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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Christianity and high art

Warning! This is longer than a Twitter tweet!

My Sunday School quarterly for next Sunday includes the following questions: "Why do you think many Christians have no time for or interest in higher forms of artistic expression? Should they?"*

I shall not attempt to define "higher forms." Here are my answers to the first question.

1) The most obvious answer is that Christians reflect their culture. Most people in North America in the 21st century have very little interest in, say, opera, or the poetry of Keats. So it is not surprising that Christians don't, either.

a) One reason for this is that most "higher art" is from the past. We don't pay much attention to history, or fashion, or even politics or religion from the past, except to mock it. "New" is probably the most common title of advertisements. It's also probably the most common word in names of churches begun within the last fifteen years.

b) Another reason is our short attention span, often disguised as multi-tasking, and evidenced by twitter, Facebook, etc. Even motion pictures are seldom longer than about two hours. Most literature, and much music and painting from the past, requires that we pay attention to it for an extended period, in order to appreciate it.

2) We are afraid of being contaminated. Many conservative Christians are suspicious of artistic expression, unless it is specifically designed for them. They will read the "Left Behind" series, for example, but not the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize winners. They listen to, or sing, contemporary Christian music, but not the latest hits. They will see Fireproof, or Soul Surfer, but not The King's Speech. Why is this? There are several reasons. Secular literature and music may be written  or performed by atheists, pagans, adulterers, fornicators, people with drug habits, and the like. Movies, painting and sculpture may show such ways of life, or be created or performed by actors who practice such. Sinful ideas may rub off on us if we watch or listen to such things. We may become contaminated.

3) Conservative Christians are often anti-intellectual. We aren't the only ones -- see 1) above. But, again, we fear contamination. We are taught, and believe, that the Bible is more important than any other book. Thus, we tend to reject other books, even non-fiction books. We are probably less inclined to take up new ideas than our contemporaries are. Many of us educate our children at home, or in Christian schools, in part so that they are not exposed to some ideas that some Christians consider anti-Biblical. (Again, fear of contamination.) The Ten Commandments include a commandment against making "graven images" (King James language). Isn't this a prohibition against sculpture, and perhaps painting?

Here's my answer to the second question.

Yes, we should!

Why do I say so? There are three Biblical reasons. In John 17:5, Jesus said "I pray not that you would take them from the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one." (I'm quoting from the World English Bible, which is public domain.) This implies that we are to engage the world. Carefully, but we are to engage it. We aren't going to be able to minister effectively to those around us if we don't have much in common. Although the world at large is anti-intellectual, there are some people who produce, or treasure, "high art," even in 2011. It is often people who are going to be among those who have the greatest influence.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul gave a commandment. He wrote, in Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things." Much "high art" is worthy of praise, and being paid attention to. Work of the past, such as the music of Bach and Handel, specifically magnified Christ. Works that have won awards in our own day sometimes do, too, or at least they portray Biblical ideas.

God apparently likes high art -- the Bible describes the plan for the building of the tabernacle in considerable detail. It seems clear that God called craftspeople of great skill to lead this project. It is also clear that God demanded beauty in the construction of the tabernacle, and in its furnishings. An entire book -- the longest one -- in the Bible consists of nothing but poetry.

A final thought -- surely, even in the 21st century, God has equipped some Christians to participate, even be leaders, in the production and performance of the "high arts," just as He did during the Exodus, and since.

Much more could, and should, be said about these questions.

*Wesley Adult Bible Studies, 122:4, June-August 2011, "Songs of Praise for Every Generation," by Barbara Hilton, pp. 3-9. Quotation is from p. 7.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 30, 2011

James 1 chart

James 1, sin and temptation

This chart is based on one used by Kenneth Foutz, who, like me, has retired from teaching at Southern Wesleyan University. He gave me permission to post this, which has been modified a little from his chart, but not much. I thank him.

The text used, in text form, is: James 1:12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him. 13 Let no man say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. 15 Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin; and the sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. (World English Bible, which is public domain)

The graphic serves as a link to my Flickr photostream, where larger versions of the chart may be found.

Thanks for looking! Don't be enticed.

For more on this passage of scripture, see what theologian and scholar Ken Schenck says about it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: Gideon prays for guidance

One of the best known examples of looking for God's guidance, in the Bible, is the story of Gideon. Here's part of it:
Judges 6:36 Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have spoken, 37 behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then shall I know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have spoken.”

38 It was so; for he rose up early on the next day, and pressed the fleece together, and wrung the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.

39 Gideon said to God, “Don’t let your anger be kindled against me, and I will speak but this once. Please let me make a trial just this once with the fleece. Let it now be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.”

40 God did so that night: for it was dry on the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.
(Quotations from the World English Bible, which is public domain.)

Note that Gideon prayed. He spoke to God, twice. And he asked God, basically, either if God knew what should be done, or, more charitably, if he had understood God correctly. It seems to me that the most important part of this story is that God didn't zap Gideon for his doubt, or for not paying close enough attention. He answered Gideon both times, with, apparently, a small miracle in each case.

The story is even more remarkable when we remember how God spoke to Gideon in the first place, and that God wasn't done speaking to him. Here's how God spoke to Gideon at first:
Judges 6:11 The angel of Yahweh came, and sat under the oak which was in Ophrah, that pertained to Joash the Abiezrite: and his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The angel of Yahweh appeared to him, and said to him, “Yahweh is with you, you mighty man of valor!”

13 Gideon said to him, “Oh, my lord, if Yahweh is with us, why then has all this happened to us? Where are all his wondrous works which our fathers told us of, saying, ‘Didn’t Yahweh bring us up from Egypt?’ But now Yahweh has cast us off, and delivered us into the hand of Midian.”

14 Yahweh looked at him, and said, “Go in this your might, and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Haven’t I sent you?”

15 He said to him, “O Lord, how shall I save Israel? Behold, my family is the poorest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”

16 Yahweh said to him, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”

17 He said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, then show me a sign that it is you who talk with me. 18 Please don’t go away, until I come to you, and bring out my present, and lay it before you.”

He said, “I will wait until you come back.”

19 Gideon went in, and prepared a young goat, and unleavened cakes of an ephah of meal. He put the meat in a basket and he put the broth in a pot, and brought it out to him under the oak, and presented it.

20 The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and lay them on this rock, and pour out the broth.”

He did so. 21 Then the angel of Yahweh stretched out the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire went up out of the rock, and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of Yahweh departed out of his sight.

22 Gideon saw that he was the angel of Yahweh; and Gideon said, “Alas, Lord Yahweh! Because I have seen the angel of Yahweh face to face!”

23 Yahweh said to him, “Peace be to you! Don’t be afraid. You shall not die.”

In verse 14, Gideon got a clear command to lead the Israelites. It was accompanied by at least three miracles. God (or an angel) appeared to him, and spoke to him, in the first place. Second, Gideon asked for a sign, and was given one. Third, the angel miraculously disappeared. In spite of all of this, Gideon still wasn't convinced. That's why he made the requests about the fleece. That makes five miracles.

Actually, it seems that Gideon still wasn't sure. In a later passage, God showed him yet another miracle, shortly before he actually led the attack on the Midianites. The point seems to be that, even with people who are hard to convince, God does answer prayer for guidance. It also seems to be true that God doesn't despise honest (or maybe even somewhat dishonest) doubt. Probably the biggest miracle of the entire story is that Gideon, a man who didn't really want to do this, actually did lead the Israelites against the army of Midian, rather than running back home to the farm.

Here is a discussion of another case of honest doubt. These two aren't the only ones in the Bible.

This post is part of a series on prayers in the Bible. The previous one is here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sunspots 315

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

Humor: A video of a cat and an owl, who are apparently good friends, but play roughly.

Science: It is possible to use  the  incidence of  Google searches for MRSA to  plot the spread of the disease, according to a report in Wired.

NPR reports on what may be the last living tree of an ancient species.
Christianity: Ken Schenck, Bible scholar, on common mistakes made by people who read the Bible

Image source (public domain)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Biblical truths in "Thor," the movie?

A question that readers of fantastic literature should often ask themselves is "does reading about non-Christian religions, the occult, vampires, etc., lead me away from the True God?" Sometimes, I think so. I recently decided that a book, marketed for young adults, and, apparently about fairies living among normal people, was not going anywhere that I wanted to go. I stopped reading it after a couple of chapters. On the other hand, I have read a number of authors who have laid out pagan religions of some sort, and, I believe, found such stories to be uplifting. (See here for more on that subject.)

E. Stephen Burnett has recently posted his thoughts on this sort of subject, with emphasis on the recently released movie, Thor. He concludes that this movie was uplifting, as a whole. His posts are in two parts, here, and here.

The movie was worth watching, and Burnett's thoughts are worth reading.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: John prays for Christ's return

The most important parts of a book, story, essay, and the like are often the beginning and the end. I'm not sure that that's quite true of the Bible, as the beginning and the end don't say much about Christ's life, ministry, death and resurrection. But the beginning, setting forth a powerful God as creator, is important. So is the ending. The next to last verse in the Bible says, in part: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." (World English Bible, Revelation 22:20b)

A lot of what is in Revelation isn't clear. But this seems quite clear. John, the same John who was one of Christ's closest followers, prayed for His return. So should we!

A group of Christians (I hope) declared that yesterday was the beginning of Christ's second coming -- that "the Bible guarantees" that that would occur on May 21st, 2011. If you are reading this, presumably that didn't happen. (Here's more on their claim.) Many Christians agree with me that such predictions are, at best, foolish, but about one thing we should be agreed -- we should work for, and pray for, Christ's return.

Thanks for reading. This is part of a series on prayer. The previous post is here.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


I have some idea of what immanence means. Perhaps you do, too.

I recently read a fine article on the subject, as it relates to God's creation, and I recommend it to you.

Thanks for reading. God is immanent!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sunspots 314

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

Humor: Wired reports on a professor's attempt to classify all jokes (A Venn diagram is included). Seriously.

Science: Robots may be subject to selection for  unselfishness, according to  a report in  ScienceNow.

Christianity:  Henry Neufeld on the Second Coming: "The fact is that we’ve been proclaiming 'soon,' in the [sense] of 'just around the corner' for so long, that it no longer sounds very convincing."

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stephen Hawking and God, again

Stephen Hawking, famous scientist, and best-selling author, has said, in an interview, that 'There is no heaven; it's a fairy story.' He believes, as many do, that human existence ends with death.

Perhaps Hawking is right. I can't prove that he is not.

But statements such as this are not scientific. Hawking has not proved, by experiment, that there is no heaven. He presents no firm scientific evidence for this assertion.

It is interesting that the reason for interviewing Hawking was a lecture he recently gave on M-theory. M-theory is one version of a so-called Theory of Everything, an attempt to explain the physical laws that undergird our universe in one unified scheme. As the Wikipedia article on the theory says, so far, M-theory lacks experimental proof, and ". . . the tangible success of M-theory can be questioned, given its current incompleteness and limited predictive power, even after so many years of intense research."

That doesn't prove that M-theory isn't right. It may be. But perhaps its predictive power is roughly equivalent to assertions about the existence (or not) of a heavenly afterlife. (I would guess that the establishment of M-theory, should that take place, would neither prove or disprove the existence of God.)

For more on Hawking's religious beliefs, see this paragraph in the Wikipedia, or go here.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: A delayed answer in the war against Benjamin

Judges 20 tells a remarkable story. The Israelites were attacking one of their own tribes, that of Benjamin, and for a good reason. The Benjaminites had refused to turn over some of their own, who had committed rape and murder, for punishment. (You can read about the crime in Judges 19.)

The people of the other tribes consulted God before going to battle, and they were answered. For two consecutive days, they consulted God, and, when answered, followed God's orders, but were soundly defeated by the warriors from Benjamin. In fact, 40,000 of them were killed on these two days. (This was more than the entire army of Benjamin, so it wasn't because they were outnumbered.) The people consulted God before the first day's battle, and followed His directions. They were beaten. They consulted God before the second day's battle, and followed His directions. They were beaten. They consulted God before the third day's battle, and, this time, almost wiped out the entire army of Benjamin. Why did it take so long? Why did God direct them to what seems, to us (and to the Israelites) two days of disaster? We really don't know why.

But I think there are lessons for me in this. I need to persevere. I'm not God. I don't understand everything. God does. I hope I've learned these lessons.

This is one of a series on prayers in the Bible. The last post is here. Thanks for reading. Keep praying.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Disagreeing about origins can be done courteously!

In a recent post, Steve Matheson, of Quintessence of Dust, points out some serious flaws in one of the very few attempts to demonstrate Intelligent Design scientifically. And he does so in a courteous and respectful manner.

In my opinion (and I'm far from alone) demonstrating ID scientifically would be very difficult, hasn't been done, and there are very few published attempts to do so. Matheson's post includes links to some such attempts, and shows how they are lacking.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sunspots 313

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

Science: Wired reports on the discovery, in the lab, of a new parthenogenetic species of lizard. Unfortunately, the photos at the end confused me.
Politics: I have been a Flickr member for several years. (Flickr is a photograph-based social network.) I recently discovered that President Obama has a Flickr account. I doubt if he took all of the over 50,000 photos that are in it by himself . . .  So I checked on some other political people. Tim Pawlenty has an account, with a lot less photos. Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich don't seem to have accounts.

Computing: You've probably seen this all before, but here's an article on how passwords are hacked.

Christianity: An English translation of the Latin text of the Requiem Mass, by Mozart (and others).

Image source (public domain)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: Hagar

This is part of a series on prayers in the Bible. For the previous entry, see here.

This being Mother's Day in the U. S., I decided to look for the first prayer, by a mother, in the Bible. I was surprised at the mother I found. Hagar. And, I must disclose that the Bible doesn't really say that Hagar prayed. It does imply it. She got answers.

Probably there were other women, before Hagar, who prayed to God. But the stories of the patriarchs are mostly about the men, not the women, and there is not much description of praying even by the men, in Genesis. In fact, even of the men who must have been closest to God, we are seldom told specifically that they prayed. Joseph, for example, said that God showed him how to interpret Pharaoh's dreams, but we are not told that he prayed that he would be shown the answer.

According to Genesis 16, Hagar was an Egyptian servant, or slave, of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah decided, since she wasn't getting pregnant, that Abraham should have a child by Hagar. As far as we know, this wasn't Hagar's idea, or Abraham's, but they went along with it. Then, when Hagar became pregnant, there was serious friction between Sarah and Hagar, perhaps mostly Hagar's fault. So Hagar ran away. An angel appeared to her, told her that she would have a son, Ishmael, and to go back and submit to Sarah. Hagar evidently had some sort of relationship with God, at this point (perhaps before this) because she acknowledged that God had spoken to her. She went back to serve Sarah.

In Genesis 21, we read that, after the birth of Isaac, Abraham sent Ishmael and Hagar away, because Sarah demanded this. Abraham, we are told, didn't like it. (Paul, in Galatians 4, uses this story to illustrate the difference between the two Covenants.) Off they went into the wilderness, and Hagar thought that they were going to die of thirst. The Bible doesn't say that she prayed, but it does say that God answered her desire that her son wouldn't die, and Ishmael's crying, and showed her a source of water. Hagar was able to raise Ishmael, and, eventually, as God had promised his father, he became an important tribal chief.

Did Hagar pray that her son would be preserved? I'm not absolutely sure. But it would make sense that a mother deeply concerned about her child, who had already had at least one experience in communicating with God, would seek to do so again. The word, pray, in the sense of praying to God, is absent from the Bible until Genesis 20. Presumably people, such as Noah and Enoch, did pray, but for some reason that is not specifically indicated in the Bible. This makes it more plausible that Hagar may have.

We don't know what happened to Hagar after this. We do know that she at least lived long enough to get a wife for Ishmael. Perhaps she died soon after that. Perhaps she was married. We are not told. But mothers love their children, and want the best for them. I suspect that Hagar did pray on this occasion. Whether she did or not, she was answered.

Thanks for reading. Happy Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Influencing Twitter through Twitter robots

In the recent Atlantic, Andy Isaacson reports on an experiment to create Twitter bots, and the results. As the report says: "Can one person controlling an identity, or a group of identities, really shape social architecture? Actually, yes."

The report is brief, and gives examples. Presumably, the same thing could be done through Facebook.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sunspots 312

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

Humor: (but quite serious) The housing price index, for the last 10 years, sung as an operatic aria, on NPR.

(or possibly The Arts) A Flickr gallery of photos of cakes made in the form of a Rubik's cube. Some of them are twisted.

Science: Wired has a listing of some minerals you've probably never heard of. Just to be sure, I looked up Tugtupite and Herbertsmithite. Yes, they exist.

Wired also reports, and has video, from the air, of an amazing gathering of whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world's largest fish.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Death of bin Laden: musings

Osama bin Laden was an evil man. He was dedicated to the destruction of the U. S. Indirectly, he caused the deaths of three or four thousand U. S. citizens. (See here for the Wikipedia article on his beliefs.)

I have a few thoughts on bin Laden's death:

1) I don't believe God takes any pleasure in bin Laden's death. In Ezekiel 33:11, we read this: "Tell them, As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, house of Israel?" (World English Bible) I don't think that I should take pleasure in it, either.

2) The Bible does seem to indicate that nations have a right to protect their citizens. I believe that we had a right to go after bin Laden. There is a long history of discussion, among Christian thinkers, about the issue of what wars, if any, are just. Not all military action is justifiable, probably including some military action by the United States. Any military action may lead to the death and injury of innocent civilians, and most of them do. They also lead to property destruction and environmental damage.

When the Israelites wanted to go through Edom, under Moses, the Edomites refused them passage, and the Israelites changed direction, rather than go to war. (Numbers 20:14-21) At other times, of course, they did go to war.

3) The United States is a nation blessed by God, with, for example, many natural resources and territory which is difficult to attack by land. There are many Christians in the U. S. But God is not necessarily on the side of the U. S. God sometimes favored other nations against the Israelis, after all. (The U. S. is not some sort of modern-day Israel.) When Joshua, a God-ordained leader, asked the leader of the heavenly hosts if he was on Joshua's side or not, the response was that he was not on either side. (Joshua 5:13-15) The important question is "are we on God's side?" God is not on ours. Joshua, by the way, was on a God-ordained mission, but even in that case, he could not take the approval of God for granted. We shouldn't, either. We have probably taken military actions that were not God-approved, and, perhaps, there are military actions that we should have taken, but didn't.

4) I said above that the Bible seems to indicate that nations can go to war in retaliation for attacks, or to protect weaker nations. It is less clear that individual Christians can retaliate for attacks on their own persons, or to their property, according to Christ, in Matthew 5:38-45. Christians can come to the defense of the weak, and oppose injustice.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 02, 2011

You can't imagine your future without a functional memory

Carl Zimmer is one of today's best science writers. In a recent column in Discover, he reports on research that indicates that some parts of the brain function in both memory and projecting into the future -- what will I be doing in 20 minutes? What happens tomorrow? Of course, no one knows the future for sure, but normal people have ideas about what's going to happen. Fascinating reading.

Thanks for reading this.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Prayers in the Bible: A prayer that Gideon didn't pray

Judges 7:9 It happened the same night, that Yahweh said to him, “Arise, go down into the camp; for I have delivered it into your hand. 10 But if you are afraid to go down, go with Purah your servant down to the camp: 11 and you shall hear what they say; and afterward your hands will be strengthened to go down into the camp.” Then went he down with Purah his servant to the outermost part of the armed men who were in the camp.

12 The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the children of the east lay along in the valley like locusts for multitude; and their camels were without number, as the sand which is on the seashore for multitude.

13 When Gideon had come, behold, there was a man telling a dream to his fellow; and he said, “Behold, I dreamed a dream; and behold, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat.”

14 His fellow answered, “This is nothing other than the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel. God has delivered Midian into his hand, with all the army.”

15 It was so, when Gideon heard the telling of the dream, and its interpretation, that he worshiped; and he returned into the camp of Israel, and said, “Arise; for Yahweh has delivered the army of Midian into your hand!” (WEB)

Gideon didn't pray about his fear, but he must have had some, or God wouldn't have sent him to eavesdrop on the camp of Midian. And what he heard fixed his fear in a hurry! He surely prayed then -- a prayer of thanksgiving.

This is one of a series on prayers in the Bible. The previous post is here.