Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rational Christian belief

How an atheist writer and lecturer came to confess Christ and become a Christian.
Philip Vander Elst, a former atheist, is a freelance writer and lecturer. He graduated from Oxford in 1973 with a degree in politics and philosophy, and has since spent most of his professional life in politics and journalism. He says that he loves “the world of books, ideas and debate,” and that two questions have always interested him, “Is there a God? And, if there is, what is the connection between God and freedom?” Vander Elst now works at Areopagus Ministries.

Vander Elst grew up in a non-Christian family with intellectually gifted but unbelieving parents, “I used to think that belief in God and the supernatural had been discredited by the advance of science, and was incompatible with liberty. Religious faith seemed to me to involve the blind worship of a cosmic dictator, and the abandonment of reason in favour of ‘revelation’. Why, in any case, should I take religion seriously, I thought, when the existence of evil and suffering clearly discredited the Christian claim that our world owed its existence to a benevolent Creator?”
Read the post for the answer.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Social justice and churches

Data suggests that the more a religious movement is concerned with progressive causes, the more likely it is to rapidly lose members
The mainstream Protestant churches are not exactly filling the sanctuaries either. Some, like the internally conflicted Methodists have seen their number of North American congregants drop from 15 million in 1970 to barely half that today. Since 2007 alone, America’s mainstream churches have lost 5 million members, and even the once vibrant evangelical movement is losing adherents outside of the developing world. Ever more churches, particularly in urban areas, are being abandoned, turned into bars, restaurants, and luxury condos. And nothing augurs worse for the future than the fact that American millennials are leaving religious institutions at a rate four times that of their counterparts three decades ago; almost 40 percent of people 18 to 29 are not unaffiliated.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

After General Conference

Post Conference – One More Year

One day Jesus was speaking to a large crowd. He told told a parable or two of the coming of God’s judgment, then warned the crowd to understand the signs of the times and to be faithful. Luke 13 opens this way.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

These five verses tell of Pilate sending his soldier to kill some Galileans making sacrifices. Rather than ask the circumstances, which is what you and I would probably do, Jesus challenges his listeners to rethink their own assumptions. By the way, he adds, don’t forget the eighteen people who were just standing around, minding their own business when a tower collapsed on them. Were they guiltier of sin than the other people of Jerusalem? No! Jesus is warning those who think themselves righteous: unless you repent you will nonetheless perish.
Then Jesus told a parable:
A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? "Sir," the man replied, "leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down."

There are three characters in the parable: the man who owned the vineyard, the gardener, and the fig tree. Of course, the fig tree is a character because this is not a story about trees. It’s a story about you and me and the world we live in. It’s a story about condemnation and grace, of dismissal and reconsideration. It’s a story about repentance, mercy and judgment.
There is a man who owns a vineyard and in the vineyard, he had a fig tree. For three years the owner looked for fruit to be produced by the tree but there was none. So, the owner tells his gardener, "Cut it down!"
The gardener begs the owner to let it stand. Give it one more year, the gardener pleads. He promises to turn the soil around the tree and take special care of it. Then if it doesn’t bear fruit, he says, you can cut it down.
And that’s the end of the parable. Did the owner agree or did he insist on immediate destruction? And if he agreed to the gardener’s plea, what happened after a year? Was there fruit or not? And if not, what then? More importantly, what happened during the year? Did the gardener keep his promise of care or did he just let the tree succeed or fail on its own?
Jesus doesn’t say. These are blanks he left us to fill in.
Some of you know that before General Conference began, I said that it was really just a warm-up for the regular General Conference in May of next year. 
What happened this week was not a good outcome. 
If the One Church Plan had passed, that would not have been a good outcome. 
If no plan had passed and the status quo had been maintained, that would not have been a good outcome. 
This General Conference could have been scripted by a Greek tragedian. It was a three-act play with no possible happy ending. To anyone who rejoices in the outcome, heed Jesus’ word: "unless you repent, you too will perish." And to anyone who despairs or is angered at the outcome: "unless you repent, you too will perish."
What this conference shows me more than anything was that we, as a denomination, must repent. We are more like Washington than New Jerusalem, God forbid! But we have a year, do we not, until May of 2020? Even one more year is God’s gift. While we are living, God is working with us and for us, trying to get us the bear fruit for the strengthening of his kingdom. One more year to get right with God. 

But we do not have forever to decide about forever. The ax can still fall. So, there is a particular urgency to start producing fruit pretty quick. A "lesson of the fig tree is a challenge to live each day as a gift from God. Live each day in such a way that you will have no fear of giving an account for how you have used God’s gift" (NIB).
It’s also an instruction for us to examine the way we treat one another. The parable invokes each of us to ask whether we are more eager to cut than to cultivate. It was easy to watch or listen to the Conference over the internet and announce how the delegates, the bishops, or the presiding elders were all screwing it up, and how this delegate or that one was either bigoted or godless. Then I remembered the words of Saint Augustine:

We are hopeless creatures, and the less we concentrate on our own sins, the more interested we become in the sins of others. We seek to criticize, not to correct. Unable to excuse ourselves, we are ready to accuse others.

There will be no better Methodism until there are better Methodists. One more year of care and cultivation is before us. God is merciful. Are we? If the gardener represents that God is slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, how well are we doing in that department? The sad fact is we are more likely to swing the ax than cultivate one another to be fruitful.
Why is that? It’s not the example Christ gives us. Here’s a tree that isn’t producing fruit. What is the solution? Cut it down? Not at all! The solution is so unexpected – so foolish, really – that it could not occur to anyone but God. The answer is to give it more water, more nutrition, more nurturing and more care. In the coming year, this tree can bear fruit. It is the year of the Lord’s favor.
Paul wrote, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). That is a gardening God. Where there is barrenness of spirit or service, barrenness of love or discipleship, there you will find God, humbly kneeling, turning the soil of our lives and cultivating with care. What else can God do with us? It’s in his interest for us to bear fruit, too.
But we cannot be passive. We have to respond to being cultivated by the Holy Spirit and by the godly people of our church. We have to accept cultivation, to listen, to learn, to serve, to pray, to repent of barrenness, and then bear righteous fruits of faith and godly works. God, like a gardener, patiently works the soil of our lives. Bad things happen and we are sinners anyway, but God’s grace abounds all the more.
One more year. What is the fruit you will produce, or I? Will we cultivate godliness and fruitfulness in one another or just swing the ax? That part of the story we will write ourselves.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"What's Jesus Got To Do With It?"

Nashville Public Radio interviews Vanderbilt Divinity School New Testament Prof. Amy-Jill Levine, who was my main NT professor there during my M.Div. studies. Web page here.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

How ISIS drove Muslims to Christian Faith

NBC News: Life under ISIS led these Muslims to Christianity "If heaven is made for ISIS and their belief," said one convert, "I would choose hell for myself instead of being again with them in the same place, even if it’s paradise."
While residents are still dealing with the emotional scars left by the brutality of ISIS, Omar says many people in Kobani have been open-minded about Christianity.

Image: Omar reads the Bible at the Church of the Brethren

Omar reads the Bible at the Church of the Brethren in Kobani, Syria.  NBC News
“Most of the brothers here converted or come to church as a result of what ISIS did to them and to their families,” he added. “No one is forced to convert. Our weapon is the prayer, the spreading of spirit of love, brotherhood and tolerance.”

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Over the edge of evil

Serving Democrat politicians want laws to allow the deliberate, pre-meditated killing of infants outside the womb. How else to explain the words of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who openly ...
endorsed infanticide and tried to make it sound as harmless as he could. When asked by a radio host if he supported Virginia legislator Kathy Tran’s proposed law to permit abortion while a woman was in labor, Northam replied:
This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved. When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of the mother, with the consent of physicians, more than one physician by the way, and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus which is non-viable. So in this particular example, if the mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother. (italics added)
Here is the video:

Please note that Northam thinks this is perfectly okay because, after all, "The infant would be kept comfortable" right up until it is destroyed. Maybe the SS should have taken that tack at Auschwitz because, "We will be nice to you right up until we brutally kill you" can't possibly be wrong.

The Federalist points out that the bill being discussed here was presented by Virginia Delegate Kathy Tran, who said this during a subcommittee hearing:
“How late in the third trimester could a physician perform an abortion if he indicated it would impair the mental health of the woman?” [subcommittee chairman Todd] Gilbert asked.

“Through the third trimester,” responded Tran. “The third trimester goes all the way up to 40 weeks.”

“Where it’s obvious that a woman is about to give birth, that she has physical signs that she is about to give birth, would that still be a point at which she could request an abortion if she was so certified?” Gilbert asked.

“She’s dilating,” he continued, using the term for a woman’s cervix naturally opening to allow a baby to exit his mother during birth. “I’m asking if your bill allows that.”

“My bill would allow that, yes,” she said.
Which is to say, Tran wants the law to allow the mother to tell the doctor to kill the being-born or newborn (Northam: "the infant would be delivered") infant. While Northam said that more than one physician needs to be consulted, Tran insisted that only one be permitted for the go-ahead.

I do not know words nearly harsh enough to condemn the overt, public murderousness of today's progressivism. And on the same day that Gov. Northam, considered a rising star in the Democrat party, said that just-born babies should be killed on the mother's whim, the extraordinary hypocrisy of his party was on full display by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D.-Ohio, who said, talking about President Trump,
"Real populists don’t engage in hate speech and don’t rip babies from families at the border."
But the law already allows babies to be literally ripped - as in ripped apart - inside the womb and now Democrats want to allow living, delivered infants to be ripped from life itself.

I used to listen attentively to by left-of-center friends and ministerial colleagues on the matter of public policy, even though I hardly ever found that I could agree with their positions. But I did try to understand their point of view and how they justified it, whether on secular or biblical bases.

That door is now slammed shut. After Tran/Northam/Brown, There is no "understanding" possible that stays on this side of insanity. From now on, I absolutely refuse to tolerate any lecturing by a "progressive" on the subject of morality on any issue, and this is now my number one reason why.

That abortion, inc., in America today is openly racist does not matter to its advocates, whose most vocal and public members are white women. Why do I say that? because according to the Guttmacher Institute (2014 data), of women who had an abortion,
Thirty-nine percent were white, 28% were black, 25% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian or Pacific Islander, and 3% were of some other race or ethnicity. ...
... three-fourths of abortion patients were low income—49% living at less than the federal poverty level, and 26% living at 100–199% of the poverty level.
Which means that minority infants were killed in the womb far out of proportion to the share of those demographics in the general population. Same with income levels - the "low income" demographic described as obtaining three-fourths of abortions are minorities to a very high degree.

In New York City, for example, more black babies are killed in the womb than are born alive, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Office of Vital Statistics.

But progressives won't talk about that because shut up.

Doctor Anthony Levantino performed 1,400 abortions until he abandoned that practice. Here is part of his testimony to Congress on how second-trimester abortions are done. For third-trimester abortions, the baby is chemically killed in the womb and two or three days later the mother's body ejects the dead infant through the birth canal, usually with inducing drugs' assistance.

When someone demands that a woman must have "the right to choose," remember that this is what that choice means:

As Lincoln said about slavery, "If this is not wrong, then nothing is wrong." But "wrong" is far too wimpy a word to describe this. This is over the edge of evil.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Digital heroin addiction worsening

I have used, though did not invent, the term "digital heroin" to refer to people's addiction the glowing-screen devices, especially smart phone and tablets, and especially by children. Comes now further, abject confirmation. From the Daily Mail, "Generation of child web addicts: Youngsters are becoming so obsessed with the internet they spend more time on YouTube than with friends as parents struggle to keep control of their online usage."
Children have become such screen addicts they are abandoning their friends and hobbies, a major report warns today. Researchers found under-fives spend an hour and 16 minutes a day online. Their screen time rises to four hours and 16 minutes when gaming and television are included. Youngsters aged 12 to 15 average nearly three hours a day on the web – plus two more hours watching TV. The study said YouTube was ‘a near permanent feature’ of many young lives, and seven in ten of those aged 12 to 15 took smartphones to bed. It concluded: ‘Children were watching people on YouTube pursuing hobbies that they did not do themselves or had recently given up offline.’ A growing number of parents admitted to researchers that they had lost control of their children’s online habits.
Next is a report on Nashville's local Fox affiliate, "Study: Increased screen time in young children associated with developmental delays."
A new study from psychologists and doctors in Canada found increased screen time in young children can cause issues with children reaching developmental milestones. Researchers studied 2,441 mothers and children with higher levels of screen time for children aged 24 and 36-months-old. Researchers then examined developmental milestone test results in the same children at 36 and 60-months-old. The study found on average, 24-month-old children were watching 17 hours of television per week, 36-month-olds watched 25 hours per week, and 36-month-olds watched 11 hours per week. The totals reflect findings children on average in the U.S. watch to 2 hours and 19 minutes of screen time each day. For each age group, children with increased screen times showed poorer performances on developmental testing when they reached the next age group. Developmental evaluations included communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal-social skills. The totals are well above the recommended 1 hour per day of screen time watching high-quality programs. Researchers say about one quarter of children are not developmentally ready for school entry and the trend parallels an increase in screen time use by children.
Many parents use glowing screens as a sedative to pacify their children I have seen this in public too many times to count. But people, these thing are literally addictive, and when children (a) learn they will be given a screen to stop pitching a fit, and (b) they cannot help pitching the fit anyway because they literally are suffering from withdrawal symptoms, then the parent-child-screen interface becomes a self-reinforcing do loop. My kids escaped this, fortunately. Our youngest was 14 when the first smart phone came out and none of them got a smart phone until they were in college (if then). But I have, no kidding, seen infants who cannot even walk yet with their very own smart phones - and now you can buy those phones especially built for small kids (more accurately, for parents of small kids who visually identify those phones with toys, as the makers intend them to do).
Yes, this is sadly real - just click here.
What is the tie-in to these kids' futures? Well, consider that researchers both in the US and Europe have discovered that IQ scores are getting lower, and the younger one is, the greater likelihood his/her IQ is lower than a generation before. And while glowing screens do not seem to explain all the fall, they are absolutely part of it.

Falling IQ scores may explain why politics has turned so nasty

Western IQ scores are falling. Is it computers or something else? Parents, take this seriously!

Monday, January 14, 2019

"Help! Help! I'm being repressed!"

We have long known and studied dignity cultures and honor-shame cultures. Now sociology professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning say there has emerged a new kind of social-interaction dynamic: victimhood culture, explaining an incident at Oberlin University.
The Oberlin student [who took offense at an email] took a different approach: After initially emailing the student who offended her, she decided to publicly air the encounter that provoked her and their subsequent exchange in the community at large, hoping to provoke sympathy and antagonism toward the emailer by advertising her status as an aggrieved party.   
 But she was met from the original emailer with even more strident claims that she had victimized him even more. And it went downhill from there - "There is no end to conflict in a victimhood culture."

What's distinguishes this culture from honor-shame or dignity cultures? The professors explain:
It isn’t honor culture. “Honorable people are sensitive to insult, and so they would understand that microaggressions, even if unintentional, are severe offenses that demand a serious response,” they write. “But honor cultures value unilateral aggression and disparage appeals for help. Public complaints that advertise or even exaggerate one’s own victimization and need for sympathy would be anathema to a person of honor.” 
But neither is it dignity culture: 
“Members of a dignity culture, on the other hand, would see no shame in appealing to third parties, but they would not approve of such appeals for minor and merely verbal offenses. Instead they would likely counsel either confronting the offender directly to discuss the issue, or better yet, ignoring the remarks altogether.”
The culture on display on many college and university campuses, by way of contrast, is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.” 
It is, they say, “a victimhood culture.”
Read the whole thing, "The Rise of Victimhood Culture" in The Atlantic.

Now I have two responses. The first is that victimhood culture is literally childish. It is a dynamic that resides at elementary-grade level, although, as the professors explain, college students today are far more adept and energetic in it than small kids. It is taking personal disagreements or conflicts to well, this level:

Remember one of the first rules of economics: That which is subsidized increases. When posting one's latest "I'm being repressed!" event across social media or public forums become routine, it will become rewarding. Posters become affirmed in their grievances and over time (not a long time!) want that affirmation again and again. So their level of "I'm offended" get lower and lower, their sprint to public revelation becomes quicker and sooner, and their claims of harm become ever-more insistent and exaggerated.

In short, victimhood culture is not about justice or peacemaking or conflict resolution. Quite the opposite: it is about domination and conflict creation and lengthening the fight, all the better to be affirmed. Victimhood culture is at bottom selfish, self-centered, and ultimately self-defeating.

My second response is that victimhood culture is very specifically contrary to the teachings of Christ, so anyone who thinks him/herself a Christian who engages in it very seriously needs to get a new understanding. Let me start with a referral to my essay of how Jesus rebutted the honor-shame dynamic that was firmly entrenched in first-century Judea, "How Jesus invented individual liberty."

Then how to get even with others the right way.

More urgently than ever, this is what we must teach our children.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Whatever date Jesus was born, it almost definitely was not December 25. So why do we date Christmas on it?

One of the ways we know that Jesus' birth birth almost certainly did not take place on Dec. 25 is because the Gospel of Luke states that when Jesus was born, "there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over the flocks by night." But Dec. 21 is in winter, of course, and Israel gets cold. Flocks would not be herded in the fields overnight, but brought into protective shelter, probably by the end of October and almost certainly by mid-November.

Just why Christmas Day falls on Dec. 25 was originally only a question for the Western (Latinate) Church because Christmas fell on Jan. 6 for the Eastern Orthodox Church, which later adopted the Dec. 25 date. Even so, Jan. 6,
... is still the date of the celebration for the Armenian Apostolic Church and in Armenia, where it is a public holiday. As of 2012, there is a difference of 13 days between the modern Gregorian calendar and the older Julian calendar. Those who continue to use the Julian calendar or its equivalents thus celebrate December 25 and January 6 on what for the majority of the world is January 7 and January 19. For this reason, Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova celebrate Christmas on what in the Gregorian calendar is January 7; the Church of Greece celebrates Christmas on December 25.
Christ's Mass (hence, Christmas) did not become an official festival day on the Roman Church's calendar until 300 years or so after Jesus. There was not much debate about placing it on Dec. 25. Modern historians used to argue that the Pope selected the date in order the Christianize a still-practiced Roman holiday celebrating the lengthening of daylight hours just after the winter solstice had passed. This idea has come under increasingly skeptical scrutiny, however, As Slate explains, (Why is Christmas in December?): 
The reasoning goes that the growing church, recognizing the popularity of the winter festivals, attached its own Christmas celebration to encourage the spread of Christianity. Business historian John Steele Gordon has described the December dating of the Nativity as a kind of ancient-world marketing ploy ...

This alternative explanation is sometimes deployed to dismiss the notion that the holiday had pagan roots. In a 2003 article in the journal Touchstone, for example, historian William Tighe called the pagan origin of Christmas “a myth without historical substance.” He argued at least one pagan festival, the Roman Natalis Solis Invictus, instituted by Emperor Aurelian on Dec. 25, 274, was introduced in response to the Christian observance. The pagan festival “was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.” According to Tighe, the pagans co-opted the Christian holiday, not the other way around.
In fact, an early Christian Carthaginian scholar named Tertullian reported the calculation that the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation, or the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, like important martyrs before him, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same date of the year, March 25, meaning that exactly nine months after the date of his conception, Dec. 25, Jesus was born. 

So, ascription of Dec. 25 to Jesus' birth took place 74 years before Emperor Aurelian instituted a Roman, pagan celebration of the winter solstice. So we can cast aside the idea that Christmas' dating was to take over an existing pagan holiday. There was, at the time, no pagan holiday to take over.

But wait! as they say on TV. There's more! Further complicating the debate is that there seem to be mathematical reasons for the Dec. 25 date that rest upon modern computational science, not legend.

A fascinating analysis of just what was the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem is given at Bethlehemstar.net. Here is my summary.

After Jesus was born, wise men, or Magi, from the east made their way to Judea. Being astronomers, they had read the stars and concluded that a new king had been born to the Jews. This is related in Matthew chapter 2.

No historian today claims that there nothing happened in the sky that corresponds, somehow, to what the wise men saw. Just what it was has been a scientific quest for about 400 years, since Johannes Kepler developed the first mathematical description of how the heavens worked. Kepler, whose equations are still used by NASA and astronomers around the world, himself spent may laborious hours trying to calculate the position of the planets and stars above the ancient Near East in the year of Jesus’ presumed birth, 6 BC. But he found nothing.

Since Kepler, many others have suggested that the star Matthew describes might have been a comet or a supernova, but there are no records of such events at this time anywhere in the ancient world, especially in China, whose astronomers were detailed and meticulous record keepers.

Jesus was presumed to have been born in 6 BC based on a book by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, whose book, Antiquities, says that Herod died in 4 BC. Since clearly Jesus was born in the time of Herod, Jesus had to have been born before 4 BC, a year or two before.

But in fact, Herod did not die until 1 BC. This date is in fact what Josephus wrote, and is so stated in manuscripts of his book dated earlier than 1544. It was in 1544 that Antiquities was first set to the printing press. In that first edition, the typesetter erroneously set the wrong year of Herod’s death, and this edition became the standard from which all subsequent editions were made, including the one Kepler used.

Computers today solve Kepler’s equations in a snap. And what astronomers now know is that in September, 3 BC, the planet Jupiter came into conjunction with the star Regulus. That is, when viewed from the earth, Jupiter and Regulus appeared to touch or come very close together.

Jupiter is the largest planet. The ancients called it the king of planets. Regulus was called Rex by the Romans, Latin for king. In Persian its name was Sharu, which also meant king. To an ancient astronomer, for the king of planets and the king of stars to come together would have been weighted with portents. But Jupiter and Regulus did this not merely once, but three times over the course of the next year.

After appearing to touch Regulus, Jupiter’s path moved beyond. But after a few months, earth caught up with and passed Jupiter in its orbit. Jupiter then appeared to move backwards in the sky. This movement is called retrograde. All planets’ paths retrograde when seen from earth, that’s why they are called planets, which is Greek for “wanderer.” So Jupiter went back and touched Regulus again. Then the earth moved on and by September of 2 BC, Jupiter had retrograded once more and had touched Regulus a third time.

To astronomers as skilled as those of Babylonia heritage and learning, which the wise men almost certainly were, this three-time conjunction of the king of planets with the king of stars would have started them packing. But why did they decide that the Jews had anything to do with it?

All three conjunctions took place within the backdrop of the constellation Leo, the lion. The lion is the symbol of the Jewish tribe of Judah, which takes it name from a son of Jacob named Judah. In Genesis chapter 49, Jacob gives his son, Judah, the lion as his symbol and then dictates that only Judah’s descendants shall provide the rulers for subsequent generations. King David was a member of the tribe of Judah and so was Jesus’ father, Joseph, according to Matthew chapter one.

The wise men were obviously conversant with the relationship of lions with the tribe of Judah and Judah’s parentage of all the kings of Israel. The wise men may well have been (though probably weren't) Jews themselves, since a thriving Jewish colony remained in Iraq until a generation ago even though the Jews’ captivity in Babylon was ended in 538 BC. The kingly conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus within the constellation of the lion were all the wise men needed to start heading toward the Roman province of Judea, which we know as Israel.

But what they did not know was just where the new king was born. So they stopped at the palace of the Roman vassal, King Herod, to inquire. Herod’s counselors quoted a prophecy from Micah that said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

At Herod’s deceitful urging, the wise men went to Bethlehem, only five miles from Jerusalem. In the sky, Jupiter had just begun a third retrograde, this one, however, not to be followed by a conjunction. The thing about planetary retrogrades is this: just as a planet appears to reverse direction, it seems to stand still in the sky.

Here is what computers using Kepler’s equations show. Jupiter’s full stop for this retrograde took place on December 25, 2 BC. If you had been in Jerusalem on that evening, you would have seen the kingly planet Jupiter motionless in the sky almost due south, directly above Bethlehem. And better yet, its stationary position was in the middle of the Constellation Virgo, the Virgin.

However, many of the detailed explanations of these planetary and stellar phenomena, such as this one, do not seem to account for the fact that Dec. 25 on our calendar today is an altogether different date in the ancient world, as I briefly referenced above. December 25 on our calendar is 13 days further along than on the Roman Julian calendar used at the time the Pope officially designated Dec. 25 as Christmas Day. The original Dec. 25 date then corresponds (as above) to Jan. 7 on our calendar. So to be historically picky about it, the Russian church, for example is celebrating the date correctly on Jan. 7.

But wait! There's more! When modern astronomers say that Jupiter's "full stop" occurred on Dec. 25, 2 BC, which Dec. 25 do they mean, Gregorian (modern) or Julian (ancient)? They mean modern. If Jupiter's progression/retrogression transition was in process on Dec. 25 Gregorian, that means that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem on Dec. 12 Julian.

They did not get there the day Jesus was born. We know from Matthew that Jesus was born in a barn and laid by his parents in a manger, or feeding trough, after birth. Yet Matthew 2 clearly states, "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, .. ."

How old was Jesus by then? We have insufficient information to know. Presumably, Joseph, Mary and Jesus could have moved from the barn to the house the day after Jesus was born. It's not far fetched to imagine that room for a newborn and parents was made somehow.

One clue, however, lies in that Herod directed the Magi to come back and report to him once they found the one whom the Magi had referred to as the "one who has been born king of the Jews."

The Magi did not go back to Herod. Herod, never one to countenance potential rivals to his throne (he had even executed his own sons), ordered soldiers to Bethlehem:

[H]e was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
In my view, the best interpretation of this narrative is that the Magi had no idea specifically when Jesus was born, but based on the sequence of astronomical observations, above, concluded it had to have been within the two years prior to their arrival at Herod's court. Another key may be that Matthew quotes the Magi as referring to Jesus as "born king of the Jews," not "newborn" king of the Jews. Hence, Herod's order to slaughter boys up to the age of two.

It is important, from an historical and biblical perspective, though not necessarily from a practical one for the Church, to confirm Dec. 25 (Julian, anyway) as the date the Wise Men got to Bethlehem, not the date Jesus was born. That date, I'm afraid, will likely forever remain unknown.

End note: David A Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy, Vanderbilt University, explains how Matthew's account makes use of some ancient astronomical and astrological (not very separate disciplines back then) terms that help us understand what the star narrative means; "Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?"

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent Downsizing

I am learning anew that transition times can be very hard. During the first week of December, my brother and I moved our dad from the independent-living section of Blakeford retirement center to the nursing-home wing. Dad has no use of his legs any more and is wholly dependent on someone else even to get up from a chair.

I know many readers have dealt with such transitions already. And I cannot overlook that since last Advent, some families of our church coped with transitions more severe than that as they have committed loved ones to God's eternity.

I have learned that these kinds of transitions mean “downsizing.” When mom and dad moved from their house to a Blakeford apartment in 2009, they downsized. When we moved dad from the apartment to a single room, downsizing again. But not only of things. When my mother died in 2015, it was a different, but very real, kind of downsizing also.

And you know what? Downsizing is not appealing. It is not fun. It means saying goodbye to things and sometimes persons loved.

And yet . . .

Downsizing can also make us focus on essentials. Downsizing can bring clarity. When our eldest, a U.S. Marine lance corporal, spent 2005’s Christmas in combat service in Iraq, Cathy and I had a clear picture of what Christmas meant for us. It was not the stuff. Of course, we gave and received gifts and celebrated with our other two children and family, but it was crystal clear to us — and has remained so 13 years hence — that all we really have in this life is one another, not things.

The book of Job tells of his fabulous wealth — all lost, his children killed, even his health ruined, his body wracked with pain. Yet he merely says, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart.” It took me years to see that Job was only half right. Naked we are born, but we die clothed in the love we gave away.

To move on to Christian perfection in this life is to downsize. Downsize habits that block us from holiness. Downsize that which inhibits our love of God and our neighbors. Downsize our egos to make room for God. Downsize the falsehood that getting our way is all it takes to make us happy.

Thankfully, the upsizing is greater than the down. We upsize in gratitude. We upsize in meaningfulness. We upsize in patience, in peacefulness, in joyfulness, in kindness, self-control, gentleness, and so many other ways.

But first comes the downsizing, so let Advent be a time to downsize for the sake of the Gospel!

Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one!