said Jerry.

“Elijah made mistakes.  Moses made mistakes.  David was a man after God’s own heart and he committed adultery and then murdered someone to cover it up.  What makes you think Bible characters always do right?” said Mandy.

“But in all those cases we have a clear indication that what they did was wrong.  Not here,” replied Jerry.

“Well, from my point of view that makes God look even worse.  He will kill forty-two children in order to keep his prophet respectable,” said Bob.  Mac nodded.

“But God can do anything he wants!  We don’t have the right to judge God’s actions,” said Jerry.

“So when you say, ‘God is love’ is that your considered judgment, or are you just repeating what God told you to say?” asked Mac.

“I know that God is love,” said Jerry.

“But how do you know?  Can you know that God is love without looking at God’s actions and deciding, ‘Those are loving actions?'” asked Mac.

“I think she’s got a point,” said Mandy.  “After all, we testify to God’s love and to the things God has done for us.  Have we not looked at God’s action and said, ‘That is love’?”

“But we wouldn’t even know what love was if God didn’t tell us!” said Jerry.

“Well, I agree with Jerry,” said Justine.  “God has the right to do what he wants.  So I think there must be something there that those children or teenagers did to deserve what happened to them.  If God did it, it must be right, and it says right there [she pointed to Jerry’s Bible] that God did it!”

“I’ve got to agree with Jerry as well.  It seems that you [he looked at Mandy] and Mark want to have the story in your Bible but you don’t want to accept what it really says.”  Bob looked at Jerry.  “Not that I agree with you about anything else!”

“I would never even think it,” said Jerry dryly.

“I have to disagree.  You’ve both decided what the story must mean.  There are many other statements about morality in the Bible.  I think that if we are told elsewhere that an action is wrong, we are not forced to conclude that a person who does that in a story is right.  That was complicated,” said Mandy, and grinned.

“But then you are saying that God did something wrong,” said Jerry, and Bob and Mac both nodded.

“I’m saying that God worked with people as they were.  You can’t always have ideal actions when you’re not dealing with ideal people.”

“There I agree with you, Mandy,” said Justine.  “I don’t really have a problem with this story, but God does work with us where we are.”

“I think I like Mandy’s explanation,” said Mark.  I wonder if I can say it in 10 minutes?  I’m inclined to give all the explanations and let people choose.”

And with that, the group began to break up.

1The real-world source of this question is not a professor at my imaginary seminary but David Ker at his Lingamish blog. I already responded in a real-world sense on my Participatory Bible Study blog.