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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Parables # 1: The Good Mohammedan

21st CENTURY PARABLES
THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD MOHAMMEDAN

25 On one occasion a celebrity pastor with six books and a televised worship service stood up to test Jesus. "O my personal Lord and Savior," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"


26 "What is written in the Law?" Jesus replied. "How do you read it?"


27 The celebrity pastor answered, "The Law? Why aren't you talking about salvation by grace through faith? But fine -- 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Those are in the Law."


28 "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."


29 But he wanted to justify himself to his Justifier, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor? You don't mean Democrats, do you? Liberals? Socialists?"


30 In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Joliet to Jacksonville, when he was attacked by robbers."


"Were they Black Lives Matter protesters?" the man asked.


"Pay attention," Jesus said. "So, they stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.


31 A progressive minister from a liberal church happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side, frightened for his life.


32 So, too, a fundamentalist minister, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side, disgusted by the man's condition.


33 But a Muslim gentleman, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.


34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, and then called 911. When the ambulance was delayed, the Muslim put the man in his own car, brought him to an ER, and asked to admit him. Since this was a state that had refused Medicaid expansion funds, the ER demanded up-front financial coverage of the man, and the Muslim paid the expense with one of his major credit cards, saying,


35 'Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'


36 Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"


37 The celebrity pastor replied, "You're joking, right?"


"No," Jesus told him.


"That story's not even believable," the pastor said. "A Muslim?"


38 "Simply state which one was his neighbor," Jesus said.


"Never would have happened!" the pastor said in anger. "You made it all up! Besides, all this 'good works' stuff sounds suspiciously Roman Catholic to me, you know? I'm out of here! Plus I'm blocking you on Facebook and un-following all your groups, you phony."


39 And with great love and sadness, Jesus watched him leave.


40 Later, as the man continued on his way, furious over what had been spoken, he was set upon by robbers ...


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Incredible Edible Tithe



“We recognize the duty of tithing and urge all our people to pay tithes to God ...
It is true there is no direct commandment in the New Testament saying ‘You must tithe to God one-tenth of your income’; but there is also no statement declaring the Old Testament plan as no longer valid.”
 

                                                       - Assemblies of God belief statement on tithing
             

STRAIGHT TALK TO GIVERS

At the August 6, 2015 Republican presidential debate, candidate Ben Carson said he would reform the U.S. taxation system to match the tithing expected by God in the Hebrew Scriptures.   A flat tax of 10%, he claimed, would eliminate all loopholes and complex deductions, since “God is a pretty fair guy.”

Carson seems uninformed about just how complex the tithing system was in ancient Israel (e.g., the distinctions between Biccurim natural first fruits and Terumoth processed first fruits, as well as Levitical “tithes of tithes” and Sabbath-year cycle exclusions from tithing requirements).

Of more interest to me, though, is just how uninformed churches themselves are about tithes – particularly those churches that require or expect formal tithing from their congregants.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m all for generous giving to Christian congregations.  This blog post is not about holding back on donations and offerings.

It’s about preachers using the Old Covenant concept of tithing to coerce and compel New Covenant giving.

I’m not going to dive into the pro-tithe vs. anti-tithe debate.  If your church pushes you to tithe, that’s your business and your church’s business.  But I will contribute to the debate with the following consideration: Just as the Hebrew Scriptures had rules for tithe giving, they had rules for tithe getting.

Is your preacher delivering on his end of the tithing laws he promotes?


STRAIGHT TALK TO THE GETTERS

To those preachers, I propose this:

If you demand that your congregants follow Old Covenant tithing regulations as a matter of Scriptural Law, then it is only fair that they in turn demand you follow Old Covenant tithing regulations as well.  What’s good for the giver is good for the getter, since God is no respecter of persons.

TITHE-GETTING RULE #1 – You can’t accept money.

Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures is tithing ever, ever connected with donating money.  Not once.  So if you are a preacher who tells his congregants God expects them to provide literal tithes, you for your part must only accept tithes in the following literal forms: herbs, grain, wine, oil, cattle, honey, sheep, dough, and other “tithes of the soil,” as Nehemiah 10:37 calls them.  This practice wasn’t due to the ancient Hebrews having no money system.  They certainly did, and many edicts of Scripture from Mosaic times mention shekel amounts for fines and payments.  Money existed.  But all Biblical tithes were edible.


TITHE-GETTING RULE #2 – You can’t sell tithed goods FOR money.

Just in case you tithe-demanding preachers think you can work your way around the cashless tithe system of Scripture by using Craig’s List to sell the tithed goods you receive, Hebrew Scripture covers that as well.  Deuteronomy 14:23-28 allows you to convert your “tithestock” into cash temporarily, but only for the purposes of travel convenience over long distances.  Once you reach your destination, you must convert the money back into edibles.  Biblical tithing remains a cashless system.  So preacher, if you were hoping for cold, hard bucks, remember that every tithe comes with the divine label: “Not redeemable for cash.”


TITHE-GETTING RULE #3 – You can’t own land.

The entire rationale behind tithing was the support it provided the Levites.  Unlike the other tribes of Israel, Levites were given no land, no home to call their own.  Instead, they needed to live among the other tribes, performing religious services in exchange for the generosity and hospitality of the landowners.  The Bible states directly (Numbers 18:21-28 and Deuteronomy 26:12-18) that the only reason tithing even exists is to feed the landless Levites.  So preacher, if you own private property while demanding tithes from your congregants, you are not following Scripture’s rules of tithes.


TITHE-GETTING RULE #4 – You only get tithes 5 out of 7 years.

In every seven-year cycle of ancient Hebrew farming, there is a Sabbath rest from planting.  Leviticus 25:1-7 makes that clear.  Because tithing was performed on the increase of crops, there could be no tithe for that season.  Goods from the sixth year of every cycle were storehoused and made to last through a subsequent year of no planting.  The no-planting year was followed by a second year of planting and waiting for the crops to grow again before being harvested and tithed – which is to say, those receiving the tithes went for two years living off the stores.  Any modern preacher demanding tithing must also live for two years off the grain and livestock donated before the Sabbath rest year, and must not accept donations again until the third year arrives.


TITHE-GETTING RULE #5 – Your tithes must be tithed to your higher ups.

Congregants weren’t the only ones to tithe in Israel.  Levites, too, were required to provide a “tithe of the tithe” to the priests of Aaron (Nehemiah 10:38), a contribution to the temple’s storehouse.  What does this mean for our modern preacher?  In effect, he must immediately pass along 10% of his gains to his church’s central authority.  If his church has no higher central authority (for example, if he runs an independent nondenom church with no ties and no accountability), then tithing isn’t allowed.  Biblical tithing is designed to sustain a formal religious system of clergy.  Where there is no system, there is no tithe.


TITHE-GETTING RULE #6 – Givers must divvy the tithe they pay among you, immigrants, orphans, and widows.

Deuteronomy 26:12-18 gives direction on who gets cuts of a congregant’s “tithestock.”  It turns out, dear modern preacher, that your take is just a portion of what’s split to benefit those in need of social welfare.  It’s not clear from Scripture what the percentages of the split are.  My rough count puts modern U.S. proportions at 1 ordained clergy member for every 46 immigrants, orphans, and widows (yes, I really cranked the numbers, I just didn’t want to bore you with the details).  To keep the tithes division as reasonable as possible, let’s estimate conservatively and let the clergy keep a very generous quarter of that four-category split.  I realize that isn’t proportionate, but we don’t want to knock them all the way down to 1/46th.


ADDING IT ALL UP

When you crunch all those numbers, a tithe turns into 1.6% of a tithing household’s grain and livestock winding up in the preacher’s hands.  Given average US household sizes and salaries, that’s each member of a U.S. congregation giving the landless, cashless preacher the equivalent of 85 cents in food a day.  The bigger the congregation, the better shot a preacher has at a healthy, balanced diet for himself and his own family.  Call it a performance incentive. 

None of which, obviously, is my point here.

My point is twofold:

FIRST: If you belong to a church that coerces and makes you feel guilty for not shoveling over a full 10% of your gross yearly income to its pastors, ask yourself why they hold you to that Old Covenant standard but do not hold themselves to the cashless, landless rules surrounding it.  Why do they expect you, but not themselves, to be literal about tithing?

In fact, don’t ask yourself those questions.  Ask them.

SECOND: If Ben Carson really wishes to use ancient Hebrew Scripture as the basis of modern U.S. flat tax reform, we’re going to need to use all of Montana to store the food and livestock for our Sabbath years.  It’s big enough to see us through the storage times and it’s nicknamed “The Treasure State,” so we’ll be all set with our new financial system.

I just hope our Chinese creditors accept chickens.

Marana Tha,

Cosmic Parx

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tax-free Churches vs. the 1st Amendment

As I post this article, we’re right in the middle of the 2015 U.S. tax season.  S-Corp filings by businesses were due two weeks ago.  Individual filings by the rest of us mere mortals are due two weeks hence.  In addition, we’ve also taken our first step into the 2016 Presidential season.  Senator Ted Cruz has launched his campaign, announcing from day one that he intends to utterly abolish the IRS.

So what better time than now to reflect on the tax-free status of U.S. churches?


Dueling First Amendment Rights

The first amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees citizens both the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.  But what happens when those two rights collide?

Keep your eyes open over the next few months for this event:
  • Many, many politicians will announce their candidacy for presidency of the United States.
  • As campaigning heats up, some U.S. pastors, ministers, rabbis, or imams will use their positions to tell members of their faith the correct candidate to support.
  • The IRS will send warning letters informing the religious leader that the organization’s tax-exempt status can be removed if they continue lobbying for particular candidates.
  • The religious leader will then tell his or her local press, “I am being censored by the government!”


This comes up in every election cycle.  The point missed by the religious leader (as well as by the thousands of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr users who’ll spout their indignation in Whiney McNuggets of text) is that the government isn’t removing the religious leader’s freedom of speech.  The government is removing the tax subsidy that the congregation has been pocketing for years, even decades.

When a religion files for what’s called a 501(c)(3) exemption from taxation, they make an agreement with the government that they will not endorse specific candidates or parties for political office.  The religion may speak out endlessly on political issues with religious implications – choice vs. right to life, marriage equality vs. traditional marriage, Coke vs. Pepsi, Which-Would-Jesus-Drink? – but they may not act, even briefly, as a lobbying organization for specific candidates.

Some religious organizations object that this singles them out and violates the free practice of their religion.  They are mistaken, however.  No organizations that choose to become 501(c)(3) entities are allowed to endorse candidates.  Those aren’t just churches.  Exempt organizations include nonprofit charitable, educational, literary, scientific, and amateur sports organizations as well.  These entities, like churches, mosques, and synagogues, are expected to refrain from endorsing specific candidates or parties.  It’s the agreement they make when they accept the tax deferral they enjoy.

As individual citizens, the leaders of these organizations don’t sacrifice the right to make personal endorsements in their private lives.  They do agree, however, not to use their tax-free organization as a vehicle for candidate endorsement.

That’s what it takes to pocket the taxes.  Such is the price of Mammon.


Is It Time for Churches to Pay Taxes?

Any church that feels it’s a religious obligation to endorse specific candidates can do so simply by deciding to drop their 501(c)(3) tax write-off status.  Allow me to state it in Biblical terms: While it’s very generous of Caesar to allow you to skip paying Caesar what belongs to Caesar, there’s no law that says your church is required to enjoy the tax breaks offered.

The issue is deeper than that, though.  Consider: When our society allows religious organizations to file for tax-exempt status, we’re giving our government the explicit power to declare which groups are “real” religions and which are not.  The very act of accepting or denying a 501(c)(3) application is a declaration of legitimacy by our federal and state government personnel.

Government abuse.  Such power can be abused.  That isn’t just a theory.  In 2004, Texas Republican Comptroller Carole Keeton (aka Carole Keeton Strayhorn after she started using the name of her third husband) revoked the tax exemption status of a Unitarian Church, declaring that they were too wishy-washy on their definition of a Supreme Being, and therefore did not qualify as a religion in Texas.  It took public outcry and the reversal of her decision by her own staff to allow Unitarianism (the faith of John Adams) again to be deemed a real faith in Texas.  Keeton remained nonplussed by the pushback.  It took a Texas Supreme Court decision to return exemption status to spiritual Ethical Societies in Texas, another group whose God didn’t fit Keeton’s standards.

By participating in 501(c)(3) exemption, churches are giving government permission to say whose religion is "real" and whose is not.


Church abuse.  Government officials aren’t the only ones who can play fast and loose with 501(c)(3) status.  Churches have a special privilege that other U.S. nonprofits don’t enjoy.  All 501(c)(3) organizations must make their income notices, reports, and returns available to public inspection ... except for religious organizations.  What other groups must do in the light, churches may do in darkness.

Imagine two charitable food shelves, one secular and one religious in nature.  People donate to the food shelves in similar ways.  The food shelves deliver identical services.  Each, we’ll imagine, provides a car to their managing director, considered part of the salary package.  And suppose, for this scenario, that each of the managing directors selects a fully loaded 2015 Audi S8 (manufacturer suggested retail price $120,000 U.S.) as an appropriate vehicle.  As part of a secular organization, the director of the first food shelf is immediately questioned by his donors, thanks to the requirement of public disclosure.  The manager of the second food shelf, however, simply ignores any questions about how his charity could afford to give him such a nice car.  He isn’t accountable.  His charity has been declared religious by the government.  He works for God, and doesn’t have to answer to anyone else, even his own donors.

Maybe you find that scenario unlikely.  If so, you’ve missed the last 30 years of a burgeoning televangelism and Health & Wealth gospel industry engendering headlines like these:

  • Pastor asking for donations for private jet, already has one (Fox 5 Atlanta, March 2015)
  • Private Jets, 13 mansions, $100,000 mobile home just for dogs: Televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch (Daily Mail, March 2012)
  • Can a television network be a church?  IRS says yes (NPR, April 2014)
  • Best paid pastors make hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars annually (Huffington Post, January 2012)


Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t begrudge any pastor his salary and benefits.  I’ve had several pastors in my lifetime who deserved millions and more for the sacrifices they’ve made for their congregations.

Here’s my concern.  I’ll speak solely from a Christian perspective, since that is my faith.  In the past, when U.S. churches received exempt status from the government, they weren’t particularly known as wealth-generating organizations (all the gold chalices at Catholic churches notwithstanding).  Preachers were in pulpits, hucksters were in carnivals, and the two had limited overlap.  Elmer Gantry was the exception, not the rule.

That has changed.  The advent of radio and television extended the reach of fund raising by preachers, and more recently the birth of the Internet Church is providing pathways for tendrils into hundreds of millions of homes.  Many are legitimate ministries.  But many are the snake-oil salesmen known throughout the history of the faith.  It’s only a matter of time before the first Kickstarter for Christ or Protestant Patreon campaign declares itself an organization worthy of a 501(c)(3) exemption as well.  And they’ll need your love offerings for support.

The farther fundraising receipts move from funding sources, the less accountability we see in the system.  In my earlier food shelf example, there was at least the possibility that a local donor, seeing the Audi S8 driven by the shelf’s managing director, could call shenanigans on fund use.  But digital reality has given us ministries of wide distribution paired with low accountability.  If a donation-collecting online ministry were using their 501(c)(3) status to launder money from other for-profit businesses the “pastor” owns, or funneling donations to pay for the entertainment activities of its own leadership, donors would have no way of knowing.  Abuse need not be calculable in the millions of dollars; abuse in the thousands and in the hundreds of dollars is abuse just the same.

Is this the sort of system that should be favored by believers who claim to eschew the darkness, who live in the light?  Should our churches demand privacy in their financial dealings when all other charitable organizations bring to light everything that’s done with their money?  If so, what is the Scriptural basis for keeping Caesar in the dark about the money-handling practices of the people of God?


Solutions

Churches committed to practicing their faith in the daylight have a few solutions to the issues raised here.
  • Solution 1: Give up tax-exempt status.  By simply walking away from 501(c)(3) exemptions, a religious organization can shake off all doubt about the honesty of their financial stewardship.  In addition, they’d get to endorse Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton as often and as loudly as they’d like.
  • Solution 2: Adjust tax-exempt status.  By breaking out the charitable portions of their ministry from the religious portions, a faith could move into the realm inhabited by all other 501(c)(3) groups, disclosing financial information about their charity arm while keeping other church information, the taxed part like housing and property, private.
  • Solution 3: Disclose voluntarily.  By posting and publishing all financial information to donors and on their Web sites, religious organizations can operate with free consciences, enjoying the benefits the government currently allows while openly disclosing all financial activities to those who make it possible – which includes donors and taxpayers, since the religious tax exemptions are de facto subsidies from the general public.



A final note on the IRS

Love it or hate it, the IRS is a reality for churches and individual citizens alike.  Even Ted Cruz's promise of “abolishing” it is simply rhetoric.  He began by saying that everyone should be able to mail in their taxes on a postcard that just listed their salary.  Then he added that we could list and deduct our charitable contributions as well.  Later he mentioned we could also list the deduction for the interest on our mortgages.  In time, someone will mention to him that his simple campaign quip doesn’t keep churches exempt from taxes, and he’ll need to add that in as well.

Then he’ll realize he needs people to receive those (really big) postcards, to check up on those flat-rate taxes, to catch the cheaters, and to decide which places are churches and which are just claiming to be churches.  They'll also need to determine which charities we give to should be deemed true charities, and which ones are shams.  Call that new group “Ted’s Patriot Payment Brigade” or whatever, it is still a group providing services related to the revenue being generated internally by the United States.  A rose by any other name.

But back to my main point.  Am I saying it’s wrong for our churches ... which, we need to acknowledge, means us, ourselves ... is it wrong for us to take advantage of perfectly legal tax exemptions for our religious organizations?  Or to shield ourselves behind walls of privacy allowed by current law?  No, it is not wrong.  Those things are permitted for us.

Kudos to those whose minds just jumped to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:23: “You say, All things are permitted me.  But not all things are helpful  You say, All things are lawful for me.  But not all things build up.”

Christians remain under the direction and wisdom of Scripture – that they should pay their taxes even to despotic emperors (Mark 12:17), and that they should submit to the government authority God saw fit to place over them (Romans 13:1-3).  That’s the baseline, the least of expectations.  But we are called to be salt of the Earth and a light on a hill, and simply doing the minimum expected of us does little to glorify God and to set us apart as a people under His hand.

We have the option to show unbelievers that we are not greedy, clinging to every cent lawfully ours.

We have the option to be completely open about every penny we spend in our ministries.

And, yes, we also have the option to do neither of those things.

What should our choice be?

Marana Tha,

Cosmic Parx / YoYo Rez

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Christians and Other Fools


"We are fools for Christ's sake ... " 1 Corinthians 4:10


The Background

About a year ago, I asked a gentleman who self-identifies as Christian to stop holding forth in a group discussion.  He was declaring, tirelessly, how UFOs, lizard overlords, the Illuminati, and werewolves all tie in with Christian Scriptures about the “End Times.”  Generally I don’t shut down other people's talk, but our group included both new believers and nonbelievers, and I didn’t want his incoherent ranting to have a negative effect on the perceptions of those new to Christ.  I wasn't keen on the impact his behavior was having on our reputation with nonbelievers, either.

When he persisted, I became more adamant and insisted he stop being a fool.

He stammered, and then went, “Oooooooooo!” (a bit like the cat in those Puss in Boots vignettes), but he finally shut up.  I’m fairly certain he’d decided I was in violation of Matthew 5:22 (“whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire”), and that he’d managed to get me unsaved, thereby winning some point or other.

But hey.  At least I got him to go away from the new Christians.


Rapid-fire Snippets

Are Christians barred from telling fools that they're fools?  For a banned word, it shows up in a lot of Scriptural places, uttered by a wide cast of notables:

“Thou fool!”  ~ Luke 12:20, God the Father to the rich man
“Ye fools!”  ~ Luke 11:40, Jesus to the Pharisees
“You foolish Galatians!”  ~ Galatians 3:1, Paul to the Christians
“Put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,” ~ 1 Peter 2:15, Peter to those who would not submit to non-Christian government authority


So What’s the Story?

Obviously, Scripture isn’t giving us the message that the Father, Jesus, Peter, and Paul are all in danger of hell fire.  So what gives with this fascinating word “fool”  and its frequent use in the New Testament?

When you run into the words “fool” or “foolish” in English translations of Scripture, you’re not really sure what word you’re seeing.  The Greek of Jesus’  day had a number of terms that modern translations render as “fool,” and it’s instructive to take a closer look at them to see whether they have shades of meaning that help us broaden our appreciation of the New Testament.  Today I'll tackle the four that occur most often.


WORD 1 – MOROS

This word for “fool” should remind you of the English word we derived from it, “moron.”  The term was a favorite of the gospel writer Matthew, and Paul also used it rather liberally whenever he wrote to the Corinthians.  The Greek physician Hippocrates used this term to indicate someone who was dull to physical sensation or without mental or emotional drive.  At its root, moros appears to mean something similar to “absolutely dull-witted,” a person who is mentally unable to recognize facts and realities even when they’re held up in front of him.

Moros and its meaning shine through in Matthew 25’s parable of the 10 virgins, five of whom are foolish (morai) and don’t understand that they’ll need to wait a long time for the coming of the bridegroom.  When it dawns on them that they’re about to run out of lamp oil for their extended wait, they continue in their dimwitted ways by asking the wise virgins to hand over their own oil.  They don’t realize that that would result in everyone running out early and no one being prepared for the groom’s coming.  The wise brides have to explain it in the simplest terms possible to the morons, and they manage to do so without saying, “Um ... duh, ladies.”

Life Example: If you’ve ever witnessed your faith to a less-than-accommodating crowd, you’ve probably seen the moros effect in action.  You toss out the seed of the Gospel, and you get back completely disjointed comments like, “Well I heard the Bible was written by men” and “Jesus probably slept with Mary Magdalene”  and “the Crusades killed a lot of people!”  The randomness of the response shows that you’ve just hurled seed on to hard, unaccepting soil.  Moros soil, in fact.


WORD 2 -- APHRON
This is kind of a cool word for “fool.”  In Greek, when you tack an initial alpha (the letter A) on an existing word, it operates like an un-  or a dis- in English.  It invokes the opposite and deprives the word of its essence, earning that prefix the grammatical name “the alpha privative” (drop that at your next cocktail party, kids).

The A- tacked on to the phron means, for this word, that something isn’t from your heart or aligned with your guts.  That’s the root meaning of the phron, from phren – your innards, guts, and mind, what the Greek writer Homer referred to as the “seat of the soul,” your very living essence.  In English we do that with the word “heart”; in Greek, your large and small intestines pretty much cover that metaphor.

The aphron kind of fool can take information into their guts, but they can’t really digest it.  Truth, to one who is aphron, is like grass and dietary fiber to a human stomach – it passes right through, without leaving much of an impression.  That’s why the story of Jesus’ chiding of the Pharisee in Luke 11 is a wonderful example of aphron in action:

    And as he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat.
    And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner.
    And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.
    Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also?

Here, Jesus points out that the Pharisees have a form of ritual righteousness, but fail to grasp the real implications of the facts they merely play with.  For the Pharisees, spirituality is all form and no function, all external details with no internalizing of the deeper meaning.  So, in terms of our breakdown of the words for fool:  Moros can’t even see the facts; Aphron plays with them, but fails to internalize them.

Life Example: We’ve all met modern Pharisees, those to whom the forms of faith are far more important than the substance.  These are the kinds of people who can proof-text on any topic (usually to helpfully correct you and put you in your place).  They know the Scripture and work with it, but for them it is undigestible dietary filler in a life focused on debate and argument.  For these types of fools, Scripture serves only one purpose: as a tool to glorify themselves and their opinions.  Observe this kind of aphron over time, and you’ll discover that they haven’t digested many of the basic fruit of the Spirit, the love and peace and gentleness and goodness that is taken in and incorporated into the behaviors of Spirit-filled believers.  The aphron fools don’t have that diet within them.  It may be something they just can’t stomach.  They take in the truth and then pass ìt on like so much excrement.


WORD 3 -- ANOETOS

Anoetos has that alpha privative I like so much, and students of philosophy will see the root of the term Noetics (the metaphysics of thinking) being negated by the alpha.  The fool who is anoetos can see the facts (unlike the moros) and he retains the facts within him (unlike the aphron), but he does absolutely nothing with the facts he has.  The truth sits there inside him, inert and ineffective, as useless as if it weren’t even there.  The anoetoi are the non-thinkers, those who have all the information they need but who don’t bother to put it into action.

This is the term Paul hurls at the Galatians in his letter to them, and he spends much of chapter 3 chiding them for acting as if they didn’t even know that their salvation came through their faith and not through the works of the Law.  “What are you thinking?!” Paul is demanding.  “Are you even thinking?”  It’s important to note that these are Christians whom Paul is calling fools ... rebuking them for being too daft to act on the information they have about their salvation.

However, I find Titus 3’s use of anoetos to be even more emblematic of how believers can fall into this kind of foolishness, this “not using my thinker” kind.  There, Paul talks about the benefits of abandoning that kind of anoetos.  It results in our speaking evil of no men, of not being brawlers, of being gentle and abandoning malice toward each other.  When believers fall into foolishness, it is usually this sort.  A read through Titus 3 is always a good re-set of attitudes that have turned fruitless, ineffective, and overly harsh.

Life Examples: Believers who fall into anoetos neglect the Noetics of faith and start filling their days with argument, their text messages with snide attacks, their Facebook pages with riling and fury, their love lives with jealousy and suspicion, and more.  Every single one of us is vulnerable to this kind of foolishness.  We forget we have the facts of faith within us.  We forget to use them.  We wind up with faith without works, and it comes off as quite dead.


WORD 4 -- ASUNETOS

This final form of foolishness is the highest form (if one can give value and station to foolishness).  There’s that alpha privative again, and this time it is negating the word sunetos, or “synthesis” (U becomes Y when we Latinize Greek because ... well, it’s a long story, don’t worry about it).  When we’re asunetoi fools, we can see the facts, we can take in the facts, we keep the facts in ... but we use them incorrectly.  We mess up what they mean and how they work.  We do bad synthesizing.  

Jesus used this term on the disciples in Mark 7 and Matthew 15, a story similar to the one in which he referred to the Pharisee as aphron, one who couldn’t keep truth within him.  As if unwilling to call the disciples the same word, Jesus asks if they are asunetoi, “foolish” only in the sense of failing to correctly process the information he knows is alive within them.

Life Example: I have a recent example of an asunetos moment from a Bible study I attended.  A very nice man, a passionate believer, made a big deal about the Hebrew letters Aleph and Tav appearing in the first verse of Genesis 1.  Aleph-Tav are not translated into English, and must therefore (said the man) symbolize something else, something not explicitly in the words of Genesis 1:1.  Since Aleph and Tav are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and since Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet), this must be a hidden reference to Jesus Christ, buried there in Genesis since the beginning of the Bible!

This all sounds very intriguing, but it is a standard case of asunetos foolishness – facts seen, facts kept, facts synthesized incorrectly, “without understanding.”  The reality is much simpler: Aleph-Tav is not a word in Hebrew, or even a mystical symbol.  It’s a non-semantic grammatical marker with no word meaning.  We have them in English – e.g., the DO auxiliary we use to mark a question, as in “Do you like pickles?”  In that sentence, the use of DO is meaningless, except as a grammatical marker to show that a question is being asked.  In Hebrew, Aleph-Tav is the most frequently occurring combination of letters in the entire testament, and it has no more mystical meaning than, say, the period at the end of an English sentence.  Specifically, Aleph-Tav is a grammatical marker for a direct object in a Hebrew sentence, the notation showing what noun is receiving the action of the verb.  If I were to write “Tommie kisses Yolanda”  in Hebrew, it would come out as “Tommie kisses aleph-tav Yolanda.”  The marker shows grammatically who gets the kiss, and has no meaning in Hebrew beyond that.

Am I saying that the nice man in my story is a fool?  No, but I am saying that his exegesis is traveling a foolish path.  He would only become a fool if he began dedicating his Scriptural study time to uncovering hidden things and private interpretations through secret messages he sees in Scripture.

GRAMMAR GEEK NOTE (skip the next paragraph if you don’t care about geeky grammar stuff):

The deeper utility of Aleph-Tav and linguistic devices like it is the flexibility they offer in languages with less restrictive word order.  Aleph-Tav operates much like the personal a in Spanish, providing extra word-order flexibility when there are more than two humans in a single sentence.  Thus, for “Tommie kisses Yolanda,” Spanish is perfectly comfortable casting the phrase as A Yolanda besa Tommie and also as Tommie besa a Yolanda, and even the poetic Tommie a Yolanda besa.  With the grammatical marker in place, it’s never in doubt who is getting all the kisses.  I am.  Thank you, personal a.


REVIEW

Here are the Greek words we’ve covered which current Bible versions tend to translate as “fool”  or “foolish”: 
  • MOROS – unable to recognize facts; dull-minded (the 5 foolish virgins and random-challenge atheists)
  • APHRON – unable to hold the facts within themselves (the Pharisees in Luke 11 and proof-texting Puritans of today)
  • ANOETOS – able to take the facts in, but doing nothing with them (the foolish Galatians and the Facebook flamers)
  • ASUNETOS – synthesizing the facts incorrectly (the apostles in Matthew 15, and me when I’m not careful & prayerful in Scripture study)

Calling someone a “fool” is not something I do lightly.  Nor is it something that means the same thing in every situation.  So which did I mean when I confronted the Werewolf & Lizard Lords Apocalypse dude, the first story in this blog post?

Answer: That is something I’ve shared in the quiet of my heart with the Lord, clearing it with Him first and foremost.

Because I’d be a moron not to.

Marana Tha,

Cosmic Parx / Yolanda

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Rapture & the Bible: Myth vs. Fact


The Rapture Idea

The idea of a Rapture – the secret “taking away” of believers before a Great Tribulation of seven years and the coming of Christ to punish the unrighteous of the Earth – is one presented to new Christians from the earliest days of their faith.  An unbeliever might even know about the Rapture long before he comes to the faith.  Many evangelizers will use the idea of the Rapture as a way to “till the soil” where the seeds of the Gospel message will be planted.

It’s an idea with significant “mind share,” occupying plenty of space in the brains of believers and in the pulpits of preachers.  Often even the youngest children in an Evangelical congregation can draw a picture of what they’re told will happen in the very near future:
  • Millions of true believers disappear from the Earth ... raptured, “caught away.”
  • Governments panic at first, and then make convincing excuses for the disappearances.
  • An Antichrist arises and brings a false peace to the world.
  • A one-world religion forms to spread faith in the Antichrist.
  • People are forced to receive a mark that shows belief that Antichrist is a god.
  • Millions upon millions die in horrible plagues released by angels.
  • Christ and His army finally come in the clouds and utterly destroy the last of His enemies.


That’s the sequence: Rapture, Panic, False Peace, Heresy, Global Death, Final Defeat of Enemies.  Keep it in mind.

It’s a heck of a story.  You may have even seen it on the big screen in The Omen and Left Behind or on the small screen in the series Sleepy Hollow or any number of Discovery Channel retellings  The secular world eats up this story as much as many Evangelicals do.

To separate faith from fiction, however, we should take a look at the source of the Rapture idea, the Scriptures themselves.


The Rapture Scriptures

Two passages form the foundation of the Rapture idea in modern Christianity, one in 1 Thessalonians 4 and the other in 1 Corinthians 15.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep.  For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

This sequence, the sequence of Scripture, raises some issues with the sequence we saw previously.  Christ descends with a shout, no secrets about it.  A trumpet from the archangel blasts forth, again no secret.  The dead in Christ rise up in the air, coming before anyone else.  Then the alive in Christ get caught up into the clouds with the Lord.  Then they are with Him forever.

But before we draw any conclusions, let’s examine the second major passage dealing with this same event.

1 Corinthians 15:51-57
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.  So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?  The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In this sequence, more detail is added.  The trump that sounds is the last trump, the very last one.  The dead raise incorruptible.  The living are changed next.  The final enemies, Death and the Grave, are defeated decisively.  Christ and His life reign victorious forever.

According to these Scriptures, the event we call the Rapture in our modern times is what the church has always called the Resurrection of the Dead.  It happens when the very last trumpet sounds, and it signals the end of Christ’s and mankind’s final enemies, Death and the Grave.

End times enthusiasts need to ask themselves: How can the Rapture come before the plagues and wars that kill tens of millions if it is taking place as part of the moment in salvation that closes the grave forever?

How can the Rapture be a secret snatching away of the living when Paul clearly says it is proclaimed with a shout, with the Lord appearing dramatically in the clouds at the blaring of the trumpet, a fanfare declaring the arrival of the King?

How, if this moment is the moment of the “last trump,” can there be other trumpets in a tribulation story filled with seals, bowls, and trumps?

How can this Rapture be the moment that “Death is swallowed up in victory” if there is still so much death to come in a Great Tribulation?

And finally: How can the current Rapture idea and the timeline accompanying it persist once the light of Scripture shines on it?  Where did it even come from?


The Making of Myths

Since the dawn of civilization, humankind has been a myth-mongering species.  We love our tall tales.  We see the sun rise and we conjure stories of Apollo’s chariot.  We hear thunder and we dream up Thor’s hammer.  We see foam on the ocean and we invent Izanagi no Mikoto’s divine spear of life.

It’s often oppression that brings out the myth makers among us.  My own ancestors of Mexico are a prime example of fable crafting: Not content with the religion offered by their rich European overlords, they borrowed from the oppressing class’s faith to devise a tale of a Lady of Guadalupe, dark-skinned like regional natives, who declared herself an incarnation of the Virgin Mary and demanded a church be built to honor her.  Similarly, the oppressed and disenfranchised Jews of two centuries before Christ borrowed the term “messiah” from their ancient faith to concoct a complex mythology of an imminent warrior king who would conquer the oppressive Roman empire, subjecting it to Judean control.

The word “eschatology” means “the study of end times.”  As Christian believers, we aren’t immune to our eschatology being affected by our human myth-making drive.  The fact is, the more oppressed or disenfranchised we imagine ourselves to be, the more eschatological myth-making we’re likely to do.  This, I believe, is part of what drives the current push to reinterpret the Second Coming of our Lord in victory and glory as a rescue tale that snatches us away from the horrors and punishment of those who refuse to believe as we do.

As we’ve seen, the two passages at the very heart of the Rapture idea in Scripture do not paint it as a flight from God’s wrath upon the world.  Instead, they portray it as the final moment of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the grave.  There is no evil after that moment.  There is no more death and tribulation.

But what about that End Times model we all have seen, all that stuff cobbled together from the Book of Revelation and Matthew 24 and parts of Ezekiel and areas in Daniel?  Obviously, that’s far too complex a topic to be handled in a single blog post.  No matter how we may choose to interpret those difficult and much-debated passages, one thing is clear from the Apostle Paul’s words on the subject of “Rapture”: It is the final moment of sin, death, and the grave.  Evil has no foothold after it.  It is the day of Resurrection, ultimate victory, the moment that the mistake of Eden is erased and forgotten forever.

To claim that Rapture is followed by death, war, and destruction is to call Paul a liar and to distort and disregard the Scriptures.

Worse, to believe in the modern Rapture mythology is to grant the grave continued victory, and to give death back his sting.

I prefer to step away from the mythologies of this age, and instead to embrace the real promises of God.  What promises?  That His kingdom is now among us (Luke 17:21).  That His kingdom and His peace will continue to grow without ceasing (Isaiah 9:7).  That He reigns now from heaven as God puts all His enemies under His feet as His footstool (Acts 2:35).  That the final enemies to be defeated will be death and the grave (1 Corinthians 15).

The Rapture is the Second Coming.  The Rapture is the Resurrection.  Instead of cowering to wait to be snatched from the evils of this world, I will stand tall, contributing to the increase of the Kingdom through the fruit of the Spirit, and helping to make Christianity something other than a laughable, throwaway plot for Hollywood screenwriters.

My eschatology is Victory.

Marana Tha,
Cosmic Parx


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Should Jesus Ever Be Called “Yeshua”?


Spend enough time among diverse Christian groups, you’re bound to encounter some who refer to Jesus by the term Yeshua.  Those individuals (a minority among Christians) will explain that Yeshua was Jesus’ “real” Hebrew name, and some (a minority of the minority) will go so far as to claim that using any other word for His name is unbiblical or ungodly.

In the extreme, such individuals may claim that your English use of “Jesus” is improper.  They might drop subtle hints that your entire faith could be in question, since only those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (see Romans 10:3).


WHERE DOES THE WORD YESHUA COME FROM?

Those who call Jesus Yeshua do so because they believe they are using the word Jesus’ contemporaries used when they addressed him.  They believe that the name “Jesus” is overly modernized, and that it might even be inappropriate.

Yeshua is a modern transliteration of the Hebrew name we usually render as Joshua, and Joshua was, in fact, the root of Jesus’ name.  By “transliteration,” I don’t mean “translation.”  In many ways, transliteration is the opposite of a translation.  It’s an attempt to show the original sounds of a foreign word without using the written form of that original language.

Chances are you’ve seen examples of Greek, Hebrew, or Arabic.  Those languages have a completely different script from English, which uses Roman-style letters.  To show you how to pronounce a word in one of those languages, I have to Romanize the word – give you the approximate sounds in letters you can read and practice for yourself.

Therein lies our first major problem.  Some languages have sounds that aren’t used in other languages, or at least not used in the same way.  The buzzing sound you hear at the start of the French phrase Je t’aime is the same sound English puts at the end of the word garage, but English never starts a word with that sound.  Likewise, the breathy, guttural rasps in the Hebrew toast l’chaim and the Spanish name José have no equivalent Romanized letter that is helpful for English speakers.  Still other languages have oddities that can’t even be reproduced in Roman letters – the Tsou language of Taiwan, for example, has variations for /f/ and /h/ that are made by inhaling air rather than exhaling air, sounds linguists call pulmonic ingressives, but which few in the Western world can make.

So when someone claims that Yeshua is the real name of Jesus, they don’t seem to realize that their spelling of it in Romanized letters is only an approximation, and more important, that their pronunciation of it is only a ballpark attempt to mimic the sounds of an ancient language no one had the technology to record.

This explains why a Google search of “What is the real name of Jesus?” produces so many variations on that “real” name, both in Romanized spelling and the suggested pronunciations: Yeshua, Yahushua, Yesua, Yehoshuah, and more.


WHAT LANGUAGE DID JESUS SPEAK?

Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew.
The second major problem with calling Jesus by the Hebrew name Yeshua is that it’s highly unlikely Jesus spoke Hebrew.  By the time He was born, the daily languages of his province were common Greek and Aramaic.  Latin was spoken by top politicians.  Hebrew was used primarily for ceremonial purposes, although even for those Aramaic had taken over in most synagogues.  Aramaic was a Semitic language, like Hebrew, but the two were as mutually unintelligible as French and Latin are today, even though French evolved from Latin.  If Jesus’ household spoke Aramaic on a daily basis, his name would be better transliterated as Eashoah, more nearly approximating the ancient Aramaic lettering.

Jesus spoke Greek.
However, it’s certain that Jesus spoke Greek as well.  Greek had been the common language of the area for almost 400 years, and Jesus' people were multilingual.  In fact, He may have used Greek as his primary language for teaching, evidenced by the fact that whenever he lapsed into Aramaic, the Gospels make a point of translating the Aramaic words he chose to use.  The New Testament was written entirely in Greek, even the Gospels.  Those who prefer the term Yeshua will sometimes claim that the Gospels were first written in Aramaic.  They are certainly mistaken, based on the Bible text alone.  Why would a Gospel writer composing his text in Aramaic go to the trouble of telling readers the translation of an Aramaic word?  Mark offers repeated translations of Aramaic (in 5:41, translating Talitha kum into Greek for his audience; in 7:34 translating Ephphatha; in 15:34 translating Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”).  Matthew provides similar acts of translation to Greek, and John goes to pains to explain in Greek what rabbi and messiah mean in the language his readers understood.

Clear conclusions:
(1) The Gospel writers wrote in Greek.  If they had been writing in Aramaic, they would not be pausing to provide Aramaic translations for their audience, no more than I would write here, “The word audience translates to ‘audience’.”  You don’t translate a word from the language you’re already writing.

(2) Furthermore, the fact that the Gospel writers broke from their narrative to point out that Jesus had used Aramaic words at some points in His teaching is pretty strong evidence that they saw that switch to Aramaic as unique and noteworthy ... as if it were something outside the norm of the way He taught.  Chances are that when they mention, “And then, in Aramaic, he says ...” it’s because He hadn’t been speaking Aramaic up to that point.  The language switch jumped out at them, and they noted it.

(3) The Gospel writers called our Lord Iesous, Jesus.  They saw no need to translate that name, or to point out that it was a poor Greek variation on a better Aramaic or Hebrew name to call Him.  They’d already shown elsewhere that they had no hesitation pointing out important translations.  Matthew even went to the trouble to decode a title accompanying the name of Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us.  But at no point did these Greek-writing, Holy Spirit inspired authors go to the trouble of saying, “We all really called him Yeshua,” or “Make sure you don’t use the Greek for that when you’re getting saved, though.”  They liked the name Jesus.  In the New Testament Scripture we have – written in its original Greek – there is no other name by which they called Him.  Nor by which Greek-writing Paul called Him.  Nor Peter.  Nor Jude.  Nor James.  Iesous, Jesus, was the preferred name.


AHA!  BUT HEBREW HAS NO LETTER “J”!

This is almost too small a point to bother with, but since it’s likely you’ll run into it, you may as well have it resolved right now.

Many promoters of the name Yeshua claim that Jesus can’t possibly be the name of the savior because the letter J didn’t even exist until the 14th century, almost a millennium and a half after He lived.

This is absolutely true and absolutely meaningless, for one simple reason: Letters are not sounds.

The letter J didn’t exist in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, and neither did the letters Y, E, S, H, U or A.  However, the sound represented by the modern letter J most certainly existed, and it exists in nearly every language we know.  Representing it as a Y is little different from representing it as a J.  I’ll prove that.  Say the following word:

YAY

Now say it 20 times fast without inhaling.

YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY YAY

Did you feel the J sound forming?  Most likely you did ... in fact, I’m told that it hurts to keep the Y as a pure Y sound once you hit the tenth or twelfth YAY.  If you do the exercise in the other direction, repeating the word JAY, you’ll find your mouth slipping toward the Y of YAY as well.

The sound represented by an initial J in Jesus is nearly identical to the sound represented by the letter Y, just with the slightest of friction or buzz added.  There are many letters with such tricks (say “a little Tylenol” and notice how the two Ts in little are more like Ds than the initial T in Tylenol).  The letters J and Y are, in this case, the same essential sound.  There is no vast conspiracy to hide the true name of the Lord.

Here endeth the J lesson.


SO ARE THEY WRONG TO CALL JESUS “YESHUA”?

Am I saying that those who refer to Jesus as Yeshua are wrong to do so?  I’ll answer that with a hearty, confident, “It depends.”  Are the Spanish wrong to call Him by something that sounds to English ears like, “Hey, Zeus!”?  Are the Russians wrong for Isus?  The Chinese wrong of Yesu?  Punjabi speakers wrong for Yisu ne?  The Azerbaijani wrong for Isa?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this: If Jesus was called Eashoah by his Aramaic-speaking mother, but Iesous by Paul and the Gospel writers, then the first act of transliteration was performed by the Holy Spirit, and I shouldn’t question the legitimacy of accommodating other languages.  The Christ who rose is the Christ who rose, and by any other name He is as sweet.

However – if the devotee of the name Yeshua begins to insist to you that his use of the name is more proper, more biblical, or more holy than your own use of “Jesus,” it may be time to discern the motivation behind the attitude.  Scripture warns us numerous times to avoid putting on airs, and there is something about pretending to have a special, secret name for God that smacks of something less than humility, more like Gnostic secrecy.  Real love does not put on airs.

If you hear your preacher or teacher or prayer leader suddenly bursting forth with declarations of “Yeshua ha Maschiach!” and Hebrew is not their native tongue, ask yourself what the speaker or pray-er’s motivation might be.  To invoke God with a better language?  To use a more powerful version of the name, as if it were a magic spell?  To stand out from others who don’t use those words, thus appearing to be more in tune with God?  To lead you to notice that they are unique, using special vocabulary, worthy of your focus and attention?

I can’t answer that for anyone, since it’s situational.  But pray for discernment, and always test the spirit of those who would try to get you to buy in to the idea of secret words and special knowledge.

And if they bring up the Letter J thing, just roll your eyes at them.

Marana Tha (that’s Aramaic for either “Our Lord is coming” or “Our Lord has come”!),

Cosmic Parx