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Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.

The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.

Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.

What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!

What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!

Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.

Counterexamples, too.

My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.

Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.

A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.

My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.

I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.

No, no negative “balance” story this time.

Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.

Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.

In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.

In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!

The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.

I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.

In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.

So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?

Job 38.

Yes, that one.

You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.

Infinitely more.

But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.

God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.

I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.

They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.

That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

A Moment with Brevard Childs on Exodus

I’ve appreciated the work of Brevard Childs since I first encountered him via his Isaiah volume in the Old Testament Library series.I just finished with the first section in his Exodus volume (see below), and I have to say that I find it even better. Childs takes note of source and redactional issues, but subordinates them to hearing the text as a part of the canon.

Sections view the text in its Old Testament/Hebrew Bible context, its New Testament use, history of exegesis and finally theological reflections.

Admittedly, many pastors would find it difficult to follow all the material, but the time taken to think both broadly and deeply about a passage will produce a reward in understanding and the ability to share one’s reflections with others.

I may review this book when I have read it through, but the start was so rewarding that I wanted to comment immediately.

Measuring a Liberal Bias in Psychology

Measuring a Liberal Bias in Psychology

As a self-professed passionate moderate (the liberal charismatic title was thrust upon me by an opponent), I’m very conscious of bias on both the liberal and conservative sides. To be human is to be biased. I have my moderate biases, including a bias toward considering anything from the left or the right obviously biased. You just can’t win with me!

A number of readers likely already know that FiveThirtyEight.com is one of my favorite, of not my absolute favorite, news source. Besides their efforts to state their own biases, and the fact that I like numbers, this is a result of their efforts to cite their sources and show their work. If I question their rating of a pollster, for example, I can go look at what goes into that rating.

Before I get to the article I’m linking from them today, I want to emphasize something important. I like numbers, yes, but you have to be careful. The reason for this is that you have to understand how the numbers you’re liking were produced. Let me give an example. A friend asked me to read a book on the ancient world because I know the languages and he wanted an assessment of how much credence I should give it. In the book, someone gave measurements for the original size of the great pyramid in millimeters. There is no way the author could actually have that information. Numbers calculated in that way are designed to give the impression of precision even when such precision does not exist.

A more common way to produce a number is to assign it, such as asking people to rate something on a scale from 1 to 10. In order to know the question asked, how it’s asked, and who it’s asked of. After that you might consider asking what those people might know. For example, asking a random sample to rate the quality of cardiac care in this country on a scale from 1 to 10 produces information on how the sample views this, but might tell you as little as nothing regarding the actual state of such care, depending on who is being asked and what they could know.

So here’s the article, Psychologists Looked in the Mirror and Saw a Bunch of Liberals. (You need to read the article—the whole article. This material is useless without the reasoning behind it and the look for solutions.)

Someone noted the bias with a simple show of hands, and followed up with a study looking at the way in which results of studies were presented in journal abstracts. Here’s the generalization:

Sure enough, the abstracts more often explained their findings in terms of conservative ideas rather than liberal ones, and conservatives were described more negatively in the eyes of the raters.

The study authors tested for a bias in their raters and found that their liberal raters actually rated the abstracts as more negative regarding conservative views than did conservative raters. In a  separate test, they also note that a panel of psychologists surveyed for their expectation of bias expected the results to be more biased than the study showed they were. You should, in turn, read the note on the potential problem with the panel of psychologists surveyed.

Note to self: Doing a deep enough study on an issue to have a strong opinion is a lot of work and takes a lot of time!

One of the solutions suggested is studies done by “trans-ideogical teams,” i.e., have research done by people who expect different results and who then design a study based on what would change their mind on the topic. I like this idea quite a lot.

I’ll note that this has a great deal to do with the way I publish (my company). I look to create conversation between people of widely differing viewpoints. (This is not identical to creating a church congregation, where some identity is necessary. I also support diverse congregations, but the boundaries will be set up differently.) I believe that in learning, there is great value in hearing the opposing position from someone who actually supports it.

A conservative professor requiring readings from a liberal book and explaining liberal ideas is not as challenging as hearing from an actual liberal. Similarly, if you reverse liberal and conservative. I have lived and learned in situations dominated by conservatives and at other times in ones dominated by liberals. The result I see is the same: Complacency, laziness, and arrogance. One decides one doesn’t have to have support for an idea because “everybody knows that.” But this “everybody” is a very selected subset.

I don’t see any solution here except intentionally involving people who disagree. I have found for myself that I cannot truly express the support for an idea I don’t accept myself nearly as well as a person who truly does support it, even if I try diligently.

This article is encouraging to me because it attacks bias in two ways: 1) Identifying and quantifying it, and 2) Looking at ways to correct for it.

Deceiving without Lying

Deceiving without Lying

I got this letter in the mail.

 

If you look at the reply envelope, you’ll see that there is no identification of the company that is sending this e-mail out. Look to the right, where I’ve let a bit of the outer envelope show. It shows a quite correct statement of penalties for obstructing mail delivery. It’s not particularly relevant, but whatever. At the end, in smaller print, we note that this is not from the government..

At the bottom of the pink sheet, we see a note that this is not “affiliated with or endorsed by any government of Medicare program.” Another statement that is likely quite true.

With the “NATIONAL RESPONSE CENTER SENIOR BENEFITS DEPT.” the intention is to keep the recipient from thinking of this as a ad for life insurance, which it is, and to suggest that they are being informed of benefits already earned (Medicare, Social Security), which they are not.

I wouldn’t post this normally, but I did for two reasons:

  1. This is aimed at the elderly, and there are many actual benefits available. There are many organizations and government agencies that do work to provide information about actual benefits. Because of that, someone else can slip in deceptively and imply that they are such a group, while making sure that they don’t actual tell any lies and have all the disclaimers available.
  2. Most of my readers will find this particular mailing trivially easy to analyze and dismiss. In the modern world, you are assailed much more commonly by e-mail, something many of you are much less skilled at evaluating. You need to apply the same sort of logic. How does a reputable company go about introducing you to its services? Does the e-mail you’re looking at look like and function like that sort of introduction? If you look carefully at the e-mails you receive that are legitimate, especially those from businesses with which you have a relationship, you will more likely recognize when someone is playing around.

It’s possible for people to spoof the sender of an email. That means they use a name or an e-mail address that is not theirs. It is much more difficult, but nowhere near impossible to place false data in the actual record of how the e-mail was transmitted. I have nonetheless had friends receive e-mails that purported to be from me. I got them to forward the e-mail to me and I was able to check that it was indeed not sent from the appropriate server, and just my name was faked (not even the e-mail address in a couple of recent cases).

Just like someone could type my name on a piece of paper and forge my signature, so they can fake that information on an e-mail. Or they can fake yours. They can do this without hacking your account. Your information is easy to access.

They could, for example, extract my address from the picture above, but that is ubiquitous on the web. I blacked out my zip code, but anyone who wants it already has it. My point here is don’t assume that simply showing the right return information makes it certain the e-mail is correct. If you have any doubt—and please take enough time that you’d notice—then confirm with the sender before following any links or opening any attachments. A huge percentage of the fraud problems on the internet would be abated considerably by this.

James and a Living Gospel

James and a Living Gospel

Our pastor at Chumuckla Community Church started a sermon series on the book of James. This provoked me to look again at Bruce Epperly’s little book Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James. Here’s a sample:

Despite Martin Luther’s misguided dismissal of James as “an epistle of straw,” due to James’ emphasis on agency and lifestyle rather than receptive grace as central to Christian experience, James is good news for congregants and seekers. It is the gospel lived out in everyday life, not by words alone or doctrinal requirements, but by actions that transform the world. This is the good news of Jesus Christ who shows us the pathway to abundant life, and not a dead letter or a soul-deadening creed or abstract doctrines about the divinity of Jesus unrelated to daily life. James invites us to be companions on the pathway of the living Christ. (p. 4)

Dave Black quoted today from Gordon Fee’s commentary on the epistles to the Thessalonians, discussing the connection between believing and living. I’m going to link to Dave’s post again tomorrow, when I briefly discuss Bible commentaries, but Dave’s post is worth reading in this connection as well.

Bruce Epperly comments again on the supposed contrast between James and Paul:

While Paul’s theology is often contrasted with the Letter of James, both Christian leaders believed that faith without works is dead (James 5:17).8 Paul affirms “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). (Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, p. xxvii)

I think we frequently see contrasts when we should see differences in emphasis and even in circumstances.

 

Read Now

 

Link: James and Programmatic Skepticism

Link: James and Programmatic Skepticism

With a tip of my hat to James McGrath, I would like to call attention to this post by Jonathan Bernier. I think it brings up some rather important points. This is not an answer to your questions, but rather a bit of guidance in how one answers questions accurately. To quote:

The critical historian is one who formulates a question, attends to the data relevant to answering that question, weighs possible answers, and then affirms that answer which handles the relevant data best.

But you need to read the whole thing to get what author Jonathan Bernier means by that.

 

Discerning Fake News

Discerning Fake News

Brooke Borel of FiveThirtyEight.com published an article recently titled Fact-Checking Won’t Save Us from Fake News. Headline readers will not be led too far astray by that headline, though they will miss some interesting reasoning on the topic. I agree with Borel that fact-checking won’t save us. It’s useful, but it’s just one element.

A common reason to reject fact checkers is that we don’t agree with them or find inaccurate data in them. In other words, if we can’t trust the fact checkers to check the facts, what good are they?

That is not, however, my concern with fact-checking is this: No amount of care in writing or in fact-checking can save us from readers who do not read with some sort of discernment. “Discernment” is more common in Christian usage. You can translate it to critical thinking if you wish.

The reason fake news can be so successful is simple. Companies have been using the same tendency to build brand loyalty. An advertising slogan like “mothers who love their babies use …” goes a long way. As humans we start our lives depending on known authorities for information and the primary way we learn is through a combination of influence and authority. Once an authority is trusted, we tend to continue trusting it.

So fact-checking sites (and how long will it be until we’re inundated with fake fact-checking?) go the same way that other news media sources have gone, i.e., one accepts them when they affirm what one wants affirmed, and one rejects them otherwise. Truth is a popularity contest. We shouldn’t be shocked at this. It always has been. We just get to see the work in progress more clearly now.

One more thing militates against discerning reading and that’s time pressure. We simply don’t have time to be knowledgeable and informed about every topic, so we trust our health to the doctor, our soul to the pastor, our shelter to the builder, and so forth. And so we must. There’s more information out there than we can absorb and evaluate. Improved communication has made us more aware of competing claims. The pastor might once have been the one spiritual authority in a small community. Now he or she is challenged by hundreds of voices. How do we respond? By trusting the voices of those nearest us. In some ways it’s a survival trait. Often it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So what do you do? Well, let me suggest a couple of simple points about reading anything that might let you quickly figure out what you’re reading. Many people don’t even recognize warning signs.

Here are some of those:

  1. Extraordinary claims.
  2. Faked credentials.
  3. Credentials similar to those of another site. I’ve seen “christiantoday.com” cited as Christianity Today magazine, which is christianitytoday.com. Now christiantoday.com doesn’t make any claim to be christianitytoday.com, but a reader should be sure of which site is actually referenced.
  4. Failure to provide sources.
  5. Sources that could not possibly know what they claim to know.
  6. Authorities cited from the wrong subject matter. One famous “claim-maker” in biblical archeology was actually a nurse by training, for example.

In reading, however, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by observing the difference between data and inferences from data. For example, in my business I might note that sales have increased by 10% for three months in a row. I infer from this that we are growing and that we will likely grow another 10% or so next month. The current growth is a claim of fact. The future growth is an inference from that. Whether my inference is good or bad depends on a number of factors.

It is important to distinguish claims of fact from these inferences or predictions. Note the term “claims.” People often are misled by something that was never even claimed to be a fact. But even more often an inference built on theory is presented as though it is a fact. Let me give a hypothetical example.

Let’s say that a news article says that the budget deficit 10 years from now will be $X trillion if a certain law is passed. If I disagree should I call that claim a lie? False? Or should I just say I disagree with the inference? In such an article the claims of fact will be the spending levels in the law, the revenue sources as stated in the law, and whatever other factors are included that might change the budget deficit. The actual budget deficit 10 years from now can only be determined based on predicting a wide variety of future events and deciding the impact of those events based on economic theory.

I have seen fact checkers take a claim like that and state that it’s false, not because any number was cited incorrectly, but because the theory behind those predictions was not accepted by the majority of economists. It may surprise you to know that the majority of economists can be wrong. So can any minority.

If you read any news article carefully, looking at what are claims of fact, and what are inferences from those facts, you can avoid a great deal of misinformation. I would be delighted if fact checkers limited themselves to determining whether politicians and other news sources cited facts correctly, and did not try to determine whether someone’s theory was valid or not, but again human nature steps in. We want to get to the final answer. We rarely want to take the time to tease out the details.

I’m again reminded of the quote I’ve cited several times recently: “Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook” (Philosophy for Believers, 119).

If you don’t want to be deceived, you will need to start taking “into consideration what people often overlook.” If you don’t do that, no amount of fact-checking will help you.


Hearing the Christmas Voices

Hearing the Christmas Voices

Classic nativity scene
Credit: Openclipart.org

In today’s Christmas sermon our pastor told a story he’s told before, but with a slightly different slant, and that reminded me of a number of things I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of weeks.

Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing the pastor for telling the story with a different slant. In fact, I think that’s honoring the genre. Stories, like gems, are most beautiful when we look at different facets and under different light.

Let me draw in another thread here, or better, another story. Some years ago I was leading a Bible study group. The topic was somewhere in the book of Revelation, and as we went over some of the details and the options for interpretation, one of the participants exclaimed, “Why couldn’t God have just written it all clearly across the sky?!”

Precisely! Why not? It’s valuable to consider how it is that God communicates with us. We make assumptions, often based on what we want to know, but we have to ask if the communication is designed to provide us with the kind of data we want. That study group participant, for example, wanted a clear understanding of the future, which the symbols of Revelation were not providing. It might be valuable to ask whether those symbols are intended to provide that information.

Here’s another thread, another story, to draw into this discussion. I was reading Ezekiel 37 recently and came to verse 9. God speaks to Ezekiel and tells him to prophesy to the wind (breath, as it turns out) to come into the bodies which have been assembled and covered with flesh and skin. When Ezekiel speaks to the wind, the wind obeys and the bodies come to life.

It struck me that God is in the valley (omnipresence, yes, but we don’t always mention it), and is in command of the wind. Why tell Ezekiel to tell the wind? Of course, if you’re a Bible student at all, you’ve seen that principle in action many times. In fact, it occurs a couple of times before verse nine in this very chapter, but somehow it struck me at that point in this story.

God tends to accomplish things through people. Most importantly, God communicates with people through other people. Quite freqently, he does this in stories, and even in stories that come at the same thing from different angles. (Angels too!)

This isn’t what most of us would prefer. Given the choice, we’d like a single, definitive account of the nativity, a single, definitive, systematic theology, and a single, definitive code of conduct that would allow us to know what God wants at all times and in all places.

Speaking of which, the people in Jesus’ time wanted certain things and generally had certain ways they hoped those things would be accomplished. A new king, genuinely and provably from the line of David, equipped with a large (obviously victorious) army, resulting in independence from the Roman Empire. We present that list as though we feel that there was something wrong with them for wanting all those things. In reality, if you read the prophets and don’t assume the answer is “Jesus,” you’d likely get tbe same idea. And considering how we in America react to a bit of inconvenience in the political sphere, we’ be yelling even louder to get rid of the oppressors and looking even harder for a savior figure.

So we have the son of God showing up in a way that was quite contrary to expectations, and we have multiple stories. Think about it! Very few people got the word directly, and most of those who did were from unexpected places and professions. Astrologers figure it out in the stars, and Herod hears from them. Shepherds hear from the angels, and others hear from the shepherds.

We, in turn, hear from multiple witnesses that don’t really agree. I’m not calling the historical difficulties insuperable, but the amount of energy that goes into reconciling them is a testimony in itself to how different they are. The differences are challenging, and I think enlightnening.

We like to combine the stories so we hear about shepherds, wise men, a trip to Egypt, and other events all in one sequence. But the writers don’t combine all those elements. Mark and John can tell the story without birth narratives. That gets drawn into debates about historicity, but I would suggest it’s more important to hear the individual voices.

These are stories, and they are being told from a particular slant. They are threads in the broader story of the Christian faith — both the combined narratives and the individual ones.

And right here there is another warrant for telling stories with different slants, seen through different filters. Consider that our Christian narrative is drawing another narrative into itself. We draw in those prophecies of Isaiah and Zechariah, and we give them new meanings. (Matthew does a lot of this.)

In one sense, we’re borrowers of another story. In another, we’re writing a new conclusion to an existing story. In another, we’re immigrants, drawn into someone else’s story.

It’s easy to sit around and call other angles on the story “wrong,” and try to create the definitive story. But to each of us God says, “Prophesy to the wind” (Ezekiel 37:9), and “the wind blows where it wills” (John 3:8), both of which I cheerfully take out of context, and the story (stories) refuses to be contained or constrained.

Where will you find yourself in the story you’re creating with God in the coming year?