Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christian View of Santa


Something Jews and Muslims are far more adept and successful at than Christians is their capacity to train their children in their respective faiths.

Any child raised in a practicing Jewish family will be able to recite sections out of the Torah, explain how Shabbat services are to go on Holy days, and recount long tales of their people’s history. They will know the theological significance and practice of most, if not all, of their twelve major religious holidays (yes, I said twelve!). And what they never do is substitute a secular alternative to their holy day (even if certain secular components are involved).

Any child raised in a practicing Muslim family will be able to recite sections of the Quran, explain in detail the theology and practices of Ramadan, and recount long tales of the Hadith and Sunnah (stories about Mohammed). They will know the theological significance and practice of most, if not all, of their fix or six major religious holidays/seasons. Although ninety percent of the world’s Muslims do not speak Arabic as their common tongue, every child raised in a religious home will be taught a rudimentary understanding of Arabic. For many children (at least here in Houston), they spend four hours every weekend learning Arabic – a language only used for the reading and study of Quran. And what they never do is substitute a secular alternative to their holy day (even if certain secular components are involved).

Compare any of this to the average, practicing Christian. It is overwhelmingly embarrassing, if you ask me. Virtually no one knows Greek (the language of our New Testament), and on top of this, consider the endeavor of learning Greek to be for elitists and “academics.” Granted, Muslims study Arabic because they believe Allah speaks Arabic (hence, a Quran in Arabic), but hopefully my critique is still valid.

Moreover, people have an infantile understanding of basic Christian theology. (A recent study from Barna demonstrates this pathetic fact http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/462-six-megathemes-emerge-from-2010). Ask the average Christian what theological book they’re reading that teaches them something they didn’t already know, and you will invariably get blank stares. Ask the average senior in high-school the basics of their faith and they have nothing to say. 75% — yes, 3 out of every 4 — high school students leave the church as soon as they leave high school (see http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/147-most-twentysomethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years and see http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/life/20070807/d_churchdropout07.art.htm)

This great migration away from the church is the parents’ fault. The Old and New Testament never say that “church” is the place where all the discipleship takes place. The Church is supposed to be a tool, an instrument, to help the parents raise disciples of Jesus.

Nearly every Christian family I know practices Christmas like any atheist does. They indoctrinate their kids about an imaginary character who jumps into your chimney to give you presents only if you’re good. Every single movie preaches this same message: disbelieve in Santa Claus and you’re punished – ostracized, embarrassed, or the cause of the protagonist’s downfall. Pick nearly any movie and test what I just said. See if every Christmas movie (besides the recent The Nativity Story) doesn’t preach this common theme:

The “meaning of Christmas” is up for grabs – so have a stab at it. We all know it must be about “the spirit of giving” and “being with family,” and it must include all of the mythology of Santa Claus.

I know I sound crazy right now, but this is false. I don’t expect non-Christians to know this, but I do expect Christians to know this.

Of course most Christian parents know the “true meaning of Christmas,” but my point is not that they don’t know it. My point is twofold: (1) Christian parents for too long have not taught or modeled for our children what Christmas means and what it celebrates; (2) Christian parents, often times unconsciously or with no bad intention, have changed a religious season, based upon a purely religious foundation, for a secular, mythical lie made popular by non-Christians. This isn't any mentioning the overwhelming sensation of the Gestapo Elf on the Shelf who is waiting to condemn children's behavior in order to report back to the head Judge whether or not a kid deserves gifts. (For more on this issue, go read an excellent post by Elaine W. Pendergrass, http://elainependergrass.com/2013/11/14/elf-on-the-shelf-vs-jesus-in-the-manger/)

This “change” can also be seen lucidly in Christmas music. You tell me the distinction between “O, Holy Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “O, Come, All Ye Faithful,” with “Jingle Bells,” “Silver Bells,” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” These songs could hardly be more disparate. And yet, it doesn't stop them from being played in tens of thousands of churches all over America.

I’m suggesting the exact same is true for our Christmas practices and teaching.

What am I proposing?

1)      Christian parents should stop lying to their kids. They should stop propagating secular mythology in a purely religious celebration. The exact same is true concerning Resurrection Sunday (or Easter). If your child can’t wait for the mythical “Easter bunny,” you have dropped the ball as a Christian parent and are teaching them that religious celebration and remembrance is not nearly as important as “having fun” with fictional mythology. (I saw a marketing newsletter from a huge church here in Houston that was promoting their massive Christmas production. Right on the cover was a huge hand with a white glove and a red sleeve, holding an ornament — a clear allusion to Santa! This was a church! And inside the program guide, there was a huge picture of a boy being hugged by Santa! I couldn’t believe it. I bet for Resurrection Sunday they have a Bunny hopping over some eggs talking about the benefits of the Spring.)

2)      When Santa Claus comes up – and it will in our society – you merely explain that Santa, and all the mythology surrounding him isn’t fact, or real, or true, but that the character of Santa Claus is based on a real Christian bishop who lived in the fourth century. There are great books that explain all of this with cool pictures (e.g., The Legend of St. Nicholas or Saint Nicholas: The Real story of the Christmas Legend; there are others). You don’t have to cease all talk of St. Nicolaus; you merely have to speak of the historical character and how good he was to people, etc. Then, after you speak of him, remind your children again of why we celebrate Christmas.

3)     Christian parents should say over and over and over and over again exactly why we celebrate Christmas. Explain the biblical narrative of how God made the whole world and people, and how people kept breaking his rules so much that he was very sad and upset, so God decided to come to Earth to tell us exactly what He wanted us to know and how to live, died for us, rose from the grave, and lives inside of believers to continue the work Jesus did.

4)     Before one single present is open, read (at minimum) Matthew 1:18-2:11 and Luke 2:1-21. Don’t rush through it. Read it slowly. Ask your children questions about the text. YOU ARE IN CONTROL OF THEIR DISCIPLESHIP. No one else will be with them on Christmas morning (or before or after it) to explain it like a parent can. Let them see – no matter how impatient they are – that we do not do certain things in life before remembering what God has done for us.

5)     When you watch Christmas movies, every time the movie character says, “of course, the true meaning of Christmas is . . .” pause the show or movie and say, “No. That’s not right. What is the true reason we celebrate Christmas kids?”

Objections:

“David, that mythology is so fun and innocent.” It is fun; I concur. So is playing with Transformers. Yet, my son knows full well that Transformers are not based on fact. Also, “being fun” is never more important than telling the truth. Let us not evade what we’re doing when we propagate the Santa mythology of him and all his reindeer – we are lying to our kids and to make it worse, we allow something else to substitute or take prominence over a Christian holy day. Imagine how you would feel if I started an entirely fictional mythology involving decorations, songs, books, and movies that took place on your birthday every single year. Your birth would take a far distant place among all the “innocent fun” taking place because the fiction. People all around you ask every single year on your birthday – “what’s the true meaning of this day? It's about being with family. It's about enjoying the weather one day a year. It's about . . .” That would be pathetic and infuriating. Moreover, Christians are aware that we are not merely circumventing the celebration of a human birth – but the birth of the God-man, Jesus.

“But, they’ll be the kid everyone hates.” Would everyone hate your child if they didn’t believe Transformers were real? Of course not. Besides, instruct your children that it’s not their job to go around and tell everyone that “Santa’s not real.” If someone asks your child, then your child should tell the truth. But, they don’t have to be “anti-Santa” missionaries.


Let’s take back Christmas in our homes. Let’s be Christian parents who take discipleship seriously. Let’s stop allowing nearly every other faith to be the paragons of religious instruction. Let our children be raised in homes that certainly celebrate giving gifts and putting up decorations and singing – as long as they are done without secular mythology attached to everything. Why do those things? Because we’re celebrating Jesus’s birth.

Look around your house or apartment. If a stranger walked in, would they see anything or hear anything that told them you were a Christian this season (or any time, for that matter)? Or, would your season look, sound, and be performed just like any non-Christian?

Lord, help us. And please forgive us for allowing anything whatsoever for taking our focus off of you for one second.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A great overview of scholarly opinion on the rise of christology

Larry Hurtado's article

I used to be bad at worship


I used to be bad at worship. I really was. I knew how to sing. I could sing all the parts well. I knew when to stand up and when to sit down. But, I was bad at worship.

Not because I didn’t dance up and down, not because I didn’t get slain in the Spirit–but because I suffered from one crucial, devastating habit: I wouldn’t stop thinking about myself.

I’d look around at other people and see what they were doing. I’d wonder about lunch. I’d wonder about if the sermon would be good. I’d think about my problems–things that stressed me out. I’d wonder if I was singing completely in tune. I’d wonder if I was singing too loudly or too softly.


I’d wonder if I should raise my hands since people could see me — what would they think about me? What if I clapped — what would they think about me?

Of course, worship isn’t measured by my emotional response. Raising hands doesn’t automatically mean one has worshipped. Clapping or crying doesn’t automatically mean one has worshipped.

What is the chief criterion for knowing one has worshipped? If you forget about yourself altogether and adore God.

We, as Christians, CANNOT forget this crucial point: it’s not about us.

It’s simply not about you and me. There have got to be times each and every day (and once each week when we do it as a community) that we take time to forget about ourselves and recognize the greatness and goodness of God.

The second major aspect of worship that I was failing to do fully was that I didn’t always want to worship. I didn’t. I got tired of telling God all this stuff about how wonderful He was.

And then CS Lewis helped me. If a person doesn’t really like worship, it’s because that person has no idea what kind of God they worship. If you don’t grasp how much God has rescued you, loves you, provided for your bills, given you jobs, brought you through bad relationships, rescued you from stupid decisions, forgiven your sins, and countless other things, then of course you won’t want to thank God for anything.

Why thank Him and praise Him for something for which you have never given Him credit?

Then you meet people who really worship. They don’t care about who’s looking. They are fully aware that without God, they would have died, failed, be depressed, defeated, broke, and lost. They have EVERY reason to praise and thank a God who has rescued them over and over again. And they won’t let ANYONE get in their way of thanking and praising their rescuing God.

Are you good at worship? If not, why?

If you’re not good at worship for the reasons I’ve listed, then get better.

Practice self-control. Stop looking at other people. Focus. Force yourself to focus on the words in the songs. Get past the sound system. Get past the projector. Focus on the words. Focus on the God to whom you’re singing. And if you can’t sing, stop making excuses — just READ the words to God.

If you think your success, education, and joy in this life is your doing, then I need to introduce you to the gospel. If you’re a Christian and still think these things are your doing, then you need to confess to God your sin, repent, and start giving Him due credit.

Will you make a commitment with me? Will you refuse–from now on–to stop making excuses for not COMPLETELY forgetting about yourself during worship?

To stop looking around at what other people are doing? To stop wondering about things that distract you from worshiping? To stop taking credit for things that God has done?

Isn’t it time to worship? Isn’t He worthy to be worshiped?

See you Sunday morning. Let’s raise the roof . . .

Monday, December 17, 2012

A question from a friend about homosexuals


  • A question from a friend:
    I have a question... of course.
    Do you think homosexuals go to hell? I know in 1 Corinthians it lists a series of people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. I feel like your response would be, "If it's writing so blatantly why would you need me to answer that?" But I am wondering if it's something that has a historical/cultural undertone similar to the "women shouldn't teach" in the book of Timothy situation.

    • Hey Friend,
      It's great to hear from you! I've been swamped at work. I'm sorry for the delay. I'll make a few comments and then highly recommend you read some of the links I'll send you.
      I have to first say that technically, homosexual means "one who has a sexual attraction toward the same gender." Homosexual does NOT mean, "one who acts out sexually toward the same gender." That is called homoerotic behavior. For example, I can do sexual acts with another man though I'm not attracted to him. In that case, I'm performing homoerotic acts, but I'm not a homosexual. (Now, this point is HIGHLY controversial among the gay community because that agenda conflates impulses with behavior. However, this conflation is nonsense logically, psychologically, and theologically.)
      The Bible and Church history consistently and routinely condemns homoerotic behavior. That is, the Bible does not condemn impulses or attractions of any sort (unless a person chooses to obsess about an impulse, such as lust or hatred, see Matt 5:22, 28). It's not immoral to desire pizza or have an impulse to have sex. Instead, what makes an act moral or immoral is in the behavior.
      So, again, it's the behavior, not the impulse or attraction, that is considered immoral. This means that homosexuality is not a sin no more than heterosexuality is a virtue. They are impulses and attractions. Instead, heterosexual behavior is virtuous and homosexual behavior is sinful.
      Now, I've read many, many articles and books on this issue. I genuinely want to use the Bible well. And, if this is merely a cultural issue, then we should dismiss it as applicable to us today. But I can say with confidence that homosexual behavior was always, consistently condemned in every possible situation. Contrary to popular opinion, there WERE homosexual relationships in the ancient world. Jews and Christians consistently said that homoerotic behavior is utterly opposed to the way God designed us.
      Jesus makes this quite clear in Matt 19:3-12. There are two, and only two, options for humans: heterosexual marriage or celibacy (when Jesus says "eunuch" he means a celibate). That's it. Now, that's Jesus, our Lord and King telling us what makes God happy.
      So, to answer your question, Do I think homosexuals go to hell? -- If you mean, "Do people who are attracted to the same gender go to hell?" then no. That's just an attraction and attractions are not sinful.
      If you mean, "Do people who routinely act in homoerotic behavior, regardless of their attractions, go to hell?" Possibly yes. Paul presented a typical Jewish and Christian view in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10: people who routinely practice that behavior demonstrate that they do not care about obeying Jesus. If they don't care about obeying Jesus, then they've rejected Him. If they've rejected Him, then God will not force them to live with Him forever in the age to come.
      Of course the's more to it than this, but for now, this will give you my thoughts in summary. Below are three essays that are well worth your time.
      God bless you!
      David

    Common Arguments Against Christianity Part 2


    Sunday, December 2, 2012

    A Very Brief History of Advent and Christmas

       For most people, “Christmas Season” represents fond childhood memories, snuggling by a fireplace, singing carols, and the promise of desired presents. Non-Christians celebrate Christmas Season beginning the day after Thanksgiving (“Black Friday”) and ending on December 25. That is, for most people, “Christmas season” is over on December 26. People just look forward to New Year’s Eve after that date.
       However, the Church follows a liturgical calendar which is divided by themes which revolve around the life of Jesus (Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost). Each season represents a rich heritage  of learning and reflection on the Christ event.

    WHAT’S IN A NAME?
       Advent (from the Latin, adventus, which means “coming” or "arrival") is the season which begins the Sunday nearest November 30 until December 24. Churches use different symbols for the season of Advent, but they usually involve symbolic candles, particular Bible verses, and seasonal colors. This season, like Lent, is to be a time of preparation: full of prayer, fasting, repentance, and reflection. Advent reflects on two aspects of Jesus’s coming: (1) the first time the Son of God came in frail, human form in Bethlehem; and (2) His second coming in glory and lordship over all creation. To say it another way, Advent celebrates His first coming; it anticipates His second coming.
        The term, “Christmas,” is an Old English expression for “Mass of Christ” (Cristes Maesse). The Western and Eastern Churches disagree over the exact time of Christmas. In the Western Church, Christmas time (or “Christmastide”) begins on December 25 and ends on January 6 (the Day of Epiphany). Hence, this is the origin of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” tune.
      
    WHEN WAS JESUS BORN?
       No one knows the precise date of Jesus’s birth. For the first few centuries of the Church, no one really cared about the birth of Jesus; only his life, death, and resurrection was reflected upon. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is debated, and before 525, there was no official date adopted by the Western church (the “Western Church” includes most Protestants and Roman Catholics around the world).  The first reference to the birth of Jesus on Dec 25th might come from Theophilus of Antioch (171-183). Some ancient authors agreed; others disagreed.

    WHY DECEMBER 25?
       It was not uncommon to date Jesus’s birth in association with the vernal equinox (or some other association with the Sun). The vernal equinox in modern times is dated to March 20/21, though the ancient people dated it to March 25. It marks the change from the longest night to the gradual elongation of daylight hours. In the same way, the conception or birth of the Son of God brings “light” to a dark world. For example, a Latin author argues in De Pascha computus (written ca. 243) that the first day of creation was March 25. The author assumes that Jesus must have been born on the same day as the creation of the sun, which is on the fourth day, which would mean March 28.
       Other authors believed that since the first day of the universe’s creation was March 25, it must be the case that Jesus, “God’s new creation,” must have also been conceived on March 25. This would date Jesus’s birth nine months later, on December 25.
       Other authors agreed with their Jewish counterparts that great prophets were conceived on the same day as their death. And since many Christians believed that Jesus died on March 25, then he must have been born on March 25.
       Other authors dated Jesus’s birth to various days in spring, such as April 2, 19, or May 20. To read more on this issue, see Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas or Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas.
       It is often argued by skeptics that Christmas is simply a pagan festival because the Roman celebration, Sol Invictus, was held on Dec. 25. It is argued that Christians simply “baptized” that pagan festival. It is true that Sol Invictus, the “Unconquered Sun” festival dedicated to the sun god on Dec. 25th by the Romans, fought for religious attention in the Empire. However, the Christian dating for Dec. 25th had already been suggested by the time the Sol Invictus was established in 274 by Emperor Aurelian.
       Finally, because there were shepherds in their fields (Luke 2:8), which could take place during the winter months, having Jesus born in mid-winter is possible.

    BUT WHEN DID THEY START CELEBRATING A CHRISTMAS FESTIVAL?
       The roots of having a festival celebrating the birth of Jesus begins in controversy. A sect of Gnostic Christians existed in the early second century in Alexandria, Egypt, led by Basilides. This group believed that Jesus was not born divine. Instead, the divine Word united with a human Jesus at His baptism. They believed Jesus’s baptism was the first time the divine Word appeared on Earth. This festival was called “Epiphany,” since this is a Greek word for “appearance.” They celebrated this festival on Jan. 6.
       Orthodox churches argued that the divine Word first appeared on Earth at Jesus’s birth, not his baptism. So, many churches celebrated Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. In fact, to this day, the Orthodox church celebrates Jesus’s birth and baptism on Jan. 6. The Western church would separate these events: Dec. 25 for His birth; Jan 6 for the visit of the Magi or His baptism (depending on the Church).
       In the Western church, Dec. 25, 1 AD, was not standardized until 525, when Pope John I commissioned the monk, Dionysius Exiguus, to make a standard calendar for the Western Church. Unfortunately, his calculation of years was off by nearly five years (Jesus was born between 6-4 BC), and there is no way to know what precise day Jesus was born.

    WHO’S THIS ST. NICK CHARACTER?
       The chief figure of the secular celebration, Santa Claus, is based upon a Christian saint, St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born in the third century on the southern coast of Turkey in Patara. He was eventually made bishop of Myra, where he constantly took care of the poor, the sick, and children. He was exiled and imprisoned under Diocletian’s rule. After being released, he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died Dec. 6, 343, which is celebrated at St. Nicholas Day. He is buried in Demre, Turkey (ancient Myra).

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