Urban Legends pastors tell

As I’ve often complained, a major way that urban legends get spread around is as sermon illustrations.  Some of these are more in the related genre of scholarly legends.  But thanks to Trevin Wax for catching these:

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus in Mark 10:25. Maybe you’ve heard of the gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle.” The camel could pass through it only after stooping down and having all its baggage taken off.

The illustration is used in many sermons as an example of coming to God on our knees and without our baggage. The only problem is… there is no evidence for such a gate. The story has been around since the 15th century, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

Various versions of this claim have been repeated by pastors, but it is a legend. It started in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. There is no evidence for the claim in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna or any other source. Furthermore, the thickness of the veil (three feet) would have precluded the possibility of a priest being dragged out anyway.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

As a way of getting across the reverence of the Jewish and Christian scribes toward God, preachers like to describe the honor given to God’s name. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that scribes did these sorts of rituals every time they came across the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. Joel Willitts explains:

This is powerful stuff isn’t it? Well the only problem is that it just isn’t true… The context in which it is given in Mishnah Aboth 1:4 is expressly not what is assumed by those who promulgate this idea.

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

Voltaire was famous for saying, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” There is a myth out there that within 50 years of Voltaire’s death, his house was owned by a Bible society that used his own printing press to make Bibles. Sounds like a great story, but it’s not true. Regardless, Voltaire’s prediction of the demise of the Bible was vastly overstated.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

I’ve used this illustration many times. But there isn’tevidence to support this idea. Still, because it seems like a reasonable explanation for the origin of the Hinnom Valley as “hell,” commentators and preachers have accepted it. It’s possible that the verdict may still be out on this one, but not if Todd Bolen is right:

“The explanation for the ‘fire of Gehenna’ lies not in a burning trash dump, but in the burning of sacrificed children. Already in Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked. That the valley was just outside the city of Jerusalem made it an appropriate symbol for those excluded from divine blessing.”

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Please don’t repeat this myth. There has been no “missing day” discovered, and the legend has been circulating longer than NASA has been in existence, with different scientists playing the part.

via Urban Legends: The Preacher’s Edition : Kingdom People.

I would add:  Medieval theologians once debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Although I think this is an excellent question, this was rather a later joke at the scholastics’ expense, rather than something the scholastics actually considered.  See this.

“Screwtape Letters”: The Movie

Yet another seemingly unlikely book by C. S. Lewis is getting made into a movie:

Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media, the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.

Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”

Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Dickerson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”

While the film is on a “fast track” and a 2012 release is likely, Winter is in no hurry to get it into theaters. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who ruined it,” he said. “So I’m gonna go slow … We’ll get there in God’s timing and when it’s right.”

via Cathleen Falsani: Christian Film? What Should Be Coming to a Theater Near You.

How should Christians react to bin Laden’s death?

Rev. Jacob Ehrhard offers nine points for reflection on how Christians should react to the killing of Osama bin Laden:

1.  The prophet Ezekiel writes, “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Eze 33:11) A Christian does not find delight in any person dying, except in the death of the saints. Our delight would have been in bin Laden’s repentance.

2. God relented of His wrath and punishment for ten years following bin Laden’s most vicious attack. He had ample time to repent of his wickedness, but showed himself time and time again to be an enemy of both the Church and the State.

3. Though we do not delight in his death, it is a cause for rejoicing.

4. After Moses and the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea and the host of Pharaoh’s army was drowned, they sang, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex 15:1). While this certainly has a spiritual meaning in Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell, we must not forget the historical fact that the saints rejoiced over the death of their enemies. Psalm 68 says, “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him! But the righteous shall be glad; they shall exult before God; they shall be jubilant with joy! (Ps 68:1, 3).

5.  But we live in the New Testament. Jesus has died for the sins of the world. Doesn’t that mean that Christians should condemn any act of violence? Shouldn’t we rather depend on the Gospel to deal with the wicked? First, the essence of God’s nature did not change from Old to New Testament, for it was also in the Old Testament where God says that He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (see point 1 above). Also, the path to salvation has not changed. Even in the Old Testament, people were saved by repentance and faith in the promise of Christ. Yet God still punished the wicked by the sword (often the swords of His saints).

6.  Second, Sts. Paul and Peter reaffirm that God has instituted the government to punish wickedness. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pt 2:13-14). And, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God…Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:1b, 3b-4). The Kingdom Christ establishes (the Church) is distinct from worldly kingdoms, but worldly kingdoms and their authority still exist and more so, are instituted by God.

7.  The Lutheran Reformers also teach “that the spiritual kingdom does not change the public state. Therefore, private remedy [i.e. personal revenge] is prohibited not by advice, but by command (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:19). Public remedy, made through the office of the public official, is not condemned, but is commanded and is God’s work, according to Paul (Romans 13). Now the different kinds of public remedy are legal decisions, capital punishment, wars, and military service” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XVI).

8.  In his work Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, Martin Luther makes it clear that the work of a soldier–even when it’s killing and bloodshed–is a good work when done within vocation. He writes, “This is why God honors the sword so highly that he says that he himself has instituted it [Rom. 13:1] and does not want men to say or think that they have invented it or instituted it. For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights.” The entire treatise is highly recommended, as well as Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed and On War against the Turk (all are found in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vols. 45 & 46). If the work of the Navy Seals was indeed God’s work, then it is rightly to be praised.

9.  How should a Christian react to the killing of Osama bin Laden? We do not delight in his death, even though he was an adamant enemy of Church and State. Yet we rejoice that God has given us the sharpest sword ever borne by Caesar in the history of the world in the U.S. military. Everyone from the Commander in Chief to the special operators of the Navy Seals performed well within their vocations to protect the citizens of this country, to bring justice to a wicked man, and to carry out God’s wrath on a wrongdoer. They are all to be commended. And, as an American, there is reason to celebrate.

via Steadfast Lutherans » How should a Christian react to the killing of Osama bin Laden?.

Closure for 9/11?

My theory of our recent wars–as I said at the time they started–is that after the 9/11 attacks, America was so enraged that we had to strike back.   We invaded Afghanistan, seizing control of the country in weeks.  But that was not enough.  We still needed to strike somebody.  So we attacked our old enemy Saddam Hussein and invaded Iraq.   It wasn’t that we thought he was involved in 9/11.  But we felt the need to fight.   I’m not saying this feeling wasn’t justified or that there weren’t objective reasons to conduct a war on terrorism.  But I contend that the need for revenge–or justice–was the primary factor.  After awhile, as wars will, they bogged us down, not so much in the combat phase as in the nation building phase, with the constant and maddening guerrilla warfare.   Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, can we finally close the books, emotionally at least, on 9/11?   Yes, terrorism will remain a problem and there will likely be jihadists who will pull something to try to avenge bin Laden.  But can we finally have closure for 9/11?   Will this help us end those other wars?

Equal rights for atheists

We have had movements for equal rights for African-Americans, women, gays.  The next victimized, discriminated against minority who are demanding approval:  Atheists!

The Washington Post has published an op-ed piece by Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman, raising the issue and asking “Why don’t Americans like atheists?”

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists; in other words, nonbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently — and uncivilly — declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens.

Is this knee-jerk dislike of atheists warranted? Not even close.

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

via Why do Americans still dislike atheists? – The Washington Post.

First of all, to answer the initial question, the major reasons atheists aren’t well-liked are evident right there in the column:  the atheists’ habit of condescension, anti-religious bigotry, reductionistic snarkiness, and insufferable smugness.

Second, one has to ask, how, exactly, are atheists being discriminated against?  Are they not allowed to vote?  Are they not getting hired?  Is there wage discrimination against atheists?  Are they not allowed to get married?  A complaint here is that studies show that many people don’t want to marry an atheist and don’t want to vote for one.   If someone doesn’t want to marry you, is he or she violating your rights and discriminating against you?  Should defeated politicians be able to sue everyone who voted against them for discrimination?   I realize that the authors are just demanding social acceptance, but can there be an inalienable right to be liked?

The third point is the most important of all.  Notice how the authors are framing the issues.  Atheists are actually MORE moral than religious people, they say.  They then define “basic morality and human decency” not according to a traditional measure (such as the second table of the Ten Commandments) but according to what is primarily (though not completely) a list of distinctly contemporary secularist positions.  Thus, someone who does not believe in homosexuality, who does believe in capital punishment, who sometimes spanks his child, and who is not an environmentalist is EVIL, lacking basic morality and human decency.

This kind of moral and social inversion, if it catches on, would very soon result in actual and probably legal-driven discrimination against an unpopular minority whose human rights would be violated:  Religious people.

Taxing companies out of the state

Illinois needs more money.  So it has slapped more taxes on its businesses.  Whereupon more businesses are leaving the state.  So Illinois needs more money.  Here is a lesson in unintended consequences, how governments trying to raise revenue by raising taxes can end up killing the golden goose.  George Will tells the tale, focusing first on the effects of an Illinois law requiring that its on-line businesses charge their customers sales-tax, which has resulted in those on-line businesses leaving the state.  He concludes with this:

According to the Tax Foundation, Illinois has not only the fourth-highest combined national-local corporate income tax in the nation but also in the industrialized world. In Peoria, Doug Oberhelman, chief executive of Caterpillar, has told Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn that he is being “wined and dined” by other governors and their representatives encouraging Caterpillar to invest in their states.

It recently picked Muncie, Ind., for a major manufacturing plant. Says Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels of his neighboring state, “It’s like living next door to ‘The Simpsons’ — you know, the dysfunctional family down the block.”

A study by the Illinois Policy Institute, a market-oriented think tank, concludes that between 1991 and 2009, Illinois lost more than 1.2 million residents — more than one every 10 minutes — to other states. Between 1995 and 2007, the total net income leaving Illinois was $23.5 billion. The five states receiving most refugees from Illinois were Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas. Two are Illinois’ neighbors, three have warm weather, two — Florida and Texas — have no income tax. In January, a lame-duck session of Illinois’ legislature — including 18 Democrats who were defeated in November — raised the personal income tax 67 percent and the corporate tax almost 50 percent. This and the increase — from 3 percent to 5 percent — in the tax on small businesses make Illinois, as the Wall Street Journal says, “one of the most expensive places in the world to conduct business.”

via Working up a tax storm in Illinois – The Washington Post.

The issue isn’t so much lame ducks as golden geese.


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