Friday, May 19, 2006

America's Imminent Perfect Storm

As spring turns toward summer and the fall elections march ever nearer, winds of change are blowing across this nation, auguring a critical moment in American history. Once, this nation had farsighted leaders who could grasp the reins in a time of crisis and guide the country through its peril to a better, brighter future. The Founding Fathers led the newly independent nation through revolution and its first toddling steps. Though we may not agree with the means they used or the political perspectives they espoused, men like Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, and others brought the United States to prominence, power, and prosperity despite the doughty forces arrayed against it.

Is there a leader in the wings who will have the fortitude to face the coming crisis? Perhaps there is, though it appears that he has not shown his face in public. It is reminiscent of the prophetic thought in Isaiah 3:1-7, in which all the real leaders of the nation are gone, and of those who remain, no one wants to step forward and take responsibility to correct the sorry state of affairs. Verses 8-9 explain why they are in such a mess:

For Jerusalem stumbled, and Judah is fallen, because their tongue and their doings are against the LORD, to provoke the eyes of His glory. The look on their countenance witnesses against them, and they declare their sin as Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to their soul! For they have brought evil upon themselves.

Over time, the cumulative sins of a nation's people pile so deep that their weight drags down the whole nation. Everyone becomes caught in the crisis, and the prudent person, seeing calamity on the horizon, hides himself (Proverbs 22:3; 27:12). This means a person takes precautions to survive the coming storm, yet the downside of this survival mentality is that few want to take on the additional burden of responsible, positive leadership. As the man in Isaiah 3:7 says, declining the offer of rulership, "I cannot cure your ills, for in my house is neither food nor clothing; do not make me a ruler of the people."

There is a perfect storm gathering strength and whirling into position over America. According to Wikipedia, "A perfect storm is any only-remotely-possible disastrous confluence of singly innocuous events. In such a situation, it is clear that if any one element had been displaced in time or space the result would have been far less powerful, but because just the right things were in the mix and with just the right timing, the situation ballooned." We are witnessing the thunderheads building on at least six fronts: cultural, social, religious, political, military, and economic. Any one of them is bad enough, but as a powerful, wealthy nation, we could probably handle it. However, the convergence of all these factors—and perhaps more—makes a truly successful outcome doubtful.

Culturally, this nation is wallowing in filth. We sell sex and its paraphernalia as if they were cars, furniture, or soap. Pornography is rampant in magazines, television, adult stores, and on the Internet, bringing its purveyors billions of dollars. Our streets are full of crime and drug use. We kill a million unborn children each year through abortion. Our music, language, fine art, and dance have degenerated into perverse imitations of their more beautiful ancestors.

Socially, we are on the brink of coming apart at the seams. The white majority is split along political and economic lines, while large numbers of Blacks and Hispanics are seething at their often-perceived and sometimes-real inequality. Allowing in millions more immigrants over the next several years will only exacerbate this growing divide.

Religiously, America is adrift. In fact, it is far more accurate to say that America is almost entirely secular and humanist, not religious. There is little religious conviction left in most people, and what is left cannot muster the energy to do more than mount a milquetoast protest.

Politically, the country is divided along partisan lines, while a few moderates or centrists swing back and forth to garner votes to ensure reelection. None of the major politicians in America has the intestinal fortitude to do what is right and good for the country because such solutions are difficult and may not produce visible results before the next election. Even when no-brainer legislation comes across their desks, they fail to act in the country's best interests (for example, yesterday's downing of legislation in the House to allow offshore drilling in order to become more energy-independent; Congressmen whined that it would scare away tourist dollars).

Militarily, America’s armed forces are too few, stretched thin, and exhausted. They may be doing a fine job, but the United States is not prepared to defend itself or its principles on another front. It is not clear how well-supplied our forces are with materiel, but the fact that up-armored vehicles and Kevlar vests are not ubiquitous among our frontline troops is troubling. Besides this, the latest sniping at the Commander-in-Chief by several retired general officers suggests a deep morale problem among its leadership.

Economically, we live in Bubble Land. We have enjoyed a sustained, positive economic wave for many years, and each year that it continues bodes darkly that the crash, when it comes, will be jarring. Debt, personal and public, is piling up as never before. The government runs continual deficits. The housing market is due for a downturn (though the Federal Reserve Chairman promises it will be a "soft landing"). Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements are not going to be solvent much longer. Finally, we have lost much of our manufacturing base, which in the past has helped us through the hard times.

Sadly, few, if any, of these problems are being addressed, much less solved. Everyone moans that his hands are tied, which may be code for, "I'm not going to be the one who has to take the fall for this!" Many people are sniping and sneering at the other side, criticizing them for doing nothing and having no ideas, while doing nothing themselves. There are no leaders on the scene or on the horizon.

Perhaps I am just being overly pessimistic. I hope I am. Yet, I keep repeating in my mind the words of Thomas Jefferson, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that [H]is justice cannot sleep forever."

Friday, May 12, 2006

'Arguments Over Words'

During my daily commute to and from the office, a trip of just under fifteen minutes, I usually have my radio tuned to WBT and its talk shows, but on occasion I have the pleasure of listening to a book on tape (in this case, on CD). Presently, I am devouring a wonderful book by Simon Winchester titled The Meaning of Everything. Its subject is the history of the Oxford English Dictionary, a potentially dry subject if there ever was one. However, Winchester manages to weave an intriguing story, not only of the gargantuan book's long progress itself, but also of its colorful characters—originators, editors, contributors, and publishers. While some of it can be tedious at times, it is a truly remarkable story.

As many know, I have always been interested in words—in fact, I make my living with words. I began to read fairly early and quickly, and I have continued to read voluminously ever since. Early on—I cannot recall how early exactly—I began to notice similarities among words and learned to break them down into prefix, root, and suffix, and thus to spot probable origins and basic meanings. I am probably among a very small minority of people who owns a handful of etymological dictionaries and word books and actually sits down to read them from time to time. Yes, I will admit it: I am a strange bird.

Nevertheless, my peculiar interest has stood me in good stead in the work I do as an editor and writer. Though I am obviously not perfect, I can often spot nuances of meaning in my own or another's writing and make edits that are helpful to the reader's comprehension of the subject under discussion. In terms of preparing sermons, I often find myself spending inordinate amounts of time researching the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word that has some connection to my proposed subject—and often that unintended excursion leads to a whole new direction of thought. To me, it is a fascinating process.

This process, however, has its dark side, and I am just as capable of crossing over to it as the next guy is, though perhaps due to my experience I may be more careful. Paul warns Timothy about teachers who are "proud, knowing nothing, but [are] obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wrangling of men of corrupt minds and destitute of truth . . ." (I Timothy 6:4-5). "Arguments over words" can get a teacher into great trouble and actually lead him away from the doctrine of Jesus Christ. So it is that Herbert Armstrong cautioned the church in days past not to hang a doctrine on the definition of a Greek or Hebrew word, but rather let the preponderance of Scripture—particularly the clear verses—define the correct, godly meaning.

In fact, I recently received an admonitory email about the church's use of the word "Bible." Believe it or not—and these days people seem to believe just about anything—there are some in the Christian world who are teaching that "Bible" is a word of pagan origin and thus should not be uttered by God-fearing individuals. The argument goes that "Bible" originates in the name of a pagan god or goddess, and the evil "they," nudged along by Satan himself, have managed to convince the whole world to use this awful word to name God's own Book.

Would that these people had cared to crack open any respected etymological dictionary for the truth!

The word "Bible" is not of pagan origin. "Bible" derives from Byblos, the Greek name of the Phoenician city, Gebal. The Greeks called this city Byblos due to its importance in the bublos ("Egyptian papyrus") trade. Because they were made of papyrus, books were called biblia by the Greeks, and from a Christian point of view, the greatest collection of Greek writings is what we call the Bible.

Gebal, the Phoenician name of the city, is a Semitic word that generally means a "line," as in a line of mountains or a straight coastline. Whatever it described about this city, "Gebal" is not the name of a pagan deity. Anciently, this Phoenician port's patron deity was named Ba'al Gebal or a Ba'alat Gebal (which mean "Lord of Gebal" or "Lady of Gebal," respectively). In either case, "Gebal" is not the pagan god's/goddess' proper name but merely denotes his/her place of residence: Gebal. This may be the fact that has led some to leap to the conclusion that "Bible" is a word of pagan origin. However, as above, Byblos ("papyrus," book) is a completely different word in a quite dissimilar language from Gebal ("line"), even though they are both names of the same city.

We regularly receive similar emails on the words "Jesus" and "God." Both of these common words for Ones we know as the Son and the Father, respectively, are condemned as "pagan" (the critics' favorite word). The former is often said to be descended from the name of the supreme Greek god Zeus, while the latter has purportedly been discovered to come from the name of a Teutonic god, Got or Gott. That "Jesus" can in any way derive from "Zeus" is ludicrous on its face; it is in fact a Latinized spelling of the Greek Iesous, which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew Yahshua or Joshua, "Yah saves" or "Savior." As for "God," the esteemed Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica reads simply, ". . . the common Teutonic word for a personal object of worship. . . . The word 'god,' on the conversion of the Teutonic races to Christianity, was adopted as the name of the one Supreme Being, the Creator of the universe. . . ." As the writer points out, it is analogous to the Greek theos, used in Scripture to name God.

So, just a caution to Christians in this "Information Age": Allow the red flag to wave furiously in your mind when you come across a theological argument that stands or falls over the meaning or origin of a word. As Paul says, it often leads to trouble. In fact, he cautions, "From such withdraw yourself." There is wisdom.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Society of Skeptics

The last few issues of Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) have reminded me why I cancelled my subscription in frustration several years ago. Whether it is an article on who "the disciple whom Jesus loved" was or one about the possibility of a clay tablet hoard at Hazor, the magazine's authors take their jibes at the Bible's historical veracity. And this is in a magazine that purports to defend biblical archeology! However, it is clear that BAR is really a supporter of archeology in Bible lands, not the Bible itself. Its editors and authors are clearly more driven by current scientific thought and attitudes than in any kind of faithful defense of God's Word. In fact, they would probably take umbrage at describing the Bible as God's Word.

BAR does not stand alone, by any means. It could be lumped into a huge class of institutions that have Christian or Jewish roots and links but are actually humanist and scientific in their approaches to their fields of endeavor. In other words, while pretending to be religious or at least supportive of the religions to which they are connected, they are really skeptical, liberal organizations. They present a veneer of faith but at heart are agnostic, and thus they express doubt about the historicity and reliability of the Bible. In reality, they dismiss its authority.

For example, Joshua's account of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites lists the towns that were conquered, some of which were burned and some of which were not. It is all very straightforward. According to their own scientific surveys and digs, archeologists know that many of the same towns suffered burning during the late fifteenth or the early fourteenth century BC. However, these same towns are not known to have been burned in the thirteenth century, when modern critical scholars say Israel came into the land. These scholars, then, assume that Joshua's account is wrong. They say what probably happened is that the author (not Joshua, of course), writing long afterward, either made up which towns were burned, or because local history remembered that certain towns had been burned in conquest in the distant past, applied those conflagrations to Joshua's conquest, when in fact they belonged to an earlier destruction.

Their first instinct is to call God a liar! His Word through Joshua is unreliable as a historical account of events during Israel's return to Palestine. These are the actions of skeptics.

Someone who really had faith in God's Word, though, would look at it the other way around. He would reason, "The archeological record shows that there is no burn level at city X for the thirteenth century BC. The Bible says there should be. This means one of three things: 1) Our dating of this level is wrong. 2) The Israelites did not invade during the thirteenth century (late date) but in the late fifteenth or early fourteenth century (early date) when a burn level exists. Or, 3) the biblical account is wrong." A biblical scholar would at least give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

Another example of Bible-bashing is a recent "discovery" published in a Canadian scientific journal that Jesus did not walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee but strode confidently across on ice. Seriously! A news account of their findings reports:

A research team of oceanographers from Florida State University, Colombia University in New York and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said it has found data to refute the biblical account. . . . The study said there was a rare combination of optimal water and atmospheric conditions for the development of a unique freezing phenomenon that the researchers called "springs ice." During the time of Jesus—when the temperature in the region was several degrees colder than it is today—this type of ice could have occurred every 100 or so years. . . . It would have been difficult to distinguish such an ice patch floating on the surface of the small lake from the unfrozen water surrounding it along the lake's western shore in Tabgha—the area of the lake where many archeological finds from the time of Jesus have been documented.

Clearly, it was their intention to debunk the Bible's account because they are unwilling to admit that miracles happened—and perhaps, that God exists. The end of the article says that this same group came up with another scheme to disprove the parting of the Red Sea. Obviously, they are skeptics.

What is so maddening is that these broadcasters of doubt are part of the mainstream of our society. The media pick up these stories and spread them as "truth" over their airwaves, often in accepting tones. Few rise up to defend the faith, and those who do are shot down with barbed labels like "fundamentalist," "right-winger," or "extremist." Even "biblical literalist" has become a bad word among the postmodern, tolerant set.

This phenomenon is not just confined to biblical studies, either. On college campuses, conservative political and cultural opinion is often not even allowed to be presented, as it is considered so reactionary as to be ridiculous and unworthy of discussion. Therefore, what passes for debate on college campuses is really friendly argument between progressives who differ only by degree. For example, Roe v. Wade is allowed to be debated only between those who favor it in the first trimester and those who favor it throughout pregnancy. Those who desire to have it overturned are considered Neanderthals.

It comes down to this: We are living in a post-Christian culture, even here in America. Despite three-quarters of Americans claiming to be Christian, this nation has moved beyond belief into doubt. Most would probably say they believe, but their behavior belies their profession of faith. For real Christians, this means we face a steadily diminishing influence on the course of this nation's culture. The optimist in me shouts that, if we stand strong, we will eventually turn matters to God's favor, but the more pessimistic side says that it will probably take Christ's return to set matters straight. I am leaning pessimistic.