Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of the Blogroll: 2011

Here to ring out the old year and celebrate another year of excellence in Christian blogging. You all have my heartfelt appreciation as you keep on blogging. It takes a lot of dedication. While I may not comment often, please know that I'm reading along and am enriched by it. Thank you all for blogging! Here are some highlights of the year:

Once again thanks to everyone for blogging. A few of the folks on the blogroll have become mostly inactive; hope to see you all soon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Debater's code of ethics

I have been thinking that Christians should adopt a higher standard of morals when it comes to debate.

Consider the typical debate. There are carelessly-researched items reported as facts, distortions in how information is presented, selective use of evidence. There are questionable techniques such as character attacks, or conveniently placed displays of anger or shock that may be used tactically. Regardless of how common these things are, should a Christian engage in them?

I think Christians would do well to develop a full-fledged ethics code covering conduct during a debate. It would make debates more productive. It would lead to deepening mutual respect among Christians rather than deepening divisions and hostilities. It would also - let's not forget the big picture - keep us from sinning quite so often. We do want to behave ethically, don't we?

Here is a first shot at a debater's code of ethics.

Debater's Code of Ethics

Preface: The goal of a debate is to firmly establish which position has the most merit. Any conduct that does not live up to Christlike standards weakens the position of Christianity, regardless of which side wins the particular debate in question.

  1. Nothing should be presented as fact unless the debater has personally checked the original source material and verified its accuracy.
  2. The debater should present facts accurately, without stretching or distorting the information.
  3. The debater should never present facts in a way different than how they appear to him, or deny the reality of his own hesitations in order make his position seem stronger than he himself feels it to be.
  4. The debater should honestly review all evidence and arguments, being more willing to change his views, acknowledge a mistake, or even lose a debate than to engage in dishonesty.
  5. The debater should not smear, mock, belittle, or otherwise disparage the character of his opponent, or engage in any form of character attack.
  6. The debater should be familiar with logical fallacies and should completely reject their use, regardless of any tactical advantage that might be gained by them.
  7. The debater should not engage in tactical displays of anger, outrage, shock, or sorrow, or make other theatrical displays intended to play the emotions of the onlookers or distract from the lack of an adequate response.
  8. The debater should assume the honesty, integrity, and good faith of the opponent.
  9. If the opponent makes a mistake of fact or logic, or engages in unethical debating tactics, these are to be answered with honesty and good faith, leaving a clear conscience.
  10. The debater should give a fair hearing to his opponent and should be willing to change his views, not allowing himself to become blinded by partisanship or ego, or prevented from taking the best course by fear of embarrassment.
  11. The debater should develop his skills and knowledge so that he can support his position solidly, state his position clearly, and defend his position honestly.
  12. The debater should always be civil and respectful: in victory, gracious and free of arrogance; in defeat, showing good sportsmanship and holding steadfastly to the truth.

What have I forgotten? Or what changes does that need?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas. Jesus is the reason that Christian homes and Christian hearts are marked by faith, hope, and love. God is good.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jesus, Name above all names: Series index

Here is the index for the series on Jesus, name above all names

And here is the companion post about how "Jesus, name above all names" is the theme of the evangelists and the epistles, and how our call to evangelize means witnessing to that truth:

Name above all names: The gospels, the epistles, and what it means to evangelize

One underlying message of the gospels and epistles of the New Testament is: Jesus is the name above all names. "Name above all names" is a familiar quote from one of Paul's letters:
So God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name that is above all names: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
That sums up one of the main points of the New Testament.

The four biographies of Jesus have nearly every event showing us a way in which Jesus is more excellent than anyone else who has ever walked this earth. The disciples recall their amazement and wondering, "Who is this?" The disciples recall the crowds listening to Jesus and being amazed at him, never having heard anything like it. His miracles are along the same lines. Of all the prophets of old, and all the teachers of religion, no one else healed such steady stream of people suffering from every kind of illness or disability. Never had anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. Each event shows a new facet of Jesus' uniqueness -- even the teachings. The Beatitudes, the sheep and the goats, the prodigal son, the Good Samaritan -- these are all one demonstration after another that there is no one like Christ, no one who has ever taught like this. Even the accounts of his death show the prophets' words fulfilled and his breathtaking kindness to his executioners. He did not merely teach forgiveness, but lived it. We probably could have understood if he had said forgiveness had met its limit when facing death by torture after being convicted on unjust charges. But he didn't abandon forgiveness even then; he was still the merciful one. The more we look at Jesus, the more we understand how unique he is. Jesus' resurrection is a seal to what we already knew: there hasn't been anybody like him.

The epistles focus on Jesus' excellence: Writing to Corinth, Paul explains how he is determined to know nothing else but Christ crucified as he preaches. The letter to the Hebrews spends chapter after chapter explaining how Jesus is greater than Moses, the new covenant greater than the old covenant, the new sacrifice greater than the old sacrifices, the new high priest greater than the old high priest. The letter started by explaining how Jesus is even above the angels. John's first letter puts things in very simple terms: He who has the Son of God has life, and he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

The good news, then, is Christ.

There are many Christians who feel an obligation to evangelize -- or feel an obligation to justify why they do not evangelize. But what does an evangelist say? To take our thoughts from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: An evangelist explains how Jesus is the name above all names. An evangelist explains Jesus' excellence, his unsurpassed goodness, his unique authority to speak of the things of God -- and that he can save us from the futile, hopeless, dead-end lives that we have without him. We explain that Jesus can transform us into someone more like him. We explain the blessings that Jesus brings.

Evangelism is simply explaining how Jesus is the name above all names, and how every spiritual blessing is found in Christ. We Christians are faced with people who are tired of the cliches they have heard as evangelism, and tired of evangelism that is more about our scripted talking points than about Jesus. As Christians, here is the question to us as evangelists: Can we explain how Jesus is the name above all names?

Jesus rose from the dead

We can debate religion all day, and the debate may not clarify anything. But actions speak louder than words. Jesus' resurrection makes things plainer than a debate ever could. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that God exists, and that he acts in this world. In raising Jesus, he has singled him out for an honor that no "great teacher" before or since has ever had. Anyone looking for a sign from God about "Which great teacher do I follow?" already has a sign: Look for the one that God raised to life again. God has given faith to all people by raising Christ from the dead.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reading Jesus' words is a religious experience

Jesus, more than anyone else in human history, speaks about the things of God with authority, knowledge, and credibility.

Jesus explained what the kingdom of heaven is like at length. He sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about. But that was not the only time when his knowledge was plain to see.

Anyone who speaks to a Jewish crowd, to people who are followers of Moses, and claims to surpass the Law of Moses -- he had better have something good to follow through on that claim. And Jesus did. They believed him and considered that there might be a more excellent way.

Anyone who speaks to people who hope for a resurrection -- or debate the reality of the resurrection -- and claims to know exactly how the Last Day will happen, had better have something good to say. Again, he did. He gave a detailed description of the Last Day that is at the same time believable, just, and desirable. Hearing his teaching doesn't inspire arguments about its justness; its justice is self-evident. What it inspires is awe. The people who first heard him noticed. They were amazed at his teachings, because he spoke as one having authority.

In the beatitudes, some of the blessings Jesus proclaimed were bold promises: the pure in heart shall see God; the meek shall inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied; those who mourn will be comforted. Anyone who claims to know the heart of God, and to know what God will do in the future, better have something good. And Jesus did. The blessings meet and even exceed our sense of rightness, that this is how things should be. God's goodness surpasses our hopes, and restores our confidence enough to hope.

Many people go to religion or spirituality looking for a religious experience; the surest way I know to have a religious experience is to read what Jesus said.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jesus has the highest and most beautiful morality yet articulated by anyone

How long does an accomplishment stay in the world's memory as the best the world has ever seen? Most things that were done or said in the ancient past have been surpassed many times since then. As they say, even a midget who stands on the shoulders of giants may see farther than the giants. So even if a modern thinker is not as impressive as someone who came before, still the modern thinker has the advantage: we know already what the ancients discovered, and can start forward from where they finished.

Except that hasn't really happened with Jesus and his moral teachings. He still stands alone, with teachings that have not been surpassed. Many converts to Christianity mention the beauty and power of Jesus' teachings. And those who have tried to surpass him have not been equal to the task.

Jesus has the highest and most beautiful morality yet articulated on this earth. His words are memorable and vivid, simple and clear. They have a depth that has not yet been exhausted over the years. His teachings are pure in calling for what is good. His teachings are timeless, as powerful today as when they were first spoken. While focusing on love, the teachings are not sentimental, but instead require courage. One early Jewish follower called Jesus' priorities "a more excellent way".

For those who have not read his teachings this will seem like too much praise. Those who have loved his teachings will know that much more could be said.

And Jesus' teachings can redeem. Most moral leaders are only speaking to those who already wish to be good. Jesus' teachings were shown to reach the hearts of even traitors, thieves, and prostitutes, creating the desire to leave behind their wasted lives and turn around. Jesus' words give us the hope of redemption. His teachings restore our souls.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jesus' life is the world's most serious evidence of the supernatural

There are lots of people who say there is nothing beyond this physical, material world. If there is a supernatural, shouldn't there be some evidence for it?

In my lifetime sometimes I've heard stories of miraculous healings -- but nothing on the level that would be considered proof or demonstration of the supernatural. I hear rumors of things far away -- but for things where we can easily imagine a natural healing, or the witnesses are not brought forward, or the person healed isn't brought forward, or the original illness couldn't be established. Even going back into history, the evidence for miracles is generally weak -- with one notable exception.

There are a series of miracles attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, reported by his contemporaries in detail. Many of Jesus' miracles took place in crowds, where his followers may not have known the people who were healed. But there are others where the disciples passed down more information. Bartimaeus in Jericho was blind and had his sight restored. Lazarus in Bethany had died and was buried, and was raised from the dead. In Capernaum, the daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler was raised from the dead. Peter's own mother-in-law was healed.

The early Christian church continued to look at these known miracles as showing Jesus' uniqueness. Quadratus, an early Christian, wrote:
Our Savior’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Savior was among us, but for a long time after his departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time. (The quote from Quadratus is preserved in Eusebius’ History 4.3).
That's the kind of thing that you look for in order to believe a miracle.

An interesting thing occurred when Jesus' enemies tried to discredit him: they did not try to deny that miracles had occurred. An ancient Jewish writing, the Talmud, speaks of Jesus as a sorcerer. They tried to claim that Jesus' miracles were acts of evil. It would have been much simpler for them to deny the miracles ever happened, if they could.

Even today, in cultures that are more open-minded about what is beyond this physical world, Christians can boldly point to miracles as a way to show that Jesus is unique. You can read the entire Koran without hearing of Mohammed healing anyone, or raising the dead. Likewise Confucius and Lao Tzu and even King Solomon are not exactly known for their miracles. As mentioned before, that's not to say anything against Confucius or King Solomon; just that "one greater than Solomon is here."

But for our culture, we might do better to explain it to a skeptic the other way around: Do you assume there is nothing beyond this world because you have not heard good evidence of a miracle? Jesus' life gives us the world's most serious evidence of miracles. There are details of the conversations that took place, records of the confrontations about whether certain miracles were actually "evil". These things really happened, according to more than just Jesus' followers; also according to those who thought Jesus was out of line to do some of these things. The records of Jesus' life have to be read with an open mind. It is begging the question to bring in pre-conceptions that there is nothing beyond this physical world, before seeing the best evidence for yourself.

But shouldn't our skeptic be able to see evidence of the supernatural in all kinds of places, not just in Jesus? Not necessarily; there is another possibility: that Jesus really is unique.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Jesus comes across as more fully human

Can you picture Mohammed providing wine for a wedding feast? No, neither can I. How many founders of world religions would pick up children and bless them, insisting that little children are worth his notice and his time? How many "great teachers" are remembered by their followers for how often they had dinner with friends, and were widely sought after not only for their wisdom but also for their companionship?

Jesus is the only person we reckon as a "great teacher" who makes a claim to be Son of God in a unique sense; so it may seem ironic that he comes across as the most fully human. Many religious people -- especially self-consciously religious people -- seem to have character distortions that make them come across as less fully human. The character distortions are not despite their religion -- it is specifically because of their type of religion that they become reclusive, or ascetic, or harsh, or judgmental, or aloof, or detached from those who love them, or consumed with abstractions, or cliquish, or controlling, or obsessive, or partisan, or cold, or continually concerned with particular religious observances. They may only be excessively bookish, to the extent that they neglect human fellowship. They may become meditative to the point where they not only lose the joy of life, but reject that joy as wrong. Their religiosity seems to take away from their humanity, not fulfill it. Jesus makes it plain that he wants his followers to have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus comes across as fully human: when we look at him, we notice what more we could be. Jesus' wisdom did not drive out his warmth, and came with a down-to-earth humility. His righteousness was the type that lifts up others rather than putting them down. He had a love for friends. We see him at a wedding feast celebrating with those who celebrate. In Jesus, we see what a human being can be. It is because of his deep humanity that so many people have longed to be transformed into his image and become more like him.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Jesus' morality has a focus: love

Some moral codes are sets of laws without a clear focus. Other moral codes have a focus like following the right path or becoming a noble person -- but the direction of the right path may not be well-defined; what makes someone a noble person may again lead to an unfocused list of principles and goals to attain.

With Jesus, the right path is defined in terms of love. Of all the commands his people already had in their moral code, he singled out these as the greatest: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. He also summed up: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," adding, "This is the law and the prophets" (the whole of the divine commands). As an early Jewish convert said, "Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

Basing morality on love makes a big difference in how morality is lived. Love cannot be cold or joyless. It forbids us from dehumanizing each other, even in the name of "the greater good" -- especially in the name of the greater good, if that greater good is love. It prevents viewing and treating people as enemies. It leads us towards companionship and fellowship. It causes us to know each other and build ties in common with each other. It is fulfilled in friendship and family, in hospitality and in knowing our neighbors. It is a living, growing source of goodwill.