A Christian Nation on First Impression

In 2008, Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote a surprising piece entitled, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.”[i] He built part of his case on first impressions:

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away.

I thought of Parris’s account when reading recently a series of reports written some 180 years earlier by a Frenchman visiting the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville. His hefty Tocquevillebook Democracy in America chronicled his impressions, which were basically favorable. He’d seen the fruit of the French Revolution, and now he was reflecting on the outcomes of the American Revolution. He didn’t give our budding nation a clean bill of health, for Andrew Jackson, famous for pushing the Cherokees on a Trail of Tears, was in the White House, and the Civil War that would end slavery was decades away. Furthermore, he was skeptical that the arts could rise to European levels, but he was impressed with the spirit of the people, a spirit he found to be informed by their faith. In his estimation, they had “brought to the New World a Christianity” he could not “depict better than to call it democratic and republican . . . From the beginning, politics and religion were in accord, and they have not ceased to be so since.”[ii]

He noted that “the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same.” He granted that there must be hypocrites and those who followed “their habits more than their convictions,” but concluded, “America is . . . still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.” [iii]

He admired the separation of church and state, but insisted religion should “be considered as the first of their political institutions” for “it singularly facilitates their use of” freedom. He went on, “I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion—for who can read to the bottom of hearts?—but I am sure they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”[iv] Not surprising, for, in his view, it was “religion that gave birth to the Anglo-American societies: one must never forget this; in the United States religion is therefore intermingled with all national habits and all the sentiments to which a native country gives birth; that gives it a particular strength.”[v]

He went on to say that Islam could not support an America,[vi] and lamented the comparative loss of faith in his homeland: “I am ignorant of what one would have to do to give back the energy of youth to European Christianity, God alone could do it.”[vii] And while giving the predominating Protestantism its due, he was pleased to report, “America is the most democratic land on earth, and it is at the same time the county where, according to trustworthy reports, the Catholic religion is making most progress.”[viii]

Psalm 33:12a says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” and, arguably, Tocqueville saw this truth reflected in some measure in America. Of course, we must ask what he would see if he returned today, either to America or to his native Europe. What evidence would he find of Christian devotion and its concomitant blessedness? Were his investigations discouraging, we could at least join him in a hope for revival, all the while granting that “God alone could do it.”

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Endnotes

[i] Matthew Parris, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God,” Times, December 27, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/matthewparris/article2044345.ece (accessed March 18, 2016).

[ii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 275.

[iii] Tocqueville, 278.

[iv] Tocqueville, 280.

[v] Tocqueville, 406.

[vi] Tocqueville, 419, 420.

[vii] Tocqueville, 288.

[viii] Tocqueville, 424.

Clash of Worldviews—”Man: A Course of Study”

In 1963, Harvard psychology professor Jerome Bruner convened a group of scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their purpose was to develop a new social studies curriculum for America’s schools. Intoxicated with visions of the Great Society, many evolution.earthbelieved that the social sciences could solve the nation’s greatest ills. The National Science Foundation eventually awarded Bruner’s team $4.8 million to develop Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), a curriculum designed to teach fourth through sixth graders a purely naturalistic view of human nature.1 Many hailed it as a groundbreaking advance in educational theory. Christian parents, however, recognized it as a dangerous tool of social manipulation and secular indoctrination.

Bruner was perhaps the nation’s premier “expert” in educational matters. After a stint with the Army during World War II, studying the effects of propaganda on public opinion, he turned his attention to public education. He published several books including The Process of Education and The Culture of Education.2 Rejecting the traditional model of a teacher imparting knowledge to students, Bruner advanced a more liberal theory of education based on the free expression of ideas—students would learn more from creating answers than from reading them in books.3

True to Bruner’s philosophy, MACOS rejected an objective moral standard; right and wrong were determined solely by one’s environment. For instance, one segment of the course focused on the Netsilik Eskimos, among whom euthanasia and infanticide were common. Of course, such practices were unacceptable in American society, but who was to say they were absolutely wrong in a harsh environment where food was scarce? The course also denied any fundamental distinction between human and beast, inviting students to draw conclusions about humans from the behavior of salmon or apes.

Again and again, MACOS pressed the idea that no belief or behavior had value apart from its cultural context. “Our hope,” said Bruner, “is to lead children to understand how man goes about understanding the world, making sense of it; that one kind of explanation is no more human than another.”4 Congress eventually defunded MACOS, but by 1974, it had been purchased by some 1,700 schools in forty-seven states.5 And though its day has passed, it lives on through its many offspring, found in public schools throughout the land. In fact, the spirit of MACOS even lives on in other parts of the world.6

Christian parents may hope their schoolchildren are being taught firm morality, consistent with God’s Word. Unfortunately, many young people are being tutored in cultural relativism, the notion that all ethical judgments are subjective and arbitrary. Without trust in a transcendent, righteous, Creator God, many teachers make man the measure of all things—and a poor measure at that.7 Public schools may be the best option for a particular child’s education, but Christian parents must know their children are learning more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. They may be absorbing a worldview that can undermine and destroy the Christian values instilled at home.

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Endnotes

1 Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 48.

2  Mark K. Smith, “Jerome Bruner and the Process of Education,” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education Website, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm.

3 This summary of Bruner’s educational philosophy taken from Nelkin, 49-51.

4 Ibid., 50.

5 Ibid., 51.

6 In the 1970s, MACOS “kits” found their way to Queensland, Australia where parents quickly objected to their children being told stories of wife-swapping Eskimos. Although MACOS was stopped, an indigenous version was created, the Social Education Materials Project (SEMP). The SEMP curriculum taught that all values and behaviors are equal, and it encouraged teachers to avoid any moralizing or criticizing. Although the government banned SEMP in 1978, the promotion of “progressive” education has not faltered. See Dan O’Donnell, “Ethics and Values in Education: Can Schools Teach Right and Wrong?” (a paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Newcastle, Australia, November 24, 1994), The Australian Association for Research in Education Website, http://www.aare.edu.au/94pap/odond94077.txt (accessed June 28, 2005).

7 This is exactly what teachers in Hong Kong are tempted to do. In a 2002 survey, a group of teachers indicated an appreciation for a humanistic curriculum that makes students “the crucial source of science curriculum” (italics added). Pun Hon Ng and Derek Cheung, “Student-teachers’ Beliefs on Primary Science Curriculum Orientations,” New Horizons in Education 45-46 (May – November 2002), 44. The MACOS worldview is evident: objective truth and the mastery of science takes a back seat to “personal liberation and development.”

Praying for the King

Vintage Balance Scale1 Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
3 Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!

Psalm 72:1-3 (ESV)

Britain’s constitution recognizes that all government comes from God and depends on Him if it is to be godly. Each parliamentary session opens with prayer, one of which begins, “Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding; we thine unworthy servants, here gathered together in thy Name, do most humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations . . .”1

When Israel first demanded a king, they sinned, because they wanted one like the nations around them (1 Sam. 8:4-9). However, Samuel had warned them that such a king would not rule them justly, but would be greedy for personal gain (1 Sam. 8:11-14).3 Years later, King David recognized that if his son was not to be like the sinful rulers of the world, prayer was vital.

David longed for Solomon, his firstborn son, to rule with God’s justice and righteousness. “Justice” when used together with “righteousness” represents an ideal of social justice. In Israel, where the king was also a judge (e.g., 1 Kings 3:16-28), it was vital for him to judge people justly, especially the poor. Rather than abusing his power to grab what he could, a godly king would treat even his poorest subject rightly. Whilst David longed for Israel to prosper after he died, he wanted that prosperity to be founded on righteousness (v. 3).

David’s prayer was answered. When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she saw a wise ruler of a prosperous nation, executing justice and righteousness (1 Kings 10:6-9). Nevertheless Solomon eventually turned from the Lord, his justice and righteousness were imperfect, and his sin led to the division of his kingdom. The full answer to David’s prayer would have to wait until the arrival of the true Son of David—Christ Jesus, who rules with perfect justice and righteousness, giving decisions for the poor, and whose prosperous kingdom will have no end.

However, although the psalm speaks mainly of the Lord Jesus, it also has secondary applications to all those in authority, whether kings, prime ministers, or presidents. If Israel sinned by wanting a king like the nations around them, Psalm 72 explains what it means to be a godly king unlike the sinful rulers of the world. David’s prayer tells us what God values in any ruler: righteousness and justice, which leads both to prosperity for the nation and justice for the poor.

Such qualities are not found naturally in fallen men; they are a gift of God. Happy then is the nation where Christians and their pastors entreat the Lord for rulers endowed with His justice and righteousness.

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Endnotes

1 Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords (London: The Stationery Office, 2003), Appendix K, http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld/ldcomp/ctso01.htm (accessed October 16, 2003).

Holy Sarcasm?

questionmark26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

1 Kings 18:26-27 (ESV)

For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!

2 Corinthians 11:19 (ESV)

At its root, “sarcasm” means “the rending of flesh,” for “flesh” in Greek is sarx. Here, of course, it applies to feelings, not skin. Even so, it is a harsh practice, as anyone who has felt its sting can attest. So some believers might rush to the judgment that sarcasm has no place in Christian writing and speech. After all, following the Golden Rule, who would wish to be on the receiving end of sarcasm? So how could one be warranted in using it?

The problem with condemning sarcasm is that Elijah and Paul used it in godly fashion. The former entered into a theological duel on Mount Carmel, one in which he demonstrated the power of Yahweh over the fictitious god, Baal. When the false prophets failed to elicit fire from heaven to light their sacrifice, Elijah suggested sarcastically that maybe they needed to yell to get his attention or that perhaps he was simply away in the “bathroom.” These were not genuine suggestions; Elijah did not believe in either of them. He merely raised them to embarrass the idolaters.

In Paul’s case, the Corinthian church, which he had founded and to which he had written before, was sliding into heresy. The church had fallen under the thrall of “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13), and the people were proud that they had followed their lead “up to the next level.” Paul made fun of their folly by saying they were so sharp that they were able to work with people who enslaved, devoured, defrauded, looked down on, and battered them (2 Cor. 11:20). He then “confessed” that he was simply too weak to handle that feat (2 Cor. 11:21). It was sarcasm, pure and simple.

Of course, these verses do not encourage sarcasm, much less demand it of God’s people. Some find it constitutionally awkward, if not virtually impossible. Many are convinced that it is always unnecessary, essentially counterproductive, stylistically arrogant, and spiritually toxic. But if they dismiss it utterly, then they rebuke Elijah and Paul – an act of arrogance in its own right.

Certainly, one can overdo it. Indeed, some people trade on an excess of sarcasm, and their presence exhausts the patience and joy of all their listeners. But there is a countervailing danger: Today’s Church has drunk deeply at the well of political correctness and the cult of inviolate sensitivity. In so doing, they have stifled and disarmed prophets, condemning them for “wounding” sinners. They forget that the biblical prophets par excellence used harsh invective of many sorts to make their points. And unless the Church desires to turn its back on them, it should leave the way open for some practice of sarcasm.

Truth or Triangulation?

6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, capitalwill you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Acts 13:6-12 (ESV)

One school of politics lives and dies by the following maxim: there are no politics without polling. Leaders without scruples look for ways to please the greatest number of people with the least amount of conviction. This method, known as triangulation, operates by locating extremes, pinpointing the middle position, and developing a policy based upon the projected “center.” In order to be most effective, this relativistic approach depends upon advisors to determine the popular course of action. But the tactic runs aground when confronted with its archenemy: truth.

Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus, was a shrewd politician and seemingly a student of triangulation. As the chief provincial governor, he understood well Rome’s imperial dictum: peace through strength, peace at all costs. Like his other Roman contemporaries, he was probably a religious skeptic. Eager to understand his constituency, the proconsul enlisted a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas (also called “Bar-Jesus”) most likely to help him interpret the Jewish mindset and understand public perception about spiritual matters.

When Barnabas and Saul landed in Salamis, the governor invited the apostles to present him with “the Word of God” (vv. 6-7). Fearful at what the preaching of the gospel might do to his prominence in the proconsul’s inner circle, Elymas sought to prevent God’s men from receiving a hearing. Paul condemned the sorcerer for touting magic over ministry, and Elymas was struck blind. Sergius Paulus responded in faith following this remarkable event. Notably, however, it was not the miracle alone that amazed him. Rather, he “was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (v. 12). Evidently, the gospel preached by Paul and Barnabas impressed the governor who witnessed its power over both spiritual and temporal realms.

Seemingly courageous men sometimes wither in the presence of power. In his book, Kingdoms in Conflict,[i]  Chuck Colson describes how during his service in the White House, he saw angry constituents wanting to give President Nixon a “piece of their mind” become sheepish when they were finally told, “The President will see you.” “Invariably,” Colson writes, “the lions of the waiting room became the lambs of the Oval Office.” When presented with these opportunities, Christians cannot afford such timidity.

Perceptive public officials may be more interested in theology than the modern evangelical church suspects. Like the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, some governmental leaders may begin their career as mere pragmatists. But when confronted with the objective truth of the Christian gospel, they might begin to see that the Bible rightly understands the solutions to the problems of the real world. By God’s grace, even the leaders of cities, states, and nations can be “astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”

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Endnote

[i] Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: William Morrow & Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 307.

Was Jesus Born on December 25?

It has been common since at least the time of the Puritans to claim Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25 in an effort to change the emphasis of a day associated with a pagan festival—much like some Christians today hold “fall festivals” in lieu of Halloween. American Puritan Increase Mather, for instance, said “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born that month but because the heathen’s Saturnalia was at that time kept MaryJospehin Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian.”[1] But a group of contemporary scholars, drawing on ancient writings from as early as the second century, suggests that December 25 is well within the realm of possibility as the real date.

Holding a pagan festival December 25 may have originated with the Roman emperor Aurelian, who in AD 274, built a temple and established games every four years to honor the pagan sun god to whom he attributed military victories. An ancient calendar for the year AD 354 notes such games on December 25 in celebration of the “birthday of the inconquerable sun” (Sol Invictus). [2] The timing made good sense, for, with the winter solstice, the sun had just hit its “low water mark” in the northern hemisphere. The days were short, the weather cold, the leaves fallen, the crops idle—a perfect time for superstitious people to schedule a hopeful rally for the return of summer.

This sort of thing had been going in Rome since centuries-ago BC in the form of winter-solstice parties for Saturn, the god associated with agriculture and light, parties characterized by candles and gift giving. Some suggest other pagans throughout Europe employed evergreens and yule logs in their own December observances, hoping to stimulate the restoration of greenery and warmth. But all these similarities could be coincidental. Or, to put it otherwise, December might have been both the real birth month for Jesus and the time of traditional solstice observances, supplanted by Christmas, albeit with some of the accoutrements retained. (Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection could have been in the spring, happening to coincide with fertility festivals—hence, the tradition of Easter eggs.)

The same codex (book) containing the aforementioned calendar also marks Christ’s birthday on December 25 in a section likely dating to AD 336—the earliest undisputed evidence Christians commemorated the nativity on that date. Some have concluded from the notation of both holidays in the same codex that the celebration of Christ’s birth on that date derived from the celebration of Sol Invictus’s birth as an effort to Christianize the pagan holiday.[3] But if Roman Christians were seeking to supplant the festival of Sol Invictus with Christmas, it’s fair to ask why they would have continued to note the former. It seems reasonable to say that an effort to change the significance of December 25 would have dropped the reference to the pagan observance.

Further, writings of church fathers before AD 274 mention the celebration of Christmas on December 25. Most manuscripts of a commentary on Daniel likely written between AD 202 and 211 by Hippolytus of Rome state, “The first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25, a Wednesday.” The Greek scholar who translated Hipploytus’ commentary into English believes the reference to December 25 was part of the original rendering.[4] Similarly, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) seemed to situate Christ’s birth in late fall or early winter in his Stromata.[5] Two centuries later, Augustine and Jerome both reported tradition placed Christ’s birth on December 25.[6]

Finally, a Christian tradition likely dating to at least the second century held Jesus died on the same date He was conceived, March 25. Adding nine months to that date would place His birth around December 25. Among the church fathers to advocate a March 25 conception date were Julius Africanus (160-240) and Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-270).[7]

Of course, we cannot know the date of Jesus’ birth with certainty, and it’s not critical that we do as we follow the discussion through the years. Some have argued shepherds would not have kept watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8) during the winter months, and therefore Jesus could not have been born on December 25. But that argument is inconclusive.[8] And claims to know the date of Jesus’ conception seem dubious. And again, some Christian holidays did, in fact, assume dates previously reserved for pagan festivals.[9] Still, the evidence gives ample reason to question the common claim that the exact date of December 25 was devoted to a pagan festival before it marked a Christian holiday.

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Endnotes

[1] Lenny Esposito, “No, Christmas Is Not Based on a Pagan Holiday,” Come Reason Ministries Website, December 16, 2015, http://apologetics-notes.comereason.org/2015/12/no-christmas-is-not-based-on-pagan.html (accessed December 19, 2015).

[2] Kurt M. Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58/2 (2015): 301.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Schmidt, “Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas,” Chronicon Blog, November 21, 2010, http://web.archive.org/web/20130303163053/http:/chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas (accessed December 19, 2015). Schmidt notes that “most scholars believe that the date of December 25 was added by a later scribe and that Hippolytus did not record it himself.”

[5] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.21.145-146.

[6] Augustine, Sermon 202; Jerome, Homily 88: On the Nativity of Christ, as cited in Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” 310n26.

[7] Ibid., 303-310.

[8] Andras Kostenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 146.

[9] Simmons, “The Origins of Christmas and the Date of Christ’s Birth,” 301.