Getting To Know Your Worst Nightmare

I was recently invited to share my thoughts at a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) church service in California, via Zoom. According to my host, it is a very liberal congregation in a liberal geographical bubble. Apparently members of the congregation run the spectrum of social liberalism including LGBTQ folks, and some who were formerly evangelicals. Bruce, my host, considers himself to be an atheist.

Bruce and I connected through a Braver Angels event and have since talked weekly over Zoom for some six months. It has been quite an adventure for both of us, and not always a comfortable one. I would say our aim has been to understand each other, with permission to each respectfully challenge the other’s opinions.

At some point Bruce got the idea to share what he was doing with his UU church. Then it occurred to him to have me share as well, I guess just to keep it real. His minister was open to having me as a guest, and so we planned a service, which occurred in April, 2021. Below I’ve linked an edited video of the pertinent parts in case you would like to hear what was said.

To their credit, Bruce and his pastor took a risk in inviting me in. They told me about how they’d wrestled with why it was so difficult to invite me in. They knew they could invite a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or a Rabbi, or an atheist to speak, and everyone would pretty much be fine with it. But for some reason it was daunting to consider inviting a conservative evangelical Christian who voted for Trump twice.

I’m happy to report that the church was very welcoming toward me, and there was a lot of positive feedback afterwards. I did not go into many specifics on triggering issues, even in the Q and A time that followed. My intent was not to trigger people. The point was to inspire people to seek understanding with neighbors or family members who think differently than they do.

I’ll let the video speak for itself. It’s a half hour long but I think you’ll find it interesting. Plus the pastor has a cool Scottish accent. I’d love to hear your feedback.

The Cause of the Divide
If you’ve followed this blog for long you know that I consider American society to be toxically divided. I’m concerned about this and I’m not alone. It is now common to hear people bemoan the loss of civility and respectful disagreement in human discourse, especially in political discourse.

How did we get here? Is there something different going on now than in previous generations?

I think there is. At the risk of sounding partisan, I believe that the divide has been created and nurtured by the far Left, and foisted onto the mainstream. It’s a simple worldview issue. Allow me to make my case.

To be specific, in referring to the Left I am not referring to some fuzzy notion of liberal-ish stuff that I happen to dislike. I’m referring specifically to a neo-Marxist worldview – a view that sees the cause of the world’s inequities and injustices through a lens of oppressor vs oppressed. Whether between economic classes, races, genders, or ideological parties, the Left by definition promotes division and, ultimately, a re-structuring of a supposedly oppressive system via revolution.

So for example, if there is a minority group that is suffering oppression, such as a higher rate of poverty, abuse, COVID deaths, unemployment, addiction, imprisonment, or anything else negative, then there must be an oppressor according to a neo-Marxist worldview.

It would be worth discussing with a neo-Marxist whether or not life is quite this simple.

But Marxism is not what’s new. The America Left and Right have always fought and disagreed. There is something new (and worse) going on here. In previous decades I watched the two sides battle it out in the field of ideas. At their best, opponents would cite facts, history, research, and employ rational discourse. But in the past decade the extreme Left has decided to go around the field of intellectual arguments and go straight to the field of subjective feelings. By assigning conservatives the worst of motives and then leveraging peer/mob pressure and emotional manipulation, the Left has enshrined itself as morally superior.

What’s new is that the Left finally has the power to do so.

Having gained control of mainstream media, the entertainment industry, academia, big tech, and mainline church denominations, the Left now has the means to dominate the societal narrative, propagating the message that to dissent from the “progressive” narrative is to take the hurtful, hateful, oppressor position. We are all now familiar with the charge that to dissent from the “progressive” narrative is to be anti-woman, anti-gay, transphobic, racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, bigoted, hateful, and so on.

Here’s the thing. All of those things truly are immoral and indefensible. If that list of adjectives accurately defined conservatives, then the Left should be exposing and shaming conservatives for the evil oppressors that they are. The problem (for the Left) is that the only way to get those labels to stick to mainstream conservatives is to torture the English language, re-write history, redefine objective reality, and shut down dissent. In my opinion that is what is happening. Plenteous examples provided upon request.

Republicans, for their part have generally not responded to this like adults. Brasher elements have gone into fight mode, which doesn’t win the middle, and allows the “hater” label to stick. They’ve tried to trump the Left with Trump, placing their faith in a man who couldn’t compete in the field of factual ideas. Instead, he responded in kind, specializing in division and bombastic rhetoric, making an already terrible situation worse. I think the saber-rattling, conspiracy crap, and patriot pumping on the part of Republicans is a reaction to the Left’s strategy of unjustly framing them as the great white cause of all the world’s suffering.

Is anyone ready for something better and more honest? Is anyone tired of watching the pendulum-wrecking ball swing back and forth?

The Solution
We have to talk to each other. Neither side is going to go away. Neither side is going to allow the other to force its will onto the other. Ask yourself what the outcome will be if both sides continue the strategy of “hitting back harder.”

So what is the answer? Whoever you are, right or left, if you believe you have the facts, evidence, and the truth on your side, then you have nothing to lose by seeking mutual understanding with “the other side.” In all likelihood, you will find facts, evidence, and truth on both sides. If that weren’t the case America wouldn’t be split down the middle. There are legitimate concerns on both sides of every issue.

People of radically differing worldviews will not agree on specific solutions. So then what is the point of talking? The answer is that we can at least get back to respectful disagreement as fellow human beings. Liberals need to get to know conservatives. If that sounds one-sided, that’s because it is. In my experience, conservatives generally understand liberals; we just disagree with them. We recognize that liberals believe they are acting out of a sense of compassion and social justice. But the reverse is not true. A great many liberals really do believe that conservatives are racist, anti-gay, anti-woman, xenophobic, etc.

It may be up to conservatives to take initiative in seeking mutual understanding. The end result will probably not be a changed worldview for anyone. But it is a very realistic goal that we can return to a place of respectful disagreement in political discourse if liberals can recognize that mainstream conservatives are not motivated by hate. That would be a win for everyone. We can communicate without the divisive labeling. The video will give you some ideas on how to get there.

Looking for a gift? My new kids’ storybook, The Friendly City, helps kids navigate a culture that is in decline. Visit my BOOKSTORE for more info.

Thoughts for White Conservatives Who Never Owned Slaves

I’m seeing a lot of defensiveness from conservatives regarding racism. This is understandable, as the Left continues pushing to redefine racism to include things such as breathing and having a job.

But being defensive isn’t helping anyone. Is it really too much to ask that we try to see the world from our Black neighbors’ perspective? To empathize with them? To face America’s racist past?

Here’s a clear example of what I’m seeing. Last week I read an article about Max Lucado publicly repenting at length for his ancestors’ sins of racism. The majority of comments following said things like this:

> My dad said his father was a horse thief…do I need to beg for forgiveness for his sin? If I do, do I get to hear honking cars afterwards?

> Lucado is trying to sell more books. No where in scripture does it suggest you repent of the sins of your ancestors… Slavery and racism has (sic) been present since the beginning of time.

> This is ridiculous. Licado (sic) needed attention and sell books (sic)…..that was 150 years ago…get over it.

Stuff I Didn’t Learn in School
I’ve spent the last few weeks re-learning the history of Black America. I was born in 1960 – ninety-nine years after the start of the Civil War. I thought I knew this stuff. What I’ve realized is that I mostly learned about the good parts – the civil rights victories, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and how America finally got it right. I never really learned about just how bad things were for Black Americans during the 100 years after the Civil War, before the “civil rights era.”

I recently listened to a talk by Bryan Stevenson, attorney and author of Just Mercy. Stevenson carries a lot of moral authority with me because of his tireless work on behalf of people on death row who have been wrongly convicted. He contends that America has never truly come to grips with its racist past, and that this is a necessary step in order for healing to actually occur as a nation. I agree with him.

I suppose most white folks, myself included, have assumed that because equal rights have been established on a policy level, then we’ve basically solved the problem. We live and work next to our Black fellow Americans and we all get along just fine now.

May I ask something of you? I am not suggesting that you need to repent of your ancestors’ sins. Repentance is not the point for you today if you do not hold racist beliefs or attitudes, imo. What I think is in order is that we grieve with, feel with, and empathize with, our Black brothers and sisters. I’ve compiled a brief timeline of post–slavery American history. I think you will find some surprises, as I did.

1863 – THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION is issued by Republican President Lincoln during America’s Civil War over slavery. The Proclamation declares that slaves residing in the warring Confederate states are “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Southern whites insist that Lincoln’s executive order is illegal and refuse to comply.

1865 – THE 13TH AMENDMENT is ratified, formally codifying the Emancipation Proclamation, prohibiting slavery throughout the United States, “except as punishment for crime.”

1865 – THE CIVIL WAR ENDS. LINCOLN IS ASSASSINATED 6 DAYS LATER. Democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson assumes the presidency but proves to be soft in his commitment to implement Reconstruction efforts and to protect newly recognized Black citizens. Among other things, Johnson opposes Black voting rights.

1866 – WHITE MOB VIOLENCE in Memphis and New Orleans leaves nearly 100 Blacks citizens dead, and some 200 wounded, including at least 5 women raped. White police officers contribute to the violence and killing until federal troops arrive.  

1866 – REPUBLICANS WIN A VETO-PROOF SUPER-MAJORITY IN CONGRESS as a result of public outrage over the Memphis and New Orleans attacks. Progressive Republicans embark on an aggressive civil rights program the likes of which wouldn’t happen again for 100 years.

1866 – THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT is passed, over President Johnson’s veto, declaring Black Americans full citizens entitled to equal rights.  

1866 – THE 14TH AMENDMENT IS PASSED by the super-majority, but will require ratification by 28 of the 37 states in order to become constitutional law. The proposed amendment establishes that all persons born in the US, regardless of race, are full citizens of the US and of the states in which they reside and are entitled to the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, due process, and the equal protection under the law.  10 of 11 former Confederate states reject the proposed amendment overwhelmingly.

1867 – THE RECONSTRUCTION ACTS OF 1867 are passed by the super-majority, over President Johnson’s veto, in response to the former Confederate states’ rejection of the 14th amendment. The Acts require former Confederate states seeking readmission to the Union to fulfill the Acts’ conditions. Former states would be required to ratify the 14th amendment, grant voting rights to Black men, accept federal military rule in the southern region, and draft new constitutions to be approved by congress.

1868 – THE 14TH AMENDMENT IS OFFICIALLY ADOPTED. White backlash, violence, and efforts to maintain white supremacy continue in earnest.

1870 – THE 15TH AMENDMENT IS PASSED – the third and last of the Reconstruction amendments. It states, “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Subsequently, Black voters turn out in droves and more than 600 African Americans are elected as state legislators. The US Congress adds 16 Black representatives, and Mississippi elects the nations first two Black senators. The new racially integrated Reconstruction governments set about repealing racially discriminatory laws. Instability grows as whites in the South refuse to accept what is happening.

1870-71 CONGRESS PASSES A SERIES OF ENFORCEMENT ACTS, including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, authorizing, among other things, the federal government to prosecute civil rights violations as crimes. Republican President Grant supports progressive Reconstruction and provides federal troops to enforce it, as state governments are powerless to stop widespread violence and upheaval.

One of the worst is the 1876 United States vs Cruikshank decision. Incredibly, the Cruikshank ruling interprets 14th amendment protections as only applying to state offenses, not against violence perpetrated by individuals, rendering the Enforcement Act useless. Cruikshank leaves Blacks in the South defenseless against white perpetrators so long as they act privately. As a result, anti-Black violence in the South openly increases as white perpetrators act with impunity, knowing that racist state judicial systems and law enforcement will not punish them. This marks the beginning of the end of a mere 10-year period of hope and positive development for Blacks in America, until the civil rights era of the 1960s.

1876 – THE END OF RECONSTRUCTION. The 1876 presidential election ends in a stalemate between Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. The Supreme Court and Congress develop a compromise whereby Hayes would become president if he would agree to end Reconstruction. The “unwritten” Compromise of 1877 resulted in all remaining federal troops being pulled out of southern states, and the agreement that the South would have the right to deal with Blacks without northern interference. This leaves southern Blacks with no legal recourse and virtually no protection, relegating them to an inferior status in a hostile society.

Here I will end the timeline, and summarize for purposes of brevity.

In the ensuing decades, especially in the South, a white supremacist society intentionally and often violently terrorized Blacks in order to “keep them in their place.” Despite the fact that equality between the races was encoded into federal law, the notion of white supremacy remained entrenched at every level of white society in the former slave states – in the general population, in the education establishment, in churches, in civil law, in law enforcement, in the legal system, and in state government.

Racial separation and inequality were enforced by many means including:

> rewriting state constitutions and laws, including Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation

> creating all-white juries to guarantee immunity for perpetrators of racial violence

> physical violence and legal barriers against would be Black voters

> evicting and/or firing would be Black voters and Blacks working for racial equality

> police brutality from officers who were often Klansmen/members of white supremacist groups

> judges who held white supremacist and/or segregationist views

> shutting down public schools to prevent integration, and the widespread creation of all-white schools

> criminalizing peaceful civil rights protests

> sexual violence against Black girls and women

> rioting

> bombings

> lynching

If I may elaborate just a bit on lynching: I had been under the impression, I suppose mostly from movies, that lynching was a somewhat risky and rare phenomenon perpetrated mostly by the KKK under cover of darkness. However, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has documented 4084 lynchings between the years 1877 – 1950. These have been verified from news and other sources from the era. There were unquestionably an untold number of undocumented lynchings and assaults as well.

It seems clear that “terror lynchings” were perpetrated to send a message to Black citizens who had hopes of claiming their newly won rights as full citizens and equals. The message was that if you are Black, this can be done to you or your loved ones if you step out of “your place” as an inferior. The message was that a black person accused by a white person is not worth the time and expense of due process in a courtroom setting.

Many lynchings were public spectacles, with hundreds of white citizens and families in attendance. These were not viewed as fringe acts of extremism, but were mainstream events condoned by white society. Sometimes there would be food and drink, and the victim’s body parts would be handed out to the crowd as souvenirs. This was all openly documented by an often sympathetic press.

What is the point of saying these things now?
This is not the America we live in today. It is true that no one alive today owned slaves or perpetrated a racial terror lynching. No Black person living today was ever a slave. But the appropriate response to Black Americans is not, therefore, “so get over it.” For decades during the post-slavery era, Blacks were left utterly unprotected and what was done to them was horrific, to say nothing of the slavery itself that came before. White America must sorrowfully acknowledge this.

Millions of white supremacist Americans worked tirelessly, voted, and rioted to keep Blacks subjugated. The experience of Black Americans today has been shaped by this history. It should also be said that racial terror and discrimination was not just a “southern problem.” After Reconstruction ended, some 6 million Black Americans fled the South to the North, Midwest, and West, where violence and discrimination often followed – in cities such as East St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Tulsa, and Omaha.

Admitting the horror of America’s violent, racist past is a necessary part of national healing and understanding. Doing so is not an admission that America is innately horrible, or that rioting, or the solutions proposed by left wing groups like BLM or M4BL are correct.

But it might help us to understand the anger and frustration. It might help us to understand the eerie familiarity Blacks may feel when a white policeman unjustly kills a Black man and goes unpunished. It might help us to understand how confederate monuments may be seen as celebrations of white supremacy. It might help us to understand why America remains largely segregated, even though overt white supremacy has virtually disappeared from society and its institutions.

It is a basic act of respect toward Black Americans to not sweep their history under the rug. May God give us all grace and understanding to clean house without tearing the house down.

For further reading I recommend one or all of EJI’s 4 thin books: Slavery in America; Reconstruction; Segregation in America; & Lynching in America.

A Painting: Bringing the Hidden Stuff to Light

worship painting, Scott Freeman

“Transformation” by Scott Freeman, 22×28, latex paint on canvas

I haven’t done a great deal of worship painting, (defined as live painting during a worship service,) and when I have done so, I’m not sure that what I’ve painted has spoken to many people. But recently I did a worship painting that seemed to connect with several bros. After the service I had some great conversations, and several people wanted to purchase the painting.

I was a little embarrassed about the subject matter, due, I suppose, to my fine art schooling and the fact that Christian subculture can get pretty cheesy at times. But I do consciously aim to make work that exists in a place of tension between populism and elitism. This is possibly due to the fact that I had a thoroughly blue-collar upbringing, but then attended a private, elitist art college. I found that both had valuable things to offer.

On this night, I figured that making a painting featuring both a sword and a mask would render it hopelessly clichéd in the eyes any art snobs in the room, but I couldn’t think of a better way to communicate what I wanted to say. So I ignored all that and made the painting.

The Painting
I had some friends in mind as I made the painting – guys that are struggling to overcome various addictions, and for whom this struggle has been a protracted battle. As I’ve watched my friends I’ve been impressed by their humility; by their willingness to make themselves vulnerable and accountable to our church congregation of fellow travelers.

This has required them to remove their masks; to allow us into their lives to see them as they are in their failures, and allow us to accept them and care for them. But it’s difficult removing masks. It’s counter-intuitive. It requires a death to self, and that’s what the sword represents. It really is a battle. My friends are warriors.

As I was painting I noticed that the mask has the shape of a shield. It struck me that we may try to use masks as a shield; as a way to protect ourselves, and as something to hide behind. But a mask fails as a shield. A mask is too small, and we all know what’s behind the mask anyway – a broken person who needs connection with God and with other people. We intuitively know this because it’s true for us all.

So the figure in the painting is instead looking to the light of God; exposing himself to God; surrendering himself to God; receiving new life from God, resting in God’s grace. The mask is down. The armor we actually need is the spiritual armor described by the apostle Paul, including the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:10-18).

Why do we pretend to have our poop in a group?
Church culture can tend to perpetuate mask-wearing as a way to hide our secret sins and imperfections. Maybe it’s because we celebrate the destination, and it’s easier to present the impression we have already arrived than it is to do the uncomfortable work of making the inward journey. Or maybe we feel we don’t have fellow travelers that we can trust. Maybe for a wounded person it feels safer to forego taking a relational risk. Maybe we just don’t know a better way.

But hiding our sins and imperfections is to misunderstand what Jesus envisioned a community of His followers to be. The church was intended to be a subculture of life, called out from a culture of death. Life as God defines it means walking in communion and love, and walking in freedom that comes from addressing our brokenness.

The process of coming to the Light so that the darkness in our hearts is exposed is a process we must all undertake if we are to live in the community of God’s Life. Entrenched lies and destructive patterns must be identified, named, confessed and brought to light, put to death, and then replaced with Truth. Otherwise, they will continue to inhibit the Spiritual healing and wholeness that God has in mind for us.

The hidden stuff has a way of not staying hidden anyway. If it remains present it will shape our identity and our behavior, even affecting those relationships around us as it tends to come out in hurtful or inappropriate ways.

Restoration and Transformation
We were made for wholeness, for freedom, and for loving communion with God and one another. He has created us to need Him, and to need community with one another; to know and to be known; to experience relational unity as human beings helping each other along in the process of being restored to wholeness. The shameful stuff, whatever it may be, has power over us as long as it remains hidden.

“…If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”
(1 John 1:7-9).

May we walk in the Light together.

removing the mask

Prints are available of this painting. Email me if you’re interested at

In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr quote

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. For many, King’s assassination marked the end of the civil rights movement’s strategy of non-violence.

Some believe his assassination was the result of a conspiracy involving the United States government. King’s family eventually even filed a wrongful death suit against the government, which it (sort of) “won.”

As news of his assassination became known, riots broke out in over 100 cities across America. For many fighting for the cause of civil rights and racial equality, King’s death must’ve signaled a loss of hope that the entrenched white power structures could be reformed through peaceful means.

So…fight fire with fire. Fear with fear. It seems that violence is what works. Force gets things done.

But does it?

The human problem is the human heart. King was a remarkable leader because he understood the problem. As a follower of Jesus, King rightly saw that the solution to the human problem was the strategy of changing hearts for good. Violence never does that. Unfortunately, violence has its place in our broken world, but only when there is no hope for understanding and empathy.

I don’t believe we are at that place yet. I think understanding and empathy have barely been tried. But violence and intolerance can seem easier, faster, and more satisfying to hearts that are hurting.

Following is one of my (reluctantly) favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I believe these words are true, but they are extremely difficult to carry out. This is a hard saying. It is even difficult to read. But I think he is right. His strategy transcends conspiracies, governmental power, intolerance, and hatred:

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.    — A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

These words, spoken 4 months before his murder, echo the words of Jesus and the apostle Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21.)

It’s a messy business living in a broken world with broken people, and we are still far from the destination that King envisioned. I believe our hope must ultimately come from outside of ourselves; from the Savior who made inward transformation possible through spiritual rebirth. Regardless of how much progress we make in this corrupt age, He promises unity and justice in the age to come. Jesus invites us to experience the realities of that future age right now, in this present age. I think Dr. King, the Baptist minister and activist, would be pleased if the occasion of his death would spur some to accept the invitation of Jesus to step into His kingdom of light.

My Top 5 Differences Between the Quran & the Bible

Opening Minds - Scott Freeman

If you’ve been following this blog for long, you know that I’m a great fan of the Bible. For me the Bible is like the North Star – a transcendent light around which all other constellations of light revolve. I contend that all of the problems in “Christianity,” both historically and in the present, stem not from following the Bible too closely, but from not following it closely enough.

I could cite many examples, but here’s a whopper: The Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was not a bunch of liberal theologians improving on the words of Jesus, or intentionally modifying the Bible. It was a bunch of people defying theocratic state power in order to return to a movement called Christianity that had fundamentally veered from its biblical roots and from the original message of Jesus. It was an (imperfect) step toward the restoration of a revolutionary movement of God.

That movement has always had its human leaders and martyrs, but the head of the movement has always been its resurrected leader, not innovators who would come later. The salvific work wrought by Jesus was supernatural and so fundamentally profound as to make any “improvements” on His work impossible. Therefore, the church’s departures from His course have always resulted in less than the best for the church and the world. At times it has resulted in inhumanities at complete odds with what Jesus taught. (More.)

How does this relate to Islam? Could Islam undergo a reformation similar to that which Christianity underwent? Many have wondered if such a reformation could be possible in Islam, especially in light of the recent inhumanities committed by the Islamic State (IS.)

Unfortunately for the world, (including Muslims,) it appears as if Islam has already had its reformation, and we are seeing its fruit. The word “radical” means “proceeding from the roots.” In the same way that radical Reformation Christians sought a return to the original teachings and vision of Jesus, so radical Muslims seek to return to the original teachings and vision of Muhammad. The problem is not in being radical and fundamental. The problem is being radical and fundamental about false teachings and a bad vision.

Is it wrong to radically follow a leader? That depends upon the leader:

Jesus lived a brief, celibate life of self-sacrifice. He was a healer and a teacher who summed up all of God’s commands in the command to love both God and people. He laid down His life for others.

Muhammad was a polygamist who consummated his marriage with his youngest bride when she was nine years of age. He was an illiterate warrior who fought in over 80 battles. He took the lives of others.

Several years ago, I realized that I needed to learn about Islam. I didn’t want to learn about Islam from the news media or from academicians since I already knew how rarely they get Christianity right. I figured that since they seldom get their home religion right, how likely is it that they would get a foreign religion right? So I bought a Quran. I also started dialoguing online with Muslims, to see if I was understanding things correctly.

It was very educational for me.

The Quran was given to Muhammad some 600 years after Jesus. The Quran repeatedly states that it confirms the Jewish and Christian scriptures that came before it (2:98; 5:44-48; 12:111.) However, in our literate culture this is a bizarre claim. It’s just weird. To cite what is perhaps the defining example, the Quran claims that God rescued Jesus from being crucified, (apparently because it would be wrong to let His prophet suffer such humiliation,) and instead put an imposter in the place of Jesus (4:157,158.) By contrast the Judeo-Christian scriptures repeatedly state it was God’s will for Jesus to die on behalf of the human race, as His means of reconciliation and salvation. The Koran calls the story of the crucifixion of Jesus a “monstrous falsehood.” This example alone shows there is simply no harmonizing the Bible and the Quran.

Beliefs dictate behavior. The differences between the Bible and the Quran touch on the most fundamental aspects of life, and the fruit of these differences can be seen in the actions of those who radically follow their respective holy scriptures. Below, I briefly list what I found to be 5 basic differences between the Bible and Quran. I refrain from making judgments, and simply describe what I found. For each point I include one representative verse from each book:


1 – The Nature of God (relational vs non-relational)
The Bible presents a Creator-God who is one in essence yet revealed in three persons. God’s triune nature implies that God has always existed in loving relationship and unity. Loving relationship existed eternally, before matter existed. As beings created in His image, we were made for relational unity and love as well. (More.)
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24.)

The Quran considers God to be unknowable; we can know his will, but we cannot know Him. The idea that God could have a son is considered to be a “monstrous falsehood” (19:88.) It states that the falsehood of a triune Godhead would result in a power struggle (23:91.) The phrase “God is love” is necessarily absent from the Quran.
“So believe in God and His apostles and do not say: ‘Three.’ Forbear, and it shall be better for you. God is but one God. God forbid that He should have a son!” (4:171.)

2 – The Nature of Humanity (the basis for human worth)
The Bible states that human beings, both male and female, bear the image of God. It follows then that all human beings have intrinsic value regardless of distinction. Biblical apostolic teaching affirms that there is no male or female in Christ. Marriage was designed to be a complementary unity of equals, reflecting the Godhead (Gen 2:24; Matt 19:4-6.) The New Testament often states that God loved us, despite our fallen, sinful state, and that the sacrificial death of Jesus was the supreme expression of that love.
“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27.)

The Quran states that God created men superior to women. While it states that women shall have rights similar to men, it states that men have a status above women (2:228.) The Quran also gives instruction regarding child-brides who have not yet menstruated (65:4.) God’s love for humankind seems to be conditional – He loves those who do good, who are just, who fight for Him in battle array (61:4), etc. God does not love unbelievers (3:31-32, 30:43-45.) (More.)
“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior over the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme” (4:34.)

3 – The Nature of Salvation (life, heaven, and hell)
The Bible frames salvation relationally and holistically, in keeping with God’s relational nature. Ultimately, eternal life is relational unity with God, beginning in the present and continuing on into eternity. Salvation can only be a gift; un-earned (Eph 2:8,9.) There is a heaven, but the stated point is the presence of God and loving communion with God and His people. Conversely, “hell” is a place of separation from God (1 Thes 1:9.) Jesus spoke of an afterlife with an authority and clarity that hadn’t previously existed in ancient Judaism. He certainly warned about “hell” as a reality – at most around 50 mentions, directly or indirectly.
“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3.)

The Quran frames salvation primarily in terms of gaining paradise and escaping punishment. Salvation is earned by becoming Muslim and doing good deeds (22:49; 33:35.) The differences between the Bible’s and the Quran’s depiction of heaven and hell are substantial, but in reading the Quran what stood out to me most was the overwhelming emphasis on hell. By the second paragraph, and then again in the third, punishment is mentioned, and it never lets up throughout the rest of the book. In the 433 pages of my Quran there are nearly 500 references to hell, fire, punishment, and doom.
“Those that deny Our revelations we will burn in the fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge. Surely God is mighty and wise” (4:56.)

4 – The Nature of Faith (the basis for belief)
The Bible uniquely presents faith as relational, historical, and evidential. The God of the Bible never asks for blind obedience or irrational faith. Biblical faith is trusting in the proven character of a Creator who has taken pains to demonstrate His trustworthiness through acts in history and verifiable signs. The authors in the Bible, in both old and new testaments, continually refer to eyewitness accounts of historical events, citing times, places, events, genealogies, fulfilled prophecy, and other historical reference points to provide a basis for belief. (More.)
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you eternal life…” (1 John 1:1,2.)

The Quran often refers to itself as a guide from God. It could not refer to biblical events firsthand since it came hundreds of years after Jesus. Instead it repeatedly claims to confirm the Torah and the gospels. However, in the many instances where it refers to the Torah or the gospels it adds embellishments and/or flatly contradicts the biblical accounts. It does provide a test for its own authenticity in saying that if it had not come from God, then it would have many contradictions (4:82.)
“This Quran could not have been devised by any but God. It confirms what was revealed before it and fully explains the scriptures. It is beyond doubt from the Lord of the universe. If they say: ‘He invented it himself,’ say: Bring me one chapter like it. Call on whom you may besides God to help you, if what you say is true!” (10:37,38.)

5 – The Nature of Spiritual Life & Practice (written code vs Spirit)
The Bible presents the Holy Spirit as a person with a mind, will, & emotions – as God Himself. Jesus and His apostles teach spiritual rebirth and the indwelling of God’s Spirit within every believer. Thereafter we walk in the Spirit, rather than “according to the flesh.” In the new covenant of Jesus the old written Torah is not abolished; it is fulfilled and surpassed by something better – a “new life in the Spirit.” Paul specifically says we are given the Spirit because we have received “adoption as sons” in Jesus (Galatians 3:23-4:7.)
“But now we are released from the law, 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” (Romans 7:6.)

The Quran also presents the Holy Spirit as a helping, strengthening entity, but not as God Himself. Apparently most Muslim scholars believe that the Holy Spirit is the angel Gabriel, (a spirit-being who is holy.) There is no indwelling of the Spirit as in the New Testament. There is no concept of God as Father in the Quran, and accordingly there is no adoption for us as his children. Muslim spiritual practice consists of obeying God by obeying what his messenger has revealed in the Quran.
“Had it been God’s will to adopt a son, He would have chosen whom He pleased out of His own creation. But God forbid! He is God, the One, the Almighty” (39:4.)

This has not been a critique of Islam. This has been a respectful comparison of what I have found the Bible and the Quran to say about topics that matter to me. If you are Muslim (or Christian) and you feel that I have misrepresented your holy scriptures in any way, I welcome you to offer correction in the comments below. To all others I would urge reading these sources for yourself to verify the accuracy of what I have written. May God reveal Himself more clearly to us all.

On a lighter note:
If you haven’t already done so, please check out my newly released kid’s storybook:

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!

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

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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…”

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

) One understands Trinitarian theology due to the great Ecumenical councils

) …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.


Part 2: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound

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Thing #2: Adam & Eve
The creation story in Genesis is full of embarrassing things that a modern, educated, intelligent person is expected to run away from: Adam and Eve, Adam’s rib, the talking serpent, the magical tree…You simply can’t say you believe these stories are true and remain in good standing in a modern academic environment. Because academia has something much more modern and intelligent to believe. (Namely, the magical world of evolution, where life spontaneously springs from non-life, and the statistically impossible has accidentally occurred millions of times over to bring us to where we are today.)

To be an academic, one must be intelligent, literate, and capable of rigorous thought. Academia is an elite and exclusive enterprise, to which one must earn entry. By contrast, the stories in the Torah read like children’s stories: God caused Adam to sleep, and while he slept took one of his ribs and made it into a woman. Really? A rib? How insulting to intelligent people. What could be more ridiculous? (I mean, other than the idea that the first woman accidentally evolved from dead matter as a result of non-directed, mindless processes.) But why must the creation account read like a children’s story?

Well, one reason might be that our relational Creator has universal truth that He wants to communicate to “every tribe, tongue, and nation” of the world. God is not elitist. The stories in the Torah deliver content very effectively.  There are some 1 billion illiterate adults in the world – about a quarter of the earth’s adult population. I know missionaries who are sharing God’s truth through Bible stories right now, with illiterate people groups.

But does the fact that the Bible can be understood by uneducated people mean that the Bible is anti-intellectual? Not at all. One of the amazing things about the Bible is that it makes sense at a literal, story level, but at the same time there is spectacular depth for those who bother to search it out. Centuries of Rabbinic Jewish scholarship recorded in the vast literature of the Talmud attests to this, for example.

The Genesis creation account contains way too much profundity for a single blog post, so I want to share one, big idea from the creation story that ties into my previous post on the triune, relational nature of God. After you read this, you may never view life the same way because this is one of the most profound ideas in the universe!

Here it is: According to the Bible, our relational Creator defines life and death in relational terms.

Please bear in mind that, regardless of whether or not you consider this to be true, I’m simply presenting an internally consistent idea that runs throughout the whole of scripture.

What is death?
In the creation account we are first presented with our relational Creator’s understanding of death:

  • God places Adam in the garden, giving him responsibility over it, but instructs Adam not to eat the fruit of a particular tree, saying, “…for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17)
  • A very cunning creature tells Adam’s wife that, actually, God is essentially being selfish and arrogant, and is lying to them. He says, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4,5.)
  • So the first couple decides to eat the forbidden fruit. Then it later says that Adam lives to be 930 years old!

What’s the deal? The serpent is supposed to be evil, but it looks like he was the one speaking the truth! Not only did the man and woman come to know good and evil, they did not die that day. Furthermore, after this, God drives them out of the garden so that they can’t eat from a second tree, the tree of life, which apparently wasn’t even forbidden originally:

‘Then YHWH God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – therefore YHWH God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man…’ (Gen 3:22-24.)

It appears as though God is afraid of human beings becoming wise and eternal, like Himself.

The key to the story has to do with relational unity from start to finish. The biblical concept of death has to do with separation. Conversely, life has to do with unity, both on a spiritual and a physical level. On a physical/biological level we may think of death as the cessation of biological function. But every known culture also understands that this entails a separation of the physical body from some non-material part of us.  Certainly the Bible teaches the existence of a non-material soul/spirit that is separated from the body at physical death.

So death is separation. But for human beings, physical death is merely the inevitable result of a more fundamental, spiritual separation. In all of creation, human beings are unique in that we are both physical and spiritual beings. We were designed to live in relational unity with the fountainhead of life – our Creator. When the first couple chose to disregard God’s will regarding the tree, relational unity was broken. This is the death of which God spoke when He said, “…for in the day you eat of it you shall die.” In separating themselves from the source of life, the first couple did in fact die a spiritual death. The physical death that later followed was an eventual consequence.

Contrary to the serpent’s words, eating the fruit did not make Adam and Eve more like God at all. It made them more like the serpent – relationally cut-off from their Creator, and facing evil they were unequipped and unable to successfully deal with.

Is this view of death simply one possible interpretation? Does the Bible speak explicitly of humans being physically alive while spiritually dead? Yes – this is exactly how our state is described:

  • “And you He made alive, when you were dead through your trespasses and sins…” (Eph 2:1; also 2:5.)
  • “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all out transgressions…” (Col 2:13.)
  • “She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives” (1 Tim 5:6.)

What is life?
If the Bible describes death in terms of relational separation from God, then we might reasonably expect the Bible to define life in terms of relational unity with God. This is exactly what we do see:

  • “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent” (Jn 17:3.) This is a key statement by Jesus, often overlooked. Here He defines eternal life – not as “living forever,” and not as “going to heaven.” He defines it in purely relational terms, while referencing His own relational unity with the Father (v 1,4,5.)
  • “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself” (Jn 5:26.)
  • And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying , ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6.)
  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3.) It is this spiritual rebirth that reconnects us with our Creator, who is Spirit.

The problem of relational disunity is universally recognized. Every religion and ism that I can think of either seeks to bring about relational unity, or seeks to convince us that we are already one, and to live accordingly. But I contend that other religions and isms seek to accomplish unity by means of human effort, often by coercion. One can call to mind the efforts of Communism. Or Islam, which sees peace and unity as arriving only when the entire world is Muslim, and seeks to accomplish this through human effort.

Only the Judeo-Christian scriptures present relational restoration with God as impossible through human effort. Instead, Salvation is something God Himself has accomplished for us, which He then offers to us freely as a gift (Eph 2:8,9.) Once relational/spiritual unity is restored, we then do good out of love and gratitude, not to earn points. This is the opposite of religions which require good deeds and sacrifices in hopes of earning God’s favor.

A word about resurrection.
In keeping with the above teaching of Jesus and His apostles, resurrection, then, is not some random, fairy tale hope about people coming back to life. Resurrection is part of what salvation means for the whole person, as humans are meant to be spirit, soul, and body, in unity. Resurrection follows logically from restored relational unity with God as God reverses events that occurred at the fall in Genesis:

  • Adam immediately died spiritually when right relationship with God was broken. Physical deterioration, death, and decay eventually followed as a result.
  • Today, when right relationship with God is restored through spiritual rebirth in His Messiah, we are made eternally alive immediately. Physical resurrection with imperishable bodies will eventually follow as a result.

“For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written,
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death where is your victory?
O death where is your sting?’” (1 Cor 15:53-55)

By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…(1 Pet 1:3)

What Easter Has To Do With Separating Christians and Jews


Emperor Constantine I – Worse than the Easter Bunny.
Despite favorable intentions toward the church, much of Constantine’s legacy has proved to be harmful, both to the church, and thus, the world.

Fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine continues to suffer accusations, such as canonizing the four biblical gospels while suppressing all others, and creating the doctrine that Jesus was divine. But this is all DaVinci-Code-fake-history, and easily debunked by the historical record. However, there are two enormously significant historical developments for which Constantine really is largely responsible; developments which set church history on a destructive course. The first development is the marrying of state and church. The second is the fixing of the date on which the church would celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. This post will focus on the second development – the date of Easter – and why it matters.

Throughout Roman Catholic Church history there have been 21 ecumenical councils, during which core Church teaching is defined. The first of these was in Nicea under Constantine in 325. In the Synodal Letter from the Council of Nicea, we find this announcement:

“We further proclaim to you the good news of the agreement concerning the holy Easter, that this particular also has through your prayers been rightly settled; so that all our brethren in the East who formerly followed the custom of the Jews are henceforth to celebrate the said most sacred feast of Easter at the same time with the Romans and yourselves and all those who have observed Easter from the beginning. “

It is generally understood that Constantine was interested in unifying the church and rooting out heresy. It can be argued that fixing the date of the celebration of the resurrection for all churches in the empire was part of this push to unify the church. However, it seems there was an additional motive in moving the date of Easter. A letter from Constantine has survived in which he explains his reasoning for moving the date of the resurrection celebration off of Passover week. Following are excerpts:

“It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom [the calculation] of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded…We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course…and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast…”   – From the Letter of the Emperor to all those not present at the Council. (Found in Eusebius, Vita Const., Lib. iii., 18-20.)

This marks a radical departure from the teaching of scripture. If this letter is a true reflection of Constantine’s motives, it appears that his justification for moving the date of Easter off of Passover had to do with arrogant posturing and a desire to separate Christianity from Judaism. To the disinterested reader, this may seem to be a random historical development in history. But those of us who hold the Bible to be the supreme authority see a flagrant contradiction and a bad precedent. In order to see this contradiction, one must compare what Constantine did to what the Judeo-Christian scriptures say.

In order to keep a complex topic reasonably brief, allow me to collapse my understanding of the sweep of Biblical history into a few bullet points. References are included so that you can verify that I’m not fantasizing or committing heresy:

We are all part of a larger story. It is our Creator’s story of love, light, and redemption. Since the beginning of creation, when the human race fell into rebellion, spiritual darkness, and death, our relational Creator has been unfolding His astounding plan to restore us to life: 

  • With Abraham, God established a covenant people who would be a blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen 12:1-3.)
  • With Moses, God brought His covenant people out of physical slavery and into a land of their own. He gave them His Torah (instruction/law) which would serve as a custodian until such time as His Messiah would appear (Gal 3:23-4:7.)
  • Now that the Messiah has come, the scriptures teach that we are no longer under custodial care, but have been brought into direct relationship as sons and daughters under a new and better covenant of life (2 Cor 3:5-18; Gal 4:21-27; Heb 8:6-13.)
  • The Torah of Moses and the Hebrew prophets bore witness to the new and better realities of which we can now be partakers (Ro 3:21.) YHWH’s Messiah explained things which had remained hidden for ages, but which have now come to light (Matt 13:35; Ro 16:25-27; Eph 3:4-12.)

In keeping with this unity and continuity of the Old and New testaments, the most climactic and significant events in the life of Jesus all occurred on Old Covenant Jewish holidays. For example, He was killed on the Feast of Passover, and resurrected on the Feast of Early First Fruits. Each holiday had Old Covenant meaning at the time it was given, yet simultaneously foreshadowed and explained Messianic acts that were hidden for centuries until after the resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. Nothing else compares to this – the linear, unfolding, progressive revelation of the Bible.

It seems presumptuous, then, that under Constantine, some 300 years after the resurrection of Jesus, the Roman Church would deliberately move the celebration of the resurrection off of the Jewish holiday on which the resurrection occurred. Hmmm. By whose authority was this done? And for what reason? This is like taking the batteries out of a flashlight, and then using the flashlight as a hammer.

The march of history continued in this vein with the emperors following Constantine. Throughout ensuing centuries, Christian emperors and kings continued to pass laws designed to separate “the Christian religion” from Judaism, and “Christians” from Jews. It appears that early gentile (non-Jewish) Christians recognized the roots of their faith in Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures as there was apparently a lot of fraternizing between gentile Christians and Jews. We can assume this because so many laws were passed restricting such fraternization. For example, later church councils forbade Christians from celebrating Passover with Jews, observing the Jewish Sabbath, accepting gifts from Jews, or marrying Jews. Many church writings and sermons are designed to separate the two religions. Most famously, church father and bishop, John Chrysostem, delivered 8 sermons in Antioch in 387 AD that typically included exhortations such as these:

There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now (homily 1)… Meanwhile, I ask you to rescue your brothers, to set them free from their error… I want them to learn these facts from you and to free themselves from their wicked association with the Jews. I want them then to show themselves sincere and genuine Christians. I want them to shun the evil gatherings of the Jews and their synagogues, both in the city and in the suburbs, because these are robbers’ dens and dwellings of demons…” (homily 5.)


A 1510 woodcut from depicting “blood libel’ – the accusation that Jews require human blood for the making of matzos for Passover. This persistent rumor often led to the murder of Jews during the Middle Ages.

Eventually, after centuries of unbiblical, anti-Jewish civil legislation and church teaching, it appears that the general population was persuaded to despise Jewry. Christian anti-Semitism reached its height during the crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. Along their way to defend the Holy Land from Muslim aggressors, some Crusaders slaughtered Jews as well. The church invented the Jewish ghetto, and also the idea of forcing Jews to wear distinctive identifying patches on their clothing. (One can see examples of this in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, circa 1600.) If these things sound familiar, perhaps it’s because much later, in the 20th century, a now famous anti-Semite with a dorky little mustache employed many of the same tactics in his own campaign against Jews. Of course, Hitler took things much further than the church had, but he defended his actions by appealing to church history and church writings, leaving the church with a compromised response to Nazism.


Display of the yellow circle that Jews were required to wear in Christian Europe.
– from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, photo by the author

The horrific evil of Nazism aside, let’s compare the gentile church’s enduring campaign against Judaism to the words and actions of the Jewish Messiah and His Jewish apostles, i.e. the Bible:

  • Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24, 10:6.) Wait…what? Did “our personal Lord and Savior” just say that He was sent only to Jewish people?!
  • Jesus said, “…And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them in also, and they will heed my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16.) Ah!…Here He tells His Jewish audience that there are other sheep He wants to bring in. This is one of several premonitions of the eventual inclusion of the gentiles into the kingdom of God.
  • The Jewish apostle Paul wrote of a great mystery that has now been revealed. “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ…This mystery is that the gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise of Jesus Christ through the gospel” (Eph 4.) In calling this a mystery, he is referring to the fact that this development was not explained in the Torah and the prophets. (For example, it says the coming New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah will be made with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”)
  • In the book of Acts we see Jewish followers of Jesus spreading the news that the Messiah, the kingdom, and the New Covenant have come – all Jewish concepts rooted in the Torah and the prophets. But then, God rocks their world, revealing that His desire is to include the gentiles, as gentiles, in His New Covenant. In other words, the clear teaching of the apostles from Acts ch 15 forward is that it is not necessary for gentile believers to become Jewish in order to enter into the New Covenant of grace (See Galatians, Romans, Colossians.) Amazingly, the Jewish apostolic church leadership goes with this and welcomes the gentiles into their company, revolutionizing millennia of Jewish practice and fulfilling God’s ancient promise to Abraham (Gen 12:3.)
  • After this Paul writes: “For He [Jesus] is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both [Jew and gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end”…(Eph 2:11-22.)
  • Also, to the gentiles he writes: “…But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you…So do not become proud but stand in awe…” (Ro 11:17-24.)

This was God’s vision – one new man in place of the two. One tree. One flock. One shepherd. But this vision existed as a reality only for a very brief time in history during the time of the apostles, and perhaps briefly thereafter. As most Jews refused to embrace Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah, and as more and more gentiles came into the church, eventually Jewish believers in Yeshua were far outnumbered. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325, even though Constantine invited some 1,800 bishops to attend from across the empire, there is no record of even a solitary Jewish bishop in attendance at the council. And then the Roman church set about deliberately re-erecting a dividing wall, this time from the gentile side, in order to intentionally separate Christianity from Judaism, in direct opposition to scripture. In my opinion, it’s one of the most unknown, and one of the saddest stories in history.

Today the wall still stands. We’ve all gotten used to it. From the gentile side it looks pretty legit. It’s been  painted over and decorated with great religious art, stained glass, and crosses. Gentile believers living today are mostly unaware of the centuries of church oppression against Jews, as well as the theological anti-Semitism that fostered it. We’re all about loving God and loving people now, and rightly so. There’s just this wall that has “always” been there.

From the Jewish side the wall looks a little different. The crosses that the Christians wear around their necks and use for decoration look just like the crosses under which Jewish ancestors were persecuted. Jewish people living today have not forgotten the nasty history of Christian-Jewish relations. They’re probably fine with a wall that keeps the two separate. Perhaps they’re relieved that at last the specter of theological anti-Semitism is mostly gone from the church. As for Jewish belief today, there is great latitude on the Jewish side of the wall. One can even be an atheist and still identify as Jewish. The one thing that one cannot be as a Jew, ironically, is a follower of the Jewish “Messiah.” The wall has done its work.

So what are we to do with this information? I can only speak to gentile followers of Jesus. I think we must  pay attention. We must use the light of scripture to begin sorting out what we should hold onto and what we should let go of. We must sort out what originates from the heart of God versus what are mere human innovations and traditions of men. We need to humble ourselves and agree that it’s not we who support the root, but the root that supports us (Ro 11.) Paul says it is Jesus Himself who originally broke down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and gentile (Eph 2:14.) Yet we know it is the gentile church that erected the present dividing wall. Is there any reason that the gentile church shouldn’t begin dismantling it now? I believe we can reasonably hope that God will help us do so. We live in a remarkable and unique period. For the first time in over a millennium and a half, now that the error of replacement theology and the smoke of the holocaust has cleared, Christians and Jews can finally dialogue without fear. I say, as far as it depends on you, in whatever corner of the world you are in, let the work of reconciliation and restitution begin.


The above symbol is based on markings found on artifacts reportedly dating from the 1st century in Jerusalem. The symbol has come to be known as the Messianic Seal of Jerusalem.

Beggars’ Gate Painting #1

I recently received a request that was extremely unusual coming from a theologically orthodox, evangelical church: create three large paintings for their newly renovated building. More remarkable still was that the commissioning pastor turned down my routine offer to submit a few rough ideas for him to approve. He wanted to see how God might inspire me, and he didn’t want to interfere. This rarely happens, regardless of who, or what organization is doing the commissioning. I had to pinch myself. Evangelicalism hasn’t had a rich tradition of supporting the arts, although I now see this changing. I don’t even attend this guy’s church. It’s a new, non-denominational church called Beggars’ Gate. They meet at the corner of 29th and Garfield in Loveland, Colorado in a creatively renovated building that formerly housed a bar and restaurant.

I cocked my head when I first heard the name Beggars’ Gate. It didn’t strike me as a very alluring name for a church. But then I realized that was probably the point. If someone would stay away because they felt the name was beneath them, then it’s a thought-provoking name indeed. Humility is a prerequisite to coming to God for salvation. If one thinks one has something to bring; something to add to God’s gift of salvation, then he or she doesn’t understand the spiritual poverty of his or her situation. Rightly or wrongly, the most common criticism I hear against church people is self-righteousness and hypocrisy. A church with a name like Beggar’s Gate would have to really work at being either of those.

In thinking about the beggar idea, I recalled the things that God offers to us according to the Bible; things that we have no hope of acquiring by our own effort. I’ve tended to shy away from “religious painting”, but I know from past experience that these things are very difficult to depict in paint without lapsing into the cheesiness and sentimentality that has often typified evangelical subculture. Following are some thoughts I had around the main Beggar’s Gate painting, pictured below.

I resisted the idea of depicting a literal beggar at first because it seemed too obvious. But then I became captivated by the idea of visually quoting Michelangelo’s “Creation” from the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s archetypal image depicts Adam as a perfect, godlike being, and in fact, you could argue that the Bible implies that’s what Adam was. In the painting he’s reclining, in a position of reliance on his Creator, but he’s clearly an impressive figure, naked and unashamed. However shortly after the creation account, the scriptures describe the fall of man from Life – he is separated from God and begins his slide into darkness, depravity, and death. Everything else that follows in the Bible is the story of our relational Creator restoring his creation to life and communion with Himself.

Adam 2

Which brings us to our present situation. I’ve repainted Adam as a beggar; emaciated and needy. He’s clothed in dirty rags – his own attempt at covering his disgrace. He represents our fallen human condition. The child clothed in white, who brings him a cup, represents the spiritual rebirth made possible through God’s Messiah. She is doing the work of the church. But what she offers doesn’t come from an earthly source:
“…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jesus – Jn 4:14)

“…If any one thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the scripture has said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given.” (Jesus – John 7:37-39)

Here Jesus claims to fulfill centuries-old Hebrew prophecy.

Water to the Thirsty
Scott Freeman, 4 x 6 feet, latex paint on panel