When Christ Takes the Back Seat to Civic Religion and Politics

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The God-and-country religious belief system is the low-hanging fruit of compromised Christian types.  These types, a branch off of Protestant fundamentalism, are easily identified and frequently lampooned by the cultural elites in this era of deconstruction and ‘woke’ self-loathing.  It is highlighted, aptly, in this picture and the accompanying caption:

Sadly, many of us have an “uncle or aunt” in our lives who non-ironically post things like this on social media… thinking they are doing something good by obliviously spewing compromised civil religion thinking—that it is anywhere close to authentic Christianity.

This, of course, is correct.  Jesus was not an American and civic religion is not the Christianity of the New Testament.  Those of this category are pretty much putting Uncle Sam in equal standing with the son of God or, at the very least, blending two very different things in a way that only lowers the more significant of the two.  It would sort of be like saying “I love my wife, and chocolate chip cookies!”

These are people similar to Peter in this passage and elsewhere:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

(Matthew 16:21‭-‬24 NIV)

Peter, like all of the true disciples, had been oriented towards a worldly kingdom led by Christ.  This is why he swung his sword to defend Jesus from being arrested by the corrupt religious authorities.  He was misguided, yes, but also sincere and truly loyal to Christ despite his vastly incorrect understanding of the Gospel.  Eventually he became the example of self-sacrificial love and led the church before his death as a martyr—crucified upside down on a Roman cross.

It is not my place to question the salvation of anyone.  However, I will say that if anyone puts their faith in their nation for salvation they will be sorely disappointed in the end and many are learning this hard lesson as institutions fail them.  As Scripture says, “put not your faith in princess or mortal men in whom there is no salvation.”  Great leaders come and go, nations rise and fall, but there is one Lord and Savior of all who reigns supreme from everlasting to everlasting.  Amen.

The More Sinister Betrayal of Christ

However, now that we covered the easily ridiculed simpletons, let’s move on to the more sophisticated.  There are many critical of this latter type, who also profess to be Christian, and yet themselves are tools for a form of nationalism.  Indeed, the rulers of our time are not those embarrassing older relatives called out on social media.  No, it is those who reject all religion—Christianity most especially—or at least do until it is useful for manipulation.

Unlike the God-and-country religious types, who wear their cartoonish devotion to consumer Jesus on their sleeves, the subscribers to ‘woke’ nationalism position themselves in opposition to traditional American iconography, recast the stars and stripes as a symbol of oppression, and present love for country as being some form of fascist.  The church of “social justice” being merely a branch of this popular political movement.

The irony being that they themselves, the ‘woke’ nationalist, are more in alignment with corporations and machinery of the national politics than those whom they most frequently condemn.  Nine out of ten times, those using the word “Christian nationalism” act in alignment with the most violent (and excused by elites) elements in our time, have worked for the government in some capacity, and then, with prissy indignation, blast their working poor “blue collar” neighbors.

This ‘woke’ nationalism is the current civil religion of the Democrat party elites and establishment Republicans alike.  The evangelists being the supposedly edgy late night hosts and corporate media.  Their dogmas enforced via Big Tech monopolies with doctrines reinforced by their paid shill fact-checkers.  Those at the top of this hierarchy mock Christianity and find more in common with Karl Marx than they do Jesus Christ.  But they are happy for the help of the religious useful idiots.

Indeed, like Zionism takes eyes off of Christ to the nation-state of Israel, this woke nationalism also takes the eyes off Jesus and places it on those designated victims of oppression.  Sure, they can claim that this as part of their obligation to the Kingdom of God—a fulfillment of the Christian mission prophesied by Isaiah 61:1: “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”  Unfortunately it is anything but that.

Posted, and apparently unironically, in the Socialism subReddit

No, woke nationalism, along with most of neo-Anabaptism, is the modern-day equivalent of Judas throwing the words of Jesus in his face.  Under the facade of correct language and noble sounding intent, these are a scornful and nasty people who attack those who are actually most vulnerable in this present time.  They, like Judas, use the words of Jesus as a means to attack even the good-faith efforts of others:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

(John 12:3‭-‬8 NIV)

Judas pitted the words of Jesus against him.  Unlike Peter, who once unwisely rebuked Jesus, the betrayer spoke in arrogance.  He, like Satan twisting Scripture to tempt Jesus, was malicious and a hypocrite (stealing from the collective pursue) under his phony virtue-signaling about the poor.  Sure, Peter was also oriented towards a worldly kingdom, and yet Judas seemingly had a lust for power that he thought would be fulfilled in Jesus.

Who does this today?  

How about the kind who attack those using the expression “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedy?

Or maybe those who made their wealth at taxpayer expense writing Tweets targeting the projects and achievements of others couching this in concern for the poor?

The word of God is powerful and I believe that there is good reason why we have the detailed account of Judas attacking the worshipful act of this woman.  It is to highlight the toxic mentality of those who can quote the words of Jesus when it is politically (or otherwise useful) and yet have a heart far from God.  We are told that the Pharisees diligently studied Scripture.  But they did it for personal advantage over others and to attain rank in their social or religious circle.

The reason that I have spent far more time trying to expose woke nationalism, as opposed to other forms of civic religion, is because it is both the more dominant force right now and also the most blatantly anti-Christian.  Despite the clever packaging as being opposition to racism or concern for the poor, woke nationalism is all about political power and having absolute control over others.  

These are people who can’t love their own literal neighbors and somehow delude themselves to thinking themselves saviors of the oppressed.  They don’t merely misunderstand and mischaracterize Christ as the God-and-country religious types.  No, they believe that they are essentially His equal and twist His words to their political ends while imagining themselves to be better than everyone else.

They are out saving the world and can’t even save themselves.

Politics of Pandemic–Breaking Down the Fauci Emails

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Recently, through the Freedom of Information Act, by request of Washington Post and BuzzFeed News, a trove of Dr. Fauci’s emails have been released and the revelations therein causing a great uproar online.  On one side there’s the “I told you so” crowd doing their victory lap. While, on the other side, is the supposedly unbiased ‘fact-checkers’ and corporate media denial professionals trying to argue that there’s nothing to see here. 

So, is Dr. Fauci a national hero, a seasoned expert who helped the nation navigate a crisis, or should his head be on a pike?  

Let’s start with who Dr. Fauci is and why he is the focus of national attention…

Doctor in the Spotlight

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., was born in Brooklyn, NY, on December 24, 1940, to parents who operated a pharmacy in the city, his grandparents were immigrants, he was raised Catholic and now considers himself to be a humanist.  He was a standout basketball player in the private Jesuit high school he attended, went to Holy Cross University for pre-med, and then attended Cornell University’s Medical School.  He married Christine Grady, in 1985, who is described as “an American nurse and bioethicist” in Wikipedia, and they have three daughters.

Dr. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a role he has served since 1984, through seven presidencies and, while a respected figure in his field of immunology, had not garnered much public attention prior to the emergence of Covid-19.

In early 2020 Fauci was selected to be part of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force (now serves as Biden’s chief medical advisor) and very quickly was singled out by the corporate media for his sometimes seemingly contrarian positions with the President.  If anything, his elevated role and becoming the face of the pandemic response has more to do with partisan politics of those desirous use him as a foil against President Trump than it does with anything else.  Even Fauci himself, in the emails, seemed confused about his new celebrity status. 

There were many stories lauding Fauci.  There is no indication that he wanted to become the public figure he has become.  He did not have the power to tell states what to do.  But now, because he was portrayed as this unquestionable expert, he has become symbolic of the shutdowns and mask mandates to many Americans.  Fame, even if unasked for, is a two-edged sword.  One can quickly transition from hero to heel once the spotlight begins to reveal their blemishes.  By putting Fauci front and center of the Covid response, the partisans have given us ample reason to scrutinize just who he is.

I personally, as someone with a sister who is a medical doctor and another who is a nurse, I am also not comfortable with many of those trashing Fauci’s reputation.  I’m equally opposed to demonizing him or trying him in the court of public opinion.  That said, as one who has some life experience, I also understand the value of second opinions when it comes to medical interventions.  Fauci’s opinion should have been considered one of many, as part of a task force, and should never have been positioned as a rival to the President.  That was dirty politics, completely a media creation, and likely hurt the pandemic response. 

The Politics of Pandemic 

Ideally, in times of national crisis, where many lives are at risk, partisan politics would’ve been put aside and the nation would rally behind the leaders elected no matter their party affiliation.  In that world, the President, informed by various economic and medical advisors, would make the executive decisions and government agencies would do their best to put these decisions to practice.  However, in the current polarized hyper-partisan environment, and with a Presidential election looming in 2020, the pandemic was treated by many as simply another divisive political tool.

No world leader’s response to Covid-19 was perfect.  For example, had European governments followed Trump’s lead and shut down travel from China early on in the pandemic we might have had more time to prepare.  It is easy to forget, but before social distancing and shutdowns became vogue, many social elites were minimizing the threat and calling Trump a racist for warning the world about the virus.  In Italy, for example, they were urging people to give hugs to Chinese people to prove their own virtue.  Our Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urged her constituents to visit the crowded streets of Chinatown in San Fransico.

Trump was criticized for urging calm and being a cheerleader once the danger of Covid was finally realized.  And, before that, was criticized for shutting down travel from China and accused of fear-mongering for speaking out.  He could not win. He was resisted at every turn while trying to take steps to prepare and then accused of literal murder for the deaths in this country as if the world was somehow doing better.  Few here would know that the US death rate is actually lower than that of Europe, per capita, but the stories here would focus on death totals to build the image of Trump’s failure.

Fauci, on the other hand, was not allowed to be criticized.  He was praised endlessly as a representative of science, as bold and unbiased, a source of all truth and wisdom.  His word was to be treated as irrefutable, god-like, his perspectives treated as the only one that mattered, and Trump asked over and over again, “will you follow Dr. Fauci’s recommendations?”  It was presented as this horrendous thing that Trump may not take this one man’s advice on how to respond, as if there weren’t teams of other advisors to be heard and other concerns to be considered.  

Every smart patient knows to get a second opinion on serious matters.  Even the best physicians, experts in their fields, can misdiagnose or prescribe the wrong treatment.  And this idea that “following the science” means worshipping or never questioning, men like Fauci is pure ignorance. It is dangerous ignorance.

But, as ignorant, is holding Fauci to an impossible standard because others put him on a pedestal.   

On one hand, I completely understand the resentment that some hold towards this man that has come to symbolize the economic destruction brought on by state governors following Federal guidelines.  However, much of what is being said now, in wake of the released emails, is as unfair as the coverage of the previous administration.  Those against mask mandates and economic shutdowns are doing the same thing to Fauci as the corporate media propagandists did to Trump.  His comments, like Trump’s comments, are being ripped out of context by many commentators, without explanation, and that’s a problem.

Yes, some of the emails show that Fauci withheld certain ideas about the origin of the virus and was initially dismissive of masking, yet nothing I’ve seen so far is smoking-gun evidence of his wrongdoing.   Of particular interest is his involvement in funding the Wuhan lab, during the Obama administration, and whether or not this may have been a conflict of interest.  And then there is the ethical issue issue with “gain of function” research that must be explored.  My goal is to give fair treatment to the man and offer my own perspective as far as the content of the emails.

To Mask or Not To Mask?

One of the most contentious issues of the pandemic was the mask mandates.  These state level policies, following the recommendations of the Federal government, were viewed either as life saving and scientifically proven or as terrible infringements on liberty and pretty much totally ineffective. 

My own leanings, as someone who purchased a box of N95 masks in January of 2020, is that masks offer a marginal protection, if the correct type and properly used, and yet the mandates were basically useless.  First cloth masks don’t offer the level of filtration that is necessary to trap the water droplets carrying the virus.  Second, some countries required both a face shield and mask because they determined that masks alone weren’t effective.

Dr. Fauci seems to have come out against mask mandates before coming out in favor:

The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep[ing] out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location.

And also saying this:

Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection…

Now, I believe he’s right in both cases.  Masks only offer minimal protection.  Covid spread through factories where everyone wore masks and states with mask mandates really didn’t fare better than those that did not.  I understand that urge people have to “do something” and there are several flawed studies that back up the idea that masking is beneficial.  However, I really do not see evidence that it makes a significant difference.  Real life doesn’t match up with laboratory conditions.  And thus that was likely behind Fauci’s pragmatic first take.

What is a bit unfair about the criticism about this apparent reversal in opinion on masks is that we all change our minds all the time.  Sometimes I may disagree with some of my colleagues on something, state my own perspective, and then later amend as new evidence comes in.  However, what is disturbing is where Dr Fauci explains this flipflop as being protection of mask supply for medical professionals.  In other words, he is basically admitting to having lied to the American people about the effectiveness of masks.  If that is the case then he should not be given a free pass.

The ‘Debunked’ Lab Leak Theory

One of those banned topics on social media was the theory that Covid-19 may have come from the lab in Wuhan, China.  It made sense, a deadly virus emerges at a market within walking distance of Wuhan Institute of Virology, why not put that laboratory on the list of suspects?  But for some reason discussion of this possibility was forbidden until very recently when it was revealed, through US intelligence, that researchers at this lab had become ill shortly before the virus turned the surrounding city into a warzone.

The Fauci emails also reveal that this possibility, even that Covid showed signs of being engineered for “gain of function” research, were discussed.  Now, frankly, this is just good forensic science.  It would be more shocking had this never been considered at all.  And the batting this idea around alone is not proof that this is what had actually happened. 

However, that so many literally conspired, with a foreign entity, to suppress this hypothesis (Big Tech censorship stifling the online conversation, corporate media fact-checkers claiming it had been debunked, etc) should be a cause for global outrage. 

Of course, the most laughable claim of media propagandists, at the time, was that it was racist to link the virus to the Chinese Communist Party.  Nevermind this was from the same people who had no problem with taking aim at wet markets and bat soup.  But somehow that criticism of Chinese eating habits wasn’t a problem while taking a closer look at a laboratory that was studying coronavirus and bats was inappropriate. 

Uh-huh.

Anyhow, given that Fauci had come out in full support of gain of function research and also been a force behind funding the Wuhan lab.  Could it be this history explains the private discussion, in emails, and simultaneous public denial? Possibly, yes.  It is very clear there’s a conflict of interest.  Of course there’s a reason for him to keep a lid on what could be proof of his culpability for millions of deaths worldwide. 

The result of Fauci’s silence, and corporate media stupidity and bias, is that something that should have been thoroughly explored months ago is only now being openly discussed.  This has given a totalitarian regime, known for deception, more than enough time to cover up the truth and their role.  Precious time has been wasted on what could be the biggest crime against humanity in the history of humankind.  We have experienced a death toll and economic damages greater than twenty nuclear bombs, countless innocent lives destroyed, and the likely culprit was protected by a web of denial, collusion between Big Tech, the corporate media and high ranking government officials—like Dr. Fauci.

If the January 6th fracas is worthy of consideration for a Congressional Commission, then we really should dig deeper and investigate the true cause of a global pandemic that killed millions.  No, there’s no smoking gun in the Fauci emails, or least none that I could see, and yet there is more than enough reason to suspect that one of our leading experts had tried to keep a lid on the Wuhan lab theory because of his own ties to the research.  And still our corporate media speaks glowingly of him, as if he could do no wrong, the fact-checkers scurrying to tell us there is no bombshell revelation in the emails.

Dr. Fauci: Authority or Arrogant?

One thing that the pandemic has revealed and the emails only further confirmed, is the complete arrogance of our institutions.  For whatever reason Fauci and others felt it was okay to mislead the American people, to tell the so-called “noble lie,” and then they wonder why trust is waning amongst the people they’ve deliberately deceived? Meanwhile, those who should be holding their feet to the fire, our ‘journalists’ (who now also see themselves worthy to pick winners for us rather than simply report), embarrass themselves with their fauning praise.

Is Fauci the sole source of all real science and truth?

No, absolutely not!

Is he a total fraud unworthy of his position?  

Well, that is something worthy of investigation and yet to be determined. Innocent until proven guilty is still the law of the land. And I do not believe in trials in the court of public opinion. Again, while there are questions of ethics and culpability to be answered, that our corporate media should be asking rather than singing his praises, nothing in the emails implicates him of a crime.

My own thought, knowing what is known, is that making Fauci the fall guy would be letting too many others off the hook.  Sure, he represents an accountability problem with the political establishment and elites who are protected by their own interests at the expense of the American people.  No, they don’t simply “follow the science” nor are they invulnerable to group think or free from all bias.  They’re human, like us, they make mistakes, they have political agendas and hidden motivations too.  It isn’t about secret conspiracies so much as it is a matter of human fallibility, in general, and arrogance.

Over the course of the past year Fauci’s name has become synonymous with authority and science. But much of that is smoke and mirrors. He is truly only one qualified voice of many and was only made the face of the pandemic as a way to undermine Trump. This is pretty much the only reason why he is loved by one side and loathed by the other. Politics. The politics of the pandemic cloud good judgment. And those caught in this political fray deserve better than to be torn up by the mob or raised up like saints.

Fauci, given the voting patterns of NYC and government lifers, is probably as Democrat as one could be. That could explain some of the looks of tension, and tedious corrections, when Trump used his layman’s terms during press conferences. But, unlike the media narrative that constantly pitted him against the President, the emails showed this conflict between the men was massively overblown.

In the end, Dr. Fauci has the swagger of a Brooklynite, cocky or confident depending on who you ask, and amazing stamina for a man his age. But he should have never been made a celebrity, never turned into this unquestioned authority on matters of science or used as a tool of partisan politics.

Fair enough?

Tools, Fools and Messy Middlers…

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A couple of weeks ago I had a decent start to a blog on this topic and then Evernote, my usually reliable mobile word processor of choice, decided to send my work into the sea of forever-lost things. My hope was to describe something that I’ve noticed for years and has become even more pronounced in my mind as I observe the Covid-19 pandemic response.

Before I get started, and so nobody is unduly offended or thinks this explanation is personally directed at them, it is not. I wrote most of this before the latest round of conspiracy theory videos and adding this part later because some might assume that my commentary has something to do with that, which it does not. Any similarity between my words and a particular person’s response to the pandemic (over the course of recent days) is purely coincidental. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it!

That out of the way, the first two categories of response that I’ve observed represent the extremes. These two groups are the louder less rational of the three. The tools have the power of institutions behind them, the system is stacked in their favor and they feel special. The fools, on the other hand, are the unappreciated, those mocked as “deplorables” by political elites, and are being increasingly rebellious against the belittling authorities. The rest of us are in the middle somewhere, rejecting both extremes, seeing a little of both sides, and independently make up their own minds.

Anyhow, I have to be careful which group that I start with because once people who tend towards one group recognize themselves in my writing they might stop reading and dismiss me as being the much-loathed ‘other’ extreme. But, since there’s definitely a difference of tolerance for ideas (other than their own) in the one group, as compared to the other, I’ll start with the fools. They are used to taking a beating and will be more likely to hear me out than the tools.

So, fools, you’re up…

The “You’re Not the Boss of Me” Fool

They say to compliment a person before you lay on the insults and so I’ll stay true to that format by noting that the fools are more likely to be in that “essential worker” category as those who are willing to get their hands dirty for everyone else. They are mechanics, farmers, cooks, garbage collectors, contractors, and factory workers. These people might not be able to articulate themselves very well, yet they do know when they are getting the shaft and have been getting the shaft for quite some time. It is only right to mistrust the tools that have sold them out.

I’ll admit, I have sympathy for the fools, they are nose to the grindstone workers, won’t hesitate to help without asking for a dime, and are basically the bedrock of this nation. They are also the ones who suffer the most due to imported labor and outsourcing over the past few decades. They have seen their wages flattened and opportunities dry up. Smarmy politicians, with beautiful polish, told them how much they cared, that new jobs would come and then never delivered. In 2016 these people (some who voted for Obama and don’t care about political affiliation) came out for Trump in large numbers because he spoke a language they, as the blue-collar workers, could appreciate.

The fools, despite lacking a four-year degree, are not dumb and have “street smarts” that allow them to see things that their intellectual tool counterparts do not see. That said, they are as blind by their own biases much as anyone else and are quick to spread conspiracy theories that validate their mistrust for authority figures. And that is exactly what they think about this Covid-19 global pandemic, they aren’t sick themselves, they don’t know anyone who is sick, they don’t see the hospital parking lots full and therefore the shutdowns must be some sort of nefarious scheme. Of course, who can blame them? Only a month or two ago the corporate media was telling us that the virus in Wuhan was nothing to worry about, that we should be more concerned with the seasonal flu, etc.

The fools are right in that they are mistreated by the elites. They are also right to question the official narrative. I mean, let’s be real here, politicians do lie (both parties) and members of the media most certainly do have political agendas as well. At some point, and very often for good reason, the fools have become disenchanted with the establishment and sometimes they simply take this too far. They reject even common-sense recommendations, like wearing masks, because they a) don’t like being told what to do and b) they read some meme put out by some random internet user who agrees with them. A fool could be dying in an ICU bed, gasping for their last breath, and still in denial of the severity of a pandemic.

“The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.”

(Proverbs 12:15 NIV)

The fools are like Joker, they are agents of chaos that arise in response to an unjust order and challenge Batman (a tool of the system) to take off his mask so everyone can see who he really is. Perhaps the dark knight would look a bit less heroic, as one of the primary beneficiaries of the system he is defending, once his pretense of moral purity was removed?

The problem with the fools, is that they are like the zealots before the fall of Jerusalem (eventually destroyed by their own infighting, which is what happens when the inmates run the asylum) or the Anabaptist “Tailor King” who led a rebellion in Münster, they are able to expose the corruption of the system and yet unfit to lead themselves. The fools, useful as they are, were made to perform the mundane (yet essential) tasks and would perform them well, without protest, if their efforts were properly appreciated by their betters in government and the social hierarchy, they deserve to be heard as much as anyone else. But I do implore the fools, read the account of Josephus about the fall of Jerusalem, consider the end of the Münster Rebellion, become wise to your own foolishness!

For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.

(Proverbs 1:32‭-‬33 NIV)

Humility is the first step to wisdom. It is knowing your place before God and respecting those whom God has ordained as his servants. Rebellion against all authority, except one’s own understanding or that which one agrees with, is a path to destruction. A fool remains a fool so long as they are so arrogant as to believe that they, some blue-collar yokel who can barely spell college on a good day, knows more than those who have spent their entire lives studying a topic and have become respected in their field enough to serve Presidents of both parties. Sure, the experts get things wrong, but so do the fools and often (as the victims of Dunning-Kruger effect) more than they’ll ever be able to realize and would be smart to stay humble.

The “I’m Too Smart To Hear You” Tool

The tools took their guidance counselor’s advice, they believe in the fiction of “settled science” and have an undying trust in their institutions. They are basically fools, but with a larger vocabulary and a much more blinding subservience to the system that they have bought into. Now, in defense of tools, many are in the professional class, they are teachers, professors, nurses, doctors, and lawyers, often people on the government payroll, and deserve credit for being able to navigate their way through the ranks. Unlike the fools, who could not make it through a college-level class, the tools are masters at learning what they are supposed to learn.

However, despite their snobbery towards those of a lower social order, the tools are often no better than the fools whom they ridicule and are simply parrots using bigger words. A month or two back, when the corporate media (and NPR) was telling them that the seasonal flu was a bigger threat than Covid-19, they snickered at us dolts making our own alternative judgment of the facts and getting prepared. And now, when the same media tells them that the sky is falling and we must close everything forever, these tools soak it up like a sponge then lecture their neighbor, out mowing his lawn, for breathing the fresh spring air. Or call the snitch line set up by other tools. I mean, how dare he defy the experts! Of course, they themselves, like the media they consume, aren’t actually the experts and should probably question the experts as much as they do Trump.

Oh, and did I mention that the tools absolutely hate Trump?

To the tools Barack Obama was the pinnacle of the Presidency, they swooned as he read the teleprompter in his “clean” and “articulate” (thank you Joe) professorial tone. He could have spoken complete nonsense and they still would’ve been breathless about how ‘presidential’ he sounded. And then, in walks the brash billionaire, a Twitter troll, who uses crude blue-collar language and has a kind of humor that they can’t comprehend. The tools are horrified by Trump. He falls outside of their understanding of the world, an anomaly, and they believe that he is a fool because he is not like them and that’s what the media tools tell them. But the reality is that they hate Trump because he exposes their system for what it is, his mere existence creates cognitive dissonance for them and therefore he must be destroyed so they can go back to their religious faith in their system.

This is why, when President Trump, makes some off the cuff suggestion, something even the fools know to take with a grain of salt, they take him completely literally and (to the amusement of everyone else) have a conniption fit. Even if he muses something completely reasonable or worthy of consideration, such as his mention of hydroxychloroquine as a potential lifesaving treatment, they are desperate to prove him wrong and show the rest of us how intelligent they are. How dare he! It has side-effects, don’t you know! People might drink fishbowl cleaner! They are the rightful rulers, after all, they took AP Biology in high school, and the fools need to be put back in their place!

It has gotten absurd to the point that even when one of their own, a Democrat lawmaker from Detroit, gives the President’s advice credit for their recovery from a deadly disease the tools feel the need to punish that person. When everyone else hears Trump use colloquial terms to describe the goal of any medical intervention, to disinfect, they freak out and claim that he said the equivalent of “drink bleach” and then wonder why the fools aren’t taking them seriously anymore. They are not the bastions of rationality and pure goodness they see themselves as. No, they are tools for those more powerful, their reward for compliance is the right to exploit their lessors and thus they are as corrupt as their masters.

Every self-righteous tool in the universe is going to go nuts for me saying this, nevertheless, if they hear me out they’ll know it is true. Trump, like Sampson who was an unruly and disruptive character married to a foreign woman, is a type of Christ. Obviously, although I need to say it in case there are still some tools left reading at this point, Trump does not have a moral character worth our emulating and should never be regarded as being our Savior. But how the tools of our day oppose him as an uncanny similarity to how Christ was opposed by the social elites (and underlings of the Romans) of his day. For example, read the account of a man healed by Jesus in the Gospel of John (read the whole account here) and how the Pharisee tools weren’t having it:

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man replied, “He is a prophet.” They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

(John 9:13‭-‬34 NIV)

Obviously what this man was telling them didn’t comport with their religious ideology or preconceived understanding of the world. Instead of celebrating with the blind man who was healed, they sought to discredit him so they would not need to acknowledge the truth of their own spiritual blindness. Jesus was a threat to their system, he was turning everything they knew (or thought they knew) on its head and was a very real threat to their own prestige. They, like the safety-conscious leaders who had it out for Sampson, muttered amongst themselves about how Jesus was a threat to their way of life and obsessed on finding a way to destroy a man who held a mirror to their own narcissism and true cowardliness.

Still don’t see the parallel?

Try this…

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ ” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

(Mark 14:55‭-‬59 NIV)

They misrepresented what Jesus actually said. Yes, certainly, he had talked about the destruction of the temple. But he was making a metaphorical reference to himself, something they could have or should have known and probably did secretly know, and they were simply blinded by their agenda and irrational hatred of a man who defied their system.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Trump is no Jesus, neither was Sampson. But all three of those characters could expose the tools for what they really are.

The tools think they are smart because they follow the rules and are given the privilege of maintaining the system that subjects the fools. They enthusiastically latch onto anything their own masters (academic institutions, government agencies, corporate media, etc) tell them and yet refuse to acknowledge the reality that is right before their own eyes. Tools, as slaves to the system that created them, hate innovators and those who challenge their own status quo. Under their eloquent and silky words is a spirit of entitlement and a nastiness worse than that of the blunt and unsophisticated language of the fools whom they self-righteously condemn. They are like the enemy spoken of by David:

His talk is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords.

(Psalms 55:21 NIV)

I think we are all familiar with those who, pardon the expression, think their own shit don’t stink. The tools see their own motives as being pure as the wind-driven snow and beyond reproach. They even act as if they are patrons for those whom they claim to be disadvantaged, pushing social justice and identity politics to further their own advantage. It is not true love or compassion, if it was they would show equal concern and offer an open ear to those who weren’t as useful for furthering their own ideological agenda. In actuality, the tools are simply better at hiding or rationalizing their own toxic attitudes. They are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone else, blind to their own inconsistencies, and the least woke people of the planet despite their self-gratifying delusion of the superiority of their perspective.

Tools are tools because unlike the other fools (which they also are despite their intellectual advantages) they are quite unaware of the flaws of the system that they worship. They do not even realize that they are an apparatchik, an instrument manipulated, and are way too willing to do whatever they are told without asking enough questions. These are the people who know nothing outside of their own specialties and then will arrogantly lecture someone for deviating too far from the narrative-based in their own independent observation. It’s as if they do not realize that every advancement that they now enjoy and take for granted didn’t come as the result of someone silly enough to try something new and different.

The “Can’t We Just Get along” Messy Middlers

Okay, if you have put up with me this long, here’s the big reveal: Most people are not complete fools or totally tools and instead reside in the murky middle ground between the extremes.

Most of us didn’t go fill ten carts with toilet paper nor would we call a snitch line (other than to prank the authoritarian control freaks on the other end) and are willing to wear a face mask while also able to question the wisdom of months of economic lock down. We don’t worship at the feet of any politician and yet are able to cooperate with those who are authorities over us. We are skeptical of the official narrative, realizing that there are humans involved and often with agendas, but without turning to conspiracy theories.

Speaking for myself, my own worldview has been shattered enough times that there is very little smugness left about the power of my own reasoning or the authority of my own opinions. I mean, I still have an opinion and can’t really claim to be all that humble either, but one might say that I’ve been broken by the School of Hard Knocks. I’m smart enough to know that I’m basically average, certainly not extraordinary enough to call myself an expert at anything and yet not a blithering idiot or at least I’m not an idiot who lacks in words to express his perspective. I’m also too contrarian to be a tool. I zig when too many people are zagging. I think this puts me somewhere in the middle.

The middlers are those of us who readily agreed to concepts like “flattening the curve” and giving our medical professionals time to gear up. That made sense. There were shortages of masks and other protective equipment. We didn’t know what we were up against given the misinformation coming out of China. So we took the precautions that were recommended. That said, when “flatten the curve” morphed into “stop the spread” and months-long shutdowns, while the dire predictions of models proved false, many in the middle have begun to grow uneasy about the growing economic consequences, note the arbitrariness of the rules (crowded Walmart is okay, but beach and park is not?) and rightfully wonder if this strategy was well thought out.

No, middlers aren’t necessarily ready to join the fools in their protests. Or, if some of the middlers did, they at least wore masks or protested from their vehicles. However, middlers are also seemingly more able than the tools to see a broader perspective than that of the tools, like those celebrities who tell us “please stay at home” and apparently think that we make our decisions based on their pontifications, and think for themselves. The middlers, unlike the tools, aren’t consigned to the established dogma nor do they foolishly reject anything they cannot comprehend. Whereas fools are too stupid and tools too lacking in their own The middlers are the true critical thinkers, the Elon Musks who defy everything, those actually capable of creating advancements in science, technology, and medicine.

The middle is messy, especially in a world that has become increasingly complex and socially fragmented, where truth has become secondary to position and our institutions have failed to deliver as promised. Us middlers, like the decent people in Jeruselum before the fall, get caught in the crossfire. The zealous fools think we are “sheeple” for not joining their revolution of idiots. Meanwhile, the tools dismiss us as fools, with an indignant snort, because we dare to suggest that there’s another way to look at the facts and go against the narrative that they now accept as Gospel truth—until their masters tell them to believe something else. The middlers get that even experts and government agencies get things wrong, that experts don’t always agree and that’s not always a conspiracy or nefarious plot, it is just the reality of the world we are in.

It is hard to be in the middle. We suffer the excesses inflicted upon us by both extremes. We put up with the condescending tools and try to ignore the obnoxious fools. We aren’t always right ourselves, finding the truth can be a messy business, and being caught between two sides fighting for narrative control can be exhausting. It takes more work to maintain some independence in a world that has become increasingly polarized. It means standing up to both sides and also recognizing our own blind spots as well. We have been tools and fools ourselves, on occasion, and therefore try to stay humble.

The Church In the Age of Narcissism

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The idea of individual rights and liberty has evolved into a defiant “nobody can tell me what to do” attitude. This toxic individualism can be in reaction to abuse, a response to the failures of authority figures or simply a person’s naturally narcissistic disposition.

As a product of American culture, I’ve always believed that people should be free and still believe this. It seems that totalitarian states, while certainly able to build great monuments and copy the innovation of their rivals, do often stifle creativity and limit the potential of individuals. A right to self-determination has enabled many to pursue their passions and helped in bringing about progress in terms of technology and medicine.

However, there does seem to be a point where unchecked individualism begins to be a threat to our collective advancement. And we are now to the point that it is not safe to so much as assume an individual’s gender based on the evidence without potentially triggering a violent, over-the-top and completely abusive backlash.

In this age of narcissism, it does not matter what has been established for centuries. It also doesn’t matter what the consensus is on a given topic or what the various authorities tell us. No, all that matters is how the individual imagines themselves.

Narcissism Enters the Church

In the church, this narcissism is often hidden under a mask of spirituality and sanctimonious blather. Sure, many will claim the Bible as their ultimate authority, yet they will reject anything it says about respect for the elder and submission when it is convenient for them and their own ends.

It is absurd, truly, that people are rejecting the very foundation of the rights that they assume. They tear down structures and institutions without realizing that they are unraveling the very things that have produced and protected the concepts they take for granted. They are dangerous in that they are too dumb to realize that everything they believe currently did not originate within them. Everything, even their ingratitude, and resentment of authority is a product of the times they are in,

They are not free, they are just ignorant of the collective consciousness that nourished and created their grand delusion of independence. Or, worse, they only recognize the negative contributions of the system without ever considering the benefits. They are not so pure or undefiled either, they have their own motivations and are woefully lacking in self-awareness. It is only a lack of humility, an idea that there is nothing to be gained in deferral to an elder or expert, that the individual knows all simply because they have basic reading comprehension and elementary knowledge.

Sadly, the erosion of confidence in the collective, mistrust of authority in general, does not make the individual any more competent than the system that created them. It doesn’t mean that they are themselves better qualified to be arbiters of truth than the hierarchies of flawed individuals that they aim to replace with their papacy of one. But it does destroy our chance for unity, it does make individuals extremely vulnerable to the deceptions of their own ego (“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jeremiah 17:9 NIV) and boiled down is nothing more than self-worship.

How the West Was Lost

In the West, this ego trip may have started with the Pope asserting his own authority over the church, to unilaterally decide matters for himself without counsel and led to the Great Schism. But eventually, it trickled to ordained men doing the same in protest, relying on their own individual authority and understanding of church tradition to start their own denominations—before their attitude spread to the laity who rejected their authority as well.

The reformers, in their exuberance, eventually denied the very tradition that established the canon of Scripture and yet, through circular reasoning, still clung to the book as being authoritative simply because they believed it to be so. This led to others, more enlightened, who saw the irrationality, went a step further, rejected even the book as written by men and written by men whose authority they could not accept. The cold might be preferable to those lukewarm, at least they can’t use “well, the Spirit led me to [insert whatever]” and must attempt a rational argument instead.

At least the secular scientist is subject to peer review. They can’t simply declare something for themselves or rely on their cohort of like-minded advisors, like king Rehoboam who reject the advice of the elders, ran with that of his unwise cronies, and ended up creating division. A biologist, unlike the windbag pontificator in the men’s Sunday school class, has at least had to earn his credentials and must carefully make a case with evidence or will be treated as a joke by colleagues. Those feeding their own individual tastes from the Biblical smorgasbord, oblivious to their own biases being read into the text, can’t be made accountable.

Unfortunately, science and human rationality have also reached their limits. The intellectual enterprise could never answer questions of why we exist, an accumulation of facts could never fill the void left by religion, most people can’t keep up with the brightest minds in various fields and yet many (on both sides of any issue) speak more boldly than those who have spent years of rigorous study, confident because they read something on the internet. There is a growing mistrust of all authority and structure. Political ideologies push the research and echo chambers have replaced serious discussion.

For example, in climate science, there is plenty of grey area between Greta Thunberg’s emotional alarmism and the actual evidence. Sure, there may be some consensus on a current temperature trend and human contribution, but there is no such thing as settled science. At very least there is no reason to assume that warmer weather is automatically a catastrophe or the cause of all things bad. And there’s definitely some hysteria involved when you have a CNN anchor speculating, on-air, about a possible connection between an asteroid and climate change. Is it any wonder that more are dismissing the whole thing as nonsense?

On the opposite side of the coin are those who use the above, the misuse of science by media sensationalists and political activists, as a reason to dismiss all science. I’m talking, of course, of those (often religious fundamentalists) who deny what is well-known about the general shape of the planet and physics. They use a form of reasoning, they are not wholly irrational individuals and yet seem to be motivated more by their mistrust of all authority and undying trust in themselves. They are much like the far-leftist who refuse to see gender differences as real (while, in contradiction to themselves, claiming that a man with feminine traits is transgendered), they have made their own opinion an article of faith.

Eventually, if things do not change, we may soon not be able to hold civilization together and return to our roots of tribalism. Christendom was the force that once brought Jew and Greek, man and woman—people of vastly different social status—into fellowship with each other through their allegiance to Christ. From the beginning, the church had a definite structure and also ordained leaders to decide the weightier matters. But that order has dissolved, often in reaction to abuses and always to be replaced with increasingly arrogant smaller entities. The current narcissism is only the final step before the total collapse.

How To Break the Trend Towards Narcissistic Chaos

Groups of people, institutions, can certainly fall victim to their own collective confirmation bias. Again, authoritarian regimes that stifle independent thought destroy innovation and limit potential. But the individual, especially the individual who resists all authority, is even more vulnerable to being blinded their own biases.

Yes, certainly authorities do fail, alas even the President of the United States is human and makes mistakes, but that does not mean that individuals are all equally qualified for every role. It is always good to question the experts. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can miss the obvious, laypeople are not all total idiots because they lack a degree. At the same time, this overreaction to abuses and failures is even more dangerous.

No, the Titanic disaster does not mean engineering is untrustworthy nor does the 737 MAX being certified by the FAA before a couple of deadly crashes make the whole institution a waste. The alternative of everyone being right in their own eyes, being their own expert, will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life. The reality is that we are better off with authorities, those who have made a career trying to understand specific issues and can be held accountable. Sure, even the professionals can be wrong, but there are greater consequences that go along with their license.

The church also needs elders and examples. The church should have those ordained and more respected. The idea that spirituality is a free-for-all is utter nonsense, not founded in Scripture nor the church tradition that canonized and established what is Scripture. The person who sees no need for any authority in their lives besides their own understanding or that of their cohort are the dumb beasts condemned by Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. (2 Peter 2:10‭-‬12 NIV)

True Christianity starts with repentance. Repentance comes with an attitude willing to voluntarily sacrifice some self-determination and take advice. It means humility and realizing that the universe does not revolve around your own individual understanding of things nor is truth a matter of your own personal opinion. It isn’t so hard to submit to an elder—even when you do not fully agree on everything—when one realizes their own fallibility and need of a savior.

Sure, hierarchies do fail and especially when they cease to be accountable to the bodies that they represent. A Christian leader always had authority, like Peter or Paul who spoke in a manner that commanded respect, but was never supposed to be a tyrant like Diotrephes. Leaders, like individuals, can be terrible failures and must be disciplined or removed as needed. But to overreact, to pretend everyone is on the same level, is no different than the pride that led to the fall of heaven’s highest-ranking angel. To reject authority besides one’s own is to repeat that same sin.

We need order, we thrive when we are able to specialize and let individuals reach their full potential, and that requires us to acknowledge our own limitations. We need an order that keeps authorities even more accountable than others, that does not give them a free pass as part of a good ol’ boys club, and actually requires that they are more submissive (as an example) than those who they hold charge over. Ultimately a church with no submission to others is a church without love, only self-love, and will offer nothing to those trying to escape the narcissism of our age.

Kissing Images, Grandpa’s Love, and Jokes On Me

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Years ago, while on a Mennonite forum discussion about the “holy kiss” ordinance, I had joked that the practice was impossible given that those mentioned to kiss in the Biblical proof-texts were already long dead.

Old Order Mennonites, along with some conservative holdouts, continue the practice of greeting each other with a kiss. They base this practice on some salutations of epistles where St Paul instructs the reader “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12) and even gives particular people to greet in this manner:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:3‭-‬16 NIV)

I was being facetious in suggesting that it was impossible to carry out the instruction above. I was challenging the holy kiss hardliners to consider the context of the instruction and the intended audience. My own thoughts at the time being that this practice was more common to the culture then, that it had become archaic, and that a holy handshake would get the job done in our own time.

The concern of those questioning the need to carry out the salutation as instruction for all time was that men giving other men a big smooch would be misunderstood by those not familiar with the practice. So my joke that we can’t kiss dead people was to drive home that point, we can’t greet Mary Andronicus or Junia and the others listed in the letter as those to greet, so why should we take any of it as an instruction for us?

The Joke Was On Me

One of the strangest things for a person coming into the Orthodox Christian culture is the practice of kissing icons. For whatever reason, this practice of veneration is often misconstrued as worship and dismissed on those grounds. However, that is a silly notion, if it is idolatry to kiss an image then why is it not also idol worship to kiss your spouse?

Over the time I was still mulling over the Orthodox practice of kissing icons, my grandma passed away surrounded by family and my grandpa—her loyal companion and loving husband of sixty years.

My grandpa’s grieving was intense, as one would expect, and there is no person on this earth who could ever replace his beloved Mildred.

It was then that I found out about a curious little ritual he would perform each morning and evening. He would take the image of his late wife in his hands, kiss it seven times, and put it down again. Why? Well, in what other way do you suggest that he honor the woman who gave birth to his seven children, who faithfully cooked his meals up until dementia stole her ability to do that, and professed her deep love for him to the very end even as her mind slipped away?

Suddenly my flippancy about kissing dead people lost its humor.

My grandpa is not worshipping the image. He is not confusing the image with his reposed wife either. But he was showing his love for her in the most intimate way available to him. Kissing her image was symbolic of something for him, things he probably couldn’t even put into words to explain, and it would be silly to question the appropriateness of his action.

For me, this ritual of grandpa kissing grandma’s picture put the Orthodox practice of veneration of icons in a whole new light. My grandpa isn’t Orthodox, he is a Mennonite, and yet intuitively he arrived at the same place they do concerning the beloved who have departed this life for the next. Not only that, but he made it completely possible for us to carry out the salutation of St Paul’s letters and greet even those he listed with a holy kiss.

The Church Both Militant and Triumphant

As a Protestant-born, I was firmly stuck in the here and now, the church was those alive today and those who came before were basically irrelevant other than the writings they left behind. That is typical of our generation. I mean, we have smartphones and Instagram, what could previous generations have that is relevant to us today?

But the Orthodox perspective is different. They see a clear continuity from the early church to the present and they also see those who have gone on before us as participants in the worship service. They believe that the dead in Christ are still spiritually alive in him and they make up the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read in chapter 12 of the book of Hebrews.

The Orthodox see their corporate worship, which is centered on Communion, as the link between temporal and eternal, a place where heaven and earth come together, rather than merely a commemorative meeting of religious folks. In other words, as Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) there is an emergent property of our coming together, that being the presence of Christ and the “cloud of witnesses” we read about in Scripture.

There is a beautiful description of the two parts of the church congregation. The Orthodox refer to those who have completed their race as being “the church triumphant” and use “church militant” in reference to those still in the fight. They acknowledge and greet both. When the Orthodox kiss an icon they are merely saying hello to the triumphant who join us in worship. It is a true act of faith. If we do not believe that those who have gone on before can join us in our worship, then why go to church at all?

When is the last time you’ve consulted the church fathers when trying to interpret a passage of Scripture?

It is a shame that I did not understand the significance and need for a church that extends beyond the current generation. This notion that we do not need the church triumphant, that their contribution has passed, makes us weak and vulnerable. We need to cultivate the connection between our current practice, the Scripture and other tradition we have received through the church, and those who have gone on before us. We may not see them with our physical eyes, but that does not mean that they are not present, relevant or worth our time.

The wonderful thing about icons is that they are visual reminders that we are not alone in our worship. Sure, like my grandma’s picture isn’t my grandma, the objects we kiss are not the actual person, but it does encourage mindfulness about the true meaning of being part of the body of Christ.

The Biblical Basis For Sacred Objects and Icons

As with many Christian practices, from Sunday school to Christmas celebration, even Dank Kingdom Christian Memes, there is nothing in the canon of Scripture that specifically instructs us to venerate icons with a kiss. That said, there is definitely a Biblical basis for images in areas used for worship and even Christian purpose for relics and other objects.

It seems, actually, that Orthodoxy encourages more Biblical literacy (through practice) than the alternative of Protestantism. In questioning various Orthodox practices I was always led directly back to Scripture. From incense being referenced in the context of prayer, to art and images being used in Israelite worship, there is plenty of support for the Orthodox understanding of Christian practice.

For example, the idea of relics, like the bones of various saints, having significance originates in Scripture:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21 NIV)

Can you imagine that?

Merely touching the bones of a prophet could bring a dead man back to life!

But, lest a skeptic might say that was Old Testament, we also have this from the book of Acts:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11,12 NIV)

The Protestant aversion to the idea that objects have significance and can be sacred is not rooted in Scripture. The Bible shows very clearly that things in the physical world can be given supernatural powers, that touching bones could bring a person back to life or some cloth merely touched by an apostle could heal the sick and exorcise their demons. That is not idolatry, it is both Biblical and Christian.

Furthermore, this idea that every Christian practice must come directly from the Bible, a book canonized by the church via councils, is absurd. Those who trust the institution of the church to give them Scripture are trying to have it both ways when they undermine the authority of the church elsewhere, you can’t say that the Bible is completely reliable without also acknowledging the authority of the very institution that decided what books would be included in the Biblical canon.

The Arrogance of Assuming Your Own Normal Is Normal

What the objection to kissing icons really comes down to is arrogance and an assumption that what is normal for me is the ultimate standard of right or wrong practice in the Christian context. Those who dismiss or mock a practice simply because it is foreign to them show an amazing lack of self-awareness.

Maybe it isn’t normal anymore to greet each other with a kiss? Maybe the idea of objects having healing powers seems foreign, strange, ridiculous or inappropriate from your own perspective? But who are you and what makes your own opinion the center of the universe? All of Christianity, from baptism to concepts of eternity in paradise, can be dismissed on the basis of someone’s normal. Is it really that hard to accept a symbolic greeting of the reposed, those alive in Christ, for someone who believes that God himself became flesh in the person of Jesus?

Icons represent a physical connection to the spiritual realm, the Orthodox do not worship them anymore than those in the Bible healed by sacred objects committed a sin of idolatry, and it is as much an established tradition of Christians as the canon of Scriptural is. A church council decided what was normal for inclusion in the Bible and, likewise, a church council decided that the veneration of icons is appropriate and normal Christian behavior.

The church does not revolve around your own personal ideas, you as an individual are not an authority over the church, and if you dismiss what you do not understand simply because you do not understand it, then the joke is on you.

Deal with it!

Why Do People, Including Anabaptists, Repeat Their Mistakes?

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With the conviction of Jeriah Mast, the Anabaptist father and missionary to Haiti whose years of sexual abuse were finally brought to light, there has been another round of handwringing on social media. There is a definite desire for change, I’ve seen some express the need for repentance, and that is good.

However, in reading some of the response, a proverb kept coming to mind:

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. (Proverbs 26:11)

The idea of the dog eating its own vomit is repugnant. It is most likely reingesting the very poison that caused it to vomit in the first place. Would any of us knowingly do this? Probably not. But many do exactly this, they continue to lap up the very things, the errant ideas, the poison, that will keep them repeating the same mistakes generation after generation.

We see this kind of doubling-down in politics all the time. Many ideological partisans, rather than admit what actually led to their failures, blame everything but themselves and go on to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This is how confirmation bias works. Most people, rather than deal with the discomfort of being wrong about something close to their core identity, find a scapegoat to blame. People cling to the ideas they’ve most heavily invested in even after suffering through repeated failures.

With that in mind, as a product of both the culture that produced Mast and also produced the reaction to his evil deeds, I’m not convinced that this desire for positive change on the part of some Anabaptists in the wake of the scandal will bear fruit unless we can get to the true root of the problem. If anything, many who claim to be discontent with the status quo, because they do not understand the problem, will double-down on the very religious pride and cultural assumptions that produced it.

Many would like to blame organizations for failing to properly address Mast’s abuse. And it is true, CAM’s administrators really did drop the ball in dealing with Mast and then, rather than accept the full consequences, they went into damage control mode, lawyered up and attempted payoffs to victims. It is also true that his church seems to have enabled him rather than hold him accountable. However, it is quite easy to see the failures of others while never comprehending the cultural reasons behind the repeated bad decisions.

There is a folly here, grounded in pride, that needs to be addressed. It will be difficult to explain without offending some. But please do bear with me as someone who was an insider and is now viewing things with a different perspective.

What Is the Folly Of Modern Anabaptism?

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Proverb 26:12)

The first thing that fits the bill of folly is this better-than assumption. Modern Anabaptists are well-trained enough not to make an ostentatious display of their pride. However, it takes a great deal of pride to hold on to the very premise that makes them Anabaptist and that premise being that they (and they alone) represent some sort of radical reformation of the Church.

Since the time of Martin Luther and the many divisions that followed shortly thereafter, the answer to any problem has been to disavow and attempt to distance ourselves from it through creating yet another division. That is Protestantism 101 and Anabaptists, as those who couldn’t even agree with the other reformers or amongst themselves, are no exception. So, it is no surprise that those upset about Mast being enabled to abuse take aim at their institutions, that is exactly what their forefathers would likely do, and never realize the problem isn’t CAM or the Mennonite name.

It is a purity spiral that never identifies the real problem.

The irony is that the slice of Anabaptist that Mast belongs to is a group that has prided itself as being the “remnant” for their rejecting some aspects of Mennonite culture (including the Mennonite name) while doubling down on the Protestant revivalism that only entered Anabaptism a century ago. This, the “Charity” movement, has a great zeal for a particular version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the self-styled Anabaptists of our day as much as anyone else.

Mast, much to the ire of some, has continued to receive a great deal of support from his home church, Shining Light Christian Fellowship, in Millersburg, Ohio. Their “church statement” regarding him highlighting his emotional display and further voluntary confessions after being caught in his sin and present their “Restoration Plan” to hold him accountable. His pastor, according to news reports, speaks of the transformation he has “witnessed” in these few months since Mast fled Haiti. His wife testified to a “radical change” in her husband. And I’m pretty sure they are quite sincere about this assessment. To them, this is, no doubt, the radical forgiveness required of all Christians and what makes them truly Anabaptist.

Meanwhile, on the other side of this debacle, are those who are horrified, rightfully so, and think they need to reclaim the Anabaptist identity by rejecting the form above. They see his home church as enabling him and an example of failure all too common in their denominational context. To them, this is an egregious misrepresentation of Christ that shouldn’t be associated with true Anabaptism.

These two groups may see themselves as being complete opposites. However, in reality, they are two sides of the same coin. Both claim to want to do away with various religious forms (including the Mennonite name) and desire to be authentic Christians. Both see repentance and revival as the solution. But neither side is willing to question their own assumptions about themselves and the history behind their core religious identity—rather than question or reconsider their identity, they continue to repeat the mistake of turning back to the Anabaptist ‘wisdom’ they’ve inherited.

A very intelligent and incredibly talented friend of mine, in lamenting the Mast case, had this to say:

In my observation, we’ve come a long way from the early Anabaptists who understood the error of the church which was bent on formalities and conformity to their own “one church”. They said, “No, we choose instead to put our trust in the living God and trust the Holy Spirit for guidance, regardless of the cost.” Have we slipped back into idolatry? Conformity to a religion? A religion that must be protected for fear it will crumble?

This sounds right to a person indoctrinated into the Anabaptist mindset.

Unfortunately, it is also an assessment of the problem that completely ignores the reality of the situation. Mast’s church doesn’t seem fearful, rather they most likely see themselves as being very courageous for what they see as their uncompromising Christ-like stand on forgiveness. In their embrace of Jeriah’s confession, they see themselves as doing right no matter the cost. CAM, likewise, is not protecting a religion, but rather they are protecting assets they believe should go to a particular mission—that being the mission those who entrusted the funds in them intended it for—and thus the trying to settle quickly/quietly is simply, in their minds, good stewardship.

The statement, “the early Anabaptists who understood,” is practically an article of faith for modern Anabaptists. Sadly it is the very idolatry they project onto any Christian tradition that they reject. It is an accusation full of pride in that authentic Anabaptist identity they see as represented in themselves. Instead of considering the words of St Paul urging unity or considering the case of Diotrephes who arrogantly cast even the Apostles out of his church, they point to their ancestors as if this connection to a glorified past will somehow justify their next move. The folly is pride, pride in our ancestors, a belief that they were completely justified in what they did and is believing, without ever considering the negative consequences, that we should be more like them.

In reality, modern Anabaptists, like those who enabled Mast, are not acting any different from early Anabaptists. Modern Anabaptists, like their forefathers, do not feel a need to be accountable to any established authority that doesn’t conform to their own understanding of things. They reject institutions, they reject each other, they submit only to their own interpretations and believe they are more spiritual for this.

But is that really what Christ taught?

Did he tell us to run from problems and try to reinvent the church every time we disagreed with the established tradition?

When will modern Anabaptists repent of the pride that keeps the Church divided and them unaccountable?

To Save Sinners, Of Whom I Am First

Every Sunday, before partaking of communion, the Orthodox pray:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

That prayer, using the words of St Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, shows what it truly means to be oriented towards humility and should be how we understand ourselves in relation to our peers. This is in contrast to the example of the Pharisee, that Jesus described in Luke 18:9-14, who boasted about his righteousness in comparison to another man.

If we believe that we are first amongst sinners it will change our response to when others fail. No, that doesn’t mean there will be no accountability for sins either. St Paul was forceful in telling the Corinthian church to cast the wicked man from amongst them and we should have a similar attitude to his. But our being first amongst sinners does mean letting go of hindering pride.

When we can stop saying “I follow [insert name of leader],” “I follow the Holy Spirit,” “I follow the Bible,” or even “I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 1) and instead be a part of the Church together and unified in our love, that is when we are being truly humble and understanding our place before God.

This idea that we or our ancestors could somehow create the more perfect Church is pure folly and keeps us bound to repeat the same mistakes in different forms. Sure, one generation may use forgiveness in a way that enables while the next will be ashamed of the enabling of the prior and seek to distance themselves from the others. But both are turning to themselves, to the cultural assumptions implanted in them, and never allow themselves to be accountable to anyone besides themselves.

The folly of modern Anabaptists is the same as their forefathers. They believe they can escape corruption by rejecting established institutions and traditions. And yet their ancestors end up as bad or worse than the groups they left. If they weren’t leading polygamous rebellions they excommunicating each other over things they couldn’t agree on (including, ironically enough, the practice of excommunication itself) and, incidentally, nobody was excommunicated for their participation in the violent uprising at Münster.

Nope, on matters of polygamy and use of force, early Anabaptists simply agreed to disagree.

Anyhow, is it a surprise that Jeriah Mast’s abuse has spawned two contradictory sides who both position themselves as the authentic Anabaptists?

There is a great deal of pride in the Anabaptist name. It gives the user a right to exclude those who disagree, to forgive those who know how to play the system right and avoid any accountability to a Church greater than themselves. It takes humility to realize that we aren’t special, that our ancestors were as flawed as we are today and that we are indeed sinners in need of salvation. It is time to stop repeating the mistakes of our Anabaptist forefathers, renounce the spirit of Diotrephes that divides the body of Christ, and start reconnecting with the Church bigger than our own ideas.

Going Full Circle, I’ve Decided to Start a House Church…

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Life is full of strange and unexpected twists.

Upon leaving the denomination of my birth, I had joked that my two choices were to a) start “The Perfect Church of Joel” or b) become Orthodox. But, since I lacked the ambition and other qualifications for being a cult leader, the latter was my only option and became Orthodox.

However, now, only a year and a half after my Chrismation, and due to circumstances that are beyond my control, I am currently in the planning stages of a house church.

Yes, I realize that this might come as a big surprise to many of you, it could appear like a complete one-eighty and reeks of instability, but it is a necessary step.

I know, I’ve always questioned this new house church trend where a few Protestant fundamentalist separatists, willful people who can’t agree with anyone about anything, who claim to be copying the early church and decide they are better off doing church themselves.

Sheer arrogance, right?

I mean, the Amish do this too, I suppose, in that they do not have designated church buildings and meet in homes. Yet, they do it in a completely different spirit, they maintain a real community beyond their own immediate family and are truly accountable to an orthodox tradition that transcends them as individuals.

So how did I go completely from one end of the spectrum, from a church with two millennia of history, with ornate architecture and a strong emphasis on Communion, in a universal sense, to deciding that I need to start a church in my own home?

My Journey to the House Church…

Okay, before I give Fr. Seraphim a heart-attack, I have no plans on leaving the Holy Cross family in Williamsport. None whatsoever. In fact, my decision to start a house church has everything to do with Orthodox tradition and my beginning to comprehend the reason behind a particular practice—that practice being an iconstasis.

Orthodox churches have an iconstasis, it is basically a wall with images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and angels situated between the nave (where the congregation is gathered) and the altar where the bread and wine are consecrated. It is a reflection of how the Jerusalem temple was laid out, where the “Holy of Holies” was separated by a veil, and is symbolic of the connection between heaven and the “Holy Place” of the nave.

I had been contemplating how to incorporate an “icon corner” in my new home (a place on an East wall of an Orthodox home designated for prayer and worship) when I found out that this is also called an iconstasis.

Interesting…

As it turns out, this prayer corner in Orthodox homes harkens back to the real house churches of the early church. Every Christian home is supposed to be a microcosm of the Church, a wedding being basically equivalent to an ordination service, the parents acting as the clergy and the children being the laity of this house church. The designated area for prayer and worship in the home mirrors that of the parish church building and early house churches.

As an aside, it is necessary to note, given currently popular notions pertaining to corporate worship in modern times, that the idea of a house church being a sort of informal affair is entirely wrong. In the early church, when meeting in houses, according to first hand account, the priests and bishops were in a room east of the laymen (and women, who sat separately) with the deacon guarding the door and keeping the congregation in line. It was an orderly liturgical service and not a free-for-all. And, likewise, worship at home today should still be similarly structured.

The Very Protestant Problem of Division

Growing up, as a Mennonite, we would have “family devotions” and prayer before meals. This was always informal, where we were at, and never really patterned as a church service. It was not called or considered house church. Church for me then was the assembling together of the body of Christ on Sundays and on other days of the week—and that church service was a semi-formal affair, with a definite form and structure.

In decades since my childhood, at least in the conservative Mennonite circles that I ran in, it has become more and more commonplace to skip corporate worship services, on occasion, and to “have church” with just the youth, family members on a weekend retreat or what have you. There are some who have taken it a step further and ceased with their mixing with non-biological brothers and sisters, and cousins (or the otherwise impure) altogether and replaced it with a casual around-the-campfire or lounging-in-the-living-room kind of house church affair that can last at least as long as their biological children lack access to a means transportation and escape.

The trendline in Protestant denominations is abundantly and woefully clear. There has been a steady march away from any established order, any authority besides ones own opinion, and Protestantism has played a key role in this development. What started as an attempt at reformation has ended as a fracturing of the Western church into thousands competing and often very contradictory entities. From the dwindling Fred Phelps types on one side to growing “woke” crowd on the other, it is very little wonder that this form of Christianity has led many to abandon the enterprise of faith altogether.

There is no need for a Jerusalem council in the current climate. No, in this denominational chaos, there is no longer a need to even practice a Christian love that is willing to work through differences, no reason to submit or show deference to anyone, you just stay home or start a new even smaller, more pure and perfect group and move on.

It is a classic purity spiral, it is a result of people heading their own opinions over the urging of St Paul:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

There isn’t much effort towards that end anymore, is there?

The Protestant house church, often billed as a return to the early church, is merely a next step in the direction of individualism and it is little wonder when children raised in such an environment continue down this path of division in search of a new purity on their own terms. Many will find congregations that require less of them, others will join the growing ranks of “nones” who simply stay at home Sundays, but some of the more ambitious will attempt to recreate a perfect church in their own image.

The Church That Spans Dichtomies

Fortunately there are other options, the dichtomies of Protestantism. As it turns out, Christians do not need to choose between participation in the universal church (by attending services in a church building with other spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ) and having a “house church” primarily biological relatives, former denominational cohorts and close friends.

There is a solution to this paradox where you can both have your cake and eat it too: You can (and should) have a house church with your families, but can (and should) also maintain the unity of the faith and be in Communion with the Church body that transcends denominationalism and has an unbroken chain of ordinations back to the time of the Apostles.

In Orthodox Christianity, every man is a priest and his wife co-ordained as the leaders of their own church/home, that is what their marriage implies. But there are also priests over priests, and everyone (man and woman alike) is still accountable to the “priesthood of all believers” (which is to say the Church) and must submit to each other, especially the elder, as St Paul instructs:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

It is impossible to obey that teaching above while being your own boss.

I’m under no delusion about the Orthodox hierarchy, there are problems there like anything else people are involved. I do not submit to their perfection. I do, however, submit in Christian love, to honor my Lord, and in knowing my own unworthiness. I have no need to be the priest, at least not until God ordains it through his Church, but do see an urgent need for all Christians to submit one to another as we are told many times in Scripture.

You can have a house church and be Orthodox. In fact you should have a house church if you are Orthodox and that is historically well-established.

But you simply cannot be Orthodox or truly Christian and refuse to acknowledge that the church is bigger than you and your own comprehension or ideas.

Orthodoxy, once again, simultaneously occupies both sides of an argument in both strongly encouraging home church while also—at the same time—rejecting the spirit of Diotrephes of those who acknowledge no authority besides their own and set about to create a new pure church in their own image.

Second Marriage: A Second Look At Early Christian Writers…

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Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture.

That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.

It seems a fairly reasonable approach to a controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?

However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.

Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.

Consider this early church writer…

Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.

Did you catch that?

He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.

Compare what he says to Saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

Athenagoras has clearly gone off the rails. He is in direct contradiction to the canonical teachings of the apostle Paul. Why? Well, the reason for this is that he subscribed to the heretical “New Prophecy” called Montanism.

Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.

And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?

Tertullian.

Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has an authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.

It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.

All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases, a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.

1) The death of a spouse…

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)

There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason, the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.

2) The abandonment of a spouse…

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.

3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.

Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?

The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.

It would seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture makes us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.

But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.

Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

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Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.

From Death To Life: The Testimony Of A Biblically Religious Fraud Found By Jesus

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Sometimes the most religiously educated minds are the most spirituality ignorant.

Jesus confounded the religious teachers and authorities of His day.  Like the time Jesus asked a perplexed Nicodemus (John 3:3-21) why he “Israel’s teacher” could not understand the basics of spiritual birth.

Nicodemus was a religious expert.  He had no doubt studied Scripture his entire life.  Yet his mind was dull to spiritual things, his existing knowledge clouded him, and he clearly was not understanding what Jesus was trying to explain.

What was Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus?

Nicodemus is not the only religious authority totally ignorant of spiritual matters.  Many professing Christians have the same dullness of mind of Nicodemus because they have yet to be born of the Spirit and to realize the fullness of truth.

The religiously minded tend to think they gave birth to themselves.  They believe they were saved by their own study and understanding of a book.  No, they will never say this in so many words, but it is evident in what they claim as the foundation of their faith and attitudes towards those who try to give credit to God alone.

The thoroughly indoctrinated church borns, those who are the cream of the crop in their own minds, are the most difficult to convince. 

How do I know? 

I was one of them.  I was raised in a bastion of Biblical fundamentalism and religious pride.  I was born in a conservative Mennonite home.  (We are the best of the best and know it—Don’t let our initial humble appearance fool you!)  I went into public high school arrogant enough to think I knew more about biology than the college educated teacher of the class.

This is not unusual, Biblical fundamentalist children are often ‘big fish in a little pond’ and the smartest person they know.  To make matters worse, they are often isolated from outside influences (home schooled or raised with like-minded people) and too sheltered to realize how sheltered they are.

The result is that many things are just presumed to be true and never questioned.  Yes, we are fed a steady diet of information to make us feel knowledgeable about everything from science to theology and philosophy.  But most of it is a strawman of the other side and an attempt to vaccinate us from further questions.

But I had the misfortune of being born with a question “why” on my lips.  I delved deep into apologetics, slipped on a personal tragedy, and found I could not (despite my dedicated effort and mental strain) prove the existence of God.  I thrashed, gasped for that last saving breath, then disappeared into doubt and despair.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”  (Friedrich Nietzsche)

A mother’s wail ripped a hole in my heart.  All of my pretense of knowledge couldn’t save her children or keep me from my plunge into spiritual darkness.  I stared at the lifeless body that had come to represent my hope for my close friend.  There was no resurrection of the dead that day.  My little hope died.

I had reached an end.  All of the religious cliché and trite assurances were swallowed up in a tsunami of fear and hopelessness.  Over the same period of time I had a falling out with the religious community that was a big part of my identity and security.  I gave up.  My attempts to find faith through my diligent religious effort had totally failed me.

Passing from death to life by the Spirit’s power.

Many who profess faith in Jesus believe they were saved through their religious knowledge and reading the Bible.  But Scripture does not support their delusional claims.  There is no evidence that we can be born of Spirit or come to faith through our own religious knowledge and effort.

Just as a child doesn’t give birth to themselves, the spiritually dead cannot bring themselves to life and this is what Scripture describes was our reality before God saved us:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. […] For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 1-10)

There’s no such thing as half dead. 

There’s no way for a fully dead person to bring themselves to life.

Those who claim to be saved through their Bible study have somehow missed the obvious.  They may have read, but they clearly do not understand that dead is dead and the dead to not rise by their own accord.  No, if you are spiritually alive today “it is by grace you have been saved” and “not by works” or Paul is a liar.

What I had failed to comprehend in my diligent study and dedicated pursuit of faith is the simplest spiritual truth of them all.  Because of my religious education I had no grasp of my own hopelessness.  I had always assumed faith was a product or result of my own knowledge of Scripture and religious devotion.

I was blinded by my pretense of knowledge.  I had reasoned that I could be saved because of what I had learned about Jesus in church and in reading the Bible.  I thought this was faith in God, but it was really only ever a trust of my own human rationality and circular reasoning at best.  I really only had faith in my own ability to understand and believe the content of a book.

But my attempt to bootstrap my way into heaven this way failed me.  It was a false hope built on presumption and self-righteous delusion.  By assuming that my Bible reading was my salvation I had actually rejected Jesus and real spiritual life.  Despite my sincerity and ability to argue Bible-based dogma, I was nothing but a 2D cardboard cutout of a 3D faith.

It was only after my faith in my own abilities had died that there was a realization out of the blue.  The epiphany was the sudden understanding that it wasn’t my faith that saved me. No, it was God’s faith expressed through Jesus that saved me while I was yet a sinner. I was miraculously raised from the dead with Him.

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.” (Colossians 2:9-13)

My Biblical ‘Christian’ indoctrination did not save me.  No, it had blinded me.   I was too full of religious pride, intellectual assumptions and the pretense of spiritual knowledge to know the truth.  However, despite this pretense of faith that had taken root, I had believed in Jesus as a child and was baptized in sincerity of faith.

And now that spiritual seed of my Baptismal faith was ready to emerge from the water.  Suddenly the words of the Jesus and the Apostles came alive in a new way as I read them.  I was astonished, what had once confused and confounded me was now clear as day.  I could finally understand the book that had caused me (and others like this guy) to fall into agnosticism.

Are we saved by our book knowledge or saved by Jesus?

I can hear the howls of protest from both the book worshipping religious people and other unbelievers: “How could I know about Jesus and come to faith without reading the Bible?!?”

But these religious cynics and skeptics lack understanding of their own spiritual ignorance:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)

This is the mystery those who reject the Bible and those who think their own knowledge saves them refuse to understand.  They have both (tacitly or openly) rejected the resurrection of the dead and, in their self-reliance, dismiss the promise of Jesus and cling to what is reasonable to their spiritually dead mind.

But Jesus never promised we would be saved or taught by a book.  That idea is a misunderstanding of Biblical terminology and causality at best.  It is spiritual idolatry or rejection of the person of Jesus and blasphemy again the Spirit of God at worse.  This is what Jesus did promise:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

Now, lest any of you protest and attempt to credit your own understanding of the Bible for saving you.  Go back and read the passages I’ve quoted previously, dead people do not come to understanding and life by their own reading comprehension.  We are told the real teacher is the Spirit and that it is only through the spiritual anointing promised by Jesus that we avoid deception:

“I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 2:26-27)

At first glance it might seem paradoxical to write to warn someone about deception if they don’t need to be told.  However, faith is not individualistic effort or personal project and God uses many means to encourage us through the collective body of believers.  Only those with the Spirit know that the words of a writer originate from the Spirit.

But, wait, isn’t that circular reasoning, how do you know? 

I’ve mentioned that predisposing the Bible to be true because it says so is circular reasoning or an argument based in two unproven premises that rely on each other to be true.  So, isn’t saying that I know the Spirit because I have the Spirit the same thing?

Of course, the only way it is the same thing is if we believe a book is equal in ability and power to the Spirit of God.  Many Christians do this when they describe the Bible as “word of God” and claim it saved them.  But the Scripture is indeed different from the word of God and we can know this as fact.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:9-11)

That word translated as “word” in the passage above is the Hebrew דָּבָר (dabar) and in the New Testament Greek comes out as λόγος (logos) or ῥῆμα (rhema) and does not refer to Scripture.  If it did refer to Scripture, and Isaiah is true, then it would be impossible for those who knew the Scripture to reject the word of God:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. […] And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:25-40)

These people Jesus says studied the Scripture diligently.  Yet, despite their religious dedication to a book, according to Jesus, they did not have God’s “word” in them and therefore would not come to Him for life.  If Scripture is the word of God and they knew the Scripture, then how could they not know the truth standing literally in front of them?

The answer is that they knew Scripture and not the word.  The two are not one and the same. One is divinely inspired writing useful to a true believer (2 Timothy 3:16) and the other is divinity embodied and a promise that cannot fail.  One is infallible while the other can be twisted and misused as Peter warns:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Scripture can be distorted the “ignorant and unstable” but God’s word is always true.  Satan can quote Scripture, but we also know he always lies, has “no truth in him” (John 8:44) and this is a problem if you presume that “word” is synonymous with Scripture.

Fortunately we need not make such a presumption.  Scripture and the word of God are related to each other.  God’s word is what inspired Scripture.  I will even venture to say that Scripture can become as God’s word to the believer.  However, we must get first things first or we are deceived and Jesus always comes first.

Salvation is through faith and Jesus, not in our religious devotion to a book.

I am saved because Jesus saved me.  If I were to make any other boast I would only out of ignorance of both Scripture and the word of God which inspired it.  My faith and eventual salvation is entirely a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8) and rest in the mystery of God’s power. 

It was knowledge apart from God that drove Adam away from the tree of life—I believe (after the fact) that it is God’s word or Spirit who “quickened” me to salvation. 

There is no faith without obedience and there is no obedience outside of hearing God’s word.  This is the paradox of the promised Spirit.  We hear because we are made alive in the grace of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5) and must be faithful in the very little we know before we can expect to get very much.

I believe salvation is totally the work of God.  God makes the initial payment through grace and we continue to grow in faith through obedience to to what we know.  My faith is not a presupposition based in something I read in a book or a product of religious indoctrination.  My faith is personal relationship and something experienced in the heart of those who believe.

I believe the word comes to us through revelation of the Spirit.  It is not our mere knowledge of Scripture that saves us, but also always an act of God and work of the Spirit.  It was only after Jesus revealed himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that they were finally able to understand:

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)

If the very men who spent all that time with Jesus teaching them needed His help to understand the Scripture, how can we expect to do better?

But the most compelling case for direct revelation is how Paul’s explanation of how we (as believers) understand the Scripture when others with the same written texts did not:

“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them?  In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)

Scripture is only useful for those of the Spirit and those who do not accept the Spirit “considers it foolishness” because they have yet to experience the indwelling of the word.  They are spiritual blind and often the most religiously arrogant hard-headed people.  If they profess Jesus Christ and seek to obey Him, I do believe they will be saved.  However, because of their refusal to fully acknowledge or accept the gift of God’s Spirit they may be as those who have built a foundation somewhat on the works of men rather than completely on Christ—who will see their work burn but still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) because God is gracious to the ignorant.

For those who think the Bible is the best way of sharing the Gospel I will again point to the explanation of Paul who writes (2 Corinthians 3) we ourselves are a letter from God and it is the Spirit that makes us competent.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always best learned through application.  Bible study has it’s place for certain, in fact that is probably one of the first places the Spirit will take us.  However, reading without loving as Christ loved to our best ability will limit our deeper understanding of the book. 

What am I… a Calvinist?

I make no such allegiance.  I have not studied John Calvin enough to know where I stand in relation to his teachings. 

I believe in free will and still acknowledge the clear pattern of causality and determinism in the universe.  I also do not ignore the language of predestination and election in Scripture.

I do believe in paradox. 

There are many cases where dualities of both/and (as opposed to either/or dichotomies) offer the better explanation. Dualities are found in both the uppermost, lowermost and outermost limits that define the universe as we currently know it. 

The singularity of a black hole, on the scale of the very big, is an object both infinity small and massive, a place where time itself ceases, defies normal reasoning.  Quantum mechanics, the world of the extremely small smallest parts of the universe, brings us to an irrational bizarreness where particles behave as waves until observed and time ceases to matter.

Advanced physics is now making the long held assumptions of materialists obsolete, we can now look beyond these constraints and to possibilities once unimaginable.

Our rationality is time based. 

God’s is not.

Time is an illusion.

This has huge implications.

This might explain the language of ‘is and is yet to come’ in Scripture.  Jesus explained “my kingdom is not of this world” and pointed to a higher spiritual dimensionality that is beyond the reach of normal human reasoning or natural science. 

Perhaps the question of free will and predestination is answered by a paradoxical both.  If we are adopted by God, sons and daughters according to His word, then we will eventually become one with the Father, our Father who exists in timeless reality, and therefore we participate in our own coming to salvation through the Spirit.

Who knows?  Only Jesus.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions.  I don’t need to know the answers to those questions.  All I know I need to know is Jesus.  Even if I were not a Christian I am convinced Jesus, his way of self-sacrificial love and leadership by example, is the answer.

“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

That is the testimony I have.  Only by the love of Jesus and the Spirit’s power am I saved.

Jesus is the answer that found me.