Category Archives: Bible

Our Culture’s Biblical Illiteracy – “An Illness Which May Be Terminal”

More than two decades ago, at the age of forty-four, I became a Christian. In an effort to “catch up” with others in my church, I enrolled at the Bible College of Victoria, a well-regarded evangelical institution here in Melbourne. Eventually I completed a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies.

Some time later I was chatting with one of the college lecturers, and he remarked: “If you wanted to catch up with the people in your church you didn’t need to do a diploma. I could have taught you in an afternoon what they know.”

He was being sarcastic, but truth lay in his words. The decline in biblical literacy in our culture has been startling.

Here is what theologian Professor George Lindbeck has written:

The decline of biblical literacy has been abrupt and pervasive. Language, culture and imagination have also been debiblicized at a remarkable rate.


The decline affects intellectuals and non-intellectuals, the religious and the non-religious, those inside the churches and those outside, clergy and laity and…Bible-loving conservatives as well as purportedly less biblical liberals. ….

When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from non-religious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families.

Though I came from a non-Christian family, I found I knew lots about the Bible when – twenty-two years ago – I first set foot inside my local Baptist church.

I knew, for example, that there were an Old and a New Testament and ten commandments. I knew the names of the four gospels as well as plenty about the life of Jesus. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer. And I had a strong knowledge concerning many of the characters, stories, literary expressions and proverbs of the Bible.

I guess this was partly because I had traveled a lot – not least including six months in Israel, exploring my Jewish roots – and had accumulated many life experiences, such as, for some years, a deep involvement in Zen Buddhism.

Also, I had always been a bookish, studious person. When I was at elementary school in New Zealand, in the 1950s, we had thirty minutes of (non-compulsory) religious education each week. One day the Congregational minister who taught us announced a contest, to see who could most accurately write down the Lord’s Prayer.

The winner? – Me, one of the few kids in the class back then who never went to Sunday School.

In any case, I find that some other non-Christian people my age also know a lot about the Bible. And younger people too often know little. I think it’s a disaster.

To quote George Lindbeck again:

Every major literate cultural tradition up until now has had a central corpus of canonical texts.…Without a shared imaginative and conceptual vocabulary and syntax, societies cannot be held together by communication, but only by brute force (which is always inefficient, and likely to be a harbinger of anarchy). 

But if this is so, then the biblical cultural contribution, which is at the heart of the canonical heritage of Western countries, is indispensable to their welfare, and its evisceration bespeaks an illness which may be terminal.

 

The Pentecostal Shaman

Springtime, a few years ago, and some determined birds were making a nest in the eaves of our house, right above our front door. Their droppings were everywhere around our front steps, and thanks to water restrictions then in force we were not supposed to wash paved areas around the home.

I mentioned the birds at our weekly Bible study, and one of the Chinese ladies said: “Oh, that’s very good luck.”

Then she quickly added: “If you’re superstitious.”

I had already seen the conflicts that members of our Bible study group – all Asian except me – sometimes experienced between their religious practise and the customs of their home countries.

Sometimes we need to think about what is really a religious practise and what is simply culture.

My wife is from South Korea and I have spent a lot of time in her country. I often think that one of the reasons for the explosion in Christianity in post-war South Korea has been due to the Korean church’s appropriation of local culture.

When I visited David Yonggi Cho’s Full Gospel Church in Seoul – the biggest church in the world with something like 800,000 to 900,000 members – an elder pointed to a large Korean magpie that had built its nest on top of the high church gateway. “That’s very good luck,” he told me.

In South Korea, it is still not uncommon to seek out shamans for guidance about sickness, money, jobs and many other concerns. And in particular, for help in finding a husband or wife.

I attended three Full Gospel Church services, and after lengthy prayers at each, Dr Cho announced that particular people in the congregation had just been healed of various ailments. He has explained in one of his books how he teaches women to visualize exactly the sort of husband they want, in order to be successful.

Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Dr Cho’s church teaches the Fivefold Gospel and the Threefold Blessing.

There have been suggestions that Dr Cho is a Pentecostal Shaman. But I wonder, how much of our own Christian practise is shaped by the culture around us?

Ikea Catalog – Reaching Into People’s Hearts

More than ten years ago I wrote an article for a former website titled “The Bible vs. the Ikea Catalog – Which is Winning Hearts?” It looked at how the annual Ikea catalog was overtaking the Bible as the world’s most distributed publication.

I actually did a bit of research to gather material for the article, including making contact with the Ikea head office and seeking out statistics from various Bible societies.

Ikea catalogThough estimates differed, it seemed possible that more than 100 million Bibles were being distributed worldwide each year. Concerning distribution of the Ikea catalog, I wrote that it topped 100 million for the first time in 2001.

I actually thought my finished article had something pertinent to say, and after posting it on my site I sent out emails to various other bloggers alerting them to it.

However, hardly anyone seemed to pay much attention, and the article quickly went into my archives, relatively unnoticed.

But then something happened – very gradually it got linked to by lots of other sites, and traffic to the article started to build. Within a couple of years it was by far the most popular commentary on my former site, attracting hundreds of visitors each week.

It took me a while to work out where all this traffic was coming from. To my amazement, it eventually turned out that one of the main sources was this Wikipedia entry, “Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” which linked to my article and said about Mao’s Little Red Book:

The estimated number of copies in print well exceeds one billion, certainly a record in mainland China (although, worldwide, its publication is a distant second to the Bible, or third if all publications and printings of the annual Ikea catalog are counted as a book).

And thanks to that Wikipedia link I found my article featuring prominently when people did Google searches for information on the Ikea catalog.

So is the article still relevant?

Well, I noted then that distribution of the Ikea catalog topped 100 million for the first time. Now it apparently exceeds 200 million.

Back then I wrote about Ikea:

It already has around 150 stores in 22 countries. In 1997 it opened in Shanghai, two years later in Beijing and a year after that in Moscow. It sees these stores as stepping stones for further penetration of those countries. It is gearing up to enter Japan. The catalog printing run is set to soar.

Today the company operates more than 300 stores in 37 countries.

I think the conclusion I wrote then is as relevant as before:

China. Russia. Japan. Western Christians are spending heavily to reach people in such countries with the Gospel. Will we win hearts as readily as Ikea?

Onward Christian Soldiers

Who was the first Gentile baptized by Peter? Cornelius.

What did he do? He was a soldier.

God loves soldiers, though Christians throughout the ages have sometimes been unsure. Can you really be a soldier and a true Christian? My own thinking on this issue has evolved a lot.

soldier-waving-to-civiliansMy father was a Jewish refugee to New Zealand. He served in the New Zealand Air Force during World War II – he once told me he would have been first in line to volunteer to help drop the A-bombs on Japan – but after the war refused to accept the medals to which he was entitled, as some kind of anti-war protest. (After he died, in 1994, I wrote to the New Zealand Defence Department to check if the medals were still available. They were, and I have them now in my desk drawer.)

He and my mother became leaders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s in an intensely anti-war environment. Yet at the same time my uncle – my father’s younger brother, who as a boy had been smuggled by Jewish groups into pre-war Palestine – was a career officer in the Israeli army.

I guess that ambivalence about military matters stuck with me. So after I became a Christian, at the age of 44, if I’d been asked my views about armed service, I might have answered with something vague to the effect that of course we need an army, but that it’s better that Christians not serve in it. Because armies are for killing, and Christians shouldn’t kill.

Or I might have said that I classified soldiers with lawyers and real estate agents. When you need them you expect them to get down and dirty. Better they not be Christians.

But gradually I’ve come to change my views. (At least about soldiers. I’m still undecided about lawyers and real estate agents.)  I’ve come to recognize something important: we need more Christians serving in the military.

In a post that is no longer online, Reverend Major General Ian Durie – a British soldier who later became an Anglican priest – examined many stories of serving soldiers in Scripture, and concluded:

We clearly see from the New Testament that soldiering is an honorable profession, but one which has to be conducted in a right way….Our Lord and the apostles (our model church leaders) approved then, as they approve now, the profession of soldier….Soldiering is an honorable profession, to which men and women of faith are called.

But don’t soldiers kill? Yes, they do. As Major General Durie explains:

There is a tendency…not to trust that God has appointed us to be soldiers, nor that soldiering has our Lord’s approval, and is a high calling under God. And when we don’t trust Him for that, when we don’t offer this part of our lives in worship to God, when we take off Christ as we put our uniforms on, then we abandon Him when we have a gun in our hand, at the time that we need Him most. Do you see that? It’s a matter of life and death, and at that supreme test we need God’s guidance more than at any other time.

So don’t be blind….Because as a Christian, if you are not ready to kill if need be, and approve of it, then you should not be a soldier. For myself, I know that in the Gulf War I was responsible for the deaths probably of hundreds, maybe thousands of Iraqi soldiers. I did what I believed was right under God, but I also know that at the last day I am answerable before Him for my actions there.

I recall C.S. Lewis in his book “Mere Christianity”:

I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it.

But do not the commandments tell us not to kill? Did not Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek? Yes, but justice and righteous are over-riding imperatives of God. Major General Durie again:

Where, we must ask the pacifist, is the righteousness in rape or robbery? Such things must be stopped, and we may ourselves use reasonable force to prevent them.…The same applies at a national level, internally against terrorists and rebels, and externally against other armies who threaten violent action against the state.

His conclusion: “It is always wrong to use force, unless it is more wrong not to.”

The Book of Revelation Unfolds in Iraq

They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. – Revelation 9:4

Mark of GodIraq’s first Christian-only brigade of regular forces graduated this week, and will now join the fight to retake the community’s towns and villages from ISIS.

In a great post, Palestinian Christian Walid Shoebat has noted that many of the 600 members of the force have painted the mark of God, a cross, on their foreheads.

Some 100,000 Assyrian Christians fled their homes in the Nineveh Plains, in north-east Iraq, when ISIS invaded last August. It was said to be one of the worst disasters to hit what is one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

The new brigade, named the Tiger Guards, is comprised entirely of volunteers and will fight under the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

A Cross We Must Bear?

My weekly Bible study group has been using a fascinating book titled “Cries from the Cross” by Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor at Chicago’s Moody Church. It is a short work, but full of riches, as Lutzer examines the last words of Jesus, cried out in anguish as He hung on the cross.

We concluded our studies recently with the book’s Epilogue, “Taking the Cross into the World,” where the author reminded us that the cross represents the great reversal of values of the world.

Cries from the CrossFor example, he relates, in the early centuries after Jesus, Christianity “captured” North Africa, thanks to the “love of the Christians that defied explanation.”

Thus, when Christians found dead bodies abandoned in the street they washed them and gave them a decent burial. “The pagans were impressed with these unexplained acts of love,” writes Lutzer.

It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s great novel “The Silence” (soon to be released as a movie by Martin Scorsese), with his strikingly similar depiction of the attraction of Christianity for 16th-century Japanese peasants:

I tell you the truth – for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.

And yet – Christianity was later eradicated from both North Africa and Japan through oppression and force of arms. Remnants remain in both places, but they are small and without much influence.

Is it truly enough just to have a love that defies explanation? Do Christians not need something more? Like our own armies? Or is regular persecution simply the cross we must always bear?

One of the members of my Bible study group commented during our discussion that God surely has a purpose in allowing the depravities of ISIS that we are witnessing in the Middle East.

Really? I hope so. For it is at times like these that I am thrown back on Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Does God Still Speak to Soldiers?

In Old Testament times God spoke regularly to Israel’s military commanders, directing their battles and bringing about the defeat of their enemies. He sent an angel to instruct Joshua about how to conquer Jericho. He told David how to overcome the Philistines. There are many other examples.

soldier-waving-to-civiliansBut what about today? Can a Christian military leader expect divine intervention? Does God still take sides?

Some Christian officers have spoken openly of their faith, of how they have turned to God in their times of need and of how He has responded.

Here is Major General Tim Cross of the British Army on God at work in the life of a fellow Christian officer:

Major Chris Keeble, when Colonel H Jones was killed at Goose Green in the 1982 Falklands War, was left alone and somewhat lost; others looked to him as the Battalion second-in-command for leadership. His moment had come; so what did he do?

He moved off alone and knelt in the burning heather; with a prayer taken from his pocket in has hand he sought the Lord. And from there he gathered himself up, and with the command team he went and sought the Argentinean surrender; it was an incredibly bold move, but Keeble is a Christian and it was not by chance that he carried God’s word and a prayer with him, and he was not abandoned by his Lord at this decisive moment.

General Pil Sup Lee, formerly chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, has no doubt that God intervened for him at a crucial time:

In August 1979, I was appointed as a regiment commander on the frontline. Back then, there were frequent small-scale infiltrations by enemy soldiers into the South to carry out assassination missions and collect intelligence. It was a very daunting task to search out these enemy soldiers who were infiltrating along the 155-mile military demarcation line and the 3,767-mile coastline.

Under such circumstances, I thought the best way was to seek God’s help, because “unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1). I continuously prayed for this daunting mission of safeguarding my nation from enemy infiltration. And when I was about to begin my new mission as a regiment commander, I fasted for three days and prayed to the Lord.

…On March 23, 1980 at 02:45, there was no moonlight and the sky was draped with clouds. Sleet was pouring down making visibility less than 50 meters. I still wonder how a group of three enemy infiltrators, who were highly trained, select agents, risking their lives, walked up to one of our sentry boxes that were set up every 400 meters.

How could our newly recruited sentries completely suppress those enemy agents without any casualties? Situations unfolded in such a way that defies explanation with conventional tactical assessments.

Many modern Christians will feel uncomfortable with such talk. Yes, they will say, it seems exactly right that God should save lives by arranging for the surrender of Argentinean forces to the British. But does He really answer prayer by helping South Korean soldiers kill three infiltrators from the North?

I don’t have a complete answer. But I do know that God promises to uphold justice and righteousness. I also know that He is sovereign. And when we start placing limits on his sovereignty we dishonor Him.

As we read in Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.