Thursday, November 20, 2014

Yet Another "Lost Gospel..."

Reflecting on the relic-mad culture of his day, Luther famously observed that there were enough "nails from the true cross" floating around to shoe every horse in Saxony. Today, we might say that there are enough so-called "lost gospels" floating around to paper every wall in Taylor Swift's gorgeous new $3.5 million LA mansion!

I know what you're thinking: why bring Ms. Swift into this? It's not because I am a "hater" preparing to "hate-hate-hate," but because these so-called discoveries are consistently unveiled and promoted with a decidedly "TMZ" vibe. I mean, seriously, why not just get A.C. Slater to host the accompanying schlockumentary? (What do you mean A.C. Slater's not a real person? That's what they want you to think! Conspiracies, man...conspiracies.) Anyway, Slater's real name escapes me at the moment, but I'd bet 250 lost gospels (converts to $0.73 US) that he's made a report about Taylor Swift's newest house, although he may see himself as above reporting on the latest "lost gospel" non-story, which allegedly blows the lid off Jesus's sex life and Mary Magdalene's divinity.

So maybe the real A.C. Slater of the "lost gospel" community is actually Simcha Jacobovici (I don't care who you are; that's a fun name to pronounce), an “Israeli-Canadian investigative journalist” who seems to make his living by discovering ground-breaking, game-changing, paradigm-shifting nothings. Wait . . .  “investigative journalists” are people who make things up to try and generate controversies out of thin air and use those controversies to line their pockets. Right? Or, hold on. . . I might be thinking of something else.

Artist's rendition of Jacobivici's "sexy Jesus."
Actually, I'm just assuming that's what this is.
Jacobovici, the man behind the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” debacle of 2007, is now doubling down on that whole gong show with The Lost Gospel, in which he unveils some real iron-clad evidence, which proves, not only that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene (whom he, according to ancient Gnostic codes, affectionately called "Eminem" because of her initials), but that early Christians considered her a diety. Here's a news story with pretty much all the same information as all the other news stories on the topic (not the Eminem thing).

So what's the lost gospel this time? An ancient Syriac manuscript, housed in the British library, called Joseph and Aseneth. (You can read a translation of it here.) It's basically like a DVD extra to the Book of Genesis, explaining why the patriarch Joseph married Aseneth, a Gentile and the daughter of a pagan Priest. The manuscript in question dates back to the sixth century, and it sort of romanticizes and fictionalizes the back-story, expanding two verses into twenty-nine chapters, and explaining away any character flaws in the biblical heroes—not unlike much of today's biblical fiction. It’s easy to understand why someone would try and explain such an unlikely marriage, because the two famous half-tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh) are the result of the union between Joseph and Aseneth.

According to Jacobovici, though, this document (which is by no means newly discovered) “describes [Mary Magdalene] as a co-messiah, co-deity, [and] defender of humanity.”  All without ever using the words Mary, Magdalene, messiah, or anything else that might indicate that the author was headed in that direction. What's that? Oh, because it's in code. Right.

Mario Lopez!  Slater's name is Mario Lopez.

Anyway, it's not like Jacobivici and Wilson just decided arbitrarily to turn an apocryphal expansion on Genesis into a suppressed Christian Gospel, they assure us. No, no, there is an accompanying letter (written more than five hundred years after the earthly ministry of Jesus) claiming that Joseph and Aseneth has some hidden meaning. What hidden meaning? We don’t know, because the letter was (dun-dun-DUUUUHHHNNNN) cut off! Censorship, man. Censorship. One might be tempted to wonder why the person censoring this sensitive information wouldn’t just, ya know, burn the whole letter, but whatever…

Not to be thwarted by the complete absence of anything substantive, Jacobovici and his writing partner Barrie Wilson, went ahead and just made up the hidden meaning. And—wouldn’t you know it?—it happens to support Jacobovici’s earlier zany theories! There's some luck! And he acknowledges that it looks a little too lucky. “Someone might say to me, why are you finding so many great things? Why nobody else?” he said to the Daily Beast. His answer: because he's not a Christian, so he doesn't think inside a "Christian box." Side note: he's also free from the "logic box."

I feel I should mention that the man who actually translated the text for Jacobivici and Wilson, while trying to find some sort of silver lining here, has tried to distance himself from the wacky theories. And who can blame him?

I mean, if you can find a coded story about Jesus, his wife (and her status as a goddess), and their two children in a document that doesn't even hint at that stuff...well, that says more about you than it says about Jesus or Joseph or anything else, except maybe the state of pseudo-scholarship today and its role in pop culture.

But we can't entirely blame guys like Jacobivici for the continual recycling of this stuff. If no one was buying, they wouldn't be dealing. People don’t know the first thing about the Bible today. And yet, we’ve sunk to the point where spending five minutes perusing a Wikipedia article makes them feel like an expert on any given topic. Blogs (yeah, you’re reading one now) and other forms of instant online communication and social media reinforce the notion that all of my silliest thoughts and theories should probably be read by everyone without being vetted by anyone. The Lost Gospel is a byproduct of that cultural shift, as it infects areas of life that we would have hoped would be immune to it (religion, academia, etc.)

Here's where I'd normally kick the theory to the curb with a well-placed snarky assessment. But Rev Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England (who apparently has a gift for deliciously understated responses to overblown situations) already crafted the perfect one-liner response to this alleged lost gospel: “It’s not lost, it’s not a gospel, it’s a very naughty marketing campaign.” (I wouldn't dream of insulting you by pointing out the Life of Brian reference).

But even if we were to grant the supposed hidden meaning, why on earth would we think that a coded Jewish work from the fourth or fifth century would be a more reliable source about the life of Christ than the Gospels, which were written in plain language and much earlier? Maybe there's another reason people don't want to deal with the Jesus of the Bible.

Hmmmmm....

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Comforting Apocalypse (This Week's Sermon)

This week's sermon is on Our Lord's discourse on the Judgment of the Nations, in which he divides mankind into the sheep and the goats. I start it with perhaps the corniest sermon opening I've ever employed.

I pray this sermon profits you, challenges you, and reminds you of our God's amazing grace.


(You can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Open Letter to People who Perform/Lead Music

Dear People Who Perform/Lead Music, 

Let me start by saying thanks. I myself know how difficult it can be to perform/lead music, and I appreciate that a little feedback or participation from the crowd can help validate you and set your mind at ease about your performance/leading.

But hear this: I don't want to rhythmically clap during the song. Honestly, I greatly dislike the whole convention. I don't like it because some pleeb is going to start slapping away on 1 & 3 instead of 2 & 4, and that makes me hate all white people for a minute. And my family and a large percentage of my loved ones are white (as am I), so that causes all sorts of conflicted emotions that I just don't need to deal with right now.

Also, clapping during songs is work, and not the rewarding kind, but the kind of “dig-this-hole-then-fill-it-in” work that inmates are made to do as punishment. Don't get me wrong; I've been drawn in by particularly lively siren songs more than once—songs that blinded me to what was really going on and made me think, “Yeah, I really do want to clap along with this.” But then, after like six repetitions of smashing one of my hands against the other, I'm tired of it. But I know that if I stop clapping right then, I'll look like a total quitter with enormous commitment issues, so I usually try and keep it up for the rest of the song (which can be as long as five minutes!), even though I didn't want to start clapping to begin with and I was just pressured into it.

I'm not suggesting that people who enjoy clapping along with music should not do it; I'm saying that you, as the performer/leader, need to stop doing that thing where you look all expectantly at the audience and start clapping your hands above your head like some kind of maniac until 51% of the group is following suit. Because what do you do then? You stop. You stop clapping, which is understandable, since clapping is work, but now we're all stuck. That's just unfair, man.

Another thing I don't like: standing at concerts. Now, back in the mid-to-late Nineties, I was the first guy down into the mosh pit, but I have since determined that the best way to appreciate almost all live music is by sitting in a comfortable chair, absorbing it (the music, not the chair). I offer as outside evidence the fact that almost all concert halls, auditoria, and arenas, are filled with, that's right, chairs. I expect the Justin Beiber concert or whatever the 2014 equivalent of the Jonas Brothers or Hanna Montana is to be all-standing-all-the-time, but that's one of many, many reasons I would never attend such a concert.

Because here's the thing: the next stop for me on the age-train is 40. And, while my hips and knees are in quite good shape and I am perfectly capable of standing (in fact, I try to use my standing desk half the time I'm working in my study), I'm also somewhat grumpy. And Dutch. Why does that matter? Because I paid for a seat, not an 18” square of floor in which to stand. I encourage others to stand during concerts if they are so moved, but only if they are not positioned between me and the stage.The phrase "down in front!" is a recognizable thing for a reason.

Along those lines (and I can't believe I even have to say this), if your music is failing to elicit the kind of “I just have to move my body” vibe that you'd like, please do not resort to ordering the audience around like some kind of musical Stalin. “Put your hands up now! Now wave them! Then, when I sing the second line of the chorus, clap three times! DO IT!!!”

I remember my affection for a particularly Australian Christian singer dwindling after attending one of her concerts in high school. And I started with an abnormally high amount of affection (i.e. she was my Jonas Brothers, even though that sounds weird). But after two hours of barked orders about what to do with our hands, when to shout what, and (I kid you not!) regular updates/reviews of our progress and how we, as an audience, could do better, I got the sense that the whole crowd felt...well, used. To me, from that day on, that particular singer looked/sounded like this:


I doubt that's what she was going for.

Thank you for your consideration,
Zachary

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Choose This Day (This Week's Sermon)

Back at my old blog, I used to post my weekly sermons, marking them with the clever tag “This Week's Sermon” (when you have this kind of creativity at your disposal, you know you're going places!) 

Anyway, I'm bringin' it back!

Here's this past week's sermon, from Joshua 24, about choosing this day (and every day) whom we will serve.


(You can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Shelf-Life

Hey, I guest-blogged on LifeWay's Shelf Life blog today. Here's a slice:

New voice in Christian fiction
Publishers frequently ask me, “what kind of fiction books do we need to be publishing more of?”  I quickly answer them with “quality suspense novels that appeal to all but especially to men.”  Thanks to Thomas Nelson Publishers, we have a new author in this genre.  Zachary Bartels has released his debut novel, Playing Saint If you’re a fan of suspense and mystery then you’ll want to give Zachary a try.  Playing Saint is already garning some nice praise:
“A thought-provoking exploration into the power of faith and the reality of evil. Filled with memorable characters and tight writing, Playing Saint is an impressive debut from an author to watch.” —Steven James, bestselling author of Placebo and The Queen
I’m happy to have Zachary here to share a bit about his book.  Before he comes, here’s a look at the story.

 “What on earth possessed you to write about that?”
I was recently asked that question by someone who totally didn’t catch her own pun. Being a Baptist pastor, it took all of my restraint not to point it out so we could celebrate it together; I mean, puns are like little gifts from above, little reminders that God loves us. Anyway, I passed that up and instead took a moment to stop and think about it. Which is actually kind of weird, considering how many times I’ve been asked variations of this same question.

Click here to read the rest of the post. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Eavesdropping at Panera & Paper Clothes

The other day, I heard a group of college girls arguing about how many times one can wear a shirt before it needs to be washed. The apparent leader of the group was adamant that after a single wear, a shirt was dirty—end of story. In fact, she said she’d worn a shirt a second time without washing it once and felt simply disgusting. The others had more lenient standards: two or three times (depending on activity levels) or even five, as long as there were no visible spots on it.

I know what you’re thinking: why was I eavesdropping? Better question: why were they so very loud? Anyway, this was all going down at Panera and while they were discussing this, I spilled some soup on my shirt. Which would be ironic if I didn’t get my clothes visibly dirty almost every day.  I’ve rarely been faced with the conundrum of whether a shirt I’ve already worn is still clean. Nope, it’s got food or dirt or coffee on it and it goes in the hamper at the end of the day.

I’ve heard stories of women wearing paper clothing in the ‘60s and I’ve seen examples of some of these dresses still around today, in thrift stores and such. These women must have been a lot more careful/less clumsy than me or those would have all been one-use garments. I thank the giver of all good gifts for the advent of the washer-dryer, which means my clothes can be clean again each time I dirty them (unless I get paint or grease or permanent ink on them, which I do frequently enough).

This (the staining and washing of clothes) is a picture that Scripture uses rather frequently: us staining our clean linen robes (which represent righteousness) with our impossible-to-extract stains. We do it every day, and there’s no detergent offered by man that can make us clean. Only the blood of our Savior can remove the stain of sin and replace it with the perfect righteousness of Christ. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Is 1:17)

And that’s great news! We’re new creatures—we’ve been made new and we’re being made new. Christ took on our sin-stained robe at the cross and gave us his perfectly-clean and spotless robe in exchange. Which is great . . . until we stain the new one. And that’s the challenge and the tension of the Christian life, isn’t it?

We know that we are removed from sin (as far as the east is from the west, according to the Bible), and yet we remain sinners. We are wearing white robes, and yet we stain them every day. Even our worship and service is stained by sin. And when we repent of it, even our repentance is contaminated by yet more sin! According to the prophet Isaiah, “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteous acts are as filthy rags” (64:6).

Have you ever had a child offer a selfish, transparently false apology, just because they were ordered to or they knew they had to in order to stave off punishment? Kids aren’t great at faking sincerity, so you can usually see right through them. Ever had someone thank you for the ...er...interesting meal you made them? (Translation: “nice effort, but I wouldn’t feed that to my dog.”) Yeah, our prayers are tainted with that same selfishness (and we're all the more unable to mask it when addressing a God who sees our hearts), and yet He hears or prayers, accepts them, and moves his arm to answer them! Not to be polite, not because it's easier to just overlook the stench of sin (a Holy God could never do that), but because his Son Jesus mediates on our behalf. The Holy Spirit within us directs our praise and prayers toward heaven and there the son removes the stains of sin and presents them perfectly pure and holy to God.

Yes, we stain our robes, but his mercies are new every morning in washing them, even as we find ourselves being made more and more like him. In a sense, Christians are like construction zones (although I’m sure the Holy Spirit would never use those annoying orange barrels), in that you can see what’s being created more and more until the day arrives that the project is complete and we enter into His presence.

Yes, sin still lives in us, but it isn't exactly living in us. It's dying in us. Not much longer and it will be dead and gone forever—a fading memory in our past, while the present and future are filled only with Christ.