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…)

How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans]

Certeza Unida and Kairos will publish my Romans commentary as part of their Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo (Contemporary Bible Commentary). More than 160 scholars participated in the project.

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What follows is adapted from the section “How to Read Romans,” in which I show its particular application for Latin America.

The epistle to the Romans meets the Christian on two levels: (1) as a treasure house of beloved gospel texts; (2) as an ancient missionary letter, written for a specific moment in Paul’s work among the nations.

Both levels are valid, since the disciple today first comes to know Romans because of its neat formulations of, for example, the deadliness of sin (3:23), the free gift of eternal life (6:23), the transformation of the new person in Christ (12:1-2). Then beyond that, we must enter into the mind of Paul and appreciate his plan for the final years of the AD 50s – a missionary journey that would take the gospel farther west from Jerusalem than it had ever gone, across several of what we know as time zones. We then see that Romans, when first delivered, was a clear call to action for the believers in the capital to receive Paul for a time, and later to sponsor his trip to evangelize Spain.

In Latin America too we are arming ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, in particular, unreached ones. We too will benefit from knowing, not just what Paul said about salvation, but why he said it to these Christians in Rome, and by extension how it is God’s summons to us to show forth the gospel.

Romans is the largest extant letter by Paul. It is also the most systematic in its structure, touching on many facets of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) but saying little about other themes, for example, the Last Days. Paul begins with the lostness of the world, then God’s solution in the death of Christ, the power of the new life in the Spirit, and later, details about how to live the Christian life. He also introduces a long section in chapters 9-11 to answer the questions Why don’t Jews believe in their own Messiah? Will Israel come to God eventually?

The best way to enjoy this letter is to read it; one can read Romans aloud at an unhurried pace in about one hour.

“How to Read Romans [Studies in Romans],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It’s easy to preach against sins your people don’t commit

One of those, “Wish I had said this, in this way, but there’s no way I could have improved on this statement by Russell Moore

I think sometimes pastors and leaders simply take whatever they find objectionable in the culture and rail against it. They sometimes use the language of decline, where we’re in the worst situation we’ve ever been in before, and these very dire terms—which is not true. If you look at every generation of the Church you see older people complaining that the next generation is just going to pieces. That’s always been the case in every history of the Church. It’s fear-mongering. It’s easy to stand up and rail against other people’s sins in a way that can cause your congregation, or your Bible study group, or whatever it is that you have responsibility over, to think “Man he is really hard against sin,” when in reality, we’re just hard against other people’s sins, and we don’t have the courage to address the sins that are going on right in front of us. (emphasis added)

Gary again: preaching about THEIR sins is always going to be easier and less likely to get you fired than preaching about OUR sins. This may be why I have heard:

  • plenty of warnings against gay marriage, but little about the abuse that happens in Christian marriages;
  • a lot of denunciations of hateful Islamists, but little condemnation of Christians who hate the haters;
  • a lot about those lazy people on welfare, but little about Christians who spend every spare minute and dollar on their own recreation.

The Bible is a sharp sword, and meant to slice into Our consciences as well as Theirs.

Full article “Engaging the Culture in the New Year,” HERE. Russell Moore was for a while in the news, because he spoke harshly against Christian supporters of Donald Trump, but he is consistently one of the best evangelical spokespersons out there on public ethics.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

 

What I read in 2016, the short list

I have always been a big reader, but never anything close to my list for 2016. That’s when I began to use the wonderful online group, Goodreads.com, to log the books that I have read, am reading, and want to read. I am up over 1900 books that I have logged as “read” in my lifetime, so far, but I know there are hundreds I cannot remember; I imagine the number should be more like 2500.

“Do you want that reading list Super-Sized?”

Over Christmas break 2015 I decided to join their Reading Challenge for 2016, and set a (as it turns out, too ambitious!) personal goal of 150 books/plays this year, including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Koran, and others, let alone material for class prep. Typically I am reading eight books at a clip; some short documents, some long tomes, some Audible recorded books from Amazon.

Overall, I read a lot more non-fiction this year than I usually do, although I also read some marvelous fiction.

Here are some of the highlights, in no particular order:

Russian themed. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862) was excellent. I am about a third of the way through the fictionalized biography of Trotsky by Leonardo Padura, The Man who Loved Dogs. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot (1868-69) is a Christ-allegory. All are available on Kindle.

George Orwell beyond 1984 and Animal Farm. I have read 1984 a dozen times since Junior High, and decided I should branch out. Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a novel (more…)

Your Body, God’s Temple

The devil has a Weapon of Mass Destruction, and it is called online pornography. Of help is the following article is by Jason DeRouchie of Bethlehem Bible College and Seminary. It is one of the best explorations of the topics of masturbation and sexual fantasy that I have read, and I repost it, knowing I could not write one this good.

Blessings!

“If Your Right Hand Causes You to Sin,” by Jason DeRouchie

My Time with the Koran, April 2016

Read the whole file here shogren_my-time-with-the-koran or download it on your phone. my-time-with-the-koran

My reading the Koran is like a rock-and-roller trying to figure out what in the world that jazz trio is up to. Still, if I will opine that the Koran is right, wrong, or indifferent, I feel I should have at least a basic, first-hand awareness of what it actually says. This, even though people all the time comment on books they haven’t yet gotten around to; the Bible in particular, unread by many Bible-believers.[i]

I bring this up because, like you, I have seen certain Facebook memes and books that “prove” that all Muslims are “really” in a jihad against the West; and that when some (apparently very nice) Muslims claim they are not planning to blow stuff up, well, they are lying, since everyone knows that in Islam it’s cool to lie about not being involved in jihad in order to be more effective in jihad. See my dilemma?

We live in a world where from all directions, especially in the social media, we see quotations taken out of context. I love the new usage of “cherry-picked,” a term that is often applied during election years. According to the Urban Dictionary, it is “When only select evidence is presented in order to persuade the audience to accept a position, and evidence that would go against the position is withheld. The stronger the withheld evidence, the more fallacious the argument.”

Jefferson’s well-known statement that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” is usually taken out of context; when Lincoln “said” that he was not concerned about slavery, but maintaining the Union, that’s cherry-picking; and when the Lincoln meme tells us “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet,” that’s just a fake. We run into supposed quotes from George Washington, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Joe Stalin, even George Carlin. A snatch of a phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville or Gibbon’s Rise and Fall, also practically useless unless read in context.

At any rate, I have had on my reading list for some time to go ad fontes (Latin, “back to the sources”) and read books of other faiths, not objectively—which is unattainable for anybody—but directly and unmediated. I have a copy of the Book of Mormon waiting in the wings; a dear Hindu friend gave me a beautiful edition of the Bhagavad-Gita, also on my list; Confucius’s Analects I read long ago, also the Mishnah and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic literature. On the wackier side, I have read the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus (meh) and looked over some of the “exposés” of the Catholic Church by Charles Chiniquy (yow!). I read Pope Francis’s Laudato Sii on environmental issues and later on his Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee: the latter in part because I heard somewhere that it promised to send Protestants to the guillotine in a 21st-century Inquisition; turns out, it did not mention decapitation or any bloodshed; who knew?

I also wanted to read the Koran because of a phenomenon that is very obvious from a Google search, that there are Muslims apologists who carefully read the Bible—in order to refute it.[ii]

So, this was my first time through the Koran, and I went cover to cover. I looked up some points to clarify what I was looking at, but tried to avoid the Hadith interpretations or other viewpoints, except for the ones I read afterward about jihad. It was “Back to the Koran” time.

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Let me give some broad observations, from a Christian for Christians, and then address specific topics. (more…)

Busyness is no excuse for being an uncommitted Christian

With all due respect to the original, this is my thorough paraphrase, condensation, and updating of George Whitfield’s, “Worldly Business No Plea for the Neglect of Religion,” Sermon 20 of his Collected Sermons

Matthew 8:22 – “Let the dead bury their dead.”

When Paul preached at Athens, he observed that they were “very religious.” But if he came and visited us today, he wouldn’t be able to make the same claim. Rather he would say you are very “fixed on this world” or “pursuing your careers,” so much so that you neglect or even ignore completely the one thing that a Christian needs to do. That’s why I will point out to such believers that they are too busy grabbing material things and instead must be fixed on their future.

It is so easy to be fixed on this world. We claim to be doing God’s will by working hard at our job, but we allow this to make us spiritually dopey.

“Let the dead bury their dead” shows how we should be focused on the life to come.

Jesus Christ himself said these words after he had called on a man to be his disciple, but the man replied “Let me go home first and bury my father,” which probably means, “Let me go and bring my business dealings up to date, first.” Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.” This means, leave the business of this world to people of the world, let your secular matters become unraveled, if that is what is keeping you from following me.

Image processed by CodeCarvings Piczard ### FREE Community Edition ### on 2016-02-09 18:12:50Z | http://piczard.com | http://codecarvings.com

We don’t know how this man responded in the end. But we do know that Christ is whispering the very same thing to people here, people who get up early and knock off late, and their income comes through stressful work. He says, “Stop fixing your heart on the things of this life (more…)

Love, sure, but during an election year?

A fresh preface to my essay, “The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.” I include here not only things I observe in others, but principally the things I’d like to root out of my own heart.

The Lord’s return may – or may not – be near, but no-one who reads church history would conclude that we clearly live in the last days. There are relatively no more wars today than throughout history (probably fewer), no more frequent earthquakes, no worse famines. And we have 2000 years of unloving actions on the part of the church to make our current lack of love seem mild by comparison.

Still, Jesus warned us in Matthew 24 that part of the future apostasy will be that “the love of most [believers] will grow cold.” And while 2016 isn’t necessarily the end of history, the fact that it is a political season gives us pause to gauge our level of charitableness.

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Enemy is pleased to put our love on ice, and he uses arguments both old and new to entice us to join in with him.

A few of his LIES:

“If you really have the truth, then you have the right to be reckless in how you present it.”

“If you feel charitable toward the needy, that is just as good as actually doing something to alleviate their needs. E. g., if you ‘share’ a post about starving children, that’s as filling as a sandwich.”

“Violence is tolerable, so long as it is doled out against the Other, not Us. Because They probably deserve it.”

“Using bad words, even from the pulpit, is okay, since if we love people, we need to get their attention, and fast.  If not curse words, then at least use sheeple, wingnut, moron, etc. Oh, and again, this is cool so long as it’s against the Other, not Us.”

“If you want to help a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, don’t worry about saving the child she is bearing.”

And conversely, “Keeping her from ending a pregnancy is the sole expression of love we need to show toward her.”

Take up your cross and follow Christ refers to abstract, spiritual things, not our daily behavior toward other human beings, and certainly not to our behavior on social media.”

“Hasty and off-the-cuff responses are sweeter to the tongue than slow-brewed wisdom.”

“It’s okay to hate the haters.”

“Well, they started it!”

“Those victims probably deserved it and shouldn’t complain, Our victims are faultless.”

“When people encourage us to act with respect to others, that’s just a ploy of the Politically Correct to shut us down.”

“We should love ‘our own’ first (family, neighborhood, race, religion, tribe) and others less.” [Note: Charity begins at home, while a Christian truth, is perverted when in Satan’s hand.]

Cynicism is a favorite of Hell, to despise the sinner, to make the Other the focus of evil in the world and the butt of “Well, what do you expect of Them?” The fruit of cynicism is sarcasm, sneering, suspicion, contempt, and given time, hatred. Love teaches us remain vulnerable, and endure and even embrace the pain that results from being witnesses to wickedness.

Christ was the one who was “oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isa 53:7), and he invited us to take up our cross and follow him, even during presidential elections, and he gives us the mighty Holy Spirit to rewrite the code of our mind to enable us to do it. This is what separates Christian charity from mere pleasantness or good manners.

But from all indications, Christian love apparently is meant to follow some weird liturgical calendar, by which the church allows us to lay it aside in 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020, etc., you do the math. That’s why Francis’s prayer of self-dedication, “grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand” (see more below), strikes us nice and Christ-like, but only applicable outside of election seasons. Don’t eat meat on Fridays is sooo medieval; Don’t be charitable every four years is the new fashion!

I urge myself, and invite you, to take Francis at his word, in the run-up to the November election and in any season:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

CLICK to go to The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.”

“Should we be loving during election years?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

So: you love the Church, but are indifferent about the people in it?

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20 NIV

In John’s language, “hate” isn’t necessarily anything so vile as loathing, or despising, or cursing – “hate” is not-love, that which falls short of perfect love. In other words, “Whoever claims to love God yet does not love some brother or sister is a liar.”

We cannot fancy that we love the church as an abstraction, but turn around and fail to love some particular brother; at no time has God allowed that formulation. Only the Trinity can see at a glance the full body of Christ, marching from antiquity to the kingdom; yet even God sees his people always in the concrete, and never as an abstract. We don’t want to be just a number on a page, and God agrees.

For us there is no body of Christ which we are invited to love as an idea, but always and only in the immediate, the concrete, the personal.

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“So: you love the Church, but are indifferent about the people in it?” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

An Epidemic of the Ethical Woulda-Dones

sad_docThe doctor has paid a house call and left, shaking his head. The diagnosis? American Christians have come down with a bad case of the Woulda-Dones. The symptoms? We are irresolute about making tough, righteous decisions today, but we know exactly what we bravely and clearly and boldly “woulda-done” if we had faced the moral dilemmas facing Christians in days gone by.

It’s easy to Dare to Be a Daniel – so long as we limit it to “I woulda defied the king like Daniel did, back, y’know, in the 500s BC!” The truism is right – “We are always fighting the last battle.” (more…)