Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of the Blogroll 2012

Here to ring out the old year are my favorite posts written by my dedicated blog-neighbors from the year 2012. Thank you all for your dedication and continuing to write!

Some of the blogs on my blogroll have gone inactive during the year. A few others had a steady stream of solid posts but there was no one particular post that caught my eye. For those of you who have gone inactive: I hope to see you back in 2013. And to everyone on the blogroll: Thank you for blogging!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Comparing Mark and John with Mathematical Models

Thank you for your patience with these document comparisons. We're getting close to my being able to show you some more interesting things you can see with the comparisons, but wanted to at least get all the Biblical gospels into the mix before we started going beyond them. So for the fourth gospel, here are results from comparing Mark with John.

The short version of the results

I did have a chance to work through the problems with the calculation and to make them more sound, where two shared words will now never have a negative impact on the comparison. I'm now simply using the smaller of the two numbers for any word pair, which works out to 0 when the word isn't on both lists. I'll also be updating the previous documents with the corrected calculations.

Shared Word Estimate (22/48) = 46%
Shared Emphasis Estimate 54%

There is less similarity between Mark and John than we previously saw between Mark and Matthew or Luke. In the notes on the Shared Emphasis Estimate, I'll include some notes on where the differences are found.

Notes on the Shared Word Estimate

Again, Mark is the shorter document. It has 48 words included in the high-frequency word list, which is limited to words that would make at least a 1% difference in the total as discussed previously. Of those 48 words, only 22 are also in John's high-frequency words list calculated in the same way, which is the lowest match rate we have seen yet among the gospels. So 22/48 = 46%, rounded to the nearest whole number. Again, since the percentages involved are already effectively rounded when we leave out low-frequency words, it does not seem warranted to use a lot of decimals in the percentage.

Notes on the Shared Emphasis Estimate

With Mark and John, , the highest-frequency word in both documents is "Jesus". But the differences start as early as the second word on the list, where "man" is second in Mark's but "father" is second in John's. For the first time in our comparisons, even though John is the longer document, its high-emphasis words list is actually shorter at 44 words. This is an objective, verifiable measure of what people have long perceived about the fourth gospel: John's perceptions are more distilled or filtered, more focused -- possibly more edited, or more selective.

When we look at where the differences occur, there are some points of interest. Again, the comparisons is done from the perspective of Mark's gospel; other differences would come to light when using John as the baseline. When comparing Mark's top words to John's, there are 26 that are not on John's top words list; they are listed in the order of their importance in Mark's word list: crowd, teachers, around, anyone, began,  took, house, law, against, kingdom, mother, boat, hands, eat, days, lord, children, heaven, others, sitting, twelve, chief, evil, hear, James, looked. When we follow the leads that are given here, we might find fewer crowd scenes and fewer action scenes in John than in Mark.

Then there are the words on both lists that are emphasized noticeably less in John than in Mark: people and man. Again, this adds weight to the possibility that we'll find measurably fewer crowd scenes and action scenes in John.

The histories passed down about the Gospel of John mention that it was written to supplement the previously-written gospels. One way this may be seen is Mark's relatively greater emphasis on Jesus' public life, and John's relatively greater emphasis on private moments.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Today I will content myself with some thoughts from a far abler commenter on Scripture than I am:
Joseph was of the lineage of David and had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David. ... We can see how poor Joseph must have been that he could not afford to hire some old woman or neighbor to stay with Mary and look after her while he was gone. 

How unobtrusively and simply do those events take place on earth that are so heralded in heaven!
(From an advent or Christmas sermon by Martin Luther, in a book where it is not carefully sourced so I'm not sure exactly which sermon, or where to find it in his larger collected works.)

Merry and blessed Christmas to all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Comparing Mark and Luke with Mathematical Models

I promise there is a point to these document comparisons. I haven't yet calculated all of the comparisons that I intend, but I have read the documents in question, and I have no doubt that an objective, computer-based comparison like this will turn up interesting results. In the meantime, I did notice a few things when comparing Mark with Luke that might interest the general reader.

The short version of the results

Shared Word Estimate 65%
Shared Emphasis Estimate 64%*
* The originally listed number of 53% had some problems where, for word pairs with large differences, the shared word value might be less than the smaller of the two numbers or even negative. This number should be a more solid reflection of what is shared between the two documents.

There is less similarity between Mark and Luke than we previously saw between Mark and Matthew. In the notes on the Shared Emphasis Estimate, I'll include some notes on where the differences are found.

Notes on the Shared Word Estimate

Mark is a shorter document and has 48 words included in the high-frequency word list, which is limited to words that would make at least a 1% difference in the total as discussed previously. Of those 48 words, 31 are also in Luke's high-frequency words list calculated in the same way. So 31/48 = 65%, rounded to the nearest whole number. Again, since the percentages involved are already effectively rounded when we leave out low-frequency words, it does not seem warranted to use a lot of decimals in the percentage.

Notes on the Shared Emphasis Estimate

Again, the two highest-frequency words are the same between the two documents: "Jesus" and "man". And again Luke's list is broader than Mark's: it contains 52 words in the high-frequency list. When we look at where the differences occur, there are some points of interest.

When comparing Mark's top words to Luke's, there are 17 that are not on Luke's top words list: son, around, anyone, mother, Peter, boat, hands, eat, days, others, sitting, truth, twelve, chief, evil, James, and looked. Then there are the words emphasized noticeably less in Luke than in Mark: Jesus (though still by far the top word) and disciples. Some of the less-used words are related: Peter, twelve, James, and disciples. There seems to be noticeably less emphasis on the disciples in Luke than in Mark. That is consistent with early accounts that Luke was a companion of Paul's, showing less interaction with Jesus' disciples than is found in Mark.

I have noticed one problem with the calculations up to this point: the original calculation can cause two shared words to have a negative net effect, if the difference between the frequencies is larger than the original frequency itself. It may give more accurate results to simply use the smaller of the two frequency scores for the words in question, which may be 0 if the word is not found in the second document. At any rate I will finish up a few more sample comparisons before trying any updates to the calculation.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Comparing Mark and Matthew with Mathematical Methods

Here is the first analysis of actual documents with the mathematical models discussed previously. I've taken my first document as the Gospel of Mark and the second as the Gospel of Matthew, using the word clouds linked here.

The short version of the results

Shared Word Estimate 77%
Shared Emphasis Estimate 69%*
* The originally listed number of 57% had some problems where, for word pairs with large differences, the shared word value might be less than the smaller of the two numbers or even negative. The recalculated number given above should be a more solid reflection of what is shared between the two documents, as it simply uses the lesser of the two values, which is never lower than 0. 

In the notes on the Shared Emphasis Estimate, I'll mention some other things that the statistical analysis shows: with the breakdown done at this level, you can do more than estimate how much is shared. You can also identify where the differences are.

Notes on the Shared Word Estimate

Mark is a shorter document and has 48 words included in the high-frequency word list, which is limited to words that would make at least a 1% difference in the total as discussed previously. Of those 48 words, 37 are also in Matthew's high-use words list calculated in the same way. So 37/48 = 77%, rounded to the nearest whole number. (Since the percentages involved are already effectively rounded by the exclusion of low-frequency words that would chip away at the percentage, I don't think a lot of decimal points are significant in the analysis.)

Notes on the Shared Emphasis Estimate

When it comes to the detail matching on emphasis, the two highest-frequency words are the same between the two documents: "Jesus" and "man". Matthew's list is broader. It contains 53 words in the high-frequency list. So words are generally lower-frequency in Matthew than they are in Mark. This raises a question about the method, whether some sort of adjustment is in order for the relative length of the lists. It's worth considering, but my first thought is that if we're measuring relative emphasis, and the relative emphasis were the same between documents, then the word frequency lists would be the same between the documents. So my first inclination is not to adjust for different list lengths, but to consider that difference as part of an accurate reflection that the two documents have a somewhat different emphasis.

The emphasis estimate turns out to yield more information than the originally-intended measure of how much two documents are alike. It also gives some insight into what exactly is different. So with that in consideration, the words showing the biggest difference in emphasis are "Jesus" which is emphasized somewhat less in Matthew though it is still by far the most frequent word, then "father" and "heaven" which are used noticeably more in Matthew than in Mark. Those three words account for about 10% points in the emphasis-gap between the documents. Another significant gap comes from the 11 words on Mark's list but not in Matthew's: around, began, boat, hands, days, sitting, twelve, evil, hear, James, looked. That is not to say those words don't occur in Matthew, but that they don't make the high-frequency words list as they do in Mark.

Any areas which show a difference in emphasis might be worth closer study. I find it interesting that such a practical, ordinary word as "boat" should make the high-frequency list of Mark. The early records we have about Mark say that he was writing about Jesus as told to him by one of the disciples who was a fisherman by trade. The relative emphasis on the "boat" in Mark does not prove that the source of information was a fisherman, but it is consistent with that possibility. It might indicate an area for further research, to see what kinds of information might come to light by taking a closer look at the "boat" references in Mark. The "father" and "heaven" emphasis in Matthew over Mark might also bear a closer look. Other differences (like "around" or "began") seem less promising, though it would still be best to do a quick check of the original texts to make sure that it is just a difference in narration style or something of that sort.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mathematical Methods for Comparing Document Content

This post describes two different ways to calculate a rough measure of how much two documents cover the same material or the same topic. This is mainly written for those who want technical details of how the calculations work; it may not be of interest to other readers. The two methods are a "shared word estimate" and a "shared emphasis estimate".

Two Sample Lists

Imagine two very short books with the following word frequency lists: 

Document #1
  1. fun (15)
  2. Dick (12)
  3. Jane (10)
  4. Spot (6)
  5. see (4)
  6. run (3)

Document #2:
  1. fun (28)
  2. Fred (27)
  3. Jane (25)
  4. Dick (13)
  5. catch (4)
  6. Spot (3)

(I haven't really run the numbers for any actual "Dick and Jane" early-reader books; these numbers are made up for the purposes of illustration.) The two measures that I'll calculate show the percentage of shared words on these lists, and then a more detailed comparison of their emphasis.

Calculating A Shared Word Estimate

For the shared word estimate -- a rough estimate of whether the documents cover similar material or subject matter -- we run a basic count of the words shared between the two lists, and compare that to the length of the list. In this simple example, each list has 6 words, shares 4 words with the other list, and contains 2 words not found on the other list. So the shared word estimate tells us that 4/6 (67%) of the common words are the same between the two lists. The shared word estimate is crude, but can be used as a first estimate of whether a more detailed comparison is in order. You can determine, mathematically or by computer analysis, that these two documents may be related. If you saw a book with another top words word list, like "eggs, green, ham, am, Sam, like", you would find 0% in common and could expect that this document was not covering the same material or narrative.

A quick look at the shared word estimate shows that there is room for improvement, though. If the top, most common word is the same on both lists, there is a higher chance that they are on the same topic than if the bottom words happen to match. A more detailed comparison is in order that takes things like that into account.

Calculating A Shared Emphasis Estimate

The "shared emphasis estimate" measures not only whether both documents use the same words commonly, but considers whether those words occur about as commonly: it measures emphasis as well. Here the first approach I tried based on word rank (how high a word scores on the list) had to be discarded, as there were significant problems with the validity of the result. Simply comparing the rank of each word from one list to the next did not account for the fact that some lists have near-ties at some places, while others have steep drop-offs in word frequency, meaning that the ranking number was not an especially clean measure of the commonness of a word. The longer the list, the greater the problem that would be presented. Then there was a question of how much to weight the first-ranked word compared to the second-ranked, and so on down the list. If we used the rank as a basis for the weight, it would introduce an inflexible and artificial scale. The more fitting method is to weight each word based on its prevalence within the documents in question.

To determine the weight for each word, then, first a total was run of all the word-occurrences in the list. Then each individual word's usage count was turned into a percentage of that total. Here are our two sample documents again, with those calculations shown:

Document #1: 50 total count for the words in the "common words list":
  1. fun (15): 15/50 = 30%
  2. Dick (12): 12/50 = 24%
  3. Jane (10): 10/50 = 20%
  4. Spot (6): 6/50 = 12%
  5. see (4): 4/50 = 8%
  6. run (3): 3/50 = 6%
Document #2: 100 total count for the words in the "common words list":
  1. fun (28): 28/100 = 28%
  2. Fred (27): 27/100 = 27%
  3. Jane (25): 25/100 = 25%
  4. Dick (13): 13/100 = 13%
  5. catch (4): 4/100 = 4%
  6. Spot (3): 3/100 = 3%
To calculate the Shared Emphasis Estimate, we take each word's emphasis percentage in the first document as our starting point. Comparing it to the second document, we subtract out the difference in how much it is emphasized there to find the shared emphasis between the documents.

For example, "fun" has 30%  value in the first document, but 28% in the second. The difference in emphasis is 2%. So the shared emphasis is 30% - 2%, or 28%, based on the first word. The other words are also added into the result.

A slight miscalculation: This calculation had to be refined because of problems in whether it was actually measuring what was intended. Originally the calculation used the absolute value of the difference, then adjusted the original amount by that, using the calculation below. Here it shows the calculation for each of the six words listed for Document1 compared to Document2, and uses "abs()" rather than "||" to mean absolute value:
  1. fun: 30 - abs(30-28), or 30 - 2, = 28.
  2. Dick: 24 - abs(24-13), or 24 - 11, = 13.
  3. Jane: 20 - abs(20-25), or 20 - 5, = 15.
  4. Spot: 12 - abs(12-3), or 12 - 9, = 3.
  5. see: 8 - abs(8-0), or 8 - 8, = 0. (Not a shared word.)
  6. run: 6 - abs(6-0), or 6 - 6, = 0. (Not a shared word.)
Totaling those numbers, we get 28+13+15+3+0+0 = 59% shared emphasis estimate. The Shared Emphasis Estimate typically will be lower than the cruder Shared Words Estimate. This is because the Shared Words Estimate would give full weight to a match between the least-used word and the most-used word, and takes no account of differences in emphasis.

Updated calculation: The original calculation worked acceptably well for the simple and hand-made examples above, but when comparing actual documents some problems appeared. Consider percentages like the following for a pair of words:

List1: 2%, List2: 15%.  

The absolute value of the difference is 13%, and subtracting 13% from 2% we get -11%. It is then possible for a pair of words to have a negative impact, even when it appears in a significant way in both documents. Based on what I am intending to measure, the number that should be used is simply 2%, the smaller of the two numbers.

Or consider the following example:

List1: 2%, List2: 3%.  

The absolute value of the difference is 1%, and subtracting 1% from 2% we get 1%. But each document has at least 2% value for that word, so it is a more accurate reflection of what I'm intending to measure if the shared value is 2%.

The refinement to the calculation is to leave out the absolute value of the difference, and simply take the smaller of the two numbers for any given pair. This will be zero when the word is on one list but not the other, but it will never be less than zero. 
  1. fun: lesser of 30 or 28: 28.
  2. Dick: lesser of 24 or 13: 13.
  3. Jane: lesser of 20 or 25: 20.
  4. Spot: lesser of 12 or 3: 3.
  5. see: lesser of 8 or 0: 0 (Not a shared word.)
  6. run: lesser of 6 or 0: 0 (Not a shared word.)
Figuring the totals again: 28 + 13 + 20 + 3 + 0 + 0 = 64% for the shared emphasis estimate. For most of the pairs the result was the same, but now the "shared emphasis" is never less than the smaller of the two amounts, which is a more accurate measure of what that calculation is intended to show.

Further Refinements

Here I worked with two very basic (and fictitious) sample documents, where I had the prerogative of selecting the values used for the example. In real documents, another question is significant: how many words do we compare? Here we compared six words, but that was arbitrary. What is a sound method for determining how many words to include in the comparison?

Since this method is generally intended for longer works, my starting point is this: each word is added to the list in order of decreasing usage, with the most-used word being added first, followed by the second most-used word, and so forth. (Some structural words such as articles and conjunctions are typically filtered out during word counts.) When adding each new word to the word list, keep going so long as the current new word, if included, would have a value of 1% or more of the total. Once the next word would be less than 1% of the total, that's probably the point at which the additional comparison doesn't refine the result enough to be relevant. In this way, the number of words included in a list is not an arbitrary number, but is sensitive enough to respond to the different word usage characteristics of each document. At the same time, the measure remains objective to the point where the calculation could be done, content-blind, by a computer program.

I worked out the methods for calculating a Shared Emphasis Estimate by using hypothetical sample books until I had a method with an objective basis (one that could be turned into a computer program that is indifferent to the content, given the time to write the code), and that gave reasonable results.

A few potential design problems may need work. First, the 1% rule is for documents of substantial length; it is possible that it would need some amendment for shorter documents such as our mini-documents used as test cases above. I have not yet tried to compare shorter works, but the lists above suggest the problem could be real and, on a short enough document, some rarely-used words would be included simply because the word totals never reached 200, which is the tipping point for excluding words used only twice. It's possible that more of a "bell curve" approach might eventually replace the 1% rule, as something more easily scalable to different sizes of document.

Also, in larger documents especially, there may be ties in how frequently words are used: that is, more than one word might be used at the same frequency. This is common enough in larger documents, and it can happen right at the 1% boundary. In such a cluster of words of the same frequency, it is possible that the first would meet the 1% rule but the last would not if we had already added in that previous word of the same frequency. In that case, it makes no sense to show a preference for one word over another when both have the same frequency. That is to say, if the first word of a certain frequency is included under the 1% rule, then all other words of the same frequency would be included on the list because of their frequency, even if the resulting final percentage for those words might be slightly under 1% when the whole group of words is included.

A future area for exploration would be: how much can we tell about a document's content from this kind of analysis? For example, would a biography typically have the subject's name at the top of the word-frequency list? I would also be curious how different types of political and persuasive material would look, and what kinds of emphasis became apparent. I'd also see some potential for targeted word frequencies: for example, words that frequently appeared only in one portion of a document, or throughout a document but only while discussing only one recurring topic.


Next we will see how the basic approach works with actual documents instead of hypothetical ones. But that will wait for another post.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Can you measure how much are two documents alike?

In my day job as a programmer, I spend a certain amount of time analyzing data, and in the bigger projects there can be millions of records and over a billion individual fields being handled. And each individual field has to be handled correctly by specialized programming routines; designing and testing those is my job. What does that have to do with this blog? Habits carry over from one place to another, and at times I view documents -- for example the gospels, or systematic theology -- as another job in high-volume data analysis. (I know, some people think that sounds really dull. Regardless, it leads to fascinating places.)

I've done a number of word clouds on this blog. They are one way to do a quick, high-level overview of a document. The next question on my mind is: can you get an idea of how closely two documents cover the same material by comparing their word clouds? When you look at a word cloud, you see a graph of the important words for a document. The information used to create that chart is a list of words and a count of how often they appear. I've been looking at ways to take two lists for two documents and estimate how closely those two documents cover the same material. After a few tries that left much to be desired, I have a method which is promising and objective, with the important decisions being based on mathematical criteria rather than human judgment.

What could you gain with a comparison like that? You could get a rough answer to a question like, "How closely does the Gospel of Matthew cover the same material as the Gospel of Mark?" Or "How closely does the Gospel of John cover the same material as the Gospel of Matthew?" How about comparing Paul's letters to the gospels to see how closely they track each other? How about comparing the "alternative" gospels to the Bible's gospels? How about comparing a catechism or some writer's systematic theology to the gospels, or the New Testament, or the Bible as a whole? How about comparing the holy books of one religion to another, to get a feel for similarities and differences?

In upcoming posts I'm hoping to start exploring some of those questions and their answers. In a future post I will also give the mathematics and logic of how the comparison is done, for those interested. Below is the other major point for a general reader: the most important limits of the method.

Limits of the method

The first limit of the method comes from the fact that it is based on word counts: the content is summed up at the word level, without the phrases or thoughts or the relationships connecting them, without any sense of intent or purpose, logic or history. It would be possible for two authors to take very different approaches to the same concepts, and this particular method could not tell the difference if the authors used the same words at roughly the same frequency.

A second limit is the issue of synonyms and near-synonyms. Do we compare "elected" and "chosen" as the same? How about "predestined" and "foreordained"? "Walked" and "went"? Future development would include a way to factor in a weighted, partial match for near-synonyms or similar words during the matching process.

Another limit is the difficulty comparing documents at two different levels of detail. If one document discussed "oaks" and "pines" and "elms" and "maples", and another discussed "forests", this method would not see the "forests" for all the specific trees in the first document. The more different the level of detail, the more noticeable the problem becomes. For example, "Five teenagers get Saturday detention" might be a recognizable reference to the movie The Breakfast Club, but I seriously doubt that a word-cloud comparison of that phrase to the script would identify that they were talking about the same thing. A more fully-developed method would take into account how to move from the specific to the general, and what kind of detail would be the right match as you "zoom out" to higher and higher summary levels.

The method is also limited to checking for one particular type of relationship between documents: it shows documents that are probably covering the same general material. It does not cover other relationships, for example "prequel" and "sequel", "original narrative" and "commentary", or other types of relationships.

It's likely enough that more shortcomings will show themselves as we work through a few examples. But for all the limitations, it should still be a useful estimate of how much two documents cover the same topics.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Theology word clouds: "Of The Eternal Election (etc)" in Calvin's Institutes

Looking at word clouds of systematic theology, I wanted to do something parallel to the previous New Advent article on predestination. So our next stop will be Calvin's Institutes, also available on-line. The section that is on the same general topic is "Of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction". As most of my readers will know, Calvin's teachings on this subject are considered incorrect by most Christians; that is not the point of linking them here. This word cloud summarizes that part of Calvin's Institutes (top 100 words):

created at
As Calvin explains his thoughts on this topic, we see that "God", "election", and "predestination" are foremost in his mind. "Rejection" and "destruction" both make the top 100 words list. "Augustine" is well-represented (roughly as much as "Paul"). While "Augustine" and "Paul" are well-represented, we see that "Christ" does not make the 100-most-used words list; neither does "Jesus". If a word cloud allows us to see a writer's emphasis, here we can start to get an objective measure whether a writing really has the same emphasis as the Bible. Again, this is not written to pick on the Calvinists; we saw similar patterns in the Roman Catholic article on the same topic, even if they do condemn several of Calvin's teachings. Despite that, the general trend remained: when the groups were talking about predestination, they generally lost sight of Christ.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Theology word clouds: "Predestination" in the Catholic Encyclopedia

New Advent has a hugely helpful resource: the text of the Catholic Encyclopedia. (Just because I'm not Roman Catholic, that doesn't mean I'm ungrateful for the work and the resource, or won't give credit where it is due.) A few years back I did a "word cloud" project of the New Testament and its books. Part of the long-range goal of that project was to compare systematic theologies to the Bible at the summary level. Here is my first preview of the kinds of things that will become apparent. This word cloud is for the entry on Predestination in the Catholic Encyclopedia. -->
created at
We see some trends we might have predicted from the source being Roman Catholic: it mentions "merit" more than "justification", and "works" more than "faith". I was a little surprised to see "Augustine" mentioned more than "Christ". But that's the kind of thing that all kinds of groups do, when they discuss predestination: there is a tendency to look at Augustine and to lose sight of Christ. This is not meant to pick on the church of Rome; I hope to build a full set of these for all kinds of systematic theologies before I am done. But I was reading the handy article on predestination recently, and thought it would be a good place to start.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On predicting the exact date of doomsday

The end of 2012 is near -- and for decades now, 2012 has been predicted by some as the end of the world. We all know that world will end one day, whether many ages from now when the sun goes dark, or next month as some have predicted. But as for those who claim to know the day, I'd ask Christians to consider not just the well-known quote, but some of its implications:
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Mark 13:32)
Now, consider this: Jesus knew some remarkable things. He understood the Scriptures more fully than anyone before or since. He opened other peoples' minds to understand the Scriptures. He could trace all the references and all the nuances of Moses and the Psalms and the prophets. If the information about the day or the hour was hidden somewhere in the prophets, he would have known it. And if he didn't know it, then it is not there in the Scriptures, and no amount of searching them will truly discover what is not there. All the searching supposes that an answer is there, carefully concealed. But I think the answer is not concealed there at all: it's simply not there.

And for those who take literally, as I do, that Jesus is the Word of God made incarnate -- then everything that God has spoken to us, everything that God has revealed to us, everything that God has made known of his mind, is made known to us in Christ and through Christ. If the Father had revealed it, Christ would have known it. And if Christ didn't know it, it was because the Father hasn't revealed it. Again, no amount of searching or pondering will truly discover something that is not there. Again, I do not think it is a matter of being brilliant enough or godly enough or diligent enough or finding the right clue. I think the answer is simply not given, and the information needed to find the answer has not been made known. The answer is not there. That is why not even the Word of God knows the day or the hour.

When Jesus told us that the day and hour are unknown, he told us the point of this: that we should watch, and not grow lazy or careless. (Why would it be an issue with growing lazy or careless, except that the time would be longer than we would expect?) While the people naming doomsday dates are an embarrassment -- constantly exposing Christians to ridicule as the doomsday predictions fail time and again, and leading people astray, and weakening peoples' faith who actually believed their predictions -- while all these things are true against them, they do at least remind us to watch. And so as the next doomsday prediction rolls around, I'd encourage us all to do more than shake our heads at the failure of this prediction, or the next one -- I'd encourage us to go back to Jesus' words, and be ready because we do not know the day or the hour -- and to watch.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof

Over at Meta's blog, he has been discussing "extraordinary claims". The idea of "extraordinary proof" is a thing I haven't discussed for a good few years.

If you look at the argument "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof", the problem is that it creates an endless chain of proof which it makes it literally impossible to satisfy. Let's say we start with a claim that someone calls an "extraordinary" claim, and so they reserve the right to demand "extraordinary" proof. Let's say someone does then bring that extraordinary proof to our arguer. The problem is that the proof itself is "extraordinary" -- it had to be extraordinary. It was part of the conditions to satisfy the arguer that it must be extraordinary. But now, because that proof is extraordinary, the arguer says the proof that they demanded can't be believed either: it's an extraordinary claim. Watch how it works: Someone demands that the proof must be "extraordinary", and reserves the right to throw out that proof precisely because it was extraordinary, precisely because it met the conditions they set. So if you do bring extraordinary proof, it is thrown out unless it has its own proof, and that proof was also extraordinary. And if that next proof was extraordinary, the same cycle repeats all over again. That proof would also be thrown out as an extraordinary claim, as something that requires extraordinary proof of its own. The cycle continues as long as the arguer cares to play, with no way for the responder to satisfy the demands. The demands for proving the next thing would never end. If an argument sets out terms that can never be met, if it lays out conditions that can never be satisfied, it is worthless. For example:

An atheist may say "The existence of God" is extraordinary, and requires extraordinary proof. Ok, let's say God offers up extraordinary proof of his existence: like raising someone from the dead. The burden of extraordinary proof has been met. But wait, the atheist can just say he does not accept the extraordinary proof -- and he rejects it because it's extraordinary, so now he requires extraordinary proof that there really was extraordinary proof. It is a demand which is impossible to satisfy.

Now, for my own part, I don't think the existence of God is an extraordinary claim. But for all that, Jesus had an extraordinary life, and extraordinary teachings. He's all the proof I need: if he says God exists, I'll take his word for it. And if someone wants me to take their word that there isn't a God, they have to top Jesus. If they can't, then Jesus' word is the word I'll be taking for that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Funeral Service - Preparing in advance

At my age, with good luck, it may be decades before I have need of a funeral service for myself. But this past weekend after being among the mourners for a long-time member of our congregation, it occurred to me: I don't necessarily want somebody else picking the readings or hymns for the inevitable day. So, that much said:

  • For All The Saints
    Because of the beautiful picture of those of us leaving this world taking our place in heaven, and the grand finale of the Last Day. (The verses about the struggle of the current world could be omitted.)
  • Amazing Grace
    Because to many people, no Christian funeral is complete without this hymn
  • Go, My Children, With My Blessing
    Because religion is established in this world as a channel for God to bless people. The ancient priestly blessing was a sign of that purpose. And because Jaroslav Vajda could sure write a good hymn.

  • From I Kings 19: the still small voice, and the passing of the mantle to the successor
  • From I Corinthians 1: God chose the weak and foolish
  • From Matthew 5: Beatitudes (without the 'persecution' verse, unless it happened to apply to those times or my own death for some reason)

Psalm 100: "Enter into his gates with thanksgiving" -- since that's what I hope to be doing about that time.

Sermon: I'd really prefer there to be no sermon. I think simply the readings, psalm, and hymns should suffice.I may at some point write a few short comments about why I chose the readings, and I would rather it was left alone after that.

If there is any eulogy -- which may be left to the preference of the family -- let it start with Paul's comments on Christians being letters from God (2 Cor 3:3), and end with "if anyone boasts, let him boast in the Lord" (1 Cor 1:31, 2 Cor 10:17).

I may yet put together a proper order of service for the day, rather than just a few notes on the readings and songs. 

I hope this isn't too morbid for anyone. I'd be glad to hear anyone's thoughts about any uplifting funeral or memorial they had attended.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Salt of the earth: Why "seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" can backfire

"Seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" are buzzwords. They are favorite phrases used to promote changes to the church. These changes are supposed to bring in more people who are unchurched. I know that "seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" can mean different things to different people. Speaking for myself, what I usually see from "seeker-sensitive" churches is "salt that has lost its savor". If a church makes a conscious effort to be like the world, and comfortable to those in the world, and unchallenging to those in the world, then it is no different than the rest of the world. There is no barrier, now, to those who would want to come -- and there is also no point in coming.

Think about sitting down to eat, and you reach for the salt shaker. If the salt tasted just like your food already tastes, would you bother with the salt? The reason we reach for the salt shaker is because it is different from what our food already tastes like. If the salt were the same flavor as the food, it would have no value to us. (Because some people delight in picking nits, I should mention: I'm not encouraging you to over-do the salt at meals; a healthy diet requires some measure of salt.)

Those who want to make the church "seeker-sensitive" and "relevant" by watering down Jesus' teachings are possibly well-meaning, but are taking the exact opposite direction from what would help. The world is full of hurt and cynicism. It lacks a clear direction. It lacks a sense of right and wrong. It lacks a sense of the holy. If we want people to reach for us when they want a change from the world, we have to be unapologetically different from that world. We have to be what Christ called us to be: nothing more, nothing less.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

When I pray for patience (not the usual joke)

I found myself praying for patience again this week. It seems I need a lot of it, or don't have as much as I need. It occurred to me that what I'm really praying for is love. Patience comes from somewhere; Christian patience comes from love. If we love someone, we are patient with them. "Love is patient, love is kind ...". If I love someone, I am patient. So when I pray for patience, I am praying for love.

On the chance that somebody hasn't heard the usual joke about praying for patience, I'll include it here too. It pokes fun at our shallow and self-centered thoughts about building virtue: "Lord, I want patience, and I want it now!"

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election 2012: May the country be blessed

Election 2012: May the country be blessed with good leadership, renewed trust, renewed hope, and compassion with responsibility. May the finger-pointing and blamesmanship cease, and healing begin. May the leader of the nation respect the people of the opposition, for their humanity, for their citizenship, even for their different perspective. May we be slow to think ill of each other, and slower to speak it; may we put away bearing false witness against each other. May we work together to rebuild our nation.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The sheep and the goats: Where have we heard that before?

In recent posts I have looked at times when Jesus quoted Old Testament passages about the LORD in reference to himself. Here is another one that deserves consideration: 
As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.’ (Ezekiel 34:17). 
Compare this to what Jesus taught about the last day, referring to himself here, as at other times, as "the Son of Man": 
When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And all nations shall be gathered before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31-32)
Ezekiel’s prophecy is lengthy; it is well worth reading all of Ezekiel 34 in this context. It ends with “David” (King Messiah) ruling over the people. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, "David" the Messiah may simply be God's right hand: when God says “I do this”, the Messiah is actually the one through whom God works. The distinction is not always clear between God's actions and the Messiah's.

Here again, when Jesus refers back to that prophecy, he places himself as the judge -- and as the only one in all of human history in that position.Plainly enough, Jesus' claim to be the one who, at the end of history, will judge the world is a claim to uniqueness. But it goes beyond mere uniqueness. In the passage Jesus refers to as background -- a passage which would have been known to those who originally heard him -- it is the LORD -- God himself -- who is said to be the judge. Again, to say the least, the distinction is not always clear between God's actions and the Messiah's.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

"The LORD" in the era of the internet: what's with ALL CAPS

I discovered something that needed explaining to my Sunday school class. When the Bible says LORD in all caps, the "all caps" does not stand for shouting. That is what they have known basically their whole lives: WHEN YOU TYPE IN ALL CAPS IT MEANS YOU ARE SHOUTING. Just a note of things that need explaining, to people who grew up in the internet era. Back before "all caps" meant "shouting", LORD (in all caps) meant that God's actual name was used, but was considered too holy to write or pronounce. Not shouting.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

"You are my witnesses": Old Testament allusions, and the trials of life

But you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you: and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, even to the uttermost part of the earth. (Jesus, Acts 1:8)

Many of the things Jesus said contained allusions to the earlier writings of the Old Testament.
You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom  I have chosen: that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. (Isaiah 43:10)

I have declared, and have saved, and I have shown, when there was no strange god among you: therefore you are my witnesses, says the LORD, that I am God. (Isaiah 43:12)

Do not fear, neither be afraid: Have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? There is no other God; I know not any. (Isaiah 44:8)
Are there other references in the Bible to being witnesses? Sure; they generally involve legal matters or transactions. The clearest parallel to what Jesus said are the passages from Isaiah quoted above. Jesus' apostles, all Jewish, were likely to have caught the references. Once again, Jesus is recorded as saying something that parallels what God himself has said, reprising one of God's sayings in a way that makes Jesus' role parallel to God's own role.

One other point bears mentioning: God chose the language of "witnesses" for us. In this world, sometimes God is on trial, either in the court of public opinion or in an individual's mind and life. People want to know whether God is true, whether God is kind, whether God is trustworthy. They want to know whether he cares. When we notice that God is on trial, or God is accused, it is worth remembering that we are his witnesses.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The LORD be with you: Blessing, promise, and the Savior

The LORD be with you.
And also with you. 
These words are familiar to Christians who worship with the ancient liturgical words passed down through the ages and down to us today. But the history behind these words tells us something about God, and how the people thought of God, and how the early Christians saw Jesus.

The Torah tells of God himself traveling with the tribes of Israel as they came out of Egypt, as they went through the wilderness, as they came into the land where once Abraham had lived. The presence of God was part of their idea of blessing, and of revelation, and of who they were as a people. So it is not surprising that we see the presence of God adopted as a greeting:
And behold Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers, "The LORD be with you." And they answered him, "The LORD bless you." (Ruth 2:4)
That idea -- the idea of God's being with his people -- was mentioned time and again over the history of ancient Israel. I have selected only a short list of examples, but these should give some idea:
Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The LORD is with you, while you are with him; and if you seek him, you will find him. But if you forsake him, he will forsake you. (2 Chronicles 15:2)

Who is there among you of all his people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem ... (Ezra 1:3)
Seek good, and not evil, that you may live: and so the LORD, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as you have spoken. (Amos 5:14)
The Talmud says that this blessing -- the Lord being with his people -- became a standard part of the Jewish liturgy at the Temple in ancient times. That may be how the words passed on into the Christian liturgy.
At the conclusion of the Benedictions said in the Temple ... it was also laid down that greeting should be given in the Name, in the same way as it says, "And behold Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the reapers, "The LORD be with you," and they answered him, "The LORD bless you." (Berachoth 54a, older Mishnah portion)
 It was early in the Christian church that this greeting was also adopted by Christians:
The Lord be with you all. (2 Thessalonians 3:16). 

But here, in the letter to the Thessalonians, it seems likely that the "Lord" Paul speaks of is Jesus; he has been referring to Jesus as Lord throughout the letter. This blessing is given in another form fairly often in the New Testament:
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. (Romans 16:20, Romans 16:24, I Corinthians 16:23*, Philippians 4:23, 1 Thessalonians 5:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:18, Revelation 22:21)
There are some variations of the words in other places, but this isn't intended to be a catalog. This is simply to show that, early in the Christian church, the Jewish greeting "The LORD be with you" was adapted to speak of Jesus as Lord. This blessing may have been an early part of Christian worship: in all of the verses but one referenced above, the blessing is directly followed by "Amen." (*I Corinthians 16:23 is the exception, where it is simply "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all" without the "Amen".) The general use of the same blessing followed by "Amen" so often, and from more than one author, suggests that the blessing was in common use.

So far we have looked at "The Lord be with you as a greeting and a blessing." Back in the days of the Israelite prophets, sometimes the prophets also record God speaking of himself in that way, with a promise to be with his people:
Be strong, all you people of the land, says the LORD, and work: for I am with you. (Haggai 2:4)
The Great Commission records Jesus speaking very similar words.
I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
That is not a claim someone would make if he thought himself only a prophet, rabbi, or sage. It is not a claim his followers would have attributed to him, if they saw him as only a prophet, rabbi, or sage. He is recorded as speaking of himself in the same way that the LORD did. The statement assumes a certain eternity about Jesus, to make a promise of that nature. It speaks of the early church's confidence in Jesus' resurrection and continued existence, that they should take that promise to heart. And it is yet one more instance when the church showed a very high view of Jesus -- and attributed that view to Jesus' own words.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Words of encouragement: For those in prisons of their own making

In my search for healing words to keep ready for other people, for a first-aid kit for the soul, I didn't expect to look to Simon Cowell as a source. He has a reputation for being sharp-tongued. But he had some very encouraging words to speak to a man who was so obese that he was on disability, a man with a beautiful voice who was unable to get up from his wheelchair to sing simply because of his weight.

I think one of my own hardest struggles is to find the right words for the self-disabled, those whose prison is in their own mind, and of their own making -- those who keep themselves down. I have known any number of people who hold themselves hostages, whether from eating or alcohol or drugs, or the inability to handle money, or various other causes. How do you talk about that without triggering someone's defenses?

Simon Cowell had these words to say to the man who was too obese to get up from his wheelchair and sing:
When I heard you sing, I had a vision in my mind of you standing, singing that song: healthy, happy. [Response: Nodding, smiling.]
And maybe you need some inspiration to help you that next stage because it's really in you to sort this out, you understand that? [Response: "Absolutely."]
And I don't think you deserve to be stuck in that chair, I really don't. [Response: Me neither.]
But it has to come from you. [Response: "Exactly."]
And I kind of feel that if we're going to go forward, then we have to make a sort of a deal with each other, that we're both going to work hard to sort this out, yeah? [Response: (Nodding) "Exactly."]
'Cause I'll back you if you back yourself. [Response: "I'll absolutely back myself."]
That was masterfully done. He began by communicating hope and a goal: standing, singing that song. He introduced the power that comes from taking responsibility: It's in you to sort this out. He did that without using any words that the man might not be ready to hear, any words that were likely to trigger a defensive response. He made sure the man was aware of his own role in the picture before continuing ("you understand that?"), but without expressing blame or frustration. He clearly communicated his compassion and caring: I don't think you deserve to be stuck in that situation. He stepped forward and committed his own willingness to be involved -- and clearly made it depend on whether the man was willing to take that same step and put in the same effort as those who would be helping him, to meet them in the middle. He made it clear that he was willing to commit and work hard, so long as the other fellow was also willing to commit and work hard.

It was really well-done. This could work as a general pattern for talking to people who are stuck in prisons of their own making, to show them hope and a way forward.

If you'd like to see it yourself, go here and start at about 5:35 in the video.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Romans 10: Jesus and Jehovah

"Jehovah" is a name that we use in English to represent the Divine Name by which God was made known in Israel, the one that the Jews left unspoken. Sometimes we bring the same Hebrew word into English as LORD in all caps to convey the Divine Name. ("Jehovah", it is said, was a mistaken way to bring that word into English -- based on Hebrew that was written so as to remind people not to pronounce the Divine Name. If that really is the case, then "Jehovah" is oddly appropriate in protecting that Name.)

Consider a few things that Paul said in Romans 10, then. He was writing in Greek, so it is not always clear when he meant the Divine Name.
If you confess with your lips, "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Shortly after, Paul continues:
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile -- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:12-13)
Just from reading Paul, it's likely that he meant "Jesus" as the "Lord" he was referring to in both the passages quoted above. At the end of the second passage, Paul is quoting the prophet Joel. The writings of Joel are available in Hebrew, so we do know when Joel meant the Divine Name; Paul also would have known this. Based on the Hebrew, many Bibles render that passage of Joel in English like this:
Everyone who calls in the name of the LORD will be saved. (Joel 2:32)
Did Paul mean to parallel that passage from Joel, when he said:
If you confess with your lips, "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
As the saying goes, "Read the whole thing" about what Paul said. In context, there are additional reasons to believe Paul is referring to Jesus in "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Consider Paul's next point:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of him who brings good news." (Romans 10:14-15)

At the end of that passage, Paul is quoting the prophet Isaiah (52:7). Again, these words are available in the original Hebrew. I would like to point out two things about the passage Paul quotes from Isaiah. First: Paul is quoting a prophecy about announcing the return of the LORD to Jerusalem and how the whole world will see the salvation of God; that is appropriate to Paul's point about sending messengers out into the world so that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Second: That Isaiah passage is the immediate prelude to the passage of the suffering servant. That, again, is in line with Paul's point.

Paul carries much of his presentation to the Romans with quotes from the Old Testament. In some places, he is providing commentary on those passages for his readers, a Bible study as he goes along. (I could almost see it as Paul's Commentary on Isaiah and Joel in places.) While my thoughts on this are still forming, I will say: it is interesting to see how Paul sees the Scriptures that he grew up with, after learning about Jesus.