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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Harpur Easter Heresy

Tom Harpur recently published an article in The Toronto Star entitled "Jesus is the medium who became the essential message". Unfortunately, this newspaper (much like The Straits Times) and many others, does not keep its articles online for more than a few days at most. An attempt to locate it online today three days after its first appearance led me to a subscription page. I have before me the print edition.

In a nutshell: the piece is inadequate and plain wrong not just from the perspective of a Christian who reads the Bible, but also from one who cares about proper hermeneutics and logical argumentation. I don't claim to be perfectly right in the following critique, since I came to think a lot more seriously on the topic of the Trinity only recently, and am not a properly trained Bible scholar. But I am confident that I am not wresting Scripture to my purposes.

Let me first lay out Harpur's main theses (all heretical, by the way). He basically charges that Jesus is not the Son of God (and certainly not God himself), denies the doctrine and truth of the Trinity, and asserts that the idea of the divinity of Jesus was a turn towards idolatry in the late third, fourth and fifth centuries. (The ignorant) orthodox Christians today and in the past are therefore sadly mistaken, misled, gulled into believing a heresy that has, unfortunately, led to "terrible, bloody consequences down the ages, particularly in relationships with...Judaism and Islam." In his view, apparently, if one has really read the Bible has and understood it correctly (as he thinks he has), one's eyes will be open to the fact that "Christianity is guilty of a staggering act of idolatry--one which, ironically, the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels would have utterly repudiated."

I shall try to do a brief critique of some of his points as they appear in his article, and then go into further detail about his two primary 'evidences' for asserting that Jesus is not God: (1) the testimony of the Gospels and of the apostolic epistles; and (2) the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity at the 5th century Council of Chalcedon (i.e., that the divinity of Christ was thus a late development that strayed from the earlier, more authentic faith).

Harpur begins grandly, condescendingly, smugly:
Everybody, religious or not, talks about the Ten Commandments as though he or she knows what they are but, in actual fact, very few could list them apart from not killing, not stealing, and not committing adultery.
This is "unfortunate", Harpur continues, because the other commandments are just as important; and the first is the greatest of them all: to have "no other gods before" God, Yahweh (Exodus 20:1).

Harpur does not neglect to ask the reader to "note in passing that this passage acknowledges that there are other gods to be worshipped." This is a careless if not naive reading of the expression "other gods". The reference to "other gods", as made clear by many passages, is more properly taken to mean "other (supposed) gods". Just to cite a few verses: we have Psalm 135 in which the psalmist proclaims "For I know that the Lord is great, and that our God is above all gods," and clarifies this reference to other supposed gods with the following: "The idols [gods] of the nations are but silver and gold, the work of man's hands". That is to say, that these "gods" aren't really gods at all: they do not even have breath in their mouths! (See also Psalm 115:2-8 which contains the same idea in very similar language) In fact, read on in Exodus 20 (where the 10 commandments are listed), and you'll soon see God commanding that humans "shall not make for" themselves "gods of silver or gods of gold" (v. 23). Elijah's challenge to the worshippers of Baal is another clear and instructive example: hypothetically, "if... Baal [is God], follow him." (1 Kings 18:21) Surely Elijah's faith is not wavering here. Again, in vv. 24 and 25, he calls the Baal worshippers to "call on the name of your god". Simply put, the use of the words "other gods" in no way necessarily means that one concedes the existence of many gods.

Anyway, Harpur's highlighting of the first commandment leads up to his main charge that Christians are guilty of idolatry, in having another god, Jesus, in place of God the Father. He claims that Jesus was just a "first century peasant man...whose historicity is now in serious dispute". What evidence does he cite for this serious claim? Nothing more than "(see, for example, The Jesus Myth by G. A. Wells). But I'm going to let this slide because it basically cuts against the rest of his arguments. If the historicity of Jesus is in doubt, then it is moot to argue that in fact, Jesus did not teach that he is God. If anyone is interested, he or she can read the very scholarly The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg (Amazon.com)

Harpur then (the nerve of him) contends that Jesus of the Gospels would have agreed with him. One is tempted to go--huh? with eyes wide open with incredulity. He says:
After all, when challenged by his enemies to cite the greatest commandment in the Torah, he (Mt. 22:37) promptly replied it was: Love the God with all of one's heart, soul and mind--and of one's neighbour as oneself.
Ok, maybe Harpur meant something like this: if Jesus understood himself to be God, He would have told the man to worship Him in more direct terms instead. Since he didn't, he did not understand himself to be God. But this is a rather suspicious move. By the same logic, if God Himself were to have said the same thing (as He in fact commanded Moses to teach the children of Israel in Deut 6:5), Harpur would have to conclude that God Himself did not understand himself to be God!

He then continues to misread Jesus' words to bolster his case. In Mark 10:17, a wealthy young man comes to Jesus and asks him "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus does not, as Harpur writes, instantly tell the young man off. Instead, He asks (and one can reasonably imagine a gentle questioning, prodding tone here), "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." (v. 18) Is Jesus saying here that he is not God? Not only is it far from obvious that he's doing so, his question in no way suggests that he cannot be properly called "good" (that is, recognised as God). Jesus' question is more accurately understood as "Recognising Me only as a teacher (not God), why do you call me that which is God's alone?" Again, Harpur's presupposition that Jesus is not God has led him to go for a simplistic reading that conveniently serves his cause.

Harpur continues on the same thread, asserting that the Gospels always portray Jesus in total subordination to God--never equality: "Nowhere does he [Jesus] ever categorically claim to be God." Actually, the first assertion (taken correctly) is true enough. The Gospels is always portraying Jesus as being obedient to the will of the Father (e.g., Luke 22:42 "...not my will, but yours be done..."). But that in itself is not evidence that Jesus is subordinate to God in the sense that He is not also equally God.

In any case, there is ample scripture where the divinity of Jesus is implicitly or explicitly claimed: Just to name a few, we have Matthew 11:27--"... no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son"; Mark 2:5-11 where Jesus asserts his divinity by answering the silent charge of blasphemy (for, "who can forgive sins but God alone?") with "Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven'; or to say, 'Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk'?" (See also Matt 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:18-26) We also see Jesus saying in John 10:30 that He "and the Father are one." And when Jesus asks Peter who he thought He was, and Peter answered "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus does not disagree but instead commends him, saying, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-17) And in John 5:18, Jesus' claim to Sonship is taken as a claim to equality with God--"For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He was... calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God." Let us not forget that this was the very reason the high priest gave when he ordered that Jesus was to be sentenced to death for blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-68).

The first three verses of the Gospel of John proclaims: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” If this is not clear textual evidence of the divinity of Christ, I don't know what is.

The apostles likewise (contrary to Harpur's claim that "Jesus is always totally subordinate to God" in the Pauline epistles-) present in their letters to the churches in equally unambiguous terms that Jesus is God Himself, a third and equal member of the Trinity. To cite just a small handful of many like passages: "Who, although He [Jesus] existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped..." (Philippians 2:6); "every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:11); "But of the Son He [Godd] says, 'Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever… Thou, Lord, in the beginning didst lay the foundation of the earth…'" (Hebrews 1:8a, 10a).

Not happy to simply charge that Jesus is not God, Harpur moves on to accuse Christians who celebrate Easter with the singing of hymns of being mistaken, probably just out of plain ignorance. He makes it a point to insist that Jesus' resurrection is not, as Christians supposedly believe and as "many Easter hymns wrongly clarion", his own work. Rather, "God [the Father] raised him from the dead". I believe he's mistaken about orthodox Christian teaching here. We do agree that it was God who raised Jesus (also divine and equal with God the Father) from the dead, and a survey of the hymns would probably show that no effort has been made to deny that wonderful truth. (Surely Harpur can't be faulting any particular hymn for not including all the doctrines in the Bible? In any case, he does not bother to name even one of these "many" allegedly mistaken hymns) But wait: Harpur further writes that Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 15:44 that Jesus' resurrection was not physical but spiritual. He would do well to carefully reread and reconsiderthis verse in its context. Importantly, consider that Jesus' resurrected body was was clearly physical (he was seen, touched; he ate, etc.) and yet clearly unique in having the crucifixion wounds still obvious, and being a body that could permeate matter (He came through a closed and locked door): that His resurrected body was not physically like ours in its entirety, and obviously "spiritual" in some sense, does not mean that it was merely spirit with nothing physical. And by the way, the first half of this same chapter makes clear that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is of central importance to the gospel and the Christian faith:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (3-4)
...and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised… and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” (14-15, 17)
Does Tom Harpur not have the Bible in its entirety, or has one in which all these passages are sadly missing? My bafflement is genuine, though I should know that the Bible does tell us not to be surprised that there would be heresies afoot, and people who will refuse to read His Word for what it is. In the words of Isaac Watts, "is this vile world a friend of grace, to help me on to God?"

Harpur's use of Scripture is indeed mind-boggling. Scattered throughout his article are references (or supposed 'prooftexts' to bolster his point) from both the old and the new testaments, such as Exodus 20:1, Matthew 22:37, Mark 10:17, and the "Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul". Yet, for all his quoting of Scripture which implicitly suggests his belief that they stand as good, even credible evidence anyhow (for his present purposes anyway), he is sloppy in his use of them. Furthermore, he closes ranks with those who outrightly deny Scripture its divine inspiration and truth: with feminist Elaine Pagels who holds that "we have been left with only the story and the position of the winning side" (i.e., God is an impotent communicator, and/or not God of the Scriptures), and with Judaists and Muslims who deny the clear testimony of the Bible (especially the New Testament) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The question is: why use Scripture when you do not even recognise its authority, or even its reliability as God's Word? Admittedly, one could either be of the position that the Bible is indeed God's Word, making the issue one of interpretation; or hold that the Bible is not God's Word, in which case the above question is somewhat irrelevant. I do not know for sure what Harpur's position is regards the inspiration of Scripture. (This is the first time I've heard his name) I just keep getting the impression that he somehow wants to contend for the Scriptures as they should be properly read--and by implication (even if not a necessary or strone one) that they are of some worth as God's Word. (See, for example, his claim that "Christianity took a tragic and fateful turn toward idolatry in the late third, fourth and fifth centuries.") Yet he clearly neglects important passages in Scripture and misreads those he cites. In the apt and appropriately strong words of the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson, "they that deny Christ to be God, must greatly wrest, or else deny the Scripture to be the Word of God." Most probably though, I am just plainly mistaken about Harpur's larger theology and view of the Bible. He probably denies Scripture to be the Word of God: no bafflement here then.

As for Harpur's argument that the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ was a late development that strayed from the true and earlier faith, we have to note first of all that the formulation of the doctrines in the Chalcedonian Council is simply no argument or necessary evidence for the lateness (and/or falsehood) of the same. Let us understand the historical context of the convening, and the conclusions of, this Council. There were a variety of positions and heresies existing during the first few centuries AD, some of which affirmed or emphasized the deity of Christ to the denial of his humanity (e.g. Apollinarius, Alexandrian school), and others which denied or obscured it in preference to His humanity (e.g. Antiochian school). Thus, it is not clear at all that Christ's deity was somehow recognised or established only by the 5th century Chalcedonian Council, as suggested by Harpur. In fact, the Creed of Nicea of 325 AD and the two other ecumenical councils leading up to Chacedon all affirmed that Christ was of the same essence as God the Father.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Gospels and the Epistles in the New Testament all predate any of the abovementioned councils. As I have tried to show above, the balance of scripture indeed teaches the divinity of Christ--and also for the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Denying the truth of scripture, reading it carelessly is another thing altogether.

In conclusion, let me quote from Fred Zaspel in his article “The Formulation of the Trinity in the Thought of Benjamin B. Warfield,” published in The Gospel Witness (November 2004), p. 12:
For [the late Princeton theologian] Warfield, all "subordinationist passages" in the Scriptures have in view the attending doctrines of the covenant of redemption, the incarnation, humiliation, and the two natures of Christ. In his powerful conclusion of the matter:

"Certainly in such circumstances it were thoroughly illegitimate to press such passages to suggest any subordination for the Son or the Spirit which would in any manner impair that complete identity with the Father in Being and that complete equality with the Father in powers which are constantly presupposed, and frequently emphatically, though only incidentally, asserted for them throughout the whole fabric of the New Testament."
One may feel hard-pressed to choose between the trivialising of Easter by the predominance of Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs, or the downright insult to and denial of its main message--or maybe not. At least the bunnies and those who sell them don't claim to be theologians.

To echo the words of apostle John in the last verse of the gospel which bears his name, there are also many other things that can be said here, but we must for the moment defer to the constraints of time and space.

--the excerpt of a response from a certain Rev. Ralph Garbe to Tom Harpur's article printed in The Toronto Star: "It is the height of cynicism that Tom Harpur wishes 'a happy Easter to you all' (which includes me) after he thoroughly denounces the faith of orthodox Christian believers in the divinity of Christ. ... I find Harpur's article offensive and its appearance in the Star at Easter... entitrely inappropriate. Easter is much more than a symbol of immortality, as Harpur claims. It is about God who does not stand aloof from our struggles but who, in the person of Jesus Christ, immerses himself in our life and in selfless love sacrifices himself to forgive us and give us new life."

I'm thinking of sending in a response too to the Star. A much shorter one, which I hope they won't edit to the point of misrepresentation in the event that I do send it.
Monday, March 14, 2005

Desperate to be housewives

(Picture from youngminds.org.uk)

The central argument in this article entitled "Desperate to be housewives: young women yearn for 1950s role as stay-at-home mums" seems to ring with certain truth, at least from my own limited experiences and impressions. I had noticed a few years back that more of my peers seemed to voice the opinion that they would certainly prefer to be stay-home mums if they got married and had kids; to be there full-time for them during what's probably the most crucial, formative first years of their lives. To be a stay-home mum is really a luxury these days, suggesting that one's income is not necessary for the maintenance of a fairly comfortable lifestyle for the family. Either that, or one is so convinced of the merits of doing so that both parents are willing to lead a much more frugal and modest lifestyle for the sake of giving their children something deemed far more precious--the love, attention and training that only a full-time mum can provide.

Both the ability and happy willingness to be stay-home mums and housewives can be correlated, I think, to the higher education and greater confidence that many more women today enjoy (as opposed, let's say, to women a few decades ago, when a more radical, modern feminism was beginning its heyday). Equipped with more resources (intellectual, material, etc.) to occupy their time meaningfully at home and with their kids, possessed of the benefit of historical hindsight (having seen many women fail at juggling family and career), no longer feeling the need to "prove" themselves as women to be "as capable as the men" in the workforce, and possibly feeling the strain and meaninglessness of perpetually being a rat race in a society that is increasingly seeing the decline of a crude materialism, it is understandable that more young women today crave the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling this traditional role.

Prior to industrialisation and even up to the earlier half of the 20th century, housewives had lots to occupy her body and her mind with: the growing, preserving, pickling and bottling of fruits and vegetables, tending of animals, meat-curing, spinning, sewing, brewing, baking, and catering, not to mention the management of servants (if she had them) and the whole economy of the household. A cursory reading of Proverbs 31 gives a picture of a very fulfilling life for the "stay-home mum"--fulfilling not just in terms of days being filled with manual business, but importantly, intellectually, socially and emotionally. Just consider this: "She considers a field and buys it; from her earnings she plants a vineyard... she makes linen garments and sells them... she looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her..." (vv. 16, 24a, 27-28) But with the advent of big industry, smaller families, and generally less land to grow anything, many of these jobs were taken out of the home, leaving the housewife with less interesting employment. She might look around and suspect that working women seemed to have it better. They, at least, had daily work that was more mentally challenging, that contributed in more tangible ways to society, and did not have to be "stuck at home just bearing and rearing children". Perhaps this was generally true for a significant number of women in the recent past, but today's educated woman once again can have loads at home with which to exercise her many talents. The rearing and educating of young children is now widely recognised as a big job and a study in itself, ideally to be left in the hands of parents who have, or who are continually acquiring the requisite knowledge, sense and sensibility to discipline and nurture in proper ways. She can also work from home on flexible and rewarding assignments, do her own research on subjects of interest, engage in part-time social work, write, read, form reading groups, and blog. The list could go on and on.

If you ask me, the role of stay-home mum is more than just based on tradition, but on something much more fundamental--the way God made women! (Now, this is bound to be highly controversial, and may seem to some of you to smack too much of the detested sexism supposedly perpetuated by the allegedly patriarchial Bible. There are too many issues here for me to deal justly with them at this point in time, and so I'll move on, content with showing my awareness of a few possible objections and emphasizing the key adverbs.) The point I'm making is not that God made women only to be housewives and mothers. It is that He has made us such that we possess certain unique reproductive capabilities, and also given us a certain disposition and position to care for and nurture our offspring in a most profound way. Hannah (mother of the prophet Samuel) who prayed desperately for a son and who "would make him a little robe...from year to year" (1 Samuel 1; 2:19); and Lois and Eunice (grandmother and mother of Timothy) "of the sincere faith" (2 Timothy 1:5a) come immediately to mind. I can't speak for all my friends or peers, much less for women in general, but I can confidently say that I'm thankful to be a stay-home mum and housewife (for now, until my job contract calls me back!). I think it's one of the best and most fulfilling jobs in the world.
Thursday, March 10, 2005

Review of Book and DVD about Christians in China

From Christianity Today (Feb 2005), "Behind China's Closed Doors--Newly confident house churches open themselves up to the world", by Richard R. Cook:
In late 2003, three remarkable events took place that signal a fundamental shift in how China's house church sees itself.

First, Regnery Publishing released veteran journalist David Aikman's Jesus in Beijing. Then, China Soul for Christ Foundation in Los Angeles issued Yuan Zhiming's dvd series The Cross: Jesus in China.

Both of these journalistic works put names and faces on the house-church movement. Previously, a veil of secrecy covered the movement. Jesus in Beijing introduces Western readers to the key house-church leaders, based on interviews and research in China by the former Beijing bureau chief for Time. The Cross is a powerful collection of interviews and testimonies, taped on location in China, of Christians from all walks of life, collected across three years. Yuan brilliantly combines his talents as a filmmaker, philosopher, and apologist as he weaves the dozens of stories into a coherent montage.
Aikman and Yuan have given us pictures, video testimonies, and careful descriptions of house-church ministries—and the house-church leaders participated, apparently regardless of the risk of imprisonment inside China.

A third event occurred in Chicago at the 2003 Christmas Conference, sponsored by Christian Life Press. At the conference, I was stunned to meet some of these Chinese brothers and sisters featured in the book and the videos. To keep track of the all-star lineup of speakers, I often referred to my now well-worn copy of Jesus in Beijing.

On the last evening, the organizers expressed thanks to Western Christians for 200 years of Protestant missions in China. They rounded up the handful of Westerners in attendance and asked us to sit in the front row. About a dozen of us were asked to stand while 2,000 Chinese Christians thunderously applauded.

One prominent Chinese church leader sitting close to me warmly grasped my hand and humbly offered his heartfelt thanks. Embarrassed, I thought: Who am I to accept thanks for missionary giants such as Robert Morrison, Hudson Taylor, and the Boxer-era martyrs? Although I felt awkward, I realized that I was witnessing a new epoch in the development of China's house churches—a self-confident movement that openly acknowledges its Western past but is in no way beholden to it.

The Chicago conference also signaled to me another new reality of Chinese Christianity: Due to slow but steady emigration of Chinese overseas, China's house-church leaders have now established a strong support system internationally. Westerners (unlike the Chinese themselves) do not always appreciate the huge influence on China itself that nearly 40 million overseas Chinese wield in commerce, politics, and academia—and increasingly in religion. I now believe mainland Chinese Christians, working inside and outside of China's borders, may be reaching a critical mass. There is potential for them to emerge as a new force in global Christianity.

I've come to this assessment after recent research and interaction with pastors of house churches that are not registered with China's government. After years of quietly digging deep roots during decades of persecution, house churches in China today seem ready to achieve new milestones. These churches have a new self-understanding, new self-confidence, and they are now creating new structures and ministries to expand. Significantly, these ministries are not financially dependent on Western groups or other well-established ministries to the Chinese. (Although there are also important developments in the state-registered Three-Self and Catholic churches, I will only focus on Protestant house churches.)

New Self-Understanding

In the late 1990s, a number of large house-church networks published a united appeal to the government calling for dialogue and understanding, and they issued a comprehensive joint confession of faith.

At the time, I was puzzled. But the events of 2003 suggest that house-church leaders demonstrated great foresight. They are cultivating a new self-understanding and desire to do more than just react to events inside China. They see themselves as more than just a persecuted church. With new confidence, they serve God openly and boldly. Their movement is now emerging as an integral part of the vibrant new churches that are swelling in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

In issuing a publicly signed, credible statement of faith, these Chinese Christians are showing everyone that they are committed to biblical Christianity and orthodox theology. They see themselves as a religious movement with a worldwide outreach. The united appeal and statement of faith help create a durable consensus on which house-church leaders are taking important steps forward.

I have also heard sharp criticism of Jesus in Beijing and The Cross for putting Christians at risk of arrest. Indeed, three prominent leaders were arrested in mid-February 2004, just a few months after the release of the book and videos. But it's still not fully clear whether these materials played a role. Careful analysis may yet show that the current wave of persecution started before the release of the works by Aikman and Yuan. Others allege some house-church leaders did not give permission to publish their names and the details of their lives. I certainly hope none of the subjects was deceived. But I believe their willingness to talk to a prominent journalist, record their stories on video, and travel to Chicago, indicates that house-church Christians, numbering between 20 million and 60 million, are eager to preserve and to make public the marvelous narrative of their movement. (See "House-Church Leader Arrested")


Regardless of their courage and foresight, the Chinese house church still faces immense challenges. And the growing expatriate Chinese community is beginning to take steps to help.

One such group, Christian Life Press (www.cclife.org), organized the extraordinary 2003 Christmas Conference. Pine and Esther Wang from suburban Chicago established this organization in 1997 to address the needs of foreign-born Chinese in America as well as support house-church leaders still in China.

According to the 2000 census, there are 2.7 million ethnic Chinese in the United States. Nearly 1.7 million of those were born in China and are part of the explosive growth of the U.S. foreign-born population. According to the Wangs, these Chinese immigrants "came to this country after the bankruptcy of the Communist systems, looking for a new way of life which represents the love, the hope, and the future."

"Many came to Christ but struggled in their spiritual growth."

It doesn't surprise me that an organization that dared invite prominent house-church leaders from China (and hold all their meetings in Mandarin, not English) was both young and founded by mainland Chinese Christians.

Yuan Zhiming formed China Soul for Christ Foundation (www.chinasoul.com) in 1999 as an umbrella for his media ministry. It is difficult to imagine an older and well-established organization risking such a cutting-edge project as The Cross.

His group says, "We are fully aware that God is at work. It is our responsibility to record truthfully God's amazing grace: How such boundless grace falls upon this ancient country of wide expanse and abundant legacy. How God baptizes hundreds of thousands of his sons and daughters with fire and the Holy Spirit. How his sons and daughters go out weeping and return with songs of joy."

His dual-language video series may prove to be one of the most powerful evangelistic tools in contemporary Chinese history.

There are many other examples of these "new wineskins," including the well-known Back to Jerusalem group. The vision to bring the gospel from China along the Silk Road and "back to Jerusalem" originated before 1949.

"Back to Jerusalem" is now a concept adopted by numerous groups, some of which are in China and some of which are abroad. Author Paul Hattaway and several prominent house-church Christians coauthored a 2003 book outlining their controversial goal of sending 100,000 Chinese missionaries to 51 nations. Some critics find their vision reckless, but Back to Jerusalem is willing to try something new.

The Good and the Ugly

As Chinese Christians emerge on the world stage, they will naturally display their internal conflicts to all of us. We will witness the good and the ugly of the house-church movement. We Christians in the West will need to abandon unrealistic and romantic notions about them.

Chinese Christians are divided over a variety of issues: Some will have nothing to do with government-registered Three-Self Patriotic Movement churches; others work with them happily. Some look for overseas financial support; others reject it. Some partner with extremist Christian groups; others think the groups are heretical. And then there is the usual array of arguments about the role of spiritual gifts and other doctrines.

In 2003, the Chinese themselves took new responsibility to make the world aware of what God is doing to build his kingdom among the 1.3 billion Chinese. Chinese Christians are joining other Christians in developing new expressions of Christianity to carry the gospel to all peoples.

Richard R. Cook is assistant professor of mission history and global Christianity at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Bloopers and Funny Signs in Penang

Here are a few funny signs we came across during our honeymoon in Penang, Malaysia in June/July 2003 and couldn't resist taking shots of (and at). Click on the photos to enlarged versions.

Restaurant along Batu Ferringhi Road
What does the "probably" modify? Are they probably serving the finest authentic Northern Indian cuisine, or are they serving what is probably the finest authentic Northern Indian cuisine?

Night market stall on Batu Ferringhi Road, reputed to boast of the longest "pasar malam" in the world
This we'd like to see!

A shop further down from the nicest beaches on Batu Ferringhi
Spot the mistake? or was it meant to be witty?

At the poolside of Casuarina Beach Resort where we stayed for a week and didn't encounter any jellyfish in the pool... Talk about being alarmist!
Monday, March 07, 2005

Evidence and the Christian

The following thoughts on evidence and the Christian were typed after reading two articles. The first is a news report entitled "Surprising new study on Shroud of Turin: Simple technique could have been used to produce image" ). I was particularly impressed by what N. D. Wilson, the man who discovered this technique, said:
"I’m a Trinitarian Christian. I believe in the Resurrection and all that it means for this world. Either the Shroud is genuine or, as I believe, it is a lie about a great truth. I think Christians should want to see religious fraud exposed wherever we can find it."

The second article ("Atheist's turn to God was a 4-year process, says friend") is about the 'conversion' of famous British atheist Antony Flew, where the word "evidence" was used a few times, and where Flew said that he was just following the evidence, wherever it led.

I have always--for as long as I've thought more seriously about these matters anyway--been slightly hesitant about claims by professing Christians that they have come to acknowledge Christ on the basis of the evidence they have seen (historical, archaeological, textual, etc.). At the same time, I have also always been sympathetic with apologists who, like Josh McDowell, aim to present nonbelievers with "evidence that demands a verdict." I do believe that there is a substantial amount of evidence for the divinely inspired nature of the Bible and for the Christian faith (e.g. the Resurrection, fulfilled prophecies, the absence of any archaeological evidence that can definitively refute any part of the Bible and much that is consistent with it). There is also, in my view, overwhelming evidence in nature itself that testify to God's existence and goodness for those who will see it. To make too much of such evidences, however, to the extent of treating it like determinative court evidence in a court trial is to give to them a status I think they were never meant to have in the converting of man's hearts. The Bible is clear that salvation comes from the Lord, and that it is faith in Christ which saves a man--not trust or reliance in what the eyes can see and mind can understand concretely--but faith as it is understood properly as "the assurance [or substance] of things hoped for, the conviction [or evidence] of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)

Now faith can be encouraged and strengthened by evidence that we see and touch and understand (McDowell, Lewis, and many others have advanced in their journey towards belief in Christ by such evidences, and logical arguments), but the saving faith that matters most of all has to be something that goes beyond, and which is in fact radically different in kind, from a mere trust in the credibility of compelling evidence.

The greatest of all evidences for me as Christian is my personal relationship with a living God and the accompanying presence of the Holy Spirit within my heart that assures me that I, a sinner, have been reconciled to a God who loves me and who died in my place that I might live. And how did I come to know this and come to grow in faith and knowledge of God? 1 John 5:13 declares: "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life." Or, as a well-known children's song goes, "Jesus loves me this I know... the Bible tells me so!" Faith comes by hearing, and hearing (or reading) from the word of God (Romans 10:17).

"For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?" (Romans 8:24)
Saturday, March 05, 2005

Why do so many people believe in God?

This is the question that puzzles Ian Sample as he looks at an ICM poll which suggests that an extraordinarily high percentage of people throughout many countries do believe in God. He further asks: "And why has belief proved so resilient as scientific progress unravels the mysteries of plagues, floods, earthquakes and our understanding of the universe?" and gives his answer: "By injecting nuns with radioactive chemicals, by scanning the brains of people with epilepsy and studying naughty children, scientists are now working out why. When the evidence is pieced together, it seems that evolution prepared what society later moulded: a brain to believe." This sums up the matter of his article "Tests of Faith" published in The Guardian on 24 February 2005.

It's perhaps not all that surprising given that this is The Guardian of our times after all, but I couldn't help but notice that this writer, along with the other experts he cites, seems to have assumed from the start that belief in God is a false belief; that it is a phenomenon that calls for explanation in our modern scientific age where, presumably, people ought to know better than to believe in God.

For example, Todd Murphy, a behavioural neuroscientist, attributes as a factor in the development of religious belief the rapid expansion of our brains "as we emerged as a species," citing as an example the way questions about death and the meaning of life naturally arose from cognitive development enabling man to see a dead body and imagine ourselves in that position one day. In the search for answers to such questions, the idea of God was evolved.

The assumption that man evolved from more primitive life forms such as apes leads to the assumption that religion correspondingly evolved from basically, non-religion, to the more primitive, and then to the more sophisticated--expressions like "religion, or at least a primitive spirituality," and "the emergence of religion" are used with the air of scientific objectivity or matter-of-factly confidence.

"Some believe that religion was so successful in improving group survival that a tendency to believe was positively selected for in our evolutionary history. Others maintain that religious belief is too modern to have made any difference... While some continue to tease out the reasons for the emergence of religion and its persistent appeal, others are delving into the neuroscience of belief in the hope of finding a biological basis for religious experience."
--None of these abovementioned groups are open to the genuine possibilities that God created man as he is, and that religious belief is as old (or as young) as mankind itself.

The article also mentions the psychological tests run on children that supposedly "go some way to proving our natural tendency to believe":

If you look at three- to five-year-olds, when they do something naughty, they have an intuition that everyone knows they've been naughty, regardless of whether they have seen or heard what they've done. It's a false belief, but it's good preparation for belief in an entity that is moral and knows everything," he says. "The idea of invisible agents with a moral dimension who are watching you is highly attention-grabbing to us."
--Note that his experimental observations can yield different reasonable interpretations: the above is but one. Why not another? Why not say that these children's intuitions show just as well that they have been created by a just and loving God who has placed a knowledge of Him and of morality in their hearts such that they know when they commit wrong and as a result feel bad about it?

The experimenter Boyer's further explanation of belief persisting into adulthood as something which is in part due to unquestioning presumption has got something right, and something wrong. "Why don't you ask yourself about the existence of gravity?" he asks. "It's because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where's the motivation to question it?" he says. He is right to some extent. To be a believer, you need to at some point stop serious doubts about the truth of your beliefs. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Belief is that which one presupposes and acts upon, rather than that which one continually questions. However, as a Christian, I would disagree with him when he continues, "[i]n belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where... [t]he general question of whether it's true is relegated." The issue of whether the Bible is true is a central one for Christians. It forms the foundation of our faith, and as such is never an irrelevant one which can be relegated. It's not that I must doubt the truth of its claims, but that I should always care that it is true--that it is indeed the inspired word of a true and living God. To quote a favourite writer:

[A] faith is not primarily a 'comfort,' but a truth about ourselves. What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire. It is the thing which, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on. ... Only when we know what we truly believe can we decide if it's 'comforting.' If we were comforted by something we do not really believe, then we had better think again. (Dorothy Sayers, "What Do We Believe" (1940), in Unpopular Opinions)

The article continues:
As a starting point, many studies focused on people with particular neural conditions that made them prone to experiences so intense, they considered them to be visions of God.
--What conclusion/s can we properly draw from these studies? All they show is that people (some, many, most of these?) with such conditions consider some of their intense experiences to be religious. It does not prove that religious ideas and experiences have only a neurological basis and no objective reality external to minds. It's a bit like trying to argue from the collective witness of paranoid people that all fears of hostile attack from others is merely a psychotic phenomenon with no objective reality whatsoever.

The same goes for the so-called research on two epileptic patients (let us say nothing for now about the sample size in this experiment) by Californian neuroscientist Ramachandran who hypothesized from their reports of deeply moving religious experiences during seizures that it what epileptic seizures so overwhelm the patients emotionally and physically such that their brains spin tales about spiritual things in an attempt to make sense of seemingly inexplicable emotions. The religious experiences thus arise from neurological malfunction; from a disruption of the function of the amygdala which helps us focus on what's significant rather than what's trivial. The seizures supposedly may cause neural reactions that make the patients "attribute significance to the banal objects and occurrences... [where] everything and anything acquires a deep significance, and when that happens, it starts resembling a religious experience". Not surprisingly, Ramachandran's hoped-for conclusion from future research that may strengthen his hypothesis is that "it's not that we have some God module in our brains, but we may have specialised circuits for belief."

Research attempting to develop devices that can stimulate biological mechanisms and drugs to enhance spirituality is also mentioned. One such researcher Newberg defends his work by citing the historical use of substances by shamans who do not disdain some help in attaining a higher spiritual experience. I'm not sure if all shamans would agree with that, but my suspicion is that such research is thought meaningful and justifiable only by those for whom there is little fear or knowledge of God. Most devout people, I believe, would distance themselves from practices that sound like taking Ecstasy to feel "high", and instead insist that spiritual experiences are enhanced by a closer relationship with one's God, however that is spelt out in different religions.


I found another recent article entitled "Believers go on rack to prove God relieves pain" about neuroscientific research that is carried out with largely similar presuppositions: namely that man has evolved, and along with his development and quest for survival came the evolution of the idea of God.

PEOPLE are to be tortured in laboratories at Oxford University in a United States-funded experiment to determine whether belief in God is effective in relieving pain.

Top neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, ethicists and theologians are to examine the scientific basis of religious belief and whether it is anything more than a placebo.
Read on...

So what if they find that their set of believers are indeed able to cope better with pain? What can that show, or prove? To begin with, I wonder at the mindsets and types of people who are willing to be subjects in such an experiment. Are they already in significant ways determined to prove to the experimenters that their beliefs do relieve pain, just by being conscious of the fact that they are in such an experiment? Secondly, whatever the experimental observations, these are still open to various interpretations, the relative strengths of which may not be obvious.

What's disturbing to me is also that this experiment seems to undermine God and religion itself by seeking to reduce, as it were, religious comfort to certain biochemical mechanisms in the brain; and also making God seem like a neural construct, and believers in Him but deceivers of themselves for the sole sake of coping with pain. That's not the God Job knew and came to know better after his unimaginably painful trial. That's also not the God I know and whom I believe made us such that we have a knowledge of Him in our hearts, so that we are all without excuse.

"He has also set eternity in their heart..." ~ Ecclesiastes 3:11b

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God, for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." ~ Romans 1:18-20
Thursday, March 03, 2005

Answers to "What's wrong with this Canadian's article on the Singapore Food Safari?"

This is the follow-up to an earlier post.

1. The caption to the first photo: no, Arab Street is not where most Singaporean Muslims call home.

2. The abtract: "Tour an easy way to digest great neighbourhoods"--a "tourist tour that's easy to digest" might pass for acceptable usage, but digesting neighbourhoods, no matter how great they are, is another thing altogether.

3. Malays are Malays, Malaysian are Malaysians...

4. It's Geylang Lorong, not "Gaylang Loring".

5. "A heaping plate of beef noodles" (taking "heaping" as an adjective) sounds strange.