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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Church music and worldliness

Some aspects of church music are too close to the world.
a) Showing off. This, by the way, doesn't have to be done with a guitar or a drum, or the lighting. Pianos and voices have been used to show off in churches for decades. If my main purpose is to draw attention to myself, rather than Christ, that's wrong. I seldom if ever know whether another musician is showing off, or trying to exalt Christ, but I usually know when I'm doing it myself.
b) I won't say that applauding a singer's or an accompanist's performance is necessarily wrong, but it may contribute to self-adulation, and often tempts that performer to pride. (I also have to be careful if I hold back applause when nearly every one else is clapping -- perhaps I'm thinking, "I'm better than those stupid bozos who are clapping for this stuff." That's pride, too.) How often have you heard a preacher applauded? Probably never, or very seldom. Or the ushers, when they take the offering? So why should musicians be applauded?
c) I wish it weren't true, but some of us probably choose our church for worldly reasons. I hope we would think it silly, or sinful, if someone confessed to choosing her church because of the pastor's taste in socks, or belts. It's just as bad, or worse, if we choose a church because it has a better organ, or organist, or because the soprano can hit high notes better, or because the drummer is more athletic. We should choose a church mostly because we can effectively serve there, and perhaps, secondarily, because we can truly worship in that place, and with those people.

This (I think) is the last of my posts on church music, for now. Previous posts were on some scripture related to church music, several rather random thoughts on the subject, and on what music may do to our bodies.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sunspots 171

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

An article in Slate says that there may be a link between TV watching in the very young, and autism.

Wired on converting autos already on the road to hybrids.

The New Yorker on how lawns aren't such a good thing.

From an article in a New York Times blog, by Olivia Judson, on known cases of changes in populations of animals over the last 40 years: "This study is one of the most intriguing I’ve come across. It suggests that arrival in a new environment can result in dramatic changes to an organism within fewer than 40 lifetimes." The study she is referring to is on a population of lizards introduced to a tiny island, which seem to have rapidly evolved toward more efficient digestion of plant material.

Congratulations to Nancy Lieberman, who played for the Detroit Shock, of the Women's National Basketball Association, at age 50, and did a credible job on the floor.

From Microsoft, an article: "Get maximum performance from Windows Vista."

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Church Music and the body

Certain habits are considered dangerous, by Christians and others, because they put our body at risk. Some Christians might even go so far as to call such behavior sinful, and cite 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 as proof: 16 Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. (ESV)

I wish to raise an issue concerning abuse of the body.

Some church music is too loud. Some worshipers are in the process of losing their hearing, because of the music used in their churches. If certain habits are considered dangerous or sinful by Christians, because they harm the body, why isn't playing worship music too loud also considered dangerous and sinful? (One reason some worship music is played so loud is that the hearing of those in charge isn't what it once was -- they have to play it loud to hear it themselves.) I am, of course, aware that evangelical Christians tend to speak out against the use of certain substances, but generally say very little about overeating, or not getting enough sleep or exercise, which may be dangerous, even deadly, to our bodies.

A related issue is that some congregants have hearing aids that amplify loud music so much that it may become physically uncomfortable for them. This is often not understood, or appreciated, by church musicians, most of which think hearing aids are for someone else.

Do I plan to bring a decibel meter to church? No. Nor am I expecting anyone else to. But I simply ask anyone who may read this, and who now has, or might, in the future, some control over the volume knobs, to prayerfully consider this matter.

I have previously posted on scripture related to church music, on several topics related to church music, and expect to post on worldiness and worship music (it's probably not what you think.)

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Church music, some additional thoughts

In a previous post, I presented Biblical evidence that worship may legitimately be quite loud, and that it also may be quite soft. I would respectfully suggest that "fans" of both volumes of music should be more tolerant of each other.

Some additional thoughts on that subject:

1) The primary purpose of having music in church is not so that I can enjoy it, but so that the congregation can worship God. If I enjoy it, great! But just because I don't, whatever it's like, doesn't mean that it is out of place.
There may, of course, be secondary purposes, such as teaching doctrine, bonding between worshipers, consolation, or memorizing songs that can come up out of our memory when facing a crisis, and others.

2) Worship music is not an either/or situation, wherein "traditional worship music," whatever that is, can be differentiated cleanly from "contemporary music." Some churches attempt to include some new and/or loud, music, as well as some older material.

There are ethnic and cultural differences in worship music in the United States, with, for example, mostly African-American, Hispanic-American, or Korean-American congregations. These may use different languages, different styles of music, different types of accompaniment, or all of these.

3) Music written recently is not necessarily louder than music written years ago. Much of it is played that way, though, and, no doubt, much of it is meant to be.

4) One complaint about contemporary music is that it is repetitive. Complainers might consider Psalm 136, apparently meant to be used in public worship, which uses the same refrain 26 times. However, it's the only one out of 150 Psalms that uses that much repetition, and some of them don't repeat much at all, so probably repetition is OK, as long as it's, er, not repeated all the time.

5) It's too new, or, "I'm not familiar with it," is a frequent complaint against church music. What about that?
Well, we all generally like to experience things we are familiar with, things that are like we grew up with. But see 1) above.
Remember that nobody was born knowing The Methodist Hymnal, The Baptist Hymnal, or any other source of lyrics, whether a hymnbook, sung from memory, or projected. We all had to learn church music from scratch. We all started church attendance at some point, whether soon after birth, or last week. It was all new to us once. We may have forgotten how new it was.
That being said, there is virtue in using some familiar songs. Expecting a congregation to sing several songs they don't know, in a single service, makes it difficult for them to worship.
But, on the other hand, there's such a thing as too much familiarity. If we use the same songs over and over, we, even the worship leader(s), are likely to just go through the motions, with our brains engaged in something else. That's a danger to congregations that follow a prescribed ritual each Sunday. It's also a danger to congregations that choose from a repertory of only a few songs.

6) Church music should be as understandable as possible to new attendees. There will, of course, be behavior that has to be learned and accepted by a new person, no matter what the service is like, whether it follows a prescribed printed ritual, projected songs, a hymnal, or the spontaneous guidance of a leader. The very convention of reading from a hymnal, where we jump from line to line, then go back up for the next verse, must be confusing to a new churchgoer.
Some older music is not very meaningful to the person off the street, as it were. Some of the language in older songs is archaic, and some older songs do not have obvious meanings. What, for example, would a new attendee make of "Break Thou the Bread of Life"? Or "There is a Fountain Filled With Blood"? "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" happens to be the first song in the hymnal our church uses, when we use one. As much as I love it, I'm not sure it could possibly mean much to a person new to worship. Some newer music is not very meaningful, either.
This doesn't mean that songs with "Thee" in them should never be used, but they should be used carefully, as should the latest rage in worship choruses.

7) I thought, until researching this post, that Charles Wesley sung his hymns to music used in bars. Now, I'm not so sure. A musicologist, in an apparently official web page of the Methodist Church, which ought to know something about the Wesleys, says that this is not true.
It seems to me that God can use most any kind of music. It also seems that it is possible to use music that reminds some people too much of non-worshipful music heard outside of church, thus interfering with their worship, and that this music could be of many types.

8) Affordability. Small congregations usually don't have a lot of musical talent. They are usually unable to afford the hardware, infrastructure, instruments, or paid accompanists and music leaders that larger congregations may have. Does Christ need a large praise team, an orchestra, a pipe organ, or a 20-foot screen, to be exalted? I hope not. Peter's sermon at Pentecost did not come after some sort of opening act, other than the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, which is the best kind of opening act.

9) Copyright. There are copyright laws. Some congregations are in gross violation of them. Generally, projecting or copying music that hasn't been paid for somehow is stealing. I guess God can bless that, but I suppose that He is much more likely to bless music that has been properly acquired.

10) Some people are convinced that only music recently written will appeal to new attendees, or to teenagers. There may be some truth to that, but it's not strictly true. My wife has a close relative who attends the largest church in our county. He told us, a couple of years ago that, "if it's not in the hymnal, we don't sing it." When I attended that church, I saw a good proportion of young people. I don't know how effective that church is in attracting people who have never been to church, but it's probably pretty good at it.
On the other hand, the largest congregation within easy driving distance, which I have never attended, seems to use mainly, or entirely, projected music. You can worship God and win people either way, and many other ways, too.
God can be worshiped through music written decades, even centuries, ago. God can also be worshiped through music just written. In both cases, it should be prayerfully selected and led, and it should have been prayerfully written. It's foolish, even dangerous, to rule any type out, just because it was written before 2002, or after 1940.

Thanks for reading my musings. I am planning two more posts, one on what music may do to our bodies, and one on worldliness and church music.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Music in worship: Some thoughts from the Bible

There are more than two opinions on what (if any) music should be part of worship. But a lot of opinion seems to be in two camps. Some people believe strongly that such music should be celebratory, and that the only way to be celebratory is to make a lot of noise, and otherwise exert yourself. Some people believe that such music should be contemplative, and that the only way to be contemplative is to be restrained, and that boisterousness interferes with proper worship. Both, of course, are right:

Revelation 8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (all scriptures ESV)

Psalm 150:3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

See also other examples of boisterousness in worship: Exodus 15:20, 2 Samuel 6

See also other examples of quiet contemplation in worship: Psalm 46:10, Habakkuk 2:20

That settles it! There is Biblical justification for quiet worship, and Biblical justification for noisy worship. No one should be dogmatic about either of these alternatives (or anything in between) solely on the amount of motion and noise used (or not).

I expect to say more about this matter soon, musing about a number of topics related to church music, on the effect of music on the body, and on worldliness in church music (which probably won't be on what you might think).

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Would Lazarus have been better off dead?

Would Lazarus have been better off dead? Would he have been better off if Jesus had not called him back to life? That's a pretty presumptive question. It's questioning God. But I (think) I have a valid point. Bear with me, please.

Just in case you are wondering, my church's Sunday School lesson for the coming Sunday is based on 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul considers the resurrection at considerable length. Beginning with verse 12, Paul considers six consequences of no resurrection, with six if statements. Then, he hits us with the key word of the chapter, but:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (ESV)

So what about Lazarus? Well, let's start earlier. The Bible contains the following stories of people being raised from the dead:
In 2 Kings 4, Elisha, with God's help, raised the young son of a woman from Shunem back to life, at her request.

One Old Testament storiy of a person coming back to life seems accidental. The apparent agent of this miracle was dead himself. In 2 Kings 13:21, a burial was interrupted, and the body thrown into the grave of Elisha, and the dead person revived.

In Luke 7:11-17, the widow of Nain's son had died. Jesus had compassion on her, and raised him back to life.

In Mark 5:21-43, Jairus begged Jesus to heal his daughter. She died before Jesus got there, but Jesus raised her from the dead.

In Acts 20:7-10, Paul brought Eutychus back to life. Eutychus was a victim of Paul's long preaching -- he went to sleep and fell out of a high window.

In Acts 9:36-42, Dorcas died. Peter brought her back to life, apparently out of sympathy for the poor widows that Dorcas had helped.

In John 11:1-44, there is a story with some of the same features. Lazarus, Jesus' friend, was sick, and his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent a message, urgently asking Jesus to come heal their brother. Jesus didn't get there before Lazarus died, apparently on purpose. Then, in seeming response to the chiding of the sisters that He hadn't been there when they needed Him, he brought Lazarus back to life.

I am omitting discussion of people being brought back to life in Revelation, because I'm not sure these events are meant to be taken literally.

One thing about all of these situations, even the one involving Elisha's grave, is that someone died twice. The Bible says nothing about the second death of Lazarus, or the daughter of Jairus, or any of the other people brought back to life, but they must have died a second time.

Notice something else about all of these stories but that of Elisha's grave, and, perhaps, that of Eutychus. That is that a person was brought back to life for the sake of someone else. Now, granted, a dead or dying individual would not be able to summon a miracle-worker for him or herself. But the emphases above make the point that Elisha, Jesus and Peter brought someone back to life because someone else loved him or her very much, and, at least in the case of the widow's son, and of Dorcas (and perhaps of Lazarus) needed the dead person back alive, to help them materially.

I hope you miss a story in the list above, the most important story, the one told in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ was also raised for others -- for me, for you. Without His resurrection, as Paul puts it, we would be "of all people most to be pitied." (verse 19b, ESV)

So what about Lazarus? Perhaps, on balance, he personally would have been spared great suffering, if he had only had to die once, not twice. We can't know. But God had a plan, to aid his sisters in their great need, and to publicly proclaim the power of Christ, even to the raising of a man who had been in the grave for over a day. It was better for others if Lazarus was brought back to life, only to go back through death again, instead of (presumably) to heaven. It was certainly better for me that Christ went through death and resurrection. And He didn't have to die a second time. (Except that I, or you, may crucify Him again by not living and being what we ought to be -- see Hebrews 6:4-7.)

Thanks for reading. Live so as to not put Christ through death again!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Religious Tolerance? Guidelines for Christian behavior

In a previous post, I indicated that I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.

OK. So how should I act if I believe that?

1) I should love those who are not of my own faith, or of any faith. I should truly love them, unselfishly, and not just because I am trying to rack up some sort of score as winning others, but as detailed in 1 Corinthians 13, where Christ-like love is presented. That kind of love is a love that expects no reward. There is no excuse for persecution, or for ramming my beliefs down someone else's throat. In fact, I find good Biblical evidence that such behavior is not at all what Christ had in mind.

Am I always going to achieve that sort of love? I'm afraid not, but, God helping me, and me allowing God to help me, I can, at least some of the time, and should aim for it all the time.

2) I should try to represent Christ to the world, hoping that others will see some of Him in me, and be attracted to Him.

3) I should help those who are working to evangelize others toward belief in my own faith, by means consistent with the first two points above. (Sometimes called missionaries or evangelists.)

4) Related to 1) above, I should not attempt to have Christianity forced on others by my government. This applies, for one thing, to students in the public schools.
However, if Christianity is invited into those schools, in a way not inconsistent with the U. S. Constitution, I can help to present Christ, for example to after-school clubs attended with parental permission on a voluntary basis.

5) Again, related to 1), I should not oppose non-proselytizing behavior in public by those of other faiths, such as wearing of clothes or hair styles consistent with their particular religious beliefs, in public schools, or in the public in general, but I should expect that, say, wearing a shirt with a Bible reference would also be tolerated.

6) I should not expect laws specially favoring Christianity (or any other religion), in the U. S., where I am a citizen. I should not work to keep, in the law, tax exemptions for Christian churches, or Christian religious holidays, and other such special treatment, unless the law is equally helpful to those of other religions.

7) I should expect my government to work for religious freedom in other countries, in non-coercive ways. Such religious freedom should be for Christians, and also for those of other religions.

8) There seems to have been a tendency, in the past, to impose Christianity on a country or region by the sword, and expect all under that government to at least pretend to be Christians. This was deplorable, and should be, insofar as possible, repudiated. The current equivalent, in some Muslim countries, is also deplorable, and should be repudiated.
There are, occasionally, people who do this on a much smaller scale, forcing pliable individuals into some cult or other. That, too, is deplorable.

9) I've never experienced it, but the Christianity I follow should work well as a minority religion. In fact, it probably works better as a minority religion, rather than as one that operates as a majority. (By this, I mean that Christians don't have to be in the majority for Christianity to be a vital way of life. Christians were a small minority, in the beginning, they are now, in many parts of the world, and, depending on who's counting, they may be in North American at the present. We have gotten ourselves tangled up with government, sometimes, in cases where we were in the majority.)

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sunspots 170

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

(Except that it's sadly true) Ellen Goodman on the outsourcing of work -- to us.

Carl Zimmer on the discovery of a fossil fish that may have been a precursor to the flounder. (The flounder has both eyes on one side of its head.)

Do (mostly) young people spend so much time on Facebook and MySpace that the country is going to collapse? (And so little time reading.) Maybe, maybe not.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Religious Tolerance? Why I believe that Christ is the only Savior

Is Christ the only way to salvation? How tolerant of other beliefs should Christians be?

Tolerance, especially tolerance of the religious beliefs of others, is important enough that the Wikipedia has an article dedicated to it.

C. S. Lewis is often considered to be one of the most important Christian writers of the twentieth Century. Here's what David C. Downing had to say about this matter (in Into the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles, an important book about Lewis. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, 2005):
. . . Lewis rejected both universalism and predestination as negations of free will. His position is better described as "inclusivism," the idea that Christ's reconciling work may sometimes apply even to those who are not aware of it. Lewis did not feel that he was being unorthodox in this matter. He refers several times in his letters to Christ's portrayal of judgement in which he welcomes those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick, saying that all such service done for the least of his brethren is accounted as service done to him. (84-5)

Note that Downing does not say that Lewis believed that salvation could be obtained without Christ. He did believe (As shown in The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series) in what Downing calls "inclusivism," which Downing explains in the previous quotation.

What does the Bible say? (I am taking, as a given, that, although we may not understand it perfectly, what the Bible says must be taken seriously, as the Word of God. I recognize that that, in itself, is religiously intolerant. So be it. One has to start somewhere. It seems to be as valid, and logical, as starting with what you want, or what you think God should have said.)

I believe that there is a sin problem in the world, and, particularly, in the humans who live in the world, including me. The Bible teaches that. So does today's news. Sin brings physical, and, more important, eternal spiritual death. Salvation means having sin forgiven, and being allowed to enter heaven. (I am aware of some of the controversies surrounding what sin is, and whether we can ever be free of it, but never mind.) The sin problem needs a solution. That solution, as presented in the New Testament, is Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 1:21, Jesus is called the savior. He is so called several times in the Bible.

Luke 2:22-32 describes Simeon's encounter with the infant Christ. In this passage, Simeon describes Christ as the Savior. Granted, Simeon is not reported as having said that Christ was the only Savior, but it seems pretty clear that he wasn't looking for any other means of salvation.

In John 8:12-30, John tells us that Jesus told the Pharisees that, unless they believed in His divinity, they would be condemned in their sins.

In John 10:1-18, Jesus explicitly describes Himself as the only way to salvation. He also predicts His death and resurrection, which brings up the question of why, if there is some other means of salvation, would Christ have been sent to die for us?"

In John 14:6b, Jesus says: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. . ." (ESV)

In Acts 4:1-12, Luke tells us that Peter spoke of Christ as the only way to salvation.

In Acts 10:34-43, Luke tells us that Peter told Cornelius that Christ makes forgiveness of sins possible.

In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul says that Christ is the only foundation.

In 1 Timothy 2, Paul tells us that God wants to solve the sin problem, and that we should pray that everyone will be saved. He says that doing pleases God:
3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (ESV)

The meaning of some of the book of Revelation is not always clear, but it seems to clearly present Christ, the Son of God, as triumphant over all others, at the end of the world as we know it. For example, see Chapter 7, which describes a great multitude, from every ethnic group, worshiping the Lamb, Christ, and saying that salvation belongs to Him.

A reader might think "well, he started out with an intolerant belief, so it's no wonder that he finds what he expected to in the Bible." Fair enough. But, at the least, I hope any such reader will understand why many of those of us who call themselves Christians, and who believe that the Bible is the word of God, also believe that there is only one way to eternal salvation, namely belief on Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord.

I recognize that many people are uncomfortable with the last belief. However, someone once said that, if there were a hundred ways to salvation, humans would want, and expect there to be, one hundred and one.

In previous posts, I considered the matter of what Christians believe, and said a little bit about how they should behave.

In a subsequent post, I have mused about how I think that Christians should act, given a belief that Christ is the only savior.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 21, 2008

What Christians Believe: Behavior

In a previous post, I indicated that the Nicene Creed is often taken as a summary of what Christians believe. I pointed out that it says nothing about some pretty important things, such as sex, power, and money. Why not? Surely not because the Christians who adopted this creed were ignorant of behavior problems related to these things.

Perhaps they couldn't agree on sex, power, and money.

But, much more likely, they saw sexual, relational, and possession behavior as subordinate to the belief expressed in the creed, especially to the Lordship of Christ. The section on Christ begins by describing Him as Lord, and ends by saying that his kingdom will be eternal. It also calls him a judge.

If I truly accept Christ as my Lord, I should do what he wants me to, and not do what He doesn't. My sexual life should be above reproach. I should not abuse any power I might have over others, and I shouldn't seek power for its own sake. I should realize that there are things much more important than possessions, willingly share at least some of what I have with those who are less fortunate, and not make the pursuit of things the most important aspect of my life.

My Lord was once asked to indicate which of the many Old Testament commands was most important. Here's what 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12, ESV)

If I don't do these things, I may be judged. Besides, my Lord said "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." (ESV)

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What Christians Believe

What do Christians believe? That's a good question, and the answer, whatever it may be, will certainly not please everyone. However, let me have a stab at it.

C. S. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, a twentieth-century attempt to explain what Christians believe. He attempted, I believe successfully, to consider the beliefs that are common among Christians.

The Wikipedia tells us that a creed is "a statement or confession of belief," and that such creeds are often part of a religious service.

Two of the most important creeds in the history of Christianity are The Apostles' Creed, and, later in history, The Nicene Creed, which was developed from the earlier one. Many Christian denominations use one or the other of these creeds in their services, and one or the other (or both) of them are often used as a distillation of the beliefs common to Christians.

Here is the 1975 Ecumenical version of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic* and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
*Protestants take this word as meaning "universal," in other words the church world-wide, all the people who worship Christ as savior and Lord.

These 30 or so lines do, indeed, cover what strikes me as essential Christian beliefs, and I would say that if a person does not believe these things, such a person should not be called a Christian.

There are a couple of problems, however.

One of those problems has to do with the acceptance, or use, of one or the other of the two most important creeds by evangelical churches. There is little such use. Why? Not, I think, because evangelicals don't agree with the creeds. But evangelicals emphasize the Bible as the source of God's revelation, and these two creeds are not biblical. They were written after the last book of the Bible was written. It is also true that the creeds only speak of what Christians believe about God. They don't speak of how we know about God -- the means of revelation -- very much. True, the Nicene Creed does mention the scriptures, and could be taken as implying that its entirety comes from the Bible, but it doesn't say that.

It is also true that evangelicals largely have distanced themselves from formal rituals in worship, except, of course, that we have our own rituals. There is, I think, a fear that reciting the same thing, however good it may be, over and over, tends to turn it into a meaningless ritual. That danger is real. However, my personal view is that there is an even larger danger in not reminding ourselves of our core beliefs, perhaps not at every service, but often.

In evangelical services, the sermon is usually the high point. In other churches, the recitation of one of the two great creeds often is the high point.

Another problem with the Nicene Creed above is that it says nothing about Christian behavior. To state the obvious, it says nothing at all about sex, power, or money (and a lot of other things).

In subsequent posts, I hope to consider the issue raised in the previous paragraph. I also hope to consider the question of Christian tolerance, or intolerance -- must Christians believe that those from other faiths cannot be saved from eternal death? (The next post, on the matter of behavior, is here.)

I have also posted on "Evidence of God's Reality."

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper is a prolific writer, and at least one of her novels (Grass, which was published by Doubleday in 1989, and is the subject of this post -- I read the paperback version.) was nominated for the Hugo award. I was surprised that the Wikipedia article on Tepper was so sketchy, and that there is no article on Grass.

I wouldn't say that Tepper is one of my favorite authors -- this is my first post on her, in over 1,000 such -- but she is certainly readable, and I found that there was a lot more to Grass than I remembered from my earlier reading. Let me qualify that previous sentence. No one has ever called me a male chauvinist pig, but some of Tepper's later work got so strongly feminist that I quit reading. One of my daughters recalls a similar experience with her work. Grass, on the other hand, isn't mostly a feminist work. It's science fiction -- speculating about what would happen if . . . The relationships and roles of males and females do enter the story.

Tepper has published two other books that are loosely connected, and this series is called either the Arbai series (after an extinct race of intelligent beings, found on many planets) or the Marjorie Westriding series (after the main character).

I have found a few reviews of the book. This blog post calls the book ". . . a rabbit-hole entry into rich moral questions . . .," and sees it as relevant to the US entry into wars in the Persian Gulf. This review calls it ". . . one of the most significant works of 1980s SF . . ." The review traces various significant literary influences on the book, mostly non-fantastic. Steven Wu's review states, I think correctly, that Tepper has loaded her novel with too much philosophical freight, but nonetheless commends her work. This review says much the same.

As I need to, I am going to give away various parts of the plot. This post will not be long enough to give all of it away.

Literary features.
I make no claim to be a literary critic, but even I can see that Grass starts and ends with, er, grass. Tepper begins, even before page 1, by quoting Isaiah 40:6, which she renders: "A voice says, 'Cry!' And I said, 'What shall I cry?' All flesh is grass . . ."

This marvelous passage opens the book proper:
Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses -- some high, some low, some feathered, some straight -- making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.
Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-colored highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy green trees which are grass again. Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanting lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent.
Orange highlands burning against the sunsets. Apricot ranges glowing in the dawns. Seed plumes sparkling like sequin stars. Blossom heads like the fragile lace old women take out of trunks to show their granddaughters.
(p. 1-2, Grass -- New York: Bantam, 1990)

It ends thus:
by the grace of God, grass.
Amen (p. 449. The end of her letter to her husband, who is going back to earth, while Marjorie remains.)

The biology of Grass
Or, I should say, the zoology of Grass, the planet, or Grass, the book. In spite of the title, there isn't much about the botany of the planet.

This review suggests similarities between the book and Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. There is some connection. In Card's Speaker, an animal species is really another phase of the life of a type of tree, or vice versa. (I seem to recall some bizarre biology in the diggers of Card's Homecoming series, but I don't remember all of the details.)

So what's strange about Grass? There are, besides the grazing beasts, which are scarcely mentioned, after the opening passage, four apparent species of animals, the peepers, who show no evidence of intelligence; the "hounds," which are not much like hounds, which are as large as horses, and predatory; the hippae, which are even larger, also predatory, and definitely intelligent; and the foxen, which are also definitely intelligent. The hippae and the foxen have telepathic powers. The foxen are apparently able to control the thoughts of those around them, so that they can be nearly invisible to observers. The hippae can control humans. The reader discovers that these four types are actually all stages of a single species, going through something like the caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly progression found on earth. But there's a twist. At some time in the past, paedogenesis has occurred, and the final stage became unnecessary. Some hippae produced peepers without going to the final foxen stage. Later, some hippae did not make the final metamorphosis. Then the hippae came to hunt and kill the foxen, not needing them anymore.

There's another important aspect of the organisms of Grass. That is that they are immune to a gruesome viral plague that's destroying the inhabitants of other worlds, and threatens to wipe out mankind. (I didn't find Tepper's microbiology and biochemistry completely convincing, by the way, but this didn't really affect my reading.)

Mind control
The opening passage refers to aristocrats. On Grass, there are a few families of aristocrats (at least in their own eyes) living in estancias throughout the vast prairies of the planet. Somehow, the hippae have controlled their thinking, apparently using the aristocrat's knowledge of fox hunting, to bring about a complicated system of hunting that plays a large part in the lives of the aristocrats. They ride on the hippae (which is dangerous, because the hippae have sharp spines on their backs) accompanied by the "hounds," and are instrumental in killing the foxen. But they think that they are hunting foxes as humans used to do on earth. The hippae control all aspects of this.

There is also a population of non-aristocrats, living near the spaceport. They actually control almost everything on the planet, but the aristocrats don't realize that.

Marjorie and her husband have heard of fox hunting on Grass, and, reasonably enough, believe that it would make sense to bring their own horses with them.

Religious and moral aspects
It should be no surprise that a book that begins by quoting the Bible, and ends in a prayer, has some religious or moral themes and issues.

What are some of these?

One, whether Tepper intended it or not, is the question of earning salvation. Marjorie, who is a loyal Old Catholic (remember that the book is set in the future, when humans have reached several other planets) is trying to earn it by helping people who have violated Earth's strict birth control laws, and thus put themselves beyond the help of the state. This does not satisfy Marjorie. Does she ever find any sort of salvation? I'm not sure. Perhaps in her contact and even communion with a being of another race, a race so different that its members cannot even be clearly seen, she has found it, by the end.

Another one is the question of marital fidelity, and what makes a marriage work. Marjorie's does not. At the beginning of the book, she has never had an adulterous affair, but her husband has a mistress. When he is appointed ambassador to Grass, the mistress, and the wife, go along. By the end, Marjorie has given up on her marriage, which hasn't improved. On page 205, Father Sandoval, who has traveled to Grass with Marjorie, Rigo, their children and the mistress, tells her that he thinks the problem is, simply, that Rigo has been selfish -- he has wanted what he wants, when he wants it, not full-orbed marital intimacy.

Toward the end, Marjorie develops some sort of relationship with First, one of the foxen -- mostly telepathic, but partly physical -- and decides that she will not go back to earth with her husband.

There are religions in the book. One is Old Catholicism. Another is Sanctity, which is the dominant human religion. This review says that Sanctity is modeled on Mormonism. That may or may not be true. In any case, Sanctity is presented as more like an urban gang than a selfless religion. The leaders seek power, and impress children into years of service to the cult. On Grass, at least, the religion tolerates its monks (?) killing each other. When Sanctity learns that there may be a cure for the plague, they try to prevent its implementation, to maintain their own power. Another religion is the Moldies. They operate secretly, because of fear of Sanctity. Their aim is to destroy all humans.

The question of original sin, and the concept of sin, are discussed. Father Sandoval believes that the foxen were redeemed by Christ's death. Although the Arbai are extinct, enough of their artifacts remain to understand that they had no concept of evil, and, as a result, did not think the hippae capable of evil. The hippae destroyed them, by sending the plague through their inter-planetary transportation system.

The foxen know of the evil that the hippae do, and plan to do to humans, but do not act, but prefer to argue about whether or not to act, until Marjorie persuades them to do so. Her concern for her own horses is the trigger that causes this change. The foxen see that she is concerned, not just for herself, but for other creatures, so they follow her moral compass, and act to stop the hippae.

Finally, back to the last part of Marjorie's letter. She has come to believe that individual humans are no more important, in the eyes of God, than a virus, and that God is not concerned with individuals, but with large-scale events. Thus, she believes that, to God, she is like a blade of grass.

This was an ambitious novel. There are a number of aspects of it that I haven't mentioned, and the ones that I have mentioned aren't covered as thoroughly as they might be.

Thanks for reading.

* * * * *

On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 12, 2009.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

An article in the current Atlantic has the same title as this post.

The author muses about that question, and his musings deserve to be widely read. He suspects, for one thing, that using Google is actually changing the way we think.

The article says that the founders of Google are trying to supplement the human brain with a search engine that is artificially intelligent, that gets us the information we want as quickly as, well, Googling someone, only better that how that works today -- it should, they think, get us exactly what we want. But would that be a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. Contemplation, reflection, messing around with stuff we weren't planning to think about, seem to be at the bottom of a lot of important discoveries.

Well worth reading, and thinking about.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sunspots 169

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Scott Uselman has posted some good advice for husbands. (It's serious, too.)

From an article on Einstein , a statement about his job in the patent office: ". . . this supposedly menial position that a world uncomprehending of Einstein’s genius forced him to settle for actually worked to his advantage. Ascending the career ladder at a university might well have stifled creativity rather than encouraged it; senior professors don’t appreciate it when their junior colleagues overturn the accepted order of the universe."

Chuck Colson has argued that the Bible teaches that government must be limited. Henry Neufeld disagrees, and gives some good reasons for doing so.

This isn't exactly politics, but I have no category for a heart-warming story on raising the status of the "untouchables" of India . From CNN.

A reflection on the attitude of C. S. Lewis on technology, based on a remark of Lewis in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, no less.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ten recent books that claim that evolution and Christian faith are compatible

Steve Martin has posted a list of ten books that, in his opinion, are reasonably well-written (all by scientists) and "[promote] the compatibility between biological evolution and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith"

See his post for the list. I've read some of these, and need to read some more. Unfortunately, several of these were published by obscure publishers, and may be difficult to find. One exception is The Language of God, by Francis Collins. The paperback version was published by the Free Press in 2007, with the hardback version published in 2006. Collins has recently retired from working several years as the US head of the Human Genome project. Because of his prominence, and the importance of the book, it should be found in most public libraries. If it isn't, ask them to add it to their collection. Although I haven't read all of the books on Martin's list, I would guess that the Collins book is the best one, for most readers.

I did a series of six posts on Collin's book. The last one of these is here.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Henry Neufeld on death as part of natural selection

Henry Neufeld is one of several Christian thinkers who do not see the amount of death needed for God to have used natural selection as part of the way living things have come to be as they are. (See here for links to some other Christian thinkers who also have no problem with death as part of the way God acted.)

Neufeld points out that there is no question that God ordered widespread human and animal death during the flood, and widespread human death on a number of occasions. He says:
"We do not allow the process of evolution such a free pass, or assumption that there is, somewhere, an adequate explanation. We make exceptions for some of the most difficult material, and then get hung up on the relatively easy."

Well put.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chance, yet again, in the Bible

Proverbs 18:18 The lot puts an end to quarrels and decides between powerful contenders. (ESV)

As often in Proverbs, this statement doesn't seem to related to the context, but to stand alone. It simply states a truth. Does this advocate using some sort of random drawing, rather than our expensive court system? Maybe, maybe not. But the statement doesn't seem to condemn the use of chance, whether it can be applied more broadly, or not.

I saw this in the July on-line Bible readings from the English Standard Version.

I've posted several times on "chance," and if you want to see other posts, click on the "chance," or "randomness" in the tags at the end of this post.

Thanks for reading. I'm glad you chanced by.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sunspots 168

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

The Onion reports that 98% of US commuters favor public transportation -- for other people.

Slate, on the supposed health benefits of Dannon's yogurt, and its imitators.

Slate, analyzing the differences between the way men and women think -- there are some, but there's not nearly as much as some people would have you believe.

The Spanish parliament is expected to declare that animals have rights. William Saletan has some thoughts about that, in Slate.

When their contracts are completed, National Basketball Association players become free agents. Charley Rosen, of Fox Sports, has a cynical view of some of the newly available players: " Anybody out there looking for a soft, athletic, outside shooter who can't guard a fire hydrant?"

Image source (public domain)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Why didn't the Apostles raise James from the dead?

Jesus brought some people back from the dead to life. The early church did, too.

In Acts 9:36-41, Peter raised Dorcas from the dead.

Another possible instance is in Acts 20:7-10, where Eutychus fell from a high window ledge, and Paul either brought him back to life, or reported that he wasn't really dead.

There may have been other instances, that weren't recorded.

Clearly, however, such events were infrequent. In Acts 12:1-2, the Bible tells us that James, John's brother, was killed by Herod. He wasn't raised from the dead.

Why was Dorcas raised from the dead, when James, one of the inner circle of Christ's twelve special followers, was not? Obviously, I don't know. It is possible, however, that Dorcas's work with the poor was so important that God wanted it continued. That's only musing on my part, you understand!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sunspots 167

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

More than you probably wanted to know about itching, but fascinating, indeed. People have killed themselves by scratching. (From The New Yorker.)

Henry Neufeld has some excellent thoughts on the recent poll on religious attitudes in the US.

A devotional from Elisabeth Elliot on doing what you don't really want to do.

He Lives analyzes "blind faith."

Image source (public domain)