ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: December 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The End of the Beginning

Our study of Genesis comes to an end this week, with our study spanning from Gen 41:41, "Pharaoh said unto Joseph, See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt"
through to the end of Genesis, "So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old".

In addition to continuing to study the life of Israel's sons, it is valuable this week to consider what we make of our quarter's study. What are the recurring themes? What have we learned? What application is there to our lives? And, what difference will it make to us?

To assist us in reviewing the quarter, I have copied below what I wrote at the beginning of the quarter. Take a moment to read the excerpt right at the end from Oakwood.

This is the first week of a new and exciting quarter of Bible studies,
Genesis: Creation and Redemption.
The studies are based on material written by Arthur Ferch, a Theology professor at the Adventist Seminary "down under", Avondale College. After this overview, the lessons proceed through Genesis, from creation, perfection, rebellion, violence, new beginnings, and a covenant with an individual and, eventually, with a people chosen of God.
I recently gave a Bible to a past colleague of mine who has an interest in reading the great books of human civilization. He read through Genesis, and then came back to me in total disbelief that a book full of unbelievable stories and the most torrid of human interactions can possibly be the foundation of Jewish and Christian belief. "I must be missing something", he said. And we then talked about what Genesis really says to us, once we look beyond the murder, rape, incest, sodomy, deception, child sacrifice, and the all-round dysfunctional families that populate the book's chapters. This same discussion -- what Genesis really says to us -- will be our conversation for the rest of this year.
While we have studied portions of Genesis several times recently (particularly Gen 1-3), I do hope that we can come to the book of Genesis with a fresh perspective, and ask ourselves why this book is so central to Christianity and Judaism?
Let's begin by seeking to read through the 50 chapters of Genesis. It does not take very long. And, have a look through the first study, 'Foundations', this week. The complete lesson series can be obtained from http://ssnet.org/qrtrly/adult-lessons.html
As a way of getting us thinking about the importance of Genesis to Christian thought, I have included an excerpt below. You might also find the more complete article interesting.
Let's commit ourselves to excellence in our prayerful, reflective study this quarter, and be blessed as a consequence, both individually and as a group.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Faith and Reason

I want to draw your attention to a growing debate that seeks to equate Christian belief with irrationality or worse -- fundamentalist predispositions toward violence and oppression.

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, atheist, secular humanist and sceptic defines the virtue of faith as "belief without evidence". Author of "The God Delusion", he describes the God of the Bible as racist, petty and vindictive, a genocidal bully, and a control freak. Has Richard Dawkins defined your faith correctly? Is he being more honest with the Biblical evidence regarding God's character than we are? If not, how would we respond to Richard Dawkins? Interestingly, in a recent interview, he stated that "Darwin has answered all our questions about existence", which I thought was a rather brave position.

The second thing is an Op-ed in today's New York Times by a professor at Williams College. Again, he is describing Christian or religious belief as irrational and oppressive. As an aside, he provides an interesting insight into academic thought with the following statement; "For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed."

It is good to understand current debate so as to participate in it and respond as appropriate.

Op-Ed Contributor
The Devoted Student

Published: December 21, 2006

MORE college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching.

At first glance, the flourishing of religion on campuses seems to reverse trends long criticized by conservatives under the rubric of “political correctness.” But, in truth, something else is occurring. Once again, right and left have become mirror images of each other; religious correctness is simply the latest version of political correctness. Indeed, it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith.

The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsche’s analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)

My experience was not unique. Today, professors invite harassment or worse by including “unacceptable” books on their syllabuses or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students.

Distinguished scholars at several major universities in the United States have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts in their classes and published writings. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.

At a time when colleges and universities engage in huge capital campaigns and are obsessed with public relations, faculty members can no longer be confident they will remain free to pose the questions that urgently need to be asked.

For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.

Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices — though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line — but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.

It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic; they are networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within, and among, religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with one another than they do with many members of their own tradition.

If chauvinistic believers develop deeper analyses of religion, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn — one that extends well beyond the academy.

Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. As defenders of a faith become more reflective about their own beliefs, they begin to understand that religion can serve not only to provide answers that render life more secure but also to prepare them for life’s unavoidable complexities and uncertainties.

Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, a vestige of an earlier stage of human development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Indeed, the 21st century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago. Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not.

The warning signs are clear: unless we establish a genuine dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts of the future will probably be even more deadly.

Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College, is the author of “Mystic Bones.”

Monday, December 18, 2006

From Prison Cell to Palace

This study skips over chapters 34, 35, and 36 of Genesis, presumably on the basis of Paul's admonition to the Philippians (Phil. 4:8). While our study focuses on Genesis 37 through 41, I recommend reading straight through from chapter 34 to 41. You won't encounter anything in the earlier chapters that is any harder to stomach than that contained in the latter chapters -- and you will have Jesus' complete family history.

It is intriguing to note that a lot can happen in a person's life during the time that they think they are about to die. Recall that chapter 27 opens with Isaac feeling close to death, weak and blind. Yet, it is nine chapters and many decades later that the twins bury their father.

But this week is the story of Joseph, not Isaac or Israel. Joseph's reversals of 'fortune' (favored son to family reject, and slave to ruler) were unparalleled in history, and yet it is nothing compared with:
(a) Jesus' condescension several thousand years ago (Phil. 2:5-11), and
(b) what God has planned for us (Rev. 21:3,4; 22:3-5).

Join me in digging down into one of the Western world's most widely known stories. I look forward to us sharing our insights.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jacob Becomes Israel

This week our study is on Genesis 29 through 33. Our discussion could focus on Genesis 32, where Jacob's name is changed because he 'struggled with God and with men and overcame.' This struggle is often linked with the great distress of end times mentioned in Daniel 12:1 and Matt 24:21, presumably because of Jeremiah 30 (esp. v. 7). You might like to give special thought to Jacob's struggle and what, if anything, it has to do with the eschatology of Daniel and John, in the Revelation of Jesus Christ. If you google "Jacob's time of trouble", you will see that the Zionist portion of the Christian world is fascinated with the political troubles facing the nation of Israel (Jacob) as the end-time analog of Genesis 32. What do you think of these widespread interpretations?

Of course, focus may well change as study progresses this week. Regardless, expect something engaging and challenging.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Good Article in Adventist Review Online

This is an article worth reading, and re-reading. It has implications for our group and its role within the wider fellowship. My vision (and that of others who seek to shape what the Study Group is) is that to be part of our group is to participate in a transformative process that touches us personally, as opposed to 'consuming' another form of Christian ministry. Have a read of this article and let me know whether you share this vision.


The end of 2006 is a good time to ask ourselves some questions regarding transformation. As a member of the Bible Study Group,
(a) do we have a deeper understanding of God's word than we did at the beginning of the year?
(b) are you more strongly drawn to God than you were at the beginning of the year?

An excerpt from the article to raise your interest.

"Generally speaking, what today’s Church is doing isn’t working," claims John White, a house church coach in Denver. "According to recent Barna statistics, during the last 50 years there has been more Christian activity than any time in history, and yet the church’s impact on the culture and quality of discipleship in the churches has continually declined. There are certainly exceptions, but overall, the system is broken."

So why is the house church model a potentially better solution for impacting the culture? For Brad Cecil, a pastor of Axxess, network of house churches in Fort Worth, Texas, that question can be answered in one word: transformation.

"Transformation is a slow, steady process that occurs as we share life with people, and a house church environment is much more conducive to this phenomenon," said Cecil. "Many churches celebrate the idea that people show up and consume their sermons, songs and ministries. But consumption is not transformative! I don’t think much transformation is occurring in many churches today—just a lot of activity."

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Price of Duplicity

This week we study the deception and estrangement in the households of Isaac and Jacob - Genesis 25:19 through chapter 29. For those of us who may have experienced deception and estrangement within their own family, it is amazing and reassuring to consider that God worked through this family to bring an end to sin, suffering and death.

It is interesting to note that this family's estrangement arose out of Rebekah's desire to see the will of God exercised in the life of her family. But, as with the generation before, seeking to do God's will using human power and intellect results in alienation and pain for generations to come.

As always, we see patterns of the controversy between good and evil. Note the following comment by Matthew Henry (1662 - 1714).

"This struggle between Jacob and Esau in the womb represents the struggle that is maintained between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan:
(1) In the world.
The seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent have been contending ever since (Gen 3:15), and this has occasioned a constant uneasiness among men. ...
(2) In the hearts of believers.
No sooner is Christ formed in the soul than immediately there begins a conflict between the flesh and spirit, Gal 5:17. The stream is not turned without a mighty struggle, which yet ought not to discourage us. It is better to have a conflict with sin than tamely to submit to it."