A Hidden Jewel in John MacArthur, Part Two

In my last blog entry, I started digging into a recent John MacArthur sermon in which he says Biden’s election win coupled with the increased acceptance of homosexuality are indicative of God’s supposed abandonment of our nation. I started digging into the passages MacArthur referenced in the first part of his sermon and found what I consider serious problems with his exegesis of Romans 1.

Which isn’t to say that MacArthur’s general interpretation of Romans 1:18-32 is uncommon. His is a pretty typical conservative evangelical understanding of the passage, he’s just added a few things here and there in an effort to dovetail LGBTQ orientations with God’s pending judgement. MacArthur continues in this vein by trying to associate the sins of Israel in Isaiah 5 with America and its LGBTQ population.

However, the author of Isaiah 5 doesn’t make you wonder what Israel is being judged for. It’s not left ambiguous so just anyone came come along and superimpose their own meaning onto the text. Here’s a list of the six “woes” mentioned in the chapter:

1. Rich people expanding their real estate holdings, most likely to the detriment of the poor – 5:8
2. Drunkenness – 5:11-12
3. Pride, defiance of God – 5:18-19
4. Redefining good and evil for one’s own benefit– 5:20
5. Being wise in one’s own eyes – 5:21
6 Drunkenness (again) – 5:22-23

Did you notice what’s not mentioned anywhere in there? Homosexuality, that’s what. No mention of a single exclusively homosexual activity in sight anywhere in the whole chapter. You could say items three, four, and five are talking about homosexuals if you want to take that approach. On the other hand, you can also apply them to a lot of the people and politicians passing laws to inhibit LGBTQ rights and medical care.

I think the thing to look at here when trying to determine what kinds of behaviors the woes should be applied to is what a person’s activities lead to. If a prominent theologian like MacArthur says that adult homosexuals should be disowned by their parents (a statement he has made in the past) and that advice leads to bitterness and broken family relationships, should MacArthur be considered wise in his own eyes? If laws banning hormone treatment for trans kids in Arkansas leads to an increase in teenage suicides, have our legislators redefined good and evil? On the other hand, what is to be gained from keeping LBGTQ folks from marrying the people they’re in love with? What is the benefit of stigmatizing loving relationships between two consenting adults?

(As a side note, MacArthur starts off by saying LGBTQ people are a sign of God’s abandoning a nation. At some point during the sermon, however, homosexuality becomes the reason for God’s pending judgment. This obviously conflates the issue but I think MacArthur is more interested in advancing a preconceived point of view rather than presenting a solid logical argument.)

At a point about halfway through his sermon, MacArthur says, “The holiness of God is made manifest throughout history in the judgment of nations and peoples.” Where’s he getting this stuff, you might ask? Well, he’s quoting Isaiah 5:16 from the New King James Version which says, “But the Lord of hosts shall be exalted in judgment …” Here’s the thing, though, of the ten Bible translations I checked, only half translate the Hebrew word mishpat as “judgment.” Those that use “judgment” in this verse include that KJV, NKJV, NASB1995, NASB2020, and the NET Bible.

Here’s where I finally get to the jewel I found in MacArthur’s sermon: the NIV, NRSV, Christian Standard Bible, ESV, and Lexham English Bible all translate mishpat as “justice.” How do you define justice? According to the Lexham Bible Dictionary, it’s “Divinely righteous action, whether taken by humanity or God, that promotes equality among humanity. Used in relation to uplifting the righteous and oppressed and debasing the unrighteous and oppressors.”

What isn’t touched on by this definition is divine retributive justice, God taking out his big stick and whacking people because they deserve to be whacked. This is about restorative justice, God correcting inequities between the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressors. And this is usually depicted in the Old Testament as a precursor to God bringing His people back into relationship with Him.

So, what can restorative justice look like? It might look a lot like what’s described in Isaiah 5:17 which MacArthur conveniently skipped over when solemnly reciting all the woes that befall a nation under experiencing God’s judgment justice. Why did he not mention verse 17? Maybe because there’s a textual discrepancy between the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint in this passage and the Hebrew doesn’t favor MacArthur’s argument.

Here are verses 16 and 17 from the CSB which uses the Hebrew version of the text: But the Lord of Armies is exalted by his justice, and the holy God demonstrates his holiness through his righteousness. Lambs will graze as if in their own pastures, and resident aliens will eat among the ruins of the rich.

Did you catch that? It blew me away. When God brings Her justice to America, the illegal aliens that snuck in trying to find a job and create better lives for their kids will wind up eating in Mar-A-Lago. When justice arrives, the wealthy that exploited the poor won’t be anywhere to be found but those who worked in miserable conditions for minimum wage will suddenly be living in the mansions of their employers.

Isaiah 5 isn’t about homosexuality. It’s about God’s justice, about God righting wrongs and letting nations reap the natural consequence of their actions. In Israel’s case, the natural consequence of its rebellion against Assyria was to be taken into captivity. If America should fall some day and we want to draw a parallel to ancient Israel, it won’t be because of LGBTQ people or not having “God’s man” in office. It will be because of bad foreign policy decisions which will probably be made be a cisgender white guy.

A Hidden Jewel in John MacArthur, Part One

John MacArthur preached a sermon a few weeks ago which might best be summarized as “Biden is in the White House, homosexuality is on the increase, America is now under irrevocable judgment, film at 11.” And I was basically content to leave my understanding of his remarks at that. But, after talking to a friend of mine, I was compelled to engage in a little self-flagellation so I listened to the whole one-hour speech. (My friend says a two-hour version is out there. I shudder to think.)

A few minutes into this ordeal, MacArthur was taking so many verses out of context that I wound up pulling out Bibles and commentaries that hadn’t seen the light of day for quite some time. I soon had our living room cluttered with a slew of study Bibles, commentaries, and various translations. Never let it be said John MacArthur doesn’t provide motivation for the progressive Christian.

MacArthur’s main idea was to join in the culture wars and somehow say that America under Biden is more corrupt than Trump’s America. In an effort to prove his point, MacArthur doesn’t waste time in getting to Romans 1:18-32, one of the most beloved clobber passages. He then covers the same stuff we’ve always heard about people knowing there is a higher power than themselves but refusing to acknowledge that truth so God gives them over to their own desires.

He uses Romans 1 in conjunction with some passages from Isaiah to say that there are three signs of a nation being abandoned by God: a sexual revolution, a homosexual revolution, and being given over to a depraved mind, i.e., insanity. MacArthur doesn’t say much about the sexual revolution but I assume he thinks there’s a homosexual revolution coming to fruition under Biden. MacArthur may not be aware of this but LGBTQ folks have been around since before November 2020. Spread the word. In something of a twist, though, he equates being transgender with having a depraved mind. Not only are transgender people nuts, they’re beyond redemption. MacArthur is apparently laboring under the delusion that being transgender is a choice. It’s not. Once again, someone should let Mr. MacArthur know that gender dysphoria is an actual thing that was diagnosed prior to January 2021.

Here’s the thing about Romans 1, though: it’s not the blanket condemnation of homosexuality I was always told it was. It’s talking specifically about idol worship. Take a look at verse 23 that says “(they) exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” Paul is contrasting idol worship (almost exclusively associated with the Gentiles in Paul’s time) with the sins of the Jews in an effort to show that all of us need redemption. The list of unrighteous acts at the end of the chapter were associated with recent Roman emperors around that time.(Paul is also using quite a bit of language from The Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-9 (a passage describing Gentiles worshiping the creation instead of the Creator) in an effort to drive his point home.)

And this is without even considering the very real possibility that Romans 1 was meant to be heard as the voice of a “false teacher.” Here’s the thing, way back in the day, there was a form of written argument called prosopopoeia. It’s an ancient literary device that can be briefly described as an extended rhetorical question summarizing your opponent’s arguments followed by your answer to that question. Using this format, 1:18-32 are in the voice of the false teacher and Paul answers in 2:1-5. A good video series on Paul’s use of prosopopoeia starts here.

Honestly though, if you feel the Bible prohibits homosexuality and there’s just no way around it, I suggest you meet some gay people who love Jesus. Go out of your way to get to know those in the LGBTQ community who identify as Christians and see for yourself where their hearts are. A lot of these people were raised up in church and have tried to “pray the gay away” for years with no success. They were told their orientation separated them from God, that they were fundamentally evil, or, like MacArthur says, that their mere existence is a sign of God’s judgement on America. Then you get to choose what you’re going to believe: your interpretation of the Bible or the truth exhibited in the lives of these people who love Jesus and seek after Him despite what their churches have told them.

Well, this entry has gone on for longer than I meant it to and I still haven’t gotten to the awesome surprise I found in one of the Isaiah passages MacArthur referenced. It really was a neat find for me and I have Mr. MacArthur to thank for the motivation to dig deeper. More on this later.

Review of How the Bible Actually Works

Disclosure: I received a free, advance copy of How the Bible Actually Works from HarperOne as a member of the book’s launch team.

Before picking up Pete Enns’ latest book, How the Bible Actually Works, you may want to ask yourself a few questions.

Are you happy with your Christian theology, by and large? Do all the various pieces of the Bible fit together nicely for you? Are you content with seeing the Bible as a unified, self explanatory whole?

If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, you will be better off leaving this book on the shelf (be it digital or physical). However, if cracks are starting to form in the formerly impregnable wall of your Christian belief, this book might be right up your alley.

Over the course of 280 pages, Enns lays out the case for how the Biblical authors reimagined God and reinterpreted their people’s history to better suit the theological needs of their times and that of the cultures they found themselves in.

The titular footnote (Enns loves footnotes) helps spell things out a bit: “In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Books Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers – and Why That’s Great News.”

The “ancient” bit is pretty self explanatory. The “ambiguous” and “diverse” parts need to be fleshed out a bit. An example of what Enns means by ambiguous is that even the laws delivered at Mt. Sinai tend to be a bit vague. Yes, you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath but how much effort constitutes work, exactly? Proverbs says discipline your children while there is hope but what kind of discipline is best and how do you know when all hope is lost?

An example of diversity would be Proverbs 26:4-5. Do you answer a fool to keep him or her from being wise in his/her own eyes or do you not? Another example from Proverbs would be the wealth of the rich. Are riches their fortress or is their perceived security just in their imaginations?

And this ambiguity and diversity is where wisdom comes in. You have to sit and think things through when working out what the Bible is saying and how it applies to your present situation. The Bible doesn’t consist of golden tablets from Heaven comprising a rule book that is immediately applicable to all situations, at all times. Don’t get turned off by apparent contradictions or try to explain them away but rather work out why this diversity is there and what God is trying to tell you by having such divergent opinions bound up in the same volume.

The book is somewhat repetitive but avoids being dull as Enns injects a healthy dose of sarcasm and overall snark into his theological discourse. He provides numerous examples of how he believes the entire Bible works as wisdom literature and how it’s our sacred duty to reimagine God as fits our culture and times.

Again, if you’re perfectly satisfied with traditional American theology as presented in the 20th and 21st centuries, this probably isn’t your book. However, if you’ve noticed some of the diversity (inconsistencies?) scattered throughout the Bible and they are starting to bother you, How the Bible Actually Works could be just the book you need to let you see the Bible in fresh new way.

Too Late For Do-Overs

I’ve been mulling over the reasons conservatives in general and evangelical conservatives in particular decided to put their convictions on the shelf and pull the lever for Trump. Here’s a short list of Trump’s campaign promises versus the reality of his tenure in office.

Trump was rabidly anti-abortion and went so far as to suggest women who have abortions should be punished. Today, Trump’s most recent SCOTUS appointment won’t even vote to hear Planned Parenthood cases.

Trump was pro Second Amendment during his campaign and continues the rhetoric despite single-handedly deciding that bump stocks turn AR-15s into machine guns. Even Slick Willie’s assault weapons ban grandfathered in magazines that held more than 10 rounds. Trump, on the other hand, has decided that anyone who has a bump stock 90 days after his edict is a felon.

During the debates, Trump famously told Hillary she’d be in jail if he were president. What we have heard since? Crickets.

Although Trump continues to milk illegal immigrant fear mongering for all its worth, he has made extremely slow progress on filling in the gaps in the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And that whole schtick about Mexico paying for it? Yeah, right. If there were any truth to that he wouldn’t be shutting down the government to get funding for 215 miles of fencing.

I’ll give Trump credit for taking apart the Iranian nuclear deal, which seemed more like the U.S. providing a guided path for Iran to obtain a nuclear bomb rather than any kind of preventive measure. On seemingly every other international issues, Trump is a blithering idiot. From getting played by Kim Jong Un, to siding with Russia over the FBI, to siding with the Saudis over everybody, to siding with Russia over his generals (I sense a theme), Trump has demonstrated he is completely inept on the international stage or that he has someone else’s best interests in mind, perhaps both.

And do you remember when Jeff Sessions was a conservative icon? I do but that was before he decided doing the right thing was more important than covering Trump’s butt.

Remember when the democrats went nuts over the thought of General James Mattis, Ret, serving as Secretary of Defense? Remember all the props he got from conservatives about how great he’d be? I do but Mattis has decided that Trump can’t be reasoned with and decided to get out before the administration becomes even more of a dumpster fire.

And do you remember when the GOP stood for smaller government, financial independence, a smaller national debit? I do but that was before Trump took the reigns and our debt climbed to its highest level ever. So much for his promise to eliminate the national debt in eight years.

So, in short, what did conservatives get for holding their noses and voting for Trump despite his history of chicanery? And tell me again how Trump is really better than Hillary? Because, right now, I’m just not seeing it.

A Manjaro Review

I’ve primarily run Fedora on my desktop since it became clear that Windows 10 was going to be persistently buggy on the little HP Slimline Desktop 270-a016 (AMD A9-9430 with eight gigs of RAM). Fedora runs like a champ on the unit so long as I’m using xorg instead of wayland but I got a wild hare and took off distro hopping.

I tried CentOS for a few days and liked the stability and long-term support aspect of it. I was able to get the applications I wanted via a combination of EPEL, RPMFusion, and the nux repo. All was going well until I saw that Red Hat had agreed to be acquired by IBM. Who knows what IBM will decide to do with CentOS, it being a RHEL clone and all? With a hearty cry of “Freedom!”, I renewed my distro quest.

Manjaro has been at or close to the top of the popularity list at distrowatch.com for a while now, so I decided to give it a shot. My first hurdle was getting a functional version of the darn thing on my hard drive since it steadfastly refused to boot up after installation. I had been able to reuse the same partitions when installing Fedora or Ubuntu on the machine but finally gave up, copied my music and documents to a thumb drive, wiped the drive with a GParted live disk, and was then able to successfully install Manjaro with the XFCE desktop.

What’s a little different about Manjaro (maybe a lot different, depending on where you’re coming from) is it’s a rolling release. So, instead of having to upgrade every six months, nine months, two to 10 years, whatever, the version you have now will be gradually upgraded to the latest, greatest version a few pieces at a time. In other words, so long as you regularly install package updates, whatever rolling release you have now will gradually become version next over the course of time.

Trying to avoid the potential hassle of a big system upgrade like what you would have to deal with when running Ubuntu or Fedora sounds like a good idea but it comes with its own set of drawbacks. Prepackaged OS versions go through extensive testing to be sure all the pieces play nicely with each other in order to produce a functional, cohesive whole. (Note Microsoft’s recent epic fail regarding Windows 10 regarding same). However, when your rolling release installs a handful of the latest, greatest, versions of packages of X,Y, and Z, the other files on your system may decide they don’t want to play with these new packages. Stuff may break. Some stuff may break badly. And then you better have a live CD to access your files and the gumption to figure out what the heck just happened and the best way to fix it.

Manjaro is based on Arch Linux*, the current king of DIY, bleeding edge rolling releases. I installed and configured Arch twice in years past and it was adventure both times. I liked the extreme configurability Arch offers but maintaining the system for daily use just became too much hassle so, after a few weeks or months, I had moved on. Manjaro brags about simplicity but I think it’s only simple when compared to its daddy. You still need to know what to do when pacnew files are created and it’s good watch the forums for any problems caused by the latest bundle of updates. (Manjaro’s maintainers release package updates in batches that have supposedly been tested to keep from breaking anything too badly.)

Manjaro uses Arch’s versatile pacman package manager in the terminal. Manjaro also adds a GUI package manager (Pamac on XFCE) that doesn’t suck up the system resources that the Gnome Software Center does. You might not think got Arch or Manjaro would have many packages in their repos compared to larger distros but Pamac on Manjaro gives you access to the Arch User Repository (AUR). The AUR contains a slew of community-contributed applications. So far, I’ve installed Chrome, Dropbox, and Signal Messenger from the AUR and they all work just fine. Something to note is that the AUR consists of packages which need to be downloaded and compiled on your machine. No binaries to be found there.

I’ve been running Manjaro for a week and all is well at this early stage. I blacklisted a file after a kernel update as per the terminal recommendation, took care of a pacnew file generated after a grub update (don’t jack up your boot loader), and got some advice on the user forum regarding how to make Perlbrew compile new perls (use –notest option during Perl install due to the bleeding edge bugginess of some files). MP3 and mp4 playback works fine out of the box. Suspend and resume work great. I’m not a huge fan of any of the default color themes but I’ll get over it.

I’m hopeful that Manjaro and I will get along well for the foreseeable future. It will require some care and feeding to keep rocking along smoothly but I like distros where I get my hands dirty a little and it’s nice to see what the latest versions of various applications are without having to deal with a full-on Arch installation. Who knows, this may be the first time I contribute $$ to a distro. I can’t see these guys getting bought out by M$, Apple, Google, or Facebook for 34.5 billion but one never knows.

* (Using Arch is an adventure. The installer is really just a collection of shell scripts. You the user install every blessed application you want with the exception of the most basic, low-level stuff. And you edit text files to configure that. Better keep an eye peeled for potential show stoppers with every significant package update.)

Straying Off The Reservation

Brian Zahnd once told a story that went something like this.

“There was a pastor at a fundamentalist church in the same town as my church and, one Sunday morning, he gets up to preach and says, ‘I’m no longer a Christian. I’ve become an atheist and can no longer in good conscience lead this congregation.’

“His church was understandably shook up by this and someone convinces him he should talk to me about it although I don’t think either one of us believed it would do any good. So, he sits down in my office, he tells me his story, and I say ‘Look, your problem isn’t that you’re an atheist. You problem is that you’re a fundamentalist.'”

I think Zahnd’s point was that the mindset among fundamentalist Christians and most conservative evangelicals requires strict interpretation of the Bible without much (if any) wiggle room. You start to question x, y, and z, discover some facts you can’t refute, cracks form in your foundation, and, boom, you decide you can no longer be a Christian.

The pastor in the story above was hemmed in by this kind of belief system. I don’t know which tenets of his church he could no longer accept but, with anything short of denying Christ, this guy didn’t have to abandon the faith.

Conservative evangelical leaders in the church today need to start talking about supposed Biblical contradictions and how the Old Testament was influenced by Ancient Near East mythology to let people know that their salvation doesn’t depend on believing the Bible as it may have been taught to them in a traditional church. This would be especially helpful for kids entering high school or going off to college. As Andy Stanley says, we tend to give Sunday school answers to real world questions. And those answers will most likely be insufficient to allow these kids to continue in their faith.

You don’t have to become an atheist or agnostic if you’re a Christian who decides you can’t continue in the tradition you were raised in. There’s a great big world of Christianity outside of traditional conservative evangelicalism. Don’t be afraid to kick open some doors and look behind the curtain. You’ll find God is already there.

How Did a Good Baptist Boy Like Me Wind Up In This Headspace, Anyway?

I blame Trump. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s a good pat answer but it isn’t really applicable in this instance. Part of it had to do with reading the Bible critically, asking questions, and not necessarily accepting the commonly accepted answers provided by my conservative evangelical tradition. I should probably back up enough to explain what I’m talking about in the first place.

I was saved at a young age in the Southern Baptist church and for decades my theology was standard, conservative fare. I believed in once saved always saved, took Genesis 1-11 literally, and thought communion was certainly an ordinance not knowing there was any other way of looking at it. Later on, I adopted a large dose of Calvinism into my beliefs and the legalism associated with that doctrine meshed nicely with my Christian mindset at the time and what I thought I knew.

There were periods where I was certainly more serious about my Christianity than at other times and there were years when I wouldn’t take time to do any real Bible study or commit myself to a small group.

This on-again/off-again cycle continued until several years ago when, after getting back from my church’s men’s retreat, I decided to read the New Testament in 90 days. I found that you could get this knocked out by reading three chapters a day and, lo and behold, I managed it. Emboldened by this and not knowing any better, I tried the Discipleship Journal read the Bible in a year plan and got it done (it might’ve taken 14 months, but still …). I used an ESV reading plan to go through the Bible the following year.

During all this reading, I started to notice things that didn’t really make much sense to me. For instance, I read about Saul meeting David in I Samuel 16, then read about him meeting David for the first time again in totally different circumstances in the next chapter. I generally do my readings early in the morning, so at first I wondered if my fuzzy brain hadn’t processed something correctly. “Well, that’s odd,” I thought. And I went on without giving it to much additional thought at the time.

But stuff kept on piling up. Like, why is God trying to kill Moses in Exodus 4 after telling him to get back to Egypt and confront Pharaoh? It just didn’t seem to compute. There are also several minor discrepancies between the Gospels. Were there two demoniacs among the tombs or just one? Did blind Baratmaeus have a buddy? How many angels were at Jesus’s tomb? What day was Jesus crucified on? Why are there two different versions of Jesus’s (or least Joseph’s) lineage?

Some of these questions have good answers and some just don’t. I was attending a solid men’s Bible study at the time and got possible answers at that time, some of which made sense to me while others seemed like they were stretch in an effort to justify making everything in the Bible as literal as possible.

Another eye-opener for me had to do with the Apostle Paul (shocka) but perhaps not quite in the way you might think. Quite a bit of my theology nowadays comes from Andy Stanley and the Bible Project (“Well, that explains it,” mutter the naysayers while they simultaneously do a Paris Hilton-worthy eyeroll) and during a Bible Project podcast Tim Mackie pointed out that in I Cor. 10:10 Paul attributed the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness “grumbling” passages “the destroyer” or “the destroying angel”. Mackie goes on to say that Paul’s comment is based on a common belief among Pharisees at the time that God had a destroying angel that did his dirty work.

The thing is this isn’t what the Bible says in the grumbling passages. They talk about plagues, the earth opening up, fire from God, etc. but (someone correct me if I’m wrong) none of them mention a “destroyer”, as such. BTW, the grumbling passages are as follows:

  • Numbers 11:31-34 God provides quail for the Israelites, then kills them
  • Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron rebel
  • Numbers 14:36-38 God kills all the scouts except Joshua and Caleb
  • Numbers 16:31-36 Korah’s rebellion
  • Numbers 16:41-50 the people rebel after Korah’s death
  • Numbers 21:4-9 fiery serpents
  • Numbers 25:1-9 the people worship Baal

Why is this a big deal? Because Paul’s view of the Scripture in this instance is informed by his cultural tradition at that time. This isn’t Scripture interpreting Scripture, the approach I was always taught to take. This is an example of a Biblical author’s cultural and historical context influencing his view on existing Scripture and that view finding its way into the Bible. I didn’t know it at the time but this would open a huge door (or Pandaora’s box, depending on how you want to look at it) further down the road. (Pete Enns had a similar experience that he describes here. Scroll down to “The Rock Was Christ” for a specific example that Enns mentions in a later podcast as deeply affecting him.)

Once I discovered Ancient Near East cosmology was an actual thing, I began to look at the creation story quite differently. I had figured out that Genesis 2 couldn’t be a more detailed commentary on Genesis 1 because the creation sequence was different. Turns out that creation in Genesis 1 is a reflection of how everyone in that geographic area at that time thought the Earth, skies, and sea were structured. That whole business with the firmament finally makes sense. Genesis 2 is most likely a second version of the creation account, IMHO.

However, after all of these changes in how I read the Bible, I still believe that there is a real live God who created the world, created humanity, and sent his Son to save us from ourselves. I’m no longer as certain as I was about the details of Scripture but one thing I know is that these finer points don’t matter. The Bible is still the primary way God chose to communicate with us and it still points to Jesus.

Oh yeah, about that Trump thing – I was a registered Republican for decades until Trump was elected. I knew I’d feel compelled to defend the yahoo if I voted for him so I voted for Evan McMullen, then registered as an Independent a few days after Trump won the general. It’s very freeing to no longer be obligated to making excuses for a Republican president. Likewise, it’s very freeing not having to jump through cognitive hoops to rationalize the Bible I was raised with. ‘Tis the season for changes.

A Little About The NRSV

I’ve had an interest in the New Revised Standard Version for a while now* but I hadn’t managed to get a hold of one that quite suits my fancy. The translation just doesn’t have the sales figures to justify a plethora of purchase options.

My initial NRSV was large print and contained the Apocrypha (both features I liked) but is just a little too large to comfortably hold in one’s lap. My second attempt to get into the translation resulted in the purchase of a used large-print pew Bible but, upon closer examination, it has the syllables separated by bullets. I assume this feature is for ease of pronunciation but it’s just distracting when attempting to sit and read a passage.

I noticed that a couple of teachers I admire, Tim Mackie and Pete Enns, both use the NRSV or at least reference it in some of their lectures. That prompted me to cast about for a more usable version of the translation. After a modicum of searching, I found this thinline NRSV online.

It isn’t perfect for my needs and preferences since I would rather have large print (middle age isn’t for the faint hearted) and the smooth bonded leather cover is just ugly, IMHO, especially when compared to the nice cover on the CSB ultrathin.

sample of NRSV thinline text size

I’m sure this text size would have been fine for me five years ago but now …

But the content inside that homely cover is quite interesting. The translation committee wasn’t afraid to admit that there can be more than one meaning for a given passage based on which manuscript you use, so there is a legend in the front of the book listing various sources. There’s also a well written preface by noted textual critic Bruce Metzgar which explains the history and tradition of the NRSV.

I’ve used the NRSV for my regular semi-daily Bible reading the past two days and I happen to be in Isaiah currently. The first thing I noticed was that it isn’t afraid to use big words. The reading level is supposedly 11th grade but it felt collegiate-level to me. (Give me a break, I graduated NSU.) The second thing that became apparent was that this translation doesn’t give you any help in figuring out what a passage means when the original text didn’t spell it out.

For example, the NRSV translates Isaiah 23:4 as “Be ashamed, O Sidon, for the sea has spoken, the fortress of the sea, saying: “I have neither labored nor given birth, I have neither reared young men nor brought up young women.” And I couldn’t figure out what was meant by “fortress of the sea” so I consulted the NLT which said, “But now you are put to shame, city of Sidon, for Tyre, the fortress of the sea says, …” I don’t know enough about ancient geography to tie this stuff together on my own but I’m glad other folks have figured it out and shared their knowledge.

In a similar vein, Isaiah 33 is plugging along talking to the people of Israel about restoration when, all of a sudden, the NRSV hits you with verse 23: “Your rigging hangs loose; it cannot hold the mast firm in its place, or keep the sail spread out. Then prey and spoil in abundance will be divided; even the lame will fall to plundering.” Wait, what?

The NLT renders verse 23 quite differently: “The enemies’ sails hang loose on broken masts with useless tackle. Their treasure will be divided by the people of God. Even the lame will take their share!” Okay then.

The NET Bible, not to be outdone, splits the difference between the two in rendering the verse with notes as follows – “The first half of the verse is addressed to Judah and contrasts the nation’s present weakness with its future prosperity. Judah is compared to a ship that is incapable of sailing.” I’m starting to get the idea scholars may not have reached consensus on what this verse actually means.

It’s easy to understand why the NRSV is a favorite among many scholars and professorial types if the rest of it is like what I’ve seen so far in Isaiah. The translation focuses on being literal and sticking to what the original texts said rather than what they meant unless they have to deviate from that to keep things from becoming really confusing.

On the other hand, it can still be confusing for reasons like those I’ve noted above. And it doesn’t convert ancient units of measurement into their modern equivalents. This means I’m going to reach for the NLT or CSB when reading through things like measurements for the first temple. I just can’t handle wading through all that verbiage and seeing “cubits” time and time again. That makes it even easier for me to skim the passage and get even less out of it than I otherwise might.

So, the NRSV isn’t everyone’s cup of soup but I like it. You have to contend with its translations of Genesis 1:2 and Isaiah 7:14 but the verbiage most of us are accustomed to is present in the notes. It’s a good translation that probably deserves more popularity than it currently enjoys. I suspect I’ll be using it for a while.

*My ideal Bible translation would be done by a group of scholars who respect the text enough not to put a specific theological tilt to it one way or another.

A Critical Review of The Shack

I recently got tired of taking everyone else’s word for the message of The Shack and its theological underpinnings. So, I decided to take the radical step of actually buying and reading the book for myself to see what all the fuss was about.

Let me start by saying that the last piece of modern Christian fiction I read was This Present Darkness and that was around 30 years ago. Christian fiction just isn’t my thing and I’m not this book’s target audience.

******************* SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS * SPOILERS ********************

Having said that, The Shack seemed to avoid what I would consider Christian cliches for the first few chapters. And then God showed up and things took a drastic turn for the overly melodramatic. (Well, the main character constantly referring to his daughter’s kidnap and murder as The Great Sadness ever since chapter one was pretty cheesy.)

Theological issues pop up as soon as the conversations between Mack (the protagonist/first person narrator) and God (represented as Papa (the Father), Jesus, and Sarayu (the Spirit)) start taking place. Papa explains to Mack in chapter six that none of the miracles Jesus performed on Earth were done using the powers of His inherent Godhood. Instead, Papa tells Mack that Jesus was fully human at that time (which is true but …)and was able to work wonders because He was so closely aligned with God (“… he could express my heart and will into any given circumstance.”). Papa goes on to explain that she (yes, God is gender fluid) would be incapable of love without having the other members of the Trinity to express love to and that she can’t act apart from love. I’m not quite sure where any of this is found in the Bible.

In chapter 10, Jesus and Mack are talking about the relationship between the three members of the Godhead. Jesus says that the members of the Trinity are submitted to each other out of love and respect and that all three of them are submitted to humanity out of a desire for Jesus to have “brothers and sisters who will share life with (him).” On a similar note, back in chapter 7, the Trinity eagerly receives news of Mack’s kids because they have limited their omniscience out of respect for him. This is elevating man way, way more than indicated in the Bible. Big chunks of Job and Psalms, among others, say that humankind is far inferior to God. This doesn’t seem to be the kind of theology The Shack is concerned with.

Chapter 11 allows us to meet the personification of Papa’s wisdom, Sophia. She introduces Mack to the idea of universal salvation, putting Mack in the role of a judge, then telling him he has to choose two of his kids to send to Heaven and three to put in Hell. The idea of personal salvation or culpability never enters into the equation. This is brought home in chapter 13 when Papa tells Mack that He is reconciled to the whole world through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Mack says, “You mean those who believe in you, right?” God replies, “The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two-way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way.”

At any rate, the story continues on and ends with forgiveness, hope, love, and warm fuzzies all around. I understand that this is a work of fiction but it is far too easy, I think, for Christians who aren’t solidly grounded in the Word to think the God portrayed here is representative of the one true God. And it just reinforces the generic, all forgiving, universal God that many non-Christians bring to mind when they think about the deity.

The Shack differs from other potentially controversial novels like the Harry Potter series, in my view, in that the story’s focus is on the author’s take on Christianity through the dialogues that make up the majority of the book. It’s essentially a philosophical treatise and everything else in the book is secondary to the ideas it proposes. We as Christians need to be aware of the message in The Shack in order to counter its claims and lead people to repentance and true faith in Jesus. Anyone basing their theology on The Shack will find it an unsteady foundation.

Setting The Record Straight

The signs of an impending spring are have already arrived here in Northwest Arkansas. The air isn’t quite as chill, some foolhardy plants are beginning to blossom, and campaign signs are thick as last year’s unraked oak leaves as they bristle from every street corner and intersection.

Although they may seem haphazardly placed, there is actually a science to putting up campaign signs and candidates vie for prime locations. Representative Jana Della Rosa, the Republican incumbent for Arkansas House District 90, makes a point to always ask permission from the property owner before putting any of her signs up. Some of her opponents don’t always show the same courtesy.

Below is the unedited audio of two phone calls made by Patsy Wootton, Della Rosa’s mother, to the Rogers Police Department about two weeks ago. One of Della Rosa’s supporters (who had give her permission to post signs) found that an opponent of hers was putting signs on his property without permission. He called Della Rosa and word got passed to Wootton. So, she drove up to check it out.

Unedited Call Audio

Della Rosa’s opponent and some of his big money supporters have since tried to twist this into Wootton calling 911 in an effort to force him to take down his signs (she didn’t) or say that Wootton was stalking the guy all around Rogers (the police asked her to meet them at the guy’s location so she wound up having to follow him for a bit).

You have to think Della Rosa’s opposition is getting a little desperate and perhaps just a bit nervous when they start resorting to this kind of thing. Perhaps they are afraid they can’t win on the merits of their arguments?