Who Is Mother Nature?


cloudsI made a comment today in the atheist FB group I’m a part of, as part of a discussion about how nature can show God’s existence. Before long someone used the term Mother Nature. Apparently she is alive and well in the minds of atheists, whoever she is.

As it happens, I wrote an article on this subject back in September 2013, so I thought it might be worthwhile running it again.

– – – – –

Once again I heard a weatherman credit “Mother Nature” with the change in the wind currents and pressure gradient influencing the forecast he was about to make. When I first heard the term as a child, I understood it to refer to a make-believe person like the Jolly Green Giant who oversaw the growth of amazing frozen vegetables.

Today, however, more and more people speak of “Mother Nature” as if she actually exists. Some, to be sure, are speaking of her as a personification of the force of nature, but others, by the way they are crediting Mother Nature for things like a good night’s sleep or unexpected rain, seem to actually believe a sentient being is at work.

I have to admit, I’ve been guilty in the past of tongue-in-cheek claims of “Mother Nature’s” work. I thought it was harmless pretend.

Sometimes, however, harmless pretend can soften a person or a society to a concept. As mysticism has taken hold of Western culture, ideas I once thought far-fetched are now considered normative. “Mother Nature” is slipping into that role.

But who is “Mother Nature”? A quick look at the history of the term discloses roots in various religions as well as in Greek mythology, attaching the term to a number of different goddesses.

The popularization of the term, however, has escalated as actual characters or “Mother Nature” figures have worked their way into such media as The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause movies, Happily Ever After, episodes of Stargate SG-1, and Avatar.

As society gets more and more comfortable with the idea of a being working in and through nature, who is not God, I have to wonder if stage isn’t set for a rebirth of goddess worship.

Dare I say, there are women who are part of the feminist movement who already hold their beliefs with religious fervor. If there is not already a worship of the idea of Woman, the underpinnings are there. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to me to think that a religion centered on goddess worship is just around the corner.

So, in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, I want to point out that there is no separate force controlling nature apart from God Himself. He is both the creator and the sustainer of our world. In Him all He brought into being holds together.

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16-17)

Maybe it’s time we retire the pretend “Mother Nature” lest we find ourselves on the edge of religion that worships nature and credits something other than God as the force behind it.

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Published in: on October 6, 2017 at 6:02 pm  Comments (5)  
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Cleaning The Cup


1194095_wine_glass_dark_fieldIn recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.

I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians—if they are actual followers of Christ—have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.

Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not.

The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, which I think we American believers sometimes lose sight of. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says to Christians, we work to bring all of society into a godly lifestyle.

To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing and all of society would be better off doing what He says, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.

Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the outside and leaving the inside filthy. Just the opposite. He said, essentially, clean the inside and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).

Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:

“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)

In other words, He was talking to pretend Christians, or to religious people in other faiths who think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.

To be honest, a lot of those people clean up well. Their outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.

Clean cups, at least on the outside.

Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, all are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.

I could say the same about any number of people of religion—they do many, many right things because in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces—whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.

Shockingly, atheists can fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list. Be tolerant of people who hold a different belief system than traditional Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.

The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy. This is their nirvana, but to get there, they must clean the outside until it shines.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them.

For the religionists God expects them to measure up, and for the humanists, they have to measure up to the standard they’ve set for themselves. So both groups busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines again.

All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, no one knows.

Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send physicians away. Services not needed here—only healthy people on site.

But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory—His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.

Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They have measured themselves against themselves and decided they are the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder, they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.

So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness.

We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.

This post first appeared here in June 2013.

Published in: on April 13, 2016 at 6:24 pm  Comments Off on Cleaning The Cup  
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What It Means To Be Made In God’s Image


puzzle-piecesI’m afraid this post is going to be ridiculously simplistic.

I’m not a philosopher, but for some strange reason I’m fascinated by the discipline. In my opinion the way we think about things, whether we’re aware of the system from which we’re operating or not, creates the filter through which we look at the world. Sometimes that system acts more like a blindfold that needs to be lifted before we can see.

Today I listened to the beginning of a lecture entitled “One God, Many Paths?” presented by Michael Ramsden of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. In that opening, Ramsden explained that religions are rooted in either epistemology (thought), existentialism (feeling), or pragmatism (doing). In other words, they either tell people how to think, what to experience, or what to do.

Yes, there are some religions that combine all three—right thinking, right feeling, right doing. According to Ramsden, Christianity is not one of them. It cannot be reduced to one or even all three of those approaches. To become a Christian is not to master a system of thought, nor is it simply to have an experience or to follow a list of do’s and don’ts.

In truth, Jesus did not come into the world to tell us how to think about God or to give us new experiences with God or to tell us to do things for God. Jesus Christ came into this world as God. I’ll call this the relational component which other religions don’t have.

So what does this have to do with what it means to be made in the image of God? Simply this (remember, I said this post would probably be simplistic 😉 ): these philosophical foundations upon which religions are built fit nicely into the categories Jesus laid forth when He answered the question, What is the greatest commandment?

YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND (Luke 19:27b)

Heart, relational. Soul, existential. Strength, pragmatic. Mind, epistemological.

We are the sum of those parts.

We commune with others, feel in our souls, act from our will, analyze and reason with our intellect.

No surprise that God shows these same facets of His character, most clearly in Jesus—the Word made flesh—but no less present in God the Father or the Spirit. How could it be less so? Jesus specifically said He came to show us the Father. And what we find is that God, though incomprehensibly transcendent, is remarkably familiar. He cried and got angry and laughed and felt compassion. He told stories and accepted invitations to parties. He gave reasoned answers to questions and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He blessed children and prayed to the Father. He did the right things, experienced life the right way, thought the right things, and related in the right way.

His empathetic connection with others, the way He lived, the things He said that revealed His mind, and the actions He took were not divorced from each other. He was a harmonious whole.

We have those same components.

Our brokenness lies in the lack of harmony we now live with. As a look at those various religious underpinnings reveals, we tilt dreadfully toward one direction or the other. We do this collectively and we do this individually.

Nevertheless, we have the same components Jesus exhibited and that we can find in God the Father. How logical, then, that when we trust in Jesus and His redemptive work, He can put the broken pieces back together.

God’s Great Grace


God's Great GraceApparently one of my favorite topics is God’s grace. I know this because I have twenty-four posts archived under that category title. I credit my former pastor Dale Burke for putting God’s grace front and center Sunday after Sunday, until I began to understand its significance.

I can’t say that I have any new insights, but I have thought about grace since I joined a Facebook group last week called Faith vs. Reason: The Friendly Debate. I was invited to join the closed group by a Christian writer friend. There are upwards of two hundred people—some atheists and some theists—who have agreed to discuss things that divide us in a friendly manner rather than in the usual name-calling, snarky, dismissive way that so often dominates discussions elsewhere.

One thing that came up on the first day I was in the group was the bad religious experiences some of the atheists reported. They’d been in a church, usually in childhood, but their experience left them confused and questioning until they chucked the whole thing.

My first thought when I read their account was, they’d been in a “earn your own way” religion that didn’t teach or show God’s grace. So these now embittered or indifferent atheists came to believe there was not anything of substance in the ritual and mechanical adherence to traditions they’d been taught.

But here’s the fatal error: they concluded that since the religion they were in was empty, God was a sham. The point is, they didn’t know Him if they didn’t know about His grace. And they weren’t going to find His grace by working harder at religion.

Grace truly is the dividing line. Not just between Christians and atheists but between false religion and true. And the fact is that NO OTHER RELIGIOUS TRADITION even pretends to be built upon grace.

It’s just too impossible to fathom or achieve. A free gift? Total forgiveness and no retribution or reprisal or debt? Who would come up with an idea like that?

It runs counter to what we humans expect. We get payback. The revenge motif is ingrained in our DNA. We never have to ask, why would Mr. Bates in the Downton Abby story want revenge against Mr. Green who raped his wife. A non-Christian writer can create story tension knowing that all the viewers understand the rationale behind a husband acting against someone who hurt his loved one. There’s no religious underpinning when it comes to revenge. It’s human nature.

But grace? Just the opposite. Who would understand someone struck on the cheek offering the other side as well? Or rescuing an enemy from muggers, then paying the medical bill?

Human acts of grace aren’t something Christians do because of our goodness but because of the example Jesus Christ gives. He came to save and to serve. The King of all creation! He came! He emptied Himself, leaving the glories of heaven. He offered Himself up. He died. And thanks be to God, He rose again!

It’s that single act of sacrifice that turns the world upside down. God dies that Mankind might live. If only we believe. We, the sinners, deserving of death. He the Righteous One, in whom the Father is well pleased.

How can such a thing be apart from grace. It’s the One True God’s unique identifier. The pretenders have rules and rituals, prophets and power. They have followers, some willing to lay down their lives for what they believe. But where’s the grace?

Belief system after belief system comes up with things to do to be better, to earn favor, to reach a higher plane. None of them acknowledges our inevitable failure, no matter our good intentions. That’s why the 2015 New Year’s resolutions are already a thing of the past. The Bible says the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. And at some point, we all know this to be true. No matter what we wish we’d said or done or not said or not done, it’s too late. All we can do is say we’ll try harder next time, and try to make amends for our failings.

Grace is not like that.

Behold the Author of our salvation
Behold the wonder of grace so free
Behold the blessing of true forgiveness
At Calvary (from “Come And See,” Your Grace Finds Me, Matt Redman,Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, Chris Tomlin)

Published in: on February 2, 2015 at 6:33 pm  Comments (6)  
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Who Is Mother Nature?


cloudsOnce again I heard a weatherman credit “Mother Nature” with the change in the wind currents and pressure gradient influencing the forecast he was about to make. When I first heard the term as a child, I understood it to refer to a make-believe person like the Jolly Green Giant who oversaw the growth of amazing frozen vegetables.

Today, however, more and more people speak of “Mother Nature” as if she actually exists. Some, to be sure, are speaking of her as a personification of the force of nature, but others, by the way they are crediting Mother Nature for things like a good night’s sleep or unexpected rain, seem to actually believe a sentient being is at work.

I have to admit, I’ve been guilty in the past of tongue-in-cheek claims of “Mother Nature’s” work. I thought it was harmless pretend.

Sometimes, however, harmless pretend can soften a person or a society to a concept. As mysticism has taken hold of Western culture, ideas I once thought far-fetched are now considered normative. “Mother Nature” is slipping into that role.

But who is “Mother Nature”? A quick look at the history of the term discloses roots in various religions as well as in Greek mythology, attaching the term to a number of different goddesses.

The popularization of the term, however, has escalated as actual characters or “Mother Nature” figures have worked their way into such media as The Santa Clause 2 and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause movies, Happily Ever After, episodes of Stargate SG-1, and Avatar.

As society gets more and more comfortable with the idea of a being working in and through nature, who is not God, I have to wonder if stage isn’t set for a rebirth of goddess worship.

Dare I say, there are women who are part of the feminist movement who already hold their beliefs with religious fervor. If there is not already a worship of the idea of Woman, the underpinnings are there. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to me to think that a religion centered on goddess worship is just around the corner.

So, in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, I want to point out that there is no separate force controlling nature apart from God Himself. He is both the creator and the sustainer of our world. In Him all He brought into being holds together.

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16-17)

Maybe it’s time we retire the pretend “Mother Nature” lest we find ourselves on the edge of religion that worships nature and credits something other than God as the force behind it.

Published in: on September 12, 2013 at 6:41 pm  Comments (8)  
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Cleaning the Cup


1194095_wine_glass_dark_fieldIn recent years a fairly popular criticism of Christians in Western society is that those in traditional churches are playing the part today of the “religious leaders,” also called the Pharisees, who clashed with Jesus in the first century.

I maintain that this position compares avocados and watermelons. The Pharisees were trying to work their way into God’s good graces, even as they rejected Jesus. Christians–if they are actual followers of Christ–have understood that our best efforts fall short of God’s glory and have instead accepted the work of Jesus at the cross.

Does the fact that Christians follow Jesus mean that we can then live as we please and do as we wish? Certainly not. The instruction in the New Testament is for Christians, which I think we sometimes lose sight of, at least here in America. Rather than concerning ourselves with all that the Bible says, we work to bring all of society into a godly lifestyle.

To an extent, this is not a bad thing. Christ’s teaching is life-changing, but the truth is, it’s possible to clean up the outside of the cup and leave the inside disgustingly dirty.

Jesus didn’t advocate scouring the inside and leaving the outside filthy, though. He said, essentially, clean the inside and the outside will take care of itself: “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (Matt. 23:26).

Here’s what Jesus was really getting to:

“So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 24:28)

In other words, these words are directed at pretend Christians, or at religious people in other faiths that think doing a bunch of good deeds will put them in right standing with god or the universe or whatever it is they worship.

The outside can look all spiffy and clean. One reason Christians team up with Mormons in political matters, I believe, is that Mormons are so very moral. They are pro-life and pro-marriage, don’t drink or smoke or gamble, go to church, give to charities, and generally present a face of kindness.

Clean cups, at least on the outside.

Honestly, moderate Muslims are right there beside them. The women dress modestly, all are law-abiding, they worship regularly, they oppose homosexuality, drinking, and abortion.

I could say the same about any number of people of religion–they do many, many right things because in their belief system, they have to. The doing is their ticket to “God’s” good graces–whether that means enlightenment, nirvana, heaven, or another planet where they will rule.

Shockingly, atheists fall into this category, too. Their list of “right things” will differ from Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and pretend Christians, but they still have their list. Be tolerant of people who hold a different belief system than traditional Western culture, take care of the environment, avoid even the appearance of prejudice, speak only in a politically correct way, support gender equality, gay marriage, and labor unions.

The gods that the atheists are trying to please, of course, are themselves. They talk much about doing something meaningful for society and leaving a legacy.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the people who have these spiffed up outsides. Those folk see no need for Him because they believe it’s up to them. Either God expects them to measure up or they have to measure up to the standard they’ve set for themselves. So they busy themselves cleaning the outside of the cup, and when drink splatters, which it always does, they hurriedly wipe it away. When greasy fingers leave a smear, they wash and polish, until the outside shines.

All the while, germs roam free on the inside. They can hate and lust and covet to their heart’s content. They can doubt God and rail at Him, they can be disappointed and think He’s let them down or doesn’t really care or isn’t really there. Just so long as on the outside, no one knows.

Jesus said He came to heal, but only sick people need healing. The well send the physician away. Services not needed here–only healthy people on site.

But that attitude is indicative of the spiritually blind. All people have fallen short of God’s glory–His righteous standard, and the only standard that matters.

Children run races and win trophies, but how silly if they strutted around claiming to be the fastest runner in the world. They have measured themselves against themselves and decided they are the best. But if they were to measure themselves against the world record holder they would clearly, consistently, and always fall short.

So too with Man’s efforts, as soon as we measure ourselves against God’s holiness. We might shine the outside of our cup in an effort to fool ourselves and others that it is clean, but to kill the germs crawling around inside takes the touch of the Master, the work of Jesus, the healing of the One who came to save.

Published in: on June 14, 2013 at 6:29 pm  Comments Off on Cleaning the Cup  
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Who Defines Morality?


Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_WashingtonPresident Obama’s administration has taken a few hits lately. One of the latest problems to come to light has to do with the IRS targeting for delays groups applying for non-profit status if they had a conservative moniker such as Tea Party.

As an aside, I find it interesting that “Tea Party,” associated with one of the brave acts of rebellion by the forefathers of the US in the process of gaining independence from England, has become a negative in the eyes of liberal Americans.

Maybe that isn’t so much of an aside. The question is, who defines morality? Once, standing up to a government that wasn’t really all that repressive, but was unilateral in its decisions, was thought to be a brave act worthy of acclaim.

Today, the group of people standing against a Big Brother type of all invasive government is ridiculed by the media and, in this latest Obama administration gaffe, targeted for unfair treatment by the IRS.

As it turns out, the President himself spoke out against this kind of unfair treatment. But the incident brings up the question, who gets to define morality? Those opposed to the Tea Party were making a decision based on what they believed to be right, I would have to assume. I mean, they were violating common practice if not legal precedent in targeting organizations with whom they disagreed. Who would do that unless they thought those organizations were wrong?

But do government officials get to define morality in this way? Do police get to target people because of their political views or religious persuasion? Some actually think they should–in light of terrorist threats.

How do we then keep government from going after those with whom they disagree, just as the IRS so recently did? This is the kind of action dictatorial regimes take.

No wonder President George Washington said in his farewell address

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

How, President Washington seems to say, can morality exist apart from religion? How can political prosperity stand without the support of religion and morality?

Here we are in the twenty-first century, stripping religion from the marketplace of ideas, claiming that it has no place in government, and we find ourselves in a morass of immorality–or morality defined by one’s own ideas and beliefs.

How can we expect otherwise when we have stripped away any authority upon which morality is to stand? Why shouldn’t the anti-Tea Party IRS agent believe he is doing his nation a service by thwarting their processes? Who’s to say he is wrong? That is, if there is no authoritative, objective moral standard.

But if not from religion,from where does morality come?

Interestingly, Jesus was asked by the Jewish leaders of His day where He derived His authority. They wanted to trap Him and He would have none of it. But later, when he talked with His disciples, He let them know that what He said, He’d first heard from His Father. He was not making things up on the fly, not moving according to the whims of His own heart. He had an authoritative standard, established in conjunction with the Father and revealed by the Holy Spirit.

All this to say, the further government gets from religion, the weaker will be the grasp of morality. The latter will become a malleable thing, bent to the will of men and women in power, whether for good or ill, without any authoritative standard to guide it. Expect, then, more IRS-like scandals.

Government Intrusion


assault_rifleFor reasons that are far too numerous and complex to delve into in a blog post, the US government is becoming increasingly intrusive. So has the California state government and the County of Los Angeles, so we can probably just sum it all up as Government intrusion.

In a country that used to pride itself on its freedoms, we now have more and more regulations designed to save us from ourselves. Every time there is a crisis, pretty much anywhere in the world, our government officials start talking about how they can protect us from that same eventuality.

Consequently, after another school shooting, there has been, as predicted, a great deal of discussion about how to regulate guns. In all this, I’m more troubled that the number of gang deaths, often from guns, doesn’t rile the country up in the same way as the Sandy Hook deaths. In 2010 alone, there were over 2000 gang-related homicides (see the National Gang Center). I suppose to qualify as a game changer, however, a shocking number of deaths would need to occur at one time.

That’s why the tragedy in the Brazilian night club triggered another round of discussions about safety measures and regulations in similar venues here in the US.

surveillance droneOf course, nothing unleashed more regulations than the attack in New York on 9/11. From surveillance cameras to body searches at the airport to electronic eavesdropping and tracking to drone surveillance, measures designed to keep Americans safe have clearly reduced privacy. It is this Government intrusion that seems especially to bother a good many people.

In response, there’s been a growth in the number of libertarians who want to see a reduction of regulations–or more precisely, as little Government as possible. For example, in 2012, the Libertarian Party candidates for President and Vice President received more than twice as many votes as their 2008 counterparts.

I know a number of other conservatives who are doing considerable hand-wringing because of the recent increased Government intrusion. Many reason that this Big Brother watchfulness will one day be turned on Christians to impinge upon our freedom of religion.

And that might actually be true. But here’s the thing. If a person isn’t breaking a law, then he has no reason to fear the Government watching him. Unless the Government outlaws worshiping God. But if that happens, is the answer to continue to do so privately, secretly, out of view of those who want to regulate it out of existence?

I think of Daniel, confronted with the same situation. The sudden outlawing of worship of any but Babylon’s king did not dissuade Daniel from continuing to worship the One True God, and to do so without hiding. He didn’t flaunt his decision by praying on the palace steps, but neither did he go into his closet where the watching eyes of hostile government officials couldn’t see.

When I was a kid, we sang a song in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School that contained the line, “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone.” I tend to think there well could be a time when Christians in the US will need to make a stand similar to Daniel’s. We won’t be alone in the same way, but we well may be without the protection of the Government preserving our religious liberties.

Perhaps our concern now shouldn’t be so much in fighting Government intrusion as it should be in preparing to face the consequences when that Government intrusion is turned upon us. How prepared are we to keep praying if someone in Government says to stop?

Peter gives us the perspective we need:

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:13-15)

The Christian Distinctive


Not long ago I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula–see review here) and, what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace–God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

Published in: on June 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Bone House by Stephen Lawhead, Day 2


Where is God in Stephen Lawhead‘s Bright Empires series, of which The Bone House (Thomas Nelson) is the second book? It’s inevitable in a Christian speculative tour to ask this kind of question.

As I’ve said of late, there really is only one distinctive in Christian fiction of any genre — it can tell the truth about God. No other fiction can. Stories by those of other religions or by atheists might do an exceptional job showing this world, but when it comes to ultimate reality — who God is, what He plans for Mankind, how He relates to people here and now or in the future — no one else besides Christians can tell the truth.

In other words, the fiction of those not believing in Jesus Christ will be flawed because they don’t have true understanding of reality. They either will write a story about the here and now leaving God out or they will write a story about the here and now or about the hereafter that is riddled with error about God.

But Christians don’t automatically, by virtue of our faith, depict God accurately in our fiction. Some admittedly don’t try.

A portion of those see their job as tilling the soil. They want to create a hunger and thirst for eternal things by showing something about love and life and meaning in the here and now.

Others don’t try because they don’t think they need to — their faith will be a part of their story, they believe, because it’s a part of them.

Where in all this does Stephen Lawhead fall? I have no idea. But without a doubt “religion” is moving forward in importance in the Bright Empires series.

In the first installment, The Skin Map, some reviewers didn’t think there was a central message about God. In my review I disagreed, saying, “I believe there is a consistent sprinkling of thought-provoking, well-timed mentions of God, sometimes referenced as Providence. I believe Mr. Lawhead has laid the ground work for an exploration of God’s providential work versus Man’s freedom to choose his own path.”

Honestly, I don’t yet know what the “central message” related to God is in the Bright Empires novels. After all, we’re only through book two of a five book series. But as I said above, religion has become more important.

For example, there’s this scene about a fourth of the way into the story:

Turms, splendid in a crimson robe and tall hat trimmed in gold, stooped low and thanked the animal for the sacrifice of its life. With a nod to Arthur and Xian-Li, he beckoned them to the altar and instructed them to place their hands upon the lamb. He then drew a knife made from black volcanic glass across its throat. The small creature lay still and expired without a sound. Then, while attendants eviscerated the carcass, a golden bowl in which some of the blood had been collected was passed to Turms.

He lifted the bowl and drank, then offered the bowl to both Arthur and Xian-Li.

The scene continues with this Egyptian Priest King completing the ceremony of divination and making a pronouncement that the unborn child in question would be healthy and have a long life.

This is the same Priest King, by the way, who earlier in the novel had this insight:

Turms was impressed once again, as he often was, how even the most seemingly insignificant and trivial actions and associations could, in the fullness of time, command great import.

Despise not the day of small things . . . was that how it went? It was a saying he had learned in Alexandria from a bearded eastern sage — a wise man of the cult of Yahweh — the god, it was claimed, who reigned above all others, who ordained and sustained all things for his creation, and who was worshiped by Hebrews to the exclusion of all others.

Half way into the novel another overtly religious scene unfolds. One of the characters based on the historical archeologist Dr. Thomas Young says this to Kit, the main character:

“Too many of my brother scientists are succumbing to a view that holds all religion as outdated nonsense — nursery tales from mankind’s infancy, dogmas to be outgrown and swept aside by scientific progress.”

“I’m familiar with the view,” confirmed Kit.

“But see here,” continued Thomas, brightening once more. “Contrary to what many may think, immortality is not a fairy tale invented to compensate for an unhappy life. Rather, it is the perception shared by nearly all sentient beings that our conscious lives are not bounded by this time and space. We are not merely lumps of animate matter. We are living spirits — we all feel this innately. And in our deepest hearts, we know that we can only find ultimate fulfilment in union with the supreme spiritual reality — a reality that appears, even during this earthly life, to take us beyond the narrow limits of time.”

As the conversation goes on, the doctor builds a case for Man’s consciousness — his self-awareness and imagination — not bound by time and space, yearning for “an affinity with the One Great Consciousness that made us — the spiritual consciousness of the Creator.”

He concludes by saying, “It is because we can establish an affinity with the eternal Creator that immortality becomes more than a fairy tale. At very least, you must allow, it becomes a most reasonable hope.”

As I see it, this exchange is central to understanding the main thrust of the Bright Empires novels.

But clearly, everything in the story, including the ultimate theme, is under construction. How the Priest King’s divination ceremony fits with Dr. Young’s religious philosophizing remains to be seen in the next three volumes.

About the only thing I can say with some sense of certainty is that Mr. Lawhead’s inclusion of religion is purposeful. He’s weaving the spiritual element into his stories with the same intrigue and care as he’s weaving the ley lines of his plot.