"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘The Bible’ Category

What I’m Reading: The Meaning of Marriage

My reading for the past week or so has been The Meaning of Marriage, by Tim and Kathy Keller.  The authors are a couple who can boast a successful 36-year marriage.  Tim is a pastor in New York City.  The book is what the title suggests, and examination of what marriage truly should be and how a biblical perspective differs from the modern world’s understanding of marriage.  The book is a perfect introduction for a recently engaged man like myself.


The authors structure the book around the passage that Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians concerning marriage:

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. [Eph 5:22:31; NIV]

As they point out, this view of marriage divides us sharply from both ancient and modern understandings.  In ancient times, marriage was for social and economic gains and alliances.  Families decided marriages for young people, and what each partner brought to the marriage was determined by their family situation.  In modern times, marriage has flipped to the opposite extreme and become based on selfishness, with numerous advisors tellings us that our marriage partner should “complete” ourselves, “fulfill” ourselves, and otherwise serve goals that are all about us.

By contrast, Paul tells that a Christian marriage is modeled on the relationship of Christ and the Church.  Christ did not seek to complete himself nor serve any other selfish goal when he sought out the Church.  Instead his goal was to lift up the Church and make her holy and perfect.  In a similar way, none of us should look at a potential marriage partner and ask how she will serve our temporary needs. Instead, we should each see a partner as a person who is on journey to the mountaintop where Christ will make us perfect.  We should enter marriage because we can see glimpses of where the partner is going, and we are uplifted and excited by the person that the partner will become with Christ’s help.  We marry because we want to take that journey together, each partner helping the other when necessary, and each growing more joyful as the other progresses.

Within that framework, The Meaning of Marriage has lots of practical advice, and it’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf, whether for the unmarried, the recently married, or those past their silver anniversary.

What I’m Reading: Four Witnesses

I’ve been woefully slack in documenting the books I’ve read over the past couple months.  I most recently finished Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words, by Rod Bennett.

Bennett begins with a common sense point.  These days everyone from the Seventh-Day Adventists to the Later-Day Saints to the Calvinists to the Jehavah’s Witnesses claims that their doctrine is a restoration of what the early Church actually taught and practiced, because the early Church had received it directly from Christ and the Apostles.  Obviously not everyone who makes this claim can be right.  So if we want to know who’s right, and what the earliest Christians actually believed, we ought to read what they actually wrote.  Hence Bennett presents summaries of the life and writings of four witness from the first 150 years after Christ: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin the Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyon.

Personally I knew fairly little about early church history and the church fathers before reading this book.  I’ve read the excellent two-volume The Story of Christianity by Dr. Justo Gonzalez, but with two thousand years of history to cover, it’s necessarily not that detailed.  I’ve seen various early texts mentioned here and there, but I’ve only actually read a couple of the shorter ones.

Bennett’s book is a worthy introduction to the four individuals he presents.  It gives a good summary of the struggles that confronted Christians during the first two centuries.  On the one hand, they faced violent persecution from the Roman authorities.  Traditional stories of Christian martyrs being fed to the lions in the Colisseum or burned alive are not myth but historical fact, backed up by copious evidence.  On the other hand, the Church was also challenged by false prophets and heretical teachers: the Gnositcs, Docetists, and others.  Against this backdrop, the four witnesses wrote and testified about the doctrine they had received from the Apostles–person-to-person, in some cases, and at least with minimal transmissions in other cases.

Bennett does write from a Catholic perspective, and he includes an afterward explaining how the testimony of these witnesses and others helped push him towards Rome.  His personal belief in the Catholic Church is not intrusive, however, and should not stop Protestants and others from appreciating a good work from a strong amateur scholar.


Much of the national conversation is dominated by issues on which the media and academic elite claim that they’re out in front of us backwards Christians.  What I find rather remarkable is the number of issues on which those same people end up figuring out that us backwards Christians were right all along.  One excellent example comes from this paper:

Monogamy reduces major social problems of polygamist cultures

You got that?  It turns out that “societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage” have major advantages over those that don’t.  Among the bad things that researchers found in societies that practice polygamy are “greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality” and “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud”.  Societies that only allow monogamous marriage will see “lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict” and “increases [in] long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment”.  The researchers also note that “monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized” and “monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.”  Sounds pretty good for monogamy, doesn’t it?

None of this should exactly be news for informed people.  All of it has been known for awhile.  For instance, The American Conservative published an article a decade ago, Sex and Consequences, which covers the same ground.  I’d hazard a guess as to why that article wasn’t announced all across the media landscape as this latest one is.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the earlier one was published in The American Conservative, and also because it tackles gay marriage along with polygamy, and the results aren’t very positive for either.

But nonetheless, the word is now out.  There is actual evidence that allowing polygamous marriage will lead to harm for individuals and society.  But why should we care?  After all, virtually no one thinks that polygamy should be legal, right?

Actually, I’d say this is very important.  Anyone can look and see that there’s a movement afoot to make polygamy acceptable in America.  There are whole TV shows dedicated to doing so, and to presenting a highly innacurate portrait of how a polygamous family functions.  Such families have been interviewed on Oprah and other high-profile places, again giving a misleading picture.  And it’s obvious, though some would try to deny it, that if it’s legally accepted that  the government can’t discriminate in its marriage laws, then eventually polygamy will become legal.  When that happens, the research tells us that we can expect higher crime, higher poverty, greater gender inequality, and other bad effects.  If we don’t want those things, we should ensure that monogamous marriage remains the only legal possibility, and that socially it’s encouraged as much as possible.  Indeed, I seem to recall that Jesus Christ took that general position, and if he were actually just an ignorant carpenter from first-century Palestine it would be rather remarkable that he stumbled on precisely the definition of marriage that is best for modern society.

Chesterton on the Bible

Before I post a wrap-up of the Thirty-Day Book Project–which, incidentally, took sixty-two days–I will offer this short but worthy paragraph from the end of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Day 30: Your favorite book of all time

When I was in college and graduate school I ploughed through many hundreds of books spanning fiction and non-fiction, and nearly any genre contained within either category.  I was certain that books were humanity’s greatest source of knowledge and that I could acquire that knowledge if I read the right ones.  I made my way through classics and moderns, science fiction and fantasy, history and philosophy, but for the first few years it would never have occurred to me to read the most popular book of all time.

At age 24, after I had started taking Christianity seriously, I did read it.  My life has never been the same.  Some people dislike the Bible intensely.  Others take the position, exemplified by what Queen Elizabeth II was told at here corronation, that it is “the most prescious thing that this world affords.”  As you might guess I fall into the later group.  I have found in this book wisdom beyond what I could find anywhere else.  Not only beautiful language, not only tremendous insight, not only phrases and images that are still referenced today by millions, sometimes without knowing it.  In this book is the wisdom that speaks to me about how life should be lead.

When I was young I believed that all books were in the same category.  Not all the same, obviously, but to be approached the same way.  It would not have occurred to me that there is one book that stands apart from all the rest: greater, better known, and more influential to the extent that it should be studied daily, every day of my life.  Now I have found such a book.

Reliability of the Gospels: Secular historians (with bonus Chesterton!)

A few months back I wrote a post about errors in the gospels.  I’ve been meaning to write more on the topic but I never got around to it, which is hardly surprising given how much other fun stuff I’ve had to write about.  However, the topic was brought back to my attention last week in an internet discussion.  I had  once again encountered a vociferous online atheist who claimed to have rock-solid evidence that the gospels were false.  His evidence was this: that if they were true, then secular historians would have written about Jesus as well.  So how shall we respond to this?

Firstly, there were no secular historians in the first century A.D.  There was no secularism at that time; the concept of a viewpoint independent from religion had not been invented yet.  (I’ll write more on that topic later.)  This may be a minor point but it’s important to note why ancient historians wrote what they did.  Consider Josephus, whose books Antiquities and Jewish War give us the best historical records of Palestine in the first century.  Josephus was Jewish.  He wrote with the intention of defending and promoting Jewish interests.

And what about historians other than Josephus?  There weren’t any.

This seems to surprise some people, particularly among the atheists.  They seem to have the idea that a large swarm of historians was carefully recording stuff that was happening in Palestine from 30 to 33 A.D.  (Christ’s ministry probably took place in those years.)  They are incorrect.  We have exactly two written sources from the first century for things taking place in Palestine around that time.  Those two sources are the New Testament and the works of Josephus.  There are no others.  It is possible that other historians existed, but their works have not survived.  So if the gospels are true, Josephus is the only non-biblical source that we’d expect to say anything about the life of Jesus.

And Josephus does that, of course.  Antiquities, his sweeping history of the Jews through the first century, contains a paragraph detailing the life of Jesus, as well as a short mention of Jesus’ brother James.  In the past some claimed that these passages were forgeries inserted by later Christian authors.  However, in recent years scholarly opinion has turned decidedly against this thesis.  The forgery claim has withered.  I won’t bother giving all the evidence in this debate, but will instead provide the following link for those who want to see it: Did Josephus Refer to Jesus?

So that settles the issue, right?  Well, actually not.  My atheist naysayers has further complaints.  After all, if the things the gospels said were actually true, Josephus would surely have written more than a paragraph about them.  For some reason, this fellow had a fixation on the Slaughter of the Innocents by King Herod as described in Matthew 2:16-18.  If this event had occurred, the argument goes, ” it would have been the most spectacular event in Herod’s reign”.  That Josephus wouldn’t mention it is “impossible”, “unbelievable”, and “inconceivable”.  (You keep using that word, but I don’t think…)

Actually Jospehus not covering the Slaughter of the Innocents is quite possible, believable, and conceivable.  Josephus, like other ancient historians, wrote about powerful people and major events.  He did not write about things that affected only a town of peasants.  In his mind, that was not history and wasn’t worth recording.  Moreover, slaughters were frequent in those days.  The Roman Empire ruled by violence.  They killed people, in numbers small or large, in war or in peacetime, without any hesitation.  They did not need a reason to do it; they just did it.   So there was nothing irregular about the Slaughter of the Innocents that would demand that Josephus take note of it.

To wrap up, for comic relief, I offer Chesterton’s take on the Slaughter of the Innocents:

Let’s contemplate Abraham

In the Episcopal Church we have four Bible readings each Sunday.  Typically there’s an Old Testament Reading, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles, and a Gospel lesson, in that order, though occasionally there’s some variation on that pattern.  Today’s Old Testament reading was the story of Abraham and Isaac, as found in Genesis 22.  The pastor chose instead to preach a sermon about the Gospel reading, which was the passage from Matthew where Jesus says “Whoever gives a cup of water to one of these little ones will not lose his reward.”  Perhaps this is not too surprising, given that the Matthew passage fits into warm and fuzzy, feel-good theology much better than the Genesis one.

The story of Abraham almost-but-not-quite sacrificing Isaac should not be brushed aside, though.  It remains one of the most famous and talked-about tales from Genesis, probably third behind the Creation and Noah’s Ark.  That picture of a man almost-but-not-quite plunging a knife into his only son has a way of gripping the mind.  As with with any Bible story, this one has been subject to multiple interpretations over the years.

The Straightforward Interpretation: God wanted to test Abraham’s faith, so he told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Once Abraham had made an altar, stacked wood on it, bound Isaac, put him on the altar, and taken the knife in hand, God was satisfied that Abraham was faithful to His commands, at which point he called off the sacrifice.  This is probably the oldest interpretation and may be still common among the Orthodox Jews and perhaps some of the more rigid Calvinist-style Christians.  It would make atheists shout with glee and would make most people in a modern-day Episcopal Church feel rather queasy.

The Symbolic Lesson about Sin: Isaac, like any human born under original sin, deserved death for his sins, and hence it would have been just if the sacrifice had gone forward.  It was only God’s mercy in providing a ram as a substitute that saved him.  The symbolism is clear enough.  This interpretation may not jive with most modern folk much better than the last one, however.  We don’t like hearing about sacrifice very much these days, nor about original sin and the need for redemption.  If we can skip the sin and sacrifice and get straight to the redemption, that tends to make us happier.  However, if original sin is in fact a fact, it would be worthy to remember it more, as denying it can accomplish nothing.

The Prophecy Interpretation: Isaac serves as a type of Christ.  First, he carries the wood up to the altar for his own sacrifice, just as Christ carried the cross.  Second, only Abraham and Isaac were aware that a scarifice was taking place while the servants were left in the dark, just as only Christ and God the Father knew what was taking place on Calvary.  The two episodes diverge at the final moment, when Abraham is not required to actually sacrifice his son, while God the Father does sacrifice Christ.  This interpretation is a godsend (ahem) for those who would like to elide around thorny questions such as whether the event actually took place and how we should feel about it.  However, if we are to believe that the Old Testament prefigures and ‘makes the way straight’ for the New Testament then it is an interpretation well worth considering.

A Different Interpretation: I first heard this on an internet message board and I’m still not quite sure what I think about.  The basic thesis is that even as Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac he was aware that God wouldn’t actually order him to do it.  Consequently he remained alert, listening for God’s voice, even as he took up the knife, and heard God’s word interceding to prevent the event.  Thus it becomes God’s  way of saying: “If you ever hear someone asking for a human sacrifice, or think you hear someone asking for it, or get any inkling that somebody desires a human sacrifice, it’s not me!”

Why I ride.

This weekend I will be riding my bike 100 miles through the hills of central Virginia as part of the MS 150, a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.  That means, among other things, no blogging this weekend.  I would like to share the reason why I do this.

Before I became a Christian, I never assisted anybody with an illness or an injury, nor would it have ever occurred to me to do so.  When I finally was on the verge of converting, I read the gospels and discovered numerous stories of Jesus healing people who were injured or ill, blind, lame, or crippled.  Of course these are good stories, and of course even someone who disagrees with Christianity can endorse the feeling behind them.  But what’s easy to miss is the long-term outcomes, since we never get to follow up on any of the individuals who were healed.  Jesus not only eliminated their pain and restored their mobility, he also brought them back into society.  Before meeting Him, they were isolated, either living among the tombs or stuck inside their homes, while current law required  that people keep some distance away.  When Jesus made their bodies whole, he also knocked down the barriers that separated them from others, thus helping to make communities whole as well.

I don’t know anybody who has multiple sclerosis, but I have met individuals through my church and elsewhere who are crippled or suffering from long-term illness.  While we moderns may pride ourselves on dealing with these people better than the ancients did, the fact is that many of them still are isolated from society.  Many still live in trailers, apartments, or ramshackle houses in out-of-the-way places, where the busy folks of mainstream society can safely ignore them.  I now know more about these people and the way they live than I did even a year ago, and that is why I ride, to bring us one small step closer to the day when no one has multiple sclerosis.

If you would like to sponsor my ride, you can make a contribution by following the link below.  One hundred percent of the money goes directly to services that help patients or to research.  My name is Alex Popkin.



You are all sheep!

Yesterday was “Good Sheperd Sunday” in the Episcopal Church.  The reading all mentioned the concept of Jesus as a leader and several mentioned the sheperd-sheep metaphor for God’s relationship with us.  The Psalm, as you might guess, was Psalm 23, the most famous passage in the Old Testament.  For most, it’s a wonderful song of confidence in the Lord’s goodness made manifest in the world and our lives.  Of course there were always be a few who try to demonstrate how oh-so-clever they are by pointing out that a sheperd bosses around sheep and eventually kills them.  Yes, that’s a very clever observation, isn’t it?

In fact, the sheperd-sheep relationship suggests precisely the opposite, namely that God cares for us in a special way.  The basic fact about sheep is this: that they provide meat, milk, and wool, all in good quality and high quantity.  That makes sheep a very useful animal, and it’s no surprise that sheep have been very valuable from the dawn of agriculture until today.  There are other livestock too, of course.  The Psalm could have said, “The Lord is my goatherd, I shall not want”.  But it doesn’t.  It says, “The Lord is my sheperd, I shall not want.”  In other words, the psalmist chose the metaphor that suggests that we (the sheep) have the maximum possible value to God (the sheperd).

With that said, I now offer you an adorable picture of some sheep:

Let’s doubt some Thomas

Prior to becoming a Christian, I did not know where the phrase “doubting Thomas” came from.  It was only four years ago that I first heard in church the relevant passage, which is John 20:24-29.  The Apostle Thomas was absent when Jesus first appeared to His disciples after the resurrection.  When the others told Thomas what had happened, he refused to accept it and insisted that he wouldn’t believe until he saw Jesus and felt the wounds from the crucifixion with his hands.  Eight days later Jesus appeared and satisfied those demands; from that point onward, Thomas believed.

The rest of the life of Thomas is not recorded in the Bible but there are fascinating clues.  Tradition has it that after spending a few years founding the Jerusalem church, the apostles went there separate ways, following the commission of Jesus to spread the gospel everywhere.  Some of the stories are probably apocryphal, such as the tales of Matthew visiting Ethiopia, Andrew going to Britain and Scotland, and Simon the Zealot crossing much of Africa.  Others are more believable, such as the idea that James brought the gospel to Spain before being martyred.  In the case of Thomas, all the evidence points to him heading eastward from Palestine, crossing the Middle East on foot and finally reaching India.

As always, some dismiss the claim as nonsense and complain about a paucity of historical evidence.  Indeed, we might say that they are doubting Thomases concerning doubting Thomas.  However, by the standards of ancient history the evidence for Thomas visiting India seem strong.  We have a work about Thomas’s adventures, called the Acts of Thomas, dating to about the year 200 A.D.  After that several church fathers mentioned the fact and it seems to have become a standard part of church tradition.  In contrast to that, information about the wanderings of the other apostles mostly comes from several centuries later.  In addition to being early the evidence for Thomas visiting India is consistent; no source reports him traveling to anywhere else.  Some will claim that the Acts of Thomas is itself nonsense and that later references were probably based on that.  However, some tantalizing, if tentative, evidence has been provided from archaeology.  Coins and other inscriptions testifying to the existence of King Gondopharses, a major character in the Acts, have been founding northwestern India.  Evidence from architecture shows that there was active trade between India and the Roman Empire and even Jewish communities dotting the Indian coast in the first century.  A surviving church in Kerala, India, believes by tradition that it was founded by Thomas, as do several churches in the Middle East.

In the end, though the evidence leans towards the tradition being genuine, we’ll probably never know the details of his journey.  We can, however, take comfort in the prayer of Saint Thomas:

Almighty and everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas With sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

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