Monthly Archives: May 2009

My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 3: When the Author States his Method, that Counts Too

In full:

Any theory of Biblical inspiration needs to account for what the authors tell us about their own writing process.

You can learn a lot if you pay attention in the right places.  One of the most overt Biblical statements of authorial intent and process is in the prologue of Luke’s gospel:

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

This is a gold mine of information:

  1. there have been many written accounts of the work of Jesus by the time Luke sets out to write his
  2. the stories were first handed down (orally) by people who were eyewitnesses to them
  3. Luke himself was not an eyewitness, so he conducted a careful investigation
  4. it seemed good to him to write an orderly account
  5. the purpose of his writing is that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught.

Already, several popular theories are dead in the water.  Luke wasn’t some kind of flesh and bone pen, taken over by the hand of God, scribbling down the thoughts of the Holy Spirit.  I think you have to throw out verbal plenary inspiration, at least as a statement about the entire Bible, if you take Luke at his word.  And you have to get rid of that super-popular illustration that compares the four gospels to four witnesses at a car crash, claiming that their differences are merely matters of different perspective.  That doesn’t fit well, because Luke lets us know up front that he wasn’t a witness.   And he reason for writing is so pragmatic–“it seemed good to me.”  I know a lot of folks would prefer it if he said that “the Spirit led me to write this” or “God placed a burden on my heart” or whatever the new catch-phrase is for a vague and unverifiable holy prompting, but that’s not what we have.  Luke did a survey of the literature about Jesus, thought that it was generally inadequate (presumably confusing or erroneous) and set out to write a better one.

When you compare the gospels against each other, it becomes clear that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Exact sentences are repeated, word-for-word, in two or sometimes all three of them.  Someone is incorporating parts of someone else’s previous writing.  Biblical scholars who try to sort out exactly who was reading which of the other gospels and what order they were written in call this the “synoptic problem.”  Most scholars set Mark as the first and earliest of the canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke coming later, and using Mark as a primary source.  It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was one of the earlier accounts that Luke read, and Luke must have thought that it was the best of the bunch, because he uses much of its material.  On the other hand, he also thought it wasn’t quite right for his purposes, since he didn’t just copy it and send it on to Theophilus.  He wrote an expanded version with a special emphasis on showing Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had promised in the Old Testament.  (Read the first four chapters of Luke carefully, much of which is unique to his gospel, and you can see his desire to link Jesus to the Jewish tradition.)

Put all that together and we learn that it is okay for a Biblical writer to:

  1. do research
  2. quote other sources (sometimes without attribution)
  3. write because it seemed like a good idea (without special divine prompting)
  4. have specific purposes in mind when he writes (be conciously aware of his own authorial agenda)

That doesn’t seem very challenging or controversial to me, but you would never think those things were possible based on some popular theories about the Bible.  There is a lot of Luke’s own initiative and interest in his gospel, and he explains the production of it in simple human terms.  If you’ve ever become interested in a topic, read what was already written about it, and incorporated the best information into a new document you were writing that emphasized certain things that were especially important to you, then you’ve done exactly what Luke says he did to write the Gospel.  As the bumper sticker proclaims, “Luke said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Here’s another passage that we need to account for in our theories of inspiration, 1 Corinthians 1:13-16:

13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now, I would never, ever want to claim that Paul’s memory is occasionally faulty and possibly erroneous, but unfortunately, Paul makes that claim himself.  Even though he is writing a document that will become holy scripture, the Holy Spirit has not intervened to give him perfect knowledge, even about his own ministry!  Paul simply can’t tell his readers with certainty how many people he baptized. So let’s add one more thing to the list.  It’s okay for a Biblical writer to

5.  show signs of faulty human memory.

Even if Paul hadn’t told us that clearly, we would have figured it out when he wrote this nine chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10:

7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.

And then we looked it up in in Numbers 25 and read:

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

I look at this and think, “Ah, twenty-three thousand, twenty-four thousand, no big deal.  He was only a thousand off and it doesn’t change the point he was making.  So what if he can’t remember who he baptized for sure, and he mis-remembered the number who died in the plague?  Maybe he wrote 1 Corinthians when he was really sleep deprived.”  And I go on reading and studying, faith intact.  My faith depends on the perfection of Jesus, not of Paul.

That seems to be working out pretty well for me, but it is unacceptable to the folks over at Apologetics Press:

So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”

By this account, I am supposed to believe that Paul was supernaturally given special knowledge of the event beyond what was recorded in the scriptures.  He knew that 24,000 died in the plague, but he also knew that 23,000 died in the first day, and another 1,000 lingered on into day two.  Rather than just referring to the 24,000 total who died, Paul emphasized the number who died within 24 hours–the 23,000.

But what about the idea that Paul just had a little, inconsequential memory slip?  That was Peter Davids’ theory in Hard Sayings of the Bible, and he’s a pretty conservative writer.  But that’s a non-starter at Apologetics Press:

Unbelievable! Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, and F.F. Bruce pen an 800-page book in an attempt to answer numerous alleged Bible contradictions and to defend the integrity of the Bible, and yet Davids has the audacity to say that the apostle Paul “cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong.” Why in the world did Davids spend so much time (and space) answering various questions that skeptics frequently raise, and then conclude that the man who penned almost half of the New Testament books made mistakes in his writings?! He has concluded exactly what the infidels teach—Bible writers made mistakes. Furthermore, if Paul made one mistake in his writings, he easily could have blundered elsewhere. And if Paul made mistakes in other writings, how can we say that Peter, John, Isaiah, and others did not “slip up” occasionally? The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But as we noted above, the skeptic is not right! First Corinthians 10:8 can be explained logically without assuming Paul’s writings are inaccurate….Paul did not “invent” facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names.”  Unless, of course, that name was “Stephanas.”  You can dance all around the Bible grabbing verses to try to make your case for inerrancy, but sooner or later you are going to have to deal with 1 Corinthians 1:16.  Paul says clearly that he is relying on “his own cognizance” to remember a name, and that his memory might not be accurate.  No carefully woven theories of inspiration, no syllogisms or dogmas get to trump the clear statement of the apostle.  You have to deal with what he says.

Who is the real Bible believer in this argument?  I believe what Luke says about his writing methods.  I believe what Paul says about his memory.  I honor their writings as scripture, and I accept their self-report.  If you believe in inerrancy, then you have to believe that Paul was literally correct and without error when he wrote that he couldn’t remember for sure who he baptized.  Which means his writing isn’t inerrant.  I have no doubt that someone has done a Rube Goldberg thought experiment to get out of that dilemma, but I sure don’t see how.

My plea: can’t we just accept what the Bible says?

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Scot McKnight on “Kingdom Gospel”

This is excellent.  I want to track Scot down and make him my best friend.

A snippet:

Many readers of the Bible read the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel they believe and this is what that gospel looks like:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
But you have a sin problem that separates you from God.
The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins.
If you accept Jesus’ death, you can be reconnected to God.
Those who are reconnected to God will live in heaven with God.

Every line of that statement is more or less true. It is the sequencing of those lines, the “story” of that gospel if you will, that concerns me and that turns Jesus’ message of the kingdom into a blue parakeet. And it is not only the sequencing, it is the omitting of major themes in the Bible that concerns me. What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel. Who needs a church if this is the gospel? (Answer: no one.) What becomes of the church for this gospel? (Answer: an organization for those who want to do that sort of thing.) While every line in this gospel is more or less true, what concerns many of us today is that this gospel makes the church unimportant.

I believe this gospel can deconstruct, is deconstructing, and will deconstruct the church if we don’t change it now. Our churches are filled with Christians who don’t give a rip about church life and we have a young generation who, in some cases, care so much about the Church they can’t attend a local church because too many local churches are shaped too much by the gospel I outlined above. To be truthful, the gospel above is a distortion of Romans. More and more of us, because we are reading the Bible as Story, are seeing the centrality of the church in God’s plan and the gospel being preached too often is out of touch with the Bible’s Story.

I dealt with some related concerns here.

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How Could We Have Kept JohnK Among Us?

Here’s part of a deconversion story by “JohnK” from ex-Christian.net.

So recently, when I was still a christian, I decided to do a morning devotional bible study. I started as I usually did, with a short prayer asking god for guidance and wisdom through his word. That day I came across the story of jesus’ anointing at Bethany in john 12. This is the story of how Mary (sister of Martha) poured oil into jesus’ head during a meal, which was met by indignation by the disciples and a subsequent rebuke from jesus. But that’s strange, I thought. I had remembered it was some unknown, unnamed woman who poured the oil and got rebuked. I decided to do some research on the internet. This was the beginning of the end of my faith.

I found out that the anointing at Bethany is detailed three different times in the gospels: john 12, Matthew 26, and mark 14 (there is a similar account of anointing in luke 7 but it is different enough to be considered a separate incident). In Mark and Matthew, the name of the woman is not given. However, the stories in all three accounts are almost identical: the woman, supposedly Mary, approaches jesus and his disciples at a dinner table and pours an alabaster vial of expensive perfume of nard on him. The disciples, seeing this, say something to the effect of: “Why are you wasting this expensive perfume? It could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor.” And jesus rebukes the disciples, telling them to leave her alone, that she is preparing him for burial, that the poor would always be with them, but he wouldn’t, etc.

But this is the problem: the episode in John happens BEFORE jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while in Matthew and Mark the anointing happens AFTER the triumphal entry. So there is no way it could have been the same event… yet the stories are so identical, that I found it IMPOSSIBLE to believe it happened twice, within the space of a few days!

My research led me to skeptical sites listing bible contradictions and absurdities, and I discovered the bible contained many other contradictions, some I had noticed before (and tried to ignore) and others that I had not. The death of Judas Iscariot is another example. Matthew 27 states that after Judas had betrayed jesus, he became remorseful, flung the 30 pieces of silver into the temple and hanged himself. Acts 1 says he bought a field with the silver, then somehow fell headfirst into it, and died when his guts spilled out after his stomach burst open. So the “Field of Blood” was purchased by the chief priests according to Matthew, and by Judas according to Acts. The cherry on top of this whole confusing contradictory episode is Matthew’s reference in 27:9 that Jeremiah is the prophet foretelling the whole 30 pieces of silver incident; the problem is, there is nothing about 30 pieces of silver anywhere in the book of Jeremiah!

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other contradictions in the bible, such as the conflicting genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, the conflicting accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb, the conflicting accounts of how the disciples were first gathered, etc. (and I haven’t even gotten to the old testament). So basically, my deep investigation of the anointing story opened the floodgates to my skepticism and doubt of the bible, and my faith in the book began to crumble and did not stop. For quite a few days I was in distress, trying to find a way to reconcile all the errors. The entire worldview I had developed and lived for the last few years was breaking down! Eventually, I remember flinging the bible on my table, looking at it, and saying something like “You are full of errors. You are not reliable”. The next day I prayed my last real prayer, where I asked god, that if he was really there, to give me or show me an explanation of why his supposed book had so many contradictions and confusions, otherwise I could not keep on believing. I think the reader knows by now whether there was an answer to that prayer.

I understand now why fundamentalists always insist that the bible is inerrant. It is because once you concede that the bible has errors, it is a slippery slope. Who decides then what is an error, what is sound doctrine, and what is not? Biblical interpretation becomes very subjective, and christianity becomes a salad bar for each individual, who chooses what to take literally and what to take as metaphor depending on their own reasoning and sensibilities. Salad bar christianity is much of what I see today among christians, and partly why there are so many different christian denominations and schools of thought. John 16 says the holy spirit guides believers into all truth, and 1 Corinthians 14 says god is not the author of confusion, but these exhortations are false and ridiculous considering all the divisions and differing interpretations of scripture among christians both now and throughout church history. No book has created more confusion and conflict than the bible, because there is no holy spirit guiding anyone who reads it.

Now when I look back, I wonder how in the world I ever convinced myself that a serpent/devil deceived Eve and cursed the world, or that Noah took all the animals into his ark to save them from a flood that covered the entire earth, or that languages were uniform before the tower of Babel, etc. etc. I was so taken by Jesus and what I perceived to be his wise and other-worldly teachings, that I chose to ignore the other parts of the bible that probably deserve as much belief as Santa Claus. As a christian, when I would encounter unbelievable stories in the old testament or statements that seemed to contradict each other, I would often push it out of my mind, reassuring myself there must be an explanation, or that things were different in those days, etc. But now my faith no longer exists and I see the bible for what it really is. I still think that the bible is a remarkable piece of literature that has had an enormous impact in western history and thought, both for good and ill. But it is also no longer a book I can base my life on.

Suppose JohnK had been able to talk with a really good inerrancy apologist about the contradictions he was seeing in the Bible–could an excellent apologist have kept him in the inerrancy (and Christian) fold?

What if instead of insisting on inerrancy, someone had told John that the Bible doesn’t work quite like that?

What if he had been instructed that the Bible never intended to be 21st century style historiography?

What if he was told that the scriptures themselves were not his model, but that they, like the Holy Spirit, were designed to point the way to Jesus?

What if someone said that our faith isn’t in a book, it’s in the Christ, and the Bible is just one of our resources for knowing the Christ, along with orthodox church tradition, worship practices, and the faithful lives of the community of believers?

Would John’s experience have been different if he had been told from the start that we wouldn’t be able to make an historical timeline of Jesus’ ministry out of the gospel accounts?

Here’s a bright person, articulate and thoughtful, who lost his faith because he read the Bible.  There are thousands more out there like him.  Can the evangelical churches in America undergo the paradigm shift it will take to cultivate faith in people who currently leaving our churches because they’ve read the Bible carefully and it didn’t turn out to be what they had been told it was?

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Playing With the Numbers

From the comments section of this article:

On the subject of Theism, I’m in 99.9% agreement with you. That is, I believe there’s insufficient evidence to support the existence of 1,000 different gods and religions. You believe there’s insufficient evidence to support the existence of 999.

Please accept my sincere best wishes that you manage to gain that last one-tenth of one percent understanding. I’ll cheerfully accept your best wishes (or call them prayers) that I receive evidence that would let me believe that your 1 of 1000 gods proves true, however unlikely I think that may be. (commenter Malis)

Remember, if you cling to a particular religious belief, you are by definition atheistic to all the other myriad religions in the world… and thus, you have that in common with me. I simply deny one more religion: yours. (commenter Spinoza)

This argument is clearly working for the atheists–I encounter it about every seven and a half minutes these days.  I suspect Dawkins is the one who popularized it, although I think I’ve seen ancient versions of it.  It’s pretty clever, in that it gives every conceivable religion equal standing (so Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism are given the same status and likelihood as a cargo cult or the Hale-Bopp UFO cult), and thus argues “You have good reasons for believing that the 999 other religions are bunk, and therefore you already understand why I think yours is, too.  You are almost an atheist, you just have one more illusion to break.”

Nine hundred ninety nine is probably an inflated number, although I won’t pretend I know exact what the actual number of religious systems in the world is, and I don’t think you could really quanitify that very easily.  It obviously works in the atheists’ favor to say “you think 99.9 % of possible religions are wrong,” rather than “you think that only the two billion people who are Christians have it right.”  Of course, Christianity has much greater standing than the Hale-Bopp suicide cult, and to take a religion espoused by one third of the world and treat it as just one option among 1000 isn’t really being honest with the situation as it stands.

And, of course, Christians don’t think that all other religions are purely bunk.  We can affirm that we agree almost completely with Judaism.  We can affirm all that Judaism does, but in additionwe affirm that Yahweh was seen on earth in the form of his incarnate son.  We can affirm a great deal of Islam as well.  For a great many faiths we say “yes, yes, yes, and yes” to significant doctrines, mixed in with our “but no, not that” to other propositions.  Atheists see all religious people as completely deluded, but Christians see all religious people as partially correct, and sometimes mostly so.

I simply reject this kind of black and white thinking that wants to divide the world into “completely wrong” or “completely right.”  There are a lot of” mostly wrong”, “very mixed”, and “mostly right” systems out there.  To say that I oppose 99% of the world when I affirm Christianity is badly in error.  I affirm the third of the world who are my co-religionists and partially affirm a great many more besides that.  It is much more honest to say that the atheist disagrees with me and the other 90% of humanity who believes there is some sort of God.

As C.S. Lewis wrote:  “And it should (at least in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected.”

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Touched By Evil

There’s a good piece in the Atlantic about Flannery O’Connor:

O’Connor was dismissive of any pressure, whether of religious or secular origin, for more “positive” fiction. She saw no contradiction between her faith and her art. Just the opposite: “Because I am a Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” However, she stated,

the novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.

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What is Preaching Supposed to Be?

Here’s John Piper’s take on it:

What I mean by preaching is expository exultation.

Expository means that preaching aims to exposit, or explain and apply, the meaning of the Bible. The reason for this is that the Bible is God’s word, inspired, infallible, profitable—all 66 books of it.

The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God. Every sermon should explain the Bible and then apply it to people’s lives.

The preacher should do that in a way that enables you to see that the points he is making actually come from the Bible. If you can’t see that they come from the Bible, your faith will end up resting on a man and not on God’s word….

That’s more or less what I was taught in the beginning of my ministry training.  Study the text, explain it, and apply it.  Later, influenced by Fred Craddock, I adopted his stance that good preaching says what the text says and does what the text does–if the passage you are preaching from instructs, then instruct; if it inspires, inspire; if it troubles, trouble; if it comforts, comfort.  That was a helpful second dimension that pays attention not just to the teachable propositions of the text, but also to the intended purpose of it.  Even if you have your propositions straight, if you take a text meant to inspire and bore people to death with your step-by-step exposition, you haven’t really preached the text–you’ve processed it and turned it around to zoom down a different path.

With a thorough grounding in Craddock and Stott and other homiletical heroes, I became fluent in what I still believe are the best practices of expository preaching, which my teachers always presented in contrast to “topical preaching” (shudder!).  Topical preaching, I was told, has too much potential for abuse.  Topical preaching is too dependent on the agenda of the preacher.  Topical preaching does a disservice to the congregation, which needs a grounding in verse by verse, book by book, good old expository preaching.

That sounded just right to me, until I read Edward Farley’s Practicing Gospel.  The entire book is excellent, but it was chapter six “Preaching the Bible and Preaching the Gospel” that really did a number on me.  (It first appeared as an article in the April 1994 issue of Theology Today.)  Here’s Farley:

One thing is clear in the New Testament accounts.  That-which-is-preached is not the content of passages of Scripture.  It is the gospel, the event of Christ through which we are saved.  To think that what is preached is the Bible and the context of its passages is a quite different way of thinking about preaching. (p. 74)

That’s a huge problem.  We typically refer to “expository exultation” as “Biblical preaching.”  But if you look at literal Biblical preaching (the kind of preaching modeled in the Bible) it isn’t expository exultation.  Paul’s brand of preaching is notorious for causing problems in conservative churches because you can’t help but recognize that he’s up to something quite different than what we consider good preaching practice.  In my experience, the typical answer when someone realizes that is essentially that Paul can get away with it because he is breaking the rules under inspiration of the Spirit, but that’s one area where we can’t follow his example.  So we are left with a troubling break–Paul’s message is inspired but his method is flawed.  This is another case where a prior commitment to a certain understanding of the Bible either keeps us from seeing the obvious (the Bible itself doesn’t model expository preaching) or keeps us from giving weight to the Biblical example.  On the fundamental question of what preaching should look like, we reject the scriptural model in favor of the expository paradigm, and we do so in the name of honoring scripture.  That’s just not working.

Maybe one of the reasons that people who leave our churches say that are more interested in rules than spirituality is this model of exhortation that breaks every passage down into three or five teachable points to apply in your own life and often misses the glorious proclamation of the good news that Jesus is reigning and renewing the world.

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War Messaging

From the new GQ article “And He Shall Be Judged” by Robert Draper.

On the morning of Thursday, April 10, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon prepared a top-secret briefing for George W. Bush. This document, known as the Worldwide Intelligence Update, was a daily digest of critical military intelligence so classified that it circulated among only a handful of Pentagon leaders and the president; Rumsfeld himself often delivered it, by hand, to the White House. The briefing’s cover sheet generally featured triumphant, color images from the previous days’ war efforts: On this particular morning, it showed the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Firdos Square, a grateful Iraqi child kissing an American soldier, and jubilant crowds thronging the streets of newly liberated Baghdad. And above these images, and just below the headline secretary of defense, was a quote that may have raised some eyebrows. It came from the Bible, from the book of Psalms: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him…To deliver their soul from death.”

This mixing of Crusades-like messaging with war imagery, which until now has not been revealed, had become routine. On March 31, a U.S. tank roared through the desert beneath a quote from Ephesians: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” On April 7, Saddam Hussein struck a dictatorial pose, under this passage from the First Epistle of Peter: “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”

These cover sheets were the brainchild of Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense. In the days before the Iraq war, Shaffer’s staff had created humorous covers in an attempt to alleviate the stress of preparing for battle. Then, as the body counting began, Shaffer, a Christian, deemed the biblical passages more suitable. Several others in the Pentagon disagreed. At least one Muslim analyst in the building had been greatly offended; others privately worried that if these covers were leaked during a war conducted in an Islamic nation, the fallout—as one Pentagon staffer would later say—“would be as bad as Abu Ghraib.”

But the Pentagon’s top officials were apparently unconcerned about the effect such a disclosure might have on the conduct of the war or on Bush’s public standing. When colleagues complained to Shaffer that including a religious message with an intelligence briefing seemed inappropriate, Shaffer politely informed them that the practice would continue, because “my seniors”—JCS chairman Richard Myers, Rumsfeld, and the commander in chief himself—appreciated the cover pages.

Let’s give those verses a little more context:

16 No king is saved by the multitude of an army;
A mighty man is not delivered by great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for safety;
Neither shall it deliver any by its great strength.

18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope in His mercy,
19 To deliver their soul from death,
And to keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the LORD;
He is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart shall rejoice in Him,
Because we have trusted in His holy name.
22 Let Your mercy, O LORD, be upon us,
Just as we hope in You.

Psalm 33:16-22

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Ephesians 6:10-18

11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

13Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. 16Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:11-17

It’s almost too easy, you know?

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