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Let Us Worship Other Gods

Let Us Worship Other Gods

In my book When People Speak for God, I discuss testing messages that people claim are from God. There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 that is commonly used in connection with this. In that passage the message is tested by whether the word from God comes to pass. There are some interesting questions this leaves, such as the fact that you don’t know the validity of the word before the predicted event.

But there’s another passage, often ignored, that I think is more critical. It comes from Deuteronomy 13.

Should a prophet or a pedlar of dreams appear among you and offer you a sign or a portent, 2 and call on you to go after other gods whom you have not known and to worship them, even if the sign or portent should come true 3 do not heed the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to discover whether you love him with all your heart and soul. 4 It is the Lord your God you must follow and him you must fear; you must keep his commandments and obey him, serve him and hold fast to him.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4 (Revised English Bible)

Now there are those who may think this is about the election. It’s not. Depending on one’s attitude, it might apply, but I’m interested in those everyday questions that we have about whether something that is proclaimed as God’s will is actually from God

My less charismatic friends sometimes think they can avoid this question because they don’t believe in modern prophecy. I disagree. Whether one claims to hear directly from the Holy Spirit or one applies scripture to a particular situation, one is proclaiming something as God’s Word and the message should be tested.

In fact, we are much more likely, I believe, to be led astray by proclamation of scripture than by a claim of a direct word from God. The claim that something is “just what the Bible says” is both intimdating and properly open to question. More people are likely to believe “just what the Bible says” than are likely to accept the word of someone who claims to speak directly for God. But the interpretation of scripture can fall as far from God’s will as something pulled from thin air.

I suggest very strongly that those of us who teach from scripture, and make claims about the meaning of passages, should take responsibility for our interpretations and invite study and testing.

For me, Deuteronomy 13 is the most critical passage. What does it mean to call for someone to worship other gods? I like to use language that I have derived from Paul Tillich. (Note that I may be using some of his language in a slightly different way than he does.) He describes idolatry as making our ultimate concern something that is not ultimate. I think this goes along well with the message of the Torah on worship of God.

Worship is a process of placing our trust in and our dependence on the one worshiped. In the ancient near east, one might worship multiple gods, offering sacrifices to different ones at different times for different reasons. Israel was called to place all of their trust in all circumstances on God. Jesus proclaims something very similar in the Sermon on the Mount when he calls on us to not even take thought for tomorrow.

It’s easy to proclaim this for broad movements, such as we should not put our ultimate trust or ultimate concern in a political figure. Most of us don’t think we do. At least we don’t realize it, so we can point to people on the other side, whichever that is, and suggest they are the ones who are putting their ultimate trust in something other than God.

This isn’t necessarily about a particular candidate. We can easily make the political system itself our ultimate concern, and be limited to the things that the political system can accomplish.

Do you see the detour in the last two paragraphs? I’m talking about big, generic movments. I don’t think I said anything wrong. But I will not personally be primarily tempted by political activities in my life.

Let’s get personal.

Tomorrow I will go to my office and work. I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do. If I do, indeed believe that I am doing what God wants me to do, what is my proclamation going about my ultimate concern?

If I head forth under my own limited strength, placing my trust in myself to accomplish all of my goals, I am guilty of the wrong ultimate concern. My proclamation of God’s will in this instance fails the Deuteronomy 13 test. This doesn’t mean I don’t do my work. This is not about activity, but about trust. It’s about what is most important.

Whether I make plans for myself, for my family, for my business, or for my church, in all cases if I claim to follow God’s will, but call for trust in something else, I am guilty of this idolatry. This applies whether my trust is in a person, an organization (such as my conference or denomination), or a well-planned program.

I don’t know about you, but I often get this in reverse. When something is done and I receive congratulations on it, I say it’s all about God. But when tension is building as I do the task, I constantly forget that. I forget that whatever happens, I am in God’s hands. By my actions I can ask people to worship other gods, gods of arrogance and self-sufficiency.

Remember this: When we place our ultimate concern in something that is not ultimate, our potential is limited by the size and scope of the not-ultimate thing that we have made ultimate.

Fear and …

Fear and …

Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear [1 John 4:18]. But so do several other things — ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.

C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night”

Lewis took this in another direction, but I like the words to point out that, in certain circumstances fear can be a very good thing, and it’s absence dangerous.

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Changing Perspectives

Changing Perspectives

From time to time during my work day I’ll stop and play a (hopefully) quick game of Sudoku. For this purpose I usually choose an easier puzzle, one I can do quickly.

The purpose for a break like this is to unlock my brain, so to speak. When I’ve been working on a project too long, I can lose track of what I’m doing and become unproductive. There is activity, but no work. So I stop. Sudoku is just about right to distract my mind from what I was doing without tying me up for a long period of time.

This lets me refocus and reorder my thoughts, and I usually return to work ready to move forward.

The other day I was noticing something as I worked the puzzle. It’s not new. I just hadn’t thought of it.

In filling out the puzzle there are two ways I look at the board. I’m either looking for a list of possibilities for a particular space, or I’m looking for spaces that are blocked for certain numbers. I naturally do the first. The second usually works faster.

So why do the first?

In a word, habit. That’s how I’ve done it time out of mind.

Now I frequently switch tactics because I am failing to fill out what I know is a reasonably easy puzzle. It is unlikely that there is no clear move. On a complex puzzle other mental gymnastics might be useful.

Yet often I find myself running through rows, columns, and blocks repeatedly while finding nothing. Then suddenly I think, “Why am I doing this? Why am I not changing my perspective?”

Habit. Ingrained habit.

Changing perspectives can be hard. Learning to regularly look at something from a different perspective is even harder. Our habits intervene, and we can end up doing something repeatedly that isn’t working.

Usually when I change perspective on my Sudoku puzzle I almost immediately spot something that is obvious, but that I missed because I was in a rut.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to apply this to life. Try out a different point of view. Check for answers that are not on the list you had in mind.

It might help!

Review: Kayla May and Kerry Sandell present Collected Stories

Review: Kayla May and Kerry Sandell present Collected Stories

I took the opportunity to see this play last Saturday night (March 30, 2019) as part of the SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) program coordinated by PenArts.

At first I didn’t intend a review, because I don’t have much business reviewing plays. My only experience was in high school. I don’t even watch movies or TV dramas that much. But then …

What I do know something about is writing, critiquing, editing, and publishing. More importantly, I know about holding a stage. It’s hard to do without all the extras. “Drama” and “special effects” become synonymous, and so we watch movies to see the next technical trick that will be included. It’s quite easy to lose the story amongst the many things that are there to make the story interesting.

Two people on a stage talking? How can one possibly watch that for going on two hours?

Well, you start with some exquisitely written dialogue. If you don’t know how hard that is, you’ve never actually tried to construct good dialogue, words that fit the character and project what you intend to about that person. This play provides the words. This isn’t a review of the text of the play, however, but of the performance. (Donald Margulies can manage on his own!)

I was there because I know Kayla May, and I was watching her more at first. It was amazing. She took on that character and had me believing the character in minutes. I was no longer seeing Kayla May. I don’t know how you do that. I deal mostly in the printed word. This is something different.

I don’t know Kerry Sandell, so I didn’t have to forget her to see her character, but this was not a one-sided performance. Both performances were outstanding, in my opinion. This is not because I can tell you what these two ladies did. I don’t have a clue. Rather, I can describe what happened. I knew the characters, empathized with them as writers, students, teachers, and people. I could see them change and adapt.

Perhaps here some background in writing helped, but I don’t think it was necessary. They were presented so that you could come to care about the story and what happened to them, even if you didn’t empathize with the insecurities, pretensions, frustrations, and victories of writers.

I went to this play expecting to appreciate it in a polite way. “Not precisely my cup of tea,” I’d say, “but you did whatever it was well.” By the end, however, I’d have to say, “Definitely my cup of tea.”

This is the sort of thing I’m hoping for when I watch a new movie: Good characters effectively portrayed; people you care about by the end of the drama. I don’t mean that all plays should have just two characters; rather, they should have meaningful, well-developed, well-portrayed characters.

Is that too much to ask?

Perhaps. On the other hand, you might find that what’s missing on your TV screen is available in the performances supported by a local arts society. I’m going to be thinking about that from now on.

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

Of Christians and Ayn Rand

There have been a number of articles recently discussing Ayn Rand and her Christian supporters and (supposed) followers. One of these is by Sheila Kennedy, who doesn’t do all that bad, though I still see things differently.

Key Questions which I Might not Answer

The key issues I encounter are:

  • How can a Christian enjoy or appreciate Ayn Rand, who is very vigorously atheist?
  • Can Ayn Rand’s philosophy be reconciled with a Christian worldview and way of life?
  • Why do so many young Christians and other conservatives get so excited by Rand’s writing?
  • Is Rand a good writer, enjoyable apart from her philosophy?
  • Rand was not tolerant of any form of disagreement. It was all or nothing. Can one appreciate her writing while rejecting some or even most of her philosophical conclusions?

My Experience

First, for full disclosure, I went through almost all of the views of Rand that I’ve ever heard over the course of some years. I first rejected the very notion of reading her when an undergraduate professor suggested I read The Virtue of Selfishness. After some time, I read her novels, starting with Atlas Shrugged, and as I was searching for a place to be at the time, attempted being a follower. This didn’t work either, though I spent some time at it, so I set her aside. Then I found a different form of appreciation that was not entirely approval, that comes from me as an editor and publisher.

Thus my question becomes why people do like her, and how to understand and discuss the related issues.

I’m not going to structure this according to my list of questions, but I’m going to try to answer these questions in the course of my response.

Is Ayn Rand a Good Writer?

My first issue is with those who say that Ayn Rand is a bad writer. The label “bad writer” is always problematic. As a publisher, I can use it occasionally, such as for the individual who wanted me to publish his novel which he had hand written on lined paper in a scribble I could not read. I think I can safely refer to that as bad writing.

Beyond that, the issue becomes a bit more difficult. I don’t like reading Dostoevsky, but he is very well-liked and read, and in fact produces quite a number of quotable items. My dislike for reading that particular style does not make it bad literature. It just makes it literature I don’t like. I use someone that literati tend to believe must be appreciated in order to emphasize my point.

Then there are elements of popular literature that many of the literary elite, taking elite here in a positive sense, do not appreciate. I’ve encountered this attitude toward science fiction. It’s not really literature. You need to read something serious, like Dostoevsky! So here we have literature which is read by many, but is not as much appreciated in academia. I think graphic novels and superhero literature would qualify as well. The academic says it’s not good, but the public consumes it with delight.

One of my top five favorite authors in science fiction is David Weber. He can illustrate both sides. There are actually things I don’t like about Weber’s writing, such as his tendency to rehash history, rather than allow his readers to either fill in the blanks or go back and read previous books in the series. He can hammer a theme to death, and then beat on it for some time afterward. Each element is, however, good writing in itself, and Weber is popular in science fiction. Does the critic/editor in me win out, or the relaxed reader? Definitely the latter.

I take a non-prescriptivist approach to literature as I do in linguistics. A word’s (or expression’s) meaning is derived from its usage. A book’s value is determined by readers. Not a particular set of readers! Those readers who are influencers of the specific reader. You may argue, even correctly, that one book is of more value than another, but those arguments become part of your effort to influence.

Note that I refer here to fiction. A non-fiction book can be judged on more objective, agreed standards, such as the accuracy and referencing of information, the clarity of the presentation, and so forth. Even here, however, the audience’s appreciation is a key. I’ve seen reviewers criticize a short book for not covering more ground. For example, books in my company’s Topical Line Drives series, in which the authors are limited to 44 pages, or a bit less than 13,000 words. Various reviewers have commented that the author should have covered some aspect of the topic. Well, blame the publisher — me!

So I don’t see the question of whether Ayn Rand is a good writer or not as terribly relevant. The complaint amounts to “I don’t like her style.” There are a number of elements of it that I don’t like. That didn’t prevent me from reading her books, and I doubt it will dent her popularity.

Rand and Her Christian Followers

Let’s look at her Christian followers. Is there a way to reconcile Rand’s philosophy with Christianity? I would say there is not. What one can do is take certain aspects of her philosophy, and her political and economic views, and reconcile them with certain versions of Christianity.

Therein lies the problem. There is no single Christianity to which one can compare Rand’s philosophy. My own view of Christianity and of what it means to follow Jesus is not compatible. But I am not the only person wearing the label “Christian.” It’s worthwhile to note that Rand is not the only person wearing the label “atheist” either. I’d hope that was obvious. I know a few atheists who despise Rand in a way few others can.

It might be better to ask whether one can extract ideas of value from her writing without also accepting her strident atheism; indeed, her strident everything. Yes, one can. I did.

My problem with what I did was simply that I found that the things I extracted were available from other sources. During this same period I read Ludwig von Mises, especially his book Human Action. Pretty much everything I found of value in terms of economic and political ideas in Rand was derived from von Mises, and is much better explained in his works. (Note here the value judgment, in my opinion, von Mises does the better job of presentation.)

A Note on Economics

I can’t leave this subject without noting an issue regarding current economic controversies. Conservatives of my acquaintance are opposed to government efforts at caring for the poor, or of income redistribution (as they see it). Liberals of my acquaintance consider this opposition heartless. As I talk to these two groups, and the wide spectrum of views around them, I rarely hear someone who truly does not care. Doubtless there are some such. The issue for most is how do you accomplish the goal of making life better for people?

What I see is that we have people primarily concerned with production and others primarily concerned with distribution. To truly help the most people and make lives better, we need to bring these two elements together. How can we be more productive, and how can more people benefit? Wealth is not actually static. It can be produced. Distribution doesn’t always occur in an effective manner, despite capitalist claims to the contrary. (This is partially because nobody is immune from seeking control, so capitalists try to arrange the government not according to capitalist principles of supply and demand, success and failure, but rather to make the playing field better for them.)

What’s Left?

So what’s left for me of Rand is the story of the constructive cultural rebel who is not impressed by the standards of those around him, but who makes his or her own choices according to what seems best by his or her own standards. Note here that I like The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged.

But what makes people like these novels, works that deride the values of the faith they claim? If nothing else, one must accept that Ayn Rand’s atheism is contrary to any form of Christianity, and this atheism is pervasive, vigorous, and unyielding.

I believe the core of this liking is the same as the reason people like Star Wars in the modern era and liked apocalyptic literature in ancient times. In the story, you get to be one of the beleaguered good guys clearly differentiated from the bad guys, with extremely clear moral standards. Gray is eliminated. It must choose one side or the other. It’s very easy to identify with the good guys.

In the way this sort of literature progresses, one is constantly pressured to see that there is no good on the other side, and thus any tendency to compromise is suppressed. There will be a battle. Either good or evil will win. In the biblical book of Revelation, either God or Satan will win. One goes in the lake of fire; the other rules forever. There is no thought that there might be a compromise solution.

Many of us are attracted to this. We’re tired of working in gray areas, and we’d like to always know precisely what is right and what is wrong. The more that has gone into a project, the less likely we are to accept that it might not be pristine.

The more people who die in a war, the harder it is to get people to admit that the war might have been ambiguous at the start. People will divide into supporters of one side or the other, or at least into vigorous supporters vs. vigorous opponents of a side. “We presided over the death of thousands for an ambiguous goal,” doesn’t sit that well.

God and Satan

Rand, like Revelation, presents us with a god and satan scenario. She’s an atheist, yet she has “God the producer” as the ultimate good guy, the one to whom undivided loyalty is due. Idolatry is giving anything to the non-producers. On the other hand there is Satan the Moocher, who must die in the death the producer creates by withdrawing his producing power. It’s a powerful metaphor that tends to draw the reader onto the good side, produce hate for the bad side, draw a sharp distinction, and eliminate the grays.

Is this type of literature good or bad? In this question we come full circle. I’m not going to decide whether literature is good or bad. I’m not certain things would be much different of Rand didn’t exist. I think the tendency is there in the human heart, and it’s going to find it’s justification. Certainty attracts, even when wrong. The morally clear and certain is always going to find a following, no matter how flawed the line of division is.

For I too believe that good will win and evil will fail. But for me good encompasses a very broad spectrum, that the good involves the ability to respect and appreciate differences and ambiguity, and to use them to learn and to grow. And that happens, in my view, only with God.

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No! Just No! (to personal DNA test)

No! Just No! (to personal DNA test)

Kristen V. Brown reports on Bloomberg that it’s “brutally difficult” to delete your DNA records online. She also reports that:

The direct-to-consumer genetic-testing industry has grown from some $15 million in sales in 2010 to more than $99 million in 2017, and is projected to reach $310 million by 2022, according to one industry estimate.

(My “check your facts and nag others to do so” impulse requires me to suggest you note that this is an industry estimate, and they may have an urge to make their industry look better.)

I totally fail to understand the interest in personal DNA testing. I wouldn’t discover I’m a different person, even if the DNA suggested I was. I’d still be me. Of course, this won’t occur, as I wouldn’t take one of these tests if it was given to me as a gift. (I yelled at the TV when one of the testing companies advertised it as a good father’s day gift.) Come to think of it, I wouldn’t even take it if you offered me financial incentive.

Being a data driven person, I would also like to note that I found this information via Numlock News, Walt Hickey previously wrote Significant Digits, which is on, another of my favorites. I can’t commend Walt Hickey’s newsletter too highly. It’s great. I still enjoy that one, even while I get used to a new writer. These sites/newsletters are about data and they provide sources so you can check the sources and weigh the quality of the information yourself.

Check the Data: Vitamin Supplements

Check the Data: Vitamin Supplements

This study highlights a number of things I like to emphasize. One, of course, is something I’ve thought since I managed the Staff O’ Life Nutrition Center in Columbus, Georgia when I was in my late teens. Eating a good diet is a better plan than using cabinet’s full of supplements. Fortunately for me, the store was operated by people who took the same view.

Featured image credit: © Lindamstyle
ID 12998694 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

But you also need to read each study carefully. News articles—and this is a news story, not the text of the study—tend to put the most exciting material up front. Since people often don’t read to the end of an article, often stopping at the headline, they can get very slanted ideas.

At the end of the article, you get this quote:

A minor limitation in the study could be seen to be its broad focus. John Funder, from Monash University, points out that the study does not suggest vitamin or mineral supplements are useless in clinical cases where a patient actively needs those supplements.

This is why people think studies are inaccurate or that they should ignore science as contradictory. What this study suggests is not that nobody needs vitamin supplements. It is that supplements taken by a broad population without a specific need identified, do not increase longevity. So if your doctor finds you need a supplement, this study should not be used to resist taking that supplement. As an example, my dad (an MD) told me that Vegans can have a B12 deficiency, so if I was to stay away from all dairy products, I should consider taking a supplement. This study isn’t a refutation of his statement. He’d agree with the study in general.

Further, study study notes a potential negative impact of taking Niacin. Again, this is a general finding over a large population, not screened for a need for Niacin. If you are deficient, I suspect your doctor would urge you to take the supplement.

So I see it as a valuable lesson in both eating, maintaining your personal health, and how to read news stories.

Oh, and yes, most important: This isn’t the study. It’s a news story about the study. Note the link to the abstract of the actual study at the end. That link is both valuable in itself and also as an indicator of the diligence of the story writers. Beware unsourced information!

Is Marriage a Partnership of Equals

Is Marriage a Partnership of Equals

Those who know me, will know my answer. I’m egalitarian. My wife and I do two “yesses” and one “no” and either of us can provide the “no.”

Bob Cornwall is working on a study guide on marriage and blogging as he goes. Today he begins to address this topic. I think one of the most interesting questions will be the way in which we read and apply scripture.

Please take discussion to his blog.