October 21, 2010

Christian Profiling?

One of today's big news items is that National Public Radio, an entity supported with American tax dollars, fired Juan Williams, one of their long-standing news analysts, for making the following statements,
“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Whether Mr. Williams deserved to be fired, or not, and whether this liberal news organization should be supported by taxpayer dollars, or not, are important though mundane issues that should be addressed. However, what I would like to consider is what should be my attitude as a Christian in such a situation. Should a Christian ever engage in profiling? Before I answer the question, please allow me to relate a story of a similar incident to that of Juan Williams, a relevant incident that happened in my own life.

A short time after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, I started flying again in order to fulfill my responsibilities as the Academic Dean at Midwestern Seminary. It was the first time on the plane again for many of us and the nervousness was palpable in the terminal and only increased as you traversed security and approached the gate. Moreover, as we began boarding the airplane that day, suddenly a half dozen armed police officers descended on the gate and soldiers could be clearly seen in the background brandishing automatic weapons. The object of their concern was a big olive-skinned man with a long beard wearing middle-eastern clothes and a close-fitting hat. They took him to a side hallway and began thoroughly searching his carry-on baggage. The rest of us began to board the airplane.

As the plane filled up, it became apparent that the flight was fully packed and, later, that we were not leaving the gate any time soon. After a while, the stewardesses began to look around and check through the passengers. Then, their eyes settled on me and a hushed conversation ensued. This was followed by one stewardess coming to my row and asking the lady in the center seat next to me if she would mind being moved. Time passed and we all watched as the big olive-skinned man with the long beard wearing the middle-eastern clothes and the close-fitting hat was escorted to his seat. Everybody in the plane turned to look at him the entire way as he came to the center of the plane and then sat next to me.

Needless to say, my own thoughts at that point probably should have been the same as what Juan Williams expressed, and I have to be honest that I did wonder whether I had taken out enough life insurance for my wife to care for herself and our children, in case something were to happen to me. But the Bible resting in the seat pouch in front of me said that all things were providentially guided by God: my life and my family's lives were in His hands, and my only fear should be toward Him. So, I stood up from my aisle seat and the man made his way through to sit next to me. He was obviously shaken by the whole encounter as the perspiration dripped profusely from his forehead.

As we settled in, the continual furtive glances from around the plane, looking back from this point in time, were almost comic. I began to wonder what people were thinking of me as well as him, then I remembered that a 6'4" 260-lb man with a trimmed beard wearing a suit and tie must look like an authority figure. I laughed about that because I come from a family of police officers but personally have neither pretension nor desire to exercise governmental authority. By the way, two big men sitting next to each other on an airplane is always an uncomfortable experience, and this was perhaps the closest I have been to another man for an extended period in my life.

As the plane took off, I took out my Bible and began to read, and he took out his own book, written, yes, in Arabic script, and seemed to withdraw into himself. The woman seated on the other side of my new co-passenger was as close to the bulkhead as she could get and could not take her eyes off of the window. This poor man had obviously just been through a grilling security search and suddenly my heart leaped out in compassion for a fellow human being. There was little doubt in my mind, or anybody else's on that day, that this man was subjected to such a search because he was dressed as a Muslim from head to chin to toe. This was an instance of racial profiling, whatever one thinks of the practice. But, Muslim or not, he deserved to be respected as much as the big Caucasian guy seated next to him.

As I prayed quietly, I discerned that this had to be the most important and obviously preordained appointment of my day, so I might as well use it to the full advantage. God had arranged for an American professor of Christian theology to sit next to a devout Muslim immigrant to the United States; God wanted me to comfort a fellow human being and offer him the succor of human conversation, including conversation about the gospel. Moreover, looking at the shrinking violet on the other side of my new co-passenger, I was obviously the only nearby person secure enough to speak with the man. So, as you can see, I had engaged in a little Christian profiling. Yes, I admit it, I saw this man, recognized he was most likely not a Christian and knew that God intended for me to share the gospel with him.

It was a great experience. He was so thankful that somebody would even speak to him at that point, and he was most definitely open to hearing about the gospel. And because nobody in our immediate area was even daring to whisper, it became an opportunity for me to raise my voice ever so slightly as I engaged with him in discussing what the Bible had to say about God, about human sin, and about the sacrifice that Jesus had made for our sin. He was fascinated to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ and all the nearby passengers could not help but hear, too. (Yes, I admit it, that too was Christian profiling. How do I know some of them were not Christians? I didn't, so they all needed to hear the gospel, too.)

I also was privileged to hear about his beliefs. You see, this man was a Sunni Muslim who practiced a form of mysticism known as Sufism. The book he was praying from was the Dala'il Ul Khayrat, a sort of Arabic book of common prayer, if you will. He really was a peaceful man who was trying to be true to his culture and beliefs in the midst of a vastly different culture. He even shared with me that he did not believe the way to happiness was through violence against non-Muslims. So, here in the midst of a very tense situation, two large men from two different cultures practicing two different religions found comfort in their common humanity and shared their respective faiths peacefully with one another.

After the flight, we kept conversing with each other, even as every eye in the plane and then in the terminal followed the two of us, me with my Holy Bible and him in his Muslim dress with his holy prayer book. We exchanged cards and both went on our way. When we parted, it was as if a part of me left with him, and judging from the letter he later sent me, which now lies before me, he felt the same. Sadly, from my perspective, my new friend did not receive Jesus Christ as His personal Lord and Savior that day. However, happily, I was obedient to my Lord and shared the gospel with a fellow human being and all those tense human beings around us.

As I think about Juan Williams' statements and his unfortunate firing from NPR, I also think of how I as a Christian should respond in situations where I encounter other human beings, including human beings who are radically different from me. From a Christian perspective, every human being--no matter how alike or different his or her culture--needs to hear the gospel, and every Christian must find them and tell them that Jesus died on the cross to atone for their sin and that He arose from the dead so that any who believe in Him can find forgiveness and have eternal life in communion with the God who is love. Christians ought not engage in racial profiling, but we ought to engage in witness profiling, taking every opportunity to tell others how we had the burden of sin lifted away by the free grace of God in Christ.

Today, I pulled out the copy of the Dala'il Ul Khayrat that he mailed me and his letter fell out on the floor of my office. As I think of my friend, the devout Muslim with the Muslim beard in the Muslim dress carrying his Muslim book, I pray that sometime soon he will pull out the copy of the Bible that I sent him. And I hope that he remembers that I respect him as a fellow human being. Moreover, I hope he will recall what I said: that because God loves me, a sinner, I know God loves him, too. And because of Christ, I love him, too, no matter how different we are. I long for the day when I will meet people from every culture before the throne of God. And, more than anything else in my life, I long for my Lord to say these words to me, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

October 15, 2010

The Empire of the Holy Spirit

Michael A.G. Haykin has drawn upon a lifetime of biblical studies, spiritual experiences, and focused scholarship to write a popular volume on the Holy Spirit and spirituality entitled The Empire of the Holy Spirit: Reflecting on Biblical and Historical Patterns of Life in the Spirit, published by BorderStone Press. This is perhaps the most important book yet written by a prolific author. In eleven chapters, beginning with a discussion of why Christians believe that God is Trinity and the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons sharing in the Godhead, Haykin demonstrates how orthodox theology may be presented in a popular format.

There are four things to note about Haykin's sources and methodology: First, Haykin exposits Scripture at length with regard to its teachings about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. I did not discover one instance in which I found the author to have missed Scripture's presentation of pneumatology, including matters of emphasis. Second, Haykin has read the early church fathers deeply but wears his profound knowledge of Patristic history and theology with humility and without any trace of pretension. Even as he draws upon Irenaeus, Basil, and Hilary, the citations are always appropriate to the discussion and always illuminating. Third, Haykin draws upon his long interest in the eighteenth-century Puritans, especially the pioneers of the missionary Baptist movement. The illustrations from this period do not dominate the text, though his studies therein have dominated his career for many years. Fourth, Haykin engages with contemporary expressions of spirituality, both Christian and non-Christian, evaluating them with both judiciousness and gracefulness. If you want to know what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger contributes to postmodernity or where the pop spirituality of Eckhart Tolle has gone astray, Haykin provides a succinct and accurate Christian response.

At 180 pages, this slim volume was not intended to function as a systematic exploration of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in all of His glorious deity and powerful works, but nevertheless it does touch upon much of what a traditional systematic text would. Many of the chapters were presented in other venues, both spoken and written, but the book does not read as a compilation of chapters but rather flows seamlessly from one subject to the next. What is unique about the presentation is that more contemporary issues are not addressed until the end of the book, which means that some of the more culturally relevant portions will not be discovered until the book is nearly completed. And yet, this may also be a strength, for the book is biblically relevant from cover to cover.

Although I might quibble with some of the matters presented herein, such as Haykin's construal of the Spirit's movement of grace in salvation as "irresistible," I found myself in almost wholehearted agreement with nearly every word. While Haykin acknowledges that he was once involved in the Charismatic movement popular in the 1970s and is involved in the Calvinist movement that is currently the rage, these are merely secondary even tertiary matters in this book. Haykin has not set out to prove or disprove Charismatic theology or Calvinist theology, but to bring the reader closer to an understanding of what true "spirituality" is. And that true spirituality is, according to Haykin, a biblically-faithful, God-honoring, personally-embracing love for God and His church through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

This little treasure, The Empire of the Holy Spirit: Reflecting on Biblical and Historical Patterns of Life in the Spirit, comes with my highest recommendation.

October 6, 2010

A Lecture on "Foundational Theology" or «Систематичне богослов’я»

Карл Барт та Герхард Ебелінг, двоє заслужено відомих німецьких богословів 20-го сторіччя, вони давали однакове визначення богослов’ю як «критичному віддзеркаленню проповіді церкви». ...

Thus began my plenary lecture on "Foundational Theology," which was delivered this past June to the faculty and students of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary has campuses in both Lviv and Borislov, Ukraine. The lecture was kindly translated into Ukrainian, for which I am thankful. Lviv is the cultural capital of Ukraine and is one of the most intriguing cities with regard to Christian art and history that I have ever visited. For more on UBTS, a conservative Baptist seminary intent on spreading the gospel in Ukraine, follow this link.

October 1, 2010

HCSB Study Bible: God's Word for Life

The HCSB Study Bibleis now available and comes with this reviewer's studied recommendation. The importance of this recommendation should be evident since, after considering other popular study Bibles, I chose to give a leather-bound version of the HCSB Study Bibleto my middle son in order to encourage him further in his Bible reading. Before proceeding to a discussion of the Study Bible apparatus, we will consider this new translation.

The HCSB Translation

HCSB, Holman Christian Standard Bible, seeks to fill a recognizable hole among modern English translations in seven notable ways. First, the translators utilize the most recent critical editions of the Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts of the Old Testament and the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Second, the translators did not insist upon revising previous translations, as has been all too common, but they sought to provide "a new translation for today's generation" of English-speaking peoples.

Third, the translation philosophy of the HCSB is neither that of "formal equivalence" nor that of "dynamic or functional equivalence." Formal equivalence seeks to retain the exact equivalence of word and sentence structure from the original languages, but this sometimes results in awkward English translations. On the other hand, dynamic equivalence seeks to bring across the thought of the original into modern English forms, but this sometimes results in the loss of formal meanings affiliated with the original text. Recognizing the difficulties with both of these older translation philosophies, the translators chose to follow the practice of "optimal equivalence," retaining the original forms as much as possible without also sacrificing English comprehension.

The fourth notable fact about the HCSB is that the translators retained the original gender distinctions of the biblical text, a matter of no small consequence in today's egalitarian culture. Fifth, the HCSB has chosen to translate the names of God as closely as possible to the original, which means, for instance, that the personal name of "Yahweh" actually appears in the translation, a practice long overdue. Sixth, some special formatting features, such as marking quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament in bold, are very helpful. Seventh and finally, textual footnotes regarding alternate readings or more literal readings are provided.

These seven aspects of the HCSB translation make it a worthy addition to any Christian's library and a worthy gift for any unbeliever interested in hearing about the Christian Bible. One of the few complaints I have with regard to the translation itself is its continuation of transliterating the Greek words for immersion rather than translating them. This is a peculiar decision for a translation coming from a Baptist organization and one that runs against the grain of the HCSB's own stated translation principle of "fresh translation." Nonetheless, the translation is one that should continue to be tested and grow in usage.

The HCSB Study Bible

Now, we proceed to the commentary apparatus known as the Study Bible. There are seven notable features to the HCSB Study Bible that make it a worthy addition to the Christian reader's library. First, other than the introductions and essays, the publisher has chosen to make sure that the biblical text itself is highlighted on the typical page of the book. This is intentional, as it gently reminds the reader through text placement and font size that the Word of God is authoritative while the commentator's study notes are of entirely secondary status. Second, each biblical book is preceded by a short but informative introduction regarding the book's circumstances of writing, message and purpose, and a helpful structural outline. There is also a chronological timeline with each introduction.

The third notable feature of the Study Bible are the study notes that accompany the text. These study notes provide historical, linguistic and theological comments upon the biblical text prepared by highly-qualified Christian scholars. For instance, Andreas Kostenberger contributed the introduction and notes for the Gospel of John and Paul's letter to the Colossians, while Terry Wilder wrote the introduction and notes for 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude. The fourth notable feature are the essays scattered throughout the text, also written by highly-qualified Christian scholars. For instance, George Guthrie contributed a compelling essay on "How to Read and Study the Bible," which I recommend every Christian read, not only for its hermeneutical instructions but for its spiritual maturity and practical encouragement. The reader will appreciate the other essays, including such small jewels as "Christ in the Old Testament" by Craig Blaising, or "The Bible and Civil Rights" by Kevin L. Smith.

Fifth among the notable features of the Study Bible are the word studies and bullet points. The individual word studies bring the reader summary information regarding the historical and theological significance of important Hebrew and Greek words. The bullet points refer the reader to an appendix for definitions of important common scriptural words. The sixth feature concerns the helpful maps, charts, photos and illustrations that are scattered throughout the text.

The final notable feature of the HCSB Study Bibleregards the intention of the publisher and the contributors (and, yes, I am one of them, having written the introduction and notes for the epistle to the Hebrews). As Jeremy Howard notes in his introduction, the contributors seek to be "servants to the text" so that people might be encouraged to engage God's Word "on a deeper level." We believe that all human beings "are sinners in need of reconciliation with God, and that this reconciliation comes only through faith in God's Son who paid our sin debt on the cross." This is why the reader will repeatedly be encouraged to encounter God in the Word by the power of His Spirit.

Yes, I would have written some of the notes and essays differently from my colleagues. (The most disconcerting example being the general editor's choice to impose a Calvinist meaning in his comments upon the text through the theologically loaded language of "effectual," including the authoritative use of unexplained quotation marks, to describe the calling of Romans 8:30.) However, that said, this Study Bible is worthy of purchase and use by the average Christian, as long as it is remembered that our commentary upon Scripture is fallible while the Biblical text itself remains absolutely trustworthy.

The HCSB Study Bibleis available in hardcover, imitation leather, bonded leather and leather. The HCSB Study Bible also may be accessed through the internet at mystudybible.com, and a very nice application is available for use on iPhones and iPads.