Christians and “Coincidences” or Is There a Hex in the Patternicity?

This article has many images and footnotes; I encourage the reader to download it as a pdf here: Shogren_Christians and Coincidences

It happened just the other day: I had been thinking about James Bond, and later when I pulled out a form of identification for the bank teller, I noticed that my ID number began with 007! Was I a secret agent? Perhaps one suffering from amnesia?

Or, let’s say a man “has a system” for beating the Vegas roulette table. He has noticed that black has come up eight times in a row. So he bets everything on black, because “there’s clearly a pattern to the wheel tonight.” Meanwhile, a man across from him is thinking to himself, “I’d better put everything on red, since it looks like it’s due to come up.”

A child and her companion lie on their backs, looking up at the clouds. “That one looks like a giraffe!” she says. “And that one a camel!” “No, not a camel, look at it upside-down, it looks just like an octopus.” One child says, “An angel!”; another says, “Actually, it looks quite like Charles Darwin!”

We have all played this game without realizing that we were doing pattern recognition. As Paul Simon wrote many years back, in the song “Patterns”:

The night sets softly
With the hush of falling leaves,
Casting shivering shadows
On the houses through the trees,
And the light from a street lamp
Paints a pattern on my wall,
Like the pieces of a puzzle
Or a child’s uneven scrawl.

Leaves, shadows, trees, indecipherable scrawling – these can all seem like messages because of our human tendency for patternicity. So can tortillas and numbers and corporate logos, as we shall see.

This is why astronomers speak of the Horsehead Nebula, which was not modeled after a terrestrial animal, but just sort of looks like a horse!

From ages past, people have imagined patterns in the stars and constructed “constellations” of animals, gods, heroes. And we can get a cross-check on patternicity by seeing how different cultures “read” the same stars –  it’s Orion in European legend, but the same stars are a hunter and his dogs chasing a deer in India. Mr. Rorschach invented his famous ink blots on the basis of human pattern recognition (“Ummm…is it, maybe, two ducks kissing?” “Okay, Mr. Anderson, we’d better make it three sessions per week!”)

We are wired to quickly detect patterns in the data we see and hear. This is a huge help to get us through the day: when our alarm clock goes off, we don’t have to puzzle over, “Now, what could that buzzer possibly mean?”

But for some people, that recognition faculty goes beyond what is useful (more…)


Lady Apostle Lands in Jail!

If I asked you “Who were the martyrs of the early church?” you would, quite properly, begin with Stephen in Acts 7; James in Acts 12; and then go on to Peter and Paul.

“Brave, godly men were early martyrs” = a right answer

But not a complete answer.

Why not? Because we all, simply by being human, look at history through our own set of lenses. Because of such “cognitive bias,” the data that confirm our expectations stand out in bold print, and the data that don’t fit into our grid fade into the background. To answer our question, may I suggest that:

“Brave, godly men and women were the early martyrs of the church” = a better answer

Christian women were singled out for persecution in a way that their Jewish and Gentile contemporaries were not.


Let us first honor those Jewish women who were victims of (more…)

The Eclectic Text of the New Testament – a conspiracy against the Word?

God’s beloved Word – you’d better believe I study it daily. Yes, as a Bible teacher, since my ministry is teaching the New Testament in Spanish and English, and also from the Greek. But more fundamentally I read the Bible simply as a Christian, because it is through the reading, meditation, and obedience of God’s Word that we grow as believers. [1]

Therefore it concerns me when I read about a supposed conspiracy, made up of people who secretly despise God’s Word and are paving the way for antichrist, out to destroy the Bible and leave us in spiritual darkness. These charges are leveled against the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament, the exact same “critical” edition I and my students read and interpret. [2]

That’s why I am impelled to read up on the so-called Alexandrian Conspiracy to ruin the Bible. If it is a real and present danger, I want to know. If it is a false alarm, then I must communicate that to you, the readers.

“Don’t destroy God’s Word! Or change it!”

My conclusion:

If the critical edition of the New Testament be treason against God’s Holy Word, then it’s the most poorly executed conspiracy in the history of Bible study.

Let’s see why. One extreme theory has it (more…)

Published in: on October 9, 2014 at 2:37 pm  Comments (20)  
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‘Twas the Day after Christmas (Luke 2:8-20) – Part II

In the first part of this blog, we saw how the shepherds heard the angels’ message, saw the Christ child and went out to proclaim what they had seen. We too should pass on the entire gospel message, not just parts of it. But there is a second application for the Christian, one that pushes us past superficial application of Luke’s gospel:

 II. We should tell the message in a way that will be understood

In this case, we will not simply imitate what the shepherds did, but will honor their spirit and intention. Please notice that the shepherds were Jewish, and the people they told about Jesus would also have been Jewish. In fact, the angel spoke in terms that a Jewish person would have understood, using words like city of David, a Savior, Christ, the Lord, “Glory to God in the highest”.

Let’s play a game of “what if.” As far as we know, the shepherds did not speak to non-Jews, that is, gentiles. If the gentiles had heard the same message in the same language they would have understood it very differently than the Jews did. For example, “Savior” was one of the titles used by the Roman emperor – Caesar Augustus was “Savior” of the world, the one who brought it peace. “Christ” means “the Anointed One,” that is, a royal figure. The pagans also applied the terms “lord” and “god” to their idols. This means that if gentiles had accidently heard their message, they would not have heard it the way it was intended. To them it would have come across as badly distorted: “A new king has been born, he is a divine offspring of the Greek god Zeus, may Zeus be highly praised!”

If you and I are not speaking to people just like us, with our background, they will likely misunderstand us. Whose job is it to make him- or herself understood? One fundamental rule of communication is that it is the speaker, the person who is trying to communicate a message, who is responsible to make the message understandable. One of the things we do when someone doesn’t speak English is we speak louder, under the assumption that the message will get through with higher volume. Christians do the same thing, with equally poor results. (more…)

‘Twas the Day after Christmas (Luke 2:8-20) – Part I

Burned into our memory is the fact that the shepherds saw the angels, went to Bethlehem and worshiped the baby Jesus. All the Nativity displays end that way, with the shepherds fixed in place. But in fact, Christmas day was the very beginning of the shepherds’ story, since they rushed right out and began to tell others what they had seen.

We read Luke’s gospel and see what the shepherds did – but what do we do to wrap up the Christmas season?

  • We measure the diagonal on the wide-screen TVs,
  • We rush out to spend our Christmas money.
  • We Facebook our friends about going on diets to work off the eggnog.
  • We return the gifts we didn’t like, plot to regift others in 2012, or wonder whether we should wait two years to regift, to make sure memories will have faded.
  • We haul the tree to the curb, because they won’t let you burn it.
  • We buy the discount wrapping paper and ribbon and store them away until next time.

The shepherds’ spiritual career began on Christmas. (more…)

Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1

By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
One day in January before sunrise, about 4 in the morning, while our neighborhood is totally quiet, we’re going to hear people out in the street. Our bedroom overlooks the sidewalk, so they’ll probably wake us up. They’ll draw near our house, go under our window and then pass by to walk up and down the streets, talking as they go. Pretty soon we’ll make out that they’re praying the Hail Mary:
The leader will say: Dios te salve María, llena de gracia, el Señor está contigo, bendita eres entre las mujeres y bendito el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.
The group will respond: Santa María, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.

They’ll be dedicating our neighborhood to the Virgin Mary for the year 2010. (more…)