I Know What You Want.

You want 30 hours of theology podcasts.

I mean, who wouldn’t want that?

So, here’s what this is. Christian novelist Brian Godawa has gotten his hands on a pre-release copy of a commentary on the book of Revelation, The Divorce of Israel, by Kenneth Gentry. The gist of it is that Gentry’s interpretation is preterist, i.e. coming from a point of view that most of the events in Revelation have already happened during the horrible years of Rome’s siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In other words, they were not prophecies of the distant future when John gave them, but rather prophecies of the immediate future. That’s the reason for the frequent warnings that “these things will soon take place.”

But, you say, what about all the stuff in Revelation that definitely sounds like the end of the world: the stars falling, the sky rolling up like a scroll, Jesus coming in the clouds, etc., etc.? Godawa shows, following Gentry, that all of this “collapsing universe imagery” was conventionally used in the Old Testament to describe God’s judgements on nations, usually through a siege, military defeat, and the razing of the countryside.

In the videos linked to above (and the first one embedded below), Through the Black interviews Brian Godawa in a series of 16 videos that are 1 – 2 hours each. That’s how long it takes them to go through Revelation chapter by chapter (and also Matthew 24), answering all the “what about”s that are probably popping into your head if you have ever been exposed to the usual type of modern evangelical teaching on Revelation.

As the Through the Black host says many times on these podcasts, eschatology matters. It can even have life-and-death consequences. Just look at David Koresh. Even mentioning Revelation, outside of Christian circles, nowadays is enough to get you branded as a loon. Inside Christian circles, it can still cause people to run screaming from the room, and who could blame them? Preterism gives us a way to look at this book that is consistent with the rest of Scripture and which doesn’t force us to create elaborate, increasingly self-contradictory systems of thought that will drive us crazy. If you like to listen to podcasts, join me in working your way through this one.

The “Wise” Men as Failed Culture Crossers

The Original Text

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or when it rose] and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,/Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,/because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1 – 18

This passage is found only in Matthew, not in any of the other Gospels.

Notice, if you didn’t already, that it does not say how many Magi there were; they are just plural. It also doesn’t say that the Magi came to the stable, but references a “house.” Given other clues in the text, this incident could have happened as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. Apparently Joseph and Mary had been forced to stay on in Bethlehem for some time. (This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has ever had to deal with a large bureaucracy.) Apparently the housing situation in Bethlehem had improved enough that they had either found a room to rent, or a relative to stay with.

The following is a re-write of a meditation on the Magi that I once wrote for a church newsletter. The original title was “The Wise Men as Failed Missionaries,” but I think their experience can apply equally well to many kinds of culture crossing, including culture crossing for research, medical work, or the Peace Corps, any time we are attempting to do no harm.

The Perils of Crossing Cultures

I did not see The King and I until after I had already lived in Asia. But I had heard about how great it was, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a fun, lighthearted musical. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was shocked by how darkly and accurately it portrays the meeting of two cultures. The cost, to both Anna and King, is very high indeed, for what seems like a small payoff in mutual understanding.

There is one moment of the kind that we always hope for in cross-cultural exchanges. The King is making Anna show him how to ballroom dance. This romantic activity, so typical of Anna’s culture, is one that she loves, and that could never happen in the culture of Siam. She has been talking about it, and now the king wants to learn. They dance across the stage, with the king concentrating very hard on this new experience. “Again!” he commands. They dance again.

And then, right in the midst of this wonderful moment, everything crashes down. The concubine Tuptim is dragged before the king. She has been caught running away to join her lover. The king has her whipped; Anna tries to intervene; Tuptim is dragged off to her death, and the relationship between Anna and the king is irreparably broken.

Anna brings British values to the king of Siam, and those values literally kill him.

That is how cross-cultural exchanges often go.

The Wise Men, unfortunately, are no exception to this rule. Let’s call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. When people go into another culture, however good their intentions, there is inevitably much they don’t know. So the Wise Men show up quite innocently in Jerusalem and start asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

They did know a few important facts about Jesus – His office, His age (newborn), and that He ought to be worshipped. What they didn’t know was that Jesus had not been born into the current royal family, or that Judea was a political powder keg. They also had no idea how evil Herod was. It’s amazing – expatriats are constantly amazed – at how the same person can know an awful lot about some things, yet be completely clueless about other, equally important, equally obvious things. This is a pitfall of crossing cultures.

So, in they go – clumsily, conspicuously, perhaps with a large entourage. Foreigners, especially wealthy foreigners, always stand out. They are called before the king. And he is actually able to help them! His scholars point them to Bethlehem. He tells them a pack of lies about wanting to worship Jesus too, and they may sense they are being manipulated, but they are not sure exactly how. Everything is so different from what they expected.

Against all the odds, they do succeed in their mission. They find the newborn king. They worship Him. They deliver their carefully guarded gifts. They even manage not to go back and tell Herod where He is (by the grace of God).

They go back to their own country, thrilled to have met Him … and rightly so. They had gotten to meet the Messiah. It was the experience of a lifetime, and they had sacrificed a lot for it. I realize that I have made these godly men sound a bit foolish in the summary above. Of course they were not fools. I am just trying to highlight that, on a human level, their visit caused a lot more problems than it solved. The Bible hints – and I hope it is true – that they had no idea of the way events were unraveling in their wake.

For the story goes on. Herod does not care that he cannot find the exact child. It does not bother him to murder all the male babies in an entire town. And it does not bother his soldiers to obey him. The holy family, who thought they would just be in Bethlehem a while for the census, now are refugees in another country. And other families in Bethlehem fare much worse. Horror and tragedy! All triggered by the wise men.

If we were the wise men, and if we knew the whole story, we would be dismayed. We would throw up our hands and say, “What a horrible mess we’ve created!” Perhaps we would say, as Anna said, “I wish we had never come.” And then perhaps we would ask, “Have we done any good at all here?”

I think many culture-crossing, would-be do-gooders ask themselves that same question. “Am I doing any good? Does the small amount of good I am able to do, come close to outweighing the harm that I accidentally do? Is the small amount of good that I sometimes, by the grace of God, do, proportionate to the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that I and others have invested in order to get me here?”

I don’t have answers to these questions. In the case of the wise men, it is dangerous to weigh and compare, because soon we will find ourselves weighing and comparing the incarnation of God, and the brutal death of dozens of babies and toddlers. To what can we compare either of those events? They are not currencies that can be converted with some kind of exchange rate. There is no scale for these things. It is wrong to compare. So perhaps it is wrong to ask these questions.

I do know one thing. Despite how it might seem to our human wisdom, the wise men were supposed to be there. Both the slaughter of the innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt were foretold in prophecy. And God sent the star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. They were supposed to go; they had a role to play. In their case, their role was worship. God did not send them there to change the world or to do some good with their wealth and their wisdom. He sent them to worship. And they did it, and they have gone down in history, and so have the innocent toddlers whom Herod slaughtered. Laments are sung for them, still to this day.

In that fabulous tome about culture crossing, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary kid Leah, who up to that point has been all in on her father’s attempts to transform the local culture, has a low moment when she realizes that her family, by their presence there, is putting a lot of burdens on the community but contributing nothing. “We should not have come here,” she intones. And she presses Anatole, whom she will eventually marry: “Should we have come here? Yes or no.” And Anatole says, “You should not have come here, but now you are here, so you should be here. There are more words in the world than yes and no.” I can’t think of a better way to describe usually disastrous cultural exchanges.

A Song About the Incarnation

This semester in Sunday School, my kids have been memorizing John chapter 1. I don’t know if things were planned this way, but the way it has worked out, as we enter the Christmas season, they are memorizing verse 14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

John just can’t get over the fact that they saw him.

Whenever I hear this verse, I think of the following song. By the way, all the background music is voices.

Thank You, St. Boniface

This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.

My Barbarian Ancestors

Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.

St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.

God versus the false gods

St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.

Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.

The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)

However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.

A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”

That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)

Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.

Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.

And, Voila! a Christmas Tree

In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.

Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.

Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.


BBC, “Devon Myths and Legends,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2005/12/05/st_boniface_christmas_tree_feature

Foster, Genevieve, Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, Saturnalia on p. 56 ff.

Hannula, Richard, Trial and Triumph: Stories from church history, Canon Press, 1999. Boniface in chapter 9, pp. 61 – 64.

Puiu, Tibi, “The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity,” ZME Science, https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/

The Guilty Reader Tag

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

For the uninitiated, a “tag” is when a fellow blogger asks you to answer a bunch of questions, which usually revolve around a theme. I, for some mysterious reason, tend to get tagged by bloggers who are interested in books, writing, and reading.

This tag was created by  Chami @ Read Like Wildfire and passed on to me by my faithful friend The Orangutan Librarian, a fellow INFP who, like me, is also an expert in guilt. Maybe that’s why I love her sensitive and lighthearted book reviews and parodies.

One. Have You Ever Re-Gifted A Book You’ve Been Given?

Hmm. I don’t think so. But probably. I have been known to buy a book for myself, read it, and then a few years later, give the nearly-new copy to a fellow reader as a gift. And then, after they have enjoyed it, after another few years I have even been known to re-claim it.

Also – fun fact! – I was once given a book that eventually turned out to be a library book. It was pretty good, too.

Two. Have You Ever Said You’ve Read A Book When You Haven’t?

Photo by Marcela Alessandra on Pexels.com

I have definitely implied it.

Back in my college days, when I made an idol of being intellectual and was consequently a poser about it, I would talk as though I was familiar with philosophers like Plato, when I had not read their works but only heard about them.

(Hot tip: if you make an idol of your intellect, you will always feel like a dummy who is about to be exposed.)

Three. Have You Ever Borrowed A Book And Not Returned It?

Yes. I borrowed a book about children in history from a history prof, let it sit around unread, and then eventually returned it. At least, I thought I returned it. She was unable to find it, as was I.

Four. Have You Ever Read A Series Out Of Order?

All. The. Time. Some series seem to stretch on forever into both the past and future, having neither beginning nor end. *Ahem* Dragonlance!

Also, I love Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police procedurals. But they have a big flaw: they are not numbered as a series! Each one can be read as a standalone, but if you read more than a few of them, you realize that they develop over time. You have to read each book to find out where it fits in with the others in terms of Jim Chee’s disastrous love life, for example. I’ll bet that somewhere on the Internet, someone has listed them in order just for people like me.

Five. Have You Ever Spoiled A Book For Someone?

Um, probably, but I can’t remember. What I remember, of course, is when people spoil books for me. The most egregious instance was when a friend spoiled Things Fall Apart.

Six. Have You Ever Dogeared A Book?

Um, so, this is one of those habits that I have had to belatedly realize makes me uncivilized, and have had to train myself out of. (I won’t tell you the others.)

Seven. Have You Ever Told Someone You Don’t Own A Book When You Do?

Maybe, if I forget that I own it. Or, I might think that I own a book, but do so no longer.

Eight. Have You Ever Skipped A Chapter Or A Section Of A Book?

In nonfiction, all the time. Often you can see where a section is going (if you’re wrong it will quickly become apparent), or the author is laying out background that you already have.

In fiction, I occasionally skip atrocities.

Nine. Have You Ever Bad Mouthed A Book You Actually Liked?

Yes. I still feel bad about a review that did for a reviewing site, where I gave a very decent historical fiction volume 2 out of 4 stars just because the characters occasionally spoke like modern people. Once I got more experience, I got more fair with my reviews.

Moral: The Heart is Deceitful

So, it turns out that I have committed every single pecadillo on this list, from the harmless (forgetting I own books) to the prideful (posing as an intellectual). Not super surprised by this. Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.

But one question was left off this list: Have you ever been lost in a book at a time when, in the opinion of people around you, you should have been doing something else?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

I’ll post a quote about that tomorrow.

You post your book pecadillos in the comments.

Best to you all.

Surprising Fact of the Week

We should never defend Christianity by saying it is traditional. From the beginning, it has stood against the traditions of its day.

Beginning in the fifth century, Christian leaders finally began to wield enough political influence to pass laws against sexual slavery. The church fathers called it “coerced sin.” One historian notes that the most reliable index of the Christianization of an ancient society was the recognition of the injustice of sexual slavery.

Let that historical fact sink in: The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether [the society] outlawed sexual slavery.

Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body, pp. 69 – 70, 71 – 72

A Shot of Courage

A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!

So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.

Jesus, in Matthew 10:24 – 27

Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?