Religion for Atheists?

Dinner with Christians in New Zealand

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky… Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live. Just look around you!

-Eugene Ionesco, founder of the theater of the absurd, 1972

I recently read Alain de Botton WSJ op-ed article entitled “Religion for Everyone.”

In it he suggests importing the Christian love (agape) feast into secular society to remedy the threatened and waning sense of community apparent in postmodern life.

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Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus

Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus

At 10,587,270 views at 11 pm on only the fifth day since it was posted, the “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” YouTube video can officially be dubbed viral.

It’s amazing to me that 685 words with the right video editing and some perfectly timed musical swells can attract such a flash flood of attention. The entire video lasts but a brief 4 minutes and 4 seconds.

For counterpoint:

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was 2,633 words and were nailed to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. No lute was playing in the background for dramatic effect.

The United States Declaration of Independence was 1,458 words.

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the third longest novel in Latin or Cyrillic alphabets, stands at 1.5 million words and is today creating considerably less a stir. Apparently then, length does not necessarily equal impact. The internet is a different kind of physics.

In fact, it’s very probable that if Jefferson Bethke’s video had been much longer, many people wouldn’t have watched it to the end. But the visual stimulus and moving music appealed to more than just the “relevant” followers of Jesus.

Beyond the appeal to the senses there is the more significant appeal to reason, history, and the Bible.

The thesis sentence seems to be “Jesus came to abolish religion.”

Notable themes are: judgmentalism, self-righteousness, objective teachings that don’t transform, mere rule-following, hypocrisy, works and self-merit. Jesus and the apostles surely touched on all these themes in the New Testament (Matthew 7:1, Romans 2:1, 21-23, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Matthew 15:7-8, Galatians 2:16)

In the deluge of blog responses and their comments, some have come to the defense of religion. Clearly we need some definition of religion in mind then to proceed.

What is Religion?

My working definition of religion comes from Witness Lee and is “the attempt to do something for God apart from Christ.”

Thus, not only is legalism religion but loving people apart from Christ is religion. Zealous works apart from Christ is religion. Patience apart from Christ is religion. Kindness apart from Christ is religion. Anything that is not the result of the subjective experience of Christ living in you may very well be religion.

Galatians is a book that combats religion, and here Paul uses such expressions as “reveal His son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16), “Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), and “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).

In this sense, Jesus did not come to abolish one religion (Judaism) to establish another religion (Christianity). Christ came to release His divine life into His believers to form the church as His organic Body for His practical, corporate expression. This is His eternal purpose and it is absolutely outside religion.

Let us therefore go forth unto Him outside the camp… –Hebrews 13:13

The History of Judaism

To trace the history of the children of Israel is a lesson in religion. It’s beyond the scope of this post but it’s an enlightening survey- how man went from direct fellowship with God, to indirect fellowship (yet still genuine and in faith) with God through the tabernacle with the offerings and the priesthood, to (generally) degraded traditionalism without much heart for God. What began as a vital contacting of God in faith ultimately became a religion of man.

The synagogue itself became the epicenter of the persecution that Jesus and the apostles experienced.

And departing from there, He came into their synagogue. And behold, a man who had a withered hand was there. And they asked Him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, What man will there be among you who will have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath. Then He said to the man, Stretch out your hand. And he stretched it out and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees, going out, took counsel against Him as to how they might destroy Him. –Matthew 12:9-14

And all in the synagogue were filled with anger when they heard these things, and they rose up and cast Him out of the city and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built so that they might throw Him down the cliff. –Luke 4:28-29

His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him to be the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. –John 9:22

And beware of men, for they will deliver you up to sanhedrins, and in their synagogues they will scourge you. –Matthew 10:17

Ultimately Judaism became formal in letter, deadening in quenching the Spirit, killing in man’s communication with God in life, and contending with the gospel of Christ in God’s New Testament economy. If it happened with Judaism in the Old Testament could it happen with segments of Christianity in the New Testament?

What should we do about it then? What do you want to change? Do you want people to do more to reach out to the homeless? Do you want people to be more tolerant and accepting of others? Do you just want people to unwind a little and not be such sticklers? These may all be good things. But the only thing that can save us from religion is the subjective experience of Christ as life.

Psalm 24: the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Coming King

This has been a tumultuous year.

The events of December 18, 2010 set off the Arab Spring nearly on the eve of the new year. The distrust, disgust, and dissatisfaction with the current economic, political, and social conditions quickly spread throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa.

Tunisia and Egypt both ousted their long-standing presidents and overthrew the governments (Ben Ali for 24 years and Mubarak for 30 years). Libya erupted in civil war resulting in the fall of its long-standing regime under Gaddafi for 42 years.

Of course Uncle Sam has been reeling with his own financial problems and political dissidence. People are unemployed, foreclosed upon, living with little or no health insurance, and in major debt. They are the 99%.

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Steve Jobs’ On-Off Switch and Eternity in Man’s Heart

It has been a month since Steve Jobs’ death. The talking heads have had their lime light, the biography has been released, and the tributes have been turned down to a simmer.

Before this passes out of the realm of current events and sinks into the internet’s vast catalog of oblivion, I want to make one more observation on Steve Jobs’ life.

The absence of an on-off switch on Apple devices is more than a design feature. It’s a life philosophy. It has been said that Steve Jobs didn’t put on-off switches on his products because he didn’t like the thought that at the end of a successful, influential life a person is just gone- put eternally in the off position.

“Ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about (God) more. And I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe it’s because I want to believe in an afterlife. That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear,” Isaacson quoted Jobs as saying.

“Then he paused for a second and he said ‘yeah, but sometimes I think it’s just like an on-off switch. Click and you’re gone,” Isaacson said of Jobs. “He paused again, and he said: And that’s why I don’t like putting on-off switches on Apple devices.”

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Steve Jobs, the Gospel of Technology, and the Hope of Humanity (2)

Technology is like bamboo, it’s an invasive species.

I wish there had been a way to set up a worldwide time-elapsed camera taking shots for the last 10 years. I think if we could watch this film we would notice a progressive yet definite change in head posture (maybe you can see it on Google maps street view). Everyone is looking down at their phones.

Smart phones are beginning to rival God in some ways- they’re increasingly “omnipresent”, “omnipotent”, and “omniscient”. Maybe they don’t attain to omni status, but at least they’re ubiquitous, they function intelligently as diverse powerful tools, and they are fully integrated with the internet’s 8.04 billion websites and Wikipedia’s 3,785,993 articles.

Does this amount to a gospel? Everything you ever needed is now available at your finger tips. Just swipe your finger with the slightest touch and it all comes alive. As powerful as the iPhone 4S is with the new dual-core A5 chip, it is powerless against man’s fallen nature. It has no saving power.

Our grandchildren may discover that technological progress, for all its gifts, is the exception rather than the rule. It works wonders within its own walled garden, but it falters when confronted with the worst of the world and the worst in ourselves.

-Andy Crouch

Many people have more of a relationship with their phone than with their Maker. Not only is this a reversal of the logical order (iPhone -> Steve Jobs -> God), this is turning a cold-shoulder to your Husband.

For your Maker is your Husband…

-Isaiah 54:5

As such, a smart phone can begin to replace God in our experience. The time we used to give to the Lord first thing in the morning now may go to our phone. I know I’ve reached for my phone in the morning before reaching for God more than once.

Don’t get me wrong. Technology can be used by the Lord for His purpose. Of course. And I think we need to find more ways to do this.

But the other concern is equally valid.

This isn’t about redeeming an aspect of modern culture. It’s about faith, love, and hope (1 Cor. 13:13). What do we trust in? What do we love? What do we hope for?

The YouVersion Bible app has been downloaded 30 million times since it came out 4 years ago. Angry Birds has it beat by a factor of 16. The game has been downloaded 500 million times and it has been out for only half the time.

YouVersion Bible readers have posted 11,625,190,000 minutes to date.

Angry Bird players have posted 219,000,000,000 minutes to date.

That’s 200,000 years of playing Angry Birds! Again in half the time too.

How much we love the Lord can be measured in part by how much time we give Him. That’s why we need to redeem the time. Not because the days are morally evil, but because all we have is time that is constantly slipping away.

In this evil age (Gal. 1:4) every day is an evil day full of pernicious things that cause our time to be used ineffectively, to be reduced, and to be taken away. Therefore, we must walk wisely that we may redeem the time, seizing every available opportunity. To understand the will of the Lord is the best way to redeem our time (v. 16). Most of our time is wasted because we do not know the will of the Lord.

-footnotes on Ephesians 5:16-17, Recovery Version Bible

Steve Jobs, the Gospel of Technology, and the Hope of Humanity (1)

Since his passing, Steve Jobs has been called a saint, a secular prophet, and a technological evangelist.

On paper, he was just a successful CEO who designed computers and phones. No doubt one that changed not only technology but also the world. He faithfully delivered “magical” products that rarely disappointed. He turned a utilitarian object into something like a friend. One study showed that many people’s attachment to their iPhone reaches romantic levels. They experience separation anxiety if they walk out of the house without it.

Naturally people projected their love of the iPhone onto the creator of the iPhone.

But by no means is he the first to be memorialized with such religious devotion, candid scrutiny, and world-wide attention. Princess Diana and Michael Jackson both went through the same thing. To say “they” went through it isn’t altogether accurate because they weren’t alive anymore, but in another sense they did go through it because their lives were larger than the molecules that made them up.

Make no mistake about it, the veneration we are seeing in the aftermath of Jobs’ death is religious through and through – not “kinda” religious, or “pseudo” religious,” or “mistakenly” religious, but a genuine expression for many of heartfelt sacred sentiments of loss and glorification.

-Gary Laderman

Apple products gave people hope, and this became Steve Jobs’ version of the gospel. They constantly and distinctly improved, not only in technical specs but in user experience. They became less cumbersome. They began to add a fluidity to our lives that tied everything together, magically.

The hope people imbued in the evolution of iPhone became very apparent when the anticipated iPhone 5 turned out to be just a 4S. People wanted something more, new, and transformative. They hoped that technology would provide an ever-developing salvation from the aging, slowing, and decaying effects of fallen flesh. Surely a new iPhone meant new promises, new advances, new releases.

Some have seen the early apple logo as a symbolic proclamation of this gospel. A bitten apple imprinted with a rainbow. Both are Biblical allusions. The bitten fruit, a sign of man’s rebellion and fall from God’s purpose and the rainbow, a sign of God’s promise to man to keep His covenant. The combination of the two applied to a computer company logo heralds technology’s ability to annul the curse. Or even worse to convert the fall of man into a promise of improvement.

Technology promises to relieve us of the burden of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world.

-Albert Borgmann

Technology promises that while human life may get worse, it will always get better. It certainly has made life easier. But has it caused us to misplace our hope? Has it merely masked the symptoms of a deeper illness?

The gospel of Steve Jobs may give people temporary hope or distraction from the impermanence of life, but it can’t save people.

Having been regenerated not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, through the living and abiding word of God. For “all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass has withered, and the flower has fallen off, But the word of the Lord abides forever.” And this is the word which has been announced to you as the gospel.

-1 Peter 1:23-25

The only recourse we have to our fading humanity is the living and abiding word of God. Only God’s word has the life power to enliven us and change our nature, making us living and abiding forever.

On Language, the Bible, and Blog Posts

Although all humans share the creative use of language, it seems that not all of us are using it. Especially in today’s social-media saturated world, where the ephemeral nature of conversation is touted, the art of writing well or of producing something to be read at length is vanishing. This is most alarming to writers, but also to the rest of us who still want to communicate beyond chat boxes, text messages, or the 140 characters of a tweet.

Many people don’t actually read anymore, they scan. The difference is whether or not you are actively processing information and emotionally responding to it or whether you’re just getting an eye exercise out of the event.

In writing a blog you want to find some means to engage your reader. And if you are blogging about what really matters this is all the more important. Style, rhythm, vocabulary, syntax, metaphor are all part of the linguistic devices that can accomplish this. The goal is not to merely communicate information. This could be done more efficiently through bulleted lists, and it certainly would demand less of the reader. But there is something to the creative manipulation of words that is worth our effort.

Christ Himself in His eternal preexistence is the Logos or Word. The written Word of God came to us authored by God as a book, not as a neatly packaged creed or a logically ordered outline. Even truths such as justification or the nature of God are not collected altogether for our convenience. No book of the Bible is entitled, On Knowing God or The Basics of Salvation. The divine truths are scattered and hidden throughout all 66 books of the Bible like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, “here a little, there a little (Isaiah 28:10).”

Even the two original languages, Hebrew and Greek, that were employed to pen the Scriptures seem ordained by God.

The Old Testament is a figurative portrait of God’s eternal economy and the Hebrew language is perfectly suited to accomplish this. Hebrew is a pictorial language in which events are not merely described but verbally painted. It is vivid, concise, and simple and relies more on observation than reflection. With Psalm 23:1, English requires 9 words to translate the 4 Hebrew words. The entire chapter in Hebrew only contains 55 words, where as most English versions need 113.

The New Testaments is the practical fulfillment of God’s eternal economy as the caption under the picture, describing the reality, in Christ, of what was typified in the Old Testament, and Greek again fits the bill. The distinguishing characteristics of the Greek language are its strength, clarity, and richness. It is well suited for the doctrinal precision that elucidates the divine realities. For example, the definite article alone can inflect 24 different ways according to gender, number, and case. The result is loaded sentences that are tagged with lots of information to clarify what is being modified, referred to, who is doing the action, etc. Not much is left to guess work.

A great example is Ephesians 6:17,

And receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Most people think the word of God here refers back to the sword, aka that the word of God is the sword. And people casually refer to the Bible as their sword, “Don’t come to church without your sword.” However, the Greek makes it clear that the relative pronoun ‘which’ refers to the Spirit. This means that the Spirit is the word of God! This understanding opens a whole vista of revelation. Thanks to Greek, this is possible.

If God took great care to communicate His eternal purpose to humanity through human language, we should at least strive for the same in ministering the word. I’m not advocating rigid, stuffy formalism or technical jargon. Just a healthy dose of encouragement to practice developing our skill to convey God’s word whether through conversation or blogging.

Kevin DeYoung had a great article recently on writing well for those blogging about the divine truths. Here’s a preview:

All of us appreciate good writing. We may not know that, and if we know that we probably don’t know why. But we all prefer to read something written well. There’s a way to communicate the truth and have it sound muddled. There’s a way to make it understandable. And then there’s a way to make it sing. That’s the difference between clear prose and great prose.

Culture in Colossians

“We ought not to suppose that what is divine is like gold or silver or stone, like an engraving of art and thought of man.”

-Acts 17:29

I found these style descriptions on a promo website when the W Hotel in Dallas was under construction. I think they were trying to say that the W appeals to all style dispositions, no matter how your chromosomes are wired. Obviously they have made selective reductions in the style spectrum. Which one are you?

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