Why the Magi Did Not Follow the Star to Bethlehem, and Why it Matters

Magi,Magus-Scott FreemanI’m not out to ruin Christmas for anyone. In fact, I hope to make Christmas more awesome for everyone who reads this. And by “awesome,” I actually mean “awesome.”

Even children know that it’s part of the Christmas story that three Wiseman followed a blazing star which led them to Bethlehem, to the manger where the infant Jesus lay; a “star of wonder…of royal beauty bright…westward leading…guiding,…” We get this idea from Christmas carols and greeting cards, which are supposedly derived from the Christmas story in the Bible.

Does it matter that the Bible doesn’t actually say any of this?

Stay with me. I’m not a theologically anal-retentive party pooper. I love Christmas and Christmas carols. But I’ve also noticed that the traditions that have sprung up around the Christmas story and “Christianity” make it challenging to see what the Bible actually says.

For instance, did you ever notice that Luke never says that the angels sang to the shepherds? We get that idea from carols like Hark, the Herald Angels. See for yourself: Luke 2:13. (Michael Card agrees with me.)

Now, I’ll be first to admit that this business of control-freakish-Bible-verse-correcting can be pedantic and super annoying. Those of us who grew up in evangelical sub-culture have heard a million times: “You know, it doesn’t actually say there were three Wiseman.” And, “It doesn’t actually say it was an apple that Eve ate.” And, “It doesn’t actually say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.”

So freaking what?

However, in the case of the star of Bethlehem I do actually have a serious reason for being picky. On December 22, 2012 I published a blog post called, The Star of Bethlehem – A Fairy Tale? This post summarized the research of Rick Larson, who has produced, in my opinion, a very compelling video entitled The Star of Bethlehem. Larson’s video and website shows the correspondence between the observable, testable universe and the Bible regarding the Star of Bethlehem story. Modern computer software can show us the precise configuration of the stars at any point in history, from any location on earth. We can know exactly what was going on in the sky around the birth of Jesus. And what was going on will blow your socks off.

After I published that post, a PhD physicist with degrees in mathematics and astronomy replied. His name is Aaron Adair, and he has a special interest in the Star of Bethlehem. He had just published a book claiming to debunk Larson’s theory. For Bible “skeptics,” he is apparently considered the go-to guy regarding the Star of Bethlehem.

So the next year, on December 22, 2013, I published a blog post entitled, Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem. In response, Mr. Adair cordially visited my blog’s comment section where he and I engaged in a rather lengthy but respectful debate. (Those interested can view the entire conversation HERE.)

A brief summary of why interpretive accuracy matters in the case of the star:
Mr. Adair claims to have debunked a naturalistic interpretation of the biblical story of the star of Bethlehem. He claims to have proven there was no clear, natural, astronomical sign in the heavens around the time of Jesus’s birth that fits the story in the Bible. We now know what the ancient sky looked like, and there was nothing in the heavens that would have told the Magi that a king in Israel had been born. Furthermore, there was no star “dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” that could’ve led the Magi to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, and then to the child. But then, I contend that the Bible doesn’t actually say that this is what happened. I contend that Mr. Adair has merely done a great job of debunking nonbiblical traditions passed down through Christmas carols and greeting cards. I think the actual biblical account of the star only becomes more amazing under modern scrutiny.

Following is a brief summary of what the Bible actually says about the Magi and the Star:

  • The story begins hundreds of years earlier when Israel is in exile under Babylon and Persia. While in exile to these foreign powers, the Jewish prophet Daniel is given miraculous revelation from God concerning the coming of an eternal kingdom and an eternal king from Israel. Daniel provides a specific timeline as to when these events would occur. Hundreds of years later, when the Romans, (the fourth kingdom prophesied in Daniel ch 2,) came to power, the Persian Magi would’ve been watching for some sign that the prophesied king of the Jews had been born. We now know that in 3 and 2 B.C. there were, in fact, remarkable, rare and repeated astronomical signs having to do with the birth of a king.
  • So upon “seeing His star in the East,” the Magi left for the capital city of Israel – Jerusalem – assuming that’s where they would find the young king. They didn’t need to follow a star to get there, especially considering the history between Persia and Israel.
  • Upon arriving, the Magi were probably surprised to learn that no one in Jerusalem seemed to know about the birth of Israel’s own king. In fact it says the entire city was troubled by the statements of the Magi. It is clear that King Herod didn’t know about the star either (Matt 2:7.) So the Bible is not describing a blazing star leading Wisemen around the Middle East. Whatever the Magi were seeing would’ve been easy for others to miss.
  • A troubled King Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes to learn where the messiah would be born according to the Jewish prophets. Then, King Herod, (not a star,) sends them to Bethlehem (2:8.) Bethlehem was five miles down the main road. Again, the Magi did not need a star to guide them.
  • He tells them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word…” (2:8).
    This is significant because there was obviously no blazing ball of fire leading the Magi around. Why would Herod have directed them to diligently search if he could see that the Magi already had a magical star to guide them to Jesus? Better yet, why would he not have sent his own guys to follow the star directly to the child?
  • As the Magi start out to Bethlehem, “lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…” (2:9,10.)
    Can heavenly bodies appear to move in the sky and then stop over towns? Yes, they can. In fact, we know that in 2 B.C. Jupiter performed a retrograde loop and was stationary over Bethlehem on, interestingly, December 25th. This was only one of many significant planetary movements involving Jupiter. (See full explanation HERE.) While I understand how this one sentence has been interpreted over the centuries that mean that the star was guiding the Magi to the house where Jesus was, this is not the only way to see it. It can also be seen as a divinely orchestrated coincidence; an affirmation to the Magi that the young king was indeed in Bethlehem. Of course the Magi would’ve been overjoyed at this heavenly sign.

The reason all of this matters to me is that Christmastime has become one more occasion for Bible “skeptics” to come out of the woodwork, claiming they have debunked the Bible, claiming that science is at odds with the Bible, and claiming that biblical faith is irrational. I enthusiastically disagree.

There is one loose end in my dialogue with Mr. Adair, having to do with the Greek text, which I promised to check into, so I’ll briefly take the occasion of this blog post to respond. Mr. Adair claims the Bible implies that an unnatural star led the Magi to Bethlehem, and that the Magi followed it to the very house where Jesus lived; that the star was literally over the house in close proximity. I contend that the Bible does not say this. But then, I readily admit that I’m no Greek scholar. I welcome anyone who is to weigh in here.

Mr. Adair claims that when the text says, “the star…went before them” (proago), the Greek is clearly saying they were being led by the star. Not necessarily. Just because there are people going before you in the checkout line at Walmart doesn’t mean they’re leading you. In fact, after the resurrection, both Matthew and Mark have an angel telling the disciples that Jesus “… is going before (proago) you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matt 28:7; Mk 16:7.) In the same way, the Magi were not relying on the star for directions. The words “went before” can simply mean “went before.”

Mr. Adair claims that when the text says the star went on before them “until it came and stood over (epano) where the child was”, the Greek must mean “on top of or slightly above.” As in, “…and they put up above (epano) his head this charge against Him…” (Matt 27:37,) speaking of the sign placed directly over the head of Jesus at His crucifixion. However, the same word is also used here: “…[he] threw [the dragon/Satan] into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over (epano) him…” (Rev 20:3.) Epano comes from epi – on, upon, and ano – up, above. In the case of the star, understanding epano to mean “in the sky directly over Bethlehem” seems to be within the range of allowable meanings. This is true especially considering that the text has already told us that the Magi needed no starry guide to get them to Bethlehem, that the Magi would have to diligently search for the child when they arrived, and that apparently no one else noticed the star. I favor letting scripture interpret scripture.

Conclusion
Am I arguing that there was nothing supernatural about the Star of Bethlehem? Am I sucking all of the mystery and wonder out of the Christmas Story?

Of course not. The entire thing is miraculous and supernaturally orchestrated from top to bottom.

The Christmas story only matters if it is true. Part of the beauty of it is that we can look back and see the correspondence between events recorded in scripture, and verifiable planetary movements using modern computer software. Yet it is a mantra of “New Atheism” that no evidence for God exists. Therefore the Star of Bethlehem must be assigned fairy tale status.

Adair elsewhere appeals to tradition in saying “all ancient commentators” speak of the star as a supernatural (unnatural) phenomenon. But they didn’t know what we know today. Modern astronomy combined with the plain biblical text reveals an astonishing series of events that, in the sovereignty of God, can only have been scheduled when the stars were first created and set in motion.

God’s fingerprints are all over the Christmas story. The Magi were acting by faith on Jewish prophecy that had been handed down for some five hundred years. The Creator of the stars did announce the birth of His universal Messiah on the canvas of the observable universe, with amazing specificity. The Magi were a foreshadowing of the gentile nations coming into a salvation that would be for “the Jew first, but also to the gentiles.” After leaving Herod for Bethlehem, the Magi rejoiced to see the star going before them and stopping over Bethlehem because they knew that they were a part of a divinely ordained, world-changing chain of events. The invitation has been sent, and you are invited:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5,6.)

May God reveal Himself more clearly to us all this Christmas season!

(My new fully illustrated kids’ storybook, The True Story of Christmas, tells the story of Jesus’s birth in fidelity to the biblical narrative, beginning with creation and the fall. ORDER HERE.)

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An Invitation for Holy Week

JoW Facebook announcement 1It’s the week before Easter, and, for those of you who are in or near front range Northern Colorado, I would like to issue an invitation. For the rest of you I would like to share some jaw-dropping, mind-expanding, God-revealing thoughts about the Passover/Easter season.

A few years ago I was on staff at my church as the “Worship Arts Something-or-Other.” During my brief stint as a staffer, I created an event for Holy Week, (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter,) called the Journey of Worship. Perhaps you may find my reasons for creating this event interesting.

First of all, I sense that the Church in general is lacking a good and meaningful way to give expression to the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus; arguably the most important Christian holiday. Lovers of Jesus want to celebrate it, but may seem to be at a loss as to how to do it. Christmas has a number of traditions surrounding it. But Easter…not so much. There are no Easter carols. It’s hard to even find a good children’s storybook about Easter. I think there are reasons for this, but I’ll leave it at that.

Secondly, I created the Journey of Worship because there is an amazing back-story behind the climactic events of the life of Jesus that has been largely lost to the “gentile Christian church,” I’m not speaking here of some new, unsubstantiated, Dan-Brownish-horse-crap theory, such as: Jesus was married; or gay; or an alien, or a hologram. No. I’m speaking of something much older than Christianity that has been right there all along, but that nearly 2000 years of anti-Semitic “Christian” theology has buried. I’m speaking of the rich Hebrew roots of what has come to be called Christianity. We have the good fortune to live in a time when we can openly speak of these things without religious authorities lighting us on fire.

Thirdly, in light of the disturbing history of Christian-Jewish relations, the Journey of Worship seemed like a way for the gentile church to humble herself, and acknowledge and honor the Jewish roots of her faith. The apostle Paul referred to the gentile (non-Jewish) believers as uncultivated branches that had been grafted into the cultivated tree. He reminded gentile believers not to be arrogant, but to remember that it is the root that supports the branches and not the other way around (Ro 11:17,18.) He said that the gospel of God was to the Jew first (Ro 1:16.) Indeed, I have come to believe that one cannot fully understand who Jesus was and what he accomplished apart from the Jewish context into which He was born.

So…what is the Journey of Worship?

 “We are all part of a larger story. It is our Creator’s story of love, light, & redemption…”

JoW Announcement 2

These are the opening words of the Journey of Worship, a self-guided tour of the final climactic events in the life of Jesus. There is no speaker, live music, or program. We have simply created a contemplative, worshipful environment in the church sanctuary, where people can stay for as long as they like. There are nine stations guiding the viewer through a tour of the spring feasts that Yahweh gave to Israel. Lit luminaries at each station explain the meaning of the four spring feasts and how Jesus fulfilled them. There is a fair amount of adult level reading, so you should be aware of that if you have small children.

What do these ancient Jewish feasts have to do with us today?
God’s appointed feasts have both historical and prophetic significance. They are a remarkable example of the linear, progressive, unfolding revelation of the whole of scripture. In fact, the 7 (or 8 if you include the Sabbath) mandatory festivals given to Israel by God can be viewed as a sort of prophetic calendar.

If you think I’m getting weird on you, please hear me out. Look at how these mandatory feast days are presented in Leviticus chapter 23:

1)     Passover (v 5)

2)     Feast of Unleavened Bread (v 6)

3)     Feast of Early First Fruits (v 10, 11)

4)     Feast of Latter First Fruits [Pentecost] (v 15-17)

Then there is a four month interval…

5)     Feast of Trumpets  (v 24)

6)     Day of Atonement (v27)

7)     Feast of Booths (v34)

Doesn’t it seem odd that the first three feasts are clustered together in the first month, and then after Pentecost there is a four month interval? Then in the seventh month there are 3 more feasts clustered together? Why didn’t God distribute these feasts more evenly throughout the year?

Well, in God’s sovereignty, it appears as though the feasts and intervals are situated this way for prophetic reasons. The Journey of Worship details how Jesus fulfilled the four spring feasts by His crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Each of these world-shaping events occurred in succession precisely on each of these four feast days. In a remarkable and ingenious way, Jesus instituted a new covenant, secured our redemption, sealed our salvation and empowered His new church, giving new and further meaning to these (at the time) 2000 year old traditions. Amazing.

Equally amazing is that the prophetic fulfillment continues today, and we get to be a part of it. The four month interval between the spring and fall feasts seems to correspond to the time in which we now live – a time of harvest. – when people are being added into the kingdom of God. In fact Jesus often used the language of harvest in His parables. In the fourth chapter of John he refers specifically to a four month interval:

“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you lift up your eyes, and see the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life’” (v35, 36)

Jesus is not concerned about the wheat crop here. He is speaking of spiritual things – about the salvation of human beings. While our expectation would be that the harvest comes in the fall, He tells his disciples not to wait. There is harvesting to be done right now.

Here’s the analogy in the feast of Latter First Fruits (Pentecost): Pentecost was an agricultural festival wherein the people would bring the first fruits of their crops as an offering to God. It was a way of expressing thanks to God for His provision, as well as an act of trust that he would provide an abundant later harvest. According to the scriptures God chose the occasion of the feast of Pentecost to fulfill His promise to introduce the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a new way (Acts 2:13-33.) Upon seeing this, some 3000 people believed and were added into the kingdom, the first fruits of a great harvest that is still in progress.

It is also remarkable to note that, in Jewish culture, in addition to the original agricultural meaning, this feast eventually acquired a secondary meaning. Rabbis determined that it was on Pentecost that God gave the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai, so Pentecost also came to be a celebration of the giving of the Law. How amazing that the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah in the old covenant would be the festival that God chose to pour out His Holy Spirit at the advent of His new covenant. Paul elaborates, “…But now we are released from the Torah, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Ro 7:6.)

The three autumn feasts have yet to see a Messianic fulfillment. Many of us think this will happen with the return of the Messiah. The apostle Paul gives us the strange detail that the Messiah’s return will be accompanied by a trumpet blast. Scroll up and look at what the next feast is after the 4 month harvest interval. Just sayin’.

I realize that, to the modern, enlightened, sophisticated ear, this all sounds like a bunch of religious superstitious legend. Except that it simply isn’t. It’s all demonstrably real. Passover and the other spring feasts have been celebrated and handed down by Jewish people for centuries. Real Jewish people are celebrating Passover today as I write this. When the Torah was given 4000 years ago, no one had an inkling that these feasts had Messianic significance. But in fact, they prefigure the climactic events in the life of Jesus, forming perfect analogies that help us understand what Jesus did for us. While Paul alludes to these analogies (1 Cor 5:7,8; 15:20-23) he doesn’t spell them out as they must have seemed obvious at the time of his writing. Who would’ve guessed that the Messianic witness of the Torah would first be denied by most Jews, and then eventually denied by a theologically anti-Semitic gentile church? Nonetheless, the Messianic foreshadowing in the Torah is clearly acknowledged in the New Testament writings:

JoW Announcement 3“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16.)

“For since the Torah has but a shadow of the good things instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb 10:1.)

The Invitation:
I welcome you to step out of your busy routine and take some time this week (through Saturday) to meditate on what our loving Creator has done for us. If you live in the area, you can visit the Journey of Worship at Summitview Community Church in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Click here for times and details. Admission is free.

No matter where you live, this season I hope you get a glimpse of the larger story of which we are all invited to be a part!

New Painting: The Wall Remaining

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The Wall Remaining – Detail

This week I want to feature what may be my favorite painting from the Zeitgeist art exhibit, a show of recent work by Mollie and me. If you haven’t seen the show, there’s still time! It runs until Feb 23, 2014.

The painting I’m featuring is titled The Wall Remaining. It’s a triptych approximately 4 by 6 feet, painted in oils on panel. Below I’ve reprinted the text that accompanies the painting in the show:

THE WALL REMAINING

The history of relations between the Church and the Synagogue is one of the world’s tragic stories. The first followers of Jesus (Yeshua in, Hebrew,) were all Jewish, and his “church” began as a sect of first century Judaism. As these early Jewish disciples spread the message of Jesus, a series of events, described in Acts chapter 15, led to an astounding decision on the part of his disciples: the Jewish church in Jerusalem made the decision to fully welcome gentile (non-Jewish) believers, as brothers and sisters, into their company without requiring them to become Jewish. The gentiles’ status as joint heirs would be based on their being “partakers of the new covenant” of Yeshua. The ancient Mosaic covenant sign of circumcision, as well as Torah observance, would not be required of them.

As a result of this inclusivity, large numbers of gentiles came into the church, eventually outnumbering the Jewish members. As the church became more gentilized over time, and as Jewish members increasingly found themselves out of favor with traditional Jews, the church took on a distinctly Greco-Roman character. By the time of the first Ecumenical Council under the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, there was not a single Jewish bishop in attendance, though some 1800 invitations were sent out across the empire. Increasingly, anti-Jewish laws were passed under subsequent Christian emperors and kings so that the Church eventually became an openly anti-Jewish institution, generally consigning Jews to an inferior status, and at times actively persecuting them.

Throughout Europe, it is still possible to see vestiges of the historic, divisive relationship between the Church and the Synagogue displayed in the artistic embellishments of its cathedrals. Many cathedrals feature two figures: Ecclesia (the Church,) and Synagoga (the Synagogue.) Triumphant Ecclesia wears a crown, and usually holds a staff and a Eucharistic chalice. Synagoga is always blindfolded, and carries a broken staff and a representation of the Torah. Though I had previously read about these two allegorical figures in my books, I saw them for the first time in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The sight of them deeply saddened me.

It is noteworthy that the New Testament scriptures do not support this division. The Jewish apostle Paul writes:

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision (Jews,)…were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise…But now in Christ Jesus you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:11-16)

Here I have painted Ecclesia and Synagoga as ossified and broken statues warming in the light of these scriptures. Ecclesia is not triumphant; instead her head is bowed down. Synagoga has become indignant and distanced; understandably so. The wall remaining, though invisible, is as formidable and as obstinate as the Berlin wall ever was. The figure in the center panel reaches for the hands of the two ladies, awaiting the healing and the unity-in-diversity that I believe we will see in our lifetimes; a unity that has not existed since the dawn of the early Church. (end quote)

One New Man-synagoga-ecclesia

For hours and information about the Zeitgeist painting exhibit, call the Loveland Museum-Gallery at 970.962.2410, or visit www.lovelandmuseumgallery.org.

You can purchase note cards and other artsy gifty items featuring our art & design work at our online Zazzle store (click here.) Thank you for your support!

 Top related posts:
–          What Easter has to do with Separating Christians and Jews
–          Art & Church History: The Uncut Version

Zeitgeist – Recent Paintings by Scott & Mollie Freeman

Mollie and I opened our art exhibit at the Loveland Museum-Gallery last weekend. In this post I will share my opening comments for those of you who wanted to be there but couldn’t make it. Many thanks to those of you who did come – you certainly made it a special evening for us! Art is, after all, a communal undertaking.

Of course I can’t help but do a little embellishing along the way, but here’s the gist of what I said:

First I want to say that Mollie and I are inexperienced travelers, and we claim no expertise in things German. What follows are simply our observations and contemplations around our wonderful visit to Germany.

Mollie and I chose to title our exhibit, Zeitgeist, which means “spirit of the times.” Why Zeitgeist?
Well, it strikes us that the spirit of our times has to do with unity, community, and communion. This is what we’re all seeking, to some degree. We’re all now familiar with the idea of the world getting smaller, and the reality that international communication has become ridiculously easy and cheap. For me, it’s like a miracle that I regularly sit at my dining room table and communicate with people around the world. The fact that this art exhibit grew out of an unexpected international friendship initially set the tone for our show. Our trip was only made possible by the generosity of friends here at home, and especially by the generosity of the Taube family in Germany.

When we arrived in Germany, we saw the human urge to create community, to varying degrees, visibly expressed everywhere. It seemed that everywhere we went, we were surrounded by the smoldering reminders of someone’s attempt to create a better, unified world. I happen to be fascinated with utopian idealists and their visions. I say this without a hint of sarcasm. It seems obvious to me that the world is broken and that there is something terribly wrong with the human condition. I believe we’re all seeking unity between Man and God, between Man and Man, and between Man and Nature. I would guess that all of us are giving our energies to one or more of these pursuits. I give utopian visionaries props for at least trying to make the world a better place.

But there is a maddening paradox.

Part of what fascinates me about studying utopian human movements, ideologies, and isms is how they seem to always go horribly wrong. Despite the best intentions of men & women, our plans to make the world a better place often create a situation worse than what existed before. The worst examples of this are seen in political revolutions carried out “for the good of the people” that have often resulted in the bald slaughter of the people they claimed to liberate. It’s astonishing how good intentions can go so wrong.

Germany’s tumultuous, world-shaping history is extraordinary, profoundly contributing to the world both for better and for worse. This tension is reflected in the paintings here, to varying degrees:

With Nazism and World War 2, much of Germany was destroyed, and the entire country has been tirelessly rebuilding ever since; reconstructing its old historic structures, as well as creating new ones, often blending the very old with the very new. Several of Mollie’s watercolors feature the reconstructed St. Mary’s Cathedral in Lubeck, which was extensively bombed on the night of Palm Sunday in 1942. It’s important to note that Germany’s massive reconstruction campaign is not designed to cover over and forget the unspeakable horror of Nazism.  Often the ruins of the war have been left as a monument, or documented with public placards, so that future generations will never forget what occurred.

Other structures are reminders of the remarkable positive contributions that Germany has given the world. My painting, Coexistence of Centuries #2 shows St. Michael’s Church in the town of Luneburg, rising up behind the harmonious modern architecture in the foreground. Johann Sebastian Bach sang soprano as a choirboy in this church from 1700 to 1703. St. Michael’s, which opened in 1409, has stood through the invention of the printing press and the Renaissance, the Reformation, two world wars, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and German re-unification.

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Coexistence of Centuries – oil, 24×36 in, Scott Freeman

After the Second World War, Germany was split in two by Communism. The city of Berlin suffered a bizarre fate, becoming engulfed behind the iron curtain, making West Berlin an isolated island of freedom well inside of East Germany. Stories abound. Though the Berlin Wall is now gone, city planners have marked and memorialized where it once stood, so that it is impossible to go through the city without seeing the remains of the utopian Communist experiment gone wrong in the midst of a now re-unified Germany. Two of my paintings resulted from a midnight walk in Berlin where I watched gentle people enjoying the night hours on Alexanderplatz, the site of the largest anti-government demonstration in GDR history, just days before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I’ve posted thoughts on these paintings HERE and HERE.

Our German hosts also took us to visit the site of a much smaller utopian experiment. In the town of Worpswede, an artist from Bremen named Heinrich Vogeler joined an artist community in 1894. The next year he bought a cottage there and named it Barkenhoff, (which means birch tree cottage.)

blg-Barkenhoff

Barkenhoff

I took this quote from the museum exhibit:
“Upon returning to Worpswede, disillusioned by his experiences in the first World War and highly politicized, Heinrich Vogeler tried to create a “new world” at his Barkenhoff. Here a commune was supposed to realize his social utopia of a self-governing society without class structures and private property – an ambitious experiment that was to fail after a few short years.”

After the failure of the commune, apparently due to various human infidelities, Vogeler joined the Communist party, his art became propagandistic, he emigrated to Russia, and was eventually deported to Kazakhstan where he died, sick and destitute.

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Worpswede – Near the Artists Colony – oil, 20×24 inches, Scott Freeman

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Synagoga – part of a trytich entitled,
The Wall Remaining
– oil, 20×48 inches, Scott Freema

Mollie and I have also included our personal visions of unity, community, and communion in the exhibit. My triptych, The Wall Remaining, quotes tragic medieval iconography, and looks forward to what I believe will be a new unity emerging between the Synagogue and the Church. We shall see. I have posted on this painting in detail HERE.

One of my favorite pieces of Mollie’s is a large piece (4×5 ft) entitled, Jacob’s Ladder #8. She has painted several variations on this theme over the years. It refers to ideas of unity and communion in that the biblical theme of Jacob’s Ladder ultimately has to do with uniting heaven and earth. She has posted on this theme on her art blog, HERE.

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Jacob’s Ladder #8 – water media, 4×5 ft, Mollie Walker Freeman

 

“Zeitgeist – Paintings Inspired by Germany” will be open through Feb 23, 2014 at the Loveland Museum-Gallery in Loveland, Colorado – 503 N. Lincoln Ave – 970.962.2410 – http://www.LovelandMuseumGallery.org. Admission to the Foote Gallery is free.

About the Term “Christian,” & Being “Spiritual, Not Religious.”

 Religion blg

Since my teen years I’ve been fascinated with the question of how much of the Christianity that I grew up with is really American or Western culture, and therefore dispensable. It’s been a fascinating journey. Initially, I thought another way to ask the question was, “What is true, biblical Christianity?” But I eventually realized that the idea of a religion called Christianity had to go on the table as well, since the Christian religion as developed by the Roman church and its Ecumenical Councils departed from the Bible very early in church history (see example.)

For me, the Bible is my ultimate authority and arbiter in these questions. When all is said and done, if God hasn’t spoken to us, then we have no hope at all of escaping subjectivism and relativism. If there is an eternal, objective, invisible spiritual reality, our finite minds and short earthly experiences alone are hopelessly blind to see and understand it. But why the Bible, rather than some other scripture? I contend that biblical revelation and biblical faith are unique in the world. Throughout history our Creator has taken pains to reveal and verify Himself to us, and to invite us to participate in His unfolding counterrevolution of truth and love (see example.) Throughout my years of holding to this view I’ve found great joy and meaning, and I still haven’t found a downside. However, I do see nasty consequences for creating one’s own reality.

I recently had a respectful exchange with Eric Hyde, who authors, “Eric Hyde’s Blog –  Journey Through Orthodox Christianity.” Eric’s blog often seeks to argue for the validity of the ancient, Eastern Orthodox religion, which apparently is enjoying a resurgence among young people today. Beginning with the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea under Constantine, the Roman Church has convened a total of 21 Councils, which are considered by the Catholic Church to be binding, and as authoritative as scripture. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split in 1054 AD. Eastern Orthodoxy holds only the first 7 of the Ecumenical Councils to be authoritative. (For example, Eastern Orthodox priests can marry, and the church does not recognize the primacy of the Pope.) A key point for this post, however, is that both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy consider themselves to be the true inheritors of the original church going all the way back to the apostles of Jesus.

By contrast, I contend that God’s revelation in the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone is sufficient and authoritative, and is the only lineage that is essential. Beyond the Bible, church tradition may be interesting, and sometimes even helpful, but the world would be a better place today if “the Church” had always held the Bible above church tradition. I challenge my skeptical readers to name any evil perpetrated on the world by “the Church,” and I believe the cause can be traced to a departure from the teaching of Jesus and His chosen apostles.

A skeptic might argue that the Bible presents its very own subjective, provincial, chauvinistic sub-culture. This arguably may be true of the Mosaic Covenant in the Tanakh, but this leads to my point. Jesus brought a new possibility. Part of the beauty of the New Covenant of Jesus is that it does not, (or at least it should not,) rely on external enforcement of a written code (Ro 7:1-6,) and is open to everyone. Jesus brought the possibility of an internal change through spiritual rebirth, and a “new life in the Spirit” that transcends human cultures (Gal 5:22; Ro 13:8-10.) In fact Jesus established the beginnings of a new transcendent culture called the kingdom of God.

Below is my discussion with Eric,  which I believe helps to illustrate how this thinking works. For some context, first comes an excerpt from his blog post, “I’m Spiritual, Not Religious.” (The entire post is worth reading.) Then our dialogue follows:

…I have found the phrase, “I am spiritual, not religious,” and its redheaded stepchild, “I follow Jesus, not tradition,” to be manifestations of spiritual pride, not spiritual enlightenment. These phrases are almost always accompanied by a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of “personal revelation.” It is a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual “popes” abound, but the Church is nonexistent; it’s essentially a personal religious-potpourri not unlike New Age adherence, with slightly different language.
 
To claim to be spiritual and not religious is like claiming to have taken a swim without getting wet…”
SCOTT: Hey Eric, I like the general thrust of what you say, but I don’t get why you lump “I follow Jesus” in with “religious” and “spiritual”. I don’t refer to myself as a Christian because it has become a meaningless term, whereas “follower of Jesus” is descriptive. We don’t have to wonder what it means. It precludes
“a corresponding lifestyle where the rules are made up as you go and all things are ultimately justifiable in the light of ‘personal revelation.’…a world of Christianity where there is no human authority, save oneself; where millions of individual ‘popes’ abound, but the Church is nonexistent…”
Thanks.

ERIC HYDE: “I’m a follower of Jesus” is descriptive only if one is clear about which Jesus they follow. There are 1000′s of different Jesus’ available today in our spiritual stock exchange.
 

SCOTT: What 1000s of Jesus’? There is scant historical reference to Jesus outside of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, other than a few (later) “lost gospels”, and a few later “revelations” such as Islam & Mormonism, all of which contradict the canonical gospels and apostolic writings. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say there are 1000s of Christianities? Any religion which centers its theology around Jesus can rightly be called a Christian religion. This would include not only Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant religions, but also Mormonism & Jehovah’s Witnesses. Therefore, I say the heart of the matter is neither religion nor spirituality, but the person of Jesus as He is revealed in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. This Jesus never claimed to establish a new religion called Christianity. He claimed to establish the kingdom of God as prophesied by the Hebrew prophets who came before Him. If you can demonstrate from the scriptures that this was not his central message, then I will personally give you a back massage. [Author’s note: Eric started his post saying, “I wish I had a back massage for every time I’ve heard someone say ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’”]

ERIC: I was raised Mormon. We were taught that Jesus was not a Person of the Divine Trinity but rather a literal offspring of Elohim, the Father God. This Jesus was the spiritual brother of Lucifer, later satan. He is our brother in a literal sense in that we too were literally conceived of by Elohim with his many wives in heaven. And Mormons also claim to believe in the Bible you and I both read.

Is this the Jesus you believe in?

This is only one example of the various Jesus’ on the market today.

SCOTT: Thanks Eric. I can’t imagine how you are keeping up with these replies. [Author’s note – Eric received quite a response from readers.]  Here’s my response in case you have the time:
This is my point – there aren’t that many possibilities; only the few that I mentioned. Of course I refer to the Jesus of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. To say I follow him is, in fact, descriptive. The Bible presents a linear, unfolding, harmonious revelation. The Jesus revealed therein is alive and well and knowable. The Jesus of Islam, Mormonism, & the Jehovah’s Witnesses re-interprets & contradicts the Bible with later “revelation” that is considered authoritative within those groups. But when I say I’m a follower of Jesus, it is assumed I’m referring to the Jesus of the Bible. Therefore this phrase has much more meaning and clarity than to say I’m a Christian.

ERIC: My point is a little more nuanced, and is difficult to explain briefly. But, in short, we all come to the text with our own set of ideas, opinions, social conditioning, etc (“presupposition” is a good single word to use here), that influence the way we understand who Jesus is. If you are familiar with the ancient heresy of Arianism, it was a belief that Jesus was created by the Father God. This caused enormous turmoil in the Church and divided it for many years. Arius made his argument strictly from Scripture, as did his Orthodox opponents. Eventually Orthodoxy won out and declared that Jesus was a Person within the divine Trinity and was “begotten” of God eternally. One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils, not because of a casual reading of Scripture. 
Whether or not Christ is a created being, if God is Trinity, if the Holy Spirit is God, etc, etc, are issues that can go either way if one does not have the luxury of holy tradition guiding him. I imagine that you have gravitated towards the orthodox rendering of the faith, but this is not happen-chance, it comes from a long line of reasoning within the Church. It only seems like a “no-duh” to us because we are so use to it.



SCOTT: Thanks for the thoughtful reply Eric. I’m open to being proven wrong here, but until then I will say that I absolutely disagree that:
1) Arius made his argument strictly from Scripture

2
) One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils

3
) …issues [that] can go either way if one does not have the luxury of holy tradition guiding him.

1-Arius wasn’t making his argument “strictly from scripture” because nowhere do the scriptures say that Jesus is a created being, and in many places it says He is divine.

2-It is the authority of the Judeo-Christian scriptures that reveals the triune nature of YHWH. The ecumenical councils were only codifying what had already been revealed in the Bible. To say that…

3-…these issues can go either way w/out tradition is false. You’re essentially saying that the councils created Truth if you think these issues could have gone either way. The councils functioned as a Supreme Court interpreting a constitution that was already written. But the constitution existed first, and is preeminent. Likewise, the Bishop’s interpretations are valid only insofar as they agree with God’s written revelation, which has ultimate authority. So Church tradition is of value, but even the early councils contain errors. It is the Word that judges tradition, not tradition that judges the Word.
[End of excerpt.]

I’m continually amazed at the genius of the Bible. Jesus and His message are as relevant today as ever, because we human beings still need to be made new by our Creator. We still need a Savior, despite human advancements in knowledge and technology. Human arrogance, greed, lust, abuse of power, and general human brokenness continue to turn our own advancements against us. If God has provided a perfect plan of salvation, then any human spiritual vision that adds to it or takes away from it – be it Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Islamic, New Age, or Universalist – will necessarily lead us down an imperfect path. This is not to say there can be nothing good on an imperfect path, only that our human innovations do not improve on God’s perfect provision for salvation and ultimate unity (Eph 1:7-10.)

Got religion? No, thanks – got Jesus.

 

Graphic Design: The Thinking Heart Project

I recently completed a graphic design and illustration project that is worth sharing. One of the interesting aspects of doing graphic design work is learning about the subject of one’s commissioned work. The Thinking Heart project is centered around the life and loves of Esther “Etty” Hillesum, a young Jewish Dutch woman (1914-43) who perished in the holocaust at Auschwitz. She left behind writings in the form of letters and a journal, which have been published in the book, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life – The Diaries and Letters from Westerbork.

Martin Steingesser, Portland, Maine’s First Poet Laureate (2007-09,) has created what he calls “poetic variations of Etty’s words for performance by an ensemble of two performers and a cellist.” The ensemble has captured their spoken word performance on a disc. It was for the graphics of this CD project that I was commissioned. Steingesser’s ensemble has been invited to perform The Thinking Heart at the International Etty Hillesum Congress in Belgium in January of 2014, in celebration of Etty Hillesum’s 100th birthday.

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Cover art: I couldn’t help but notice that Etty’s hairline suggested a heart shape. Normally I would automatically reject the heart motif as cutesy and overused, but given the title of the project, it seemed too fitting to ignore. Martin and I worked on keeping it subtle.

A Glimpse of Etty Hillesum

In the summer of 1939, near the village of Westerbork, war-neutral Dutch authorities opened a camp to receive Jewish refugees coming from Germany. The first refugees arrived on October 9th of that year. Tragically, when Nazi forces later invaded the Netherlands, they eventually took control of the camp, and turned Westerbork into an official “transit camp.” By the end of the war some 103,000 Jews were transferred from Westerbork to Auschwitz or Sobibor, in Poland.

During the unfolding of the war’s events, Etty refused to go into hiding, choosing instead to provide support for the people preparing themselves for transport. She wished to “share in her people’s fate.” Etty secured a position with the Westerbork section of the Jewish Council in July of 1942. A year later, when the special status of the Jewish Council was ended, half of the personnel became camp internees. When given the choice to return to Amsterdam, she chose to become a camp internee and remain with her father, mother, and brother, who were interned there. Etty and her family were put to death at Auschwitz within months of her decision.

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Below is a detail of the inside art including Etty’s words…

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“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” – Etty Hillesum

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You can learn more about Etty Hillesum at www.pilgrimagetotheheart.org
There is also a Facebook page, Pilgrimage to the Heart

Part 5: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound

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Thing #5 – The Ascension of Jesus
Here again, I’m amazed at how a belief that I once considered to be embarrassing has turned out to be an asset for everyone on the planet.

What was so embarrassing?
The story of the ascension just sounds so airy-fairy. Especially if you happen to be in an academic setting. You might as well say you believe Peter Pan is a historical figure. It sounds like a bedtime story: “…And then Jesus flew waaaay up into the clouds with the birds and butterflies while a band of angels and unicorns pranced gaily about on the earth below!” Maybe I’m making it worse than it is, but still…

You can read the actual account in Acts 1:1-11, but here are the key details:

  • After being publically crucified, Jesus is resurrected
  • He appears to His disciples for 40 days and talks to them about the kingdom of God
  • As they are looking on, He is “lifted up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight”
  • Two angelic messengers appear beside the disciples, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

Believe it or not, every one of these details turns out to be significant. Following are my top 3 reasons why the ascension matters.

1 – The ascension story makes it really difficult to be a fake Jesus.
It would be an understatement to say that Jesus has a great deal of influence. Not surprisingly, then, since Jesus left there is a long list of people who have claimed to be him. Many of their stories would be funny if they didn’t involve so many dead people. Some of the better known fake Jesuses have been:

  • Haile Selassie, former Ethiopian Emperor, died 1975 – Rastafarians consider him to be the second coming of Jesus. Some believe he is still alive. He was a reluctant and relatively harmless fake Jesus.
  • Jim Jones, Peoples Temple cult leader of poison Kool-aid fame, died 1978 – claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus and also Vladimir Lenin, (which is slightly more believable.)
  • Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate cult leader of Hale-Bopp comet fame, died 1997 – claimed to be Jesus 2 years before He and his followers committed mass suicide in order to rendezvous with a space ship hiding behind the comet.
  • Rev Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church cult leader of mass wedding ceremonies fame, died 2012 – believed by church members to be the second coming of Jesus. Moon believed his mission was to complete unfinished the work of Jesus, who, the first time around was unfortunately crucified before he could get married and create the perfect family.
  • The Jehovah’s Witness cult takes a more subtle approach, claiming that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914.

Think about it. No one alive today knows what Jesus looked like. So how do you know that Marshall Applewhite wasn’t the second coming of Jesus? Well, this is what happens when people go cherry picking through the Bible. Even if you personally do not believe a word of the Bible, and even if you think this whole business of Jesus coming back is a bunch of baloney, you have to admit that those of us who do believe the Bible have a pretty strong litmus test for recognizing the second coming of Jesus: If he doesn’t come out of the sky in a cloud, he’s not Jesus. Simple! How reassuring is that – for both believers and non-believers alike!

It looks as though the real Jesus anticipated all of this. If you couple the angel’s message in Acts with the earlier words of Jesus, you get an unmistakably supernatural picture. Concerning His own return, Jesus said:

“…Then if any one says to you, ‘Lo, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Lo, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; if they say, ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightening comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the son of man” (Mat 24:23-27).

It’s supposed to be a very big event.

2 – The ascension of Jesus argues against participation in wacky, bloody, apocalyptic religious movements.
I’m so happy that Jesus ascended. I just never have to wonder if Jesus wants me to pick up a gun and shoot somebody in the face for His glory. Or, let’s say, fly an airplane into a building full of infidels. (See previous post). Before His crucifixion Jesus made this clear statement:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (Jn 18:36).

Then after his resurrection, he literally, visibly leaves the planet. Thank you Jesus. This pretty much renders illegitimate any violent, theocratic dictatorship headed by government officials claiming divine guidance. We don’t have to wonder. Such guidance does not come from above. To American ears this sounds obvious as we are accustomed to living with a separation of church and state. But for most of history, in most of the world, this hasn’t been, and often still isn’t, so obvious.

It certainly isn’t obvious in the Muslim world. It wasn’t obvious for most of Christian history either. With the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the Church of Jesus suffered the unintended consequences of being married to a political state. In uniting with human government, the Roman Church became an instrument of oppression, because government always entails force. Any religion or ideology that merges with any government will always tend to become coercive because, by definition, “government wields the sword.” Many of Christianity’s well-intentioned “church fathers”, including Chrysostem and Augustine, viewed the Roman Church as the kingdom of God on earth. This unbiblical viewpoint resulted in a lot of religious wars, and a lot of shed blood, supposedly in Jesus’ name.

But Jesus has left the building. Before leaving He made it clear to His followers that His two greatest commands are to love God, and to love people (Mt 22:36-40; Lk 12:28-31). He specifically commissioned His followers to non-violently spread the news of His kingdom, which is not of this world; even to suffer violence if necessary. Viewing the Bible as the internally consistent, ultimate authority on what Jesus taught, I have to conclude that even if a man has political power, and a shiny religious robe, and a jeweled pointy hat, if he contradicts what Jesus taught, then he’s not following Jesus.

3 – The ascension of Jesus shows concerns of an impending right wing theocracy to be hysterical nonsense.
In our current political setting, I have often heard that the religious right secretly plans to overthrow the American constitution and government, institute a theocracy based on Old Testament law, stone homosexuals, ban birth control and then force women to have babies, and implement who-knows-what other OT regressive measures that nobody wants. Over the years I’ve received political fundraising letters from the left that I wish I had saved, to show how goofy this accusation is. “New Atheist” Sam Harris is even worried that our elected officials might merely be praying and studying the Bible (The End of Faith, pg 47).

If you are also worried about this, or even if you wonder how widespread this desire for a Christian theocracy is among Christians, I have wonderful news for you today! If you wonder what is going on in all of those Bible-believing evangelical churches all across America every Sunday morning, I hope to set your mind at ease. I recommend that you simply visit a local, mainstream, evangelical church. You won’t hear anyone promoting theocracy during the sermon, so maybe afterwards you could ask around about when the secret theocracy planning meetings are held. (I’ve never done this, but I think you should). You will find instead that these people are busy raising their families, trying to make ends meet, serving the poor and homeless, raising money to support international aid and missions, and having Bible studies.

The Bible study part is really good news for you if you’re concerned about a Christian theocracy because there is no mandate for such a thing in the Bible. In fact, I’m sure it’s safe to say that most evangelicals think of “the American experiment” as a remarkably resilient and unique system of government based on Judeo-Christian concepts, (not laws), of which religious freedom is a cornerstone. All evangelicals I know love our constitution and Bill of Rights, and are primarily concerned with “progressive” political forces violating it. They want to preserve our free, constitutional republic, not overthrow it. I only say these things because I’ve pretty much attended church every week since 9 months before I was born, and now I regularly speak and perform at various churches, many of which are very theologically conservative, of the sort that you are told to be afraid of. I have never, ever, in my whole life, heard a sermon or conference speaker anywhere promote the idea of a theocracy.

The reason is simple: It’s an unbiblical idea.  Jesus has left the building, and He gave no instructions to set up a Christian government. You can relax. Even if you think the Bible is a made-up book of fairy tales, you can relax in the knowledge that crazies like me who do believe it are harmless little fuzz-balls who have been enabled and commanded by Jesus to love God and to love people. If some right wing leader ever does appear with a theocratic agenda, people who believe the Bible won’t follow him.

People who believe the Bible are your friend.

A final note
It is true that the Bible really does speak of something called the kingdom of God. In fact it is the main topic about which Jesus spoke, making it a topic dear to my heart. I will post on this topic the future, but, for purposes of this post I will summarize it this way: The kingdom of God is indeed present on the earth, but not in a political form within a geographical boundary. The kingdom is presently manifested on the earth within the collective body of all who follow Jesus and submit to His authority. The kingdom is not a metaphor – it truly is a government, of which Jesus is the head. Whenever you hear someone referring to Jesus as their Lord, this is what they are saying.

This kingdom crosses all national, political, economic, racial, church and denominational boundaries. Jesus said the kingdom is entered into through spiritual rebirth (Jn 3:3-7). In the kingdom there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, or male and female; all are one in God’s Messiah; all enjoy a new relationship as sons and daughters in Him (Gal 3:26-4:7). The kingdom of God, the coming of which was predicted by the Hebrew prophets (Isa 9:6,7; Dan 2:36-45), was fulfilled partially, but definitely, at the time of Jesus’ first coming (Mat 12:28;16:28). It will only be brought to complete fulfillment at His return (Eph 1:9,10).

So, if you are an atheist or skeptic, this should tickle you pink. What could be more harmless? Basically you have a group of people who believe they have been commanded to love everyone, and to peacefully spread their message of love and unity in Jesus around the world. The world is a better place for this (example). There’s nothing political or coercive there. So long as Jesus never comes out of the sky in a cloud, you can chill, and blow the whole thing off as a joke!

Now…whoever you are, aren’t you glad that the Bible says that Jesus ascended into heaven?