Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why I don't think Barack Obama's a Muslim

A friend of mine recently e-mailed me a link to a video on YouTube which he feels gives evidence that Barack Obama is in fact a Muslim. I disagreed with him and pointed to Obama's social policy, particularly his advocacy of homosexuality (evidence here). This is not compatible with Islam, which punishes homosexuality with the death penalty. On the other hand there is one solution that takes all the evidence into account, and that is that Obama is a liberal protestant. I have heard a liberal minister in a British chapel say that "Christians should reverence Mohammed." There was no doubt that the man was not a Muslim, yet he used a service on Ascension day to bewail the fact that Christians did not accept Mohammed as a prophet. Liberals, as we have been reminded by the recent actions of the Church of Scotland and the PCUSA, are accepting of and even promote homosexuality. So, if Obama is a Muslim his promoting homosexuality is inexplicable, but if he is a liberal protestant - which, it must be remembered, is his own testimony - then everything makes sense, it fits.

The reply I received was rather surprising to me, it was in effect "he's hiding the truth". Given that Obama has actually said "I am a Christian", we would have to say that if he is really a Muslim, he is flat out lying most of the time and pretending to be a Christian with a foolishly high level of respect for Islam. We would have to say that he attended Chicago's Trinity UCC for many years as part of an elaborate deception. That make him more than just a liberal Muslim, it would necessitate the conclusion that he is really a villain masquerading as a liberal. It would require him to really be a radical playing a part in order to further Muslim ends. Now of course if you think that he is really a Kenyan-born Islamic extremist who has been systematically infiltrating the Democratic party to further Muslim aims to dominate America, that would make sense, but for myself, I find this hard to believe, given how flimsy the evidence is. It's on a level with believing that the World Trade Centre was not really brought down by a terrorist attack. If you adopt a conspiratorial view of history you can of course believe all sorts of things on the flimsiest of evidence, but I am not sure that this is a good idea. In effect that is to say, "Because of this tiny amount of evidence here (which can still be explained if he is, as he claims to be, a protestant liberal) we should ignore everything else as just deliberate deception and conclude that he is a Muslim."

I'm afraid I can't do that. It is incumbent on us to examine all the evidence, not just that which agrees with our conclusions. To dismiss his voting record on homosexuality as a deception, to claim that his record as "the most liberal senator" is a smokescreen, seems to me a little perverse.

The claim has been made, "well, look at all the things Obama's said about Islam!" Look at these quotes:

"America treasures the relationship we have with our many Muslim friends, and we respect the vibrant faith of Islam which inspires countless individuals to lead lives of honesty, integrity, and morality. This year, may Eid also be a time in which we recognize the values of progress, pluralism, and acceptance that bind us together as a Nation and a global community. By working together to advance mutual understanding, we point the way to a brighter future for all."

"Islam brings hope and comfort to millions of people in my country, and to more than a billion people worldwide. Ramadan is also an occasion to remember that Islam gave birth to a rich civilization of learning that has benefited mankind."

"Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith."

"We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God's call on Abraham."

"All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true faith -- face of Islam. Islam is a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. It's a faith that has made brothers and sisters of every race. It's a faith based upon love, not hate."

The answer, of course, is President George W. Bush! The quotes, with many others, can be found here. I suspect that for every pro-Islam Obama quote that can be found we can find a very similar Bush quote - yet no-one is claiming that George W. Bush is a secret Muslim.

I do not know why there are people I regard as otherwise sensible who wish to believe that Barack Obama is in fact a Kenyan-born radical Muslim masquerading as a liberal protestant born in Hawaii. It truly baffles me that anyone would protest that the Hawaii certificate produced by Obama is an obvious fake and then, in the same e-mail promote a couple of clumsy forgeries claiming to be from Kenya as absolutely genuine!If you dismiss the Hawaii certificate (and I am not entering into the question of whether that is genuine or not), you must also dismiss the Kenya certificates.

Conspiracy theories are a form of false world-view, whether they make the great enemy Islam, Roman Catholicism, or the New Age movement. Instead of dealing with the world as it is the conspiracy theorist interprets evidence based on the conspiracy - the conspiracy becomes to him or her the necessary presupposition of his or her thought. Thus the interpretation of facts becomes a sort of game, one is required to "read between the lines", to take sentence fragments out of context, and even to weave them together into new contexts, because the true "context" is the conspiracy. That's not how you do research, that's how Harold Camping was able to say that we can know the date of the end of the world.

And where do you stop? Logically you end up with a vast, world-wide conspiracy, everything that happens is orchestrated by them, and the conspiracy theory becomes un-falsifiable. The conspiracy theorist's world becomes a private construct in which nothing is as it appears. In other words, taken to their logical conclusion conspiracy theories end in madness. Now, I am not saying that all conspiracy theorists are crazy, because most people who hold to some sort of conspiracy theory are inconsistent at some point. It is, however, dangerous, partly because it leads us to take our eyes off the ball. All the world's evils are not the result of Rome, Jack Chick (Jack Chick thinks that the Roman Catholics invented Islam, by the way), there are atheists, there are secular tyrants. The world to more complicated - but God is on the throne.

I don't think Barack Obama is a Muslim because there isn't enough evidence that he is, and the evidence that he is not is far more compelling. That's not the same as saying he's a fine upstanding Christian man - he isn't, he's a theological liberal from the Protestant tradition. It's certainly not the same as saying I think he's wonderful - I don't. But it is to say that I cannot accept the conspiracy theories!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Challenge of Freedom

On his state visit to the UK, President Obama said that this is a pivotal moment for the west, as we see change in North Africa and the Middle East. It is a challenge, he said. Now, it is a challenge, but may I say that it is every bit as much of a challenge to the Muslim world as it is to the west. There is much that is encouraging about the recent fall of dictatorships in North Africa. There is also much that gives cause for concern. The word 'Freedom' is much in the air, but one is concerned that it has not really been grasped.

Writing to the Galatian Christians, Paul tells them, "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free." This sums up what H.J. Taylor, in his book of the same name, calls "The challenge of freedom." The challenge is to use freedom to promote freedom. The temptation of course is to regard freedom as something that I have, and must guard jealously so that no-one else obtains it because that would be inconvenient. That is simply to replace one tyranny with another, which is a disaster.

Freedom must mean the freedom to speak one's mind or it means nothing. There are points of view that I find utterly repugnant - to give one example, I am disgusted by the shallow and bigoted policies of the British National Party. I am disgusted by militarism and by racism. But at the same time, I would not wish to live in a society where their rhetoric was a criminal offence. Freedom means the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to say things that are revolting and even stupid. Obviously there is a limit - and that is seeking to overthrow freedom, to destroy liberty in the name of liberty. Without free speech, there is no real freedom.

Freedom must mean the freedom of minorities, or it is simply the tyranny of the majority. It is to feared that this is what many in Egypt think freedom is, the freedom of a Muslim majority to persecute a Christian minority. Now, this also means that as Christians we must be prepared to allow for pluralism, and we must resist the temptation (for such it is) to restrict the liberties of others. The Gospel does not win any victories by the sword, and Christ's Kingdom is not of this world. So there must be religious freedom - not an enforced secularism, but a state that is not the instrument of any religious party.

The challenge of freedom is to use it for freedom. I am afraid that I do not see it being used for freedom in Egypt and Syria, and unless freedom is used for freedom, it will end in a new Tyranny even worse than the first.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is the Love of Money the Root of all Evil?

The answer many would give to my question is "Yes, of course, that's what the Bible says!" But is it really? Some KJV-Only teachers have in fact castigated the modern versions for this "change" to the Bible - Gail Riplinger (NABV Pp. 171-2) to name just one. But this is to miss the point. The quotation is the first half of 1 Timothy 6:10; it is not an isolated proverb but part of a larger argument that begins in verse 3. The argument is not that all evils are a result of the lust for money, but that the lust for money leads to all sorts of other evils which are not, in and of themselves, rooted in that lust. Paul's argument is that the love of money corrupts the soul and leads to further sin. R.Martin Pope in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles notes on 1 Timothy 6:5: "The meaning is thus that these men viewed the spiritual life as a commercial investment; it paid as a profitable speculation." Paul's point isn't to tell us that all evil in the world comes from the love of money, but that the love of money leads on to all sorts of other evils. This is why the NKJV translates the passage, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" - it fits the context better.

When one thinks about it, the common interpretation of the text is clearly wrong. There are many evils that are not rooted in the love of money and lead to - and can lead to - no financial gain. Rape is all about power and control, and by its very nature can lead to no financial gain - especially in the case of those men who rape women totally unknown to them. Honour-killing does not proceed from a financial desire, but from a twisted view of honour. Osama Bin Laden was a wealthy man who actually spent his own money to finance his Jihadist organisation.

But Paul doesn't mean that. He means that love of money has a corrupting tendency, and where it is allowed into the soul, and religion is interpreted in its light, the corrupted soul is laid open to "many foolish and harmful passions" in addition - for the love of money and the desire to be rich is in and of itself a foolish and harmful passion. He's not telling us that behind all the evil men do is the love of money, he's telling us that the love of money leads to much evil besides.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Fall of King David

David was the great example of a godly king in the Old Testament. In some ways he is greater than Solomon, for he was tempted as Solomon never could have been. Anointed by Samuel when he was probably about fourteen, he had to wait about fifteen years before he actually became king. He came from a humble beginning, and therefore he was subject to the temptations of pride. David faced unjust persecution, and therefore was tempted to violence as a tool for gaining his own ends. Called to be a warrior and to fight the Lord's battles, he was tempted, like Saul before him, to fight his own battles instead. David was exposed to the seduction of violence; kill Saul, and you shall be king. Fight Abner, and you shall be king. Approve the murder of Ishbosheth, for it brings the throne to you. He was surrounded by violent men, in particular Joab and his brothers who urged him to violence and who used it to gain their own ends. In all these temptations he did not yield because he remained humble and listened seriously to God's words which told him that he was a shepherd to care for and to serve Israel, and that he was answerable to God, the real King of Israel.

But he fell. 2 Samuel 11 recounts the story of this sad day. It is often said that it began with a look, but more correctly it began with a failure to look.

David first of all broke the first commandment - he made himself the supreme authority, his wishes final. And then he broke the tenth commandment, as he looked out and coveted his neighbour's wife. Having broken the first commandment and the last commandment, it was simple for him to break any of the commandments in between! And he did. He broke the seventh commandment, for he committed adultery with Bathsheba. Then he broke the ninth commandment as he sought to make it appear that the child was not his - he lied. Then David broke the sixth commandment, he arranged to have Uriah the Hittite killed in battle, and although the hand that killed him was the enemy, yet the reason he was put in that situation in the first place was David's desire for his death. Having done this, David proceeded to break the eighth commandment - he took Bathsheba as his own wife, and that was theft.

David was seduced by power, because he forgot that his power was not his own at all, and that power was not given him for his own glory, but for God's glory and for the good of Israel. Now, there are many men who we count great in Church history. Spurgeon built up a vast church, set up an orphanage and a college, and we honour him for his ministry. But Spurgeon did not set out to build a vast Church, or to set up orphanage and college; he set out to preach the Gospel and to glorify God. Indeed the key-note of Spurgeon's life may be found in that day when the young preacher heard as it were a voice, "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not!" And so, because he sought no great things for himself, he was entrusted with great things for God and His people. George Muller is famed for his orphanage. He set up a great thing - but he did not start the orphanage to amaze the world, but to care for orphans! No great work for God has been set up with the idea of it being great, but with the idea of it being good. Soli Deo Gloria! was the motto of the Reformation, and it is the motto of the Church in all ages. To God alone be the glory!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Humility - the Lost Christian Virtue?

Long ago, back in the days when even liberals got their ethical framework from the Bible, we understood that the great Christian virtue, the central element of Christian character, was humility. Jesus' washing the disciples' feet in John 13 was the great example, and Philippians 2. 1-11 held a great place in personal ethics. The relevant section of that chapter reads:

"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (ESV)

That is humility. Jesus, though Lord of all, made himself a slave for us. He came to serve us, and he still serves us. So we, as Christians, must do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit (Philippians 2:3, NKJV). Rather our "ambition" must be for the glory of Christ, not to do some great thing.

The story of King David is not a story about a man who was regarded as "not king material" by his father (as if any father who was not already a king or their heir to a throne should have the conceit to think that his son would be king) and his family, but the account of a humble man to whom the crown came unsought. David might have said with higher meaning what Dr. Gill said when he was awarded the Edinburgh degree of Doctor of Divinity: "I never bought it, I never sought it, and I never thought it." So it is with any honours or worldly success the Christian may achieve. The Christian has no self-esteem because he does not think of himself at all. He lives to the glory of Christ, and for the good of others. David was a great king because he realised that he was made King for the glory of God and the good of Israel, not for his own glory. Preaching through the life of King David, I have been struck by the fact that, from the anointing in Bethlehem to his enthronement in Jerusalem, he never takes action to seize the throne. He doesn't even take the initiative to fill the throne when it is emptied by the death of Saul. David had many occasions when he could have seized the throne, but he never did, even though he had the promise of God that he would be king. It seems that the man had no ambition at all to be King. Far from the ambitious go-getter of bad sermons, David was a humble man whose ambition was to glorify God and to serve Israel in whatever way God chose for him! It is as if he says at every turn, "God has said that I shall be King. If that is what God wants, then let God bring me to the throne in his own good time. If the people want me to lead them, I shall lead them and protect them, for they are God's people. If I am to be king, then I shall be the very best King that I can be, but I shall never make myself king." He is the very reverse of Napoleon, who took the crown and placed it on his own head!

The height of David's ambition is service to others, first of all to God, but then to his neighbours, even the rebellious and increasingly unhinged King Saul, who was a man who did glorify himself. In 1 Samuel 15.12 we are told that "Saul came to Carmel, and behold he set up a monument for himself." There I see the whole key to Saul's downfall - "Behold, he set up a monument for himself." But David wants to be the best army officer he can be for Saul! He loved Saul, and wanted to help him. Even in the episode with Goliath, David was not moved by the promise of the princess or freedom from taxes, but by his concern for the glory of God. For David life was all about the glory of God and the good of Israel, "And David knew that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel."

And in all this David is a type of Jesus, who is "Christ for us", to quote the Scottish preacher Hugh Martin. All Jesus does is to serve the Church - and should that not rebuke our pride? If the Son of God is among us "as one who serves", how dare we entertain dreams of glory! Do you know to whom glory belongs? It belongs to Jesus, the Lamb that was slain for us: "To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen."

Therefore every sermon that encourages "Pride of man and earthly glory" is an abomination - I do not think the word is too high. The pulpit is not for the strking of human egos, it is for the lifting up of Christ. The Christian's prayer should be that of Mr. Wesley:

"Sink me to perfection's height,
The depths of humble love."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why I Don't Believe the Conspiracy Theories

Yesterday the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden, today the conspiracy theory in my inbox! I was somewhat shocked to see who the e-mail came from (but probably shouldn't have been, given that he had sent me a series of e-mails about the Obama birth certificate casting suspicions on the Hawaii certificate while championing two forged certificates purporting to come from Kenya). I was not surprised to find that there are people doubting the truth of the news of Bin Laden's death - I would have been more surprised to find that there were none.

So why am I not convinced? Simply because of Occam's Razor - the principle that the simplest explanation is most likely to be true.

Let us lay out the options. The claim that Osama Bin Laden was killed by US special forces the other day is either true or false. If false, then either Bin Laden is still alive, or he was already dead. Now, the claim has been made that the death of Bin Laden was announced to help the Obama re-election campaign - this is what the e-mail in my inbox suggested. If so, Bin Laden must be dead - otherwise Obama has in fact prepared a sword of Damocles to hang over his head - a living Bin Laden would sink the re-election campaign far more surely than a dead Bin Laden would help it. Assuming that Obama is not a gibbering idiot (as a gibbering idiot would not do something as devious as he is accused of), then it follows that Bin Laden must be dead, or at least Obama is reasonably certain that he is dead.

If Osama Bin Laden is dead, then it follows that either he was killed the other day, or he was already dead. So we follow the conspiracy theorists, what if Bin Laden was already dead? Then it follows he either died of natural causes, or he was killed by allied forces. Now, if he died of natural causes while with his own people there is no reason this would not have been reported - it would have denied the West a propaganda coup for one thing. So we have the option that he was killed by allied forces. That Al-Quaeda would not have reported this is unlikely, however - a dead leader is a martyr for the cause, after all, and I have lost count of the number of senior Hamas figures who have been killed and whose deaths were reported at the time. A non-US operation would also have reported this.

Granting for the same of argument that Al-Quaeda would not have reported Bin Laden's actual death, then it must have been by US forces. If it was not the operation reported in the news it would have been an operation that happened some time ago - which means either under the Bush administration or under Obama's. Indeed, there is a conspiracy theory circulating that says he was killed as far back as 2001, and the body was kept on ice until now. This is laughable for the simple reason that there has been a change in US administrations. If Bush had killed Bin Laden, then the death would have been used to back the McCain campaign. Unless one believes that the US is really governed by a secret cabal, and that presidential elections are all shams, in which case nothing really matters at all anyhow. So we are left with the option that Bin Laden was killed by American troops at some point during the Obama administration. In other words, it is all a question of timing.

Now, if Obama is the master-manipulator that the conspiracy theorists claim, the man who covered up the secret of his Kenyan birth in order to become president, surely he must be a very intelligent man. In fact he must be the most monstrous and cunning villain. Thus he would have carefully planned when to release this news if it is in fact faked. The contention is that the news was released now to help Obama's re-election bid.

There is just one problem with this: The date of the next US Presidential election is November 6, 2012, roughly 18 months away. That's an awful lot of time in an era when the public forget so soon. Now, the first Gulf War ended on February 28th 1991 in a resounding victory for America and her allies. Yet President George H.W. Bush lost the Presidential election in November 1992. On the other hand, the Falklands War ended on 14th June 1982, and one year later, give or take a few days. Margaret Thatcher's Conservative administration was returned to office. Given this, it is plainly a good idea to have the victory fairly close to the election date. If Obama had the power to stage the death of Bin Laden at any time of his choosing, to have done so in November of this year, or later, would have made more sense.

Finally, the actual events surrounding the death of Bin Laden are so antecedently improbable. That he should have been found, not in a cave in Afghanistan or in a tribal village, but in a Pakistani garrison town is surely a scenario no competent script-writer would have created. And that is to say nothing of its effect on the Pakistani government. In addition, we are now told by the Pakistanis that there are survivors, including Bin Laden's teenaged daughter, who witnessed her father's death. So we have witnesses. And consider the alternatives - that the US government staged the whole thing and risked antagonising the Pakistani government should it all have gone wrong, or that Pakistan, a nuclear power, knowingly allowed itself to be so humilated by the US for no reason - given that a staged 'killing' could have taken place anywhere with as much, if not more, believeability.

So I do not buy the conspiracy theories. The options are these: either the US government killed Bin Laden at some point in the last couple of years, managed to conceal the fact, and then staged a commando raid and killing in a sensitive part of a friendly country in such a way as to shame that nation internationally, all in order to possibly help the re-election of a president in 18 months' time, or the news story that we have all heard is true. Now, you may believe whatever you want to - it's a free country - but I find the conspiracy account to be so inherently implausible that it ought not to be taken seriously without good evidence in its favour.

I do think, incidentally, that the summary exection of even a man who has done what Bin Laden has done, in front of his teenaged daughter, is highly problematic ethically, but that is another matter!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Worship in Theological Training

Ministerial training is absolutely necessary. Formal training, on the other hand, is not. We are all aware that C.H. Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones had no formal theological training. But both men had rigorous intellectual training - Lloyd-Jones as a doctor, of course. Most of us, however, need formal theological training because we are not as able as Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones! Spurgeon trained himself, of course. He grew up in a house full of good theological books, and with a grandfather who was a faithful pastor.

At the same time, not all theological training is equal. When I was at Seminary there was talk of a young man who had been 'rescued' from a bogus college. He had come over from an African country expecting to be trained and found that in fact he was going to get a worthless piece of paper at the end of his time. Thankfully he had contacted a real seminary (which doesn't even give a piece of paper!).

Today I went to Didsbury, looking for the former Methodist College there. I found it. And I was glad to see the original chapel still standing just within the gates - as seen above. And that brings me to my point - that the first essential in theological training is that it must be grounded and rooted in worship and the local Church. The role of a theological seminary is not just to satisfy the craving of odd people for theological learning - it is not to have the mindset of the academy, in which subjects are studied for their own sake. No, a seminary exists for the Church, and the Church exists to worship. That means that even lectures must be given with the realisation that this is worship, we are considering the eternal God and his works, not just some dry subject.

And the same is true of the continuing training that we are involved in. The study must be the place of prayer as well as of study. And that was what the chapel at Didsbury reminded me of - because it was the largest building on the original campus. Either side of it are the old tutors' houses, but between the two is a chapel. Worship and learning must go together for the pastor, and for the Church.