Saturday, March 28, 2015

First Contact – Part 28 – Christian Music

Does God change? According to the Bible, he does not. But also according to the Bible, he does. That is the confusing nature of the Holy Writ. Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” This seems to imply that while we humans change our minds on things, God by his very nature does not. Yet, throughout the Bible we see God change his mind. Some might say that the Numbers verse is only talking about crucial matters, not trivial things. Okay, but what about changing his mind about sin itself? Wouldn’t it seem reasonable that God would be consistent about matters of good and evil?

Let’s look at a few examples. Keeping the Sabbath was extremely important to God in the Old Testament. It was so important to him that he made breaking it punishable by death. But today believers don’t pay it any mind. They work and play on the Sabbath without concern of being put to death. And not only that, many Christians have started calling Sunday the Sabbath. But the Bible never does that. The Sabbath was always Saturday. Sunday was called the first day of the week. Did God change his mind about the importance of the Sabbath, or did people make that change?

The Bible is pretty consistent in its lack of condemnation of slavery. This institution was simply accepted as a reality. Christian support of slavery was common as late as the mid-1800’s. Of course there were some Christians who found it abhorrent regardless of the lack of condemnation in their Scriptures. Today, slavery is pretty much universally condemned by the Church. Did God change his mind about slavery, or did people make that change?

In the Old Testament, adultery was so evil to God that he called for the execution of its participants. But in the New Testament we see that Jesus thought that only people who were without sin should cast those execution stones. Does anyone think that the people God told to execute adulterers in the Old Testament were sinless? So, did God change his mind about how to punish adulterers, or did people make that change?

I mentioned in a previous post that most Churches of Christ believe it is sinful to use musical instruments in worship to God. Yet in the Old Testament we read of people praising God with musical instruments. Did God change his mind about his followers using instruments in praise to him, or did people make that change? I’m sure that all those Christians in churches that do use musical instruments would answer the latter and point out it is just a select few who made that change.

When I was growing up, the predominant form of Christian music I listened to was country, bluegrass, and quartet music. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but today I find it interesting how secular country music and religious country music were all wrapped up together in a bundle. It was not unusual to watch a country music show on TV and hear a song about murdering someone and throwing them off a bridge and then a few minutes later, during the gospel segment of the program, hear a song about the love of Jesus and his coming to take his saints home. I don’t recall ever seeing a secular rock or pop show that had a gospel segment associated with it.

In the late 1960’s, but mostly throughout the 1970’s, something wonderful began to happen. Or rather something evil began to happen. It depended on who you were. Contemporary Christian music came on the scene. I first heard this style of music after I graduated from college and began my career. I had become friends with a fellow named Rod who worked at the store where I bought my stereo system. It turned out he lived in a house just a couple of blocks away from my apartment. He began inviting me to parties he and his roommate would have. Rod’s roommate was a fan of some of the Contemporary Christian music of that era and used to play it on Rod’s $5000 stereo system. Talk about cranking it up loud. That system could handle the sound of a jet engine without distortion. There was one group he listened to that really caught my attention: The 2nd Chapter of Acts. I was enthralled by the pop rock-ish sound of their music; especially given it was “Christian” music. On one album a young guitarist by the name of Phil Keaggy played and sang. He was incredible. I later learned that he started as a guitarist in the secular world, but became a Christian, prompting him to change genres. In fact, he was slated by some to be the next Jimi Hendrix, but that all changed with his conversion. Well, unless you want to consider him a Christian Jimi Hendrix.

Contemporary Christian music began to catch on in a number of Christian circles; but not in others. I heard a number of preachers on TV and the radio condemning this new style of music. They considered the style and sound of the music to be of the devil, and no amount of Christian lyrics accompanying it could make it acceptable to God. They were warning young people to stay clear of the music and called on parents to forbid their children listening to it lest they lose their souls. However, over time, many of those condemning preachers began to embrace the music as a tool to reach young people for Christ. Once again the Sabbath had lost its importance, slavery had become evil, and adultery was no longer punishable by death. In other words, believers had changed their thinking about what God wants and had reinterpreted Scripture to match.

The point of all this is that Deanna Troi was right in Star Trek: The Next Generation when she said, “That's the problem with believing in a supreme being: trying to determine what he wants.” Throughout history there have been people of faith that sincerely believed they knew what God wanted. So much so they were willing to die for that belief or kill for it. Oftentimes a new generation would come along that realized their ancestors had been wrong about those beliefs. Or could it be that the ancestors were right and the new generation had been led astray by the devil? That’s the conundrum. Even so, sometimes it doesn’t even take a new generation to realize the error. People often come to realize that they themselves had been wrong about certain issues and change their minds accordingly, just as some of the preachers who had originally condemned Contemporary Christian music did.

Despite its shaky roots, Contemporary Christian music has become mainstream. Many radio stations across the country specialize in playing this genre. I became a great fan of artists such as Amy Grant, Twila Paris, Newsboys, Stryper, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, Petra, and many more. I continued to be a fan even after I changed my beliefs about the Bible. Let’s pray they are not of the devil.

Monday, March 9, 2015

First Contact – Part 27 – Good and Evil

Growing up I was fortunate to have had a loving father and mother. As a very young child I was sheltered from the complexities of the world. Therefore, my first exposure to Evil was when watching television. One of Mom’s, Dad’s, and my favorite TV shows was “The Rifleman”. This was about a single rifle-slinging dad (Chuck Conners as Lucas McCain) raising his son (Johnny Crawford as Mark McCain) while ranching in New Mexico during the latter half of the 19th century. Watching “The Rifleman” was a special family occasion each week. Mom would pop popcorn beforehand, and we would eat it while engaged in the show. Sometimes after finishing my popcorn, I would sit on the floor and let my mom or dad comb my hair. This always felt really good for some reason. I can’t enjoy anyone doing this to me anymore because a comb doesn’t work well on a bald head.

In the show, Lucas was presented as having a high moral code and always exhibiting it to his son Mark. Most episodes involved an entanglement with shady characters if not downright outlaw vermin. There was one particular episode where the bad guys were really getting the upper hand on Lucas. I went ballistic, blessing out (in mild child language) the bad guys and wishing for Lucas to turn the tables on them. My mom and dad had to calm me down and remind me that what I was seeing wasn’t really happening; it was simply a staged TV show. I already knew that, of course, but the acting was so convincing I forgot it temporarily.

What was interesting about my interaction with “The Rifleman” was that I just intuitively knew that what the outlaws were doing was wrong and in need of correcting. I don’t think my parents told me I should be filled with righteous indignation over what they were doing. I just knew it. But of course “The Rifleman” was a work of fiction, and the authors could write the script in such a way as to clearly delineate the good guys from the bad.

Finding out that there were bad people in the world willing to bring harm to others for their own personal gain was devastating to me. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could bring themselves to harm others. It just simply didn’t make sense to me. But then I grew up.

As I have aged I have come to understand more about Good and Evil. And what I have come to understand is that oftentimes it is very difficult to distinguish between the two. This is because what is Good and what is Evil is totally dependent on each person’s individual viewpoint. Let me give you an example.

Back in the 1700’s, the American colonies were under the reign of the King of England. However, given the distance and the fact that the colonies were being taxed without having proper representation in Parliament, a number of colonists started pushing for independence. As tensions escalated on both sides, the situation eventually led to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the fighting of the Revolutionary War. A lot of killing took place by both sides. Who was Good and who was Evil? Today we Americans tend to think of the revolutionaries as the Good and Righteous ones as they were fighting for their God given unalienable rights that the Brits were denying them. But the Brits believed that the King had the God given authority to rule his kingdom, and anyone who defied this authority was opposing God himself.

A similar thing can be seen in the modern day Arab / Israeli conflict, which now involves many different countries. The blame game can go very deep with one side saying they did so-and-so because the other side did thus-and-such. Then the other side blames their actions on previous actions of the former side. The blame continues to go further into the past until time blurs the lines between Good and Evil. Many years ago I read a book by President Jimmy Carter entitled “The Blood of Abraham”. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember that he clearly showed how difficult the issue is given the extensive history of conflict. It kind of reminds me of the episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” entitled “A Feud is a Feud”. In this show, Andy comes up against two families that have been feuding for so long they couldn’t even remember what started the whole thing. Sometimes it seems that we just have to put the past in the past and negotiate a peace without regard to who did what in the past. I know this is easier said than done, but if both sides want peace it needs to happen. If only we had the equivalent of an Andy Taylor that could resolve the age old conflict as easily as he did in the TV show.

However, sometimes one or both sides don’t want peace. That’s the rub. This can especially be true if one or both sides believe that their opposition to their enemies is God ordained. There are apparently many people in the world that think that the God they believe in is inherently Good, regardless of what he does. This means that anything they believe God is telling them to do is also Good, regardless of how heinous it appears to outsiders. You see this in the Old Testament. God supposedly told Moses to lead his people into nations unprovoked and kill everyone, including the women and children and animals. These actions would be considered Evil if a nation did them of their own accord. Yet somehow if we are convinced that God was behind the actions, they suddenly become Good. The problem with this attitude is that it leaves Good people open to becoming Evil should a tyrant or dictator be able to convince them that the reprobate orders he is giving them are authorized by God himself.

I have been watching some documentaries about Adolf Hitler and his rise to power and his decline to destruction. It is said that Hitler believed his actions to be approved by God. After watching these documentaries I can certainly see why. Hitler was nearly killed by a mustard gas attack in World War I. Hitler was confronted by an Englishman who had him in his rifle sights, but didn’t feel right about killing a wounded unarmed enemy, so let him go. Upon becoming dictator, his own countrymen attempted to assassinate him several times, but fate didn’t allow it. I can easily see how he could come to think of himself as being invincible and protected by God, thus adding fuel to his mission. Yet the world now almost universally views Hitler as being the epitome of Evil. He’s the go-to person to compare someone else to when we want to decimate that person’s character. Yet, if indeed Hitler was taking his marching orders from God, he was really a Good and Righteous person. So, if everything God does is Good, the question becomes, “How do we know when a person is acting according to God’s will?” We certainly don’t want to cut short a God-ordained killing spree and thus find ourselves opposing God, would we?

I contend that any given action in a given situation is either Good or Evil or neutral or somewhere in between regardless of who perpetrates it, even God. If that is not true, then how can we with any certainty be able to condemn a person who performs a heinous act and then claims that he was only following the will of God?

Some people are very good at obfuscation. They can say one thing while secretly doing another. Hitler and his propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, were extremely good at this, presenting an appealing image of the future Fuehrer while planning something more sinister. Many of the politicians in the US are good at obfuscation also. They speak one way to one group and another way to another group, then perhaps do neither when it’s time to vote. Can you tell I am cynical?

So, how does one properly determine what Good and Evil are? Who decides? What is appropriate for our government to do about it? To my way of thinking, the only thing the government should have the power to do is prevent or punish Evil, not force us to do Good. So, what is Evil? This is a difficult question since it is highly dependent on circumstances, but I can answer generally. Basically, Evil should be considered to be using unprovoked force against other people. Everyone should be free to live their own lives without interference from others except in the case where that person wants to use his freedom to limit yours. In other words, your freedom to move your fist ends at my face. Obviously, there are more than 50 shades of grey when it comes to this general rule, but that is why we have courts. Facts are gathered and a reasoned conclusion should be reached about a person’s guilt or innocence.

Hey, it’s not a perfect system, but neither are we perfect people.

Friday, March 6, 2015

First Contact – Part 26 – Nazarenes

The Church of the Nazarene has a presence in my area, but to my knowledge I have never known anyone that goes there. So, my first contact with the Nazarenes happened remotely.

In the past, I would occasionally pick up an issue of Christian Research Journal at the local LifeWay store. This is a magazine published by the Christian Research Institute. CRI is headed up by author and radio personality Hank Hanegraaff, also known as the Bible Answer Man. Back in early 2000, I read an article in an issue of the CRJ by Rachel Ramer. It was questioning the credentials of the translators of the Watchtower Bible published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wrote a letter to the editor about several of the articles in that issue including Rachel’s. I received responses from several of the authors, including Rachel. Her response led to me responding which led to her responding. The original topic of discussion morphed into something else which morphed in something else and so on. Our Email exchanges ended up lasting for over a year. I saved our entire conversation into a text file on my computer. When loaded into Microsoft Word it is 645 pages long. That’s a lot of typing and Emailing. It was during this exchange of Emails that I found out Rachel was a member of the Church of the Nazarene.

I mentioned Rachel in a previous “First Contact” post. She is the person who sent me a copy of Brian McLaren’s book “Finding Faith” for Christmas while I sent her a copy of Dan Barker’s “Losing Faith in Faith”. An interesting exchange me thinks. As fate would have it, I was traveling frequently to Terre Haute, Indiana, with my job in those days. Terre Haute is west of Indianapolis. I found out that Rachel lived in a small town to the east of Indianapolis. So, during one of my trips we agreed to meet at a restaurant in Indianapolis one evening for a face to face. Rachel’s husband couldn’t make it, so she brought a friend with her. You know, just in case I happened to be a psychotic serial killer. I certainly didn’t blame her. You can’t be too careful about such things.

Fortunately, I was able to find a reprint online of Rachel’s article that I mentioned earlier. And just so you can get an idea of how our multi-month long conversation started, here’s my letter to the editor about her article.

“Rachel D. Ramer states in the first paragraph of her article "Examining Translations with Jehovah's Witnesses" that it is very important to know, for any given translation of the books of the Bible, the translators and their credentials. This sounds reasonable to me. But wouldn't this be even more true concerning the authors of the books of the Bible? Take for instance the book of Hebrews. It is my understanding that nobody knows for sure who wrote this book and thus do not know that person's credentials. Also, since the four gospels were unsigned, no one knows for certain if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were actually the authors. These supposed authors' names came through early church tradition. Although this tradition may be accurate, it may not be. If not knowing the translators and their credentials is grounds for rejecting a translation, is not an unknown author grounds for rejecting certain books of the Bible?”

I very much enjoyed the exchange of ideas Rachel and I engaged in, but it did take a lot of time. However, lengthy exchanges of ideas were not new to me. Back in the 1990’s before the Internet became widely available, people had to use online services such as CompuServe, AOL, BIX, and others. I was a member of AOL. There were a number of message boards on this service where people discussed Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I spent a lot of time bartering ideas there also. In addition, I was frequently writing articles for computer magazines in those days. I guess I was and am just a writing fool.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

First Contact – Part 25 – Anglican / Episcopalian

I combine Episcopalian and Anglican together in this one post for one simple reason. The Episcopal community is a part of the greater Anglican community. Here is a quote from The Episcopal Church Web site.

“The Episcopal church, established shortly after the American Revolution, has its roots in the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church, known as the Church of England, had a strong following in colonial America. But when the colonies won their independence, the majority of America’s Anglican clergy refused to swear allegiance to the British monarch as was required. As a result, the Episcopal Church was formed.”

When I started searching my brain for contacts I had had with the Episcopal Church I was amazed at how many there were.

My journey begins about 1981. I was still a fledgling member of the Church of Christ. A friend from church knew I was an amateur photographer so asked me to take photos at her wedding which was to take place at Trinity Episcopal Church. This church was built in 1894 and is a nice place for a wedding. I arrived ahead of time and talked to one of the church staff about any rules I needed to observe while photographing the wedding. I was told that I should not use a flash. This concerned me in that it was rather dark in the sanctuary. In those old film days, you couldn’t just dial up the ISO setting, you were stuck with the ISO of the film you had available. But I abided by the rules. Unknown to me, my friend actually had another photographer taking pictures also. Based on the equipment he had, I took him to be a professional. Apparently I was a backup photographer in case something went wrong. However, the real photographer was using a flash. I thought, “Does he not know the rules?” No one tried to stop him. Anyway, the bride just wanted me to give her the undeveloped film, which I did. But I warned her that my photos would probably not be any good because I had been banned from using a flash. I vaguely remember the bride telling me later that my photos had not come out well, but that was to be expected given the flash restriction put on me.

When my son Andrew was 4 years old, Kathy and I decided he would benefit from being in a half-day K-4 program. At that time St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church (St. Bart’s) had half-day K-4 and K-5 programs that were considered extraordinary. Sometimes they had a waiting list to get in. Interestingly, neither of the teachers were members of St. Bart’s. In fact, the K-4 teacher was a member of the Church of Christ congregation where we went. Fortunately we were able to get Andrew into the K-4 program where he had a wonderful experience. On a down note, many other churches and schools in our area started K-4 and K-5 programs, some of which were full day. Eventually, St. Bart’s shut down their program.

When Andrew was much older he attended a couple of services at St. Bart’s Church. One evening they had a guest organist visiting to perform a concert. If memory serves, the church was dedicating a new organ. As I mentioned in a previous post, I love organ music. The organ at St. Bart’s was not as majestic sounding as those in big cathedrals, but it was quite good and enjoyable.

By the way, if you are ever in Philadelphia and want to hear an amazing pipe organ without going to a church, be sure to stop by the downtown Macy’s. The infamous Wanamaker Organ is located there and someone plays it on a regular basis. The history of this organ is quite amazing. There are a number of videos on YouTube, but I guarantee you that your computer sound system can’t come close to duplicating what you will hear inside Macy’s atrium.

When Andrew was in the 6th grade, his class took a bus trip to New York City (where apparently all non-Pace picante sauce is made) and Washington DC. One of our stops in NYC was The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which is an Episcopal Church. This was indeed a cathedral as evidenced by its extremely high ceiling. The tour of the cathedral was quite enjoyable. It seems that every large church and aged church building I visit has repair work going on outside. St. John’s was no different.

    Andrew Outside St. John’s

    Inside St. John’s

In 2013, Kathy, Andrew, and I took a trip to Scotland, England, and Wales. We saw a lot of churches and cathedrals, some very old. In York, we were able to tour York Minster cathedral. This was an amazing building. Given how magnificent it is and the fact that it was completed in 1472, my guess is that aliens had a hand in its construction.

    Outside York Minster

    Inside York Minster

In London, we saw the famous Westminster Abbey, which is an Anglican Church. Wow! The architecture behind this building is incredible, which again indicates aliens were involved. Fortunately, we were in London on a Sunday, so Kathy and I decided to attend Westminster Abbey’s Evensong that evening. And yes, we were able to hear pipe organ music. Unfortunately, photo taking was not allowed during the service and that was the only time we were actually inside the building. I thought the service was a bit odd. We were sitting there along with a lot of other people listening to the organ with no organ or organist in sight. The minister preached, yet he was nowhere to be seen either. After the service was over, a bunch of people began filing out of another section of the church building. I then realized that we had been relegated to the visitors’ section while the members had been in the main worship hall.

    Westminster Abbey

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

First Contact – Part 24 – Presbyterians

When I was in the third grade, my mom and dad and I moved from a rental house to a purchased house. There were a number of boys close to my age that lived near our new dwelling. One boy, Mike, became a close friend that I stay in contact with to this day. He attended a Presbyterian Church just a few miles from home. The church had a dartball team, which is a knockoff of baseball using darts and a dartboard. At some point Mike joined the dartball team. The first time I set foot in a Presbyterian Church was with Mike at his church. We used to go by occasionally to play some dartball and table tennis. Sometimes we would stop by during the day when the minister was in his office. One day we stopped into his office when he wasn’t there. Mike sat in his rolling chair behind his desk while I sat on the opposite side. Mike got to goofing off by rolling the chair around on the plastic mat it sat on. At one point he pushed off hard, sending the chair and himself across the plastic. But he had pushed too hard because he suddenly disappeared behind the desk. The wheels of the chair had rolled off the plastic onto the carpet which brought the chair to a sudden stop, toppling it and its passenger onto the floor. Luckily Mike wasn’t hurt, and we had a belly laugh over it.

I love pipe organs. There’s something powerful and majestic about being in a large building such as a cathedral and hearing the sound of air rushing through those carefully tuned pipes and then echoing multiple times off the walls. It’s even better with an expert at the helm of the keyboard.

When I was in college in Louisville, Kentucky, my friend Richard and I heard about a pipe organ concert at a local Presbyterian seminary. Richard loved pipe organ music as much as I did, so we made arrangements to attend the concert. It was not in a large cathedral, but sounded fantastic anyway.

After Kathy and I got engaged in early 1982, I heard about a pre-marriage counseling class being held at our local university. I thought it couldn’t hurt to attend. Perhaps I could pick up a few tips about how to be a good husband and how to keep my marriage alive. Since Kathy lived 300 miles away, she was unable to go with me. As it turned out, a Presbyterian minister from a nearby church was conducting the class. From the get go I realized he was different from other ministers I knew. He was very informal, sometimes conducting the class while we all sat on the floor. I don’t remember anything that was said in the class except for a brief exchange about the words in 1 John 4:8, “God is Love”.

After getting married, a couple of friends, who were members of the Church of Christ just as Kathy and I were at the time, came to visit so they could attend a wedding. Interestingly, the minister who conducted the wedding was the same one who had conducted the pre-marriage class I had taken.

After the wedding one of those friends expressed his dismay that at the reception the minister had ordered an alcoholic beverage. When the bartender asked how he wanted it, he replied, “Straight up, the way God intended it.” Our friends, being teetotalers, were flabbergasted that a minister of the Gospel would be drinking any type of alcohol. Even though I was not a drinker, I knew that the Bible did not condemn drinking alcohol; only drinking alcohol to excess. So we got into a spirited discussion about the issue. Unfortunately, I later learned that the minister had become an alcoholic, which led to some problems in his life. Far be it from me to condemn this man. It seems that everyone has their own personal demons they have to fight. And I’m not picking on Presbyterians. I remember my parents talking about a Baptist minister they knew that had had a drinking problem. Apparently he used to tell people, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Hey, there was a Church of Christ minister who was friends with one of the elders at our church that hired a couple of men to murder his wife. So, immorality can strike any of us regardless of our status. We must all be ever diligent lest one grab hold of us and not let go.

There was a TV and radio evangelist I used to watch and listen to years ago named D. James Kennedy. He was the founder of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There was something compelling about his preaching style, although it sometimes seemed overly dramatic and almost arrogant. Some of you may remember D. James Kennedy because of his support of Judge Roy Moore, a former and now current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. In fact, Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries was the group that filmed the 2001 installation of the 5280 pound granite block that contained two large carved tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. I know many people supported Moore’s action in installing the monument, but I found his actions problematic. Moore’s contention is that the laws of the United States are based on the Ten Commandments. But if one studies these commandments in the Bible along with God’s decreed punishments for breaking them, you will quickly see that U.S. law departs greatly from them. I cover in detail the Ten Commandments and their associated punishments in my book “God Is”.