Sunday, October 4, 2009

What's Wrong with the Good Book?

(A Book Review)

Making Sense of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation
by Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe
Baker Books, 266 pages, $13.99
“New Cave of Aladdin”, shrieked the 1923 headlines. “Matchless Works of Art!”  The name Howard Carter vaulted to prominence, as did the news of his crowning achievement—fated to become, arguably, the most celebrated (though by no account most significant) archaeological coup of his day.

Others had relinquished their concessions five years earlier in the Valley of the Kings, a desolate sand ravine west of the Nile that served as final resting place for the New Kingdom pharaohs.  Carter’s outgoing colleagues declared the valley bankrupt…washed up…sucked dry.  Whatever the ancient grave robbers had overlooked, modern archaeologists had carted off.  For safe keeping, of course.

But, Howard Carter was a man not so easily deterred. He had clues.  Crumbling glyphs that spoke of a boy pharaoh whose tenure was cut short by some unknown tragedy. A 3300-year-old clay pot that the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art had examined and found to contain bone fragments of sheep and ducks—sacred leftovers from the funerary banquet of this young monarch, Tut.ankh.Amen.

After five blistering years in this valley of waste, even Carter’s best friend and sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, was urging him to cut their losses and pull out.  But, Carter begged him to bankroll just more season of excavation; and, indeed, it was just three days after digging resumed, on November 4, 1922, that a carved stair emerged from the desert floor, followed by a staircase…an underground passage…sealed doors…and within, a trove that surpassed even what Carter could have imagined (or hallucinated) during his thirty-one years of shoveling Egyptian sand.

It took all of the next decade to evacuate King Tut’s tomb and inventory his assets, as Carter describes in his three-volume, 800-page account, The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen.

The point is that Carter grappled with the impossible, and he did so with the dogged tenacity of one who knows.  Having studied the signs, he was convinced not only of the existence of King Tut’s tomb, but also of its unspoiled state.  The fact that this trophy had eluded all of his predecessors did not prove it a myth; it simply presented a “difficulty” to be vanquished by assiduous study and fierce endeavor.

Wilbur and Orville Wright knew that man could fly.  Millenia of miscarriage? Mere “difficulty” that must surely succumb to the onslaught of twentieth-century enlightenment. 

John F. Kennedy knew that America must walk on the moon and return to tell of it.  When Apollo I burned on the launch pad in January, 1967, incinerating all three astronauts aboard, that calamity was not considered an indictment of America’s enterprise—only a “difficulty” along the road to inevitable success.

It is great men such as these who live on through their exemplary human faith—the sort that surveys a puzzle that, after exhaustive work and research, is still missing key pieces, and refuses to believe it unsolvable.  The pieces shall be found—Destiny demands it!

Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, having spent their lives studying the Holy Scriptures, bring us this new title, Making Sense of Bible Difficulties (Baker Books, 2009).  Now in its maiden printing, their book focuses on, and, in fact, touches each of, the sixty-six books that comprise what John P. Burgess, in his book Why Scripture Matters (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) refers to as the “common canon”, i.e., those books regarding which both Catholics and Protestants find common ground, accepting without dispute that they belong between the covers of the Holy Bible. 

The authors’ position is unequivocal, as suggested by the opening line of their introduction: “The truth is that there is not even one demonstrated error in the original text of the Bible.”  Such dogmatic posturing is sure to raise eyebrows, but then, Geisler and Howe are both veteran eyebrow raisers.

According to his website, Dr. Norman L. Geisler has been “a leader in the defense of the inerrancy of the Bible and was a founder of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which produced the famous ‘Chicago Statement’ (1978) that has been a standard in the field ever since.”

He has authored or co-authored about seventy books, including To Understand the Bible, Look for Jesus (Moody Press, 1975); Biblical Errancy: Its Philosophical Roots (Zondervan, 1981); and Baker’s Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1999).

Geisler, whose credentials include a BA, MA, ThB, and a PhD in Philosophy, has taught Apologetics, Philosophy, and Theology for fifty years, including at Trinity Evangelical and Dallas Seminary. 

Thomas Howe earned his MA in Biblical Studies from Liberty University, followed by a PhD in Philosophy of Religion from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Both courses of study included concentrations in ancient languages; Dr. Howe is proficient in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic, and Latin.

He is a professor of Bible and Biblical Languages, and Director of the Apologetics Program, at Southern Evangelical Seminary.  Howe’s literary works include Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation (Advantage, 2005) and Daniel in the Preterists' Den (Wipf and Stock, 2008).

Geisler and Howe lament the presumption-of-guilt bias that modern biblical critics often betray as they subject the Word of God to scathing interrogation. Like Aesop’s blind men attempting to describe the elephant, critics latch onto sticky snatches of Scriptural enigma as if these uncertainties defined the whole. 

Like most works of nonfiction, this book attempts to fill a unique gap.  Its first goal is to supply believers with well-researched and coherent arguments to effectively share and defend the Faith.  Secondly, it offers insight into how God has spoken in the context of cultural perception and expression across millennia of human advancement. 

But, most importantly, it is intended to bolster the readers’ courage to tackle their own exegetical bogeys without fear of their faith crumbling under the onslaught of reason. 

Did these authors achieve the objective they set out to accomplish?  Well, the Bible difficulties to be addressed are trotted out and neatly dispatched one by one, in biblical order from Genesis to Revelation.  Each “problem” is concisely stated in a paragraph or two, followed by the authors’ “solution”—a few paragraphs of facts and arguments.

To supply readers with tools for dissecting and solving their own biblical puzzles, the book includes a twenty-page introduction, subtitled “How to Approach Bible Difficulties.”  Here, Geisler and Howe explain what is at stake in the popular game of scriptural fault-finding, including Jesus’ perspective on the matter as He addressed the religious hacks of His day.  The material segues into a discussion of the appropriate attitudes with which we should approach our own exploration of Scripture, and how to steer clear of fifteen alleged blunders that modern critics commit when interpreting difficult passages.

Geisler and Howe tend to flavor their material with a dash of denominational spice, and in a few instances spin dizzying arguments to support the conclusions at which they have arrived.  However, in all fairness, they are not reluctant to acknowledge other points of view that merit discussion. Occasionally, they will serve up a choice of well articulated, often contradictory, answers proposed by various commentators, leaving the reader to be the judge.

Nor do the authors play a one-string fiddle, but rather, they give equal forum to a wide variety of Bible difficulties.  Some involve apparent doctrinal disagreements between various Bible authors—or even within the writings of a single author.  Other exhibits feature apparent mismatches in reporting of dates and statistics, passages that appear to contradict modern scientific findings, alleged historical inaccuracies, and even entire books that have been decried as outright fiction (e.g., Job) or subject matter inappropriate for inclusion in the Holy Bible (e.g., Solomon’s Song).

Geisler and Howe defend God’s proficiency in matters of science, and attempt to show that His Scriptures are not at loggerheads with scientific fact.  On the other hand, they cannot seem to resist taking an occasional potshot at the postulates of science, even suggesting that the very Laws of Thermodynamics are flawed in that they fail to account for a universe where higher laws—God’s creative and miraculous phenomena—may occasionally supersede them.
What could stand improvement?  First, the actual text of the “problem” Scripture, instead of just a reference to it, should be included in the book.  For example, the “problem” statement for I Kings 6:1 opens with a question: “How can this be an accurate calculation if Ramses the Great was the pharaoh of the Exodus?”  How can WHAT be an accurate calculation? The reader must reach for a Bible in order to fully comprehend the problem and appreciate its solution.

Secondly, paragraphs.  Shorter ones.  Whereas a good deal of the book is reader-friendly (e.g., the entire Ephesians section is impressively laid out), there are still portions where the reader is languishing in the paragraph doldrums—such as the “solution” to Colossians 4:16, which contains a 10-sentence, 251-word paragraph!  The greatest thing since sliced bread is a sliced paragraph, so let us hope that Baker does not spare the slicer next time round.

In conclusion, why would God be so cruel as to give us a holy book that defies comprehension?  One point Geisler and Howe emphasize is that none of the “difficult passages” of the Bible detract from the clarity of its message on essential points of faith and practice.  Those who search the Scriptures with diligence and reverence will usually find clarity on the body of truth that God has given to mankind. 

Jesus often addressed the multitudes with hard sayings and parables.  This effectively presented a closed door, so those with humble faith would make the effort to knock and enter, while the self-confident would go away empty-handed.  Or, as the Virgin Mary poetically stated in her Magnificat, “Esurientes implevit bonis: et divites dimisit inanes.”  (“He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty.” – Luke 1:53, NJB)

Making Sense of Bible Difficulties... Is it worth the read? 

For those who firmly believe that the Bible is an anthology of poetry, myth and superstition, this book is unlikely to be a convincer.  But, for the rest of us who are fairly certain that the Bible—at least in its original manuscript form—was the infallible, inerrant Word of God, or if we are desperately hoping for some evidence to that effect, the theses of Geisler and Howe ring true.

As for me, it was a pleasure to crack open my chest of “questions to be asked when I get to heaven”, dust a few off, and get some answers that make sense!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Slime Balls on the Road to Nowhere

[Article 4 of “Men or Mules” Series]

By faith Abraham…left his own country, not knowing where he was to go. --Hebrews 11:8

“Phhhhthwattt! How can you be putting these in your mouth? They’re disgusting!”

If you’ve never hand-picked wild Concord grapes on a New England summer day, well…don’t. Once you’ve punctured the thick, rubbery skin, your reward is a mass of seeds securely sealed in a slimy ball of sour pulp. And, here are my wife and kids, happily tangled in wild vines endlessly strung up the trunks of wild maples, on a hot, dusty road in a wild corner of Vermont. Where ARE we, anyhow? And, how do I herd these grape munchers back into the car to get where we’re going? (If it even exists!)

That was 18 years ago and, no—we never got there. The rest of that day was spent negotiating back-country Vermont roads with increasing speed—as we became increasingly lost—in search of some elusive “must-see” destination listed in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Remote New England Places That Don’t Exist.

Janette—that’s my wife—is never anything but gracious. A few days later, when I was in a better mood, she suggested that those fifteen minutes of grape-wrangling were, for them, the highlight of an otherwise fruitless summer day.

So nowadays, our road trips are more like “mystery rides.” We usually have a destination in mind, but allow plenty of time to brake for unexpected adventures.

Of all the styles of guidance God uses in my life, my mind still has the most trouble with the “Road to Nowhere” style. He gives me a long-term destination, but I get so busy hunting for it that I have no patience with all the “stuff that comes up.”

Abraham struck out westward by faith to occupy an unknown land. But, hundreds of years later, it would be his great-great-great-extremely-very-great-grandchildren who would finally inherit that country. And along the way, God would fashion them into a mighty nation worthy of this “land of milk and honey.”

Do you ever find yourself so tangled up that you despair of ever reaching the place where God’s taking you? Stop and munch the grapes! Help your neighbor, spend time with the family, and mentor the weak. And when you eventually get there, you can look back and see how all that “stuff” prepared you to inherit the land!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Taking What Isn’t Mine

"...It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." – Mark 7:27b(NIV)

Like a sweat-soaked statue, the young corporal stood squarely at attention, while his beloved leader paced the chamber, stopping at intervals to re-read the communiqué that had just been delivered with such dire haste.

Napoleon Bonaparte interrupted his pacing long enough to gesture absent-mindedly. “At ease, Captain.”

“Captain!...Of what regiment?…Sir!” barked the soldier.

Napoleon spun around, speechless at this petty messenger’s brazen impertinence. But in a moment, the furrowed brow relaxed and the eyes were smiling. “My Personal Guard.”

This scene reminds me of that equally “impertinent” Syro-Phoenician woman who approached Jesus requesting a miracle for her little girl.

Imagine the whispers. “How dare she?” “A woman…a gentile…petitioning a rabbi! Just who does she think she is??”

Jesus, too, was astonished, but for a different reason. He could see her extraordinary faith—faith that would withstand one final test. “So! You’re saying I should take food from the children’s table...and toss it to their dogs?”

“But, even we dogs get the crumbs, don’t we?” she shot back. Jesus surely laughed out loud as He proceeded to order up a miracle for this amazing lady.

I’d always heard the faith sermons and read the books. “Know your place in Christ!” they admonished. “Claim what’s yours!” And, nothing could be more rock-solid scriptural.

But, then I watched this no-account woman taking faith to a whole new level. In her Old Covenant context, she was definitely OUT of line, reaching for what was certainly NOT hers. And, it didn’t seem to bother Jesus one bit!

Now I’ve learned to comb the Word for “crumbs” of promise. The ones Satan says can’t possibly have been meant for me personally.

So, the Father gives good gifts “to his children?” Guess what?...I’m one of those! These signs shall follow “those who believe?” Yep, that little crumb of dynamite’s going in my basket too.

How about you? What unique passion lies forgotten in your attic because they’ve told you it’s unachievable...unthinkable...too outrageous even to ask? And, your mind says, “Sure, God can use ‘people’ to do great things. Just...not me personally.”

Hey! Jesus needs a good laugh today. And, He still knows how to give good gifts to His kids. So, go ahead—walk into the throne room now and take what isn’t yours.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Nothing Sinks Like a Sub

[Article 3 of “Men or Mules” Series]
This article by Brad Fenichel was published in the March, 2009 issue of King's Courier, a bimonthly magazine. Used by Permission.

It’s 1730 hours aboard the USS San Mateo, as the galley crew begins serving supper. Meanwhile, in the Control Room, the Officer of the Deck orders a dive to 550 feet. All routine events aboard an SSN-688-class U.S. attack submarine. Twenty-three minutes later, they’ve leveled out at a comfortable 36 knots (about 41 mph), cruising along in the South Pacific.

And then it happens. The Control Room is a tangle of chairs, equipment and sailors careening through space. They’ve hit a “seamount”, a sheer underwater mountain cliff that wasn’t on the charts.

“Negative Sonar!” somebody barks. Then from the intercom: “Massive flooding, Torpedo Room—evacuate and secure watertight bulkhead!” Followed by that sickening down-elevator sensation. This boat is going down. There is only one course of action, and only one man aboard has authority to order it.

“Emergency Surface!” bellows the Conning Officer. “Repeat. EMERGENCY SURFACE!”

“Emergency Surface, aye, Sir!” echoes the Diving Officer. The diving alarms are already droning their aaaaOOOOgggAAAAHHHHH, aaaaOOOOOgggAAAAHHHhhh, signaling the crew to prepare for a submarine’s most drastic maneuver, reserved strictly for life-or-death situations! “Chief of the Watch, EMERGENCY BLOW—NOW!”

Reaching above his head, the Chief of Watch throws open two tiny hydraulic switches that unleash 4500-psi pressurized air from the enormous, curved “banana bottles” nestled along the ship’s hull, to blow the seawater out of the Main Ballast Tanks. All hands aboard brace themselves for the expected roar of air, and “jet takeoff” effect, as the ship shoots to the surface and literally leaps out of the water like a flying fish.

But…nothing happens!

For a split second, everyone in the Control Room is frozen in place, as they sink—faster and steeper now—plunging toward Crush Depth, where a 2-inch-thick steel submarine hull will crumple like a soda can.

Hydraulic Failure!

Only one thing left to do. “Attention, upper-level ‘Boats’, forward and aft, man all Emergency Blow hammer valves! Repeat. Man the hammer valves!!”

Four massive valves are located on the upper deck, two forward and two aft, to release the 4500-pound Emergency Blow air. These valves are operated remotely by those hydraulic switches in the Control Room. But, in case of hydraulic failure, each valve features a massive bronze hand wheel, weighted internally with lead. Two Boatswain’s Mates (“Boats”, as they’re called—guys that look like Arnold Schwarzenegger) grab each hand wheel and spin it back and forth repeatedly to “hammer” the reluctant valve open, against the stubborn resistance of 4500-psi air pressure.

Finally—like a jet engine—comes the roar of rushing air forcing seawater from the main ballast tanks. A few seconds more, and the wild ride begins. The ship shoots toward the surface…breaks the surface…splashes back down in a magnificent 200-foot plunge…then up again. Finally, the sub is bobbing on the surface like an injured sea lion waiting for its mother.

Emergency Blow. With it, a crippled sub can surface and lives can be saved. Without it, all hands aboard will be lost.

Emergency Guidance. With it, a child of God discovers direction in the face of seemingly senseless events, and wisdom when all choices seem hopeless. Without it, despair, shipwreck, and lost years that may never be redeemed.

Sometimes we’re cruising along in “Doin’ OK” mode. Not quite headed in the right direction, but too comfortable—and busy!—to give it much thought. No time to ask God where He’s going with our lives. There’s that project plan due Wednesday, and back-to-back soccer coaching this week. And, next week doesn’t look so good either.

Then, about halfway through Thursday—SLAM!!! The seamount that wasn’t on our charts. School calls to say Tommy was caught with some little blue pills. The wife calls at work to say you need to come home and talk—Allie just found out she’s pregnant. The kids’ youth pastor just skipped town with the church secretary. Your spouse’s office is closing, and he has to move to Chicago or get laid off—and they need an answer by next week. And on, and on, and on… Just when you you’re “Doing OK”, suddenly it seems Crush Depth is only a breath away. Where is God in all this? Asleep at the wheel? Hmm… Come to think of it, when did we hear last from Him? Or, when did he hear from us?

Pastor and author Charles Simpson said, “God isn’t just the God of miracles; he’s also the God who’ll put you in a place where you’ve got to have a miracle.”

Just when Israel thought they were “Doing OK”, God sent them on a long vacation to Babylon. But, He gave them this promise: “ You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.”

Emergency Guidance.

One day, twenty-five years ago, the phone rang. It was my sister out on the west coast, hysterical, saying that her husband Chris had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of an orange, and needed immediate surgery. The best neurosurgeon in Tucson was going to operate, but he gave Chris only a 50% chance of coming through.

Our whole world was put on hold as Janette and I took to our knees. There were no easy answers—our trite little “hydraulic switches” were not doing the trick, so we had to start swinging the hammer valve of prayer together. It was hard work. We had to break a sweat…a lot of sweat! But, then we heard the sweet sound of God’s guidance rushing through the channels from heaven down into our spirits.


What’s that?

“Gerry!” my wife repeated. “Uncle Gerry! Isn’t he a neurologist?”

I only remembered meeting this Uncle Gerry once, and vaguely knew that he was “into neurology.” I doubted that it would do much good, but we felt God had spoken, so I placed the call to Nashville.

As it turned out, he was eager to help. In fact, I discovered that my uncle Gerald Fenichel was actually a famous author and professor in the field of neurology. Now semi-retired, he spent most of his time traveling and lecturing on advanced topics in neuroscience.

Uncle Gerry knew every neurosurgeon who amounted to anything, and he told us that Tucson was not the place to have this operation! To make a long story short, he flew Chris out to Nashville to be operated on by the best-of-the-best neurosurgeons at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

It was a high-risk operation, removing this huge tumor from his auditory nerve. Recovery took many months. But Chris was able to go back to his job at the power company. And today, 25 years later, he still lives in Tucson, has eight kids and six grandkids, and is a pillar in his church.

Would things have turned out as well after a surgery in Tucson? Maybe. But, more likely, they could have gone much worse.

God’s guidance is the best possible plan for the best possible outcome, but sometimes it won’t come until the violent take it by force. Until we realize the folly of our position, and man the hammer valves of desperation.

Doing OK? Think again. “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.”

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tough Act to Fallow

"For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: ' Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns.'" --Jeremiah 4:3 (NKJV)

Fallow ground---that brand new piece of property we bought, so we could break it up and plant watermelons---right? It shouldn't be too hard to knock out those few bushes and weeds, right? Wrong!! Think again.

Fallow ground is earth that has been cultivated before. It's been broken up, conditioned, nourished. It's soaked in the spring rains and pushed up a bounty in the summer. But not lately. Not for a while. Whether through neglect, or perhaps deliberate planning, the farmer has left the land uncultivated for a time. And, that's what makes it a chore!

Uncultivated soil---rich, plowed, but idle---is the favorite of weeds. Tough, thorny, stubborn, opportunistic weeds form a thick blanket across the field, until not a square inch of soil remains for a useful crop.

It's a grim picture when the Church lies fallow. After all He's invested in us, the leafy, fruitful crops of our First Love have given way to choking thorns. And thorns never look so healthy as when they suck the God-given life out of the soil of our hearts.

The LORD delivered His clear message through Jeremiah: "Break it up! Tear up those thorny weeds without mercy! Wipe your hearts clean through repentance so useful crops can thrive there again."

Hosea 10:12 goes on further to say, "...break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you."

We have no control over the rain, but He's promised to send it---if we're willing to seek Him and willing to let Him wipe out the thorns.