Thursday, December 05, 2013

Just 12 Minutes a Day…

Most Western Christians have never read their Bible through from Genesis to Revelation. 

Most Western Christians don’t ever read the Bible outside of church except perhaps in a moment of desperation during a personal crisis. 

Not surprisingly, most Western Christians are shamefully ignorant of the contents of Scripture. Their Bible knowledge consists of a few disconnected stories and random verses picked up along the way in Sunday school classes or while listening to sermons. That knowledge is second hand—not personal. It has been widely acknowledged that the Bible is the least read bestseller in American publishing history. 

Contrast this sad state of affairs with what is typically the case with Muslim Background Believers (MBBs). MBBs are Christians who grew up Muslims and then converted to Christianity. On average, by the time a Muslim man has made the decision to follow Christ as a baptized believer he has already read the Bible through not once, not twice, but FIVE times. 

Five times… 

What about you? Have YOU read the Bible through five times? Are you a regular Bible reader at all? Are you a serious student of Scriptures? Have you ever read your Bible from cover-to-cover? If not, why not? 

We are busy, busy people leading busy, busy lives. One of the frequently offered excuses for our failure to read our Bibles is a lack of time. But let’s look at this scientifically. Just how long would it take you to read your Bible through? 

We know the answer because somebody took the trouble to time it. There are about 807,361words in the Bible (depending on the translation): 622,771 in the Old Testament and 184,590 in the New Testament. That means about 77% of your Bible—almost 4/5ths—is Old Testament, the part that Christians are most ignorant of. It takes just 70 hours and 40 minutes to read the Bible through—just under three full days. And that’s out loud. 52 hours and 20 minutes to read the Old Testament, 18 hours and 20 minutes to read the New Testament. The longest book, Psalms, will take just 4 hours and 28 minutes. It takes a mere 2 hours and 43 minutes to read the Gospel of Luke. 

You can read the Bible through in a year in less than 12 minutes a day. 

Can’t you commit to giving 12 minutes a day—30 seconds out of every hour—less than 1% of your day—to reading God’s word? Millions do so every year. My wife has done so every year for nearly 30 years. And it shows. She KNOWS her Bible. On January 1, 1987, when our son, Joshua, was 8 years, 8 months, and 13 days old, with no prompting from Joyce or me he took it upon himself to read the Bible through that year. Each night he set his alarm so that he would be up 15 minutes early so that he could do his Bible reading before school. On December 31, 1987 he closed his Bible after reading Revelation 22:21. Mission accomplished. A few years ago there was a TV game show called, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? My question to you is, are you as committed to discipleship as this fourth grader? 

I suppose it is a consequence of our fallen natures that good habits are hard to cultivate while bad ones get started all too easily. At Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church where I serve as senior pastor I want to help my members develop the habit of daily Bible reading. Here’s how: 

First, beginning January 1, 2014 I am encouraging all of my RABC family to start a daily Bible reading program. While there are many ways to approach this, I’m suggesting the easiest approach: Reading the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation, about 3 chapters a day. 

Second, daily Bible reading guides will be published in the newsletter and on our website at 

Third, beginning Wednesday, January 8, I will lead a weekly Bible based on these readings. The Scripture passage for each study will be selected from among the chapters that we read the previous week. For example, since we will have read Genesis 1-24 during the first week of the year, my study on January 8 will be a passage selected from those chapters. Each session will be a stand-alone unit so you are not penalized if you can only attend sporadically. Each class session will be videotaped and posted on our website. 

Fourth and finally, daily Bible reading is not intended to be in-depth study. But as you read, questions will naturally arise. If you find yourself puzzling over a question generated by your reading, I invite you to post those questions on this blog and I'll try to help you find the answers.

We are trying to raise our congregation’s biblical literacy in 2014! I encourage you to spread the effort in your own church. 

It takes just 12 minutes a day. 

Pastor Glen

Monday, November 11, 2013

Comparative Thankfulness

Thanksgiving Day will soon be upon us.

What does it take to make you thankful?

That might seem like an odd question. But thankfulness is relative. It varies from person to person and from time to time. Just as one man’s junk is another’s treasure, that which stirs gratitude in one heart may dissatisfy another. The same thing which brings us joy and thanksgiving at one point in life can lead to disappointment later on.

One of the ironies of life is that the more we have, the more it takes for us to feel grateful.

Consider the case of Saudi Prince Alwaleed. In 2006 Forbes estimated that the prince was actually worth $7 billion less than the prince believed. The day after the list was released Alwaleed called the person responsible for the rating at her home, almost in tears. Never mind that he has his own 747, complete with a throne. Never mind that his “main palace” has 420 rooms. Never mind that he possesses his own private amusement park, his own zoo, and a reported $700 million worth of jewels. Never mind that he's the richest man in the Arab world, valued by Forbes at $20 billion. None of this was enough. As the late Texas billionaire, H.L. Hunt, once famously said, “Money is just a way of keeping score.” The Saudi prince was not grateful for his score.

But one need not be a prince to allow your possessions to diminish your sense of gratitude.

For most of our first ten years of marriage Joyce and I had a regular routine when we bought groceries together. Joyce would prepare a shopping list organized by relative importance with the “must-have” things listed first and those things wanted but not essential, last. She would then figure out how much money we could afford to spend on food that week. I would bring a calculator. As we wandered back and forth across the store, working our way down the list, I would keep a running total of how much we had spent. When we reached the amount that was budgeted for food (having made an allowance for sales tax) we headed to the checkout. Back then we were thankful when the money lasted longer than the shopping list. It’s been a long time since we had to take a calculator to the grocery store. Our expectations are now greater. We take more for granted.

Tennessee Williams once said, “You can be young without money, but you can't be old without it.” I think old Tennessee was on to something. You can delight a young child for hours with nothing more than the cardboard box that a refrigerator or washing machine was shipped in. What parent has not watched a toddler find more amusement with torn wrapping paper than the gift it once enclosed? Why must the day come when we open that package and ask ourselves, “I wonder how much this cost?”

Our accumulations, our expectations, and our sense of entitlement all color our sense of gratitude and thanksgiving. But so does loss.

Few of us think to daily thank God for our health until our health is in jeopardy. We are not likely to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving, “Thank you, Holy Father, for my healthy heart, lungs, breasts, prostate, liver, ovaries, __________ (fill in your favorite organ) until you are shaken by the fear that good health may not be something you can take for granted. But having once known that awful dread, only to be reassured that good health is indeed still yours, you suddenly find yourself face down on the ground thanking a merciful God for sparing you disease and maybe even death.

But lost health is not the only thing that can change our perception and alter what constitutes thankfulness. For years on end we may take for granted the presence of our children or grandchildren as we celebrate holidays, birthdays or the like. Then life’s circumstances change. Once familiar faces at our holiday table are suddenly far away. And too late, we are aware of what we should have been thankful for all along but only in retrospect—made finally conscious by its loss.

Between now and Thanksgiving Day our Rivermont Avenue family will be deeply involved in collecting, wrapping, and shipping Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes. We have all been moved by the stories of the profound gratitude that these simple gifts generate in the hearts of poor children around the world. Gifts that our own kids would take for granted fill these children of the Majority World with joy, wonder, and profound thanks. We will bless them by these gifts. May they, in turn, bless us with their example of thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Day will soon be upon us.

What does it take to make you thankful?

Monday, October 07, 2013

Glen Land’s 10 Rules for Avoiding Personal Disaster in Pastoral Relations with the Opposite Sex

  1. Always remember what your primary role is: you are first and foremost a pastor. You are not primarily a counselor, though you will be called upon to offer counsel at times. Your expertise is in spiritual matters, not psychology. Consequently, do not get involved in long-term counseling situations of any kind. If you cannot deal with the issue in 2-3 sessions or if the issues are beyond your training or comfort level, refer.
  2. Never initiate a hug with a female to whom you are not related and who is not old enough to be your mother—and seldom even then. Only accept hugs in public or in the presence of the woman’s husband. Physical contact is just too easily misconstrued. Even if your intentions are as pure as the driven snows of Antarctica, you have no control over what that other person may infer from what you intend as an innocent gesture.
  3. Keep your study door open when meeting alone with a woman. If matters of confidentiality require the door to be closed, make sure the blinds are open and that the secretary is in the next room. NEVER meet a woman alone after hours.
  4. You can never know with certainty what that woman is thinking—much less what her fantasies involve. You are paid to listen attentively and smile with understanding, even when you would prefer to be home watching TV with your shoes off and your feet up. You may be the only man in her life to treat her with even polite respect. What you intend as professional courtesy may be misunderstood as implying far more. You can never know for sure what she is hearing or how she is processing what you say and do.
  5. If a conversation or other interaction with a female takes an uncomfortable turn, terminate the interaction at once and inform Joyce (my wife of 40 years) before the sun goes down.
  6. If you find yourself wanting to spend more time with a woman than your ministry responsibilities ought to require, interpret that as an alarm going off: “Lane Encroachment Alert!” Get some physical and emotional distance between you and the woman—fast.
  7. Never engage in any conversation or activity with a woman not your wife that you would not be glad to do in Joyce’s presence.
  8. It is sometimes unavoidable that ministry responsibilities will encroach on personal/family time. If it does happen, make SURE it is truly unavoidable. Never make it a habit to put parishioners of either sex over Joyce.
  9. Of course adultery can be physical. But it can also be emotional. You are not immune to flattery. If some attractive female is constantly telling you what a wonderful preacher/teacher/listener/etc. you are, it may well turn your head. Believing that every compliment you hear represents brilliant and unbiased analysis of what you say and do is the first step toward becoming a damn fool. Always remember that the people at church generally only see you at your best. They don’t see you unshaven, sweaty after mowing the lawn, or with that scary face that first greets you from the bathroom mirror in the morning. They don’t have to put up with your bad moods, bad attitudes, or bad breath. Joyce does. They get the “Main Street U.S.A. at Disney World” version of you—not the version with the cracked sidewalks and potholes.
  10. Be prepared to sacrifice any relationship with any church member—regardless of how innocent it may seem to you—if the alternative is harming your marriage. Some women may see you as a surrogate father. Some may see you as a surrogate husband. You CANNOT, DARE NOT fill either role, even if only in the most platonic sense. Down that path lies personal disaster.
Some additional thoughts:
First, this list is my own. It reflects my own life circumstances and my own weaknesses and temptations. I think that most of this would apply equally to any man in ministry, and probably to any woman as well. But I would encourage you to develop your own list tailor-made for you. Feel free to appropriate any or all of my list without attribution, but change it around as needed to fit your own circumstances. For example, some of you may be trained and certified counselors. In that case you would probably wish to rethink item #1. But even in that case carefully consider if the roles of pastor and clinical counselor are truly compatible. It’s a debatable point.
Second, while I don’t claim that any of this is original with me, I cannot identify any specific sources. This is more practical wisdom than research. It represents conclusions arrived at from forty years of pastoral ministry experience. I wasn’t taking notes. I was learning—sometimes the hard way.
Third, I am grateful that God, in His providence, spared me the pain of great personal moral failure. I’ve seen too many ministry colleagues fall by the wayside, including some dear friends. Only a fool believes he is immune from temptation. In my case I suspect that some of my “obedience” was mostly a matter of good luck.
Finally, living by these rules may cost you. Over the years it led to two women leaving churches I served. One wanted me to be her father. One wanted me to be, in an emotional support sense at least, her husband. I was a disappointment to both. – GL

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Paid in Full

  Paid in Full
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia
Reverend Glen A. Land, Senior Pastor

Romans 3:21-26 (ESV)
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

·        John Piper pronounced it the greatest letter ever written.
·        John Stott called it, “…the fullest, plainest and grandest statement of the gospel in the New Testament.”
·        Martin Luther once said, “This epistle is in truth the most important document in the New Testament, the gospel in its purest expression.”
·        John Knox declared, “It is unquestionably the most important theological work ever written.”
·        According to Calvin, “When anyone gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance opened to him to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.”
·        It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet, philosopher, and literary critic of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, who perhaps best summed it up: “I think that the Epistle to the Romans is the most profound work in existence.” 

It was reading the Book of Romans that directly led to the conversion of such theological giants as St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. The impact on Christian history of Paul’s longest and most important letter cannot be exaggerated. It contains the clearest and most complete expression of the gospel in the Bible. It’s not by chance that the plan of salvation has often been called “The Roman Road.” 

If this were not impressive enough, consider the fact that my text this morning, Romans 3:21-26, is often viewed as the very heart of the letter:
·        C.E.B. Cranfield, author of what many regard as the finest commentary on Romans in print, calls these verses ‘the centre and heart’ of Romans.
·        The late D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, long-time pastor of Westminster Chapel in London who for years preached to standing-room-only crowds, called Romans 3:21-26  “… the acropolis of the Bible and of the Christian faith.”
·        Another preeminent New Testament scholar, Leon Morris, described it as “…possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”
·        And finally, pastor and popular Christian writer and conference leader, John Piper, declared this passage to be “… the Mount Everest of the Bible…. There are great sentences in the Bible, and great paragraphs and great revelations, but it doesn’t get any greater than this paragraph in Romans 3:21-26.” 

I trust I have your attention. Today’s message deals with the very heart and essence of the Christian faith. How you choose to respond will determine your eternal destiny. It doesn’t get any more important than this. So open your bibles and follow along closely as we consider what the Apostle Paul wrote from Corinth to the church in Rome, sometime during the winter months of AD 56-57. 

The Context of Romans 3:21-26 – God’s Righteous Wrath toward the Sinfulness of the Human Race (Romans 1:16-3:20)
A basic principle of sound Bible study is to know your context. 

After a few introductory comments, in Romans 1:16-17 Paul spells out the theme of his letter, the righteous shall live by faith: 

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” 

From this point on through chapter 3, verse 20 Paul unpacks the sad, sorry litany of a sinful human race in rebellion against a holy God, a God whose righteous wrath is quite properly directed against sinners. 

1:18 – For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 

1:28, 32 – 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. . . . . 32Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

2:1, 5 – 1Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things . . . . . 5But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. 

3:10-12 – 10as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 

3:20 – For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:21-26 – The Path to Justification: The Story of God’s Costly Forgiveness
Paul has painted an utterly desolate picture of the plight of the human race. Without exception from Adam onward, we are judged to be uniformly evil, hopelessly lost in our sin. No matter how earnestly we try, we cannot, through own efforts, keep God’s law. Nor can we earn our own justification in his sight. 

We are the objects of God’s righteous wrath. We’re an affront to his divine holiness and stand even now under his condemnation. Yet while all hope seems lost, Paul declares that there is good news after all! Beginning with Romans 3:21, he tells the story of God’s costly forgiveness. He shows us the path to justification and peace with God. And it starts with two little words… 

“But now…” (vs. 21)
Just two little words, but on them swings the hinge of history. How many times have we seen a conversation or a relationship pivot on one tiny word? “I still love you but…” “I like your work however…” “I’ll buy your house if…” Too often those conjunctions work against us. “I still love you but I love someone else even more.” “I like your work however your co-workers despise you and want you dead.” “I’ll buy your house if you install a new kitchen and drop the asking price by twenty grand.” 

But sometimes we catch a break. Sometimes a little word works to change things in our favor. With verse 21 something significant has changed. More than a new paragraph has begun. A new approach to the Living God has been opened up to us. Before righteousness meant perfect obedience to the law—and no one was able to live up to that lofty standard. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” Those two little words, but now, have introduced the first fundamental change in the relationship between God and humanity since The Fall. God is offering us a way forward, a way out of sin and into his righteousness, but without the impossible challenge of living up to the Law’s demands. 

The words point backward to an event in history. When Paul wrote this he was describing something in the still recent past. Many living eyewitnesses could testify to its truth. In contrast to the impossibility of justification by good works, we’re now offered justification as a free gift—God’s free gift to us. 

“…the righteousness of God…” (vs. 21)
This refers to a new status of righteousness before God for you and me, a status that is God’s gift to us. This is critical if we are to understand what Paul is saying.  That God is righteous or that God’s righteousness is evident is hardly news. But that you and I can stand before God and be declared righteous… that we can come under the protection of God’s righteousness… that’s huge. This is a new thing in the relationship between God and humanity. It’s kind of like being allowed backstage to meet your favorite performer, not because he knows you but because some else has vouched for you and says your OK. But my analogy is flawed. God does know you. And he knows you’re not OK. But he has found a way to let you into his glorious presence for all eternity anyway, and in a way that still satisfies his justice. 

“…the righteousness of God has been manifested…” (vs. 21)
The Greek verb for has been manifested is in the perfect tense, describing a completed action that occurred in the past but which produced results that continue into the present. The emphasis of the perfect tense is not the past action so much as the present “state of affairs” resulting from the past action.  This gift of righteousness that God offers is a lasting inheritance. Once given, it’s forever. 

“…the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—” (vs. 21)
Paul is making a very important point here on a topic he feels strongly about. He is asserting that both the Torah—the books of Moses, first five books of the Old Testament—and the writings of the prophets affirm the truth that even before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith was anticipated. This is a recurring theme in Romans beginning in the first two verses of the letter:
1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 

There is a widespread, serious error in the thinking of many Christians. It is the mistaken belief that while Christians are saved by grace through faith, the Jews of the Old Testament were saved by following the law. Even a hurried reading of Romans ought to put this notion to rest. As Paul states clearly in Romans 4:2-3:

2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 

In verse 22 Paul expands and clarifies what he said in verse 21. 

22”…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:”
The promised righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the first point in Romans where Christ is explicitly identified as the object of saving faith. This salvation is available to any and all who believe—Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white and yellow and brown—all stand level at the foot of the cross. All are equally in need of salvation. All are equally welcome. But, and this is critically important in a day when many different paths to God are being promoted, while the righteousness of God is freely available through faith in Christ it is only available through faith in Christ. As Peter made emphatically clear on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 4:12: 

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 

There is only one antidote for the sin poison in your soul. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there feverishly pitching other remedies. Please understand that the sincerity with which you embrace a lie will count for nothing in eternity. If you have bacterial pneumonia you need an antibiotic. A mustard plaster will not help. Neither will Pepto-Bismol, Rolaids, or E-lax. Without the right medicine you may die. 

Sin is a terminal genetic disease of the soul. It is always fatal.  There is one and only one known cure: the grace of God received through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the antidote. Accept him and you will live. Refuse him—look for a cure elsewhere—and you will die.
23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
You have no claim on God. He owes you nothing. Your best efforts to live a good life have earned you exactly…zilch. We are all members of the fellowship of sin, and it’s a big club.

We all know what it is to be disappointed by another. Even those we love best, those closest to us, let us down. And we, in turn, disappoint others. But our disappointment with one another pales beside God’s profound disappoint in us. 

Paul tells us that we all fall short of the glory of God. That’s a phrase easily misunderstood. Paul’s not suggesting that we’re under judgment for failing to achieve divinity.  Quite the contrary, it was Satan tempting Eve with the promise that “…you will be like God…” that got us into this mess in the first place. Our falling short of the glory of God speaks rather of lost potential. It takes us back to Eden and reminds us of just how far we have fallen. 

In The Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis uses a memorable phrase to describe human beings. He calls us “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”. Have you ever paused to consider what it would be like to encounter that first man and woman in Eden as they existed before the Fall? To meet the parents of our race in all their sinless perfection? Were they to walk into this sanctuary right now, we would easily mistake them for gods, like characters out of Greek mythology only better. For they would be more than beautiful; they would be pure. They would be holy. Remember what it said in Genesis 1:27? 

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. 

When Paul tells us that we fall short of the glory of God he is lamenting the lost glory of paradise. He is weeping over our lost inheritance. God created us in his image, an image that has been stained and distorted by our sin. How far we have fallen! 

What’s more, a careful study of the Greek grammar clearly implies that not only unbelievers but Christians as well still lack this glory of God. We can take comfort that we are once again heirs of the glory that was Eden. With saving faith comes justification. We are declared “not guilty”. Over a lifetime of discipleship comes a process of sanctification as we become daily more and more like Christ. But only when we are freed from this body of sin and stand at last in the presence of our Lord will the full glory that God intended for us be restored. 

24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
What does it mean when Paul says that we are justified? In a purely legal sense it means to be declared “not guilty”. But the courtroom is a poor metaphor for what God does for us in Christ. Let’s go back to Eden. We were created to be in fellowship with God. Sin destroyed that fellowship. In Christ that broken fellowship is restored. When we talk about the Old and New Testaments we are using a word that means covenant: the old and new covenants. To be in right relationship with God is to be in covenant with him. Our sin broke the covenant. Christ’s sacrificial death has restored it. When we are in covenant with God we are in communion with God. Hence the imagery of the communion service where we celebrate the new covenant in Christ’s blood. 

When we are justified a right status with God is restored and a process of moral regeneration—sanctification—is begun so that we will ultimately become what we have been declared to be. 

“…by his grace as a gift…”
Our justification comes as an undeserved grace gift. We are not saved so that God will love us. We are saved because he loved us when we were still unlovable. 

“…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
The word translated redemption in the ESV can have several different meanings. It can simply mean deliverance or emancipation. But it often carries with it the idea of deliverance by paying a ransom. I’m strongly in favor of interpreting this passage with the sense of a ransom paid in light of statements such as Jesus made in Mark 10:45: 

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

Then there’s Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in Luke 4:18: 

18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,”

It was by offering as a ransom his own life that Jesus purchased our freedom from slavery to sin while also freeing us from the consequences of sin: God’s condemnation, God’s wrath. 

This was achieved through Christ Jesus. It was through the Person and Work of the Son that the Father accomplished His redeeming action. 

And now we come to verse 25…
25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 

“…whom God put forward…”
Better translated, “whom God purposed.”  This means that it was the eternal purpose of God’s grace to offer His Son for our redemption. The cross was not some hastily conceived Plan B. It was always God’s plan for our redemption. 

“…as a propitiation by his blood…”
Propitiation is one of those scary-sounding theological words that over-simplified bible translations and preachers of feel-good sermons try to avoid. It’s not a word you’re likely to encounter outside a seminary theology class. That’s unfortunate, because as used in the New Testament, it’s a VERY important word that describes a critical aspect of our salvation.  

Propitiation comes from the Latin word propitiat-, meaning “made favorable.”
It is the act of placating and overcoming distrust and animosity; of appeasing or atoning for sin or wrongdoing (especially in the case of appeasing a deity). Propitiation is an act meant to regain someone's favor or to make up for something you did wrong. It’s a two-part act that involves appeasing the wrath of an offended person and then being reconciled to them. The process typically involves an offering. In relation to the Christian theology of salvation, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ. 

The Greek word sometimes translated propitiation only occurs 4 times in the New Testament: Hebrews 9:5, 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10, and here in Romans 3:25. Its Hebrew equivalent is the word translated mercy seat in the description of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25:21: 

And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 

So what does my salvation have to do with the Ark of the Covenant, an object from antiquity that most people today associate with Indiana Jones? I’m glad you asked. 

If you saw The Raiders of the Lost Ark you will remember the big gold box that was the focus of all the excitement, the long lost Ark of the Covenant. Steven Spielberg actually did a very good job in creating a replica of the ark as it’s described in Exodus. The Ark was the most important object in the religion of ancient Israel. It was a box made of acacia wood, gilded inside and out with hammered sheets of pure gold. Once completed, on pain of instant death it was never to be touched by human hands. It was holy, sacred, set apart. Two long poles were used to carry it and only the priests were allowed to touch them. Inside the Ark were some very special and sacred objects: the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments had been carved by the very finger of God, and five parchment scrolls on which Moses transcribed the books of the Law—what we now know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—the first five books of the Bible. Aaron’s rod—a staff made of almond wood that miraculously sprouted branches and bloomed, and a clay jar of manna—the “bread of heaven” as it was called that God provided as food to Israel during their desert wanderings, may have also been stored in the Ark. More likely, however, they were kept outside, in front of the ark. Resting on top of the Ark was a covering. It was not gilded. It was solid 24 carat gold, as pure as the refiner’s art could make it. Though it rested on the ark it was not actually part of the ark. On both ends of this covering were images of cherubim. These were not the smiling fat little angelic nudes associated with Valentine’s Day. Far from it. They were fearsome-looking creatures with the faces of men, the bodies of lions, and the wings of birds of prey. They are described as facing the center of the covering with their wings outstretched over it. It was this covering over the Ark that was called the Mercy Seat. Before the Mercy Seat sinful man met Holy God. Out of the seemingly empty space just above the Mercy Seat, between the protective wings of the attending cherubim, the voice of God would issue forth in conversation with Moses. 

During Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, when the people traveled from place to place the ark went before them as a symbol of God’s presence. When they camped it was kept in the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the tabernacle. The Jews regarded the Holy of Holies as the most sacred spot on earth. Not even the High Priest entered it except for one day each year, The Day of Atonement—Yom Kipper. 

Yom Kipper is the holiest day in the Jewish year. On our calendar it falls between mid-September and mid-October. In ancient Israel it was the start of their new year, the day on which the high priest offered a sacrifice for the sins of Israel. As part of that sacred rite, after a careful ritual cleansing the priest would enter the Holy of Holies to burn incense and to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat, offering it as close to the presence of God on earth as possible. Thus the blood of a sacrificial animal was offered as symbolic propitiation for the sins of the nation. 

The linguistic support for propitiation as the best translation of the Greek word found in Romans 3:25 is strong. But over the years some people have raised objections. They’re uncomfortable with the doctrine of divine wrath. They argue that the idea of having to appease an angry deity is beneath the dignity of a modern understanding of God; that this is some kind of throwback to paganism—on a par with tossing a virgin into the mouth of a volcano to appease the mountain god. So instead of propitiation, they translate the word in question as expiation. The controversy has even affected the choice of hymns that are approved for inclusion in church hymnals. 

Earlier in the service we sang the modern hymn, In Christ Alone. It has become one of the most popular and beloved hymns in the country. It’s definitely one of my favorites. Yet just last month the hymnal committee for the Presbyterian Church USA refused to include In Christ Alone in their new hymnal. Why? Because the song’s authors refused to remove the line, “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” 

Where the literal meaning of propitiation is to make favorable and specifically includes the idea of dealing with God’s wrath against sinners, expiation means to make pious and implies either the removal or cleansing of sin. The idea of propitiation includes expiation; but not the other way around. Expiation alone does nothing to quench God’s righteous anger. 

The difference in meaning may seem subtle, but it’s very important. The object of expiation is sin, not God. One propitiates a person, one expiates a problem. 

Perhaps this will help you see the difference. You may have watched the TV commercial where a man foolishly saws off the limb of a tree in his yard and drops it onto his neighbor’s car—just a stupid mistake, no malice intended. In real life, chances are if he apologizes profusely for his carelessness and quickly makes good on the repair or replacement of the car, all will be forgiven. His sin will be expiated. 

Now let’s imagine that instead of accidently dropping a limb on his neighbor’s car, in a fit of anger he deliberately slashed all the tires on that car. Even if he immediately regretted the act and bought four brand new replacement tires—the best tires that money can buy—all will NOT be forgiven. The outward evidence of the sin may have been removed, but the relationship is not healed. Why? Because the righteous anger of his neighbor will not have been propitiated. This guy’s not just destroyed four tires. He’s destroyed a relationship by an attack on the honor of his neighbor. He has added insult to injury. And the insult is harder to correct. 

We intuitively understand about the need for propitiation—at least when we’re the victims of another’s sin. We demand justice. And when justice is denied we experience moral indignation. We are outraged. 

Many Montana residents are outraged right now and are calling for the removal from the bench of District Judge, G. Todd Baugh after he sentenced a 54-year-old former high school teacher to only 30 days in jail for raping a 14-yr-old girl. The girl later committed suicide. Justice has not been served. The scales have not been balanced. Of course, when we’re the sinners in question, we change our tune. Then we cry for mercy, not justice.

And here we come to God’s dilemma. For he is both righteous and loving. He is holy and he is merciful. His holiness is outraged by sin. His perfect sense of justice demands that those scales be balanced. If some Montana voter is outraged by injustice, how much more so is God? 

There is a dualism of holiness and love … of mercy and wrath in God’s nature that cannot be dissolved. The sacrificial death of Jesus is at the very heart of justification. Because God is holy, he must punish sin. By definition sin is belittling God’s glory. If God chose not to punish sin he would be declaring that his glory is not worth defending. We read in the Psalms, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” But how can God just simply overlook our sins? Unless we affirm that people really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God’s forgiveness of its meaning. Romans 3 tells us that God put forth Jesus as a propitiation—a wrath-absorbing sacrifice. That is, on the cross Jesus paid in full the penalty for our sin. God’s wrath was poured out on his own son. Jesus’ death on the cross justifies the sinner and it also justifies God. It justifies the sinner because those who place their faith in Christ are declared righteous based on Christ’s righteousness, and it justifies God the Father because it vindicates his glory and it vindicates his mercy. 

Remember that Old Testament passage Paul quoted earlier regarding Abraham? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham was not alone. Before Christ was nailed to that cross, millions of people lived and died having placed their trust in God’s mercy. And God was merciful. As Paul just reminded us in verse 25, God “…had passed over former sins.” But each one of those sins represented a debt that God’s mercy owed to God’s justice. Generations of high priests sprinkled blood on that Mercy Seat and mercy was granted. But no sacrificial lamb every saved anybody. A huge debt against justice accumulated year after year, like a massive credit card debit hanging over the head of God. The bill finally came due. Jesus paid it in full. John Stott writes that propitiation “…does not make God gracious. God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us.” 

In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer makes a distinction between pagan and Christian propitiation: “In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ... to be the propitiation of our sins.” 

Christ's death was both an expiation and a propitiation. By expiating—removing the problem of—sin God was made propitious—favorable—to us. 

I agree with Leon Morris. Romans 3:21-26 is the greatest paragraph ever written. Its greatness lies in its subject. It attests to the wonder of the gift of righteousness, the marvelous story of God’s costly forgiveness.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Grim Lessons on Teamwork from Mann Gulch

At approximately 4:10 PM on the afternoon of August 5, 1949, fifteen smokejumpers joined one U.S. Forest Service ranger already on the ground, to fight a wildfire in Mann Gulch in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area of Montana.  By 5:57 PM, all but five of these men were dead, with two more so severely burned that they died by noon the following day.  The Mann Gulch Fire stands as the worst disaster in the 72-year history of the smokejumpers. 

Adding to the bitterness of these tragic deaths, moments before the holocaust engulfed them, their crew foreman, R. Wagner “Wag” Dodge, pointed the way to safety—and was ignored by the men he sought to save.  The reasons behind this breakdown in leadership, as well as the other factors that contributed to the disaster provide a powerful analogy for the importance of teams and teamwork. 

Well over half a century has passed since fire swept Mann Gulch, but the scars from the burn are still evident.  In the harsh and arid climate of western Montana, wounds to the earth heal slowly.  The charred trunks of downed ponderosa pine still dot the landscape, only grudgingly succumbing to decay.  New trees struggle to establish themselves, their height after all these years still measured in inches.  One small but significant change to the landscape will forever mark the events of that blistering hot August afternoon 64 years ago.  Tantalizingly close to the 4,800 foot crest of the ridge that delineates the northern edge of the gulch—a ridgeline that for a few fleeting moments mocked desperate men scrambling to reach it with the false promise of escape from the inferno below—today there stands a scattered collection of white crosses.  Each cross marks the spot where one of the thirteen fell. 

Just three fire fighters survived.  Two of these, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, were the only men who made it over the crest of the ridge ahead of the flames to the safety of a rockslide area on the far side.  Their accomplishment represented a combination of good fortune, youthful vigor and speed.  Even then, it was a near thing.  A third man following close behind then died just shy of reaching the crest.  Sallee and Rumsey outran their companions and outdistanced a fire that at one point was traveling an estimated 660 feet per minute (7.5 miles per hour) up a 76% grade and that was burning with an intensity of 9,000 BTUs per foot per second.  A 76% grade gains 7.6 feet in elevation for every 10 feet of forward progress.  A fire of this speed and intensity, fueled by tall dry grass and fanned by 40 mph wind gusts (all on a day of record heat and very low humidity) would have produced flames that reached heights of 40 feet.  Fire fighters refer to such a firestorm as a blowup. 

The only other survivor of the Mann Gulch blowup was Wag Dodge.  He never made it to the crest.  From his position further downslope than the rest of the crew and thus closer to the advancing wall of fire, he could see that he would never make the summit ahead of the fire.  Consequently, he did the last thing that would occur to most people in his situation: he took out a book of matches and started another fire.  This second fire saved his life and could have saved most, if not all, of the others. 

Some thirty seconds ahead of a rapidly advancing wall of flames, Dodge literally invented the escape fire.  The concept of an escape fire was not something the forest service taught him.  It was not in their training courses (though it is now), nor was it a part of the institutional wisdom handed down by word-of-mouth from one generation of seasoned fire fighters to the next.  Until that terrible day, no one in the service had ever conceived of such a thing.  With a remarkable presence of mind in the face of near certain death, and with only seconds to react, Dodge reasoned that if he lit a second fire up slope and down wind of his position, it would quickly burn off the available fuel in the immediate area.  He then walked into the still smoking wake of that fire, covered his face with a bandana that he had moistened with water from his canteen, and proceeded to lay face down in the hot ashes.  The larger inferno behind him reached his position and parted to either side.  By placing his face next to the ground, he positioned it at the only location not totally deprived of oxygen.  It was also considerably cooler at ground level, thus sparing his lungs from inhaling super-heated gases.  Encompassed by a terrible vision of hell on earth, Wag Dodge survived virtually unscathed. 

Dodge tried, but failed, to save others.  As he walked into the fire that he had set, he called to his crew to follow him.  They refused.  Sallee later reported after he neared the crest he looked back and saw Dodge lighting the escape fire. 

“I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match.  I thought, with the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us?  We thought he must have gone nuts.”

 Dodge was certain that entering the escape fire was their only hope.  As he reported later: 

After walking around to the north side of the fire I started as an avenue of escape, I heard someone comment with these words, “To hell with that, I’m getting out of here!” and for all my hollering, I could not direct anyone into the burned area.  I then walked through the flames toward the head of the fire into the inside and continued to holler at everyone who went by, but all failed to heed my instructions; and within seconds after the last man passed, the main fire hit the area I was in.

 Dodge lit his escape fire at 5:55 PM.  By 5:57 PM thirteen fire fighters, most of them ranging from 17 to 23 years of age, lay dying.  What went wrong?  What are the lessons of Mann Gulch that will benefit not just fire fighters, but anyone who would seek to be a leader of men?  What principles of leadership and teamwork can we glean? 

Principle #1 – Not every crisis that we face was covered back in school.  Be prepared to adapt to unexpected and changing conditions.  The brief training course provided to the smokejumpers of the 1940s was limited to techniques for fighting forest fires.  Furthermore, their specialty was dealing with small fires of no more than few acres and controlling them before they spread.  They had little training or experience in fighting large fires and knew nothing about fighting grass fires.  Mann Gulch sits east of the continental divide near the point where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains.  In these arid mountains, stands of pine are thick on north slopes but give way to large areas of open grasslands on south-facing hillsides.  When the crew jumped the fire that August afternoon, it was burning relatively slowly going downslope in the timber on the south side of the gulch.  At 5:30 PM, the fire leaped across the bottom of the gulch.  Fire travels faster uphill than down hill and the steeper the grade the faster it moves.  It also moves much faster in grass than in timber.  In the next 27 minutes, the firestorm crossed 1500 yards (over half a mile) and climbed 900 feet in elevation, gaining both speed and intensity as it went.  The fire that killed the smokejumpers was one they were not trained to fight. 

For a team to function effectively in a crisis, the members must have an accurate understand of the nature of the challenge before them.  It is critical that they not become trapped in their thinking by models and paradigms of the past that do not fit the current situation.  When conditions change, you may need to alter your approach or invite disaster. 

Principle #2 – When the solution to a crisis is counter-intuitive, the team’s need for trust in their leader increases.  Had the firefighters’ best way of escape been to run for the ridge top, they would have quickly followed instructions without hesitation.  Their limited training told them ridge tops generally offer a measure of safety in a fire.  The fuel is usually thinner, the rock and shale more prevalent and winds tend to fluctuate at the crest.  Once over the crest, the fire would slow down.  Running for the summit—and away from the flames—was the instinctive and seemingly logical thing to do.  But what Wag Dodge pleaded with his men to do made no sense to them.  “Stop running and follow me into the flames” seemed like the words of a suicidal maniac. 

Effective teams are often able to make decisions on an informal consensus basis.  That’s as it should be.  However, there are circumstances where nothing but the sudden insights of a leader, quickly carried out, will serve.  These are always times of great pressure and urgency.  And while for most teams this will not literally be a matter of life and death, leadership breakdowns at such times are always costly, both to the team and to the larger organization they serve. 

Principle #3 – Keen insight and technical expertise alone will not make you a team leader.  Wag Dodge was an experienced woodsman and fire fighter.  He knew his stuff.  He was also one of those rare and wonderful people who are able to keep cool in a crisis.  In fact, the only cool spot in Mann Gulch on that fateful August afternoon was between Wag Dodge’s ears.  He acted calmly, rationally and with remarkable speed.  He grasped the true nature of the danger, conceived a creative and workable solution and executed the plan.  All of this sounds like a leader, but in those fateful moments, Dodge’s men did not follow him.  Why? 

To function smoothly, especially under pressure, the members of a team must know one another well.  They must understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  They need an instinctive sense of how each member will react in a crisis.  Such intimate cohesiveness doesn’t come about automatically.  It is a by-product of spending time working together in a variety of contexts.  To lead a team requires all of this and more—it requires trust.  As danger and urgency increase, so does the demand for high trust in a leader.  The smokejumpers in Mann Gulch didn’t trust their leader, not because he was untrustworthy, but simply because they didn’t know him.  In fact, there were only three men in the entire crew that Dodge had ever met.  While the rest of the crew trained together earlier in the spring, Dodge was excused from training in order to serve as the maintenance man for the entire smokejumper base.  Thus, his woodsman’s mechanical skills indirectly contributed to the deaths of thirteen men.  After the fire had passed, Dodge walked up to the top of the ridge where he met up with Sallee and Rumsey.  He told them that he encountered one badly burned crewmember who still clung to life.  He couldn’t remember the man’s name except that it began with an “S”. 

A man is loath to entrust his life to a leader who can’t remember his name.

[I am indebted to the late Norman MacLean’s marvelous book, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, © 1992) for the details about the Mann Gulch Fire cited in this article.  – GL]

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Zero Tolerance and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Zero tolerance policies in public schools… Mandatory sentences… Three strikes laws… State-mandated standardized testing… TSA agents strip searching little old ladies in wheel chairs… the common threads in these and other similar issues may not be immediately apparent. Yet they all have at least three commonalities. First, their origin is found in the effort of some authority—be it a school board, a state legislature, the U.S. Congress, or some organized citizens’ group—to solve a problem. The problems vary. It could be the spread of drugs or weapons at school, repeat offenders getting off with a slap on the wrist, poor student performance with accompanying low graduation rates, or the need for better airport security. Second, all are designed to remove discretion from the problem-solving equation. They effectively tie the hands of teachers and school administrators, judges, parole boards, and other government employees. And third, the consequences of these policies, policies that I’m sure were well-intentioned in their conception, are often far removed from what was originally intended. 

As a result we are inundated almost daily with news reports of kindergarteners being suspended from school for bringing a toy gun on a school bus or of some shy and soft-spoken honors student being expelled for having a plastic butter knife in her brown bag lunch. We read with incredulity as a high school student is suspended for offering a Tylenol to a classmate with a headache. We shake our heads in disbelief when a twice-convicted felon gets a life sentence without parole for shoplifting a candy bar. We hear the frustration of outstanding veteran teachers who are forced to teach not for increased knowledge, but so that their students will pass a state-mandated standardized test designed by a bureaucrat in the state capitol who never darkened a classroom door. Frustrated and annoyed, we stand in a long, slow-moving security line at the airport while some self-important TSA agent examines the catheter of a frail elderly woman in a wheel chair or as some sobbing child is frisked while her helpless mother looks on in dismay. What has happened to common sense? What has become of good judgment? What are these people thinking? 

We are reaping the consequences of the loss of both trust and compassion in our society. We cried, “Get tough!” And we got tough. Tough on gang members in our schools. Tough on criminals. Tough on lazy teachers. Tough on terrorists. We were outraged by judges who let criminals go on some technicality in the law. So we got tough on technicalities. “No exceptions!” we cried. We didn’t trust public servants to serve. We didn’t trust our school administrators to administer our schools so we took on the job ourselves by imposing (or compelling them to impose) zero tolerance policies. We didn’t trust our judges to judge—to, as the very title implies, exercise judgment. So we took on the job ourselves with mandatory sentences and three-strikes laws. We didn’t trust our teachers to teach so we spelled out in fineprint legalese precisely what they must teach and what outcome we demanded. And in a state of near panic over terrorism, we rushed to cede both civil liberties and personal privacy in an effort to keep terrorists off of airplanes. Now like cattle headed into a slaughterhouse, we stand in line, barefoot, waiting our turn to be felt up or strip searched by some low level and hastily trained bureaucrat who wears a badge but who is not in fact a sworn law enforcement officer. 

When you adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to anything you end up with something that fits almost nobody well. We have attempted to deal with the poor performance of a few public officials by implementing policies that make it impossible for good people to excel. Zero tolerance makes a virtue of intolerance and too often equals zero judgment. This “no exceptions” mentality has imposed an unthinking, unfeeling, unresponsive bureaucracy on us that makes it impossible for decent people to demonstrate either human judgment or human compassion in dealing with other human beings—human beings who desperately need the benefit of both judgment and compassion.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Taking Prisoners in the War Against Gluttony

In the “Celebrating Small Victories” category, on Ash Wednesday, February 13 I weighed in at an embarrassing 190 lbs. which gave me a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 27.5—overweight but thankfully still well shy of being clinically obese. Sunday, February 17 I preached on the sin of gluttony (see blog post below) and pledged to my congregation to practice what I was preaching. This morning, 43 days later, the scale read 175.5 lbs. (BMI = 25.4)—still overweight but within striking distance of 172.5 at which point my BMI will be 24.9 and I will finally be back in the “normal” weight range for my height. My goal is to stabilize at 160 lbs. by Memorial Day, a weight I don’t think I’ve seen since my college days. Having an accountability group of 150+ does motivate!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Challenges Faced by Pope Francis

From the perspective of a lifelong Baptist, I believe that Pope Francis has assumed leadership of a Roman Catholic Church confronted by two very different challenges. One is the result of a profound moral failure. The other is a complex collection of problems in which theological and cultural issues are deeply—perhaps hopelessly—intertwined. 

The moral problem is the most urgent. It is the shocking disgrace of pedophile priests and the equally scandalous failure of church authorities to face and address the problem. Indeed, instead of confronting the problem, in too many instances there was a conspiracy to cover it up. The result has been hypocrisy squared. First, the hypocrisy of men who had vowed celibacy but who in fact engaged in sexual behavior that was both immoral and illegal in nature. This sin was then compounded by the added hypocrisy of bishops who lied and falsified evidence in an attempt to shield the guilty and protect the image (and financial resources) of the church. We’re not just talking here about a case of Catholics failing to meet some extraordinary code of behavior such as priestly celibacy. This was the failure of men in positions of leadership and trust to live up to the most basic standards of decent upright human behavior. Priests doing things that would get an atheist arrested. I know of nothing more toxic to a Christian community than hypocrisy. It has cost the RCC the trust of its own parishioners and the respect of the outside community. Until this issue is thoroughly and openly vetted and purged, the church will lack the moral authority and resolve to address the other problems facing Catholics. 

The second challenge is actually a long list of separate issues involving both theological and cultural concerns. The ordination of women, marriage for priests and nuns, birth control, abortion, beliefs about homosexuality, a dying European base, diversity of belief and practice in Africa—the list goes on and on. Dealing with these issues is far more complicated than the simple if painful business of true repentance needed to address the moral lapse. It requires the church’s leadership to distinguish between adjustments that are possible without a change in church doctrine, such as the decision coming out of Vatican II to allow the mass to be said in the vernacular instead of in Latin, and changes that would require sometimes profound doctrinal shifts. Addressing these later issues is fraught with peril. It is the difference between a valiant and forthright admission that you were mistaken in your interpretation of Christ’s teachings and a craven collapse in the face of outside cultural pressure from assorted special interest groups. Courage or cowardice. As a Protestant I would obviously differ with my Catholic brethren on any number of doctrines. But for change to be a corrective, it must be for the right reasons. The new Bishop of Rome has a reputation for humility. I hope and pray that with this comes great wisdom combined with strength and vitality that belies his 76 years. With the challenges before him, he will need it.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Review of The Bible

Part 1 of a 10-hour miniseries on The History Channel

The Bible for Dummies came out in 2002. It will soon be eight years since the publication of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible. I suppose it was only a matter of time until somebody tried to do something similar on TV. But who would produce such a show? Which of the cable channels would be most likely to broadcast an over-simplified, dumbed down miniseries about the Bible? Perhaps Fox, with such hits like American Idol, The Simpsons, Family Guy and the like. Or maybe A&E which brought Dog the Bounty Hunter and Storage Wars into our homes. My first guess, whoever, would have been Bravo, which has produced all of those highly edifying Real Housewives of… reality shows. I have to admit I was a little surprised to learn that it was my beloved History Channel that ended up being the culprit. 

In 2002 MAD Magazine did one of their many spoofs—something they excel at doing. This time it was a spoof of one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. Only MADs version was Bored of the Rings. Watching Part One of The Bible I sometimes thought I was just witnessing dumbed down, over simplified story telling. But at other times I thought we had crossed over into parody, a Bored of the Rings approach to the Bible. The dumbed down aspect is forgivable if you accept the underlying premise of the project: an attempt at a sweeping overview of a book as massive and as complex as the Bible in only ten hours (minus time for commercials). With such time constraints you cannot begin to hit all the highlights, to say nothing of exploring the nuisance and complex theological concepts underlying these stories from Scripture. And this also means that you are prepared to accept a lot of what Hollywood calls “compression”. At best this gives you a Reader’s Digest version of the story. At worst you get the Classics Comic Book version of War and Peace. Too often the story compression in The Bible was of the Classics Comic Book variety, requiring numerous voice-overs by a narrator to keep someone unfamiliar with the biblical text from becoming hopelessly lost. We ended up with more a collection of story boards than a story; brief disconnected snap shots with little to connect them. 

But my biggest disappointment was when the creators of The Bible chose to use some of those precious minutes of airtime to indulge in what could only be called parody. Perhaps the most blatant example was the portrayal of the angels that came to Lot’s rescue in Sodom. In over half a century of bible reading it never once crossed my mind to conceive of angelic visitors as ninja warriors, yet that is exactly what we were given in this bizarre episode. Similar creative license run amok was exercised in the scenes showing a young Prince Moses engaged in knife fights with the crown prince of Egypt. I just stared at the TV screen in open-mouth incredulity. I suppose next we will be subjected to some creative cross marketing scheme in which Moses the Action Figure will be given out in MacDonald’s Kid’s Meals. 

Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett consulted “a wide range of pastors and academics” in developing the script for The Bible, including their friend, Joel Osteen. Osteen’s involvement could explain a lot. But I am baffled that respected evangelical leaders such as Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Leith Anderson, a leading Minnesota pastor and the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, also lent their support to this miniseries. I can only assume that they view this disappointing effort with a sense of pragmatism. Just maybe someone unfamiliar with the Bible—the book—will watch The Bible—the miniseries—and be moved to dig deeper and actually go back to the source material. And once you get people reading the Bible then anything is possible. If God can work His will through the embarrassing efforts of preachers, then surely He can do something with a TV show.