Should the Bible be taken literally?

A common label thrown at Bible-believing Christians is that they are “Biblical literalists,” that is, they interpret every part of the Bible in a completely literal, rigid fashion. Sadly, this charge is often made within the church. I was in a class at my church last Spring where nearly all the members were shocked that I believed that the original writings of the Bible were inspired by God. I was accused of being a literalist (eek!).  I thought I had gone to the Unitarian church by mistake.

Sometimes the charge has merit, such as when someone takes a given passage in a wooden fashion and causes unnecessary divisions. Interpreting the Book of Revelation is an example, where in my opinion some are too literal with their end times predictions.  Sometimes people take verses out of context to “prove” something they favor.  Some Bible reading tips to help avoid this are located here.

But I think the charge is mostly aimed at those who take the Bible seriously and who believe that the original writings were inspired by God. The Bible claims to speak for God several thousand times, so one would think that anyone calling themselves a Christian wouldn’t find it controversial to claim that the Bible is God’s Word.

Jesus used hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration, in saying it was better to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands if that would stop us from sinning (at least I hope He was exaggerating!).  He also said to love your enemies and hate your parents.  But the passage where he said to hate your parents is also hyperbole.  He was making the point that we should love him so much more than other people and things that relatively speaking it would look like hate.  He obviously didn’t mean that literally.

Sometimes the criticisms are leveled at those who think Noah and Jonah are real people. But when you read those passages, do they sound like allegories or real events? If God made the universe and everything in it, is any miracle in the Bible too hard for him?

Ironically, those who hurl the literalist label are usually the first to take a verse literally and out of context. The favorite verse of some Christians (and non-Christians) appears to be Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge.” They use this as an excuse for any and all behavior and to deflect criticism. If they would keep reading they would see that Jesus meant not to judge hypocritically. There are plenty of verses teaching that we need to make sound judgments, such as John 7:24 (“Stop judging on mere appearances and make a right judgment.”)

In an additional irony, they use this verse to judge those who make judgments. If anyone ever throws that verse at you out of context, then just reply by asking, “If it is wrong to judge, why are you judging me right now?”

Hey United Methodists!

Please be sure to read all of this article about the 2005 “Hearts on Fire” conference, which was designed to promote acceptance of homosexual practices but even went beyond that and turned into a heresy-fest.  It highlights just how far gone parts of the United Methodist Church are.   I’m not sure why these bishops, pastors and other “leaders” don’t just join a group such as the Unitarians or the United Church of Christ where their apostate views would be accepted.  The fact that our discipline is so weak as to allow this is one of the reasons I have to talk myself out of leaving the UMC about once a month. 

Here are some samples:

  • A bishop who was happy that she could talk about Sophia (goddess worship) once she joined the Council of Bishops.  Hmm . . . so did she lie at her ordination vows or recant later?  Either way, why is it OK to come out with heresies after one becomes a bishop but not before?  How about leaving the church if that is what she really believes?
  • Repudiations for some of Jesus’ teachings and some actions of Paul 
  • Open defiance of church laws
  • The “hero” Beth Stroud, who lied at her ordination vows then came out because it was the most “faithful witness” she could do.  Considering that she dragged the church through lots of negative publicity just because we adhered to our Book of Discipline and the Bible, I can think of some more faithful ways she could have witnessed.
  • Lame reasoning by retired Bishop Wilke, one of the main authors of the Disciple Bible Study series (I’ve facilitated my last Disciple class.  Watching him on the videos would be too distracting now). 
  • Much, much more

Read it.  Share it.  Stand up in your church for sound doctrine and the removal of these heretics.  Pray for them and the people they are misleading.  Consider supporting the UM Action group that helps defend orthodox Methodism.

And take this survey on the United Methodist Church.  The pro-gay groups are heavily marketing it, so orthodox Methodists should complete it as well to reduce the chance that the results will be distorted. 

Also see The Bible and Homosexual Practice and Responding to Pro-Gay Theology.

Jonah 4

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 4.

Jonah 4 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

This would have been a good spot for Jonah to say, “Great point, Lord!  I have no right at all to be angry.  I should rejoice at your mercy and grace.”  But He didn’t say that. 

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Note God’s amazing patience with Jonah!   

Just a little side note – God was concerned about the cattle as well as the humans.  Of course, He considers humans to be much more important, but this is one of many verses that display God’s love for animals.  I did a post on my other blog about “Who will you see in Heaven?” and we discussed the concept of animals in Heaven a bit there.

I find verse 2 to be one of the most interesting verses in the Bible:  “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. ”  While much of the world pictures God as angry and unforgiving, consider that one of his prophets was angry enough to die because he “knew” that God abounded in love, and more.

Consider how the story ends.  Jonah never does come around completely to God’s way of thinking (at least not in the portion documented in the Bible).  God has exercised remarkable patience with the Ninevites and with Jonah. 

Praise God for his incredible patience with us as we wrestle with him as Jonah did.  And pray that we let God transform our minds so we can think more like He does and follow Christ more closely.

 Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Psalm 4.  I thought we would do 3-5 Psalms, then a couple chapters of Proverbs, then I’m open to suggestions.

Book review: The Death of Right and Wrong

Hold onto your hats, people.  Tammy Bruce is an openly gay, pro-choice, non-Christian, but I’m a fan of hers.  Seriously.  Of course, I disagree with her on those topics, but I appreciate her style and we have a lot of common ground elsewhere.  And she is willing to draw some lines where others will not.

I read “The Death of Right and Wrong” and highly recommend it. She is truly a breath of fresh air. She is candid, honest, brave, funny and hard to label.

For example, though she is gay she described some of the horrific things some pro-gay groups have done in schools and said: “It’s time we demand that radical gays leave children alone, no matter how politically incorrect the argument becomes”  (and this was written in 2003 . . . things have gotten worse).

No liberal groups are spared, including Planned Parenthood, Jesse Jackson & Co., NOW, academia, the media and the justice system. 

She read C.S. Lewis’ classic Mere Christianity and took it very seriously, seeing the wisdom in his moral reasoning.   

She doesn’t demonize or hate Christians (I pray that she becomes a Christian one day).  In fact, she developed a lot of respect for them when they donated to her NOW organization during the OJ trial.  They disagreed on her group’s pro-choice views but they cared about the battered women Tammy was trying to help. Tammy took the unpopular position of being against OJ because of that pesky matter of abusing and murdering his ex-wife, while most NOW leaders took OJ’s side as if the issue at hand were race. 

She has a new book out that I’ll be reading soon – The New American Revolution.

Jonah 3

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 3.

Jonah 3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.

Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Note the simplicity and power of the message.  Jonah obeyed (finally!).  The Ninevites, including their king, believed God and repented.  God was gracious and merciful to them. 

Sometimes we can over-complicate the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ.  If you look at the book of Acts, which chronicles the early years of the church, the Gospel is shared thirteen times in a somewhat similar pattern.  People are made aware of their problem (sinners separated from a perfect, Holy, righteous God) and the solution (Jesus, the Savior of the world, who died in their place and who offers complete forgiveness and reconciliation if they will only put their faith in him). 

Sometimes we jump ahead and forget to point out that people need to know their problem before they hear the solution.  Otherwise, they don’t think they need the solution.

It is easy to be hard on Jonah, but then I remember how many times I have done the opposite of what God wanted me to do.  I praise him for his unending mercy and grace. 

Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Jonah 4.

Where will we stay in Heaven? Will we sleep?

Where will followers of Christ live in heaven?  In John 14:2-3, Jesus said:

In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Now I’m not sure exactly what a room in our Father’s house will be like.  One translation referred to it as a mansion.  But I do know these things:

  • Jesus could make something magnificent in an instant, and He has had a couple thousand years to prepare rooms for believers.  So I think they will be pretty sweet.
  • It will be greater than anything we could imagine on this planet, so that has to be good.   The very best of earth is a glimpse of Heaven and the very worst of earth is a glimpse of Hell.
  • Jesus always keeps his promises, so we can rely on this 100%.

I’m not sure about the sleep part, other than whatever the sleep situation is we’ll understand it and be pleased with it.  I know my current understanding and desire for sleep make me hope for some regular nap times.  Any ideas?

If you are not familiar with Christianity and want to know more, click here.

Attention Wal-Mart bashers

Some people love to demonize Wal-Mart for allegedly underpaying their employees and not providing enough benefits, among other things. I’m not saying Wal-Mart is perfect or beyond criticism by any means. I just find that the bashers display the typical covetous attitude of those who think God is doing a lousy job of distributing wealth and that He needs their help to fix the problem.  And they usually appear to have a disdain for those who shop at Wal-Mart. 

Democratic leaders believe Wal-Mart bashing is a great strategy for them.  Of course, there are no Wal-Mart stores in New York City, Hollywood or Washington, D.C., so they may not realize just how many people like Wal-Mart.  A Pew poll showed that even 62% of liberal Democrats think Wal-Mart is a “good place to shop.”

I do think Wal-Mart’s partnering with Gay and lesbian groups was bad for several reasons, but I don’t think it requires government intervention. 

Here’s the solution for the bashers: Start up a business near a Wal-Mart and pay slightly higher wages and benefits. It will be a triple win: Your business will be successful because you hired some the best and brightest Wal-Mart employees, their standard of living will increase and you’ll be sticking it to your enemy. It is called capitalism. It has some hard edges at times, but it has done more to reduce poverty and increase standards of living than any other -ism every invented.

If you think their suppliers use child labor, then use a Consumer Reports-type approach and offer some type of seal of approval that ethical companies can apply for. You don’t need a lot of government intervention. Then steer your flock to only purchase goods from approved vendors. 

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in Wal-Mart (unless indirectly via a mutual fund) and I don’t work there. I did audit their financial statements back in the late 80’s, so I know a bit about them. They have always been relentless about using technology and best practices to offer lower prices. They have made many of their employees very wealthy through their profit sharing program. Mainly we just shop there for good deals.

George Will had a good column on Democrats Vs. Wal-Mart.

Digital photography tips & hippo picture

If you are getting serious about digital photography, here are some tips. 

  1. Get a good camera.  There are some great deals out there. 
    • 3 mega pixel minimum, 5-6 MP is great. 
    • 3x optical zoom minimum, many newer cameras have 10-12x optical zoom which is great.
    • Digital zoom isn’t worth much.  It is basically just pre-cropping your pictures.
  2. Get plenty of memory.  With 512MB or more you can take hundreds of pictures without changing memory cards.  Get 1 GB if you can – just watch Best Buy for sales.
  3. Take tons of pictures and relentlessly delete bad ones
    • For every hundred pictures you take, delete eighty (OK, maybe not eighty, but don’t be shy about it)
    • For the ones you save, learn to crop, fix red eyes and do an “instant fix.”  Most photo software packages support these functions. 
  4. Snapfish is a good site to upload your photos to for sharing and printing.  You can get 4×6’s for 12 cents plus shipping (it averages out to about 20 cents per photo).  It lets you upload lots of photos at once instead of one at a time.  Its slideshow feature works well.
  5. Adobe Photoshop Elements is a great program to track and edit your photos.  There are simpler programs that work fine, but this one is a great program in between the basic offerings and a professional program.  If you want to do video editing, they have a good combo package.
  6. Don’t drop your camera.  The photo below was taken from a pretty far distance in Kenya with a Kodak 5 MP, 10x zoom camera.  But I dropped it a few months later, so that camera is no longer with us. 

This is one of my favorite pictures from Kenya.  There were over 50 hippos (literally) piled around each other in the river bed.  Check out the little guy in the upper right corner.  He looks sneaky.  Click it for a larger view.


Bad news: More humans are killed by hippos than any other animal.

Good news: Hippos are vegetarians, so they won’t eat you once you’re dead.

Jonah 2

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 2.

Jonah 2 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.

But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

The text isn’t crystal clear on the three day and three night timeline, but it appears that as soon as Jonah repented and prayed that God delivered him.  Jonah could have done this before he got on the ship, when he was on the ship, or immediately after being swallowed by the fish, but he waited until it was almost too late.  It reminds me of Daniel 9:23, where the angel says, “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given . . .”  God answers prayers with his perfect timing.  If an urgent answer is needed, then that’s what you’ll get. 

Verse 8 is very powerful and is a good one to memorize: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”  When we cling to idols of pride, false religions, money, sex, work, power, relationships, entertainment, etc. then we are missing out on the grace that God offers.   Grace is the most unique feature of the Christian faith.  The complete, unearned forgiveness of sins and restoration to God is seen nowhere else.   Yet we may fail to embrace grace because we want to hold onto wordly things that don’t truly fulfil us.

Think about times when you cried out to God in your desperation.  You may be in that place right now, either through consequences of your own actions or due to things beyond your control.  Either way, He has all of eternity to answer a momentary prayer. 

Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Jonah 3.  Tune in to see if Jonah has completely turned around such that he sees the situation from God’s perspective, or if he still wrestles with wanting things done his way. 

Never read a Bible verse

One of the best of Bible reading tips I have heard is “Never read a Bible verse” by Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason.  The main point is to never read just a Bible verse.  Always read a verse in light of the whole passage. 

Here’s an example of why this is important.  A blogger had some really good messages on his site but would also take parts of passages and make broad claims about them.  For example, he insisted that all believers should “speak in new tongues” as noted in Mark 16:17

And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues;

This analysis has a couple problems.  First, it ignores other more specific and reliable teachings about tongues in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14. 

Second, using this logic, we would interpret Mark 16:18 (the next verse) in the same broad fashion:

they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

That would mean we should all be picking up snakes and drinking deadly poison without dying.  I live in a fairly wooded area of Texas, so I have picked up a few snakes in my time.  However, this is always done (A) with a hoe and (B) after they are really, really dead. 

Before you draw a conclusion from a verse, be sure to consider the verses around it.  It will help you understand what God really intends it to mean.