Archive for August, 2016

What’s the big deal about idols?

August 22, 2016

The second of the Ten Commandments seems rather straightforward. On first reading, we might rightly wonder what it has to do with our day. It seems backwards and anachronistic.

First, let’s look at what was likely happening at the time of the people of Israel. Then we’ll look at the commandment in its full glory, and finally, we’ll bring it up to our day.

The people of Israel had just been freed from the kingdom of Egypt. We don’t know a whole lot about Egypt, but we do know that like many societies we find throughout world history, they had set up a caste system of sorts. At the top were the pharaoh and the priests.

The pharaoh wasn’t just a president or king. He was a god, in a very real sense. We know that the pharaoh was just a man dressed up in a funny costume, but to the people of Israel and Egypt, he was something much much more, someone who had to not only be obeyed but adored and worshiped.

The priests set themselves up in a similar position. Although the priests did not claim to be gods themselves, they did claim to speak for the gods and communicate the will of the gods to the people. They were the keepers of their religious traditions and ceremonies. When Moses came and demonstrated the power of God, this was not just a threat to the power of the pharaoh but all of the priests as well. It was a threat to the entire structure of Egyptian society.

Egyptian society doesn’t sound that bad, though. I mean, the religion the priests taught to the people was at least somewhat reasonable. If you live rightly, treat your neighbors with respect and kindness, then when you die, your heart will be measured against a feather and if it is found to be light as a feather, then you can go on to eternal happiness. But if you carry around weight like regret or hatred and such, you are in grave danger.

Of course, this leads to an immediate question: What do you do about those things in your life that try to tear you down? How do you let go? How do you move on? We don’t know what the Egyptian system was, but judging on other societies and cultures, it was probably something along the lines of giving something up or making a donation or doing some extraordinary deed.

Which brings to the center a question: Why? How can making a donation or giving up something or doing an extraordinary deed erase the fact that you’ve done something wrong? Is it all just a giant deception, meant to enrich the pharaoh and his priests and keep them in power? Or does it actually work?

In my previous post, I showed how the God of Israel presented himself to the people of Israel as the Liberator God, and demanded that no other god should be put before him. This sets liberation and freedom as the utmost priority and the purpose of the other nine commandments. This commandment against making and worshiping idols is one of the most important things we need to do to establish our own liberty.

Let’s look at the text of the second commandment to find some insight into why this commandment is so important and how we are to obey it.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

The first part talks about making idols. Specifically, the Lord is talking about copying things we might find in heaven or earth, or even under the water. Making these images is not a problem, however. What is a problem is made clear in the second verse. That is, worshiping and serving them.

God explains why this troubles Him, and why it is a problem.

First, God says he is jealous. Really, this word is a mistranslation. The word in Hebrew is “qannah”, which means “possessing sensitive and deep feelings”. God is comparing Himself with anything we can make or copy in this world. He says that he, unlike all those other things, has feelings, deep feelings, and they are very sensitive feelings. A better translation might be “I am a passionate God”.

Then, he says that effects of the sins of the fathers translate down to the third or fourth generations. That is, “Like father, like son”. When we make idols and worship them, our kids will do the same. Another saying is, “Monkey see, monkey do.” One of the problems of worshiping idols is that our children and the people around us will copy us.

Finally, God says that he is merciful if you love him and keep his commandments.

When you read this commandment closely, it seems it is saying much more than “Don’t worship idols.” It is saying, “Look, the things that you are going to end up worshiping are not me. They don’t have emotions and feelings. People are going to copy you. And besides, I am merciful if you simply love me and keep my commandments.”

Let’s get back to the gods and priests of Egypt, and compare the God of Israel with them.

The gods of Egypt:

  • Were statues and ideas that had no emotions.
  • Demanded certain kinds of behavior.
  • Demanded some kind of sacrifice or offering if that behavior wasn’t met.

The God of Israel:

  • Actually cared.
  • Didn’t want to model bad behavior for the children of Israel.
  • Said that as long as you love me and keep the commandments, he will forgive those who are in trouble.

This is a striking comparison.

Statues and idols that men set up as gods don’t really care about people. They are distant and passionless. The God of Israel really cares and feels emotions.

The gods of Egypt had an arbitrary set of requirements. The God of Israel merely wanted to have the children of Israel grow up in freedom and liberty rather than revert back to bondage.

The gods of Egypt demanded sacrifice and tribute for past sins. The God of Israel simply wants obedience and love, and is merciful, looking forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past.

What does this have to do with our day? Simply put, we are making idols every day. We make idols of things we create. We make idols of things we imagine. We make idols of other people. In order to understand what an idol is, you need to understand what worship is. Worship is simply reverence or regard, those things you think are very important and worthy of contemplating or celebrating.

When we praise logic and reason and science, we are worshiping it. When we praise love and kindness, we are worshiping it. When we set someone up as a superhuman, we are worshiping him. We all have a natural tendency to worship things and people rather than the True and Living God. We need to watch ourselves and keep things in focus.

Remind yourself: Does the thing you honor and revere have emotions? Do they know you and care about you? Are they interested in seeing your children and grand children and great grand children grow up in freedom and liberty? What do they ask of us? What happens when we don’t conform, how do they ask us to get back into their good graces?

Take, for instance, science. Science doesn’t care about us. Science doesn’t care about our kids. Science doesn’t even recognize liberty, let alone try to free us. Science demands exactness and perfection, and brutally condemns error and mistakes without even a hint of mercy. If we cross science, what can we possibly do to regain its regard? Nothing.

Or love. Love doesn’t care about us. Love doesn’t care about our kids. It’s a feeling that has no feeling. Love doesn’t recognize liberty. What does love demand? Our unceasing attention and devotion. And what if we cross love? There is little hope of ever gaining back its trust, and then only if we promise to sacrifice our entire selves for it.

You can do this exercise for everything. Does President Obama deserve our worship, or Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton? What of the Hollywood celebrities? Or do we put Einstein or Newton or Feynman on that golden altar of reverence and respect? What about people like Martin Luther King, Jr.? What are we expected to do if we honor them, and what happens if we make a mistake in our devotion? What does it take to get back in good standing?

The bottom line is this. If you are going to worship something (and we all are), then we had better only worship a God who has passions, who cares about our great grand children, who liberates us, and who promises to forgive us for the low, low price of love and obedience going forward. There is no easier god to serve than the God of Israel, and there is no more rewarding and caring God than Him either.

By worshiping the True and Living God, we fill the void of worship so that other things can’t consume it. The next few commandments deal with ways to keep the God of Israel in the forefront of our thoughts, and give us mental markers to determine where we are at and where we need to go.

Commandment Numero Uno: Not what you think

August 16, 2016

Most people, when they consider the Ten Commandments, start in the middle with, “Don’t kill”, “Don’t steal”, etc…

They also think Moses gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel on tablets of stone. While true, that was not the first time the children of Israel heard the commandments.

In Exodus 19, the chapter before Exodus 20, which contains the Ten Commandments, the record states that God commanded Moses to purify the people of Israel and bring them to Mount Sinai. The people did so, and Moses went up to the mountain to speak with the Lord before coming down again to face the people. At this point, the Lord God spoke with his own voice to the people of Israel, giving them the Ten Commandments.

Imagine that! We often think Moses acted as an intermediary between God and the people, but here we see that God gave his law first directly to the people, in their own ears, so they could hear his voice. At the end, the people rejected God and told Moses they were too scared to deal with Him. They would rather have Moses be their communicator than God.

This is the sort of being God is. He is infinitely powerful. But He is trying to reach us. He wants to speak to us with His own voice directly into our very souls. But how do we treat God? We send Him away, and want someone else to bear that burden. We don’t want to be in contact with Him.

Nevertheless, the awful reality of God is reality. It is only awful when we refuse to accept it. The moment we accept God for what He is and what He wants to do, we can see clearly and act properly.

God’s first message to the people of Israel could’ve been “You Idiots!” The people of Israel, up to that point, had complained and whined and rejected pretty much everything God did for them. The moment he would give them one thing, they would whine for something else.

Or perhaps God could’ve said, “Look how powerful I am! I created the heavens and the earth! I rule over everything!”

That’s not what he said, and that’s not what we should remember God for.

Instead, he said:

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Think of that! This is a God who wants to be remembered as a great liberator. He took us out of bondage and slavery, and brought us out so we can be free. I hope that rather than remembering God as the Creator God, or the Destroyer God, or the God of Justice or even the God of Mercy and Love and Kindness, we remember that he is the Liberator God. His first act with us was to grant us our free will. We have the power to choose between good and evil. It is our choice and our choice alone, and he has already moved heaven and earth to ensure we all get that choice.

If there is a reason why God is distant, it is because we want Him to be. He will not come where He is not invited. He will not act unless He is asked.

And so, in that context, a Divine Being of Supreme Power and Omnipotence, speaking directly to His people “I liberated you”, this is the first commandment:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The utter sublimity of this commandment cannot be exaggerated. After pondering on it for decades, I still feel like I have a lot to learn. Let me share some of my insights.

First, what god could possibly be greater than a Liberator God? Can there be any greater act than saving us from ourselves? Can there be anything more meaningful? Other cultures and religions talk of gods who created things and gave birth to mankind and did amazing things and such, but really, why should anyone care about any of that? It is the gods who saved people that give us reason to pay attention and worship. Only that sort of god has any meaning and any relevance in our lives.

Next, why would we want to place anything in front of that aspect of God? Think for a moment with me. Suppose you are an atheist and you believe that gods are things we invent for whatever reason and aren’t real. OK, let’s invent a god. Let’s make it a really, really good god, something that we would actually want people to admire and worship and honor and respect and model. Can anything be better than liberty, a god who grants liberty and turns slavery into freedom? This is, after all, what I think most people buy into atheism for: They think they are being freed from the shackles of misinformation and tradition by adopting no gods at all. In a way, aren’t all atheists really worshipers of the God of Liberty? Isn’t that the one force of nature they really want to connect to?

And then there’s this: Suppose you had a thousand different gods to choose from. What would you be like if you voluntarily chose something else besides the liberty god as the supreme god? I think there are some things we rightfully rule as right out: death, wealth, pleasure. But what about love? Can love supersede liberty? We often watch the tragedies of people who fell in love and became slaves to it, and we silently wish they would break free and instead live their own lives rather than let someone else control theirs. It’s pretty trivial to show how everything is really less important than liberty. As Americans, we rightfully tout freedom, liberty, individual rights and such as what makes us better than anyone else in the world. I mean, England has a queen. Is that really better than liberty?

But there’s this, too. Sometimes, people become gods in our own minds. We mock the Romans for allowing them to think of their Caesars as gods, but do we not also mock people who foolishly put their trust in Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin? If there’s going to be a god we all worship, let it not be any one of us! It seems the moment we place someone on that pedestal, we’re soon going to find our liberty lacking. One of the most serious complaints I had against Barack Obama in 2008 was that people were setting him up as some sort of savior when he had no power to save. What is going to happen when they finally realize they have misplaced their trust? I similarly feel sorry for those who put their trust in any politician or public figure.

Let me summarize:

  • The most important aspect of God in our lives is the fact that he liberates us.
  • There is no more important aspect of anything that is superior to liberty.
  • We certainly don’t want to put any person ahead of that aspect.

This is what God is truly asking. He’s not asking us to worship God. He is saying, “Don’t put things in front of me” and by “me” he means “that Thing that saved you from slavery”. So he’s saying, “Don’t put things ahead of your liberty”.

The first commandment is definitely not, “Worship me!” It’s simply this: Don’t worship anything more than your liberator and your liberty. Those are the most important things, and you need to hold on to those things jealously.

The Ten Commandments are not a recipe for restriction and pain. That’s not the point, and that’s not the effect. It is a recipe for liberty, and preserving liberty, and gaining liberty. If libertarians could agree on what key behaviors would lead to maximum liberty, it would be the Ten Commandments. If atheists could agree on what is wrong with religion, they would write the Ten Commandments to prevent us from doing those bad things.

This is the message God chose to share with the people of Israel. This is the preface to the Ten Commandments and this is the first commandment, the most important of them all.

I freed you. Don’t let anything get in front of that.

Need I say more?

PS. I should add one note: The people of Israel rejected this God. How often do we see people, in the very moment we work a miracle in their lives such that they become free for the first time, that they turn back to their bondage? This is the sad state of humanity, and something we must continually remember. Rather than mock the Israelites, why don’t we recognize how we are doing that to ourselves? How we jeopardize our own liberty by our own actions, and squander the precious gift of liberty we have been given by forces seen or unseen?

A Bible Renaissance

August 12, 2016

The Renaissance is widely touted as the birth of our modern era. It was in this era that scholars and scientists appeared, and art flourished and our civilization really began. Or so we were told.

What we’re forgetting is that the Renaissance wasn’t a new thing: It was literally a rebirth, a birth of something old so long forgotten that it felt new again. The Renaissance was a rediscovery of certain truths that had been forgotten, hidden away in dusty books that only a few people used to have access to. The Renaissance started with the Bible, specifically, the Bible becoming available to the people for the first time in a very, very long time.

As we watch Western Civilization collapse (and we can see it collapsing in slow motion, if we simply open our eyes), we rightly wonder: Where did we go wrong? Can we fix what is broken? Or must we start something new?

In my mind, we can trace the roots of our destruction to the abandonment of our foundation. We can fix what is broken by restoring that foundation. And what we must do will feel new to a lot of people, but is really something very, very old.

As the title suggests, I believe that the key to a future renaissance is the Bible. As a culture, we have forgotten about this book. We have forgotten what it says. We have forgotten what it means. We have forgotten why it is so important and why it is the key to our past success. And in forgetting, we wonder how they did it.

The Bible can become the foundation on which we build society. We don’t need a government program or witch hunts or anything like that to make it happen. The formula is really simple.

Step one is YOU read the Bible, cover to cover. If you’ve done it before, then it’s time to do it again. And when I say read, I don’t mean mindlessly repeating the words on the page in your mind, but absorbing their meaning deep into your soul. Let the stories echo in your heart and mind. Let the words guide you and direct you.

Step two is reading the Bible with your family. Teach your spouse, your children, your parents the words in that book. Teach them the stories and the parables and the moral messages.

Step three is sharing the Bible with others. This means taking the stories outside of your bedroom or study and churches into the community, into your workplace, into your social circles. In sharing the Bible, encourage people to read it for themselves.

The Bible’s story and message is one of profound love and respect. It is a message of peace. It teaches us how we can juggle the facts of justice and mercy. Justice demands we behave a certain way to obtain promised rewards. Mercy gives us the benefit of a doubt and lets us recover from our inevitable mistakes. It shows us why and how we can love those different from ourselves, and treat them with respect and at the same time, secure our own blessings of liberty and happiness regardless of how they choose to behave.

The Bible tells us the principle struggle is fought within our own hearts, and that everything outside of us is really a reflection of what is inside of us. It teaches us to focus on our own state of mind before worrying about others. It teaches us how to find peace in the middle of conflict, how to turn violence into safety, how to turn hate into love.

We can’t retreat from society anymore. There is no escape from it. The Benedict Option is not available for us. We must confront the fact of our state and our society’s state head on and we can only do that with the words found in the Bible.

A word of caution: Beware of those who confuse the simple teachings of the Bible or who try to super-impose their own ideas on top of it. Let the Bible speak for itself, let its words, and not the words of an interpreter, enter your mind and heart. Your mind is just as capable as any Bible scholar’s mind. They are not the gatekeepers to unlocking the message of the Bible.